Chapter 1: Say No To Strangers
Rumpelstiltskin was not a great admirer of surprises.
It stemmed from his very mortal fear of the unknown, though he was loath to admit it. In his human days, fear had been ever present, and danger lurked every which way. To be prepared, one had to know, to know meant that surprises were simply not an option.
The woman was a surprise.
How she had slipped through his defensive spells, he didn’t know, though he intended to find out before he summarily deposited her remains on the edge of his grounds as a warning. It would not do to have an unknown weakness.
She smiled at him, lazy and self-satisfied, sprawling in his own chair.
It infuriated him to icy calm, this stranger in his most private and personal of chamber. She sat as if it were her right, her booted feet crossed at the ankle on the edge of the long table, her pipe smoke wreathing around her like morning mist.
His fingertips drew across his thumbs and he felt the power spark and crackle.
She laughed, quiet and low, and drew on her pipe, the glow illuminating her shadowed face for a moment. A blue eye gleamed, and a white, this one bisected by a ragged scar that ran from hairline to jaw.
“Rumpelstiltskin, as I live and breathe,” she murmured.
“You have me at a disadvantage, dearie,” he murmured, stalking closer in the darkened room. He could have cast the fire to brightness or the candles to glow with a gesture, but this woman had earned darkness and shadows and fear above all else.
“I expect so,” she replied, tilting her head back to meet his eyes in the dim light. Her teeth were visible in something that was as far from a smile as humanly possible.
He looked at her, a mirrored smile on his lips. Abruptly, her chair was thrown back, and she was left, suspended by his hand at her throat, her body arched back. She hissed like a wildcat, her teeth bared and eyes gleaming.
“I don’t appreciate intruders,” he murmured, squeezing slowly.
Her eyes narrowed and her hand moved like a snake, throwing the embers of her pipe into his eyes. He snarled, throwing her back, and cleared his eyes with a flick of his hand. She rolled and was on her feet already, crouched. She had pulled a blade from some hidden recess of her clothing.
“I have a deal for you,” she breathed, her voice roughened from his grip on her throat.
Rumpelstiltskin grinned unpleasantly at her. “I don’t accept deals, dearie,” he said, clasping his hands together before his chest and drawing on the magic that made his skin thrum with power, darkening already black shadows. “I offer them.”
She laughed again, quiet and dangerous. “You’ll want this one.”
He sneered, watching the way the shadows were coiling up her legs, unnoticed. “I sincerely doubt that.”
Her unarmed hand moved suddenly to her belt and light erupted around her. Fairy magic! His shadow bonds snapped like threads under a blade, and she straightened up, lowering the blade to her side. She was smiling and calm. “Not even to find your son?”
He was on her in a heartbeat, batting her blade out of her hand, and slamming her back against the wall, his nails biting into her throat. “What do you know of my son?” he snarled, shaking her savagely. “Who has spoken to you of him?”
“Rheul ghorum,” she whispered, arching her head towards his face. Her blind eye shone like a silver coin, and her blue glittered. She smiled that cat’s smile. “I can be very persuasive when there’s something I want to know.”
He forced her back against the wall again. “Why do you want to know that?” he hissed.
She swallowed, though not out of fear, only to let him feel the grip on her throat may yet silence her. “A deal,” she breathed out. “I told you.” She brought up one hand and dragged her fingers over his at her throat. “You. Would owe me.”
“For what?” he said, trying to keep the tremor of rage, of hope, from his voice.
She laughed. “For giving you what you need.”
“And what,” he whispered savagely, “do I need?”
She was so close, her lips were barely a hair’s breadth from his. “The way.”
Rumpelstiltskin’s fingers tightened. “There is no way,” he snarled. “The fairy couldn’t tell you anything, because there is no way. No way but dark magic.”
The woman laughed, as loud, as mocking as was possible with her throat crushed to bruising.
“What,” he demanded, “is funny?”
She grinned at him. “You seem to think I asked nicely,” she choked out. She held up her other hand, and a tiny, glittering bag. Fairy dust. The fairies never allowed anyone to touch the stuff, so if she had it, she must have taken it by force.
He released her throat. “Speak,” he said, his voice low and ugly with fury. “Speak quickly.”
The woman drew in deep breaths and shook her head as if to clear it. “I have something I am looking for,” she said. “You may be able to provide the magic I need. In return, I will give you the way to breach the worlds.”
“And what magic do you need, dearie?” he whispered.
She grinned at him, as if he was performing as she wished. “You’ll see,” she whispered. She was suddenly closer to him, her face bare inches from his, her eye holding his gaze. “I will give you the way out of this world, if you will owe me some little magic.”
“I’m not a fool,” he murmured darkly. “You think I will make a deal when I don’t know the price?”
She laughed again, though it didn’t reach her eye. She lifted a hand to caress his cheek, and he flinched from her touch. “I know you will, Rumpelstiltskin,” she whispered. “After all, you will not stop until you get him back. Will you?”
He ground his teeth together until his jaw ached from it. The damned Blue Fairy had told her every last bit of the tale, it seemed. “You are a stupid child,” he said in a low voice. “You have no idea of the powers you trifle with.”
Her mouth turned up at the corners, showing no teeth, and the scar down her face twisted around it. “I know more than you can possibly imagine, little imp,” she murmured. “Do we have a deal?”
“You will give me the way to reach my son,” he said, his breath coarse in his chest, painful to the point of rasping. “And I will provide magical assistance to you, if it is within my power to do so.”
She smirked at him. “A good choice of words,” she said, holding out a thin hand. “Do we have a deal?”
He looked at her hand, then back at her face, wondering at her intentions.
She was right, and for that he wanted to curse her.
The curse he was building had stalled, too many layers of magic all rivalling one another, unable to link to create the curse as he needed it.
He knew better than to take the easy way out, but when centuries of work had produced nothing tangible…
“Deal,” he said, slipping his hand into hers. Her fingers were warm and rough, and he saw her mouth curl in a smile of pure satisfaction.
“Good,” she said. Her grip tightened, and she pulled him a step closer, until their faces almost collided. “And touch me in violence again,” she breathed in warning, “and I will slit you from belly to throat.”
He drew his hand free as if she had soiled him and curled his upper lip. “Threats, dearie? When we are talking business?”
She stepped around him and returned to his chair, sprawling into it and kicking her feet up onto the table again. “We were done with business,” she said, lacing her hands behind her head. “The threats were for my own satisfaction.” She gave him a cold, hard look. “I dislike men who feel they have the right to hurt me.”
Rumpelstiltskin laughed darkly. “Dearie, I would peel the skin from your bones, regardless of your gender,” he said. “You intruded in my home without leave, and you used filthy fairy magic.” He bared his teeth at her. “You are only lucky you have something I want.”
“Yes, I guess I am,” she said, gazing at him. “Now, I need your side of the story, before I can go any further.”
He prowled towards her and spread his hands on the table. “I’m sure your dear fairy friend gave you more than enough information, don’t you?”
The woman smiled blandly. “Once she stopped screaming,” she agreed. “But she told the tale as she saw it. Everyone knows there are at least two sides to every story, and I find myself disinclined to take everything that little witch says at face value. After all, she only admitted that she lied to you after long and tiresome… discussion.”
Rumpelstiltskin’s eyes narrowed. “They say fairies are the great power in this world,” he murmured, turning to half-sit against the edge of the table. “And yet you, a mere mortal without any great power of her own, subdued one of the most mighty?”
She smiled that same expressionless smile, her eyes blank and neutral. “As I said, I know more than you can possibly imagine,” she said. “And if I perchance to know a way to persuade fairies to part with information I find useful… well, that’s my little gift.”
He studied her, then shook his head. “Persuasion isn’t enough for those creatures,” he murmured. “What did you do?”
The woman looked at him, then propped the sole of one boot on the edge of the table. “Is it so important that you know?”
He wrinkled his nose and smiled unpleasantly. “When it comes to the creature who gave my son the very magic that cast him from this world? I think I want to know exactly what you did to her.”
“There would be a price for that,” she said with a knowing smirk, “dearie. I never part with information for free.”
He scowled at her. “Your price?”
She shifted her weight on the chair, then stretched her arms above her head, her shirt sleeves slipping down to her elbows, revealing scars as unpleasant as the one twisting her face. “Too high for you right now,” she murmured. “Your son. Tell me about him.”
“In exchange for what?” he spat. “You tell me nothing of your methods, and yet you expect me to tell a tale long forgotten?”
“Nothing in exchange,” she murmured. “As I said, I had the tale from the one who hated you, and that may have coloured her telling of it. If I am to find the key for you, I need to know as much detail as you can give me.”
Rumpelstiltskin’s lips drew together in a tight line, but he nodded in acknowledgement.
It was hardly a tale he could forget, no matter how he tried.
The woman steepled her fingers together in front of her, her eye on his face, and she listened intently as he spoke in a dull, flat voice about the night that he lost his son. He neglected to mention Bae’s last words to him. That curse was his alone.
“You let him go?” She had her head to one side, watching him.
Rumpelstiltskin knotted his hands together, then looked at her. “It was another world, dearie,” he said. “One I was unwilling to go to.”
She snorted. “Coward,” she said. He flinched as if struck, but she merely yawned, swinging her legs down from the table. “I think I have enough information,” she said, lifting her cloak where it was draped over the back of the grand chair and sweeping it on around her.
“You’re leaving?” he asked, wary.
She retrieved her dagger from the floor, then propped her boot on the arm of the chair, to slide the blade into a concealed sheath. “You didn’t expect me to stay?” she said with a derisive snort. “I’m not one to play with others.”
“You said you would give me the key,” he said, straightening up, magic crackling around him in his rising anger.
She picked up a sword belt, looping it around her waist. “I didn’t say right now,” she said.
He bared his teeth. “When?”
She kicked the chair aside and stalked towards him, unfearing, and looked him in the eye. “I made a deal with you, Rumpelstiltskin,” she murmured. “I don’t break my deals, no matter what some may believe. I have the information you have given me. I have people I will hunt. I have truth and magics to uncover. You will have your way, have no fear of that.”
“Can I trust you?”
For a moment, something like a real smile crossed her face. “Gods, no,” she said, “but you’re going to have to anyway.”
Chapter 2: Root of the Matter
All magic has a source
“You’re very kind to take me in.”
Gepetto waved the woman’s words away with a smile. “It is the least we can do, on a stormy night like this,” he said. He motioned towards the fireplace, where a flame was crackling behind a fireguard. It had become necessary after Pinocchio fell asleep near the fire one too many times. “Please, sit.”
The woman unpinned her cloak, draping it over the back of one of the high-backed chairs, and sat down, smoothing her skirts. “Thank you,” she said, looking up at him. She had told him her name was Eleanor, but the name did not seem to fit, though he couldn’t say why.
Gepetto inclined his head, trying his utmost not to stare at the scar that marred an otherwise pretty face. A look at her rich clothing and demeanour told him Eleanor was clearly a lady, gracious and proper, and it would be very rude to gape at her like a codfish, even if most ladies were not scarred as she was. “I am afraid we have little, but you are welcome to share it with us.”
The woman smiled. “Warmth and shelter are sufficient,” she said, arranging the cuffs at her wrists neatly. “It’s a terrible season to travel, but sometimes, needs must.”
“Quite, quite,” he agreed, carrying the kettle over to hang above the fire. He sat down in the opposite chair, rubbing his aching back. “You travel alone?”
She nodded. “Unfortunately, those who would travel with me were called away,” she said. “I hoped to reach my destination before the storm descended.”
“And instead, you found yourself here,” he replied, smiling warmly.
“Yes,” she said, returning the smile. “I did.” She extended her hands towards the fire, warming them against the glow and sighed contentedly. “You have a very welcoming home, Master Woodsman.”
“Gepetto,” he insisted. “My name is Gepetto.”
She smiled again, her good eye shining. “Master Gepetto, then,” she said. She looked around with open interest. “Do you craft toys? Or is that merely a hobby?”
Gepetto almost blushed. Pinocchio was a good boy, for the most part, but he had yet to understand that keeping his possessions neatly in the boxes his father made for him were part of being alive. “My son,” he said, hastening to clear up the worst of the clutter. “He likes to play with everything at once.”
Eleanor laughed. “Children are like that, I’m told,” she said. “I hope I didn’t disturb his sleep when I knocked.”
Gepetto shook his head, smiling. “He sleeps little,” he said. “I expect he will try to sneak down to see who our visitor is very soon.”
Eleanor smiled. “I would like that,” she said. “It has been a lonely journey.”
Gepetto rose. “I will call him,” he said. “He can entertain you while I make some supper.”
Eleanor waved a hand. “You needn’t go to any trouble.”
“Ha!” He shook his head. “What kind of host would I be if I allowed my guest to go hungry while a storm rages outside? It would be shameful.” He stopped at the foot of the stairs, calling up to his son. He was unsurprised when the boy clattered down in a matter of seconds, stopping shyly at the sight of the stranger.
Eleanor sat up a little straighter, and Gepetto saw the usual expression of surprise cross her face at the sight of his boy. Even in a world filled with magic, the sight of a child crafted from wood made people pause. “Your son?” she said.
“My blessing,” he said, laying his hand on Pinocchio’s head. “Pinocchio, this is Madam Eleanor. She was caught in the storm and is taking shelter here.”
Pinocchio peeked out from behind him. “Hello,” he said shyly.
Eleanor smiled, and the firelight made her scarred face look strangely contorted. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said, rising and curtseying. Gepetto’s heart fluttered nervously. She was clearly a lady of high station, and he only had meagre supplies in his pantry. “Perhaps you would like to join me?”
Pinocchio looked up at his father, who nodded. “As long as you sit in the chair and don’t go near the fireguard again,” Gepetto said sternly. He offered Eleanor a cautious smile. “There have been accidents.”
“I see,” Eleanor said, motioning for Pinocchio to join her.
Gepetto headed towards the pantry and almost groaned aloud when he heard Pinocchio’s piping voice ask, “What happened to your face?”
By the time he returned with two plates laden with the best he could find, Pinocchio was perched on a footstool at their guest’s feet. They were talking in hushed, secretive tones, and Eleanor looked up with a smile as they neared.
“Your son is a very special boy,” she said. “He was telling me about his birth.”
Gepetto glanced at Pinocchio, who ducked his head. It was something they seldom talked about. The involvement of the Blue Fairy, while kind, was not meant to be commonly known, lest other people demand the same. “It is not a tale we tell often,” he said.
“Sorry, papa,” Pinocchio mumbled.
Eleanor patted Pinocchio’s head gently. “I won’t breathe a word of it,” she said. She looked up at Gepetto with a smile as he handed her the platter. “Thank you.”
“It isn’t much,” he said uncomfortably aware that the food would probably have been thrown to the dogs in noble households.
Her smile assured him it was enough. “I was only expecting to be allowed to sit by the fire and keep myself dry,” she said. “To be fed so generously is much more than I could have expected from you.”
Gepetto inclined his head, then set to work filling a teapot from the copper kettle.
“If I may ask,” she said, sharing a sandwich with Pinocchio, “He said it was the work of a fairy, but even fairy magic isn’t so powerful.”
Gepetto set the kettle down, looking around at her. “It was a blessing,” he said. “That was enough.”
Her lips twitched, as if she was trying to suppress a smile. Or perhaps a frown. She lifted a hand to rub at her eyes, then lowered it. “Your pardon, if I have asked too many questions,” she said. “I have the curiosity of a cat.”
Gepetto looked at Pinocchio, then nodded to the boy to go upstairs. While he knew it was probably innocent curiosity, Pinocchio’s creation was not meant to be talked of, and his son - unfortunately - was not used to the difference between discretion and honesty. Pinocchio took his time, looking longingly back. They had little company, only Jiminy when he wasn’t advising other households, so it was no wonder the child wanted to talk to a new person.
Pinocchio’s footsteps clomped in indignation all the way up to the bedroom he shared with Gepetto.
For several long moments, the carpenter and his guest sat in silence. She ate sparingly, her long, elegant fingers making deft work of the meat, bread, and cheese as she moved it from her plate to her lips. He watched her as she drank her tea, smiling pleasantly, and watching him with as much curiosity as she had shown his son.
“Where is it you are headed?” he asked, hardly touching his own food.
She cradled her cup between her hands. “A small town called Avonlea, to the south,” she replied, gazing at him through the steam. “My family come from the area, and I have been remiss in visiting them for some time.”
“Family,” he murmured, looking down at his plate. “Yes, family is important.”
The woman was silent for a long while, sipping her tea. “Your son is a very brave boy,” she murmured. “It must be difficult for him, being as he is.”
Gepetto got up, making a show of refilling his cup. It meant he could turn his back on her without seeming rude. Better than showing the tension in his face. Pinocchio’s life was limited by the very nature of his existence, and most who saw him would laugh and point at the little wooden boy. That was why they lived in the woods, out of the way of prying eyes.
“He is happy,” he said, setting down the teapot.
He heard the rustle of the woman’s skirts, as if she were shifting in the seat. “I know what it is to be stared at,” she murmured, and he flushed, knowing he had done just that. “Laughed at too. It takes a great heart not to take every insult as a personal injury.”
Gepetto turned to face her. She was at the fireplace, half-turned away from him, her scars hidden from him for a moment. She spread her hands over the flames, slowly curling and uncurling her fingers.
“Please,” Gepetto said quietly, “what he told you of his creation. Please do not tell any other. He believes it must be secret because others will want to make their own children.”
