Actions

Work Header

A Bed of Thorns

Chapter Text

The people danced. With war on the horizon, blood red and ever-threatening, the people danced and they sang, they spun and they weaved, they baked and they ate. Men talked of war and kept their weapons sharp. Those without weapons sharpened tools or sticks. No-one spoke of surrender, for to surrender was to die a merciless death. Babies were born. Elders passed from the world. The whole of life was lived in defiance of the looming thunderheads of war.

People married.

Belle had witnessed many weddings, both the sober blessings and the merry feasts. It had been inevitable that her turn would come; a suitor would be found, a dowry promised and a date set for the celebrations. With the threat of war, her father spoke quietly of duty and of necessity. Belle's hand in marriage for an alliance that might shelter their people from the worst that was to come. Belle's dowry and inheritance in return for the loyal service of a proven knight.

No-one spoke of love, not Belle and not her father. Sir Gaston spoke of it but in his stilted recitations Belle found neither flattery nor affection. For the love of her father and for her people she would do her duty, of course, but as the red haze of the war crept closer to their borders she wondered if any of them would even live to taste another wedding cup. The thought that she might never make her union with Sir Gaston was not among those that caused her grief.

Instead she feared for the people and fiercely admired their spirit and courage. She feared for her father who had grown sick with the responsibility of protecting them all from a war that was not and had never been theirs, but threatened nonetheless to sweep away their small fastness as it had so many others.

Too often they buried fallen sons and daughters of the town. Too often there was little enough brought home to bury, and so the final words were said instead over keepsakes or last letters when the bones had been lost to the ogres. It was said that ogres liked to gnaw the bones.

Belle wondered about the ogres, unable to imagine them or to find anyone among the returning fighters who would tell her more than she knew. They were like the tide, people said. Like the storm that sinks the ship and like the winter that smothers the pasture. One boy, scarred from ear to shoulder and drunk on the charitably given remedies, used the phrase 'like pissing in the wind' when he spoke of battle and was pulled away by comrades, scolding him for using such coarse words to their princess.

In truth, Belle was no princess. But it delighted the people to imagine themselves important enough to have a royal family of their own, just as it excited them that she would soon marry into a family one step away from the throne of the whole kingdom. Princess or not, she was a gentlewoman, sheltered to a fault, and it took her some minutes of quiet reflection to work out what the scarred warrior had meant. That they might as well try to stem the returning tide with their bare hands, she decided; that they might as well plead with the white winter storms for mercy on the seed-crops as battle the ogres.

Her responsibility was to marry, to live in comfort far from the battle lines and to bear strong heirs. For the first time she was glad of it and then, lying in darkness with the shutters closed tight against the unholy red stain on the stars, she was ashamed to be so protected by her station. That man's scars, his rank and ragged despair—they could be her own but for the mere accident of birth.

Gaston never spoke of the war in her presence. He had distinguished himself, it was said; he was a swordsman with few equals and skilled on horseback. They spoke barely at all, in fact, but Belle watched him with the other men. She listened, often unseen from some corner where she sat pretending to be absorbed with a book or her needlework, the business of the moment too urgent for her father to remember to dismiss her before it was dealt with.

It seemed to Belle that her future husband was not a wise man. Not a clever man. He was proud and impatient. Handsome enough, but he never smiled and so his good looks were cold. Even her poor father could still make a moment for merriment as the bad news came and came, but Gaston stood aloof from the trials of others and fingered his sword hilt constantly, as though he could not wait to rejoin the battle and be done with talking.

One evening, less than a moon before she was to marry Gaston, Belle stitched a petal in her sampler and listened to the bad news and the strategy. Her father leaned heavily on the great table where a map was spread in place of their old feasts and games. Advisors came and went, the men waited and worried and always there was more bad news as the front lines grew nearer. If they lost the road to the sea then their army would be trapped with their backs to the cliffs and the ogres could pick off the survivors at their leisure.

"Ten thousand skilled fighters could not keep them back," her father said, a new stark truth that Belle had not heard uttered before. Everyone knew it, but no-one said it. It froze her hands with her needle through the linen. It froze the council of war in a shocked silence that such words came from Sir Maurice of all men. Gaston scowled at nothing in particular, or perhaps at everything, but did not go quite so far as to direct the look at Belle's father.

"Ogres have been beaten back before," he declared.

"In songs! In stories!" Sir Maurice threw his hands wide and addressed the assembly. "And there's always some magic, or a great hero with a holy sword. Even in the songs the victory does not come through force of arms!"

The silence had a song of its own. Belle heard it as a counterpoint to the frightened pounding of her own blood; the shuffle of a boot, a cough, a snort from Gaston and the rasp of his gauntlet over the hilt of his sword.

"Then we need to find a hero." Belle started in her seat as all eyes searched her out; she had not meant to speak the thought aloud. Why had she? She flushed under the stares of the men yet resented their irritation. She was ignorant of the arts of war but she was not ignorant, and her words had been a call to action in worthy opposition to her father's moment of naked despair. She lowered the sampler into her lap and sought for her father's face among the staring men. "Papa, if a hero with a holy sword or some magic are what's needed then we must find one."

"There are no heroes," Gaston said, flat disapproval in his tone. He had not noticed her presence until she spoke. "Only men who fight and die."

"You're wrong." Belle stood, slowly, feeling for the first time something cooler than indifference towards her betrothed. He spoke to her with such scorn, and why? For speaking her mind in a room full of men?. For saying what needed to be said? "There are dragonslayers, great warriors."

"Not within these borders, Belle." After his momentary shock at her interruption, her father spoke gently. "And even such a man cannot defeat the ogres. There are just too many of them and too few of us."

"Magic, then." Belle looked at no-one but her father. "Magic can do anything."

The serious men who had been scowling or tutting at her intrusion fell silent. She could feel their stares.

"A council of war is no place for a lady," Gaston announced. He strode to her side, took her arm and escorted her to the door. It was a courteous eviction, swift and final. Belle found herself outside in the passage with the memory of his short, courtly bow angering her more than the slamming of the great doors right in her face.

He was right; a council of war was no place for a lady if she wasn't allowed even to speak! Only concern for her father had drawn her there, but why should she not be allowed to know how the battles progressed? The ogres would not spare her for being a lady if they came beating down the doors. The ogres would not spare anyone. Did Gaston imagine that they would share his misplaced chivalry?

Sighing, Belle mounted the winding stairs to her rooms. In the midst of a war that had seen taxes paid in cloth for bandages rather than in silver, she still had women to sew her an exquisite silk-satin wedding dress. Used to her solitary pursuits, to books and quiet walks and the businesslike running of the household staff, Belle found herself suddenly at the centre of a riot of pre-nuptial activity. It all felt so removed from herself—the hoarding of silk and the exquisite lace-making, and so ridiculous when the battle lines were so close. And none of it was… Well, none of it was her.

The garment hanging for her inspection this evening was a nightgown, the very last of her trousseau to be finished. She had refused all silken finery for the occasion of her wedding night, demanding instead a simple gown of cool cotton in which she could be comfortable. She saw no reason to paint herself with falsehoods once alone with her new husband and suspected, with the clench of anxiety that came upon her whenever her mind turned to married life, that Gaston would have no interest in her attire when he came to her bed. He looked at her so intensely when he thought she couldn't see him—a brooding and strange look that he certainly never gave her when her father was present. No, Gaston would find his new wife in modest cotton, and she would be comfortable while she waited for him.

The needlewomen had been busy with their art even so, embroidering chains of pale daisies at the collar and hem. It was exquisite work of the sort that made their province and their town wealthy before the wars came. Wealth meant little with their walls crumbling under attack, but the needlewomen were proud of their craft. So was Belle, and she could make room for a little beauty and frivolity in her rooms if it meant that the women's spirits were lifted.

She knelt in front of the ornate chest that housed her trousseau. Another just like it sat in the castle's strongroom, the coin and silverware of her dowry guarded by the men too badly maimed to return to the front lines. The chest before her held all that she would need for the duties of a wife, each piece sewn with the elaborate care that befit her station, yet none of it to the satisfaction of her future mother-in-law. The very first pieces had been sewn by her own mother, often with Belle upon her knee, while she spoke of princes, of the great romances, and of magic and of happily-ever-after.

Mama had died before the wars ever threatened their borders; before too many of the young ones volunteered to fight and never came home and long before clean white cloth put one in mind of bandages and shrouds instead of finely sewn objects of beauty. Mama would have wept for the fallen and the wounded, Belle thought, holding a handkerchief and recalling how her mother would sing as she stitched.

"You will sew and you will dance, little one," she'd said, when Belle asked why the great locked chest was at the foot of her bed, the pretty contents forbidden to her. "You'll need these things when you catch a fine husband. You will rock your babes and love your husband, to be his comfort and his strength."

When Belle had spoken excitedly of the adventures from her story books, of the world beyond their province that she would one day see for herself, and of adventures real or imagined, her mother had only smiled.

Remembering her with the softened sorrow of many years gone, Belle supposed that the smile had been a sad one.

~+~

The night soon came when the ogres breached the outer walls.

Only an advance party, her father said, clutching Belle tightly by the hand as if afraid to lose her in the chaos of the following dawn. Only a dozen ogres. The town could repair and refortify before the main assault. There was a little time yet.

The market square had become a gathering place, a hospital, and a mortuary all at once. The healers worked on the living, the priests spoke words over the dead. Belle stood behind her father as he spoke to the people, his voice tight with grief but carrying clear across the square so that everyone there could hear him.

"It has been decided in Council," he told them, "to send for one who can help us. The price of his protection may be all that we can afford and more. I may need to ask much of you all."

"Who can help us?" It was Dimitri the Blacksmith who spoke up. He had lost his arm in the very first battle and spoke now for the townspeople, a man they trusted to seek the best for everyone and to remain calm enough to see clearly. Even he sounded shaken today, and he kept his two youngest children close to him in the jostling crowd.

"We have sent for Rumpelstiltskin," her father answered. The gasps seemed to draw all the air out of the place. Mothers gathered their children closer, aghast. Dimitri's jaw dropped. "It is said that he never breaks a deal," Sir Maurice called over the rising whispers. "If we deal fairly with him then we have nothing to fear from him."

Belle had heard the name, the stories. Everyone had. Rumpelstiltskin was the monster with which nurses cautioned wayward children, the sorcerer who carried off babes in the night and soured the very ground upon which he trod. Belle knew that she had been the one to urge them to seek magical aid, but that? Him? She caught Sir Gaston's eye and for once they were in silent accord. This was no promise of salvation that Maurice brought to his people but the last, faint hope in utter desperation.

As if emboldened by her understanding, Gaston stepped forward to her father's side and faced the crowd with his fist tight on the hilt of his sword.

"He may not answer our summons. He may not accept our offer of payment. We must still be ready to fight when the ogres come in numbers. They will come soon."

Fear of something more immediately terrifying than the legendary Dark One returned the crowd to grave silence. Belle saw her father's half glance of disapproval at her betrothed; they'd come to reassure the people, to offer them the hope of rescue. Belle understood that, even if she doubted the wisdom of summoning such a one to their aid.

"We will be ready to fight," her father said, managing to sound as if he thought his future son had spoken wisely and true when, in truth, Belle suspected that he wished to cuff the boy. "Today we must repair the outer walls. Leave the houses as they are. If your home has a roof, give shelter to those who have none. Sleep tonight in the castle if you've nowhere else to go. We need our outer walls."

The crowd dispersed and Belle, too afraid to be left with nothing to do and the opportunity to reflect, caught up the huddled maidservants with a gesture and led them towards the makeshift encampment of the wounded and the dying. She was no healer, no nurse, but Dimitri's wife squeezed her hand in welcome, then showed her how to wash the used bandages with lye soap and salt so that the dried blood would come clean. The drying strips of cloth fluttered in the breeze like faded banners.

For the first time, no-one came to pull Belle back to her gentle pursuits safe within the castle walls. Nothing was safe within those walls, for fire and falling masonry had reached even that far.

For that one day even the nobles of the Council helped to repair the fortifications. Even Sir Maurice laboured with his hands, smiling grimly as he mixed mortar and carried it uncomplaining to the masons on the scaffolds. Even Gaston, proud Sir Gaston whose home was far away and safe yet, carried stone and returned to the castle as darkness fell with blisters on his palms and his stern face smeared with dust.

It was the first time and the last time that Belle thought she might learn to love him.

Chapter Text

The walls held through the night.

Belle slept a little as the small hours crept towards dawn, her body tired and sore from unfamiliar labour and her heart sick with dread. Sleeping to the sounds of battle had become an everyday thing in recent months, but never so close before. Never so fraught with the possibility of defeat and death.

At dawn she found her father asleep in the great hall, slumped sideways in his chair of office with his sheathed sword across his knees. Other men sat and stared into empty space or rested with their eyes shut. The sense of exhaustion and despair pervaded even the crumbling walls. That alone brought tears to her eyes, although the tears were not for herself and, knowing them to be quite useless, Belle blinked them away before kissing her sleeping father's brow.

"Belle." She was sorry to have woken him. For a moment, as sleep fell away from him and he blinked at the new light, he looked like the man who had laughed every day and loved her mother. "Has he come?"

"No, Papa." She put her hand on his shoulder. "I sent the cooks to see to the men on the walls, Papa. If we want breakfast we'll all have to go to them."

"Good." Blinking sleep from his eyes, Sir Maurice patted her hand, then squeezed it. "You're a good girl, my Belle. I spoke with Gaston when he returned from the walls. If Rumpelstiltskin has not come by noon, if he refuses to help us, then Gaston will take you away from here. Before it's too late."

Shock mercifully stilled her tongue for several heartbeats—long enough to think before she spoke.

"No," she said, when time to think had reduced a petulant outburst to a simple, quavering statement of fact. "He isn't my husband yet. I won't go with him, I won't leave you."

"Belle!"

"Papa, if Sir Gaston wants to take me away before you are safe then he will have to drag me across his horse. This is my home, these are my people. If he wants to be one of us then let him fight with us. If he wants to go then he goes alone." From the corner of her eye, Belle caught the approving nods of the waking Councilmen. "And Rumpelstiltskin will come. I know it."

She regretted her defiance when she saw her father's pain. His fear for her safety was a burden that she could remove... but for how long? Ogres respected no border and if their homeland fell then there would be a new front line, and then another and still another until all the kingdoms fell. Nowhere was truly safe.

The men of the Council made their way to the walls, where the castle cooks and the townswomen were stirring great vats of grain porridge. There had been a time when they feared that siege and starvation would be the end of them so they had prepared well and had food enough for weeks more. Weeks that they did not have. Knowing this without being told, the castle's cooks had distributed honey, sugars, dried fruits and spices; the rich foods that Belle had known all her life now suddenly without station as everyone ladled their share from the same steaming cauldrons and sweetened it with whatever they pleased.

Children ran about in glee at this sweet bounty and, for just a few minutes under the gentle rising sun, their elders found the space in their hearts for a smile.

Once she had eaten—once she and her father and the Councilmen had allowed everyone to see them eat the hearty meal that not one of them could easily stomach—Belle helped to feed the wounded. She had no other duties, no skills that could be better used elsewhere, and was left to help the weakest and the slowest, until Gaston found her there under the canopies of the sick rooms and pulled her to her feet with a roughness that shocked those watching. It shocked Belle.

"I gave your father my word that you would be saved," he grated, civility barely a gloss over his rage. Belle had never see him less remote from her, nor more sincere in his sentiments. "Do you think me a coward looking to flee this fight? I gave him my word! We ride at noon."

"No." She shook her arm free of his grasp, rubbing at the pain. "My place is here."

"You are to be my wife."

"But today I'm only a daughter." Her pride took a softer edge than his and Belle could see their future written plain in his dark, hooded gaze. What battles they would have, her stubbornness against his pride, with the confines of the royal court trapping her from every side into a dutiful marriage. The prospect horrified her, suddenly and utterly. To leave Papa's side for that? To live out that life knowing that she was the only one spared, and for no better reason than that she was suitable to bear a Duke's grandsons? No. No, that wasn't how things ended. "Rumpelstiltskin will come," she said, almost through clenched teeth.

"We will not hold the lines for another night," Gaston hissed, with sense enough to lean down towards her ear so that only Belle and the dying could hear his words. "Tonight the town will fall. If he does not come—"

"He'll come. He must."

"Why must he? And even if he came, is it worth being indebted to the Dark One? Is anything worth that?"

Belle had no answer for him. She felt foolish and small under his accusing glare, with him standing so much taller than she did.

"They say that he always comes when he is called," she managed, remembering her old nurse Alys, a toothless and always-smiling old woman who knew everything and spoke little except to tell old riddles and stories. She'd spoken of Rumpelstiltskin; the laughing, ancient demon who could spin gold from straw and who fathered the nightmares of the blameless. They said that he was drawn to desperation like a wasp to jam. "So he will come."

It sounded foolish even to her own ears, such childlike trust in legends, but Belle saw the nods from the women nursing the wounded; smiles from the men on the bloodstained pallets. This was what it meant to lead a people—this. To have strength and hope as well as to be prepared for the very worst that might befall them. To stand beside them as the end came if it came to that. To ease a fear when there was nothing else left to do.

One day, Gaston would be the keeper of his father's vast estates, his power second only to that of King George himself, and Belle was supposed to love him and be his strength.

Watching him storm away from her with his back held rigid, Belle wondered just how strong she would need to be to manage that.

~+~

Noon came and went.

Half fearing that Gaston would indeed throw her across his horse and ride away with her against all protests, Belle went to her room and changed into her finest dress as the sun peaked in the sky.

Few men would dare force their way past an outraged lady-in-waiting to reach a lady's private chamber and, as if sensing her intentions or sharing her fears, the women of the castle gathered around her there on various pretences. They brushed and curled her hair, laced Belle into the fine bodice of her betrothal gown and changed her bedsheets. Her room was swept and dusted in a busy, determined and, above all, female silence. But Gaston never came for her; her father did not summon her nor send men to take her against her will, and no cry went up from the watchmen on the walls that their saviour might be approaching.

"My Lady." Her own maid, Lotte, approached with her mother's necklace in the palm of her hand. Belle had seldom worn it, for it was more precious to her than any mere decoration; she had treasured it instead among the few keepsakes she had of her mother, tucked in a silver box. But Lotte knew her better than anyone, and knew that she would want her mother's memory close to her heart now. "I thought..."

"Yes." Belle stole a glance towards the horizon. For a few hours in the middle of the day the red sky was less ominous, less obvious. The ogres came at night. "Thank you." She turned and lifted her hair so that Lotte could fasten the fine gold chain at her nape. "Has everyone visited their family today?" She looked from face to face, from woman to woman, and saw only nods. They would tell her if anything was needed. They always did, safe in the knowledge that the castle's master looked to the needs of those who served him. In these troubled times, they looked to the master's daughter instead, and knew that she spoke with his authority in all matters concerning the running of the castle.

"He still hasn't come, my Lady." Lotte's voice quavered. They were all afraid, every one of them, but Lotte could never hide her feelings. Sorrow or joy, she was always bursting. In fear, she was trembling and hush-voiced. "The Spinner."

"Why do they call him that, do you think?" Belle turned to her mirror and fingered the jewel at her throat. My tear of joy, her mother had called it. Belle's father had given it to her to mark the occasion of Belle's own birth, not knowing that there would be no sons to follow her. "Does he really spin straw into gold?"

"We shouldn't speak of him," the kitchen maid Aya clucked, glancing around as if she expected Rumpelstiltskin to appear in the very room with them. "It's folly to tempt him, so I was told. Better the ogres."

"No!" Belle turned on the woman, aghast. "Better that we face what is to come knowing that we did everything possible to save ourselves from our fate. If Rumpelstiltskin can—"

"Can what, child?" The voice, a man's voice in the place occupied so exclusively by the castle's womenfolk, brought gasps and yelps from them all as they looked for the intruder. Belle spun to face the speaker while Lotte clutched at her and trying to pull her away towards the door. Belle wrenched her arm free and faced the man.

He was in shadow before the window, his hands spread at his sides in a pacifying gesture.

"How did you get in here?" Belle demanded, her head racing to keep ahead of her heart which had risen in her breast, buoyed by fright and not a little anger.

"You called my name." His voice was strange and grating; mockery and a childish slyness that combined to chill the blood. "Thrice." He displayed three fingers with a dramatic flourish. "And here I am."

"Rumpelstiltskin?"

"There you go again. Don't wear it out." He approached with slow, exaggerated steps, his dark eyes scanning the faces of the women who'd crowded around their mistress. "The rest of you should probably run away," he suggested, shooing them with a delicate wave of one hand.

"M-my Lady," Lotte stammered, pulling again at Belle's arm.

"Yes, go. All of you, go, quickly," Belle said, her eyes never leaving Rumpelstiltskin. "Tell my father that he has come."

They ran, Lotte's quiet sob of misery reaching Belle's ears over the clatter of hobnails on the stairs.

Rumpelstiltskin bowed, a sweeping bow that combined the most courtly manners with the deepest mockery.

"My Lady."

"Sir." Belle's knees quivered as she made a slow curtsey. "Th-thank you for answering our plea."

"This?" He shook out a small scroll that had not been in his hand a moment before, letting it hang open so that she could see her father's writing and the seal of the Council. "No, dearie, I came because you called my name."

"But I..."

"Three times, you called my name. Don't deny it." He waggled a finger at her. His skin was so strange, dark and textured, almost reptilian, and so unlike that of a mortal man. Was it true, then, that he was a demon trapped in the mortal realms? She shivered, the horror of it crawling down her spine and raising the small hairs on her forearms.

"I don't..." She swallowed. He was watching her, waiting upon her answer with keen-eyed eagerness. His name? But... yes, hadn't she said his name to quiet Aya's foolishness? And to Gaston when he raged at her? And... oh, gods, yes, she had spoken the name three times today, each time willing the Spinner into their midst with all the desperation of her plight. Their plight. "I spoke of you," she admitted, choosing each word with urgent care. Still he watched her, poised and expectant, her father's message dangling from his outstretched hand. "I wanted to believe that you would come."

"And here I am." His smile was a terrible thing, his teeth crooked and stained while his eyes stayed as hard as flint. They were not the eyes of a man. She could feel his magic, the same way she could feel blazing sunlight upon her skin or a breeze tickling her hair. "At your service."

"T-thank you, then," she managed to say, her mouth growing more dry by the moment. "Thank you so much for coming, but my father is the one who—"

"Offers me gold." Rumpelstiltskin regarded the document in his hand with disdain, wrinkling his nose at it. "But, you see, I make gold," he reminded her with smug satisfaction.

"How?" It was an unthinking question, a reaction born of fright and of her own, old, dreadful habit of questioning when the time was wrong for questions.

"What?" Rumpelstiltskin forgot his arrogant stance for a moment and simply frowned at her, the hand holding the scroll dropping sightly. He looked as if she had suddenly sprouted horns, upset all his intentions with that single foolish—no, that rational, obvious—question. His composure returned quickly and with it his displeasure. "No, gold won't do at all." He circled her with those same deliberate, strutting steps. Belle closed her eyes while he was behind her, willing herself to be still. It felt as though he could see right through her skin to examine her very soul.

"But you can help us?"

"Yes, I can protect your little town." He leaned close to her ear, making her jump and gasp at how quickly he moved. Fast as a snake strike. "For a price."

There were already boots thundering on the stairs as Rumpelstiltskin completed his circuit and stood facing her once more. His sly smile had returned, all trace of his annoyance vanished.

Something—someone, she realised, hearing the cursing—crashed into her door and failed utterly to move it. Rumpelstiltskin's smile broadened and he let out a high-pitched giggle that was horrible, infantile, offensive.

"That'll be your handsome prince," he suggested. "Scream if you like, I won't be offended. He'll so enjoy rescuing you from the monster."

"Belle!" Her father's voice, ragged with fear, accompanied sudden, frantic pounding on her door. "Belle!"

"Shall I let him in?" Without waiting for her answer, Rumpelstiltskin waved his hand towards the door and men spilled into the room, swords drawn and faces flushed, panting. Gaston was among them, favouring his shoulder and wild-eyed with fury. He waved his sword towards them, staring from one to the other in incomprehension. Perhaps he had indeed expected to find her hysterical and helpless in the clutches of the intruder. Belle straightened herself a little more.

"Papa," she said, the rational, level voice coming again from the same place that had birthed her impertinent question about spinning gold. It stood remote from her terror, and apart from her near physical perception of the power that Rumpelstiltskin wore about him like a smothering cloak. "He has come to bargain, just as we asked."

Sir Maurice tore his gaze from her and fixed it on the smiling Rumpelstiltskin.

"My daughter—"

"Is my price," Rumpelstiltskin said, each word clear and clipped. Belle had never fainted, not once in her whole life, but she suddenly had an idea of how it would feel to do so. Her vision swam, her breath stuck in her chest. "Yes, yes, your daughter for my bride. That'll do nicely."

"No!" Belle's father was at her side in a moment and Gaston stood between her and the creature a heartbeat later, his sword wavering only slightly at Rumpelstiltskin's throat.

"The young lady is engaged," Gaston declared, coolly. "To me."

"Lucky her," the demon sneered, knocking the blade aside with the flat of his palm. "Well, I won't leave you empty handed. I'm sure her dowry will make you very happy." His eyes never left Belle's father. "You have great need of my protection. I have no need of gold. It's her or no deal."

"Get out," her father gasped, grey-faced, all reason fled in the face of his disgust. "Leave!"

"As you wish." Rumpelstiltskin sauntered towards the door, the armed men parting before him without so much as raising a blade. He tossed the scroll back over his shoulder as he reached the doorway.

"No, wait!" Belle ducked beneath the arm that Gaston put out to stop her, touched her father's arm in passing, and met Rumpelstiltskin as he turned back to face her. His thin smile was calm and carefree and a trace of mirth lingered about his strange, reptilian eyes. He and her father had both spoken about her as if she wasn't standing there between the two of them! If it was her hand in marriage that Rumpelstiltskin wanted then it was going to be her choice. "My hand for our protection?" she asked, holding his gaze and looking for any sign of deception. "In return for all that we have asked?"

His eyes narrowed. He studied hers in return, searching for she knew not what.

"Yes."

Belle believed him. Perhaps it was that he said the word so quietly, for her ears alone, when the rest had all been the exaggeration of theatre. Perhaps it was the way his eyes narrowed in puzzlement—almost as if he had never truly expected her to take the offer seriously. Belle believed him.

"Then I will marry him," she said, forcing her voice to carry so that everyone could hear it. That was important; these men must be witness to every word so that no-one could dispute the matter later. She had never pledged herself to Gaston; she had only ever acquiesced to the betrothal, silent, and played her part in the necessary politics of survival. Her word, her own free and public acceptance of an offer of marriage, was binding. Only Rumpelstiltskin could release her from it now. "I will marry Rumpelstiltskin in return for his help."

Rumpelstiltskin clapped his hands with glee as her father cried out in dismay and Gaston... Sir Gaston forbade her! In that moment each of the men appalled her; her father for finding limits to the extent of his duty, Gaston for commanding her when she was not his to command, and Rumpelstiltskin for laughing like a child who'd snatched up a new toy.

"No-one decides my fate but me," she told them. Hadn't she been bartered to Gaston's family in return for help in protecting their corner of the kingdom? Wasn't this just the same? Wasn't this hers to give, not theirs? "It's a fair price and I will pay it gladly if he helps us defeat the ogres."

"It's forever, dearie," Rumpelstiltskin warned, his face close to her face and something new—curiosity, Belle thought—replacing the smug pleasure at the scene he had caused. "This of all contracts cannot be broken." For a moment, Belle thought that he was tempting her — no, that he was encouraging her to reconsider.

"My family, my friends. They will all live?"

"You have my word."

Yes, she believed him.

The world turned on that moment and Belle's fear became remote. She could see the truth of his words, and how his cruel amusement had softened to a kind of grudging fascination with her defiant decision. It couldn't possibly matter to Rumpelstiltskin whether her people lived or died. It could hardly matter to him whether Belle accepted or refused him, but he would save them if she would meet his price.

The fate of her people, perhaps of all the kingdoms, hung upon her word.

"Then you have mine. I will be your wife."

"Deal!" Rumpelstiltskin clapped his hands together and bounced on his heels. His glee changed the texture of the magic that filled the room; now it sang, glinted and cut instead of smothering. Belle could breathe again and everything became sharp.

"No, Belle, you cannot do this," her father called, but he sounded broken. He had taught her about duty, and he'd taught her well. What he would not ask of her for all the world he could not stop her giving freely. He would not. Not if the grief and the shame of this killed him by lingering inches. "Belle, please! You cannot give yourself to this..." his eyes found Rumpelstiltskin and his mouth twisted in disgust. "This beast."

The Dark One gasped, feigning dismay at the insult.

Belle went and touched her father's chest, looking up at his stricken expression.

"Papa," she said, sadly. "This is not so high a price." One woman for a whole people. It could have been a newborn babe, she knew. The Spinner could have demanded anything, anyone else, and they would not have paid his price—they would have stood their ground and been slaughtered. She glimpsed the look of hurt incomprehension on Gaston's face, then, and spoke to both of them. "Gaston. It's been decided."

"You know, she's right. The deal is struck." Belle shivered and swallowed hard as Rumpelstiltskin's hand caught her waist, his breath tickling her curls. She hadn't heard him move. His touch was as gentle as could be, but his voice dripped with spite. "Oh, congratulations on your little war," he beamed at them all. "I do hope we're going to have a big party!"

Chapter Text

No holy man could be found who would bless the marriage vows. That caused a ripple of panic amongst the important men of the Council, but Belle merely shrugged to herself and kept silent while the debate went on around her. The cleric, the prayers, the exchange of rings and even the vows themselves were merely tradition. The law was clear; her promise had already been given. If Rumpelstiltskin made his promise before witnesses then it was done. A marriage, never to be broken. Even her father's blessing was a formality now.

Sir Maurice kept glancing at her without quite ever meeting her eyes. One moment she would see anger in his face and the next pain, grief, then shame and a terror to great to be spoken of. Belle grieved for him more than for herself, and when her courage wavered she set her mind to thinking about what her marriage to Sir Gaston would have brought her instead; a future that frightened her almost as much as the one she had brought upon herself now.

Almost as much.

She became impatient when the debate rolled on and on, going nowhere. As if she would break her word whatever they decided. As if she would break her word while Rumpelstiltskin was out on their city walls, a lone silhouette in the moonlight, keeping his.

The sun had already set and the ogres had never come.

No-one objected when she left the chamber. No-one stopped her on her way to the castle's outer doors. No-one spoke to her, but Belle heard the shocked whispers once people thought her beyond their hearing. Still dressed in her golden gown that left her shoulders bare, she felt the stares and hurried on out into the darkness. Ahead of her was the makeshift hospital of cloth canopies, the healers still busy among the crowded pallets. She tried to tell herself that there was the reason that no-one celebrated tonight; too many wounded and too many dead. She didn't manage to make herself believe it.

Hearing her name called back inside the castle, Belle lifted her skirts and almost ran across the cobbles to hide herself deeper in the growing darkness. She sought out her new betrothed and found him standing perfectly still atop the northern watchtower, one hand resting on the wall, staring out into the darkness.

If Rumpelstiltskin noticed her standing below then he gave no sign of it. Belle could not guess what he was doing on their behalf, for he stood quite still upon the northern watchtower, one hand resting on the battlements. In her fear she had expected screams and acrid smoke, the stench of terrible death; she might even have pitied the ogres for what she had brought upon them. Instead there was a silence, a long and heavy silence that had spread out from their battered walls since dusk, obliterating the low and ever-present sounds of the encampments. The deep red glow in the sky that had fed her nightmares these past weeks had quite gone.

Belle breathed a soft sigh of relief, only to suck in a breath and tense herself again when Lotte called her name from the castle doors. She tried to pull herself deeper into the shadow of the crumbling wall, upset to realise that she did not want to speak to Lotte or to anyone lest their horror of what she had done infect her.

"She can't see you, dearie." Rumpelstiltskin's voice drifted down to her, warped strangely by the sucking silence that he had wrought beyond the walls. "Come on up and see what you've bought."

He did not command her and neither was it a suggestion. Somehow, Belle understood that he spoke with the calm certainty that she would wish to do just as he said. And he was right. Whatever lay ahead of her as the demon's bride, whatever kind of a fearful future she had plunged herself into, wouldn't it all seem better if she could just know that it had all been worth it?

Slowly, glancing back to where Lotte stood hugging herself in the pool of torchlight just outside the castle, Belle made her way to the steps of the watch tower. Half the steps had fallen away in the final attack and so her soft shoes slipped on the gravel that littered the remaining stairs, forcing her to reach for the rope that had been slung to aid the now-perilous climb. At the top, where the step was barely the width of her slippered foot let alone a man's boot, Rumpelstiltskin's outstretched hand awaited her. Taking it, chilled by the thought of touching his skin, Belle allowed him to help her up to the safety of the parapet.

"We can't have you falling to your death, my Lady," he said, singsong and soft, releasing her the moment her feet were upon reliable stone. Belle found herself staring at her own hand, so startled had she been to find his skin warm to the touch. "Come, now. See the fruits of your bargain."

She was truly afraid to look in the direction of his outstretched arm and, for a few heartbeats, she understood Lotte's persistent sobbing. This man, this dark creature, was capable of doing anything. Everything. Her mind supplied too many guesses as to what the specific something might be in this case, and since the reality could surely be no worse than the carnage of her imagination, Belle looked.

Where for months there had been the churned mud and ruin of troop encampments she now saw only fields. Empty, without crops or livestock or the barns and buildings that had once spread gently away from the walls of her home town to the river mouth and beyond, but at peace. Healed.

She gasped, hand at her throat, and fingered her mother's necklace while she stared at what Rumpelstiltskin had done.

"Pleased?" He was suddenly close to her, his face beside her own, his word delivered with a gust of warm breath against her ear. Belle's startled intake of breath earned a sound from him, not quite a giggle, not quite a whine, and clearly one of delight at provoking a reaction.

"Th—the men?" she managed, her voice only slightly higher than usual.

"Out of harm's way."

"The ogres?"

"Removed."

"What have you… I mean, what will stop them coming back?"

"Long experience with me," he answered with a snarl. Even as Belle tensed with fright at having angered him, Rumpelstiltskin became quiet again. He leaned so close that his lips almost touched her ear as. "I've discovered that even ogres are capable of learning. Eventually." Quiet, yes, but the way he spoke was anything but pleasant. Belle shuddered, forcing herself by sheer effort of will not to hug herself and curl inward.

"Thank you." She rested her hands on the rough stone and breathed in the crisp night air. "For mending the land. It's so much more than we asked for."

Suddenly he was gone from her side, back in the far corner of the lookout with his back towards her and his shoulders hunched.

"Consider it my wedding gift to you."

"Thank you." She didn't know what else to say to him. His price for this was a steep one for Belle to pay, yet nothing compared to the sacrifices of the wounded and the fallen. If he was going to be fair—even generous—in his dealings with her then she would do as much in return. Nervously, she tried to offer him a smile, but his back was still turned.

She stayed there a while, not because she needed his leave to go nor because she feared the dangerous descent by the broken steps but because she found that she preferred his quiet strangeness to the sense of bitter mourning at the castle. Rumpelstiltskin appeared to forget about her and stared out at the fields, his forefingers tapping a rapid rhythm on the parapet.

After a while, sound returned to the wider world, easing a hitherto unrecognised pressure in Belle's head. It felt as though a bubble had burst between her ears, uncomfortable, but it returned to her the awareness of the gusting wind, of the cries of the night creatures, of the distant thunder of the sea. So softly that she might have missed it had she not been revelling in the return of every sound, she heard the slow and controlled exhalation of the man who stood there with her, as though some great effort had just ceased.

"You should go," he said, eventually. Belle had been watching shadows far off; she thought she could make out figures trudging towards the town from every direction. Survivors, returning, no doubt bewildered by the changing landscape and the end of battle. By finding that they were alive when they had expected to be dead. "There's a wedding to prepare for." The singsong voice had returned and with it the hint of a sneer. "And then we've a long journey ahead."

~+~

By morning, Belle's maid and lifelong companion was a lost cause. Hysterical with grief for her mistress and pleading nonsense about her running away to hide in the forest, Lotte wept a huge dark tear-stain on Belle's shoulder before the healer found the time to come and dose her with enough poppy to put her to sleep. She would miss the wedding day, leaving Belle to fend for herself with her toilet and dressing, but everyone agreed that it was for the best. Belle wanted to be brave, but every one of Lotte's hearty sobs had brought her nearer to hysteria of her own.

Afraid to be alone yet unwilling to put Lotte's duties onto any of the castle's other servants, Belle sent a message pleading for Elena, the wife of Dimitri the blacksmith, to come to the castle and help her prepare for the ceremony.

"He didn't leave the walls all night," Elena told her, neatly if inexpertly pinning up Belle's hair into a high, braided style that would support the simple silver tiara. "Everyone saw him there. Pacing back and forth he was. Never slept a wink, never spoke a word. They say your father sent out food and wine and he never touched any of it. But the soldiers are all coming home. What was he doing?"

"All that we asked," Belle answered, picturing Rumpelstiltskin there watching while the confused soldiers straggled back in search of orders. "And more."

"We want no more from that one, my Lady," Elena said, quietly. "Our debt is to you now. You've saved us, and all here know it."

Elena was a sensible woman with a kind heart and a cool head to match her husband's. She shed no tears as she laced Belle into the white gown that had been made with such care for her wedding to Gaston.

It was tight in the bodice but it flattered her to be laced so firmly. The seamstresses had persuaded her to let them emphasise her shape, particularly the swell of her small breasts above the panel of finest white lace work. The skirt was too heavy, too ornate and too stiffened with reed to allow her any comfort, but Belle nodded when Elena turned her to the mirror to see her reflection. Uncomfortable or not, heavy or not, absurd or not, the dress made her look for all the world a bride.

Rumpelstiltskin's bride. Belle stared at herself, hardly comprehending what she saw there. It felt as though she might wake up at any moment and find that this had just been another disturbed dream; that the ogres were battering at the gates after all.

"I tied the lover's knot, Princess," Elena said, plucking at the lacing of her dress and causing Belle to try and look over her own shoulder, which in turn made them both giggle. It was a welcome moment of relief from the joyless mood of the occasion, and Belle squeezed the woman's hand, grateful.

"I'm no Princess, Mistress Elena," she said, gently. The older woman had not called her that, in earnest or in jest, since Belle's first womanhood. She had been at Elena's house that day and remembered the motherly warmth when she went into the kitchen and drew Elena down so that she could whisper in her ear that her blood had come. "I still don't feel like a woman," she admitted, small voiced.

"No lover either," Elena answered, and then contrived to have several copper hairpins clamped between her pursed lips for some time while she tidied the looser tresses around the nape of Belle's neck. Was she worried that she had teased a little too far?

"Why the lover's knot, then?" Belle asked, just grateful to be having a conversation to keep herself from dwelling on her fears. She awaited an answer until Elena gave in and removed the pins from her mouth.

"Well, it's traditional, that's why," she said, smoothing the skirts over Belle's hips before meeting her gaze in the looking glass. She looked doubtful for a moment, then pushed on with a breezy determination. "And it slows a bridegroom down, if you see what I mean. Gives you a bit more time to get to know him first."

"Oh..." Belle thought of the hand that had grasped hers with such strength, helping her to manage the treacherous steps. She thought of it pulling tonight at a cunning knot of corded satin, tied with mischief and tradition in mind, and of what would surely be on his mind, and her knees went weak. Elena caught her bare shoulders and landed her neatly on the dressing stool with no harm done.

"There now," she said, stroking Belle's cheek and drawing back the soft ringlets that framed her face. "Whatever they say about him he walks like a man, so I say he's mostly a man in the ways that matter. Men aren't difficult, Princess. Don't you fret, now, and I'll tell you what you need to know, if you want to know it."

Belle looked at her hands. She knew a little of what to expect on her wedding night, but was Rumpelstiltskin even a man? Suppose that Elena was wrong about that? His skin was all pebbled, coarse, and seemed to change colour or sparkle with the shifting light, and his eyes… And she was going to have to let him touch her as no-one else ever had or ever would. She shut her eyes, tight.

"How often do men want to... you know?"

"All the time, near as I can tell," Elena scoffed, but not without a twinkle in her eye. "How often you let them and how often they can manage it, that's another story. Like I said, men aren't difficult. Talk to him while he's all tangled up in knots, you'll see." She plucked again at the fastenings. "And if he treats you wrong, you tell that knight of yours, Sir Gaston. He's fit to kill him as it is."

Belle put her hand to her mouth, eyes opening wide again. She'd forgotten about Gaston in the hurry of the preparations.

"Where is he?"

"He rode in just as I got here. He'd been out with your father and the rest, inspecting the land. The soil is good."

Belle nodded. His wedding gift, Rumpelstiltskin had said. Land that could be worked as soon as spring came—that was a gift indeed. Had it been a kindness?

"Is, I mean was Dimitri kind to you, Elena? The first time?"

"Always." Elena squeezed her shoulders and held her gaze in the mirror. "But I wanted him from the minute I set eyes on him, and that's different. Things go easier then. You'll have to learn, and if he's a fool you'll have to teach him next."

Belle nodded, grateful for the advice even if she wasn't sure it would be wise to follow it. Rumpelstiltskin might or might not be a man but she was certain that he was no fool, just as she was certain that Gaston's sword would be no match for his magic if he came charging to her rescue.

"I've put everything I'm taking into the chest," she said, commanding her body to let her rise and walk steadily to her bed, where her mother's necklace lay upon the pillow. "Everything I'll need to be a wife." Her hands shook but she fastened the chain herself, biting her bottom lip.

"We'll miss you, child," Elena said, her voice gone hoarse. "And we'll not forget what you've done today, I swear to you. No man riding into battle ever did more for his people than you do today. You remember it, come what may."

Belle nodded, unable to look at her in case she saw tears. She'd shed no tears of her own, even when Lotte fell to pieces, but now that the wedding was upon her she knew she couldn't bear the tears of others and still manage to choke down her terror.

"Time to be a bride, then," she said, firmly, and heard herself as if from a distance. "Will you tell my father that I'm ready?"

Her father met her at the foot of the stairs, his face ashen and his smile a ghost. She gripped his hand tightly.

"The mended land was his wedding gift to me, Papa," she told him, her voice low so that the townspeople who lined the long corridor in gloomy silence couldn't hear her. "He didn't have to do that."

"He didn't have to do any of this," was her father's curt reply. His anger cut her as deeply as had his pain. "It's to be the old ceremony. I give him your hand and he accepts you. The priests wouldn't come, the cowards." He sounded angry at them as well. At everything. His hand shook as much as hers as the beaten and soot-stained doors were opened, and the Councilmen rose from their seats to stand around in an awkward semi-circle.

Rumpelstiltskin stood before them, his smile lazy and wicked. He had added a long cloak of brocade and fur to his attire of leather and silk.

"I was starting to think you'd run away," he said, winking at Belle so suggestively that her father put an arm around her and drew her close.

"I gave you my word," Belle said, the strength crushed out of her voice between her father's hold on her and her rigid gown. "And here I am."

"Dark One. My Lord." Arnos the Councilman removed his velvet cap and approached Rumpelstiltskin with his head bowed. "We beg you for mercy."

"Mercy?" Rumpelstiltskin pulled an expression of exaggerated bewilderment. He flung his arms wide. "Come now—this is a wedding not an execution!"

"For my daughter," her father grated, clutching her so tightly to his side that Belle struggled to keep her feet. "You've no more need of her than of the gold we offered. I beg you to take the gold instead."

With slow, menacing steps, Rumpelstiltskin approached and faced Belle's father, who pushed her gently away to arm's length and stood his ground. Anger burned in the inhuman eyes but, more than that, it flowed around Belle and around her father like something she might reach out and touch. It turned Belle's skin to goose bumps.

"My needs are none of your concern," he said, low and deadly, his eyes narrowed. "And my contract is with your daughter, not with you." He turned, his heel grinding in the fallen plaster dust that littered the floor. "What about you, do you plead for mercy?"

Belle looked at the floor. His anger was so cold.

"No. But please don't be angry with them for doing so."

"Very well, then. Sir Maurice, your daughter's hand if you please. I see that you've dispensed with droning priests and silly incense. Very wise." Again there was laughter in his words as he looked around the room in mock-consternation. "I take it that there isn't going to be a party?"

From the corner of her eye, not daring to turn and look, Belle saw her father battle with himself and clench a fist. She'd seen him strike another man only twice, but...

"Papa," she said, trying to sound calm but her voice wavering like a child's. She offered him her hand. "Please."

Sir Maurice swallowed, his expression sickly, and nodded.

It took but a moment, but it was witnessed and that was what mattered to the law. Belle's father kissed her knuckles, his grip almost crushing her fingers, and guided her hand towards Rumpelstiltskin's waiting one. The creature's skin seemed to glitter in the filtered sunbeams.

"My daughter's hand in marriage," Sir Maurice said, tonelessly, as though he spoke the words without any kind of recognition.

"I take her as my wife," Rumpelstiltskin answered brightly, and then Belle's small hand was clasped lightly between both his palms. His skin was dry and warm. "What is it they say? Until death?" He bared his crooked teeth at them all in a grin. "That could be a bit tricky on my end, but I'll certainly make the most her for as long as she lasts."

Belle heard her father's moan of grief. Down a narrowing tunnel of vision she saw Arnos take him by the arm to steady him.

Trembling from head to foot, concentrating on each step she took, Belle avoided every gaze and let Rumpelstiltskin guide her with his hand at her waist, the lightest of touches. They walked past the silent rows of townspeople and past Sir Gaston, whose hand remained on the hilt of his sword. The only sounds were made by their shoes on the flagstones, by those of the men silently following them, and by the whisper of the hem of Belle's wedding dress where it dragged the ground behind her.

A town stood silent.

A bride was helped into her carriage.

Her husband joined her there.

She had a long journey ahead.

Chapter Text

They travelled all day without stopping.

Belle was hungry and so deeply weary that she could barely keep her eyes open, even though she was too afraid to close them while confined with Rumpelstiltskin. He sat beside her, quite still except that his hands were always in restless motion. Fascinated by the compulsive movement and too afraid to look at his face, she watched the way he rubbed his fingertips together, flexed and wiggled his fingers, cracked his knuckles, drummed a soundless rhythm upon his knees and, every so often, clasped both hands tightly together in an effort to keep them still. It never lasted for very long.

She awoke before she knew that she had been succumbing to sleep. Her head rested against the panelling, her neck at an awkward angle that left her with a stab of pain as she self-consciously returned to sitting bolt upright. She bit her lip and wondered whether to apologise to Rumpelstiltskin, but courage failed her. He made no comment.

It was a comfortable carriage, not particularly large but richly upholstered and cushioned. While she'd been dozing a tiny lantern had been lit and swung gently above them, filling the corners of the cramped space with shadows that danced with the motion of the wheels. It was a smoother ride than Belle had ever known and so quiet, so much so that she supposed it to be Rumpelstiltskin's magic at work, but the hours of sitting had made her wedding dress no more forgiving. She felt light-headed, wretchedly uncomfortable in the gown, and a call of nature was becoming too urgent to ignore for much longer.

For the first time, Belle turned herself so that she could look directly at her new husband. His elbow was propped in the small window, his temple resting upon his fist while he tapped his knee with one forefinger, over and over. He did not seem so terrible, seated and quiet.

"Sir?"

Rumpelstiltskin seemed startled, straightening himself quickly. Were it anyone else, Belle might have thought that she had alarmed him.

"Yes?"

"Will we be stopping soon? I need to stretch my legs."

"Very soon, yes."

Unable to fathom his expression, but reasonably certain that it was an unhappy one, Belle lowered her gaze to watch his hands again. He had produced a length of thick golden thread and had it wrapped around his fingers, woven into a cradle.

"They say that you turn straw into gold," she said, fearing the silence more than she feared to speak to him. The sooner she knew his intentions the sooner she could face up to her future as his bride. Silence had only allowed her room to imagine the worst. "Is that true?"

"Yes." He draw the length of thread between his left finger and thumb, smoothing it out, then crumpled it into a ball in his closed fist. When he opened his hand again, four tiny coins lay in his palm where the thread had been. At Belle's exclamation of delight, Rumpelstiltskin closed his fist again abruptly and dropped the coins into a leather purse at his belt. "An amusement," he said. Belle stole another quick glance at his face. He turned his head away quickly. "Nothing more."

Presently the carriage slowed and stopped on what felt like cobbles. A blaze of torchlight blinded Belle when she pulled aside the little curtain to peek out.

"Our lodgings," said Rumpelstiltskin, brightly. He stepped delicately over her mass of skirts and opened the door on her side, jumping down to land with barely a sound on the wet cobblestones. He offered his hand to help her step down and Belle hoped that he didn't notice how her own hand trembled, clammy and weak with fright in his strong, warm grip.

A fine drizzle met her bare face and shoulders, enough to blind her with droplets and make the bright torchlight even more dazzling. Instantly chilled and envying Rumpelstiltskin his thick cloak, Belle blinked the rain from her eyes. She could not make out what sort of a place they were in, but there were lit windows and the prospect of warmth just ahead of her across a cobbled yard.

Rumpelstiltskin took her by the arm, leading her towards the building. Before they were halfway across the yard a pair of sturdy double doors flew open and she realised that they were at a tavern; a coaching inn, to judge by the smell of stables nearby and the size of the buildings. A nervous bald man stood in the doorway, bobbing urgent half-bows to Rumpelstiltskin and trying extremely hard not to show any curiosity about Belle.

"My Lord." The man bowed lower. "A foul night. Welcome, welcome. And, uh, your lady."

Ignoring him, Rumpelstiltskin led Belle inside. The room was warmly lit and boasted an enormous fireplace. Every table was crowded with people dining or drinking amidst cheerful conversation. But silence spread outward from where Belle stood when they were noticed. Few dared to stare or even to look their way, but enough that Belle wondered how she must look; dismayed, damp and dishevelled in bridal white upon the arm of the Dark One—the most feared, the most powerful man in all the world.

"Show the lady to my chamber," Rumpelstiltskin commanded, depositing the four golden coins in the palm of the bobbing man without looking at him. "See that she has a meal, the very best, and that she is not disturbed by..." he looked around the silent room, causing heads to turn quickly away, "...revelry." He looked at her expectantly and Belle realised that, in the shock of the new and in her daze of weariness, she had been clutching his arm for support.

"Th—thank you," she managed, praying that her knees wouldn't turn to water the moment she let go. They didn't. She followed an older woman's beckoning gesture towards the back of the room. The silence and the stares battered at her as she passed and she was grateful for the quiet, cold passage beyond, and for the solid oak bannister to lean on while she climbed the stairs.

"Oh, my dear," the woman breathed, unlocking a door at the head of the second flight of stairs. "Oh, my dear." Her expression reminded Belle of the way Lotte had looked at her and of her father; that incomprehension, that pity and that horror. She felt the tears begin to prickle her eyes and her throat closing up for a sob.

"Thank you," she said, steadying her voice with the last of her strength. Then she pushed past the woman into the room and hastily shut the door, putting her back to it and clasping both hands over her mouth in case the sob got away from her. If she let herself start crying now then she was horribly afraid that she was never going to be able to stop.

She leaned against the wood, noting the details of the room in an effort to calm herself. It was a small room, a bedroom, but one furnished with good polished oak and expensive fabrics—not at all what she would have expected from a wayside inn. Candles were lit on every flat surface, many of them sheltering in faceted lanterns of coloured glass. A well-tended log fire burned low in a wide hearth, filling the room with a comforting orange glow. A round wooden bath tub steamed full of water before the fire, squashed into the space in front of two deep winged chairs and a small table. The table was piled with folded towels, each of their corners embroidered with a single black "R".

At the foot of a huge four-poster bed, Belle's trunk stood as though it had always belonged there.

She stayed where she was, hands pressed over her mouth until the threat of tears stopped trying to choke her and she began to breathe normally again. When the bald innkeeper knocked at the door to bring her the food, Belle was able to admit him with a wordless nod and thank him, quietly but in a steady voice, when he left again.

Well, there was a chamber pot peeking out from underneath the draperies of the bed. That met her most pressing need. The readiness of the room and the presence of her trunk suggested that Rumpelstiltskin's magic was at work here too, but only in the pursuit of their comfort. That was nothing to be frightened of at all... except that this was her wedding night and that, very soon, Rumpelstiltskin would come upstairs to join his new bride.

The bath water was not just warm, as she was used to, but hot to the touch when she trailed her hand in the tub. The meal he had sent up to her was simple but delicious and Belle ate as much as she could given her state of alarm. After a while, and with the aid of a cup of the sweet mead that accompanied the meat and potatoes, she felt a little more like herself.

She would have liked to bathe, and to change into her nightgown at least so that she could wait in comfort, but a moment or two of wriggling and twisting told her that there was no releasing herself from her own wedding dress, with or without Elena's traditional knots. Determined to make at least a little effort towards cleanliness after such a long journey, not to mention desperate to distract herself from thinking, Belle found a small cloth in her trunk and dipped it in the bath water to wash her face, hands and feet. It left her feeling a little more alert and certain of herself.

Next she laid out her nightgown at the foot of the bed, very carefully smoothing the fold lines with the warmth of her palm. Would he expect her to be waiting for him in the bed? That had been how it went whenever her imagination had run ahead to thoughts of her wedding night. She, bathed and fresh in her cotton gown and blushing from the teasing of her maids, waiting for Gaston to leave the festivities and join her there.

And what then?

Belle hugged herself, wishing for all the world that she could climb into the bed and go to sleep, but it would be a foolish thing to do while she was trapped in her own finery. If she could not manage to keep her dignity about her tonight then she would surely be lost.

The hem of her dress was muddied and wrinkled. She didn't know why that saddened her so.

She had become aware, slowly and gradually, of a rising noise from below. The sounds of the inn, she supposed, resuming after Rumpelstiltskin's appearance. She could hear coaches arriving or leaving and other guests tramping up and down the stairs, in and out of their rooms. Belle was grateful for all of it, the distraction of it, for it kept her from dwelling on the dreadful unknown while she sat on the bed, bare feet dangling, to wait for her husband.

A knock startled her out of the blank daydream and she jumped up, her nervous dread returning all at once.

"Come in," she called, her voice barely more than a squeak.

Rumpelstiltskin opened the door, admitting more of the noises that had kept her company since her meal. The chatter from below had become louder still, no doubt encouraged by his absence.

"I don't think they were enjoying my company," he said, feigning hurt surprise. The large iron key with which the woman had unlocked the door earlier now hung from his crooked index finger. He seemed taken aback by the sight of her. Belle could only imagine how she must look, for there was no mirror in the room. Even the glass in the windows refused to give a recognisable reflection against the night sky. "You disliked the bath?" he queried, and she could have sworn that he sounded uncertain of himself.

He closed the door and turned the key in the lock. The sound made Belle's insides lurch with renewed fright.

"It... the gown. It wasn't made for me to unfasten myself," she explained, gesturing as best she could behind her.

"Ah." Pocketing the key, Rumpelstiltskin watched her for a moment. Perhaps he never had to think of such trifles as clothing, Belle thought, desperate be thinking about anything other than what happened on a wedding night. "Then turn around, my Lady."

Hesitant, not quite willing to turn her back to him, Belle did as he asked. His closeness at her back shortened her breath and caused her to break out in prickly perspiration all over, then she stopped breathing altogether when he plucked cautiously at the fastenings behind her. After a moment he gave a more forceful tug and a noise of irritation.

"I'm sorry," Belle said, quickly. "The knot, it's our custom."

"A tangle is what it is," he replied, but lightly. "Ah, yes." Something loosened noticeably and Belle could breathe more easily. Slowly, his knuckles brushing against her back through the silk of her chemise, Rumpelstiltskin freed the laces until Belle was holding her bodice in place with both hands instead of fighting it for every breath. He briefly dangled the long white cord over her shoulder to demonstrate his victory over the lover's knot. "My Lady, you appear to be free."

"Thank you." Her gratitude was perfectly sincere; the stiff bodice had been crushing her. She felt stronger the moment that she was able properly to fill her lungs with air, the huge relief of it almost passing for joy on such a joyless day as this. But Rumpelstiltskin was still there behind her with his hands resting on the wide swell of her skirts.

"Tell me," he said, leaning nearer, his voice very light and quiet. "Are you a maiden? The truth, now, dearie. These things matter."

"I am," she declared. Behind her, Belle heard a sigh as his hands fell away. Yes, she was a maiden! As confused and as frightened as any other, no doubt, but what husband sighed about that? Wasn't that what he expected of her?!

"A pity," he said. A half glance told Belle that he was by the window, lifting the curtain aside to watch the rain.

"I don't understand," she said, too indignant to leave that unchallenged. If her virginity was supposed to be something so precious then shouldn't he be glad that it was intact? "Shouldn't I be a maiden?"

"A pity for you, child." He sounded as weary as Belle felt, almost glum, and the moment of fellow feeling softened both her fright and her outrage. "Make yourself comfortable. Bathe if you wish. I shan't peek." The playful singsong crept back as he spoke, but it lacked the spite she'd heard there back at home. He stayed at the window, one hand behind his back while the other held the curtain open a crack.

Belle unfastened her skirt and stepped out of it, shivering immediately as cooler air touched her skin through her underthings. The room was not uncomfortably cold but the bath seemed less appealing for her shivers, and she couldn't even think of bathing while he stood there! She twisted and wriggled quickly out of the rest of her things and pulled the nightgown over her head. It felt new and strange, too crisp, but so much nicer than the dress she'd worn all day. Alone, she would have laughed with relief and flopped back onto the mattress to enjoy the moment. Aware of Rumpelstiltskin by the window, she quietly laid her wedding dress across the trunk and began to unpin her hair.

Good as his word, Rumpelstiltskin didn't peek.

"You can look," she said after a while. It seemed an age before he turned to face her and even then his attention was elsewhere. On her discarded dress; the silver tiara in her hands; the untouched bath and the half eaten meal. His hands tangled themselves in writhing, living knots before him, playing cat's cradle with her laces as he had with the golden thread in the coach. So full of words yesterday and so smug with himself then, Rumpelstiltskin seemed to have been struck dumb now. Elena's advice came back to Belle as she put the hairpins into her mouth one by one to keep from losing them. Talk to him while he's tangled up in knots, you'll see. Slowly, Belle took the pins from her mouth and placed them in her lap with the tiara instead. "Is this where you live?"

His eyes widened with surprise but betrayed no displeasure.

"No. We've another day's journey to my estate." He took two steps towards her and stopped, his own words seeming to surprise him as much as hers had. He nodded as he spoke, hands fluttering meaninglessly in the air. "Your duties will be light. You will live in comfort and be well protected." Belle detected something hopeful in his words. Something sad.

"I will try to be a good wife, sir," she said.

His lips parted and he seemed about to speak, then shook his head and approached her, slowly. Belle was keenly aware of the sound that his heeled boots upon the floorboards and of the creak of his leathers as he moved; the sounds from the rest of the inn seemed more distant as she give her awareness entirely to him, to their conversation, and knew that Elena had been right. The lover's knot was more than a game. It served a purpose just as all traditions should. A little more time. A reason to exchange a few words. A tiny beginning with a stranger. But what came next?

Oh, Belle knew what, but nothing had ever given her so much as a clue about the how. How did two perfect strangers begin to do that? Was she supposed to know how to start? Was Rumpelstiltskin awaiting some unknown sign from her? She caught her lip between her teeth, letting the sharp little pain distract her from worried speculation. She had not dared let herself imagine tonight—not beyond this moment of greeting.

Hesitant, Rumpelstiltskin reached out with his right hand and touched her hair. The tresses hung limp and crushed from their braids. Belle could feel how badly she needed to use a brush and thought that she could only look a mess, but his fingers touched so gently, as if he strove to caress something so perfect that it ought not to be touched.

Their brief touches had reassured her that his strange-looking skin was neither cold nor as rough as it looked. Belle hoped that Elena had been right about more than the knot and that her new husband was a man, at least in the ways that mattered here and now. Her imagination refused to help her with the possible alternatives.

He smelled of leather, and faintly of the leaves in autumn and of dark forest soil. Magic clung to him, wrapped all about him, so much more powerful than any she'd ever known. Magic was everywhere in the world, but when visible it was always small magic, scarce and sparkling and precious. In him magic pooled and swirled, bottomless and dark. To be this near to him was to be caught up in its wake and to have him, Rumpelstiltskin, fill the world.

Slowly, his finger crooked beneath Belle's jaw, Rumpelstiltskin bent over until they were face to face. His eyes seemed darker than before and he did not blink.

"Tell me," he said, barely more than whispering, "that I disgust you, and I will leave our contract unfulfilled, my Lady. Do you understand what that means?"

Belle felt as though his close scrutiny might wear away her very skin, so hard did he stare at her. The contract unfulfilled. At her word, he would promise to leave her be. But had she not given him her word already?

Did he disgust her, this Rumpelstiltskin, who had given more than he promised in return for her hand? Who strutted and gloated for all to see, then fidgeted and hesitated when they were alone?

"You don't," she said, finding that there was no space left between them to speak anything but the truth. "You don't disgust me. You frighten me. You frighten everybody, and I think you want to."

Rumpelstiltskin closed his eyes and straightened again, his hands falling to his sides.

"Then our contract must be consummated. Such things... matter." He seemed anything but eager to claim his right to bed her now that he had wed her. That pierced her cruelly even as it eased her fear of being shut away with him. Why had he wanted her if he did not... want her? To humble her father? To announce his power anew to her people? Had it been merely a passing whim of his, to sweep her away as his prize when he had no use for her?

Belle put the tiara and pins carefully on top of her folded dress and then, because Rumpelstiltskin did not move except to toy with the white cord that he still held, she made up her mind and got into bed. To sleep or to be a wife she knew not, but she was cold and tired and the bed was a good one.

He went to the fire and poured mead into the cup she had used earlier, then stood a while before putting it back on the tray untouched. Belle's eyes grew heavy while she watched him, but she blinked herself awake when he returned and, with great care, sat beside her on the bed. He did not look her in the eye this time.

"I can guarantee your pleasure, my Lady. If you wish."

"With magic?" Belle's voice was thick with drowsiness. She remembered the golden thread, and the coins with which he'd paid the innkeeper. "That's cheating."

He didn't seem to know what to say to that. It took him a long moment to muster a reply.

"Then I will be brief and see to it that you feel no pain. A wedding gift," he added, with the barest trace of his devil smile.

"Another one?" Belle pushed herself up onto her elbow as he lifted the blankets to join her, still wearing his leathers, boots and all.

"Am I not known for my generosity?"

Struggling to keep her eyes open, Belle found herself one moment beside a man clad all in stiff leather and the next beside a man in a silken night gown. Perhaps she had missed the magic as she blinked.

"No," she managed, slowly, her voice gravelly and unladylike. She was far too tired even to be truly startled at the transformation. "Not really." Of all the trials she might have imagined for her wedding night, it had never occurred to her that she might be so groggy, so overwhelmed and so confused that she didn't much care what he did to her as long as it was quickly followed by sleep.

She became more alert the moment he touched her, but her fear was more a memory of fear than real and she was already half in dreams. He didn't seem to mean her harm, whatever he had implied for her father's ears.

Rumpelstiltskin laid his open hand at her waist. No more than that, their heads resting a body's width apart on the pillows. A candle burned brightly behind him, leaving his features in deep shadow. His hand moved unsteadily from her waist to her arm, then to her shoulder, then to her cheek. He lingered there and his hand shook.

Was he afraid? Belle couldn't imagine being afraid of anything in his place, but shake he did as he brought himself nearer to her and, so softly, pressed his lips against hers.

Gaston had kissed her once, returning after a battle that had gone well. He had pushed his tongue against her lips and quite revolted her with his grasping hands, but Rumpelstiltskin did no more than brush lips with her and withdraw again. She might have expected his breath to be rank with those monstrous stained teeth, but he smelled only of herbs and strong spirits. He propped himself beside her and once more passed his hand down her arm, her waist, to her hip where his hand lingered and tightened until the trembling stopped.

All the candles in the lamps went out at once. There was still the orange glow of firelight but Belle couldn't see more than his curls outlined against it. His hand pulled at her nightgown, gathering it into a bundle at her thighs, and although he remained gentle Belle sensed an urgency in him that she knew too little about. It frightened her, but it was a fear of the unknown and not of the dark sorcerer who had become her husband.

Rumpelstiltskin's hand travelled up her thigh to burrow beneath the bunched nightgown. Belle had been sure that she would feel violated by her husband's first touch, by anyone touching her there, but she felt a curious distance from it all, as though she were dreaming already and merely watching herself, a dream-within-dream Belle, being touched by the monster who, so gentle in the dark, was no monster at all.

She knew the way of it, enough to open her legs when his hand went there to seek out the most private place. Her own hands had been there, sometimes curious and sometimes wicked with delight. She was prepared for the sensation of his warm skin against her outer petals and so yelped and jerked in shock when, instead of dry fingers, he touched her with an open palm that felt slick with something very, very cold.

He leapt back at her tiny cry, almost clear out of the bed and onto the floor.

"What is it?" he asked, with what sounded like equal measures of exasperation and alarm.

"Cold and wet!" So much for dignity!

"To save you discomfort," he answered, affronted, crouching near the foot of the bed like an animal at bay. The covers had come away with him and Belle tried in vain to pull them back over herself. "Are you so innocent as all that, girl?"

"My name is Belle," she answered him, fiercely. "Belle. And... no." She allowed her rational thoughts to address her wounded pride. He had offered her the gift. No pain. Of course there would need to be something to smooth the way if it wasn't going to hurt. He was being kind. She took a careful breath and moderated her tone. "No, I'm not. It's just cold, that's all, and you could have warned me."

"This," Rumpelstiltskin said, shuffling back to her and dragging the blankets with him, "is proving to be every bit as tiresome as I remember. Let's be done, shall we?"

The stuff was still wet on his hand when he took her by the elbows and laid her back. Belle thought that she could smell a hint of green plants in it, and perhaps some lavender or... She opened her legs for him at the nudge of his knee and he settled there above her, pressed to her from hip to chest and heavy against one thigh. His fingers found her again, spreading the substance that had transformed from cold and clammy to warm and pleasant in the moments they had spent at odds. He spread it everywhere and then—she felt her terrible blush as she realised what he was doing—he used it on himself as well.

And then it wasn't just his fingers. Belle's body fought him without consulting the part of her that had agreed, freely and truly, to become Rumpelstiltskin's wife. He was lodged between her legs so that attempting to clamp them shut only brought her feet to the backs of his knees, making him gasp aloud and surge towards her, rubbing that new... thing... against her moistened lips. It felt strange, sticky, new, cramped and wholly terrifying but it was not—Belle was very clear as Rumpelstiltskin regained his composure and drew back again breathing heavily—it was not unpleasant.

That he could easily have made it so, whether by cruelty or carelessness, was in her mind as he settled with her again, his face near her face and his hair brushing against her cheek. His hardness pushed at her opening and his fingers were there too, guiding himself in.

There was no pain—not if Belle narrowed her understanding of the word somewhat to exclude the feeling of being pushed and stretched in ways that her body surely couldn't match. Without his gift, she knew it would have been agony to have him inside her. She had to bite her lip again to stifle cries that were of surprise rather than protest; she knew that he had only just begun. But once inside her he went still and waited, finding her mouth again and, this time, dragging his lips across hers from one side to the other in a kiss that assured her he longed to do much more.

"This is enough," he breathed, the struggle for stillness making his voice shake, as hers had at their wedding. "We've done enough, my Lady. Enough to satisfy a contract. Shall I stop?"

"It seems a waste after all that," she said, as matter-of-factly as she could manage. When he tensed, surprised, Belle was appalled to find herself trying not to laugh. Laugh! With the Dark One in her like a dog down a rabbit hole! "I think we should finish what we started," she said, then fidgeted until her feet were once more planted on the bed, wider apart and, she hoped, more welcoming. It was certainly more comfortable.

His moan was almost too soft to make out, his whole body stiffening as she moved and then trembling when she was still again. He rocked his weight above her, driving himself deeper inside. That took her breath away but her body was no longer trying to keep him out and it seemed that she did, after all, have enough room for him inside her. He began to thrust into her, levering himself up on both arms and leaving Belle missing the warmth and weight of him. She lifted a hesitant hand to touch his face. He turned his head towards her touch, sighing raggedly, and left a damp kiss in the centre of her palm. He made no objection to her timid touches; first one hand in his hair and then the other behind his back, gripping his nightshirt tightly in her fist when the thrusting grew faster and more insistent.

It was not—most definitely not—the nightmare she had half-feared it would be. Nor was it the sweetened dream of the romances she had loved to read, where every man was a prince to his lady and where a kiss could change the world. This was more than that. It was something real, her husband taking her.

Rumpelstiltskin suddenly shivered all over, his movements faltering. A gulp escaped him followed by another noise that sounded like a man pressing his lips very tightly together to stop himself making any sound at all. And then he stopped, it stopped, Rumpelstiltskin taking himself out of her with as much care as he had entered. He left a dull ache behind him that faded quickly to almost nothing. He rolled away and lay on his back beside her, breathing hard. Belle could make out the reflection of the firelight in his unblinking eyes.

"And now I am your wife," she said, as much because she needed to hear the truth of it said aloud as to make conversation with him. If she turned it into words it made a sort of sense of the unknowable; of the future at this man's side that she could not begin to imagine.

"That you are." Rumpelstiltskin had his breath back, but the words were hushed. "The most..." he seemed to struggle for the word he wanted, "...everlasting of contracts."

Belle, too, struggled for words that would fit the moment. She was so tired, so out of sorts. So relieved and dismayed all at once.

"Thank you," she said, small-voiced. "For being kind to me."

He sat up, then, grunting the barest acknowledgement of her thanks. Perhaps it was a dismissal. Belle didn't know, only that conversation seemed lost and false in this quiet after-place and that their brief and awkward understanding had evaporated like the morning mist.

When he rose from the bed she heard the heels of his boots meet the floor and could make out that he was fully dressed once more, without her feeling even a whisper of his magic.

"I need not trouble your bed again," he said, striding quickly to the door and turning the key. "Rest well, my Lady." The door banged shut behind him. His footsteps on the stairs spoke clearly of his haste to be elsewhere.

Alone in the dark, Belle whispered her own name and then, at last, she let the tears come.

Chapter Text

Belle slept late, not stirring until the innkeeper's wife shook her shoulder. The woman left quickly without saying a word. Groggy, Belle looked around the room as much as she was able without moving from her cosy spot. She could see a tray of food on the little table and a bathtub that once more steamed invitingly.

She had slept strangely—deeply but not enough to relieve her exhaustion. A nervous glance over her shoulder reassured Belle that she was alone before she sat up to face the new day. Rumpelstiltskin had not returned to her in the night. Did he sleep? She had no idea, knowing only that he had been fresh and energetic after the sleepless night before the wedding. If he didn't sleep at all then at least that made some sense of his remark about not needing to trouble her bed again.

Overcoming her reluctance, Belle pushed away the bedclothes and sat up. The butterfly-stain of blood in the lap of her nightgown was a shock. She was not due her monthly visit for a little while yet. But before she even had time to be afraid, Belle remembered that she had read about the blood. In the old days, the bloodied sheets would even be shown in public to prove that the marriage was a true one. There had been dark hints hidden in the gossip of older girls about enduring the pain, but Belle had a low opinion of gossip and preferred to trust in books. She had never read of a girl bleeding to death on her wedding night and so had put the whole thing from her mind and forgotten about it until now.

Just now she was much more worried about the bedsheets and her spoiled nightdress. She had only a little discomfort this morning and the bleeding had quite stopped while she slept; the stain on her gown was dry. Nevertheless she felt soiled and strange so she gave in to the temptation of the bathtub with its luxuriously hot water.

Ordinarily, such hot water would have been a treat and a novelty. But up until now there had always been Lotte to shoo away anyone who might intrude while she was naked. Rumpelstiltskin had taken the key with him when he left but he hadn't locked the door. It did not seem likely that anyone would risk angering him by bursting in on his bride in her bath, but Belle much preferred not to take that chance. It would be even worse if he came in while she had no clothes on! She bathed and dried herself as quickly as possible.

Yesterday's travel had been an ordeal in her binding dress, with her shoulders bare to the chill and her skirts so wide and stiff as to crowd Rumpelstiltskin to the far side of the seat. Today she chose her plainest dress to wear over her oldest, softest underclothes and a pair of thick woollen stockings. The white satin slippers that belonged with the wedding dress had been ruined by the brief walk across the wet and muddy yard last night. They had dried out overnight so Belle put them on rather than begin taking everything out of her trunk to find her leather boots. She put on her cloak over the rest then brushed out her hair with fierce strokes before pulling it back into a single, thick braid at the nape of her neck.

Breakfast was a platter of dried fruits, nuts and sliced cheeses. She had not realised how nervous she was until she tried to take a bite and found it difficult even to swallow. Much more welcome was the silver teapot and the cups of fine porcelain—two cups. She hoped that he might come and join her a while, her new husband, and immediately felt guilty when she also hoped that he would not. She did not understand why he had left her alone last night after they'd... after. Had it been her fault? Things had seemed to go... successfully, hadn't they?

Belle had supposed his busy thrusting to be pleasing to him, and that he had satisfied himself before he stopped. The sounds he'd made and those hasty kisses had let her think that he did not find the act as tiresome as he had claimed, but perhaps she'd misunderstood?

She regretted that she had been too overwrought to accept more advice from Elena when it had been offered. She and the blacksmith had nine children and always laughed together, so her advice would probably be sound. Belle hadn't known how to ask, nor even which questions to ask, and hadn't really wanted to talk about it at all. She hadn't wanted to think about lying with the Dark One lest fearing the worst undid her determination to be brave. Now, the consummation of her marriage behind her and the fearful mystery of it reduced to mere fact, to a memory of his reluctance and his care, it seemed so odd that it needed to be kept a mystery at all.

Comforted by the tea, Belle rested her eyes and thought of home. Where would Papa be at this hour? There was so much to rebuild, and before they could even do that the money would need to be found. Had Gaston accepted the silver of her dowry as Rumpelstiltskin offered, or had he left it for her people? And what of Lotte? Suppose she was still crying with no-one to comfort her?

Would Rumpelstiltskin let her send a message home to let them know that she was safe and well? She suspected that he would rather they fear the very worst, having done all that he could to leave them with the worst possible impression. Poor Papa.

The knock at the door almost made her spill tea across her lap. But as before, Rumpelstiltskin waited for her to give him leave to enter. This time, Belle's voice was steady as she called out, but she could not hide that she was hoarse with tiredness and strain.

When she began to get up, Rumpelstiltskin waved her back into her seat. He was also dressed for travel, his cloak already damp from going outside and fine raindrops sparkling in his wavy hair. He stared at her with one hand still on the door latch.

"Good morning," Belle said, uncertainly. "There's still some tea left."

He nodded, leaving the door ajar behind him and stiffly taking the other seat while Belle poured. He accepted the cup in silence and wrapped both hands around it as though he appreciated the warmth, but did no more than inhale the fragrant steam.

"Have we far to go today?" she asked, determined that she would do what she could to lay her own fears to rest. Asking reasonable questions did not seem to anger him and Belle wanted to know the future she was facing. "To your estate?"

"It's quite far," he said, his voice taking on that higher pitch again and that odd singsong note, as though he played with every word as he spoke it aloud. As though he meant each statement to be taken for a riddle. "But magic speeds our way. We'll be there by tonight."

Belle could find nothing frightening about the still figure who sat beside her. His sharply contrasting moods had startled her, his appearance had disturbed her and his cruelty to her father had distressed her, but she could see little of that giggling, grimacing, mocking creature in him as he sat there staring into his teacup. He looked glum.

Perhaps he regretted his bargain? Belle supposed that she had been no great prize in his bed last night if she could not even be certain that he had been satisfied. Well, that would just serve him right for marrying a girl he knew nothing about, wouldn't it? He could have chosen the gold instead.

But Belle didn't want that feeble and bitter triumph. She wanted to find out who this man was and what he wanted of her; what sort of father he would be to their children. She wanted to know why he'd bargained for a provincial maiden if he preferred to enjoy a woman of the world. She wanted to know why he couldn't keep his hands from fidgeting for five minutes together, and why the moment he stopped prancing and play-acting he looked so very sad.

"They say that you live on a dark island surrounded by a vast lake with waters as black as midnight," she said, remembering one of the stories about him.

Rumpelstiltskin blinked slowly, cocking his head in thought.

"I do have a big fish pond," he allowed, brightly. "People tend to exaggerate a good story."

Belle tried to keep a straight face.

"A fish pond isn't as frightening as a vast lake of midnight, no."

"That depends on the fish," he shot back, and she saw the upwards quirk of his mouth for just a moment before he concealed it behind his teacup and at last took a small sip.

"Well, that's good. I'm far too tired for a long swim."

He looked at her then, turning in his chair and putting his cup back on the tray. Daylight added shades of green and gold to his unsettling eyes, but it was hard to remain unsettled when he wore an expression of mild concern.

"You slept poorly?"

"No," Belle said quickly, not wanting him to blame the other occupants of the inn for disturbing her. She had slept better than she had been able to in weeks, in spite of all the comings and goings on the stairs outside, but one night of rest wouldn't be enough to make up for the long strain of the war. She had forced herself to be brave and to think of others for so long now because of the war, and hidden her fear from everyone right up until the moment she climbed into Rumpelstiltskin's carriage. Now her home was safe, her father was safe, and she could pretend no longer that the effort hadn't exhausted her. "Did you sleep well, sir?" Her voice became timid before the sentence was spoken; she had not meant to sound so reproachful!

"I need very little rest." If her tone displeased him then he gave no sign of it. "You shall have all the sleep you need when we reach the Dark Castle. Comfort. A good life."

Abruptly, as if he felt that he had said far too much, Rumpelstiltskin rose and left the fireside. Watching him as she finished her tea, Belle realised that he was only a little taller than she was. Raw, pure power made him seem a giant to all the other senses, but when she truly looked at him—when his back was turned and she could see neither his strange complexion nor his startling eyes— he seemed only a man, slight and elegant. Belle turned back to the fire before he could catch her staring.

There was a rustle of cloth behind her.

"You bled, my Lady," he said.

She turned quickly, shocked, and saw that he was holding her soiled nightgown. Her face burned and she hurried to snatch it from him, but Rumpelstiltskin held her gently at bay with the barrier of his arm, the nightgown hanging at the far reach of his other hand.

"A powerful thing," he said, half smiling as he looked at the mirrored stain. "The blood of the marriage bed. A powerful thing."

"You should be ashamed of yourself!" Outraged, Belle made another grab for the gown. Rumpelstiltskin danced back beyond her reach, amused at her expense.

"I have a use for this, dearie," he said, wagging his finger at her.

"Don't be horrid," she spat, shocked at her own anger at this unwarranted humiliation. "It's just a stain and on new clothing too, and I'll probably never scrub it all the way out. It's a waste, that's all." She stuck out her hand, demanding the return of her property.

Rumpelstiltskin pouted.

"No need to be dainty," he crooned. "Here." He stroked his palm over the fabric, over the shameful stain, and it was gone. "There now. All is mended." He offered her the cloth with one of those twittering, high-pitched giggles. Belle snatched it and bundled it up in her arms, furious with him. Her blood was no man's business! How could he be so gracious one moment and so... so beastly the next?

She hid her confusion and her tear-filled eyes by turning quickly to her trunk, stuffing the nightgown and her wedding things in carelessly and struggling to shut the lid on top of them.

"Child," said Rumpelstiltskin, suddenly standing too close behind her. She hadn't heard his footsteps. His voice was once again gentle, deeper, the way he had spoken to her in the dark. "Magic knows naught of shame. There's protection to be found in the blood of your innocence. I will use it to make you a gift."

Belle sobbed, except that it was a laugh as well, born more of frustration than hurt and more from exhaustion than shame. She turned back to face him, the tears rolling down her cheeks unheeded.

"Another one?"

Rumpelstiltskin looked away.

"Another one," he agreed, then struck a pose. "May I not shower my bride with gifts?"

"Please don't mock me," she choked. "Please. I paid your price."

Rumpelstiltskin produced a silken handkerchief from nowhere and offered it to her, dangling it delicately from his fingertips. His long fingernails were black, ugly against the white silk. Belle took it ungraciously and dabbed at her cheeks, sniffing. She felt utterly foolish now that he seemed sorry for upsetting her. What was blood on a piece of cloth? What was the point of shame when he had been inside her? What was it to her if he wanted to steal a stain?

"You're tired," he said, gallantly refusing the return of his handkerchief with a raised hand. "Overwrought. Understandable. We shall leave when you are ready and tonight you will sleep in peace, you have my word."

Overwrought! She hadn't been! Five minutes ago she had been full of courage, determined to search for common ground with this husband of hers. Now she felt damp, sullen and foolish, and worst of all that she needed to begin all over again to understand him.

At least she knew that he kept his word. It was something to cling to.

"I'm ready now."

Rumpelstiltskin gave her the slightest of bows and then walked stiffly to the door.

She followed him from the room, down the stairs and back through the busy tavern. There were more stares and Belle knew that once they had driven away there would be new stories to exaggerate. Stories about Rumpelstiltskin and his pale, tear-stained young bride.

Why had he brought her to an inn if he had a castle of his own?

"Do they keep the room just for you?" she asked as they stepped out into the driving sleet, feeling that she should make some effort to mend the quarrel even if she had not been the one to start it. She was unused to quarrelling with anyone, and it was no way to begin her marriage.

"Yes." Rumpelstiltskin did not sound angry or impatient. Belle couldn't decide what sort of a mood he was in. He was closed and quiet again as they crossed to the waiting coach, just as he had been during the long journey yesterday. She wondered if he minded the stories that would be spun from their visit here—those stories about the Dark One's wedding night. They would not be kind stories. And for all that Belle had wept her heart out last night and appeared with blotchy eyes this morning, they would not be true.

She registered Rumpelstiltskin's driver for the first time; a tall figure swathed in a black cloak and deep hood trimmed with silver to match the harness of the four black horses. Driver and horses were all far too still. Had they waited there all night, impervious to the cold and the rain?

Rumpelstiltskin allowed her to clamber into the coach unaided and to choose her seat. He once again sat himself beside her. As the carriage began to move Belle wondered if he sat beside her because sitting across from her would mean that they were forced to look at one another.

After a while, he offered her a small silver flask.

"A nip to keep out the cold?"

"No... thank you." She watched him out of the corner of her eye as he drank deeply himself. She could smell the spirits—strong stuff, the same as had been on his breath last night. Had he steadied his nerves before he came to her bed? The idea melted her a little and reassured her hugely. "You might have asked me for my nightgown," she said quietly. "Told me what you wanted with it."

He put his hand over his heart, exaggerating a look of dismay into something grotesque.

"Does my wife reproach me?" he asked of the world.

"She does, sir." She pretended not to notice his behaviour. She was no longer angry with him—she had never found it possible to hold on to ill-feeling for very long nor to sulk to any real effect the way some of her friends could. But she did not understand how the sinister creature who had taunted her father and Gaston so viciously about her fate could be the same man who had healed their lands, nor how the man who had trembled and hesitated in their first embrace could be the one who teased her for her shame when she bled. "I do. You didn't need to be unkind."

"Then the remedy is a gift," he said brightly, as though it were a simple and inarguable truth. From beneath the cushioned seat he brought a wooden chest, no more than a rough box with a latch. He set it on the opposite seat and lifted the lid.

"...straw?" Belle stared, unable to imagine why a man with all the magic of the world at his command would keep a box of neatly bundled straw in his carriage.

He smiled faintly, reaching into the box and she recognised the tools of the spinner's art, the spindle and the distaff. The distaff was already dressed with a white fibre that looked more like the finest wool than anything one might make from humble straw, and the spindle was half wound with thread of pure gold. Rumpelstiltskin shrugged off his cloak and began to spin.

"I thought that you used a wheel," she said, quite taken out of herself as she watched him work. He did so with a practised economy of movement, his fingers deft in the twist and delicate with the draw. "They say that you use a wheel."

"Oh, yes." He spoke so softly, seemed so completely absorbed as he watched the spindle, that Belle couldn't bring herself to disturb him with more questions.

For all that she stared and marvelled, paying close attention because the thing was so beautiful to watch, Belle could never quite see the moment when his magic worked—when the smooth white thread that he had so carefully drawn out actually became pure gold upon the spindle.

When the spindle was full, Rumpelstiltskin set aside the distaff and broke off a length of the gold thread. Belle wanted to touch it, to see whether it felt like metal or like thread, but Rumpelstiltskin was busy again. For a while he played with it in his hands, testing and smoothing it, twisting and crumpling it, as if trying to know the golden thread as intimately and as carefully as he had known her in the darkness. Then, satisfied, he wrapped the thread around and around his smallest left finger and made a fist, his other hand covering the fist.

When he opened his hands again he wore a ring on his finger. It was a narrow band of pure, polished gold and yet, as she leaned closer to admire this new marvel, Belle saw the warming tint of iron too.

No. Her realisation came quietly and simply. The tint of blood.

Rumpelstiltskin slid the ring from his finger and inspected it, turning it this way and that, and then he turned himself stiffly to face her. He tried and failed to look her in the eye.

"My Lady," he said, solemnly, opening his hand and reaching for her left. Belle gave it, hesitantly, and stared while he slipped the band onto her ring finger. "Your innocence protects you while you wear this. It might even be more use to you this way." He lifted her hand to the level of her chest and then, hesitating a moment, bent to kiss it. His breath was warm against her skin and his hair tickled her wrist, making her shiver. He lingered for just a moment with his lips against the back of her knuckles, eyes closed, just as he had last night when he kissed her open palm. "I return to you what is yours."

"Thank you," she said, bewildered and charmed and flattered all at once. She squeezed his hand to show him her sincerity. The gift had touched her deeply, healing something that he had broken with his thoughtless teasing earlier, and he looked so uncertain as he drew away. She had accused him of being sordid when this had been his motive all along? Oh dear... "It's a beautiful gift. Thank you."

Rumpelstiltskin nodded, clearly far more chagrined by her thanks than he had been by her scolding, and returned to his spinning.

Belle continued to watch him until the distaff lay idle and Rumpelstiltskin held another spindle fully wound with golden thread, tossing it idly from hand to hand as he gazed out of the window.

They did not speak again, but the silence was an easier one than before.

It was long past nightfall before the road beneath the wheels became cobbles again, their pace slowing. Belle drew the curtain aside and tried to see where they were, but there were no bright lights of welcome this time and the coach did not stop. She glimpsed a few faces, frozen and staring as they passed, and realised that they were going through a small town.

"Is this your home?" she asked, hopefully. She longed to be out of the coach and free to move. She longed to see her new home before she burst from not knowing.

"My fiefdom," Rumpelstiltskin said, spreading his hands and smiling, pleased with himself. "From here to the river, from here to the mountains. The castle isn't far now."

The cobbles ended abruptly and there were no more faces outside, just the dark road again and the looming darkness of the forest beyond. So he really did live in a castle. And he really did spin straw into gold. Belle took a shy peek at her new ring.

A new home awaited her; a new life with her strange new husband. Belle was so nervous that her mouth went dry, but she felt excitement too, and hope. The terrible stories about Rumpelstiltskin might be wrong, just as the tale told of their wedding night at the inn would be all wrong. The truth of it was theirs alone, and they had made a beginning together.

She rubbed her finger over the band of gold and innocence and smiled.

Chapter Text

They called it the Dark Castle, but at first sight it seemed more imposing than sinister. Belle could see that the building was very large and that it lacked any major fortifications on this side that met the road. The rest was lost to her in the darkness and the blinding snow. The storm had worsened gradually as they drove closer to the castle, the snow falling hard and thick and coating everything in moonlit white.

Rumpelstiltskin gave his hand to steady her as she stepped from the carriage into knee-deep snow, her slippers not suited to even the briefest walk in such weather. She was damp and frozen after only a few shuffling steps on the straight path that took them from tall gates up to the castle's doors. The wind was bitter enough that she had to pull herself deeper into the hood of her cloak as she hurried to keep up with Rumpelstiltskin.

There hadn't been any lake of black midnight, she knew that much.

Tall double doors at the head of a short flight of shallow steps opened at Rumpelstiltskin's approach. He stopped to wait for her then caught her at the waist and hurried her inside. Belle tried not to be too frightened when, standing in a darkened hall of marble, the doors slammed shut behind her.

The place felt chilled from disuse, adding to her shivers. Rumpelstiltskin snapped his fingers to bring sudden light from the heavy iron candelabra. Belle did her best to compose her features, pushing back her hood. She didn't want to look afraid.

"Come," Rumpelstiltskin said, striding ahead of her towards a wide staircase while Belle looked around her in an effort to get her bearings. She had never been inside so large a building, nor one so finely constructed. There were several doors and two staircases leading from just this one entrance hall alone. Candles and torches came to life to light Rumpelstiltskin's passage. Glancing back just before she turned the corner of the first flight of stairs Belle saw that those lights left behind them did not fade again.

They took a smaller and narrower staircase from the second floor, winding counter-clockwise for three turns until they reached a narrow landing, and then Rumpelstiltskin stopped and waited for her to catch up with him.

"Your rooms," he said, standing aside gallantly and opening the door with a mere flick of his wrist.

He had promised her comfort, but what he showed her now was luxury. Belle took a few steps into the large room, which held a grander bed than she had ever seen, draped with tapestries that could be closed all around for warmth. One unbroken carpet of the finest wool covered most of the floor. A wide, tall window directly opposite the door, so delicately leaded that for one moment she believed it to be a single piece of glass, gave a view of the building storm outside. Two doors led off to her left, one on either side of the bed. Her old trunk was waiting for her at the foot of it, just as it had been at the inn.

"My rooms?" she asked, turning in a slow circle before returning to face him, awestruck.

"You were expecting a dungeon?" He flashed his teeth in that sardonic smile of his, but Belle thought that she saw some hint of true humour there. She remembered another name that she had heard for him: The Man With Two Faces. It seemed to her that Rumpelstiltskin had not two faces but many. Too many to count.

"Of course not." Belle returned to him and studied his face in the candlelight. "It's lovely." Her scrutiny seemed to discomfit him. He nodded curtly, turning to leave the same way they had come.

"I shall send you a meal presently. Good night, then."

Belle found her voice before he made the first turn of the descent. "Good night," she called, weakly. Rumpelstiltskin broke stride, half glancing back, but didn't stop. Belle listened until she could no longer hear his footsteps on the stairs, affronted at this unexpected abandonment.

Belle had thought... well, she had thought that at least part of this first evening would be spent in his company, perhaps being shown the rest of the castle and introduced to the other inhabitants. Then again she was shivering with cold, her skirts and stockings were wet and she was hungry and weary from the road. Perhaps he was only trying to be kind?

Slowly, Belle closed the door. A key was in the lock, permitting her to lock herself away from the world if she chose. It was a choice that had never been hers in her father's house; should she need privacy then Lotte or another woman saw to it that she was not disturbed, but to be alone—to be able to shut out even her husband if she wanted to—was a novel and startling freedom.

She turned the key simply because she could. It wasn't in her mind to keep Rumpelstiltskin or anyone else out, but there were things that she would prefer to be able to do in complete privacy. One of those was to sit on the edge of the bed and remove her ruined slippers and her soggy stockings.

The carpet felt wonderfully thick and warm beneath her chilled feet. Belle spent a few moments at the fire to warm her hands then went to try the two doors in the opposite wall. The one to the right of the bed opened onto a small, simply-furnished room with a couch, a small table with two chairs and an assortment of shelves and bookcases. All were empty, but Belle could quite clearly picture herself sitting beneath the window with a favourite book. She smiled, touched and surprised yet again by her new husband's consideration.

The second room had no window and was small, the walls undecorated. It held a great copper bathtub and a basin on a stand, a stool for a chamber pot and a stack of the thickest, largest and softest towels she had ever seen. Her own bath at home had been a tin thing, small and cramped, that had taken Lotte and two companions a good hour to fill to the depth of Belle's hips, carrying the water up to her rooms in kettles they'd first heated down in the kitchens. Often, Belle had simply done as the maids did and chased the menfolk from the kitchens after the evening meal, bathing behind a screen in front of the big kitchen fire and sharing the water with two or three others.

How many maids and kettles would it take to fill this tub? The rim stood as high as her thigh and it was nearly long enough for someone Belle's size to lie down in. But she remembered the room at the inn, the water that had been scalding hot and waiting for her when she woke up, and guessed that Rumpelstiltskin had his own ways of managing such matters.

With his great magic, was there anything that he couldn't do?

She'd expected a knock at the door to announce someone bringing her the promised meal. She would have welcomed it and been glad of a little company, perhaps a kitchen maid. Someone less forbidding than her husband, anyway. Someone with whom she could talk and smile, and ask her questions about this place without treading on eggshells. But the smell of meat led her back to the sitting room and there the meal waited on the table that had been empty not a minute earlier; a plate with a silver cover, a stemmed glass, a jug of mead and another of good, clear water.

Belle sighed. His magic amazed her, even thrilled her, but she really would have liked somebody to talk to. But there would be time enough for that. Her whole lifetime, in fact. Resolute, she sat down to eat.

It was a good meal—a rich fowl in a sauce of fruits and wine, and very welcome when she had eaten so little for days. Comfortably full and warmed from the inside, she took her chair and a cup of water through the bedchamber and sat beside the fire to warm her toes and dry out the hem of her skirts.

She hadn't imagined that his castle would be so big! Was she equal to the task of running such a vast household? How many rooms must there be? How many servants? Belle had grown up within fortified walls, protected and well provided for, but the living accommodation there had been quite simple, tucked into the spaces that could be spared while the castle played its essential part in the life and safety of the whole town. Her new home was a palace and stood distant from the little town they had passed through on the way. Something told her that the people there did not take refuge within Rumpelstiltskin's walls when danger threatened.

Feeling lost and homesick, Belle went to her trunk and lifted the lid to search out something familiar for comfort. She had forgotten how carelessly she'd stuffed in her wedding dress on top of everything and smoothed it out guiltily, draping the skirt and petticoats over the carved wooden foot-board of the bed. There was a wardrobe in the corner by the window; she ought at least to unpack her things and hang them to air.

Sorting out her clothing occupied her for some time, even though it didn't take up very much of the space in the wardrobe. She could see no use at present for the household linens of her trousseau. Those could stay in the trunk, safe in case they were needed, along with her keepsakes and hair ribbons. Those were all gaudy things, girlhood things, save for the delicate teardrop pendant that she had worn since before Rumpelstiltskin came, and now removed to be put away safely in its tiny silver box.

At last, head swimming with fatigue, Belle changed into her crumpled nightgown and spread her damp clothing in front of the fire to dry properly.

The bed was very comfortable, springing pleasingly under her as she wriggled beneath the sheets. Once her warmth began to spread Belle was comfortable, ready for sleep, yet she lay awake in spite of herself, her thoughts refusing to quiet. So much had happened in so little time. She missed her father and her friends desperately now that she had a moment to herself. Her father's grief and anger haunted her, as did Lotte's sobbing and even Gaston's accusing, bewildered glare.

After a while she remembered that she had locked the door and went to turn the key, scurrying back to the warmth of the bed as soon as she had done so. Would he come to her bed? He had said that he need not, but that didn't mean that he would not. She found herself waiting, even wondering what she might do differently this time, but he didn't arrive and her eyelids grew heavy.

Just as she reached the edge of sleep she did hear Rumpelstiltskin's boots upon the stairs. He stopped outside her door for a few moments, perhaps listening, before continuing on, upwards and out of her hearing.

Belle slept a second night alone.

~+~

The new day brought a worsening of the storm that had already left snow blanketing the world for as far as Belle could see from her window. The thick-falling snow was driven by violent winds from a black sky so that even in daylight it was difficult to learn much about where she was. On high ground, she thought, and there were trees as far as the eye could see, but the snow was deceptive. It was a lonely place, she could tell that much.

She chose her warmest clothes again, the things she had dried in front of the fire and which had the benefit of already being warm through, and left her room to find out about her new home.

Creeping down the stairs made Belle felt like a naughty child, but Rumpelstiltskin had not forbidden her to leave her rooms nor to explore the castle. It was reasonable to assume that anyone she met would already know of her arrival. Word got about when a lord took a bride. But she didn't meet a single soul on her journey downstairs; nor could she hear voices anywhere nearby. The silence was so deep as to be unnerving, in fact. She found herself back in the hall of marble, where the candles still burned. They had not burned down during the night, and she was sure of her assessment without knowing how she was so sure. These were not fresh candles replacing the old, but the same candles from last night. They just hadn't melted.

As she looked around her at the choice of closed and rather forbidding doors, Belle heard footsteps behind her on the stairs. She spun about, alarmed, to find Rumpelstiltskin regarding her from the third step, his expression grave.

Now she really did feel like a naughty child caught sneaking where she shouldn't be!

"I wondered where to find you," she said, uncertainly. "This place is huge. Why is there no-one else about?"

