Belle was never one for volatile emotions.
Perhaps, when she was very small, she screamed and cried like any other child. But never after her sixth birthday: not after the cleric came to her room, and told her calmly and seriously that emotions were bad, and she would hurt people if she let them out.
Of course, at six, Belle was too scared of the old man – who told such terrible stories of hellfire and damnation – to question.
(‘There’s a demon within you’, the cleric warned, ‘a foul and evil thing. And it’s your duty to contain it, or your immortal soul will be destroyed in the flames.’)
Only her father knew the truth. And, fortunately, only he was there when, at thirteen, Belle rebelled and let herself explode.
Unfortunately, her bed went with her.
(Every time your weakness lets it burn, the demon is winning)
There was a small fire, not even enough to force an evacuation of the castle, but enough to scare Belle into being more careful.
Gaston seemed a good choice, when he came to Court for her twenty-second birthday party and they danced, and he discussed crop rotations – his duchy was very agricultural, and his family heavily invested in that – and the latest fashions – she, of course, as a woman was meant to swoon at that. He didn’t talk of love, or passion, or foolish romanticism. He was sensible, and stable, and dull as dishwater: Belle was safe from herself.
She didn’t love him, she barely even desired him, and together they could keep their lands safe from the ogre invaders, and their home safe from Belle’s power.
Then Rumplestiltskin came to the castle, and the world changed.
Of course she didn’t tell him: who would want a caretaker who was part demon? For that was what she certainly was. Normal, human girls didn’t start fires when they lost their tempers – normal girls couldn’t light candles just by laughing too hard.
And she wasn’t expecting to see much of him. Of course she’d heard the stories: calling for him was her idea in the first place. He was always out in the world, making deals with the desperate and preying on the innocent. He would leave her to clean, and her life would be calm and predictable, the world safe from her.
She wasn’t expecting to care what he thought of her.
He was a good man: she could see that, under all the lies and tricks and darkness. Sometime, once upon a time, he was a good man. Something evil had taken root in him, and she could relate: she hadn’t chosen her curse, either.
She was so used to controlling and ignoring her feelings, keeping them in check, that when – one sunny and innocuous morning in May – they suddenly flared to the surface, she wasn’t expecting it.
She was scrubbing the pan she’d used for their eggs that morning, and the sun was shining through the window, and she was warm and happy, and she started to sing. Belle wasn’t a singer – her sense of tone was sporadic at best – but she was alone, and Rumplestiltskin was off doing Gods-knew-what, and so she allowed herself.
She was humming, and hardly noticed that the melody was one of his. He liked to sing, his voice even further off-key than hers, usually while he spun, and every now and then he’d invent his own.
She caught herself, and paused for a moment. She wasn’t expecting the massive smile that spread over her face, or the rush of fondness that ran through her when she found herself singing his silly, nonsensical little songs.
That was when the tablecloth caught fire.
(You have to be better than this, or you’ll be truly damned.)
She knew he could sense that something was wrong.
She was avoiding him, as much as she could, reading dull books about gardening and trying to keep calm. Trying not to look at him too long, or listen too closely. But he made it difficult: the harder she tried to be alone, the better he became at seeking her out.
So one day, when she was dusting the shelves and he was spinning, she thought herself safe.
“Why do you spin so much?” The words were out before she had time to think, and she was horrified. What was it about him that so thoroughly banished her control?
“I like to watch the wheel: it helps me forget.” He answered, without looking, with such idle, passive melancholy that her heart breaks a little, although she doesn’t know why.
“Forget what?” There must have been something wrong with her, to engage him so. But he was her friend – her one and only, by his design – and it was safe. There was a well of stubbornness in Belle’s soul that wouldn’t allow her curse to get in the way of everything. Something in her life had to be hers. Something had to be indestructible.
“I guess it worked.” He turned and grinned at her, madcap and brilliant, and she laughed. It was a stupid joke, but he was smiling at her, and it was free and easy, and she couldn’t help but love him.
The room grew warmer, and she could feel the curtains by her fingertips start to smoke.
(What’s wrong with you, you stupid girl? Can’t you see your control breaking? Can’t you see the sin seeping through, and damaging the world?)
She tried to hold it in, went back to her work, and he noticed. He got up from his spinning wheel and came around to stand at the foot of her ladder, staring at her like the most difficult puzzle he’d ever had to solve.
“It’s almost spring, we need to get some light in,” she explained, almost to herself, ignoring him because to look at him is to set the demon free, “What did you do to these curtains, nail them down?”
He frowned, like it was obvious. Like ordinary people keep to the shadows and hide from the sun.
She’d be more critical, if she didn’t understand so well.
She rolled her eyes, and hoped he’d leave. With every fraction of her mind, she wanted him to leave.
Her heart wanted him to stay, and talk to her, and look at her as if she existed. As if she was a person, with a soul worth saving, with thoughts worth more than their ability to remain silent.
But she couldn’t, because she couldn’t let him see.
But then she was tugging – with more force than she needed to, because she had to release those feelings somehow, and she leaves scorch marks in the fabric – and she was falling, and landing in a pair of strong, warm, utterly bewildered arms.
She looked at him, as he gazed with utter amazement at the sunlight showering them both.
And she could feel it, the fire at her fingertips, and she grit her teeth against it.
But his hands were on her back, and his fingers wrapped securely around the side of her leg to keep her stable, and she’d never been so warm. She was burning up inside, and she couldn’t even hope to contain it.
His coat caught fire first, and he yelped and dropped her. He tried to beat it out, but the more miserable and desperate and goddamn scared she became, the worse it was.
The fire was spreading, consuming him, and he was staring at her with an expression she dreaded, an expression she saw in every nightmare. The look of ‘what kind of monster are you?’
(Well done, you just murdered the only man in the universe who might have understood. Now you’re branded forever: a murderess, a demon whore)
She could feel the ice of the clerics’ knives against her skin, and their recriminations slicing and piercing her ears, roaring through her mind until she couldn’t hear, couldn’t see anything beyond their accusations, and the fire consuming every inch of Rumplestiltskin’s form.
She awoke in chains, drained and exhausted but alive.
She expected the ground beneath her to be dungeon floor, cold and hard, and the voice from above to be cool, callous, high-pitched and mocking.
But it was smooth and low, feminine, with malice that slid through. It was a voice made of poisoned honey, and it was laughing, “Good afternoon, fire-starter. I was wondering when you’d awaken.”
Rumpelstiltskin awoke on the floor of his dining room, scorched and aching but alive.
Belle was nowhere to be seen. The curtains, however, were a mess of ashes and little bits of ruined cloth. Well, he’d never known his little housekeeper could do that.
