A/N: Oh my goodness, you guys are just the best! Thank you so much for all the praise and encouragement in my other fics, I really love seeing your reactions (even if you curse at me for how sad it is). Luckily, this is not sad. So, as always, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! prompted: Shivers and whispers, and valerieparker prompted: Sweetest sadness in your eyes
Style of Play
Usually he could expect a bruise now and then around her dodgy elbows, perhaps even a bandage on her palm or fingers from wielding the kitchen knives, but when his little caretaker returned that evening armed with a basket full of fresh gold straw, missing a tuft of her hair along the base of her skull and sporting a bloody split lip, he knew she hadn't had an ordinary accident.
"Why didn't you call for me?" Rumpelstiltskin was good at many things, but containing his temper wasn't one of them. It laced his voice, normally lilted and mocking, it was low and rough.
Belle set the basket of straw by the wheel and walked over to him, wincing and touching the back of her head. Rumpelstiltskin flinched at her face, the blood trailing down her blameless skin. With twittering of his hands, he ushered Belle to sit atop the long hall table. She sighed softly, cupping her hand to her mouth. Rumpelstiltskin swatted her hand down, glaring. "Don't touch it."
"But it's dripping on my bodice."
"Do as I say."
Belle huffed, wiggling in displeasure but did as he said. Rumpelstiltskin pulled a handkerchief out of his vest and cupped the girl's chin in his claw, lifting her face up as he stepped closer, her knees pressing against his legs. He was careful and precise as he pressed the cloth to the angry, torn skin. Scarlet bloomed in the white fabric, and he felt her breath clench in her chest. A soft giggle broke from his lips, and Belle pursed her mouth against his fingers, her eyes dancing. "Stop," she whispered through her teeth, her voice wavering in her giggle. "If you make me laugh, it'll only make it worse."
Rumpelstiltskin sniggered, pressing the handkerchief just a bit tighter to her lip to stop the bleeding. Her lashes fluttered, pressing closed. He took the moment to examine her face for any more bruises or cuts. Her jaw seemed to be swelling a bit, but nothing he couldn't fix. By the time she opened her periwinkle eyes, he'd procured an astringent, a salve, and a compress. He donned his half-moon spectacles and peered closer at her face.
"I daresay you didn't take a simple tumble," he finally said after a moment, taking her hand and putting it to the cloth for her to hold while he mixed the medicine. He could feel her watching him as he did. She sighed softly.
"No, I didn't," Belle mumbled behind the cloth. "I was stopped by a highwayman. He let me keep the straw, but the food and gold I had left over is gone."
Rumpelstiltskin looked at her sharply, narrowing his eyes. "I take it he's the one who hit you."
Belle nodded, curious of his reaction. He didn't look very upset, but she noticed he was taking more care than normal with his movements. She paused. "It could be worse."
"Indeed. Move that bit of cloth," he huffed, his hands tender as he applied the astringent to her wound.
Belle squealed in pain, pulling back while simultaneously reflexively sending her high heeled shoe slamming into Rumpelstiltskin's leather clad thigh. The Dark One grunted before falling into the floor, the handkerchief left to flutter down onto the rug beside him.
"Seven fucking hells!"
"Rumple-I'm so sorry!" Belle cried, dropping off the table to help him up. He growled, jerking his hands from her as he stood up, before pushing her back against the table. He glared at her for a long moment, receiving a meek, apologetic wince from the girl.
"Just hold still," he muttered, dusting himself off and trying to ignore the throbbing pain in his leg. If he were still his human self with his useless knee, he probably would have to amputate it. Lucky for her, the only punishment he would be delving would be her getting slippers or she'd walk barefoot, cold floors be damned. He took up the astringent again and gently pressed it to her lip. Belle made a noise, high pitched and up in the octaves that would shatter glass, but she kept herself in check and did not move. After that, he applied the salve, smiling slightly as he watched the angry skin cool into flawless porcelain, the tear in her plump lip mending itself until there was only a thin pale line near the corner of her mouth. "There we are."
Belle reached up and touched her mouth tentatively as if testing out her smile. "Much better."
