Chapter 1: Prologue
The closet was empty, the bed was made with bare sheets. The quilt from her mother and her clothes were packed in a large rolling suitcase she’d found hidden in the attic. Toiletries and a few personal items were in an old backpack with worn straps, also from the attic. Stepmom out. Dad passed out drunk.
Time to go.
She’d put the suitcase in the garage ahead of time, and snuck out as quietly as she could. As the bus rolled up she pulled out the only item she’d actually had in the way of preparation: a ticket to the train station.
Feeling oppressed and held back, tired of being neglected and unable to do anything in her current state to rise above the crippling debt, tired of being told she didn't matter, tired of being tired…she had to do something. She’d get a job, find a place to stay, send everything but the bare necessities back. Anything but the fate they had planned for her- anything but that.
Annabelle French was running away.
Chapter 2: Catching the Train
The bus pulled up to the train station. No turning back now. She wheeled in her cumbersome suitcase and went straight to the ticket counter, passing a stern-looking man at the door. He caught her eye with a look that wasn’t unpleasant, and she smiled. Old habit, she supposed. The man looked surprised, stopping like he’d seen a ghost for a moment, but ultimately kept walking.
It was late for the train station, about 11:00 at night, and the air was crisp and deadly cold, but there was still a group of rowdy young men standing around talking. She didn’t like the looks of them, and frankly, the looks of them were drunk. Security couldn’t technically toss them out until there was trouble, and she only saw one officer a ways away, anyways. Keeping one eye on the group, she kept walking towards the ticket booth, took ten seconds to check the list of trains, and bought the ticket to the train going the farthest leaving in the next thirty minutes.
In fact, she was so concentrated on making sure the boys weren’t about to try anything (some of them were eyeing her in a way she really didn’t like) that she crashed into a man when she turned around from the ticket booth. They both fell with a clatter and a grunt, and Annabelle was immediately stammering out apologies, helping him to his feet.
“I- I’m so sorry! I couldn’t- I mean- I- Are you alright?” She reached out a hand to help the man up. He had light brown hair and a sharp nose, sporting a long coat and a scarf- the same man she’d smiled at before.
Annabelle bit her lip as she helped him to his feet, still stammering to apologize.
“I’m fine, dearie.” The man said as he stood, speaking with a Scottish accent that gave a dark timber to his voice. Annabelle picked up the bag he’d dropped and handed it back to him. “Really, I’m fine. You’re the one who’s pale as a ghost.” He took in her appearance for a minute before it registered.
“You… smiled at me,” he said, almost confused. A second later his expression went from confused to utterly shocked. “Nobody ever does that.”
She was about to say something, but at that moment Annabelle noticed his ticket on the floor.
“Oh- here.” She picked it up and gave it to him, noticing that he seemed to be taking the same train, albeit first class. Last minute, cheap tickets were definitely not first class. He must have seen that the ticket in her hand matched.
“Going my way?”
“Sort of,” she said with a shrug. Honestly, she didn’t know where she was going.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, “if you’re feeling guilty about knocking into me, why don’t you come sit and wait on the train, and engage an old cripple in conversation.”
What could it hurt? Annabelle gave a half-grin and followed him to some benches on the side of the terminal.
“What’s your name?”
“Annabelle,” she said. “And you?”
“Gold.” He was obviously not willing to give a first name.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Gold.” She extended her hand and he shook it in a business-like fashion.
“So… what’s a girl like you doing out in New York late at night?” He asked, taking a seat. He didn’t send off any immediate warning bells. Mr. Gold was obviously wealthy, though- he had a pristine black wool coat that looked brand new, and a suit was visible underneath that, making a stark contrast to Belle’s old leather trenchcoat that was three sizes too big, and her warm but coarse-knit scarf.
“Same as you, I guess- catching the train.”
“Fair enough.” They were silent for a minute, and Belle considered her destination. It was south, and there were several stops along the way.
“Are you going far?” she asked, for lack of a better topic.
“Oh, far enough. I come up here for business, but I’ll be glad to get out of the bloody city as soon as possible.” Despite herself, Annabelle laughed.
“Seems like that’s one thing we have in common.”
“Most people want to come to New York. We’re getting out of it.”
An interesting thought. The girl had a point, really- he had his own reasons for wanting to get away from the big apple, but he was curious about hers. Why? Perhaps because it was late and he was curious. Perhaps because she was alone and she’d crashed into him. In reality, though, he knew it was because she smiled at a lonely man in the train station, something that was not just unusual, but impossible. Everyone else was too afraid, even if they didn't know why. Before he could respond to her comment, a voice came over the speaker announcing that their train had arrived in the station.
“I suppose we should go.” Annabelle stood, taking her case in hand and shouldering her bag.
“I suppose.” He looked her over a second. The girl looked like she was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. Someone so young shouldn’t look that way- granted, she wasn’t a teenager any longer, that was evident… but she’d seen far more than her share, he was sure of it.
“It was… nice meeting you,” she said, turning to go.
“Nice meeting you, too, Belle.”
“Annabelle,” she corrected.
He shrugged and went off in a slightly different direction.
“Alright, Sydney,” Gold whispered, “Put Maleficent on.”
The man with the cane sat in an empty dining car around midnight, whispering to a disembodied face in an ornately crafted mirror. The face arched an eyebrow disapprovingly.
“You know she doesn’t like it when you call her that.”
“And I don’t like it when she calls me Rumple. Now, if you’ll please do your job and connect me.”
“Alright! Alright! Geez…” the man grumbled. For a mirror operator he was quite finicky. His face faded away into the scene of a cozy-looking house. Mr. Gold knew very well that it sat on the Eastern seaboard, and it was late there as well. Melissa (also known as Maleficent, the Dragon Enchantress, or Dragon Lady among those with… special qualities) wouldn’t be happy with him.
“Rumple, you do realize what time it is, do you not?” A disembodied voice came from the mirror, and a second later a blonde woman with her hair in curlers came into view, knotting a bathrobe over her nightgown. She picked up a glass of water on the table (he was probably looking out her vanity mirror) and sipped as she talked.
“Do not call me Rumple, Melissa.”
“Would you prefer Rumpelstiltskin?”
“No.” he said firmly. She rolled her eyes.
“Fine. But I hardly think you’re in any position to tell me otherwise, Robert. What did you want?”
“I found someone.”
“Oh, good!” she said, clapping her hands together with glee. “When’s the wedding?” Mr. Gold rolled his eyes.
“Don’t start with me, Maleficent. This is important.” That woman was always rubbing him raw about getting married. She chose to ignore the Maleficent quip… this time.
“It must be, if you’re risking talking to me on a train.” She rubbed her eyes- they had red circles around them, like she’d been sleeping with cucumbers over them again. He’d never understood that. “So go on. What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong is that she looks like she’s been steeping in a magical brew-pot for a hundred years!” he whispered harshly, his accent thickening. She let out a loud laugh, and for once Gold was glad he had the option to control the volume on his side of the reception.
“That’s impossible. Anyone leaking that much magic must have come from our time. How could she stand all that pent-up magical energy without it nearly killing her?”
“If I knew that I wouldn’t be calling you, now would I? I don’t even think she knows she’s got it.” This was becoming almost annoying, but better Melissa than Regina any day, and he couldn’t get through the dark magic filters on Azura and Beryl’s mirrors.
“Fair point,” she said with a shrug, taking a drink of water. “But how could she not know? Did she make any moves when she saw you? You would think she’d be able to notice you’re brimming with dark magic.”
“That’s what tipped me off. She smiled at me.”
The mirror was suddenly sprayed with water, and coughing noises came from the other end. Mr. Gold wrinkled his nose, thankful that this wasn’t also a mirror meant for travel- he might have gotten very wet in a very unfortunate way.
Melissa wiped off the mirror and continued talking, though still coughing through her speech.
“That’s-” coughing “impossible! It doesn’t-” more coughing “work that way!”
“Yeah, you think I don’t know that?” Gold said, allowing her to catch her breath. “She should have seen me and gone running for the hills instinctually, whether she was aware of her magical abilities or not. You know as well as I do that even most people without magical potential don’t like to be around us for too long, and those with it avoid us like the plague. She doesn’t even seem to notice the difference, and I can’t see her future either. I’ve turned it over and over, but I can’t figure out what it means except maybe... maybe she’s supposed to be doing something important, and I’m not supposed to know about it.” He set the mirror on the table, head in his hands.
Maleficent leaned back in her chair, resting her chin on her hand in an excellent interpretation of “The Thinker.” She stayed like that for a long while.
“You can’t see her?”
“I think you’re right. The magic would have made itself known unless it simply wasn’t supposed to show itself,” Maleficent finally concluded. “There are a lot of unbroken curses and unfinished quests out there, Robert. She could be meant for any one of them, but… am I right in saying that you can’t read your own future?”
“Yes.” That was the limit to his talent- everyone’s future except his own. Normally he didn’t mind, but some days it would be nice to know. He picked up the mirror again so she could see his face.
“What if she’s so seriously entwined in your future that you can’t see hers?” she asked. “Is that possible?” Melissa wasn’t very acquainted with predictive magic. Transformative magic was her natural aptitude; all she knew about seeing the future came from Rumpelstiltskin.
On the other end of the line, Gold nearly dropped his mirror. Yes, that was entirely possible. That was how he’d known his first wife was leaving him, actually (the relationship hadn’t been very healthy, except for raising his son). That was how he’d known Bae was renouncing his magic and moving out.
“Yes.” He said softly. “Yes, that’s quite possible.” Melissa nodded.
“What’s her name?”
Melissa turned white as a ghost, though her expression shifted only by minuscule proportions.
“And that’s what she goes by?”
“Yes- she’s rather insistent on it. Why?”
“Just asking.” The answer was falsely nonchalant, because the Dragon Enchantress seemed to relax. “Well, we’ve now drastically cut into my sleep. Goodnight, Rumple.”
The mirror was reflective again.
As soon as she hung up with Robert, Melissa placed a call to Regina Mills, who lived out in an old California home. It was only 10PM there, thank goodness, as Regina was a night owl but didn’t take to being woken at all hours by mirror calls. She really just wanted to rub it in the Evil Queen’s face, but she also wanted to figure out whose side to be on in this little scuffle. If this was building to what she thought it was, sides would become a necessity in the near future, and she wanted to be in the know.
“Ah, Melissa. So good to see you.” The black-haired woman was braiding her locks into a thick rope hanging over her shoulder, and sported her characteristic blood-red lipstick, even late at night.
“Hello.” She said curtly. This was a business call, nothing more.
“How can I help you?”
“Frankly, you can’t, but as I might need you to in the future, I have some information you might find interesting.”
“And what’s that?”
“You know that curse you put on dear Rumple a couple thousand years back?”
“Yes. Why? Don’t tell me bastard’s finally broken it!” she laughed, cold and confident, but the blonde witch on the other end didn’t even crack a smile. Regina immediately sobered. “Don’t tell me he broke it,” She said seriously.
“He found a girl.”
“A girl? One girl? He must have gone through hundreds of the wretched, frail little things. What makes you think this one is the right one?”
“She’s… peculiar. I don’t know exactly how.” It was a lie, but Melissa was one to twist any situation to her advantage. They all were, truly. “But her name is Annabelle.”
The Evil Queen’s face remained blank.
“Annabelle.” Maleficent said, more firmly. Still no recognition. “You do remember which fairy tale you based that curse off of, do you not? Or is your memory getting spotty?”
“Of course I do! The Beauty and the Monster story.”
“Well, Regina, I’d like to inform you that, in France, ‘Belle’ means ‘beautiful.’ Beauty isn't much of a stretch from that, don't you think?”
Regina’s jaw dropped.
Chapter 3: Welcome Home
Around 1AM, when Annabelle was too exhausted and scared to sleep, there was a knock at the door to her small compartment.
“Yes?” she asked, poking her head out. A man stood with a folded piece of paper.
“Message for you.” He promptly handed her the paper and walked away.
Why don’t you come up to the dining car for a chat?
Annabelle seriously considered crumpling up the note.
However, she couldn’t sleep, they still had several hours left on the train, and her book just wasn’t doing a splendid job of easing her mind, so she went. Earlier that evening the leather trenchcoat had been shed and hung on the door, leaving an old pair of jeans and a sweater with sleeves long enough to cover most of her hands underneath. There was no point in changing clothes to sleep- she’d decided to travel in these until she got to… well, wherever she was going.
Stepping between train cars in the frosted night air was not by any means a pleasant experience, but she made it to the dining car without any trouble, finding its sole occupant sitting with a book at a table with his back to her, cane hooked on the chair. He turned when he heard her footsteps.
“Ah, hello again.” He beckoned her over and she sat in the seat across from him. A pot of coffee was on the table, along with two mugs. He poured her some and she sipped it black, wanting to feel the heat and taste the bitterness that meant reality more than she liked the actual drink. “I told them not to wake you if you didn’t answer on the first knock, but I was hoping you’d be awake.” He continued, sitting down the pot.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she admitted with a shrug.
“Nor me. It’s hard to sleep when you’ve got a load on your mind.”
“Agreed.” She said quietly, not wanting to take the subject further. Mr. Gold seemed nice enough, but he really sent off a few warning bells. He closed his book, and she quickly took in the title- an old classic, The Call of the Wild. It made her smile to remember- her mother had loved it. Mr. Gold caught her glance with a curious look.
“You like Jack London?” he asked. Annabelle blushed.
“Well- er- not exactly. I mean, I read it, and the writing is respectable, but… it reminds me of someone else...” she trailed off, not quite willing to talk about her mother. She’d left New York with Belle a long time ago, after the divorce, and soon after… but that wasn’t worth dwelling on. Gold’s face fell, but only slightly.
“I suppose he isn’t the most flamboyant of writers,” he admitted with a slight sigh. Gold had always thought the man was severely under appreciated by most of the populace.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Belle said, “he’s a fine author, his writing is excellent, he’s just a bit... frankly he’s a bit depressing.” Perhaps there was hope for this girl after all. “In the way of classics I’m just… Well, honestly, I’m a sucker for Alexander Dumas.” She shrugged sheepishly.
“Ah, so it’s romance- swept off your feet by a wealthy count.” He settled back into his chair. Typical of a woman, he supposed, even a magical one.
“Edmond Dantes is an old friend of mine,” she conceded with a slight smile, “but I much prefer the company of Athos.”
“Not D’Artagnan?” he asked, merely curious. Most people seemed to simply remember D’Artagnan and Porthos, regardless of the importance of Aramis and Athos to the story. Either that, or they remembered D’Artagnan, Porthos, “that guy who was married to the evil lady,” and “that other guy.”
“No, not D’Artagnan.” Annabelle smiled at him. Again with the smiling- what was up with that? What had he done to deserve a smile from such a girl?
“Honestly, even though D’Artagnan is the main character, it’s incredibly obvious that the book isn’t truly about him. The thing about Dumas is that he gives his characters this human depth that I haven’t been able to find in anything else, and his writing is so riveting that it just… it takes you away.” She looked down at the table, drawing a pattern of spirals with her finger as she was apt to do when she talked, especially when reluctant to look her conversational companion in the eye. “It’s nice to be taken away sometimes.”
“That it is.” He took a sip of his coffee. No one had been this honest with him in a long time, about books or otherwise. Nobody liked to converse with the cranky old miser, he supposed, though the dark magic did do quite a bit of warding off for him… but the girl didn’t know him. She would find out soon enough.
No she wouldn’t.
What was he thinking?
She was a companion for a train ride.
That was it.
But a companion that looked as if she’d been accumulating magic for ten times the time she’d been alive.
A companion that probably needed to be monitored before it drive her insane.
The discussion continued for a long while after that, wrapping all the way around the book department (looping from classics into modern literature and back around again) and into music (Annabelle seemed to like nearly everything, though Gold was partial to the orchestra) and the arts (mutual appreciation, though Annabelle knew more about theatre and Gold knew more about paintings and such). It even branched into history a little, though in this area Annabelle was more of a listener than a talker. All throughout both parties were extremely careful not to divulge any information about their personal lives, except the occasional vague reference. Basically, enough to make Annabelle think that Mr. Gold was likely a wealthy businessman of some sort, and enough to make Mr. Gold think that Annabelle was running away from problems at home.
His eyes fell on her arm, drawing circles over the table. It was the first time he’d been able to get a good look at her. Annabelle’s hair was a dark brown and mildly curly with almost a reddish tint near the ends, and she had blue eyes, though they were rimmed by dark circles. Her entire face seemed to scream that she was tired and overworked, and he noticed a certain stiffness to the way she was sitting that implied she was sore as well.
Dripping magic and still sore. It was so innate it wasn’t even healing her the way it should, and thick enough that he could feel it, like a cloud of static electricity around her, and if his kind of magic got too close… ZAP!
Her clothing was worn- she obviously wasn’t a wealthy person, and yet she’d paid in cash for her ticket. It was coach class, yes, but still… in cash, and in the middle of the night. As she kept up her circles, the sleeve of her slightly too-big sweater would pull up, revealing a puckered pink and white streak running along the back of her hand and, he presumed, up her arm. Scar tissue.
“Where are you going?” Mr. Gold asked suddenly, causing Annabelle to stop her circling and look up. One thing she’d had time to do was concoct a cover story.
“Visiting family down south,” she said confidently. One of her best skills was lying, as much as she wished she didn’t need it.
“What family?” he prodded.
“My mother.” Her tone was suddenly cold and detached. It wasn't a total lie, not technically… but she couldn't bring herself to lie about such a subject as her mother. It was too... too painful.
“Ah. And how old is she, your mother?”
“Fifty-seven.” At this point, Gold had noticed the change in her tone, unsure what it meant. He paused for a moment, trying to weigh his words.
“Annabelle, then. Tell me the truth.” He gazed at her squarely. Annabelle's expression remained carefully composed, but her face was pale.
“That is the truth.”
“Don’t play games with me, lass. You’re running. I saw you- you bought the first ticket to as far away as you could get in the middle of the night, and that isn’t supposed to raise suspicion? You’re too thin, and honestly, you look like you’ve been dragged through a bloody thunderstorm with those dark circles under your eyes. How old are you?”
“Twenty-four. Old enough to manage on my own.” She said, her words like poison.
“Ah. That’s an awful lot of cash for a twenty-four year old. Now, I highly doubt you’re a bank robber on the run, but I wonder what the police might think of that?” he said. The stupid Scot had called her bluff. She wouldn’t let the police find her- it would just mean more lawsuits and probably prosecution for her family, and then she would really have nowhere to go. Yes, she felt bad about taking the money for a train ticket, but she needed something to get her started, and she wasn't worried for herself as much as her father if the police became involved.
“What do you want?” Belle gave up, throwing her hands up briefly.
“I want to make a deal,” Gold said. Her brow furrowed, but she gave the impression she was listening, so he continued. “You can come with me if you like. I need a caretaker- it’s a live-in job and the pay is decent.” She hesitated for only a moment.
“Because I need someone who won’t quit after the first month, and you obviously need somewhere to go. You stay, I don’t ask questions, we’re both happy. Deal?” The man held out his hand, but Annabelle wasn’t done questioning him yet.
“No, but why me? Why not someone you know better?” she asked. He dropped his hand with a slight sigh.
“Because you’re running, and you’re alone. Because you bought the first ticket you could, so this wasn’t planned. I don’t know what your plans were once you got to wherever, but they probably didn’t include room and board. And because you’ve got scars that you’re obviously trying to hide.” Ok, there’s one for him. Annabelle eyed him warily.
“How do I know you’re not a pervert?” she asked, and was rather justified in doing so, she thought. He obviously wouldn’t say he was (that would be stupid), but he might give a tip off or something. Rather than look around shadily, though, he laughed merrily and patted his cane.
“I’m forty-five and I walk with this, dearie. Even if I were, do you think you’d have any trouble running? Also, I’ve been sitting in an empty train car with you for an hour, and what have we been doing? Discussing literature.”
“I don’t even know your name.”
“I told you all you need to know.” He raised an eyebrow. She seemed to be considering the offer.
“How long?” She asked, unsure if he was trying to help her or blackmail her.
“Six months. That’s all. After that you’re free to go or stay as you please.” It wasn’t unreasonable- he wanted to monitor her for a while, not imprison her.
“What’s the pay like?”
“Are you really in a position to be asking that?” He countered.
“Unfortunately, yes.” She said quite seriously. Belle hated to ask, and she knew she should be happy to have an offer… but the whole point was to get them out of that debt. Her stepmother was a responsible woman, even if her father wasn’t. She’d left a note to send home checks to her, and she would use them towards paying off what he father seemed to use towards liver cancer.
“Interesting,” Gold said, contemplating. So desperate that she could afford not to be desperate. “It pays well, if you consider room and board- roughly twenty thousand a year, along with medical benefits, and you get one day off every month. You do have a social security number, I take it?”
“Yes.” That meant she’d get ten thousand… it was more than she would get working at a fast food place, plus she could send every cent home if she needed to. It wouldn’t make a huge dent in the debt back home, but it would be a start.
On the other side of that, she seriously didn’t want to be caught by the police with a large wad of stolen cash. Granted, it was stolen from her drunken father’s liquor fund, but it still wouldn’t look good and it would rouse suspicion.
“So, what’ll it be?” he asked, expectant.
“Take it or leave it.” He held out his hand.
“Deal,” she said, giving it a firm shake.
The train ride that night had taken them as far south as the border of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. From there they’d hopped trains all day long, and it was nearly time for the sun to let on the following day before they reached Mr. Gold’s home, tucked away in a secluded area of the Blue Ridge mountains.
“Here we are,” Gold said, pulling up in front of a very large, very old-looking house. It was a beautiful place- two stories and what was probably an attic, large and square-looking, and sitting a ways back from the road. Not that there were many houses in this area, anyways. The outside of the house was dark wood siding with black shingles, and almost all the windows seemed to be made out of stained glass in various patterns and colors. According to Mr. Gold the grounds covered about four acres, though not all of it was used and about a quarter of it was purely woods. He opened Annabelle’s car door and led her up the walk, bags and all.
It was early February, and though it was further South, it would be just as cold (if not colder) as New York here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Soon enough there would even be snow, according to Mr. Gold.
“Alright, your duties include cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the grounds nearest the house. I only have three rules,” he spoke in monotone, thinking that somehow all of his previous housekeepers had managed to break them, “One, don’t ask questions about the size of the house. Two, you’re allowed everywhere except the West Wing. Three,” and at this, he turned around to look at her. Annabelle almost crashed into him. “For god’s sake, please don’t try to run away. There are the things of nightmares in these woods, and I don’t want you killed. Got it?”
“Got it,” she nodded, cutting her eyes warily towards the woods.
“Oh, there’s no need to worry so long as the sun’s out,” he said, unlocking the door. “But I had a nasty incident once.”
Annabelle swallowed hard. She wasn’t sure this was such a good idea after all. It wasn’t so much the things in the woods that scared her, but Mr. Gold’s nonchalance about that “incident,” and the idea that someone would want to leave so badly that they had to run away…
She followed him inside and up two flights of stairs, which came to a halt in a long hallway with several rooms. On the inside, there was still stained glass everywhere- in room dividers, on low glass-topped tables- and ornate furnishings seemed to adorn every room. The walls were covered with wood paneling in some places, plaster in some, and brick in others, and she’d counted four fireplaces, fully functional by the looks of them. It was beautiful, but the whole place seemed oddly empty.
It also seemed oddly big. As in, it shouldn’t be this big of a house by the looks of the outside… by several thousand feet.
“This is your room.” Gold opened the door to a medium-sized bedroom. Honey-colored wood paneling adorned the floor, with a white rug in front of a soft bed. Because it was on the third floor, the roof sloped from one side to the other, but Annabelle hardly minded. There was a wardrobe, a nightstand, a dresser, a desk, and a chair in the way of furniture, all with the same ornately carved look that the rest of the house sported. A door to the side led to a small bathroom.
It was infinitely better than anything she’d had back home.
Best of all, there was a large, circular, stained glass window of a rose bud on the far wall. She must have looked extremely pleased, or astonished, or possibly both, as Gold smiled slightly at her reaction.
“I’ll leave you to unpack. You start tomorrow. Goodnight, Belle.” He started to close the door, but her voice stopped him.
“Why do you insist on calling me Belle?” she asked. Honestly, he didn’t know. It was like it just… stuck, from somewhere deep inside his mind.
“It suits you.”
Belle woke early, if you could call it “waking.” She hadn’t really gotten enough sleep for it to be considered waking. She pulled the sheets and her added quilt neatly back into place, changed clothes, and found a note on the other side of her door.
Meet me downstairs for breakfast at 7.
Alright. Fine. It was 5:30-ish now, so there wasn’t any point in rushing. However, she supposed it might be nice to take a look around the kitchen and get her bearings. She was supposed to be cooking, wasn’t she? It really wasn’t much different than at home- her stepmother would be working late or out late, and Annabelle would be the first one awake. She walked down the stairs and towards the area where she’d seen a dining room before. The house was eerily silent, but she found the kitchen easily enough.
The room, like the rest of the house, was huge compared to what Annabelle was used to. The cabinets and refrigerator were stocked with more food than one man could possibly eat, and though she checked for expiration dates, there didn’t seem to be any. Pots and pans were hanging on a rack over the island, and cookie sheets placed in a low cabinet.
“Alright,” she spoke to no one in particular, “Let’s get to work.”
Being careful about the amount of food she fixed (there were only two of them), Annabelle made the simplest, safest thing she could think of for breakfast: pancakes, bacon, and scrambled eggs. It turned out to be about 6:15 when she got started, so when Mr. Gold came down the steps the food was just being set on plates.
“Well, well,” he said, poking his head through the kitchen doorway, “Someone’s on the ball.” Annabelle smiled and walked out to the table with Mr. Gold’s food. She started to move back into the kitchen to eat hers, but he stopped her.
“Come and sit with me. There’s no point in dining alone.”
Surprised, but not unwilling, she brought out her own food and commenced to eat breakfast with her new employer.
“I would have helped had I known you were up,” Gold said between bites. “I’m usually away for lunch and dinner preparations, but I’ll help with breakfast if I can.”
“Isn’t that my job, though?”
“Not if I take some pleasure in cooking every now and then. This is fantastic, though,” he added quickly. She was suddenly very glad she’d gone with something safe.
“Thank you. I used to cook at home.”
He looked her over as they ate. She was still wearing a long-sleeved shirt, so he couldn’t get a good view of her arms. There were still dark circles under her eyes, though she’d taken the time to pull her hair back. She only picked at her food, eating about half of it before her fork started making silent circles on her plate, the same as she’d done on the train the first night he’d met her. He could practically see the magic dripping off of her, and magic of the good sort, not the kind he knew was surrounding him. It was strange that she didn’t look any more uncomfortable than she did- most people took off for the hills being this close to someone with a proverbial cloud of dark magic surrounding them.
Not much conversation ensued for the rest of the meal.
“Now, I know you probably have questions, and there’s a book upstairs for you that will answer most of them. Usually we fend for ourselves about lunch.” Mr. Gold rose from the table and made to leave. “If you have any other questions, I’ll see you at dinner.”
Great. Just great.
She trekked back upstairs to her room to find a book lying on her bed that had definitely not been there before. It looked like an old, leather-bound volume, but upon opening it, it had up-to-date instructions written in a spidery hand.
After reading through them, she came to the conclusion that the long and short of it was that she was supposed to keep the house in a general state of cleanliness, do her own laundry, pick up the dry cleaning once a week, cook the meals, tend to the gardens, and under no circumstances whatsoever enter the West Wing.
By far the most helpful thing in the book, though, was a map.
The house was absolutely huge, and she spent the better part of the morning just finding her way around. The whole house had several hallways that branched out from one main corridor, running the same direction on all three levels. In the end it looked like not much more than a highly complicated system of corridors, and she kept getting turned around. There were tiny hallways and passages unique to each level of the house, and each level had different rooms of different sizes.
At every turn of the hallway there was some kind of tapestry, statue, or painting. It was like walking through a functional art museum, and the thought crossed her mind more than once that a person as clumsy as she wouldn’t be good to have around all this artwork… no matter how much she loved it. Something would probably end up broken.
The few rooms she went in were already spotless. Each one seemed like its own little independent world, filled with its own particular set of furniture or objects for whatever its use was supposed to be. One bedroom was built completely around butterflies- the headboard was shaped like one, there was a painting on the wall depicting them, and even the walls were painted pastel colors. Yet another room looked vaguely medieval, with bare brick walls covered by heavy drapes and tapestries, and furniture that didn’t look as if it could actually be moved from the room. This morning she had even found her headboard to be carved with roses, and noticed that the walls were painted in peculiar shades of pink and burgundy. She’d always thought roses were a pretty flower, but had never been much for them as a child on into her teenage years. Roses meant love, and love had never been her strong suit.
At one point she became so lost that she wasn’t exactly sure which turn to take. Everything looked the same, and she seemed to be going in circles.
A rustling down the hall alerted her.
“Hello? Mr. Gold?” She followed the noise, but no one was there.
“Hello?” Two more turns, following the rustling of tapestries and drapes, led her back to the main corridor. It was empty. She had a full view on both sides, but it was completely empty. Starting down the hall one way, still looking for who or whatever made that noise, she whirled upon hearing a door creak.
No one there.
But the door at the end of the hall was open.
Still holding the book with the map, Annabelle crept down the hallway, the sound of her footsteps lost on the rug. She was beginning to become very scared, but that wasn’t about to stop her from finding her way around.
“Is anyone there?” she called. When no one answered, she opened the door wider, looking into a dark room. Tentatively, she took a step inside. “I’m trying to-” she jumped back as the room was suddenly lit, twenty or more oil lamps and a crystal chandelier suddenly flaring to light.
Must be automatic, Annabelle thought. She stood on a level equal with the chandelier, which was dangling in a lopsided fashion from the ceiling, and looked old, neglected, and extremely dusty. She was standing on what looked like a balcony, and it wrapped around the room in a circle. The room seemed to stretch down all three stories, and as she looked off the balcony from the third floor she saw what the room was, all thought of the mysterious force that lead her here vanishing from her mind.
It was the biggest private library she’d ever seen, like a large, cylindrical column on one end of the house, at least fifty feet in diameter, probably more. All three floors had a balcony about five feet wide, and a two winding staircases came up from opposite ends of the cylinder. There were four large windows with the draped pulled closed on every level, and from the top level it looked like a large set of windows were on the outer wall on the first level. Looking up, it was obvious that what was now grimy glass had once been a beautiful skylight.
The rest of the walls were lined with books.
There were more books than she thought she’d ever seen in one place, except perhaps the library downtown, but she didn’t get to go there often. And these weren’t just any books- they were old. They looked positively ancient! She pulled one off of the shelf behind her, and suddenly found herself coughing from the dust.
She took another look around. The room was beautiful, but it looked like no one had stepped in it for a hundred years! None of the windows were broken, thank goodness, just sealed off from the world, and it smelled like mothballs.
This. This room was going to be her new project.
Chapter 4: Silence in the Library
She began by walking down the stairs and to the first floor, opening the doors that led to the hallway. It was still cold out, so there wasn’t a point in opening the drapes. However, she could definitely get started on this dust issue.
After consulting the map and finding an unnamed cylinder on the end of the house, suspicions were confirmed as to the library’s location, and it was easy enough to find the closet labeled “cleaning supplies” from this vantage point.
But where to start?
On every floor there were piles of books, some open, some closed, and all in no particular order. Surely they could fit on a shelf somewhere? Or at least be put into some semblance of order… For now she decided to make a compiled stack of the unshelved books on each floor, roll up the large area rugs (or long, thin rugs on the balconies) and set to sweeping- you weren’t supposed to mop a wood floor, are you? She doubted it would hurt as it was just so old, but it probably would be best not to take the chance. It was too cold to take the rugs outside to clean, so that would just have to wait until the weather was warmer. Until then they could be rolled, stood on end, and stored in a corner… gathering more dust.
She’d barely finished sweeping half the first floor when she and realized it was far past time for lunch. With a shrug, she continued on her way, the warm lighting a comfort to the emptiness that seemed to pervade the rest of the residence. She wasn’t very hungry, anyways. Breakfast usually wasn’t on her meal schedule, and it had filled her up. As she swept, Annabelle remembered that old Disney movie- was it Snow White?- that had the “Whistle While You Work” song, and began to hum it (Ironically. She felt like she should be whistling it).
By the time the dust was cleared from the room and disposed of (it was less like dust, really, and more like a thick, dust-colored grime), Annabelle came to the conclusion that the floors would need to be re-stained and polished after the bare cleaning was done. It was a job, that was for sure, especially considering that there were two heavy reading desks on the bottom floor, a set of two armchairs, and a couch that she was sure she couldn’t move on her own. The coffee table was doable. There was also something stashed in the corner under a dust cloth, apparently the only item in the room worth covering. She couldn’t tell for sure, but from here the outline looked like…
Slowly, she pulled off the drape to reveal a dark brown piano, polished to a high shine, seemingly undisturbed in all these years. She was tempted to try the notes, to play just a short song, but she didn’t for fear of disturbing the ethereal and utterly comforting quiet that the room offered. The drape was placed back over it for protection, and she set to work on the rest of the place.
In the corner there was one of those rolling ladders that librarians use, which looked extremely unsafe, so rather than stand on it just yet Annabelle elected to climb back up the metal spiral staircase and start cleaning the shelves that she could reach on her own. Though the library had entrances on three floors, it in fact had four levels, with an extra one above the third floor. These were the two that she could reach the top on, and the lower levels would be dealt with later.
Though she’d never had a problem with heights, Annabelle felt some compulsion to make sure that the railing around the top was solid. She must have been thirty or forty feet in the air by the time she got all the way up! The railing was clearly meant for both looks and safety, as it came slightly above her waist and held firm to her touch, but it was wrought-iron and had designs in the layout.
Mr. Gold certainly was one for art and ornateness. The only place Annabelle had ever seen akin to this was the time her mother took her to the Biltmore Estate when she was seven years old.
Taking a cleaning cloth to the bookshelves was harder than she expected, as years of dirt and dust and neglect had left them in a rather poor state. It was also harder because she was only using water to clean them with. After she figured out the wood type she might do some research (how Gold managed to get an internet connection, she’d never guess, but there was a laptop in the study that was labeled “Belle” with a sticky note, and a wifi password written beside it) to figure out how to clean it properly. Linseed oil would likely be on the grocery list.
She was glad Mr. Gold wasn’t around while she cleaned, as her sleeves had to be rolled up to keep the water off of them. Her scars were showing. Like the rest of the house, except for her bathroom, there didn’t seem to be any mirrors here, so at least she didn’t have to look at her reflection every time she turned her head. On her right arm there was only one, wrapping around her forearm once and ending just above her elbow- it was a burn scar, and it was old. She barely remembered how she’d gotten it. On her left arm there were four: one from the same burn incident (not as bad as the other- it almost matched her skin tone by now), two smaller ones from an incident with broken glass (though these were barely visible), and one large one that looked like two from her father’s drunken belt. When he was drunk, he got angry sometimes, and he usually didn’t even remember it. Annabelle was always careful that her stepmother was out of the house if possible; she herself only stayed to make sure he didn’t hurt himself. She had bent her arm at the elbow in an attempt to shield her stepmother on one particular night, and the belt had slashed across her bent arm.
About half of the top level was cleaned to a sufficient state, and Annabelle’s arms were shot, by the time she went to go cook supper. She supposed that tonight she’d have to care for her arms as well as her back, though her arms wouldn’t involve much more than stretching. The back, which harbored two new cuts that needed tending along with five older, healed ones (not including the broken glass incident), would involve delicate, purposeful scrubbing, and preferably some antibiotic ointment. It was lucky there was some in the suitcase; she could avoid asking and arousing suspicion. She didn’t want him thinking that this was the abused teenager story, because it wasn’t that simple, and his daughter seemed to be the only thing that truly provoked him.
The scenario was both very simple and very complicated, she supposed.
Reluctantly, she left the cleaning cloth for today and went downstairs.
Deep in the recesses of the West Wing, an exasperated Mr. Gold engaged in a five-way mirror conference with Regina, Melissa, Azura, and Beryl; in other words the Evil Queen (California), Maleficent (Florida), The Blue Fairy (somewhere in Japan), and the Fairy Godmother, or the Emerald Fairy (Europe). The three dark ones had been stationed in America purely by coincidence thousands of years ago. Regina was actually supposed to be in Britain and Melissa in Africa (we don’t want to get into what happened with that). The three dark magicians didn’t particularly like to talk to the two light ones and vice versa, and these things had to be scheduled so that the dark magic filters on the Fairy’s mirrors could be let down. They were the five big magical players, and as much as he hated taking time away from his own magical studies, it was a necessary sacrifice to make, especially since it was only once a month.
Yes, he kept up his magical studies as well. All of the magical beings in this world had something practical to do, but there was only so much you could do with a company for aspiring inventors whenever you could see the future. That was what he thrived on, really- knowing what was going to be successful and what wasn’t, who to finance, what the stocks were going to do. All he had to do was be in the room with the young men and women and he could tell what path they were on. It was his Gift.
All of those with magical abilities had a Gift of some sort, however great or small. Great power did not always mean a fantastically powerful (or useful, for that matter) Gift. During the Great Merge, when the magic from his world leaked into this one, and the occupants were forced out of that world and into this one, the Gifts had become prominent in people not of his world, and magic leaked into their bloodlines. This world was younger than his by many millennia, and the extremely old magic didn’t like to mix as well with some substances in it, or people. Alcohol was one of them- it wasn’t advised on any level for magical beings to drink the nasty stuff.
The Evil Queen had a certain aptitude with poisons, Maleficent could change into a dragon at will (impressive, but not very useful in the modern age), the Blue Fairy could change her size, the Fairy Godmother had a knack for transforming objects unmatched by any in the magical world, and Rumpelstiltskin could see the future. He’d always liked to entertain that his useful Gift was compensation for his overly ridiculous name. As the world changed they’d all picked names to go with it, and he’d picked Robert Gold, which was apt, but blessedly bland.
“Rumpelstiltskin, have you looked at your maps lately?” Beryl, an old woman with silver-white hair, questioned. Her silver-green wings twitched, as she hadn’t bothered to make them invisible. He was sitting at an apparatus not unlike a vanity, but with four mirrors rather than one, and a face reflected in each.
“No, I haven’t. I only got home yesterday, I haven’t had the time.” The maps that were rolled in scrolls on one end of the room were enchanted to show a concentration of power, but more specifically a concentration of power that meant trouble. Big trouble.
“There’s a lot of disturbance around your area.” Azura said. “It doesn’t look like much yet- more like static electricity, very minor, but the fact that it’s been registered on the maps… maybe you should check it out.”
The Blue Fairy was a nuisance, but she was right. As the five most powerful magicians in the world they had a responsibility to keep the balance between good and evil as it should be, and trouble brewing on those maps likely meant trouble for all of them, not just the good ones.
In short, it was an uneasy relationship.
Melissa giggled from her end of the mirror.
“You do have a girl, Rumple!” she looked falsely scandalized.
“A girl?” Beryl asked “What do you mean a girl?”
“Running away from home. I picked her up at the train station in New York, practically dripping with magic- and not the dark kind, before you even ask. She didn’t even seem to notice it.”
“And she didn’t run when she saw you?” Azura was one to say what needed to be said without worrying of offending someone by saying people should be running from them.
“On the contrary.” Melissa said. “She smiled.”
The two fairy’s faces formed concerned expressions.
“Where is she now?” Beryl asked. Regina was being suspiciously quiet about this whole matter, which was not a good sign. If she was quiet, it meant she was calm, and she shouldn’t be calm unless she already knew… Melissa. She must have let it leak. Bah, dragon… more like pest.
“She’s with me. I thought I might monitor her for a time, but I think the magical clashing is causing your veritable storm. Warm front meets cold front.”
“No, otherwise at the yearly convention there would be magical explosions! More likely-” There was a clatter from Azura’s end of the line. She turned to look, and her expression changed from shock and panic to exasperation.
“I think we should continue this discussion at a later date, Rumpelstiltskin. As of now I have a baby gryphon to attend to…” Another clatter came, and her mirror disconnected.
“I’m in agreement,” Robert said, disconnecting his mirror even as they tried to convince him otherwise.
With some help from the map, she found the kitchen, and immediately wished her employer had left her some kind of recommendation. Mr. Gold wasn’t very specific in, well, anything. He seemed content to leave her to her own devices, but then again, it was only her first day. There were a few cookbooks tucked away in a corner, so she elected to consult them for ideas rather than try to wing it. The first one she picked seemed to be… stuck. It was like the pages didn’t want to open. The second was the same, and the third, until finally the fourth fell of the shelf of its own accord, flopping open to a recipe for chicken soup with rice.
“Alright. Fine.” She said. “If some invisible force is trying to help me out, I really do appreciate it.” It felt ridiculous to admit it, but it was almost like a shiver went through the air- like static. “But could you possibly make yourself seem a little bit less… ghost-like? You’re starting to scare me.”
The shiver vanished.
Hm. How about that?
Annabelle set to work making the soup, thinking about how much was left to do in the library. It would take her several weeks to finish with the shelves, considering she had to de-shelve and re-shelve all the books to clean the area they were occupying. The floors needed to be re-stained and have a fresh coat of wax, and there was still the little issue of moving the furniture when it was time to tackle that particular problem…
She was so engrossed in her thoughts that she jumped when Mr. Gold came in.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.” It was at least nice to know a voice was attached to the movements now. She breathed a sigh of relief and ladled out the soup.
“It’s fine.” The two took a seat at the long table, not on either end, but across from each other on the longer side. It allowed for easier conversation and eased the emptiness from having only two people at their table. Gold looked at his soup with surprise.
“Is this alright?” Annabelle asked. It wasn’t her fault that the books wouldn’t open, but she wasn’t about to tell him that.
“Yes- it’s just what I was thinking of, actually. How did you know?”
She looked at him like he’d said pigs were flying outside- which was completely possible, by the way, though flying boar hunts weren’t the most fun experiences.
“I- um… the book just kind of opened to it.” She said, her neck slowly turning red with embarrassment. He probably thought she was crazy.
But instead of doubting her, he chuckled from surprise and shook his head slightly. She didn’t ask what he was thinking, but tucked into her soup with newfound vigor.
“Did you find anything interesting today?” he asked, wondering where her explorations had taken her. That book was a rather helpful tool for finding your way around, even if the house did tend to keep some of its occupants lost longer than others. The Old Magic on these grounds, so old it was neither dark nor light magic, was older than even he and had collected here in the Great Merge. It could tell things about a person before even Rumpelstiltskin could, and one of the first tests it always put to the housekeepers was getting irrevocably lost.
“All the rooms are spotless.” She said. Ah, so the house had done some tidying of its own.
