It’s been a long time since he slept outside like this. He’d talked about taking Tamara camping a time or two, but she never seemed all that interested and after all his years in Neverland, most of the time he felt like he’d just about had his lifetime fill of woods. Even so, there were moments he missed them, times he’d wake from a dream of childhood, sunlight dappled on the forest floor and the sound of his father’s voice, talking softly just over his shoulder. They’d collected firewood together. In those days before the dagger, they’d done just about everything together.
Neal twists and turns for the tenth time in a half hour, tries to tell himself there’s a rock sticking in his back though he knows he swept the ground clean. He knows how to make his own bed, how to dust the earth clean and flat and lay down leaves beneath his blanket, if they’re available. One blanket down, one on top, a log or a rock wrapped in his cloak for a pillow. In his lost years, that would’ve been perfect. The setup he has now is technically better, close to the warmth of a dying fire. He’d have been out like a light, before.
Mulan would say(as she had, not two hours ago) that he should’ve stayed in the castle with her and Robin, but it was easy enough to feign the need to sleep near the gate outside for wariness’ sake. With her warrior’s heart, she might just be able to believe that he wanted to be ready to hear any newcomers on the road. More than likely, she saw right through him, but she didn’t ask and he was grateful.
No matter what Robin might say about how long the castle had been uninhabited, it certainly didn’t feel that way. He could feel Rumpelstiltskin in every stone, his magic rising like a creeping mist to blanket the air. If he had spoken of it, he’d have called it stifling. Out here, alone with the chill of the air and a slight scent of roses, he can't deny he’d been able to breathe just fine. Like the old walking stick had, this castle knew him; he had felt it from the moment he entered the doors. His father’s magic clung to him like an arm across his shoulders, and though Mulan had stepped warily he’d walked across flagstones that seemed to grow just a bit softer beneath his feet. In that place, he’d had no fear. No magic of his father’s could ever harm him, not directly.
Underneath it all, Rumpelstiltskin was a spinner and weaver still, and his creations were marvelous to behold. There was no doubt that in every pattern he’d ever laid, he’d woven a strand for his Baelfire.
Baelfire. It had been one thing to hear his father say the word but another to speak it for himself, to feel the ripple of magic stir across the surface of his skin as he let it fall.
He had never lived here. Coming to this place should not feel like coming home.
Regardless, he is too restless for sleep. Nights like this, he’s learned it’s best to give up gracefully. The crystal ball is still with him, wrapped in a shirt and nestled in the pack just at his side. He unwraps it slow after he sits up, the crystal unnervingly warm against his palm. This thing isn’t of Rumpelstiltskin’s making; it doesn’t give under his fingers the way the walking stick had, the way the doors of the castle swung wide to meet him. There is old magic here, and it resents his intrusion.
He licks dry lips, almost speaks aloud before he remembers that with magic, the best work is done by those turned inwards. The spoken word, he’d been told, was a thing of street magicians, of flash and inferiority.
He presses his palms flat to the sides, struggles to clear his mind. If he’s going to ask this question, he can’t let his worry for Emma and Henry get in the way. He knows where they are; he knows she’s deep in a world she can’t understand. He knows Pan has his son. Nothing he can do yet can bring him to their side any faster, and it certainly won’t help his nerves to keep looking. Not too often, at least.
A few deep breaths, and he manages to clear the jumble and refocus.
Show me my father.
It startles him how easy it is to want it, how the need rises hot in him the minute he gives it rein. A sharp pain comes with it, and he gasps against the cage of his ribs, too close to a sob. In the back of his mind, a tired voice chastises- This is why you can’t let him back in, not now. You want it too much; you always have.
A few weeks ago, he might have listened, but in the time since he has held his father’s hand. No matter the words he spoke after, in that one moment his defenses were already ruined. There is no turning back now. He may fight it, but he will let the Dark One in as far as he’s willing to walk; the best he can do now is prepare himself for the damage. But not yet, not yet. For now, he can look.
He opens eyes he hadn’t meant to close, lets the image in the ball fill them up. The vision is clear, as strong and sharp as Emma’s face, as Henry’s. Kneeling on the floor so long ago, Rumpelstiltskin had cupped his hands over Bae’s, a warm glow seeping from the edges as he healed the mouse Bae had brought him. Magic rooted in love, he said, was unmistakable. The greatest power of all.
In Neverland, Rumpelstiltskin kneels in the dirt. White glimpses of a thing clutched to his chest show between his fingers, body hunched forward as his shoulders shake with sobs. Behind him stretches the wild of the jungle, of Neverland. Even had he looked back from a thousand years on, he'd know any stretch of that island at a glance. Neal jerks, his grip on the ball fumbling as his fingers bang into the surface, the pointless result of the nonsensical urge to reach. This is no looking glass; try as he might there will never be a way through.
