Autumn was late in arriving, the leaves remaining stubbornly green until the temperature was willing to catch up with the season. Rumplestiltskin hadn't given a single thought to the seasonal changes since he'd lost Baelfire, but found that recently the changing weather was consuming his every thought. He had spent a month's worth of evenings spinning at his wheel, working frantically to meet a self-imposed deadline, and for weeks after that he had reached deeply into his ancient bag of common skills and woven and sewn cloth by hand. Now, as the nip in the air began to prick the skin of the non-cursed, he was finally prepared to carry out what he had planned. All he needed was for the weather to comply with his wishes.
Through the window of his study he could barely make out the shape of the woman he called his prisoner, her distant form bent to her work in the herb garden. Idly his hand traveled over the fabric of his vest and settled where it could feel the beat of his heart. He knew that though she was the one with the title, it was his own heart that was the true “captive”. The proof was reflected in the glass pane before him; a forgotten assortment of bottles, books, and potions, abandoned for the hope of today being the day that everything would fall into place.
A sigh escaped him as he watched the figure lift her small basket and turn back to the castle. He could no longer deny that Belle had consumed him, nor did he wish to. She had become a light in his life that not only illuminated his darkened heart, but burned into him with a fire that refused to extinguish. As she approached, he forced himself to turn from the window, snatched up a random parchment, and scurried down the tower's spiral staircase to implant himself elsewhere. He chose random corridors, making lefts and rights based solely on the foot that lead the way until he heard the castle doors creak open and finally allowed his steps to follow a directed course. As he closed the distance between himself and Belle, he slowed his pace and gazed down at the scroll in his hands, unrolled just enough to be evidence of his distraction, then rounded a corner and passed her without a word of greeting.
“Rumplestiltskin?” The voice was music to his ears and the stutter step that occurred when he turned to her was made true because of the shocking beauty of its sound to him.
Playing the part of the distracted captor, he feigned confusion and scowled against the supposed interruption. “Yes? What do you need now? I have things to do, you know...”
Belle's mouth quirked up in a smile as her eyes flicked down to what she was to assume he had been reading. “Yes. I can see,” she replied in a no-nonsense tone that told him she had seen right through his charade. Lifting the basket to indicate its contents, she continued as if she hadn't just caught him in a lie. “There are some herbs I'd like to add to the garden-”
“Yes, yes,” Rumple interrupted with mock frustration, waving a hand in the air. “Make a list and I will arrange it.”
Belle's smile pulled at his chest. “Thank you,” she said with a slight curtsy.
Rumplestiltskin bowed and used the motion to peer into the basket she held. “You certainly seem to have plenty here,” he scoffed, reaching out to dig around at the contents and brushing his hand against hers in the process. The feel of her skin caused him to catch his breath sharply. Turning the joy of their contact into false concern, he tisked at her. “Your hands are like ice.” The description was wildly inaccurate, but neither of them pointed that out to the other.
“The weather is changing,” Belle told him with a shrug, playing along with his little game. “The autumn breeze is coming in.”
“No, no, no, no, no,” the Dark One grumbled, the sounds coming out in rapid succession. “This won't do! I can't have my housekeeper taken to bed with cold.” He sighed and took a step from her, looking her up and down. “You simply must wear something other than your house dress out into this weather.”
Belle pouted at him, eyes narrowing. “Well, if you hadn't whisked me away from my home the way you did, perhaps I would have been able to bring some things with me.”
Rumple pretended to contemplate this, the fingers of one hand tapping out an idle dance on his chin. “Hm. True....” He let his eyes wander over her form again, pretending to judge her size and height, then held out a hand and magically transported his latest masterpiece from where it lay upstairs to where it could dangle from the tips of his fingers.
As he had hoped they would, Belle's eyes widened with surprise as they traveled along the folds of the fabric with its cool colors and leafy pattern. She would assume he had simply commanded the cloak to exist, of course, and he was happy enough to let her believe that magic had done in an instant what his own hands had truly taken months to complete. He had no reason to let her work out all of his secrets, at least not yet.
“It's... beautiful...” The words drifted from her as she gently plucked the cloak from his hand and went about trying it on, then twirled in place, letting the hem spread into the air around her. When she finally looked at him again, her blue eyes sparkled, lifting him so much closer to the light of their love that the brightness was almost too much for him to bear.
