A Heart Destroyed and Yet Redeemed
Belle continued down the road back to the castle. Her trip to town had been a success, she had gotten more straw and on the way back had met a great lady in a carriage who had apologized to her for splashing mud on her dress and then offered her some advice on magic and love that Belle found very interesting and also startling. After the lady in black had gone on, she found she had new hope in her heart. If she could manage to break the dreadful curse on Rumplestiltskin, he'd be free, no longer seen as a monster, no longer a slave to dark magic. Then they could love each other without reservation.
Rumplestiltskin watched through the window, as he had been for the past hour. It was growing dark and he feared something had befallen Belle, who had not returned yet. He was almost inclined to go out and search for her, he never should have let her go alone, too many things could have happened to a lone woman, or, may all the gods forbid, she had run off at the first opportunity.
"I will never leave you," her voice echoed clear and true in his head.
He wanted to believe that, he wanted it so much it hurt.
But then, Milah had promised much the same thing, once upon a time.
And she had abandoned him and Bae, leaving him with a heart torn and shattered.
Despite her reassurances, despite the love he now bore her, he was still frightened that it wouldn't last. Anything good in his life never had, whether through his fault or another's. And given his track record, he was sure these halcyon days were coming to an end.
It was then he noticed that Belle was coming into the front courtyard. His heart did a sudden leap of joy and before he knew what he was doing, he had run from the bedroom window and down the stairs, taking the steps almost two at a time. He came to his wheel, set up in the front room, and sat down just as Belle came into the castle.
"Oh, you're back," he said, trying to sound nonchalant. At last.
Belle smiled at him, her basket was overflowing with straw. She set it down next to his wheel with a slight thump, her necklace glistening in the lamplight. "It took a little longer than I thought. Coming home I met a noblewoman traveling the same way and we got to talking."
Rumplestiltskin was immediately suspicious. "What was her name? There are no estates out this way. I own the land for miles around."
"She . . . she didn't say." Belle said uncertainly. "But why does it matter? I missed you, Rum." Maybe now was the time to put her plan into action. She pulled him into her arms and kissed him, letting all of her passion, all of the love of her innocent heart, to flow through her in that kiss.
He found he accepted her kiss greedily, like a dying plant starved for sunlight, passion shot through him like a jolt of lightning. He drew her closer, as if he would absorb her into his very being, as if they could become one—RumplestiltskinBelle—and no longer two separate people ever again. His love starved heart expanded and opened, feeling warmth and light, and suddenly he felt weak . . . as if he was losing his strength, his magic.
"It's working, love!" Belle exclaimed breathlessly. "Your curse . . . it's breaking! True love breaks all curses."
Her words struck terror into his heart. He drew back, staring at her in horrified fascination. "Who told you that?" he gasped, trembling slightly. "Who told you that?" he half howled. Betrayed! He had been betrayed again. Pain stabbed him in his midsection and he almost doubled over. Only pride kept him on his feet. It could not be . . . and yet it was . . . he could his power slipping away, like blood from a mortal wound.
Belle drew back, suddenly afraid of this stranger, who looked normal but acted like a crazy man. "She . . . she did. The lady on the road . . ."
"I knew it!" he roared. "I knew this was too good to be true. You were sent by her . . . to trick me . . . to make me weak . . ." He wrapped his arms about his middle to hold the shattered pieces of his heart. He turned away to hide the inexpressible pain surging through him.
"Rum! I wasn't sent by anyone!" Belle objected. She went to touch his shoulder and he shrank from her like a leper. "I came back, damn you! I came back!"
"Yes, you came back! On her orders! Your friend . . . the Queen! Queen Regina of the Enchanted Forest. My old, old enemy. All this time . . . you were working for her!"
"No! No! Rumplestiltskin, you're not listening to me. I only just met her today, I never knew she was a Queen!" Again she clutched at his shoulder. "I would never hurt you like that. I'm not a spy. Dammit, I love you!"
