Fic: Harmless - Chapter 1
AU: Belle arrives, bruised and bleeding, on the doorstep of a lame spinner and his son. On the run from the war and its causes, her short stop-over becomes something else entirely.
A/N: I’ve had this story in my head for months, and Marchie finally convinced (i.e: begged, pleaded and bullied) me to write it. So here goes: my second Big Damn AU.
Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Chapter 4 - Chapter 5 - Chapter 6 - Chapter 7 - Chapter 8 - Chapter 9 - Chapter 10 - Chapter 11 - Chapter 12 - Chapter 13 - Chapter 14
Everything is quiet in the village.
More than quiet: silent. It’s the kind of calm emptiness that only comes when everyone is locked up tight, hiding their children by firelight and quietly – quieter than mice and tiny crawling insects – mourning their dead.
Rumpelstiltskin is no exception. He cowers, and feels little shame anymore in doing so, with Baelfire never out of his line of sight.
His boy is sleeping, calm and quiet and still, and yet still never safe.
He is thirteen and a half, but soon he will be fourteen, and who knows by then what the draft age shall be? Rumpelstiltskin has the sick urge to simply lock Bae away in the house, forbid him ever to leave, tell the villagers they took him in the night.
It wouldn’t be the first time, after all, that a child was one day there and the next day gone.
They’ve long since given up their old stories, fables of changelings and wicked fairies. This is no magic: these are men, flesh and blood the same as he, but with a darkness in their sick souls Rumpelstiltskin hopes never to feel. They steal children from their beds and stick sharp weapons in their soft, fragile hands. They send boys and girls too young to know how to live off to die in trenches far from home, for a cause no one left alive can remember.
It started out with a murdered son and a broken deal. Of this, Rumpelstiltskin is certain: the heralds and travelling storytellers all agree.
This war, this third Ogre war, is nothing but a family thing. But the families in this Realm settle their disputes with massacred villages and fields of slain children, and Rumpelstiltskin cares nothing for their fights, their causes. The banner of truth and honour against the flag of chivalry and valour, and who really cares anymore who wins this time?
Bae is what matters, and Bae is safe.
For now, at least.
Rum sits by the fire, his small bowl of vegetable soup warm in his hands. At least they don’t starve; at least the farms to the North are as yet untouched by the battlefields. Food has become if anything more plentiful, as soldiers come through once a week with rations far greater than what Rum could have afforded by trading his twine.
Bae eats better while his old playmates perish.
Rum feels sick to his stomach at that thought, but a glance to his boy – his perfect, brave, beautiful boy – asleep in his bed soothes him somewhat.
No one can protect everyone, and it is foolhardy to try. Better to choose one thing, the one thing you cannot live without, and focus everything you are on keeping it safe. Rum cannot exist without Bae; to lose him would be the worst kind of tragedy.
So they hide, and whisper, and scurry like rabbits in their warren, and hope to God that the hunters pass them by.
Rum cannot sleep that night; no matter how hard he tries. Much like the night before, and the night before that, his bones will not shift and mould to fit his skin comfortably anymore. His leg is painful, with no knowledge of the salve to treat it – the healers are long gone to war, along with the witches and the children – and his shoulders tight, tense, feet twitching and ready to run.
Every night, he lies awake and waits for the knock on the door. For the black-clad men from the Ducal palace, come to collect his precious boy and drag him into a warzone.
Then, one night, it happens. A scraping, slight tap on the front door instead of the thundering, demanding knock he had expected, but he is still bolt-upright in his cot, still sweating and breathing hard. His head swims, feverish, hot and cold with burning, chilling terror.
He races as fast as he can to Bae’s bed, shakes him awake, “They’re coming, son,” he murmurs, hurriedly, “Get yourself hidden.”
Bae nods, although his frown is ever-present. Bae would like to fight for his people, and perhaps die a hero’s death. But Bae is a boy who has never seen a lick of death, who has never bled more than a skinned knee and never hurt more than a fall from a slim tree branch, and Rum is immovable on this point.