Rumplestiltskin waggled a finger at her. “Now, I expect this to be worn whenever you leave the castle,” he teased as his finger tapped the tip of her nose with a feather-light touch. “It gets cold quickly in these mountains.”
“Of course,” Belle agreed, so obviously fighting a smile that her entire face strained with the effort. Her eyes suddenly turned down, a rosy blush filling her cheeks and a single lock of her hair dropped from out of the cloak's hood.
Struggling against the urge to tuck the hair back into place, Rumple let out a grunt and stepped quickly away, mumbling, “Don't you have a list to make?” just as his eyes opened to darkness.
* * *
“Damn this curs-sed cell!” The Dark One shot to his feet, hands rubbing at his face to scrub away a lake's worth of tears. His boot lashed out at the iron bars to his right, slamming against them with all of the force he could muster, as if that would be enough retaliation against the unexpected torture of their dampening his abilities. With no magic the Dark Curse that consumed him was weakened and he had been prone to spurts of unconsciousness, some of which boasted the ability to shift memories into a form of dream. He wouldn't have put it past Regina to have come up with such a devious creation, but he was certain the King and Queen had no idea what they had subjected him to when they had left him to rot for eternity in this dank, living tomb.
With a sigh, Rumplestiltskin reached into the folds of his clothing, pulling out a tiny scrap of the fabric he had woven for Belle so long ago and kept with him always, as a reminder of their love. It wasn't their teacup, but staring down into the cloth helped him remember exactly how it framed her face and brought out the blue in her eyes, making a portrait of her beauty in his mind. Holding the scrap tightly between his thumb and finger, he caressed the pattern of green and crumpled back to the bench he had so suddenly vacated only moments before. “Belle,” he whispered softly as if the cloth could carry the words to her ears. “If only you were real...”
That was the most unexpected part of his life in this dungeon, for though everyone else in the realm was satisfied with their existence and held every memory as if they had really and truly happened, Rumplestiltskin was aware that this realm was not as it seemed. The Dark Curse connected him to all Dark Ones who had come before him, and that included his alter ego, a man that now called himself “Mister Gold,” who was currently struggling to hold his family together in the small town of Storybrooke. Rumplestiltskin was, essentially, a clipping cut from that original and planted into a different realm where he could take root and grow, but because of the spell that created him, his memories, like all of the others made on the whim of some fool, were nothing more than stories tattooed into their minds by magic.
And yet... the scrap was here. It was real. Certainly as real as the bars that caged him. Perhaps there was a chance the rest was as real as what he clung to now. Belle would be out there, she would come and find him...
Humming a little tune at the idea of reuniting with his true love, Rumplestiltskin danced with Belle's memory until he felt the sudden rush of distant magic that told him someone had arrived. He paused only to giggle, for the magic he felt was not of this realm. It pulled at a familiar chord, but vibrated with a foreign twang that caused his curiosity to flare. Excitement built up inside of him until his fingers tapped against each other with glee.
“Now,” he whispered to himself. “This should be interesting...”
In his mind, other Dark Ones protested his intrigue, warning him that the unusual presence could signal his demise, but Rumplestiltskin flapped his hand at the air to dismiss the notion. This felt... familiar... and useful.
Overcome with joy at the thought of rescue, he began to hum again, his feet moving gracefully in the small space that had been his home for so many years. I will find you, my love, he thought to Belle. I will bring you home to the castle and we will live our story to the happiest ending. Eyes closed, he envisioned those blue eyes just as he remembered them, refusing to allow himself the necessary truth of her age or the chance of his having been replaced with someone else. Theirs was a true love and Rumplestiltskin knew that would win over anything that had come between them through their time apart. He was certain it would take only one mutual glance to undo whatever hitches time had put into their story.