“Yes. Things are usually kept neat around here. There’s not usually anyone to dirty them up.” He took another bite of his soup.
“No, I mean really spotless. There isn’t even dust!” she shook her head. “It looks like someone just cleaned the place.” At this Mr. Gold looked truly surprised.
“And there aren’t any mirrors.” She continued. “The only one I’ve seen is in my room.”
“Pointless objects, I’ve always thought.” The man mused, trying to hide the fact that he simply didn’t like the possibility of being spied upon. It was a rather complicated spell, because you had to make sure your own refection wouldn’t be in another person’s mirror, but it was possible. “You didn’t get lost, I hope?” He knew what the answer would be, but he thought he’d ask anyways.
“For a while.” She admitted. “But then… well, long story short, I found the library.”
Gold choked a little on his soup.
“You found what?”
“The… library?” she said hesitantly. Sometimes she wondered how many visitors the man had. He always looked so astonished at half the things she said. “It looked like nobody had been in it in a hundred years.” He laughed outright. Usually the house did all it could to divert the housekeepers from the library.
“Yes, I bet it did. And I assume you’re attempting to clean it.”
Annabelle nodded, not wishing to elaborate further.
“Well, if there’s anything you need,” he said, “Part of your job is to go into town for groceries, so you can pick it up then.”
Throughout the rest of the meal there was enough stupid little small talk to fill the silence, about the weather and the town- silly things. However, throughout the entire meal there was only one thought on Mr. Gold’s mind, which pleased him more than perhaps it should.
The bloody house likes her.
Chapter 5: The Man in the Mirror
Annabelle sat on the edge of her bathtub, which was built into the wall, wrapped in a towel and with a tube of antibiotic ointment in her hand. Her wet hair was momentarily pinned up and out of the way so she could tend to her back. Making sure the door was locked, she lowered her towel until it rested around her hips, leaving her back bare. It wasn’t easy to twist and reach the fresh cuts to clean them or treat them, but she wasn’t about to ask Mr. Gold for help. One ran from the top of her right shoulder to just below her left shoulder blade, and the other from under her right shoulder blade to somewhere in the middle of her back.
Her father’s drunken rages didn’t leave scars often, but six years was a long time, and she’d taken the brunt of it. The most recent one had left her bruised in various places on her arms and legs, and with those two long cuts across her back. There was another one from about six or seven months ago that wrapped around the left side of her torso and ended on her stomach. Sometimes she wondered how it had ever managed to escalate this far.
When Annabelle had gone back to live with her father and stepmother, he’d been fine. He’d been normal. Then things had gone wrong with his job, and he’d hit some rough spots, and taken to drinking himself into a stupor when he’d had nothing better to do. Eventually it had been so bad that it felt like they were all drowning in a pool of debt. It was hard for him to hold a job, and his drinking habits had only worsened as Annabelle finished high school and graduated.
It had all culminated when she first told him she wanted to go to college.
“You’re leaving? You’re leaving me?”
“No, I-” the crack of his hand on her cheek silenced her.
She knew he was drunk. She didn’t know worse things were coming.
After that he’d kept her locked in her room during the day. She wanted to work, go to school, do something, but school was out of the question, and though she could sneak out and work at night when her father was drunk, it wasn’t a good idea for someone like her to walk New York alone at night, and the highest paying night jobs for a girl on the desperate side wouldn’t take her because of her scars. Whenever she tried to go out during the day he would hit her, scream at her, like even when he was half-sober he still despised her. If she ever left and he caught her trying, she was positive she’d be killed. She was trapped in their apartment, and no handsome prince was going to come to her rescue.
In the end, that was really why she’d left- for her father and her stepmother. For years she’d thought she was protecting them, being the stable person in the chaos to keep her father away from her stepmother and keep him from hurting himself in his drunken state (the incident with the broken glass was one she didn’t want to relive)… It would be years before she realized that she was actually the stimulant, and it was enough to make her willing to risk her life running away. At least this way she could cut her geographical ties, get a fresh start, and possibly help pay off the debt back home.
She’d left her stepmother, Alisha, a note with explicit instructions: I’ll send you a check once I find a steady income source. I won’t tell you where I am, but you can email me. Watch out for papa. Get his backside into rehab and don’t let him quit. Tell me if he quits. I know he’ll try.
Make sure nothing gets worse.
A voice was coming from the covered mirror. He turned over in his bed, hoping this was a bad dream.
“Robert, wake up!”
The voice was slightly more annoyed. He pulled a pillow over his head and prayed it would stop if he just ignored it. It was one of the fairies. He wasn’t sure which one- they all sounded alike in a drowsy state.
“Rumpelstiltskin, you wake up and get your backside over here, or so help me I will skin your magical hide!”
Beryl. Oh, that was Beryl alright.
“Alright, I’m coming!” he said. He walked over and pulled the cloth off the mirror, muttering curses under his breath.
“Oh, you must be really annoyed; your accent has a mind of its own. Just because I can’t understand those words doesn’t mean I don’t know what you’re saying- watch your mouth around an old lady.” Pictured in the mirror was the clear image of a woman with pristine white hair, robed in varying shades of green.
“Beryl, I know it’s eight o’ clock where you are, but it’s two in the morning here! What exactly did you want?” the mirror flashed twice with a gold glow.
“Hold on- that’s Azura.”
“She’s in on this?! Are you two ganging up on me? Do I need to figure out that filter spell for my mirror?”
Beryl rolled her eyes and the large mirror suddenly split down the center to show both Fairies at once. It wasn’t like the large desk with separate ones in his study, merely a huge mirror on a stand with a chair in front of it in which Gold sat.
“Hello, Robert.” The Blue Fairy said. That was one thing going for them- neither of the Fairies ever called him “Rumple.”
“Hello. What, pray tell, are you expecting to gain by rousing me from my sleep in the middle of the night?” he asked, running a hand over his face is annoyance.
“A conference without the other two dark magicians. We know Maleficent knows, and we suspect she’s told Regina.” Beryl said. “Magician” was a bit more of a general term for anyone with magical abilities. Technically, Maleficent was an Enchantress, Rumpelstiltskin a Warlock (the male equivalent to Maleficent), and Regina a Sorceress, which was slightly less powerful than an Enchantress, though her lack of morals and scheming mind usually made up for whatever she couldn’t do with raw power.
There were also Fairies, Sorcerers, Wizards, Witches, Warriors, and Mages (a gender neutral term), both gifted in dark and light magic, along with various other types of magical beings that did not look human in their natural form. And don’t be confused- dark or light magic can be used towards good or evil, and though most dark magicians turn towards the stereotypically evil side, it simply changes the person’s aptitude towards certain magical elements. Dark magicians are more apt at transformation and spells of destruction, while light magicians are more talented with rebuilding and creation spells. If a dark and light magician were to team up it could be a very dangerous thing indeed depending on their motives.
“We needed to ask you some questions about the girl.” Azura said. She had taken on her frazzled, panicked look again.
“Look, she’s just a girl. She’s brimming over with power, but she’s just a girl.”
“That can’t be all.” The Blue Fairy shook her head. “In order for magic to have this much tension it can’t just sit up against other magic. Normally dark and light magic are like oil and water- completely harmless when together, but they don’t mix. It’s very… difficult to get magic of the dark and light caliber to mix together…” she bit her lip and looked to the Fairy Godmother for support.
“And how do you feel about this girl?” Beryl asked.
“I don’t know- she seems harmless enough. The house likes her. What are you insinuating?” He was suddenly on alert. The Fairies looked impressed, ignoring his last question.
“Your house sits on a pocket of very ancient, very intuitive magic. How do you know it’s taken to her?” the Emerald Fairy suddenly seemed very interested.
“It showed her the library. Most of the time the place likes to test out the housekeepers- get them lost, things like that. That library probably hasn’t been opened in a century, and it showed her the way. It unlocked the doors, even.” The women nodded slowly in response.
“Anything peculiar about her?” Azura fidgeted in her chair.
“She has some scars on her arms, but I haven’t seen the whole thing because she always wears long sleeves. She…ah…” he had to think for a minute. She didn’t really act peculiar, but she didn’t like to talk about her home life. Belle was normal- she didn’t look odd or have strange habits. In fact, she was beautiful… but there wasn’t a point to thinking about anyone that way.
“I see.” Beryl said, saving him from having to think of something else. The save wasn’t long, though, as she and Azura began launching questions rapid-fire at him.
“Do you know anything about her parents?”
“Where did she come from again?”
“And what kind of magic did she have?”
“Light magic, though-”
What’s her name?”
“Really? Is that short for anything?”
“Yes, Annabelle, but-”
“What does she look like?”
“She’s b-” suddenly he stopped himself. Fairy mind games- they were trying to get an honest, frank, not fully thought out opinion out of him, and he’d nearly given it to them. He’d been about to say “she’s beautiful.”
The two fairies looked perfectly pleased.
“Maleficent seems to think she has something to do with your curse.” Azura’s wings twitched pointedly.
“I highly doubt that.” Gold scoffed.
“Have you so little faith in-”
“In what? In the power of true love?” he spat. “You know the conditions of my curse as well as I do. I can get rid of it by abandoning my power, that’s the only way. True love’s kiss isn’t going to change that- breaking the curse is breaking the curse, it’s just another way out. I keep the curse, I keep my power. And we all know that I’m the only thing keeping those two in check.”
The Fairies were silent for a moment. They knew the conditions- when Regina cursed him, she’d cursed his heart and his soul as well as his physical form, and though the physical change wasn’t permanent, the change to his emotional state was. However, another side effect was that it amplified his natural magical ability (which was already that of a powerful Sorcerer), and Rumpelstiltskin was just as dripping with dark magic as Belle was with light magic. The deal was that at any time he could come to Regina and have it broken, but the catch was that he would lose all magical ability besides longevity if he did that. He wouldn’t even be left with the powers he’d had before he was cursed. Over the years he’d been able to weasel out of her that there was some way to break it without losing his power, but he hadn’t been able to figure it out. It was actually his main motive for keeping up his studies.
“And yet your heart is black as night.” Azura said sadly.
“A black night is when I’m the safest.” He sighed. “Now, please. I’m an old man, I don’t have a chance for true love-”
“Shut your mouth, boy!” the Emerald Fairy said. “I’ve got six thousand years on you. And everyone has a chance for true love.”
“Then I blew mine twenty-one hundred years ago!” he yelled, gripping the arms of the chair with white knuckles. “True love or no true love, whoever it is deserves better than me.”
“You shouldn’t talk like that.” Azura said softly.
“Why not?!” he jumped up from his chair to stand in front of the full length mirror. “I’m a monster, aren’t I? I’m the beast of the castle, just the way she intended it to be, and NO ONE can ever love me!”
The Fairies looked at him, stunned. A second later the mirror flicked back to reflective.
He didn’t bother to pull the cover back on before sinking back down in the chair with his head in his hands, as silent tears flowed down his cheeks. He hoped to God that Belle wasn’t meant for him, for her sake and his own, but mostly because he would never want someone like her to be caught in the crossfire.
He really was a monster.
“This is serious.” Beryl said, now speaking only to Azura. “Very serious indeed.”
“Why do you say that?” She asked. The Blue Fairy was powerful, though much younger than her, and still a tad bit naive.
“You haven’t noticed?” Beryl was incredulous. “The man’s coming down with a strong case of infatuation and he hasn’t even known her a week. Take a look.” Beryl waved her wand and the scene of Robert in front of his mirror was reflected, as if he’d still been conversing with him. It was a tricky spell, but she’d managed to perfect it for times like these. Not that it mattered anyways- everyone but that blasted Evil Queen was smart enough to cover their mirrors when they weren’t being used. Azura’s eyes brimmed over and her mouth went slack as she witnessed a scene she never thought she’d see.
Rumpelstiltskin was crying.
After a few seconds the image vanished and the two Fairies were facing each other again.
“Now, you are aware of the origins of dark and light magic, are you not?” The Emerald Fairy asked.
Azura blushed a deep blue, tinged with pink on the edges (fairies always blush their color when not in disguise as a human), and shook her head. Beryl sighed.
“Well, back in the old times there was only magic- not dark, not light- just magic. It stayed this way until once, a when I was just a little girl and I hadn’t even known of my magical potential, the first Evil Sorcerer appeared.” Her eyes seemed to lost focus for a minute, as of gazing into the past, and then she continued. “A Warrior challenged him, and won, but it’s said that the Sorcerer and the Warrior carried so much power when their weapons clashed, that the Old Magic became a kind of sentient force, and was split from then on into dark and light magic, so that much power could never be in the hands of one person again. Oh, pockets of it are still around, like the one nestled on the grounds of Rumpelstiltskin’s house, but it’s more like a force of its own being.”
“So what does that mean?” Azura had been twitching the entire time. She was a very fidgety Fairy.
“It means that if things get out of hand here we may be invoking a very old, very powerful force. You know how two halves make a whole? Imagine what could happen if dark and light magic came together.” Beryl was dead serious, and though she thought that the girl probably wasn’t any danger, it was enough to make her worry.
“Are you saying they could bring back the Old Magic?”
“Possibly. I’m not sure. But if she really could be his true love, we’d better watch out, because that could get nasty. That Old Magic is intuitive. It’ll start trying to push them together if they’re supposed to be together, speed up the process and whatnot. You know as well as I do that to get dark and light magic to properly mix there has to be some kind of emotional bond between the two parties. That’s why children of magical parents with two different aptitudes are so powerful.”
“But they’re not born of Old Magic!”
“That’s because one parent’s abilities usually outweigh the other’s abilities, and the child tends to take after the more powerful parent, unless there’s an extremely strong cliché in the bloodlines somewhere. Come on, girl- think! Use that Fairy brain of yours!”
The Fairy Godmother was positive she was going to have a headache from this. Positive. A second later Azura spoke.
“Beryl… I’ve just thought of something.”
“Yes? Tell me, child!” she gestured wildly with her arms.
“The girl’s name was Belle, right? Beauty.” The Blue Fairy said. Beryl nodded in affirmation, urging her to go on. “He just openly called himself the beast of the castle. A monster. Beauty and the Monster was the fairy tale Regina based her curse on.”
“You think she’s the other way out.” The white haired woman bit her lip.
“I do.” Azura nodded. “What do you think?”
“I think we’re in deeper than we thought.”
About two weeks went by after that particular mirror-conference, and still no snow, though it was likely to turn up soon. The library was progressing nicely, though slower than she’d hoped, and she would start on the higher section of the first floor shelves today, which were by far the hardest task, except perhaps the rugs. As hard as she tried, Annabelle couldn’t find a vacuum anywhere in the house, so she was waiting on snow to help her clean the dust she wouldn’t be able to beat or sweep out of them.
She was slowly discovering that both she and Mr. Gold were the type of people who said a lot, while at the same time actually saying very little. Every now and then he would make a comment about her scars, which she would either ignore or shift the conversation around, but she was sure he must have figured out that someone in her family had given them to her.
When they did talk they mostly discussed books and movies, artwork, and other things of that nature. Gold learned more about the theatre world from Annabelle, who had intended to into set design after high school, and Gold taught her about artists and their works. It wasn’t a bad relationship, really, but it was like they were starting on nothing, knowing nothing about each other’s personal lives ad not willing to share than information.
After waking that morning she dressed in a loose, long sleeved, dark green tunic and brown leggings, thinking of cleaning later, and went downstairs to make breakfast at seven.
“Good morning, Belle.” He wasn’t in his usual full suit, but in dress pants and a cotton shirt. She’d nearly gotten used to his name for her by now, though this would be the first morning she hadn’t woken early and fixed breakfast on her own.
“Good morning, Mr. Gold.” She smiled, taking a seat on one of the stools in the kitchen. She was positive she looked like a ragged huntress compared to him, with her hair hanging wildly down her back, restrained only by a stray piece of ribbon, and woods-colored clothing, but that was hardly important. “What’s for breakfast?” Gold shrugged.
“What would you like?” The question had come as a surprise the first time he asked, partly because she just didn’t know. Normally she would just fix breakfast for her dad and stepmom and then grab a granola bar for herself. She wasn’t much of a breakfast person, and she’d told him as much (minus the family explanation). On days when she simply had no opinion, he would think of something.
“Alright.” The man was fairly understanding, but he just seemed so… distant… since they’d been here. The closest she’d ever gotten to a true, person-to-person conversation was the night on the train. “How are you with fruit?”
“Can’t get enough.” Annabelle smiled.
“Good. There’s some in the refrigerator, and there’s yogurt and granola. If you’ll take care of that I’ll fry some ham.” He said. Two thousand years hadn’t left him shoddy for food ideas, and though Belle would probably wonder how on earth they had fresh fruit in the middle of winter… well, that was a benefit to magical storage. Nothing ever expired, thanks to the house being stooped in an intuitive form of magic.
Annabelle rummaged through the fridge to find grapes, yogurt, and granola, and discovered kiwi and cantaloupe on the counter, along with a ripe pineapple of all things! How on earth he’d gotten all this fresh fruit was beyond her. She found a knife and cutting board, labeled for fruits and vegetables (smart one, keeping the meats and vegetables separate for cutting), washed her hands, and set to work. After slicing the first kiwi, though, she quickly realized her sleeves were going to be getting in the way. As much as she didn’t want to, she rolled them up, thankful their backs were to each other with him cooking and her chopping.
All the fruit went into a bowl after it was cut, and Annabelle was starting on the last bit of fruit, the cantaloupe, when the ham began fry well enough that he could leave it to talk to her.
“Did you cook often at home?” He didn’t walk over to her, but she tensed regardless, praying- absolutely praying- that his eyes wouldn’t drop to her arms and her rolled up sleeves.
“Very.” In fact, she’d done all the cooking. It was nice to be able to sink herself into something as familiar and methodical as slicing fruit. “My stepmom usually worked late, and my dad… I did most of the cooking.” She wanted to avoid the topic of her father. After scrounging for honey and vanilla extract to sweeten the plain yogurt, they sat down to what turned out as a very nice breakfast.
“So, what exactly is it you do?” she asked, finishing up her fruit and yogurt.
“I run a company called Dreamweavers- it finances aspiring inventors.” He said. He wasn’t quite willing to tell her that he could see which ones were going to be successful or not, provided they weren’t going to be explicitly involved in his personal life. “They market their invention through us, we get them off the ground, and in turn we both make a profit.”
“Sounds like a lot of deal-making to me.” Annabelle said.
It was an accurate observation. In the old world he had thrived off making deals- all magic comes with a price, after all. In some cases it was something a bit more unique, but in this world it tended to be things such as a rather high internet bill (how else were you supposed to get a connection way out here?).
“Very much so.”
“Is that why you were in New York? Business, I mean.”
“Yes. I take a trip up once a year.” The topic didn’t get much further than that.
They took the dishes back to the kitchen and packaged up the leftovers, but before Annabelle realized her mistake in leaving her sleeves rolled up, Mr. Gold had noticed.
“A question for a question.” He said softly. She became stiff from the feeling of his eyes on her. Gold was headed this way, the footsteps made that evident.
She mentally cursed and hurriedly wiped her hands on a napkin, trying to hide again, but it was too late. He stood behind her, hand running down her forearm to gently close on her right wrist, pulling it upwards so he could see. He traced his fingers lightly over the mark, looping around her forearm with his hand, and the feeling made her want to shiver.
He wasn’t staring, not in a rude way. He was simply examining with a delicate touch, as someone who cared. She cast a glance over her shoulder, the thought crossing her mind that Mr. Gold was actually a very attractive man…
No attraction. Nothing could happen. He was likely twenty years older than her, and her luck with love was… well, actually it was nonexistent.
She brought herself back to reality, but didn’t move her arm. He must have seen the scar before- he even mentioned it on the train, and sometimes you could see part of it on her hand if her sleeve came up. No doubt he would have already picked up on the fact that her home life hadn’t been a happy-go-lucky sitcom, even though they seemed to be getting around talking about their personal lives much. His brown eyes were soft and sad, and had only one question written in them: How?
“I don’t remember how I got that one.” She said honestly.
“That one?” his tone suggested that she’d slipped up by letting him know there were others. She pulled her wrist from his loose grasp, rolling down her sleeves.
“Not important.” She said softly, beginning to walk away.
“Not important? Belle, you’re-”
“I’m what?” she asked, suddenly very perturbed. “Flawed? Abused? Delicate? What? I’ve been told what I am my entire life, Mr. Gold. I was under the impression that you were a better man than that.” She’d given him such high expectations. Why even bother? Everyone was the same- automatically throwing her under a large branch of stereotypes the second they saw her scars in full.
Mr. Gold reached out to take her hand again, pulling it up towards him. She was so shocked that she didn’t fight the motion, not even when he placed a light kiss to the place where the tip of the scar ran onto the back of her hand, whispering his response against it.
“So incredibly brave.”
Annabelle may have walked into that house two weeks ago, but she was certain from that morning on, no matter how much she didn’t want to admit it or tried to avoid it… Belle would be walking out.
Chapter 6: Little Red, Big Wolf
Wheeling the precarious-looking library ladder into place, Belle rubbed her hand furiously for what was perhaps the thousandth time. It wasn’t like she could erase it… or whatever she was trying to do. She knew the feeling, though- the feeling that made her feel ever so slightly weak at the knees when he’d kissed her hand. It wasn’t going to happen, and she knew it. There wasn’t any reason to bother.
She just had to keep reminding herself that she was here under blackmail.
Of a sort.
Paid blackmail with a very nice man who only seemed to have good intentions…
Belle shook her head and started climbing for the top of the ladder. She’d rigged up a pulley system to hang a bucket from one of the rungs near the top (the first floor had almost unnaturally high ceilings, like it was meant to entertain company more than anything), so there was already a bucket of water waiting on her, which thankfully was not unbalancing the narrow ladder. Being high on a ladder with wheels, even if they were rigged so they couldn’t push her away from the wall, wasn’t the safest feeling in the world, but focusing on washing where the top of the shelves reached the cracked ceiling distracted her from the height.
Cleaning the dust and dirt from the shelves (after figuring out how exactly you were supposed to properly clean walnut shelves) left them with a shine and an almost comforting glow. She’d already cleared the books from the top five rows of shelves yesterday so she wouldn’t have to deal with the height, the bucket, and cumbersome objects. The pulley system had been a stroke of genius on her part, otherwise she was positive she would have fallen by now.
Though the window washing would have to wait until spring, she wondered how on earth she was going to get to the top of the windows, and the skylight, too! With a house as… expansive… as this one, it was probably a good idea to look around for roof access somewhere and pray there was some way to lift off the panels for cleaning.
She would also have to clean out the enormous fireplace that was across from the big set of windows on the first floor, and the chimney that it vented to, which Annabelle obviously had never done before. There weren’t exactly an abundance of old houses with fireplaces in New York City, and she most definitely hadn’t lived in one of them. That was a task for another day, though. For now she concentrated on scrubbing away the layers of collected grime, revealing something that was unique to the first floor: carvings of roses on a winding vine, running around the tops of the shelves and down the vertical divisions all the way to the floor.
Even though the house seemed to have many different themes depending on what room you were in, roses seemed to be extremely predominant. Through the few windows that weren’t stained glass she even thought she’d glimpsed the remains of a rose garden, though whether it was alive or dead she didn’t know. Sometimes she wondered why all the windows were stained glass- normally it would be for privacy, but there simply wasn’t anyone else around to invade their privacy. One of the benefits of being tucked away in the mountains was that you got beautiful scenery and plenty of space, even if it was a little lonely at times.
Belle climbed down from the ladder to reset it for the next area of the shelves, changed the water in the bucket, and climbed back up. She was just starting to scrub again whenever something fairly unexpected happened: Mr. Gold walked through the door just to her left.
“Belle? Are you-” about that point he looked up the ladder. “Hello.”
“Hello. Hold on, I’ll be right down.”
She smiled and started to climb down the ladder. However, the second rung, which she had previously thought to be extremely sturdy, snapped in two under her foot. She tried to keep a steady grip, but it was almost like something pushed her backwards, and she fell off the ladder.
She was too scared to scream.
Only a moment later she heard a clatter and felt a jolt, but it wasn’t the floor. She was safe, caught in the arms of Mr. Gold. She shook her head, stunned, and he sat her down gently, looking as if he couldn’t believe it himself.
“Thank you.” For lack of anything better to do, she flung her arms around him, burying her face in his neck. “Thank you.”
He’d have to give the house a good scolding after this. That ladder hadn’t been like that before, and he’d seen that Belle had a firm grip on it. Yes, he’d used a bit of magic to catch her, just like the Old Magic on the grounds knew he would. Normally he didn’t bother expending the energy on his knee, but in this moment he’d fixed it and slowed her fall by miniscule proportions. It was almost an instinctive reaction. Old Magic had its own motives, for the things it did, though he’d really have to stop giving it bait.
She was shaking, and no doubt he could feel it. He wasn’t expecting the spontaneous embrace, but it certainly wasn’t unwelcome. His arms gently encircled her waist, pulling her close for only a moment- after that he caught himself. This was not a good idea- he must have been out of his mind this morning. Releasing his grip on Belle’s waist, Gold spoke.
“I wanted to tell you that tomorrow is your day off. I’ve got a room for you at Granny’s for tonight and tomorrow night, and you’ll come back the next morning. While you’re in town you’ll need to pick up groceries, as well.”
“Oh.” She almost looked disappointed. “You… trust me not to run?”
“People have run before. I never blame them.” He said. Between his horrible temperament, of which Belle had witnessed hot and cold flashes in the past two weeks, and the house tormenting those it didn’t like, he would probably have run away himself.
“No buts.” He said softly. As much as he loved having her around, she needed to be gone on this particular night. “You should pack some clothes. I’ll see you safely to town.”
Before she could argue he walked off.
Belle stood, leaning against the bookshelf, for a long while, thinking about all that had just happened in the last few minutes. She remembered learning once that when adrenaline starts pumping, it’s like turning the crank on a very old camera suddenly faster- everything records in slow motion. That was definitely the way she remembered it. There was only one problem, though.
He shouldn’t have been strong enough to do that. The last balcony sat at about thirty feet up, and the roof was about ten feet above that. She’d probably fallen from a fifteen foot height, and that would have made her almost impossible to catch with anything but a safety net. Also, the man walked with a cane, and he’d let it go and used both hands to catch her.
She supposed she should simply be grateful to be alive, but… she couldn’t help but wonder…
What was going on?
“Well that was rather juicy, wasn’t it?” Azura asked. She’d found a shard of a broken mirror on the library wall big enough for her and Beryl to witness the scene through on their separate mirrors. It had been broken a long time ago, and though the Fairies weren’t usually ones for spying unless they absolutely needed to, they were going back through their mirror links and didn’t know where this one connected. They had broken through just in time to see Gold enter and Belle fall.
“Quite.” Beryl had lived longer and wasn’t one to gossip as much as Azura did, even if the Blue Fairy’s tidbits did come in handy sometimes. For example, she’d heard that Regina’s Warrior stepdaughter (previously known as Snow White) had somehow met up with Prince James, a handsome young man descended from the ruling Fairy line in the old world. There might be some rather nasty between Snow and Regina if romantic involvement ensued.
“Rather sudden, too.” Azura said. “Sexual tension too much for him? Why does she need to leave now?” She nestled back in her chair, the mirror going back to its reflective state. Beryl fought back a scoff.
“Do your research, girl! Rumpelstiltskin is nearly three thousand years old. I’d think you know a little more about the physical aspect of his curse by now.”
“Well, please, enlighten me.” Azura was becoming increasingly tired of the holier-than-thou attitude Beryl took on when she got annoyed. “I already know about the darkness bits- the heart and the soul- and I know about breaking the curse. And I know he’s supposed to change into something.”
“For a Fairy approaching a thousand and six-”
“I’ve only known Rumpelstilstkin two centuries!” Azura snapped. That was how long she’d been a regional player and she was really just getting a handle on things. Beryl sighed and continued on with her explanation.
“You are aware of the werewolf legends, right?”
“Yes.” Suddenly her eyes grew wide. “No. He isn’t-”
“He is, or at least, he’s part of where it all began. He’s not exactly a wolf, though and he changes for one night, and one night only, every month. That’s why he sends away anyone who’s with him. Granny and Ruby are familiar with transformative magic- their Gifts are similar to Maleficent’s, except theirs runs in the family- and he knows Granny well enough that he can trust them. More likely than not he’s warned them about Belle. They can see magic just like us.”
“Really? What are they, then?” Azura looked extremely curious.
“Dark Mages, a very old and respected line. Healers. That particular line of mages also sparked the werewolf legends, which is another reason why he moved there, though in their case the bit about the moon is a bunch of fimblewort. They can change at will, though they are more vulnerable to change when the moon is out.”
“Does this have anything to do with Red Riding Hood and the Wolf?” Azura asked. Beryl laughed out loud.
“Oh, that’s a long story, but let’s just say that Ruby is older than she looks. They found her red cape with blood on it during the dark ages, left alone in the snow while she was out hunting. Everybody just assumed it was her blood. The cape was enchanted- it was just there to help her control the transformation when she was still young.”
“I see…” she would have to make it a point to spend more time talking to the Fairy Godmother. “But- the curse- why not transform him permanently?”
“The whole point of Regina’s curse was to reduce him to something infinitely powerful, but less than human. Rumpelstiltskin was an extremely powerful dark Sorcerer, but he wasn’t turning towards the evil side- he had a conscience. It was supposed to make him submit to her control, but… well, you see how that worked out. In short, the wording of the curse suggests that she wanted the change to be permanent, but she worded it wrong.”
“What do you mean wrong?” Azura had always thought a curse was a curse. Blessings were far easier to craft- they worked though intent, and she assumed curses did, too.
“I mean she worded it to say ‘powerless to his form’ during the full moon. I think she meant for him to submit completely to a beast’s mind and instincts- wild killing sprees and such that he wouldn’t be able to live with himself afterwards- but instead it registered with the magic that his form would only change on the full moon.”
“And the bits about true love’s kiss?”
“She probably didn’t do it on purpose- it’s not actually written in the curse- and there’s still that one line screwing it up... oh, you know the one.” She gestured and Azura nodded for her to go on. “Regina has always been fantastic with poisons and potions, but she’s never been very good at crafting curses. You have to stitch them together, thread by magical thread. That was always more Rumpelstiltskin’s style- he was a weaver before he came into his power, you know.” Beryl’s wings began to twitch as she talked.
“The type of Old Magic you would need to create a curse like that probably didn’t take to Regina’s tactics of curse-weaving, and it’s always liked our Robert, so it probably gave him a loophole.” The Fairies had rather taken to his name in this world. It was a good deal easier to pronounce than “Rumpelstiltskin.”
“So that’s why his house sits on a pocket of it!” The Blue Fairy said.
“Very much so. Robert was originally meant to be the only great magician in North America, but the Evil Queen and Maleficent came and invaded his territory. Old Magic doesn’t take kindly to Regina, and though it can work with Maleficent well enough, it doesn’t like to. For some reason Robert has always attracted it, and it just takes to him. Looks like it’s taking to his girl as well.”
“His girl? You want them together too, you old minx.” The Blue Fairy laughed.
“He deserves it, the old fool.” The Emerald Fairy said sadly. “I just hope he won’t throw it away.”
Annabelle arrived at Granny’s Bed and Breakfast sometime around six, which was usually when she’d be cooking dinner. Strange, how easily she’d fallen into the routine after only a couple of weeks. Though she’d traversed the halls every day, the rooms stayed nothing less than spotless, and it seemed every time she turned a corner there was a new piece of artwork to gaze at or something new to do. She’d thought about writing home, but it probably wasn’t a good idea to reveal her location yet.
“Hello?” she called upon entering. The lobby looked empty, but after a second or two a pretty young woman dressed in a skirt that was much too short for Annabelle’s taste hurriedly bounded down the staircase. She looked at her strangely for a second, but recovered quickly.
“Hi! I’m Ruby. You must be Gold’s new girl.” Ruby caught Annabelle’s blush and quickly corrected herself. “Housekeeper.”
“That’s me.” Belle’s blush quickly faded and she extended her hand. “I’m Be- Annabelle.” She bit her tongue, knowing what she was about to say, as Ruby gave her hand a firm shake.
“Nice to meet you. Granny’s not in yet, so I’ll take you to your room.” She led her up the stairs and to the left, to the corner room that Ruby thought was the coziest.
She didn’t tell her that Granny was out hunting. In Wolf form both Ruby and Granny could bring in some fantastic game during the right season, and though the old woman hardly went hunting any longer, every now and then she got a craving for something that you couldn’t find in the market… such as the squirrel and/or possum she was currently trying to bring in. In all of her thousand and two years Ruby had never seen her fail at bringing something in when she needed to, even though Granny was approaching six thousand.
“Can I get you anything to eat?” Ruby asked, unlocking Belle’s door. It was a quaint little place with a double bed, a dresser, nightstand, and bathroom. There was also a warm quilt hanging over a chair.
“No, thanks.” Annabelle said, swinging her pack over her shoulder and onto the floor beside the bed. She hadn’t taken a suitcase, only her backpack.
“Everything alright?” Ruby asked. “You’re white as a sheet, and I should know. I wash them.” Annabelle laughed, some of her color returning. In truth she was quite scared, though she’d never want to show it.
“We don’t bite, I promise.” Ruby laughed. “Well, not that hard. Do you mind if I…?” she gestured towards the chair.
“Please.” Annabelle sat cross-legged on the edge of her bed, taking in Ruby fully. She had black hair with red streaks, either recently dyed or naturally black, too. Her skin was pale, and she wore a shade of blood red lipstick that just sat on the border between innocently beautiful and purposefully promiscuous.
“So I see you’re not planning to run.” Ruby said, for lack of anything better.
“How’d you know?”
“You’re only carrying enough for two nights, and you didn’t ask for food even though you must be hungry. Most people who plan to run have a suitcase big enough to last a month, and they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, so they eat a lot.” She shrugged. “We know the signs. We don’t interfere, even if we notice.”
“Why not?” Annabelle asked. If Mr. Gold knew them, surely he’d want them to keep his staff from running away?
“Not our job.” Ruby shrugged. “The decent ones have the guts to quit to his face. We figure they aren’t worth troubling with.”
“Oh.” Annabelle looked down. “So, you know Mr. Gold.”
“We go way back.” Ruby said, nodding. “He always sends his housekeepers here for room and board, and we do quite a bit of business through the grocery, though Mr. Hopper actually runs it for Granny.”
“Do you… trust him?” She looked up into Ruby’s eyes.
“With my life.” She looked dead serious.
Mr. Gold may not have had the best temperament, but he was a good man at heart. The curse just kind of… glazed him over. And no matter what, he always honored his word. After a second Ruby thought to speak again, once again becoming the host.
“Look, are you sure you don’t want something to eat? We have vegetable soup on the stove.” The girl was skinny as a rat. Ruby was thin herself, but it was just her bone structure. Annabelle simply didn’t look completely healthy- a malnourishment patient in recovery was probably an accurate description.
“Ok.” She conceded with a shrug and started to get up. Ruby held out a hand.
“Ah, ah. You wait here, I’ll bring you a cup.”
“I don’t want to trouble you.” Annabelle said.
“It’s not trouble. Trust me. I think Granny’s coming in soon anyways.” She walked out of the room and down the steps, making a left towards the back kitchen. Inside there were three large stoves and three ovens for during the tourist season, when the place was packed and hard to handle with only one stove. Now it was just Granny, Ruby, and Belle, and the large pot of vegetable soup would easily feed the three of them, even with two Wolf appetites.
She ladled some soup into a bowl and found a tray and a mug for tea. There was even some fresh bread on the counter. A growling came from the other side of the door, and Ruby could feel her eyes flashing into Wolf form by instinct, golden and predatory. It was possible to only Shift into Wolf form in part, but it took practice and experience to use their form in a way like Granny and Ruby did, blending human and animal instincts until there was such a seamless transition that they became one. Long, lonely howls came from outside, splitting the night with their inhuman noise- Ruby knew very well who those belonged to, but thankfully he wasn’t near here, and whatever was outside the door wasn’t making them. A second later the swinging door burst open, and Ruby let out a feral growl. When she took in the form in the kitchen, though, she immediately calmed, her eyes becoming dark brown again.
“Granny.” She said, relieved. A female gray and black wolf, at least three times the size of a normal pack leader, stood in the large open area of the kitchen, a possum in its mouth. She dropped the possum and seemed to roll her head in a circle, bringing her shoulder back and Shifting into human form.
“Success!” she said, punching the air. “Red, you get the spices ready while I skin the little sucker. You know I don’t like the taste of raw meat.”
Even though their digestive systems allowed for it in human or Wolf form, Granny and Ruby both preferred their meat cooked. It had come in handy during hard winters and times when they were forced to survive in the wilderness, but those were times when they would have died if they had Shifted into human form. Human food was easier on their stomachs in either form, though.
“Let me bring up this tray and I’ll get right on it. Gold’s new girl is here.”
Granny was immediately on alert.
“Is she what he said?”
“Yes. He wasn’t exaggerating. She seems like a nice person, though. I’m not getting any bad vibes on my Wolf part.” Generally animal senses were more accurate than human ones when it came to character judgment, especially animals that Shifted.
“That’s good.” Granny suddenly sniffed the air. “How close has she been to him? She’s so potent I can smell her from here, and she definitely has his scent on her. And no, it’s not the house, that’s Gold’s magical scent… but it can’t be…” she sniffed again. Ruby looked at her like she was crazy. This was a specialty to Wolf and large cat Shifters, tracking magical scents.
“Granny, I smell it, but-”
“Nope, that’s definitely it! What the…?” she shook her head, astonished. “He won’t let anyone get that close to him. Ever. Even the few who had magical abilities in the past never had that type of his scent on them.” The old woman rummaged around for a knife and began to skin her kill.
“What would she have had to do to get that type of scent? What type are you even talking about?” Ruby asked. Even after a thousand years there were things she wasn't sure of. She could distinguish and track a scent like a pro from person to person, but Granny was best at telling which scents meant what.
“A scent like that? That’s possessive. It comes with emotional attachment. The others had a sort of sour, bitter scent that was just raw magic, and that comes from just touching and normal interaction. If they were sleeping together it would be a lot stronger…”
“Granny!” Ruby snapped. She loved her, but the woman wasn’t afraid to say very frankly what she thought.
“It’s the truth! Just thinking out loud, here, Red. She’d have to have… maybe… hugged him or something? Maybe a kiss?”
“Who would kiss Gold?” Ruby snorted. She liked the man alright, but she’d never kiss him.
“Beats me, but some kind of affectionate interaction ensued. It had to for that kind of smell.”
“Hmm…” Ruby’s eyes suddenly fell on the tray. “Oh! I’d better take this back up.” She grabbed it and headed back up the stairs.
“Check the bolts!” Granny called, the howling still going on. It was a standard warning. On the nights that Rumpelstiltskin’s curse took effect, they bolted all the doors and windows with strong bars, out of precaution alone. It was more for his sake than theirs- the two of them would easily be able to take him down, but should he no longer be able to keep the beast at bay, it would be better not to have to kill him.
All the bolts seemed solid. She would give them a more thorough going-over once Annabelle had eaten her dinner.
Chapter 7: Curse Weavers
Also, I felt it was pertinent to up the rating to a mild M due to the curse, or rather, breaking the curse. You'll probably know what I mean when you get there. If you think that it's unnecessary, please don't hesitate to tell me so.
Before taking the soup in to Annabelle, Ruby ran her finger through it once, which under normal circumstances would be very unsanitary considering the dead possum in the kitchen, but Annabelle needed more nourishment than a cup of soup alone would provide for her, and Ruby was giving it just a little kick. It was one of the benefits to being born into a long bloodline of healers.
“Annabelle?” Ruby knocked softly, cracking the door open. She sat looking out the window at the stars.
“Hey. I brought your food.” She sat the tray on the empty nightstand. “You need to eat.” Annabelle shifted only slightly, still staring out the window.
“You can’t see them in New York. Too many lights.”
“Do you know any constellations?” Ruby asked, pressing the soup into her hands. Annabelle reluctantly ate.
“Not many.” She admitted. “I know Orion and Ursa Major, but I can’t reliably spot any others.”
“Well, it’s a start to know it’s not actually the Big Dipper.” Ruby said. “Maybe sometime I can take you out and teach you some others.” When she and Granny had traversed the world, Shifting into wolves for travel, they’d used stars for reliable navigation. However, tonight it would be a very bad idea to take Annabelle outside. Just in case Gold got out.
“That would be great.” Annabelle said with a timid smile. It didn’t take animal instincts for Ruby to figure out that something else was bothering her, though.
“What’s wrong? You can’t be only nervous about being here for the night.” About that time another howl pierced the air.
“I’m just… I don’t know.” She shrugged. “I mean, it’s nice enough with Mr. Gold, but…”
“Lonely?” Ruby guessed. To her surprise, Annabelle shook her head.
“Actually, it’s the first time in a long time that I haven’t felt lonely. A nice change, really. But then I come down here, and just walking through this place is like taking in the entire world I’ve been missing. Ruby laughed.
“Trust me, this isn’t much of the world. Storybrooke is nice for the most part, but honestly it’s not the most active of places.” Most of their visitors came to see the rustic little town in the summer and fall, and a lot of their business came from the Blue Ridge Parkway. “Where did you come from?”
“New York.” Annabelle said, taking another bite of soup. “I met Mr. Gold at the train station.” Ruby squealed a little at the thought of the huge city.
“Really? What’s it like? I’ve always wanted to go there, but… well, it hasn’t worked out.” She’d only seen it once, and that was back over two centuries ago, when the annual Magician’s Ball was held there. Now it was a veritable urban jungle, and as much as Ruby wanted to go, Granny insisted it was no place for a Shifter.
“I mean, it’s nice, I guess. A lot of really tall buildings and not much green, mostly. But… I really haven’t seen much of it in about eight years.”
“What? I thought you said-”
“I did come from there, yeah. But… it’s a long story.” Annabelle shrugged.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” Ruby said. “You must be tired. I just- I haven’t had another girl to talk to in… forever, really.” What was it now? About a hundred years? Before that she’d loved talking with Snow White, but she was on the run and couldn’t afford to make communication. They’d been lodging Gold’s housekeepers for about three centuries, and there had only ever been one to make it long enough to get to know Ruby. She was decent, a nice girl, but so timid.
She got scared. She’d run away in the middle of the night.
She ran for the woods.
She didn’t make it.
Ruby blamed herself for her death to some extent.
“No, it’s fine! I haven’t had anyone to talk to either.” Annabelle said. “It’s just… it’s a long story.” Ruby looked at her watch. It was only seven o’ clock.
“I’ve got time.” She said.