"There's just us, dearie." Rumpelstiltskin danced lightly down the final few steps to stand at her side. "This way."

He led her across the hall to a pair of doors which opened smoothly to let him pass. It was a long room, perhaps a ballroom, and a blaze of rich colour in contrast to either the stark marble hallway or the muted warmth of her bedchamber. Belle tried to look around her without letting Rumpelstiltskin get too far ahead of her. She suspected that he could turn a corner and lose her entirely in a place as big as this!

And in a place as big as this...

"Just us?"

"That's right." He stopped beside a large and inviting fire which seemed, like everything else in the castle, to anticipate his whims or to stand ready for his return. The flames were dancing and the room was already warm. A single leather armchair sat facing the fire. A single chair was at the head of a long and brightly polished oak table. An assortment of objects, all of them a mystery to Belle, occupied pedestals around the walls and seemed a peculiar addition to the opulence. She studied all of it, but her gaze was drawn most of all to the spinning wheel at the far corner, and to the baskets of straw that waited beside it. So it was true.

Rumpelstiltskin followed her gaze and cleared his throat as if uncomfortable that she had noticed.

"The castle will see to your needs," he said. "No need for servants here."

"But..." Belle continued to stare around her, bewildered, and said the first thing that came into her head. "But everything's dusty!"

"Dust never harmed anyone," he declared, looking offended.

"But... look, you put all these things on display, like they're important, and they're all covered in dust!" Belle moved to the nearest, a golden curved bow with a delicate silver arrow, and ran her finger across the plinth. It came away grey with dust and soot.

"Madam," Rumpelstiltskin said, "if you object to dust then by all means find a duster." Rather stiffly, he walked to his spinning wheel, drew out the squat three legged stool, sat and took up his thread.

Belle clenched her jaw. "Is the whole castle like this?"

"Most likely." He was looking anywhere but at Belle; she would have sworn, were he any other man, that she had embarrassed him.

"And you've no servants."

"None."

"But now you've a wife." Belle put her hands on her hips. "And I suppose I'm to cook, clean and care for you, and your castle as well?"

"You may do as you please, my Lady." He looked up from his work. "But you're no servant. You need not lift a finger and your needs will be met."

"Except the dust," she answered.

"Except for dust," he agreed. "They do call it the Dark Castle. Dust and cobwebs—it's rather expected."

Belle's exasperation was rapidly becoming something much lighter. She thought that she could see the light of merriment in the crinkle of his eyes as well. She tried to hide her smile by looking down at her hands.

"Then, what are my duties?"

"Hmm?" Rumpelstiltskin had returned his attention to his spinning, a cloud of white fibre in his hand.

"You said that my duties would be light." Belle went to him, slowly, and watched him over the top of the biggest wheel she had ever seen. "What are they then, if I've no household to manage and only dust to worry about?"

"You may..." Rumpelstiltskin frowned slightly. Belle noticed how worn the rim of the wheel looked. It was the wear of many, many years of patient use. "You may bring me my tea. Bring me straw when I'm spinning at the wheel. Clean and dust if it pleases you."

"How long have you been alone here?" The dust was on everything but not thickly layered. His home had not fallen into ruin. It had merely succumbed to the kind of blindness to slow change that came with long familiarity.

"A long time." He seemed to force the lightness into his voice. "A lifetime." His brows knit slightly, his lips pursing. "You've a whole castle to explore, dearie. Away you go."

"Right." Belle was hungry and intended to find the kitchens. As delicious as a magical meal might be, she preferred to know that her food came from cooking pots. And then she would find a duster, she decided, if only because the subject of dust appeared to open the door to conversation with her husband. "May I go anywhere I like?"

"If a door will not open for you at a touch, do not try to pass," he said as she turned to go. "And, child?"

Gritting her teeth at his refusal to use her name, Belle turned. Rumpelstiltskin's expression had changed, grown dark and terrible, somehow accusing, and his eyes seemed almost completely ink-black. It was as though he had drawn the battering winter storm inside himself.

"Yes?" The sight of him like that had transformed her intended snap of irritation into a squeak of fright.

"Never ever try to leave this castle."

Chapter Text

It took Belle most of the day to realise that she hadn't seen a single mirror anywhere in Rumpelstiltskin's castle.

Her explorations took her all over the central building, into rooms both lived-in and seemingly forgotten, but it was only later when she caught her own reflection in a silvered teapot that she realised. Not one mirror. Not even in her own room, although it was furnished with everything else she might reasonably wish for.

The glimpse in the teapot showed her that her hair was a disgrace, lank and escaping in careless wisps from the braid that she had tied all the way back at the inn. Reluctantly, she untied it and did her best to comb it through with her fingers. Magic might see to the filling of the pantry, to the shine of the silverware, to the lighting of the rooms and to the fireplaces, but it seemed that it did not extend to keeping her clean and presentable.

She was more than glad of that. Rumpelstiltskin's magic had been so dark and tangible this morning as to terrify her.

Her hands shook slightly as she carried the tea tray into the great room where she had left her husband. He had truly frightened her with his admonition about not leaving the castle, so much that she had been only too glad to go away and spend her day getting to know her new home. But as evening fell, and as she made a solitary meal of bread and cheese in the castle's vast kitchen, Belle knew that she longed for company more than she wished to avoid facing her fear. She'd married him. She could hardly avoid him for the rest of her life. And there was nobody else here to talk to.

Besides, Rumpelstiltskin hadn't harmed her, nor even threatened her really, and he had asked her to bring him tea.

He was there at his spinning wheel in the corner nearest the kitchen door, just as she had left him. Had he spent a whole day there? No, Belle decided, seeing that he had changed his clothing in the meanwhile, but he appeared to return to his spinning when he had nothing else to occupy his hands. She wondered why, for she had seen chests, drawers, rooms full of finely spun gold thread, as well as all manner of other valuables about the place. Whatever his reason, he did not spin for the want of gold.

"I thought you'd forgotten about me," Rumpelstiltskin said mildly. Belle eased the heavy tray onto the table before she answered him. She hoped that the rattling of crockery hadn't made her nervousness too obvious.

"You sent me away," she answered primly. She hadn't meant to take such a cool tone with him! But he had frightened her earlier, and for what reason? Why should he fear her leaving his castle? She was his wife, she had given her word on that and, besides, wherever would she go? "But I brought you tea because you said that I might."

"So I did." She could feel him watching her as he took his seat at the head of the table. It was long enough and sturdy enough for a feast to satisfy two dozen, yet his was the only chair. "And how do you like my castle?"

Belle glanced distractedly at Rumpelstiltskin as she poured the tea. He had steepled his hands, fingertip to fingertip, and watched her over the top of them, his eyes alight with curiosity.

"It's very big," she said, making her best effort to sound friendly. "I don't think I'll ever learn my way around." Carefully, she carried the cup to him and placed it on the table in front of him. She was unable to keep her hands from trembling as she did so, but at least she hadn't dropped it. "But," she went on, with false and desperate cheer, "I think I can find my way back to my room."

"How goes the battle with the dust?" He spoke to keep her from leaving immediately, Belle was certain of it. For some reason that quieted her fear and she dared to look at him properly. Eyes that were no longer storm-black watched her over the rim of a dainty porcelain cup. He had changed his hard leather coat for a high-collared waistcoat over a silken shirt with full sleeves, and for the moment looked more a refined gentleman than a terrible monster.

"I got lost trying to find a duster," Belle admitted, smiling with the confession. It hadn't been very long before she'd forgotten that she'd been looking for one. The chests full of gold thread had taken her breath away. "But tomorrow the dust won't know what hit it."

Rumpelstiltskin shook his head slightly, but his incredulity was a mild thing. Anything seemed mild next to that terrible look he had given her earlier.

"Is there no tea left in the pot?" He gestured lazily to the tray, where she had left it at the other end of the table. "You brought another cup, did you not?"

"...yes." Not knowing what he required, what he preferred, she had brought everything. Milk and sugar, spoon and tongs, cups and saucers. Bread plates. Why had she brought bread plates? She had barely been able to manage the tray! "Should I join you?"

"As you wish."

Belle fetched herself a cup, aware again of how he watched her. When she looked again, his head was tilted to one side and his expression was one of fascination.

She blushed. To cover her embarrassment, she left her tea cup beside his and, with a great effort, brought the big heavy chair from the fireplace so that she could sit at the table.

Rumpelstiltskin's watchful fascination did not waver. He could have conjured her a hundred chairs, she supposed. Had he been so long without mortal company that he had forgotten that such things could be achieved with two strong hands and a clear head?

The chair was too low for the table. Belle seated herself as delicately as possible on the arm rest then drew her cup towards her.

"Why do you have no mirrors?" she asked, because his quiet scrutiny made her feel odd.

"There are mirrors. You will leave them covered." It was no answer, but Belle sensed that he would not be drawn further on the subject. His command this time had not been harsh, and still he watched her from behind his teacup.

"All right." Lost for anything else to say to him, Belle drank her tea and kept her gaze on the cup, on the liquid, where she could just barely make out her distorted reflection.

"Are you well?"

"What?" He had startled her out of a daze, a blank daydream that had been her escape from the mild embarrassment of not knowing what to say. Belle saw that he had finished his drink and put down the cup. "Yes, thank you. Quite well," she said, puzzled.

"You are... quite unhurt?" He shifted in his seat, his hands beginning their compulsive dance around one another.

"I don't..." But even as Belle made to say that she did not understand his meaning she realised why he looked so uncomfortable, and why his gaze had fixed itself so hard upon the table top all of a sudden. "Yes," she said, not knowing why he would ask but grateful for his tenderness in doing so. "Yes, of course."

He had been so gentle, so careful of her; how could he doubt it?

At her reply, Rumpelstiltskin nodded, clasping his hands tightly in his lap to still them.

"That's good. Good." At once, he was on his feet and striding away from her, back to his spinning she thought, but he did not take his place on the little stool, instead standing with his back to Belle and his hand upon the great wheel. "Have you all that you need?"

It was a clear dismissal and Belle found herself unexpectedly crestfallen at the prospect of leaving. She had begun to think, for a moment as he spoke so kindly, that she might ask him... that she might apologise for anything she might have done wrong when they consummated their marriage. It gnawed at her that she might have failed in some way that, innocent as she was, she couldn't begin to guess at. And there was no-one else to ask, even if she would dream of asking them. Only Rumpelstiltskin knew what had passed between them and what had been the matter with it.

She didn't dare ask him a question like that now—not when he so plainly wanted her to go away.

"Yes," she said, slipping from her hard perch to the ground and smoothing down her skirts. "Thank you." Belle meant to go, she truly did, but something held her in place. The set of his shoulders, or the sound of his voice, or her own need for understanding—something made it impossible to simply walk away without another word. "Even you must sleep," she said, timidly. "Sometimes."

He gripped the rim of the wheel, nodding tightly without looking at her.

"Yes. Sometimes."

"Good night, then," she said, hardly daring that much. There was no sign that he was irritated by the question. He only wanted her to leave him alone with his spinning wheel and his thoughts.

"Good night, my Lady."

~+~

Belle woke early from dreams of home and of a war that was over. It had ended so suddenly that a part of her struggled to believe in it, but here she was in a strange bedroom in a dark castle waking up to her third morning as a bride—the price paid for the terrible war to end. Her dreams had left her with a lingering, quiet sorrow that plucked at her growing homesickness and made her heart ache.

The storm had broken in the night and the brighter sky lifted her spirits somewhat when she threw back the curtains. Across the rooftops and turrets of the castle she could see pristine snow, thick and glaring white beneath a cold and empty blue sky. Cheered by the sight, Belle went to bathe and to see what could be done with her hair. She'd brought with her none of the lotions and herbs that Lotte hoarded so jealously on her behalf, but simply soaking in the hot water with her hair floating around her head made Belle feel much better.

The copper bathtub filled up at her touch as if she'd spoken a magic spell. That troubled her while she watched the water rise, for she felt that the castle must be watching her—that perhaps even Rumpelstiltskin himself was watching her—and so she hesitated to take off her nightgown. But that was stupid, she decided, impatient with herself. Rumpelstiltskin had turned his back while she undressed at the inn and tried none of his mischief to take a peek at her. He'd extinguished all the light in the room when he came to her bed and hadn't asked her to uncover any more of herself than the deed required. He had passed over the opportunity to gaze upon her then and he could have come to her these two nights since for another chance, so he hardly needed to watch her in secret now. He was hardly like to watch her in case she decided to have a bath. And what could her nakedness matter to a castle?

Refreshed, her hair brushed through and left loose to dry, Belle made her way back to the kitchen, one floor beneath the great room where Rumpelstiltskin had his wheel.

She saw no sign of him until mid-morning when, having brushed and swept all traces of dust from the kitchen, Belle thought to offer him tea as she made some for herself. After some reflection, she cut two slices from the fresh loaf that had awaited her in the pantry and spread them with golden butter. It was not, she had to confess, a dainty meal; her slices were shaped like mason's wedges, too thick to bite at one extreme and too thin to take the butter knife at the other, but she had eaten the very same herself for breakfast. It tasted no worse for her ineptitude with the knife.

As before, she found Rumpelstiltskin seated at his spinning wheel. His hands were full with one of the neatly cut bundles of fresh straw, a basket of them across his knees. He looked up as she entered, the corners of his mouth lifting in the slightest hint of a smile.

"Good morning," Belle said, unable to contain her new good cheer. Her husband might be a sombre and frightening figure whose eyes sometimes filled with storm-clouds, but the blue sky beyond her window and the deliciously hot bath had returned her to her normal good humour. "How is my husband today?"

He opened his mouth but failed to answer, and Belle smiled helplessly as she carried the heavy tray to the table. She remembered Aya's anxious admonition about calling the attention of the Spinner, and almost laughed. Startled by a small kindness, Rumpelstiltskin behaved much more like a shy little boy than a dreadful demon.

She took her time in pouring two cups of tea, sweetening her own with a lump of sugar. She placed the plate of buttered bread beside his cup at the head of the table, keeping herself busy with the tray while Rumpelstiltskin walked past her to take up his place.

"You've no need to serve me," he said, a little pained, fingering the bread uncertainly. Belle took up her perch on the arm of the stolen fireside chair. He had not moved it back after she left him.

"What else am I to do? Dust isn't very interesting for long. Or don't you eat?"

"I do." Rumpelstiltskin picked up a piece of bread, turning it this way and that before taking a small, cautious bite.

"I know it's only bread and butter," Belle said, leaning slightly towards him as she picked up her teacup, "but I'll learn, you'll see."

His non-committal grunt only encouraged her helpless smile. He obviously wasn't used to keeping company with anyone, but he did not dismiss her as he had before. They drank their tea in silence and then he returned to his spinning wheel, to the basket of bundled straw, and Belle watched carefully from her place at the table. As when the soft thread became gold upon the spindle, she could not persuade her eyes to catch the precise moment when, his fingers drawing gently up the length of two or three straws, it became the creamy white fibre that later worked into thread.

Magic need have no sense to it, Belle knew, but she did wonder at his occupation. Why straw? And why gold? Surely he could, if the mood took him, transform pebbles into emeralds or cobwebs into silk cloth? And, deft as he was at the wheel, surely he could spin wool for cloth, the very finest imaginable, and so much more useful than endless gold?

She puzzled over this for some time, lowering herself into the deep leather of the armchair and watching him long after he seemed to have forgotten about her presence. While his hands were busy with the fibres and threads, his expression was unchanging—intent, sober and distant. The changing moods that so animated him, unpredictable as clouds skipping across a breezy sky, left him completely as he spun.

After a long while, Belle stirred herself and gathered the tea things and the uneaten bread back onto the tray. Still he did not send her away, so she wandered closer to watch him work. He had accumulated a full basket of the lofty white stuff which she longed to touch. She had watched spinners at work before, of course, but even the finest wool was never so pure and light as that.

Her nearness seemed to distract him, to disturb his peace, so Belle went to the window and worked her way behind one of the heavy curtains. With the exception of her own rooms the castle was shrouded by such draperies and by thick shutters, keeping out all natural light except where a panel of age-worn stained glass broke the monotony. It kept the place warm no doubt, but Belle was used to the daylight upon her face and stayed where she was, gazing at the blue sky until she could bear the chill behind the curtain no longer.

Just as she peeked out, Rumpelstiltskin leapt swiftly to his feet, abandoning his basket and striding towards the doors. Belle only glimpsed his expression as he passed her, but it was sharp and hard and she was extremely glad that it did not appear to be directed at her.

Hearing the outer doors being opened, Belle hurried after him and stood by the table in the marble hall, watching her husband walk out into the piled-up snow as though it were no obstacle to him at all. Shivering and hugging her arms to keep warm, she watched him all the way to the end of the straight path to the iron gates, which opened at his impatient gesture.

She felt no great urge to follow him into the cold and the deep snow, never mind his warning about not leaving the castle. Although still, beautiful and bright the day was so bitterly cold. That seemed not to trouble Rumpelstiltskin in the slightest, and it left Belle wondering if even the snow, even the very chill in the air, moved hastily aside to let the Dark One pass by.

At the gates, Rumpelstiltskin bent down and collected several things into his arms. Baskets, Belle saw as he began the return journey, the gates clanging shut behind him and showering snow and icicles from the ironwork.

He stamped snow from his boots on the last step before bringing the things inside, his brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed. Belle couldn't help the way her heart quickened with fright as, once again, the outer doors slammed shut with such forbidding finality.

"Is something wrong?" She looked at the baskets he was holding, some clutched to his chest and some hanging from his arms. There were many, and she hurried to help him unburden himself, arranging the arrivals upon the gleaming table.

"I think not." Rumpelstiltskin pulled away one of the rough cloths that covered the baskets and Belle did likewise for the rest. "Gifts for you, I believe," he said, tautly.

"I don't understand." Belle tried to comprehend what she was seeing. In each of the baskets, nestled in bundled straw or scrunched up cloth, she saw glazed pots, glass bottles, rolled cloths tied with string and simple decorations woven cleverly from straw. She saw spools of coloured thread, patterned ribbons, creamy lace, and fruits, loaves and pastries. "For me?"

"It seems the people of the town welcome you, mistress," Rumpelstiltskin said, suddenly too close beside her and with his voice grown soft. He was almost touching her, his arm just a whisper away from hers as he picked up a tiny doll made of bundled, twisted straw.

"Oh." Belle shook her head, lifting and replacing a few of the things that seemed, suddenly, as precious to her as jewels. More. "Oh." Tears stung her eyes and she looked up at her husband, at his uneasy smile.

"Something from every household, if I'm any judge," he said. "To welcome my bride."

"And they came all this way in the snow!" Belle caught at his arm, not realising that she had done so until he stared at her grasping hand. "But that's miles! And these things are..." she gestured helplessly, still pulling at his unresisting arm. It was clear to her that the humblest of the gifts, the straw dolls and the fragile cornucopias stuffed with fresh holly and mistletoe, must have been crafted by those who had nothing of material value to give.

"So it seems." Rumpelstiltskin cleared his throat, unable to hold her gaze. "Their kindness to you will not be forgotten," he said, very quietly. "You have my word."

"Thank you." Belle stood on tiptoe and quickly kissed his cheek before she could think better of it. Her tearful delight over the gifts needed expression, and he was her husband, and for just that moment she felt bold enough. Her smile wouldn't fade as Rumpelstiltskin backed away from her, nodding awkwardly. He looked as though she had bitten him rather than chastely kissed him.

He retreated to his spinning wheel in some haste, and Belle set about exploring her new treasures with her heart full of hope.

Chapter Text

As night fell and the wind once again began to howl around the castle, Belle finished putting away the preserves and honey that she had found in the baskets. Little enough in the castle belonged to her, and it delighted her to place her own things on the kitchen shelves where she could see them.

The fresh pastries were to be their supper, she decided; she was not sure that the castle's magic would keep them fresh and, although they had arrived very cold and were only now warming, she did not want them to spoil and go to waste. The fruits she placed into a bowl of the finest cut glass and gave pride of place upon the rugged kitchen table.

Very much to her surprise, Rumpelstiltskin descended to the kitchens to find her before she could think of taking him his share of the pastries. He stood just inside the doors, hands folded behind his back, and looked around at his now sparkling kitchen, at the new decorations, nodding to himself. For just one moment, Belle thought that he was going to turn on his heel and leave again.

"Shall we eat here?" she asked, lifting the plate of pastries hopefully. "It's lovely and warm near the fire."

Rumpelstiltskin nodded, somewhat warily, and joined her at the kitchen table. He left one chair empty between them, perhaps nervous that Belle might try to kiss his cheek again without some barrier. The thought made her smile, but she had been smiling all day and couldn't help it.

She offered him first pick of the pastries and he took one, delicately, looking at it as though he didn't recognise it.

Belle bit into her own choice, a curly, sweet and flaky confection of nuts and honey. It was delicious, and it dropped crumbs into her lap.

"The gifts are for you too, you know," she said, when Rumpelstiltskin hadn't moved to take a bite as she was finishing her first pastry. "Jams and oils, pickled eggs, honey..."

"They are for you," he answered, but finally began to eat. Food seemed to hold no particular interest for him. He had more time for his cups of tea, and Belle remembered that she had found a pouch of dried chamomile flowers in one of the baskets.

He watched her carefully as she prepared them in the silver teapot, struggling to pour the water from the enormous iron kettle.

"You'll injure yourself," he said, uncertainly, but Belle shook her head and finished what she was doing, returning the kettle to its hook beside the fire. "I do not wish you to think of yourself as a kitchen maid," he pressed. "You are my wife."

"I like the kitchen," Belle told him. She did. It was a cosy place once the fire was roaring, and since he clearly had no interest in it, it seemed a place that she could make her own. "Should your wife be too proud to fetch and carry?"

"Many would be." Rumpelstiltskin had begun fidgeting in his chair. "I had not thought how you would occupy yourself," he confessed.

"That's because you're a man," Belle teased, leaning across the space between them. "Men never think how a woman is supposed to occupy herself when he isn't looking. Well, I've never had to cook and clean. I like it."

It was true; she had found a quiet cheerfulness in the dusting and sweeping of the kitchen. Such work kept her hands busy while her mind was free to think of other things.

"A smaller kettle, then," Rumpelstiltskin said, weakly. Belle couldn't help but glance over her shoulder at the fireplace. Yes, the kettle was now much smaller, as was the cooking pot. He avoided her eyes.

He seemed heartened when Belle poured him a cup of the chamomile tea, taking it from her with a thin smile of thanks.

"So," Belle said, drawing out the chair that sat between them so that she could turn her own chair to face him. "You didn't want a wife to cook and care for you, or to tidy up your house, or to manage your servants. You didn't want my dowry because you make gold all the time. What did you mean to do with me?"

"Why," he said, his voice small behind his teacup, "your task is to be lovely. Nothing more." He drank, slowly, then held the cup between his palms, rolling it from side to side. "There are far worse bargains, my dear."

Belle knew enough to know that. She had seen other girls, her own age and younger, married before she even became betrothed to Gaston. In some she had seen love blossom and the joy of children; in others she had seen the spirit crushed by a loss of freedom that Belle hadn't understood well enough to fear. It was as though a part of them had withered and died in the face of their duty, instead of finding joy.

They drank their tea in silence, Rumpelstiltskin holding out his cup so that she could pour again. The chamomile was very fine indeed. A kind gift, like all the others.

"Sir," Belle said, wishing to ask while he seemed more at ease in her company, "may I ask you--" But fear overtook her, and shame as well, and her face grew hot as the words died on her tongue. "Never mind."

"Ask, child," he said, spreading his hands, then steepling them in front of him and watching his own fingers lace together.

"What did I do to displease you? On our wedding night?" The question was not unreasonable, but Belle's thoughts ran away with her tongue now that she had dared ask it. Oh dear! "I've tried to think, but I know so little about... about matters. Please tell me what I did wrong?"

She caught her breath as her tongue, mercifully, fell still. Her face burned with embarrassment and her heart skipped with anxiety, but Rumpelstiltskin shook his head.

"You did nothing to displease me." His voice seemed strained. "You did nothing wrong."

Belle had expected any answer but that, and struggled to collect her thoughts enough to understand.

"But you don't want me?" Could that be the whole of it - that he no more wanted her for his bed than he had wanted her to fetch and dust; than he had wanted her dowry?

"I would spare you," he snapped, his chair grinding across the flagstones as he stood. "That is all. To bed this--" he swept his hands up and down, indicating his own form with sarcastic elegance "--is not among your duties."

Belle gasped, stung for her own part but, more than that, horrified for him.

"Rumpelstiltskin," she said, almost knocking over her own chair as she jumped up, scurrying to put herself in his path as he tried to leave. "I am your wife!" He froze rather than try to pass her, his expression black and hunted. Bitter like the cold.

After a moment - an endless moment during which Belle's terrified heart seemed to try to beat its way out of her chest - Rumpelstiltskin reached out to take her by the chin. His hand was gentle enough, but he held her quite still, studying her eyes with the intensity of a hawk scanning the ground for mice.

"They weep for you in the town," he crooned, bringing his face nearer to hers. "The poor wee thing they saw in my carriage as we passed by. My lovely bride. They send you gifts to console you for having this monster be so cruel to you in your bed."

"Well, how would they know?" she demanded, indignantly, her words muffled somewhat by his hold on her chin. "They weren't there, were they?"

Rumpelstiltskin blinked and then, somehow, they were both laughing, with Belle unsure which of them started it. His mad giggle wove around her relieved and broken laughter for some moments, during which he released her chin.

Their stubborn set-to had deserved to be laughed at, but Belle still ached in her heart for the rest of it; that she had thought herself at fault when he thought only of her. That he thought himself so foul that he would choose to spare her.

"Sir," she said, when all danger of more laughter had passed and she could choose her words with care. "You were no monster to me. You were kind and gentle and gave me an opportunity to refuse you, and I think few brides are so fortunate as that."

He had turned his face away, breathing harshly as she spoke. Belle caught him by the hand, and squeezed. After a moment, looking down at their joined hands with his expression stricken, Rumpelstiltskin returned the gentle pressure. Because she had dared so much already, Belle once again rose on tiptoes to kiss her husband on the cheek.

She was only a little surprised when he turned his head, and returned her kiss with another against her lips. She closed her eyes, wanting to remember the sensation properly this time, but it was too elusive. Just a brush of sweetness and then it was gone and Belle felt shy.

"Do they really weep for me?" she asked, stepping back and dropping his hand. Rumpelstiltskin didn't move.

"I don't know," he said, hardly a whisper. "Very likely."

"Wouldn't you rather think that they wish us happiness?" Belle took one of the little cornucopias down from a shelf. She had seen them before, at every market and festival, but the thing was wonderful to her all the same - the simple wonder of not knowing how the delicate spiral of straw had been made. The precious wonder of knowing that it had been made for her. "I would."

"Then we shall choose to believe it, my Lady." His voice stronger, his back straighter, Rumpelstiltskin nodded to her and left the kitchen.

At once, Belle's knees went weak and she sat down hard on the table's edge. She had spoken like that to her husband, to Rumpelstiltskin! But there had been profit in it, no matter how it embarrassed her to remember her boldness. She could still feel where his lips had touched hers.

It took her some time, and another cup of the chamomile, to calm herself enough to sit still. She picked slowly at another of the pastries, the nervous flutter in her stomach having destroyed her appetite. She had all but demanded that he come to her! It was not how she had expected things to go with her husband - with any husband.

Belle had always known, since girlhood, that boys - men - found her appealing. Her father had known it and, long before Belle knew why, she had found herself always with a female companion when out of his sight. Later, when she had known the reasons why she must guard her virtue, she had been able to convince her father that she was to be trusted, and only Gaston had ever attempted to entice her to betray that trust, with that disgusting wet kiss. But other men had looked at her, and Belle had noticed the way she affected them.

How could she have known that she might need to make her husband feel welcome to that which was his by right? And how was Rumpelstiltskin to know that she valued so many other things above mere appearance?

Rumpelstiltskin had said that she was lovely. It only struck her as she cleared away the plates and put the last few pastries into the larder. He had said that she was lovely, a compliment higher in Belle's estimation than any of Gaston's stilted declarations about her beauty.

She took her time over washing and putting away the tea things, thoughtful as she worked. On her wedding night, she had been too afraid to think of more than obedience to him; too thankful that he did not hurt her to think of how she could show him kindness in return. And yet - she blushed a little to remember it - when she had touched his face as he took her, he had kissed her palm with such... yes, surely it had been gratitude?

When the plates sparkled and the table was free of crumbs, Belle took a deep breath and made her way upstairs. Rumpelstiltskin was not at his spinning wheel in the long room, nor did she pass him on her way up to her own rooms. She was a little bit glad of that, for her blushes had not entirely faded yet, nor had her shock at how brazenly she had spoken to her husband.

At the same time, the smile that had been with her the whole day was still with her as she locked her bedroom door. Two of the baskets were on her bed, full of cloths and fripperies, herbs and lotions. Female things, all, and Belle was glad of them, for in her haste she had not thought to bring all that she needed for her own comfort. Her hair felt heavy and her skin dry, and the women of the town had given her what she needed to remedy both. She could clean her teeth again with the pot of coarse salt, soot and sage; rinse her hair with lemons and sweet herbs, and soften her skin with fragrant oils in her bathwater. All that Lotte had managed for her, Belle suddenly needed to manage for herself, for they were things that Rumpelstiltskin's magic would not take into account.

His instruction to leave all mirrors covered still puzzled her. Whatever he thought of his peculiar appearance, he wore the finest clothing and so possessed at least a little vanity. Belle had thought herself modest, her beauty of no more interest to her than any other of her qualities, but it was difficult, without a mirror, to be certain that she even looked respectable and clean.

She took what she would need for the morning from the baskets to the wash room and then, with great care, placed the baskets upon the table in her little sitting room. Knowing that her thick hair would not dry by morning if she washed it now, Belle carefully brushed it instead and tied it into a soft braid at the nape of her neck. She had the vague idea that men preferred to see a woman's hair loose, to touch it, and remembered how Rumpelstiltskin had brushed his fingers against her hair at the inn. Hardly a touch at all, as though he didn't quite dare.

Well, he could surely untie a ribbon if he chose to, just as he had loosened the knot of her wedding gown.

Belle bit her lip as that memory slid through her mind. Her memory of her wedding night was in pieces, each sharp and bright, and each prone to come upon her suddenly when she was thinking of something else. His questions, his touches, his trembling. His leaving.

Her new nightgown was crumpled from use, now, and more comfortable against her skin. Belle sat by the fire for a while, her feet tucked beneath her and a shawl across her lap. She was waiting for her husband's footsteps, and waiting in turn for the shame of that to leave her alone. It was not quite a yearning, but she had liked his kiss, in the kitchen, and kept thinking of his mouth against her palm on their wedding night. That silent expression, in the dark, of something that her husband guarded against by day.

When she began to yawn and the fire to burn low, Belle blew out all but one of the candles. She unlocked her door, once again delighting in the small freedom of it, and wriggled to the middle of her bed where it was easiest to get warm.

On the coldest winter nights, at home, Belle had shared her bed with Lotte for warmth, and with any number of the castle's cats when Lotte was too sleepy to chase them away. In a bed built for one, that had been cosy soon enough. It was less easy to warm a huge bed alone, even in a warm room, and as she half-dreamed, Belle wondered if it would be better to ask her husband for a cat, or for some magic that would warm her feet instead.

It must have been an hour, or longer, before Belle heard his footsteps; descending from above, from wherever he habitually went after dark. She had not explored the levels above, and had no idea of what might occupy him there in the long hours of night, if he slept as little as he'd led her to believe.

Belle held her breath as he reached the landing and stopped outside her door.

All the blind fear of her wedding night came back, unexpected and unwelcome, but it was moderated by a little knowledge, now, and she was able to steady her breathing as Rumpelstiltskin lifted the latch and came into her room.

The single remaining candle seemed to alarm him, and he waited in the doorway with his hand upon the latch, staring first at the flame and then at Belle. He made a weak effort at a smile.

"I thought you'd be sleeping," he said, as Belle sat up in bed.

"I'm not tired," she said, taking a lesson from him and watching her own hands as she folded them in her lap. "Just a bit cold."

"Hmm." At last, Rumpelstiltskin entered properly and closed the door behind him. The flames in the grate rose slightly as he approached her bed. He seated himself at the very edge, and Belle saw that he had discarded his high-collared waistcoat since she saw him in the kitchen. He looked less imposing without it, softer in silk than he did in leather and brocade. "So," he said, softly, a lilt in his voice that reminded her of all that he was, "you'd have me be a husband to you, in spite of all."

Belle had no answer that was both brief and truthful. She offered him her hand, instead, and reluctantly left the warm place that she had made at the centre of the bed to sit nearer to him. Rumpelstiltskin held her hand, loosely, his head bowed so that his hair hid his face from her.

"Did you want a wife who wouldn't?" she asked, sadly. "Just another decoration for one of your dusty pedestals?" Shaking her head, Belle placed her other hand on his shoulder. "Do you regret asking for me, now that I'm here?"

As Belle had not answered his question, so Rumpelstiltskin did not answer hers. She heard him swallow, and he seemed so small at the centre of his whirlwind of magic. So hard to reach, when he was so near to her.

His hand tightened around hers and Belle felt something small and solid pressing against her palm. She opened her hand to look at what he had given her - a tiny glass bottle, sealed with wax, that seemed to hold smouldering embers but was quite cold to the touch.

"For pleasure," he said, gruffly. "I can give you that much."

Belle stared at the bottle, distracted by the beauty of the living substance inside.

"Do... do you use this?"

He laughed, almost silently, with no trace of his unnerving giggle.

"Few men would need my potions to help them enjoy you, my dear. A woman's pleasure is... more elusive." He turned his head until he could see the bottle in her palm, and touched it with his fingertips. "I've made many a good deal for such as this."

Belle closed her hand around the bottle, smiling.

"A woman told me that men aren't difficult. Is that what she meant?"

"Almost certainly." He smiled too, though with as much chagrin as humour.

"I don't need this if you don't," she told him, as tempted as she was by sheer curiosity. She offered the bottle back to him, but he held up his hand.

"Keep it," he said. "It is a small thing."

"And your price, sir?"

He flinched, and Belle regretted her teasing, but he named his price.

"A kiss, then." He met her as she leaned to oblige him, her smile refusing to be banished, and he lingered for a long moment with his lips against hers, his eyes closed. He seemed to sigh, as he sat back again. "A fair price," he said, nodding with careful composure. "And be cautious, my Lady. You would be unwise to drink the potion unless you plan on being sated at some length, shortly thereafter."

Belle sensed mischief in the warning, but committed it to memory nevertheless. She had no intention of drinking his potion, but she would enjoy having the glowing thing among her possessions, with all its mysterious possibilities. His choice of words, too, she took to heart. Sated?.

"Put this on top of my trunk for me?" she pressed the bottle back into his hand. "And come to bed?"

Belle wriggled back to her warm spot as he obeyed her, trying to find a place where her feet didn't encounter cold sheets. Rumpelstiltskin set down her bottle on the trunk with exaggerated care, and she could hear that he breathed faster as he returned to the bed.

As before, he did away with all the light in the room save for the fire. As before, when he reached her side after the awkward journey across the large bed to find her, he wore a nightshirt of fine silk instead of his clothing.

"Am I too bold?" she asked him, because the darkness made it much easier to give voice to such fragile thoughts.

"No," he answered, still gruff but gentle as well. Facing her, he sought her hand and brought it to his lips. "If everyone could be as wise, so young..." his voice changed, and it was the mischief-maker beside her, momentarily delighted with his own cleverness. "Well, I'd be out of a job, wouldn't I? That'd be a pity."

Laughter had never featured in Belle's hazy imaginings of the marriage bed. She could barely have imagined the dark and brooding Gaston laughing at all, for that matter. But how better to put someone at their ease than to laugh with them? Her fear had quite gone, for all that it was his queer giggle meeting her incredulous snigger. As exhaustion had given her a kind of peace on her wedding night, so laughter did for her now.

"There, now," Rumpelstiltskin said, when they were still. He touched her face, trailing his long nails against her skin so gently, and Belle realised that he must be able to see her, much better than she could see him in the dark. "There's pleasure, eh?" His fingertips moved along her jaw, then down her throat to the collar of her nightgown. He trembled, but not so much as before, and Belle lay still, comfortable in her warm patch and her pillows, while his hand explored her.

It was not the businesslike touch of their wedding night, when he had kept his oath to be brief about it. He ran his palm across her chest, finding her left breast and then her right, making her draw in a sharp breath and tighten for a moment. She had never known that her breasts were more than ornaments, waiting for her first child to find a proper use. When he touched her there something tightened in the small of her back, and she could not lie still as long as he continued doing it. He squeezed one through her nightdress, his breathing shallow and loud beside her.

Belle felt an ache when, with one more squeeze, Rumpelstiltskin moved his hand lower and caught her by the waist, drawing her towards him as he rolled towards her. The result was a kiss, but not like any kiss Belle had known; not the warm, sweet brushes that she had shared with her husband, nor the grotesque invasion that Gaston had attempted. Rumpelstiltskin's lips plucked at hers, and as she gasped... oh, he teased her inner lip with his tongue before smothering her mouth with his own, clutching her body close.

She tried to meet him, but they seemed to be at cross purposes and he moved his demanding mouth to her jaw instead, then her throat and even her shoulder.

This, she thought, overwhelmed and too busy to be frightened by it, was something that needed to be sated - this urgency, this appetite for her that saw his hand grasping her thigh, his thumb pushing insistently until she let him in between.

The stuff he painted her with was as warm as his hand, this time, and Belle shivered with enjoyment. She had felt such a thing before, at her own touch, but it had been a pale shadow of how it felt to have his hand there, exploring her rather than merely preparing her. There was the palm of his hand, stroking down from her tight curls to her most inner place, and then his fingers on the return journey, his knuckles skimming her and his fingertips spreading her.

She bit her lip and tried, tried so hard to be still for him and obedient to him, but it was a torment.

Belle wished that he would stop it, that he would put himself in her so that the blunt sensation of being filled up would soothe the unbearable ones of being teased with slippery fingers.

And then... then he did stop it, his hand going to her knee and resting there, and Belle felt bereft. He came over her, between her knees like before, but kissed her gently instead of entering. It was more than she could bear and a sound escaped her desperate attempts to stay silent, a keening sound that startled him and embarrassed her.

"What is it?" Breathless, his face beside hers, he was quite still.

Now that her husband wasn't touching her all over, Belle could think clearly again. She reached up for him.

"It's nothing," she promised. "Just new." She held his face between her hands, lightly, and felt the sweat and the trembling. The softness of his hair where it touched her hands. How could she explain to him about the contrary sensations he'd given her? She hadn't the words, nor the breath, and her husband was trembling and waiting for her.

Belle lifted herself and tried to kiss him, a clumsy mess of a kiss, but he seemed excited by it so she did it again, her hands going to his back and then, as low as she could reach and finding bare skin, she urged him to her.

It was not so difficult to take him inside her, this time, and Rumpelstiltskin did not wait and consult with her as he had before. He pushed deeper, deeper, until they could not join more fully without merging, bodily, and slid his hands beneath her, settling close. It was like being touched everywhere all at once; his thighs between hers, his hips and belly against hers, his chest rubbing her breasts and his mouth, whenever they managed to be still enough and find each other, covering hers, wet and hungry.

Belle had never felt so... yes, that was it, she had never felt so. He rocked gently above her, his hands curling beneath her shoulders so that his nails dug into her skin, but even the small pain of that became a part of the desperate puzzle of sensation. Belle was lost.

This time, she knew it when he was satisfied; his tender rocking became incoherent jerking and his hands became fists beneath her. His breath gusted against her throat and he made strangled sounds, while his convulsive movements grew shorter and shallower in her and then ceased as he slid out of her, hot and very wet.

Sated, she thought, stroking his hair very gently and not minding his weight, close above her and warmer than any blanket. She explored the word with her mind, attaching it to the idea of this boneless, panting stillness in her husband. Sated.

It was a nice word.

Rumpelstiltskin did not pull himself away from her, as he had before. Instead, a little awkwardly but with great strength, he reversed their positions; he below, her above him, and skimmed his hands down her back, smoothing down her nightgown to restore some dignity to her bare backside. They had lost the bedclothes completely - she could feel them around her ankles.

Oh, gods, she was dripping on him! Was it more blood? She scrambled away from him, pulling her nightgown between her legs to stem the flow and squeaking a mortified apology, but he caught her before she could leave the bed and drew her back with him.

"No, dearie, it's not that," he said, holding her only until she was still, then letting her be. "Hush, now. It's a messy business."

"Oh." Small-voiced, Belle let him draw her head to his shoulder. His silk was warm and soft beneath her cheek. His hand caressed her hair and then - she smiled, in spite of her embarrassment at her own ignorance - he plucked the ribbon from the end of her plait of hair and slowly smoothed her tresses free across her back. "You must think me such a child," she said, cross with herself and, in all honesty, with him. She felt out of sorts, now, and wrong in herself, and it had been so nice when they were busy doing it.

"Belle," he said, his voice deep and soft, soothing her. "You're no child."

Chapter Text

Belle had an uneasy sleep, and woke before dawn to find herself alone in her bed, the bedclothes twisted all about her. She had not truly expected that her husband would stay beside her; stillness did not seem to be in his nature and, leaving, he had whispered that he should not keep her awake.

She wondered if he'd spent the long hours of the night spinning yet more straw into gold.

By mid-morning, Belle had not seen any sign of Rumpelstiltskin. He had not been at his spinning wheel when she took him tea, so, curious and concerned, Belle set off upwards to look for him. She was certain that she had heard him climb the stairs again after he left her, so it was as good a direction as any.

Only one turn of the staircase above her own room, Belle was faced with half a dozen choices of direction. A long passage, several doors, the continuation of the staircase upwards or, at the far end of the passage, what looked like the narrower stairs of a turret. She had been unable to get much of an idea of the layout of the castle, but she first tried the door that appeared to be the one directly above her own.

The room was empty and full of thick dust that swirled up when she opened the door. Coughing, waving her hand in front of her face to ward off the dust, Belle moved on to the next. Three more doors revealed empty rooms before she found herself at the last, an awkwardly angled door at the foot of the narrower, spiral staircase. This one, she noticed, had no layer of dust beneath the door. It would not open for her, and Belle remembered Rumpelstiltskin warning her not to force a door that resisted her. It was the first that had.

Naturally, this made her itch to know what lay beyond it, but obedience won out over curiosity. She took the stairs, instead. As slim as she was, there was barely room to flex her arms to lift her skirts as she climbed; it made her elbows graze against the stones.

Belle knew that she had found him before she reached the top of the staircase; she could hear footsteps, and Rumpelstiltskin met her at the top, his hands behind his back and his expression sober.

"There you are," she said, slightly out of breath after the twisting climb.

"Here I am," he agreed, mildly, and stood aside. It was a roughly circular room with a wooden floor and wooden arches above. Belle saw the evidence of tremendous activity everywhere she looked - books lying open, quills in ink pots; tables laden with bottles, jars, pouches and strange things made of glass. The walls were all but hidden by tall bookcases, each filled with books. A spinning wheel sat close to a low window, which was open to the bitter cold morning. None of the windows were covered and the room was freezing. "Are you well, my Lady?"

"Yes, thank you." Belle had felt much better after a bath, her hair properly clean and her skin plump and soft again. She could not remember the dreams that had disturbed her sleep, and her lingering restlessness had been eased by exploring the new part of the castle. "So, this is where you disappear to?"

To her surprise, Rumpelstiltskin gave the question a moment's thought, head cocked, before answering.

"I think it is where I come from," he said, nodding decisively. "Yes. My work is here. My potions, my enchantments, my herbs and books."

"And a spinning wheel." Belle could see that he had been as busy with this one as with the other; a pot beside his stool was full to overflowing with coiled gold thread. "More straw into gold."

"Yes." He sounded unsettled by her comment, as though she had criticised his pastime. "Perhaps you will bring me fresh straw here, too?" Hopeful and uncertain, her husband sounded so ordinary. Belle smiled, turning to him. His appearance no longer jarred against her expectations after hearing him speak so softly; she was growing used to his strangeness, to his eyes and his pebbled skin.

"I shall," she assured him. "But do you never spin wool, or flax?"

He shrugged his shoulders, making his leather coat creak as he moved.

"Anyone can do that." He wrinkled his nose, a little playfully, and Belle laughed.

"So that's why you spend all your time making gold? Because no-one else can?"

"It's as good a reason as any."

Rumpelstiltskin went to one of the work tables and closed a book. Belle saw, just for a moment, that he was using the ribbon he'd taken from her hair to mark his place.

Feeling her face flush, feeling a new and uneasy pleasure that he would do such a thing, Belle hid herself and her smile from him by examining the bookshelves. Books had been her treasures, at home, and she had brought only two with her - beloved, childhood books that she could not bear to leave behind. But Rumpelstiltskin's books were less frivolous - herbals and grimoires, histories and pedigrees. Many of the worn spines bore no title, no indication at all of what lay within.

"I always wanted to see where a sorcerer did his spells," she said, when her circuit brought her near to his side again. He appeared to be in the middle of a number of tasks, mainly the preparation of various plants and roots, and to have abandoned them all as each new thing distracted him. "Brewed his potions."

"A curious wish," he said, frowning. "But here you have it."

"It looks like a kitchen," she decided. "A messy kitchen."

Rumpelstiltskin caught her wrist, moving faster than a snake-strike to intercept her as she went to touch a marble mortar full of yellow paste. His grasp was not rough, not painful, but he held her immobile.

"Careful, dearie. These are poisons. Touch nothing in here without first consulting me." At Belle's urgent nod, his hand loosened, opened, caught her hand and held it down by his side. His grip was just a shade firmer than felt comfortable. "What doesn't scratch my thick hide might just strip the flesh from your bones," he said, quite conversationally, in his sing-song voice that played with cruelty. "And I really can't have that."

Belle swallowed, hard.

"I-I'll be careful." She dared not ask why he would be making such a terrible thing, nor risking such fearful poisons no matter how thick his hide. "T-the door, at the foot of the stairs?"

"Hmm?" He blinked, as though returning to her from a great distance without having moved. "My chamber." He noticed that he had frightened her, then, and carefully let go of her throbbing hand. "Nothing there will harm you. An oversight." He waved his hand, vaguely. "You may enter if you wish. I seldom do."

There was his dismissal of her again, unspoken and yet so final in his cool manner, and in the careless gesture of his hand towards the stairs. Belle felt her shoulders sink, but there was her ribbon peeking out from the thick pages of his book, and she fixed the memory of it firmly in her mind. The man who had taken that ribbon from her hair last night had been welcoming and kind; had caressed her unbound hair so timidly as she lay with him; had wanted this keepsake.

How could it be the same man who frightened her so, who became so cold and terrible in the blink of an eye?

Belle hardly caught her breath again until she was at the foot of the stairs, out of his reach and sight. The door that had been closed to her now stood ajar, as if inviting her to enter. She pushed the door open with her fingertips, annoyed with herself for being half afraid to touch it. Rumpelstiltskin had said that nothing there would harm her.

The simplicity of his room startled her. There was a narrow bed, a wardrobe and a plain brown rug on the floor between the two. No ornaments, no comforts except for a sheepskin across the foot of the bed. No fireplace, no window. It was a place for sleep and nothing more; it seemed to Belle to begrudge even that.

Curious, although it made her feel like an intruder, she went and opened the wardrobe. His silk shirts were there, a dozen of them in shades of earth and gold. Leather breeches, too, and a brighter assortment of waistcoats, cloaks and robes. They were all finely made, fit for royalty, yet looked so very humble in the dark, stark little room.

There was no mirror.

What was he, this husband of hers, that he lived in a castle but slept in a hermit's cell? That he dressed in the finest cloth but never glanced at a mirror? That he'd bottle pleasure for her and then retreat to make the most awful poisons?

For the first time, Belle missed the simplicity of her old life. Her duties had been an honour, her father loving, her people generous. She had understood what needed to be done, there, and where her place was. What her future held, too; first as betrothed, then wife, then mother. It had not been all that she could dream of, nor hope for, but it had been simple to understand.

Belle returned to the kitchen, where she had carved out a space for herself away from the strangeness and the uncertainty. A kitchen was a kitchen - always useful, always warm, and she was determined to learn how to run it for herself. There were eggs, and she first tried her hand at cooking by boiling two of them in the big iron pot.

Her nurse had brought her eggs as a child, the yolks sticky and golden and the whites just set. Belle, guessing at how long it might take an egg to go from raw to this fondly-remembered perfection, was disappointed with the rubbery results. But she had cooked them and so she ate them, with a slice of bread and butter, and felt, at least, that she had made a good beginning.

~+~

Restlessness returned as night fell.

Belle had felt quite wrong, in herself, since Rumpelstiltskin had finished with her last night, and she couldn't decide whether she hoped that her husband would join her again tonight. There was none of the soreness that had followed her wedding night, but there was an ache - deep, low and ever so slightly sick. It flared occasionally in time with her pulse and left her out of sorts, with perspiration upon her brow.

Belle knew that vague discomforts came upon women before they were certain that they carried a child, but surely it was too soon for that? And, besides, the sensations were not all unpleasant. There was a feeling of heavy awareness, in the places where only her husband touched her, as though he had left her more empty than she had been before he took her.

It was not wanting, not like hunger or thirst, and yet, when she remembered his embrace and his kisses, her pulse quickened and the ache deepened.

So Rumpelstiltskin found her, near midnight, with her feet tucked beneath her in the chair by her fire and her thoughts full of confusion. He entered meekly and awaited some sign from her that he was not forbidden. Belle, whose last memory of him was that cruel grip and that cold dismissal, felt that she might drown in her own disarray.

"You can't sleep?" After some moments of her silence, Rumpelstiltskin crouched between Belle's chair and the fireplace, balancing neatly on his toes and gazing up at her. He was watchful, cautious. Hopeful, too, and Belle knew that he wished to lie with her again. At least that was a certainty.

"I was about to go to bed," she lied. Lies did not come easily to her, as a rule, but this one did. It would be impossible to tell him what troubled her; she had not the words for the tumult, even if he wished to hear them.

Rumpelstiltskin rose as she did, unfolding himself with athletic grace and bouncing on his toes before settling, half-smiling, and looking her up and down.

"A new nightgown?"

"An old one," she said, looking down. Their activities of last night had quite shamed the one she'd been wearing, and it was bundled in the wash basin, waiting for her to learn how to become a laundress.

He took her by the waist, both hands, and Belle gasped aloud. She had been ready for his touches beneath the bed clothes, in darkness, but to have his hands on her like this...

"Not so willing, now?" The cruel sneer was upon him, his voice like acid as he leaned close to whisper in her ear. "I see."

She pushed him away, but without passion. She didn't want him gone, only that cruel, gloating facet of him that had been too ready to seize upon her moment of modesty.

"No, you don't," she said, crossly. "I don't, so you can't possibly." Rumpelstiltskin looked as though she had struck him, not simply spoken her mind. His lips were parted, his eyes wide with surprise. "There's so much I don't understand," she managed, amazed that she sounded more angry than pitiful. She felt pitiful, complaining to the husband who had been so tender about things that she could not name. "I don't know how a wife should feel."

Sheer stubbornness kept her tears from falling, but she held the wrist that he had squeezed too hard, and bowed her head.

He wanted to leave. She could feel it, like a physical force trying to pull him from the room and leave her to her self-pity. Whatever desire he felt for her body was outmatched by his alarm at her behaviour, and he had proven that he would not touch her until he was sure of her willingness.

He wanted to leave, and yet he stayed, shifting nervously from foot to foot and hovering close to her without touching.

"Was I perhaps... too forceful?" he tried, some moments after the silence became unbearable to her.

"Oh, no!" She looked up at him, mortified that he might have drawn that conclusion. "Oh, not that. Not that." She saw his alarm settle somewhat. "I felt so..." But there it was, the root of her problem; she had felt so, and did not understand what it meant. "I truly don't want you to go."

"Come, then," Rumpelstiltskin said, but he sat in her chair and patted his knee instead of going to the bed. "Sit here a while."

Belle felt silly, perching herself on his knee like a little girl, yet it felt nothing like she remembered. Her father's knee had meant laughter, stories, tickles and fondness.

Her husband's knee pressed into her, with nothing but the soft cloth of her nightgown between herself and his leathers, and she no longer felt silly about it. He took the whole of her weight, tipping her back against him with no effort at all, until her head was beside his on the chair back and his arm encircled her waist.

It would have been uncomfortable, were he not so strong. His arm could hold her in place with ease, permitting her to cease all effort at remaining upright and rest against him, instead. With his free hand, he touched her, and Belle watched as he covered her breast and squeezed. His skin, his nails were dark against her nightgown, but it was the same hand as had touched her in the dark. She let herself be shocked by the sight of it, and let the shock pass away at the reminder of his gentleness.

"Tell me what pleases you," he said, kneading her breast without hurry. "Tell me, most especially, if something does not meet with your liking."

"That pleases me," she said, meekly, for it was difficult to find her voice while he held her spellbound with this quiet sensuality. Where, now, was the creature who had grabbed her hand to keep her from the poison?

With a quiet grunt of approval, Rumpelstiltskin shifted her weight a little to one side and gave his attention to her other breast. This one he drew between his fingers as he did the delicate fibres of his spinning, plucking at her until her nipple grew firm and then rubbing his palm across it, squashing it. Belle bit her lip, uncertain that she liked that, because there was that nagging emptiness again and it was not pleasant. It demanded, and that alarmed her... but, oh, she liked that he touched her at all. He did it again and she couldn't sit still, her lower body bunching up tight until she sighed the tension away.

"I think, mistress, that a particular need is what ails you," he said. He was smiling, smug. She could feel it and hear it. "Won't you try my potion, my dear?" He said the last with a pinch that made her gasp, not with pain but with shock; the feeling burned down through her like a tiny lightning strike, grounding in her thighs. "It's a good one. Effectiveness absolutely guaranteed."

Belle tried to refuse, but her tongue wouldn't move itself around the word. She shook her head, instead, curling herself in his lap to escape the pressure of his thigh beneath her.

As before, when his hand ceased touching her Belle felt bereft, but this time he plucked open the buttons at her throat, one by one and so delicately that she thought again of his spinning, of how the fine thread passed through his pinch before turning to gold.

She closed her eyes, her modesty again trying to command her body, but this time she told it firmly to go away. Her husband's touch was no sin, no crime, no shame upon her. His gaze was equally blameless, and when he'd loosened the lowest button and slid his hand inside, she forgot how she could have minded, even for a moment. His warm skin was strangely textured, but his palms were softer and supple; one fit around her bare breast so nicely, warming the nipple that felt too sensitive to any cold now that it was firm.

Belle realised that she was quivering all over, as though her body resisted some great strain, and then that she recognised it; he had trembled so, coming to her on their wedding night. Had he felt like this? The thought took her breath away, for there was longing in her now, and a dampness between her thighs without any need of his soothing gift. This was wanting?

Opening her eyes, dizzily feeling that she should share this revelation with him to explain her behaviour, Belle found that he had put out the candles. They still had the firelight, and Belle could make out his shape, but he had hidden from her the peculiar shade of his skin and the shock of his stained smile. He thought himself too hideous for her. She thought him too patient, too kind for an ignorant wife. A few tears got away from her before she bit her lip and managed to stop them coming. She would not want him to misunderstand, not when he was showing her such delights.

Her nightgown felt stifling. When she had put it on it had felt familiar, cool and pleasant. Now she perspired; as if she blushed all over and most especially in her secret places. She was uncomfortably warm, yet that had a pleasant edge to it, just as the heavy ache now did; just as the wetness did. Another tweak to her nipple sent another spike of heat downwards to stoke what had become a kind of furnace of heat and tightness.

Rumpelstiltskin breathed noisily, his face pressed into her hair, and Belle thought of how she had enjoyed his moments of obvious pleasure, last night; how it had pleased her to offer her body if it delighted him so, if it sated some need. Did he do the same for her now, finding pleasure in giving it?

She had been expecting... no, ready for... no, wishing for his hand to visit between her thighs, as when he'd prepared her before. When he dragged up her nightgown and, instead, pulled her own hand to the place, Belle cried out. He held her there, though, his hand covering hers, cupping her wetness and then - oh, sweet stars - moving her hand across every aching, wanting part of herself, cramped between her thighs. She could open her legs no wider without moving; she no more wanted to move from where she sat than to throw herself into the fire.

"Guide my hand," he demanded, his voice deeper than she had ever heard it before, and Belle obeyed him without a thought. Her whole being seemed to be pouring into that place where their hands met, and when she gripped his hand and moved it, caused his dry skin to slide across her moist lips, she saw stars in her head. The agreeable sensations of their coupling had been nothing compared to this; she wanted it forever, but the enormity of it was consuming her and surely nothing like this lasted in the world?

Rumpelstiltskin half-whispered encouragements, his mouth against her earlobe, his tongue flicking at her as though he longed for her lips, and Belle moved his hand until she could move no more and cried out, again and again as he kept on moving it without her guidance, firmer and faster than before.

Something broke in her, some pulsing joy, and she struggled in his arms, overpowered by it.

Her cries became weeping as the feelings ebbed; frantic, foolish weeping against his shoulder while she beat his chest with her closed fist, and Rumpelstiltskin clutched her to him until that inner storm passed as well.

He did not loosen the circle of his arms until Belle tried to draw away, and then he steadied her firmly with both hands, because she swayed like a drunkard on his lap.

"Did... did that ease matters?" he asked, so timidly that she wanted to laugh.

"I think it did," she said, and found that her voice was a dreamy sigh, croaky with tears and drowsiness. "Oh, I think it did."

"Very good." He rose, lifting her without effort, and set her down very carefully. Weak kneed, Belle reached for him at once and put her arms around him, all the way, her face against his collar and her hands splayed against his back. His trembling was far less than her own, but his flinch at her closeness suggested that his affliction, now, was similar to the one he had so recently eased in her. His hands grasped her shoulders for a few moments and then dropped to her hips, squeezing her backside as he had her breasts.

He would not ask, Belle realised. She was content where she was, but he wanted to be in her. Was the want, for him, as hungry and overpowering as hers had been, there in his lap? Was it more so?

"Come on," she said, directing him towards her bed but letting him lead her there, because she was unsteady on her feet. She made to lift the covers, thinking gloomily of the cold sheets that awaited, but Rumpelstiltskin pulled her to him for a kiss. It invaded her utterly, his tongue in her mouth, but her heightened senses found only enjoyment in that, and in his clumsy urgency. He lifted her onto the mattress, setting her down so hard that she bounced, and pushed her back with her legs dangling over the side, dragging up her nightgown.

His urgency excited her more than it alarmed her, bringing a little renewal of the ache. Belle raised her knees for him as he fidgeted above her, her heels finding awkward purchase on the soft edge of the bed. She heard leather being forced to move and, as he slid so easily inside her, she could feel that he was fully clothed save where he had exposed himself.

With the ease of it and all her moisture, it felt wonderful to have him there - not only inside her but rubbing against her, outside. Belle bit her lip and tried to be still, to allow him his selfishness as he had allowed hers. He made such noises, arching over her with his hands on either side of her; a sound on every heavy exhalation, fierce and triumphant. She would not have known it for enjoyment, had she not been aware of her own cries at the fireside.

He withdrew from her, suddenly, and before she could voice her concern had yanked her by the hips to the very edge of the bed and taken her again, driving so much harder into her that he knocked the breath from her. Off balance, Belle clung to him with her legs, feet locked stubbornly behind him, and his back-arching moan told her that she had found a way to please her husband better. Wickedly, she tugged at him with her heels as he thrust, urging him on, and a shuddering silence replaced his noisy efforts - a trembling stillness punctuated by one more, two more hungry thrusts inside her.

Rumpelstiltskin stayed over her, in her, for long moments. She could feel his gaze, although she could not see him. When he finally rose, Belle felt too weak to follow; she wanted to be beneath the covers, but her body didn't want to obey her. Only the knowledge that she couldn't sleep there, dangling like a discarded doll, persuaded her muscles to help her sit up.

"Come to bed?" she said, seeing that he was adjusting his clothing.

He returned to her side, cupping her face in his palm for a moment. Then he coaxed her wordlessly beneath the covers and tucked them around her, catching her hand, gently, to prevent her as she reached for him. He seemed lost for something to say and so, saying nothing, Rumpelstiltskin once more left her to sleep alone.

Chapter Text

Belle spent the following morning in her kitchen, raising the hem of one of her dresses and one of her petticoats above ankle-height. She was no seamstress, for all her sewing lessons, and found it much more difficult to work with the bulky skirts than to embroider a handkerchief. Even so, by midday, she owned a dress in which she could comfortably kneel to scrub a floor. More importantly, she could get up again afterwards without putting her foot through her own clothing.

This done, she explored the pantry with the aim of cooking something hot for their evening meal. There was always food aplenty and none of it seemed to spoil on the shelves. Milk stayed white and fresh; bread stayed crusty; vegetables stayed firm and meat stayed red and inviting. Belle distrusted such unnecessary magic and wondered if Rumpelstiltskin might allow her to visit the town, to buy what they needed at market. She would have liked to meet the townspeople, if only to thank them for the gifts that had so warmed her heart.

Distrustful as she was of the pantry and its contents, Belle was weary of making do with bread and cheese for her meals. That Rumpelstiltskin would conjure her a feast of lavish dishes, if she asked, Belle didn't doubt, but that was only more magic. Where did that end? She felt, deep in her soul, that the use of magic should and must end somewhere, lest it consume the world.

Perhaps it had already consumed her husband. Rumpelstiltskin didn't inhabit his castle so much as wear it like a second skin; it seemed he thought no more about the availability of fresh food or the lighting of the fires than Belle did about walking or breathing. At least in his workroom she had seen knives and cutting blocks, pestle and mortar, books and bottles - the tools of a trade, clearly well used and carefully maintained. There, amidst his spells and potions, he chose to use his hands to complete a task.

Belle did likewise in her kitchen, clumsily cutting up meat and vegetables and dropping them into a pot of boiling water, with a handful of herbs and salt. She knew that there was more to cookery than this, but the few things she had ever made herself under the supervision of the cooks had been dainty treats; small cakes, plaited loaves. She was going to have to learn her new trade - how to buy, store, prepare and cook - unless she wanted to eat magical food for the rest of her days.

When she was satisfied that she had the pot at the best distance from the fire, Belle went to change into her newly altered dress. She left her bodice looser, too, for the freedom of movement that she would need; it was far more comfortable than dresses that were made to flatter her shape and make her look a real lady.

Her hair she wound into a knot at the base of her skull, and stuck through with hairpins until it more or less stayed there. Since Rumpelstiltskin would not permit her a mirror, she decided, he should not complain if, sometimes, her appearance favoured practicality over beauty.

She could smell her pot of stew as she scrubbed away at the kitchen floor. She began nearest to the main door to the rest of the castle, and had worked her way neatly to the far side of the big table before Rumpelstiltskin came to find her. He stopped just inside the door, one foot held off the ground like a cat offended by something sticky, as he noticed the wet flagstones she'd left in her wake.

Belle smiled at him, sitting back on her heels with the scrubbing brush in her hand, and he skirted the room carefully to stand where the floor was dry.

"Woman, what are you doing?" He looked pained and sounded put out.

"Cleaning this floor, what does it look like?" Belle blew escaped wisps of hair out of her face.

"It looks like my wife thinks herself a scullery maid," he said, frowning. "Can you find no more... appropriate pursuits?"

"None that will get this floor clean," she replied and, enjoying his perplexity, moved herself and her bucket to the next dry patch.

"I can have it cleaned in a--"

"Yes, but you didn't," she interrupted, patiently and firmly. "Haven't forever, if I'm any judge. And now I'm doing it, properly, with a brush and my own two hands." She felt him watching her as she scrubbed with patient strokes then wiped the stones over with her handful of rags.

"I see," he said, eventually, with evident disdain. "And the cauldron?" Rumpelstiltskin picked his way around the fringes of her labour to inspect the bubbling pot. She heard him clang a ladle around inside it for a moment. "Is it dinner or laundry? I can't tell."

Belle made a face where he couldn't see it, then pulled herself to her feet. Her back ached and her knees were sore, and she would not have him tarnishing her sense of quiet triumph over the dirt. She was prepared to admit that the contents of her cooking pot did not represent a triumph over stew.

"Do you have a cookbook? That might help," she said. Bemused when his insult failed to rile her, Rumpelstiltskin stood like a statue, his brow furrowed, blinking slowly at her. He wore only a shirt over his breeches, again; a dark, earthy shade of red that made his odd complexion look even odder, accentuating his faint shimmer of gold.

"Why would you do this?" he pressed, as she went to stand beside him at the fire. "There's no need for you to do these things."

She could see that he truly didn't understand, and thought of him at his spinning wheel - so absorbed, so still in his work, seeming almost content.

"Shall I help you with your poisons, then?" Belle took his hand between both of hers, swaying playfully from side to side. "Or will you teach me how to spin gold?" She smiled at his incredulity. "I must have something to occupy me until our children come, Rumpelstiltskin," she laughed.

He made a faint sound in his throat, and pulled his hand away from hers with great care.

"You must do what pleases you, I'm sure," he said, his voice gone reedy and weak. He avoided her gaze, as though her mention of children had made him uneasy. "At least try not to scrub away my castle while I'm gone, hmm?"

He was almost to the kitchen door before Belle registered the meaning of his words.

"Gone?" She hurried after him, her shoes slipping a little on the wet stones. "But we've not been married a week!"

"I have business that cannot wait," he said, taking the stairs two at a time so that Belle had to scamper to stay close behind him. "I shall be gone for two days, three at the most."

"But..." she sought for the right thing to say, following him through the great room and to the marble hall. But I'll be all alone here, was first in her mind, and after that she knew that she would miss his particular company, his odd ways and his small kindnesses. "What sort of business?"

Rumpelstiltskin collected his leather mantle from the table in the hall, shrugging into it with ease. It make him look at once more fierce, more sharp and far more forbidding. It shadowed his face strangely. It made Belle hold her tongue, remembering to whom she was married.

"I go where I am needed," he said, his smile menacing. "Anyone who desires my presence must have a most pressing need, as you know better than most."

"I... I'll miss you," she said, uncertainly. She would miss her careful husband and his quiet, sad mysteries. She would not miss the haughty and terrible mask that he wore now, that cruel smile, or the way his magic seemed to whip about him in excitement at the prospect of going. He could barely contain himself, barely stand still. She could barely see in him the man who had touched her so tenderly last night. "Goodbye, then."

"My Lady." Rumpelstiltskin swept a deep bow, vanishing into a brief cloud of purple smoke.

Belle stood and stared at where he had been, her shock suddenly at war with a shameful relief that he had indeed gone.

That was soon replaced by a new fear. She had never, in her whole life, been alone anywhere. To be alone in a room for any length of time was still a novelty to her, and now she was completely alone in a strange castle full of magic and dust. To the best of her knowledge there were several, snowbound miles between herself and the next living soul.

A part of her felt excited at that. This was adventure! The rest of her felt small, and young, and afraid.

Just as when the encroaching ogres had made her afraid, Belle sought refuge in hard work. It was true that, at home, she had done so as much for the company as for the distraction, but she had to try. She had been foolish not to see that her husband would be gone - perhaps often, perhaps for longer than two or three days - and that she would need to make the best of it.

Rumpelstiltskin was the Meddler, the Spinner, the Stealer of Babes; he moved freely in the world and came when he was called, or simply when he sensed an opportunity to bargain. It was just... it was just that Belle found it so easy to carelessly forget who he was, and what he was, and what became of those who dealt with him. To her, he had been generous and, if not good-natured, then trying for her sake to be so.

Eating her solitary plate of tasteless, tough stew, her shoulders sore from finishing the kitchen floor, Belle thought of the faces at the inn; the horror of people who had not forgotten what Rumpelstiltskin was, when they saw that he had brought a new bride. She remembered the shock and pity of the innkeeper's wife, showing her to their room. It was what Rumpelstiltskin wanted - that fear, that disgust. He courted it, he cultivated it and he revelled in it.

And, for Belle, he laid it carefully aside, just like that sharp, scaly leather coat, and showed her something softer that lay beneath.

~+~

The feeling of adventure lasted her the first night, and into the second day. Belle ate at odd hours, sang as she swept floors and hardly jumped at all at strange noises.

On the second evening, aware of the loneliness and too tired to keep herself properly busy, Belle put her most necessary laundry in the kitchen sink to soak, then sat by the kitchen fire until her eyes grew heavy. She liked it better, there, than alone in her bedroom while she shared the castle only with shadows.

Although she eventually made her way to bed, Belle slept little, tormented by homesickness and by nightmares that flowed in like sticky tar to fill the hollow loneliness. She woke before dawn, sick with the dreams and soaked in her own sweat. She lay thinking of what Rumpelstiltskin might be doing, out there in the world. What would he take in trade for his services, this time?

The stories told that it was not always something valuable, but always something precious to the one he dealt with. Her father might have thought of that, when he penned his plea for Rumpelstiltskin to aid them against the ogres. Her father had never concerned himself with gold, more than was necessary for the security and prosperity of their province; he, like Belle, thought the stuff less precious than grain or horses, or farmland, or the wealth of the sea. They had offered gold because it was the most valuable thing the province had, but Rumpelstiltskin did not trade with provinces, towns or kingdoms; he made his deals with a single soul, always.

Belle's father ought to have remembered that, and perhaps Rumpelstiltskin would not have been tempted to demand that he deal, instead, with that which her father held most precious of all.

Perhaps.

It had been a harsh bargain, and Rumpelstiltskin had been sure to rub all the salt that he could into the wound before they left. Belle's father couldn't know that she was even alive, now, let alone that her new husband did, indeed, treat her as a precious thing.

She was overcome with a longing for her father, in those long, empty hours before sunrise. She missed his smile, his big hands and the way he spoke to her. She cried bitterly into her pillow, grieving more for her father's loss of her than for hers of him. When it passed, when winter morning peeked around her curtains, Belle dragged herself to her bath to wash away her tears.

Breakfast cheered her up, two eggs emerging from the bubbling water with their yolks sticky and their whites perfectly firm. She had counted carefully in her head, each time she had tried to boil eggs, and had, with only her third attempt, found the perfect number to produce the result she desired. Boiled eggs, tea and toast reminded her again of home, but the agony of grief was left behind with the darkness; it was only a soft sadness as she dipped her spoon into the yolk and thought of her old nurse.

Some searching over the past days had unearthed a wash room, with big copper vats, long washboards, a mangle and a pump. For soap, Belle made do with a bar that had been among her basket treasures. She could tell from the softness and slight lather that it had been made for the skin and not for cloth, that it was too fine and rare, but it was all she had and her nightgowns simply had to be washed.

The effort hardly qualified her as a laundress, the clothing not having been particularly dirty or delicate, but Belle enjoyed the sense of achievement when she dragged an enormous wooden clothes-horse to the fireside and hung her things there to dry. She was soaked through and frozen, her hands half numb and red from the water, so she spent a while there while her nightgowns and petticoats steamed, warming herself.

Rumpelstiltskin might return today, and if he had looked at her askance for scrubbing floors, Belle thought that he would be quite disapproving if he saw her in her soaked and rather grubby work dress. She should go upstairs and change, and then dry out the dress along with the other things.

Tired and still very cold, Belle felt her feet drag on the steps up to the ground floor. She welcomed the fatigue as the just reward for her hard work, and hoped that she would sleep better because of it, but she stayed a while to warm herself again in the great room, wandering around it to properly view Rumpelstiltskin's displayed collection.

None of the objects seemed terribly precious, to Belle, although most glittered in some way. One or two of them were horribly disturbing, including a severed, mummified hand that she suspected of moving when her back was turned. A pair of wooden puppets shared one of the stands, staring and ghastly, as though carved to embody some moment of absolute, blood-chilling horror. Belle had never stopped to truly look at them before, they were so unappealing, and when she did she felt a crawling terror beneath her skin and had to look quickly away. Their painted eyes seemed to follow her as she moved on and, to escape the sensation, Belle ducked quickly behind a curtain.

It was well towards a winter's early dusk, the sky overcast with the promise of fresh snow. Belle looked out at the gardens, and thought that they would probably be beautiful in the spring; the view beyond was of the mountains, which looked ominous in the grey light but would shine come summer.

A movement caught her eye, vivid against the stillness of so much unbroken snow, and she saw that someone was at the outer gate.

Belle's heart leapt, first at the sight of any living soul and then, as the gates swung open and her husband came through it holding more baskets, with relief that she would not be alone another night in the castle. Laughing out loud, she ran into the marble hall and, unable to contain herself for a moment more, flung open the great doors.

Rumpelstiltskin looked up from his burden at the sound, and cried out sharply as Belle ran, unthinking, towards him.

She never heard what he said. It was as though the hand of an invisible giant had snatched her up, bodily, and flung her back into the hall. Belle struck the heavy table so hard that it groaned backwards across the marble, while she landed before it with a sickening crack of bone, too shocked to feel any pain but terrified because she could draw no air into her lungs.

Rumpelstiltskin was beside her, faster than running would have allowed; he almost had her in his arms before she even struck the floor, but was a fraction too late to soften her impact with the marble.

"Belle," he gasped, his face grey and darkening, his expression stricken and fearful. "Don't move, don't move now."

She could not have moved even if she wanted to and then, for the want of air, she slipped unconscious in his arms.

Chapter Text

Something bitter in her mouth woke her up, coughing.

For a while there was nothing but whiteness behind her eyelids and pain as she choked, her body screaming, but once she managed to swallow the bitter stuff, Belle felt the pain recede. It became isolated to various parts of her body - her head, her chest, her arm. Her head was lifted and a cold spoon dribbled more of the stuff between her lips. It helped to swallow and not inhale the fumes, she quickly found, and after two more small spoonfuls the pain was almost nothing. Her head was lowered and there were pillows beneath her, cool and soothing.

"Belle?"

She turned her head towards the sound of her name. After a struggle, she persuaded her eyes to open.

"Oh," she said, seeing Rumpelstiltskin there, sitting beside her on a bed. Memory returned, like the incoming tide. Her husband, Rumpelstiltskin. His castle.

"That's better," he said, putting the spoon and a black glass bottle into a velvet-lined basket in his lap. It was full of bottles. He leaned over her, scrutinising her face urgently. "No more pain, now, eh?"

"No," Belle agreed, muzzily. There was no pain. There was no anything, really. She closed her eyes again and the whiteness became a much more restful black.

When she next became aware of her surroundings, things were clearer. It was her room; it was night. There was a candelabra drawn up close to the foot of the bed; the room was warm. Rumpelstiltskin was still there, had drawn up a chair to her bedside and was perched at the very edge of it, as though ready to pounce.

"Can you move?" he asked, nodding encouragement. Belle thought that she could, but seemed to have forgotten how; she felt so heavy, so limp. Biting her lip, she flexed her hands and then her feet, and nodded. The effort exhausted her and left her trying to catch her breath. "Good," Rumpelstiltskin crooned, leaning closer. "Very good, you're strong. That's good."

Belle remembered, suddenly, being thrown through the air and landing like a rag doll on the marble. She flinched, tears welling up, but it was too much effort to properly cry. The memory was harsh and horrible; the sound of breaking bone, of the breath being driven forcibly from her body.

"Does it hurt?" Rumpelstiltskin transferred himself to the bed beside her, anxiety making his voice thin and his eyes huge.

"Not now," she choked out. "How bad is it?"

"Oh, you'll mend," he answered, brightly. "Don't cry, now." He was almost pleading. Belle couldn't manage to lift a hand to wipe away her tears; didn't even know why she was crying. "Are you hungry? Thirsty?"

Belle shook her head, wishing that he would go away - that the medicine would make her sleep again.

"Why did you do this?" she asked, before she knew she'd had the thought. "Why? I wasn't running away, you know I wasn't."

More tears came, bitter with hurt and, now, fear as well.

"I didn't--" He was still pleading with her, more agitated the more she wept. "The castle keeps what's mine, I warned you that you mustn't--"

Rumpelstiltskin stopped speaking as her sobs grew louder, her body shaking with them. He patted her shoulder instead, before giving up all attempts to soothe her. When Belle was finally able to quiet herself, to blink the puddles from her eyes and see him again, his head was bowed.

"I need a handkerchief," she said. Sullenness felt strange on her - as strange and heavy as her ornate wedding dress had.

Wordlessly, he produced one. Out of the air, she noted, with one of those graceful shakes of his hand. Why couldn't he keep one in a purse at his belt or up a sleeve, like anyone else? She took it, moving an arm that felt leaden until she could dab clumsily at her face. Her arm was encased in silk, she realised; she'd not noticed the creamy luxury of it until she managed to properly move a limb. Finest, softest white lace hung from the cuff. He'd undressed her, putting her to bed! He'd undressed her!

At her damp gulp of dismay, Rumpelstiltskin risked a look at her. Seeing the question in her face, following her gaze to the silk, he set his jaw.

"Magic, dearie. I didn't peek, nor touch you any more than was needful."

"Oh." To add to her confusion, Belle now felt ashamed for thinking so little of him as to imagine he'd take advantage of her unconscious state to... look at her. He had made no effort to see her body while they were together, and she was certain that he could see perfectly well, even in the dark. "It... it's very comfortable. Thank you."

"And you're in no pain?"

"No. Was that magic, too?" Belle didn't like the thought of that, of his magic working in her, any more than she liked the thought of being seen undressed while she was unconscious.

"Magic, yes," he said, dully. "But not mine. These are medicines from the world over. Rare and precious." He raised his basket for her to see, before setting it on the bed out of harm's way. "I could do it much faster," he said, "but at a far greater cost to you. Better this way," he urged, hopefully. "Slower and better. You must only be still and let the potions work."

Belle could see his agony, as he awaited her answer and her blessing. She had no words left, and could only nod and close her eyes to escape the sight of him.

She slept again, or something close to it. Her dreams were vivid, dripping with unnatural colours and formless misery. Every now and again she was aware of Rumpelstiltskin rousing her enough to take another tiny spoonful of something bitter or astringent, and each time the sleep took her back, deeper, until she knew nothing at all.

~+~

Come morning, Belle could sit up in the bed. Her body still felt weighed down, and a pulling sensation in her ribs and right shoulder warned her against further movement, but it was a relief to be able to stretch her arms and flex her legs again.

The chair remained close beside her bed, Rumpelstiltskin's basket of potions on the seat, but there was no sign of her husband. Belle was first relieved and then stung by that, and then so impatient with her own ambivalence towards him that she became angry with herself and folded her arms - an action that left her all too aware of being injured. It was not pain, not exactly, but her body had told her in no uncertain terms to heed Rumpelstiltskin's advice, and remain still.

Belle had always enjoyed robust good health. The few times that some illness or other had confined her to her room, she had never been truly confined to her bed, and there had always been company. What would she do if her recuperation took days, or weeks? For the moment, she doubted that she would manage a chamberpot unaided, let alone wash herself or...

No. From her father, Belle had learned not to dwell upon the things that might not happen. Rumpelstiltskin would not leave her alone for long. His coat was draped across the foot of her bed, and he had left the chair close by. He had only stepped out. She was almost sure of it.

The pain, her hysteria and the fevered dreams that followed had not so much as dampened the silk in which he'd dressed her. Belle felt as clean and as fresh as the last time she had bathed, so perhaps his magic was at work to keep her sick bed as comfortable as possible. Yes, she would accept that much magic, she decided. Better that than call upon her husband to aid her with what Lotte had always, rather darkly, called "a woman's own things".

Lotte had always stood guard like a seasoned warrior while Belle bathed and dressed. She'd scurried out every morning with Belle's chamberpot covered in a cloth, as though it could possibly be the least bit different to anyone else's pot, be they man or woman. Oh, gods, and she would bleed soon, as well, unless Rumpelstiltskin's child had already taken in her womb, and Belle knew that she would accept any magic rather than have to ask his help with that.

Belle went rigid at the sound of footsteps upon the stairs; it could only be Rumpelstiltskin, returning from whatever had demanded his attention elsewhere. He was coming from below, not from his room of poisons and books, and that settled her nerves a little.

He came in carrying a laden tray, nudging the door open with his boot and waiting just inside, watching her face uncertainly.

"Good morning," Belle said. Her voice was hoarse; she was thirsty without even knowing it. The magic, again?

"You're awake." He smiled, or tried to, and brought her the tray. He set it beside her on the bed and Belle saw a china pot, a cup and saucer, and boiled eggs in little silver cups, the tops already sliced off to reveal soft yolks. There was bread, as well, and butter, and jam. It was more food than she would ever eat, even when she was well. "You must eat before the medicine," he urged, hovering beside the bed and waving his hands about. "The magic must be fed."

"With more magic?" Belle reached slowly for a piece of bread, sighing.

"Not at all." Rumpelstiltskin clasped his hands in front of him, finally mastering them. "I prepared this, properly, with my own two hands." When Belle looked up at him, his head was bowed and his gaze fixed firmly on the bedclothes beside her.

"You can cook?" She almost laughed at the thought of him, busy in her kitchen. "Rumpelstiltskin, the Spinner, the Stealer of Babes?"

"I can do most anything," he frowned. "When I've a mind to. Now, eat." After a moment's pause, he bent over and lifted the tray onto her lap where she could reach it better. "While it's hot."

Belle found that she did have an appetite, after all, and gratefully drank a cup of the tea he poured for her. It was awkward to manage, propped on her pillows, but the handkerchief he had given her doubled for a napkin, tucked into the collar of her nightdress, and kept her from staining it with egg and jam.

"Where does all the food come from?" she asked, when she was tiring of moving herself even enough to put food into her own mouth. She pushed the tray a little further down her legs, and let the pillows support her.

"What?" Rumpelstiltskin had been perched in the chair again, rigid and still. Even his hands. "From the town, for the most part. The surrounding farms."

"So, it's real food," she pressed. "The eggs came from a hen, the bread from flour, from a mill?"

"...yes." Bemused, he finally dared to meet her eyes. "Why?"

"Because nothing rots, in the pantry. Because everything is there when I need it. Because I don't want to eat magic food, or food that was taken from someone else's mouth to decorate your larder, Rumpelstiltskin."

"Mistress," he said, his patience strained and his eyes flashing with all too human anger, "I steal nothing, and I'll wager that few other egglers and millers receive gold for the slight trouble of saving a portion for their rightful master."

"Oh." Belle was the one to look away, then. "Well. Good."

He grunted, grasping the arms of the chair. He had obviously hoped that she would be more pleased with his offering.

"Now for medicine," he said, collecting two bottles from the basket. Neither was the black one with which he had dosed her into oblivion, before. One was smoked red glass, the other clear but containing a liquid the colour of crushed berries. "Is there any pain?" As irritated with her as Rumpelstiltskin had been, but a moment before, it was as though the prospect of her pain stole all his breath away.

"A little," Belle said, "when I move."

"Here, then." Rumpelstiltskin poured a spoonful from the red bottle. The liquid was clear and strongly alcoholic, to judge by the fumes; Belle swallowed it quickly, screwing her eyes closed. Her eyes had nearly stopped watering by the time he had prepared a spoonful of the second, thicker liquid. "And this one for mending. Three spoons."

Each spoon seemed more bitter and foul than the last, and Belle was glad when he corked the bottle and put it with the others, out of her sight on the ground beside his chair.

She felt a little dizzy, but the beginnings of fresh pain had already gone.

"How long must I stay in bed?"

"A day, maybe two." Rumpelstiltskin took the tray from her knees with exaggerated care. It was as though he was afraid she might bite him, or that he might, once again, inadvertently harm her. "I shall leave you to rest."

"No..." Belle tried to reach for him, but the medicine had robbed her of the strength. "Please don't go." Her urgency surprised her, for neither of them were in an agreeable mood, and his presence had been awkward. Yet, she wanted him to stay with her, whether for the sake of his particular company or, simply, that she did not want to be alone again. "Please. I won't be a scold, I promise. I only wanted to know where the food came from. Please stay."

After a moment of indecision, Rumpelstiltskin gave a delicate shrug and, as his shoulders fell, the tray vanished from his hands. Belle smirked, helplessly, at his expression of smug satisfaction as he arranged himself in the chair again.

"And what shall we talk about?" he asked, too lightly. Of the two of them, Belle knew that his was the greatest discomfort.

"Tell me about your journey?"

Pursing his lips, Rumpelstiltskin steepled his hands.

"I gave a fool his foolish bargain," he said, drawing out the words with a touch of malice. A touch of satisfaction. "There is little to tell. And while I was away, you became a washerwoman?"

"I tried," Belle laughed. Laughter brought that feeling of pressure back to her ribs and shoulder, and she struggled not to cough on her way to silence. "With olive soap and freezing cold water. I don't think I'd make a living at it."

He shrugged again.

"The clothes are clean." He gestured to the foot of the bed, to her trunk, and Belle realised that he had placed a folded pile of clothing there. "I'd say that you managed well enough."

"And you think me foolish for doing it," she said. Her mind felt less clear than before. The words came a little easier, without the stabs of hurt that had been nothing to do with her injuries.

"It doesn't matter what I think," he said, spreading his hands with a flourish. "But perhaps you'll let magic heat the water, the next time the whim takes you? You were frozen in those wet clothes."

Belle went to put her hand to the collar of the unfamiliar nightgown, but her arm didn't move. She blushed, anyway.

"What would happen to me if I uncovered the mirrors?" she asked, after a while.

"Nothing. Do not do so."

"I won't, I just... I mean, if I'd known that you meant I mustn't set foot outside the castle, even to welcome you home..."

"Yes." His voice was sharp, silencing her, but soon softened at her look of alarm. "Yes. If you'd known. Such a thing will not happen again, you have my word."

Her eyes were growing tired, her eyelids heavy, and she could not answer. After a while, she felt him cover her to her chin with the blankets, as tender as he had ever been in the dark.

Belle tried to feel angry with him for the harm he'd done, but all she could feel was sorrow and hurt. She had given him her word, had become his wife, and he did not trust her to be true to it.

That his magic had no subtle understanding of her intentions, she could understand. That Rumpelstiltskin had no understanding of what her oath meant to her - that she could not bear. But she would show him, she decided. With every day that she failed to betray her promise to be his wife, and every day that she stood loyally by his side, whether he charmed or terrified her, Belle would show him what it meant.

Chapter Text

When Rumpelstiltskin brought Belle a tray with her evening meal, she could already sit up properly in the bed to eat it. His medicines seemed to do their work best while she slept, and each time left her feeling a little better and a little brighter.

"So," she said, coyly, as she tried a spoonful of what looked like fresh bread pudding, "now you're the one serving me."

"Don't get used it it," Rumpelstiltskin advised, but without any bite in his words. He had been a careful physician, measuring out her medicine and making sure that she swallowed every drop. He had visited her frequently, when not actually sitting by her side, and on the previous trip had brought her the two baskets that he had collected from the gate before her... accident.

Yes, Belle decided, trying out the word in her mind, she would think of it as an accident. She had strayed into danger and been hurt, and Rumpelstiltskin appeared to feel as distressed about it as she.

The new baskets contained grander things than the first ones. One held fine needlework, and the means to make it; an exquisite lace collar that appeared to have been made from Rumpelstiltskin's golden thread; pots of rare spices and oils and two silver cups, their interiors gilded. One basket contained six bottles of mead, packed carefully in hessian and straw.

Belle looked again at the baskets, as she ate the hot pudding.

"Who sent these?" she asked him, but Rumpelstiltskin shrugged with exaggerated indifference, gesturing to her tray. She obediently took another bite, and sipped her tea. "These are from a wealthy place," she went on.

"There are merchants," he said, vaguely. "Those who manage my lands. Estates beyond my borders. I can enquire."

"I'd like to thank them," Belle said, hopefully. "All of them, the townspeople. Will I meet them?"

"If you don't eat up and take your medicine you may never leave this bed, my Lady." Rumpelstiltskin prodded her tray. "Come, I made it all for you. From bread, milk, eggs, butter, sugar and with my own two hands," he added, to forestall her. Belle smiled.

"When did you learn to care for an invalid?"

"It's a case of trial and error, so far," he said, showing Belle her first glimpse of his perverse mischief since her accident. "You're not dead, so it's probably working."

She found that it didn't hurt to laugh, so he was probably right. She finished the pudding, still smiling, and lay back against her pillows with a contented sigh.

"It was a very fine pudding," she said, remembering to be gracious, since she had not been so about the breakfast. "Thank you."

Rumpelstiltskin took her tray, his face hidden by his hair, and made a small sound that Belle took to mean that she was welcome. He sat next her on the bed, producing the two medicine bottles, but he kept them tucked between his hip and hers.

"I should examine..." he began, lifting his hands halfheartedly towards her shoulder, then letting them fall again. He was blushing, Belle realised. It was perhaps only in this particular light, the late afternoon sunshine meeting the candlelight, that she would have been able to notice the way the warm colour rose across his cheekbones. It made him seem so much less... different.

Belle unlaced the nightgown, wordlessly. It was loose enough about her to preserve her modesty to some degree, while she dropped the shoulder of the gown so that he could see her. Even so, she had a blush of her own while Rumpelstiltskin's hands grasped her arm, then her shoulder. He barely touched her, but she could feel the ache of deep bruises where he did, and looked down at herself in surprise.

It was black and ugly, from her right shoulder and midway across her chest; beneath her breast and down her side the bruising was a redder colour, far more angry and swollen. Her mind refused to understand how her flesh could look like that when she felt so little pain; she felt that she could not possibly be seeing her own body, battered like that, but then she remembered the magic. Magic in his rare medicines.

"Might I have died?" she asked, blushes forgotten as he helped her to cover herself fully again. "Without magic?"

Rumpelstiltskin fidgeted with the glass bottles beside him, his frown directed down at them.

"No. Not death. The pain would have been great for a very long time. It is better than it was. The bones have knit. Now your body must purge the poisons, the bruising, and lastly the magic itself. It will be a less comfortable night. Even a healing magic must exact its price."

His quiet matter-of-factness spoke to Belle of how deeply her injuries had affected him. But why? The whole world knew of the terrible things he did. She had seen for herself the vicious pleasure that he took in reminding others of his power, frightening them. Rumpelstiltskin took no pleasure in seeing the vivid reminders that marked her, now; he had about him not one ounce of that cackling, grinning glee. He looked weighed down and unhappy, instead, as any man might whose new wife had been hurt. As a man might whose concern for that stranger-wife ran deeper than mere courtesy.

Belle put her hand over his, over the medicine bottles, and felt him stiffen at the unexpected touch.

"At least you were here," she said, trying to offer him some small consolation, even though she felt little herself.

"It might have killed you, if I wasn't," he breathed. Belle sensed that he hadn't meant to give it voice; he inhaled sharply, straightening himself, and wrapping himself in the cloak of power and dark certainty once more. "Even my reputation might be a little tarnished by a bride who barely lasted the week," he quipped, and Belle took her hand away, slowly.

She didn't know how to speak to him, when he became like that - the creature who'd giggled like a cruel child at her father's anguish. She could only keep reminding herself, again and again, of what lay beneath.

Rumpelstiltskin grew calm again, administering her spoonfuls of medicine. The quiver of unnatural excitement went slowly out of him, and Belle made herself remember the warm blush lightening his cold-coloured skin at the prospect of uncovering her in daylight.

"Have you had many wives?" she asked, when she dared, and when she could speak again after a very large spoonful of bitter tincture. "Did they last longer than a week?"

"Ah." Caught by his own unkind jest, Rumpelstiltskin was able to be nearly gracious. He corked the medicine bottle with unnecessary care and slowness, his head bowed over the task. "One wife. Very long ago."

"Oh." Belle could feel the medicines taking her mind. It was growing dark outside, the winter's night falling fast, and she felt that she was being swallowed up with the rest of the world. It had been a very, very big spoon of the spirits, this time. "Oh."

Her thoughts swam, as Rumpelstiltskin lifted enough of her weight to dislodge some of the pillows from behind her. He laid her down again, one pillow beneath her head, and brought the covers up to her chin.

"Try to rest," she heard him urge, his voice coming from very far away.

It wasn't sleep. It wasn't rest. Belle found herself in darkness, in dreams, and yet aware. She knew that time passed, and that Rumpelstiltskin tended to her. She burned, her dreams of roaring fires and blood red skies, and when she could barely breathe there was something cool. A wet cloth against her skin; her face and neck. Her arms, her hands. It soothed her into stillness, in the dark place, and after the stillness came welcome oblivion.

Rumpelstiltskin spoke to her through the night, Belle thought, or perhaps she only dreamed it. She came to her senses only once during the hours of darkness, and found her husband beside her, stretched fully clothed above the covers, head propped on his fist, patiently dabbing at her bare arm with the biggest sponge Belle had ever seen.

"You're strong," he said, catching her eye and seeing that she was momentarily lucid. "It will be over soon."

"Don't go," Belle pleaded. "Not tonight."

"Hush, now," he answered, dipping the sponge into a bowl that sat between them, wringing it out and then stroking it across her brow. It felt wonderful. "Let the magic work. Let it be over."

Perhaps there was a little magic of his own, then, for Belle felt a different kind of warmth to the fever. Something in her mind, pressing her back towards the darkness. Her last memory was of his thin, nervous giggle close by, very quietly singing her to sleep.

~+~

Belle surfaced at first light to a piercing headache, and a gnawing ache that extended from her right shoulder down to her hip. Turning over before she remembered that she was supposed to lie still, she found that movement eased the pain rather than worsened it. She found her husband beside her, still atop the covers as she remembered, but sleeping now, his hand beside his face on the pillow.

So, you do sleep, she thought, and made herself as comfortable as she could on her left side. Sleep changed Rumpelstiltskin little, except to make him seem smaller. He was neatly proportioned and selected his clothing to accent the fact. Awake, he encouraged a fearful respect that fooled the eye. Asleep, his eyes closed, he seemed only a man. He breathed unevenly, as though his dreams were not peaceful, and his body seemed rigid rather than relaxed. Even the hand beside his face had made a tight fist.

Belle longed for the comforts of her bathing room, after her fever. The calls of nature and the aches of inactivity that had not troubled her in her sickbed were making themselves known, now, so she supposed that the magic and the mending were done. Should she get up, and stretch her aching limbs, and wash away the night of fever?

Perhaps not yet. Rumpelstiltskin slept so little; surely that meant that, when he did succumb, it was because he was truly weary? She need not disturb him yet, and what better opportunity would she have to truly look at the man she had married?

Keeping still, afraid that even her breathing would wake him, Belle let her eyes have their fill of him for the first time. For the most part his hair was a mousy brown, but a brown run through with all the shades of sunlight, and then a few shadows. The smoky discolouration of his skin seemed to come from something that spread, unevenly, beneath the flesh itself, something far darker than life's blood. His lips seemed too thin for his features, his eyes too sunken and the irises far too large, but he was not... Belle thought of his contempt for his own appearance, and sighed. He was not unsightly, not grotesque, not malformed. He was...

She could not find the right word. His appearance made the onlooker feel a wrongness; it was a warning, she decided, like the colour of a poisonous berry, the stripes of a wasp or the bold markings of a venomous snake. Those engendered unthinking caution or respect, alertness and awareness, but those things were not, in and of themselves, ugly. And neither was Rumpelstiltskin.

His skin creased strangely at the folds, dragged up into peaks that did not stretch and settle again until he moved. Belle moved her own hand, comparing the supple smoothness of her own flesh to the texture of his. In parts, his flesh seemed as coarsely textured as tooled leather; in others, almost ordinary, save for the hints of gold that put her in mind of fine scales on some tiny, scuttling lizard creature.

Had he been born so? Belle had known of Rumpelstiltskin and his dark deeds all her life, yet the stories didn't speak of how such a creature came to be. They hinted, sometimes, at a heavy punishment for some great evil, or at an abomination of nature that balanced out some of the beauty in the world. But those were stories, cautions for children and men alike, and the words no doubt changed over the years to emphasise the ever-present danger of him, more than the truth of his deeds.

Sleeping beside her, half curled in on himself, Rumpelstiltskin looked a danger to no-one.

When she could be still no longer, Belle tried to ease herself out of the bed without waking her husband, but it was a futile effort. He sat bolt upright, instantly alert, and froze Belle in place with the bedclothes half lifted. His eyes were narrowed, his expression sour. It was, for a few heartbeats, as though he looked through her and not at her.

"I'm sorry," she said, gingerly. "I tried not to wake you."

He blinked, and the startling intensity of his stare was gone.

"It is your bed, my Lady," he said, lightly. "I am the intruder. Are you feeling better?"

"Yes, much." Belle took care, placing her feet on the ground and reaching for the bedpost before she tried to rise. Rumpelstiltskin was beside her in a moment, but did not touch her. When she found that she could stand unaided, he backed away with a nod.

"If you can manage, I will leave you. There should be no pain, but you may be sore." He indicated his own ribs.

"I can manage," she assured him. The alternative was to accept his assistance, and... no. She would be careful. "Thank you."

It seemed to take her forever to ready herself for the day. Rumpelstiltskin had been right, there was no pain, but her ribs protested with every movement that stretched or twisted her torso. There was still redness below her arm, spreading further back than she could see without a mirror, but it was barely a mark compared to the way it had looked before.

