Every day was the same for Yusaku: get up. Iron out the crick in his neck. Stretch. Stumble out of the house and gather water from the well. And then do all the other tedious, mind-numbing tasks that would keep him alive for the day. Then, if there was enough time before the sun set, maybe he would check the grain in the cellar, think over what he would need to do before winter struck and the mice attempted to fatten themselves on the kernels of corn he would carefully tuck away.
He rarely if ever stopped to appreciate the fruit of his labour. As long as it was there, in soft, folding dunes of gold, he was content.
Sometimes though…sometimes, just when evening began to fall and the shadows would stretch out and fall from the beams of wood that supported the roof, he thought he saw a glint of gold from the corner of his eye. Faint, shimmering strands of spider silk, that shone with a colour not found in nature. Idle thread that spun and travelled through the air like smoke lifting itself free of an incense stick.
Perhaps it was the fey folk playing tricks. Or else a more powerful than usual ghost, haunting a thousand year old grave, long since lost beneath Yusaku's fields.
Yusaku didn't care unless it was trying to hurt him or someone else and so he let it whirl through the air. Besides; he could have just been going mad.
It was only a month after he began that one day, after wandering to the well that he saw gold yet again. In two eyes, wide like the lights that danced in the night as fireflies or perhaps even the lanterns of the fey folk...and they stared up out of him, from an imp, jet black with purple veins crawling through its shape. One that was nestled up inside his bucket.
Yusaku was tempted, just for a moment, to let it drop back down into the dark. But it wasn't in him to be cruel for no reason, so after a moment he picked up the bucket more firmly and started it lugging it back home.
The imp flailed. 'Oi! What's this? Help! I'm being kidnapped!' It – although the voice sure sounded male – wailed, and thumped against the side of the bucket as though unable to fully control itself, causing a wave of water to slosh over the side and dapple the ground with moist dark patches.
This, more than anything, caused Yusaku to halt and stare down at his now almost-full bucket in annoyance. 'Then get out,' he told the imp curtly.
The imp glared back up at him. 'What are you, stupid? I can't! It's against the rules! You saw me!' He wrapped his arms around himself protectively, as though to shield some of his body from sight; though that didn't, Yusaku noted dully, prevent him from then curving his body in a stupidly provocative manner, as though attempting to invite Yusaku's gaze there in the first place. 'And that means I can't leave until…' He glanced up Yusaku slyly. And then proceeded to wilt, much like a limp daisy, as the seconds ticked by, Yusaku's mouth remaining a silent and uninviting line.
'You're so dull! Why'd I have to get stuck with a stupid mortal who never learnt how to use his tongue-OW!'
Yusaku, patience now firmly at an end had began walking again, letting the bucket swing down against his chest perhaps a little firmer than necessary.
'Guess you'll have to stay a hostage then,' he muttered. And ignored any and all outraged shrieking this reply prompted.
The imp was a nosy chatterbox. He asked Yusaku if he ever got bored out here, alone, and what he planned to do in the future.
'None of your concern,' Yusaku told him. And was rewarded with a glare and two clenched fists.
Still though. Time moved by faster when someone else was there with you, infecting the air with words, and yet more words, enough of them that Yusaku felt the resulting noise fall over him like a spell; a spell that caused the sun to set faster, to plunge beyond the darkened line of the horizon with all the unceremonious roll of an apple.
And then it was night. Bed. All with the imp watching him from within the bucket, eyes glowing with a sulky gold. Yusaku fell into his dreams with the colour following him, chasing him down, lying thin threads of shining light on his mind, a fishermen net that cloaked a dark shape that twisted and turned, on the very edge of becoming a nightmare- Yusaku awoke.
The threads of light were no longer in his mind; no, they danced through the air. No longer caught in the corner of his eye, they wavered and fell, tracing a thousand paths over the table, the bed, trailing just over, and not quite falling upon, his bare skin. Cautiously, Yusaku moved. The threads did too, backing away the shape of his careful hands, his wavering chest, as though to leave an outline around him.
There was noisy humming emerging from the cellar. And so Yusaku followed it, the threads parting from him, quickly rearranging themselves into layers, like the lines that decorated the inside of a tree; and Yusaku travelled past them, all the way into a cellar than should have been filled with corn. Should, but wasn't.