Annabelle took a second to weigh her out. Ruby seemed like a genuinely good-hearted person, but she wasn’t sure she trusted her yet. Then again, Mr. Gold was a pretty secretive person, and he seemed to trust Ruby and Granny with a lot.
“Ok.” Annabelle said. Ruby sat down on the edge of the bed and waited for her to continue. “When I was little, my parents divorced, and I mostly grew up with my mom in Virginia. Long story short, when I was twelve I had to move back in with my dad and my stepmom- don’t start thinking bad things about Alicia, because she was really nice to me. My dad was ok at first…”
She looked over at Ruby, who was listening attentively. The girl nodded for her to continue.
“He hit some problems, and he started drinking. After I graduated he kind of… well, he went crazy, really. I always thought I was protecting them from his temper- he got really, really angry when he was drunk sometimes- but I think… I think I was just provoking him.”
Alcohol. Dammit. Ruby cursed him mentally for being so foolish. Magic or no magic in his blood, being around someone as powerful as Annabelle and drinking at the same time would certainly change him. Ruby took a deep breath and looked her in the eye.
“Trust me when I say that I can’t tell you why, but it isn’t your fault.”
Annabelle nodded slowly, not completely convinced. She was sure it wasn’t completely her fault, as she couldn’t think of anything she’d ever done, but at the same time he didn’t seem to get horribly angry around anyone else.
“So what’s your story?” Annabelle asked. Ruby smiled a little sadly.
“It’s not that interesting. Granny and I came here a long time ago, and we really haven’t been anywhere else since. I’ve always wanted to branch out, you know?” As a little girl she’d wanted to be a warrior- go off and fight battles. She had the form for it; Wolf Shifters were known for excellent battle skills. Granny wouldn’t let her, though.
Annabelle suddenly jumped as a howl came from the distance. Ruby got up and barred the window. Though they were on the second floor, she had no doubt that Gold would be able to scale the building in his current state. However, her new lodger had returned to her panicked state.
“Scared of wolves?” Ruby asked, curious. It would be quite ironic if she was.
“Yes- no- not really? I’ve just never heard anything like that before.” She said, staring at the shutters. “It sounds… tortured. I makes me sad to hear it.” Suddenly she shook herself, brushing the notion off. “But that’s silly, right?”
“Not as much as you think.”
In the dark corridors of Rumpelstiltskin’s home, he ran his transformed fingers over the scroll once more. It had been a deal worked out with Snow White for a copy of this scroll- the whereabouts of her prince in exchange for it- and she had dropped it off only a an hour before sunset. She’d managed to sneak into Regina’s castle and snag it for him, knowing it would detail the conditions of his curse, and whatever he needed to do to break it.
He could never sleep on these nights. Honestly, he wasn’t even sure what kind of beast he was any longer. His form wasn’t much taller, but he was twenty times stronger, and covered with hair claws grew from his fingers and his teeth became long and pointed, and yes, the change was painful from man to beast. He would stay that way for one night and one full day after the full moon rose. After that he would either black out or fall asleep, and find himself on the floor or in his bed, changed back into his former self.
If he tried, he could remember what he’d done while he was in his bestial form, but it didn’t come easy. He would fight for that memory, though. Regardless of who Regina had made him transform into, he was still a man, and a man needed his memory to make him whole. It was only through the generous help of Ruby and Granny that he had learned to control himself in this form.
Regina’s blood red rose, a play on all the roses in this house, sat in its glass container, ever outside of time itself, approaching the two thousand year mark. It was a reminder of the strength of the curse- it would only die with either his death or the death of the curse. The scroll on the table, now discarded, read as follows:
~ I sentence the cursed to walk the night in the form of a shade, a vile monster from the darkest of dreams, powerless to his form when the moon is full. His heart will become as black as night, and his soul twisted into something darker than its natural state, turning the cursed into a cold, cruel being. His power will increase tenfold, but he will be twisted into a form that is more than human and less than truly beast, a human mind trapped in an animal’s body.
At any time, the curse may be revoked by the caster, but the cursed will forfeit all claims to his magic by dispelling it in such a fashion. Should he wish to keep his magic, he may keep the curse. Should he wish to break the curse and keep his magic, he cannot do it alone. He must mark his rescuer with his own two hands, and their innocent blood must flow across his claws. They must return to him willingly, offering their life, and he must accept the bargain.
Only then might he lose his bestial form again ~
He should have known it would be something like this. The blasted witch had made the conditions to break it involve a sacrificial lamb. Someone would have to see him, be harmed by him, and willingly returned to be killed by him. And he would have to go through with it.
But that was something he could never, never bring himself to do.
“He’s having a rough night tonight.” Regina said to the blonde woman in her mirror. “I can’t see him because he’s got the covers on his mirrors, but it sounds even worse than usual.”
“And that makes you… happy?” Maleficent asked. Sometimes she thought Regina had lost all traces of humanity.
“Not exactly. But it’s not eating at me, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Remind me why you even bothered to curse him again?”
“He was becoming a nuisance. Most powerful dark Sorcerers slide towards our side of the moral compass, and at first I thought he was. Then there was that little mishap with his son, and… well, I had to do something.” She sipped her now cold apple cider.
“So you gave him even more power?” Maleficent laughed. “You know he was on the brink of being a Warlock even before you cursed him. Why make it so he’s the most powerful magician on the planet?!”
“All magic comes with a price!” Regina snapped. “The curse was a trade-off so I wouldn’t pay it directly. Give him more power in return for changing his form permanently, trapping his human mind in an animal’s body, and then having him lose all humanity and submit to the beast’s instincts come the full moon.”
“Well, that obviously didn’t work.” Melissa muttered. The Evil Queen scoffed.
“Only partially. I still thought it might break him, but clearly I was wrong. But the price to break the curse is far worse than the price to cast it, even with a few flukes.”
“What’s that?” the Dragon Enchantress leaned in closer, extremely interested.
“He needs a willing innocent to die for him.” Regina smirked. “And he swore against ever killing another innocent soul a very, very long time ago. Or…”
“He can come back to me, and I’ll take it away, but he loses all his magic. Every last drop.”
“What would ever make him want to do that?” It took a moment before Regina responded to this.
“Perhaps if he had someone he wanted to save…” She raised an eyebrow pointedly.
“The girl? You’re dragging the girl into all of this? Seriously?” It was the oldest trick in the book, and it hardly ever worked anymore, especially when you couldn’t even count on their love. “You know dark and light magic don’t mix well, Regina. As soon as she realizes it she’ll be heading for the hills!” Regina suddenly stood, slamming her glass on the table with a loud clink and sloshing cold cider across the surface.
“The whole point of bringing the curse on him was to get him to submit to my will, and submit he shall- one way or another!”
The two women stared at each other, Maleficent incredulous and Regina breathing hard, knuckles white from gripping the table. Maleficent timidly spoke after a moment.
“Regina, what exactly did the curse say? And I do mean the exact words.” Melissa was well aware that Regina wasn’t the best at crafting curses, and the Evil Queen seemed to be the only one in the magical world who wasn’t.
“It… it said…” Regina relaxed her grip on the table edge, suddenly unable to call up exactly what she’d written. It had been almost two thousand years. “Hold on. I’ll get the scroll.”
She left the mirror’s view area for a minute, and Melissa could hear rustling, then frantic rustling, coming from the side.
“It’s not here.”
“The scroll, you idiot! It isn’t here!” It suddenly dawned on her that somehow or another he must have gotten it. He must have sent someone here to take it. Nobody else would be able to detect where it was- the two parties were bound to it. And if he had the scroll, that meant he knew what the curse said…
Regina may not have been fully aware of her incompetence in weaving curses, but she knew that Rumpelstiltskin was a master. The wording was shoddy and even rather vague in places, and it would be easy for him to see that.
This was not good.
He might be able to think of another way around her curse.
The next morning, Annabelle walked downstairs and found her way to the kitchen, where Granny was making breakfast. There were eggs, sausages, ham, and pancakes- enough for at least five people.
“Good morning, honey.” Granny said, catching a glimpse of her in the doorway. She put down her spatula and shook her hand. “I’m Granny- everybody calls me that. Ruby went out to get some milk, but she’ll be back soon. I hope you’re hungry.”
As fantastic as everything looked, she almost missed cooking breakfast with Mr. Gold. She helped Granny set the places and took a seat at the kitchen table about the time Ruby walked in with the milk, which wouldn’t have been strange under normal circumstances, except that she was carrying it in a pail.
“What?” Ruby asked. “It’s better fresh. And after Granny made the pancakes there wasn’t any left.”
She poured the fresh milk into a pitcher, discreetly waving a hand over it just to make sure it was safe to drink. They usually let their goat roam quite a bit (they both preferred goat milk, but goats weren’t as skittish around them as cows for some reason).
“I’ll take you around town today if you want.” Ruby said, spearing a sausage. Though their manners were impeccable, she and Granny ate with the appetites of bears. “Sometimes it’s kind of hard to find whatever you need when you don’t know your way.”
“That would be great.”
After breakfast the two set off with a shopping list in hand and instructions to send the bill to Mr. Gold “per usual.” Ruby had only spent about twenty minutes getting milk that morning, and the rest of the time she’d actually snuck off to warn the other shopkeepers that they were coming- or at least, the ones who could see magic. Just for safety, Ruby donned her red jacket (enchanted in the same way but slightly more subtle than a cape, though she still had it for the times when she wanted to be flamboyant) and took Annabelle around the town to shop for whatever Gold happened to need this time. He sometimes made some very odd and inexplicable requests, which Ruby knew were items used for potions, but she couldn’t tell the housekeepers that. Well, sometime soon she might be able to tell Annabelle, but Rumpelstiltskin had left explicit instructions to do nothing to tip her off. She was being monitored for power fluctuations.
Storybrooke tended to attract those with magical potential, however small, like flies to honey, whether they knew about their potential or not. For example, the clock maker, Jefferson, was a Wizard, and he knew about and used his powers from time to time. Emma Swan, the sheriff, had absolutely no clue about her magical abilities, though most of the town was pinning her as Warrior caliber. If you knew about magic, you could usually see magic. It wasn’t a constant thing- it was like checking an ID almost. If you hadn’t seen a person with magical abilities before, you could see their magic floating around them. Other times you almost had to call up the ability, unless something had majorly changed about their magical signature.
“Ok, so what’s on this list…?” Ruby took the paper out of her hand that Gold had given her before she left. “Usual grocery stuff… wood stain? Polish? Paintbrushes? Wax? Are you remodeling in there?” Annabelle bit her lip.
“I’m restoring the floors in the library. They need a new coat of… well… everything. It looked like nobody had been in there in forever- I left footprints in the dust!” she realized she was gesturing wildly and quickly hid her hands behind her back, but Ruby was laughing.
“Sounds like a job. We’ll stop by Gepetto’s hardware store on the way back.”
The only grocery store in the town turned out to be a small place, but it was plenty for what they needed, and even the things that weren’t in season seemed to be fresh. It was fashioned like an old general store, with some fruit displays in the front and most everything else behind the counter for the grocer to compile. A small red-haired man with glasses came out of the back room when he heard the bell from the door.
“Ruby! And you must be Mr.Gold’s new housekeeper.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Archie. If you’ve got the list, I’ll see what I can do.”
When she handed him the list, Ruby’s hand linger just a touch longer than it should have and she cut him a very purposeful glance. Archie blushed and swallowed hard as he went back into the stores. Despite herself, Annabelle cracked a smile.
“What?” Ruby asked, faking innocence.
“Sorry, Ruby, but that was definitely not subtle.”
Chapter 8: Chim Chim Cheree
The two women spent the rest of the day around town gathering up supplies and dropping it off in Granny’s kitchen. Thankfully, the kitchen was large enough to hold three times the amount Annabelle purchased plus their own food, and it was near the center of town, so their arms were never overloaded for too long.
Annabelle teased Ruby gently about her obvious interest in Archie Hopper, and heard some of the story of Ruby’s first love, Peter, and how Archie was becoming a very good thing for her. She couldn’t hear the entire story, though. All Annabelle was told was that he died on a hunt, not that Ruby had killed him in the early stages of her Wolf form, when she had little control over her actions. Archie was a Shifter Mage as well, and though his form was subsequently less fierce than Ruby’s, he was helping her learn to forgive herself.
On the way back from Gepetto’s Hardware (run by the old man and his adopted son August), Ruby insisted that they stop by the watchmaker’s shop to introduce two more of the town’s colorful characters. It seemed like she was enjoying introducing her to everyone.
“Just be warned: Jefferson is a great guy, but he’s a little… eccentric.” She whispered as she opened the door. Jefferson, the former “Mad” Hatter, dubbed so for his fascination with top hats and magical experimentation, was the kind of man who became stuck in the Victorian Age after the Great Merge. Sometimes it was fascinating and alluring, and other times, well… downright creepy. And, as expected, Emma Swan was inside talking to him, eating a sandwich as he tinkered with an ancient pocket watch. Nearly everyone knew that beneath their scathing remarks and animosity there was an air that oozed romance.
Most of the town had bets on who was going to snap first- the Sheriff or the watchmaker.
“Hey, Jeff.” Ruby said cheerfully, flashing a teasing smile.
“Don’t call me that.” He groaned, looking up from his watch briefly. When he caught a glance of Annabelle, he put down his tools and came over to introduce himself, gripping one of her hands with both of his in a strange version of a handshake. He wore an embroidered waistcoat, dress shirt, and dress pants, complete with ascot, pocket watch, and brooding expression.
“And your name is…?”
“Annabelle.” Jefferson seemed to roll the name around on his tongue, and pulled her in for a slightly strange handshake that turned her in a circle to face the other. In the end she wound up also shaking hands with Emma, who muttered an apology for Jefferson.
“Sorry about that. I’m Emma, but I guess Ruby’s probably told you.”
“It’s alright.” Said Annabelle, a bit bemused.
“So, where did you come from?” Asked Emma.
“I lived there once.” The Sheriff said. “For about six months.”
“Didn’t like it?”
“I didn’t think it was very safe for my kid.” She said. “He used to stay at home by himself a lot, and you can imagine what I thought about him being ten years old and alone in New York. So… we came here.” As if on cue, a brown-haired boy and a blonde girl walked through the shop doors. Jefferson went to his knees to hug the girl, and the boy came over to Emma.
“Hey, kiddo.” She said, giving him a hug and a playful punch in the arm. “This is Annabelle. Annabelle, this is Henry and that’s Grace.” The girl looked over and waved. Though Jefferson himself was about Ruby’s age, his daughter Grace was exactly what she seemed- about ten years old. Her mother had died a messy death when she wasn’t even a year old, and Jefferson had quit his previous line of work for good.
“Hi.” Annabelle waved tentatively.
“Oh!” Ruby swung her bag off her shoulder, pulling out a large ziplock bag. “I almost forgot. I brought you guys something- Granny and I made cookies yesterday.”
“Thanks, Ruby!” Henry said, taking the bag to split with Grace and running outside.
“Don’t ruin your supper!” Emma called.
“They’re sweet kids.” Ruby whispered.
All in all, it seemed that Ruby was right. Storybrooke was a nice town, but not the most interesting place in the world, even though Annabelle may have thought otherwise if she knew the truth about most of its occupants. On the morning she went back to Gold’s house, Ruby hugged her goodbye and made her promise to call or email if she got the chance. She missed Snow White terribly, but she’d found a fast friend in the newcomer, and Ruby wasn’t about to let that go.
Arms laden with packages, Annabelle was pleased to find that the door opened for her. She’d stopped questioning some of the more peculiar things that went on in the house, attributing some to logical things and preferring simply not to dwell on others.
“Mr. Gold?” she called. “Hello?” After placing the packages in the kitchen and the restoration supplies in the library, which thankfully was no dustier than she’d left it, she proceeded to start searching for Mr. Gold. The doorways that were at the ends of passages all seemed to be locked, though, and they all led her towards one place: the entrance to the West Wing. There was only one entrance, as the wing was only on one floor- she could see it from some of the other windows. It looked to have about six or so rooms from above, but one could never be sure. Eventually Annabelle had drawn the conclusion that Mr. Gold’s own rooms were hidden away in the West Wing, but she was still terrified to enter. A feeling that made her very bones quake pervaded her when she stepped up to the entrance.
There were roses carved on the heavy, dark wood doors, surrounded by vines in a looping, woven pattern. She knocked quietly at first, then louder. After a second or two she was positive there were footsteps on the other side, and a muffled voice came from the other side of the door.
“I’ll be out later. Don’t worry about me.”
“Belle, I need you to go.”
Not wanting to stay by those doors any longer, she took off down the hallway, only stopping when she reached the library.
The following two weeks were filled up with her task in the library. She’d successfully stained the top three balconies, though polishing and waxing was yet to come, and Ruby made regular supply deliveries once she figured out how far one can of stain or carton of wax would stretch. To avoid running the room over with fumes, she’d pinned back the drapes and opened the large set of first floor windows, which looked out on the neglected rose garden (a summer project, perhaps?). The plants seemed to be alive, but they would need pruning, weeding, and careful tending to make them thrive. That was something for another time, though.
Belle never did ask questions about the day she’d come back to the house. She was beginning to think of herself as becoming someone different here, as becoming a being that was Belle and not Annabelle while in the house.
On the morning she wanted to start with the first floor stain and cleaning the fireplace, Belle was just beginning to think there had to be some creative way to move all that heavy furniture, when she opened the doors to find that it had completely vanished. She wasn’t sure whether she should be shocked or scared, but of all things she was definitely grateful.
“Thank you.” She whispered quietly. Whatever force was around this house, she was beginning to owe it quite a debt. She’d worry about where the furniture actually went later, when the time came that she wanted it back. For now, she spread cloths on the floor, grateful there were already drops over the bookshelves in an attempt to keep some of the fumes from the stain off the old volumes, and set to cleaning the fireplace.
The cleaning closet had a chimney sweep or two in it that she’d noticed before- whoever had owned the house previously must have used them, because they were metal and wire and very, very old… just like everything else around there. Old was fantastic in this case, though, because old meant durable. She also donned gloves, a mask, and goggles- knowing her luck she’d wind up with soot in her eyes before she even got started. Honestly, she probably should have tackled this particular task first thing, but it wasn’t something she was looking forward to, and rightly so.
After nearly an hour of the messy, suffocating business, she was absolutely covered in soot and the fireplace, which had to be a good six or seven feet wide and five feet tall, only had the bottom ten feet cleared of soot. There had to be a better way to do this, and she assumed it would probably be to lower something down through the roof. Alright, so research on this particular issue had been minimal, but she hadn’t thought it would be quite this messy. Belle was quickly learning that a hundred years’ worth of soot amounted to much more than you might think.
Taking the spiral stairs up to the last balcony, Belle scanned the ceiling for anything that might suggest a hatch or a ladder. Suddenly there was a loud creak to her left, and she saw a door fall open from the ceiling. Good, that was good. At least she wouldn’t have to go crawling around the roof of the house to get to the library. Things were straightforward. To her dismay, there wasn’t a ladder, and she had to bring one in from the supply closet. However, the view from the roof was well worth it.
Climbing out, she found the hatch led to a sort of circular viewing walk, ringed around the skylight and bordered by a rail. It was high enough that she could see off the back side of the mountain and into the valley below, away from Storybrooke. Shades of green and yellow dotted the countryside, patches of red that were barns and multicolored fields of flowers sometimes breaking them apart. Back home she would sneak onto the roof sometimes, but she thought that even the sunrise over New York City couldn’t match the stars you might see here in the black of night.
Looking around the roof, it now seemed that the library was the only part of the building that didn’t have an extreme spatial inequality from the inside to the outside.
After she had recovered from her daze, and thinking she must look like quite the chimney rat, Belle found the top of the structure and gauged about how wide she thought she might need the brush to be. To actually get to the thing she’d have to climb over the railing and out onto the roof, which could be risky if she wasn’t careful. She climbed back down, ready to look for rope and start cleaning from above again, when she realized that there was quite a bit less soot on the floor than there had been. In fact, the white dropcloths were completely clean. Rushing down the stairs and over to the fireplace, she found that the chimney had been swept out, and all that remained was to clean the great brick structure itself.
Apparently something had had mercy on her.
She changed her clothes into something considerably less sooty and spent the rest of the morning cleaning around the mouth of the fireplace. The masonry was gorgeous, and having it cleaned made her feel both quite accomplished and like she’d cheated a bit at her task. As grateful as she was, she usually wasn’t one to ask for a lot of help. There was even time for a shower before lunch, just to get the rest of the grime out of her hair and nails. Grabbing a sandwich from the kitchen, she took it up to eat on the roof.
Strange. This entire thing was extremely strange.
“I finished staining the floors today.” Belle said as she brought out supper the next night.
“Really? That was a rather fast job. I thought you said you were going to try to clean the chimney.” He’d tried to dissuade her from it for weeks, even coming to the point of threats, but to no avail.
“Actually, I was going to, but it was already clean.” She glanced at him meaningfully.
“It wasn’t me!” he held up his hands defensively, but smiled when he thought she wasn’t looking. Oh, it wasn’t him, but he knew what had done it. Belle sighed softly and went back to her soup.
“Why didn’t you want me to clean it?” She asked after a moment. He thought about brushing it off, but she deserved to be told, at least (truthfully, he thought he had a couple more days of persuasion time before she started on the thing, otherwise he would have probably tied her down somewhere to keep her from it).
“The last time someone tried to clean that chimney from above... The footing is absolutely horrible around the top. It’s slick even when it’s dry. They nearly fell off the roof. Luckily they managed to grab onto a gutter at the last minute.” Belle had to fight to keep her hands from flying to her mouth in shock, but she felt her stomach drop.
The house or- or something had kept her from being killed.
Her appetite was suddenly gone.
“Sydney, would you kindly set us up for our usual five-way?” Azura asked, shuffling a sheaf of papers on the table in front of her.
“Of course.” The face in the mirror smiled and faded away momentarily. Most of the time calls could be placed directly, but in this case the set-up was a little more complicated, and the mirror operator was a necessity. He was also quite useful if you didn’t know exactly which mirror you should try and communicate to.
Only a moment later four other faces flashed into view.
“Alright, welcome to this month’s mirror conference.” Azura said. It was her turn to lead the meeting. “The first order of business is that it’s time to get together our regional reports for the year, which only applies to three of us.” She glared at Maleficent and Regina, who could very well tell that Azura was looking at them because of their position on her four-mirror table. Since the two magicians were not in their correct regional areas and no one could actually get them to move elsewhere, so others had to be appointed to make the reports, which was an unnecessary burden. The only reason they were even allowed at the meetings was because they could majorly upset the balance of good and evil if someone ticked them off.
“I’ll send it in tomorrow, Azura. Though, to be honest there hasn’t been that much activity except for the bit you all already know about.” Rumpelstiltskin said with a shrug.
“Alright. Second order of business is Regina’s stepdaughter, Snow White.”
“What has that wretched girl done now?” The raven-haired woman muttered from the next mirror over.
“Absolutely nothing!” Beryl snapped. “However, she’s been put into quite the predicament involving a colony of dwarves in my region, and we were wondering if you might know anything about it.” Her wings were quivering with anger.
“Don’t look at me. I haven’t been sure of where she is for over a century. You know that.” Maleficent rolled her eyes and cast a glance at Robert, who nodded by miniscule amounts. This was an old argument that neither of them were in the mood for, especially Rumpelstiltskin.
“Ladies, as compelling as this age-old argument is, can we please not do this right now? I’m sure there are more important matters to discuss than Regina’s system of tracking Snow White.” He looked over at Regina. “It’s out-of-date, by the way. I sensed it trying to scan this area last week and blocked it. You need to update your cloaking threads or she’ll feel it from a twenty mile radius. I hear Snow’s gotten rather advanced.”
Regina only shot him a seething look and gestured for Azura to go on.
“Next is Robert. How’s Belle doing? Has anything changed?”
“No. There hasn’t been any power fluctuation this whole month, and she still hardly seems to notice the dark magic around me. Now, she does get rather twitchy around the doors to the West Wing, but that’s stagnant magic, it just sort of sits there. She shouldn’t be as sensitive to it as to the magic around me.”
“Does she do anything around Ruby or Granny?” Beryl asked.
“Not that I know of. They seem to be getting on rather well, actually.”
“Hm… that is strange. We’ll look into it.” Azura said.
“I’ve heard of a case or two like that.” Melissa said. “It’s either because the magic is evenly matched in power or because they have some kind of link in the two parties.”
“What do you mean a link? Like a blood link?” Asked Rumpelstiltskin.
“What’s a blood link?” Regina was suddenly interested again.
“Well, perhaps if you kept up your studies you’d know.” Robert snapped. The Evil Queen oftentimes let her vanity get in the way of her common sense. “Now please, continue.” Beryl started to open her mouth to take up the explanation, but Melissa stopped her.
“May I?” the Dragon Enchantress smiled in a way that would suggest she might have pointed teeth. Beryl reluctantly nodded and settled back down, disappointed. She was the oldest of them all, and seemed to have it in her head that it was her job to explain everything. A moment later Maleficent continued.
“A blood link, Regina, is an obscure kind of magical bonding from the Old World caused by either blood relation or the exchange of blood between two or more parties, like blood siblings. It’s a very strong bond.” Melissa sighed. “Yes, Robert, possibly a blood link, but sometimes a romantic link or even a Life for a Life bond will do.” A Life for a Life bond was an old tradition that had slowly been altered over the years, with the same intentions holding. It was a bond of gratitude, saving someone’s life or having your life spared after being wounded, and you would later owe a debt to the person. The bond lasted even after the debt was paid.
“And that makes them impervious to magical clashes?” He asked. Normally dark and light magic were like trying to put two of the same poles of a magnet together- it can be done if the magnet isn’t too strong, but it just takes effort to remain that way. Also, the larger the difference of power, the harder to remain together.
“In my experience, yes, but I don’t know what could have caused your Belle to have any interaction with you in the past, so that possibility is probably out. Also, it doesn’t explain why she isn’t reacting to Ruby.” The Dragon Enchantress sighed. “Sorry- I don’t know anything else.”
“It was a great help, dear.” Beryl said encouragingly. Melissa wasn’t entirely evil, just extremely self-serving and easily swayed. She could even be helpful at times if she cared about the subject matter enough.
“Another thing- the magic in the house is really taking to her. And I do mean extremely well. Ridiculously well, in fact.”
“For example…?” Azura motioned for him to go on. Regina yawned. She had thought about bringing up the mishap with the scroll, but that was probably best to settle in private.
“For example, she had in her head that she was going to clean the chimney in the library- don’t look at me like that, she’s stubborn as a bloody mule. She got all the way up to the roof and was going back down to get supplies, but it had already been cleaned.”
“And she told you this?” Beryl asked.
“Yes. She was white as a sheet.”
“Why? If the house likes her she shouldn’t get a bad feeling from it.” Melissa said.
“No, she was white as a sheet because I told her the last person who attempted to clean the chimney nearly fell off and died.”
“Who was that?” Regina asked.
“Me.” He shrugged.
Not the smartest idea, he’d admit. Though, honestly, he’d done stupider things, and many of them had ended with him having blood on his hands, quite literally. The days at the beginning of his curse were ones he would rather not relive. It seemed that the Old Magic in the house was trying to push Annabelle towards… something. It certainly didn’t want her to die, that was for sure, but Old Magic usually didn’t interfere so directly. Perhaps it simply didn’t want her to suffer the fate that Gold nearly had.
The only conclusion that he could come up with was that, silly as it sounded, the house knew something that he clearly didn’t, and Robert wasn’t working fast enough to satisfy it.
Chapter 9: Don't Judge A Book...
Everything seemed to be going well after the stain had properly dried, so Belle set to waxing the first floor. There wasn’t really any point to start from above when the furniture was so nicely tucked away somewhere, and the first floor was the biggest job to tackle. The weather was warm for March, and since the sun shined directly on the large windows and the rose garden, if she opened them during the day and closed them at night, the temperature was actually quite comfortable while being well-vented.
Waxing wasn’t as hard as she assumed it was going to be, but it was work. Her arms were sore after only two hours, even after being used to arm work from cleaning the shelves. There were still cloths draped over everything, so she leaned back against one of the shelves to stretch her arms out and regroup herself before continuing. Only a moment later there was a loud thump, and she cried out as a book fell on her head. Another one followed suit, the thick volumes finally landing on the floor with a plop. They were old and leather bound with some kind of elaborate design stamped into the cover, but had no titles on the outside. She couldn’t figure out for the life of her where they had come from, as the only pile of books not on the shelves had disappeared with the furniture, and there was certainly no one there to drop them on her.
With a sigh, she sat them down on the window seat and went back to her waxing. A minute later another book dropped on her, this time hitting her shoulder. Her hand immediately went to the place where it had hit- that would probably leave a mark.
The book plopped open on the floor beside her, and somehow she got the impression she was supposed to be reading them. She glanced over the pages to see they said something of interest, but the writing was spidery and flamboyant, and it would take quite a bit of concentration to make it out. With a huff, she spoke out loud, feeling ridiculous.
“Alright! I get it. I’m supposed to read them, right?” she paused for effect. Like anything was actually going to answer her. “Could you please, maybe, let me finish my waxing job first? I’ll read them tonight.”
Usually there was a sign or a shiver in the air whenever she said these things, but not today. There seemed to be a contented peace, and that was good enough for Belle.
One good thing about waxing was that it was consistent, methodical work. There wasn’t anything to react quickly to or change your tactic, it just kept going. It was nice work to lose yourself in thought over. She tried to keep her thoughts focused on the library and her job here, on Ruby and Granny, or even on the books she was probably meant to be reading later, but they kept floating back to the two things she most definitely did not want to think about: her family in New York and Mr. Gold.
She’d sent home her first paycheck this week, and received a grateful email from Alicia. After reassuring her stepmother that yes, she was fine, and no, her employer was not out for any kind of “funny business,” communication had ceased. Her father was slowly taking to his rehab program, though he tried to slip back every now and then. For only a month he was doing well, especially considering how much of an alcohol dependency he had. Belle kept thinking that there had to be something more she could do to help, rather than sitting around here cleaning a library, but repeatedly came to the conclusion that no, there wasn’t anything more she could do without actually being there physically, which was a bad idea.
This thought would eventually bring her around to Mr. Gold. Every morning before breakfast she checked the house, and every morning she found every single room she looked in to be in pristine, spotless condition. The only things that really needed taking care of were the library and the rose garden, and certainly he could hire a gardener… but why a full-time housekeeper? And why hire someone he’d just met at a train station and not someone more trusted?
Those questions stabbed at her from time to time, but not so much as the fact that she just might be attracted to him. The entire thing was a recipe for disaster… And yet, she was still here.
“What are you doing?” Mr. Gold asked, stepping into the kitchen. Belle was usually out waiting for him with dinner, but tonight she had set out the plates and was holding an ice pack to her shoulder in the kitchen. She should have probably gotten a pack as soon as she realized it would bruise badly, as the book had been a particularly heavy volume, but she wasn’t used to running for ice for her bruises.
“A book fell on me.” She mumbled, putting the pack back into the freezer.
“Yeah, that invisible force that’s in this house somehow, and I don’t know if it’s a ghost or a demon or what, but it decided it would pelt me with books today.” She shrugged and made her way out of the kitchen and to her place at the table. Mr. Gold stifled a laugh.
“So you think there’s a ghost or a demon in the house, and it has nothing better to do than throw books at an unsuspecting housekeeper?” Gold asked, still trying not to laugh.
“It’s not funny.” Belle said, fighting back a laugh herself.
“Yes it is.” He smirked.
“Ok… maybe a little.” She caved and started laughing as well.
“What books were they, anyways?” More than likely the Old Magic wanted her to read something, but he had no idea what.
“I don’t know. They didn’t have titles, and they were really old- like handwritten old. All three of them had this weird insignia stamped into the cover.” Thankfully, she chose this moment to concentrate on her food, because Mr. Gold absolutely froze. Most of the books in his library were old and leather bound because he himself was as old as many of the books. However, the three that she had described were a few of the near one hundred volumes in his library that were older than he was, only kept intact by their magical seal, stamped into their cover with a special brand. They were the original copies of some very, very precious sorcery books.
This could be a very good or a very bad thing, and though he was sure that she hadn’t received any volumes that might turn her away from her magical potential for good, he prayed that she might think it was a lot of interesting nonsense from far before her millennium.
“Mr. Gold?” she looked at him with a concerned expression. “Are you alright?”
“Yes, dearie, I’m fine.” He said, shaking himself. “I’ve just… lost my appetite.”
Strange. She wondered if she’d said something, though she wasn’t sure what. They cleared the dishes and said goodnight, when Mr. Gold suddenly came back with a parting request.
“Oh, and from now on I’d appreciate it if you called me Robert.”
He had no idea what possessed him to say that. She was getting into his head, by no fault of her own. The Old Magic was trying to push them together in its own way, and it was easy enough to see if you knew that it was Old Magic. It was working towards some kind of climax by giving her those books, and he needed to know what it was.
Robert Gold burst through the doors of the West Wing, all the way down to his small magician’s library, where copies of the one hundred sorcery volumes from the library resided.
“Now listen to me, because I’ve heard her talk to you and I know you can hear me. I don’t know why you gave her those books, but I need to see which ones you gave her.” Nothing happened. Usually something happened whenever Belle spoke directly, though he personally didn’t use this means of communication much, preferring to talk with it via thoughts. He thought about Belle’s mannerisms when she spoke to the house…
Oh, that was it, was it?
Three books immediately flew off the shelf towards him to land in a stack on the coffee table: Shifting Versus Transformation: Changing Forms at Will; Transformation, Creation, and Nurturing Spells; and lastly, On the Origins of Light and Dark Magic and How They Shape the World. On the Origins was a long and wordy volume, but extremely useful if you knew what you were sifting through. It was also the heaviest, and probably the one that had left the bruise on her shoulder.
It seemed like nothing particularly harmful, but hopefully he’d be able to wrestle that volume on Shifting away from her before she could read too far into it. If she actually wound up believing it and questioning things, Ruby and Granny would tell her the truth if it came down to it.
She probably wouldn’t make it too far through On the Origins without brushing it off as pure nonsense- either that or as a fantasy book. On the off chance she did make it through it, and then move on to the spell book… well, he wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do then. However, he had a good two weeks before it was time for the full moon again. It should be time enough to put her off whatever she might have read in those books.
Tucked snugly under the quit her mother made, Belle cracked open one of the books from the library, the heaviest. She mentally cursed it for the bruise it had left her, and attempted to trace her finger over the looped writing on the yellowed title page. It was clearly meant to be pretty, not legible, and after about thirty seconds of trying to decipher the first two words, she leaned back with a sigh.
“Would Times New Roman be so hard?” she groaned, wishing for something legible. Even looping print would be an improvement over the spidery scribble scrawled over the page. She looked back down at the page to find that it wasn’t so much changed as translated. There were lines that looked typed under each line of the cursive writing, dictating what everything said in clear print.
The title? On the Origins of Light and Dark Magic and How They Shape the World. Odd. Well, there was no reason not to read it, even if was someone’s practical joke of a book. The title sounded wordy, though, and the book didn’t disappoint. She believed the author had completely exhausted the five thousand longest words in the English language and perhaps some that weren’t English within the first three chapters.
It was interesting, if anything. The first chapter detailed what it referred to as “Old Magic” and how it became a sentient force- something about an Evil Sorcerer and a Warrior, though she was only able to make out the bare bones of the story because the author had lost his meaning in large words.
She was, however, able to make out that magic was split into something different from that point on. Some people were dark magicians, who were generally good with transformations, potions, and curses, and typically turned towards the evil side of things. Not all of them went that way, it was just that their magical qualities were more apt for… well, bad things. Some people were light magicians, who were more apt with blessings, creation spells (pulling things out of thin air and such), and nurturing spells. She also picked up that magic ran in bloodlines, and there was something called the Great Merge that wasn’t heavily detailed.
All in all, she got through about the first quarter of the book before she couldn’t take it anymore and set it on the nightstand in favor of another one- Shifting Versus Transformation: Changing Forms at Will. Ok, so maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. The third volume didn’t look any better, and as much as she couldn’t help but wonder why three volumes dealing with magic had been dropped on her from above…
Old Magic is a sentient force…
Curious, but there had to be some explanation, right? Something had to explain it logically.
Except that there was a mysterious force in this house that responded to her talking, and that same force had dropped books on her head dealing with magic. Said book had proceeded to make itself easier for her to read, which was scary enough in hindsight. And if it was so scary, then why wasn’t she scared?
Throughout the next week, the library proceeded to drop three more volumes down, though thankfully only one of them actually landed on her. All of them had the same insignia on the front cover, and all of them dealt with one kind of magic or another. It was really beginning to make her head spin. She didn’t mention it to Mr. Gold, as he probably wouldn’t want to know that more mysterious books on magic were plopping down on her head, but stored them away in her room, lined up on her desk.
It took her several days to finish waxing the bottom floor, as polishing was long, slow work, and was starting on polishing it when yet another book fell on her head. She picked it up with a sigh and stood, finally fed up with the library. Tomorrow she would pick up again, but it was after lunch and it was a beautiful day, and there was no point in staying inside and getting pelted by more books.
Taking the book with her, she walked outside to the rose garden, taking a side door she’d discovered behind a curtain. There was a cobblestone path that wound around in circles through the bushes, trees dotting the exterior and climbing roses reaching for the sky on the side of the main house. This confirmed her suspicion that the library was indeed the same size externally as internally, as opposed to the rest of the house.
The roses were in a poor state, but they were definitely alive. She brushed one of the bushes delicately with her fingers, wishing she knew what to do for the poor plants. Belle didn’t have much of a green thumb herself, but her mother had been extremely good with plants. She always said if you loved them enough they would sprout and bloom. It was easy to see they needed pruning badly, and lots of time invested.
Other than the roses, the garden didn’t seem to be in too bad a shape. The walkway needed a good sweeping, as years of fallen leaves were littered all over the stone, which was slick with decay. It would probably help to scrub the stones, too, but she didn’t want to use any sort of chemicals that might hurt the plants in the runoff. After retrieving the broom from the cleaning closet, Belle proceeded to sweep clear the walkways, which wound around in a pattern of three interlocking circles. Sweeping cleared most of the debris, but it would also be necessary to wash off the stones. The plants could probably use some watering anyways, so she’d just kill two birds with one stone.
Miracle of miracles, there was a long hose in the cleaning closet. It was sturdy green plastic, and probably the most modern tool she’d seen in the place. Even though the house had electricity and the kitchen was fairly up to date, the tools looked like they hadn't been touched since the library had been. If the house was kept as spotless as before with the other housekeepers, and they hadn’t tended to the library, she supposed there wouldn’t be much use for them. Nobody had bothered to purchase anything electric- she was almost positive that there were two ancient irons, the kind you would heat over a fireplace, hanging on a wall in the same closet.
It took her a while to find the spigot, as it was buried behind some overgrown bushes, but once she found it things went more smoothly. Most of the debris came off by just running it over with the water and a cloth, though some of it required some extra scrubbing in the areas closer to the trees. By dinner Belle had finished the first of the circles, though she had to stop early and make herself look mildly presentable- she was dusty, hot, and very dirty, and it certainly showed.
The book that the library had dropped today was something about Fairy gardening techniques. She wasn’t really in the mood to read it, though. Perhaps she could take a few of them with her when she left for her mandatory day off. Mr. Gold had taken pains to warn her this time. It would be in one week, and she knew when she was supposed to leave and who she was supposed to meet.
The only issue was that the closer she came to leaving, the less confident she felt about it. Mr. Gold (she still couldn’t get used to calling him Robert, no matter how much he corrected her) seemed more tired and less patient as the day grew closer, and he had headaches. One or two days he shut himself up in the West Wing without ever coming out, and no matter how much she prodded him, Belle couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
His patience with her was remarkable, and she tried not to push him to his limits. He wasn’t like this before, and she was beginning to become quite worried. If she left something could go wrong, and he would be here alone.
However, she knew from experience that if she stayed, something could still go terribly wrong, and she might be powerless to help.
Tucked safely away inside her California home, Regina seethed. Sometimes whenever she was in a brooding mood, it meant that she really was brooding, and both Sydney and all the members of her staff knew to keep away from her. This time, however, what looked like seething to the untrained eye was masking the lump rising in her throat.
When you live twenty-five hundred years as an Evil Sorceress, you kill a lot of people. Some of them fade away in time, and some have their faces etched in your memory forever. Some of the ones etched in your memory you yourself didn’t even kill.
Full moon coming or no full moon, tonight wasn’t the night to research what Rumpelstilstkin’s punishment was doing to him. Tonight was the one night of the year that she allowed herself to mourn- for one or two now dead by her own hand, as well as one very special man whose death she was not responsible for.
Her long dead lover, Daniel. Her true love.
Tonight was the anniversary of his death. Her mother… her mother had killed him; killed him in cold blood. Regina would never forgive her for that, nor would she ever forgive Snow White. It had cost her everything- life, happiness, love. Oh, of course Sydney was infatuated with her, but that wasn’t love. That wasn’t what she wanted.
Two thousand four hundred and seventy-three years ago to date, Daniel had had his heart ripped from his chest, and she had watched him die. It was a day that stood out as clearly in her memory as if it had been a day ago, an hour ago, a minute ago… she lived that agony every single day, and it never went away.
They said she wanted to replace the hole her lover had left with power and vengeance, but that wasn’t true. They said that killing Snow White wouldn’t make a difference, but that wasn’t true either. She was merely keeping up the old saying- “What goes around comes around.” Snow White would get her dues, as Rumpelstiltskin had when he stood in her way. She would feel the agony of seeing her lover’s heart mercilessly pulled from his chest, one way or another.
After all, if she couldn’t have her love, why should anyone else? It was the reason that, if she had messed up everything else, she had made absolutely certain that true love alone would not be enough to break dear Rumple’s curse.
Chapter 10: Fever
“I don’t know, Ruby… something about this just doesn’t sit right with me.” Annabelle said as another howl split the air. The two were eating sandwiches in the kitchen as Granny checked the bolts around the house.
“I’m sure he’s fine.” She said, but she didn’t sound confident. Her glance out the window betrayed her- she was worried, too. “Besides, isn’t he usually pretty moody?”
“Well, sometimes, but never like this. And now I’m leaving him alone and-”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Just wait a second.” Ruby’s eyes sparked, and her finger was held up in a scolding manner. “Are you telling me that you’re actually worried about Robert Gold?”
Belle shrugged sheepishly.
“He’s a big boy, honey. He’ll be absolutely fine, but you-” Ruby paused and dumped her empty plate in the sink, “You are a mess, my friend.”
“What are you talking about?” Annabelle asked, rising to clear her own dishes.
“How long have you known him? A month?” her friend plopped back down in a chair, sitting cross-legged on the seat like a ten year old at a slumber party. “You’ve got it bad. I can tell.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She sat in the chair beside Ruby.