He flinched like she had just struck a mortal blow. "No, you don't. Because no one could ever love me!"
She grabbed him by the shoulders, tears overflowing down her cheeks. "You're wrong, Rum! I love you. You were freeing yourself, I could feel it. The magic was changing you back. But then you became afraid. . ."
"Maybe I just love power more, dearie," he said, his voice biting and hard.
"No. I know you. You don't love power. You're just afraid of losing your heart again. To someone who cares—someone who loves you."
He shook his head. "My magic gave me a new life from the ashes of the old."
"Yes, but it also trapped you in a role you were never meant to play. That was what I was trying to save you from. But even love cannot free you if you push it aside."
"I need my magic, dearie." He said. Listening to her, he believed the Queen had played with her, as she played with everyone. He had to get her away from him. He was like poison, and she would wither and die if she remained here, she was vulnerable to attacks from the queen now. So he said, in an icy cruel tone, one that shredded him to pieces, "I don't need you anymore, Belle."
It was a lie. But he made his voice steady and certain, like the duke's noble friends, so she would believe.
"What? What do you mean?"
"Go. Just go." He pointed towards the door.
"You're . . . you're telling me to leave?" She looked as if he had run her through.
"Get out! Now!" he shouted. Several things shattered and broke from the force of his rage as his magic responded to him. Glass shards winked at him from the floor, along with splintered wood.
"Fine!" she yelled back, gathering her courage. She felt as though she were falling . . . falling into a nightmare and she couldn't wake, no matter how hard she tried. "I'll go . . . and you'll be left with an empty heart and a chipped cup for your troubles." Her chin trembled, but she held her head high. His words had hurt her deeply, but the wound was bleeding out sluggishly. She turned and walked towards the doors, feeling as if her heart had been carved out and left upon the floor, one last sacrifice to true love.
Don't leave! She heard one voice call to her. He doesn't mean it! He's just lashing out at you from fear.
But I'm not a doormat! I'm a princess of the House of Beauchamp! And I'll not stay where I'm not wanted. Damn you, Rumplestiltskin!
Anger gave her feet wings and she almost flew across the floor. Suddenly she tripped, and one hand closed upon the rose necklace. She stopped. Turned. There was one more thing she had to say.
"I will always love you, Rumplestiltskin. But it's not enough, is it? Remember."
Then she walked away, seeing him sway like a chopped tree in a high wind, his face a mask of cold acceptance. All except his eyes. For one instant, she caught the torment within their depths. She almost stayed then. But some spark of anger drove her onward and she ran, ran as if possessed, until she was breathless and panting, down the road and into the wood near the town, to fling herself down on the cold hard ground and weep into her hands, her shoulders shaking with sobs.
The slamming of the doors was like a death knell. He felt it deep within his soul and it echoed in the empty spaces. Come back! Don't go! He silently called to her retreating form. But he was voiceless, like a drowning man, drowning in his own grief and sorrow, of lost chances, and a love that had almost healed his destroyed heart. Belle had been right. He had been afraid. But not of losing his heart, it had been lost weeks before to the dark-haired beauty. No, he had been afraid of her love for him, that it would destroy her, and he would not have it so, for he was not worth it. His enemies would hurt her if they could, if they suspected he loved her, she would be a pawn in their games of power. Especially Regina.
Run, my lovely fawn! Run and hide, and forget me. I cannot protect you, not all my magic can save you from your own foolish heart, which loves an unworthy beast. It's better so.
That might have been so, but oh gods, it hurt! He grasped the frame of the wheel, half doubled over, wheezing. The pain was smothering him, squeezing him in a vice, until spots danced before his eyes, which had begun leaking tears. It's the only way. The only way, he repeated. Remember, I love you always, Rumplestiltskin. He covered his face with his hands. Belle. I will always love you. Until the stars crumble from the sky, I will love you. He began to sob, like a lost child, for he had sent away his last hope and now his heart would remain broken forever. But at least she was safe. Wasn't she?
