Belle hummed softly to herself as she bustled around the kitchen. Though Rumpelstiltskin was currently out of the castle conducting one of his infamous deals, she’d become accustomed to having tea prepared at a certain time of day, and she couldn’t help continuing the tradition even when he was away. Though she always felt lonely sitting in the large kitchen alone, instead of curling up in front of the cozy fire in the Great Hall, the routine still brought her comfort. Besides, one never knew when he’d return, and she always liked to be prepared, just in case.
But he did not return, and Belle drank her tea and munched her biscuits in silence, mentally reviewing her afternoon chores. She always made sure to dust on and around his spinning wheel while he was gone, as she didn’t like to touch it while he was in residence in case he decided to suddenly claim it, and she ought to fetch him fresh straw from the storeroom. A few of the larger windows could use washing, and the floors always needed to be swept. She would not be bored, for certain!
So intent was she on her thoughts – and so used to magic had she become over the last year – that she completely failed the notice the soft breeze that suddenly blew through the kitchen, bringing with it the light scent of sandalwood and an earthy musk. It wasn’t until an oddly accented voice spoke that Belle suddenly jumped, realizing she was no longer alone.
“Well, well, well, what have we here?”
Almost knocking over her tea in surprise, Belle turned and found herself facing a strange man.
Her eyes narrowed and she tilted her head. Or was he a man? He was built like one, but his face was too smooth, his features almost elfin, and his eyes glittered with the same something she recognized in Rumpelstiltskin. An agelessness that bespoke a life she could never fathom. No, definitely not human, or at least not entirely.
And, if she was being completely honest with herself, he was simply too beautiful to be a mere mortal, and beauty was not something Belle normally noticed.
“Forgive me for startling you,” he continued in his smooth voice, though his eyes twinkled in a way that made her certain he was anything but sorry. “I’ve come to speak with the master of the castle, but I had no idea he already had a guest.”
Unsure of who exactly this man was to Rumpelstiltskin, but knowing better than to offend a creature with magic, Belle offered a small curtsey. “I’m not his guest, sir, but his…” She hesitated. Prisoner was no longer accurate, and she certainly wasn’t going to offer any details about how he’d bargained for her. “I’m his housekeeper,” she finally concluded. The term fit as well as any. “I’ve been here for nearly a year.”
“Ah, I see.” The stranger circled around her once, eyes unblinking as he studied her. “How interesting. You’re not the first girl the old demon brought into his service, but you’re certainly the most lovely.”
Well, that was a new piece of information. Belle wondered how many other girls he’d had, and what had become of them.
“I’m afraid he’s out of the castle at the moment,” she said instead, not wishing to press the matter.
He chuckled. “Off bargaining, no doubt. He does love his little deals, doesn’t he?” The piercing eyes locked onto hers. “And when shall he return?”
Belle was torn. Telling the truth – that she had no idea – was possibly dangerous. She had no real idea if this creature was friend or foe, and admitting that the castle was practically unguarded didn’t seem wise. However, should she lie and say Rumpelstiltskin would return any minute, he would surely want to wait.
Assuming she even could lie to a being such as he.
Her eyes must have revealed her predicament, because a slow smile crossed his face. “You don’t know, do you? Of course not. Why should you?” Stepping forward, he grasped her chin lightly in a gloved hand and tilted her head to his. “Well, that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun in his absence. Tell me, sweeting, what is your name?”
As he gazed into her eyes, she felt her muscles weaken, and she became slack as he put his other arm around her waist. Her hesitation washed away. What harm would there be in a brief embrace? Surely he was not dangerous. She’d know it for sure if he was! And how could an enemy breach the gates of the Dark Castle? He must be a friend. A kind, handsome friend whose smooth, rich voice was intoxicating and all-consuming…
“Your name, lovely one,” he whispered again.
Her lips parted on a sigh. “Belle.”
“Belle,” he crooned, tilting her head up even further. “A perfect name for a perfect woman.”
She gazed helplessly into his multicolored eyes as he lowered his mouth to hers. “Who…are you?”
His lips millimeters from hers, the bellowing voice hit Belle like the crack of a whip, and she was suddenly able to push herself away. Whirling around, she saw Rumpelstiltskin standing in the kitchen doorway, his face a mask of rage. Her mind clear, she turned once again to the stranger, her throat closing with something akin to horror as she realized what they’d been about to do.
The man, apparently called Jareth, simply smirked and gave a low, mocking bow.
“Welcome home, Dark One. I was beginning to wonder if you’d ever join us.”
In the past, Rumpelstiltskin found a twisted joy in prolonging his deals. He loved watching his supplicants squirm, and he drank deeply of their desperation, as intoxicating to him as any ambrosia. But now, though he’d continue to do it because it was expected, he preferred to hurry things along as much as possible, without being obvious about it.
Now, he had Belle waiting for him.
