The Castle liked Belle.
Belle wasn’t like any of the dealers the Castle’s master had met before, though that might have more to do with how the Dark One occasionally liked to rove and roam outside the walls in search for a deal, and thus not every prospect was brought home. But Belle was not an ordinary dealer, as the Castle came to understand.
She was polite, for one, which was a first. None of the master’s...clients were particularly nice about clattering about in the Castle, always barging into rooms or hammering on the doors and raising a dreadful racket. Most of those who could get themselves to the Castle on their own were of the Terribly Important variety, and didn’t usually think much of big wooden doors that - how dare they - did not open at any touch save that of their master’s. Hence the battering and the grousing and the kicking of cornerstones when the Castle proved disagreeable...which, to its master’s general pride and glee, it did well and often.
But not to Belle. She was a gentle sort of person, as the Castle figured out quickly enough, always apologizing when she bumped into things or moved them about, even if it didn’t look like there was anyone around to hear it.
She smiled, too, which was a bit of a rarity in the Castle. The Dark One smiled, of course, but it was always an unpleasant, sharklike grin that a predator would wear before cornering its prey. Belle’s smiles were almost always warm and open and honest despite the darkness of the world she’d sold herself into.
The Castle rather liked that, really.
It had taken it a while to warm up to her, however. The Castle was unused to visitors who stayed longer than they positively had to, and while it hadn’t really batted a proverbial eyelid when its master brought a woman into its halls, it had been absolutely appalled when he left her in the dungeon! To stay! With them! Forever!
This wasn’t the standard order of things at all.
For a goodly while the Castle (it did not keep track as it did not think much of Time; both it and its master were quite impervious to it all in all) could always hear her cries in those lower areas (much to the chagrin of the Dark One, who always made a point of sighing noisily whenever the sound carried). It could feel her too. The Castle was made up of secrets and lies and Dark Things, including the Dark One himself, and she was nothing like anything that lay even in the Castle’s deepest and most private corners. She was bright and shining with life, even if she spent much of that life either crying in her “room” or quietly, solemnly doing her work for the Dark One. Cleaning. Dusting. Whatever.
But even then, in those early days as the Castle adjusted to having a second, much less Dark presence within its walls, this woman - Belle, as it came to discover she was called - turned out to be something the Castle had not expected.
She was nice.
As sad and lonely as she must have been those first few weeks or months or however humans liked to measure their quaint little Time increments, Belle was certain to apologize to the seemingly empty air when she had to shift something to dust it or accidentally knocked things out of place. And she always thanked the empty rooms once she was done with them, which the Castle hadn’t expected. She seemed to be able to tell that the building’s old walls were not entirely lifeless. The Dark Castle had no true life of its own, not how people ordinarily understood that concept. But there was a degree of awareness and sentience it had, imbued as its stones were with the inherent kind of Darkness that animated it. It was the same kind of Darkness that lived in its master. The Dark One could sense that consciousness and hadn’t known how to get used to it at first, but as Time plowed relentlessly on, he grew to accept the Castle’s...being and even began to take it for granted.
Belle did not take the Castle for granted, a fact of which it was actually quite grateful. Even as the nights where she cried grew fewer and farther between, the Castle could still sense she did not really consider the place a home.
(It was used to that. Even its master did not consider the Castle his home, as long as he had lived there, because there was something missing in his heart that he refused to divulge to anyone.)
She did not see home in the Castle, but she certainly warmed up to the place in due time. And it warmed up to her in return. The doors no longer needed her to push gently to open them, and would merely swing wide open when they sensed her approach. She might set down an old broom for a minute only to turn around and find it gleaming and new. She might open a creaking old window that should by all rights be so rusty from dust and disuse that it would refuse to budge, only to have it slide effortlessly open at a touch.
(The Dark One would complain loudly and ineffectively at this, persisting that it couldn’t be a dark castle if it was all bright inside, but Belle continued to open the windows and open they always stayed.)
(It could hear him, muttering under his breath that the Castle was acting like it had two masters when it only had one, thank you very much, but the Castle would only ever creak its door hinges smugly in response.)
Belle eventually began to open the windows in the main halls as well. It was a noble endeavor, but she had trouble with the windows’ first and only line of defense: the curtains. The Dark One’s protests about his castle being too bright hadn’t been entirely unwarranted, after all. He really did prefer the Dark. He felt it suited him.
So he’d nailed the curtains shut the first chance he got and hadn’t touched them again. For centuries.
The ladder wobbled precariously as Belle yanked at the curtains to little effect, but the Castle held it steady. It had grown to enjoy her presence in its halls and would not want it to cease now over a silly little thing like an unstable ladder.
Then the Dark One grew so overwhelmingly curious that he stopped - actually stopped! - his spinning to investigate. As he grew closer, a strange sort of playfulness leapt up into the Castle.
And it thought, really, why not?
Belle gave one final, tremendous tug at those ghastly great curtains -
- the Castle loosened its hold on the ladder at precisely the right moment and -
- straight into the Dark One’s arms.
She landed with a satisfying decisiveness and for a long minute, they didn’t seem to be able to say much. The light was streaming through the finally open window, the world was quiet, and the two simply looked at each other.
Belle thanked the Castle’s master, just as she thanked everything she touched, and he set her down with an unfamiliar hesitancy, a great deal of stammering, and several great, wide-eyed blinks of total incomprehension.
The Castle felt it.
A little spot of brightness had burrowed into the Dark One’s shadowed heart, nestled itself into the deepest, most secret parts of himself.
And there it stayed.
Later, the Dark One and Belle retired to their separate chambers (hers were much nicer now; the Castle had apologized to her time spent in the dungeon by making her living space as cheery and bright as it could). The Dark One could not sleep, it seemed. He paced and brooded and spun but could not concentrate on it for longer than a few minutes before standing to brood and pace some more.
The Castle waggled the hinges of his chamber doors slyly.
“Shut up,” he snapped.
The walls might have trembled a bit in way of a pleased, rumbling laugh.