"Why didn't you tell me?"
Belle looks up from the square, flour-dusted chopping table. It's a muggy day, the sort of that only comes at the last burst of summer before it grudgingly yields to fall, and if the stones of the castle get any hotter she won't need to put this dough in the oven to bake it. "Tell you what?" she asks, brushing away sticky strands of hair with her wrist.
Regina's expression is pitiless, her eyes - which, Belle has come to note, are nearly as dark as Rumpelstiltskin's - flashing with indignance. She crosses her arms, taps her foot, and remains silent.
It's an eerily similar version of Belle's own impatient actions when Regina is being difficult. Belle hasn't been on the receiving end of such a look since her own nanny had left her some fifteen years past. It is as disconcerting as she remembers. "I honestly don't know what you're talking about, Regina," Belle says, and, yes, she even sounds as though she's responding to her own nanny.
Regina is not mollified. "You've been keeping something from me," she declares.
That's true on multiple levels, and does nothing to make the situation clearer. "Regina, again, I don't know-"
Belle blinks; baking dust settles onto her lashes. "Come again?"
"I know what it means. I read it. It means queen." Regina raises her chin and, yes, in this moment, even with her too-short skirts - she just keeps growing, her head comes to Belle's shoulder now - and her endlessly untidy hair, she certainly looks regal. In a few years it will be terrifying. "I'm supposed to be the queen of something, aren't I."
Of all the things Belle had thought Regina might say, this isn't it. "Not that I'm aware of, no."
"Why would I be named Queen if I'm not a queen?"
"Well, people... they... sometimes names are just names. They needn't signify anything."
Regina scoffs - exactly like the sorcerer lurking above them in his tower. "That's ridiculous. You're named Belle, and you're beautiful." The statement is without compliment; she is simply reciting a fact. "And Belle means beautiful. I read that too."
"Yes, but my name didn't make me that way. I could just as easily have been born with- with crossed eyes, or webbed toes."
"Of course you wouldn't have. Names have power."
"Not that kind of power." Belle pinches her nose, and regrets it immediately afterwards as inhales a puff of flour. "Regina-" she sneezes "-I think probably-" she sneezes again "-it's just a name."
"You're wrong." Regina pulls a chair from the hearthside and sits, resting her elbow on her knee and her chin on her palm, utterly indifferent to Belle's distress. "One day I will be a queen."
"I bet no one has ever been a sorceress and a queen before. I'll be the first."
"R-" Sneeze. "Regina, the towel-"
"In my palace we'll do the fun kind of dancing."
Sneeze, sneeze, sneeze. "Reg-"
"Everyone will love my parties. And me. Hey!" Regina looks up as Belle, eyes watering and half-choked, stumbles into her while grabbing for the dish rag draped over the next chair. "You got flour on me!"
Belle blows her nose with an indelicate honk. "Then maybe," she gasps when she can again speak, "you should have handed me the towel when I asked for it."
"Queens do not hand towels to maids," says Regina grandly.
There is nothing to do in response to that statement, obviously, but for Belle to throw a handful of flour in the girl's face.
Regina closes her eyes instinctively, gasps in shock, and immediately begins to cough. She gropes for the dish rag... which Belle holds just out of reach. Vaguely she considers that this is not a very mature response - she is fifteen years Regina's senior, after all - but she can't help it. "Maids," she says sweetly, "would never insult queens by offering them used towels."
Regina retaliates with a bowl of raspberries smashed into Belle's skirts.
When Rumpelstiltskin comes down to the kitchens some half-hour later - well after lunch was due to be served - it is to discover his maid and his apprentice lying on the cobbled floor, covered in dough and fruit and eggs and an entire bottle of honey wine, giggling maniacally. After a moment of stunned observation, he says: "This... is not what I expected."
Regina manages to stop laughing, and even looks abashed.
Belle throws an egg at him.
The end result is the loss of another sack of flour, two buckets of water upended over the miscreants, and the discovery that tomato stains are nearly impossible to get off of dragon hide. It is worth it.
