The Dark Castle intimidates her at first, with its gloomy corners, its haphazardly organized collection of strange and no doubt powerful objects, and the sense it gives that evil magic might be lurking behind any door. Even the name is intimidating, although she supposes that's probably the point.
But she has been brought here to do a job, and she is determined to fulfill her end of the bargain the best that she possibly can. No matter what. No matter where.
Belle squares her shoulders, gathers her bravery -- or, at least, her ability to do the brave thing -- and makes herself the keeper of this house.
Rumplestiltskin watches her wipe away her tears and march forth like a soldier to battle the disorder of his castle, and allows himself to wonder for the first time just what it is he's done in bringing her here.
She's dusting a shelf in his laboratory on which nothing sits but a single plant in plain clay pot. It's a strange-looking thing, mottled and spiky, with leaves that crumple against each other in complex patterns. She wonders if it's meant to be decorative -- it seems as if it would fit his sense of style, somehow -- or if it's medicinal, or magical. He doesn't have any other plants, that she's seen, except for a small herb garden outside. She wonders if it's also her job to take care of it, to see to it that it has water, or fertilizer. She thinks perhaps it ought to have more sunlight than it's ever going to see in here.
Gently, she strokes it with a fingertip, feeling some vague sense of kinship with it, this other living thing in captivity here.
Instantly, the crumpled leaves whip apart and snap back together, taking a small piece of her finger with them.
She yelps in surprise and pain, then yelps again when a voice behind her says, "Careful, dearie!" She's not sure she's ever going to get used to him appearing like that.
He strides over to the plant and examines it, as if making sure it's all right, before grabbing her hand and examining her finger. Her blood makes a bright red smear against his palm. "Well, it had a good meal, at least," he says. But the swirling purple energy of his magic is already flowing across her wound, and a moment later everything is clean and closed, as if she's never been hurt at all.
"Leave the dangerous things alone, hmm?" he says, letting go of her hand and wagging his finger in her face.
"You can't tell how dangerous something is just by looking at it!" she protests, still staring at the new unnatural smoothness of her finger.
He looks at the plant and back at her, a confused expression on his face. Then he shakes his head and disappears.
She's left drops of blood on the shelf. Sighing, she approaches the plant again, carefully this time, and cleans them up.
There is great magical potential in blood, as there can be in pain. He tells himself that is why his hand still tingles afterward, from the touch.
She's more careful after that. However obvious he thinks the spiky plant's finger-eating habits might have been, you really can't tell how dangerous most things are by looking at them, especially not here. Beautiful gems send a painful shock of magic through her when she touches them. Stuffed and mounted animals turn their heads and bare their teeth when her duster tickles their noses. In a room upstairs, she finds a boy's clothes, folded and stored with a care that makes her heart ache, but also shirts made of stinging nettles, and a beautiful pair of shoes that whisper sinisterly in her mind, urging her to put them on and dance forever.
She learns to be wary.
She's everywhere, now, the girl. He's growing used to her being everywhere. That fact disconcerts him, when he thinks about it. It makes him awkward, and that's a new feeling for him. Or, rather, a very, very old one, one of which he had no longer believed himself capable.
She's in his laboratory again, dusting yet another shelf, this one filled with flasks and tubes and glass containers spun into shapes she's never seen before. They're filled with liquids and powders and swirling gasses, some pretty, some poisonous-looking, some an odd, indefinite combination of the two. She handles them carefully, touching them as little as the can lest the warmth of her fingers affect their contents somehow, as she picks them up, dusts beneath them, and sets them down again softly.
Until... "What are you doing with those, dearie?" The voice is harsh and accusing, as if he's caught her trying to steal from him, and it's that, as much as the way he startles her, that causes her to drop the delicate cylinder she's holding. Vile green liquid splashes onto her shoe, fizzes, begins eagerly eating through the leather.
"I was only cleaning them!" she protests, trying desperately to kick off her shoe. "It's my job, remember?"
"I didn't tell you your job was to spill things, dearie!"
He must be irritated, she thinks, calling her "dearie" twice in as many sentences. She's begun to learn things like that, what his habits of speech mean. Well, fine. She's irritated, too. She's tied her laces too well, and it seems she's never going to be able to undo the knots. She makes a noise of frustration. "Help me with these, will you?"
He mutters something about how he should have bargained for a less clumsy housemaid, but he waves his hand and the corrosive fizzing on her shoe disappears. She can see her toes -- fortunately undamaged -- through the hole. "What about my shoes?" she says plaintively.
He heaves a great, theatrical sigh, then waves his hand again. "Better?
"Yes. Thank you." It's the least he can do, she thinks but doesn't say, since it's his fault she dropped the thing in the first place.
"Perhaps," he says, "you should leave this room alone from now on."
