Life in the Dark Castle was impossible to adjust to a permanent schedule, but as summer rolled over the mountains, it had become Belle’s habit to wander down from her bedroom after midnight for a snack.
It was simply too warm to remain in bed.
It would have been unseemly to so much as peek outside her chambers dressed in a nightgown and slippers, had she remained in her father’s household or married into Gaston’s. Ladies did not show themselves in a stitch less than at least four layers.
Belle giggled at the idea, never lamenting having escaped that life.
Her master had many faults, but an attachment to unnecessary rules was not one of them.
Once in the kitchen, her first objective was the cold box in the corner. Magical as it was, keeping cold without ice, it would not have replenished its contents if Rumpelstiltskin had decided to indulge his sweet tooth and forget to leave her at least a taste again.
To her relief, the ice cream was still there.
Belle was glad she had pulled out a second bowl when she heard Rumpelstiltskin’s steps nearing the kitchen. With a smile, she wondered what excuse he would give tonight to have joined her. His favorite was to pretend to be concerned that her pottering around would spark another fire (“…and I’ve not lived this long to let a careless girl burn my castle to cinders!”), or he would swear he had smelled cinnamon and grown hungry (which, she suspected, was his way to request that she bake his favorite cookies).
This time he paused at the doorway, making a point of glancing around and taking a long sniff. “Good. No smoke,” he said, stepping in. “Not a marvel cook yet, but there’s still hope for you, dearie.”
Belle chuckled. There had been a time when she would have resented his teasing, but now she understood that Rumpelstiltskin meant no harm. He was more playful than cruel - and, more importantly, he enjoyed that Belle had the courage to tease him back.
“Does this mean you disapprove of today’s pie?” She affected a chagrined expression. “Very well, sir. I shall not make it again.” A deep, contrite sigh. “I’ll tear away that page of the cookbook.”
Rumpelstiltskin, who had eaten half the pie at dinner while barely paying any attention to the potatoes that had accompanied it, looked a little alarmed at the start of her reply, but was staring at her with amusement by the end. “You, mangle a book?”
“If it’s necessary to serve you better,” she managed, biting the inside of her cheek against a snort at the very idea.
His thoughts must have paralleled hers, because he scoffed. “You’re more likely to bang me across the head with it, should I dare ask for such service.”
Belle blinked at the idea of lifting a hand against the Dark One, but had to admit that now that he’d mentioned it, the idea wasn’t farfetched. She had grown fond of the several tomes Rumpelstiltskin had brought for her, to aid her work in the kitchen, and she’d already proved that she’d go to absurd lengths to protect a favorite book.
Instead of an answer, she grabbed the bowl that was already full and offered it.
Rumpelstiltskin raised an eyebrow as he reached for it. “And you?”
Belle showed him the second bowl.
“Hmph. The maid gets ice cream fresh out of the cold box while the master’s is already half melted.” He made a noise of disapproval. “Tricky maid.”
“It will melt if you don’t start eating it,” she told him, then arched an eyebrow. “Or I could take it, and you wait until I finish to get yours.”
He tapped his chin in a thoughtful gesture, still grinning as if fond of her warning.
Belle expected him to magic himself a portion - probably a bigger one - but instead he made a tiny bow in her direction. “As I stand in your territory, milady, I abide by your rules.”
His snicker made her realize that she was gaping. She shut her mouth, unsure how to react. It was a jest, sure, but did he expect her to deny any wish to rule over the Dark One, or to run with the joke?
She decided to take the mischievous glint in his eye as a hint.
“Then you’re washing the dishes later,” she told him as airily as she dared, turning her back to him with the pretext of heading for the cold box.
His answer was a hoot of laughter, and Belle breathed in relief at having guessed right.