Once upon a time, as they say, there lived a man named Rumplestiltskin. Day and night, he spun thread- and once a week he took the thread to market to sell, and he made just enough money to keep himself and his son from starving. Nothing much ever happened to Rumplestiltskin. His was an ordinary life. A boring life, perhaps- but Rumplestiltskin told himself that he didn’t mind if his life was boring, so long as it was safe; since the war, and everything that happened after, he considered safe the thing to be. Most of the time, he even believed it. And then the Librarian came along.
It was an ordinary morning in Rumplestiltskin’s ordinary life when it happened. As usual, he and Baelfire had set out for market very early; they had to- because of his bad leg, Rumplestiltskin walked slowly and had to stop often.
At one point, he sat on a fallen tree by the side of the road to catch his breath. Bae went off to play in the woods while he waited.
Rumplestiltskin didn’t know how long he had been resting when Bae came running back to him, with round eyes and a board grin. Written across his small face was that kind of childish energy that managed to be fear, excitement, confusion, surprise and joy all at once. Rumplestiltskin sometimes found it difficult to believe he had ever known that feeling. If he had, the war had twisted it out of him when it twisted his leg.
Bae was running so fast he half tripped in the dirt. “Papa, Papa,” he cried. “Come and see!”
“See what, Bae?”
“You know the clearing just a little way down the path?” When Rumplestiltskin nodded, his son sucked in a breath and continued. “There’s a great big house in it.”
“How can there be a house there? We were here only a week ago and there was nothing.” It was clear to Rumplestiltskin that Bae’s imagination had run away with him- but he half wished he hadn’t spoken. Young boys needed excitement- needed joy- in their lives, and Bae’s current existence supplied little enough of either. If Bae had imagined a magical house into his otherwise colorless world, it was neither fair nor right to squash it without a thought. Rumplestiltskin decided, instead, to play along. “Why don’t you show me this house?” he said.
Bae’s smile grew wider still, wider than than Rumplestiltskin had seen in a long time, and his heart felt light to see it. He took up his cane and followed Bae down the path into the woods. The going was uneven, but it wasn’t far to the clearing and they were there in only a few minutes.
Rumplestiltskin promptly felt terrible for having doubted his son, for there was indeed a house there, right in the middle of the familiar clearing- as though it had sprung out of nowhere between one week and the next. Besides being… well, impossible, it was the strangest looking house Rumplestiltskin had ever seen. It looked to have been constructed of wooden boards- but instead of being tan or brown as wood ought to be, it was pale blue, and it had an odd sheen to it. The house was tall- at least two floors up- with a large white spire stretching even further above it. At the front of the spire was a white circle with things painted on it- two lines pointing in different directions. Rumplestiltskin had seen something like it before and he tried to remember where- after a moment, it came to him. There was a similar circular contraption to be found in one of the local monasteries- it was called a clock, a device used to tell time.
He was still staring dumbly at the house when he heard a kind of gurgling from within it. He took Baelfire by the shoulders and pulled him close, but he hadn’t quite made up his mind to actually run before the double doors at the front of the house flew open. A quantity of steam came shooting out of it- as did several books and, a moment later, a woman.
The woman landed flat on her back and lay still, surrounded by the books that had come flying out before her. Rumplestiltskin crept carefully toward the woman, and peered down. She was… very beautiful, he couldn’t help noticing, with a quantity of dark hair and lovely features. She wore strange clothes, however, including an oversized shirt- one which appeared to have been woven specifically to have holes in it, and had slipped off her pale shoulder- worn over an undershirt of light blue, and skirt which reached only to her knees. On her feet were a pair of high boots with strange, pointy soles, and in her hair was a bow. She also had a quantity of bangles around her neck and on her wrists.
Just when he had been thinking about touching her to see if she was alive, her eyes popped open. They twinkled brightly at him, and at Baelfire. “Hello,” she said. “I’m the Librarian.”
“The what?” Rumplestiltskin asked, a little too amazed to think clearly.
She didn’t appear to be paying much attention to him, however. “Oooh,” she said, with a grin. “I’m Australian now.”
“You’re what?” he asked.
“Never mind,” she smiled. “Who are you?”
“I’m Bae,” the boy said immediately- he clearly didn’t entertain the healthy suspicion of this odd woman that his father did. “And this is my father, Rumplestiltskin.”
