He’d said it. She’d left. No, she’d started to leave, then she came back and was all… her, all strong and stubborn and her. And she called him a coward. And then she left, and he was alone.
Rumpelstiltskin walked through the deserted halls of his castle, through the corridors sliced by the light of dawn. He had grown accustomed to the sound of her footsteps on the stairs, the flurry of her skirts, even the way she swore at the dust when she thought he couldn’t hear her.
He could almost hear her now.
He could hear her now!
“Rumpelstiltskin!” Belle exclaimed, whirling on him as he stalked into his spinning room. She was standing there, exactly as she had looked less than half an hour before, her hands on her hips, and she looked at him furiously. “You did this!”
He eyed her warily, too startled to find her back to be angry, and too angry with himself for being so pleased. “You were leaving, dearie. I didn’t ask you to return.”
She stormed towards him and jabbed him in the chest with her finger. “You stood there and let me walk out, and there I was, thinking you were going to be decent about it, and then you magic me back? What kind of low trick is that?”
He swatted her hand away, baring his teeth. “What makes you think I want you back?” he hissed.
She snorted in that unladylike way of hers and folded her arms over her chest. “I was at the walls,” she said. “I walked through the gates, and now I’m here. Are you telling me that I walked two miles and then just decided to magically stop by here, just for fun?”
He stared at her. Her frown faded as she stared back at him.
“You… didn’t summon me back?”
He shook his head slowly. “Don’t look at me, dearie,” he said, raising his hands.
She threw her hands up. “So what did, then?” she demanded. “I don’t think there’s anyone out there who would enchant me to stay in the castle with someone I love, when he’s an absolute imbecile and wants to pretend I mean as much to him as a boiled egg.”
“Ah-ah!” Rumpelstiltskin wagged a finger. “You chose to leave!”
“Yes!” she retorted. “After you told me to! Don’t you dare make this about you! You’re the one who accused me of being a liar and betraying you! You’re…” She pressed her hands to her temples then threw them wide again. “I don’t know what you are, but I know you’re driving me crazy!”
He folded his arms over his chest in defence. “You can leave,” he said, more quietly this time. “I won’t hold you back.”
She grabbed the front of his shirt. For a moment, she looked as if she couldn’t decide between kissing him again or shaking him. She dragged her hands back and turned and stalked away, slamming the door behind her.
He remained there, swaying on the spot for several minutes. If only she had just gone, the first time, he wouldn’t have had to doubt himself, second-guess whether it was all lies or a trick. The fury and frustration in her expression was genuine, he had no doubt of that.
He made his way to the wheel, stiff-legged, and sat. To spin would resolve things. It cleared his head. Even though his fingers were trembling, he started to turn the wheel, and he could almost twist the fresh straw into familiar gold. Almost. It wasn’t a smooth enough motion, or steady enough hands.
Less than half an hour later, someone swatted him sharply across the back of the head.
He spun up onto his feet, baring his teeth, only to see Belle standing there, less than an arm’s length away. Her arms were folded, and she was glaring at him. Her dress was muddy at the hem, her hair wind-swept and bedraggled.
“Won’t hold me back?” she snapped.
Rumpelstiltskin stared at her. “What are you doing here?”
“Again,” she growled. “You forgot the ‘again’.”
He shied back a step from her wrath. “I don’t understand.”
“You and me both,” she said, stepping closer. “If this is your way of telling me you want me to stay, it’s not funny.”
He blinked helplessly at her. It wasn’t making any sense at all. In his house, his rules applied. He told someone to do something, they did. He told them to bury themselves in the rose garden, they did it. He told them to leave, they left.
Except, apparently, Belle.
And from the look on her face, this was not amusing irony.
“I want an explanation.”
Rumpelstiltskin fiddled with the piece of straw he was holding. “I don’t know,” he said in a small voice.
She exhaled her breath in a noisy rush and brought both hands up to rub her eyes. “I spent last night in a dungeon,” she said, her voice low and steady and struggling to stay calm, “because I was trying to do the right thing. Yesterday, I could have left, when the option was there. But today? When I want to? I can’t.” She lowered her hands and glared at him again. He couldn’t help noticing her eyes were bloodshot and red-rimmed. “And now, you’re telling me you’re totally innocent?”
The straw in his hand was twisted into a knot. “I didn’t make you stay,” he said to his feet.
She glowered at him, then stamped over to his chair and threw herself down in it. Only then did the energy seem to drain out of her.
“Why did you want me here?” she asked quietly, sadly.
He looked down at the straw knot, then back at her. He had never truly answered that question, the first time she asked, and now, when she asked again, he knew he didn’t need to answer. She got it right the first time: he was lonely.
He twisted the straw a little more, then ventured a little closer to the table to set the tiny straw man down on the surface, balancing it between his fingertips. She was looking at him with tired expectation, and he had no answers he could give her.
“Rumpelstiltskin,” she said.
“I wouldn’t imprison you here against your will, dearie,” he said quietly, removing his fingers slowly to leave the tiny figure standing on its own. “I thought you knew me well enough to know that.” He looked at her, then stepped back from the table.
“I thought I did,” she said quietly.
His chest felt as if it tightened around his heart. “Belle…”
She rose, silencing him with a gesture. “Don’t,” she said wearily. “Don’t say my name like that, as if you have a right to it.” She rubbed her forehead with her hand. “I need to rest. I’m tired.”
He nodded, lowering his head. “Your room is still there.”
Her eyes were on him, he could practically feel them searing into him. “Which one?” she asked, and it was like a physical blow.
His hands moved awkwardly , halfway towards clasping them together, then they dropped back, one of them tapping uncertainly at the back of the ornate chair. “Your real room,” he said quietly.
He didn’t dare to look up until he heard the doors close behind her.