Belle French traversed the roomy train corridor twice before finally accepting defeat. Her hopes of finding an empty compartment dashed, she reserved herself to the fact that the train was full. Unless she was prepared to awkwardly introduce herself to a new group of people or settle in with younger students, she’d have to amble back to the single compartment that wasn’t teeming with strangers.
The newest fourth year of Hogwarts retraced her search to the opposite end of the train until she, once again, found the compartment with only a single occupant. A lone young man of about her age was settled in the window seat watching the families on the platform say final goodbyes.
In an act of perfect politeness, Belle knocked on the door before sliding it open. Despite her warning, the young man startled at her sudden presence. As he swiftly glanced her way, Belle caught a glimpse of dark eyes before curtains of shaggy brown hair hid them.
"Sorry to bother you," Belle began earnestly. "But do you mind if I sit with you? Everywhere else is full."
The young boy turned his attention back to the window with a snort. "How unfortunate for you," he muttered.
Taking that as something less than a concrete no, the beauty deposited her owl cage and dropped into the seat across from him. Though she was trying her best not to stare, they were sharing a compartment and there was little else to look at this side of the window.
The boy had donned his school robes already, a blue patch on his chest indicating his house as what Belle believed to be Ravenclaw. At first glance the boy seemed to be from a wealthy family. However, the more she looked, the more Belle began to doubt that thought. His robes looked to be made of the finest material, yet they were dodgy and had obviously been patched a few times. Scruffy brown hair covered a gaunt face.
He had a hunted look about him as well. While outwardly his manner was calm and uninterested, an uneasiness seeped from him. As if he was tensed and waiting for her start yelling.
It was his voice which broke Belle from her revelries. "Are you sure you want to sit with me?" She noted that he hadn’t even turned to look at her as he spoke.
Shrugging, Belle shot the stranger a friendly smile. "I was late. I don't really have much of a choice. Everyone else seemed chummy and I really don't relish sitting with a group of younger kids."
His eyes flashed quickly back to her as a furrow appeared in his brow. "I didn't think you looked like a first year," he acknowledged, catching her by surprise. She hadn't expected such a quick turn of conversation.
"I'm not. I think this will be my fourth year at Hogwarts."
"Well," Belle said drawing out the word as she gathered herself for yet another explanation. "My father travels a lot for work. I spent a year at Ilvermorny in America and then I've spent the last three at Beauxbatons. This will be my first year at Hogwarts."
"Sounds like you don't get to stay anywhere too often," he observed not taking his eyes from the window.
"I don't. But I've informed father, that Hogwarts is my last school. I'll not change anymore."
A loud whistle interrupted them as the train lurched forward. A few minutes later their journey began. Belle found that she rather liked traveling by trains. It was far more comfortable than that airplane contraption her father had forced her on while in America.
Once more it was the young man who broke the silence first. "You don't know who I am?"
He asked with such innocent curiosity that she looked up at once and caught him staring at her. For the first time she got a good look at her companion's face. He was rather handsome in a non-traditional sense, with keen dark eyes that looked out at her from a furrowed brow. His face was all rough edges and sharp features, framed in a manner that provided him with a hint of danger. Yet there was something about him that seemed boyish and rather battered.
"Ummm, you haven't introduced yourself yet," Belle quipped easily.
That drew something close to an actual smile from the strange boy. Despite his attempts to be off-putting, Belle found that she was rather enjoying his company. In a low and even brogue that hinted at Scottish decent, he accented each word carefully. Providing weight and meaning to everything he said.
"How rude of me," the young man asserted playfully. "A proper gentleman always introduces himself." He flashed her a crooked smile that Belle discovered she rather liked.
Yet instead of answering, he continued staring at her in the oddly intent manner she was beginning to realize was common for him. "You still haven't told me your name," she pointed out doing her best to suppress a giggle at the affronted look he shot in return.
"Well I was always taught to never speak to strangers..."
They had each other's full attention now as the two players waded through their game.
"Sounds like you're avoiding to me," Belle implored. "But, if you're going to be difficult about it. My name is Belle. Belle French."
"That's a lovely name."
"I rather think so." A moment of quiet passed before she could take it no longer. "This is the part where you tell me your name. I'm not a stranger anymore and it's only fair."
Some emotion flashed across his face too quickly for Belle to catch of understand. "I'm afraid you'll laugh when you hear it."
Crossing her heart Belle implored, "I'd never do such a thing."
Gazing intently at Belle he took a deep breath. "Rumpelstiltskin."
"I beg your pardon," Belle asked confused.