She was lucky he was the Dark One: anyone else might have had a little more permanent damage done to them. But he could be a phoenix when he wanted to be, and there was barely even any pain, now. He stood, brushed the last of his own dust off his coat, and set about finding his housekeeper.
The Queen’s guards, stationed in his hallway, stopped him in his tracks.
She wouldn’t send in her people if she knew he still breathed. It was a relief, knowing she thought him so easily dealt with: one more person who knew nothing of the knife.
Still, there were people with swords in his hallway, and that was not an acceptable state of affairs.
They didn’t even see him before the cloud of purple magic surrounded them both, and they were being crushed under Rumpelstiltskin’s boot. Snails were a nice classic, but cockroaches made a far more satisfying little crunch underfoot.
It was sweet that the Queen believed that her guards would stop anyone. If they couldn’t even catch one rogue princess, what kind of chance did they believe they had against the Dark One, or anyone brave enough to seek out his home? She must believe him dead and gone, if she’d left her men behind to claim his castle.
She’d already claimed something else of his.
He’d been promised forever with his little maid, and there was something of a mess that needed cleaning up. True, ‘maid’ didn’t really fit the role she would have to take upon her return, if he intended to have any upholstery left at all, but it would do for now.
Good help was so hard to find.
He tried to lose the memory he had of her just before the flames started: the one of a startled and soft woman in his arms, staring at him and blushing.
He’d never seen her so much as spark before.
What did it mean that the first time his arms were around her, she started a blazing inferno?
That she needed help, obviously. He shook his head, clearing all other thoughts from his mind. This was no different than if Regina had decided to steal his spinning wheel, or a roll of golden thread: no one stole what was rightfully his. Or, at least, when they did they didn’t keep it for long.
He couldn’t have been out for longer than a few hours, surely, although truth be told this had never happened before. He hoped that she wouldn’t have gotten too comfortable with Belle, wouldn’t have thrown up any new defences yet. Especially if she’d seen what to all intents and purposes had been his mangled remains, before the Dark Magic had time to do its work.
The idea of what Regina could come up with to hurt his maid turned his stomach. The Queen had no compassion, no empathy and certainly no mercy. She would know what Belle could do simply from the wreckage left behind, and most likely guess the rest. Belle could be treated as the princess who slew the beast, or as a plaything, a pet, a slave locked in a dungeon.
But either way, Rumpelstiltskin had little time to lose.
With a twist of his thoughts, the castle melted down around him and he was three hundred miles south and west of the Dark Castle, outside the Queen’s fortress.
More cockroaches were left in his wake: he wasn’t one to sneak in the back. Especially when he planned to stage a daring rescue. Anyone who worked for the Queen, who bore arms and was willing to slaughter the innocent in her name, and wear those ridiculous costumes while they were at it, was better off as a cockroach. At least insects had a little dignity.
He could sense Belle before he saw her, and he wondered how he had ever missed the unmistakable pulse of magic coming from her, the little shining beacon she became if only one were paying attention.
He cursed his own stupidity: the Queen had noticed what he had overlooked, and this was the price he paid for being so blind.
The power was pulsing, once more wild and uncontrolled, and growing ever worse. He considered simply leaving his little bonfire to it: she obviously didn’t harm herself with these outbursts, and if left to her own devices it was possible she could bring down this entire stinking castle, murder the Queen before she had a chance to do any more harm and half her staff with her.
It was a tempting thought.
But Belle was not a dark creature, no matter how threatening the strength of her powers, and she wouldn’t want that. The idea of blood staining her delicate little hands was appalling to him: if any killing were to take place, it would have to be by his hand, his magic.
She was in the tallest tower, and terrified. And yet the flames did not begin.
Perhaps the Queen had her sealed in a ball of power, leaving his Belle trapped by her own flames. While they could not truly harm her, he could not imagine that such a situation could be pleasant.
He saw a cleric run down the stairs as he stalked upward: he took one look at Rumpelstiltskin’s gnarled and furious face and muttered a quick prayer, made his holy symbols and fled. She had summoned the priests, and now Rumpelstiltskin was afraid.
The clerics of this land were not the good and holy men they were in other realms, for the presence of two sources of dark magic corrupted everyone in some way. They were self-righteous and wicked, corrupt and intent upon their own ends. They burnt healers at the stake, and terrified villages with talk of monsters hiding in innocently spirited young girls.
If the Queen had brought them in for Belle, then things were worse than he had feared.
If he found that one hair on her head was out of place, Regina would wish that she had died with her stable boy.
He slipped inside the tower room quiet as a ghost, and stopped dead in his tracks
His Belle hung from the wall, head hung, her hair tangled around her face, stripped to her thin shift and trembling. There were little red lines riddling every inch of her exposed skin, a little trickle of blood dried on her cheek. Regina smirked her thick, bloody smile as a cleric’s knife left Belle’s pale flesh, and left a thin band of blood in its wake.
How long had he been out, reforming himself from his own ashes, for this to happen? How long had she languished in this tower, waiting for him to rescue her?
A burst of fire came from her fingertips as she knife left her, a jagged cry drawn from her lips, and Regina nodded, smiling in satisfaction.
The doors burst open, and shattered into a shower of splinters. The Queen spun to see him lounging in the doorway, cruel smirk masking a racing, icy kind of anger. The kind that came right before the Dark One emerged from behind Rumpelstiltskin’s face, and wreaked merry havoc on the world.
The shock on her face was priceless, “You’ve stolen something that belongs to me.” He said, and his grit teeth, the tension in every muscle of his body, belied his casual tone. He wanted to tear and rip and gouge, to tie bows in her blood vessels and trace pretty patterns into bare muscle, to carve statues from her bones and hack at her flesh.
Belle whimpered, and another pulse of power threatened the magic walls placed around her, sending a shower of sparks across the previously invisible surface.
Very gone: with a breath of magic and a snarling grin, the bonds around Belle, both physical – chaining his girl to the wall, and Regina would pay for that as well – and magical, broke into a million sharp and flying pieces.
He caught her as she fell, across the room in an instant, arms back around her, holding her up. She was staring at him in horror, and for a moment he was worried he’d done wrong, perhaps she saw this as a better alternative to his castle. But her horror was blank, a fear of everyone and everything, impersonal and all consuming, and he relaxed.
She was shaking, trembling, terrified. Her eyes looked down, saw the arm around her and followed it up to his face.
Her terror was worse, now, because it wasn’t for herself.
She’d killed him, the last time his hands were on her, and she wouldn’t forget that in a hurry. That anyone feared for his safety was laughable: if she wanted to worry, she should save it for someone who needed it.