This may have been a mistake, he thinks. He never really needed a housemaid. There is nothing that magic cannot do for him better, more efficiently, less dangerously. With magic, he always knows the price.
As requested, she doesn't enter the laboratory again for a week, and then another week, and part of a third. But every time she passes by the door, a fresh wave of shame and resentment washes over her. He thinks she is clumsy and incompetent, that closed door reminds her, and she's not. It's true, when she first came here she didn't know what she was doing, but she's always learned quickly, and now she takes pride in keeping the castle tidy and homelike. After all, it's her home now, too. She's actually become rather fond of the place, dark corners and all. And she hasn't actually broken anything since she arrived. Not unless you count that cup she chipped on her very first day, and he's always seemed more amused than annoyed by that, judging by the way he insists on drinking from it.
At last, it all becomes entirely too much for her to take. Telling herself that he was merely making a suggestion, after all, she throws the door open and marches determinedly in. And her very ability to do that, surely, is proof that she's entitled to. If he'd really wanted to keep her out, he would have locked it, wouldn't he?
Feeling instantly more cheerful, she surveys the room. There are papers strewn everywhere. She knows better than to disturb those much, but she picks up a book splayed out in a spine-breaking position on the desk and, tsking a little, closes it, being careful to mark his place. Both papers and book are full of magical symbols she doesn't know how to read, and she wonders idly if she might be able to teach herself to. It would be nice to know what he's studying in here.
She gathers up cups that, judging by the tea residue in the bottom, have probably been here since the last time she was, and dusts the predictably filthy shelves, carefully avoiding any incidents with plants or potions or magic. Then, reaching the far corner of the room, she looks up.
"Oh, come on!" She would not have thought that any room could have accumulated that dense a tangle of cobwebs in such a short amount of time, but leave it to him. Sighing, she retrieves her long-handled duster, gripping it like a sword, swings it towards the corner-- and stops short as something scuttles up through the mass of webbing.
She pulls a stool over and leans in -- not too close -- to get a better look at it. It's definitely a spider, all right, but its body is a pale, ghostly white, and its eyes are a luminescent pinkish-red. Not too surprising, she thinks, if a magical castle spawns unusual vermin. She wonders if she should attempt to kill it with the duster, or if some more forceful approach is in order.
And then she notices something: a faint, shimmery purple gleam all around the outside of the web, where it attaches to the ceiling and the walls. Magic. What, exactly, it might be doing she has no idea, but obviously this creature is a pet rather than a pest. Or some sort of laboratory animal.
She examines it again, a little more closely, and this time she notices the faint gray markings where its legs join to its body. "I know what you are!" she exclaims, the sudden knowledge filling her with delight. It's a Moon Spider from Agrabah; she recognizes it from the bestiary she read last week. It's very rare and very magical, with venom that may have any number of horrible or wonderful effects, depending on how it's treated.
The spider makes a small chittering noise at her. It sounds oddly indecisive, as if it's not sure whether it should be angry at being disturbed. "Sorry," she says. It waves two of its legs at her, then, apparently deciding that she's not a threat, hastens over to repair the tiny section of web that the feather-tip of her duster brushed against. She watches it for a moment, appreciating the neatness and industry of its weaving, then goes back to her own job, dusting carefully around the webbing without disturbing it again.
This time when he appears suddenly behind her, she doesn't flinch. She's learned to anticipate it, to recognize that almost-imperceptible change in the air that happens just before he appears, telling her that it's only him.
What she's not prepared for is the way he grabs her arm and spins her around, yanking her off the stool.
"Hey!" she says, protesting.
"Did I not tell you to stay out of here?" He's as agitated as she's ever seen him. "Foolish girl, do you know how rare and precious the antivenin for these spiders is? And now I have to waste it on a--"
"Antivenin? What? The spider didn't bite me!"
He blinks, confused, and his grip on her arm slackens.
"Don't lie to me. I could feel you disturbing the web. If you've damaged my specimen--"
"Rumple, the spider and I are both fine. That species doesn't attack without a good reason, and I didn't give it one. Oh, and your lab is clean again. In case you hadn't noticed, the place was turning into a complete pigsty."
She thinks she sees relief in his face for a moment, then confusion again. He looks up at the spider, now sitting still in its web, looking as relaxed and comfortable as a red-eyed spider can possibly look.
She tries not to laugh at that expression. "You see? I've learned to respect everything in here that's dangerous. And to understand it. It's not going to hurt me."
"Oh," he says. "Well... good. Then... carry on with your duties." He makes an airy gesture with his hand. "Make sure you don't leave any little spots of dust."
He leaves through the door this time, and she smiles at him as he goes.
She has so little fear of monsters now that sometimes he almost forgets he is one. Sometimes he almost forgets that he needs to be.
She is, the thinks, sitting at his lovingly polished table in his bright and cheerful hall, the most terrifying thing in this castle, by far.