“And the truth,” she said quietly, “is that you would not want any other child to suffer as he suffers, even though he thinks it is normal to be treated so.”
It was a statement, not a question, and he lowered his eyes.
“Yes,” he said quietly.
She turned to him then, and for a moment, she looked fragile. “I would not wish that curse on anyone,” she said. “No matter if the fairies wished to bring every puppet and doll to life. As long as they cannot…”
“Such a thing is impossible,” Gepetto assured her. She looked at him so doubtfully that he said quickly, “There are few trees with enough properties to hold the magic. I only know of perhaps three in all the realms.”
She stared at him, moving towards him urgently. “They exist? Why have they not been destroyed? Where are they? What can we do to prevent this? If others learn of this, if they try to do as was done to your son…”
Gepetto held up his hands to calm her. “They are not dangerous, my lady,” he said. “Not without intervention. They can be charmed in ways that no other trees can, but only by the power of the fairies.”
For a moment, her expression flickered, as if torn between joy and dismay. “And the fairies will not touch them?”
“Not as they did my son,” he murmured. “They tend them, rear them, but they will not use them as magical vessels, but in the direst of need.”
She turned back to the fire. “Good,” she said with a vehemence that sounded more like a profanity. “That’s good.”
Gepetto approached her cautiously. “Your concern is very kind, my lady,” he said quietly.
She lifted her head to look at him out of her clear, blue eye. “As is yours,” she said. “The love of a father is a precious thing.”
He shrugged, offering a small smile. “He is my boy.”
She retrieved her teacup and proffered it to him in a toast. “To fathers,” she said, “and their brave children.”
Gepetto smiled truly. “To fathers and children,” he agreed.
Chapter 3: Fresh Eyes
It had been raining.
The air was still thick with the scent of it, the sun-beaten earth and spring plants now sweet with the moisture. The dirt was soft underfoot and the Huntsman’s breeches and boots were dark with the dampness already.
His companion ran ahead of him, loping between the trees, and he followed in silence.
He had been given a charge by his lady, and it would be carried out. His blade was at his hip, his bow at his back, but he knew he would need neither of those things for the task he had been given.
It felt right to be back in the forest. There was an ache in him when he was closed up within the walls of her castle that he didn’t understand, and to walk in the woods, to smell the air, to feel the brush of leaves and branches against his clothing and hair felt right.
And yet, it also felt dulled.
While the ache lingered when he was closed away, there was another now, like a hook in his heart, drawing him back. He loved the forest, the wilds, he knew he did. It was his home and his world, and yet, he knew he could no more stay away from his Queen and dark lady than he could live without air.
Ahead of him, his companion paused, waiting.
The Huntsman put his hand to his blade, looking around. Someone was close at hand. He was near the appointed meeting place, so it might be the ally he sought, but then, it could be an enemy. His lady warned that there were many of them.
“You’re earlier than expected.”
The Huntsman relaxed his grip on the knife as a cloaked woman stepped out from between the trees. Her cloak was travel-worn, ragged at the edges, and he could see the tell-tale jut of a sword beneath it.
She pushed back her hood and stared at him with one sharp blue eye. Her expression was too old for a face that looked still young. She might have been beautiful once, but now, nature was not so kind.
“Did she tell you why you were here?” she said.
The Huntsman inclined his head. “My lady spoke of an arrangement,” he said, “that I am to provide a service for you and you are to provide information in exchange for this service.”
She walked closer to him, looking him up and down. “It’s said you are the best Huntsman in all of the forest,” she said, circling him. She moved like a panther, light-footed and intent, as a cat around an unknowing mouse.
He gazed ahead of him. “It is said.”
“And that you weep for the beasts you slay,” she murmured, stopping in front of him and looking him in the eye.
He returned her gaze blankly. He could remember a day when it seemed important to mark the passing of every beast his bow felled. There was an emotion there, as intangible as mist now. “I did,” he said. “No longer. I only serve the Queen.”
She nodded, gazing at him. “Only serve the Queen,” she murmured. She stepped back and looked about them, then motioned sharply for him to follow. She walked as if she knew the woods, and led him swiftly to a hidden cavern close by.
It was not a home, but it was clearly a hiding place with a pack and weapons propped against the walls.
The woman crouched down over a low fire, smothering it with dirt, then straightened and looked at the Huntsman. “I have need of your tracking skills,” she said. “There is a man I must find, and he’s proving… elusive.”
“Any man can be found,” the Huntsman said.
“That’s my hope,” the woman replied. She shed her rain-damp cloak, replacing it with another, this one thicker and heavier.
The Huntsman watched her add several blades beneath her cloak. “Who is this man you would have me find?”
The blue eye looked up at him. “I’m surprised your Queen didn’t tell you,” she said. “He’s an old acquaintance of hers, and he has somehow managed to avoid her notice, as well as the notice of… others.” She gazed at him, as if expecting him to question what she meant by others, but he merely looked back at her. It did not interest him. The woman sighed. “Very well. We should make haste.”
“Where was he last seen?”
The woman drew a map from her belt, creased and soft from being folded many times, and opened it. “Here,” she said, running her finger along the map. “I’ve searched as much as I can on foot, but the forest is a large place, and a tracker would be better suited.”
He nodded once, falling into step with her. “Do you have a starting point?”
The woman shook her head. “There are a hundred and one houses and shacks scattered through the woods,” she said. “From what I’ve heard, no trace of him can ever be found by magic, so we need to do it the old-fashioned way.”
“Do you have any possession of his?”
The woman smiled slightly. “That, I do,” she said. “From the fair hand of your Queen herself.” She reached into some hidden recess of her clothing and withdrew a broad ribbon of dark silk. “This was his. Some time ago, to be sure, but I’m sure a Huntsman such as yourself will be able to use it.”
He took it, gazing at it, then drew it beneath his nose, sniffing it. “There’s a child?”
The woman’s lips curled into a smile. “That would make things easier,” she murmured.
“The scent is almost gone,” he admitted, “but there’s something of the child.” He turned the cloth over and over in his hands, examining the weave, seeking out some suggestion of the man who owned it. “Grief too.”
“Fitting,” she murmured.
The Huntsman whistled, summoning his companion back to them. His nose was good, but his companion’s was better, and if they were to find the man and return to the Queen, the sooner the better. The wolf dipped its head over the cloth, and the Huntsman laid his hand against the fur of its muzzle.
One red and one gold eye looked at him, then his companion turned and loped off into the woods.
“Perhaps,” the Huntsman replied. “We should continue after him. If he finds anything of use, he’ll return to us.”
They walked in brisk silence for a long while.
Finally, the woman looked at him. “What do you do, when you aren’t at the Queen’s command?” she asked.
The Huntsman frowned. He remembered stone walls, a lantern, not a breath of wind from the world outside. It was closed in and silent and everything that the forest wasn’t, but it was where he was meant to be.
“I await my Queen’s orders,” he replied.
“Sounds… interesting,” the woman said. He could feel her eyes on him, studying him, but it made no matter. He was used to being looked at as if he were strange or unnatural. “Don’t you mind?”
He looked at her. “Why would I?”
She continued to look at him, then looked away. “Yes,” she murmured. “Why indeed.”
Chapter 4: Awakening the Gatekeeper
Jefferson was a light sleeper.
It made the invasion all the more intrusive.
Somehow, someone managed to slip the heavy locks, open the creaky door, cross the scatter of dry twigs on the floor, and straddle him on his bed before he woke.
He jolted awake at the pressure of a body perched over his. He was immediately awake enough to know danger, and alert enough to feel the blade at his throat and the hand over his mouth. He squinted by the light cutting in through the thin curtains, and could make out a hooded face close to his, though it was too dark to see the details.
"Morning, sleepy." So his attacker was a woman, and she was whispering low enough not to wake Grace in her smaller bed nearby. "Are you going to behave?"
He nodded as much as he could, and she moved her hand from his mouth. "What do you want?" he whispered, knowing already. There was only one thing people ever wanted from him, and it was the one thing he had sworn he would never do again.
"I think you know," she replied, resting her forearm on his chest, her face even closer to his. Her knife felt cold and sharp against the skin of his throat.
He took a measure of her, what he could see, what he could feel. She was small, light, barely much bigger than Grace. He wasn't a fighter, but he knew how to disarm an enemy, and he moved his arms slightly to see how much leeway he had.
Her knees closed on them, clamping them against his sides, and she laughed quietly. "Ah, ah, ah," she murmured. "That might be construed as misbehaving." She brought her face even closer to his, and he caught the scent of pipesmoke, leather, and dirt. "I could be threatening. I don't want to be, but I could be."
If the knife to his throat wasn't a threat, then he knew what was.
His eyes flicked towards Grace, sound asleep in her bed.
The blade scraped gently against his neck. "I see you understand."
"You touch her, and I swear I'll kill you," he hissed.
Her free hand tangled into his hair, twisting enough to make him wince. "As I said, I could be threatening," she said softly, "I would rather not be. If you behave, then not a hair on your pretty little daughter's head will be touched."
Jefferson glared at her, then nodded just enough to press his throat to the blade. "You swear?"
She laughed quietly. "Every day," she said, then sat up astride him, taking the knife away from his throat.
He had her pinned on her back in the bedding a second later, her wrist caught in his hand, twisting the blade away from him. He had at least a head on her, and his body weight held her down, his other hand at her throat and squeezing.
To his surprise, she didn't even attempt to struggle and laughed hoarsely. That was when he felt the prick of another blade, this one nowhere near his throat.
He pulled his hands back, raising them. Their positions were reversed now, his knees on either side of her hips, and her second dagger was resting casually against the front of his nightshirt, much lower than a gentleman would aim.
"I was," she said, raising herself on one elbow, "trying to be civilised."
"Civilised," he sneered. "Breaking in, threatening me and my daughter."
He saw a flash of a grin beneath her hood. "It got your attention," she said. She turned her hand, the blade gleaming. "Now, are you actually going to behave or do I have to..." She prodded lightly. "Make a point."
Jefferson stared at her. "That was awful."
She laughed quietly, and it sounded genuine and warm. "I know," she said. "I won't harm you or your girl, I swear. Now, you. Will you behave and hear me out?"
Jefferson looked down at her. "Who are you?"
"Just someone doing a job," she replied, withdrawing the dagger. It vanished into her clothing and she patted his thigh with a leather-gloved hand. "Now, would you be lovely and let me up? As much as I like being pinned to a bed by a stranger, we have business to discuss."
Jefferson climbed off her, reaching for his breeches and pulling them on under his nightshirt. By the time he shed the nightshirt, the woman was out of the bed and sitting on one of the stools at the table. There was a basket there, which certainly wasn't one of his, and she was unpacking food.
"What's that for?" he asked, pulling on his shirt and walking across the floor.
"Stick and carrot," she replied, lifting a hand to push back her hood. He stepped back in surprise at her scarred face, and she grinned crookedly. "I know you're meant to use one or the other, but I prefer both when I'm trying to talk to someone who has been in hiding for six years. It covers all eventualities." She glanced over at the bed where Grace was sleeping. "If you want to wake her for breakfast, you can."
Jefferson hesitated, looking between the food, fresh and rich, much better than anything they could scrape by on from the market stall leftovers. "You promise she's safe?"
"Your cooperation is much too valuable for me to do damage to her," the woman said, using a dagger to slice a loaf of soft, white bread. "We can eat, then you and I can have a little talk, and hopefully, you'll be able to help me."
She was as good as her word, though Grace hid behind him shyly when she saw the woman's scarred face.
"Don't worry about it," the woman said. "You get used to it." She offered Grace a smile. "I'm Mathilda."
"It's nice to meet you," Grace said, bobbing in a small curtsey, manners in a house that was little more than a shack. Jefferson was torn between being proud of her for remembering or humiliated that they were still living in a shed when she should have had a palace.
The woman smiled and rose, sweeping into a bow. "My lady," she said, making Grace laugh. She settled back down at the table. "Now, help yourself, sweetheart." She looked up at Jefferson. "Do you have tea? That's the one thing I forgot."
"We have the best tea," Grace said eagerly. "Papa, can we use my special teaset?"
"If you like," he said, with a look at the woman.
"I'll get water," Grace said happily, hurrying to the door and stepping into her boots to run to the well.
"Forgot tea, huh?"
The woman, Mathilda - if that was even her name - gave him a smile. "And your daughter has a teaset. How about that?"
He slid down onto the stool closest to her, looking her in the eye. "You know a lot about us."
"I know a lot about many things," she replied, setting out some sweet cakes. She looked at him. "You just happen to be the focus at the moment." She leaned closer until they were nose-to-nose. "Just be glad that I'm not your enemy."
He searched her face. "I'm getting that," he admitted. "Who sent you?"
She drew back as Grace hurried back in, carrying a pail. "Breakfast first, then business."
He picked up one of the cakes, turning it over in his hand, half-wondering if it was a trick, if it was poisoned.
Mathilda picked up her dagger. "Split it with me," she said, "if you're worried."
He snorted, setting it down, and rising to help Grace fill the kettle. By the time he came back, it was neatly cut into quarters, and Mathilda was licking icing from her fingertips, a virtuous look on her face. He sat back down, eyeing her suspiciously, but it was hard to remain so when Grace exclaimed in delight at the spread of food.
She insisted on pouring them both tea, and they sat - in his hovel - like civilised people. Grace and their guest could have been taking tea in any grand house in the world, talking about Grace's pretty nightdress, the weather, the flowers blooming around the door.
Jefferson looked down at his tea with a pang of guilt.
"Aren't you hungry, papa?" Grace asked some moments later. "You're not eating."
He managed to smile. "I'm just thinking," he said. He picked up a piece of cake to show willing. It was sweet and soft. Grace beamed at him. "Mm," he acknowledged, glancing sidelong at their guest, who was demurely sipping her tea, as if she hadn't pinned him to his bed with a knife.
By the time Grace was done, they had cleared almost every crumb, and the tea pot was drained to empty.
"Shall I tidy up, papa?"
He glanced at Mathilda, who shook her head minutely. "Why not go and collect some flowers for the mantle?" he suggested. "It rained in the night so they should be blooming."
It took her a few moments to change from her nightgown into her dress and cloak, then she skipped out into the forest. Jefferson watched her go, then carefully closed the door after her and turned back to Mathilda. The woman was tidying the table, stacking the plates neatly.
"What do you want?"
She didn't even bother to look at him. "You know what I want."
Jefferson folded his arms over his chest. "I stopped doing that a long time ago."
"Yes," she said quietly, and raised her face to him. "I know."
If she had kicked him in the chest, it couldn't have hurt more.
She knew. She knew about Alice. She knew about Wonderland. She knew about the choice they'd been forced to make, the choice that his wife stole from him when she pushed him and their new-born child back through the looking glass, before she turned to face the Queen of Hearts. She knew that he had lost almost everything but his girl.
That was why he lived in a hovel now, even though he had the ability to conjure any comfort he desired. Magic came with a price, and he had paid far more than his fair share. He wasn't willing to risk more, wasn't willing to risk Grace, just for comfort.
"Then why did you come?" he asked tersely, his fingers biting into his upper arms.
She walked closer to him. "I didn't come for you," she said. "You know people still look for you because they know what you have. They want it."
"And you don't?" he said bitterly. "You just want something to keep your head dry?"
"Don't be ridiculous," she said quietly. She was right in front of him, close enough to touch him. "I know why you keep it, but you know there's no going back." She laid her hand on his forearm, and he could see faint scars riddling the skin. "Let it go."
He stared down at her hand, then looked up at her face. "You can't use it," he said. "You have no magic."
She nodded. "I know," she said quietly. "I never said I wanted to use it."
One side of her mouth turned up. "Curiousity," she said. "And to set you loose from it. You have your daughter. She has you. Don't let it weigh you down anymore."
He leaned closer to her, staring at her. "And you're doing this why? Out of the goodness of your heart?"
She laughed quietly. "Who does that, these days?" she asked. "No. There's a reason, but it's my own."
"And if I asked who sent you?"
She shrugged. "I would tell you."
He snorted in disbelief. "You're telling me you want to take my hat, of your own choice, because you think I'd be better off without it?"
"No," she replied. "I'm taking your hat because it's necessary." She lifted her other hand to press to his cheek, her eye holding his gaze. "Whether you let it go willingly or whether I have to take it by force is a different matter, but I am not leaving here without it."
"Why is it necessary?"
Her lips twitched. "That's a long and tiresome story," she said. "Let's just say that someone may need it more than you want it." Her thumb brushed his cheek. "Jefferson, you need to let it go."
"She made it," he said, and he wanted to curse when his voice broke. "She made it with me."
"It's only a hat," she murmured. "You have something much more important than that. You have your daughter." She smiled and there was a gentleness there that belied the scars and the knives and the threats. "Didn't she help make her too?"
Jefferson stared at her. "Why?" he asked, trying his best to keep his voice from trembling. "Why would you want it?"
She patted his arm. "Necessity," she murmured, "as I said. I don't want to have to force your hand. I want to let you have the choice." She drew her hand from his cheek, resting it beside the other on his forearm. "Please may I have your hat?"
Jefferson drew back, turning away from her. His heart felt like it was clenching in his chest and he made his way over to the window to look out, searching for Grace. She was his anchor, his safety, his sanity. Without the hat, there wouldn't be the magic, or even just the temptation to use it, and without the magic, there would be no danger of losing her to it.
