Reaching Out 'Til We Reach the Circle's End - Dragonbat (2024)

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Chapter One Chapter Text Chapter 2: Chapter Two Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 3: Chapter Three Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 4: Chapter Four Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 5: Chapter Five Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 6: Chapter Six Chapter Text Chapter 7: Chapter Seven Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 8: Chapter Eight Chapter Text Chapter 9: Chapter Nine Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 10: Chapter Ten Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 11: Chapter Eleven Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 12: Chapter Twelve Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 13: Chapter Thirteen Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 14: Chapter Fourteen Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 15: Chapter Fifteen Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 16: Chapter Sixteen Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 17: Chapter Seventeen Chapter Text Chapter 18: Chapter Eighteen Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 19: Chapter Nineteen Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 20: Chapter Twenty Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 21: Chapter Twenty-One Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 22: Chapter Twenty-Two Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 23: Chapter Twenty-Three Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 24: Chapter Twenty-Four Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 25: Chapter Twenty-Five Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 26: Chapter Twenty-Six Chapter Text Chapter 27: Chapter Twenty-Seven Chapter Text Chapter 28: Chapter Twenty-Eight Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 29: Chapter Twenty-Nine Chapter Text Chapter 30: Chapter Thirty Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 31: Chapter Thirty-One Chapter Text Chapter 32: Chapter Thirty-Two Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 33: Chapter Thirty-Three Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 34: Chapter Thirty-Four Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 35: Chapter Thirty-Five Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 36: Chapter Thirty-Six Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 37: Chapter Thirty-Seven Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 38: Chapter Thirty-Eight Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 39: Chapter Thirty-Nine Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 40: Chapter Forty Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 41: Chapter Forty-One Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 42: Chapter Forty-Two Chapter Text Chapter 43: Chapter Forty-Three Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 44: Chapter Forty-Four Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 45: Chapter Forty-Five Notes: Chapter Text Chapter 46: Chapter Forty-Six Notes: Chapter Text Notes: Chapter 47: Chapter Forty-Seven Notes: Chapter Text FAQs

Chapter 1: Chapter One

Chapter Text

On a prayer, in a song
I hear your voice and it keeps me hanging on
Raining down, against the wind
I'm reaching out 'til we reach the circle's end
When you come back to me again

Garth Brooks, Jenny Yates, "When You Come Back to Me Again"

Chapter One

"Come for another beating, Sis?" Zelena asked mockingly.

Regina smiled back. "No," she replied. "I came for some jewelry." She reached out to snatch the green-stone choker from her sister's neck, but a blast of pure magic flung her to the ground.

Zelena noted with satisfaction that the time portal was nearly ready. She just needed another few seconds. "Beautiful One," she called calmly, "if you will?"

The flying monkey swooped down from the barn rafters, teeth and claws extended toward Robin Hood and David. David shoved his companion out of the way and faced the monkey, sword extended.

"Remember!" Robin shouted, "These creatures are our friends!"

"Don't worry," David replied grimly. "I'll use a gentle touch."

Hating himself, but helpless to hold back, Rumple readied his power. "Unfortunately," he said, "that's not an option for me." Despite his words, though, he managed to fling them into the bales of stacked hay against the wall, so that an impact that might have left them bruised or bloody merely knocked the wind out of them.

Regina was struggling to her feet and Zelena toyed with the idea of throttling her once and for all. But the portal was open, and once she went through it and accomplished what she intended, she wouldn't just take her sister's life. She'd have it.

"Rumple!" she ordered. "The portal! Come with me now! Chop-chop!"

Immediately, and with no small relief, Rumple broke off his attack and obeyed. And as he leaped toward the swirling vortex, he couldn't help hoping that some way, somehow, Bae would be waiting for him on the other side.

Regina watched in horror as the two figures ran for the portal. "NO!" she cried, as they stepped through. And then, a blast of magic burst from her fingertips. It wasn't the usual purple smoke, she realized in astonishment. In fact, it looked rather like the Savior's Light magic. But that wasn't possible.

Or was it?

In the instant before the portal closed, she was sure she saw the blast hit her sister's shoulder blade, but whether it had done any good was something she couldn't say. And then, she heard a baby's cry and saw David race to pick up his son.

"Here," Robin said, holding something out to her. She blinked, and realized that it was her heart.

"What the bloody hell just happened, Your Majesty?" Hook demanded.

Regina shook her head. "You saw what just happened. They went through." She frowned. "So now, I suppose we have another question: why are we still here?"

Emma, silent until now, said, "Maybe, something… went wrong."

"Well, if they changed anything, then our memories probably changed too, so we won't remember how things went in the first place," Regina said. She frowned. "Did that make any sense at all?"

David looked down at the baby and smiled. "We can try to figure things out later. Right now," he looked at Emma, "since you've got your hands free, call your mother. Tell her we're on our way back with your bro—"

Another vortex of swirling light appeared before them without warning. And a slender figure in a ragged black suit staggered forward, tottered for a moment, and dropped heavily to one knee, still leaning on a wooden cane.

Regina blinked. "Rumple?" she asked disbelievingly. She strode toward him and, when he made no move to rise, dropped to his level. "Rumple," she repeated more softly. "Are you… all right?"

His eyes were tightly closed, but not tightly enough to prevent a tear from breaking free, as he mumbled something she couldn't quite hear.

"Sorry?"

"I lost him," he repeated hoarsely. "I lost him again."

Chapter 2: Chapter Two

Notes:

A/N: My Google-Fu failed me. I couldn't find a named female bandit in any fairytale, nor an unnamed one that would be easily recognized (by which I mean someone like Cora, the "miller's daughter". It doesn't matter that the miller's daughter has no name in the traditional story; we all knew who Cora was pretty quick.) Instead, I turned to a list of female pirates and plucked out: Charlotte de Berry –supposedly born in 1636, although there were no known records of her until exactly one hundred years later, leading to many believing that she never existed and is purely fictional.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

As Zelena leaped into the portal, one thought was uppermost in her mind. Take me to my mother, when she first discovered that she was pregnant with me. And if circ*mstances had been different, then, most likely, that would have been precisely where she'd ended up. There were, however, two elements that she hadn't considered before making the jump: the man she'd ordered to accompany her had a different destination in mind… And being clipped by a bolt of light magic—particularly when one wasn't braced to expect it—was a painful experience. Painful enough, in fact, to break one's focus, right when it was crucial to maintain it. And in that fateful moment, that was precisely what Regina's bolt did.

It probably wouldn't have made much difference, had Rumple not been with her. But of course, and by her own command, Rumple had been with her. And so, while the two of them did, in fact, end up in the Enchanted Forest, it was at a time and place of Rumple's choosing.

And that, of course, made all the difference…

They landed heavily and lay half-dazed for a moment, before struggling to rise; the grasses on which they'd landed were damp and slippery. Zelena was on her feet first, and looked about curiously. The sky was overcast, but rain didn't appear imminent. She was standing in high grasses that came nearly to her hips, about a hundred yards off from a wide dirt road. Clearly, it had rained earlier, even from here, she could see long narrow puddles of brown water—wheel ruts, most likely. Evidently, the road was well-used. She turned, glowering a bit when she realized that the rain hadn't spared the ground on which she was standing; her boot made a sucking sound as it pulled free of the mud, and it squished when she set it down again. Not too far off—perhaps a quarter of a mile, or so—she could make out an expanse of trees, probably a forest. She didn't see any people or houses, but the road had to go somewhere.

She pulled out the dagger. "Get up," she snapped. "Where are we?"

Rumple staggered to his feet from his half-crouch and glanced at their surroundings. "If you'd like my best guess, I'd say we've arrived in the Enchanted Forest—" He cringed as she raised the blade and held up his hands, palms outward.

"Be more specific!" she hissed. "Where's my mother? Where's Princess Ava?"

Rumple shook his head. "I don't know!" he yelped, backing away and trying not to stumble in the mud and weeds.

"You grew up in this land!" Zelena retorted, controlling her temper with a visible effort. "Now, stop sniveling and tell me where we are!"

At once, Rumple straightened up and made an elaborate show of looking around. "We appear to be somewhere in the countryside," he said dryly. "As to which country, well, dearie, it was your spell and your portal, now. Surely you must know."

Zelena stifled a shriek. "Doesn't any part of this look familiar to you?"

Rumple smiled. "Why, yes. Of course it does. This," he gestured to the road in front of them, "is a road, and that would be the edge of a forest, and going by the position of the sun," he pointed toward the clouds and the faint light struggling to break through their cover, "and the temperature," he shrugged, "I make it as late spring, perhaps five o'clock in the afternoon, or thereabouts. That's assuming a temperate climate, of course." He shrugged. "I'm afraid I can't be more specific without a map or a route marker of some kind."

Zelena gave him a furious look and raised the dagger once more. "Get on the road," she ordered. "It obviously leads somewhere. Hopefully, to someone a sight more helpful than y—" Something grabbed her ankle and she went down heavily with a surprised yelp—a yelp that was stifled almost immediately when a hand in a worn glove of heavy leather clamped firmly over her mouth. Startled, Rumple's eyes darted about wildly, as a dozen or so rough-looking people rose from the high weeds, four of them leveling crossbows directly at him.

With no orders from Zelena, Rumple was free to act as he saw fit, and at the moment, he saw fit to conceal his magic. He had no idea where—or when—he was, and he suspected he'd get more answers if he pretended to be as helpless as they presumed him to be. Though he doubted they'd be inclined to answer his questions, he might learn something yet, if he paid attention. So he raised his hands slowly, and made no show of belligerence, as one of the four approached him cautiously and patted him down. Finding no weapons, the man thrust a hand into each of his suit pockets and uttered an oath Rumple hadn't heard in centuries when it came away empty. "He's got nowt, Charlotte," he called in disgust.

Another of the bandits—a hard-faced woman with a knife-scar that ran from the corner of her left eye to the base of her ear gave a brief nod, as she advanced toward Zelena and, almost casually, stomped on the hand that still held his dagger. She picked it up, examined it, and tucked it into her belt. Then, smiling, she reached out and tore the choker from Zelena's neck, while the witch struggled in her captor's grasp.

"Well, this one makes up for it," she said grimly. A thin smile creased her weathered face. "We'll feed for a month on what this'll bring!"

There was a ragged cheer from the others—almost as ragged as the homespun shirts they all wore under their worn leather jerkins. Rumple gritted his teeth. He abhorred thieves, but going by those clothes, and the gaunt faces of those who bore them, he imagined that it had been more than a month since any of them had eaten well.

Zelena was still struggling and, going by the muffled sounds coming from behind her captor's glove, cursing a blue streak. Another bandit lunged forward to press the flat of his blade to Zelena's throat. "No twitching, if you please, milady," he said. "I'm new to this life, still some'at nervous," he went on, "and this blade's sharp. I'd hate for it to slip."

Charlotte, who seemed to be in command, remarked, "The first kill is always the hardest, lad. Might be a good thing to get it over with now."

Zelena's eyes widened and she seemed, for the first time, to realize her danger, as she stopped fighting. The youth never took his eyes off her. "If you order it, Charlotte," he said, after the barest hesitation.

"What are we to do with them, then?" one of the others—the youth who'd patted him down, asked and Rumple tensed.

Charlotte shrugged. "Press gangs won't take women and the man's too old. We can't feed 'em, and I'll not waste good crossbow bolts on some'at we can't eat unless we have to. And since our lone swordsman's disinclined…" She shrugged and waved her hand. At her signal, the four covering Rumple lowered their weapons. The one pinioning Zelena released her with a shove and she fell forward, onto her elbows with a dismayed cry. "Let 'em go," she said.

"Should we take an eye?" one of the others asked. "Or an ear?" Zelena blanched at that, though her defiant expression didn't waver. Rumple went cold. Immortal he might be, but that didn't mean he could make a severed limb grow back! His instincts told him that this was probably just posturing on the bandits' part. Even so, Charlotte seemed to be giving the question serious consideration.

"No," she said finally. "Just drive 'em to the road and leave be, so long's they stay on it."

Rumple thought quickly. These people clearly had no idea what his dagger was; he wasn't even certain that they could read. But he couldn't let them carry it off. Sooner or later, it was bound to fall into the hands of someone who would recognize it. "Please," he whimpered, cringing a bit—partly for show and partly because he truly hated having to play this part; he'd done more than enough groveling in the past year. "Please, Missy, y-you can't mean to send us off with nothing. How will we buy food or find lodging?"

The bandit leader shrugged. "Not my problem."

"B-but what if we're set upon by others in your profession? You've taken all we have; we'll have nothing to give them and no way to defend ourselves!" He forced his dignity down even further and sank to his knees. "Please, you can keep the bauble, j-just give us a few coppers and a blade!"

Charlotte smiled. "A blade," she repeated drawing the syllables out as she pulled forth the dagger once more. "You want it?" She laughed coldly. "Well then. Come and get it!"

He'd never been so happy to receive an order in his life. He leapt for the dagger, only mildly annoyed when she tossed it to one of her people.

"Come now, dearie," he murmured. "You're like to take someone's eye out that way."

He was almost unprepared when his Curse goaded him forward. Of course. He'd been issued a clear order to take the dagger and he couldn't have disobeyed it had he wanted to. He lunged toward the woman who held it now, only to watch her toss it to another of the bandits.

"You fools!" Zelena raged. "Don't—"

"Quiet!" Charlotte snapped, cuffing her lightly. "This is between us and your companion. Who knows? He might even win." She smirked. "Though I rather doubt it." She stretched out her hand, ready to catch the dagger when her henchman whipped it back in her direction.

It never reached her. The blade vanished in midair and the bandit leader's eyes darted wildly back and forth before she saw that Rumple held it in his hand.

Rumpelstiltskin giggled. And then, with a wave of his other hand, a blast of magic knocked the bandits off their feet and onto the muddy ground. He swept them a mocking bow. "My thanks to you, good woman," he said merrily. "I'd nearly despaired of ever getting this back again."

His gaze fell on Zelena, who had suddenly grown quite pale. He giggled again and raised his hand once more. Zelena rose ten feet into the air, her hands clawing vainly at an invisible force that seemed to be wrapped about her throat. Rumple let her hang there for several agonizing seconds before he withdrew his magic and she crashed to the ground, sprawling in an undignified heap.

He stood over her menacingly. "Now," he said with deceptive mildness. "What was it you told me once about frustration? Ah, yes. That it can be intoxicating. On others." He smirked. "I believe I see the appeal, now."

Zelena stared furiously up at him. "If you're going to kill me, just get it over with."

Rumple giggled. "Oh, no, dearie. If I kill you now, you'll never learn just how badly you've failed. Killing you now would be a mercy you scarcely deserve."

"So, it's to be torture, then?" the witch spat back.

Rumple's smile was a terrifying thing. "I believe it will be. Oh, not at my hands; there's no need for that. You've made your own bed, dearie. I think I'll let you lie in it. Unless I'm much mistaken, you won't be meeting your mother anytime soon." His eyebrows lifted. "But, worry not. You shall meet her in the end, for all the good it will do you. For now?" His smirk vanished. "Although you didn't intend it, you've done me a favor. In return, I grant you your life. This time. But should our paths cross again, I promise you that we shall have the reckoning I'm choosing to forego now."

He turned to the bandit leader. "The pendant you plucked from her?"

Charlotte glowered and started to reach into her jerkin. Rumple shook his head. "I don't want it, dearie. Keep it with my blessing. Or sell it, as I'm sure you intend. But I wouldn't return it to its owner," he cautioned. "It's the source of her power. Without it, she's vulnerable. With it…"

Charlotte's eyes widened slightly, but she gave him a quick nod of understanding. "Do I want to know who you are?"

"Probably not," Rumple replied. "But perhaps, you could answer me three questions?"

"Which are…?"

Rumple spread his hands in a deprecating gesture. "The name of the next village, the name of its feudal overlord, and the year of his or her reign."

The bandit chief turned the questions over in her mind. "And once I answer you, once I give you what you want, you'll allow us to leave with our lives and our possessions?"

Rumple swept her a bow with a flourish. "You have my word."

She nodded. "I suppose you'll find out one way or another, and if you mean to kill us afterwards, I can't stop you." She took a breath. "You're two leagues south from Pen Marmor held by His Grace, Duke Bowden of the Frontlands. Last winter, the fief held festivities to celebrate His Grace's twentieth year as ruler of the holding."

Rumpelstiltskin broke into a laugh of sheer disbelief. Then, realizing that the bandit leader was staring at him, he quickly composed himself once more. "That may have been the best news you could have given me," he said quietly.

Charlotte looked at him quizzically, still not fully trusting him. "So, we're free to—?" She blinked. Rumpelstiltskin had vanished.

She looked wildly about. "Well?" she demanded. "Get up, you lot! Time for moving on!" She looked at Zelena. "I don't particularly care where you go, so long as it isn't with us."

"You can't just leave me here," Zelena protested, struggling to her feet. She froze at the sight of a crossbow leveled at her chest.

Charlotte smiled grimly at the bandit training the weapon before meeting Zelena's eyes once more. "Watch us."

A quarter mile away, Rumpelstiltskin fought the urge to break into a jig. He'd suspected the truth the instant he'd heard the bandit chief's name; Charlotte Long-scar had garnered something of a reputation in the Frontlands at the height of the Second Ogre War, when food had been scarce and money scarcer. Still, it was better to have confirmation.

While Zelena had meant for the portal to carry them back some sixty or seventy years (or thirty or forty, depending on whether time frozen during the Dark Curse had been of an objective or a subjective nature), they had, in fact, arrived over two centuries earlier that that. And now, Rumple realized, he had the opportunity to fix what had gone wrong so many years ago. Because he was now less than six miles away from his old village, and he remembered full well those festivities that Charlotte had mentioned. And if his guess had been right about the time of year…

…Then there were roughly three months to go until Bae's fourteenth birthday and four beyond that until Bae would procure the bean that would take him away.

Seven months.

With seven months, Rumple smiled, surely he could prevent everything that had gone awry the first time. He could save his son. He could save himself.

He could.

And he would.

Chapter 3: Chapter Three

Notes:

A/N: Rewatching S2E16, "The Miller's Daughter," I just realized that Regina never saw Rumple at his weakest. Or, if she did, it was just for a second or two before she realized what she'd done to Cora. As far as Dark Ones not needing sleep (S5E1: The Dark Swan), I can't forget or ignore Rumple's dream (S2E19: Lacey). So let's just say that, Dark Ones require much less sleep than the rest of us, but still need a little on occasion.

Chapter Text

Chapter Three

Regina had often found Rumple unnerving. In the Enchanted Forest, his high-pitched giggles had set her teeth on edge. His constant needling had quickly gotten under her skin, to say nothing of the way he always seemed to be playing some game with her where only he knew the rules. That last bit hadn't changed in this realm, but here it had been his controlled demeanor and his utter inscrutability that she'd found most disconcerting. At least, until now.

She'd never seen him like this before. Not sobbing and shaking, trembling as though a gust of wind might shatter him. Not this thin, nor this pale, either not knowing or not caring that others could see him in such a state.

If it had been Henry, she would have gathered him up in her arms at once with a low cry, but this was Rumple—who always held himself aloof. Rumple, who mocked weakness in others and made damned sure not to show any himself.

Well. Except for that time in Neverland... And then, afterwards on Main Street when Pan had… And… Regina pressed her lips together, closed her eyes, and reached out, gripping one of his shoulders with each hand. "It's going to be okay," she murmured, not having any idea what 'it' was. "You're back. You're home." She had no idea whether anything she was saying was getting through. "Hey," she said gently. "Hey." A bit awkwardly, she took one hand off his shoulder and brushed a falling lock of hair back from his forehead. His skin was burning hot beneath her cool hand. "Rumple?" She knew that he was supposed to be immortal and damned few things could kill him. All the same, she'd never seen him with as much as a cold before this. She took another breath and shot a glance over her shoulder at the others.

"You go on," she said, addressing Emma. "Don't keep your mother waiting." She realized almost in passing that the enchantment that had transformed their friends into flying monkeys had worn off. "Take the others, too; let Whale check them out," she added, glad that Emma and her father had come in separate cars and would have space for them. "Robin and I will bring Rumple."

She waited for Emma's nod before turning her attention back to the man crouched before her. "You're running a fever," she said, trying to sound matter-of-fact about it. We'd better get you to the hospital, too."

His breathing was still ragged, but he hadn't tensed up at the mention of the hospital, and he wasn't trying to pull away from her now. She looked over her shoulder at Robin. "Would you mind sharing the back seat with him? I think someone needs to keep an eye on him and I'm going to need both of mine for the road."

Robin nodded. "Of course."

He could have teleported himself directly into the village, but he was enjoying the walk. It had been far too long since he'd been able to go where he pleased and take as long as he cared to. Besides, he needed time to think.

He now had a second chance to get things right, one he'd never dreamed could be handed him. He could protect Bae from the duke's henchmen, stop them from taking the girl… Moraine—that had been her name, he recollected now. His eyebrows shot up. Why… he could stop the Ogre War this very moment, months before Hodor would ever step foot in Pen Marmor—

He stopped, frowning. Something wasn't quite right about that. He turned the thought over in his head and his frown deepened. There was already a Dark One in this time, one enslaved to Duke Bowden, even as he himself had been enslaved to Zelena. The Frontlands were poor and ravaged by war, as they had been for nearly two decades at this time. Many of its people had died in battle and those who were left could barely work the fields. Most of what they raised went for taxes to feed the duke's household, and to supply the armies. What little was left was barely enough to live on. And if the winter waxed longer than usual, and the planting was delayed, if birds and rodents got to the crops before they could be harvested, if a woman gave birth and was too weak or too harried to do her share of the work on the farm or died in childbirth leaving her husband to tend field and babe—and any other children as might be too young to put in a day's work, then there wouldn't be enough to live on. Small wonder that some, like Charlotte Long-Scar, found other ways to survive.

Won and lost

Wars come with cost

Loss and gain

Both coffers strain

He was surprised he could still dredge up that old rhyme; it had been ancient when he'd been young. But no less true. Wars were expensive. And while the peasants bore their brunt, the nobility felt the pinch as well. Which begged the question: Why hadn't the duke ordered his Dark One to put a stop to the war years ago?

It was, of course, possible that the man was an imbecile, a 'useless fool', just as Zoso had said. Or as Zoso would say in about three months' time, Rumple reflected. But perhaps, there was more to it than that.

It had taken him time to learn planning and patience. When he'd first become the Dark One, flush with power, he'd indulged his every impulse, and it had cost him his son. If he was to make the most of this second chance, then it behooved him to be more deliberate this time out.

Perhaps, a visit to the duke's castle was in order. With the right disguise and the proper questions, perhaps he'd get the answers he needed. But that could wait. In fact, he realized, it would have to.

He always knew where his dagger was. It whispered at him in a voice only he could hear. Or rather, he realized suddenly, in a voice only a Dark One could hear. And that might present a problem. Because in this time, he wasn't the only Dark One. Until he knew what he was going to do and how he was going to do it, the last thing he wanted was for Zoso to be aware of his presence. Rumple didn't trust his predecessor, for good reason. He would have to find some way to avoid him, at least, until he could come up with a way to stifle his dagger's voice.

For now, he decided, he needed to concentrate on more immediate concerns. For example, what he ought to say when he arrived in Pen Marmor and met himself.

And Bae.

"Stay a moment," Robin said, looking upward toward the loft. He bounded up the ladder and returned a moment later, holding a folded rectangle of gray wool. "I thought I saw a blanket up there," he said, unfolding it and draping it over Rumple's shoulders.

A faint sigh escaped Rumple's lips, followed almost immediately by a paroxysm of coughing.

"Hang on," Regina said. "The car's just outside."

Zelena hadn't returned through the portal. Regina wanted to ask where she was, but now was definitely not the time. She had her suspicions, though. And after everything Zelena had done, Regina wasn't certain she wanted them confirmed. She knew what Rumple had wanted to do and, in an earlier time, she might even have cheered him on. But Zelena was her sister and Regina would have spared her if she could have.

She half-escorted, half-steered him to her Mercedes, opened the back door, and watched as Robin helped Rumple inside. The blanket slipped slightly and, in the sunlight, Regina realized for the first time that the suit Rumple was wearing now wasn't one she'd ever noticed him wearing before. It certainly hadn't been anything she'd ever seen anyone wear in the Enchanted Forest, though it wasn't completely unfamiliar to her. Rather like something out of one of the period pieces she'd occasionally watched on public television. On the pretext of helping Robin get him settled in the back, she gripped Rumple's arm once more. While the fabric was woolen, it was a far cry from Armani.

She waited for Robin to slide in and shut the car door before she went around toward the driver's side. As she did, she said aloud, "What the hell happened to you?"

He'd taken the precaution of magicking up some more-appropriate attire; three-piece designer suits and ties were scarcely typical garb in his old village, nor any other place he could name in this realm. No peasant rags, though; people saw what they expected to see and they wouldn't expect to see Rumpelstiltskin, town spinner, town coward in good wool breeches and tunic, linen shirt, and fur-lined cloak, hair held back in a queue by a narrow leather strap. In fact, as he made his way through the marketplace in the square, most of his onetime neighbors looked up once, took in his finery, and then hastily lowered their eyes, still crying out their wares, but not as boisterously as usual, as though they both wanted and dreaded his attention.

It was an attitude to which he'd grown quite accustomed over the years, but not here and not now. The clouds in the sky were darker now; it would rain soon. It occurred to Rumple that the stall-keepers might prefer to close up shop, but were hoping yet for his custom. And he was hungry. He looked about for a moment and headed toward Talorc's stand to purchase a meat-pasty. Biting into it, he closed his eyes and savored the taste, realizing that at least one of the herbs involved was only native to this region and—so far as he knew—hadn't gone over with the curse. He considered for a moment before handing over a few more coins. When he left the square, he carried six more pasties in an oilcloth wrapper.

He made onto a dirt path he knew well enough to walk blindfolded—though as the path was often used by herders and cattle-drivers, it was better he didn't try. Halfway to his destination, the rain that had been threatening began to fall. Within moments, the sprinkling of drops had become a steady downpour—one that was beginning to seep through his cloak. He thrust the pasties under it just the same, though he knew that the oilcloth would protect them. He could have done something about the rain, to be sure, but the crops and wells needed the water and he didn't want to risk having anyone see him use magic and notice that was keeping dry. So, he put up the hood of his cloak and continued onward.

As he neared his destination, the rain intensified, but so did his misgivings. What would he do when he reached the hovel he'd once called home? How could he explain himself… to himself? What could he say that wouldn't terrify his younger self? How would he face Bae without flinging his arms about the boy and practically crushing him to his chest? And knowing everything that had occurred the first time around, what could he do now to change it? He was certain of one thing: after close to a year of slavery, after having Bae in his head and then losing him, after this sudden change in his circ*mstances, he was in no frame of mind to form a coherent plan. He had food. He needed shelter. And he needed to think very hard about what to do next. Until he knew that much, it was better by far not to have the meeting for which he yearned. In fact, he shouldn't have come this way at all; he should have taken a room above the tavern for the night. He still could. But the rain was still falling and the temperature falling… And people would ask questions about the well-dressed merchant stranger who'd come to town too late to buy seed and too early to buy produce, who'd arrived early and not seen about lodgings until it was nearly dark… Perhaps, not. Not everyone shared his nasty, suspicious nature. But sooner or later, fine clothes and fine airs or no, someone was going to recognize his face. The fewer people to see him now, the better. And he was closer to his old hovel now than he was to the town. No, he wouldn't knock on his door, but there was another place he could shelter. And he oughtn't to be disturbed there until morning.

He spied a light in the window of his old hut and he crouched low so that his shadow wouldn't be seen, making his way instead to the rear of the hovel, where stood the sheepfold. Bae had brought the flock—if one considered four sheep a flock—into its low stone-and-thatch shelter, out of the rain. Rumple hesitated only a moment before he unbolted the pen gate, stepped into the enclosure, and bolted the gate behind him once more. He made his way hurriedly into the structure at the far end, eased open the stout wooden door and, once he was inside, slammed that barrier back into place as well. One of the ewes bleated a greeting. "It's all right, Bellwether," he murmured, smiling a bit. "It's only me."

He'd be lying if he were to say that he found the smell agreeable, but the sheepfold was still a step up from the storm cellar he'd inhabited so very recently. He took off his cloak, spread it on a clean patch of straw-strewn ground damp-side-down, and curled up. Dark Ones generally could go days, even weeks without sleep, it was true, but he'd been through a number of ordeals lately. He was weary in both mind and body and, while he probably could have gone without slumber a bit longer had he needed to, a bit of rest would be quite welcome at the moment. It wasn't very late yet; probably about an hour or so before sunset—though with the rainclouds above it was harder to tell. He'd arise well before daybreak. And in the morning, he'd likely have a clearer idea of what to do. He closed his eyes and, despite the hard ground and ovine odors, was asleep in moments.

The creak of the wooden door startled him awake, as a youthful voice exclaimed, "I told you I saw someone, Papa!"

The beam of a lantern fell across Rumple's face and he turned quickly, flinging his arm across his eyes to shield them. And then, disconcertingly, he heard his own voice reply from the gate, "So, you did, Bae."

Rumple forced his voice down into a lower register. "I meant no harm," he murmured. "I was caught in the storm."

"So, you crept into the sheepfold instead of coming to our door?" his younger self demanded harshly.

"I meant no harm," Rumple repeated, recognizing what was happening all too well. His younger self had come out here with Bae having no idea whom he might encounter. For all he knew, it might have been Charlotte Long-scar herself, or another of her trade. Had he been at the window instead of Bae, his younger self would likely have pretended to have seen nobody and passed the night hoping that there would still be four sheep in the pen come morning. Bae had probably insisted on coming out here now, and his younger self would have forced himself to come with him out of fear of what some desperate sort might do to his boy. And now that he realized that the stranger in the sheepfold seemed to pose no danger, he was using a show of anger to hide any lingering fears.

Rumple thought quickly. "I-I didn't want to impose. I'd thought to find an inn to pass the night, but when the rain came upon me… I brought food with me," he said hurriedly. "I'm happy to share, but as to lodgings, I shouldn't like to turn anyone out of their bed when there's bedding enough here." He picked up his cloak and quickly wrapped it about himself, pulling the hood up to hide his face. "I'm sorry to have disturbed you."

"Wait," his younger self said. "I'll not turn a man out in the rain. My boy and I were just about to sit down to supper. From the look of your clothing, I daresay you're used to more refined fare, but you're welcome to share what we have. And while our home may not have the finer things," Rumple heard a faint smile in his younger self's voice now, "I think you'll find it slightly more comfortable than our sheep hut."

"You can have my bed," Bae offered. "I don't mind a straw tick for a night or two."

"I…" Rumple's voice trailed off. He wasn't sure that this was a good idea. And he should have cast a glamor spell earlier, he realized. He couldn't do it now; the telltale smoke that accompanied all but the most subtle of spells would give him away. He'd have to wait until both their attentions were directed elsewhere before he tried it. There was so much that could go wrong if he accepted the hospitality being offered. But Bae was standing in front of him and Rumple couldn't bear to leave him again. Not after having lost him. "Very well," he said, still disguising his voice. "I-I thank you."

He'd forgotten. While the hovel had had a door once, it—and the wall that had supported it—had been used for firewood long ago. Now, a broad sheet of woolen cloth, waterproofed with lanolin and slit open at the bottom to make a flap for entry and exit, stood in its stead. Which would have all been well and good, except that as Rumple passed through, a half-step behind his host, the edge of the heavy fabric brushed against his face and pushed his hood partway back.

He tried to pull it up again quickly, but his younger self had seen. And so had Bae. "Papa!" the boy gasped. "He's…"

The younger Rumpelstiltskin's eyes widened. And a voice, not as angry as it had been before, but still hard and suspicious, demanded, "Who are you?"

Chapter 4: Chapter Four

Notes:

A/N: According to the Pook Press website, the name "Rumpelstiltskin" comes to us from the Brothers Grimm but, as with so many of the fairytales we know, versions of his story are found in other cultures. He is known as "Tom-Tit-Tot" in the English folktale, "Whuppity Stoorie" in the Scottish (from Robert Chambers' Popular Rhymes of Scotland), "Gilitrutt" in the Icelandic, "Joaidane" in the Arabic ('he who talks too much'), "Khlamushka Хламушка" ('junker') in the Russian, and "Ruidoquedito" (meaning 'little noise') in the South American.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four

Under normal circ*mstances, Rumple would never have been caught this off-guard. He would have planned. He would have prepared. And even had that not been possible, he would have bluffed. But these circ*mstances were anything but normal. Even overlooking the small matter of having just travelled through time—which wasn't supposed to be possible in the first place—in the past year, he had died, been resurrected, and held Bae's mind inside his own. He'd been a slave and he'd lost Bae and now, he had his freedom, and Bae was standing not five feet away from him, and he had a second chance to make it all go right. But what could he say to his son and his younger self now that wouldn't be taken for the ramblings of a madman?

He'd been so… ignorant back then. Back now. Miserable, powerless, weak… The man he'd been then would scarcely be able to wrap his head about anything Rumple might tell him now. And Bae… Bae would probably run out of the hut tonight in search of the Blue gnat and that infernal bean.

Actions had consequences. If he told them too much of what the future held, would they embrace it, accept it, or try to change it? He'd long believed that Destiny was Destiny, but he'd also believe that time travel was impossible. If he'd been wrong about the latter, then perhaps he'd been wrong about the former, too. Perhaps, the past could be changed. But should it be?

Pick at one thread in time's fabric and risk unravelling the whole cloth. Perhaps it was warranted. Perhaps it was worth it. But the time to make that judgment call wasn't when he was tired, flustered, newly arrived, and face to face with the son he'd never thought to see again.

Well. He did have a history of lying to himself. He took a breath. "My name is Gilitrutt," he said, falling back on an alias he'd had occasion to use when he'd journeyed to the Huldufólk of the far north. "I'm your uncle."

His younger self blinked. "On which side?" he demanded suspiciously.

"I'm your mother's brother," Rumple replied quickly, playing it safest. At this point in time, his younger self knew nothing of his mother, not even her name. And trying to pass himself off as one of Malcolm's relations would have begged the question of why his father would never have sought out so prosperous a family member in hope of a handout. His eyes and his smile were locked on Bae as he continued, "I've been looking for you for a very long time…"

Zelena hadn't had to wash a dish since she'd left the man she'd once believe to be her father behind and set out for the Emerald City, certain that meeting the Wizard would be the solution to every problem that had ever plagued her. She'd been so young, then. So, naïve it made her cringe to think about it now.

She bit back a curse as the dirty soup bowl slipped from her grasp to sink to the bottom of the cauldron of boiling water. Really, she hadn't expected the Enchanted Forest to have Maytag dishwashers, but surely there had to be something less primitive than an outdoor cauldron, even in a backwoods hollow like this! Even at home, they'd had a sink and poured boiling water over the dishes or just taken them to the brook if they weren't too heavily soiled.

"Don't drop the tongs in after them," a red-cheeked, brown-braided serving maid in the low-cut bodice that seemed to be the uniform for every woman in this land advised. "Or you'll have to reach in after them."

Zelena said nothing. The tarp canopy overhead offered some protection from the rain, but little from the wind and she moved a quarter turn about the cauldron to avoid the smoke now blowing toward her. Another bowl, she told herself. Another plate. Another hour or two. Then you'll have earned enough for some dinner and roof over your head for the night. Yes, this was humiliating—or would be if she ran into anybody who'd recognize her. But it was better than sleeping by the roadside in the rain, and it was only for one night.

Nobody here seemed to have heard of Princess Ava, and when she'd asked about the Northern Kingdom, she'd been greeted by blank looks and shrugs.

"Longbourne's the next town north of here and I've never been past it," one of the hostlers had informed her cheerfully. "You might ask of the merchant caravans when they pass through come harvest time. People in these parts seldom leave the area, without it being to the battlefield. And most of those don't come back without it being wrapped in burlap. Most are just let to lie where they fall, unless there's someone cares enough to haul them back."

"Well which kingdom is this?" she'd asked, not caring to dwell overmuch on the fate of some nameless fallen, but still hoping for a bit of information that might prove useful.

The hostler shrugged. "We're in the Frontlands, Goodwife. That's all I know of it. Now, if you'll excuse my saying, there's work enough for both of us if we want to eat tonight and I've tarried too long." And off he'd gone again, whistling toward the stables.

Zelena bent down and picked up the tongs, plunging them into the cauldron so that she could fish for the dropped bowl.

It was only for tonight, she assured herself. In the morning, she'd head on to someplace larger where someone would be able to answer her questions!

When Rumpelstiltskin had first become the Dark One, he'd been nigh-indiscriminate in what he chose to use his magic for. After years of hunger and deprivation, he'd taken great delight in conjuring up sumptuous repasts, replete with dishes he'd seen or heard tell of, but could never afford. Frumenties and fowl, sweetmeats and subtleties, the delicacies of every region of the Enchanted Forest and more than a few lands beyond it. Somewhere along the way, he'd lost his appreciation for the simpler dishes of earlier times.

Now, as he tucked into a pottage of root vegetables and wild mushrooms, thickened with barley and seasoned with the herbs he knew had been harvested from the small garden patch next to the hut and carefully dried for use during the year, he couldn't recall when he'd tasted anything finer.

When he'd purchased the meat pasties, he hadn't yet decided on his course of action. Had Bae not spotted him tonight, had he decided in the morning that he was better off avoiding this meeting, then his purchase would have sustained him for a day or two. But since Bae had spotted him, and since he knew full well his younger self was giving him food he could scarcely afford to part with, Rumple was happy to set his oilcloth parcel down on the rough-hewn table and disclose its treasures—which were quickly and enthusiastically snapped up.

"But two of these are for you, surely," his younger self protested, when he failed to take any for himself.

Rumple shook his head. "I ate one earlier," he explained. "I'm afraid it's hardly a fair trade for this bowl, but it's all I can offer at the moment." He took a breath. "I was set upon by Charlotte Long-scar's band about two leagues south of here and," he thought quickly, "while she did get away with most of what I had with me, she missed a few coins I'd concealed in a separate purse for just that sort of emergency."

"Charlotte Long-Scar!" Bae exclaimed excitedly.

"Only two leagues from here…" his younger self repeated nervously.

"Well," Rumple said, plunging his spoon into the pottage once more, "I doubt she'll come here." He'd have remembered it if she had. "When last I saw her, she was heading in a different direction." Or she almost certainly would be, after she'd given him directions on how to get here. But even if she did plan a visit to Pen Marmor, she'd go after far richer quarry than this hovel. He shrugged. "At any rate, I didn't want to spend what remained of my resources on a room at the tavern. My good fortune," he gestured to his clothing, "is actually a recent development; I'm no stranger to sheltering in barns and sheepfolds and while it wasn't my preference, it certainly would have been adequate." Then he added quickly, "Not that I'm ungrateful for your hospitality, of course."

His younger self smiled. "Not at all. You are family." But there was still just the faintest note of suspicion in his voice and Rumple realized that, while he thought back on the man he'd once been as gullible and naïve, he clearly hadn't been that naïve. "Well," his younger self went on, "I don't know the way of things in the place you've come from, but here, a day begins before it breaks. So, I'd suggest we finish our supper before it has much time to cool and then we'll get out the straw tick."

