"I tell you what," Rumplestiltskin said, his voice a soft purr as he looked up at this strange, otherworldly creature that was sitting on his table with an expression of earnest interest pointed in his direction. "I'll make you a deal."
The creature on his table sat up straighter and lightly smoothed her skirts. Her focus was still on him, but no longer on retrieving the answer to her query. No, now she gave all of her attention to what he had to say, to the offer forthcoming.
"Go to town, and fetch me some straw," Rumplestiltskin instructed softly. "When you return, I'll share my tale."
The offer, the parameters of the deal, clearly shocked the peculiar being that sat before him on his dining table. Bright blue eyes closed in confusion, a smooth brow furrowed, and lips stammered over not-words for a moment before -
"Town?" she questioned.
Rumplestiltskin nodded silently.
"Y-you trust me to come back?" she asked, shocked, stunned, and well she might be. She had been his captive for months by this point, and if she had learned nothing else about him – and she had in fact learned a great many small, inconsequential things about him – then she had learned that trust was not something he did easily or readily.
"Oh no," he assured her with a faint smile on his face. The same one that had been present from the moment he first offered the deal. "I expect I'll never see you again."
There was confusion on her pretty face. A little hurt, a measure of fear, but mostly confusion. Despite this, she hopped down from his table, then left to fetch and donned her cloak. Dressed for the walk into town, she collected an empty basket and a small pouch of gold. Just enough to buy the straw that would fill the basket she carried. So it was that when she walked out of his front door, it was as though she were only going to town.
Lightly burdened as she was, she would not be slowed down if she chose to run, instead of return.
"Sounds like a curse to me, and all curses can be broken. A kiss of True Love would do it. Oh child, I'm not suggesting a young woman to kiss a man who held her captive. What kind of a message is that? Besides, if he loves you, he would have let you go, and if he doesn't love you, then the kiss won't even work."
"That's a look of deep thinkin' my straw usually doesn't garner," commented the farmer-merchant that Belle had been directed to for the purchase of Rumplestiltskin's straw.
"Sorry, I've a lot on my mind," Belle confessed.
"About Himself up in the castle?" guessed the man.
Belle's head snapped up to look the man in the eye, no longer dodging his gaze by staring at the many bundles of straw.
"Don't look so surprised," he advised with a chuckle. "You're a new face in the area, and buying straw. It's not difficult to put the pieces together. Now then missy, let an old man make some guesses. He's had you a while, an' you're gettin' to be knowin' some of his ways. You're gettin' used ta him. I'd even wager you've started to see that he's a person under all those scary stories an' frightful face."
"Yes," Belle agreed, stunned that someone should say such things about the one known far and wide as The Dark One.
"Me great-great-gran knew Himself when she were a child, an' he were a normal man with a bum leg, a son, an' a reputation as the town coward. Himself became the Dark One in this village, took over the castle from a wicked Duke and ended the Ogres War three-hundred years ago, accordin' to the stories passed down in the family," the farmer-merchant explained. "We've allus known Himself was human in this village. Himself is a kind master to us, kinder than most, to hear the travelling merchants tell it."
"What do you mean?" Belle asked confused. "Kind?"
"Never lets a request, a plea, go unanswered," the old man said. "Not for a day. Sometimes the answer's 'no', but that's never been to our harm. Doesn't tax us hard, takes tithes in goods more than coin, and he's allus got time for children. Reckon he likes young ones better than he does grown ups."
Belle's brow furrowed as she thought that over, and her mouth pursed slightly as she tried to puzzle that out.
"Why?" she finally asked.
"Well you think it, what's a child ask for? Some food for their belly, a hug and a toy. Simple things enough. What do you suppose Himself gets asked for by adults all over?" the old man countered reasonably. "And then they go and grumble about the price, as though Himself didn't spin gold from my old straw, and should therefore give out his magic for simple coin, if they're not wantin' it completely free."
"I suppose that makes sense," Belle agreed slowly once she'd puzzled out the man's syntax. "I just... it feels sometimes as though there is an evil that has taken root in him."
"Well, he's the Dark One, ain't he?" the farmer pointed out. "According to great-great-gran, bein' the Dark One's a curse."
"It is a curse?" Belle questioned suddenly. "Definitely a curse? Does... does that mean it could be broken?"
"Oh, girl, don't be doin' that," the old man said, his tone wary and cautionary. "You got any idea how many people rely on Himself bein' the Dark One? This whole village depends on his reputation to keep it safe, an' all those folk who call on Himself when they're desperate. If he's not the Dark One, then he can't answer, can he?"
"This curse he's under, that's what gave him the power to save my village from the ogres?" Belle asked softly.
"That's how he got you eh? Well, then, there you have it. He's not an attractive sight, I grant ye, but Himself is what he is, and let me give you some advice I heard me mam give me sister once," the farmer-merchant offered.
Belle nodded, grateful for any advice. The day had been several kinds of confusing already.
"There's only two women in the world with any right to change a man: his mother is one, and his daughter is the other," the old man recited.
Belle frowned slightly in confusion.
"Not his wife or his sister?" she asked tentatively.
"Wifes, according to me mam, must love their husbands as they are, faults an' all, though some may do their best to change the circumstances their husbands find themselves in, so those faults have less cause to make appearances. Sisters, as mine would tell you, must simply endure, and occasionally mock, if the man's of a disposition to let her. Apparently brothers is hopeless," he added with a grin that spoke of mischief and being deliberately difficult right back at the sister he'd mentioned.
"... Thank you."
When she returned to the castle, Belle kept the spinning wheel between herself and Rumplestiltskin as she begged for her promised story, so that she could not be tempted to act without thought as she listened. She had come to care for him, a great deal in fact, but the straw merchant was right. It wasn't her place to try and change him.