The Fight Over Rumpelstiltskin the Third by Kevin Kauffmann
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Rumpelstiltskin did not like the way Circe was looking at the red bauble. This was the imp’s fourth encounter with the stone, each fraught with miseries Rumpelstiltskin would have liked to avoid. The first time our imp set his beady eyes upon the stone, a desert village had begged him to take it away as an act of mercy. From there, Rumpelstiltskin had walked into a papercraft star and had been transported to a two-dimensional kingdom, ruled by a usurper responsible for killing much of his citizens through that stone.

When Rumpelstiltskin deposed that usurper, the rightful king had called that bauble the Ifrit’s Eye, but could say little else before the imp was thrown back into our world with the stone in his possession. Rumpelstiltskin had gained and lost that jewel three times, each time with a different name, watched that fire claim treasures the world could not replace, and had seen the death and devastation from its misuse.

Now the woman he loved most in the world was tossing it between her hands as if it was a new toy.

“Circe, I really don’t think you should be doing that…”

“Doing what, kiddo?” the sorceress asked, a smile of mischief playing through the strands of her windblown, raven hair. In the midday sun on a dirt road in the wild country, that hair absorbed the light, but her pale skin was soft and delicate and warm behind the wild shroud buffeted by the summer breeze. She only looked at Rumpelstiltskin for a moment before flicking her gaze back at the red stone in her left hand. It pulsed at her attention, and Rumpelstiltskin felt nervous even on such a nice, sunny day.

“Tossing that around. I’ve seen that thing do… a lot,” Rumpelstiltskin hesitated on giving life to the bauble’s past, but Circe took that hesitation as childish fear.

“Don’t worry. You’ve only been playing around with amateurs before me. I can handle a relic like this.”

“Circe… the Ifrit’s Eye… it hurt people,” Rumpelstiltskin argued, but Circe only nodded while rolling the stone between her palms and feeling its weight.

“Oh, I believe that. There’s definitely something sinister in here.”

“So why are you playing with it?” the imp shouted, finally getting Circe’s full attention. The witch turned to face him and placed her hand on her hip, the glowing bauble held loosely on her other side.

“I’m not playing with it, kid. I’m just looking at it and trying to figure out what it does. Honestly, something like this,” Circe said, waving around the Eye recklessly, “is more useful than anything else I have at my disposal. There’s something, well…

“There’s something otherworldly about this sucker,” Circe said as she lost herself in the jewel’s inferno. Rumpelstiltskin huffed at that and stomped up to the woman who meant too much to him. Once he was directly in front of the bauble, Rumpelstiltskin was almost tempted to smack the Eye out of Circe’s hand. The only thing that stopped him was the dangerous potential he could unleash; he had seen the Eye responsible for too much with little provocation.

“Circe. Please,” he stressed, looking as intimidating as possible with his tiny arms crossed in front of him. “Listen to me. We have to get rid of that thing.”

“What?” Circe yelped, shocked out of her stupor as she stepped back to look at him. “What on Earth are you thinking, kid? There’s no way in hell I’m letting this go.”

“It’s dangerous.”

“So am I, Rumpelstiltskin. You forget sometimes, but I’m only this nice and cheery around you.” Circe scoffed, looking from the imp to the jewel and back. “I would have done a lot of nasty things to get something like this before I met you.”

“But not now, right? Because I bring out the good in you. That’s what you always say.” Rumpelstiltskin tried to appeal to her affection, but the witch gave a half-smile and shrugged.

“I do say that.”

“Well, I’m counting on that good now.” Rumpelstiltskin had trapped her, or so he thought. He was very pleased with himself until Circe gripped the bauble tighter and frowned at him.

“That only goes so far, kiddo. If that magician hadn’t snuffed himself out back there…” Circe trailed off, letting Rumpelstiltskin remember the scene they had walked into. After that man’s abuse of the Eye’s power, only the Eye remained, leaving Circe to collect her mystical prize. Sighing, Circe made eye contact with Rumpelstiltskin and shrugged again. “I would not let an idiot like that keep a stone like this, Rumpelstiltskin. You can interpret that any way you want.”

“You can already do so much, Circe!” Rumpelstiltskin shouted, suddenly very angry at his friend. “You can fly, you can mend broken bones, you can put giants to sleep—heck, you can even read things in a mirror! What more do you need? Are you really that greedy when it comes to power?”

