Inuring, Chapter 1
Pairing: Rumplestiltskin/Belle (dubcon)
Summary: In exchange for the lives of her people, Belle traded her freedom, and her body, to the Dark One. Now there’s a chance she can escape her fate, but at what price? This is the sequel to Sacrifice.
A/N: This is my first multi-chapter story since 2001. Mild panic attacks are being had. If at any point this story looks like it’s going pear-shaped, let me know. Also, a special thanks to Accio-Firewhiskey for prompting the idea and for being a sounding board as I tried to plan this thing out!
Belle knows what it is to live with dread in her belly. For the three years of the war it had squeezed the breath from her lungs, had bubbled like acid in her throat. She was wrong when she thought that she had brought no mementos with her from her father’s house weeks ago: dread has found passage in her very marrow, it seems, and it thrums through her veins now on the back of a frisson of awareness. She knows without turning that she is no longer alone in the hall.
Afternoon? She glances at the window, but the heavy draperies over it offer nothing but a hazy red glow that could belong to any time between dawn and sunset. The same is true of all the windows in the castle. It is why she stopped trying to track time here long ago.
“Sir,” she says, without looking at him. She resumes her sweeping, though her shoulders remain hunched like a shield.
She hears the scuff of his boots against the stones, but to her surprise he makes no move to approach her. The silence between them grows heavier by the moment, until Belle is half tempted to wheel on him with her broom and shock him into either stating his business or skittering back to his den in the high tower, whichever will keep him away from her longer.
But just as she clenches her broom handle and starts to rock on her feet, Rumplestiltskin clears his throat and speaks.
“Your father is well.”
She looks over her shoulder, slowly. “I was not aware there was a reason for him to be otherwise.”
“He sent you this.” A long strip of parchment dangles between Rumplestiltskin’s pinched fingers. “I was simply relating his message to you.”
Belle’s heart flutters. She turns, takes a step forward. “I would like to read it myself.”
“I’m sure you would. But we can’t have that, dearie. Who knows what else is hidden between these lines?”
He waggles the paper, and her eyes follow it. In her periphery she is aware of his lips curling up, up into a little grin that makes her want to dig her nails into his face and tear it away until there’s nothing left but scraps of meat clinging to bone.
“If you truly thought that, you wouldn’t have told me about it in the first place.” She manages to keep her voice level despite the way her blood pops and hisses in her skull. “And what plan could my father possibly have? The lives of our people are bound to my confinement here.” She holds out her hand, palm up. “Let me have it. Please.”
She forces herself to bite out the last word. She knows by the little moue he makes that he is unconvinced.
“Maybe you’re right. But I think you can ask more nicely than that. Don’t you, dearie?”
She looks at the letter, filled from end to end with her father’s broad script, and longing stabs her hard enough to make her eyes sting. When she slides her gaze up to Rumplestiltskin’s face she finds no sympathy there. Just that slim, sharp smile that leaves no question of what the price of his kindness will be.
Belle leans her broom against the wall. She follows after it, palms pressed flat to the cold stones and her arms stretched out so that she’s arching over the wall. She ignores the sound of Rumplestiltskin’s footsteps bringing him closer, and focuses instead on breathing. In and out, in and out. It would be over soon enough.
His mottled fingers find the curve of her shoulder and sweep her hair back. His breath falls warm against the back of her neck. He brushes a kiss there, and her skin vibrates with his dark chuckle.
“Much better,” he purrs.
She reads the letter in her chambers that evening. There’s news of the war, now ended in her province but still raging elsewhere; a summary of prayers and well-wishes from her friends, including Gaston, who together with his father Lord Wells was preparing their troops to return to their own land; and words of hope and encouragement from her father, who promises that he will petition Rumplestiltskin for the chance to visit her in the spring, after the snow clears.
She rereads it twice, just to make sure that she’s understood everything. Then, she takes it to the fireplace and presses a single kiss to the page before feeding it to the flames.
As she watches it burn, she thinks that Rumplestiltskin would do well to pay more attention to his instincts.
Three years at war and a lifetime of politics have rendered her father a deft hand at cipher, and he in turn taught Belle to understand it. The cipher he uses now is one they crafted together, and Belle sees the places in his letter where he’d closed loops a hair too tightly, dotted “I”s a little off center, and allowed his quill to linger a half-second too long on the page. And while his overt message to her is comforting, the one woven beneath it makes her want to laugh and cry all at once.
Her father has a plan to bring her home, and they will enact it in the spring.
He leaves no further details. It is difficult to encode long messages with this particular cipher, Belle knows, but she also suspects the letter is a test: if she responds, then her father will know that he has found a secure way to communicate with her, and that their plan can move forward. But if she doesn’t respond…
It’s forever, dearie.