Another giggle escaped him as he heard the echo of tentative footsteps in the chamber above and knew that the sound was attracting the cautious stranger. Dancing his way into the hidden corner of his cell, he waited, stilling himself until every part of his body rested, motionless against the stone. Wanting to keep Belle to himself, he changed the tune from the one they had claimed as their own to something new, something that had suddenly sprung from his brain like a thorny vine, pricking it with a sharp newness that came out of nowhere and everywhere all at once. The newcomers, he realized quickly, had something to do with this, their new magic mingling with his sudden existence and compelling him to act as they did. Well, no matter, it was pulling his visitor in like a fish on a line, which made him release another giggle in anticipation.
Come to me, dearie, he thought to the visitor. Don't you want to know who else knows the tune you brought with you?
His heart lifted as he heard the click of shoes on the stairs and the rustle of movement that was just out of his line of sight. As the noise came closer, he giggled again. “There you are,” he said at last in a voice from another time. “Come to see old Rumple, have you?” He kept his head down to prevent any light from finding his face, letting the grime that coated his hair and clothing blend seamlessly with the stone behind him. “Who are you? Come closer...”
Rumplestiltskin's heart lifted as he felt the pull of magic. It felt dusty somehow, unused, or misused, but it was still a mirror to his own, deadened skills and anything that was this familiar could be manipulated. Hope filled him, lifting his chest with the light of possibility and then, when he realized who stood before him, his heart sank, like a giant stone dropped into a bottomless sea.
He lunged at the bars, a sneer on his face, wanting nothing more than to rip out the heart of the person who stood before him, for she was the root of all of his miseries. And yet she couldn't be. She seemed too uncertain. There was a fear in her that was as unusual as her new, hideous style. Rumplestiltskin schooled his expression into one of hopeful surprise. “You! The Queen! The apprentice is back! Back to see the old master. Back again. Back again!” He shook the bars with genuine desperation, unable to hold back the single thought of freedom that now consumed his mind.
Then his world crashed around him with a few, simple words. “Please, I need your help.”
Whatever light had filled him began to flicker away like a dying candle. The Queen begging for help as she had in the first days of her lessons? What kind of weakling had she become? Rumplestiltskin's quick mind instantly put the pieces together. Regina had once held great magic within her and yet had somehow been banished by the Princess and her “charming” lover, so she must have had those powers dampened somehow. Weakened to the point of defeat, she had left to find a way to renew herself and now stood before him, radiating a difference that left a bad taste in his mouth, but one that at least contained power within. As weak as she appeared to be, this was not someone who would so easily be tossed from her throne like a lumpy cushion.
Desperate for answers, he baited her, the overly dramatic response to her plea coming with such little pause that he hoped it would be impossible for her to notice the thought involved in his trickery. She knew something and he would get to the heart of it. He lectured her on her inabilities, pulling the strings he knew would force her confession and in only a few breaths, the seed he had planted between them grew and bore fruit.
“That wasn't me,” she told him, still clearly unable to face her inadequacies. She blathered on about her place in reality, then claimed it wasn't real... and called him “fake”.
This shot through his mind like a bolt of white-hot lightning. Someone else could feel the falseness of the past, the blur and haze of memory that said something from before was flowing contrary to everything that was happening as they spoke. “Now I'm intrigued,” he admitted. Unashamed to reveal his curiosity, he squatted beneath her in the hopes that his defenseless posture would educe further confession. He wasn't disappointed.
Everything he knew was, in fact, created from a wish.
He had been right all along.
Belle... Oh, Belle... His lovely, adoring Belle... Nothing more than the speck of a thought in his mind... And yet...
He heard the name and instinctively repeated it, rolling it around on his tongue, testing the sound of it on his lips. What came out seemed to be the lengthy mumbles of confusion when in fact it was a test. The savior's name had been part of the curse he had so carefully manipulated, it was meant to be his salvation, a loophole for him to grasp on to in the event that his plan failed and his own mind had become cursed in the new realm. If the name was meant to release him from the curse, it stood to reason it would reveal this reality to him, especially if everything revolved around the savior.
His reality slammed into his consciousness as he released the name a second time and he welcomed the rush that came as sharply as a blow to the head. In a flash of white light and a dizzying, disorienting spin, he learned everything. A wish made from a wish, and all centered around the savior who was being shared by two worlds. Yes, the logistics of this would be very, very interesting indeed, and something he was eager to play with... once he was free.
