It was all over.
They were all dead.
Belle LeFay looked out of her bedroom window on the dried up ocean, on the lands of her father ravaged by war. The castle that had been home to her and her family for centuries was cracked right down to the foundations. They had tried to appeal to the neighbouring boroughs but everyone in the Frontlands was facing the wrath of the Ogres. Their soldiers had been deployed to defend them but nothing but their honour had returned. All this destruction, and yet the moment he had had the chance to spare his people's grief and blood, Maurice LeFay of the Frontlands had refused. For her.
Belle's grip tightened on the window sill. The Ogres were but a few days away, and they would rape and gut all those they came across. The pain and death that could have been stopped if her father had just let her stay, if her father hadn't made motion at Gaston to remove her from Rumpelstiltskin's sight would come. She and her father would have to live with what had occurred that night: there was no turning back now.
That wasn't entirely true.
Her lifespan, and the life of all those who she held dear, had become countable by days, possibly even hours. She refused to let those be clouded by guilt. Belle had done the research; she was the one who had helped her father write the plea to Rumpelstiltskin in the first place. She knew the other ways to summon him, ways that would not require her father's presence or permission. Her idea had circled around in her mind for hours, ever since Gaston had dragged her from the war room to her chambers. She was ready now. There was no other choice.
She swallowed and gathered herself together. Do the brave thing and bravery will follow.
Do the brave thing, and bravery will follow.
Do the brave thing.
And bravery will follow.
"You called, dearie?"
Belle looked into the darkness of her bed chamber and watched the Dark One step into the pale candle light. Everything from the toes of his knee high boots to the collar of his dragon hide coat was there to appear threatening, to present the image of a man of such power and presence that mortals would tremble at his feet. But Belle did not tremble. She had no real reason to be afraid anymore, not when death was so certain.
The Dark One watched her from his corner. It was there again, that glint in the Dark One's eyes when he saw her. She had seen it in the war room when he had circled her. He hadn't known where to place his eyes then, he certainly didn't know where to place them now. The golden robe she wore covered the necessary parts, but was far less formal than the dress she had worn at dinner and the subsequent council meeting. She had wanted to be comfortable making this deal, wanted it to be as informal as it could be. Her father would never know. Gaston would never know. It would just be her and Rumpelstiltskin, dealing in the dark.
"I have a deal for you, Rumpelstiltskin."
He looked amused, but he tried to hide his true interest. She intrigued him. That was good. "A deal for me, dearie? You turned down my last one."
"That was my father." Belle looked up at him, caught his gaze. He held it. "If I had remained in that room I would have gone with you."
That was when he let out a shrill giggle. His eyes gleamed in the thin light of the room. "Oh I know, dearie. But what's done is done - I know a good little girl like you will not go back on her father's word." His smirk faded at the corners. "Even if it means death."
Belle moved from the window and sat on the edge of the bed, needing to sit down. Rumpelstiltskin's eyes followed her as she sat cross legged on the edge. He was a curious thing - all scales on the outside but sort of bumbling on the inside. He didn't know what to do with himself when presented with a young woman wearing her night robe languishing on her bed. She had the advantage here.
That was another reason why she had done it this way.
She just had to make sure she used it.
"Your father loves you, dearie." The smirk had returned. "Be grateful of that. There are very few parents I have encountered that would deny me their children. Too many would give them up for riches, or for less honourable things than saving others. But not your father. You mean more to him than the rest of the world."
Belle fingered the gold stitching on her sheets, the love and guilt she felt twisted up inside her. "I'm all my father has left. His brother was killed before I was born; my mother was murdered by Ogres when I was a child. It's just me and him."
"And your betrothed, of course."
She made a noise in the back of her throat, and when Belle's eyes returned to Rumpelstiltskin he was grinning. She decided to move their deal making along - it had been an emotional day and she wanted to sleep. But she would not be able to until she had made this final move. "Shall we begin, Rumpelstiltskin?"
He bowed low at her feet, mocking her. "By all means, my lady. What do you offer me in exchange for all your little lives?"
He thought her silly. He thought her playing with things she did not understand. She had learned the meaning of loss at five years old when her mother had been taken from her, and that lesson had been reinforced constantly for the last six years when her group of friends had been whittled down to a battle scarred few. She might be young; she might be of the wrong gender for a typical hero. But she would save her people. Or damn well try.
"Three nights. I offer you three nights."
The scales on his nose shifted in confusion. "Three nights a week?"
"Gods no!" Belle's voice had come out louder than intended. If the guards down the hall heard her there would be trouble. She swallowed hard and turned back to Rumpelstiltskin. "I think three nights is more than acceptable."
He brought his hands in front of his chest and smiled again, as if preparing to lecture a child. "Dearie, I bargained for you dusting my trinkets for the rest of your pretty little life. I don't think three nights of cleaning over the course of what, with my help, will be a long and fruitful one, is adequate."
Belle began to laugh. That threw the Dark One off almost immediately, and Belle started giggling at his face too. It was so funny, the way the legendary Rumpelstiltskin was coiled in confused. He thought she meant three single nights of dusting over the course of her life? Belle was all for getting a good deal but that wasn't even fair. However, her amusement at the scene didn't last long as the Dark One, growing tired of her laughter, grabbed for her throat and pushed her down to the bed sheets.
