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The wee monster that the kingdom calls a princess stands on the other side of the wheel, watching.  Rumpelstiltskin spins on, though he wonders what the little beastie finds so fascinating.  Perhaps it is the magic that fascinates her, or maybe the shimmer of the fine gold thread.  Still, he cannot imagine they are so interesting as to make her watch him with such focus for as long as she has.  For such a little thing, she can be quite unnerving.

He was already baffled by the sheer number of questions she managed to come up with as he explained to her, in days past, what the wheel is, how it works, what he uses it for, and how his magic works.  He long ago gave up trying to dissuade her from coming up to his tower – she is quite a stubborn little wretch – but her interrogation made him wish he had tried just a bit harder.

In the corner of his eye, he can see Belle chewing on her lip.  She keeps on like that for a while.

“Why do you spin so much?” she finally asks.

He stops, looks up at her, and stares for a long moment.  He must admit, despite the annoyance she is, in a world full of fools and simpletons and men not interested in discovering anything more of life than what they see, her curiosity and bright little mind is actually rather refreshing.  He can’t help but grin a bit as he turns the wheel once again.

“I only mean,” she continues, fidgeting with her fingers.  “I’ve seen all the gold you’ve spun already.  Surely you could never possibly spend it all.”

“I like to watch the wheel,” he says slowly.  Somehow, he doesn’t mind speaking to her, sharing things with her.  “It helps me forget.”

She tilts her head.  “Forget what?”

He stops the wheel, stares at nothing for a moment, then smiles.  “I guess it worked,” he answers, giggling manically at his own joke.

To his utter shock, the child quite literally topples over with laughter.

He stares at her as she rolls on the floor with giggles.  This child may very well be the single strangest creature he has ever encountered, and he is a man who has come across nearly every vicious and rare being the many realms have to offer.  But of all of them, only this little child has ever looked upon him without the slightest bit of hesitation or trepidation.  She is a very brave and kind-hearted little girl, to be sure, but he is beginning to suspect that she is not merely showing courage by coming to him day after day.  He is beginning to suspect that she truly sees nothing to fear in him.

“I thought that was your laughter I heard up here, my little Belle.”

Both of them turn abruptly to the door.  There, the queen stands, dressed in a simple lavender gown, leaning against the door frame as she smiles at her daughter.

“Hello, Mama,” Belle chirps, the picture of innocence.  “Rumkin made a very funny joke.”

“I’m sure he did.  Though I wonder why you are up here to hear it in the first place.”

Belle looks down at the floor, shuffling her feet.  “I was only visiting, Mama.  I know Papa would fuss if he knew I was here, but I don’t think he has anything to worry about.”

Suddenly, the queen begins coughing, loudly and roughly, and the mere sound of it hurts.  She quickly pulls a handkerchief from her pocket and presses it to her lips, turning away from Belle.  The child looks up at her mother worriedly for a moment, but then as quickly as it started, the coughing subsides.  As though nothing at all had happened, the queen turns back to Belle with a wide smile, and kneels down beside her.

“Well, I don’t see any reason to mention it to him.  Do you?”  Belle smiles, the secret in her eyes, and shakes her head.  “Nor do I.  Now run along downstairs.  It’s nearly time for dinner.”

Belle darts into her mother’s arms, hugging her tightly, and then runs off, waving a quick goodbye before she is out the door.

The queen stands, and turns to Rumpelstiltskin.  Her smile is genuine, but sad.  She moves to stand beside him.  “I see my daughter has made a friend.”

“Fear not, Your Majesty,” he says, flourishing a small bow from where he sits.  “When I skin your daughter for her pelt and eat her for my supper, I promise she will feel no pain.”

The queen laughs lightly at this, but the sound quickly turns to a sputtering cough.  She puts her handkerchief back to her mouth as the coughs rack her body for several long seconds.  When they stop and she pulls the cloth away, he can see faint droplets of red on the otherwise pristine white fabric.  “Come now,” she says, her voice slightly hoarse.  “We both know you cannot hurt her.  And somehow I suspect that you would never do such a thing, even if you had the choice.”

She smiles again, and he looks away, unsure what to do with his hands.  “I, uh… I should fetch you a bottle of tonic from upstairs.”

“Don’t.  Don’t.  It does my cough little good and keeps me from sleeping.”  She smiles nonetheless.  “Truly, Rumpelstiltskin.  I am very grateful that my daughter has found a friend in you.”

He fidgets his hands.  He supposes the little beastie really is his friend, isn’t she?  It is a very strange thing.  He has not had anyone he could truly call friend since he was little older than Belle herself.  He’s not quite sure what to do with it.  As he thinks on it, though, it does feel rather nice to have one.  Even if it is the five year old princess of the man who holds him in servitude.

The queen looks down, lost in herself for a moment.  She clears her throat, but does not cough.  “I hope you will take very good care of my daughter, Rumpelstiltskin.  I know she will do the same for you.”

She smiles.  Her eyes are tired, full of sorrow and love for her child, full of courage, and hope.  She gives a small curtsey – a gesture no one offers him, ever – and follows after her daughter to dinner, leaving him alone.

He wishes there was more he could do for her.