Rumple pushed back his stool at once. "I can help with that much," he said, starting to move automatically toward Bae's bed. He caught himself nearly at once, remembering that this was the first time he'd supposedly been here. Instead, he waited for Bae to stoop down and pull the mattress out from under the wooden frame that was his bedstead, but his younger self was frowning again.

"How would you know where that tick is stored?" he demanded.

Rumple shrugged with a faint smile, "Well, there aren't many other places here where you could be storing it, are there?"

His younger self seemed unconvinced, but he let the matter drop, though Rumple did feel his eyes boring into his back, as he and Bae pulled out the mattress and covered it with a rough sheet and a woolen blanket.

The pottage didn't taste quite as inviting when he returned to it.

He'd never known he snored before. Sleep came to him rarely, even under the most ideal of circ*mstances, though he'd been weary enough to get some in the sheepfold, however briefly. But now, his mind would not quiet. He hadn't been able to dwell on his circ*mstances much in the past year. For most of it, he hadn't been rational enough to. And then, he'd been grieving and angry and seething with frustration, knowing that the best he could hope for was a loophole he could exploit in some order that the witch might issue him—and she was usually far too careful to leave him any such opening. Now, he was still riding a wave of giddiness at his newfound freedom and good fortune, but it was already being reined in by his usual caution.

His younger self might be more innocent, but he was no fool—no matter what Zoso had said with his dying breath. Even if he wouldn't guess the truth, Rumple knew that he wouldn't believe any lies for long.

And for Rumple to see Bae now, to pretend he'd never laid eyes on the boy before and play the part of a friendly stranger was harder than he'd imagined.

In the morning, he'd tell them everything. He'd explain about the duke lowering the draft age, tell his younger self to flee now, like Milah had wanted him to nearly a decade earlier.

But if he did that, then his younger self would never become the Dark One. And what would that mean for the person he'd since become? Rumple covered his eyes with one hand. If he'd never become the Dark One, then, for one thing, he'd have died long ago. If he talked his younger self out of stabbing Zoso, would he then fade from existence?

And there was more to consider.

The Blue Fairy had once demanded of him whether he'd be willing to 'sacrifice this world for the next'. At the time, he'd considered that deal a bargain. But now?

If he never made that sacrifice, how many events… how many people would he erase? There would be no need for a Dark Curse, nor a need to break it. So, there would be no need for a savior. But if Emma never existed, then Bae would never encounter her. There would be no Henry. He wouldn't need to groom a curse-caster, so no need for Cora or Regina. Cora would likely be executed by King Xavier after claiming she could spin straw into gold. Queen Ava would never be poisoned. And with no Regina in the picture, it was doubtful that the genie would ever consider using the Agrabahn viper to murder King Leopold. He'd never procure James for King George; Snow would probably be married to the prince of some neighboring kingdom to form a strategic alliance.

Belle.

Well, she'd likely marry that Gaston fellow, or some other noble. Rumple went cold. No. No, she wouldn't. He'd forgotten something rather significant.

If he never became the Dark One, then he would never stop the Ogre War. And if he never stopped the Ogre War… Rumple was no fool. An impoverished land, a rapidly-falling draft age, higher taxes and fewer people able to pay them… The war was not going well and would soon be lost. And if that happened, then Belle would never exist at all.

Today, this district was known as the Frontlands, because it bordered Ogre territory and any time that the ogres sought to increase that territory, this district inevitably became the field on which the war would be fought. But when he stopped the war a few months from now, it would be over two centuries before the Ogres would dare to embark on another campaign of conquest. And in the interim, as peace became the new status quo, people would cease to call it the Frontlands.

They would call it instead by its original name: Avonlea.

One day, well over two centuries hence, the great-granddaughter of Duke Bowden's great-grandson would pen a missive to the Dark One pleading for his aid, and she would become the first light in his life since Bae was lost to him.

Yes. He had indeed unraveled this world, this… chain of events, this history for one in which he would find his son once more. It hadn't felt like much of a sacrifice at the time. Without Bae, his life had truly been hollow and empty. Oh, his power had masked much of his pain, but beneath it, he was still lame, friendless, and alone. But in the life he'd re-spun from those threads, he'd found love and family and, well, if not friends, at least people who needed him.

If he never became the Dark One, he would, in effect, be sacrificing that other world for this one. And he and Bae might spend years on the run, fugitives from the Duke's soldiers, or the soldiers of whichever other noble held the land to which they might flee. And if they did take Bae after all… He'd be powerless to stop them.

Rumple gripped the edge of his blanket with both hands and twisted hard. He couldn't bear to watch events unfold again as they had once. But he didn't know what to change, or when to change it. Perhaps, he should allow his younger self to become the Dark One. Perhaps, if he shared his knowledge of what was to come, trained his younger self to have some greater modicum of control, so that he didn't go about turning itinerant peddlers into snails and murdering maids, then Bae wouldn't go looking for help from fairies. Or perhaps, his younger self would simply perceive him as a threat to his newfound power.

Rumple had to admit that such a scenario was more likely.

He spent the rest of the night tossing and turning as he tried to determine his best course of action, and when Bae awoke before daybreak, he was still no wiser.

He'd wait, he resolved. There were still three months before matters would come to a head. Three months to decide. Meanwhile, he'd bide his time and observe. And hope that somehow, whatever he determined, he'd find the will, the wherewithal, and the courage to see it through.

Chapter 5: Chapter Five

Notes:

A/N: Some dialogue adapted from S5E14: Devil's Due. Tolkien aficionados may recall that athelas is a healing plant native to Middle Earth. Knobweed appears in Brandon Sanderson's Cosmere series.

TW: brief mentions of past abuse. Nothing graphic.

Chapter Text

Chapter Five

Rumple pretended to be asleep, as he watched his son get up quietly and make his way over to the hearth. He took a fresh brick of dried peat from the storage bin and set it on the embers of last night's fire, using a poker to push it about. Satisfied, Bae moved toward a covered wooden bucket carried it over to a modest-sized cauldron, removed the bucket's wooden lid, and poured its clean water into the pot. Rumple knew that Bae would have drawn two such buckets from the well in the square yesterday and would draw two more this afternoon.

Bae set the cauldron on the hearth over the fire. Next, he took several handfuls of an ivory-colored coarse-ground meal and added them to the pot. He started to move away, then glanced quickly at the bed where Rumple pretended to yet be asleep and added another two handfuls.

Breakfast started, the boy reached for his cloak, and slid his bare feet into a pair of patched leather ankle boots that waited by the wool-curtained entryway. He took a moment to lace them, stooped down, and picked up the empty bucket that rested in the corner near where they had been. Then, he pushed back the curtain and Rumple could see that dawn had broken now, as Bae slipped outside.

Rumple considered for a moment. His younger self would likely be abed for another hour or so—spinning didn't require one to arise quite this early. Still, when he did arise, he was certain to want to have a conversation that Rumple wasn't sure he was ready for.

Besides, he was loath to let Bae out of his sight now.

Rumple hesitated only a moment before pushing back his blanket, slipping on his own boots, and making his way out of the hovel. He fought down a wave of nervousness as he headed for the sheepfold, where he knew Bae would go. He only meant to observe, for now. But if his son spied him, he could always claim that he'd thought he might have left something behind in the straw last night, and was only going to look for it.

He was just pushing back the wooden gate, when he caught a snatch of conversation coming from the shelter. Bae wasn't alone.

"You're sure it's no trouble," Moraine said, as she set down the bag of fleece, taking care that the top didn't open to spill its cargo.

Bae smiled, and then turned back to the ewe he was milking. "No, Papa has time. And," he added, "if you hadn't had oats to spare last winter, we might not have made it through." He sighed. "I don't know if we'll do better this year either."

"Your garden isn't giving enough?"

Bae hesitated. "Maybe it will by harvest time, but Papa says the soil's like us: overworked and can't get time for rest." He made a face. "At least, the mint and horseradish should come up; they can grow in anything."

Moraine nodded. "Mama says okra, too. I can let you have some seeds, if you like."

"Really?" Bae asked, smiling.

Moraine nodded again. "We can't really pay much for your papa spinning our fleece, but we can spare some seeds. Okra, mustard, I think chard too. Sparrow grass," she sounded apologetic, "remind me next winter; it's too late to plant it now." She hesitated. "I mean… if I'm still here."

"You're going away?" Bae couldn't hide his dismay.

Moraine sighed. "I hope not. But Mama and Papa think that if I can get out of this village, maybe they won't bother coming after me when I turn fifteen."

Bae didn't have to ask who 'they' were. "But where would you go?"

"We have cousins in Mare's Hollow," Moraine hedged. Then she added quickly, "And Papa thinks to wed me to one of them."

"Moraine!"

"Baelfire, I'm thirteen. At fifteen, the army will take me. U-unless I'm expecting a child. Or I've already become a mother," she added. "Aiken is twenty. And a blacksmith; the army wanted him for that more than for soldiering." She shook her head. "You know that in some villages, girls are marrying men old enough to be their fathers if it'll save them from being drafted. Seven years is… it's not so bad."

"Do you love him?"

"Baelfire, he's my cousin! Third cousin," she amended hastily. "Of course, I love him. But not like…" She broke off. "I met him once, when I was eight, at the district fair in Longbourne. He was nice, I guess. I mean, he didn't tease me or treat me like I was stupid or anything, but… well, it's not like we had much to say to each other." She sighed. "He was fifteen and making horseshoes with some of the other apprentices when we stopped by the forge. It was so noisy, I had to shout 'hello' so he could hear me over that hammering, and it was so hot, even out in the open. But he had a nice smile. And when he had time to come by Papa's stall later, he didn't talk down to me like so many other grownups did."

"Maybe…" Bae hesitated. "I mean, if it's not about love… Moraine," he took a breath, "we've been friends all our lives. Sometimes, I feel like you're the only person my age I can really talk to."

"I'm not your age, silly," Moraine smiled. "I'm three days older than you."

It was old banter and not really funny, but Bae smiled back just the same. "Look, we know each other, we get along… If you loved this Aiken guy, I'd understand, but if it's just to not have to go into the army, I…" He took another breath. "I-could-marry-you," he said quickly.

"What?"

"I might not be a blacksmith, but Papa's shown me how to spin; I can ask him to teach me more. I can sow and plant and raise sheep, and I know my way around a set of tools. And you wouldn't have to leave here. I know your parents would miss you if you did." He looked away. "And I know I would, too." He hesitated. "We're friends, Moraine. Good friends. Maybe that would be enough to start with."

Moraine flung her arms about him. "Oh, Bae," she whispered, "if it were my choice… I-I don't want to leave here either. And I'd miss you, too."

"We can talk to your papa," Bae said. "We can talk to my papa."

"I'll talk to him," Moraine said. "Usually, once he makes up his mind, it stays made up; I have to catch him in the right mood. And anyway, there's a year and a season 'til my fifteenth birthday. There's no hurry; we haven't even had a reply from Aiken, yet. If he says 'no', then Papa will be of a better mind to listen to us. And even if Aiken says 'yes,' it'll be at least a month—three or more would be likelier—before he could come for me or I could go to him. There's no reason to rush."

"Okay," Bae said. "Hey. Maybe the war will be over by the time he replies! Then for sure, you won't have to leave!"

Moraine heaved a sigh. "Wouldn't that be wonderful?" Then, in a completely different tone of voice, "It's getting late. I still need to feed the chickens."

"And I have to put milk in the porridge before it boils dry," Bae nodded. "Thanks for the goat cheese and the eggs."

"Thanks for saying your papa will spin our fleece. I'll bring okra seed next time; you plant it late spring."

"Got it. And Moraine?" He hesitated for a moment. "I-I'll see you in the square in a bit, when I drive the sheep to the common."

Moraine gave him a dazzling smile. "I hope so."

Bae watched her leave. Then he went back to his milking.

As the sheep-hut door began to creak open, Rumpelstiltskin spared a quick glance behind him and, reassured that his younger self was nowhere in sight, hurriedly teleported outside of the fold, behind the hut. He hadn't meant to eavesdrop, truly, but now that he had, he needed a moment or two to collect himself.

He'd always done his best to shield Bae from certain harsh realities. In part, of course, it had been because any discussion of the Ogre War would have certainly led to questions about his own experience. His son might be the only person in the entire village who didn't yet know that he was a coward, and he had no wish to enlighten him. But of course, there had been cowardice involved in that very decision not to converse overmuch on the topic. Cowardice, and a foolish notion that if he didn't talk about the war, then perhaps, somehow, Bae wouldn't be drafted into it. Stupid, of course. He'd known that the Duke's soldiers would come for his boy eventually, but at the very least, he'd believed he'd been able to give Bae a sheltered childhood, more or less unplagued by concerns about going to war.

He'd just learned that he'd been a bigger fool than he'd ever believed. Of course, Bae would have known what was coming. And if he hadn't, then Rumple's failure to inform him, would have scarcely been a kindness on the day that the Duke's soldiers finally came. But Bae had known all along. And even understanding that his fate was set, he was ready to spare another that fate.

Rumple wiped his linen sleeve across his eyes. He'd always thought of Moraine as 'Bae's little friend'. It hadn't occurred to him that she was, even at thirteen, of marriageable age. And so was Bae, he realized with a pang. Oh, he'd known that, but he hadn't known it.

Did they love one another? Rumple wasn't certain. But they definitely liked one another, and not all love happened at first sight. Young people in their situation could do far, far worse than marry close friends, and…

And what was he even thinking? He knew full well that nothing would come of such childish plans. Bae had never approached him regarding the subject, which meant that either Moraine had never spoken to her father, or that her father had been loath to see his daughter wed to the son of a coward. Or they'd thought that they had over a year to make their case, when they had barely three months.

But they did have three months. And perhaps, that would be enough time… If he involved himself.

A new thought struck him. Zelena was still out there and not far away. She might not realize where she was, but she'd heard Charlotte Long-scar mention the name of this village. There was every reason to believe she'd come here to try to wrest the dagger from him again. Well, he clenched his jaw, just let her try!

And then, his blood went cold. Suppose she threatened the life of his younger self if he didn't surrender it to her? Suppose she threatened Bae? She'd already killed him once.

For a moment, he fretted. Then he remembered two things: first, Zelena currently had no magic. And, when last he'd seen her, she'd had no weapon either. Maybe she wasn't in any position to threaten anybody, at least, not yet. But second, he'd informed Charlotte Long-scar that Zelena's green-stone choker was more than some decorative trinket. When a bandit chieftain obtained an item of magical value, she had two options, either to use it or to sell it. And since, from what Rumple knew of such artifacts, Charlotte wouldn't be able to use an artifact of such power—not with no magic of her own, at any rate—she would choose the second option.

Aside from Zelena herself, there was only one person in the area who was likely to be in the market for such an item. And, Rumple reflected, he just might be of a mind to make a deal. Or change one…

Zelena had been on the road at daybreak, bound for the 'Longbourne' place that the hostler had mentioned the night before. She didn't know what she'd find there, but she hoped that it would be a bigger place than this sleepy, run-down little village where people didn't seem to know what lay past the next town over! Fancy not even knowing the name of your kingdom!

She'd saved a hunk of bread and a pear from last night's dinner and ate both on the way, but the sun was nearing its zenith and she was perspiring heavily when she finally saw something in the distance. Unlike Pen Marmor, Longbourne was a fortified town, surrounded by a high stone wall. There was a bored-looking sentry at the gate, who waved her through with barely a cursory glance.

Instead of proceeding on her way, though, she flashed him her most winning smile. "I was just wondering whether you could direct me to your hall of records?"

The sentry blinked at her. "Pardon?"

Zelena kept smiling. "Where would one go in this town to see a map of the kingdoms?" When the sentry continued to scrutinize her, she continued, "A long time ago, I met someone from another land I'd like to find again. Only, at the time, his kingdom was at war with another and I don't know which side of the border his town would be on, now. And well, since the countries all seem to change names when they change rulers, I was hoping to see a current map." She prayed he wouldn't question her further, but she knew that the Enchanted Forest was hardly a peaceful place. Some kingdom always seemed to be at war with another. Not like Oz, with one central seat of power in the Emerald City; once she'd deposed the Wizard, the entire land had been hers to rule—apart from a few stubborn pockets of resistance she'd very nearly stamped out.

The sentry stared at her just long enough for her to begin to grow nervous. Then, he gestured for her to pass through the gate. "You might try the merchant's guild," he said finally. "They'll know who they trade with. They may have the information you seek. If not, about five leagues back the way you came is the Duke's summer palace. His Grace keeps a library, and you might petition his clerk for permission to peruse it."

Zelena wanted to shriek her frustration. She had indeed passed that palace on her way, and had she known that what she sought might be there, she could have saved herself another fifteen miles in the hot sun! Well. As long as she was here, she might as well seek out the merchant's guild so that this jaunt wouldn't be a complete waste of time. She mumbled a thank you and started forward.

Now, the sentry moved into her path. "Generally speaking, Goodwife, when one requests information, it's customary to show a mite of gratitude when one gets it."

Zelena forced herself to smile. "I'll remember that. Thanks for the advice."

"I didn't just mean to the guild record-keeper," the sentry answered, still blocking her.

If she'd had her magic, she would have turned him into a monkey by now, or some other creature equally amusing. But she didn't. "I was set upon by bandits yesterday," she said, letting a bit of her frustration show. "They took everything."

"Those gloves look well-made," the sentry replied. "Kid leather?"

"Well, they won't fit you!" Zelena exclaimed.

The sentry merely peered down his nose at her.

"Forget it!" she snapped, starting to turn back the way she'd come. The sentry seized her arm and spun her roughly back to face him.

"I gave you information in good faith," the sentry snarled. "Now, you can pay me for it, or I can have the watch here in moments. I'm sure they'll be interested in the business of a woman, clearly a stranger here, asking all sorts of questions she has no business asking, because if she did, she'd already know the answers."

"You're mad!" Zelena hissed. "If you really believed that, you wouldn't let me pass for a pair of gloves!"

"Don't matter what I believe, Goodwife," the sentry said. "What matters is what the watch will believe when I turn you over to them. They might merely ask you a few questions of their own and let you go. They might just turn you back out the gate. Or they might decide to question you in detail… and at length." The sentry drew the words out slowly and Zelena had no doubt as to what he truly meant. Her step-father might have knocked her about a few times—particularly when he'd been drinking—but interrogation via torture was something altogether different.

"All right," she snapped, struggling to pull off the gloves while he kept his grip on her arm. "All right, here! Take them!" She gave a little involuntary yelp, as he snatched the gloves with his free hand and propelled her through the gate.

When she looked back in fury, he touched his cap mockingly and smiled. "Welcome to Longbourne, Goodwife."

At first, Rumple wasn't certain he could find the way; it had been centuries since he'd trod it, after all, and he'd only paid three visits to the place in total. But he recognized an odd rock formation here, and a twisted lightning-charred tree there, and it wasn't long before he found himself approaching the healer's tent.

The tattooed man was standing in the open stirring a cauldron, and from the fragrance emanating from the pot, he wasn't cooking up anything more magical than breakfast.

"Fendrake," Rumple said quietly.

The healer turned slowly and his eyes grew slightly wider. "Your circ*mstances have changed since our last meeting," he remarked. "In more ways than one, from what I can see."

"They have," Rumple nodded. "The man I was, the man you remember, was both mortal and moral. But he was a man in a desperate situation," he continued, a chill creeping into his words. "One you took full advantage of. Now, I admire that a great deal. Full points. However… I don't like carrying debt."

Fendrake shook his head slowly. "Unfortunately, Dark One, the contract is binding. Even if I wanted to change it, I couldn't. You owe me."

"Oh, I'm not disputing that, dearie!" Rumple chuckled, as a bit of his other persona struggled to the surface. "I wasn't saying I don't pay my debts. But, perhaps, we can come to some other accommodation. You saved my boy's life when there was nowhere else to turn, and for that, I am grateful. So, perhaps… I can save yours."

"If you mean to say you'll kill me if I don't void the contract—"

"Oh, I'll do that in about a hundred years or so," Rumple cut him off. "But I wasn't talking about voiding it. Say, rather, that we might alter the terms in a way that can benefit us both. And then, I won't have to come back that other time," he added.

Fendrake's eyes narrowed. "What did you have in mind? And if you didn't come here to kill me," he added, "then what did you mean about saving my life?"

"You know, dearie," Rumple giggled, "most people would've asked the second question first. But I don't mind getting that answer out of the way. There aren't many in these parts with the resources to purchase items of great Magic. But then, there aren't many people in these parts who ask one hundred gold pieces of people who've likely never owned a single such coin. So. I've reason to believe that you're about to be offered an emerald pendant—one that can store, stoke, and harness… magic. It was stolen yesterday from an adversary of mine, and sooner or later, she's likely to come a-poking her head through your tent flap in search of it."

"Interesting," Fendrake allowed. "Though I'm not sure I understand the relevance."

"The pendant currently holds her magic. All her magic. So, if she learns you have it, well, I may be a seer now, dearie, but even if I weren't, I'd predict that she'd either try to kill you to reclaim it, or ask to apprentice herself to you in hopes that studying magic with you would reawaken her currently-blocked-off talents. Once she does that," he giggled, "then she'll kill you!"

Fendrake nodded slowly. "I won't say I don't appreciate the warning," he said. "If all is as you say, then we may have a deal. But she might never learn of my existence. And she might not be quite so ruthless as you paint her."

"Yes, well, you made a claim against my second-born child, with no idea whether I'd ever have one, so I shouldn't think that dealing in hypotheticals ought to be a problem." Rumple pointed out, still smiling. "However, before I entered into that agreement with you, you had offered another one: one hundred gold coins for a draught of Atlanthean rat snake antivenin." At a snap of his fingers, a spinning wheel, a stool, and a bucket of straw appeared beside them. "Would you accept gold wire instead?" He chuckled, sat down at the wheel, and took up a piece of straw, which he threaded onto the bobbin shaft. A moment later, a piece of gleaming gold dropped to the ground and the healer picked it up, his eyes widening. Rumple flashed him a knowing smile and reached for another piece of straw. "I can spin you as much as you like…"

Fendrake's eyebrows climbed even higher. He gestured to the long handle of the wooden ladle in the cauldron. "Stir this a moment," he said. "I'll be right back." He retreated into his tent and returned almost at once, carrying a balance scale, a rolled up piece of parchment, and two wooden bowls and spoons. He laid the parchment in one balance pan. "One hundred gold coins," Fendrake remarked, "weighs approximately seven pounds. When ten times that weight is in this balance pan," he continued, gesturing toward the empty pan, "our contract will be nullified."

"Ten times the original price?" Rumple asked, a trifle tetchily. "Still driving hard bargains, I see."

"It's been nearly a decade since the deal was struck. Delaying the payment increases the debt. But in appreciation for your warning," he set the golden straw he'd pocketed moments earlier down in the empty pan, "Let's dispense with two of those years. Fifty-six pounds."

Rumple smiled. "As I said, Master Fendrake, you do drive hard bargains. Still, over the years, I've had occasion to learn for myself that magical ingredients can run a mite pricy. Especially in a backwater region like this one. Fifty-six pounds will buy you a lot of athelas and knobweed. But let me make you a counter-offer: I'll add back one of those years, for sixty-three pounds. And the next time some poor villager comes searching for a cure for their ailing loved one, you'll give it to them at a price that they can actually afford to pay."

Fendrake smiled. He waved his hand over the contract and flame of azure blue played over it for a brief instant before it flickered out. "The deal is struck," he said.

"Then I suppose I know how I'm spending the rest of my morning," Rumple sniffed. He passed the ladle back to the healer and headed for the wheel.

"Wait a moment," Fendrake called, staying him. He ladled a fruit-and-grain porridge into one of the bowls and handed it to Rumple. "There's no charge for this," he assured him, "nor for additional bowls, should you desire them." At Rumple's raised eyebrow, he shrugged. "You'll be at this for hours. I imagine you'll want sustenance at some point."

"Just to be clear, dearie," Rumple said suspiciously, "when you offered additional bowls…?"

"I meant for you to ladle more porridge into the one you're holding, yes." He smiled. "You're right. I do drive hard bargains. But I also try to state my terms as clearly and straightforwardly as possible and I do my best not to… shall we say, use my customers' natural perceptions to deceive them."

A surprised smile flashed briefly across Rumple's face. "Then I thank you," he said, lifting a spoonful to his lips. After his second, he looked at the healer once more. "You have that emerald already," he guessed, "don't you?"

"Of course."

When he'd been caged, first in his own castle and then later, in Zelena's storm cellar, he'd thought to himself that if he ever got free of her, it would be a long time before he'd so much as look at another spinning wheel. After days, weeks, months where—apart from the witch and her gloating and taunting—the thing had been his sole pastime, he'd grown thoroughly sick of it. And yet, here he was, volunteering to spin for hours on end, and actually enjoying himself.

Every straw spun was bringing him that much closer to his goal. Every straw spun was paying down a debt that had hung over him for decades—and had he ever considered that an option like this one might have been available, even a century from now, perhaps he wouldn't have chosen another way to clear accounts.

But then, he'd been more impulsive back then. He hadn't fully appreciated that, simply because he had the power to make others suffer, it didn't necessarily follow that he needed to indulge it. There were other ways. At times they were harder ways, but they were also better. The man he was today might have resented the healer for taking advantage of his desperation. But he'd also saved Bae's life. And spared his own, when Rumple had stolen upon him, bent on murder and theft.

Moreover, Rumple had recently returned from the Realm of the Dead. And while he hadn't met Fendrake there during his short sojourn, he had encountered other souls with unfinished business, prevented from moving on until all scores were settled and all debts paid. At the time, Rumple had believed that his time in that realm was due to unfinished business with those few individuals who had reneged on their deals with him, and whose debts were small enough or irrelevant enough that he hadn't troubled himself to hunt them down. But today, when he'd realized that the healer was the likeliest buyer for Zelena's pendant, it had occurred to him that, perhaps, his own debt hadn't been discharged after all.

And Rumpelstiltskin always pays his debts, he reminded himself, as he reached for another piece of straw. A moment later, he set another strand of bright yellow gold into the balance pan and the scale began to glow with an iridescent, pearly light.

Rumple shielded his eyes with his hand for a moment, and when he removed it, the healer stood before him once more. Fendrake plucked the contract from the other balance pan and unfurled it. "Your obligation to me has been met," he intoned formally, holding the page by the upper corners. As he started to tear it, Rumple held up a hand.

"Wait! Please. Could I have it? There's someone I need to show it to."

Fendrake shrugged. "Such is your right," he said. "And to avoid misunderstandings…" From a fold of his mantle, he brought forth a goose-feather quill and a small vial. Bracing the contract against the side of the still-warm cauldron, he wrote the words 'discharged in full' in a careful hand at the bottom beneath the signature that Rumple had inscribed so many years ago and underlined it with a flourish. Then he held the document out to him.

As Rumple accepted it, he felt as though a millstone had rolled away from him. He wasn't entirely certain that he needed to thank the healer for the privilege of spinning more than sixty pounds of gold for him, but he did so anyway. Then, still smiling, he made his way back to the hovel, pausing only long enough to purchase some roasted chickpeas and cheese pasties—his contribution to tonight's supper.

When he pushed his way through the curtained entrance to the hovel, however, his younger self rose heavily to his feet, leaning on his walking stick with a grim expression.

"I think it's time you explained yourself," he said firmly, though Rumple noticed that he was keeping his other hand jammed in his pocket where its shaking would not be so obvious. "I grant the resemblance is unmistakable and we well might be related, but my mother left before I was ever named. You claim to be my uncle, but yet, after tracking me down, you choose to bed down in my sheepfold."

"I told you—"

"Oh, I know what you told me. I just don't believe a word of it. So now," his younger self continued either not caring or not knowing that his knees were trembling, "you're going to tell me who you really are, why you've come, and," for the first time Rumple heard the slightest of quavers in his younger self's voice, "what your interest is in my boy."

Chapter 6: Chapter Six

Chapter Text

Chapter Six

Rumple had known that his cover wouldn't hold up for long, but he certainly hadn't been expecting a confrontation this soon. He knew exactly the kind of man he had been, the same man he still was, deep down. And that man had learned early to tamp down any show of spirit, any display of temper, any hint of anger or resentment. That man cringed and groveled and kissed boots, hating himself for it, but knowing that it kept him alive and it kept him and his son safe. At least, it had until now. "I'm here to help," Rumple said. "Truly." He reached into his pocket and pulled out the contract. "A pledge of good faith?"

His younger self was still frowning, but he reached out and gingerly accepted the rolled-up scroll. As he unfurled it and began to read, his eyes widened. "How did you…?" His voice trailed off and his eyes grew hard once more. "So, you do mean to take him."

Rumple blinked. "I beg your pardon?"

"Oh, no," his younger self said, his voice cracking a bit. "I saw the way you looked at him last night, for all you tried to hide it, and I wondered, but with this…." He shook the contract for emphasis. "Only three people knew that this document existed: myself, Fendrake, and my wife Milah. And she was lost to me years ago. I'd thought her dead, but if you've come here to—" Abruptly, he turned away. "We were happy together once," he said bleakly. "Before I was called to the front. Before I… Well, never mind that. I've heard tell that when a love dies, the lovers may well move on to another, but when they do, they often to gravitate toward those who remind them in some way of their first. Well, even I can see the resemblance, but you'll forgive me if I'm not flattered."

He could scarcely believe the turn this conversation was taking. "I-I'm not—"

"While things were never right between me and Milah after my return," his younger self continued as though Rumple hadn't spoken, "I know she loved our son. She'd never have left him if she hadn't been abducted. And I suppose, once she was free, she decided that she'd have a better life without me, so she never returned. And, I surmise that she's found h-happiness with you." Rumple tried to pretend that he didn't hear the sob in his younger self's voice. "Well, how can I blame her? For trying to do better and for wanting our son with her? But since she's been gone, Bae has been everything to me. And if you're thinking that now you've voided that contract, I'll just settle down with someone new and have another child to replace the one you mean to carry off, then you have no idea what it means to be a parent!"

It was a good thing that the band of ruffians who'd accosted her yesterday had been so unnerved by Rumple's little display (or so excited by the acquisition of her pendant) that they hadn't noticed her earrings. And an even better thing that she'd removed them before approaching the tavern last night and had the sense not to wear them in the open today. Unlike her pendant, the earrings weren't magical, but they were eleven carats worth of the finest emeralds Oz had ever produced. Zelena knew that if she needed to, she could sell them, but she'd need to find the right time and the right buyer.

With bandits about, it certainly wasn't going to be safe carrying large amounts of coin. And the sentry's reaction to her innocent queries had told her that a stranger looking to sell something as valuable as those gemstones was certain to arouse suspicion. She'd need to find someone who wouldn't ask too many questions. Or better yet, make the acquaintance of someone trustworthy who could handle the sale, perhaps in return for a cut of the proceeds. One thing was certain, though: she wasn't about to hand them over in exchange for tourist information or the privilege of looking up some information that ought to be common knowledge! Were there no schools in this Frontlands place? Were there no libraries—libraries open for any to peruse without having to petition some ducal flunkey for permission?

Well. Once she learned the way of things here, she had no doubt that her fortunes would take an upturn. She just needed to find her mother and show her that there were other ways to acquire power without becoming royalty!

Dismay rolled over her. She didn't have any sort of power right now, thanks to that Charlotte wench. But perhaps there was a way to get the pendant back. Or perhaps there was some other way to regain her magic. For pity's sake, she'd been using magic before she could walk; surely losing the pendant couldn't take that away from her permanently! Well. She could think about that after she'd found what she sought. Meanwhile, it was clear that she wasn't going to last long without some local currency; bartering hours of washing dishes for dinner and a room for the night was only a stop-gap.

She realized that she was fast approaching a market stall with a number of clearly serviceable-but-not-new garments dangling from its awning. Thoughtfully, she removed her cloak and approached. "I was wondering whether you'd be interested in buying this off me?" she asked with a hopeful smile when she caught the owner's eye.

In an earlier time—though later than this one—Rumple might have laughed aloud and at length at the sheer ludicrousness of his younger self's imaginings. As it was, he couldn't quite keep back a guffaw as he exclaimed, "What?"

"No," his younger self said, flushing a bit. "Please, don't play the fool. And don't think you can play me for one either. You've been a bit too familiar with things—and people—with which you've no reason to be. And what rich relation chooses to neither stay at lodgings befitting his status, nor make his presence known to those he seeks, but chooses instead to bed down with animals? And any fool can see you've a greater interest in Bae than you do in me. So, if you haven't come to take him from me, then why are you here?"

"To save him," Rumple replied, looking his younger self dead in the eyes. "And save you from losing him, I hope."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that if they haven't already lowered the draft age to fourteen, they'll do so in the next three months."

His younger self's eyes when wide and a near-soundless cry escaped him as he half-doubled over. "You're certain?"

"I am. So, if you mean to flee with him or send him away, now's the time."

It was the wrong thing to say, and Rumple realized it the moment he saw his younger self's eyes narrow once more, and his face twist again in uncharacteristic rage.

"Send him away?" his younger self repeated. "With you, you mean? So, you are here to take him!"

"No," Rumple insisted. "I'm here to protect him! And you."

"Why? If you are my uncle, why magically appear now? You might have learned of my existence somehow, though how you could have known to make inquiries and track me down is puzzling, since you wouldn't have even had my name as a starting point. But if you're here to protect Bae, then that would mean you knew about him before you even came here. How? Who are you?"

"I told you," Rumple said, holding his hands up in a placating fashion, more than a little unnerved by the hysteria in his younger self's voice. "I'm—"

"No more lies! No evasions! I-want-the-truth! Tell me!"

"I'm you!" The words erupted from his throat and were past his lips before he even realized he'd answered. There was no way to call them back now.

For a moment, both men looked at one another, with near-identical stupefied expressions. Then, his younger self took a staggering step backward, stumbled, and nearly fell onto his stool. The look on his face could now best be described as stunned disbelief, as he tilted his head inquiringly toward his houseguest.

"I'm you," Rumple repeated more gently, nodding as though to confirm his words. "I'm you."

The cloak fetched two silver and Zelena strongly suspected she'd got the worse end of that deal. Still, one coin not only gained her access to the guild records, but even the services of a youth named Gragur who was presented to her as an apprentice clerk.

"I'm sorry, Goodwife," the teen said, coming to her table with an armload of scrolls. "There is no Princess Ava in the Northern Kingdom, presently. I even thought, well, not all spellings are standard, so I checked to see if maybe she spelled it with an 'E' or even an 'I'; pronunciations vary, too. But apart from the dowager queen Eva, daughter to Count Humboldt of the Eastern Escarpment Lands who married into their ruling house two generations ago, there's no Royal of that name there now."

"Dowager queen?" Zelena repeated. That couldn't be right. Ava… or Eva, no matter how one spelled it, had been a princess, but she'd become queen of Leopold's kingdom, not her own.

"Apparently, she's well-liked," Gragur said, unfurling another scroll. "At least, some of the minor nobility, them as hopes to curry favor with their higher-ups, have been naming some of their daughters after her. But as yet, no princess."

"Well… well, what about King Xavier of Eagle's Peak?" Zelena asked testily.

Gragur shook his head. "The king of Eagle's Peak is his Majesty Henry II, whom some call the Eagle's Talon." He frowned. "I believe…" He unrolled another scroll. "Yes, his third son is named Xavier, but he's unlikely to be crowned king with two brothers ahead of him and both with heirs of their own. Oh!" He pointed to another entry. "The crown prince, Francis does have a son by that name. Might he be who you mean? If so, it seems as though you're a bit early."

Zelena started to glower, but whatever retort she'd meant to snarl died on her lips. "A bit early," she repeated in an undertone. "A bit… Gragur?" She asked in a rather different tone of voice, "Do the merchants here treat with other realms? Might you have records from those lands as well?"

The youth nodded. "It's not as frequent, Goodwife. Finding passage between worlds is a costly affair and magic beans used to be far easier to procure. It does happen periodically, though."

"Could you show me any records you might possess here from Oz?"

Twenty minutes later, Zelena was stumbling out of the hall of records, her stomach churning as she felt as though she might faint. Although Gragur hadn't been able to provide detailed maps or genealogical tables, as he had for the kingdoms of the Enchanted Forest, he had shown her a trade agreement that had been signed between the Duke of Tower Cliffs and the Gillikins of Oz, just 'two years ago,' according to the young clerk. At first, Zelena had been annoyed. The Gillikin land was, ironically enough, Oz's 'northern kingdom'. And they had no business entering into trade agreements with anyone without clearing them with her first! She'd started reading the agreement to find out the names of the individuals who had brokered it, resolving that she would have quite a bit to say to them on her return—Oh. Of course. In this time, she wasn't yet the ruler of Oz. How could she have forgotten? She smiled a bit at her own folly, as she read on. But then, she'd come to the last paragraph, and the line, 'Signed and dated in the fifth year of His Majesty, King Pastoria of Oz,' and her smile dropped. The fifth year of... Pastoria? The name was vaguely familiar from the history lessons learned at her adoptive mother's knee. But his reign wasn't recent. He hadn't sat on Oz's throne since— Her blood suddenly ran cold. There had to be some other simple explanation for—

"Are you certain that this is only two years old?" she demanded. "It hasn't been misfiled?"

Gragur blinked. "I-I don't see how it could have been, but I'll inquire," he'd said. A few minutes later, he returned, escorting a woman some ten years Zelena's senior to her table.

"You're most fortunate, Goodwife," Gragur said, smiling. "I've the honor and fortune to present to you Mistress Ilona, one of the signatories to the agreement before you."

The richly-attired woman looked at her curiously. "I'm not sure why it's a concern to you, Goodwife, but yes, I was in Oz nearly twenty months ago and that trade agreement has been quite the boon to his Grace's armies. We may yet see the ogres routed by winter, if the shipments continue."

Zelena forced herself to smile, as she pushed back her chair. Then she bolted, pretending she didn't hear those two calling after her.

A bit early, Gragur had said. He'd spoken truer than he could have guessed! She was more than two hundred years early! She knew nothing about this period of history and nothing about her earlier antecedents. Her knowledge of her family tree began with Cora and she had no idea of the names of her grandmother or grandfather, let alone anyone who'd come before that.

She didn't even know her father's name; it had never been important before. But if she'd come this far back in time, then any chance encounter, any word she spoke, any action she undertook might somehow interfere with any one of the crucial meetings that needed to take place among all of the ancestors whose lineage she would bear. If she—even accidentally—killed one of her great-great grandfathers… If she paused to talk to her great-great-grandmother and inadvertently delayed her, so that she never met the man she should have wed… The slightest error, the slightest misstep, and she might erase herself from existence.

She'd gone back in time to change her past, but it had never occurred to her that in so doing, she might obliterate her future! And she couldn't very well ensure that her ancestors' lives continued unmolested when she had no clue who they even were!

She wanted to scream or sob or... she didn't even know what. But perhaps, she could figure it out on her long walk back to that inn. Because going by the way he'd reacted yesterday, it was very likely that she'd find Rumple in that area. And while she wasn't fool enough to confront him when he had his magic and she had none of her own, she knew that if she could discover his specific whereabouts, if she could discern what he was planning... Then she might yet be able to turn things to her advantage.