Dressing was uncomfortable, so she left her bodice as slack as she dared, and tied her shawl about her to cover herself better. Brushing her hair was equally difficult, so she contented herself with a few strokes to tame it before catching it beneath the shawl.

The effort of preparing herself had tired her, more than she cared to admit. There would certainly be no scrubbing of floors, today, or lifting of heavy kettles to make Rumpelstiltskin his tea. What would she do with herself? Feeling gloomy, Belle took the linen and threads from her basket of gifts. Needlework had been her final resort, at home, whenever boredom threatened to undermine her even temper. Oh, she could make pretty things, but had never seen the use when there were women who, with their exquisite skill, could make so much better, and with it earn their living.

Any pleasure she had ever found in needlework came from the company and conversation of other women as they worked. But it was an appropriate pursuit, and Rumpelstiltskin had asked that she find one. Careful to keep her right hand near to a wall or bannister to steady herself, Belle carried her things downstairs to the great room.

Rumpelstiltskin was at his spinning wheel in the far corner, but rose when she entered. He approached her with stiff strides, but stopped some way short of her side. His expression was closed and cool, but not his eyes. There, Belle could still see the turmoil.

"Here," he said, a little desperately. A wave of his arm showed her that the armchair had been restored to the fireside and, with it, a footstool and a small table. "You should stay warm."

Before she even sat down, a tray appeared on the little table beside the chair; a warming breakfast of porridge, with a cup of tea. She smiled, and said nothing except to thank him.

While she ate, she heard him back at his wheel, but the creak of the mechanism was without rhythm and Belle felt... watched. She knew that if she glanced around, she would only see Rumpelstiltskin busy at his spinning.

Belle had taken up her sewing before he approached her, crouching with the roaring fire at his back and looking up at her, uncertain as a child.

"When you feel well enough," he said, forcing steadiness into his voice, "you will be able to leave these walls. Nothing will prevent you."

She tilted her head, watching him with narrowed eyes.

"I could go to town? To market?"

"... yes." He had expected a different question, she knew. Had no-one ever shown him loyalty, before? It seemed to confuse him, as if she spoke in a foreign tongue and left him desperate to follow her meaning.

"Then I shall," Belle decided. "I want to thank everyone for the gifts. I want to meet them, and see your lands."

Rumpelstiltskin blinked at her, blank with incomprehension, then looked away when she smiled.

"Then so you shall, my dear," he said, too brightly, springing up and hurrying back to his spinning wheel. "So you shall."

Chapter Text

Belle's day of rest surprised her by not being unpleasant. Rumpelstiltskin was both attentive and distant, so that she was neither lonely nor engaged with his conversation. It was peaceful, restful, and she patiently sewed a new sampler of the stitches that she might like to decorate a nursery. It gave her more satisfaction than she might have expected.

Rumpelstiltskin spent many hours at his spinning wheel, seeming content with her silent company. He saw to it that she ate heartily, and shared tea with her twice, but it was only when Belle rose at dusk to return to her room that the careful spell between them was broken.

"Will I see you later?" she asked, going to watch him at the wheel. His eyes widened in surprise, but only for a moment before he frowned down at his own knees.

"You must rest," he said, doing his best to appear preoccupied with his work. "Good night, my Lady."

Belle made her way around the great wheel, stepped up onto the low platform that housed it, and bent to kiss Rumpelstiltskin's cheek.

"Good night, then," she said, feeling him freeze in place at her small gesture. She was sure that he even held his breath until she left his side.

Although she felt well rested, the climb to her room was less easy than before. Belle went slowly, thinking as she climbed of Rumpelstiltskin's shyness, and his surprise at every small gesture of affection or warmth. Or loyalty. That she had not immediately asked to return home to her father had shocked him, she knew. Would he have let her go? Let her go never to return? She would still be his wife but, such things were not unheard of; not as much disgrace as to be unfaithful, or simply abandoned by her husband. Her father would welcome her, wouldn't he, whatever her shame?

Belle wondered what it would be like to live, every day, without the certainty of another person's love. Without company, without the slight touches that could not be helped as people went about their business in the same space. Without smiles or conversation. How long had he been alone in his echoing castle, surrounded by his dusty magpie treasures and his horrid relics?

One wife, he'd said. Long ago. The stories spoke of Rumpelstiltskin across generations, and far back into the mists of time; he was older than many of the borders that carved up the world. And in all that time, one wife? That didn't preclude other possibilities, but Belle knew, in her heart, that Rumpelstiltskin had never peopled his castle with companions, with lovers, with courtesans or even with servants. Her gestures of simple human warmth would not shock him so, otherwise.

At her room, at last, Belle sank down onto the edge of the bed. The candles always came alight as she entered, a silent welcome. There was always a fire in the hearth, suitable for the weather, and it never needed her attention. The bed was made and the sheets always fresh. Tonight, the silk nightgown in which Rumpelstiltskin had clothed her lay spread at the foot of the bed, quite fresh and clean, even though it had been damp with the sweat of her fever when she'd removed it. Belle fingered it as she sat, swinging her legs from the great bed. It was a lovely garment, needing no delicate embroidery or rare dye to make it luxurious; the generous expanse of plain, smooth silk the colour of buttermilk was enough. Only the blue ribbon that laced from chest to throat broke the simplicity, and Belle realised, belatedly, that the shade was a very good match for her eyes.

She remembered how Rumpelstiltskin had held her close, in the chair beside the fire, and how he'd loosened the pearl buttons of her old, plain nightgown. She could imagine, all too clearly, seeing his fingers unthread the blue ribbon one night, touching her again just as he had by the fire. The vivid thought shocked her for a moment, until she asked herself why it should. There was nothing wrong in welcoming her husband's touch; she was shrewd enough to know that not all wives did, let alone found any pleasure in their duty. She could have gleaned as much from Rumpelstiltskin's assumptions on their wedding night alone.

Belle was fortunate, then, to have a husband who was both tender and concerned for her pleasure, and if her thoughts filled with images of his hands upon her... well, how could that be wrong?

There had been no more of the distracting ache, since that night, but it crept upon her as she thought of these things, and increased when she changed her day clothes for the silk nightgown. Knowing where the heavy sensation could lead, she tried not to mind it; she did not feel the unhappy restlessness that had accompanied it before. Why it would come upon her when her husband had made it plain that he wished her to sleep, Belle didn't know, but it was as if her body prepared itself for him, regardless. That made a little sense. To have him inside her had been far easier, that last time they were together; he had not needed to take such great care with her, after her own pleasure.

Belle left the door open, and went to sit by the fire. At the very least, she wanted him to be sure of his welcome if he passed by her door in the night.

Her ribs still felt sore when she raised her arms, so she struggled once more to brush her hair. It had knotted, and needed real attention, but the discomfort soon persuaded her to stop brushing. Few other movements still pained her, and she did not think that Rumpelstiltskin would be pleased if she did herself further injury just for the sake of her vanity.

She had not been at the fireside for long when she heard him on the stairs. He stopped outside her open door, and Belle tried very hard not to smile to herself.

"Do you have some magic that can untangle my hair, Rumpelstiltskin?" she called, not turning around. Yes, she wanted him to be quite certain of his welcome. She did smile, but out of his sight at least. "It hurts to brush it."

"Well then," he said, coming slowly to stand beside her chair, "let us see."

Belle had expected magic, since she had asked so boldly for some, but Rumpelstiltskin merely took the brush and comb from her hand and, urging her to sit forward a little, began to work the tangles loose himself. He did not have Lotte's patient skill for it but, after her first indrawn breath of protest, he learned to grasp each hank of hair at her scalp before he pulled on the knots lower down with the comb. After a few awkward pulls - and some irritable snorts that Belle suspected would have given birth to hearty curses, were he not minding his manners in her company - he seemed to learn the way of it. Hair, she supposed, was only a sort of fibre, and his hands were truly skilled at dealing with that. She closed her eyes as he worked, first combing out the tangles and then, returning the comb to her hand, slowly brushing her hair through until it was smooth.

"Lovely," he declared, scooping all of her hair back behind her shoulders and smoothing it down with his hands. He gave her back the brush. "My Lady."

He would leave, Belle realised with a sinking heart. He had done as she asked, and now he would leave unless she stopped him.

"My maid, Lotte," she said, stammering the first words in her haste. "She brushed my hair every morning and night. I'd forgotten how nice it is. Thank you."

"Was that the one who dripped snot the entire time I was at your castle?" he asked, with sneering distaste. "And took to her bed while her mistress married a monster?"

"Don't be unkind," Belle complained, but his words were only the truth, embroidered with his own sarcastic condemnation. Lotte had done those things. "She was afraid for me. She was my oldest friend."

"Not friend enough to plead with me to spare you," he said, his hands returning to her shoulders. "Not enough to offer herself in your stead, or beg to be allowed to remain at your side, come what may."

Well, she had wanted him to stay. This was her husband, and her husband could be cruel in ways that mystified Belle. He could make the truth seem cruel, while she, herself, always tried to look upon it kindly. He was still her husband, and she had wanted him to stay with her tonight. She could not invite one aspect of him into her bedroom and lock out another. All of it was Rumpelstiltskin.

"No," she said, sighing her disappointment. Perhaps some of it belonged to Lotte, for abandoning her when she had most needed those around her to be brave. "I shall have to learn to care properly for my own hair, that's all. And you're not a monster."

"Am I not?" He removed his hands from her shoulders with exaggerated care. "Then why did your snotty maidservant weep so, I wonder? Perhaps joy at our impending nuptials simply overcame her?"

There was still that unkind bite to his words, but Belle detected weariness as well. He'd grown tired of his own game, finding that she would not play along. When she turned, a little afraid in spite of herself, she saw him quickly turn his face away from her, lips pursed. His mood unsettled her, but then she thought of how he had nursed her, how he had seen to her during her day by the fireside, and found a little certainty there. She went to him, took his hands in hers, and waited for him to look at her. He concealed himself even then, head bowed so that she could not see his eyes while he, it seemed, studied the blue ribbon that closed her nightgown.

"The silk suits you well," he said, with the little-boy coyness that always startled Belle as much as his crude attempts to alarm her. "I will bring you more, the next time I travel."

She looked down at herself in surprise. This had been from his journey? But, then, he had never said that the gown was magical in origin, only that he had used magic to clothe her in it.

"Another gift?" Touched, and shy herself because of it, Belle squeezed his unresisting hands. "Thank you."

Somehow, between them, they succeeded in coming together for a hesitant kiss. Rumpelstiltskin closed his eyes, so Belle did likewise as their lips brushed together. For just a moment, the tip of his tongue teased her mouth, her small, startled gasp allowing him the opportunity to go deeper. His hands tightened in hers, pulling her a step nearer, but no sooner had she complied than he let her go and, almost stumbling, stepped away himself. He looked hunted. He looked afraid, Belle realised, frozen on the verge of some silly, teasing protest. She held her tongue.

"You must rest," he said, slightly breathless. His eyes darted about, avoiding the sight of her. "Tomorrow is market day. If you are well enough, we will go in to town. I'm sure that they're quite beside themselves with curiosity about you, by now."

His words put Belle in mind of her old nurse, encouraging her to go obediently to bed with promises of some treat or favour that tomorrow might hold, as long as she was a good girl.

"All right," she said, failing to entirely conceal her unhappiness at this turn of events. She had very much liked to be kissed with such sweet reverence, and to watch his bashful interest in her.

Rumpelstiltskin gave her one of his elegant half-bows, looking quite relieved, and closed her door firmly behind him on the way out. For a few breaths, he stayed outside her door. Then, by the sound of it taking two steps at a time, he climbed rapidly upwards.

Well! Belle would be the first to admit that her flirtations were clumsy and unpractised. Perhaps a wife who was too forward was more alarming to Rumpelstiltskin than a reluctant one? It was food for thought, as she went around the room and blew out the candles.

She braced herself before pushing her feet beneath the chilly bed sheets. She had searched the kitchen levels for a warming pan and found no such thing; not a terrible surprise, since her husband appeared neither to feel the cold or to spend any more time occupying a bed than he must. Perhaps, if he cared to go on giving her gifts, she could find a way to let him know that warmer feet would be ideal for the winter months.

Waiting for sleep to find her, Belle thought about Mistress Elena's advice before her wedding. She had been wrong about one thing; Rumpelstiltskin most definitely did not want to do it all the time. Her conversation with Elena had left Belle with the idea that she would spend the first months of her marriage learning tactful ways to evade her husband's overbearing attentions. Or... or might it be the other thing? Elena had said something about how often a man could manage it, as though that would be at odds with his appetite. Was there a limit to a man's capacity, just as there was for food and wine?

Had she been at home, now, Belle knew that she would simply have steeled her nerve, endured her blushes, and asked Mistress Elena to tell her the rest of it. Better that than to unknowingly offend her husband through her ignorance.

Brides should be told, she decided, that husbands might be unsure, and oddly sweet in their uncertainty, and think themselves too ugly. Belle had known that husbands could be brutes, that the act could bring blood and pain. She had known enough, too, to hope that her future husband might be a better man than that; that he might think of her. She had known that it could be endured, regardless, so that there would be children and a future. But the rest of it? The aching, the pleasure, and the warming comfort of his close embrace? The hollow wanting, knowing that he did not want her tonight? Who told a bride how she should manage all that?

As the bed warmed, the ache deepened until it was a throb that counted her pulse for her. Belle bit her lip and tried her own hand between her legs, curling her fingers to catch the moisture that had already come and spreading it, as he had, over the most sensitive peak just beneath her curls.

Her own touch had pleased her well enough, when she was younger and merely curious; she had rubbed and plucked and played with herself in the dark, mindful of her precious maidenhead, and found the outer edges of a shivering delight. Now, a wife, she dared to try two crooked fingers inside herself, and found that from there she could, as well, move her thumb over the slippery nub that exposed itself as her pleasure deepened. She remembered Rumpelstiltskin's hand, with her own clumsy guidance, and how the coarseness of his palm had felt delicious against her wetness, but her own smoothness was pleasant too. The callus on her middle finger, from her needlework, offered a pleasant contrast and soon... yes, she was rocking helplessly against her own hand, and thinking of how Rumpelstiltskin rocked against her, until the hot sweetness burst in her belly, and stiffened her limbs in a twitching, involuntary dance to the music of her own whimpers.

Oh.

This time, without her foolish sobbing and struggles, Belle felt the pulsing subside slowly within her, drawn out and responsive to the slight movements she made to get comfortable on her side. Her hand was coated with her own fluid, thin and slick compared to the balm with which Rumpelstiltskin had coated her to prevent harm. No wonder it had been better, easier and more natural, when he took her after that.

Pleasantly sleepy, her breathing and her heartbeat settling slowly as her excitement ebbed into fatigue, Belle pushed away her self-conscious regret. She did not think that Rumpelstiltskin would begrudge her the moments of pleasure, and surely she could use the better understanding of her own pleasure to increase his? Gods all around, but did he feel like that when he finished on her, jerking and trembling and trying so desperately not to make a sound?

Her toes curled up tight at the very thought and, noticing it, Belle smiled to find that her feet were perfectly, deliciously warm.

Chapter Text

Belle could barely contain her excitement at the prospect of leaving the castle. While she had fewer and fewer objections to Rumpelstiltskin's company, she found his home dark and depressing with its shrouded windows and perpetual state of twilight. To be outside, and on such a bright blue winter's day, seemed irresistible.

She had worn a simple dress of blue, and her warmest underthings, and beneath it all the only pair of practical shoes she owned. They were heavy, short boots in a tan leather, lined with sheepskin. She had seldom needed them at home, where winters were milder and the roads good, but the snow around Rumpelstiltskin's castle remained knee-deep.

Breakfast waited for her in her small sitting room, and Belle was hungry enough that she couldn't mind if he had put it there by magic. She had not heard him enter the room while she bathed. Porridge, bacon and eggs with hot tea got her warm from the inside so that, once wrapped up in her travel cloak, she found her cheeks glowing with a combination of heat and excitement.

Rumpelstiltskin met her at the foot of the stairs, standing tall with his hands behind his back. He wore a golden-green shirt, rich with embroidery, beneath one of his high-necked waistcoats and the stiff coat of scaled leather.

"Will I do?" she asked, looking uncertainly down at her own clothing. She hoped that he would not want her in her best finery; the best she had was her golden betrothal gown, cut for beauty rather than warmth and, leaving aside all other considerations, it was not one that she could put on properly without some help.

"You are their mistress," he said, simply, ushering her towards the doors. "Your carriage awaits."

Belle had expected to walk, which seemed ridiculous after a few trudging steps through the snow. Had Rumpelstiltskin not already made a path, she might have taken the rest of the morning just to reach the carriage that did, indeed, await them. As it was, Rumpelstiltskin simply picked her up and deposited her on the step of the carriage rather than let her struggle through the final snowdrift. He swung himself in behind her, clearly in a good mood, and sat opposite her as they set off.

Once again, Belle had not managed to get a good look at the coachman. At the inn, she had thought that he was dark-skinned, but seeing him in the bright light that reflected from so much snow, he looked less a dark man than a shadow in the shape of a man, bundled up in even darker clothing. Fearing that she would not like the answer, Belle decided not to ask - for the moment.

"What's the town called?" she asked, holding aside the small curtain so that she could see the world outside.

"Odstone. All these lands go by that name."

"And you are master of all of it?" He nodded, vaguely. From the town to the mountains, he'd said, and from the town to the river. She had see how far the mountains were. How far was the river? "Were you born here?"

"No." Rumpelstiltskin looked surprised. "No. I became the master here when I won the castle. Since the former owner was a troll, no-one objected much."

"A troll?!" Belle stared at him, round eyed, and his broad smile made her suspect that she was being teased. "Trolls don't have castles."

"Trolls don't build castles," he corrected her, with a playful wag of his finger. "When they decide they want to live in one, it's surprising how fast everyone else decides to leave."

"And when you turn up, the trolls leave." Belle returned his challenging smile.

"The place was shocking," he said, sitting back happily. "You've no idea."

Rumpelstiltskin's good humour only lifted Belle's own spirits higher. Although she came from a market town, a prosperous one, the war had cut them off from all of the trade routes but the sea, long before their own borders came under attack. Once attacked, they had prepared for siege - to protect as many as possible within the walls, to arm the fighters and to store provisions. The bright and bustling market stalls with their goods from the world over had become a thing of the past. She looked forward to seeing a market in a town at peace, again.

"Here." Rumpelstiltskin tossed her a small leather pouch that clinked with coins. From the weight in her palm, Belle guessed that much of it was gold. "No haggling. The castle pays whatever is asked. If anyone takes unfair advantage of the arrangement... well. They know what awaits them when they're caught." At her shocked expression, Rumpelstiltskin rolled his eyes. "The district prospers. No child sleeps with an empty belly. There is a price for their comfort, and it is obedience to my wishes. I am not disturbed for trivialities. I am not cheated by the traders."

"I understand," Belle said, nervously. She put the purse into the pocket inside her cloak, and tried to smile again as she drew the warm wool close about her.

The main road was clear of snow, she realised. It coated the trees, still, and ran in thick drifts along the road's edge, but the track was well maintained and easily passed. Rumpelstiltskin's work? She looked across at him, hoping to ask, but saw that he was absorbed with a restless game of cat's cradle. He was using the white satin lace from her wedding dress.

Belle's cheeks grew warm again, and she quickly looked back out of the window.

As the coach slowed, she got her first look at the town of Odstone. The buildings looked old, as though they had changed and improved over centuries rather than been knocked down and rebuilt as fashion or necessity demanded. Most of the outlying buildings were squat, stone affairs with reed thatched roofs, but once the carriage rode on cobbles, some of the buildings were larger. Two or three storeys, some of them, the upper floors of timber, with delicate leaded glass at the windows and ornately carved, brightly painted shutters outside.

The sounds of a busy market met her ears, but she sensed that things grew less noisy at their approach.

Rumpelstiltskin saw her worried expression, and pocketed the white string with a predatory smile.

"I said they'd be dying to see you," he said. "They're never happy to see me."

Belle waited for him to help her step down from the carriage, and held on to his arm as she took her first look around. The town, like the main road, was cleared of snow. The cobbles were icy, but it was as if the snow had either avoided the place or been meticulously cleared from every public street. The rooftops were still heavy with it, the trees bent under the weight of it. It was a strange sight.

Market stalls stretched across a square space centred around a crossroads. There was a large, covered well at the far side, and Belle could see that it was in constant use; it had not frozen. Even at home, she could remember drinking water melted from snow and carefully boiled. Was it for these comforts that Rumpelstiltskin demanded their obedience, and threatened some terrible price if disobeyed?

"What will you buy, my dear?" Rumpelstiltskin gave her a firm tug towards the crossroads. People were stopping, staring, and then hurrying about their business when they realised they had done so. They did not receive the looks of naked fear that Belle remembered from the inn, but caution seemed to have settled over the town. People lowered their voices, averted their eyes, gave Rumpelstiltskin a wide berth but, Belle saw, nodded to them as they passed. They were not wholly unused to having him among them, then.

She tried to smile at one or two people, but nobody would catch her eye.

"I don't know," she said, letting her hand fall from her husband's arm. After a moment, she pushed back her hood as well. "At home we make lace and fine cloth. What does Odstone make?"

"Pots, ornaments. Anything from clay." Rumpelstiltskin gestured to a couple of stalls of gleaming glazed wares. "I understand that the bakeries hereabouts are among the best in all the lands. Leather, too." He sounded disinterested. Belle supposed that he took what he had a use for and thought no more about it. "Off you go, dearie." He passed her a small, open basket. She was quite sure that he hadn't been holding it a moment before.

Wondering if people might be more friendly if she did not have the Spinner beside her, Belle nodded to him and set off towards the stalls. Many of them had goods from elsewhere, she could see; she would not have been surprised to find some of the lace or embroidery at which her own town excelled. There were sweets, spices, hot pies and, as Rumpelstiltskin had said, anything she could imagine made from leather or clay. A bubble of hush seemed to surround her, making her self-conscious and a little angry. Finally, she planted herself face to face with a stallholder, an elderly man selling pastries, and gave him a resolute smile.

"Good morning," she said. He nodded to her, rising from his stool and waiting respectfully. "I recognise these," Belle said, pointing out the curly, flaky pastries that had been the first to catch her eye the other day. "Did you send some to me, at the castle?"

"I did, my Lady," he said, with a nervous smile. "Everyone hereabouts sent something, and the boys carried the baskets up to the castle."

"We enjoyed them," Belle said, and then, a bit desperately, "very much. Thank you." She could have cried out with her frustration. At home, a trader would eagerly push his wares on anyone who stopped at his stall, as long as they looked like they might own a coin. This man simply waited for her to speak, respectful. "I'd like to buy two of each," Belle said, with forced cheer. She held out her basket, almost pleading, and his smile warmed a little as he carefully laid the sticky treats in short rows for her. "What's your name?"

"Hadley, Mistress." He held up his hands when Belle tried to pass him a likely looking coin. "My wife and I wish you joy. Both of you, of course," he added, with a furtive sideways glance that no doubt found Rumpelstiltskin. Belle turned her head to look as well. Her husband stood at the crossroads, speaking with a wrung-out looking man who was thin and tall, and dressed quite finely compared to most of the others she had seen.

"I must pay you, Master Hadley," Belle said, firmly. "He tells me that the price will be fair."

At that, Hadley nodded, soberly, and took her largest silver coin. He returned to her a handful of smaller ones, many copper discs and a few minuscule silver ones, which weighed her purse down considerably.

Seeing that Hadley had not been cursed to ashes for speaking to her, the next stall owners were a little more welcoming. Belle bought some tiny clay pots with tightly fitting lids from a man named Page, and a strange looking aged cheese from a girl named Lulie. Eggs were scarce, it being winter and the hens out of condition, but the castle never seemed to run short of those. Belle left them for others who needed them more, but bought a long loaf of bread and some freshly churned salt butter.

She enquired, wherever she could strike up a conversation, as to who had sent what in the wedding baskets. She made sure that everyone was included in her thanks, and asked, lastly, where she might buy parchment or paper, and some ink. No-one she visited asked her for gold, but she had no copper and none of the smallest silver left by the time she completed her tour of the market and returned to Rumpelstiltskin's side.

He'd been leaning against the stone pillar of the shelter that covered the well, his legs crossed and his arms folded. He smiled when he saw her, straightening at once and peering into her basket.

"They didn't want to take any money unless I pressed them," Belle said, unhappily. "Are they so afraid of you as all that?"

Rumpelstiltskin shrugged.

"They know that the castle pays whatever is asked. I imagine that they're hoping you'll be a positive influence on me." He picked up one of the smaller pastries and took a bite. "Sweetening you up," he grinned, his mouth full.

Belle didn't know whether to laugh or swipe at him with her hand.

"Well, nobody wanted to talk with me either. They're too afraid of saying anything that might make you angry."

"I'll talk with you, little one," said a woman, and Belle turned to see her. She was old, one of the oldest people Belle had seen in her life, and wrapped up in a number of black and grey shawls. "I ain't afraid of him."

Beside Belle, Rumpelstiltskin sighed, noisily.

"This is Wren," he said, with a further sigh. "She'll certainly talk to you. Oh, yes."

The old woman laughed. No, Belle thought - the woman cackled.

"Well, thank you, Mistress Wren," she said, smiling. "Why aren't you afraid of him when everybody else is?"

Another wheezy, throaty laugh emerged from the bundle of shawls. The woman was stooped, hunched, but not as small as she first appeared; at first glance, Belle had taken her for a frail old thing under a mountain of cloth wrappings, but once her eyes took into account the stoop, she realised that the woman would be taller than she, if she could straighten herself, and quite wide across the shoulders.

"I've been alive eighty years, and he ain't ever done no worse to me than glare," she said, setting down her bucket of fresh water. "I'm useful to him, you'll see, and he likes to keep hold of what's useful."

Belle glanced at Rumpelstiltskin and, seeing his scowl, had to quickly hide a giggle. The woman plainly infuriated him, but she had, equally plainly, been doing so for a very, very long time.

"My name is Belle," she said, offering her hand to the crooked woman. Wren grasped it between both of hers, which were soft as a wool-worker's, and warm.

"Ah, you're a lovely young thing, aren't you?" Wren said. "And him an old man, too."

"That's enough," Rumpelstiltskin said, dropping his arm between the two of them to separate them. "Remember that this is your mistress, Wren."

"Yes, my Lord," the old woman said, quite seriously, but with the laughter still shining in her filmy old eyes. "Joy to you both, then. Good day to you."

Belle watched her, speechless, as she collected her wooden bucket and shuffled away until the market hid her from view.

"Is she really eighty years old?" she asked, for want of anything else to say.

"At least," Rumpelstiltskin muttered, but he took her basket from her and offered her his arm. He led her slowly back towards the waiting carriage, which now faced back towards the castle. Belle stared. There could not possibly be room for it to have turned around. She shook herself.

"And, um, is she useful, like she says?"

"In her way. The medicine that let you rest came from her. No magic, but it works."

Belle remembered the big black bottle with the contents that had made her cough when she inhaled the fumes. Yes, she could easily see it coming from the hunched-over old woman with the cackling laugh, who thought herself too old to fear even Rumpelstiltskin.

"Is she the midwife?" she asked, suddenly. Rumpelstiltskin looked at her strangely, frowning.

"It's been known. She's more adept with herbs and healing."

Belle nodded, thoughtfully, and took a last, wistful look around her at the market, the town and the array of new faces. When she came again, she would try to learn a few more names, and try harder to convince them that her husband would not smite them for merely speaking to her.

She watched from the window until the last of the stone houses were behind them, then let the curtain fall closed and sat back. Rumpelstiltskin had taken the seat beside her, this time, and placed her basket on the one opposite. He had taken out the white cord, again, and was weaving it between his fingers.

"You do know that it's a game for two?" Belle still flushed to see him playing with the lace from her wedding gown. He must have kept it after he untied the lover's knot; kept it as he had kept the ribbon from her hair, when he had untied that. She wondered if, the next time he lay with her, she would find herself without the pale blue ribbon that fastened her new nightgown.

"Or one, with magic," he answered, shrugging. "I prefer to spin." He wiggled his fingers and the white cord vanished, presumably back to wherever he kept it.

Belle reached across and took his hand, clasping it in his lap.

"Thank you for showing me the town." She wanted to thank him for allowing her to leave the castle, but did not want him to misunderstand - to think that she was unhappy there. "It was nice to meet new people, even if they are all scared to death of my husband."

Rumpelstiltskin squeezed her hand, saying nothing.

"Look at this," Belle said, excitedly remembering one of the small treasures that she had found. She pulled the basket across to sit on her knees. Carefully placed between her parchment and the bread, she found the thin cylinder of glass, patterned inside as though a narrow red ribbon had been trapped there. "A quill made of glass. A pen." She had heard of writing tools from other lands - pens with their own inkwells, with nibs made of gold. She had only ever held a goose feather quill, before, and this replica made of glass seemed so beautiful. The nib itself was of glass, and less fine than the cut of a quill, but she would learn to write with it, just for the sake of holding the wonderful thing in her hand.

"A well crafted thing," he agreed, though it was clearly not a wonder to him as it was to her. "And what will you write, my dear?"

"I hoped that I might write to my father. When we spoke of Lotte, I..." She replaced her glass pen in the basket, very carefully, and tried to ignore the lump in her throat. "If you'll allow it."

In that moment, Belle had expected him simply to refuse her. She had other uses in mind for the parchment, anyway; a place to share her new thoughts, her questions, when they burdened her too heavily. But she wanted so much to tell her father that all was well; that her husband was good to her. That she was even alive.

Rumpelstiltskin drummed his fingers upon his knee, and did not move as the carriage came to a stop. Belle fought with the urge to retract her request out of fear; if it had earned his disapproval then doing so would not help, and if not...

"You will say nothing about me, in your letter. Nothing about my castle, my magic or my lands. Write only of yourself and those you left behind, yes?"

"I..." Belle hesitated, thinking hard. "Yes, I can do that. I only want them to know that--"

"That I didn't skin you for your pelt?" He gave her his terrible smile, eyes shining, and Belle caught her breath, appalled at such a joke. "I suppose I must agree to that. Sooner or later that maidservant's mucus might flood the world."

His unkindness about Lotte bothered her more than his other teases and taunts. Just as she was learning to appreciate the many things that Lotte had seen to on her behalf, her clothing and her care, Rumpelstiltskin was trying to undermine her fond memories. It upset her, which left her sullen, which in turn dismayed her.

Belle kept her gaze on her basket as he helped her step down from the coach, and saw that where there had been trodden snow before, there was now a clear path to the castle doors.

Her husband walked patiently beside her instead of striding ahead and leaving her to follow; she felt watched, but when she dared to glance up at his face, he was looking ahead of him at the castle.

"You seem recovered," he ventured, as the doors opened to admit them. His groping uncertainty was such a contrast to his cutting wit; the speed of the change all but left her breathless, dizzy from the effort of keeping up.

"I'm much better," Belle said, placing her trust in simple truths. "I could manage my hair this morning."

"Good." Rumpelstiltskin's voice was light, but it was as though he forced good cheer into it. "Very good. If you write your letter, I will see that it is delivered without delay."

At that, Belle couldn't help a tired smile.

"By magic?"

"Well, I'm not walking there to deliver it in person."

"Please try not to frighten my father too badly," she said, imagining her letter appearing beside him in a puff of dark purple smoke as he sat with his breakfast and the morning missives. "I want my letter to comfort him. I... I'm his only child," she went on, not sure why she felt the need to share the information. "My mother died bringing me a brother. He died with her, so it's just me."

Rumpelstiltskin nodded, his expression grave, and went to the stairs. No doubt he would vanish into his turret of books and spells, and she would not see him again all day.

"Wait," she called, as he reached the top of the first, shallow flight. He turned, regarding her mildly, already distracted by his plans for the day. Belle showed him the basket, uncovering the pastries. "Come down for tea, later?"

"... as you wish." He smiled, then frowned, and shook his head as he left her.

It gave Belle some small satisfaction to know that she could perplex him in her turn.

Chapter Text

It took Belle an hour to master the use of the glass pen, which was so much heavier than a quill, and smooth against the parchment but prone to blotting if she hesitated in her stroke. It would drip upon the table if she took up too much ink, but she slowly learned the correct rhythm as she filled a sheet of parchment with words remembered from her lessons, with abstract swirls and, once she made less of a mess of it, with hesitant attempts at finding what to say to her dear father.

Why would Rumpelstiltskin forbid her to mention the details of her new life? She would have poured out her heart, otherwise; all the contrary strangeness, the mystery of her new husband, and all about the place where magic held sway. She would have written about the streets without snow, and the curly nut pastries, and Rumpelstiltskin's skill at the spinning wheel.

Bound to her obedient promise, Belle wrote instead that she was safe and well, comfortable and not in fear for her life or safety. It sounded so cold, next to the reality of her situation, and as her fresh sheet of parchment filled up with careful words, she realised how false it would sound to her father, or to anyone who knew her talkative nature.

After that, she added a dozen questions, hoping that there, at least, she conveyed a little more of her own self. She asked after Lotte, after the wounded and the returning soldiers, how the town was faring now that they had peace and safety and, of course, she wanted to know if her father was well. She urged him not to worry for her, for all the good that would do, and realised, reading the letter back, that she had shown how much she missed him with every line. It would do.

Satisfied, she signed the letter and pushed it to the centre of the table. She did not mind if Rumpelstiltskin wished to read it before it was sent; there was nothing written there that she would not freely confess to him, asked or unasked. There was nothing false, even where her careful choice of words made it sound so.

Belle washed her glass pen at the pump and dried it with a clean cloth. Small, beautifully made things had always thrilled her, and the glass pen pleased her even more because it had a function, and the use of it required skill. She would have loved to see the glassmaker at work, but it had come from a stall of imported things. She wondered where such things were made, and how the maker put the ribbon of red fire inside the smooth barrel of clear glass.

Lost in thought, thinking about molten glass and the hands that worked it, Belle put the foodstuffs into the larder. She had cleared a small space for the food that had arrived as gifts, meaning to watch and see if the castle's magic worked to keep them as fresh as the other things, and for how long.

The pastries she arranged on a large platter and left upon the kitchen table for later; they were small things, no more than a few bites each, and she looked forward to trying the ones she had not tried before.

It hurt a little to lift the kettle from its hook and carry it to the pump for water. The trip back to the fireplace left her shoulder aching, but that eased as she sat in her chair, her travel cloak across her lap, and let the warmth seep through her. After a while, she untied her boots and pushed them off with her toes, and wiggled her stockinged feet at the flames.

It was only then, still and not preoccupied, that Belle realised; she had seen no children at the market. The cheese seller, Lulie, had perhaps been fourteen years old and a year or two from her mature beauty - her face blemished with angry red lumps and her eyes underscored with dark smudges from the strain of growing fast. Belle had seen no-one younger than Lulie during the visit to town.

There must be children, she thought; Rumpelstiltskin had acknowledged that the old healer, Wren, served sometimes as midwife.

The weather was icy. Possibly the younger children were kept indoors for warmth, then, but what about their elders? Even Belle, whose nurse and governess and companions had tried in vain to convince her that she owned a delicate constitution, had run about in the winter months as a girl. Often inadequately clothed for the weather, often in the way of traders in the market, often getting into scrapes and scraps. If she, as protected as she had always been, had been free to do as much then what about the children of Odstone?

The kettle reached a near boil and Belle swung it away from the flames, using her cloak to protect her hand. She found the china teapot that Rumpelstiltskin had been using to bring her tea, and the matching set with it. She liked it better than the silver things, and it would be far easier to clean, if a bit heavier to carry upstairs when her husband wanted his tea there. She filled the sugar bowl, the milk jug and chose mint leaves for the pot.

As glad as she was to be back in her warm kitchen, Belle did not feel like tackling a new task. Her ribs needed more time and she was sorely in need of a book that could help her learn how to do all that she wanted to do. It had taken her half an afternoon to wash a few light garments and set them drying.

Belle returned to the table, to her letter, and read it through again. It made her heart heavy, to think of her father receiving it, and a moment after that came the shameful suspicion that Rumpelstiltskin might not even deliver it as he had promised. How would she know? He had not said that she would be permitted to receive an answer.

Rumpelstiltskin caught her in the midst of such thoughts. Belle jumped at the soft scuff of his boot against the flagstones, not having heard him come down the stairs. How long had he stood at the door, watching her? Her guilt must have been plain to see as she pushed the letter away, for he cocked his head and approached her slowly, standing behind her chair and reading the letter over her shoulder. For those few, terrible moments, Belle truly believed that he could see inside her mind, and was truly frightened.

"I will deliver it later," he said, gripping the back of her chair. "Without giving your father a heart attack."

"Thank you." Belle's relief, when it seemed that he could not read her mind after all, must have been as naked as her guilt. She opted for silence, fetching the kettle and, her ribs twinging, adding hot water to the waiting leaves. Rumpelstiltskin did not move, even to be out of her way; he watched her closely, instead, and forced her to make her way around him, to and from the fire. It made her self-conscious, quite apart from her shame at her recent thoughts. He had kept himself so distant that this sudden, intrusive nearness confused her.

"It still pains you," he said, as she skirted the table to find herself the space to pour the tea and lay out plates for the pastries.

"What?" Busy with cups and saucers, Belle didn't follow his meaning. Only when she looked up at him, flustered, and he gestured to his right side, did she understand. "No, it's much better. It's only the kettle. I should have carried less water, that's all."

Rumpelstiltskin put his hands flat on the table, leaning hard and staring, unseeing, at her letter home.

"My magic," he said, slowly and deliberately, "all but broke you in half. Had there been a heartbeat less time for me to soften the blow it might have killed you." It sounded like an accusation, as he wrung out each word with careful precision and cold, clipped tones. Belle listened, frozen with the hot teacup in one hand and the saucer in the other. His anger was palpable, whipping his shroud of invisible magic into a frenzy that brought the hairs up on the back of Belle's neck. "All you can say," he went on, hoarse strain replacing some of the icy care, "is that you should have carried less water?" His head snapped up, at the last word, and Belle jumped back, cup and saucer both falling from her hands, unheeded. Hot tea splashed her stockinged foot, taking a moment to reach her skin through the wool, and then burning. She gasped aloud, but couldn't tear her eyes from his.

His eyes... the raging anguish of him... it took her breath away.

"I... I know that I disobeyed you--" she began, her voice nothing but a gasp.

Rumpelstiltskin turned away with a choked sound, but stayed there, as though incapable of choosing a direction.

"I nearly killed you, woman. Why didn't you go? I don't--" And then he was as breathless as she, as speechless as she, and Belle could hear the pounding of her own heart.

His anger, his anguish; she was not the cause, nor the target. It broke her heart to see that he truly did not understand why she had chosen to stay, when he had given her leave to go. Shaken, her steps unsteady, she rounded the head of the table and stood before him.

"I forgive you," she said, with a clarity that felt as though it came from outside of herself. "I believe you when you say that you never meant me such harm. I forgive you, Rumpelstiltskin," she pressed, something like anger rising in her own breast at his silence, at his avoidance of her questioning gaze. What else did he want from her, if not her forgiveness?

Rumpelstiltskin shrank away when she offered her hand, but she held it still, waiting for him. Staring at it, he very slowly took her hand between both of his. He trembled, as much as he ever had in her bed, and compassion flooded out Belle's heartache and irritation, for the moment. She brought her other hand over their joined ones, and stroked his hand, down to his cuff of gold lace.

At last, she'd done enough to startle him into meeting her gaze, and he looked so lost that it was all she could do to keep from looking away, then, herself.

"You are too kind," he said, his voice strained and small. "Too kind to an old man."

"Not an old monster?" She tried a smile, watery and uncertain as it was. "Well, that's a start, I suppose."

"An old monster," Rumpelstiltskin said, but she could feel the relief in him; hear the sheepishness and shyness in his voice. "I've been alone here for too long. The castle, the magic, protects me and all that is mine."

"Not from dust," Belle said, almost laughing as her relief overwhelmed her. "Not from dirt."

"It never harmed anyone." He was gripping her hands so tightly that the ring he'd given her was digging into her fingers. Belle wouldn't have pulled her hand away for all the world; to see him unbend even this much was a gift. To have him lean towards her, a moment later, and press his lips to hers felt like a blessing.

Belle parted her lips and welcomed him, her breathing growing shallower as anticipation lifted her relief into a kind of reckless joy. It was a reaction to her fear, she knew, but it made her bold enough to meet the kiss and reach for him, her hand behind his shoulder. He had closed his eyes, almost squeezing them shut as though expecting her to shun him, but Belle let her hand slide up his collar, and beneath his hair, so that she could urge him to kiss her again. He made a sound in his throat, so full of longing that it brought tears to her eyes, and his arms went around her, clasping her against him desperately.

She had seen lovers kissing, sometimes, and thought it a strange activity. Now, though, she had an inkling of where the pleasure lay in it; in the teasing of lips and tongue, and in the expressiveness of every slight movement. Their first clumsiness behind them, left in dark bedrooms, they found a little skill together, and Rumpelstiltskin moved his mouth with patient, hungry strokes across her lips, until she felt tender from the dryness of him, her lips tingling and the taste of him in her mouth. His hands, splayed across her back, began to move; one up to tangle in her hair, the other lower, rubbing at the small of her back.

At first it was his need, and her offering whatever solace he could find in her kisses, but it changed as their hands began to wander. Belle found her own need, the wanting that felt like pressure and a pulse in her loins and belly; she remembered her own touch, last night, and thought again of how he took her. Did he know an equal pleasure? Or was his greater, his need and his ache still deeper than her own?

When Rumpelstiltskin bowed his head and kissed her shoulder, Belle let her head fall back and revelled in the fluttering sensations that it brought her; elusive, where his lips and tongue met her skin, but tugging hard at something deep within her that was connected, by a circuitous route, to the apex of pleasure that he had taught her to find. He kissed her lower and lower, keeping her steady on her feet as he first mouthed at the exposed rounds of her bosom and then, making her bite her lip and moan, buried his face there and breathed her in, shuddering with his own longing.

It frightened her, how the sensations drove her, but the suspicion that it was no different for him allowed her to face it head on. She would have tried to copy his gestures, return his kisses, but he was clothed from throat to ankles, all of it stiff and awkward to manage. Instead, she allowed herself to be quiet and compliant for the moment, when he lifted her and sat her on the corner of the kitchen table, pressing in close after her and once more devouring her mouth.

Belle liked the warm cooperation of that, and the way he responded to her hand at the back of his neck, or her fingers laced in his curls - she found that he would go where she directed him, without need for words; that she could bring his kisses to her cheeks, her chin, her throat and, once again to the tops of her breasts, where he all but bit her flesh in his eagerness.

Rumpelstiltskin's right hand began to toy with the laces of her bodice, his trembling urgency offset with a surprising patience as he merely plucked at the small bow at her belly, failing to unfasten it. That he could unfasten it at a tug, that he surely would at any moment, made Belle fidget restlessly on her wooden perch. And he smiled, neither his shy little-boy expression nor his challenging mischief, but with naked pleasure at the sight of her responding to his teases.

Cupping his face between her palms, Belle waited for him to look her in the eye. He doubted her so very much, this husband of hers; in the darkness she could not study him, respond to his moods, but here, like this, she could see him and try to understand. He offered no protest when she grasped the wide lapels of his leather coat and tried to pull them back. She could not wrap herself around that spiky garment; it was worse than a knight's armour. It was too tightly fitted for her to dislodge, but he needed only a few shrugs to do so himself. The horrid thing fell to the ground behind him, unregarded, and he kissed her again.

Softer, now. Not the timid gentleness he had shown in her bed, in the darkness, but a slow and deliberate care as he showed her how to kiss him deeper; that she could dip her tongue into his mouth as he did to her; that tongues could meet, and tangle, and tease in a dance of tricky delight. Rumpelstiltskin seemed no more a master at it than she, but they were learning rapidly together; the interest was mutual, the goal was their own and each other's pleasure. And, for her, another goal was his happiness, however momentary, and to prove to Rumpelstiltskin that he had a loyal wife who could learn to cherish him, if he would only allow it.

Did he have other goals? Belle supposed that he must, watching him finally pull the cord and release the little bow that tied her stays. His face near hers, they both watched his hand, his stained fingers hooking patiently through each turn of the lacing and drawing it out. They both breathed faster, seeing his fingers climb nearer to her breasts, and his other hand held her thigh too tightly, conveying his greedy anticipation of the final pull. He kissed her, when he had it between his fingers, and Belle all but forgot about her clothing for a long moment. Her jaw was aching from the new activity of kissing, but she could not stop herself answering him, even demanding more from him.

She felt the moment when he drew the lace out of her bodice, leaving it loose and allowing him to push his hand beneath it. Her chemise was cotton, plain and warm, and memory made her shiver when his palm covered her breast for a greedy squeeze. Crisp cotton crinkling, and his hand upon her breast; her body knew this feeling, and wanted to go where it led. When Rumpelstiltskin tugged the loose collar of the garment lower, exposing her breast, Belle recoiled - not from him, but from the shock of it; from being exposed, seen. Admired, she realised, her hand anchored at the back of his neck lest he mistake her startled twitch for reluctance. It was a delicious sensation, the naughtiness of knowing that her bosom was bared, and that it interested him in a way that she did not yet comprehend.

Drunk with sensation, she followed his gaze there; watched his dark thumbnail as he rubbed it across her nipple, which had hardened and puckered until it was almost painful when he touched. Almost. Shocked, still, Belle watched with parted lips as he rolled and plucked her, then stiffened when he bent suddenly and kissed her there, obliterating her view but filling her with impossible new heights of wanting.

Rumpelstiltskin held her by the shoulders, kissing her breast as greedily as he had kissed her mouth, and each time he brought lips, tongue or - gods - even teeth into contact with the tightness of her nipple, Belle whimpered.

If he had doubted her desire, his doubt evaporated when he raised his head, his eyes alight with mischief, longing and hope. She had no control over her own expression; felt that she could smile, but her face was slack and her breathing had become laboured, keeping her mouth slightly open. How long could this torment of teasing go on for? Belle had lost track of the minutes, both when he took her and when she had ministered to herself last night. How much of it could the body stand without becoming sick from it, without dying from it? She struggled to form a word to convey her depth of conflict.

"Please," she managed, forcing her lips to shape the sound.

Wordlessly, he lifted her from the table, bearing her weight easily for a few seconds before lowering her feet to the flagstones. Belle's whole body slid down his, in the process, and Rumpelstiltskin's breathing became as laboured as her own. He caught a handful of her skirts and pulled them up, fumbling with the layers of her petticoats until his hand found her thigh, the cotton of her drawers, and he pushed his hand between her legs.

Belle clutched at his arms, sure that her knees would give way, but he turned her gently around so that she faced the table, so that she could brace her weight there, and pressed up close against her bundle of skirts while his hand returned to where she ached. He stroked her through saturated cotton, meeting her firmly if she jerked forwards, his body immobile behind her if she tried to pull back.

It was impossible, too much, and Belle thought she might cry until he brought his other hand around in front of her and untied her drawers. A moment later, he plunged both hands down in front of her, down through her dark curls and between her thighs. She rose up on her tiptoes, yelping foolishly, and felt him laugh; silently, not his playful giggle. His right hand dove deeper, began to rub, and Belle found what she wanted; that rhythm that he set, that steady, firm motion alongside the sensitive bud just beneath her curls.

Every few breaths she rose up on her toes, helplessly trying to both savour and escape the feeling, and then Rumpelstiltskin pressed his face to the back of her neck, buried himself in her hair, and it was enough. The spasms of bodily joy shook her all over, paralysed her for a few moments, and finally left her struggling to rub herself harder against his obliging hand. She knew that she cried out, many times, and was glad that she was not fully aware of herself - not enough to register what she might have said as the joy crested, breaking like a wave upon the beach. Ebbing, like the outgoing tide.

Her arms trembled from supporting her weight, but Rumpelstiltskin did not give her rest. She felt him fumble behind her, with his own clothing, and then turn her with gentle hands to face him. Her stunned, trembling silence seemed to amuse him, but he hungered. She could see it, how it dragged his expression towards seriousness even as mirth lit his eyes. She looked down, dreamy and bemused, and saw that his shirt was untucked and his breeches bunched about his knees. She could see nothing of him, but the very thought of him made her bite her lip and look up at him, askance. What should she do? How could she return to him the shattering pleasure that he had given her so easily?

He sat, though, on the nearest of the kitchen chairs and drew her towards him. His hand was slippery from her, slipping against hers, and Belle shivered.

"Sit," he whispered, holding her lightly at her waist, one boot rubbing at the inside of her ankle. Belle made to turn sideways, to perch herself upon his knee as she had before, but he tugged her forward to stand over him, his lap and the chair between her legs, and began to raise her skirts again, pushing her drawers all the way down so that she had to step out of them.

Oh. Belle sat down on his knees as much in surprise as anything else, and he kissed her before she could concern herself with the awkward, unknown how. She had known that beasts mated face to back in a field and men took their wives face to face upon a bed, and that had been the end of it. But while he kissed her, it seemed not to matter that her confidence had flown; his arms were around her, and his kisses were slow and tender, and she was comfortable upon his knees. It gave her time to collect herself, to get her breathing to something nearer normal, and to apply her fertile mind to the simple mechanics of the situation. Oh.

Well, he had been a husband before, and she had not been a wife before. She had to trust him, if he thought that it was going to work. One of his hands was cupping her buttock, squeezing lazily. The other was between them and, she realised with a thrill, touching himself beneath the loose hem of his shirt. She looked down, before she could stop herself, and timidly lifted his shirt between thumb and forefinger so that she could see.

Rumpelstiltskin froze, at that, gripping her arm as though he feared she'd flee at the sight of it. That thing that he'd pushed inside her, that would give her children. She felt no particular shock, only interest and embarrassment at her own boldness. He grasped himself as a man might grasp a staff, concealing much of the length, but it widened at the very top and was dark, like the deepest blush imaginable.

"You need not," he said, uncertainly, as she let go of his shirt and made to kiss him again. "This is--" but she smothered his words, and used her tongue until he stopped trying, both hands rubbing at her backside beneath her bunched skirts.

"Show me how," she whispered, concealing her blushes by pressing her cheek to his, and he lifted her by the hips and... lowered her onto it, so effortlessly that she scrambled to brace her feet against the floor lest he impale her. His hiss of pleasure made it worth how silly she felt, trying to balance herself and hide her face from him at the same time. He supported some of her weight, his hands beneath her buttocks, and it became easier. More pleasant, too, for to take him so deep, so suddenly, had been something as near to pain as she had yet felt in his embrace.

And then... Belle's mind grew cloudy almost at once, as her body once more took command of her. He had her move, to rock her hips back and forth and then, when she had more trust in the hands that supported her weight and in the strength of her own legs, up and down so that he was slid in and out of her, deep and shallow, deep and shallow. He buried his face against her throat, breathing hard but lost in a quiet that seemed more urgent than any of the sounds she had heard him make in the dark; he kept her moving, and began to move himself, and Belle felt her toes begin to curl and her knees to go weak.

Rumpelstiltskin jerked up towards her, groaning, long before she was near to another of those inner bursts of delight, but the mere possibility that it could happen again had enchanted her, and she was as breathless as he as they clumsily found his completion and fell still.

"Oh," she whispered, finding herself kissing his neck, wherever she could reach skin inside his tall collar. "Oh."

His member shrank out of her, she realised, dazedly. It stopped being like a pole and softened, got smaller, which answered a number of her more practical questions on the subject. She had been too overwhelmed or too insensible to realise it, when he had been in her bed, but the sensation was perfectly clear to her now. She tucked away the answer to her unasked question, and enjoyed the way he held her so tightly while his breathing grew quiet again.

"Well, my dear," he said, eventually, tipping her back so that he could peer at her face. "It seems I've thoroughly debauched you, now. Perhaps just as well you wrote your letter home beforehand." He looked bemused, but pleasantly so; drowsy, but contentedly so. Belle smiled. She would have liked to go on, to see if she could find that elusive bliss again, but how much better it was to see his eyes so soft with fondness, and the harsh lines gone out of his face. "If you'll permit me a little magic, instead of doing things properly?"

Belle started to ask what he meant, but felt a jolt that stole all her breath; saw darkness, saw the deep smoky purple of his magic, and found herself sitting on her bed. He was beside her, looking pleased with himself. Their clothing remained in shameful disarray, and even his impossibly neat curls were untidy. Belle dared not imagine what her own hair looked like.

It was afternoon, she saw. Late enough that the sky was darkening, and the candles jumped into life at their arrival. She had never thought of being with her husband except at night, but he seemed to think nothing of it; she, for her part, was only glad that he had not tried to hide himself in the dark.

"Is it wicked to go to bed before we've even had our tea?" she felt shy, coy. She wondered if he would touch her again, if she told him that she still ached, or if he would think her greedy.

Rumpelstiltskin lay back, sighing, his shirt barely keeping her from having another look at him. Belle wondered if he might willingly sleep beside her for a while, he looked so calm and spent.

"Wickedness is in my nature," he said, making a slight attempt at his mocking humour. It was only very slight, and Belle smiled to herself. "I really think we can do as you please, dearie, don't you?

Chapter Text

There seemed so little shame left, when he undressed her.

Belle thought that she would always cherish the memory of his gaze upon her as he peeled away her layers; her bodice, her chemise, and then he laid her back against the pillows and kissed her until the last of her shyness was gone, and she could allow him to look at her, exposed like that.

The fastenings of her skirt seemed to perplex Rumpelstiltskin, who had, in any case, left her skirts in a state of twisted chaos before they left the kitchen. Belle found the ties herself, and loosened them, and he once again peeled away the layers as though unwrapping an extravagant gift.

The twilight had set in, before her innermost petticoat was gone; Rumpelstiltskin had left one candelabra bright, extinguishing the others. Belle could see a little of him, far more than the nights when he had come to her after dark, but she herself was glad of a few shadows when only her stockings were left, her garters fallen as low as her knees in all the upheaval.

"Lovely," he crooned, his eyes taking in everything she had to offer; lingering the longest, she noted, on her lips, and her breasts, and on the triangle of dark hair that sheltered the most private thing. "You are lovely, my dear. So very lovely."

His appreciation was without greed, for the moment, and Belle watched him untie her garters to free her stockings, then slide them down her legs. He lifted her feet, both in one hand, and stripped the final coverings away from her. For a moment, Belle's toes felt the most naked of all, but then his gaze wandered upwards again, slower than before, as if committing the shape of her to memory.

Even without shame, she blushed, but Rumpelstiltskin did not stare at her so long that she became uncomfortable. Instead, he took up the silk nightgown that he had brought her, and offered it to her with both hands, his expression hopeful.

Belle had expected to be ravished, after the slow unwrapping and the kisses, but she took the nightgown and slipped its easy shape over her head, pushing her arms into the loose sleeves with their cuffs of lace. She slipped from the bed, to let the skirts fall, and Rumpelstiltskin sat up to watch her, his hands meeting in a silent clap of delight.

"Is the dress prettier than I am?" she asked, with shy teasing. He placed his hands on her hips, pulling her close to the bed, and looked up at her longingly.

"Your feet felt frozen." He lifted a hand, tracing the shape of her left breast with his fingertips.

"My feet are always frozen," Belle laughed. "All by myself in this huge bed, even with my nightdress on." She played with the ends of his hair where it met his collar, swaying a little on her feet because he'd pressed her knees to the side of the mattress. "Are you going to get in and keep me warm?"

"If you like." He let her go so that she could climb beneath the covers. Belle sat among the pillows with her knees pulled up under her chin, her toes curling to minimise her contact with the chilly sheets above and below. From there, she watched him unfasten his waistcoat and shrug it off. He had made himself decent, at some point during the heady kissing, and hesitated with his fingers at the top button of his shirt.

"I'll look away, if you don't want me to peek," Belle said, gently. After his open appreciation for her, she felt that she better understood his hesitation; the fear that he must feel, thinking himself anything but lovely to look at. "But please, don't put out the last candles. Let me see your face."

Rumpelstiltskin seemed to have been holding his breath. She heard it sigh out again, unsteady, and his hands dropped to his lap.

"I will spare us both the rest of it, if you don't mind," he said. His defeated tone lanced her in the chest, but she nodded and got properly beneath the sheets, putting her back to him and waiting. She heard... no, perhaps it was more that she felt a whisper of his magic nearby, and only that much because she was waiting for it. When he joined her, he wore a silk nightshirt, as he always had before.

Belle began to turn onto her back, but he pushed himself up close behind her instead, his arm draped over her and his head near to hers on the pillows. With some fidgeting, Belle found that his knees would tuck comfortably behind her own, and that his feet were warm. She could lace the fingers of her uppermost hand through his, too. It was nice enough just to lie there, but he soon touched her through the silk - aimless little touches, but they each inflamed her sweet ache for more of him.

She liked the way the silk felt when his stroking hand pressed it to her skin, or caused it to slide against her. Against her breast, the sensation made her bite her lip and hold in a giggle, which only encouraged him to explore her further, until he was working his hand up under the loosely-fitted skirt and teasing her upper thighs.

She wondered if they would do it again. She knew that she would like to, both for her body's sake and for her heart, which longed to push away his loneliness now that she had found a way to reach him.

"Do you want to?" he asked, his hand hesitating at the top of her thigh. "There's no need. I can warm your feet instead, if you like."

"I want to," Belle said. She had intended to sound decisive, but the location of his hand made anything as sensible as decisiveness impossible. She sounded impatient, instead, and added, "please?" to make up for it.

Again, she tried to turn onto her back, but Rumpelstiltskin held her where she was. He raised himself a little behind her, his elbow among the pillows and his hand cupping her shoulder, and slid his other hand up to meet her wetness.

Belle would have expected a second time to be less overwhelming, like taking a meal before she was truly hungry, but she found herself writhing against his hand almost at once, to the extent that he merely held it still, bunched into a fist, and allowed her to seek her own enjoyment for a few moments. She became aware, rather slowly, that in doing so she was wiggling her silk-covered backside against his renewed hardness, and that his breathing was coming in short gasps much like her own. It took all her resolve to become still again.

Relaxing, Rumpelstiltskin kissed her shoulder and then turned her onto her back. Her whole body tightened with anticipation, but he did not hurry to take her; he lay half over her, instead, one of his legs over hers, and kissed her as he had before.

There was a shyness there, back from wherever they'd banished it while enjoying each other in the kitchen. Belle knew that he would rather extinguish all the light, even now, and it saddened her; made her gentle with him, and more patient in the face of her own desire. As her husband could show her these pleasures of the marriage bed, so Belle could show him her understanding, her kindness. Her love, too, she thought, while he kissed her throat and fondled her breasts, more at ease with his face hidden from her sight. She thought that she could learn to love this man, if she could come to know him; if he would let her try.

Taking her, he was slow and yet not so careful as he had been with her before. He took, pleasing himself rather than simply trying to get it done in the least time possible, and Belle shivered around him, caught at the edges of her pleasure instead of plunging into it, helpless.

She could enjoy the sensation, knowing that it could be fulfilled by his hand, or by her own; she could enjoy the nearness of him, the warmth between them, and the opportunity to run her hands all over him. He liked her to touch his shoulders, she discovered; he liked her hand in his hair, and if she touched his face he would raise himself enough to kiss it, kiss her mouth, before once more burying his face beside hers and losing himself in the long, patient thrusts. Sometimes faster, or harder, and then slow again, or almost still on her; he was savouring her, she realised, with a dreamy enjoyment. He was drawing out his own pleasure and putting off that final moment that would complete it, but end it.

Belle had always learned fast. She was learning, today, that how she moved or angled her hips affected him enormously. Her own sensations, as well; if she rocked herself to meet him as he thrust, the pressure outside sparked an answering burst of something inside, that seemed to make her tighten. That, in turn, made Rumpelstiltskin moan or falter. She did not want to hurry him, but the enjoyment of moving began to seduce her; when she angled her hips just so, his skin rubbed against her tender parts and brought her nearer to what she longed for.

It was only when he whispered 'yes' against her ear, in answer to an almost involuntary raising of her hips, that Belle realised that he liked her to do these things. He dragged himself up, taking his weight on both hands as he had on their wedding night, and his expression shocked her; he looked aghast, he looked utterly lost. His breath caught every time she rocked herself up to meet him, and soon the bed was rocking with their efforts, and Rumpelstiltskin was crying out as though she hurt him.

Shocked out of her self-interest by the sight of him so moved, Belle studied him instead as he pushed deep into her, shuddering and grimacing as though he felt anything but pleasure. But pleasure it was, she knew, and welcomed him into her arms as the tension inevitably released and left him panting against her cheek, his face pressed into her hair. He stayed there but a moment, almost crushing her he clasped so tightly, and then rolled her on top of him. His hand burrowed between their bodies, pulling crumpled silk out of the way, and his hand cupped her, offering her own release.

Watched, this time, Belle hesitated to abandon herself to the urges, but he rubbed her with his palm, encouraging, and with a groan Belle pushed her own hand down to join his, to guide his. Before she was done, she was sitting astride him, showing his fingers where to be; to the left of the sensitive part, which almost hurt now if touched directly. Cushioned by her inner lips and all the wetness, the pressure was perfect and it took but a few twitches of their hands to curl her toes and leave her shuddering in the grip of that perfect, singing pleasure.

"There, now," he smiled, his sticky hand gripping her bare thigh as she became still, and realised what she had been doing. "We've made you a wanton."

"Is that worse than wicked and debauched?" she panted, falling beside him.

"Oh, much. Much worse. Who could have predicted you'd have such an appetite, my dear?" Rumpelstiltskin had caught her in the crook of his arm as she lay down. She eased herself nearer to his side, and closed her eyes. The feeling of contentment was like nothing she'd known before - as though there had been a vast letting-go. She felt heavy, and yet so light that she might float away.

Belle smiled, as his arm tightened about her. She supposed that she must have been sated.

"What does that make you?" she asked him. Her clarity of thought returned quickly after her pleasuring, she found. While it was happening, it seemed impossible that she would ever think again.

"A dirty old man, I should think." She could hear his smile.

"Are you very old?"

"Very." He kissed her temple, then sighed heavily as he surrendered his weight to the mattress and the pillows. "But hardly a man."

"Don't say that." Belle rubbed his chest, snuggling closer to his side. With her head on his arm, and his arm about her, she felt at peace. "Anyway, I don't mind if you are an old monster."

His huff of laughter sounded tired. Perhaps he would sleep? Belle was hungry, and thirsty, and needed to make a trip to her bath room. But if she left him, would he stay and wait for her to come back?

"Our tea must be stewed," she said. "Shall I bring us some more?"

"Hush," he whispered, and for a while he held her tighter, and Belle made no effort to move herself. She had no real desire to, until her stomach made an unladylike gurgle and he released her. "Tea, then," he said, watching her sit up. "And the pastries." He waved a hand, and a tray and the platter appeared among the heaps of discarded clothing at the foot of the bed.

Belle shook her head. She would not have minded venturing out to fetch the things up, even in her nightgown and bare feet. But she supposed that magic was all he knew, with no-one to wait on him or to remind him that things could be done so easily without it. It meant that she would not have to leave him, except to relieve herself and wash her face; it meant that he was less likely to slip away.

"Oh dear," she said, pulling the tray of tea things nearer so that she could pour. One of the stacked cups was broken, an ugly chip taken out at the rim, and she remembered that she had dropped it in her fright, in the kitchen. The saucers all seemed to be intact, at least.

Sitting up, Rumpelstiltskin took the broken cup from her hand with a tut of mock-disapproval, turning it this way and that to examine the damage, but then he held it out for her to fill with tea for him and no more was said.

The tea was fresh, not the mint that she had brewed earlier but something sweet and earthy that went nicely with milk and sugar. It went even better with the pastries, but Rumpelstiltskin held up his hand to refuse them, sitting back against the carved headboard and nursing his tea, and watching her try not to shower crumbs on the bed.

"You eat like a bird," Belle said, after three of the delicious treats. "Can you live on tea and air?"

"On nothing at all, I expect," he said, disinterested. "Which seems just as well, if you intend to take up cookery."

"I can learn," Belle laughed, remembering her terrible stew and glad that she had not had to persuade him to try it. "I will learn."

As a means of enticing him to stay while she left him for a few moments, Belle filled up his cup again. Even so, she was surprised and relieved to find that Rumpelstiltskin remained in her bed when she got back. He had emptied his tea cup again and returned it to the tray with the others, and seemed lost in thought, resting there against the headboard. He watched without a word while Belle carried first the platter and then the tray into her sitting room, to leave them on the table there. He continued to watch as she gathered up their clothing and draped it all neatly, garment by garment, over her trunk.

"Your knickers are in the kitchen," Rumpelstiltskin smirked, and Belle laughed. She strongly suspected that most of her dignity was still down there as well, and for the moment she didn't care one bit.

"A gentleman might have brought me those as well as the tea," she said, climbing back into the bed and searching for the warm spot beside him. He welcomed her with his arm, as soon as she tried to settle close against his side, and Belle pillowed her head against his chest.

"He might," Rumpelstiltskin agreed, amiably. "I'm rather looking forward to watching you pick them up off the floor where you left them."

Belle blushed, then, because she could picture that scene all too clearly. She felt him touch her hair, nervously at first, and then search through it with his fingers to find the pair of pins that bound two slim braids together at the back, holding the rest of her hair out of her face.

He tossed the pins towards the foot of the bed, having removed them, and Belle wondered if she would ever find them again. She had only a dozen of them, and for any upswept style such as she had worn for her wedding, she would need them all. Oh well. She could buy more at the market, or have them made, or if all else failed bring out the colourful, wide silk ribbons that she had put away in her trunk. Nothing could have persuaded her to move, or to object to Rumpelstiltskin's rearranging of her tresses. He combed her with his fingers, freeing the tangles, while Belle rested.

Sleep seemed out of the question, if she wanted to keep him beside her, quiet and comfortable like this. He was always as tight as a bow string, coiled to strike. She had unwound him, at last, and his limbs were loose. His breathing was slow and steady as he played with her hair.

"Are you content, Belle?" He used her name so rarely that she was startled by it, opening her eyes. The question, too, caught her by surprise. If she had not shown contentment, in the past several hours, then she did not know how she could. "I had not thought... expected..." He rested his cheek against the top of her head and squeezed her tightly. "Are you content?"

His depth of emotion, his struggle to voice it, demanded her honest answer. Belle gripped the front of his gown tightly while she thought.

"I could be. I think I will be. I miss Papa, and I'm afraid for him. I miss my home and the people I knew there."

"But I do not make you... unhappy?" He asked with the same delicacy as he had asked after her wellbeing, after their wedding night. Pressed so close, she could feel that it cost him dearly to ask.

"Why would you ask that?" Belle asked, shaking her head. She knew of no way to show him more acceptance than she had already.

"I was a husband once before," he answered, stilted and reluctant. His hand caressed her shoulder, burrowing beneath her hair to touch the silk of her sleeve. "She did not care for my company and... and I have not grown any more lovely, since then."

"I'm sorry." Belle truly was. "That must have been lonely."

"It was a long time ago."

"Is it so very important to be lovely?" Belle sighed. "I'd rather that my husband was kind to me, and clever, and interesting to talk to."

"You don't miss him, then. Your handsome betrothed?" His question held a trace of scorn, but Belle remembered his open contempt for Gaston and knew that the scorn was not directed at her.

"I don't even know him. Honestly, I never cared to. And I didn't find him lovely no matter how handsome he thought he was. I didn't--" She found herself too shy to say what she had meant to say; that she didn't want Gaston. But she had not known how to want, then, had she? She had not known the yearning for touch, until her husband stirred the guilty spark inside her. "Please don't think that I could despise you simply for the way you look. Please don't."

"Well, the rest of me is quite unlovely too, dearie." Rumpelstiltskin sighed, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. "But I will try to deserve your favour." He was silent for a long moment, his breathing quickening. "Had I known, before I first... I would not have wasted such a treasure as your innocence, had I known that you could ever want..."

"To seal our contract?" She felt him nod, grateful to be released from his struggle in finding delicate enough phrases for her ears. "Well, if I'd known I could ever want to, I wouldn't have been so tiresome," she said, remembering what he'd muttered in the dark that night. "We can't know the future."

Rumpelstiltskin snorted.

"The whole business is tiresome when there's not the will for it on one side, or both. All elbows and dashed hopes." He sniffed, and continued in airy tones. "As you would no doubt have discovered had you wed the square-jawed dukeling."

Belle's jaw dropped, but she couldn't muster any real outrage on Gaston's behalf. She could not, for some reason that escaped her, imagine him being as courteous as Rumpelstiltskin had been in the face of a maiden's modesty and alarm. Gaston was young, only a few years older than she; he had never been married. Even if Rumpelstiltskin had not known happiness with his first wife, he did at least know what he was doing. It seemed helpful that one of them did.

"Did you love her? Your wife?" Belle didn't know what would be more dreadful - to love someone and be unrequited, or to be chained to someone when there was no love at all.

Rumpelstiltskin bristled a little, fidgeting with unease.

"It was so long ago. I forget."

It was all the answer Belle needed. She had not known love, but she did not believe that, once known, it could ever be forgotten.

"I'm sorry," she said, again. "I won't speak of it."

"That would be best." But, as if to show that Belle was forgiven, he rested his head against hers. "Am I to stay," he asked, too lightly, "and keep your feet warm?"

"I'd like that." Belle slipped away from him and wriggled down under the bedclothes. The bed was more than big enough for two to share, even if they didn't care to touch one another. For the moment, she wanted to touch her husband as much as possible, and not just for the sake of her feet. Affection was in her nature, and Rumpelstiltskin seemed so bewildered by it at other times; holding her, in bed, he seemed able to accept her better. She had liked his small gestures, for the past little while - that he kissed her head and caressed her hair. She liked, more than she could express, how much he had seemed to enjoy having her at his leisure, instead of trying to spare her some imagined trial.

Belle could not imagine withholding that from him, even if the act brought her no pleasure of her own, but, again, she was affectionate by nature. Others were not, and some people disliked to be touched at all. Perhaps Rumpelstiltskin's first wife had been like that? Had he been alone so long by choice, because that long-ago wife could not love him?

She slept for a while, but not well; although she had shared a bed before, she had not slept in an embrace since she was a small child in the grip of nightmares. It was not as comfortable as she might have supposed, sleeping with her head on Rumpelstiltskin's outstretched arm, and where she had been pleasantly cosy beside him while she lay awake, she found herself growing uncomfortably hot. Her own tossing and turning woke her up before very long, and she blinked drowsily at Rumpelstiltskin, trying to decide whether or not he was sleeping.

He lay on his back, one arm outstretched for her use as a pillow. The nightshirt was twisted about him and his eyes were closed.

"Are you awake?" Belle tried, as quietly as it was possible to speak without whispering.

Rumpelstiltskin opened his eyes at once.

"Quite awake," he said, staring at the ceiling. "I'm sure you'd sleep better if I left you."

"Maybe." Belle rearranged her nightgown as she wriggled back to be near him. "Would you?"

"Most unlikely." He blinked, and turned his head towards her. "Sleep is for the blameless, my dear."

Belle put her hand in the middle of his chest, lifting herself on her other elbow to gaze at him.

"The stories say that you father the nightmares of the blameless," she said, watching his hand cover hers. "Do you?"

"What else do they say?" He drew up her hand and laced their fingers together, watching too.

"That you steal babes away in the night. That you never break a deal. That nobody can afford your price." Belle frowned. "That your heart doesn't beat, if you have one at all, and that time flees before you."

"Well," he laughed, softly. "I can see that I'll have to work harder to live up to my reputation. But I steal nothing, dearie. I told you that. I trade. I bargain. I deal." Tightening his fingers around hers, Rumpelstiltskin drew her closer with his arm. "And does my heart beat?"

Belle put her ear against his chest to listen. She had already felt his heart racing, and knew that it beat, but now she heard it; an agitated throbbing beneath his ribs. Faster than her own by far, but definitely a beating heart. She relaxed where she was, her cheek against his silk, and felt him begin to play with her hair again. After a while, he parted their interlaced fingers and moved that hand to her throat, running his fingertip down the crisscrossed ribbon that closed her nightgown.

Her surprise gave way almost at once to a keen anticipation, and it had little to do with the demands of her body. Belle found that she was as hungry for new knowledge as ever, now that her modesty had made room for her to be a better wife. What stirred her husband's desire? That he enjoyed tempting himself with her ribbons and laces she had already discovered, but only understood when he continued the quiet game; he allowed his fingertip to catch at each rung in the ladder of blue ribbon, flicking upwards and then back down. He could have touched her skin through the gaps, but did not. He could have unlaced her at once, but did not.

Enchanted, Belle dared her hand a little lower, her palm in the hollow beneath his ribs, and felt his breathing quicken.

She thought about the kitchen, and how he had grown softer and smaller after they coupled on the chair. Did the hardness return with anticipation, as the heaviness and the throbbing in her belly did? Was it sudden, that change of state, or as gradual as the arrival of desire seemed to be for her?

Questions were on her lips - less forthright than the ones occupying her mind, to be sure, but she still hesitated to give them voice, in case she broke the quiet comfort between them. Instead, she moved her hand as much as she dared; from his belly to his shoulder, and down his side until she found his hip. It seemed not to displease him, for his hand in turn explored her - first her shoulder, and then her breast, where his hand lingered for a long time for his pursuit of kneading her. It didn't give Belle the same pleasure as his attention to her nipple had, but his appreciation of her breasts pleased her in other ways; it satisfied her, to possess something that intrigued him so, and it excited her to remember his eager gaze when he had uncovered her, first in the kitchen and then on the bed.

The excitement took Belle differently, this time. She felt increasingly aware of the part of her that he filled up when he took her - of a pressure there that made her want to fidget. It was less distracting, more pleasant than the aching want she had felt before; it deepened gently as he toyed with her breast, and as she allowed her hand to go lower to rest at the outside of his thigh.

That distracted Rumpelstiltskin even from her breast, and he eased her away from him so that he could look at her again.

"Should I not touch you?" Belle asked, uncertainly, removing her hand from him at once. If she could not see him then she wished to touch him, but if he preferred that she save that self-indulgence for when he was inside her...

"Do as you wish," he whispered, wide-eyed. "Whatever you wish." His expression held that plea for something he could understand, again. "Have me do for you whatever you wish."

Her nod seemed to ease his mind, earning a sheepish smile as he averted his gaze. Belle, who knew only the things that he had shown her already, wondered what else there could be. She would not ask him to uncover himself for her - not merely to satisfy her curiosity. His reluctance moved her with pity, and it was stronger than her wish to show him that he was wrong to fear her scorn.

Flushing, she caught his hand and moved it back to the lacing at her neck. Rumpelstiltskin untied it at once, with a single tug at one dangling end of the bow. He licked his lips, loosening the ribbon, and knelt over her, bending so that he could kiss the skin as his tugs exposed it. Belle reached her arm up and rubbed the small of his back, feeling him tighten there and shiver all over. His mouth covered her nipple, hot through the silk and making it wet before he kissed her there, then sucked, then kissed. Belle bit her lip, liking his eagerness more than she liked the sensation, which frustrated her more than it added to her pleasure. After a moment, he turned his attention to her other breast, but the drape of her nightgown allowed him to uncover the right one, and apply his mouth directly to her skin.

Belle studied him patiently while he enjoyed her this way, and gently stopped his hand when he tried to push it between her thighs. He looked up, anxious, but Belle smiled. She did not want to be distracted from these new things, not yet.

"Shall I take this off?" She guided his hand up her body, smoothing it over the silk. "Or do you like it on me?"

"I like it very much," he said, his voice little more than a croak. "But I would like to see you again without it."

Getting up on her knees, Belle tugged the nightgown up around her hips; there was a great deal of skirt, and it took some arranging to free it from beneath her. Before she could do the rest, Rumpelstiltskin stopped her, and kissed her full on the mouth. He could barely contain himself, and he trembled almost as much as he had that first night. His hands took up the hem of her gown, lifting it slowly while they kissed, but he didn't hurry. He allowed his hands to stroke against her skin as he lifted the silk, and broke their kiss only when he could go no further without doing so.

Belle stayed still, when he lifted the gown over her head. She allowed him to slide it down her arms, last of all, and when he drew the puddle of silk out of her lap, she was naked before him. She felt less exposed, kneeling, than she had when he undressed her earlier. Again, there was little shame left in her, but still shyness. She lowered her gaze and, as before, Rumpelstiltskin gave her kisses until she became used to her nakedness.

She held the back of his neck while they kissed, noticing that his skin was smoother there, beneath his long hair. In turn, he brought one hand back to her breast and played with it while their mouths played together. He cupped the small weight of it in his palm, he squeezed and rubbed her and made small, short sounds of enjoyment into her mouth as he did so.

When Rumpelstiltskin finally drew back and looked at her, Belle looked too. His skin looked so dark against hers, even in candlelight, but more so against the white silk of his sleeve. She could see his knee, as well, half buried in the bedclothes next to her own; the skin looked rougher there, almost scaled, and she placed her hand there, slipping her fingertips beneath his nightshirt.

He stopped what he was doing and stared at her hand, there on his knee. He had bid her do as she pleased, but he was afraid that she would uncover him. Belle's kindness prevented her doing so, but he had touched her those first nights without exposing her to his sight. Could she do as much for him?

Looking at him askance, hoping that he would not need to hear her voice the question, Belle felt her cheeks and ears begin to burn. In answer, Rumpelstiltskin grinned, but it was a poor effort if he meant it to be his smile of knowing and mischief.

"You can touch if you want to, dearie," he said, breathlessly. "I've held all your treasures."

"Treasures?" Belle smiled, too, thinking of his greedy attention to her bosom. She thought of how he had held himself, down in the kitchen. His hand had been wrapped around the shaft, and that didn't seem difficult to accomplish without looking. "Is it nice, if I touch? As nice as when you touch me?"

Rumpelstiltskin's only answer was a helpless shake of his head.

His nervousness distracted her from her shyness at being naked; that, and curiosity. He had told her that a woman's pleasure was more elusive; that must mean that his would be easy to find. Cautiously, Belle pushed her hand up beneath his nightshirt, along his thigh until her fingertips found the thing. He had shut his eyes, as though he dreaded the touch, but grasped her wrist through the silk and guided her hand until she held him, her fingers wrapped around the shaft as his own had been. By then, his breath came as mere gasps, and she could see that it would be fruitless to ask him any more questions. She kissed him, instead, and his moan vibrated against her lips as he guided her hand to move a little; just a simple tugging motion while grasping him. The outer skin of the shaft moved over a hard core, much as the silk had moved across her skin, and that seemed to bring him pleasure. The hand that guided hers was shaking, and he was barely catching a breath or responding to her kisses. His other hand fumbled and found her right breast, and he buried his face against her shoulder, guiding her hand to move faster, shuddering and groaning the whole while.

A burning wetness coated her hand, where she held him, and the tension went out of him with it; he mouthed her neck with desperate kisses, sucking in great gulps of air and still holding her breast in his left hand, clutching her ministering hand in his right.

Belle stroked his hair, waiting for a hint about what she ought to do next. She felt that she must have done wrong, somehow, for him to be trembling so, yet she could feel the extent of his relief, and if he had spilled his seed did that not mean his pleasure was complete? Her own had been startled into retreat by his urgency, but when he finally released his jealous grip on her and sat back on his heels, the softness of his expression made her want again. As in the kitchen, his pleasuring had washed all the harshness and hints of cruelty out of his face, leaving his expression slack, his eyelids heavy and his lips parted.

"Did I do it right?" she asked, for she had never heard of such a thing, and truly had no idea whether they had achieved the result he intended. She stroked his cheek, his hair back from his face, and, as on their wedding night, he pressed a soft kiss to her palm that seemed to express unspeakable gratitude. The white silk clung to him where it was wet, in front of him, and Belle glanced guiltily at what was on her hand. It had made quite a mess, but he had told her that it was a messy business. Did he leave all that inside her, every time they coupled?

Rumpelstiltskin was watching her, she realised. His eyes were still heavy, but a little of the shrewdness had found its way back. He sat back against the headboard, arranging pillows behind him, and beckoned for her to be beside him.

"And your pleasure, my dear?" He let her choose how to settle herself, and she once more chose his side, with her head pillowed on his shoulder. "How shall that be?" He pulled the bedclothes over them, covering them both to the waist. Belle wondered why she didn't feel cold, but let the thought go. It didn't matter. Not tonight. Not now.

"In the morning?" She was comfortable, and her husband was drowsy and content. "We should sleep."

Rumpelstiltskin grunted softly, nudging the top of her head with his face. It wasn't even a kiss; he seemed too weary.

"The morning," he agreed, slurring slightly, and very soon they both slept.

Chapter Text

There was sunlight streaming through her window, when Belle awoke. Outside looked to be another bright and blue day, the low winter sun reflected from the landscape of snow. She blinked at it for a while, aware of little but the beauty and the peace of the moment. At some point during the night she had slid down the slope of pillows and buried herself beneath the bedclothes. She could feel Rumpelstiltskin's weight behind her, feel his warmth beside her, and smiled to herself. Remembering that she had fallen asleep with her head on his shoulder, it was nice to realise that they had accommodated one another in their sleep.

Carefully, she turned herself away from the window to face him, and to warm her right side which had been colder, being topmost while she slept. It was only then that Belle remembered that she wore no nightgown. For his part, Rumpelstiltskin remained propped against his slope of pillows, but he appeared to be at ease. His head was turned away from her, his arms slack by his sides and the bedclothes smooth across his lap, as though he had moved very little during the night.

It must have been the chill in the room that drove Belle beneath the covers, she decided; with the drapes left open all night and the fire burned low, the air was unpleasantly cool. She would have to dress herself, because she doubted that she could be warm if she emerged from beneath the blankets to press herself back against her husband's side, bare as the day she was born.

Moving with slow care, Belle sat up and looked about for her nightgown. She grabbed it quickly from the middle of the bed and dragged the silk over her head, shivering as she pushed her arms into the cold sleeves. The ribbon that closed it was missing, leaving her exposed from her neck to her bosom, and Belle looked at Rumpelstiltskin, torn between exasperation and a smirk of guilty delight.

Since her movements thus far had not disturbed him in the slightest, Belle chanced a barefoot dash to her little bathing room. She felt in need of a bath, but settled for washing her face and hands before returning to her husband. Chilly as she was, she stood over him for a moment, studying him in the clear morning light. It was an unforgiving light, emphasising every lump and wrinkle of his features, but sleep made him appear younger at the same time. Belle was glad to discover that Rumpelstiltskin was capable of finding such peace, even if it only came in sleep.

When she began to shiver, Belle hurried back around the bed and crawled back to the warm place beside him, jolting the bed as little as she could. All the same, her arrival woke him, and his arm caught her up before he was fully awake, welcoming her to his side.

"You're cold," he murmured, and then, suddenly and without any obvious display of magic, Belle was comfortably warm. Had he warmed the room, or her? Had it been his conscious will, or only the castle responding to his command?

Belle settled herself as she had last night, her head upon his shoulder, and felt him begin to lose the easy relaxation as his awareness returned.

"You slept well," she said, when she was sure that he was not going to return to sleep. "So did I."

Rumpelstiltskin didn't answer her, but squeezed her slightly before drawing her over him, to sit upon his thighs. Belle went there willingly, but held her gown closed, shy of him seeing her in stark daylight. His smile was on the darker side of playful, but he caught her shoulders and brought her down to him for a kiss. There was no demand between them, just a brush of greeting and fondness that made Belle's heart sing. She pressed her cheek to his, then sat back on her heels and smiled at him.

"Shall I cook breakfast?"

"I'd prefer that you didn't." He wrinkled his nose. "We shall find you that cookbook, my dear, before the unspeakable evils emerging from your kitchen begin to rival my most fearful potions."

"Oh!" Laughing, she swatted at his hand as he reached for the opening of her nightgown. Rumpelstiltskin merely caught her hand and held it, grinning. "Well, I should like a new book," she said, "even if it's a cookery book."

"Did I not show you the library?" He asked the question airily, as though it had slipped his mind that he had shown her nothing of his castle beyond her own room. "It's rather a good one."

"A library? Here?" She sighed with anticipation, and Rumpelstiltskin's hand crept past hers to reach inside her gaping nightgown. Belle looked down, her mild exasperation more than outweighed by the enjoyment of his fingertip caress over the round of her bosoms.

"I see that I've found the way to your heart," he said, his palm nudging against her right nipple. "Always dangerous to hand a monster such a secret, my dear."

"It's hardly a secret that I enjoy books," Belle said, trying to resist the renewed calls of her body. He had barely touched her, they had barely kissed, but his very wish to touch her excited her interest. Would she ever master these new sensations? How was a wife to go about her business if this distraction was only ever a heartbeat away? Did it stop once there was a child on the way? "Are there books about this?" she asked, swaying gently as he stroked her skin.

"This?" It took him a moment to catch her meaning, and then his hand went still. His forehead wrinkled with thought. "I expect so. Shall we go and look?"

Belle almost giggled, but saw that he was quite serious.

"I think we can manage without," she said, trying to ignore her own shyness and to contain her smile at his confusion "We've managed quite well, so far."

"So we have." Rumpelstiltskin blinked, and his sly smile returned, slowly. "Your pleasure was mentioned, before we slept. How shall it be?" He began to move his hand again, from one breast to the other, plucking until her nipples grew tight. With that accomplished, he withdrew his hand and placed both against her thighs, rubbing there against the silk. Belle flushed at being asked to decide, when she had only just become used to being shown the way. "Come," he said, more gently, his hands going still. "Let me please you?"

"You do," she whispered. "But show me?" He nodded, wide-eyed. He had thought that she would like to be asked. Oh dear. How much easier it had been when everything was unspoken! "I'm sorry. I'll learn, I will."

"Hush." Taking her face between his hands, Rumpelstiltskin shook his head. "No blushes, now. No shame." He spoke to soothe her, a musical lilt to his voice, but Belle could see his alarm at her sudden disquiet. He hadn't meant to ask for more than she was ready to give. From the very beginning, he had refused to do so. Belle pressed her cheek into his left palm, closing her eyes.

"I don't like to be thought ignorant," she confessed. "Foolish."

"Hardly that," he said, releasing her. Belle opened her eyes, and saw that he meant to dislodge her and get up. She placed her hands on his shoulders, afraid to let their nearness go in case she couldn't bring it back. She would miss him, this generous lover she'd found in him, if he returned to his distant courtesy outside the bedroom.

Rather than let him go, Belle bent quickly and kissed him, and felt him subside at once into his nest of pillows. His hands caught her arms, steadying her above him, and he returned her kiss eagerly. He hissed between his teeth when she took her kisses sideways, to his jaw and his throat - the one rough, the other softer like his palms. Belle remembered how she liked his kisses there, and allowed the tip of her tongue to touch his throat with the next kiss. His hands tightened on her arms, a soft sound of surprise and enjoyment escaping him. It made her bolder; even if she could not put her desires into words when he asked her to, she could act upon her feelings, moment to moment.

"No beard," she noticed, when her nibbles brought her back to face him. She brushed her thumb across his chin, where his skin was rough but quite free of morning bristles. Every other man she had seen was dark around the jaw, if he did not wear a beard. Her father's kiss would scratch her cheek, come late afternoon when the shadow of new growth looked almost blue. "Don't you need to shave?"

Rumpelstiltskin shrugged, as though he had never given it a moment's thought. Not magic, then. Just his own strangeness, the same as the raised texture of his skin, and the blackness of his long fingernails. He studied her closely, as she studied him, and when Belle pulled herself together and met his gaze with an apologetic smile and shake of her head, his eyes were soft with amazement at her quiet interest.

Gently, Belle touched his face. He closed his eyes, as though he couldn't bear to look at her while she explored his chin with her thumb. She studied how the flesh softened beneath his jaw, like the soft underparts of an armoured creature, only to become coarse again at his chest, where it was almost a ridge across the centre. The collar of his nightshirt prevented further exploration; unlike the gown he had given to her, which gaped shamefully without its ribbon, his was buttoned tightly to the throat. That didn't seem fair.

"How can I please you better?" she asked, to distract herself from the temptation of the topmost button. Rumpelstiltskin's eyes fluttered open, naked surprise written across his face. His hands, which had gone loose by the side of her knees, drifted up her thighs again, rubbing slowly. Belle was learning to like how it felt to be caressed through thick, smooth silk.

"Only with your pleasure, my dear," he said, eventually. "Your... affection... is more than I would have asked."

Belle placed her hands over his, on her thighs, and kept hold as he lifted them to her chest again, squeezing her bosoms lightly through her gown.

"You would have left me untouched," she pressed, encouraging his hands with her own even as she spoke. It distracted him, as she had hoped it would, and he licked his lips before he answered, his gaze flickering between her face and their hands.

"Have you ever heard it said that I rape?"

"No." It was true. In the stories, he was sometimes a monster. A killer. A deceiver. A devourer. But she had never heard a hint of that particular evil. "Never. But I was already your wife."

"I take only what is given," he said, very quietly. "I will never take you against your will." His hands went still, and Belle squeezed them, moved by his sincerity, and thinking of his reluctance to lie with her even once she had shown him her willingness. "Even a beast has things that he finds too monstrous to allow."

"You're no beast," she said, leaning her weight on their joined hands. "Don't say such things." The more Belle learned of it, the more she understood what the alternative might have been. To be taken without consideration, on her wedding night when she had been so lost and afraid... it would have been horrible. It would have been monstrous of any husband to do such a thing, but her husband was no monster.

"Oh, but I am, dearie." Rumpelstiltskin turned his hands and caught hers, grasping them. "Never doubt it." The gentleness of his touch belied the words, and Belle just shook her head, bringing his hands to her lips and kissing them each in turn. His sadness ran so deep, and there seemed to be no touching it, but if he forgot himself with her, even for a moment, then she was glad.

"In the kitchen," she said, shyly, half concealing herself behind their joined hands. "In your lap. I liked the way it felt."

Lifting his eyebrow, playfully, Rumpelstiltskin drew her closer, until they could kiss more easily. He buried a hand in her hair, as they did so, and the way he held her head was almost forceful, but she was unafraid. He had been equally direct in the kitchen, and she had known so much pleasure that she had thought it might shatter her. The very thought of knowing that sensation again excited her interest, and she was eager for him long before he slipped a hand between them and teased her through her nightgown.

Belle found that she could not concentrate on kissing him properly, while his fingers rubbed wet silk against her; each time he brought his fingers forwards, her body ceased to obey her and she fidgeted in his lap, her arms trembling too much to support her. It was certainly pleasure, but this time it was a raw and grasping feeling that half frightened her with its intensity. It brought her out in perspiration all over, hot and then cold, until she quivered above him, her teeth almost chattering, and could no longer manage to move her mouth when he kissed her. She could barely force herself to open her eyes, and whenever she did, his gaze was blazing with desire.

When she began to moan, helpless to prevent herself expressing her confusion of frustration and wanting, Rumpelstiltskin deprived her of his fingers and pulled open her nightgown, exposing her breasts fully before she could think of protesting, and made a high-pitched sound in his throat that put Belle in mind of his childish glee. His expression held none of that, however; she saw hunger, through her fog of need, and a greedy appreciation of her body..

She barely had time to glance down, as he pulled his own nightshirt up enough to allow them to join; he took her by the hips and pulled her nearer, obscuring any view she might have had, were she coherent enough to peek, and held himself with one hand while she lowered herself to meet him.

It wasn't like the chair, she thought, grabbing for his shoulders as her body simultaneously clenched around him and tried to resist his entry. With her knees on the mattress she could prevent him achieving a painful depth of penetration; she could move as she wished, and as he guided her with encouraging hands on her hips, and it felt wonderful. Overpowering, alarming, but freeing as well, and wickedly indulgent.

Rumpelstiltskin spoke to her, and Belle found that she needed to concentrate hard to make out any meaning; he urged her to please herself, to have her fill of him, to find what pleased her the most. As she gave herself to it, to the rising and falling, the rocking and wriggling that brought her, moment by moment, nearer to her peak of excitement, he slipped out of her, and, unthinking, she fumbled between them for his swaying member and held it rigid so that she could lower herself again. Only then did he fall silent, his head pushing back into the pillows, and began to match her urgent movements with sharp, upward thrusts. It ignited something in her, and she felt her nails dig into his shoulders; felt his shudder of pleasure at even that, and realised that she was crying out with every exhalation. He had called her a wanton, and she was - she was given over utterly to the demands of her body and to the deep throbbing that began to fill her.

It wasn't like before, with the long shivers of delicate, indefinable bliss. It shook her from the inside, convulsing her above him until he had to catch her shoulders and keep her from falling; it prevented her from thrusting herself back onto him to meet her own need, and only his thrusts kept her riding the surge of impossible pleasure.

Belle sobbed, as it began to subside and she could catch a full breath again. The backs of her legs screamed from where she had clenched herself so tight, and his continuing presence in her was almost unbearable. She stilled him, communicating her need somehow with her hand pressed to his belly, and Rumpelstiltskin obeyed her wordlessly, his chest heaving with every breath while he waited for her.

She felt half faint, her head spinning and her body weak, and lifted herself off him. He shut his eyes, tightly, and arched his back on the slope of pillows, but did nothing to prevent her abandonment. She could see him, then; bare thighs above the bedclothes, his member standing rigid and glistening from her wetness, and before he could notice it as well, Belle arranged herself beside him, on her back, and offered him her arms. One more moment upright seemed impossible, but she could welcome her husband like that, and wrap her arms and legs around him as he gratefully took her again, his face buried beside hers and his thrusts rough and needful.

Belle's body twitched and trembled, but she held on to him and allowed her discomfort to ebb, as the violent storm of pleasure had. She felt spent, as though she could never achieve that spasm of wonder ever again, but there was an enjoyable heat where he joined with her, and she thrilled to feel him shudder with his own completion. He was silent, except for his broken breathing, and strained over her in the throes of his passion, as though stubbornly resisting his need to cry out.

The aftermath of their coupling was... wonderful. Belle released her hold on him, arms and legs, but buried her fingers in his damp hair while he kissed her neck, her shoulder, her ear. He seemed incapable of moving further than that, even to withdraw from her, and the intimacy of the embrace was enough to bring tears to her eyes. She felt that she might burst with her fondness and gratitude, or from the warmth that filled her from head to toe.

Rumpelstiltskin recovered himself first, and took undue care in withdrawing from her, using his hand to remove himself. At once, as hot fluid spilled out of her and onto tender flesh, Belle understood why, and was grateful again for his foresight and understanding; she was sore, and she ached as she had not since he withdrew on her wedding night. It was not at all pleasant for the few moments that it took her body to adjust. She felt almost bruised, inside as well as out, but she had been the instigator, as willful as her husband was careful. As nervous as he was of hurting her, she would not have him see that she had overreached herself in her eagerness for sensation.

Did he suffer a similar discomfort? He gave no sign of it, and she remembered his remark about the poisons in his work room - that he was immune to things which would harm her terribly. Probably not, then. If he trembled a little, rolling to the edge of the bed and sitting up, it was probably only a reaction to his pleasure.

He faced the window, the heels of his hands pressing into the edge of the mattress, and Belle sat up while he could not see her, grimacing as her body protested.

"Are you all right?" Rumpelstiltskin spoke tersely, and his shoulders were tense. Belle crawled up behind him and put her hands on his shoulders, feeling him all but flinch away from her touch.

"Yes," she promised him. But was he all right? He had gone from such bliss to this tightness, and she didn't understand why. "What's wrong?"

"You bleed." He lifted his hand, and showed her the blood there. Just a smear or two, but when Belle looked down at herself there was more of it mingling with the wetness at the front of her beautiful gown.

"Oh, no," she whispered, her first thought for the perfect silk. Her next was for herself, and she hid the stain between her clasped thighs, kneeling behind him. "I'm sorry," she said, wretchedly - wretched that her concern for her husband came after her dismay about the nightgown. "It... it must be my time. It wasn't you, I'm sure. I'm not hurt. I'm sorry."

He released a long, slow breath with careful control, and half turned to look at her. He spared her his gaze, though, and Belle was more grateful than she could express for the consideration.

"You're certain that's all it is?"

"I... I think so." She had lost track of the days, in the upheaval since her wedding. Her bleeding often came upon her suddenly, often in the night, with few of the previous signs that Lotte and the matrons hinted that she might notice. "I should have been more careful."

"No matter," Rumpelstiltskin said, plainly relieved, if uncomfortable with the subject in hand. "As long as you are unhurt." As he rose to his feet, he passed his hand in front of himself, swiftly, and his day clothing replaced the nightgown. It was only in the moment when he stood that Belle realised her blood had marked his gown also. Her face grew hot with shame, even as she marvelled at the sight of his magic so easily at work. Her eyes had tried to ignore what they were seeing, but she must be growing used to it. She had seen the slight ripple of magic and of cloth, as the change took effect. "I will leave you, then."