Weeks pass, and the days are shortening. Mornings hold a crispness now that makes Belle pull her cloak a little tighter around her body as leaves the castle. There is no autumn up here in the mountains, it would seem; a few weeks ago the heat was unbearable, and now the pine needles shimmer with frost. Winter will hit hard and fast.
Still, cool or not, orders must be obeyed. Belle steps out the hidden side gate - it opens obligingly for her - and starts down the path to the village. Rumpelstiltskin had announced the night before that he required more straw, and so fetch straw Belle will.
He's a far worse liar than Regina, which is, Belle suspects, why he prefers to use the truth to get what he wants; he knows how to turn facts to strings which make his deceptions dance. But she knows perfectly well - though she was the one who suggested fetching supplies in the first place - that there are rooms upon rooms of spinning materials stashed in the Dark Castle. He has no real reason to send her to the village. There's nothing he needs.
Yet he asks her to go anyway. Frequently. She thinks it's because he likes watching her come back.
This works out well for her, because she likes the way his gold-green-gray not-as-ugly-as-he-thinks face lights up every time she returns, no matter how deliberately gruff and sarcastic his response is afterwards. That little glimpse of his surprise is the best part of her trips to town... though she doesn't tell him so. Belle is many things, but she is not a fool. To confess something like that - I like the way you're always so glad to see me - would send him into his tower for days. She lives with a beaten dog who longs to be pet but snaps at any hand that reaches out.
She wonders who it was that struck him.
Still, she is patient, and she is brave, and she will teach him that not all hands are cruel. More importantly, she will be the one to teach him, because the only other option is Regina, who doesn't understand. Belle can see how he beams with pride when Regina does something particularly clever or competent; likewise, Belle watches as he catches himself and suppresses his approval with cold, hard words. Belle is a grown woman - she can handle his blustering - but it is not to be aimed at Regina.
She will teach him. He will learn he need not coat his kindness in acid. And once he does, he will accept Regina's love as he will accept Belle's... esteem.
She's sure of it.
The village square is already starting to bustle, even though the sun has only just risen. The baker carries his tray of goods from door to opening door, steam rising from the fresh loaves. A woman cursed - at least from Belle's perspective - with a half-dozen small children is haggling for eggs from the stone-faced farmer who brings his wagon to market each day; Belle suspects the mother is younger than herself, though she looks middle-aged with care and worry. A shepherd has lost control of his flock; the rogue sheep harass a laundress washing clothes in the fountain. The barber is sweeping his front step clean of dust and hair. The local and pitifully understocked library has thrown open its doors to sit empty for the singularly uncurious townsfolk.
Same as always.
It's charming in its own way, Belle supposes, but the novelty has long since worn off. She is always pleased to return to the Dark Castle when she is finished her tasks. There, the work is hard, the surroundings are bizarre, and the company is erratic, but at least it is always interesting. Besides, she still has several thousand books left to read.
One thing that has changed in the town, and for the better, is the appreciative stares she received for the first several of her visits. More than one man approached for the purpose of getting to know her - which featured little more than practiced compliments and blatant leering. None of them were remotely interested in conversation, a fact made all too clear by how they never seemed to hear anything she had to say. So Margie took to answering common questions - Fine weather we're having, isn't it? - with uncommon answers - You know the kettle will boil when the crows fly east - and has thus come to be known as the funny beauty who buys all the straw.
Belle enjoys this reputation. It keeps the dullards at a distance and limits talk to the clever and the curious. The clever and the curious are the only sorts to know, in her opinion.
First things are first: errands. Straw is easy enough to purchase from the stable master, particularly given that he's one of the few in town who actively objects to her presence, and worries that the madness - as he sees her cultivated eccentricity - will spook his precious horses. He is always all too happy to give her a good deal if she will only vacate the stables as soon as possible.
It is with a full basket, passing around the back of the stalls, that Belle is stopped by a familiar sandy-brown head that peeks from the hayloft. "Well met, Miss Margie," he says, hanging over the ladder, hair sticking straight up - or down, rather.
Belle smiles. This boy is the only one who calls her Miss. "Well met, Daniel," she replies, tilting her face back to speak to him. "How are you this morning?"
