lotus0kid: (dancer)
[personal profile] lotus0kid
Rating: PG (some language and later references to wartime violence)
Word Count: 2,728
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 Two

Days pass, and questions fly back and forth. In the moment of his first question, Rumpelstiltskin chose to work backwards through his new caretaker’s life, to get to the knot of her story. She seems to appreciate this, when it doesn’t seem to annoy her deeply. In the meantime, she has dozens of other stories to tell from the dozens of places she’s been and the dozens of “beings,” as she so broadly puts it, that she’s encountered, her eyes lighting up in her sunny and sun-marked face as she shares them. It takes three weeks to reveal the mystery of the scars on her forearm.

“Sphinx,” she replies, “But really, it was an honest mistake. We’re dear friends now.” She pauses, gaze dropping as her expression darkens, “Truly, any injury I’ve gotten so far I got by my own stupidity or a simple miscommunication. I wish people could remember that.”

She falls silent, up there on the ladder fiddling with the curtains, prompting Rumpelstiltskin to say, “And what will you ask of me this morning?” The slight magic of their deal is twanging at him and won’t stop until she completes the ritual, an unexpected side effect.

“Oh, um...” Her eyes dart to the book of thoughts she keeps. Thoughts about him, which he finds as much unnerving as flattering, resulting mostly in confusion. He returns to his spinning, to make it all go away again. “Why do you spin so much? You’ve made more gold than you’ll ever spend.”

Practical as always, he thinks with a grin. He knows this much about her. Though she is almost definitely of the aristocracy, perhaps even nobility, what she’s experienced in her travels has stripped her of all extravagance. Needs met, she is content- anything extra is a burden. It’s admirable, if a little sad. In any case, he’s compelled to answer honestly, “I like to watch the wheel. It helps me forget.”

“Forget wh-?” she stops, and he turns to look up at her. The question with all its painful honest answers goes unasked. It’s the most mercy anyone has ever shown him. She flashes a smile at him and turns back to the window, pulling the thick curtain aside. A shaft of light reveals dust, the scholar’s eternal foe, dancing through the air.

As the unfamiliar ache of bewildered gratitude eases, the twanging of the unfulfilled deal returns to the forefront of Rumpelstiltskin’s mind. He’s about to remind her she has two questions left when she gasps. He sees her half dangling off the ladder, staring at something outside. “Careful up there...”

She twists backwards, waving her free arm in his general direction, “Come- come, come, get over here, quick!”

He stands and moves to the window, “What in blazes has you all excited?”

“Look! In the tree! I saw it right there, right- no, yes... there!”

Rumpelstiltskin squints into the spring sunshine. He can only assume she’s referring to the tree closest to the window. It seems to be harboring nothing out of the ordinary among its branches. “See what exactly?”

“You can’t-?” she lets out a short growl, “It was there, on that branch halfway up, I swear it!”

“And I may just believe you if you tell me what it is you saw.”

“There!” She points, he looks, and sees... something. “You can’t hide from me, sweet thing,” she mumbles, snatching up the curtains in both hands and jumping off the ladder. Rumpelstiltskin barely has time to stumble out of the way before she lands and the curtains fall in a heap around her.

“You- you tore down...”

“We needed some light in here anyway, it’s spring! If it bothers you I’ll nail them back up, I promise. Now come on!” She grabs his hand and they’re running through the castle, out the front door and through the gardens until they arrive at the mysteriously occupied tree. The scholar drops Rumpelstiltskin’s hand and hauls herself into the branches. “Thank the gods I went with breeches this morning, eh?”

Rumpelstiltskin takes a moment to consider the view before him. Since he is so very far from a saint, and he must be honest, he says, “Yes.”

Sadly, she vanishes in the thick foliage, “Now I need you to look, really look. I saw the tail before. Maybe the ears. And then poof! Gone! So the stories are true. Can you see anything?”

An inkling of clarity comes to him as the deal stops twanging, “Are you saying there’s a Cheshire cat up my tree?”

“The same. I hear they talk in Wonderland.” She squeaks, then says, “There you are, my dear. That’s you, my precious one. Perhaps you can understand me. How exciting that would be.”

Rumpelstiltskin walks under the tree limbs, trying to spot his caretaker and the cat. They must be quite a ways up, for he can barely catch a glimpse of her stretched out on a bough. A long striped tail uncurls perhaps four feet away from her. She’s murmuring to the creature continuously in soft honeyed tones that are not at all pleasant. Really.

“What are you doing here, love? Awfully long way from home. You’re not hurt, are you?”

Rumpelstiltskin frowns, stung with the most peculiar jealousy at the thought of the scholar tending a mangy Cheshire cat when she should be tending... the estate. As stipulated in their deal. “Those beasts can be vicious, I’ve heard. Watch yourself.”

She scoffs, “Cheshire cats can go invisible at will- they have no need to fight. He’s so silly, little one, don’t you think?”

