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The Chronicles of the Dark One: Before the Curse

Chapter Text

It was hard to remember a time in his life that he was happy.

For the longest time, he was sure he'd fallen to earth. An alien. A stranger. Perhaps he'd appeared out of the dust, the very freak of nature the world treated him as. Perhaps the fairies had left him there, for sometimes if he closed his eyes and concentrated hard enough he was certain he could see some kind of world in the clouds around him, along with women dressed in dazzling colors. He must have been young for the colors to interest him more than their faces.

In his mind, if he thought of these scenarios as true, they helped him, eased his mind as he tried to sleep each night and somehow made a terrible situation better.

Maybe his father had found him in the woods. Yes, that was it. He'd been walking, maybe out to the bar, but when he saw him lying there alone and naked and cold, he'd had pity on him. He'd given him food and shelter. He was lucky such a kindly man had found him and given him so much! Even a name as deplorable as he'd given him. Maybe he'd done it because he thought it was cute or funny, even though he'd never known him to do anything because it was "cute" in his life.

As long as he could believe these things, as long as he had a fantasy to hold on to, and a world he could go to in his dreams, he was alright. It was far better than admitting the truth.

That his father was a drunk. "A swine" the villagers called him, on the rare times he took him to town. On the few times the smell of alcohol didn't fall off his clothes, he made most of his money gambling. He would have liked to know his father before he'd arrived, he could tell that a few of his moments of sobriety he'd been clever before he started drinking and still was. He taught himself the sleight of hand he used to cheat the strangers to their port out of their coins. His father even taught him one afternoon, that had been a rare day. He'd got out of bed to find the dog he'd been taking care of in the woods, Peter Pan, had run away, someone had untied the rope he'd been using to keep him there. It had also been raining and his father said he had a terrible headache from the night before and he declared it too rainy to "work" today. To cheer him up and keep him calm while his head pounded he'd taught him his tricks. He'd laughed, and clapped him on the back when he finally succeeded at the trick. "Oh! Perhaps we'll give you the family business yet!" he declared before falling back into the chair and going to sleep.

He only crept up to the loft that he spent most of his hungry nights in and opened the shutters to stare out at the stars. He probably should be worried for his dog, but his father's words had given him an odd feeling, one he didn't entirely understand.

"The family business" he'd called it. Deceiving, lying, and stealing. He might not have been a very bright boy, as his father reminded him day in and day out, but he knew that those were bad things. He didn't want to be bad, he wanted to be good! And yet…this evening had given him happy feelings, even with the loss of his dog. Those words, coming from his father, with a sense of pride, made him feel like his chest was filled with air. His father didn't often smile, or compliment him, or tell him anything that he'd ever be good at, but he had tonight. And no matter how evil the deeds were, he was happy that for the first time in his entire life he'd made his father proud of something he'd done.

It was temporary of course. All too soon the rain had stopped, his father's headaches faded from his mind, and with no Peter Pan to play with he found himself alone day after day in their home again as his father left.

He moved about as he pleased. Some mornings he woke to find his father in such a deep sleep no matter how much pushing and shoving he did there was no chance of waking him, other mornings he woke to find he'd spent the night and was about to leave for town. Some times he didn't see his father for days, nearly a week once. He'd eaten all the bread in the house and had to pick berries to survive. On the last morning, his stomach hurt so bad that he thought it would turn him inside out if it didn't get something besides berries. So he ran to the closest farm and stole two eggs from the coop. He felt scared and guilty for taking them, but he promised himself that one day he would pay the family back when he had the money. He was nearly ready to eat them when his father had come back into the door, grinning like a cat with venison over his shoulder.

"I've hit a lucky streak, my boy! Look here! We'll eat like kings tonight!" For the next hour, he watched as his father ate his eggs, and told him all about the week he'd had, the tavern he'd stayed at, and the soups he'd tried each night for dinner. When his father finally fell into bed, he cut a small piece of meat free from the venison, cooked it himself, and carried it outside. He ate it in the woods near the place he'd kept his dog, looking over his shoulder at every little noise, keeping the food close to him, and crying. He didn't know why he did it. One moment he was sure it was because he was so hungry, he could think of nothing to do but crying. The next moment, when he finally had a nice piece of meat in his belly, he was sure that it had nothing to do with his stomach, and everything to do with the happy time his father had been having away from him all the while he'd tucked himself into bed every night, wondering when food would arrive.

But what was there to be done about it? Nothing. He'd stopped trying to convince his father to take him with him or not to leave him alone long ago. It never stopped him from leaving the house, just made his ears ring when his father slapped him on the side of his head to let him go, and trusted the housework would be done when he came home…whenever that would be.

"Please," he prayed each night to whatever or whoever was listening. "Please come get me!" He didn't care if it was aliens from another planet, or fairies, or if it were a pack of wolves, he just didn't want to live here anymore, where food was scarce, work was plentiful, and happiness even more fleeting than his father.

How long could a small boy live in this life, he wondered. How long could he be expected to go on like this? There were times he could see people through the windows, men with their sons hunting in the night. They didn't behave as his father behaved with him, with indifference on the best of days and fury on the worst of days. He longed for that, desired it above all. Some days it was the only thing that kept him from walking out the door and running away, the hope that one day something might change and his father might love him.

His father hadn't come home yet, though day had broken hours ago and he hadn't returned home for a fourth night now, he wasn't panicked. Rather, with every passing minute he found a new feeling growing inside of him. His fingers were itching, aching to move, to do something, to change things somehow. But what? He couldn't run away. He had no food to cook. The cleaning was done. Good and bad were shifting into other feelings, anger and curiosity and other emotions he hadn't a name to put to. And that afternoon, as he heard laughter in the woods, undoubtedly another father hunting with his son, come to taunt him, he sprang up from his bed and did the wickedest, worst thing he could think of to wound his father.

Under his pillow, his father kept a scrap of cloth. No matter how many times he had made his fathers bed and washed the filthy vomit soaked sheets he had never dared to look at that fabric, for he knew above all that what he would see was to be hidden from his eyes. But with his stomach grumbling and his fingers itching he couldn't help himself. He grabbed that fabric from under the pillow, hurled his arm back to toss it in the fire, and-

A flash of the image made him stop. It was a drawing. A very good drawing of a woman's face. She was slender, had dark hair and eyelashes, cheekbones that looked like his own, her eyes were bright, but her smile…her smile gave him a warm feeling, like that day his father had taught him sleight of hand. She grinned back at him from the paper and though it was only a drawing he smiled back at her, and touched the curve of her cheek with his finger. There were markings on the bottom of the paper, words. But as no one had taught him to read…

He had to find something to write with, to copy the letters down and find someone who could tell him what the symbols said so that he'd know-

Just as he'd started scrambling about he heard the door open and close behind him and every bit of that happy feeling the image of the woman had given him drained from his body as he turned to face his father. He brought nothing with him this time, nothing but the dirt on his hands and watery red-rimmed eyes; eyes which were focused on what he held in his tiny fist.

"Now what have you got there, lad?" he whispered. It was the most terrifying tone he'd ever heard from his father and he suddenly found himself wishing that he'd yell at him.

"I was just…I just…I found it."

"You found it did you?" he questioned stepping forward slowly. He'd been drinking again. He reeked of it. "How did you find it, I wonder? Did it fall from the rafters? Did it scurry out of the fireplace? Come in with the wind? Or did you go through my things!"

He ducked as his father tossed a metal stein in his direction. It bounced off the wall and missed him by about a yard. But when his father reached for him his aim was better, and there was barely a struggle as he swore at him and pulled the fabric from his hands, screaming at him all the time.

"I'm sorry! I'm sorry, father!" he cried, but his father was more occupied now with looking over the photo. He was…he was crying! It wasn't the wateriness in his eyes he'd seen when he first entered their home, the look he associated with his father having too much time spent at the pub, this was different. His father was crying. He was looking over the picture and mumbling words he couldn't understand as he sat down on the bed. It was then that he drew his finger over the image, and though he couldn't exactly see what he'd touched, he had the feeling that it might have been the same cheek he himself had been drawn to trace.

"Father," he mumbled stepping forward timidly. His father didn't answer, just continued to hold that picture and mutter nonsense words like "younger" "stolen" and "why".

"Papa," he swallowed stepping even closer so he might catch another glimpse of the woman. "I wondered…I wondered who she is."

"She's your mother you fool!" his father snapped at him so quickly he jumped away. It was only when he felt his back pressing up against the wall that he could consider the words.

"My mother?!" he muttered as his heart started to race with excitement. "I have a mother!"

"Well, of course, you have a mother you devil!" his father screamed. "Where did you think you came from? A pig?!"

"No, I thought…I-I-I-"

"I-I-I-I…" his father mocked copying his scared stutter perfectly. The problem was that he was scared. He'd had theories and dreams all his life, but he'd never given voice to them before. And he'd certainly never thought that he had a mother! What would his father say when he revealed his thoughts.

"Out with it lad!" his father demanded after he'd gone silent.

"I…I thought maybe I fell from the sky," he stated quietly.

There was a pause between them, a moment when his father simply looked him over and stared so that he truly might be an alien. But then, without warning, he burst into laughter. Riotous laughter. The kind of laugh that can be seen from a man's front to his back and all the way down to the tips of his toes. He tried to speak, but every time he did he couldn't get the words out and in the end, pointed at him. It made him want to cry all over again, but it also made him angry.

"Or…or I thought maybe the fairies brought me to you to take care of!" he spat, hoping more than anything he might hear those last words and suddenly realize that he hadn't done the job he was meant to do, that he'd neglected to take care of his own son. But as soon as he had said the word "fairy" there was a change in his fathers face. The laughter faded, stopped almost all at once as his father went back to staring at him, but this time the look in his eyes was different. He felt as though he could see the darkness from drink pouring into them with every tick of the clock.

"Fairies…" he muttered. All of a sudden his father was on his feet again advancing on him so that he had to duck down and tuck himself back into a ball with his hands over his head to protect himself. "You are never to speak of such creatures again!" he screamed.

"Papa!"

"Never!" he screamed slamming his fist into the wall. He could have sworn there was enough force there to make the entire wall fall, but there wasn't even a hole where his fist had connected, just a small dent that still made him happy not to have had his body anywhere near that fist. So far, in his life, his father had never struck him in such a way, but he lived in fear of the day it would happen. So when he felt his father tugging on the sleeve of his shirt, forcing him to stand up he trembled a little, his instincts telling him to remain as small as he possibly could.

"Listen! Listen to me, son!" When he finally peeked his eyes open his father was before him, kneeling on the ground, mere inches from his face, so close he could practically taste the alcohol on his breath. "Fairies are vile, wicked creatures! They steal dreams! Take lives! The Black Fairy killed your mother!" he stated shaking the scrap of cloth in front of him. "And those others helped her do it!"

He gasped in fear, suddenly aware of the tears springing to his eyes. So that was what had happened. He hadn't fallen from the sky or been given to anyone by the fairies. The fairies had killed his mother. That was why his father was the way he was. That was why he'd lived the life he'd lived.

Just as suddenly as he'd grabbed him, his father had let go of him, and he fell back down against the floor, curled in a little ball. "You'll never speak of such things again lad!" he spat at him as he fell back onto the bed. His small burst of energy was beginning to fade, and he could see sleep fighting to consume him as he placed the cloth back under his pillow. "You'll let the memory have that woman rest…you won't speak of this again…you'll let her memory…" But his father's head hit the pillow and he heard light snores follow only seconds only.

It was over. With the coming of sleep it meant that not only was the danger passed, but he was also certain that when his father woke in the morning, he wouldn't remember this conversation. But he would. He would remember forever. Despite the morning hours and the light pouring into the room the boy made his way back up to his pallet and stared out the window into the morning sky. The evening star was faint, but still visible. How often had he made a wish on that star? To be taken away from this place? For someone to come and get him? To be taken back to the fairies? Quite suddenly, he had no interest in any of it and wishing on stars seemed to be foolish, something for babies and he was no baby! He slammed the shutters closed and buried his face in his pillow, crying out at a truth he had no control over.

He had a mother. She was killed by the fairies, the very creatures he'd hoped would rescue him. His father hated him and now he knew why. He was a living breathing reminder that his mother had existed. Perhaps that was why as a child he'd given him such a cruel name, a name that meant mischief and trouble and foretold nothing but instability. What other name was more suited for such a boy than Rumplestiltskin?

Chapter Text

They were homeless but at least they weren't without land. He'd done his best all his life to keep that house, however pitiful it was, in good shape. But a house needed more than uneducated good intentions; it needed actual care. And one night, in the middle of a terrible storm, as he waited for his father to return from the town, he saw a leak in the corner of the roof. The leak grew and grew as the rain got worse and worse and then in one brilliant flash and clap of thunder the thatched roof caved into the house. The roof was destroyed, when his father returned he'd found him huddled in a corner hiding under a table to keep the noise and wet away. He ignored the fact that his father almost looked disappointed to find him still there and instead focused on how he'd taken him outside, cleaned him up, and told him they'd be fine. They'd sleep under the stars from that day on! And so they did. Their tents were pitched in their front yard, but poorly. And the entire thing was fun until more rain came down and sleeping in the damp grass was less desirable than sleeping in a warm bed with a sturdy roof over his head.

He begged his father to fix the roof, to get a job, to make money to fix their home, but each and every time he seemed only to want to sluff off the requests.

"Isn't this fun, Rumple?!" he asked picking up his pipe to play more music. "You and me, living off the land! Sleeping under the stars! Playing music each night?"

"It was fun a year ago! I want a home father!" Not that the house they'd lived in had ever really been much of a home to begin with, but at least it had kept him dry in storms and warm in the winter. He had a feeling his father would have preferred it too, but he barely made enough money to give him food every couple of days, even young as he was he knew putting a roof over his head would be more money than his father had. He didn't want to think about how many meals a new roof would cost him.

And then, one day, strange men rode into town, men in armor and mail. They carried heavy swords on their belts and shields on their backs. Their horses were not just big, their coats were shiny. He'd been in town looking for his father, and only just managed to find him at a table when the men turned to the people and began talking. He couldn't hear what they were talking about though, because the moment everyone had turned to get closer, his father had whisked him away.

"Father, what's happening? Who are those men?"

"Never you mind, Rumple," he'd muttered as he'd pulled him away. "Suffice it to say we should stick close to home for the next few days." The pair of them had escaped unnoticed successfully into the forest and back to the remains of their cottage. For the next few days, things almost seemed normal; his father avoided the town during the day, only going out at night and ordering him to stay there and wait for him. Much to his surprise, when he woke each day his father was there, with breakfast over the fire waiting and pleasant conversation until he went into his tent and drifted off to sleep. He didn't understand who the soldiers were or what they wanted, but it was getting to the point that he hoped they'd never leave. And then it all changed.

It was near noon, close to a week after the soldiers had first arrived. His father was still asleep in his tent and he sat in the cool shade of a tree drawing images in the dirt with a stick. It was then that he heard the sound of horse's hooves and a not too distant neigh. He barely had time to run to his father's tent and give him a shove before the soldiers were on top of them. The order to run his father gave him was useless.

"You there, sir!"

His father crawled out of his tent and stood before the one who had come forward and called them.

"Afternoon, Gents!" he greeted cheerfully. "Lost your way, have you? Can I give you directions back to town?"

"You are Malcolm, are you not?" the soldier questioned immediately. His father didn't say a word. "You are Malcolm, son of a pauper, slave to the blacksmith, you would be the unpleasant scoundrel we hear about in town so often. You are the owner of this land, for if you were not we'd have to see you and the boy escorted off the property, and you thrown into prison. So I ask you again. You are Malcolm, are you not?"

His father glanced back over his shoulder at him for a moment, then turned back to the soldier. "Aye…that's me…"

"The King and Queen have instituted a new land tax, all who own land will pay a portion of their…"

The words the man declared to him were no more than gibberish and yet as he watched his father go white, and argue with the man, telling him he had no money, he was just trying to feed his boy, he understood what it was about easy enough. Money. The men wanted money. Exactly how much he couldn't make out in all the yelling, but he assumed that the money they wanted was worth a good deal of food. His father barely had enough to get by day by day.

"You'll have two weeks to comply with the order or else your…residence...will be ceased by the Kingdom and farmed to repay what you owe."

"Please-"

"You will also find yourself in jail and your son will be sold to work off your debt. Two weeks, drunk! Ya!" With no further word's the soldiers moved on, disappearing into the woods again and leaving him with his father. They were in trouble. He hadn't understood a lot of what had said but he understood that what it meant was trouble. He'd be taken away from his father. The very thought made him want to cry. His father might not have been the best, but he was what he had! They had no one but each other! They couldn't be separated!

"Never fear, laddie! We've two weeks! We'll think something up!"

But his father didn't think something up, at least nothing that was new. For the next two weeks, things went back to normal again. His father was never home, he was always out at town, scheming, gambling, betting away what he earned. He'd never seen his father work harder in his life. And ten days later, only a few days before the tax was due, his father had a bag of coins tied at his waist to show for it. He didn't know if it was enough to pay the men, but he hoped it was.

He began to go to town again, now that the men had found them and delivered the proclamation to his father, there were no restrictions placed on him and so, when he got bored or hungry he wandered back to town, to look for his father, to see if there was anything he could do to help. He found him, almost always, in the same square, always hosting the same game. He called it "Find the Lady". If played right three cards were used, two tricksters and one queen. He would shuffle the three fast as he could and the man would pay a shilling to try and find the Queen, earning two back if he did. Of course that was only if the game was played fairly. He'd learned over the last few days his father did not play fair or right.

"Father! Father!" he called, running over to him when he finally laid eyes on him.

"Rumple! Rumple, what are you doing here?! You should be at home in bed!" he exclaimed as he ran forward and put his arms around him.

"I had to come find you! You didn't come home, and I was getting hungry!" Suddenly he felt the muscles beneath his arms begin to change and he felt his father place his hands on his back so he would step away.

"Oh, you were hungry, you say. Well, fortunately for you, these fine men were just showing some interest in finding our lady friend." All at once he felt his fathers hand bring him closer to his side as he looked at the strangers across from the table. "For a poor father, just trying to feed his boy, friends?" he asked of them.

The men looked at one another, their brows furrowed. But eventually one of them gave a quick short nod. "For the boy."

"Wonderful! Rumple, stand back there, be a lucky charm for these fingers to fly and with any luck you might very well eat tonight."

"It's morning!" he cried, but his father didn't appear to hear him just turned away and bent over the makeshift table.

"Follow the lady, gents," his father tempted, showing them the queen hidden among the two ordinary playing cards. There was no use trying to talk to him now, his father was in his game, doing what he knew best. He would be all but deaf to anything he said at the moment. "A shilling returns two."

And that was where he had him.

His father had looked up, staring the man in the eyes and on instinct the man had raised his own eyes to meet them.

He'd taken his eyes off the card.

It was only for a fraction of a second, maybe, but in that time both men looked up he looked down, and saw his father quickly remove the card from the table and replace it with another. They'd never notice it from their angle.

Now, the man was bound to lose, no matter which two cards he chose to turn over.

His stomach gave a twist as he remembered the words his father had told him on the day he'd taught him how to expertly do that himself. The family business. It was cheating and gambling and lying. His father would deny it, of course, say that it was fair. He'd told the man to watch the lady and in that one moment he'd taken his eyes off of her, his father was merely taking advantage of the situation. He called it a loophole, but he wasn't sure he felt the same about it. His father finished his shuffling and turned over the card on the right, revealing the old trickster. The man on the other side of the table smiled and forcefully placed a shilling down over the middle card before smiling with his friends. His father turned over the card, and just as expected he saw the trickster once more.

"What?!" the man gawked, his face turning red in anger.

"Don't feel too bad. You're not the only one who's been spurned by the lady tonight. She's been quite shy all evening," his father gave a little giggle as he took the coin from the table and held it before him.

Rumple gasped as all the sudden the man reached forward and grabbed his father's wrist. For just a moment he expected that he'd grab the coin and run away with it, but instead he peeled back his hand and saw in the sleeve of his father's shirt the top of the card, the queen. Their customer saw it too.

"You tricked me," he growled.

"How'd she get in there?" His father barely had time to get the words out before the man's fist reared back and slammed into his nose. His father grunted as he rounded the table and advanced on him, pinning him against the column as his fist once again moved back. If he hit him again, like this, with enough force, he'd crack his head!

"Please," he cried, running up and throwing his arms around the man. "Don't hurt him! He's my father!"

Eye contact! That was good! His father had always told him that making eye contact, looking them in the eye, was good and helpful. It helped them feel like you were being honest with them! Maybe he'd see how scared he was for his father not to be hurt!

"You'd be better off without him," the man growled at him. He loosened his grip on his father, but just as he was sure he'd let him go, he slammed the fist into his father's stomach. He let out a sound like all the air left his lungs and he collapsed to the ground. But then turned to do something far worse.

"No! No!" his father struggled as the man reached for his father's side and grabbed the small leather pouch. It held the tax money. He stood back, expecting his father to jump up at any moment and fight, but he didn't. The man walked away, remembering to grab the shilling he'd left on the table as his father rolled over and struggled for breath. The man safely away, he knelt down next to his father and helped him to sit.

"Are you okay?!"

His father breathed heavily, there was a sound like he had rocks in his lungs as he did it, but when he looked over his shoulder at him, he smiled.

"The cost of the game," he excused. "He didn't even leave me a shilling for a pint. How rude!" He spoke as if this was funny, the smile on his face suggesting it wasn't serious. But it was. He'd seen enough to know that it was very serious. There was blood running down the corner of his mouth and no blood from his nose, giving him hope that maybe the man had only hit him in the jaw. But lack of injury was the least of their worries has his stomach was all too happy to remind him. This wasn't about a shilling left behind for a pint. It was nearly dawn, there was nothing to eat now, and the money pouch was gone.

"He took all of our money," he reminded his father. All their money for the King and Queen! If they didn't get it back they'd be separated! He'd be taken away and sold!

"Yes," he admitted, his breath still labored. "But I'll figure something out. I always do..." He reached out, laid a hand on the side of his face and pressed his thumb roughly into his chin. "Rumple!" he growled as he finally rolled away and pushed himself to his feet. He wasn't sure if he'd said it as an afterthought, or in anger. "Roll up!" he commanded.

Chapter Text

The men his father had attempted to swindle had taken all the money they owed for the tax. The deadline that the soldiers had given them was coming up. In two days he would have to provide them money…or else.

"What are we going to do now, Papa?" he asked as they walked home that night, not even a shilling in their bag.

"I haven't figured it out yet Rumple."

"But the soldiers will be back soon! They said they'd take me from you, they said-"

"I know what they said, Rumple!" he snapped, the grip he had on his hand tightened. "I just have to think, that's all. Just have to think. Go to bed, now…I'll have it all figured out when you wake up."

He listened to his father and went to bed, despite the fact that his stomach growled and squirmed and tightened beneath his belly. He was hungry. But as the night wore on, he heard the fire at the pit come to life and then the pan flute his father carried with him began to play a melody that reminded him of something cheerful. He didn't have any memory to go with it, but he imagined himself running through a field of impossibly high grass. The sun was shinning. He never tired. There was someone just ahead of him, a woman with a wide smile and long black hair against pale skin.

"Come and chase me Rumple!" she called before darting away into the grass. She left a trail behind her, a yellow dress, the color of an old baby blanket, fluttered in the wind behind her as she ran, standing out against the green grass. But when he turned a corner the dress stopped flying. He heard the familiar bark of Peter Pan, the dog he'd kept in the woods until someone had let him go, somewhere in the distance and saw his mother standing there with her father, caught up in his arms, he was smiling like he'd never seen him smile before as they looked into one another's eyes before they both turned to look at him.

"Come over here Rumple! Come and get us!" his father cried. He felt a smile spread across his face, took a big breath, and began to run toward the pair of-

"Rumple!"

His heart was flying as dull green and gray invaded his senses. The field of grass…it was nothing more than a fuzzy memory now, something that he couldn't quite grasp unless he closed his eyes and concentrated.

"Rumple it's time to go!" it was difficult to concentrate when his father, nothing like the one he'd seen in his dream was urging him out of his makeshift shelter.

He crawled out quickly, without even time to rub his eyes and adjust to the light of day. "What's going on?" he asked. "Did you figure out a way to get the money?"

Seeing he was up, his father moved away from his tent and sat back by the fire pit, poking it with a stick, spreading the ashes so they wouldn't reignite. A sign that they were leaving. But where? For what? They couldn't afford not to think about the tax.

"I believe I have, Rumple," his father muttered without a hint of happiness in his voice. "Run and get your things…we have to go."

His father was somber the entire time they walked through the forest. At first, he thought they were heading toward town, but after a few steps he realized they were going in the wrong direction. They weren't going into town, they were going to one of the villages outside of the town, the one not far from where they lived. When they finally found themselves outside of one stone cottage on the very edge of the little village he couldn't understand why they were here or how this was going to get them the money they needed for the tax.

"Why are we here?" he asked looking at the thatched roof and the hay heaped in baskets by the door. There were barrels that looked as though they hadn't been cleaned in years; smelled like it too. He'd done a better job caring for their home than this.

"Where are we?" he demanded as his father knocked on the door. He didn't wait for a response, simply stepped closer to the door and then pushed it open himself. The door gave a terrible creak like it hadn't been oiled, or even opened, in eons. He didn't want to go into that house, but before he could argue about going inside his father reached back out and pulled him quietly into the house.

It smelled. The air was thick and musty and felt as though a fire hadn't been lit for months. It was the oddest little house he'd ever been in. Not that he'd been in many homes, but he had the sensation that this was strange for houses. Large spinning wheels decorated the great room they'd stepped into and beyond that there was little to look at. Dusty from floor to ceiling, what looked like string hung from hooks around the window. More string sat in clumps on the writing desk. Baskets of wool rested on the chairs. There was a bed to his right with some kind of fabric against the window being used as a curtain, and a table with what looked like stale bread was in plain view.

But far more shocking than the surroundings he was in were the women he saw before them. Two of them, heaped in rags and thick clothes, probably to keep the cold at bay. Their heads were covered with lace and fabric, but from the shorter one he could see curly blonde hair and from the tall one black hair. They looked like the gypsies he'd seen in town once, older versions of the ones who danced for coins before the magistrate kicked them out of town. They stood behind, or maybe it was beside, their spinning wheels, turning and turning, looking him over and suddenly he felt tears flood his eyes. His father had told him a story that started this way once before, when his own father had woken him early in the morning and then dropped him off with the blacksmith, a strange man he'd never seen but had given his grandfather money for a healthy strong boy who would work for many years for free before he ran away. But his father was different. He couldn't possibly have the same idea now, could he? He wasn't selling him, was he?

"These nice ladies are going to look after you for a little while," his father explained with his arm around his back.

"You must be the boy..." the blonde one said.

"Rumplestiltskin," the black haired one commented.

"Do you know how to spin?"

"We can teach you."

"I...I don't want to stay here!" he begged turning to his father. He didn't even make an attempt at keeping his voice down. He didn't understand why he was doing this! He'd been fine on his own over at their house, why was he taking him to these women now?! Did they expect him to work? To spin for them? Had he done something wrong to deserve this? Was it because he'd gone to town to find him yesterday? "Please, I...I'll be good!"

"This will give me time to get a real job, so we can be together," he argued, but it didn't make sense. He'd left him at home for days on his own, why couldn't he have found a real job then?! Why couldn't he just wait for him in town?

"We can be together right now. Papa, please!" he pleaded throwing himself into his arms and holding tight. His father returned the embrace, but it wasn't nearly as tight or secure as he'd wanted it to feel. He wished he would hold him tighter. "Don't leave me here."

"Don't be scared now," he chastised before pushing him away and digging something out of his pocket. "Hey, I got you a present. A friend. Someone to be at your side when I'm away. It will be with you when I cannot."

"It will?"

What he presented him with now looked like a miniature version of a scarecrow he'd seen in a neighbor's yard. It was made from corn husk and had a blue jacket over what was clearly meant to represent two arms. It wasn't like the dolls he'd seen in town, which were cleanly made, but it would fit well in the palm of his hand. And…his father had never got him a present in all his life. He'd never had a toy, only chores to do. As far as he was concerned the doll was made from gold. He liked the thought, that the doll was made to watch out for him, something his father was using to spend time with him when he couldn't be there. He'd never taken such care when he'd left him by himself before.

"Give it a name," he urged. "Names always make things better. They make them real. Trust me. It will protect you." He felt his father apply pressure to his back and move him forward. When he looked up the two women were there, still spinning their giant wheels and staring at him. Or were they looking at the pair of them. "And I'll be back before you know it. I promise."

His father glanced over at the women, but they looked back at him with unsmiling faces, unmoved by his father's act of kindness or smile. His father was quick then, too quick for him to really notice that he was leaving until he was gone, left alone in the little house with the two woman, staring down at him as he cried. No, he didn't need this, he didn't want this!

He tore quickly out of the house. His father wasn't far, he hadn't even gotten onto the path yet when he caught him.

"Rumple?!"

"Please!" he cried holding onto his coat. "Please take me with you!"

"Rumple, it'll pass in no time!"

He felt arms close around his stomach and there was a foreign smell coming from behind him, one that didn't smell like the men he'd known but rather like the new women he'd met. It was the woman, the one with black hair, she'd come up behind him and had grabbed him.

"No!" he cried hitting her fingers with his fists to make her let go. "Papa!" he cried! But the woman held firm. "Papa, wait!" he screamed when he saw his father turn to leave again.

"Now Rumple-"

"Peter Pan!" he screamed. His father stared oddly at the strange name that must have come out of nowhere to him but in fact, made all the sense in the world. It was the only thing he could think of that might get him to stay for a few more minutes. And when he'd said his name before, he'd heard the disappointment in his father's voice. He didn't want to disappoint him.

He made a motion and the woman who held him let him go so that he could step closer to him. "What?" he asked taking a few steps forward. "What was that you said?"

He wiped his nose on his sleeve and looked down at the doll still remarkably in his hands. "You told me to give him a name. That's the name I want. Peter Pan."

His father broke into a smile and chuckled. "Peter Pan…what, after the dog?" His laughter grew but behind him, he heard the dark-haired woman clear her throat. When he turned back he saw she was still giving his father that unfailing glare. And he could see, in the open doorway to their home, the one with golden hair stood there with the exact same stare. When he turned back to his father the smile remained, but his laughter had stopped.

His father stepped up to him and leaned over. "Why would you want to name him that?"

He sniffled and wiped the tears from his cheeks as he tried to figure out why that name had been the first to come to mind. "He was the first friend I ever had…the only friend besides you."

His father's smile changed then, it grew bigger and brighter. For the smallest second, it reminded him almost of the smile he'd seen last night in his dream. He reached up and put his hand to his cheek and he thought he might have seen something like tears come to his eyes, but nothing ever fell.

"Papa?"

"Good choice," he finally responded. It sounded as though he had a cough caught in his throat. "A fine name, son. Be good, aye?" he questioned with his eyebrows raised.

He had the strangest feeling that there was something going on that his father wasn't telling him. He couldn't understand that feeling, why it was there or what it meant but it scared him enough that he started to cry again. He wanted desperately to jump into his father's arms and hug him, for him to take him away with him to town and not leave him there, but something inside of him told him it would do him no good.