“Hello,” the woman- the Librarian- said. She was silent for a moment and then she announced, “I’ve forgotten something,” and hurtled suddenly upright. She stood, with grass in her hair and a few mud stains on her skirt and narrowed her eyes at the house she’d come out of.
“What have you forgotten?” Rumplestiltskin asked.
“Could be,” she said, nodding sagely and running her tongue over her teeth. “Could be I left the kettle on.” She considered. “No, that’s not it. Never mind about that, either.” She eyed him. “What do you do, Rumplestiltskin?”
“I’m a… spinner,” he told her, after a moment’s hesitation. “I spin thread.”
“To make cloth out of, yes? How lovely.” She beamed at him. “I like… clothes.”
“So I see,” he replied, trying not to sound judgmental. He thought she looked… well, she looked stunning, but her wardrobe was somewhat bizarre.
“Oh,” she said, looking down. “Is it too much? New body, new rules, you know. I’m still sort of… figuring things out.”
Though he had no earthly idea what she was talking about, he nodded. She said too much, too quickly- and he had an idea that he wouldn’t understand her any better if she slowed down. All the same, he found that he didn’t want her to stop. “What do you do?” he asked.
“In your… house?”
“That’s my ship,” she informed him, grinning slyly. “Do you want to look inside?”
“I do!” Bae said, immediately. He was bouncing a little on the balls of his feet.
Rumplestiltskin didn’t know what to do. He was curious about the woman’s house too, but he wasn’t sure he wanted Bae in there- not until he knew what it was like inside. He wanted to ask Bae to wait for him in the woods, but he suddenly wasn’t sure that would be a good idea either. After all, the clearing had seemed to him a perfectly ordinary and secure place, and now there was a house in it- a house that was somehow also a ship. All the same, it was the only thing he could think to do, so he got down on his knees in front of Bae. “Son,” he said. “Why don’t you play in the woods for a little longer, and when I’m sure her... ship is safe, you can have a look inside?”
Bae considered this proposition for a moment; he glanced, frowning, at the woman, who gave him an enthusiastic nod. Finally, he said, “All right.”
“Good,” Rumplestiltskin replied, and followed the woman toward the doors of her house, all the while wondering what on earth he was thinking, agreeing to go inside with her- she might be a witch, for all he knew.
The inside of the Librarian’s house-ship was incredible. Compared to the hovel that he lived in, the house in the clearing had looked huge- but it was even bigger on the inside. It had a great twisting staircase coiling along the walls and something in the center- something silver in color and covered in flat surfaces, levers and cogs that, to Rumplestiltskin at least, defied comprehension- but beyond these things and a couple of chairs in one corner, what he mostly saw was books. Every bit of free space was covered in stacks or shelves of books. Rumplestiltskin couldn’t read, but the half dozen or so books he’d sometimes seen in a book-sellers’ stalls or at monasteries had been a source of fascination to him. He’d never imagined that as many books as this could even exist. He stared, slack-jawed, at the profusion. “Who are you?” was all he managed to say, when he could speak.
She laughed. “I told you- I’m the Librarian. It’s my job to see- and buy, beg, borrow or steal, if I can- a copy of every books in every culture in the universe.”
“How is that possible?”
“It’s possible because this is a time ship.” She did a little half twirl toward the silver something in the middle of the room and leaned against it. “I can go anywhere, anywhen, and I've been at it a long time.”
“And you do it… alone?” Rumplestiltskin asked, hesitantly. He didn’t like to insinuate that a woman with powers so clearly godlike- and a face so very lovely, his mind treacherously added- might be lonely, but he thought she must be, living a life so full of wonders and yet having no one to share it with.
“Alone?” she repeated, with stresses on all the wrong letters- like she was trying wrapping her tongue around the word for the first time.
“Yes,” he said.
“No,” she informed him with a sniff. “Not generally. I had a princess last, lovely little thing. All the people in her castle had been turned to stone and she helped me find a way to fix them, and she was very eager to come with me. It turns out she only wanted to leave so much because she was slated get married the very next day to some prince she didn’t know and when I found out I was going bring her straight back because I’ve ruined so many treaties that way before. But we landed in China first- I forget the exact date- and met Fa Mulan.” She sighed happily. “Can you imagine?”
“No,” he told her, slowly, because he had no idea who she was talking about.