She inches closer, and even far below Rumpelstiltskin can hear the cat’s warning growl. “It’s not amused, dearie,” he remarks as magic gathers in his hands. I’ll blast the creature back to its maker if it hurts her, comes the unexpectedly fierce thought. He clasps his hands behind him.

“I was just telling you how I faced down a particularly grumpy sphinx, one Cheshire cat is hardly a challenge. Hush now, darling, there’s no need to be upset. I only want to help.”

The tail flicks back and forth like a snake, fur starting to bristle at the end. “Dearie, I truly think this cat prefers its solitude.”

“Mm, solitude, him in his tree and you in your castle, you’re two of a kind.”

He’s about to ask what she means by that, when the tail fades from sight. He hears the hiss and the scholar’s cry and then she’s tumbling out of the tree right into his arms like he’s been waiting forever to catch her. A breathless moment passes where all he can see is her shocked face, eyes wide and sun dappling her freckled skin.

“I, uh...” she starts, swallows, “Thank you.”

“You- you’re... not mauled, are you?”

She laughs, it vibrates into his body. “No, no. He missed. Really, thank you.”

Her hands tighten minutely where they grasp his shoulders, which finally manages to return his missing senses. His arms drop and she lands with a slight stagger on her feet. Her warm arms slip away from him. He coughs, “So, will you go after the cat again?”

For once her smile is slightly abashed as she glances up into the tree, “Um, no, I think you might be right in this instance. He is not interested in company.” She turns back to Rumpelstiltskin and her smile regains its excited shine, “I got a good look though. I need to get my journal, before I forget.” She gives him a slight bob, her usual “Good day, sir,” and dashes off into the castle.

The better to avoid reliving the fresh memory of holding a beautiful woman in his arms, Rumpelstiltskin spots the flicking tail in the tree and shoots a burst of magic at it. The cat falls to the ground, transformed into a rather stripy rose. Rumpelstiltskin picks it up, “Perhaps this shall teach you not to attack the caretaker of the world’s most powerful sorcerer, hm?”

He presents it to the scholar the next day, after he’s sure it won’t hiss or grow claws instead of thorns. “A rose for you, if you’ll have it,” he says with the most courtly bow he can manage.

She smiles and ducks her head, for a moment looking like the lovely young noblewoman she might actually be. She takes the rose and thanks him with a curtsey. Holding the bloom up to her nose, she frowns down at it. “I know these stripes... Is this the Cheshire cat from yesterday?”

He half-shrugs, “Much more pleasant company like this, I find.”

She fixes a reprimanding look on him, holding the rose out, “Change him back and let him go.”

“Off to find his next victim, I suppose.”

“To find home,” she replies, sorrow glancing over her face. She walks forward, hooking her arm around his and leading him to the front door of the castle. She lays the rose on the ground and returns to his side, taking his arm again and giving him an expectant nod.

“Oh very well,” he grumbles, and calls his magic out of the rose. The restored Cheshire cat uncurls, looking confused. It spots them and recoils with a hiss, leaping into a run in the opposite direction, turning invisible as it goes.

Rumpelstiltskin feels a warm weight on his shoulder. The scholar has rested her head there, eyes on the unseen cat’s path. It’s not the question he planned to ask today, but it comes out all the same, “Do you miss your travels?”

She looks up at him, and their faces are suddenly very close indeed. “Not particularly, no.”

It’s the truth, and it puts a warm glow in a place Rumpelstiltskin was sure had frozen over. He distracts himself in his usual way, “Your questions, dearie. Two left.”

She looks pensive a moment, then says, “You have no mirrors except one, and that you keep covered. Do you fear spies?”

That’s not knowledge an innocent maiden, or even a scholar of the world’s creatures, should have. “There are those who wish me harm. No reason to give them any advantages.”

“Right,” she says with a nod, as if this is perfectly logical. “Could I have a strand of your hair and a clipping of one of your nails?”

Rumpelstiltskin almost laughs, somehow relieved to retreat from this new dark avenue in his own study of the scholar.

***

Belle would have guessed she’d feel trapped in the Dark Castle within a week. True enough she gets no sleep in a regular bed, but two months seem to pass in an instant. She has her books, and her caretaker duties, and her subject- another day is already gone before she thinks of the open road. Nights spent lashed to a swaying tree branch or at a rowdy inn with a knife in her hand. The gnawing hollow ache in her gut when food got scarce. Wandering a strange city, hopelessly lost and silenced by language barriers. She carries on another pleasant day, the weight of guilt pressing that much heavier.

Perhaps it’s the guilt that weakens her defenses when she curls up in her library nest. As sleep takes her she feels the warp of magic pulling her mind out of her control. The dream surrounds her, walling her off from reality. She stands in a blank gray space, opposite her smirking visitor.

“I told you to leave me alone,” she growls.

