lotus0kid: (dancer)
[personal profile] lotus0kid
Rating: PG (some language and later references to wartime violence)
Word Count: 2,942
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.

Chapter One

The tag-a-long staggers when they materialize in Rumpelstiltskin’s front hall. He takes the chance for a better look at her in the improved light of multiple torches. She’s a petite thing, garbed as any rough tradesman’s hired boy. She’s also filthy from head to toe. Rumpelstiltskin glances down to find her small, grimy hand still in his. He lets go to execute a grand gesture. “Pick a room, dearie, make yourself clean and comfortable. I’ve had a rather trying day and would prefer to rest before dealing. Is that acceptable or shall I pop you back to the woods?”

“Uh, no, clean and... rest. Yes. I’ll do that then.” She wanders toward the stairs and trudges up them, without another word or look in his direction.

“Strangest little thing,” Rumpelstiltskin murmurs, watching her go. There’s certainly a story in her, but he can’t fathom it just yet.

As he attempts to win some well earned sleep, her nightmares shout down the hall at him. Ogres, screams, and... bubbles? He does his best to block it out, feeling oddly as if spying on her dreaming mind would be cheating.

When morning comes he goes to his wheel in the main hall, lets her wake and stumble upon him in her own time. The sight of her now is quite a different experience. She’s unearthed a crumpled light blue dress from that noisome sack she carried. The white cap sleeves on the shirt beneath seem all the brighter against her deeply tanned skin. Her brown, sun-streaked hair is pinned back from her face. Which, speaking of, would be lovely as the moon if not for the mass of freckles sprayed across her nose, forehead, and both cheeks. She stands awkwardly, hand pressing at her stomach as she takes some very careful breaths. Unused to corsetry, Rumpelstiltskin logs away in his mind.

“Sleep well?” he inquires.

Her smile darts across her lips like a nervous fish, “Fine, thanks.”

That’s a lie. Nonetheless, Rumpelstiltskin steps from his wheel and drapes himself on the chair at the head of the room’s long table. Pours himself a cup of tea from the service placed there. “So, to business.”

She nods, creeps a few feet closer.

“Normally, in this sort of situation, each party has something the other wants. You want some knowledge from me,” and badly, for some incomprehensible reason, “But what could I possibly want from you in exchange?”

The scholar fidgets, eyes looking anywhere but at him. He lets her dangle on the hook for a while, just to avenge her arrogance from last night, reprimanding him like he was a wayward schoolboy.

“Do have some tea while I ponder this,” he eventually says, flicking a hand at the service.

She moves toward it, tripping only a couple times on her heeled shoes, miles daintier than the mud-caked boots from last night. She lifts the teapot to pour, and Rumpelstiltskin’s eyes are drawn to the rows of skinny scars on the inside of her forearm. Something rather fierce raked her flesh a while ago, and he finds not knowing what it was surprisingly unbearable.

“I believe... an arrangement could be made,” he says, lacing his fingers at his chin, “Every day, I will grant you three questions, no more than three. And, before you even ask, I swear to answer honestly.”

The scholar’s smile is a bit more lasting this time. “Excellent. And?”

“And every day I shall ask you one question. You may feel free to lie, but know that you can never, ever fool me.”

He let his voice dip low and wicked there, just to see a hint of caution in those bright blue eyes of hers. He has to take what he can get, since she has been so absurdly unafraid so far. It’s galling, and confusing. And intriguing.

“In the meantime, my estate could do with a caretaker. You will serve my meals, clean the rooms, dust my collection, launder my clothing, fetch fresh straw for my wheel...” She’s been nodding along like a broken toy, so he grinds out, “And skin the children I hunt for their pelts.”

Her face drops in shock, her teacup tumbles from nerveless fingers. He savors her horror, until wretched curiosity shines through. “Do you really do that?”

Suddenly Rumpelstiltskin feels almost offended, of all things. “No, that was a quip. Not serious.”

She nods, “Oh, all right.” Just like that, as if it was nothing to her either way. She bends down to retrieve the cup, “Damn, blasted thing’s chipped.” She holds it up for him to see, “Sorry. Look, it’s not bad, still perfectly useable.”

“It’s just a cup,” he replies. He can conjure a hundred more of the same in a wink.

But the look she gives him then, as if he might hurt the thing’s feelings if he discards it. She pours more tea, leans one hip against the table, and sips from the chipped cup, steady gaze all but daring him to make her use an unbroken one. And the oddity continues apace. Battling past his puzzlement, he says, “Those are the terms. What you get and what I get. Is the deal struck?”

She keeps her eyes trained on him, and he can see the scales in her head measuring what she wants with what she’s willing to give up. He thinks he glimpses despair flash across her face, but it vanishes beneath a smile, “Yes, it is struck. You have my word.”

“Then you have mine.” He lifts his cup in salute, she returns the gesture. They enjoy their accord and their tea in silence.

“So,” she says after a moment, “I get to ask my three questions now?”

“No.”

She blinks, “Why not?”