She strides over to the writing desk in the corner. Even as she collects ink, quill, and parchment, and starts writing out her inquiry to her father, carefully masked beneath mundane greetings and conversation, she is sure that his efforts will be futile. Her father means well, but she cannot leave this place. Still. At least he’s come up with something, some small hope to comfort the two of them to cling to, and she will not disappoint him with silence.
That night, sleep never comes. A hundred scenarios for her rescue march across her mind— some grand and glorious, others gruesome and tragic. When dawn arrives she springs from bed and prepares for her day in half the usual time, her actions sped by a nervous energy that only leaves her when she creeps into the hallway and begins to make her way to the roost in the East wing.
The halls are silent. Rumplestiltskin is seldom awake this early, preferring instead to work well into the wee hours and sleep until midafternoon. She chose to begin her day at first light shortly after making this discovery—anything to avoid him, even if early rising put her in a sour temper—and she hopes that her decision will further benefit her now.
Though she moves on kitten’s feet, in her ears her footsteps still echo like drumbeats. Her breath catches at every shadow and her heart trips up at the faint skittering of mice over the floor. She has walked this path countless times, but until this moment the way has never seemed so long.
The door to the roost groans open at her touch. Belle winces, partly from the sound as it crashes down the stairwell, and partly from the staggering odor of bird droppings that emanates from the open door. There was a reason she’d designated this as the one place in the castle she refused to clean.
She claps a hand over her mouth and nose to try and filter the stench as she slips inside and shuts the door behind her.
This early in the morning the room is an explosion of feathers and shrieking as the birds who live in the tower everyday begin to wake and shout greetings to their cousins now arriving from locales far and near, each of them bearing the message of a desperate soul with no one left to turn to. People like her father. People like her.
She presses herself against the wall, stares up into the mass of small, fluffy bodies, and tries to make sense of the chaos.
At last she spies a likely candidate for her needs: a thrush of some kind, its legs free of messages and its eyes watching her approach with a docility born of years of human interaction. It does not startle when Belle reaches out to lift it from its perch, and it seems happy to rest on her knee as she crouches, fishes her letter out of her dress, and starts to roll it around the bird’s leg.
“And what are we doing, dearie?”
Belle freezes and looks around. The writhing mass of birds offers enough breaks between its members for her to make out the hem of a coat, the laces of a boot, a flash of green-gold skin, and finally Rumplestiltskin himself as he rounds the roost and stops at her side. He smiles, but there’s nothing friendly in his eyes.
“I’m responding to my father’s letter,” she says. The bird pecks her hand, and Belle realizes that she has begun to squeeze it a touch too tightly. She lets it go, and it flutters back up to join its fellows.
Rumplestiltskin tuts at her and waggles an admonishing finger in the air. “Ah ah ah, let’s see that first, shall we?”
She sighs and hands him the letter. He smooths it out over his palm and begins to read its contents with a showman’s flair.
“Dear papa! I hope this letter finds you well. I am glad to hear that our soldiers are returning and that restoration work has begun, blah blah blah, send Gaston my sincerest regrets, blah blah blah, though my circumstances are much changed I will continue to persevere as you’ve taught me, blah blah blah, I would be delighted if you were able to come and see me in the spring, and I shall hope that my host allows you to do so. In the meantime, please keep me in your thoughts and prayers. Love, Belle.”
He shakes his head and fills his voice with hurt. “Why there’s hardly a mention of me at all! Surely you could’ve spared a few words about your charming host and his gracious hospitality.”
Belle doesn’t reward his mockery with a response.
He glances over the letter again. “And you could’ve added an extra line to save him some trouble—that little visit of his is never going to happen.”
He hands clench in her skirt. “I know that I cannot leave the castle, but I see no reason to prevent my family from coming to see me.”
His lip curls. “I’m not fond of company—or at least company that’s of no use to me.”
He gives her a salacious wink. She fights back a shudder.
“You really mean to keep me locked away.” It isn’t a question, because she already knows the answer.
“Having second thoughts about our deal, dearie? I’d be happy to send you back. After all, it’s not too late remind the ogre lords that there’s a lovely little province by the coast they overlooked when they set about turning Harold’s kingdom into a field of fire and blood. ”
Sadness flashes through her eyes, but she says nothing. He’s right, after all, and if he truly intends to keep her isolated in this place forever, then she doubts there is anything she can do to dissuade him.
His smile fades as he stares at her. He drums his nails against the wall for a moment. Then, he makes a strange little humming noise and a rook detaches itself from the flock of birds and flutters down to land obediently on his arm. With another twitch of his finger, her letter wraps itself securely around the bird’s leg, and Rumplestiltskin makes another noise that sends the bird launching from his arm and out the window.