Next was her hair. There was a bloody patch where some had been torn out, probably from when she attempted to run. Yes, they always catch you, don't they? He tilted her head down so her brow pressed to his chest, stepping between her knees as he inspected the raw skin at the base of her skull. He felt her flinch when he parted her hair and murmured, "I'm sorry, just a minute more." He took up the salve again and dotted it along the skin, felt her purr against his chest and shiver. He smiled when he was done, satisfied that her hair would grow over night, much like the princess in the tower's had so long ago.
Stepping back, Rumpelstiltskin eyed her skeptically for a moment longer, feeling a bruise forming already on his leg. She had some strength, it seemed. "Belle," he said curiously. "Take my hands."
His little caretaker was cleaning up the medicine when she glanced up, surprised. "I beg your pardon?" she asked ever so politely.
"Take my hands."
Belle hesitated, as if she was trying to understand him in another language, or prepare for one of his jokes that she never quite found as funny as he did (when she was the object of them, at least). She stepped close and gently slid her palms over his claws. He noticed her pale throat hollow when she swallowed, glancing up at him under her lashes. "Yes?"
"Squeeze. As hard as you can."
Belle did as she was bid, and he knew she wasn't just simply obeying. She seemed to trust him in everything he asked of her, which endeared her strangely in an unfamiliar way. The strength in her grip was lacking sorely, though, and she was trying to squeeze his hands so hard that she shook. He rolled his eyes at her attempt. More kitten than lioness, he thought.
"Yes, yes," he sighed, dropping his hands like birds flittering away. "Well, we'll work on that, I suppose. Meet me in the garden tomorrow afternoon, once your chores are done."
Belle blinked. "Whatever for?"
Rumpelstiltskin ignored the question. He was already planning, and the less she knew about it was probably for his advantage. "Dress comfortably," he called over his shoulder, leaving her with the medicine, a basket of straw, and a healed smile.
The early spring morning was still touched by winter, but with the sun winking over the mountains, the garden's chill was reduced to comfortable warmth with a cool breeze, slightly wet from the still melting snow in some areas of the woods. Rumpelstiltskin heard the soft shoed feet approach from behind and smirked as he unrolled the brown parcel he'd uncovered from one of his collection rooms. He hadn't touched them in so long, a few of the items were spotted and badly needed polishing.
Belle came up beside him and gasped in delight. He glanced at her with a raised eyebrow, say her eyes lit up with excitement as she looked up to him. "Are you going to teach me?"
Ever the student was his little girl. He took in her appearance, dressed in slim fitted grey pants, a cornflower blue tunic and black bodice. Her boots laced under knees, rabbit skin. He nodded in approval.
"They're so thin," she said. "Why? Wouldn't a thicker blade be better?"
"It depends on the swordsman," he said, pausing. "Or woman. And these are foils, dearie. You're a princess, I'm sure you've seen them at court many a time."
"I have, but I've always wondered. Why are they so thin?"
"Because a clunky broadsword would rip your pretty gown to shreds in a dance," Rumpelstiltskin informed her, holding onto the image of Belle in tatters. He pushed the warmth he felt in his throat back down.
"That's the only reason?"
"The most important one. Now, stop distracting me."
Belle bouncing on her heels and went to grab one of the foils. Rumpelstiltskin promptly swatted her arm away, causing his caretaker to squeak and yank her hand back with a pout.
"This isn't a toy," he said with hard eyes, frowning. He tilted his head at her, taking note of her healed lip and the swelling that had gone down over night. "Show me your hand."
The girl held out her hand, palm up. Petite, he thought wistfully. He glanced down at his parcel before he plucked up the right weight for her, examining the tip and grip. The foil was perfect, unbent and strong, but light weight enough that she would be able to handle it (weak arms or not). The grip was almost too small for him, so he was sure she'd end up keeping it when they were done. Belle watched him curiously with wide periwinkle eyes, saw the sun glinting off the steel. "It's beautiful," she breathed.
"It should be," he scoffed. "Plucked it off a pirate captain."
"A pirate captain?"
"Indeed, she gave me quite a problem," he huffed. That had been a particularly annoying deal he'd gone through, still sporting the burned palms he'd earned. Honestly, who ever thought to light swords aflame was a complete idiot.