Mathilda - he knew that couldn't be her real name - didn't speak, didn't try to press him, didn't even move. He could barely hear her breathing over his own ragged breaths. He braced his hands against the window ledge.
He and Alice had made the hat together, and opened doorways to a thousand different realms. It was their big adventure. But the big adventure wasn't so big or adventurous without her there beside him.
He was startled to feel dampness on his cheeks and lifted a hand to scrub it away with a sleeve.
He and Grace, they would make a new adventure, one without the hat.
He turned, drawing a breath, drawing the resolution around him. "Yes," he said. "You can have it."
Mathilda hadn't seemed tense or anxious, but the moment he said that, she suddenly looked much more relaxed, and her face creased in a small, but somehow much more genuine smile. "Thank you," she said softly. "I appreciate it more than you know."
He ran a hand over his face. Trembling, he noticed. "Don't thank me yet," he said. He walked over to the chest where the hatbox was concealed, lifting it out. He lifted the hat free, and Mathilda stared at it in wonder.
"It's a work of art," she murmured.
"It has rules," he murmured.
"Everything does," she said quietly.
Jefferson looked at her. Even if she couldn't use the hat, he couldn't let anyone else fall prey to Alice's fate. “There’s a lot you need to know,” he said. “How to use it. I don’t even know if anyone else can.”
“If you can tell me as much as you can,” she said, “that’ll be enough.”
He placed the hat back in the box, running his finger along the brim. "If there's ever a day when it's not necessary..." he said quietly.
"You'll find it waiting for you," she replied as he closed the lid. She reached to her belt, removing a small leather pouch. "Here."
Jefferson looked at it, then at her. "What's that for?"
"You need it more than I do," Mathilda said. She pressed it into his hand, then retrieved her cloak from the back of the chair.
He loosened the drawstrings, then looked at her in her ragged cloak and ancient boots. She looked even lower in fortune than he did, and yet, she was carrying around a neatly-wrapped ball of solid golden thread. "Where did you get this?"
She flashed a smile at him. "From someone who wouldn't even miss it," she said, fastening the cloak pin at her throat. She arranged the cloak around her, then extended her hand towards him, palm up. She was, he realised, letting him make the choice.
He picked up the hatbox and slid the handle into her hand.
Chapter 5: Queen of Hearts
Night was coming quickly.
Regina reclined back in her carriage, gazing out the window.
It would be pleasant to be home, a respite from the tiresome duties of being a Queen. She hoped there would be further news of Snow White. The Princess’s fall from grace had been a delicious one, but her disappearance still rankled, and the Huntsman, despite his best efforts, had been unable to find her.
That was why she had felt it no great waste to send him out on a search mission at the other side of the Kingdoms. He had been gone for some days, which was unfortunate, when she had a very particular need to be attended to.
Perhaps, she mused, running her fingers along the cushion of the seat, he would be back already.
She stepped down from the carriage into the courtyard. Her father was waiting as always, with a small smile for her.
“Daddy,” she said warmly, pressing a kiss to his cheek. “Has there been any news?
“I’m afraid not, dear,” he said apologetically, “but your young friend returned with the Huntsman.” Regina paused mid-step, turning to look at him with a frown. “The young lady with the scars? She said you had made an arrangement, regarding the Huntsman.”
Regina smiled suddenly. The day was improving after all. “Ah, yes,” she said. “Did you send her up to my suite?”
“Naturally, dear,” he said warmly. “Have you anything you would like for dinner? Or shall I surprise you?”
“Surprise me,” she said, already walking up the stairs.
She crossed paths with the Huntsman in the darkened halls, and favoured him with a lazy caress to the cheek as she passed. He followed her with his eyes, but he was an obedient pet, she knew. He would only come if he was told to.
The doors of her suite were open, awaiting her, and she could hear the Genie in his mirrored cage berating their guest. “You know not to touch anything!”
“Jealous?” The female voice responded.
There was a hostile silence from the mirror as Regina prowled into the room.
She was unsurprised to see the Lady of the Marchlands and once-mistress of Avonlea sitting at her dresser as if it was her own. She turned her repellent face to Regina’s, and Regina pursed her lips in irritation. Her colours cost a small fortune, no magic alone enough to bring the right red to her lips or flush to her cheek. The woman had daubed them on as if they were warpaint, right down to the ruddy lips.
“You could layer it on with a shovel, dear,” Regina murmured sweetly, “it still wouldn’t help.”
“It would still annoy you that I tried,” the woman replied with that twisted grin of hers. “How have things been here?”
Regina’s lips curved up. “No different than usual, as always,” she said. “My Huntsman found what you needed?”
“Eventually.” She made a face. “Not exactly good for conversation, is he? Are they all like that, when you have them in your hand?”
Regina smiled slightly. “Usually,” she said. “Sometimes, they just forget everything they ever cared about, but are no different otherwise.”
The woman snorted. “Only you would think that meant no difference,” she said.
“Now, now, Belle,” Regina murmured, slinking closer. “This is no time for you to take a moral stand. Do you have the information I want?”
Belle swung around on the stool, rising to her feet. “I have information,” she said, “but until I know for certain, I can’t give it to you.” She smirked. “After all, you’re not known for your restraint in blowing things to pieces before getting the full story.”
Regina leaned closer to her, until they were barely a hand’s breadth from each other. “You came all this way just to tell me you can’t tell me anything?”
Belle gazed back at her. “I came to tell you in person, so you wouldn’t take it out on your little puppet messenger boy,” she said. “I’m not one to enjoy seeing others suffer because my job is taking a little longer than usual.”
“Oh, now would I do that?” Regina said, wide-eyed, feigning shock.
Belle’s smirk turned to a brief scowl. “Of course you would,” she said. She stepped around Regina to walk over to one of the mirrors and examined her face in it. “Oh, how’s the hunt for Snow White going, by the way? I heard the bounty has risen.”
Regina waved away her words, as if they were an irritating fly buzzing around her. “That is being dealt with,” she said. “I wouldn’t trust you not to end up cosseting her and braiding her hair if I sent your after her.”
Belle smeared the red stain at her lips until it was spread across her cheek and chin, and turned to look at her. “And I have my hands full with your first charge,” she said.
“You do seem to be taking your time about it,” Regina murmured with sweet poison. “I wonder if maybe you have bitten off more than you can chew.”
“Oh, don’t you worry about my bite, your Majesty,” Belle murmured. “You asked me to find a way to neutralise Rumpelstiltskin that would ensure that he won’t be any threat to you and that’s what I intend to do.”
“And yet, here you are,” Regina observed, “telling me you have no information.”
Belle smiled at her, that knowing, calm, dangerous little smile. “I didn’t say that,” she said. “I said I had information, but it’s not anything I intend to give to you until I know the details and can be sure it’s not a waste of time.”
Regina narrowed her eyes, studying her. “If you’re deceiving me…”
Belle’s eyes narrowed in turn and she bared her teeth like a feral cat. The little survivor of the ogre wars was a savage creature when the mood took her. “You know this isn’t my choice of task,” she snarled, “so why would I take my time in completing it? I want this over and done with, the sooner the better.”
Regina laughed. “Temper temper, dear,” she said. “It was merely an observation.” She motioned for Belle to accompany her back into the hall, aware of every fleeting glimpse of their shared reflections in the mirrors as they passed: she poised and elegant, and little Belle looking half-mad, covered in paint and ragged robes. “Are you sure I can’t give you something more suitable to wear?”
“Something subtle and inconspicuous like your clothing, you mean?” Belle said in honeyed tones, which was enough to earn a sharp glare.
“You’re working under my auspices, my girl,” Regina said. “You could at least look the part.”
“I wear no one’s banner,” Belle murmured. “I may be doing this task for you, but if people knew, I’m sure that I wouldn’t get any information out of them.” She dipped in a mock-curtsey as they walked. “You have a gift for scaring people to silence.”
Regina waved her words away again with a sigh. “Yes, yes, I know,” she said, as they descended through the palace. “People tend to hide behind the monster they think can protect them. He’s not as powerful as they think.”
“So you keep saying,” Belle murmured.
Regina turned to look at her. “You might think your usefulness protects you for the moment, dear,” she said coolly, “but your insolence isn’t as charming as you seem to think.”
“Then I’ll be grateful for my usefulness, while it lasts,” Belle replied, her mouth twisting in something like a smile.
Regina moved, snakelike, and caught the girl’s chin in her hand, looking down at her. “I wonder, sometimes,” she said, “if you would be worth adding to my collection. After all, I like to keep the best tools to myself.”
Belle jerked her chin out of Regina’s grip and smiled tightly. “You wouldn’t have much use for me, if you did,” she said. “I might be useful now, but if you take away the heart of me, I know you would find yourself very disappointed with the results.”
Regina rolled her eyes. “So you say,” she said. She lifted Belle’s chin with one fingertip. “I don’t think you would really fit in there, you know. I like my pets to come to me whole and undamaged.”
Belle’s smiled returned. “I can’t begin to imagine why, when I look at you,” she said.
Regina withdrew her fingers, rubbing them together as if the smear away something dirty, then whirled around and set off down the stairs again. “So,” she said, a dozen paces on, “you were looking for my dear Jefferson. Did he prove helpful?”
“It’s amazing how helpful a man will be when you threaten his manhood.”
Regina glanced back. “A blade to the neck?”
“Oh no,” Belle replied mildly. “I meant that quite literally.”
Regina couldn’t help but laugh. The feral little creature was delightfully ruthless from time to time. “I can only imagine the look on his face.”
“I don’t think it was quite the morning greeting he expected,” Belle said. She had her hands folded behind her back, and was still walking some half-dozen paces behind Regina. “I don’t think men like to be surprised in bed.”
“There speaks the voice of inexperience,” Regina murmured to herself.
“With a knife,” Belle added, a little venom creeping into her voice.
Regina’s lips twitched. The woman tried to act as if her scars were nothing but a part of her, but every so often, she would let slip some little moment of vulnerability, some self-conscious protest that she was not as flawed and damaged as she so clearly was.
“Come now, dear,” she said, pausing at the bottom of the flight of stairs and looking up as Belle drifted down after her. “You know I tease.”
“Oh, I know,” Belle said. “I’ve grown used to it.”
Regina slipped her arm through Belle’s. “Now that we’re friends again, then,” she said, “My father is preparing something for dinner. You’ll join us won’t you? I’m sure father won’t mind at all.”
Belle looked up at her, hard-eyed, and for a moment, her features might have been carved from stone. “Do I have a choice in the matter?”
Regina leaned a little closer to murmur, “Of course you don’t.”
Chapter 6: Turning the Key
Belle was a patient woman.
Anyone who encountered her would have been surprised. She knew she had been dubbed the Hellcat, and that didn't immediately bring to mind a woman who would methodically track, plan, manipulate, and scheme for days, weeks, even months before making a move.
It all came down to appearances, she knew.
The ones who gave her the name were the ones who deserved to meet with her blades. They were the people who would take advantage of a slight and fragile-looking woman. They saw her face as a monstrous thing. She saw it as a badge of honour, marks taken when she fought to protect her country and her people. Anyone who thought appearances were the most important aspect of a person were not worth their salt.
She waited and thought and considered and planned.
She knew she had enemies, and while she knew there were those she considered allies, they were kept at a distance for their own protection. Instead, she had half a dozen cottages and caverns, which served as her bases, and each of them had only a scatter of the information she had gathered. Anyone who ventured to one would find themselves ignorant to her intentions, unless they chanced to find all the other places she used as refuges.
Much of the information she left scattered in her wake was false.
It was much easier to hunt in peace, when those who would hunt her were distracted elsewhere.
The plan was coming together. It had taken a long time, and she knew that when it was done with, she would retreat to some hidden part of a forest and simply do nothing for at least a week. Anything that didn't mean walking the length and breadth of the kingdoms in the search for knowledge, tools and weapons.
She gathered her resources together in her most secret of hiding places. The ruins of Avonlea were known to be treacherous, and there were still lingering ogre cubs, but if you knew how to avoid them to reach the caverns beneath the remains of the castle, then you had a hiding place like no other.
Belle lit a candle, illuminating her treasure trove.
The prize of the collection was the hat in its gleaming hatbox. There was also a fragment of the wood from which Pinocchio was carved, pulsing with quiet, natural magic. It was cut in the shape of a star, a tribute to the one who helped to give him life. Gepetto had insisted she take it in gratitude for her kindness to his son.
It rested on the hatbox, threaded with a thin strand of gold stolen from Rumpelstiltskin's hoard, beside the small bag of fairy dust she had acquired from Rheul Ghorum. It was a rare gift, the power of the fairies, and as she had told Rumpelstiltskin, not entirely truthfully, it had taken persuasion of a special kind to acquire it.
The last and most recent piece added to the collection was the item she had stolen from the Queen.
Regina had been too distracted by petty insults and stolen face-colouring to notice that an ornate silver hand mirror had vanished from her dresser. The creature that lived in the mirrors had not noticed either, but given he had a thousand frames from which to bask in the Queen's vanity, losing one little hand mirror was hardly likely to make a difference.
Belle sat cross-legged by the candle's glow, taking each object, checking them, examining them. While she had no magical ability of her own, she would have needed to be completely insensible to ignore the warm, thrumming glow of power that the combination of the objects created.
It would be enough, she knew.
She had promised to find Rumpelstiltskin the way, and if these powers combined with his own could not open a doorway into the world he sought, then nothing would.
With care, she packed them all, each into a separate pouch or box. Jefferson had given her very specific warnings about the hat and its sensitivity to magic, while the glow of Rheul Ghorum's power crackled and snapped when touched. The wooden pendant, she hung around her throat as a private talisman, where it rested against the gold chain her father had given her so many years before. The mirror, she carefully wrapped in soft cloth, slipping it into a satchel.
Once everything was put in its place, she chose her weapons with care.
She did not trust Rumpelstiltskin not to turn the deal on her to his own advantage. In fact, she expected him to. That was no cause, however, to do any true harm. A short blade at her hip and palm daggers concealed within her clothing would be enough.
The journey to the Dark Castle was a trying one.
The first time had been exhausting enough, in the height of summer, but in the driving winds and frosts of winter, it took days longer than she hoped. She could have summoned him, called his name to the winds, but she knew the less she owed anyone, the better.
The snows were lying by the time she reached his gates, and she ploughed through the knee-deep masses towards the castle. There were lights in the windows, and she had no doubt he knew she was approaching, but he was as unbending as she when it came to offering assistance without a price.
The doors were open and waiting when she finally staggered up the steps. There was no sign of the master of the house, so Belle set down her burdens and sat down heavily on the steps that led further into the castle. She drew her pipe from her belt, sparking a flint to light it, drawing on the warming smoke.
She felt the moment she was no longer alone in the forbidding hallway. Years of being watched had honed her awareness of her surroundings. Even if she could not see the eyes that watched her, she knew that they were there. She sprawled back on the stairs, propping one elbow on the step behind her, and cast her eye about nonchalantly. She puffed fresh clouds of fragrant smoke into the air, then tapped the stem of the pipe against her teeth.
"Why so shy?" she asked, stretching out one leg. Her boots were crusted with ice, and her breeches were clinging around her knees with chilly dampness, but she was damned if she would show any discomfort in front of any man.
There was no notable change. One moment he was not there, the next he was, a dozen paces in front of her, as if he had always been.
"You have returned, then," he murmured, long, spidery fingers folded in front of his chest. He was clad in scales and leather and spikes, but she - familiar with the art of the formidable first impression - recognised a costume when she saw one. He might be a cunning imp, malicious and spiteful, but no creature who would trade so recklessly to save his child could truly terrify her.
"We had a deal," she said, "and I told you I don't break my deals."
The change in his expression was barely noticeable, but her trade was dependent on her skills in observing and reading people. The emotions flickered from shock to hope to fear to dread and finally settled in narrow-eyed suspicion.
"You have found a way?" he said sceptically, stalking closer to her. "You." He gestured to her where she was settled on the stairs. "Not a speck of magic of your own. No power. Nothing of importance. And you believe you have found what I have been searching for?"
"I know I have," she said, one side of her mouth turning up. She watched him, drawing on the pipe, the sweet weed within glowing.
His fingers twitched and unfurled, and he was rigid where he stood. That gesture was enough to reveal his nervousness. It was something of a relief, that he was still a man, despite all the darkness and magic bound up in his soul. "Speak, then."
"Somewhere warm," she said, unfolding from the step and rising. "Letting me die of a chill wasn't part of our arrangement."
His lips pulled back from his teeth and she almost laughed aloud, recognising that gesture of wordless frustration. "Very well, dearie," he snapped briskly. "If you would follow me."
She was unsurprised when he led her to the grand room where they had first met. A fire was leaping in the grate, warm and inviting. She set down her satchel and the box she bore, then dragged a chair over to hearth, pulling off her ice-crusted boots and propping her feet on the hearthstone.
"Better," she said with a sigh of relief, the chill of days melting from her bones.
He stood by the mantle, watching her intently, his arms folded tightly over his narrow chest. "The way, dearie," he murmured. "If you please."
Belle gazed at him. He was still, unnaturally so, and looked almost calm as he gazed at her, but there was a fierce, desperate hunger in his eyes. She leaned forward, dragging the hatbox towards her, and flipped the lid open. "Have you heard of Jefferson?" she asked in a murmur.
His upper lip twitched. "I have heard tales of a world-jumper by that name," he said. "If he even existed at all, he disappeared years ago."