Regina’s guards were crawling, scratching insects; her clerics simply turned to dust. Rumpelstiltskin barely remembered doing it, so consumed was he by keeping Belle from bursting, keeping her skin tight over her bones and her power concealed within.
Regina stood alone, facing him, and she seemed so angry that fear was an afterthought.
“How are you still alive?” she ground out, “I have a bottle of your ashes as proof.”
“Of what, dear?” he asked, trying to keep his own temper level. No need to upset Belle any further: he could deal with Regina later, “That I decided that a new skin would do quite nicely? Are you really so ignorant as to believe that a simple fire could destroy me?”
“She is a demon child,” the Queen nodded to Belle, smiling, regaining her equilibrium, “I don’t know what you have done to her, Rumpel, but it’s rather impressive. She’s such a pretty little disaster.”
She leaned forward to pinch Belle’s chin, a parody of affection, and he was so proud of his girl when she jerked her head away and glared.
Regina was wrapped in chains before she even knew it, choking and gasping for breath. He spun his finger, just one finger, around and around, binding her in coils of thick iron, and hauling her to him with one crooked knuckle, “Now, now, dearie, no need for insults.” He hissed, right into her face, and cast her backwards.
She hit the wall with a groan, unable to move, or hardly breathe, with the metal crushing her body. He hoped something was broken; he hoped she was in agony.
He could kill her, here and now, for what she’d done to his Belle.
But who knew when another soul as dark and desperate as she would come along? He needed her, alive and brooding and plotting downfalls, and if her knowing he could not die would keep her from trying while she went about becoming the curse-caster he needed her to be… well, then so be it.
She had obviously thought herself his equal, because he’d never come for her before.
She’d never taken something he truly valued before, either. That she still breathed was because of his need for her agony to grow, not because of any inability he had to simply slit her throat while she slept.
“There must be one servant around here who isn’t currently on six legs,” he chortled, “Lets hope they find you soon, dearie!”
Then they were gone, in a cloud of noxious purple smoke, Regina coughing and writhing in her bonds.
He lay his Belle in her bed in the castle – in the room prepared for her, for when he’d get up the nerve to tell her she could leave the dungeons – settling her and stroking her hair, trying to be soothing.
“How did-” she started, but he pressed a gentle finger to her lips and shushed her. His other hand went to her forehead, and rested there, trying to be calming, drawing the tension and burning magic from her little by little.
“I’m the one person in this whole world you cannot harm, Belle,” he murmured, and her eyes widened, “Luckily enough.”
He looked up and down her body, covered only in her thin cotton underdress, and the cuts and bruises she had were enough to turn his stomach. But they would be treatable, with a little time and care, her black eye and split lip would heal soon enough.
Her right arm, however, made him murderous.
Someone had carved ‘Demon whore’ into the soft skin of her forearm, with deep and jagged strokes. That she was still alive after such treatment was simply remarkable.
“The clerics.” She whispered, “Trying to draw the demon out.” She was shaking, tears rolling down her bruised cheeks, and he tried to brush them all away with his thumbs, but he could not catch them all, “I killed you.” She sobbed.
“You failed, dearie. Unkillable.” He smiled, tried to look proud and happy for her, “See?” he gestured to his unscathed body, but she did not smile back.
“I’ll be gone by morning,” she promised, nodding, still trembling, her tears falling hot and fast down her cheeks, “I won’t trouble you again. My demon is mine, and it won’t harm you ever again, I swear.”
That brought him up short, and he shook his head, hard, banished such a foolish idea with a flick of his wrist, “You shall do no such thing. You promised forever, dearie, and that’s what I shall have.”
“Is a foolish fantasy dreamt up by a twisted soul, intent on scaring young women.” He snapped, and she flinched. Good: she needed that. It was a ridiculous notion that her power could be even remotely demonic: she was just a child, really, a girl with wide and innocent eyes. Demons came from selfish, cruel and twisted acts. Demons came from murderers.
Regina murdered her mother and her goodness died then and there, leaving only an empty and painful blackness; three centuries past he himself had stabbed an ancient sorcerer in a forest, and so his skin was forever tainted. The only way to become a demon, to allow it to rest in your heart and suckle your soul, was to kill someone just as dark and inherit it. Belle was a firestarter, yes, but that did not make her in any way demonic.
And to tell her anything else was evil of the highest form.
“It will kill anyone it touches.” She whimpered, pleading, and how long had she lived with this terrible lie?
“It is a power, Belle,” he said, “A gift, to use as you will.” He smiled, “But gone for now.”
His palm left her forehead, and a small vial appeared in his hand, glowing a predictable red-gold “This,” he murmured, “Is today’s power. Gone. You can rest without any fear of explosions, and I will do the same every day until you’re ready.”
“My power?” she asked, her voice low and tired, “Gone?”
“Yes.” He confirmed, “Gone. For now: it will be fully restored by the time the sun sets tomorrow.”
“You could do that forever,” she nodded, “My demon could leave.”
“No.” he shook his head, “You have to learn. You could be a powerful sorceress, dearie, if you just learnt to control your powers rather than hide them.”
She was trembling again, horrified and terror-struck, but nothing caught fire.
“Not me.” She begged, “No, not me.”
“Sleep,” he urged, stroking her hair, sending a stream of soothing magic through her to take the pain from her wounds, “We will discuss it in the morning.”
And then he was gone, and she was alone in her room. He watched her through a mirror – the Queen was bound in her own tower; there was no need to avoid them just now – as she thrashed for a moment, a lifetime of pent-up energy released for the first time without fear.
Then lay still, and drifted into unconsciousness.
She could no longer serve as a maid, he decided, but then he’d no real need of one, did he? Far better to have an apprentice: she was certainly bright enough, naturally powerful, and trustworthy in a way he’d found was horribly rare.
He could teach her to control her powers, teach her to turn the power toward good in a way his personal demon never could.
When she woke, every muscle in Belle’s body was sore and aching. Her dreams had been awful, dark and burning and full of screaming, of pain and twisted flames. Her flames. Her screams.
Belle never wanted to close her eyes again, if that was what awaited her.
She could stand, thankfully, and though her muscles were stiff her bruises did not hurt as she felt they should. She was thankful for whatever Rumpelstiltskin had done for her the night before: she knew the pain should have been a thousand times worse than it was.
Her nightmare haunted her, though, and she shook all over with the struggle to hold in her sobs, to prevent any kind of an outburst.
She swallowed, hard, bringing her hands to her face and feeling the cuts to her cheeks, the swelling under her eye. There were no mirrors in Rumpelstiltskin’s home and for this she was grateful: she didn’t need to see the damage done as well as feel it.