He unleashes his favorite smirk of maximum smugness, “Well, now I’m not obliged to answer anything at all, but just this once... you’ve already asked your first question: ‘And?’ A second question: ‘Do you really do that?’ And your third: ‘I get to ask my three questions now?’ You’re done for the day, dearie.” He throws in a giggle for good measure.

For a moment she stares at him, lips pressed in a thin line. But then, she breaks into a smile, and even lets out a small chuckle of her own and rolls her eyes. “I see you’re not going to make this easy on me. To be expected, I suppose. Is it too late to request an exception for questions pertaining exclusively to my caretaker duties?”

Rumpelstiltskin wags his head, “We’ll take it on a case by case basis.”

She tosses back the rest of the tea and sets down her cup, pushing herself away from the table, “Right then. I don’t suppose we have much else to say to each other, as you already asked me not one but two questions, those being how I slept and what I could offer in our deal.” She performs a surprisingly proficient curtsey, “Good day, sir.”

The scholar saunters from the room, and Rumpelstiltskin’s gaze follows her the whole way, knowing full well he’s gotten more than he bargained for, but smiling all the same.

He returns to his wheel, and loses himself in the spinning for an unmarked amount of time until a scream he didn’t really hear with his ears pierces his trance. At last, he thinks, something’s broken through that girl’s foolish bravery. He stalks through the halls to locate his new caretaker, trying to sort out the lurking disappointment he feels.

He finds her in the library, her back to him, entire body stiff as a board and hands clapped over her mouth. At his gentle cough, she spins around. Her eyes are as wide with exhilaration as when he announced his identity by the fireside. Her hands jerk away from her mouth so she can sputter, “So- so many... look at them all!”

Rumpelstiltskin glances around at shelf upon shelf upon fully occupied shelf. “Well, a room without books is like a body without a soul, or so I’ve heard it said. It’s a rather pedestrian collection compared to what I’ve got in my tower.”

She flies at him then, hands fisting in the front of his shirt and yanking his face within five inches of hers. “PLEASE LET ME SEE THEM!” she practically bellows, eyes glittering feverishly. He’s seen pillaging warlords less consumed with greed.

It’s not easy to recover any kind of sorcerer’s dignity in the moment, but he manages. “Perhaps, someday, if you’re good.”

She sucks in and releases a deep breath, seeming to regain a little dignity of her own. She lets go, and commences zooming around the library snatching up volume after volume, muttering to herself all the time, “You, you, you, definitely you- oh! Come here, my darling- you, you when I’m done with you, you, you...”

“Don’t forget there are chores that need doing,” Rumpelstiltskin calls over to her, “We have a deal, dearie.”

She waves a hand holding four books at him, not glancing up but emitting a wordless noise of what might be agreement.

Feeling uncomfortably superfluous, but knowing the scholar is as lost to him as if there was an ocean between them, Rumpelstiltskin leaves her to her studies.

***

It grieves Belle to leave the library, but the Dark One is right. Though she could spend the rest of her days buried in this treasure trove of information, her live subject is ever so slightly more important. And if she doesn’t hold up her end of the deal, why should he hold up his? She stands from the floor, gingerly stretching cramped legs, and steps out of the center of a wide circle of books. She needs her journals anyway, to compare and take notes.

She’s unsurprised to find the day half gone- this is hardly the first time the hunt for new knowledge has eclipsed all else in her mind. Her empty stomach makes a plea for attention, so she tries to remember how to get to the kitchens. Belle didn’t do much wandering in the morning, preferring to hammer out a deal with the Dark One and learn what price she would pay. A steep one indeed, it seems. Not the caretaker part- she’s not afraid of the labor that might involve. Only worried about how much time it will steal from her new friends in the library, and from her subject. But the questions he’ll ask. One a day. He’ll know what she did, and soon, if he isn’t a blithering idiot. Belle’s stomach knots and she forgets about eating.

She focuses on familiarizing herself with the castle and its needs. She does go to the Dark One with questions, prefacing each with the phrase “I need to know,” thereby transforming them into statements. That gets a grin out of him, though his eyes tell her such cleverness won’t fly for her three a day.

His eyes... she’ll have to spend a week of questions on them alone. Soon Belle fetches her emptiest journal to carry around with her and record questions she thinks of. She fills three pages front and back with them by the time she falls into bed.

Any hope that her busy work might keep the nightmares at bay dies deep in the dark. Once she’s wiped her tears away, she pulls the blanket from her bed and shuffles to the library. Her new friends are right where she left them. She stacks a few from one of her “to read” piles and uses it as a pillow where she curls up in a corner. As the shadows of the library stay free of hulking shapes wielding massive clubs, her eyes drift closed.

Belle wakes to a leather-booted toe tapping a few inches from her face. “I don’t suppose I need to ask how you slept,” the Dark One remarks, peering down at her.

Belle sits up and stretches with an enormous yawn. “Would you-?” she stops herself just in time. Her subject smirks. “Before we begin, I’m going to make breakfast. I need to know if you want some.”

He waves a hand, “If I hunger, I’ll tell you. Be quick about it. I haven’t got all day to spend chatting over this and that with you. Come to the hall when you’re ready.”

