She always asked for their names.
After they’d gone; after they’d run or been rescued or - in one case - tripped on the stairs and broken her neck, Regina always asked for their names.
He didn't tell her. The girls fell into two categories: Margie and Verna.
So named for the first two girls to come through his door, the blonde and the redhead. Margie was bright and sweet and bubbly, entirely unprepared for servitude in the Dark Castle, and innocent. Always innocent, that girl, even when he was staring down her blouse, even when he was making quips about murdering whole families and summoning demons.
Margie gasped and swooned and wrote long, gushing poems about love and knights and ladies fair. She cried in her room when he snapped at her, and wore long, impractical ball gowns every day of her life.
He was thankful the day her knight came to rescue her. He practically pushed the girl into his arms, and slammed the door in their faces.
Margie was a princess to her core, and a silly, flighty one at that. She married her prince and had ten children, and Rumpelstiltskin missed nothing more than her cooking when she was gone.
Verna, her successor, was another thing altogether. She was colder, harder, beautiful rather than simply pretty, with long flame-red hair and hard, dark eyes. Her dresses were low-cut most days, practically plunging when she was feeling wicked or festive, and she seemed more interested in learning magic tricks and defeating her captor than actual cleaning.
Verna was sly, subversive, grasping. She made her bargain with him to improve her standing, to come out the other side as the witch who slew the Dark One. Hell, perhaps she had decided to become the Dark One herself, she already had the wardrobe for it.
She wasn't rescued: one day, she burned down half the hedge maze and a chunk of the outer wall with a stolen fire spell, and she escaped without a fight. Rumpelstiltskin no more wanted a would-be assassin in his home than a swooning, weeping princess. Margie had exasperated him and, worse still, made him feel guilty. Verna simply angered him to the point of distraction.
After them, there were numerous others. There was Georgia, who was certainly a Margie, and threatened suicide if he came within ten feet of her. There were two Vernas after her, the second of whom, Isla, had wiles enough to tempt even him to her bed more than once. She had been under the impression that she could steal his powers in the night, by cutting his skin or chanting something as he took her against the bed. He had simply growled her failure into her ear as he abandoned all pretence of gentleness, of patience or restraint. She had seen him as the monster he was, and so he played the part up for her, fucked her mercilessly and without any attempt to hold back.
The bitch had enjoyed it, too, since she came back for more night after night.
Isla had waited for him to sleep, and then snuck out of the window, run for the hills. He let the boundary down as she left, half-awake, and let her go. He didn’t want her anyway: she reminded him too much of what he’d never have.
He never took her face-to-face; she never kissed him.
He hated the Verna girls far more than the Margie-esque princesses. At least the princesses had a little dignity, had the grace to be afraid of him rather than slyly flirtatious. Because those who wanted something always pretended to look beyond his scales and his claws, treated him as a man until they felt strong enough to defeat him.
After Isla, he stopped pretending not to notice when the girls - always the Verna girls, always - watched him. He changed his clothing, from the brocade he had worn since he left the village into leather and satin, a coat and boots of dragonhide rather than his old red cloak. Everything was cold when they were scheming, grasping and icy. At least Margie’s successors could clean and cook, at least they demanded nothing but the occasional growl from him. The Verna girls wanted more than that: they wanted to learn magic from him, to spin gold and find his weak spots. When Regina came to them - sometimes before he even met them, as soon as he picked them from the line-up of girls in desperate need - they always agreed to try to defeat him for her.
None of them ever asked why he spun, only how; they never asked why his weak spots were what they were, only wondered how to exploit them.
But when those desperate, truly vindictive few came to his bed - some in white, a parody of innocence, others in scanty but honest black or red - he never turned them away. He screwed them mercilessly, and took advantage of their tender, soft, warm little bodies, willingly sacrificing their innocence to a monster. He didn’t look at their faces, delighted in their screams and wanton little movements, their attempts to take advantage.
The Margie girls were almost always rescued; a few, the ones he underestimated, ran for themselves. Verna’s successors busted out in a shower of flames and noise, big and showy and impressive. He never stopped them, when they left.