He will be a coward until the day he dies, and consider it worthy if Bae is there to see it.
He answers the door slowly, calming his breathing so as not to arouse suspicion. Perhaps the soldiers will see his limp, and believe his lie that they took the boy on their last tour through the villages. Perhaps they will mistake his fear for mourning, laugh at the poor crippled father and be on their way.
He opens the door, and braces himself.
There is no one there.
He sighs, a gusty sound of relief, loud in the dead silence of the terrified night.
Another sound, long and high and quiet, a whimper of pain or a cry for help, follows his sigh. A woman’s sob, and close by.
At his feet, in fact. For there, curled on his doorstep in a dress once fine, but now little more than tattered and muddy rags, lies a woman. She is trembling, pale and rail-thin, and staring at him with massive and haunted eyes.
“I couldn’t run any farther.” She whispers, an almost-apology, and it is strange for Rumpelstitlskin to feel like the stronger of any pair of people, “I couldn’t.”
And this is not a place for a poor, cowardly spinner to take in a refugee. What if she is a deserter, a soldier missing from the battlefront? What if they look for her and find Bae early, take him as punishment? What if she is discovered, and taken away, and tells them about his son, makes a deal for her life?
Her blue eyes are massive, pleading, her skin bone-pale behind the layers of grime and dirt and dried blood.
Rumpelstiltskin stands aside, and reaches out a hand to help her inside. For one night, and one night alone, he can share his soup and his hearth, and allow a fellow runner to sleep in his straw.
Bae comes out of his hiding place, and staggers blindly from the cupboard to the bed. He does not see the pale, inhuman figure hunched by the fire, ghostly and frail, nor his sleepless father handing her a small bowl of soup, and settling himself in his rocking chair to keep watch.
Rum wasn’t going to sleep that night anyway.
Bae does, however, notice the next morning, when he quickly shakes his papa awake, anxious and wide-eyed. “Papa! Papa!”
“What?” Rumpelstiltskin rumbles away, “What is it, Bae?”
“We have a squatter,” Bae murmurs, anxious but not yet frightened, “She snuck in in the night.”
“Oh,” Rum’s heartbeat returns to normal, and he sighs, relaxes back in his seat, “Yes, I let her in. She seemed in need of a good meal.”
“Oh,” Bae is looking at him oddly, but does not seem afraid or unhappy, “That’s… really generous, papa!” it takes him a moment, but he recognises that expression at last: his boy is proud of him.
It’s been an awfully long time since he saw that; he’s not sure quite what to make of it.
“Yes, well, can’t let anybody starve.”
“No,” Bae’s eyes are gleaming, and Rum’s chest aches. His boy is so good, so shining and honest and kind, golden right down to his soul. He should be the prince of this land, not this Duke who has slaughtered so many and for such little reward. “No we can’t.”
His shining eyes turn back to the girl, crumpled in their best chair, pale and tiny, too small for her own skin.
He himself could have carried her, by his reckoning, and Rumpelstiltskin is weak and lame. No one in this village eats quite enough; no one can be called strapping or well-fed. But this girl makes the poorest hag look like a queen, dining on pheasant and chops of lamb.
There are few people in this world lower and weaker than Rumpelstiltskin, and he’ll be damned if he allows them to suffer when he can help.
Bae looks at him with pride, this early morning, and that is worth everything.
“Should we wake her up?” Bae whispers, and Rum considers.
“No,” he says, finally, “We let her sleep, son. She looks as if she needs it.”
They leave her, quietly, padding out of the house to the spinning wheel out front as silent as mice. This town is very, very good at silence.
They spin all morning, and for once the twine is good, smooth and ready to sell with few mistakes. The wheel creaks, as it always has, but no one in this village has grease or oil to soothe it with. The wheel creaks; it always has and always will. Bae slips inside to check on their guest every half hour or so, and for the first six checks, she remains asleep.