“Oh.” She deflated very slightly. “Right. Too early. She’s a big war hero when she comes from. Military genius. Saved her country even though women weren’t generally allowed to so much as look at a sword. Anyway, she and Aurora both sort of got… gooey eyed over each other somewhere in all the… running- and what was I supposed to do then?”
“I don’t… know?”
“Well, I didn’t either, but I certainly wasn’t going to break up true love or anything, and they wound up wanting to stay in San Francisco, after an incident with some Sontarans.”
“Right. Too early.” She sniffed again, quietly. “And I’m all for happily ever after, but… well, you know what I mean. Before that I had a Time Agent- Jefferson, he said his name was. His wrist strap had shorted out and he’d gone rogue to look for his missing daughter, so he hitched a ride with me. Eventually he found her and he wanted to leave too.”
He wanted to sympathize, so he said, “My wife ran off with a captain,” then flushed.
She froze. “Not… the Captain?”
“I don’t… know?” he said again. “She just said he was a captain. She didn’t say it to me, mind, she just left a message for me at the tavern that she’d run off with him. Why?”
“Oh, nothing. Nothing. It doesn’t matter. Just, if you do meet the Captain, watch yourself. He is a tricky, tricky man. He said he would fix my chameleon circuit, but he just made it worse.” Her expression grew stormy.
“All right,” he agreed easily. “But I don’t expect I will meet him. Nothing much happens to me.” He didn’t want to seem as pathetic as he was sure the words would make him sound, because he didn’t want her to pity him, but they came out. He looked away.
“I’ve happened to you.”
“Yes,” he said. “But I don’t imagine you’ll stay.”
“Stay?” she repeated, again seeming to sound out a foreign word. “No, no, I can’t- but you could come with me- you and your son. There’s so much I could show you, you know.” And she smiled and he wanted to smile too.
He sighed. “I don’t mean to sound…”
“I don’t know,” he answered, frustrated. “But however it sounds- why would you want to show things to- to me?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Well, I’m not a princess or a war hero- or a time agent, whatever that is. I’m just… well, I’m just a spinner with a bad leg.”
“There’s no just about spinning- I’m sure it’s a noble profession- and don't worry about the leg, I'm sure I'll think of something. And as for you… I expect you are brilliant, Rumplestiltskin.” And though she had to bend a little to meet his eyes because of his stoop, when she said it, he believed her.
And his safe home, where nothing ever happened but he and Bae got by, didn’t sound so appealing anymore, either. “You could… show us how to read, Bae and I?”
“You don’t know how?” She looked very sad. “I wouldn’t have survived my childhood without books. Of course I’ll teach you- but how to read is the least that I could show you. It’s my job to bring all of the stories back for future generations- and, well, past generations too, the archive is a little complicated to explain- but I, I get to be in the stories- and so can you and Baelfire.”
Rumplestiltskin actually rather liked the idea, but then he realized something. “How do you know his full name is Baelfire?” He couldn’t recall saying it in front of her, and the boy had introduced himself as Bae.
The Librarian tilted her head to one side. “I just know his name. Maybe it’s… something to do with the thing I’ve forgotten. But I’ve decided something- it doesn’t really much matter what I’ve forgotten. We’ll- what’s that phrase you humans use? Burn that bridge when we come to it?” Her face scrunched up into a frown. “No, I don’t think that’s it.” She looked at Rumplestiltskin expectantly.
“I don’t know,” he said, helplessly. It was beginning to sound like that was all he knew how to say.
She shrugged, crossed to the doors, and flung them open. She poked her head out and called. “Bae?”
The boy appeared so quickly that Rumplestiltskin could tell that he hadn’t gone too far. He peered into the house-ship and his eyes grew big. The Librarian told Bae about her offer and they grew bigger still. “Please, Papa?” Bae asked. “We never do anything.”
“It could be dangerous,” he told his son- but for once he didn’t think ‘dangerous’ sounded all that bad. The Librarian made everything sound bright and shining and beautiful. In his experience, so little was that way- but he wanted to believe that she could show him something new. “Well,” he said. “Do you have a place for us to sleep?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “If you can imagine a room, you’ll find it somewhere in here.” She patted the wall. “Just move the books and make yourself at home.”
He found he liked the idea of calling this place home. “All right then,” he said. “Where to?”