“Oh, come on. I’m not blind. I’ve been around there- I can see the way you look at him, but then it’s like you snap yourself out of it or something.”
Annabelle only sighed.
“Fine, don’t believe me. But trust me when I say that if you’ve got true love, you don’t want to throw it away.” She sat back in her chair. True love. Clutching the book tighter, the brunette shivered. She hadn’t heard talk to true love since elementary school, and she wasn’t looking forward to hearing it again now.
“Ruby, I…” Annabelle began, but one look from her red-lipped friend stopped her denial and replaced it with a sigh. She really wasn’t helping her resolve not to be attracted to him. “I really can’t take this right now. I can’t. I mean, a few days ago I was being pelted by books in a library by some invisible thing and-” she stopped, taking a deep breath. “Never mind.”
“Pelted by books?” Ruby asked. Annabelle made no move. “Do you have any of them with you?” Ruby didn’t look incredulous, she looked… almost worried.
“Hold on.” Annabelle said with a nod. She rushed up stairs and brought the two books down that she’d brought with her: Magical Beasts and Shifting Versus Transformation. Ruby completely ignored Magical Beasts, but held the second book, which Belle still hadn’t been able to sink her teeth into, in her hands as if it was going to fall apart any second.
“Ruby? Ruby, what’s wrong?” Annabelle put an arm around her friend’s shoulder. She’d never seen her like this before, not during all the times she’d visited
“You got this in the library?”
“Yes. Is it something you’ve heard of?”
“You could say that, yeah…” Ruby handed her back the book carefully. She could feel the magic practically humming in its pages. She’d only ever seen one copy of the book- Granny had borrowed it from Rumpelstiltskin, but it wasn’t this one. This was the original work- it was even marked by the author.
And if the library was throwing books about magic at Annabelle, it meant there was something that she needed to know.
“I’m coming with you when you go back.” Ruby said firmly, handing the book back to Annabelle. “I need to talk to Gold.”
Annabelle awoke in the middle of the night to muffled voices from below. Ruby and Granny? But it sounded angry, and they didn’t seem like the type to yell at each other that way. In pajamas and bare feet she crept down the stairs and around the staircase to kitchen.
Thankfully, the floor wasn’t creaky, and she was able to press her back to the wall beside the kitchen door, out of sight in the shadows, to listen in on their conversation.
“Granny, I have to go!” Ruby said.
“I will not let you do this! You know how dangerous it is at night around here, not even counting who you’re about to go visit.”
“I can take him if he gets out of hand! You know I can. I’m lighter, and faster, and more experienced.”
“Why does it have to be tonight? Why can’t you just wait until she goes back?” Granny seemed almost panicked.
“Because he needs to know that the Old Magic wants her to be aware of it!” Ruby was practically screaming. Annabelle heard something that sounded distinctly like a hand clapping over her mouth, and Ruby’s voice was a harsh whisper when she continued. “He needs to know that she’s becoming aware, and I think it’s high time he either tells her himself, or we tell her.” Granny gave an exasperated sigh.
“Red, I know you like her, but you know we have instructions not to-”
“He’s falling in love with her, Granny.” Ruby seemed to be losing her patience. “I’ve been over there, I know it when I see it. If this is what it looks like she could break his curse. I’m doing this for both of them- I have a responsibility to act on this.”
“I won’t let you go out there. Not at night.”
“Wait. Quiet.” Granny said suddenly, her voice suddenly tense. “Do you smell that?”
“Someone’s listening.” Ruby said.
Belle took that as her cue to scramble back up the stairs and into her room. She didn’t know how on earth they could smell her, or- or why they were talking about Old Magic, but…
It was real.
It was all real.
But it couldn’t be- magic wasn’t real! That was impossible…
Except that there was something in that house, and it was very real. There had to be a reason she had such an aversion to the West Wing. Ruby and Granny had smelled her, not heard or seen her, and Mr. Gold… well, he was the one with books on magic in his library!
Annabelle slowly became extremely dizzy as she attempted to think everything over, eventually losing her tossing and turning mind to a deep sleep.
“Annabelle?” Ruby walked into her room, finding her still wrapped in blankets, feeling weak and sick.
“Oh, god, you’re burning up.” Ruby called for Granny, and though Annabelle felt them fussing over her, their voices seemed worlds away.
She was still confused and scared from the conversation she’d overheard last night, and everyone she saw seemed to be surrounded by this… haze? It sparkled and shifted around them in shades of either midnight blue or golden yellow. Ruby and Granny had a swirling fog thin enough to see through, but Annabelle’s own haze was so thick that she could barely see her arm.
Ruby came in, announced that she was burning up and posed all sorts of questions to her, probably to make sure she remained conscious, all while muttering strange words and pressing a strange-scented cloth to her face.
Every now and then Ruby’s eyes seemed to glow a golden brown, and Granny’s, too. Archie came by to drop off some medicine, and Annabelle could see a translucent golden fog around him. The entire time it was hard for her to form a coherent sentence- her mouth felt swollen and stuck together. Sometimes she heard them talking.
“What’s wrong? She was fine before!”
“She’s coming into her magic- violently. Usually there’s a point where the power builds up, and the body has time to absorb it slowly and get used to the stress, but it’s coming too fast and she’s not taking it well.”
Sometimes she slept, but her dreams were no better.
She saw a shadowy form, howling with pain, and loss, and agony, prowling dark corridors. Annabelle felt like a ghost, walking through places she’d never seen, but that made her immensely afraid. The curtains were drawn even though it was light outside, and the creature flinched away from the sun.
There was a rose in a glass case somewhere, and suddenly she was looking at doors- doors made of dark wood with carved roses on them, doors that she knew.
She saw the form of a man in the shadows, who fell to the floor with a cry. Her view glanced over him, but he seemed unconscious, and if she didn’t know better she’d say he was bloody.
That was when the black took over.
She awoke minutes or hours later to the sound of Ruby’s voice.
“Annabelle? Can you hear me?”
She nodded slowly, the haze of color gone and her friend’s face fuzzing into view.
“Granny! Her fever broke!” Ruby called, and the old woman came hurriedly shuffling in the doors.
“Good.” Granny said, shuffling in with some kind of concoction in a large mug. It was black and looked disgusting, but it smelled nice.
“What time is it?” Annabelle mumbled.
“About midnight- you’ve been feverish all day. Drink this, you’ll need it.” Granny said.
“What is it?”
“Don’t ask questions, just trust me. Bottoms up!” Granny pressed the mug into her hands and Annabelle obediently sat up in bed and drank. Her pajamas were soaked through with sweat, and she felt tired and hungry.
“Granny,” she began, her voice hoarse and throat sticky, “I saw things…”
“Fever dreams, honey. Don’t you worry. Now, you just rest-”
“No, I- I have to go back…” she started to get up, but granny firmly held her down.
“You need to sleep. You’re still weak. Stay with her, Red.” Ruby nodded and Granny left the room. Once Annabelle finished whatever was in the cup, she tried to speak again.
“Ruby, please.” She whispered. “Listen to me.”
“Shhh. You need to sleep, Granny’s right.” Ruby said. Annabelle grabbed Ruby’s hand, holding it with as much strength as she could muster.
“No. Listen, please. I saw the doors to the West Wing, and I saw someone fall. Whoever it was, they were unconscious, they were alone, and I’m pretty sure they were really bloody… I don’t know for sure, but I feel like… I feel like it was Mr. Gold.” She held her breath, waiting for the response. Ruby bit her lip, trying to think about what to do.
If Annabelle was right, this wasn’t good. Except that there wasn’t really any reason for him to be extremely violent, was there? She went over a mental list of magical danger zones… Oh, no. How could she have forgotten?
This year the March full moon was near the ides, and that was simply asking for danger. The ides intensify emotions, especially around people of the magical type. If he was usually angry in his beast state and under the effects of the ides, he would have been bloodthirsty tonight. She didn’t know how she was able to see him, but it was something that she’d not only seen him, but recognized the place. It wasn’t a fever dream and both of them knew it, and it was impossible for Granny to deny it any longer. She meant well, but she was old and stubborn, and very set in her ways when it came to who introduced a magician to their magic. Usually it was a family member, but Annabelle didn’t have one, and whatever had triggered her magical realization must have been recent.
“That book I showed you,” she sounded urgent, pleading, “I heard you talking about things that were in it with Granny. You were talking about Old Magic, and Granny… she said she smelled me listening. If I’m crazy, tell me I’m crazy. Please. I need some answers here, because at this point, if it’s not magic I must be going absolutely nuts.”
Ruby was silent. She seemed to be considering it.
“Ruby, you said something about true love earlier. I don’t know what I’m feeling, but I know I need to help him.” That seemed to break her.
“I want to help you.” Ruby said, biting her lip. “I swear you’re not crazy, but you have to tell me what you want me to do. I can give you answers, but that’s going to take time.”
“If I’m right, we don’t have time. Can you take me to him?” she asked, trying to sit up. Ruby shook her head.
“That’s not a good idea.”
“For me or for him? He could be dying in there for all I know, and I’m not going to sit by and let it happen!” Annabelle looked scraggly and pale, but she had a fire in her eye. “If I saw something, I have a responsibility to act on it, right?”
Ruby nodded, slowly at first, and then more confidently.
“Alright. Alright. I’ll do it, but here are the conditions: One, under no circumstances are you to inform Granny. She’s extremely tired and she’ll be out like a light for the rest of the night.”
“No problem about that…” she muttered. Ruby smiled slightly and went on.
“Two, you follow my lead and you don’t ask questions about my methods. You’re still weak, and I don’t need two unconscious people on my hands.”
“Three, as soon as you can we get you back to bed. I’ll answer as much as I can along the way. Deal?”
Ruby let Annabelle change into jeans and a loose t-shirt while she snuck downstairs to get some necessary supplies. She threw them into a leather pack and headed back up to Annabelle’s room, closing the door behind her silently.
“Now listen to me- this is a lot to take in. Pretend it’s a dream if you have to, but before we leave I have to explain some things. I don’t have time to explain all of it, so try and save your questions. You read that Shifter book, right?” Ruby asked, fumbling with the pack.
“Bits and pieces, but not all of it.” Annabelle admitted. “Why? Are you…?”
“A Shifter? Yeah, I am. I’m a Wolf shifter, and so is Granny. Our whole family has the same trait. That book is one of the most rare in the universe, and it doesn’t like showing itself to just anyone. That’s why I freaked out when I saw it.”
“Ok.” Her friend nodded slowly. Ruby handed her a small brown phial from the pack.
“Drink this, it’ll calm you down. I can hear it from here, and it’s not going to do you any good to be this jittery. You need to be alert, not have a panic attack.” She turned and looked at Annabelle with a concerned expression. “Are you ok? I know it’s happening really, really fast. Usually there are people to coach you through this.”
“What’s happening to me, Ruby?” she whispered, twiddling the corked phial between her fingers without drinking it. The Shifter thought for a second, thinking of how to explain it.
“For lack of a better explanation, magical puberty. You had a lot of pent-up energy floating around you that you weren’t aware of, but I don’t know why you had it or how it could build up so much without you noticing. I guess… I guess hearing us arguing probably triggered it.”
“I thought it was crazy when I first read those books…” Annabelle admitted. Ruby looked at her strangely, taking in her demeanor before she spoke
“Why do you believe me? Most people want to burn us at the stake when we tell them.”
“I thought those books were all made up until I hear you talking. Enough crazy things have been happening to me lately, and I don’t know how to explain it. What’s one more, you know?” she sighed and Ruby nodded slowly.
“I guess acceptance was enough in your case, even if it was late acceptance, but everyone is different. Either way, all that energy around you is like a cloud, and you were resistant to it your whole life, but when you went through this change it was like all that energy punched you in the stomach, and your body couldn’t take the stress.”
“Hence the fever.” Annabelle concluded, still holding the phial.
“Hence the fever. You’re taking this well.” Ruby tossed an object to her, which she barely caught before it fell. It was a dagger in a sheath, complete with thigh strap and belt loop. “Put it on.”
“Why do I need this?” she asked, attaching it to her belt and buckling the tie strap.
“The dagger itself is steel, but it’s silver plated. Unlike the werewolf legends say, it isn’t deadly to an Animal Shifter, but it stings like the devil, it’s a strong sedative, and it’s the only thing that will penetrate our skin in Animal form. I don’t know if you’ll need it, but better safe than sorry.”
“For you?” Annabelle asked, incredulous.
“No. And for pity’s sake, drink that!” Ruby clearly didn’t care to elaborate, and shuffled through the pack once more. Annabelle downed the liquid. “Ok. It looks like I’ve got everything we need. The fastest way to get there is through the woods. Take this.” She handed her a dark colored cloak. “It’ll keep some of the nastier things in there from sensing your body heat.”
“What about you? If we’re walking through the woods-” Annabelle started, but Ruby looked up, confusion plain on her face.
“Who said we were walking?”
Chapter 11: Silver and Wolfsbane
Annabelle and Ruby crept out the back door to the kitchen, Annabelle wrapped in her cloak and carrying the leather pack.
“The route through the woods is shorter than the road, and I can run it faster than a car could drive the distance.”
Ruby shrugged. It clearly wasn’t a big deal to her.
“I’m going to Shift, and I want you to get on my back and hang on tight, ok? Also, tuck in close and keep your head low. I’m not exactly used to passengers, so I don’t want you getting hit by tree branches. Don’t be scared.”
Annabelle nodded. Ruby closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, like she was meditating. Her head dropped lower and her back arched as she lowered to her hands and knees, clothes vanishing and thick black fur taking their place. Her eyes were a golden color that gleamed in the moonlight. As she padded over to Annabelle, it was obvious that she’d never pass for an ordinary wolf. She was much more muscled, and the top of her back was easily as high as Annabelle’s waist. Ruby crouched as she took her seat, grabbing a hold of some of the silky black fur to keep her on. With a soft growl, the Wolf took off, bounding through the forest.
Her speed was slow at first, about as fast as a horse would run, but then it picked up, and before she had time to think Ruby was moving so fast that it wasn’t possible to see where they were going. Annabelle’s cape was fastened securely around her torso, but the tail end of it flared and flapped behind her. Every now and then she heard sounds like snarling and howling in the distance, and the air around her seemed distinctly colder in the woods than outside of it. In the end she buried her face in Ruby’s thick fur, eyes closed as the dark forest flew by around her.
By Annabelle’s judgment, it was about ten minutes from Ruby’s backyard to the time they were slowing down and standing on Gold’s front porch, as opposed to the usual forty-five minutes into town along a twisting mountain road.
Annabelle dismounted and Ruby Shifted back into human form, taking the leather pack from her friend.
“As a warning,” Ruby said, “I’m not sure what you’re going to see.”
Annabelle nodded, and they walked up to the doors. The place looked ominous and foreboding at night- no wonder he never had any visitors. None of the exterior lights were on, and the only thing to see by was the moon.
“Ok, girl. Go to it- I don’t know my way around this place,” she said, gesturing to the door. Annabelle didn’t hesitate, rushing inside and heading straight to the West Wing, Ruby on her heels.
The entire house was dark. All the lights were off, and if she didn’t know the layout of the place she would have stumbled and fallen several times. Ruby was behind her, mentally calculating what she was going to do if he hadn’t changed back- the curse was only for a night and a day; Annabelle was kept away for an extra night to allow for recovery time. However, there was no telling what the idea would do.
When she reached the doors, the cold, dark feeling overtook her for a moment, and she stopped dead in her tracks. Ruby, however, didn’t seem to notice a thing and rushed right inside, bursting through the doors. Annabelle shook herself and hurried behind her.
It was hard to see in the shadows, but it was easy enough to make out a crumpled for on the hallway floor- Mr. Gold. Ruby and Belle reached him at almost the same time, sliding onto their knees. He was limp but breathing, and he was lying in a way that suggested no bones were broken. Passing a hand over him, Ruby felt that his clothes were wet. She mentally cursed and started fiddling with her pack, cursing out loud when she came to her senses and realized there wasn’t enough light to do anything by. Even Mr. Gold himself seemed to Belle to be shrouded in a dark haze, much like the one around Ruby earlier.
“Light! We need light!” Ruby cried. Belle scanned the hallways for a light switch, but there wasn’t one. There was, however, a dimmed oil lamp and candles on sconces, which she used to light other lamps and turned up the flames. Eventually the hallway was filled with light, though there wasn’t enough time to take in the details of the place. The cold haze was gone now, but she didn't have time to think about that.
Robert Gold was covered in blood.
His clothes were stained a dark red, slowly crusting over and sticking to his body, though it couldn’t have been there more than a few hours. Ruby swiped her fingers through it, bringing it to her nose to sniff.
“Animal blood.” She breathed a sigh of relief, wiping her hand on her jeans. “I think there might be some minor cuts and scrapes, but nothing life threatening. And you’re not squeamish, I see. That makes things easier for me.”
“Mr. Gold? Mr. Gold, can you hear me?” Belle grasped his hand as she spoke. He moved only slightly, but his eyes opened slowly. They clenched shut again in an instant, presumably from the light.
“We’ve got problems,” Ruby said. “Give me the dagger.” Belle handed it to her, and she used it to make a small cut on Gold’s palm. For a second, Belle felt like someone had touched the end of a match to her own palm, but the feeling vanished as quickly as it had come.
“What are you doing?” Belle asked as her friend dug around in the bag. She pulled out a purple flower blossom and clenched Gold’s palm around it.
“I’m not just a shifter. I’m also a healer,” She explained. “His pupils were extremely dilated- what color are his eyes?” Ruby grasped his fist with both her hands, trying to keep it closed, even though he struggled weakly against her hold.
“Brown, I think,” Belle said, confused.
“Ok, well, they’re blue now. He hasn’t completely reverted, so I’m dispelling the rest of his beast form.” She finally released her death grip on his hand, letting it fall open by his side, flower crushed. His breathing became slow and regular- good. The silver had done its job quickly. One thing left, and if it didn’t work that was alright, too, but it would help speed the healing.
“His beast form? Is he a Shifter, too? What are you-”
“I’m sorry,” Ruby said, putting her hands on Belle’s shoulders. “I’m really so sorry. I know this is hard. I can’t explain everything to you right now.” She removed the crushed flower from his bleeding hand and placed it gently in Belle’s. “I need you to, um… kiss his palm.” She didn’t want to bring up the delicate subject again, but hey, true love’s magic knows before the participants sometimes. Belle looked confused, glancing at the cut on his palm and then back up, but she didn’t drop his hand.
“Why can’t you do it?” Belle seemed skeptical.
“It has to be you.”
“Do I want to know why?”
“Probably not,” Ruby shrugged. It was likely not in her best interest at this point to tell her she could be the true love of a nearly three thousand year old cursed magic man, but the kiss would help with driving away the animal if she was.
“Palm. Kiss. Now, preferably.” Her tone suggested that it wasn’t something she could argue with. Belle hesitantly placed a gentle kiss to the cut (Ruby might even have called it loving, but she would probably be smacked for it), and placed his hand by his side.
“Ok,” Ruby stood, brushing off her hands. “The wolfsbane needs time to work. Go sleep- and don’t argue with me.” She placed her hand on Belle’s forehead. “Yep, you’ve got a fever again. Just keep your body temperature down and sleep it off.”
“I said don’t argue with me.” She wagged her finger like a mother scolding her child. “I’ll call you after he wakes up, and then we can get you some better answers.”
Belle gave in to Ruby and curled up on one of the couches in the den. Even though she lived with Mr. Gold, she lived largely by herself, and sleeping on the couch on a particularly lonely night wasn’t uncommon. Sometimes she would wake to find a blanket draped over her, and once she even found a flower on the table. She never mentioned it to Mr. Gold, though.
Eventually she lost herself to sleep.
Mr. Gold woke around sunrise, sprawled on the floor of the West Wing, with Ruby Lucas leaning against the wall across from him, texting someone on her phone. He was sore all over, and tried to move with a groan.
“You’re awake.” Ruby pocketed her phone and walked over. She helped him sit up, but ordered him not to stand until she checked him over.
“Ruby, what the hell are you doing here?” he moaned. His head was throbbing. Only then did he realize that his clothes were covered in a sticky dark red substance. His eyes went wide, but Ruby firmly put her hands on his shoulders and kept him against the wall.
“Listen to me. Look me in the eye.” His breathing was shaky, but he did as she said. “It’s animal blood. You didn’t kill anyone. It’s all animal blood.”
Gold’s eyes closed and he leaned his head against the wall with a sigh of relief.
“I lost control,” he mumbled. Ruby stirred something in a bowl, talking as she did so.
“Yep, I can see that. Bottoms up.” She tipped the bowl into his mouth and pinched his nose, forcing him to swallow.
“Why are you here? And what was that?” he asked, coming to his senses once again. Ruby sat back on her haunches, thinking that any normal person would be extremely disturbed by this situation. However, as a Wolf she had seen her fair share of blood, and animal blood wasn’t a strange sight. True, it didn’t look any different from human blood, but the smell… It made her sick to think about.
“Annabelle came into her magic.” Gold started to jump up, but Ruby smacked him. “You can’t move.”
“And why, pray tell, is that?” He snapped, still seeming groggy.
“When we got here you hadn’t completely reverted, so I cut your palm with the silver knife and dosed you with wolfsbane. The sedative from the silver hasn’t worn off yet, but if you sit there and let the potion you just drank get into your bloodstream, you’ll be able to walk faster.”
“I thought you said wolfsbane didn’t work on me. It was the first thing we tried, remember?” The plat was a traditional weapon against the more dangerous Shifters. It would prevent them from Shifting into their Animal form until it was naturally filtered from their body. The first solution they had tried to Rumpelstiltskin’s beast form was using high dosages of wolfsbane on the day of the full moon… which did absolutely nothing.
“It doesn’t. Not technically. It can’t impair your changing under curse conditions, but it can turn you towards the human side of things.”
“Shouldn’t I be walking it in? Getting my heart rate up?” he grumbled.
“Your heart rate is fast enough. Believe me, I can hear it.”
“Well, if I can’t move will you at least tell me why you are here?”
“I told you- Annabelle came into her magic. She had a dream, or a vision or something, and it brought us here. She was really worried.”
“She’s here?! Why the-” Gold cursed a streak in languages Ruby didn’t know, though she could tell he was cursing just by his tone. “-would you ever even think of bringing her here?! I could have killed her!”
“Don’t start with me, Rumpelstiltskin! If it weren’t for Belle, you would still be out cold and half beast! You know you should have reverted as soon as the sun set.”
Gold simply sulked. He’d already guessed there was going to be trouble because of the ides- he’d felt it building for weeks, even taken measures to chain himself up before he changed, but the beast had broken through the bonds as if they were made of paper.
“Admit it, Robert. You’re grateful.”
“I am,” he allowed. “Thank you. Now, where is Belle and how is she doing? What happened with her magic?”
“Whoa, whoa. Hold on. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered, but before we can do any of that both of you need rest, a good shower, and a change of clothes. It’s 4AM. I think you can wait a few more hours.”
“If you wanted me to sleep why did you give me the antidote to the silver? I want to see Belle.” He attempted to get up again, but one look from Ruby stopped him.
“Silver sleep isn’t healthy for long periods of time,” she snapped. “The only time it should be used is to subdue a rogue Shifter. Now, please. You both need your rest. I don’t care where you do it, but go get some freaking sleep!”
After much grumbling, little actual sleep, long showers, and changing into fresh clothes, the trio sat in the living room with mugs of steaming tea in hand. It was about 8AM, but none of them were hungry for breakfast. Gold had changed into a t-shirt and slacks, which was by far the most casual thing Ruby or Belle had ever seen him in. He still looked tired and distraught, but then again, everyone was tired and distraught.
They steeped in an uncomfortable silence for a long while, until Belle finally couldn’t stand it any longer.
“So what exactly is going on here?” she asked, her voice becoming frantic and faster with every word.. “First books about magic are thrown down on me from the library, then Ruby tells me I have magic powers, and then I saw you lying on the floor, and we rushed here and you’re lying on the floor covered in blood, and I’m not saying I don’t believe it’s magic but-”
“Annabelle!” Clearly the calming draught she’d given her had worn off.
“I just… I need some answers.” Belle huffed and sank back into the couch, knuckles white on the mug. Gold nodded slowly.
“You’re perfectly entitled to them. Do you want to ask questions, or do you just want me to start talking somewhere?”
Belle thought for a second, and decided it would probably be best to start by asking questions. The general information could come later.
“Why did you bring me here?”
“At the train station… I saw your magic.” He admitted with a sigh. “I didn’t know how you could even stand to be around me, so… I brought you here.”
“You saw my magic? And what do you mean 'how could I stand you?'”
“You were probably seeing a cloud of smoke around people before, right?” Ruby asked. Belle nodded. “That’s magic. You only see it for a short time around new people unless you want to see it. Your magic glows gold because it’s light magic, and mine glows dark blue because it’s dark magic.”
“Dark as in… evil? Because neither of you really seem evil to me.” Belle ventured. Ruby and Gold laughed.
“That’s a long story, but in short, no. Dark and light magic can be used for either, though yes, dark magicians are stereotypically evil. Either way, the two types of magic generally don’t mix well. Dark magic tends to make light magicians head for the hills as soon as they sense its presence. And don’t ask why, because I don’t actually know. That’s just the way it is.”
“But I don’t feel any presence.” Belle insisted.
“You did in the West Wing, didn’t you?” Gold asked. He didn’t have to wait for a response to know what the answer would be. “That’s stagnant magic. It doesn’t have anything or anyone attached to it, so it just sits there. The magic around Ruby and I is live magic, and you don’t seem to be able to sense that. Again, don’t ask why. I don’t know.”
“So you offered me the job because…?”
“I needed to monitor you. I thought it might be a good idea since you seemed to have a lot of magical pressure built up around you. Any number of things could have happened.” He shuddered to think of the possibilities. There were things worse than death.
“She ran a really high fever when it came on,” Ruby said. “If Granny hadn’t been there I don’t know what would have happened. Next question.”
“Shouldn’t you call her or something and let her know where we are?” Belle felt horribly guilty for forgetting about Granny, especially after it seemed she had saved her life.
“I called while you two were sleeping. Shifters don’t need as much sleep as you might think. Ok, next question pertaining to your magic.” Ruby put down her empty mug and settled into her armchair.
“Why do I even have these powers? What makes me magical? Did I inherit or something, or is it random, or what?”
“It’s inherited,” Gold said matter-of-factly. “During the Great Merge- I’ll tell you more about that later, just leave it at that- magic leaked into the bloodstreams and settled there. Some are more powerful than others. However, it’s unusual that you should have such a high concentration of power and neither of your parents informed you about it.”
Ruby cast a glance at Belle, who nodded her permission.
“Her dad’s an alcoholic,” the Shifter said. “That’s one reason. My guess is that he’s probably an unaware Mage or something and he has no clue what he’s doing to himself.” Gold looked at Belle for a moment, taking her in with new eyes. More than likely he realized what this meant- alcohol made magicians violent and unnaturally emotional. He was smart enough to deduce that her father had been the one to give her the scars. He licked his lips and spoke.
“What about your mother? What was her name? When did you last see her?”
“Alexa French, but her maiden name was… oh, it was something like… Darret?”
“Daryah?” Ruby asked, her face even paler than before.
“Yeah, that was it,” Belle said. She looked up to see two astonished faces looking back at her. “What?”
“I knew her,” Gold said, astonished. “She- she disappeared after the Great Merge.” He blinked several times. “She was a very powerful Sorceress.”
“What? No, that’s impossible-”
“She was, Belle! She was one of the most powerful women I’d ever known. When was the last time you saw her?” he asked, his tone suddenly urgent.
“I was eleven,” Belle said, almost forlornly, like she was looking off into a memory.
“We need to find her. You need to talk to her-”
“You have to! It could be the only chance of understanding your magic!” Gold persisted.
“You can’t,” Belle said flatly.
“And why not?” he spoke with an air that made Belle absolutely want to explode.
“Because she’s dead!” She yelled, anger flushing her face. “She’s been dead thirteen years.”
Gold and Ruby just stared, unsure of how to move forward or what to say.
“When was the Great Merge?” Belle asked softly, breaking the long silence.
“About eighteen hundred years back, give or take,” Ruby shrugged. That was the point when Belle couldn’t quite comprehend it any longer.
“Wait! Stop! Back the truck up. Are you seriously telling me you’re two thousand years old?” she was fairly sure her law was on the floor. She could take the magic, not the age.
“Actually, I’m one thousand two. Rumple over here is almost three thousand, but there are Fairies as old as ten thousand.”
“Ok, then…” Belle sighed. “Wait. Rumple?” Ruby did a very bad job of stifling her laugh, while Gold rolled his eyes.
“It’s a long story-”
“No it’s not, you old coot!” Ruby said. “A lot of the people from our world have inspired legends in yours. Yes, other world. Still with me?”
“Like another dimension? That’s easier to fathom than some of the things you’ve told me.” The brunette shrugged.
“Good- saves us a lot of explaining. Anyways, Wolf shifters were the foundation of werewolves, and I personally had a hand in Little Red Riding Hood... even though the wolf was actually me out hunting.” She blushed a little. “That’s why Granny calls me Red.”
“And you are?” Belle asked Gold. He muttered something she couldn’t understand.
“We can’t hear you…” Ruby said in a singsong voice.
“I’m bloody Rumpelstiltskin, alright?!” he threw up his hands in defeat, and Ruby couldn’t help but let out a giggle. Belle, on the other hand, was astonished.
“So I’m talking to Red Riding Hood and Rumpelstiltskin over tea in his living room. Alright. Anything else I should know?”
Ruby and Gold exchanged a glance.
“He’s cursed,” She said, thumbing towards Gold.
Chapter 12: The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Belle didn’t say a word. She didn’t exactly know what to say when someone tells you they’re cursed. The first thing that popped into her head was “What did you do?” but that probably wasn’t a wise thing to say. Thankfully, she didn’t have to respond, because Gold took up the explanation.
“I had a rather unfortunate, quite long-lasting tiff with a Sorceress named Regina. She cursed me because she wanted to control me.”
“Well, we see how well Regina’s plans work out,” Ruby scoffed. Robert ignored the quip, even though he wholly agreed.
“I assume you know the Beauty and the Monster or Beauty and the Beast story?” he asked. Belle nodded.
“Well, the curse was based on that. Almost a joke really. She said she was making my outer form match the inner cruelty I was hiding somewhere. Regina meant to change me into a monster permanently.”
“And you’re obviously not a monster,” Belle conceded. “So what happened?”
“Well, whether or not I’m a monster is debatable, dearie, but the fact is that Regina worded the curse the wrong way. The less complex version is that she changed my temperament, but the physical form only changes on the full moon, and at that I’m still a man’s mind trapped in a monster’s body.”
“Hence the random days off and the werewolf stories.” This was all starting to make a little more sense now.
“Yes. I regret to say I’ve contributed to those legends. However, I’m not actually a wolf- I turn into a shade, which is much, much worse.”
“I could take you.” Ruby muttered.
“Yes, you could. But it would take two of you if my mind was completely taken by the monster.” After a moment’s pause Belle came in with another point.
“Ok, this might be a stupid question,” she began, “but why haven’t you broken the curse yet? Curses can be broken right?”
“We’ve tried everything,” Ruby said. “We tried wolfsbane, we tried potions, we even tried stabbing him with a silver dagger in the chest while he was in beast form, but nothing worked. The only thing that we haven’t tried…”
“What?” Toying with the hem of her sleeve, Belle severely hoped that it wasn’t something horrible.
“It won’t work.” Gold said. “I’ve got the scroll, it’s not enough.”
“You got the scroll?!”
“What haven’t you tried?” Belle asked, determined to get it out of them.
“True love’s kiss,” Ruby blurted.
“Not that that’s ever going to happen, anyway,” Gold sneered. “I’m a rather difficult man to love.” Despite herself, Belle felt a slight stab from his words.
Ignore him, Ruby mouthed.
“So… you’re serious, right? Like the old Snow White and Sleeping Beauty tales?” Belle asked.
“Actually, Snow hasn’t gone quite so far as to fall asleep yet, though Regina loves to make fun of us by basing her curses off those old tales, so the poison apple will probably come to pass. Sleeping Beauty was quite different than the actual tale, and trust me- never mention it to Maleficent.”
“You know Maleficent?” Forget about making sense- this was all becoming more and more complicated!
“Quite well, actually. If you give me a moment, I’ll go get the scroll.” He got up and walked quickly from the room, back towards the West Wing.
“I’m not sure whether to feel relieved or not,” Belle said.
“Well, I’m not sure if this means I’m not crazy or that I’m crazier than I thought.”
Ruby laughed, surprised, as Mr. Gold came back with the scroll. He spread it out on the table and read it to them, word for word.
“Creating curses is like weaving a blanket with a complicated pattern,” he explained, “It has to be done very patiently, one thread at a time, one word at a time, if you want the curse to have the power you intend it to. Regina is not a very patient weaver.”
“And that means?” Red asked.
“It means that I’ve been looking over the wording and picking through the curse strand by strand for weeks now, and there are some major flaws. The first, of course, being that I wasn’t actually supposed to have a human form at all.” This launched into a brief dissertation on the mind of a beast versus the mind of a man, and the mind of a man trapped in a beast, and how all in all the woman just needed to “improve her bloody wording.”
“Anything else?” Belle was just happy she wasn’t completely lost yet. It was so much to fathom in so little time!
“Several things.” As he talked, he pointed to the lines in the curse that applied. “When it comes to breaking the curse, ‘offering their life’ could have a lot of definitions. The weaving leaves it open, so I doubt I’ll actually have to kill anyone. However, the fact that they have to see me as a monster and willingly return before doing so is set in stone. Also, the bit about marking the person- Regina seemed to pay attention on that bit. There will be blood involved in breaking this curse.”
“So good news and bad news, huh?” Ruby sat back in her chair, looking like she was deep in thought. Belle did have another question, though.
“How does Regina fit into this fairy tale thing? Who’s she- the Wicked Witch of the West or something?” Belle leaned over the table, taking in the ancient scroll. Robert chuckled.
“No, but Baum did have an unfortunate run-in with Regina once. Where do you think his inspiration came from?”
“I thought it was a parallel for the railroad tycoons…” Belle mused.
“It was. Regina was one of them.” Red smiled. “But if you’re looking for a fairy tale character, she’s the Evil Queen.”
“Great…” she muttered. There was a slight pause before Ruby’s phone went off.
“Granny? Is everything- oh. Ok. Bye.” Ruby huffed. After she hung up, she snatched up the leather pack and made for the door.
“I’m really sorry- I’ve got to get back. Apparently a whole bus full of school kids on a field trip just pulled up for an early lunch, and Granny needs help. Bye!”
She was out the door before another word could be said.
“That was weird.”
“Yes, it was rather sudden, wasn’t it?” Gold stood, motioning for her to follow. They were headed back towards the West Wing. “Normally there would be a parent or a guardian designated to educate and train you, but I’m assuming that duty is now going to fall to me. Lesson number one: in the way of female titles there are Enchantresses, Sorceresses, Witches, Warriors, and Mages. There are also Fairies, but they’re from another bloodline altogether, and since you don’t have any wings I’m just assuming you’re not one.” The last bit was meant to be sarcastic.
“What’s the difference?”
“It’s a division of power- Enchantresses have the most, all the way down to Mages, whose abilities tend to be innate. However, there are special cases, like Ruby.”
“I wouldn’t say that’s exactly innate…”
“Ah, but that’s not traditional Mage magic.” They had arrived at the doors to the West Wing. The feeling as if something bad was going to happen any second came back.
“I know you don’t like it in there, but it’s really the best place to practice. One there’s some buildup of stagnant light magic you won’t notice it as much.” Gold gestured for her to go inside, and she did so, albeit hesitantly.
For the first time she had time to take in the corridor. The entire wing seemed to be made of stone even though the floor was wood, like a wing in a castle, and had no actual light switches. All the light came from candles or oil lamps.
“Ruby’s Shifting comes from her Gift,” He continued. “All magicians have a Gift, and the power of the Gift is not affected by the power of the magician. Ruby’s Gift has basically been inherited through her family line- shifting tends to do that- but some are more random.”
“I can see the future,” He said, as if it was rather boring. “So long as it’s not too entwined with my own, that is.”
“Meaning you can’t see your own future?”
“Or yours…” he muttered. Belle stopped in her tracks behind him. If he noticed, he didn’t say, but after a second she shook herself and caught back up with him. So long as it’s not too entwined with my own… Her future was entwined with his? She wasn’t quite sure how she felt about that.
“Tomorrow, there are some people I’d like for you to meet, but for today, I have a lot more information to give you. Do you still have those sorcery books from the library?”
“Good. Read them- magical history is often best learned on one’s own.” He continued walking down the hallway. “Today I’m going to teach you how to control your magic. Even though the Old Magic in the house is here to safeguard against any major accidents, we don’t want anything to happen that we’re not aware of. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is not something I should want to see in my house, thank you very much.” He opened the door to a room, and she stepped into a small library.
“So… you’re a Sorcerer?” Belle asked, smiling slightly. She felt it was almost inappropriate to giggle at his comment.
“No, I’m a Warlock. Regardless, dancing mops are not something I want to see, no matter how much I enjoy the music.”
The giggles won out after that. She didn’t imagine Mr. Gold as the type to listen to the scores from old Disney animations, though truly it wasn’t too out of place. He did like orchestral music, after all. It was probably just the addition of Mickey Mouse that made the whole thing funny. Despite himself, Gold smiled, pulling down a book from the shelf, not one of the ones Belle had in her room.
“Now, the first thing we need to know is exactly how much power you’re pumping. You can’t measure it with magic from someone who’s unaware; only live magic works, but you do it-” He flipped open the book and pointed to a page. It showed someone firing off a bolt of something, maybe lightning, at a wall. “With fire.”
“How does that tell you anything?”
“Color and form.” He turned the page yet again to show a text in red, an incantation. “It’s not a complicated spell, in fact it’s one of the first all magicians learn, but it only works once, so you’d best make sure you’ve got someone who’s trained there to make a judgment once it’s been cast.”
“Ok. So… what do I do?” she asked, eyes scanning over the text. It was in only slightly more legible handwriting than the books upstairs.
“Your power is in… a sort of cloud around you. Your body naturally produces it when you breathe- it’s a byproduct, the same as carbon dioxide. All you have to do is think about focusing it. You’ve seen it floating around you, yes?”
“You can draw from it, mold it into a shape or coerce it to perform an action. Try.”
“Won’t I catch the room on fire?” she asked, some small sense of logic taking over. Robert shook his head.
“No. There’s an enchantment over all the objects in this room. You’re over thinking this, dearie.” Regardless, Belle was still hesitant. Before she came here she’d been perfectly normal. Now… now she was supposed to shoot fire at a wall. Her mother may have been a great Sorceress, but she wasn’t. She didn’t even know about magic until yesterday!
“But… I just don’t…” I just don’t think I can do this.
“Shh.” Gold stepped away from the book, turning her until she was facing a blank, very charred spot of the wall. His hands rested on her waist very lightly, and as he talked she could feel his breath on her ear. “Don’t think. Just feel. There is power all around you- feel it, channel it. Aim there..”
His hands lifted from her waist, and she gingerly lifted a hand, feeling rather ridiculous. She could hear Mr. Gold muttering from behind her quietly, reading the incantation to add the color to her bolt of fire.
At first, she felt nothing. It was like she was in tune with everything- she could hear everything, feel everything. Power was coursing through her veins, and she was urging it out, towards her fingertips, shaping it into something else, something like…
A bolt of royal blue lightning, white in the middle, sprang from her fingertips and smashed into the wall, burning against her eyes. It was gone as fast as it came, but Mr. Gold hadn’t seen blue fire in so very long- not since the training of Maleficent.
“Enchantress. Blue lightning means a potential Enchantress.” He breathed, disbelief plain in his voice, along with a faint wisp of something like pride. “I haven’t seen that since I trained with Maleficent.”
The first new Enchantress in two thousand years.
Or rather, she would be.
The rest of that morning was spent teaching Belle how to draw from and focus her power. Long amounts of practice time weren’t good for a new magician, and by the time they stopped for a late lunch she was tired and had a few small burns on her hands. As they walked to the kitchen Mr. Gold gave them a once-over.
“They’ll heal quickly. Magic does that.” Gold shrugged. “Perhaps we’ll experiment with water tomorrow, though. Just to be safe.”
“Why start with fire?” she sucked at a particularly nasty burn on her finger that still stung. That was the one that marked when they stopped for lunch, actually, and was only a minute or two old. “Is there a tradition or something?”
“Yes, but this one actually has a small amount of logic to it. The elemental magics always come first because they form the base of all other types of magic. Without the elemental magics under your belt it’s like trying to read A Tale of Two Cities without knowing your ABCs.”
“I follow,” She mumbled, still sucking at her finger. Belle was a stubborn one, refusing to stop because of the burns. He admired it, but it was also a bit cimocal to see her walking down the hall like a wounded kitten.
“Fire magic is the easiest to call upon, but it’s very free. It’s tricky to get it to do what you want and even trickier to master it. The only person I’ve ever seen with an aptitude for it was Maleficent, which doesn’t actually count.”
“She transforms into a dragon!” he whined, as if the whole matter was utterly unfair. “The essence of the form is fire. She did have a nasty time with learning water magic, though.”
Belle didn’t say anything, she just nodded. All of this was beginning to utterly overwhelm her- an Enchantress was the most powerful level of magic. She couldn’t be that person, not here, not ever. That was her mother, and a side of her mother that she had never known at that. Belle may have had a brave heart and a quick wit, but she wasn’t strong physically, and her self-confidence level was nothing to brag about. Was it really her job to do this- to become this?
She looked over to find Mr. Gold watching her with an expression she couldn’t name, a softness that normally wasn’t there, his entire business-like persona gone for just one moment. He put his hand on top of hers as he spoke.
“If it’s any encouragement at all, I think you’re going to be just fine.”
Eventually the topic changed to discussing books yet again. Not sorcery books, just… books. It seemed to be their fallback topic- the once they always went to when there was something there that didn’t need to be touched any longer, just under the surface of their words.
After lunch she retreated to the solitary, familiar peace of the library, finally shedding her pent-up tears.
She used to pray that her life would change, but she never meant quite like this.
Chapter 13: The Mad Tea Party
One week later, she and Mr. Gold met in the West Wing to continue her lessons, but he was leading her a different way this time.
“Plans have changed.” He said curtly. “There’s been a bit of… well, let’s just say we’ve got to make some calls. Now that you’re rested I think you’re emotionally strong enough to handle it.”
“You’re worried about my mental capacity? Seriously?”