He had left her clothing, but not of her usual kind. Her blue dress and white heels had been traded for a pair of trousers much like his own, although made from something softer and lighter, and a long red shirt. A pair of boots – soft, supple leather, without the complicated ties that adorned Rumpelstiltskin’s – rested on the floor.
The pants were scandalously tight, but then she was a girl shunned and shamed and broken: surely her clothing was the least of her worries. They were, however, surprisingly comfortable, as were the shirt and the boots. Better mobility than dresses, and – she supposed – better suited to someone of her particular curse.
She found a staff leaning outside her door, long and wooden like a well-polished tree branch, and she leaned hard on it as she hobbled down the corridor.
He had allowed her to stay in the guest wing, she realised, due to her injuries. She was whole, and her bones seemed to be in working order, and she still had a beating heart and air in her lungs. Small graces, it seemed, and all she was granted.
(More than you deserve, little twisted and demonic thing that you are. You should have burned in the fire you started, and your life is not cause to believe otherwise.)
“Ah, Belle,” he looked up from his spinning wheel as she entered and smiled, ran his eyes up and down her newly-attired form with an approving little nod, “I was wondering when you’d appear. How did you sleep, dearie?”
“Ah,” she thought for a moment, not wanting to disclose her horrors to someone not already afflicted with them, “I- okay. Better than I have for a while, at least.”
And she’d woken up without anything scorched, singed, or in pieces. So that was a start. She hadn’t been chained to any walls, either, or woken to a knife at her throat and a smooth, poisonous voice in her ears. Truth be told, this morning was already the best she’d had in what felt like forever.
“Ah, yes,” he nodded, and stood, although he then seemed entirely unsure of why he had done so, “Well, you must be hungry,” he waved a hand and a bowl of porridge, steaming and covered in syrup was waiting at the table.
She stared, wide eyed, and he waved a hand nervously at the sudden silence, “It’s just oats and milk, dearie, nothing out of the ordinary.”
“No, it’s just…” she smiled, and it hurt like blazes, but it was worth it, “Thank you.”
Her first real meal in seventeen days, and it tasted perfect for its simplicity. Rumpelstiltskin watched her closely from his wheel, with something a little like pain in his eyes, like anger and gathering storm clouds. Like rain.
(He has to be like that, firestarter, or you’ll burn down the place and murder him again)
“Do the clothes fit?” he asked, after a long, companionable silence.
“Yes,” she replied, swallowing her mouthful and enjoying the warm slide of food down her throat, “They’re fine. Thank you.”
“You need not continue to thank me, dear,” he brushed off her gratitude with a flick of his fingers, “I have no need of it, and simple food and clothing are no effort.”
“Oh.” She didn’t know what to say to that: did he not want her gratitude? He’d saved her life and kept her safe when he had no reason at all to care if she even breathed, and even now he was still giving her things. Far more than she deserved: she’d killed him, and all he did was smile at her and give her breakfast.
“How are you feeling this morning?” He was staring at her face, fixated on her cuts and bruises, and she wished she could make them vanish, and know they wouldn’t scar. They seemed to cause him pain, and she wouldn’t allow that.
“Better,” she answered, “A little. I can walk and nothing’s burning.”
He chuckled, a small but beautiful thing, “Yes, I’ll count that as a victory.”
“Thank you-” she stopped herself at his frown, caught the words right as they slid from her mouth, “I mean, the walking stick. It’s useful, and I’m glad you gave it to me.”
He smiled at her slip up, and nodded, “Yes, it’s a useful thing, that stick. Sturdy and reliable: it should serve you well as you recover.”
“I hope so.” She sighed, and stared into her empty porridge bowl, her hands coming to her temples to cradle her head, fingers in her hair. Everything was too nice, and she was waiting to wake from her delusion still in her tower, bound in chains and burning.
She could feel the flames, although they couldn’t break from her skin. Her pulse pounded in her ears, her hands and face too warm, glowing orange and umber in the morning light, and she bit her lip, tried not to scream.
(It will always resurface, demon child, you cannot hide it for long. You are marked with unholy flame and everyone can see it.)
“Belle?” He was at her side in moments, knelt by her chair, calling her name although he could only be speaking, not calling, not loud but quiet, soft, gentle, “Belle, it’s me, Belle?” he put a hand on her shoulder, and she jerked sideways, knocking her water glass from the table. She watched in wide-eyed horror as she waited for the crash, for the breaking glass and shards and sharp, sharp glass cutting her skin and all she could do was watch, wait, and pray that it would end soon.
He caught it as it fell, and she watched with wide, wet eyes as he gently placed it back on the table, “Belle, can you hear me?”
“I…” she didn’t have words, not a one, not thought nor word nor action. She simply stared at him, dumbfounded, hands trembling too much to mention and every cut, bruise, slice and graze raw and open, burning fresh.
“Belle?” he reached up, and his palm was warm, soft on her cheek but cooler than what was inside, like a stream of water on an open flame, “Belle, look into my eyes,” she did as obeyed, unable to marshal the ability to do otherwise, and the calm strangeness of his face was nothing compared to what she saw behind her eyelids everyday.
He wasn’t one of them; he never could be. They had been pink and soft, human and weak as she, but with sharper knives and stronger bones. He was green and grey and hard, rough to the touch but sweet to taste, his eyes opaque and honest. Honest eyes, honest face, no more nor less than what he was.
“Rumpelstiltskin,” she murmured, and it opened some kind of a floodgate, and she was sobbing, far, far too wet for someone so close to flames, huge, bone-breaking, shaking and rattling sobs that wracked her whole body.
She wrapped her arms around herself as she sank to the floor, trying to hold her bones together as the pain tried to rip her apart.
Then there was another pair of arms around her, firmer and warm, holding onto her and pulling her into a soft, warm chest, her head against his shoulder. She clung to him instead, like a life raft in the ocean, and held on for dear life as she waited for the inferno, for the cry of dismay and the burning clothing, the gnarled and twisted charring of wood.
And yet, none came.
And the voices in her head stayed silent, for once, because she was wailing and sobbing and still nothing burned.
So she kept going: because when you regain your voice after a lifetime of silence, there is no power able to stop you from screaming at the top of your lungs. He held her all the while, arms tight around her middle, holding her together while she fell apart.
And finally, the storm subsided, and he was rocking her back and forth, face pressed into her hair and soothing nonsense words spilling from his lips.
“Belle?” he asked, after she had been quiet, whimpering only a little, for a few minutes.
“Yes?” she sniffled, and thank the Gods, she knew words again.
“How long were you trapped with the Queen?”