“Yes, Rumpelstiltskin,” Circe stated with her arms crossed, blunt as ever. “That’s my nature. Now, that said, I think the Eye is much better off in my hands because I’m not going to let out some firestorm on accident, but I won’t try to trick you. Stones like this are why I’ve been living as long as I have and as long as I will. This is a witch’s bread and butter, kiddo.”

“Not this stone, Circe,” Rumpelstiltskin said, dread eating away at his childish brain. “This thing’s too much. I’ve seen… it’s made me do things I don’t like. It made me hurt people.”

“That’s…” Circe paused, finally affected by Rumpelstiltskin’s words. “I didn’t know that, but… I’m not surprised. But that’s also not your fault, kid,” she continued, softer. “This thing really is just out of your league. However, it is in mine. I’ve dabbled with gods and monsters and demons and nightmares and things I don’t ever want you to see.”

“Circe…” Rumpelstiltskin looked away as tears filled his eyes. “I know that, but that stone might make you one of those things you… don’t want me to see.”

“Kid…”

“Can you… can I just call Sir Death?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, hopeful that his other guardian might persuade this reckless woman. He even turned to her with a smile he didn’t know he wore. “He knows lots of magic, so he’d know what you’re talking about.”

“Rumpelstiltskin, I do not need some fuddy-duddy reaper to tell me what’s in this thing.” Circe brandished the stone with a hefty amount of skepticism. “As much as I want to meet this Sir Death you go on and on about, he’s not going to tell me anything about the Eye I can’t find out about myself.”

“He’s from another world, Circe,” Rumpelstiltskin argued, confident in his father figure. “There could be ghosts or spirits in that stone and that’s what gives it all that power.”

“Maybe, imp, though I’m more inclined to think it has something to do with Hell,” Circe said to herself before remembering she was in an argument with Rumpelstiltskin. “Either way, your reaper probably isn’t from another world, kiddo. There isn’t much that is.”

“And that much is right, Grand Sorceress,” another voice entered the fray, and Rumpelstiltskin was glad to hear it. Turning around completely, Rumpelstiltskin saw the familiar, gaunt face that was always there at the imp’s beck and call. Sir Death, however, did not look down and smile at the imp, but instead stared forward, one hand gripped tight on the handle of his scythe. Confused at his antagonism, Rumpelstiltskin jerked back around to see Circe gaping in disbelief.

“Oh, you gotta be kidding me…” Circe trailed off, ending it with a scoff before squealing and doubling over. Rumpelstiltskin at first watched dumbfounded, but as the fit of laughter dragged on, a scowl twisted his leathery face and Rumpelstiltskin puffed up, hands on his hips.

“Hey, stop laughing at Sir Death!” he shouted, but Circe continued unabashed. After a moment to catch her breath, Circe tried to stand up and wiped a tear from her eyes, still wheezing until she was able to reach her full height. With one last breath to recover, Circe placed her free hand on her hip and maintained eye contact with Rumpelstiltskin’s reaper.

“Oh, kiddo, that’s not Sir Death,” she said with a glance toward Rumpelstiltskin. “That man’s name is Solomon, and he’s as much a reaper as I am.”

“A technicality, Circe,” Sir Death replied, but even that concession stunned Rumpelstiltskin.

“Is it, King Solomon?” Circe asked, scoffing at the man’s audacity. “Reapers die and come back to guide the souls of the not-quite-departed, usually by tearing them to ribbons. Remind me—because I guess I didn’t notice—just when did you die?”

“Therein lies the technicality,” Sir Death admitted, throwing Rumpelstiltskin’s understanding of the universe into the trash bin.

Backing away from the new stranger, Rumpelstiltskin walked off the edge of the road so he could watch his friends while they verbally—and possibly physically—sparred.

“Aww, you’re doing a service by all those lost souls, then?” Circe snapped at the reaper, but Sir Death was unfazed.

“I believe so. The True Reaper thinks highly of my work.”

“Oh, he would. Anything to shave off some of his burden,” Circe said with no small amount of condescension, but it only earned a shrug of surrender.

“If you want to view his burden as something so inconsequential, I have no need to correct you. Although you are clearly in the wrong, it would not be the first time,” Sir Death replied, and from Circe’s flinch, Rumpelstiltskin could tell it held some power.

“I don’t need your judgment, old man.”

“No, but perhaps you need my guidance.” Sir Death pointed at the Eye with his free hand.

“Rumpelstiltskin is correct, after all. That object should not be on this plane. It is far too dangerous.”

“Oh, you are so generous with your wisdom, great king,” Circe exaggerated, bowing low to appropriately display her disdain. When she reclaimed her full height, the witch crossed her arms and scowled. “But I think I’m alright. I’ll just hold onto it, for now.”