"That's my name. Rumpelstiltskin."
He looked as if he was waiting for some horrible reaction, but Belle found she rather liked it. Certainly it was odd and quite long, yet it suited him. However, despite her earlier promise she couldn't help as smile began tugging at the corners of her mouth. He looked so worried and the taboo of her promise weighed heavily upon her. The drama of it all left her a bit flustered.
"That's quite the mouthful isn't it," Belle admitted doing all in her power to suppress a laugh.
Unfortunately Rumpelstiltskin noticed her struggle. Looking slightly betrayed he exclaimed, "you promised you wouldn't laugh!"
Belle could contain it no longer. Laughter bubbled up from within her and needed an escape. "It's not your name Rumpelstiltskin, I swear! It's that you're so worried. I was expecting something horrible."
"More horrible than that atrocity," he asked with a slight hint of bitterness.
"You could be named Mildred." The crooked almost smile returned at her teasing. Noting her success, Belle continued her list. "Or Leroy. Or something dodgy like Bilius."
"I suppose it could be worse," he admitted with a chuckle of his own.
"Do you have a nickname. Something everyone calls you."
This time there was no doubting the dark look that crossed Rumpelstiltskin's face. "I've many of those."
"Really like what?" Belle asked, hoping that she would find something else she could use. However, Rumpelstiltskin didn't answer. Instead he returned his attention to the landscape flying by outside the window. "What did your friends call you?"
"Does it look like I have many of those?" He snapped in return.
Belle wasn't sure what had happened, but all of the sudden their clever game had turned sour. Luckily, Rumpelstiltskin seemed to lament the loss as well because he shot her a repentant glance at her out of the corner of his eye.
"Some people call me Rumple," he relented quietly.
"Do you like that one?"
This time it was surprise that etched its way across his still expression. He gave Belle a curt nod as answer. "Then Rumple it is," Belle affirmed.
The two returned to easy conversation. Belle told stories about her time in America and in France and about the many places she'd seen.
With some coaxing and a lot of questions on her part, Belle slowly pulled the strange boy out of his shell. It turned out that Rumple was in the same year as her. When prompted, he explained each of the four houses and their core values to her. Providing far more detail than any book she'd found thus far.
Rumple was in Ravenclaw, he disclosed showing her his patch and tie. Secretly, Belle hoped that would be the house for her as well. People who valued knowledge and learning were the best type to be around. Then there was also the added bonus of her already knowing a member of said house. Whenever she ended up she hoped she wouldn't lose the new friend she'd just made.
"I thought Slytherin was supposed to be the bad house?" Belle asked as Rumpelstiltskin extolled its traits.
"I guess it depend on your perspective," the strange young man answered wisely. At her raised eyebrow, Rumpelstiltskin elaborated. "One of the qualities of Slytherin is an emphasis on who or what you're born. It's what gave Slytherin such a bad name. And until Voldemort it was a big deal. Not so much now. Things are different. So Slytherin is more about being cunning and ambitious, which doesn't have to be a bad thing. There’re bad people in every house and there's good people in every house. No Slytherin sees their house as a place for villains only."
"That takes off so much pressure," Belle revealed with a sigh. "I was kind of worried."
Fondness sparked his eyes as he chuckled at her relief. "Wherever you end up, it'll be a lucky house, Belle French."
Before she could even think of a reply their compartment door slid open to reveal a dashing older boy, with a badge pinned to his uniform. Rumpelstiltskin immediately tensed at the intruder’s presence. His expression hardened as his face fell into a blank mask.
"You Belle French," the boy asked in a deep voice. Rumple’s reaction worried Belle more than she wanted to let on. All she could do was provide the stranger with a curt nod.
"You're to follow me." Seeing that he hadn't convinced her, the boy divulged further, "I'm supposed to take you to speak with Mr. Clark. He'll give you information about where to go for sorting and all that."
Understanding dawned on Belle as she recalled her father’s reminder this morning about such a meeting. Feeling beyond silly she made to follow the newest stranger, giving a parting glance to Rumpelstiltskin. He remained tense and continued glaring at the boy who'd come to retrieve her.
Wanting to reassure her traveling companion she shot him a tight grin, "I guess I'll be right back. Don't get to carried away without me here okay Rumple."
For the barest moment a softness appeared in his eyes, only to be quickly swallowed up by darkness once more.
Belle followed her guide down the long corridor leaning to the lead car.
“I’m Gaston by the way,” the former stranger stated giving her a smile.