Belle hated to have him leave on such a wretched note, but nor could she want him to stay while she knelt bleeding onto her beautiful nightdress that he liked so much. Tears filled her eyes as her husband hurried out of the room, determinedly not looking back, but matters needed to be attended to. She blinked the tears away fiercely, and went to her bathroom to wash herself. The nightgown she left draped over the bed, and as she bathed, Belle wondered how to go about cleaning it, and the huge, heavy sheets that had undoubtedly suffered from her carelessness as well.

She need not have troubled herself. When she returned in search of clothing, her blood stemmed with one of the soft, thick cloths sent to her by the townswomen, Belle saw that the bed was freshly made and the nightgown, Rumpelstiltskin's gift to her, was once again spread at the foot of the bed, pristine and smooth. At the collar, the pale blue ribbon had been restored, half laced up and tied in a generous bow.

Oh.

When she had dressed, choosing the dress she had cut short to let her work, Belle sat on the bed and ran her hand across the puddle of perfect silk. She knew that she would have been heartbroken had it been ruined. She adored all of his gifts, even the strange wedding ring that he'd woven with her blood and his gold. The gift of the nightgown pleased Rumpelstiltskin as well, though, and she was glad of the magic that had saved it for her.

~+~

Belle's blushes kept her from seeking out her husband until late morning. She spent the time dusting and sweeping the gloomy passages that extended from her kitchen, and thinking of home.

The letter had been gone from the table when she entered, and she refused to let herself doubt that Rumpelstiltskin had delivered it as he promised. Her drawers had still been on the floor, which only added to her general sense of embarrassment, but at least he had not been there to witness their retrieval, or their hasty banishment to the laundry room.

Her husband's heavy leather coat, also abandoned on the kitchen floor, needed brushing down but was otherwise no worse for wear. Belle doubted that anything very much could harm it. With the coat folded carefully over her arm, she ventured upstairs with a tray of tea things, half expecting that Rumpelstiltskin would be avoiding her company, and planning to find him with a cup of tea in her hand, if that was so. She would not be avoided, not when he had forbidden her shame; not even if her own blushes set her on fire.

Rumpelstiltskin was not at his spinning wheel in the great room, and Belle sighed to herself, pouring out a cup of tea. Perhaps he saw to his own meals, wherever he was busy working? Having witnessed the depth of his absorption while he spun, and his haphazard method of working in his turret of magic, she doubted it.

That was where she found him, the teacup rattling violently on the saucer as she climbed, as if to announce her. Rumpelstiltskin was at the largest table of bottles and jars, watching something simmer in a glass dish over a tiny charcoal brazier. The room smelled horribly of rotten vegetation, intermingled with the bitter aroma of tar.

"And you mock my attempts at cooking," she laughed, breathless from the last steep climb. "That smells revolting."

He glanced towards her, absently, and his mouth hinted at a smile.

"Well, it's not for eating, dearie. Take care not to get too close." He was standing almost over the dish, himself, and while Belle was nauseous from the smell alone, the rising steam from it seemed not to affect him in the slightest.

"I brought you tea," she said, lifting the cup as though he might require proof of her intentions.

Waving his hand to the table furthest from the stink, beneath an open window, Rumpelstiltskin kept a wary eye on the burner as he joined her there. Belle waved her hand in front of her nose once he'd taken the cup and saucer from her. He sipped his tea, unconcerned.

"Oh, your coat," she said, and went to lay it across the stool beside his spinning wheel. "It was in the kitchen."

"With your unmentionables," he said, shamelessly, and grinned at her flustered nod.

"Thank you," Belle said, before she had time to think better of it, "for seeing to my nightdress. I'm no laundress. I hope there are books about that, as well."

"I can't have my wife condemning herself to a life of unnecessary servitude," he said, brightly. There was a new energy about him, a restlessness that had been there when he first came to demand her hand in marriage. Even standing still, sipping tea with his elegant economy of movement, something about Rumpelstiltskin looked agitated. "Nor spoiling my lovely gifts."

Belle did blush, then. She had never imagined, not for a single moment, that any man would ever know of her bleeding, and now he had found her stained twice. It wasn't proper. Yet, her husband would need to know, wouldn't he? She would have needed to tell him that she could not receive him in her bed, and he would be waiting for the news that a child had begun in her. She shivered, then, and wrapped her arms around herself. The foul smell and the chill from the open window made her quite uncomfortable.

"Go upstairs," he said, at once setting down his cup and going to her side. He caught her around the shoulders, drawing her with him to the top of the staircase. "Take the left-hand passage, and the second door." Bewildered at being swept up like so much dust, Belle looked up at him. "The library, dearie. All the books you could ever want, I daresay. Try not to get lost." He gave her a little smack on the rump when she took her first voluntary step forward, and Belle jumped, more shocked by that little gesture than by anything that had passed between them in her bed. Or her kitchen. Her cheeks burned, and she simply refused to giggle.

As she rounded the first turn of the spiral staircase, Belle heard Rumpelstiltskin call after her, perhaps a little wistfully.

"Thank you for the tea, my dear."

Chapter Text

There was a great deal of dust on the third floor. Belle found herself leaving footmarks in it, as she followed Rumpelstiltskin's directions to the library. She would need to return with her broom, as soon as possible.

All thoughts of dust left her when she opened the door to the library, because she had never seen so many books in her life. Bookcases lined the walls, broken by just one window, beneath which sat a desk and chair. Above the level of the bookcases, a cast iron balcony ran in a horseshoe shape around three-quarters of the room, a winding staircase at either end, giving access to a second tier of bookshelves. As the room lit up to welcome her, she saw that the candles were encased in tall glass lanterns, each affixed to or hanging below the ironwork, ensuring that the flames came nowhere near the books.

Belle could not even guess at how many books there had to be, in that room. She stood in the doorway for a long while, simply staring around the room in wonder. She had not known that there were so many different books in the entire world.

It was a beautiful room, in spite of being poorly lit and airless. Belle could taste the dust and smell dry paper, as she took her first steps towards the centre of the room. There was a lectern there, carved from heavy oak like the bookshelves and worn smooth from long use. Although the cast ironwork was an intricate black lattice, and quite beautiful in its way with the red-tinted glass of the lanterns making patterns of light on the floor below, everything about the room was simple. The desk beside the window looked out of place, as though it had been brought from elsewhere in the castle. This was not a room for reading; it was a place where books lived.

Her initial joy was slowly deflated as she realised how impossible it would be to find any one subject among so many books. She would enjoy the search, no doubt of that, but it would be time consuming unless the books were arranged in a logical fashion. The books in Rumpelstiltskin's turret had been haphazardly placed, as though constantly in use and, furthermore, used while he was busy or in a hurry. The library appeared untouched, the books finely bound in sets that stretched for shelves and shelves. She would need to read every title and, today, all she needed was a book that would teach her simple cookery.

Slowly, Belle made a circuit of the room, trailing her fingertips lightly across the spines of the books. So much knowledge, all in one place! At home, she had read every book that belonged to the castle, even the old ledgers and legal documents. She had borrowed books from anyone who would lend them. To discover two or three new volumes inside a year had been heaven to her and now Rumpelstiltskin had given her a room of books that would take her years to read through. He hadn't even known that he was giving her a gift, this time, but what a gift!

Belle climbed a twisting iron staircase to the second level, and saw the lanterns on the railing brighten to light her way. She made her way around the shelves counterclockwise, the heels of her shoes clanging on the ironwork and echoing oddly in the book-lined space. The walkway was just wide enough that she was not afraid of falling, but the topmost shelf was too high for her to reach without standing on something. She thought about that, as she completed her tour and descended to the ground level, but set the thought aside for the moment. The books that she could reach easily would occupy her for the best part of forever. She would trust to luck that there were books among those that could answer her questions.

No system of organisation had suggested itself to her, as she studied the shelves. Books were grouped by their binding, as though collected in large sets of twenty or more, but within each style of binding fell a wide range of topics and authors. She had seen history, anatomy, fiction, philosophy and chivalry all side by side in one small section. The books were all beautifully bound, their covers tooled, with detail picked out in gold leaf. Most appeared never to have been touched, after being added to the shelves - certainly none of them had been read enough to sustain any damage. There was little dust, compared to the corridor outside, but the room had a dead feel to it. Nobody had made use of the library for a long time, if at all.

Steeling herself to resist all temptation, Belle began another circuit of the lower shelves, this time carefully studying each spine. She would collect what she could find on managing a household, on the storage and preparation of food, and leave all the other books for another time. She had been Rumpelstiltskin's wife for but a week; she would have the rest of her life to make use of the library.

As she moved along the shelves, running her finger along the spines of the books to keep her place, Belle noted the occasional gaps where one had been removed. In each space, a fine layer of dust had collected on the shelf between the remaining books, suggesting that Rumpelstiltskin had removed them long ago and never returned them. She counted perhaps forty such gaps in the collection of thousands.

The only subject she couldn't find on the shelves was magic. The only hint of that was in the small collection of story books for children that she found on one low shelf. Of all the shelves, it was the only one with books lying atop the neat row. No two books were bound alike, on that one shelf. Some were so old that the covers and pages had discoloured, while one or two of the ones lying flat atop them seemed brand new. Belle took them from the shelf, one by one, and saw that they were the sorts of books that she had loved as a child - brightly bound tales of adventure, of heroes and, yes, of magic. Intricate woodcuts, many of them hand coloured, adorned the pages of these tales.

Belle would have sat there quite happily, on the floor, and read the entire shelf. She had known some of them as a child, but most were new to her. They seemed a strange addition to what was, otherwise, a sober and scholarly collection.

After an hour of exploring, she had collected a small stack of books that looked promising. If she had hoped for one book to teach her how to cook and another to instruct her on how to wash clothing, then she was disappointed, but Belle looked forward to reading what she had found. One seemed to be the meticulous, decade long journal of a woman of noble birth reduced to humbler circumstances, and that alone would have interested Belle. Had the woman married for love and shunned her upbringing? Committed some crime and been cast out? Had war overrun her lands and forced her into exile? As much as Belle hoped to find instruction on household tasks in those pages, she hoped guiltily for a romantic tale that would steal her away into her vivid imagination.

Imagination had long been Belle's weakness. Whenever she had been found idle when she should have been at her lessons, it had been because her mind had filled, unbidden, with stories and mysteries. When she had been tardy in returning from a walk or from playing with her friends, it had been because she had been caught up in the wonder of the moment and distracted by imaginary things. She had settled, as she had grown older and understood her duty, but imagination had not left her. In books, her imagination found release.

Unable to resist, Belle returned to the shelf of tales for children and chose one at random to take with her, hiding it in the middle of her pile as though afraid to be caught indulging herself. Perhaps she was, for her husband so often seemed sombre and forbidding, and she felt that he might not approve of silliness. Had he chosen the books in his library, or had they been a part of the castle before he ever claimed it? If he had furnished the library for himself, then the shelf of childish escapism seemed all the more out of place there.

She was beginning to feel unwell, as she often did when her blood first came, and the airless room did not help matters. Reluctantly, Belle tucked her chosen books under her arm and went back into the corridor where the air moved more freely. She remembered that there were empty bookshelves in her sitting room, waiting to be filled, and a place to sit beneath a bright window so that she could read. Rumpelstiltskin could not have given her a more welcome retreat, one more appropriate to her inclinations and habits, had he known her all her life. The suite had been spotless and ready for her upon their arrival, the bedlinens fresh and aired. While the rest of the castle was shut away from the daylight with rigid drapes and shutters, her room had curtains that she could pull aside. Had he prepared it for her - for Belle, herself? Or had the room stood empty, awaiting his choice of bride?

Belle found herself feeling chilled, at that. Had Rumpelstiltskin come to her with his offer already in mind, or had it been only when he saw her that he decided that he would have her? Had he gone out into the world in search of a wife, or had marriage been a momentary whim?

Returning to her room, she allowed her armful of books to spill across the bed and sat, catching her breath. She would feel pain before she felt well again, before the bleeding eased, and Belle longed for Lotte's bright and bustling way with her when she suffered the tribulations of womanhood.

At least her husband was not ignorant of the matter. As much as it distressed her that he had seen her misfortune, she knew that it would have been worse had she needed to explain herself to him, tonight. At home, Belle would have shunned even her father's company during these first days and now, without it for the first time, she fully appreciated the silent sympathy of Lotte and her other female companions.

Belle missed them, and the sound of women and girls laughing together. Her childhood home had been a happy place, until the war came, and even that had not silenced the laughter. It had only deepened the understanding between them, as they eased one another's fears, or mourned fallen sons and husbands together. She missed the warmth of it, and only knew that she did once the pains grasped at her belly, as though they were a physical reminder of her new isolation.

Too stubborn to sit and indulge her self pity, Belle collected her books and carried them to the sitting room. She arranged them on the shelves, which were large enough to swallow half a dozen books and leave the empty space looking pitiful. She would fill them, but not simply for the sake of doing so; she would select carefully from the library, and she would learn what she needed to learn before she turned to self indulgence. But, she decided, picking up the slimmest volume and opening it to the first brightly painted plate, she would find the time to enjoy the shelf of books meant for children. One book at a time, and lovingly, she would allow herself this small escape from her new responsibilities.

~+~

The night had drawn in and Belle had eaten before she saw her husband again. She had gone to find him in his turret, to ask if he would join her for a meal, but the room had stood dark and empty. Unlike all the others, it did not light up to welcome her and she had felt, as she climbed the narrow stairs to reach it, that some magic hung in the air, pressing her back. Belle took it as a sign that she was not to enter the room unless Rumpelstiltskin gave her leave, and hurried away quickly.

She checked his small bedchamber, and saw clothing strewn across the bed. He had made no attempt to leave the garments in any fit condition to be worn again, and the untidiness surprised Belle. Her husband seemed so careful, so neat about everything else, that the sight of his discarded socks on the floor gave her cause for concern. Had he been in a hurry? But why, when he could use magic to change his clothing in less time than the blink of an eye?

Remembering his earlier agitation, Belle hoped that all was well with him. While she did not yet know him, nor even his habits, she sensed that this was a departure that she should not ignore. If her duty was to be her husband's comfort and his strength, then she should begin by finding him and making sure that he was quite well.

Having searched the few rooms where she had seen Rumpelstiltskin, and not found him, Belle was at a loss. The castle was vast, with a great many places where she had yet to set foot. For all she knew, he had yet more spinning wheels or laboratories within the castle. He could be anywhere, and short of a methodical search, she was unlikely to find him.

It was as she crossed the marble hall on her way back towards her kitchen that Belle caught a faint whiff of pipe smoke in the air. She hesitated in the middle of the room, her hand resting upon the table, and looked about her until she could detect where the scent was strongest. It led her towards the outer doors, where she hesitated. She had not forgotten what had happened the last time she opened them, when she had rushed to greet her husband and been thrown back by violent magic. Her head knew that she had, since then, left the castle and been unharmed by it, but her heart remembered pain and terror. And Rumpelstiltskin had been beside her, the last time she ventured through these doors.

Belle held her breath as she pulled open one of the doors, and she was relieved to see her husband sitting on the step. He had a basket by his side, full of neat bundles of plants, fungus and roots, and was smoking a slender clay pipe. He half-glanced behind him, hearing her, and gave her the slightest nod.

"Don't you ever get cold?" Belle hugged herself, keeping inside the castle as much to avoid the cold as because she hesitated to cross the threshold.

"No," Rumpelstiltskin answered, easily. He was, however, wearing his travel cloak, and had it wrapped firmly about him. Belle could feel the cold breeze creeping up beneath her shortened skirts. "I must leave tonight," he went on, staring out at the moonlit, snow-covered garden. "Business must be attended to."

"Oh." Her heart sinking, Belle braved the chilly step across the threshold. Nothing magical happened, just as he had promised. She only became colder. Nevertheless, she sat herself on the step beside him. "Will you be away very long?"

It seemed to her that a part of Rumpelstiltskin was gone already; he was so distant as he sat there, as though he barely saw her.

"Perhaps." He gave a faint smile, taking the stem of the pipe from between his lips. The smoke had an aroma nearer to the burning of resinous wood than to tobacco. It was heady and bitter. "Don't pretend that you'll miss me, my dear."

"I..." Belle forced herself to think before speaking. It was as though she spoke, now, with a completely different man. Not the lover, nor the reserved gentleman, nor even the terrible creature with storm-blackened eyes. Rumpelstiltskin's remoteness made him more of a stranger to her than ever. "I will be lonely," she said, finally. She would miss him, but not this. Not the times when he became incomprehensible to her, and frightened her.

"Shall I bring you a companion from the town?" he asked, feigning a kind of innocence. "A girl your own age, perhaps?"

"And frighten her half to death!" Belle protested, before he could think of snapping his fingers and whisking some poor woman from her home without so much as a warning. "I'll be all right. And I shall miss you," she added, made stubborn by his slyness. "You keep my feet warm."

That earned her a smile, one that was a little more the man who had warmed her bed. Rumpelstiltskin glanced in her direction, albeit without seeking her face, and knocked out his pipe on the step.

"Then I shall hurry back," he said, lightly, and sprang to his feet, the clay pipe vanishing from his hand. He bent to collect his basket. "And bring you a gift. What should it be?" He spun on the ball of one foot, spreading his arms extravagantly. "Jewels? Silk?" He leaned close to her, his face near enough that she could have kissed him with barely a movement of her own. "Name it, my Lady."

"Whatever pleases you the most," Belle answered, taking a step back and lowering her gaze. She felt no desire to kiss him, when he appeared ready to laugh at her expense, but nor would she have him think that she would not be awaiting his return. Before he could turn away, she found her nerve and kissed him firmly on the lips. She found the taste of strong spirits there, and herbs, and the strange, sweet pipe smoke. He tasted as he had on their wedding night, and Belle's senses drove her thoughts back to that night, leaving her reeling.

Rumpelstiltskin seemed even more disturbed by her gesture, and laughed nervously, increasing the distance between them.

"You are too kind to an old monster," he said, with a hint of darkness and a trace of longing. He was silent for a long moment, and Belle stood where she was and shivered, wishing that she knew how to make the awkward moment come right. "On my stool, beside my wheel," he said, his voice light and his words spoken with delicacy, as if he spoke magic, "there is a box. When your father places his reply inside an identical box, as I have instructed, you will find it there. Be sure to place nothing else inside the box," he added, raising a finger in warning. "Not so much as a hair or a teardrop, or the magic will not work and his letter might be lost."

Belle nodded her understanding, urgently, not trusting herself to speak, and with a slight bow, her husband vanished.

She had expected to wait weeks or months for a reply to her letter home, if she were permitted to receive one at all. That she might simply find a message from her father waiting for her... she wondered if Rumpelstiltskin knew what he had given her.

Hope, in a box. Nothing he might bring her from his travels could rival such a gift.

Chapter Text

After two days and nights alone in the Dark Castle, Belle was as lonely as she had ever been in her life. It was an empty, aching feeling, reminding her of when her mother died, and of how she had felt during the long carriage ride that brought her to her wedding night.

She checked the small, carved wooden box that Rumpelstiltskin had left for her so often that she began to feel foolish about it. She knew her father, and if Rumpelstiltskin had sent him a similar box with instructions to use magic to send her a simple reply, then its use would be considered and debated for the sake of the common good. She knew how it would hurt him to wait, to allow the wise men to examine the box and her letter, to weigh the advice of the councilmen. She thought of her father constantly during the days of solitude, and then felt ashamed of it. Should she not be thinking, instead, of her absent husband?

There was a thaw, on the third day, and the sound of meltwater dripping from the castle's gutters and gargoyles. Belle stood at the window of her bedchamber for a long while, enjoying the morning sunshine yet longing to be outside and to feel it upon her skin. She had occupied herself for two full days by sweeping more and more of the castle, until her shoulders ached from the repetition. Her next task would be the floor where the library was housed, she had already decided, but the bright new day left her with no appetite for the work.

With the worst of her blood behind her, she felt herself again, strong and full of energy, and found that she simply could not face another long day indoors, checking the magical box and then trying to distract herself from it with chores. She would go out. A walk in the sunshine, and fresh air in her lungs - yes. As soon as Belle had the thought, she knew that she must go.

The journeys by carriage had not given her a clear idea of how far it might be to the town, but she guessed that it could be no more than an hour's steady walk. If the roads remained clear, might she make it that far? The thought excited her, because she would find people there, and even if they were reluctant to keep her company, she would be glad to see another living soul.

It made her deeply uneasy to think of leaving the castle empty, but reason told her that, before she had arrived, Rumpelstiltskin must have done so all the time. He had not forbidden her to leave, or to seek her own amusement while he was away. All the same, Belle hesitated in the hallway and, leaving her basket and cloak upon the table there, went once more to peek into the box that he'd left on his stool.

She had wanted to take it to her room, but dared not in case that somehow kept the magic from working, and her father's letter from reaching her. Kneeling on the dais beside the low stool, Belle carefully lifted the lid of the box, and both hands flew to her mouth when she saw a square of folded parchment there, sealed with black wax and her father's seal.

Tearful with relief and excitement, Belle snatched the letter from the box and backed away, as if afraid it would be swallowed up if she hesitated. Her hands shook as she carried it to the table and, slipping into Rumpelstiltskin's chair, held the letter before her. She could not help but study every detail, from the familiarity of the creamy, thick paper with its ragged edges, to the rightward-leaning smudge her father always made when he pressed his seal into a blob of wax without first removing the ring.

"Papa." Belle put her hand to her mouth again, to stifle that word and the hiccoughing little sob that followed it.

It was some time before she could bring herself to break the seal and unfold the letter, and tears kept misting her vision as she tried to read it. Far from easing her homesickness or her loneliness, the arrival of the letter brought the anguish too close to the surface, and tears rolled down her cheeks without restraint. She wiped at them with her sleeve, dabbed at her eyes, and tried to savour every one of her father's words.

Above all, the letter spoke of his relief that she was safe and well. In the wording, however, Belle could read his concern and his questions. The tone of her own letter would have puzzled him and he might even suspect that Rumpelstiltskin had given her the words, or forged her hand. Her Papa had taken equal care to avoid writing anything that could possibly anger her new husband, or place any suspicion in his mind. Father was well, the town already being rebuilt. He wrote at some length of their gratitude to Rumpelstiltskin, and to Belle for making her bargain to save them and, again, this was for her husband's eyes rather than for her own.

Lotte, he wrote, was much recovered since the arrival of Belle's message, and had been sent home to her parents for a few weeks to rest. She would be awaiting Belle, should she and her husband visit.

The final few lines were only for Belle; a clumsy expression of her father's love and pride, and his sorrow at seeing her wed and flown. Even there, in those raw lines where his pain stood out in the unsteadiness of his pen strokes, he'd taken care to offer Rumpelstiltskin nothing that might lead him to find fault with Belle.

She felt angry, knowing that her father's fears had not been laid to rest by her letter. Rumpelstiltskin must have understood the cost when he placed the limitations on what she might say, in her letter. It would suit his spiteful, playful aspect, Belle thought, to use her own letter to further torment those she had left behind. She was sure that he did not mean to torment her, yet the very fact that she was not allowed to tell her father so was the source of her torment. It was intolerable that she should be used against those who loved her.

Anger dried her tears, at least, and Belle left the letter on the table. She cared not if Rumpelstiltskin read it and even, although the thought shamed her, hoped that in doing so, he might realise how cruel he had been in forcing her to write a letter that sounded as if it might have been to serve his ends, not hers. Her slightest hint of unhappiness dismayed Rumpelstiltskin, yet it would not be proper to turn her anger upon him. She had promised to obey his strictures upon her words; she could have refused him, challenged him then.

Belle had no stomach for cruelty. She did not understand it, and had not even as a small girl, when the passions of games and friendships ruled her head and, sometimes, her tongue. That Rumpelstiltskin enjoyed the unhappiness of others, that he cultivated their fear and wallowed in it with childish glee, repelled her as his appearance never could. She could not yet reconcile that part of his nature with the many ways in which he thrilled and charmed her. His boyish timidity around her, his wild eccentricities, his depth of sorrow and his generosity in their bed - she adored her new husband for all these things, and cared for him already. It had not been the effort that she had anticipated, to make space for him in her heart; he won her a little with every gift, every acceptance. But he could be cruel.

Collecting her cloak and basket, and checking her pocket for the small purse of coins, Belle stepped out into the sunlight. It was warmer than she could have imagined, and she carried her cloak folded inside the basket. She was glad that she had worn her boots, for where the sun had warmed the road, the track had turned muddy. Before she had gone very far from the castle, Belle's skirts were spattered from the muddy puddles and her boots were caked with dirt.

In places, steam rose where the snow at the roadside had turned to brown slush, and the air was humid beneath the overhanging trees. Most of the road to the town was like that, dark beneath the trees except where one had fallen in the storms, and then bright and almost unbearably hot.

Belle enjoyed the walk immensely, but felt thirsty and overheated before she reached the first of the outlying stone houses. She had not noticed a tavern, on market day, but supposed there would be one. She must have missed it in all the bustle, being so wrapped up in her own anxieties. Might she cheer herself up there, with a hot meal and a cool drink?

A boy of about twelve years was sweeping the step of the next house along the road. He gave her a friendly nod, as she approached the gate. Belle was about to remark on the small patch of well-tended winter vegetables behind the low wall, but an adult arm yanked the boy out of view before either of them could say a word.

Puzzled, Belle went on her way. She heard the town before she crested the final rise and saw it. She heard children playing, and adults talking, and cartwheels on cobbles and yet, before her own feet trod the cobblestones, the street was half deserted and there was not one child in view.

They hid the children? Aghast, Belle stopped in her tracks and looked around her. Suddenly, against all her expectations, she felt unsafe and unwelcome in this place. Men and women continued about their business, but carefully, nodding to her with the same taut respect she had been shown on market day.

She thought of home, where the lively business of the town left no room for anyone to stand on ceremony. If her father or the councilmen wished to speak to a person, they had to walk up and tap them on the shoulder, to wait until their current business was concluded, and would be greeted with something nearer to the respect of equals than any frightened deference. Gaston had found that unnerving, to begin with, but even he had bent himself a little to meet the warmth of Belle's people. She doubted that anyone where Gaston came from snatched the children from their play, merely because someone from the castle set foot in the common street.

It was a feeling more lonely than any she had known at the castle, walking from the town gate to the crossroads. Surrounded by people, by a whole busy town, Belle was isolated as she had never been in her life. It stung her, and she knew that it ought not. Rumpelstiltskin was to be feared; this she had always known, even if it became difficult to remember when he gazed at her with longing and wonder. She was Rumpelstiltskin's bride, and even she did not know how he might respond to any slight or harm that came to her among these people.

Weary, Belle rested against the pillar where she had rejoined her husband at the well, the other day, only to realise that if she stayed there, she might keep people from coming for their water, for fear of meeting her there. She looked around, desperate for an escape where there was none; she would not simply march back to the gates and back to the castle, allowing them all to see how their behaviour upset her. Suppose that Rumpelstiltskin had commanded them to behave thus, and threatened them with a dreadful penalty of the sort that awaited anyone who cheated him with their prices?

As she got her bearings, Belle made out a building far down the left-hand street where more people seemed to come and go than elsewhere. A tavern? Still thirsty, even if her distress had stifled her appetite, Belle walked purposefully towards the busy place. Large men stood aside for her like obedient schoolboys as she passed, and she took the time to smile at each one of them, thanking those who had, in any small way, inconvenienced themselves by paying their respects.

The place was, indeed, a tavern. It was far smaller than those she had known at home, the door only just high enough above the street to allow Belle to enter without ducking. The men who came and went seemed to have the knack of it, probably through long experience of banging their drunken heads on the thick oak lintel.

She had braced herself for the tavern to fall silent when she entered, but it was not quite as bad as when they had stopped at the vast coaching inn, on their wedding night. She attracted no curiosity, and while voices lowered all around her as she was noticed, conversation did not cease entirely. Wearing her bravest attempt at a smile, Belle wove her way among the cramped tables and stools, apologising humbly when her skirt or her basket brushed someone's back or arm.

A man and woman kept the bar, and resembled one another so strongly that Belle thought them twins. She managed not to stare, aware that everyone was quite nervous enough in her presence, and addressed the woman.

"A mug of ale, please?" Belle had done her best to sound friendly, to let her forced smile lift her voice, but she sounded as hopeless as she felt.

The woman, pudding-faced and obviously jolly under normal circumstances, elbowed her rigid companion, who took a pewter mug from above the bar and turned to one of several large, well-kept barrels behind him to fill it.

Belle proffered a gold coin, the smallest she had, feeling that if there was anywhere able to give her change of it, it would be a tavern. The woman nodded, taking it from her but with great care not to touch her person. After some rummaging in her apron pocket, she counted out a large number of silver and copper pieces onto the bar. As at the market, no price was named, so Belle nodded her thanks and put the new coins in her purse without glancing to see how much had been returned to her.

"My Lady?" A man spoke behind her, and Belle turned to see that the occupants of the nearest table had made way for her. As she nodded her thanks, the same man collected her mug from the bar and placed it carefully on the table. Belle sat, spreading out her skirts and reminding herself that, while it was acceptable for a lady to quench her thirst in a reputable tavern, she most certainly did not stand at the bar while she drank. She put her basket with her cloak on the bench beside her, and smiled again at the man who had called her attention to the courtesy. She dared not ask his name, in case he fled.

Although muted, the conversation appeared to return to something approaching normal, once Belle was pretending to be fully engrossed by her drink. Even the ale here was different to the sort she'd known at home; it was heavier, with more foam, and she liked it very much. She had found none in the castle, although there was a room given over to the storing of wine and spirits. She remembered the taste of something fiercely alcoholic in her parting kiss with Rumpelstiltskin, and on their wedding night, and guessed that it took something a good deal stronger than ale to give him the slight inner glow that she began to feel as she neared the bottom of the mug.

Sir Maurice, her father, would remind her that only fools looked for comfort in the bottom of a cup, but Belle could suddenly see the appeal of modest drunkenness, when her world had become so topsy-turvy. The beverage dulled the edge of her self-consciousness, and her smile of thanks was less awkward when she returned the empty cup to the fellow behind the bar.

"Sir," she said, with only a slight hesitation, "where might I find Mistress Wren?"

"Down the end of this street, my Lady," he said, willing enough to answer a direct question. He gestured with his arm as he spoke, directing her further down the street beyond the tavern. "The second of three cottages, right before the orchards."

"Thank you," Belle said, and kept from catching anyone's eye as she picked her way back through the tavern to the street door. One or two of the drinkers half rose as she passed, but at least nobody actually stood for her.

It was only a little way past midday, and Belle didn't want to return to the castle before the failing light forced her to. If the crooked and cackling Wren was the only person brave enough to begin a conversation with her, then she would seek the woman out and be glad of her company.

Belle had never had a great deal to do with the wise women, at home. Should anyone in the castle fall ill, no matter how humble their rank, a doctor would be summoned. It was only for a birthing that a wise woman was called, and Belle had only faint memories of the women who had attended her mother's ill-fated confinement, shortly before her death. She knew that such women were learned when it came to plants and herbs; not only the ones for medicine, but for food and for animal fodder. It was sometimes said that the wise women had magic, but Belle suspected that what they actually had was learning - word-of-mouth learning from generations of women who had found out what worked, and what did not, and passed the knowledge to their sisters and daughters.

She certainly had reason to appreciate Wren's skill with medicines, after her injury, and felt somewhat better about approaching the cottage, knowing that there was something she could say to justify her visit. But it seemed that she need not have worried. Wren was sitting on her doorstep, knitting something from heavy grey wool and watching an optimistic early bumblebee search her tiny vegetable garden for food.

"Ah, my Lady," Wren said, saluting her with both hands and the knitting. Belle could see what trouble it would have been for the old woman to rise in greeting, and hurried up the path to prevent her.

"Mistress Wren. I was getting lonely, back there in town," she said, setting down her basket at the foot of the steps and seating herself beside the old woman. "I remembered that you didn't mind talking to me."

"That's right." Wren had the sort of face that never truly changed, on a woman; fine boned and once beautiful, but now hidden by her stoop and by the sagging of ancient skin. She was tanned as a nutshell, almost as dark as the dark-skinned traders who sometimes brought exotic things to Belle's home town from across the sea, and she knitted the tough wool with fierce strength and nimble hands. "Don't mind them. They're only afraid he'll cuss them into pismires for looking at you wrong."

"Will he?" Belle folded her arms on her knees, and sighed. The ale had stilled her emotions, leaving her pleasantly weary and gratefully empty.

"I doubt it, not for talking to you, but the gods help anyone who harms or steals what's his." Wren was quite calm about it, showing neither approval nor disapproval towards her master. "Ain't never seen him do it, not here, cos nobody'd dare, but I've heard tell."

"But you don't fear him? Truly?" Belle had wondered, since their first meeting, whether Wren truly had no fear of Rumpelstiltskin or merely enjoyed having him think as much.

"What have I to fear at my age, child?" Wren cackled, her wheezing laugh, and coughed a little before she settled back to her knitting. "And he saved me as a babe, found me squalling a'tween my dead mama's legs and brought me here to be suckled, so I've always given him the benefit of the doubt, myself." She sniffed, finishing a row of knitting, and stuck her ivory needles into the ball of yarn. "How do you like your tea, then?"

With a long and creaking effort, Wren got herself to her feet. Belle would have helped her, had it not been for the woman's impatient wave when she tried.

"I like tea however it is," she said, uncertainly, as the performance progressed until Wren was as upright as it was possible for her to be. "Shall I make some?"

"I'm old, girl, not an imbecile," Wren said, amiably, and pushed open the door to her cottage. "The day I can't serve my own guest is the day they come and put me in a box."

Biting back an apology, Belle followed her into the cottage. Everything about it was small, and reminded Belle of the painted boat-homes she had sometimes seen on the rivers. A cast iron stove kept one room warm, which served as kitchen, parlour and bedroom. Bundles of herbs, dozens of them, hung drying from the low beams and all the way up the lopsided staircase, out of sight. As well as herbs, she saw mushrooms, onions, garlic and winter gourds hanging, and found herself so intrigued that she quite forgot to be polite. By the time she had looked her fill, and remembered her hostess, Wren was pouring boiling water into an enormous clay teapot.

"Come sit by the fire, girl." Unlike Rumpelstiltskin, Wren kept two chairs by the warm stove, one companionably facing the other. She waved Belle into the smaller of the two, the other being a rocking chair that looked every bit as old as its owner, with all manner of bags and pouches hanging from the arms and back. Into one of them, Wren stuck her knitting, before fetching Belle a heavy clay cup with her tea in, tinted with milk.

"Thank you." Belle would have accepted it with sincere gratitude had it been pond water, so relieved was she to be welcome. She smiled as Wren settled herself in the rocking chair, displaying great skill at keeping her tea from sloshing when the chair began to rock with her weight.

"So, are you frightened of him?" the old woman asked, once she was still. From where she sat, Belle could finally see her eyes properly. Her eyes were almost white, making her look blind, but it was obvious that she could see Belle well enough.

"Sometimes," Belle confessed, and then felt that she should not have said it. "I try not to be."

"That's the way," Wren nodded, blowing noisily onto her tea. "A girl with a head on top of her heart, that's what our master needs. Good for you."

"Need I be afraid of him?" Belle sensed, somehow, that Wren would tell her things, if she asked her questions directly.

"I'd say not, if you're true to him." Wren rocked herself, thoughtfully. It was awkward for her to sip at her tea, with her chin so near to her chest, and Belle tried to imagine how it would feel to be so old and stiff as she. "I'll say this, dearie, there's no man in these parts don't think twice and twice again before raising a hand to his wife, nor harming a child, nor about breaking a deal neither. That's his law, so I reckon he keeps it himself."

Belle nodded, and tried her tea while she thought about that. Some things too monstrous to allow, he'd said, and if Rumpelstiltskin wanted a thing stopped, then it would stop.

"Why do they hide away the children?" she asked, unhappily. "If he won't allow them to be harmed?"

"Ah, well." Wren rocked a while, and drank more of her tea, losing herself in thought for a long time before she answered. "He watches, that's all. Watches 'em play. Used to watch me when I was a girl, and I was a foundling so they'd fetch me in last of all." She laughed, at that, and a deep cough rocked both the old woman and her chair. She kept the teacup steady throughout the fit, and never stopped smiling. "Everyone knows he takes away babes in the night," she concluded, with a wink.

"That's terrible," Belle said, less fortunate with her own cup, which sloshed into her lap. "To teach the children to fear something that need not be feared."

"I didn't say he wasn't to be feared, my duckling. He's to be feared all right, by those with days left to lose. All magic should be, and he's steeped in it, our lord and master. All but drowned in it, I'd say."

"Oh." Belle had taken comfort from the old woman's words, and it had evaporated at that.

"Use you gently, does he?" Wren saw her naked astonishment at the question, and then her flushing cheeks, and there seemed no point in protesting by then. Belle looked at her cup, mortified. "Ah. That's proper, then. How old are you, girl?"

"... almost twenty," Belle said, meekly. She could not find the will to evade Wren's shocking directness, and still she preferred it to the wariness of the other townspeople.

"And him such an old man," Wren cackled, and subsided into a deeper fit of thin, watery coughing. Feeling helpless as she witnessed it, Belle gently took the teacup from the old woman's hands and refilled it from the pot. She crouched beside the rocking chair, and saw Wren's weariness as the fit passed and she took back the cup with a nod of thanks.

"Do you know how old he is, Mistress Wren?" Belle stayed, ready to steady the cup, but Wren drank with steady enough hands so she returned to her chair.

"Stories say he's older than the world, but I don't believe that," Wren said, thoughtfully, and began to rock the chair. "He's been master here a hundred years, and he ain't changed in all that time. He was legend then, when he came here. Hundreds of years on him, I reckon, and they all weigh on a soul like millstones after the first seventy, you mark my words." She nodded, soberly, all trace of her knowing smile gone. "A heavy life, his."

"I'll be a good wife to him, Mistress Wren," Belle said, solemnly. "I gave my word."

"It's just Wren, duckling," the old woman smiled. "So he named me, and old Wren needs her nap, now, cos the days get longer and heavier when you're old as well. You run along home to him, and visit me again the next time he's off about his dark and secret business." The knowing smile had returned, and Wren's eyes were growing heavy.

Belle gently took the cup from her hands and set it on the nearest table, and thanked her on her way out, even though she thought the woman was already asleep.

How had Wren known that Rumpelstiltskin had left the castle? Belle almost turned back to ask her, as she stooped to collect her basket, but her heart suddenly beat faster at the rest of it. Run along home to him, she'd said, and if Wren knew when Rumpelstiltskin was gone, perhaps she also had a way of knowing that he had returned?

Hurrying, kicking still more mud all over her skirts on the slippery road, Belle felt a little afraid. She had not thought that her husband might return to find her absent, and she was certain that he would know the difference between her disappearing into the far reaches of his castle, and being absent from it entirely. He had not forbidden her to leave, but nor had he given his blessing, and the stubborn anger that had carried her into town failed her on the return journey. What if Wren was right, and Rumpelstiltskin was waiting for her? Would he be angry?

The glorious winter day was fading, as Belle reached the castle gates. As they had opened easily at her touch to let her leave, so they opened again to readmit her, and she hurried at a half-run to the great doors. Her fear at the prospect of her husband's anger had given way to guilty remembrance of how he had behaved when she had refused the opportunity to run back to her father. It was not that he didn't trust her to stay, it was that he expected that she would want to go, and, even upset as she had been by the letter and by his absence, the very least she might have done was to leave him a note stating her intentions.

Her fears played out when, leaving her basket and her muddied cloak in the hall but hurrying too much to remove her filthy boots, she went into the great room. It was brightly lit, and Rumpelstiltskin sat at the head of the table, his back to her. She could see, even from the doorway, that he held her father's letter in his left hand. At his right, on the table, his silver flask stood with the cap off.

Feeling like a naughty child about to be scolded, Belle went to stand beside his chair. Rumpelstiltskin's expression was unreadable, and he did not allow her to see his eyes.

"You thought that I had gone," she said, and it wasn't a question. She knew it to be true, and neither his confirmation nor his denial would make her think otherwise. Rumpelstiltskin stared straight ahead. Belle wondered if the spirit flask stood empty. "I am your wife, Rumpelstiltskin," she said, and took the letter from his hand as she kissed him lightly on the cheek. He turned his face away from her, almost cringing, but his hand caught her wrist when she went to put the letter back on the table. It was a convulsive movement, and he seemed to have no idea of what to do next. It took him an age to work himself up to speaking.

"You... went into town."

"Yes."

"The letter." He seemed to be feeling his way towards a conclusion, baffled by the path he was taking. "It distressed you."

"I was lonely," Belle said, too quickly. "And then the letter made me homesick as well. I saw Wren," she added, in case he had any suspicions about what she might have been up to. "She gave me tea."

At that, Rumpelstiltskin nodded and let her go. His rigid shoulders sank a little, and he grasped the arms of his chair.

"And how is the old gutter sparrow?"

"She has a cough," Belle said, ignoring his attempt at a grudging sneer. He would not bother to ask after the old woman if he did not wish to know how she fared. "She speaks kindly of you." Grunting, Rumpelstiltskin turned his attention to his flask, replacing the stopper and slipping it into the upturn of one sleeve. "How was your journey?"

It was not the right question. Belle saw him scowl as he rose, and he stalked across the room to his spinning wheel.

"I am not fit company for you, at the moment," he said, standing with his hand upon the wheel and half glancing over his shoulder. "Leave me."

As frustrated as she was by the conversation, Belle was glad to do so, and went to her room, taking her father's letter with her. Rumpelstiltskin's brooding was too dark, and her own guilt made it seem all the worse. His business had gone badly, and he had returned home only to think her fled because of a letter. It was a poor start, if she was to be his comfort and his strength.

She would not be so careless again.

Chapter Text

Hunger and thirst persuaded Belle to leave her room before retiring for the night. It would have suited her better to stay locked away from her husband's black mood, but she had eaten only a little breakfast, many hours ago, and hunger was making her own mood a worse one.

She had changed her dress and tried to bring some order to her clothing, keeping track of what would need to be washed and how soon. A search of the bed and floor had revealed only one of the hairpins that Rumpelstiltskin had discarded, along with one of her garters for which she could not find the match. Cheeks flaring, Belle recalled how he had untied them to remove her stockings while she wore nothing else; she thought back to how he had looked upon her nakedness, and called her lovely.

As much as she enjoyed his attentions, and as much as the carelessness seemed natural in the heat of the moment, she was going to have to be more careful with her belongings, she thought, as she placed the pin and the orphaned garter with their fellows in the wardrobe.

The memory of his affection eased her upset, a little, but it was still with reluctance that Belle made her way downstairs, and with trepidation that she opened the door to the great room where she had last seen Rumpelstiltskin. She would not have disturbed him, had she found him at his wheel, but the room was empty. Her muddy footprints still trailed to the table and back, and thoughts of how to remove the dirt kept her mind busy while she descended to the kitchen to eat. She contented herself with bread and butter, and a smear of the dark honey that had arrived as a gift. Her books had helped her little when it came to cookery, and she was too tired to attempt anything new tonight.

Belle sat for a while beside the kitchen fire, but could not settle herself. Rumpelstiltskin's behaviour upset her and, combined with the cool reception in town and her father's letter, she felt agitated. Angry. It hurt her, too, that her brief absence had pained her husband, and shamed her that she had not spared a thought for him before leaving. It was all too much, a great confusion of woes, and her own misery was giving her a pounding headache.

When the kitchen fire failed to comfort her, Belle made as if to return to her room but, as she reached her door, the sound of a clatter and a muffled shout from above startled her. She had heard Rumpelstiltskin make no loud noise whatsoever. He moved quietly, he spoke softly. Even his mad, unnerving giggle was a quiet sound. Concerned, she lifted her skirts and hurried towards the sound.

Rumpelstiltskin was in his turret, and still swearing until he heard Belle's footsteps on the staircase. At her approach he fell silent, and as she reached the top of the stairs she saw him standing nervously beside the window, several shining metal canisters clutched to his chest.

"Are you all right?" The concern that had carried her this far failed, upon seeing that he was unhurt. He had commanded her to leave him be, and she did not know how he would tolerate disobedience. "I heard..."

"A mishap," he said, shifting his weight from foot to foot and staring at her too hard. After too long a moment, Rumpelstiltskin dragged his attention away from her and went to place the armful of canisters on a work bench. "There may be spiders," he muttered, his eyes briefly scanning the floor.

"Oh." Spiders held no terror for Belle, although it was a favourite tale of her father's that her poor mother had been terrified of the creatures. Her husband was clearly out of sorts, still, but not angered by her visit. She took a step towards him, but he held up his hand with a dramatic flourish.

"Don't step on them."

Belle looked down at her feet, lifting the hem of her skirts for a better look. She could see nothing but the long, unpolished floorboards of his turret, and the dust trapped between them.

"I can't see any spiders," she said, doubtfully.

"Yes." Rumpelstiltskin scratched his head. "That's going to be a problem." And he laughed, that twittering, inhuman little laugh that seemed more a release of his nervous energy than an expression of humour, on this occasion. "Stay there," he said, soberly, and picked up a jar of pink powder. Taking a pinch, he threw it into the air between them and, when it slowly began to settle, Belle saw a shimmer over a multitude of tiny, moving bodies. There was nothing but a distortion in the air, but she could tell that they were moving in every direction away from the site of Rumpelstiltskin's accident.

"Can't you... magic them back in?" Belle gestured to the one canister that had no lid.

"They're delicate little things," Rumpelstiltskin said, turning to his left and throwing another pinch of the powder. "And costly," he added, sourly. There was less of the seething movement where the new pinch of dust came to rest. Belle could make out individual little shapes in their determined course of escape. Her husband trod lightly between them, and skirted the room to the stairs, and held out his hand for her to join him there. Belle stepped backwards, supposing that any spiders behind her would already have been crushed, and let Rumpelstiltskin guide her down the first two stairs.

Once there, a wall of blue light rose before her eyes, and Belle could see that it was a bubble, filling the entire room. It sparked and shimmered, beautiful as sunlight on a fast moving stream, and she stared at it with her mouth open until Rumpelstiltskin drew her away.

He stopped below the winding stairs, standing aside as though to let her pass. Belle stopped beside him, instead, and leaned her weight back against the wall. She resisted the urge to fold her arms in front of her.

"Are you going to send me away, again?" She managed to speak without reproach, but perhaps only because she was so weary, and had been so startled by the incident with the spiders. "Have I angered you so?"

Rumpelstiltskin turned his face away, trying to contain a pained expression.

"There are times when I am best left alone."

Shocked at herself, Belle found that she wanted to shake him by the shoulders, to raise her voice as though she might reach him better, that way, than with her customary patience and restraint.

"If you tell me what you expect of me," she said, her tone heated in spite of her attempt to tame it, "then you will find me an obedient wife. I cannot bear all this... guessing!" He stared at her, alarmed, and she could see that the whites of his eyes were lined with red, and that his lips were parched and cracked. That alone prevented her from saying more, in the heat of her frustration.

"I am unused to... to companionship," Rumpelstiltskin said, moving a few paces down the passage and keeping his back to her. "To these... distractions!"

"Distractions?" Belle wrenched herself away from the wall, her hands making fists at her sides. "Did you think a wife would be like your horrid puppets? Did you collect me like one of your prized possessions and expect to forget about me until I needed dusting?" She struggled with the unfamiliar anger, but outrage came naturally to her, and now it made her voice shrill and unladylike. "You didn't want my bed, or my skills, or my company. What did you want? Why did you marry me?"

Rumpelstiltskin's eyes blazed with anger, when he turned sharply to face her, and his hands flexed at his sides as though he was tempted to grab her and shake her, as she had been tempted to do to him.

"Watch yourself, mistress," he warned, through clenched teeth. "When I say that I am best left alone, I mean it. Even your charms cannot tame a beast." Rumpelstiltskin struck at his own chest as he used the word, dripping bitterness. For the first time, Belle looked at him and saw ugliness. It was in his manner and in his sneer, and in the hateful way he narrowed his eyes to watch her. "Berate me when I am better company, for your own sake."

"You won't raise your hand to me." Belle lifted her chin, stubbornly, remembering what Wren had told her, and then how distressed her husband had been when she had been harmed by his spells.

"That's the thing, dearie," Rumpelstiltskin said, suddenly in front of her, wild-eyed and breathing a powerful gust of spirits and herbs in her face with every harsh word. "I wouldn't need to."

Belle had shrunk back against the wall, buying herself a tiny bit of space, but she was unafraid. Shaken, disturbed, revolted by the realisation that he was quite drunk, but not afraid.

"Does it help, being so drunk that you drop your spiders?" She gestured to the stairs. "The only beast I can see here came out of a bottle, Rumpelstiltskin."

He tilted his head, less startled than when she had challenged him before. He narrowed his eyes, studying her as he had on their wedding night, when he had demanded truths from her.

"Have you no fear at all, girl?" Trying to hold his gaze, and her own defiance, Belle felt tears prickle her eyes. She looked away, turned her face from him as he so often did to her. After a moment, during which she heard them both breathing too fast, Rumpelstiltskin lifted his hand and drew his nails down her cheek, so lightly that it tickled. "Is there nothing from which I may protect you?" he asked, far more quietly. "Will you spare me nothing?"

"Spare you?" Belle shook her head, trying to look at him again but hating the rawness of his mood, and the frailty of her own. "I don't understand." How was she to be his strength and comfort if he shunned her when he reached his lowest ebb?

Rumpelstiltskin placed his hands beside her shoulders, leaning his weight upon the stone and bowing his head. Belle saw that his hair was lank, the curls lifeless instead of their usual, unnatural neatness. What had happened to him, in these past days? Was he ill, or was it only the drink?

"As I do not understand you, my Lady," he said, after a long silence. His anger had broken, his venom was spent, and he sounded so tired. "You offer your hand to a beast that bites. You remain when you are free to go. You sweep, you scrub floors, you embrace your ghastly fate with good cheer instead of weeping in your room. What am I to make of all that, wife?"

"Is that what you wanted?" Belle longed to comfort him, but kept her hands by her sides. He seemed more at ease, speaking thus with her trapped in place, and she would do nothing to break the moment. "A wife who would despise you and weep in her room? Should I mourn my fate, as Lotte did?"

A snort escaped Rumpelstiltskin, who pushed himself away from the wall and stood before her, head bowed and hands by his sides.

"She did go on, didn't she? Snotty Lotte," he added, with an attempt at his mocking lightness of tone, his nose wrinkling with distaste.

"You see, you'd hate it if I did that," Belle said, pleased with this small triumph of reason over his mood. "And so would I, and then we'd both be miserable." She tried to smile, to catch his eye. "What's the good of that?"

Rumpelstiltskin nodded, but she could not tell whether he signalled agreement or merely defeat. Belle offered her hand, uncertain that it would be a welcome gesture, but what else could she do? Where was the use in quarrelling? It would not ease whatever ailed her husband, nor comfort Belle herself.

"I didn't expect any good to come of it, my dear," he replied, taking her hand with slow care and grasping it lightly. "None at all."

"Do you need to save your spiders?" Belle glanced up the stairs, to where the blue light flickered off the walls at the turn. "Or will you come to bed?" His hand tightened convulsively around hers, and Belle saw his indrawn breath. "Is it too bold, to ask you to warm my feet?" Belle brought her other hand over his, squeezing it between both of hers. Rumpelstiltskin stared at their hands, his expression blank.

"You have every right," he said, weakly. "To warm feet. The bubble will shrink overnight, and keep the spiders safe inside it."

Belle felt strange, hand in hand with her husband as they passed through the corridor and down the half-flight of stairs to her own room. She did feel as though she had been too bold, too rash, but she noticed that she felt no shyness, as she closed her bedroom door behind them. She still bled, and knew that he would not take her unless she permitted it. Wished it. She thought that it would be nice, simply to lie beside him, but she could pleasure him with her hand again, if he wanted it, and the notion gave her a pleasant shiver.

On her bed there was a book, one that she had not left there, and it lay upon the breast of a new silk nightgown that spread across the covers. This one was blue in colour, darker than the ribbon on the other, and laced with a ribbon of still darker blue.

Belle glanced at Rumpelstiltskin, who was making a show of examining the bed post.

"More gifts?" Belle picked up the book, turning it to read the spine. "Of Hearth and Stove," she read, and smiled broadly, opening it to see the first few pages.

"I am told that it contains much advice for the new wife," her husband said, plainly embarrassed. "About kitchen matters."

"Thank you," Belle said, again, and went to press a kiss to his cheek. Rumpelstiltskin inclined his head slightly to allow her to reach, and nodded. "Wait for me," she said, catching up the new nightgown. She put the book on top of her trunk, and saw Rumpelstiltskin sit upon the bed as she went into her bathing room.

She very much hoped that he would understand the message in her modesty. Her blood was slight, by now, but she did not wish to be touched. More than her sense that her bleeding was private, she had found herself without desire in the past days. The thrill at the thought of pleasing her husband in another way was one of discovery, not lust. The thought of lying beside him filled her with emotion, but none of the bodily sensations that had come so easily upon her before.

Changed into the new gown, Belle twirled, barefoot on the cold flagstones, and watched the hem flare and swirl. It was another wonderfully made garment, even more simple than the first because there was no lace at the cuff. The silk was lighter, cooler to wear, and felt delicious against her skin as she moved.

Rumpelstiltskin lay at the far side of the bed, facing the window, with the covers pulled up tightly to his ear. She watched him, while she finished her preparations for bed, slowly brushing her hair and braiding it to keep it from tangling. Was he pretending to be asleep?

Moving around the room, Belle blew out the candles and closed the curtains. She hesitated over the last candle, but reminded herself that there would be time enough to see her husband, now that he had conceded the issue. She blew out the flame and hurried to the bed, keen to share his warmth. When he did not move, she put her hand on his arm and kept a slight distance, waiting for a sign that he welcomed her touch. He was tense, and for a few moments unresponsive, but then turned himself onto his back and drew her against his side with great care.

"Do you like your gifts?" He pinched at the silk sleeve, when she had settled herself, her chilly feet beside his warm ones.

"Yes. You like silk very much, don't you?" Belle touched the front of his own gown, thoughtfully.

"More than I like most things," Rumpelstiltskin agreed, and settled a little as he spoke, exhaling gently as though releasing a great burden. "You haven't married a drunkard, my dear. Forgive me."

Belle smiled, moving her face a little nearer to his and prodding his foot with her toes.

"And you haven't married a scold," she said, and then frowned. "At least, I don't think you have." She felt more than heard his chuckle, and closed her eyes when he squeezed her against his side. Turning his head, Rumpelstiltskin kissed the top of hers. "You don't truly think that I'd run away, do you?" Belle pleaded, trusting to the tenderness of the moment to let her voice her unhappiness without repercussions. "I won't, you know."

"An obedient wife?" He gave her own words back to her, soured with doubt.

"A loyal one." Belle raised herself up on her elbow, to look down at what little she could see of him in the firelight. "Has no-one been loyal to you, before?"

Rumpelstiltskin's hand came to rest at the small of her back, and she saw him close his eyes.

"Yes. Once."

"Your wife?"

He swallowed, fingers curling against her body.

"No. Another."

Belle nodded, biting her lip to make sure that she didn't ask him more. His reluctance had been in each forced word, and she knew that there were things that a person might want to forget. How much loss and regret could someone accumulate in a life as long as Rumpelstiltskin's? A heavy life, Wren had said, and Belle knew that she had been right. She kissed his cheek, and burrowed a little further beneath the bed clothes, pillowing her head upon his chest. After a moment of hesitation, an inner struggle that she could feel in his body, he began to stroke her hair.

"What will you do with the spiders, when you catch them?" Belle realised, too late, that she might not want to know. "Turn them into potions?"

"No, dearie. They're precious for their tiny webs. The luxury of their existence will rival that of any prince, and they will spin."

"Like you." Belle smiled, relieved. For all the stories she knew of Rumpelstiltskin, all the terrible deeds, and for all that she knew she would forgive him, as his wife, she did not want to know that he crushed harmless spiders in his mortar. "The Spinner."

"That's an old one," he said, his stroking hand settling into a rhythm, as if he brushed her hair. "Almost as old as I am. How did you hear it?"

"The name?" Belle tried to remember, frowning as she thought. The tales of Rumpelstiltskin were told to babes in arms, to naughty children, and in taverns and travelling shows across the lands. She felt that she had always known that they called him The Spinner. "I'm not sure. My nurse, perhaps. She liked the old tales, about how the world began and men came to be."

"I'm not quite that old," Rumpelstiltskin said, and Belle could hear his smile. He grasped her braid, sliding it through his closed fist until he came to the ribbon, then began to play with that instead. "What else do they say about me?"

"That you're a demon banished to our realm. That you're the most powerful man in the world. That your magic can do anything."

"Very nearly." His fingers slid the ribbon from the end of her hair, and he unwove the loose plait with slow care. Belle couldn't help picturing his hands as he toyed with his small trophies, as he wove the cat's cradle to keep from fidgeting. She liked to have her hair touched, so closed her eyes and concentrated on the sensation, and on the rise and fall of her husband's chest as he breathed. He was not at ease, his breathing unsteady and his body all but humming with tension. "I'm not a demon. They have tails."

"I didn't think they were real."

"Oh, everything's real somewhere. Anything you can imagine, and a hundred thousand things you can't. That's the balance of things. That's why it all works." He spoke playfully, his free hand gesturing beneath the covers.

"Because of magic?" He had wound a thick lock of hair around his fingers, and allowed it to slither free. As Belle spoke, he began to gather up another.

"Who knows?"

Rumpelstiltskin seemed pleased with the direction of their conversation; Belle could feel that it soothed him, that his dreadful tightness was easing beside her, and that his game with her hair grew more lazy as he spoke.

"If you can't know, with all your magic, I suppose no-one can," she offered.

"Magic can't answer all the questions. We answer to it, not it to us."

"Even you?"

"Oh, yes." Another of his near-silent chuckles rocked her, gently. "It can be studied, collected, directed, but that's all. And to anyone using magic there is always a cost. The trick is... balance." Her hair slithered from his hand again, and Belle felt the last of her braid loosen itself as the hank fell. Rumpelstiltskin stroked it, from her crown to her shoulders, and Belle snuggled nearer to him.

"That's why you make deals," she said, her mind wrapping itself around the idea as he wrapped her hair around his fingers. It tried to slither away, just the same. "To balance the cost? To pass the debt to those who have need of your magic, so that you don't shoulder it yourself?"

He half-lifted his head, peering at her in the darkness.

"Clever girl." He sounded impressed, surprised, and Belle was pleased. She was clever - she listened, she watched and she thought. If her husband could enjoy that, in her, then perhaps he might one day grow to love her? She felt him release his weight back to the pillows and the mattress, again, and his movements became less awkward. "Yes."

"And you're always repaid for your trouble."

"Always." For a moment, his voice became that sneer again, but Belle wondered if it wasn't mere habit. At ease, Rumpelstiltskin's voice was deeper and quieter still, and she liked to hear it.

"Why do you use magic for things that can be done without it, then?" Belle eased her feet nearer to his and, with some fidgeting, they conspired to sandwich their ankles together, her knee resting above his. "For the larder, and the candles, and the snow on the roads?"

"A man needs to have some fun," he quipped, too easily, but his hand went still against her head and he seemed to give her question some thought. "But perhaps I'm more magic than man, come to that."

"You seem man enough to me," Belle said, and then realised what she had said, and how flirtatious she had sounded, and blushed furiously. Rumpelstiltskin only made a faint sound of amusement, but she suspected it was not without pride. He had been extremely pleased with himself for coaxing pleasure from her when they sat at the fireside, and again in the kitchen. Perhaps he liked to be reminded of his skill as a lover, as much as she enjoyed being told of her loveliness?

It would have been good to ask him more about his first wife, Belle thought, if only the subject did not pain him so. To what did he compare her, when he made assumptions about her wishes and fears? To a wife who had not shown him loyalty? Who had not welcomed him to her bed, either? It was no wonder that Rumpelstiltskin shrank from her clumsy affection, if that long-ago wife had shunned even her duty to stand beside him. Belle understood him a little better, for knowing that, and still... why had he married again, if he expected his new wife to be no different? Had Belle done all that Rumpelstiltskin thought that she would - refused his embraces, kept to her room, wept for home and loathed him for his inhuman looks - then what would she be to him, except a cruel reminder of another unhappy marriage?

He must have hoped for more from her than that. He must.

She only realised that he was no longer caressing her hair when his hand flopped to the pillow behind her. His breathing had become shallow, though still not peaceful, and Belle bit her lip. She would disturb him if she moved, but likely disturb him more if she was restless in her sleep, or got up in the night. Moving gently, she raised herself to press a soft kiss to his cheek, then eased her body away from his so that he could rest properly.

Rumpelstiltskin barely stirred.

Chapter Text

Belle was awake with the first of the sunrise, to find Rumpelstiltskin asleep beside her. He had turned face-down during the night, his head turned away from her and his hands buried somewhere beneath the pillows; it did not look as though he had passed a restful night.

Neither had Belle, whose nightmares had been repetitive and too vivid. Although it was early, she was glad to be awake and free of dreams. Glad, too, that her husband had slept beside her, and slept on so that she could watch him as the light grew.

His nightgown had bunched up about his shoulders and he had kicked the covers down to the level of his waist. She could see how slight he was, beneath the twisted white silk he wore; slight, but well-muscled. Only at the back of his neck could she see a hint of his skin, and only then where his hair had parted a little. His flesh had a greenish hue, next to the pure white of his nightgown. Belle reached out, cautious, and straightened his hair to cover the small patch of exposed flesh. The touch did not awaken him.

She must have rested beside him for an hour or more before she felt the least urge to move herself. Her dreams had disturbed her, but it soothed her to lie and listen to her husband's steady breathing. The days of isolation had affected her too much, it seemed; even dead to the world, Rumpelstiltskin was better company than her own.

When a visit to her bathroom became unavoidable, Belle slipped from the bed as carefully as she could, and stood watching him to see if she had disturbed him. There was no movement, no change to the shallow and steady rhythm of his breaths, and she was relieved.

It irritated her to find fresh, pale blood upon her cloth, and she only realised why as she placed it to soak in the basin she had taken from the kitchen for the purpose. She had hoped to be with her husband today, and hoped that he wanted to be with her. That was a strange feeling, divorced from bodily sensation; to want his touch for the sake of her comfort and not for her pleasure. Was that reasonable, or even rational? Belle had no idea, but her disappointment remained profound, regardless.

More than that, she did not want to disappoint Rumpelstiltskin. It was no longer any fear of failing as his wife, not when she had witnessed his response to her in daylight. Her body gave him pleasure and her willingness... she didn't know the words for what that brought him, but felt certain that it was entirely to his benefit when she gave it.

Freshened, and more awake from splashing cold water on her face, Belle crept back to the bedroom. Although she had left him sleeping soundly, she was not surprised to find Rumpelstiltskin upright in the bed, having made a bank of pillows behind him. He held the ribbon from her hair, and was drawing it slowly between his thumb and two fingers.

Grateful that he had stayed where he was, Belle went to his side at once, kneeling by his right elbow and watching him toy with the dark green ribbon.

"You tossed and turned," he said, as fascinated with the strip of silk as he was while he spun straw. "I hope my ill humour doesn't frighten you?"

Had she tossed and turned? Belle could barely grasp the memory of her nightmares, now. They had not been the sort in which she fought for air or tried to flee, but perhaps they had made her restless.

"No," she assured him, and then he reached his arm around her and welcomed her to his side, the ribbon dangling across her.

"That's good." He waited for Belle to get comfortable, then drew the bedclothes up to their chests. Belle smiled, her head on his shoulder, glad that he wanted to stay a while. "What disturbs your sleep, then?"

"Oh." Belle thought carefully before she spoke. "It was something Wren said to me, that's all," she said, as lightheartedly as she could. She was learning not to fear Rumpelstiltskin's wrath herself, but others feared it. She would never forgive herself if she brought it upon somebody else. "About how you found her."

"I see," he said, sourly, but it was as before; when he spoke of the old woman, he only pretended intolerance. "An unfortunate tale."

"And... well, I told you that my mother died in childbirth." Belle shook her head. The image that Wren had planted in her mind would not settle into the darkness with all her other memories. It had found out the memory of her mother, and joined with it, and her nightmares had been of blood.

"You need have no fear on that score," he said, patting her arm. He dropped the ribbon, in doing so, and caught it in the cupped palm of his other hand. "Wren's mother was but a child herself. Why she thought to call my name with her last breath, I'll never know, but there I found her, and salvaged what I could."

"And brought Wren here. Eighty years ago." Belle shook her head, unable to fathom such a distance of time, except in terms of old battles and the lineage of kings.

"An uglier babe you never saw," Rumpelstiltskin sniffed. "But she blossomed, as babes do. And now she withers. I will make her a potion, and ask you to take it to her."

"Yes, for her cough." Belle felt relieved, when she had not known that she was worrying. "I will."

"She may accept a little magic from you." He sounded wistful, and tired, and had scrunched her ribbon up in his closed fist. "Tell her that the price will be her continued kindness to my wife."

"I will." Belle caught his hand, lifted it to her lips, and kissed it. "Everyone else is afraid to look me in the eye, or speak to me in case I'm offended, and you get angry."

"Yes."

"Do you want them to fear you?"

"They'll not love me, dearie. They know what I am. But I don't tax them, I don't call their sons and daughters to arms in some pointless slaughter, and I don't claim my right to be the first with their virgin brides."

Belle gasped aloud and sat up, staring at him.

"No!"

"Those are the laws of this land," Rumpelstiltskin shrugged, his expression quite calm, and drew the green ribbon between both his hands again. "I was not the monster who forged such a contract. They may fear me, and I may like it so, but they do not fear to go about their lives on my account."

"They hide their children from you. From me. That's terrible!"

"I give them no cause, mistress," he said, too lightly, and Belle reached for his hand again. She ended up catching both, and her ribbon too, and squeezed firmly until he met her gaze.

"That's why it's terrible," she said, gently. "You won't punish anyone for speaking to me, will you?"

"Are we bargaining, or do you demand this as my wife?" For a moment, Rumpelstiltskin had his lopsided smile of melancholy humour. "Either way, I will not. You have my word."

"And your payment?" Belle stroked the back of his hand with her thumb, her smile quickly growing shy as he was startled into meeting her gaze. Rumpelstiltskin fidgeted, licking his dry lips, and Belle was delighted with the effect that her teasing had upon him.

"A kiss," he managed, after a long moment, and when Belle bent to give it, Rumpelstiltskin turned his head to receive it upon the cheek. Belle gave another, and another, each moving nearer to his lips. Could he resist her?

He could not, and met her fourth playful peck with his mouth, sighing deeply and pulling her to him, atop him. It was not a comfortable way to rest, but Belle had missed the kisses and kept still for as long as she could while they greeted one another. Rumpelstiltskin grasped her arms, slightly too firmly for comfort, and squeezed his eyes more tightly shut each time she sought to deepen their kisses.

A vestige of sense and modesty kept her from straddling his thighs and urging him to have all of her, there and then. He, too, seemed wary of things progressing too far, and although she felt that he might leave bruises where he gripped her, Belle liked to be kissed without a headlong rush for consummation.

She lost track of time, but broke from him when her own body began to sing with want, and saw him breathing hard and bright-eyed beneath her, his mouth slightly open. He licked his lips again, releasing her arms as if he had only just noticed how he held her.

"Payment indeed," he said, unsteadily. Belle smiled, but she felt sad that the moment had passed.

"I'm sorry that it wasn't more," she said, sitting back on her heels. His gaze took in her flushed face, the collar of her new gown, the swell of her bosoms and then he looked away, taking a deep and slow breath.

"Patience is among my few virtues," he said, with the tone of a man collecting his dignity about him after a stumble.

"I thought it was among mine," Belle said, feeling ashamed now for teasing him with no prospect of fulfilment. Did she dare offer to touch him again? His hands gave her pleasure enough, after all, and he seemed to think it only natural to touch her that way.

"You do... enjoy our bed, my dear?" He tried to look at her, and his struggle hurt her in the chest, as if something had squeezed out all the air.

"I do," she said, and touched his face, her palm against his cheek until he kissed it, closing his eyes. "Nobody ever told me that I would. It's been quite a shock."

"Yes?" He managed a wistful smile. Belle let her hand fall, touching his chest before she withdrew. Which of them had been more shocked by her enjoyment of him? She thought that she knew the answer, seeing that look on his face. How hateful it must have been for him to do his duty with an unwilling wife, when he valued a woman's pleasure. Or had he forgone that, with his first wife, as he would have forgone it with Belle had she shown disgust?

"Soon," she promised, and Rumpelstiltskin nodded, barely hiding a true smile from her.

Flustered, in a way that was unfamiliar to her, Belle left the bed and went to her wardrobe to choose her clothing for the day. Her work dress was dirty, as was the comfortable long gown that she had worn to town yesterday. Her betrothal gown was hardly suitable for sweeping or for experimenting in her kitchen, and her others, like that one, laced at the back. Biting her lip, glancing timidly over her shoulder when she heard her husband getting out of the bed, Belle caught a glimpse - just for a moment, before his magic clothed him in his customary high collar and a long robe of brocade - of his stiffened manhood poking at the silk night gown.

Mortified, her cheeks and ears suddenly hot, Belle occupied herself with the contents of her wardrobe. She could not ask him to help her dress, not if simply kissing had left him in that condition! She would have thought it uncomfortable, to say the least, but her husband seemed untroubled by the occurrence and had not noticed her glance. Belle, herself, was more concerned by her ignorance than by her unintentional effect upon him. She found that she liked to be wanted, that it satisfied a hitherto unrecognised need somewhere deep inside her, and her husband bore the proof of his desire. She wondered if her slippery wetness when he excited her pleased him as much.

"You brought all your clothing?" He startled her, speaking from close behind her.

"Not all," Belle said. "All that I had space for in the trunk."

"Perhaps you could write to your father," Rumpelstiltskin said, nervously touching her shoulder. "Ask him to send you whatever you need?"

"Oh, may I?" Belle couldn't help her reaction; she spun and threw her arms around his neck, leaving Rumpelstiltskin searching for a place to put his hands, and Belle quite aware of the hardness beneath his concealing coat. If she asked for her things, if she spoke of them each in turn, and of shared memories associated with them, then perhaps her father would be sure that she had penned the letter? And, besides that, she did need a better choice of dresses, if only to allow her to cut more of them short for housework.

Embarrassed by her outburst, she let him go, but could not stop smiling. The intensity of her reaction mildly alarmed her husband, who backed away with a wary smile and a flutter of his hands, nodding awkwardly to her as he turned to go.

Belle enjoyed a long bath before beginning her day. She had, guiltily, grown used to that particular magical convenience - hot water that rose in the copper bathtub at her touch, and vanished when she had finished with it. It was not so chilly as washing from a basin each morning, it left her a good deal cleaner, and it soothed the muscles that she had been giving such a rude awakening with her new chores. A bath had soothed her body after her last time with Rumpelstiltskin, as well, when her own eagerness had left her sore and aching inside. Belle didn't know whether or not her body would become accustomed to that, as it did to other things, but she knew that Rumpelstiltskin was afraid of hurting her. She doubted that he would be pleased to learn that she had hurt herself, seeking her pleasure.

Another search of the bed and bedclothes turned up her missing hairpin, which had fallen between the mattress and the carved wood. With no sign of her garter, she could only assume that her husband had added it to his collection of prizes. He had taken the old green hair ribbon with him, she noted, and smiled as she knelt to fetch another from her trunk. She could sew a new garter to match the orphaned one, but she had to wonder what Rumpelstiltskin could want with such a thing. Her ribbon for a bookmark, her satin cord for his fretful finger-puzzles; Belle could understand those things. What could anyone do with a garter but keep their stocking up?

Her grubby work dress won the day, with a shawl about her shoulders and crossed to tie behind her waist, in order to cover the worst of the dust and soot upon the bodice.

Belle gathered up everything else that was in need of laundering, and carried it down to the laundry room. She would soak everything, and then consult her new book to see what might be done with it all. The only things she knew how to wash were the bloodstained cloths, and that only because she had been shown how to wash a bandage. Salt and lye had been the secret to that. She doubted that her small bar of olive-soap would work, and it certainly wouldn't last to wash her muddy dress and all her petticoats.

Well, if her husband could bottle pleasure and capture invisible spiders in a bubble, surely he could find her lye soap? She would ask him, if the book he had given her offered no answers.

After a breakfast of eggs, Belle poured a single cup of tea and carried it up to Rumpelstiltskin's work room. She had expected that he would be busy with his spiders, but he stood at his spinning wheel instead, and had a distracted look about him as Belle entered.

"Some tea?" She felt like an intruder each time she visited the turret room, and her voice was apologetic. Rumpelstiltskin nodded, taking the cup when she brought it to him, and looking at it while he swirled the contents. Quite a lot of his tea had ended up in the saucer, but Belle knew he could conjure himself a lake of the stuff, if he wanted to. What mattered was that she had thought of him.

"I prefer the one with the chip," he said, thoughtfully tilting the white china this way and that.

"The one I broke?" Belle laughed, and Rumpelstiltskin smiled wanly. He meant it. "All right," she said, supposing that a man with scales upon his skin and the glower of a hawk must be entitled to a few oddities. She had kept the damaged cup, at the back of the cupboard where the set lived. Perhaps, like his other keepsakes, it reminded him of a tender moment with his wife. She liked that thought, and ducked her head to hide her smile.

"When you write to your father," Rumpelstiltskin said, carrying his cup to the window behind the wheel and gazing out at the lacklustre day, "do not speak of my magic, or my travels, or my past. My other restrictions were perhaps too severe."

"... thank you," Belle said, her voice faltering. To be able to write a proper letter, and to speak of her new home in words that would show her father that she was well... "Thank you."

"I have reasons for my caution, Belle. To cause you grief was never among them."

"I know." She went to him at the window, leaning against the wall. He had each of the turret's windows open, admitting a biting breeze, so she supposed that he had secured his costly spiders. The silvered canisters that she had seen last night were nowhere to be seen.

Facing the daylight, Rumpelstiltskin's pupils had narrowed to pinpoints, and the greyness of his flesh seemed to lighten to a more olive tone. Did it change, or was it only the light? Or was it only her eyes, trying to make sense of him and deceiving her in the process? The broken red veins had faded from the whites of his eyes, and his lips were less dry; at least his overindulgence had worn off, then.

Belle realised that she was staring at him, and that he was watching her in turn with his eyebrows raised in question and a hint of amusement. It was teasing and not mockery, and they smiled together, shyly.

She stayed until he had drunk his tea, then took the cup and saucer back with her to the kitchen. Naughty curiosity kept her mind busy, while she carried her broom and dustpan to the third floor, where the library was. Did a man stay hard, once it happened? She thought it would be horribly uncomfortable, if he did, and could not blame Rumpelstiltskin for his modest choice of clothing if that was, indeed, the case.

If he was uncomfortable, and if her presence made him more so, then he had shown no sign of it.

Too often, growing up, Belle had been told that she thought too much. From her father, they had been fond words; he tolerated her incessant questions, and told others that he was more proud of his Princess than he could be of any son. But Belle had always been careful that her questions were... proper. No opportunity had ever presented itself to discover exactly what a grown man kept in his trousers, and so Belle had puzzled over what she had seen of livestock, tomcats and dogs. She listened to married women gossip and giggle, and had learned... well, enough. Enough that she had known her husband would lie between her legs on her wedding night, and fill her up with that part of himself while he left his seed to grow, and that men often desired to do this thing with a pretty girl.

Had she thought any less about things that a maiden ought not, Belle knew, then even Rumpelstiltskin's tenderness would have come as a cruel shock. Why shouldn't a girl know what was in store for her once she married?

Belle found herself sweeping the third floor corridor with unnecessary vigour, in her irritation. She had found that it was simplest to move all the dust to the top of the stairs, and then to kneel on the second stair and sweep it down into the dustpan with the smaller brush. Instead, her cross strokes with the broom had scattered the dirt down the first few steps. While she worked to collect it all into her dustpan, Belle wondered how many girls endured what they might enjoy, simply through their ignorance.

She had been lucky, in her own husband. Lucky that Rumpelstiltskin had been the one to bed her. Belle imagined how others would laugh to hear that, and then wondered what her father would think of her, if he knew how she felt. He had called Rumpelstiltskin a beast; he could not have been more disgusted had Belle offered herself to an ogre.

Would it disgust him more that Belle was not an unhappy bride? Her heart beat faster at the thought, and her mouth grew dry. She felt sick, weak and breathless, never having once considered, in her whole life, that her choices might sicken her beloved father.

Gods, but it was a dreadful thought. Beside the gaping fear of it, her homesickness shrank into nothing.

But Belle would not cry, not for herself and not for fear of what might not come to pass. She brushed down her knees, when the stairs were swept clean, and sniffed back her unhappiness.

A visit to the library might settle her, she thought, but there were other doors beyond that she had yet to try. All too aware that Rumpelstiltskin's castle possessed entire wings and buildings in which she had yet to set foot, Belle decided to explore this floor. It was near to her room, and to Rumpelstiltskin's own; the rooms might be as useful as the library or, if they were empty like so many below, she might look for ways to bring them back into use.

The far end of the passage was a window of stained glass, alternating coloured squares of ruby red, ink blue and emerald green. The glass was cloudy, blocking much of the daylight and distorting any view beyond recognition, but Belle liked it. It was not hidden away behind stiff, dusty drapes, like so many of the other windows. In the hope that the rest of the floor was better endowed with windows than was the library or the floor below, Belle started opening doors.

There were three, before the turn at the end of the passage, the first being the library. The second stood empty, but without the dusty sense of abandonment of the floor below. It contained a full length mirror, covered in a sheet, and had a large window behind faded old curtains.

Belle hesitated, in front of the mirror. She was growing used to never seeing her reflection, except distorted in bowls of water or the round of a silver spoon. It was the first mirror she had come across, although she had believed Rumpelstiltskin when he said there were some within the castle. His instructions to her had been few, and guarded, and one of them was that she must not uncover the mirrors.

Glancing down at her dusty and streaked dress, Belle sighed and left the room. Her appearance never seemed to meet with her husband's disapproval, whether it was her finery or her bare flesh, so what need had she of a looking glass?

The last door was locked, but an iron key was in the keyhole. She turned it and was startled when, like the other inhabited rooms, this one lit up with candle flame at her arrival.

Like her own suite, this room was well furnished with dark, heavy carved oak, and warmed with tapestries and carpets in deep reds. The bed was a narrow one, as her own had been at home, and like Rumpelstiltskin's it had fine sheepskins draped across the foot. Belle ran her fingers through the gorgeous fleece while she looked around her.

This room had two connecting doors, as did hers, and like her own they opened onto a sitting room and a bathing room. The sitting room was full of toys and amusements, from simple balls to an elaborately carved chess set of jade and glass; from toy animals to a wooden castle filled with intricately painted soldiers.

Next, she went to the wardrobe in the bedroom, and opened the drawers beneath it. The clothes there were, again, for a child - for a boy a few years from his maturity. The clothing hanging inside the wardrobe was the same. She found everything from shirts and knee-breeches to cotton nightshirts, all crisp and new, as well as simpler things that had plainly been worn - even torn and mended again, as Belle's clothing had often been in her youth. A few smaller, rougher garments were either for a different child, or had been outgrown and kept anyway.

Belle felt like an intruder upon the life of another, seeing those well-used things, and carefully shut the doors of the wardrobe. Rumpelstiltskin had not been a child here, he had told her so, but the belongings might be his. Perhaps he hoped to pass them to a son and heir? Or, perhaps, there had been a son, with the wife who hadn't loved him?

The mystery and the sad stillness of the room had quite distracted her from her own anxieties, and she left it behind her with a thoughtful frown. She took special care to lock the door again behind her.

Chapter Text

Before dark, Rumpelstiltskin summoned the coach to take Belle into town. She would have preferred to walk there, but rather than delay bringing the healing potion to Wren by waiting for morning, Belle allowed her husband to help her into the carriage.

"You could come with me," she pointed out, but he held up his hands with such a sickly smile that Belle thought it best to trust him and make the errand alone. Wren might accept from her what she would refuse from Rumpelstiltskin out of pure contrariness.

As she watched the trees whisk past the small window, Belle wondered if Rumpelstiltskin was simply unwilling to be seen doing a kindness.

The streets of the little town were empty, as darkness fell, while the windows of the old buildings glowed with the cheer of hearth and home. Belle heard snatches of laughter from the tavern, as she stepped down from the coach a short way from Wren's cottage, and gazed wistfully down the street for a moment before noticing that the driver was watching her.

"What's your name?" she asked him, craning her neck to see him, up on the box.

There was no answer, no gesture of acknowledgement or dismissal, and Belle's flesh crawled. She smiled quickly, and hurried to Wren's door.

The windows of the downstairs room were dark, while upstairs glowed with candle and firelight. Belle knocked and waited, but she knew that Wren was stiff and frail, and would not have her clamber down the staircase only to have to go all the way back again, just for the sake of courtesy. She pushed open the door, and stepped inside, and called out to announce herself.

"Hello? It's me, Mistress Wren. Belle."

"I can see it's you, missy," the old woman called back, from above. There was laughter in her voice. "Who else comes in a fine coach to see old Wren?"

Taking that as a welcome, Belle shut the door behind her and climbed the stairs, ducking to avoid the hanging bundles of plants and roots. The scent of them grew stronger and stronger as she climbed, so she was not entirely surprised to walk, not into a bedroom, but a neat work room that reminded her of Rumpelstiltskin's turret of potions.

Wren sat on a three-legged stool beside a small hearth, her lap full of roots and a knife in her hand. She waved Belle closer with it, grinning to herself.

"What brings you after dark, girl?"

"Um." Thrown by the woman's lack of both surprise and reverence, Belle had to shake herself out of a fascinated silence. She knelt beside the stool, and looked up into the wrinkled face. "I brought this for your cough." She pulled the little glass flask from the pocket of her cloak, and offered it, uncertainly. Wren's grin returned as she took it. Belle saw that her hand shook, as she did so.

"Sends me magic, does he? He knows better than that, so I reckon that's why he's sent you with it. Am I right?"

"I think so," Belle admitted, smiling helplessly herself. It seemed so foolish that the mighty Rumpelstiltskin feared the scorn of an old woman. "But I was worried about your cough, and I think he made it as much for my sake as yours." Every sense Belle possessed told her that truth, and only truth, would ever influence this woman. "And his own."

"Ah, that's the meat of it," Wren agreed, nodding. Her smile faltered away, and Belle saw how shallowly she breathed, and how parched her thin lips were. "He can't save me from the mercy of the Reaper this time, duckling, but I'll drink his potion if it gives you peace." And, so saying, Wren pulled out the cork and drank the greenish muck from the vial, then smacked her lips in a parody of satisfaction, and grinned at Belle. "Tingly," she said, and Belle broke down laughing at her feet, until she was the one gasping for breath.

Wren only chuckled, and watched her kindly, and brushed the tears from her cheeks when she straightened. It hadn't all been laughter, that outburst, and Belle trembled and felt foolish, but somehow the better for it.

"What's his price, then?" Wren asked, when Belle stopped sniffing. "If it's my firstborn, he's off somewhere in the lands where they've deserts, last I heard."

"Y-your continued kindness," Belle managed, unsteadily. "To his wife."

Wren barked a laugh, and it did not make her cough even a little. She put a hand to her chest, looking impressed and rather surprised.

"Oh, contracts me not to die, does he?" She patted her chest and then took up her knife again, as Belle thought about what she meant. Had that been Rumpelstiltskin's meaning? "You tell him I'll try, girl, and thank him for his kindness. Seems a good potion."

"You don't approve of magic?" Belle sat back on her heels, drying her face on her sleeves. Wren seemed not to judge her for her foolishness, and she was grateful.

"I don't trust it," Wren shrugged. Already, her voice was stronger and her breathing deeper. "But at my age, I don't suppose a little can do much harm. Nothing can."

"I'm glad," Belle said, bowing her head because gazing up at the old woman was starting to hurt her neck.

"What about you then?" Wren went back to peeling her lap full of knobbly brown roots, dropping the peelings neatly into a pot to her right, and the cleaned roots into one at her left. "You're getting skinnier every time I see you. Don't he feed you?"

"Oh." Belle made a face, embarrassed. "I scolded him for using magic to give me meals, so he doesn't," she admitted, "and I'm no cook."

In truth, she had not gone hungry; she had eaten all that she wanted, whenever she remembered, but if she thought back over the days since her wedding then Wren was quite right. She had not been eating enough, by far. She had not seen her reflection properly since she dressed for her wedding, so had to trust the old woman's observation. It would not do to make herself unwell through self-neglect.

"Take one of my cookery books, then." Wren nodded, encouragingly, as Belle looked up at her in surprise. "And the best of luck to you. Try porridge, nobody ever starved if they could boil a pot of oats and water."

"Good idea," Belle said, sheepishly. She had not thought of trying that, and it sounded so simple and sensible, now that someone had suggested it. "Thank you, Mistre--"

"Wren, little 'un. Just Wren." The old woman's smile was gentler, now that she was more comfortable in her breathing, and her eyes seemed less sunken. "He called me so because I was a tiny thing and full of fight. Didn't know my own size." She cackled, but it was a less alarming sound without her watery cough following on behind. "He should know the power of names, that one. Wren never tolerated no bother from no-one, especially him."

And Wren never said her master's name, Belle noted, feeling strangely comfortable there at the old woman's feet. It felt as if she might learn everything about everything, if she only listened long enough.

"Wren..." She felt small and childlike, asking questions of the woman, but Wren only waited for her to speak, calmly dealing with her roots. "How did you know that my husband was home from his journey, the last time I was here?"

"There's a change in the air when he's gone," Wren said, a little darkly. "A lightness, without the weight of him there. Like a change in the weather, maybe. Like knowing when thunder's gone away." She pursed her lips a moment, her hands falling still in her lap. "That's how powerful he is - enough to colour the world about him, enough for others to take note of it. Take my advice and never forget it."

"I won't," Belle said, quickly, but guilt stabbed at her. She did forget it, every time Rumpelstiltskin was kind to her, or gentle with her, or made her smile. She did forget it, when sadness made him seem so small.

"You've questions, duckling," Wren said, matter-of-factly. "Confusions. I can see 'em in your eyes." Unable to stop herself in time, Belle looked away, and stared into the small fire. "That's all right by me, girl. You ask them in your own time. But maybe don't take so long that I'm buried first."

Belle wished that Wren wouldn't speak of her death so calmly. But... why? If a person had lived for eighty years, and knew that their body failed them, and there was pain, and the life had been a good one and well-lived, would death seem such a terrible thing? Less terrible to Wren, perhaps, than to those she was preparing to leave behind her. She sighed, and forced her mind to work.

"I do have questions," she said, firmly and deliberately. She had many, many questions, but she had yet to find the words for most of them, or to know which of them she ought to be answering for herself. "But, today, most of them are about how to wash my own clothes."

Wren barked her loud, startling laugh again, and once more seemed surprised that it didn't leave her coughing. She picked up the empty potion bottle from her lap, and looked at it thoughtfully. The green stuff had left no residue upon the glass.

"Let's begin with that, then," she said, gently, and Belle smiled.

~+~

The ride home gave Belle time to dwell on her conversation with Wren. She had made no further effort to speak to the driver, having emerged from Wren's cottage to find the carriage and horses facing back the way they had come, but there seemed to be no need to convey instructions. As soon as she seated herself, they sped for Rumpelstiltskin's castle.

In her lap, she had both the cookery book that Wren had offered, and a brown paper package containing laundry soap. These simple things filled Belle with a renewed sense of optimism. She would learn to cook, and she would learn to care for her clothing properly without the help of maids and laundresses. Eventually, she might even master how to be a good wife to a man such as Rumpelstiltskin.

She found herself breathless with hope and anticipation as, having started a pot of porridge beside the fire, she slipped into the laundry room to pull up her skirts and make a furtive check of her cloth. Finding not a trace of blood, she almost laughed aloud, and then felt embarrassed about that, as she placed the last cloth to soak with the others. Her glee at the prospect of enjoying her husband's embrace was unseemly, even if she was getting used to the idea that actually enjoying her husband was not.

Anticipating his touch felt quite wonderful, a warm sort of glow, and Belle tried to enjoy it as she sat down to a bowl of thick porridge covered with cream and sugar. As much as she felt that she signalled her lustfulness to the entire world, she knew that it was a private matter; that no-one but Rumpelstiltskin knew of her startling appetite, just as none but Belle knew of his shyness and tenderness. It was theirs, belonging entirely to their marriage, and she wanted to enjoy it to the full.

All the same, Belle felt shy about going to find him with such blatant hopes in her heart. She ladled out a second bowl of the porridge, and placed it on a silver tray along with a cup of tea. She could take it to him, and tell him how Wren fared, and not feel that she was such a... wanton. Yes, she feared that the word he had teased her with was becoming all too accurate, when she craved his embrace enough to seek him out with an excuse already prepared.

Rumpelstiltskin had returned to his spinning wheel in the great room, by the time she went in search of him. He smiled when she entered, setting aside his work and joining her at the table, where she set the porridge and tea at his solitary place.

"You cooked?" He peered into the bowl with exaggerated suspicion, taking up the spoon. "Thank you, my dear. But porridge?"

"Wren said that I was getting too thin while I try to learn how to cook," Belle said, dragging the other chair from the fireside so that she could sit beside him. "I've had mine, it's perfectly edible."

"You've only to tell me when you would like your meals," he said, unhappily, as if the failure to pay attention to her diet were somehow his fault and not her own. "There's no need for all this."

"I would like my meals with you," Belle said, arranging herself on the armrest of the chair, and only then knew it to be true. Rumpelstiltskin paused, a cautious half-spoon of porridge and cream on the way to his lips, and looked at her as though she had asked to dine with the coach horses. "At least once a day," she said, firmly, nodding with satisfaction. "Breakfast, if you like my porridge, or tea, if you'd rather be safe with bread and jam."

Rumpelstiltskin blinked, round eyed, and gave his attention hastily to his food.

"... as you wish." He tasted the spoonful, meekly, and looked relieved to discover that she had done nothing intolerable to it. "Very nice," he said, noticing her expectant expression.

Belle knew that he was unused to anyone choosing his company when there was an alternative. That saddened her, for his sake, but it also reminded her of Wren's warning not to forget what Rumpelstiltskin was. How easy it would be to let him care for her with magic, to feed and clothe her and even magnify her pleasure with potions, until she became thoughtless about the small things, and forgot how the world beyond the castle walls was meant to work.

"Wren drank your potion," she said, when he had eaten enough that she could see he was losing interest. It baffled her how someone with so much energy could have so little appetite. "It seemed to help her." Rumpelstiltskin's surprise was obvious, but he blinked it away quickly and gave a sober nod, pushing away the half-finished bowl so that he could bring his teacup in front of him. Belle had used the damaged one, as he had asked, but he seemed not to notice. "She, um, thanks you for the potion," Belle tried, missing the relative ease of speaking with him while he held her against him, in bed. She supposed that any husband would appear less forbidding in his nightgown, and then considered that there, perhaps, pressed warmly against him in her own thin night things, she frightened him a little less also.

"I cannot save her from old age," Rumpelstiltskin said, frowning at his tea before he sipped. "Understand that."

"I do," Belle promised. "And so does Wren. She's... ready, I think." She felt sorrowful, speaking of it, but it was only the truth. "She doesn't fear death." She leaned across the corner of the table and put her hand on Rumpelstiltskin's arm. "She doesn't even fear my husband."

He caught her smile, and some echo of it brightened his eyes. Would he miss Wren? Belle lowered herself into the seat of the chair and tried to imagine being old enough to outlive everyone she ever met, and to do so by entire lifetimes. It was dreadful, and filled her with such sadness for her husband that, seeing her expression, Rumpelstiltskin immediately thought that something was wrong.

"What is it?" he asked, although without his usual uncertainty. Even he did not think it possible to offend her by sipping quietly at his tea. "If the stubborn old baggage upset you--"

"No," Belle said, quickly. Too quickly, and then she remembered his promise, and calmed herself. He would harm no-one for merely speaking to her. "I think I shall miss her, that's all. I think you will, no matter what you say about her. How could you not, if you've known her for so long?"

"Hmm." He hunched over his cup and gave no answer. Yes, he would miss Wren, Belle knew it, and hoped that she would be of some comfort, when the time came. But the potion had helped, no doubt of that. Perhaps they would not have to face the loss so very soon.

"I'll go to my room," Belle said, using the table to help herself rise from the chair. "I have a new book to read." She waited until he glanced up and saw her teasing smile. "I'm told that it contains much advice on kitchen matters."

"The more the better, my dear," Rumpelstiltskin said, but it barely even rated as an attempt at cruelty. "Shall I see you later?" He asked it as she stepped level with his shoulder, leaving Belle unable to see his expression as he spoke.

"Yes," she said, unwilling to chance anything that he might perceive as teasing for his uncertainty. "All's right with the world, again," she added, remembering Lotte's cheerful phrase for each release from blood and rags. She smiled to herself, hearing Lotte's voice so clearly in her mind.

Belle kissed Rumpelstiltskin on the cheek before leaving him, and this time he pressed towards her rather than flinching away.

Once washed and changed, Belle left her bedroom door standing open and, pulling one candelabra close enough that she would be able to read, took her new book to bed with her. Of Hearth and Stove promised to be instructive, although it appeared to be written as a series of fictional conversations between mother and daughter. When it came to housework and cookery, Belle would much have preferred simple instructions.

Normally, any book would be enough to keep her absorbed, allowing her to forget her own thoughts entirely, but Belle was unable to concentrate properly on the first pages. Unbidden, she found herself thinking again of her father, or of Wren, or of her husband's reticence, or of that sad, empty child's room near the library. Furthermore, when the thoughts did come, she was unable to battle them into any constructive sense or order. They were no more than worries and distractions, leaving her irritated with herself for being so hopeless. She could write to her father, see that Wren was cared for, and prove herself to her husband with patience, affection and time.

She had managed to read the first of the 'conversations' before she heard Rumpelstiltskin's footfalls on the stairs. Although she had taken her time with the pages, being so distracted, she had not been in bed for very long, and felt warm at the thought that he might be as eager to resume their discovery as she. Of course, she told herself firmly, if he was simply on his way to make potions in his turret, that was all right. She would be patient, and would welcome him whenever he chose to visit her. All the same, she knew that she would feel a guilty disappointment if he passed her door rather than join her, and held her breath as his steps brought him level with her room.

"May I come in?" His voice was playful, as was the pose he struck as he stood in her doorway.

Belle giggled. She was not given to doing so, in general, but she enjoyed Rumpelstiltskin's showy pantomimes, when they were friendly, and laughter seemed to come more easily to her since she had broken down at Wren's knee. Something had been freed inside her, simply by knowing that there was someone to whom she could turn when everything became too much.

"I think you should," Belle told him. "My feet are very cold."

With a quiet 'mmm' of approval, Rumpelstiltskin approached the bed and sat, turning her book to examine the cover. He had left his robe and waistcoat somewhere, and wore only a rich blue shirt tucked into the high belt of his breeches.

"Are you enjoying your book?" He was running one fingertip across the cover, from side to side, and watching it move.

"It's a bit like being lectured by my governess," Belle admitted. "Very stern about the responsibilities and habits of a good wife." She tried to keep her face serious as she said, it, but was unable. "Apparently, I'm to insist that you allow me an iron stove for cooking, and at least one maid."

Rumpelstiltskin made a face, and pushed the book out of reach towards the foot of the bed.

"A stove you shall have, my dear, but magic is your only servant, here."

Belle didn't know what to make of him, she truly didn't. She would not really have asked him for a stove, yet he would see that she had one; she knew that he would. Without comprehending why it mattered to her that she learn to cook and care for the castle, he would provide everything that she needed. Any gift, she thought. I could ask him for anything and he would give it.

But at what price did a wife make that bargain? Belle took his hand and lifted it to her cheek, pressing her face against his warmth and feeling his fingertips curl behind her ear, catching her hair with his nails. His hand trembled a little, and he was hesitant and watchful as he came nearer to kiss her - the lightest touch of his lips upon hers, like their wedding night when he had feared she would turn away in disgust.

Tonight, it was all that Belle could do to keep herself from throwing herself at him, bodily. The soft, shallow kisses were a torment, and even when Rumpelstiltskin closed his eyes and tasted her more deeply, Belle felt ruled more by her own greed than by the pleasure of the moment. It wasn't the bodily urgency that had so disturbed her when she first felt it, although her loins felt heated and eager for him. Her wanting was in her heart, and the satisfaction she craved was in that companionable closeness with him that came only when he surrendered to his desires. She realised that she had missed her husband dreadfully, these past days, even in those moments when he had been beside her.

Instead of joining her in bed, Rumpelstiltskin drew her out from beneath the sheets and into his lap, astride him, settling her so near that her privates were against his leather without even the barrier of her nightgown. The sensation left her hazy, swaying with her arms locked loosely behind his neck, while he held her there and lowered his head, finding her left breast and suckling the nipple through her silk. He balanced them there, at the very edge of the bed, his hands flat against her back; she knew that she would not fall, not even if she thrashed and rocked herself there in his lap, nor if his enjoyment of her bosom brought him to distraction. Her husband was immovable, when he chose to be, and strength that might have terrified her served their pleasure, here, instead.