“Yes.” He snapped. “Of course I’m worried. It’s a lot to take in and I’ve seen plenty of magicians go mad because they were rushed into their powers.” With a huff, Belle conceded.
“Who are we calling?”
“Some of the more prestigious members of the magical world.” He continued walking at an abnormally fast pace, like he was in a hurry to get somewhere and get his business over with.
“Prestigious?” she asked, struggling to keep up without jogging. For a man with a cane, he could move when he wanted to. "I didn't even know I had any powers last week!"
“Regardless, there are some people I’d like you to meet. Well, I say people…” he turned into a room that looked a little like a study, and pulled two chairs up to a table outfitted with four mirrors, gesturing for her to sit in one of them.
“Sydney!” he called. Belle jumped as a face appeared in one of the mirrors.
“Yep, slave of the mirror at your service.” He said sarcastically.
“He’s not really a slave, he’s a mirror operator.” Gold whispered to Belle.
“Same thing…” Sydney muttered, but then his eyes shifted and his eyebrows shot up. “Oh! And who is this?”
“This is Belle. We need to make a call to Azura and Beryl.” Gold said, but Sydney shook his head.
“You know the dark magic filters are up because of Regina, and I can’t appear unless someone calls on me.”
“What if she does it?” Gold gestured to Belle. “She has light magic.” Sydney seemed to weight the chances for a second.
“Ok. Have you ever done a mirror call before?” Sydney asked.
“Um… no?” she was actually very confused just at the moment, and was really, really hoping that she wouldn’t have to say anything along the lines of “Mirror, mirror on the wall.”
“She just came into her magic last week.” Gold explained, and Sydney’s eyes grew wide.
“You’re joking. How does she have that much power-”
“That would be why we need to talk to the Fairies, now wouldn’t it?!” Robert was losing his patience quickly. “Belle, just say ‘Mirror, place calls to Azura and Beryl.’”
“Mirror, place calls to… Azura and Beryl?” As unsure as the command was, it seemed to be enough. Sydney’s face disappeared and a few seconds later the two center mirrors fogged into view. An old woman dressed all in green and sporting a pair of rather impressive green wings fussed as she slowly walked into the mirror’s view.
“Rumpelstiltskin, I don’t know why you’re calling or how you got around my dark magic filters, but you better have a darn good-” she suddenly stopped cold as she saw Belle. “Oh.”
“Do you have any idea-” a yawn came from the other mirror as a younger, much more blue fairy came into view, pulling a sleep mask from her face. “What time it is here?”
“Wake up girl! Looks like we’re meeting Belle today.” The green woman said. “I’m Beryl, the Fairy Godmother, and that’s Azura, the rather sleep-deprived Blue Fairy.”
“Nice to meet you.” Belle said shakily.
“I see Robert wasn’t exaggerating when he talked about the amount of power around you. I take it you’ve come into your magic recently?” Belle nodded.
“Last week.” Gold confirmed. “A difficult day for us both, it seems.” Between the two of them, Belle and Mr. Gold related the events of that day, starting with her fever and ending with Mr. Gold out cold in the hallway.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Azura asked the green Fairy.
“Only if you’re thinking we might have a seer on our hands.”
“What’s a seer?” Belle asked.
“Imagine having a link to see anywhere in the world that you wanted to at any time. It’s very rare.” Gold explained.
“The last seer we knew of disappeared after the Great Merge.” Beryl said.
“The last seer we knew of was her mother.” Robert said, attempting to remain calm. It wasn’t a discussion he wanted to subject Belle to again.
“Alexa’s alive?” Beryl was astonished. “We have to find her- you’ve got to talk to her-”
“No. She’s not.” Belle said, feeling the stabbing pain yet again. She supposed after so long it would have calloused over, but the wound was still raw. “She’s been dead thirteen years.”
“What?” Tears sprung to the old woman’s eyes. “After all this time… I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright.” Belle didn’t move or look up at her, though.
“Do you… know how she died?” the Fairy asked gently.
“They said it was a heart attack… but I think they were probably wrong.”
“Agreed.” Azura said. “That sounds fishy to me, too.”
“Regardless,” Rumpelstiltskin interrupted, “I wanted to call and introduce you, and now that you can see her I wanted to get your opinion on why she’s not reacting to dark magic.”
“Oh- I found something!” Azura suddenly jumped up and ran out of view. The other three paused a minute before Belle thought of something.
“If… dark magic makes light magicians want to run, what does light magic do to dark magicians? It’s hardly fair if it doesn’t do anything.” She said pointedly. Beryl chuckled.
“Well, you could say it does something very powerful indeed. Dark magicians have a penchant for falling in love with light magicians. Everyone does, actually, but especially them. Their magic is a deterrent and ours is an aphrodisiac!”
She must have found this fact extremely funny, or else she knew something that they didn't, because she kept giggling until Azura returned with the book. All the while Belle and Mr. Gold were praying their faces weren’t turning red.
“You remember the Mad Hatter?” the Blue Fairy asked, puffing slightly from running.
“Of course we do! Jefferson and his crazy experiments have nearly blown this town to smithereens several times.” Robert said. Everyone knew that the Hatter was brilliant, but not the most ethical person. Azura nodded sheepishly.
“The Mad Hatter? Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter?” Belle was beginning to think that all stories about magic must be connected to these people.
“Yep, that’s him, the scoundrel!” Beryl said with a sneer, and Belle thought it wise not to question any further. Azura continued with her findings.
“Well, he did an experiment on this kind of thing once, and I just happen to have a copy of the documentation.” She flipped though several pages, looking for the right spot.
“Well done, girl! It seems there’s hope after all.” Beryl clapped her hands. Azura glared for a moment, but went back to flipping pages.
“It says…” Azura pointed to a line on the page, tracing with her finger as she read. “Quote: ‘The concentrated essence of dark magic, when introduced to the bloodstream of a light magician, will cause the tolerance of the light magician to dark magic. However, it will leave a permanent mark on the skin.’” The Fairy looked up, waiting for the others to take in the information.
“We know Alexa was a light Sorceress, but do you think it’s possible her father was a dark magician?” Robert asked. The Fairies exchanged a glance before Beryl spoke with a nod.
“Quite. We know who her mother was, and though she had power…” she shook her head. “It wasn’t this much. Children of light and dark magic are always prone to power. Even if he was only a Mage… it’s definitely very possible. Why?”
Belle and Mr. Gold looked at each other for a long moment before she rolled up her left sleeve, revealing the scars to the Fairies. Their faces remained calm, but she could almost feel their surprise.
“Alcoholic.” Belle shrugged.
“I think, my dear,” Beryl said gently, “that you might benefit from a conference with the Hatter.”
On their way out, Mr. Gold grabbed his jacket, and the door opened for them, raising yet another question.
“The house…” she began, and he already knew what she was about to say.
“Ah, yes. No doubt you’ve come to terms with the magic in this place. It seems to be quite fond of you, actually.”
“I read in those books that Old Magic is a sentient force, but… I don’t really understand what Old Magic is.” She admitted, biting her lip. Rumpelstiltskin thought for a second about how to explain it properly
“Old Magic is exactly that- old. And yes, it’s sentient, if you could call it that. It comes from before the time when there was dark and light magic, and it is debatably the most powerful magic in existence.”
“Debatably?” she raised an eyebrow. He cleared his throat, slightly embarrassed, and dodged the question. The only thing that was as powerful as or more powerful than Old Magic was true love’s kiss.
“Alright. Normally I would just take conventional transportation, but we don’t really have time to waste, now do we?” he held out a hand. Belle took it hesitantly, and his grip tightened. “Hold on tight.”
If anyone were watching, they would have seen a puff of purple smoke, and when it cleared there would have been only air where two people once stood.
When Belle opened her eyes again, they were standing around the corner from the watch shop, out of sight from the normal street view. Gold walked out onto the street and inside the shop, into an main area that was empty except for the ticking clocks.
“I thought you said we were going to see the Hatter. Shouldn’t he be in Wonderland or something?” Belle looked around the shop, seeing no sign of Jefferson or Emma.
“That was a while back.” Robert mused, but suddenly called out into the silence. “Jefferson!”
“You’re not telling me-” but she didn’t get to finish her sentence before he strode out into the shop, clad in the same old-fashioned style as before. He looked back and forth between the two of them, taking in Gold’s appearance and Belle’s obvious confusion.
“You’re probably here for the Hatter, aren’t you?” he asked. Neither of them made a move of confirmation, but he led them to a back room anyways. It was full of scattered books and papers, empty beakers and broken bits of things that could probably be salvaged to use for something else.
“Now,” Jefferson began, sifting through the piles until he uncovered an old hat box. “Which hatter are you looking for- the sane one… or the Mad one?” he sat down in a threadbare armchair, the only seating in the room.
“Preferably the Mad one. We need his experimental expertise.” Gold said grudgingly. Jefferson raised an eyebrow as he opened the hatbox and donned a black velvet hat. It was more for the spirit than anything when it came to this particular job.
“No one’s asked for him in a long time. I think it was a century, actually- but does she know?” he asked as a side note.
“Yes.” Robert answered.
“Oh!” his gaze turned to Belle. “So you’re rather new at this, I assume. If you don’t even know how to properly control your power yet, why come to me?”
“She’s standing in a room with a dark Wizard and Warlock, and she doesn’t even look tense. You know she’s a light magician. Take a guess, why don’t you?” Mr. Gold hadn’t been particularly fond of the man in either world- they were both much too involved in the deal-making business to be around each other without getting edgy, and he seemed to have gone utterly insane after the Great Merge. However, it looked like he had recovered quite a bit of his sanity of late.
“Ah. I see. You’ve come because of my research.” He stood and pulled several volumes off a shelf, spreading them on the floor in a circle.
“Believe you me; I wouldn’t be here if there was another option.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not going to do anything to her.” Jefferson continued to flip through pages, looking for a particular reference.
“Would you please explain to me what you’re talking about?” As much as Belle felt that watching and observing was a good way to learn, it wasn’t exactly helping at this point.
“Ah yes! I remember this one now.” The Hatter tapped his finger on the page, looking up at Belle. Guilt was plain on his face- a regretful past shown through his eyes. He spoke hesitantly and softly. “I used to be a scientist in the old world. In my… madness… after the Merge, I started taking on insane projects, even to the point of endangering and costing the lives of many people. I’ll never forgive myself. My wife was the only one able to snap me out of it- make me see the monster I had become. My dear Alice, may she rest in peace.”
Belle hesitantly placed a hand on his shoulder in comfort. During these times, just offering sympathy was never enough- there weren’t any words. He didn’t seem opposed to the touch, but looked into her eyes with a strange expression.
“You’ve lost someone, too.”
“Yes.” She dropped her hand and lowered her eyes.
“My mom.” The Hatter nodded slowly, the same understanding in his eyes. He squeezed her hand gently, and proceeded to look through his books once more.
“Yes… the only way besides some kind of previous bond or blood link- I’m assuming you’re not related?” he looked up suddenly.
“No!” they both said, perhaps a little too quickly. Hatter nodded.
“In that case, there had to have been dark magic that seeped through an open wound, but it’s very particular about such things. Dark magic doesn’t like to seep. Magic in general doesn’t like to seep. In fact, ‘seep’ is a very poor term, I should probably-”
“Jefferson!” Robert barked.
“Sorry. Erm… the point is, magic doesn’t like to go places a lot of the time, so whatever wound it goes in through has to be inflicted by the person whose dark magic enters it. It’s probably been done inadvertently many times.” He shrugged.
“What did you mean ‘concentrated essence’?” Gold asked, thinking back to the quote Azura had read.
“Oh, that! I meant live magic. It can’t be stagnant, it has to come from a living being.”
“That explains it.” Muttered Robert, but the Hatter didn’t ask too many questions.
“If you’ve come to me you’re probably looking for the entry wound, yes?” he asked, fingers dancing along the brim of his hat.
“Yes. I’m wondering if it could have been her father’s magic that caused this.” Gold said. “Would you be able to identify it?”
“I would. Magical signatures are rather a specialty of mine.” Jefferson said. “It would be a permanent mark, like a scar.”
“Yes, we know.” Belle said. “But… we have more options than you might think. A cloud of confusion passed over the Hatter’s face.
“I don’t understand. What are you talking about?” He asked. Belle didn’t want to explain any more than she had to, so she and Mr. Gold launched into the short version of the story.
“Her father was an alcoholic, and her mother was a light Sorceress that I knew well. We think that her father was a dark Mage or something of the like, and was never aware of his powers.”
“He… well, when he got drunk…” As an answer, Belle pulled up her sleeve again, thankful that she was wearing a loose shirt today. “There are some on my back, too.” The Hatter’s gaze fell over the scars, tracing them one by one with his eyes.
“Has anyone ever told you that alcohol doesn’t mix well with magic?” he asked. Belle shook her head. “Well, even if he didn’t have magical abilities, the amount of power floating around you was probably enough to set him off.” He looked up at her, waiting for a response.
“So… what does that mean?”
“It means that it wasn’t your fault.” Jefferson said quite plainly. “I’ve only ever seen one other case of an abusive magical parent, and the child went through life thinking they were the stimulus, though they did less beating and more locking in the room. The child ended up in the foster system when they were ten, thank God.”
“Who was that?” Robert asked, purely curious.
“Emma Swan.” A sad look passed over the Hatter’s face like a shadow, and then was gone. “Annabelle, do you have any problems with me touching your scars?” he asked.
“Why?” she was suspicious, as he thought. Not a problem- she had every right to be.
“In order to identify where the actual wound that the magic entered is, I’m going to have to be able to touch you. A light magician’s body acts as a natural barrier against dark magic, like water off plastic, and the dark magician can feel the light magic around you. Wherever the wound is, I’ll feel dark magic, but I have to be able to touch you. I want your permission, first, though.” He seemed sincere, and even as a madman she doubted he would do anything to hurt her. Gold looked ancy, though.
“Ok.” She nodded. “You have my permission.” She pulled up the back of her shirt until it revealed the skin all the way up to her shoulder blades, sweeping her loose hair to one side. That was almost as high as the scars reached.
And for once, she didn’t have any qualms in showing them. The two people in this room were people she trusted to help her, not men who wanted to get her in bed. After a moment she felt Jefferson’s hands start their work, and simply stood patiently until he’d finished.
Mr. Gold watched as Jefferson’s hand lightly traced over Belle’s back. His face was completely focused, his fingertips light as a feather over her cool skin. For a moment, Rumpelstiltskin was reminded of something he hadn’t thought of in a long time. A surge not unlike longing, or even jealousy, rushed through him at the thought of the Hatter’s tender touches on Belle’s back, but it was quickly followed by shame and regret. He wouldn’t put her though that. Not ever. She deserved someone so much better than he.
After only a few seconds his hands left her back and moved to her left arm, repeating the process. The hem of her shirt reached her hips again.
“Are you sure that’s all of them?” he asked. “I… I can’t find anything.” Jefferson was extremely confused, even looking a bit frazzled. Belle knew that wasn’t all, but it didn’t make sense.
“There’s one more, but… my father didn’t give it to me. I don’t even remember where it came from.”
“Interesting- you call your parents your father and your mom. One is rather more affectionate than the other, don’t you think?” he mused, his words a flurry, but he jumped right back into his previous thought. “Show it to me, please.” Belle pulled up her sleeve to shop him the whip-like scar that twisted around her right forearm. Jefferson gently placed his fingers on it.
“That’s the one.” He said, not moving his hand. “It’s like a hum… it’s like…” he fumbled for words.
“What’s the matter?” Belle asked. “I don’t even know where it came from. I’ve had it since before I could remember-”
“No, no, no. I know this magic!” he paced around the room, head in his hands, clutching at his hair. “It’s so familiar… I haven’t seen this signature in a long time… only someone with a lot of power could- AH-HA!” he suddenly jumped, hands in the air.
“You.” He pointed at Gold.
“It’s your magic.” The Hatter said, looking more like the “Mad” part of his title every second. “You gave her that scar.”
“Impossible.” Robert was attempting to remain calm, but he felt as if someone was choking him.
“Every magician has a signature to their magic- Shifters can track it by scent, and I track it by my own means. It takes practice, but I know your magic, Rumpelstiltskin. I interacted with it too often not to know it.”
“I couldn’t have-” Gold was practically snarling, reaching out instinctually to put a protective arm in front of Belle, who seemed scared out of her wits. She stood her ground, however, determined to see this through.
“Tell me, how often do you remember everything that goes on during the change?” Jefferson’s breathing became heavier with every second. “How many times during those earlier days did you come back with blood on your hands?”
“Those days are gone.” Robert glared at him with a dark look in his eye.
“Oh, are they?” The Hatter waltzed around the room as if putting on a dance, twirling his hat on his finger. “Tell me, when was the last time circumstances aligned like they did last night, hm? The ides are nothing to take lightly, Rumple. When was the last time your emotions were running high?”
“Jefferson-” Belle began, but didn’t get any father. He wasn’t paying attention to her, but was looking straight at Mr. Gold, shoving his hat firmly back on his head.
“When was the last time your blood was pulsing through your veins as warmly as it is now, hm? When your son ran away? You know magicians keep their longevity even when they lose their magic.” Jefferson’s eyes were wild, almost inhuman. “What about that night twenty-two years ago? Do you remember it? Don’t lie to me, I know you do.”
Robert glared silently, daring him to say another word.
“He came back, remember? Your boy came back to your doorstep and he was dying, and on the day of the full moon- how delicious!” he smacked his hands together in a way that sent chills down Belle’s spine, but she didn’t move. “Raw, pure anguish pumping through your veins on the night of the ides, and I’m very willing to bet that you don’t have any idea what happened that night, do you?” the Hatter backed off, spun in a circle, and looked back around at them, all traces of Jefferson gone. He was perfectly and utterly Mad.
“Twenty two years. That’s just about the right amount of time, don’t you think?” Suddenly Mr. Gold lost his patience, cracking his cane against the man’s side, and he fell to the floor with a sickening thump. Belle squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, hands covering her mouth instinctually to stifle her gasp. Struggling to his feet, the Mad Hatter hung his head, leaning on the table as if he hadn’t the strength to stand any longer.
“I think you should go. The Mad Hatter should probably disappear for another century or so.” The man with the cane wasn't going to be one to argue.
“Agreed.” he snapped.
The bell tied to the door tinkled merrily on the way out, but to Gold is sounded like the bells ringing for the hour of his execution.
Chapter 14: The Art of Avoidance
Belle wasn’t at breakfast the next morning.
It wasn’t like her to skip it, even if she wasn’t feeling well- just in the near two months he’d known her, Robert had had to send her back to bed twice because she tried to come down, but looked a tired mess. She could be sleeping, he supposed, but when he tried to return to the West Wing, he found the doors locked, and was unable to coax them open, as hard as he tried. Obviously, the house wanted him to go somewhere. With a shrug, he started down the hallway, following the only open passageway to the library doors.
Once inside, the room seemed empty. The windows were open and the curtains tied back, so someone had been in here. He looked up to scan the balconies, and noticed a ladder on the third one, propped so you could climb through a trap door onto the roof. Gold bemoaned his bad knee for a moment and the fact that he would most definitely need magic to get up there, but up he was going. He needed to talk to her.
When he finally got up to the roof, Belle was sitting on the edge with her legs dangling through the bars of the railing, wrapped in a quilt and watching the sun rise. The sun was just beginning to come up, painting the first faint patches of orange and light blue. Hearing Gold’s footfall, she jumped and turned around.
“You scared me.” Belle breathed deeply and turned back to the sunrise, until she thought of something strange. “Wait. You walk with a limp. How did you get up the ladder?” Robert laughed.
“Just because I don’t normally expend the magic necessary to repair my knee doesn’t mean I can’t expend it. I just don’t like paying the price that comes along with using it for a long time.”
He stood, leaning against the sturdy raining near where she sat, not quite sure how to put what he knew must be said. He’d been up all night thinking about it, and he’d come to the conclusion that she couldn’t stay here. Mr. Gold knew the dangers, and if it was true and he had given he that scar, that meant two things: One, she was just as likely to be hurt by him a second time. Two, she now made a perfect candidate for breaking his curse, since she had now been marked by him (even if she didn’t remember it). However, he wasn’t about to let Belle give up her life to him in any way, shape or form, and if the Old Magic in the house realized what was going on it might push them towards that route. Old Magic often had the best intentions, but it was finicky.
Luckily, Belle spoke first, saving him from having to express this.
“I’m sorry about your son.” She glanced at him briefly, apologetically. “Ruby told me.”
“It’s alright. Best not open old wounds.” A total lie, but Mr. Gold was not a man who wore his heart on his sleeve for long.
“It’s not alright.” Belle didn’t say any more, but turned her gaze back to the sky. She seemed to be looking far off, at something beyond even the sunset, past from where the blue sky turned to black night and all the way through the stars. He knew that look- Mr. Gold himself had worn it many times.
“I’m sorry about your mother.” He said softly.
“It’s alright.” She continued staring off into the distance.
“No, it’s not.” He shook his head with a sigh, taking a seat beside her. “It never is.” They sat in silence for a long while, just watching the sun rise and the stars fade into a red-orange light.
“I never cried for her.” She said softly. “That’s horrible, isn’t it?”
Not knowing how to respond, he simply remained silent, unmoving. Belle continued talking of her own will. Over the centuries he’d found that people do that when they need to talk about something.
“I don’t know why, really. I loved her so much, but I never once thought about crying- not when there were other people around. Then when there wasn’t anyone I couldn’t stand to think about it for long. I just… I didn’t want them feeling sorry for me.” She sighed sadly. “But I… I was there. I was there when she died.”
“You were?” that could be pivotal. The dying words of a magician were nothing to take lightly, even those of someone with very little power. Belle nodded.
“She told me she loved me, and she told me to be strong.” She twiddled her fingers under the blanket.
“What were her words? Do you remember her exact words?” he asked. She finally looked over at him, confused. The memory was still fresh in her mind.
“We were in the hospital after her heart attack. She said… ‘I love you, my brave little girl. You’ve always been a fighter, but I need you to be strong for mama…’ Then something went wrong and the doctors rushed in. Is… that important?” It was just as he’d suspected.
“It was a blessing.” Robert said. “Blessings work by intent- it doesn’t take scrutiny or careful crafting to make a blessing. It can be words and love alone. It’s like all those stories about good Fairies blessing babies at christenings.” Belle paused for a moment.
“Do they really do that?” she asked.
“Sometimes.” He shrugged. Belle laughed, thinking it strange that in the modern day Fairies would be at christenings, and went back to her previous thought.
“So she… what exactly did she do?”
“She strengthened your will.” He nodded slowly. “Among other things, probably. She knew you were brave, but she had a certain… aptitude for detecting trouble. Alexa was a smart one- she probably knew you’d need a will of steel to survive what was coming.”
“She made this for me when I was little.” Belle gestured to the quilt around her shoulders. It was probably near twenty years old and showed no signs of wear. Robert looked at it for a moment, and for a second, very briefly, he saw something. A strand of magic, tucked deep inside the quilt.
“What? Is something wrong?”
“It’s… enchanted.” He said, picking up a corner and gently stroking the cloth. “Mother’s Magic- it’s a protection spell that mothers usually put on their children at night to keep them from having bad dreams, keep them safe. That sort of thing. It’s literally been worked into strands and woven into the fabric.” He let go of the cloth and it settled back around Belle. “I bet you never had a single nightmare sleeping under that.” She shook her head.
He almost wanted to put an arm around her, to wrap her in his embrace and just hold her there for a long while. This girl that he’d known just shy of two months had managed to change so many things about his thinking, so much that he even let his guard down once in a while. True love wasn’t something he liked to think about or dwell on, especially not after he was cursed. His past haunted him, and he wasn’t about to let another innocent soul suffer for his future, regardless of how the curse had changed him.
And yet… she didn’t seem to care. She endured his impatient rages with a calm, cool head, even when it wasn’t her fault. Especially when it wasn’t her fault, because it hardly ever was. Even when she thought it was simply his nature, she had never snapped, never been callous or uncaring… simply endured. Belle was such a brave soul. Even without her mother’s blessing she would have been brave.
She turned away from the sunrise to find him looking at her. Even in low light, and with little sleep, wrapped in an old quilt, Annabelle French looked like a queen. Her eyes searched his face for a moment, only a moment, sweeping over his brown eyes and soft expression.
“Nothing.” He shook his head and turned back to the sunrise.
“What made you finally come out of hiding?” Belle asked. It took him a moment to remember that there actually was a reason why he’d come up here, and another moment to remember what it was. Gold cleared his throat, steeling himself.
“I… I wanted to tell you that, if you wish, I will release you from your agreement.”
“What?” she truly seemed confused.
“You don’t have to stay here any longer if you don’t want to – I’m certainly not going to try to keep you here. It’s dangerous around me.” He was trying to be as callous as possible about the whole manner. It made things easier. Belle looked almost… angry. Not, not angry, or not only angry. She looked absolutely hurt.
“I’m not still here because of our agreement!” she spat. “If I wanted to leave I would have run away a long time ago. If I was scared of you I would have run last night. Trust me, if I wanted to leave, you would know it.”
Mr. Gold gazed at her with a strange expression, and nodded curtly. She returned the nod, stood, and walked to the trap door.
So much for that plan.
The two didn’t exchange another word for the rest of the evening, or for the entirety of the next week. They took meals alone, and even the house seemed darker and colder without the other’s presence. At first it was almost a mutual avoidance, but then it seemed that Belle couldn’t even find him when she wanted to. She’d tried everywhere, even the West Wing, but she almost never saw him, and when she did he’d turn a corner and disappear. It was like he was running from her.
Once, she even saw the mysterious rose from her vision, floating in a glass case deep inside the West Wing. It looked absolutely pristine, almost glowing, except for the single petal that had fallen, resting beside the bloom in the case. The petal was withered, and looked as if it would fall apart if you looked at it for too long, which didn’t make any sense compared to the rest of the rose… she’d even tried to do some research on her own, but there wasn’t anything she could find.
The second time she tried to find the room she walked in circles for an hour before deciding that she simply wasn’t supposed to have found it in the first place.
Belle spent most of her days outside in the rose garden or holed up in the library- she even slept in there sometimes, curled up on the comfy couch that no longer smelled of mothballs, but of the roses that were thriving in the garden. It seemed that the plants were feeding off of her magic, and tending to them made her feel at home and safe, and distracted her from the loneliness that loomed around every corner. Healthy, green buds were forming on the bushes and the climbing roses, creating some small signs of life, proving that time was still passing among the dust and the dark.
Most of the magic that she studied on her own involved the roses, actually. Light magicians were good with creation on nurturing, so she seemed to have inherited her mother’s… well, magic with gardening, for lack of a better word. The plants were stronger than they should have been and growing faster, so she could only assume those were good signs. She could also only assume that it was her magic that had revived the poor flowers in the first place.
Whenever she’d first come here, she hadn’t thought much of spending her days alone. That was how her days had usually been at home, actually, but the more time she didn’t spend alone, the more she was bothered by being alone. Mr. Gold hadn’t seemed like someone she would miss, but the truth was that she did miss him- snippy remarks and hard stares included.
She couldn’t stand it, as much as it pained her pride to say so. However, if he kept this up much longer she wasn’t sure how long she was going to be able to stand to stay.
One morning, she went out searching for him again, out of some combination of boredom and desperation, she supposed. Her wanderings led her to the West Wing yet again, but the doors seemed to spring open at a touch of her fingers.
She walked tentatively down the hallway, wondering where exactly she was supposed to be going, and even more so, why she was supposed to be going there. It was obviously somewhere down here, because those doors were not easy to open on a good day. She heard a muffled noise from the study- a woman’s voice. Turning in, she found the room empty, but the voice had to be coming from…
“Rumpelstiltskin, uncover this mirror!”
Well, that made more sense.
Belle walked to the four-mirrored table, uncovering the one she thought the voice was probably coming from. A woman with curly blonde hair, heavy dark eye makeup, and a headdress shaped like horns blinked back at her, surprised.
“Ah. You must be Belle, then.” She sat back in her chair, a smug smirk on her face. Belle nodded.
“And you are?” She asked, taking a seat on the chair in front of the mirror.
“Melissa Aedan, though I expect you’d know me better as Maleficent.”
“You’re Maleficent? As in… Dragon Shifter Maleficent?” Belle raised an eyebrow. The blonde woman laughed.
“Yes, that’s me. Nice to meet you, too, child.” As much as Belle didn’t appreciate being called a child, after all she’d heard it was nice to finally see this woman. Robert hadn’t had time to introduce them before the… incident… with the Hatter, but he’d spoken of her often. From what she could gather they’d been trained together, but had gone their separate ways afterwards, only meeting again after the Great Merge.
“So, how is it you came by this mirror? I thought Rumple didn’t like other people in the West Wing.”
“He doesn’t.” Belle admitted. “We’ve been training here, though, so the house lets me in even when he’s not here.”
“I wouldn’t think you should be able to stand it back there.”
“There’s a lot of stagnant light magic hanging around, too. It’s getting less… uncomfortable around here.” Since her training had begun, she had already released enough light magic to dampen the feeling in the West Wing quite a bit. She wasn’t about to tell her the real reason she could stand it. Maleficent nodded thoughtfully.
“I’ve heard quite a lot about you.” She said.
“So has everyone else, it seems.” Belle muttered. The woman in the mirror smiled, looking very Dragon-like even in that action. Belle was beginning to suspect that Shifter’s actions mirrored their Animal forms in appearance.
“Well, you’re one to be talked about. You’re a fellow Enchantress, too. It was getting rather lonely.” Almost against her will, Belle smiled. Maleficent’s dry, sarcastic humor was refreshing, and it was nice to talk to someone who had gone through the same- well, sort of the same thing- that she was going through.
“I know what you’re thinking.” Maleficent began. “You’re wondering if you should trust me. Well, I’ll tell you right now- don’t. I’ll come through if I see fit, but even I’m willing to admit that I’m not the kind of person you want to tell your darkest secrets.”
“I see.” Belle was careful to keep her face unreadable.
“Oh, you don’t have to be afraid of me. I’m actually glad I caught you, even if it was by accident. For now, you can trust me when I say that I’d be happy to answer any questions you have.” As scary as she might have looked at first, Melissa seemed sincere on this matter, and she certainly was. As a young woman her teacher had been a Sorcerer, who knew nothing of being a female or having that much power, and a lot of what she knew about Enchantress particulars she’d had to learn on her own.
“Did you…” Belle bit her lip, struggling for words. “Did you ever think you couldn’t live up to your powers?” Maleficent looked both ways dramatically, like she was checking to see if anyone was listening.
“I shouldn’t tell you this,” She said, “but I like you, and I think I can trust you with it. Believe me, though, this is the last time we trust each other with anything. Got it?”
Belle nodded for the Enchantress to continue.
“I never did think I was supposed to have them. Half my life I spent saying ‘Why me?’ before I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t worth it, and embraced them. I tried to run from my powers, but it wound up costing me the dearest thing to my heart. It cost me my love.” She looked up into Belle’s eyes. “Don’t make my mistakes.”
“Thank you.” She whispered. Melissa smiled sadly.
“You’re welcome. But if you ever tell another living soul what I just told you, you’ll find out first hand why people are so scared of the Dragon Enchantress.”
The thunder woke them both, crashing loudly enough to make Belle sit bolt upright and yelp, and even making Mr. Gold start. It was the first storm this spring, and no doubt there were more to come as the weather warmed. Knowing that the power was probably out, Mr. Gold dragged himself out of bed to see exactly how bad the storm was.
None of the lights in the West Wing ran on electricity- none that he ever used- they were all oil lamps and candle sconces, so there was plenty of light to guide his way into the main area of the house. Some flat ceiling lights had been built in here and there, but he never turned them on.
It was clear that there wasn’t any power in the rest of the house- the place was dead silent and pitch black, except for the storm and the lightning flashes. Nothing electronic was buzzing. However, there was a faint glow coming from down the hall, towards the kitchen. As he grew closer he saw that candles were lit, and once in the doorway saw Belle fiddling with something near the stove.
He should go. He really should. He should walk away before she notices, but…
That was cowardly. All week he’d been acting like a coward, hoping she would leave on her own or something of the like, but no. She’d tried to hunt him down, of all things, seeking him out. She deserved an explanation for his behavior.
No, she deserved much, much more.
She turned to see him standing in the doorway, unsurprised that he’d been woken by the storm as well. Her short sleeved shirt made her scars visible, and he mentally cringed at the memory, just as he’d been doing the entire week.
“Hello, stranger.” She said with a smile. Belle hated storms, but if that was all it took to see him then she would gladly sit through a hundred of them. He turned to go, but she ran after him. “No, wait!”
This time she managed to grab a hold of his bare arm, feeling his muscles tense beneath her grasp, ready to move the second she let go. He didn’t look back at her, because if he did he wasn’t sure what he might see in her eyes. Anger? Sorrow? Or worst of all, fear.
“Don’t leave.” Belle whispered. “Please.” Slowly, he relaxed under her touch, and she released her grip. Gold nodded once, indicating he would stay, but he would probably bolt if she even touched on the subject of why he’d been avoiding her.
“What are you doing down here?” he asked instead. Belle shrugged sheepishly and walked back over to the pot on the stove, now steaming as the water came to boiling.
“Without electricity?” Gold smiled just a little at this- it was a parlor trick that he knew well, and apparently she’d managed to master it. Belle snapped her fingers and for a moment a tiny, blue flame burned from the tip of her index finger like a candle. Magical fire would still burn underwater, if one took the proper precautions, and it would have been easy enough to boil the water by putting the flame in the water until it boiled (but not her finger- no scalding was necessary to boil water, and her skin could still be burned by the water, if not the flame).
“There’s enough for two.” She said, fiddling about with tea bags and mugs. Loose tea was better, but just now tea bags would do. “I was hoping you’d show your face.”
“Why are you up?” he asked, not willing to tell her that he was only here because the blasted house had locked the doors to the West Wing again.
“Same as you. I couldn’t sleep.” She handed him a mug and they pulled up stolls to the counter. There was a book lying beside where Belle was sitting- he assumed she’d been up reading. Neither of them spoke for a long while- Belle was always the brave one, always the one who broke the silence, but now… she hadn’t done anything. It was Rumpelstiltskin’s turn to be brave for a change.
“I’m sorry.” He whispered. She looked over, lips slightly parted in surprise.
“You haven’t done anything.” Rather than continue on this path, Gold took a deep breath. Right now, he owed her an explanation, no matter how painful.
“The night my son died…” He trailed off, trying to think of how to put it. Belle’s eyes grew soft.
“You don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to.”
“I need to.” He shook his head. “I owe you this much. The night he died, he came to my doorstep, and he had an arrow in his chest. An arrow.” Gold put his head in his hands. “We hadn’t seen each other in years, and he’d finally come to make amends… Regina is the only one whose assassins use arrows in this century- they have poison in the tips.” Belle listened intently, but she didn’t dare interrupt him
“I was doing well with the change after Ruby and Granny coached me through it, and I suppose it wasn’t enough for Regina to just have me change. I had to be bloodthirsty for her to be satisfied.” He looked up at Belle, tears that refused to fall glistening in his eyes.
“Ruby probably told you about the ides.”
“You lost your mother. You know how it feels to lose someone you love dearly, and I knew without a doubt who was responsible for his death. All that rage- all that sorrow- it boiled to an uncontrollable frenzy under the ides and the change, and I completely lost control.” Gold’s breathing was becoming more shaky as he talked, and Belle hesitantly placed a hand over his own. “I don’t remember anything that happened that night, and you can’t exactly report the death of your over two-thousand year old son murdered by magical poisoned arrow.” He sighed and leaned against the countertop, eyes closed. To Belle, the thought of someone even needing assassins in this century seemed odd and out-of-place, but perhaps it was the assassins with arrows that threw her.
“What was his name?” her question was barely audible.
“I’m sorry.” Belle whispered.
“You’re sorry?” he looked completely incredulous. “Are you insane? Belle, I could have killed you that night!”
Robert blinked, staring openly at her, his voice becoming more tense with every word.
“Why are you not afraid of me? You have every right- you should be afraid. You should run for your life and never come back here, but I can’t seem to get it through your head! Why is that?” His eyes searched her face, and Belle moved in just a fraction of an inch closer.
“Because you’re not the monster you think you are.”
In hindsight, it may have been the storm or the light, or that crazy aphrodisiac-like effect that strong light magic had on dark magicians, and not the way her words seemed to cut to his very soul, but whatever the reason was, when she leaned in to kiss him, he kissed her back.
It was hesitant at first, shy and careful on both parts, like they were dealing with a moment as delicate as a Fairy’s wing and didn’t want to shatter it. Very soon, though, Belle’s lips parted under him and the kiss became deeper, even welcoming.
How long since he’d last been kissed? Two thousand years? More? Not since his son had left him, which would have been shortly after the Great Merge, but his head was swimming and he couldn’t remember the years just now.
Suddenly, there was a loud thump, and they broke apart. The moment was gone.
“Did you hear that?” Belle asked, one hand still on his arm. He nodded, and a second later there was a thumping that sounded almost like a knock, and a muffled woman’s cry from outside. Belle jumped up and ran for the door, Gold on her heels.
Who would possibly be out in this mess? And the better question- why?
Outside, completely drenched and shivering from the cold, stood Ruby Lucas. Her eyes were wide in shock or fear, and she looked panicked, which was a very bad sign. Wolf Shifters traditionally had very strong heads and almost never panicked.
“Belle!” she ran in and grabbed her friend’s hands. “I’m so sorry to come in like this, but we have a big problem, and I need your help. Both of you.” Ruby looked briefly at Gold, then back to Belle.
“What’s wrong?” Belle asked, trying to make her sit and talk sensibly, but she wouldn’t. Even her answer came out as a shaky whisper.
Chapter 15: Sleeping Death
I just wanted to take a moment and thank you all for how supportive you've been of me and my writing.
That is all.
“She’s here?!” Gold was suddenly alert and anxious. “I thought she was hiding out with a bunch of dwarves somewhere in Europe!”
“Not anymore.” Ruby shook her head, eyes wide with fear. She was still in pajamas, just as Belle and Gold were. “James went missing and she came here to talk to you about finding him. Needless to say, she didn’t make it there.”
“Snow…” Belle said, already stifling a mental groan for more fairy tales. “Like Snow White?”
“Yes and no, but there isn’t time to explain right now- we’ve got to move!” she started to pull them out the door and into the storm, but Mr. Gold stopped her.
“You can’t carry us both.” He said, holding out his hands. “We’ll do it my way.”
Magical transport was not a pleasant spell to cast, but it was quick, and at the time speed was essential. When Ruby was worried it meant that something was truly, seriously wrong.
“Are you sure?” Ruby asked. He’d have to pay the price for this spell, which meant he’d be weakened magically after it was completed. Sometimes that wasn’t a particular bother; in other cases it was a very big bother. In some cases the spell took its price in other ways, especially if there was non-magical baggage or people who weren’t normally powerful enough to cast the spell on their own. By casting it, Gold would also be paying Ruby’s price for travel.
“Just don’t let go.” he said, grabbing both their hands tightly.
For Belle and Mr. Gold, the travel seemed instantaneous and painless. For Ruby, it was like stepping through icy water. They arrived in Granny’s kitchen accompanied by a puff of smoke, and Gold staggered slightly. The spell normally didn’t take a physical toll, but his pulse was racing and there was a stitch in his side, like he had run the whole distance.
“Robert-” Belle began, but stopped herself. She put a supportive arm around him, and he gladly accepted it. He was also inwardly pleased that she’d addressed him by his first name. Normally she needed goading before she would do that.
Ruby was kneeling on the floor behind them and to their left, and only then did they notice the cot set up in the kitchen, Granny bustling around the stove with strange ingredients, and the body of a young woman that lay on the cot.
“This is Snow.” She said, picking up a cloth. “Snow, this Belle, and I know you know Mr. Gold.” Snow did little more than try to open her eyes. She didn’t have the strength.
The woman on the cot was beautiful- a round face, pale, clear skin, and long black hair. She was clad in leather pants and a dark tank top, and you wouldn’t even know anything about her was magical were it not for the dagger strapped to her thigh, the sword belt that housed a very ornate and impressive-looking sword, and the bloody wound in her upper left shoulder. Ruby dabbed her face with a cool cloth as she shivered from fever, barely conscious. A bloodied leather jacket was hanging on the chair beside Snow’s cot.
“Arrow.” Gold said, after taking on look, his face twisting in anger. “Where is it? I need to see it!” Granny pulled it off the counter beside the stove and handed it to him. Robert took one look and flung it aside.
“Regina.” He snarled. “Her assassins must not be on their guard tonight- they’re trained to fatally wound with the arrows.” Robert tossed the arrow aside, beginning to pace around the kitchen. Granny picked it up and went back to her pot. It was an odd sight, the four of them frantically running around in their pajamas, looking for a magical solution to a deadly poison, but there was no one there to laugh at the oddity.
“She’d not dying from the wound, she’s been-”
“Poisoned.” Belle said, looking to Mr. Gold for confirmation. “You said her assassins use poison-tipped arrows.”
“Exactly.” Gold nodded. “They make sure they get their kill one way or another.
“But we don’t know what poison it is, so we can’t give her an antidote for it.” Ruby said, fussing over the wound to make sure it was no longer bleeding freely
“So what are we supposed to do?” Belle asked, thinking that she knew only enough to treat her own wounds and nothing about puncture wounds or poison.
“We wanted to see if you could buy her some time.” Granny said, dipping the arrowhead into a bowl, which started to emit a black smoke that smelled like sulfur. “Red and I are healers, but we’re not strong magicians and we can’t seem to slow the effects of the poison.”
“Don’t bother with that.” Robert gestured to the smoking pot. “Regina’s poison has no antidote; it’s useless trying to identify it.”
“So there’s nothing you can do?” Red’s eyes were swollen with unshed tears. She wouldn’t cry- she was trying to be the strong, level-headed one, even in the face of her best friend’s death. Such a stupid, helpless situation… And ever since Bae died, Gold had sworn that he would never be helpless again. He paced, faster, hands to his temples.
“How long has it been?” Ruby checked her watch.
“About ten minutes. Does that make a difference?” She asked.
“Possibly. Regina’s poison kills in twenty minutes flat. I can only think of one thing that might help her at this point, but it’s drastic.”
“How drastic?” Granny asked.
“Curse drastic.” He said flatly. “And I’m going to need a mirror.” Ruby ran off to get it without question.
“You’re cursing her?” Granny was utterly appalled. “That’s your solution?” Gold shrugged, but it was then that Belle caught on to what he meant.
“You’re going to put her to sleep, aren’t you?” she asked as her friend returned with a hand mirror. Clever man.