The seventh time, things change.
Her eyes fly open, meet his, and he’s scurrying out as fast as he can on his clumsy feet, “Papa, Papa!”
“What is it, son?”
“She’s awake!” Bae whispers, remembering at the last moment that the whole village does not need to know of their visitor. “The girl, she’s-”
There is a crash from inside the house, and Bae turns, eyes wide, stares at his father in alarm. He runs inside, and Rumpelstiltskin hobbles after him, hoping to all the Gods that the poor thing hasn’t damaged anything or hurt herself.
She appears to have tripped on his spare walking stick, and fallen hard. Bae helps her to her feet, but she pulls away from his touch like a wounded animal, the fear on her face painfully naked and fierce. He knows that kind of fear: he feels it every night, when he closes his eyes and sees his son dragged away from him by nameless, faceless guards. She is running and hiding the same as everyone, so fast she cannot tell her friends from her enemies.
Bae wouldn’t hurt a soul, and Rum follows his son’s example.
“Come on,” Bae encourages, trying to lead her back to her seat by the fire, “Come sit down, you’ll feel better.”
Bae has never met a problem a good cup of tea and a warm seat by the fire can’t solve. Rum hopes to every God he’s ever heard of that he can stay that way forever. The girl goes with him, slowly, stumbling; she follows Bae to the fire and curls back up in her chair with a little sigh, half relieved and half defeated.
“What’s your name?” Bae asks, knelt at her feet and smiling; Rumpelstiltskin cannot imagine a soul on earth who could resist his son when he’s all bright eyes and kindness.
The girl just stares at him: she looks entirely horrified, like she’s just been struck, like an animal cornered by a hunter in the forest. Bae just smiles - he always had a way with frightened creatures - and puts a hand on her arm, “It’s okay: we won’t hurt you. We just need to know what to call you.”
“B-” she starts, and then stops, frowns, stares hard at Rum over Bae’s head. Bae looks and says only what he is: Rum has never known his boy to lie. Honesty and sweetness are written on his forehead, but Rum knows that he himself is another matter. He looks like a man who would shop a runner to the guards for a small bag of coin, like someone who would leave his friends to die in the trenches as he ran for his own worthless life.
And, for the most part of his life, that impression is accurate.
But not now, not in front of his boy. Bae would never let him get away with something like that: the boy would hang back and help her, if Rum were ever to leave her to be found by whoever chased her. He’d refuse to run if it meant harming another.
He nods, a small and slight movement, and the girl looks back to Bae’s hopeful face, “Rose. My name is Rose.” she murmurs, her voice hoarse and weak, and Bae nods approvingly.
“Rose is a nice name. I’m Baelfire, and this is my papa, Rumpelstiltskin.” he introduces them with courtesy, with pride, as if they’re more than just a friendless, crippled spinner and his son. As if they’re gentry, nobility, sharing their home with an expected and welcome guest. As if she is not bruised, rail-thin and dirty, clad in rags that make their clothes appear rich and well-made.
“Wonderful,” she croaks, and tries to push herself back to her feet, “Well, I thank you for your hospitality, it was most appreciated,” her accent, behind her whisper, is Northern and refined. Not at home here in the Frontlands, not at all.
“Oh, no dear,” he steps out, unsure of what he thinks he’s doing, and pushes her back to her chair, “You’re not going anywhere in this condition.”
“You arrived on our doorstep last night looking like a plague survivor,” he counters, his mind made up: if Bae wants this woman saved, then saved she shall be, “You can stay for a little while, until you can walk without stumbling, at least.”
She’s staring at him, eyes wide and filled with a mix of such hope and such mistrust that he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do.
He supposes he’d look the same, if a stranger offered him such help without asking for payment, without requesting his heart and soul as recompense.
“Thank you,” she murmurs, and the ghost of a smile slips around her mouth, gone in an instant but certainly not forgotten.