“You have no idea the destruction that stone carries,” Sir Death said, taking a step forward in plea. “To say that it holds the power of Hell is not an understatement. There is half a soul within that jewel, a soul that belongs to a King of Hell.”

“Really?” Circe was so distracted she forgot to lash out at Sir Death before looking at the Eye. “I had my theories, but that’s just exciting.”

“Don’t take the wrong lesson from this lecture, Grand Sorceress,” Sir Death interrupted, earning the witch’s scorn. “Certainly, there is power, but there is violence, loss, despair, fury… there is a whole epoch’s hatred encapsulated in that gem.”

“Sounds useful.”

“It sounds like something that should be returned to its owner,” Sir Death argued, but Circe was of no mind to accept the idea.

“What? You’d want to give this back? Are you insane? I’m going to assume a lot of work went into making an object that carries half a fallen angel’s soul, and you want to just negate all that effort and, to boot, make that demon powerful again?”

“He’s powerful either way.”

“Then he doesn’t really need it, Sol.” Circe held the stone closer, cradling it against her left side. When he watched that greed on display yet again, Rumpelstiltskin stowed his hurt feelings regarding Sir Death and decided to focus on the friend who needed him.

“You don’t need it either, Circe,” Rumpelstiltskin declared. The powerful magicians had forgotten about the imp connecting them, and both of them became softer after realizing he was still present. Relaxing her grip on the Eye, Circe turned to Rumpelstiltskin and bit her lip.

“Buddy… Kiddo,” Circe stressed, a light smile on her pale face. “I’ve certainly done a lot of bad stuff in my life, but giving a vengeful demon back his soul is gonna be a lot worse than anything I could ever do with a… more nuanced approach.”

“You forget, Circe, that he has seen the Eye in action,” Sir Death added, but Rumpelstiltskin was determined to make Circe focus on him.

“I don’t want you to have it,” Rumpelstiltskin stated, no trace of lunacy in his voice or demeanor. Both reaper and sorceress could tell the imp was being serious, and their treatment of the situation would be forced to change. “I don’t care if a demon in Hell becomes more powerful or what he does with it, but I do care if you use that stone and hurt someone. I care if you use that stone and hurt yourself.

“Circe, there are a lot of treasures out there, there’s a lot of adventures out there, and… and… why can’t you just be content with that?” Rumpelstiltskin pleaded, walking closer to Circe so she was just a few feet away. “I know before me that you… that you did some bad things. I’m not ignorant. I know that you have a lot of stories told about you and that a lot of them are true.”

“Kidd—”

“Like Odysseus,” Rumpelstiltskin interrupted, making Circe balk for the first time in his memory. “I saw things that I… well, that I don’t like. I know there’s a good amount of darkness in you.

“But I also know there’s some good in you, too,” he followed up, rushing forward to latch onto Circe’s free hand. The witch was so stunned by the act that she allowed Rumpelstiltskin to take her hand, and

she was enraptured by the little boy’s efforts.

“I know you wouldn’t have saved me from that other witch if there wasn’t. I know that you wouldn’t have brought me with you on adventures if you didn’t have a scrap of good in you. I know that I wouldn’t keep running into you, that you wouldn’t look out for me, if there wasn’t something good for me to grab onto! That’s how the magic works! That’s how I find my friends, and you’re… you’re my best friend, Circe! You and Sir Death are my best friends, and you wouldn’t be if there wasn’t good in you!”

“How the magic works…” Circe murmured, and Rumpelstiltskin thought he might have convinced her and appealed to that small amount of good.

What he had said resonated, but once the witch’s lip curled—as a low snarl echoed from her throat and she glared back at Sir Death—Rumpelstiltskin realized he had made a mistake. Something he had said backfired, and when Circe swept her arm and pulled Rumpelstiltskin behind her, he knew the ancient king was the reason why.

“You did it…” she whispered, but even Sir Death could hear her words. When he shut his eyes and nodded, Circe visibly shook.

“You monster,” she growled, tears flowing down porcelain cheeks before she screamed in fury. “How could you do that to a child? How wise a king you are! How fitting a punishment for an innocent boy!”

“The curse was not intended for him.”

“That makes it better, Solomon?” Circe accused the reaper with every word. “Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate cruelty when its warranted, but you had to know a curse that can be transferred would cause some collateral damage.”

“The idea was that it would only transfer to souls deserving that fate.”