So he nodded, and felt the bony hand of the black-haired woman on his shoulder as his father turned to walk away.

Chapter Text

With his father disappearing into the shadows of the forest, he felt the hand on his shoulder turn him and lead him back to that stone cottage where the blonde woman was waiting with a smile.

"Well…what did you decide to call it?" she questioned as he crossed back over the threshold.

"Peter Pan," he answered quietly, but the place was so empty that his voice echoed loud against the stone walls.

"Oh! Well, he's wonderfully made!" the blonde woman remarked before kneeling down beside him. "Elizabeth and I were just about to have a spot of breakfast…would you like some?"

He'd been about to say "no" for fear there would be spiders in the food, when his stomach answered for him with a loud growl. It had been a long time since he'd had anything to eat. In fact, when he tried to remember the last time, he couldn't. It had been more than two days, at least!

The women took his stomach's noise as their answer and went to work. One produced a table from somewhere he didn't see. Another found pots and pans that were clean and then the brown haired one…Elizabeth the blonde one had called her, held her hand up into a fist and when she pulled the fingers back she revealed fire in the palm of her hand and tossed it into the hearth. He gasped as it exploded into a blaze.

Witch!

"Fire's always been Elizabeth's specialty," the blonde woman muttered behind him. "I've always been rather partial to air myself." Then to prove her point she bent down to the table and let out an unexplainably large burst of air that dusted the thing clean.

Witches!

"Mabel, you'll scare the boy!"

"Non-sense!" Mabel scoffed looking him over. "He's a strong lad; lived through a lot more than two old sisters with a few magic tricks. I imagine he's seen that father of his do a few himself, haven't you Rumple?"

He held Peter Pan tighter in his hands and shook his head. "Not magic like that." What his father did wasn't real magic, it was fake magic.

"Well, magic comes in all shapes and sizes, why I recall our sister Persephone who would use her magic to…"

And so the stories began and continued all through cooking. Eggs were produced, some kind of meat that sizzled and smelled wonderful was brought in from the smokehouse out back, Mabel, the blonde who talked most of the time, made biscuits that made his mouth water. As the three of them sat around the table and ate, and he quietly listened to their stories. By the end of the meal he was almost sad he didn't have any of his own to share. As they talked, he began to feel more comfortable with these spinners, the two sisters who used to be four. They never said where the other two sisters, Persephone and Olga, went, but he had a feeling that asking them about their sisters would be like asking his father about his mother. They were probably dead.

After a while, when his stomach was nearly bursting for once in his life, the breakfast was cleaned up and the table disappeared. He looked over one of the big wheels and was reminded of how they'd said one of the other two sisters, he couldn't remember which one, had managed with her magical abilities to turn straw into gold for a time. He looked at the thread dripping from the place too high to reach and imagined what it would be like if it winked gold. How would his life be different if he could do such a thing?

"Oh, the Great Wheel is a bit too much for you, lad!" Mabel smiled, wrapping her shawl around herself. "Let's started with something a bit more your own size. Elizabeth, why don't you get the Saxony! It's old but still in good condition!"

"Good idea, sister!"

"It was how we all started when we were just girls," Mabel explained as Elizabeth disappeared behind a curtain and reemerged with a wheel that was much smaller and darker in color. "Oh, there now, isn't she a beauty?"

"It's a girl?" he asked storing Peter Pan in the pocket of his cloak and stepping closer to it. Mabel set a stool close to it.

"Well you didn't think it'd be a boy, did you?"

"All spinning wheels are girls, Rumplestiltskin."

"Treat them nice and with a fair hand."

"And they'll do the same for you!"

Mabel patted the little stool she'd set down and motioned to it. He took the hint quickly enough and sat down before it, looking at the machine but unable to fathom how he was supposed to make a string with it. But as Mabel pulled another stool up beside him he saw Elizabeth go back to her own wheel and begin to push.

"Do I push it too?" he asked as Mabel sat down.

"Not with your hands like we do. This wheel is different. See that peddle there?" She pointed to something on the bottom of the machine. He supposed it looked like a peddle, but he didn't know one way or another if that was what it was. "It's called a treadle. For every push you give it with your foot, the wheel spins once."

A push with his foot…too curious not to, he settled his own over it carefully and then looked back over his shoulder at Mabel. He didn't want to do something wrong and break it! It seemed delicate. But she gave him a nod that he'd done the right thing. Then he pushed his foot against it and to his amazement the wheel whirled to life.

"Look at that!"

"He's got it!"

"That's half the work!" the woman rejoiced.

He was already smiling. He'd never done anything right in all his life!

"What's the other half?" he asked looking it over as though it was a riddle. He looked at the great wheels and then back at his own for a guess. "Do I wrap the string around it.?"

"Oh, no, lad!" Mabel said shaking her head. "That's just the drive band, it may spin but it doesn't spin the wool it just helps the wheel do its job! Now…look here!"

He was lost throughout most of her explanation. The words were clear, but he had a hard time understanding how it all worked with words. It was complicated, but it was also the first time in his life anyone had ever taken the time to show him how something worked, or how to do something, at least something that didn't involve cheating someone.

The spinning wheel was deceiving, for though that was the biggest part of it, the part that moved, it wasn't the important part. It was the part in the front, the part they called "The Mother-of-All", that held the "two maidens", which held the "flyer assemblage" in place, attached with "leather". His head spun just trying to remember the words.

But then they showed him the "bobbin", attached to the "whorl", and "flyer", and showed him how they moved at different speeds to spin the wool, which looked nothing like string in his hands.

"It feels greasy," he commented when Mabel first put it in his hands.

"That's because it comes from a sheep!"

"They have greasy coats to keep the rain and cold weather out."

He supposed that made sense. He'd seen the shepherds up on their hills a few times in his life, they were always there. Whether it was sunny or rainy or misty. But it still felt odd to him.

"Well…shouldn't we wash it first?"

"Already washed."

"By Mr. Oak. He's a sheep farmer up on the hill."

"He shears the wool and treats it before we buy it to spin."

"Still a bit greasy when we get it, but we'll let the weavers wash it out after it's thread."

"Or treat it ourselves."

"Once we decide what to use it for, of course. All we worry about is the spinning! Now, watch this Rumplestiltskin…"

His neck hurt having to look back and forth between the two women so he was happy to have something easy to watch. He was not happy to have more words to remember. Mabel talked to him as she used the "orifice hook", showing him how to pull a bit of the wool from the great pile in his hand and attach it to the bobbin, where the spun wool would collect.

"Let it go in thick for thick yarn."

"And thin for thin thread!"

"Then you just spin."

"Not too fast now!"

"Yes, you can only go fast once you get very good."

"There you go."

"Give it a try, Rumplestiltskin."

Mabel got up from her stool then and left him to his work. With nothing else to do until his father got back, he figured he may as well give it a try.

Chapter Text

"To try", she'd said. But he soon found that he didn't need "to try". The words and parts of the machine were lost on him, but the action itself was easy. He didn't need to understand the words or how it was working to do it, to feel the pull of the machine, the way it wanted to work and spin, the way it wanted to work for him. And it was comfortable, the predictable squeak and rhythm of his foot in the quiet of the little house allowed him to lose his mind, to focus on what it wanted him to do until it all came to an end and he was holding only the smallest pinch of wool between his fingers. He didn't know what to do next.

"What happens when the wool runs out?" he asked the silent sisters.

"Oh, you can't possibly have to worry about such a thing yet, Rumple," Mabel explained.

"Guess again, sister," Elizabeth commented, looking back over her shoulder.

The second sister followed her gaze, and they both stared in his direction, their eyes moving over him, the machine, the bit of wool left in his hand. Their eyes grew wider the more they looked at him.

"It's easy!" he replied with a shrug, suddenly wondering if they would be angry at him. They did say they'd paid money for the wool. Maybe it wasn't as easy as he thought. Maybe he'd messed up, maybe his father would owe them money too, and for breakfast, and being here…

But instead Mabel, after glancing at her sister, gave him another lump of wool, attached it for him, and then they went back to their work just as they had before. He was nervous for a while, especially since they both kept looking over their shoulders at him occasionally. For that reason alone, he started slower than he had before, making sure he was doing everything the right way. But eventually, it became too tedious not to go faster, to spin the wool the way it wanted to be spun and create the thread he was working on. If he was doing it wrong, he didn't notice. Soon he only watched the wheel, the rotations it made one after another. He didn't think of his father, he didn't think of their dilapidated little home or the King's and Queen's tax or whether or not his father had found the job to pay it. All the world melted away before him until there was nothing but the wheel, the wool in his hand, and the peddle beneath his foot.

No. The trundle. No! Treadle. It was called the treadle.

And…the driver band, that was the string that made the wheel go around.

Leathers was easy to remember, because they were made out of leather. He was sure he'd remember the Maidens after a while, but only because he kept thinking "girls" in his mind and knew it wasn't right. Another word for girls is maidens, he hought to himself. The rest of it on the Mother-of-All…he'd have to work at that.

One word after another he worked to remember what the machine was made up of, wanting to impress the two sisters who had taught it to him but soon enough he found he was once more down to only a pinch of wool and still didn't know what to do with it.

"Here, have another."

This time he didn't have the ask, Mabel already had the wool in her hand, and Elizabeth passed her the hook, "orifice hook", he reminded himself, to her so she could get him set up all over again. This time they made no attempt to watch him over their shoulders, they both stood there as he began to push down on the "treadle" and make the machine work. It wasn't as easy with them both looking down at him like that, but after a while, he closed his eyes, felt the wool in his hand and between his fingers. He focused on the small tugs and pulls it gave, the comfortable squeak and when he opened his eyes again he was off. They were still standing there watching him, but he didn't focus on them. He tried not to focus on anything but communicating with the machine, doing what it told him to do. His father and Peter Pan left his mind, as did his thirst and the exhaustion he still felt from nights spent on the wet ground. There was just the wool before him, winding and spinning and toiling endlessly on and on.

He knew some of the words to the wheel, they'd explained to him how it worked, but he couldn't fathom it. All he knew was it worked, it made complete sense as he sat and wound the wool into string. Soon he didn't need to watch his hands as he fed the wool to the machine, he could just watch the rotation of the wheel. It spoke to him, which was something he didn't even know non-living things could do. Maybe he needed to give the machine a name. Everything was better with a name…

All was clear. All was right.

"Someone so young..." Mabel finally reflected, bringing him out of the stupor the wheel put him in. He'd forgotten they were even standing there. Had they been talking for long? How long had it been since he started? Since his father had left?

"In such a short time…" Elizabeth finished.

"Look at him. He could spin for..."

"For kings and queens one day."

Kings and Queens?! He felt his mouth curve up into a smile at just the thought of sitting in a fancy room made of white marble as people dressed in pretty clean clothes looked on over his shoulder at the work he was doing, just as mesmerized as he was. His heart raced at the thought.

"I didn't think I had any talent," he confessed. He'd never been good at anything that he could tell. He'd never heard his father say he was good at anything except sleight of hand and that always made him a little sick to his stomach. But this didn't. This felt fun.

"Oof, more than talent. A gift!" Mabel corrected. "You could apprentice with anyone in the land."

Apprentice. He knew that word. It was what the older boys did to study their trades, learn from the best, and then one day, make money. Money that put food on the table. Money that bought nice clothes and houses. Money that could solve all their problems. He thought of his father, out in town, banging on shop doors looking for a job. If he was really as good as they said he was, then maybe it was the answer to all their problems. Maybe instead of paying the tax to the King and Queen, he could spin for them! Maybe he and his father could live in a castle!

"If I can make money, then my father and I can be together."

"Rumple..." all at once the wheel stopped turning, and when he looked up, he found Mabel standing there with a hand around it, looking into his eyes. "Even with your talent, too many people know your father is a cheat."

"And a coward," Elizabeth added.

"If you are to have a happy life, you must go somewhere where your father's name cannot follow you."

A place where his father's name wouldn't follow him? But his father's name would always follow him unless…

"You mean... alone?"

Mabel suddenly fumbled for something in her pocket. "This bean... can open a portal, take you far away from this land."

"Even this realm."

"You could start a new life. But it cannot be with your father."

He wanted desperately to go back to the spinning, to the vision he'd had a few moments ago where everything made sense! He didn't like what they were saying. His father loved him, he wanted to be with him just as much as he did. He was out looking for a job to feed him and pay the tax so they wouldn't be separated right now! He was going to be back before the sunset, they'd go home, he'd tell him all about his new job, and even if they didn't he could tell his father what he'd learned to do! He could make money for them! It would make his father love him more! It would make everything alright again! For the first time!

"But he's coming back for me as soon as he gets a job."

Elizabeth shook her head.

"The truth is, he's at the pub," Mabel stressed. "He doesn't want a job."

"Or real responsibility."

"Family can be a strength," Mabel explained. "But it can also be a burden. And your father will always be your burden, Rumplestiltskin."

He took the bean from her hand and looked it over. They meant for him to take the bean and go, far away from this place, where no one had heard of his father, and begin to apprentice with someone. But he saw a different path, a new opportunity. The problem wasn't his father, it was his reputation. No one who knew his father here would hire him, but maybe people who didn't know his father would! This bean wasn't just his ticket to freedom, it could be theirs! Bean in hand he looked up at the two women, confused, wondering why they'd done this, but then realized there were other more important things at the moment. He had to go. He cradled the bean safely to his chest, burst from his seat at the wheel, and ran to the door, then through it, then to town. This bean was going to change his entire life!

Chapter Text

He ran away from that stone house, just as he'd run after his father before he'd left, the only difference this time around was that no one tried to stop him. He didn't run home, or aimlessly through the woods but instead he ran into town. His heart was set upon finding his father.

The bean felt like a hot weight in his hand, the more he ran, the more he had time to think and the more he had time to think the more he knew that this was the right decision. It was the answer to all their problems even if the witches hadn't seen it that way. They didn't know his father, not like he did. They didn't believe in him. But he did! He knew his father could be good! They'd see! They were wrong! He could take his father somewhere far away, somewhere that no one had ever heard of him. He could get a job apprenticing with a spinner or for a King and Queen, he could make money for their family! Maybe they could own sheep too, so that his father could get the wool for him! They could build a new home, with a sturdy roof that wouldn't fall in during storms, and it would always have food. His father would never have to go into town to gamble again, or beg people for a job, or be attacked by the people he cheated.

The town was busy, busier than he was used to as he was usually here looking for his father in the earliest hours of the morning or latest of the night, but he looked everywhere for his father. He went into stores that he'd only ever seen closed during the day for the first time and asked them if his father had come in, or if anyone had come looking for a job. The first few times they told him no one had been in, he just assumed he'd searched in the wrong places, but the more and more they told him they hadn't seen him, or laughed and told him to look in the pub as the spinsters had said, the worse the feeling in his stomach felt.

He wondered if perhaps he should turn back to go home or maybe to the spinster's house. Was it possible they'd passed each other in the forest and hadn't seen each other? It wasn't a very thick forest, but it could happen. Perhaps he'd gone back to fetch him from the women or gone home? It sounded better than what Mabel had said, the words kept coming back to him and he wished they wouldn't.

He didn't want to believe it, but before he set off for home he took a turn down a street that was all too familiar, that brought him into a courtyard he wished he knew less well. He didn't want to believe he was here, in the same place as the tavern he drank at or the old packing crates he used to tempt travelers into handing over their spare wages. But he had to know for sure. It was better to check now and be excited when he finally found his father outside their home than it was to go home and discover he was wrong.

He examined the faces of all that he passed by, but in the end, it wasn't a face that he recognized that made his heart stop. It was a sound, a familiar high pitched laugh that belonged to none other than his father. He held his breath as he turned the corner, hoping that he was wrong, that it was just someone who had a similar laugh. But there he was. Set up on a crate with his three cards and one, undoubtedly, up his sleeve.

"A shilling turns two, gents," he giggled as a coin hit the wooden surface. He overturned two cards and took the money with another little laugh, then shifted the cards again as someone else stepped forward and laid a coin down. He laughed once more with joy, but Rumple only felt sadness and anger welling up inside of him. His father had lied to him. Nothing else mattered.

"They were right," he muttered stepping closer to him. "You're here."

"Hey, laddie." There was only the smallest flash of surprise on his face when he looked up to see him standing there. "My dogs were barking after hitting the cobblestones all morning looking for work. Then these fellas told me that they never played 'find the lady.'" His father giggled as he looked around at the crowd he had drawn, but the women's words rang loud and clear in his mind right along with everyone who had told him no one had come looking for a job, and he was better off looking for him at the tavern. He'd wanted to believe in his father, but it seemed like he was exactly what the spinsters told him he was; a liar and a cheat. Maybe he truly was better off without him like everyone said.

He turned to leave, his eyes felt itchy but he didn't want to cry, not here not in front of people and not in front of his father. "Rumple…come on…" He didn't want to leave his father behind, he was the only family he had in the whole entire world! And he was the only family his father had too, but if the women were right about one thing weren't they right about the other? What if his father truly didn't want him the way he needed him? What if he didn't want a family like they'd said?

"Rumple!" He felt a tug on his arm and suddenly his father was staggering in front of him, stopping him from walking away. He would have felt happier to see he'd followed if he didn't see the cards in his hands.

"You said you were finding a job!" he accused.

"No one in this town would hire me."

"Because no one trusts you!"

He didn't deny the words the women had told him. Instead, he stared down at him. "But you do. Don't you, son?"

It wasn't a question. It sounded more like an order. But he'd grown up around this life, drinking and lying, cheating and gambling, and he knew when people weren't being truthful and taking advantage of other people. He felt that now. And he knew the way he should get around it but he couldn't bring himself to. It was his father! What was he supposed to say?

"I want to. What if there was someplace we could start over? Somewhere where no one knew you?"

"How?" he asked. His father looked as though he were hanging on his every word. He looked as though it wasn't he who trusted his father at the moment, but his father who trusted him. Everything was backwards, but this plan was also backwards. He was just a child, but he knew that if what the spinsters said about his father was true then what they'd said about him was true too. He could get a job and care for his father. Just not here.

"With this." He opened his hand and revealed the bean Mable had placed there.

He watched as his father's eyes flashed with amazement for a moment, then glowed the same way they did when he was playing "Find the Lady" and someone had just sat a sack of gold coins on his table.

"Where'd you get that? Do you know how much money a bean like that would fetch?!"

Predictably his father staggered forward and reached out to take it but he was quicker, he closed his palm over the bean and held it back.

"No, it's mine! I won't let you gamble it away," he screamed.

"Rumple, you don't understand-"

"I understand this bean can take us someplace...where no one knows us. Where we can be a family." Then he could spin wool and his father could get a job. Maybe he could go to school, they could be together!

"A real fresh start," his father muttered, amazement coming back into his eyes as he someone seemed to understand all at once. He saw it. He saw the same images in his head! He wanted the same thing! He wanted them to be together too!

"Yes," he looked down at the bean, his heart hammering away as visions of warm beds and full bellies came to him. His father tucking him in each night, not dressed in rags in a shack but finer clothes, clothes that he had helped to make from his wool. It was a shared dream, he knew it was. "I trust you."

"Then where should we go? Hmm?" his father asked eagerly, his eyes lit up in excitement as he rubbed his hands together.

He couldn't think of anyplace. This was all he'd known his entire life, the visions he held in his mind he couldn't even be sure were real. His father was older, he was an adult, he'd seen more! He should choose!

"There must be someplace special to you."

"Oh!" he rubbed his head and closed his eyes. "Think, think," he whispered to himself. "Think, think, think, think, think." Finally, the whispered chanting came to an abrupt stop and when his father revealed his face again there was a spark behind his eyes that he'd never seen before. "Think lovely thoughts. That's it!"

"What?" he questioned.

"When I was a boy, my father sold me to a blacksmith. All day in front of hot coals, the sweat and the grime. But every night I would say to myself, 'think lovely thoughts.' And in my sleep, I would travel to the most wonderful place," he explained.

"What was it called?"

His father stooped low so that the pair of them were eye to eye. "Neverland," he declared.

He felt a smile grow upon his face, the same smile he'd felt when he knew that he could do something well like spin. Neverland…if his father was there, then he supposed that would be home.

"Then that's where we should go."

He handed the bean over to his father and watched his mouth form into what he wanted to believe was a matching smile as he looked the bean over. He gave a happy laugh, glanced at his son, then tossed the bean onto the cobblestones. There was a bright flash of green light and a sound like glass breaking as a giant circle of light opened before their eyes. The wind blew wildly around him, sending his hair whipping so that he had to look away.

"I don't even know if this place is real," his father called over the sound of the thunder coming from the portal. He was scared, the portal looked like something that might eat him alive if he let it and yet when he looked at his father he was still smiling and laughing even. It made him feel better, but the moment he held out his hand and his father reached out and took it was best of all.

They jumped together.

Chapter Text

Going through the portal was the scariest thing he'd ever done in his life. It was worse than the day he'd found that picture of his mother and thought his father might hit him. It was scarier than when the roof to their home had nearly fallen on him. And it was a lot scarier than when that big man in the square had called him a 'filthy wretch of a smuggler', whatever that had meant.

He had the strangest feeling inside that tunnel, the feeling that although it hadn't taken them long to get there at all, they were in there for a very long time. He felt like he was falling, falling into a flashing green light that was bright and dark all at once and yet he didn't feel like he was falling. He'd jumped from great heights before, he knew the feeling he got in his belly when he felt like his stomach couldn't quite catch up to him. For as long as he was in that tunnel he never felt that feeling. Instead, he just felt like he weighed nothing, he felt like he was leaving behind filth and squalor, leaving behind the chains of the King's tax and the tavern , the smell of the ocean, the visions of pirates and spinning wheels, and sleeping under poor tents.

There was light, and air, and the feeling of his father's hand in his own. His grip on it must have been hard as a rock as he clung to him in this strange place of in between. And then it was all over.

All at once the blinding light was gone, replaced with color so dull in comparison that the adjustment hurt his eyes. His stomach finally gave a little flip, it was the feeling he kept expecting to feel, the one that came falling or jumping a great distance. The wind faded and what he felt instead was-

"Oof!"

They hit hard. The ground beneath them was cool but not cold. It was wet, but it wasn't hard, it was soft and familiar. Sand. They'd landed on a beach. But as he looked around he realized it was a much different beach than he'd ever seen in his time at home. Here, the water was still, it didn't wash to shore in great foamy waves. Instead, it had gentle waves that lapped lazily against the shore, almost the way water in a well reacted when you tossed a stone into it. It smelled different too. Not salty, like the ocean back home. This smelled strongly of fish, stale in a way. But…it was so beautiful! Green met his eyes everywhere he looked. He smiled as he spun around and looked into the forest and up the hills of this new land.

This certainly wasn't home. But he hoped it would be. He hoped that this was finally what he'd wanted for so long. A fresh start! An opportunity to be with his father, instead of always having to go find him at the pub or gambling.

"We actually did it," his father exclaimed looking around before launching himself at him and taking his head in his hands. "We made it!" he shouted just before letting go and looking around once more. "It's just as I remember in my dreams. Hasn't changed at all."

"It's beautiful," he admitted.

"No, it's more than that," he snapped with excitement. "Neverland is special. You can do anything here. Just think it, and it can happen. What would you like to eat?" he questioned turning back to him, his eyes ablaze with excitement. "Go on. Just think it."

He closed his eyes and held open his hand. "Just think it." What was there to think of? He spent so much time trying not to think about food he had no idea how he was supposed to think about it. But anything…if he could have anything in the world? His mind instantly recalled passing a bakery only a few hours ago in his search for his father. The smell of bread had called to him and he'd gone in hoping not just to find his father but that the owner might have pity on him and give him a piece of that bread. He did not. But on his way out he'd seen another child, a little girl with a piece of the most delicious looking cake he'd ever seen. Chocolate with frosting. He'd never had cake. He'd never had chocolate, and suddenly he had the strongest desire to know exactly what it tasted like.

There was suddenly a weight on his hand, something warm and sticky and gooey clinging to the skin on his palm. He opened his eyes and gasped as his father gave a cheerful giggle. Cake. The exact same kind of piece he'd seen the girl eating in the bakery!

"You can eat cake all day and not get a stomachache!" his father hissed as he put it down. The stomachache he had now had nothing to do with too much sugar or being full. It was all too much. Eating the cake now might kill him. "Or swing on a vine through a waterfall. But best of all...you can fly," his father whispered as he licked the sweet icing off his fingers. It was the tastiest thing he'd ever tried in his life! Even better than the bacon the women had given him earlier. His imagination had created that? What else could it create?

"Flying is impossible," he pointed out to his father, daring that he would say what he suspected was the truth in this world.

"Neverland is where the impossible is possible, if you believe it. Here, I'll show you."

His heart was pounding as his father bounded up the steep incline. Could he do it? Could he truly fly? Could he see the entire island from the sky above?! With his father soaring beside him, teaching him to glide?

Standing on a rock, his father let out a high-pitch whoop, a call like a bird before laughing once more, and jumping, and-

He didn't fly. He leaped off the rock and fell right back onto the ground as he had when they'd just come through the portal except for this time it looked like it hurt. He raced up to the place his father lay and offered his hand to help him up, but his father didn't take it, just pushed himself up and stared at him, the fire of fun he'd had in his eyes moments ago suddenly put out.

"I don't understand!" he grumbled, then got to his feet and kicked a rock into the water. "I could always fly when I visited as a boy!" he complained.

"Maybe you can't fly because you're not a boy anymore," he pointed out. Maybe it was only something that children could do, and adults couldn't.

Immediately his face flashed with recognition. "How could I have forgotten?" he whispered, suddenly hitting his forehead with his fist as if trying to recall something important. "Of course. Pixie dust," he hissed, turning to him and rubbing his fingers together, his smile spreading once more. "Even as a boy, you needed pixie dust if you wanted to fly."

Pixie dust to fly. That sounded extraordinary! He stepped up onto a felled log and imagined himself, just as his father had, jumping off of that log and instead of falling back to the ground taking wing, high above this land, seeing the trees from a distance, mapping it out. What a lovely thought!

"Where do we get some?" he asked.

"Oh, I'll show you." Then his father reached forward and grabbed his arm, he expected him to hurry him into the woods as he had back in the village when the soldiers had first come to town, but instead, he took him in his arms and lifted him high into the sky, over his shoulders, twirling him around! For the first time in his life, he felt himself let out a laugh with his father. He couldn't ever remember a time that his father had held him in this way. He was beaming so much that his cheeks hurt by the time he set him back down on the beach.

"Come on."

"Yeah."

He placed his hand into his father's, and together they took off running across the beach.

Chapter Text

They'd run off on the beach together, hand in hand. He felt like he was in last nights dream! They climbed on stones, jumped from rocks, and then found themselves a pair of thick sticks and battled their way through the forest. His father led him deeper and deeper into the growth until he couldn't see the water at all. At one point, his father even picked him up and carried him. They laughed together for the first time in his whole entire life. It was fun. He wasn't wondering where dinner would come from, or when he would see his father next, or thinking about that tax his father was supposed to pay and what might happen if he didn't. He hadn't a care in the world. Nor did his father, and he was enjoying the father that Neverland had given him. Freedom gave him something special. A smile that he hadn't seen him wearing before, almost like the one he'd seen in his dream the other night, only this one was better. He was just starting the think that the only thing that could make this adventure better would have been if his mother could have been there with them…but then it had changed.

As the minutes dragged into hours, the playing stopped. The smiles began to fade. The pair continued to hike up the big hill, and away from the beach. The land before him seemed to stretch onward, bigger and bigger with every step. His father pushed onward, only looking back to find him occasionally and dragging him forward when he did. His feet were getting sore, and with the shock passed and breakfast hours behind him, he was beginning to wish he'd eaten that cake. He supposed he could conjure another piece up right now, as he had before, but he wasn't sure that his father would let him stop to eat it. He was getting hot as they walked, wishing he had just a moment to discard his cloak, and the thought of walking and eating in this heat felt like a bad idea. He worried it would make him sick, and he was already miserable. And hot. And hungry. And tired. And he'd have to carry Peter Pan. And above all-

He slipped. His father was dragging him through the woods, and the stones were wet and loose. One of them slipped and he did too. His father kept him standing up straight, but it was the same grip he had on his hand that hurt his arm as he didn't stop to see if he was alright, just kept pulling him along with a little laugh as though it had been something fun that he'd enjoyed. It wasn't though, and as much as he wanted to fly and see the island, if they were going to be here for a long time, he saw no problem with maybe laying down under a tree to take a nap. Or stopping to eat cake. Or figure out something to do with his cloak.

"I'm tired," he commented.

"We're almost there," his father responded quickly, keeping pace. "We can rest all we want after we get the pixie dust, do whatever your heart desires. Just wait. You'll see."

He tried to conjure that image, of coming over a hill or looking around a tree and seeing the pixie dust, but he couldn't, for one very simple reason. He knew what it did, but beyond flying, he knew nothing else about the dust.

"What does it look like?"

"Oh…" his father sighed. "It's just like dust." He blew imaginary dust from his palm into his face. "You never know the power it contains just by looking at it. But when you believe in its power, it glows with magic and becomes something very special indeed." All of a sudden his father came to a sudden stop. He watched as he examined a large, tall tree, with branches that were so evenly spaced they seemed almost too perfect. It made his belly feel strange.

"We're here," he exclaimed looking up at it.

He looked around, but he saw no hint of dust or anything different than what they'd been looking at all afternoon. "All I see are trees."

"That's because it's made in the flowers that grow on the highest of the branches, where they're closest to the stars," he said pointing to the place where the trees touched the sky. "The flowers bloom at night, soak in the starlight. That's how the pixie dust gets its magic."

His father let out a happy giggle as he looked up at the trees in amazement. He could picture it now. In his mind he could see it at night, dots of red and yellow and orange floating to the earth and being drawn into those trees where the magic glowed, waiting to be harvested like apples from the trees back home. He wanted to see it for real. In his mind, it was a pretty sight, he couldn't imagine how much better it would be if he saw it happening in real life.

"I haven't felt this excited in years," his father exclaimed striding forward once more. "Since I was a boy about to climb one of those trees in my dreams." His father went on, but he came to a stop, suddenly thinking of something he hadn't before now. Climb the tree? That tree? The one that was so high it hurt his eyes and neck to look up at it? He felt his heart hammering so hard in his chest that his ribs were beginning to hurt. The more he thought about it, the harder it became to breathe.

"Come on, Rumple," he glanced over to see his father standing feet away from him, waving him forward, urging him to join him. But he just couldn't seem to make his feet move. They felt odd and tingly, heavier than he remembered them being.

"It'll be fun. Hey...you wanna fly, you can't be afraid of heights."

"But I don't want to fly! You do!" he shouted looking up at the tree. He didn't, the idea of it was fun until he saw that tree and what he'd have to do to get to the pixie dust. He could imagine the branches breaking beneath his feet as he reached his hand out for the dust and falling to the ground, and suddenly he didn't want to fly at all! He wanted to spin! To stay here on the ground and make a home and clothes, and have a bed to sleep in! It was his father that wanted to fly!

"But you will, son, once you see how it feels," he stated before letting out another giggle of excitement and walking on as if he couldn't help himself. "The wind whipping in your hair, the world below you, like you've not got a care in the world. You're all alone. You're free." And then they were there, before the huge tree and his father was kneeling there on the ground, lacing his fingers together. "Come on, I'll give you a boost."