Her eyes squeezed shut as she felt his long fingernails dig into the tender skin of her throat. She managed to wrench them open after a moment and found him leering over her, his pupils wide and darkening by the second. Belle was gravely aware of one of his knees pressing against hers, the golden robe she wore brushing against the leather of his trousers. Her hands tore at his, but his grip was too strong.
"I don't like being laughed at, dearie. I have good mind to ignore whatever deal you want and let the Ogres have you."
Using what little strength she had left, Belle decided to use her advantage over the Dark One. Her left hand moved from his coat sleeve and reached to the neckline of her robe, shifting it downward to reveal the top of her breast. Like any man, the Dark One was distracted long enough by her skin for Belle to escape and scuttle to the top of her bed where she was safe surrounded by her many pillows.
She brought the robe around herself, trying to summon a little warmth in order to stop her shivering. The Dark One remained at the end of the bed, not sure what to do with his hands now she had escaped from them. Belle licked her lips. She still had a job to do. "I didn't mean to laugh," Belle whispered.
"No one has laughed at me in centuries."
Belle nodded - being the holder of such power would stop painful catcalls. But it would also stop light jesting, and shared smiles. She watched his face crawl in on itself, his eyes weary as if he was remembering a great tragedy. She didn't like to see him sad, it didn't suit him. Summoning her courage once again, Belle decided to make a joke. "What would you do to me if I threw a pillow at your head?"
She was rewarded with a snort and a flicker of a smile. "You aren't afraid of me."
Belle shrugged, not pulling her gown up where it dropped over one shoulder. "I see no reason to be, not really. The Ogres took my mother. They are the ones who frighten me."
"What is it you wish, girl?"
Deciding to be brave once more, Belle slid down the bed sheets and planted herself next to Rumpelstiltskin. His hands rested on his thigh, his thumbs rubbing each other mercilessly. She almost reached out to touch him, but thought better of it. "My father decided that I was more important than all the people I have ever known. I need to make that right. In exchange for keeping us safe from the Ogres, I would give myself to you."
The Dark One's eyes widened, not quite believing her offer. "Why-why would you do that, dearie?"
"I have my reasons. Three nights of myself in your bed in exchange for protection from the Ogres." She held his gaze again. "Do we have a deal, Rumpelstiltskin?"
The playfulness had returned to his voice. She was glad. "Three nights, dearie? I think five should suffice."
Belle bit her lip. He was challenging her, pushing her. She wasn't afraid of him. In fact, the promise that her life span had changed from days to years had lifted her spirit. "Three. I think three nights is more than acceptable."
"Well it's not as if you've got any special skills, dearie," Rumpelstiltskin shot back, his smirk more playful than patronising. Belle felt herself smiling in return. This was the first time she had been alone with anyone in four years. After her friend had been murdered walking in the Enchanted Forest, she had always been provided a chaperone or three. This felt like the start of a new chapter in her life. When her eyes returned to the Dark One, he was still smiling at her. "I think five nights is more than acceptable."
Belle thought his proposition over. This new chapter would only be blissful for so long. Soon she would be married to Gaston; she would be bearing his children. She would be lost with nothing of her own. She wanted something of her own. "Three nights, Rumpelstiltskin." His pupils had grown large again, waiting to begin his rebuttal. "One of which would be my first."
"Dearie, you can't..." Rumpelstiltskin stumbled. "You would offer me your innocence? Do you not trust your block headed fiancé to do it properly? I think he knows how to stick things in."
"Don't make me move on my threat of a pillow," Belle chastised. That earned another smirk. "This deal will bring a fresh start. For the past few years everyone has been enslaved to their grief, to their fear. If you save them, then they can start again. I...I will be stuck in a marriage with a man who does not love me, and who only tolerates my love of books because he wants to...." It was her turn to grin. "Practice his ability to stick things in."
The Dark One giggled. "You would offer yourself freely to me, dearie? Your first night of pleasure, followed by two more in exchange for your town's protection from the Ogres?"
Belle smiled, nodding. She would have given up her freedom, the chance to ever see her father again in order to save her people. Three nights with a man who could hold a conversation without demonstrating his ability with a sword seemed like such a small price to pay when she truly thought about it. "I would."
"Then the deal is struck, dearie," Rumpelstiltskin whispered, waggling his eyebrows in her direction.
Belle frowned. "Are you sure you don't want me to sign anything?" She had heard tales of his long contracts with clauses no human could comprehend. She hadn't expected it to be wrapped up so easily.
"A verbal contract is equally as binding, dearie."
That didn't seem right to her. There should be something cementing their deal more than their words. Looking into his eyes, Belle could see that he was still trying to work her out. She was different from the other simpering Lord's daughters, she knew that. It seemed her father was different as well. She decided that their deal should be sealed in the same fashion.
Moving a hand to rest on his thigh, Belle reached up and pressed her lips lightly against Rumpelstiltskin's own. She could feel him tremble in surprise, but he leant into her touch all the same. Belle's eyes closed as she let herself enjoy the sensation of his lips parting hers, drawing a soft sigh from her mouth. She moved forward, placing pressure on his mouth to open for her. He pulled away before he gave in, and when Belle opened her eyes she could see that his were almost pure black.
"The deal," he whispered, "Is struck."