* * *
Snow White glided along the floor to the minstrel's happy tune, enjoying the warmth of her husband's arms around her waist and the dexterity hidden in the subtle way he guided her movements. The combination put a fire inside of her core that she forced down with the strength of a passion reserved only for their chambers. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of the guests who had chosen not to partake of the evening's entertainment, and among them, Grumpy stood out like a solitary boat in the middle of a lake. She decided she would have to talk to him once given the chance to do so discreetly.
She absolutely refused to tarnish her daughter's special night with worries and tales of woe. The Dwarfs had done their duty and warned the guards of the imminent danger and the guards had done as they had been trained in response, preparing the castle's defenses without so much as making a peep to anyone outside of their own circle of influence. At least, all appearances pointed to that being the case. No one but David and Grumpy had been caught with frowns of concern during the small, intimate celebration. Granny might have given herself away as well, but only in the way her eyes darted around, alerting the observant to her need to hunt and kill prey.
Applause replaced the cheerful tune as the music trailed off and David lead her back to the table, smiling happily though the smile refused to touch his eyes. “Thank you,” he whispered as he kissed her hand, raising a playful eyebrow that spoke of his mind following hers to thoughts of their time later in the evening. She gave a shallow curtsy and took her place at the table while he asked Emma to join him for the next dance. As the two made their way to the middle of the room, she reached for some fruit from a nearby serving tray, using the movement to disguise the glare she sent Grumpy's way.
“This is a party,” she reminded him in a harsh whisper.
He leaned forward, resting his arms on the table. “And we'd better hope the Evil Queen doesn't decide to give herself an invitation.”
Snow gave him a sad but understanding smile. “Oh, Grumpy,” she said cheerily. “There will be plenty of time to track her down tomorrow. I won't have Emma's day ruined by a harmless old witch.”
“Except she isn't old,” Grumpy reminded her. “And if she can puff her way in and out of places, she obviously has her magic back and can't be all that harmless either.” He sat back in frustration, his chair almost rocking with the force of his movement. “I'm telling you, Your Majesty, something should be done. Tonight.”
In front of them Emma and her father twirled gracefully, their daughter all innocent smiles and laughter. Snow watched and felt her heart lift at the joy in Emma's eyes. “No,” she said gently, feeling a smile spread across her face as her daughter's happiness became her own. “The guards are making their preparations. We have done what we can for now. The rest can wait until morning.”
The dwarf let out a loud humph and dropped the bread he had been holding onto his plate with such force that it clattered his cutlery. Snow shot him a reproachful glare, which he completely ignored. “Do you know what I think?” When she didn't answer, he told her anyway. “I think that almost thirty years of peace have made you soft. You've been idle so long you've forgotten the kind of evil we truly face.”
“David and I lived through much,” she hissed. “Or have you forgotten making my glass coffin?”
Grumpy let out a long breath and held up his hands, his expression softening. “I meant no offense. It's just... With the Dark One in his prison and the powerless queen banished, your defenses have, understandably, come down. I remember that coffin well,” he insisted. “And I don't want to see it occupied again.” He shot a pointed glance in the direction of the dancers, then looked back at Snow, locking his eyes with hers to complete his unspoken worry that Emma could be the next target of the Evil Queen's wrath.
Show closed her eyes at the thought. She replayed the day's events in her mind, picking at the Evil Queen's words one by one to try and find some meaning in the nonsense the woman had spoken. How could any of them not be real? What did she mean by their being hallucinations? She shook her head. “I'm quite certain the woman is mad,” she told him at last.
“Even more reason to be ready for her,” Grumpy reminded her softly. “Madness is the beginning of many things.”
He did have a point, Show knew, and he wouldn't stop holding it up to her until she did something. With a sigh she gave a small nod. “All right,” she told him, then turned to Granny. “Do you think you and the others could track her?”
The older woman's mouth set in a sharp line of determination. “Probably. It would depend on how much magic she has, but we've tracked her before.”
Snow nodded. “Good.” She felt a hand rest on her shoulder and looked up to see Red hovering protectively.
“You looked worried,” her friend told her.
“I've just had an old fashioned kick in the rear from a good friend,” she teased, smiling over at Grumpy.