A shape was there, a human shape, though there was something wrong with the eyes, the black hole of the pupils too sharp to be human, the gold that held them brightening with a light fiercer than the flame of a candle. And the ends of that hair were outlined with the quicker shimmering colour of the golden threads that the being spun from his hands; he held them out, let Yusaku's corn fall into his palms as he dipped and pulled them free from the piles Yusaku had created out of them. And then his fingers parted, because a sieve, and the corn fell, no, it shattered, unravelled as though made of something softer than leaves as they bounced against the floor, cracked open and –
The shells rolled away, round and round until they eroded into coins, actual gold coins. Yusaku stared down at the sizable pile that had gathered at the stranger's feet and the stranger laughed at the look on his face.
'I never said I wouldn't pay my rent, Yusaku.' He grinned. 'See? I earn my keep? With spells and songs, so much so, that I think I deserve a little reward, hmm?' He leant forward as though the thought had just occurred to him. 'Ah! I know?' He grinned wide and low and Yusaku felt something creep into his stomach at the sight; a chill, a warning, an age old instinct that said 'don't trust the fey folk.'
'Give me a name,' the fairy – for what else could he have been – purred. Sang. Maybe whispered. All at once.
But once that confusing clash of impossible syllables, shouted and sung and muttered all at the same time, threes tongues, one voice, faded, stopped making Yusaku's head hurt - Yusaku took one long look into those devastating eyes and let out a harsh 'no.'
'But why noooooot?'
The wail was annoying. Infectious. It filled the house. Minute by minute, even as the sun rolled back into the sky and the fairy shrank back into a small black annoyance, he would continue to pester Yusaku. And on one memorable occasion even threw a coin at his shin.
Though given what else he could no doubt do, Yusaku supposed he should be grateful.
'One,' he said harshly, holding up a finger. 'You took something that wasn't yours, without permission and changed it into something else. It wasn't a favour I ever asked for. Two'- and up jumped the second finger. 'You clearly want something in return. And won't explain it in a way that will allow me to understand the ramifications of granting you your favour until it's no doubt too late to take it back. And three-' he turned, staring at the fairy, long and hard. 'You should already have a name. All fey folk do. And you never give those away, except to those you trust. I can't simply give you a new name, unless something happened to your old one. Or you're trying to rename yourself.'
But that would be foolish, Yusaku thought. Much like gods, the fey folk were shaped by their names, changed by them even – to bestow a new name upon a creature like this, with its blessing no less, could change the very essence of both who and what they were.
The imp glared at him. 'Fine! See if I ever give you any more gold!'
Yusaku frowned. 'I never asked for any.'
The imp turned to the side, arms crossed. 'Doesn't mean you won't need it one day,' he muttered, before sinking back inside the bucket into a sulk.
Turned out the fairy lied. He continued to spin gold for him that very night. Humming, fingers moving across the corn, coins rolling smoothly into a pile on the floor, he continued his weird spell. And Yusaku often woke up to watch him, chin resting in his hands as gold threads flung themslves through the air. Not a word passed from him to the fairy, though the fairy often threw more than a few his way.
Honestly, Yusaku should have known better. He should have stopped this. All his hard work being transformed into useless metal, metal that he would never need, because this place was his refugee and the city was-
Yusaku frowned, irritated at the thought, and the fairy watched him, eyes narrowed into pinpricks of gold.
'Remember anything?' he asked.
Yusaku shook his head annoyed.
The fairy sniffed. 'Of course not. You're human. And whether from the threat or thrall of gold and the riches it offers, your kind always bargins above your means.' He offers Yusaku a sly grin. 'Just as your mother did.'
Yusaku raised a brow. 'Oh? So you didn't happen to end up fished out of the well by my bucket by accident then?'
The fairy pouts. 'You don't seem very surprised...'
'I figured this was part of some game to you,' Yusaku said, wading his way through the pile of the gold to the fairy's side – and watching the way the fairy's lip started to curl, his eyes narrowing into something angry as Yusaku's shadow fell over his face. 'Whether I can't remember because of a spell you cast or whether it was my own fault; I don't care. Just as long as no one ends up hurt.'
The fairy flinched at that. Looked away a moment. And then he surged up, onto his feet in a rush of black and gold and pale, pale skin. And then those colours came forward, practially burst against Yusaku's face in a rush of speed.