It was not the question she’d expected, but then nothing today seemed to be so. She moved her head from his shoulder and found them on the floor, with her curled across his lap like a lost child in need of solace, wrapped in his now-soaked silk-clad arms.
“I just… humour me, dearie. How long do you think she had you?”
“I don’t…” She broke off, unsure of how to continue. What if there was some kind of a rule that demon children were owned by those they stayed with? What if by killing Rumpelstiltskin she had broken some bond, and the Queen could now claim her? Stranger things had happened, she knew, and she was warned so much for so long about what her demons might create.
What if she told him, and he took her back?
She wanted to trust him, more than she wanted breath or words or food, but she couldn’t. Not when she was caught playing this game, and she had no idea at all of the rules.
“It’s okay,” he soothed, stroking her hair, and he smelled like cinnamon and grass and magic, spicy and comforting all at once, “Shh, it’s okay, dearie. You don’t have say if you don’t know, I was merely curious.”
He had held her and fed her and clothed her. He had rescued her from the tower and tended her wounds. Belle could give him nothing in return but scorch marks and burnt skin, but she could try to trust, just a little bit, just for once, “Seventeen days.” She sighed, swallowed, “That’s how long, as far as I could tell. Seventeen days.”
“Oh, Belle.” That was all he said, just her name, murmured in the softest little broken sound she’d ever heard as she curled back into him, and he pressed his lips to the crown of her head, just once, so softly she might have dreamt it.
Every muscle hurt like hell, but his skin was cool on her overheated limbs, and the pain was dull, aching. Nothing compared to the relief of relaxation after twenty years of tension. Nothing compared to the softness she felt inside, the wet rush of blood and tears and open, acknowledged, fixable pain that came with letting another share her burden.
Rumpelstiltskin held her, and Belle was safe.
Belle eventually pushed herself out of his arms, and Rumpelstiltskin felt keenly the loss of her warm weight, her arms around his shoulders. But she was standing, and he stood with her, and watched as she went about smoothing her new shirt and wiping at her face to clear the evidence of her distress. He smiled slightly, unsure of how to proceed, and she smiled back.
It was weak, watery, false, but he allowed it. She needed to pull her skin back across herself, cover her exposed wounds, and he wouldn’t deny her that.
The scars still burned the flesh of her forearm, and he was caught with the inexplicable urge to run his lips over them, to kiss the pain away and soothe all of her aches, her hurts. He wanted to start with those scars, though, those words carved into her delicate, innocent skin that could prove indelible.
He could apply all the magical salves and treatments he wanted to her wounds, but no matter how smooth he made her skin, the existence of those words wouldn’t change.
They had scarred her, branded her, and even with the slate washed clean those words were carved into her memory.
She was not a demon, not even close, and he would personally squeeze the life from any bastard who decided to tell her otherwise. He knew demons, and all he saw in her was a broken little girl in need of some power, some dignity. He hoped that teaching her to control her magic would help with that.
That was why he’d granted her new clothing: her dresses were far too flammable, far too likely to get caught in things or burn or simply get in the way.
He hadn’t thought about his own reaction.
He was a horrid, twisted, evil old monster, and he couldn’t deny how fetching she looked in her new tight trousers and one of his old shirts. Perhaps that alone was the problem: he may have fitted it for a female form, but her top came from his own wardrobe, and there was certain possessiveness in his soul that was pleased by that.
Her shape was flattered and shown off to a much greater degree, the cloth clinging to curves like a second skin, and until she had had her episode he had found it difficult to keep his eyes on the wheel and off his new apprentice.
Fortunately, her sobbing had removed some of that problem for him, reminded him what he was dealing with.
Rumpelstiltskin liked broken things, he truly did. He believed that the damage done to an item only increased its value, made it new and different and special, and she was so prettily shattered. He had broken people himself, before, and laughed as he did. He had to wonder how many people had fallen into other arms, sobbed as she had, fallen apart the way Belle had done so violently, so easily, because of his own cruelty.
The damage done to her was appalling, grotesque: to take someone with such raw and unique power and turn them into themselves, to create a demon from their own self doubt to devour them whole… well, that took a certain level of pure malevolence that both impressed and sickened him.
“I’m…” she finally looked up, met his eyes, “I’m sorry. I’ll clear this all away.”
“It’s no matter,” he waved her off, and was about to say something about how magic could sort out the mess, she needn’t trouble herself, she was no longer a maid, but she was already marching from the room with her arms full of dishes, and he figured that if helping out made her more comfortable, then he wouldn’t deny her.
He left her in the kitchens, assumed she’d want some time alone after the emotional thunderstorm she just put herself through, and busied himself in the west tower. It was old, underused, but clean and safe like the rest of the castle, and the perfect place to start their training.
He filled one room with books, any book on magic he could find that was neither too advanced nor too dark for Belle’s education. There was even a small fireplace – she could practice using her magic for something useful, he reasoned – and a couple of armchairs.
She would be the only one reading in here, and yet he got two chairs from the library.
He didn’t analyse that: it made the room look more balanced, and that was the only reason he was comfortable with accepting. Balance was important when around one whose powers were as potentially volatile as hers.
A second room – larger, at the very top of the tower – he filled with only two cushions and three massive crates of firewood. Here he would teach her to use her magic practically, and so everything needed to be expendable or non-flammable. Only the two old velvet cushions served for comfort, for he didn’t know how long their lessons would last, and there was no way he was sitting on a cold stone floor for hours at a time.
If they burned, he would summon new ones.
Arranging the training rooms to his liking took a good few hours, and even when he emerged – hoping to find her and show off his work, if he was honest with himself – she was still nowhere to be seen.
He thought of calling for her, but perhaps she needed her privacy. Perhaps she was ashamed of what had happened that morning, or of how he had seen her the night before. She had been shamefully underdressed, covered in bruises and bleeding cuts, and he had had to peel most of her shift off of her in bits and pieces to tend her wounds.
He had tried not to peek, tried to maintain her modesty.
It was his fault that she had been caught, that she felt so terribly about herself. The most powerful sorcerer in the Realms, and he hadn’t managed to pick up on the untamed and destructive powers of one small girl. Her magic should have screamed at him, and he was too busy throwing her in dungeons and posturing to notice.
He owed her her dignity, if nothing else. No matter that, had she been anyone else, he would have not thought twice about examining the damage properly to make sure that there was nothing potentially fatal; no matter that it had been his arms around her that first time that sparked her inferno.
It had seemed horribly wrong, distasteful and shameful, to strip Belle’s clothing off without her express permission. Even though he had to make sure she wasn’t bleeding to death, even though it was for entirely medical purposes, above-board and proper.