"Anyone can be found, if you know how to look for them," she said, lifting the hat from the box.
Rumpelstiltskin's eyes widened, and he looked from her to the hat. "That?" he breathed, unfolding his arms.
"The gateway to worlds," she replied, letting the brim balance delicately on her fingertips. She rose on stockinged feet and held it out to him. He hesitated, then reached out to take it. His hands shook, she noticed, and she saw his throat contract as he swallowed hard. "He was obliging enough to tell me all the secrets one might need to use it."
Rumpelstiltskin's fingers curled caressingly around the hat. "There's power here," he said, his voice shivering.
"But not enough, alone," she murmured.
His eyes flicked to her and she could see the flash of fury. "You give me the gate, but not the key, then?" he asked harshly.
"I have the key," she murmured. "I can help you open the door to the world where your son went, and the way back."
She smiled quietly. No magic. No power. Nothing of importance. "Yes."
"And your price is my assistance?"
She lifted her shoulders in a shrug. "As you said, I have no power of my own. Why not seek the assistance of the most powerful creature in this world?"
He turned away from her, crossing the room to stand by the long, grand table. Belle watched him in silence, as he set the hat down reverently and moved his hand over it. It shivered and rocked, but as she had hoped, his magic wasn't enough. He would have taken it there and then, without the key, and while he might have granted her some little magic to aid her, it would have been a little as possible.
Finally, he laid his hands on the table on either side of the hat, his back to her. "What magic do you need from me, dearie?" he asked, his voice low and almost unpleasant.
"I have not yet asked," she said quietly. "I said I would give you the way, but I know that isn't enough."
He tilted his head and she could see the suspicious gleam in his eye. "What then? A new deal?"
She shook her head. "I will help you find your son," she said quietly. "In this new world, I will help you find him. Then, I will tell you what I need from you."
He turned then, and she could see surprise vying with doubt. "Why?" he asked.
"Because I know how to find people," she replied.
"You would go into a new world," he said, walking towards her, his eyes fixed on her face. "You would go with me. You would help me find that which I have lost. You would cast yourself into unknown danger. And all for magic I could grant you now. Why?"
She shrugged. "Because I know you don't trust me," she said. "What I need from you..." She paused, considering her words. "I need something from you that's worth a lot to me. I know your son is everything to you." She rubbed her hands together slowly. "If I can help you get you back what you lost..." She met his eyes with her own. "Your willingness to help may make the difference."
"All this, to court my favour?" he sneered derisively. The true hostility was lacking, though, and she could see how confused and wary he was. The creature before he was as skittish as a wild animal, fearing and doubting her every move.
"All this," she corrected quietly, "because of necessity." She reached out and touched his hand, unsurprised when he flinched from her. She let her hand drop back to her side. "I won't see you go into the new world without help. Will you accept that?"
He snorted, scowling. "Perhaps," he said, waving a clawed finger close to her face, "you fear I will choose not to return, and your price will go unpaid. Perhaps, you expect me to break our deal."
"You don't break deals," she said simply.
He drew back his hand, staring at her with open surprise. "You trust me?"
Belle nodded. "I know an honourable man when I see one," she said. "I only offer my aid. Will you accept it?"
He looked from her to the hat, then back again. "You would..." He seemed dazed. "You would make the journey? Willingly?"
"I will," she said without hesitation. "If you go, I will go with you."
Chapter 7: A World Without Magic
Rumpelstiltskin raised his arm to shield his face.
The sunlight was unexpected and dazzling after the darkness of the Dark Castle, and the innards of the hat. His other hand was being tightly held by the woman, the hunter, who had promised to take him to the world without magic, the woman who had leapt through the shimmering doorway with him.
“It worked,” she breathed, sounding as stunned as him. “It really worked.”
He lowered his arm, not yet willing to relinquish his grip on her hand. They were in a forest that could have been anywhere, though there was no snow. “How can you tell?” he asked raggedly. “We might just be outside the castle.”
She was looking at him and shook her head, smiling. “No,” she said, holding up her dagger towards his face. He shied back, and she rolled her eyes. “Look at your reflection.”
Rumpelstiltskin hesitated, then looked at the metal. He dropped her hand, snatching the dagger and staring at what little he could see of himself. His gaze moved to his hands, no longer scaled or darkened with magic.
“A land with no magic,” he breathed, terror washing through him. He was defenceless, unarmed, weak, vulnerable.
The woman looked him up and down. “Keep the dagger,” she suggested, offering him the sheath. “If it’ll make you feel better.”
He nodded, then winced, as the last of the magic ebbed away, and all the mortal aches and pains he remembered with loathing returned to him. He stumbled as his leg spasmed, and fell heavily on his left knee, dropping the dagger to clutch his right.
The woman was on her knees by his side instantly, catching his shoulders. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” he snarled. “Of course I am.”
She looked at him, then grabbed his bad knee and squeezed and stars crowded in on his vision as he yowled in pain.
“No, you’re not,” she said abruptly. She pulled her satchel around from behind her and rooted through it, producing a small bottle. “Here. Drink this. It’ll ease the tension and should reduce the pain as well.”
He wanted to strike it from her hand, curse her to dust, stop his eyes from streaming in agony, but his hand moved unconsciously, and he drained the contents of the bottle in one go. He fell back, panting, one hand in the leafy dirt, his other hand rubbing his aching knee.
She rose, walking around him and scanning the area. She moved like a hunter, he noticed with distraction, glancing this way and that. He forced himself to look, see what she was seeing, to think of anything but the pain in his leg.
The pathway they had come through was still gleaming, half-hidden. It looked like they had emerged through a sheer rock face, and that shimmering surface was the only way back. It was tempting, so tempting to leap back through, but he had come too far, fought too hard, and if Bae was here, he couldn’t return. Not now. Not yet. Not until he was found.
Rumpelstiltskin dragged himself towards a nearby boulder, pulling himself up to sit on it, and drew deep, gulping breaths. Whatever she had given him to drink was starting to take effect, his leg throbbing, but no longer burning with pain.
His companion was a short distance away, apparently seeing something in the landscape that he was missing. “There are people nearby,” she said, returning to him. “A settlement. Within walking distance, but not calling.”
“How can you be sure?” he asked, his voice hoarser than he would like.
“I can see the signs,” she said. She looked down at him. “Are you able to walk?”
He hesitated, then struggled to rise, only to fall back to sit heavily on the boulder. “Not yet,” he said tightly.
Her expression tensed. It was strange to see her face whole and unblemished.
The last thing she had asked of him before they stepped through the vortex was a glamour to hide the worst of the scarring on her face. Better to be inconspicuous, she said, not looking at him as she said it. So far, it seemed to be holding, the only magical thing that was. It seemed it was great sacrifice, to hide the scars. That gave him pause, wondering what the importance could be in such marks.
She drew the satchel down from her shoulder, setting it beside him. “I’ll go ahead and scout the area out,” she said. “Perhaps find out if we’re somewhere hostile or potentially friendly, and whether we’re going to blend in or not.”
He grabbed her arm, baring his teeth. “You’re not leaving me here,” he growled.
She grabbed his chin in her other hand, forcing his head back, her eyes boring into his. “You wanted to come to this place to find your son,” she reminded him, her voice low and even. “If you want us to get anywhere, you’ll let me go and find out what I can about this world. For all we know, we may have arrived in the middle of a war, dressed in the enemy colours. Do you want to chance both of us being killed?”
He drew in a breath through his nose, nostrils flaring angrily. “No,” he gritted out through clenched teeth.
“Then let me go,” she said. He reluctantly uncurled his fingers from her arm and she stepped back. “I’ll scout the area, find out if we can get provisions with the valuables we have, and if not, we can arrange a camp in the forest.”
“What valuables do we have?” he demanded.
The woman’s mouth curved into a smile and she crouched down, drawing a ball of golden thread from her satchel. She tossed it up in the air and caught and cast a challenging, almost mocking look at him.
“That’s mine,” he hissed.
“You weren’t using it,” she said. “And this is your quest. You can damned well pay for it.”
He scowled at her, wondering if it would break their agreement to snap her neck once he had done the magic she asked for. Yes, she had brought him to a world without magic, but who was to say it was the right one, and who was to say Bae was even still alive.
“Don’t go anywhere,” she said, removing another dagger from her belt and setting off through the trees.
Rumpelstiltskin sat in silence, rubbing his aching leg.
He didn’t know whether to be overjoyed or terrified.
Centuries without any chink of hope. Centuries with curse after curse failing him, crumbling and falling apart before anything was achieved. He had focussed only on the curse, and that was why he had failed. The woman’s fresh eyes had seen a solution that he had overlooked.
The hat was… complex, but in a very simple way.
The magic it was created from was a very particular kind, a homespun type that was created by those not truly skilled in magic, but with enough magic within them to create something new and exceptional. The hat should have answered to its makers alone. No other sorcerer could have made it spin and open a path.
The girl knew that. She also knew that he had power, and that even that wouldn’t be enough to do what was needed.
That was why she had brought the fairy dust, the light magic to his dark, the counter, the balance. The hat was the fine line between worlds. His power alone wouldn’t have been enough to use it, but two sides of one coin, good and bad, dark and light, right and wrong. All the power combined had been, with his memory of Bae guiding it as it started to spin.
This had to be the world Bae had come to. There was nowhere else it could have brought them, even if he had thought of a thousand other worlds. The memory of his son was what he had focussed on, his child screaming, his child falling, his own foolish hand releasing him as if he were worth nothing.
He had to be here. He had to.
Rumpelstiltskin had a hundred thousand apologies to make. No. More. There wasn’t enough breath in the world to give voice to all the words he wanted to say to his son.
He looked up at the glittering doorway. It would have to be hidden, if they were to keep another from using it. It would all be in vain if some foolish person from this world fell through into a world they didn’t belong to.
His leg was only throbbing now, and with effort, he hobbled over to the rocky cliff face, gathering some loose brush and branches to cover it over as best he could. It surged and flickered at the nearness of his hand, but he forced himself to think of Bae, to resist the urge to dive back into the world where he was strong and powerful and undefeatable.
He had been a coward then.
He couldn’t be now.
He had come too far for that.
Once the portal was covered, he searched the clearing, and found a suitable broken branch of a tree. He sat down on the boulder again, and set to work stripping the bark and branches, until he had something that would serve as a stick to lean on. Somehow, in all the centuries that had past, he had forgotten the simple problems that lameness could cause.
He tested it, leaning on it cautiously, then hobbled around the clearing. It would take time, he knew, to accustom himself to the very mortal sensation of physical pain. For so many years, sensations had been dulled under the blazing warmth of magic. Now, human senses were all he had.
It felt strange.
Everything felt strange: the sun on his face, the texture of the wood against his palms, the smell of leafmould and dirt, even the sound of the leaves rustling quietly in the wind. He sat silently on the boulder, letting it wash over him, remembering what it was to be human.
A crack of a branch some time later made him rise, immediately regretting it when his knee spasmed.
He stood rigid, motionless, then sank back onto the rock as he spotted the woman moving through the trees towards him. Her greenish-brown cloak had rendered her almost invisible.
"You're back," he observed, both surprised at her return and at the relief at someone familiar in this unfamiliar place.
"Well-spotted," she said with a quick smile, but he could tell it was forced. She walked briskly towards him and threw a bundle at him, in a sack. "You need to change."
Rumpelstiltskin looked into the sack at a tangle of fabrics. "What is this?"
"Your costume for this world," she said, unpinning her cloak to reveal strange clothing: fitted patterned trousers that clung to her legs like a second skin and a colourful, short-sleeved tunic. "We won't fit in if we dress as we would in our world, and you're going to need to look like you belong here." She looked at him. "This isn't going to be as easy as we hoped."
He looked at her warily. "Why?"
"This world is big," she said. "Bigger than just a village or a castle. We won't be able to find him in a single day." She folded up her cloak, the nodded at the sack. "I don't know how well they'll fit," she said. "They were the only things I could find without drawing attention."
He drew a pair of coarse blue breeches from the sack, looking at them, then at her.
She raised her hands, as if in submission, and deliberately turned her back.
Within the confines of his own travelling cloak, he shed his leather clothing and silks, replacing it with the plain white shirt and blue breeches. They were not uncomfortable, but they felt unnatural, another reminder that they were in a world that was not their own.
"Where did you get them?" he asked, as he buttoned the shirt.
"An open door invites intruders," she said. She was shifting restlessly from foot to foot. "No one saw me, but I think we should avoid that area in the meantime, in case anyone recognises the clothing."
"You took gold," he said dryly. "Why not trade?"
She snorted. "When you see what we're facing, you can tell me that I made the wrong choice." She tilted her head up to the sky. "Are you done?"
He glared at her back, but said, "Done." She turned, and looked momentarily surprised. "What?" he asked, looking down at himself.
"It doesn't look too bad," she said. "We might actually be able to blend in." She snatched the empty sack off him, shoving her folded cloak into it and adding his clothing as well. She slung her satchel over her shoulder, then looked at his pack. "Will you be okay to carry that?"
"I'm not helpless," he snapped irritably, hoisting the pack onto his shoulder and taking up his stick.
"Only a question," she murmured. "Follow me, and you can see exactly what we're dealing with."
It grew easier to keep his footing as they walked, the woman several paces ahead of him. Sometimes, she would pause, gesture for him to wait, then continue. The forest seemed to spread on and on, with only half-trodden paths visible here and there.
"What makes you think this world is so terrible?" he asked, as they walked on.
A gentle slope curved up ahead of them and she paused, looking back at him. "A feeling," she said. "Don't be afraid."
He scowled, but followed her up the slope. They were at the top of a hill, and despite his best intentions, when he saw what lay below, his heart felt like it shrank in sudden terror. He had seen towns, citadels, castles, villages, all the parts of all the Kingdoms.
Before them, though, was something that surpassed them all.
Buildings, gleaming in metal and glass, spread as far as the eye could see, some of them towering higher than the tallest castle. Horseless vehicles roared along broad black roads, belching smoke and fumes into the air. It was all a mass of noise and busyness with people walking rapidly in all directions.
"Gods," he whispered. "What is this place?"
Her hand came to rest on his shoulder, warm, solid, real, supporting him. He felt no desire to shake it off, needing something to keep him from fleeing. "A world without magic," she replied quietly.
Chapter 8: Courage to Stay
Belle was worried.
From what she had seen of Rumpelstiltskin before they made the leap through the portal, he liked to be in control of himself and his surroundings. There was fear underlying it all, driving him. In this place, without any of his power or influence, he was simply afraid. He pretended otherwise, but every sound made him flinch, and he looked around like a hunted animal.
She made the decision to stay in the forest that night, based solely on his expression at the sight of the vast town. He was pale, and when she touched his shoulder, he was trembling like a child woken from a nightmare. The forest, by comparison to the world below, felt safe.
He barely spoke as they set up camp, and she let him sit, his hands wrapped around his self-crafted walking stick. He needed time, she realised, which was a luxury she could grant him. She was used to strangeness, change, a world outwith her control. It was easier for her to tolerate it, but he was a creature of habit and magic in a world without both.
She knew he probably hadn't even realised that the scale of this world had frightened her too. Perhaps, it was because she didn't let the fear out. Trying to be brave, in hopes bravery would follow, was always her way, even in the face of huge, smoking metal vehicles, and more people than she had ever seen in one place at one time.
She busied herself, filling a skin from her pack with water from a nearby stream, gathering wood for a fire. All the while, she was thinking on all that she had seen as she scouted the area. The stolen clothing was the least of the matter. There were lights within the houses that had no flame. There were wires overhead that hummed with a power that - while not magic - felt like it could be dangerous. She wasn't sure if knowledge or ignorance would frighten Rumpelstiltskin more.
But he hadn't demanded to return to their world.
That showed courage.
He loved his son enough to stay, despite his terror.
Belle returned to the small camp. He was still sitting, motionless, and she set the firewood down beside him. "Do you have a flint?" she asked quietly, standing just behind him. He tilted his head slightly, scant acknowledgement. She hesitated, then laid her hand on his shoulder. His skin was warm through the thin fabric of the shirt. He flinched, again, but she left it there, waited. After a moment, he lifted his own hand and tentatively touched her fingers, a fleeting brush of contact.
"I'll light the fire, dearie," he said, his voice hoarse.
She almost sighed with relief. Matters would have been so much worse if he had been rendered insensible.
Rumpelstiltskin moved stiffly, sorting through his pack, and she sat down a short distance from him, watching him as he kindled a low flame with a handful of dry leaves, then gradually built a fire. It seemed to calm him, such a simple task, and some of the tension left his face and body.
It had startled her, when she saw his face for the first time as a man.
While there had been tales and rumours that he once was human, no one truly believed them. Even Regina seemed doubtful, when she laid the charge at Belle's door to render him harmless once more. She said by any means necessary. In this world, he was everything Regina had asked for, but Belle cared nothing for that now. Regina's wishes were one thing. Belle's intentions were another thing entirely.
She had promised she would find the means to render him harmless.
That didn't mean she intended to leave him that way.
He wasn't as pale as he had been. His hair was straighter, hanging loosely around his face as he concentrated on feeding the fire. She could still see the features of who he was, but the curve of his lip wasn't quite so bitter, and his eyes were a clear, human brown, rather than reptilian.
He glanced up and caught her watching him. "What is it?" he asked, wary.