“Not me, we. The sleeping curse will put her body in a state that is immune to time itself until it’s broken, and when it is it should purge the poison from her body, but I don’t know how to do it off the top of my head, so I need to make a call.” Gold took the mirror and called up Sydney.
“Ah, if it isn’t-” the operator began, but Robert cut him off quickly.
“No time for pleasantries, this is urgent. Get Maleficent on the line now!”
Sydney vanished, a started look on his face, and only a few seconds later Maleficent’s face appeared in the mirror.
“Rumple, what are you doing? Is it just a habit of yours to call people at odd hours?” she asked with a yawn. “Oh, and Belle. Hello, dear.”
“Don’t start with me!” he snapped, not planning on questioning about how she knew Belle just now. “I need a favor.”
“Why should I?” she asked, suddenly sullen.
“Remind me again how many times I’ve saved your sorry life?” Robert was obviously not in a good mood- for him, “panicked” was almost the same as “furious.” Melissa made note of it quickly, not caring to dwell on the many lives she owed the man.
“Fine.” She huffed, slapping her hands on the table. “What do you want?”
“I need to know how to cast a sleeping curse.” He said.
“A sleeping curse?” she raised an eyebrow. “Why?” At this point, Ruby was beginning to become fed up with questioning, and snatched the mirror.
“Now, you listen to me.” She said, her voice tense and angry. “We have a life on the line, here. I don’t know how much of a conscience you have or if you even have one left after all these years, but it would probably benefit you to know that the only person in the world that could possibly take down Regina is currently on her deathbed from Regina’s poison.” Melissa’s face grew pale as Ruby continued. “I know you have unsettled business with her, and I’ve got news for you, sister: If it’s come to this, then the war is coming. Time to pick your side.”
Ruby looked very Wolf-like as she stared into the mirror, and if she were Maleficent, Belle thought she might be scared the Shifter was about to jump for her jugular.
“Alright.” The Dragon Enchantress breathed. Ruby handed the mirror back to Mr. Gold. “First you’re going to need something to put the curse on-”
“We’ve got ten minutes.” Gold interrupted. Melissa’s jaw dropped, her brow furrowed in confusion.
“I- I… You know as well as I do that sleeping curses don’t work like that! They have to steep in something and mature for potency!” she gestured wildly with her hands as she spoke. “They’re concentrated in items and taken in through- through blood or ingestion…”
“There must be a way we can cast it directly on Snow.” Belle said, trying to think. “Is the only reason they have to mature because of potency?”
“In theory, yes, but no one has ever actually tried to find out.” Maleficent said.
“So, what would happen ‘in theory’ if Robert and I cast the spell together?”
Maleficent rolled her tongue against her cheek, thinking.
“Most light and dark magicians can’t stand to touch each other for long enough to cast a spell like this, but technically it should have the same effect if the magic present is strong enough.”
“Technically?” Belle asked.
“Technically is as good as it’s going to get, sweetheart.” Maleficent said with a shrug. There hadn’t really been any tests done on this kind of thing. “But there still has to be an entry point where the magic can seep into the blood.”
“She’s got an arrow wound.” Gold said. “I think we’ll be fine.”
“Then don’t just stand there!” Granny cried. “Do it!” Snow’s breathing was becoming more frenzied- they were running out of time. The older woman held the mirror, as Belle and Mr. Gold needed both hands to cast the spell.
“I need you to hold hands, and then both of you need to place your free hand near the entry point.” Maleficent began. After they had done so, she continued. “A sleeping curse is a very powerful, very specific spell, and you’re skipping at least a year of allowing the power to brew and mature on its own. This is going to really drain you, so you have to concentrate. Repeat after me.” Maleficent read the spell one line at a time, written in words in a language that Belle had never heard, but that seemed to flow over her tongue like water. She felt her magic draining out of her every second they spent casting the spell, and the entire incantation was said a full three times before it took hold.
A blinding white light flashed in their eyes, causing Belle and Mr. Gold to fall to the floor and the mirror connection to cut.
“Was that it?” Ruby asked when the light faded. Belle still saw stars floating about, but she was able to nod from her spot of the floor. She didn’t even realize she was still holding Gold’s hand until he released his grip.
“Yes. She should be fine now.” He said, rubbing his head. Well, as fine as you could get when you’d recently been poisoned and put under a sleeping curse. Snow was breathing deeply, and her fever seemed to have broken. Granny dumped the stinking, smoking bowl out the back door, and Ruby helped the pair on the floor to sit against the wall.
“Thank you.” She whispered. The drained magicians only nodded.
“So how do we break the curse?” Belle asked, assuming that was the next thing on their list, even though she was still incredibly dizzy. All three conscious people in the kitchen looked at her like she was insane.
“Don’t you know?” Ruby asked. Belle shook her head apologetically. She highly doubted it was as simple as it seemed in the tale.
“True love’s kiss is the only thing that will break a sleeping curse.” Granny said. “Meaning that our next job is to find her prince.”
“No.” Gold whispered. “Something we’ve got to do first.” His voice shook as he spoke. The travel had already taken a toll, and after the impromptu sleeping curse he was feeling like he himself could sleep for a hundred years (even though that was a myth). Ruby seemed confused, but before she could ask any more questions Granny took over, helping him to his feet.
“You two need to rest. You can stay here tonight, and we’ll talk in the morning.”
She ushered them up the steps and into a room, then turned and walked back down to the kitchen to clean up her mess.
Belle and Mr. Gold staggered into the upstairs room, dizzy and weary.
“Does casting a spell usually leave you like this?” Belle asked.
“No.” he said, sitting on the edge of the bed. “This is only the third or fourth time it’s ever happened to me. Sleep is the only thing you can do for it.” he had a splitting headache, and the stitch in his side had returned.
“I’ll let you sleep, then.” Belle squeezed his hand once, resisting the urge to kiss his cheek, and made for the door. There was only one problem with this plan.
It was locked.
“Granny’s up to her tricks again.” Gold groaned. “She knows we can’t open with magic because we’re completely, utterly drained.”
“Great.” Belle muttered. And the old woman had taken care not to put them in a room with two beds. “I’ll take the floor.” She sighed.
“You will not!” even as tired as he was, Robert was still perfectly capable of snapping at her. The end result was that neither of them really felt like arguing, and they wound up lying side by side on top of the comforter in the dark, a body’s width apart. Even from that distance he could sense her tension. She’d never fall asleep this way.
“Belle…” Mr. Gold said softly, the voice seeming to come out of nowhere in the pitch black.
“Relax. I’m not going to bite you.” He said. His fingers found her hand, which stiffened under his touch. He pulled away quickly.
“I’m sorry.” She said quietly. “About… before. I- I shouldn’t have-”
“Belle,” he began, careful to keep his tone even. “There’s no need.”
“Sleep. Please.” Robert’s hand trailed up her arm until it found her shoulder, and then stroked her cheek gently. “You have nothing to apologize for.” He slid slightly closer to kiss her forehead softly. Belle seemed to relax at this, breathing out a soft sigh of relief. Mr. Gold’s arm moved to her waist, pulling her in closer to him. She didn’t fight his touch as he expected she might, but nestled into him.
They didn’t wake until after lunch.
When the old woman returned to the kitchen, Ruby had already begun the proper disposing of some of the concoctions Granny had brewed in a vain attempt to slow the effects of the poison on Snow, and the vile smelling black smoke was beginning to smell less potent.
“I don’t get it,” Ruby began, “If we know she actually has a true love why not go straight for the kiss?”
“I can’t say what his reasoning is for sure, but we both know what power her weapons have. Maybe it’s something to do with that.” Granny said, shaking a spoon as she spoke. Ruby nodded in agreement. Snow’s weapons were enchanted, as all weapons used by Warriors were, and it was powerful magic. Not just anyone should have their hands on those things.
“How are they doing?” she asked, gesturing upwards.
“Oh, I expect they’ll be fine in the morning.” Granny said with a mischievous smile.
“You didn’t.” Ruby was surprised as how sneaky her grandmother could be sometimes.
“Well, they wouldn’t have the magic to open it from the inside tonight, now would they?” she said, trying to seem innocent. Red laughed outright. “Oh, don’t tell me you didn’t smell it! I couldn’t tell whose magic was laid on the other one more!”
Granny was referring to the possessive magical scent that was always apparent on Belle. Apparently she’d taken to him just as well, though Ruby usually didn’t make it a point to go sniffing for things like that unless she really needed the information. For Granny it was almost automatic.
“Granny…” Ruby said suddenly. “What if it’s Emma?”
Emma Swan was someone special. The whole town knew that, especially Jefferson, even if his reasons might be fueled by more than innocent curiosity. She was a Warrior, and even at twenty-eight hadn’t come into her magic. Snow had kept a close watch on her ever since she had entered into the foster system as a child, and was in fact, the reason Emma had been put into the system. She’d reported her parents for child abuse, and had immediately taken to the little girl. Needless to say, she couldn’t have grown up with an ageless mother who was always running from her evil stepmother, but Snow was the closest thing she’d ever had to a guardian. She was close friends with both Snow and Ruby, and though they’d tried everything shy of blatantly breaking it to her that she had magic powers, Emma’s magic hadn’t showed itself.
They were also working on trying to unearth Emma’s powers for the sole reason that she might be Snow’s only living relative.
It was difficult to trace things back so far, but as near as they could tell, Emma looked like a direct descendant of Snow White’s grandfather. Her parents had died in a house fire after she’d been put in the foster system, so she had no living relatives that she knew of.
A blood link was a powerful thing.
Mr. Gold had been working on a theory for a long time, that in order to bring back the Old Magic in vast amounts they needed a repeat of what had happened when it split into light and dark magic- a very powerful, very wicked Sorcerer and a very powerful, very good Warrior needed to clash weapons for one reason or another. Regina and Snow White were perfect candidates. However, Regina was aware of this fact as well, and that was probably one of many reasons why she’d decided to bite the proverbial bullet and assassinate Snow now. The only thing was that if you throw Emma and her powers into the mix… things suddenly became more complicated for everyone.
“Maybe.” Granny conceded. “Just maybe.”
Chapter 16: Fairy Princes and Big Nets
I'm sorry for the off-schedule posting, readers! I would have had this up sooner, except that we've been hit by really major time-to-head-to-the-basement storms this week during the time I usually write, and computer work was pretty much impossible during that.
Thanks for sticking with me and thanks for your support! All of you are fantastic.
When Belle opened her eyes, it took her a moment to remember where she was. Her head was still fuzzy, and coupled with the fact that she was encircled closely in a pair of warm arms made it feel all the more like a dream. Resisting the temptation to close her eyes and enjoy the moment while she could, Belle tried very hard to remember what had happened before this…
There was the storm, and then Ruby had come, and…
Everything immediately came rushing back, and she knew quite clearly whose arms were around her. Not that she minded. For the past two months she’d been trying extremely hard not to give into any kind of romantic attraction to her employer, but that seemed to have utterly failed.
And if failure was the case, at least it was mutual failure.
Normally she wasn’t one for romantics- she’d only ever had two boyfriends, and only one had lasted longer than a month. Her friends used to say that she had trust issues because she hadn’t spent her childhood around her father much, but she’s always thought it was a matter of simply finding the right person. Who knows- maybe this was it?
Yes, she thought wryly, just the person for you. He changes into a monster every full moon and is over two thousand years older than you are…
Belle shifted slightly, as if trying to physically shake the taunting voice in her head, hoping she wouldn’t wake him and spoil the moment. His eyes opened almost instantly, now clear and alert rather than the muddled, foggy look they’d had last night.
“Good morning.” He whispered, searching her face for signs of alarm. Gold was positive she would be scrambling away from him any moment, but she did no such thing.
“Did I wake you?” she asked. He shook his head, shifting out of the embrace Belle felt colder almost instantly, wishing she could curl back into him and go back to sleep for a while.
“No, I was already awake. How do you feel?” He sat up enough to lean against the headboard and she copied his motion, rubbing her stiff neck.
“Much better. Is sleep really all it takes?” The feeling was almost miraculous, actually, compared to how she’d felt the night before.
“Usually, except I have no clue how long we’ve actually been asleep.” He said. “I’ve slept for days after a thing like that before.”
Days? Belle felt a blush creeping on, but she hoped it wasn’t too obvious.
“So… what now?” she asked, trying to avoid drawing attention to herself. Gold hopped off the bed and walked to the door.
“Now we pick this blasted lock and go downstairs.” He held the handle for a moment, and Belle heard the lock click open. The door creaked open, and the two of them padded downstairs. Belle mentally sighed, realizing they were still in their pajamas. Not good, especially since they had things to do today and Mr. Gold’s house was too far away to make any progress by going back and getting normal clothes.
Fortunately, when she came downstairs she saw Snow lying on the cot, Ruby changing the dressings on her arrow wound (even though it wouldn’t heal in this state, she wanted to keep it clean), and two sets of clean, folded clothes on the kitchen table.
“Oh, good, you two are up!” Granny said, stirring a pot of something on the stove.
“Granny…” Belle began, picking up her set of clothes, “How long were we asleep?”
“Only twenty-four hours.” She said. “It’s about three o’clock now. Here- you need to eat.” Granny put two bowls of a thick stew on the table.
“Granny, thank you, but-” Mr. Gold tried to refuse and hurry things along, but Granny firmly protested.
“Not a word out of you! You may be a Warlock, but I’m still twice your age and I’m perfectly capable of mothering you. Sit.” With a sigh from Gold and a badly concealed giggle from Belle, they tucked into their stew. Only a few minutes later there was a knock at the front door. Ruby jumped to answer it.
“Whoever it is, get rid of them!” Granny hissed, casting a glance at Snow’s motionless form. Red shook her head.
“I think you’ll want to see this one.” She said, casting a meaningful glance at Mr. Gold. She disappeared for a moment, and the sound of a door creaking open cut through the tension in the room. When she returned to the kitchen, Ruby was leading Emma Swan by the hand, who looked both worried out of her mind and slightly confused. Her eyes scanned the kitchen, taking in pajama-clad Belle and Mr. Gold, Granny at the stove, and Snow lying on the cot.
“What- when- how…?” Emma stammered out, staring openly at the bloody wound in Snow’s shoulder. Mr. Gold looked almost as surprised as Emma.
“How did you know?” he asked. Belle resisted the urge to question him further- it would probably only slow things down.
“Lucky guess.” Ruby replied with a shrug. She then forced Emma to sit in a chair while she tried to come up with the easiest way to bring her into this. However, Robert beat her to it.
“Miss Swan, I’m afraid there really isn’t an easy way to put this, and even if there was, we currently don’t have the time to ease you into it.” He said. Ruby cringed- he was going for the frank approach. “Though I expect you know her by some other name, Snow White is not dead, she’s been put under a sleeping curse. In her absence, and until we find- what was his name, again?” he turned to Ruby briefly.
“James. Until we find him, I’m afraid it’s rather imperative that we recruit you.”
“Recruit me?” Emma asked. “What the hell are you talking about- and Snow White?! I know she’s got the hair, but Mary Margaret isn’t-”
“She is. And you have magic, too, however much you may not want to give into it.” Mr. Gold wagged an accusatory finger. “You don’t like me, and I know that for a fact- don’t worry, because after two thousand years I don’t take offense any longer. But why? Have you ever had a real reason? You probably felt uneasy around Ruby at first, didn’t you? And you must have felt suspicious of Jefferson?”
“Magic? There’s no such thing as-”
“Tell me.” Mr. Gold said firmly. Emma stammered around her answer for a second before it actually came out.
“Well, yeah, but-”
“What about Belle? Did you ever feel strange around her? Or Snow?”
Emma didn’t respond, but they all knew what the answer was. Even innate light magic, with the exception of Belle’s particular case, made the magician wary of other dark magicians.
“What are you saying?” Emma asked, weighing her tone carefully. She wasn’t exactly sure what they were trying to tell her.
“Frankly? You’re a Warrior with magic power that you haven’t come into yet. My personal opinion is that you’re in an intense amount of denial and it’s forcing it to remain innate.” Robert shrugged and continued on with his meal. Emma nodded slowly, brow furrowed.
“You’re all insane.” She whispered.
“I told you this route was a bad idea!” Ruby moaned, putting her hand to her forehead.
“What else would you suggest?” Robert snapped. “In Belle’s case she was simply unaware, in Emma’s case she’s in denial. Look at her- we’ve just given her evidence, however confusing, and she’s still denying it.” All throughout his speech, Emma was backing towards the door, and suddenly turned and ran at full speed away from them.
“Wait! Where are you going?” Ruby called, beginning to chase after her.
“I’m going to get some real help for Mary Margaret, and then I’m going to go get the nice men with the big nets!” Emma called, slamming the door.
“Well, that’s not good.” Gold muttered, sinking back into his chair.
“Oh, good grief!” Ruby cried, walking straight to a chest on the far side of the room and pulling out a black zip hoodie.
“Where are you going with that, young lady?!” Granny seemed concerned under her stern tone.
“To stop her before things get even worse than they are now!” She slipped into the jacket and out the door before Granny could continue protesting. The old woman sighed and shook her head.
“I don’t know what she’s planning on doing, but if she’s got that jacket on we’ll never catch her. We don’t use it often, but it amplifies Shifter powers, especially speed.”
“In that case,” said Mr. Gold as he rose from the table, “I believe the two of you will want to be the ones who break in Emma when she’s brought back here. Belle and I have some business of our own to attend to.”
Granny muttered something under her breath that Belle wasn’t sure she wanted to know, and the pair went back upstairs. After changing out of pajamas, Belle in jeans and Gold in his usual suit, they met back in the bedroom they’d spent the previous night in. Belle sat cross legged on the bed, and Robert rested in a chair facing her.
“Now, there’s something I need to tell you about. Pay attention, because I’m going to take you from the broad spectrum down into the details.” He said. “I take it you remember learning about the differences between light, dark, and Old Magic?”
“Yes. There was that encounter with the Sorcerer and the Warrior, right?” she asked, racking her brain for everything she could remember about it. Most of her history studies had been done on her own, while she’d learned to focus and control her power with Mr. Gold.
“Correct. Old Magic is waning in this world, though, and there are many who would want to bring it back completely. Personally, I believe that the power of the Old Magic is too much for any one person to hold, but it would be beneficial if many people could get together and use it for stronger spells.” He paused, looking for a comment from Belle.
“Ok. Still following.” She nodded.
“The only problem is that Old Magic physically cannot be produced any longer. After it split into light and dark magic, it just doesn’t mix well, unless there is a strong emotional connection between the two parties, and even then it isn’t as strong as true Old Magic. However, if we can replicate the scenario of when the magic first split, along with giving it an emotional connection to build on…”
“I would bring it back… but wouldn’t the magic still be a sentient force that way?” Belle asked, leaning forward slightly.
“Yes. And if it remains sentient it probably couldn’t be used towards anything inherently evil.” Robert twiddled his cane in his hand as he spoke. “Snow White is a Warrior. Regina is her stepmother, and they have quite a history of pain and sorrow. No one said that the emotional connection had to be a pleasant one for the magics to mix. Also, Regina needs to be put in check. She’s growing too reckless and over-emotional with her magic, and Snow White might be the only person who can do it.”
Belle thought over it for a minute. It seemed like a sound theory, but considering she’d really only been studying magic for about two and a half weeks, she probably wasn’t the best one to judge.
“Have you talked this over with anyone else?”
“Only Ruby and Granny.”
That came as a shock to her. She thought that surely he would have mentioned it to Maleficent or one of the Fairies, but she supposed that the Fairies might disapprove of his plan, and Maleficent couldn’t be trusted not to tell Regina… but wait. Belle’s heart sank. She didn’t even want to voice the possibility, even though it had to be said.
“So, the only reason you saved her-”
“No.” he said firmly. “I did that for Ruby, and because I owe Snow my life from one incident in the past. Also, I would truly prefer not to see anyone else die on my watch.” Robert breathed deeply and seemed to calm.
“I’m sorry.” Belle breathed. “I should have trusted-”
“No, you shouldn’t have, especially not me.” He growled. “It’s a good thing that you asked- in the world of magic it’s wise to be suspicious of everything and everyone, even and especially those-” but here he cut himself off and cleared his throat. Belle didn’t press him for the end of the sentence, but she could see him flush under his callous manner.
Especially those you love most.
“So why do we need Emma?” Belle asked after a pause. Robert relaxed slightly, glad to be taking the conversation down a different road.
“Emma is a cousin of Snow White, albeit several generations apart. Keep in mind, I said Snow might be the only person who can do it. Emma knows part of the story, and she’s known Snow and Ruby for several years. If we can just get her to believe, the emotional connection necessary might be present enough that the long distance relation won’t matter as much, especially since she’s also a Warrior.”
“So… she could take down Regina, too?”
“More than likely, except that Emma Swan has one of the strongest cases of utter denial that I’ve ever noticed in anyone. The relation and her powers won’t make any difference if we can’t get her to believe in magic.” He sighed.
“I thought you could read the future. Can’t you tell if she’s going to believe or not?” Belle asked, uncrossing her legs. It was probably a stupid question, but she had to try. Mr. Gold gave a humorless laugh.
“Yes, I can see the future, but I’m not God.” He chuckled again. “The future is a complicated thing, dearie. It can change drastically in two seconds from whatever I saw, and with someone whose future is on such a delicate balance as Emma’s… Well, it’s best not to go into that. It only breeds headaches.”
“Oh.” Belle bit her lip. Gold continued, attempting once again to divert the conversation from himself.
“You, on the other hand, have an extremely practical ability, as the present is the present, and if it’s happening now you don’t have to worry about whether or not it’s actually going to happen.” Belle gave a small smile at this. She still wasn’t sure how to control her Gift yet, and hadn’t had any more visions since she came into her magic, but they were working on it.
“I… I still don’t understand how this pertains to waking up Snow.” She said, brow furrowed. Her eyes weren’t focused on his face now, but on some point in midair, as if trying to juggle all the information in her head in hopes of finding an answer to the problem at hand hidden inside.
“It does and it doesn’t. All of what we’ve just discussed comes after waking Snow, but we do have to find her prince to do that. Regina might be rash, but she’s also smart. She could probably guess that a sleeping curse was the only way to save Snow’s life, either that or Maleficent told her.” A dark look passed across his face at the thought, but he quickly brushed it aside. His old friend had never truly been trustworthy, and he knew that. No time to get emotional. “More than likely she’s holding the Prince as a prisoner at her castle.”
“He’s seriously a prince? You’re kidding me, right?” Belle fought back a laugh, but in the end the laughter won out. Even Robert cracked a smile.
“Well, he’s actually the latest in a long line of royal Fairy blood, except that male Fairies don’t have wings. Also, ‘Fairy Prince’ sounds distinctly less manly and very much less dignified than simply ‘Prince,’ and I imagine he prefers to keep the shorter title.” Mr. Gold grinned like a cat. Try as she might, Belle couldn’t hold back her laughter at the last comment, and dissolved into giggles. Eventually she composed herself and sat attentively again.
“Sorry.” She apologized.
“Not at all.” He had a twinkle in his eye that she thought might be pleasant to see more often. “Long story short, the most immediate purpose we need Emma for is the fact that she’s connected to Snow by blood, emotional relation, and she’s also a Warrior, meaning that she can handle Snow’s weapons without them excessively draining her magic. We don’t want those things just sitting around. Warrior weapons are very hard to procure because they’re forged under very particular circumstances that make them extremely powerful, and they have a specific enchantment meant for that particular warrior. Anyone else who handles them for a long amount of time would feel a significant magical drain, but considering Emma’s blood relation and her class of magic, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Following… But how do you know she’s a Warrior without her… you know, setting the wall on fire?” It was a perfectly logical question.
“Mages and Warriors show rather distinctive amounts of magic, while Wizards, Sorcerers, and Warlocks get a bit muddled around the initial introduction to their magic. Blasting the wall is sometimes the only way to tell.” Belle nodded slowly.
“And you thought of all this after we cast the curse?” It seemed like a bit much, even for him, and he was a very quick thinker.
“Well, some of it.” He said with a shrug. “Mostly I was concerned with the bit involving the handling of Snow’s weapons, but Emma could be beneficial in a lot of ways…”
“If she ever believes us, you mean.”
“Emma?” Ruby called softly. “Can you hear me?”
She was lying on a bed in one of the upstairs rooms, Ruby leaning over her. On the way home she’d swerved off the road because a giant black… something had jumped out in front of her. They must have brought her back here. She could feel a bandage on her head, and there was a slight… it was like a haze? Blue-black fog hovered around Ruby.
“Ouch.” Emma groaned. Stupid, probably, but it was the first thing that came to her mind.
“Yeah, you got a pretty bad bang on the head, there. When you swerved off the road it knocked you unconscious for a while.”
“How long is a while?”
“About an hour.” Ruby conceded. Something about that didn’t feel right, though. It was like an instinct.
“No, it wasn’t.” The words were out of Emma’s mouth before she could stop them, and Ruby looked at her with surprise, and checked her watch.
“Hm… it was closer to two, actually.” She admitted. “How did you know?”
“I… I don’t know.” The fog around Ruby was slowly starting to fade- she thought it might be an illusion caused by her head injury. “I just got this feeling like it wasn’t right.”
Ruby bit her lip for a second, deciding to try something out. By the way Emma was looking at her, that bang on the head might have been just what they needed, but she couldn’t explain the lying bit. She pressed a cup of water into Emma’s hands, urging her to drink.
“When I was six years old I used to play in the creek for hours.” Ruby said, thinking on a whim. Emma shook her head, confused.
“No… but… how do I know that? It’s like I don’t know what did happen, but I certainly know that didn’t happen!” This wasn’t normal. Emma was a pretty good judge on a regular basis, but it wasn’t like this- there was no doubt in her mind that she was lying.
“Well, you’re right on that part. I didn’t learn to swim until I was eight, and I was terrified to go near water before then.” The Shifter took a seat on a stool beside the bed. “So… does it look like I’m surrounded by blue mist?” she asked.
Emma choked on her water, managing to squeak out an answer as she got her breath back.
Ok, then. Time to give her the spill… and pray.
Chapter 17: Ladies and Gents, We Have a Plan
Emma did come down to join the group for a late supper, after first calling Jefferson to make arrangements for Henry to spend the night with him. They ate in utter silence for a long while, before Emma finally spoke up.
“Look.” She said, putting down her fork with a clank. “I don’t think there’s any point in pretending this is normal. I don’t know if you’re making this up, or if you’ve been talking to Henry, or-”
“Henry’s been talking about this?” Mr. Gold asked, curious.
“Well… I may have mentioned it… once or twice…” Ruby blushed and was suddenly very fascinated by her half-empty dinner plate. Granny would deal with that later, he was sure.
“Lovely. He’s been talking of nothing else.” Emma rolled her eyes. “Ok, well, you got my ten-year-old kid’s attention, and Ruby filled me in on everything, even if I don’t quite believe it.”
“We’ll have to work on that.” Gold said.
“Regardless, whatever you have to say, just say it now, please, because whether you’re making this up or not my best friend’s life is on the line.” She said, looking around the table. Ruby looked over at Granny with childish glee stamped across her face.
“Can I?” she asked. Granny sighed and made a gesture for her to get on with it.
“If she faints, I’ll not be held responsible for this.”
Ruby rose from the table and took off her red jacket, which she wore more from habit than anything else. In that one action, Belle and Gold became aware of what she was going to do. Red’s eyes glowed a golden color, her shoulders rolled back and she lowered herself slowly to the floor as she Shifted into her Wolf form.
Emma only stared. Wolf Red barked playfully.
“I’m… dreaming! Dreaming, that’s it. Not real.” The Sheriff muttered, standing up to pace around the room and pinch herself with a vengeance. As a response, Red came up and put her paws on Emma’s shoulders, sniffing against her face.
“I’m afraid you’re not, Miss Swan. Ruby is a Shifter, so is Granny. They can change from animal to human form at will.
“Ok.” She whispered. “Ok… not dreaming… not saying I believe you either, but… I think I need to sit down.” For Emma, the room seemed to spin as Ruby Shifted back into human form. It took the rest of dinner for everything that Ruby hadn’t already stated to be adequately explained to her, with all four magicians chipping in.
“What’s to keep me from walking out of here right now?” Emma asked.
“We can’t do this without you, Emma.” Granny said, but the long time skeptic in her wasn’t buying it.
“Sounds to me like you can, and if I choose not to go along with this I’ll just take her to the hospital for professional help.”
“I know you think-” Granny began, but Mr. Gold cut her off.
“I wouldn’t think you’d like it if something happened to Henry, now would you?”
“What?” Emma stared. Belle bit her tongue for the moment, mentally noting that she needed to question him about that later. No, not question- scold. Henry wasn’t involved, and he knew it.
“Your boy. It would certainly be a shame if something were to happen to him because Regina got to him first, now wouldn’t it?” He asked, looking directly into Emma’s eyes. If Mr. Gold was one thing when he needed to be, it was a good actor.
“Fine.” Emma said, after a pause. Her glare was so cold that Ruby would have squirmed under it, but Gold didn’t flinch. “But I’ll help you on one condition.” She held up a finger, waiting for a response.
“You’re not in a situation to make a deal, dearie.” Robert Gold seemed to vanish for a moment as Rumpelstiltskin took his place.
“No, I think I am. Wasn’t it you who told me that when there is something that both parties want a deal can always be struck? You want my help, and I want my son’s safety.”
“And what are you asking of us, exactly?” he leaned forward slightly.
“After we’re done, if I want it to, this all disappears.” she said. “Even if I have to disappear with Henry, it all goes away, and you help me make it go away. Deal?” Rumpelstiltskin didn’t hesitate.
Meanwhile, Snow still slept peacefully on her cot.
“Here’s the plan.” Ruby began, dumping the contents of a large manila envelope on the table. It was after midnight, but no one was ready to sleep, so they simply continued the discussion. “While you guys were all occupied before supper and Emma was trying to sleep off my explanation, I did some snooping around and found these.” She gestured to a pile of pictures on the table of a large house with two apple trees in the front yard. A few more detailed the pictures from all angles. They were slightly blurry, so if they were satellite photos they weren’t great ones.
“Regina’s house?” Granny asked. Ruby nodded.
“I thought you said she had a castle?” Belle asked, glancing over at Mr. Gold.
“Oh, it may look like a house on the outside, but it’s a castle on the inside.” He said. “Don’t be fooled.”
“Does every powerful magician have a house like yours?” Belle was simply thinking out loud, but he answered anyway.
“Not all of them. All five of the regional players do, along with a few others.”
“So… you’re telling me your house is bigger on the inside?” Emma asked, slowly, as if she was talking to an insane person.
“Yes.” Gold shrugged.
“I think you’ve all been watching a little too much Doctor Who.” She chuckled.
“You’ve heard all the stories about magic bags that can never be filled. Just think of it as… an extension.” He said with a smile. “We’ll probably have to actually take you inside for you to believe it, though. You’re very much the cynical type, Miss Swan.”
“So… if Prince Charming is with Regina, are we actually planning a rescue mission, or are we just in the briefing room?” Belle asked, attempting to get back on topic.
“Well, first of all we’ve got to train Emma, which is probably going to take a least a month, assuming we can find another Warrior to train her.” Granny said. “Then we’ve got to get people around the house to find out where all the entrances and exits are, and figure out when we’re even going to carry out this plan… so I’d say we’re in the early briefing stage.”
“I can solve your first problem.” Gold said. “We don’t need another Warrior- it’s going to take too long to hunt one down. We need the Hatter to train her.”
“Oh, gosh.” Emma groaned. “Don’t tell me Alice in Wonderland is in on this crazy fairy tale scheme, too.”
“If you want to save Snow, you’ll listen to me.” Robert said. “I know it’s a risk, but he trained plenty of new Witches and Wizards back before the Merge, and a Warrior or two as well. He may be insane, but he’s quick on his feet, he has a sharp mind, and he knows how to wield a sword.”
“Ok.” Ruby conceded. “That sounds logical. So we train up and prepare this for a month. How are we actually planning on getting inside? Isn’t the whole place swarming with guards? And what happens if Regina herself comes in? It’s her castle- she could kill us and nobody would ever know… or at least they wouldn’t be able to prove it.”
Gold didn’t have an answer for that one. It took several minutes before anyone spoke again. Surprisingly, Emma was the first one to think of something.
“Have you guys ever seen National Treasure?” she asked. Granny and Mr. Gold had blank expressions, but Belle and Ruby nodded.
“It’s this movie about these guys who want to steal the Declaration of Independence.” Ruby explained. “Don’t ask why, just go with it.” She nodded for Emma to continue.
“Well, what if we approached it like that? Is there something that would distract everyone from wherever they’re hiding him?”
“You’re a genius!” Ruby cried, jumping up to grab something from the counter. It was a piece of parchment with gothic lettering, detailing the time and date of the
“Annual Magician’s Ball.”
“What are we talking about?” Granny asked.
“In the movie, they use this big party as an excuse to get the Declaration in a situation that made it more vulnerable.” Belle explained. “I think Emma has a point. If we can come up with a distraction for Regina that made it easier to get to James, it might help us out a lot.” Granny and Mr. Gold mused over this.
“This could work.” Robert said, biting his lip. “Regina will be away and most of her staff will have the night off, since all the notable and powerful magicians are always at the Ball where she can keep an eye on them herself.”
“But we have Emma and Belle.” Granny said.
“Exactly.” Mr. Gold nodded, though he hoped that Belle wouldn’t be thrown into the thick of it. Things were becoming very complicated involving her, and he was beginning to think that drastic measures might be necessary. Of course, it wouldn’t be near as complicated if his own blasted feelings weren’t getting in the way…
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Ruby began, glancing around the table with a mischievous smile, “we’re going to steal the Declaration of Independence.”
“Is that everything?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, staring wearily at the four women in the mirrors. It was time for the monthly mirror conference, and he rather regretted that the biggest development in his little pocket of the world was one he couldn’t talk about with Regina around. They held the meeting after breakfast, an oddity for them, but Beryl and Azura were tired of having them at odd hours for their time zones.
“Yes, I think that’s it, unless anyone has anything else to say.” Beryl waited for a response, but none came. “Very well. This meeting is officially adjourned.” She nodded once and three of the mirrors flicked back to their reflective state. All except Maleficent, who was still sitting expectantly in front of him.
“Alright. What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I don’t know what you mean.” Robert said, immediately on his guard.
“I’ve known you longer than anyone else in that conference, dear. I know when something is troubling you.” She said. “Now, I’ve blocked the others in case they were still listening. Out with it.”
“How do I know I can trust you?” he asked. “As far as I know you’ve been quite the middle man for the past millennium or so.”
“As I said, I’m your oldest friend. I may be shallow and self-serving, but I know my loyalties lie with the oldest blood. It’s a dragon thing.” She smiled a dark smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. Robert nodded slowly. She was right, and through thick and thin Maleficent and Rumpelstiltskin had been together, if only through the thickest and thinnest bits. They always came through, and every now and then one managed to chalk up quite a debt with the other. The debt was currently on Maleficent’s side, so he felt it was fairly safe to talk.
“We… have a problem.” He sighed.
“What exactly constitutes a problem, Rumple?” Maleficent asked.
“Belle constitutes a rather large problem.” The more Mr. Gold thought about the situation, the more things seemed to be falling into place. The only thing was that the more time he spent around Belle, the more it made him want to spend a lifetime with her… and she wasn’t repulsed or scared. She endured his fits of anger and mood swings with patience, but wasn’t afraid to chastise him if he was in the wrong… and she was slowly becoming much more than he’d ever dreamed to him.
“Belle? As in… your Belle? As in the brown-haired Beauty with the big blue eyes?"
“Yes. That Belle.” Even though he may have let a wistful thought creep past him at the thought of his Belle, what other Belle could she possibly know?
“What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s coming deliriously close to breaking my curse.”
“And that’s bad?” Melissa almost looked excited. “Rumple, that’s fantastic!”
“No… it really isn’t.” he shook his head sadly.
“Why? I thought you were eager to have it broken?”
“Not in this way. The curse demands the person who breaks it to return to me willingly and giving their life, and even though the definition of giving her life is loose…”
“I see… I think. So she’s already returned to you willingly? And she fulfilled that whole bit about marking?”
“Yes. On the night her magic came in- the part about marking was a lot more complicated, but she fulfilled that, too.”
“I don’t see why this is a problem.” Maleficent said, her face full of genuine concern. It wasn’t a look she wore often, but it was a very distinct one. “If the definition of giving your life is loose… and from the way you two were looking at each other before-”
“You know very well that my current state of power is the only thing keeping Regina in check, even with the curse in place- I’m the only thing standing in between her and the rest of the magical community. I’ve woven through every thread of the curse, but it dictates absolutely nothing about whether or not I keep these powers after it’s broken or if I revert back to my previous levels. The balance of good and evil is at stake. I should think that’s rather more important than any romantic endeavor.” Robert huffed.
“Oh my god. You’re actually scared of her.” Maleficent breathed.
“Of Regina?” Gold scoffed. “I-”
“No.” she shook her head, gazing at him with pure bewilderment. “Of Belle. Robert, I know what happened with Lydia wasn’t-”
“Wasn’t what? I nearly killed her, and then as soon as Bae was born she gave him to me and she left!” He growled.
“That was a shotgun wedding and a bad marriage!” Maleficent slammed her fist down on the table so hard that Gold was surprised things didn’t rattle on his side of the connection. “You are in love with her- even I can see it!”
“She can’t be around here! The longer she stays the more I risk.”
“Risk what? Risk someone loving you? Longing for you like you long for them? You need her just as much as she needs you-”
“I don’t need anyone. I need to get her out of this bloody castle right this second before she gets hurt!”
“Ha! So you do love her!”
“I-” he stopped himself suddenly, letting out a breath of air. “Can’t say that I don’t.”
“But she’s not safe with me. I won’t let her give her life to break this curse, and the Old Magic in the house is probably going to start forcing her towards doing just that. And besides, I’m supposed to be a monster. I came to the conclusion a long time ago that no one can love me.”
And that was that, in his mind. Something had to be done, and soon. He needed to talk to Belle.
When he finally found her, she was staring at a computer screen in the downstairs study. Her face was white, and her expression something between determined and afraid.
“Are you alright, love?”
“My dad.” She said, still staring at the screen. “He’s asking for me… he’s sick. Alicia says they’re doing some tests to try to figure out what’s wrong, but it doesn’t look good. He wants to see me.” She bit her lip, glancing from Gold to the computer screen and back up again.
“You should go to him.” He said softly. It was the excuse he needed- a painless break was preferable, and if he was lucky she’d go home and forget him.
“I know.” She sighed. “Just because I understand what’s going on now doesn’t mean I want to go back there, but… I should. I need to, if you’ll let me.”
“Let you?” he seemed confused. “I released you from your contract the day we went to see Jefferson, remember? You’re free to go as you please.” This was his chance. If he could just convince her to stay away after she was gone…Yes, this might be his chance, but it wasn’t going to be easy.
Belle nodded, standing.
“Thank you.” She said, coming over to wrap her arms around him. He responded stiffly, awkwardly. Fighting your emotions isn’t an easy battle.
“I think you should leave soon.” Gold loosened his grip and she took the hint to pull away. “Today.”
“I…” she stopped. Belle wanted to leave and wanted to stay. She knew she had to go in the end, though, no matter how much grief she went through to get there. Best get it over with. “Yes. I’ll go pack. But…”
And then came the moment he’d been steeling himself for. She looked up, bright blue eyes piercing through every façade he’d ever bothered to put on. Before he knew what to do her mouth was pressing against his gently, his arms wrapped back around her waist, and his resolve began to crumble.
No, not now. Any other time, but not now.
“Wait.” He breathed, pulling away suddenly. Belle’s eyes searched his face, looking for any sign of disgust or anger, but there wasn’t one. The only things she found there were lost among the strange, dark-eyed mixture of lust and concern.
“Belle… do you know what you’re doing?” he asked. “Do you know what I am? I have killed hundreds of people. I am the monster from your worst nightmares. I am darkness incarnate, and I am not a good person.” Gold sighed and dropped his eyes a little. “I’m not the kind person you need to be involved with.” Belle caught his chin in her hand, bringing up his face to look in her eyes.
“You’re a lonely old man under an evil curse, and you hide from your past because you regret it so much. And if you’re darkness incarnate… well…” she shrugged, a wistful smile creeping onto her face. “I would gladly spend my life with that.”
“Belle, no. Don’t say that.” It was all he could do not to cry then and there, and he wasn’t the type who cried easily. She had no idea what her words meant, none at all. He could feel the magic of the curse weakening around him, but he wasn’t about to let her bet her life. Not in any way. Not even if it would break his curse.
He loved her too much to let her.
So, rather than wonder what was going to happen next, where everything was going to go from here, Robert Gold made a choice.
“Go home. And when you go, stay there.” He whispered, backing away. Her face fell, and she looked confused, even startled.
“Go home. Go back to your family- from what you told me, it sounds like you could do with a reunion.” He turned his back on her and began to walk out of the room.
“Why?” she asked, indignant. Just a minute ago he was returning her affection, and now… what had come over him? “We’ve got so much to do! We’ve got to rescue James and wake up Snow, and I can break your curse, you know I can-”
“You can’t break anything, Annabelle!” he cried, whirling to face her. His face seemed to cloud, and then calm. “Without the power that the curse gives me… well, it’s really quite simple. My power means more to me than you.”
The words were like a slap in the face.
Gold was careful to keep his face unreadable, a mask to any kind of emotion. He needed her out, and no matter how much it pained them both, it was better this way. A second later he was out the door, and when Belle ran after him she found the hallway empty. She wasn’t sure what to feel, but it her emotions eventually seemed to settle to numb.
“No, it doesn’t.” she whispered.
That single thought resonated through her head as walked up the stairs, as she packed her belongings, as she wondered why she was packing and unpacked them. There was a package on the desk for her that she threw in among her belongings, but didn’t have the heart to open. She needed to leave and she needed to stay all at once, but that was impossible… everything felt all too numb to make a conscious decision. In the end everything went back in the suitcase and her backpack, and she left the sorcery books piled on the desk.
At the front door she stopped and turned, yelling out her few last words to the empty space.
“You just don’t think I can love you!” she cried. “I know you can hear me! I saw the rose, remember?” she swallowed hard, trying to get her voice back. The rose had been wilting the last time she saw it- the rose that showed the power of his curse. Granny had explained the true love cliche to her a long time back, and she knew in her what the reason for the rose's wilting was. “You are a coward, Rumpelstiltskin, and no matter how thick you make your skin, that doesn’t change! I may be leaving, but I swear I’m coming back.”
And the front door slammed on Annabelle French.
Chapter 18: Who Says You Can't Go Home?