Queen Regina has the nerve to pout, “Can you blame me for being worried? Your father hasn’t heard from you since winter’s beginning. What have you been doing with yourself?” She peers around at the gray mist of the dream, “This is new. Not some fetid wasteland you’ve been known to frequent. There’s magic here, lots of it.” Her lovely, hard eyes return to Belle, “Have you finally reconsidered my offer?”

Belle taps her lips, “Actually, your majesty, I have. I know I said no last time. I’ve changed my answer to hell no. Not in a million years. Not on my life. Not for anything you could possibly offer me would I ever be your apprentice.”

The queen endures this with her smirk intact. “Well, let it never be said I’m not persistent. I simply can’t bear to see talent go to waste.”

Belle snorts, “Please. You never wanted an apprentice. You were scared. Scared of what I did without any magic at all. You needed to keep me under control.”

The smirk stretches into a black smile, “Look who’s suddenly proud of her accomplishments.”

Guilt stabs into Belle. Regina always brought out the very worst in her, in everyone.

She glides closer, smile now looking more like a snarl. “Have some free advice, little girl. You can be the conqueror, or the diplomat. Not both. And you’ve already made your choice. So live with it.”

“What do you think I’ve been doing?” she bites out.

Again the queen glances around them, “I’m not sure. But I want to find out.”

“No, don’t-” Belle is cut loose from the dream, waking with a vicious pain behind her eyes. She curls into a ball, pressing her palms to her forehead. She never should have stopped moving. Staying in one place like this has made it far too easy for Regina to reach her. But the thought of leaving feels about as pleasant as throwing herself off a cliff. Belle has the sudden realization that she was going mad out there. Town after town, being after being, filling up journals no one would read, risking her life for no real purpose besides maybe ending her pain. This place, the Dark Castle, with its paradise of a library and its curious master, someone she thinks could be the friend she never had, or even more... home is the only word for it. Too bad she doesn’t deserve it.

She sleeps late, and still feels like a shade of herself as she descends to the front hall. There she sees the Dark One, he flashes his stained teeth at her in a smile that’s so much sweeter than he thinks it is. Her pulse picks up in a way that has nothing to do with her usual anxiety. But guilt inevitably chases after it.

“Are you well?” he asks.

He thinks he’s letting her off easy. Belle could almost cry. “I’ve been better.”

The Dark One frowns and approaches her, laying the back of his hand on her forehead and cheeks. “You’re a tad clammy. Best not be falling ill now, dearie, I can’t play nursemaid today.”

Belle sticks out her lower lip, “Really?”

“Really. There’s dealing to be done and only me to do it. You understand.”

She blinks, “Oh, you’re leaving for the day.”

“Back by evening, most likely. Do you want the rest of your answers now or then?”

Belle pauses. She wants to tell him. It’s too much for her to keep carrying alone. But she needs some encouragement. She needs something in return. “I... I found some clothing upstairs. Small, as if for a child. Whose is it?”

His eyes goes distant, haunted. “It was my son’s.”

“Oh,” Belle breathes. Perhaps it was inevitable that they would come to this, if her study of the Dark One was to be truly complete. Perhaps there was no good way to approach it, though Belle is certain there must have been a better one.

“And your third question?” he says, fidgeting.

Belle manages a tiny smile. When he conjures up his dragon hide coat, she takes it from him and helps slip his arms into the sleeves. “Come back and I’ll ask it. Anyway, I... I need to talk to you about something. It’s important, so... please hurry.”

He turns and gazes at her, expression confused. And concerned. His hand rises, a thumb running as gently as silk over her cheek.

Her heart is aching. “I- my name is Belle,” the words tumble from her mouth without any consultation from her brain.

He blinks, “Oh. Belle. Well then. You may call me Rumpelstiltskin.” He gives her a short bow, “Farewell.” He’s gone in a puff of purple smoke.

Belle takes a few shaky breaths. Retreats to the library, hoping vaguely to find some inspiration as to how she might explain what she did to the ogres.

Chapter Four

Date: 2012-05-02 03:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] raissad.livejournal.com
Great development. Loved the cheshire cat. :)

Date: 2012-05-03 02:08 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lotus0kid.livejournal.com
Thanks! That was fun to write.

Date: 2012-05-03 06:29 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] imzadi-gumdrop.livejournal.com
Loved all of it! Delightful :D

Date: 2012-05-03 12:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lotus0kid.livejournal.com
Mm, just wait. Anyway, thanks very much!

Date: 2012-05-04 01:05 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mrssnape13.livejournal.com
So much awesome! :)

Loved that you parallel the events of Skin Deep, but that they fit the characters in this story. Belle throwing herself down from the curtains was a nice touch.

The Cheshire cat was really cool, and I'm curious to see what the Queen has on Belle.

The romance between these two was subtle and lovely. Well done chapter!

Date: 2012-05-04 02:35 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lotus0kid.livejournal.com
Aw, thanks very much! I hope you can stick with me through the rest of the parallels.

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