"I just realised," she lied smoothly, "that we had never been formally introduced." She took out her pipe and lit it with a smouldering twig from the fire, puffing until it glowed. She offered him a small smile. "I'm Belle."
He eyed her with suspicion, stirring the fire with a narrow branch. "Belle? You expect me to believe you would give your true name?"
"Whether you believe me or not is your affair," she said, pointing at him with the stem of her pipe. "I can't make you believe me anymore than I can force you to trust me. I'm giving you my name regardless. I was once the Lady of the Marchlands, and for a brief spell, I was Mistress of Avonlea."
He stared at her across the flames, the light reflected in his dark eyes. "Avonlea fell."
She shrugged, drawing on the pipe, then blew out a feathery stream of smoke. It gave her a moment to steady her voice. "That's why I say it was a brief spell," she said.
He looked down at the flames. "Why are you doing this?" he said quietly. "Our deal was done. You gave me what I wanted." His eyes flicked back up to her face. "Why did you choose to come?"
She nibbled on the stem of the pipe, gazing back at him. "I've seen the world," she said. "I've travelled and crossed paths with a thousand people. I know how different one place can be to the next. I could only begin to imagine how different one world could be from the next." She shrugged. "I know I'm not cruel enough to throw you into a strange world alone."
She saw the colour rise across his cheeks and he lowered his head. "No," he agreed in a low voice. "You're not."
And there, she realised with a pang of pity, was the part of the tale that was missing.
Rheul Ghorum had told a tale of a boy brave enough to walk into the new world without fear, abandoned by his father. Rumpelstiltskin himself had told a tale of a man who didn't hold his son back, but she knew there was something missing, a reason that Rumpelstiltskin was so wild, so desperate to reach the world where his child was.
"He didn't jump," she murmured quietly, "did he?"
Rumpelstiltskin twisted his hands together in front of him, bending and snapping the twig he was holding. He didn't lift his head. "It was a world without magic with him. Or my power." He tossed the fragments of the stick into the fire. His fingers tangled together, without the diversion of the stick. "I made the wrong choice. I let go."
Belle rose silently, circling the fire, and sat down by his side. She didn't speak. There were no words that would have been fitting. Instead, she laid her hand on his forearm, her fingertips skimming the edge of his cuff and the bare skin of his wrist.
He gazed at her hand, then looked up at her face. There was confusion, weariness, concern, suspicion and a thousand other emotions that she could barely have read when his face had been inhuman.
"Who sent you to me?" he asked in little more than a whisper. "What do you want of me?"
She moved her fingers just enough to brush the back of his hand. "I want to help you find your son," she said quietly.
"You know nothing of me. You have no reason to help me."
With her other hand, she turned his face up to hers. "I know you have crossed worlds to find the child you lost," she said. "That's more than many would be brave enough to do."
Brown eyes stared at her, bewildered. "Why does that matter to you?"
When he didn't pull his arm from hers, she slipped her fingers gently downwards and clasped his fingers with her own. "It matters," she said quietly. He turned his hand, his fingertips brushing her own, and she wondered idly how long it had been since another person had touched him without malice.
A shout from nearby made him recoil, pulling his hand back, and Belle was on her feet an a heartbeat.
Someone was approaching with a lantern.
Belle glanced down at Rumpelstiltskin, and saw the flash of the dagger in his hand. She touched his shoulder, squeezed in warning. It was not a time to immediately attack, not without knowing what the threat was. He nodded, grudgingly, concealing it as a man approached them.
Belle's heart was thundering against her ribs, but she schooled her expression in a calm, politely puzzled smile. "Good evening."
The man raised his hand to touch his hat respectfully. "Ma'am," he said, then nodded to Rumpelstiltskin. "Sir. Sorry to bother you, but I'm going to have to ask you to move on."
Belle put her head to one side. "I'm sorry?" Rumpelstiltskin's shoulder was tense beneath her hand, but she squeezed again, praying he wouldn't do something foolish.
"This is a nature reserve, ma'am," the man explain. "Not a camp site. We don't allow campers overnight, and fires are definitely out."
Belle's smile broadened. Not a danger. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "We didn't realise. We've been walking a few days. We must have got turned around." She patted Rumpelstiltskin's taut shoulder. "I knew we'd come further than you said. No wonder your leg hurts." She offered her best smile. “I don’t suppose there’s somewhere nearby that would have a room for two travellers?”
"It's quite a walk from here, ma'am," the man said. "I can give you a ride into town to one of the hotels or guest houses. There should be one somewhere with a vacancy."
Rumpelstiltskin was trembling, and Belle knew he would rather stay in the forests, but the choice was being taken out of their hands.
"That would be very kind of you," she said, rubbing his shoulder soothingly. “I don’t think we could have walked much further.”
“Belle,” Rumpelstiltskin all but growled. His hands were clenched, but she suspected that was only to keep them from shaking. “We don’t want to go there.”
“We have to,” she said, lowering her voice. “This man is obviously an official here. We have to follow the rules.” She squeezed his shoulder again, firm and with all the confidence she was pretending to feel. “Don’t worry. We’ll be all right.”
He looked up at her. “We have to be able to get back,” he said in a low, urgent voice.
She nodded. “We will be able to,” she said, then looked back at the stranger. “Would it be all right for us to visit here again during the day? It’s a lovely place.”
The man smiled. “Of course, ma’am. There are nature trails and excursions,” he said. “But if you don’t mind, we really should get you out of the reserve before it gets much later.” He nodded to the fire. “Do you mind?”
Rumpelstiltskin pushed himself to his feet, then kicked dirt over the low fire, stamping it out, with a dark look at the other man. “Satisfied?” he snapped.
The man nodded. “Thank you, sir,” he said. “If you’ll follow me, my car is down at the road.”
“Car,” Belle murmured, gathering up her pack. “Do you suppose he means one of those horseless boxes with wheels?”
“Does it matter?” Rumpelstiltskin said tersely. His expression was hard, and every line of his body was rigid with tension again. When she offered him her arm, he ignored it, leaning on his stick instead, as they followed the man.
The ‘car’ was indeed one of the metal vessels. It was like a carriage, but carried machinery inside. Belle caught Rumpelstiltskin staring at it, despite his wariness. It might not be magic, but there was wizardry enough in it to catch his eye.
The man, the warden of the forest, opened it and a light immediately illuminated. Belle had to stifle a gasp of surprise. It was a bright, brilliant light, not a simple candle-flicker. Within the rear of the car, there was a wide seat that extended from one side of the vehicle to the other. Rumpelstiltskin hesitated, no doubt fearing a trap, so Belle climbed in first.
When the man climbed in the front, she leaned over the back of his seat to examine the controls with interest. “Are they all like this?” she asked, waving vaguely to the mass of dials and lights that surrounded the black wheel.
“SUVs?” he said, looking at her in amusement. “Sure. Some don’t have stereos, but they’re all pretty much like this. I guess you don’t have this kind of car back home?” Belle shook her head, fascinated, as he turned a key in a hole beside the wheel. The machine gave a roar and she bit down on a squeak of surprise. “You might want to sit back. It’s a bumpy ride.”
Belle nodded, throwing herself back in the seat next to Rumpelstiltskin. He was looking around the metal walls that contained them with undisguised panic. His breathing was ragged, and she could see the sweat beading his skin. Without a second thought, Belle grabbed his hand, held it tight.
He looked at her wildly and she squeezed his fingers, scooting a little closer to him as the car rumbled to a move.
“Are you all right?” she whispered.
“This is impossible,” he said in a ragged whisper. “This isn’t magic, but it isn’t possible.”
She brought her other hand over to enclose his, rubbing the back of his palm. “Just breathe,” she whispered. “Just keep breathing. We’re in the world we need to be in. Your son is here somewhere. We’ll find him, then we can go home. Hold onto that.”
He looked at her, and for a moment, the naked fear was visible in his eyes. “You won’t leave me?”
She smiled, leaning her shoulder against his. “We have a deal,” she whispered. “Don’t you even think about trying to get out of it.”
He stared at her, then his lips twitched in a tentative smile. “You spotted my ploy, dearie,” he whispered. “I’ll have to be more cunning next time.” He was silent for a moment, looking down at their linked hands. “Thank you.”
She nudged him. “Hush, you,” she murmured.
Wordlessly, he squeezed her hand.
Chapter 9: Like Real People
The new world was strange and frightening, but by degrees, it was becoming less so.
Rumpelstiltskin did not like the unfamiliar, or that which he could not understand or control, and the whole world around them seemed to be conspiring against him. There was power built in wires into the walls, machines fed by oils that moved of their own accord, water running within pipes inside the buildings. It was like magic of a different kind.
The woman - Belle - seemed so at ease that he found it foolish to be so afraid, even though every impulse was screaming that this was a dangerous and terrible world.
They had taken up residence in what he could only suppose was an inn. The first night, the price was not demanded, the housekeeper distracted by a shimmer of fairy magic. Belle had a little left, but it was enough to secure them a small, clean room.
She ventured out the next day with a promise she would return, and he had been too afraid to go after her. Instead, he examined every part of the room: the lanterns with their wires, the openings in the walls that provided the wires with their power, the water that ran from metal spouts. The privy was especially interesting, and he privately made note of it, to add several to the Dark Castle. It was such a simple idea, and yet, he had not imagined how it could be done until he saw it.
When she returned, she brought a brown bag made of paper, full to overflowing with food.
"Stolen?" he asked, as she tore open the clear wrapper around some kind of pastry, handing him it.
"Traded," she said, biting an apple. She sprawled back on the bed she had claimed as hers, the one nearest the door. "They use gold here, but not for currency. I found a shop that buys and sells it, so I sold some in exchange for currency." She groped in her pocket, pulling out a thick bundle of green rectangles of paper, which were bound together with another strip of paper. "These are called dollars." She tossed them over to him, and he examined them curiously. "It's much lighter than carrying coin."
He flicked through them with his thumb. "What value do they hold?" he asked, frowning. "They are only paper."
"I think they must be promisory slips," she suggested. "I spoke to the innkeeper about the cost of the room, and based on what the gold-dealer gave me for only a small portion of the gold, we can afford to stay here for some time." She sat up. "Oh! And I got you a gift."
Rumpelstiltskin looked up at her in surprise. "A gift?"
She threw a smile his way, scrambling from the bed, and went to the door. She leaned out into the hallway and returned with a long, narrow, paper-wrapped bundle, which she held out with a flourish. He stared at it, then at her in consternation.
"Open it," she said, all but tossing it into his lap, and sitting down on the end of the bed again.
He cautiously unwrapped the bundle to find a handsome walking stick with a gleaming brass handle. He turned it over in his hands, then looked at her. "Why?"
She smiled. "I thought it would be less conspicuous than a tree branch," she said, "when we go out."
His hand clenched around the cane. "We?"
She shrugged with a smile. "We can't look for someone from here," she said. "It isn't so bad out there. It's large and noisy and busy, but the people are still people." She rose from her bed and sat down beside him on his. "There are no wars in this town. No real dangers. Not like the ones we knew."
He touched the walking stick carefully, running his hand along the smooth wood. "There are always dangers," he said quietly.
She put her hand on his thigh reassuringly. She touched him so often, and every time, it made his heart jump with something not unlike panic. It was her way, he realised, to soothe him, to show she was there with him. It was the first real human contact in centuries and it scared him almost as much as the world they were in.
"You're brave enough to be here," she said. "I know you're brave enough to walk outside."
He couldn't meet her eyes. "Not yet," he said, but it felt like more of a plea.
"This evening," she said decisively. "We'll find a tavern and have something to eat."
Rumpelstiltskin looked at her, then managed a small smile. "Has anyone ever told you that you are an insufferably bossy woman?" he asked.
"Not if they wanted to live," she said, squeezing his knee. She rose and went back to her own bed, spreading out the rest of the food she had bought. There were other items there as well, and he leaned over to peer at a bottle.
To his surprise and amusement, she blushed. "Nothing important."
"It looks like some kind of apothecary's bottle," he said, raising his eyebrows. "Some kind of potion?" He leaned forward, plucking it from the bed before she could stop him, and removed the stopper. She went even redder. "You bought perfume?"
She snatched it back from him and capped it. "And what if I did?"
Rumpelstiltskin couldn't help a fleeting smile. It was almost reassuring to find that his implacable, unreadable, fearless companion still had some weaknesses. "I expect your next purchase will be a pretty dress?" he suggested, not quite sure if he was trying to mock or to tease.
She reached out and swatted his knee, and despite himself, he laughed.
In the end, she did persuade him to leave the sanctuary of the inn's room, and as she had said, the world was not so terrible as he had first imagined.
It was noisy, and even as the evening drew in, it was brightened by towering lanterns on metal posts. The car vehicles rumbled everywhere, and he couldn't help but be relieved when she put her arm through his, both a comfort and a guide.
What her intentions were, he didn't know, but no one could feign such genuine, natural kindness. It flowed from her as magic had from him in their own world. She could see when he was uncomfortable, and she did all in her power to ease his mind. It didn't match with the image of the woman with blades and scars, as he had first seen her.
She held his left arm loosely with her right as they walked on the grey-slabbed path that edged the road, squeezing reassuringly with every car that roared by. He did his best not to flinch, but human fear was harder to school, and his heart thundered rebelliously no matter how he tried. His grip on the handle of the walking stick was verging on painful, but he knew he needed to face the world, if he was ever to find Bae.
He made himself look around, at the gleaming buildings, the lighting, even the faces. People walked here and there, barely even giving them a second look. It felt busy and chaotic compared to the villages he was used to, so many people enclosed in one sprawling space.
Everything felt alien from the clothing to the architecture. There was not a castle in sight, or any hovels for that matter. Girls walked past with skirts so short he blushed on their account, while men in breeches big enough to clothe themselves twice over strutted this way and that. By comparison, his shirt and trousers and Belle's colourful tunic seemed almost plain.
"See?" she murmured, apparently feeling his arm relax under hers. "It's not so terrible."
"Perhaps not," he acknowledged.
She led the way to a building that was as grand as a small palace, pushing open a gleaming glass door. Staff in stiff, formal clothing with high collars and tight little cravats greeted them, and when she asked if there was a table, they were immediately bustled to a private table.
In a world filled with unnatural light, Rumpelstiltskin looked indignantly at the candlesticks illuminating their little table. "For somewhere so grand, you would expect their lighting to be equally so," he muttered to Belle, as they sat. "I had more candles than this when I was young."
She looked across the table at him in amusement. "Don't you see what they're trying to do?" she said, as he propped his cane against the table.
He frowned. "No. What?"
Her lips twitched. "It’s atmospheric," she said, offering him a folded board. "Pick something to eat. We should try the local food."
He snorted again. “Atmospheric, my foot,” he muttered, surveying the list of meals they could purchase.
Belle had tried explaining the breakdown of the currency to him, and the symbols that marked the cost of items in the world. If he was reading the food-card right, then this place should have been serving unicorn meat on golden platters sprinkled with powdered hen’s teeth, while they drank from diamond glasses.
“This place,” he said barely under his breath, “is playing us for fools.”
“Oh hush,” Belle said, raising a hand and catching the eye of one of the servants. “I’m paying for it.”
“With currency bought with my gold.”
“Which I worked very hard to steal,” she replied, then turned her smile on the serving staff, pointing out items on the menu. By the time they were done, Rumpelstiltskin had reluctantly selected at least something that sounded familiar.
Wine was provided first, before the food.
Belle raised her glass to him. “To a successful endeavour?” she suggested, her blue eyes shining by the candlelight.
Rumpelstiltskin looked back across the table at her. “To a deal soon to be concluded,” he said, lifting his own glass and touching it to hers.
Her smile brightened. “Not so worried anymore?” she said.
He snorted, then took a sip of the wine. It was actually quite good, but he still felt justified in saying, “This world takes advantage of fools as much as ours did. That kind of world, I am more than familiar with.”
“Good,” Belle murmured. She nudged his foot with her own beneath the table. “I was worried about you this morning.”
Rumpelstiltskin frowned, setting his glass down. “Nonsense.”
“Are you telling me what I was thinking?” Belle said mildly, then sipped her own wine.
“That you would concern yourself,” he replied, waving one hand dismissively. “I have the power to give you what you want. That was what concerned you.”
She put her head to one side, gazing at him so steadily he couldn’t hold her gaze. He looked down at the table, toying with the silverwear, then back up to find her eyes still on him, calm and steady.
She extended one hand across the table. “Give me your hand.”
He leaned back in his seat. “Why?” he asked warily.
“Because,” she replied, curling her fingers in invitation. He watched her hand for a moment, as if it might bite, then placed his own over hers. Her fingers closed around his in a firm grip, and she leaned closer until the candle flame turned her eyes golden. “In this world,” she whispered, “you couldn’t give me what I want, even if you tried.” He flinched at her words, tried to pull his hand back, but she held on. “So when I say I was worried,” she murmured, her eyes holding his, “I was.”
“You play with fire, dearie,” he breathed.
She released his hand and laughed quietly. “I know,” she said, lifting her hand to brush her concealed scars. “I’ve been burnt before, but it doesn’t stop me from playing.” She picked up her glass, tilting it towards him in a silent toast, then drank.
Rumpelstiltskin stared at her, unable to make head nor tail of her. He drained his glass of wine, and only realised when he licked the last drop from the rim of his glass.
“You,” he declared, “are a madwoman.”
The woman didn’t seem to take that as the insult it was meant to be. Instead, she smiled. “I see you’ve worked me out,” she said, setting down the glass as the servants approached, bringing their food.