The temperature was beginning to drop, and she wished she still had her cloak, but she pressed her forearms to her sides and gripped her elbows as she turned to begin the long walk back to Pen Marmor.

Chapter 7: Chapter Seven

Notes:

A/N: In one of my previous fics, I named the two spinners who raise Rumple "Aunt Hulda" and "Aunt Holle". I'm keeping those names, just because I don't want to bother dreaming up new ones for them. However, this fic is not part of my "Heartstrings" AU and the backstories I gave the spinners in that 'verse do not carry over to this fic.

Trigger Warning: Pet death

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven

"How is it possible?" Rumple's younger self asked. They were both calmer now, and sipping on barley tea in clay cups that were really more like small bowls. Rumple hadn't had any in centuries and he'd forgotten how soothing it could be.

Rumple frowned for a moment, thinking how best to reply. "It's a long story and more than a little complicated," he said finally. He winced, knowing that it wasn't much of an answer. "Let's just say that the future holds much in store for you, both good and bad."

His younger self snorted. "That sounds like the sort of thing our father might have said when he posed as a soothsayer."

"You're right," Rumple admitted. "And I'm sorry. Unfortunately, the good and the bad are all tangled up with one another and…" And he was talking to one of the few people perceptive enough to likely spot any evasions and deceptions for what they were. "…And," he continued with unaccustomed candor, "there are things that you might well try to change if you learned of them now. And there are things that I truly want to warn you about in hopes you will. But I also know the outcomes of all of those missteps and wrong choices and some of those… I wouldn't trade for this world or another." He shook his head. "I'm sorry. I-I know you want more. I would, if I were in your place right now."

He frowned for a moment, thinking. Then his eyes brightened. "Do you recall Shep?"

His younger self blinked. "If you can remember him enough to ask me, you must know I do," he replied. "Why? What's he got to do with this?"

"Well," Rumple replied, "do you recall how long it took before you earned his trust…?"

There was no shortage of homeless animals in town. Many households, particularly the better off ones, kept a dog to guard the family or a cat to keep the mice. And when mating season arrived, many households had no compunctions about turning the resulting young out of doors—if they didn't drown them.

Rumple had been fifteen and on his way to the well in the town square—as he had every day for the last five years—when he'd first met Shep—a muddy adolescent sheepdog with matted fur and visible ribs. He'd been struggling a bit with the buckets—there were strong winds that day, and the empty pails kept swinging into his hips with enough force to make him wince a bit when he had to turn corners. He'd been taking care to keep curved wooden bar steady on his neck and shoulders, his head down, as he focused on the cobbles in the street, not really paying attention to anything other than the next few stones before him, listening for the clop of horses so that he could get out of the way if one was approaching behind him. He only saw the gray-black-and white form out the corner of his eye and would have passed by absently if the dog hadn't chosen that moment to stretch and yawn.

The movement startled Rumple and he gasped. At that, the dog came fully awake, gave Rumple its full attention, and then, with one frightened yip, bounded off.

Rumple blinked. It might have been the first time he'd come across anything more afraid of him than he was of it. He should have put the incident out of his head entirely. It was just an abandoned pup, after all, and there had to be a million of them around. But those eyes—desperate, hopeful, and resigned all at once—had haunted him and continued to do so for the rest of the day. He couldn't stop thinking about the pup. Alone, unloved, hungry… Probably chased away and cursed at most of the time. Rumple knew all about that. Well, maybe not the 'alone' part; though Malcolm had often left him on his own for hours while he ran his games and gambled and drank, he'd always come back in the end. Until—no, Rumple still wasn't ready to think about Neverland. Well, things were different for him now. He had a home, and he had love and encouragement, and enough to eat. He was learning a trade so he could support himself when he grew up. But if nobody had taken him in, if his father had left him behind one day and never come back from the tavern… Rumple shuddered. Maybe he'd be sleeping on doorsteps and digging for food in the rubbish heaps and—

Almost without realizing what he was doing, he slipped a bit of meat pie into his trouser-pocket, just in case he saw the pup again tomorrow.

He did. And while the dog was still too skittish to draw near—and Rumple was half-relieved that he was—he bounded after the treat as soon as Rumple had gone a few yards further on his way.

After that, it became a routine. Rumple would save a bit of supper to take to the dog, who would always be waiting in roughly the same area. As time went on, he started spending some of the coppers his aunts (not really his aunts, but he thought of them as such) gave him for an allowance at the butcher's. The pup—Rumple had named him 'Shep' by this point—was growing and, though Rumple didn't know how much food a sheep dog needed, he imagined it was quite a bit more than a quarter of a meat pie. While he thought that Shep was still rooting about in garbage or begging for scraps elsewhere, Rumple rather suspected that he might be the dog's most reliable source of food.

As weeks turned to months, Shep started watching for the pale, thin youth with the yoked buckets, and often came prancing forward to greet him. And Rumple would laugh and scratch the dog behind his ears and, when Shep flopped to the ground and rolled ecstatically on his back, scratch his chest as well.

Then, Shep followed him home.

His aunts needed a bit of convincing. Shep was a large-breed dog, after all, and likely to weigh upwards of 80 pounds at full size. "He'll need to eat nearly as much in a day as we do," Aunt Hulda had warned.

"I'll learn to spin faster," Rumple had pleaded. "A-and I'll clean up after him, and make sure he gets enough exercise and—"

"We'll see," Aunt Holle said firmly, but there had been a twinkle in her eye that belied her dubious tone of voice.

Shep stayed. And the longer he did, the more the three of them wondered how they'd ever gotten by without him.

"That dog slept on my bed every night for the rest of his life," Rumple's younger self said with a faint smile on his face. "I don't know that I would have left Aunt Hulda and Aunt Holle when I did, had he lived longer—for all that they were telling me it was time. I just… couldn't leave him behind and he was too old to travel far. Though, of course, you know that." He swiped at his eyes with his sleeve. And then, a bit angrily, "But why bring him up?"

Rumple sighed. "I'm sorry," he said. "But think for a moment. Let us say that you—as you are now, I mean—had it in you to travel back in time, as I've done now. You find yourself in Leanan Moor," he named the town where they'd grown up, "at the moment when first you met Shep. And now, knowing what you know—that you and he are destined to befriend one another, and that he will become your constant companion, you run toward him, acting as though you'd already earned his trust." He waited for the understanding to dawn in his younger self's eyes. "I think that in that scenario, knowing what you know could be a distinct disadvantage. For if you were to approach the pup thusly, he'd likely flee in fear or—if you managed to corner him—growl and snap at you. It would be that much harder to win him over, if it were even possible. And," Rumple sighed, "perhaps there would be a part of you that would also remember the pain of losing him, of watching him grow older and more infirm, of wishing that there was a healer in the town who didn't snarl at you that his magic wasn't to be—"

"—wasted on mangy curs when there were sick people who needed it more," his younger self nodded bitterly. "I remember."

"And in remembering," Rumple said gently, "it might be understandable if you thought to have things play out differently this time. To leave Shep in that trash heap now, to spare yourself the pain of losing him later. But," Rumple shook his head, "if you were to do that, you would also know the fate you consigned him to, and I think you'd find your boyhood far bleaker now than it had been. And of course," he added, "you'd never have met Milah…"

He hadn't wanted to admit it. After the healer had refused his aid, Rumple had still held out hope that his aunts' broths and poultices would work a miracle, but Shep was still old, still in obvious pain, still unable to keep down food or walk outside to relieve himself. And finally, Rumple had been forced to face the truth. A tincture of boiled phobotor root took the faithful dog quickly and painlessly, and Rumple steeled himself to the next task at hand.

He had the spade in hand and was hacking away at the ground. Some years, spring weather arrived by early March, but here it was, two weeks into the month, and the ground was still mostly frozen. Rumple didn't care. The spade might as well have been an axe, as he swung it downward, trying to dig even a shallow grave, grunting and sobbing with his efforts. And then, a cautious voice called from the adjacent yard, "Are you all right?"

Rumple didn't turn. "Do I look all right?" he demanded harshly, raising the spade once more.

"No, you don't," the voice called over. "Is there any way I can help you?"

Rumple turned to face the speaker. "Only if you can bring back the dead," he said, bringing it down once more.

Undaunted, his new neighbor braced his hands on the low wooden fence and deftly swung over. "Someone died?" he asked, taking in the burlap sack beside him. "A… a child?"

Rumple shook his head. "My dog." He snorted bitterly. "And now, I suppose you're going to tell me I shouldn't carry on so over some… What? Flea-bitten cur? He never had a flea after I took him in. Mangy mongrel? You'd only have had to see his coat to know the first was a lie, and as to being a mongrel, he was the best—" He struggled not to break down utterly, when he felt a light hand on his arm.

"Have you got any kindling?" he asked.

"What? No, I'm not going to burn him!"

"That's not why I was asking," young man said, holding up his hands in a gesture intended to be calming. "If you build a fire over the area you want to dig up, it'll warm the earth, so the soil will give more easily. If you have boiling water, we can pour it on after; that'll warm it even quicker." He smiled. "My name's Damir. My younger sister and I've only just moved here from Timber Bluff. As it happens," he added a bit self-consciously, "I've been hired as this town's new undertaker. I… know a thing or two about digging in hard ground, I guess."

"Undertaker," Rumple repeated, leaning on his spade. He judged Damir to be about his own age, perhaps a year or so older.

"People die all the year round," his new friend pointed out. "We can't exactly leave them until spring when they do." His eye fell on the wood pile. "Can we use some of that?"

Rumple wiped his eyes on his sleeve. Almost mechanically, he walked over to the pile, picked up a log, and laid it on the chopping stump. The wood yielded to his axe with a good deal more cooperation than had the earth to his spade. "I'll need a matchstick," he murmured.

"No, I've flint," Damir returned, pulling it out of his pocket. "Wait. Have you got anything dry for tinder?"

"I-I do," Rumple said, brightening a bit despite himself. He hurried back into the house and returned a moment later clutching two handfuls of combed wool fiber.

"Let me see," his new friend asked. Then he brushed his hand lightly over it and smiled. "Kind of greasy. That should work well." He shook his head. "I'm sorry. Here I'm dealing with the task at hand and I didn't think to…" His voice trailed off and then, he continued a bit more gently. "I'm sorry about your dog."

"So am I," Rumple replied. Belatedly, he remembered that he hadn't introduced himself, as yet. "I… my name is Rumpelstiltskin," he said, bracing himself for the usual smirks and questions about how he'd come by it.

Damir's eyebrows did climb somewhat, but he recovered nearly at once. "Rumpelstiltskin," he repeated seriously. "Well. I'd say I was glad to meet you, but I guess you'd wish the circ*mstances were better."

"I can't deny that," Rumple shot back, but with considerably less heat than had been in his voice at the beginning of the conversation.

Damir bent down and began to arrange the kindling. "Do… do you want to talk about it?"

Under normal circ*mstances, he probably wouldn't have taken his new neighbor up on the offer. He wasn't the sort to make friends easily and he never seemed to know how to talk to people, if the conversation went beyond greetings and business matters. Shyness and awkwardness usually left him tongue-tied. But these were not usual circ*mstances. He was grieving and angry and frustrated and Damir was taking it all in stride, offering practical solutions, volunteering assistance with the task at hand, and not belittling him for grieving over an animal who had been a better friend to him than most people.

"I… Are you just asking to be polite, or do you truly wish to know?" Because he really did want to tell him—well, anyone really—about Shep, but not if it would bore him or otherwise make him regret he'd asked.

"I really want to know," Damir said firmly. "At least, if you want to tell me." He hesitated. "I think we'll both be ready for something to eat once this is done." He jerked his head back toward the yard he'd come from. "Milah—my sister—is just making lunch. If you'd like to join us, you're welcome."

Rumple lit the wool and touched it to the kindling. "That's… I thank you. Perhaps, I shall." He shook his head sadly, as the wood caught. His eyes were stinging again, whether from the smoke or the unexpected sympathy, he couldn't say. "His name was Shep," Rumple began. And when, despite Damir's encouraging nod, he couldn't get more words past the lump in his throat, the undertaker didn't press him.

"We'll need a cauldron for the water. Do you have one, or shall I ask if my sister has one she's not cooking in at the moment?"

When Rumple didn't answer, Damir hopped the fence back to his own yard. He returned several minutes later, carrying an iron pot. Rumple had it at the pump and half-filled with water by the time he realized that his new friend hadn't returned alone.

Damir beckoned to the dark-haired girl to draw nearer. "Rumpelstiltskin," he said, "I'd like to present my sister Milah. Milah, this is our new neighbor."

The girl—young woman, really—smiled in a friendly fashion. "Damir told me," she said. "I-I'm sorry about your dog."

Rumple nodded and tried to force himself to smile back, but those damned tears started falling again. And then, Milah wrapped an arm about his shoulders and murmured, "It's okay. I'm sorry. I didn't mean—"

She flung a look toward her brother. "Can you manage it?" she asked. "I think…"

"Yes, of course."

"Thank you." And then, she steered Rumple toward the tree in the middle of the yard, the one with the broad branch that was only a foot or so off the ground. And while Damir set about completing the task that Rumple had started, the two of them sat there, not speaking, not really watching, but just waiting and thinking and realizing that it was all right to sit beside someone for a good long time and not feel a need to fill the moments with idle conversation.

Rumple didn't quite realize it then, but it was on that day and in that hour that he first began falling in love.

"And," he finished, not quite meeting his younger self's eyes, "for all the misery that shaped your last years with her, had you never met her, never married her…"

"…I wouldn't have Bae," his younger self finished.

"And the future," Rumple nodded, "is much like that. There will be things that happen to us that we'll loathe, choices we'll make and regret making, things I wish I could spare you and perhaps, some that I will… But choices have consequences and some of our worst ones will bring about the best happenings." He heaved a great sigh. "In time."

"Surely, you can tell me something," his younger self persisted.

"I can," Rumple nodded again. "But I don't know if I should. I-I want to," he added. "But pull at one thread and risk unraveling the whole fabric. I'll tell you this much. The seer's prophecy on the battlefield? It… hasn't been averted. Only delayed."

His younger self blanched and Rumple knew that he was remembering anew that breathy high-pitched voice.

"…Your actions on the battlefield tomorrow will leave him fatherless."

"How?"

Rumple winced. "Because when someone means so much to you that you can't bear to let them go, you risk driving them away."

"Can't I stop it from happening?" his younger self demanded. "I won't accept—I mean... There has to be some way!"

"Perhaps," Rumple said slowly. "Perhaps, there is. I missed finding one when it counted, and then, it was too late. But… maybe I—we can find it this time."

He wasn't going to mention the conversation he'd overheard this morning. First, Bae had never raised the issue. Either Moraine's parents had been against the match, or Bae had been waiting for an opportune moment which never arrived. Second, even if consent was given, marriage and children would save Moraine from being conscripted. Bae would still be taken. Third, Rumple had married Milah for much the same reason that Bae had made his proposal to Moraine…

There had been rumors in the wind of ogres massing by the borders. The duke had announced that, for the first time, women would be drafted for active combat. For the time being, conscription would only apply to unmarried women between the ages of seventeen and thirty. Milah had been twenty-one and terrified of the prospect. She'd heard much of the horrors of war and lived through some of them already. Her parents had been killed in a border skirmish with a neighboring human kingdom when she'd been twelve; the thought of facing ogres had left her white-faced and shaking. Rumple was no hero, but here was something he could do, after all. He loved Milah and thought she might love him. Or, perhaps, she would in time. And they had been happy for a while. Until he'd limped home from the battlefield, stories of his cowardice racing ahead of him.

Had Rumple believed for one second that Bae and Moraine truly loved one another, it would have been different. But they were children, yet, too young to truly know their feelings. Bae's offer had been sincere and heartfelt, but Rumple hadn't heard anything stronger than friendship, either in his proposal or Moraine's reply. Maybe friendship would be enough of a foundation to build on. But maybe it wouldn't be. It hadn't been enough for him and Milah.

Besides, he reflected glumly, his younger self was terrified that he might lose Bae. Losing him to the army was unthinkable. But even losing Bae to a spouse, watching him leave with Moraine to establish his own household… and then, losing him in the end when the duke's soldiers came for him. No. His younger self would never agree. And if he did… then when the soldiers came for the first time, it would be on Bae's birthday, not Moraine's. He'd be gone before his younger self knew it.

Rumple could warn him.

But would Bae abandon his wife to flee the village? Would Moraine willingly come with them? Rumple didn't know the answer to that. But he did know that if Bae was conscripted, if his younger self never tried to spirit him away… Then his younger self would never become the Dark One.

If he never became the Dark One, then the chain of events that led to the Dark Curse, Storybrooke, and his stepping through the time portal to come here would never transpire.

But then, Rumple found himself wondering, why was he here? Had fate just found some new way to torment him, forcing him to relive the past without changing it? Making him lose Bae all over again, now that he'd only just found him?

No. No, his younger self was right: there had to be a way to avert this.

He had three months to find one.

Maybe…

An idea struck him. Perhaps he didn't have to alter things as much as he'd thought. Perhaps, there was a way in which he could gain his power, stop the war, save the children… and not lose Bae.

Perhaps, this time, he really could have it all…

Perhaps.

Chapter 8: Chapter Eight

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight

A few people looked up curiously when Zelena stumbled into the same tavern she'd slept at the night before, but quickly went back to their food, drink, and conversation.

"There's dishes to be washed if you're needing a room for another night," the proprietor told her, as she took a seat at the bar.

Zelena laid her second silver coin on the counter. "Will this suffice instead?" she asked.

The proprietor accepted it. "Dinner, too?"

"Please," she replied with unaccustomed gratitude. Not to mention relief; it was after nine o'clock and she hadn't been certain that an establishment in this godforsaken backwater would still be serving food at this hour. Last night, she'd arrived far earlier and, washing dishes in the yard behind, hadn't been in a position to note whether or when the kitchen was wont to close. She'd spent nearly twelve hours on the road to and from Longbourne and she was almost too exhausted to eat. Almost, but not quite.

She was going to have to sell the earrings. That or spend the rest of her miserable time here drudging away as a skivvy for bed and board, unless she could find better work. And without her magic, she didn't know that she would. Without her magic… She was trapped here. Even with her magic, she might well be; finding the necessary components to open another time portal would be difficult under the best of circ*mstances. At the time she'd opened this one, she hadn't planned on returning. If Cora had kept her, her entire life would have been different. She wouldn't have needed to return to her own time. Either she would have remained in the past as some sort of advisor to her mother while watching her younger self grow up, or changing the past would have removed this version of herself from the timeline, but there would still be her younger self having the life she was meant to. While the adult Zelena would have preferred the former circ*mstance, she'd understood and accepted the risk of the latter when first she'd conceived her plan.

She'd never planned on going two centuries off-course, losing her magic, and having no way to regain it or return to her own time or…

"…It was like a miracle! A sip of that draught and the wheezing stopped! By the time Tavro finished it, his breathing was almost normal again! Master Fendrake said he should take another dose every day for the next week, but when that's finished, his lungs will be better than new!"

Without meaning to, Zelena found her head turning toward the speaker, a broad-shouldered man in his early thirties. Hers wasn't the only one that did.

"Magic comes with a price, but," another man at the table cautioned. "And Master Fendrake's never been one to forego remuneration. What'd he want for that potion?"

"That's the beauty of it," the first man said. "He asked for Tavro's services these next seven winters: chopping wood, clearing snow and the like. And he made up the contract on the spot; I've just come from filing it with the duke's steward. My son's in service to a healer-mage! D'you know what that means?"

His companion let out a low whistle. "How old is he again?"

"Twelve last spring. I know the soldiers wouldn't be after him for a few years yet, but even so, mage's hirelings, apprentices or no—"

"Draft exempt!" the other man exclaimed. "Crikey, Gavver, you've every reason to celebrate! In fact," he rose and hoisted himself onto his wooden stool, seemingly heedless of its wobbling. "In honor of my good friend Gavver's good news, I'll buy a round for everyone in the house!"

A raucous cheer arose in response.

"You got the money for that, Olmar?" the proprietor shouted from across the bar. "Because, if you do, there's the matter of your tab to settle first."

"Ah, just add it on," Olmar smiled. "Unless you want to spoil the celebration."

"One round," the proprietor said. Then, a bit more loudly, "Watered ale only. Those who want stronger can pony the difference. And Olmar, once the harvest is in, I'll expect you to be as well. With what's owed. Else, there'll be no more credit 'til you've cleared out your ledger page."

"Agreed."

More laughter, more cheers, and the proprietor set a large bucket on the bar counter and, as the eager patrons formed a rough queue, began ladling clear brown liquid into tankards, which foamed agreeably as it went in.

Zelena observed the scene clinically, processing what she'd just learned and feeling, for the first time since she'd realized just how badly awry her plan had gone, a wild hope stirring in her breast. When the proprietor set a mug of ale down on the counter before her, she started. Then, after a smiled thanks, she asked as casually as she dared, "Would you know where I might find this 'Master Fendrake'?"

The hospital wasn't far, but it seemed to be taking longer than usual to get there. Regina glanced periodically at Rumple in her rearview mirror and she didn't like what she saw. His skin was too pale, for one thing; even when they'd found him caged in his own castle, his color had been better. His eyes were very bright, but unnervingly unfocused. And despite the blanket that was still wrapped about him, he was shivering. Regina frowned. She recognized those symptoms—or at least, hearing about them. She vaguely recalled her mother angrily reporting to her father that she'd dismissed one of the servants 'before she infected them all' and demanding to know why he hadn't recognized—

Recognized…

It was on the tip of her tongue, damn it!

Rumple began to cough, and he brought up the edge of the blanket to cover his mouth.

"Hang on," she said, spotting the hospital in the distance at last. "We're almost there."

Rumple didn't answer; he was coughing too hard.

"Easy," Robin murmured, reaching over a bit awkwardly to pat his back. "Easy."

Regina turned into the lot and found a parking space near the emergency entrance door. "Hang on," she said, as she turned off the motor. She got out and moved immediately toward the back seat to help Rumple out. She winced and tried to conceal her revulsion when she realized that there was a glob of phlegm on the blanket. Then her eyes widened. Was that… blood? Pallor. Bright eyes. Fever. Shivering. Coughing up blood—Regina threw one alarmed glance in Robin's direction and said quickly, "Catch up with us inside." Then she gripped Rumple's arm tightly and vanished.

Rumple often thought his life had been a tapestry of bad choices and worse regrets. So many things he would have done over, if only he could have. But now that he had the opportunity, he didn't know that he wanted to.

Becoming the Dark One had cost him centuries of separation from Bae. He'd lost himself long before he'd lost his son. And seeing his younger self now only drove that point home more intensely. He frowned. There was something faint and annoying tickling the edge of his consciousness like the buzzing of a mosquito or the wings of a fly. His forehead creased in concentration as he probed more deeply into what was disturbing him.

Had he never become the Dark One… He still would have lost Bae, and had he lost him that way, he'd never have been reunited with him years later. In fact, he rather thought that even if he were to tell his younger self everything about the Dark One dagger now, how he'd acquired it, what it had done for him, but also what it had cost him, his younger self might still consider it a fair trade. As though it were yesterday, he could hear his own voice saying, "If I own that dagger, I control the Dark One. If I kill the Dark One with the dagger, I take his powers. Imagine me with those powers. I could get to redeem myself. I could turn it toward good. I'll save all the children of the Frontlands…"

Rumple reached into the pouch of his cloak where he'd secreted the dagger. He knew how far desperation could push a person. He knew full well how far it had pushed him. And why would he think his younger self would resist the temptation any better, this time around? His heart lurched as his hands went cold. If he showed his younger self the dagger now, who was to say that his younger self might not decide to take power now… even before he ever met Zoso?

"Oh, good, Bae!" his younger self's voice startled him out of his ruminations. "You're home. Supper's nearly ready."

Bae smiled. "I'll get some wood chopped; I saw the pile was getting low. Good evening, Uncle Gilitrutt," he added. "Papa, Moraine said there's no rush on the fleece; her family won't need it until late summer. But she can bring the seed this week, so we can plant it at the right time."

Rumple's younger self nodded, even as Rumple smiled and returned the greeting. "After they pulled us through last winter, there's no payment owed," his younger self said. "This is how I'll repay my debt to them."

"I don't think they see it that way," Bae said. "I mean, Moraine and me we… we're almost like family."

"Almost," his younger self agreed.

"I…" Bae took a breath. "W-we were talking this morning about maybe… Maybe it doesn't have to be 'almost'. Maybe we could marry."

Rumple's eyes widened. He didn't recall this conversation at all!

His younger self smiled indulgently. "Perhaps you will," he said. "When you're older. You're only thirteen, Bae. You shouldn't be thinking of marriage quite yet."

"But her papa is already looking for a husband for her. She said!"

"I wouldn't think she was old enough either," his younger self murmured. "Still. Not our affair."

"But—"

His younger self shook his head. "I think you said something about chopping more wood?"

Rumple could see the pain in his younger self's eyes from across the room and, evidently, Bae could see it too, for he pulled his cloak a bit more tightly about his shoulders and murmured, "Yes, Papa," as he ducked out the curtained flap once more.

Rumple opened his mouth to say something, but then he closed it again. What could he say that would persuade his younger self? And anyway, why should try? In fact, he shouldn't. It would be Moraine's conscription that would finally shock his younger self into the realization that, unless he did something, Bae would soon be drafted. And that realization would set the whole chain of events in motion. And…

He froze in startled realization. No. No, he hadn't been expecting this so soon, but… together with the constant whispering of his own dagger, he realized that he could hear another murmur, rather like a faint echo. He knew what that meant: Zoso was in the area and drawing closer. The Duke's summer palace was barely three miles from here and it was nearly summer. In all likelihood, Duke Bowden was on his way to take up residence and Zoso was likely part of his retinue. And if Rumple was hearing the song of that dagger, then Zoso could probably already hear the song of Rumple's. Zoso might not yet realize what it meant. But he would soon. Unless…

"I-I'll be back in a moment."

"Not much longer than that," his younger self cautioned. "We'll be sitting down to supper momentarily."

Rumple nodded. Then he walked out of the hovel as nonchalantly as he dared. He could hear the thwacking of the axe and paused just long enough to ascertain that Bae was indeed hard at work chopping. Then he ducked behind the sheepfold, drew out the dagger and, as he'd done a year ago—or would do more than two centuries from now—he slashed at the ground beneath his feet until his shadow loomed up before him. "You know what to do," he said, holding the dagger out with both hands. "Hide it where nobody can hear its song. Not me, and especially not Zoso!"

His shadow's hands curved around the weapon and Rumple felt his own flesh chill where they brushed it. Then the shadow offered him a slight bow, took to the air, and vanished in the darkening twilight. Rumple stood watching and listening as the whispers grew fainter. When the only Dark music he could hear came from the other dagger, he turned and walked back toward the hovel's entrance, sparing a smile and a greeting for Bae when the lad approached with an armload of wood.

Much like a portal, a teleportation spell took its caster to the place uppermost in their mind at the time of casting. Moreover, some safety feature incorporated into the magic seemed to prevent such mishaps as materializing half in a wall or some other solid object, or eight feet in mid-air. But Regina hadn't been certain whether the spell would understand a directive like 'Get us into an unoccupied examination room in the emergency department', given that the number of people in a room was hardly a constant. At least, medical emergencies in Storybrooke were rare enough that she felt assured that there would be an unoccupied examination room.

She heaved a sigh of relief when she and Rumple found themselves standing in a small consultation room with a cot, a stepstool, two chairs, several tables, a sink, a number of cabinets, and not much else. "I'll tell Whale you're here in a second," she assured him. "Meanwhile, let's get you settled."

Rumple turned worried eyes on her. "I-I—" He jerked his head away again, nearly doubling over as a new coughing fit overtook him.

There was a box of tissues on one of the counters and Regina reached into the opening, pulling out about five at once. "Here," she murmured. "Take your time."

"How did you get in here?" a disapproving voice demanded. Regina glanced over her shoulder to see Blue standing in the doorway, her expression as severe as her immaculate blue uniform.

"Get Whale," Regina said tersely.

"I don't take orders from you, Your Majesty."

"You'll take this one, unless you want to be responsible for a—" She stopped. She wasn't a doctor and maybe she was jumping to conclusions and this was just a bad cough. She gestured toward Rumple. "He's ill, I think it's serious, and I didn't want to infect half the waiting room if I'm reading the symptoms right. So, why don't you call Whale over here and let him confirm whether I am." When Blue didn't move, she took another breath and forced herself to smile pleasantly. "Could I please trouble you to ask Dr. Whale to come examine the patient at his convenience?"

The fairy pursed her lips together. "Wait here," she directed.

Once she was gone, Rumple looked at Regina once more. "You don't have to stay here," he managed hoarsely.

Regina smiled sadly. "Actually, I think I might. I have a feeling that he's going to want to check me over, too."

Rumple's eyes widened slightly, and he gave her a small nod of comprehension. "I didn't mean for you to—" he started to say.

"Oh, don't worry. It's the twenty-first century, and I doubt it's still the death sentence it used to be—" She stopped. She truly wasn't worried about her own chances, but Rumple looked to be in really bad shape. Maybe, the thought occurred to her, his condition is too far advanced for even modern medicine to bring him back. And maybe, she squelched that thought furiously, she shouldn't go imagining worst-case scenarios before Whale even had the chance to look the patient over.

She hooked the footstool with one ankle and dragged it before the cot. "Here," she said, helping Rumple onto the mattress. "Once Whale okays it, I'll get Belle. She's probably already waking up from Zelena's sleep spell."

A stunned look flashed over Rumple's face and he nodded again.

Dr. Whale arrived shortly afterwards, the annoyance in his eyes giving way to shock, as he took in the scene before him. "Who else has been in contact with the patient?"

"Robin and I drove him here," Regina said. Then she added, "When he stepped out of the portal, David, Emma, Killian and the others were there, too."

"And the baby."

Regina nodded.

"Were you and Robin the only people to get close to him?"

"Yes."

"I'll check the others over, too then. After I get the test results back."

He walked over to Rumple. "How long have you been coughing?" he demanded.

Regina looked up sharply at that; Rumple hadn't coughed since Whale had come into the room.

Rumple closed his eyes, thinking back. "I would say," he replied hoarsely, "that it started nearly two years ago, though it's been steadily worsening over the last six months."

"What?"

"He's just been through a time portal," Regina explained.

"Of course he has," Whale replied with exaggerated nonchalance. "Two years," he continued, the levity vanishing from his voice. "Are you in any pain?"

Rumple nodded again. "M-my chest."

"He has a fever, too," Regina put in.

"Noted." Whale kept his focus on Rumple. "And I don't have to run any tests to see you've lost weight."

"I haven't had much appetite, lately."

Whale nodded. And when he spoke again, it was with unaccustomed gentleness. "I'm not surprised. Okay. There are a few tests I need to run to confirm what I suspect is going on. First a chest radiograph. When you come back from that, we'll get you started on fluids and fever reducers. If you feel another cough coming on, try to signal me or whichever staff member's closest; we'll need a sputum sample, while we're at it." He waited for Rumple's nod, before he continued. "The good news is, now that you're back in modern times, if this is what I think we all think it is, we can treat it."

"And," Rumple said with just a hint of his usual asperity, "just what do 'we' all think this is?"

Whale didn't bat an eye when he quietly provided the one-word answer. "Tuberculosis."

Chapter 9: Chapter Nine

Notes:

A/N: According to "The History of Medical Education in Europe and the United States, With Respect to Time and Proficiency," (Eugène Custers, Academic Medicine, March 2018), until the mid-nineteenth century, practical surgical education frequently involved apprenticeship to a seasoned practitioner. Medical schools turned out "academic doctors" whose training was almost exclusively theoretical. While Dr. Whale would definitely have been of the correct social class to attend such an institution—and he almost certainly did—in order for him to have translated his 'book-learning' to his later experiments, I'm taking the tack that in his realm, all practical medicine would have been taught via apprenticeship. While the first sanatoriums opened their doors in the decades after Frankenstein was published, since OUAT's Dr. Frankenstein isn't from our world, I'm playing a little fast-and-loose with this timeline, too.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine

"You might know it better as 'consumption,'" Whale continued. "It has many names, including 'phthisis,' 'scrofula,' the 'white plague' and the 'king's touch'. I'm ordering the tests to be sure, but," he shook his head, "there was a sanatorium on the outskirts of the town where I grew up. I served a year's apprenticeship there. And," his eyes were sadder above his surgical mask, "I lost my favorite aunt to consumption when I was sixteen. I think I know what I'm looking at."

Rumple nodded, not seeming at all surprised by the diagnosis.

"I hate to bring this up," Regina said, "but if Robin and I have been exposed, then…"

Whale shook his head and there was a smile in his voice, as he turned to her. "Well, TB may be contagious, but it's not virulent."

He turned back to Rumple. "How long were you in the past?"

Rumple leaned back against the pillow, his eyes closed. "Approximately three years," he said softly.

"That actually surprises me," Whale said. "Normally, it can take that long for the first symptoms to show up; and you can't infect anyone until they do. So," he frowned worriedly, "either you already contracted it in its latent form at some point even before the First Curse, or…."

He faced Regina once more. "Latent TB is dangerous mainly for its potential to turn active. Think of it as you would a non-malignant cyst or mole—not typically dangerous in and of itself, but concerning because of the possibility of its becoming malignant at some point down the line. Fortunately, there's an easy way to test for it and we'll do that in about a month. For now," he continued matter-of-factly, "you can go about your daily life. If in a month's time, the test shows positive, then at that point, we can start you on antibiotics. It'll take a few months to root it out, but the treatment is pretty straightforward. If—and this is much more likely—the test is negative, then we'll keep checking up periodically, maybe as part of your annual physical, for the next few years. I'll tell Robin the same thing shortly."

"Belle," Rumple interjected.

"Sorry?" Whale turned to him sharply.

He didn't open his eyes and there was a note of dread in his voice when he asked, "Is it safe for her to see me?"

"Well," Whale said, a faint frown line becoming visible on his forehead, "You're contagious right now, and you will be until your symptoms clear up. Usually, that takes a couple of weeks, but once they do, it'll definitely be safe. Until then, so long as the right precautions are taken—masks, gloves, Tyvek suits, yes, she can see you." Something about the look in Regina's eyes made him add, "We're not taking any chances with her health or yours."

Rumple nodded. He raised himself slightly and started to say something else, but another coughing fit overpowered him.

"Easy," Whale said at once. "Easy. Don't try to talk now. And," he added, "as far that sputum test, I think we'll do that under more controlled conditions in a little while."

"I just…" Rumple whispered, slumping back to the cot once more, "I wanted to say 'thank you'."

Whale rested a gloved hand on his shoulder. "You're welcome. Now, try to relax. I'll have an orderly here momentarily to take you to radiography."

To Regina, he added, "Belle's in room 815; you can go up there now."

Belle had awakened nearly half an hour ago and come at once to full awareness. She was lying in a hospital bed, but she was in her own clothes; not the yellow gown she'd been issued at her last stay. It had taken her a moment to parse what had happened. The last thing she remembered, she'd been in the maternity ward, trying to help stop Zelena and— And…

She frowned. She couldn't remember a thing after that. She checked herself over carefully. She wasn't in any pain, she didn't seem to have any bruises, and she wasn't hooked up to any machines. There was an IV pole beside the bed, but there were no fluid bags dangling from it and she had no tubes in her arm. She sat up slowly, bracing for any light-headedness or vertigo, but there was none. She felt fine.

With a mental shrug, she pushed back her blanket, swung her legs over the side of the cot, and stood up. Her shoes were at the foot of the bed and she stepped into them. She wasn't certain if she ought to wait for a staff member to check up on her, but she really felt fine. Still, it almost seemed as though she was doing something she oughtn't to when she tried the door, found it open, and stepped into an empty corridor.

The elevator doors at the far end opened and Regina stepped out. Seeing Belle, she strode forward, shoes clicking softly on the LVT flooring. "Good. With my sister gone, I thought you might be awake," she greeted her. "I'm here to bring you up to date."

Belle blinked as the mayor came closer. "Gone?" she repeated blankly. "You mean, you defeated her? Is Rumple…?"

Uncharacteristically, Regina hesitated. "I'm afraid it's a bit… complicated," she began. "There's a lounge just over there on the left," she waved in the direction she'd just come. "I think we'll need to sit down for this."

"Master Fendrake?" Zelena called to the tattooed man standing by the cauldron outside a large hide tent.

The man looked up from his stirring. "I am," he said neutrally. "How might I help you?"

"I," Zelena smiled in a friendly fashion. "I was hoping to study magic."

Fendrake looked her up and down. "I teach the occasional child," he remarked. "It's been my experience that those who take up the craft in adulthood tend to expend too much effort for too little gain. Good day."

"No!" Zelena exclaimed. "No, no, wait! Please… I-I used to have magic. But I lost it. I was hoping that, with your help, it might be restored."

The healer raised an eyebrow. "My focus is narrow," he said. "I'm sure that if you knew to find me, you also know that I'm but a healer. My magic is somewhat… specialized."

"Well, but you're the only magic practitioner of note in the area," Zelena said. "And anything you can teach me will be better than I have now. Couldn't… couldn't I learn from you, and then, when I've gone as far as I can, move on to another specialist?"

Fendrake frowned. "I don't take dabblers," he said finally. "If I were to accept you as a pupil, then you would study with me until I decide that you're ready to move on."

"Agreed."

"And you'll sign a contract to that effect?"

Zelena nodded after a moment's hesitation.

"And how do you intend to compensate me for the time I shall need to take from my own research and experiments to instruct you? My time is valuable and my leisure scarce."

"I-I'll help you in your work," she offered.

Fendrake snorted. Then, deliberately, he took a small sharp knife from his belt and nicked his thumb with it. "Can you heal that?" he asked.

"I…" Zelena stared at the small cut and the drop of bright red blood already welling from it. Her eyes narrowed and she raised one hand, extending it toward the wound and willing her power to surface. Really, this shouldn't be impossible! She'd done it thousands of times and for worse cuts and bruises—much to her father's ire. He'd meant his lessons to linger. But strive though she might, she barely felt her magic stir, much less arise.

Fendrake shook his head. Then, casually, he brought his uninjured hand up to cover the nick and when he withdrew it, the cut was gone as though it had never been. "When you've mastered the rudiments, that might be a fair offer, but how will you pay for your lessons until you reach that point?"

Zelena hesitated. Then, slowly, she reached into her pocket and pulled out her earrings. "They… they're all I have. I'll need something back so that I can pay for food and board in the village."

Fendrake took the earrings and examined them carefully. "You'll take meals with me," he said finally. He walked into his tent and emerged a moment later, carrying a rolled parchment and what appeared to be a bundle of hides and sticks. He thrust the parchment at her. "Read this. Sign it." He handed her a pen. And then, he passed his knife to her. "And I'll need a blood seal, as well."

