Title: A Price To Be Paid

Rating: T

Word count: ~107,300

Characters: Belle, Rumplestiltskin, minor appearances from Maurice, Gaston, Regina, and sundry original characters.

Disclaimer: Anything you recognise from 'Once Upon A Time' does not belong to me.

Notes: I owe a debt to A Bed of Thorns, on AO3. I began this…probably just after that began to be posted. I'd thought about writing something along these lines before that, but Nym's wonderful story definitely influenced my decision to write this. However any similarities beyond the basic premise are unintentional.

Summary: "What is your price? Please, tell me. I mean it. I will give anything that is mine to give, if it will save my people." "Alright, dearie," he says softly. "My price is you."

It's not midnight when Belle calls for him. Midnight would be too early; there would still be too many people moving around the castle, or not quite asleep in their beds. She waits until her candle burns two further hour marks down, and then she slips out of bed, goes to the window, and calls his name. Three times, just like the stories say.

Nothing happens, and Belle tries again, and again, not daring to call too loudly for fear of being discovered. Her maid Sarah is sleeping in the outer room, and she sleeps lightly.

Nothing happens, and Belle's desperation grows. It's cold, and it's late, and she longs for her bed, but she knows this is their only choice now. She knows that if her village is to be spared, she has to call him and wait for him to come.

The stories say he always comes when he's called by somebody in need. Somebody desperate, and Belle is desperate beyond words.

But he doesn't come, and Belle leans against the cold stone walls, stares out of the window at the darkness. There's a light on the castle walls where a sentry stands, a torch burning through the darkness, and it blurs as tears form in her eyes.

"Now now, dearie, crying won't solve anything."

Belle jumps, whirls around even as she lifts a hand to brush away the tears. He's here – Rumplestiltskin, leaning against her bedpost and watching her with a wicked grin. Belle swallows her cry of fear, because she has no right to be afraid when she was the one to call him, and takes him in. Her room is lit by just a few candles, but it's enough to see him by. Leather clothing, a coat that's – she thinks it's made of dragon-hide, but it's been so long since anyone in her village had the money for such luxuries. His skin is oddly-pigmented, a green-brown mixture that reminds her of a toad. Dark eyes, darker than any human eyes, and long hair.

Rumplestiltskin, the trickster. Rumplestiltskin, the deal-maker.

Belle recovers her wits and drops a curtsey. Her father has raised her to be polite to everyone, and this creature above all others, she thinks, should be shown courtesy. Powerful beings should always be shown courtesy, because the consequences of giving offence are great.

"Sir," she murmurs, and he gives a high-pitched giggle; Belle's cheeks warm in a blush, but she tries not to let him see how his amusement throws her off-balance.

"Sir," he says, mocking her. "I like that. Sir. I should make everybody call me that." He doesn't move, remains leaning against her bed, eyes fixed upon her. "You're not afraid to say my name, are you? You've been calling it for a while now."

"No," says Belle. "I – I'm not afraid." He nods slowly, grin fading into something else, something more thoughtful and full of curiosity. "Thank you for coming…Rumplestiltskin."

He makes a grand gesture, a flourish of his hand. "You called," he says. "What can I do for you, dearie?"

Belle hides her shaking hands behind her back. "The war," she says. "The ogres…they're coming closer. Too close." He nods, waits for her to continue. "I need the village to be safe," she says, rushing her words a little, forgetting all she's been taught about elocution and the value of speaking carefully in her haste to explain herself to this creature. "The people – they don't deserve this. It isn't their war."

His lip curls; he pushes away from the bedpost and comes a few steps closer, his steps strange, as if he's dancing to some music she can't hear.

"How strange," he says. "Most nobles don't take that perspective." Belle nods; she knows that. But her mother taught her that a noble's place is only secured through service to the people he or she protects. Her mother taught her that she owes everything to the people who pledge their fealty to her, and so she must give everything if it is required.

It is required now.

"They don't deserve it," she repeats. "So I want to make a deal with you."

"That is why most people call me," he says, and laughs, that high-pitched sound that sends a shiver running down her spine. "So what is it you want, dearie? Let's be…specific." He's almost too close for comfort now, and Belle is suddenly acutely aware that she's in her nightgown, wearing far too little to feel comfortable. She hadn't been able to think of an excuse not to change at bedtime, so Sarah had unlaced her dress and corset, brushed her hair and tied it back in a plait.

She feels as though she might as well be naked, with the way he's looking at her. Not lustful, not lascivious in the way she sometimes sees from the men in the castle or even in the village. Even Gaston, the model knight her father wishes her to marry, looks at her that way sometimes. As if all she is good for is being decorative and lying in a man's bed. No, Rumplestiltskin does not gaze at her with lust, but she feels naked nonetheless, defenceless against that stare that seems to strip away all her masks, all the barriers she erects between herself and the world, to see into the core of her being.

"I want the village to be safe," she says, and her voice comes out soft, weak. "Everyone. Every man, woman and child." She lifts her chin, tries to stare him down. "Can you do that?"

"Of course," he says, waving a hand dismissively. "Child's play." Belle thinks of the men in the infirmary, thinks of those who are barely more than children lying there with bloody bandages, with amputated limbs. She thinks of the wreckage of towns and villages she's seen. She thinks of fields trampled into nothingness by the relentless army of ogres. Child's play. "The question is, what will you give me in return?"

Belle can't quite disguise her desperation. "Anything," she says. "I will give you anything."

Suddenly he's right before her, hands on her arms gripping her tight, his breath hot on her face. "Anything," he breathes, "is not a wise thing to give up, dearie." Belle's shaking, closes her eyes, can't bear to look at him when she's sure he's going to refuse the deal.