"She?" Belle asked incredulously, and he knew he'd be telling a story tonight. But before she could press him further, another voice broke into the garden.
"I don't like this one, it's not heavy enough!"
Rumpelstiltskin heard Belle gasp deep in her throat at their third party. Perhaps I should have mentioned him, he thought with an amused smirk, and suddenly glad he'd neglected the thought. Gaston rounded the hedge with a sour expression, stopping short when he saw his former fiancé at the Dark One's side. The girl at his side was aghast.
"What is he doing here?" she exclaimed, looking at Rumpelstiltskin for an explanation. Her voice was laced with displeasure, as if they were being intruded upon, and he quite liked that image. He saw a bit of worry but mostly astonished annoyance playing out on her face. It was one of his favorite looks on her.
The Dark One grinned, flashing teeth. "Well, dearie, you won't be using me for target practice. I like this shirt too much."
"You're going to teach me how to fight- against Gaston? That's hardly fair!" Belle glared at him, crossing her arms. "He's twice my size!"
"Yes, and the highwayman who took you unawares last night was on horseback," Rumpelstiltskin told her patiently, his voice lilting in his delight in her distress. "I'm not going to chase away every predator who comes after you, dearie. I'm a very busy man, and I haven't got all day to mend your split lips. You're a grown woman, princess or not. You can take care of yourself."
Belle was stunned, staring at him in complete awe. Clearly she hadn't been privy to such information before, or told elsewise. If she wanted to be brave and show the world (and herself) what she could do, Rumpelstiltskin thought this was a step in the right direction.
Gaston stepped closer, much the same since he'd last been seen. Of course Rumpelstiltskin had made sure the fop had forgotten that he'd been turned into a flower (and perhaps a few other things), but Belle did need some practice and what good was keeping a six foot tall oaf (he'd lost about five inches from Belle's trimming) in a vase on one's dining room table if no one could beat him about?
It seemed perfectly logical to Rumpelstiltskin.
"Gaston is a seasoned swordsman," Belle protested. She looked highly perturbed, whether it was from seeing her former fiancé or from the prospect of having to fight him, Rumpelstiltskin wasn't sure, but both ideas made him quite happy to be up so early in the morning. "I'll never be able to beat him."
"Of course you will," Rumpelstiltskin dismissed, and with the flat of his blade slapped Gaston in the arm with a hard, sharp force.
Rumpelstiltskin giggled, knowing the slap would leave a sting for the rest of the week. "See? I assure you, it's quite easy."
Belle bit her lip, but he could see she was fighting against laughter. Good, he mused. Though whether it was from her slowly accepting willingness to participate or from the idea of stabbing her fop, he wasn't sure. Either was preferable at this point.
"That was unnecessary," Gaston said, frowning darkly, rubbing his arm.
Rumpelstiltskin rolled his gilded eyes before leaning down into his parcel of foils. He drew a heavier one, one he never used because it was so incredibly bulky as far as foils went. He handed it to the man, who took it with an unenthusiastic turn of his mouth. "I'm much more talented in the way of the sabre."
"I'm much more talented into turning people into snails. Go back to killing my tree," Rumpelstiltskin snapped. "We will call for you when you are needed."
Gaston glowered but turned on his black booted heel and disappeared behind the hedge again. It was all just as well; he hated that apple tree.
"Now Belle," Rumpelstiltskin spun to face her, and the girl looked up pleasantly, a pretty smile dimpling her face. "Stance is more important than anything in a duel. Remember that."
And so the lesson began.
Rumpelstiltskin had to admit that teaching Belle was a delight. She was not just an eager learner, but an apt one. She listened and applied everything he told her, and took the spacious room he gave to fill in the holes and improvise in the lesson. "Of course," he amended. "If you were to duel highwaymen, I doubt they would be very concerned about the strictness to form."
"Especially on horseback," Belle sighed.
"Don't lament now, dearie!" He giggled, making her smile. "Horseback may seem like an advantage, and it is where speed is concerned, but having to control a beast while dueling is more trouble than it's worth." He'd seen too many dead horses in his past for him to ever take that advantage again.