Zelena nodded. The man was cannier than she would have liked; a blood seal would bind her to her new instructor until he chose to release her from the contract. It would prevent her from using magic, poison, or more conventional weaponry against him. And, she read the clause with dismay, if she chose to leave before he released her, she would leave as she came; any magic she learned from him would remain with him. Well! She picked up the quill and signed her name, hesitating only the barest instant before taking up the knife. She'd just have to make sure that she recovered her own magic before she tried anything of the sort!

She nicked her own finger, let a single drop of blood fall on the parchment, and handed it back to Fendrake.

Fendrake took it and thrust the hide bundle at her. "Your tent," he said, as she took it from him. "Your first lesson is meant to teach both patience and determination. Set it up. Should you fail to do so, you'll sleep under the stars until you succeed. Or clouds, or rain, or snow, depending on the weather. See if you can accomplish the task before lunch." He smiled. "Meanwhile, I'll go back to my own work."

He gave the cauldron another stir.

Zelena gave him an angry scowl. Then she stomped several yards away, found a relatively flat spot in the clearing, and set the bundle on the ground. She'd ruled Oz. She'd mastered time travel. She could set up a tent! Even if she'd never had occasion to do so before…

By the time Regina was finished, Belle's face was nearly as pale as Rumple's had been. "Consumption," she repeated.

"Dr. Whale is running the tests, just to be certain, but that's what it looks like."

"I should go to him."

Regina nodded. "Yes, you should. Once he's been taken to a room." She took another breath. "I should probably mention, when he came back through the portal, the first words out of his mouth were that he'd lost 'him' again. I… don't think it's hard to guess who he was talking about."

"Neal," Belle said, her eyes widening. "Oh, no."

Regina nodded again. "He's going to need you. But," she continued, "however much you might want to be there for him, you're going to need a break sometimes. When that happens, I can step in, if need be. Though, I'd prefer a bit of advance notice, if you can give it."

"You?" Belle repeated.

"I brought him here," Regina said with a sigh. "I suppose that, even if he's not really my responsibility, I… feel as though he is. We go back quite a ways," she went on. "And for all the time we've spent at each other's throats, I've—we've both—already watched him die once. I don't want to do it a second time."

"You… care," Belle translated.

Regina blinked. "I-I suppose so. Not in the same way that you do, but… Well, yes. I guess I do."

Belle smiled. Her smile faded quickly though, when she heard footsteps approaching and saw Whale drawing nearer with a serious expression on his face. "Dr. Whale?" she asked, half-rising from her chair.

"I need to ask you a few questions," he said tersely. "Actually, it's good you're both here; hopefully, one of you will have the answers."

"What is it?" Belle asked, her voice rising in alarm. "Is Rumple…?"

Some of the tension seemed to leave the doctor's posture as he gave a slight head-shake and an even slighter sheepish smile. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to frighten you. We're just getting him settled into the isolation ward and hopefully, you'll be able to get in and see him shortly."

"Isolation," Belle repeated. "You... you're shutting him away."

"Well, it's not exactly solitary confinement in the conventional sense," Whale reassured her. "He'll be able to have visitors. But because we're dealing with an infectious disease, certain protocols will need to be followed for anyone coming into contact with him. I'll go over them with you later."

Belle opened her mouth to say something else, but Regina spoke first. "Thank you, Doctor. You said you had questions."

Whale nodded. "This really isn't easy for me," he admitted. "I don't know much about magic. For the most part, I've dealt with it by ignoring it. In other words, if someone comes to see me at the hospital, I treat them as I've been trained to do. Or," he smiled a bit self-consciously, "as my curse memories tell me I should, I suppose. It's not like we had antibiotics in my Land. Or MRIs or respirators or… Anyway," he went on, "I've pretty much left people like you, and Emma—and Rumpelstiltskin—by which I mean those of you with your own methods of healing—to your own devices. I haven't asked, I haven't interfered, I've just more or less ignored… what you do. Except for the one time I needed it," he added.

"Is there a reason you're telling us this, Doctor?"

Whale nodded. "Before Rumpelstiltskin stepped through the portal, he didn't need that cane he came back with. Now, it would seem that his limp is back. I'm guessing whatever magic he used to heal it wasn't permanent?"

Regina shook her head slightly. "Magic is… not precisely an illusion, but it's not quite as real as we'd like it to be. Had Rumple been able to heal himself magically right after his ankle was shattered, perhaps things would be different. Instead, his spell masks the effect of that injury, along any lingering pain, giving it the seeming of full functionality."

"The way that many over-the-counter cold and sinus medications—as an example—hide the symptoms without getting at the root of the problem," Whale nodded. "Not a bad thing in those circ*mstances; a cold is usually not very serious and taking something to ease the discomfort while the thing runs its course is generally fine."

"Yes. Well, as far as his ankle is concerned," Regina moved smoothly back to the original topic, "if Rumple were in a land without magic, then there'd be no masking of that injury. Wait," she said a bit more sharply, frowning now. "That… that doesn't make any sense. Zelena created that time portal to go back to the Enchanted Forest. Rumple should have had his magic there."

"Maybe," Belle said, "something went wrong with the spell? Zelena did cast it in this world, after all. Maybe it could only take them to this world's past."

"But in the past, this world had no magic, so that wouldn't explain how he got back here," Regina pointed out. She looked at Whale once more. "What does any of this have to do with his illness?"

Whale exhaled. "I guess I should thank you for confirming my hypothesis. That was my first thought too: that he'd been someplace where his magic wouldn't work. If that's the case, then once the treatment starts to take effect, I'd imagine that he'll be able to use it again—if he can't already."

"Very likely," Regina nodded. "Your point?"

Whale took another breath. "If his spells could effect a true healing, I wouldn't be concerned. But if Rumpelstiltskin tries to do for his lungs what he's been used to doing for his ankle, then that would mean that if he ever were to leave Storybrooke for the outside world, or another realm without magic, or if anything were to happen to Storybrooke's magic…"

"It would come back again," Belle breathed. "Wouldn't it?"

"I don't know for sure," Whale said, giving her a slight nod of acknowledgment, "but it is something that crossed my mind. Here's the thing. Treating active tuberculosis means six to nine months of antibiotics. Now, as with most antibiotic treatments, it's almost definite that he'll feel better long before that. And if he were to cast a healing spell to deal with any lingering issues… if it's a good one, I could be led to believe that we can stop the treatment before he's really recovered."

"And then, the minute he was to step over the town line…" Belle said, letting her voice trail off as she nodded her understanding.

Whale gave her a quick nod in return. His gaze panned between her and Regina. "My question to both of you would be, are these healing spells always a conscious thing, or are they something that you sometimes do automatically, maybe even subconsciously, when they're needed? In other words, even if I explained my concern to Rumpelstiltskin, even assuming he understood the necessity of completing the treatment, would he be able to stop himself from acting?"

Regina frowned. "I'm not certain," she admitted. "I know that I need to focus to cast one," she said. "I do. But Rumple's immortal. Plus, he's the Dark One. And his Darkness can… sometimes have a mind of its own."

The doctor exhaled. "I was afraid of that. I'm pretty sure that once he understands how important it is for him not to interfere with the treatment, he won't do so willingly. But if he can't stop himself…" He took another breath. "Okay. Next question: is there a way to block him from healing himself, at least, until the treatment runs its course?"

Regina's frown deepened. "Pan's cuff," she said slowly, "but I'd like to see whether there aren't any other options. The cuff would block him from using any magic. And, the fact that the wearer can't remove it at will is a concern."

Belle nodded with a worried frown. "Rumple shouldn't have to ask our permission to use magic," she stated. "That's—well, even if it's for his own good, even if it's not with his dagger—it's still controlling him. And after what Zelena did to him…"

"I understand," Whale said. "But is there a way to keep him from healing himself without interfering with any other aspects of his magic?"

"Are we even sure he still has it?" Belle asked a bit more sharply. "I mean, what if he didn't already try to heal himself, because he can't?"

Regina frowned. "Considering that he probably wouldn't admit to such a thing, even if it were the case, I think we'd better move forward on the assumption that he does. Spells take focus and part of the price of magic is a bit of a… drain on a spell caster's energies. Usually, that drain is slight enough that it's barely noticeable—though a big enough spell could…" She didn't finish her sentence. She was remembering stopping the failsafe in the mine. Had Emma not helped her then, she wouldn't be sitting here now.

"At any rate," she went on, "I know something of consumption myself: fatigue is one of its symptoms." Unconsciously, she glanced at Whale and a slight smile graced her face at his nod of approval. "In Rumple's current condition, if he still has his magic, he's in no shape to use it. Once the treatment starts to take effect, though…" She frowned and looked at Whale once more. "As far as what you asked—about a way to block him from healing spells alone… I don't know that answer either, I'm afraid," she admitted. "I don't recall ever coming across such a question in any of my spell books, but I'll certainly go through them again."

"And I'll look through Rumple's," Belle said. "Maybe I'll ask the fairies, too. Normally, I wouldn't, but," her lip curled bitterly, "I'm sure they'll be falling over themselves to put any checks they can on his power." Her expression grew worried once more. "But first, may I see him?"

Whale smiled. "I'll need to check in to see how he's doing before I can give you a definite answer. Meanwhile, wait here. If I could get your cell number, then once I've verified that he's up for visitors, I'll give you a call."

After Whale left, Belle wasn't in much of a mood for talking. Instead, she pulled out her phone and murmured something about 'Googling consumption'. After a moment, Regina took out her own phone.

She wasn't nearly as talented at research as Belle was, but their earlier conversation nagged at her. Going by the clothes Rumple had been wearing when he'd returned, he hadn't arrived from the Enchanted Forest. So, just where had he been instead? She frowned at her phone as she tried to recall the details of the suit he'd had on. Then she opened an image search and typed in some keywords. When she didn't find what she'd been looking for, she tried a few more.

It took her longer than she'd hoped. And after scrolling through image after image of men's attire, she found that she had to look up several times in order to recall exactly the item she was trying to find a match for. Finally, she found it. Her eyes widened. "Late Victorian and Edwardian styles?" she muttered in disbelief. "What on earth was he doing there?"

Chapter 10: Chapter Ten

Notes:

A/N: Don't worry. I'm not done with the EF, yet. But flashbacks aren't necessarily linear, and after the way the last chapter ended, we're taking a bit of a leap forward before we fall back.
Small snippet of dialogue taken from E1S12, "Skin Deep". Beowulf appears in S6E13, "Ill-Boding Patterns".
I thought I had everything planned out and that this would be done in 19 chapters. It might be yet. However, I'm finding a need to include scenes that weren't planned for in my outline and some scenes that were planned for are getting pushed back. So, let's just say that this fic is going to be around 19 chapters... probably. But I'm taking that information out of the story tags for now, and if this turns out to need 20, 21, or even 22 chapters, well, that's what it's going to need.

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten

It was night time. He was lying on the ground and his ankle was throbbing. So was his heart. Beside him, Bae stirred, brushed himself off, and looked hesitantly about. "Papa?" he called. "Papa!"

"H-here," Rumple replied, but Bae kept scanning the area.

"PAPA!"

Rumple started to call out to him again, but then he realized. "Bae."

Bae stared out at their surroundings for another minute, before he dropped back down beside him. "He let go, Uncle Gilitrutt," he said numbly. "He let go of me. We had a deal!"

Rumple closed his eyes. "I know."

Bae got up once more and took a few steps toward the road. "He wouldn't give up his power," the boy said bitterly. "Not even if it meant losing me."

"He would have," Rumple murmured, trying to keep his voice steady despite the burning sensation in his eyes. "He meant to. But when the portal opened, all he could see was… He was afraid."

"Well, so was I!" Bae snapped, kicking idly at a rock in the road that gleamed pale in the moonlight. "You think it was easy to turn my back on everything I knew? To go to a new land and know I'd never come home again?"

Rumple shook his head. "Y-you always have been the better man, Bae. Even as a boy."

Bae's gave the rock another kick. "How would you know?" he demanded sullenly. "You've only been around for a few months. And how did you know to be there when I used the bean?" He demanded, his voice ragged with emotion.

"Bae…"

"Why did you leap with me? Why you and not Papa?"

"Bae…" Then, more sharply, "Bae! Watch out!"

The carriage was fast approaching before Bae realized he was standing in its way. Startled, the boy froze, even as a harsh voice called out in the night, "Out of the road!"

Rumple never was able to say afterwards how he did what he did next. The leap would have been a challenge for someone with two strong legs. One instant, he was watching his boy standing stock still in the center of the road as horse and carriage bore down on him. The next thing he knew, he was sprawled on the other side of the road, his shins and elbows on fire and his ankle feeling almost as though he'd taken a second sledge hammer to it. Bae was lying beneath him, gasping for air, as horse and carriage thundered past.

Rumple spoke first. "Bae? Are you all right?"

"I-I think so," the youth replied, still sounding a bit dazed. "C-could you let me up?"

Rumple nodded and tried to roll off, but as he did, he inadvertently put more weight on his bad ankle and a cry escaped him. In a moment, Bae was free and kneeling anxiously beside him. "You're hurt!" he exclaimed. "Here. Let me see." Before Rumple could protest Bae was gently easing up his trouser leg to examine the injury.

For the second time that night, the boy froze. Then he turned incredulous eyes on Rumple. Resigned, Rumple nodded. He'd always done his best to conceal the painful reminder from outside eyes, but two people couldn't live together in a one-room hovel without noticing such things as birthmarks, scars… or an ankle misshapen by an old injury that had never healed right.

"Papa?" Bae asked faintly.

Rumple nodded again. "Yeah, Bae," he said with a nervous smile. "It's me."

"But we're safe?" Snow asked Regina quickly. "He won't infect the hospital? Or, I mean, you were with him. The baby…"

Regina sighed. "I'm telling you exactly what Whale told me. As long as you avoid unprotected contact with him while he's showing symptoms, you'll be fine. And Whale's not about to release him until his symptoms clear up."

"But if it's here, if one of the nurses looking in on him also pulls a shift in the nursery—"

Regina reminded herself forcefully that much of her step-daughter's panic was likely stemming from the fact that her newborn's life had already been endangered and—willingly or no—Rumple had been involved that time, too. No, it wasn't rational and, doubtless when Snow calmed down, she'd see that. Right now, she was almost certainly feeling the stress of the last few weeks. "Unless that nurse is currently showing symptoms, they won't be contagious," Regina replied. "And anyway, nobody is going into Rumple's room unless they're taking precautions."

She took another breath. "I know you've been through a lot lately, but so has Rumple. And that would have been the case, even if he hadn't just… spent three years in the past. Just… try to," she half-shrugged, "give him a little slack." A bit more softly, she added, "And try to remember that even though Rumple was… involved in what just happened, he wasn't the true villain—anymore than you were when Daniel… died." She pressed her lips together firmly against the old ache that flared again for an instant. "So," she continued almost at once, "instead of making the same error in judgment that I made so many years ago, try putting the blame where it really belongs."

"Speaking of which," David spoke up, "what happened to Zelena?"

Regina sighed. "That's not something I'm going to ask him until I'm sure I'm ready to hear the answer."

"Excuse me?" Emma asked.

Regina shook her head. "She's my sister. Maybe I never got to know her, but she's the last blood relation I have left. Or had," she added, with a wince. "However, we all saw what she put Rumple through. And Emma, you, your father and I watched them both pass through that portal and we saw Rumple come back alone. It's… not hard to guess what happened, particularly since my sister's plan seems to have failed. But at the moment, I don't want to have those suspicions confirmed. There'll be time enough for that in the future," she added with a pained smile which became a bit less forced as she added, "now that we know we have one."

"I-I don't understand," Bae said. "You're my papa… But Papa's back home and… and you've been living with us for over half a year. How could you both be…?"

Rumple nodded. "Why do you think I introduced myself as your father's uncle? Time travel is not supposed to be possible. It wasn't until very recently. Or many years from now, I suppose."

"You're from the future," Bae made it a statement, though the look he shot his father was still more inquiring than assured.

"I am. When I found myself at a point before the soldiers came, before I became the Dark One, before I lost you," Rumple shook his head, "I thought I had another chance to keep everything from going wrong. There were so many things I thought I could change, Bae. I-I tried. Truly. But in the end, while I was able to alter a few minor points, I don't believe that anything significant was averted. And once I became the Dark One, well," he gave his son a pained smile. "Discipline takes time to learn. I've had several lifetimes to acquire it. But the man I was, the man who let go in a moment of weakness and spent the next two centuries trying to make up for it, that man wasn't there yet." He shook his head. "After the Pied Piper, after the peddler on the road, after Honora… I knew you'd seek the Blue Fairy's counsel. And while I could have warned my younger self, I…" He shook his head. "I didn't think he'd listen, but I feared that he might."

"I don't understand."

Rumple was silent for a long moment. Then he met his son's eyes more than a bit nervously. "Bae, from the day that you were born, you've been the most important thing in my life. That never changed, not even when I—" He stopped. There'd be time enough to get into that later. "So, had I tried to tell my younger self what you intended, I believe that between my fear of losing you and my fear of losing my newfound power, I—that is, the version of me who didn't come here with you—would likely have wrested the bean from you and taken greater steps to prevent your going off on your own."

"You mean, I would have been more a prisoner than I already was," Bae's voice was bitter enough to make Rumple wince.

"I very much fear so. I knew you weren't happy anymore, Bae. And I wanted you to be. And if I couldn't persuade my younger self not to make the mistake that I made all those years ago, at least this time, I was able to find the courage in me to go with you."

Bae nodded, but then he frowned again. "You said you—he—would be looking for me for two centuries?" he asked. "I-I know that the dagger made him—you—immortal, but I'm not! How could you think that after that long…?"

Rumple took another breath. "A seer told me that I'd find you again. She didn't explain how in any way that meant anything, but I believed her enough to trust that when I'd worked out a way to follow you, you'd be waiting on the other side." His eyes were burning again and he swiped at them with his sleeve. "Bae, you've every reason to be angry with me. Both of me. But there is one thing that I want you to know, now. The man who didn't follow you here regretted that action the instant the portal closed. He didn't choose power over you, not consciously, not deliberately. But when the vortex opened, all he could hear in his head was Hordor taunting him that night on the road, telling him that he had neither money nor influence nor land nor title nor power. And the thought of travelling to a land where he'd likely return to that state… When the moment arrived and the portal opened, his fear got the better of him and it wasn't until you were gone that he realized that nothing else he had—including his power—was worth anything. Bae," he continued at a rush, "if you despise me for my weakness o-or my cowardice, I'll accept that. But son, never, never despise me because you believe I loved power more than I did you. That wasn't true then and it isn't now!"

The words had barely left his lips when Bae flung his arms about him with enough force to make Rumple fear for his ribs. "I don't despise you, Papa," he said hoarsely, as Rumple hugged him back just as fiercely. "And I'm glad you're with me. We're together. We'll find a way to survive here." He looked about hesitantly. "Only… Do you think it's safe to sleep out here in the open tonight?"

Rumple didn't loosen his embrace. "I don't know as we have much choice," he admitted, forcing his mind to practical matters. "We don't know where we are or where to find an inn, and even if we could, we've no local currency." He sighed, but he was smiling when he did. "Moreover, if this land is truly without magic, then one might guess that they aren't accustomed to travelers hailing from other realms, so explaining where we come from might be difficult." He felt his initial fear beginning to subside as he started focusing on the details that would be involved in establishing themselves in this new place. He'd need to find out what sorts of legal documentation were common here and set about procuring some. He couldn't recall when passports had first been introduced and he didn't think that carriage drivers required licenses, though he wasn't certain. Credit cards for certain wouldn't exist and there would be no photo ID, with photographs yet a rarity. Now, he was wondering what sorts of personal identification existed in this time. Could it still just be down to references and facial recognition?

Bae was starting to look a bit worried now and Rumple continued airily, "Well. It won't be the first time either of us bedded down in the open. And we're fortunate enough that tonight isn't overly cold. Building a fire would doubtless call attention down on us and, until we know how the denizens of this land feel about strangers, perhaps it's best we don't. Our cloaks should suffice, for warmth, I think."

Bae nodded, his chin digging into Rumple's shoulder, as he smiled once more. "Sit here, Papa. I'll find us a good spot."

Rumple nodded back. By moonlight, he watched as his son explored the area closest to their position and tried not to dwell on what had gone awry. He'd hoped to commandeer this portal as he'd inadvertently done Zelena's and his thoughts had been of Storybrooke when he'd leapt. But clearly, they'd arrived elsewhere. The beans cross realms, he remembered suddenly, not time. In this time, there is no Storybrooke to arrive in. But then, where did the portal bring us? The site where Storybrooke would one day stand ought to have been forest wilderness at this point—which this clearly was not. Rumple wondered whether they were even in Maine.

"Papa?" Bae's voice jerked him out of his thoughts and he forced himself to smile once more. "Papa, I found out where we are. Or at least, what it's called. They… Wherever we are, the people here use the same writing as we do in our land. There's a sign over there on that stone pillar," he waved his hand toward a tall structure gleaming white beneath the night sky. "It says, 'Kensington Gardens'."

"I wasn't sure you'd brought provisions," Rumple said with a smile. He reached into his own pocket and brought out a packet of dried fruit to add to the bread and cheese that Bae was offering."

"I didn't know how easy it would be to find any here," Bae smiled back. "Or what I'd use to pay for it. There isn't much, but it should last for a few days."

"Eat the bread first," Rumple advised. "We should finish it before it has a chance to grow stale. I've beans and dried meat enough with me and…" He reached into his pocket, made a face, and pulled it out again. "I was afraid of that," he muttered. "Though it's hardly surprising."

"Papa?"

For answer, Rumple unclenched his fingers to reveal several long pieces of straw. "It was gold this afternoon," he sighed. "I spun it myself. But… this is a land without magic, so…" He reached into his other pocket and a relieved smile broke on his face. "Well. I can't say how much these are worth, but hopefully, enough to last until at least one of us finds work." The bracelets were wrought of intertwined strands of silver and copper wire—inexpensive baubles to a noble or even a merchant, but something a peasant farmer might just be able to afford, if they put a bit by for three or four harvests. At least, if the harvests were plentiful and there was no war to commandeer wagonloads of food for the army, leaving behind mere subsistence rations for those who'd planted and reaped them. Rumple couldn't say who it was who had parted with the trinkets he now held, nor what deal they'd made with his younger self in exchange. But when he'd been searching the hut quickly to determine what to take, knowing that, when his younger self returned home that night, it would be to melt, smash, and otherwise obliterate anything he could destroy before he tore out of Pen Marmor for good, he'd snatched them up almost without thinking. "They're well-crafted, if nothing else," he murmured.

Bae nodded. "Why didn't you take anything more valuable?" he asked.

"Well," Rumple replied, "I had hoped that we'd find ourselves back in the town where I live now, but I think we're a bit too early for that."

"Papa?"

He exhaled. "That carriage that nearly ran you down is a mode of conveyance that hasn't been popular in over a century. Storybrooke doesn't exist yet. At any rate," he continued, "I wasn't certain how it would work. The portal takes you to the place uppermost in your thoughts when you leap, but… we both leapt. And I couldn't say which of our thoughts would prevail. Had we arrived in Storybrooke at the time when I left, then none of our provisions would have been necessary. I'm a man of means there," he said with a deprecating smile. "But elsewhere… people tend to be suspicious of outlandishly-dressed strangers attempting to sell precious items with no proof that they were honestly procured. I thought that less valuable items would be safer to pawn. And, of course, I did hope that the gold I'd spun would remain so."

"How much do you think a spinning wheel costs here?" Bae asked, turning back to practical matters, much as Rumple had done moments ago. "I wonder if you have to have your own, or if you go to work for someone, whether they'd provide it."

Rumple shook his head. "I'm afraid that my brand of spinning won't be much in demand," he admitted.

"What do you mean? People still need cloth, don't they? What would they weave to make it if not thread, Papa?"

"Well," Rumple wrapped his cloak about him a bit more tightly and slid a bit closer to Bae, "if we've arrived in this land now some two centuries before the Dark Curse brings me in the future, then unfortunately, we've arrived either during or shortly after an event that… well, from its name, sounds like it ought to be a war. And while that's not quite the case, from the devastation wrought upon many trades, including my own, it might as well be. So," he forced himself to smile, "though I know you're normally far too old for bedtime stories, indulge me this evening, son, and I'll tell you what I know of the Industrial Revolution…"

Behind her surgical mask, Belle bit her lip as focused on what Whale was telling her. "He's sleeping now. Not because of any medications we're giving him at the moment," Whale added. "I'd say that it's primarily a combination of the undereating and fatigue that are symptomatic of his condition. Stress—or more properly, stress relief—is probably another factor."

The doctor's eyebrows came together in a serious frown. "However, if we can't find a way to keep his magic from interfering, and you don't want to use that cuff... Well, a medically-induced coma would be an option, but not one I want to use. The antibiotics he's going to need to treat the TB have a number of possible side effects. The coma does too, but worryingly, one of them is an increased likelihood of pulmonary infection." His eyes were worried. "Obviously, he has enough going on with his lungs right now without risking something that could make them worse."

"O-of course," Belle said. "So… it has to be the cuff?"

"Unless you can find me an alternative." He sighed. "I don't like it either."

"It just feels like—a-and I know it's for his own good and not something we're doing to punish him, but his own father put that on him, right before Rumple killed him. Wearing that, seeing it all the time, it's going to remind him and…" She swallowed hard. Putting the cuff on Rumple just long enough to make sure that no trace of his illness remained wasn't at all the same thing as trying to control him. The isolation ward wasn't a cage, even if Rumple would have to stay here until the medications did their job. But it was still… containing him, and after everything that he'd suffered at Zelena's hands…

An old memory resurfaced.

You think you can make me weak? You think you can defeat me? Is this you being the hero and killing the beast?

No matter how necessary the cuff might be, Belle suspected that he'd see it as one more attempt to weaken him. "There must be some other way," she insisted, almost pleading.

"Believe it or not," Whale said, "I understand why you're concerned. A good part of the healing process is striking a balance between the benefits and risks of a treatment. Sometimes, even when the risks don't outweigh the benefits, there are… difficulties."

Belle nodded. "But that's up to Rumple, isn't it? I mean," her eyes widened in alarm, "he's capable of making decisions, isn't he?"

"Of course," Whale reassured her. "But I'd rather have one good option on the table instead of asking him to choose between two bad ones. I'm just… hoping that you might know of some, in case he's not in the right headspace to remember them."

"How long before we—he—would need to decide?"

Whale hesitated. "Really, if you don't have any other options, I'd say he ought to be wearing the cuff now, before he wakes up, but since he's currently hooked up to plenty of monitors, we'll know if he's showing too much improvement too fast. For now. Once the medications start to work, though, it's going to be a lot harder to tell where reality stops and illusions take over." He thought for a moment. "I can give you three or four days, tops, but I think that once he starts experiencing some of the side effects, he's going to want to do something to alleviate them and I don't blame him. At the same time, I can't just… hold off on treating him while you try to come up a Plan B. Ethical issues aside, again, he's going to want to use magic for relief. And I'm not comfortable telling him to… suck it up and suffer until you give me something better."

Belle heaved a sigh. "Thank you. For not trying to convince me that the cuff is better. I know that right now, it's probably his best chance, but I'm still going to see if I can't discover something else. After I visit him."

"You can have fifteen minutes," Whale said. He gestured to a bin by the door. "When you come out, mask, gloves, and suit go into that. Did you come in with a coat or anything else you couldn't wear under the Tyvek?"

Self-consciously, Belle looked down at the white protective suit that now covered her from neck to ankles. "No," she murmured. "It all fit."

"Okay. If that changes on one of your future visits, let the on-duty nurse know. They'll assign a temporary locker to you." He smiled. "Go on. I'll wait out here. And I'll knock once at the thirteen-minute mark to give you a heads-up."

"Thank you."

Exactly fifteen minutes later, Belle re-emerged from the isolation room, tears glistening in her blue eyes, as she stripped off her protective gear. She mumbled her thanks to Whale and hurried out of the department as quickly as she could. Once she was in an area with unrestricted cellphone use, she called Regina. "If you need me," she said, managing with supreme effort to keep her voice steady, "I'll be at the shop, going through Rumple's spell books. Please call if you find something first."

"I shouldn't have brought us here," Bae said, crestfallen, when Rumple had finished his history lesson. "I never realized—I thought a Land Without Magic would be just like ours only… without magic. I didn't know—"

Rumple reached for his son's hand. "Well, how could you have? Or anyone else from our land, for that matter? You wanted to save me and you jumped at the chance. I wanted…" He stopped.

"Papa?"

"I wanted to go with you," Rumple said. "Travelling back in time gave me another chance to do so."

Bae smiled and slid closer to him and Rumple wrapped an arm about him and pulled him closer still. But even as he did, he felt his heart plummet. He and Bae were together, it was true. But Bae wasn't safe yet. Oh, safe from the Ogre Wars, certainly. Safe from his younger self, whose growing paranoia might—much as it horrified Rumple to admit it—have one day led him to… He could barely frame the thought even now, but had that whole… business with Beowulf happened a few months later, Rumple couldn't say for certain that he'd have stopped at reclaiming his dagger and wiping Bae's memories. If I had harmed him…

"Papa?" Bae looked up, worried. "Are you all right? We're together. We'll be okay."

Rumple smiled. "Of course we will, Bae," he murmured. "You're safe now, son. You're safe."

From the Dark One, at any rate. From the Ogre War. But there's another danger on the horizon and I don't know how to save you from that. I may know something about this land and this time period, but I don't know what you did to survive here without me. More to the point, I don't know how long you lived here before my father stole you away to Neverland. And if I don't know when that's to happen, then how am I to protect you when the time comes?

Chapter 11: Chapter Eleven

Notes:

A/N: So, I couldn't resist throwing in another canon. For the record, I'm fusing book, movie, and maybe musical on this one. I'm indebted to the Horrible Histories series for enlightening me to the fact that some Victorian parents did, actually, give their children names that were a bit... out there. Those mentioned here are real names that were chosen by real parents and bestowed upon real children. The more things change....

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven

Belle set another book aside and took the next one from the stack on the counter. Rumple was depending on her, even if he didn't know it yet. When the bell over the door jangled, she looked up and tried to hide her annoyance. "Oh," she broke into a smile. "Mr. Schuler. What can I do for you today?"

The elderly man's eyes twinkled beneath a broad forehead capped by a mop of shaggy gray hair, worn a bit longer than most men his age in Storybrooke. "I was wondering whether you carried old books," he said, his gaze flicking hopefully to the pile on the counter.

"Oh, these… aren't for sale," Belle said apologetically. "I'm not sure we have any that are, but if you'd like me to call you should anyone bring some in to pawn…"

"That would be most kind," Schuler replied.

"Was there any topic in particular?"

The old man shook his head. "It's been my experience that all knowledge is valuable, and sometimes what one needs turns up in the least likely of places. For example, there's a mansion come over with the latest curse, over on…" he frowned for a moment, "Lakeside road. Nobody appears to be living there, so I can't say why it did. I had occasion to shelter there the other day, when I found myself caught in a sudden downpour. I knocked, of course, but when nobody answered, and I found the door unlocked, I decided that I'd chance entry. If there was anyone inside inclined to call the sheriff, at least, I'd be able to dry off some while I was waiting," he chuckled and Belle couldn't help but smile a bit in return. "Well," he went on, "the place was empty, but while I was looking for its occupant, I chanced on a fairly extensive library. I'm not saying it can rival the one you curate, but it made me envious enough of whoever assembled it to try expanding my own collection."

The smile froze on Belle's face. "A library?" she repeated. "Did you happen to notice whether it had any books on magic? Or medicine?"

Schuler frowned. "Now you mention it, I think I might have seen a few volumes fitting that description. Nothing new, you understand, but I did mark several volumes by Galen, Aesculapius, and, I think, Tavronius."

Belle's breath caught. "Thank you, Mr. Schuler. I think I'll have to pay a visit there myself. I-is there anything else I can help you with today?"

The elderly man shook his head. "Well. Actually, perhaps there is. I'm told that there's a bridge out in the woods, but try as I might, I've never quite been able to locate it and I suppose it's been bothering me a bit. It's not that I need to go there, you understand, but more that I feel like I ought to know where it is."

"Of course," Belle nodded. "I think there should be a map about here somewhere." She came out from behind the counter and made her way to the corner where Rumple kept greeting cards, stationery, and other paper products. "Or a wilderness park guide; I think it shows all the notable landmarks."

Schuler smiled. "Excellent. As satisfying as it can be to stumble across something one wasn't expecting, I find that when the thing one's seeking is truly important, a bit of direction seldom goes amiss."

"I thought you said it wasn't important," Belle said, turning back to look at him with some confusion.

"Did I?" Schuler asked with an enigmatic smile. "Well, perhaps I did. It's still a fair observation, though..."

Rumple swept the small pile of coins into his hand with some measure of reluctance, uncertain which of them was getting the better deal. (Actually, he was fairly sure that it wasn't he, but he couldn't say just how badly he was being taken advantage of.) The pawnbroker who'd accepted the jewelry had named a price in a tone that made it clear that he wasn't open to bargaining, mentioning that while he'd never seen items made in quite the same style before, he doubted that current fashions ran along their lines. "Had they gemstones, perhaps," he'd explained in clipped tones, "or been done in gold or platinum, there'd be more interest. But silver and copper?" he'd sniffed. "Should you fail to redeem them, I'm sure their next buyer will see fit to have them melted down and remade into something more suited to the times."

Rumple had thought he knew something of the currency system in the UK—at least enough to recall that in this time, the country was still using shillings. He was, however, at a loss to understand where florins and half-crowns factored in. Still, when he made inquiries into lodging, he discovered that the funds procured sufficed them to obtain a week's stay in one half of a garret (there was another room on the other side of the wall that a second lodger was occupying) in a three-story house in a rundown part of the city, with a bit left for food. It wasn't ideal. Despite the rough walking stick that Bae had fashioned from a low-hanging branch the night before, his ankle throbbed with every step and he'd had one arm about his son's shoulders for the last flight of stairs.

All the same, when he'd sent Bae off to procure something hot for dinner—with unnecessary instructions to try to spend as little as possible—the boy had returned with a slight profit, having earned a few coins standing outside a cook-shop and offering to mind wagons while their drivers ducked in for a quick purchase.

"We'll need to do something about our clothes," Rumple admitted. "Our cloaks might hide the worst discrepancies between our attire and that of those about us, but we can't forever wear them when we venture out of doors."

"That pawnbroker said he could give us something for our boots," Bae remembered. "I know you need yours more, but I don't mind going barefoot; I've done it before."

"Not on cobbled streets, you haven't," Rumple replied. "And perhaps, you didn't mark the broken bottles littering the route we took to reach this place, but I did." He shook his head. "It may yet come to that, but not before we've purchased other footwear to replace what you'll have to give up. For now," he smiled, "well, I shouldn't think a needle and thread would cost too much. See if you can find out where to purchase such items and," he smiled, "it certainly won't be the first time I've had to make over our old clothing. And at least the garments we're wearing now are in far better condition than those we've worn in leaner times." He sat down on the lone bed. "Once we can dress as though we belong here, we'll see about finding work."

He pulled up the blanket and passed it—and the pillow—to Bae. "You're certain you don't mind?" he asked worriedly.

Bae set the pillow on the round, braided mat in the center of the floor and wrapped himself in the blanket. "It's almost as good as the straw tick back home," he smiled. Then, almost at once, "Sorry, Papa. This is home."

"For now," Rumple agreed. But once they did find work, they'd move on to something better.

Mr. Schuler had been right: the library at the lakefront mansion occupied only one room. It was nowhere near as large as the building she currently managed. And while the room was a bit larger than the library that Rumple had created for her in his castle, its shelves didn't climb nearly as high. It did, however, have an impressive collection of volumes on healing, both magical and otherwise. And unlike the spell books she'd been reading in the shop, many of the ones here contained workings for Light magic.

Ordinarily, much as it pained Belle to admit it, that would have been less useful than she might have liked: Rumple's magic was Dark, Emma's was mostly instinctive—and what instruction she'd received had been taught on a need-to-know basis from mentors who hadn't bothered to teach her how to read magical script—and knowing how Rumple felt about the fairies, going to them felt like a betrayal. She was still prepared to do it if it would save his life, but if another way could be found…

Thankfully, the books were properly organized into sections. Belle pulled out several collections of healing spells, trying to arrange them in some semblance of order so she'd know where to replace them when she was done. She thought she'd exhausted the healing spells section, but her gaze traveled one shelf lower to a row of medical texts. Belle considered. Rumple didn't actually need a healing spell, not exactly. He needed something that would block his magic so that a healing spell wouldn't work. Maybe a doctor from a magical realm would have treated patients in similar situations. In fact, if she remembered correctly…

She looked at the neat row of volumes titled simply, Tavronius: Studies and Treatises, thankful that the last book in the swath was labeled as an index; there had to be at least twenty books in the series. She pulled it out and flipped through the pages, wishing that—like Google—books had an 'autocomplete' feature. What topic did she want exactly? Magic...? No. She turned to the 'P' section. "Patients, magical," she murmured under her breath. And then that breath hitched. "Patients, magical—on the suppression of instinctive healing, that a true cure might be essayed unhampered…?!" she read aloud, her voice rising in excitement as she finished the subheading. Half-dreading that she was getting her hopes up too soon, she pulled down the volume that the entry directed her to and flipped to the proper page.

A moment later, her phone was in her hand and she was stabbing her fingertip down on her contact list. "Regina!" she practically squealed into her phone. "I found it!"

When Bae awoke the next day, it took him a moment to remember where he was and everything that had happened. He still couldn't quite believe it all had. But he was here and Papa was with him and, even if Papa wasn't quite the way he'd been before, he was still much more like the man Bae knew than the man he'd been for nearly four months.

But, Bae realized, whether Papa was 'just' Papa or the Dark One, one thing had never changed: Papa was still keeping secrets from him. Oh, Bae understood why: Papa wanted him to feel safe and happy and thought that worrying was something grownups had to do. But in less than a year, Bae reflected, he'd proposed marriage to a girl, nearly been sent to the front as a soldier, and—all on his own—made the decision to come here to save Papa from himself. As far as he was concerned, he was grown up. Grown up enough, at least, to recognize that the money Papa had gotten yesterday wasn't going to last forever. Grown up enough to admit that Papa might not be able to find work so easily; not when he was, well, older, and the work he knew best wasn't something people wanted to pay him for.

And while it might be nice to just sit back and let Papa convince him that everything was going to be just fine and not to worry, Bae was worried. It was my idea to come here, he reminded himself. I wanted Papa back the way he was, but I didn't know about an Industrial Revolution! I never thought it would mean he couldn't make a living at spinning or weaving, or… He winced as he remembered helping Papa up the stairs yesterday. He couldn't expect him to walk the streets looking for work and then brave that climb up again after hours on his feet, especially if he had no job to show at the end of it.

Bae squeezed his eyes shut tightly for a moment, but when he opened them again, they shone with firm resolve. If he was old enough to be taken for a soldier, then he was old enough to look for work himself. He made his way to the attic window and tried to peer down at the street below, but there wasn't much of a view and the glass was smudged and dingy. Still, that gave him an idea.