“Papa…” Even whispered, it burns his throat. What the hell was he doing there? No force could have pulled him through a portal, not unless-
Unless Pan took Henry, and like Emma, he followed. Followed, and did for his grandson what he’d failed to do for his son. And if he’d gone with Emma, then she’d have told how Neal fell away from her fingers into a swirling unknown, shot in the chest and bleeding out. In a world where emotion is everything, he's stepped foot on the shore already drowning.
The ball drops, Neal's fingers gone too numb to hold it. The soft thud of its weight against his thigh is startling enough to make him twitch, but though he half reaches for it he can’t lift it again. Just as well; he can’t look anymore. He’d put on a good front in his old apartment, but he could never bear to see his father cry. It tore at him, took him back to the days just before his almost conscription, to the last afternoons when Rumpelstiltskin’s arms around him hadn’t tingled with magic, nights when he woke to the sound of not quite muffled tears. No stretch could call those last weeks good times, and still he’d missed them.
Sleep was elusive before, but it'd be impossible now.
The walk to the doors of the castle seems even shorter than he remembered, and he stops at the threshold to rub his hands together before reaching out to touch the door. His fingertips only just brush the surface before the doors turn inward of their own accord, soundless in the night despite their noisy creaks of afternoon. Magic beckons him in, a radiating warmth that seems to seep to his bones. Were he to ask for a pot of tea, he’s half sure the table in the foyer would materialize it.
His fingers trail the inside wall, catching here and there on the joinings of the stones. Not far in two hallways fork, and he stops at the crossroads, sensing. He seeks not the deepest seat of pure magic, but the highest concentration of the kind that clung to Rumpelstiltskin himself. Somewhere there’s a workshop; he can feel its spicy tint to the air. It holds power that defies description, but it’s never been power that draws him. He never wanted it here, and he never sought it on earth, either. He’ll take the simple every time, choose the feel of the kind of magic that strokes at him like a cat over the kind that tingles at the back of his neck.
The pull is greater to his left. A single step in that direction, and the torches that line his chosen corridor blaze to life. In the light, he catches the way the rug beneath his feet is still straightening itself at a point several paces ahead. For his eyes, this place so long disused tries valiantly to shine.
He takes five more turns before he reaches a door so thick with magic he wonders at the fact that the wood isn’t hot to the touch. It’s cool as stone, nondescript but for a tiny carving of a lamb beside the keyhole. The lock as all the others clicks open at his touch, and he gains entrance to a room that obviously wasn’t his father’s. He’d been so sure he’d find it, certain the deepest memory this place would hold of Rumpelstiltskin would be in his own chambers.
Instead, this room is saturated with him, this confusing place with its carved half size canopy bed beside a ragged little spinning wheel so old it’s nearly rotting. Bae learned to spin, there. He knows the motions still, though a stubborn hurt in his chest tells him he wouldn’t quite remember, not anymore. He was too accustomed to going through the work with smaller fingers, his father’s larger ones guiding over his.
The whole room is a jumbled mess of old and new, the rough clothes of a young spinner’s son hung side by side with fine leather that might have fit him as a proper teenager, around the time he’d been learning how to hotwire a car. The books on the bookshelf are the same, three tattered volumes Bae remembered from childhood stacked lovingly beside three rows of bright new hardbacks of varying sizes. On one post of the elaborate bed, his old sheepdog’s collar hangs. From the door, he can see its shine- it’s been oiled, kept new in this place that is chaotic without disarray, half shrine half gift, made by a father unsure when his chance might come.
“All this, and no way out?”
The air shudders in the wake of his voice.
“What is it with you? I mean you can put all this together, but you give me no way to contact you? No way out? You gonna tell me it never occurred to you that we might get separated, not even after everything that happened before? I mean goddamn, didn’t you learn-“
Not even rage can carry him any farther; he still sees Rumpelstiltskin on his knees.
“You plan for everything; don’t you dare tell me you didn’t plan for this!” His voice goes unsteady there, and still it echoes. If the castle doesn’t shield them he’ll wake Mulan and Robin soon, if he hasn’t already. In a flurry of movement he punches the doorjamb, gratified at the sting, though it doesn’t last. The space over his knuckles shimmers, knitting the split in his skin. Only the blood remains.
He rubs it off on his jeans, stomach turning at the flare of memory the sight brings him, unbidden. Pan had a taste for the slight of blood, but then Pan had a taste for lots of things. God forbid his games ever cease to entertain. He’s a cat who does his best to pied piper his mice, and just about then, he has to be purring. Neal’s entire family, drawn right between his claws.
The stone is grounding as he leans into it, presses his forehead to its cool surface. Magic flits around him, anxious and calculating. To the right, he hears the rustle of the sheets turning down on his narrow bed.
You shouldn’t have gone after him. Pan’ll kill you, you idiot.
I love you. I still love you.
The castle has ears, but he bites his tongue. If he’s going to do magic, he’ll need to hold onto that power.