lotus0kid: (dancer)
[personal profile] lotus0kid
Rating: PG (some language and later references to wartime violence)
Word Count: 1,576
Disclaimer: Recognize anything? Then it ain't mine.
A/N: This came out of a desire to see Belle as FTL's version of a field biologist. Yeah. Chapters posted every other day.
Summary: Canon!AU re-telling of "Skin Deep." The ogre threat has been destroyed without Rumpelstiltskin's help. However, he still manages to stumble across Belle, in extremely different circumstances.

“See if I ever deal with the Lillim again, bloody hags,” Rumpelstiltskin growls. Or tries to, the words come out slurred and muffled by his clenched jaw and unresponsive tongue.

He stubbornly tromps deeper into the woods. The sheer nerve of them to think their puny potions would kill him. And yet, he finds he’s having trouble working it out of his system. Attempts to will himself into his tower chambers have produced nothing but a piercing headache. The woods before him are growing dark, very dark indeed. His steps snag on hidden roots. Chills ricochet up and down his body. His shoulders slam against tree trunks that jump out at him. The darkness grows deeper and deeper. He spots a tiny light nestled in the now opaque gloom. Is it the Dark Castle? He staggers toward it, and then falls.

***

Belle jumps to her feet at the sight of what she at first assumes to be a man tumbling down the brush-covered slope toward her camp. Then she lunges forward and drops to her knees to catch him before he rolls straight into her fire. She draws a startled gasp as she gently turns him to lie on his back. He’s no ordinary man, as his scaly brown-green-gold skin tells her.

“Hello, handsome,” she breathes.

He’s unconscious, and when Belle presses her ear to his chest, she hears no heartbeat.

“Assuming that’s where you keep your heart, you’re in some trouble, darling.” She lays one hand over another and braces her arms against his chest, pushing hard on it and letting up, again and again, trying to pump his heart back into function. “Come on, precious, we haven’t even been properly introduced yet. I have questions to ask you.”

She sits back and holds a hand to his nose and mouth. He’s not breathing.

“Hell’s blazes, that’s not good.” She tilts his head back and pinches his nose shut. “We’ll just assume you don’t have poisonous saliva, eh?” she quips before sealing her mouth over his and blowing a breath of air into him. She blows another and returns to chest compressions, but her hope is dwindling.

“Let’s see, let’s see now...” Her eyes fall on her bulging travel sack and an idea strikes. She stops her ministrations and crawls across the grass, mumbling, “Just hang on, gorgeous, I’ll only be a moment...”

She practically has to empty the sack to access the tiny pocket inside, fishing out from within a cotton-wrapped glass vial filled with astonishingly yellow liquid. “All right, all right, there now, this ought to do... something. Maybe.”

It’s a risk, and she wouldn’t use the cointop toad secretions for anything less than an emergency, but- well, here it is. She’ll not let this intriguing creature die without so much as a “how do you do.” It’s her duty.

She returns to his side, pries open his mouth, does not let herself get sidetracked by stained teeth with no apparent disease, pulls out the stopper on the vial, and lets a drop of liquid dribble under his tongue. She shuts his mouth and sits back, wariness telling her to keep away and curiosity drawing her close.

He shoots upright, surprising a yelp from Belle. He starts to cough, rough and thick, and doesn’t stop until he spits out a wad of something that makes the grass sizzle. Then he lets loose a stream of obscenities the equal of which Belle hasn’t heard since her last stop in a harbor town.

His voice is like the scraping of stones or the creaking of warped wood, and the question falls from her mouth before she can stop it, “Is your voice always like that or is it from the poison?”

Her guest lifts his head and looks left and right, as if uncertain he heard anything. Eventually he twists around to find where she sits behind him. “What?”

Belle smiles, hopefully with encouragement. “I was just wondering, but if you need to rest a moment I understand.”

He stares at her, apparently baffled by her presence. “Who are you, girl?”

Belle blinks, “The person who saved your life just now.”

He scoffs, “Nonsense. That silly little potion wouldn’t be the end of me.”

“Oh?” Belle replies, eyebrows lifting, “So all that beating your heart wasn’t doing- was it just having a short rest? Or the breathing your lungs weren’t doing- did they just need my help for a moment?”

That makes him pause, and his fingertips touch his mouth briefly.