“Nice to meet you Gaston,” she replied. “I’m–”
“Belle,” he finished for her. “I know remember.”
Her cheeks reddened ever so slightly. In her confusion over Rumpelstiltskin’s hostility and her renewed nerves over being sorted as a fourth year, she’d forgotten that the young man beside her had been sent to retrieve her.
“Sorry, I forgot.”
“It’s no matter,” Gaston gave her the smallest of winks and a waggle of his eyebrows.
Belle rolled her eyes at that. She’d been on the receiving end of such implications for as long as she could remember. Her long curls and round face were apparently considered desirable to most of the men she came across. It was difficult to find one who didn’t flirt shamelessly.
As they walked in silence, Belle gave Gaston a quick once over. He was well-muscled and athletically built. With perfectly coifed dark hair, a square jaw, and bright eyes; she guessed that he was considered quite a catch himself.
It also seemed that silence wasn’t his preferred state. “So, you’re not a first year then?”
“No,” Belle answered graciously. Technically this will be my first year, but I’m fourteen.”
“Ah. That’s a year behind me. Do you know anyone in your year or others?”
“Well, there’s you now. Other than that, only Rumpelstiltskin.”
Gaston’s eyes flashed at the name of Belle’s travelling partner. A somber expression tore across his face as he waded carefully into a new conversation. “I feel like I should warn you about him.”
“Whatever for?” the beauty asked curiously.
Gaston stopped and turned to her as they reached the back of yet another car. “What do you know of Malcolm Gold?”
While the name did ring familiar, Belle couldn’t place it. “Who’s that?” she shrugged.
Gaston blanched at her response. “Who’s… nevermind. Have you ever heard of Voldemort?”
Now that one she knew. “Of course.”
“Malcolm Gold was a Death Eater, rather prominent one at that. He and his wife both helped You-Know-Who take down the Ministry. Course afterwards, when his wife was dead and he was a single father, ole Malcolm claimed to have been under the Imperius Curse. He greased the right palms and influenced the right people to keep himself out of trouble. Sold his bloody story and got to walk free.” Gaston looked around at this point, before taking a step closer to her and lowering his voice even further.
“That’s horrible,” Belle exclaimed.
Gaston nodded sagely. “Politics is politics. Never gonna change. After You-Know-Who was defeated, and Malcolm was a free man, weird things started happening. Nothing serious at first; just a few released war prisoners here, coupla dead muggles there. Nothing overly suspicious. Then about three years ago, right before I was in my third year, Gold made a move against the Ministry. Outed himself and his group of followers and Death Eater buddies as Supremacists. They care how pure your blood is as a wizard, but they want the muggles gone. Following some of Voldemort’s doctrine and Grindelwald’s as well. Nasty stuff they’ve been doin’.”
Belle couldn’t help but be interested in the story Gaston was spinning. It was horrible to imagine that so many people thought that way. But then people could be the worst sort of monsters. Yet she still hadn’t managed to connect how all of this pertained to Rumpelstiltskin.
“I’m sorry, I am interested, I really am. But what does this have to do with Rumple?”
“Rumpelstiltskin is Malcolm’s only son,” Gaston delivered his words with an almost practiced severity.
Belle’s jaw slackened at that reveal. Rumpelstiltskin hadn’t struck her as a dark wizard, but if he was the progeny of someone so horrible could he be anything else? His aversion to her and quiet affect made sense now. The resignation and horror of telling her his name, the quips about her misfortune of sitting with him. But he’d been so nice. Surely Gaston was mistaken.
Belle attempted reason. “That doesn’t mean that he’s like his father though.”
“You don’t grow up with all of that without it leaving a few marks, Belle. Trust me,” something in her expression must have shown Gaston that she wasn’t convinced, because he tried again. “There are quite a few students at this school whose parents were Death Eaters. Not a lot, but a few. Some of them are the slime of the earth, just like their parents. But most sort themselves out in time. I’ve known Rumpelstiltskin since he got here, he’s the bad sort. Up to his eyeballs in the Dark Arts and he won’t hesitate to utilize that knowledge. Won’t provide information on his dad to the Ministry either. They know Rumpelstiltskin knows more than he lets on.”
Belle wasn’t certain she believed much of what Gaston was saying. The parentage seemed true. Why else would Rumpelstiltskin be so averse to sharing personal information with her. But the shy, quiet boy would reassured her when she admitted her fears about sorting, couldn’t be as dark as all that.
Lost in contemplation, Belle barely heard as Gaston reiterated his past point. “Just fair warning and all. I’d hate to see you get hurt.”