She's sure she's got nothing to offer.

"Why are you making this deal?" he asks then, a curious note to his voice. "Your father is lord here. Does he not see your situation is hopeless?"

"He does," she whispers. "But…but…"

"But, but, but?" He releases her, steps back and she exhales slowly, opens her eyes again. "Don't bother," he says. "I know his type." Belle wants to defend her father – he's a good man, a caring man, he would do this if he had to. He would make the deal, if he knew the deal was there to be made. But she can't seem to find the words, and her mouth is dry.

"What do you want?" she manages at last. "My father would offer gold, but the tales say you spin gold from straw."

He giggles again. "Don't believe everything you hear," he says. "But that tale is true. I have no need of gold. No, I'm interested in something…else."

"What?" she asks, and she stretches out a hand in entreaty. "What is your price? Please, tell me. I mean it. I will give anything that is mine to give, if it will save my people."

He's silent for long moments, and Belle begins to think he will refuse, thinks she was foolish to ever try to strike a deal with the deal-maker. She knows she has little enough to bargain with. She possesses no magical artefacts, which seem to feature heavily in tales of Rumplestiltskin's deals. She has no wealth or power. She is the daughter of a country knight, the daughter of a dead mother. She has no skills to trade, although she has learnt more of strategy than the men around her think is wise. She can sew and embroider, she can dance the usual dances. She has nothing to offer.

Then at last he smiles, baring teeth. "Alright, dearie," he says softly. "My price is you."

Belle frowns, lets her hand fall. "I don't understand," she says.

"My price," he says, the pitch of his voice rising, taunting and mischievous, "is you."

Belle licks her lips. "You asked me to be specific," she whispers, "and now I must ask the same of you. What is it you want of me?" She wonders, fleetingly, if she had been wrong about him. She wonders if he had been looking at her just the same way other men did, but better disguised. But Rumplestiltskin is not a man; everyone is agreed on that. He might look more or less like a man, and talk like one, but he is not a man, and nobody can say whether he has the same…appetites and desires as a man.

"Just what I say, dearie," he says. He's mocking her, somehow, and she hates it. "You are my price. I will save your village and everyone in it, if you come with me. As my bride."

She almost chokes, closes her eyes for a moment but then forces them open again. "Why?" she manages to ask. "Why that?"

"Because it is what you least want to give, my lady," he says. He's serious now, and the title sounds odd from his mouth, but Belle thinks he is trying to give her the courtesy of treating her as a rational adult. She has learned, over the past weeks and months of her engagement, that Gaston is incapable of such a thing. It makes her warm to him, this dark creature before her, and she knows that may be just what he wants.

"Do you always drive such hard bargains?" she whispers, and he laughs, twirls a hand through the air, malice glittering in his eyes and teeth.

"Perhaps you should ask those I deal with," he suggests. "I give people what they want. It's not my fault if they don't like the price. My price is you, as my wife. With me, forever."

Belle turns away from him for a moment, lifts her hands to cover her face. She breathes deeply, thinks about this deal. She thinks about going away with Rumplestiltskin, about being his wife. She must be somebody's wife; that is something outside her control. And he's right, it is what she least wants to give. She has no desire to be some man's pretty bauble, to lie in a man's bed and let her life be given over to child-bearing.

She dreamed of adventures, when she was a child. It has been a long time since she allowed herself to dream of such things.

Belle takes a deep breath, lets her hands fall to her sides and turns back to him. He's waiting, standing more still than she has seen him be yet, his eyes fixed upon her. Belle knows he must have reasons for this, beyond the heartache it will cause her, beyond the scale of what it will cost her. He will have reasons, but they are not hers to know.

"They will all be safe?" she asks again. "My family…my friends…they will all live?"

"You have my word," he says, bowing slightly, almost a mockery of manners. Belle nods slowly, considers just for a moment more. But she knows there is really nothing to consider; she will give even this to keep her people safe.

She hopes her mother would be proud of her in this moment.

"Then you have mine," she says. "I will go with you, forever."

"Deal," he says, with another of his high-pitched giggles, and Belle shivers at the sound of it, at the pleasure he displays at securing his deal. This is a creature who takes pleasure in the misfortune of others; she stores that knowledge in her mind, for she knows she will need to learn his ways. She will need to learn how to please him, how to keep him from being angry. She will need to be his wife in deed as well as in name, because Rumplestiltskin always keeps his deals, and if he feels she is breaking her side, the consequences do not bear thinking about.

"You may have three days," he says then. "Inform your father, pack whatever you feel you need to bring. I'll come for you at sunset on the third day."

"Thank you," she says, and means it. It is more than she thought he would give her. She hopes he doesn't want anything in return for his boon, but doesn't dare ask, lowers her gaze to the floor in the hopes that she can keep from revealing her thoughts in her expression.

He steps close to her, puts one finger under her chin to make her lift her head. She meets his eyes, wary, but Rumplestiltskin seems to be looking for something in her expression. He scrutinises her, gaze darting across her face, and then he gives another giggle and Belle can't quite conceal her shiver.

"In three days, then, my lady," he says. "And you won't think of breaking our deal, hm?"

"No," she says. "No, I won't."

"Good girl." He withdraws, sketches a bow that's more serious than before, less mocking. As if he thinks she's worthy of it now, where she wasn't before. "Three days."

And then suddenly, like a candle flame when blown out, he's gone. Belle manages to remain upright for a moment, and then her knees give way and she collapses to the floor.

Fic is completed, 40 chapters + epilogue, and a new chapter will be posted every evening, GMT.