"Tired," the boy says honestly. "The horses were restless last night with the frost."
"It's all right. I took care of them. How are you?"
"A bit tired also, I suppose. It was a long walk into town."
"Ah." He pauses, then - as though he has just thought of this, as he had just thought of it the last ten times they've met - casually inquires: "How is Verna?"
"She's well. Very- very busy."
"Oh." Blood has reddened his cheeks, both from blushing and from hanging upside-down. "That's... good."
Belle hasn't had the heart to tell Regina how often the stable boy asks about her. What good would it do, after all, if there is no chance the friendship would be allowed to develop? A crush between a sorceress and a stable boy, even only a childish one, cannot come to a happy end. Better to let her think she's been forgotten. Then she will forget as well.
Belle is doing the right thing, she's sure of that, but it does nothing to lessen the guilt she feels at Daniel's forlorn sigh. "Do you need any help carrying your straw home?" he asks.
"I don't," she answers, as she does every time they meet. "But thank you anyway."
When she leaves the stable, she tells herself that perhaps something will change in time. It doesn't seem likely... but she doesn't know for certain. Nothing can be known for certain. No one can see the future.
Though, she considers as she re-enters the square, that's not entirely true; for instance, she knows for certain that winter is not far off. This is very likely her last trip into town. It is with this thought that she makes her way to the tavern - which opens at daybreak, along with every other business in the village - to have a breakfast of hardboiled eggs, and listen to the chatter of local conversation before she will be limited to only two voices until the season turns back to spring.
Not many others are in the alehouse at this hour - the fire has yet to be built, the decorative antlers hang in shadows - but there are a few, and they are gossipy. The butcher worries his wife will discover his infidelity with the town tart - which, Belle reflects, she almost certainly will, if he continues to stare down the woman's dress whenever she comes to his stall. There is general agreement that the pig boy needs to be horsewhipped for failing to manage his livestock, as the hogs have caused mass destruction in five gardens thus far. Three blonde sisters, generally agreed to be the most desirable girls in town - though Belle has overheard that she herself would compete for that title, were she not so odd - are causing a stir by fighting for the attentions of a local braggart, and in the process breaking the hearts of their legions of suitors.
Belle listens to all of this with a fonder smile than she would have had she not known she'd not see any of them for the next several months, and eats her eggs with gusto. No one invites her to speak; who knows what Crazy Little Margie might say, after all. She's touched in the head.
All the better to eavesdrop.
The gossip turns to rumors floating in beyond the borders of the tiny hamlet. This interests Belle far more than romantic escapades, and she listens intently for word of the ogre war. If Avonlea - small though it is - had been flattened, the news would spread. She has heard nothing, and so her home is probably safe.
But she is silly to worry. Of course Avonlea is safe. Rumpelstiltskin doesn't break his deals.
No, no talk of ogres, nor of war. Rather, the report is of a bit of royal excitement in distant kingdoms: a public reward has been offered to any person who can provide the whereabouts of a long-lost princess. The bounty is one hundred gold coins.
That information draws a small crowd.
"Stolen as a baby, they said," announces the local fishmonger - he sails up and down the river, and is always the best source of news from outside realms. "Oughta be a girl now - if she's not dead in a well somewhere, 'course."
"And no one thought to look afore now?" asks the butcher.
The barmaid snorts as she wipes a dented tin mug. "Can't imagine the newborn princess in the next realm over had anything to do with the sudden rush," she says disparagingly. "What's the line of succession these days?"
"What difference does it make?" The fishmonger shrugs. "All it means is they've not seen her since the cradle. No notion what she looks like. So just find some brat with the right colors, take her to the castle, and get your gold; how are they to know the difference?"
"Until your fake spills the beans," points out the butcher. "Then you'll be hanged. If you're lucky."
"So take the reward and leave the kingdom in the same hour. Nothing to it."
"They why hasn't anyone else tried it yet?"
"Because no one else is as clever as me. Also, you're supposed to bring some kind of proof you've slain the demon who snatched her."
Belle's hand stills, fork halfway to her mouth.
"Oh, proof of having slain a demon. Is that all."