“I’ll be sending these out for you from now on, dearie.” He says, still staring after the bird. “I’d hate to think that you were putting anything in your letters that might tarnish my good name.”
He grins at her, as though expecting to her laugh at his joke, but Belle just stares at him, eyes widened slightly.
“You’re allowing me to write home?”
He shrugs and waves dismissively. “If it keeps your nosy relatives away from my gates, I’ll tolerate it.”
“Thank you,” she says after a long moment, without looking at him. It’s the first time she’s used the words sincerely since she came here, and they emerge hesitant and sullen.
He’s quiet for a while. Then, “Yes. Well. It’s about time for breakfast, isn’t it, dearie? Best hurry. My good graces fail on an empty stomach.”
He exits the roost in a swirl of dragon hide, leaving Belle frowning at the door.
In the days that follow, Belle finds herself entering every encounter with Rumplestiltskin with a mix of cautious hope and anxiety. Though she never voices the question burning on her tongue, when her eyes flick to his, his lip quirks into a sardonic smile and he shakes his head. Not yet.
He could be lying to her. She has no way of knowing, for he reads his messages in his tower in the West wing, the one place besides his bedchamber that she is forbidden from entering. It wouldn’t surprise her if he keeps the letter tucked away in a drawer somewhere for days or weeks after it arrives, simply because he knows how badly she wants it.
But an afternoon finally arrives when, as she’s serving Rumplestiltskin his tea, he produces a little roll of paper from the depths of his coat and holds it out to her. “A little bird brought something for you.”
Belle looks from the letter to him and back again, then she yelps when she realizes that the tea she’s been pouring has started overflowing the cup.
Rumplestiltskin makes an amused sound and leans back in his chair. “You’re lucky you were born into wealth. Household service is not your strength.”
She doesn’t answer him, and instead she sets the teapot down and lifts the cup to blot its bottom carefully with her skirt. Rumplestiltskin takes the cup from her hand, making sure to trap her fingers beneath his own just long enough to make her uncomfortable.
“It’s all very boring,” he says, twirling the letter between the fingers of his free hand. “Hardly worth your time.”
“I have plenty of time to spare.”
He makes a noise of assent. “So you do.”
With that, he hands her the letter.
Belle blinks at it in wonder, then narrows her eyes at him in suspicion, but his expression offers nothing. She bobs her head, then turns to go.
“Ah ah, dearie! I didn’t say you were dismissed.”
Of course. There was always something else, with him. Dread churns in her gut as she stops and turns.
Rumplestiltskin gestures to a chair. “Since you’ve plenty of time to spare, you can spare a few moments of it in my company.”
She almost points out how often she’s been forced to endure his “company” since she came here. Instead she shifts on her feet and frowns at the chair. The table in the great hall had played host to her…arrival, and the sight of it still makes her uneasy. The idea of sitting at it, even more so.
“Unless you’d prefer we retire somewhere more comfortable later…?”
Belle sits down.
He watches her over the rim of his cup as he sips his tea. Belle tries her best to ignore him as she unfurls the letter over the tabletop and begins to read.
She skims over his surface message— more news of their land’s restoration and a few personal notes as well—then tries to read his hidden message as quickly as she can, so as to not arouse Rumplestiltskin’s suspicions. It seems her father has found someone who is sure they can help her escape without consequence. The catch? Belle can only be rescued if she makes it outside the castle.
She manages to keep the shock off her face, but it’s a near thing.
“Anything interesting?” Rumplestiltskin asks.
For a moment she’s sure that he’s realized something is amiss, but there’s a note of genuine interest beneath his casual tone.
Belle nods slowly as she rolls up the letter and sticks it into the pocket of her dress. “A dear friend of mine discovered that she’s with child. She’s expecting in the fall.”
“I imagine you’ll hear many such tidings soon enough. People tend to be…boisterous when celebrating victory.”
“I suppose,” she says, drawing out the words in the way of one who isn’t sure why they’ve been engaged in a conversation in the first place, “I’ve seen no other wars.”
“Ah, yes. Yours is a quiet little province, isn’t it?”
Silence crawls between them.
Finally, Rumplestiltskin sets his cup down and sighs.
“You’re dismissed,” he says sharply, flapping his hand towards the door. Belle doesn’t wait for him to change his mind.
She resumes her usual duties—cleaning, cooking, and the like—with a half-hearted effort. She can’t take her mind off of the message in her father’s letter.
Leave the castle? She’s forbidden from setting foot on the castle grounds; the doors to the outside won’t even open for her. How on earth could she reach the gates, further less set foot outside them?
And who in the realms was mad enough to risk Rumplestiltskin’s wrath by helping her escape?