Rumpelstiltskin picked at the food, which was not as unpleasant as he feared it may be, ignoring his companion’s attempts to restart the conversation. There was some ulterior motive, he knew. There had to be. Something more than just a little magic for his assistance. No one could or would care enough to worry about him.
Another glass or two of wine came and went as they ate. It was good wine, warming him in a way alcohol had not been able to for years. It was the mortal flesh, he supposed. The Dark One rendered him inhuman, so being human once more, he could feel the difference it made.
“You,” he said, after draining his third glass, “are here to trap me.”
Belle looked across the table at him. “Trap you?”
He wagged a finger at her. “Brought me here. Took my powers away.” He leaned closer, knocking the table with his ribs. “Did someone tell you to take me out of the world? To put me somewhere out of the way?”
She looked at him with a stern, flat expression. “Even if they did,” she said, “it wouldn’t work. Any time we spend here doesn’t matter. When we go back through, we go back at exactly the same moment.”
Rumpelstiltskin blinked at her. “So, we’re not really gone?” he said, frowning. “That’s not a very good trap now, is it, dearie?”
“It would only be a trap,” she said, very calmly, “if I left you here.”
He stared at her. He could hear her words, but it felt like it was taking a moment for them to make any sense. “You said you wouldn’t leave,” he said, and felt like a small child, lost in the woods. “You said.”
“I did,” she replied, setting down her fork. “So that should tell you this isn’t a trap.”
Her mouth curled in a smile. “Don’t believe me, if you want,” she said, “but I’m not here to trap you or steal your power.” She put her plate to one side and folded her arms on the table, leaning forward. “The last thing I want is to see you powerless.”
He narrowed his eyes, watching her intently. “I think you’re lying.”
“You can think what you want,” she said, cupping her chin in one hand. “I’ll prove you wrong.”
He frowned, looking down at his plate. The food was almost all gone. That surprised him. He didn’t remember eating much at all, but it was all gone. The wine was too. He suddenly felt very tired and very old and very lost.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked, too tired for games of words or foolishness. His fingertips brushed the edge of the table, like they would his spinning wheel, running gently along the lip. “Tell me the truth.”
For a moment, Belle was silent, still, as if she could see how much he needed to know. His world was a bed of quicksand, and he was slipping, and he didn’t know if she was trustworthy or not or somewhere in between.
She rose, drawing the chair around the table until she was sitting beside him. Her hand covered his on the edge of the table. His fingers twitched, but she held them steady.
“Some time ago,” she said quietly, “something precious to me was stolen by someone powerful. You said yourself that I have no power or magic.” Her hand squeezed his. “I need your help to take back what was stolen. You’re the only one powerful enough.”
He watched her expression by the candlelight.
For the first time since they had first met, her expression was bared, unguarded. She looked drawn, weary, and was looking at him. The small smile she always wore was gone, and he could see just how tired and sad she was without it.
“What was stolen?” he asked in a low voice.
Her thumb brushed across her knuckles. “Let’s just say,” she murmured, lowering her eyes, “that when it comes to loss, you and I have more in common than you might think.”
He stared at her. “A child?”
She shook her head. “Not quite,” she murmured. She patted the back of his hand. “You don’t need to know more than that, now. We have to find your son first, then you can have my tale, and decide what you want to do.”
Rumpelstiltskin’s fingers caught hers before she could withdraw her hand. “You could have asked me,” he said. “Without all this or the threats.”
Her mouth turned up at one side. “I don’t ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” she replied, though she squeezed his fingers. “But thank you.” She pushed the chair back just a little, turning her face from his. “We should get back to the inn. I’m a little tired.”
“Tired,” he agreed in a murmur.
She made her way over to one of the servants and he watched her, thinking on the dainty tale she had spun for him only days before: she made a deal, then she collected all the items he needed to give him a doorway to find what he wanted. It had taken her months. And yet, she did it, patiently pooling resources, until she had enough to hold up a deal with him.
And then, just when he thought she had done enough to earn his aid and agreement, she did more by stepping through into another world with him, giving him an ally and more help than he had imagined necessary.
He had no doubt that if he had come through the portal alone, there would be corpses and blood and terror and imprisonment.
Instead, there was a sadly-smiling woman who was protecting him and helping him until he could find what he was looking for, all in the hopes that he could help her in turn. There wasn’t even any guarantee that he could, and it shook him to the core to realise that - to her - even the desperate hope and his promise to try was enough.
Chapter 10: The Dragon and the Songbird
Belle was doing what she was best at.
The first days in the new world were the hardest. They always were. There were new rules and etiquette to learn. There was a dress code to discover, so you didn’t accidentally insult someone by wearing someone else’s colours. There was the power that made the world run and the machines turn. There were the power-mongers to identify and, if necessary, avoid.
Belle knew the game. She played it time and again before. From the first days of the ogre wars, she collected information, watched, listened, waited.
There weren’t many places a wide-eyed, innocent young Princess couldn’t go, feigning childish curiosity and carrying a book. Many didn’t realise their mistake in underestimating her, until it was too late. She had weeded out more traitors in her father’s court than the most determined hunts by soldiers, simply by being quiet and listening. Her papa called her his little bird, his bright eyes that could flit anywhere in the palace, and he knew exactly what she was capable of.
When the wars came, Sir Maurice had tried to keep her out of it, to make sure she was safe, but they both knew his little bird needed to fly. He needed information, and she knew she could get it.
She learned to wear the mask of a peasant. She rubbed her hands in salt until they were dry and cracked and unlike a lady’s. She wore rags. She lived in the lower towns. She was a drab little sparrow when she needed to be. Few looked close enough to see the glitter in her eye, like the light on a starling’s wing.
The war descended into bloody chaos, as wars always do.
Belle was part of the force that took back Avonlea, but it was not a victory that was meant to last. It was enough, though, to break the siege, and to get through to the city. When it seemed there was no hope left, she stood on the citadel, screaming her challenges at the enemy, drawing their eye as the survivors fled through the catacombs beneath the city.
She was found days later, in the ruins by one of the few brave enough to venture back.
The little bird’s wings were clipped.
All her sacrifice in Avonlea had saved hundreds, but it had not been enough to break the oncoming wave. She was borne back to the Marchlands, to her father’s house, broken and scarred and barely recognisable as his little bird.
She was barely conscious when her father had sought aid. Whether she could or would have counselled against it, she didn’t know. It was something she tried not to think of. It could not change what had happened, nor could it alter the course they were on.
Now, she was the little bird again, for her father’s sake.
Even if it was another hand that guided her flight, that cruel mistress could not know where a little bird might land, or what little trinket or treasure the little bird might find.
Any information could be found, if someone was willing to fight hard enough to get to it, and Belle was a warrior more than anything else. There had been many days, weeks and months of work, before she had found a chink in Rumpelstiltskin’s impenetrable armour, and even then, it was a chink that she understood well.
She had information, an abundance of it, and she knew she needed to use it, though not as Regina had intended. Belle was a merciful person by nature. It came hard to her to consider hurting anyone. But for Regina, she knew she would make an exception.
The new world, however, was the first challenge.
She saw the change in Rumpelstiltskin after she confessed what she needed of him. He was still wary, but the hostile suspicion that sometimes barbed him lessened by degrees. He did not trust her, not wholly, not yet, but she knew there was still time to that.
It made matters easier.
She no longer had to drag him every step of the way, and because of that, she no longer feared leaving him to his own devices. She would leave the inn with the dawn, and go out into the world, to know and to learn.
It was a fascinating, vast and terrifyingly wonderful place.
The innkeeper provided her with maps which gave so much information that Belle could have wept with joy. Every road had a name, and there were information offices marked on them, and libraries and religious buildings, and all of those would have records and histories stored in them. It was everything she could have hoped for.
Their records chambers even had machines which made it easier to search old files and documents, and she spent hours there, bent over them, flicking through enlarged images of reports and letters and words from days gone by.
She knew it was not going to be easy. Finding a needle in a haystack was more likely to be possible. Rumpelstiltskin said he had guided the hat to the point where his son emerged, and that his son was the anchor, but whether they had come through immediately after the boy, or years after, he couldn’t be sure.
So she searched, seeking any record of mysterious children appearing, of strange lights in the night sky, anything that might suggest magic had been at work. Every day, she returned to the records offices, even going so far as to seek the boy’s name. He may have changed it, she knew. Many did, when faced with a new place, but it was a direction to look in.
Rumpelstiltskin surprised her after one such day.
She returned from the records office, her eyes dry and aching, but another set of records marked from the ones to be searched. He was sitting on his bed, facing away from her, and was holding something in his hands.
“You’ve been out?” she asked, shedding her jacket and boots by the door. They had both required new clothes, when it became clear that it was going to extend from days to weeks to even months of searching. She had gone for variety, while he elected to wear the same manner of clothing each day: the blue breeches calls jeans and a plain white shirt.
“I found an artist,” he murmured. He didn’t turn. “Perhaps, this will help you, dearie?”
She approached and looked over his shoulder at a drawing of a young man. It was sketched, no more than an etching in lead on paper, but Rumpelstiltskin was cradling it as if it were the most precious thing in the world.
“His face?” she asked quietly, touching his shoulder gently.
Rumpelstiltskin looked up at her. “I used the last of the fairy dust to show my memory,” he said quietly, as if expecting reproof. “He drew it so you would know who to look for.” He looked back down at the image, and Belle could see the creases in the paper where he had clung to it.
She sat down beside him, so close that their legs were brushing against one another. “He’s a handsome boy,” she said softly, slipping her arm through his.
“Unlike his father,” Rumpelstiltskin whispered, tracing the boy’s cheek. His hand was trembling and he pushed the paper towards her. “You should keep this. You can use it better than I can.”
Belle took the drawing from him, then laid it aside on one of the little-used chairs. Then she took his hand in hers, squeezed it. He looked at their hands, then at her face, and she could see his eyes were red. Dry now, but red and swollen.
“We’ll find him,” she said, lifting her other hand to brush his cheek.
Rumpelstiltskin pressed his eyes closed. “I can’t believe it,” he whispered. “I’ve been looking for so long. I can’t begin to believe I’ll find him.” His eyes opened again, bright and damp. “And even if we do, he must hate me for what I did.”
“No,” Belle said firmly but gently. “No. He’ll forgive you.”
“You don’t know that,” he said dully.
Belle lifted his face with her hand. “I do,” she said quietly, brushing her thumb along his cheekbone. She could feel the rasp of stubble against her skin. “I’m here for the same reason he’s here. Believe me. I know.”
He stared at her, from such very lost human eyes. “Your father?”
Her fingers trembled briefly on his cheek. “He made a deal he didn’t understand,” she said quietly.
His hand covered hers on his cheek, and her breath caught when he turned his head and pressed a kiss to her palm. “We’ll both get them back,” he said, his voice more growl than spoken. “You, your father, and I, my son.”
For the first time, he believed it, and his conviction made her heart race.
“We will,” she breathed, staring at him.
Somehow, even though she had tried to believe it, even though she had hoped against hope, even though everything she had done for the last dozen months had been leading towards it, she had never believed it would happen, even if he helped her.
He nodded, his cheek brushing against her palm, his expression determined. “We will,” he said. “We have a deal.”
Belle’s eyes were suddenly and rebelliously burning and she knew there were tears spilling down her cheeks. She didn’t know what possessed her, but she leaned closer and pressed her lips to his, gratitude, relief, happiness, all of it too much. His lips parted, his breath catching, and they both pulled back, staring at one another.
Belle felt colour rising up her cheeks, but she was damned if she was showing anything but her usual defiance. “Um.” Pity that her mouth seemed to be rebelling.
“Um?” he said, his own features oddly flushed. “Dearie…”
She licked her lower lip, looking at him. Not at the creature she made a deal with, but at the man before her, the scared but brave father, at his flushed skin, the brown hair falling around his dark eyes that were watching her lips now. His hand was still clasped in hers, and his fingers curled against her own, slowly squeezing.
“Um,” she said again, but decisively, and leaned closer to kiss him again.
It wasn’t the true romance she had once wished for, when she was still too innocent to know better. It wasn’t whispers by moonlight or a handsome Prince on a great white steed. It wasn’t even anything close to a happily ever after, but it was something much more important.
His hands trembled as much as hers, as they touched one another. His fingers - spinner’s fingers, deft and skilful - wove through her hair, and her own unbuttoned the white shirt, one button at a time. Her shirt - t-shirt, they were called - was peeled over her head, thrown aside, forgotten, and they sprawled together on the bed.
It wasn’t what she had expected, but it didn’t stop it feeling right.
Their limbs tangled, and his mouth was warm on hers, then on her skin, and she was weeping and holding onto him, and she didn’t care that everyone thought of him as a monster or that they only saw her for the scars on her face, or anything in that world that was a thousand worlds away from this one.
It didn’t matter.
Just for a little while, none of it mattered.
Chapter 11: Hunting a Shadow
Rumpelstiltskin’s world had turned, out of his control.
Where once, he would he been terrified, now, he was revelling in it. There was still fear, of course. It was a new world, and there were always dangers there, but somehow, one fierce, determined, proud woman had made him do something he thought impossible: to believe he could and would be reunited with his son.
He didn’t understand at what point matters had changed for her, but when she kissed him, it would have been a madman who could have resisted the impulse to kiss her back. That night, she had slept in his arms, and he had barely slept at all. Dazed. Disbelieving.
She knew who he was better than anyone else in the forest. She knew what he had done. She knew exactly what he was capable of. And yet, she had lain with him, and he had been shocked to realise - despite her confidence and ferocity - that it was the first time she had taken any man to her bed. Her first choice of lover, in all her life, was the man called the terror of the Enchanted forest, and she was unafraid of him.
From the first time they met, she had not feared him, and now, he knew she could never be truly afraid of him.
In the end, she was the one who pushed the two separate beds together, and from that night on, she curled against him as if it were her right, and he held her as if her place was right there in his arms. Some part of him was screaming that it was folly, human, weak, but he was lonely, and she was too, and neither of them were too proud to deny that.
They were still having little luck in their search.
Belle took the drawing of Bae with her most days, comparing it to the documents she found in the records office, but when she returned in the evening, it would be placed by his side of the bed. She never needed him to ask, and he never wanted to say.
Rumpelstiltskin’s own days were spent trawling places he imagined Bae might go to.
His son loved the forest, so some days, he ventured there, to the gateway into the nature reserve. Once he had grown used to the currency, he used the bus system to get there, the vast passenger-bearing vehicles as astonishing as cars.
There was a bench, and he would sit with a pile of news sheets, pretending to read, and watching anyone who might enter. Sometimes, he actually read the papers. This world, it seemed, had wars of its own, but they were far away in distant lands, so far that this town had never and would never see true battle.
They were in a period calls the nineteen-nineties, from what he and Belle had learned. This world had a tumultuous and sprawling history, and he knew she would get lost in it, if she didn’t have a particular focus to lean towards.
As fascinated as she was by the world, he was equally fascinated by their magic - their so-called scientific advances. He could see how many parts of it were simply alchemy advanced to such a degree to create power, and he wondered at the possibilities of developing them further on his return to their own lands.
Still, like Belle, he had something to focus on.
On days when he was not at the reserve, he would make his way to the large park in the centre of the town. It was a town, too, even though it felt like a whole Kingdom confined in one place. The population was more then fifty thousand, a scale that amazed him, but Belle confided she had read of cities within this same Kingdom that had populations ten times that.
It was a blessing, he realised, that they were somewhere so small by comparison.
Their inn was close to the centre of the town, which was useful. With aid from Belle’s cane, he would also walk the busy streets. Sometimes, he would find a small eaterie and would sit, drinking tea, and watching for any glimpse of a familiar face.
It was hoping for a lot, to expect Bae to just walk past him, but the more he walked, the more he looked, the more unfamiliar faces he saw, the more he lived and breathed for the day that even if he had to see every one of the fifty-thousand people, he would one day see familiar eyes looking back at him.
Sometimes, he and Belle would meet up during the day, to eat and share any news they might have come across, but more often than not, as soon as he rose to meet her, their eyes would meet, and he would know they were no further forward.
It frustrated her, and he could tell.
She was a woman who lived by the information she gathered, and with every day that was going by, she counted her failure to find what they were looking for as a personal slight. He assured her that it wasn’t her doing, that they were both searching as hard as they could, but even when she slept, there was tension in her body that nothing could untangle.
She had told him the hat worked as an instant portal and they would return to exactly the point they had departed, but even that was no reassurance, when faced with the knowledge that every day she searched for his son was another day she was without her father.
Days passed and turned into weeks.
More of their gold was sold, exchanged for more of the currency. Belle sheepishly admitted she had four more skeins that she had surreptitiously acquired while he was preparing his own pack for the portal, so they weren’t going to run short, but with the first skein gone, it brought home the fact that they could potentially run out.
They agreed a budget had to be set per day, to ensure that nothing was wasted. They tallied up the slips of paper they received as proof of payments, and Rumpelstiltskin reluctantly admitted that his coffee love was getting out of hand.
“I’m sorry it’s taking so long,” she murmured, as they settled in bed one night. Another fruitless day in the records office had resulted in her throwing one of her shoes across the room in frustration.
Rumpelstiltskin let her make herself comfortable, her habitual position with her head resting on his chest, his fingers curling into her hair. “It’s all right, dearie,” he murmured, “I know you’re looking as hard as I am.”