He pressed his finger to the window glass and, using it for a pen, wrote in the grime, Back soon. Went to look for work. Don't worry. Of course, Papa would worry, Bae knew. They'd been here barely a day and they were still learning their way around. And Dark One or not, Papa had always done his best to protect him. But Bae didn't think he could afford to let Papa protect him now. Not when it was his fault that Papa's limp was back and they didn't know what they were going to do when the money ran out and…

And he was getting ahead of himself. Their lodgings were paid for the week. They still had enough food for at least another two or three days. Back in Pen Marmor, sometimes they hadn't been sure that they had food enough for the morrow. Sometimes—in winter—they hadn't. Right now, they had a roof over their heads and they weren't about to starve today, at least. All the same, Bae contented himself with tearing only a small hunk of bread from the loaf on the table before making his way down the stairs. He and hunger weren't exactly strangers and Papa might need the food more than he did.

Bae walked carefully down the street, trying to fix landmarks in his mind. There were too many dark, narrow, buildings on this dark, narrow street, but he was able to mark a green awning here and a red lion sign over a pub there. There were plenty of shops, but he didn't quite have the nerve to venture inside one to ask if they might hire him and he saw no sign in the window to suggest that they were even looking. He proceeded in a straight line from their lodgings—he couldn't take a wrong turn if he didn't turn at all—and soon found the way cut by a broad avenue. It was brighter here and seemed a bit cleaner. Bae was debating whether to continue along the street he was on or turn onto the avenue when someone slammed into him with a startled yelp.

Bae cried out as well, as both he and his inadvertent assailant crashed to the pavement in a flurry of limbs and papers.

"Oh, no!" the newcomer exclaimed, clutching frantically at the scattered papers. "So sorry! I didn't mean—but if I can't collect all these—"

Bae brushed himself off and grabbed a few pages. "Here," he said, handing them to the stranger—a gangly youth who looked like he might be a couple of years his senior.

The youth bobbed his head quickly. "Thank you, thank you. Oh, I'll be in such trouble if I miss any. They didn't get in the road, did they?"

Bae looked about. "No," he said. Then, realizing that one page had half wrapped around the vertical spindle of a balustrade at street level and reached over to pluck it before it could tumble to the stones below.

The boy thanked him again. "I'll never get them in order, but hopefully, the master won't notice."

"Master," Bae repeated. "Are you an apprentice? O-or a…?" He didn't want to say 'slave'.

"I'm a houseboy," the youth replied. He stuck out his hand. "Ira Robertson. Or Robertson Ay, as they call me. In service to Mr. Banks."

"I'm Baelfire. Bae," Bae replied.

The young man's eyebrows climbed. "Well!" he said cheerfully. "That's not a name I've heard before and I thought I'd heard 'em all! Met a feller from Kent name of 'That's It Who'd Have Thought It' the summer before last. And a small girl, name of Mineral just the other day. Surnamed Waters," he added. "Almost as bad as Miss Zebra Lynes of Southampton or a gentleman I made the acquaintance of over in Walthamstow what his parents called him One Too Many." He tilted his head. "So, Baelfire, then?"

Bae nodded, a bit more guardedly this time.

"Judging from your way of talking, you're not a Londoner by birth, I take it."

Bae hesitated. "I just got here yesterday."

"Where are you lodging?"

Bae pointed vaguely down the way he'd come.

"Got work?"

Bae shrugged. "I was hoping I could find some. Only, I don't know where to look."

Robertson Ay smiled. "Well, I'm off to deliver these to Mr. Banks. That's my employer, as I said. Works at a bank too, of all things, though he don't own it or nothing. But it seems to me that last week, they were looking to fill a post for an office boy. Perhaps it's still open."

"Is it far?"

Robertson Ay shook his head. "Just down there," he said, pointing down the avenue to his left. "Why don't you haccompany me," he cleared his throat and looked embarrassed for a moment. "I mean to say, why don't you accompany me, and see if the position's vacant, yet."

Bae hesitated for only a moment. He was looking for work, after all. He didn't know what skills this 'office boy' job needed, but his new friend seemed to take it for granted that he had them. And anyway, what did he have to lose? He looked to his left and noted the blue sign with gold lettering that proclaimed 'Brown's Haberdashery'. Across the street was a cream-colored sign, taller than it was wide, with 'Madame Michaud's Millinery' stenciled upon it in letters of deep brown and the image of a lady's hat carved above it. As long as he remembered those, he'd be able to find his way back.

"All right," he said, smiling at Robertson Ay. "And thanks."

"Cor," Robertson Ay said. "It's the least I can do to thank you for your help. Here. Brush yourself off, look sharp, and we're off."

"I was looking for a magical solution," Regina said, when she called Belle back about an hour later. "Goodness knows that apart from healing spells and potions, our medical knowledge back home was woefully primitive compared to what's even common knowledge here. It never even occurred to me to check for an answer in the old herbal texts." She paused. "I'm frankly surprised that any crossed over from our land."

Belle was smiling when she replied, "Well, if any of them did, I'm not surprised that the Tavronius corpus was among them. He was… sort of a hero in Avonlea. I-in a scholarly sense, I mean."

"I know what you mean, Belle," Regina said. "After all, even I've heard of him and I must confess I've never had much of the patience that you and Rumple have for poring over old tomes. At any rate," she continued briskly, "I've mixed up a batch of it and tested it. It appears to do what it's meant to."

"Tested it," Belle repeated.

"On myself," Regina said with a touch of annoyance, even as she absently rubbed at the gauze bandage wrapped about her hand. The shallow cut had hurt a bit more than she'd anticipated and even with the Neosporin, it still stung. She hadn't had any trouble teleporting the antibiotic ointment and bandage from the medicine cabinet in her bathroom, though. "I won't be able to cast a healing spell until somewhere in the next twelve to twenty-four hours, but everything else seems to be working fine. I've already sent the formula to Whale; he's looked it over and advised that it looks as though it can be administered intravenously, and probably should be for at least the first couple of days." She sighed. "I think that's wisest; we… both know how Rumple feels about giving up any of his power. And much as I'd like to believe that prudence will win out, I've been doing a little research of my own into the side effects of the drugs he'll need to take. He's going to have a few extremely unpleasant weeks. Or months," she added. "Honestly, I think I'd be struggling not to look for some sort of quick solution, even knowing the cost down the road. If he's going to have his best chance at beating this, we have to make sure he won't have that opportunity."

Belle winced. "I wish I could say I disagreed. I know we're doing the right thing, but it still feels like we're not giving him a choice."

"Well," Regina said heavily, "maybe he'll be lucky enough not to suffer too many side effects. And maybe Whale will come up with a medical answer for dealing with the ones he does experience. Meanwhile," she sighed, "I think we'd both better brace ourselves for his reaction when he wakes up. If I'm remembering right, feeling vulnerable tends to make him short-tempered."

"You are," Belle confirmed. "But since we both know it, at least, maybe we can try not to take it personally."

"How much further?" Bae asked. Robertson Ay wasn't walking very briskly, but the sun was higher overhead now and Bae's cloak was starting to provide a bit too much warmth.

"Nearly there now," the older youth said cheerfully. "It's just past the barrister's and… Here we are!" He gestured toward a marble edifice that—in Baelfire's estimation—made the Duke of the Frontlands' summer palace look like the hut he and Papa had left behind the night before last.

"Here," Robertson Ay said, giving Bae a friendly clap on the shoulder. "Don't go gawking like a country bumpkin; folks are like to stare. Head up, shoulders back, step lively and follow me." He grinned. "And if you lose sight of me, or Mr. Banks spies me first, just march yourself up to the counter and say you're here to henquire about the office boy position and they'll sort you out."

Before Bae could answer, the sound of chiming bells split the morning air and Robertson Ay clapped a hand to his forehead. "Cor, is it nine o'clock already?" he yelped. "Oh, the master'll be in a right pickle if I don't get him his papers. Quick, now!" He bounded up the marble stairs without a backwards glance.

After a moment's hesitation, Bae followed, doing his best to look as though he belonged in this palace of polished stone and marble columns and wondering what would happen if anyone learned that he didn't. He couldn't quite keep from swallowing hard when he walked through the massive entry doors, past the bronze plaque that read Dawes, Tomes, Mousely, Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.

When Whale stepped into the waiting area outside the isolation ward, both women looked up. "Well," the doctor said, "it's been administered. And since the test results confirmed that we are, in fact, dealing with tuberculosis as we'd suspected, I've started that treatment, too."

"May I go in?" Belle asked. "I'd like to be there when he wakes up."

"You may, once you suit up," Whale nodded, "but there's no telling how much longer he'll sleep. It could be hours, yet."

Belle nodded politely, but there was an uncharacteristic note of command in her voice when she replied, "I'll wait."

Chapter 12: Chapter Twelve

Notes:

A/N: I've borrowed Mr. Lorry's name from A Tale of Two Cities. It's more a shout-out than a canon hop.
I am indebted to Michael Childs' Labour's Apprentices: Working-Class Lads in Late Victorian and Edwardian England for at least a rough estimate of what an office boy's starting salary might be. (Though since the year wasn't specified and an industry other than banking was, I could be misconstruing.)
The London Tube, or at least, the Metropolitan Railway, opened in 1863. By 1902, three tube lines were up and running. The Shoreditch station began operating in 1876.
In the UK, "public" or "independent" schools are what would generally be called "private" schools in North America. (Government-funded schools are properly referred to as "state" schools.)
In trying to figure out how Bae would have picked his alias, I discovered a Scots footballer named Joseph (Joe) Cassidy. In 1905, he was playing for Middlesbrough, but after a lackluster season that year, transferred to Workington's team as player-coach in 1906.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve

Something was different. Rumple knew it even with his eyes closed. It smelled… Well, the truth was it barely smelled at all, and it was too quiet. London in 1905 was a noisy bustling place, fragrant with spices and perfumes and roasting meat and baked goods, as well as other less-pleasant odors, particularly in the area where he lived. Its streets rang daily with the clip-clop of horse hooves trotting on cobbles, the shouts of peddlers crying their wares, each louder than the last, and a general hubbub that might wax and wane, but never completely halt.

But now, the air smelled only of disinfectant and the only sounds he could hear were some low-level hums and intermittent beeps, and a single voice softly murmuring words he couldn't quite make sense of. He knew the voice; at least he was nearly certain he did, though he hadn't heard it in years. He hadn't smelled disinfectant in years either, come to think of it.

"…be able to heal yourself again soon. It's…"

He did know that voice. And it didn't matter what it was saying! His eyes seemed to open of their own accord. His first impression was of whiteness: white walls, white furnishings—accented in spots with metal or natural wood, but still predominantly white, white ceiling and curtains, and a figure swathed from head to toe in a white suit, shower cap, and surgical mask, who was seated close by, her head bent down, her eyes on her hands that were folded in her lap.

"You're home now, Rumple. You're safe. You're free."

He pulled his dry lips into a smile and whispered, "Belle."

She gave a start and turned toward him at once, and from the joy in her blue eyes he could just imagine the smile under the mask. "Rumple?"

He nodded, for once not caring about the moisture welling up in his own eyes and threatening to spill down his cheeks. "I didn't… know if… I'd… ever see you," he clapped a palm over his mouth an instant before the cough escaped it, "… see you again," he whispered. She grabbed his free hand fiercely and he squeezed back. Her hand, even through the glove, was warm and solid and real and, "Oh, Belle. I-I've missed you so much!"

Belle was crying now, too. "You're back," she murmured. "We've got you back." And then she was leaning over the bed and sliding her hands beneath his back and he was wrapping his arms about her torso as she lifted him into an embrace.

"Emma, a word?" Regina called to her as she stepped out of her mother's room.

Emma nodded. "I'm just on my way to the ladies' room, but we can talk on the way." She lowered her voice a bit. "How's he doing?"

Regina sighed as she fell into step beside Emma. "Belle's in with him now, waiting for him to wake up. He's… going to need some support when he does. More than he's been used to getting from us until now, I think."

Emma nodded again. "I… uh… After I separated him from Neal, after Neal…" She swallowed hard, but when Regina didn't complete the sentence for her, she forced the next word out, "…died so Gold could tell us who Zelena was, I ran off to tell my dad without even looking back." She turned anguished eyes on Regina. "I didn't even think about it until afterwards, but I left Gold alone w-with… crying over…"

"You had to tell your parents about Zelena," Regina reminded her. "As I recall, your mother was alone with her at the time."

"I could have sent a text," Emma pointed out. "But after what I'd done, I… I guess I just… wanted," she swallowed hard, "some support. I kept it together long enough to make sure Mom was okay and then I…" Her voice hardened. "But I left him alone, crying over his son, a man I loved, too!" Her voice dropped to a near-whisper. "A man I killed."

"Emma," Regina said, "you didn't. That brand on his palm? Belle showed me where she looked up what it meant. Neal was dead the moment he pressed that key into the vault."

"He was living until I pulled him out of Gold! And then, I just… did what you accused me of when I came to Storybrooke for the first time. I ran away." She pressed her elbows into her torso, drew a shuddering breath, and closed her eyes. Then she relaxed, exhaled, and when she opened her eyes again, they shone, both with unshed tears and a steely resolve.

"I'm in," she said firmly. "Whatever he needs, whatever I can do to help, I'm in."

Regina smiled. "Well, I'm delighted to hear it. Because, in order to ensure that his magic won't obscure what Whale needs to do to treat him…"

As Regina brought Emma up to speed, the savior's face fell. "You want me to help him manage the side effects."

"The only reason we're blocking his healing ability in the first place is because of the likelihood that Rumple will use his magic to make it seem as though he's been healed from the TB, and that his spell will be good enough to fool Whale's tests and get his treatment halted prematurely. And as irritated as having a curb on his power is going to make him, at least, once he calms down, I think he'll understand the reason for it. However, there's no reason that he should have to deal with the side effects from the drugs Whale's prescribing him if there's anything we can do about them. I'm thinking that between the two of us, we should be able to—" She stopped. "What's wrong?"

"My… my magic hasn't come back," Emma admitted.

"What?" Regina's eyebrows rose in astonishment. "But that makes no sense. Every other enchantment she cast unraveled when she stepped through the time portal. Are you sure, Emma?"

For answer, Emma looked about. They were passing a small waiting area—just a row of four padded chairs against the corridor wall, with a small table separating them into two groups of two. There were some newspapers and magazines on the table and Emma lifted her hand and gestured toward a copy of National Geographic. The slim volume didn't budge. "Nothing," she said regretfully. "I'm sorry. I meant what I said. I'll help any way I can. But right now, it doesn't look as if magic is going to be one of those ways."

The man at the main desk looked Bae up and down coldly. "You've brought references, I hope?" he sniffed.

Bae felt his hopes begin to dip. "References? I… I didn't know I'd need any. But I can get them for you!" he added with more confidence than he felt. He thought he knew what the man was asking. Back home, people knew one another on sight and it didn't take long to know who was nimble enough to climb for the highest apples or fast enough to fetch the midwife for a copper. And if the rare stranger came to town looking to hire a local, there were always people about who could recommend the right fit. 'References' were probably people like that. Well, Papa would vouch for him. And Robertson Ay seemed to think well enough of him, for all that they'd only just met. Maybe that would be enough.

The man didn't seem satisfied. "You're not from London," he stated. "Where are you from, then?"

"From?" Bae repeated. "Uh… lots of places. I've been moving around all my life."

"Humph," the man sniffed. "Well then. You'll have no problem moving on from this establishment, will you?" He made a shooing gesture with his hands. "Off with you," he said. "Move along."

And then a soft voice spoke up from behind Bae, close enough to make him jump. "What is going on here, Mr. Lorry?"

All at once, the man's imperious demeanor seemed to falter. "Mr. Mousely!" he exclaimed. "Sir! This urchin came in to apply for the office boy posting. Obviously, he's not suitable—"

Bae wasn't certain if it was polite to turn his back on Mr. Lorry, but his curiosity got the better of him. He pivoted and found himself face to face with an elderly gentleman with twinkling dark eyes, who seemed to wear his shaggy hair a good deal longer than that of any other man he'd seen in the streets, thus far.

"Obviously?" Mr. Mousely repeated. "How so?"

"Wh-why look at him. Look at how he's dressed! No references to speak of, clearly foreign and hardly one I'd put in any position of trust!"

"And yet, Mr. Lorry," Mr. Mousely replied dryly, "it is not your purview to interview candidates for employment. It is mine."

Mr. Lorry swallowed. "Of course, sir," he said with a nervous smile. "I just didn't see a need to bother you with such an obviously unsuitable—"

"Nor is it your purview to assess suitability. That falls to me, as well."

"Of course, sir," Mr. Lorry repeated, looking as though he would rather be any place other than behind the desk.

"Well then," said Mr. Mousely, "now that we've established that much," he smiled at Bae, "if you'll follow me…?"

Bae wasn't entirely sure what had just transpired or why this stranger—this clearly powerful stranger—had intervened. But he shot Mr. Lorry an apologetic smile as he trailed behind the elderly gentleman.

Mr. Lorry was suddenly very busy shuffling papers behind the counter and didn't so much as look up until after Bae had passed.

The interview seemed to pass in a blur and Bae had the strangest feeling that the old man's mind had already been made up even before he'd begun.

"You'll start Monday," Mr. Mousely said. "At a salary of seven shillings and sixpence to start. With an increase to eight shillings and sixpence in three months, provided your work is satisfactory."

Bae broke into a relieved smile. "Thank you, sir!" Then he hesitated. "I… I'm sorry. Do you have any other positions open? My papa," he added quickly, "is also looking for work."

Mr. Mousely regarded him silently for a moment. "It seems to me," he said slowly, "that Mr. Darling mentioned he was seeking approval to advertise for a clerk. Someone to transcribe documents for distribution. Does your papa write a fair hand?"

Bae had no idea; he'd never seen his father write anything. In fact, papa usually passed papers and writing instruments on to him for his artwork. Still, he bobbed his head eagerly. "Yes, sir. He does!"

"Ah. Then if you bring him 'round tomorrow at about… oh, half-past two, I'd say, well, I'll advise Mr. Darling to expect him for an interview." He frowned. "I take it that your father's attire would be similar to your own?"

Bae nodded, feeling self-conscious for the first time since Mr. Mousely had rescued him from the man at the main desk. "We-we'll get better clothes once we can afford them," he promised.

Mr. Mousely shook his head. "No, that won't do. This bank has a certain image to project; one you'll both need to reflect." He scribbled something on a scrap of paper and passed it to Bae. "Petticoat Lane in Spitalfields," he said. "You'll find previously worn clothing at reasonable prices. Take the tube to Shoreditch. Someone will direct you, if you ask."

Frowning, he reached into his pocket and set down a handful of coins. "A week's advance. I don't make a habit of such things, so I trust you'll spend and save it wisely, for it will need to last a fortnight."

"Yes, sir," Bae ducked his head. "Thank you, sir." They still had some of the money they'd gotten from pawning the jewelry. They'd get by.

"You're most welcome, Mr. Cassidy. And we shall see you on the Monday then."

Bae thanked him once more. He'd had to think quickly when asked for a surname; he hadn't had or needed one back home. And then he'd spotted a folded-over stack of thin printed papers—neither book nor scroll—on Mr. Mousely's desk. And Bae's eye had fallen upon one line of large type that read: Cassidy May Be Workington-Bound in 1906. He hadn't had a clue who 'Cassidy' was or why he was important, but at least, the paper had provided Bae with a name to give Mr. Mousely. If the old man had thought the name at all odd or suspicious, he'd given no sign. He'd merely entered the name 'Baelfire Cassidy' on the paper and given it to Bae to sign, together with a small rectangle of heavier paper that bore Mr. Mousely's name, followed by the word, 'Partner' and the name of the bank, followed by a string of numbers and a street name. The old man had stated that it was his 'calling card'.

Once back in the bank's lobby, Bae felt the breath whoosh out of him and the smile already lighting his face grew wider still. He had a job. He had a job. He couldn't wait to get back and tell Papa!

Robertson Ay was lounging indolently against a lamppost when Bae emerged. "Well?" he asked cheerily as Bae drew closer, "How'd you make out?" Then he took in the grin on the younger lad's face. "Wait, don't tell me. I think I can guess."

"I got the job!" Bae exclaimed. And then, as Robertson Ay laughed and clapped him on the back, he added, "But I need better clothes than these. Mr. Mousely said I should go to Petticoat Lane in," he checked the note again, "Spitalfields? And there's a-a tube I have to take? Tube of what?"

Robertson Ay shook his head. "Don't bother with that, eh?" he said smiling. "Let me take you 'round to me mum. She's a good one for knowing who's like to have something suitable to lend or give away and in the proper size, or close enough." He frowned. "I don't suppose you can sew?"

"My papa can," Bae said. "And he'll need something to wear, too. Only, he can't walk for long," he added apologetically. "He's got a bad ankle." He felt his heart sink. "And he was asleep when I left this morning. I-I've been gone for hours! I should go back now, before I do anything else, or—"

Robertson Ay held up a hand to cut him off. "Here, calm down," he said. "I'll tell you what. Suppose I walk back with you? Your da isn't like to lay into you if there's a witness, and I can see for meself what size clothes to have me mum look out for. They might not fit perfect-like, but if he's any hand wiv a needle, I should think they'll do well enough."

"Okay," Bae said, swallowing a bit. "Thanks." He realized then what 'lay into' had to mean. "Papa wouldn't hit me," he said emphatically. "He'd never."

"Ah?" Robertson smiled. "Well, lucky for you, then. You just seemed a bit nervous-like."

"I am," Bae admitted. "But not because I'm afraid of him. I just don't want him to worry is all." He tilted his head questioningly. "Uh… don't you have to get back to your work? I thought—"

Robertson Ay shrugged. "Housemaid sent me to take Mr. Banks his briefcase. She didn't tell me I had to go straight back. Fact is, an employee of my standing is thought to be doing 'is best when his presence isn't noted. If it is noted, it's generally 'acos he's done something amiss." He smiled. "To my thinking, if I'm not present, then my presence won't be noted. I'll just need to put in an appearance near tea time, but that's not for hours yet." He smiled. "So there's time to head back to your lodgings and off to me mum's. Just lead on."

Taking in Bae's skeptical expression, he sighed. "Here's what you need to know about my hemployer. Mr. Banks is the sort of gent what wants to live like the best people, only he don't have the funds to allow it. He thinks he needs a cook and a maid and a houseboy and a nanny, and I hexpect he'll want a governess for his daughter and a tutor or a public school for the son his missus just had the week before last, once they get a mite older. Can't afford it all of course, but he thinks he needs it. Course he don't need me," Robertson Ay laughed. "Wot I do, himself or the rest of the staff could do just as well. But he needs a houseboy for his image and I'm likely the only one he can afford. So it's pay wages he ain't got for better work, do wivout and feel shamed-like, or…" he grinned, "put up wiv me. So far, he puts up wiv me. He don't pay much, and I don't work much, but we both get by all right, I guess. So, where's the blooming harm?"

Bae felt like he ought to protest. No matter how Robertson Ay tried to rationalize it, he seemed to Bae's mind to be shirking his duties. Or maybe he was acting all friendly now, in order to win his trust and then rob him and Papa of everything they had. Bae didn't think so, but in the last few months, before they'd come here, Papa had grown suspicious of everyone and everything. Maybe some of that was rubbing off now.

On the other hand, he didn't know this world at all and any help navigating it was welcome. Plus Papa must be frantic and Bae was half-dreading the scolding he was sure to be in for on his return. Maybe having someone else with him when he did was a good thing. And maybe Robertson Ay's employers really didn't mind if he took so much time away, though Bae found that hard to believe. At any rate, if his new friend was offering to help him out, maybe Bae ought to let him instead of thinking of reasons to dissuade him. And if Robertson Ay did intend harm, Papa was almost certain to recognize it before he did.

"This way," Bae said, starting back the way he'd come.

Robertson Ay followed on his heels.

Bae was out of breath by the time he reached the top stair and Robertson Ay was bent over nearly double and wheezing as Bae knocked once gently and lifted the latch.

Rumple set aside the fabric in his lap with a sigh of relief. "Do you know what it was for me to wake up and find you gone?" he demanded hoarsely. "I thought you might have got lost o-or run over by a horse in the street or-or…" He half-rose from the bed and took a shaky step forward. Only then did he notice Bae's companion. "Don't do that again!" he pleaded.

"I'm sorry, Papa," Bae managed, chastened. Then his head jerked up in a hopeful smile. "But I found a job! And they want to talk to you, too!" His smile dimmed slightly. "Only, we'll need better clothes. But Robertson Ay—Papa, this is Robertson Ay," he added, beckoning to the older youth to come forward, "he says he can get some for us!"

"Pleasure to meet you, sir," Robertson murmured, extending his hand. Rumple took it hesitantly. "Actually," the youth went on, "now I see you, it seems to me that with a bit of taking in, I might have an old suit with some wear in it yet what's like to fit you."

Rumple looked the newcomer up and down. Robertson Ay might be a head taller, but they did share the same slight build. Rumple nodded slowly, realizing that while sleeves and trouser legs might need to shortened, once that was done, the overall fit would be, well nowhere near as perfect as the clothing he'd been accustomed to wear in recent years, but adequate enough. "Well," he managed, "if you should have such an item, I'd be most grateful. But you'll want payment, surely?"

Robertson Ay shrugged. "It's not like it's fashionable or new or anyfin'," he said. "Truth is, my current hemployer said he'd only take me if I used me first wages to procure something as would reflect better on him. And I'm the youngest one at home; no younger brothers or relations to pass it down to. Strewth I was thinking of taking it for pawn and just leaving it there or giving it to the church to pass on to someone what needs it more. I reckon if you need it more than I do, then that's problem solved."

"Perhaps," Rumple said. "But I don't like being indebted. At least tell me what you were hoping to collect from the pawn shop for it."

Robertson Ay looked as though he was about to refuse, but then he relented and named a figure that Rumple thought was a bit low. Then again, he thought the payment he'd received for the jewelry he'd pawned the other day had also been a bit low. Perhaps, the youth was giving over the truth as he believed it. He smiled. "Very well," he said. "Bring the garment and, if you're correct about its suitability, I'll meet that price."

"Yes, sir," Robertson Ay returned. "And if Baelfire comes with me, I think I can find some'at as would fit him, too."

Rumple shook his head. "Thank you for offering," he said, "but," he picked up the sewing he'd been working on when Bae had come in and held it up, "I don't think that will be necessary."

Robertson Ay's eyes grew wide. "Cor!" he breathed, "if you've another like that, you won't need mine after all!"

"Regrettably," Rumple shook his head, "I've just the one. And while it's not salvageable for my use, I thought there might be enough left in the fabric to make it over for Bae."

He looked hopefully at his son. "What do you think?"

Bae grinned. "It looks wonderful, Papa! But where did you get it?"

Rumple shrugged. "I brought it with me. I'd quite forgotten until this morning." When he'd tried to busy himself by putting away the meager belongings he'd brought with him and discovered that the finery he'd created on the road to Pen Marmor that first day had reverted to the rags he'd worn in captivity. At least, they were clean; it seemed that when one washed magically-altered clothing, the laundering stuck to the original fabric as well. Even if the original fabric would have been better served by dry-cleaning. At least, Rumple reflected, that was the theory; he'd never had occasion to test it until now. "Of course," he continued, "now that you're back, Bae, you can try it on, and I can make the necessary adjustments." Sewing was nowhere near as soothing as spinning had been, but it was a great deal better than nothing when it came to settling frayed nerves.

"And while you're doing that," Robertson Ay smiled, "I'll run home and get the other suit."

Once the youth had gone, Bae started, "I didn't know how long I'd be, Papa. I'm sorry; I didn't mean to worry you."

Rumple shook his head. "I know. But I do worry. You're all I have, son; if anything were to happen to you…"

"I know. I'm sorry," Bae said again. "I-I thought…" He let his voice trail off. He'd thought that now that Papa wasn't the Dark One, he wouldn't be so stiflingly over-protective. But then, Papa had always wanted him to stay close. Becoming the Dark One had made it worse; but Papa wasn't going to stop worrying.

Still, Bae realized, Papa must have been thinking something similar, because he lowered his eyes and when he raised them again, it was with a nervous smile and a bit too much heartiness in his voice, when he said, "But you've found work?"

"Yes," Bae said, brightening at once. "At a bank. Whatever that is," he added. "I mean, the work doesn't seem hard; they just want me to take messages from one person to another, or buy food or supplies; Robertson Ay said he'll show me which shops to go to. And Mr. Mousely said that if I do well, then they'll give me more duties later! Oh," he added, "they wanted me to have a second name. Like knights and gentry back home. So, I'm Balefire Cassidy, now. I guess you'll have to use that one too? Since you're my papa, I mean."

Rumple's eyebrows climbed upwards and he nodded. "Yes, that's quite true. How did you come up with that one, though?"

He frowned when Bae explained. Worriedly, the boy asked, "Did I do something wrong?"

"What?" Rumple picked up the suit jacket and held it out for Bae to slip on. "No. No, not at all. It's just… Well. Never mind." He had no idea whether Bae had selected his surname the same way originally, or whether Fate was winking, but ultimately, it didn't matter.

"They didn't seem to find my first name suspicious, though, Papa," Bae continued. "I mean, Robertson Ay thinks it's a little unusual, but not too much. So, I guess we just have to get used to having second names, without needing to change our first ones."

Rumple shook his head. He hadn't wanted to have to explain this part quite yet, but he couldn't see any way out of it. "That's true for you, son," he said dryly. "My name, on the other hand, will be all too familiar to everyone here—and for all the wrong reasons…"

Whale came in shortly thereafter, and Rumple was glad that Belle was still in the room. He was still tired and it was still hard to breathe, much less focus. He hated feeling this weak, this helpless, even as he recognized that the others were going out of their way to ensure that his magic—most of it anyway—was still his to access. He knew full well that they possessed other methods of curbing his power. Easier, more obvious methods, which they had actively chosen to avoid.

While, at the moment, he had no choice but to trust that they had his best interests in mind, he had to admit that their actions made it easier to do so.

"It comes in five flavors," Whale was telling him, as he set the can of Ensure down on the over bed table. "Until your appetite comes back—and it will—you'll take a can with each meal. Is vanilla okay?" he added.

Rumple nodded. "It's fine," he managed, gripping Belle's hand all the more tightly, when she gave his a reassuring squeeze.

"All right. Well, we've started the treatment and, while side effects to the antibiotics are common, not everyone gets them. So, for now," he reached down and lifted the nurse call button, holding it up before he set it on the cot beside Rumple, "if you experience anything new—pain, nausea, tingling, flu like symptoms, whatever—let a staff member know. Don't assume you have to tough things out. You might, but in a lot of cases, there are things we can do—"

There was a light knock on the door. A moment later, it opened, and Regina, garbed from head to toe in the same sort of Tyvek suit, mask, cap, gloves, and slippers that the others wore, stuck her head in.

"Mayor Mills," Whale said, a bit tetchily, "I'm going to have to ask you to wait outside until I'm done with the patient."

"I'm not sure I can," Regina replied, and while her tone was apologetic, there was no mistaking the steel behind it.

Without checking to see whether the doctor had acquiesced, she took another step into the room and focused on Rumple. "I wasn't going to ask this until you were stronger, but," she took another breath. "Emma's magic isn't back. You know as well as I do that virtually all spells cast are undone with the death of the caster. Certainly I'm not aware of any curses that are exceptions." She paused. "When you came through the portal alone, I thought I could guess what happened to my sister. But if Emma is still powerless, then I need to know whether it's for the most obvious reason."

She took another step closer and asked steadily, "Is my sister still alive?"

Chapter 13: Chapter Thirteen

Notes:

A/N: I'm indebted to a post by "Lyrical" in a thread—no pun intended!—on the writing forums website for estimates on how long to weave a bolt of cloth. Lyrical cites Ruth Goodman's How to be a Tudor: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Tudor Life as stating that "Lengths of twenty-two yards were generally worked at a time [...] This single length of piece could take a man six weeks to produce." (Sadly, as I am citing from a forum post, I don't have a page number.) For the hand-spinning figure, I'm going by the June 12, 2017 post "Process Story: A Skein of Yarn from Start to Finish" on the House Sparrow website.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen

Belle kept her hand in Rumple's, even as she took an angry half-step toward the mayor. "Really," she snapped, "this can wait."

Regina shook her head. "Until now, I would have agreed with you. But if the curse she used to take Emma's magic is still in effect, then that would mean that she's still alive. And if she is, if she's in town somewhere, I really think that's something we need to know, don't you?"

She turned to Rumple. "Well?"

Rumple blinked. "We parted ways," he said a bit hoarsely, as he reached for the plastic cup of water on the tray before him. He took a sip. "After I recovered the dagger, I'd hoped our paths wouldn't cross again. Fate had other ideas, but I didn't know that then. I went to my village and she… Well, I didn't really care where she went, though I had my suspicions."

"So, you didn't…?"

"Kill her?" Rumple finished with a shadow of his old jocularity. It passed quickly and he shook his head, no longer smiling. "She was alive when last I saw her," he said. "And I suppose she could have made her way back here after that, at least, in theory. But considering what crafting yet another time portal would involve, I must say the possibility that she did so would be miniscule in the extreme.

"No," he continued, his voice softening as he thought back. "As I said, I returned to my old home. She'd hoped to change her past when she created that portal. Once through it, I'd thought to change mine in turn…"

It was astonishing, Rumple reflected, how easily he'd slipped back into village life. Of course, his circ*mstances were quite different. He dressed like a man of substance and, on his infrequent forays into town, found himself treated accordingly. He had no spinning to do; in fact, his younger self occupied the sole wheel practically from sunup to sundown and Rumple wasn't about to keep him from it.

Instead, with his younger self's blessing, he took to the loom, weaving the newly-spun yarn into fabric. Or trying to. Like spinning, once one picked up—or reacquainted oneself with—the basics, the task required little concentration. But while one could accomplish quite a bit of spinning in a day's work (100 yards of yarn in an hour was far from unusual), weaving was a much slower process. In the three weeks since he'd started the project, Rumple glumly estimated that he'd woven slightly less than four yards of fabric; just about half of an average bolt.

While the work was relaxing to a point, Rumple knew that these days wouldn't last long. Bae's fourteenth birthday was coming up and though neither version of himself mentioned it, their earlier conversation hadn't been forgotten.

"How does it happen?" his younger self asked one afternoon, when Bae had taken some skeins to the market to sell. "Do soldiers come through and round up all the eligible youth, or…?"

"Well," Rumple said, "that would be more efficient, wouldn't it? In point of fact, a small contingent arrives in the village to collect each child on their fourteenth birthday." His expression grew pensive. "I can only think that with the crops coming in, and the tithes and taxes due, the duke is allowing our households a better opportunity to meet the quotas." He frowned. "I've been meaning to have a word with him about all of this." A word that was unlikely to accomplish much of anything, Rumple knew. What was the point in telling the duke that parents were loath to see their children sent to the front? Did he seriously expect the noble to respond in surprise that he'd never realized it and call the whole thing off? And killing the duke would accomplish nothing. His heir would succeed him and the draft would continue. And, Rumple reflected dourly, if he were to kill the duke, it would only usher in more unrest. Perhaps a neighboring kingdom would invade, forcing the duchy into fighting on two fronts instead of one. Perhaps, the duke's sons would fight among themselves, involving the land in civil war. And if anything were to happen to the duke's eldest son, then Belle might never be born.

He couldn't fathom a world without Belle in it.

And if, despite everything, Bae still went through that portal without him, he would have to live in it.

And without Belle, would he ever discover the key to overcoming the Dark Curse when the time came?

"Are you quite all right?"

Rumple blinked. His younger self was leaning toward him with an expression of alarm. He forced himself to smile. "Only thinking," he said a bit too heartily. "Only thinking that there might be a way to avoid some of what's to be."

"I-I can't run with him," his younger self said. "It's treason."

"Not if you're gone before the word gets out about the lower draft age."

His younger self shook his head. "I'd never get him out of the Frontlands in time. And if the soldiers are coming here, they'll be going to other villages as well. The roads will be patrolled. And you know that some recruiters have fewer scruples than others."

Rumple nodded slowly. He'd forgotten that part. When the soldiers came for their youth, there was sometimes a way out, albeit a heartbreaking one. When all was said and done, if the army came for a new recruit, then they would leave with one. But it didn't necessarily have to be the one they were seeking. With enough silver to alter the draft order, another name—another youth—could be substituted. And villagers the district over were quicker to protect their own. There were bound to be some desperate families that would seize Bae and deliver him up in place of a local lad. He'd even heard rumors that it wasn't just soldiers who patrolled the roads seeking draft evaders. The town and village watches also searched for such prey.

He'd been desperate enough to chance it once. Doubtless, in a few weeks' time, he would be again. And then… He remembered pleading with Hordor for mercy, asking the enforcer's price for leaving him these last few days with his boy.

What do I want? You have no money, no influence, no land, no title, no power. The truth is, all you really have is fealty…

Rumple shook his head slightly, as though he could shake away his memory of the rest of that night. But a new thought struck him. Maybe it would save Bae and maybe it wouldn't. But it might save his younger self no small measure of humiliation. He smiled at his younger self.

"You know," he said softly, "there's a handy little trick you can learn to do with that wheel. In fact, you'll pick it up yourself one of these days, but it won't hurt for you to get a head start on it." He gestured to the stool on which his younger self sat. "May I?"

Curiously, his younger self vacated the stool and moved over to take Rumple's place at the loom. Then he realized that Rumple was reaching, not into the basket of wool rolags, but down into the straw that littered the hut floor. "You mean to spin that?" he asked skeptically.

Rumple's smile widened. "Watch. And learn…"

And albeit unknown to him, at that precise moment, his younger self wasn't the only pupil receiving an education...

Meanwhile...

Zelena glowered over her potion pots, as she watched Master Fendrake sit in deep discussion with a scrawny, ragged boy who looked no older than eleven or twelve. It wasn't fair! She'd been at this for nearly two weeks and she thought she was starting to feel her power stir within her once more, but instead of taking the time to help her draw it out, the healer was wasting hours with this child who didn't have a speck of real magic about him!

"Thank you for the loan of the anatomy text," the boy was saying. "I never knew that there were so many muscles!"

"Over six hundred," Fendrake nodded, not sounding at all put out. "But you learned them?"

"I think so."

"Good. Then you can take that basket and spade to the bog and fetch some sphagnum moss. You remember how to harvest it?"

The boy nodded.

"Good lad. Off you go, then. On your return," he added, "I shall test your knowledge of the unit. Should I find it to be satisfactory, I will assign you further reading."

"And healing, Master Fendrake?" the boy asked hopefully. "When will you teach me that?"

The healer peered down his nose at the child. "If you mean to study under me," he rumbled, "best you work off your first debt to me before you incur another. But you won't be of much use if you can't pick up the basics of what you seek through observation and attention."

"Of course," the lad replied quickly, chastened. "I-I thought with the book…"

"I'm hardly teaching you," the healer remarked. "If I loan you something to read in your spare time and take an interest in how much you retain, it's not the same as formal lessons. But," he said, "if you're after those, then you can petition the duke when your service with me is up. He sponsors four youths each year to study at Elphame Academy. My influence with him is slight indeed, when measured against those healers in his direct employ. Still, a recommendation from me will carry some weight. At the appropriate time. But now," he continued, "is the appropriate time to harvest moss. So, get to it, lad."