'Your heart,' he murmured, greed written in every line of his face. 'Your stupid, wistful heart - it isn't like your mother's at all. Her's was silver and tricky. But yours is the real deal. Like gold. Because you care. And you do not ask for my gold, even though others would.'
And then his mouth, his sly hot mouth was on Yusaku's, nibbling at his lips. Yusaku flailed for a moment. But just for a moment. And then he decided to play the fairy at his own game, wrapping his arms back round that lithe, strong back. And with a grimace, he held on. For there was warmth against his face, a soft flow of heat that rippled over his skin; probably magic. And then the fairy reared back, as though surprised by Yuskau's grip. He shivered into something balck and many-limbed, his gold eyes melting into one large brusing glare form a single eye, digging into Yusaku's gaze as jaws started to form, roaring in his face.
Ah, Yuskau thought, and like a gift, a memory spun free, a whispered tale of how holding onto a creature of magic, despite the flicker in its shape, would enable you to ask a favour of it. That, more than anything, proved this creature had taken his memories from him as only now, on the verge of claiming some element of power back, could Yusaku remember things more clearly. A woman crying, a hand on her neck, something about a broken promise-
'The bargain is struck,' the creature before him had said, single eye narrowed in malice and glee, and suddenly, with an uncanny bolt of knowledge, Yusaku realised he was about to break his part of the deal.
He let go instantly, the knowledge vanishing within seconds as the fairy leapt back from him, fury caught on his features as he shivered back into human shape.
For a moment the two of them glared at each other. Yusaku's fists were clenched, curled, and with a slight feeling of shock, he realised the fairy's were as well. How human, he couldn't help but think.
'Are you an idiot?' the fairy bit out, voice lowered into something dark and furious, that bubbled into the beginning of an unleashed temper. 'I planted one on you, with no warning! Your first kiss! You should have fought back! Your mother would have! You could have broken-' and then he cut himself off, eyes glimmering with an anger that seared.
Yusaku thought about it for a moment. And carefully resisted the urge to brush his hand over his lips. 'It wasn't terrible,' he said. 'And I'm not going to let you provoke me into hurting you.' He raises a brow. 'Because that would mean I lose whatever game you're playing here, right?'
The fairy scowled. Went back to weaving his spell with a mutter and a curse. And refused to look Yusaku in the eye for the rest of the night.
'Why do you live here?' the imp asked the next morning, from his favourite position of the bucket.
'It's quiet,' Yusaku said after a moment. 'There are no people here. In the city I would make them nervous. I don't always manage to respond to them the way they or I would like.'
The imp tutted. 'Only because you can't practise talking to anyone out here. Still,' - and here the imp lifted a hand, brandished it into a bow. 'You have me now.'
'I don't think you've a good judge of what should pass for a normal conversation,' Yusaku muttered. Though he felt a smile touch his lips as the imp roared in protest.
'Alright,' said the imp finally in a huff. 'How did you end up living here?'
Yusaku froze at that. He stared off into the distance, brow furrowed. But no matter how he tried, no image came soaring into his mind, no hazy recollection of sound or colour. His memory was completely blank.
'Does it matter?' he asked, finally. 'It works. No one gets hurt this way.'
The imp surprisingly enough said nothing in return. And yet, seeing the way his gaze lowered, those golden eyes narrowing into a glare at the floor outside the bucket, Yusaku imagined something close to regret was passing through those features.
That night, their third one together, Yusaku watched the last of the corn flutter out into coins. And then the fairy rose to his feet, grand cape unfurling in the dark.
'I've given you enough gold to buy back a life,' he said quietly. 'Even for a king; which means I've completed my side of the deal.' He shrugged, smiling helplessly. 'Even if, as always, you and your linege haven't held true to their side.'
And then the darkness reached out with one dark sprawling hand – and the fairy began to fade away. Or so it seemed to Yusaku who blinked and straightened in surprise. But still. It was happening. The lines of wood, of beams in the cellar, were beginning to push through the fairy's chameleon shape. And soon there would be no fairy at all, not in the space he had been standing in.
Yusaku couldn't let that go. And so he crossed over to the fairy in three strong steps, mind clearing for one sharp instant, letting some memories spill through; perhaps because the fairy was finally freeing him from their bargin and whatever spell that kept him locked away from the rest of the world was fading.
