She didn't expect him to be funny.
Belle thought, when she agreed to Rumplestiltskin's deal, that she knew what she was getting into. She would face hard work, drudgery, and loneliness. She would have a cruel master. She would be alone and loveless, and that was the price she was willing to pay.
But she didn't expect him to be funny.
That was how it started. She would seek him out to ask a question about her new duties, he would reply with a joke and a high-pitched giggle, and she would find herself laughing along with him. Or he would approach her to give some new instruction with a smile and an amusing observation, and she would respond in kind. He put her at ease, that way. It was impossible to be nervous when they were laughing together, and when his face softened at her response, the last of her tension melted away.
They fell into a comfortable camaraderie. Belle found she enjoyed Rumplestiltskin's company, and he seemed to feel the same. She didn't fear to ask him questions or share a story. She stopped noticing the strange grey of his skin and the unearthly gleam in his eyes. It was simply the way he looked.
The more comfortable Belle became in Rumplestiltskin's presence, the more nervous he grew. It didn't take her long to understand. This, friendship, was a new experience for him. No one was ever at ease with him. No one ever sought him simply for the pleasure of his company. The only thing he knew was fear.
That realization broke her heart.
She found him fascinating. He was unpredictable. She never knew what he was going to say or do. The only constant was the kindness he always showed her. She couldn't help wondering about his life, how he could have come to be what he was. She told herself it was none of her business, but she couldn't stop her curiosity. He was a mystery .
She hadn't forgotten what he was. She knew he had done monstrous things, things she couldn't ignore. But there was more to him, and she couldn't ignore that either. The way he looked at her when he thought she wasn't looking, with such vulnerability in his eyes – the small kindnesses he went out of his way to show her – there was so much more to him than the beast he showed the world. Why would a man hide away his good qualities and present only his worst?
Perhaps because if you showed only your worst, it didn't hurt as much to be rejected.
She didn't mean to let her heart soften as it did, but she found she couldn't help it. He was stealing his way into her heart without even trying.
He didn't expect her to be bold.
He should have. He'd watched her defy her father and fiancé. She'd walked away arm in arm with a monster without flinching. But he'd thought she would choose to keep to herself in the castle. He'd been sure that his manner, his strange sense of humor, would repulse her, and she would have as little to do with him as possible.
But she did not. If anything, she seemed to seek him out. She greeted him with smiles and warm wishes. She laughed with him and talked with him and showed no sign of fear. It was as if… she found his company pleasant.
His entire life was thrown off balance. The Dark Castle was no longer a lonely and miserable place. It was full of warmth and light that had nothing to do with the curtains Belle tore down. It radiated from Belle with every smile, every laugh, every kind word.
He wondered what she saw when she looked at him. He had no idea. He tried to think objectively, to see through her eyes, but he found he simply couldn't fathom it. He looked inside himself and saw nothing there at all. What was he? Was the man he'd been, the coward who ran from the ogres and disgusted his wife, still in there at all? He'd clothed himself in the mannerisms and attitudes of so many people, layer upon layer upon layer. Had he filled himself with so much nonsense that there was nothing left of a real person in him?
But Belle could look at him and smile. Belle saw someone worth smiling at.
It made him flustered. He didn't know what to do around her. He began to realize that he was terrified of making the wrong move or saying the wrong thing. He didn't want to reveal the beast he truly was. He didn't know if he could handle losing her smiles.
They took tea together nearly every day. Rumplestiltskin found he looked forward to tea time more than anything else. He didn't need to make much conversation. Belle would fill the void. He could sit and listen to her speak and marvel at her insights and intelligence.
On this particular day, Belle was telling Rumplestiltskin about the book she was reading, a grand romance, and Rumplestiltskin was lost in the sound of her voice, when she said, "The stories always make society balls sound so romantic, but I'm glad I no longer have to attend such functions."
That was something of a surprise to Rumplestiltskin. "Not a fan of dancing?"
Belle tilted her head. "No, dancing I like. It was the company I found tedious. There's nothing so wearisome as being put on display for a bunch of small-minded, pompous noblemen who see you as a prize to be claimed."
Rumplestiltskin couldn't repress a giggle at her insult, and Belle laughed, too. "Knights in shining armor not your type, dearie?"
"Not the ones I've met, I'm afraid."
His heart swelled at her words, and he quickly tried to tamp the feelings down. That she disliked other men meant nothing. She wasn't going to transfer her affections to the hideous monster who'd enslaved her, and he'd do well to remember it. "But dancing you like?"
She paused. "Yes, dancing I like. My father taught me when I was a little girl, you know. Dancing was one of my favorite pastimes."
An impulse seized him. He saw a chance to make her happy, to perhaps earn more of those smiles, and he couldn't pass it up. Rumplestiltskin rose from his chair, bowing dramatically. "Shall we, then, my lady?"
For a moment Belle simply looked up at him with wide eyes. Then one of her glorious smiles stole across her face. She set down her teacup and stood, offering him a delicate curtsey. "The honor is mine, sir."
He took her hand, leading her away from the table. "We have no music," Belle observed.
Rumplestilskin flicked his wrist. A waltz began to play.
"That's lovely," Belle said, her voice low.
Rumplestiltskin looked at her. She was gazing at him from under her lashes, and her eyes were dark. She bit her lip.
Rumplestiltskin swallowed. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.
Belle stepped closer. She was only inches away from him now. He could feel her nearness with every nerve in his body.
Dancing. He had asked her to dance. To dance, he would have to touch her.
He reached out slowly, half-convinced that she would push him away, but when his hand curled around her waist, she only sighed, reaching for him in turn. Her hand rested on his shoulder, the fingers of her other hand pressed into his, and she looked at him with such an expression of trust that his heart skipped a beat.
He didn't know how he managed it, but his feet began to move, and then they were spinning around the room. Belle smiled up at him with joy. She was so close to him. Her fingers brushed the back of his neck. He could think of nothing but the nearness of her body. He was holding her in his arms, and she wasn't trying to get away.
He couldn't look away from her. His feet began to slow, but Belle didn't seem to mind. She was staring into his eyes, no longer smiling. She moved even closer to him. Her face was mere inches from his.
His feet stopped altogether.
"Rumplestiltskin," Belle breathed.
What was he doing?
He pushed her away – not roughly, but firmly. The music stopped.
She looked at him, her beautiful eyes full of confusion.
"Yes, well… thank you for the dance, dearie. I have things to do, and you do, too, yes?"
Belle bit her lip, frowning.
"Very well, then. I expect you'll be finished with the dusting by suppertime." He gestured uncomfortably. "Carry on."
She didn't move.
Rumplestiltskin turned on his heel and left her standing there, unmoving, in the center of the room.
When the door slammed behind him, Rumplestiltskin stopped, leaning against the stone wall for support. Fool, he cursed himself. As if a woman like Belle, so beautiful and brave, would possibly care for a man like him. A disgusting creature, twisted and deformed. An evil being who destroyed lives. A man who, even as a mortal, had not been able to keep the love of his own wife.
He had wanted to kiss Belle. She overwhelmed him, invaded him, filling him with her scent and her smiles. When he closed his eyes, she was all he saw behind his eyelids.
Yes, go on, kiss her, then! Watch her recoil in horror at your touch. Chase away all those lovely smiles and kind words. Go ahead!
And what then? Shall you throw her back in the dungeon? How shall you bear to look at her face when it's filled with horror and hate?
Rumplestiltskin's hands balled into fists. He pushed away from the wall and stalked down the corridor to his workroom.
No, he would never touch her again.