Even though he could take no pleasure at all in the sight, with her so thoroughly mangled and damaged by the clerics and the Queen.
If she wished to hide herself now, if she wished him not to see her, to cry and regain her centre without anyone else’s eyes on her, then he could not deny her that.
So he spent his afternoon spinning, and trying not to remember the sight of her that morning, the memory he stored in his mind of her behind in those tight trousers he’d provided.
It was only when night fell, and there was no sign of her making dinner in the kitchen, or in her room, or even in the library that he started to worry. What if he’d left her alone too long, and she’d done something stupid to herself? What if her magic had returned at full strength, and she was trapped someplace in the castle, burning and crying and screaming for him?
He searched the castle the way he had the day before, when he found her in the Queen’s palace. And strangely, her glow – fully returned, but restrained and stable for now – came from the dungeons.
Why would she hide in the cellars?
He appeared in the shadows outside her old cell, “Belle?”
A small sound of recognition came from inside, and he walked into the doorway to find her sat there, dry-eyed and staring at the wall, hands around her knees. She turned to look at him, and recognition – not to mention a little bit of horror – dawned on her face.
“Oh, no!” she cried, swinging her legs over the little cot and standing, “I forgot dinner, didn’t I?”
“Yes, dearie, but that’s not my concern.”
“I’m forgetting my duties, oh Gods, I’m so sorry!” she sounded ready to explode again, and he had to wonder just how much emotion one small girl could bottle up over twenty years of restraint.
“Your duties are to learn to control your powers,” he said, calmly, reasonably, his voice measured and even, “That’s all.”
“You bargained for a caretaker.”
“Circumstances change, dearie: an apprentice is a much more suitable occupation. My magic fed, clothed, and cleaned for me in the three hundred years prior to your arrival, it can continue to do so now.”
“Oh,” she looked at her boots, and appeared so small and fragile it hurt to look, “Okay.”
“You can still do those things if it pleases you, I suppose,” he flipped his hand, negligently, trying desperately to bring back her smile, “But as of today you are relieved from your duties.”
“Alright.” He could see just the hint of a smile at the corners of her mouth, and it was like the sun coming out.
“Good.” He looked around the dungeon, and felt a stab of something that strongly resembled guilt that he’d made her sleep here for so long. How much of her damage was his fault, in treating her so harshly her first month here? That even with a nice new bedroom upstairs, she chose to hide in a prison cell? “Why are you down here?”
She frowned at him in utter confusion, “I needed some sleep.”
“You have a bed upstairs, dearie, if that’s what you needed.”
“A-” she shook her head, “You said that this was my room. I didn’t want to disturb you; I did enough of that this morning, and I needed some time alone.”
He felt sick to his stomach. How awful must she think him, if she believed he would keep her here now, after all that had happened? That she wouldn’t know right away that the room she’d slept in last night was hers to keep, filled with her things and her new clothing?
How cruel must he truly be, without even thinking or realising it, for her to fear him so without his even trying?
“I was…” he paused, thinking, “In light of recent events, this is no longer a suitable room for you. The one you stayed in last night should suffice.”
“A new room? You’d… it’s mine?”
“If you’ll have it.”
“Why…” she was beaming, actually beaming, and he could see the glow around her as the room grew unbearably warm, “Thank you.”
“What did I say about gratitude?” he growled, but he was smiling all the while and even she could see that he was teasing.
“You deserve it: you’re being so much better to me than I deserve.”
He didn’t even try to argue: there was no point. She would never believe she was worthy of so much more than he could provide simply on his word. He simply beckoned for her to follow, and lead her upstairs to the new rooms he’d made for her, the chambers he would have given to her weeks ago were he not too cowardly to apologise.
“Now, no more running down to the dungeons, do you hear me?” he commanded, waving one finger in her face when they reached the doorway to her bedroom.
She nodded, biting her lip to suppress a laugh, and for one brief and horrifying moment, he wanted more than anything to lean down and kiss her, to bite her lips for her and see if she tasted as warm as she made him feel.
But then she was off, spinning in the open space, bare feet on the plush carpet, and he could see the candles burning brighter as she did so.
He would have to drain her power again tonight, lest her joy burn down his entire castle.
In that moment, he would have considered it a fair sacrifice.
It was another two days before Belle felt well enough to do more than sit in the armchair by the fire and read. It had been a peaceable few days, with her powers drained each evening and time to simply sit, to work through twenty years of emotion without interruption and without explosions.
Rumpelstiltskin watched her out of the corner of his eye as he spun; she could tell because any time she would come across a part in her book that would suddenly – horribly, but rapidly more predictably – cause her to cry or laugh or otherwise make noise, he would be by her side in a moment, double checking, making sure everything was alright.
She didn’t have the heart to tell him that there was nothing he could do; indeed, just the fact of his presence was doing wonders for her composure.
She almost laughed for sheer joy when, on the sixth day since her return to the castle, she changed into her shirt and pants, laced up her boots – and really, the whole outfit was so much comfier than her dresses and heels – and felt she could walk entirely without the help of the walking stick.
Rumpelstiltskin’s salves and potions were miracle workers: her bruises and her swelling had receded to almost nothing, the formerly awful wounds and cuts simple scars like a labyrinth on her back.
The words on her arm hadn’t faded away: she was resigned to seeing them every day of her life.
Just a little reminder of everything she had lost, everything she’d suffered through. She barely noticed them, that sixth morning, lost as she was in her joy of being able to walk freely, her shirt chafing against no raw wounds, no open cuts.
She left little burns in the carpet as she walked, in need of his magic to remove her own for the day.
“Good morning, dearie,” he greeted her as she entered the dining hall, “No staff?”
“Don’t need it!” she announced, happily, performing a haphazard little pirouette and nearly tumbling in the process. He snickered, and she frowned at him reprovingly.
“Co-ordination as good as ever, then?” he teased, entirely unrepentant.
“Oh... be quiet.” she growled, and he smiled wider. They’d become friendlier, since he dismissed her as a maid and took her on as an apprentice, even if they hadn’t had a lesson yet. She felt less like he’d destroy her for speaking out of turn, since he went to such trouble to put her back together again the last time she fell apart.
She crossed to the little staircase that lead to the kitchen, and fetched a roll of bread and some cheese. She wasn’t hungry, not really, but she had a feeling today would be a long one.
Her suspicions were confirmed a moment later, “Well,” Rumpelstiltskin said, smiling at her, and she did like his smile for all his rotten teeth, “Since you’re recovering so well, dearie, perhaps today we should forgo the draining and begin your lessons?”
This day was bound to come, she’d known that, but it was still a sickening surprise when it hit, “Today?” she looked at her booted feet, tried not to show him her fear.