“Oh, I don’t care, Sol,” Circe said, drawing Rumpelstiltskin against her side while the people he loved discussed him in such a blunt manner. “I mean, I get it, twist the outward appearance to reflect the ugliness of their souls, make them live forever just so they can see their loved ones and friends perish. Make it so that does happen. I see you thought about it a lot, wise guy.”

“They would trade the ability to spin gold for the things that actually gave life value, Cir—”

“Did I say I didn’t understand?” Circe interrupted, biting her lip so hard she drew blood. “It’s ingenious. It’s brilliant. It punishes those who deserve it. Except, you know, when the curse transfers to a child!”

“I…” Sir Death paused, looking away before shaking his head and staring at the ground. “When he became afflicted, I could not stop it. It allowed the boy to live, and I… it was a moment of weakness. I changed the nature of the hex and twisted its definition of fortune, but any further tampering would have taken the boy’s life.”

“So you allowed him to become immortal and cursed, but you warped his mind, so it’s okay?” Circe asked, disdain soaked through every word. “Merciful and wise, Solomon. Better for a poor boy to live through the millennia with no idea of how the world works rather than let a peasant die a peasant.”

“He lives, Circe, and I do not regret that,” Sir Death said, raising tear-rimmed eyes that threatened to leak down sharp cheekbones. “I have done my best to ease the boy’s trials, to grant him joy and friendship when I may. Just as you have done.”

“That puts us in the same boat, huh? Even though I had nothing to with cursing him in the first place?”

“My list of crimes may include him, but your list is much longer.”

“Petty. Petty King Solomon, that’s what they should call you,” Circe spat, at which point the imp could take no more. Wrestling himself out from under Circe’s arm, Rumpelstiltskin stood between the reaper and the witch, holding out his arms.

“That’s enough!” Rumpelstiltskin shouted, jerking back to glare at the reaper over his shoulder. “Both of you need to stop!”

“He’s not the man you think he is, kiddo. He’s—”

“Child, she is a dange—”

“I don’t care!” Rumpelstiltskin shouted, clenching his eyes and screaming into the summer breeze. Even in that midday sun, Rumpelstiltskin felt himself in the eye of a hurricane, and he opened his eyes after a brief moment to collect his thoughts. Rumpelstiltskin looked into Circe’s green eyes and tried to let his love flow between them. His black eyes sparkled with it, and he could tell the sorceress recognized that raw emotion.

“I don’t care what either of you did. You’re both my favorites, the people I care about most,” Rumpelstiltskin said, dropping his arms and letting his shoulders slouch.

“My curse is… well, it’s mine, and I’ve done a lot with it, if I say so, myself. And I do, because I’m talking and you can’t… you can’t stop me right now. It doesn’t matter if I ramble or if the thoughts don’t connect because it’s my time to talk and it’s your turn to listen and you’re just gonna have to deal with that.

“Whatever Sir Death is responsible for, I know he feels that weight, because I’ve seen him reap souls, Circe, and he doesn’t do it because it’s fun or because he gets anything out of it. It’s a duty, one he takes because he has to, because no one else will, and he treats it with respect and suffers for it,” Rumpelstiltskin explained, licking his lips before shrugging and throwing his thumbs between his belt and tunic.

“If he ever hurt me, he’s more than made up for it, but if he ever did, he hasn’t and won’t get over it. He cares about me, no matter what you think, no matter who he really is, reaper or king, and… and… well…” Rumpelstiltskin surrendered, feeling ashamed of his inadequacy for speech. “He’s a good man, and he’s my friend.”

“Thank you, child,” Sir Death started, but he was surprised when the imp whipped around to address him.

“And Circe’s my friend, too!” he said urgently, wanting to make sure both his magical friends felt defended. “I’ve seen her do some bad things, but I know that you’ve watched us before like you always do, and I know you haven’t stepped in because you’ve seen it, Sir Death. You’ve seen that she cares for me, that she protects me, that she loves me like… like a mother or a sister might.”

“Kiddo…”

“And I think that says something, Sir Death,” Rumpelstiltskin said, tears flowing freely down the leather of his face. “For her to see me—about to be punished for eating an angel cake cottage—and defend me despite her friends, for her to adventure with me… she’s not the evil witch you think she is. I know she’s done evil witch things, but you can’t be good to a boy who looks… who looks like me…

“It’s easy to be bad to a boy who looks like me,” Rumpelstiltskin added softly, sniffing back traitorous snot. “I know how to ignore it lots of the time, but it—when enough people do it, it gets past whatever walls you put up in my head. I know how hard it is to make friends, especially when everyone assumes you’re wicked just because of the way you look.