"My name's Tavro, Master Fendrake," the boy said politely, as he bent to pick up the basket and spade.

"And one day, I may use it. Go."

He turned his attention to Zelena, then. "If you've leisure to listen to conversations that don't concern you," he said quietly, "there are jars yet to scrub."

"I think my magic might be coming back," Zelena said, just as quietly.

Fendrake raised an eyebrow. "When you know this for a fact, you'll have something," he said. "If you wish me to test you, know that the time spent in so doing will be time taken from my experiments. And should you fail my test, it will be time that you will make up."

"It doesn't take you long to nick your finger!" Zelena protested.

"But it will take power I've no wish to expend to ensure that the wound heals without infection should you fail. And that power will take time to replenish. So. Are you prepared to take the risk?"

Zelena shook her head bitterly. "Not yet," she said, knowing that the 'time' she would need to make up would be spent on the drudgery of washing and tidying, and not of anything that would bring her even remotely closer to unlocking her magic anew. And when he raised his eyebrow once more with a disapproving frown, she nearly snapped out, "Master Fendrake." She would have welcomed a chance to gather herbs and roots, but the healer seemed intent on giving that task to the boy instead!

He nodded. "See to the jars," he repeated, turning his back on her deliberately.

Zelena glowered. Once she had her magic back, once she'd completed her apprenticeship contract, that man was going to pay for every snub and humiliation. She'd ensure that! And it would be a pleasure…

His younger self picked up the rudiments of spinning straw to gold more quickly than Rumple had dreamed. He'd always believed that it had been Dark magic that had let him learn the spell so quickly. In fact, it hadn't been until over a century later, when he'd met Cora, that it had even occurred to him that someone without magic could master the skill in a few hours. His younger self had managed it in twenty minutes.

"Save it for when you need it most," Rumple cautioned. "As tempting as it may be to start showing off, should you draw attention to yourself, you're likely to find yourself targeted by robbers. Or suspected of being in league with them," he added. "Not the kind of thing you'd like the duke's soldiers to catch wind of."

"Indeed not," his younger self agreed with a shudder, as he gathered up the golden straws. Rumple watched approvingly when he ripped open one of the seams of his straw tick, shoved the gold deep inside, and restitched the seam again.

"Well," Rumple smiled, "I think I'd fancy a bit of fresh air. Would you need anything from the market?"

His younger self thought for a moment. "I-I shouldn't like to take advantage," he hedged. "But a few of those meat pasties you brought when first you came here would be welcome. In fact, if Olmar has ground mutton for a fair price, if you brought back two pounds of it, I'll make meat pies for tonight; it's been some time, but I think I can yet recall the old recipe."

The smile froze on his face. "Ground mutton," he repeated. "Of course."

"Is something the matter?" his younger self asked curiously.

Rumple shook his head. "Of course not. I'll see what I can do."

Once outside the hut, he wiped his sweaty palms on his breeches. Of course his younger self would want meat pies. Not the pasties Talorc sold—half-moon-shaped turnovers meant to be held in the hand and eaten without utensils, but real pies, with a crust and sides and everything, like Aunt Hulda and Aunt Holle had made.

Like Zelena had made.

Like Bae had never tasted.

Why, why had he ever told that witch the truth when she'd asked him what his happiest memory had been? Just the thought of eating one now made the bread and cheese he'd had for lunch feel like a hard lump in his gullet.

No, he resolved, as he started down the road to the village square. Talorc's pasties would have to suffice.

He'd toned down his finery a bit, not wanting to attract the attention of any in Charlotte Long-Scar's trade. He didn't want any gossip about his ability to use magic, not with Zoso so close, but if he were set upon by thieves or worse, he might not have any other option. Oh, they wouldn't be able to kill him, but that itself would start stories spreading. And if any of them reached the duke's palace, well, he'd had Zoso's consciousness in his head long enough to know that his predecessor hadn't been any kind of fool. If Zoso were to learn of a newcomer to the village who possessed magic and couldn't be killed by normal means, he might not guess the truth, but he would investigate it. Better by far not to make his abilities known to all and sundry. He'd lived without magic for twenty-eight years. He could do it now. That, strictly speaking, he didn't have to made it all the easier.

Several villagers waved in greeting as he made his way through the square to Talorc's stall. Today, the vendor gave him an apologetic smile.

"It'll be another few minutes," he said, gesturing to the brick oven behind him. "They're almost set to come out, though they'll need to cool a bit or the crust will break. If it doesn't burn your hands," he added.

"No hurry," Rumple replied smiling. "I can wait."

"You're staying with the spinner, aren't you?" a voice spoke up from behind him. "Rumpelstiltskin?"

"I am," he nodded, turning to look at the woman. She nodded back in return.

"Kin, then?" she asked. "I do mark a resemblance."

"My nephew," Rumple replied, waiting for the false smile or perhaps, a sigh of sympathy. It didn't come.

"It's good you're there, then," she said. "He's not had an easy time since he came back from the front. He's told you?"

"Some," Rumple said tersely. He really didn't need to hear that gossip. But while the woman's tone was sympathetic, it held none of the condescension or pity he might have expected. He recognized her now. Aulina, wife to Padrach—who had been killed battling the Ogre forces in the charge Rumple had crippled himself to escape. It had been she who had come to his door some three years later, to tell him that Milah had been taken. "He seems to manage well enough."

Aulina shook her head and now there came a small sigh. "Well enough isn't as well as could be. It's not good, his spending all those hours shut away at the wheel. Mourning his lost wife, I expect?" she asked.

Rumple made a non-committal noise.

"Well, it's not that I ill-wish her, you understand," she said, shaking her head still, "but he's well rid of her, you ask me," she said. Then, quickly, she added, "I'm only telling you this because, if you are kin, then perhaps he'll believe it, coming from you."

Rumple blinked. "I rather doubt that," he managed.

"Oh, I'm not saying she deserved to be carried off by pirates, as she was," Aulina assured him. "But after Rumpelstiltskin came back from the front, it seemed as though she grieved having a living husband more than our widows mourned their dead. Meanwhile, that next winter, theirs was near the only household in the village that didn't fear starving. And yet, she begrudged every morsel he shared with those worse off, even if that food came from his own spinning and not her labors." She shook her head. "I don't envy her her fate, nor would I have wished it upon her, but at least her son shows no sign of taking after her tight-fisted ways."

"I…" Rumple wasn't accustomed to feeling this flustered. He was certain that Aulina was praising his younger self only because she didn't want his presumed relative to know the true nature of his host. But then, why say anything at all?

"That was half a dozen, Gilitrutt?" Talorc asked, startling him.

Rumple nodded. "Uh… yeah. Please."

Aulina lowered her eyes, as Talorc took a pair of tongs and deftly began transferring the pasties to an oilcloth wrapper. "I've work to get back to," she murmured. "If I'm to set by enough to pay the taxes this quarter and yet have enough to feed us the winter. But if you'd give your nephew my regards, I'd be obliged." She smiled a bit ruefully. "I don't know where my head is these days if it's not buried in the vegetable patch or the account ledgers. Forgive me. My name is Aulina. Time was when Rumpelstiltskin and my man would fish together. Time before the war, at any rate." She shook her head. "That was long ago. Anyway."

"Well," Rumple said, "I'll do as you ask. Uh… G-good day."

"And to you," she returned, dropping a respectful curtsey.

Rumple watched her go, taking the bundle of pasties almost absently. He'd always assumed that his fellow villagers despised him, at least as much as Milah had. And perhaps they did. But—a novel thought came to him—perhaps, Milah hadn't been as respected as he'd always assumed. And maybe he'd only imagined that the rest of the village shared her sentiments.

Regina waited for Rumple to continue. Usually, getting him to open up like this was fraught with as much peril as facing down a chernabog. She wondered if he even remembered that he wasn't alone in the room. Much as she wanted to hear more (and only partly because she was hoping he'd eventually get around to talking about Zelena), she felt that speaking now might remind him that he wasn't.

"Rumple?" Belle said, finally.

Whale shook his head. "He's asleep. I can't say I'm surprised. It's going to be a few days before we start to see the antibiotics really start working and even when they do, tiredness and difficulties in concentrating are often common side effects of Isoniazid."

"How long will he need to take that?" Belle asked sharply.

Whale shrugged. "Well, the standard course of treatment is eight weeks. The side effects might not last that long, or their severity could diminish over time."

"Eight weeks," Belle repeated.

"And he may not experience those effects at all," he reminded her. "We'll just have to wait and see."

Belle closed her eyes and nodded tersely. Then she opened them once more, got up, gave Rumple's hand a squeeze, and adjusted his blanket. "My lip," she murmured. "It's itching a bit under the mask. I think I'm going to get a cup of coffee."

"It's after five," Whale pointed out. "You've been here since noon. Why don't you have something a bit more substantial and go home? I'll call you if there's any change, but he's probably going to be out for hours."

He turned to Regina. "Most of that applies to you, too, Your Majesty," he said. "Let him rest. If he doesn't object, you can see him in the morning."

Regina nodded, not liking it, but recognizing that she wasn't going to get her answers tonight. She followed Belle out of the room, but not before she realized that Belle's fussing had left the blanket uneven. Behind the librarian's back, she tugged the higher side back down again. When she looked up, she realized that Whale was watching. "Well?" she snapped.

He shook his head, but she was sure she detected a glint of amusem*nt in his eyes, even if the mask hid the rest of the expression on his face. "Nothing."

Chapter 14: Chapter Fourteen

Notes:

A/N: Some dialogue lifted—and modified—from S2E14: Manhattan.

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen

There was a small waiting area in an alcove by the elevators—a few comfortable chairs and sofas, a long, low table with some outdated magazines, and a couple of vending machines. As Regina drew closer, she realized that one of the chairs was occupied.

"Sorry," Emma said. "I guess you want to get home. I just wanted to ask you something before you left."

"You could have phoned," Regina pointed out.

"Yeah, well, I figured if I called after you'd gone, I'd probably be interrupting your supper or your time with Henry. Or Robin," she added.

Regina smiled. "In that case, thanks. So," she went on with a brightness she didn't fully feel, "what can I do for you, Emma?"

Emma hesitated. "I guess it sounds a little corny, but I," she took another breath and then her words tumbled out at a rush. "I wanted to bring him something. Like flowers, maybe. I mean, is that—was it a thing back in the Enchanted Forest? Or is he allowed them in isolation? Is there something else he'd appreciate? I mean, you've known him longer than just about anyone else here; I figured you'd know and…" She caught herself. "Sorry."

Regina shook her head. "Don't be," she said. "It's a good thought. He's… Well, I suppose he's feeling too low to pretend otherwise right now." She sighed, and when she spoke again, it was with her usual briskness. "As far as whether you can bring plants into isolation, you'll have to check with Dr. Whale. But if he clears it," she paused for a moment. "If he clears it," she repeated, "call me. I'm sure Rumple would appreciate the well-wishes behind any such gesture, even if he acted otherwise, but now that you've suggested it, I think I may have some suggestions for you." While she'd been talking, she'd seen Emma's hopeful expression shift into a confused frown, and she sighed again. "As you pointed out a moment ago," she elaborated, "Rumple and I do go back quite a ways. And one thing I've noticed is that when something rattles him, he tends to react badly."

Emma's frown eased somewhat, and she gave Regina a nod of comprehension. "In New York," she said slowly, "when we turned up at Neal's apartment, he tried to make a break for it. Neal, I mean." She thought back, her words slowing as she drew out the memory. "I chased after him," she went on, "but when I caught up he reacted kind of badly." She frowned. "I mean, at first, it was just weird, but…"

"Maybe you should've said FedEx," Henry suggested. They were standing in the lobby of the building Gold had assured them was his son's residence. Obviously, there hadn't been a 'Baelfire' listed in the directory, but Emma had been a bail bondsperson long enough to know a few tricks. She'd zeroed in on the one apartment that was listed only by number with no attached name and called up, pretending to have a UPS delivery.

The caller had disconnected.

The next thing Emma heard was the sound of someone clambering down the fire escape outside.

The three of them dashed out of the lobby, just in time to see a hooded figure leap from the last stair of the escape and take off at a run. "That favor you owe me," Gold called to Emma as she started forward, "this is it! Get him to talk to me. I-I can't run."

Emma didn't have to be told twice. "Watch Henry," she ordered. "I'll be back." Then she took off after the fleeing figure. It wasn't until she'd tackled him to the ground that she realized who it was.

"Neal?"

He'd been equally stunned to see her. Naturally, he'd asked what she was doing here.

"What am I doing here?" she'd repeated. "I'm not answering anything until you tell me the truth. Are you Gold's son?"

Clearly the name 'Gold' meant nothing to him, and if Emma hadn't been caught off-guard and angry, she would have recognized it, but one look at him and all the hurt and betrayal from years ago had come flooding back. "You played me," she said fighting to stay calm and knowing she was losing that battle. "You're from there! You played me, and he played me, you both played me."

Neal was trying to calm her down, but she was getting angrier by the minute. "Emma, slow down. What are you talking about? Who's Gold?"

"Your father," she snapped. "Rumpelstiltskin."

Neal's jaw dropped. "He's here?" For a second a smile started to form on his lips. Then he seemed to check himself. "Wait. Which one?"

"What? How many fathers named Rumpelstiltskin do you have?"

"That's…" He shook his head. "That's complicated. If he's here, then…" He shook his head again. "No. It's too soon."

"Too soon?" Emma blinked. "Neal, you're not making any sense."

"It's the wrong one!" he snapped. "You shouldn't have brought him here! Not now! If you knew how long I'd been waiting for— But not him. Not like this. How could you—?"

"Hey. Hey!" Emma shot back. "I don't know what you're on about or… if you're on anything." She caught the quick shake of his head absent any of the usual tells that—even without her 'superpower'—would have let her know she'd caught him in a lie. "Well the way you're talking could've fooled me," she muttered, calmer for a moment. Then her fury, which had been temporarily overshadowed by confusion, burned hot again. "But right now? I am the only one allowed to be angry here! Did you know who I was, where I was from, the whole time? Was this just some sort of sick, twisted plan? Did… Did you even care about me at all?"

"Yes!" Neal said, and the hurt in his eyes wasn't something Emma thought he was faking. "Of course, I did. Emma—"

"I want the truth," she said firmly. "All of it. And don't go Jack Nicholson on me; I can handle it."

Neal hesitated. "I'm not so sure about that. But I'll tell you as much as I think I can, just… not here. We're out in the open. Look, there's a bar down the street. We can talk there. Or you can yell; I can talk. Whatever. C'mon."

He took off again, walking briskly this time, not so much as glancing back to see if she'd follow. After all, they both knew she was going to.

Emma sucked in her breath furiously and hurried to catch up.

Emma shook her head. "I didn't understand at the time. And, as you can imagine, when he tried to explain, it made even less sense. And I was angry with him because I thought he'd… and I didn't want him to know about Henry or be part of his life, even if he was technically his fath—" She stopped, seeing a strange smile on Regina's face. It took a split-second for her to understand why. And she had an uncomfortable feeling that she ought to be apologizing, even if she hadn't actually done anything wrong.

"Uh… anyway," Emma continued, "Neal made it clear that he didn't want to come back with me. He told me to tell Gold I'd lost him. At first, I think he believed me, but when he dragged Henry and me up the stairs and broke into Neal's apartment—"

"Rumple broke in?" Regina interrupted, her eyebrows rising.

"Yeah. Anyway, Neal kept a couple of things that we'd… picked out… together." She wasn't going to mention the stealing or the con games or they'd be off on yet another tangent. "When I recognized one of them, Gold realized I was holding back, keeping something from him, even if he couldn't guess what. And when I denied it, it… wasn't pretty. I mean, he was already nervous and upset over leaving Storybrooke, not having his magic, wanting to find Neal, my telling him Neal gave me the slip… Finding out that I was lying to him sent him over the edge, but—"

"Yes," Regina nodded. "I've witnessed a few of his tantrums. Remotely; he usually did manage to control himself until he was alone, but he's always had a hard time blocking my mirror spells." Her lips twitched. "It's about the only area of magic where my talent outshines his." She took another breath, and when she spoke again, her tone was more matter-of-fact.

"I was trying to tell you," she said, "that considering the rarity of anyone doing anything for Rumple without expecting some favor in return, he might react badly. He's at a low point right now. He's vulnerable. And since he hates being vulnerable…"

"He could lash out," Emma nodded, remembering now how he'd behaved after Hook had poisoned him. "I'll try not to take it personally."

"Wise thinking," Regina nodded back, smiling a bit more now. "Actually," she said, as a new thought struck her, "while cut flowers would be a nice gesture, and one I'm sure he'd appreciate once he calms down, I think I might be able to offer a better suggestion."

"I'm listening."

"Meet me at my vault tomorrow morning around seven-thirty." She sighed. "If we go now, it'll be dark soon. And I do need to make it into the mayor's office at some point before noon. So, while I'm sorry if seven-thirty is too early for you…"

"No, I'll be there. What did you have in mind?"

"Something a bit more appropriate to Rumple's situation." She smiled again. "See you in the morning."

Rumple wasn't certain whether he was dreaming of the past or merely thinking on it. He was dimly aware that he was lying in bed in the hospital, but he felt as though he were in a fog or a haze. Perhaps, he was dozing; perhaps he was merely drowsy. But Regina's queries about the witch had taken his mind back to Pen Marmor...

He hadn't seen the witch in weeks. He knew she was out there, of course—always assuming that she hadn't run into some mishap. He'd hardly weep if he learned she had. And yes, at times, he did wonder what had become of her, but he had other, more pressing matters on his mind.

His younger self had been non-committal when Rumple had suggested that, perhaps, he wasn't as ill-thought-of in the village as he'd thought. He'd only smiled, murmured something about how nice it was to know, and gone back to his spinning—wool, this time; not straw.

Rumple was saddened, though not entirely surprised. He—both now and then—had believed he understood the way of things. If one knew that one was a pariah, shunned and abhorred by all, then one learned how to act. And to understand that such was one's fate and that, barring a miracle, there was no changing of it. Faced with a choice between that painful but familiar status quo, and a potentially wondrous, but terrifyingly unknown alternative, his younger self was playing it safe. If he didn't test his relationship to the village, he wouldn't be anguished, should his overtures be rebuffed.

Rumple understood his younger self's rationale all too well, but he couldn't come up with a convincing argument beyond, "I think you might be pleasantly surprised, if you tried."

And, perhaps he shouldn't seek out such arguments.

He wasn't usually this indecisive, but he'd been, thus far, unable to find a solution to the problem that had been plaguing him since his arrival: how to avoid making the mistakes that had led him to lose Bae, while protecting the futures of the people whose destinies he'd shaped trying to find Bae again.

At the back of his mind, a voice whispered that he couldn't have everything. Choices—and sacrifices—would have to be made. But it shouldn't have to come down to a choice between Bae… and Belle. And if Emma was never born, then Bae would never meet her. And while Bae might love another, in this new timeline, Henry could never exist.

Rumple had gone Neverland to save his grandson's life. Yes, it had been, in part, because he'd believed Bae dead at the time, and because he'd been trying to atone for entertaining the idea of taking Henry's life on the strength of that seer's prophecy, but he'd fought down his baser instincts then. He'd won that battle; he didn't want to now seize defeat from the jaws of that victory.

It made his head hurt when he tried to consider whether he'd even be back here trying to change things if there were no Emma, no Henry, no Dark Curse, no opportunity to tell Zelena that she was disqualified from casting said curse in the first place, but that too was a consideration. If he tried to eliminate too much of the past that had shaped his actions, he might well expunge himself from existence as well.

And tampering with the timeline to make his own past better… Well, that sounded more or less like what Zelena had been attempting. He felt his blood run cold. Suppose that he did succeed in saving Bae, but in so doing, made some minor alteration to the timeline; something he couldn't foresee, that ended up doing exactly what Zelena had intended when she'd dreamed up this spell: fixed matters in such a way that Cora never gave her up.

Oh, Rumple might never create his Dark Curse, but what havoc might an adult and magically adept Zelena wreak on this realm? He'd never live to see it and Bae probably wouldn't, but what of future descendants? What of Belle?

He wondered and he worried and he dithered and he dawdled, all the while hoping that things might somehow work themselves out absent his interference. It was easy enough to do. There was plenty of work to fill the days, and plenty of time for talk in the evening. Life was hard in the village, but there was a comfort to the rhythms of daily life and Rumple found himself falling back easily into them as he had in the past.

Then the soldiers came for Morraine.

Chapter 15: Chapter Fifteen

Notes:

A/N: Some dialogue lifted and tweaked from S1E8: Desperate Souls.

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen

His younger self was up early at his spinning, Bae had gone to the sheepfold, and Rumple was busying himself at the hearth making the morning's breakfast. Barley porridge took time to cook, but it was hearty and reminded him of the breakfasts he'd enjoyed as a child with Aunt Hulda and Aunt Holle. In leaner times, they'd served it at other meals, too, but somehow they'd found seasoning and sauces enough that Rumple had never grown sick of it. Still, as he stirred the pot, he felt as though he might be coming down with something, unlikely though it seemed.

Dark Ones did not become ill, as a rule. At least, not unless they were in a land without magic. Apart from dreamshade poisoning, Rumple couldn't recollect a time he'd had so much as a sniffle. Pain was a slightly different story; if he barked his shins, or slipped on ice, he'd feel it. Similarly, physical altercations would leave bruises and lacerations. They wouldn't kill him, of course, but if he didn't heal himself, he'd ache for a time afterwards. But such discomfort as usually accompanied minor ailments did not affect him. And yet, since the night before, he'd found himself suffering from something that felt rather like a headache, though not quite. It was pressure, rather than pain, that he seemed to feel wrapped about his skull. It was almost like a blood pressure cuff—uncomfortable, even if it didn't truly hurt.

Rumple had to admit that the experience was mildly disconcerting and hoped that it wasn't a harbinger of something serious. He knew that if his heart should ever Darken completely, it would fail, extinguishing the last specks of humanity that remained and leaving the Dark One to roam unchecked, but he didn't think he was anywhere close to that state yet. Even if he were, he rather thought that the first warning sign would be chest pains, rather than this not-quite-headache.

Trying to convince himself that it was a minor complaint that would soon pass, he added some dried berries to the pot and a dollop of honey. Bae would be back any moment with the sheep's milk, the final ingredient to add to the porridge. It was starting to smell good and he stirred it with a wooden ladle while he waited.

Bae returned at a run and Rumple realized two things at once: the boy had come in empty-handed, and his eyes were wide with unaccustomed fear. "Papa!" he exclaimed. "Uncle Gilitrutt! They've come for Morraine!"

Rumple exchanged a glance with his younger self. "Go," he said. "I'll ensure that breakfast doesn't burn." He saw the disapproving frown on his younger self's face; it was customary for the entire village to turn out when one of its own was conscripted, particularly a child, but Rumple didn't dare.

He realized now the source of his discomfort: Zoso was about. And Zoso was likely feeling the same thing that he was. Perhaps, his predecessor had already realized what it meant, but if he hadn't, then seeing Rumple standing beside his younger self, feeling the Darkness within him calling to its own, Zoso was certain to put it all together.

Rumple still wasn't sure whether to allow events to play out the way they had originally or try to alter them, but he did know that tipping his hand too early would curtail his options. He wouldn't be able to conceal his presence from Zoso for much longer, but there was no reason to rush things. No, he'd bide his time for now. And when the inevitable confrontation occurred, he'd be far better prepared for it.

Regina was standing outside her vault, cell phone at her ear, when Emma pulled up in her yellow bug. "I quite understand, Doctor," she was saying. "We'll do it that way, then." She ended the call and smiled, as Emma got out of the car.

"I'm glad you're early," she greeted her. "All right. Follow me." She gestured to Emma to follow her behind the large mausoleum. Emma hesitated for only a moment before hurrying after her.

"Hey, whoa!" Emma exclaimed at the neat garden beds that greeted her. "And here I thought you were strictly an apple girl. Woman," she amended hastily, when Regina raised an eyebrow. "Apple woman." She winced. It just didn't sound right that way.

Regina, however, merely smiled. "You'd be surprised how many magical spells involve non-magical ingredients. But what we're doing today is more of a… well, I suppose you could call it a living get well soon card." She surveyed the garden with a slight frown coming to her face.

"Black cohosh grows more than four feet tall," she said under her breath. "But maybe…" She handed Emma a pair of gardening shears. "Cut off a few of those flowers," she directed, pointing to the tall towers of white blooms that crested the tops of the plants. "You can cut a bit below where they start to get some of the leaves, too."

Emma obeyed after a moment's hesitation. "How many should I take?"

"That's up to you," Regina said tartly. "But we are going to be taking a variety of plants, so I wouldn't get too carried away. Cut a few now and if it turns out we want more, those shears aren't going anywhere." Her frown deepened. "I'm of two minds about the bloodroot," she admitted, pointing out another section of delicate, white flowers growing quite a bit closer to the ground. "Historically, it fits the bill, but it's actually been found to be more dangerous than some other options. On the other hand, it's not as though he's going to be eating them, and they are pleasant to look at."

"Sorry?"

Regina smiled. "We're going to make a dish garden," she explained. "A bowl containing a variety of live plants—spelled to keep them that way, even if their soil and sunlight requirements might prove otherwise incompatible," she added, "all of which are known to have a positive effect on the respiratory system." She sighed. "They won't cure his condition; not as reliably as Whale's treatment will, but Rumple's familiar with most plants and their properties. He'll understand the sentiment behind such a gift."

"It's the thought that counts?" Emma suggested, smiling a bit in turn.

"Just so. Now," Regina continued, all business, "despite its unfortunate name, I think you'll find that broom snakeweed is actually rather attractive, too…"

"You're late," Fendrake greeted Tavro with a raised eyebrow. Zelena busied herself with scrubbing the bryony roots in the bucket beside her, trying hard not to let her smugness show. It was about time that the little pest messed up.

"I'm sorry, Master Fendrake," the boy replied. "I know I should have come sooner, but there were soldiers in the village this morning. They came for army business," he said quickly. "Took a girl just turned fourteen."

Fendrake frowned. "And what has that to do with you?"

Tavro shifted uncomfortably. "Morraine's a friend," he said. "It just felt… wrong to come here as though nothing had happened. I thought I ought to at least wait until they left. And I thought if they saw me going, they might think I was trying to run away from the draft and…"

"Take you too?" the healer said, with some amusem*nt. "Unlikely. First, you don't look anywhere near old enough. Second, you're under my protection."

The boy nodded. "I know. I know the contract was filed; Papa did it as soon as he signed. But if the war goes badly, I mean, they've already lowered the draft age. They took Morraine today; they'll come for Baelfire in three days and then Jonolo two weeks after that. Papa says they only used to take men over twenty when he was growing up. Then they started drafting women and boys about twenty years ago; now it's girls, too. And the age keeps getting lower. What if they decide in a month or a year that being in service to a healer isn't an exemption anymore?"

Fendrake shook his head. "The nobles know better than to antagonize those who deal in magic. I make no pretense at being a particularly powerful practitioner, but those in the land who are will insist on their rights—and mine." He smiled thinly. "They'll reason that if the duke would dishonor his agreement with me today, he'll be emboldened enough to dishonor theirs a month or a year from now. Such things tend to be nipped in the bud. You're safe enough."

Tavro relaxed for a moment. Then he looked up again nervously. "But if you ask me to bring you boxelder and I accidentally bring you poison ivy, or—"

"And a month ago, you wouldn't even have known how similar those species can appear to an untrained eye." Fendrake shook his head. "A contract is an agreement between two parties, boy. You agree to complete the tasks I set you to the best of your ability. I agree to teach, protect and supply you as necessity dictates. Nowhere in that agreement is a stipulation that you must be perfect, or even competent. Only that you put forth your best efforts. Now," his voice hardened, "should you actively seek to harm me, or to leave my service, or renege on any of the terms of the contract after your fourteenth year when you attain your majority, that will be quite another matter. Under those circ*mstances, I would be within my rights to void the contract and deliver you to the army myself. Or remove the healing that I performed upon you and return you to your previous state, though I do think the army would be more merciful." He smiled grimly. "At least that way, you'd have a chance of survival. Not unlike some of our good duke's predecessors who would give condemned criminals the option of having their sentences commuted to army service in earlier wars." He paused for a moment, and then added thoughtfully, "Well. I suppose Duke Bowden may consider such a thing himself, if he hasn't already. At any rate, boy, you're quite safe."

He smiled. "Now, let's see if you can tell boxelder from poison ivy, since you mentioned it. Off you go to fetch a sample of each. And I trust you'll remember to wear gloves and take the other necessary precautions."

Tavro nodded. On the threshold of the tent, he paused. "Master Fendrake? I-I don't want to be rude, but if the contract is an agreement between two parties, what happens if it's you who doesn't fulfil your part? I'm sorry!" he said at once.

Fendrake, however, took no offence. "Your first recourse would be the duke's steward," he said calmly. "The steward would review the contract and, if he or she judges your grievance to have merit, then they would turn it over to the Council of Magic for adjudication. If the steward rejects your claim, then you have the option of petitioning the council directly. Contracts are a serious matter," he added, giving the boy a penetrating look. "If I'm found to be in breach of mine, I could well find myself unable to practice my art in this land. Depending on the magnitude of the breach, the penalty might even extend to the other kingdoms in this realm. I may drive a hard bargain, boy, but it's really in my best interest to keep it. The plants, boy."

Tavro nodded and ducked out of the tent, seizing one pair of cotton and one pair of leather gloves from the basket by the flap on his way out.

Zelena kept scrubbing the roots, hoping that neither had seen her look up when Baelfire's name had been mentioned. In three days, she told herself, or rather, in three nights—counting tonight, Rumple—this time's Rumple—would be the Dark One.

In three nights, she promised herself, she would be ready.

Breakfast was a silent affair that morning. A few times, Bae looked as though he wanted to say something, but then he went back to his porridge, misery evident on his face. Rumple wanted to say something comforting, but he couldn't think what over the tape that played in his mind now.

This is your fault. You should have acted sooner. You should have done something before. Now, it's too late. And it's all your fault.

"It's going to be all right, son," his younger self murmured. "I'll think of something."

Bae looked up and managed to smile. "I know you will, Papa," he said, but Rumple knew the difference between hope and belief, and while Bae hoped that there was a way out of the fate that awaited him in three days' time, he didn't actually believe it.

Still, he ate a bit more quickly, and he smiled again as he took his cloak down from the nail on the wall, picked up his crook, and went off to the sheepfold to take the flock to the common, as he did every day.

Uncharacteristically, his younger self pushed his chair back from the table a moment later and, leaning on his staff, dragged himself to the tent flap—Rumple following a moment later—to watch as Bae trotted down the road, driving the four sheep before him, until the five figures vanished around the curve. Then his younger self turned to him.

"All right," he said heavily. "You know what I mean to do. Will it work?"

Rumple closed his eyes. "No," he said honestly.

"Then what would you suggest?"

Rumple hesitated. "I-I'm not sure," he admitted.

His younger self made a scoffing sound. "Really?" he snapped. "You mean you've come here to try to save him; you've been here all this time, and you have no idea what to do? They're going to take him in three days and there's nothing I can do about it!"

"They won't take him," Rumple said quickly. "That much, I can promise you." Whatever his younger self did or didn't do, if it came down to it, Rumple knew that he would step in. But as for his younger self, Rumple still didn't know whether denying him the opportunity to become the Dark One would make his life better or worse. Maybe now, he could see that his life in the village had never been as bleak as he remembered it, but it had been bleak enough. If he became the Dark One, that would change. And, an electrifying thought struck him, if he were here to advise his younger self right at the beginning, maybe he could manage to keep himself from making the errors that had led Bae to seek out Reul Ghorm. He could have it all. He could still stop the Ogre War. Belle would be born. Maybe he could find a way to make Bae immortal—or, at least, extend his life beyond a normal span; after all, Fendrake would still be here more than a century from now and showing no signs of age or infirmity. And as far as Henry, well, there was no reason that Rumple couldn't do a bit of manipulation to get Snow White and David the shepherd together, even if he didn't have the impetus of the Dark Curse spurring him onward.

It could all work out. Just a bit differently.

His younger self, though, was shaking his head. "I'm sorry," he said. "I want to believe you, but if you can't give me more than that, as much as I want to trust you… This is my boy's life. If you can't tell me how to protect him, I'll have to do it in the only way I know."

Rumple sighed. He couldn't deny that he understood. Had he been in his younger self's place, he'd… Well, he had done the same, hadn't he? But maybe things didn't have to go exactly as they had the first time. Maybe some changes could yet be made. And maybe…

"In my past," he said finally, "you took the road north to Longbourne. It didn't go well, though I can't say if you'd have better luck in the opposite direction."

"There's the harbor," his younger self ventured. "Perhaps we'll find a ship that would carry us both."

"They'll be watching for fugitives," Rumple pointed out. "There will be soldiers at the docks inspecting each departing vessel If Bae were younger, there might be a chance, but they'll be checking particularly for youth his age. If they find you," he shook his head. "Well, I know neither of you can swim."

"No," his younger self agreed. He took a breath. "I have to try. I have to take him. You'll come?"

Not if Zoso was going to be there. He knew that their meeting was going to happen, and he needed to prepare for it, but he had no intention of forcing matters. In fact, perhaps, he could buy himself another night or more. "I think it best I stay behind," he said. "They're likely to be watching the house, too. If they come here, I can send them in the opposite direction." He pretended to think for a moment, but his next suggestion had been at the back of his mind for a number of weeks, now.

"When you go," he continued, "you'll need something to live on. Don't forget what's currently stowed in your straw tick."

Dawn was still more than two hours away when two shadowy figures pushed back the woven curtain flap and stole out of the hovel and into the night. They took the south road, through the village, bending down to avoid being seen through the windows of those villagers who hadn't shuttered them. Through it all, neither spoke a word until they were well past the last house and walking along a narrower path that branched off from the main road and ran toward the wood that the taller of the two lit the lantern he carried and motioned to his companion to follow him into the trees.

"It feels wrong to run away," Bae murmured, after they'd gone on for more than a quarter of an hour.

Rumple shook his head. "It's worse to die, son. I'm not having you taken away to the Ogres War."

Approaching footsteps made both of them tense, until a tremulous voice called, "Alms for the poor?" And then, almost at once, "Alms for the poor?" again.

Rumple reached into a fold of his cloak and pulled out a few copper coins. "Yes," he replied, passing them over.

The beggar thanked him profusely and went on his way. Rumple and Bae continued into the wood.

"Are we sure there's no other way?" Bae asked, a few moments later.

Rumple shook his head. "I can't lose you, Bae. You're all I've got left, son. Y-you don't understand what war is like, what they do to you—" He froze, hearing a sound that did not belong to a forest creature at night. He gave Bae a quick shove.

"Quick!" he said urgently. "Hide. In the ditch—hide! Go, go, go!"

But before Bae could heed him, a harsh voice commanded, "Stop right there!" Almost at once, the two found themselves surrounded by soldiers, and they both recognized the man in command from that morning.

"What are you doing on the King's Road?" Hordor demanded.

Rumple swallowed hard. "We've woolen goods to sell in the market in Navra," he said, naming a town that was nearly a half-day's journey for a man with two good legs and praying that if they inspected his pack, they'd be satisfied with a cursory look; he'd placed two shawls at the top of the pack, hiding the supplies he carried from plain view. And while he carried no weapons, nor any other contraband, a mere two shawls hardly justified so far a destination.

Hordor's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "I know you," he said slowly. "Don't I?" He dismounted and drew closer. "What was your name?" he asked. "Hm? Spindleshanks? Threadwhistle? Hobblefoot?"

Bae practically leaped to his father's defense, heedless of the danger. "His name's Rumpelstiltskin!" he declared.

Rumple tried to shush him, but the knight commander's face had already settled into a mocking sneer. "Rumpel—Ah, the man who ran. Is this your boy? How old is he?"

He addressed Bae now. "What's your name?"

Still angry, Bae replied, "I'm Baelfire and I'm thirteen."

"When's your birthday?"

Rumple was about to interject that it was some months off; if Hordor didn't know the answer off the top of his head, then there was a chance he'd let them go on their way. By the time he received his orders and realized the ruse, they two of them could be far beyond Navra's borders. But before he could, Bae—too angry yet to be cautious—proclaimed the truth. "Hush, boy!" he pleaded, hoping yet that he might somehow turn this around, but not seeing how.

"Did you teach him how to run as well, Rumpelstiltskin?" Hordor demanded. And then, realizing from the look on Bae's face that the boy had no idea to what he was referring turned back to him again.

"Did he tell you?" he asked Bae, in a near-friendly fashion. "Did he tell you how he ran and the ogres turned the tide of the battle, and all the others were killed, and he returned home to a wife who could not bear the sight of him?" Rumple felt tears welling in his eyes, as he pleaded with the knight commander to stop his recounting, but the other man was merciless. "You see," he smiled at Bae, "women do not like to be married to cowards."

And over Rumple's feeble protest Hordor, tired of his game, proclaimed, "It's treason to avoid service." He gestured to his men. "Take the boy now."

"No!" Rumple cried. "No, no, no! What do you want?"

The knight commander peered down his nose at him. "What do I want?" he repeated scornfully. "You have no money, no influence, no land, no title, no power. The truth is, all you really have is fealty. Kiss my boot."

Rumple reeled. "I-I don't understand."

"You asked my price," Hordor said, clearly enjoying himself. "Kiss my boot."

And then, Rumple remembered something. "W-wait!" he said. "A-a moment, my lord. I-I do have something. Wait." He reached slowly into his cloak, not wanting any misunderstandings at this juncture, and pulled out the gleaming golden straws he'd spun weeks earlier.

"Papa!" Bae gasped.

Hordor took a step forward and snatched up the straws greedily. He put one between his teeth and bit down. Then he looked at Rumple once more. "Tell me, spinner," he said slowly, "where would one such as you have obtained something of such value? You're not just a coward, but a thief as well!" He took a backwards step toward his horse, and the coil of rope that hung from his saddle. "Thievery is a hanging error," he said, reaching for the rope.

"NO!" Rumple said, falling to his knees. "I didn't steal it—I spun it!"

Hordor tilted his head to one side. "You spun it?" he repeated disbelievingly. "You spun gold? And where would you have obtained such material lawfully?"

"From straw," Rumple said, realizing how unbelievable the whole thing sounded. "I know how to spin straw into gold."

Hordor regarded him for a long moment. Then he took the rope from his saddle and tossed it to one of his men. He drew closer to Rumple and Bae once more. "I'm a fair man," he said finally. "If you've spoken the truth, you'll have the opportunity to prove it. If not, I'll take the matter before the duke in the morning for his justice. I doubt he'll be inclined to be merciful toward cowards and draft-dodgers, but one never can tell."

He gestured to the soldier who held the coil of rope. "Bring them both."

Chapter 16: Chapter Sixteen

Notes:

The "Anatomy of a Spinning Wheel" site tells me that fibers to be spun are first fed through the spinning wheel's 'orifice hole'. It might sound a bit risque, but it is the proper term.