"But what if I fall?" his head suddenly felt too light and yet too big all at once, he could hear his blood in his ears, his own heartbeat!

"I promise you won't, eh!" he snapped getting to his feet again.

He felt afraid, suddenly worried he was going to scoop him up and put him in the tree whether or not he wanted to be there. He didn't. He didn't want to climb that tree. He just wanted to do something else, anything else!

"Don't make me, papa," he begged, feeling tears in his eyes. His nose was getting stuffy, it was hard not to show just how terrified he felt. His father could see that, couldn't he? "Please. I'm scared."

"Oh…" his father stepped forward as he let out a light sigh and knelt down before him, placing his hands on his cheeks. "I'm sorry, Rumple. I just get excited. Why don't you wait here, and I'll go get the pixie dust for the both of us, hmm?"

He thought about it a minute, looked around him, and wondered what it would be like to have that magic there with him, to fly without a fear of falling. It was a thought. And he was tired. But this was also a strange land, and though they hadn't seen anyone here, he had to wonder if that was because they were the only two, or if it was because they just hadn't met anyone. But…it was only a tree. His father would be right above him…

"You promise not to be long?" he questioned.

His father smiled as he stood up tall again. "Aye," he agreed with a nod and an excited laugh. "I'll be as quick as a whip. Back before you know it. And then you'll see how wonderful Neverland can really be." He watched his father go to the tree and begin to climb without a hint of hesitation or second-guessing.

Chapter Text

He watched his father go to the tree and begin to climb without a hint of hesitation or second-guessing. Hand over hand, foot over foot, he watched him climb until he couldn't anymore. Until the brown of his jacket helped him to blend in with the tree, and the branches obscured his vision. Soon his only hint of where his father was came from a flicker of movement here and there and even then it became incredibly difficult to tell if it was the wind or if it was his father. Eventually, looking up began to hurt his neck so much he felt he had no other choice but to stop watching. He sat down at the base of the tree, so that he would know the moment his father returned to him, and took Peter Pan out from the depths of his cloak to look him over. It was the first time he'd checked on the doll since arriving here, and he was pleased to see that even the jacket managed to remain intact through the journey. He sat there with him, the doll keeping him company as he made it dance on his knees. He was trying to stay awake, trying not to curl up into a ball with Peter Pan by his side and close his eyes so that he might dream. He couldn't do that. If he did, his father might get the dust while he was asleep and fly about Neverland without him. He hadn't been too keen on climbing the tree, but if he had magical dust that would make him fly then-

There was a noise in front of him, something that had just fallen to the ground. It was his father's shoe.

Even though he couldn't imagine his father climbing up and down so fast, he scrambled quickly to his feet and looked up, expecting to see his father coming down with the flower and the dust…but he didn't. He saw nothing. Nothing at all! No movement, no motion, no swaying of branches!

"Papa!" he called. There was no answer. "Papa!" he screamed again. Still nothing! His heart began to race as he threw himself back against the tree trunk. He knew this had been a bad idea! Though his father had been here in his dreams before it had been a long time and he had no idea how the island had changed. What if it was a monster? What if something lived in the trees and had eaten his father or snatched him up! What if he was hurt or crying for help and he was so far up he couldn't reach him? What was he supposed to do? If something happened to his father what was he supposed to do here alone? Where there other people in Neverland? Who would take care of him? Would he die alone in this strange place?

He held Peter Pan tight as he began to imagine all manner of vile and terrifying things that might have happened to his father up in that tree and began to cry. He should have listened to what those women had said. If he had, he would have been somewhere on his own right now. At least then he'd know that his father was alright and safe instead of eaten.

"What's wrong? Rumple?"

There was a sudden noise to his left and he looked up to find that his father was there, jumping out of the tree and standing before him. He was missing a shoe, but otherwise was unharmed. Immediately he got to his feet and threw his arms around his father.

"Papa! I thought something terrible had happened to you." He squeezed as tight as he could, until his arms hurt, and was pleasantly surprised to feel his father hug him back. Not tight. Never tight. But it was comforting enough to feel him there.

"No. No, I'm fine, son," he muttered before pushing him back and staring down into his eyes. "You don't have to worry about me," he whispered, there wasn't the smallest bit of laughter in his voice, and he was almost shocked when he pulled him back closer for once instead of shoving him away. Maybe things were going to be different here, maybe they were going to be just fine. His father would hug him more from now on, with no tavern he'd be around all the time, they'd be able to be a family, a real one. Maybe he would even come to like flying, hand in hand with his father, over all of Neverland.

"Did you get pixie dust?" he asked. He had felt something odd on his forehead the moment he pulled away, so odd that it took him a moment to figure out what it was. His father had kissed him. He could remember every single time that his father had kissed him. Three times. Once after he had won big in town and brought home a feast. Once when he was very little and had woken in the night having a terrible dream of women dressed in different colors. And now. He wished he hadn't asked the question so quickly now.

"Yes," he answered, shifting his weight so he could slip his shoe back on. "But when I tried using it, it didn't work."

"Why not?"

"I'm not a boy anymore. You were right. Neverland is just for children. Adults don't belong here."

"Then...we'll leave and go somewhere else," he concluded sadly. He'd liked this land and the fun they'd had since they arrived. He liked how happy his father was here. But if he wasn't allowed, then they couldn't break the rules. And they could always find other places to be happy. They'd only been here a few hours, and already his father had hugged him and given him a kiss. He could only imagine what might happen somewhere else far from where they had lived. "All that matters...is that we're together," he pointed out.

"I wish it was that easy," his father responded. "But we both know wherever we go, I'll go back to my old ways. I can never be the father you need me to be. I'm too weak."

Back to his old ways? But wasn't the problem their old home? His reputation was bad, that was the problem. Why was he talking like he could stay here when he'd just said he wasn't allowed to be here? And why was he saying it wasn't easy? It was, they just had to leave, they'd find their way. All that mattered was that they were together. He wanted that too, didn't he?

"I don't understand. What are you trying to say?"

"That there is a way that I can stay here, a way that I can get the pixie dust to work so I can fly again...just like I was when I was a boy."

He felt his heart flutter with excitement and fear. Fear because his father had made it clear that he wasn't allowed to be here, and they'd be breaking a rule if they stayed, but excitement, because he'd seen that happiness suddenly reappear in the eyes of his father once more. His father was an expert at finding ways out of tricky situations, he called it "finding the loophole". Had he found one now, to solve their problem so they could stay here?

"How?" he asked eagerly.

All of a sudden his eyes weren't hazy with daydreams anymore, he looked instead right into his own eyes once more and shrugged. "By letting go of the thing that is holding me back...you."

Him?

Suddenly he felt a tug at the neck of his clothing that jerked him back away from his father.

"Help!" he screamed looking over his shoulder only to see a black shadow figure. He ran for his father, fighting against the beast, tugging at his hand when it suddenly picked him up off the ground like he weighed nothing.

"A monster!" he cried holding onto his father for dear life. It was real! It did live in the tree. He struggled. He held on as tight as he could. It was only the smallest voice in the back of his head that wondered why his father wasn't reaching for him with both hands, or even really holding tight to him. In fact, it almost seemed like he was giving him to the creature.

"It's not a monster, Rumple," he explained in a deep angry voice. "It's a friend. It's part of the island. And after I do what it told me...I let you go... it will become part of me, too."

The tugs were getting worse, they were getting harder, and he could feel his fingers slipping as he fought harder to hold on. He glanced behind him at this "friend", this time he took in more. It looked like a ghost, a terrible black ghost with glowing eyes!

"Don't let him take me!" he begged, trying to tighten his grip on his father.

" I don't have a choice. To stay here, I have to believe that I'm young again. And with you here to remind me, I can't."

"No, papa, please!" he heard the words, he was aware of what his father was saying, but it didn't make any sense to him as his heart hammered and his feet kicked wildly, desperate to put the solid earth beneath him. "Help me!"

"A child can't have a child, Rumple! I'm sorry, but it's true. Don't fight it. We both know that you're better off without me. I was never meant to be a father."

All at once, the grip his father had kept on him vanished, and he gave a small shove so that his sweaty palms couldn't hold onto his clothes.

"No!"

Up, up, up he soared into the sky, the creature holding onto him only by the scruff of his clothes. He struggled but was unsure what he was struggling for. He was aware that he was in the air, and wanted to be back on the ground, but he was also desperate for the creature to get a tighter grip on him. If he fell now he would die the moment he hit the ground.

He still wasn't sure what he expected when suddenly the creature gave him a small shake, he heard the word "look" hissed at him in a low tone and saw the creature point.

He looked down to the place his father had been and saw something…something he couldn't explain. He saw green, a green mist like smoke consumed his father until he disappeared. He wanted to scream, to cry, to fight to get to his father and find out what had happened to him, but then everything changed. Suddenly there was someone there. A boy. He stood just where his father had stood, looking up at him just the same way his father had been looking up at him. He had the same hair. And tears in his eyes just as his father had. He looked himself over, but only for a second before glancing once more up at the sky where he was dangling.

And then he felt another tug, the wind whipped around his face, and he lost sight of his father.

Neverland was gone.

Chapter Text

He was deposited back on a ground that was thick and overgrown with grass and trees. It was strange how for the longest time he'd fought to be free of the creature that held him tight but the moment he was free he ran after it, desperate to follow even as he rose up into the air above his head.

"No!" he cried. "Please! Take me back to him!"

The monster turned, and for the first time, he saw that it wasn't a monster, at least not in the way he imagined monsters that hid under beds and in cupboards. The figure was dark but see-through, like a ghost. Its eyes glowed bright white against the blackness it was made of, and he knew right away exactly what the thing was. It was a shadow. Like the kind made by standing in the sun. But this shadow seemed to have nobody that it belonged to. It was just there, floating overhead, looking down at him.

"Your father has made his choice!" it called back down to him. The voice was low and evil-sounding. It made his skin crawl with every word. But it was his only chance to get to his father, he couldn't just go back without him! He was only a boy, he needed his father!

"But what about me?! What am I supposed to do without him?!" he called after it.

The shadow hovered. It was difficult to make out through eyes that glowed only white, but it almost seemed to be staring at him sadly. "I'm bound to him now," it finally answered. "And we are both bound to the island. Do not seek out your father! What he said is true, you are better off without him!"

"Wait!" but his cries were useless. The shadow had already turned and was flying into the early night sky toward the two brighter stars that he saw even in the daylight. Eventually, he faded from view entirely and left Rumplestiltskin alone.

There was nothing for the boy to do. He screamed himself hoarse calling after a shadow that he knew was no longer in this world anymore and when he couldn't scream anymore he sat down in the grass, pulled his knees up to his chin, and cried. He hated the shadow, wondering what he'd ever done to it that would make it want to take him away from his father, but then he remembered the words the shadow had said here, and the words his father had said back on the island. It was difficult to remember them through the shouting and yelling and struggling he'd been doing, and it had all happened so fast. There was so much going on at one time, too much, but remembering his father's words and what they'd meant and done to him, was all he could do with his eyes closed.

This wasn't the shadow's fault. The Shadow, whatever it was, had been working on orders. Orders given to him by his father. He wasn't sure what happened when his father went up into that tree, why the Shadow chose him only or asked him to stay in Neverland, but it had. His father had traded him for the ability to fly again as he had when he was a little boy and that must have been what he'd seen as the Shadow had whisked him away, his father becoming young again, part of the island, part of the Shadow.

And now here he was…alone…wherever "here" was. For the first time since he'd touched back down on the ground he picked his head up and looked around, wondering if he could get some sense of where the Shadow had left him, but what he found wasn't strange land, it was home. The place he was sitting on had been their home. The two makeshift tents they'd been sleeping in as well as the firepit were behind him, and their old house, caved in roof and all, was beyond that.

He was home. And yet this had never been home. Home was all he'd ever wanted, all his life. He wanted his mother and father, he wanted a family to live in a house like they had, to make sure he never cried, and always had food. He supposed he'd known all his life that it was a dream that would never come true, even if he hadn't wanted to believe it. And now here was the result. It was gone forever, all gone, just because his father had gotten his hands on that bean. The women were right, he couldn't understand it, but he knew his father didn't want him, not the way he wanted his father.

Alone on their spot of land, he had to figure out what to do next. He couldn't stay here. The tax would be due soon, and when the King's men came back and found his father gone with no money for them, this land would be taken, and he'd be sold. He didn't want to be sold. His father had been sold as a young boy and he'd only ever heard terrible things about what his owners had done to him. He could go into town, beg for money on the streets like he saw some grown-ups do, but when the King's men had come to town that was the first place his father told him to avoid. He was still his father's son, and the men would undoubtedly look for him. Would the townspeople turn him over? Would they believe him if he told them what happened? Or would they turn him over to be sold just to spite his father? Town was too dangerous. The way he saw it he could either go hide in the woods and hope the wolves didn't find him, or...he could go back to the witches.

They were nice to him. They'd shown him how to spin and told him he was good at it. Maybe they would let him hide there for a few days if he spun more wool into thread for them. Or maybe they wouldn't, but it was the best thing he could think to do with the night settling in.

He dragged his feet, crying the entire way, he was amazed that he was able to find the cottage again considering how little attention he'd paid it when his father had taken him there that morning. He was tired. So tired. As he wept he only just barely had the energy to knock on the door. He felt weak. His knees were shaky, and his hands shook just as his chin did. He had more tears to cry, a lot more. He felt them not just in his eyes but along his cheeks and in his nose, and on his eyelids. He sniffled as he heard whispers from inside. The door opened with the same creak he'd heard before, and then before him, he saw the two women once more, still in the same outfits he'd last seen them in.

He knew he should say something. He knew he had to give some kind of explanation before he begged for their help. But his chest moved up and down too fast, trying to take in enough air to get the words out. Suddenly he felt like there wasn't enough air in all the world for the words he needed to say.

"Oh!" They opened the door wide and filled the empty space with their bodies as they reached out for him. He fell into their arms, the pair of them holding him upright as his legs felt they could no longer stand. He felt a hand on his back and in his hair, rubbing up and down. He couldn't understand the gesture, no one had ever done such a thing to him before, but he liked the way it felt. The pressure on his back and their arms around his body made him feel as though they'd wrapped him up in a great blanket. It made him feel warm. It was nice after feeling so cold.

"Come on," Mabel finally muttered before Elizabeth bent down to pick him up. He would never have guessed that the woman had the strength for that, but she held him in her arms and let him bury his face on her shoulder as she followed Mabel into the back room where she sat him down on something soft so Mabel could remove the cloak he'd been wearing. It was a bed, an actual real bed, not like the rotted old mattress that he'd slept on before in their home before the roof came down. It was stuffed with something soft and warm, something comfortable that made him lay all the way down. His eyes, once filled with tears, suddenly felt dry. His eyelids were heavy, and he was aware of just how nice it was to lay his head down on the pillow and how he longed to close his eyes.

They worked over him. He felt shoes come off his feet, probably removed by Elizabeth as Mabel hovered over him fiddling with a blanket. "What happened to the bean?" Mabel asked as Elizabeth tucked him into the bed. He couldn't remember ever being put to bed in his life. Part of his mind rebelled, wanting to cry out that he could take care of himself, but another part kept him quiet and enjoyed the feeling of not having to worry about himself for once in his life.

"He used it," he heard his voice explain to her. "He left me, and he's never coming back."

"Oh," Elizabeth sighed as they sat down beside him on the bed. "It's for the best, Rumple."

For the best. Those were the words his father had said, and the Shadow too. They'd both said he was better off without him. But…all he'd ever known in life was his father, even if he was barely around, even if he wasn't the kind of father that other children had. What was he supposed to do now that he was gone? Without his father to pay for the property, would the soldiers still take him? Was he really going to be better off?

"I'm alone now," he realized, the words slipping from his mind to his mouth as sadness washed over him.

"No, you have us!"

"And a wheel!"

"You always have a home here," Mabel assured him. "Now get some rest."

"And you'll feel better."

"Later we'll spin, hmm? Where's your doll?"

Doll. Peter Pan. To keep him safe so that he'd feel like his father was always there in some way, looking out for him even when he wasn't. The last he'd seen him was in Neverland, he'd been in a pocket sewn poorly into his cloak and he'd been holding on to him when the Shadow had grabbed him, and he'd grabbed his father. He couldn't remember what happened to Peter Pan after that. And he was sure that it hadn't been there when they'd taken the cloak from him. In all the struggle…he must have dropped him. He must be back in Neverland with his father.

"I lost him."

"Oh. Well, we'll make you another one. You can give it the same name."

"No," he responded sadly. A new doll would be a nice friend, but he couldn't bear the idea of giving it the same name, he didn't want any memories of the last few days to last. He just wanted to forget. "Peter Pan is gone forever…lost in Neverland with my father."

"Neverland!"

"Best not to even think of that place again, Rumple," Mabel told him as she stepped away and pulled the blankets up to his chin.

"Put it away."

"Leave Neverland in the farthest reaches of your mind and seal it behind a locked door. Hm? It's not a place for men."

"Or little boys."

"Sleep now, Rumple. Dream of tomorrow only."

Chapter Text

He only had a small memory of the spinsters promising him that he would always have a home with them after his father left. But from that day on, he had many memories of the ways they'd made good on that promise.

He remembered the soldiers coming by to look for him, to take him in payment for what they hadn't received. And he remembered the way that Mabel and Elizabeth had both told him to hide inside when they did. They lifted a secret stone in the floor that revealed a place just big enough for him to hide in, then he'd listened as they informed the soldiers that they could search the house, but the boy wasn't there.

"Knowing that family Malcolm probably took the boy and ran off into the woods with him."

"You could spend your time looking-"

"But we all know that property will more than pay for the debt that man collected."

"He's gone."

"Why not just let him be gone?"

He'd never seen the soldiers again. But things soon started to change for him, his life got better, in a way that made him almost glad that his father had left him.

"His mistake."

"Didn't know what he had!" the spinners insisted on the rare times he brought it up.

In the years that followed, he began to grow fond of his new guardians, and he began to see what it felt like to have someone be fond of him as well. They soon began to call themselves his aunts when people asked how they came to have him. He too began to call them his Aunts, even going so far as to name them Aunt Mabel and Aunt Lizzy. They cared for him. For the first time in his life, he began to attend school. He didn't know as much as the other boys his age, on his very first day he'd spelled his own name wrong, "Rumpelstiltskin" instead of "Rumplestiltskin". His face had reddened as the children laughed at him and he insisted that he'd spelled it correctly and it was the teacher who was wrong. Eventually, his teacher believed him, but now his name was stuck that way, Rumpelstiltskin. His aunts insisted it wasn't because he was stupid, he just didn't know any better. They called him clever for giving himself a new name, for marking this new chapter in his life with a new identity of his own making. He liked that, he liked the way they saw the world and the way they could fix things for him and make him smile even on the worst days. And so he adopted his new name proudly and soon enough he began to catch up to the other students with his aunts' help. He learned how to read and write and even do math, first on paper and then in his head. They spun together every day after he returned from school and when he had a bad day, they made his favorite, meat pie, for dinner, which they ate together. Their home was smaller than the house he'd once shared with his father, the house that was now nothing but dust and land for potato crops, but he was happier there than he'd ever been. His Aunts were attentive to him, waking him with shrieks once in the middle of the night when one of them thought they'd spied a Shadow hovering over his bed. They'd been trying to protect him...no one had ever tried to protect him before.

"It was probably nothing, Rumple," Mabel assured him as she tucked him back into bed.

"A dream," Lizzy added.

"An owl in the moonlight. Whatever it was, I'm sure it won't be back."

"It". They tried to reassure him "it" wasn't the Shadow from Neverland, but he had his doubts. Aunt Mabel had described exactly the very thing that took him from that place, and he watched from outside as the woman slowly walked around the yard, sprinkling something they called "a protection spell" around the house. "Just in case." If they really thought it was nothing then they wouldn't have done that.

Still, it didn't escape their notice when strange goings on began to affect not just him, but the entire town. Boys had suddenly begun to have strange dreams, all the same. They dreamt they went to an island, one where they could do anything they imagined; dance all night around a bonfire to music, eat anything they dreamed up, even fly. One parent reported seeing a Shadow that resembled the one Aunt Mabel had seen, the one he swore brought him back from Neverland. There was even a rumor, one night when that parent turned up dead, that it was the shadow, who had ripped his own away, instantly killing him. His Aunts denied it. But how many shadow-men with glowing white eyes could there be in the world? They could deny it all they wanted, but he knew the truth. Even if he didn't want to speak the words aloud, he knew.

Even more so, his fears seemed to be confirmed one day when he'd gone into town with his aunts, to take their spun wool to the weaver. They'd traded what was in their baskets for coins and a brand new pair of clothes for him to wear to school on cool mornings and he was admiring them with Aunt Mabel over his shoulder when he saw a crowd and heard a familiar whisper from the depths of it.

Peter Pan.

"What was that you said?" he asked pulling away from his Aunts and pushing to the front of a crowd. There was a woman there, sitting on a bench with her head in her hand crying while another woman comforted her. Someone in the back of the crowd grabbed the threesome and began to steer them away from the scene.

"It's the most terrifying thing," she whispered. "Her boy ran off into the woods and hasn't come back."

"Was it the wolves?"

"Or trolls?"

"Not the ogres again surely!" his Aunts questioned. "Perhaps he's just been lost."

"Felix has been lost for a while now," the woman whispered with tears in her eyes. "He's been so lost to that dream of his he's run off to find that island!"

"They've been hearing him talking to someone late at night for a while," another woman in the crowd whispered to them. "But when they looked they saw nothing. Now he's left only a note that he'd gone off to join Peter Pan. If you're smart you'll stay away from boys like that Rumpelstiltskin," she insisted suddenly looking down at him. "Especially those named Peter Pan."

He felt fear creep into his body and twist his stomach up into knots. Aunt Mabel kept a hand on his shoulder and led him away back to the house without another word until they got home. He expected they'd want to talk about it when they got home, but he didn't expect them to so blatantly dismiss it as they did.

"I wouldn't worry about it Rumple," Aunt Mabel stated. "There's no proof it's your father."

"Coincidence!"

"And even if it were you've nothing to worry about here," she told him leaning down and taking his face between her palms. "You are safe here from shadows that come to the windows at night. Come, let's spin a bit before dinner, hm?"

Spinning was their answer to everything as the years went past. Bad day at school? Spin. Learned something new in Math? Spin. Bored? Spin. Tired? Spin. Early? Spin. Nervous? Spin.

He loved his Aunts, and after a while, he knew they loved him. They were good providers, kind, gentle, caring…they were everything his father never could be. But as much as he loved spinning with them at his wheel he longed for something more. Friends. He thought as a child, he'd wanted nothing more than he wanted a home, but he was convinced that he wanted friends more than he ever wanted that now. His Aunts had told him the night before he started school that he was bound to make many friends there, and yet, no matter how hard he tried over the years, he couldn't.

His father was gone, but their prediction that he would never outlive his name seemed to have come true. Children of parents who had been cheated by his father were told to avoid him, not to trust Malcolm's boy. Others were put off by his spinning. Living alone with his two aunts and being poorly at reading gave them an excuse to mock and tease him. He was proud of his aunts, adored them in ways that his classmates couldn't understand, and that was always why Mabel told him that they did it. What happened to him was something they couldn't understand.

"And people are always afraid of what they don't understand," Aunt Lizzy told him.

"Exactly. They try and turn it into something funny so they don't have to be afraid of it anymore. But they'll see Rumple, they'll get to know you as we do and soon treat you just like everyone else."

He waited for that day to come, longed for it just as he had longed and waited for everything else in his life. But one winter, years after his father had left, he saw the boys playing by a frozen lake. He watched as they teased and taunted each other, walking out farther and farther onto the ice, daring one another to go farther and farther. Something came over him at that moment, and he determined that if they weren't going to treat them the way he wanted them to on their own, he'd make them.

"I can go all the way to the center," he claimed walking over to them. The boys all stared back at him, as though they hadn't even been aware he was nearby.

"You?" one of the boys, Rolf was his name, questioned. "You can't walk out to the center. You'll fall in and die, be trapped under the ice forever!"

The other boys were smiling, lips poised to laugh when he walked away. He wasn't going to give them the opportunity to laugh. He set his bag down right there on the shores of the lake, hoping the leather would keep the papers inside from growing wet and trying to pretend he didn't care so they wouldn't think he did. His heart was racing even before he took that first step, the warning Rolf had issued him dire in his head. But he did what his aunts always told him to do with unpleasant words and thoughts. He tucked it away deep in his mind, then locked it away.

Off he raced, not just walking, but running. Rolf shouted his name and made a grab to catch him, but he was smaller and easily darted away. He'd always thought ice was slippery, but the snow upon it provided just enough traction for his light feet. He heard the breath, felt the cold searing it in his with every inhale. He'd never run like this in his life, but it felt good. He felt free. Until he came to the center of that lake. Feeling the slick ice beneath his feet he planted them and let himself slide a little before coming to a stop and looking back at the boys. They were staring at him now with open mouths and wide eyes. The way they were looking at him now was different the looks they'd given him before.

And he liked it.

Chapter Text

Whether he meant to or not, he invented a new game that day he ran out over the ice. As Winter continued, it became a regular event, after school, for all the boys to gather by the lake. No longer did they dare each other to get farthest out, now the task was to cross the entire lake. Two boys raced at a time, and the others would place bets on who would make it to the other side first. He was good at this, undeniably, and for the first time in his life, the other boys knew he was good at something. They hated racing against him, older and younger alike, for they all knew that they were bound to lose. The same reasons they'd picked on him were precisely the reasons he figured he was good at it. He was small, short, and skinny. His aunts never could understand how they could feed him so much and never see an ounce of fat on him. Now it helped him. He dashed out over the ice, feeling like if he was just a pound or two lighter, he might spread his arms and begin to soar into the air like a bird. Suddenly he found himself wondering what it would have been like to get his hands on that pixie dust and fly for real. Sometimes, in the dark of the night, he wondered if he snuck out of the house if he might come across that Shadow, if it would recognize him, and perhaps take him back there so he could try for real.

"Okay, Rumpelstiltskin against Rolf this time."

"I'm too tired…I'm thinking of going home."

"Don't back down now Rolf."

"Yeah, don't make excuses not to have a go at it like the rest of us. Here, one button on you, just to make you feel better…and four on Rumpelstiltskin." The boys all laughed as Rolf squirmed. He rolled his eyes and tried to feign disinterest as they all placed bets with whatever they had in their pockets; buttons, snacks, string, wool, occasionally they'd get lucky, and someone would have a pence or a shilling, but often it was just useless junk.

"Alright, racers to the start!"

After the bets were made he and Rolf made their way to the designated start line, which just so happened to be a felled log. They had drawn one in the snow, when they first started weeks ago, but as the Snow had begun to melt, the log became necessary. He removed his cloak, but keep his gloves in place as Rolf refused. Yes, it was still cold out, not as cold as it had been months ago, but still cold enough that as he ran there was a sharp sting of it on his cheeks and his fingers. He liked it. It made going home to warm by the fire that much more pleasant.

"Racers ready?!"

"Ready!" he shouted eagerly, lunging out with one leg.

"Ready," Rolf confirmed less than enthusiastically.

"Try not to be such a cow about it Rolf!" someone shouted from behind.

"Alright then. Three, two, one, go!"

He'd barely heard the "o" before he was off, flying away. His legs moved under him, sensing the slick and the wet and compensating. His feet flew, barely touching the ice before he made his next stride. The cold air stung his cheeks. It invaded his lungs. His fingers felt frozen but hot at the same time. He had no idea where Rolf was, how far ahead of the boy he was, he just kept his eyes on the shoreline ahead of him, toward victory, one step then another, then-

The place his foot should have touched ice moved like he'd never felt it move before.

A step later he felt water on the ice slow him down.

The next step held no stride at all.

His stomach did a flip as he felt himself lose control of his body. He wanted to go forward! But he went down instead.

He gasped in shock and horror as he went down, realizing what was happening only just before he went down into the water. It was freezing. Touching him everywhere, stinging his skin, his nostrils, his lungs, even his eyes. His body reacted. Squirmed in the water for relief. He opened his eyes and tried to reach for the surface, but it was too far away! He could clearly see the hole from his place now, the light pouring through it, the place he had fallen in as the sun had thinned the ice. But no matter how he tried, he couldn't get back to that place.

Air. He needed air. He could hear noises around him like voices that were far away and unclear shouting and getting farther away, and he felt every beat in his chest. The cold water began to pinch him, punish him, close in and squish him like it didn't want him there. He fought against it. Though his arms and legs seemed to want to get closer to his body he tried to wave them about and twisted his body. But the light was getting blacker. His mouth wanted to open as his chest began to burn with need and instinct to breathe what wasn't available. He'd let out his breath when he screamed on the way down and now he could see what a mistake it was, what a mistake all of it was. Running on the ice…what a stupid thing to do. He'd lived by the ocean his entire life. Why had he never learned to swim?

He was floating. His arms curling closer to his chest, his legs in a tight ball against his belly. He was tired suddenly. All at once the cold didn't bother him anymore. In fact, the water was beginning to feel warm. Or maybe he was just becoming part of it. It was nice to fly, but he could live with floating like this for the rest of his life. Just staying in the water forever.

The water current moved him, he could feel it turning him over this way and that as he surrendered to it. The portal he'd gone through with his father had felt similar to this. Very similar to just-

The water broke over his head, and suddenly cold touched his skin again as the water poured off of his body. He coughed, vaguely aware of the feeling like he was flying as he was pulled out of the ice but didn't feel the ground beneath him. There were stars above him, floating gold stars. As he let air come into his lungs and his eyes wanted to close again he had the thought that it was odd for that many stars to be out while the sun was still shinning.

"No! Don't fall asleep now, Rumpelstiltskin! You haven't made it home yet!"

When he opened his eyes, the stars were gone, it was still daylight, and there was a woman standing over him with black hair and dark skin. He could only just see the red dress that she was wearing out of the corner of his eye, but it was enough to shock him awake. He'd seen this woman before. In fact, as she propped him against her arm and looked down at him, she had the strangest feeling that he'd seen her before just like this. She'd held him like this? But no one ever held him except his aunts...

"Who are you?" His voice was quiet, too stunned to be any louder the woman continued to look down and rock him, wiping water away from his cheeks. There was a pause between them. An odd one that made him feel like she was thinking of something to say.

"My name is Tiger Lily."

She'd said it, but he didn't believe it. No one took that long to tell them their names.

"Who are you?" he asked again, feeling the dirt and ground beneath his fingers. Sensations were returning.

Again the woman paused.

"Sometimes I'm called 'Dearg'. I'm your fairy godmother-"

She'd barely gotten the words out before he pushed himself out of her embrace and scrambled away from her.

"Rumpelstiltskin! What on earth-"

"My father said fairies are vile wicked creatures!" he shouted, or at least he tried to. His voice was not nearly as loud as he would have liked it to be, and it echoed somewhere in his mouth. He heard an odd warbling as he tipped his head side to side. But the fairy before him shook her head.