“Yes,” Belle continues, “Or how about the cointop serum I so generously provided? That stuff does not come cheap, I’ll have you know. Three squirrels and a rabbit got me that little vial, I lost four days’ work. Therefore, you are welcome, sir, for my heroic rescue of your sorry existence.”

She takes a breath, satisfied at her defense. Her guest is properly chastised, or at least seems so. It takes a few moments’ silence for guilt to wriggle into Belle’s contentment. She curses her smart mouth for most likely talking her out of what might have been a truly special interview with a wholly new being. “Anyway,” she attempts, “A-are you feeling better now?”

“Much,” he replies crisply.

Belle plucks at the grass between her knees. “Um, all right then. What are you?”

Again her guest fixes a gaze on her like she shouldn’t exist, “I beg your pardon?”

“I can’t figure it out,” she says, “Some kind of goblin? Unlikely. I’d be twitching and flopping from the saliva, wouldn’t I? A dragon, then? In that family? I’ve never seen one without wings. And they don’t have hair. You’re not a troll, are you? A desert dweller, from the south? That might be my guess, from the skin. Am I getting close at all?”

He shifts then, turning to face her. The fire casts deep shadows around his dark eyes and sharp smile. “Dearie, you have the privilege of addressing the Dark One.”

Belle’s mouth drops open in a perfect circle. “No,” she says, voice barely above a whisper.

Somehow, the smile grows sharper, “Oh yeah.”

The circle of Belle’s mouth bends into an ear-to-ear grin, “This is amazing! I can’t believe this! The Dark One, right in front of me! Oh, I might have dreamed about this moment. I have so much to ask you!”

He couldn’t look more confounded if she tweaked his nose and called him Bambi. “Are you ill, child? Addle-pated, perhaps? Gone for one too many dances with the fae folk?”

Belle snorts, “Right, as if I’d be that stupid. No, but come, please, I must know, how-?”

“You ‘must know’ nothing,” he snaps, climbing a trifle unsteadily to his feet. Belle hurries to follow. “I’ll be on my way now. Thank you most kindly for your- assistance.”

He moves to stalk off into the woods. Belle clenches her fists, anger descending, “Hey, stop! I saved your life!”

He does stop, only to round on her like a cat lunging on a mouse. “You didn’t save my life any more than you ended it yourself. If you know anything of the Dark One you know the potion to kill me has not yet been devised.”

“Maybe your life wouldn’t have ended, but what would have happened had I not done what I did?”

Again she manages to make him pause and think. His mouth twists in an uncomfortable frown.

“Nothing very pleasant, yes? So, I think I’ve earned the right to ask you a few questions.”

His gaze fixes on her, and now there’s a spark of curiosity in it as he measures her. “You never told me who you are.”

Belle flinches, holding her name in her mouth. She knows names have power. And in any case, he doesn’t need to know. No one needs to know. She’s put all that behind her. “I’m not anyone important. Consider me a... student of the world.”

He giggles, a spooky high-pitched titter. “Well that’s just adorable. And the student wishes to make a study of the Dark One, eh?”

Belle bites her lip, feels her eyes go wide, “Yes.”

He squints at her, “You are the most peculiar thing I’ve ever encountered, and that is saying something.”

Belle grins, “I take that as a compliment.”

The Dark One rolls his eyes, “That’s hardly surprising. Fine. You prevented my life from becoming rather more disagreeable than it usually is. That means something. Gather your... possessions. You will come to my estate, and we’ll... make us a deal.”

A touch of anxiety curls in Belle’s stomach. She knows of the Dark One’s deals, how they so often come with a ruinous price. But, it’s him. No one’s had this chance before, of that Belle is certain. It would be madness to refuse. She kneels to shove all her books and pencils and journals and tools and clothes and rations into the overburdened travel sack, frequently glancing up to make sure the Dark One hasn’t deserted her.

He doesn’t, simply watches, still wreathed in shadows at the edge of the firelight.

She stands, “All right, ready.”

“That very much remains to be determined. Hold tight now, my little scholar.” He scoops up her hand, raising it to about chest height. The image gives Belle sudden and unwelcome flashes of past balls, the bindings of a corset digging into her torso- and then the firelight goes out and the entire world disappears.

Chapter Two
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July 2012

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