"'Tis no great difficulty. Find some trinket, have the girl say it belonged to the monster. Easy as anything."
The barmaid shakes her head, black curls flying. "A foolproof plan," she says. "No flaws at all. Do send us a letter by way of the hangman, won't you?"
"You have no faith, Minnie," says the fishmonger with an extravagant pout.
"I have faith in many a thing. But in you? Never."
"How old is this lost princess?" says Belle suddenly. The tavern-goers look up with surprise and no small amount of interest at Crazy Little Margie, as though expecting her to start speaking in tongues.
The butcher, in particular, smirks indulgently - with a not too subtle glance at her bodice. "Going to go royal-hunting, little Margie? I think I might have seen the lost princess hiding in my barn, if you'd like to come and take a look."
The barmaid smacks the butcher on the back of the head; Belle smiles and curls her fingers around the edge of her crockery plate, ready to smash it into the man's face if she must. One swing would break his nose. She's grown strong from scrubbing. "Just curious," she says, all naïveté. "Perhaps she's turned into a cat and we've never realized. I have cats of many ages. And colors!"
She beams brightly in the face of their blank stares.
"Still a child," the fishmonger says. "Ten or eleven years. Likely to be brunette, as well; the prince and his wife are, at any rate." He lets out a low whistle. "If you want the real thing and the girl's got her mother's looks, she shouldn't be hard to spot."
The barmaid rolls her eyes. "That would be what you think of-"
"If you'd seen the lady you'd be thinking of it too, Minnie, I'll lay coin you would."
The butcher perks up at this. "She would?"
The barmaid smacks him again.
"Point being," the fishmonger continues, "there's no reason to waste your time looking for the princess when any dark-haired, dark-eyed girl will do. They've no real notion what she looks like. She'll be raised a royal, I'll get the gold. Girl's happy, parents are happy, I'm sure as hell happy."
Belle forces her smile wider, a muscle spasming in her cheek. "And what is the princess called?"
The fishmonger scratches his chin. "Something with an R. Does it matter? Tell them the demon gave her another name. Simple."
The discussion continues - mostly along the lines of how the fishmonger seems determined to get himself executed, a risk he insists is worth the chance for a sack of pure gold - but Belle is only listening with half an ear. She finishes her meager breakfast, leaves a coin on the table, and wanders from the bustling village, nearly walking into many townsfolk in her distraction.
There must thousands upon thousands of dark-haired girls in this world who have no parents. Who are ten or eleven years old. Whose names begin with R.
Who live with demons.
Surely there must be.
Belle's trip back to the Dark Castle - she still climbs the mountain with absurd ease, as though she travels along a gravel road instead of a steep dirt path - is achieved by muscle memory alone. She crosses the grounds with no notice of the trees, opens the doors without seeing them, sets the straw by the spinning wheel without a word, and stands in the vacant great room, considering her options.
Her head tells her not to put stock in ale house gossip.
Her heart tells her any answer will injure those involved.
Her curiosity tells her to discover the truth.
As usual, curiosity wins.
High, high in Rumpelstiltskin's tower, Belle finds the Dark One and his apprentice hard at work on transference spells. "No," he says, voice rasping the way Belle has learned it does when he's frustrated and - as he does on occasion! - trying to hide it. "The quill on the table."
"But why?" Regina is already holding a quill; she waves the feather right under the Dark One's nose, causing him to flinch back. "I made one. I don't need the other."
"Conjuration is no substitute for transference. Your quill isn't enchanted; what if the one over there was?"
"But it's not enchanted."
"If it was-"
"But it's not."
"You are deliberately missing the point, whelp, and if you keep that up you're going to-" Rumpelstiltskin cuts off what looks to be a promising dress-down when Belle lets her heel click very deliberately against the tile floor. "Something you need, dearie?" he asks, ashen brows rising. "Girl's still mine till noon, you know."
Regina ignores this and turns to Belle pleadingly. "Oh, tell him, Belle. I don't need a stupid transference spell when I can make one of whatever I need!"
"There are about fifty reasons you're wrong in that, not the least of which is that the cost is far too high."
"Yes, yes, all magic comes with a price, but I can do it! Belle, tell him!"