Alice stared at the bedraggled figure that stumbled through the garden gate. The hem of her blue dress was stained with mud and her cloak was ragged and her hair snarled. Her shoes were worn to scraps and Alice almost didn't recognize her. Then the beggar raised her head and Alice gasped. "B-Belle?"
"Alice?" Belle's voice was hoarse.
Then she took two steps forward and fell into her friend's arms.
Alice clasped her to her floury apron, her blond hair mingling with the seal brown tresses, and there were tears in her brilliant green eyes. "You've come home, Belle. Gods, how I missed you."
Nine months later:
She lay gasping in the bed, weak from the loss of blood, though Tansy said it had been an easy birth for a first time. All Belle knew was that she was exhausted, and wanted to sleep. Her arms rocked her baby daughter, her beautiful miracle, with big brown eyes like her father's and a fuzz of dark hair. Her skin was slightly red, but Tansy assured it would clear up in a few days. "So beautiful. My lovely little Alina Rose."
"Alina? For your mother?" Alice said, smiling down on them.
"Yes. Mama would have liked that."
"And her middle name? Does it have to do with her father?" Alice asked. Belle had told her the whole story and Alice did not judge her. Especially not since she had married a mercenary and was big with his child.
"It does. He gave me the gift of a rose," Belle murmured and one finger stroked the rose pendant about her neck. "It's a symbol of our love."
"You seem to be doing fine, milady," Tansy said. "I shall go inform King Maurice of the birth of his first grandchild." She swept out of the room, leaving mother, child, and her soon to be godmother alone.
A hour later:
"Take the baby . . ." Belle ordered, struggling to sit up. She was so weak. But she couldn't let that stop her. She had to get the baby away from here before the guards came.
Alice stared at her. "Belle, I think he's not in his right mind . . . to issue an order like that . . . his own kin!" her gaze darted to the bassinet, where baby Alina Rose slept peacefully, unknowing of her peril.
"I can't wait for him to be in his right mind, Alice! He hates her because of her father, don't you see? Thinks she's an . . . abomination, a magical freak! My beautiful little girl! Take her! Bring her to Rum. He'll look after her until . . .until I can travel. Please, Alice! As my best friend, the only one I can trust, do this for me!"
"Are you sure? I could try and help you onto a cart. Then you could both come . . ."
"No. That would never work. Gods and hells, you're almost ready to deliver yourself! You can't be dragging me down the hall. Take my daughter, bring her to the Dark Castle. I will follow as soon as I get my strength back. It should only take you three days on foot." She wrenched a ring off her finger. "Here. Give him this, to prove I sent you." It was her House ring, the Beauchamp crest of a crown in the middle of a rose bush. A rose for the crown. She almost gave Alice the locket instead, but at the last moment, her heart failed her. It was the only thing she had that he had given her, the blue dress long ago consigned to the rag bin. She clutched the rose pendant, and it was almost as if she felt his heart beating along with hers. Rum, protect our baby.
She fell back on the bed. "Hurry, Alice."
"You don't look so good, Belle. I . . hope you're not getting sick."
"Don't worry about me! We need to worry about those damn guards of my father's. You know they're sworn to him. Gaston hates me now, he'll do whatever Papa wants. Whatever he wants, up to and including killing my baby. Go, Alice! Before the guard at the gate changes and you can't leave."
"All right. Lie down, no sense getting yourself worked up," Alice hissed. Then she opened a large basket, removing several loaves of bread. She placed a downy blanket in the basket and then lifted the sleeping baby and tucked her inside, carefully putting the blanket over her and the loaves of bread around her. The she shut the basket. "There! Nothing here but bread for the villagers beyond the gate." Alice grinned slyly and patted her bulging middle. "I doubt that idiot Rowan will dare stop a pregnant woman on an errand. Not if he wants any of my pastries!"