It seemed a wrench for Rumpelstiltskin to stop what he was doing, and straighten enough to kiss her mouth again. Belle buried one hand in his hair, offering herself enthusiastically, and he hitched her tighter against him; so close that she could wrap her legs behind him, and feel him hardening inside his breeches. Was that pleasant for him? She had imagined that it must be the same as her own frustration, before she had learned how to be sated. Was the heat of her, pressed against him through the leather, an enjoyable thing?

For Belle, it was a hot, present promise of what was to come, and she tried not to indulge herself in rubbing against him, but to enjoy the way his tongue dipped into her mouth instead, and how he shivered when she did the same to him.

"Oh, Belle," he whispered, clutching her against him and burying his face in her hair, "I must have you, may I have you?"

She gasped, both at being squeezed so tightly and at his confession, his plea. His consistent patience had given her a sense of safety in his embrace, but his raw passion thrilled her and she was not afraid. She nodded, urgently, and kissed him as he lifted her to lay her upon the bedclothes. That Rumpelstiltskin took the time to position her with her head upon the pillows surprised her, for a moment later he was covering her, pushing himself between her legs faster than she could open them to welcome him.

For a moment, while he propped himself above her and fumbled with his belt, Belle was a little afraid. Not that he would hurt her, but at the lack of joy in his twisted expression of almost-pain as he struggled with his clothing.

When magic might have served him best, he'd forgotten it entirely, using his hand to expose himself and then fumbling as - even then, even like that, even as his entire body shook with want - he dipped his fingertips inside her to spread her moisture, to protect her. A moment later, he pushed himself inside her with a moan of need and relief, and Belle's breath caught at the sudden change of sensation. No pain, but she felt tighter than she had since the first time, and for a moment she feared that her body would battle him when she wanted only to welcome him, to satisfy his urgency. But, no, the clenching spasms in her were expressions of her own want; her body grasping for her husband, encouraging his hasty, shallow thrusts.

As she found herself able to breathe again, albeit in short gasps between his thrusts, Belle locked her ankles behind his thighs and buried her hands in his hair, her palms cupping his temples. How wonderful it was to be desired so; enough to undo even the great Rumpelstiltskin; enough to make him moan as he enjoyed her, and clumsy in his thrusts, as though he could scarcely keep pace with his own lust.

Belle could not find her own release, in that hasty embrace, but there was pleasure enough - a delicate, dancing, almost stinging thread of fire through the deeper, dull heat of wanting. And the revelation of seeing her husband's tender calm shattered by his need would have been enough for her, had there been nothing more to relish about being taken so; simply to have Rumpelstiltskin speak her name, in his urgency, had been a gift.

He finished with a cry that was almost a sob, his arms weakening so that Belle had all of his weight upon her before he was still. Inflamed as her own passions had been by the teasing, she wanted nothing more than to cling to him, for those long moments while he caught his breath and clutched at her, overwrought with emotion. She stroked his hair, and kissed his temple, and felt him press his cheek closer against hers in shaken gratitude. It was enough; the soft and tender moment after the frenzy. Belle relished it with an entirely different kind of greed.

Rumpelstiltskin was not a large man, but still a good deal heavier than she. Belle had to push him away before she wanted to, in order to take a full breath. She had expected him to roll and lie beside her, as he always had, but instead he sat back upon his heels, between her knees, and stared at the tangle of blue silk around her midriff as though appalled at what he had done. Looking down at herself, Belle almost expected to see blood again, but there was only the twisted and crumpled fabric, and the wide, wet patch where he'd suckled on her, and the sticky thatch of her hair below that. Her thighs glistened with the proof of her acceptance and desire.

"Husband," she said - tried to say, rather, but her panting had left her throat dry, so it came as a whisper. She offered him her hands, but instead of returning to her embrace, Rumpelstiltskin drew her up to sitting, his head still bowed. "You won't break me, Rumpelstiltskin," she said, croaking with dryness and emotion. "Truly, you won't."

Belle felt dishevelled, shivery and both hot and cold. Tired, as well, as though she had shared in all of his storm of feeling. She held his face between her hands, and kissed him when he lifted his head at last. There was a sticky indignity to the moment, with her displaying all her wares, and with Rumpelstiltskin barely covered by his untucked shirt over the scrunched up leather about his thighs. It was private, and theirs, and Belle wanted nothing more than to banish doubt from this place between them, forever.

They could begin with a kiss.

Chapter Text

Kisses became caresses, side by side with Rumpelstiltskin atop the bedclothes. Belle would have been content with that, with having reassured her husband that she was no frail blossom, but he was not; he slipped his hand between her legs and sought her pleasure with almost as much urgency as he had sought his own.

It came quickly to her, with his two fingers inside her and his palm against the tender mound; she had been ready since he took her, and their prolonged kissing had heightened her readiness so that when the touch came, the waves broke almost at once. Belle stiffened all over and twitched, biting her own lip until it hurt, and didn't cry out. It had been a sharper sensation than before, and somehow less satisfying for all the shuddering thrill of it. It only left her hungry for more of him, throbbing inside, and soaked with perspiration.

"No need to be so silent, my dear," Rumpelstiltskin crooned, his mouth against hers. "There's no-one to hear you but me." He dabbed at her with the tip of his tongue, and Belle realised that she had bitten herself to the point of bleeding. It was tender where he touched, and in her state of heightened senses, even the little sting of it felt good.

"You try to be quiet," Belle said, reasonably. She wanted to wrap herself around him, now, and his state of semi-undress made that awkward. His boots were flattering on him, but uncomfortable to lie beside. "I thought I should, too."

"Oh." Frowning, Rumpelstiltskin propped his head on his arm. "Do I?"

"Yes." Belle was even more thirsty than she had been before, and for all that she wanted to continue what they were doing, she knew that she would be distracted if she did not drink something. "Can your magic bring me some tea?"

"Magical tea?" He smiled, showing teeth. "I thought you disapproved."

"As long as it's real tea. And real water. In a real pot. Fetched by magic."

"With real milk that came from a real cow," he said, hand over his heart in a gesture of sincerity. As he placed it there, Belle heard a clink of porcelain and the tea tray had appeared in the middle of the bed, behind Rumpelstiltskin's head. "I told you," he added, sitting up at the edge of the bed, while Belle crawled inelegantly over to sit cross-legged beside the tray, "magic is your servant, here."

She glanced at him as she poured herself a cup of the black tea, and saw that he had exchanged his dishevelled breeches and shirt for a nightgown of the deepest black.

"Do you want some tea?"

Wordlessly, Rumpelstiltskin reached for the chipped teacup and held it steady while she poured for him. If he thought it odd that she'd asked for refreshments in the middle of their business, he gave no sign of it. Belle felt more collected, sipping her tea, as though she had given her scattered thoughts time to catch up with events.

Rumpelstiltskin drank his tea quickly, untroubled by the scalding heat of it, and then Belle watched him move around the room, pinching out the candle flames one by one. He left one flame burning in the candelabra that she has placed near to the bed, then waited in the bed for her, patiently building the slope of pillows that he seemed to prefer to lying flat.

As soon as Belle placed her cup back on the tray, the whole thing vanished again. Magic confused her eyes, and thinking about it tended to hurt her head. She would need to try harder to understand it, she knew, but not tonight. Not with her husband waiting for her to join him, and the promise of more than they had already shared. Rumpelstiltskin was ready for her, arm outstretched, when Belle got in beside him. She made herself comfortable with her head resting on his upper arm, so that she could see more of him than when she used his chest as a pillow. Her choice earned her one of his hesitant smiles.

"You look at me," he said, the mildest of complaints.

"May I not look at you?" Belle plucked at the twisted gold cord that laced his dark gown, drawing it loose at his throat. "You said I must do what pleases me," she added, when Rumpelstiltskin grimaced. "It pleases me to look at my husband."

Her effort had won her a mere couple of inches of exposed flesh beneath his collarbone; less than the open collars of his shirts showed her every single day, and less than she had been able to see as he took her, wearing the blue shirt. Yet she had made him uneasy, and that saddened her. She had spoken truthfully; she did like to look at him, and to watch his ever-changing eyes.

She would have liked to explore his skin, to see if it pleased him as much as when he did the same to her. He liked to be touched through his nightgowns, and seemed well enough pleased when her palms found bare skin at his neck or face. She would have welcomed the warmth of skin against skin all over, knowing how she liked it when their ankles and knees wound together, and where his bare thighs and belly pressed against hers while they coupled; she enjoyed the heat of him, the firmness of him, and knew that he enjoyed her softness and her smoothness, and to gaze upon her naked. Why did he deny them that final closeness?

"Are you hideous beneath your clothing?" Belle moved to seat herself upon his thighs, her heels tucked beneath her buttocks. "Or do you just think that you are? Is that why you cover all the mirrors?" She caught his hands, as he reached for her breasts, and held him just shy of touching her. "Tell me truthfully, and these shall be yours," she added, smiling at her own game, and at the perplexity knitting his brows together.

"I must bargain for your favour, now?" He smiled, but strangely. "Can a man not be modest?"

"Not when he debauches his wife in the kitchen, and likes to see her without her clothes on," Belle said, enjoying the gentle game of resisting his hands as he tried to reach her bosoms. "I don't think that he can, no."

"And if I am hideous?" Rumpelstiltskin, too, seemed to be warming to the playful tug of war. He could have dodged her in a moment, Belle knew, but he allowed her to keep him at bay. "Deformed, unnatural, scarred, rotten?"

Tilting her head to one side, Belle laced her fingers through his and thought about it.

"I'd get used to it." She thought of his teeth, which truly were hideous even when his smiles were otherwise sweet; she thought how she had shuddered, at first, at the thought of touching his skin. She had been so sure that it would be cold, and he had been so warm. "Besides, I don't really know what any man looks like," she added, and blushed to hear herself say it. "I might not even notice."

Rumpelstiltskin laughed, at that; his deep, quiet laughter that Belle could feel more than she could hear. He stopped pushing at her hands, dropping his arms instead and reaching around her to coax her higher up his thighs. She went willingly, and only gasped a little when the movement brushed her little bud against the swell of him. He wasn't hard, not now, but the mere knowledge of the thing was enough to excite her; to brush against it, even without meaning to, even through their gowns, felt terribly wicked. He had meant for it to happen, she could see from his grin. He was trying to distract her from her question!

In a spirit of revenge, Belle went back to unlacing his gown. The neck was not as generously cut as her own but, with it open, she would be able to touch at least his chest. Rumpelstiltskin did not prevent her, but his growing tension warned her that she must not take this game too far. It was not the same, teasing excitement for him as she had felt when he first undressed her; it was only acquiescence, on his part. Nevertheless, she felt triumphant when she drew the cord free. It was made of his own golden thread, cleverly bound and unnaturally light. After a moment, Rumpelstiltskin took it from her fingers and, capturing her left wrist, doubled the cord and tied it there with a large, neat bow.

"It is not the reason why I cover the mirrors," he said, when he had made a show of perfecting the bow to his satisfaction, and grasped her wrist again. His hand fit right around her, easily covering up the golden bow. "Mirrors can be used for powerful magic, so we must treat them with caution," he said, soft and sing-song as he stared at where his hand met her wrist. Belle looked too, and felt a tingle of magic there, like a breath of warm wind against her skin. When Rumpelstiltskin released her, the soft cord had become a smooth, close-fitting bracelet of solid, bright gold. He giggled with mischievous delight, and looked to see her reaction. His eyes were wide and shining with self-satisfaction.

"It's lovely," Belle said, with a helpless shake of her head. She would not have asked him for jewels or gold, but she had enjoyed having her ring as a small reminder of her new position, and of his peculiar courtesies. She would enjoy having a bracelet to remind her of this, as well. For a moment, seeing how it fitted her slim wrist, she wondered how she would ever be able to take it off, but her fingers found the most delicate hinge and catch. The fineness of it would put any master craftsman to shame. She lowered herself to kiss Rumpelstiltskin in thanks, and felt his arms come around her, pulling her down close against his body. She had intended to give one, small kiss, but found herself devoured instead, her body growing eager again with no more encouragement than that.

Tucked so firmly against him, Belle could feel everything as he grew hard. It was a gradual, gentle thing, to her surprise, for she had imagined that part of him to be more insistent in its demands. She wiggled herself against it, and Rumpelstiltskin went still, holding his breath until she relented, then breathing heavily in her ear.

"Wicked wife," he whispered, and plucked at her earlobe with his teeth. "You'd finish me before we begin, would you?" At the encouraging tilt of Belle's head, he carried his hot kisses to her throat, and then up her chin, along her jaw to the other ear where he nipped her with his teeth. "Or is it your own pleasure you're so greedy for, my dear? Does my sweet wife need to come, again, so soon?" He sounded entirely delighted by the prospect, and had grown harder than ever where she sat snug against him, soaking their nightgowns with her wetness.

"C-come?" Belle tried to give her mind to the term, to find its full meaning. "Is that what it's called?"

"As good a word as any. I have others, saltier and saucier." He licked her earlobe, lifted his hips towards her, making her gulp and lose hold of her curiosity. "Shall I whisper them to you while you shudder with pleasure, my dear, or shall we keep your ears pure and simply make you come?" This last he punctuated with another twitch of his hips that lifted her with him, yelping softly as her body did, indeed, shudder.

His voice... Belle was lost in his voice, in the heat of him between her legs, in the teasing of his lips and his words. How could words stir her so? She managed to place her palms against his shoulders and push herself up a little, and Rumpelstiltskin stroked the hair back from her overheated face with both hands, beaming at her in utter delight.

Well, she had been no less delighted to see him undone by lust, even if it had not made her gleeful. He, too, must enjoy being desired with urgency, but she felt, now, that she understood why his own behaviour had shocked him so. She felt so unlike herself, so wild!

Rumpelstiltskin unfastened her pale gown, his movements teasing her as his words had done. Belle felt every tug and slide of the blue silk ribbon; watched him draw it between thumb and forefinger with an expression of exquisite enjoyment. He had never given her his pantomimes in their bed, before; his exaggerated expressions and gestures, his wordplay and his wicked sense of fun. She was not sure that she could bear it, not when her body thrilled even at the sight of him fingering her ribbon.

Leaving it hanging loose from the lowest pair of eyelets, Rumpelstiltskin scooped out her left breast and drew her towards him again, this time bringing her chest close enough that he could taste her nipple. But he did not indulge himself in the greedy sucking that pleased him so; instead, he teased her with teeth and tongue, with kisses, until each touch there sent a grasping sensation through Belle's body, a clenching, like a softer echo of the relief she craved. Satisfied with her restless fidgeting, Rumpelstiltskin abandoned the sensitised breast and sought her other, the right, latching his mouth to her like a babe and squeezing her nipple between his tongue and the roof of his mouth before letting it slide out, grazing with his teeth on the way. Belle cried out, grabbing for the headboard behind him, and as she rose up to escape his torment of her breasts, Rumpelstiltskin pulled up her skirts and grasped her backside, tightly.

It was a new shock of sensation, his sharp nails curled between her buttocks, sliding down and back and - as she rose up helplessly on her knees, arching over him and gripping the headboard so hard that her fingers hurt - found her wetness from behind.

Belle knew that she was in a ridiculous condition, but the pleasure was too much, every sensation more than she could bear and still keep a thought in her mind.

"You'd better ask me, lovely," Rumpelstiltskin called, very softly, while he rubbed the backs of her thighs with his wet fingertips. "Ask for what you want."

"I... I... want to... to come," she managed, feeling absurd that she stammered over a few simple words, but her body was no longer entirely her own to control. Every word took an effort of will. "Please..."

At once, Rumpelstiltskin delved between her legs from the front, and gave her his hand to use as she pleased. Belle cried out, her own hand flying to join his, to guide his, while with the other she gripped the headboard as though she would fall a thousand miles if she dared to let go. What she felt, now, was beyond pleasure; it was a roaring, raging demand for satisfaction and cessation, and she writhed on their hands, his fingertips inside her and his palm flat while she rubbed, rubbed, rubbed.

It took her entire body, when it peaked; sharp, fast waves that shook her from head to foot, forced cries from her lips that sounded as though a stranger had made them, and locked the muscles in her limbs so tightly that she felt they would snap. But nothing broke, nothing snapped, and as she came again to her senses, and to a measure of self-control, Belle felt Rumpelstiltskin still rubbing her, his fingers still questing inside her, as though to find and free every last possible whisper of her pleasure.

The last time that she had succumbed so violently to her desire, his touch afterwards had been nearly unbearable. Now it was welcome, teasing faint new sparks from whatever fire had raged hotly in her a moment ago, and Belle was almost afraid to think there might be no barrier to continuing. How could she ever stop, if her body didn't simply say 'enough'?

Her hand shook violently as she pushed his away, and sank back onto her heels, trembling all over. Rumpelstiltskin's smug expression faded at the sight of her so shaken, and he beckoned her with both hands to lie beside him, his arm about her as before. The bedclothes were tangled around his knees, and his hardness was elevating the damp black silk of his nightgown quite impressively. Belle put her hand there, pressing with her palm, too startled out of herself to feel shy, and was rewarded with a strained noise as Rumpelstiltskin endeavoured to keep still.

"Is it... it's not uncomfortable if I touch it?" she asked, timid in spite of her recent behaviour.

"No," he breathed, squeezing her gently. All his showmanship had fled, but Belle was reassured when he kissed her head. She wrapped her hand around the shaft, as before, and found that she was better positioned to hold him thus, this time, and to rub him up and down through the silk. He halfway reached for her hand, to guide her again, but forced it down by his side and nuzzled into her hair, instead, kissing her and breathing hotly against the crown of her head as his excitement grew. "A little slower, my dear," he whispered, after a while, "a little firmer." As she complied, Belle watched fresh wetness seep through the cloth, just a little at a time every time she drew her hand upwards. She wanted to pull the nightgown out of her way, to touch him properly, to see what she was doing down there, but his dreamy pleasure dissuaded her; he was very much enjoying her attentions as it was, and to peek at him would spoil it.

With her arm becoming tight and uncomfortable, Belle fidgeted a little, unintentionally tightening her grip on him as she momentarily stilled her hand, and Rumpelstiltskin moaned, lifting his hips towards her hand and once again almost reaching to guide her. This time, he closed his hand about her arm, softly, and caressed her skin with his fingertips when she began to pull on him again.

Belle had readied herself for the wet rush again, and for his shudders of pleasure, but her husband stilled her hand with his own, just as he began to breathe hard.

"Very nice," he said, gently pushing her ministering hand away, "but I must have all of you again, my treasure."

She'd no objections to that, to being rolled onto her back, or to his eager kiss while they worked, between them, to gather up their gowns to allow them to join. She caught a glimpse of him, as they did so, from belly to knees. While most of her attention was captivated by his extremely erect manhood, the glance nevertheless satisfied her that her husband was concealing nothing that she found unsightly. There was only more of his strangely coloured skin over lean muscles.

Belle forced her gaze elsewhere before he could notice her interest, and accepted him eagerly when he at last pushed himself inside her. One arm beneath her among the pillows, Rumpelstiltskin kept the other between them, after guiding himself into her, and teased her while he took her. She had thought herself very far from another spasm of bliss, but when he kissed her throat as well, it simply took her, lifted her, carried her away, all the sweeter for being unexpected. It had not the violence of emotion and sensation that she had experienced before, nor was it so brief; Belle was still writhing in the throes of it when her husband thrust himself deep and stayed there, panting, expressing himself with a long sound made through tightly closed lips.

He kissed her again at once, at first eager but growing languid and tender when he had withdrawn from her body. Belle found herself trembling, head to foot, and it grew worse as he kissed her; without wanting to, she had to stop him with a clumsy half-push with the heels of her hands against his shoulders. Her teeth began to chatter the moment he left her mouth alone.

"Cold?" he asked, anxiously studying her eyes.

"N-no," she managed, clinging to his arms to keep him from pulling away. "Can... can a p-person c-come t-too much?"

He chuckled, relaxing again, and didn't seem to think her question foolish.

"Not that I've heard," he said, gently closing her nightgown about her chest, then petting her hair while he watched her with great fondness in his eyes. Belle felt ridiculous, all the same, quivering beneath him when she ought to be so comfortable, sharing the warm peace of the aftermath with him. "Not enough, perhaps?" he suggested, a little less certain as her tremors continued despite his soothing.

Belle laughed, and that broke the strange spell, freeing whatever had gripped her body; the very idea of attempting that again seemed impossibly funny to her, at that moment, yet she was charmed by his attentiveness, and by his implicit offer to please her still further.

Rumpelstiltskin watched her, his expression moving from mild alarm to mild pleasure, as he became certain that her laughter was only relief. He resumed the gentle stroking of her hair, and then the kissing, and Belle gave herself to it, closing her eyes.

When she next opened them, the room was in darkness. Even the fire had burned low, either in response to the changing weather or because the castle's master had been thoroughly distracted; her husband was a shadow above her, warm and solid in the darkness.

"We're a mess," she said, hearing her drowsiness before she had registered it for what it was. "Let's take these things off? It's dark," she added, sensing his unhappy reluctance. "I won't peek in the morning."

He could, she knew, have restored their gowns and their persons to their pristine state. Instead, Rumpelstiltskin complied with her request, sitting up, helping her up too, and dragging his nightgown off over his head. Belle did likewise, taking the silk from his hands and, bundling it with her own, throwing them gently towards the foot of the bed.

The bed, too, had seen the worst of them, but Rumpelstiltskin did use his magic to see to that, muttering something about not letting her get cold. Belle buried herself beneath the restored, crisp bedclothes and waited to see if Rumpelstiltskin would opt for covering himself over his preference for lounging on a mountain of pillows. After only a few moments, he sought her out beneath the covers and made her giggle by pushing himself tightly behind her, knees tucked behind hers, face buried in her hair. She could feel everything of him, warm and snug there as they relaxed for sleep, and it was a sweet feeling.

Chapter Text

It took Belle a long time to drag herself from sleep. Had she been alone, she might have indulged herself longer on the edge of dreaming, warm and comfortable in a nest of bedclothes and pillows, but her husband was with her, and Belle was eager to greet him.

The previous night had been a wonder to her; the sleep that followed had been deep and restful. Not so for Rumpelstiltskin, she feared, turning onto her side and finding him at the far edge of the bed, curled up like a child with his knees to his chest and his hands beside his face. He had thrown off the bedclothes, all but the sheet, which tangled between his legs and barely covered him to the waist. As much as Belle wanted to stop and stare at him, so exposed, pity for his nightmares moved her to draw up the blanket to his chest, and to content herself by stroking his hair until he awakened. She liked that, she discovered; to touch him when he was unawares, and to indulge herself with his soft, wavy hair.

Her touch woke him up, but gently, and Rumpelstiltskin peered over his shoulder at her, bleary-eyed and, she was sure, startled to find her there. It was gone in a moment, that look of bewilderment, and then he stretched himself out flat and pulled her into his arms to kiss her, without a word.

Their coupling was soft and easy, this time; he simply rolled her beneath him and had his way with her, catching her by surprise and making her laugh with wicked delight while he grinned against her neck between teasing kisses there. Belle clung to him while he rocked, enjoying his bare flesh against all of her; she gripped him with her heels and caressed his back with her hands, determined to experience everything that he would allow. Her pleasure seemed remote, this morning; just a sweetness where he filled her and a tingle where he kissed her, where he clasped her shoulder-blades. The position they assumed mattered, she discovered; like this, the rocking of his hips making each thrust slight and shallow, no part of him rubbed against the nub to excite her - there was only a hot pressure there, pleasing her without exciting her to distraction.

Belle thoroughly enjoyed the drowsy simplicity of it, and the chance to explore his bare flesh with her hands. Hard skin rose almost to a peak over Rumpelstiltskin's spine, but softened at the hollow of his back until it felt almost like her own. Likewise, his outer arms were coarse, his inner arms softer like his palms. Her unhurried touching added a note of excitement to her husband's affectionate nudges between her legs, and he pushed deeper as he lifted himself to kiss her mouth. For a moment, deep inside her and holding himself still, Rumpelstiltskin watched her eyes with the incredulity she remembered. How could she accept him, how could she desire him? She could see the questions and, with them, such pain.

"Husband," she whispered, bringing her hands to cup his face, and to stroke his hair and tuck some behind his ears. "Rumpelstiltskin, I'm yours," she said, speaking to that shocked sadness, and wrapping her legs tightly about his thighs as she did so, for if she was his, then he belonged to her also, and she wanted him very much.

He trembled, as though her words or her touch made his arms go weak, and kissed her again, closing his eyes. She heard him swallow hard, settling back down to his patient rocking; felt him exhale shakily against her collarbone, and kiss her there as though he were suddenly afraid to. His hands clasped her shoulders, his nails scratching her lightly when his fingers curled with each little thrust. "Yes," she whispered, and found again that words could pique her body to new heights of eagerness. Her own, as well as his? Belle did not understand, but she could reap the benefits, and buried her right hand between them, as he had done, to touch where they joined. Rumpelstiltskin gasped, at that, and froze for a moment, moaning against her skin.

Body tightening around him as her finger rubbed alongside the sensitive place, Belle gasped as well. She had not meant to drive herself wild, only to add to the sweetness of feeling between her legs. She had liked it better when it was her husband's hand, but her body demanded, and Rumpelstiltskin took her harder, and it seemed to take too long before her greedy body spasmed with the helplessness of bliss. Her contortions and her excitement had left her damp with sweat, and their bodies clung a little as he moved over her, each thrust adding a fading surge to her satisfaction until she could feel the throb of her own heartbeat down there, adding to the heat.

She felt weak and lazy, as it passed, her body wanting to be limp rather than wrapped tightly around Rumpelstiltskin as before. She buried the fingers of her right hand in his hair, and rubbed her ankle lazily against the back of his leg, moved to express her affection now that her passions were finally spent. She truly felt that she would never come again, as though all the need had been wrung out of her with the last convulsions inside.

Rumpelstiltskin seemed lost in his enjoyment of her, noisy exhalations making a counterpoint to his steady thrusts. Belle thought that she heard him mumble her name, with his face pressed tightly to her throat, before he shuddered and finished, letting out a long, heavy groan.

He, too, seemed lazy after his satisfaction; he gave her a quick kiss, sleepy-eyed, then lay on his back beside her, quietly, until his breathing returned to normal.

It was a very nice way to wake up, Belle thought, turning onto her side so that she could watch him. In the rising light, she could see her husband's bare shoulders, and his arms where they rested above the covers; his skin was the same there as his face and hands, greenish grey and with the faint sheen of gold. What else did he think she might have expected, but that the rest of him matched the parts that could decently be shown in public?

Belle leaned over and planted a shy kiss on his shoulder, causing Rumpelstiltskin to open drowsy eyes and extend an arm to catch her up and bring her close against his side. She rested her head against his chest and slipped her hand beneath the sheet to touch more of him. If he hated her to look, then at least he didn't seem to object to her touching. She found thin, unobtrusive nipples, as her own had been before she blossomed, and rubbed them curiously with a finger to see if they behaved as hers did, firming at a touch. Little seemed to happen to them, but her husband chuckled slightly and kissed the top of her head.

"Again so soon, my dear?" He combed his fingers through her hair, finding and patiently easing tangles. "We may need a little magic for that."

"I didn't mean..." But he was teasing her, and she realised it before she finished her nervous apology. Belle wrinkled her nose, caught between laughter and dismay. "Can you not, then, so soon? If you wanted to?" She recalled Mistress Elena referring to how often a man could 'manage it'. Thus far, Rumpelstiltskin had seemed in no difficulty as far as that went. "How often should we?" All pleasure aside, all affection aside, Belle supposed that there had to be some persistence involved in the getting of a child.

"That depends if you're content with 'wanton' or care to try for 'depraved', mistress."

"Oh!" Belle swatted his belly with the flat of her hand, and made him laugh out loud. It wasn't his soft chuckle or his childish giggle, but a true laugh from the belly and the heart. She was glad to hear it, even if it came at her expense. "Don't pretend that you don't enjoy my ignorance of these things," she scolded, but smiling.

"Your innocence, my dear. It's charming."

"It's still ignorance," she sighed, smoothing the flat of her hand over his skin, from his ribs to the dip of his belly. The muscles there twitched at her caress. "I like to know things, to understand. That's not..." She sighed, deciding, too late, to hold her tongue.

"Not a quality that every man seeks in a wife?" He spoke gently, lightly, as though to draw her out, his fingers working at a particularly stubborn knot in her hair. "I think your Gaston might not have liked it."

"No." But she had known why Gaston wanted a wife, hadn't she? For sons, for the lands and titles that she'd inherit and, yes, for her beauty. So that others would think highly of him for having such a wife as she. "But you don't mind?"

"Not a bit. But I'd not have your innocence despoiled too quickly, either. It's a lovely thing. Allow me to steal it a little at a time, hmm?"

Belle sighed, but without bad feeling. She had no reason better than impatience to deny such a request, and he sounded so sincere about it. So wistful, as though he might have longed for such an opportunity. She imagined, again, how these first nights might have been with another husband, with Gaston, who was always simple and direct in everything; she wondered if she would have known these pleasures, or these quiet moments of learning one another, or naughty laughter. And she would have been too busy to dwell on her unexpected lustfulness, having taken on a household and all the duties that came with it. Rumpelstiltskin asked for time, but gave it to her in return. She had time to think of herself, now, as well as others.

"Tell me, at least, if I'm doing everything that I should be?" She heard herself sound impossibly young, and far more worried than she felt. "And nothing that I should not?"

"Everything," Rumpelstiltskin said, and kissed the top of her head. "And nothing. And I?"

"What?" Astonished, Belle lifted herself so that she could look at him. Rumpelstiltskin gestured vaguely with his hands, looking discomfited by her surprise, and failed to notice that, in sitting halfway up and lifting the covers with her, Belle had given herself a fine view of his bare chest and arms.

"Am I doing everything a husband should be? And nothing that I should not?"

"I don't know," Belle admitted, her shoulders sagging a little. "I'm not really sure what husbands are supposed to do. I didn't know about... about coming." She looked her fill, while they both thought about that, and thought that her husband should eat more. Although he was well muscled, she could count his ribs just by looking. "Is that what it's called when you..." Gods and stars, how stupid it was to fall over her own tongue, trying to speak about that which she had just been doing! How ridiculous it was to blush over words when she savoured the deeds! "When you spill your seed," she went on, firmly, in spite of how her ears suddenly burned. "Is it called the same as when I..." and, there, she merely ran out of words. Nothing fit, nothing described that pulsing, aching peak of bodily sensation accurately.

"As good a word as any," Rumpelstiltskin said, a small smile brightening his bemusement at her struggles. Seeing it, Belle dared to meet his gaze. "Have you questions that frighten you, mistress?" He reached up to her face, arranging her hair gently. "I'll not have that."

Belle shook her head.

"I haven't been frightened since the first time," she said, surprising herself with the truth of it. "And even then I was too tired to be properly afraid." That was a little more careless with the truth but, all the same, not a lie. How much more frightened might she have been if simple exhaustion had not numbed her, that night? She smiled, and leaned down to touch her lips against Rumpelstiltskin's. "Thank you, for being kind to me," she said, when she had kissed him, and remembered that she had thanked him thus on their wedding night, too. It seemed long ago, somehow, although she knew that it was only weeks since she was a bride and still a maiden.

"You are too kind," Rumpelstiltskin said, brushing her cheek with the back of his hand, "to an old monster."

While Belle would gladly have stayed all day in their bed, pursuing the whims of either body or heart, a call of nature defeated her. She saw Rumpelstiltskin stare as she crawled halfway down the bed and fumbled into her crumpled nightgown, his attention given wholly to her bosoms and his eyes full of delight. Were all men as fascinated with a woman's soft chest, or was it one of Rumpelstiltskin's own whimsies? Belle caught herself taking her time in arranging her nightgown, and watching him as he watched her draw the collar closed. It really didn't seem fair that he stared at her so openly, when he already knew all that a woman had to hide, yet kept himself beneath the bedclothes and denied her the satisfaction of her curiosity.

"Breakfast or tea?" She paused, after climbing inelegantly out of the great bed, to wait for her husband's answer. Rumpelstiltskin sat up, holding the sheet to his chest as though his own tiny nipples were not to be seen, and looked quizzical. "Our meal together," she reminded him, and his expression warmed with understanding. "Porridge or jam?"

"I don't much care for breakfast," he admitted, delicately, as though this were some tremendous fault on his part and he begged her pardon for it.

"Tea, then," Belle smiled. She had secured his agreement to one meal together per day, and she would not be denied. "In the kitchen at three o'clock."

She enjoyed her husband's wide-eyed, helpless nod; she enjoyed the small victory over his absurd idea that no-one could desire his company. She did, very much. She wanted to know her husband, and not only in the carnal ways upon which they seemed able to agree.

Belle was unsurprised to find him gone when she returned from her bath. Her bed was pristine, and she carefully placed her new bracelet upon the nearest pillow, looking at it while she combed out her wet hair. It had grown longer, since her wedding, and she liked the way it fell, prone to curling at the ends if she left it untended. She took her time with it, this morning, wishing heartily for a looking glass as she tried to weave two ribbons into two thick braids and join them at the back, to keep the hair out of her face and out of her work. That her husband might covet the ribbons when he saw her again gave Belle a warm glow inside that had nothing to do with lust.

Her work dress needed washing the most, yet she would need to wear it to do the laundry. Belle took her pen, ink and parchment down to the kitchen with her, already thinking about how to word her next letter to her father. To ask for her clothes and other belongings would give her an opportunity to sound more like herself, and let him know that she had the sort of life where clothing both fine and practical had a use. Should she tell him about the housework? Belle pondered that, while eating a breakfast of cold porridge with honey. She would not have her poor father thinking that Rumpelstiltskin had made a servant of her, yet she knew that her father would prefer that to some of the other possibilities that must be going through his mind.

She knew that her father had grown to love her mother, and that he had hoped to see his daughter find a fortunate, fond match also. But Belle knew her Papa, and knew that he would not believe that she spoke freely or truly if she said that she was fond of Rumpelstiltskin, already. Her husband had seen to that. Nor could she speak of the discoveries of the marriage bed, where she had found a true happiness with her new husband; she could not speak of his gentleness with her, nor of his sweet shyness, nor of the wonders he had taught her in their bed. It would not be right to divulge any part of it, to anyone, even if she thought that it would comfort her father to know it.

In truth, she did not imagine that it would comfort her father at all to think that Rumpelstiltskin touched her, even kindly. Even as a husband should.

So, while she worked to wash and wring out her clothing, Belle's mind was busy with other things. She was careful to apply Wren's advice, and only had any real difficulty when it came to rinsing out the soap. Had she not had an entire room devoted to laundry, and on a grand scale, at that, she thought that it would have been an even more chilly and backbreaking chore. No doubt that, at home, several maids had shared the task of washing the clothes and bed linens, making lighter work of it for everyone, but Belle still felt rather ashamed that she had not known quite how much effort was involved in keeping her belongings nicely.

It had been her responsibility to know these things, once she had taken over the running of the castle's domestic life; it was her failure that she had not known.

Belle had tried her hand at ironing before, at least, though never with clothing. She knew how to heat a flatiron, and how not to burn a hole in bed linens while she worked out the creases. If she began with her heaviest petticoats then, with any luck, she would have mastered the technique before touching any layers that might show. She had learned that cotton and linen were best ironed while damp, so she would need to pay attention to the progress of the garments on the clothes horse, this time. Rumpelstiltskin had spared her the chore, the last time she had attempted laundry. After she was hurt, he had no doubt waved a hand and her clean clothes had arrived in the neat, immaculately pressed pile that she had found upon her trunk.

With her only wearable dress soaked through from chest to knees, and her petticoats too, Belle was sorely tempted to ask her husband for a little assistance. But... no. Why should she? There was nothing that could not be accomplished without magic, with better organisation. If she had planned ahead, procrastinated less, perhaps bought cloth to sew herself a new work dress, then her need for clean clothing would not be so dire.

All the same, she rather hoped that her husband might take pity on his soggy bride, when he came for tea, and dry her out. If not, then she would have to change into her golden dress, and ask for his help in fastening it, and Belle had a strong inkling that this would lead to no work being done at all, and to her cottons drying to a crisp by the fire before she got near them with an iron.

She wrapped herself in her travel cloak to keep warm, and sat as near to the fireplace as the kitchen table would allow to compose her letter home.

The task brought tears to her eyes. Time and again, Belle paused to gaze at her beautiful glass pen. She loved it, and it comforted her to twirl the stem between her fingers and see how the spiral of colour within changed as it moved in the light. A childish thing, probably, but seeking the words to comfort her father, Belle felt in need of childish things, and of small comforts of her own.

She was still struggling with her letter when she heard Rumpelstiltskin's footsteps descending, and hoped that he would not notice that she had been tearful. She had meant to prepare their tea, to slice bread and put out some of the honey and preserves that had been their wedding gifts, but had managed only to check, intermittently, on the progress of her drying petticoats and smalls. She rose at once to move the kettle to the fire, and tried not to feel as though she were a servant caught being lazy. Given his lack of enthusiasm for meals, she doubted that Rumpelstiltskin would be angry if he had to wait five minutes while she organised herself.

Rumpelstiltskin stopped at the doorway, regarding the loaded clothes horse with something close to suspicion. Belle managed a flustered smile of greeting, and he a cautious nod when he saw her. Belatedly, she remembered putting on her heavy travel cloak, and looked self-consciously down at herself.

"I got a bit wet," she admitted. He had complained about her having done so on the last occasion. At least, this time, she had kept herself warm and not allowed her fatigue from the hard work to make her careless of her safety.

"And you've not a stitch left to wear?" Rumpelstiltskin approached her with prowling, playful steps, and with his hands held before him as he grew near, Belle thought for a moment that he meant to tickle her ribs. Instead, he parted the folds of her cloak and tutted disapprovingly at the state of her dress. "I find my wife in sodden rags," he complained. Playful, yes, but something about his manner warned Belle to tread carefully. He did not take her wellbeing lightly, she knew.

"Hardly rags," she said, needing no effort to appear contrite. "But I've nothing else that fastens at the front, you see."

Rumpelstiltskin tilted his head, eyes narrowed in thought, as though it took him a moment to realise her meaning.

"Ah!" He stepped back, giggling lightly, and Belle felt a brief, unpleasant pressure all about her, along with the tingle that she recognised as magic. She tasted honeysuckle and tar in her mouth, and then, feeling lighter, looked down to find herself dressed in her golden betrothal gown. She had not been laced so tightly since her wedding night, and it took her a moment to recover her voice, her hand resting against her ribs as she caught a breath.

"You'll have to help me get out of it again, as well," she said, trying to laugh but she had not enough air in her lungs. The magic had squashed it all out of her, and the bodice prevented her from taking enough of it back in. Her betrothal gown had been made to conceal the lacing, and made use of several hooks and eyes as well; getting into and out of it was what Lotte had described as 'a big old performance'.

Her husband seemed pleased with his work, watching her with his hands pressed together and his eyes alight with mischief.

"Undressing you is no chore, my Lady," he said, and, spreading his arms wide, bowed deeply and elegantly. "I will be honoured."

Belle simply blushed. She knew that the gown made her look beautiful. Even her father had told her so, when he led her to be betrothed to Gaston, and it was the only time, since leaving girlhood behind her, that Belle recalled her Papa speaking proudly of her beauty rather than of her other qualities. When first she wore it, her women had cooed over her. Belle, for her part, had felt as though she had been gift wrapped or polished up for market, and had thought of the expense of the gold cloth more than of the appeal of the dress.

With her shoulders bare, her blush had to be crimson all the way to her bosoms. Belle, torn between hiding it and allowing her husband to enjoy looking at the confection he had just created, found herself wrapping her arms about herself protectively by way of a compromise. Rumpelstiltskin's grin softened to an easier smile, when he rose and saw her discomfort.

"You prefer your dusty rags, my dear?"

"I prefer breathing," Belle admitted. Without a mirror, she had simply not paid attention to the look of her clothing since her wedding night. She had grown used to comfort, with her laces looser and her warm woollen stockings beneath her petticoats. She found that she greatly preferred her practical, shortened dress to the ones that prettily skimmed the ground or tickled her toes. Had Rumpelstiltskin thought her a sloven all that time? After all, she had been wearing this very golden gown when they first met, and he had seen her next in her bridal finery. He might have expected her to continue dressing so. "Does it please you?" Shyly, she spread out the skirts for him to see. They were beautifully made, with deceptive simplicity in the clever cut of the cloth, for Belle had insisted that none was wasted. The petticoats beneath, too, were exquisite and she had never worn them with a different dress, saving them for the times when her golden gown would be appropriate.

"Well, I'd rather have a wife who can breathe, on the whole," Rumpelstiltskin admitted, but his gaze was admiring nonetheless. He took her hands and looked at them until Belle looked as well; they were ink-stained, red and raw from the cold water and the scrubbing, and cold too. "Have you written your letter, then?"

Grateful that he chose not to mention her raw fingers, Belle nodded to the table where her letter lay, half finished.

"I think I'll start again," she said. "Perhaps tomorrow." Hastily, she snatched a cloth and swung the kettle away from the fire as it boiled. "Our tea! I'm so sorry!" It was unlike her to be forgetful, and it embarrassed her to be seen to be so disorganised. There was no excuse for missing an appointment when she had the entire day to do whatever she liked!

"It's no matter," Rumpelstiltskin replied, a little alarmed at her reaction. "It's only tea, dearie. Come." With a wave of his hand, the kitchen table was laid for two. Thinly sliced bread had been arranged on a platter, several dishes of butter and preserves were ready, and the teapot stood waiting with a wisp of steam emerging from the spout. "Come," he said, again, and led her gently to her seat.

For himself, he took the place at the head of the table, which made Belle smile and think of his lonely chair at the large dining table, one floor above them. How often had he sat there to dine alone, before she came to the castle? Had he bothered at all with proper meals there, or simply fed himself when he remembered to at the spinning wheel, or in his turret? Had he taken tea from one of the dainty tea sets, all by himself?

"Thank you," Belle said, gesturing to the food. "Perhaps I'm a bit tired."

"You look peaked, my dear," Rumpelstiltskin said, failing in his attempt to sound casual about it. "I do not like that these letters upset you, especially if they are the cause of... this." He indicated the laundry with a flick of his fingers, and glanced again at her reddened hands.

A protest came automatically to her lips, but Belle bit it back. He was right, of course. The letters had upset her, both writing them and receiving one. She should be thankful that he had noticed her distress, not fearful that he would find reason to forbid her any further letters.

"I get homesick," she said, making herself busy by putting bread onto two plates, and passing one to her husband. "That's not terrible, is it, to think of my father and my friends?" A part of her was anxious that it was, at best, ungrateful. She knew that Rumpelstiltskin offered her a life of ease; she hoped with all her heart that it might also be a life filled with affection and joy. Perhaps, in time, with love as well. For all that, she could not help missing her father, or the place where she had grown up. She would feel wicked if she did not miss them, and sometimes long for them.

"I'll not be so jealous of you forever, Belle," Rumpelstiltskin said, quietly and gravely. His butter knife was poised over a slice of bread, held perfectly still. "Not forever. Is he a kind father?"

Taken aback by his words, Belle felt her mouth moving without any sound coming out. She closed it, firmly, and took a moment to take as full a breath as her dress allowed. Her answer needed no thought, of course, but the reason for his question did.

"Yes," she said, and hid her confusion by reaching to pour the tea. "Might I be allowed to visit, one day?" Her hand trembled, but she managed not to rattle the spout against the chipped cup.

"Would you like that?"

"Of course." She hated that she sounded so eager, even as she tried not to be. She had thought, until now, that she might never see her father again. The prospect of being able, one day, to visit him... it filled her eyes with tears.

Rumpelstiltskin's hands cupped hers, steadying them and guiding her to lower the teapot and cup before they, or she, came to grief.

"I do not keep you prisoner," he reminded her. "Not now. But here I wish you to be, my wife. I'll not be so jealous forever."

After a moment, releasing her hands, he offered her a handkerchief of dark blue silk with which to dry her tears. It smelled, as did his shirts and nightgowns, very faintly of herbs and of meadow hay. Or straw, she realised, breathing it in while she dabbed her cheeks back to a state of respectability. Yes, straw. It comforted her.

"Don't think that I'm unhappy here, with you," Belle pleaded, seeing how he had folded his hands in his lap and was staring at them, his expression grim. "I'm not. If my father could only know that, believe it, then I wouldn't worry so."

"But you'd miss him still?" Wistful, sad, Rumpelstiltskin buttered a slice of bread with slow precision. He sounded as though he truly did not know her answer.

"Of course." Belle held out the handkerchief to him, determined to show him that she was done with tears, but he waved it away with a flutter of his fingers. "You must have had parents," she said, uncertainly. Had he? "Children of your own?" She thought of the colourful story books in the library, and of the little boy's clothes upstairs, and believed it. Had it been so long ago that he could have forgotten how a father loved a child, and how a child loved their father? "You keep a child's things?"

"A boy," Rumpelstiltskin said, haltingly, his expression frozen. "A son." He stared at his plate, quite unseeing, Belle was sure. "Long ago. Of course you miss your father," he said, suddenly brisk and busy reaching for the tea that she had poured for him. "Of course you do. You will see him again, my Lady, I promise you. Whether you await my pleasure or not."

Belle reached across the corner of the table to put her hand on his wrist, stilling him gently. He spoke so infrequently of his past, and always it left him in this skittish mood, hiding himself behind false cheer or a sudden preoccupation. She would not apologise for wishing to know her husband better, but if such revelations disturbed him, upset him, then she was sorry for that.

"Thank you, husband," she said, and relaxed a little when he turned his hand palm-upwards and caught her fingers, squeezing and flashing her a nervous smile. "Don't think me a foolish, weeping girl," she begged, sheepishly, as they both gave their attention to their meal. "I'm not, truly."

"And not unhappy here." Glancing sideways at Rumpelstiltskin, as she buttered a slice of bread, Belle could not decide whether or not he had meant it as a question.

"No," she promised, quietly, and saw his frown become a look of quiet pleasure. "You thought that I would be, didn't you?"

"I suppose I did." He pursed his lips, clearly embarrassed by her directness. "I hoped otherwise, of course."

Remembering how he had enjoyed alarming her, impressing her with his cleverness and power, Belle limited her response to a tolerant little smile, and helped herself to some of the plum jam which she had been longing to try. It was sticky and wonderful, and the enjoyment of her first bite quite restored her appetite.

As ever, Rumpelstiltskin ate little, although she saw that he enjoyed a liberal amount of honey on his bread, and committed the fact to memory. She would never have guessed that the Spinner had a sweet tooth.

Their meal ended when the teapot was empty, and Rumpelstiltskin left her with a nod of thanks, as though he were a guest in her home. Belle did not fail to notice his disapproving glance at the clothes horse on his way out of the kitchen, but he said nothing.

Was it foolish to make heavy work for herself? Belle wondered about that, as she cleared away the plates and returned the uneaten food to the pantry. Her golden dress made heavy work even of that, and she had grown so used to the freedom of movement in her work dress that she kept feeling she might trip on the hem, and could not reach properly because of the bodice. Her shoulders felt chilly and she wondered where she had left her shawl.

A renewed appreciation of comfortable clothing set her back to work a little on her letter, before she turned her attention to ironing the heaviest cottons and linens among her drying wardrobe. While the scrubbing and rinsing had been a chore, Belle found that she enjoyed the art of chasing creases from the still-damp cloth. The size of the kitchen table made easier work of it than the ironing tables she had occasionally played with at home, and she found herself humming a favourite tune as she worked.

Her failure to scorch or spoil anything left her with a feeling of deep satisfaction, and she took loving care with the ironed garments as she returned them to the clothes horse to dry properly. She looked forward to wearing things that had been pressed and not folded away into a trunk.

Still struggling for the words to finish her letter, Belle left it for the night and went upstairs. Rumpelstiltskin was working at his wheel, deeply preoccupied, and Belle did not disturb him, as much as she would have liked to sit close by him and watch. She had always appreciated skill in others, whether sewing or crafting or mending, and enjoyed watching those who made their occupation seem effortless. There was an added pleasure in watching her husband's hands being so deft and delicate with his thread, and of course there was the magic of his spinning humble straw into gold. His expression, too, intrigued her, for she had seen it otherwise only while he loved her with his gentle, patient rocking movements, before passion carried them away; such focus, such seriousness. Such inner quiet in his concentration.

It distracted him then, too, if she watched too closely.

Nevertheless, Belle found that she wanted to be with her husband. She fetched her book from her room, and the small basket in which she had arranged her sewing things. Rumpelstiltskin glanced up from his wheel, surprised when she returned and momentarily flustered by it, but she could see that he was pleased. Belle gave him a smile before settling to her work. With the offcuts from her shortened petticoat, and some of her girlhood ribbons, she would sew a new pair of garters; a light enough task that, thanks to the wide armchair beside the fireplace in the great room, she could combine with reading.

She had finished the garters, all but threading the ribbons, and reached the end of another chapter of the stern book about housekeeping, before she heard Rumpelstiltskin abandon his spinning wheel and approach her. He hesitated beside the chair, watching her work a wide, red ribbon through the tunnel of cotton. Belle had no objection to being watched at her craft, not one she was reasonably good at, anyway, and smiled a little as she remembered his fascination for her ribbons.

And, yes, after a few moments his hand stole to her hair, to the braids which she had taken such pains to weave through with ribbon that morning, and he caressed them with inquisitive fingers.

Belle had thought to suggest that he bring up the other chair, to sit with her by the fire for the evening, but the message in his hesitant touch was clear enough, and she smiled as she blushed, flattered by his interest in having her again so soon. Perhaps he looked forward to helping her out of the restricting golden bodice?

"I may have an early night," she said, not going quite so far as to feign a yawn. She was rather tired, but would do nothing to discourage Rumpelstiltskin from joining her for the night.

"A grand idea," he said, softly. "You'll need help with your, um, clothing?" he added, unable to conceal the hopeful note in his voice as he offered a hand to help her from the chair.

A husband need not ask for permission to come to his wife's bed, Belle thought, keeping hold of his hand once she had it. He need not be so hesitant, so respectful, but oh, she liked very much that Rumpelstiltskin did those things, and seemed to cherish every opportunity to lie with her.

Sometimes, she thought, seeing his wide eyes and his nervous anticipation, there might be profit in delaying a while - in having them both wait for what they desired, until they could bear the wait no longer. She smiled, and kept his hand in hers to lead the way.

Sometimes, perhaps. But not tonight.

Chapter Text

They had each grown a little shy by the time they reached Belle's chambers. Belle felt rather silly about retiring so early when sleep was not what she wanted. She imagined that she should be flirtatious and seductive; Rumpelstiltskin gallant and eager. The truth of it was that they exchanged a sheepish glance at the threshold of her room, and smirked helplessly at one another.

"Old monsters should not take lovely young brides," Rumpelstiltskin declared, releasing her hand and going over to her window to close the thick drapes. He paused with the job half done, gazing out at the evening. There was a fresh fall of snow. "Bad for the concentration. Bad for the reputation."

"Well, you should have thought of that before," Belle smiled. "It's too late, now."

"Probably bad for the magic, as well," he grumbled, snapping the curtains closed, but his shy smirk had not entirely faded, and his gaze drank her in, face and finery and, most of all, the way the bodice displayed her chest. "I'm a creature of the darkness," he said, approaching, taking her by the waist and backing her gently against the bottom bedpost nearest the door, "and you tempt me from my work, mistress." It was hardly a complaint, given that he kissed her bare shoulder a moment later. Belle grasped two handfuls of the bed's thick drapes and shivered, as surprised by how that first kiss felt as she had been by anything on her wedding night. Where his lips touched, hot and moist, her body seemed to sing with enjoyment of it.

She had not been given to imagining the activities of lovers, as a girl, but whenever she had thought of kisses they had been soft meetings of two mouths, or lips to cheek, or perhaps a kiss to the hand - each of those with its own tender meaning. Rumpelstiltskin's passion for mouthing at her throat and her breasts left her without a point of reference and, always, too swept up in how his attentions felt to consider much what they meant.

Her husband indulged himself for a while, kissing her throat, her jaw, and at last seeking her mouth where they met with a mutual sound of approval. Belle forced her hands from the tapestries before she tore them down in the effort of containing herself, and placed them against Rumpelstiltskin's chest instead. He hesitated, his lips against hers but still, thinking that she meant to push him away, but kissed her again when Belle tried to unfasten his waistcoat. It would have been a great deal easier to do so had they not been standing so close together, his knee between hers, but the very last thing she wanted was more distance from him. And all this without her body yet burning with any great desire for his; she simply craved his closeness, his attention - his desire. The selfishness of passion frightened her more than a little, yet it led to such tenderness between them, and such giving. How could it be wrong?

Reaching the last fastening of his waistcoat, Belle pulled it open and hugged him beneath it, excited by the silk beneath her hands where she clasped his back. His collar was still an obstacle, when she would have liked to kiss his neck in return and see how it took him, but she could not have everything at once. For the moment, his body pinning hers to the bedpost, his tongue teasing hers, would be enough.

"This dress is... inconvenient, isn't it?" Rumpelstiltskin breathed, when he tried to press his hips closer to her and was rebuffed by the volume of her skirts.

"Yes," Belle laughed, and half expected him to whisk it away with the same magic that had dressed her in it but a few hours before. "And uncomfortable, and silly."

"But very pretty," he said, slyly dropping his gaze to the peaks of her bosoms. "Very alluring." He trailed a fingertip across her chest, where the satin met her skin, and Belle shivered. "It's like having a present to unwrap."

"Oh, is it?" Belle smiled, rather ruefully remembering how she had thought herself giftwrapped for her betrothal feast with Gaston. "If you unwrap it then I can breathe and kiss you at the same time."

Rumpelstiltskin looked intrigued, and drew her away from the bedpost, watching her expression as his fingers sought the fastenings behind her.

"I once ate so much, wearing this, that Lotte nearly had to fetch the scissors to let me out," she said, preventing herself just in time from mentioning the betrothal feast. She did not think that her husband would wish to hear that part of it. She rested contentedly against his chest, while he explored the back of the dress.

His breathing was shallow and fast, and he swallowed noisily every few breaths. Did he want her as urgently as he had before? Would he beg again for his immediate satisfaction, or would he be patient and sweet? Imagining either one made her feel the pleasant sting between her legs, and the clenching heat low in her belly. She rubbed her hands against his shirt, against his back, and tried a little kiss to the side of his neck. Behind her, he fumbled and, she was sure, drew breath to swear but stopped himself.

"Is this one fastened to deter husbands as well?" he asked, instead.

Thinking of how she had quaked while he unlaced her wedding gown with its playful knot, Belle closed her eyes and pressed herself nearer to him.

"No. Just slouching."

"Well, it would have been more effective than a silly knot in a bit of string." At last, he found the trick of it - to slide his fingers beneath the stays and catch at the bow hidden inside, opening the stiff garment just enough to reveal the first set of hooks and eyes. "Gods, girl, you'd still be a virgin if you'd worn this," he complained, and Belle laughed as he turned her around, firmly, to see what he was about.

"Your clothes are no better," she pointed out, grasping the bedpost with both hands to hold herself still while he tugged and rummaged near her spine. "I think that's why you use magic to change," she said, grinning at the thought. "Because you'd be there all night otherwise, and half the morning getting it all back on again."

"A good reason not to go to bed," Rumpelstiltskin said, and Belle remembered that it had not been his habit to do so, before discovering that he was welcome to sleep beside her. Or was it that he had discovered that he was able? He had reached the fastenings at the middle of her back, where the bodice pulled tightest beneath her bust. Belle exhaled as much as she could to loosen it for him. "You were wearing this when I came for you," he said, as though he had only just noticed the fact. "Did you expect to be ravished?"

Belle sucked in a breath, as the tightest clasp came free and Rumpelstiltskin was able to unweave the rest of the laces in a couple of gentle tugs, leaving only the final hook and eye.

"Do ogres do that?"

"They do as they please," he said, sourly, and unfastened the last catch, baring her back. Belle felt suddenly exposed, as if that last fastening had been a barrier, and now she could feel how he stared at her. She supposed that he had not spent a great deal of time gazing at the back of her, naked. It was new. So much was new.

After a moment, taking hold of her waist, Rumpelstiltskin kissed between her shoulders, where her hair had parted to uncover bare skin.

"My lady, you appear to be free." His hands slid up in front of her, beneath her breasts, and Belle shivered, remembering how he had spoken to her on their wedding night; how afraid they had both been. She had not recognised his fear for what it was, then; the fear of doing her harm while doing his duty on her. She had not known him well enough to understand that his gruff courtesy signalled concern, or his trembling body meant desire. How far they had come. "Are your skirts going to fight me for you as well?" His hands rose to cover her breasts, rubbing at them with his thumbs, where his skin was roughest.

"No," Belle whispered, surrendering her grip on the bedpost and leaning back to meet him. There was no urgency in his touch, as keen as they had both been to retire for the evening. Although she felt the thrill of it, and of everything between them that was still new to her, his slow kneading of her breasts gave her, more than anything, a deep sense of contentment and belonging. She had hoped for as much, from marriage, but never supposed that she would find it like this, with her husband's hands beneath her loosened clothing and his cheek resting against her head.

It seemed an effort for him to move his hands, having claimed her breasts, and Belle heard Rumpelstiltskin's sigh when he finally did so. He sought the fastening of her skirt, feeling his way with fingertip lightness around her waist from front to back until he found it. As the golden fabric slithered down to pool around their feet, Belle shrugged the bodice down her arms and let that fall as well. Once more, she felt exposed, and fought with her sudden urge to shield herself by hunching forward or folding her arms. Her husband had seen all, his hands had been everywhere, and the sight of her in her petticoat was unlikely to shock him now.

Rather than remove that, Rumpelstiltskin caught her hand and led her to the bed, escorting her as though in a dance, his fingers hooked around hers and his steps jaunty. Puzzled and charmed by his playfulness, Belle seated herself and watched him drop to one knee before her. He caught hold of her dangling foot, her left, and eased off the satin slipper. A moment later he removed its twin and set them both aside with care, glancing up to see if his game met with Belle's approval. She smiled, wiggling her stockinged toes. They were the same stockings she had put on that morning, she noticed - thin knit, old woollen ones, not the delicate silk that accompanied her finer gowns. He had not changed every stitch she wore with magic, then.

"You aren't too cold?" Rumpelstiltskin gazed up at her with anxious, eager eyes.

"No." Curious, and growing used to being so brazenly bare from the waist up, Belle leaned back on her elbows and offered him her right foot. Rumpelstiltskin delved beneath her petticoat, almost tickling her he touched so gently, his fingers exploring upwards until he found her knee, then then the frilly hem of her drawers, and beneath those her garter and her stocking top. He smiled, rather nervously, and untied the garter so that he could draw down her stocking with the same tickling lightness. Her other leg received the same, patient attention, and her stockings and garters were placed carefully atop her shoes. Patience was the game, she decided, watching his face settle to that expression of intense concentration that he wore while spinning. He could whisk her clothing away with a thought, as he had dressed her, but wanted, instead, to linger over every fastening that kept her from him. Still he remained on one knee before her, his back straight and his leather boots creaking with the strain of holding the position.

Her husband seemed in no discomfort from kneeling there. He didn't hurry, lifting her petticoat above her knees, caressing the backs of her legs and even playing briefly with her feet. Belle, who was horribly ticklish on the soles of her feet, snatched them away from him and did her best not to spoil his absorption with a giggle. He smiled, anyway, giving her the distinct idea that her weakness would not be forgotten, and eased his hand up beneath the petticoat to explore her thighs.

Belle's breathing quickly became shallow, at that. A touch there reminded both mind and body of how good it was going to feel to be with him again, and patience became an effort almost at once. Rumpelstiltskin saw, and glanced once more to her face for reassurance that she was content to allow this. At her wry smile, he looked away, becoming shy, but his gaze lingered on her breasts a moment before returning to the hem of her petticoat, now bundled in her lap.

"Is it like unwrapping a present?" She grasped at the bedclothes as his hand crept deeper between her thighs, yet stopped short of touching her intimately.

"Perhaps... solving a puzzle?" Belle adored that whimsical look that came over her husband, sometimes; she could see wisdom in it, and his years, but something childlike as well. "A riddle of beauty." He smiled, crookedly, pleased with his words, and as he pushed his palm up the front of her left thigh, his thumb dipped into the crease between, brushed her sensitive place through the cotton of her drawers, and made her gasp aloud, shifting her weight on the edge of the bed. "But yes, a gift," he went on, dreamily repeating the movement of his hand until Belle had to bite her lip to keep from making some undignified sound or other, "to see your pleasure as well as your beauty. To be permitted your favour. A gift."

With her body intensely interested in the activities of Rumpelstiltskin's right thumb, Belle found it difficult to spare a thought for his words. Excitement was making her shoulders tighten, her hands curl like claws into the bedclothes, and perspiration prickle all across her exposed skin. He had barely touched her, just sought out the little bud and begun teasing it with his thumb, but an ache was building in her. She would come, if he persisted. She tried the word in her mind, again. Come. As good as any, he said, and Belle supposed that he was right, even if the precise meaning eluded her. He was bringing her rapidly towards that point of ultimate tension and unwinding, she could feel it.

Why, then, did she wish that he would stop? She felt that she should be, if not grateful, then at least appreciative of such a direct effort to ensure her pleasure.

A muffled sound did escape her, as the heat built within. It was without the outlying shocks to the rest of her body; it burned just inside her, and where his thumb flicked the peak of flesh, and became almost unbearable after a little while. Rumpelstiltskin paused at the little noise of protest, yet again seeing permission and reassurance with a glance at her face.

"I... I'm not sure I like it," she stammered, without meaning to give voice to the tiny half-a-doubt. He had given her nothing but pleasure, before tonight and now, but there was something passionless and pleasureless in the building heat, and he seemed so distant from her, kneeling at her feet. It had seemed harmless enough to accept the caress, but as she spoke the words, she knew that it was not what she wanted done. Her husband's hand went still at once, gripping her thigh with the teasing thumb tucked out of harm's way. "I'm sorry."

His eyes gave away his mortification, even though his expression remained soft. He shook his head, quickly, and rose to sit beside her on the bed, his arm across her shoulders.

"No apologies, mistress," he said, his voice walking the edge of his nervous giggle. "I'd not displease you in this for all the world."

"Nor I you," Belle promised, with fierce, slightly tearful sincerity. The burn and the ache had subsided as soon as he stopped playing with her, but she felt as if she had been wound up tight. Like the uncomfortable day she'd passed before he had stroked her by the fireside, in his lap - a bodily need that was not pleasant, that made her feel unlike herself in the wrong ways. She leaned into Rumpelstiltskin's side, and felt his relief as he understood that she was not upset, only confused again by these new feelings.

"You dislike to be touched... there?" Even his gesture was cautious, and Belle clutched at him, shaking her head urgently before she found the words to answer him properly.

"No!" Oh, how could he think that, when he'd given her so much pleasure? "I can't explain why it felt different." She managed to swallow another apology before it was born, and rested her head on his shoulder. "Now I've spoiled things," she said, instead. "You were enjoying yourself."

"No, my dear," Rumpelstiltskin said, slowly, "I was enjoying you. Forgive an old man his... quirks."

"There's nothing to forgive." Belle plucked at the front of his waistcoat, reassured by his concern and reminded of his gentleness. "How will I know that I like something unless I try? You thought I'd enjoy none of it."

He made a soft 'mmm' of approval, kissing the top of her head.

"It makes me glad," he said, haltingly. "That you enjoy it so. That I may... enjoy you." Belle waited, grasping the front of his shirt, feeling how he struggled with such words. "I'd not hoped for that."

"I know." Belle moved herself so that she could kiss his cheek. When she tried to watch his eyes, he avoided her gaze. "I'm glad too." She gave him another kiss, nearer to the corner of his mouth, and lingered over it longer. "We should know each other's quirks." She thought of his growing collection of ribbons, and of her garter, and of a way to restore the ease between them after such an awkward moment. "Would you brush my hair?" He looked at her, surprised, but nodded. As she went to rise to fetch her brush and comb, he held her gently in place and, extending one hand, made them appear there. "That's a waste of magic," she said, but without real reproach, for she was charmed by his small, showy tricks.

"It's mine to waste, my Lady," he said, mildly. "Put on your gown and be warm," he added, when a shiver came over her. Belle looked down at herself and saw her bosoms puckered with goosebumps, and her arms too. He took the silk gown from the foot of the bed and passed it to her, watching intently as she wriggled her way into it and, after a moment's hesitation, out of her petticoat and drawers. The change left her much more comfortable, in mind as well as body, and Belle hoped that he didn't mind too much that she had denied him the final unwrapping of his 'gift'. There would be another opportunity, she told herself, and made it a promise. A better time, when her mood was better suited, she would enjoy being undressed and admired again. Perhaps, one day, he would allow her to admire him also.

Belle sat cross-legged on the mattress, facing the pillows, and her husband knelt close behind her, carefully working to untie her hair. She had taken some pains with it, to weave in the ribbons to tease and please him, and it took him a while to find that she had secured the two braids with a hairpin, concealed beneath an overhanging tress of thick hair. She said nothing, did nothing, and allowed him to discover it for himself.

Her hair had not had the opportunity to tangle very much, but Rumpelstiltskin took his time over it, removing first one braid and then the other, and making a small, pleased sound in his throat as the ribbons came free. When he found no tangles with his fingers, he set to work with the brush and worked patiently from her left to her right, methodical and missing nothing. Belle felt thoroughly spoiled by the gentle indulgence, more than by the new gift of gold that still sat upon her pillow. While he brushed her, she looked at her left hand and studied the ring he'd given her, the day after their wedding. It was the purest gold, bright and soft, yet her new enthusiasm for household chores had not marked it at all; it still had a perfect polish.

"You would like more jewels?" Rumpelstiltskin lifted the hair away from her right shoulder, and placed his chin there in its place, embracing her from behind. "Something for your throat, perhaps?" He kissed her neck, and she could feel his longing.

"You've spoiled me," she said, and would have laughed if it did not seem too ungrateful. She adored the gifts, of course, but she would not demand them or they would not be gifts, nor half as precious to her. "I've nothing to give you except... ribbons."

He went still for a long moment, and Belle thought that she ought not have mentioned it, but he seemed unconcerned, and eventually sought her breast with his right hand while he gave her shoulder a moist, slow kiss.

"I wouldn't say that," he squeezed her breast, thumbing her nipple through the silk. She could hear his smile. "I never thought to know such gifts as these." His other hand claimed her other breast, and Belle laughed. It was pleasant when he touched them, and when he devoted his attention to her nipples it added to her deeper pleasures, but his fascination with her bosoms mystified her as much as his interest in her ribbons. But... they were hers, and perhaps that was the allure? She placed her hands over his, rubbing them as they rubbed at her.

"And children? Will that be a gift?" She had doubted it, seeing his reticence when she spoke of the prospect, and his sadness about his long-ago son. To outlive a child...

"You're only a girl yourself," he said, leaving her breasts in favour of embracing her gently, his arms wrapped beneath hers. "And you think of children?"

"I'm healthy, strong," she said, uncertainly. "It won't be long before..."

"You long to be a mother?" He released her, sat his weight back and away from her, and she felt abandoned.

"...no," she admitted, turning herself to face him, sitting upon her heels. She could make nothing of his expression. "But we..." she gestured with both hands, to the bed, confused and trying not to seem foolish. "We're married." How many times had he left his seed inside her, already? She had known girls far younger than she fall pregnant within a month of their wedding, and nobody was surprised. "If you don't want children then we mustn't--"

"I'm not a man, Belle," Rumpelstiltskin said, his brows knit together as he looked down at his hands. Her brush and comb were by his knees, along with her ribbons and hairpin. "New life can't ever come of... what I am." He waved his hands at his own body, then let them fall back into his lap. Belle reached over and took his hands, firmly.

"You had a son."

His confusion, as he stared at her with his mouth slightly open, made Belle wonder how little she knew about her husband. He was telling her something that, to him, was an obvious truth.

"I was not always thus," he said, unsteadily, trying to take his hands from hers. Belle held on to him, tightly. "Not always a monster."

"You're not a monster," she all but snapped, ruled by her own confusion and upset by his.

"I am," Rumpelstiltskin said, carefully twisting each of his hands from hers in turn. Something cool had replaced the distress she'd witnessed a moment ago, and he spoke with clipped precision. "I've not pretended to be otherwise, dearie. Not pretended that you were getting the best of this bargain, have I?" His singsong voice warned her to be wary. "Think of what deformed and desperate creature might grow in your belly, if it came from me."

"Don't," Belle pleaded. She tried to shout, but could only choke the word out.

"A monster, dearie," Rumpelstiltskin said, slipping lightly from the bed and spreading his arms wide as he stood, displaying himself in the attitude of a proud, posturing courtier while he sneered his mockery. Not of her, but of everything. Of the entire world and, most of all, himself. "There's no point denying it, no matter how much my cock pleases you. You bed a monster, a beast, so be glad nothing will come of it."

Belle shook her head, and turned her face away so that he wouldn't see her tears fall, nor how tightly she pressed her lips together to suppress a sob. She hugged herself, wanting him to go before he saw her weep, but knowing she would choke if she tried to command him. And, upset as she was by his manner, and even by his news, she didn't truly want him to go away. Only that he wouldn't see her cry, see her too choked with outrage and desperate pity to speak her mind.

Rumpelstiltskin was right; he had not pretended to be otherwise. All that he had given her, all the kindnesses and concessions, had cost him dearly. Yet she had never felt that they went against his nature, only that he spared her some other part of him that ran alongside her careful husband - the part that laughed like a cruel child as it wielded a power beyond imagining, and reduced the world to a balance sheet. And nowhere, in their strange and terribly simple bargain, had he promised or demanded children.

He would have spared her even the consummation of their marriage - even knowing that, without it, she would not truly be his wife. That she would not truly have paid his price.

Well, she did not regret becoming truly his wife. She did not regret the bargain that spared her people from the ogres. She refused to regret looking for happiness in a marriage that might, so easily, have become her bed of thorns. And she did not believe that her husband was a monster.

Praying that he would take it, Belle stuck out her hand towards him, still looking blindly towards the window and still fighting her tears. When he did not take it, she forced herself to look, and saw him standing with his back to her, fists clenched tightly by his sides and his body quivering. Quickly, Belle wiped her eyes with the sleeves of her nightgown, and tried to compose herself.

"Please," she said, as steadily as she was able. She felt as if she might choke on just one word, but he was so still, and she couldn't bear his silence. "Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

As he turned, the harshness falling from his expression the moment he saw her, Rumpelstiltskin shook his head, helplessly. He looked so afraid. Of her? Of her anger, or her scorn? Belle didn't know, and offered her hand again, pleading with her eyes. He took it, gingerly, and let her draw him back to sit at the edge of the bed, his back to her and his head bowed, his shoulders stooped.

"I did not imagine that I'd lie with you, even once," he said, grasping her hand as a drowning man might grasp a rescuer's rope. Belle's own grip was desperate. "That it would ever matter to you."

With an effort, Belle swallowed the lump in her throat and took a deep breath. Had she refused him on their wedding night, or shunned him afterwards, the question would never have arisen. He had expected that.

"Why did you marry me?" Her voice sounded flat to her, and hoarse with the unshed tears. "Did you even want me more than my people's gold, or was it only to be cruel? To remind people that you're not to be dealt with lightly?"

His hand almost crushed hers, but he remembered himself and his strength before she even had time to hiss with protest.

"You seemed as strong as you were lovely," he said, his voice as dull as hers. "Enough to endure, here with me." She heard him swallow; saw him shake his head slightly. "I'd grown tired of being alone."

"So much that a wife who refused to look past this was a better prospect?" She lifted his hand before his face, shaking it, showing him his own flesh, and he nodded. Belle crawled up close behind him, placing her hands on his shoulders, and felt him sigh. Whether it was relief, sorrow or despair, she could not tell. "And are you glad that you have me for your wife? The truth, Rumpelstiltskin," she added, as he made to speak. The conviction in her own voice surprised her, as she returned his own words to him, with interest. "These things matter."

"Belle." He whispered her name, so softly that she barely heard him. "I'm glad."

"Then I'm glad," she said, too hurt by his behaviour to give the words warmth, but sincere. "To have a husband who wants me, not just as a vessel for his sons." She swallowed, summoning her nerve and her strength. If he had seen her strength as something to be admired, then she would make use of it. "Stop blaming me, being angry for things I've never done, just because you expected me to do them. Please."

"Do I?" His bleakness of tone moved her; he sounded so defeated. Belle untucked his hair from his collar with both hands, arranging it fussily. It was a small gesture of affection, but she could not bring herself to do more to comfort him.

"You thought I'd leave when I had the chance. What reason had I given you for that?"

Rumpelstiltskin shook his head. She heard him swallow, noisily, and wondered if the lump in his throat was as big and as painful as her own.

"None."

"I won't pretend that I'm glad, about children. I won't lie just because you try to frighten me. I could never despise them for being born like you."

"Of course not." Chastened, quiet and sad, her husband was the pitiful opposite of that prancing, taunting creature he became when he wanted to remind her of his power. She could not be angry with him, not truly, when she could see his sorrow. "You've enough kindness even for monsters."

"And for stubborn husbands." Belle gave him a feeble push between the shoulders, barely moving him. It was a childish gesture, a ridiculous revenge, but it made her feel slightly better. "What happened to you? If you were a man once, an ordinary man..."

"Magic," he said, gravely. "The darkest. This--" he pinched at the flesh on the back of his left hand "--is the least of it, I promise you."

"I saw the books in the library. Books for a child, some of them are new. You keep a room ready and fill it with toys, as though he might come back at any moment. You loved him, you miss him, so you keep his memory close. No monster does those things." Belle tried to turn him to face her, hand upon his shoulder. While she could not move him, it seemed that she could command him, for he turned himself to look at her, tucking one leg beneath him. "What happened?"

"I lost him," Rumpelstiltskin said, eyes downcast. "As I did his mother."

"I'm sorry." Belle was, and touched his cheek. Her hand shook, and he held it gently, shutting his eyes and kissing her palm. "You're not alone any more. If I'm not to be a mother then I'll just have to try being an even better wife."

"Belle." Kissing her hand again, then clutching it to his chest, Rumpelstiltskin met her gaze for a moment. "I don't know how to be the husband who deserves you." He snorted, and his voice gained a little more strength as he found his black humour again. "I'm not sure any man could."

"Then you'll have to try as well," she reasoned, and shrugged her shoulders. "That seems a fair bargain, to me."

Belle offered her arms, longing to push away the sorrow and the hurt, for both of them; to forgive him, before her hurt became a poison. He came to her, and held her tightly.

When a few tears fell, soaking into Rumpelstiltskin's shirt as they lay close and chaste, Belle didn't try to hide them, and her husband didn't try to brush them away.

Chapter Text

It was the first time Belle had known Rumpelstiltskin to be both awake and truly still, beside her. He'd made himself her bolster, her head on his chest and her knee resting on his thighs, and done nothing more than drape his arm across her back. She knew that he wasn't sleeping, any more than she was, and when she began to grow cold, Belle pushed herself away from him. Her head felt cloudy from crying, her face swollen and probably as unlovely as could be imagined, but the tears had passed. She was only tired, heavy all over after her day's labours and the painful confrontation with her husband.

He was wide awake, but lay still and watched her without meeting her gaze. They had come to rest in the middle of the bed, surrounded by her hairbrush and comb, her ribbons, and her golden bracelet where it had slipped from the pillow in answer to their weight. Belle collected the things up, carefully, and even slid her hand beneath Rumpelstiltskin's back to find her hairpin. It gave her something to do, and put off the moment when she would have to speak to him, or be spoken to. She could think of nothing that it seemed right to say.

She made a visit to her bathing room, washing her face and cleaning her teeth so vigorously that she made her finger raw where her teeth were sharpest. Would Rumpelstiltskin wait for her, or would he slip away while she wasn't looking? Thinking about that only left her more weary, made her very heart weary, and she shut herself away for longer than her business in the little bathroom actually demanded, spending a while leaning against the wall until she was too cold to stay where she was.

Rumpelstiltskin had tidied the bed, turned back the covers and plumped the pillows. He'd been sitting at the edge, but sprang up when Belle emerged, and faced her with palpable anxiety. He'd extinguished most of the candles, as well, and collected her fallen clothing to drape it across her trunk.

"Thank you," she said, taking it all in and then going to him, and giving him a light kiss to the cheek. "Will you stay, if we only sleep?" It sounded more an accusation than a question, and Belle winced to herself. She had hardly been a reluctant participant in their other activities in the great bed; she had as good as demanded that he bed her to begin with. "I'm very tired," she added, touching his arm on her way to climb into bed.

"I'll stay," Rumpelstiltskin said, quietly. The last candles went out as he followed her into the bed, finding her at the very middle. Belle tucked her arm beneath a pillow, beneath her head, and let him make himself comfortable behind her. He did not push himself against her, but touched her shoulder uncertainly and, when she made no objection, gave her a soft kiss there before lying down. He was close enough to her that she could feel his warmth. "I never meant to deceive you," he said, once they were both still.

Had he? Belle sighed, as quietly as she could manage. As his wife, she had assumed that it was her obligation to give him children and, therefore, to lie with him. Her whole life had been little but a preparation for marriage, to whichever husband promised the most good for her people, and she had always known that children would be expected of her. Would she have refused Rumpelstiltskin, on their wedding night, had he told her then that he had no such expectations? Would she have been with him so willingly, since then, if she had known that she need not try to conceive for him?

Children or no, she would still have thought it her duty to give herself to her husband. If he had been unkind, or harsh with her, or if she had found the business to be a trial, then perhaps she would not have been so willing, but she would not have refused him. Would she?

Her husband wanted her forgiveness, and Belle couldn't even be sure what he had done wrong, other than to hide behind the monster he sometimes tried to be.

"I would have done nothing differently, if I'd known," she said, because what else could she believe? Better her own, very slight uncertainty on the question than for Rumpelstiltskin to think he'd won her favour under false pretences. "I'm no less your wife, am I?"

No, she would change nothing about the past, even if she could. It was the future that had changed with an unexpected cruelty; it was a future in which she lacked a purpose that had always been hers to own. To bear children.

"It grieves you, that there will be no children?"

His pleading tone irritated her, making her feel petty and, therefore, guilty.

"I don't know," she told him, managing to keep her own tone civil, at least. "Please, let's sleep."

"Belle--"

"Please," she begged, because the tears were still too close and, in truth, she could not have told him why. She wanted time to herself, to think, yet something within told her that to push her husband away now, when he had confessed his inability to father children, would only do harm. Whether he wanted sons or not, surely no man wanted to think himself incapable of getting them, any more than a woman wanted to think herself barren? "My feet are cold," she said, small voiced and truthful. "And I'm very tired."

Wordlessly, Rumpelstiltskin eased himself nearer, so that his shoulder and hip almost touched her back, and Belle smiled a little as she curled her legs to find the warmth of his with her feet. "Thank you," she said, giving all of her mind to the small, familiar kindness.

Fatigue did carry her off to sleep, for a while, but Belle was restless enough to register that Rumpelstiltskin remained by her side, and that he did not go to sleep himself. Her efforts to get comfortable after each half-waking left her facing him as she usually did, her head resting on his outstretched arm and, after a little while, feeling his lips against her forehead. The kiss soothed her, somehow, and she reached her arm across her husband's belly to pull herself nearer to him, before sleeping again, this time until dawn.

Feeling groggy and wrung out, Belle comforted herself that Rumpelstiltskin had not left her in the night. It must have been hours since she curled herself against his side and went properly to sleep, and he hadn't moved at all in all that time, content to be her bolster and foot-warmer. He was awake, she knew. His breathing was different, while he slept, and his body looser. Had he lain awake the whole night, forcing himself to be still for her sake?

Lifting herself so that she could gaze down at him, Belle could see his eyes reflecting the small amount of light that peeked around the curtains. Rumpelstiltskin moved, now that she was awake, and collected his nest of pillows behind him at the very head of the bed, watching her the whole while.

Belle yawned, longing for more sleep. There was a lingering soreness below her ribs, the memory of last night's hurt and sorrow, but it was a dull pain, and if Rumpelstiltskin was the cause then he was also the remedy, for she felt better once she put her arms around him again and nestled close against his left side.

After a while, as sleep left her, she began to touch him. It began as a whim, a distraction from her unhappy thoughts, but curiosity soon took over and guided her hand. She had never explored him with real purpose, being always interested in their pleasures; now, she simply ran her hand over the front of his nightgown, and fingered inside the neck of it, and felt out the whole shape of her husband's torso for the sake of knowing it.

It caused Rumpelstiltskin to breathe faster, especially when her hand found his right hip and the inside of her wrist brushed against his manhood on the way. He was soft, and the thirst for knowledge drew her fingers back there to feel him, cautiously, through his nightgown. Of course, if she played with it then it was unlikely to stay soft; he seemed not to need even her touch to cause it to harden in readiness for her.

"It won't bite your hand," he said, with a seductive warmth that she had not expected to hear, this morning, any more than she had expected to awaken in his arms. With a kind of mental shrug, Belle covered his groin with her open hand and curled her fingers, feeling the size and weight of him, and the heat too, for his skin seemed much warmer there. Impatient, and for the first time not caring how he felt about his nakedness, Belle drew up the front of his nightgown with a few businesslike tugs, much as he had done to her, on their wedding night. She hadn't died of it, and nor would he; she wanted to touch him, to know all about that part of him, and every instinct told her that, today of all days, he would do nothing to prevent her having her way.

Cock, he'd called it. She thought about that, following the crease of his inner thigh with her fingertips and feeling him tremble from head to toe. Well, she'd known the word, and even if she hadn't been sure exactly what was meant, she'd been capable of an educated guess. It suited the proud, silly, forward thing, she thought, smirking to herself as she felt it begin to thicken when she lifted and moved it.

"Can you stop it getting hard?" she asked, peering at as much as she could make out in the half-light. "Your cock?" She said the word with an emphasis that, she hoped, would let him know that his attempt to shock her with it had neither worked, nor been forgiven. It delighted her when he fidgeted and lost his grip upon her shoulder, spluttering his reply.

"Self control only goes so far when..." he waved his hands, urgently, indicating what she was doing to him. "It doesn't bother doing much at all, except when you're nearby," he added, an obvious effort lowering his voice by an octave.

Between his legs, behind his cock, he was dry and soft and a little wrinkled - a heavy bag of thin, loose flesh that hung limply in her palm. She knew it to be a fragile part of any man, having witnessed a few brawls and heard tales of others, so held him with care. It seemed better protected by its positioning than that part of most animals, perhaps because only people understood how to be cruel when they fought. Or, perhaps only so that the man could fit the woman, she mused.

Her methodical exploration had left Rumpelstiltskin trembling, his cock grown long and thick to rest against his soft belly. She could see the shape of it, now that the morning had advanced a little further; she could see where her own hand moved, grasping him and giving a couple of slow pulls to feel the thing grow harder still.

She liked that it was so easy stir him, and he seemed to like it much better than she had liked his direct attentions to her tenderest part, the previous evening. When she moved herself lower, her head on his upper belly instead of his chest, his cock all but jumped in her hand, and he petted her hair, clumsily.

Belle knew that she wouldn't have dared, in full daylight, but she kissed him just beneath the rucked up hem of his nightgown, and felt his lower belly tighten and twitch in response. When she did the same again, lingering longer with her mouth upon his skin, and moved her hand up and down his shaft at the same time, Rumpelstiltskin's back arched, almost throwing her aside, and his hand tightened painfully in her hair for a few heartbeats.

Why did he cover himself, if he liked to be kissed as much as she did? She thought of applying her mouth, her tongue, to his nipples and seeing if that met with a better response than her fingertips had, but fascination with what was in her hand kept her still. As she stroked him, her nervous care giving way to a slow and gentle rhythm that matched his shallow breaths, Rumpelstiltskin stroked her hair and made soft, inarticulate noises of approval.

Her curiosity had become his pleasuring, but Belle liked it well enough - and she was learning. As before, when she'd taken him in her hand, Rumpelstiltskin stopped her after a while, his hand wrapped around hers to keep her there but keep her from moving it. Belle studied his breathing, and the sounds he made, and wished that she could see him better when she felt a trickle of wetness reach her grasping fingers.

"Why do you stop me?"

A soft but nervous laugh shook him, beneath her cheek, and he buried his fingers in her hair.

"I don't want it to spit in your eye, my dear."

"...oh." Belle hadn't considered that possibility, and felt her face grow hot. Whether it was the thought of what might have happened, or merely because she'd failed to realise it, she couldn't say.

"Unless you'd like that," he added, with another chuckle, which only added to her confusion and her blushes.

"Don't tease me," she complained, but halfheartedly. It was her ignorance that she minded, not his fun with her. "Not while I have hold of this," she added, and gave him a squeeze that caused his legs to stiffen and his restraining hand to clench around her own.

"As you wish," he managed, through clenched teeth, his dignity flown and his heels digging into the mattress. "I really should move, dearie, if I were you," he panted, when Belle tried another, wetter and slower kiss to his bare belly. She did move, sitting up and gazing down at all she could see of his midsection; the bundled up nightgown, his slim hips and the joining of their hands around his shaft. He released her hand at once, and she realised that he had been quite serious; his completion was near. It took only a few more strokes of her hand, done firmly, and Belle watched what she could of his contortions, now certain that his pleasure came in building waves much like her own, then ebbed away into a languid state of satisfaction once he was empty of his seed.

It satisfied Belle, in a strange way of her own, to see her husband so easily undone by a few movements of her hand; to have roused his desire so deliberately in the first place. She covered him gently with his nightgown, and curled beside him in the nest of pillows, listening as his breathing returned to normal. Rumpelstiltskin stroked her hair, combing it with his fingers, and made a sound of contentment when Belle pressed herself nearer to him.

"Did you sleep at all?"

"No."

"So... you stayed to keep my feet warm?" Belle hooked one foot over his leg, smiling.

"Because you wanted me to stay." He took a deep breath, and forced strength into his voice where none had been a moment ago. "I have business in town today. It's market day. Do you want to come with me?"

"Yes, of course." Whether it was a request or mere courtesy she didn't know, and didn't care. She would not let the opportunity to be with other people pass her by. Belle drew herself up to give him a kiss on the cheek, meaning to get out of bed and begin her day, but Rumpelstiltskin met her with his mouth instead. It seemed too long since they had kissed, but Belle didn't want to be stirred to excitement, so drew herself away from him after a few slow, shallow kisses. "Breakfast or tea?"

"Tea," he said, after a moment's hesitation. She had confused him with her behaviour, with her bold curiosity, and could not help feeling that it was his turn to be the one left reeling.

"Good. I'll buy more of the little pastries."

"As you wish."

Belle gave him a last kiss before climbing out of bed, not wanting to seem cold and unforgiving, but not wanting him to offer to see to her pleasure, either, because then she would have to refuse him. Desire seemed a distant prospect, this morning. Whether it was because she had slept badly, or because he had upset her so, she could not tell, and certainly didn't want to have to try explaining to him until she had cleared her mind. Besides, her mood had given her an insight into another piece of Mistress Elena's advice, about how often she would let her husband enjoy her. For the first time, neither her sense of duty nor her desire for pleasure held any sway with her. She had not minded pleasing him with her hand, but it had been her quest for knowledge, merely coinciding happily with his enjoyment of her touch.

Would she dare to refuse him, if he came to her tonight?

She had to venture down to the kitchen in her nightgown to fetch suitable clothing for the day. She chose the things she had ironed so neatly, scurrying back upstairs with the warm bundle in her arms and her feet freezing upon the stone floors. By the time she returned to her room, Rumpelstiltskin had gone and her bed was, as always, neatly made for her.

Although she had been young when her mother died, Belle remembered clearly that she had shared a room with Papa. A part of it had been hers, a part of it his, but they shared the rest, and always the same bed. Belle couldn't imagine sharing this room with Rumpelstiltskin, nor that he would want to give up his solitude for the sake of a shorter journey to her bed.

Dressing with care, knowing that she would be seen in town, Belle made an effort with her hair as well. Lotte had seemed to have some magic at her beck and call, when it came to hair; whether caring for it, untangling it or pulling it up into showy styles with nothing but a comb and a few pins, Belle's hair had simply obeyed her maid. Her own effort was simple; one braid on each side pinned beneath the rest of her hair to keep it back from her face without concealing any of its length or fullness.

It was only as she headed back down to the kitchen in stockinged feet, to find and clean her muddy boots, that Belle realised she had not used any ribbons in her hair today.

~+~

Odstone had been relatively quiet during Belle's earlier visits. In spite of the fresh fall of snow overnight, the roads were clear and the town was simply heaving with people. Their carriage stopped outside the gates, and as Rumpelstiltskin helped her down Belle could see why. The market had spread from the crossroads down the main streets and it looked as if everyone in the district had come to buy or sell today, and perhaps from far beyond as well.

"The quarterly market," he explained, mistaking her pang of homesickness for confusion at what she saw ahead of them. "Livestock, and there will be a fair, and the court of justice."

Belle kept hold of Rumpelstiltskin's arm as they went through the gates, and they went almost unnoticed in the crush of busy people. It was a relief to be jostled and ignored rather than carefully avoided, and Belle had hopes of being able to move around the stalls and speak to people who did not know her, or fear her husband. She had brought a larger basket with her, on this occasion, hoping to find cloth to sew herself some aprons, and Rumpelstiltskin had asked if she needed more coins. She still had more gold than she had ever carried in her life, she told him, and saw him at last try to smile.

It had not even been a quarrel between them, last night, but it had left a rift and she did not know how to mend it.

"You're here for the court," she said, forcing her thoughts back to the present and leaning more heavily than she needed to on Rumpelstiltskin's arm, simply to prove that she wasn't shunning him in any way. They were being noticed, as they threaded their way up towards the square, and the crowds became more subdued and deferential as word of their arrival spread. Rumpelstiltskin walked erect, a swagger in his step, and Belle would have sworn that he had polished his horrid coat of stiff leathery scales.

"Yes. Only the most serious matters are put before me."

"You aren't disturbed for trivialities," Belle said, absent mindedly. Rumpelstiltskin stopped in his tracks, one foot held theatrically in mid air only to be placed on the ground with exaggerated care as he turned to face her. "You... told me that," she said, slightly alarmed by his predatory smile and glinting eyes. "In the coach, the first time we came."

"So I did." His smile was a flash of danger, and Belle recoiled, certain that she had done nothing to earn his displeasure. "Take care in the crowds, my Lady," he said, as she pulled her arm from his. "I'll be at the town hall." He pointed with a flourish to the building behind her, and Belle turned to look at it. Other than the brightly painted carvings above the door, nothing marked the building out as being special in the street of larger houses, with their fancy shutters. "There's seldom any business to speak of, but I must play my part."

Catching her hand, Rumpelstiltskin bent low and kissed it before striding towards the town hall. He did not wait for anyone to move out of his way - they simply cleared a path without slowing him down for one step.

Unnerved by the sudden change in him, Belle drew up her hood and made her way up the rest of the street to the square while people were preoccupied with Rumpelstiltskin's entrance. With any luck, she would be forgotten in the excitement and could browse the many stalls without all eyes following her.

Her hopes were quickly dashed, for word had spread and even her cloak was recognised by those who had seen it before. They pointed her out to others, leaving her once more dealing with overly cautious, fearfully polite people who would take her coin but were too afraid to give her a real smile. Defeated, for the moment, Belle went about her business as quickly and as politely as she could, filling her basket and not trying to encourage anyone to speak with her, other than by her simple courtesy.

She had not the strength, today, to be where she was not welcome.

It took her longest to find the cloth she needed, and to search out the stall where she had bought paper on her first visit to the town. Although the array of goods interested her, the reluctance of the sellers kept her from approaching any stall from which she did not intend to buy something. Feeling horribly alone, in such a crowd, Belle longed for home.

And it was not Rumpelstiltskin's castle that she thought of, when she thought of home. That weighed on her, as she made her last stop and bought six of the small pastries from Master Hadley. He, at least, was able to give her a smile and something approaching a welcome, and he asked her very politely to try a new type of bun and give her opinion. Belle was so grateful for his friendly welcome that she would have pretended to enjoy stale bread, but the sugared bun he proffered looked truly delicious. When she bit, she found the plain bread full of dried fruits.

"I think it's wonderful, Master Hadley," she said, when she managed to swallow the doughy mouthful. "One of these would make a fine meal. I'll buy this one and two more, thank you."

"They say food don't go stale in the castle," Hadley said, as he carefully took her coins, returning to her a few coppers in change. "Is that true, my Lady?" He placed the two buns neatly in her basket beside the pastries, and Belle tucked the one she was holding in next to them.

"Yes. In the larder, anyway." Belle said it with a smile, glad to be drawn on any topic if it kept her from feeling so lonely in the town, but Hadley seemed to have made as much effort as he felt able, and gave her a slight wave when she nodded to him and moved on.

As alone as she often found herself, at the castle, she felt it so much more keenly here in town. For a moment, Belle thought of visiting Wren, but it was likely that she was out among the crowds, or even had a stall for her herbs somewhere, and, in any case, what would she say? Her own self-pity irritated her, and something told her that Wren would be no more impressed with it than she.

Belle could not blame the townspeople for fearing her husband. Even she, with whom he had taken such great care to be kind, sensed that Rumpelstiltskin would punish anyone who wronged her, and do so harshly. Were she the sort of woman to take advantage of that for her own gain, or even to complain about imagined slights, it could make her very dangerous indeed.

On her way back to the town hall, Belle found that she was drawing less and less attention. Her relief at this changed to curiosity as she realised that people were beginning to gather in the street outside the painted building. As she grew nearer, she could see that people were spilling out of the large double doors, and others were gathered at the windows.

She recognised it. Even the tedious sessions of the magistrates, at home, brought an enthusiastic crowd of onlookers - some to support the accused, but most came to gawk and entertain themselves with the spectacle of it, or with the misfortunes of others. Belle had attended only with her father, when hardened criminals were to be tried or sentenced, since this fell to the Councilmen.

Belle disliked the strange hunger that came over a crowd, when justice was seen to be done. She could feel it now, as she threaded her way through the press of bodies, ignoring the hasty apologies from those who noticed her. It seemed an unusually attentive crowd.

"What's happening here?" she asked, when she could go no further towards the building without using her elbows to force her way through the people. As soon as those around her glanced at her, they shrank from her, leaving her in a circle of respectful space, and Belle held herself as upright as she could, clutching her basket tightly. "Who is being tried, and for what crime?"

"A stranger, my Lady," a thin and worried woman provided, and curtseyed when Belle's eyes found her among the sea of faces. "He took a little girl away into the snow, and she never came back."

"He was found dead drunk over Marden way, blood all over his clothes, and won't say what he done with the little mite," a man offered. He, too, gave an anxious nod of respect when Belle turned to look for him. "He'll hang, if he's lucky."

"Lucky?" Belle stared at him, but the man had returned to staring at the town hall. The crowds around the door and windows were falling back to join their fellows in the street, and a wiry, filthy prisoner was being led out by two much larger men, his hands bound before him. The prisoner had been beaten, she could see; his eyes were swollen almost shut, his mouth torn at the left corner, and he stumbled as he was driven ahead of his guards.

Emerging behind the prisoner and his escort, Rumpelstiltskin walked easily beside the tall man Belle had seen him speak to on her last visit to market. He was dark skinned, richly robed, and younger than she had supposed from her distant glimpse of him; it was his bearing that had given her to believe he was an older man, for he looked to have the weight of the world upon his shoulders, along with a heavy, multi-layered and intricate golden chain of office.

This head man stopped at the street, and waited for the crowd to gather and fall silent around the grim party.

Seeing her, Rumpelstiltskin cocked his head and smiled, but something in the gesture left Belle cold. She returned a hesitant wave of her hand, and only thought to go and stand beside her husband when he extended his hand with an overdone pout of mock hurt. She could not refuse him, not in front of his people, but her steps were hesitant. The shine in his eyes was beyond mischief, beyond cunning, and his pupils were so large that they all but obliterated his irises. It reminded her of when he had warned her against leaving the castle, and his eyes had turned almost completely black; it reminded her to be wary of magic, and most especially of his.

When she took his hand, he shivered with naked pleasure and grabbed her across the shoulders, keeping her close.

"My dear."

"Husband." Belle nodded to the bound prisoner, as the man with the chain unrolled a small scroll and cleared his throat. "Is the man to die?"

"Certainly. But we may persuade him to tell where he left his victim, before that happens." Rumpelstiltskin's smile was a leer, and Belle recoiled from it. There had to be justice, of course there did, and sometimes there had to be a death. A life for a life, before still more were taken either in vengeance, or in the madness of the murderer. Belle had seen satisfaction or victory in the eyes of those whose loved ones had been victim to such a man, but never pleasure at the prospect of an execution. Rumpelstiltskin looked as he did when inflamed with lust for her, all but quivering on a knife-edge of barely suppressed enthusiasm for the proceedings.