"Your father is wrong. That boy is wrong about many things in fact. Fairies are good beings of light magic. We try to make wishes come true and look after little boys and girls. Here, let me show you." She reached out with her hand and he tried to back away but found he was already pressed against a rock and couldn't move fast enough. She placed her hands against the sides of his face, over his ears, and when she pulled them away, he found he could hear again. It was crisp and clear, and the noises of his body didn't echo as they had.

"There now…isn't that better?"

It was better. But now that he could hear her clearly he had the strangest sensation that he'd heard that voice before as well. It was scary. When he'd seen her in his dreams, she'd never talked that he could remember.

"I've seen you before!" he commented looking her over.

Her smile vanished, and she let herself fall away from him. "Yes, but…Fairies are not meant to be seen, unless the circumstances…but I saw you in the water and…I should go! Blue wouldn't like that I'm here!"

"Blue?" he asked as she made a motion to get up and go. "Who is Blue?"

"The Blue Fairy, you know her as Reul Ghorm, she's in charge of us. She wouldn't like this!"

"She wouldn't want you to save me?"

"No!" the woman breathed coming closer. Her eyebrows came together sadly as she knelt down next to him again. "No, it's not that, it's just…this is complicated. I shouldn't have revealed myself as I did. I need to go!"

"No, wait!"

"I have to leave!"

"Please stay!" he called, leaping to his feet and seizing her hand in both of his own. "Do you know the Black Fairy?!"

The pulling she'd been doing to free herself stopped suddenly, and she looked back at him with wide eyes. "Who told you about the Black Fairy?" she asked.

"My father did," he answered. "Before he…he said that the Black Fairy killed my mother and that's why I don't have one. Have you come to take me away from here? Have you come to save my father? Can you bring my mother back from the dead?!"

He didn't know how all of the questions made it out of his mouth so fast. He didn't even know he had that many questions before this moment but seeing this woman he suddenly felt every hope he'd ever had come secretly back to life. Reul Ghorm. He did know that name. It meant Blue Star, and he'd heard all the children in his class talk of how they made wishes on her that sometimes came true! Dearg…red. Was she the Red Star then? Could she make all his wishes come true?

"Oh child…" she sighed kneeling down again so they were nearly the same height. "I can hear your wishes. I know the burdens you carry, the trials you have suffered which is why I know the women you live with now have made for you a life that is far better for you than any life you've ever had."

"Please...tell me why!" he begged. She hadn't come right out and said it, but her answer was obviously "no."

"I used to dream of you. I recognize your red dress. Did you know my mother? Did you know the Black Fairy? Did you try to stop her or save my mother?!"

From somewhere in the woods, a branch snapped. The woman before him looked wildly around for the animal that must have made it.

"I have to go!"

"Please just tell me!" he screamed before she could step away. "I have to know what happened! I have to know where I came from and what happened to my mother."

"Child…" suddenly she seized his arms with a pressure that would have made him cry out in hurt if he weren't so determined to hear what she had to say. "The Blue Fairy doesn't wish you to know what happened, she believes you are better off without the knowledge, without interference."

"I can take it! I can!"

Another branch snapped, and the Red Fairy glanced around them again before her grip on his arms tightened even more.

"Believe me when I say I did all I could and more to save your mother and stop the Black Fairy, but it wasn't enough. I cannot grand your dearest wish, Rumpelstiltskin, for your mother isn't dead. She lives."

He could have sworn he felt his heart stop.

"What…"

"The Blue Fairy wishes the news to remain a secret among fairies, but not all of us agree with that choice. If it's of some comfort, then that is all I can grant you," she hissed, talking very low and very fast. "Your mother wasn't killed by the Black Fairy. She is the Black Fairy."

Suddenly he felt as though he was out of his body again, floating in the water just as he'd been before, fighting for air and life and touch.

"She gave you up for her power and was cursed into a dark realm for it. Rest assured, Rumpelstiltskin, never doubt that you are far better off with the women you have now than with that woman, or the father you lost. All our lives are stories Rumpelstiltskin, stories that other realms will tell one day. Leave the story of your parents behind, be the hero of your own tale!"

The woman stepped away from him and looked around. When she turned back to him, he saw a brilliant flash of light, and suddenly she wasn't a full-grown woman anymore, she was small. Suspended, hovering in the air with the help of fluttering wings and golden dust, just like he'd seen when he was pulled from the lake!

"I must go!" she said, her voice no different. "Go back home, Rumpelstiltskin! Warm your bones by their fire. Stay out of trouble and learn their trade. Make a life in this world, and you will be just fine! All will be well."

Chapter Text

The day on the ice was remembered by all in town, even the adults who weren't there. He had been foolish after that day, stupidly hoping that when he showed up at school, alive, and it would have been something spectacular. He thought that all the boys would want to be friends with him or think that he was just as amazing as the day he first walked fearlessly out to the middle. But of course, it didn't happen that way. Slowly parents began to question their children why they were home so early or not out playing as they had before, and slowly the story of what happened came out. Parents quickly put a stop to all such fun, not only that year as the ice melted, but in the years that followed. They threatened severe beatings and other extreme punishments if they ever attempted something so stupid ever again. His schoolmates blamed him for taking their game away from them, and soon enough he was back on the outside looking in. All remembered that fall through the ice and took note that he never went near it again, but he remembered that day for a completely different reason.

No one knew how he'd survived that fall through the ice, they'd never asked, and he wasn't particularly interested in sharing how, not with the information he'd learned that day. Now it wasn't just his father and the Black Shadow who haunted him, it was the Black Fairy as well. Did knowing things make them happen more often? It certainly seemed like it after that day.

He'd always known about the Black Fairy, all his life he'd heard stories of her, perhaps less frequently than stories of Peter Pan, but before he'd ever known who she was, he'd watched as she became used as a bedtime story, a monster to his classmates. In every story he heard, she was always a threat.

"If you don't eat all that food the Black Fairy will come snatch you from your bed!"

"If you don't do your chores, the Black Fairy will get you, and you'll never see your family again."

"Don't talk back to the adults, it angers the Black Fairy, and that's when she takes little boys and teaches them to be nice!"

He'd heard stories of her all his life, he supposed that when his father had told him she'd murdered his mother that was why it was so easy to believe. Still, it hadn't been until after Tiger Lily told him that it was all a lie, that he seemed ever more attuned, not just to those stories, but to the whispers about her. The stories, in his opinion, were always just that, stories. He'd never seen a child who didn't eat all their food or do their chores disappear mysteriously from their bed and his classmates who talked back to their teacher always showed up the next day ready to learn. The stories and threats parents told were nothing, but the whispers…those always seemed to be quite a different matter entirely.

When he was about twelve, there had been a girl in the village, young, unmarried, and pregnant. One night, after the baby was born, it disappeared. "The Black Fairy," they all whispered. "She claims the Black Fairy took the child in the night as punishment for her whoring." Indeed, he'd even seen the girl tell the story with tears falling down her cheeks as she wept once. But he'd also paid close attention to her face after she was done with the tale and the crowd dispersed. The tears stopped immediately, and she wiped her face with barely a sniffle before going on with her chores. Not an ounce of sadness overwhelmed her as she worked. She seemed free, even hummed a little tune as she collected her laundry. And that little smile that she held on her face as they all walked away, holding their babes tighter to them and fearful she might come to steal another child in the night, perfectly convinced…he recognized it as one his father used when he'd just managed to trick someone into playing his game.

The Black Fairy was truly a monster, they all said so, but he couldn't understand. As a matter of fact, he felt not scared or upset by their words and stories of both the Black Fairy and Peter Pan, but rather jealous in a way. They had given him up, they had chosen to leave him behind! So why was his father taking boys like Felix from their homes, but never him? Why did his mother steal babies when she'd had her own? Why couldn't she have just taken him with her? Why wasn't he good enough?

Those questions haunted him just as much as his past and every mention of the Black Fairy and Peter Pan as he grew. Though he never did tell his aunts what the Red Fairy had told him about her, they had noticed there was certainly a change in him after that day in the ice, but when he stayed awake at night to listen to their murmurings he knew they simply chalked it up to a lesson well learned. And a lesson well learned it was...

He changed. He threw himself into his work. Studying at school until he was the oldest in his class and returning every day to work wool with his aunts. From a short small child into a short and gangly teenager. By fifteen he was taller than his Aunt Mabel, but Aunt Lizzie still towered over him.

His work changed. Tall as he was sitting at the Saxony Wheel day in and day out made his back bend and ache and soon the day came when his aunts informed him that it was time for him to stand and learn to work the Great Wheel. It was different than his Saxony Wheel, it worked differently and was less complex, but it did involve more movement on his part. A flick of the wrist here and there, two steps forward, three steps back. There was a method to it. And to the amazement of his aunts, he picked it up almost as quickly as he had the Saxony wheel. He enjoyed the silence of being with them. It wasn't that they never talked, but rather that they were comfortable with the peace and sound of spinning wheels brought to life under their hands. When there was something to discuss, they discussed it. When there wasn't they spun; on and on endlessly spinning.

His job changed soon after he learned to work the great wheel. As the three of them got older, he became more capable as they became less capable. Soon he was the one that was sent up and over the hill at the allotted times to collect the wool to be spun from Mr. Oak, a strong man when hundreds of sheep and enough dogs that his visits were never a surprise. They weren't exactly friends, but they were cordial with one another, at least at first. But soon enough Mr. Oak became the closest thing to a father he had, even distant as he was. He was the only man he knew willing to teach him things, without embarrassing him for his lack of knowledge. His aunts knew it too and used it to their advantage.

One morning as they sat among their spinning wheels enjoying breakfast, Aunt Mabel had gotten up, peered into his face then rested her hand upon his cheek.

"We're going to need to teach you to shave soon…you'll be a man before we know it."

It couldn't have been a coincidence then, that the next time they sent him up the hill for wool, he'd found Mr. Oak with the sheep penned in the dark barn, a mirror lighted a lantern that Mr. Oak stood before, a razor in his hand. He watched with interest as he moved it against his skin, dipping it in water and making motions that meant nothing to him but seemed meticulous. One stroke after another the soap he had on his skin vanished and so did any signs of his scruff. Finally, Mr. Oak dropped the razor on top of a bucket and wiped his skin dry.

"Ever seen a sheep sheered boy?" he finally asked breaking their silence.

"No, Sir."

He watched as Mr. Oak grunted and swung himself into the pen with the sheers. He held his breath for a moment wondering if it was going to hurt the sheep before he watched him grab a lump of the wool on its back and began to cut.

"You want to be very careful with it, make sure your blade is sharp to help do it quickly. Get it nice and close to the skin and go slow, so that it's nice and short, but careful enough not to cut them. It's the same when you take the hair off your own face. Nice sharp blade, so you don't spend all day about it, and easy strokes so you don't cut yourself."

The message was received. As he finished sheering the sheep in the pen he reached into a pocket and pulled free what looked like a brand new razor, bright and sharp from his pocket, then nodded to the mirror and left him alone in the room, his expectations clear. He was certain it also wasn't a coincidence that the next few times he climbed the mountain, Mr. Oak seemed to examine his face clearly, pointing out little cuts he saw in the skin on his neck and cheeks as well as the places he'd missed.

"Be careful to take that patch off next time," he muttered. "You don't want to look like Old Yeller or be mistaken for a wolf now do you?"

"No, Sir!" he answered quickly as he retrieved his baskets of wool.

"Good lad. One day you'll meet a fine woman, and she'll thank you for it."

A fine woman…he thought about those words as he walked home with the basket of wool in his hands. Mr. Oak had been talking about marriage. If he was honest, it was the first he'd ever thought of such a thing. He'd had very little interaction with girls in his life, despite being raised by two. Somehow, he always had the understanding that his aunts were different than other women. In truth, his thoughts these days had been taken up by endless work and chores. Get the wool from Mr. Oak, spin the wool to thread and yarn, take it to the weavers, examine their stitches to see it for himself. He'd been thinking these days about getting a sheep of his own, seeing if he could perhaps spend less money to make his wool and perhaps make more in that way as well. He wasn't thinking about girls. He wasn't thinking about marriage, though he knew that some of the other boys his age were and all the girls his age were beginning to find their husbands.

Marriage, while it seemed perfectly normal to them, was an anomaly to him. The lack of marriage in his life seemed to be the common thread among all that he could trust or had trusted at one time or other. He lived with his vile father, and had no memories of his mother before she'd left him. His father had never even tried to remarry as far as he knew, and he imagined that girls in Neverland were hard to come by. Not to mention that marriage meant growing up and facing reality and as far as he knew those were not things that interested his father as they did him.

His aunts lived alone, they'd never spoken of men in their life aside from himself and Mr. Oak. Mr. Oak lived alone, unmarried in the woods with nothing but his dogs and the sheep to keep him company. The weavers they sold to their wool too, they were all unmarried women. He understood enough to know that their prospects for marriage were low, poor and lowly as they were seen.

But what about him? He wasn't exactly poor, but they didn't have a lot of money around, the job of a spinner was often seen as woman's work, and it was lowly. But the idea of living closer to town instead of on the outskirts as he'd lived with his father and now his aunts, the idea of building a house in this little village like the rest of his classmates…it was a prospect that made him smile. He could picture a little house all his own, a spinning wheel in the corner, food on the hearth, but was there a woman in the bed? Was there a child in the loft?

"Hello!"

He'd been so lost in his daydreaming he hadn't noticed the little girl that had wandered out in front of him. He'd nearly knocked into her until she'd said hello. And an odd thing it was too. There were not many people in the village that offered their greetings to him, even the children. And this girl, a child of no more than eight, half his age…she was unfamiliar.

"Hello," he replied looking her over. Was she truly a stranger or was it simply that he didn't travel through this part of the village enough?

"What's your name?"

"Rumpelstiltskin," he answered obediently.

The girl giggled. "Rumpelstiltskin…that's a funny name. Rumpelstiltskin…do your friends manage that mouthful every time they say it."

He shifted his weight, irritated, thinking of all the work he had to when he got home. He didn't have time for children.

"My aunts call me Rumple. My father did too," he answered quickly.

"Oh…I'm sorry," the girl muttered, her smile disappearing as her eyes quickly went sad.

"For what?"

"You said 'he did'…that means he's dead."

"No, he…he left."

She cocked her head to one side, looking suddenly interested. "For where?"

"A far away place."

"For how long?"

"Forever. He didn't wish to be my father anymore."

Her jaw fell as she stomped her foot on the ground and made a sound that might have been outrage. "What an awful coward!" she shrieked.

"That's what all the villagers say," he mumbled to himself, looking around to try and find a parent for the girl. Where all girls this dramatic?

"Well, they're right! What kind of father doesn't take care of his family?!"

"My father." The village was bustling with familiar faces, but no one that appeared to be looking for this little girl. Did she live here? Was she visiting?

"So you…you live with your aunts now."

"They're not really my aunts. Just two women, spinners on the edge of town."

Now the girl gasped and drew his gaze back to her. Her eyes were wide with terror. "The witches?" she breathed.

He felt anger boil within him. "They're not witches!" he lied, though if he was honest he hardly considered it a lie. Yes, his aunts had magic, but when there was talk of witches, it was always about women doing awful and wicked deeds with their magic. His aunts didn't do that, they used their magic sparingly for good things. But he knew that this town didn't see the difference between good magic and bad magic. He didn't want his aunts to face that kind of scorn.

"The entire town says the spinners on the edge of town are witches."

"Well, the town is wrong," he argued. He was fifteen why was a child bothering him as she was. "They're not witches. They're kind and good. They've taken good care of me since my father left. Who are you? I've never seen you here before."

"Oh, we just got here!"

"From where?" New to the village. Not exactly a typical occurrence but with the port here it wasn't exactly odd either that someone new would come live in the town. It certainly explained why he'd never seen this girl in all his life.

"I don't know," she answered with a shrug. "Somewhere far away, it took a long time to get here, lots of sleeps!"

"Why did you come?"

"My father couldn't get work. You ask a lot of questions."

"So do you," he snapped back.

The girl was silent for a moment, turning herself about as she looked at the ground before she stood up straight and tall again and smiled proudly. "I have five brothers! That's not a question."

But it also wasn't helpful, and he was losing his patience keeping an eye on her. "Where's your mother?"

Suddenly the look of pride the girl had worn faded away, and she shrank silently back inside of herself once more. She'd answered his question without answering it.

"I'm sorry," he muttered, offering her the same words she had given him when she'd thought his father had died.

"It's okay," she muttered after a moment. "At least she didn't leave because she didn't want me."

"Milah!" They both looked across the street toward a large gray-haired man who was red in the face with anger. "Come away, you stupid girl!"

Immediately the girl turned on her heel and ran over to the man who stared at him with distaste. He didn't even know him, and already he was considered too lowly to be talking to his child. "Run home, boy!" the man shouted. "Haven't you any work to do?!"

Chapter Text

He felt like he'd been waiting for this to happen for a long time; expecting it, preparing for it. And yet on the day that it happened, he found himself woefully underprepared for the challenges that met him.

He knew Aunt Lizzy wouldn't last long, not after the woke to find Aunt Mabel had passed as they slept. It wasn't that Aunt Lizzy was weak, just that Aunt Mabel was the backbone. She had been the talker, the commander, the wise sage, and the determination of the household. She was the Captain, steering the two of them in their small family's pursuits. With her gone, he had tried. He'd taken care of Aunt Lizzie in her grief the best he could, fixing tea and meals over the fire, spinning twice as much as he used to day and night so that not even the flow of money would remind her of her missing sister. But nothing had seemed to work, and from where he sat now, a log in the middle of the forest, shovel in hand, he supposed it was silly that he'd ever thought it would have worked. Though they were never two to talk much of their past, he knew that they'd been together for all of it. He had no need to guess what Aunt Lizzy had died of; he knew it was a broken heart.

He buried her beside her sister, in a secret place in the woods. He knew what the townspeople said about them, and he knew what they did to supposed witches even after they died, and he couldn't stand the thought that someone or anyone would dig them up and burn their remains on a pyre. It was one of the reasons he'd worked so hard over the last few months to make sure that production of yarn stayed right where it always had. His hope was that when people finally asked, they would have been past for months and he would be able to ensure the safety of their bodies. Maybe then he could carve some headstones for them. But until then, the two saplings he'd planted over their graves would have to do.

He sighed as he gave the spot one last look, then wiped tears away with the back of his hand and shouldered the shovel he'd brought. "I'll make you both proud, eh," he muttered before walking back to their old home. He stayed there simply because he didn't have anywhere else to go, and there was truly nowhere else he wanted to go.

He'd prepared for the loss of his aunts, but he had never prepared himself to live without them, and as the weeks stretched into months, he found that was what he truly should have been preparing himself for. The cottage was quiet without them. Not that they'd been loud when his aunts had been alive, but there was always noise. There was always the creak and whine of a whirling wheel, the shuffle of fabric as they moved about and their dresses swished with them, and the noise of metal against stone as they cooked. Alone, he found their cottage was much bigger than he'd ever thought it was and the two silent wheels that his eyes always fell on as he spin, were dreadful reminders. Some days, as he stood before his own wheel, two steps forward, three steps back, he found himself crying. Not blubbering as he had when he was a child, but just crying. He tried everything he could think of to alleviate the loneliness. He found himself going on walks through town and the village, he tried singing as he spun, he took up knitting with some of the extra yarn he worked on the Saxony Wheel, and then he tried doing nothing but spinning, throwing himself into his work. But it felt useless.

He could never produce the amount of yarn and thread the three of them had made together. He had no idea how much of the industry the three of them had taken up until he was the only one of his workforce left. Other spinners started popping up here and there in town, and before he knew it, he was in competition with them. But economics were something that he'd never truly understood. His yarn was superior, they all said that it was.

"But Margie is willing to give me hers for half the price you are asking for Rumpelstiltskin. Superior or not yours isn't cheap."

"Please…take it for half that price then," he bartered and begged. He'd learned. The first time he'd been confronted with this he'd turned away, vowing he'd find someone willing to pay for his own, but instead of selling his thread he'd watched as inferior spinners took his business and he'd had to learn that half price was better than no sell. Besides, he had a secret weapon that the other spinners didn't have and that was history. The moment he lowered his prices to match theirs they bought from him because they always had, he was reliable and friendly and at the heart of it all they wanted to be loyal to the boy they had watched grow up. And though Mr. Oak supplied many of those same spinners with wool from his sheep, he always saved the best for him, and unlike the others who paid more for it, he hadn't changed the price Rumple paid in all his life. Buy low, sell high. He remembered someone telling that to him in his life, though he couldn't remember who, but he was at least relieved that even with the fluctuating price he was still following that rule.

"You need to make a change, boy," Mr. Oak informed him one day when he went up the hill to buy what he needed. It made no difference to Mr. Oak that he had just turned twenty. To him, he was always only "boy" and would be to the end of time. The same way Mr. Oak would always be not only his supplier but the man who had taught him to shave and shear a lamb. He was far more a father to him than his own lowlife father had been. And yet sometimes the advice he passed on to him, made little sense. Make a change? What kind of change?

"Sir?"

"The light's gone out from your eyes, the things you once loved are things you love no more." He hadn't been aware that there was ever "light in his eyes", nor could he see what the man was talking about. Was he talking about his aunts? Or his spinning? He still loved his aunts, he missed them every day from the moment he woke up and looked around their empty cottage to the time he shut his eyes and heard the sounds of his own breathing. But he did feel like his desire to spin had faded somewhat. Before it had always been something fun he did with his aunts. Now it was a business and while he loved to spin, the idea of the business, of prices and buying and selling and competing for it…he wasn't too keen on that.

"You need to move on, you need something new to do, a new idea to believe in, a new dream to pursue."

"Haven't any idea what that could be," he muttered as watched his old friend shift bales of hay for his horses. Mr. Oak had recently taken on an apprentice in his old age, though where the boy was now, he had no idea. Perhaps he'd sent him away, he did that sometimes when he wanted to have a conversation with him, which could only mean that this was not just talk, but an actual discussion he'd walked into unprepared.

Mr. Oak suddenly put his hand out on his shoulder and squeezed hard, forcing him to look him in the eye and stop moving. "There is a time in every man's life when he's on his own has to make for himself a new life, a new home. He finds himself a wife, has a few kids, passes his trade on to them as it was once passed onto you."

"My father's business-"

"I'm not talking about that coward! I'm talking about the trade your mothers passed on to you." He felt a flare of anger and fear roll through him. He knew what he was talking about, that he was referring to the spinning his aunts had taught him, but the use of "mothers" automatically had him thinking about the Black Fairy, and what her legacy was in the world. What his aunts had left him was far better than anything his parents would have taught him, and far better than what his parents had ever done in the world.

Putting it aside he chose to ignore the last part of Mr. Oak's advice and instead concentrate on the first part of it because it seemed to him that was where all of it fell apart. "I have been making my way in the world, I've been doing all I can to have a fresh start."

"In the same home you were raised in?" Mr. Oak questioned. "Living there because your aunts are gone and it's easy isn't finding a new way, Rumpelstiltskin. That's something your father would have done, but you…you are different, boy. Do not be afraid to strike out on your own just because you are alone. You're not, you have me, and all you need to do is ask."

"Sir?" It was all he could think to say. He'd always known Mr. Oak to be a gentle and wise soul, but at the moment he sounded like an old raving lunatic. It was as if there was something he was trying to say to him, but he couldn't quite catch on.

"There is a property down in the village that no one has ever put a house on. I'm giving it to you."

"Sir?! The money!"

"Money isn't a problem. We'll arrange some kind of rent at a fair price once you are done putting a house together."

"Sir, I don't have the money for property beyond what Mabel and Lizzy left me."

"Haven't you been listening? I'm giving the property to you."

"But Sir you're…you're a shepherd."

Mr. Oak suddenly broke into a wide smile and laughed. "And you think that's how I make my money?" he laughed again.

"Sir?"

"The village is mine, Son, always has been. This is more of a hobby to keep me busy when I'm not worrying about rent and tenants." Shock ricocheted through him as he suddenly saw his old friend in new light. He owned the village? It was his property? The tenants were his?! He supposed that could be the reason why no one ever said anything bad about the shepherd. He owned the village…what a wonderful life that must have been!

"Rumpelstiltskin, I want you to listen to me now. I've no children of my own, only a wretched nephew who inherits the land when I die, but you are the closest I've ever had. Take the land. Build yourself a new home like any man would, then start a family. It's the way the world works."

Again, he ignored the last part of his instructions, but not because of bad memories, it was just because he couldn't get past the first part.

"I'm no carpenter, I've no idea how to build a home."

Mr. Oak smiled. "That's what you need me for."

It took two long years and every penny he had. It took saving and starving, sleepless nights, and days that he worked so hard his fingers bled. But Mr. Oak had given him a new dream, a new light in his eyes. The property wasn't large, right on the edge of the village, but it was just enough. Mr. Oak taught him how to lay a foundation, fell logs and make them into boards, he helped him find rocks for the hearth, and chickens for the coop. It was no more than a hovel, but it was home. And two years later he sat in Mr. Oak's stable as he handed him a piece of paper, what he thought was the rent agreement. The old man wheezed as he handed it over to him.

"Just in time. That'll keep my nephew from treating you poorly when he inherits the land." Simply put, it was because his nephew didn't own that land anymore. He did. It was his own property, transferred into his own name. No rent would be due. It was a deed. "You are your own man now, Rumpelstiltskin. Live into it. It was hard to think of another gesture that had touched him as that one had and the first night in his new home, he stared up at the high ceilings with pride. It was one room, but well made. Enough for a couple of spinning wheels, a kitchen, a bed, and a loft. Now all he needed was to put people into it. Suddenly, the idea of a family that he'd so easily scoffed at before didn't seem like such a silly thing. But there were times it seemed like an impossible thing.

He had a home in the village now and was happy, but little else had changed. The villagers still saw him as the son of a coward raised by witches. They were skeptical of him, even when he sat outside darning socks and scarfs and shawls to sell in addition to his yarn. There were a few that would talk to him, but very little made an impression on him in the way one woman had.

He remembered the encounter with Milah as a young girl, he remembered being put off by her questions and freely given opinions, but the moment he'd moved into town she'd shown that she remembered him as well. She was always one of the few to stop by and say hello, she'd even sat in the yard with him as he'd worked to build it some days and carried on a conversation with him as she drew to pass the time. She was older now, probably about as old as he'd been when he met her and he couldn't deny that when he looked at her, he realized why men took wives. She was beautiful. She made him nervous and confident all at once in a way he didn't know was possible. Their conversations were few and brief, but they gave him enough to dream at night and fantasize about what it might be like if she one day lived in these walls and slept in the bed beside him. He liked her. But in moving into town, he was quick to catch up on gossip and realize he wasn't the only one.

"Oh! Rumpelstiltskin! You're out today! Fine weather to be outside, wouldn't you say? This is my friend Rolf, have the two of you met?"

He looked up from his knitting into the face of the dark-haired man before him that he recognized almost instantly. He was bigger than he'd been before, his chest had barreled, and his arms were thicker, but in his face, he could still see the boy he'd once known.

"Aye, we went to school together," he answered continuing his knitting without looking down so he could glare at the man.

"We used to play games together as children," Rolf laughed. "Racing on the ice was the favorite, but I'm sure Rumpelstiltskin here could tell you how that all fell apart, Milah."

He'd said the words with a smile, but he could sense nothing happy in his words. Only a challenge that he was quick to rise to.

"I remember nothing of you in those races. It must have been because you were always too busy watching my back while I was watching the finish line."

Rolf's smile vanished as he returned the silent glare he'd been giving him. Now it was his challenge that hung between them and had the lad grasping and searching his mind for something new to say into the silence. Lucky for him he'd grown up in quiet, he was perfectly comfortable waiting for him to drop the next word.

"Well…we'd best get going, Rolf," Milah finally commented. "Rolf's mother, her birthday is next week, and he's asked me to go to town and help him pick out a gift."

"No one knows women like another woman!" Rolf smiled.

"Funny considering how long you've known your mother," he commented, once again forcing the smile off the man's face. "I'm sorry I wasn't aware of the upcoming celebration," he quickly added, turning back to his basket filled with yarns and needles and one very special project he'd worked to perfection for an opportunity he hadn't seen until now. "You should take this…made from freshly spun wool, only a few days ago."

"Oh!" Milah unfurled the shawl, and he watched her eyes rove over it with something like envy and admiration. "It's beautiful!" she breathed with wide eyes.

Rolf quickly plucked it from her hands, balled it up, and let out a little snort. "My mother has no need of a shawl, and certainly nothing has haphazard as this."

"You must be blind!" Milah screeched grabbing it out of his hands and letting it lose again. "It's beautifully made."

"All the same," he muttered taking it back. "Thanks…but no thanks." Rolf tossed it back to him carelessly. "Let's go Milah," he stormed away, but something deep inside of him roared triumphantly. He'd bested his adversary, and they both knew it. And just for good measure…

"Here…" he handed the shawl back to Milah. "Take it then…for yourself. I can always make more."

He watched as a smile broke over her face, and she accepted the shawl. "Thank you. It truly is lovely!" she exclaimed, wrapping it around her shoulders. "I'd better be going."

But as she walked away he was mesmerized by the way her cheeks turned a deep red, and she pulled the shawl up over her nose to hide it. He watched as her back expanded, taking in a deep breath of whatever scent clung to the yarn and he had just enough time to imagine what it would be like if it wasn't just his shawl that was draped around her shoulders, but his arms as well.

Chapter Text

The Spring that he turned twenty-five, an opportunity presented itself that he hadn't expected. Milah happened to be taking a stroll through the village as he was leaving his house with a basket to go and see Mr. Oak. He'd been noticing that she'd been coming by a lot lately, taking more and more walks that just so happened to pass by his house. And if his observations were correct, it was almost as though she slowed down, and lingered about when she did. It made him feel oddly happy and gave him the courage, on this day, to inform her that he was about to take a walk up into the hills to collect his wool for spinning from Mr. Oak. If she would like to accompany him, he would appreciate the company.

She smiled and nodded as they set off. There was silence at first, a kind of silence that he was unfamiliar with because it was a silence that demanded speech. It wasn't like sitting at home with his Aunts. It was a silence that was uncomfortable without words.

"So you know Mr. Oak?" she finally asked as they began their ascent of the big hill. "I've only ever seen him when he comes to collect the rent from my father."

"He's an old friend," he informed her. "He was something like a father to me, growing up with my aunts."

"Yes…I remember the day you told me about that. I'm sorry if I was harsh as a girl."

He smiled at the memory, feeling suddenly very odd that he was so excited to be walking and talking with the girl that he'd at first thought was an irritating nuisance. She certainly didn't have that same feeling about her now. But then they weren't the same people either.

"You were a child then," he excused. "You couldn't be expected to know any better."

"My father might argue differently. Well…what about your mother?" she asked, reaching down to pick a handful of flowers out of the ground and pick at the petals.

He felt a sense of unease pass over him and forced himself to focus on the fact that she was wearing the shawl he'd given her a few years ago. He'd never had to answer questions about his mother before.

"She's gone too," he stated simply.

"Find the loophole." It was a favorite game of his father's, ways he could tell the truth while telling lies, ways he could tell lies while still telling the truth. That was what he'd just done, perhaps a little too easily. The way he saw it there was nothing but the truth in what he'd said, but it could be interpreted in many different ways and least of which was the truth of it.

"I was raised by the two spinsters, my aunts."