"Goodbye, Alice! And . . . good luck."
"Don't worry, Belle. I'll be back before you know it. And I'll keep the baby safe." Then she was gone, like mist over the moors.
A few minutes later, a heavy hand pounded on the door.
Belle pretended to sleep, and the door burst open to admit a red-faced Gaston and two other guards in mail. "Princess! We've come to show the baby to her grandfather," Gaston bellowed. "Where is she?"
Belle didn't answer, her hands clenched into fists beneath the sheet. If she were stronger, she would have tried to strangle the arrogant knight for his lying, treacherous tongue.
"Belle?" Gaston peered down at her. "She's asleep. Find the damn baby!"
"She—it's not here, sir!" reported one guard, gesturing to the cradle.
"Gods and hells! Search everywhere! We need to find that creature! I want this palace searched from tower to midden. The king wants it found and its miserable life ended so no taint of dark magic infects us."
The sound of feet marching away echoed in Belle's dreams when she finally fell asleep. She was terribly afraid and prayed that Alice and the baby were safe.
A pounding on the door woke Rumplestiltskin from his nap. He looked at the mantle clock and swore. Who in seven hells was banging on his door at this time of night? Who would dare the wrath of the Dark One?
He yanked open the door and saw a woman, great with child, standing on the front steps with a basket clutched to her. "Who are you and what do you want?" he snapped, irritated. "If you're looking for a blessing for your brat in there, find a hedge witch, I don't do those. If you want a curse or a love potion, come back tomorrow! Now go away!" He made as if to slam the door in her face.
Just then the baby beneath the bread woke and began to cry.
"Huh? What's that? You've got another one? Gods and hells, woman! What are you—a rabbit?"
"No, but I know a white one who's always late. Let me in, Rumplestiltskin. For the love that Belle bore you, let me in out of the cold, before your baby perishes." Alice stuck her foot out so he couldn't close the door.
Rumplestiltskin half-dragged her into the hall. "What are you talking about, girl? I don't have a child. Not anymore." He glared at her.
She glared right back. "My name isn't girl. It's Alice. I'm Belle's best friend, she told me to give you this." She handed him the ring. "Recognize it? She said you would."
He took it and just stood there looking for a long moment. "Belle sent you?"
"Yes." Alice gently undid the lid on the basket, tossed the bread on the table, and gently removed the screaming baby from the basket. "Supper, my lord. And your daughter. Meet Alina Rose."
Rumplestiltskin took the howling infant in his arms. He looked down into the beet red little face and grinned. "You are so like your mother, sweetheart."
"Humph! She looks kind of like her father too, with her face all crinkled. I'll heat up a bottle if you'll change her. There are cloths in there. Do you have goat's milk?"
"Ask the pantry, it'll give you what you need." Rumplestiltskin said absently, still staring at the baby. "Shh, little one. I'm here. Right here." He moved to fetch a clean diaper and snapped his fingers and a bowl of warm water and a soft cloth appeared on the table. As he changed the baby, amazed that he hadn't forgotten how, he said, "Where's Belle?"
"Still at the castle. She couldn't come with me, the birth took a lot out of her. But I'm going back to get her. You should have been there, spinner!"
"How could I? I didn't know!"
"You didn't bother to find out, did you?" Alice moved into the kitchen area and located the pantry.
Rumplestiltskin finished diapering the baby and picked her up before saying, "You've got an insolent mouth on you, woman. I pity your poor husband, whoever he is."
"You're a fine one to talk," Alice snorted. She spoke to the pantry and soon had poured goat's milk from a pitcher into a small glass bottle. "Ah, hells! Forgot about the nipple."
"Here," the sorcerer whispered something and a nipple appeared on the bottle.
"You know how to do this, right?" Alice asked.
"Of course! I'm not ignorant, I've been a parent before," Rumplestiltskin snapped. "Have you?"
"Not yet. But soon."