“No need if you’re not ready,” he hurried to add, “But we should make a start soon.”
“No, today is as good as any day, I guess.” she said, and it came out a little quieter and shakier than she intended, but at least it was said. “Lead the way.”
He nodded, and she finished her bread roll as he lead her up the stairs, past her bedroom, along three separate corridors, into a tower she knew for a fact was empty and close to dilapidated. Except now it seemed as shining and new as her room, the sheen of magic and Rumpelstiltskin’s care not yet worn from the stones.
“This is the tower we shall train in,” he explains, “Nothing particularly flammable, and if you manage somehow to start anything I cannot solve, then at least the rest of the castle shall be spared.”
It was all necessary, logical, and yet the simple fact that he cared enough to put such thought in made her heart sing.
Finally, he placed his hand on the handle of the door at the very top of the tower, and gestured for her to enter when the door swung open. He followed her inside, and she looked around at the bare stone walls, the pile of wood in the centre and the cushions on either side.
“Your training room,” he spread his arms grandly, “And if the cushions burn then good riddance to the ugly things.”
She giggled and nodded: the cushions were indeed an awful pattern of mustard yellow and acid green. Certainly not what one would want in one’s home.
“Take your place, dearie,” he gestured to the first of the cushions as he took his place on the one opposite, and spread his hands out over the wood. She frowned, but he flicked his fingers and she caught on. She wrapped her fingers around his, and tried not to feel warmer at the sensation of his soft, rough skin on her fingertips.
“Now close your eyes,” he instructed, and she allowed her lids to flutter closed, “And try to imagine your mind as a room.”
She breathed, in and out, and heard his soft breaths across from her mirror her own. She did as he bade, and tried to imagine her bedroom in her father’s castle, the childhood room she grew up in.
She couldn’t: the thought slithered and slipped away like silk in the wind, and she huffed in frustration.
He laughed, “Think of home , dearie, first thought that pops into your head.”
“Right, okay,” she muttered, “Home, got it.” She held the word in her mind, and willed it to conjure an image.
And it did, along with a hundred remembered and imagined sensation, the scent of leather and the spark of magic, cool fingers on her face when she started to fall apart, and an astonished, unbelieving little smile when she beamed with joy. Rumpelstiltskin was all she could see behind her eyes, and it wasn’t at all what he’d asked for, but there it was.
He was home: home had always meant acceptance and hope, safety and comfort, and who else in the world had ever provided all of that but he?
She tried to take that thought and mould it from a person into a place. It took a moment, but when it arrived she couldn’t help a little smile of victory. It was her room the the castle, the room he built for her, with her stacks of new books, her soft bed and deep, plush carpet.
It was the room he had built for her, where he escorted her every night, where she lay and puzzled at his kindness all through the minutes or hours before sleep took her.
Her mind and heart and soul were in that room, because everything in it bore his mark.
“Got it?” he asked, his voice a low little murmur, and she nodded.
“Alright, now I’m going to come and join you there,” he said, and he must have felt her bolt of alarm in her fingers because he laughed quietly, reassuringly, “It’s alright, dearie, I simply need to show you the power I draw from you each night. For that, I need to be inside your mind: simply think it, and whatever you want hidden shall be.”
She nodded, her hands shaking, and he waited a second for her to move around the room of her mind, hide the pictures of her family, the little trinkets of her childhood she seemed to hold there along with everything else.
She wasn’t ashamed of them; knew he’d probably seen them before, but it comforted her to know that she could hide these private things all the same. Some things needed to be hidden simply because they were not meant to be shared.
“Alright,” she said, “Come in.”
He breathed out, slow and deep, and for a moment her fingertips tingled and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, as if a small sliver of lightning were running through her.
And then, suddenly there was a knock on the door in her head, and she immersed herself in the oddly solid dream she’d built, walking to the door and meeting Rumpelstiltskin on the other side.
He was a little greener and more golden, here, than some of his greyer days, his clothing his favourite golden shirt and waistcoat, and - as he crossed the room past her and took a look around - Belle was certain he had a little bit of a limp.
“Is it alright?” she thought, and the words rang in her head as if she’d said them aloud.
“It’s perfect, very well done.” His smile was strangely soft, his voice bypassing her ears and rushing from his mind into hers directly; she was certain that his lips had not moved.
“I ah… I like my new room,” she smiled, because honesty seemed so incredibly natural here, in her own head, “It’s wonderful.”
“And I, lovely, am glad that this is your home.” He swept her a bow, and she puzzled over the new endearment.
He saw her frown, and she had the absurd notion that were his skin pink and human, he would be blushing, “Lying and obscuring truth, mental discipline, is much harder in one’s own mind.” He explained, “And even more so in someone else’s.”
He thought her lovely , even with her scars.
“You look yourself here, lovely,” he continued, gesturing with false flippancy to her body, “No silly little cuts or bruises.”
“Some remain,” she admitted, and showed him her arm. Even here, where all the other scars that riddled her skin were healed, the words they carved into her were fresh and angry as ever.
“Not forever.” He promised, as he traced the words with the tip of one clawed finger, and she shivered even outside her mind, in the real world. “One day they will be gone forever, even in your pretty little head, and they won’t even leave a mark.”
In here they were closer than they had ever been with the physical world between them. And she loved every moment of it.
“And if not,” he smiled up at her, manic and fierce and wonderful, “Then I shall have fun exacting revenge for their sins.”
“I think being a cockroach is punishment enough.” She giggled, and how wonderful it was to laugh properly with him.
“Hmm,” he frowned, a terrifying anger flashing through his eyes, “I beg to differ, lovely. Somethings are too monstrous for a simple transformation spell.”
“Perhaps.” She allowed, and he bowed his head in recognition.
“Now,” he said, smiling briskly, “Enough honesty, let’s see to your power, shall we?”
She swallowed down the dread in her throat, and nodded. To her amazement, he took her hand in her mind as well, the sensation magnified by his physical hands wrapped around her own, and lead her across to another door, the one by her bed which she knew - in the real room downstairs - lead to her bathroom.
Except, when he opened the door, there lay a wall of flames beyond, a blistering inferno that seemed to reach out to her with long arms, to try to pull her inside.
Rumpelstiltskin held onto her hand, squeezed his fingers around her own, and murmured, “You can walk through the fire, Belle, if you wish.”
“How?” her was voice tiny, every part of her reduced to the crying child who set the bed on fire, terrified of the clerics.
( There is your demon, and now it has claimed you, and your damnation only worsens with every moment you leave it be )
The door swung closed of its own accord, and hid the fires from view.