"This man," Belle managed, tearing her gaze away from Rumpelstiltskin's glee and pointing to the one with the chain about his shoulders. "What's his name?"

"Janek."

"Is he mayor?"

"Yes." Rumpelstiltskin's fingers tightened and relaxed upon her upper arm, his fingers moving in turn, in sequence, as though he played some kind of instrument or one of his string puzzles. He was as tense and watchful as a cat eyeing an unwary bird, his eyes never leaving the back of the prisoner's neck.

The sentence was read to the silent crowd. The man had refused to give his name, or say where he hailed from, and had not admitted his guilt. He had refused to say where the dead child lay, and Belle could see that he had been persuaded at some length.

Behind her, she heard a woman begin to weep. When she tried to turn and look, with a vague notion of offering her condolences or some comfort, Rumpelstiltskin held her immobile with the simple act of tightening his arm.

Janek finished reading from his scroll, and turned to regard the prisoner, his dark eyes cold with disgust.

"The body of Yrsa Littlehip," he said, with a venom that did not suit his kindly features. "Allow her to be put to rest, and properly mourned by her parents."

The prisoner elbowed his guards away and spat at Janek's feet.

"Another thing," Rumpelstiltskin said, releasing Belle suddenly and striding to Janek's side, his presence stilling the prisoner's contempt somewhat. "Who sent you?" With a casual flick of his fingers, Rumpelstiltskin directed the guards to step away from their prisoner. Belle saw that they were only too glad to do so, and that their fearful gaze fell upon Rumpelstiltskin, not the bound murderer.

His boots clicking upon the cobbles with each prancing step, Rumpelstiltskin circled the man, amusement lifting his calm expression into something that Belle found quite grotesque to watch.

"A nameless killer who happens upon my lands, steals away a child and makes certain that he is captured in the wake of his bloody deed." So fast that there wasn't even a blur of movement, Rumpelstiltskin stood before the prisoner, hand beneath his jaw. That the man was at least two heads taller than Rumpelstiltskin did not matter; he was all but lifted onto his toes by it, and choked for air, his hands clawing against Rumpelstiltskin's arm. "Where is Yrsa Littlehip?" His voice had become a hiss, and Belle could feel magic in the air. She could not tell whether it came from her husband or was being drawn towards him. It prickled the back of her legs, the base of her spine, and lifted the tiny hairs at the back of her neck. "A man can take long, frantic minutes to strangle to death at the end of a rope," Rumpelstiltskin told him, an intimate whisper that somehow carried to many of the surrounding ears, including Belle's. "I'm sure I can see to it that minutes become hours. Possibly even days. Where is the child?"

Belle's heart was in her throat. Behind her, a mother wept.

"There's a well," the man choked, his face beginning to turn from red to purple. "In the woods."

Rumpelstiltskin dropped him, nodding, and the man staggered back, coughing and pawing at his neck with his bound hands. Belle thought that he would fall to the ground, but he kept his feet and, doubled over, stared up at Rumpelstiltskin with hatred.

"And the other matter?" Rumpelstiltskin fingered his chin, eyes turned upward and a small smile playing with his lips, as though he was merely introducing a topic for conversation at a dinner table. "Who sent you here?"

"For that you spare me, demon," the man growled, and Rumpelstiltskin looked at him, one eyebrow raised and the small smile becoming a smirk.

"Oh, do I?"

Belle stepped hastily backwards as the man staggered back in her general direction, but she was too slow, and the crowd prevented her from moving far enough; before she could cry out, he was behind her, had looped his arms over her head and pulled his bound wrists tight below her breasts, dragging her with him into the scattering crowd. Her basket smashed to the ground and spilled, her bolt of pale fabric unwinding like a streamer towards the road. It took but a heartbeat to happen, but the moment fixed itself in her memory like a slowly shifting dream; the rush of movement, the pressure against her ribs, and the contents of her basket spilling out across the newly laid carpet of white cloth.

"I leave here or your woman dies," the man barked, over her shoulder. With a gasp, Belle realised that a small blade, or a shard of something sharp, had been between the man's palms. It probably couldn't kill her unless he sliced her throat, the cut would be too shallow, but he had it against her chest now and she cried out in alarm as he pressed it into her clothing.

Rumpelstiltskin stood before them, head tilted to one side. His eyes were colder than ice, his smile become a frozen grimace.

"I think not," he said, and snapped his fingers. Belle felt the pressure of her captor's arms vanish, and heard the shouts of horror from the crowd before she felt and heard the warm water splashing behind her. She leapt away from it, and Rumpelstiltskin caught her, snatched her to him and clutched at her while she turned to stare at where her desperate captor had been standing.

Those nearest, who had been trapped between the drama and the walls of the town hall, had been splashed to the knees, as Belle had at the back of her skirts. Nothing remained of the prisoner but a great, spreading puddle of water upon the cobblestones. Rumpelstiltskin, rigid with rage, held her so tightly that she could barely breathe. Belle was glad of it, for the first few moments, for she could be no safer than under his protection and she felt sick with fright.

Even the grieving mother had fallen silent. Belle saw her, tearstained and leaning against an older man who might be her father, staring, as was everyone else, at the water, or at Belle herself. She looked down and saw blood on her dress, seeping slowly through her bodice midway down her ribs. At her gasp, Rumpelstiltskin held her away from him and looked too, and his lip curled in a snarl of rage.

He pressed his hand to her chest, magic shimmering purple where he touched her.

"It is a cut," he said, tightly. "A flesh wound." She felt the magic pulling at her skin for a moment, flooding her with both warm and cold in the bone beneath. She tasted coal, and saw bright green swirls before her eyes, and then he withdrew his hand, slowly. "All mended," he crooned, once more tucking her close against his side and, turning, leading her towards the road.

"My Lord," Janek began, hurrying to meet them, "is my Lady Belle--"

"I'm fine," Belle said, her annoyance at his speaking to Rumpelstiltskin and not to her momentarily pushing aside her fright and horror. Rumpelstiltskin pulled her closer, squeezing her shoulders tightly.

"There would have been no need for this, had your men persuaded him to talk."

"N-no, my Lord." Janek's brown skin was almost grey with fear.

"Well," Rumpelstiltskin said, loud enough for all to hear. The arm that wasn't around Belle was raised in a sudden flourish as his voice rose towards his manic giggle. "At least we've saved the price of a rope."

Chapter Text

Rumpelstiltskin gave Belle no choice about returning to the carriage, and she could not have mustered a protest had she tried. Her fallen basket was left abandoned before the town hall, and the crowds parted in fearful almost-silence as her husband hurried her towards the gate and the waiting coach.

Having bundled her inside, Rumpelstiltskin flung himself into the seat between Belle and the door, slamming it shut with unnecessary force. It was only as the carriage began to move that Belle began to breathe properly again, and to feel her rigid shock dissolving into a sick, weak-limbed sensation. She could not stop looking down at the front of her dress, where the bloodstain surrounded a cut in the fabric. Such a small cut, really. She fingered it, her hand trembling.

"Belle." As if unaffected by the rocking of the carriage over the rutted road, Rumpelstiltskin knelt at her feet and, grasping two great handfuls of her skirts, stared up at her. His eyes were still too dark at the centre, with more of the prowling predator about them than his usual sharp, hawk-like stare. She stared back at him, dumbly. "I would have killed him slowly," her husband said, clipped and terrible. "For touching one hair of your head. But for this..." He put his fingertips over the bloodstain, and while he quivered as much as she, Belle could see that it was pure rage, on his part. Had he been able to restore the villain to life again, only to subject him to a slower and more terrible punishment, Belle was certain that he would have done so.

She felt sick, and no better at all when Rumpelstiltskin surged up at her, grabbing the seat behind her shoulders and kissing her, fiercely. After a moment, he grasped the back of her neck with one hand, trying to deepen the kiss with his open mouth, and as he pushed his weight between her knees Belle could think only of the time that Gaston had surprised her with an unwanted kiss, and how very much she had wanted to go and wash her face afterwards.

Undeterred by her stillness, Rumpelstiltskin leaned his weight into her body, applied his hungry kisses to her throat, and began to pull up the hem of her skirts with one, clumsy hand.

"Don't!" Belle pushed at him, suddenly and frighteningly aware that, should Rumpelstiltskin defy her, there was nothing that she could do to prevent him having his way. Her push didn't move him so much as a fraction of an inch, but he obeyed her command and dropped his handful of her petticoats, head snapping up to regard her, eye to eye. His eyes were narrowed, as though he struggled to see her, and his tongue flicked nervously at his lips.

Carefully, Belle applied a more gentle, steady pressure to his shoulders and he pushed himself quickly away from her, sprawling into the opposite seat and planting one boot upon the upholstery. Hand drumming upon his knee, he continued to stare at her, unblinking and, Belle was half sure, unseeing as well. She tore her own gaze away and gulped for breath, dragging aside the little curtain at the window to give herself a distraction. Snow was falling, again, and she could see little but a grey and white blur until they reached the castle gates and the carriage was still.

When Rumpelstiltskin did not move, she opened the door for herself but then, in one smooth, swift motion, he swung himself out of the door and waited for her, offering his hands to steady her step down. Belle fixed her eyes upon their joined hands, as she did so, feeling a sharp anger begin to consume her shock at his behaviour. Tangled around it was the realisation that her husband had gladly killed a man, yet it had been his unwanted advance upon her that provoked her to revulsion. She felt dry-mouthed, her stomach roiling, and could not bring herself to look at him.

"Ah," Rumpelstiltskin said, his voice high and light, "there it is." He still had her hands, grasping them at the level of his chest. He leaned closer as though to kiss her, and Belle recoiled, but he only stared until she looked up at him, then cocked his head and gave her a smile without warmth or humour in it.

"What is?" Belle managed, truly worried that she might vomit at any moment if she could not sit down and catch her breath, alone. She was wet through, and the snow came with a chill wind that made her teeth begin to chatter.

"Disgust," Rumpelstiltskin said, drawing one fingertip slowly down her cheek and savouring each syllable as though it were a sweet and sticky treat. Smug.

With an inarticulate sound of, yes, disgust, Belle pushed him away from her and started walking towards the castle. That he allowed himself to stagger theatrically from her feeble assault, and that he giggled horribly as he did so, brought hot tears to her eyes. She all but ran to the castle doors, which opened at her touch, but glanced behind her as she crossed the threshold.

Rumpelstiltskin remained at the gates, hands wrapped around the bars at the height of his head, his forehead resting against the iron. As Belle watched, she saw him deliver three, vicious kicks to the base of the gate. Snow and icicles showered down around him as he did so.

Gulping, Belle picked up her damp skirts and ran for the stairs.

Above all, Belle knew that she must take off the dress. It was soaked with all that was left of the prisoner, and the very thought of it made her feel ill. She locked the door to her chambers, for all the good that it would do if Rumpelstiltskin chose to disregard her wishes, and fought her way free of first her skirts and petticoat, and then of the bloody bodice and her stockings. Only her drawers were unspoiled, her soft chemise having been cut through and as bloodstained as her stays.

Leaving everything in disarray upon her bedroom carpet, she shut herself away in the bathing room and washed every inch of her skin, until she could be certain that none of the ghastly water still touched her, anywhere, and that not a spot of blood remained.

It calmed her, although dry, hurt sobs came while she scrubbed. When she climbed out of the warm water and wrapped herself up in towels, Belle no longer trembled and no longer feared she would empty her stomach at the slightest further provocation. She perched on the rim of the copper bath and let her topmost towel fall open, touching her wet skin where the wound had been. There was no trace of it, after Rumpelstiltskin's magic. Not even a faint white scar.

To turn a man to water, then brush away a bleeding wound as though it had never been... Belle wrapped herself tightly with the towel, again, and hugged her torso. All that had happened in the village was becoming sharp in her memory, startling her in vivid flashes the way her recollections of her wedding night sometimes would. Would she always feel that water, warm as blood, upon her skin, the way she could still recall how it felt when Rumpelstiltskin first kissed her?

Her body remembered, too, those first moments when he took her; the not-quite-pain of it, the awkward uncertainty of it, and how his ragged breaths had felt and sounded close to her face. Few other moments in her life stayed with her so vividly, not even the sound of her mother's weakening cries in childbirth, nor the assaults upon her town walls as the very castle shook and crumbled about her. She could remember them, but not those merciless details; the memories flooded her with emotion, of course, but did not cause her body to echo the experience anew.

Belle shivered, realising that the rest of her clean clothing was still down in the kitchen, drying before the fire. She could wear her nightdress, again, and fresh underthings beneath it, but unless she was willing to put on her sodden cloak, she would have to venture out half clothed and hope that Rumpelstiltskin did not mistake her choice for an invitation to approach her again.

What had come over him? For one moment, in the carriage, she had thought he might simply take her no matter what she did or said. She might have welcomed his comfort, then, or even a gentle kiss, but she scarcely recognised the man who had emerged from the town hall, all but dancing with bloodlust.

Hangings were dreadful. Rumpelstiltskin had not lied to the nameless man - it was no merciful ending to choke in the noose, if the drop failed to break the neck cleanly. Belle had stood with her father and witnessed three such executions. The first time she had stared with a child's uncomprehending awe, the second she had buried her face in her father's robes and allowed him to cover her ears until the struggles on the gallows ended. The third, but a year or two since, she had been able to clutch his hand in reassurance and, that night, kiss his cheek with the forgiveness that she knew he craved.

There had never been anyone, in her limited experience, who toyed with a condemned man nor boasted of the killing. Rumpelstiltskin's only qualm was that he could not have killed the man twice over, and brutally at that. And then he had wanted her. That was... horrid.

Belle pulled her heaviest nightgown from her trunk, and put on stockings beneath it, with the slippers from her golden dress. She stepped carefully around the discarded clothing, knowing that she would have to collect it up and clean it, but unable to face the task for the moment. She was rather afraid she might catch herself throwing it all into the fire, in her disgust.

To her dismay, her heart beat faster when she unlocked her door and ventured out onto the landing. She could not spend the rest of her days afraid of bumping into her own husband, so she could not start by being afraid now. All the same, she would prefer not to see him again until his mood had settled - until she could see something of her kind lover in his eyes once again.

She toyed with the word, as she made her way to the kitchen. Lover. It was a word that featured often in the books she had enjoyed as a girl; it hinted at little beyond the kissing of a hand or a meeting by moonlight, and had never before meant to her what it meant now. Passion, and sharing, and humility and laughter, and pleasure in those private things they did together. In the storybooks, lovers became husbands in the way that wives became mothers, the one state giving way to the next. Belle had found that husbands could become lovers, and now that, as a wife, she might not be a mother at all.

It wasn't that she'd thought the childish stories to be the unvarnished truth. Of course not. But they had, perhaps, deceived her into expecting marriage to be more straightforward than the reality had proved to be. A lover could be a virtual stranger, and a wife could feel like she was still a child, on the inside.

Belle saw no sign of Rumpelstiltskin on her way to the kitchen. He had warned her that there were times when he was best left to himself, had he not? She had argued with him, then, but today she could see the wisdom in his position. Perhaps there were times when he was not fit company, for her or for anyone? The gentle man who treasured her in their bed would be mortified about upsetting her, when he came to his senses, but he would still be the same man who had taunted the stranger, and killed him. The same man who had wanted her so thoughtlessly in the carriage, who mocked her unhappiness and kicked at the gate in his temper.

Belle found her work dress and its petticoats and chemise, clean and folded on the chair beside the fire. Rumpelstiltskin must have done that, some time after changing her into her golden gown; taken those dirty and wet things that he disapproved of, and made them ready again for her to use. Had they been there, on the chair, when she fetched her clothes from the drying rack this morning, or had he thought of it only just now?

She sat down in the chair, the bundle of slightly warm clothing in her lap, and stared into the fire. Her own people knew little of magic, except the rare places where it came naturally into the world. There was a healing stream near the border, said once to have been so powerful that great armies warred over it. In living memory, it had only ever been able to ease a fever for a few hours or better clean a wound; small magic, fading into the background of history. Belle wondered if Rumpelstiltskin had known of it when the armies warred for it, lifetimes ago.

He had healed her wound with a touch. Belle placed her hand over the spot, remembering the strange sensation as his magic worked. A flesh wound, he'd said, so the healing of it would claim only a modest payment from her. All the same, she would have preferred that he ask her, as he had done when she was injured before. His imported medicines and potions had been less costly to her than his own magic, when she was gravely hurt. A salve and a stitch or two might have done just as well, for a cut, and carried no debt at all.

The time got away from her, sitting there and watching the comforting flames. It was time enough to calm her, and to replace her hurt and prideful anger with a dull sadness, along with the realisation that she missed him. The aspect of Rumpelstiltskin who touched her as though he did not quite dare to, and surrendered himself to the possibility of her scorn; who warmed her feet with his own when he could have used magic or bought her bed socks; who cherished her ignorant innocence, but enjoyed her curiosity and her willful discovery as well. He vanished, sometimes, that tender husband, and Belle missed him more when he retreated into his shell of hardened scales and glinting mockery than when he was not there at all.

With her queasy stomach settled, Belle got up to warm herself some milk and cut a slice of bread. She took the last of the apples as well, and ate in her place beside the fire, slowly peeling the apple with her knife. A childhood game, once she had been old enough to eat with her own knife; to make a long, thin, unbroken spiral of the apple's pitted skin before enjoying the fruit itself.

The apples in these lands tasted different from the ones she'd always loved, being sweeter and softer to the bite, and added another tiny weight to her homesickness.

Belle spared a guilty glance towards the kitchen table, where her half-written letter lay. Yesterday, she had struggled for the words. Today, she felt lost for anything that might be written down as a solid and simple truth. She would not allow her unhappiness, nor her confusion, to colour her letters home and trouble her father. Her doubts and fears had no place on the parchment, any more than did the aspect of her marriage in which she had found the greatest happiness.

Well, it had to be done. To delay in answering her father's letter would be cruel, if the only thing stopping her from writing was her own self-pity. She took her warm milk to the table, set aside the failed letter and smoothed her palm across a new sheet of parchment. She needed more, but all that she had bought at the market had been left behind on the cobbles when Rumpelstiltskin hurried her away. The wastefulness of that offended her.

With but one sheet of clean parchment left, she would just have to make her next attempt the last one. That was a simple enough truth and so, taking her warm shawl from the clothes horse and tying it over her nightgown, Belle sat down to write her letter.

It was easier, with the sense of purpose and urgency lent by her guilt at delaying the letter. She wrote smoothly, sacrificing her best penmanship for the flow of her thoughts, and told her father that Rumpelstiltskin had been a good husband to her, considerate in all things. It was as much as she dared say concerning her marriage, no more than a hint, but her father would be anxious to know that she was not mistreated. Even if she thought it right to tell him so, she doubted that he would believe her if she wrote that Rumpelstiltskin gave her pleasure instead of pain. Her Papa had seen Rumpelstiltskin as he had been today, in town - strutting and arrogant in the certainty of his own power, and smug in his casual enjoyment of a frightened audience.

Papa would be at home, without her comfort, and thinking that she had married that cruel and selfish man who had demanded her as his payment for services rendered. Would a few, guarded lines on paper ease his pain?

No. Belle felt empty of tears, today, but her throat tightened until it was painful to swallow. She wrote of her experiments with cooking and cleaning, and tried to convey her enjoyment and satisfaction, saying that her husband did not require her to do these things. Her loyalty to Rumpelstiltskin conflicted with so much of what she wished to say; she could not very well undermine him by saying that she had taken on her chores in spite of his objections, as much as she knew it would make her father smile.

Lastly, she wrote that she would visit her father when she was more settled, and that Rumpelstiltskin had promised her that she might. She lingered a long time over the wording of that, strangely guilty about knowing that she was free to return home at any time. And it was not because of Rumpelstiltskin's wishes that she remained - not even, truly, because of her loyalty to her new husband. She had taken this marriage upon herself, and would do all that she could to make a success of it. She could not very well run for home each time she felt homesick, or missed Papa. Her life was here now, with Rumpelstiltskin, and it was forever.

Her letter finally finished, Belle signed her name to it and went to wash her glass pen at the pump. Splashing herself, she remembered that she still wore only a nightdress, and hurried into the laundry room with her bundle of proper clothes to change. Her gold satin slippers didn't match and looked silly over her thick stockings, but Belle chose to ignore it for the moment. She was comfortable again, and warm once she re-tied her shawl.

Upstairs, her discarded, wet dress needed attending to, but her skin crawled at the thought of touching it again. It was unlike her to be so foolish, so impractical, and Belle set her jaw firmly and carried a large basket up to her room, collecting the stained things into it. It was only water, upon her skirts, just as it was only blood upon her bodice. Her horror at how both had arrived there should not prevent her dealing sensibly with a little laundry.

The chore took her far too long, once more, but Belle managed to get the carefully washed clothes through the mangle and hung before the fire without completely soaking herself, this time. The achievement pleased her, brightening her mood considerably, and she remembered that Rumpelstiltskin was to join her again for tea. Would he? Belle made a face at the fire, guessing that he would not. He had looked so very angry, shaking the snow from his gates. Angry with her?

Belle knew that she had done nothing that ought to deserve his anger, but anger was surely the least rational of emotions. She remembered when Gaston had tried to kiss her - how he had sulked for days at her rejection, all the while pretending a cool disinterest. Was Rumpelstiltskin furious at her rejection? How could that be, when he knew that he had only to come to her, his quiet and gentle self, and she would give him what he wanted?

She bit her lip, buttering two large slices of bread and spreading them with honey. Did he know that? She had rejected him last night, as well, when he had tried to please her with something new, and had she ever told him that she would gladly lie with him for his pleasure alone, just as he would sometimes pleasure her without taking his turn? No. No, she had not told him any such thing, for there had been no need. Their impatience had been mutual.

The last of the chamomile flowers went into the teapot. Belle found the brew pleasantly calming, herself, and if they had a similar effect on her husband then all the better. There was a nervous, excitable edge to him when he became that dancing creature. Perhaps it could be soothed, and his acid tongue tempered along with it. It was the words she minded the most - that reflexive cruelty and the dripping scorn, as though the world was so far beneath him.

Perhaps it was. When he looked at her with those hollow, chilly eyes, she always thought of a hawk hanging easily on the wind, so far above the world that everything must look insignificant but the prey.

Belle waited until four o'clock, reading the cookery book that Wren had given her, then poured hot water into the teapot and ate her meal alone. Although faintly relieved that Rumpelstiltskin had stayed away, she could not help but be stung. She had asked him for very little, held him to very little, and one meal together each day did not seem very much for a wife to ask. But she had her letter and wished it sent without delay, so she would take a tray to him and ask for that, at least.

As she climbed the stairs towards Rumpelstiltskin's turret, Belle realised how silly she would feel if he wasn't up there. She could not scour the entire castle for him, not carrying a tray, but she could leave it and he would, at least, know that she had thought of him. She grew nervous, as she reached the final, awkward flight of steps, and had to remind herself that she had not been forbidden to seek him out, this time. Finding that she had braced herself for his unpleasantness, Belle let out a breath when she reached the top of the staircase and saw Rumpelstiltskin sitting quietly at his spinning wheel, his long clay pipe dangling from his lips as he carded fibres. He appeared excessively preoccupied, and did not immediately look up, but Belle knew that he must have heard her coming, what with the things rattling on the tray.

When Rumpelstiltskin did lift his eyes to acknowledge her, his expression was one of careful neutrality. Taking her cue from his deliberate preoccupation with the white fluff, Belle adopted an air of bustle herself and carried the tray to the end of the table nearest him, sliding it carefully into place and then rearranging the cup, teapot and plate unnecessarily while her back was towards him.

"You missed your tea," she said, when she could procrastinate no longer without seeming foolish. "So I brought you some." That her cheer was false sounded far too obvious, to her own ears, but one of them had to be the first to make amends. She could not manage, as well, to pretend that she found it easy.

"Thank you." Rumpelstiltskin's voice was deeper than before, but a hardness remained and Belle's heart sank. She turned to face him, clasped her hands in front of her, and he set aside the basket of fibres before taking the pipe from between his lips. He held her gaze for the barest moment before staring at her ill-matched shoes instead. "Lock your door tonight, and take out the key."

"I'm not afraid of you," she answered, hotly, but knew that she had lied when he surged to his feet, the carding combs falling from his knees to clatter at his feet. The movement sent her pounding heart into her throat.

"You should be," he said, tightly. "I have business that will take me away for some time. I will leave at first light. For tonight, you will lock your door."

So he was leaving again. Belle remembered long, lonely days and cold nights, and homecomings that had not been kind. And, this time, he meant to slip away while she was locked away in her room, so that he could avoid even a simple goodbye?

"What good would that do, if you decided to come in?" She tried to sound angry, but something older than herself held her back. He was afraid that he might do something that she could never forgive, yet here they were, speaking face to face, and whatever demon had crawled out of the darkness in him today, Rumpelstiltskin was the master of it for as long as he chose to be.

"The lock will keep you safe," he said. "Please, go."

"All this because I refused you when I'd been frightened for my life in town?" Belle could not keep her disappointment from showing. She snatched her letter from the tray and held it out to him. "For my father." Rumpelstiltskin took it, nodding curtly. "I won't hide from my own husband," she told him, turning to go. "I won't refuse you if you come to me. If you intend to hurt me then a lock won't keep me safe forever."

And if he hurt her, would she forgive him? Could she ever?

Belle honestly didn't know.

"Belle." His voice, strained and quiet, halted her at the top of the stairs, her hand upon the panelled wall. "I intend never to hurt you. Intent is meaningless."

"No, it's not." She looked back over her shoulder, and saw his white-knuckled grip upon the rim of his wheel. He watched her with a mixture of frustration and incomprehension, but there was no rage there. No glee, no mockery, no spite, but still he seemed to be looking at her across a great divide. He seemed unreachable. "Thank you," she said, managing to keep her voice steady. "For sending the letter."

Rumpelstiltskin looked down at the parchment in his hand, as though he had forgotten he held it next to his pipe.

"Yes," he frowned, thrown. "Of course." After a moment, he returned the pipe to his lips and drew the smoke, deeply. He blinked, twice, and some of the distance seemed to be gone; he felt somehow present again, and Belle could not account for the change. There had not even been the tingling change in the air that she associated with his tangible magic and its moods. "Thank you for the tea." He spoke slowly, carefully, as though trying to remember how to be courteous and gentle. Was it really such an effort? Was it really only a mask he wore to conceal the disdainful creature within?

"How long will you be away?" Belle felt another pang, asking that. She did not want him to go away from her, and least of all with a quarrel between them. She did not want to be alone in his castle, either.

"A few days." Rumpelstiltskin drew again on his pipe, exhaling a small, white cloud of smoke that drifted towards the open window behind him.

"Do you go away because of me?" The last word caught in her throat, betraying her upset to him, and she looked away, ashamed. All the same, she wanted his answer. If she drove him from his home for days on end then she was failing as his wife, and that would have to change.

"No." He sounded faintly surprised, affronted, and Belle was relieved. "I mean to find out who sent our murderous friend. It is not the first such incident. I'll not have it. I'll have no-one threaten my wife."

The chilly anger had crept back, as he spoke, and Belle nodded and held her tongue. She would have asked much more, about why Rumpelstiltskin cursed the man to death when he could have restrained him or made him unconscious, instead. Then, he might have had his answers already, and Belle would not now fear that her husband found a perverse satisfaction in killing.

She did not ask, because she was afraid to know the answer.

"A safe journey, then," she said, weakly, and barely waited for his nod before she retreated down the winding stairs.

Belle took her time about tidying up her kitchen. She had yet to learn how to cut bread without showering crusty crumbs everywhere, even if she could, by now, manage a straight slice that didn't break when she buttered it. Once the kitchen was swept to her satisfaction, her few tea things washed and dried, she allowed herself the evening with a book in front of the kitchen fire. Wren's cookery book was very old, and bore every sign of heavy use over many years. The cover was cracked and torn, the pages swollen and distorted from once being soaked through and carefully dried again. Notes and measurements had been written on many of the pages, some of them no longer legible while others looked fresh and recent. It was a well-used book, with the occasional pressed flower or leaf between the yellowed pages, smelling of herbs and age, and Belle loved it.

More than that, it was instructive, laying out the steps for kitchen tasks that Of Hearth and Stove supposed a woman must already know how to manage for herself. Belle resolved to try another stew, if Rumpelstiltskin was going to be away. It would feed her perfectly well for several days, even if it proved to be another disaster, and he would not be around to make fun of her if it did.

Yes, Belle decided, snapping the book shut, she would use her husband's absence to learn how to make stew, and surprise him with her success when he returned.

Perhaps, by then, he would be in a more approachable mood. She hoped so, climbing wearily back to her room. After her fright in town, she would have welcomed his comforting warmth and weight beside her tonight. She felt safe, beside him. But would she still, if he came to her tonight?

She wanted more than anything to mend their quarrel and to forgive his unkind words; to prove to Rumpelstiltskin that her loyalty was not given lightly, nor lost because she disapproved of his behaviour. But he had hurt her, seizing yet again upon her least moments of hesitation and unhappiness, as though he almost wished that she would reject him, and admit that he had disgusted her from the moment they met. If that were truly what he expected of her, she thought, as she made ready for bed with her door left stubbornly ajar, then his loneliness must be beyond her imagining. How could he ever trust anyone, let alone give his heart?

Belle's own heart had little room for distrust. Even Papa said that she was too trusting, but no-one had ever betrayed her. She had never had intimacy enough with anyone other than her father, save Lotte and Rumpelstiltskin, for the betrayal of her heart to be a possibility. Yet, Rumpelstiltskin did betray her, a little, every time he delighted in her doubts. She had given all of herself, and it was a slight to her that he pretended she did not.

That must be why it hurt so, she decided, as she blew out the candles and got into her bed. Certainly, the tight little pain lived beneath her ribs when she thought of his harsh words. As she grew drowsy and waited for her feet to get warm, Belle wondered if those little stinging pains were the distant cousins of a broken heart.

Chapter Text

There was a basket on the bed beside her, when she woke the next day.

Although troubled with bad dreams, Belle's sleep had been deep. For a while, her mind pleasantly blank and her body warm beneath a heap of bedclothes, she blinked sleepily at the arrival without moving to investigate its contents. It was one of the open baskets that Rumpelstiltskin used for his straw, and one of his dark silk handkerchiefs was draped over several lumpy objects inside.

More gifts? Belle looked around the room, as she sat up, hoping that her husband might be waiting for her to awaken and find the basket. But no, she was alone, and the sun was already well up. Rumpelstiltskin had said he would be leaving at first light. The greater gift would have been to find him there, ready to make amends, but it comforted her a little to know that he had come into her room as she slept; that his thoughts had been for her, if only for a moment before he left.

Was it too selfish to think that way? It was only because Rumpelstiltskin had been attentive that she did so. Had he encouraged her from the start to let him be, joining her only to see to the business of getting heirs, Belle would not have found it so strange. A marriage was often made up of two people whose worlds seldom overlapped, even as they lived in the same household, and she had hardly gone to her wedding expecting warmth and companionship to follow it. And then they had, at least sometimes, and she felt cheated to see them taken away. She wanted Rumpelstiltskin to think of her, and to long for her, and to miss her while he was gone.

Belle almost cried again, seeing that he had placed a sheepskin over her feet. She felt that she had shed more foolish tears in a few weeks of marriage than during her entire childhood. The sob she fought as she ran her hand across the fleece was more of relief than anything else - relief that Rumpelstiltskin had offered a gesture of fondness, even if he had felt the need to do so while she slept unawares.

Laughing to herself, Belle drew the basket to her side and pulled away the handkerchief.

She recognised the magical box at once, and laughed again with another sort of relief. She would be able to receive a reply from her father! Beside it was a roll of paper - not parchment, but smooth, expensive pressed paper with its perfectly straight edges. Rumpelstiltskin had secured it with a length of gold thread, tied into a bow. Beside that, one piece of paper was simply folded in half, and Belle could see writing through it, the stuff was so fine. When she picked it up, swallowing her giggles and tears to read what her husband wished to say to her, she saw only the briefest note.

Rumpelstiltskin wrote with a slanting, awkward precision, each stroke of his quill somehow untidy while the document, as a whole, contrived to be expressive of his nature, rather than a mess.

He had not begun with her name nor signed his own but, Belle reasoned, there was hardly any need while she was the only living soul in the castle, and certainly in the bed where he had left the letter.

Exchange but one letter with your father at a time. Place nothing else inside the box. It will work as well in my absence. I believe you are in need of paper.

I will try harder to deserve such a wife as you. I give my word.

Belle stared at the sparse lines for a long time. Rumpelstiltskin had spoken before of deserving her, as though she were a thing beyond his reach and not already his wife. Where she gave freely, he looked for a cost to shoulder, yet when she hesitated...

She fingered the top of the box, trying to resist the temptation to lift the lid. Her father would barely have received her own message of last night, so there could not possibly be a reply waiting for her. She resisted the box until she was dressed and brushed and ready for the day, by which time the itch of foolish hope was too great.

As she had expected, the box was empty. If she had understood Rumpelstiltskin correctly then she would be able to place a new letter of her own into the box, once her father's reply had been removed from it. He was content for her to send letters that he had not seen? Belle still wished to say nothing to her father that she would not be glad to let her husband read first, but she valued the gesture of trust more than any of his gifts. She had no reason to doubt his affection, such as it might be after only a month of marriage, but Rumpelstiltskin did not easily give his trust.

She could not help wondering if she had not given hers too easily, as she remembered his unkindness. But what else could she have done, and still been true to her own nature? Hidden away in her room, refusing to see beyond his unfortunate appearance, and pined to death for the life she'd sacrificed to be here? What was the point of that? Why opt for guaranteed misery when she might forge her own chance at happiness?

For all that she would have been nearer to home, and had the bustle of a busy household to distract her, Belle had no reason to believe that marriage with Gaston would have been any better. His good looks had never interested her, and he had looked at her with a blend of annoyance and alarm whenever she spoke her mind in the company of important men, or showed herself to be more learned than he. She had never seen him with a book, nor so much as a letter, and he'd teased her too often when he came upon her while she was happily reading. In wooing her, once their engagement was already secure, Gaston had boasted too much and asked no questions of her and, while he wore her proudly upon his arm when the occasion called for it, had shown her no affection of any sort.

In his rusty and grudging way, Rumpelstiltskin had showered her with affection before he knew her at all; had all but swallowed her up with his curiosity and puzzlement about her; had opened her eyes to what a man and a woman might be to one another, if they allowed trust into their hearts. Belle wanted that for herself - to know companionship and sympathy alongside her body's desires, and alongside the happiness it gave her to be desired in return.

Lost in such thoughts, Belle carried her box downstairs and gave it pride of place in the centre of the table in her kitchen. Perhaps it was foolish that she wanted to keep it close, but it contained the possibility of being nearer to her father, and it reminded her that Rumpelstiltskin cared for her happiness.

She had almost to climb inside one of the low cupboards to explore the big, iron kitchen wares. Until now, she had made do with her kettle and a single small cooking pot, but there were hooks, arms, trivets and turnspits enough to cook a feast. Had she been able to control the fire, Belle might have thought of them before. As it was, the castle's magic kept the flames dancing merrily, allowing her no choice but to judge the distance of her pots from the naked flames and hope for the best.

Finding nothing that would serve her better than her simple cauldron, and little else that she could lift by herself once filled with food, Belle absentmindedly nibbled at the small, strong, round cheese she had bought from Lulie, while she took ingredients from the larder for her stew. A whole, skinned rabbit looked as fresh as when she had first seen it, weeks ago; carrots, potatoes, turnips and onions were firm and unspoiled, and even if the thought of magic in her food left her ill at ease, she could not deny that it was convenient.

Both Wren's cookbook and Of Hearth and Stove were firm about the need for a good wife to maintain a pot of good stock at all times, but neither detailed how one began. Belle knew from the cooks at home that meat bones and vegetable trimmings belonged in a slowly bubbling pot, and that the resulting broth should be drawn off to add flavour and goodness to dishes such as she meant to cook today. Until she was a good enough cook to tackle a fowl or a large cut of meat, she would not be able to obtain many bones without being wasteful, not to mention that her husband barely ate a thing. For the moment, she set this dilemma aside and decided that plain water with a dash of wine would have to do for her stew.

This aside, she found that she had all she needed and more. Wren's book was meant for a cook who needed to feed an entire family on very little, wasting nothing and using whatever might be available. For an hour or more, Belle sat at the kitchen table, chopped vegetables and clumsily jointed the rabbit, more than once becoming distracted by the pages of the wonderful book. It made her quite hungry to think of all the soups and other treats she might soon be able to prepare, so Belle made herself some nettle tea while finishing off the tasty cheese.

Adding the ingredients to her pot was a matter of trial and error. The flour-dipped meat needed to brown, the onions to soften, and Belle knew at once that she had misjudged the heat and burned them a little. The result smelled wonderfully savoury, anyway, and she was cheerful as she moved the pot further from the flames and added the vegetables, then covered everything with fresh water.

The stew was not to boil, both the books warned, but to come slowly to a high simmer and then bubble gently for several hours to make the meat tender and the flavours blend together in the sauce. Again, judging the distance of the pot from the flames was difficult. Belle sat in her fireside chair, Wren's book on her knees, and fussed unnecessarily with the cauldron on its swinging arm until she tired of herself.

Collecting her dusters, Belle went upstairs to the great room, meaning to give it a good clean while Rumpelstiltskin was away. She had, without quite realising it, felt that she might irritate him by dusting in there, among his peculiar treasures. Peculiar they might be, and treasures they might be, but they were dusty. She set to work nearest the door to the kitchens, working her way from pedestal to pedestal. By Rumpelstiltskin's spinning wheel, she went down on hands and knees to pluck stray wisps of straw from the rug. She dared not touch the spinning wheel itself, for it seemed to be something that he truly treasured, and so frequently used that it had not the chance to accumulate any dust. Kneeling beside the dais, Belle could clearly see the great wheel itself, where time and her husband's hands had worn the rim to a polish and a softened edge. How often and how long had he sat there, patiently making his valueless gold?

Wrinkling her nose, Belle flicked her feather duster quickly over the pair of grotesque puppets, trying not to look at their eyes. She could not think of a reason why wooden dolls would be among her husband's most envied possessions, unless they had magic of their own, in which case she knew the horrid things would haunt her nightmares. Would Rumpelstiltskin put them somewhere less prominent, if she asked him to? She had seen the other trophies change places, once or twice - something new would be brought out to occupy a pedestal, and the original item tucked carefully away in the large, glass-fronted cabinet in the rear wall of the room. Belle had taken as little notice of these changes as Rumpelstiltskin had taken of her belongings, but if the castle was to be her home, she might hope to have her say in the furnishing of at least the public rooms.

Did Rumpelstiltskin ever receive visitors? Belle thought of how the townspeople had left their gifts at the gate. Her husband had simply known that they were there and gone to fetch them. Would someone approach the castle, if Rumpelstiltskin were truly needed in the town? She slipped behind one of the dusty curtains to look down at the snow-covered gardens and the high walls beyond. Although constructed to impress more than as a last line of defence, as the castle of her birth had been, Belle did not doubt that Rumpelstiltskin's home had other protection.

It was a desolate sight, on a dark day of wind and snow, and she retreated into the warmth of the room to finish her dusting.

Tipping her pan full of dust and stray straw into the fire, Belle wondered what Rumpelstiltskin would do if she brought in another chair for the fireside, and added another to the dining table. There were times when she was at ease in his company, when she was quite sure that he welcomed her presence in the same room, but there were those other times when he closed himself to her... perhaps he would not be happy, if she pressed the issue. At least in her bedroom they had reached an accord; he was welcome there, and she was to be cherished there, and each indulged the other there, and it had suited them both for a while.

For a while.

Belle wished she knew how their tender understanding had been broken. It had not been one thing alone. Not her reluctance when he had single-mindedly teased her with his thumb, kneeling before her. Not his confession that he would give her no children, nor his mocking words. Not his quivering excitement, in town, as he pinned her to his side, and not his thoughtless attempt to lift her skirts in the carriage. None of that, and yet all of it at once, as well. She could not help asking herself whether she might have prevented it, had she allowed Rumpelstiltskin to do as he wished the other night. Would they have spent the night in pleasure, and she in happy ignorance?

No children. Belle's mind refused to embrace the enormity of it - the sudden divergence from a future that she had always, always known was to be hers; to wed a great man, to provide him with heirs, and all of it in service to her own people. She felt a fool for assuming that Rumpelstiltskin would be no different to Gaston or any of her earlier suitors; Rumpelstiltskin who told her, over and over, that he was not a man. That he was a monster. Even that he was unworthy of her embraces and had not expected her to offer them, even out of duty. Had he wanted sons, she thought as she warmed herself at the fireside, he would surely have made it a part of the contract that bound her to him in the first place. It was his way to be... exact.

It was the newness of such a future that had dismayed her. In all truth, Belle feared her mother's bloody fate and had chosen, since she was old enough to understand that she might share it, to think of motherhood only as it would be when the children had come; of nursing, and play, and the sound of laughter. Wren's vivid tale of how Rumpelstiltskin had found her had brought out those buried fears anew.

For all that, the hint of relief in her shock at Rumpelstiltskin's news made her feel ashamed of herself. She knew better than to be ruled by fear of what might not come to pass but, clearly, some hidden and guilty part of her had been.

Belle sat for a long time in the armchair before the fire, dusters, brush and dustpan heaped in her lap and forgotten.

When Rumpelstiltskin spoke of choosing her because she seemed strong enough to endure, he meant not only his own company, but this solitude. And Belle truly didn't know whether or not she was equal to a lifetime of it. Two people, alone together in even a vast home... how could either of them endure? And, for Belle, there would be his absences as well - these endless, uncertain days of trying to occupy herself alone.

In time, she hoped that she would be more welcome in Odstone, and that people might come to her for advice and help, as they had at home.

Home. She could not help it, could not force herself to change what was in her heart. For all that she belonged at her husband's side, and as freely as she had made that bargain, she had not begun to think of Rumpelstiltskin's castle and lands as her home.

Sobered by that, Belle returned to the kitchen to check on her gently bubbling pot, and to stir it. Doing so released a wonderful smell, promising a comforting and hearty meal for later in the day. And then, unable to help herself, she went to the table and lifted the lid of her box. There was no letter awaiting her.

Of course not. As before, her own letter would be carefully considered; Papa's reply even more so. Belle had no doubt that he was thinking of her as much and as often as she thought of him. She, at least, had the comfort of being sure that her father was safe - he had no such certainty when it came to her situation.

At least her ability to write more frequently might reassure him, in time. She would use it more frequently than she would have troubled her husband with the delivery of her messages, not because she feared his displeasure but because she did not want him to mistake her homesickness for the desire to leave the castle. She would tell her Papa of the box, in her next letter, and perhaps of Rumpelstiltskin's other gifts to her. Had he lavished her with jewels and trinkets of obscene value, Belle would not have considered telling her father so, but her husband's gifts had been peculiar and thoughtful, just as he could sometimes be. If Belle spoke of the wonderful library, and a gift of simple, precious paper, and of sheepskin to warm her feet, her father would have an insight into her new life that a hundred declarations about her wellbeing could not give him. He might know that, in his way, Rumpelstiltskin cared for his wife.

When noon came, Belle tried a bowl of stew, smiling to herself at the success of it. A few more hours, covered, and Wren's book promised meltingly tender meat and a rich brown gravy, but already the dish was satisfying and tasty. A success! She celebrated it with a cup of mead from her wedding gifts before carefully covering the cooking pot and edging it a little further from the flames. When Rumpelstiltskin returned, she decided, she would speak to him about having the kitchen fire behave as a fire should, free of magic, and about the stove that he had promised would be hers. And if she became a skilled enough cook then, perhaps, he would be more eager to join her for meals?

The rest of the afternoon was spent in exploring the lower floor of the castle. Some doors would not open for her, as before, and Belle left them alone. She spent a long while in one room that had been given over to storing spools of gold thread. There was little order to it, with the spools being piled up in boxes, baskets, chests of drawers and, in one corner, a mound upon the floor itself. Rumpelstiltskin's lack of care with the product of his spinning had surprised her, at first, until she realised that gold was all but worthless to the man who could make it at will. He spun to occupy himself, she was sure; it calmed him, much as Belle had found the household chores settled her or, perhaps, in the way that a book could absorb her and take her out of herself for hours at a time.

It was a strange occupation, for a gentleman, but scrubbing floors was an equally strange one for a gentlewoman. Belle held two spools of gold thread and wondered how difficult it would be to embroider with the stuff; if he might like it if she worked the collars and cuffs of a shirt for him. Her skill with embroidery was modest, but the learning of it had been thrust upon her since she was old enough to hold a needle and a piece of calico. With patience, she might make Rumpelstiltskin a gift to show that she thought of him, and to put a little of his gold to use as he had when crafting her bracelet and her ring.

Near to the room of gold thread was another devoted to storing straw. Most of it was neatly bundled and cut to an even length, although deep, untidy piles of it were scattered along one wall. Belle had never noticed Rumpelstiltskin running out of straw, as he spun, but she remembered that he had asked her to bring him straw when he described her 'duties' as his wife. With that in mind, and anxious to show him her devotion in any way that she was able, Belle gathered up several of the tied bundles in each arm - enough to generously fill a basket both in the great room and up in his turret.

The latter she left at the foot of the winding staircase, in the basket that Rumpelstiltskin had left upon her bed that morning. As before, some gentle but definite magic made her hairs stand up when she set foot upon those stairs in his absence; she did not think that it would prevent her from continuing up, if she chose to ignore the sudden discomfort, but it was signal enough that Rumpelstiltskin wished her to stay away.

The loneliness - the knowledge that she was alone in the castle, would sleep alone tonight, and did not know when to expect Rumpelstiltskin's return - only found her out as she tidied her kitchen for the night. With her stew pot lifted carefully from the heat and left covered upon the table, Belle enjoyed another bowl of it with some bread, and wished that her husband was with her. A strange thing for a girl to wish upon herself, she thought, remembering how afraid she had been when Rumpelstiltskin appeared in her bedroom and demanded his price; how much more so when he had joined her for their wedding night. And now she missed his company, missed his warmth in her bed, and hardly noticed, for hours on end now, that he looked so different from other men.

Belle had eaten more that she could remember eating in a single day, between the siege at home and her forgetful appetite since her wedding. She felt too full and drowsy and, taking her box with her, retired early to her chambers to sit in bed with a book upon her knees. The soft sheepskin she folded beneath the bedclothes, pushing her feet into the fleece and smiling a little as she did so. It lacked the comfort of her husband's embrace, but it was certainly going to keep her feet lovely and warm in his absence. Belatedly, she wondered if it was the one that she had seen at the foot of his own bed. There had been others in the room kept for his long-lost son, as well. They seemed odd, humble possessions for one who called himself monster, who wielded the greatest magic, and who lived in a castle where even the fireplaces saw to themselves. Then again, the same could be said of a spinning wheel.

Yawning, and finding herself at the beginning of the chapter in Of Hearth and Stove that proposed to teach her how to nurse and care for infants that she might never have, Belle set the book aside, checked the box once more, and got up to blow out the candles. That done, it was wonderful to bury herself again beneath the bedclothes and push her feet into the warm nest she had already made of the sheepskin.

The day had slowly worn away at her heavy sorrow, and eased the stabs of hurt beneath her ribs. Loneliness was another matter, but at least she could lie warm in her bed and think kindly of her absent husband. Thoughts of his touch didn't stir her, and she wondered why not, but the memories were fond and welcome ones anyway; Belle indulged them for a long time before memory merged with dreams.

She did not know how long she slept before something startled her awake again. It felt like no time at all, and her room was still in darkness, but her head was cloudy from sleep. It took her several moments to work out why her heart was pounding so hard - she could hear movement, nearby in the castle!

Fear kept her frozen for some time, as in a nightmare, and Belle held her breath to listen better. She had just convinced herself that it had, indeed, been only a dream when a loud cry changed her mind. It had come from above, and the possibility that it had come from Rumpelstiltskin propelled her past her alarm, and out onto the landing. A prolonged crashing noise brought her frantic heart right into her throat, but Belle ran towards the sound, up to the next floor where she quickened her steps, seeing light in Rumpelstiltskin's room. As she grew nearer, Belle saw that the basket of straw she'd left for him had been upset and half crushed, and that wisps of the straw had been dragged up the first stairs to the turret room. There were splashes of some dark liquid from Rumpelstiltskin's room and continuing up the stairs to the turret.

"Rumpelstiltskin?" She had meant to call out, boldly, but her voice quavered, weak with fright.

His small room was empty, but his scaly coat had been discarded near the door. It was stained all over, wet and blackened, and Belle wasted no time in running up the winding stairs to the turret, all of her fear, now, for her husband. "Rumpelstiltskin!"

Rumpelstiltskin was facing her, half slumped over the opposite work table, his arrival having knocked much of the table's contents to the floor. Liquids, powders and dried things that Belle had no name for had mingled in the smashing of bottles, jars and vials, and foul smoke was oozing away from the site of the accident. She ran around the outskirts of the room to avoid it, to arrive beside her husband and to reach for him, but Rumpelstiltskin pushed himself up and stumbled backwards to avoid her, hands raised to ward her off and his head shaking urgently.

His skin, his clothing, even his hair was covered in wide patches of dark, sticky blood. It was between his teeth when he grimaced, and he could not speak. Belle could see that he tried, before his back encountered the wall beside the window and he slid down it, landing awkwardly on his splayed knees and unable to raise his arms from his sides.

Belle dropped to her knees beside him, catching his shoulders as he slumped forward. He reeked of blood, of vomit, and of the contents of his spirit flask. Glancing around, Belle saw it among the smoking debris on the floorboards, uncapped and empty.

Magic crackled beneath her palms, invisible but quite palpable, like the short blue sparks from a cat's fur that were more shocking than painful. It left her hands feeling half dead where she gripped him, and his body convulsed weakly when the shocks were strongest.

"Rumpelstiltskin," she gasped, trying to prop him back up against the wall. He was conscious, but beyond telling her what had happened to him, or what should be done. He stared at her, eyes pleading as he struggled to speak, and then slumped sideways, all fight and effort gone out of him. Belle kept his head from striking the ground and half fell with him, staring at her silent, still husband in horror.

Belle did not know what to do, and she had never been more frightened in her life.

Chapter Text

Not knowing what she ought to do for her husband, Belle did all that she could.

Rumpelstiltskin lay, unmoving beneath the window, while she felt him from head to foot. Unable to find the source of so much blood, Belle guessed that it might not all be his own, but then why had he been in such terrible pain?

Wiping the sticky blood away from his cheek with her sleeve, Belle could see dozens of tiny marks there, none of them bigger than a pinprick. They oozed blood as she watched. There were patterns to the worst of the bloodstains upon his clothing, and Belle tried not to imagine how many tiny bleeding marks it might take to drain a body of too much blood. The stinging magic continued to numb her hands as she unfastened his jerkin and then his shirt. Hundreds more of the little puncture marks wept blood as she peeled away the cloth, most of them down his right side and extending to the centre of his chest. His right arm had the very worst of it, she discovered as she tugged the filthy silk free; his right hand was a swollen and bloodied mess that it turned her stomach to see.

The leather of his breeches clung horribly to him as she struggled with it, Rumpelstiltskin a dead weight. Belle fought back tears and forced herself to concentrate on each task in turn, but kept looking to see his chest rise and fall for the little reassurance it gave her. Despairing of unlacing his tight, tall boots now that her fingers were half numb, she stumbled around the room until she found a knife, coughing when her search took her too close to the oily smoke from his spilled and mingling magic.

Knife in hand, Belle glanced down and saw herself as she returned to Rumpelstiltskin's side - her white nightgown was smeared with blood from the hem to her breasts. Had anyone seen her now, she thought with a desperate little laugh, they would have mistaken her for a murderess. Taking care only to avoid cutting her husband's flesh, Belle sliced through the laces of his boots from knee to ankle before dropping the knife to pull the leather away. She had to lift his weight to drag his breeches down past his hips, and then the task was easier.

How had the little marks reached his skin without puncturing his leathers, or making lace of the silk of his right sleeve? He had been no better protected by his breeches or even his hard-cured coat, and the marks continued across his hip and down his right leg. Magical, then, to cut flesh but spare clothing. Belle's dry mouth became a battle against nausea and rising panic, for if the harm was magical in nature then she could do little for him unless he told her how.

And it was the first time that she had seen her husband naked. With the back of her wrist pressed against her lips to quell the nausea, Belle found herself battling incredulous laughter as well. Fright was getting the best of her, while Rumpelstiltskin lay helpless and in need of her strength.

Could she move him? The awful smoke from the spilled potions and powders was subsiding, but there was little comfort to be found in the turret. The only blessing was the uncovered windows, which would at least allow her to see what she was about, come morning. No, she dared not move him while he was a dead weight - one or both of them might not survive a tumble down the steep and cramped winding stairs. She would have to bring what she needed to Rumpelstiltskin and make the best of it.

Gently, Belle patted his cheek and said his name, but it was a halfhearted effort to rouse him. He had been in such distress, and she would not have him conscious for her sake if being unconscious spared him any pain.

"I'll be back," she said, her lips close to his ear. "Do you hear me? I'm coming straight back to you."

But Rumpelstiltskin was beyond hearing her.

Belle ran first to Rumpelstiltskin's room and pulled all the covers from the bed, and the pillow too, before hurrying back to him and wrapping him as best she could. He stirred slightly, as she tucked the blanket beneath him, but it was only for a moment.

She went next to her room, fetching every clean cloth she possessed from her trunk, and all the towels from her bathing room. She waited for the wide copper basin to fill with hot water at her touch, hoping that it would not simply vanish again if she carried it up to the turret. It made for an awkward climb, and for a wet front to her nightdress, but Belle reached Rumpelstiltskin's side with enough water to wash his wounds.

A search of his various shelves and cupboards revealed the basket of medicines with which he'd dosed her. Each label was carefully written, but not necessarily enlightening; she could see nothing that might be added to water to keep a wound from festering. She brought the basket to the window, anyway, and fetched all the candles and lanterns in the room closer before she knelt again at Rumpelstiltskin's side.

By now, Belle was wet and cold, and weak in the aftermath of her initial fright. She trembled as she began to wash him, dabbing the blood away from his temples, cheeks and neck. To her great relief, the blood did not immediately well up again from the little punctures in his skin, and she found that if she took care to touch him only with the cloth then she prevented the hidden magic turning her fingers too numb with its tiny shocks. Was she feeling something of what afflicted him, or was it his magic reacting in turmoil to his distress?

She felt a little better, once she had cleaned Rumpelstiltskin's face enough to be recognisable. Rinsing the cloth, she continued to wash him as gently as she could; his torso, then his left arm and hand. She hardly knew where to begin, with his right, but it was clear that the greatest attention was required there. Even as she wiped away the blood from his upper arm, she could see an angry swelling that had not affected him elsewhere. His hand she simply immersed in the basin of now-lukewarm water, afraid to touch it with a cloth until she could see what she was doing.

Rumpelstiltskin woke, suddenly, as Belle was pouring water over the mangled hand from her cupped palm; he overturned the bowl in snatching his hand away, crying out in pain and twisting where he lay as though trying to find a position that eased the agony.

"Don't," Belle pleaded, holding his uninjured shoulder and resting her other hand on his brow, trying to stop his struggles. His eyes were squeezed tightly shut, breath hissing through tightly clenched teeth, and some spasm shook his entire frame every few breaths, leaving him incapable of making any sound at all. "Tell me how to help you," she demanded. It seemed no time for gentleness, in the face of such a storm of torment; she must learn how to ease it.

He opened his eyes, staring wildly up at her while trying to struggle beyond her reach. "Rumpelstiltskin!" Her hands were beginning to ache from touching him - she could feel it up to her elbows, from remaining in contact with his bare skin while she restrained him. "Listen to me!"

His body stiffened and trembled once more, eyes screwing shut, but when it passed, Belle saw him give the barest of nods. Although he still shifted where he lay, he no longer fought to move away. "Can I give you medicine for the pain?" She spoke loudly, needing to be heard over his heaving, hissing breaths. Rumpelstiltskin gave another nod before the next spasm curled him up on his left side, snarling into the crook of his arm.

"Wren's," he gasped, when it released him once more.

Belle took the basket of medicines into her lap, trying to remember what he had given to her as she lay injured. Wren's powerfully alcoholic brew, in the black bottle, had made Belle sleep; giving it a cautious sniff, she found that it smelled not unlike the clear spirits from Rumpelstiltskin's flask. As she went to pour some into one of the silver spoons from the basket, she had to stop and wait for her hand to stop shaking so much. She had taken a calming breath and was about to begin again when her husband reared up and, snatching the bottle from her, held it to his lips and upended it, swallowing greedily.

"You can't!" Remembering how powerfully it had affected her, Belle tried to pull the bottle away from him, but he brushed her aside with a growl in his throat, and drank again until he had half emptied the bottle. He slumped back, then, and Belle was able to catch the bottle before the rest spilled over his chest. She stoppered it, shaking like a leaf, and pushed it back among the other bottles, out of his reach. He had frightened her, by taking so much of the deadly stuff, but she could see that it had eased his pain. His shoulders were not hunched so tightly to his ears, and his breathing was less laboured. He blinked, slowly, and licked his lips several times.

"Belle?" Rumpelstiltskin sounded almost like himself, for a moment, before he sucked a breath through his teeth and almost curled up on his side again.

"I'm here." Belle tried to draw the sheet and blanket closer around him, but he could not be still enough for long enough to let her wrap him any better. "What else must I do?"

"No magic," he said, his eyelids becoming heavy. "Make it worse. Sleep."

"All right." As dreadful as it looked to Belle, his damaged hand seemed to trouble Rumpelstiltskin less than she would have thought possible. The pain that shook him, that peaked every so often and had him twisting for relief, clearly came from deep within. It horrified her to think that the pain from his wounds might merely pale into insignificance beside that greater torment. "You must be all right," she heard herself say, as she lifted his head and placed the pillow there.

Drugged and half gone again, Rumpelstiltskin almost smiled.

"It protects itself," he slurred. "Don't think you'll be a widow come dawn, dearie."

"Of course I won't," Belle said, weakly. She wasn't certain that he could hear her, or that he was making any more sense of her words than she was making of his. She was just glad that Wren's medicine seemed to have eased his torment. "Let me wash the rest of you," she went on, feeling the desperate need to speak to him, whether or not he could hear her. "I'll have to go and fetch more water. Do you understand?" Gently, she fingered his left cheek and was reassured when he turned his head towards the touch with a quiet grunt. "I'll bring more water and be back." It seemed more important than ever before to remind him that she would not abandon him.

This time, Belle stopped at her room in order to drag on her work dress and a pair of shoes. She spared no time for underwear, and was still carelessly tying the laces of her bodice when she arrived at the kitchen. As she had hoped, her kettle was still warm and full of water - enough to finish washing the wounds. She took a bucket as well, for the soiled cloths and, remembering something that she had overheard while tending the wounded, sprinkled two pinches of salt into the kettle of water, to better clean the wounds.

And what would she do then? A feeling of near despair came over her, as she climbed upwards again with the heavy kettle resting on her hip. What more could she do, other than to watch over Rumpelstiltskin and hope that he recovered swiftly? The stories about him made him sound invulnerable to all harm. What dreadful magic would someone have to unleash to do this to him? Whatever it had been, it seemed unlikely that her clumsy nursing could help him.

Still, if all she could do was see to it that he suffered slightly less discomfort, then she would do it.

Rumpelstiltskin had moved, in her absence. He sat with his back to the wall and his knees drawn up, the bloody sheet clutched at his throat. Even as she hurried to his side, Belle saw him stiffen, his heels scrabbling at the floor, his back arching and his face contorting with pain as he made a strangled sound. And something else... perhaps it had only been a trick of the light, but where his skin was visible it seemed to ripple with a change of hue at the peak of his agony. When it subsided, leaving Rumpelstiltskin panting and limp against the wall again, she could see no lasting effect and wondered if it had been a trick of her eyes.

"I'm here," she soothed, kneeling at his left side and stroking back his matted hair. "Can you hear me?"

Rumpelstiltskin nodded, tight lipped, and managed to open his eyes. He swallowed hard, watching her fill the copper basin from the kettle and dip a fresh, white cloth.

"'s no need," he muttered, but Belle shook her head and untangled the sheet from his legs. Some sudden movement had already peeled it away from where it had stuck with dried blood; she could see the white fluff remaining on his skin. She left him his modesty, as much as she was able, and worked her way up his leg to the hip, less nervous of touching his wounds now that he was conscious. Her ministrations did not seem to cause him great pain on their own but, twice more as she cleaned his leg, his body stiffened and convulsed in the grip of a fresh, all-over agony.

Belle hoped that it was not for her sake that he tried to be silent. The second time, she pulled him close to her, his head pillowed on her bosoms, and spoke what words of comfort she could think of. They were empty, meaningless, but her concern was sincere. Rumpelstiltskin rested there without protest, when it left him again, his shallow breaths hot against her skin.

"No need," he repeated, cracked lips sharp against the curve of her bosom. Belle hushed him, eased him back against the wall and tucked up the sheet to reveal his hip and belly. Even now, he flinched at being naked before her, but Belle went on with her patient work and tried not to indulge an extremely selfish sense of relief when, wiping away dried trickles of blood around the flaccid organ and between his legs, she found him unhurt there.

Rumpelstiltskin was watching her, she realised, and did her best to maintain her expression of calm indifference. Certainly it was not her husband's uniqueness that concerned her, now, and it was a foolish time for him to be concerned about his appearance as well.

"There," she declared, dropping the last bloodied cloth into her bucket and wiping her hands down her skirts. "Can you tell me what to do for your hand?"

"Doesn't matter," he said, shaking his head. "It'll mend."

"It'll get infected and drop off," Belle scolded, and saw him almost smile for a moment before another wave of pain doubled him up, rocking in her arms. "There must be more I can do?" She realised that she was pleading for her own sake, even as she said it, her cheek against the top of his head and her arms tightly around him.

"I'm cold," Rumpelstiltskin said, uncertainly. "Blanket."

"Of course." She dragged the blanket to her and draped it clumsily around his shoulders. "I'll bring something for you to lie on as well."

"No." When Belle tried to move away, he gripped her with his one working hand. "Just... please..."

"All right," she whispered, and, not knowing what else to do, pulled the pillow into her lap, turned the clean side upwards, and patted it encouragingly. As Rumpelstiltskin lay down, head in her lap and lying on his left side, facing her feet, Belle settled her back against the chilly wall and covered him as best she could with the tangled sheet and the blanket. "I didn't think you felt the cold." She played lightly with his hair, dreading that another spasm of pain would claim him at any moment. It was such an effort to keep her voice level and steady when she was so afraid. "What happened to you?"

Her husband didn't answer, though Belle sensed that he was still awake. She sighed, rested her head back against the stones, and shut her eyes.

The next time Rumpelstiltskin curled in on himself, whimpering with pain, Belle squeezed her own eyes shut and held her breath until it passed. Not knowing how to help him, she couldn't bear it, but when she breathed again, she reassured herself that it had not been as long or as bad as those that came before. He was getting a little better, and her fingers only tingled slightly where she touched him, now.

He looked exhausted, in the wake of it. Belle felt exhausted herself, and cold in spite of his closeness, but she would not disturb him if he had found a way to be more comfortable. And, selfishly, she was pleased that he had begged her to stay beside him. She could reassure herself a great deal with the knowledge that, in the worst of situations, he took comfort from her closeness.

A stillness overcame Rumpelstiltskin after a while, frightening her at first and then soothing her when she decided that he was only sleeping. Somehow, Belle slept there, chilly and uncomfortable against the wall. It was a miserable, shallow kind of sleep, broken every once in a while by the attacks that half-woke Rumpelstiltskin, but each one seemed a little less severe. After each, he fell into a deeper sleep until, long after Belle had stopped trying to measure time or fight her heavy eyelids, sleep became unbroken for both of them.

~+~

Every muscle in her body ached, when Belle opened her eyes to daylight. Rumpelstiltskin remained, pillowed on her lap. His injured right hand rested beside his face on the pillow, and Belle could see a dramatic improvement over the bloody mess of last night. Even as she watched, there was that strange ripple across his skin again and, as bleary-eyed as she felt, Belle knew that her eyes had not deceived her, this time. Where it passed, just for a moment, patches of his skin were the colour of an ordinary man's.

She had to move. Never mind that she was so cold that she couldn't even shiver, her shoulders and legs screaming from the unnatural position; her bladder was protesting as well, and she simply had to disturb him to attend to it. Managing to ease him from her lap without waking him, Belle collected up the debris of her nursing efforts and tiptoed down the stairs. As she passed, Belle saw that the various candles and lanterns that illuminated the place were burning low. Upon entering her own chambers, she saw that the fire had burned down to embers and that the candles had burned out entirely.

Confirming her growing suspicion, Belle found that the water did not fill her bathtub at her touch, nor did her chamberpot empty itself by magic once she closed the lid of its stool.

Rumpelstiltskin's magic had loosened its hold upon the castle. The candles, the fires and the water, those were insignificant things, nothing that the application of some hard work could not remedy. But Belle worried, as she dressed herself properly in warm underthings, that the castle might not be protected, if her husband was too weak to maintain his will over the place. Supposing whoever had hurt him came to finish what they had started? On that point, at least, she would need to demand answers until Rumpelstiltskin surrendered them.

Belle only hoped that the lavish castle itself was not held together by magic. She did not like the possibility of it falling down around her ears while she nursed her husband and tried to defend them, single-handed, from an unnamed foe!

Only yesterday, she had been wishing for the ability to manage the kitchen fireplace for herself. Finding it, now, burned down to hot ashes over a few glowing remnants of the great logs, Belle realised that it would have been a more practical ambition if she was certain that the castle had fresh wood, somewhere. She had explored the entire floor that housed the kitchen, but the door to the kitchen garden had refused to open for her from the beginning. She could see the occasional glimpse of a high-walled garden through the high, narrow horizontal slits that served the kitchen for windows. She had not needed to ask Rumpelstiltskin if she might look outside; there had been snow on the ground since her arrival, and everything she needed had been available inside the castle walls. Besides, most doors opened at her touch, and he had been definite when telling her not to persist in trying a door that resisted her.

But... would any door still be closed to her, if Rumpelstiltskin's magic had grown so weak?

Leaving her bucket of laundry by the copper vats, Belle threaded her way down narrowing passages to the small door. It had to open onto the walled garden, she was almost sure; there had to be a place, in any ordinary castle, for the servants to beat the carpets and spread the bedlinens to dry. There ought to be a place for herbs, even for vegetables and small livestock. If there was a woodpile, surely she would find it out there?

Reminding herself that Rumpelstiltskin's own bedroom had been closed to her, at first, and that he had dismissed it as an oversight, Belle pulled at the door. It didn't move but, unlike so many of the others about the place, this one had a keyhole. She rose up on her tiptoes and felt along the lintel, grinning in triumph when she found the big iron key. It turned easily in the well-oiled lock, and Belle wondered if it would have done so all along, had she thought to look for the key. She disliked how easily she had grown accustomed to the magical conveniences of Rumpelstiltskin's home, such as doors that opened at her touch or, in the case of the outer doors and gates, simply at her approach, as though attended by invisible and extremely patient guards.

Perhaps they were.

Snow had built up in a thick drift, directly outside, and it fell inwards to cover Belle's feet when she wrenched the door open. Kicking her way through it, she stepped outside and looked around her. A covered walkway ran three-quarters of the way around the square garden, with many doors to outbuildings that looked long disused. Belle was about to retreat inside when a particularly high snow drift caught her eye, some yards to her left. It had built up even beneath the roof of the walkway, but when Belle pushed her hands into the drift she soon found the logs she was looking for. They were cold, their rings frosted with crystals of ice, but they were dry enough: they would do.

Only able to manage four of the big logs at a time, Belle made five hasty trips and planned to return later. She need keep a fire only in the kitchen, and in her room, if she could manage to move Rumpelstiltskin that far. What if she could not? The question had her biting her lip as she plodded back up the many stairs, a bucket of logs in one hand and a jug of water in the other. She could not take proper care of him on the floor in a chilly tower, could she?

But Belle thought of the makeshift hospitals at home, where neatness and common sense had made do. She would manage, if she had to, and not worry about things that might not come to pass.

She refused to admit the possibility that, far from getting better, Rumpelstiltskin's quiet stillness might only mean that he'd grown weaker.

Leaving the bucket of logs at her own door, Belle quickened her step. She was so tired that her limbs seemed to fight her efforts to move them, but she had not meant to leave Rumpelstiltskin alone for so long. The last flight of stairs left her breathless and slightly dizzy, and she spent a moment there looking at the mess on the floor at the centre of the room. She dared not try to clean it up, not without Rumpelstiltskin to tell her what might be poisonous or magical. Catching her breath, she skirted the room to reach her husband's side again.

He was awake, and tried to sit up as she knelt beside him.

"I'm sorry," Belle said, bending awkwardly to kiss his brow and soothe him back to the pillow with her hand in his hair. "I didn't want to leave you."

Rumpelstiltskin nodded, his hand patting clumsily at her knee. His injured hand, she noted, and wondered how he could stand the pain of moving it at all. It remained a swollen mess, for all that the mass of tiny wounds had dried and merged into one discoloured lump of flesh. She could barely make out his smallest finger.

"The medicine," he said, raggedly.

"There isn't a lot left," Belle said, unhappily. He had frightened her so badly, gulping down half the bottle last night, when a spoonful had been enough to lay her out and warp her dreams. "I don't think I'll be able to get through the snow to get more. The castle... your magic... it's not working."

"I know." With a terrible effort, Rumpelstiltskin forced himself up onto his left elbow. Belle helped him to sit upright, fussing to keep the blanket wrapped about him as she did so. His eyes looked sunken and bloodshot, his cheeks hollow and his lips parched. "D'you think I can't feel that?"

"How would I know?" Belle picked up the black bottle and helped him to raise it to his lips. "Are we in danger?" She forced him to stop after a couple of sips, dipping a cup into her jug and offering him water, instead. Rumpelstiltskin took that, as well, and just as greedily, panting with relief and effort. When he raised his chin to drain the cup, Belle saw a patch of pink skin beneath his jaw, nearly the size of her palm. She touched it, curiously, while Rumpelstiltskin rested against the wall. "I said, are we in danger?" The skin there was soft, ordinary.

"I doubt it," he said, wearily. "Everyone knows I can't be killed, don't they?"

"Can you?" Belle heard her own sharpness, and loathed it. Then she loathed Rumpelstiltskin when, even as weak and hurt as he was, he quirked the corner of his mouth in one of those nasty little smiles.

"Trying to learn the monster's weaknesses?"

She would have slapped him, she thought, had he not been so injured; she would have slapped him for that.

"I'm trying to understand what's happened, and how to keep you safe, you stupid man!"

Rumpelstiltskin had either the grace or the presence of mind to look humbled by her outburst. He let his left hand fall heavily onto her knee, patting her again.

"I was careless," he said, taking Wren's bottle from her unresisting hand and putting it to his lips again. He took a long pull, flinching as he swallowed the stuff, then allowed her to take the bottle from him. "Won't happen again."

"Can you walk? It's freezing in here, and so are you." Belle knew of nothing else to do but try her best, even for a husband who belittled her efforts, her affection. "Or don't monsters catch their death?"

"Not this one, dearie." But Rumpelstiltskin slung his good arm across her shoulders and, together, they clambered up to standing before wobbling into the wall. She arranged the sheet around his shoulders, a bloody, makeshift cloak. "There's only one thing can kill me," he hissed, and Belle was sure that he spoke more to convince himself than her.

They wove and stumbled their way to the head of the staircase, where Belle hesitated. A fall might not kill Rumpelstiltskin, but it wouldn't improve matters either, and she could easily break her neck. She planted one hand firmly against the outer wall of the spiral, as they took the first step. Rumpelstiltskin was trying not to bear weight on his injured leg, but placed his frightful-looking swollen hand against the inner wall to help in steadying their progress.

He swayed on his feet, for the last few steps, and Belle let him rest against the wall as soon as they were safely down. He seemed baffled by the sight of the darkened passageway, as though he had felt the magic slipping from him but had not been able to envision the effects upon the castle.

"Will it come back?" Belle forced herself to be merciless, tugging him with her again, this time with much of his weight supported across her shoulders. His feet dragged upon the ground. "Your magic?"

"'s not gone anywhere," Rumpelstiltskin growled. "Inside. Inward. Protects itself." And then he frightened her by barking a strange laugh, as his stumble carried them both hard against the right-hand wall. "No' me. No' me."

"Hush," Belle said, for he was wasting breath and strength and telling her nothing of any use. She could question him when he was tucked up in her bed, safe and warm. Adjusting the sheet around his shoulders, she guided him down the final few steps to her room, and from there to her bed. By then, Rumpelstiltskin had forgotten all pretence and each step drew a grunt of pain. Glancing at his face, as she helped him into the bed and tugged away the dirty sheet in which she'd wrapped him, Belle saw the ripple again, this time much more visible, as though an invisible hand had, just for a moment, rubbed away a layer of grey-green strangeness to reveal the peach-pink flesh of a man, beneath.

An ordinary man.

Chapter Text

A few, necessary chores seemed to take Belle forever.

By the time she had fetched up another bucket of logs to her room, her knees were wobbly from fatigue and her head was spinning. She had made up the kitchen fire, emptied her chamberpot, fetched down the medicine bottle and the jug of water from the turret, and collected a handful of unused candles on her travels. Kneeling to build up the fire in her own room, Belle knew that she was losing the ability to think clearly. She would need to rest, herself, as soon as the most immediate problems had been attended to. The sheer size of the castle - of just the central building that the two of them inhabited - made long work of an otherwise insignificant errand. It was one reason that Belle had meant to make herself an apron, so that she would have copious pockets in which to ferry things about. It felt like weeks since she'd purchased the fabric at market.

Rumpelstiltskin had not moved since she'd tipped him into the bed. Face down and at such an angle that his feet were sticking out from underneath the sheets on the side of the bed nearest the door, exhaustion had put him, for the moment, somewhere beyond pain. Belle bent over him to make sure that nothing had changed before she left him again.

One more errand, she told herself, plodding heavily upwards; she must find where he kept his nightgowns. She could not remember seeing any, when she had peeked briefly into his wardrobe all those weeks ago, but as far as she knew he had no other room in the castle. He changed his clothing with magic, so perhaps it didn't matter where things were kept when not in use, but Belle had come to know her husband, a little. He kept his belongings close to him, and was quite orderly in his approach to things.

She picked up his coat from the floor, almost tripping over it as she entered his windowless room. It was far too small a room for her to become lost in, even in blackness, so Belle trod her way carefully to the bed, where she left the coat, and from there to the wardrobe against the far wall. Cursing herself for not thinking to bring a candle, and too weary to go and find one, she pulled the wardrobe open and used her hands to explore the hanging clothing. Kneeling, she felt the base of the wardrobe, first the front for any sign of drawers, and then inside, where she was able to lift a lid on its hinge; the base of the wardrobe was a simple chest, and inside it, her hands found silk. Handkerchieves, and nightshirts, and what felt very much like a couple of her own ribbons, coiled up on the top. Belle shook her head, drawing out two of the nightshirts. She would return later with a candle, to tidy up whatever she had disturbed. For now, she had what she needed.

At last, quaking like a leaf, Belle returned to her own room, closed the door and curtains to keep in the warmth, closed all but the end drapes around her bed for the same reason, and crawled into bed beside her husband. When her arrival seemed not to disturb him, she edged nearer until she shared his pillow, and could feel his steady breaths against her hair. She wanted to weep, hating the helpless feeling that had come over her since last night; hating that so much of her fear was for herself, alone with her ailing husband, when all of it should have been for him.

Even as exhausted as she was, she could not manage to sleep. She was warm, soon enough, and felt better for that, but she regretted speaking sharply to Rumpelstiltskin, and allowing her fears to rule her. It had been careless, foolish and unnecessary to allow herself to get cold, cradling her husband in her lap. Why had she not fetched the blanket from her own bed? Worn her cloak and hood? If she became ill, herself, then who would care for her husband?

Miserable, Belle turned over to take what comfort she could from the sight of her husband. With his face deep in the pillow and his hair spilling over his visible cheek, she could almost imagine that things were as they should be; that he had succumbed to a more pleasant sleep than this one. But his hair was lank and matted with dried blood, and while his breathing was steady, it was not the easy, soft sound that accompanied contented sleep. Remembering her disturbing, vivid dreams after taking Wren's medicine, Belle frowned and put her hand between Rumpelstiltskin's shoulders, rubbing lightly. His skin felt clammy, and still too cool. What dreams would swim out of the drugged darkness for a soul tainted by the blackest magic? And so old, too; he must have so many memories crowding his mind, compared to Belle's scarcely-twenty years. It was no wonder, then, that he sometimes looked as if he had the weight of the entire world on his shoulders.

No wonder, then, that he disliked sleeping.

The medicine was another problem. Even if it brought bad dreams, it was helping him, and less than a seventh of the bottle still remained. It had far less effect on Rumpelstiltskin than on Belle herself, which likely meant that it helped him far less as well. What would she do when the last of it was gone?

Thankfully, Belle heard the answer in the memory of her father's voice. We do all that we must, petal. We do all that we can.

For a moment, her Papa seemed so much with her that she felt herself smile, but it was only a moment, and it left Belle feeling more alone than before. But the words were still the right ones. She would do all that she must, and all that she could.

Taking the sheepskin that he'd given her so recently, Belle spread it atop the other covers, across Rumpelstiltskin's back. He did not stir, so she slipped quietly out of bed and pushed her feet back into her slippers. She must eat, she thought, and if the magic was no longer at work in the pantry then she would have to learn very fast indeed how to store and preserve what she could. What did an invalid eat? Belle had so seldom been unwell, herself, that she had little experience of such things, but porridge was easily made and easily taken. As Wren had pointed out, nobody would starve if they could make a pot of porridge.

Belle wished that there were two of her, as she took her letter-box and left the room. One to stay beside her husband in case he woke up and needed her, the other to attend to everything else. What would Rumpelstiltskin have done, before he was married? Lain upon the floor of his work room in agony, alone, and trusted to his own, dark legend that he would not die of what ailed him?

And what of Wren? Would the potion that Rumpelstiltskin had given her last, now that the weather had turned? Belle knew that she must go out to the road, to be quite sure that the magic that kept it clear was as broken as that inside the castle. If there was any chance of her reaching Odstone and returning with help, or even just with more of Wren's sleeping draught and a little advice, then she must take it.

Two of her? Belle knew that a small army of her would not be enough, if she did not plan for the likelihood that magic would be gone from the place for some time to come. In that realisation, she found some comfort at last; she had helped her father to organise a town and its people for an indefinite siege, and where their martial efforts had failed, their preparations had not. Had Rumpelstiltskin not come to make his bargain, they would all have died on the walls with their bellies full.

She must sort what food would keep from that which should be used or cooked soon; she must uncover the log pile and judge how long it might last them; she must search the less-frequented rooms for all the candles she was able to collect, for nothing in her search of the castle had hinted at where a large store of them might be kept. When Rumpelstiltskin's will ruled the castle, candles simply never burned down and logs never crumbled to ashes.

And, while she did all that, she must eat, drink and tend to her husband as best she could.

Carrying her box, and a glass lantern with a single candle to light her way through the windowless and shrouded places, Belle went to the kitchen to begin her daunting, new set of necessary tasks. First, though, she placed the box on the table and checked inside. There was no letter, and she did not know whether Rumpelstiltskin's magic had faltered there, also, or her father had simply made no reply yet.

She would ask her husband, when he seemed capable of answering, but Belle put it firmly from her mind for the moment. There was too much to do, and she could not waste any time fretting about the fate of a letter.

~+~

When Belle eventually made her way back to her chambers, she had once more been away from Rumpelstiltskin for longer than she'd hoped. She was balancing a large tray, upon which she had not only the tea things and two bowls of hot stew but her lantern and half a dozen candles.

For some reason, she had expected to find her husband exactly as she had left him; face down and dead to the world. Instead, he had made his way to the middle of the bed and had tried to prop himself up on pillows the way he preferred. Belle hurried over, leaving the heavy tray at the foot of the bed when she saw that he was awake enough to watch her. She had not thought to leave him any light, when she left with the lantern. The curtains were still closed, and the bed still wrapped in most of its own drapes. She pulled the rest of those back at once to let in what little light there was.

"I'm so sorry," she said, rounding the bed to the window side and crawling to him in the middle of the bed. "I didn't think I'd be so long. I didn't think you'd be awake." She almost sobbed the last, and saw confusion creep into his otherwise stony expression. "I'm not very good at this, am I?" Somehow, she turned the sob into laughter, and carefully made up the pillows behind him until he could sit comfortably, his weight supported by soft feathers. That done, the bed sheet came only to his midriff and he clutched at it, forlornly, until Belle thought to snatch up one of the nightshirts and help him into it. She at least thought to begin with his badly injured right arm, sparing it any unnecessary movement. It hurt him, anyway, but he made no sound other than to breathe more heavily until he was, once more, resting against the pillows.

"Are you thirsty? Hungry?" Belle went to the window and opened the curtains. The day gave little enough light, for the sky was still black with the threat of further snow. "I know you don't like my cooking, but this is better, I promise."

Her false cheer had no obvious impact on Rumpelstiltskin, but he gave her a very slight nod. Whether he was answering her questions in the affirmative, or merely humouring a foolish wife, Belle could not tell. When she returned to kneel at his side with a cup of water and a bowl of stew, he was unable to raise his hand far enough to help her steady the cup against his lips. He let it fall, trembling, and closed his eyes as he drank. As before, he had a great thirst and seemed impatient with Belle's efforts to slow him, but he was too weak to see to himself.

Belle's own hand shook before the cup was empty, because it frightened her so to see him failing and silent. She had no knowledge of healing, and little enough of simple nursing. What was she to do, if he became too weak or insensible to guide her at all?

"Thank you," Rumpelstiltskin whispered, when he had caught his breath after drinking. His voice was weak as well, strained. Belle touched his cheek, stroking there with her knuckles until he opened his eyes again to look at her. "You're afraid," he said, frowning a little.

"Not of monsters," Belle said, heavily. "My reputation might suffer if my new husband barely lasted the month." She kissed his cheek, stubbornly overruling her own despair. "Try to eat a little?"

Nodding, Rumpelstiltskin let her put the spoon into his mouth. She had planned ahead, filling his bowl with the rich broth and mashed vegetables rather than any meat. It would be almost cold, by now, but he seemed not to mind it.

It would give him a little strength, surely? Belle's mind kept trying to disbelieve the evidence of her own eyes, as her husband lay so still and let her feed him, spoon by spoon. All that dancing vigour was quite washed out of him, and even his sharp tongue was muted. She would not have believed it possible and, for all that he had maddened her with his recent actions, she would have traded anything to have Rumpelstiltskin back, just as he had been when he killed the prisoner on market day.

Belle caught herself not paying enough attention, the spoon stopping against Rumpelstiltskin's closed lips and smearing stew on his cheek when he turned his head away in silent protest.

"Sorry," she said, and pulled a handkerchief from her belt pouch to mop his face and mouth. It was the silk one he'd given her to dry her tears, the morning after their wedding. She sighed, and reached over to the tray for her own bowl. She had eaten bread in the kitchen, finding it already dry and chewy, and only forced down the stew in the knowledge that she needed to keep up her own strength if she was to look after Rumpelstiltskin.

Afterwards she poured herself some tea. Rumpelstiltskin had fallen asleep, or, at least, she thought he had. He had not moved since turning his face away from the last spoonful, and a little of the stony control had slipped from his features. Belle watched him, as she drank, and even in poor light she saw the change creep across his flesh again.

Could magic change someone? Not just on the inside, where it truly mattered, but change their appearance? Rumpelstiltskin detested his own appearance, at least when it came to being seen by his wife, and she did not think that he would choose to look so fearsome merely to enhance his reputation. But, when that rippling change came over him, there were glimpses of a perfectly ordinary man who was quite recognisable as Rumpelstiltskin. Could magic warp a body as well as a soul?

Moving the tray to her sitting room, Belle kicked off her slippers and got in next to her husband. Thanks to the pillows, she was able to curl up against his uninjured side, and to hold his hand. Oblivious as he seemed to be, it made Belle feel a little better to be near him. She tugged at the top blanket until it came free from the foot of the bed, allowing her to draw it up to their chins for warmth.

The next time the ripple of change passed over him, Belle was near enough to see that, where he was momentarily the colour of most born in these northerly lands, his skin also became smooth, textured only with the most ordinary of lines.

This time, thankfully, Belle was able to sleep for a while, and woke a little refreshed. The candle in the lantern had burned down more than halfway, since she closed her eyes, and the sky outside was darker yet.

Beside her, Rumpelstiltskin was restless, although weakness made his movements very slight. She sat up, ready with words to soothe him back to sleep, but the grimace of pain stopped her tongue and she rose, instead, to fetch the black medicine bottle. As before, Rumpelstiltskin tried to gulp it all, but Belle had no difficulty in preventing him, this time. He could do little more than growl in the back of his throat as she stoppered the bottle and held it in her lap while she fussed with his hair.

"Not enough," he said, through gritted teeth.

"There's only that much again left in the bottle," Belle said, but reason meant nothing to him in his agony; her words only angered him.

"More," he demanded, trying so hard to sit up that he almost managed it, before Belle had to catch him when his supporting arm gave way. "Damn you, I didn't ask for your help!"

"You demanded a wife, as your price," Belle said, her own anger taking, for the moment, the form of a cool indifference to his unfairness. She got him upright on his pillows, again, and sat back, breathing hard. "It's not my fault if you didn't think first about the things a wife does."

"This is my punishment, then?" The little medicine she'd allowed him had not helped; she could see that it had not. But his words were clearer, so perhaps his mind was, as well.

"And when you wake up again, and there's no more to be had?"

"Make more!" He shouted with a strength that she hadn't known he still possessed, startling her back a few inches in every expectation of a blow. But Rumpelstiltskin managed no more than to curl himself towards her, slightly, before falling back with a moan and squeezing his eyes closed. "Belle... if you want to help me," he said, without fight, "do this. I'll heal, but the pain." His voice broke on the final words, his mouth trembling with the nearness of tears.

"Tell me how, then," she said, appalled at her own coldness. But what use was her warmth or gentle pity to him, like this? "I can't get to Wren, not through this snow. You'll have to teach me."

Rumpelstiltskin swallowed a few times, licking his lips, his expression shifting between the grimace of desperation and that terrible, limp exhaustion.

"Not this, then," he said, after a while, his brow wrinkled in the effort of concentration. "Simpler. A tincture of poppy."

"That will help you?" Belle put her hand against his cheek, leaning close to be sure that she understood him. He nodded, and another of those ripples passed over him, changing him beneath her very hand. This time, it did not immediately fade from around his ear and temple. It left him breathless with pain for long moments, then panting for air when it passed. "Tincture of poppy. Will your books tell me how to make it? Is everything I need in your turret?"

"...yes. Use the blue poppies." She could see him trying hard to assist her, now, and that brought out the pity and tenderness in her that had been so easy to set aside when he was being horrid to her. "Can... can you read the old tongue?"

"Yes." Belle stroked his hair back behind the one, pink ear, trying not to stare at it.

"Good. Good girl." His whole body stiffened for a few moments, his eyes wide open and the breath strangling in his throat. Helpless, Belle stroked and soothed, and waited. "Remember, the blue poppies."

"All right," she said, and pulled the black bottle from between her knees, unstoppered it and allowed Rumpelstiltskin to drink all that was left. "The blue poppies. I won't forget." Belle had never heard of such a thing, and only hoped that what she needed was clearly labelled among his jars and bottles up there.

The extra medicine gave him some relief, after a minute or two; he stopped fighting against his invisible foe and lay still, only twitching when his skin changed. Had he noticed it? Belle could see that his wounds were healing, and Rumpelstiltskin had expected that. He was adamant that he would heal, with or without her help. She did not think that he had expected to change his appearance.

"Do you need anything else, before I go? I'll light another candle." He blinked at her, drowsily. "Don't you need a chamberpot?"

He snorted, shaking his head, and Belle was a little relieved. She had never known him leave their bed to relieve himself. Perhaps he just... didn't? Then again, his ear didn't turn pink, in her limited experience, either. "Will it take me long, to make the medicine?"

"As long as it takes," he said, back to drowsy slurring. "All potions take time and care, dearie, magic or no."

"All right." She had hoped for clearer instructions, but if there were books to be found then she would find them. She only hoped that her understanding of the old common tongue extended to medicines. She had learned to read legal documents and correspondence, and wondered too late if that qualified her to read books of potions.

Well, she was going to find out.

Gently, Belle kissed her husband's cheek.

"I'll be back as soon as I can," she promised, not knowing whether or not he could hear her. Leaving a cup of water on a chair beside the bed and a candle burning nearby, Belle checked the fire and then went upstairs.

~+~

Although able to leave the tower to visit Rumpelstiltskin occasionally, after six hours at her new work, Belle had gained a new respect for the many hours her husband spent up there. She had imagined that he simply used his time there to avoid her, or spent it in contemplation at his spinning wheel, but now she gathered that the wheel had a purpose too. It was to keep Rumpelstiltskin from dying of the tedium while cooking, filtering, straining or reducing something that had required a great deal of painstaking preparation and measurement beforehand.

Much to her surprise and immediate interest, she had found a large jar of enormous dried poppy heads in the same low cupboard where she had found the basket of medicines. They were, indeed, a sickly and greyish blue, and unmistakably different from the several other types kept in the cupboard, which might have come from the small poppies she'd seen waving in fields all her life. Belle wondered, nervously, if the blue ones were magical. Some plants were, and while the old book she was working from didn't specify magical blue poppy heads, a handwritten note of Rumpelstiltskin's in the margin did say "blue". He had underlined it twice.

Magical or not, she could only do as he'd asked and pray that the result - which looked, at the moment, as though it would be a murky grey liquid - would ease her husband's pain. She knew before she was halfway through the laborious process that she must never taste the stuff herself - the fumes alone forced her to open a window. It had been clear from his relatively slight reaction to Wren's medicine that Rumpelstiltskin's constitution differed from her own, but Belle disliked the thought of giving this new medicine to anyone in a weakened state. The book she'd found gave dosages, but if the blue poppy was more potent, as she suspected, then those were meaningless. She would need to take care that Rumpelstiltskin did not simply upend a bottle of it and hope for the best.

Whenever she could get away, Belle went straight back to his side. Only once did she return to find him awake, and once his thirst was satisfied he slipped away again. She could see that he was restless in her absence; he had long since slid from the comfortable slope of pillows. On her last visit before the medicine was ready, Belle found him curled around a pillow, crying out and tormented.

Reluctant to wake him and yet reluctant to leave him in such misery, Belle leaned across the bed and stroked his brow. The clammy cold had left him and Rumpelstiltskin was hot to the touch, and sweating. He muttered and struggled in his dreams. Belle listened for a while, but the only word she could catch was the one he repeated most often. No.

Belle's own exhaustion was catching up with her; she caught herself sagging down beside him, thinking to embrace him and try to soothe him that way, but there was work yet to be done. She was no physician, no alchemist, no sorceress, but she could follow a recipe just as well for a medicine as for a stew. It was almost ready. She would not fail on the final step; she would not sleep until his medicine was made.

"It's almost ready," she said, leaning close to say it into his ear. "Then I'll look after you." Perhaps his dream had ended, or perhaps her voice soothed him. Belle couldn't tell, but Rumpelstiltskin became still, and stopped clutching the pillow so fiercely against his chest. "Yes," Belle whispered, relieved, "that's it. I'm here."

For some reason, the statements soothed her too. She was Rumpelstiltskin's wife, for good or ill. As he had tended to her while she lay injured, so she would care for him now - not with the greatest skill or with perfect grace, but as best she could, and with tenderness.

Whatever could be done, Belle would do for him, and if it was within her power then she would see her husband well again.

He had to be well again. He just had to.

Chapter Text

Belle had been deeply asleep when Rumpelstiltskin's restlessness woke her. It was still night time, and she was so drowsy as to be disorientated. It took her several moments to remember that she had, after bottling the medicine she'd so painstakingly made, changed into her nightgown and gone to bed beside her husband.

He had been deeply asleep himself, then, but his nightmares had returned and he had woken her by clutching at her as he had the pillow, earlier. Belle could not imagine how he slept through the pain of using his swollen hand, and gently dislodged it from her arm. Heavy eyed, she rubbed at his back and whispered nonsense about how he would feel better soon, and how she would make everything be all right again. After a while, Rumpelstiltskin buried himself against her, his cheek against her chest and his clutching hands less urgent.

Still too hot, he was sticky and quite unpleasant to embrace, but Belle did not think he was suffering with fever. It was the dreams, nightmares that she could empathise with; the sort that involved running when there was no escape, or reaching for something as it slipped away, or falling. Nightmares that frightened the body as well as the mind. She had had them too, when he'd given her the mixture of medicines to heal her broken bones, and reminded herself that he had spent the night beside her, then. No doubt she had been equally sticky and unappealing a bed-mate, at the time.

Soon, she would need to get up and see that the kitchen fire did not go out. Belle found herself without the will to move, particularly with Rumpelstiltskin settled and breathing evenly in her arms. She needed to find more bedlinens and blankets, for his magic was no longer at work to keep her bed fresh and clean, and she would have him be as comfortable as possible. She would find string or something else, and tie back curtains wherever she could in the castle to light her way during daylight hours, for she had not found a candle store anywhere, either.

"Always thinking," Rumpelstiltskin said, muffled by the blankets and the proximity of her right bosom to his face. "I can hear your mind turning. Tick tick tick."

Belle had been combing her fingers through his hair, trying to take out the bloody tangles, but she had been gentle - she could not have woken him up with that. Half asleep herself, she wondered for several, long and confused moments, if he really could hear her thoughts whirring.

"That's what minds are for," she said, reasonably. She hardly dared to hope that this was a return to the husband she knew; fast with his words and his wits, fond of teasing her for her ways. "Are you feeling any better?"

"Strange dreams," he said. "How long since I got here?"

"... a day." Belle could barely calculate even that. "Last night, late. You slept most of it, and most of today and tonight."

Yes. A day, or a little more than that.

It felt like it had been a month.

"My..." Rumpelstiltskin tried to push himself up, gasping horribly when his injured hand objected to taking his weight, and falling on his back beside her, cradling it as he whimpered. Belle dragged herself up to sitting, and waited until his shock had passed. She could see tears glistening on his temples. "Oh..."

"It didn't bother you, before." Concerned, Belle turned back the blanket and the sheet, gently pulling his good hand away so she could see the injured one. It looked a good deal better, but what undamaged flesh there was to see was pink. Easing up his sleeve, she could see that it had affected most of his arm. Rumpelstiltskin stared, shocked at what he saw, until he no longer had the strength to lift his head and let it fall back with a groan. "It's healing," Belle offered, encouragingly. "I can't believe how fast. It was twice as swollen last night."

"But... the..." Her husband closed his eyes, and it was Belle's turn to imagine that she could almost hear the clockwork of a busy mind. "Have I changed into a man?"

"Bits of you go pale and pink," Belle said, doubtfully. "It hasn't lasted."

"That's not... that shouldn't happen." He was too weak to snap and snarl, but obviously wished that he could. "What else?!"

"You've had bad dreams," Belle said, doubtfully. "And drunk enough of Wren's sleeping draught to drop a herd of bulls. You've been in dreadful pain. Don't you remember?"

"My clothes," Rumpelstiltskin said. "Everything I was wearing, covered in blood."

"Yes, I took it all--"

"Don't wash it, don't touch it," he commanded, the stern words seeming to sap his strength, for his anger drained away and he became limp beside her.

"It's all in the laundry room," Belle said, bewildered by his demand. "I've no idea how to wash leather, but why do you..."

"I must... this magic, this curse. Must find out who did this. How." Whispering, now, Rumpelstiltskin barely made a sound as he stiffened in the familiar spasm of pain. It left him pale-skinned from his jaw almost to his brow, this time, and did not fade as Belle touched his cheek.

"If you tell me what's going on, I can do more to help you," Belle said, but without any great hope of his compliance. Other than to impress her, he had guarded his magic and his history from her as though she were a stranger.

"I doubt that, dearie," Rumpelstiltskin said, through half-clenched teeth. "What does a slip of a girl know of the work of lifetimes, eh?"

Belle knew that the pain put the edge on his words, but knowing it did not stop them cutting her. She bit her lip, looking away until she was certain that she would not shame herself with tears.

"I want to help my husband," she said, finally, not even sure that he was still awake to hear her. "That's not something you can mock me for. I want to know my husband."

"Do you?" His bitterness was like acid. "Know the Dark One, would you, and still smile and kiss me, and pretend that I'm no monster?"

Turning back to look at him, and waiting to be certain that he was looking at her, Belle saw the change in his flesh creep upwards beneath his hair.

