Rumple was, for lack of a better term, frazzled. Physically, he looked much the same- though maybe a trifle less scrawny- but he was definitely out of sorts. Twitchy. Well, twitchier. Rumple had never exactly been a poster boy for sanity, had he?
Jefferson pays the Dark One a visit and things are not as he left.
“Did you get a pet since I dropped by last? A minotaur, perhaps?” Jefferson asked blithely as he gazed upon what was once a very fine tea service. “I’d advise against it in the future. Messy beasts. A misery to train, or so I hear.”
“No,” Rumple snapped back, and then left it hanging there like he had more to say but couldn’t quite get his mouth around it. A hand darted out and Rumple snatched the tea service away with a snarl and stowed it out of view behind a somewhat singed tablecloth. These two objects were by no means the only evidence that Rumple was either getting in touch with his inner walking disaster, or playing host to a beast from the demon realms that took particular pleasure in wrecking havoc with his furniture.
At the moment, Jefferson was leaning toward the latter notion- why else would Rumple have summoned him so urgently but then, instead of telling Jefferson his business and getting rid of him as quickly as possible as he’d done in the past, sat him down with a cold cup of tea with some of the leaves still floating in it?
Perhaps he was under some sort of spell that forbade him from speaking of it, Jefferson mused. That kind of thing happened sometimes in this land. It would explain why all Rumple had to say about the demise of his favorite tea set was a particularly venomous, ‘No.’
Jefferson had to admit it was clever- for the first time in a long time, he was in the clear as far as debts to old Rumple were concerned- but if he was trapped in here with the monster too he’d have no choice but to help banish it.
Besides the tea set and the tablecloth, there was a set of draperies torn down entirely. The floor had been mopped recently, and badly, though with undeniable enthusiasm; streaks of soap and dust-turned-into-mud mingled together in patches. The bottles in one corner- not the ones with Rumple’s spells or potions already in them, the empty ones- were not sorted by shape and type as they usually were, but rather in two groups: broken and not broken. Or, possibly, not broken yet. Only the books on the shelves that lined the walls were in better condition than Jefferson had last seen them; they had been dusted and lovingly placed in alphabetical order.
The only thing still as Jefferson remembered it was Rumple’s spinning wheel, to which the imp flounced now, and began furiously spinning.
Rumple was, for lack of a better term, frazzled. Physically, he looked much the same- though maybe a trifle less scrawny- but he was definitely out of sorts. Twitchy.
Well, twitchier. Rumple had never exactly been a poster boy for sanity, had he?
“You’d better tell me what this is about,” Jefferson said, putting his tea cup down with what he hoped was inarguable finality.
Rumple gave a tiny, abortive flail, and something bright and creepy happened in his dark eyes. Then he stilled. “It’s just- Belle!” He blinked, rapidly.
After spending a few seconds trying to work out the code, Jefferson finally thought to follow Rumple’s gaze over his left shoulder and then turn accordingly.
Jefferson didn’t gasp or stare. His jaw didn’t drop. He wasn’t even particularly surprised. In the Dark One’s house, he’d seen radiant women and hideous beasts and not been in the least bit shocked to discover which of the two was generally the more evil. He traveled between worlds for a living, after all.
Thus, he eyed the small dark-haired girl with benign impassivity. She was wearing a blue dress and an apron, and there was a bow in her hair.
He readied himself in case he was going to be attacked.
“Is this Mr. Jefferson?” the girl asked.
“Just Jefferson, if you please,” he replied, hoping he hadn’t just given her the power of life and death over him.
She beamed. “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Jefferson.” She dropped a pretty curtsy. “I was beginning to think you didn’t exist.”
Rumple muttered something and returned to his spinning.
The girl turned a fond smile on him.
Not looking up at her with obvious effort, Rumple said, “Was there something you wanted?”
"Oh!” She jumped. “I’ve remembered you need biscuits.”
“No!” Rumple blanched. “That’s good of you, dearie, but we don’t need anything.”
“But you do!” she insisted, and with a flourish presented a plate, dropping two of the biscuits in the process. She bent to retrieve the fallen shortbreads- Jefferson thought they were shortbreads; they looked like shortbreads- and lost several more.