'My mother gave me a name from a strange land,' he muttered, fingers stroking over the space where the fairy's chin had been. ' A strange land that gave birth to the messenger who revealed your true name to her; so it seems fair to give you a new one from it. That way no one will be able to easily guess or imprison you with it again.' He leant forward, feeling half-caught in a spell. 'Your name is Ai,' he muttered against a mouth fast fading, a mouth that was no longer there. 'And hopefully it will be one that you won't use to hurt other people with.'
Ai gave him one wild look. And then sank back into the stone walls, the lines of them bursting through his quickly fading shape.
Yusaku leant back. Let a hand rise to his lips. And remembered.
There was no imp to greet him in the bucket that morning. Instead, Yusaku spent the rest of that slow-moving, silent time pulling all the money the fairy - no, Ai- had crafted for him into a large sack, before thrusting it over his shoulder. And with one last glance around that empty cottage, he stepped outside.
He had no idea where he was going. But that last smile the fairy had given him seemed so sad. Like he was hurting, the same way Yusaku's chest now was. And Yusaku had never been very good at letting pain linger without trying to clear it away.
Still. The baragin was done. Ai had no reason to stick around. And so on and on he stomped. Down paths that pulled at his memory, over a stream he now remembered laughing in when he was a child, his mother smiling at him from the bank-
'Leave,' the wind sung. 'You won your prize. Now leave.'
Yusaku walked. Past a crumbling tower, a lone spinning wheel trapped in its eroded maw. Stray tuffs of straw dotted the floor and Yusaku stared at them, at the flickers of gold they produced as the sun shone down onto the ratty floor.
This is where my mother sat, he thought numbly. It was starting to come back, the whispered mutters of the people at his father's court, the questions: 'why can she no longer spin straw into gold? Why not?'
Because she broke her promise to a fairy, Yusaku thought numbly, and continued on.
Yusaku walked into the city he remembered from his childhood. Past people who stared, who tried to cover their mouths with their hands. He walked and walked, all the way into the palace. Up to a king with eyes that gleamed for gold, all in the same mean shade of green Yusaku had inherited from him.
So Yusaku didn't waste time with words. He had already wasted them all, weeks back, when he had demanded his mother's freedom and the king - his father - had sneered and told him to be his 'mother's son.'
'And find a way to spin gold out of nothing,' he had snarled. 'And then we'll see.'
So now, glaring into those mean green eyes, Yusaku kicked the bag over, letting the fountain of gold spill to the floor.
The king leaned forward eagerly in its wake, his green eyes lapping up the shimmer and shine of the money as it rattled and rolled over to his feet. And as the last chink of the final coin fell away, his hands griped the arms of his throne with a savagery Yusaku still remembered tearing into the neck of his mother, weeks back, as he chocked the story out of her, of the supernatural helper that had spun straw into gold to support her father's impossible boast to the king – and prevent her head rolling off her shoulders should she have failed.
What an idiot, Yusaku thought contemptuously. As if a human would ever transmute anything into gold. And yet you locked a woman into a tower filled with straw and told her to do it anyway because of a lie my grandfather told?
He closed his eyes. He remembered stumbling to the crumbled tower after his mother's lies had been unveiled, remembered scattering stones into the pattern of a fairy ring the way the court wizard had shown him. Remembered breathing out the fairy's original name into the night air and seeing black limbs spread out of the shadows, a single golden eye, more gruesome than a dragon's singling him out in the dark.
'For three nights,' the fairy had sung to him, octopus-like limbs weaving round his own. 'For three nights she sat on her hinny and did nothing while I slaved away for her! And all she had to do was give me her firstborn!' That golden eye had torn through Yusaku ruthlessly. 'And even when she wailed and held you to her breast, I was nice enough to give her another chance! Three nights to wrestle my true name from me! And she did, she did! And yet here you come crawling back, begging me to give your family yet more gold!'
'If it will save her life,' Yusaku had said, fighting back the fear. 'And stop more people getting hurt, then what choice to I have but to come here back to you?'
A bargain had been struck. The fairy would spin whatever amount of corn Yusaku could gather into gold without any memories to help him remember why he needed to do so, to see if he was willing to work without the promise of a reward hanging over his head. And in return...
'Give me a new name!' the fairy had hissed. 'A name that won't be torn from me again!'
So Yusaku had fulfilled his promise. And he had managed not to cheat the fairy the way his mother had done.