She tries to escape three times that day, and every time Bae will just quietly slip away from the wheel, or put down the wool he’s carding, and step inside to retrieve her. Rum doesn’t follow: some things are best left to the pure and good of heart, those who look and act as heroes and knights from epic tales.
His boy would make a handsome prince, were he not burdened with his father’s legacy.
But she is still there at dinner, and Rum is surprised to see that Bae has even persuaded her to use their small tub out in the back to wash herself. Her skin is pale, in places more purple and red than pink, and her hair dark naturally and not just with dirt.
She would be beautiful, were she not half-starved, if she did not appear to have attempted to best a troll in a fistfight.
Bae wordlessly makes up a bed of straw for her by the fire, her second night in their home. He takes the old, half-toothless wooden comb his mother used, the one they keep for unknown reasons, and brushes the snarls from the girl’s hair, talks to her in his soothing voice, the one he uses on wounded animals when he finds them in the forest.
His boy could turn lions to sleeping kittens, and all he does is treat the sick.
Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t know where he got that trait from, but it’s so much closer to bravery than anything he himself possesses.
Belle wakes on the floor of the spinner’s home with pieces of straw in her hair, and the boy looking at her with wide, inquisitive eyes.
The boy - Baelfire, if he can be believed - seems harmless enough. He combed her hair when she was too tired to move, and speaks in a quiet, friendly tone, tries not to scare her. He’s young enough that she doubts he could go to the guardhouse even if he wanted to: they would snatch him for a soldier as soon as look at him.
The father is another matter.
Rumpelstiltskin, his son had called him, but it seems far too grand a name for such a lowly creature. He practically cowers before her, and she lower even than he. She sleeps on his floor, and yet he looks at her with a kind of raw and helpless terror, as if she would eat him alive and tear him to shreds with her teeth.
But Baelfire is looking at her, and smiling, and he is a sweet boy for all that it matters.
She has to leave today. She has already stayed in this hovel of a home for too long, and the guards must be fast on her heels. If she leaves today, takes a route through the forest, then perhaps she can make it to Avonlea within a week. If she is where she thinks she is; if the father’s accent is any indication of the land she is in.
From Avonlea she can head North, and maybe even make the mountains before winter. She has heard of villages there where one wears so many furs that identity is impossible. She would happily shovel snow and scavenge among ice wolves for the rest of her life, if it meant she could stay in one place without fear of discovery.
But if Rumpelstiltskin is any indication, this is a Frontlands village.
And the Frontlands are still enemy territory for Belle, however much of a backwater this hamlet may be. They are still unsafe for one such as she.
So she smiles to Baelfire, and stands, and is pleased to discover that today her left leg has decided to work. The boy watches with the gladness of a compassionate sibling, and smiles, “Good morning, Rose. How’re you feeling today?”
The sound of her new name is strange to Belle’s ears, but it’s better than nothing.
Everyone has heard of Princess Belle, who doomed a city with her willful ways. Everyone has heard of the reward.
So she smiles in reply, and chokes down the ashes on her tongue, and says, “Much better, thank you.” Her voice is a little more her own today, a little less of a reedy croak and something closer to resembling human. She had wondered if it would ever recover.
“I made some tea,” he announces, and produces a metal cup, holds it out to her, “Chamomile, for soothing. It grows in the back, and papa says it helps him sometimes.”
“That’s… nice of you,” she says, “Thank you.” she sinks into the chair, the nice one she woke up in the first night she was here, and Baelfire stays crouched at her feet, as if he’s cheerfully used to sitting on the dirty ground of his own home.
“It’s fine. We had ours earlier, but Papa said to let you sleep.”
She tries not to feel the racing alarm at that: what if Rumpelstiltskin left to fetch the guard? What if she was meant to sleep and sleep and awaken in chains? Baelfire can smile as sweet and well-meaning as anything, it means naught if his father shops her for coin at a moment’s notice.
She has to leave. Now. Before they catch her again.