"There's nothing that you can say to drive me away. Stop trying, unless it gives you pleasure to be cruel for the sake of it." She leaned over him, studying his face; changed and yet the same. His eyes were a dark colour, but the eyes of a man. Gentle eyes, she thought, to go with such venomous words. "You demanded a wife when you could have accepted gold. I refuse to be burdened with your regrets about that, do you hear me, Rumpelstiltskin?"

Rumpelstiltskin could not have looked any more shocked had she struck him. Belle thought that she should be trembling with rage, or filling with venom of her own, but she felt a dreadful calm. Removed. Resolved.

He nodded, tight-lipped.

"Good," Belle said, sagging a little when she found herself facing no opposition. She had been ready to do battle, of a sort, and could not back away from the stubborn resolve so easily. "I made the medicine that you asked for," she said, speaking carefully. It was not the moment to speak her mind to Rumpelstiltskin, no more than was necessary for her continued sanity in his company. "It's very strong, and you're looking more like a man every minute. Should you still take it?"

Lifting his left hand, Rumpelstiltskin saw himself as he always was. Belle touched his cheek, and helped him to do the same. "At first it was just like a ripple on water. Now your whole face. Your right arm, too, I think."

He looked so frightened, so perplexed, that she could not hold on to her annoyance.

"This never happened before, when you were ill?"

"... never ill before," he said, with as much of a shrug as he could manage. His hand shook, where she cupped it against his cheek. Even in his bewilderment and fright, Belle sensed that he was trying to be as careful with his words and thoughts as she. He did not want to offend her again, even if it meant denying the pain its loathsome voice. "Drop by drop, then. The medicine."

"Yes." Belle helped him to sit up, feeling him sway and flinch from the injuries that had troubled him so little, before. She could only hope that this change in him would not slow his remarkable healing, or allow poison into the wounds. She supported him as gently as she was able, while rearranging the pillows behind him in the way he liked.

As she went to ease him back onto the soft slope, Rumpelstiltskin gripped her arm until she stopped to meet his gaze.

"You are the most perfect wife," he whispered, eyes narrowed. On his pink, new face, Belle could count so many lines. They did not look like ones that had been put there by laughter. His dark eyes pleaded his sincerity. "Truly."

Moved, flustered by his sudden unbending, Belle pressed a hasty kiss to his cheek and made a fuss over settling him onto the pillows. She cherished every one of his rare compliments, of course - cherished them all the more because, when it came, his sentiment was so unguarded. All the same, she could not help but feel that she would embarrass him if she were to remind him of it, later, or swoon about it now. She had thought, at first, that he begrudged his kindnesses. Now, Belle rather suspected that they shocked him, instead.

"The pain doesn't seem so bad," she hazarded, when Rumpelstiltskin was settled.

"Inward," he said, his voice unsteady after his exertions and his eyelids fluttering as though he fought to open them and could not. "Magic fighting magic. Gone inward. Keep my clothes, Belle. Anything bloodied."

"I will." From a bloodstain, he would be able to find the cause of his torment? Belle caught herself doubting, and then remembered her ring. From a bloodstain, he had claimed to offer back her very innocence after their wedding night. Seeing him as he was now, feeble and half transformed, it was easy to forget that his was the most powerful magic in all the lands. "Who could do this to you?"

"No-one," Rumpelstiltskin said, tightly. "The medicine, Belle."

Wordlessly, Belle wriggled from the bed and fetched it from her sitting room, where she had been careful to leave it before sleeping. Relieved that Rumpelstiltskin appeared to share her caution about the stuff, Belle returned to his side. He watched her, his new eyes sunken in his new face, while she dipped the tiniest measuring spoon she'd been able to find into the neck of the bottle. The spoon was made of pure gold, as were quite a number of the tools in her husband's turret laboratory, and for the first time Belle had an inkling as to why; the way the medicine smelled, it would surely have blackened silver or rusted steel on contact!

"I hope I got it right," she said, hopelessly, as she put the spoon to his lips. Rumpelstiltskin smiled, wanly, and while she was familiar with the expression, it seemed so much gentler on his ordinary, human features.

A moment later, he was doubled up coughing from the contents of the miniature spoon, and Belle was hastily stoppering the bottle so that she could reach for him and pat him on the back. Her heart thundered with alarm while Rumpelstiltskin wheezed and coughed, but the fit subsided, slowly, and she remembered her own spluttering reaction to Wren's milder medicine.

Slumped forward over her arm, shaking from the sudden exertion, Rumpelstiltskin managed a feeble echo of his twittering laughter, once he had his breath again. Belle righted him, struggling with his unprotesting weight, and saw that his eyes and nose were streaming. Fishing for her handkerchief, she caught his spark of mirth and found herself grinning as she dabbed at his glistening cheeks.

"How did I do?"

"Perfect," Rumpelstiltskin assured her, hoarsely. "We'll make a doctor of you, my dear."

Belle smiled, idly entertaining the thought as she got him comfortable again among the pillows. The book had warned that the medicine could cause sickness, and so she had brought a bucket, and that it could cause feverish dreams, so she had brought a basin of cool water and a clean cloth. Was that all that a doctor did, she wondered, tidying the damp hair away from her husband's cheeks - apply simple learning to a patient? Belle's own, limited encounters with doctors had led her to believe that they were, on the whole, learned men who understood chemicals and plants, and gently hoped for the best when applying them to a patient.

"I'd like that," she said, but timidly. She could never gauge his tolerance for idle conversation, at the best of times, and his pain had not improved his demeanour. "To be useful. To show what a woman can do in this world, if she's only given the chance."

"Yes?" Rumpelstiltskin opened his eyes. They had changed again, become the eyes she knew, but softened where the medicine had made his pupils large. Belle wondered if the world looked different to him, through those eyes. "What else?"

Realising that he asked simply so that she would stay nearby and speak to him, Belle felt some of the lost warmth coming back into her heart. She had so missed the sense of being welcome at his side.

"Well." Taking his left hand between both of hers, Belle felt him give a little squeeze of acknowledgement. "To travel. To see the world. All the places I've only read about. To sail on the seas, and ride a camel, and see where the rock melts out of the ground and builds new land."

Rumpelstiltskin's tiny smile had become a proper one, but he looked sleepy. Every time he blinked, his eyes looked different. Belle found it infinitely more disturbing to see than the changes to his flesh. But her medicine had done its work; his body was no longer twisted up with pain, and it seemed to have sweetened his sour mood somewhat as well. She felt a deep and quiet pride in her accomplishment.

"Do you need anything else?" Belle could not help feeling that she ought to be offering him food and water more often, even as some deeper intuition told her that what he needed the most was rest. Rumpelstiltskin shook his head, squeezing her hand slightly. "I'm glad it helps," she said, arranging the covers over him. "The medicine. I hate to see you in pain."

"That makes two of us," he said, sleepily.

Belle had so many questions, about who could have done this to him; about how it was possible to harm one so powerful. The loss of magic from the castle made their situation seem precarious, at best, and while she would defend her husband with her life, of course, it would be a futile effort against whoever had been capable of injuring Rumpelstiltskin so terribly.

It had taken fire and siege weapons to breech the walls of the castle where Belle was born. Without magic, it seemed to her that a lightly armed band of men could storm Rumpelstiltskin's home with little opposition. A sorcerer might simply obliterate it from the map without ever setting foot upon Rumpelstiltskin's lands.

When she was sure that he was asleep again, Belle added a log to the fire, put on her cloak over her nightdress, and made her way down to the kitchen.

The fire there was a perfect, wide bed of embers, allowing her to wrestle the heavy iron trivet into place above the steady heat to take her pots and pans. Everything that would not store as it was had to be cooked or, as a last resort, packed and put outside in the outbuildings in the hope that the frost would preserve it.

Yesterday, she had oiled all the eggs, as directed by Wren's old cookery book, and read with a smile about how, if one had hens, the best plan for lean times was to wait nearby to spot the strain of laying, and to take each warm, fresh egg at once from beneath the birds and rub it with butter. Wren's book assured the reader that such an egg would outlast any left unbuttered and, as a bonus, gain a delicious richness. Belle had longed to try it, never having put her hand beneath a fussy hen to steal an egg. It sounded like a delightful adventure, for one whose eggs had always come via a well-organised and well-staffed kitchen.

Whatever she did, Belle realised that she was going to be left with too much food, either cooked or raw, that could not be saved unless the temperatures outside remained low enough to freeze. That could not be relied upon, but was useful in the meanwhile for dealing with the contents of chamberpots. She had placed a bucket near the kitchen door, having no idea where to look for a cesspit, and the contents were, mercifully, frozen solid whenever she returned to add to it.

They would not starve, whatever happened; between an enormous sack of oats, several cheeses and a variety of cured meats, Belle was as confident as she could be that they would be provided for until a thaw allowed her to reach the town again, or until Rumpelstiltskin was able to assert his will over the castle once more.

Light would be the greater problem and so, leaving her kettle to heat over the embers, Belle went upstairs with a ball of string and a kitchen knife, and began tying back every curtain she could find. It was nearly dawn, and after tying up only two of the curtains nearest Rumpelstiltskin's spinning wheel, Belle was able to extinguish her precious candle and continue in the half-light provided by the new morning.

Most of the halls and passageways had high windows, often of simple stained glass, which admitted enough light to move safely. The staircases varied, some having light wells and others being pitch black even at noon, but Belle's feet knew the way by now. By throwing open every door on the two floors above her own, and tying back every curtain she could find there, Belle made enough light to deal with the daytimes. At night, they would simply have to ration the candles, unless Rumpelstiltskin could tell her where to find more.

If all else failed, there were the unexplored wings of the castle; who knew what she might find there, besides extra candles? Belle liked having an idea to fall back on, should her plans fail her.

She returned to a boiling kettle, and made herself a pot of tea. Dishes and pans had piled up, needing to be washed, but Belle could not bring herself to spend time on those that she did not need - not until she was more confident about leaving her husband unattended for long periods of time.

Eating cold stew with stale bread, and drinking half a pot of tea, Belle tried to list what else had to be done. A breakfast for Rumpelstiltskin, first, and then check his wounds. Her warmest clothing next and, if she could wear them, a pair of Rumpelstiltskin's tall boots - she needed to wade through the snow as far as the road to town, and find out if she had any hope of making the journey. That would leave her wet through, of course, so she would need to change again and dry her things...

There were moments when she felt equal to the tasks ahead, and moments where she felt crushed by the demands suddenly placed upon her. A full belly gave her less comfort than it once had, but it gave her strength, and so she began her day.

~+~

Rumpelstiltskin took a quarter of a dish of porridge in silence, before looking queasy and waving it away. Water was more to his liking, and Belle sat patiently beside him, tipping the cup so that he could sip. While she did so, his uninjured left hand played feebly upon her knees, stirring the silk of her nightdress and reminding her, just distantly, of more pleasant moments in their bed. She missed his touch, very much, but it was not with the burning of want between her legs, now; his arms about her would have been enough. His kisses.

"I've been a poor husband," Rumpelstiltskin said, when Belle took the empty cup from his lips. His eyes, human again, were glassy from the poppy, but his words were clear and deliberate, even if he spoke them with a strange slowness.

"Not now," Belle hushed, and drew away the covers to check his wounds while she had daylight. Most of his skin was changed, now; patches remained as they had been, but he was soft and pink everywhere else. They both stared, and Rumpelstiltskin was too slow in trying to prevent her from lifting the front of his gown all the way up to his chest. She'd thought him foolish, anyway, for hiding his nakedness from her while he enjoyed her own; she would have no foolishness, now, when he had healing wounds that might need her attention.

They did not - Belle could see that much. Where there had been countless angry puncture marks, it looked now more like a fever rash or the dried, bumpy scrape of a knee. Red dots, all over his right side, and still the swelling in his right arm and hand, but the change was as remarkable as the change in the tone and texture of his skin.

Realising that he was holding his breath, staring at her and utterly mortified, Belle tilted her head and gave him a sly smile.

"You've no excuse now," she said, scratching gently at the centre of his chest with her fingernails. "You're as pink as I am. No monster at all."

"I was never lovely, dearie," he muttered, breathless after releasing the breath he'd held so long. "The Dark One doesn't change that."

Belle shrugged. She had no basis for comparison. Sometimes she had seen men work with their shirts off, their trousers turned up to their knees. Rumpelstiltskin was thin enough that his ribs jutted, but wiry with muscle and well-proportioned. His right leg looked weaker than the left, swollen at the knee as if with an old injury. And as for the rest, for the heavy flesh that hung below, she had nothing to compare his loveliness against. It seemed to her no more or less lovely than her own hidden places, which were covered now by her triangular thatch of hair. He remained hairless, everywhere, and she knew that most men were coarse with it on their arms, legs and chins. She supposed that they were the same beneath their breeches, as well.

"You were like this once, then?" Gently, she tucked him back up, gown and sheet and blanket, and put the sheepskin over his belly. "An ordinary man? Not always the Dark One?" Pained, he turned his head on the pillow. It was all that he could do to escape her. Belle lay down beside him, draping his arm around her as she went, and felt him give her a weak squeeze as she snuggled close. Perhaps he had missed her, too? "Is that when you had your son?"

"...yes."

"And a wife who didn't find you lovely."

"Yes."

"Were you a poor husband to her?"

"...only once." She knew that speaking of it caused him grief, but how was she to understand him if she did not know what it was she was being compared to? "No-one knows this, Belle." Rumpelstiltskin was almost stammering in his uncertainty. "No-one can know of this."

"That you were married before?" Incredulous, Belle lifted her head to stare at him. He looked ashen, exhausted, but his eyes were bright with anxiety and confusion. "Are you going to keep me a secret, too? It's a bit late."

"That I was a man," he said, impatiently. "That I had a son. That there's yet magic in the world that can reduce me to... to this..."

Attempting to gesture with his swollen right arm, Rumpelstiltskin rendered himself silent with pain for quite some time, the urgency of his message forgotten as he cradled his arm and cringed.

Silently, Belle fetched the bottle of medicine again. This time, she put half a tiny spoonful of the stuff into a small cup of water, hoping to spare him another coughing fit. He nodded gratefully as he took it in three gulps.

"I must have your word," he said, still wheezing from the fumes as she took the cup away.

"All right." Frowning, not understanding but seeing no harm in his request, Belle laid her palm in the centre of his chest. "You have my word. Now give me yours," she added, unplanned, and with a touch of the anger that had carried her through his harsher moments. "That when you're better, you'll explain to me what it is that I just promised to keep secret. Your wife, your son, how you changed. All of it."

Rumpelstiltskin stared at her, and Belle left him with her ultimatum, and with a clear view of her bare back as she shed her nightgown and clambered into her warmest clothing. She put on three pairs of stockings and needed two garters on each leg to keep them tied up. He stared at her the whole time, until she second-guessed her brazen display and peeked shyly over her shoulder to see his expression.

"Do you plan to make all your wifely demands with your arse bared, my dear?" The medicine slurred his words, but his greedy stare was lucid enough. Belle flushed.

"If I must. Do I have your word?" She felt chilly and ridiculous, in nothing but her stockings and chemise, but his interest in looking at her was clear evidence of improvement in his health or, at the very least, the efficacy of her medicine.

"You have my word," he said, and tore his fascinated gaze away at last, allowing her to dress in peace.

"I'm going out to see if the road to town is clear," she told him, standing at the foot of the bed. "I'm no doctor and I'm not always sure that you're making sense."

"Remember your promise," he said, drowsily. "No-one must know."

"I'll be careful," Belle said, frowning. "Will you be all right while I'm gone?" Rumpelstiltskin nodded slightly. "Where do you keep your boots?"

His eyes flew open and he attempted to raise his head from the pillows, he was so surprised by her question.

"What?"

"I need a pair of boots to wear in the snow. Mine only come to the ankle. The snowdrifts are as high as my hips, already."

"Don't go out there, then," he said, peevishly. "The road won't be clear. Why so busy? Fussing about the place. Running hither and yon. Why?" The medicine had stolen his clarity of mind, Belle could tell, but his petulance was very clear.

"If you don't want me to leave you, just say as much," she said, quietly. "And I must run about because nothing in your castle makes any sense without magic, and we'd have no fires, no light and little food if I didn't remember how to manage without it. We've enough logs for a while, but hardly any candles. Did you know that?"

Belle curbed her impatience as quickly as she could. She knew that poppy stole the mind away; it was not Rumpelstiltskin's fault if his heart spoke without his head, while dosed with the stuff. Was it simply that he wanted her at his side, comforting him, and had been too proud to beg her to stay?

Guiltily, she hoped so.

There was nowhere else that Belle would rather be, but she could not pretend that the other problems would evaporate if she ignored them. If she could only bring some help from town... but who would come? Wren would never manage the journey, and nor would Belle dream of asking her to attempt it. Who else was there to ask, even assuming that she could reach the town?

She sat down heavily on the lid of her trunk, and put her head in her hands. Rumpelstiltskin was right. Boots or no boots, there was no use in going out into the snow when he was certain that his magic was not clearing the roads. What if she should reach the town and become stranded there, with her husband here alone?

"Belle." She heard the rustling behind her as Rumpelstiltskin tried to move. It took her a few seconds to compose herself, to dash the tears from her eyes, before she could turn her head to look at him. He was trying to sit up, to reach for her. It took her long, aching moments to realise that he meant to offer her comfort, not demand it for himself.

Going to him at once, kissing him and cradling him as he lay back, Belle tasted her own tears.

"I've been so afraid," she confessed, her face pressed beside his ear and her arms as tightly around his chest as she dared.

"But you fear nothing," he crooned. For all that he had responded to her distress, the medicine still had him firmly in its grip. He sounded dreamy, distant, and his left hand patted clumsily at her back. "Brave Belle."

She laughed, wetly. She had always wanted to be brave, and never thought to hear it praised while she was trembling in a man's arms, half in tears.

"Bravery doesn't mean having no fear."

"No?" After several tries, his wandering left hand located her hair, carelessly tied behind her in a single bunch. "What's it mean, then?"

"Facing the fear, of course. Doing all that you should, and all that you can, in the face of what frightens you."

"Mmm." Rumpelstiltskin had made a fist around her hair, but his hand soon dropped to the pillow behind her. He was motionless when, with only a little hesitation, Belle eased her arm out from beneath him and got beneath the covers. Sleep was what he needed, she was sure, and perhaps she should take her own 'medicine' and sleep as well.

He had called her brave. He had called her perfect. They were no empty words of flattery, she knew; they were the thoughts of a husband who watched her and marvelled at her, and thought deeply about her nature when she was absent.

Belle took that knowledge to heart, as she lay snug and drowsy beside him, and felt it warm her, sweetly, from the inside.

Chapter Text

It was pleasant to wake up in her husband's embrace, comfortable and snug. Belle spent a few, blissful moments at the edge of sleep before she remembered their situation and opened her eyes, guilty for having slept so deeply that she could not even guess at the time. But Rumpelstiltskin was awake, holding her close against his side, and smiled faintly when she dragged herself up on one arm to check that all was well with him.

Her hair fell around her face as she did so, and Belle smiled, shyly, seeing that the ribbon she'd worn to bed now lay upon her husband's chest.

"You've been amusing yourself," she said, picking up the ribbon and dangling it where he could see. Rumpelstiltskin's eyes were brown again, and he seemed less affected by either the pain or the medicine than he had before. "How do you feel?"

"Poorly." His voice was different, now. Softer than ever, and somehow less certain. "I cannot... my magic is there. Out of reach. Can you understand?"

Belle watched his pleading eyes, trying to learn the colour of them before they changed back again.

"I don't suppose I can," she confessed, touching his cheek and studying the deep-set worry lines of his new face. Or was it his old face? Still Rumpelstiltskin, but all new to her again. "Like being blindfolded? Losing one of your senses?"

His lips twitched with a nervous little smile.

"A little like that," he said, catching her waist with his good hand and trying to draw her back to his side. He was humouring her, Belle could see. She humoured him in return, and bent to kiss him. His lips were dry and scratchy. She enjoyed the kiss all the same, and Rumpelstiltskin rubbed appreciatively at the small of her back until, reluctantly, he turned his face away with a grunt, looking queasy.

"Do you need some more medicine?" Belle hesitated to ask, liking his quiet clarity and unusual frankness, but she would not have him in pain merely for her own comfort. He shook his head, closing his eyes and swallowing. His hand began to tremble, clutching her, and he let it fall with a sigh.

"Tell me of my castle," he said, when he had his breath again. "You said..." His nose wrinkled. "I'm afraid I don't really remember."

"Magic stores the food, cleans the linens, empties the chamberpots, fills my bath, keeps the fires and preserves the candles," Belle said, speaking gently, because Rumpelstiltskin looked genuinely mystified as he tried to remember what she had said to him earlier. "Is there anything else I need to know about? What if whoever did this to you comes here?"

"Oh, Belle." Rumpelstiltskin shook his head, the lines deepening in his face as he screwed it up with the effort of concentration. "Don't trouble yourself. Those are small spells, small comforts because I tired of weeping maids. The castle is defended by magic far more powerful. So are you. All that's mine."

Belle sat back on her heels, thinking hard about that. She did not particularly like that he spoke of her as mere property, even if that did mean that whatever protected his castle protected her equally. And weeping maids? She had been so sure that he had spent his entire time at the castle alone, until she came to be his wife.

"If I'm yours, then you're mine," she said, more pointedly than she'd meant. "And without all your small comforts I have a lot of work to do."

"Of course I'm yours." He sounded bemused at the suggestion that he might have thought otherwise. "Do you doubt it?"

Brushing down her skirts, taking several moments to remember why she had put on so many pairs of stockings, Belle stood and watched him.

"No," she decided, eventually. "Only that you want to be."

It was no time for such a discussion - Belle could see that. Her newly-pink husband looked decidedly green around the gills, and was struggling to keep up with events. She could see him trying to work out what he had said to earn the sharpening of her tone. Belle sighed. Sharpness was unlike her, and it was no way to treat an invalid. She would have to hope that Rumpelstiltskin remained open to the possibility of confiding in her once he was well enough to do so.

"Will the box you gave me for the letters still work?"

"Oh." He rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. "Yes. The magic is in the very wood. As long as your father has its twin, it will work."

She tried to let that cheer her, as she made Rumpelstiltskin as comfortable as possible. She leaned across the bed to straighten the pillows as best she could. When even that made Rumpelstiltskin grimace and swallow hard, she pursed her lips and planted the bucket firmly beside him, to his obvious dismay.

"You've no linen cupboard that I can find," Belle said, reasonably. "Better safe than sorry." He nodded, glumly. "What about candles?"

"Oh. Yes." Rubbing his forehead with the back of his hand, Rumpelstiltskin concentrated. "In my tower, somewhere," he said, finally. "Can't use the time-freezing magic up there. Interferes with the spells. Look for a box." He indicated the size with his hands. "Be careful what you touch up there."

"I spent most of last night up there," Belle reminded him, not unkindly, leaning across the bed again to put her hand to his brow. Was it a fever, or was he only warm because the room was so? She could not tell. "Time-freezing?"

Her husband looked sheepish.

"Around each flame," he explained, once again indicating the size with his hands. "A captured moment, repeating. It's not easy," he added, with a note of hope, as if his cleverness excused his laziness.

"But easier than the weeping maids?"

"Exactly." He gave her an uncertain smile. "Have I changed very much?"

"Don't you know?" Belle laughed, gently, stroking his damp hair. "Shall I fetch a mirror?"

"Best not," he said, darkly. "Anyway, I don't remember what I looked like, before."

"The same," she assured him. "A different colour. Smoother. No curl to your hair, but it's matted with blood. Your teeth are a lot more lovely," she added, with a touch of mischief. "Your eyes are darker, the whites larger. It's strange." Her ribbon had fallen to the bed beside him. Belle picked it up, smoothed it out and let it coil up on his belly. "For your collection," she said, and smiled when he blushed. It was unmistakable, while he was so pale. Even in the pitiful light, she saw the colour rise. "I must see to the kitchen fire," she said, "and look for the candles. Then I'll come back."

Much to her surprise, Belle looked forward to returning. Now that Rumpelstiltskin's illness seemed more within the realm of simple nursing and small kindnesses, she was not so afraid of doing the wrong thing. While the magic had torn at him, crippling him with unimaginable pain, she had been so afraid that she hardly dared try to help him lest she make things worse.

Mint tea was good for sickness, she remembered on her climb to the turret, without being able to place where she'd learned it. There had been some in the gift baskets from Odstone and, it not being among her favourites, had sat largely untouched on the kitchen shelf. It was probably no match for the powerful poppy medicine, which had almost made Belle sick with its vapours alone, but Rumpelstiltskin enjoyed tea. He might feel a little better for such a show of sympathy for his plight, even if the tea itself did no good.

It took a careful search of the various shelves, cupboards and stashes behind bookshelves before Belle located the box of candles in Rumpelstiltskin's turret. It was more than half full - Belle guessed that there might be thirty candles left, and they were good ones, half as thick as her wrist and each quite tall. Good. She could save the ones she'd collected for the lantern she carried everywhere, and use these fresh ones to light the sick room and the kitchen when needed.

She glanced in on Rumpelstiltskin as she passed the door of her room, leaving the box outside with most of the candles. He looked to be asleep, insofar as she could tell, so she went as quietly as she could the rest of the way down the stairs.

Tending the kitchen fire took only a minute or two. If she had judged things correctly then, come morning, she would have a perfect bed of embers should she wish to cook. Missing her bath, Belle promised herself a good wash with hot water before the kitchen fire, in the morning. But what of Rumpelstiltskin? She had no idea whether her husband bathed, somewhere in the castle that she had yet to discover, or if he resorted to magic for that small comfort as well. If she carried up the kettle, at least she could offer what Lotte called 'a lick and a promise' of a wash. Belle had done her best in cleaning his wounds, but had paid little attention to any part of him that was unhurt.

Small comforts, she reminded herself, as she worked to prepare a single cup of mint tea. She used the cup that he had asked for, the chipped one, and sweetened the tea with a hint of the honey he liked.

Lastly, her heart beating painfully with hope and dread, she lifted the lid of her letter box. It was empty, and Belle closed it again with her head bowed, taking a moment to compose herself.

It was a slow and unsteady climb back to her room, with the lantern dangling below the teacup in one hand and the half-full kettle in the other. Even though she had slept away too much of the day, Belle felt ready to sleep some more and looked forward to changing into her nightgown and brushing out her disgraceful hair.

The sight of Rumpelstiltskin on his feet brought her up short in the doorway, fumbling to put everything she carried down on the floor so that she could rush to support him. He was slumped against the nearest bottom bedpost, his left arm wrapped around it while his injured right hung useless at his side.

"Whatever are you doing?" Belle demanded, trying to guide him to sit on the bed, but Rumpelstiltskin shook his head, matted hair wild about his face.

"'s all right," he said, in a shaking voice that discredited his argument more than a little. "Sit by the fire."

With his arm across her shoulders, he was able to walk steadily enough, but with a heavy limp that worried Belle as she helped him lower himself into the chair. She knelt at once, expecting to see a wound opened and blood everywhere, but his white nightgown was marked only where sweat had met her inadequate efforts to clean all the blood away, before.

"What's the matter with your leg?"

"It's an old injury," Rumpelstiltskin said, moving his leg out of her grasp as she tried to lift his nightgown. "Thought the magic had cured it long ago," he added, bitterly. He sounded stronger, now that he was sitting down again, and Belle looked up to see his eyes changed once again - wide irises, paler and far more piercing than the gentle brown they'd been a while ago.

"I brought you some mint tea," Belle said, not knowing what else to say. He spoke of things that were beyond her understanding; he did not speak of them enough to let her gain any understanding. "And hot water for a wash, so it's best that you're by the fire."

He gave no answer, so Belle lit two candles to see what she was about, brought Rumpelstiltskin his tea and kept her hand upon the cup until she was confident that he could manage it without her, and brought her copper wash basin to the fireside with the kettle. Her trousseau had any number of cloth oddments that could be pressed into service for bathing and drying but, as she brought them to the fireside as well, she had a sudden memory of the enormous sponge with which Rumpelstiltskin had bathed her arms, during her fever. Wherever did he keep such things?

For that matter, where did he keep a coach and four horses, and their eerie coachman?

Magic had been the mistress of Rumpelstiltskin's household for too long, she decided, watching him pretend to ignore her as she returned one more time to the fireside, this time with his black nightgown in her hands. If he would allow her nothing else then she would be, in the future, the mistress of small comforts here.

Rumpelstiltskin had drunk the tea, greedily, and if it had not settled his stomach then it had not sickened him either. Belle knelt again at his feet, took the cup from his hands and set it out of harm's way, and rested her hands on her knees, looking up at him with stern matter-of-factness. At least, she hoped that was what her expression conveyed. She felt only weary and nervous.

"Can you manage to wash, or shall I?" Taking a slight shake of his head to mean that he could not manage without her help, Belle poured water into the basin and tried to think how best to go about washing someone. Head to foot, or the other way? Would he be too cold, with the nightshirt off? Could she wash him beneath it? Of Hearth and Stove, which Belle had almost finished reading, had offered no guidance on how to wash bashful husbands while they sat in a fireside chair.

Dipping a cloth and wringing it out, the water almost too hot to stand against her skin, Belle got to her feet and carefully wiped Rumpelstiltskin's face with it. Next, his left hand, and his arm as far as she could move his sleeve. The right was too swollen to attempt it, so Belle rinsed out the cloth and applied it behind her husband's neck, earning a sigh that might have been pleasure.

"Are you going to do all over?" he asked, as she brought the cloth around to swipe at his throat, going carefully where his skin was marked.

"If you'd like," Belle said, trying to sound indifferent about it, while Rumpelstiltskin gave her a passable imitation of his teasing grin. "If you're not too shy to take this off." She tugged at the open neck of the nightshirt, answering teasing with teasing to mask her sudden confusion. He was thinking about that? Now?

Suspicious of his teasing, Belle returned to her knees and lifted the hem of the nightgown into his lap. If she began with his legs and feet, he would spend less time chilling while she washed his back and chest with the gown off.

Heavy scarring caught her eye, among the fresher wounds to his right leg. These thick scars were a band above the knee, feeding into its swelling and a slight twist there, and her curious fingers found the worst of it at the back of the knee. An old injury? It must have been a terrible one, she thought; bone deep and healing crookedly. It was not visible at all, when Rumpelstiltskin was himself. She had glimpsed enough of him to know that, as odd as his skin usually was, it was without pits or scars of any kind.

It was difficult to avoid dwelling on such an injury, but Belle remembered Rumpelstiltskin's bitterness when he spoke of it. It would keep. Gentle where he was wounded and firm where he was not, Belle washed him from thighs to feet, as much as the chair would allow.  When she glanced up, as she selected a fresh cloth and added more hot water to the basin, she saw Rumpelstiltskin lick his lips and glance quickly away from her.

He was thinking about that! Belle surprised herself, being so sure of it. She so seldom felt that she knew her husband at all, but she recognised his furtive interest in her attentions.

"Your back," she said, calmly. Rumpelstiltskin hesitated, his mouth tightening for a moment, but fidgeted obligingly until Belle could lift the gown over his head. He sat there at the edge of the seat with his head bowed, holding the gown protectively in his lap, while all of Belle's attention was given to his injured arm. The healing had slowed, but she could make out some improvement, and no sign whatsoever of poison in the wounds. His magic had to be doing that much for him, she knew, and wondered why it had not been able to spare him the dreadful pain as well.

His back was barely injured, but had received none of her attention the first time she had bathed him because she had been unable to lift him. Tonight, Belle spent some time over it, scrubbing firmly with one cloth and dabbing him dry with another, until she could let him sit back in the chair. He still had the discarded nightgown in his lap, but the thin silk was a poor shield for what lay beneath and she could see that he had grown somewhat hard while she paid attention to his back.

"Why do you keep hiding from me?" she asked, taking her last clean cloth and wetting it, and standing over him a final time to wash his chest. There, she took more care because more of the skin was raw.

"I don't know," Rumpelstiltskin said, and reached for her with his left hand, clumsily grasping her waist. "Why do you not care that your husband is... this?" he asked, instead.

"I'm trying not to be frightened that you've changed, if that's what you mean," Belle said, knowing that it wasn't. "Are other men so different from you?" She knelt at his feet, rinsing her cloth and pulling gently at the nightgown that preserved the last of his modesty. He flinched as she took it away. "You're not so different from how you were," she decided, looking at the half-hard thing resting limply against his thigh. "So I don't think other men can be that different from you."

Rumpelstiltskin held his breath while she washed his belly, dipping down to encompass his cock and the sac beneath, but not daring to wash there in earnest because, having no such parts herself, she had no way of knowing how tender they were. He grew harder at each stroke of the cloth, though, and Belle did her best not to stare. She did not think that she would like it if he stared at her in her pleasures; she much preferred that they kissed and pressed close. "Do you want me to touch it?"

"Yes," he said, unsteadily. He had sat with his knees clamped tightly together while she washed him; now he loosened them, let her between them so that she could get nearer and take the shaft in both her hands. Belle wanted to look up at him, but bent to kiss his belly instead, earning a soft sigh. The position was awkward, but she did her best to move one hand as he had shown her, and to keep the other from touching anywhere that seemed likely to hurt him. Her kisses seemed to give him the most pleasure and, thinking of how it felt when he kissed her breasts and throat, Belle applied herself with more enthusiasm.

Caressing her hair, his hand still shaking, Rumpelstiltskin made a soft sound of surprise when she touched her tongue to his belly. Having found that she liked to kiss his mouth, Belle had yearned to kiss him elsewhere, while he kept himself so stubbornly covered. She found that she liked this, too, even if she did feel silly kneeling there, guessing at what to do next. She liked how his skin felt to her lips; how his abdomen twitched when she moved her mouth and, once, dared a tiny scrape with her lower teeth that made him wriggle in the seat.

Flushed with heat and not a little embarrassment, Belle remembered that she held him in her hand. He had softened, while she kissed him, yet he did not seem to object to that; uncertain, she lifted her head and gave him a pleading look. Rumpelstiltskin's only guidance was a drowsy, hooded look and the twitch of a kind smile.

"I... I feel silly," Belle said, with a half glance at the contents of her hand.

"It's your pantomime, dearie," he said, the smile growing. "You set the stage."

"Oh, you...!" Laughing, letting go of his cock, Belle sat back on her heels and put her hands on her hips. "You know I don't like it when you tease me."

Rumpelstiltskin waved a hand towards the fresh nightgown, and Belle clambered to her feet to help him into it. She supposed that was fair enough; if she did not like to be made to feel foolish and ignorant, then he did not like to be naked. Now that she had seen all that he was hiding, and had a picture in her mind to accompany all that her body had felt, she did not mind so very much. Man or monster, she was sure that he concealed nothing that might dismay her.

"Perhaps I shall hide away under my nightgowns, too," she suggested, as she smoothed the black silk across his knees. "Never let you see me, even while we love."

"Then I would invent a spell to let me see through clothing," he smiled, with a hint of his old, bright ease. "And watch you all day as you dusted and scrubbed and fussed about my castle."

"And you say that I'm wicked and wanton?" Belle resisted the urge to put her arms around him, as she helped him to his feet. She could only hurt him, and he could bear little weight on his twisted leg. Rumpelstiltskin found the wherewithal to press a kiss to her brow, as she steadied him, and she was grateful. She did not mind his teasing, not so very much, but she longed for any sign that she was near to his heart, and that her ineptitude as a lover did not make him impatient. "It must hurt terribly," she said, on their wavering, shuffling journey to the bed. "Your leg."

"More than I remember," he said, tightly. "Do you prefer the monster or the cripple, I wonder?" There was no mockery in the words, only the frustration of his pain and weakness, so Belle just shook her head, too out of breath from supporting his weight to make an immediate reply. What sort of a question was that, anyway? She let Rumpelstiltskin sit while she pulled the pillows over to the side of the bed nearest the door, building them up for him the way he liked. It had not been at all convenient to play nurse to him while he occupied the middle of the enormous bed; this way, she would be able to sit beside him rather than mount a minor expedition every time she needed to reach his side with a cup or mop his brow.

As she fussed with the pillows, leaning past him, Rumpelstiltskin petted her hip. His weakness made him clumsy about it, but Belle smiled to herself as she stacked the last pillow. She had not thought that their pleasures had any place in a sick bed but, now that she thought on it, she remembered the comfort that it brought her, even before she discovered pleasure with him. She considered how much she had missed his warmth in her bed while he was away. Perhaps he, likewise, wanted only the gift of her nearness and affection?

They were a strange match, Belle thought, tucking him in and bending to kiss his forehead. Her ignorance, his reticence. It was a wonder they had consummated their marriage at all, and she had come to realise that she had not been the only one quaking with fear, when the moment came. If only one of them had known better, that night - she that she would not be abused, or he that he would not be scorned.

Knowing that he watched her, Belle made an unnecessary, slow chore of undressing herself and slipping into her creamy nightdress, leaving her day things on the trunk. She glanced around the room, but had no heart for tidying any of the mess. It would wait for morning, for daylight through the window and the fresh hope that came with a new day.

"Do you need more medicine?" Perching herself beside him, Belle made sure to watch his eyes, not fully trusting that his answer would be an honest one. Rumpelstiltskin bit his lip, sighed impatiently and nodded.

"Half a spoon, then dilute it and discard half, if you will. I felt quite unwell, before." He blinked, and in that moment his eyes became soft, human brown again. Monster or cripple? The horrible question came back to her as she watched it happen. Belle gave him a kiss before going to fetch his medicine. Of course he would want to know if she preferred him as an ordinary man, if he had feared that she would be disgusted by his usual appearance. And, of course, she would not tell him that she did, even if it were true. All that she knew for certain was that she disliked the changing of his eyes. Eyes were supposed to be windows on the soul, were they not? When his eyes changed, Belle felt that she was looking at a different soul entirely, and how could that be?

She prepared the medicine as he had asked, discarding half of the diluted medicine before bringing the cup to him. The inaccuracy of such a measurement unnerved her rather, but Rumpelstiltskin knew the potion better than she did. He did not reassure her when he grimaced with reluctance as she brought the cup to his lips.

"I can make a different medicine," she suggested, helping him to keep the cup from wobbling as he drank. "This wasn't very difficult."

"There's no need." He licked his lips as the bitter liquid went down, and Belle took the cup away, setting it on the ground beside the bed. "I'll be myself again soon. No curse buries my power for long, no matter how cunning."

"You'll change back? Be exactly as you were?"

Astonished at her naked relief, Rumpelstiltskin stared at her.

"You sound glad."

And he made that sound like an accusation.

"It's hard enough getting to know a new husband without him changing every five minutes," Belle said, flustered. "You did enough of that before."

Rumpelstiltskin continued to stare, and gripped her hand when she tried to move away.

"It is easier to be despised," he said, urgently. "I did not know how much easier, until our wedding night. I don't know anything else, Belle, but how to be alone."

The shameful thought entered her mind that if the blue poppy loosened his tongue so, then perhaps it should not be saved only for great pain. Belle caught her bottom lip between her teeth, stroking his hand with her thumb.

"But you're not alone, now," she said, small voiced. "And I don't want to be. Let me prove myself, if I must earn your trust. Please, just give me a chance."

Not the right time, her inner voice scolded. This was taking advantage of his weakened state to have her own way, pure and simple. But they could not go on as they had begun, with their only true understanding found in the bedroom; with Belle aware that her husband guarded dreadful secrets, yet ignorant of what they were and what she must not do or say. Even in his agony, that night in the turret, he had pushed her away, as though she might loathe him for his weakness rather than offer him her strength.

Drained of words and all but drained of emotion too, Belle blew out the miserly candles and got into bed. Rumpelstiltskin met her with his left arm outstretched, welcoming her to his side. That was a small comfort, and she welcomed it.

"What would you have me do?" he asked, when they were still, Belle's head resting on his arm and his left leg caught between her own. "Take you home? Furnish you a palace where you can have a thousand servants of your own? Name it, and--"

"No!" She spoke her heart but he heard her words all twisted up by his expectations. It hurt her, and most of the pain was for his sake. "Let me know my husband. Let me be your wife, truly your wife. Speak to me when you doubt. Question me when you don't understand. Trust me with the truth of things as they are, as they must be. Trust that I can... that I can endure, and not come to hate you for it."

It was a passionate speech, and it left her breathless and quaking with nervous energy, her left hand making a fierce, sweaty fist around a handful of his nightgown. She felt that she had stopped pleading only because she had frightened herself into silence.

Rumpelstiltskin was silent for so long that Belle was half afraid that he had gone to sleep in the middle of her unburdening her heart, but then he turned his head and, with considerable clumsy effort, found her lips for a soft kiss. He tasted of the poppy medicine, of the alcohol and bitter scent of it. It was quite pleasant, so diluted, and Belle followed him, greedy for more, simultaneously trying to press against him and avoid hurting him.

The longer they kissed, the more clumsy and drowsy Rumpelstiltskin became, and Belle resigned herself to sleeping with the itch of desire kindled but unsatisfied. It was nice to kiss him, anyway; to be the one doing the kissing while he, half insensible, rubbed lazily at her back and made quiet, warm sounds of appreciation.

When his hand slid from her back to the pillows, Belle let him be, curling herself up against his side again and waiting for her heartbeat to slow. Had he heard her words, she wondered. Had he truly? Would he remember them, or would it seem like only a poppy-dream to him, come daylight, that his wife had spoken so plainly?

A kiss had seemed to be her husband's answer to her heartfelt plea. Belle chose to believe it, as she waited for sleep to come.

Chapter Text

Refreshed and cheerful, Belle had washed herself with plenty of hot water in front of the glowing kitchen fire, and then washed her hair under the chilly pump, before the sun was really up. The excessive sleep had made up for the recent lack of it; her mind was clear and her steps felt lighter as she scurried, chilly in her nightdress, back up to her room to dress. There had still been no letter awaiting her in the box, but even that had not dampened her spirits for more than a moment.

Rumpelstiltskin still slept, so Belle crept about in near-darkness rather than risk waking him. She sat in the fireside chair to see to the combing of her wet hair, and plaited it tightly against her scalp, securing it with two ribbons. She would need to buy more, very soon, if her husband kept on taking his little trophies; most of the ones she had left in her trunk were wide, bright, gaudy things that would make her look girlish. She kept them because she had once loved them so, but could not bring herself to wear them in her hair now that she was a wife, any more than she would have worn them under the threat of invasion at home. If there was one thing upon which she agreed with the pseudonymous writer of Of Hearth and Stove, it was that a wife had no business being foolish.

There had been very little else in the book that Belle could agree with. As Rumpelstiltskin had promised, the advice on kitchen matters was useful, but Belle was rather glad that she did not have to live in its fictitious household and deal with its bland servants and faceless family. Nothing in life was as straightforward as the author suggested it ought to be.

With her nightdress clinging and damp, Belle was in no hurry to move away from the fire, and sat there until a muffled sound from behind suggested that her husband was waking up. Another sound was sharper, nearer to a cry of pain, and Belle was by his side in a moment, soothing and stilling him until he was fully awake.

"Medicine," he hissed, and Belle nodded, upset that the night seemed to have worsened rather than improved his condition. As she went to prepare the dose, she twitched the curtains open enough to give them some light.

Rumpelstiltskin could not swallow the cup of medicine and water fast enough, almost choking himself in his urgency.

"Slowly," Belle pleaded, but he was strong enough to keep her from controlling the cup. That was something, she supposed, rubbing his chest and making soothing sounds until he stopped spluttering and lay still, breathing hard. "Is it the same as before?"

He nodded, tight-lipped. Tight everywhere, the battle rejoined beneath his skin. Without being able to explain how, she could feel it. Belle shivered at the thought. When magic warred with magic, she could think of nothing worse than to be the battleground.

"Belle," Rumpelstiltskin said, when the medicine had eased him enough to breathe steadily, with an effort. "More, today. Another spoon in water."

"A-are you sure?" Had he been himself, green-grey and glistening with gold, she would not have hesitated to follow his instruction, but only his eyes were as they had been before. An ordinary man could be poisoned by the best of medicines. "You felt so ill from it, yesterday."

"Needs must," he said, struggling for every word. "Please, Belle. I've not your courage."

"You're sure it can't harm you," she pressed, speaking loudly so that there could be no doubt. "You're quite sure?"

"Sure," he nodded, and curled up on his side as the pain took him again. Belle had to keep him from falling out of the bed until it eased again, and she could persuade him to lie back. "Belle... please..."

Wordless, reluctant, Belle added another tiny measure of the poppy medicine to some water and allowed him to drink it. Rumpelstiltskin nodded, relaxing as it took effect, and held her hand tightly until it carried him off to sleep again.

He had been so much better, last night. Belle had hoped for a gentler reunion, this morning, but perhaps that had been just a foolish wish. She had no understanding of what ailed him, of what a curse could do to one as steeped in dark magic as Rumpelstiltskin. Foolish, then, to expect it to run its course like a mere cold.

Feeling helpless, Belle took a deep breath and did what little she could; fetched the bucket in case it was needed, brought a candelabra nearer so that she could read as she sat beside him, and checked his healing wounds as soon as there was daylight enough. Those, at least, were well on the mend. Even his hand, which two days ago had been a gory mess, once more resembled a hand - swollen and sore, but with patches of smooth, healed skin. Those patches, she noted, were of his usual skin colour. Had she not known that, the shade would have quite alarmed her as any part of a wound.

Wishing that she had thought to eat something while she was busy in the kitchen, Belle distracted herself from her hunger with a book selected from her shelves. It was one that she had taken from the library, upstairs - a history of armour and weaponry in the Enchanted Forest, penned by a renowned master metalworker. Belle wondered what her husband would say to her choice of reading matter. She knew what her father would say - that a girl who read widely was less likely to have any nasty surprises in life. And Gaston would say that such things were not seemly for a girl, and probably suggest that she sit quietly and sew something, instead.

How could she let Rumpelstiltskin know that she was sincere in her wish to be at his side, a true wife? No doubt it would have been more straightforward, had fate led her to wed Sir Gaston instead, but she held no illusions about that bargain, either. Her family held influence and respect. Belle, herself, would inherit land and titles one day. To Gaston's family, she had been a strategic prize; to Gaston, she had been a duty, with the convenience of uniting their families outweighing the inconvenience of taking on a bookish and obstinate bride.

She did not think that Rumpelstiltskin regretted marrying her for those reasons. She was certain that he found her agreeable in his bed, and not only for the pleasure that it gave him to take her. None of the qualities that had so disturbed Gaston appeared to trouble Rumpelstiltskin, who gave her the run of his library and tolerated her obstinate attempts to become a housekeeper. Why, then, did he refuse and refuse to believe that her affection was sincere? What caused him to doubt that it would last?

Belle sighed, bending to soothe him in his drugged sleep. The poppy had not put him all the way beyond pain, this time; his face twitched, his body tensed and trembled every few minutes. The book from which she had taken the instructions to make the medicine had warned of that, as well - that the efficacy of any poppy preparation quickly waned, requiring larger and larger doses to sustain any benefit. Once begun, that could become a dangerous habit, with the body calling for the medicine long after the pain was gone. The dose should be gradually reduced over several days, the book said, until the patient was kept comfortable by a mild tisane of the crushed pods.

Rumpelstiltskin turned onto his injured side with a mumbled complaint, and barely seemed to notice that he had trapped his swollen hand in doing so. The medicine had done that much, then, at least. She hoped that it had soothed his leg, too. More than once in the night she had awakened to find him trying to settle into a new position, comfort eluding him because of it.

His magic must be powerful indeed if it had buried such an injury for so long that he had been able to forget how it had pained him when he was a man. An ordinary man.

Studying his face, Belle allowed herself to consider that properly for the first time. Rumpelstiltskin had been just an ordinary man, unremarkable in his appearance; husband to a wife, father to a son and crippled by a tortured leg. What had become of him? Her fingertips traced the deep-set lines across his brow, then his cheeks. They had been there all along, she thought, but so much about her husband deceived the senses that she had not noticed the haggard lines until he became ill.

How did an ordinary man come by such power as Rumpelstiltskin had, now? Of all his secrets, Belle supposed that would be the one worth guarding from any mortal eyes. Even those of his wife. When Rumpelstiltskin spoke of the Dark One, he spoke as if he meant something apart from himself, yet Rumpelstiltskin was the Dark One. He said that, too. Spinner. Stealer-of-babes. Deal Maker. Dark One.

Husband. The title sat uneasily with the rest, she could see that. It spoke of protection and duty and family, and power of an altogether different kind. He had chosen to take her as his bride; had been the one to warn her that marriage was the most everlasting of contracts. Yet it was he who struggled to accept her status as his wife; it was he who avoided facing the consequences of his demand.

In darker moments, when he frightened or upset her, Belle had caught herself entertaining the notion that, in accepting his terms, she had unexpectedly called his bluff.

There was the ripple of change again, accompanying his twitches of pain. The golden-flecked thick hide of which Rumpelstiltskin spoke with such scorn was predominant for just a moment, and then faded again as the pain loosened its grip. Did the struggle with the pain cause the change, or was the change the cause of his pain? Belle soothed him as best she could, and occasionally managed to spare some attention for her book.

By mid-morning, Rumpelstiltskin appeared to have found a more peaceful level of sleep, and lay quite limp on his back, breathing heavily through his mouth.

Belle took the opportunity to tiptoe out of the room, to stretch her legs and to fetch up something to eat. Unsure how often she would be able to get away, she opted to bring up the stale remainder of a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese and the last few apples, along with a large jug of fresh water.

Her husband had curled up again while she was gone, this time on his uninjured side. He looked comfortable enough, half supported by his slope of pillows, and did not stir when Belle cautiously lifted aside his tangled hair to have a proper look at his face. He seemed as much at peace as she had ever seen him, and so she left his side and went to eat by the fire, book on her knees.

Outside, the snow had finally given way to milder weather. Belle could hear the trickle and drip of meltwater, and bright sunshine occasionally broke through the clouds to brighten the landscape. It gave her a sense of optimism, even though she knew it might be weeks before the thaw cleared the route to Odstone. Rumpelstiltskin would be well again before that, she told herself, and believed it.

She was deep into her book before her husband made any further sound. Belle's aching, tight shoulders had loosened considerably as she lost herself in a book - truly lost herself - for the first time in many weeks. She had wondered if that would become a luxury of the past, of girlhood, along with her gaudy ribbons, but it came back to her easily and she was glad. Armour and weaponry were less interesting than she had hoped, but she would finish the book anyway, tucking away the new knowledge in case it ever proved to be useful.

When Rumpelstiltskin stirred, Belle carefully noted her place in the book and, leaving it on her chair, returned to his side.

More of his skin had changed while he slept. Both his hands had returned to being a soft greyish green, with the sparkle that caught the light and deceived the eye. His fingernails were darker too, although not the dull black they had been originally, and patches of darker skin spread upwards from his throat, leaving most of his face but going as high as his temples. He looked extremely odd, halfway between the two states, but he stirred in his sleep with no obvious signs of his earlier agony.

Giving his shoulder a gentle shake, Belle watched him blink his way to the land of the living. His eyes had returned to the way they had been before he was hurt, but lacked the sharpness she remembered. He looked drowsy and confused.

"How long did I sleep?" he mumbled, momentarily struggling to be upright, but giving up when Belle applied gentle pressure with her hand upon his brow.

"All morning. Your hand's much better. Look." He did so, wiggling newly-mobile fingers and blinking at the sight.

"You're cheerful," Rumpelstiltskin said, suspiciously.

"I'm glad you're not in so much pain, that's all." Smiling at his bemusement, Belle leaned over to kiss him, and lingered a moment when his lips moved in response to hers, grateful for even such a small gesture of acceptance. "Some water?"

This time, she did not have to battle to keep Rumpelstiltskin from downing the cup in urgent gulps. He sat up and sipped, slowly, looking around at the room as if startled to find himself there.

"You're changing again," Belle offered, trying to decide how much he was still under the influence of her medicine. Looking at his hands again, Rumpelstiltskin nodded, expressionless.

"I should get up," he said, when the water had gone.

"Is there any hurry?" As pleased as she was to see him steady and lucid, her husband was far from being himself. "The sleep seems to do you lots of good."

Meeting her eyes at last, Rumpelstiltskin nodded.

"...perhaps you're right. I do feel... strange."

"You look strange," Belle teased, leaning nearer. "Are you hungry?"

"No." He looked lost, worried. "Belle?"

"What is it?"

"I dream of him. My boy. New dreams." He frowned, struggling to explain, and Belle squeezed his shoulder. "Always nightmares, before." Dropping his head into his cupped hands, Rumpelstiltskin took a deep breath. "How much did I have?"

"The medicine?" Belle was having trouble keeping up with his wandering thoughts. "One and a quarter of the little spoons, mixed in water. Don't you remember?"

"Not really," he said, still buried in his hands. Belle stroked his hair until he straightened again, looking slightly less bleary-eyed.

"You were in dreadful pain this morning. It seems to have worked. It's nice to have pleasant dreams of your son, isn't it?"

"Until I wake." Sighing, Rumpelstiltskin let himself fall back to the pile of pillows. "Perhaps a little food." He focused on her again, the effort visible. "Some tea?"

"Yes, of course." Nervous of leaving him when he seemed so dreamy, Belle made a fuss of tucking the blanket tightly around him, as though it might somehow help him remember not to wander off while she was gone. "Try to rest."

His only answer was an obedient nod as he closed his eyes again.

Belle was as quick as she could be, fetching a tray with the tea things and two bowls of hot porridge. She was not surprised to find her husband out of the bed, when she got back, but this time he was standing at the window, leaning heavily but steadily against the wall, and gazing out at the dappled day.

What did surprise her was that the bed looked freshly made, the grate contained a roaring blaze and the room's many candles were all lit. The rest of the castle was still in chilly darkness, but Rumpelstiltskin's will once again ruled this room.

"You found some of your magic, then," she said, trying to dismiss her sense of disappointment. Not that he was recovered enough to attempt his small magic, of course, but that in doing so he had rendered her careful preparations worthless. When she should be joyful, she felt that she had been usurped! How foolish! "Come and eat," she urged, too cheerfully, and carried the tray into her sitting room, while Rumpelstiltskin continued to stare out of the window.

Returning to fetch the chair from beside the fire, Belle hesitated and went to her husband instead, putting her hands on his shoulders and urging him to turn and face her. With taut reluctance, he did so, and Belle's lips parted in a soft gasp to see him uninjured, clean of all blood and, save for the faintest fading patches of pink here and there, once more wearing the mask he called monster.

"So fast?" She raised her hand to his cheek, needing to touch the healed skin in order to believe what her eyes were telling her. Rumpelstiltskin watched her, his lips a thin line and his eyes filled with uncertainty. "Your arm, your hand, your leg?"

"Almost." He showed her the hand, and Belle brought it to her lips and kissed it, relief rapidly washing away her confusion and her selfish dismay at finding magic once more at work in her room. "You aren't sorry, are you?" he asked, spreading the kissed hand against her cheek and staring deep into her eyes as he leaned too close for comfort. "You're truly not."

"T-that you look like yourself again?" Unnerved by his intensity, when he had been so vague and distant but half an hour before, Belle shook her head. "No."

Rumpelstiltskin did not understand. She could see it so plainly in his searching look. She could see so much pain, and it was the pain of the heart and spirit, now, and not of the body. "Come and eat with me," she urged, and saw that he still limped very slightly as he followed her, barefoot. "You're not well yet, no matter how much magic you have back."

"I told you, it never left," he said, rather sullenly, but sat at her tiny table and reached for one of the dishes of porridge and a spoon. Belle watched him closely, and his movements were tightly controlled, having none of the fluid ease that made him so graceful when he was well. He looked uncomfortable, in every sense, and his spoon rattled briefly against the bowl before he took a deep breath and mastered it.

Thoughtful, Belle fetched the other chair and joined her husband for their simple meal.

"Does it tire you, to use magic?" she wondered, when she had taken the edge off her own appetite and stopped to pour their tea.

Rumpelstiltskin blinked at her, as if torn from deep contemplation.

"To a degree. Such small tricks as these..." he pointed his spoon at her brightly lit bedroom. "Not usually."

"But bigger magic does?"

"It's difficult to explain," he said, diffidently. "Magic is a resource, not a... a gift, such as intellect or perfect recall. Why do you ask?"

"To find out if I should be scolding you for doing too much too soon," Belle said, smiling. "Did your magic heal you, and change you back?"

"Heal, yes." Rumpelstiltskin flexed his right hand, carefully. He was still pink between his fingers, and in the centre of his palm. "The changing... that's not my doing. A side effect, perhaps. I will find out," he added, with more than a touch of menace. "Someone thought to cage my power. They'll live to regret it." His lips pursed, suddenly, and the spoon dropped from his hand into the bowl. It was another of the ripples of changing colour, but while it made him exhale sharply and bite down on a cry, Belle could see that it was nowhere near the pain he had endured before.

She had no doubt whatsoever that, should Rumpelstiltskin discover who had done this to him, their punishment would be ten times as terrible as his recent torment.

The medicine bottle was on the table, with her water jug and two cups. Belle poured a little water into one of them, and took up the bottle and the golden spoon.

"How much of this?" she asked, hoping that her tone would convey that she meant to insist if he refused. It was foolish to endure such pain when there was a remedy to hand.

"Ha... half a spoon," Rumpelstiltskin said, sagging over the edge of the table as it passed. "Perhaps you're right," he went on, as Belle prepared the dose with meticulous care, swirling the mixture in the cup before she gave it to him. "I will rest some more." He swallowed the bitter contents of the cup in one gulp, and pushed himself up from the table. Belle rose at once to steady him, less surprised than he seemed to be when he swayed on his feet. "I'll go to my chamber," he protested, but without fight as she urged him back into the chair.

"I won't hear of it," Belle told him, firmly, keeping her arm across his shoulders as she brought his teacup nearer. "Did you know that when my people marry - when the clerics will come and say the blessings, I mean - we promise our husband fidelity in both sickness and health?"

"How quaint." Rumpelstiltskin leaned his weight into her embrace, quite taking the bite out of his words. "I think your young Gaston was more interested in property than fidelity."

"Well, I didn't get to make my vows of fidelity to you," Belle went on, with stubborn good cheer, while Rumpelstiltskin's arm crept around her waist. "But I would have, if the priests hadn't been too afraid to show their faces, and you'll share my bed at least until you're well again, do you hear me?"

"Mmm." He squeezed her waist before letting his arm fall, the drug making him drowsy again. Belle gave him a gentle shake, and made sure that he was sitting upright under his own power before she released him and sat down to her tea.

Rumpelstiltskin picked up the chipped teacup with ponderous care, and sipped.

"Will you stay?"

"Was I not just commanded to stay, by my wife?" There was that dreamy slowness to Rumpelstiltskin's words again, and a smile that made no attempt to disguise genuine pleasure. "Will you be a faithful wife, Belle?"

Staring at him, Belle almost spilled tea down her dress.

"Of course I will!"

"My wife... my first wife... was not. Not to me." His quiet words eased the temptation to allow her shock to heat into outrage. Belle listened, still staring, and still clutching her teacup as if her life depended upon not spilling it. "Vows are broken every day."

"Not mine," Belle said, quietly. "When I give my word, I keep it."

"Words are tricky things too, my dear," he said, but gently. "And poppy makes them slippery as well. Out they slip, too honest for their own good." He gestured awkwardly with the cup, before setting it down with exaggerated care. "I'll rest instead."

Without Belle's help, but unsteady on his feet, Rumpelstiltskin limped back to her bed. Rather than journey all the way around it, he crawled beneath the covers on the window side, and made no comment when Belle came to tuck him in.

"I like your honest words," she said, sitting down on the bed. Her hip was close against his, and their hands found each other by some mutual design. "I did ask you to question me when you doubt."

Rumpelstiltskin looked up at the canopy above the bed, his eyes growing heavy.

"You did," he agreed. "My brave Belle. Not even the truth frightens her." Smiling faintly at his own humour, he drifted off to sleep.

As much as she valued his honesty, Belle found herself longing for a conversation with her husband that wasn't filtered through a dose of poppy medicine, or warped by pain. She missed him, evasive and coy as he had always been; she missed the husband she knew, even though she knew him so little. She missed his sprightly grace and his bubbling energy, and above all his kisses, which spoke without words of a true desire for her.

Satisfied that he would be able to manage without her, should he wake, Belle set about tidying the shameful debris of her nursing efforts.

It took her two trips to the kitchen to restore everything to its proper place, and then she spent a while sorting through the accumulated pile of laundry. Remembering her promise to Rumpelstiltskin, she touched nothing that she had collected up after undressing him and cleaning his wounds - the clothing, cloths and towels stained with his blood. She merely nudged the bucket from which they overflowed into the corner, with her foot, and got to work soaking the other things.

She was more than a little relieved that her husband's magic had once again saved her from laundering the enormous bedlinens. That was a job that needed two pairs of willing hands, and she could not very well ask him to lend his to the scrubbing and wringing. Nor had she any fresh sheets to put on the bed while she dried the old. As willing as she was, one person could not keep the castle unaided. If Rumpelstiltskin would allow her no servants, then magic would have to take their place, at least in some things.

But not in others. Belle was determined to gain control of the food stores, the kitchen hearth, and the supply of candles. She would see to it that there were spare linens, bandages, and medicines that used no magic. Simple things, but with such small influences she hoped that she might make the hollow castle seem more of a home to her.

Last of all, before blowing out the candles in the kitchen, Belle checked her letter box. Each time she did so, now, it was becoming a tussle between dashed hope and a growing, quiet worry for her father. When Rumpelstiltskin was himself again, she would ask him to check that the box was working as he had meant it to. Perhaps he had other ways of knowing whether or not her Papa was well and safe?

It was with weary steps that she returned again to her room, looking forward to curling up with her book. Any true sense of day and night had fled, during her husband's illness, and although it made her a little ashamed to be yearning for her bed so early in the evening, that was, at least, where Rumpelstiltskin was.

He had been busy and restless, by the look of him; pillows were scattered about him, and he had moved away from the very edge of the bed. He lay, now, on his front, arms stretching towards the headboard, face buried in a pillow. It looked extremely uncomfortable, to Belle, but he seemed to be at peace there.

Belle moved about aimlessly for a little while, attending to small tasks. Her chamberpot had once again succumbed to Rumpelstiltskin's household magic, and gleamed without her needing to do anything about it. She did not mind the chore itself, but the long trek to the kitchen door and back was wearing. Still, she thought, busily cleaning her teeth with the salt, sage and soot mixture, at least Rumpelstiltskin had thought of providing her with a pot. If he managed without, himself, it might easily have slipped his mind.

Her wash basin, too, obligingly filled and emptied for her, the water hot. Belle looked longingly at the bath, but resisted temptation. Rumpelstiltskin had been quickly exhausted, and she did not know how much it taxed him to see to her bathwater. Ordinarily, she was sure, he would barely notice, but she would not indulge in luxuries if they might weaken him, now.

She sat on the bed, half watching him while she carefully brushed out her hair. His had regained a little of its curl, cleaned of the dried blood and grime, and Belle smiled, realising that she approved of that. She had never thought that she would be choosy about her husband's appearance or clothing, yet found that she already had distinct preferences; for his hair to curl, for his silk and brocade over his scaly leathers. Even for his black nightgown over the white.

Did he look at her in the same way? Wish that she wore this colour instead of that, or that she arranged her hair just so? It seemed so silly, so shallow to think like that, but she could not help herself. Had she not teased him by working extra ribbons into her hair, knowing that he found some satisfaction in playing with them? It was like a game, a puzzle, and she had played at it without even meaning to.

Belle thought that Rumpelstiltskin liked the buttermilk silk nightgown best, for he had not stolen its ribbon that matched her eyes. It had been left for her on the tidy bed, as always, spread out and without creases or marks. Of the two nightgowns he had given her, it was her favourite, although the blue one was perhaps more comfortable and, being the looser and lighter of the two, more accommodating for activities other than sleeping. She loved the simplicity of the cream one, and had sweet memories of how he had admired her in it.

Changing quickly, tidying away her hairbrush and laying out her day clothes for the morning, Belle blew out most of the candles and closed the curtains. The brief burst of activity around the room roused Rumpelstiltskin somewhat, causing him to turn over and fling one arm across his face with a grunt, so Belle did not take undue care about getting in beside him and making herself comfortable with her book.

After a while, she became aware that Rumpelstiltskin watched her, and lifted her eyes from the page to smile at him. He returned the smile, and she was relieved to see that he looked less dreamy than he had before; less cautious, as though he no longer feared he might still be dreaming.

"You look better," she said, and he nodded, fidgeting himself nearer to her side and bringing a pillow for his head. Belle considered lying down, but she was comfortable where she was, and quite enjoying her stodgy book on the value of good steel. She smiled when Rumpelstiltskin pressed his face against her hip, and slid his arm across her lap beneath her book. So positioned, she could quite comfortably toy with his hair without her reading being disturbed, and found that she liked it. Their affection was so often overwhelming, while this was... peaceful.

After a while, Rumpelstiltskin reached up and positioned her book so that he could read the cover.

"You have unexpected tastes, wife," he said, releasing her book and embracing her again. "Will I find you hammering away in the forge, next?"

"Quite possibly." Belle thought that she might like to try beating out metal. It was assumed that a woman's strength was not equal to the task, but had any woman in living memory tried to make a horseshoe? She had never heard of one. "Or wearing fine armour."

"If it pleases you," he said, in a tone of studied disinterest. Belle giggled.

"I prefer silk," she assured him, and he pressed his face against her again, kissing her hip while he rubbed at her silk-clad thigh. "The suits of armour you have around the place are difficult to dust."

"I don't think dust is high on any knight's list of foes, my dear." Kissing her again, Rumpelstiltskin worked his hand upwards, until his fingertips were teasing underneath her right breast. Belle did her best to ignore him, to keep her smile from growing, and to keep her mind on the subject of metallurgy. Some things were beyond her control, however, and her right nipple shrank and tightened, treacherously, while his fingertips played nearby.

Naturally, she was glad that he felt well enough to think of having her, and had no particular wish to deny him. On the other hand, she would like for her affection to be earned; to be seduced away from her reading by his efforts alone. After all, he had demanded her hand in marriage without overtures; had taken her virginity as though it were a chore to do so; had thought to have her around the place gathering dust, like his other trophies, with no thought of romance. She would like very much to be flattered a little, and persuaded to give herself again after so many days of heartache and worry.

Rumpelstiltskin seemed not to mind her game, doing no more than explore and tease her with one hand, occasionally giving her hip a quick kiss. Unable to concentrate on the page, Belle concentrated instead on pretending to do so, and on keeping her smile from consuming her features too completely when he resorted to tugging, hopefully, at the ribbon of her nightgown.

"Does my husband want something?" she asked, as innocently as she could manage around her persistent grin.

"He does, mistress," Rumpelstiltskin assured her, softly, hooking one fingertip into the criss-crossed ribbon. "Will you deny him, in his weakness?"

Belle could contain her laughter no longer, and gave up the book when Rumpelstiltskin took it from her hands and skimmed it towards the foot of the bed.

Wriggling down to join him, Belle was surprised that he did not immediately kiss her and clutch her close to him, instead touching her cheek and jaw, and watching her eyes. Then he worked his hand into her hair, carefully combing with his fingers, and all the while studying her face.

"I did not like to be parted from you," he said, as though he could scarcely believe his own words. "To quarrel with you, to hurt you." He averted his gaze, suddenly, and cupped the back of Belle's head in his palm. "I will try to do as you asked."

"You remember." Belle's cheeks heated at once. It had been easy to speak so boldly to him while he was weak, and barely lucid.

"I do." Gently, he kissed her lips, just pressing there without moving for a long moment, and closing his eyes. "I miss you, when we are parted."

"I miss you too," Belle said, catching him up with her arm beneath his, her foot hooked behind his ankle. "You're here now, and I'm glad you're safe."

"Strange girl," he sighed, and kissed her again, properly this time. Last night, he had barely been able to join in while she kissed him; tonight, his tongue was busy and clever, reminding her of their past pleasure, while his hand moved all over her back, or slid between them to play with her breasts. There could be no better medicine than this for her hurts, Belle thought, when he rolled her beneath him and transferred his gentle kisses to her throat; to be cherished so, with his promise to try fresh in her ears. She thought that her body responded as much to her gladness as to his touch or his kisses, and her eagerness outpaced his.

When the brush of his fingertips against her nipple caused Belle to gasp into his mouth, Rumpelstiltskin grew still and studied her eyes again, half a smile haunting his lips.

"So eager already, treasure?" Shifting his weight, breathing a little harder at the effort, he plucked at her breast again, circled the firm nipple with a fingertip, and watched Belle struggle to be silent. "Eager for me?"

"Yes." Belle peered down, watching his finger patiently tracing circles around the tender spot, occasionally joining with his thumb to give her nipple a pinch, or to pull it, or bend it - all so gently that, were her body not already inflamed with desire, she might barely have felt the touch at all. After a while, he moved lower, arms around her waist, and gave his mouth to her breasts in turn, suckling her through the silk until she began to shiver, to knead at his back with her hands, and to moan with frustration that his mouth was not against her bare skin. It was an exquisite pleasure, as though the finest of threads connected her breast to her lower belly where the pleasure pooled, each of his movements teasing her with an inner tug. If she tried to concentrate on the sensation, it eluded her - too delicate to be studied, yet too insistent to be ignored. She felt that she would only need a slight touch between her legs to bring completion, yet at the same time wanted the shivering, elusive feeling to last and last.

At last, rolling her atop him, Rumpelstiltskin lifted her nightgown and touched her bare breasts, leaving Belle to find her balance as best she could. His hands gave a less direct sensation than his hot, wet mouth, and the respite was a relief, even if, astride him, it took all her reserves of self control not to rub herself wantonly against him. Would he mind if she did? Belle bit her lip, wishing such questions came to her when she was capable of thinking about them rationally. The selfishness of her pleasure frightened her, sometimes; the immediacy of it, and how it ruled her. Her husband seemed always patient, always gentle, always mindful of her needs. Was it as much of a struggle for him, and did he long to simply let it go and... and...

What did a man want, when all delicacy was thrown aside? Belle had no idea. She, it seemed, wanted to rub and rub her wet place against any convenient part of him until she found satisfaction.

A glance at his face steadied her, tamed her wild thoughts - he watched her, enchanted, his eyes dark with lust. They would give to each other, selfish and selfless all at once, and perhaps she would be brave enough tomorrow to ask him to teach her what she could not yet imagine.

"Are you ready, treasure?" Hands sliding from her breasts to her ribs, thence to her hips, Rumpelstiltskin smiled as his tickling touch made her rock forward with a shiver of protest. "Or shall I make you come, first, hmm?" His voice... oh, gods, his voice when he spoke to her this way! It tugged unabashedly on that imaginary thread inside her, making her breathless. "Are you close, my Lady?" Belle nodded, biting her lip until she tasted iron, and watching his lazy smile become a devouring grin. "Can you speak?" he asked, intrigued, and Belle shook her head, not caring to try. Her voice would squeak, she would sound silly, and it was his voice she wanted to hear.

Rumpelstiltskin lifted her gown again, and Belle all but fought her way free of it, shameless in her excitement. And she would not have him robed while she was naked, she decided, heatedly pulling at his black nightshirt until, grin fading, Rumpelstiltskin obliged her and sat up to remove it. They had shaken off the bedclothes, as far down as their knees, and Belle found herself staring at him with unrestrained interest, just as he had looked at her a moment ago. She almost bit through her lip when, taking himself in hand, Rumpelstiltskin gave his cock three, slow pulls to get it harder.

"This?" he said, with a forced bravado, and Belle followed his beckoning hands, straddled his hips and let him guide her until he was deep inside.

Her head fell back, her senses too swamped, for a few moments, to think about moving, and then Rumpelstiltskin grasped her hips and lifted his own, and heat blossomed inside her. It was nothing like ever before; she was sure that she was coming, but it was slow, prolonged and aching, controlling her movements and her voice alike. Her husband met her greedy rocking, half a beat behind her movements, and Belle heard him say her name through the music of her careless cries.

She was dizzy, when it finally ebbed, and panting for air, and looked down to see her husband smiling bemusedly, his eyes half closed.

"I think we must see to you more often, treasure," he said, in that purring voice. "I can't have my bride in such urgent need as that."

Belle tried to protest that she had not been, but she was too breathless, too shaken, and he was still hard inside her and in need of 'seeing to' himself. Adjusting herself so that she could rise and fall or sway as she wished, she put her hands on his chest and moved her hips, watching for his reactions. He seemed calm, unhurried, and Belle was quite out of breath with her efforts before very long. When she hesitated, feeling foolish and unsure, Rumpelstiltskin opened his eyes and returned his hands to her breasts, rubbing them both at once.

"There's no hurry, tonight," he said, seeing her doubtful expression. "Thank the medicine for that." When her look became blank, he became coy. "Poppy is known for prolonging the act, my dear."

"...oh." Embarrassed again by her ignorance, Belle covered his hands with her own, keeping them still against her bosoms. "Should I stop?"

"Hush," he said, in that same deep voice that had made her tremble before. "Whatever pleases you, Belle. Just that."

When she bent and kissed him, he welcomed her with his arms as though he could want nothing better. Belle made a soft, involuntary sound when he kissed her with his tongue, teasing her. How did he manage to stay so... so deliberate, so controlled, when he was able to reduce her to a shameless, writhing wreckage so very easily? Was she truly a wanton woman, for enjoying his touch so much?

"Prolonging it... for how long?" she asked, when she broke away from his kiss in need of a deep breath. She sounded timid, nervous, and tried to quell her blushes again.

"I've really no idea," he admitted, and he looked so untroubled about it that Belle relaxed somewhat. "I'd hate for you to get bored, pretty treasure," he smiled, slyly. "If I'd all my strength tonight, I'd see to it that you didn't, but we'll have to make do."

Belle laughed, helplessly, and loved that he could make her laugh - was willing to make her laugh - even while they were joined. She tried an undulating movement with belly, hips and thighs that briefly drove the knowing smirk from his face, and at the same time found a spot deep inside her that burned with sweet, sweet heat.

"I like it when you call me that," she told him, deciding that if she must feel shy and foolish then she would turn it to a good purpose. She made the slow undulation again, and felt him dig his heels into the mattress, resisting her weight.

"Treasure?" he breathed, rolling her on to her back so that she could pull him down, close, the way she liked best. It was as if he knew her mind, sometimes, or as if their urges were so well-matched that he may as well know it. If only it persisted when they parted, she thought, moaning as he kissed her temple. If only they had the same, easy accord the rest of the time. "Sweet treasure, my Lady Belle," he crooned, playing with the words, and with his movements, and with her. It was so gentle, so simple, and her pleasure was building again in shallow, grasping pulses. She had felt, so recently, that she would be incapable of coming again no matter how long Rumpelstiltskin took about it; the renewal of her pleasure shocked her, thrilled her. "Yes, treasure," he crooned, and put his hand between them to tease her over the edge. "There, treasure," he urged, stroking her with two fingers until she convulsed beneath him, struggling to grab him closer and to make everything stop, all at once. "Yes, yes, like that. So beautiful. So perfect."

"Oh..." Gulping, lost, Belle clung to him, no longer sensible to the passage of time. It would not have mattered to her if forever passed her by, there in her husband's gentle embrace, with her grateful body singing and her heart full.

Was his pleasure as great? She had wondered before, and wondered again when, at last, he tensed in her arms and thrust deep, coming. He was silent, save for a quiet grunt of satisfaction and then heavy breathing when he'd finished; he gained a deep contentment in these moments afterwards, Belle knew, but was his pleasure the same? Could she give him more, if she only knew more?

Her mind became busy with questions as her husband became insensible, kissing her haphazardly before flopping at her side, seeming exhausted. He was asleep almost at once, sprawled naked and careless on his back. Belle propped herself on her elbow as her pulse slowed, looking her fill and smiling a great deal before she covered them both and settled down, close beside him, to sleep.

Chapter Text

Belle awoke to kisses. It was definitely a new experience, to slide from dreaming into the dreamy pleasure of her husband's attentions. Belle gave herself to it without a great deal of thought, greeting Rumpelstiltskin with the return of his kisses and offering herself for a slow and easy coupling. Instead, she received his hand between her legs while he kissed her, attentive to her every response, and she greeted the new day in helpless convulsions of pleasure at Rumpelstiltskin's hands.

"You were restless," he crooned, lips tickling her ear as he continued to tease her with two fingers. "Did I do right to wake you, treasure?"

Belle gulped, not sure that she remembered how to speak, and resorted to a feeble nod. He'd left her feeling quite weak, and seemed intent on coaxing yet more pleasure from her before they rose. Could there be too much? Had she ever remembered to ask him?

"Sh-shouldn't you rest?" she managed, after several deep breaths while his kisses were devoted to her neck, her shoulder and her breasts. Rumpelstiltskin smiled, her nipple slipping deliciously from his mouth as he did so, and he crooked the two fingers deep inside her.

"Did you want me to stop?" he enquired, gazing up at her with a look of profound innocence. He moved his fingers again, and Belle's back arched without her say-so, demanding that he do anything but stop. "Thought not," he said, and resumed his kissing. He was at her navel before the next spasm curled her up, her heels scrabbling at the sheets while her hands clawed at her husband's shoulders. She felt herself scratch him, heard his hiss of pain against her belly, but could not summon any shame as she shook and moaned, while his busy mouth travelled slowly down to tease the crease of her thigh.

"Please," she begged, not knowing what she begged for. Was it more of this, or less? Respite or another shattering release? Belle was shaken, even frightened by the violence of her reaction, but Rumpelstiltskin was gentle and methodical, and she trusted him to bring her only pleasure. She trusted him, and when he nudged her there with a hesitant kiss, she sobbed, overwhelmed, her fingers twining desperately in his hair.

She had feared that this new pleasure would break her - simply break her apart in his hands, but when he began in earnest to kiss and lick beneath her damp curls, it was a delicate sensation. Delicious. Rumpelstiltskin's moan of want reassured her that this was no well-meaning chore for him; he desired to taste her, to lave her tender, swollen flesh with his hot tongue, every bit as much as he enjoyed her nipple or her mouth. Belle tried to watch him, as he fidgeted beneath the bedclothes, trying to combine her comfort with an ease of reaching her tender places. It was too difficult to lift her head from the pillow, and she allowed her body to go limp; allowed her husband to lift her leg just so, and put a hand beneath her just so, and have his fill of her as they both surrendered sounds of startled joy.

Rumpelstiltskin was clumsy, in this new pursuit, but not over-cautious; her hand in his hair was all the reassurance he needed, when they faltered, and Belle was grateful that he needed no words from her because she could not have found them, not if her life depended on it.

When he returned two fingers deep inside her, release came at once in tight, throbbing waves that robbed Belle of breath with which to cry out. When it let her go, and Rumpelstiltskin emerged from beneath the bedclothes with his lips and cheek glistening from her juices and his eyes blazing with lust, Belle simply pulled him to her with a groan, and wrapped herself around him as tightly as she could while he took his pleasure, harder than ever before, and fast.

Afterwards, they clung together - simply clung, hands flat against moist flesh, panting and, in a way that Belle could not define, triumphant together.

"Good morning," she ventured, stirring herself enough to stroke his hair when the weight of him began to be uncomfortable. Rumpelstiltskin roused himself, relieving her of his weight by propping himself on his forearms, and gazed down at her with amused fondness. "Does this mean you're feeling better?"

"Much better," he assured her, with a lascivious wriggle of his hips against hers, and kissed her. Belle recoiled slightly from the taste of herself on his lips, but only for a moment. It was a subtle taste, far from unpleasant, and she should have thought to expect it. "I shall set my castle to rights, today. That is, if my wife is... content?"

Belle gave an undignified snigger, swatting his back with her hand, and enjoyed more kisses until, with some reluctance, they conceded the need to part. Her legs wobbled beneath her when she got out of bed, and Rumpelstiltskin watched her as though he might gladly have taken her again, there and then.

"My bath," she said, uncertainly. "Will it tire you if I..." she stopped, seeing him frown with mild, exaggerated hurt. "Never mind," she said, meeting his mock hurt with mock despair, and went, shamelessly bare, into her bathing room. Everything was restored, even the generous stack of fine towels, and the bath was already filling with steaming water for her. Belle almost turned back, meaning to go and thank him, but then felt Rumpelstiltskin step up behind her, arms circling her until his crossed hands covered her breasts. He had put on his nightgown, but the fine silk was no barrier; she could feel every contour where their bodies met.

"I must bathe," she laughed, but not without a thrill at his continued interest. It was pleasant, to be wanted - to be shown that she was wanted. "Or are you stealing my bath?"

"Tempting," he confessed, kissing her shoulder. "You didn't answer my question," he added, when she made to pull free. "Have you had pleasure enough for the moment, my dear?"

He had wanted her answer? Oh dear, and she had thought he was only teasing.

"I can barely walk," she said. "Any more pleasure and I may just faint."

"Mmm." He sounded pleased, and Belle shook her head, turning to look at him when he released her from his tight squeeze. He did look better, she thought, studying him in the warm candlelight. Few patches of pink skin remained visible, and he stood without apparent discomfort, his eyes clear of confusion.

"Are you sure you're all right?" Shy, while he was clothed and she was bare, Belle took his face between her hands, hiding herself from his gaze in the process. "The book said that the medicine shouldn't be stopped all at once."

"I'd hate to have to battle a dragon, today," he admitted, pressing his cheek into her left palm. "But the worst is over. You took such care of me," he added, his voice becoming uncertain. "Took so much trouble. Tired yourself. For me?"

"Of course," she said, and kissed him firmly on the lips before turning to her bath, testing the water with her fingertips. "I was frightened, you know," she confessed, looking at her hands. "Can you really not be killed?"

"Death doesn't come calling for the likes of me, dearie," he said, heavily. "You enjoy your bath, now."

A moment later, Belle heard her bedroom door close behind him.

She did enjoy her bath, very much, and spent a long time soaking there, pampering herself with the various oils, herbs and soaps. Rumpelstiltskin's attentions had left her aching inside, tender outside and feeling strangely lethargic; she could have spent the entire morning lounging in the ever-hot water, had conscience not got the better of her.

It was approaching mid-morning before she was ready to leave her room, and watery sunlight was attempting to brighten a dull, dry day outside. Candles burned everywhere as she passed, once more, but the string with which she had tied back the curtains was still in place, brightening things further.

In her kitchen, all was spotless, and a folded pile of linen on the table hinted that she would find no laundry awaiting her, should she go and look. Rumpelstiltskin's bloodstained clothing was not among the oddments on the table.

The kitchen hearth was a roaring blaze once more, and she had taken such care with it before retiring, so that she would have a steady heat this morning. Belle sighed, and decided that she would speak to Rumpelstiltskin at the first opportunity about making the kitchen her own, and about the stove that he had promised.

Fresh bread waited in the pantry, all trace of stale food gone. There was little left but dried goods, and Belle thought she would ask Rumpelstiltskin to allow her to buy food at the market, rather than replenish everything by magic. This he might refuse, she knew - he had hinted at long-standing arrangements with the traders, and those might not be tactfully broken. Whatever else remained a mystery about her husband, it was common knowledge that he did not break his deals.

With bread, butter and plum preserve for breakfast, Belle tried her letter box again, and almost choked on a crumb when she saw a fat letter awaiting her inside it. She had steeled herself for disappointment once again, and very carefully wiped her hands before taking the letter, mindful of Rumpelstiltskin's warning that not so much as a hair should fall into the box.

It was not one letter, she discovered, but three bound as one, the outermost being written in her father's hand and addressed, above his seal, simply to Belle. The second was in Lotte's round hand, and the third from the daughter of her last governess, with whom she had sometimes passed the afternoons until Leorna was married.

Overjoyed, and on top of her delightful awakening, Belle's heart felt so full that she could burst. She felt that she might sing like a lark, or laugh all day, or rush to hug her husband and share her news with him. She did none of that, but imagined the terrified look on Rumpelstiltskin's face had she thrown herself at him in a fit of unrestrained joy, and she chuckled to herself as she began to read.

Papa spoke of home, of all the details that, knowing Belle so well as he did, he was sure she would wish to hear. The route to the sea had been reopened, and word was spreading that their lands were safe once more; the traders from far away were returning. Raw materials were coming in and, soon, fine exports would be leaving again; although they had lost many craftsmen in the war with the ogres, many yet remained. Where a trade was now short of a master craftsman, and no apprentice ready to step into his place, word had been sent to neighbouring lands of the opportunity for an incomer. They would prosper again.

Of course, he asked after Belle, as well. Was she well? Her clothing had been packed and would be sent at once, and there her father directed her to Lotte's letter for the details. He hoped that it was not an abuse of the magic box to enclose pages by more than one hand, and that Rumpelstiltskin would forgive their over-eagerness if he objected; Belle was much loved and much missed by her people. They hoped that her husband would soon bring her home to visit them.

The last made Belle sad, and she set the letters aside to make herself a pot of tea, and to finish chewing her breakfast. As eager as she was to devour every word, she was equally keen to make them last a while, and she smiled ruefully to herself as she remembered feeling, so recently, the same way about her pleasure with her husband.

What was in their minds, back home, when they thought of Belle, here in Rumpelstiltskin's castle? No thoughts of her being tormented by too much pleasure in her bed, that was certain. No thought of her laughing freely with her new husband, nor fretting by his side while he lay injured. The castle was not what anyone would easily imagine, either; while it was lonely and dark, and gloomy when she found herself alone there, it was hardly what anyone would expect of the seat of a monster.

Once she had poured her tea, Belle began to read the letter from Lotte. She could tell at once that her maid had been schooled with some care as to what to write, and had written very slowly as a result. There were ink blots in the middle of words, though Lotte had a fluent hand when left to her own devices. There was little in the letter besides an inventory of Belle's outfits, the occasional fond memory of when one or another of them had been worn, and Lotte's heartfelt well-wishes at the end. Of Rumpelstiltskin there was no mention, and Belle's vivid imagination supplied her with the vision of her father standing at Lotte's shoulder, containing his temper and praying for virtue as he implored the woman to write just a single line paying her respects to the 'demon' who had stolen away her mistress.

Leorna's letter had been written many weeks ago and been delayed, Belle could tell at once. Leorna and her family had been sent away by Leorna's new husband, for the sake of their unborn child, and Belle knew that the baby would have been born shortly after Belle's own wedding to Rumpelstiltskin. In the letter, Leorna wrote cheerfully of the discomforts of being so close to her confinement, of cradles and crochet, of the odd food in her temporary home, and of her fears for Naven's safety in battle. She promised to write to Belle again with news of the birth, and there the letter petered out with a terse signature, leaving Belle to imagine her friend suddenly daunted and speechless, realising the ordeal before her. Belle hoped that all had gone well for her, in the intervening weeks.

"Ah," Rumpelstiltskin said, startling her from the doorway. Why did she never hear him come down those steps? "A letter!"

"Yes." Belle got up to fetch another cup, and had to turn back when she remembered his request for the chipped one. "I've made tea," she said, bringing it to the table. "Have you eaten?"

"You needn't nurse me any more, my dear," he said, absently, and produced a handful of bits of string from behind his back. "Why is my castle decorated with string, madam?"

"Because your castle has no light when all the candles are gone, sir," Belle said, pointedly. "I only tied back the curtains."

"Ah." Nodding, Rumpelstiltskin sat opposite her place at the table, and smiled when she placed a cup of tea in front of him. He began to sort and straighten the pieces of string, laying them side by side next to his cup while Belle returned to her place, and to her own tea. "I've seen all that you did," he said, absorbed in his game with the string. "You're very resourceful, my dear. And managed not to touch anything dangerous in my laboratory and turn yourself into a cockroach, which is something of a first."

Belle considered that.

"The weeping maids?"

Rumpelstiltskin looked abashed.

"Quite."

"And when they didn't suit, you thought you'd try a weeping wife about the place?" For all that he teased her, Rumpelstiltskin did not, himself, like to be teased. He took refuge behind his teacup, holding it with both hands.

"Not straight away. I managed alone for, oh, fifty or sixty years. And you didn't seem the weeping type."

Tilting her head, watching him shrewdly, Belle considered that too. It was difficult, because a less rational part of her mind kept reminding her that, not two hours ago, this man, this husband, had buried his face between her legs and pleasured her until she sobbed. It made it extremely difficult to think ill of him, and quite hard to think at all.

"You asked for my hand two minutes after we met," she said, an idea forming in spite of her current bounty of goodwill towards him. "I'd barely said a word. You saw Lotte for a few seconds before I ordered the servants to go." She allowed the words to hang, watching him, thinking through the implications and wondering why she had not done so before. "How did you know that I'd not be the weeping type, or that I'd endure? Or that Lotte cries at the least thing and drips like a slug?" He stared into his cup, so hard that he might be trying to read the leaves. "You'd watched me, hadn't you? Chosen me."

"You called my name," Rumpelstiltskin said, turning the cup around and around between his palms. "And I watched you, yes."

"And... and wanted me for your wife?"

"What man wouldn't?"

Belle shook her head, firmly. That wasn't him, wasn't Rumpelstiltskin - it was incautious, it was foolish.

"There's more," she decided. "More than that. I've thought that you named your price on a whim, but you didn't, did you?" She was being too direct, the inner voice warned. Her husband appreciated her cleverness, but she should remember to whom she spoke; she must not forget his power, simply because she had seen him rendered powerless. "Please tell me," she said, simply.

"I was alone, and you were lovely," Rumpelstiltskin said, setting down his cup with deliberate care. "And when I saw to whom you were betrothed, I saw a means to remedy both matters. Perhaps." He fluttered his fingers, somehow indicating that his thoughts were not so easily bound in mere, mortal words. "Your Gaston is from a family I know well. You were a means to an end, and the boy spends his nights in brothels. I think you would not have found love there, my Lady."

Shocked, and unsure which revelation shocked her the most, Belle clasped her hands on the table in front of her, and stared at them until her thoughts stopped chasing each other in circles.

"That's why you chose me," she said, eventually. None of it mattered, not really. She would not let it upset her that her husband had spied upon her when he might have courted her, or that her aloof fiancée had resorted to whores. What did it matter, now? It changed nothing, even if it disturbed her. "Why marry at all? You expected nothing of me, none of the things a wife is for. No," she went on, with a trace of a bitter laugh, "you expected less than nothing. So, why?"

Rumpelstiltskin was silent for a long time, but Belle could see that he was neither refusing to answer nor pretending that he had not heard her. He was only thinking, soberly, while his fingers caught up two pieces of the string and knotted them neatly together.

"Hope," he decided, at last, just as Belle's nerve was failing her. He glanced at her, unhappily, then selected another piece of string to knot with the others. "I am a monster, but I was once a man. A man who loved his child dearly, and was a fool." Another piece of string was plucked between thumb and forefinger, and deftly tied to the growing length. "The monster was forgetting how. Forgetting to remember." Swallowing convulsively, Rumpelstiltskin snatched another string, his fingers working faster. "You were lovely, alive, young, and all the things that I never was, or had forgotten how to be. I wanted that on any terms, my dear. Your beauty, here. To make a fool of me again."

His words had left a painful lump in Belle's throat, and her heart sore with compassion for him. She knew that he had given her more words than answers, yet she could see how they cost him, each and every one. If it was not all of the truth then it was a truth, and it could do nothing but soften her heart towards him.

"Do you accept my terms, Rumpelstiltskin?" Her voice was hoarse, almost a whisper; she was so afraid of his answer. "A wife who means to be a wife to you?"

"Yes." With no more pieces of string left, Rumpelstiltskin brought the two ends of his knotted length together, and tied them with slow care, staring fixedly at his task. "If you'll have a husband who's forgotten how to be a man."

With the string looped around his hands as if to begin a game of cat's cradle, he rested them instead on the table, and forced himself to look at her. Belle didn't know where to start in untangling his expression, which shifted from moment to moment, always subtle and yet speaking of turmoil within. Had she been able to reach him across the great table, she would have done so - grasped his hand, reassured him of her sincerity. Instead, finding him a smile from somewhere, she pushed her letters within his reach.

Rumpelstiltskin looked at them with careful, polite interest, but made no effort to pick them up or to read them.

"Your father fares well?" He spoke with the same great care and courtesy, reminding her of the first days of their marriage, when his civility had soothed her fears.

But Belle's face fell.

"He... doesn't say," she admitted, shocked that it had taken his question to make her see it. "He must be busy, rebuilding," she went on, half convincing herself as she spoke. "He can't spend all day composing a letter, the way I can." Rumpelstiltskin leafed through the sheets until he had her father's letter in his hand. He looked at it carefully, but Belle could see that he wasn't really reading it. "Can you tell anything from that?" Her voice was small; she felt foolish and ashamed for asking a mighty sorcerer to stoop to magician's tricks with a letter.

"I can tell that Death was not upon him when he signed his name," Rumpelstiltskin said, quietly. "That no contract of magic bound him, either. That is all." Gently, he pushed the letters back to her. Belle nodded, biting her lip as she carefully refolded the pages, smoothing them down into a neat pile. Her husband was watching her, that intent stare of his that was almost a touch. Belle wanted to smile for him, but could not compose her features no matter how hard she tried. She wanted to be a wife to him, she truly did, but she was a daughter too. "Come," Rumpelstiltskin said, rising and waiting for her at the end of the table, his hand outstretched. "Come with me."

Belle went, obediently taking his hand and walking with him, up the stairs to the great room, and through it, and up the stairs. She did not mind where he was taking her; it was enough that he held her hand, and showed concern for her worry about her father. She would rather be beside Rumpelstiltskin than alone, and so she kept up with him as best she could, skipping every few steps because his stride was longer than hers.

He led her to his turret, which had undergone a transformation since Belle's visit to retrieve the box of candles. Not only was the floor clear, and all sign of the spilled ingredients and potions gone, but the furniture had changed places, or just changed completely. There were tall, airy, open shelves of ingredients and potions in front of the book cases, and the long work tables had been pushed together in a horseshoe shape, open towards the stairs. Rumpelstiltskin's beloved spinning wheel had been banished to the wall beside the window, almost exactly where he had lain wounded in her arms, and its position put it beyond immediate use. Whatever her husband was doing, he expected to be too busy to need his favourite distraction.

Letting go of her hand, leaving her at the top of the stairs to marvel at the changes to the room, Rumpelstiltskin vanished behind some of the new shelves. A flash of light caught Belle's eye, but was gone before she turned her head. He emerged carrying a small, flat wooden case with tremendous care, bringing it to the nearest end of one of the work tables.

"Come," he urged, again, and caught her by the waist as she joined him there. "Let us see your father, shall we?"

"See him?" Belle looked up at Rumpelstiltskin, not understanding, and saw that his expression was grave. She watched, nervously, as he flicked the catch of the wooden case and opened it. Inside, the ornate silvered back of a hand mirror nestled in plush blue velvet lining. "A mirror?"

"No ordinary mirror," her husband said. "Place your hand on it and think of your father. Only of him," he warned, quickly, making Belle nervous as she did as he'd asked. Her father. She brought to mind his kind face, his huge hugs, his laughing eyes, and placed her right hand flat against the lumpy silver. "You have him in your mind, your Papa?" Rumpelstiltskin waited for her nod. "Pick it up, then, and look into the glass."

As Belle did so, Rumpelstiltskin released her, and stood at her shoulder, ill at ease. She registered her husband's discomfort only for a moment, for when she turned over the mirror, she saw not her own reflection but a purple shimmer, a swirl of silver mercury, and felt magic in her bones.

In the glass, she saw an image - a room with only three walls, the fourth in the process of being rebuilt, with mountains visible outside. Then her father stepped into the picture, and Belle gasped aloud, transfixed as she watched him, watched her dear, dear Papa, wave his hand meaningfully at a figure across the room. Belle realised that she could make out no other faces but that of Sir Maurice. Everyone else was a moving blur - unfinished portraits surrounding the one, perfect, living image of her father.

"You see him as he is now," Rumpelstiltskin said, taking her gently by the shoulders and watching the glass with her. "At this exact moment."

Belle opened her mouth to speak, but could not. After a while, Rumpelstiltskin brought her a chair and guided her to sit, leaving her to watch her father consult with a blurred figure over some detailed sketches or plans. He was as she remembered, big and sober and calm, yet there had been a change. His eyes were set deeper, somehow, and the lines of worry and age more marked on his jolly face. Hesitantly, Belle touched his face in the reflection... no, not a reflection, her busy mind insisted, a projection, a mirage... and watched the mercury scatter away from her fingertips, distorting the image in widening ripples. When she snatched back her hand, it settled again in a few moments, and her relief was profound.

"Magic, dearie," Rumpelstiltskin said, busy with something at the far end of his horseshoe of work benches. "Best not to poke it." But his voice was kindly, and he did not disturb her as she sat, for the rest of the morning, watching her distant Papa go about his day.

Chapter Text

So absorbed was she in following her father's progress in the little mirror that Belle barely noticed when her head began to throb, or when she began to grow light-headed. It was only when Rumpelstiltskin gently took the looking glass from her hand and placed it back in its box that her discomfort struck her, and it struck like a blow with a hammer.

She fainted.