“What?!” Ruby was practically screaming. Granny was distressed, too, but trying to keep a cool head for the sake of Ruby and Belle. The girls were on opposite sides of the reaction spectrum- Ruby was bursting with anger, while Belle was in an introverted, depressed state, curled up inside herself for comfort. “What do you mean he sent you away? Two days ago you were making eyes and planning a rescue mission together!”
“I don’t know.” Belle whispered, shrugging. Granny shook her head slightly, coming back with a cup of strong tea.
“Drink this- it’s good for the nerves, but it’ll put you to sleep for a while. You can stay here tonight, and in the morning Ruby will take you home.”
“This doesn’t make any sense.” Red muttered, pacing back and forth. She cared for Gold and Belle, and she knew them well enough that something had to have happened for Robert to be acting this way. He was wary of love and relationships after the trouble he’d had with his first wife, but he wasn’t a rash person by nature.
“Red, take her upstairs, would you?” Granny asked, attempting to divert their attention. Perhaps their energies would rub off on each other and bring their heads back to sorts. Ruby picked up Belle’s single suitcase and took it up the steps with the ease of Wolf strength.
“I’m sorry.” The Shifter finally whispered, calming herself enough to mutter a coherent thought. Belle didn’t speak as she dug through her belongings for something to sleep in. It was still afternoon, but she was already feeling the effects of Granny’s tea, and changing for bed was something consistent and familiar in all the chaos.
As she rummaged through the case, the small brown paper package from her desk fell out and rolled across the floor. Ruby picked it up and handed it back.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“I don’t know. It was on the desk when I left- I just didn’t bother opening it.” Belle shrugged. She picked at the knot a few times with her nails and the string came loose, brown paper falling away to reveal a small, plain wooden box. Ruby looked on with curiosity, determined not to make any comments that might shake Belle’s delicate state.
Inside the box, a gold ring with a design of inlaid silver leaves sat on a white velvet cushion. Something between worry, shock, and confusion came over Belle, but Ruby jumped in before she could get in a word.
“It’s the Captive’s Ring.” She said with awe.
Belle couldn’t speak, but simply looked at Ruby for an explanation.
“According to legend it was created by an Enchantress whose lover was going to go on a dangerous mission, and if captured would be executed. If he turned the ring three times on his finger and wished where he wanted to go out loud, it would take him there. It’s pure gold and silver, but it’s so magical that it’s practically indestructible.”
“And it… works?” Belle asked, gingerly picking it up and turning it in her fingers.
“I assume so. I’ve heard of people using it, but it disappeared after the Merge- sneaky old bastard had it the whole time.” Ruby smiled slightly despite herself. “He probably gave it to you so you could go home… or back.”
“Why not just travel by magic?”
“Magical travel takes a toll on the person casting the spell. Magical objects don’t, unless they draw power from the user, which this doesn’t. It was probably created so that non-magicians could use it, too.” She said. Belle nodded slowly.
“So this will take me home?”
“It should.” Ruby said, smiling sadly. She hugged Belle goodbye. “You’d better come back and see me sometime, ok?”
“Of course I will. I’ll be back... sometime.”
“Take your time.” Red stood and turned to leave. “And get some sleep. You need it.”
As soon as the door was closed, Belle changed clothes, slipped the ring on her index finger, turned it three times, and said the only thing she could muster before she fell asleep.
“Take me to dad.”
As soon as Belle was even halfway awake, she knew something was different. Cool cotton sheets brushed against her cheek, and it was slightly cold for her soft tee shirt and shorts. Sitting bolt upright, she looked around in a panic.
She was back in her dad’s apartment in New York, sitting on her old bed.
Sliding off the bed, she saw that the place was the same as she’d left it: bare. Her dresser and nightstand were empty, and the mirror on the wall, which she promptly tossed a cover over, was dusty from neglect. Belle tripped over her suitcase and nearly fell to the floor as she walked towards the door, and had a moment of surprise at the fact that it had traveled with her. Well, Old Magic was powerful stuff, and it was intuitive.
Casting a momentary glance at her hand, she saw that the Captive’s Ring was still on her finger. However, last night it had been on her right index finger. Now it was on her third finger on her left hand. She had no doubt that the ring could move if it wanted to, but she wondered why it would move.
Oh, of course! Ruby said it was made for the Enchantress’ lover. It was probably meant as a token of love, and thus… well, it was perfectly symbolic that it would go on that finger. Belle wasn’t willing to take the ring off completely, but she moved it back to her other hand before walking into the hall.
The smell of frying bacon wafted through the apartment, and she could hear humming from the kitchen. Her father probably wasn’t here, but somebody was up making breakfast. A quick check of the clock showed 8:17AM. At the end of the hallway her suspicions were confirmed: her stepmother was cooking, humming “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” as she fussed around.
“Alicia?” Belle whispered.
The woman practically jumped out of her skin. Her spatula fell to the floor with a clatter, and she looked at Belle like she’d just seen a ghost.
“Wha…” she shook her head slightly, sandy blonde hair falling in front of her eyes and mouth hanging open. After a second of staring she simply rushed forward and gripped Belle in a choking hug.
“Good to see you, too.” Belle squeezed out, returning her hug.
“How did you get here so fast? Did you just let yourself in?” Alicia released her and went back to the food.
“Um… something like that.” Belle muttered, fingering her ring. “It’s a long story, and… yeah. Let’s just leave it at that for now.” Alicia looked at her strangely, but didn’t press the topic.
“Alright. How have you been? Are you hungry?” she pulled the last of the cooking bacon and two pancakes onto a plate, clearly meant for one. That was alright. Belle didn’t think she could stomach anything if she tried… best not dwell on that, though. Now was the time she needed to be brave for a while, and should she have to talk, she needed to focus on steeling her heart.
“No, I’m fine. It’s been… well, honestly it’s been nice, but… I just really, really need to talk to dad.” As scared as she was to see him, right now he was probably the only person who could give her some answers.
“Ok.” Alicia nodded understandingly. “We’ll go as soon as you’re dressed.”
“GOLD!” Ruby roared, slamming the door behind her with such a force that most of the house shook, which was saying something when it came to magic houses. “Get your future-telling Warlock ass down here this second or I swear I’ll rip you to pieces!”
Swiping her tongue across her teeth, Ruby could feel her canines sharpening. It was one of the effects of Wolf Shifting that she’d never been able to completely control when she was properly angry, and had caused people to mistake her for one of those nasty blood drinkers many a time. She wasn’t usually one to swear, or to burst in uninvited for that matter, but this was different. Two people she cared about were about to be broken forever in ways that not even the strongest healer could fix.
The soft thud of footsteps and the sharper noise of a cane on wood floors echoed from the hallway, and Robert Gold staggered into the room.
“Oh, god.” Ruby’s hand went to cover her nose. The scent hadn’t been bad before, but now the room reeked of it- ambrosia, and strong stuff, too, or it wouldn’t smell so awful.
Gold didn’t say a word, he just looked at her expectantly, his sharp eyes glazed over as if in a dream.
“You’re drunk!” she snapped, pulling him into a chair. Ambrosia had many properties, but when taken in large amounts and if not treated properly, it was basically alcohol for the magical types. No effect on ordinary folk, and no induced rages for magicians.
“Am I?” he asked, head sinking into his hands.
“Well, I don’t know. What would you call it?” Ruby rolled her eyes, but she was extremely concerned. Even on a bad day, Gold wasn’t one to drink.
“Numb.” He said, shaking his head. “Tell me I did the right thing, Ruby. Tell me she’ll be safer and happier without me. Make me get on with my sorry self.”
Ruby, more than anyone, knew what he was talking about. Peter’s memory haunted her more than anything, every day of her life. She knew what it was like to see your love’s blood staining the white snow red, and to know that it wasn’t actually on the ground, but on your hands.
If she could tell him that, he would believe her. Rumpelstiltskin was an old friend, and she’d trust him with her life… which was why she didn’t have any choice but to tell him the truth.
“I can’t.” she whispered. “You know I can’t.”
“Why not?!” he cried, the sound reverberating through the dark, empty space. “I could kill her, Ruby, and I wouldn’t feel remorse until long after she was dead! You can’t tell me it’s not true!” A Shade was a dark creature, born of the blackest of nightmares, never experiencing pity or even anger or agony- there was only hunger. In that form it was normally all he could do to keep himself under control for logical reasons, but he knew that even if he killed someone, he would feel nothing until he changed back.
“You could, but you won’t.” Ruby said calmly. “I didn’t know about my ability when I killed Peter. If I had it might never have happened, but even so, I don’t have a say in the matter about my Shifting. I’ve got it, for better or worse, and you can’t tell me you don’t have a say in your curse!”
“I won’t let her give her life, not in any way.” Gold sneered. Ruby’s eyes narrowed. She couldn’t believe he was missing this- he was blinded by his own drunkenness and concern. Well, fine, then. Give him some time to cool off.
She would help him when he deserved it again- when he deserved Belle again.
“Then you’re a fool.”
Belle had always hated hospitals, ever since she was young. They reeked of disinfectant and had this feeling of awful doom about them… except for neonatal department. That was alright.
However, she reminded herself as she walked, there was no sign of new life around this area. She strongly suspected invisible ravens might be hanging about crying “Doom!” in the middle of the night. Steps sounding remarkably loud in the quiet corridor, she followed Alicia to her father’s room.
He was hooked up to IVs and several monitors, and a thin cloud of blue-black fog hovered about him that Belle was sure only she could see. He seemed almost half-conscious of things, but he was so pale that with his eyes closed it would have been easy to mistake him for still being comatose. They would only allow one visitor at a time, but they were letting Alicia come in to introduce Belle before leaving them.
“Maurice?” Alicia whispered. “You have a visitor.” His eyes opened, but they looked glazed over, and by the time they fully focused Belle was beginning to feel extremely nervous.
“Annabelle?” he murmured, and suddenly seemed more alert. “Why are you here?! You shouldn’t have come back, it’s-”
“I know, dad.” Belle said firmly, though Maurice still seemed confused. “I know everything.” Realization lit up his face but he shooed Alicia from the room before the full explanation could begin.
“Who told you?” he asked. “Did they know Alexa?”
“Robert Gold. Yes, he did.” Belle took a seat in a deceivingly hard chair beside his bed. Her father raised an eyebrow. “Er… Rumpelstiltskin?” she tried. It must have hit a chord, because suddenly he was livid.
“Why that sneaky son of a-”
“Dad!” She held up her hands defensively and checked over her shoulder for any doctor or nurses. “You have to stay calm, or they’ll throw me out.”
Maurice nodded and took a deep breath.
“How did you know him?”
“I didn’t. Not personally. Your mother talked about him a lot- she said he was a good friend, but… well, I thought he might have been more than that.”
Well, this was awkward.
“He hadn’t seen her since the Merge. He was surprised that I knew her, and he’s… he’s not the kind of person I can see doing that sort of thing.” Belle said with a shrug. Of course, it was very possible that Alexa had seen him in Shade form, and he wouldn’t have remembered.
“The Merge?” Maurice asked. She stared for a second. The Great Merge was one of the first thing she’d learned about- why didn’t he know?
“Dad… how much do you know… about…”
“Magic?” he finished her sentence for her. “I know that your mother was some kind of magical being, and that she had me by a couple thousand years in age. I know a little here and there.”
“But… you’re… you’re a Mage.” Belle said.
“I’m a what?”
“A Mage, dad! You have magic and you didn’t even know it?!” This was insane. Why wouldn’t he know? Why wouldn’t she have told him?
“I don’t have magic, hon.” He shrugged. “Alexa told me I didn’t.”
“But… but I’m sitting here looking at it.” Belle spluttered. “She should have… but… I know it’s not much, but it’s still magic!” she slumped back into her chair with a sigh. The only logical explanation was one she didn’t want to face, because it was the same reason Robert had pushed her away.
“I think you know why.” Maurice said pointedly, biting his lip. “Honey, I can never redeem myself from what I did to you, and I know that, but I am so sorry for everything I did. I didn’t understand before- hell, I wasn’t sober enough to understand.”
“She was trying to protect us.” Belle nodded. It didn’t work, though. Nothing ever seemed to work when it came to magic- it always bled through the cracks.
“When she left… when she took you… she said she was trying to get you to someone who could help you.” He said softly. “She said she knew someone who could help train you.”
It all made sense now. If Gold was an old friend, and he had trained others before, she would have gone straight to him, either to get help directly or find Maleficent. She might have known about the curse, but it was doubtful she knew the full extent of the thing- according to Robert it was two thousand years old, and he’d kept it quiet for as long as he could. So, if her mother hadn’t been aware, she might have brought little Annabelle along, and then…
Then the scars.
“Sweetie? Are you ok?” her father looked her up and down. “You look like you saw a ghost.”
“I’m fine- just… Why didn’t she do it herself? Train me, I mean?” Belle asked. Maurice shrugged.
“I don’t know. We might never know.”
They sat without talking for a long while, listening to the beeping of the monitors and the soft sound of footsteps in the hallway.
“What’s wrong, dad?” Belle asked suddenly. He knew what she meant.
“They’re still running tests-”
“In your opinion.” She said. He’d always had a feel for knowing what was wrong, even in his drunken years. Maurice sighed, trying to avoid looking her in the eyes.
“Ten years of drinking? Six of them heavy drinking? If I really do have magic, it might be messing with the equipment and keeping them from getting a reading, but… even magicians aren’t immune to liver cancer.” Belle nodded slowly, holding everything in that she could manage. The short term effects of alcohol on magicians were drastic- why shouldn’t the long term effects be the same?
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Maybe brain damage? I drank so much that it wouldn’t surprise me, either, but it was like… it was like once I started, I couldn’t stop. Not even after I realized what it was doing to you.”
“I still love you, daddy. No matter what.” Belle reached out to take his hand. He squeezed gently, tears in his eyes.
“I love you, too, Annabelle.”
Chapter 19: Grim Grinning Ghosts
Within a few days it was clear that Maurice’s thoughts about brain damage had been correct, and he slipped into a deep coma. Alicia, Belle, and Alicia’s sister, Ellen, took turns staying beside him at the hospital each day and through the night.
Belle refused to cry for Rumpelstiltskin. Every time she was forced to speak of her past, she did so in as detached a matter as possible. Alicia was smart- she could tell something was wrong, but she didn’t believe in pressing her. Magic was only half the issue, and she hadn’t even began to think about telling her stepmother about it just yet.
However, there was one thing that Belle needed to do, and she knew she needed to do it with every fiber of her being. Alicia and Ellen agreed to let her have a few days off from watching her dad so that she could travel to Virginia to visit her mother’s grave.
The plane flight was mostly spent asleep, rather than reading- practically everything reminded her of Robert, especially books. They had spent many evenings conversing about one work or another. She supposed she could draw, but she never drew unless some sort of immense inspiration struck her, and now wasn’t much of an inspirational time.
A bus took her to the large cemetery that her mother was buried in. She’d gotten the address from Alicia, but it took her a while to locate the right spot. It was one of several in an acre of gated graves on the far side of the grove, shaded by a large hazel tree in the middle of the patch. There was a circular stone bench around the trunk of the tree, which Belle sat on, staring at the flat marble marker. Unlike the other, more… vertical… markers in the rest of the vast cemetery, everything in this area was flat and looked uniform, only distinguished by names and flowers, sometimes a small statue here or there. There were perhaps forty graves in the area, and more to come.
“Mom,” Belle said out loud, “I wish… I wish I could talk to you. I know you were trying to protect me, but… there’s so much I don’t understand.” She shook her head slowly, eyes trained on the ground.
“She can hear you, you know.” A voice came from behind, and Belle jumped. A thin, blonde woman that looked a few years younger than Belle, and was obviously a few months pregnant, stood behind her. Her loose sundress was a star contrast to the long-sleeved shirt and jeans that Belle had gone back to wearing to cover her scars. Too many people give you funny looks in New York.
“What?” Belle asked. The woman sat beside her on the bench.
“She can hear you. The spirits in this place seem to always be on the lookout. You must have magic or you wouldn’t have been able to cross the boundary. The hazel tree protects it.” She looked at her strangely for a second. “I’m Ashley. I’m a Witch.”
“Hi. I’m Belle.” She looked around the small area once again, seeing nothing that looked out of the ordinary from a normal graveyard.
“Are you a Witch, too? Or maybe a Mage?” Ashley asked. “I haven’t known of a Sorceress in years, but I suppose you could be one of those, too.”
“You can’t see magic?” Belle was confused on this point. She thought all magicians could see magic.
“No.” the girl shook her head. “I’ve never been able to. They think that was the price for my Gift.”
“I can speak with the dead.” Ashley said with a shrug, as if it was as ordinary as getting groceries every Monday. Actually, it probably was that ordinary for her. “I was stillborn, you see. My mother died in childbirth, and the woman who was her midwife said that the second she stopped breathing was the second I started.”
“So… you were born a long time ago?” Belle asked, thinking that if she wasn’t born In a hospital it must have been a while, but she shook her head.
“No, my mother just didn’t trust hospitals to take good care of magicians.” Ashley looked around the graveyard, eyes seeming to focus on invisible things in the air. She waved once or twice, and turned back to Belle. “I come out here to talk with my mother. If you’re Annabelle French, then she’s buried beside your mother.”
Belle nodded, and Ashley smiled.
“She talks about you.” She said. “She loves you very much.”
Was there any proper way to respond to that? Ashley seemed to sense her discomfort, because she continued.
“Do you want to speak to her?”
“I can do that?” Belle wasn’t all that familiar with Gifts and their workings- according to Robert they could be fairly random and have little consistency in the way they functioned, anyhow.
“Well, I’ve never actually tried to project it before, but in theory… it should work. Take my hand.” She held out a small, white palm, which Belle took whole heartedly. There was something like a jolt, and then…
Oh. Oh, that was different.
“You see this a lot?”
The spirits weren’t white. They didn’t even look human, really. They were floating masses of light or dark magic in a vaguely human shape, just walking around the graveyard.
“And you can tell who they are?”
“Yes. You see more of their physical features the longer you look. Non magic folk are white or gray.”
“So… my mom is…?”
Ashley looked around the graveyard until she pointed at two figures who looked like they were talking in the distance.
“Mom!” Ashley called, waving. One of them waved back, and the two blobs of golden magic drifted towards them. As they came closer, Belle realized that if she stared hard enough she could almost make out some facial features.
“Hello, sweetie!” One of them came forward and placed a phantom kiss on Ashley’s cheek. The voice sounded perfectly human. “How’s the little one?”
“She’s just fine- very healthy.” Ashley patted her rounded belly affectionately.
“Oh!” The spirit suddenly seemed to notice Belle. “Can she…?”
“Yes, she can see you. I’m projecting.”
“That’s wonderful!” If the golden shape could beam, that’s what it was doing.
“She’s Alexa’s daughter.” Ashley gestured to the other shape, still hanging back from a few feet away.
“M- mom?” Belle looked at the shape for a second before it did something like nod and came forward.
“Hello, Annabelle. What brings you here?” she asked, making a motion that looked like cocking her head.
“I… um…” her grip on Ashley’s hand tightened, and the younger girl squeezed her shoulder encouragingly. “I have a lot of questions.” Belle whispered.
“About your powers.”
“About my Gift.”
“Ah. I see. You probably got it from me, didn’t you?” Alexa sat on the bench beside her. Well, she didn’t really sit, she sort of hovered about a centimeter above the stone.
“I can’t control it. I don’t know how.”
“It’s hard to do, sweetie. I didn’t see anything until two years after my first.”
“So how do I control it?”
“Umm… it’s a bit like scrying. I’m sure your mentor explained that to you.”
Belle nodded her response. It was a topic they’d covered briefly, but there wasn’t much to explain in the way of the basics- it was like mirror magic, except you used a reflective surface to look anywhere you wanted to, even over large areas, without need for anything reflective on the other end. Apparently it was a very draining process.
“Yeah, they mentioned it a few times.”
“It’s like that, except not as draining for you, because it’s a natural ability. At first it takes a lot of focus on something very clear, like a person or a place. Sometimes meditation helps. After a while it’ll come naturally.” Alexa reached out a hand and stroked Belle’s cheek, a gesture seen but not felt. The longer she looked, the more Belle could see of her mother’s facial features. “I’m sorry.”
“For what? You didn’t do anything- you had a heart attack!” There were some things you just couldn’t avoid. No point in being sorry.
“I’m still sorry. I wish I could be there for you.” She said. Ashley was doing her best to give them privacy by holding a separate conversation with her own mother, but they were still holding hands- they had to be in order for Belle to see the spirits.
“Dad said you weren’t going to train me. Is that true?”
“Yes.” Alexa sighed. “I wasn’t experienced enough or powerful enough. Even from a young age I knew you had potential. If you’re here and you’re not completely off your rocker yet, you must have found someone.”
“Yeah. He was really helpful.” Belle cast her eyes down, hoping she wouldn’t have to elaborate.
“He? Most of the magicians around the New York area are female.”
“I wasn’t in New York.” Belle mumbled.
“Where were you?” Alexa asked, suspicious. Her daughter didn’t respond. “Young lady, I may be dead but I am still your mother. Answer me.”
“What?” The golden shape rubbed her forehead as if she had a headache. “Oh, you didn’t… How did he find you?”
“Um… well… I sort of found him? It’s kind of a long story.”
“I’m dead, honey. I’ve got time. Start talking.”
It took the better part of two hours to explain everything to Alexa, and by the time Belle finished her mother’s spirit was shaking her head. By this time Ashley and her mother were listening with interest, not that Belle minded, and they had figured out that they didn’t have to hold hands for Ashley to project. They just had to be in close proximity and both willing participants.
“You know, all those years ago, when I went to look for him… I never thought…”
“What?” Belle asked. She’d tried to avoid saying anything emotional, sticking straight to the facts.
“Just go after him.” Alexa said. “I thought I needed to get you as far away as possible from him, but… well, it seems things work in mysterious ways. Now, you should probably be getting back, shouldn’t you?”
“Probably.” Belle sighed, not really willing to go.
“Come back and see me any time.” Her mother smiled. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Belle walked back out of the cemetery with Ashley, who waved to different floating gray shapes along the way.
“Do you come out here a lot?”
“Oh yes. The spirits are good company- they don’t look at me like I’m crazy, and they like to tell stories. And graveyards… well, they’re places of peace. Sure, everyone has heard a zombie story at some point, but… those only stem from troubled souls.”
“Troubled souls?” Belle’s brow furrowed in question as Ashley waved to yet another gray shape.
“The ones who died violently or won’t let go of something that happened in this world. The ones in the graveyard come out for visits and social hour, basically. They’re not always here. The most dangerous spirits are the ones outside the graveyard, and the bodies attached to them.”
“Why are their bodies dangerous if the spirit isn’t even around?”
“Exactly.” Ashley said, making a left turn on the path. “Without a spirit, the body is vulnerable to necromancy, and we all know what that means.”
“Most definitely.” They reached the gate to the cemetery, and Ashley shook her hand, pulling out something from her purse.
“Listen, here’s my cell number. I don’t know how many magician friends you have, but my number… zip. Everything I learned came from talking to my mom. Give me a call if you need anything.”
“Thanks.” Belle said, pocketing the slip of paper. “I’ll be in touch.”
“Ok, even without Belle, we still have to plan this out.” Ruby clicked a ball point pen and opened her notebook. She and Emma were sitting across from each other, attempting to come up with a valid rescue plan. Henry had insisted on coming as well, and he sat beside Ruby, hanging on her every word.
“We can’t afford to have a lot of people know or to get a huge force together- it’ll tip her off.” The Shifter continued. “So, it’s you and me all the way.”
“Why not Belle?” Henry asked. “Just because she’d not here doesn’t mean she can’t help right?”
“I don’t know if Belle’s ready for something like this.” Ruby said.
“I’m not ready for something like this.” Emma insisted. “I know she’d going through a lot, but we need her.”
“I’m sorry.” Ruby said. “I just… I don’t know how to get in contact with her. I’m completely hopeless with mirror magic, even with help from Sydney, so I wouldn’t know how to find her, and I don’t even think Gold knows where she is for sure. So, basically, unless she calls us for some reason, we’re kind of… royally screwed.”
“We’ve got to find her.” Emma said. Ruby huffed and nodded grudgingly.
“I know.” She said, tousling Henry’s hair. “But right now we need to start planning. I got word from my scout the other day that the perimeter of Regina’s place isn’t well secured, but inside it’s bristling with staff and security.”
“Who’s your scout?” Henry asked, excited to be in on the secret.
“Rose Red. She’s a Shifter who lived with Snow in the woods for a while, back before she met the dwarves.”
“Cool!” Henry smiled. “What does she Shift into?”
“A mouse.” Ruby smiled, trying not to giggle. Rose was one of the most loyal, hard core, slightly gun-happy people she knew, and the fiery girl hated her form with a passion. It did, however, come in handy for spying on people.
“I thought Mr. Gold said most of the staff would be gone when the Ball’s going on.” Emma absentmindedly fiddled with the sleeve of her jacket as she spoke. Ruby nodded in confirmation.
“Most of them… How has your training been going?”
“Fine.” She shrugged. “I mean, it’s training, I guess. I’ve been working on learning some more advanced fighting, but mostly Jefferson’s trying to figure out the extent of my Gift.”
“To tell if people are lying?”
“Yeah. He’s thinking it might even extend to forcing them to tell the truth, but we haven’t gotten that far yet. Why do you ask?”
“Jefferson gave me an update a couple days ago. If you can force people to tell you things, we can really, really use that.” Ruby jotted something down in her notebook and shuffled through some papers, looking for the layout of the house that Rose had sketched. Henry took this moment to jump in.
“Ok, so Rose is the scout, Emma’s the intelligence, and you’re the muscle.” He said.
“Basically.” Ruby grinned.
“Don’t you think you’re missing something kind of important?” Henry looked back and forth between them, but no one made a move. “Communications!”
“What? Are you reading those spy books again, kid?”
“No- well, yeah, but that’s not the point!” Henry waved his hands around as he talked. “How are you going to know if Regina comes back? Or if you’re about to be caught? You need eyes in the sky or someone at the Ball on your side. Either that, or you need-”
“Belle.” Ruby interrupted. “We need Belle.”
“Yeah.” The boy nodded.
“What can she do? Read minds?” Emma asked. Belle’s power was one of the things that nobody had gotten around to explaining to her yet. She had quite a lot to learn and she’d only been at it about a week.
“Not exactly. It’s like… it’s like she can see anywhere in the world inside her mind, at any time she wants to. Theoretically, I mean. She doesn’t exactly know how to control it yet.”
“If Emma’s learning, why can’t she?” Henry shrugged.
“It all depends- it depends on a lot of things. The first being whether or not we can actually get in contact with her.” Red gave a slight sigh. “Meaning I need to go visit the imp on the hill.”
Belle was meditating.
Well, meditating in a sense. She was basically sitting on the bed, feeling like a ridiculous-looking, stereotypical impression of a Buddhist monk, and attempting to focus on something other than Robert. Every attempt she made at looking somewhere or at someone, he always came back to her mind, like a ghost or a memory, a reminder of things past, and broke her concentration.
Every ounce of free time that she didn’t spend at the hospital she spent doing this, and yet, for the last week, she’d been getting absolutely nowhere.
Curse that stupid Warlock.
She knew what her mother would say. She would tell her to stop shoving him away from her thoughts and pull him in close. Think about him- even when Belle was little, mom had always told her that pain was important, and you don’t cast it out, you learn from it.
But she didn’t want to think about him. She didn’t want to think about him, or the day she first met him and thought he was a slimy bastard for forcing her to come. She didn’t want to think of the day he’d first seen her scars, and the way shivers ran up her spine when he kissed her hand. She didn’t want to think about his soft brown eyes, or the way he always refused to call her Annabelle, or kissing him in the power outage, and the way he’d kissed her back…
And just when she thought it was too much to bear, she was watching them.
Her eyes moved back and forth, but her point of view didn’t shift. He was pacing around the room, talking to Ruby.
“What do you mean ‘No!?’” Ruby seemed to be making a habit of this. “All I want is an address!”
“Which I can’t give to you even if I wanted to- when Annabelle was here, she didn’t even give it to me. Believe me, I understand what’s at stake.”
“What can you give me?” Ruby asked. Gold picked up a pad and pen, jotted something down, and ripped the page off.
“This is the address of the train station where I met her. From there you should be able to sniff her out. Take it.” He held out the page, but Ruby hesitated.
“What’s the price?” she asked. She knew him too well to take anything of this sort without asking.
“If and when you find her, give her this.” He pulled a sealed envelope from the inside of his coat. Ruby took it from him, tucking it inside her cape.
“You still love her, Gold.” It wasn’t a question. She scanned his features, attempting to get past the mask he loved to wear. Gold cleared his throat, avoiding the question.
“Don’t try to open it, or let anyone but Belle open it. That would be an extremely bad idea.”
She heard the howls in her dreams that night.
She walked through a darkened rose garden, along the three interlocking circles, but the roses were beginning to wilt. To the untrained eye, nothing would have seemed amiss except for the fact that it was perhaps a little too dark, a little too cold, and a little too windy for this time of year, but Belle knew.
The howls were deafening.
They made her want to cry and scream out, and she ran for the door time and time again, but every time she crossed the threshold she would find herself on the other side of the garden. She called out his name over and over again, “Robert!” and when that failed, “Rumpelstiltskin!” but the howls only continued, and the thorns from the roses began to lengthen and snatch at her hair and clothes the longer she ran.
Belle woke sweating, face tear-streaked and eyes burning. There wasn’t any clock in this room, but the moon was still out in the sky. She sat up and jumped out of her bed, running straight for the mirror, sitting on a stool in front of the dresser.
Alright, she thought. Concentrate. I don’t need Sydney. I can do this by myself because I know exactly where he’ll be- his bedroom in the West Wing.
The view was black, just like she knew it would be, but his howls were echoing softly through the room now, so the connection was stable.
“Robert,” she said, “Robert, please. I know you can hear me!” unshed tears stung at her eyes, coming forward from wherever they had been banished to since she left. “You don’t have to answer me, but listen. I can hear you. Even without the mirror I can still hear you in my dreams, and I swear the only thing keeping me from coming back right now is the fact that you could probably stop me if you really wanted to.” Her voice was cracking, and she cursed her inability to hold back when she was alone.
“When I left you called me Annabelle- you never call me that, haven’t since the day we met! You’re detaching yourself, and you know it. And before that, you didn’t say dearie. You let it slip.” She took in a shaky breath, fresh tears streaking down her face. “You called me love.”
It took her another minute to gather herself up. Silent sobs shook her, rattling her to the core as much as Gold’s howls ever had. She hadn’t heard him once since she started talking, though, so she continued, choking on saliva and forcing the words out her clenched throat.
“You were so kind to me. You never pushed me, and you treated me like family. You gave me a home when I didn’t have anywhere else to go, even when I didn’t trust you.”
A loud sob escaped her throat, much to her dismay, and she was glad Alicia had taken the hospital shift tonight. No one would be able to hear her.
“I love you. I love you so, so much, and if you don’t feel that way then that’s fine, but you should stop listening now. If you do… if you do, then you should know that it doesn’t matter what you do to me or how many times you try to push me away- I’ll never stop loving you.”
Belle didn’t bother breaking the connection when she wasn’t able to talk any longer, didn’t bother wiping her tears. She didn’t even bother with going back to bed, and woke the next morning with a red mark on her cheek from where she had slept against the dresser.
Anyone who said that Shades were soulless creatures with no comprehension of humanity would have their heart ripped out the next time he saw them.
It was the only thing comparable to what he was feeling now.
Chapter 20: Where Loyalties Lie
“How is he?” Alicia called as Belle hung her coat on a peg. She’d taken an extra night in a row to make up for the time she lost when she was away.
“No change. He’s stable, he’s just… not awake.” She said. It wasn’t necessary to repeat what the doctors had already told them both- they were sorry, but if he started to decline in this state, which he probably would eventually, there wasn’t anything they could do. As Belle was raiding the refrigerator for something to make a sandwich out of, there was a loud knock at the door. Well, not a knock, more like a pounding. She didn’t know who would be at the apartment complex at this hour, especially with the pouring rain, but Belle abandoned the search for food and went to get the door.
There was barely enough time to register who it was before she was wrapped in the arms of a very grateful, very wet girl in a red jacket.
“Oh, thank God!” Ruby said. “I’ve been hunting around all day.”
“Hunting…?” Belle raised an eyebrow, and rightly so.
“Searching.” Ruby quickly corrected casting a glance down the hall. Alicia was walking their way.
“Who’s this?” she asked, taking in Ruby. She was drenched and disheveled, but she was also carrying a picnic basket. Good old Granny had probably sent them something. Belle shut the door quickly and ushered her friend to the table.
“This is Ruby. She’s a friend of mine.”
“Nice to meet you.” Alicia said, shaking her hand. “I wish it were under better circumstances.”
“Me too.” Ruby was shivering, so Belle brought her back to her room to borrow a change of clothes.
“What’s wrong?” Belle asked, fishing out items from her drawers. “Is he-”
“He’s fine.” Ruby said calmly. “Don’t worry. He said to give you this when I found you. I think it was probably enchanted to keep it from getting demolished in the weather.” She pulled a surprisingly dry envelope from her inside jacket pocket and handed it to Belle. “That’s not why I’m here, though. We still need your help with Regina.”
“What can I do?” Belle asked, handing Ruby a stack of dry clothing. She picked up the envelope again and rubbed her fingers over it, debating whether or not to open it.
“We need your help with this Seer stuff. We won’t have an outside line for communication, and we need to be able to tell where Regina is. Plus, as Henry so keenly pointed out, we need you for communications.”
“Ruby, I’d love to help you, but… I can’t fight, and my dad’s in the hospital in critical condition. I’m not sure now is the right time-”
“Critical condition?” Ruby looked stunned. “When did this happen?”
“A couple weeks ago.” Belle said. “And I doubt he’ll improve in the week and a half we have left before the deadline.” Ruby chewed on her lip, thinking.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Something with a severe chemical imbalance in his brain, and liver cirrhosis on top of that.” The Shifter nodded, beginning to pace back and forth.
“I can heal him. It won’t be pleasant for him, and we’re going to have to do quite a bit of sneaking around, but it can be done. Plus, we’d have to do some sneaking around anyways to get everything we need to put our plan into action.” Before Belle could question it Ruby was heading towards the bathroom to change, and she was left alone with Robert’s letter.
At this point, she wasn’t sure she wanted to read it. Wasn’t letting go not hoping for correspondence and thinking about them every second of the day? There wasn’t any point in prolonging whatever was going on inside her head and her heart… but at the same time, why would he write to her when he was the one who sent her away?
In the end, she wound up tucking the envelope under her pillow right before Ruby entered, to await judgment at a later date.
“Ok. Plan.” Belle said, patting the spot beside her on the bed. Ruby hopped up, sitting cross-legged on the sheets.
“So, we’re planning on getting there… somehow.” She said, attempting to start from the beginning.
“You haven’t figured that out yet? Isn’t that kind of vital?”
“Well, it’s not so much getting to the castle that’s the issue, it’s getting back.” Ruby explained. “We can’t take normal transportation to get there because of the sword and dagger that Emma’s going to be carrying, so we’ll have to get there and back by magic.”
“Well, I’ve got this.” Belle said, gesturing to the Captive’s Ring.
“Which helps, and James can transport himself. Emma and I need something a little bit more particular, though, and if I’m right, Jefferson might have exactly what we need.”
“Seriously? What is it- floo powder or something?” she was being sarcastic, but Ruby smiled.
“Something like that. And after we wake up Snow we’ve all got to get our backsides to this ball as fast as we can. It’s kind of imperative that we wind up at a place so chock full of magicians that Regina can’t put a finger on us until it’s too late to do anything.”
“You just skipped by everything we’re going to do once we get inside.”
“No I didn’t.” Ruby said. “You know that already.”
“Well, I certainly missed it.” Belle muttered.
“I thought it was implied that we’re winging it.”
Ruby may have been one of the most laid back people Belle knew, but she was also one of the most resourceful. Alicia had suggested that they go shopping for a day, since Ruby had said she’d never been to New York. In reality, it had actually been about a century since she’d been, but her Wolf nose was still able to pick out places of high magical concentration. Belle followed her from street to street, and once even through a hidden doorway disguised as a wall, collecting things she needed for healing Maurice. She insisted that she could smell that what she wanted was there, which was probably true, but it made it harder for the Mages and Witches running the shops to haggle with her, because Ruby could also guess exactly what they didn’t have and were likely in dire need of. Therefore, they were likely to trade for it.
Not to mention that with one glint of her ever so slightly pointed Wolf teeth, most of them were so scared of her that they just wanted her out.
Belle couldn’t keep track of what she was buying and trading after a while, as they must have visited twenty-five different places and tracked all over downtown Manhattan. She didn’t see how Ruby kept track of it, actually.
Finally they walked through another hidden doorway, this one through the back side of a building, into a place that looked absolutely nothing like an apothecary’s shop. It looked more like a high-fashion boutique, if the current rage was rather medieval looking.
“Umm… Ruby?” Belle whispered. “Where are we?”
“Alicia told us to go shopping.” She shrugged. “I doubt she meant for herbs and poultices, and we both need something to wear to that Ball.”
“You’re kidding me. I’m not-” she started to insist that she wasn’t going, but was cut off by a tall woman with a tape measure around her neck coming out to give Ruby a hug.
“Hello, dear! I haven’t seen you since last year’s Ball. What brings you to the Big Apple?”
“Good to see you, Hazel! This is Belle.” Ruby gestured to her friend with a smile. “She’s taking a break from her training to visit home, and I’m picking her up some proper attire for the Magician’s Ball.” The woman smiled sweetly at Belle, either not shaken by the amount of power swimming around her or ignoring it very well.
“Well, then, let’s see what we can do.” She flitted off into the back, apparently to go look for something.
“Please don’t make me do this.” Belle groaned. “Besides, I don’t have money for something like this.”
“What were you planning to do?” Ruby asked.
“I don’t know! I’m a bit preoccupied with other matters, such as my dad, and Snow, and Robert!” she hissed.
“Yep. Well, the next time you see him we can address that. For now… I’m serious when I say you drastically need something to wear.” Her friend began walking among the mannequins, and Belle grudgingly followed. The longer she looked, the more medieval the style became. There was everything from corseted bodices, to high collars, to straight dresses with tunics and sashes that seemed to scream “Wizard’s Apprentice.” The selection for men wasn’t much different, from what she could see. Obviously, there were pants included, but they too had ankle length, flowing robes in various colors.
The only thing truly out of the ordinary, she supposed, was the fact that the shop had no windows. If it was another of those bigger-on-the-inside numbers, she supposed that it fit not to have any windows, though.
Ruby was looking at something over to the side- a red strapless number with an open, laced back. The skirt was red organza with a black underskirt, and flared gently on its way to the floor.
“It would be perfect with your cape.” Belle said, following her gaze. Something about that cape must have made it impervious to wearing out, because it still looked new as the day it was made. Red with black curling designs, not too heavy but extremely warm, it was Ruby’s favorite accessory… not that she wore it often. It was generally considered conspicuous to wear a long red cape in public.
“You think?” she asked, smiling shyly. Belle had never gotten the shy impression from Ruby- ever. She was obviously feeling insecure for some reason.
“Try it on.” Belle urged. “You’ll look gorgeous.” Her friend looked like she was about to give in, but Hazel’s cry cut her off from the back of the room.
“I found it!” the slight woman bustled forward with what looked like a pile of folded fabric. She caught Ruby’s eye and noticed the dress. “Ah. I’ll get that one down for you, shall I?”
“Please.” Ruby said, casting a look back, and immediately turning her attention back to Belle. “But take care of her first.” Hazel smiled and turned back to Belle.
“Stand in front of the mirrors, please.” She gestured to a back corner, where there was a small half circle of tall mirrors and something that looked like an ottoman in front of them. Belle stepped up on it, and the woman picked out an embroidered fold of red fabric. When she shook it out, the material seemed to fall into the shape of the dress, as if the very act of unfolding it had caused the dress to appear. Interesting.
Even more interesting was the fact that when Hazel handed Belle the dress, she was suddenly being laced into it, holding the clothes she’d previously been wearing in her hands.
“My small magic. Each of these sizes itself to whoever will be wearing it, and the switch just cuts down on time.” She smiled, eyes twinkling. Apparently the magic usually impressed people, however small.
Glancing in the mirror, Belle suddenly felt like she was preparing for a Medieval court party. The skirt was huge and the bodice tight, straight, and rather constricting. It was also quite low-necked, leaving her chest exposed to a point that left her feeling naked even among all the fabric.
“Um… maybe one not quite so…” she was lost for words, but Hazel nodded.
They didn’t have much luck with the next three dresses, either. One was a purple, deep red, and black dress that Belle thought was too dark for her, but Ruby had set aside for Emma. Apparently she was trying to set the Sheriff up with Jefferson for the Ball. The next dress was emerald green, and more like Wizard’s robes than any of the others, which Belle didn’t have a problem with, but Ruby immediately denounced for reasons she wouldn’t divulge.
She was currently standing in the last of this recent line of failures, a white, feathery sort of dress that left her feeling absolutely ridiculous.
“Let’s get that one for Snow.” Ruby said, nodding. Belle sighed, but didn’t say anything, bracing herself for whatever was going to end up wrapped around her next.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t so bad.
The golden yellow dress fell off the shoulders with a neckline that didn’t make Belle feel horribly indecent, a fitted bodice, and a floor length skirt. It didn’t swallow her whole, but it was elegant and simple, the only true decoration being the beaded design around the neckline and along over the shoulders.
“Perfect.” Red nodded her consent.
“Ok, so… brewing this isn’t going to be pleasant.” Ruby admitted, spreading her ingredients out on the kitchen table. The dresses were packaged up and stowed in Ruby’s impossibly large picnic basket, which was empty now that they’d cleared out the pie and casseroles that Granny had brought along. Belle was actually beginning to wonder if all magicians had objects or shops that were bigger on the inside, or if she was just meeting up with an abnormal amount of them that did.
“Why not?” Belle asked.
“Because it’s going to involve us keeping an eye on it for twenty-four hours at least, being very particular about the amount of stuff we put in it, and it’s probably going to stink.” She braced herself for Belle’s response.
“But… it works, right?”
“Oh, most definitely.” Ruby nodded confidently. “I just think that… it might be a good idea to, ya know…” she shrugged, eliciting a sigh from Belle. For days they’d been talking about how to break it to Alicia that magic existed. If they were going to do this, now was the time. It would likely be better if she didn’t walk into her home to have it smelling like a magical brewpot.
It was another hour until Alicia made it back, but they were waiting on her when she did.
“Hey, girls.” She said. “I picked up some-” Alicia stopped suddenly, taking in their somber faces.
“This isn’t about dad, but we have something to tell you.” Belle said slowly, waiting to immediately dispel any fear that they were announcing her father’s death.