She realised, belatedly, that the voice which shouted in her ears in this moment was not private, for even in her own mind right now she was not alone. It rang as a roaring, booming voice that made Rumpelstiltskin glance about in dismay, “What in seven hells was that ?”
“The cleric reminds me when I stray,” she mumbled, sad and ashamed, knowing that the answer would anger him but unable to lie to him here, “He did it out loud when I was a little girl, but now he just remains in my head.”
“The cleric,” he nodded, his hand shaking in hers, and his eyes flashed a hundred strange and different colours. “You hear this all the time? This is what convinces you that you deserve these words?” he grasped her scarred arm roughly, baring her branded skin, and she nodded, miserably.
“He only comes when I catch fire, when the demon is winning.”
“This,” Rumpelstiltskin gestured to the closed door and snarled, but not at her, at the cleric whose voice was all around them, who had been in her head since she was six years old, “Is not a demon. This is extraordinary power, power that you can use forever, for good or ill, however you choose.”
However she chose .
Perhaps she’d never believe it, perhaps somewhere inside she would always think of this as demonic and evil, and everything that she was with it.
She felt tears rushing down her face in the tower room, mirrored in her mind’s eye, and Rumpelstiltskin stared at her, horrified and sympathetic; his distress at her crying was wonderfully comforting.
He was here , and he didn’t think she was a demon.
How many people thought of him as a monster? How many had warned her every time she suggested calling him to her father, in those dark days of war?
If they were wrong about all that, then perhaps they had been wrong about her too.
Belle had an idea, a wonderful, sickening, perfect idea.
Even in her mind, she squeezed her eyes shut, and she focused on the memory of that voice, of her father’s highest holy man, the man whose admonitions haunted her even now. She summoned him, if only his image, to stand before them.
“What did you do, lovely?” Rumpesltiltskin’s voice was caught between awe and confusion as he stared at the newcomer. Belle’s eyes blinked open, and she tried not to flinch when she saw the dark-robed figure she had conjured from her memories to stand before them.
“This is him.” She stated, quietly, “This is the Chief Cleric, the voice in my head.”
And she felt strong, brave, better than she had in years. Because he looked so small and weak, so human, standing there in the shadows of her imagination, tall and hawkish and yet dwarfed by Rumpelstiltskin.
Everyone she had ever known or loved would agree unanimously about who between these figures was the monster, and who the man, and every one of them would have been wrong.
“This is the demon in my head.” She said, with a trembling strength and a certainty she hadn’t known she even possessed.
Rumpelstiltskin smiled. “Then lets exorcise him, shall we?” he snapped his fingers, and the scowling figure dissolved into a snail on the floor, “Would you do the honours?”
Belle smiled, a wicked and wonderful smile, and slowly, deliberately, ground her true demon beneath her foot.
It was wonderfully, horribly, easily done, and Belle almost collapsed as a huge weight felt lifted from her shoulders.
It wasn’t recovery; it wasn’t self belief or true love or freedom. But it was a start.
“Very good,” Rumpelstiltskin praised, hauling her back to solid ground. Belle kept her real eyes tight shut, holding onto the room in her mind and resisting the urge to peek and see if he was watching her, see if he was smiling in the real world too. “Now, we need to see about controlling this beastie, don’t we?”
He squeezed her hand, and it was so real Belle could almost feel his palm pressing against hers, even though they were only really joined at the fingertips. He opened the door again, and revealed that inferno she had seen before, somehow even brighter now and singing to her.
She shook, trying so hard to be brave now that she had vanquished one foe, but the flames seemed certain to swallow her whole if she tried to walk through them, as he had suggested.
“You cannot fear it, lovely,” he said, “It’s only a part of you like any other. Open your eyes and we’ll be back in the tower room.”
She swallowed, hard, felt her physical body tremble with the version in her mind, and faced the flames once more.
They leaped and danced before her, dragging at her hair and clothes with long tendrils, calling for her to come.
She reached out, one long pale arm, the arm with the words carved upon it, and touched the fire. She did not burn. The flames were cooler than she would have thought possible, warm and softly stroking her skin. The sensation was almost pleasurable, and comforting, as if she was supposed to be in there and not in here at all.
But it was strange, so very strange, and she was shaking all over, caught between the desire to plunge in headfirst and to run far and fast as her booted feet could carry her.
“This is how your power should feel, lovely,” she heard him say, “You’ll grow used to it in time, never even notice it’s there. Tell it to stop and it will stop whatever it’s doing: it loves you, even if you’ve only just met.”
She nodded, shifted her arm in a little further, and almost collapsed, her knees giving way beneath her. The flames grew more excited, dancing and tugging, trying to haul her inside, but she didn’t want to go, not now, not yet, too soon, too soon…
She cried out, once, and immediately Rumpelstiltskin tugged her back so she no longer touched the flames, and slammed the door closed.
His fingertips left her, and the loss made her real eyes break open. She was back in the tower room, the room of her mind disintegrated in moments, and she shook her head to clear the fog that followed.
“You made some incredible progress today, dearie,” he praised her, smiling, his usual endearment back on his lips and the old walls back between them, “Truly remarkable.”
“I couldn’t walk through,” she frowned, disappointed in herself, “I couldn’t make it work.”
“Not today: the first brush of power can be a little… overwhelming. But you held your mind’s eye phenomenally well, for a beginner, and you’ve seen that it is not destructive as you thought.”
“Yes…” she ran a shaking hand through her hair, sighed deep, “Do you need to draw it from me again?”
“I shouldn’t think so.” He smiled, and she felt a rush of something warm and sweet run through her, like relief and pride all at once, “You’ve met it, now, and it’s got to know you. I believe it might try to behave itself a little more now.”
She giggled, and followed as he rose to his feet, “Tomorrow, we shall try to get you out of your head. See if we can’t start a few fires on purpose.”
She nodded, excitement replacing the old fear, and a strand of hair loosed from her long braid fell across her face at the motion.
She watched in wide-eyed surprise as Rumpelstiltskin reached out, and brushed it back behind her ear with one long, scaly finger. His skin - warm and soft for all its rough edges - brushed her cheek as he did, and her eyes fluttered closed at the sensation.
She felt something prickle at her fingertips. The logs in the pile between the cushions started to smoke, but there was no actual fire, and she felt inordinately proud of herself.
“Now, dearie,” he stepped back, his voice higher pitched again, as if covering the tenderness of what had just occurred, “There’re some books downstairs you’ll need to read before then.”
He lead her out of the tower room, down the spiral staircase, into a second room filled with stacks of books, with two deep armchairs and a fireplace. No rugs on the floor, she saw, nor tapestries or curtains on the walls and windows. You couldn’t be too careful.