"Belle, feel free inform this brat that when she's been casting magic for three hundred years she's more than welcome to lecture children on what the proper price of magic is, but until that day comes she will listen to those who are both older and unfathomably wiser than her."
"That's not fair!"
"Life's not fair, dearie."
"Rumpelstiltskin," says Belle, "may I speak to you privately?"
There is nothing different in her tone or expression - at least, not that she knows of or intends - but her words bring the argument between master and student to an immediate halt. Rumpelstiltskin straightens, his ever-hectic hands stilling; Regina's eyes widen. "I didn't do it," she says quickly. "Whatever it is, I didn't do it."
"Out," Rumpelstiltskin tells her.
"But I didn't! I really didn't this time!"
Regina stomps down the spiral staircase, muttering to herself, locks of hair escaping every which way with each step, until she vanishes from sight and the heavy oaken door slams. Belle fully expects to find pranks galore when she returns downstairs; she only prays the mice will still be their appropriate sizes, if nothing else.
"Now, then," says Rumpelstiltskin, his fingers steepled together in front of his chest. "What's put that look on your face, little maid?"
"I have a look?"
"Quite a serious one, yes, and it doesn't suit you at all. Who has upset you, and how would you like me to stage his death?"
"No one," says Belle at once. In all likelihood he is joking, but... well, better not to risk it. "N-no one has... that is..."
Now that the moment has arrived, her nerve is failing her. Perhaps she ought not ask. Perhaps it is none of her business. Perhaps, just this once, ignorance is bliss.
She doesn't realize that Rumpelstiltskin has approached until his hands come to rest on her shoulders, a warm and surprisingly heavy weight. "Belle," he murmurs, and she can smell cloves and magic on his skin, he must need the cloves for a potion because she certainly doesn't cook with them, and his nose would brush hers if he would lean forward another few inches. He looks so human this close. "What troubles you?"
She swallows, and he can probably hear it. He may even be able to feel it, in that his thumbs trace along the bare skin of her shoulders in something very close to but not quite a caress. She bites her lip, and his eyes drop to her mouth.
The moment holds, grows, shapes into something new and a bit alarming. Belle does not want it to end.
But end it must. "Rumpelstiltskin," she says softly, and she is fairly certain she's not imagining the shudder that runs through his body when she speaks his name, "where did Regina come from?"
A moment later Rumpelstiltskin is on the other side of the room, the potions table between them, as though his fingers hadn't just been brushing across her collarbone. "Did no one give you that speech when you were a lass, dearie?" he asks liltingly, hands dancing along a neat row of glass vials. "If not, that library of mine surely has an enlightening book or two. Educate yourself."
"I meant, how did you come by her."
"I bought her for a sack of radishes. Not one of my better deals, but I've made do as best I can. Now send her back up here and go find something to polish."
"Rumple, I'm serious."
"So am I, little maid. Those cobwebs on the third floor aren't going to clean themselves."
"Please, listen to me." Do the brave thing, and bravery will follow. "Down in the village there are people searching for a lost princess."
Rumpelstiltskin looks up at this, the hardness on his face replaced with genuine surprise. "There are?"
"Yes." Belle comes forward, close enough to rest her palms against the work table. "They said she was stolen by a... a demon more than ten years ago. That she likely has dark hair and dark eyes. That her first name begins with R. There's an offer of one hundred gold coins for her return, and- and proof of the demon's death. Rumple..."
But she finds she cannot continue when she sees how his clawed nails are scoring the tabletop, leaving deep grooves behind in the solid wood. "Stolen," he repeats. "They've told the world she was stolen."
Any remaining hope that Regina is not the princess they spoke of vanish at his words. "Y-yes. That's what they're saying."
And, in one powerful motion, the Dark One upends the work table. Jars and bowls and vials go flying to smash against the far wall; Belle jumps back with a cry. "Stolen!" he roars. "She would say- she would dare!-"
The second table crashes to the side; multi-colored steam rises where the bottles shatter. "That - evil - soul!"
"Who are you talking about?"
"She wants proof of my death? She thinks she can defeat me?"