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen

Rumple still didn't know whether letting his younger self try to run was a good idea. At least, he wasn't sure whether he should have suggested his younger self run in the opposite direction from the one he himself had taken, all those years ago. The timeline, as he'd kept repeating to himself—both selves—was a fragile thing and undoing any part of it was risky.

But the duke had many soldiers patrolling the woods in search of those who would evade the draft. And uppermost in Rumple's memories right now was his humiliating encounter with Hordor. It was risky, but he wanted to spare his younger self that level of degradation. If he and Bae were picked up by another patrol, then so be it. Many of the soldiers on those details weren't completely insensitive to the situation. These were older men, generally; veterans back from the front. In some cases—especially now, with the lowered draft age—their own children were fighting the ogres. And while they were unlikely to allow a youth to escape conscription (they'd be facing a charge of treason if they were caught at it), the odds were high that they'd send his younger self and Bae back home with a warning. The soldiers would come again for Bae on his fourteenth birthday, and if they did, Rumple had already decided that he'd stop the Ogre War before his boy ever made it to the front.

In his past, ending the war had been practically the first thing he'd done after snapping Hordor's neck; he doubted that pushing the timetable up by some eight hours or so was going to upset things that much. And if doing so meant that he never became the Dark One?

Well, if he never became the Dark One, then he couldn't very well go back in time to persuade his younger self to choose a different path, could he?

It sounded convincing, but the spinner still wasn't certain he had his facts straight. Maybe time-travel wasn't supposed to be possible because it was easier to keep these sorts of questions to the purely theoretical. Well. What was done was done. Assuming that his actions hadn't erased him from existence, he'd stay here for a week. If, after that time, he saw neither his younger self nor Bae, he'd move on. In a month, when the search for the fugitives would almost certainly have died down, Rumple would brew a locator potion—he was fairly certain he could remember all the ingredients—and go off in search of them, just to be sure that they were safe. And then?

He had a month to figure out what to do then.

Rumple sat down on Bae's mattress, closed his eyes, and heaved a sigh of relief.

A fist collided forcefully with his nose, and a furious voice exclaimed, "You idiot!"

It was more than four miles to the Duke's castle and, riding pillion on horseback, his hands bound to the saddle horn, Rumpelstiltskin felt as though he was bruising with every step the horse took. Behind him, a burly soldier held the reins with one hand and the back of the spinner's belt with the other. On the horse directly ahead of him, he knew that Bae was riding, similarly restrained in front of another soldier, though that soldier's body blocked the boy's figure almost entirely. Only the edges of Bae's cape were occasionally visible, blowing back in the night breeze.

The journey didn't take very long; horses could easily cover eight miles in an hour at a trot and, even encumbered by leather barding, it was probably only a half hour before the walls of the duke's castle came into view and not more than ten minutes before they passed through its barbican gate—two squat towers framing the entry, leaving a narrow passage between them. Rumple realized that, with the arrow slots lining the stone walls at intervals and the trap doors he could just make out in the buttressed stone ceiling—through which, he imagined, boiling oil or pitch, or even scalding hot water might be poured—the passage could easily become a death-trap

Once through the entry, Hordor bade his men to wait in the passage and he dismounted and strode off. The others—including the two whose horses carried Rumpelstiltskin and Bae—slid down from their mounts as well, leaving their two captives bound in the saddles, while the soldiers stretched their legs and spoke quietly and easily among themselves. A moment later, a loud rumbling and harsh grinding of gears startled the captives and they jerked their heads to look over their shoulders, just in time to see the iron portcullis come down, sealing the castle for the night. Nobody was watching them, Rumple noted, but really, there was no need to. Even if either of them could somehow slip their restraints, they were hardly about to dismount and try to run through the dozen or so armed men that surrounded them. And with the portcullis down, there would be no escaping.

Rumple bit his lip and faced forward once more, just in time to see his boy looking in his direction. There was no trace of Bae's earlier bravado now. His brown eyes were wide and he looked quite a bit younger than his thirteen years. Rumple forced himself to smile and hide the terror that he himself was feeling. "It's going to be all right son," he murmured.

"But when they ask you to spin…!" Bae breathed.

"It's going to be all right." Rumple wondered how many times he'd need to repeat himself before one of them started to believe it.

The temperature was falling and Rumple felt the wind through his worn cloak and threadbare garments, as he wondered with one breath when Hordor would return and prayed with his next that he'd tarry a bit longer. He had the sinking feeling that things were only about to get worse.

Finally, when Rumple's teeth were chattering both from cold and from terror, and his clasped fingers had reddened while they gripped the saddle horn, Hordor appeared once more. He took the reins of Rumple's and Bae's horses in one hand and led the mounts around the corner of the barbican gate, to where a short flight of stone stairs led to a wooden door strapped with iron. The knight commander drew a hunting knife and sliced through the ropes that tethered man and boy to their respective mounts. "Down you go," he said gruffly, half-assisting, half-dragging each in turn. Then, just as he'd taken the horses' reins before, he caught the free ends of the ropes still around his captive's wrists and started to lead them toward the steps.

Rumple's ankle gave way and he stumbled with a whimper.

"Papa!" Bae exclaimed. He glared at Hordor. "If you won't give him a staff, at least cut me loose so I can help him!" he cried.

Hordor peered down his nose. "You're in no position to give orders, boy," he said, his voice and expression betraying nothing.

Bae lowered his eyes for a moment, and then jerked them upwards once more. "Then I'll ask it as a favor," he said steadily. "Please, my lord, there's no reason to keep us both tied up. We're not going anywhere except where you take us."

Hordor appeared to be lost in thought for a moment. Then he shrugged. "That's true enough," he said, drawing his knife once more. This time, he cut the bonds on Bae's wrists and then moved to do the same for Rumple. "You've more than your fair measure of courage, boy," he remarked, "especially considering who your father is. The army has need of such as you."

He looked up into Rumple's eyes as he spoke and his lip curled in satisfaction at the spinner's expression. "Up the stairs," he directed. "Both of you as swift as you can."

They obeyed. Even with Bae's help, Rumple stumbled as they reached the top stair, falling heavily to one knee, as Bae hung onto his other arm. "Papa?" he whispered, wincing as he heard Hordor's impatient growl behind him.

Rumple nodded and got back to his feet, leaning on Bae as he did. It was Bae's turn to say it. "It's going to be all right, Papa," he whispered, as they stood on the landing. Now that they were closer, they could see that there was a sliding window in the door before them, through which a face was peering. It vanished nearly at once, and the door creaked open. As Hordor gestured them inside, Bae repeated, "It's going to be all right."

"And I believe that should do it," Regina said, with a self-satisfied smile. "Good thing you didn't bruise those leaves; they're skunk cabbage."

"Now you tell me," Emma replied with a theatrical shudder.

"Oh, they're benign enough if you handle them gently. The flowers are a different matter, of course, but we've more than enough yellow in there without them."

The bowl in Emma's hands was now filled with a variety of blossoms and blooms. Most were white and yellow, with purple Echinacea, clover and mint flowers, pink honeysuckle, and orange pleurisy root. Emma was particularly enamored of the three rainbow hibiscus that Regina had coaxed into blooming early. The petals of one were edged in pink, which darkened to purple, then blue, then a bluish green that almost at once turned to yellow, which darkened to orange at its center. The five petals of the second flower were each a different solid color that shone almost like polished leather in the sun: azure, cobalt, cyan, lime, and dark violet. The third, which Regina had called a 'black rainbow hibiscus' looked almost as though it was on fire, with the oranges and reds that edged the dark petals at top and bottom to ring a yellow center—yes, she knew it was called an ovary, but she felt weird using the word in this context—from which sprouted several orange stigmas.

"This is incredible," she breathed.

"Yes, I think it should make the desired impression. Now…" Regina waved her hand and a transparent sphere surrounded the bowl, sealing it and its contents within.

"Oh," Emma said, frowning a bit. "I-I thought… Some of them smelled pretty good. Are you sure…?"

Regina nodded. "It wasn't the original plan, but if you'll recall, when you arrived earlier, I was on the phone with Dr. Whale? Originally, he'd told me that there was no problem with bringing flowers into Rumple's room, that even though they weren't normally permitted in isolation, since Rumple's currently the only patient in the ward and flowers aren't normally hazardous to TB patients, it would be fine. However…"

"However?"

Regina sighed. "Whale thinks that in Rumple's case, it could be a problem. It ties in with the issues raised by his immortality." She frowned. "All right. Tuberculosis normally has a fairly long incubation period. Years, in fact. And then, it generally takes quite some time for an active case to advance as far as Rumple's has. That's what was bothering Whale: if Rumple was in the past for almost three years—some portion of which would have been spent back in the Enchanted Forest, where his magic would have kept him in good health—there just shouldn't have been enough elapsed time for Rumple to be in the condition he is now." She paused for a moment. "Unless he'd already contracted it before he ever became the Dark One."

"Excuse me?"

"If Rumple was already suffering from latent TB," Regina said, warming to her topic, "his becoming the Dark One would have stopped the condition from advancing. But, much like his limp, his magic wouldn't cure the condition; it would only mask it. And, when the Dark Curse brought everyone here, if you'll recall, time was frozen until your arrival, so even without magic, his situation would have been static. And, of course, when you broke that curse, virtually the first thing Rumple did was bring magic here, so that magic would have protected him again."

"But he was still limping until Neverland," Emma reminded her.

"That wasn't an illness. Immortality doesn't mean a person can't be injured. Or permanently disabled. It doesn't even mean that that one can't be killed, only that they won't die of natural causes. Like tuberculosis, for example," Regina added. "From what I've observed, healing spells are meant to be temporary, allowing one to function normally until the injury in question heals by itself. Had Rumple become the Dark One before shattering his ankle, his magic might have been able to set the break so it healed properly, and then he wouldn't have that limp. But since it was an old injury, his power could only hide it, not fix it."

"Shattering?" Emma winced, just thinking about that.

Regina sighed. "Read Henry's book. At any rate, Whale believes that while Rumple might have been carrying the disease for some time, until he crossed into Edwardian England, his magic was able to compensate." Her expression grew troubled. "In fact, Whale suggested it might have compensated a bit too well."

"Sorry?"

"Rumple got used to leaning on it. Think of health like a muscle; with magic doing the 'heavy lifting' of protecting him from illness, Rumple's own muscles… atrophied from inactivity. Then when he entered a land without magic—a land without magic in which time wasn't frozen—his normal defenses, everything he might have had going for him that would have helped him fight off disease, after so many years of disuse, all of that just… couldn't kick in."

"Hang on," Emma interrupted her. "Are you saying Gold's immune-compromised?"

"Whale is saying it," Regina confirmed. "At least, insofar as I understood him. It's not precisely what's going on, but it's similar enough that he thinks it wise to apply similar safety precautions. Which would normally mean no plants in Rumple's proximity, live, cut, or dried. This," she gestured to the sphere in Emma's hands, "is how we circumvent that rule. The plants can't harm him if they're safely sealed up. And, once the antibiotics have the chance to work and Rumple's on the mend, we can unseal the bowl and he can get the full effect."

Emma nodded, her eyes wide. "Wow. Yeah, okay. I get it. I didn't realize…"

"I don't think any of us did," Regina replied. "But now that we do, if Rumple's to have his best chance, we need to abide by the necessary protocols. Those masks and suits we have to wear in the isolation ward aren't just to keep us from contracting TB; they're to keep him from picking up some bug from us."

Emma nodded again. "Understood."

Jerked out of a near-doze, it took Rumple a moment to recognize who it was who had awakened him. It wasn't entirely his fault; the only illumination in the hut came from the moonlight filtering through the lone window and the glow of the embers on the hearth. And the middle-aged man who was practically quivering with wild-eyed fury was a far cry from the servile beggar whom he had first encountered on this night over two centuries ago—and farther still from the sarcastic, golden-skinned cypher he would meet three days later.

Then memory crashed in on him. "Zoso!" he gasped, even as he reminded himself that there was no cause for fear. Zoso wasn't the only one with power here.

"What did you think you were playing at?" Zoso snapped, seizing Rumple by the front of his shirt and hauling him upright. "Do you know how hard it was to set up the encounter in the first place? Why in all the realms did you send him off in the other direction; you almost destroyed everything! And of all the magic you could have taught him, why did you restrict yourself to transmutation instead of a few defensive spells? Or better yet offensive?"

"What?" He must still be in a bit of a daze; that or reeling from the combined weight of accusation and revelation. He'd known from the night that he'd become the Dark One that Zoso had played him. Preying on his desperation, his terror, his despair, his helplessness, until Rumple had seen murder as the only road to his salvation—a road he'd chosen not to travel more than a decade earlier. That refusal had cost him any hope of reconciliation with Milah, though he hadn't known it then. But the threat of losing his son combined with the promise of power that Zoso had dangled before him… That combination of stick and carrot had been too much to resist. Rumple had always assumed that his original meeting with Zoso had been a chance encounter of which the then-Dark One had taken full advantage. But from what Zoso was saying…

"Are you trying to tell me that you led Hordor to me? To him!" he amended.

"'To you' is just as accurate," Zoso retorted dryly, releasing his grip on Rumple's shirt and letting him fall back to the straw mattress. "And of course I did. When the Duke doesn't have me overseeing conscription efforts, he's ordered me to patrol the region to apprehend those who would flee the draft." He shrugged. "Since I've been seeking a desperate soul for quite some time now, those orders don't displease me much. But you, you… I don't even know what you're playing at, but unless you want to live out the rest of your days as enslaved as I am, you'll turn this around now!"

"What are you talking about?" Rumple demanded, honestly confused.

Zoso rolled his eyes. "Why did you teach him to spin gold?" he demanded.

Rumple took a breath. "I suppose you know who I am."

"Darkness calls to its own," Zoso reminded him. "Yours has been calling me for weeks. And don't think I haven't heard my own voice in that call, along with that of my—our—predecessors. You're going to be me. And him. And something tells me that time travel isn't as theoretical as is commonly thought in this place and time." He raised an eyebrow. "Getting rid of the dagger was a good idea; just not quite good enough. Now answer my question."

Rumple nodded. He took a moment to compose himself. Then he lifted his hand and summoned a force that slammed Zoso into the wall of the hut with enough force to send the tin plates on the shelf above crashing to the floor like clattering cymbals. "As you pointed out, dearie," he said softly, getting up and advancing toward the fallen Dark One, "I have power too, here. All of yours… and all of mine. So be careful who you manhandle. You've more reason to keep me alive than I do you. And if I were to kill you now," he added, "I wonder what the effect might be. Would I keep my current strength? Would yours be…" he chuckled, "added to mine?"

"Or would you erase yourself from existence by taking my power now before you could as a young man?" Zoso finished, still slightly out of breath, though there was no fear in his voice; just wry curiosity. "I've nothing to lose if you try it. If you know who I am, then you know what I want. One way or another, by the hand of the man you were or by the hand of the man you are, I'll get it. But is that what you want, too?" He smirked. "Somehow, I don't think you're quite desperate enough. You will be in time—unless someone gets their hands on the blade and stabs you with it first—but you aren't yet."

He was right, curse him. Rumple glowered for a moment.

"Why did you teach him?" Zoso asked again.

Rumple sighed. He couldn't see as concealing his reasons mattered now. "In the past as it happened before my intervention," he said, "Hordor forced me to kiss his boots in front of my boy." He'd 'only' kissed them and been kicked for his trouble; the knight commander had been satisfied with that level of degradation. But speaking of it now, Rumple felt as though he were actually tasting mud-encrusted leather, smelling its odor, feeling the heat of the soldiers' torches on his face—unless it had been shame and not fire that had made his face burn… "He claimed it was because I had neither money, nor power, nor influence. Only fealty. I… thought that if I'd had any of the other qualifications, perhaps my younger self would be spared the humiliation."

Zoso shook his head. "So you saved him a few seconds of shame and sentenced him to a lifetime of slavery."

Rumple's eyes widened. "What?"

Zoso leaped into the air with surprising agility, turned two somersaults and landed a scant few inches in front of Rumple. "What?" he repeated mockingly. Then, without warning, he slapped Rumple across the face. "Did you not think that Hordor might question where a peasant spinner would obtain such a treasure? Nor what he'd do when he learned he'd just got his hands on the goose that spun the golden thread? The soldiers took them both!"

Rumple barely registered the physical blow. "Both?" he echoed, staggering a step backwards.

"Yes, and while it might give your boy a reprieve, sooner or later, Hordor will recall that not only is it treason to avoid service, but treason to seek to prevent one from performing said service. Particularly military service in wartime! He'll send your son to the front and keep your other self spinning gold in his service, all the while letting him believe that his drudgery keeps the lad safe!"

Rumple knew that his face had to be nearly the color of chalk right now. He didn't think Zoso was lying; Hordor would almost certainly do it. And as long as his younger self believed that he was buying Bae's safety with his servitude, he'd be trapped as surely as if the name on the duke's dagger was already his own instead of Zoso's. He would spend the rest of his days shut away with only straw, a spinning wheel, and a taskmaster to taunt him periodically.

Cold sweat beaded his forehead. He'd lived that and much too recently for comfort. He swallowed hard. "I have to get them away," he said. "B-but Hordor will chase after them unless I…" His breath caught. "I have to think."

Zoso smiled. "Fortunately, I've been doing a bit of that myself. And I think I might have a plan…"

The room to which they were taken was half the size of the hovel they'd left barely two hours earlier. Rumpelstiltskin guessed that it might normally be used as sleeping quarters for foot soldiers. There were six wooden frames that were the right size and height to serve as bedsteads. These now bore bales of straw, stacked two high, two wide, and four deep. There were additional bales lining the walls. A spinning wheel and stool, much like Rumple's own, graced the center of the room.

Hordor smiled. "Fetch a stool for the boy, too," he instructed one of his men. "Let him witness his father's prowess."

He laid a hand on Rumple's shoulder that might almost have been friendly. "You'll have this spun by noon," he said smiling, "or face the duke's mercy. As for mine, it will be to spare your son the horrors of watching his father hang for treason and trickery." Hordor removed his hand, draped his arm across Rumple's shoulders, and steered him gently but firmly toward the spinning wheel, holding him upright when his ankle buckled. "I'll make sure he's safe away from the execution green and bound for the army. I'll even try to ensure that he's assigned to a battalion with no other soldiers recruited from Pen Marmor so he'll have a chance to acquit himself before your reputation precedes him." The smile became a smirk. "Unless, of course, you can get it all spun."

Hordor clapped his hands together. "Time's wasting. And I suppose my continued presence here might make you nervous. Just so you'll not have that for an excuse, I'll leave the two of you alone to… say your goodbyes. But should you need anything, just open the door and ask one of the guards outside." He shrugged and gestured to the open stone window. "Or one of the guards patrolling the yard below. As the duke's man, I take the protection of this castle's guests very seriously."

Rumple nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Instead, he seated himself on the stool. There was another bale at his feet and he nervously plucked a piece of straw from it.

"Good man," Hordor said. "We'll leave you to it." At a jerk of his head, the guards followed him out. The heavy door swung shut and both of the occupants remaining heard a heavy bolt slide into place. It was followed almost at once by a burst of laughter.

Bae looked at his father wide-eyed. "What are we going to do?"

Rumple swallowed hard. "Well," he said, as he fed the straw into the hole of the wheel's orifice and set his foot to the treadle, "I'm going to spin."

"Much good that'll do," Bae said bitterly. "Straw into gol…" his voice trailed off and, disbelievingly, he picked up the piece that had just fallen from the bobbin, too stiff and inflexible to wind about it as yarn would have. "Papa!" he exclaimed. "It… it's…!"

Rumple nodded. "I know, son. But there's so much to spin, I don't know if…" He took a breath. "I must. If it'll keep you safe, I must spin it all. Y-you rest, Bae. And bring me a fresh bale when this one's nearly finished. I'll work." If he'd been given bales of combed and carded fleece instead of bales of straw, it would have been a hard task to get it all spun in a few hours. He hadn't the faintest idea how fast he'd be able to spin the straw. But somehow, he would.

Or his failure would kill them both.

Chapter 17: Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen

The sentry saw the lone man approaching on foot when he was still nearly a quarter mile from the castle gate. He kept to the main road, a lantern carried aloft to light his path, though it was fast becoming unnecessary as dawn yielded to sunrise. The man was cloaked, but the fabric billowed free behind him, cape-like in the breeze, and the sentry's spyglass found no weapon in the traveler's belt. To the sentry's eye, he walked like many a laborer or merchant, and not with a warrior's grace. All the same, the sentry alerted the guardsman on duty and, moments later, heard the cry from the barbican's window, "Hold! Who goes there?"

The answer came almost at once. "Please, good sir, I ask an audience with his grace's chamberlain. The knight commander has taken my nephew and his son!"

"Your name?"

"I'm called Gilitrutt. I'm a merchant, resident of the Western Moorlands, but enjoying my nephew's hospitality."

Overhearing the conversation, the sentry relaxed. The merchant's tone was anguished, not angry and he seemed respectful enough. Still something told him that this was a man accustomed to getting his own way, who might be dangerous if thwarted.

"These gates will be barred until the third hour," the guardsman called down. "But I shall inform the chamberlain of your arrival once he awakens. You'll have passed a monastery a half-mile back. If you seek a place to pass the time and a light repast, they will provide it."

The answer that came back was no less respectful than the one that had preceded it, but no less determined, either. "If it pleases you, sir guardsman, I'll await his convenience here."

Rumple and Zoso hadn't walked all the way from Pen Marmor. Teleporting was far more convenient when time was of the essence. They arrived in the woods by the side of the road, out of sight of any unexpected traveler, and far enough back from the castle that the guards wouldn't see them emerge from the trees.

Leaving Rumple to continue alone, Zoso teleported once more, this time landing within the palace, and the bedroom of the duke's chamberlain. Unsurprisingly, the man was asleep at this hour. Zoso regarded him for a moment. Then he lifted the water pitcher from the nightstand by the bed and dashed its contents over the bed's occupant.

The chamberlain awoke with a start and a sputter, but before he could say anything, Zoso flung a towel at him.

"That favor you owe me," he said tersely, "I'm calling it in now. Dry off, get dressed and accompany me to the gate. There'll be a man arriving shortly, seeking an audience with you and you'll grant it."

The chamberlain was already mopping his face, but now he looked at the Dark One nervously. "Why do you want me to see him? Dark One!" he amended, lowering his eyes in fear. "If you mean to harm the duke—"

"I wouldn't need to bring in an outsider for that," Zoso laughed. "Not when the duke trusts you so."

"I wouldn't—" The chamberlain protested, a note of anger creeping into his voice as his eyes jerked upwards once more.

Zoso smirked. "Oh, I think you would," he said menacingly. "After all, you do owe me a favor and a noble's word must be honored. Isn't that so?"

The chamberlain swallowed hard.

"But I'm not ordering you to harm the duke," Zoso continued, drawing another step closer. "I'm not demanding the contents of the treasury, or your daughter's hand in marriage." His smirk grew broader as he took in the chamberlain's reaction to the last bit. "I'm simply telling you to instruct the guard to raise the portcullis and allow my good friend to enter. Ask him his business, and then? Send him away happy with what he's asking. On your authority."

"Which will be?"

"Hordor arrested a man and a boy not yet of conscription age on the road some hours ago. They're currently being held in the east barbican tower. My friend will ask you for the boy's release. In fact," Zoso frowned and his eyes narrowed slightly, "he may ask freedom for both, but if he does, you're to release the boy alone. The man will remain behind as surety that the boy doesn't flee before the recruiters take him; he is very nearly of age. But you'll entrust him to my good friend's care," he stated in a tone that made it clear that the subject was not open for debate.

The chamberlain swallowed again. "Of course, Dark One," he mumbled.

"Oh, don't look so dejected," Zoso chuckled. "I know full well the toll of pain and stress that an unpaid debt exacts on the mind. Once your duty's discharged, you'll sleep so much better." His voice hardened. "Hurry and dress. The man will arrive directly."

It was barely a quarter hour before the gate lifted and the guards bade him enter. Rumple found himself ushered into the castle proper and then to a well-appointed room with a roaring fire in the grate. The chamberlain was a portly, nervous middle-aged man in a green velvet robe who harrumphed a great deal but struck Rumple as more self-important than tyrannical.

"I thank you for seeing me, my lord," Rumple said, after the chamberlain bade him be seated. He was playing the role of the wealthy merchant to the hilt, showing deference but not obsequiousness. And he wasn't giggling either. "I realize that the hour's late."

"Or early," the chamberlain replied. He tugged at his collar a bit. "You're fortunate sleep eluded me this night. How might I be of service?"

Rumple lowered his eyes. "My nephew, my lord," he said. "He has a son, turning fourteen in two day's time."

"He'll be to the army then," the chamberlain nodded. "Exemptions are hard to come by in these days; we need every soldier we can conscript."

Rumple forced himself to nod back. Now wasn't the time to protest. And killing the man wouldn't change the policy. Nor was it likely to help his younger self or Bae in the long-term. Neither was immortal and magical shields worked best when the person or thing they protected was stationary. Once on the move, an arrow might well find its mark and he was the only one who wouldn't be directly vulnerable to such an attack. "I know that, my lord," he said. "I'm not here to plead for an exemption. Only that the lad be permitted to return to his village with me until that time. Let him bid farewell to his friends, visit his favorite places, gather what small keepsakes he possesses. You mean to take him on his fourteenth birthday; at least let him go home until then."

The chamberlain mopped at his brow with a lace-edged handkerchief. "That sounds… reasonable," he said with a heartiness that belied his body language. "Yes, I see no reason why I shouldn't grant that request." He rose to his feet and gestured to Rumple to follow. "Come."

Rumple obeyed. And he wasn't overly surprised to find Zoso waiting in the corridor when the chamberlain pulled open the door. Nor did the noble voice any protest when the newcomer fell into step alongside them.

Rumpelstiltskin started on a fresh bale of straw—his third. He had no idea how much time had elapsed; the sun was coming through the window now, but he couldn't tell its height from where he was sitting and he couldn't waste a second going to check. He knew only that he was spinning as fast as he could.

And then he heard voices outside and the bolt drawing back and he kept working feverishly, hoping against hope that Hordor would be happy enough with the gold that had already been spun and forget the part about how it was all supposed to be finished by noon.

Only it wasn't Hordor at all. It was a man he'd never seen before—noble by his dress and bearing—together with his future self and the beggar from the night before.

"…Lord Chamberlain," the guard was saying as the three stepped inside. "The knight commander gave orders that—"

"And now I'm giving you orders as well," the noble said. "Wait outside." His eyes widened as he took in the spinning wheel and its gleaming output.

Rumple lowered his eyes respectfully, murmured a nervous 'My lord' and started to reach for another bit of straw. Then, he let his hand fall and slid trembling from the stool to his knees.

The chamberlain shook his head. "Carry on," he said, sounding nonplussed. "I don't mean to keep you from your work. I've just come for the boy."

Rumple had already begun to rise obediently, but now he flung himself to the stone floor anew. "P-please, my lord, he's not yet fourteen—not for two more days! Please, I was promised if I spun this, they wouldn't take him early and I'm doing my best, please my lord, you see that I am! I beg you…!"

A half-step behind the chamberlain, Rumple watched his younger self groveling at the noble's feet and cringed inwardly. He hated watching this as much as he knew his younger self hated doing it, but he knew that he'd have done exactly the same thing to save Bae. He had done pretty near exactly the same thing the first time around. But it was still a painful thing to watch and he was about to interrupt the scene, when the chamberlain spoke again.

"Really, that's not necessary," he said, taking a hasty step back. "No, I'm releasing the lad to his uncle's custody; there's no reason for him to be confined here."

"Papa?" Bae spoke up nervously. "Uncle Gilitrutt?" Then he nervously lowered his eyes to the floor. "M-my lord?"

Zoso inclined his head toward the chamberlain. "I think your presence makes them uncomfortable. Perhaps, my lord chamberlain, the two of us ought to withdraw?" And while his suggestion was phrased as an interrogative, neither spinner nor Dark One missed the note of command in it. Nor the way the chamberlain tugged nervously at his collar and allowed himself to be led away.

No sooner did the door shut behind them when the younger Rumple turned furious eyes on his future self. "I was right all along," he said bitterly. "You do mean to take him from me."

The elder winced. He really should have expected this reaction. But time was of the essence. This had to be finished before Hordor came to check on his prisoners. "Shut up," he snapped. "Here." He pulled off his cloak and started to unfasten the belt of his tunic. "Get out of your clothes and put these on. And hand me those rags while you're at it."

"What?"

The elder Rumple sighed. "I'm not taking him out of here. You are. I—" He spun faster than his younger self, was what he'd been about to say, but he noticed that Bae was looking from each of them to the other. Bae, whom he loved more than the spinners who'd raised him, more than the power that he would soon acquire, more than life itself. Bae, from whom he had traded a world and turned countless lives asunder. Bae… who couldn't always hold his tongue when it was most prudent and, perhaps, shouldn't be aware that the man he thought was his uncle could also spin straw to gold. "I look enough like you that the guards won't think anything amiss if the two of you walk out of here together."

His younger self frowned, "If the two of us could walk out of here," he repeated, his eyes flickering meaningfully to his wooden staff that leaned against one of the bed frames.

The elder Rumple smiled. "That problem did cross my mind. Fortunately, in my travels, I acquired a temporary solution." He held up a vial. "If you'll allow me," he said, "I can buy you a full eight hours without a need for that thing," he gestured to the staff, distaste plain in his voice and on his face.

Wide-eyed, his younger self nodded, and Rumple stepped forward to apply the potion—well water, really, but again, he'd rather not reveal that the healing was coming out of his magic directly. As he poured the water over his younger self's ankle, he pressed his fingers to the joint. A faint wisp of purple smoke puffed and then dissipated, and it was impossible to visually detect whether it had come from the potion or Rumple's hand.

His younger self's eyes widened. Then, almost giddily, he lifted his leg slightly from the ground and flexed the ankle. "It's… I-I'd forgotten what it felt like. For it not to hurt," he exclaimed. A laugh escaped him as he rotated the joint, turning circles in the air with his foot.

Rumple smiled. "You'll have plenty of time to enjoy your new mobility, but for now… Your jerkin and leggings?"

His younger self nodded quickly and began unfastening his own garments.

The elder Rumple followed suit, checking surreptitiously that the scrap of vellum on which he'd penned a hasty note was still in the pocket in his jerkin. It wasn't much of a warning, but then, he still wasn't sure of the wisdom in giving one in the first place.

When the door was unbolted again, both younger Rumple and Bae rose hesitantly. "The chamberlain's been called away on business," Zoso said smoothly. "But I'll see you both out."

"But if the knight commander sees us…" Bae ventured.

Zoso smiled. "That's the business he's been called away on," he replied wryly. "Worry not. The chamberlain outranks the knight commander in such matters and right now? Hordor is being reminded of that fact. So. Come along. The lord chamberlain has provided horses for the journey back."

"I-I can't ride," Bae admitted. "And Papa…?"

His younger self smiled. "I can," he said softly. "At least, well enough to remain in the saddle and keep you there, too." He glanced at Zoso. "I think one horse will suffice for the two of us."

Zoso swallowed nervously. "I-I was hoping I could accompany you back," he admitted.

"What?"

"After you gave me that coin," Zoso said, lowering his eyes, "I-I saw what befell you. My lord chamberlain… Once, before hard times befell me, I did him a favor and he gave me leave to call on him if ever he could repay me. I admit I was tempted a time or two. When I was turned off my land for defaulting on my taxes. When my wife took sick and there was no money for a healer… Maybe I should have gone to him on any number of occasions, but I kept thinking that there might come a time when I'd need his help more. But you helped me and I realized that I could use the favor owed me to pay the one I owed you." He smiled warmly for a moment, but then sobered once more.

"However, I'm still penniless, homeless, and friendless. And should Hordor learn of my involvement in your cause, there'll be nobody to speak up for me; the chamberlain and I are quits, now. But if you'll let me ride with you, I can help protect you from any dangers you might encounter on the road; three riders may pass unmolested where two might be challenged by bandits or worse." He flung one arm around the younger Rumple, the other around Bae, and began steering them to the door. "You let me accompany you, feed me what you can spare, and… I'll find ways to be your benefactor…"

The younger Rumple glanced quickly over his shoulder, but the man he was fated to become only shrugged, smiled, and sat down at the wheel.

"Uncle—?" Bae started to say.

"Quickly now," Zoso urged. And then they were gone.

The elder Rumple frowned as they left. He could get this spun in time, of course. Even if he had to cheat to do it. Funny. He didn't usually think of magic as 'cheating', but he was a craftsman at heart and centuries of Darkness hadn't changed that. Magic might transform the straw into gold, but the actual spinning of it was all his; the work of his hands. Even his hands wouldn't be able to get all of this spun in a few hours, though. And it wasn't as though he'd never taken a shortcut before. Cinderella would never have found her Thomas had his pride dictated that he spin and weave the gown she wore to that ball.

Even so, he spun another bale and a half before he finally pushed himself away from the wheel and waved his hand at the remaining straw. An instant later, piles of gold gleamed where it had sat.

And that was when Rumple noticed a small strip of rolled vellum lying on the floor.

With mounting dismay, he stooped down to pick it up and read the note, penned in his own hand, that he'd left in his jerkin pocket for his younger self to find: Your companion's name is Zoso.

No, it wasn't much of a warning, but Rumple had hoped that it might give his younger self pause. At least, it might have made him ask a few pointed questions when he got his hands on the dagger and summoned the Dark One. The elder Rumple wasn't sure what his younger self would do once he got the answers. He'd always wanted power, even back then. Especially back then. Maybe Destiny was Destiny and events would unfold as they had the first time. But there would be a difference. Armed with this new knowledge, Rumple knew that his younger self's suspicions would be aroused when he read the name on the blade. He'd demand answers and Zoso would be compelled by the dagger to provide them. His younger self would have a better understanding of what it would mean to 'kill the Dark One and take his power'. And if, armed with this new knowledge, his younger self chose again what his elder self had at this juncture, well, the elder Rumple was hard-put to say that his life would have been better if he hadn't.

Until his Darkness cost him Bae.

Rumple winced. At least, this time around, he would be able talk his younger self out of some of those early… excesses. He could make him realize what—who—he stood to lose. If he could just get his younger self through those first few months, then perhaps he'd settle into his power and Bae wouldn't grow to fear what he might do.

Rumple remembered those first hours. He'd been terrified, anguished, hurting from the betrayal and mockery of a man he'd thought a friend who'd manipulated him from the start. And the Darkness, when it suffused him, had played on every fear, every doubt, every feeling of helplessness and impotence he hadn't been able to express. Until then. Until he'd given in to his newfound power and let it sweep him away in its maelstrom.

But if his younger self took on that mantle from a position of strength, rather than weakness, then perhaps…

But Zoso had intercepted his warning. How had he known—?

"Darkness calls to its own," Zoso had told him. Rumple realized that his own Darkness might have played a role in this. After all, it had an interest in who its next host was to be.

It was you, he thought furiously. Wasn't it?

Maybe he only imagined the mocking laughter in his head. And then he heard a sound he knew he wasn't imagining: that of heavy boots tramping on a stone floor. Hordor had returned to check up on his captive.

Rumple sat back down on the stool and forced his inner turmoil behind a façade of servility. There would be time to deal with Zoso after the knight commander's visit.

The old man helped Bae onto the horse with an encouraging smile that did nothing to assuage the boy's worry. "Uncle Gilitrutt… Are you certain he'll be all right?" Bae asked.

"Of course, of course," the man replied, springing into the saddle behind Bae with a sprightliness that belied his aged appearance. Rumple was already mounted, though he looked uneasy as well.

"It doesn't sit right with me either, abandoning him like that," he said nervously.

"Fear not," the old man replied. "He'll come to no harm here, I promise you. The important thing is to get the two of you both home safely." He kicked the horse into a canter and, after a moment, Rumple did the same. The guard at the gate let them pass unchallenged and both former captives heaved sighs of relief.

"What did I tell you?" the old man smiled. "You're out of danger now."

"For another two days," Rumple said bleakly. "But then…" He shook his head and mumbled under his breath, "There'll be no fleeing now."

He was certain that he hadn't been heard over the wind and the hoof-beats of the two horses. And yet, all at once, Bae and the old man were riding beside him and he heard the old man's soft reassurance, as clear as brook water on a calm day. "You'll need to find another way. You'll have to choose a different path."

"Choice?" Rumple repeated bitterly. "What choice do I have?"

"Everyone has a choice," the old man assured him. "Everyone."

Emma was carefully taking the dish garden—a mix of live plants and magically-preserved cuttings—out of the front passenger seat of her beetle, when Belle emerged from the hospital's main entrance looking worried.

"Emma?" she asked, approaching the car.

Emma felt her heart sink. "What's happened?" she asked. "Is he…?"

Belle took a breath. "I don't know," she said, and Emma intuited that she was making an effort to keep her voice calm. "The… they said that Dr. Whale won't be in until later. I was hoping that maybe he'd be at Granny's. Or I'll check his house if I have to. Nobody else seems to have any answers about this. They tried, but I could tell they were guessing, so…"

"Belle?"

Her face seemed to crumple. "I just want someone to tell me if it's normal for the medications or-or the consumption to make him forgetful!" She took another breath.

"Forgetful, how?" Emma asked. "You mean, like losing track of the day, or whether he's had breakfast or…?"

Belle shook her head. "No, not like that. That wouldn't worry me; I spent enough time shut up in one room to know how days and routines can blend into each other. It's easy to lose track. No." She pressed her lips together and pushed them in and out for a moment. When she spoke again, it was with the same brittle calmness with which she'd started.

"Rumple asked me about the elixir, the recipe I'd found in Tavronius's works. The one that…"

"That keeps his magic from interfering with the treatment," Emma nodded. "I remember."

Belle nodded. "He started asking me all kinds of questions about what was in it, how it was brewed… He was more alert than I'd seen him since," her voice caught for a moment, but she rallied and went on steadily, "well, since before he died. And then, he said that, while normally, he'd take issue with rushing to implement some treatment than an obscure hedge-witch had concocted, he couldn't fault the results."

Emma frowned. "And…?"

For a moment, Belle blinked. Then she smiled. "I'm sorry. I keep forgetting that you didn't grow up in our land. Tavronius was… Well, before he came along, medicine in the Enchanted Forest was either magical healing or… or… bandages and hot soup. You might have a skilled midwife in one village who knew something of herbs to relieve pain, or some apothecary who recalled a recipe for a poultice that had been effective in the last sweating sickness, but there was no real attempt to compile that knowledge or determine which ingredients were effective or why. And while healing was taught in the universities, it was all very academic, very theoretical." At Emma's puzzled frown, she continued, "Students wrote papers speculating on the causes of illness, why some treatments worked some of the time and others didn't, and so on. But there was never any real effort to apply their studies in any practical way. If someone became ill, well, the wealthy paid for magic," Belle sounded almost apologetic here, "and the poor did what they could with what they knew."

Emma nodded, even though, going by the look on her face, she was more than a little put out by what Belle was telling her. "So Tavronius changed all that?"