“What’s wrong?” Her eyes flicked back and forth between them. “Are you hurt? Are you pregnant? Belle, if you’re pregnant-”
“I’m not pregnant, Alicia.” Belle said. Ruby inadvertently burst into giggles.
“I’m sorry. I really am.” She said. “It’s just that pregnant Belle is probably the last possible situation I could see happening.” Ruby cleared her throat and calmed herself, gestuting for Belle to continue.
“While I was away, I was studying. I learned… a lot about my mom and my past, and who I am. And…” Belle stopped, shaking her head. “You know, there really isn’t an easy way to break this to you.”
“What are you going to do then?” Ruby asked. “Just come out and tell her?”
“Tell me what?” Alicia looked downright scared.
“That magic exists and Belle and her father both have it and we kind of need your permission to make a potion to save his life.” Red shrugged.
“What? You said it wasn’t going to be easy.”
If it was possible, Alicia was a tougher nut to crack than Emma. She was kind and helpful, but she was also an intensely logical person, and she wouldn’t believe a word of it until Belle set her index finger on fire and used it to boil water for coffee… which came flowing out of her other index finger.
It was a good thing they were making coffee, too, because without it they thought Alicia might possibly pass out, and there simply wasn’t time for that. The better part of two hours was spent trying to nail things down and explain it to her. Belle wound up doing most of the talking while Ruby bustled around chopping, boiling, burning, and otherwise making use of the dozens of plants laid out on the table. She still wasn’t done by the time Belle finished talking, but after explaining what exactly the Mage was doing, the pot was bubbling nicely, smelling foul, and Ruby was ready to sit.
“Ok. Who’s taking first watch?” she asked. Someone had to stay and make sure the thing didn’t boil over, that they stirred it every hour, and when the thick liquid finally turned to a watery, less foul-smelling substance in 24-48 hours, someone had to be there to take it off the heat and add the last three ingredients.
“I will.” Belle volunteered. Ruby looked tired and Alicia was probably going to go off and sleep her shock off, but Belle was wide awake.
There were too many things to think about, even alone. Especially alone.
As much as she liked to tell herself that whatever she was doing was best and that she was completely over the man she met at the train station, that wasn’t quite true. No matter what she did, she would have to face up to that someday, though she still wasn’t ready to open up that letter.
“And now we move to phase one.” Ruby said, walking down the street. They were heading towards the library, though Belle had no clue what they’d need to do there. Magical books weren’t part of the stock, of that she was extremely sure.
“Which means?” Belle followed her around to the back side of the building, where there was a metal door. Ruby pressed a finger to her lips as she pulled the rusting piece open, and they stepped into what looked like a very large elevator. Cushioned benches lined three walls, and the floor was carpeted in a strange blue material. Only when the thing started to descend did Ruby speak again.
“Training. And this is probably one of the safest places in the world to do it. You might want to take a seat, though.” She gestured to the benches. “It’s a long way down.”
Belle couldn’t pry any more information out of her friend for the rest of the fifteen minutes it took to get however far down they were going. The doors eventually opened again, and they stepped out into a… well, it almost looked like a library.
“Where are we?” Belle asked, looking around. The space resembled a gigantic underground cave, except the walls were lined with books, and rock walls were intricately carved into designs of trees and wildlife. There were other areas off to the sides, but Belle couldn’t see into them, as the doors were closed. Besides her and Ruby, the place seemed to be empty. Belle started to take a step forward, but stopped when there was a rush of air, and a cloud of purple smoke came from behind a pillar.
“Hello?” a voice called, echoing through the large space. Coughing followed shortly.
“Will the Wolf girl and the Enchantress please step forward?” this voice was male, and accompanied by none other than Jefferson stepping forward from behind a pillar. Emma was right behind him, fanning purple smoke out of her face.
“Ok, so… the crazy hat guy over here wouldn’t tell me where we were going.”
“We’re under the Manhattan public library. As in… about two miles under. This is the New York training center for magicians- most major cities have one, but they aren’t all quite this big or this functional.” Ruby said. “The only way to get down here is by magic- you won’t even be able to open the door to the elevator without it- and it’s also the safest training place around for your two. I know Jefferson’s been teaching you, Emma, but you both need some more specific training…”
“With who?” Emma asked, suddenly very uneasy. Jefferson smiled.
“Am I thinking of the same fire-haired Warrior that you are?” he asked Ruby, smiling secretively. The Shifter nodded.
“She should be here any minute.” She checked her watch. “Yep, any minute now. While I’m working on Belle’s father above ground, you three will be down here, getting some help with your fighting skills. I know there isn’t much time left, but some skills are better than none.”
There was another blast of purple smoke (it was amazing how fast the stuff dissipated down here) from the corner, and some very loud curses were muttered.
“Why the hell do we have to have smoke?! What’s so wrong with just popping in?!” Again, coughing ensued, more violently than Emma this time, and more curses. Ruby rolled her eyes as a woman stepped forward from the smoke, which was already beginning to disappear.
“Ladies and gents, meet Rose Red. She’s your new trainer.”
Rose Red looked like a cross between a princess and a warrior woman. She had a beautiful face, piercing blue eyes, and she was tall and graceful with the same ghostly pale skin as Snow, but that was where the princess ended. Her almost painfully red hair was cropped into a short, spiky, boyish look. She was clad in fitted black pants, tall boots, and a long sleeved, dark green shirt, and there were enough weapons around her belt to make a master assassin drool.
“Am I late for the party?” she asked, grinning wickedly. Her coughing had finally ended and she hugged Ruby.
“Right on time.” The Shifter matched her grin and introduced her to Belle and Emma. A minute or two was spent catching up with Ruby and Jefferson, and then Rose led them to a side room that looked like it was meant for fencing practice. Padded floor, padded walls, rings hanging from the ceiling, and several objects that could either be used as obstacles or training dummies.
“As Ruby probably told you, I came a little early to give you two a lesson in close quarters combat.” She said, drawing twin daggers from her belt. She seemed to have a princesses’ taste in weaponry as well, or these were gifts, because the blades were polished to a high metallic shine, and inlaid with an intricate design.
“These are Warrior weapons- the strongest there are. I forged them myself, which means I’ve basically doubled the strength. Forging Warrior weapons takes a good century, and it’s as much an art as a practical skill. I don’t think anyone we’ll encounter will have weapons as strong as these, but you need to know this.” Emma and Ruby nodded as Rose paced in front of them, and Ruby sat back in her chair, as if she’d heard the spill before.
“Warrior weapons have an enchantment that helps the Warrior and the weapons feed off each other’s power, so that the person doesn’t tire as easily, but it only works for that specific Warrior. Emma, being as we don’t have weapons made specifically for you yet, you’ll use Snow’s. You’re related to her by blood, so you can handle her weapons without them draining your magic.”
“I follow. I think.” Emma said.
“Good. I’ll be working with you with swords and the long dagger, because that’s what you’ll have at your disposal Belle, I’ll be training you in my two favorites- short daggers and hand-to-hand combat.”
“Ok.” Belle thought she was probably just a bit too clumsy for that, but it would probably be useful in the long run. “But what about Jefferson?”
“I’m going to be researching combative magic. I think I’ll probably be more useful in that area.” He said, tipping his hat. Rose nodded and turned back to the girls.
“So… who wants to go first?”
Emma took up training with Rose while Belle scanned page after page of the sorcery books with Jefferson, looking for anything about magical combat. There wasn’t much that she could find to practice besides the general shooting of energy bolts at a wall, which got old quickly.
After a while they switched off, but Emma preferred rest or to be a sparring partner for Belle with her long wooden sword rather than to read. It was a likely scenario, actually, according to Rose. Even though Belle wasn’t an experienced fighter, the speed of the daggers would give her the upper hand in combat with classically trained magical fighters, who would probably elect to use swords.
“You are not fighters!” Rose would shout as the wooden weapons clacked. “You are dancers! You have to anticipate your opponent’s moves- you may not know the dance, but you have to feel the rhythm of the music!”
And occasionally she would shout certain tidbits of information that might be useful.
“We’re hoping they don’t have any Shifters on their side, but if they do they’ll be impervious to all but silver plated weapons in animal form. They probably won’t be expecting Ruby, though, because large animal Shifters are relatively rare.”
“If you meet someone too dependent on a sword, go in close with the dagger. They’ll be slower and you can disarm them.”
Emma seemed to be getting the hang of it just fine, but eventually Belle found that her clumsiness also translated to swords. She kept slipping, tripping over Emma, and several times even dropped one of her daggers. Hand-to-hand combat was a little better, but unfortunately, that entailed getting the weapons away from your adversary before venturing into that realm.
There was only one thing she could find that might help her, and she had yet to master it. According to the books she’d been reading, some Wizards and Warlocks had found a way to shape magical energy into other things- usually weapo3n related. This meant that whoever you were fighting couldn’t take your weapons to use against you, and that your weapons also had the potential to electrocute whoever you were fighting…
However, Belle just couldn’t get a handle on shaping it yet. It was a difficult process, and even after she managed to shape a crude knife, she couldn’t hold the form for very long. The amount of concentration it took was ridiculous, and she wondered how anyone would be able to fight and keep their weapons at once. She even asked Jefferson, but he wasn’t able to help or even do it himself.
In other words, she needed to make a call.
“Hello, Belle.” He smiled. “How are you doing today?”
“Not too shabby. And yourself?” Belle always liked to engage the mirror operator in conversation. She doubted he got many people to talk to.
“Oh, I’m alright, for a disembodied head.” If he had shoulders he probably would have shrugged. “Who can I connect you with?”
“I’d like to speak with Maleficent, please.” Belle said. Sydney nodded once and disappeared.
“Yes?” Maleficent was smiling when she answered the call, and for once it wasn’t a smug smile.
“I’m cashing in on that offer to help.” Belle said.
“I thought you might be. I have more ears than you might think, and you Shifter friend should be more careful where she discusses such delicate matters as the invasion of a very powerful Sorceress’ castle.” She leaned back in her chair, waiting on the response. Belle’s face grew pale, and her stomach dropped.
“You told her.”
“No.” The Enchantress shook her head, blonde curls falling in her face. “And it may turn out to be a mistake, but that’s what I’ve chosen to do. I may have more motives in common with Regina, but I have more history in common with Robert, and truly, more blood in common with you.”
“Blood?” Belle raised an eyebrow.
“We’re Enchantresses. Probably the only ones in the universe. That makes you and I about as close of blood relations as we’ll ever get, and I’ve known Robert since we were children teasing each other about our ridiculous names.”
“And that makes you sympathetic to us?” Belle was still suspicious, and rightly so. Melissa shrugged.
“Dragons are funny like that. We may be dark creatures, but at heart we’re intensely loyal, and very passionate, and you have three things going for you.” She ticked them off on her fingers as she listed them. “You’re an Enchantress, Robert is on your side, and Robert is also madly -almost sickeningly, actually- in love with you.” Melissa pointed at Belle to punctuate her sentence.
“He sent me away.” Belle said. “It’s better this way.”
“Oh, sure.” Maleficent waved her hand dismissively. “Whatever you want to believe, honey. But trust me, when the time comes, you’ll probably need to know that. Now, I doubt you called me to hear Robert’s affection from my mouth. What did you need?” Belle licked her lips before she spoke.
“Can you teach me how to shape my magic?”
Chapter 21: The Many Uses of Rings
“Mr. French?” Ruby sat in the chair beside his bed, a small bottle in her hands. Brewing the potion was only half of her issue. She had to administer it to him in small amounts twice a day for three days, and without affecting him so drastically that the recovery would draw attention to him. She’d managed to sneak past the doctors and nurses to get into his room without questioning, but now she had to gain his trust. The only issue was that he was currently in a coma, so it left her to do most of the talking.
“My name is Ruby Lucas. I’m here to help you. Don’t be afraid.”
Something told her that he could hear her. She pinched his nose and tipped two drops from the vial into his mouth. The potion was strong stuff, and it was a good thing he didn’t have to swallow in this state, either.
Now all they had to do was wait- wait for the Ball, wait for the potion to take effect, wait for Snow to wake up...
Wait for Belle to break the curse…
Lessons with Maleficent via a tall magic mirror in a separate practice room proved very beneficial. Belle didn’t inform the others of her plan, just in case she needed to keep it to herself or it wound up not working out, but every day she was getting stronger. Maleficent taught her to shape her magic in ways that involved not only weaponry, but other objects such as floating lights (much more useful than flashlights), umbrellas and common objects (that actually looked perfectly normal if you concentrated enough, and didn’t crackle with blue energy like her weapons), and once even a flute (out of tune).
Emma became quite proficient with the sword, and though Belle never quite got the hang of the daggers as well as she should have, she was good enough to be able to get away from mortal peril.
Ruby assured Belle that her father would wake any day now, and she’d left the supply of the potion with Alicia along with instructions on how to administer it. Even if they didn’t make it out of what they were planning, Maurice would, and would probably live a long life if he didn’t start drinking again.
Soon enough, the day arrived, and they were reintroduced to Jefferson Maddock and his marvelous hat.
“This, ladies, is our ticket to Regina’s place.” He said, tossing it on the ground so it faced upward, as if for a coin collection for street performers. “The first thing you need to know is that we have to stay together. If five of us go through, then five of us come out again. The prince should have enough magic to get himself away once we actually bust him out of the cell. Understood?”
“Understood.” They chorused.
“Lucky for us, the Ball is in town. It’s supposed to be a few blocks down from here, which is safe enough to walk to once we’re back.” Ruby said. She then gestured to a secluded area of the library basement. “Our change of clothes is stashed in there, and then we’ll make our way to the Ball before Regina has time to wonder what’s taking us so long.”
“Sounds good… in theory.” Rose said. “But keep in mind that if there’s anything you want to say to anyone, you’d better do it now. I’m not planning on dying, but it might be better-”
“Let’s just go.” Belle said. The remark was obviously directed towards her, and if she got out of this, she would damn well tell Robert everything herself.
Jefferson nodded in approval, joining hands with Emma and Rose. Belle and Ruby took then hint, and the five stood in a long chain, waiting for the hat to do its work. Belle was beginning to wonder just what they were waiting on when the thing began to spin. Round and round like a top, the thing kept spinning and spinning, and something very like a tornado of purple smoke erupted from the top.
And then they jumped.
“Ok, so… we’re here. Now what?”
They had arrived via a giant hole in the ground (if it wouldn’t have seemed too horribly accurate, Belle would have called it a rabbit hole), which would also be the exit point, and were now gathered in a huddle in the woods outside Regina’s house. The place sat a ways off the road, out of sight from the general public, just the way Regina liked it.
“Now I distract the guards.” Rose smirked. A second later she seemed to vanish, and Belle realized that she had transformed into the small, reddish brown mouse at her feet. She took of extremely quickly for a creature with such small legs.
They knew it was safe to move forward when there were a couple of rather un-manly squeals from Regina’s front door guards. Jefferson stayed at the doorway to take care of any guards or staff that might try to follow them inside.
The hallway was clear for the first short corridor past the front gate. From the outside it may have looked like a large California estate, but from the inside it looked like a trip back to the 1500s. The walls were stone and covered with tapestried and paintings, almost like the West Wing in Rumpelstiltskin’s home, except that the lighting here wasn’t near as cheerful. Torches and high chandeliers left eerie shadows on the walls, and every movement was magnified tenfold in those shadows.
“Hey.” Rose whispered from behind them. All three jumped- they hadn’t heard a sound of her sneaking up on them. “Sorry. Didn’t want to scare you even more later on.”
At the end of the corridor they reached an intersection, flattening themselves against the wall behind a long tapestry in case anyone were to come by from the left or right. The slight bulge likely wouldn’t be noticed if they kept still. However, it seemed no one knew exactly which way to go from there, not even Rose, who had found James in the dungeon by way of mouse holes in the walls and floors.
Someone was coming from the intersecting hallway. Their footsteps were loud and uneven on the stone where the carpet ended, meaning that whoever it was, they were probably drunk.
“Hold on a second.” Emma said, drawing her dagger. She turned the corner, and Belle heard a surprised yelp and a sickening thud as Emma slammed someone against the wall. Ruby even winced, risking a peek from their hiding place.
“Tell me the way to the dungeons.” Emma whispered. The guard babbled out something, apparently scared out of his mind, and Emma let him drop to the floor, unconscious.
“Is he dead?” Ruby asked.
“Nope. Jefferson and I figured out pretty early on that making people tell the truth against their will also makes them pass out for several hours. Not that he wouldn’t have passed out anyways, judging by the looks of him. This way.” She took off in the direction that the man had been walking, attempting to keep to the shadows.
If Rumpelstiltskin’s house was a maze, Regina’s was the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Belle could tell right away that this place didn’t sit on a patch of Old Magic, which was both good and bad at once. It was good because it meant that there was nothing to hinder or confuse their path. It was bad because there was nothing to help them.
They passed a couple of staff members on their way, but simply hiding seemed to suffice to get past them. The guards, whose primary responsibility seemed to be to protect Regina, were few and far between. The one or two that Emma had to stop and get directions from were stashed in closets or corners where no one would look for them and raise an alarm. Rose was positive that the guards would increase once they got into the dungeons, though.
As Emma stopped to get directions from yet another guard (the maze was getting more complicated, if that was even possible), Belle sat on the floor against a wall and concentrated on Regina. She was probably at the Ball right now.
Yes, at the Ball. Her black and midnight blue robes seemed to shift around her in a way that looked almost alive, and she had a cold smile on her face. She didn’t seem to be at all worried, but she did look… smug. That was definitely a smug look. Perhaps it was because there were definitely people there looking for Snow and James, and neither were present.
The group finally arrived at a long spiral staircase, extending down into the darkness like it breached the Earth’s crust and went down into much more sinister places.
“Is it safe to talk?” Emma asked. Ruby closed her eyes a second, focusing on her Wolf senses, and nodded.
“There’s no one within hearing range that I can see or smell.” All four let out a pent up sigh of relief, glad they could at least speak quietly now.
“According to the last guy, this is the only way in and out.” The blonde woman said quietly, gesturing to the staircase..
“Ten we make our own way out.” Ruby grumbled, glancing at Rose. She shook her head, red hair flopping in her face.
“As much as I’d like to blow the place to kingdom come, we can’t. I was in the mouse holes, remember? They’re mostly in the floors from here on in- the dungeon walls are solid and probably a good three feet thick. Plus, we’d send the whole house down on top of us if we picked the wrong spot.”
“Meaning that’s our only hope of getting out.” Belle said.
“Unfortunately, yes.” Rose grabbed two daggers, one from either side of her belt, as she spoke. “And that it’s time for Ruby to Wolf up, because we’re going to have to fight our way through.”
Emma unsheathed her sword as their friend Shifted, but Belle left her long dagger in her belt.
“What are you doing?” Rose asked. “You realize they’re not going to hesitate to kill us, right?” Belle held up a finger, signaling them to wait a moment. Perhaps all that reading she’d done in the past couple of weeks was worth it. After some concentration, tendrils of blue energy crackled around her hands. Using her fingertips for a physical gauge, she drew it out, shaping it into a longer, more useful form: short daggers almost like the ones Rose was carrying, except formed of her own magical essence.
Not to mention, they were also formed of the most deadly sort of electricity known to man and magician alike.
Rose nodded in approval.
“You have got to teach me that.”
The group padded down the steps and into the dungeons, finding no guards along the way. Rose signaled them to wait around the last spiral while she checked at the bottom of the stairs, and they all sat in silent hope, waiting for her return.
Their hopes were dashed at the clank of the first sword.
Emma, Ruby, and Belle barreled down the steps to find a group of eight guards waiting on them. Clearly Regina had planned for this, meaning that they only had a limited time. Weapons flashing, Emma and Rose took on three at once, assuming a back-to-back stance that gave them an advantage. Ruby, in Wolf form, knocked out one man with a single leap, then turned to face the rest, who promptly backed away to tackle Belle.
None of them wanted to get particularly close to the brunette’s blue fire weapons, but they certainly tried. The only problem for them was that weapons shot through with electricity didn’t exactly work well when dealing with guards with metal swords and metal suits of armor. Belle wound up not having to fight much after all, as one touch from her dagger was shot through with enough energy to knock a man out cold.
The eight guards already present were disposed of quickly, but there were more to come, no doubt.
“Come on. Let’s find our prince and get the hell out of here.” Rose said, taking off down the dark corridor.
The walls were made of stone here, too, and the cells looked positively ancient. Most were empty, and those that weren’t seemed to have only skeletons as occupants. Poor souls. There was no telling what they’d done to Regina to deserve that. Light filtered in from a few grates near the top of the walls, meaning that they weren’t entirely underground.
The dungeons were fairly straightforward, laid out more like a grid than like the maze the rest of the house was, and it didn’t take long to find James’ cell, tucked away in a back corner of the room.
“James!” Ruby said, hurrying over to the cell door. Emma had swiped a ring of keys from one of the unconscious guards, and after a few seconds of trying them out, they were inside. He was lying on his side, weak and malnourished, wearing some kind of handcuffs.
“Ruby…?” he blinked as Rose helped him to his feet.
“Yep, it’s me.” She said, slipping an arm under his shoulders. “Explain later, rescue now.”
“My magic.” He coughed. “They’re draining it. The handcuffs. I can’t...” James was too weak to finish the sentence. Ruby muttered a curse, and Emma’s eyes went wide.
“That means he can’t-” All of then realized it at once. He couldn't bring himself back this way. Not only had they enchanted the dungeons against transportation, they'd done double on James.
“Yeah, I know.” Ruby was thinking, but she couldn’t come up with anything, and footsteps were approaching from down the corridor. Belle had an idea, however, and it was just the reason she’d brought a particular trinket along with her, looped around a chain on her neck.
“I’ve got an idea.” She said quickly. “But you’re going to have to move fast.” All eyes immediately returned to her. Belle faced the far wall, holding out her hands.
“This is the outside wall, yeah?” she asked. Rose nodded.
“Yes. What are you thinking?”
“I’m making a way out. The guards are behind us- we’ll all be killed if we turn around now.” She said. “Whatever happens, I want you all to get to the hat and bring Jefferson back to Snow. Understand?”
“Bell, you can’t-” Emma put a hand on her shoulder, but Belle shrugged it away.
“Just get your backsides out of this place, and I promise I won’t die. Deal?” No one responded, but Belle knew there wasn’t another choice. As the footsteps grew louder, she tried to concentrate, focus her energy. She needed to blow a hole in this wall, and there wasn’t time to waste. As soon as it was done they would have to move, because they might have limited time before the stability of the structure was threatened.
There was a blast, and Belle was thrown on her back, rubble and smoke clouding her vision and coating her lungs.
“Belle?!” she couldn’t tell whose voice it was, but somehow she managed to cry out a reply.
“I’m alright! Go!”
Only when she was certain she heard them scrabble out from the area did she move. The guards were practically on top of her now- all she could do was run. The open hole in the wall was her only chance. Rock was falling everywhere, and though Belle was probably bruised from the blast and bleeding from the falling debris, she managed to get the Captive’s Ring out from beneath her shirt, slipping it onto her ring finger automatically.
“Take me… to… the library.” She coughed out.
The guards were catching up, and for a half a second Belle thought she felt a hand on her shoulder, pulling her back, but no, she couldn’t have. She’d landed on the practice mat on the library floor.
This place was absolutely horrible.
Mr. Gold sat alone, sulking in a back corner of the ballroom that had been magically expanded for this particular event. The whole place was crowded with magicians, and yet the only magician he ever wanted to see again was probably asleep in her bed only blocks from here.
If she wasn’t, he dreaded to think where she might be, because that meant she could have been with the group attempting to free Prince James from Regina. Robert sighed as a familiar face approached him. Speak of the Devil and the Devil shall appear.
“Hello, Rumple.” Regina smiled, but the expression didn’t reach her eyes. Her black and blue robes swirled around her in a way that looked like she was sheathed in darkness itself.
“Don’t call me that, Regina.” Robert didn’t take kindly to the nickname, and everyone knew it.
“Where is this girl I’ve been hearing so much about?” she asked. “What was her name? Margie? Verna?”
“Her name is Belle.” He sneered. “And she’s home, where she should be.”
Regina looked as if she was about to comment when there was a loud bang on the floor, twice. The announcer was calling the room to attention- apparently new guests had just arrived. When they came in, they would be made to walk down a large, long staircase down to the ballroom floor like items on display, and then would be left to blessed privacy until someone wanted to make small talk.
“Miss Emma Swan, Warrior, and Mr. Jefferson Maddock, Wizard.” The voice boomed. No doubt he’d enchanted himself so his throat didn’t go raw before the night was over. The pair came down the stairs in robes of purple, red, and black, obviously a pair. Before Gold had too much time to register exactly what was happening, the next name was called.
“Miss Ruby Lucas, Shifter Mage.” A soft murmur went through the crowd at this. Only the most prestigious Mages were invited to the Ball, and no doubt someone would be milking her for information before she took two steps away from the stairs. The next set of names surprised everyone in the room, however.
Everyone except Gold, who by now had had enough time to realize what was inevitably coming.
“Miss Snow White, Warrior, and Prince James, Fairy.” The room burst into applause for the couple, blissfully unaware of the entire situation and of Regina’s enraged reaction from where she stood at the back of the room. She couldn’t do anything here, though, and she knew it. The group had been smart, planning to come here afterwards, but it was also risky. While they were here they were untouchable, but they also were very blatantly throwing their victory in Regina’s face.
Rumpelstiltskin didn’t particularly care about them, however. All he cared about was one thing, and that thing involved transportation. If what he thought had happened was correct, then the one person he cared about more than anything in the world was in danger, and he wouldn’t stand for that.
Moving extremely quickly for a man with a cane, Gold crossed the room to where Emma and Jefferson were standing, whispering to each other.
“Ah, Jefferson.” Mr. Gold said, giving a false smile. “Might I have a word?” the Hatter whispered something to Emma, who nodded, and walked over to Mr. Gold.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, looking around to see if anyone was listening.
“I think you know very well what’s wrong.” Gold’s face was a mask, but the tension under the surface was evident in every syllable he spoke. “You used the hat to get there, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” Jefferson admitted. “We did. What about it?”
“Jefferson, you’ve told me before- five go through the hat, five come back, but our fairy prince obviously didn’t go through the first time, so who was your extra passenger?!” Gold grabbed Jefferson by the collar angrily. They were beginning to attract stares. “You tell me who it was.” He whispered, but it came out sounding more like a death threat.
“Belle.” The Hatter looked down, guilty. “She volunteered.”
Gold dropped him in something between fear, loathing, and shock. If Belle was dead he would wind up doing something drastic, he just knew it. In fact, he was probably about to start spouting off his revenge and hunting down Regina again when the announcer banged that infernal stick of his on the ground again.
After arriving back at the library, Belle had patched herself up the best she could. Her torso was bruised, and she probably had some cracked ribs, but there was nothing to do about that at the moment. The gloves that went with her dress served the purpose of hiding most of her old scars and her new cuts, and now she was standing in the entryway to the Magician’s Ball. Apparently no one asked questions of entry when you were practically dripping magic.
This dress was another one of those things that Belle would keep filed away for future blackmail. If Ruby ever refused to do anything, she’d bring up this yellow monstrosity. It wasn’t uncomfortable, exactly, it was just strange. She felt like a princess on her way to a castle, though that was hardly correct. Getting herself into it hadn’t been easy, but it was possible. The Captive’s ring still hung on a chain around her neck like a charm, and she promised herself that whatever happened, she’d return it to Robert before the night was over.
Ruby had already agreed to usher the rest of the group to the Ball and wait on her arrival there, however much she’d wanted to help tend to Belle’s injuries. They had some curse-reversing to do, however, and that won out in the end. Belle had been hoping to slip in quietly, but it didn’t look like she was going to get around this announcer. As people entered, he would bang a staff on the ground, bellowing out their name and magical rank (Mage, Sorceress, etc.) Then the announced party would have to walk down a long staircase in front of the entire room, which was everything she didn’t want to happen.
“Your name, miss?” he asked, directing his question at Belle.
“Um- Annabelle French. But-”
“Enchantress…” The guard didn’t seem shocked to hear her rank- perhaps he was acquainted with people who possessed abnormally large amounts of magic. Belle sighed, attempting to slip around him. He would have none of it, though, and Belle mentally groaned as he ushered her to the top of the steps.
It took her a second to catch her breath. The room was huge- magic, obviously- and made to look like a ballroom in a king’s palace. Most of the magicians were wearing robes, the only exceptions being the few men in suits. Belle scanned the room, trying to pick out a figure from among the faces. He had to be here, she just knew it.
Please be here.
Her eyes flitted back and forth across the room, scanning faces and walks and wardrobes, until her gaze rested on a man with a cane, sulking in the corner.
“Miss Annabelle French-” the announcer began, but she had already found who she was looking for, and before the man could finish she’d picked up her skirts and was tearing down the steps. At the same time, someone was pushing his way through the crowd, eliciting only a few glares, as their attention was focused on Belle.
And their attention was still on her when she hit the bottom of the steps and ran straight into the arms of Mr. Gold.
She didn’t think- all she could do was stand there, trying to keep herself together, wrapped tight in his arms. Roberts fingers nestled in her dark curls, pulling her as close as physically possible.
“I love you.” She whispered, burying her face against his neck.
“And I love you.” He could feel her shaking under his grip, and she placed a gentle kiss to his jaw, then his cheek, and then his lips, not even caring that there were perhaps five hundred magicians looking on.
Then, very slowly, someone started clap.
Then another joined in, and another, and soon the sound of applause was almost deafening. Only then did Belle pull away from him and thoroughly glance through the crowd, blushing more and more with every passing second. Thankfully, Mr. Gold seemed to have the situation under control, slipping an arm around her waist and guiding her to a more private area of the room.
The applause only stopped once they were out of sight past a layer of curtains, but the murmurs went on. It was surprising that no one burst through the curtains actually, as much of a story as they were. People were likely gossiping all over, trying to figure out who on earth Annabelle French was and how she’d managed to become involved with the infamous Rumpelstiltskin.
“Belle, I- I’m sorry.” Robert began, but she wouldn’t hear it.
“Why?” Belle asked. “Why would you send me away if you knew all this time…?” she loved him so much, but she couldn’t understand why he sent her away.
“Because I’m a stupid old man, and I didn’t want you to get hurt. I don’t want you to give your life breaking this curse, and I don’t want you to have to live with a monster. You know what it does to me.” He sighed softly, leaning on his cane. “I do love you, my dear Belle, more than any power I could ever have… but I can’t let you throw yourself away.”
“Don’t you understand? I’m not throwing myself away.” Belle brushed a lock of hair away from his face, letting her fingers linger on his cheek. “You’re not a monster, and even if you were… Curse or no curse, I just want you.”
“You’re sure?” He couldn’t do this- he couldn’t confine her to this if she wasn’t absolutely certain.
“How many times do I have to tell you before you’ll believe me?” she wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling him in close for a loving hug. “Robert Gold, Rumpelstiltskin, the monster of the castle. I don’t care. All I want is you.”
The music was beginning to play once more outside their small secluded area, but Belle barely noticed. She didn’t hear anything but his whisper in her ear, so close she could feel his breath.
“If that’s the case… I have something extremely important to ask you.” There was a pause, a breath, and then… one question. “Marry me?”
Belle suddenly pulled back, searching his eyes. For a fleeting moment he was terrified of her answer.
“Before I answer, I need you to know something,” she held both his hands in hers, looking into his eyes, “If I marry you, I don’t want it to be for a few years, or even a few centuries. I want a lifetime- I want forever.”
“I wouldn’t want it any other way.” He smiled sadly, hopefully. “There are far worse things than to spend forever with an angel.” Belle almost felt dizzy. It felt fast and perfect all at once, everything she’d ever wanted. True love hadn’t been one of her top priorities, not until she met him. She hadn’t even thought it existed until now.
“Then of course I’ll marry you, you idiot!” she said, squeezing his hands playfully, but there were tears in her eyes. “I love you.”
Gold fought back the urge to giggle, feeling rather like his old, giddy, rather impish self. He unhooked the chain from around her neck and took off the Captive’s Ring, gently sliding it onto her finger.
“Till death do us part?” he asked, smirking slightly.
“Till death.” Belle smiled and pulled him in for a kiss.
That’s when the lightning started.
Chapter 22: Aftermath and Epilogue
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Belle had absolutely sworn that she wouldn’t go back to him, no matter what happened. She had absolutely sworn not to go running back into Robert’s arms, not to do anything she might regret or make any rash choices about it.
But then again, that was before she’d read his letter.
On the night before they put their plan into action, Belle had pulled out her flashlight and opened the letter, reading it under the safe blanket of darkness. The page was blank at first, but as soon as her hand brushed across it, words began to form, being written out of thin air.
I know it’s a cowardly way to say it, but there are things that must be said, and this is the only way I can bring myself to do it now. As I can’t think of a proper way to introduce my next thought, I’ll say it frankly.
I heard you in the mirror.
Yes, Belle, I love you. I could never have let you go, but all I wanted was to protect you. I swear, the next time I see you, should you ever choose to forgive an old monster like me, will be the day I marry you.
“What’s happening?” Belle looked around frantically as the building began shaking. Cries came from inside the ballroom area, and blue-white lightning streaked across the sky. Gold’s eyes went wide with terror, and he pulled Belle inside as quickly as he could. At this point, he wasn’t sure what exactly he was going to do, but-
The shaking reached its breaking point, throwing most of the people in the room to the floor, including Belle and Mr. Gold. The wind shrieked through the area, all the doors flinging wide open and people grabbing onto whatever they could in order to stay grounded. Belle was just beginning to wonder if they would survive long enough to figure out what was happening when it all stopped.
In place of the tumult, there was only silence.
Gradually, members of the group looked up, got to their feet. Broken glass clinked on the floor of the room from where cups and dishes had shattered, and the chandelier overhead was hanging at such an angle that it seemed like a wise idea to steer clear of it. Robert had just enough time to check that Belle was alright before determined footsteps rang out, heading straight towards him.
“What was that?” Regina Mills came to a stop, looking down on them with the air of a lion being troubled by ants. Her words were slow, deliberate, each one coming as a breathy exhale. Belle and Robert struggled to stand, attempting to avoid the shards of glass on the floor.
“Well, Regina, darling-” A female voice came from the side. She cleared her throat before continuing, rising to her feet. “I believe they just broke your curse.” Maleficent stepped forward from the back of the room, the only one out of the lot that was able to form any sort of organized thought about the minor earthquake that had just taken place. She didn’t even look shaken as she walked over towards Regina, smiling the cold smile of a hungry dragon.
“And wouldn’t you look at that?” Melissa chuckled. “No one’s dead.”
“That’s impossible.” Regina scoffed, whirling to face Maleficent. “The conditions of the curse haven’t been satisfied-”
“But they have.” Belle’s voice echoed quietly across the room. She was thinking hard, her eyes darting around the room and thoughts spinning, when everything suddenly became clear. “There’s more than one way to give your life, remember?” She looked towards Robert, who expression shifted into something between panic and joy.
“So what did you do? Whatever it is, I guarantee it won’t last. True love’s kiss does nothing for my curses, honey.” Regina laughed coldly.
“Your curses are vague and shoddy at best, and you don’t know my Belle.” Rumpelstiltskin rose to his feet, aided by Belle, wit still intact if anything was. He also managed to look extremely calm, which was probably anything but what he was feeling. The Evil Queen came forward slowly, considering his remark and weighing her response carefully. This would be a very bad time to tip the scales the wrong way.
“You have no room to talk, Rumple. If your curse is broken it means you’ve lost at least some of your magic.”
“See, that’s where you’re wrong again.” Gold said, chuckling. His confidence was building by the second, mind racing. “If you’ll open your eyes, you’ll see that my magic hasn’t faded at all. I realize we all habitually tune out our abilities to see magic, but if you’ll all kindly take a moment…” he leaned on his cane expectantly, as if waiting for a response from the rest of the room.
The magicians who had crashed to the floor earlier were slowly beginning to rise to their feet. Some had minor injuries, but most were unharmed by the jolt. They seemed to scrutinize Gold for a moment before nods and murmurs went around the room, and even Regina’s expression shifted ever so slightly.
The cloud of dark magic around him was just as strong as it had ever been, perhaps even flaring a bit as Belle came to stand closer to him.
Belle didn’t know the exact mechanics of curses, but out on the balcony she’d said she wanted forever, and then she kissed him. The first part must have been enough to break the curse, but if true love’s kiss really was the most powerful magic in the world, its effects had been added to the curse breaking. Combined with Regina’s awful wording, it was definitely enough to make sure he kept his magic.
“Do you know the reason I’ve survived so long, Regina?” Gold asked, smirking. “It’s because I know how to pick my battles. If I were you I would think twice before attempting to enact my revenge in a room full of magicians who are probably not very sympathetic to people like you.”
Maleficent was still smiling, standing between the two parties like a referee. She cleared her throat, turning to Regina.
“Not to mention that fact that he could probably get rid of you on his own, but his Enchantress girlfriend doesn’t help your chances at all.” she said.
“And you aren’t going to help me, I presume?” the Evil Queen raised a suspicious eyebrow.
“We aren’t friends, Regina. Never have been, probably never will be. A dragon’s loyalties lie in old bonds, and you’d best remember that the next time you try to scheme against my oldest friend.” Maleficent brushed her hands together, as if cleaning the dust off, and the room fell silent. “Oh, I’ve been trying to get to you for years, Regina. Seems we’ve finally won.” The Dragon Enchantress looked over towards where Snow and James were standing, and the dark-haired woman stepped out of the crowd.
“You can’t solve your problems by being angry, Regina.” Snow spoke clearly, making sure that the entire room could hear her. “I am truly sorry for everything you’ve had to go through, but it doesn’t change the fact that hate only breeds more hate.” She started to speak again, but Regina was already marching towards her, anger practically radiating from her. Snow stood her ground, set her jaw, determined to hold off Regina herself and to resolve anything that might happen, but things didn’t quite go that far.
“Not one more step.” Before anyone could guess what was about to happen, Belle was right behind Regina, a firm hand on her shoulder. The Queen spun in an attempt to slap her away, but Belle only caught her other wrist, holding her gaze. “I think you’ve damaged enough lives in this room. Nobody will hurt you as long as you leave now, and leave quietly.”
Her blue eyes blazed, and for one fleeting second Regina was scared of what this woman might be able to do if someone were to push her far enough. However, it was only a second, and rage replaced fear soon afterwards.
“I know you don’t know me well, dear, but you should know me well enough to know that I never leave quietly.” She sneered, jerking her hands free. There was a flash, Belle was thrown backwards, and the room was filled with a suffocating purple smoke.
“Is she gone?” Belle spluttered through the smoke. It was venting out the windows quickly, but not fast enough.
“For now.” Gold confirmed. “But I think we have more important matters to attend to at the moment than whatever Her Royal Grumpyness might be planning.”
Belle tried to laugh, but wound up coughing.
One year later:
“Come on, Belle!” Ruby pulled at her arms insistently, hurrying her along.
“Ruby, we’ve got plenty of time.” Belle picked up her long skirts and bustled towards the door. This dress wasn’t the most wonderful thing to walk in, but hey- how often do you really wear a wedding dress?
“No, you’ve got a visitor!” she opened the door to reveal Maurice and Alicia French, teary-eyed and smiling. Belle was almost immediately caught up in a suffocating hug from Alicia, then Maurice.
Her father had made a full recovery after Ruby’s ministrations brought him out of the coma. The doctors were still trying to figure it out, actually, but they all claimed to know absolutely nothing. It had taken them a while to come around to the fact that Belle wanted to marry a man over two thousand years older than she, but after meeting with him and hearing what of their story they could tell, Alicia and Maurice had sent them off with their blessing.
“You know, it’s going to be extremely strange having a son-in-law older than I am.” Alicia said for perhaps the thousandth time. The statement had become sort of a joke between herself and Belle, as she was the only non-magician in the family, and according to Robert marriages between magicians a thousand years apart in age weren’t terribly uncommon.
Ruby stepped to the side and let them converse, murmuring things in hushed voices, nodding, and generally trying to be reassuring about an event that Belle didn’t need reassuring for.
No, Alicia, (for the hundredth time) I swear it’s not Stockholm Syndrome.
Yes, (for the thousandth time) I know for sure.
Ashley had flown in from New York with her daughter Alexandra and her new husband Sean for the event, and Snow was seated next to James somewhere in the middle of the crowd. Maleficent even came out for the occasion, dressed in her usual dusty purple robes, but sporting a far more genuine smile than her dragon-like smirk. Robert was practically to the point of pacing back and forth frantically, but Jefferson made sure he stayed put. There wasn’t any point in getting him even more worked up than he already was.
“You’re on!” Ruby smiled, pushing Belle forward with a smile. The doors opened, and the small group of people gathered for the occasion turned to see Belle coming down the aisle. The dress was floor length, an elegant, but not overly extravagant piece that left her arms and shoulders bare. She’d picked the dress for the sole reason that it would show her scars- the scars that had caused the two of them to bond so much. If they should be visible on any day, now was the time.
Belle barely noticed the crows or even the priest as she automatically recited the vows that they had rehearsed. She only had eyes for her Robert, her Rumpelstiltskin, her love. It didn’t really matter what his name was, did it? Whenever she looked back on that day, the only thing she really remembered after the doors opened was the look in his eyes, the feel of him slipping the ring on her finger, his soft lips pressed against hers.
There was a short reception afterwards, nothing fancy. They wanted privacy, a chance to talk, to touch, to simply be after all the trouble that had led to this point. No unexpected visitors came to crash their wedding like Snow and James, possibly because two Enchantresses and a Warlock were present should anything look even the slightest bit out of place, not to mention the Shifters and the Warriors.
Yes, Regina showing up would definitely not be a good idea if she didn’t want to be turned into ash.
Belle and Mr. Gold retired to his Storybrooke home, and Belle continued her magical training. Occasionally they would spend a day in the library, light streaming in through the high stained glass windows, the rose garden in full bloom, wrapped in each other’s arms.
“You know, I think if this is forever, I’m probably going to like it.” Belle said one day, nestling into his arms. Gold chuckled and pressed a soft kiss to her lips.
“I agree, love. Forever has a much better prospect than I thought.”
Well, forever is a long time, and they both knew it wouldn’t be without trials and tribulations, but in that one moment, under the many-colored shadows of the stained glass roses, they didn’t care.
So... I suppose I just want to say thank you all for this brilliant ride.
If you've made it this far, I want to thank you for reading, and putting up with my spastic updates, and my general unorganized-ness throughout this fic. I might get myself together in the future. Maybe.
Anyways, thank you all for your support and encouragement throughout this story. I wish I could hug all of you in person.