“And that’s why Circe needs me, Sir Death!” Rumpelstiltskin finally got to a point he could declare with pride, and he puffed up his tiny chest to oppose the grim reaper in front of him. “Everybody is always going to look at what she’s done and never give her a chance, so I’m one of the only people who’s going to be friends with her.”

“But does she deserve it, child?”

“Everybody deserves friends,” Rumpelstiltskin said, the truth so obvious that he was disappointed in Sir Death. “Not having friends is what makes evil happen. They don’t have good friends holding them back and making sure they get distracted by adventures.”

“That’s… a fair point, child,” Sir Death said, sighing before making eye contact with the witch behind Rumpelstiltskin. “I suppose he does keep you out of trouble most of the time.”

“Won’t deny that,” Circe replied, their shared affection for the imp already making things more cordial, but Sir Death would not abandon his initial aim.

“So let him continue. Give me the Eye, Circe.” Sir Death extended a pale, weathered hand, but the sorceress drew back into her defensive stance and clutched the stone tighter.

“Not a chance, Sol,” she snapped, but when Rumpelstiltskin turned and walked toward her, Circe’s resolve visibly faltered.

“Please, Circe. We can keep going on adventures and enjoy this summer. This summer can last centuries if we let it, you know,” he said, intentionally using a metaphor for the first time. Rumpelstiltskin had used many on accident, but after watching Circe’s future from a magical tree stump, he had no wish to see her rush into the last seasons of her life. However, Circe had not been present for that trip, and she heard the imp’s words as nonsense from a child.

“I wish it could be like that, kiddo, but time moves on,” she said, looking back at the reaper with his arm still extended. “I am not letting go of this stone, and I’m definitely not going to give it to him.”

“Please, Circe,” Rumpelstiltskin tried again, his black eyes glistening as he wrapped gnarled fingers around her forearm. “I don’t want to see what that stone does to you, or what you can do with that stone. I just want to keep laughing in the sun with you.”

“Life doesn’t always work like that, kiddo.”

“But it can. This time, it can,” Rumpelstiltskin pleaded, but Circe only wavered, and she was back on solid ground when Sir Death’s voice interrupted.

“This is his test, Grand Sorceress. If you keep the stone, you keep only the stone,” he said, dropping his arm and placing both hands on the handle of his scythe. “I will even let you keep the Eye, but I cannot let you keep the child in your company. I cannot let him suffer you with that awful power.”

“You’ll let me, Solomon? The great King Solomon will let me keep my own possession?” A shadow grew all around Circe, but the reaper was unmoved.

“A mercy I bestow only because of our shared connection.” That forced the witch to drop her gaze to the imp still looking up at her with pleading eyes. “That child has a way of staying my hand.”

“He does have that, doesn’t he?” Circe mused, her voice low, and Rumpelstiltskin’s heart leapt into his chest when she knelt down to look him in the eye. “You’re a special boy, you know that?”

“That’s what people tell me,” he replied, wiping away a tear with a rough, burlap sleeve, and Circe chuckled before reaching forward with her free hand and using delicate fingers to take the rest of the tear from his cheek.

“They can’t help themselves, I promise you,” she said, tears falling down her own cheek, now. “You have a way about you that makes even evil people turn a little good.”

“That’s my favorite part about myself.”

“Mine too. Makes me a little better, kiddo,” she said, but when she bit her lip, Rumpelstiltskin realized what was about to happen. He would have let out a whine, but he didn’t want to miss a single word of what Circe was about to say.

“I’d ask you to stay with me, Rumpelstiltskin, and a part of me wants to be selfish and do it anyway, but the part of me that you’ve made good… knows the score,” she said, nodding at her newfound wisdom while trying to wipe away the fresh tears along Rumpelstiltskin’s cheeks. “Solomon’s right. You’re gonna be a lot better off without me.”

“Just give him the Eye, Circe,” Rumpelstiltskin tried once more, but they both knew Circe would shake her head

“Sorry, kiddo. As powerful as I am, I’m pretty weak in my own way,” she said before wrapping her arm around the imp’s back and digging her chin into his small shoulder. “And you deserve better than to watch me when I’m weak.”

“I can help make you strong…” Rumpelstiltskin whispered, but he knew what he was up against.

“Not when I want to be weak,” Circe whispered back, and in a too-swift moment she was standing up and backing away from Rumpelstiltskin.