"Yes, the witches who weren't witches, I believe I recall that bit too. Well, hello there!" she called as a smile stretched across her face. Out in the distance Yeller was running toward them at what seemed like an impossible speed. Sometimes it was difficult to believe just how old that dog was. He welcomed the distraction the dog brought as Milah knelt to pet him and rub behind his ears while his tongue lolled lazily. Even better was the moment he saw Mr. Oak striding toward them across the hill, the sheep crowded in the valley below.

What he didn't enjoy was the introduction. True, he had bowed his old body, kissed the back of Milah's hand, and smiled when he introduced him, but he could see the wheels in the man's mind working as he studied her and asked about her father and brothers. Afterward, he turned to him and suggested they go fetch the wool he'd prepared for him, a simple request, but he saw it as an invitation for a private conversation. Milah stayed outside and played with Yeller while they hid away in the barn, and Mr. Oak made himself busy getting his order together.

"Bit old not to be married, don't you think?" he questioned when he'd asked what he thought. He wasn't sure why it was suddenly so important to him that Mr. Oak like Milah as much as he did. But as the only living individual who had known him most of his life, it broke his heart to hear those words.

"She's not yet twenty."

"Girls younger than her are married. They're promised at half her age as well. Why isn't she?"

"Princesses and the wealthy are promised at half her age; everyone in the village is just trying to get by. We're peasants and none of us are much to look at."

Mr. Oak grunted as he filled his basket and then stood up straight to face him. He watched as he slowly took a cloth out of a pocket and mopped his face before looking out the tiny window to see Milah and Yeller then back at him.

"You know anything about her family?"

"Her mother is dead, she has five older brothers, all married, all but one live in the village. She lives at home with her father."

"I live alone on a hill and know that about her just from collecting the rent every month. Do you know anything else? Beyond the obvious?" No. The truth was that he didn't. He knew that she was good friends with Rolf, which made him feel almost irrationally angry every time he thought about it, but he also knew that for whatever reason in the last few years Rolf had not asked for her to marry him and that made him deliriously happy. He knew that she was beautiful and smelled nice and liked to take walks and draw, and she seemed fascinated when he sat outside and knitted. But beyond that, no, he knew very little about her. The things they'd talked about were no more than pleasantries. They weren't what made a person.

"Just be careful with this one, Rumple. She's eager."

He felt himself let out a soft chuckle. He didn't know what was funnier about that statement. The idea that "this one" suggested he had women lining up outside of his house to impress a spinner or the fact that she was eager when he'd just given a perfectly good reason for why she should be eager. She wasn't yet twenty, but in a couple of years she would be and then she'd be seen as an old hag if she didn't marry.

"You just said yourself girls younger than her are married," he pointed out. "Of course she's 'eager'."

"Too eager, but not in a good way," he corrected, though he wasn't entirely sure what he was talking about. "I don't trust a woman that eager. You can do better. It's the ones who aren't eager to marry, the quiet ones that aren't as…flirtatious as she is that you want to turn your affections toward."

He didn't understand what he was talking about. Milah wasn't flirtatious. He'd seen the prostitutes in town when he went to sell his yarn, he knew what flirtatious looked like and spending time idling outside his house wasn't flirtatious…it was cute.

"She's beautiful," he added, for reasons he couldn't fully explain.

"There are others who are just as beautiful, if not more so…they're just not as obvious about it. It's many a beautiful woman who has taken a good man under her spell and caused nothing but rough waters on the sea of life," Mr. Oak commented with finality before opening the door and leaving.

They didn't linger on the hill. Mr. Oak merely waved at Milah, took up his crook and called Yeller away so that the pair of them could head back down into the village. It was the walk up all over again, silence haunted them as they made their first steps, but this time he could ignore the uncomfortableness of it when he focused on the words that Mr. Oak had spoken to him. Was he seeing something he was not?

"May I ask you a question?" he finally asked of her.

She let out a little laugh and smile as she plucked at a flower she'd picked up. "Well, sure."

"Your father, I understand he's a farrier, but what's he like."

Immediately her smile disappeared, and she let out a huff of sorts. "Awful. Strict. Dirty. He was fine raising my brothers, but I don't think he knew how to raise a girl after my mother died. And it doesn't help, I'm sure, that I look so much like her. He's just…a terrible, wicked old fool who will stop at nothing to see that I've no happiness since my mother died and took his away."

That was something worth knowing. He, of course, had heard of the reputation of her father, and heard the screaming that came from their house sometimes, even in the middle of the night, but it was different hearing about it first hand from her.

"So what is it that would make you happy then?"

"To get away!" she exclaimed. "To go somewhere, to be free of him and his dreadful temper and drinking! He can be quite the scoundrel when he's had too much to drink."

He knew what that was like, having a father who drank too much and didn't care for his family as he should. He'd been horribly sad when his father had first left, but most of the time, especially on days like today when he received a reminder, he often felt lucky that his father had left him alone and with his aunts. If he hadn't, he felt sure he might be precisely the same as Milah right now. Desperate to get away. Perhaps that was the eagerness that Mr. Oak had sensed. After all, he'd never seen his old friend with anyone but Old Yeller and some sheep. How much did he really know about woman?

"Can I ask you a question now?" Milah inserted.

He pushed his thoughts away and offered another smile. "I suppose it's only fair."

"Next week the village has their annual May Festival and…well, I've never seen you at one."

"I never had reason to go before I lived in the village," he explained, his heart suddenly beginning to hammer away as it hadn't on this walk before. He was hot and sweaty and cold all at the same time, all so suddenly. What did this mean?

"Well, you've lived here now for years, and I've never seen you go since then."

"I suppose I've never had reason to go even when I lived in the village."

"Oh! You don't know what you are missing. It's wonderful fun: the dancing and the painting...the food is amazing of course, and there are always one or two marriages at the well before the night is over. Rolf and I go every year!"

All it took was the very mention of Rolf to make that odd tingling he'd felt in his body subside. Of course, they went together every year. He didn't know what he had expected or why he felt like he should have expected something else.

"Well, this is where we part," he informed her at the bottom of the hill. "I've got to take the wool to the stream to clean it, and it's very nasty work." There was no loophole to that statement. It was an outright lie. Mr. Oak had already cleaned the wool, always did, but he suddenly felt the urge to be alone and away from her.

"Oh…" but as her face fell and she twisted her hands together, he maintained some kind of hope. Why hadn't Rolf asked her to marry him yet? He had to be thinking the same things that he was!

"Well, the May Festival is in two weeks, and it would be lovely to see you there. And if you came…I'd save a dance for you."

Then, before he could reply or say something, she leaned over and pressed her lips against his cheek, and darted back into town before he could fathom what had just happened.

Chapter Text

This was crazy; undeniably crazy! And maybe even a little stupid. It was so stupid! Probably the stupidest thing he had ever done. It was crazy and stupid and frivolous too...there was no point or benefit in it for him! He could hardly see why he was doing this!

He'd hardly seen Milah since that day two weeks ago when she'd kissed his cheek. She'd stayed away from his home almost completely and left him wondering if she'd done it on purpose. Maybe for this purpose? To drive him crazy, to force him to do what he was about to o.

He didn't have many nice clothes, but what he did have he was wearing now. He'd actually drug water all the way from the well just to make sure he could bathe today and washed his hands at least a dozen times to ensure that the smell of livestock wouldn't be on them. He checked his reflection in the surface of a serving tray he'd inherited from his aunts. He'd never cared what he looked like before, but for some reason, it mattered now.

Outside he could hear music coming from further up the road, toward the center of the village, by the well. Little girls were laughing and shrieking, and he could hear the boys playing games together outside his house, where the festivities weren't so condensed. The May Festival...he could picture the way it looked from looking out his window in years past, but the truth was that he hadn't opened the curtains on his window all day. He felt nervous and maybe even fearful of whatever lay outside that door for reasons he couldn't possibly fathom.

It was just a festival. They had it every year! But every year he ignored it because he didn't want to face the looks and stares of the people in his village and he could always find more work to do while they celebrated. A woman had never asked him to dance before. Not for a festival or for any reason, not that there were many women in his daily life before. The tree he'd refused to climb in Neverland suddenly looked like a sapling, easily scaled next to this expedition. But his thoughts of Milah, the first woman to ever ask him to dance, propelled him forward. The imprint her kiss had left upon his cheek made him check himself one last time, gather his spare coins, and go to the front door. The thought that she might be in his arms, pressed against him as they danced with smiles on their faces, even if it was just for one moment away from Rolf made him take a deep breath and open the door.

The crowd was lively. Though the boys had looked at him with wide eyes when he first stepped out of his home soon enough he'd gone deep into the thick of them that no one seemed to notice who he was or else just didn't care. He was just another face in the crowd, someone enjoying the warm weather before the heat of summer would consume them. Soon, though he had yet to find Milah, he found himself smiling. He was enthralled as he watched the young girls do their perfectly synchronized dancing around the maypole and mesmerized by the band playing. He picked up some vegetables that had been grilled over an open fire from a vendor and then whipped around when he heard whoops and hollers coming from the crowd by the well. There was a young couple there, a girl of no more than sixteen and a man no older than himself. He watched as they held out their hands for each other with grinning smiles and looked into each other's eyes.

"I declare us married!" the girl shouted.

"I declare us married!" the boy agreed. There were more shouts as she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. And that was it. They were married now. He knew that happened during these festivals; young couples were so caught up in the joy of it that they simply joined hands and declared themselves husband and wife. Though it could happen any time during the year, festival nights were traditional. As he watched another couple step up to take their place he wondered if any couples actually waited for holy men to make the proclamation anymore. And he couldn't help but wonder as the boy and girl disappeared into the crowd arms and hands locked on each other what it would be like to be like that, to be so in love that nothing could interrupt. To be kissed like that.

"Rumpelstiltskin!"

He turned toward the sound of his name, and his heart felt as though it skipped a beat when he saw Milah tearing across the courtyard for him before…

Suddenly she turned around, and when she turned back to run at him, he saw that her hand was now tight around Rolf's. Of course. She'd told him herself that they came together every year. But as soon as she and Rolf were close enough, she launched herself unexpectedly into his arms so that he had to put a leg back to catch himself or risk toppling over. He could hardly breathe! She was there, in his arms, almost like that girl had been with her new husband, and he didn't know what to do. It didn't feel like the few times his aunts had hugged him, and he found he wasn't really sure where to put his arms or his hands. Until he took a glance at Rolf and saw that he was rolling his eyes at her, and suddenly he felt an urge to put his hands as tight as he could across her back and waist. She was a lot more slender than either of his aunts had ever been.

"I'm happy you decided to come!" she smiled pulling away to him too soon. "It's so good to see you, isn't it, Rolf!" She paid no heed to the grunt that he gave her in reply. "What made you finally decide to brave the May Festival?"

He felt his heart nearly stop and wondered for a moment if she'd forgotten. What it possible women promised to save dances for men all the time and he just didn't know it? What was he supposed to say?

"You promised me a dance if I came."

The moment the words were out of his mouth he wanted to smack himself over the head like his father used to when he'd said something stupid. He shouldn't have said that. How and why had he said exactly what he was thinking he shouldn't say?! He waited, terrified, for the laughter to begin and wondered just how long it would take him to run back to his home and then maybe escape up into the mountains tomorrow to hide from his humiliation, but Milah's smile never faltered.

"You're right, I did! Rolf, wait here! Come with me! Come on!"

He'd never danced before in all his life. It was never necessary when he was spinning and with his aunts there never seemed to be any social engagements he'd had to learn for. He felt terror as Milah dragged him into the pack with what felt like half the town, but just before they got into the midst of it Milah looked back at him and he sensed that she knew exactly what was going through his mind.

"Have you ever done this before?"

Too nervous for words, he shook his head, and she let out a gentle laugh.

"Come on, this one is easy, I'll teach you." And so he found himself standing across from Milah, in a line with the other men following Milah's mouthed instructions. "Bow. Two steps forward, one step back. Give a little kick. Turn. Hold out your hand. You're doing very well," she whispered in his ear as she crossed in front of him and turned herself so that her dress flared out like a flower along with the other girls. It was easy. Almost as easy as learning the Great Wheel. Once he sensed the pattern and began to feel the beats of the music, he found he no longer had to concentrate on what came first or second, he just did the moves. And he watched Milah laugh. He stared awestruck at how easily the steps came to her and how she laughed and enjoyed herself with every spin until her hair was no longer in order, and her skin was flushed. She was having a good time. And so was he.

Just as he was beginning to wonder why he'd never come to this festival before, never even had an interest in it, he felt himself smile and then slip into a laugh as Milah lost her balance and tripped before getting right back up and continuing. He was hot, his back felt slick with sweat from the exertion, and soon enough his legs began to feel like wobbly boneless things as they were unused to being used in this fashion. But as much as his body tired, he did not. And much to his enjoyment after the first dance ended and everyone turned and clapped for the band, another chord was struck, and Milah smiled.

"This one is easy too, slower," she informed him before they took to it again. Not just one dance but two. It was almost unbelievable. Though he maintained his gaze on Milah most of the time, there was a moment when he had to walk around her, and his eyes naturally scanned the crowd and fell on Rolf. His arms were crossed over his chest as his eyes stayed on the pair of them, though mostly Milah. His face was nearly as red as some of the men who had been dancing, but he hadn't moved a toe.

"Rolf looks as though he's about to burst a vein," he dared to comment as soon as he and Milah were face to face again.

"He's just angry with me," she dismissed.

"For what?"

Milah laughed. "Well for one I'm dancing with you instead of him!" she pointed out before spinning around once more.

Yes. Yes, she was, and it was almost enough to make him feel as though they were back out on flying across the ice, Rolf to his back with no chance of catching up. But it was the "for one" that kept him from completely dismissing it. If there was one, then there was another.

"And the other reason?" he questioned.

"Oh that…" Milah kept dancing, she kept the smile on her face, but he noticed how it didn't have the same light it had a moment ago. How could she look so upset and happy at the same time? "He wants me to marry him tonight. In front of the well like anyone else."

"And you don't want that?" His breath was beginning to feel short and he missed a step. All around him there were men dancing and talking to their partners. How did they do it so well? How did they talk and remember the steps?

"It's not that I don't want to, his parents just think my bride price is too low so they won't agree with it. Tonight would be the one night when it wouldn't matter but I just…I prefer to keep my options open!" she broke into a bright beam again as they clasped hands and walked two steps forward before turning and doing it again. She wouldn't notice how sweaty his palms were would she?

"Wouldn't his parents be angry if you married tonight."

"Indeed they would," she answered looking up at him. "But there would also be nothing they could do about it, with us married they'd have to accept the bride price as it stands. Rolf knows that as well as I do, I just don't think it's a good idea to start a marriage with your in-laws angry with you."

"Certainly not," he agreed. The music stopped, and all turned once more to clap for the band, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Rolf had had enough. He was making his way across the dance floor toward Milah now. Their time was limited.

"And it's a bad thing, that they think you are worth more than what your father would pay."

Milah looked him over then laughed as the applause died down. "I think it's more that they don't think it's worth me," she commented as Rolf appeared over her shoulder and grabbed her elbow. "Thanks for the dance Rumpelstiltskin. We'll do it again next year!" she leaned close to him once more and brazenly kissed his cheek as Rolf rolled his eyes and tugged at her elbow jerking her away so hard she tripped over her feet. But she managed to catch herself and wave before they disappeared into the sea of people around him.

Without his dance partner, and without hope that anyone would want to dance with him or teach him how, he moved away from the space designated for it and began to wander. It hadn't taken long to see and do it all at the May Festival. He imagined that half the fun was just being in the company of friends and family. Without that, he was unable to really enjoy it and found himself contemplating going home. What was the point without someone else there to share it all with? And yet he didn't go home. He found himself standing at the well, watching the bucket that hung from the rope sway in the light breeze as couple after couple stepped up to it.

"I declare us married!"

"I declare us married!"

He would never have thought there were so many people in the village that could be married like this and yet the swarm seemed almost endless. Sometimes there were breaks, a few minutes here and there. But for the most part, it seemed like it was one after the other. Reactions varied. The crowd was always happy and excited, cheering the couple on, but he did note that on occasion there would be someone in the crowd who looked as though their world had just come crashing down. Young men and women mourned the loss of the potential marriage. Older men and women, parents he assumed, cried. Sometimes they shed tears of joy, but more often he saw tears of anger. It was especially undoubtable when a father had grabbed one young man and began beating him mercilessly immediately after it was done. He stopped only when the crowd pulled him off. He watched in amazement, rooted to the spot, unable to move or go home. The first time his stomach flipped over because he saw a woman with black hair and a man with blonde hair he finally understood exactly why he wasn't moving. He was waiting, praying that Milah and Rolf wouldn't be one of the couples that he saw, hoping that as the light faded he wouldn't convince her to come back and marry him.

So what if he did? Why did he care so much if she married Rolf or not? He'd always known that they were courting, he'd thought it himself weeks ago, that it was strange they weren't married yet! Of course, he didn't know about the issue with the brideprice…that didn't make sense to him. What did it mean that she wasn't worth the brideprice? It seemed to be a ridiculous argument. Did they want more for Milah or less? What person in their right mind would want less money? She wasn't worth the price…Mr. Oak's words about trouble came back to him as the evening tapered off. Trouble. Was that it? They thought that Milah would be too much trouble for such a low cost? How could they possibly know that?

"Milah!" the thoughts flew from his mind as he heard someone shout her name at the top of their lungs. It wasn't Rolf, and it wasn't a name shouted in joy. There was rage in his voice. Milah's father. He looked wildly around along with the rest of the crowd who had heard it, trying to figure out what was going to happen when he saw something. There was a mass of black hair, darker than a raven working its way through the crowd, under someone's arm. The moment she was through she picked up her face and he could see it was Milah! Her chest was heaving, her mouth open as if she was gasping for breath, running away. There was a red mark across her cheek and tears in her eyes.

"Milah!"

As soon as the name, suddenly sounding closer, echoed through the crowd he saw her eyes begin to widen and dart, examining faces in the crowd, a look of terror on her own face.

"Milah!"

Her eyes fell on him, they locked for a moment or so, and he wondered why he couldn't move his legs forward to move! She needed help! He had to help her. Another shout and she looked back and forth once more before shaking her head and striding forward.

"Rumpelstiltskin!" she called running over to him. She pulled on his hands until he emerged in front of the crowd, and she looked desperately into his eyes. "Rumpelstiltskin, take my hands!"

"Milah! Get back here, you little bitch!"

She glanced over her shoulder at the voice but then turned back to him and forced her hands into his own. "Take my hands!" she screamed, squeezing tight and forcing him to squeeze just as tight!

"I declare us married! Now you. Say it! Say the words!"

"Milah!"

"Rumpelstiltskin say the words!" she cried so loudly it was practically a shout.

He didn't think. His heart was hammering, and it made it hard to think about what exactly was happening. It was all too fast!

"I declare us married…"

The second the words were out of his mouth he heard the familiar cheers from the crowd and Milah threw her arms around his neck and pressed her lips hard to his own.

Chapter Text

His mind was reeling. It was only just working on catching up on exactly what had happened. Milah was kissing him. The crowd around them was cheering and shouting just as they had with every couple. Mr. Oak was going to be furious. Milah's father was screaming for her in the distance, still unaware of what had happened. His aunts, what would his aunts think?

They were married.

Thirty seconds ago he'd been single with no prospects.

Now he was wed!

Milah pulled away from him before he'd even had time to realize that it was his first real kiss and looked up at him with eyes that were still wide but mixed a dozen other emotions at least. Fear was still there, but he also saw sympathy and sadness as well as an odd look of relief and pain behind them. It was then that her gaze left him and looked just over his shoulder. He turned to follow it and saw Rolf, a look of shock and disgust upon his own face.

"I'm sorry."

He looked down at Milah. She was shaking. He didn't realize he'd wrapped his arms around her until she started shaking. "I'm sorry," she breathed. This time she was looking at him, but the first time around…who was she talking to?

A wail from the crowd made Milah turn, and they were confronted with the angry red face of her father. He reeked of alcohol just as his own father once had, but the funny thing about that was it made him so slow that he could watch on the man's face as he was caught off guard by the scene before him. Milah, standing with a man in front of the well. The crowd cheering. The lanterns and festive music indicating what day it was. A promise that had been made…

"Little whore!" he shouted before taking uneven strides toward them.

"Father no!" Milah shouted. In his drunkenness, it was easy for her to shove him away. "We're married now! In front of witnesses on May's Day! I don't belong to you or under your roof anymore!"

When he'd first seen her father barreling toward him he would never have thought that words would be enough. He'd been waiting, fearing the beating like he'd seen the boy take for what they'd done, and yet to his surprise, it had worked. He looked from Milah to him, then back to Milah again, the red disappeared from his face with every passing second, and he watched as his frame sagged beneath the weight of his body and the exhaustion brought about by alcohol. He was lucky, he had the very distinct feeling that if he hadn't been drinking, it probably would never have worked the way it did. As it was, the man simply looked him over, then began to laugh and the spit on the ground at his feet.

"Poor, unfortunate soul," he muttered before turning and walking away.

Milah was breathing hard, she ran her fingers through her hair and whispered something over and over again. It sounded like "oh my gods".

He didn't know what to do. She was stressed, obviously, and he wanted very much to put a hand on her shoulder or her arm like he would have done with his aunts, but that would mean touching her! He wasn't sure how to touch a woman. But this wasn't just a woman, it was his wife. He felt like he was going to be sick.

But there wasn't time. It didn't seem they ever would allow him time to simply sit there and digest, to recalibrate his thoughts and what had happened, for almost as soon as her father had disappeared, he felt hands pushing them aside as another young couple took center stage. Then he felt Milah. Her touch on his arm was more prominent than the others, leaving behind a warm handprint as she tugged him in the other direction saying simply "let's go. Come with me."

He didn't take in where she was leading him, didn't register the noises or the smells and sights around him. In the back of his mind, he was aware the festival was still going strong, but to him, it had ended. It was over. And somehow he found himself back in the safety of his little house, embers from the fire still burning, dark from lack of light, and a woman with her back pressed against the door behind him, as if her body alone might be enough to seal out the world.

Now what?

There was quiet in the house, perfect quiet where the only sounds were the two of them breathing as they looked at the space between one another. Milah looked…well, to be honest, he didn't know how she looked. With the sun down it was getting to be practically black inside, and it hid her face in shadow. What he could see didn't match what he was feeling. He was feeling scared, and numb, irrational disbelief for what he'd seen and done. How had he gone to a festival for a dance and come home with a wife?!

"I'll…I need to kindle the fire," he managed to finally choke out.

He concentrated on working the kindling into a blaze that would warm the house through the cool night, it was something easy he could do. Simplicity was comforting, even if his hands were still shaking and his heart was racing. He didn't know what to do with the future that presented itself to him, but he knew what to do with the house around him. Start a fire, take a seat, getting ready for bed…

He felt his heart stop as he nearly fell into the fireplace at the thought; bed...with Milah…

He glanced over at her again, still leaning against the door, but now he could see her. With the firelight, he could see that she'd finally opened her eyes and in them, he saw the same fear and shock he had, but also, in hers alone, there was utter relief. It gave him pause and quieted his own thoughts as he instead tried to imagine what it must be for her. Alone, with nothing but a spinner in his house, married on a whim, what must her life have been like that this was the least threatening of her...what had she called it as they'd danced? Options.

"Would you…would you like to sit down?" he asked, motioning to the table. That was stupid. The table was right next to the bed, he was better off taking chairs into the room he kept his spinning wheels. Would she mind the smell of the wool? Of him?

"I think I would," she finally answered. Her footsteps were uneven and light, almost matching her father's drunken steps, but he knew she was sober. He'd been close enough to her that he would have smelled it if it was drunk to excess. He would have tasted it when he kissed her; when she kissed him. His first kiss. And now he was married. Being in the quiet was certainly helping him to digest that, but it still seemed remarkable and impossible. What would his aunts think? What was Mr. Oak going to think?

Milah collapsed into the little bench with such a weight that he swore her legs might not have been able to hold her up much longer. Frankly, he was surprised that their legs had held them up this long. He'd been in shock and Milah…

"Did you mean to do that?" he asked quietly as they sat at the table. In the silence he was finally going over the events that had brought them here and the way she'd searched and scanned the crowd frantically kept replaying over and over again. Rolf behind him after it was done suddenly seemed suspicious. Had she gone there to get married to him? Was he just the first person she'd seen? Or had she actually wanted to marry him? "Did you want it to be me?"

"I…I was just looking for a friendly face in the crowd, someone who would have mercy," she admitted, her voice cracking with emotion. "You were the first friendly face I saw, and I knew…I knew you'd understand."

Understand? Understand that she'd been in trouble? Yes, that much had been clear, but had this really been the only way?

Probably.

He would have liked to think he'd have stood up to her father, said something heroic and brave that would have rallied the villagers to chase her father away, but when the time came what he'd actually done was just stand there. Not moving. Not making a sound. Not even having a thought of stepping forward to protect the woman he'd just married. She had been the one to chase away her father. He'd done nothing.

"I'm sorry if I-"

"It's fine," he interrupted before she could apologize, for what he didn't know. He was the one who owed her an apology for his lack of action against her father and as for the marrying bit…she'd probably done him a favor. Now that he had time to think it through, time to digest that he was a married man and couldn't court any other girls, he felt no sadness. He'd never really courted any to begin with, not even Milah. It wasn't as though he had broken someone's heart.

"I'm a spinner," he concluded. "It isn't as though I have many prospects."

"Well that's a shame, because you deserve them!" Milah blurted out with anger before looking up at him and letting her face soften. "But I suppose it's a good thing for me you don't."

A good thing for her…because she was his wife…and he was…

His thoughts seemed to be a never-ending stream of random thoughts strung together, but one word suddenly echoed inside of his mind far more than they had. Husband. She was his wife, and he was her husband. Married. Wife. Husband. Words that once seemed sensible and ordinary now felt like they carried enough weight to crush him. He was a husband. To Milah! To this woman who was beautiful and radiant…and scared. Maybe not as much as he was at the moment, but there was certainly fear involved for both of them, he only had to look at her to know that.

But there shouldn't be. She was away from her father now, here safe in his home and…why was this such a bad idea? He was a spinner of wool, poor but not broke. As far as he could tell he was the only one of the villagers that actually owned the land and house he was living in and didn't rent from Mr. Oak. And while this was overwhelming, it wasn't wrong. Mr. Oak had said himself that men grew up, they made homes, the married wives, they had children. This was unexpected, but why did it have to be bad for either of them. They could turn unexpected into good. They only had to try.

"I think we can make this work," he muttered without giving the words permission to be spoken. She looked nearly as surprised to hear them as he felt to say them, but it wasn't a lie. The more and more he searched his heart the more he came to the same conclusion. There was no reason they couldn't make this work, therefore it must be that they could make it work. "It isn't exactly as I imagined it, but I think it could be good…for us," he remembered to add. He wasn't a single person anymore, he had to remember that. "I earn a decent wage making thread and yarn. I'm not a rich man, but I get by."

"'Imagined it'…" Milah breathed looking over at him, the corners of her mouth were turned up as if she looked hopefully at his words. "You've thought of this before? Are you…is that just the firelight or are you blushing?!"

They both began to laugh.

He was blushing. In truth, he really wouldn't say that he'd thought of this before, at least not this situation before. But he had thought about her, and he had thought about marriage and felt a beast made of jealousy tear at his chest when he'd thought of Rolf marrying her or better yet felt himself swell with hope when he had known that she hadn't. The fact that if he'd been only a minute or so earlier she might be alone with Rolf and married to him right now…he certainly felt something about that.

Without warning, Milah stood from the bench on the opposite side of the table and came to sit by his side. The smile that she was wearing now, the same one she'd worn as they'd danced together made him feel much more comfortable than he'd felt when they'd first arrived.

"Yes…I think we can make this work, maybe, if we both try? We can both be happy can't we?!" she asked, though he wasn't sure if he should respond to something like that or not. He watched as she looked around, up and down the house she'd watched him build but never been inside, examining the nook and crannies of his house…their home? "I can clean this place up a bit and feed you, so you don't look like a twig!" she joke with a small laugh.

He nodded and looked around with her just for something to look at. He tried to see it through her eyes, new eyes. It wasn't too bad, but he supposed it could use a bit of attention hear and there. "I can make some repairs. Make it a bit more livable for two people instead of one."

"Why not more?" she asked. When he looked over to meet his eyes he saw that it was her own cheeks that were turning red now and looked down, at the bit of the wooden bench that separated them from one another. "Haven't you ever wanted children?"

Children. Marriage and children all in one day? That was asking a lot of him to consider and yet…when he truly thought about it there was no thinking that needed to be done. It was odd, whenever Mr. Oak had told him his predictions, told him to get married and have a family, he'd always questioned marriage. He'd never thought to question the part about children.

"All my life I've wanted not to be my father," he muttered into the silence. The best way he could not be his father was to actually be a father. "One, two, a dozen…I want children."

"Good," Milah smiled. "So do I. Though maybe we'll just start with one."

Perhaps it was because their subject matter had suddenly changed, or perhaps it was just by chance, but it was then that the bed came into view and he knew, with little thought as to how, that Milah was thinking the same thing he was.

He wasn't entirely sure what he was supposed to do. He was an adult, he'd been a teenager and had talks with Mr. Oak about men and needs and what his body was capable of. He knew what was expected on wedding nights, even if it was a sudden Festival wedding, but he knew very little about the way it was between a man and a woman. He'd seen animals, sheep and horses, but this was different. Animals were mindless, they couldn't help their urges the way he could or see to their own needs, as Mr. Oak had told him to do. They didn't have thoughts the way people did. And at the moment he had no idea what Milah was thinking, or what she was feeling about…that.

"Have you ever…had you ever kissed a woman? Before today, I mean?" Milah asked him, her voice was higher than normal, and shaky as if she was nervous. He could understand why easily. He was nervous with just that question. Part of himself wanted to put her at ease and tell her that he had so she need not worry and another part of himself wanted to say "yes" just because he had the feeling that was what Rolf would say. But he knew it would be a lie, one that would be easy to detect if she had kissed Rolf on far more than the cheek as she had him.

"I have not," he answered honestly, careful to look in her eyes even though he felt the fire of embarrassment nip at his heels. "Had not, until..." they'd been married. It was like torture to admit it. "Have you? Ever kissed a man, I mean?"

Milah swallowed and then nodded. "Yes. A few times, with…"

Rolf.

She didn't need to finish the statement to know, and he wasn't about to pretend like he was stupid and had no idea that they'd been courting before today…until today. Still, he could sense her unease and it made him just as uncomfortable, especially when he looked at that bed. It was comfortable for him, but he wasn't so sure it would be the same for two people, not if they slept shoulder to shoulder, not unless they were close. He felt himself stir beneath his clothes at just the thought.

"We don't have to complicate things," he said quickly, hoping the words would be enough to set him right. It was almost as bad as when he was a teenager.

"We barely know each other, and we just married in front of half the village. I'd say things are plenty complicated as they are."

"Yes, but-"

"It's fine, you know," she interrupted. "I've had talks with my friends and I know how it's done and what to expect."

Well then that certainly put her leagues ahead of him as far as he was concerned. And it was a concern to him. A very deep one that made him jealous of Rolf all over again and suddenly angry with his father for reasons he couldn't quite articulate.