Red worked out the situation almost immediately. She had probably been waiting for someone to bring their concerns to Snow since their afternoon in the woods. “Tell me what we need to do.”
“When you leave the party, I want you to take some of the trackers with you and try to determine where the Evil Queen could be hiding,” Snow told her. “Wherever you find her, do not interrupt her, only observe and report back to me in the morning. I think we can all agree that if she was prepared to take Emma from us, she would have done so in the woods.”
“Or here,” Ruby added with a snort. “She always had a flair for the dramatic.”
Snow nodded. “I would bet that she needs to build up her powers again before she makes a move like that against us, so we most likely have some time.”
“But we need to know how much,” Grumpy insisted.
“Yes,” Snow agreed as the music stopped.
Everyone paused their conversations to applaud the minstrel as Emma came over, her eyes sparkling and her face radiant with joy. Even for all of her years she still seemed so much like a child, innocent and pure. Snow hated the idea of that being taken from her. The princess lowered her head to her mother and the others, then lifted a smile to the whole room. “I know the hour is late,” she said formally, “but I wanted to thank you all for being here. Spending this evening with our friends means more to me than any celebration today could have.”
Those gathered politely clapped their hands in answer to her kindness and as Snow watched Emma curtsy to the room she rethought her evaluation of the woman's childishness. She had grown into a beautiful woman and a loving mother and Snow was certain that when the time came for Emma to step up as Queen she would be ready.
“Please,” Emma added once the room had stilled again. “Eat what is left, fill your cups as you wish, and remain as long as your hearts desire. There are rooms prepared in the guest wing if anyone wishes to stay the night.”
Another curtsy, more applause, and Emma had rounded the table to give her mother a kiss on the cheek. “Goodnight, Mom,” she said softly as she pulled away.
“Going to bed so soon?” Snow fought the urge to feel her daughter's head for signs of fever.
“It has been a long day,” David reminded her as he took his seat at the table.
Emma bent to kiss his cheek and gave each of them an awkward squeeze around their chairs. “Tomorrow is Henry's big day,” she explained.
“True. It wouldn't do to have his mother looking as if she had worn herself out with celebrations the night before,” her father chuckled. “Rest well.”
“I'll try,” Emma said as she kissed them each again before making her way into the corridor and her waiting bed.
Snow watched her go and let out a a sigh loud enough to make her husband look over with concern. “Everything all right?”
“Apparently I'm getting soft in my old age,” she told him before taking a sip of her wine. “I've had a reminder from an old friend that I can't quite shake.”
David turned his gaze to Grumpy, shifted it to Ruby and finally let his eyes drift back to Snow again as he clearly tried to work out which of her old friends had given her the mental paddling she required. “What about?”
“Grumpy is worried the Evil Queen poses more of a threat than we realize.” She teased with a roll of her eyes though the others were so lost in their own conversations that they were unaware of her words or actions.
“Can't be too careful when it comes to her,” he agreed. “How do you think she got her magic back?”
Snow cocked her head in thought. “I couldn't begin to imagine...” Her words trailed off as she tried to pull the rope of an idea into her mind, but was never really able to grab on to any specific line that would do the trick. “Granny and the others are going to track her tonight and see what she is up to.”
“A good idea,” David told her as he leaned forward and placed a soft, promising kiss on her lips. “Maybe tomorrow we'll have a better understanding of what we are up against.”
The words of her previous conversation with Grumpy mingled with David's and those of the Evil Queen, causing a storm to brew in her mind's eye. Visions of the past surfaced, covered in the dust of years of neglect; her childhood, meeting David, the sleeping curse, soaking the queen's powers into the Crimson Heart and David driving her from the castle with a single swipe of his blade... The past had been a struggle, she knew, but had time made her believe that it hadn't? Did the ease of their lives now truly make her forget the pain and suffering she had been through before Emma had been born?
Unbidden, the image of the queen came charging into her memory, striding forward as she had on their wedding day, announcing that she had plans for their suffering. What if this was all part of her plan? What if she had only been waiting until the time was right to do away with the Royal line and reclaim the throne she believed was hers?
Snow swallowed a lump that had suddenly formed in her throat and felt her body tense with determination. If the Evil Queen wanted a final battle, then the people of this kingdom would give her one.