He never openly let them go, either, but he didn’t make it particularly hard to escape: they all broke their promises, and proved themselves worthless in the process. He stopped ever hoping that one of them would stay to keep him company, that he’d grow fond of her and she of him: hoping for such things was a little like planting dead flowers and expecting new buds in May.
Regina herself was the worst of her kind, because she was such a mix of both. The summer she came to him, she was no longer innocent and fragile as Margie had been, but she was not the Verna he knew she would become. She was no princess, and yet the Evil Queen was still a ways in her future.
She offered herself one night out of loneliness: she missed her lover back home, had received a sneering letter from her mother, and needed companionship, to lose herself in someone else. He turned her down because she was crying, and he wanted no part of that. A bitter, cynical, twisted roll in the hay with a woman who understood the rules was one thing, but he wasn’t willing to defile a girl who was little more than a sobbing child.
He rather thought that that might have been the moment she started to hate him, when he put her back to bed with a mocking dismissal and a sneer.
He really was a bastard sometimes.
When she became Queen, even before the assassination of her husband, she came to visit him whenever she heard of a girl running from the Dark Castle. She came in all her finery, to ask for her name and offer saccharine condolences. The first few times, he wondered if she wished him to answer her advice to find a new maid with an offer to take her back. Her stable boy had come for her, the summer she was trapped in the castle, and they had slipped away into the night without even a goodbye. Considering all that had happened only months later, Rumpelstiltskin rather thought she wished to become his servant again: anything to escape a miserable marriage to a cruel and unfeeling husband.
He’d feel more sympathy for her if she hadn’t started sabotaging his maids.
She always asked for their names after they leave. When she came and always found him alone, she smiled and sneered and smirked her victory: she’d have appeared to them in their vanity mirrors - he warned every last one of them that there was a reason that there were no mirrors, no clocks, except the one in the main hall, and the one in their room, and that they were to remain covered - and tempted them to try to murder him, or to run away.
She sang to them, coaxed them into vanity to uncover the mirror, and then proposed treason and broken deals. Some she told about the dagger, others were advised to knock him out with drugged tea and poison the magic from him
Their attempts never worked, and eventually he left the front door unlocked and they all ran for their dear little lives. They never thanked him for whatever he had given them in return for their service: they never called out a goodbye.
They had run, and she came to gloat, and advise him to get a new girl.
And even though he remembered all their names, even now, he never said a word of it to Regina. The pretty, simpering princesses were all Margie; the cruel, wicked, would-be witches were Verna. Every time. He called it an homage to the first of his caretakers, the girls who came to him when he had murdered his last maid, when he was new to the castle and the Mountains, and was a fair bit less pleasant than he is now, three hundred years hence. Fresh from the loss of Bae, Margie had at least sung in the corridors and left his clothing smelling of lavendar. He hated it when she sang, and lavendar was an unappealing scent, but it was still so much better than nothing.
Verna had reminded him of what he was, and that he had standards now. So many times he had been tempted to turn the wicked, sneering, biting child into a snail and have done with her, and yet he didn’t. His magic was in deals and small conveniences, and nothing more. His restraint with her cemented that.
Isla taught him to fuck without feeling, because she surely did.
Two centuries later, Tasha slipped on the stairs - she wore ridiculous heels, silly little Margie-princess - and broken her neck because he didn’t catch her. Her death taught him that there was still a flicker of light in his soul that was capable of grief, guilt and remorse.
But when Regina came, and asked for her name, he told her “Margie” as he always did.
They didn’t have names, and if they were faceless and nameless and lost, then he didn’t have to feel lonely. He lived two years alone, entirely and horribly and completely alone, his possessions gathering dust and his rooms growing stale, after Tasha died. He wasn’t fond of her, not of any of them, she had been silly as her predecessors and clumsy, her heels catching on things, prone to tripping on her dress. But they had a deal, and she hadn’t tried to run, and had he been there a heartbeat earlier he could have saved her.
Belle was different, though. He came looking for a new girl, finally, when the Lord of the Marchlands sent his communication and, through his one uncovered mirror, Rumpelstiltskin spied his pretty daughter. She dressed and smiled and tripped on her skirts, and he thought her another silly Margie, engaged to her knight, who looked the type to rescue her. But he spied her reading more than once, and helping with battle strategy.
Perhaps the full skirts and smiles were a disguise: perhaps she hid Verna’s soul underneath.