“I’m starting to wonder,” she admitted quietly, “if it wouldn’t be easier just to go and knock on every door and ask if anyone recognises the picture.”
He was silent for a moment. “Do you think that would be possible?”
She released a sigh, tracing her hand in a circle on the skin of his belly. “I don’t know,” she said in a small, weary voice. “If he’s the same age now as he was then, perhaps, but if he has grown up, he may look completely different.”
“There must have been figures in authority who had records,” Rumpelstiltskin murmured, hating the idea of Bae alone, without proper care. It haunted him, as it had for decades and centuries.
Belle lifted her head. “Maybe the current law officers know people who may have been around before,” she said, a new light in her eyes. “If I can speak to them, they might be able to point me in the direction of officials who were here when he came through.”
“If it was even within the last few years.”
She leaned up to look at him. “It has to be,” she said. “The hat brought us here. It can’t have been centuries, because if it was, then he would be gone by now and the hat wouldn’t be able to trace him. He’s alive, and he’s here somewhere. We will find him.”
He drew her lips down to his, surprised as ever when she returned his kiss. “When we go back,” he promised, “every bit of work you have done here will be repaid.”
“You know all I need you to do,” she said softly against his lips.
“And it will be done,” he promised, drawing her down into his arms.
When he woke the next morning, she was already gone, as usual, but she had left him some extra dollars and a list of items to collect from one of the local stores. The note advised him that she had a new lead to follow, and she would try to be back by dinner.
Rumpelstiltskin appreciated the convenience of the market-stores, but often they were so busy and cluttered with people that he felt uncomfortable. All the same, it was a task he needed to do, so he dressed, gathered the money she had allocated him, and set out in the direction of the food stores.
It was fortunately a midweek day.
They had learned quickly about the breakdown of the years in this world into fifty-two clusters, each made up of seven days. Two days, the weekends, were allocated for people to run around and be busy, while the other five days involved children partaking of education and adults closing themselves in buildings to do so-called ‘work’.
Those weekends were the days when the stores were full of people, and those were the days Rumpelstiltskin was happy to retreat to one of the quiet holy buildings or to the forest and stay out of the way.
Belle didn’t seem to mind, but then, she seemed to be comfortable wherever she was.
She puzzled him more, the more he knew her. She was resolute, but she was content. She was strong, but she was gentle. She was terrifying when she chose to be, but also acting out of an intense and devoted love.
And above all, she treated him as a person.
After centuries of being seen as nothing more than a monster, the terror in the night, to have someone who would hold his hand when he was afraid, who would face him down when he was angry, who would kiss him in true affection, was more terrifying and incredible than this new world they were in.
For her, more than for Bae, he was learning to be brave.
His courage, for Bae, was stepping through the portal.
For her, it was stepping out of the inn, going where she asked, walking in this world with her, and for her, he would go shopping.
He made his way to the stores. There were many to choose from, but surveying her list, he knew there was only one place where the particular pastries she liked were available. With a plastic basket in one hand, leaning on the cane with the other, he took a breath and ventured into the bustling store.
It wasn’t as busy as it could have been, but it was still busier than he liked.
He checked the list and started picking his way around the aisles and shelves. His cane tapped on the polished floor as he walked, and he frowned at the shelves. He hated to ask for guidance, but sometimes, something he thought should be grouped in one area would be somewhere else, and it made matters all the more complicated when there were a dozen varieties of the same thing.
He wasn’t quite sure when he noticed that someone seemed to be shadowing his steps. It was borne of centuries of wariness. He would walk a few paces and someone nearby would match them, stop when he did. He looked around, but there were simply too many faces, too many people, all shapes, sizes, genders and colours.
It was probably just anxiety, he mused, returning his attention to the shelves, but still listening intently for the tell-tale steps.
His heart was drumming, but he knew it had to be foolishness. No one had any reason to follow him here. All the same, he approached one of the store-workers in their uniform shirts to ask for guidance, forcing himself to speak calmly, even as his eyes flicked around the shop.
In the aisle adjacent to the one he currently occupied, there was a crash, as if a display had been knocked over, and a yell, then running footsteps.
Rumpelstiltskin breathed with relief, when he set on his way again. The footsteps were gone, so he could only imagine that it was his shadow that had knocked over the display.
It wasn’t until he was standing at the cash register that he realised why a complete stranger in this strange world might be following him around the shop and might flee at the sound of his voice, and he stared blankly at the woman who was serving him.
He might not be able to recognise Bae in this world, but Bae…
Bae would definitely be able to recognise him.
Chapter 12: Prodigal
Benjamin Parker was a normal, every-day guy.
He worked in a hardware store. He had a small apartment. He had two ex-girlfriends. He made his way in the world. He was a normal, every-day guy. He worked. He had days off. He took vacations. He was just a normal, every-day guy.
That’s what he was trying to tell himself, over and over.
Normally, Ben would never have been anywhere near the centre of town, but there was a delivery to be made, and he figured he might as well go to the store and pick up groceries there, rather than going to the smaller convenience store near his apartment.
He had caught a glimpse of the man out of the corner of his eye and it felt like someone had punched him in the chest. If he could believe what his eyes were telling him, a man who was the double of his father was shopping in the store. He was even leaning on a walking stick, just like papa used to.
Ben crept closer, trying to see him better, trying to convince himself that those daydreams, when papa was brave and human and here, weren’t messing with his head. It was impossible for papa to be here. The last bean. That was what he had been told.
And yet, when he was close enough to hear the man speak, it was with papa’s voice.
Ben wasn’t someone who was scared easily. If he had been, he wouldn’t have survived in this world. He would barely have lasted the night. But right there, right then, he knew what terror was, and he fled, knocking a display flying as he did.
He struggled to unlock the door of his apartment, the key scratching against the lock, and he slammed it behind him, sinking down to sit against the door.
He was shaking as he hadn’t in years. It was like the nightmares all over again, in those first five years, when he still clung to the memory of his father. He couldn’t go to the psychiatrist, not again. The first time he had gone, he had believed the doctor meant well, but then words like ‘delusion’ and ‘psychosis’ crept into his medical records.
Imagining his father, the coward, being here would only make them ply him with medication again, and that wouldn’t help.
Medicines only helped if there was a real problem.
It didn’t take away memories of something that had really happened.
Ben, who once upon a time had been a boy called Bae, pressed his head back against the door and tried to breathe. His chest was aching, and it felt like he had run a thousand miles. It was impossible. It had to be impossible. Even if there was another bean, papa was a coward, and would never have used it. Papa let him go. Papa was afraid. Papa wouldn’t come into a world without magic.
It took him a long time to pick himself up off the floor. His legs weren’t cooperating and his hands were still trembling. It would have been so much easier if he were just crazy, if he didn’t know for a fact that he came from another world. At least, then he wouldn’t have to deal with his imagination playing tricks on him, by dropping his father’s double right into the middle of his life, just when everything was going okay.
Not great. It was never great. But it was okay.
He stumbled to the refrigerator and snatched a bottle of beer.
He tried not to drink. It was the easy way out, to forget and to lose himself for a little while, but almost three years without sobriety in his teens had been enough for any man. One bottle would be enough, to take the edge of the panic.
By the time he finished the bottle, his heart rate was slowing and he felt he could breathe again. He sprawled onto the couch and stared at the ceiling. There had to be some logical reason for someone so like his father to suddenly be there. He couldn’t think of one, not off the top of his head, but it didn’t make any sense.
Ben wasn’t a coward, not by a long way.
No matter how shocked and terrified he was, he knew he couldn’t let the question of the man’s identity go unanswered.
He called in sick to work the next day and returned to the shop. Some of the staff were the same ones who were there the previous day, so he asked any of them if they knew anything about the man in the white shirt and jeans with the walking stick.
From what they could tell him, the man was a visitor. He had been in town a few weeks with a pretty young thing who was either his daughter or his girlfriend, and they were staying at one of the hotels on Fifth. They regularly came into the shop, either alone or together, and always bought the same pastries from the bakery.
There was a coffee shop across the street, so Ben took a window seat there. It wasn’t the best way to spend a day, but he wasn’t willing to go knocking on every hotel door to ask about guests. That made people suspicious. It was much easier to watch and wait. He sat there from morning until mid-afternoon and drank far too many mochas, watching for any sign of the man who couldn’t possibly be his father.
And suddenly, the man was there, limping into the store, leaning on his walking stick.
Ben’s hands trembled around his cup.
It couldn’t be his imagination, not twice.
He took out his camera, the spool half-finished already, and waited. When the man emerged, he took several photographs of him when he paused outside the shop. He was looking around, as if he hoped to see something, then turned and walked away.
Ben’s breath was coming in ragged gusts, and he abandoned his half-drunk coffee. He shoved the camera back in his backpack and made his way out into the street, following the man from a distance, until he marched into a hotel and the door closed behind him.
He turned to head back towards home, apologising when he walked blindly into someone coming the other direction. If she accepted his apology or not, he didn’t notice, he just kept walking, feeling like he’d been struck over the head.
He took the camera into one of the photography shops, taking six shots of the shop to finish the roll, then put it in for processing in an hour. He didn’t dare leave the shop, not without the pictures, the evidence that he was either going crazy or someone had somehow made an identical twin of his father.
He sat up half the night, flipping through the photographs.
It was impossible.
The man in the photographs was his father, as he remembered him. The only difference was that his hair was only a little longer, and maybe a little greyer, but apart from that he looked exactly as Ben imagined he would in the real world.
His fingers trembled as he took up one photograph after another.
Maybe it was real. Maybe his father had found another way. Maybe papa had finally learned to be brave. Or maybe he had finally lost it, ten years of dealing with the fact he had been dropped out of his own world by his father, and he had cracked. It would make so much more sense than his father being brave. Papa was never, ever brave.
He needed to know.
He gathered up the photographs.
Tomorrow, he would go to the hotel and ask to speak to the man, and if the man recognised him, if the man was his papa…
He buried his face in his hands. He didn’t know what he would do.
Would it be better if it was? Or that it wasn’t?
His head was drumming deafeningly. Even though he knew it was a bad idea, he took refuge in a bottle of beer, then another, because otherwise, there was no way in hell he was going to get any sleep at all.
He was woken by a rap at the door, and sat up, squinting. He’d fallen asleep, sprawled over the table and the photographs, several of which were now sticky with beer.
Ben swore hoarsely, stumbling to his feet and rubbing his eyes.
Whoever had woken him knocked again.
It was a quick, hesitant knock, as if they didn’t want to be knocking so early in the day.
Ben staggered towards the door, rubbing his eyes, and fumbled with the key and the latch. It took him a moment, and he called through the door to wait.
When he opened the door, he opened his mouth to demand what the big idea was, but all words dried up on his tongue, and he stared blankly at the man in front of him, the man who he had spent the whole night examining photographs of.
The man stared back at him, and his face was pale. He was holding onto his walking stick’s handle with both hands, and they were trembling.
Ben stumbled back a step, holding onto the edge of the door. His legs were shaking and his stomach was twisting into knots, and he was staring and wide-eyed and the man who looked just like his father, his papa, was standing right there in front of him, looking as stunned and terrified as he was feeling.
It was like being back on the edge of the whirling green vortex that had brought him here. It was two people with a decision to make and only one of them was brave enough to make the first move.
The man licked his lips, looked down, then looked up at Ben’s face. “Bae,” he said in a quaking whisper. “Bae, I’m so sorry.”
Ben’s legs folded beneath him and he was suddenly sitting on the floor. He stared up at the man, the man who was his father. “P-Papa?”
Rumpelstiltskin knelt, careful and awkward. His knee, his bad leg, it was back, and he was whole and human again. “It’s me, Bae,” he said, his voice shaking. He reached out one hand, then drew it back, as if he barely dared to touch him. “I came to find you.”
Papa nodded, his lips trembling, and his eyes brown and human and full of tears. “Every moment since I let you go, I’ve been looking for you,” he said, his voice breaking. “I should never have let you go.”
He offered a hand, trembling, to Ben, who stared at it.
He could be Ben, the man of this world, who was normal and every day and everything he had slowly pieced together for himself. Or he could be Bae, the son of Rumpelstiltskin, the man who was no longer a coward. Papa had somehow learned how to be brave, and had come to find him, and now, he could choose what he wanted to do about it.
He grabbed his father’s hand and they fell into one another, wrapped in each other’s arms and holding as if they could never let go. For the first time in more than a decade, Bae felt safe and loved and home.
Chapter 13: The Other Side of the Bargain
Rumpelstiltskin had imagined a thousand ways that he would be reunited with his son. A thousand apologies, a thousand rejections, a thousand different ways that would break his heart all over again.
None of them happened.
Instead, Bae held him, tight and fiercely, and they both wept as if they couldn’t stop.
Belle had been right. She told him that if Bae had seen him in the shop, he would come back to be sure. He would want to know, but without being seen. So he had returned to the store, and she had watched for anyone who might be watching him.
As she had promised, so many weeks before, she had found his son, then stepped back into the shadows to let him end the journey he had been on since that fateful night.
She was waiting back at the inn, and he insisted that Bae come and meet her, the woman who had brought them back together. When they entered the room, she looked up from a book with a small smile, but he couldn’t help noticing that it didn’t quite reach her eyes.
Bae stared at her.
“I ran into you, outside,” he said. “Yesterday.”
Belle shrugged with a sheepish smile. “I was trying to keep up with you,” she said. “I didn’t expect you would turn around so quickly.” She offered her hand. “It’s nice to finally meet you. Your father told me all about you.”
Bae took her hand at once. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for helping him.”
Belle lowered her head with a quick, quiet smile. “I offered,” she said. “He took it without even thinking about it.” Rumpelstiltskin blushed a little at that. “You’re very precious to him, you know.”
Bae looked at him and smiled that familiar smile. Rumpelstiltskin was sure he was about to float off the ground in joy. “I know,” he said. “Papa says you’re the one who found the gateway to get him here. And to take us back?”
“You want to return?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, wonderingly. “Bae, I still have power there.”
Bae smiled at him. “But you know you can go without it now, papa,” he said. “We could be rid of it.”
There was the unspoken question in his tone.
“We’ll be rid of it,” Rumpelstiltskin promised at once. “After we release Belle’s father.” He looked at Belle with a broad, cheek-achingly delighted smile. “We had a deal after all. I won’t break that.”
To his surprise, Belle’s expression wasn’t as happy as he expected. She rose from the chair and went to the window, pushing back one of the curtains to look out into the sunlit street. Her hand shook, and she took a breath.
“We should get going,” she said. “If we get everything we need and get to the reserve, then we should be able to tag along with the last of the tours that goes in.” She looked around at them both. “Unless you want to wait?”
Rumpelstiltskin looked at Bae, who shook his head.
“This isn’t my world,” he said. “I could walk in it and act like it, but it never was my world.”
Belle smiled. “Good,” she said. “We can settle up here, and we can go and buy a dozen canisters of coffee, then head up and find the portal.”
Rumpelstiltskin almost laughed aloud. “You know me too well, dearie.”
It took them less than an hour to gather what they wanted to take with them, bundled into packs, and they set out to the reserve on the bus. The warden who had first driven them from the reserve was the walking guide, and he nodded in greeting.
“Back again, sir?”
Rumpelstiltskin nodded. “The last you’ll see of us, I wager,” he said.
“Oh? You guys headed home after this?”
Rumpelstiltskin looked at his son beside him and smiled. “Yes.”
They followed the walking tour for the first half hour, then Belle drew them back, slowing their pace as if Rumpelstiltskin’s leg was causing him difficulty. She waved the guide on, then led both men off the path immediately.
“Do you know where we’re going?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, looking around.
“I marked the way, the first time we were here,” she murmured, brushing her fingers over the bark of a tree. There was a barely perceptible symbol carved into the wood and he smiled. She always did seem to think a dozen steps ahead of him.
He recognised the clearing when they reached it, and limped ahead of Belle to pull down the brush to reveal the shimmering doorway that would take them all back to their world.
“That’s it?” Bae said doubtfully. “It looks like a mirror.”
“It’s a stable doorway,” Belle replied, gathering the last of the branches out of the way. “It doesn’t need to look like anything more.” She stepped back and looked around at them, and not for the first time, she wasn’t smiling. “You’ll be home in moments.”
“We will,” Rumpelstiltskin said, watching her face. She crouched down over her pack, not meeting his eyes. Something was wrong. He frowned. “What is it?”
“I won’t be going back with you,” she said.
Rumpelstiltskin felt like the world, which had so recently steadied beneath his feet, was flipped out from under him. “Of course you will, dearie,” he said. “The doorway is still open. All you have to do is step through it.”
She was silent for a moment, then looked up at him, and at Bae. “I came through,” she said quietly, “so you could take him back with you. One of the rules of the hat. The same number must come through and go back.”
Rumpelstiltskin stared at her. “You… you did what?”
“If you came through, alone,” she said, “you wouldn’t have been able to go back together. I knew you would think I was coming to make sure you returned to complete our deal.” Her lips trembled into a smile. “You can take your son home, Rumpelstiltskin.”
He limped towards her. “And leave you here? In this world? But your father!”
“You’ll save him and he’ll be free,” Belle said, avoiding his gaze. “That’s all I ask for him.”
“It’s not enough,” he said fiercely. “Belle, he’s your father. Do you think he wouldn’t do as I have to get you back?”
Belle lifted her eyes to his face. He could almost believe she was calm, impassive, her expression unreadable, but the look in her eyes was like a blade through the heart.