"I know very little I'm afraid," he admitted with a small snort that had nothing to do with humor.

"I think…I think it's better if we just…do it!" Milah declared. Rising from the bench she immediately began fiddling with the laces on her bodice. His heart began to race, and his mouth dropped open as he watched her work to undress. Was this a dream or a nightmare? Was it real? Tomorrow, was he going to wake up and find that the May Festival was still a week away. That was the only explanation for the woman he thought about far too often not only being within his grasp but also undressing with almost no shame before his eyes. What was he supposed to be doing? Was he supposed to undress too? If he did that she'd see all of him! And she thought he was a twig with his clothes on?!

"Unless you don't want to," Milah suggest suddenly. She was looking down at him and had already shed her bodice and was working on the knots for her skirts when she paused. "Unless I was wrong, and you don't understand. Or you don't like me in…in that way, you don't think I'm pretty or-"

"I think you are the most beautiful woman I've ever seen!" he corrected. He was so shocked and outraged that she could think such a thing that he rose up and out of his seat so that they were at least face to face.

Her eyes brightened and she let out a sigh. "You think so?" she smiled, a blush growing on her cheeks. If he could see himself, he would probably find a blush on his own face. Had he really been that forward? Could he be again?

"You are the most beautiful woman I've ever seen," he admitted.

There was a silence that stretched between them again, a moment when they just stared at one another listening to the sound of breath going in and out of their bodies. When Milah stepped forward he felt frozen, unable to say or do what he wanted to do, unable to decide what he wanted to do. Her hands were on his chest, moving up and over his shoulders with a touch that felt nothing like what he'd ever felt from his aunts before. It was more than gentle, and the slowness of it made it tantalizing in a way. That was a feeling that he'd never had before and he dared to reach out and place his own hands at her hips. There was a curve there. Of course, he'd always known that a woman's body curved but he'd never felt it before, not like this. This was-

A heartbeat later he forgot what he was thinking about, he forgot that he didn't know anything and found that his eyes closed for him as his lips puckered as Milah kissed him on the mouth, softer, with less of the haste she'd kissed him when she'd married him. Her mouth lingered against her, and when she made a move to stop the kiss, he was shocked that it wasn't the end, she merely shifted her position and kissed him again.

"Is this okay?" she asked a few moments later.

"It's wonderful," he breathed against her skin before they kissed once again. His heart was still hammering, but the closer she was the easier it was becoming. Maybe she'd been right. Maybe they should just get it over with and go from there.

When they stopped kissing a few moments later, Milah picked up where she'd left off and began to pull the knots on her skirt free. He wasn't sure what to do exactly, but he began to take the vest off of his shoulders and then-

"Do you mind if I keep my…" she made a motion to the shift that she wore, and he shook his head quickly. Had she expected him to mind? Was he supposed to mind? He expected that if she took it off and he saw all of her he might not make it until the end.

As it was he nearly felt relief as he prayed it meant she might extend him the same favor.

His eyes met Milah's and she looked down over him and swallowed before sitting down on the mattress, already flipped to hay for the summer months ahead. "It's okay," she stated, her voice wavering as if she was not okay. "I know, I understand how it…how it works."

Understanding how it worked didn't make it any easier, or make him feel any more comfortable as she lay down and stared at the ceiling above as he untied the laces on his pants and turned around to remove them just to make sure his shirt covered him. It did, but barely. And beyond checking that he wasn't really sure what to do next. Milah was waiting on the bed, she was just laying there, looking at the ceiling, her feet pointed, toes curled together, with her hands clutched close to her heart so that her arms covered the outline of her breasts. He didn't know what he'd thought his first time would be like, he'd truly never thought of it, but this didn't feel like it was right.

"Are you sure-"

"Let's just do this," she insisted harshly before swallowing again as if trying to tame her own nerves. "It'll be better after it's done…"

There was war in his mind. Should he? She didn't seem entirely convinced it was a good idea and he wasn't convinced either…but he still wanted to. He couldn't deny he wanted to if he tried. And whether she thought it was a good idea she was insistent. Rolf probably wouldn't think twice about what to do. But she was his wife now, he should just do it and get it over with as she'd suggested. She was the one who knew what to do, maybe she knew something he didn't, and it would be better after.

She remained still as he climbed on the bed, all fours, straddling her so they didn't hardly touch. He was "a twig" as she'd called him but he was afraid he'd crush her. It was awkward. He'd never been this naked around anyone else before, and when she looked at him there was nothing but fear in her eyes that he imagined he probably reciprocated.

"You should…you should probably kiss me now."

"Are you sure-"

"Just kiss me!" she insisted. He did as he was told and kissed her. For a few moments, it was just that, him hovering over her on hands and knees, as they kissed. Finally, there was a different motion, something new. A couple of carefully timed glances so she wouldn't see, and he saw her lifting the hem of her shift up over her knees and legs. She didn't take it off, just moved it a bit so he'd have…access.

It wasn't just awkward, it was uncomfortable. There were too many things to feel all at once. He was excited, and nervous, and wanting, and sick all at one time. She was scared, but he maintained hope that when it was finally done it would feel better and they'd both grow comfortable as they had with the kissing.

But they didn't. He slid into her for the first time. It was difficult. Animals made it look so easy and simple, but the angles didn't feel right, and he was certain he was simply poking her awkwardly before something he couldn't identify happened, and he knew they finally had it right. It felt good. Better than he'd ever imagined it might have felt. She was right, with the right amount of practice and getting used to it, he could see the allure in this, he could see growing to crave it and enjoy it and lose himself in-

Milah cried out. But it wasn't any kind of cry that sounded good or like she was enjoying herself the same way he was.

"Are you okay?!" Pain. He knew pain when he saw it! She was hurt?! He'd done something wrong!

"It's okay!" she managed to get out through a clenched jaw. "It's okay, I knew it would happen."

Knew it would happen? It was supposed to hurt?

"We…we can stop! I can-"

"No, just…just keep going! Finish it!" she insisted, her chest heaving up and down. How was he supposed to "finish it" when she looked like that? When it was hurting her? His desire faded almost instantly. He was certain he wouldn't get it back, and at the moment he had no interest in getting it back. He'd had a brief glimpse that this might be different in the future, but for now it was too much.

"It's done," he lied, moving off of her and to the other side. "It's finished." He held his breath as he watched her quickly move the hem of her shift back down over her knees and he adjusted his own shirt. He hadn't "finished", but would she know that? She'd been warned and told about so many things but obviously never experienced it for herself. Would she know he'd lied?

She seemed to ease as they lay there in the quiet, the fire more than enough to keep them warm, though he was beginning to wonder if she wouldn't want a blanket, something more to cover herself with. But he couldn't bear to get up, he couldn't stomach the thought of doing one more thing that might startle or hurt her, even if he knew logically it couldn't.

"Are you alright?" he finally asked, it took nearly all his courage. All he truly wanted to do was put on his clothes and go up to Mr. Oak to ask questions he'd never asked before. But he expected that would be highly inappropriate on his wedding night.

"I expected it…but I never knew it would be so…" Whatever word that she'd been looking for, the word that he wanted desperately to know, never came. She just remained still, staring up at the ceiling above them, just as she had since she laid down. She wouldn't look at him, and her eyes seemed wet. That was from the pain, wasn't it? What was it that she hadn't expected?!

"We'll get better at it," he suggested. "It'll probably just take time."

Milah gave the smallest nod, so that he wasn't entirely sure it wasn't just the way the fire flickered over her face. "It'll probably just take time."

"Yes, all the best things take time," he agreed.

"Perhaps…perhaps we should go to sleep now."

She didn't wait for him to agree or disagree. She just turned over onto her side so that her back faced him. That was how he learned that they both could fit in the bed, they just couldn't lay shoulder to shoulder. He wanted to touch her, to put a hand on her back or maybe put his arm around her waist, offer some kind of comfort. But he didn't know what to do. No one had ever taught him how to be with a wife, and instead, he chose to close his eyes and keep his hands to himself. The house was quiet, their eyes were closed, but he felt certain that neither of them would be getting much sleep that night.

Chapter Text

The first of their years, much like their first nights together, were rough. Marriage, as it turned out, was not as easy as it had looked, glimpsing it from the outside, and neither of them had been prepared for it. There was a lot to learn, everything from how to sleep together to adjusting to living in the same house had to be discussed, fought over, and then discussed again before conclusions came about. Even then, those conclusions were not always conclusions he was happy with. For the longest time, it seemed like either one of them won or one of them lost. It was nearly a year until they began to learn how to compromise, to each win a little and lose a little and soon after that things began to improve. He began to enjoy having someone else in the house when he spun, someone to keep the house clean and cook for him nearly as well as his aunts used to do. They began to grow comfortable with one another and soon, after several afternoons of sound advice from Mr. Oak, he eventually learned to fumble through sex, making it less awkward. She was good for putting life into the house, a small hum as she swept the floor while he spun was a nice addition, and she had a remarkable talent for drawing that was put to good use. She drew pictures of places she pictured far away to hang on their walls. He'd built a good and sturdy house, one to be proud of, but she made it warm, and cozy.

It was the feminine touch, Mr. Oak told him one afternoon as they spoke. It was a talent that women had that men did not, and that was why the different sexes needed each other so much. No, his old friend had not been pleased when he'd found out what had happened and who he'd married, but he'd listened as he told the story and in the end, he wasn't angry. In fact, when he concluded Mr. Oak told him that he was proud of him, he'd been a man and stepped up to save a woman from distress, even if she refused to tell him exactly what the distress had been that day.

It was fine. He figured that there were bound to always be secrets in their marriage. Despite the rumors of Peter Pan and the Black Fairy, he never told her who they were. He let her believe what she assumed and what he'd told her. His mother was dead. His father was a scoundrel who had run off and left him behind with the spinners. They had raised him. They were his parents. Which was why he tended to their graves when he could, and did his best to keep their property up, though no one lived there, and he couldn't understand why it mattered so much to him to do it.

Milah told him little about her past and communicated even less with her father and brothers. She seemed different living with him. Though he didn't have much to compare it to before they'd married, he could see a change in her smiles and the way she carried herself. They never saw a penny from her father, though she continued to reiterate that he did owe her bride price to him. He stated, time and time again, that he did not care about the money and it wasn't important, she seemed less sure, droning on and on about what it could get for them and the wool it could buy or the silver or furniture. He only shook his head, watched as her brothers were awarded gift after gift, and they continued to get by. He always insisted they would be fine and promised to spin until he could buy her what she pleased.

Still, it wasn't always easy with her family. The little interaction he'd had with them left him with the opinion that they were extremely unpleasant individuals. One afternoon about a year after they were married, on the hike down from Mr. Oak's fields, one of Milah's brothers, he didn't even know his name, though he knew he was one of the two oldest, approached him on his horse.

"Rumpelstiltskin!" he called halting the horse. "My father has died, drank himself to death in the middle of the night. You should let my sister know before she finds out from the villagers!" That was all he said, all he left him with, before he kicked at the horse's belly and the two of them galloped away again. He agreed with the man, of course, no matter their relationship he believed that she should hear of her father's passing from him and not from the gossip of villagers. But it was a stupid thing to suggest while he'd been away collecting wool. It took him another hour to get down the mountain, a trip he was certain his brother could have made on horseback in half that time, and by the time he arrived it was already too late. The town was buzzing.

He found Milah sitting in a chair by the fire, the shawl he'd given her was wrapped tight around her, and she was staring at the flames without actually seeing them. It was so different from the way that he usually found her he knew immediately what had happened.

"You heard?" he questioned softly.

"Rolf told me when I went to draw water from the well," she answered quietly. "He thought I should hear it from a friendly face instead of a stranger."

He had to bite his tongue. He would have expected that when they married Rolf would disappear from her life completely and yet he'd found the opposite. But now wasn't the time to worry about Rolf.

"Are you alright?" he asked.

She was quiet for a long time, leaving him listening to the crackle of the fireplace before she finally spoke again. When it did, it wasn't an answer.

"Did he suffer?"

He shook his head out of confusion. Not just because he hadn't expected the question, but because he didn't know the answer. He knew only the words her brother had given him on the mountain. The idea of pain was never brought up.

"I'm not sure," he answered honestly.

Milah nodded, then rose from her seat and grabbed an empty wicker basket from the corner of the kitchen. "I suppose I can only hope then," she breathed before walking out the door, leaving him with a question he wasn't brave enough to ask. Was she hoping he hadn't? Or that he had?

It was the start of a rough year for them. While their first had been one of learning and experimentation what followed was two years of near-constant hardship. Mr. Oak died in his sleep only a few months after Milah's father. The doctor who examined him swore that it was peaceful, he'd been in his field, surrounded by his sheep, with his dog at his feet. He volunteered to take Yeller, but only a week later the dog died too. A broken heart, he concluded it was just as his Aunt Lizzie had died so soon after Aunt Mabel. Living in the village without fields to run out in or a partner to walk beside had been too much for the dog to bear. He buried him beside his master on the mountain.

As for the sheep and his wool, the village soon found themselves in the presence of the man Mr. Oak had once given him property to avoid: his nephew. A fine man from a rich family who lived further inland, how he was related to Mr. Oak in any way was a terrible mystery to him. They couldn't be more different if they tried. The man moved into a room in town only a few months after the passing and began to make changes almost immediately. The villagers grumbled when their rents went up ("My uncle was letting you live here for practically nothing! You're some of the riches peasants I've ever seen!"). He was protected from such things, as planned by Mr. Oak, but he wasn't protected to other things. The "rich city boy" as the villagers began to call him, had no interest in spending his day in the field herding sheep or shearing wool. He passed the job off to another young lad, who was inexperienced and fearful of the man. He raised the price of the wool he sold to him. Not enough to break them, but certainly enough that they felt the difference.

"It could be worse," he told Milah one night when they sat down to dinner. "Our property is at least our own. Other than the wool we keep what we make, much of the extra income the others have is going into their rent.

"It could be worse," she agreed. "We owe that man. He took care of us."

It must have been because it was so recent, because he had just died or hadn't truly approved of Milah, but he very much so wanted to disagree with her final statement. Mr. Oak hadn't taken care of them, he'd taken care of him. Why that was important to him or why it made a difference was a mystery he couldn't quite solve. All he knew was that in the months that followed, as things got worse for the villagers, they barely felt the transition. He had hoped that it might be it, the end of their trials, fresh starts for both himself and Milah. But there was another change, one he had expected would hit hard and yet hoped it wouldn't, that finally arrived for them, though he knew that this time it was probably Milah who was disagree with the use of that plural pronoun. It wasn't hitting him hard, only her. Yet her actions following it made it feel as though a poker had been rammed through his heart.

"He's getting married!" she cried when he delivered the news one afternoon. She'd collapsed onto the little bench and stared dead ahead, her voice held more emotion than it had when her father had died.

"Yes," he announced. "Next month."

"To who?!"

"Margery."

"The potato farmers daughter?! But she's at least ten years younger than him!"

"No younger than you were when we wed."

"Yes, but Rolf barely knows her! Does he truly think he's going to be happy with her?!"

She was in distress, he understood that, but he wished that she would understand how her own words, the very tone with which they were delivered hurt him. He was a spinner but he wasn't a fool. He knew that Milah had something of a relationship with Rolf before they'd married. He knew that if Rolf had been there the day they married she probably would have chosen Rolf over him. He knew that they had some kind of relationship that continued after they'd wed though he'd always hoped it would stop, but it hadn't. He'd no idea the capacity of that relationship, though her reaction now made it clear to him what she at least wished the relationship looked like. She wouldn't be so surprised if it actually existed in the way he feared it did sometimes.

They had been married nearly three years on the day that Rolf wed, and when she disappeared and came home from the tavern with alcohol on her breath, stumbling so aimlessly he'd had to put her to bed himself, he realized that though he was happy she might not be. But what was there to do? They could live apart, but that seemed so rash, all things considered. He didn't feel this way all the time, and she didn't act this way all the time. Was it worth throwing their marriage away over something small like this?

"Did he really mean that much to you?" he finally asked one night.

"What?"

It had been months since Rolf's marriage, and yet for the last few weeks, she'd been tiptoeing around the house. Her humming had stopped, and she seemed to be almost in constant thought. When would she ever get over this marriage? When would she ever wake up and see that he was only doing what she'd done? Surely she hadn't expected him to go on forever, pining over Milah's marriage to him?

"You used to hum," he commented. "You haven't since the day that Rolf married. These last few weeks you've been-"

"Distracted, I know that but…it's not Rolf! Rolf is…Rolf is nothing! A teenage infatuation!"

"Then what is it? Why the sudden change? Are you unhappy here?"

"No!" she blurted out. "No! I've just…I've had a lot on my mind is all."

"What? I've always said you could tell me anything and yet you never seem to."

"This is…this is different. I've wanted to tell you. I've wanted to tell you for a long time I just haven't been able to find the words…"

It was sounding worse and worse the more she said. What did she want to tell him? For how long? And what was this about finding words? How hard could it be to speak to him when they spoke every day.

"Just say what you need to say," he insisted. "Speak your peace so that this can be done."

"That's just the thing, it won't be done for some time," she choked out. He only shook his head in utter confusion. What was she talking about? Before he could ask she rose up and out of her seat across the table. She moved over to his side, and moved her skirts aside so she could sit with him. She reached across the void between them and took his hand in her own.

"I've wanted to tell you for a while now, but I also wanted to be sure before I did. And even after I was sure the words just never came or the moment never seemed right," she explained. There was something in her eyes, something that he hadn't seen before and couldn't identify. It was a spark of some kind. Something more than excitement and life.

"What is it?" he pressed, tightening his grip on her hand.

She looked up into his eyes and smiled. She was crying. "I'm pregnant."

His world seemed to flip upside-down. He'd been expecting and preparing himself for bad news. He hadn't expected "pregnant" and almost instantly he felt his heart flutter. It was an odd feeling, something that took him a moment to digest. Pregnant meant baby. Baby meant son. Son meant father.

Father.

He…he was going to be a father!

"Oh that's wonderful news!" he exclaimed, suddenly aware that there were tears in his own eyes as he reached for Milah! He didn't know how else to react other that to hold her and kiss her! Anything to thank her for the precious gift that would be their own soon enough. This was it. He didn't care what the village thought of him or his father, or even his mother! All he wanted was to be a good husband and a good father, all the things his own parents had never been! He was determined to set himself apart and this was the way he knew he had to do it!

"There's one more thing!" Milah muttered finally pulling away from him. She was still smiling and he couldn't for the life of him, know what would ever be better than what he'd just said. "I think…I think I love you."

If it was possible for his smile to grow more than it would have. As it was, he simply touched his wife's cheeks, cradling her head against his palms as they smiled. "I love you, too," he declared. After so many trials and tribulations, it was nice to have something happy to look forward to.

Chapter Text

The miscarriages were hard.

On both of them.

Over the course of three years, they'd managed to get pregnant three times. They'd lost all of them within a few months of their start. It was a bloody and painful process for Milah. And a worrisome one for him. After it was finished, and all was said and done, it never got easier. The doctor could find no reason for the miscarriages. His only response was to say "these things do happen" and "get some rest".

The recovery was nothing but Milah in their bed, her back to him as he sat in the next room and did his spinning. The squeak of the wheel irritated her after the second loss, and he found that for days the only speaking she would do would be to snap at him to keep it down! But, he explained to her, if the wheel didn't spin he didn't make their money. Besides, it was comforting to him. It filled up the quiet space where a baby's cries should be. And working gave him something to do, a purpose when there was nothing else he could do to help.

When the worst of it was over, and the doctor freed Milah to go about her business, it still wasn't better. In fact, it got worse with each one. The village was hard on Milah. He knew how they were. If a woman never became pregnant there was something wrong with the husband who was unable to "plant the child" properly. But women who became pregnant and couldn't carry the pregnancy to term…well, it wasn't the husband the villagers blamed. For once, it wasn't him that the villagers looked at with suspicion and scorn. And he could tell that it killed her a little inside every time they looked at her funny.

Every birth in the village, little things he would never have paid much notice or attention to, were suddenly noted. Rolf and his wife had two children of their own, though he did notice how often that woman had red in her cheeks some mornings. After Rolf's first child was born Milah went to bed and didn't come out for two weeks. After the second one, she'd disappeared for the day, and he'd found her in the tavern, too drunk to find her own way home. They were quieter than they'd been before. With each loss, speech disappeared more and more from their lives, and Milah wandered the house aimlessly, looking for something to do.

This was the process over and over again. Milah got pregnant, she lost the child, she recovered, and a few months later they began to try again. It was odd, they'd never spoken of how to have children before she'd gotten pregnant the first time, never had to try, and yet now that they had Milah was relentless. She did everything to get pregnant again. She talked to the few friends that she had left and followed their orders so well sometimes he questioned her sanity. One week she ate carrots at every meal. The following week she warmed herself before the fire for twenty minutes before she came to bed, all he swore it did was make her body so hot it almost burned him to touch her. One week he caught her out back, propped against the back wall, standing on her head. He swore none of that stuff would work. It was old wives tales and nothing more in his opinion. The only thing that ever seemed to have any effect was the calendar she'd suddenly taken to keeping. It was suggested by one of her friends who had at least four bairns hanging off her hip. Milah charted her courses, working on a pattern, and he did as he was told. On the nights that she said no, they fell asleep. On the nights that she informed him the time was right, she was so crazed with enthusiasm he couldn't have refused her if he wanted to. And if he was honest, some nights he wanted to. He did his duty, anything to make her happy, but each time he was terrified that she would get pregnant and it would start the entire process all over again, ending and all. Not to mention, he was beginning to feel like he knew what brooding mares felt like.

Milah needed a distraction, something to keep her busy. And he did too. He needed something to keep his mind free from all the worry he'd been doing and all the fears that had begun to plague him in the early hours of the morning. The fear of losing Milah. The fear of never having children. The fear of an unfulfilled and unsatisfied marriage. The fear of never knowing if he'd be better than his own parents.

"Have I ever told you why I keep that old spinning wheel around?" he asked one night as she stood in front of the fire.

"I never asked," she responded solemnly. He recognized that tone. It was the one she used when she didn't want to be bothered. That was fine back before they'd started trying to have children. He'd accepted that they both needed their time alone and had given it when she needed it. But these days it seemed like if he left her alone, she would do nothing but sit by the fire and mourn for the children they'd lost that they would never know. And mourning had its time and place, he was mourning too, but if he left her alone with it…

"It was the first wheel I ever learned to spin on," he informed her hauling it out from its place by the fire. "My aunts taught me when I was very young, the same day my father left. I liked it as a boy, because it was peaceful. It was a way to escape from my thoughts. I think she was my first love." For the first time in years he spun the wheel, pleased that it didn't need oiling and then used the orifice tool he kept on the mantle for safe keeping to attach some wool properly.

"It's a 'she'?" Milah asked, showing the first notion of interest in something besides a baby for almost a year.

He smiled, recalling his own reaction the first time his aunts told him wheels were women. "All spinning wheels are," he repeated. "If you treat them nice and with a fair hand they'll do the same for you."

Milah chuckled a little from her place at the hearth. "Obviously something told to you by your aunts."

"How can you know that?" he asked testing the treadle. It worked so perfectly he would have thought it had a magic spell placed on it. Of course, knowing his aunts that was a very distinct possibility. Now that he thought of it, the Great Wheel he worked on had never really had any problems in all the years he'd used it.

"Well, you could never say something that articulate," Milah joked. He let out a chuckled too, but didn't say anything about it. He didn't want to mention that it was the first joke they'd shared since they lost their first baby, for fear it would only send her back to that dark place.

"How does it work?" she questioned after a minute of watching over his shoulder. He was pleased with the outcome. He explained the machine to her much the same way that his aunt had decades ago, and eventually moved over so that she could sit where he was. He instructed her as he was instructed, telling her to watch how fast she spun and helping her guide the wool in her hand. It was remarkable to him just how quickly he had learned. His aunts always told him that he was a prodigy, though exactly how desired he'd be was overstated in his opinion and experience. But because he'd never known any spinners other than the three of them he'd never known just how quickly he'd picked it up until someone who wasn't a "prodigy" had to learn it. Milah was slow, but she was also determined and soon enough she began to pick it up. The wool broke a few times and she wasn't great at controlling how much she let out of her hand at one time, he could have spun three bobbins full in the time it took her to figure out a quarter of one, but for once they were finally doing something together. It was the first time in a long while they'd done something together that didn't involve making a baby. It was refreshing.

"I made yarn!" she exclaimed happily. It was the first smile he'd seen in a long while.

"Just thread," he corrected, inspecting what was on the bobbin carefully. "If we want to make yarn we have to double spin to get the proper thickness, but that is a lesson for another time."

Milah sighed. "Why have you never taught me to do this before?"

"You never asked," he smiled.

"Maybe I should have…"

They were both smiling now, sitting close together and managing to have a good time. But somewhere in the silence, the heartbeats passing between them, he felt the dark shadows threaten to move in around them. Like the children they'd lost were just beyond the door and he was expecting them to knock at any moment.

"I bought something for you when I was in town," he commented, saying the only thing he could think to say. He'd been saving it for something special, like an anniversary or for when their child was born, but this smile, this moment was a special one all on his own. And he knew how to keep it special.

He withdrew the wrapped package from the drawer at the desk he kept in his workroom and came back to the wheel to hand it to her. "Your yarn!" she commented with a smile as she tore apart the bindings and moved aside the wrappings. She stared down at the gift in silence then when she realized exactly what it was. "Paper…"

Paper, true paper, was expensive. It was a luxury that none in the village and only few in the town enjoyed. She drew on scraps of cloth that she could find. He hoped that this small gift might be enough to occupy her time and take her mind off of…things.

"I was thinking we might try and rest for a while," he commented taking a seat by her again. She sat immobile, only staring down at the paper on her lap. "It's only that we've tried for so long, perhaps if we rest, and stop trying, the Fates might look upon us with mercy. They might give us a child for our patience."

He reached across the space and grabbed for Milah's hand. Only then did the spell break so that she looked up at him. There were tears in her eye, and her smile was replaced with a grimace, but she held his hand and nodded in response. It was a silent agreement, but one that he hoped might have some relief for them. It might break the cycle they were living in and maybe, just maybe, free them to have a child at another time if this wasn't the proper time. That was what he hoped.

"I love you, Milah," he whispered, reaching out to wipe away a tear on her cheek.

"I love you too," she breathed before she leaned over onto his shoulder and cried.

Chapter Text

They stood together in the town square, as close to the front as they could be without having to press close to the others. A shawl was wrapped around Milah's shoulders in the dying light, and he double checked that his cloak was properly drawn over him for the third time. It was getting colder and soon the nighttime would be upon them and that meant it would be very unpleasant to walk back to their village. The one and only relief in that, as he looked around the crowded town square, would be that there was strength in numbers, robbers wouldn't dare go after anyone in a crowd and it looked like they'd be returning with nearly the entire village when this was over. Whatever this was to begin with. No one seemed to know what it was. All they knew was a soldier had ridden into their village that morning and announced that every man was required to be at the town square that evening. From what he saw, every man not just in their villages but at least three of the others that supplied the town were also here. There were a few women, Milah was one of them. She had come with him because she was curious and had nothing else to do that night.

"It's not as if I have a child to feed now is it?" she questioned, her tone poisonous and angry all at one time. The Fates had still not been kind to them. And though her words sounded angry with him, he knew it was just the situation she was upset with. At least he hoped that was what it was.

"Hear ye, hear ye!" someone, a soldier, called from a top the wooden structure they used for hangings. "Let it be known to all who are present that five months ago, the ogres crossed our northern boarder, deliberately, with the intent to seize our land, decimate our populations, and rule over all mankind." There were gasps and murmurs from the crowd. Ogres in the Kingdom! Judging from the two Ogre Wars he'd heard from before, that was bad. Very bad. "By declaration of the King, we are in a state of war until the vile beasts can be bested and driven back! Though the King's forces are strong, one man from every family is instructed to sign their name to this paper, so that you may be called in service to the King should the need arise!"

There was more to what he said, but the truth was he was too lost in thought after he'd said those words that he couldn't hear the rest. When the soldier set the paper down upon the table he made his way forward with all the other men to-

"Rumple!" Milah hissed grabbing his arm. Her eyes were wide. "We should go! We should leave, no one would ever have to know!" Her fear was evident, but his determination was relentless as excitement poured into him.

"I have to. It'll be okay, eh!" he stated before detaching her fingers from his elbow and joining the line with the rest of the men to put his name down on that paper. But he stared down at confusion at the second one that had appeared. Two pieces of paper.

"While the war lasts a soldier will be placed here in the town," the soldier in charge explained. "For any who would like to get a head start, this will train you early, so that should you be needed, you'll be fully prepared when called."

It was training. He knew very little about military work but enough to recognize that there would probably be running and swordsmanship at work. He couldn't see how it was bad to learn any of those things and in the end, he only needed to see one name on the paper to get the urge to sign it as well. "Rolf" was already scrawled several names up. He signed his name to both papers. His hand was shaking; he was so excited. The others around him didn't share his enthusiasm, but then again, why would they? This didn't mean the same thing to them that it did for them. In the back of his mind, he was already scheming, the images of grandeur were all motivation he required.

"Rumpelstiltskin!" Milah hissed angrily at him the moment they returned to the privacy of their house. "What are you thinking?! Some man comes into town and tells you there is a war raging and that is all it takes for you to sign away your life?! We could have escaped! You could be spared this awful war!"

"Oh but don't you see, it's not just war and duty, Milah!" he urged, rekindling the fire with a broad smile on his face. "It's a chance at redemption."

"Redemption?! What on earth is there that you have to redeem yourself from, Rumpelstiltskin? You've done nothing in your life!"

"Yes, exactly. I've done nothing. And the people of this village know it. They all know me only by my father's cowardly reputation and as long as I stay here and cower while everyone else fights that is all I will ever be and all they will ever see me as. But a chance to fight! A chance to go to the front, to carry a sword and shield, to slay an ogre and prove my worth! It's too great an opportunity to pass up."

"Go to the front? Rumple…forget, just for a moment, that people who go to the front die, and remember what that soldier said tonight. The King's forces are strong. They are recruiting from other villages and towns in the Kingdom, many that are stronger than we are, there is no promise that you would ever see the front!"

"Well then I guess there isn't much risk of signing up then, is there," he countered. Why would she be so worried if she was so certain they wouldn't send him away? And really, what was the risk if they did send him away. "But…just think, wouldn't it be wonderful if it happened? If I got the opportunity to fight."

"Yes, of course there is the fighting, but there's the possibility of dying in there as well. We can't have a child if you are dead Rumpelstiltskin!" she shrieked sitting down at the table.

No, but they also couldn't have a child saddled with the cowardice of his grandfather and his father. He joined her at the table and let his hand close over her own.

"Men go to war and come back heroes, even if they never see battle!" he argued. "It would be just the thing to show them all that I am not my father, not a coward like he is! It would be good for us. Wouldn't you rather that risk, than walking through town with my father's sullied name hanging over both our heads?"

That was something that she couldn't argue with. From the moment they'd married it had been something that bothered her. It bothered him too but she had to see that this was the fix to all of that.

"What about the business, Rumple? If you aren't here to spin-"

"You are advancing in your own skills," he interrupted. "We sold two spools of your thread last month."