He came for her, and for the first time in years the princess herself stepped forward and volunteered. And she puzzled him: she did not cry, as Margie would, nor eye him appraisingly and smile as Verna had. She seemed neither frivolous and tearful nor scheming and victorious: she was graceful, brave, and seemed almost genuine.
A new breed of princess, perhaps, with a mind and a soul and a heart all at once. So he threw her in the dungeon, so she couldn’t be tempted by the mirror that always found its way to his maid’s room, no matter where he hid it in the meantime.
She laughed at his jokes with real mirth (Verna smiled with all her teeth; Margie just looked startled and confused), she asked why he spun and seemed to care little about what he did with the gold, or how it was created. She fell from the curtains and he caught her (he didn’t catch Tasha, his timing was all off) and he took it as a good omen when she landed in his arms, smiled at him and thanked him, stood before him whole and unscathed and, of all things, grateful.
She found Bae’s clothing and asked for his story, and told him - plainly and simply - that she didn’t see him as a monster when he accused her of Verna’s tricks. He stared into her eyes (bluer than any sky he’d ever seen, and guileless: the kind of eyes that showed everything and asked for nothing but acceptance) and believed her.
He let her go, and it was the first time he had ever done so.
Had she been a Margie, he would have allowed her prince to save her. But he is selfish, a coward, and for half an hour longer in her company he turned the poor boy into a rose and broke every rule of three hundred years in the process.
Had she been a Verna, she would have pressed harder for Bae’s story, and then offered false and cloying sympathy, taken something more with her than food when she escaped.
But she was neither; she was always and forever and simply Belle, and so for the first time since he had started taking on maidens as caretakers, he let her out of her bargain openly and willingly, and watched her leave without doing a thing to make it harder.
Belle had never touched the mirror: she did as she was told, when he said it seriously and warned that there would be dire consequences, because she was bright and good and, for all her bravery and all her curiosity, she trusted him, foolish though it seemed. Regina had to follow her, catch her on the road, and convince her that way.
Belle returned with a familiar smile, and kissed him quite insane.
When she pulled back, felt his power recede and saw his hands turning pink again for the first time in eternity, he looked at her and didn’t see her periwinkle eyes, her luminous and beloved smile. He saw Verna and Isla, Amber and Shyam and every other girl like them, smirking back in victory. And behind, smiling their retribution, lay Margie and Tasha, Georgie and Alma, the innocent and vapid princesses he had scared and bullied for his own amusement.
He saw her corrupted by Regina, and felt a rush of guilt that he allowed this all to happen. That he deserved for the woman he loved - the only girl he had ever wanted to stay forever, the only one he allowed to leave with his blessing and who came back all the same - to be the one who cut out his heart and ripped it to shreds in front of him.
He thew her out, even after he had realised that she was his True Love and there to try to save him, the only one Regina had not managed to turn against him. He tried to forget that he had ever cared for her at all.
It was, he decided, time to get started on the Curse proper. Because Belle would be happy with her father, would find a new suitor - for who wouldn’t want a wife such as she, so sweet and honest and intelligent, so beautiful in all ways? - And he needed to find Bae.
He told Regina her name, and saw her come up short. Belle was special, for all that she was gone, for all that she was innocent and he crushed her beneath his heel all the same, and she deserved to have her name known. She was brighter than Margie and braver, sweeter, more honest than Verna, and he had loved her so very much.
This he could admit: because when the curse hit she would remember none of his betrayals, and he could start again in their new world. He could have twenty-eight years of Belle and then a lifetime more with Bae, when he found him, and all of this would have been worthwhile. Her kiss lingered on his lips until the moment Regina delivered the news of her death: the first kiss he’d felt since his youth, since before the war and his wife’s smile turned cold, her pride torn apart and her love for him with it.
Regina smiled when she told him of Belle’s fate, and he felt he might collapse or vomit or both.
She smiled because she knew he never said her name again, that had someone asked “What was her name?” after she left him that “Oh? Verna, I should think.” would have been the answer. She smiled because he never saved her from her wretched King, and vengeance was all that she lived for.
She smiled because she was jealous of the girl who got under his skin: the third girl whose name he remembered, and the only one who was truly unique.