He stood in the upper most turret, the sentry guarding the castle, the gargoyle keeping silent watch over the courtyard below. He had been there since he had told her she could leave, had taken his silent position far up above humanity even before she had put her cloak on, before she left the grounds. He had watched her walk away, her steps slow and faltering, her head turning to look back at the door multiple times as if she expected him to come rushing after her, to change his mind, to drag her back to the dungeon for making the mistake of trusting him. Her pace had quickened once outside the castle walls, her head only turning back once more right before she moved around the bend and out of sight.
Did she enjoy her last view of the castle? Did she see its master so far above it watching her? He imagined, for just one moment, that her eyes met his across the distance and that maybe, just maybe, he saw some tiny bit of regret there, some small shade that she would miss the enigmatic mystery that was Rumpelstiltskin.
But then she was gone.
It had been hours and still he stood guard, arms hanging loosely at his side, body still and straight. His eyes never left the path to his castle.
By now she was no doubt at the town, maybe had even procured a ride back to her homeland. It wasn't terribly far, by carriage perhaps a handful of days, but certainly further than she would anticipate. They had come to the castle on the wings of magic, one moment walking from the Throne Room occupied by her father and betrothed, the next step walking right into the Great Hall of the Dark Castle. Their travel to his home had taken mere moments, leaving her dizzy with surprise and wonder while he remained, as he ever was, unaffected by it.
He couldn't even bring himself to giggle at that thought as he remembered her losing her balance and falling backward into the hand that had still been placed lightly at her waist. Oh my…I didn't expect that. You could have warned me! Her eyes had flashed fire at him and for a moment, just a moment really, he had felt chagrined at his behavior. He wasn't used to worrying about someone else. He hadn't had to worry about someone else since he had lost his son centuries ago. Had it really been so long?
He imagined the great homecoming she would have, the young princess who had sacrificed her very life to save her people. Her father would be so proud of her and so stunned to see her coming back into his home. Unharmed. Not a hair out of place on her pretty little head, no mark upon her body. The Beast had not had her, had not harmed her, had touched her little more than was required, saving her from herself rather than saving her from him.
Would she tell them how she smiled at his quips, eyes sliding away in amusement as she considered the strange creature in front of her? Would she tell them how she laughed when he joked and how her eyes would crinkle in delight at his odd sense of humor? Could she even tell them that the Beast had a sense of humor?
Could she bring herself to tell how she sat on the table and invited him to sit next to her, asking him about his life? How any fear she had once had of him somehow melted away the longer she stayed with him? How she had looked shyly at him when she asked if she could get to know him? If I'm never going to know another person in my whole life, can't I at least know you?
He wondered if she would tell the truth. That the Beast was nothing more than a lonely old man haunting a castle that, while opulent, had gone to dust and cobwebs years ago. That he didn't need a caretaker for the castle so much as a caretaker for himself. That any lost humanity had been found again once she came into his life. Could she tell those truths though? Did she even realize them?
What would she tell them when they asked how he treated her? Would she tell them that he had a change of heart after leaving her in the dungeon and provided her with a lovely room overlooking the castle garden instead? Would she tell them he had never laid a hand on her in anger even when in his blackest moods?
He somehow doubted she'd be able to talk about the times she sat quietly in a nearby chair while he worked at his spinning wheel until his mood lightened. He never really did quite forget. He tried to. Oh did he try to. The wheel nearly hypnotized him with its constant turning and reassuring sound of wood squeaking against wood. But forget? No. Forgetting was still a work in progress.
He also doubted she could talk about the infinite patience she had shown him, a hand placed gently on his arm to calm him, a soft fluttering of fingers through his hair as he sat unmoving and staring at nothing when the depression took him, a tremulous smile when his eyes finally met hers. He didn't think she could tell them how she had coaxed him out little by little because he wasn't sure she really knew, really understood. He wasn't the same with her as he was with other people. She couldn't know that, could she?
It was those small things really. The small tiny day-to-day things he wondered if she'd ever be able to speak of. He had treated her kindly. He was a monster, but he had not been monstrous. The distinction mattered. And it mattered dearly to him.
He hoped that, perhaps, if he were so very lucky, she would be able to look back on her time there with fondness. Remember him with some sort of tender feeling instead of loathing and the horror of losing her family, her friends, and the betrothed she claimed to never have loved.
For a brief moment, the gargoyle leaned forward, one hand coming up to touch the window while his head turned away. It was a small collapsing in upon himself, perhaps a small admittance that her leaving had not been met with the indifference he had displayed to her. It was something that no one would see, a weakness he would not admit to anyone.
He caught movement out of the corner of his eye, the fluttering of something far down below him. Straightening back up he watched as that movement became bigger and finally appeared far enough up the path that he could make out what it was.
He hardly dared breathe, fearing that one wrong movement would break the spell, would show him that the path still was empty, that she had not returned. His imagination was certainly strong enough to create the image he wanted to see. His magic had often created such hallucinations, whenever his feelings were particularly powerful and overtook him unexpectedly. Usually he could control it. Today he could not. Finally he blinked, hard, just once. If he had created this in his own mind, the severing of the connection would remove it, even if just for a moment. Just long enough for him to know.
When he opened his eyes again, she was still there, closer now than when he had closed them. He could see she was carrying the straw he had requested she retrieve, was still wearing the cloak he had given her when she once indicated she was chilled.
A small smile graced his lips, just for a moment. And then the gargoyle realized he had to relinquish his post and turned away from the window, leaving the shadows to play sentry in his stead.
His Belle had returned.