Belle. The little housekeeper, with her sparkling blue eyes and bright smile, her charming laughter and vivacious wit. His Belle, though he’d never admit it to anyone, least of all her. He’d become accustomed to her presence quickly enough, only to realize one day that he not only tolerated her but liked being around her. And now, after almost a year, he’d become almost addicted to her. He hated being away, leaving her alone in his large, drafty castle. He thought of little else other than returning to her.
Had she been any less innocent, he’d accuse her of being a powerful sorceress to have bewitched him so.
But she was no witch. She was simply Belle, and that, apparently, was more than enough.
So it was with a light heart he returned to the castle, spirits buoyed by a highly profitable deal and a handful of blue ribbons the exact shade of Belle’s eyes, which he intended to present her as a gift. Glancing at the sun, he noted it was just after their normal tea time, so he marched directly to the kitchen. Anticipating the light in her eyes, the bright smile she always gave him upon his return, he threw open the doors in a grand gesture___
___to see her wrapped in the arms of the most beautiful creature he’d ever had the displeasure of knowing.
For a brief moment, he was struck dumb, watching almost helplessly as Belle lay pliant in her captor’s embrace, brought unresistingly to his lips, her eyes locked on his in wide-open wonder.
And then his mind caught up with him and he slammed the heavy door with thunderous crack.
The roar was inhuman even to his own ears, but he willingly gave way to the Dark One’s pure rage at seeing his woman entranced by this interloper. The two sprang apart, and he saw the light come back to Belle’s eyes, saw her horror and humiliation as she realized what had happened. A part of him wanted to comfort her, sooth her embarrassment and assure her none of it had been her fault, but his anger compelled him to turn instead to the Fae King who dared invade his castle.
“Welcome home, Dark One,” Jareth greeted, his voice smooth and mocking. “I was beginning to wonder if you’d ever join us.”
Storming over to his uninvited guest, Rumpelstiltskin placed himself between Belle and Jareth. “What in the nine circles of hell was THAT all about?” he demanded. “I did not give you access to my castle so you could harass my servants!”
“Now, now, I wasn’t harassing anyone, was I dear one?” He smiled, revealing a row of tiny, slightly sharp teeth.
His brave Belle stepped forward, out of his circle of protection, and placed her hands on her hips angrily. “What did you do to me?” she demanded.
“I?” Jareth touched his hand to his breast in mock affront. “Nothing drastic, I assure you.”
“Entrancement, no doubt,” Rumpelstiltskin bit out. “A Fae specialty. It warps your sense of self, weakens your will.” He shot Belle a quick glance. “No need to fret about it, dearie, all mortals are susceptible to his…charm.” Here his mouth curved as though he’d swallowed something bitter.
Belle’s eyes, though still sharp, now held an unmistakable trace of curiosity. “Fae? You’re…a faerie?” She tilted her head. “I’ve known fairies, of course, the little people. But a Fae…one of the old race…I thought they were a myth!”
Jareth turned his still-intoxicating smile on her, and gave another bow, this one grander. “King Jareth of the Underground, at your service, my lady.”
“Underground? What is that?”
“A place in another realm,” Rumpelstiltskin broke in. “The Fae race no longer exists in our world, but our illustrious guest happens to be from another.” He sneered darkly. “The Underground is a foul place, dearie, filled with horrid creatures and a maze to trap visitors for all time. King Jareth rules over a motley crew of horrid little goblins.” He gave Jareth a side-long gaze. “Nasty, rotten, ugly creatures, are they not, Your Majesty?”
“Oh, and are you really the one to talk about nasty, ugly creatures?” Jareth mocked, and Rumpelstiltskin felt his temper snap.
“What do you want? Either tell me or get out.”
Jareth gave an exaggerated sigh. “And here I thought we were having such fun. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to invite me to stay? We could tell lovely Belle here about our exploits together. Stolen children, trapped damsels, tormented souls…” He grinned. “That sort of thing.”
Before Belle could interject with more questions, Rumpelstiltskin stepped closer until his mouth was a breath away from Jareth’s ear. “What. Do. You. Want?”
“Oh, very well.” Jareth waved an elegant hand. “My potion supply is almost gone. I have a need for more.”
Rumpelstiltskin felt an eyebrow rise despite himself. “That was rather fast. What have you been doing, wandering the mortal world every evening?”
“How I use it is none of your concern, now is it? I require more. Now.”
Rumpelstiltskin gave him a long, hard glance, then nodded sharply, once. “Very well.” He waved his hand, and a vial of dark red liquid appeared. He held it out, then snapped his hand back as Jareth reached greedily for it.
“Ah ah ah! Not so fast!” he twittered, more his old self now that he was in control again. “There is still the matter of payment.”
Jareth nodded impatiently. “Yes, yes, of course. Name your price, imp.”
Rumpelstiltskin had half a mind to order the Fae king never to darken his door again, at least not as long as Belle lived, but one never knew when he would need to make use of the creature’s power. It was the entire reason they’d formed this bond centuries ago. Though both commanded immense power, there were things they each simply could not do that the other could. He would not give that up. However….