Once upon a time, she landed in a woman’s home and shook from head to toe. She was less ragged then than she is now, but thinner, in more pain still. She cried for days and drank every cup the woman gave her, winced and ran from every crash, every small sound in the night.
She had fought her way out of that house with her bare hands and a stolen knife.
Belle doesn’t cry anymore.
“Where is your papa, boy?” she asks, and he gestures with his head to the front door.
“Outside spinning, we need more money this week to feed us all.”
Another kind of pain, shallower but more immediate, flares to the surface. She is draining the resources of these peasants, these minor traders with nothing but woolen thread to pay for everything. Rumpelstiltskin would be right to shop her, to feed his boy. No one can be expected to feed a runner and starve their own children, and they owe her nothing.
“I’ll leave today,” she promises, “Don’t worry. I will be gone by nightfall.”
Baelfire looks at her, head cocked to one side, “Why?”
“I… I have somewhere to be.” She lies, slowly. Except it’s not really a lie, not really, not when she has dreams of a quiet and snow covered town somewhere, of learning a trade and settling in alone and quiet. She could be Rose forever, and die an old maid.
Can one still be an old maid having seen and done all that she has?
She cannot be sure if he sees through her as an adult or is curious like a child, he seems so much of both and neither. But he watches her, and she swallows, and finally says, “Ingrary.”
“Wow,” he murmurs, nodding, “That’s a long way.”
“Yep.” She nods, resolutely, “So I’d best be on my way.” She stands, and places the cup on the small table, and points herself toward the door. “Thank you, Baelfire, for your hospitality,” she smiles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes: it is strangely hard to start to move again after a day spent quiet and still and almost-safe. She turns for the door, and continues, softly, more to herself than to the boy, “It was very much appreciated.”
Today she will leave, and never look back. Perhaps Ingary isn’t such a bad idea after all: perhaps she can find a realm-jumper to take her, and live her days in another world. That idea takes over from the mountains, a new dream to follow.
All Belle has to cling to are dreams, so she holds them to her like ropes and life rafts, and refuses to ever let go.
It is not terrifying, the world she faces. No one decides her fate but she, and this is what she chooses. She is strong enough for that, at least, if nothing more.
She makes it out of the front door without Baelfire stopping her, and crashes into the spinner. She had not expected him to be there, truth be told: she had known in her soul that he had shopped her, that she was to fight her way out of here as out of every other town she’s stayed in too long.
“Rose?” he doesn’t flinch, but he comes damn close, and she wonders what this man must have seen to make him so easily frightened.
“Thank you for sharing your hearth,” she casts her eyes down, as he does, to show respect. No matter the perceived weakness in this man, she is still free and healed and fed, and this is his doing.
“It was no matter.” He replies, and cautiously meets her eyes. Behind the ever-present fear, the same terror she herself works so hard to hide, there is something else, something desperate for simple humanity, for the respect of another human being. She imagines that few in this Frontlands village are even capable of offering that.
“It was a great kindness,” she smiles, a proper smile, encouraging and grateful, and though she is clad in the same old and dirty rags she has worn for months, she is tempted to trace a curtsey, “I shall not forget it.”
“You’re more than welcome, mistress,” he smiles back, and it’s a fleeting thing, but at least it’s honest. “No one should starve, not even runaways.”
Her face clouds, she can feel it, but it doesn’t matter. She ran; she is homeless; she is hunted. Runaway is as good a term as any.
“You and your son are good people, and I hope you may remain so.” She almost bows, but she holds herself back. Her voice alone is refined enough to rouse suspicion, no need to draw further attention to how out of place she truly is here.
“I hope they don’t catch you,” he replies, “Whoever you are.”
She nods once, stiffly, and holds out a hand to Rumpelstiltskin, “Farewell.”
He takes it, his hand strong and warm for all his fear, and they shake for a long moment.
But then their contact breaks, and she picks up the pack of bread and cheese Baelfire pressed into her hands before she left the house, and she’s walking off down the road with her head held high, headed for the forest and solitude once more.
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