"Gods help us all," he muttered and stuck the nipple in Alina's mouth. The howling ceased. "You can spend the night here."
"Thank you. I'll be on my way back in the morning. And soon Belle will join you here."
"Is that what she wants?"
"It's better than staying with a father who tried to kill his own granddaughter."
"What? Why? Is he mad?"
"I think so. But then, I don't think that baby is a monster either. But Maurice does. That's why he wanted her exposed. Said she was tainted with dark magic."
Rumplestiltskin looked as though he were about to explode. "And they call me a monster! That penny-pinching reject from an ogre's ass! I ought to change him into a snail and step on him!" Alina made a soft cry of protest. He gently took the bottle away and held her on his shoulder. "I think you need to burp, lovely girl." He patted her back, murmuring, "Don't be afraid. Papa will protect you from your idiot grandfather."
Alice raised an eyebrow. "Would you really?"
"Absolutely. No one hurts my family. Not ever," Rumplestiltskin swore. "I've made a lot of mistakes in my time, Alice, but one thing I do know is that I love Belle and I love my child. Forever and always."
"Better late than never, magician," Alice said. "But you'd better not hurt her."
"Is that a threat?"
"No, it's a promise. Lots of things find their way into soup when you tick off the cook."
Rumplestiltskin laughed. "I'll keep it in mind."
Just then the baby burped loudly.
"Good job, sweetheart," praised her besotted father. "Looks like I'd better get the cradle down from the attic."
"I'll leave you two to get acquainted. I need some sleep."
"There's a bedroom upstairs. Can you make it that far?"
"I walked three days here on my own two feet with a baby, magician. I think I can manage the stairs." Alice said, somewhat crossly. Her back was beginning to hurt.
"All right then. One more thing, Alice. Don't have your baby on the floor."
"You're a riot, Rumplestiltskin. Good night."
Then she left father and daughter to bond and crawled upstairs to sleep.
It had been two weeks since Alice had left and still Rumplestiltskin had no word of what had happened to her or to Belle. He supposed Alice could have had her baby by now, and that was why they had been delayed. He wished desperately to see for himself, but he couldn't leave his daughter alone in the castle, the queen was abroad and he would never risk Alina's life. And magical travel with an infant was too dangerous, they had been known to smother accidentally when transporting from place to place because of the compressed space and air. So he had to cultivate patience, not something he had a lot of, and just wait.
He had just put his daughter down for a nap and covered her with a light blanket he'd spun of softest merino wool when he turned at a noise and saw the Queen standing there in his entryway. He checked himself sharply and muttered an Illusion Charm under his breath. Then he snarled, "How did you get past my wards? They're supposed to keep out vermin."
"Oh, Rumple! Sounds like someone's in a bad mood!" she chuckled sultrily. "What's wrong? Your latest potion blew up?"
"Hardly," he moved in front of the cradle, which was near the hearth. "Did you come through a mirror?"
"You forgot to cover one." She looked gleeful, like a naughty child pulling wings off butterflies.
"I'm breaking them all next time."
"That's not very nice, Rumple," she pouted. "You'd think you'd be glad to see me."
"I'm about as glad to see you as I am to see a roach in my cupboard."
She walked about the hall as if she owned it, surveying it critically. "What's with the cradle, Rumple? You expecting? Or are you just nostalgic?"
"I'm getting rid of it. You'd be amazed at the things you find cleaning out the attic."
The Queen snorted. "You know that little piece you had here for awhile? What was her name again?"
"Belle. What of her?"
"Well, far be it for me to be the bearer of bad news . . . but . . . I have something to tell you. I'd heard you let her go. Back to her father."
"But you don't know what really happened, do you?" The Queen purred. "Let me tell you. After her . . . association with you, her father turned her back on her. Shunned her like a leper. Kicked her out of the castle, it's said."
"So she needs . . . a home?"