Stepping forward, he lowered his voice for Jareth’s ears alone. “My price is a blood vow,” he hissed, raising a claw to the Fae’s perfect cheek. “You will not dare touch what is mine again, for if you do, I will destroy your precious Labyrinth with my bare hands and drop you head-first into one of your own oubliettes. Forever.” His eyes, almost black, met mismatched irises. “Do I make myself perfectly clear?”
Jareth was silent for a moment, then a slow smile crossed his lips. “Such power she has over you,” he murmured. “The high and mighty Rumpelstiltskin, brought down by a mere human woman. How quaint.” He inclined his head. “You have my vow, Dark One, for all the good it will do you. Mark my words, she may be your maidservant now, but without proper care, you’ll find yourself her slave.”
A year ago, Rumpelstiltskin would have balked at the idea that anyone could be his master, let alone mistress, but when spoken in the same breath as Belle’s name, he could feel nothing but a curious warmth.
“That may be true,” he agreed quietly, “but it is not so harsh a fate as you make it seem.” At Jareth’s surprised expression, Rumpelstiltskin let out his trademark laugh. “Someday, you too will find a woman with power over you, and you will find yourself her devoted slave. Perhaps one of the mortals you seem to fancy so much.Then you will understand.”
Jareth’s eyes glittered. “That day will never come,” he vowed.
Rumpelstiltskin barred his teeth in a macabre smile. “We shall see.”
Jareth considered him for a moment, but said nothing in reply. And then he stepped back, pocketed the vial, and raised his voice to address Belle. “It was a pleasure to meet you, my lady,” he said with a bow. “Fare you well, and mind yourself with this trickster. Perhaps we shall meet again.”
Belle gave a small smile, and dipped her head. “Fare you well, Fae King, but I think not.” She stepped up beside Rumpelstiltskin. “One trickster at a time is more than enough for me.”
Jareth grinned, then waved his hand. A clear crystal appeared, and with a twirl, he tossed it into the air and disappeared in a shower of glitter.
Belle whirled around to face Rumpelstiltskin, her bright eyes wide. “Who WAS that?” she demanded. “How did you meet? How did he get in here? What did you give him? You simply MUST tell me everything!”
Rumpelstiltskin waved away her questions. “Later, perhaps, dearie,” he replied. “Suffice it to say that he is an old…business acquaintance, you might say. We do things for one another on occasion. That potion, for example. He needs it to travel into the mortal world in his true form, otherwise he is confined to the shape of an owl.” He shrugged. “It’s easy enough for me to make, and he gives me interesting trinkets for it.” Hesitating, he turned and studied her face. “You are…unharmed, are you not?” he asked quietly. “Jareth is a tricky creature. He plays by his own rules, likes to trap people in webs of their own making, fool them with lies that sound like truth.”
Belle laughed lightly. “He sounds like someone else I know,” she remarked fondly. He opened his mouth to protest, but Belle placed a finger against his lips. “Oh hush, I’m fine. He did manage to cast that…what did you call it? That entrancing spell quite well.” Her eyes hardened slightly. “I shan’t be fooled by anything like that again, that’s for certain.”
~That’s my girl,~ he thought proudly, as she favored him with her smile.
“In any case, I am glad you came back. He was a…fascinating person, but I think I like things better when it’s just the two of us.” She placed a gentle hand on his arm. “Like I said, one trickster is enough for me, and I’m glad it’s you.”
His heart once again light, Rumpelstiltskin turned his head so she wouldn’t see the happiness in his eyes.
“Yes. Well.” He cleared his throat. “I know it’s a bit late, but I could do with some tea. Be a dearie and bring it to the Great Hall. I’ll be at my wheel.”
Belle squeezed his arm through the silk of his shirt. “Of course. I’ll be in directly.”
He strode out of the kitchen without glancing back, and he sat himself at the spinning wheel. But he found himself simply staring at a handful of straw, his mind unsettled.
~“Such power she has over you,”~ Jareth had mocked. ~”Without proper care, you’ll find yourself her slave.”~
Wasn’t he already? Wouldn’t he willingly do anything she asked, if only to see her smile?
Jareth was right about one thing. Love was a weakness he could ill afford…even if he would willingly submit to it. He had too many other plans, so much left to accomplish. He could not be distracted by a simple girl, no matter how lovely.
But as long as no one knew…as long as she never knew…what could be the harm in it? And he had felt a warmth at the Fae’s accusation. Belle was his. That was a fact. Why should he not be hers as well?
~That is weakness!~ the Dark One howled in his mind. ~We belong to no one!~
And yet, when Belle walked into the hall, a bright smile on her face and a chipped teacup in her hand, Rumpelstiltskin could only bow to the inevitable.
She was his and he was hers. Forever.
Not a bad fate. Not really. Forever, he knew, was never as long as it seemed.