"And you sold nine of your own...in a week! I'm not as good as you, and you know it."

"There will be time, Milah. They aren't calling us to the front now, and it doesn't sound as though it will be tomorrow either. It's plenty of time for you to get comfortable on the Great Wheel, and you mend better than anyone. And soldiers do earn a wage."

"Not much of one."

"A wage is a wage. And thanks to Mr. Oak we have very few expenses outside of food and wool. We could manage, and I say 'could' because just as you said, there is no definitive answer as to when or even if this will happen."

"But you want it to." There was a note of accusation in her voice, one that he was beginning to get frustrated with. This really was a simple thing, why was she making such a big deal out of it.

"In the unlikely event I'm actually called to the front we can manage," he clarified. "And…I'll be prepared as well."

"Prepared?" she laughed. "You've never held a sword in your life! Do you even know how to ride a horse?! They are much different than sheep you know!"

"Yes, I'm aware. And I'm also aware I can learn. You heard them yourself, there's a soldier staying behind in the village to train new recruits so that if we ever should be called to service, we will be ready. It's a head start Milah."

"It sounds as if you've already got one foot in the war, Rumple!"

"Yes, but why not do it?" he pressed. "If the risk that I'll get called to the front is minimal, then what is the harm in learning to fight with a sword? Or ride a horse?"

"The harm is in not having enough time to spin! To make a wage!"

"I already spin more than we can sell every month," he dismissed. "Rolf signed up, why shouldn't I?"

Milah chuckled. "Rolf is…" but she never finished her sentence as she cast a wary look over at him. "Fine. Sign up for war. Sign up to go far away and leave me here as your widow if that's what you think is best!" she snapped before striding over to the door and putting her shawl over her shoulders.

"Better a hero's widow than a coward's wife!" he called after her.

"If you say so!" she screamed before leaving the house and slamming the door behind her with such a force that dust fell from the beams overhead. He grabbed a handful of the wool he'd been working with before he'd gone to the meeting and began to spin with a fury he hadn't had in a long time. That had not gone well.

Chapter Text

It used to be, that before the war he could take his yarn into town and have his deliveries made before noontime. But things were different now, even if they sometimes didn't feel different.

For the most part, the Ogre War stayed far away from their little village and their town. There were weeks, months at a time where nothing happened, and if he didn't know for certain that they were at war, he never would have imagined it. But occasionally a regiment of soldiers or a hoard of officers on horseback would pass through; they'd raise a cloud of dust as well as gossip. No one exactly knew where the fighting was going on or how it was going, and in the absence of knowledge, fear reigned. But he'd been assured by his own commanding officer, the soldier who had stayed behind to train the men who wanted early training, that the rumors were false. The ogres were, in fact holding their own, but so were they. So far it proved to be a fairly even battle. They won a few, the ogres won a few…but the battles were far from this place, and there were other more pressing things to worry about for all of them than being drafted.

Still, he worked them hard. Every morning, he and a handful of other men, including Rolf, met wherever their commanding officer instructed them to meet. "Pre-training", he called it. They ran for hours at a time until he felt as though his lungs were on fire and he couldn't breathe, and he was the best of them at that challenge. He also found that he was surprisingly good at fighting with a sword. He was quick on his feet and good with his hands, as the commanding officer told him and that made quite a difference. But running and swordplay aside, he was clumsy in other areas. All his life he'd worked with wool and so when it came to loading balls into canons he found he wasn't strong enough to do it deftly, like Rolf. After years of walking back and forth and all over town he was not the greatest at riding horses, though he didn't need this experience to tell him that. Archery was also a problem, when he started he had no muscle in his back and chest and that made applying tension to the bow difficult. But he did learn. Year after year they trained and morning by morning he got a little better at it.

Though he and Milah had not discussed his decision since that first night, he was certain that she liked the changes in him as well. He was no longer a "twig" as she'd called him on their wedding night. He had muscles now, his chest had filled out a little more, his arms grew bigger, and suddenly he felt as though she seemed more desiring of him than she was before. Of course, he had to also admit that her life had changed too recently and that could have had an effect on it.

Three months ago, one of the weavers had died. Milah was good at spinning, but without someone to weave the fabric and do mending and tailoring, there was very little money to be made by them. Milah had convinced him then to take a risk, to buy a loom, and he was shocked to find that she took to it wonderfully. The tailoring…that was a different story. He had to help her with that, just as he had the knitting, but by diversifying their talents they were making more money than he'd ever made in his life. And Milah seemed brought to life by it. She was relaxed as she hadn't been when they'd been so focused on children and lost all of them. He had a feeling, a small hopeful feeling deep inside of him, that it would happen soon. If they could continue this way, stay relaxed, and just do what came naturally, then they would finally have the baby they wanted. A son. A family.

It had been three years since that dreadful fight, and though it took him much longer in town these days to make his deliveries to all their customers, though he couldn't even start until after noon when he was dismissed from his training, he was happy. They may have been at war, his wife might have been at home working on the cobblers torn shirt yet again, but things couldn't have been more perfect for him and his wife. His only regret was that the shirt wasn't finished in time for today and the cobbler was angry.

"Hear ye, hear ye!" The herald's shout drew him down the street and around the corner, but it was the sound of trumpets that summoned him and anyone there in the town square to come closer. It was a soldier, a group of soldiers to be precise, at least half a dozen with horses. They were there on top of the elevated platform used for hangings just as they'd been years ago. One of the soldiers was his own commanding officer. "By order of the King, the following men have been drafted into the King's Army and are instructed to gather here tomorrow at first light to travel together for training. When your name is called you will come forth, and take your scroll. Go home, tell your wives you love them, kiss your children, and prepare yourselves for battle."

There were a variety of reactions that went through the stunned crowd. Women covered their mouths and shrieked. Men looked around for an escape. Some stared with wide eyes and whispered with their neighbors while others stood up a little taller. He wanted to believe that he was one of those who stood taller because of it as he pushed his way to the front, wanting only to hear the names they were shouting better.

"Benji!" A man from his own unit. He was the best at swordplay.

"Thomerson!" The cobblers son, no doubt he would not be thinking about a torn shirt tonight.

"Claus!" An unknown name.

"Rump…eh…Rumelschtilt…"

His heart hammered as he watched his commanding officer step up beside him and whisper something in the man's ear after looking down at the cloth.

"Rumpelstiltskin!" He was in disbelief. It all seemed too perfect when he stepped forward and took the cloth from him, his commanding officer offering a small nod as he did.

"Rumplestiltskin, You have been drafted into the King's Army", it read, original, formal name. It was offical. This was it. This was what he'd been working for over the last three years. The chance and prosperity that this piece of cloth represented had his nerves so twisted up he worried he might get sick. But he couldn't. Not yet. He had only one thought, one desire at the moment, and that was to follow their orders and tell his wife!

He didn't stay for the end of the announcements, he didn't finish handing out their yarn or the clothes they'd mended, in fact, he was so excited he dropped the basket all together as he ran through the town and back toward their village. With any luck, it wouldn't matter. If he could do this, if he could start at the bottom and work his way up through the ranks, then a spare bit of money wouldn't matter. High ranking soldiers were paid well.

"Milah!" he called at the door to house. She should be inside, working on a bit of the sewing they still at to do for the cobbler. "Milah!"

"I'm nearly finished!" she responded when he burst in.

"Oh, you learn quickly," he commented without hardly looking at the work. He was too excited to focus on anything that wasn't the scroll in his hand.

"I have a good teacher," she smiled as she rose to kiss him, and he could barely contain his excitement enough to stop his hands from shaking as he backed away. "What is it? What brings you home so early?"

"Milah…" he laughed nervously. Where was he supposed to start? How was he supposed to do this? The fight they'd had was years ago, was this doomed to go the same way? "My weaving days are behind us. I've been called to the front." He held his breath as he unrolled the parchment which bore the seal of the King. Her eyes traveled over the same words his own had but this time he watched her. He felt like his heart was going to burst from his chest! Would their fight be long behind them as he hoped? Would she understand? Could he make her understand?! His body was alive with nerves and excitement battling against each other! He wanted to jump up and down, run a mile, make love to his wife! He couldn't understand what to say or think.

"The Ogres War…"

He clapped and felt himself give a little jump of excitement. "I report for training in the morning!"

He tried to sound as happy as he could, to show her just how excited he was. But he could tell from her face that nothing had changed in these past years. She was not as excited as he was. But it was done. The king had ordered, all those years ago, that one man from each family would serve. They had no other men. It was a draft notice. Whether or not she liked it he was going to have to go to the war! But he would rather she be happy about it, and leave with her blessing and understanding, than with her angry as it had ended years ago.

"No. Rumple, I've heard stories. The front – it's a brutal place!" she cried.

"Oh, Milah…" he dove quickly for the seat beside her at the table and reached out for her hands. She almost looked like she was going to cry and he couldn't blame her. He knew the rumors she'd heard, but the commanding officer that told them every morning in training that they were just that…rumors. And sad was different than the angry she'd been years ago. "I-I know, I know. I…I can't say that I…I won't be frightened. But…but this is the chance I've been waiting for…all my life. You know, I've lived under the shadow of my father's actions for too long now."

"Just because your father was a coward, it doesn't mean you are," she stressed.

"Oh, I know that," he whispered tightening his grip on her hand. "As do you. But to the world…fighting in this war finally gives me the chance to prove that to everyone else."

She swallowed, hard. Her hands held on to her own so tight that her fingernails were cutting into his skin. But eventually, she began to nod. "Go. Be brave. Fight honorably."

He felt a beaming smile break over his face. "Oh, God, I love you."

"I love you too!" Her blessing. It meant the world to him to have it. So long as he had those words he could leave tomorrow morning with confidence! He could be excited. "When you return, we can start living the life we've always dreamed of."

"Yeah…"

"We can have a family."

"A family…" He couldn't have been happier. She was seeing it! Finally seeing exactly what it was that this would mean for them! This was the beginning of a new chapter! Milah could stay and keep their business going, she would receive whatever meager wage he made for fighting in the war, and if he moved up the ranks that would be the end of it. But if not, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. He'd come home then, and maybe, just maybe when he returned they could do something he'd wanted since he was a child and get a sheep or two. They could have a family, they could have a child or two or three and raise them not in squalor but with everything they needed! They wouldn't be rich, but he'd make sure they never wanted for anything. With a family and the business and fighting in the war, he'd finally shed the black stain his father had left upon him. He was ready.

Chapter Text

Leaving for war was far more difficult than he imagined it might be in every way; physically, mentally, and emotionally. Somehow in the back of his mind he expected it would be no different than any other morning. He got up to meet his commanding officer just like always and yet as he moved around the house collecting the items he wanted to take with him, he was suddenly struck by the fact that he wasn't about to leave the house for a few hours, but for an unknown amount of time. He had been training before going to the front of a war that had been raging for three years already. It could be quick, he could arrive and find the war nearly won and be home in only a few weeks time. But if it wasn't "nearly won" it could also be years until he crossed the threshold again and saw his wife.

With that thought in the forefront of his mind, he decided to wake her. They'd been together last night, and she was accustomed to sleeping through his noise in the morning. She looked so strange when he woke her, wondering what was wrong. It was only when he told her that he needed to say good-bye and didn't know when he would see her again that it seemed to sink in with her as well. She kissed him. But it wasn't like a kiss they would have normally shared. This kiss was different. It was hard and wet and needy. It was completely unexpected, and he felt for the first time in his life a pull to join her again in bed, to pull the shift over her head and see what they could make of this newfound desire.

But the sun would be rising soon. He had no doubt that the men would leave at first light just as promised and the cost of not showing up and deserting the army, now that he was in it, was death. As much as it killed him to go, he had to. But that kiss remained with him as he closed the door. It drew a smile from him as he paused on the other side for just a moment. If that's what would change between them just overnight because of his newfound employment, then he could only dream about what it would be like when he got back…whenever that might be.

Rolf was just leaving his own home as he ventured down the abandoned streets and though he'd never cared for the man, he found it would have been more awkward if they didn't walk together than if they did in complete silence. He felt as though they'd been in competition all his life, now they suddenly found themselves on the same team whether they liked it or not. They may as well get used to it.

When all men were gathered, commanding officers and all, as soon as the light broke over the horizon, they set off. They marched. Endlessly. It was the first thing they'd learned to do in their "pre-training" and he was grateful suddenly that he'd agreed to do it for he didn't have nearly as much trouble keeping up with the drum as some of his fellow soldiers did who hadn't been going through the course for the last three years. He didn't know what he'd thought when they first put their town, the only place he'd ever truly been in his life, aside from a too quick trip to Neverland, to his back, but he didn't expect the endless travel. Day after day after day, they marched on toward the "training camp". And it wasn't long before he realized that this was their first lesson in the army. It was a lesson of survival.

When they stopped, they were instructed to hunt, to find their own food. If they didn't find anything, "Well then…I guess you'll be hungry when night falls," their officer laughed. He wished more and more that he'd been better at hunting with a bow and arrow. But after a few nights of starving he woke up with memories from his childhood and hungry nights spent outside after the roof to their house had caved in. Perhaps his father hadn't been completely useless and had left him with something helpful after all. He wasn't good at hunting, not like the other men, but he was good at setting up snares at night before he ventured off to bed and waking before the first light to see if he'd caught anything. He almost always did and was usually able to cook it before the rest of the men woke up. Between that and berries and nuts he found along the way, he managed to keep himself well fed, or fed enough at least. But then, as they continued their marching, something new began to happen. The troop of men began to see that they could do far better helping one another than they could on their own. By the time they made it to the training camp, a month later, they had a solid system in place. They worked together to allow those who were good at it to hunt, while others butchered, some erected tents, others made fires, along the way everyone collected berries to snack on, and then others, like himself, set snares to allow them food for breakfast. They ate together, morning and night. And when they finally arrived at the training camp, he was surprised to find he'd made friends, possibly for the first time in his life. And once they got to camp, then the real work began.

The "pre-training", helped, but only just. The actual training was far more difficult than he ever imagined it would be. It made the training he'd undergone thus far look pathetic and informal. This was true training. Every day for five months, from the moment they woke up to the moment they went to sleep, they faced intense activity all to make them into soldiers. On the first day, their senior officer had fired an arrow into a tall tree, devoid of limbs. He'd tied weights around their arms, instructing them to retrieve the arrow. No one could figure out how. They used their swords daily, they did drills until they sweat blood. Archery was studied until they could toss a tomato up in the air and shoot it into the tree. He hurt everywhere, in places he didn't even know could hurt; his arms, his neck, his legs, his sides, his back, his stomach. They learned to run for hours on end, and when they finally received their black uniforms with bits of silver metal, it started all over again, learning to do what their bodies already knew how to do in thicker more uncomfortable clothes.

At night, as he lay on his bunk, too tired to go to sleep, he comforted himself with thoughts of Milah, images of the kiss that she'd given him before he left. He wished she could have kissed him like that the night before he'd gone. It wasn't that their last night together hadn't been nice, it was fine, but there had been nothing different about it. There was very little that had changed about their couplings since their first time together. Oh, they were much better at it than they had been on their wedding night, to the point where he was embarrassed to even call what had happened on their wedding night a proper consummation of their marriage. And it was true, as Milah had said, they'd come to enjoy it more than they had before, but it was getting to the point where he found that they were getting away from that again. Sometimes, awful as it seemed, he felt almost bored by it. It was routine, planned. They knew the steps and they followed through with those steps, sometimes he was certain it was only because they felt they had to, because that was part of being married. He longed to talk with Mr. Oak about it as he had at the beginning of their marriage. Though he had never married he'd seemed well versed enough on the subject. He wanted to know if this was just normal. If all couples eventually got to the point where it felt like something was missing, from those steps, from their lives, something he couldn't identify. But then he knew one thing for certain. He knew something had been in that kiss that she'd given him before he left. And he held out hope that maybe when he got home, they could explore what that meant, that it might be the key to answering all those questions.

The weights were meant to be used as counterweights. Rolf was the first to discover it. The arrow had been up in that tree for five long months before Rolf finally discovered that the weights their instructor had given them were not meant to hold them back, but rather help them along. Once one figured it out, it wasn't long before each one of them had used the weights to help them along up the tree. That, their senior officer informed them, was the end of their training.

They packed up nearly a week later and began the slow trek toward the front, operating much the same way as they had before, helping each other scavenge and hunt for food as they could. The only difference this time was the view. They marched on for two months, and the closer they got to the front, the more and more things around them began to change. Their senior officer told them that it was a good thing, that they were walking through land and villages that had once been claimed by the ogres but had recently been reclaimed by the King's Army in his name. He failed to see how anything he saw was a good thing. There really was nothing to claim for the King here except land. The towns and villages they walked through had been annihilated. They were on search and rescue duty as they moved toward the front. Spread out, search the village for survivors. So far, out of the five towns they'd searched, there were three; two women and a baby. He hadn't a clue how any of them had made it through and at the first available city that wasn't a complete wreck they'd been left there, to somehow put the pieces of their lives back together again.

By the time they reached the front lines, it was late Winter, and the trek had done its job. When they'd set out, they were an ambitious group, eagerly awaiting their opportunity to prove what they had learned at war. By the time they arrived, they were beat down, depressed, and terrified by the black smoke that came from the battlefield just over that mountain ridge. They hadn't been to battle and yet they'd seen the ravages of war. Looking around at their little camp, he wondered how any of them could ever stand up to something so dreadful as the ogres he'd heard of.

"If I don't make it home, I need you to do something for me," Rolf commented late one night as they both stood on guard duty with two of the few crossbows in their possession. They'd shared a few words here and there over the last few months, it was all orders and survival related. They talked to each other as fellow soldiers and nothing more, but there was a softness in his tone now, something friendly that he hadn't heard since they were in school together. The change was surprising.

"Whatever you need..." he commented quietly, wondering what he wanted him to do.

"Tell Margery…tell her I love her. I haven't told her nearly enough since we married. And tell her to tell my children I love them as well. And tell Milah…tell Milah, I'm sorry."

Bitter cold as it was he felt a roar of fire burst to life in his chest. Rolf's final instructions, his final words, and one of them was reserved for his wife? What was there ever to be sorry about?! Shouldn't that be his message if he didn't come back to her?

"Sorry for what?" he pressed, suddenly feeling desperate to understand.

"She'll know what it means," he smirked. His eyes were distant and foggy like even though they were open, he wasn't quite seeing the ground he was suddenly looking at, but rather reliving a memory of some kind. Which memory? Who was in it? Was it his wife? What exactly was all this supposed to mean? He had a sudden urge he'd never had before to squeeze his fist tight and hit the man. He knew he wasn't as strong as he was, but he knew all at once that if he tried he would certainly knock Rolf out cold. What was he apologizing for?

"What about you?" Rolf asked suddenly, his eyes returning to normal as he looked over at him with anticipation. He nearly scoffed aloud at such a question. Not only was Rolf leaving messages for his own wife, but he wanted to know his own as well? It was an insult! It was a horrible inappropriate request, and he couldn't understand for the life of him what had possessed this man who always seemed to operate so carefully.

But then again…

Behind them muffled cries were coming from the triage tent. Not long ago they'd stood there and watched as one of the soldiers was brought back missing both his legs. He'd tried to cry out in pain but ruthless as ogres were he was immediately gagged, so the creatures couldn't follow his screams into their camp. He'd been taken to the tent for medical assistance, but he had apparently been left gagging as he was still attempting to scream.

War was not appropriate. It didn't leave space for logic or jealousy, anger or misery. And if that man in the tent ever became him, he didn't want Milah sitting at home mourning him. He hoped she'd grieve for a time, remarry, and then have the child that had thus far eluded them. He hoped that she would be comforted by a village who saw him not as a terrible coward like his father, but rather a war hero. He hoped that she knew all of this, but just in case she didn't.

"Tell Milah I love her," he muttered softly as the soldier's cries of pain began to fade into eerie silence. "And tell her I'm sorry I couldn't give her what she wanted. Tell the village I died a hero."

"Of course."

There was silence in the camp, and the few who were up and awake stopped at it to stare at the triage tent where the source of that silence was most intense. He swallowed hard as the doctor, drenched in blood left the tent and threw something heavy he couldn't identify into the fire with an angry growl.

"You are nothing like the stories of your father," Rolf commented off hand.

In the earliest hours of dawn, they glanced up at each other, and he felt overwhelmed by a peace he had never experienced before and knew he might never again. They extended their hands, grasped them tight, shook them once, then resumed patrol.

Chapter Text

It had snowed overnight and, though they were spared the worst of it by the forest around them, it was still damn cold in the mountains. They needed fires, not just for food, but to stay warm in the nights. In fact, it had grown so cold, he and a group of men had been assigned to the sole task of going out to cut down trees to make more fires and to keep the ones they had going. The front was a flurry of activity at all hours. Men marching about with swords and shields, bows and arrows. Some looked like they were in a hurry, nearly dragging their horses to the lines with them, others stood around campfires cooking food, looking as if it was no more than training. The world had shifted. He had already seen the worst of the war and yet from where he stood now, he felt as though it had quite suddenly taken an ominous turn. The sky was filled with ash and smelled like fire, no matter how far upwind of the camp they were. Men were taken away by their commanding officers while the higher-ups met in great tents around tables filled with food. They were said to be discussing war, battles, where their platoons were supposed to be going, but every now and then he heard a laugh, and felt the itch to see that map, to look at all the pieces and understand what kind of piece he and his men were to them. He'd noticed that there were very few "important" soldiers with them. A general visited on occasion and went into the tent to discuss what was going on. It terrified him.

A general would be with the best men. Best men would be those who were considered to have the highest chance of defeating the creatures. If that wasn't his regiment, then what were they? He'd seen a lot of men go out to that battlefield; he'd seen none come back whole. A few on stretchers here and there, but they were not coming back in the masses that they were going out.

"That's the last load," Rolf declared as they set the wood in the pile. "Let's go back out. I can maybe do some hunting, find a deer or goose, something other than gruel to eat."

"I'll check my snares, with any luck I'll have caught a rabbit."

"Could we be so lucky?" With that, he and the others turned away from their pile of wood and set off. Rolf to grab a bow and arrow, he to-

"Soldier!"

He turned. It was an automatic response whenever he heard someone call out with that tone.

"Me?" he questioned as Rolf and the rest of the group kept walking. They must not have heard him. The commanding officers didn't use names here, not with the likes of them. Every soldier was "soldier", and if you continued without stopping it could lead to trouble.

But the officer didn't clarify. He simply sheathed his sword and strode over to him. "I'm needed at the front. You guard this crate with your life."

Crate? He pointed toward what appeared to be a box that had been covered in a thin cloth of some kind. He'd never seen it before, but when he'd been back at the village with his commanding officer he'd told them stories of what they did with prisoners. Put them in a cage, to keep them contained, then cover it with hide or clothe to keep them disoriented. Couldn't have them escaping, retracing their steps, and giving away important information. He'd never seen that crate here before. And if it was here now and he was supposed to guard it with his life, then he could only imagine it was a prisoner. But in an ogre war…it wasn't big enough for an ogre, not a full grown one at least. He'd never seen the beasts, but he'd seen the trees shake because of them. If an ogre was in there, it had to be young. Could a baby ogre break through wood? If it could what else might it break through?

"W-what's under there?" he questioned nervously.

"A prisoner who could help us turn the tide against the ogres. Careful. It's a tricky beast."

"Yes, sir," his heart was racing as he stepped closer to the prison. A beast. What kind of beast would be in something so small that would change the course of their fate?

Stop asking questions. That was always what he'd learned in training. A soldier wasn't there to question his superiors. They were not equals and not owed the same kind of information that they had. If given an order do not question it, just do it. If they ask you to run naked in the snow, strip down. If they ask you flap your arms like a bird, do it until your arms fall off. If they tell you to jump, you ask how high. His curiosity was peaked, fear was ever present in his mind, but he stayed close to that crate. He would be a good soldier. He would do as he was told.

"Rumpelstiltskin…"

The voice came from behind him and if he hadn't been so confused by it, he would have jumped. But as it was he identified the singsong voice as a voice that did not belong to an ogre or any kind of prisoner he could think of. It was a female voice.

Orders be damned, he wasn't in this war to take women hostage or prisoner so they could be raped or married off into the hands of rapists when the war was over and the men went home. There was nothing more shameful than that, Mr. Oak had taught him. He turned and carefully lifted the fabric covering the wooden cage. His heart stopped as he looked at the small creature who would have stood no taller than his third rib.

"You're a child!" he exclaimed.

She raised her head, and he had to step back in shock. She was maimed. Horribly maimed! Her eyes were no more. In their place it looked as though she had suffered a great wound which resulted in their removal. The places they'd been had been hastily stitched together with thick black yarn that was poorly spun. Yarn instead of thread! Why would anyone do that? He couldn't understand, why would an injured child be we held prisoner? Had they done this to her?

The girl reached her hand outside of the wooden cage and pointed to something on the ground. It was a bucket of water.

"Please!" she begged, her voice harsh. "I haven't had a sip in days."

And he believed that judging by the way that she sounded. But, blinded as she was, how had she known where the water bucket was? And how had she known his name? Her hearing was fine, but the man who had put him in charge of her had only called him "soldier" and even if someone had said his name around these parts, how would she have known it was him?

"How do you know my name?" he questioned.

The girl raised her hands to reveal an odd mark on each. "I'm a seer. I see all."

The marks on her hand suddenly split open to reveal two bright, piercing blue eyes. He felt himself tense in shock and disgust at their appearance. Who wouldn't? He thought of all the stories his aunts had told him. They had been well versed in all things magical, being what they were, but they never spoke of creatures called seers. He couldn't think of anything that would know his name like that other than a fairy in disguise and she certainly didn't look like a fairy.

"No, no, no. That's…that's not possible," he argued staring deep into them. She was a child, no matter how damaged she was, and she was trying to get attention, or come up with some fantasy to rationalize how this had happened to her or why. He didn't believe what she said. Or that those…eyes, helped her see anything. He didn't want to believe it. "You must have overheard someone speak."

"Rumpelstiltskin, the son of a coward. Raised by spinsters. Scared of ending up just like his father. Did I overhear that?" She withdrew her hands and folded them in her lap like he'd seen a dozen other children do, but what he'd just heard her say…he'd never seen children do that before. "I told you. I see all, even what has yet to pass."

"You mean the future?" he clarified. "You can see the future?"

"Indeed I can…including yours…"

"No, no, no." Tricky beast indeed. She was probably some kind of shapeshifter, playing on his sympathies trying to escape somehow. He never should have even looked inside. "I… I won't indulge this…dark magic," he argued turning away from her.

"Even if what I see concerns your wife? Milah?"

How would she have learned that? And…what about Milah?! "Why? Has something happened to her?" he questioned without hesitation. It was getting close to a year the last he'd seen her! The last few years made it easy for him to picture all the terrible things that it could be. His village attacked and burned down in the war, Milah bleeding from miscarriage, Milah unable to support herself with the tailoring and begging on the streets. He was moving closer, clutching the cage for more information. What did she know?

"Give me water," the creature demanded.

More tricks, just for a drink of water! But she had known his name and his reputation as well as Milah's name. And water…water wouldn't free her…whatever she was, from this prison. It would do nothing but wet her throat. And he couldn't forget what she'd said. He needed to know now. He needed to understand what she'd meant. He'd never be able to sleep or rest if he didn't.

He looked around to make sure that no one was watching and when he was sure it was safe he reached into the bucket and pulled out a full cup of water. "Here. Slake your thirst, witch, and speak of what you know of my wife," he ordered.

The girl took the cup and greedily devoured half of it. She had truly been thirsty. He only hoped the rest of what she'd said hadn't been a lie to convince him.

The girl, finished with her drink, raised her hand and that unnerving clear blue eye gazed into him once more. "She is already with child," the girl spoke.

With child…his first thoughts were thoughts of worry and panic. To him, 'with child' meant waking up to pain and suffering when they lost the baby but…already with child. That mean she was currently with child. How long had he been gone? It was close to a year! Perhaps eight months. The last they'd been together had been the night before he'd gone, and Milah had always lost the pregnancies before they'd begun to show. So that meant…this one was different.

She was pregnant. Finally truly pregnant. And for him that meant…

"I'm to be a father?" he smiled. That was wonderful news! That was everything they'd dreamed of! Everything he'd hoped when he left for war! It was all coming true.

"Your wife will bear you a son," she went on. "But your actions on the battlefield tomorrow will leave him fatherless."

The world turned upside down as immense happiness suddenly became tremendous sorrow.

Fatherless.

It was one of the few words that could instantly make him feel sick. Fatherless because of a battle tomorrow.

"I'm going to die? No, no, no. You…you must tell me how I can stop that happening!" he ordered. He couldn't, he couldn't leave his child, a son, fatherless! He couldn't let him grow up as he had, needing to depend on shepherds to give him advice his mother couldn't, crying at night for a man who would never come home, ever wondering what he could have been like! He just couldn't. He had to stop that from happening! The officer had said the seer could turn the tide in the war, she had to turn this around, she had to help him stop it from happening!

"You can't."

"Then I'm done helping you!" She talked for water, maybe she'd do it again! He grabbed the cup of water from her hands. The future wasn't set in stone as she thought! It could be changed! He had to change it!

"For now," she commented as he tossed the cup back into the bucket. "Someday, you'll help me again." Again? After this?

"I'll bet Milah isn't even pregnant," he argued. He'd been there through three miscarriages he had no reason to think that even if something had happened the night before he'd left it would be any different than the other times. She just wanted him away, to leave her unguarded so she could work her magic and escape! It would be easy to do that if she had him running home to check on his wife and supposed son! She was a tricky beast. "You just said that so I would give you water, and now you're trying to trick me into deserting."

"You shall see. Tomorrow," she placed her hands through the cage once more so those eyes could open again. "When you see the army ride cows into battle, you will know I speak the truth."

"Cows?" he scoffed. He'd heard enough, that only proved it. Had he not been training all this time on horses? Who rode cows to battle? The child was nothing more than a clever fraud with good hearing. Probably she'd heard the other soldiers talking about his problems with Milah, Rolf perhaps, that was how she'd gotten the names. And as for knowing who he was…she probably recognized his voice! "And who's going to man the catapults? Milkmaids? I have had enough with your fiendish lies!"

That eye, crystal clear and blue, was in front of him once more. It was the only bit of her that he couldn't explain, for he swore that it was staring right into him.

"There is no escaping it. You will have a son, and your actions will leave him fatherless."

That word again, that awful, terrible word that proved to him she was lying! He quickly pulled the cloth back over the cage and turned away, taking a few paces away so he wasn't so close or tempted to scream at her again. It was all a lie. He would never leave his child to suffer the same fate he had. Never.

Chapter Text

He was happy to be relieved of his guard duty when someone came to reassign him. The soldier asked if the creature had been any trouble and he considered for a moment telling them what she had said, wondering if there was anything in her words that might help the army win in battle, but he decided quickly against it. He wasn't entirely sure why. He knew that if he truly didn't believe what she'd said then it wouldn't be a problem to share her lies with others, to warn him of how treacherous she was and how she was attempting to drive them to desert the army on fear of death. But he didn't say the words. He said nothing about it at all and moved on to his next post.