The next thing she knew, Belle was being carried, her head on her husband's shoulder, and could not rouse herself enough to protest. Rumpelstiltskin placed her carefully on her bed, and then sat beside her, watching her with anxious, unblinking eyes.

"Belle?"

"What happened?" It was difficult to speak and oh, how her head pounded.

"Forgive me," he begged, confusing her still further. "The mirror... I left you too long."

"...dangerous?" Belle felt equal to using one word at a time. "Magic?"

"No, treasure, no," Rumpelstiltskin wheedled, all but vibrating with nerves. "Only tiring. Taxing. Some rest and a hot meal... all will be well." Hesitant, he fingered her cheek. "You've a strong mind, to keep the image so long. I should have taken more care. I was distracted."

Finally mustering the wherewithal to respond to his misery, Belle brushed his cheek in return. Her arm felt too heavy, her hand like lead, but it was more than worth the effort when he kissed her departing fingertips, quite visibly relieved.

"It was as though I was there," Belle breathed, while Rumpelstiltskin caught her hand and clasped it gently to his chest. "Beside Papa. I could almost touch him."

"Yes. Enough for today, though. Rest now, yes?"

"What about you?" With the headache receding to a dull, ordinary discomfort, Belle could remember what was important, again. Tired she might be, but Rumpelstiltskin had not been well. Had he been working the whole time, while she sat oblivious to him, absorbed by the magic mirror? "You're still a bit pink," she smiled, eyeing the patch beneath his left ear where the change was most visible. "Don't pretend you're better, or I'll be cross."

With a mock gasp of alarm, Rumpelstiltskin sat back, dropping her hand and raising his own as if in surrender.

"The Spinner trembles before his little wife," he pantomimed, in squeaky tones of fright, and Belle laughed, until a renewed pounding between her temples suggested she ought to stop unless she wanted to empty her stomach. Her half-chuckling 'ow' drained Rumpelstiltskin's humour in a moment, and when she rubbed her brow, he gently nudged her hand aside and laid his own there. "I lose track of time," he said, smoothing back her hair. It did little for the pain, but a great deal for Belle's spirits. "Hours, days... it means little to me. Sleep, meals, rest... You must not let me forget you, little wife. Not even when I'm at my work."

He sounded so serious, so regretful, that Belle resisted the temptation to make light of it.

"How long did I have the mirror?"

"It's after noon. It would not have harmed you," he went on, quickly, urgently. "You fainted, or you would have fallen asleep, letting it fall from your hand. No magic is without its price."

"It was worth a headache to see him," Belle said, soothingly. "Thank you."

Nodding, Rumpelstiltskin relaxed somewhat, and did not prevent her from sitting up, nor putting her hands on his shoulders while she, rather groggily, studied his face. "You avoided my question," she said, conscious of how her every affectionate gesture startled him, even now, unless it came in the throes of passion. "What about you?"

"Ah," he said, dodging her scrutiny and averting his gaze. "Somewhat uncomfortable. I am unused to weakness."

"Hmm." Belle pecked him on the cheek, thinking of how steadily he had carried her from the turret to her bed. The effort had not even quickened his breathing, and two days ago he had barely managed to walk the same distance before collapsing. "Then we both need a hot meal, a meat meal," she decided, even if her stomach did turn uncomfortably at her own suggestion. "And no more magic, today."

"My wife commands me?" Rumpelstiltskin smiled, wanly. "Perhaps she should, at that. Nobody has been concerned for me in a very long time."

"When did you last try being pleasant to someone?" Belle kissed him again, touching her lips to his this time, to make certain that he knew she spoke kindly. "I think you enjoy being an old monster in your dusty castle, and having everyone be afraid of you. You like being grumpy and now you've no idea what to do with yourself because you have a wife who doesn't hide away." Lacing her fingers at the back of his neck, beneath his hair, Belle watched his valiant attempt to rise above her teasing, or possibly to pretend that she wasn't there at all. "Lotte says there's someone in this world for everyone," she added, and saw his nose wrinkle. "But Lotte enjoys sillier books than I do."

Belle had to confess that she could not imagine Lotte in the arms of a man such as Rumpelstiltskin, nor whimpering her pleasure as a husband kissed between her legs. She had once seen the girl run shrieking from a pinch on the bottom, and she blushed at the sight of Belle with no clothes on, never mind a naked man who had... intentions.

"I confess, my dear," Rumpelstiltskin said, pained, "to being relieved that your silly maid didn't offer herself in your stead." He kissed her brow, and slipped out of her reach, straightening his waistcoat as he stood up. "Rest. You will soon feel better. I'll attend to the meal," he added, before Belle could protest, "without magic."

She surprised herself by going to sleep, heavily, and not waking again until the sky outside had grown dim. An entire afternoon! Feeling terribly guilty, Belle collected herself as best she could and went downstairs, remembering that Rumpelstiltskin had promised a meal. Since he had also promised to share one meal a day with her, she did not want to do anything to deter him from keeping his promise. Besides, her husband's company had been a delight since he began to recover. If there was an opportunity to get to know him as she wished to, she would not waste it, even if she still felt utterly drained.

Had her time with the magic mirror truly done that? Belle knew that she had been fatigued to begin with, feeling quite strange since Rumpelstiltskin woke her with such unrelenting bliss. She hoped that he was right, that the looking glass would have fallen from her hand before doing her any lasting harm, because she had been almost oblivious to everything but her Papa, as long as she held it. Once more, Belle was reminded to treat magic with caution and respect, and that she did not want it intruding into the corners of her life where it did not belong. She had forbidden it in her bed, with Rumpelstiltskin, from the very first night, and she was glad of it. As awkward and uncomfortable as their consummation had been, she would not have traded the learning of her husband's nature for some spell to please her loins in spite of him. She would not have given up the stark and honest memories of those brief minutes with him for anything, nor sacrificed her own journey from innocent to lover. A thing could be too easy. Magic could make it too easy, and make it valueless.

Rumpelstiltskin valued their intimacy as much as she, Belle was sure of it.

"There you are," he said, from the corner of the great room, where he'd been spinning. Belle smiled and, as weary as she felt, quickened her steps to join him. He had changed his clothing, she noted, staying a few paces clear of his spinning wheel and watching him work. His high-collared coat, and a scarf tied about his throat, as though he had become cold. She could see no exposed flesh, save his face and hands, but even there the subtle patches of pink flesh still lingered - the base of his nails, the centre of his right palm and the flesh around his eyes. He was not yet fully recovered, and Belle reminded herself to allow for it. "The wheel won't bite you," Rumpelstiltskin said, seeing how she hesitated.

"It seems... personal," Belle said, realising that she could not put the proper words to her reluctance to approach or touch the spinning wheel. It was not that it was legend - Rumpelstiltskin himself was legend, and she touched him with shameless abandon, just as often as he would permit it. "It's yours."

"Come," he urged, still absorbed by the draw of the thread. Belle went to stand beside his stool, and shrieked with startled laughter when he hooked his right arm around her thighs and planted her on his knee, abandoning the handful of transformed straw in favour of squeezing her to maximise her laughter.

Belle reached to take up the pleasing white fluff, wanting to feel along the thread to the point where white became gold, but no sooner had she touched it than a shower of chaff fell around their feet.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" she yelped, mortified to have ruined his beautiful thread. Peering around her, Rumpelstiltskin only shrugged.

"It's straw, dearie," he said, lightly. "It's not in short supply."

"I suppose not," Belle said, but she was still sorry. "Neither is gold."

"Very true." Gently, Rumpelstiltskin guided her hand to the wheel itself. Very much to Belle's relief, nothing happened to it at her touch; it merely turned for her, the smooth wood sliding through her palm, creaking as it turned the spindle. "Are you hungry?"

Belle wasn't, she still felt out of sorts, but smiled over her shoulder and allowed him to tip her from his knee. Sadly shaking the straw chaff from her skirts and shoes, she followed him down to the kitchen.

"Oh," she gasped, halfway down the chilly stairs to the menial levels, "it smells wonderful." And it did. Cheese, she thought, and there was garlic, and perhaps spiced meat... the scent alone perked up her flagging appetite, and her husband's look of hopeful shyness, as he drew out a chair for her at the big kitchen table, made her feel ridiculously happy. "What have you made?"

"It has no name that I know of," he said, using a cloth to protect his hand as he pulled a covered, earthenware pot from the trivet. Like Belle, he had opted to control the fire and to cook over hot embers. Unlike Belle, she was almost sure, he had used magic to achieve his ends.

Oh well, she thought. He had promised that the food would not be made with magic. She should excuse him for using a little on the fire, since he seemed steady on his feet and in a fine mood. He could not be feeling as weak as all that.

"When I was a boy," he said, placing the pot on the table and plucking off the lid with a bare hand, shaking it slightly as though it merely stung, "there was a time of fasting each spring. Clerics would check each house for the forbidden foods. Cheese, cream, meats. We'd little enough of any of it, so before they came searching, we cooked it all, like this. And ate it," he finished, with a look of satisfaction that was - yes - quite boyish. "A great feast."

Belle could see that a whole cheese had been the top layer of the dish, melted now to dripping. Beneath that, small pieces of meat graced potatoes and other root vegetables.

"So it has no name because you make it from whatever you have to use up?" Charmed by the idea, and her mouth watering as Rumpelstiltskin served her a laden plate of it, Belle smiled her thanks. Unused to hearing him speak at length about anything, she was now curious about his boyhood as well as every other mystery about him.

When he'd changed, he had not looked like a young man, and that had not surprised her, even though she had not, until then, noticed the lines in her husband's features. Belle could not imagine him as a fresh-faced youth, let alone as a carefree boy.

Rumpelstiltskin poured her a generous glass of mead, then seated himself at the head of the table with his own meal. Seeing that he was waiting anxiously for her to try the dish, Belle dug in her spoon and blew carefully on a hot mouthful. It was delicious - simple, rich and warming. So had been the other dishes he had prepared for her, on her sickbed, now that she came to remember. Not fine dishes for the lord of a great castle, but feast dishes for a poor man's table. She needed no encouragement to empty her plate, and even Rumpelstiltskin made a respectable effort at clearing his own.

"I never knew a man to cook unless it was his profession," she said, sitting back with her glass and watching him, for he ate more slowly than she.

"It's not difficult," he shrugged. "I watched my mother. I had to feed my own boy." With that, Rumpelstiltskin set down his spoon and, like Belle, turned his attention to his mead instead. "Some things I remember, it seems," he said, disconcerted. He always seemed to be, by any mention of his old life, and most especially of his son. He had promised to tell her, Belle remembered - about his wife, his child, and how he came to have such terrible magic in him. Seeing his quiet sorrow, there at her table over a shared drink, she had not the heart to press him. She wanted to comfort him, instead; to kiss his cheek, to stroke his brow and sweep his unhappiness away like so much dust.

"Shall we sit by the fire?" Belle gestured with her glass, and was only then aware of how it had begun to go to her head. At home, she had often drunk wine or small beer with her meals, but the water here was deliciously pure, and she had been indulging herself with every blend of teas she could think of. She had grown unused to stronger drink. But the mead had been a wedding gift, and Rumpelstiltskin was sharing it with her, so she said nothing as he topped up her glass before joining her at the fireside, dragging up a second chair.

"How is your head, my dear?" Rumpelstiltskin seemed ill at ease, with the silence.

"Much better. How is your magic?" Belle tried not to smirk at him as she asked the question. Her concern was genuine, but the question itself sounded so absurd.

"My own, again," he said, seeming not to notice her expression. "The town was all but buried in snow," he added, without the least sign of regret. "They'll think they've angered me."

"Do you always clear the roads?"

"The trading routes. The road to the castle. It reminds them of what they stand to lose."

Belle nodded, glumly. This was not her land, and it was not her place to question how things were done here, yet she objected to the idea of ruling by fear. If she had Rumpelstiltskin's power...

Her mind would not embrace the question. She could not begin to imagine his power; she could only realise that merely possessing it would change a person, no matter how they tried to remain the same. It was said that Rumpelstiltskin's magic was black, unnatural. Evil. But was it evil magic, or only magic that had been turned to an evil purpose?

Seeing her husband warming his boots by the kitchen fire, sipping mead with her, it was difficult to keep in mind the things she knew to be equally true about him; that he played with mortal men and took pleasure in it. He had done so to her own father, mocking his grief, yet here Rumpelstiltskin sat, a quiet husband to an increasingly fond wife. He could not be two people.

"The mead is making me quite silly," Belle decided, getting up to put her glass on the table. As she began to gather the dishes, meaning to wash them, Rumpelstiltskin stepped up behind her and took her by the hips, nuzzling into her hair. She almost brushed him off with a laugh, meaning to say that she was busy, but something in his quiet approach stilled her. He had never demanded of her - had scarcely even asked of her, for fear of going too far or finding himself unwelcome. That had changed, and he no longer looked for a sign that he was welcome to approach her; she no longer found herself encouraging him to be with her. She should pay attention to these new gestures from him, and learn all the ways in which he wished to signal his desire. Plates, pots and pans could wait on her husband's whims.

"Perhaps an early night?" He sounded unsure, hopeful, and his uncertainty pulled at Belle's heart. Of course she would go to bed with him, if he wished it, and she was glad that he'd found the courage to ask her, even if he asked in such a small voice. Even so, she did not feel fully herself, and had not done so since he devoted himself to her pleasure that morning; she was a little unsure that she wanted more of the same, so soon. She would not mind if he sought his own pleasures, sometimes, without seeing to hers, but was that... well, was it done? She had no idea how he might react if she suggested such a thing. But he had enjoyed her hand on him, she remembered, as they walked slowly to her room, Rumpelstiltskin waiting for her at the head of each half flight of stairs when she fell behind him.

He looked weary, Belle thought, taking his hand as she joined him outside her bedroom. His steps had been heavy, on the last set of stairs, and his usual energy seemed muted. Perhaps he planned no all-consuming shocks for her body, this evening. Perhaps he wanted only to rest beside her, after all? She would certainly not object to that. Between the events of the day, the hearty meal and the mead, she felt quite ready to close her own eyes again.

When she yawned, nudging the door closed behind them, Rumpelstiltskin looked at her with mild amusement.

"I'll need to lock the wine cellars if you're as susceptible as all that," he said, letting go of her hand. His gaze followed her to the door of her bathing room, which she closed firmly behind her, remembering that he had followed her there that morning. Some things were too private to share with her husband, and he was unpredictable when that little smile danced around his features.

When she returned to the bedroom, Rumpelstiltskin was already in her bed, right in the middle, with all the pillows stacked up behind him.

Yes, Belle decided, with half an eye on him as she readied herself for bed without hurry; she much preferred to see him wearing the black nightgown. Since transforming it into her bracelet, he had not replaced the cord at the neck, and the collar gaped open with a carelessness that seemed so unlike him. She smiled, and busied herself with her preparations before he caught her staring.

Rumpelstiltskin, for his part, stared intently while Belle brushed her hair, seated on her big trunk. She could feel his close attention, and it made her shiver, her body betraying anticipation for his touch. Trying to imagine what he might feel, watching her care for her hair, Belle took her time with it and, before going to blow out the candles, took one of her old, wide, colourful ribbons from her trunk and used it to tie a ridiculously large bow at the end of her long, loose braid. She was careful not to catch his eye, in doing so, for she shocked herself with such a deliberate provocation.

But then, why was it shocking? Belle felt him watch her while she went around the room, closing the curtains and extinguishing all but one candle. Seduction wasn't wrong, not if she seduced her own husband, and his furtive enjoyment of her decorations had been her first sign - her very first - that her husband cherished her as something beyond mere payment for services rendered. If his sentimental tokens had become exciting to her, then it stood to reason that they excited him as well; that when he handled his pretty trophies in her absence, he associated them with the gratification he found in her arms, and perhaps felt a thrill of remembered pleasure. She would not deny him that, nor any other satisfaction that he found in making off with her fripperies.

Rumpelstiltskin made a wordless sound of approval, when Belle at last joined him at the centre of the bed. His eyes were dark with wanting, and, giving him a gentle kiss of greeting, Belle seated herself across his thighs and put her hands upon his shoulders. If the mead had made her thoughts silly, it had made her shame quite numb as well; she desired none of the patient preamble that had shaken her senses that morning.

Her body no longer tensed with modest reluctance when he entered her; she no longer needed the soothing balm with which he had taken care of her, the first few times. She was impatient to know if she could simply accept him, with no more preparation than afforded by her pleasure at her own teasing, and satisfy him without being so utterly swept away. Would her pleasure come, simply from having him in her?

If Belle's desires had proved to be wanton, then her curiosity was simply a harlot. Rumpelstiltskin watched her, intrigued, as she tugged up her nightgown, and then his, and studied the situation. He wasn't ready, not all the way, and curiosity darted off in a new direction, wondering how hard it had to be before it could go inside her. She bit her lip, trailing two fingers up the length of his cock and watching it fill out further as if in obedience to her. She explored, with one finger, where it widened at the head, growing darker than the rest as he hardened. Regretting putting out so many of the candles, but suspecting that Rumpelstiltskin would be less accommodating had there been more light, Belle tried not to be distracted when he rubbed her breasts with his hands. He became fully hard, almost at once, she noted; her breasts excited him tremendously, even when they were covered.

Her nerve faltered, with his cock jutting proud and ready, but a glance at her husband's face reassured her that she did not go too far. His bemusement was kindly, and his eyes still full of want; when Belle tried to position herself to put his cock inside her, her husband slithered down his pillows a way, and obligingly held his nightgown clear of the proceedings.

He used his hand, Belle remembered, a little dizzy from her own rashness. When he entered her, he guided it with his hand. Rumpelstiltskin hissed with surprise as her attempt to do the same caused the head of his cock to slip against her, spreading her wetness the way his fingers usually did. Belle bit her lip, her own pleasure startling her, and managed to hold him securely enough that she could lower herself and, slowly, take him inside. The slowness drew a long groan from her husband, but it was one of appreciation rather than dismay; his head was pushed back into the pillows, his expression one of utter bliss. Belle smiled, obscenely pleased with herself for repaying some of the morning's revelations. That she need not wait for her husband to guide her, or to teach her, was a delicious new idea.

Content to allow her this, Rumpelstiltskin lay still, other than to run his hands over her in long, lazy sweeps; Belle could see that he was enjoying himself, at the mercy of her whims, and that he had no great objection when she kept still above him to catch her breath, or altered her position to be more comfortable. It lacked the passion, the driving urgency of their usual embraces, but there was another sort of pleasure there. Belle wondered if he felt it too, the easy closeness; the freedom of it.

Her body betrayed her before she had satisfied her curiosity, driving her to angle her hips just so, and to thrust herself harder onto him in pursuit of her own climax. She had not sought it, but having him in her was enough, it seemed; where she had meant to keep her head and watch her husband's reactions, she found herself, instead, with her eyes tight shut and her body ruling her once again.

It was her pleasure that excited him the most, she realised, then, as he trembled for the first time, and made the small, involuntary sounds that had been missing. No mere, physical act gave him what he sought, nor put that expression of fond wonderment on his face; it was that Belle wanted him, took pleasure in him, not merely that she gave herself without complaint.

Recovering her wits enough to bend and kiss him, while she rocked to meet the gentle movements of his hips, Belle felt him gasp into her mouth, and grasp at her back with such need and longing before his pleasure shook him to a languid, panting stillness beneath her.

Some time after she had stretched herself out beside him, her head on his chest, Belle felt him find the ribbon that bound her hair, and tug until the bow came free. It was her hair that he desired, for the moment, rather than her ribbon; she lay, tired but wakeful, while her husband loosened her plait and arranged her tresses to his own liking, before stroking them with slow, lingering movements.

"Does a good wife do such things?" Belle asked, timid now that she had done it; now that the disinhibition of the strong drink was leaving her. She felt Rumpelstiltskin crane his neck, peering at her for a moment before his head fell back to the pillows.

"Mine does," he said, with a shrug, and Belle smiled.

Chapter Text

Rumpelstiltskin conjured them a tea tray and made the fire burn hotter, and Belle was too comfortably content to make any objection.

Had he shown any sign that the magic taxed him then she would have scolded, but her husband's quiet weariness was like her own; a mild thing. They had kissed until Belle became thirsty and, rather than let her leave his side, Rumpelstiltskin waved a hand and brought all that they needed to her very feet.

While Belle poured, her husband reached past her and stole a sugar lump, crunching it noisily behind her. She smiled to herself, remembering being scolded for doing the same thing, as a child.

"Do you want some in your tea, as well?"

"Yes."

She didn't share his sweet tooth enough to routinely sweeten her own cup, particularly when the tea was the very finest - the shrivelled, fragrant black leaves that came by ship from exotic lands, but tonight she stirred a lump of sugar into her own cup as well, feeling self-indulgent. Rumpelstiltskin reclined on his pillows, his mood apparently matching hers, while Belle sat cross-legged beside the tray to drink her tea.

"You almost look yourself again," she observed, studying his fingers against the white porcelain of his teacup. The hints of pale flesh were fading, steadily. "Do you feel the difference?"

"Oh, yes." Rumpelstiltskin gazed into his cup, his eyelids heavy. "The weakness is passing. There is..." he gestured slightly with his teacup, face twitching with dissatisfaction as he sought for words. "Clarity," he decided, but without conviction. Belle wondered if magic could ever be pinned down with mere words. "Memory is... different. Here." Swallowing, he placed his hand over his heart.

Belle thought of his dreams, the new dreams about his son that had shaken him so in his drugged sleep, and she ached for him.

"What was his name?" She hesitated to ask him even that, but he had given his word, and it was not an intrusive question, in itself. She should know the name of the son he mourned, if for no other reason than to honour it for Rumpelstiltskin's sake. "Your son?"

For a moment, Rumpelstiltskin hesitated with his mouth open, as though he had tried to speak and found no air in his body. Then, taking a slow, soft breath, he composed himself.

"Baelfire," he said, forcing his voice to be as steady as it was soft. "Bae." She needed no understanding of magic or monsters to recognise Rumpelstiltskin's love, or his grief. It made her feel cruel for asking even as little as she had, but she would treasure the name just like the other gifts he'd given her. "There was a war," Rumpelstiltskin said, just as Belle drew breath to change the subject, to spare him. She held the breath and listened. "Decades old before Bae was even born. I'd not have brought a child into that, but he was born and... oh, he was beautiful. Perfect." Closing his eyes, almost wincing at his memories, Rumpelstiltskin shook his head. "I prayed for the war to end, for something to deliver us before he was old enough to fight, but no-one heard me. Year after year they took away the children, and fewer returned. Younger and younger. And when they came for my boy..." Abruptly, he sat up, leaning to return his half-full cup to the tray, then resting his hands on his bent knees and staring at them. When he spoke again, Rumpelstiltskin's voice was cold with remembered anger, his words clipped. "I found a way to stop being weak. I did what I had to do, to save my boy."

Belle had barely breathed, as he spoke, and breathed faster now to make up for it. She had not expected him to keep his word unless she pressed him; she had not known what she expected his story to be, but not that. Not something as simple and as cruel as that.

"And... you changed? Because you used magic?" She had not seen those harsh, cold lines in her husband's face for days; it could still frighten her, even if she was beyond fearing that he would wish her harm. He could turn his shoulder to her again, grow cold and remote again, and she feared that. Tentative, Belle placed her hand on his knee. "I think I would have done as you did," she said, when he met her eyes. "If there was no other way."

Rumpelstiltskin shook his head, struggling for calm.

"I lost him, Belle. I lost him anyway. And his father a monster."

Helpless to ease such an old, ingrained sorrow, Belle rubbed his knee and wished she knew what to say. She had watched sons enough go off to fight; had seen fathers weighed down by the sorrow of loss. Had seen how her Papa looked at her, as the war dragged on in unrelenting bloodshed and defeat; she, his only child, and even as the castle walls fell around them his thoughts were, first, of her.

Her husband seemed to take some comfort in her touch. He tried to smile, and released a shaken breath as he covered her hand with his own.

"You drag out my secrets, little wife," he said, softly. "You must keep them, as well."

"Of course I will." Belle felt a shiver across her shoulders, at his words. He spoke softly, yes, but with an edge that could easily turn to cutting. He commanded her, and her senses offered fair warning of what dangers disobedience could bring. But why should it be a secret, any of it? That he had once loved a son made Rumpelstiltskin no less dangerous in the here and now; no less powerful; it would not make him any less feared. "To be so long without someone to care for you, it's not right," she said, her sadness finding voice when her reason had no idea what to say to him. "No-one should be alone unless they choose to be."

"I did choose," he said, gathering her against his side before reclining again, squeezing her more tightly than was comfortable. "For centuries. But... the man I was, the father I was... I cannot let him fade forever. For Bae's sake."

And in looking to keep that memory alive, that man alive in him, Rumpelstiltskin had chosen her? Belle rubbed his chest, slowly, until his clutching hold on her loosened. As much as she wanted to know about his first wife, and about what had bred such distrust of affection in Rumpelstiltskin's heart, she would wait; she would comfort him now, and ask him again when he was fully recovered from his recent ordeal.

"I should leave you to sleep," he said, interrupting her aimless thoughts. "I'll not sleep tonight."

"Don't go," Belle protested, although without being certain as to why. While she slept, his presence or his absence ought to make no difference, and yet her heart sank at his words. "You were the one to suggest an early night," she added, a little indignantly. "Or is it true that men are only after one thing?"

"Ah, you appeal to my conscience," he said, brightly, and curled his fingertips beneath her ribs, the threat of tickling her enough to make Belle squirm and giggle. "The mirror drained you, and you must rest," he went on, holding her easily in place and maintaining the threat of tickling as he spoke. "I shall return before you wake, if you like, mistress." Finally managing to catch his teasing hand and keep it out of harm's way, Belle sat up, and saw that his expression was as playful as his hand. "If I stay beside you all night then you certainly won't rest," he concluded, lifting his eyebrows suggestively.

"At least you thought of my feet," Belle said, giving in. She reached down the bed for the thick sheepskin and pulled it into her lap. "They miss you when you're gone."

"Only your feet?" He watched her get beneath the bedclothes; she could see that he was more than tempted to join her, and that pleased her more than she thought it should.

"Only my feet," she managed, hiding her smile, for if he was going to abandon her bed for a night in his chilly turret, she would at least have him be sorry for it. She tugged a pillow from his greedy pile and tucked it beneath her head, then pushed her feet into the folded sheepskin. The weight of the tray vanished, and Belle smiled when Rumpelstiltskin lay down beside her, albeit above the covers, and kissed her shoulder.

"You are bad for my concentration," he said, with a sigh that sounded not at all like discontentment. The last candle winked out, leaving Belle blinking in darkness. "I cannot lie here all night with nothing to do. Go to sleep."

She would have laughed again, protesting that she couldn't sleep at his command, but with the light gone and his warmth making her snug, she did feel sleepy. She yawned, and obediently closed her eyes.

"Rumpelstiltskin?" she asked, after a while. He was quite right; it was dull to lie there, awake, with no desire to do anything else. "Will you take the magic away from the kitchen hearth? Let me have a real fire there?"

"As you wish," he said, vaguely, as though his thoughts were already elsewhere while he gave his body to warm her. Belle nodded, satisfied, and kept her eyes shut until sleep came.

~+~

The kitchen fire was as he had promised, the next morning, with the addition, nearby, of an enormous wicker basket containing logs. Belle strongly suspected that it would never be empty.

As much as she had missed waking up beside Rumpelstiltskin, she had to admit that it was easier to begin her day as she meant to go on, without lovemaking before breakfast. She was up with the sun, and breakfasted before any real light made its way through the tiny barred windows high up in the kitchen's back wall. She could see that it would be a fine day, the sky bright if not blue, and wondered if she might make the trip to visit Wren.

Tomorrow would be market day, and she might miss the old woman in the bustle - better to visit her today, and hope to find her at home.

With that in mind, Belle climbed to Rumpelstiltskin's turret with a cup of tea for him. She felt that she ought not leave without telling her husband where she was going, even if she had done just that while he'd been away. She was getting better at making the long climb without spilling his tea into the saucer, and beamed with satisfaction as she took the final few stairs. There had been no doubt in her mind that she would find him there, but she had expected to find him busy and distracted. Instead, he sat in the chair he'd placed for her yesterday, his head pillowed on his folded arms upon the nearest end of the table.

"Rumpelstiltskin?" Concerned that he was unwell, but not wanting to disturb him if he'd only fallen asleep, Belle went as quietly as she could to his side, and put down the cup and saucer. Everything in the room was still, with no experiment or potion seeming in need of his attention, so she watched him to see that his breathing was steady and, when it was, turned to go.

Belle almost shrieked when his arm shot out and he seized her by the wrist. He had been deeply asleep but a moment ago, she was sure of it! Before her surprise could really register, Rumpelstiltskin had released her and got to his feet, the chair scraping back a little way as he moved.

"You gave me such a fright!" she protested, turning to face him with one hand over her heart. Rumpelstiltskin patted her shoulder, nervously, and then rubbed his neck with a wince of discomfort. "That's what happens when you fall asleep at your work instead of beside me," Belle said, but gently, because he looked out of sorts. "I only brought you tea," she added, and he nodded his thanks, looking around the room as though he didn't recognise it.

"The curse tired me more than I thought," he said, in equal measures of irritation and surprise. "Thank you for the tea, my dear," he added, pulling himself together. "Try not to creep about up here, hmm? Make some noise. I'd hate to turn you into a beetle."

"All right." Frowning slightly at the request, since she could not imagine him doing such a thing by mistake, Belle gave him a kiss. He tasted of his sweet pipe smoke, and faintly of her medicine, and she watched his eyes with sudden concern. "You needed the medicine?"

Lips pursed, Rumpelstiltskin moved away from her - around the workbenches to the far end, where his heavy leather coat was spread. He walked with a slight but obvious limp.

"Yes, I felt the effects of stopping it too suddenly. I shouldn't. Nor should it make me sleep, not when I'm so far recovered." His voice dropped to a mutter, full of menace. "It was a powerful spell that did this, and a crafty one. It was made by someone who understood the nature of my power." Belle could tell that he spoke more to himself than to her; she listened, more than curious enough about his magic to allow herself to be used as a convenient pair of ears. "And how to hide it from me," he went on, his lip curling. "But I'll find it." He ran his nails over the scales of the coat, eyes narrowed. "Wouldn't want them trying again, would we?"

"How did it happen?" Belle took a step towards him, stopping when his head snapped up; he looked at her as though he barely knew her, his expression so strange. "How could anyone harm you?"

Rumpelstiltskin blinked, and straightened his back slightly, and was once again her husband and not the unnerving creature, though his tight-lipped annoyance remained.

"After the incident in town," he said, taking a square of clean cotton cloth and dipping it into a small bowl of clear liquid beside the coat, "I set out to find who's sending cutthroats and troublemakers into my lands." Belle watched him wipe the cloth quickly over the coat; it came away smeared with blood. "A direct assault on my borders would be fruitless, and all know it. Infiltration," he said, raising a finger. "A farm's well was poisoned and all there died. Livestock die of unlikely plagues. The child who was murdered was not the first. Distractions." Delicately pushing the cloth into a glass beaker, Rumpelstiltskin fetched a bottle of blueish, clear liquid from the shelf behind him pouring enough into the beaker to cover the cloth. "Irritations." Belle held her tongue. To her, those things sounded like disasters. To the farmers, to the parents, they were the world ending. To their master, they were mere distractions. "I sought the aid of an ally," Rumpelstiltskin explained, adding a pinch of something that looked like ground glass to the beaker. "A seer, if you will. She owed me payment, and answers to my questions would suffice. I found her dead, days dead, and when I touched her corpse--" His right hand stilled over a leather roll of his fine, brass tools, and his fingers curled inward at the memory. "Well, you saw."

"A trap," Belle said, slowly.

"So it seems. But anyone going to those lengths, possessing such magic, would know that I cannot be killed by such a curse. Had it torn the flesh from my entire body, eaten me alive from the inside out, I would have recovered." He caught her eye and looked away, hastily. "Eventually."

"But while you fought it, you were powerless," Belle said. "Perhaps someone wanted that, instead."

"Perhaps." He waved his hand, irritably. "I've made enemies enough, and not all of them are... the motive may not be rational."

She was distracting him from his work, Belle knew, and as much as she wanted to know these things, she did not want to make him angry with incessant questions or to delay him in finding his answers. Quietly, she moved the teacup to the table where he worked.

"I was going to see Wren today," she said, with forced cheer.

"...yes." Rumpelstiltskin spared her a slight smile, as he watched the little cloth dissolve in its beaker. "The carriage, then."

"Oh, I don't need--"

"Cutthroats and curses," he reminded her, sharply. "Take the carriage, or wait until tomorrow and we'll go to market." At her expression, Rumpelstiltskin softened at last, and glanced at the teacup. "I would be very distracted should anything happen to you, my dear," he said, with a hint of his twittering giggle. "Please. Humour your husband, until I know more. I'd not lose you too."

"All right." She could hardly deny that request, not when he had told her of his lost child; not when she had seen how the grief weighed him down after... how long? Lifetimes. It was a compliment, in its way, that he valued her enough to protect her. "Tomorrow, then. Could we take more of the potion to Wren, in case she needs it? For her cough," she reminded him, when he looked blank.

"Certainly. Yes." His frown deepening, Rumpelstiltskin bent over the beaker with a tiny spoon. "Tomorrow, then."

Something drew Belle upwards, after leaving the turret. She had begun, aimlessly, in the direction of her room, at a loss now that her plans had changed. Instead, she went upwards, thinking that she might spend a while in the library. To be of any real use, other than being a wonder in its own right, Belle knew that the books ought to be catalogued or listed, somehow; if she was to spend endless days alone while her husband occupied himself elsewhere, such a task became conceivable. She had years; she had a lifetime.

Would it be a lifetime of this? The brief moments when Rumpelstiltskin treasured her, even reverenced her, interspersed with lonely days in the castle when his magic demanded all of his attention, and the pursuit of it made him so unapproachable? A castle could only be so clean. A cook could only cook so much before there was waste. Even a library could only be catalogued once. Even the books would only be new to her once. How was she to fill a lifetime as Rumpelstiltskin's wife, if he was to be her only companion?

It had not daunted her so, while she assumed there would be children in the not-distant future. Rumpelstiltskin told her that there would be none, and asked her to be thankful for it.

She could not. She simply could not. It was not grief she felt, for the children she would never have; her heart had not been full with the expectation of their arrival. She had not hoped for children, she had simply known that they would be hers - a certainty, since she was old enough to understand that girls trod a different path in life to boys, and had little choice about it. She would marry well, be a dutiful wife and give birth to her husband's heirs. Seeing her newly married friends, Leorna among them, it had sometimes seemed that lawful children were all that the world required of a girl; the anticipation, the anxiety, the waiting seemed to absorb the new brides utterly.

Belle had not felt such anticipation, as watchful as she had been for any sign that Rumpelstiltskin's seed had taken. She had not marked the days on hidden pieces of paper, as Leorna had confessed to doing, nor thought of asking Wren for herbs or a charm that promised quick success; Belle had been too preoccupied with learning how to get children, and learning that her marriage bed had another purpose entirely besides that, to worry herself about when babes would come. Her husband had signalled no impatience for heirs, not even when she'd bled on him for the stars' sake, and so she had been happy to wait for nature to take its course, and relieved that it had not.

Her husband was adamant that he could give her no children, and that it was a mercy there would be none more like him. And yet hearing him speak of his son, of his beloved Baelfire, with such uncharacteristic passion, Belle found herself aching also. She would have liked to bring him that passionate, heedless love again; to place it tenderly into his arms and to see him unbend for their child the way he never could for her.

Such thoughts drew her past the door of the library, and to the room where Rumpelstiltskin kept Baelfire's belongings. His story had made some sense of the strange collection in there, and of the books for children in the library; it seemed that her husband collected all the things that he had been unable to give to the boy, in life - kept them as tokens of love, and of all that he would have given, if only he had been able.

It was a sad shrine, and Belle hesitated in the doorway, watching the room light up. She smelled Rumpelstiltskin's strange pipe smoke, and it was like a fist closing around her heart to know that he had been there recently; that her question must have exposed the wounds of loss afresh. She was sorry for that, and hated to think of her husband up here alone, tormented by the past. Or was it possible that he found some comfort in it, rather than the morbid reminder that it seemed to Belle? Did Rumpelstiltskin lose himself in memories of a happier life, up here among the things his son had never owned?

It was the smallest clothing that moved Belle the most - the things that had, plainly, belonged to and been used by Baelfire. Drawn by the morbid curiosity, by sympathy for her husband's sorrow, she took one of the threadbare tunics from the wardrobe and sat upon the bed, holding the garment reverently in her lap.

They had been poor in a way that Belle had never known. The clothing was coarse, nothing that she would ever think of putting on a child of her own - nothing that she, in her station, would ever have needed to. Rough and thinning the cloth might be, but Belle could see that great care had been taken of it. Tears had been mended with thread taken from the garment itself, with fine little stitches. The seams had been let out just as far as they would go and there, too, the stitching was lovingly done. It made Belle ashamed of her finery - that the simple linen dress she had chopped up to make herself comfortable for housework was a thousand times better than the best a beloved child once had. Rumpelstiltskin's child.

So, it was for Baelfire's sake that Rumpelstiltskin took a wife. Less as comfort in his loneliness than as a reminder to keep that man, that devoted father, alive in him somewhere. Belle didn't know what to make of it, so made nothing of it; only sat and thought about it, and about how her husband had flinched from her touch at first, as though it were possible to forget the gestures of kinship and kindness. Was it possible? Belle had been raised in warmth, light and laughter; in the safe circle of her father's arms, the fond fussings of nurses and maids, and the security of a people who called her princess and held her precious. She could not imagine how a person could be so alone, for so long, as to be afraid of forgetting love.

Feeling once again that she intruded where she ought not, Belle returned the tunic to the wardrobe with great care, and went back to the library.

~+~

The library could have absorbed Belle for days at a time. Were it not for the small window, she would happily have surrendered all sense of the hour and remained there, among the books, until hunger or her bladder forced her to leave the room.

With the fading daylight to guide her, she was able to tear herself away in time to return to the kitchen and prepare afternoon tea. She hoped that Rumpelstiltskin would join her, but told herself not to be impatient or hurt if he did not. Whatever he was doing, up in his turret, it was in the name of discovering who had injured him and, more importantly, who was capable of being a threat to him. That was, undeniably, more important than afternoon tea with his wife. Belle made enough for him, anyway, hoping that he would come down. If he did not, then she would take it up to him and pretend not to mind.

Pleased at having her kitchen hearth the way she wanted it, Belle sat by the fire when she had finished buttering bread and putting out dishes of preserves. She must make a list for market, and speak to Rumpelstiltskin about how they were provisioned, and limit herself to simple dishes until she had a better understanding of how the pots and pans would behave. She slightly envied her husband's apparently effortless ability to produce delicious meals at will, but reminded herself that it was only a matter of learning how; as he had once learned, so would she. She did not have necessity to teach her, as Rumpelstiltskin must have done.

Necessity had brought him to magic, as well. It was not lost on Belle that he had omitted a great deal in telling her his story. How had he found such magic, when he needed it to save his child from war? Even in the legends and the story books, magic was not easily found. Heroes, and sometimes plucky heroines, set out on great quests in search of the magic they needed, and did not always find it. Rumpelstiltskin had found it. It had somehow consumed the simple man he had once been, changing him until he called himself monster, and he had lost his child anyway. The price always had to be paid.

Belle hated to pity him, but every glimpse she had seen of his old life made her do so; the grieving father, the tortured leg, the poverty, the war - all of it. She wanted to catch him up in her arms and kiss away every remembered hurt, and it was not the love of a wife for her husband; it was the aching compassion of one person for another's suffering and sorrow. In the stories, in books, a girl could kiss away hurts and heal wounds with her kindness. Reality was less kind, and far less simple, and all Belle could do was hope to give Rumpelstiltskin some happiness in the here and now.

Could she? It was becoming clear to her that he had sought no such thing, in marrying her. He had meant to keep her and care for her as some kind of living ornament, and to tolerate the misery of a reluctant bride for the sake of... what? The only mortal companionship he thought he might ever find?

But that was absurd. There was Wren, hunched and forthright old Wren, who he'd saved as a babe but who spoke of him, now, as a mother might speak of a strange and wayward son. There must have been others, lives he'd touched without leaving devastation in his wake? Others, like Belle, whose gratitude for his magic opened their eyes to the possibility of welcoming him?

Surely?

But... no. Rumpelstiltskin had chosen to be alone, in a way that Belle could not comprehend. Lately, seeing the harm, he had chosen otherwise.

The hurt in her chest was all for him, and Belle could barely speak to him when he arrived, promptly at three o'clock, to join her for tea. That he had remembered his promise, in spite of his urgent work, simply brought tears to her eyes and Belle embraced him, feeling ridiculous, but feeling that she'd burst if she did not. With her arms around his neck, a clumsy and childish hug, Belle almost felt that she could bridge the gulf of understanding between them; that she might, one day, conquer that vast distance of time separating her husband from the man, the father of Baelfire.

His hands against her back, clasping her gently, Rumpelstiltskin tried a soothing pat.

"My dear?" He sounded extremely nervous.

"I'm glad to see you, that's all," Belle said, swiping quickly at her eyes when she released him, and hurrying to see to the kettle.

Rumpelstiltskin nodded, stiffly, and took his place at the table. It amused Belle that he found her outbursts so unnerving. Sitting there, waiting for his tea, he looked worried that she might ambush him again, with another outburst of female effusiveness.

"Don't worry," she said, managing to keep a straight face as she took her place to his right. "I'm not going to bite you."

"...good," Rumpelstiltskin said, weakly, and made himself busy with the tea things.

Pretending to be busy caused him to eat rather more than he usually did, Belle noted. He favoured the honey over the jams and curds, and used the butter sparingly. As intrigued by his habits as he was unsettled by hers, Belle silently took notice of his preferences, and put the knowledge away safely for another time.

"Thank you for coming down," she said, when he sat back in his chair, teacup between his palms. At his slight nod, his small smile, she felt brave enough to add, "I get quite lonely, when I don't see you."

"I've been many things in my time," Rumpelstiltskin said, thoughtfully, "but never a cure for anyone's loneliness, before." He stretched out his right leg with a faint wince, and rubbed at his thigh beneath the table. "It is a draughty old place. I must see about making it more comfortable for you."

"I'd like a stove," Belle admitted, trying not to be too concerned at his lingering pain. If he had spent the whole day in his freezing laboratory, it was no wonder that an old wound twinged. "Some daylight would be nice."

"Daylight," said Rumpelstiltskin, flatly. "In the Dark Castle."

"Why not?" Belle leaned towards him, conspiratorial. "We could keep a floor dark and gloomy for when you need to frighten somebody."

"Power is all about perception," he said, wagging a finger at her. "Don't mock, dearie." Mirth brightened his eyes, though, and Belle could see that he was fighting a smile. "Would you have believed that I could save your town had you not heard the tales of my black deeds?"

"I suppose not," Belle admitted. "But..." She saw him waiting, curious to hear what she had been going to say. She wasn't sure, herself, and frowned over her cup for a few moments. "I knew when I saw you that you had the power. I could feel it, somehow."

Lifting an eyebrow, sipping his tea, Rumpelstiltskin nodded.

"Not everyone is that sensitive to magic."

"Wren is," Belle answered, realising it as she said it. When she spoke of a weight being lifted when Rumpelstiltskin was away, she spoke of his magic, not his person.

"Yes," Rumpelstiltskin agreed, startled. "I suppose she is, the sly old witch." Before Belle could say more, he set down his cup and rose, offering her a slight bow. "I must prepare the potion for you to give her, tomorrow."

Feeling something far too close to panic for her liking, Belle rose as well, and almost stumbled over her chair as she followed him towards the kitchen door.

"I... I hope I'll see you," she managed, at his questioning look. "Later?" It was difficult to say which of them was the more uncomfortable with the anxious tone that was so unlike her. Rumpelstiltskin gave her another of those awkward little pats, on the arm this time, while Belle tried to decide why her heart was pounding so at the thought of him going to another room, and of not seeing him again before she slept. But how awful, if he thought that she was begging him for that and not merely his company! She could not imagine any man being more generous than her husband in that regard, and would not have him suspect that she was unsatisfied! "I do miss you," she managed, before her embarrassment completely took her voice from her. "And worry about you."

"About me?" More bemused than ever, Rumpelstiltskin shifted from foot to foot, the tip of his tongue flicking across his lips. "Strange girl," he said, softly, with a shake of his head. Gently, he caught her beneath the chin with the crook of his finger and, watching her eyes, bent slowly to give her a kiss. When he drew away, his expression was full of wonder. "You are a very strange girl."

Chapter Text

Belle was woken briefly in the night by Rumpelstiltskin lying down beside her. He kept his distance, as though meaning not to wake her, and Belle was too sleepy to ask if he was well. It felt like the deepest and darkest hour of the night, and sleep clawed her back from wakefulness almost as soon as her husband lay still.

It was full daylight before she surfaced again, long past dawn, and Belle turned over to see Rumpelstiltskin still asleep, one arm thrown across his eyes. He looked anything but peaceful, and she once again regretted stirring up the memories of his past. Still, he had come to bed, for no reason other than to be close to her while they slept, and that made Belle glad. She eased herself nearer to him, and would have tried kissing him awake, had his arm not been in the way. If he was going to show her such tricks then she would not be above using them on him.

Was it possible, she wondered, to reduce a man to the same frantic state of desire that he'd caused in her, that morning? Could she pleasure him, and pleasure him again until he had no thought in his head besides her? Rumpelstiltskin seemed so reserved, when he was not dancing about in gleeful celebration of his own power, intent on impressing and terrifying. He did everything neatly, carefully and deliberately, even his pleasuring of her. Was there, beneath all that, a wanton face to match her own lack of self-control? Belle fingered the collar of his nightgown, disturbing him just enough to move his arm to the pillow behind his head. Had he watched her, the other morning, and played with her at the edge of sleep? It was an exciting thought, if rather uncomfortable to think of him watching her while she lay unawares.

Settling her head on his chest, feeling him stretch out and then pull her to his side, Belle smiled. It was not so difficult, finding ways to show her affection without seeming... well, that she thought of only one thing. She thought often of this, too; of being warm and peaceful beside her husband, their bed a world separate from the everyday. They had conspired to make it so, between her stubborn pragmatism and his determination that she should know no shame or discomfort.

As much as he disliked to sleep, she thought that Rumpelstiltskin found it soothing to be beside her, just as she found it reassuring to lie beside him. In her case, she supposed, there was true safety in keeping close to her husband; he had an ability to protect her that went far beyond that of a mortal man. If he found safety in keeping close to her, it was of a different sort.

Rumpelstiltskin stirred himself, his hand straying from her back to her hair. She couldn't tell whether his faint sound was one of greeting, or merely a protest at finding himself awake, but he toyed with her hair contentedly enough. Mischief taking her over, Belle trailed her fingertip from the bare patch at his throat, down the soft silk to his navel, and felt him wriggle, luxuriously, beneath her cheek.

Having decided that she would tease him, play with that cock of his until he woke up sufficiently to join in, she was startled to find it hard already, lying thick and stiff against his belly. At her little gasp of surprise, Rumpelstiltskin sniggered childishly, and buried his fingers in her hair.

"It must have been dreaming about you," he murmured.

"It just... does it?" Belle found herself feeling slightly offended about that, and laughed inwardly at herself.

"Hardly used to," he said, moving his hips to brush the hardness against her hand. "Does now."

Rubbing him, just lightly through his gown, Belle tried to take notice of detail that had been lost on her when she'd touched him before. She could close her thumb and forefinger in a ring around him, but only just, and was glad that she had not known how big it got before her wedding night. No promise of pleasure would have reassured her enough to lie still and hope for the best had she known the size of a man, she was sure. He fitted inside her nicely enough, but to her small hand it was more of a chore, and made her feel clumsy at a moment when she wished to take the greatest care. Rumpelstiltskin seemed not to mind.

He was not smooth, down there, though the skin below his navel lacked the coarseness of his arms and back. Thick veins stood proud from the soft skin of his cock while, beneath it, the skin of the heavy sac felt impossibly delicate, like her own intimate place while she was dry.

Her husband scarcely reacted to her curious, cautious exploration of him, though he brought up his left leg to allow her to move her hand however she wished. Belle liked that there seemed to be no urgency in him - that she could be calm about touching him, learning him, without worrying that he was impatient or that she was causing him discomfort. He made no complaint when she pulled up his nightgown, and she spent a while caressing his thighs, finding out where his flesh was smooth or less so. Curiosity drew her back to the heavy sac, for which Belle knew only vulgar names and one in the old tongue, from a book on battle wounds. She brought to mind the laughing advice of one of the married kitchen maids, when Belle had confessed to her about Gaston's attempt to paw her; to 'knee him in the balls' the next time he tried it. It did seem an unfortunately vulnerable thing for a man to have hanging between his legs, whether doing battle or merely attempting to ride a horse. However did they manage that? She cupped the weight of him in her palm, stroking with her thumb and almost laughed when she felt it properly. 'Balls' was accurate enough for what sat inside the soft bag of skin.

"We'll never get to market if you keep doing that," Rumpelstiltskin said, breathlessly interrupting her contemplative game. His hand was at the back of her head, though, and she'd heard his voice drop lower than before, strained with wanting. So, balls were vulnerable in a pleasurable way, as well as to the direct impact of a knee. That made rather more sense of their location.

Pushing up his gown to the middle of his chest, moving herself lower and bending over him, Belle kissed him in the centre of his ribs while grasping his cock. She was unsure of herself, in this, but perfectly clear in her own mind that her husband should not be thinking of a trip to market while she fondled him. She had enjoyed kissing his bare belly, the other night beside the fire, and tried again now, trying at the same time to stroke him. She felt awkward, all elbows, as Rumpelstiltskin put it, but not so foolish as before. Like that night, he was drowsy in his enjoyment of her, and no doubt finding a pleasure of his own in her lack of skill, for he had asked to be allowed to savour her innocence a while longer. A more enthusiastic kiss beneath his ribs made him wriggle, his breathing becoming quicker, and Belle felt her own body stir in response.

As much as she liked to kiss his mouth, she liked this too, and wondered if she'd found a hint of how he felt when he savoured her breasts, or when he'd used his mouth between her legs. She could suck, nip and lick at his skin as she pleased, teasing him as she teased her own senses. While she did so, Rumpelstiltskin's fingers were threaded through her thick hair, his fingers kneading appreciatively against her scalp. His hand went perfectly still, when her mouth tickled beneath his navel, and Belle could feel his anticipation. Would she kiss him there? Did she dare? A few minutes ago, she would have been afraid that he would laugh at her if she tried it. Now, feeling his body tense and his hand tremble, she was certain that he would not.

She had only to turn her head and to move her hand away to expose his cock to her kisses. Her heart thumped so hard that it hurt, with a cruel mixture of excitement and nerves, and made her own breath come nearly as short as Rumpelstiltskin's.

Just a little kiss, then, she thought, turning her head so that the tip of his cock was before her. Above, Rumpelstiltskin gave a moan, like none she'd heard during their other pleasures, so she held the thing steady and kissed him there. The head of his cock felt like silk against her lips, and the merest touch there made her husband gasp, his nails momentarily sharp against her scalp. He was beyond guiding her with words, so she followed her curiosity and his wordless reactions, slowly kissing the length of him, downwards, until her face was nearly buried in him, and all her senses full of him.

He smelled like leather, old leather, and his pipe smoke, and something that she had no name for, but supposed to be the scent of skin. She enjoyed showing her affection to it, his cock, which had given her so much pleasure and still eluded so many of her questions; if she felt silly fumbling her way forward and contorting herself to reach, she felt elated at Rumpelstiltskin's reaction. Her every kiss brought a sharp inhalation, a twitch, a moan, and Belle thought of how he was when he paid attention to her breasts. He had been far less confident, between her legs, but had tried the same movements as with her breasts; his tongue in hot little flashes, a gentle suckling, the steady strokes of his lower lip. Even his breath upon her skin had been a torment, by then. Belle did likewise, clumsily, and heard him cry out at the first, tentative touch of her tongue. Encouraged, she tried kissing while moving her hand the way he'd shown her, and licked across the silky head. She'd barely registered the faint taste of salt before Rumpelstiltskin pushed her away, head and shoulder, as roughly as he'd ever touched her.

"Stop, stop, stop," he was whispering, urgently, and Belle snatched her hand away from his cock as well, frightened, only to see him emptying his seed onto his own belly in thick, whitish streaks, each less copious than the last. His hands seemed undecided about grasping her or shoving her away, and he writhed, his face all twisted up while he panted through clenched teeth.

"I... oh, I'm sorry," she breathed, looking up at his face in dread of having committed some unknown sin against him, but he shook his head, laughing through his gritted teeth, his eyes tightly shut. He swallowed, rapidly, several times, while his bruising hold on her arm loosened. It had looked like torture, but with her alarm diminishing, Belle knew that she had witnessed the throes of pleasure - the face he normally hid away, tucked cheek to cheek with her while he came.

Just from that, she thought, trembling slightly in her relief as she watched him fall still, his tongue flicking across his lips between shallow breaths. He came, just from her hesitant kisses, just from having her down there, and a few little touches. Oh, goodness.

Well, she had wanted to see him undone. Kneeling beside him, not trusting herself to do anything further without his leave, Belle watched his smile grow; he was absorbed in his bliss, and it was wonderful to see him so unburdened. So happy. Was he always this way, when he buried his face in her hair, or in the pillow, or against her shoulder when the final release came? Belle regretted each and every time her own eyes had been closed, causing her to miss the breathtaking sight of her husband's pleasure.

It could only have been a few moments before he was sensible to the world again, but Belle felt the vision of him lying there, sated, score itself deep into her memory, every bit as vivid and real as the memories of her wedding night; one of those moments, in life, that were uniquely hers.

I did this, she thought, still frozen by his side as Rumpelstiltskin sat up, reaching for her with urgent hands, intent on kissing her. I did this to him.

His kiss left her in no doubt at all about his approval. He trembled all over, his kisses wet and clumsy, and would have reached beneath her gown had she not caught his hand, preventing him. Rumpelstiltskin hesitated, at that, and met her gaze at last. He looked every bit as shaken as she felt. Belle stroked his hair, then cupped his face between her palms and returned a much softer, slower kiss that calmed them both.

"Belle," he whispered, and she understood without needing his words; she had, thanks to his tenderness, felt just as he felt now; had received pleasure and wanted to return it in kind, but been too overwrought to know how, or how even to express her gratitude. But where was the hurry? It would be theirs, again and again, and the knowledge of that had anchored itself in her heart now. "Belle," he tried again, and shook his head, frustrated with his lack of words.

"Hush," she said, and drew his head to her shoulder, enjoying how he clutched at her arms as if for support. The most powerful man in the world, and she had broken him with a few kisses. Strange kisses, shocking kisses to be sure, but still theirs. All theirs and no-one else's, and Rumpelstiltskin was hers.

They parted quietly and meekly, after a long time, with each stealing uncertain glances at the other. Rumpelstiltskin's hair was wild, and Belle guessed that her own was as bad, for she had not bound it before going to bed. He swung his legs over the side of the bed, but just sat there quietly, while Belle got up to open the curtains. When she turned back, he was blinking rapidly in the new light, his hands folded in his lap. She put her hands on his shoulders, all but aching with tenderness towards him, and fiercely glad that it had naught to do with pity.

"I'm glad you came to bed," she said, when he said nothing but began to look uncomfortable. Arranging his hair, tucking some behind his ears, Belle waited for him to lift his face and look at her. "Aren't you?" she added, something wicked winding its way into her sudden smile.

"I certainly appreciate your warm welcome, mistress," he said, unable to give the words the levity she thought he'd meant for them. "Why, Belle?" he pleaded, all attempt at calm falling away. Grasping her gown above each hip, Rumpelstiltskin shook his head, and before he looked away she saw the glimmer of tears in his eyes. "You are too kind to an old monster."

"Man or monster," Belle said, taking his trick and bending until her face was level with his, leaving no escape from her gaze, "you're mine." His jaw dropped, but he made no attempt to interrupt her. "Besides, I think you're more a mystery than either of those. I enjoy mysteries." She pecked him on the lips, delighting in his wide-eyed silence. "Rumpelstiltskin, I think I've shocked you," she said, laughing as she straightened. She felt wonderful, somehow passionately alive, and it could hardly be contained. She could have danced about in her nightdress, if she hadn't feared that such an outburst would frighten her husband clear out of the room.

Rumpelstiltskin stood, slowly, and drew her firmly against his body, one hand spread across her buttocks and the other beneath her shoulders.

"A mystery?" There was something of the remote sorcerer in his piercing gaze, but something of her tender lover too, and something of her bewildered and shaken husband. All of him, there in one, unblinking look. Belle tried to commit it to memory, along with the sight of his undoing. "Do you plan to solve me, little wife? Starting with my cock?" He nudged her with it, a soft and squashy bulge now, and Belle giggled. "There's no other girl like you in all the world, that's certain."

"Good." Belle kissed him, meaning it to be another cheerful peck, but Rumpelstiltskin leaned into it, and made a slow seduction of it instead, until the idle way he rubbed his hand across her backside no longer seemed so innocent, and the little burn began inside her. She wanted him, but she need not act on it now. There would be tonight, tomorrow - a lifetime of being Rumpelstiltskin's wife, and permitted to share his body in ways that she remained too innocent to know yet. "I must go to the market," she said, twisting herself out of his embrace, but playfully, so that he knew himself to be part of a game and might spend the day wondering what the rules were. "I've no ribbons left. Just look at my hair!"

"We can't have that," Rumpelstiltskin agreed, regaining a little composure once she was out of his reach. "When you're ready, then?"

He walked to the door, seeming to have forgotten that he wore only a nightgown, but Belle saw that he still moved his right leg stiffly, and said nothing. A man did not like to show that he was in pain, she knew that much. Rumpelstiltskin did not like even to think that his magic was weakened, and would certainly not let it be known when they went in to town. Belle would be watchful, and do all that she could to ease his road to a full recovery.

Anticipating the wonderful pastries and other treats from Odstone that she had yet to try, Belle had no breakfast. Her excitement about a simple trip to market was absurd, she knew, but even reminding herself how unwelcome she had felt on previous visits to didn't diminish her eagerness. To be out of the castle, to see fresh faces, to see Wren... it would be wonderful.

"My dear." Rumpelstiltskin awaited her beside the fire in the great room. He had worn his heavy, furred travelling cloak and, just as she entered, Belle saw that he had his right leg extended towards the warmth of the fire, practically close enough to scorch the leather of his boot. He straightened himself at once, shrugging back the cloak that had, until she came in, been wrapped close about him.

Belle joined him beside the fire, taking both his hands and watching his face. There was no longer any visible sign of the recent change, not a hint of mortal flesh colour remaining, but her husband was not himself.

"You needn't come with me," she said, gently. "I can frighten them enough for both of us if you need to rest."

Rumpelstiltskin tilted his head, his eyes becoming a little unfocused, as if he strove to imagine her being frightening. Belle had to admit that it was unlikely, at best.

"I've business of my own, mistress," he said, gripping her hands firmly. "And a curious desire to spend the day with my bride. If I may," he added, with an effort at gallantry that was no less charming for coming a moment too late. Or even a month too late.

"Are you going to court me?" Belle swayed herself playfully from side to side, still grasping his hands, and watched his hesitant smile take hold. "At last?" It was the mildest possible reproach, but she felt a weight lift from her heart for having said it. To be claimed as a bride, in however fair a deal, was not to be courted, not to be wooed, and neither was his devotion to her pleasure. His simple desire for her company, his shyness about it, appealed to her wistful love of the romantic, and to her wish to be truly welcome at her husband's side.

"It's perhaps a little late?" Rumpelstiltskin suggested, but with enough of a smile that she could see the idea intrigued him too. "We're almost a month married."

"A month," Belle repeated, amazed. She had known it perfectly well, of course, but hearing the words made it suddenly real.

"Am I to court you after the honeymoon is over?"

"Yes," she laughed. "We'll do everything backwards, to suit ourselves. A wedding, a courtship, and then we can meet for the first time." The laugh became a giggle, at his exasperated little headshake, and Rumpelstiltskin put his arm around her shoulders, smothering her in the cloak, as he led her to the door.

As Belle collected her basket and coin pouch from the table in the entrance hall, she told herself that her proposal was not an unreasonable one. They had come to desire one another only after lying together, and that was surely backwards. Might they not discover, if they tried, that they wished to be married to one another, regardless of the fact that they already were?

As content as she was in his company, and in his bed, Belle could not have sworn under oath that she would have chosen Rumpelstiltskin above all others. Her only measure was that he had proven to be a better prospect than her previous suitors, and those consisted of Gaston and a string of nervous, reluctant twelve and thirteen year old boys before him. Of those, Belle had been most taken with the son of the trader Laszio, a boy called Shafer, with whom she had shared in common a love of wild creatures, scraped knees, and all of six words in the way of language.

If memory served her well, Shafer's father had bribed Sir Maurice for her hand with silks and spices while Shafer had, rather more successfully, offered Belle a live frog.

"What are you smiling about?" Rumpelstiltskin helped her up to the step of the carriage, before following her inside it with rather less than his usual, effortless grace. Belle tried not to show that she had noticed, or noticed that he gripped his right thigh beneath the cloak.

"Suitors," she said, truthfully, for those reluctant boys had been her suitors. Never mind that they had been terrified rather than amorous, and that only one of them had been interesting enough to give her a frog. Even Gaston, at their first meeting, had looked like he might be sick with embarrassment, and he had been fully eighteen years old at the time. "I had quite a lot, you know."

"And still your father chose Sir Gaston for you," Rumpelstiltskin answered, seating himself opposite Belle and flashing his teeth at her in a nasty smile. "Needs must, I suppose, but then his father has an army."

"Needs must," Belle laughed, prodding his calf with her toe, "and so I chose you."

Flustered by her playfulness, by a dose of his own teasing, Rumpelstiltskin fell silent. After a few moments, he opened his hand to produce the white cord from her wedding gown, and drew it absentmindedly between his fingers for the rest of the journey to Odstone, his brows knit in a thoughtful frown. Belle found herself content to watch him, and trying her best not to peek to see how her husband's... how his anatomy sat inside his extremely close-fitting leather breeches. It couldn't be very comfortable, she decided, before becoming embarrassed at her own preoccupation and tearing her gaze away.

At the town gates, Rumpelstiltskin lifted her down from the carriage and placed a bottle of the medicine for Wren in her empty basket. This one was twice as large as the last, and Belle looked at him askance.

"Each time she will need double the dose," he said, avoiding her gaze. "Our bargain will only buy her a little comfort. I cannot give her time." He straightened himself, attempting to become aloof. "Be sure to remind her of my price."

"Wren doesn't seem the sort to forget such a thing," Belle said, gently.

They walked together through the gates. The market was somewhat smaller than on her previous visits, it being the week after the quarterly fair. Belle wondered how much impact the unexpectedly blocked roads had on the affairs of the town, and glanced sideways at Rumpelstiltskin, wondering if he even thought of such things. It seemed to her that he understood the world well enough, but he removed himself from it, and from all human contact and consequence. He would aid Wren, but not visit her in her final days nor admit to any concern for her. He would clear the roads while still weak from his misadventure, but not allow the people to know that he had been ill rather than cruel or thoughtless, when the roads became blocked in the first place.

"She is selling herbs," Rumpelstiltskin said, before they reached the crossroads, causing Belle to look all about her, expecting to see the old woman nearby. Her husband gestured, instead, to the left-hand street, most of which remained out of sight behind the house on the corner. Belle opened her mouth to ask how he knew, but stopped herself. They were being watched by the townspeople, however circumspectly, and Rumpelstiltskin guarded his secrets closely. "I will be nearby," he said, and tapped her back, gently, to urge her off into the market.

His unease made Belle uneasy herself, reluctantly recalling the events of her last visit to Odstone, but matters needed attending to. Wren, first, and then, fortified by a conversation with a living soul besides her husband, she would tour the market.

Belle had pictured a stall or a handcart, when Rumpelstiltskin told her that she'd find Wren selling herbs, but instead she found the old woman seated on a three-legged stool, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, with three baskets on the ground beside her. As Belle got nearer, she could see the old woman's gnarled hands working busily at something in her lap, and smiled hugely when she realised it to be one of the straw dolls that she had admired among her wedding gifts. In one of the baskets at Wren's feet, there were other such novelties, including the beautiful little cornucopias, each one stuffed with bunches of herbs. She had never asked Wren what her gift had been, and now she knew.

"Ah, girl," Wren said, nodding approval. Unable to bend herself backwards far enough to look up at Belle, she smiled instead at Belle's feet. Belle hitched up her cloak and skirts and crouched before the older woman, not caring who saw her do so. Station and propriety meant nothing to her, next to the ability to look another person in the eye. "And with more of his magic for me, I see." Wren left off her straw weaving to thump herself heartily on the chest. "I've been sound ever since, and not too proud to say I'm grateful to 'im."

"I'm glad," Belle said, and she truly was, and relieved as well. The weather had been cruel, and Wren lived alone. "Do you have all that you need? Fuel? Food? You look frozen out here."

"I've sold my herbs at market for sixty years, girl," Wren cackled. "Weather comes and weather goes. Wren carries on."

Oh well - at least the question did not seem to have hurt the old woman's pride. Belle would not have asked, but Rumpelstiltskin spoke of no-one else with familiarity; while he would not offer his assistance directly, she sensed that he was only too glad to find Belle a willing intermediary. How would it be, she thought, to touch a person's life from cradle to grave, always knowing that grief was inevitable? No wonder Rumpelstiltskin found it convenient to distance himself from any hint of care for Wren. But what of his new wife? What did it cost him, each time Belle found her way nearer to his heart?

"D'you need herbs, duckling?" Wren gestured to her baskets, breaking Belle out of her sudden, brief melancholy. "Only you're scaring away those that might."

"Oh." Yes, of course, no-one would approach a stall while their master's wife was there. "Of course. May I visit you, soon?"

"I'd welcome it," Wren nodded, seriously. "What's his price for this, then?" She gestured to the bottle at the bottom of Belle's open basket.

"The same as before," Belle said, taking the bottle and pressing it into Wren's hand. "But spare it until it's truly needed, then take it all at once. He says you'll need more each time."

"Magic," Wren scoffed, pocketing it somewhere beneath her blanket. "More trouble than it's worth." But Belle thought she saw a tear in the old woman's eye, and squeezed her hand gently before leaving her.

Belle spent some time choosing which ribbons to buy, not used to extravagant spending on her own behalf. She had a preference for greens, which were bright against her chestnut hair without being gaudy, but remembered that Rumpelstiltskin enjoyed stealing them from her nightgowns as well, and chose a range of ribbons that she thought might please him. There were other small things that caught her eye, on the same stall - threads, lace, and even a length of the finest white satin cord, which she could use to replace what Rumpelstiltskin had taken from her wedding gown. Belle detested the wastefulness of a costly gown that would be worn only once, yet she had been sorry to see the hem marked by the wet weather, and wanted to keep it, safe in her trunk. The cost of a new lace for the bodice wouldn't offend her husband, she was sure. She would not dream of asking him to return the original one to her.

It seemed to Belle that the townsfolk took less notice of her than they had on her previous visits. They had learned that Rumpelstiltskin would not punish them for simply breathing the same air as his bride, at least, nor for keeping a respectful distance from her, nor for proudly showing her their goods when she asked to be shown. It was not the progress that Belle would have liked, but she could afford to be patient with this, as well. She would show them only courtesy, concern and kindness, and as Rumpelstiltskin had said on her first visit, the people might hope that she would be able to influence their master. Perhaps they would learn to trust in her goodwill.

With her basket full, and having sampled Hadley's pastries and chosen several to take home, Belle began to look for her husband. The marketplace was not crowded, but she could not see him waiting for her anywhere. Belle made her way slowly back towards the gates, meaning to leave her basket in the carriage and perhaps return to wander the market unburdened while she waited for Rumpelstiltskin. Although a cold day and quite damp, it was bright and pleasant enough. She would much have preferred to walk back to the castle, had Rumpelstiltskin not insisted on the precaution of his company, or taking the carriage. She would certainly not ask him to walk the distance by her side, while his leg still troubled him.

To her surprise, when she opened the carriage door to place her basket inside, Belle found her husband already there. His feet were propped on the opposite seat, crossed at the ankles, and her first thought was to scold him for putting his muddy boots on the upholstery. He had her white cord woven around his hands in a complex design, and brightened at the sight of her, and Belle had not the heart to become a scolding wife, there and then. Besides, when he removed his boots from her seat, not a trace of the sticky black mud was left behind.

"You have everything your heart desires, treasure?" Showing more interest than usual in the contents of her basket, Rumpelstiltskin smiled and leaned over for a good look. Belle had hidden the ribbons away at the very bottom, so that he might enjoy the small surprise each time she wore one of them, and kept him from rummaging with a light slap to the hand.

"Cloth for my aprons, pastries, cheese, ink. Ribbons for my hair." His expression, when hopeful, was almost boyish, even as his large eyes made him seem, unblinking, to be even less an ordinary man. "Wren is grateful for the potion, but seems well without it."

"Ah." Rumpelstiltskin sat back, as the carriage began to move. "Very good."

"And your business?"

"Hmm?"

"Your business in town."

"Oh," he said, with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Fair. Fair." He returned his gaze to his game of cat's cradle, nodding.

Something in his light tone made Belle suspicious of mischief, but she did not press him. It was a welcome change to see her husband in such a mood - if not at ease then enjoying her company, and with it the ordinary pleasures of conversation and companionship. It was so different to the dark pleasure that he took in his displays of power. Beneath the stilted courtesy that he had always shown her, beneath the nervous care he took with her, she was discovering a man whose passions ran so deep that he barely had the words to express them. She had found him first in their bed, but he no longer hid himself away there all the time; he teased, he touched and, sometimes, dared a little with her. If he had not courted her, Belle thought, then she had, quite unknowingly, done quite the job of courting and seducing him in their month of marriage.

"You're smiling again," he said, without looking up from his game. He was smiling as well.

"Well, I'm happy," Belle said, with a little laugh. She was, truly. It had begun when he joined her for the night, trusting himself to her welcome; it had grown when she found how very much he liked her naughty kisses. Fresh air and fresh faces, seeing Wren well and a full basket had all added to her helpless glow of contentment. Their flirtatious teasing had added laughter and excitement, and Belle looked forward to being cloistered with Rumpelstiltskin again, where they might decently continue their 'courtship'.

Yes. She was happy.

Chapter Text

True to his word, Rumpelstiltskin did seem intent on spending the day in Belle's company. She was flattered, naturally, but could not help wondering if, up in his turret of mysteries and magic, his careful study of his enemy's magic spell was going badly. Even his spinning wheel was forsaken, Rumpelstiltskin preferring to join her in the kitchen while she bustled about, doing what was needful. He did not shadow her everywhere, but installed himself in front of the kitchen fire and resumed his neverending game of cat's cradle, his feet stretched out towards the fire.

Belle hid away her new ribbons in her trunk, and the new lace for her wedding gown along with them, and returned to the kitchen with her glass pen, her new ink and the roll of paper sheets that Rumpelstiltskin had left as a gift. In the shock of his homecoming, in caring for him, she had forgotten to thank him for the gesture of apology, or for allowing her to keep the box that enabled her to exchange letters with home.

Leaving the things on the table, Belle went to his side and found him reading Wren's cookery book.

"I don't think your people would imagine you reading a book on housewifery," Belle said, toying with his hair where it fell across his tall collar. "Wren gave it to me."

"Ah." Nodding, Rumpelstiltskin delicately licked a fingertip and turned a page. "There are so few books I've not read."

"You've read the library?" Belle gazed at him with equal measures of awe and envy. "All of those books?"

"Every book in the castle, dearie," he said, shrugging.

"You must know everything," she sighed, trying to imagine it - so many books, all their words and wisdom...

"Everything that can be found in a book." He closed the one he held and reached around her waist, urging her to sit on his lap. "Can housewifery spare you a while?" Belle sat, careful of his right leg, and looped her arms around his neck, smiling when he kissed the cleft of her bosoms. "Your husband is all alone at your hearth." Another kiss, and his tongue dipping between her breasts, made Belle squirm.

"My tutors say that one is never alone with a book," she said, but found that she'd no desire to keep him from having his way; only to tease him, to make him strive a little. "Your magic doesn't call you away, husband? Your tower and your secrets?"

Rumpelstiltskin removed his face from her bosom, and settled her more comfortably on his lap, resting back in the chair to gaze at her.

"Your husband is a tired old monster, today," he said, airily. "The poppy makes hard work of everything."

"You still need it?" Belle would not have asked, would have spared him his pride, but she was glad that he had mentioned it. "Your leg?"

"...no, no." He bounced her, easily, taking her weight with the right leg. "Your medicine was strong, mistress," he said, with some admiration. "You must've taken great care in making it, to extract so much potency from the poppies."

"I did," Belle said, uncertainly, touching his hair again. "Did I do it wrong?"

"No. I'm very impressed. Best not to stop it too quickly, that's all. I'm not as recovered as I hoped." Another bounce, as if to shake the sudden worry from her face. "Less today, less tomorrow."

"You said that it shouldn't affect you that way," she pressed, unhappily. "You must rest until you're truly well."

"It seems I must." Rumpelstiltskin plucked at the bow that fastened her bodice, smiling lopsidedly. "In your arms?"

"I haven't pleased you enough for one day?" Bending, Belle gave him a kiss. It would have suited her well enough to retire to bed with him for as long as he wished, but she had her letters to write. "When I've answered Papa's letter," she relented, seeing that his pouting disappointment was not all in play. "And when we've eaten Hadley's wonderful pastries for our tea."

"Are you trying to fatten me up?" Tilting his head, Rumpelstiltskin pinched at her ribs, making Belle twist and laugh. "It won't work, you know."

"If you're mortal enough to suffer from my medicine, you're mortal enough to need a good meal," Belle said, as firmly as she could while caught at the edge of laughter. "My tutors also told me that good husbands are hard to find, so I'm going to look after you." Her laughter faded when she saw Rumpelstiltskin's face. He looked as he had looked that very morning, after her pleasuring of him; frozen at some point just beyond incredulity. "You are a good husband", Belle said, gently. "You could have behaved like a monster. You've been kind to me, and generous. Patient and gentle." She fussed with his hair again, flustered by her own boldness. "I don't think it's been easy for you to do any of it. You enjoy being frightening, don't you?"

"Ah, Belle." Rumpelstiltskin winced, as though her words caused him physical pain, and gazed past her into the glowing hearth. "Don't flatter me, treasure. I know what I am. Black to the bone, but I made certain you'd be safe. A contract binds me, ours most of all."

"Our deal." Belle didn't know what to make of his lassitude, or his words. "You were afraid of what you might do?" It was awful. The words stuck in her throat, wretched.

Rumpelstiltskin managed another lopsided, halfhearted smile.

"I'd not have harmed you," he soothed, reaching up behind her to play with her hair in turn. "If you'd refused to consummate our marriage, fulfil our contract..." he sighed. "You bound yourself more firmly to a beast, my dear, but to his protection as well. You need fear nothing, want for nothing." He brought her hair forward, parting it at the back so that he could arrange all of it at her shoulders, as absorbed as always with his tactile games. "You shall see the world, devour a library, know all the pleasure that a monster knows how to give. Even scrub the floors, if you wish it."

Unused to hearing him speak so, and wondering if this was how he meant to court her, Belle chewed her lip for a while, fingering his cuffs while he played with the ends of her hair, tickling her bosom.

"And in return? What can I do, to deserve all that? Only remind you what it was like to be a man?" It didn't seem fair, but then not all bargains were. Belle had grown up among traders, politicians, power-brokers. One side often surrendered more than the other.

"Just so," Rumpelstiltskin nodded, suddenly tensing beneath her, his expression hardening, as though he feared he had revealed too much. "Write your letters, mistress. Be sure to seal them all as one, as your father did, even if they are not addressed to the same person." Gently, but firmly, he evicted her from his lap. "Clever man, to think of it."

"You don't mind?"

"It pleases me," Rumpelstiltskin said, holding his right thigh as he rose from the chair, "that your father is a thinking man." He brushed Belle away, gently, when she reached out to steady him. "And that he would have refused my deal, had the choice been his." His black fingernails trailed lightly down Belle's cheek. "I think he would have tried to kill me, had I forced the issue."

"I..." Belle stopped herself in the middle of an automatic denial, and saw her husband's little smile brighten. He was pleased that she had caught herself, stopped, thought. "Had you tried to force me," she said, carefully, "then he would have."

"A good father, then." Rumpelstiltskin squared his shoulders, stepping back from her, as though their familiarity suddenly surprised him. "He deserves a letter." He shooed her with a flicking motion with both hands. "Say that we shall visit him," he added, as Belle reached the kitchen table and reached for her precious paper. She spun on her heel, several sheets spilling from her hands to the chair beside her, and to the floor. She stared at Rumpelstiltskin, her jaw slack; she hadn't dared to hope that he would allow her... so soon... "If you wish?" her husband concluded, his commanding certainty fading at the sight of her expression. Belle tried to master it, but opted to conceal it instead, bending to pick up the fallen paper.

"I do," she stammered, fumbling again with the pages before she stacked them securely and straightened up to face Rumpelstiltskin. "Oh, may we? You'll go with me?"

Again, he looked as though her words had caught him utterly off-guard and unprepared.

"Unless you wish otherwise," he answered, warily, his eyes huge and his hands fidgeting at his sides.

"Of course I don't!" Oh, by the gods, he looked so lost. If Rumpelstiltskin was a mystery to her, then surely Belle was a thorny maze to him! "When shall I say we'll go? You've been ill," she added, a more sensible part of her mind catching up with her selfish excitement and reining it in. "Not yet, then. You must rest." She was all but babbling with her excitement, and she could see that it was alarming her husband, who sidled towards the kitchen door once she fell silent, as though he feared turning his back to her would be a mistake.

"We shall leave in two days time," he said, nodding decisively, "and travel as before. If I've not found my answers by then, I suspect I never shall."

Remembering his painstaking work with the bloodied clothing, Belle felt ashamed of her excitement. Her husband's enemies had struck a blow that ought to have been impossible; it was vital that he understand how.

"I can wait until your work is done," Belle said, although her heart screamed defiance. The yearning to see her Papa again was a terrible thing, and she did not want to be false to Rumpelstiltskin. "It should wait," she said, firmly, and rather more truthfully.

"Magic fades, mistress," he said. "In a day, or two, there will be nothing for me to pursue. Write your letter. Put a father's mind at rest." Rumpelstiltskin stopped at the bottom of the stone stairs and turned back to regard her, uncomfortably. "Say nothing of my misfortune."

"Of course not. Nothing about your magic or your work," Belle said, quickly. She would not have him think that she had forgotten, not when he had eased his initial restrictions for her sake! "Don't forget our tea," she added, but it emerged as more of a question; he had that look of purpose about him, again, and if he went up to his laboratory to resume his studies, he might forget that he had wished to spend the day otherwise.

Rumpelstiltskin's expression brightened enormously, and he lifted his eyebrows suggestively.

"And after pastries, your arms?"

"If you like," Belle laughed, as much from relief that he had not forgotten his wish as from his comical expression. Smiling wickedly, Rumpelstiltskin continued on his way.

His open enthusiasm for her embraces, in place of the hopeful hesitancy that had gone before, thrilled her. She could imagine being ambushed by his desires while she dusted his strange collection, or browsed the library; how she would squirm and pretend, for just a few moments, that she meant to deny him. She blushed, imagining the scene, and realised that to have such thoughts in her mind while composing a letter to her father would be extremely embarrassing.

Belle's happiness overflowed onto the three, crisp pages - the letters no chore at all when she could offer the promise of a visit so very soon. She wrote to Lotte of her new ribbons and the aprons she would make, to Leorna of her good wishes for the birth of the child and with news of her marriage, and to her Papa of her overwhelming excitement at being able to see him very soon. She was careful to add that Rumpelstiltskin would be accompanying her, as was only proper, but that they travelled without a retinue and would, as a result, not impose greatly upon the household. She hated to think of her childhood home in the sort of uproar that preceded the arrival of a dignitary, especially knowing how little her husband concerned himself with the mundane.

She shivered a little, realising that he would be joining her in her room once they arrived. Her husband beside her, beneath her father's roof. The idea shocked her, for the guarding of her chastity had been her chief duty, as the daughter of a nobleman; there had never been a man in her rooms for any reason, without at least two women present. Even her father had never visited her there, once her childhood was behind her, and now Rumpelstiltskin would be there, her rightful husband, and they would...

Sealing her letters in one, careful bundle, Belle blushed from her bosoms to her ears, unable to keep herself from picturing - so clearly - Rumpelstiltskin moving above her in that bed, while she writhed beneath him, a creature of lust. The heat of her blush trickled slowly downwards, too, and inflamed her elsewhere, and Belle prayed that her father would not be able to tell that his dutiful, sober-minded daughter had allowed marriage to make her wanton.

And wanton for Rumpelstiltskin, at that. Time and reason had softened her initial terror at the prospect of earning her father's disgust, but she could not imagine that her husband would share his determined gentleness with the world. Would he mock, and leer, and plant the seeds of suspicion in Sir Maurice that his daughter was being ill-used, as he had done on the day of the wedding? Would he play the monster, the beast, and leave her with no way to tell her father that she hoped to find love in such a marriage?

Love. The word gave her churning thoughts something solid to pivot around. Her father had often told her that he hoped for her to find love, when she married, as he had. She thought, now, that he had said it to reassure her that such a thing was possible, and to reassure himself, for she knew that he entertained doubts about Gaston. Not about the match, the necessity and worthiness of it, but about the man, who fought bravely but unthinkingly, and wore his pride like another kind of armour. She knew that Papa had thought him a young fool, and a hothead, and still he had reminded her that love could grow between husband and wife, even if they began as strangers. Could she love Rumpelstiltskin? She loved the mystery of him, and burned with a kind of passion for the sweet, unsure lover he'd proven to be. Was that love, that her body craved his, while her heart craved his closeness and affection? If not love, then it had to be the fertile ground in which love might, one day, grow. Papa would want that for her, wouldn't he?

With what she had gleaned from books and gossips, Belle had imagined that love would feel like a glow of warmth in her chest; a giddy joy, a recklessness, an adventure. Could it be the stirrings of love that she felt when Rumpelstiltskin showed her a glimpse of his heart, or when they clung together when their pleasure was done and she yearned for them to stay that way forever? Had it been love that made her sick with fear when he was helpless and bleeding? She had known compassion for the wounded soldiers at home, and pity for their pain, and honour in being allowed to give them what little aid she could. Her concern for Rumpelstiltskin had been all-consuming. What wouldn't she have done, that dreadful night in the tower, if she thought it might ease his pain?

Certainly she wanted to love her husband, but a person couldn't just make it happen by trying, by willing it. Could they?

Could Rumpelstiltskin ever love her? Belle didn't believe that he was black to the core, for she had seen otherwise. In his grief for his child, he had proven to her that he yet knew love, and yet had the heart for it. She thought... of course, she had no way of knowing for certain... but yes, she thought that his desire was for her, his wife, for Belle and not merely for an obliging bedmate. He thought her lovely, he gazed at her with that disbelieving wonder. Belle had understood, without knowing where she had learned such a thing, that men spoke unguardedly in a woman's bed; that flattery and declarations might be sincere only for those fleeting moments in a lover's arms. She thought Rumpelstiltskin's praise of her to be sincere, all the same, and that it was only shyness or reserve that kept him from speaking such words at other times. She liked to be called his treasure, and told that she was lovely. They were not words of love, perhaps, but of sincere feeling and appreciation.

Placing her sealed bundle of letters into the box, Belle gazed at them for a few moments before closing the lid. She could not be the first daughter to struggle with such thoughts; she would not be the last. She would be patient, and hopeful, and continue to be the best wife and the best daughter she was able. What else could she do?

Unable to resist the temptation, the sheer lure of not-knowing, Belle peeked inside the box. Her letter had gone. She smiled, both at her own silliness for checking and at the knowledge that, very soon, her father would know to expect her return. She hoped that it would put his mind at rest; that seeing her, Papa would be unable to doubt her assurances about her safety and contentment.

Already, Belle felt a pang of regret for sending Rumpelstiltskin away. She had done so with the hope that a little teasing, a little waiting, would heighten their enjoyment later, and encourage Rumpelstiltskin to find ways of courting her favour. It was only a game, but she found herself enjoying it less than she had hoped. She wanted to be in her husband's arms, and allow him to seek out and satisfy the itch that had begun in her when she thought about being with him. Did he feel it, too? He, of course, had already enjoyed his pleasure once, today. Would her game be turned about, and he the winner?

Such feelings left her flustered for the remainder of the afternoon, her body in want of something that she had denied herself, and her thoughts constantly returning to her husband. Understanding the source of her frustration made it more bearable than when she had first experienced such feelings, but did nothing to aid her in concentrating on her chores. Neither could she concentrate on reading, so she was both flustered and bored by the time she began to prepare their afternoon tea.

There was little enough to do, besides arranging the pastries on a plate and laying out the tea things. Belle enjoyed the little ritual of it, the appointment with Rumpelstiltskin, and that he obliged her at all when neither food nor conversation seemed of particular interest to him. But she was of interest to him, and so he came to tea - the Spinner, all his terrible power banked, joining her for tea and pastries at three o'clock. The Spinner sweetened his cup with two lumps of finest sugar. The Spinner delicately used a napkin or a silken handkerchief to mop the corner of his mouth, when he had finished his tea. Who would believe that, if she told them?

Waiting for him in her place at the kitchen table, to the right of his chosen seat at the head of it, Belle rested her chin in her cupped hands and stared at nothing. Who would believe that her husband made love so gently and so generously? Who would believe that he wasn't enraged when his painstaking spinning turned to dust at her careless touch? Who would believe that he loved a son so much that to speak of his memory brought tears to his eyes?

Wren, Belle thought, running her finger slowly around the rim of her empty teacup. Wren would believe all those things. Could she be the only person in the entire world to see beyond Rumpelstiltskin's self-perpetuated legend, besides Belle? The only one?

"You look so dismal, dearie," Rumpelstiltskin said, from the doorway, making Belle jump so hard that the crockery rattled on the table. "I thought that you might be happy, to be going home?"

As Belle made to rise, to greet him and to fetch the kettle, Rumpelstiltskin came up behind her chair and, gently, pressed her back down. Before she could protest, he fetched the kettle and filled the teapot himself before returning the kettle to the hearth.

"I am happy," she told him, while he poured. "I was thinking about how lonely you must have been here, that's all."

"Ah." His faint smile was indulgent, as he took his place. "There is the occasional visitor."

"Here?"

"Oh, yes." Rumpelstiltskin's smile became something less pleasant, as he reached for one of the fresh pastries. "Some come to deal, some come to slay me." He made a mock-stabbing motion at her with his chosen pastry. "A fool's errand, if ever there was one."

"Somebody came close," Belle reminded him, unhappy at his smugness about that.

"Not to killing me," Rumpelstiltskin said, making a dismissive gesture as he reached for the teapot. "And most who come here are heroes. They try it with chivalry, and a blade. It doesn't go well for them."

"And... what do you do to them?" Belle watched, fixedly, as he filled her cup with steaming tea. He spoke of being deathless, of defeating heroes, while he poured tea.

"I don't kill them," Rumpelstiltskin said, with a look of mock-hurt. "Most of them are in the garden, crawling about. Some are in the pond."

"Oh." She felt that she ought to be more shocked by that. She could feel nothing. Not shock at her husband's gruesome joviality, not pity for the men who had tried to slay him. Not impressed by Rumpelstiltskin's bravado, when only days ago he had been all but screaming with pain, helpless in her arms. "Shall I need to be careful where I step, then, come spring?"

"Might be best."

Belle thought that she should be angry, horrified, and telling her husband so, but she had only lost her appetite, while gaining a burden of unwelcome knowledge. Her husband had reminded her, even as they teased by the fireplace, that he was a dark sorcerer. He pretended to be nothing else. Those who challenged him might have been more fortunate had they died, but Rumpelstiltskin would not have sought them out. They had sought to slay him, and lost. Why did it seem cleaner to slay an enemy with a sword than to turn him into something humble, yet still-living? Belle had thought no less of Gaston or her father for returning from the battlefield dripping with blood and gore; had not thought at all of the slain among the attackers. But that night upon the town walls, while Rumpelstiltskin worked his spells to save it, Belle had thought to pity the ogres their fate then.

Rumpelstiltskin watched her, nibbling on a pastry with no more or less than his usual enthusiasm for meals.

"The people who come to make a deal," Belle said, trying to pull herself together. "How often do they come?"

"More often than the chivalrous fools," he said, refilling his teacup and sitting back with it cradled between his hands. "I make no secret of this place. No-one is prevented from approaching."

"Yet the people leave their gifts at the gate. Your own people don't come here?"

"Well, they know me better than most, but they'll come knocking if I'm truly needed. Nobody else in the world desires my company, dearie. You're all alone in that." The smile he flashed at her was suggestive, still playful. It didn't dampen his other appetites to speak of such things, then.

Realising that it had dampened her own somewhat, Belle felt like a traitor to him. Never had Rumpelstiltskin concealed his nature from her; never had he missed an opportunity to remind her of what he was, when he felt that she was losing sight of it. She had given him promise after promise, asked to know and understand him as well as any wife might hope to know her husband. And now that he was showing her this side of his nature without hesitation, telling her things that she did not wish to hear, she must keep those promises.

Truth, then, for she cared no less for him, knowing that she might step on a cursed knight-errant if she trod unwarily in the castle gardens. As with the prisoner who had seized her and paid with his life, it was Rumpelstiltskin's self-satisfaction that offended her sensibilities the most.

"I'd be sick, if I trod on somebody," she said, quietly. "I could never forgive myself. Please don't let that happen."

"...as you wish." His voice had lost the sneer of self-satisfaction, so she braved a glance at his face. Uncertainty was consuming his features, becoming an unhappy anxiety even as she watched. "You will tread without fear of a massacre underfoot, my dear. You have my word." Rumpelstiltskin gave the slightest of bows, not so much as rippling the surface of his tea.

"Thank you." Hearing her own relief, Belle realised the extent of it. She would have been afraid to set foot in the gardens, in future, had she not secured his promise! "None of the weeping maids are out there, are they?" she asked, suddenly remembering what he had said about his workroom, and cockroaches.

"I don't curse people for no good reason, treasure," her husband soothed, his nervousness edging towards that eerie little giggle of his. "When I tired of a servant's weeping, I sent her home and good riddance. With gold, if she managed to do any work while she was snivelling," he added, with more dignity. "And with no memory of what she saw here to keep her awake at nights. When a warrior comes to try and stick his sword in me, I get tetchy."

Shaking her head, Belle finally selected one of the pastries. They had been so appealing, back in Odstone, but now she picked at it without enthusiasm, and sipped her tea, aware all the while of Rumpelstiltskin's gaze upon her.

"I'll go to my room," she said, when she could manage to eat no more. "Make myself beautiful for you."

"That requires no effort on your part, my dear," he said, catching her hand as she rose from her chair. "May I not join you?"

"Have you decided, yet, how you're going to court me?" Belle had yearned for him ever since he left, and now she was yearning for a moment to herself, to think about what she had learned. It would be so easy to kiss him, to allow the pleasures of her marriage to push aside the dark truths, but sooner or later she would have to face them. Her husband, this man she hoped to love and be loved by, had done monstrous things. He would likely do them again.

"I admit that I don't know how," Rumpelstiltskin said, rising and keeping hold of her hand. "I've been trying to remember. I think I never knew."

He was so... so sweet. When he spoke that way, Belle wanted to gather him up in her arms and promise him the world. It was monstrous that a person should think themselves too hideous or too black-hearted for his advances to ever be welcome. How monstrous would it be if, having promised to be his faithful wife and fond lover too, she rejected him for a truth she had always known about him?

"Will you tell me, later, how you got your magic?" Gently, she brought his hand to her breast, gripping it, drawing it close to her with both hands. "What became of the father who was so afraid for dear Baelfire?"

Rumpelstiltskin looked pained for a moment, even irritated, but his fingers tightened in hers and he gave a taut nod.

"I gave my word."

To Belle's relief, to her shame, she had cooled his ardour with her request, just as he had cooled hers with his mention of his former enemies crawling about in the garden. She brought his hand to her lips and kissed it, closing her eyes. He'd given his word to tell her everything while in a state of near-delirium. How very easy it would have been for him to deny all memory of it, later. She gave the captive hand another kiss, her heart full of a different sort of passion. It was fierce and it wanted her husband protected, comforted.

"Later, then," she said, stealing a glance at his face before turning to go. He looked wary. Confused, as if he could not understand his own, meek obedience to her wishes. Belle felt ashamed of herself for using her influence so; for using his desire so. "An hour?"

"As you wish," Rumpelstiltskin said, weakly, and let go of her hand. As she reached the door, Belle heard him repeat, just quietly, "As you wish."

Chapter Text

A steaming hot bath was still a luxury that Belle relished. It did her good, she was sure, soaking away small discomforts and leaving her warmed through. She had indulged herself with a fragrant oil in the water, this time, which left her skin soft and her whole body feeling wonderful. She shivered, slipping on her blue nightgown, aware of the way the cool silk tickled her skin as it fell around her. Lacing it closed with one of her old ribbons, a wide lemon coloured one that was soft from endless use, Belle tied a prim, tight little bow at the neck, and momentarily wished that she had a mirror so that she could see what Rumpelstiltskin would see.

Although she had become used to fastening up her hair without a mirror, she would have liked to try a more elaborate style tonight, and could not begin to do so without one. She settled, instead, for a thorough brushing, and allowing the damp ends of her hair to curl as they dried, bound in a simple, loose ponytail at the nape of her neck. She used a new velvet ribbon for that, a rich plum colour, winding it around a few times before securing it with another bow.

Belle felt a little wicked, still, readying herself for Rumpelstiltskin this way, but it was a feeling that she was learning to enjoy. She had thought very little about her own body, other than during the period of rapid change a few years back; other than cleaning it and clothing it, she paid it little mind. Now she was learning to delight in it, for her own sake as well as for her husband's. From the whisper of silk against her slightly-damp skin to the pile of the carpet beneath her bare feet, Belle enjoyed feeling so much. Did all new wives experience such an awakening to themselves, or was it through her husband's tender care that such sensations had flourished in her?

What else could she do to make ready? It was too early yet to close the curtains, the winter sky dull but not quite dark on a blustery afternoon. Candles had lit the room when she entered, as usual, but she could not bring herself to shut out what little daylight remained. Belle turned back the bedclothes, invitingly, and piled up the pillows the way Rumpelstiltskin liked, right in the middle. She would not have him doubt his welcome, either in her bed or in her arms, and if he wished to be with her before he kept his promise then she would accept him gladly. She thought that he found it easier to speak to her, then; it made him less guarded, less nervous and, perhaps, somewhat resigned to going out of his way to please her.

Rumpelstiltskin had never intended to reveal so much of himself to his new wife. Belle knew that. She had opened his eyes to the possibility of a true marriage, of trust and companionship, just as he had opened hers to a world of shared delights and laughter. Until now, she had not understood, herself, quite how much of his trust she was demanding. What if he told her something about his past, about himself, so terrible that she could not keep her promise? Better that than not to know the truth, she thought. Better for her, but Rumpelstiltskin might have reason to keep her in happy ignorance. He feared her contempt, this man who had the power to rule the world; he prized her acceptance, even craved it. Could they strike a balance, there? Had her promises been reckless?

Her confusion only heightened when, hearing his footsteps on the staircase, her heart quickened. Was that desire, or was she nervous about what she might learn? Was it both, intermingled? Unable to find a place to settle herself, to pretend that she had waited calmly for his arrival, Belle simply stood behind the fireside chair, grasping its back, and listened to the sound of his tread. Still heavier than normal, still bothered by the leg even if he said there was no pain. And she had meant to wait until he was well before demanding the answers to her questions; before demanding her price. Oh dear...

Outside her door, Rumpelstiltskin hesitated for so long that Belle's palms began to sweat where she gripped the chair so tightly, and she held her breath, listening, but then he knocked, and she breathed again.

"Come in." She had bid him wait for her to make herself beautiful - of course he would not enter without her leave. Leave given, he entered at once, quietly, and gazed at her from beside the door, his expression quite unreadable.

"You have achieved the impossible, my dear," he said, just as Belle drew breath to speak. "Made yourself even more beautiful." The compliment came with a nervous little smile, and Belle remembered that he claimed to be unfamiliar with courtship. He seemed genuinely uncertain as to whether such words would meet with her approval, and the best response that Belle could manage was a flaming blush that must have turned her ears the colour of beetroot!

"Thank you," she said, remembering herself, and smiling through her blushes. "Flattery is a very good start, when courting a lady."

Rumpelstiltskin looked relieved.

"I... had not wanted you to think that I chose you for that alone," he confessed, gaze dropping to the toes of his boots. "I did not."

"Then I'm glad my husband values more in a woman