“I’ll find you again and make you strong.” Rumpelstiltskin was quick to promise, and it earned a smile from his former companion.

“I hope I’ll let you, kiddo,” Circe played with him, but then she looked past Rumpelstiltskin and made eye contact with Sir Death. “I know you’ll take care of him, at least. But if you come after me, expect a fight.”

“I expected one this time,” Sir Death replied, and Circe’s grim smile spoke the truth of it.

“Guess we’ll just have to keep our favorite imp as a mediator.” When she was done with the reaper, she looked back at Rumpelstiltskin with a heavy breath. “Goodbye, my darling. I’ll always treasure our summer.”

“I know. Goodbye, but not so long,” Rumpelstiltskin replied, and the certainty in his words gave Circe pause. However, the witch would not be swayed, and after snapping her fingers, a disc of yellow-green energy appeared to her side. After giving the imp one last sad smile, Circe walked into the disc and disappeared into the ether along with it.

“You’ll see her again, child,” Sir Death said, but Rumpelstiltskin already knew the truth of it.

“That’s the gift you gave me,” he replied, turning back to look at his guardian standing above him. Rumpelstiltskin could see shame and trepidation on the reaper’s face, and he gave Sir Death the time he needed to find the words to express it adequately.

“Child…” he began, but after a quick jerk of his head, the reaper sighed and then crouched down so he could look him in the eye. “Rumpelstiltskin, I did not mean to lie to you.”

“I know.”

“And I did not intend for my curse to make its way to you.”

“I know.”

“And I’m sorry I did not disclose my true identity,” he continued, looking away further with this confession, but Rumpelstiltskin placed a scratchy hand on Sir Death’s fingers and stared deep into the man’s confused eyes.

“But you did. You’re Sir Death.”

“That’s not—”

“That’s what you are to me,” Rumpelstiltskin stated, rushing into a hug the reaper was not prepared to accept. In confusion, it took Sir Death a moment to wrap his arms around the imp’s tiny frame, but they both smiled when he did. “You are Sir Death, and you’ve given me a long life filled with adventures and friends and stories no one else can have.”

“Rumpelstiltskin…”

“Solomon can be your real name, and I can call you that if you want, but if it’s all the same to you, I’d like to just keep calling you Sir Death. That’s how I think of you,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he withdrew from the hug and then placed his hands on each side of the reaper’s face. “You give mercy to the dying, you give them the choice sometimes, and both of those are truly noble things. You can tell you used to be a king.”

“Child, that’s… is that truly how you think of me?”

“Yep!” Rumpelstiltskin said, hopping back to wave his hand up and down the crouched reaper. “That’s just who you are. Everybody can see it.”

“Everybody, huh?”

“Mhmmm!” Rumpelstiltskin said before jabbing his thumb into his own chest. “Except for me. I see something more.”

“Oh, you do, do you?” Sir Death asked, a smile breaking through his grim façade as he rose to his full height. Once he was standing, Rumpelstiltskin grunted and then ran forward so he could wrap his fingers around Sir Death’s free hand. “What exactly do you see, child?”

“Something I’m not gonna tell you!” Rumpelstiltskin exclaimed, walking forward and pulling the reaper

behind him. “You’re gonna have to guess.”

“And why is that?”

“Because if you get to keep secrets, so do I,” Rumpelstiltskin claimed. “I want you to keep having reasons to come back and adventure with me.”

“I need a reason, child?” Sir Death asked, but then he realized his misstep. After losing a friend so recently, it only made sense the imp would be more protective of the connections he had left. However, Rumpelstiltskin only beamed at Sir Death with a wide grin on his face.

“No, but it will be a fun game until you figure it out,” he said, letting go of Sir Death’s hand just as he ran forward to chase a pair of pigeons that had been milling about in the road. It was a distraction for the imp, who would not let his heart hurt without enough joy to maintain a proper balance. Since Circe was his source of mischief beforehand, he would have to make even more until he saw her again.

And, when it came down to it, he did not want Sir Death to feel even more guilt after such a serious moment. The reaper felt the weight of everything and Rumpelstiltskin could see it dragging down his narrow shoulders, and it was time for the imp to bear some of his own burdens. So much of that conflict had been borne from the responsibility each of his guardians had felt for Rumpelstiltskin, and the imp reasoned that if he removed that responsibility, perhaps the two of them could eventually become friends.

After all, even if it was just Rumpelstiltskin the Third, the Grand Sorceress and the Ancient King had a great deal in common.