"Oh no. It's too late for that. He locked her in a tower, you see. It seems she refused to admit that she was held captive by a monster who did . . . unspeakable things to her. It upset the king very much, that his own daughter defended you to him. So he . . . tried to persuade her to his way of thinking. With clerics with hot irons and that sort of thing. Really depressing. But then, they say she was already depressed from losing her child. Did she tell you that she was carrying?"
Rumplestiltskin went still. She could not know of Alina. "No. Unless it wasn't mine."
"Could be. In any case, it's said the baby was born cursed and Maurice had it exposed. Then he locked Belle away. They said . . . she went mad. And threw herself off the top of the tower. Such a shame."
The Queen gave him a pitying look. "Am I?"
"We're done," he snarled. He gestured and the doors opened.
"Goodbye, Rumple. Maybe you ought to hire a housekeeper. These rooms are getting . . . a bit dusty."
Rumplestiltskin collapsed on the floor as soon as the Queen had sailed out the door. His throat was tight. "She can't be dead. She can't." He whispered to the sleeping Alina. He rocked the cradle and then sent his magic throughout the castle, breaking all the mirrors in it, even the ones he'd kept covered. He should have done that long ago, more fool him!
"She was lying. She has to be," he cried. But what if she hadn't been?
"Belle, where are you? Or Alice? Where are you both?"
Three days later he was almost desperate enough to do a Seeing in water, despite the fact that divining had never been his strong suit, when Alice arrived at his front door, looking like something a cat had dragged in.
"Alice! Where's Belle?" he cried, leading her into the hall.
"Gone," the young woman said dully. "Both of them. Gone, magician."
"Both of them? Gone where?"
"To heaven, Rumplestiltskin. Belle and my baby. Stillborn. I tried . . . forgive me . . . I tried . . ."
"No! She can't be dead!"
"Believe me, no one wishes that less than I do. But when I got home . . . she was gone. Died in the night of a fever. Maurice, the old fool, locked her up. She took sick and that was it. I couldn't . . . couldn't do anything! I . . . I fainted when I heard the news . . . and then my time came on me and . . ."
She began to cry wretchedly.
Rumplestiltskin put his arm around her. "Where in seven hells is your husband?"
"I don't know! He should have been back by now! But he isn't! And I can't stay there! They all look at me like I'm cursed. I'm so sorry. She was my only friend, and now she's gone, I can't . . .!"
She abruptly threw her arms about him, and her touch snapped something inside of him. Clinging to her, he wept, a storm of tears and sorrow that tossed his shattered heart about in his chest. Together they mourned the loss of the one woman they had both loved, until finally grief let them go, and they crumpled exhausted to the couch, spent.
Alice drew away from him, wiping her eyes. "Where's Alina?"
"Asleep upstairs. You want to see her?"
"Yes. It might help . . . to see one living . . ." she sniffled sharply. "I'm her godmother, you know. Belle wanted it."
"I figured as much, dearie," He handed her a handkerchief.
She blew her nose. "Look, I figured I could help you take care of the baby. Keep house for you, cook supper, that sort of thing. You don't have to pay me. Do we have a deal?"
"Is that what you want?"
"I have nowhere else to go. And I love Alina. If my husband returns, he can stay here too, all right?"
"Yes. I think . . . I think Belle would have wanted it that way." He shook her hand to seal the bargain.
And so the deal was struck, and the broken-hearted sorcerer managed to pick up the pieces and have a new life, with his small daughter and his unconventional housekeeper as companions to fill his days and nights with laughter and love. Only sometimes, when the night was still, and the moon soared high in the sky, did he pause and listen, for occasionally, in the sigh of the wind he heard her voice.
I will love you always, Rumplestiltskin. Remember.
A/N: Hope you all liked! Thanks to everyone who read and reviewed this! This is not the end of this series, however. To see what else happens to Rumple, Alice, Alina, and others read The Gold Standard. Hint-certain things which happened here are not entirely true . . .but you'll need to read the next story to find out what I mean! All is not lost!