Rumpelstiltskin turned and chose the pirate queen's foil, and handed it to Belle, grip first. It was beautiful, not very long, but a perfect fit for a petite girl like Belle. She took it gingerly, smiling when her fingers encased the cool metal in her palm. Rumpelstiltskin came to her side, his chest pressing against her arm as his claw deftly fixed her grip so she pinched it between her thumb and forefinger. Once she was holding it right, he clapped his hands. "Now then- oaf, we're ready!"
Belle looked at him sharply, dismay marring her features. "We are?"
"Of course we are."
Gaston appeared a moment later, but Belle still looked distressed by the idea. In fact, she had paled a bit as her former fiancé approached with his long legged strides, all confidence and triumph. "But I don't- I don't know anything!"
"You'll do fine."
Gaston looked affronted, stopping short of the pair. "I can't fight a woman."
"Why? Step above what you're used to?" Rumpelstiltskin chittered, taking a seat on one of the stone benches so he had a good view of them, crossing his legs. "It's not about fighting, Belle. It's about outsmarting. This shouldn't be that hard," the Dark One said with a roll of his eyes at the prince, who did a double take and sent a glare at the lord of the estate. "Now go, go!"
Gaston frowned, unhappy, but advanced. He was a prince who took orders, much to his misfortune. Rumpelstiltskin was pleased to see that he was going easy on Belle, for the most part, but the girl seemed to freeze when the swords beat, and she was only concerned with retreating. Though she was keeping good watch on the tips, and she was very adept in expecting where Gaston would try to strike. She was able to dodge the blade every time (not that it would hurt her- very much, anyway).
Gaston seemed annoyed, though, with the constant shadowing he was doing, and disarmed Belle with an advanced flick of his wrist. Rumpelstiltskin tutted, unsatisfied. "You have to actually strike, dearie, preferably before he does," he unhelpfully called to her.
Belle huffed, rubbing her dominant wrist. She was holding it wrong, so he knew her entire arm to be on fire by that point. "You didn't show me how!"
"Point. And thrust."
Belle glared at him, and he could only smile back. Anger would suit her well. Where most people made mistakes, Belle often found determination in her annoyance. He hoped it would serve her in the learning process.
His presumption was, unfortunately, very wrong.
Belle was horrible with a sword when it came to actually fighting. She seemed to be able to accept the strategy of it quite well, but she never could move herself to beat at Gaston. The prince disengaged her weapon every time, and for the twelfth time in a row, Rumpelstiltskin threw his hands up. "Move aside," he dismissed the oaf, rolling his gilded mossy eyes.
Gaston sighed sharply. "I don't understand why you want her to learn. If she was meant to have a sword in her hand, her father would have taught her."
"A stupid misjudgment on his part."
"What does she need the skill for?" Gaston challenged, taking his jacket off and tossing it on the bench. "It's not like she's actually going to go anywhere and use it."
A coldness crept into the garden, and Rumpelstiltskin felt his chest tighten from the blunt truth. He saw out of the corner of his eye how Belle bowed her head quickly at the words, looking down at the foil in her hands. Irritation tainted his good mood, and Rumpelstiltskin growled, "Go away."
Gaston frowned at him, cocking his head. "I beg-"
"I said go."
Gaston rolled his head back in weariness, turning and strolling out of the garden for a short walk. He couldn't go far, the magical border of the estate wouldn't allow it. He was taking to indentured servitude nicely, and Rumpelstiltskin made a note that should he ever need the oaf to stand in again, he'd do quite nicely. Rumpelstiltskin turned to his caretaker, then, whose face bore a somber mask, the sweetest sadness in her eyes.
That irritated him.
"What?" he demanded, approaching her like a prowling dragon, his teeth clicking in distaste. He hated seeing defeat line her face, had only ever seen it twice before-once when she'd tried to balance a ledger for him (numbers were not her strong suit), and another time when she'd given up on cleaning the other dungeons. Apparently she'd presumed she was the only living thing beneath the castle at the time.
Belle glanced up as he swaggered towards her. "This is hopeless," she sighed, looking up at him as if imparting a truth he was unwilling to accept. "I have no drive to hurt people."
"It's not about hurting people; it's about defending yourself."
"Which is what I tried to do."