Free from her, that should have been the end of it. But the trouble was, he couldn't get the Seer's words out of his head. He attempted to focus on his work and pretend at least that her prophecy hadn't plagued him. However, it seemed the more he tried to forget it, the louder the voice in his head grew. When they were called together that night, he felt like he could barely hear his commanding officer over the shouts.

Tomorrow, in the early hours of the morning, before the light came up, they would be marching into battle with three other regiments. If they successfully took the ogres by surprise they would severely decimate their numbers. They were at a critical point in the war and winning this battle now might turn it all around for them. Somehow, he had a harder time believing those words than he did the girl's.

The one good thing about the upcoming battle was that it kept him busy. They spent the night working. Preparing for battle was tiresome work, but it was necessary if they hoped to make it back alive. Arrows were crafted with new heads and fletchings. Swords were sharpened. The men ate what they could of their supplies to keep their strength up and in the hope that once they advanced the front lines they would not be returning to this camp. Triage areas were set up for those who would return to the camp injured. Scouts were sent out to gather information, and in between all the preparations, the men were sent to their barracks to sleep in shifts and rest for the coming battle.

He could not sleep. How could he when so many dark thoughts kept swirling around in his mind? They were going to a battle in a few short hours. Tomorrow had become today and today had become yesterday. None of this meant that the seer was right, he reasoned. They were in an active war zone, he'd known for weeks they would be going into battle any day now. She'd taken a lucky guess. His own aunts had never been particularly good at their craft, by their own admission, but even they would have thought it safe enough to put forth a prediction like this. His father had taught him never to gamble, but he would have placed money on that bet. Going to battle did not mean that anything else that girl said was true. In fact, when they'd talked about battle, they'd exclusively said they would be marching. It had come up several times as a matter of fact. They would not be riding horses into battle, much less cows! That was too crazy to consider.

He and Rolf were "awaken" in the early morning hours, though one look at him and he felt certain that he had not managed to get much sleep either. According to plan, they would march in before the sun rose; hopefully they would catch the beasts sleeping. He was too busy convincing himself the Seer's Prophecy was lies, to wonder about what happened if "hopefully" failed. As he and Rolf hurried to make themselves ready for battle and gathered outside as they were told, he noticed two of the scouts they'd sent out yesterday returning to the camp, but not of their own will. One was brought back on a stretcher, writhing in agony. His arm was missing.

"Lucky bastards," Rolf mutters with a shake of his head.

"Oh… I think they'd beg to differ," he disagreed, watching a second man being brought in with a crutch under one arm and a man supporting his weight with the help of another man. Maybe they should take a moment to consider what they'd do if the ogres weren't asleep.

"They're not dead, but they can't fight. Which means, they get sent home. That's the only way out of here alive. When the ogres rip you limb from limb, pray that they're quick."

He knew Rolf was nervous but can't remember when he began to be so hopeless. Though he had to admit, looking at those men, merely scouts who had been sent out to do no other job than look around, he certainly didn't feel any better about being a soldier and going into battle against one with a sword so brazenly.

"Fortune favors us!" an officer called into the night, the same officer who had instructed him to watch the little girl earlier. "Fresh supplies have arrived from the Duke. Today, we will not be marching into battle. We'll be riding."

He felt his stomach give an uncomfortable lurch, the same kind of lurch it had given him when he'd looked up at big tree in Neverland and feared falling from it.

"Riding? Riding what?" he questioned out of turn, disobeying the simplest of rules.

But the officer didn't discipline him for speaking out of turn, only gave him an odd pitiful look. "What kind of question is that? A horse, of course." A horse. A horse was good. "Now, grab yourself a cow, and get ready."

There it was again. One word brought on a flurry of emotions that made him feel light-headed and sick. Cow?

"I'm sorry, sir. W-what did you say?" he begged as the men began to look around.

"A cow," the officer clarified. "The saddles we just got in, made from the finest leather. We call 'em cows. Grab yours, so at least the ride into doom will be a soft one on your backside." His fellow soldiers began to dissipate, but he hardly noticed. He was too busy trying to get his feet under him. Cows. They'd be riding cows into battle today, just as the Seer said! She'd been right! And if she'd been right about that then…could she have been right about Milah? About their son? Could she have been right about what was to come?!

There was a hand on his shoulder, shaking him into action. It was Rolf. "Are you alright?"

No, he wasn't. He was panicking over words that a little girl with eyes on her hands had told him and suddenly one of those words seemed a lot more fearsome than ogres. "Fatherless." But what was he going to do about it?

"Yes," he lied to Rolf, giving his shoulder a pat with the force of a shove. "You…you go. I'll catch up."

Rolf left him, though he had no idea if he believed him or not. He wasn't seeing clearly. He was only hearing, the words from yesterday echoed in his mind over and over again.

Fatherless.

"Oh, no…" He couldn't allow it. Not if it was true. He picked up his head and looked this way and that, seeking out the answers he'd already received, hoping to hear a truth that was different. He found the cage, still covered but left unguarded in all the confusion that accompanied impending battle, and he walked over to it.

"So, it's all true," he hissed at the covering, looking around to be sure no one noticed him. The truth of the future was a terrible burden. He couldn't let any of them face this. He didn't want them to suffer the same fate but he had to know now, for his own sake. "I'm going to have a son. And I'm going to die."

He expected her voice, hands with blue eyes to make their way out from under the cloth, but no noise came. How could she be sleeping at a time like this? How could she ignore him after she'd burdened him?!

"Answer me!" but when he pulled back the heavy cloth to face her he found the cage was empty. She was gone! "Oh!" he grunted. Anger rose in him as he hit the bars over and over! How could she be gone? How could she do this to him?! Child or not she had been a truly wicked creature, and he just wanted to…to…

Looking around he saw a spare hammer laying close by. Oh, it would make him feel better. He'd never been a violent man, but he would love to take that hammer and slam it into that cage until it was nothing but splinters and then find that girl and break every bone in her…

He was already striding over to it and picking it up without ever giving himself permission to do it. It was heavy enough to do damage. To break bones. With enough force it might break his own. His mind filled with images of those men he'd seen and what Rolf had told him and suddenly he looked at the hammer with new eyes. It was the only way to get out alive. He could run, but he'd be a deserter, a criminal of the crown but they knew where he lived. He and Milah would have to run away, live life always fearing they'd be captured. That was no life for her. That was no life for his child. His son.

What would it be then? Not a hand. He needed his hands. His hands were what spun wool, if he couldn't be a soldier he needed his hands to give his family their livelihood. But something lower down. Not a leg, he wanted to be able to walk. But his foot. Injure a few toes and he might not be able to walk into battle tomorrow or keep his foot in a boot and stirrup. He didn't like the idea, the very notion of it drew tears into his eyes. But what choice did he have?

With no Seer to reiterated what she'd said he had to believe that she was speaking the truth about everything else. He was going to be a father. But if he stayed here then that would mean leaving his boy fatherless just as he'd been left. He'd have his mother. But the idea that he'd leave his son to take advice from men he'd have to make father's of, or the idea of Milah remarrying and another man teaching his boy how to shave or weave or buy property or even about sex made him cringe. It was his job. He'd lost too many other children, missed out on too many other experiences because of his own father, he couldn't let this one go! And besides, no one, not even Milah knew the truth about his father and what he did or his mother. How else would he protect his child from the likes of his grandparents if he wasn't there?

His mind was made up. There was no fighting it! The town would think he was a coward, this would confirm everything that they ever believed about him but Milah…Milah would understand. She was the one who hadn't wanted him to come here, who hadn't wanted him to die! She would agree with him, a coward for a father was better than no father at all.

That was all the motivation he needed. He took aim and raised the hammer high into the air. He hesitated, spent far too much time staring at it and adjusting his grip. He felt tears prick the corners of his eyes and looked around him as he let out a sob.

It was going to hurt. But no more than dying. No more than leaving his boy alone as he had been left alone.

With one final glance around him, he gave a great cry and swung.

Chapter Text

The pain was unimaginable.

He had missed, that much was agonizingly clear. Instead of hitting only his toes he heard a crack and felt his entire ankle shatter into what must have been a thousand broken pieces. He screamed. He cried out in pain as his weight buckled and he rolled on the ground holding the wrecked remains of his once perfect limb. The only thought that consoled him as the pain overtook him was that it would all be for his son. They wouldn't be able to make him fight.

It seemed to take hours for them to find him there like that and carry him off to the triage tent. He screamed the entire time the doctor poked and prodded him. His commanding officer stood overhead holding his shoulders down, yelling at him, screaming as he interrogated him at the same time. It was a crime to injure yourself, to purposefully make yourself unfit for battle and he could tell that was what his officer was trying to do. What were you doing with the hammer? Why were you disobeying orders? Why weren't you with the others? Why had he done this? But before he could answer any questions, he felt the doctor press a bowl of liquid to his lips, and the world went dark.

When he came to the sun was shining through the tent, but he hardly noticed. His leg hurt. It was funny to him how pain in one isolated area could make the rest of his body hurt so badly. It was almost unbearable. He wanted to find the doctor, to see if he had any more of whatever had put him to sleep, but when he looked to his right he saw only empty beds. When he looked to his left he saw-

He let out a small gasp as his heart began to race. On instinct his body attempted to jump off the table and run, momentarily forgetting he could no longer do that! It left him hurting on the table as he stared at what he couldn't peel his eyes away from. A single pair of unseeing eyes looking back at him.

It was Rolf.

He was dead. There was blood all around him. The sheets were stained with it. The wound looked as though it had come from his chest. Dead. Rolf was dead. The last time he'd seen him he'd been alive, walking and talking, and now...

He wanted so bad to try and get away from such an awful sight but found the pain in his ankle forbid it. And as he finally began to calm down he was aware that it wasn't just pain he felt in his ankle, but a strange stiffness as well. It was too difficult to move.

After taking a breath or two, he tore his eyes from Rolf's body to look down. Sticks had been set around it and wrapped tight. As he lay his head back down, unsure where he should look, he cried out. It was only then that the doctor and an unfamiliar officer came in. The doctor was covered in blood up to his elbows but quickly went to Rolf's side and hitched a sheet up over his pale face.

"That's the last of them, Sir. There were no survivors."

No survivors. He'd gone to sleep and when he woke up the world around him had changed so it was hardly recognizable. The camp was now occupied by a different regiment than he'd originally come with, no faces were familiar. The only ones from his own regiment who had survived the battle were those who did not fight at all, those like him who had been injured. The new officer in charge questioned him, though it was all half-hearted. He had no idea his history and only knew what the doctor told him, that he'd been injured under suspicious circumstances by a hammer.

Rumpelstiltskin stuck to his story, looking him in the eye each time he told it just as his father had once told him to make a con successful and gain the victim's trust.

Someone in his unit had asked him to fetch it and he'd misjudged how heavy it was. He'd dropped it on himself. It was an accident.

Dropped it on his ankle? Not his foot?

Yes. It was because of the terrain, a one in a million chance — a foot caught in the wrong place at the wrong time with a hammer in hand.

He knew that he didn't believe him, but with his former officer's dead, there was no one to refute his claim. They promised to send him home with the others the next time a cart came free since walking was out of the question.

He argued and fought. He knew how rare free supply carts were, they were on the front! It would be months before they came his way. He had to go! He had a wife and child back home, if he wasn't going to be paid as a soldier anymore then he had to get home to provide for his family the only way he knew how! The doctor fought him, told him that the only other option was to walk but if he did that the way his ankle was now he would cripple himself for life! He needed to remain still, give the bones time to heal, and with any luck, his ankle would heal perhaps to the point that one day he might be able to put weight on it again.

He considered his words very carefully, but ultimately decided against it. It was the new regiment, the way they looked at him when they came in for small things like broken fingers or splinters or cuts. It was the way they treated him, looking at him like he was the worst person they'd known, maybe even worse than the ogres, that finally got to him and pushed him out the door. It was the fact that even though the army cleared him of charges, everyone knew what had really happened to the man with a broken leg in the infirmary.

They didn't understand. They didn't know his history and could never know what it was like without a father and why he'd done this. He wanted to leave. The doctor found a thick branch and gave him a satchel with leaves he could brew in a tea for the pain and leaves he could chew to keep him awake if he got tired. Through all the urgings not to do this he sent him off early one morning before the men were awake and he put the battlefield and the prophecy behind him. There, the future wasn't as set in stone as she'd thought. There had been no actions on the battlefield, and though every step made him want to scream curses, he knew that at least his child, his son, would not grow up fatherless.

He walked for weeks. The time blended together. His leg was useless. Every step was agony, with every little bit of pressure that he put on it he could feel the shattered fragments of his bones shift and grind together. It felt like pieces of glass beneath his skin, but in his mind's eye he had a goal. It was Milah, standing by the fire with a baby in her arms, a smile on her face when she saw he'd come home from the war alive for her, for his son, for their family. She'd understand. He didn't need an ankle to spin, or weave, or sew, or knit. Their dream of getting sheep would be put on hold until their son was old enough to shepherd and Milah could make the delivery runs for him until his leg healed. Things were going to be difficult, but they could make it work. And she would understand, especially when he explained to her that it was the price to keep his life. Compared to death, the small changes would be nothing.

He nearly cried on the day he saw the town sitting just over the ridge. He'd walked for so long he'd lost track of the days, but he knew it was nearly a year since he'd gone. If she'd truly been pregnant and the pregnancy had finally taken, they would have a child by now. She'd have given birth not long ago. He was excited and nervous as he hobbled through the dark town. Occasionally he would see someone out and note their wide eyes on him as he passed them. He ignored their gazes and fixed his eyes only on their house.

"Milah! Milah!" he cried finally close enough that she might hear him through the windows. The end was in sight! He couldn't wait to sit down. And he wouldn't mind it if Milah ruined the picture in his head by running out and letting him put some of his weight on her. "Milah! Milah?" he opened the door to their home-

"Rumple!"

Milah had said something, but he didn't comprehend it. All thoughts ceased as he made a move to shut the door and take in the scene around him. Oh, it was just as he imagined. There she was, standing by the fire. Her arms were draped with a blanket, and somewhere in the folds, nearly the same color of the blanket, was a tiny sleeping face, black wispy hair just visible from the shadows. A child. A son.

"Wh-what's his name?" he demanded limping forward. Weeks of hobbling around only imagining him had sparked a desire in him for this one simple thing. He had a son. What had she named his son? What would he call his boy from this day forward?

She looked down at the small child cradled against her chest. "Baelfire," she whispered.

"A strong name!" he cried. A name worthy of a boy unlike the pitiful cursed name his father had given him! Baelfire. Rumpelstiltskin, Milah, and Baelfire. He couldn't have named him better himself.

The events of the last few weeks had left him weak. The little food he'd taken in over the journey had him feeling light-headed, and he tripped over his ankle in an effort to get to him. He collapsed onto the floor by the chair and felt instantly the pressure on his leg leave him as the pressure of a different kind gripped his heart. Nothing could hurt him now. He had his son. He was a father. Now he could show the world he was nothing like his own father. He didn't need a war to do it! He just needed his boy, to be there for him, to teach him to shave, and spin, and knit, and give him advice when he needed. He was thinking too fast. Living an entire life in only a few moments, but it was impossible not to at this moment. He'd been waiting for this for so long!

"Something he'll need if he's to live with the shame of being your son," Milah commented, her voice shaky as he hauled himself into the chair.

Shame? Why would she say a thing like that?

"What…what are you talking about?" he questioned, doing his best to breathe and putting his hands over his leg. He needed more herbs for the pain. But he'd run out yesterday. Perhaps they had a drop of something around that might dull it for him.

"Rumple, is it true?" Milah cried, seemingly oblivious to the pain and joy coursing through him. A fair trade, he was oblivious to what she was talking about.

"Is what true?"

"Did you injure yourself? So that you wouldn't have to fight? So that you would be sent home?"

She looked to be on the verge of tears. She knew. How did she know already? He had only just arrived in town? Who would have told her? He'd wanted to do it himself. To explain the proper way so that she'd understand!

"Who told you that?"

"Everyone!" she shouted. "Rumors travel quickly from the front. Rumple, did you do this to yourself?" she demanded. He'd expected understanding from the woman who hadn't wanted him to go in the first place. He'd expected happiness that he was back, that he'd escaped death and she wouldn't be a widow and their son would be raised with his father. But her tone was anything but understanding. Or happiness. "Did you do it to yourself?!"

"Yes!" he yelled in answer to her screeching. She took a step away from him. Fear and anger mingled in her eyes as their boy began to make noises in her arms and she swayed gently back and forth, coddling him, comforting him. What about him? He'd walked hundreds of miles for her and that boy in her arms! Was disgust all she had to offer? Was she not even going to listen? "A seer told me I was going to die in the battle."

"You did this because a seer told you to do it?" she sneered, looking at him as though he'd been played the fool.

"She was right about everything else," he stated. She had to listen. She had to understand. "I left the front to be with you. You and…Baelfire." And now he was here. And all he wanted was to hold his son. To look at his face, to see himself in his eyes so that he wouldn't see those haunting blue ones anymore.

"You left because you were afraid."

"No!"

"You became what everyone thought you were – a coward.!"

"Stop!"

"Just like your father!"

"I am nothing like my father!" he growled getting to his feet and regretting it instantly. His injury was still new, and it was easy to forget what he could and could not do. He wanted to rush at her, he wanted to shake her and scream she had it all wrong and didn't understand! That it had taken more courage to do this to himself than walk into battle! That his father was a monster who didn't care for him! And his mother wasn't any better! But he couldn't do that. His leg wouldn't let him move! He was lucky he still managed to stand.

"He tried to abandon me. I will never, ever do that to my son," he vowed trying to step closer. It was useless. He couldn't do such things anymore. "That's why I did this. For him. All for the boy. To save him from the same fate I suffered – growing up without a father." He made it no further than their bed before he had to sit down. Without the cane, he'd never get far.

"You sentence him to a fate much worse," Milah whispered with tears in her eyes. "Growing up as your son."

"What…what…what else could I do?!" he argued.

"You could have fought, Rumple. You could have died."

"You don't mean that," he declared, waiting for her to apologize. Where had words like that come from?! Months ago, years ago she'd been angry that he wanted so much to walk into battle and leave her alone now it was all that she wanted?! She was just in shock, angry! She would take it all back and regret those words! She just needed time to see reason! "You don't mean that."

She needed time, but it was clear for the moment, she did mean that. This was no happy reunion. This was not the homecoming he imagined it would be. His wife wished him dead. And his son…

His son.

There was anger in her gaze, a fire he'd not seen in years, since the last time they'd been on opposite ends of this fight. She was near to crying, but she took her steps to him, leaned over and set the bundle she'd been carrying in his arms.

The second he felt the weight on his arms and against his chest he was only vaguely aware of her storming out the front door with the water bucket, for it was the boy in his arms that demanded his attention completely.

"Oh!" he sighed. Oh, he was perfect. So small and clean. His eyelashes were dark as the hair that he had on his head, and his nose was sharp and pointed like Milah's. His skin was her own as well, perfectly pale so that his little ears were translucent and red against the firelight.

"Oh, it's alright, Bae," he breathed as the boy squirmed and fussed in his arms, trying to free one tiny hand with five perfectly formed fingers. "It's alright."

The baby reached up for him and grabbed onto his nose. He nearly lost himself to tears. How many times had he reached out for his own father and he'd never reached back? How many times had he cried out for his Papa and never gotten a response? That was a feeling his son would never know!

"Your Papa's here," he whispered to the child. "And I promise…I will never…ever leave you."

He kissed the child on top of his forehead, so soft and fuzzy it felt like a peach. Then held him tight to his chest as the baby sighed and began to drift off to sleep again, his tiny fist holding onto the tattered remains of his army career as he rocked him.

It was the happiest moment of his life.

Chapter Text

Being lame was a chore. It was an adjustment to everything that he did before he'd gone off to war. It was mostly, of course, the loss of his foot that he felt, but in doing what he'd done, he had also unknowingly lost the use of a hand at times. He walked with a cane now, uneven strides that had him limping along and kept at least one of his hands busy as he used the other to help put the weight of his body on the cane instead of his foot. It was a hardship, but it forced him to be creative, to come up with ways that he could carry additional items like wool and even his infant son around his body so that he could move easily without the fear of dropping something. He was so slow now that every little convenience he could find helped.

The village laughed. They were polite enough not to do it to his face, at least most of the time. But the first time he'd managed to strap his son to his back using a flexible blanket he'd knitted himself for this very purpose, he'd heard them snickering behind his back the entire way into the mountains to collect the wool.

He ignored them. As far as he was concerned, it was of no business to them how he got by, just so long as he got by and they got their thread and yarn and clothes mended. And he did get by. Barely, for the pain he felt in his ankle, the throbbing it did on cold or rainy days or the searing that shot through him when he forgot he couldn't use it and put his weight on it made it very difficult to get by. But they did manage.

The wages Milah had received on his behalf while he'd been in the army had helped as he'd healed, for even doing things that he'd once done perfectly now required some thought to them. When he sat at the Saxony Wheel he had to change which foot he pushed the petal with as his ruined ankle could no longer handle the range of motion that was required to make the wheel spin. It took him a day or so, but eventually, he got the hang of using his other leg to do it. And it baffled him the entire time how something as simple as pushing a petal with another leg could throw everything off balance.

The Great Wheel also proved to be a difficulty, far more than the Saxony Wheel. Two steps forward and three steps back was no longer an option for him. At least not when he was holding wool in one hand and pushing the wheel with his other. He had no third arm to hold him up on his cane. He had to sit to work the Great Wheel and learning how to spin while sitting, where to position the stool, how to move his arm, how fast he had to go to make it work…it all took time like he'd never needed before in the spinning process. Eventually, he did get it, but he now produced wool at a significantly lower rate than he had when he could walk. In the back of his mind he began to think up a plan, a way to make adjustments to the wheel so it was shorter and smaller, easier to work as he sat. But he couldn't for the life of him begin to figure out how he woud manage to put those plans to action if he couldn't stand and work on it.

He did see a doctor for his injury, of course. It was almost the first thing that he'd done when he'd got back to the village. He'd hobbled into town and had someone examine it to see what damage had been done on his long walk home back to his son. But the doctor had been less than helpful. It wasn't a nose that he could rebreak and realign in an attempt to correct it. He suspected that multiple bones had been broken in his foot and ankle, and at least one fractured, if not broken, in his leg. The joint was shattered. It would heal stiff. Breaking it again would pulverize the already broken pieces and make it worse, not better.

"Is there anything else I can do? Anything at all?"

"There's always magic," the doctor had suggested as he struggled to get his boot back on. "My understanding is that once something has healed sorcerers can't do much to fix it but perhaps they'd have better luck. A fairy for instance-"

"No! I'll not be calling on any fairy magic to fix this!" he shouted, waking the sleeping Baelfire across the room. He hadn't meant to shout, but the suggestion of the fairy magic had hit a nerve and lucky for him the doctor didn't question it. He simply picked Baelfire up from where he'd set him and handed him over so that he could soothe the boy. It was something he was surprisingly good at. "Fairy's have done enough damage in my life," he muttered when he finally got Bae quiet again.

"A sorcerer might be able to do some good if it's rebroken, but he'd likely charge you a steep price," the doctor went on, as though the outburst had never happened. "I'm told healing bone is harder than normal injuries and far more susceptible to reinjury."

"I don't have the money for that." He'd given him hope for all of two seconds before dashing it.

The doctor sighed. "That's what I suspected. In that case, your answer is tea."

"Tea?"

"Yes, tea," the doctor turned his back to the shelves of herbs and began to mix various ones together in a burlap sack, that he recognized as one that he'd made years ago. "Have your wife brew you a tea with these herbs. It'll help with the pain when it comes." He took the medicine and left the doctor, Bae tied to his back as always, but didn't dare to mention the one problem with his recommendation. Milah.

His marriage was ruined. It seemed to dissolve in front of his eyes the day he got back from the war. Milah was nothing like the happy woman he'd once known. She was nothing even like the sad, scared woman he once knew. She was cold. And unfeeling. She lacked the sympathy that she'd had when they'd first been married, and the determination to keep trying as well. At first, when he'd gotten back from the war, he'd been hopeful that it was a phase, that once the shock of it all faded they might get back into a routine again and she'd apologize to him for what she'd said and how she'd said it. But it never came. And on the day that he informed her he had to go talk to Margery, Rolf's widow, he'd felt a cold chill enter their household. She hadn't known Rolf was dead. Part of him hoped that if she learned he'd died it might be enough to make her realize what was truly at stake, but it seemed to have the opposite effect on her; just as the news had on Margery.

He'd told her everything that Rolf wanted him to, that he loved her and hadn't said it enough, and that he loved the children. He expected tears from her, for her to run away screaming or crying, but Margery stood firm. A baby only a little older than Bae on her hip she'd taken a deep breath as he apologized to her. "I'm sorry, Margery. I know it's of little comfort, but he wanted you to know…"

"It's something," she stated with a small smile. "Thank you, Rumpelstiltskin." She kissed him on the cheek and turned to go back into the house, a glint in her eye mingled with unshed tears. Milah, however, was furious when he returned.

"Did you tell her then? Did you tell her that her husband died in the same battle that you ran away from? That you abandoned him in his hour of need?!"

He wanted to shout, to yell and scream at her at all those words that made his chest tighten. But he managed to keep his temper in check as he sat in front of the wheel once more.

"Milah, we've been over this before. How many more times until we put it to bed?"

"At least once more!" she hissed with poison in her tone as she grabbed the empty water bucket. "As it always will be!" she screamed, slamming the door behind her and waking Bae on her way out.

He never did tell her what Rolf told him to tell her. Though he'd passed the message on to Margery and he had a dozen opportunities to tell Milah he never spoke about it. Some days he came close, but the words never quite made it out of his mouth. He was almost certain it was because he wouldn't be able to get the words out without demanding to know exactly what he had been sorry for. Though in some ways, he came to believe that was no better, for in the darkness of his mind he created things he might be sorry for. Not making it to the well in time to marry her himself. Marrying Margery. Having children with Margery. Sometimes, in the dark of the night when Milah hadn't come home, and he looked at his son, asleep on their bed, he even wondered if it was possible that he was…

It was a ridiculous thought. One he wasn't even going to give words to, no matter how bad things between him and Milah got. For the truth was that it was clear after years of fighting and waiting for sympathy and understanding and adjustment that his son was all he truly had.

Milah liked to spend her time away from him. In the years that followed she'd taken up visiting the town more and more often, leaving him and Bae behind in the small house on their own while she left to do gods knew what. It was becoming more and more normal for Milah to come home and pour herself into bed before dawn. Sometimes when she came home she acted as she once had, saying kind words and pushing her body towards his own as if she wanted him, but he didn't surrender to her. He couldn't. The smell of alcohol on her breath and the taste of it on her tongue reminded him too much of his father. Besides, he suspected that it wasn't really him she wanted, just the use of his body. And it was enough to make him start sleeping in the chair by the fire just to avoid her. Of course, that brought it's own complications with it as well, an old issue that had suddenly resurfaced. The other villagers had noticed how they seemed to be the only couple with just one child. They wondered why they hadn't had more and Milah, despite the fact that she was getting much older than normal couples who safely bore children in their village were, wondered about it too. Given the state of their marriage and family life, he couldn't say he was saddened or surprised by it.

It did distress him to see just how much that had grown in their marriage only to see it fail so badly in the end. But he found joy in the relationship he developed with his son. He had somehow become his primary caregiver as well as supporter. Often times he felt he was playing the role of mother and father. And he was surprisingly okay with that. It was he, and not Milah, who was there when Bae first sat up on his own, crawled, walked, and finally let out his first word "eat". It was he who kept track of Baelfire's height on his cane as he grew taller each year. And it was he who taught him to spin, though he supposed that no matter his relationship with Milah he was always destined to teach him that.

He taught him how to spin on the Saxony Wheel just as he'd been taught by his aunts long ago. Bae didn't pick it up as quickly as he did as a child, though he supposed no one had. And Baelfire was often happy enough to sit on his lap, though the extra weight hurt his leg, as he sat and spun at the great wheel. Still, he reveled in the feel of his son's body against his, the smell of his hair, the way he'd clung to him since he was a baby wanting and needing him as no one ever had before. This was his purpose in life, the first time he'd felt like he had any sense of meaning since spinning came around. He was meant to be a father. Bae's father.

Milah was around, she did her part to keep the house afloat when asked though often with a dark glare. She did not enjoy the fact that chopping wood was now her job, or that she was responsible for going up the hill to collect the wool or going into town to sell their product. That was how their fight had started. She'd come home late again, her voice slurred, her steps uneasy, and money was missing. The first three complaints he could ignore and had been ignoring, but it was the last that he couldn't. Not when they had a child who was hungry, not when she said "wool doesn't sell like it used to" with alcohol on her breath, and not when she hadn't done any mending or weaving in over a year! She couldn't put that kind of pressure on him to provide for his son when she was just going to squander their fortune. As far as he was concerned that made her far more like his father than he was!

"We should go then! We should leave and just start a new life somewhere else!"

"Keep your voice down! Baelfire is asleep!"

"We should leave and just start a new life somewhere else!"

"With what money?! Where would we go that we could afford to build a new house?"

"It's not about a new house! We could start fresh, outrun the dreadful reputation that you and your father have saddled us with! Somewhere the ghosts won't haunt us!"

"I've lived as a boy with no home before, I won't put my son through the same ordeal I suffered!"

"But you'll put him through this hellhole, won't you, Rumpelstiltskin!"

"Milah!"

"I've had enough!"

"Milah!"

She'd been home all of five minutes, five loud, screeching minutes, before she'd gone again, slamming the door behind her. And up in the loft his eyes were naturally drawn to the one thing moving in the still house, Baelfire.

The minute he saw him, Baelfire pulled the blanket up over his head as if that would be enough to hide him, but it was too late. "Bae…I'm sorry we woke you, are you alright," he called at the base of the ladder that led to the loft Bae slept in. He couldn't climb it with his leg the way it was, but Bae could. When no answer came he wasn't surprised to see his four-year-old son begin to descend. There were tears in his eyes as he reached out and clung to his father, burying his eyes into the fabric of his trousers.

"Hey now…" he soothed as he rubbed his brown hair, trying to tame the mess that it was. "Let's spin together, things are always better when we spin."

But before he could pick him up with one arm and move them to the great wheel, Bae looked up at him. "Papa, what's a hovel?"

"Hovel...where did you hear that word?"

"Mama just said it. You are making me live in a hovel..."

He let out a sigh though he didn't know if it was one of relief or grief. Hellhole. Milah had called their situation a hellhole. And while that distressed him, he was happy Bae had interpreted it as "hovel".

"Hovel is just another word for 'home', Bae. That's all."

"Papa, is Mama going to leave us?"

There were tears in his eyes that made his heart bleed as he reached down, and picked his son up with his free arm before transferring him into Milah's bed. "No Bae…" he answered as he tucked the blankets around his boy. "No, she'd never leave you, son. Rest your eyes now and all will be well soon." He leaned down and kissed Bae on his forehead. His son trusted him completely. Those words were all that he needed to roll over and close his eyes, believing perfectly what he'd told him, so that he could get to sleep.

He wished things were different after he'd come back from the war. He'd promised that Bae would never have the childhood he had, but as he watched his son cower under a blanket from his loft that evening, he was not sure the life he had was much better.