But now...his father, eyes alight with greed was already spewing commands, wanting more, holding his mother's life to ransom again and Yusaku stared at him, arms crossed. Strangely, he didn't feel afraid. He would look for Ai as many times as he needed, bargain with whatever he had, just so long as no one got-
The king froze. His mouth opened. And shut. And then his tongue waggled out in a long, snake-like flick of gold, hitting against the back of his teeth like the gong of a bell.
And in the wake of this sound, as though it had been a summoning spell, Ai stepped out of the shadows, gold threads already sizzling through the air to snag on the arms of the guards who drew their swords - and immediately froze, trapped in their spider-like grip.
Ai smiled at them, at their frightened faces slowly - but there was nothing nice about it. He shook out a hand and more threads wove throught the air, curling round the swords and blunting their edges. His fingers curled into a fist and then the threads tightened round the blades in a series of noose-like knots, before shearing through the metal completely. The divided blades dropped from their empty hilts, and as they did so, their mirror-like colour flashed into a bright, flame-like spread of colour - and by the time they hit the floor they had become solid bars of gold.
'Go,' said Ai with a sneer. 'It's all you humans want, isn't it? Gold? Use it to feed your families or whatever else you do with it. But don't darken Yusaku's door again. There's a new guard here. And I take a different sort of payment than you lot do.'
His eyes lingered meaningfully on Yusaku. And the guards fell to the floor, gathered all their gold they could, anything to avert their gazes. No one came between a fairy and their prize, not unless they were pure of heart and had something they were willing to bargain for in exchange. And the gold in their hands was something no one was willing to throw away, not even for the life of a prince.
Ai grinned and leant down, right into the face of the terrified king.
'You know, your son has a heart of gold,' he said meaningfully. 'I can sense it. But it seems a great pity, that no part of you, not your soul, nor you ugly face, can hope to be its match.' He sniggered, watching the flail of gold inside the king's mouth as he opened his jaws to speak. 'Well. Not until now, at least.' He tilted his head to one side. 'Might be hard to give out any more orders to execute anyone with it though,' he mused thoughtfully.
Yusaku watched the panic on his father's face. It occured to him that he could put an end to that; that he might make another bargain with Ai to free him.
...But then he would have to live with the possibility of having his mother used against him again and again. Forever. And Ai was right. Like this, his father could no longer hurt anyone. He could probably even still down food and water, provided the food was mushed up for him first.
It wasn't a death sentence, no.
It was a life sentence. And one Yusaku thought rather fitting.
Later than night, Ai sulked. 'Praise me more! I made you a king, didn't I! Or at least you will be soon...your father can't give anymore orders...and I didn't kill him! So you can't be mad at me for that!'
Yusaku looked at him and his ridiculous pout. 'Ai,' he said softly.
And all at once it was like a spell had been cast. Now all smiles and soft looks, Ai cast himself down on Yusaku's lap, nuzzling into his leg.
Yusaku supposed he shouldn't be surprised. In that faraway land, he knew 'Ai' meant a few things. One of them 'love.' How that was going to remodel Ai and the sort of fairy he would form was quickly becoming obvious.
On the other hand, his personality still seemed relatively intact. At the very least, Yusaku thought that maybe he wouldn't be going around trying to bargain unwed women into giving their first born to him anymore. No, that was something 'Rumplestiltskin' had done, and being 'Ai' was a chance to step away from that, to weave a new legend around himself. But even so...
'Are you sure this is what you want?' Yusaku asked softly. 'I can always give you a new name.'
'No,' said Ai. 'I like this. It makes me feel less lonely. Most of my kind is vanishing from this world, losing themselves to the stories you humans tell yourselves. But this name...it's an anchor. It doesn't make me feel so angry anymore.'
And then he leant up. And this time, he asked for a kiss. Instead of simply stealing it away.
Notes: Did anyone else ever wonder if there was a version of the story where Rumplestiltskin wasn't cheated of his prize? No one?
Then again I suppose it depends on the version of Rumplestiltskin you read. As far as I can tell, he's never portrayed as glamorous or handsome. He's not human, certainly, and I'm sure in some versions there's some creepy implications as to why, exactly, he wants the firstborn of the miller's daughter, but it does seem pretty lousy that he was never paid fairly or even in full for his labour.