"No, you were avoiding. Avoidance isn't defense, it's cowardice," he snapped, and saw her face flinch in pain. He instantly regretted the words, regretted the hurt that was reflected in her eyes, but he couldn't take them back. They were true, and she needed to hear them. He'd be damned if he let her slip into that familiar murky well that he'd been trapped in. "Now show me how you stand."
Belle sighed again and bent her knees gently, tilting her body to an angle. He admired her form, her graceful legs, the set of her pretty shoulders, the rounded shape of her waist and hips. She was perfectly balanced. He nodded, circling until he was behind her, laying his hand on the small of her warm back, making her straighten taller.
"The foil is an extension of the arm," Rumple murmured in her ear, his hand sliding down from her hip across the front of her vest, his chest warm against her back as his other hand placed the grip in her fingers securely. "You are not holding a broad sword, and you are not wielding an axe. You should be able to cradle a baby bluebird in your hand with the same pressure." His hand stopped under her heart, which had quickened.
Belle swallowed, tilting her head up closer to his. "Gaston… he said-"
"Your former fiancé is a boy with a wooden stick," Rumple said dismissively, his voice whispering against the curls behind her ear. "This is not a game, and you are not charging to battle monsters, no matter what you saw him do. If anything, you are dancing." His breath was warm on her neck, in her hair, and the angle and lines of his body were fluid with hers. His voice lowered. "Now dance."
Rumpelstiltskin's claw covered her petite hand, and their elbows aligned. She responded to his movements, extending her arm as she advanced, the weapon moving, sliding smoothly through the sunlight. He brought her other arm up behind her, resting out of the way, a soft breeze of her perfume as her wrist came up almost to his mouth, close enough to put his lips to the delicate, almost translucent skin. Passion rose and verbena leaf, he thought at the scent. Mouthwatering.
In the back of his mind, the Dark One growled appreciatively.
Rumpelstiltskin showed her the wrinkles in her otherwise smooth delivery. It frustrated him- she was very good at it, she'd kept in mind everything he'd told her. After a moment, he pulled himself away from her warmth, swallowing. "I've an idea," he said, walking to his set of foils and choosing one. "You'll duel with me."
"With you?" she asked. Her voice was soft, almost as if she were sleepy. He turned to face her, noticed her cheeks were bright as roses and her eyes were heavy lidded. Interesting. She'd never quite looked at him that way before. He took the image and steeped it, to return and drink it in later in the evening between stories and firelight.
"What? Scared?" Rumpelstiltskin sneered, all teeth and giggling, circling her in the garden. He lunged talentedly, thrusting his foil forward surely, but Belle was quick to parry so the flat of the blade grazed her shoulder. He attacked again- and again- and again.
Each time, Belle parried successfully, quick and light on her feet as she retreated, but she never, not once attempted to strike him. She danced superbly, better than he anticipated, and wasn't clumsy as he had secretly hoped she'd be. But she wasn't attacking, and that irritated him. Rumpelstiltskin finally reposed, frowning in distaste. Belle was short of breath, but unharmed. Her face was passive, masked, and he narrowed his eyes, searching for the tells he'd become so accustomed with (the wrinkle of her nose, the purse of her lips, a quirk of her brow).
"I thought you preferred magic to combat," Belle panted softly, dabbing her slick forehead with the back of her hand. She then took out the handkerchief he'd given her last night, touching it to her mouth.
"I do," Rumpelstiltskin answered simply. He'd used a sword in his human years, and he had been quite good. Nothing like her prince, he gauged, who was all brutish strength, but he'd been good at defending himself and tricking his opponents. And then he'd run. "It doesn't mean I don't know the way of the sword. Magic is usually just more subtle."
"I like subtle, too," Belle decided, sitting upon the fountain's edge, letting the cool mist kiss her skin.
"Most people fail because their minds aren't quick enough-they simply want to defeat and win," Rumpelstiltskin said after a moment, letting her catch her breath. He tilted his head, fluttering his fingers fitfully. "But you… what is it you really want?"
Belle's eyes fluttered, startled for a moment, before shrugging her shoulders, glancing around the garden. He frowned deeply, not breaking his gaze from her, the little girl in blue with sunlight and auburn in her hair. He could tell she was hiding something. She was hardly ever scared- well, except that one time with the spider...