Jefferson started to get up and noticed Rumple giving him increasingly less subtle abort signals above her head, but he was powerless against the impulse urging him to assist her.
In the end, three were saved and set on the table.
“Try one,” she suggested happily.
He did. It was like having a mouthful of congealed sawdust. He chewed. He might’ve cried out instead of chewing, but when mixed with saliva whatever material it- he hesitated, now, to call it a biscuit- was constructed of attained a gluey consistency that made speaking- or opening his mouth at all- an impossibility.
“Good?” she asked.
He nodded vigorously. Her cooking may have been the work of the devil, but she had the smile of an angel and it just kept coming.
She turned on Rumple. “And you? Will you try one? I’ve been working all day and I think this recipe is really good!” The bright smile and delicate eagerness to please were still there, but they had attained a kind of desperate quality all of a sudden.
“I- yes- all right,” Rumple said, and approached.
Jefferson sent up a prayer of thanks to whatever deity was responsible, because if Rumple had been rude to her he might have otherwise been compelled to shove the other two into his mouth to make her feel better.
Rumple took a bite. A look of great suffering suffused his features, and then faded. “Yes, quite lovely, dearie.”
This time her smile was like the sun. “Well,” she breathed, the weight of this benediction apparently exhausting. “I’d better leave you to it, then. I should-” she turned away, then turned back, brightening. “I’ll make more tea!”
“Oh,” Rumple attempted. “There’s no need.”
“But there is! I-”
“Yes, that’ll be fine.” Rumple waved a hand and the tea set appeared near her elbow, nudging it. “Go make tea.”
She skipped out, an alarming crash sounding outside the door moments later.
“I- I- I think it’s all right,” she called.
There was some clacking and clattering and then footsteps moving away. At last, they faded and Jefferson took out a handkerchief and wiped the corners of his mouth. “Well,” he began, testing that his jaw still worked properly. “Who was that?”
“Belle. She’s…” Rumple muttered something unintelligible.
Jefferson tried to help. “A clever ploy by Regina to destroy you once and for all?”
“The spirit of bad cooking brought to life?”
For a second, Jefferson didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but then he figured it out and did- uproariously. “You. Don’t. Need. A. Housekeeper,” he managed between gasps. “You can magic whatever you like clean, I’ve seen you. Do you even need to eat?”
“Well, no, but she’s here now, so…”
Jefferson remembered the paralyzing fear of disappointing her and let that stand. “But why am I here now?”
Rumple chewed his lip and tried to look regal for a second; then all the fight seemed to go out of him at once. He slumped into a chair. “Belle wondered why I never had anyone come by the house. Friends and whatnot. She was worried it was her.”
“Rather than you,” Jefferson filled in.
The Dark One nodded, bleakly. “So I told her I had a friend who was out of the country fairly regularly but that I’d invite him straightaway.”
“Yes, you. And if you tell her otherwise I’ll turn you into a dormouse- is that clear?”
“Very,” Jefferson replied promptly. Then, “Rumple, old boy. Do you lo-” at Rumple’s glare, he course corrected abruptly, ‘love’ being a loaded word in these parts- “like this girl?”
Rumple deflated some more.
“Cheer up,” Jefferson said. “She seems to-” adore you to a terrifying and frankly unreasonable degree- “like you too.”
This elicited a grumble.
“Really! I think you’ve got a shot!”
If looks could kill, Jefferson would be cinders- and since in this realm looks could and often did kill, and he felt a definite warming in his toes, he chose not to press the issue further.
“So, what now?” he asked instead.
“More tea, apparently.” And more tea arrived forthwith, a quantity of it already spilled on the tray.
“Do you need more biscuits?” Belle asked.
“I couldn’t possibly impose any more than I already have,” Jefferson attempted. “Really.”
“Oh, but you must stay for dinner! I think I’m getting very good.”
“So you are, dearie,” Rumple agreed, and whether it was because misery loved company or because he really wanted Belle to think he had friends, there was definitely a very plaintive quality to the look he sent Jefferson’s way.
Before he could stop himself, Jefferson said, “Of course.”
She simply stood and beamed for a moment, looking happy, before jumping up again. “I’ll get started right away! In the meantime, are you sure you don’t want any more biscuits? Some of the ones that fell are probably still…”
“That’ll be fine, Belle,” Rumple said.