She leaves her blanket and book-pillow and subject to trot from the library, not really thinking until later that it might not be the best manners to traverse the halls in only her nightdress. She shrugs- she’s done just fine without her airs and graces so far, she’s hardly going to dust them off for the Dark One. He’d only laugh.

She goes back to the room she chose and changes into her other pair of breeches, topping them with a shirt and vest. No particular reason why that she can name, except she can’t think as clearly in that damn corset. She shoves a pencil behind her ear and a journal under her arm. Then she heads to the kitchens to make up a simple plate of bread and fruit and tea that she brings up to the main hall. Her tray holds two cups- there are unpolished manners and then there’s indecency.

The Dark One is waiting for her in the only chair, and Belle covers a spike of anxiety with a smile, setting down her tray and then sitting cross-legged on the table’s polished surface. He blinks up at her, eyebrows raised, but she simply opens her journal to the first clean page, writes “Day One” at the top, and says, “I need to know if you’d like to go first.”

Her bravado quails under his considering stare. Her heart clenches and loses its rhythm. She hoped she could trick herself into being glad to talk about what happened, to finally throw off the cloak of secrecy. It’s a lie. She will never be ready to talk about it. But there’s no turning back now, so she sets her jaw and waits for the blow to fall.

A corner of the Dark One’s mouth curls up, “Oh, by all means, ladies first.”

The knot in Belle’s stomach eases, for the moment. “Well, since I’m the closest thing, that’ll be me. All right then, where to start...”

It’s his turn to watch and wait. He has the look she’s sure she just wore, as if the enemy arrow is nocked, aimed, and ready. However, he appears fully intent on catching it.

Where to start, indeed. Curiosity finally wins out over dread. Who could have guessed that she, Belle, would ever be here, sitting opposite the Dark One himself, about to ask him anything she wants to know? She must be cautious, of course. It wouldn’t be wise to dig too deep too soon. Skin deep it is, then, she thinks with an inward laugh. “Your skin, is it resistant to heat and cold?”

“As much as I need it to be,” he volleys.

“You use magic to regulate the temperature around you?”

“All magic comes with a price, so not if it can be avoided.”

“May I touch your hand?”

She’s surprised him once again, and it is really far too much fun to do that. She’ll be addicted before the week is out. Probably end up doing back-flips down the hall just to get her fix.

In any case, he leans forward and so does she, he extends his arm and she catches his hand in both of hers. It’s the hand that held hers when he brought her here, the biggest act of magic she’s ever experienced and one that quite scattered her marbles for a little while afterwards. It’s of average size for any man, but the nails are dark and almost claw-like, and his skin is finely pebbled and dry, colored the most unlikely mix of brown and green and gold. There are calluses on his fingers Belle attributes to his spinning wheel. She makes note of all these observations in her journal while her subject stays perfectly still and silent. When Belle glances up at him, he wears an expression she can’t identify. “Can I-?” she stops, remembering she’s spent her three questions.

That odd expression flickers away under a somewhat perfunctory smirk.

She tries again, “I’d like to draw your hand, if it wouldn’t be too inconvenient.”

He squints at her, no doubt trying to decide if this constitutes a question or not. Eventually he waves with his free hand, “Carry on.”

She gives him a grateful smile that seems to discomfort him more than anything. She returns to her work, holding his wrist to capture the lines of his open palm.

“What was the last town you visited, dearie?”

“Um, let me think,” Belle replies, worrying her lower lip, “Valea. Yes, it was Valea. On my way to Konoye.”

“But the mountain pass between them was snowed in seven weeks ago.”

“I know.”

“So, you were waiting out the winter... in the forest.”

“That’s right.” She pauses, her eyes dart up to him, “Is... was that your question? What town I went to last?”

He shrugs, “I was wondering.”

In that moment Belle doesn’t know if she wants to smack him or kiss him. He’s either sparing her or drawing out her torment, and only he would know which. She doesn’t bother entertaining the thought that he couldn’t read all her fear as she waited for his question. It seems he wants to tease what happened out of her piece by piece. Fine, she decides, For every piece he gets, I’ll get three pieces out of him.

Chapter Three

Date: 2012-04-30 06:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] raissad.livejournal.com
Lovely. :)

Date: 2012-04-30 10:48 pm (UTC)

Date: 2012-04-30 10:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] imzadi-gumdrop.livejournal.com
Great second chapter.

Date: 2012-04-30 10:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lotus0kid.livejournal.com
Glad you think so, next one'll be up Wednesday!

Date: 2012-05-01 01:46 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mrssnape13.livejournal.com
I love that she gives him as good as she gets!

The bit with the library was also wonderful. Belle's reaction to all those books was really the only proper reaction when faced with so many wonderful books. ;)

Date: 2012-05-01 11:32 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lotus0kid.livejournal.com
Thanks! It was fun writing this very different Belle, who goes after what she wants without letting herself get intimidated, even when she really should be.

If I had one gripe about "Skin Deep," it would be the severe lack of books. A healthy dose of bookworm-iness better be a part of SB!Belle or I will be very disappointed.

Date: 2012-05-02 12:48 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mrssnape13.livejournal.com
I absolutely agree. Her love of stories is one of her defining qualities, and it would be a shame for the show not to include that.

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July 2012

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