…but perhaps it wasn't fear.
"You know, dearie, you actually have to want to hit the person for this to be effective."
"But… I don't," Belle said honestly, looking up at him. "I don't want to hurt anyone."
Yes, she had said that earlier, but now it sounded different to his ears. Rumpelstiltskin tapped his foil to the ground thoughtfully, playing over her words in his head. It was a curious thing. Everyone wanted to hurt someone. He'd seen it for himself, the wonderstruck, shiny eyed boys yearning for battle, and contrary to popular belief, princesses were usually the ones who wanted it more than anyone else. Except the exquisite creature before him.
"Well, that's just pretty," he said, walking closer to her. She immediately blocked him with the foil, her blue eyes quick to take him in, searching for the challenge she anticipated. He grinned, raising his eyebrows appraisingly.
"Easy, dearie," he cooed, gently moving the blade aside so he could step closer. "So, you're horrible at sword fighting."
Belle turned her mouth down thoughtfully. "Well, I wouldn't say horrible-"
Rumpelstiltskin tutted over her quickly, "So we must find a talent that suits your… particular needs."
His caretaker raised her eyebrows, curiosity alighting her eyes. It was the loveliest look she could wear. "What do you have in mind?" she asked sweetly, crossing her blade with his, the singing steel sending shivers down his spine.
"Something that I think you'll have no problem wielding."
They stood at the entrance of the dark castle, watching the sun kiss the mountains as it lowered slowly. She had changed back into her blue dress and looked much more refreshed. Glowing in the evening light, she looked enchanting, her cheeks and eyes holding fireflies. He didn't let himself stare, but he could feel the warmth radiating from her. She burned in the light, relishing in her success. And his.
"Is he coming?" she finally asked, rising up onto her delicate tip toes to peer into the courtyard.
As if at her words, Gaston walked out from the garden, taking a double look at them both. He frowned deeply, charging up the walkway. "I scoured the garden for you," he said hotly. "I demand to be released, and Belle as well, Beast."
Belle tilted her chin toward Rumpelstiltskin, whispering, "Now?"
The prince stopped beneath them three steps below, glaring at Rumpelstiltskin before looking at Belle. "We're leaving this place. This ridiculousness," Gaston ordered. "Come, Belle."
In the corner of his eye, Rumpelstiltskin noted Belle fisting her hands at her sides. He smiled. His darling girl would not be ordered. He'd known it from the beginning, ever since she said it. Was he the only one who listened to her?
"Now?" Belle asked, looking up at him.
Rumpelstiltskin nodded. Once.
"I'm not going, Gaston, I'm sorry," Belle told him, and her voice wavered slightly but she never broke her gaze. She lifted her chin up, every inch the princess and ruler she was born to be. "Not that I'm not going," she amended. "But that you won't be going, either."
And then, just as Rumpelstiltskin had taught her (for everyone is different, each with their own triggers and tells), Belle lifted her right hand, her dominant weapon hand, and twirled her wrist. Rumpelstiltskin admired the way her middle fingers touched, and he felt a shiver up his spine when she twirled the magic, curling it expertly, just as he'd taught her. It was sharp and quick, painless, like a shot of whiskey that burned so good.
The prince hadn't even noticed what had happened until after the fact, and Rumpelstiltskin giggled at her success. "Very good, dearie, you are a natural," he praised, and she drank in his words with a smile that lit the mountains purple. The fireflies danced in her eyes.
The Dark One put a spring in his step, hopping down the few stairs and picked up her resulting success, before turning with a flourishing bow. He offered the newly bloomed rose, white as snow, up to his little sorceress, the lady of his estate. "Your oaf, my dear girl," Rumpelstiltskin sang.
Belle smiled, plucking the rose, her former prince, from her beast.
"White, for purity? New love? Innocence?" he asked. If anyone could use magic for good, for purity, it would be his little Belle. Only for defense, never for ill had been her stipulations, and he knew he could teach her everything he had learned and she would still never use the dark magic. She would use it for the good of others, for herself if she needed, perhaps.
"White for reverence and honor," Belle intoned with a wink, her red lips playfully kissing the rose as her eyes met Rumpelstiltskin's. "And loyalty."