"Rumple, stop it!" If he keeps this up he'll destroy all the magic in this tower and heavens know what the consequences could be. "Please, stop before you hurt yourself - or me!"
Rumpelstiltskin pauses moments before he shatters the multi-paned window. "Well, we can't have that, can we," he says stiffly. His arms drop to his sides, though the lines of his body continue to radiate barely leashed rage.
Belle has the sense to wait for a few minutes; it's clear he would rather she leave entirely, but she's not going to do that, not now. After he seems at least somewhat calmer - one of the tables raises and reassembles itself with a flourish of his hand - she hesitantly offers: "It is Regina that they're searching for, then?"
"Likely so." The laugh that follows is low and bitter. "And what about you, dearie? Will you play the hero, and return the kidnapped babe to her rightful place? Have you already spent the promised gold?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Belle snaps. "And don't start suspecting me just because you're angry at someone else - isn't fair."
He takes a deep breath, and his shoulders slump. "No, it isn't." The note of regret in his tone would have shocked her a season ago; now she accepts it. Perhaps he cannot yet govern his tongue when he is in a temper, but he at least knows when he has wronged her. "You are not- you would not. Not you. I apologize, Belle."
She'd touch his arm to convey her forgiveness, but this isn't the time. "What will you do?"
"Do? I needn't do anything. That child has belonged to me since before her grandfather was a glimmer in his father's eye. Her mother-" he spits the word as though it stings his tongue "-may harbor delusions of her retrieval, but that's all they are. Delusions. If she tries to take the girl from me, she'll remember just who it is she's made a deal with."
This subject is a minefield, and Belle is navigating without a map. Still, it falls under the category of looking out for her charge. "Perhaps... perhaps if Regina were only to write to her family, they would be satisfied in her safety-"
"Don't waste your time, dearie. I assure you: whatever Cora is playing at, the girl's safety has nothing to do with it."
Cora, then. Regina's mother's name is Cora. "But if she hasn't seen her daughter since she was a baby, she must be worried."
Now Rumpelstiltskin turns to face her, and his black eyes hold some unholy combination of awe, condescension, and disgust. "Always looking for good where there is none, little maid," he murmurs, and it's almost admiring, almost patronizing, but not quite either. "Regina's mother sold her to me for a pile of gold. She's not the first, but she's the first who didn't regret it. She didn't care. Would you like to tell Regina that before she writes? How her mother wouldn't even look at her when she wailed for milk?"
Belle shakes her head, slowly. "That can't be true," she whispers. "She couldn't be that heartless."
His laughter sounds as sick as she feels. "Oh, my little maid, you have no idea."
This is too much to process at once. Belle can feel herself getting a headache, though that may be from the remaining fumes of the spilled elixirs. "Then Regina is- is not yours, then."
"Of course she is. That's the whole point of the deal."
"No, I mean... you are not her father."
Before this moment, Belle had had no idea that Rumpelstiltskin's scaled, pebbled skin could turn pale. Rumpelstiltskin's face does not drain white as her own would, but instead becomes a shade of sickly gray, nearly translucent. He swallows. "No," he says after a moment, as though the single syllable has been hooked in his chest and brutally torn out. "I am not."
"Oh." Belle traces the wood grain of the table with her index finger. "If that is true, then... well, you must speak to her." He blinks, and she explains: "She believes you are. At least, I think she does. You need to tell her."
His expression is eerily similar to the one he'd had the time she slapped him. He says nothing.
And Belle quickly realizes what he's about to do. "Oh, no. Don't even think about-"
Too late. "You're here to manage that girl, dearie," he says, then disappears in an eyeblink, as though he's never been there at all, leaving Belle in an empty tower, surrounded by broken glass and spilled drafts and scattered books.
"Rumpelstiltskin!" she shouts. "Come back here this instant!"
"You coward! Don't you dare leave this to me!"
"I won't do it! Do you hear me? I won't! This is your responsibility, not mine! Rumpelstiltskin!"
By the time Belle leaves the tower, there is even more broken glass on the floor than when she arrived.
Next: Wherein everyone makes a lot of mistakes.