Belle nodded her thanks and let him lead her to Mr. Clark’s compartment. The man she’d been so nervous about meeting a few minutes ago, could barely hold her attention now. What was she going to do about Rumpelstiltskin? She would have to face him at least once more after this. Should she give him the benefit of the doubt, or should she take Gaston’s warning to heart?
She hadn’t even made it to Hogwarts yet and things were far more complicated than she’d ever believed they could be.
Rumpelstiltskin watched Belle as she followed the great oaf out of the compartment. Well, he thought to himself, it was nice while it lasted. Belle had been a breath of fresh air and so easy to talk to. Pestering him with questions and life stories, until he'd finally given in and joined her conversation.
She was a bright spot to start the year off, likely the only he'd see. It was such a rarity to meet someone who didn't know who he was. Usually they found out quickly enough and it never ended well. He'd lived for so long in the shadow his father had created, he knew how people saw him.
Rumpelstiltskin tried to convince himself he was used to it by now. That when she returned with full knowledge of his lineage it wouldn't bother him. When she turned away from him, he wouldn't let it hurt. If nothing else, he was adept at pretending it didn't matter. Belle though, Belle's rejection would hurt. As many times as he repeated to himself that it wouldn’t, he knew the truth.
In their short time together, he'd experienced what it must be like to have a real friend. She'd burst into his life in a flash of brilliance and her light had brightened his day. If nothing else Rumpelstiltskin assured himself that he could cherish these moments. The moments before she began to hate him. It would happen anyway, it always did.
The sliding of the compartment door brought the lone young man back to himself. In a moment of proper idiocy, Rumpelstiltskin gazed longingly at the door, hoping it was Belle. Praying she didn’t hate him.
“Well, well, well,” the cocksure voice of Rumpelstiltskin’s nemesis called as the handsome young Slytherin waltzed in, his ever-present groupies following. “If it isn’t my favorite crocodile.”
Killian Jones flopped down beside him on the seat, causing Rumpelstiltskin to tense immediately. Dark hair styled in a perfect mess complimented steely eyes in a manner that, apparently, gave his fellow fourth year a roguish danger that no one could resist. With a wink at his mates, Jones threw an arm over Rumpelstiltskin’s shoulders. “How was your summer?”
Rumple refused to answer or even acknowledge that the group of six boys were in the same compartment as him.
“Looks like he’s feeling a bit shy,” Thomas Herman called from his spot leaning against the now closed door.
Thomas was a dashing fifth year Gryffindor who’d been dating the same girl since his second year. To most he seemed perfectly kind and polite, but Rumpelstiltskin knew better. The blonde hair and dimpled smile hid something much darker.
“Come on now Crocodile, don’t ignore me,” Jones lamented. “It’s no fun at all.”
When Rumpelstiltskin continued ignoring the boys, they got a bit restless. He knew this game well though, he couldn’t get pulled into their games. If he pretended they didn’t exist there was a chance they’d leave with nothing more than taunts. If he gave in, well he’d had enough run-ins with Killian’s crew to know it wouldn’t end well.
He and Jones had been enemies almost since the moment they met. But things certainly escalated in first year, after Malcolm decided he was tired of hiding behind the scenes and outed himself as a direct opposition to the Ministry. Jones’s friend group had grown in the years since, but the core seven remained the same.
Eric and Phillip Prince were Gryffindors like Thomas, but not nearly as bright. Between the two of them, they might have enough brain cells to outsmart a rock – but just barely. Both had dark brown hair, bright eyes, and square jaws. Phillip, who was starting his sixth year, was the slighter of the two but neither was lacking in muscle.
Then there were the Nolan brothers, David and James. They were the only fourth year twins, and identical at that. Both had short cropped blonde hair and startling blue eyes. The perfect picture of Prince Charming, the brothers were the darlings of Hogwarts. But their looks were about the only thing they had in common. James, like Jones, was a Slytherin while David was a Gryffindor. James was sly and shifty. Always on the lookout for number one. In contrast, David was the noble sort. Honorable and kind to almost everyone. Rumpelstiltskin found himself to be the exception to that rule. Though even he had to admit that David would call the others out for taking things too far.
Rounding out the group was William Smee, Jones’s right-hand man. The two were rarely seen apart, not even their own common room saw them break away from each other. Constantly doing the others bidding and acting as muscle when needed. Smee was a round boy with beady eyes and mousy brown hair that he kept covered by a hideous red toboggan.