“He knows who I am,” she whispered, her voice trembling. “He knows I would do anything to save him. And I would.” She grasped his arm with both hands. “I brought you here, like I promised. I found your son. And now, you have your end of our bargain. Find my father. Take back his heart from the Queen. There is one of her mirrors in my belongings at your castle. Use it. Save him for me.”
There was so much that needed to be said, but not a single word was coming out, and she drew a shivering breath.
“Don’t,” she whispered. “Don’t make it more difficult.” She lifted her hand to brush her fingers along his cheek. “This wasn’t meant to get complicated.” She laughed, a small, broken sound. “It was only meant to be a deal.”
He pulled her too him, kissing her urgently, desperately. “Don’t,” he whispered against her lips. “You’re coming back with us.”
She threaded her fingers through his hair, kissing him hard, drawing every breath from him and leaving him trembling. “No,” she breathed, her brow resting against his. “I’m not. All magic comes at a cost. Everyone knows that. I’m paying.”
“Belle.” His voice was a low groan of pain. “No.”
She pressed her fingertips to his lips. “Trust me,” she said, blinking hard. Tears were spilling down her cheeks. “Trust me. It’s better that I don’t go back. I have a lot of enemies. You don’t need that knocking down your door.”
“You think you have enemies?” he laughed raggedly, catching her hands and drawing them from his lips. “You know who I am.”
She nodded, laying her hands on his chest. “I do,” she whispered. “And you know who I am, Rumpelstiltskin. You know of the fall of Avonlea. You know of the Songbird of Avonlea who stood there until it fell.” He stared at her in stunned realisation. “You know who I am. You know you can’t stop me doing something, when it’s for the good of the people I love.”
He felt like the breath caught in his lungs. “You don’t.”
“I do,” she said softly. She gently pushed him aside and walked to Bae, and he watched - speechless - as she calmly took his son’s hands and said, “He’ll try and do something foolish. Make sure he doesn’t.”
“You don’t know my father,” Bae said quietly. “He tends to do the foolish thing, no matter what I say.”
She lifted her hand, touched his cheek. “This time, make sure he does,” she said. “He’s learned a lot in your absence. Make sure he doesn’t forget it.”
Bae stared down at her. “Why are you doing this?”
“I love my father as much as yours loves you,” she said simply. “This is a small price to pay to ensure that he’s safe.”
“I won’t leave you behind,” Rumpelstiltskin said, forcing words from his throat. “I can’t leave you here.”
Belle turned on him, all eye-flashing ferocity. “You can and you will, damn you,” she hissed, the Hellcat once more in spite of the tears and the grief in her face. “We made a deal and you will go back and my father will be safe.”
“Belle,” he snarled back.
She grabbed him by the shirt, slamming him back against the nearest tree, driving the breath from his lungs. “You listen to me, Rumpelstiltskin,” she growled, her face close to his. “This isn’t about me. This isn’t about you. This is about my father and your son. We had a deal. Now, it’s your turn to keep it.”
“I’m not losing someone else to this world,” he said savagely.
Belle laughed hoarsely. “I’m not lost,” she said. “I’ll be here.”
“Then I’ll come back for you.”
She slammed him against the tree again. “The hell you will. There’s no fairy dust left, and you can’t make the hat work.” She leaned against him, her fists pressing to his chest, all fury spent and only resignation remaining. “This is the only way.”
Rumpelstiltskin’s own breath was ragged in his chest. “I’ll find a way,” he whispered. “I swear I will.” He lifted a hand to cup her face and kissed her, tenderly, fiercely, desperately. He couldn’t lose her, not when she was as much the root of his courage as Bae was. “I’ll find a way.”
She drew back from him, and swiped at her face with both hands. “If you do,” she said, her voice almost steady, “I’ll be here.”
“The coffee house. The table,” Rumpelstiltskin said, catching one of her hands and lifting it to his lips. “Eight o’clock in the morning.”
She nodded wordlessly, then stepped back. “Go.”
“Belle?” Bae approached her cautiously.
She looked up at him, smiled. “Take care of him, Bae,” she said. “Someone has to.”
Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t watch as his son leaned down and hugged her, the woman who had brought them back together, and the woman they would now leave behind in their place, in this world without magic.
“Thank you,” Bae said softly. He straightened up. “Papa?”
“We’ll go,” Rumpelstiltskin said. His throat felt tight, painful.
“Wait.” Belle reached up and removed one of the pendants she always wore at her neck, a wooden star hung on a strand of gold. She caught Rumpelstiltskin’s hand and pressed it into his palm, closing his fingers around it. “For luck.”
He looked at their linked hands, then took the star, snapping it in half, holding out one half to her. “So you don’t forget.”
“Maybe we should,” she whispered, closing her hand around the broken star.
“You said,” he said quietly, “that you weren’t cruel.”
She laughed, tight and broken. “I did.” Her breath escaped in a trembling gasp. “Sometimes, I have to lie.” She pulled him towards Bae, and took Bae’s hand with her free one, placing his hand on Rumpelstiltskin’s arm. “Go. Both of you.”
Rumpelstiltskin’s mistake, he realised, was looking back.
If he hadn’t looked back, he wouldn’t have seen her fold to her knees, weeping, as the hat dragged him back to his own reality.
Chapter 14: The Pieces
Belle was used to being on her own.
For the years when she worked under her father’s auspices, she learned to make the most of company when she had it, but there was a difference in being alone through necessity of war, and being alone because the doorway to her world and her home was sealed.
She had gold enough to keep herself in moderate comfort for a time, though she abandoned the inn and instead, settled in Bae’s small set of rooms. It was barely bigger than the inn itself, but it was something she could at least begin to make her own.
Days passed slowly enough, as she struggled to find something to keep her occupied. There were few skills she had that could be readily used in the real world, where technology and science was beyond her ken. In the end, she went to the wardens of the nature reserve, and to her relief, was told she could begin as a trainee warden.
Of course, that meant creating an identity which would hold water. That was something that she knew she couldn’t do herself, but she knew the right kind of people to speak to softly, pay off, and all at once, she was Isabelle Spinner.
She didn’t want to admit to herself why she picked that name.
It was the same reason that took her back to the coffee shop every morning at five minutes to eight, and it was the same reason that had her sitting there, each and every morning until half past eight.
She didn’t know what she was hoping for.
Opening the door between the worlds had taken a combination of power that had never been put together before, and wouldn’t be again. The Blue Fairy and Rumpelstiltskin had been enemies too long. The trees in the forests were too young. Jefferson had warned her that a world without magic might be a world too far for him to access.
Still, she went.
By the end of the third week, every one of the staff knew her name.
By the end of the fifth, every one of them had her order waiting before she even arrived, fresh and steaming.
By the end of the third month, she no longer felt the need to smile and feign that today was a better day than before.
The coffee shop was the one place she didn’t hide herself. It was the place where her regrets rested. It was the place where she had to face the fact that she was alone, and that no matter how much she wished and hoped, the faces she wanted to see most would never ever be there.
And yet, it was the one place she could hope.
Life was life, beyond the four walls of the shop. She worked. She talked to people. She socialised. But the more she did, the more she felt like she was standing just to the left of the world. She didn’t understand the jokes, the references, mentions of wars past and present in countries she didn’t know, no matter how hard she tried to learn.
Technology came easier to her, but she didn’t like it any more than she liked magic. She learned to drive the range rover for work, but she didn’t like it, especially not after her first fatality in the forest.
The library was her one refuge, the one place where she could almost pretend she was back within the walls of the citadel of the Marchlands. They knew her name there, as they did in the coffee shop, but in the library, she didn’t get offered refills or fresh cups or anything. All that she needed was a quiet corner and any one of the hundreds of books.
It was the anniversary of her first day alone in that world when it all became too much.
She called in sick to work, retreated into the library, found the quietest spot she could with a book, and just sat and cried until her chest ached and her eyes burned and her throat felt like it had been scorched with acid. She cried in silence. It was a skill long-learned. No one noticed, and she stayed there long after the tears had run dry. She felt too exhausted to move.
It hurt more to return to her apartment, with barely any mementoes of those she had sacrificed everything to protect. The only things she had, the only things left, were the pendant from her father, the broken wooden star which shared the chain, and Rumpelstiltskin’s cloak.
In the quiet, empty rooms, she lit a candle, and wrapped the cloak around her, one hand curling around the pendant and star and remembered. She had to remember that it was all worthwhile. They were both safe and well, and that was the most important thing.
She was tired.
Tired of being the Songbird of Avonlea.
Tired of deception and guises and pretending.
Tired of working so hard, and yet, ending up alone.
All the same, she was still the Songbird, and so, she would continue to sing.
Day in, day out, she went about her warden duties, come rain or shine. She earned her keep. She paid her bills. She talked and smiled and knew that people thought her quiet and eccentric, when her conversations faltered.
She did everything a normal person should.
And she also went to the coffee shop, every day, every morning, at the same time.
Even if it was impossible, it was a routine, and it felt right to be there.
For almost two years after her first arrival in the world, nothing changed. The immigration department somehow overlooked her. The tax office screwed her like they screwed everyone else. The forest grew and time passed her by.
She walked into the coffee shop as usual, collected her coffee from the counter, and sat down at her table by the window, looking out.
It was only when she set the coffee down that something caught her eye.
Belle’s heart jolted.
Half of a wooden star was lying on the table on a long, thin strand of gold.
She picked it up in trembling fingers, hardly daring to believe it was real until she closed her hand around it and felt the sharp points of the star prick into her fingers. She drew out the chain at her throat, the fragment of a star, bringing the two pieces together, her eyes filling with tears when the fitted so nearly that the crack wasn’t even visible.
She heard the tap-step-step approaching, and couldn’t look around, not yet.
Not until he said, “I was a little early.”
Belle spun in the seat. He was there, standing barely two feet away. She gave a sob, surging from the seat to throw her arms around Rumplestiltskin. He caught her one-armed, burying his face in her hair, as she hugged him.
“You came back,” she whispered, her face pressed to his shoulder.
“You were waiting,” he murmured close to her ear. “I couldn’t leave a lady to wait, dearie.”
She drew back to touch his face, smiling so much her face hurt, and she couldn’t have been happier when he leaned down to steal a kiss. Her hands were in his hair instantly, and she heard the clatter of his cane and his other arm was around her, holding her just as tightly.
When they eventually broke apart, staring at each other, flushed and bright-eyed, Belle felt colour rising higher in her cheeks at the sound of enthusiastic applause from behind the counter.
“I believe, dearie,” Rumpelstiltskin murmured, “that it’s time we headed for home, don’t you? Your father is waiting to see you.”
Belle’s hands trembled on his shoulders. “Papa? He’s all right?”
“Quite so,” he agreed with one of those quick, devilish smiles. “We had a deal, after all.”
She wrapped her arms around him then, hugging him tightly, and buried her face in his neck to whisper, “Thank you.”
He put his arm around her shoulders. “Come along, dearie,” he murmured. “It’s time to go home.”
“How did you get here?” she asked, as they walked out of the coffee house for the last time. “I thought it was impossible.”
He smiled at her. “I learned from the Songbird,” he said. “As we came through the first time, so we came through this time.”
“We?” She stopped dead. “I can’t leave anyone else here. It’s not a good place for people from our world.”
His lips curled up. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” he said. “I found the perfect volunteer.”
He refused to say any more about that as they headed towards the reserve in her car, though he did admit that he was surprised to find the Blue Fairy not only alive and intact, but amenable to Bae’s persuasion.
“That was a wicked little lie you told me.”
Belle smiled sheepishly. “I had to convince you I was ruthless,” she said, “and everyone knows that fairies don’t part with fairy dust.”
“Unless you ask nicely over tea and crumpets,” he said dryly. “Had I known it was that easy, I would have done so years ago.” He moved his hand to cover hers, squeezing her fingers. “I apologised to Rheul Ghorum.”
Belle looked at him in astonishment, drawing the car into the side of the road. “You did?”
He shrugged, his thumb brushing her knuckles. “I had to get you back to our world. I would have done anything. Bae asked her to listen. She did. She gave us enough to open the doorway again. The hat-monger told us the way to best guide the hat, and your little star led the way.”
Belle’s mouth was open in astonishment. “So when you say you did it as I did?”
“I meant I followed your path,” he replied with a crooked smile. “You left your maps in your sack in my castle. It wasn’t difficult to see where you had been.” He studied her. “Or did you perhaps hope that I would work that out?”
She shook her head wonderingly. “You apologised to Rheul Ghorum,” she said. “I didn’t think that was even possible.”
“I told you,” he said quietly, “I would do anything.”
Belle undid her seatbelt and leaned across to kiss him. “I love you.”
He stared at her, then pulled her closer still to kiss her again and again. “You’re coming home with me, and I’m not letting you out of my sight again, dearie,” he said, breathlessly, moments later. “Now, before anything else can delay us.”
She laughed, retreating reluctantly to the driving seat.
The journey didn’t take long, but all the same, she wasn’t complaining when he clasped one of her hands in his all the way to the familiar point in the forest.
They left the car there, on the last stretch of road, her keys in the ignition and the doors unlocked.
“Ready?” he asked, offering her his free hand.
“Gods, yes,” she breathed, grasping his hand in hers, as they set uphill.
She stopped short when they reached the clearing. The portal was in exactly the same place, shimmering and welcoming, and she could hardly believe it, then she saw the two people waiting there.
One of them was Jefferson, and he was paring his nails with a dagger. He looked up with a half-smile and nod, then jerked his head towards the other member of the party.
It took Belle a moment to recognise Regina without her face all painted up or her garish dresses. She was pinioned with cords around her chest, arms, thighs, knees and ankles, and had a strip of cloth Belle recognised as Jefferson’s scarf tied around her mouth.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Jefferson intoned with a wicked smile. “We have a volunteer.”
Belle stared down at the woman who had not only manipulated and abducted her father, but when Belle had refused to bend to her demands to find information to bring down Rumpelstiltskin, had ripped Sir Maurice’s heart from his chest. Regina whimpered, staring at her, as if she expected a blow.
“Oh,” Belle whispered. “That’s perfect.”
Rumpelstiltskin’s fingers squeezed hers. “Isn’t it, though?”
Belle released his hand to crouch down beside Regina, stroking her cheek. “Don’t be afraid,” she said softly. “You’re going to enjoy this world. No magic. No one who is afraid of you. Nothing that gives you any value.” She leaned so close that the tips of their noses brushed against one another. “You’ll have fun.”
“Think we should cut her loose before we go?” Jefferson asked, pushing himself to his feet.
Belle considered it, then rose. “Your knife,” she said, holding out a hand. Jefferson handed it over and Belle looked at it, then tossed it into the leaves a dozen paces away. She smiled down at Regina. “That’s more than you gave my father.”
Rumpelstiltskin laughed gleefully. “And people said we were not well-suited,” he said, offering his hand to her. “Shall we go?”
“Thank you, kind sir,” Belle said, with a mock curtsey as she took it. She glanced down, lips curling, then stepped over the prone Regina, to approach Jefferson and the shimmering gate. “Master Gatekeeper, may we depart?”
He offered her his arm, despite Rumpelstiltskin’s growl, and grinned at her. “I believe that means we should go before he tears my arm off.”
Belle laughed, and all three of them stepped through the doorway together.
The darkness of the hat whirled briefly around them, then they were stumbling in daylight in the halls of Rumpelstiltskin’s castle. She felt the charms fall away from her skin and looked down at her hands, familiar scars back where always should have been.
Belle looked around, remembering the night she had left the hall. Almost nothing had changed, but for the maps and books spread all over the table, a sign of weeks and months of work and planning.
And there was someone standing there who was not there before, aside from Bae, who was sitting on the table.
The last time she had seen him, he was all but curled at Regina’s feet, and his heart was glowing like a gem in the witch’s hand. He looked older, but that was no real surprise, and thinner, but he was smiling at her and he recognised her, and she crashed into his arms like a lost child.
“There, there, little bird,” he whispered. “You’re home. My brave little bird.”
She looked up at his face, touching his cheeks, searching his eyes. “And you’re back. You’re you again.”
“Thanks to your friends.”
Belle wheeled around to look at the men who had pulled her back. Jefferson was boxing up his hat, but Rumpelstiltskin was watching her, once more the scale-scattered demon man of legend, the Terror of the Forest. She knew him well enough to see his trepidation and doubt, and she knew the source.
He thought himself a monster.
Belle released her father’s hands and walked towards Rumpelstiltskin.
“You came back for me,” she said.
“I said I would,” he replied quietly.
“The last deal?” she asked.
He shook his head, gazing at her. “No more deals. The first promise.”
She lifted her hand to touch his cheek, unsurprised when he flinched. “Good,” she whispered, then kissed him. It only got better when he kissed her too, his hands smoothing down her back, up into her hair.
“Oh my Gods…” Bae’s voice made them break apart to look at him.
“What is it, son?”
Bae was staring at his father and Belle turned to look at him too.
“Does being kissed normally turn you back into a man?” she asked, staring at him.
Rumpelstiltskin blinked those familiar brown eyes at her. He lifted one hand and examined it, then the other. “Oh,” he breathed. “Dearie dear.”
“What?” she asked, worry rising.
“Only True Love’s Kiss, dearie,” he said, a lop-sided smile creeping onto his lips. “I didn’t see that coming.”
Belle just laughed, took his face between her hands, and kissed him again.