“Proper manners usually dictate that you welcome guests,” James chimed in as he took the seat across from Rumpelstiltskin. The Nolan boy leaned forward in a manner that suggested a threat, the sharp kick he delivered to Rumple’s right ankle seemed to solidify that threat.
A hiss of pain slipped from the Ravenclaw’s lips as his bad ankle singed at the contact. Shooting a glare at his tormentor, common sense fled from Rumpelstiltskin. “Proper manner also dictate that you not look like the backside of an ass, and yet here you are.”
The smirk fell from James’s face as thinly veiled rage took its place. “Those clever little comments of yours are going to get you in trouble this year Gold,” James growled.
“I’m terrified,” Rumpelstiltskin quipped with a roll of his eyes.
“Let’s not get carried away just yet,” Jones interjected, giving James a cautioning look. “We just wanted to check up on our friend. You know, make sure you’ve been doing all right.”
“Go away Jones.”
Killian gave his shoulder a squeeze as he leaned over to whisper in Rumpelstiltskin’s ear. “You know I can’t do that. I’ve actually heard that you’ve met someone. Word on the train is, she’s quite the beauty.”
The blood drained from Rumpelstiltskin’s face at Jones’s words. “The other compartments were full. She got the short end of the stick.”
“Yeah and you got lucky Crocodile,” Jones replied easily. But something about his tone sent a chill up Rumpelstiltskin’s spine.
For the first time he turned to face his tormentor. “I did, but she knows who I am. If she didn’t, she certainly does now.”
Jones leaned in until their faces were centimeters apart, both refusing to back down. “Good. Because we wouldn’t want you hurting one of the other students again now would we. Leave her alone. She deserves better than having you ruin her reputation before she ever sets foot in the castle.”
Feeling his temper flare, Rumpelstiltskin’s voice grew dangerously quiet as he glowered at the boy next to him. “Belle can do whatever she likes.”
“Belle?” Thomas implored. “So, we’re on first name basis then.” It hadn’t been a question.
Rumpelstiltskin grabbed the cane he had left leaning against the window and stood. “I’ll leave you to your assumptions.” Gripping the handle that concealed his wand tightly, he tried to walk away. He made it less than two steps before strong hands grabbed his arms and slung him back around. Phillip grabbed him roughly and shoved him into Eric. They each took an arm and twisted them painfully behind his back. His cane clattered uselessly to the floor and rolled under the bench seat.
Struggling wouldn’t help him now. Even if by some miracle he broke free of Phillip and Eric’s grip, his bad ankle wouldn’t support him. Rumpelstiltskin knew this routine well.
Jones stood in front of him with James right beside him. “I think over the summer you’ve forgotten your place around here. You and your father can take your supremacist shite and shove it. We can’t have you spreading your agenda and lies around to new students, now can we?”
“Let. Me. Go.” Rumple snarled.
He received a blow to the stomach in response. Long years of practice didn’t mean it hurt any less.
“Leave the new girl, and everyone else for that matter, alone. Understood?” Jones commanded.
“Go to hell,” was the only comeback Rumpelstiltskin could think of as he stood at the mercy of his long-time tormentors.
Ten minutes, a bruised rib cage, bloody lip, and a now aching ankle later and Rumpelstiltskin was alone once more. Picking himself up from the floor of the compartment, the lonely young man dusted himself off and sunk back into his seat. It was going to be a long year.
Before he could contemplate that further, Belle breezed back into his life. One look at her told him all he needed to know. She’d been warned about him. Someone had told her all about Malcolm Gold’s son and now she hated him. She had only come back to gather her things and then run away.
Yet it wasn’t hate that filled her eyes when she looked at him. Instead concern filled her every feature. Walking over she leaned down and put a gentle hand on his cheek. “What happened?” she asked quietly.
It took a moment for Rumpelstiltskin to realize that she was asking about the bruises that must have formed on his face. “S’nothing,” he assured her.
“Doesn’t look like nothing,” Belle persisted as she gently removed her hand.
“It’s not important. What was that all about.”
While she didn’t seem happy about the change in conversation, she did allow it. “Sorting and everything. I have to ride the boats to the castle and wait with the first years.”
Belle continued talking with him as if it were the most natural thing in the world. As if it were as easy as breathing. Rumpelstiltskin wasn’t certain what he’d done to deserve her company for this train ride. But he was ridiculously grateful for the brief comradery.
He couldn’t know that as he praised his good luck, Belle firmly decided that the boy sitting across from her was in desperate need of a friend. Despite all the warnings and rumors she’d heard so far, she was going to give Rumpelstiltskin a chance.