"He started out compiling all of those bits and pieces of healing lore and went from there; taking what was known and… extrapolating from there." Belle smiled as she warmed to the topic. "He did more in about half a century than the rest of the realm had managed in half a millennium," Belle said. "Not knowing who he was would be like not knowing," she frowned for a moment, "Pasteur," she said. "O-or Freud." She smiled again. "I've always been a bit proud that he was one of my own countrymen, but really, it's a name that should have been familiar to anyone from our realm. For Rumple not to know…" She took a breath and let it out. "I guess I just need some reassurance that it, this… forgetfulness, I mean, is normal. Or, at least, temporary."

Emma rested a hand on her shoulder. "I wish I could give you that," she said. "But yeah, I think this one's for Whale. I was going to look in on him, though, after I spend a little time with Mom and my new brother. I'll let you know how it goes."

Belle nodded. "I'd appreciate it. Thank you." She sighed. "I guess I'll go to the library. Maybe I can find my answers there. But if you see Dr. Whale on the floor, could you please ask him to call me? Or could you call me and let me know he's arrived?"

"Will do."

Hordor was in a bad temper this morning, but there was no mistaking the gleam in his eyes when he took in the scene before him. "So," he said, examining one of the golden straws, "it seems you were telling the truth." His voice hardened. "Which begs the question of why you didn't bring your skills to His Grace's attention until now. The district has been beggared by the Ogres War; this talent of yours could have gone a long way toward alleviating some of those costs."

Rumple lowered his eyes, holding his tongue and temper with difficulty. Hordor continued speaking, clearly not expecting a reply.

"I'll have food sent up and you should get some rest. Perhaps it's just as well that your son's gone; you'll have less to distract you tonight, so I'll see to it you have more straw to occupy you." He smiled coldly. "Continue to finance the war effort, and there may be no need to send your boy to the front quite yet."

Rumple forced himself to nod, stammer some words of gratitude, and pretend he hadn't noticed that Hordor was promising nothing. May be no need… not quite yet… The knight commander wasn't looking to strike a deal; he was looking to squeeze whatever he could out of his captive.

There was a smile in Hordor's voice when he added, "And of course, His Grace's chamberlain will expect some payment for the favor he did you, so you might want to spin a bit extra tonight. Otherwise, while I could be persuaded to stall your boy's conscription, well, nobles tend to be far quicker to respond. Whether to a favor… or a slight." He chuckled. "I think you'll find that if you try to enlist aid from other corners, they'll expect to be similarly compensated, so take that into consideration," his voice hardened, "before you, or anyone connected with you should try going over my head again. Your food will arrive shortly."

Had Hordor lingered even a moment longer, Rumple might well have snapped his neck now—especially since it was currently uncertain whether his younger self would do the honors in two days' time. No sooner had the knight commander left than Rumple leaped to his feet. He needed to unleash his temper on something, and really, he couldn't see the harm in routing the ogres two days ahead of schedule. If there was no war to fight, then Bae wouldn't have to worry about being drafted. And as for becoming the Dark One, well, if such was his destiny, then it was probably going to happen anyway. And if it didn't… If it wasn't… If he made things worse…

He didn't know, but if he did nothing, he had a pretty good idea of what would happen. Belle, Henry, Emma, Regina… He closed his eyes. When he'd first arrived in this time, he'd had every intention of keeping that timeline intact. But as he'd told Regina some time back, one couldn't always have everything. And if he had to choose between a lifetime with Bae and several lifetimes without him…

Forgive me, Belle, he thought sadly, if my actions in the past cost us our future.

His eyes were burning as he thought of the battlefield, and with a cry of anguish, he willed himself there…

The anguish morphed to frustration when he found himself flung violently back into the room he'd just left. Frowning, he tried the spell again, paying more attention now. And because he was paying attention, he recognized the protection spell around the castle. More, he recognized the telltale signs of a Dark magic as familiar to him as his own. Because it was his own magic that had cast it—or at least, the magic of the Dark One. And while, with enough time and concentration, he might be able to dispel it, Rumple could see from the complexity that doing so would take him hours. And once the enchantment was broken, the individual who had set it in place would know it instantly. Zoso, he thought with an oath. Zoso was out there filling his younger self's ears with dreams of power while he was stuck here. Out of the way, unable to warn his younger self of Zoso's schemes, unable to protect Bae from the blow that was about to turn the boy's life irrevocably upside down.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice…

One way or another, Zoso's days were numbered. And should his younger self choose differently two nights hence, Rumple thought viciously that he'd stab the wily old beggar himself.

And to hell with the timeline.

Chapter 18: Chapter Eighteen

Notes:

A/N: Thanks to the Legends of America website for information on the healing properties of various herbs.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eighteen

The baby was sleeping in Mary Margaret's arms when Emma came into the room. Her mother smiled at her and held one finger to her lips. Emma nodded and drew closer.

"I don't think Henry was ever that small," she murmured. She wasn't sure, though. She had vivid recollections of seeing him, holding him, smiling and cooing at him… But she also had flashbacks of closing her eyes, turning her head away from the miracle that had just come out of her, and insisting to the attending doctor that she couldn't be a mother. She wished that the first memory was the real one, but she knew the truth now and it haunted her. Now that she'd not only gotten to know the child she'd given up for adoption, but that she'd also lived ten years of totally invented but totally amazing memories of what could have been, if she'd only been brave enough to choose differently.

"Well, he's not going to stay this way," Mary Margaret murmured back with a wistful smile. "I'm just enjoying it while I can. And your father is snapping photographs every hour so we'll have a video record of how fast he grows."

Emma grinned. "Where is Dad, anyway?"

"He went back to the farmhouse," her mother sighed, "to see if there's any sign of Zelena's return. Because Regina's convinced that if your magic's still gone—it is, right?" When Emma nodded, Snow continued, "that means she's probably still out there."

"He should have called me," Emma frowned. "If he were to run into her, I mean, shouldn't he have had backup?"

"He took Robin. And Leroy. Anyway, you weren't around and he knew you wanted an early start today. And without your…" She shook her head. "I'm sorry."

"No," Emma sighed. "Without my magic, Robin and Leroy probably are better choices in a fight if it comes to that." She shook her head.

"I didn't mean—"

"What?" Emma smiled. "It's true, isn't it? Without my magic, I'm a halfway decent shot and I can throw a few good punches, but I'm not a trained fighter and those guys are. Just because I'm the savior doesn't mean I can't sit a few fights out, right?"

"Of course not," Mary Margaret reassured her. Her gaze fell on the large paper shopping bag at her daughter's feet. "What's that?"

"Something Regina and I were working on for Gold," Emma smiled. "I'm going to take it into him after." She looked at the baby again. "I-I'm sorry; I probably should have brought something for him, too."

"You had a few other things on your mind."

"And," Emma said wryly, "it seems that a ten-minute YouTube lesson isn't enough to teach you how to knit. Or to teach me how to knit. Or…" She sighed. "I think I'm going to just buy him a few pairs of booties."

"Don't get the newborn size," Mary Margaret smiled. "Babies do grow fast and if they're a little big on him, they won't be for long…

The ride back to the village seemed to much quicker to Rumple. He wasn't entirely comfortable leaving his elder self behind, but the man had seemed so self-assured, so confident, so… so much that he wasn't. Or wasn't yet. Someway, somehow, it seemed that he was destined to become the man he'd always yearned to be. He just wished he knew how.

It wasn't long before the first houses of Pen Marmor appeared on the horizon. There would be few to notice their arrival; at this hour, every able-bodied individual would be in the fields and orchards, trying feverishly to harvest enough runner beans, onions, apples, and raspberries to pay the produce tithes and yet have enough to preserve for the winter months ahead. 'Able-bodied' generally excluded him, of course, and while Bae often participated, it was understood that he was studying his father's trade year by year. (In point of fact, while Bae had quickly mastered the business end of things—knowing how to tell superior wool from that of lesser quality, determining a fair asking price, knowing how to entice an undecided customer to part with a few extra copper—Rumple was forced to admit that his son's fingers were ill-suited to the work itself. He was far better at drawing—a talent he'd inherited from his mother, though not one likely to earn him a living unless he could somehow secure a wealthy patron, or at least a noble one.) With that understanding, while Bae's help was welcomed, it wasn't necessarily expected. In all likelihood, neither of them had yet been missed.

Rumple slowed his horse to a walk and, after a moment, the old man followed suit. There was no mistaking the relief on Bae's face. The beggar might have chosen two solid, dependable mounts for them, but Bae had never ridden before last night and even if the horse wasn't interested in throwing its riders, the boy was still hanging on for dear life.

"The horses," the old man said, "they're a loan from the chamberlain. I should return them. I'll be back," he added, taking the reins of the horse he'd been riding and reaching for Rumple's.

"Wa-wait," Rumple said quickly. "I gave you a coin last night, but you can't have spent it yet; you must be hungry." He reached into his pack and pulled out a loaf of bread. He broke it in half and handed one piece to the old man.

The beggar's eyes lit up. "Thank you!" he exclaimed. "Oh, if you knew how long it's been since I've had this much at one time… Thank you, thank you!"

Rumple tried to hide his discomfort with a smile, but he was sure his nervousness was showing. He couldn't recall the last time he'd been shown this much gratitude—and for half a loaf of coarse bread! It was somewhat unnerving, if the truth were known.

"There'll be no running now," he said heavily. "The duke's soldiers will be watching more closely now. And with my uncle at the castle…" His voice trailed off, even as he wondered whether his elder self might not be able to handle that situation, just as he seemed able to handle everything else.

"Never you mind that," the old man reassured him. "For now, I'll wager you're both exhausted. Why don't you get some sleep? And, when I return, we'll put our heads together and see if we can't come up with something."

Rumple couldn't imagine that there was any solution to the problem now, but perhaps the beggar was right and things would look better after some decent sleep. Heaven knew he wasn't about to start spinning now, after having spent the last several hours at the task. "Perhaps, you're right," he admitted.

"Of course I am," the old man smiled. "Why all you need is a bit of power..."

"Power?" Rumple snorted. "Why not say diamonds? I'm as likely to get the one as the other."

"Get a hold of yourself!" the old man snapped, his eyes glittering. "Listen. Think. Why would you imagine that anyone as powerful as the Dark One would work for a useless fool like the Duke of the Frontlands? It's because the Duke has him enthralled by a mystical dagger..."

As the old man continued, Rumple's and Bae's eyes widened. Then Rumple shook his head reluctantly. "It's a fine tale," he said heavily. "But that's all it is. I've only just escaped the Duke's palace; I'm hardly about to go breaking in." He made a scoffing sound. "As though I could, once the potion on my ankle wears off. No. No, I'll trust my uncle to find a way out of this."

The beggar sighed. "You're right, I'm sure. I mean, he hasn't steered you wrong yet, has he?" He smiled to see the faintest flicker of doubt cross Rumple's face and gave him a warm clap on the shoulder. "Rest now. I'll take the horses back for your."

So, saying he took a lead rope from one of his saddlebags and threaded it through the bridle of the horse Rumple had been riding. Then he got back on his own mount. "I'll take care of everything," he repeated, as he kicked his horse into a canter. The second horse followed suit almost at once. "You'll see!" the old man called, as he headed back down the road on which they'd come. "You'll see!"

It wasn't until he was more than a quarter mile away and well out of earshot that his friendly smile became a smirk. The elder Rumpelstiltskin had taken great pains to spare his younger self from a momentary indignity—clear proof that the slight still smarted after all this time and all that power. Zoso wouldn't have cared, except that if the younger Rumpelstiltskin was to be the instrument of his own freedom, then Zoso needed him bitter, desperate, angry, and despairing. He needed the spinner at his limit—or as close to it as possible. And, thanks to the elder Rumpelstiltskin, he now knew exactly how to get him there. He urged the horse to go faster, all the while thinking to himself, "You poor fool…"

Emma was more than a little relieved that Gold was sleeping when she stopped by to drop off the dish garden. She could never quite make up her mind whether she didn't understand him at all, or whether she understood him more than either of them was comfortable admitting.

On the one hand, she knew from Henry's book—and from a few conversations she hadn't meant to overhear on the return from Neverland—that his early years echoed her own in the broad strokes. True, the Enchanted Forest hadn't had a foster care system, as such, but he'd grown up without parents—a mother he'd never known and a father who'd abandoned him to strangers. And while, from what he'd told Neal, they'd raised him and cared for him, he'd still had to live with the same question that her mother had voiced so long ago, when Emma had first arrived in Storybrooke and was trying to understand the son she'd surrendered for adoption.

"He's like any adopted child. He wrestles with that most basic question they all inevitably face – why would anyone give me away?"

Emma winced. She'd grappled with the same question and she'd never even made it to the adoption part. Of course, she'd grown up knowing she was on her own. She'd learned to watch her own back, because she'd never had anyone she trusted enough to do it for her. And even when she'd finally been reunited with her family, it had taken a long time for her to believe that their love was real and that they were going to stand with her.

He's never had that at all, Emma thought, as she tiptoed past the bed and set the globe-encased garden down on one of the side tables.

On the other hand, as bitter and angry as Emma had been over the life she'd led, she'd never tried to force an unwed mother to give up her baby to a black market adoption agency. Or murdered her ex (though she'd had a few fantasies in juvie about what she'd do if her path and Neal's ever crossed again once she got out). Or tried to rig an election. Or…

And if she tried to reach out to him, he'd probably bite her head off, like he had on the trip back from New York when he'd been dying of dreamshade. Emma realized that she could understand that part, too. If your experience told you that allowing people to see your vulnerability got you hurt, you damned well didn't let them see it. If that meant refusing the help and support you needed because you couldn't risk admitting that you did…

She'd been there. She'd lived that. And if Gold didn't have that damned talent for intuiting the barb that would dig in the most cruelly, for knowing which retort would cut the deepest and which accusation sting the sharpest, it would be easier to tell herself that she could handle whatever he flung at her. She felt pretty confident that she could, but she wasn't sure she wanted to.

She took a few steps back, careful not to bang into the bed, and tilted her head, looking critically at the garden's placement. Then she went back to the table and moved it several inches to the right. She wanted him to see it first thing when he woke up. It was in the right position, but given the height of the table, she wasn't sure whether he'd spot it easily unless he cranked up the mattress so he was sitting up. Thoughtfully, she moved it a bit closer to the edge of the table. Then she wondered whether moving it back and closer to the wall would be best. Maybe if she could find a box or a book to mount it on. Or maybe, it would be better if she stood beside the head of the bed and crouched down so she could get a better idea of what he'd be able to see at his angle.

She turned around and, despite herself, she felt as though a cold wave had just washed over her.

Gold was awake and he was staring right at her.

Zoso didn't have any difficulty in locating Hordor. The knight commander was in the stables, tending to his mount, when the Dark One returned with the two borrowed horses. "No hard feelings, I hope?" he asked brightly.

Hordor looked at him and grunted.

"All's well that ends well, I say. The duchy has a new source of… uh… lucre; the boy gets a few more days at home; and you? Well, you'll be high in the duke's graces once you share your find. It'll go a long way toward paying for those mercenaries."

This time, Hordor kept his eyes on his horse as he brushed him. "What mercenaries?"

"Well, this Gilitrutt character certainly appears to have the chancellor's favor. Or, at least, his ear? I shouldn't wonder if he'll be asked to intervene by the parents of other youth in the district, now."

"It won't matter," the knight commander said, continuing with his brushing. "Even the boy he rode back with wasn't granted an exemption; just permission to return home until he's officially called up."

"All true," Zoso nodded, closing the stall door behind the second horse and conjuring up an apple. "After all, there can be no question about Gilitrutt's loyalty, now, correct?"

Hordor looked up for the first time. "What are you saying?"

Zoso held out the apple to the horse with a shrug. "Only that the decision to lower the draft age was not a popular one. Until now, though, the villagers have accepted their lot. The individual families may cry out, of course, but they're cries of anguish and futility, not of rebellion."

"Go on," Hordor said in a voice that was nearly too calm.

"Without leadership, they've no hope of altering their situation. And until now, they've had no leader."

"You think that this Gilitrutt might—"

Zoso shrugged. "I think nothing of the kind. He's a merchant, not a rabble-rouser. But as to what the rest of the district might think once word gets out, well… It wouldn't be the first time that a man got swept up in revolution's tide, riding a wave of his own popularity. And you know as well as I do how stories spread. And how many embellishments can creep in when they do. Before you know it, they'll be singing ballads about the heroic merchant who rescued a platoon of peasant soldiers from sure death while the Chamberlain and Duke looked on gob-stuck. And then, similar ideas are sure to sink into other heads… Hotter heads," he added meaningfully.

"We can't afford that," Hordor said, knitting his eyebrows. "We're already facing a threat from without; if the peasants rise up now, we might as well lie down and let the ogres trample us!" He reached for his helmet.

"What are you planning to do?"

"I'm going to ride to Pen Marmor and put a stop to things before they go any further!"

Zoso held up a lazy hand. "Cutting down a loyal citizen for fear of what he might do could play right into a mob's hands."

Hordor paused. "You're certain he's loyal?"

Zoso laughed. "My certainty carries no weight with that village. Nor any of the others in the district, sorry. But perhaps, my lord, if you were to arrange for Master Gilitrutt to demonstrate his fealty, in a manner so decisive that no one would dream of approaching him to spearhead a revolution…" He smiled. "Well I think that might be enough to maintain order, don't you?"

"Fealty," Hordor repeated, giving him a sharp look. He nodded slowly. "That might just do it." He strode quickly out of the stable and signaled to a passing soldier. "Assemble a squad of ten," he ordered. "We ride for Pen Marmor within the hour."

"I… uh…" Emma's throat was suddenly dry. "Hi," she managed. "I didn't mean to wake you. I just came by to give you this. Uh…" Awkwardly, she turned back to the globe, lifted it, and turned toward him once more, holding the gift out before her as though it were some sort of shield.

Rumple's eyebrows shot up. And then, one hand slid out from beneath the blanket and beckoned Emma closer.

Emma obeyed, doing her best to hide her nervousness. It wasn't because she was giving him the gift exactly, it was because she realized that now that he was awake, she couldn't just leave it in the room and walk away. No, this called for a conversation. And a conversation with an ill, vulnerable Gold was going to be like navigating a minefield. "Regina helped," she said, as she approached. "I mean, actually, she did most of it; told me which plants, decided how to arrange them. It was my idea though," she added, wondering whether she was babbling. Probably.

Gold, however, gave no indication that he'd heard her. His eyes were on the leaves and blooms inside the transparent sphere that glowed ever-so-faintly of magic.

He recognized them all, of course. And their uses. Hibiscus: an emollient for rough or dry skin and many other skin conditions. Also respiratory and gastro-intestinal complaints. Broom snakeweed: any number of uses from fever reduction to snakebite to… whooping cough and other respiratory disorders. Schisandra, also called magnolia vine: a tonic to lend strength after illness. Also improves the mood, protects the liver, treats… respiratory conditions. Honeysuckle: bee stings… respiratory conditions. Horehound: respiratory… Black cohosh: respiratory… Echinacea: respiratory. He looked up. "This is… quite a gift," he murmured. "But I think you'd best put it back where you'd placed it originally." It was heavy in his hands and while magic might protect it from shattering, if he were to drop it, then on the floor it would remain until someone saw fit to pick it up for him.

"You'll be able to see it from where you are?"

Rumple nodded and, after a moment, Emma took the sphere back from him and did as he'd instructed. Then she sat down. "Whale says you're going to make it," she said, aiming for concern and hoping he wouldn't construe it as pity. "How are you feeling, though?"

He forced himself to smile. "Dr. Whale informs me that I'm responding well to the treatment. Though if he hadn't bothered, I must confess I would have wondered." His eyes were locked on the sphere, still. "I'm sorry," he said. "When one receives a gift, it's only polite to give thanks for it. A-and I do… That is to say…" He hesitated. "I recognize the significance of the contents. And I do thank you both for them."

"I just," Emma hesitated. "I figured it might get a little dull in here and I didn't know how alert you were going to be or if you'd be up for any reading," she raised her eyes slightly ceiling-ward, "or what you'd want to read. Plus, Belle would probably handle that and…" She caught herself. "I'm sorry. You're welcome." She smiled behind her mask. "I thought maybe you could use something to look at in here that wasn't… sterile."

The smile on his own face broadened for an instant, but faded almost at once, as his eyes narrowed. "You know, Emma," he began, "one thing that always impressed me about you was that you—unlike nearly everyone else in this town—didn't fear me in the slightest. And yet," his voice hardened, "here you are, stammering, babbling, mumbling inanities… Now, what can be the matter, I wonder?" he asked slowly, noting her guilty twitch. "Do you want to be here? I know better than anyone that the terms of a deal bring a certain amount of coercion to the table, but they're scarcely the only thing that do." A bitter edge crept into his words as he went on. "Has someone been twisting your arm, Savior? Shaming you for your reluctance until you realized that the only way to quiet their incessant nagging was to put in an appearance here? Well. In that case, dearie, consider the obligation met."

"No!" Emma shot back. And then she felt her face seem to twist and crumple. "Nobody pushed me. It was my idea."

"And yet, you'd rather not be here," he stated, his voice harsh and accusing.

Emma sighed. "You know something? You're right." She shook her head. "Mostly. I'm forcing myself to be here, because…" she took another breath. "Because after Henry was born and I signed the papers, they kept me in the hospital for observation for a few days before shipping me back to juvie. And in all that time," her words tumbled out faster now, and she struggled to keep them from getting garbled, "the only people I saw were the ob-gyn and a few nurses who treated me like I was scum; I almost couldn't wait to get back to the facility. I didn't want to think about you maybe going through anything like that. I didn't know how to tell you without saying the wrong thing and getting my head bitten off, because I was afraid you'd think—" She caught herself. "You know what?" she sounded angry now, but Rumple intuited that her anger wasn't directed at him, not even when she looked him dead in the eyes and said, "Screw it." Her hand started to fly to her mouth, but then she stopped it partway, let it fall, and repeated, "Screw it. I don't know half of what Zelena did to you, but I saw the cage and even if that was all of it, it was bad enough. And then Neal and her using you against us and you were in the past and Regina said you lost him again and now you're sick and…" She squeezed her eyes shut and groped for where she'd last seen his right hand, gripping it tightly when she found it. "Screw it. If I'd gone through a fraction of that, I'd want to bite someone's head off, too, and since I'm the only other person in the room right now, just… go for it." She took another breath and nearly whispered, "Chomp away."

She waited, but there was no response. A moment dragged by and then another and Emma began to feel a bit foolish. And then, she felt a warm pressure on the back of her gloved hand and her eyes flew open. Rumple's free left hand now covered hers, sandwiching it between both of his. There was something softer in his eyes, as he said faintly, wonderingly, "So. You don't despise me after all."

And now, her face really did fall, as she shook her head. "Gold, you have to believe me. He sounded so sure that he convinced me, too. I mean, you've pulled off so many crazy-impossible things, I thought he knew what he was talking about—"

"Emma?" he asked with some confusion.

"I never would have separated you and Neal if I'd known it would kill him!"

It felt wrong to be sitting at the wheel and spinning in such finery, but Rumple had no other clothing. His elder self was currently wearing the only garments he possessed and he was still too keyed up from the events of last night and this morning to sleep.

Not so, Bae; the boy had fallen asleep on his pallet (he'd gone automatically to the straw tick he'd been using since 'Uncle Gilitrutt' had come to them, though he really could have used his own bed now) almost at once.

But Rumple sat feeding woolen rovers to the wheel, and as it spun, so did the thoughts in his head. The old beggar had regaled him with a fine tale indeed. Despite himself, Rumple couldn't help imagining himself holding such a blade, even though he didn't much like the idea of enslaving anyone. When he'd expressed his reservations to the beggar, not missing the relief on his boy's face when he did so, the old man had given him another option, but it was one Rumple liked only slightly better.

Years ago, he'd been unable to slay the healer Fendrake, not even to save Bae's life. Now, he faced that choice anew: if he were to slay the Dark One, then all of that vast power would be his to command. He wouldn't just be able to save Bae, but all the children. He could be the hero he'd wanted to be when he'd rode to the front fourteen years ago, filled with dreams of glory that hadn't stood up to the reality of war. Well, he was dreaming now. But still… to take a life? Was he truly willing to contemplate such a deed? And even if he was, would he stand the course this time or freeze in panic as he had with Fendrake more than eleven years ago?

Shouts from outside startled him and a moment later, two burly soldiers burst into the hovel. One seized him by the front of his tunic; the other scooped up Bae, startling the boy out of his sleep. They hauled the two of them to a waiting cart and flung them into it. Then one jumped inside, took the reins with one hand and flicked a whip with the other, starting the horses on a quick trot toward the village square.

For a long moment, Rumple said nothing, but his grip tightened on Emma's hand. Finally, he shook his head and murmured, "So, he didn't recall."

Emma's eyes were pointed at the floor, and her voice sounded leaden when she answered, "What?"

"Or he didn't know. When we occupied the same body, there were times we both knew what was going on, and times where only one of us was aware. And times," he added, "when neither of us was. That last frustrated her most."

"Her," Emma repeated, frowning slightly until she realized to whom he had to be referring. "Zelena, you mean."

Gold nodded. "Yes. Bae's consciousness could, at times, interfere with her control; allow me to fight her orders. And, at times, keep me from hearing them in the first place. So, she waited for a time when my consciousness was ascendant and then," his voice hardened, "she forbade me to use magic without her permission."

He winced, as he heard her voice anew in his head. "I know how fond you are of finding loopholes, dearie, so I'll be more explicit. Should anyone manage to separate you from your son, don't reabsorb him. Don't preserve him. Leave him to his fate."

All the color drained from Emma's face. "When I pulled him free from you—"

"You played into her hands. She left the cage unlocked, knowing that I would run. She trusted that I would find you—or Bae would. And she knew what to expect from you." His expression turned pensive. "It wouldn't surprise me to learn that, at a time when Bae's mind was in control, she cast a spell on him to prevent his recalling her name so that he, too, would encourage you to unravel my enchantment." He shook his head. "She might have made you her weapon, savior, but it was she who guided you and it was she, not you, who slew him." He placed his left hand on her forearm. "Dearie," he said, and for once, it was with genuine affection, "do you mean to say that you've been blaming yourself all this time?"

Emma wasn't sure she could trust her voice now, but she gave a slight nod, and let him draw her closer so that he could rest his hand on her shoulder. "B-but why would you think I despised you?" she managed. "If you didn't blame me for… I-I mean, we've had our differences, sure, but… despise?"

An embarrassed smile sprang to his face. "Oh," he said. "That."

"Gold?"

He released her and turned his face away for a moment to cough. Then, with a half shrug, he said, "I generally assume everyone does. It tends to save time."

"Gold," her voice was little more than a sad whisper. "Seriously?"

It was his turn to avoid eye contact. "Previous experience isn't necessarily predictive, but one tends to forget that when one's lived it."

"Push everyone away before they do it to you?" Emma asked, bitter now. "We ought to start a club."

His hand found the bed control and, once he'd raised the mattress so that he was half-sitting up, he gripped her shoulder again. "It's an idea," he allowed. "However, when I found myself reliving some of those past experiences, I learned that, perhaps, I wasn't quite the outcast I'd believed myself to be. Or I wouldn't have been, had I allowed myself to realize that there were many who didn't judge me nearly as harshly as I judged myself. It made me wonder," he continued softly, "whether the same might hold true here. Though I'll admit I could have chosen a better way to test the hypothesis," he added, with a catch in his voice that ruined the nonchalance he'd been trying for.

"Ya think?" Emma demanded. She slid her free arm behind him and pulled him closer. "Gold, you're Henry's grandfather. You're family. If things had been a little different, you could have been my father-in-law."

"So," he murmured, "you managed to dodge a bullet."

"So did you," she managed, smiling a bit as fresh tears began trickling down the tracks the earlier ones had left.

"I would have welcomed you," he choked and, feeling her arms tightening about him, crushed her to him in turn.

A throat cleared from behind them and they both looked to the doorway, where an apologetic nurse stood, clipboard and chart in hand. "I'm so sorry," she said, "but visits are supposed to be fifteen minutes only and you've already been here nearly half an hour.… I-I can't give you any more time now; Dr. Whale will be here on his rounds shortly."

Emma nodded. "I'll go," she said, giving Gold an apologetic look and struggling to pull herself back together quickly. "Uh…" her gaze flickered over to the dish garden on the table. "Regina said that the plants need to stay sealed up for now; until you're out of isolation."

Rumple nodded. "She's quite right," he said, almost as calm himself as though the last few minutes hadn't happened. "But I appreciate the reminder. Emma?"

"Mmm?"

He hesitated. "Will you be back?"

She nodded. "At least, if you want me to be. And Whale clears it, I mean."

"Well," Gold allowed, "you were right about the tedium. I think I'll welcome an opportunity for conversation, even if it can be for but a quarter hour." He paused once more. "So long as you wish to return."

"I'll try to come tomorrow," Emma smiled. "Meanwhile, you should get some rest." She took another breath. "And eat something, will ya?" she added with mock exasperation

"I'll endeavor to do both." His answering smile was small, but it was also absent any hint of its usual derision.

Hordor was waiting in the square when the cart arrived. Along with most of the village. Mail-gloved hands gripped Rumple's arms, lifted him from the cart and half-carried half-dragged him to the knight commander's feet.

"So," Hordor said coldly, "this is the man who attempted to interfere in the matters of his betters."

Terrified, Rumple could only shake his head mutely.

"Your nephew is a coward," the knight commander sneered. "I thought that was bad enough. But you would overturn the natural order here. You would go over the heads of those tasked with the protection of the district and disturb the nobility with pleas for favor when they are occupied with the safety and security of all. Some might call such actions seditious. Even treasonous."

Fear-addled though he was, Rumple found himself protesting. How could it be treason to beseech a noble for help? His elder self had done nothing wrong, he was sure. But Hordor was reveling in his power and position and there was nothing Rumple could do but plead and grovel.

"You're not from these parts, Master… Gilitrutt, is it?" He didn't wait for Rumple to nod. "Are you just here to visit relatives, or were you seeking to stage a revolt?"

"R-revolt?" Rumple gasped. "No! No, no, no, please, my lord, I mean no harm; I sought only to help my boy. My nephew!" he amended, hastily. "My nephew and his son. I'd never—!"

Hordor pretended to think matters over. "I could almost believe you," he said slowly. "But I think some show of fealty would in order. Something that will prove to all assembled that, for so long as you reside here, you are his Grace's most loyal man."

"Yes, yes, of course!" Rumple said quickly. "Anything…"

It wasn't even an hour later that Rumple limped back to his hovel, one arm draped across Bae's shoulders, while the boy whispered reassurances. The healing spell had given out when they'd been some three quarters of the way home. By then, Hordor and his fellow villagers were long out of sight and earshot, though Rumple imagined that he could still hear the knight commanders jeering laughter ringing in the air about him.

As the two approached, the old beggar who'd accompanied them earlier sprang up from the rock on which he'd been sitting, an expression of dismay on his face. "What in all the realms…" He began. "What happened to you?" He came around to support Rumple's other side. Once they were all in the hovel, Rumple turned to Bae.

"I think I'll need a poultice, son," he said. "Have we any fresh rosemary about?"

"I think so, Papa," Bae said at once. "I'll go check." He hesitated then. "Can I get you anything else before I do?"

Rumple shook his head. "Just the rosemary. You know how to prepare it?"

Bae nodded. "Yes, Papa."

As soon as the boy was gone, Rumple turned to the old man. "All right," he said, struggling to sit a bit straighter. "That story you began to tell me earlier, the one about the Dark One's dagger? I'm ready to hear the rest of it, now."

Zoso smiled.

Chapter 19: Chapter Nineteen

Notes:

A/N: A quick Google search tells me that Robert Carlyle was born in Glasgow, Michael Raymond-James, in Detroit, and Dylan Schmid in Vancouver. I incorporated these facts into Rumple's cover story. Apologies if the characters' actual accents don't match that of their actors' birthplaces; I'm afraid I haven't the expertise to know better.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nineteen

Outside Gold's room, Emma quickly stripped off her protective gear. It was a good thing, she thought to herself, that TB wasn't nearly as easy to catch as, say, the flu or the common cold. Otherwise, she'd have had some serious concerns about her visit. She hadn't planned on doing anything more than delivering the garden and, if he were awake, a few minutes' conversation. She certainly hadn't expected to break down in front of him. Or squeeze his hand. Or hug him. Or be hugged by him. Had anyone even suggested that last bit, she probably would have laughed in their face. No, she reflected, that wasn't exactly her style. She was more of the 'eye-roll and rude gesture' type when it came to those situations.

But when the moment had come, it had just felt so… right.

They'd both needed this. A chance to grieve and clear the air and just know that someone sort of… got it. Whatever 'it' was. And she was definitely coming back tomorrow, barring some new threat to the town.

She started to shove her Tyvek suit into the disposal bin when she saw something that made her jerk it back out. The suit was white. And she definitely hadn't spilled anything orange on it. What was that stain? She held the upper part of the suit up against her torso. The stain was in the chest and shoulder area, right about where Gold's head had been resting when they'd hugged. He'd been crying, she thought. She knew she'd been. So maybe it was tears. Or sweat. But why the hell was it orange?

She didn't know, but she wasn't going anywhere until she got some straight answers. The nurse had said Whale was on his way. Emma placed the suit carefully in the bin, folding it so that the stain was clearly visible. Then she left the isolation ward, taking a seat on the bench directly opposite its door to wait for Whale.

Rumpelstiltskin lay back on the bunk and pretended to be asleep, while Hordor's flunkies carried bales of straw into the room. He thought about turning the scurrying little toadies into frogs or rats, but he knew his quarrel was with their master. And Zoso; he certainly wasn't forgetting him!

At the moment, though, he was probing the strength of the protection spell that surrounded the palace, testing its limits. It was cleverly done; non-magical people could pass freely—assuming that the guards permitted it, of course. And Rumple doubted that Zoso himself would be affected. But any other practitioner of magic would be unable to cross the boundaries of the spell from either side. As for the spell, it seemed to encompass both the castle proper and the gardens and courtyards. Evidently, he had the run of the grounds, but a large cage was still a cage. He clenched his teeth. This cage wouldn't hold him for long. He just needed to find a weak point in the spell and—"

"You were right," a merry voice said and Rumple opened his eyes to find Zoso standing before him. "He didn't enjoy having to kiss Hordor's boots at all."

Rumple sat up at once with a snarl. Around him, Hordor's servants stood frozen as they must have been when the current Dark One had made his entrance.

"I don't have to tell you they won't remember any of this," Zoso said negligently. "I just stopped by to let you know that despite your manipulations, destiny remains destiny. Your younger self will come into his own. As it has been, so shall it be."

"Not if I kill you first," Rumple snarled, lunging forward.

Zoso flipped into a backwards cartwheel and danced out of reach. "Better have a care for your hands," the old man said, as Rumple leaped for him again, only just managing to stop his closed fist from striking the wall when Zoso dodged. "You'll need them for your spinning."

Cursing, Rumple discharged a bolt of pure magic at his foe, but Zoso raised one palm and drew the power in. "You can't use the Dark One's magic to strike down the Dark One," Zoso smirked. "Though I suppose you can be forgiven for not realizing it. The matter's always been a purely academic one until now." He shrugged. "But keep firing as you like. The more I take in now, the more I'll have in thr—two? Two days' time," Zoso said, nodding a bit. "And the faster the Darkness will overwhelm you. Or him. Not that it'll take much time in any event. At least, it didn't the first time?" he asked rhetorically. "Oh, relax. The spell won't last much longer. I just don't want you interfering with what needs done. As soon as I'm dead, you'll be free to go about your business. For now? Well, I suppose you'll just have to spin your wheels, now, won't you?"

With an angry cry Rumple practically threw himself at the old man, but Zoso vanished while he was in mid-leap and he found himself sprawling on the hard floor.

"Spinner!" Evidently, Zoso's spell had dissipated with his departure, for one of the Duke's men was now at Rumple's elbow. "Are you injured? Here." The servant reached for the cane that stood at the foot of the bunk. "I suppose the frame's a bit higher than what you're used to; it took me a few days to adjust when my lord took me into service," he continued.

Rumple nodded irritably, as he returned to the bunk muttering profanities under his breath. He had to get the spinning done tonight; if he didn't, he suspected that Hordor would yet take Bae to the front early. And, after Zoso's visit, he needed to calm himself down enough to marshal his wits.

While he'd always known that Zoso was a man of fair intelligence, Rumple had generally perceived him as a pathetic shell, too weak to hold onto his power, too weary to appreciate it for the gift it was, and seeking only to be freed from it. That last part was certainly true, but as to the rest, the old man was proving himself to be tough, wily, and a far shrewder adversary than Rumple would have believed. He realized that if he were to have any chance of beating the old man, then he needed to stop thinking with his emotions and start using his head. And spinning was the best way he knew to clear his thoughts.

He'd spin for an hour, perhaps two. Certainly long enough so that if Hordor or Zoso or the Chamberlain were to come by to check his progress, they would see what they had to. And then? He was going to do some exploring and see what he might discover.

"Looks like the Rifampicin," Whale nodded when he saw Emma standing in the open doorway of the changing room, mutely holding up her stained Tyvek suit. "It turns a number of bodily fluids that color. Harmless, if a bit disconcerting," he added. "And since the discoloration mainly shows up in clear fluids, it's not really all that noticeable unless it soaks into something light-colored. Like the suit."

"Or Gold's sheets?" Emma asked. "Or a tissue?"

Whale nodded. "If you're asking whether he'll spot it, that's a yes." He pressed his lips together. "And he's not likely to be as calm as you were a minute ago, to put it mildly."

He regarded her soberly. "I've been meaning to sit down with him and go over some of the more… interesting things he can expect to experience during treatment, but for the first couple of days, he wasn't exactly focused. And," he added, "he's taking four main drugs right now. They each have their own list of drawbacks. There's some overlap, but it's still a long list. I didn't want to risk overwhelming him before he was ready. However," he sighed, squared his shoulders, and absently fiddled with his stethoscope, "if he's conscious and coherent, then I think it's probably best he hears what he could be in for."

Emma gave him an understanding nod back. "Is that something Belle and I are allowed to know, too, or is it confidential?"

"Well," Whale admitted. "I can't go into the specifics of his case without his authorization, but the treatment for TB is fairly standard and the drugs and their known side effects are pretty easy to Google. Put it this way: if you have a question that I can answer without having to look at Gold's chart, say, 'What drugs would commonly be prescribed for a patient with active TB?' as opposed to 'What drugs have I prescribed for Gold?' I'll be happy to answer it."

"Got it," Emma said. She had a feeling that Whale might have fudged a bit by mentioning the Rifampicin right off the bat, but then again, he hadn't actually said that it was what had caused the stain or that Gold was taking it; he'd only said that it looked like it. Maybe he shouldn't have, but she doubted that anyone was about to call HIPAA on him over it. Or that the Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Civil Rights was going to be able to investigate if they couldn't even find Storybrooke on a map. And even if they did, what would they do? Take away the license Whale got in another realm—if he'd gotten it at all? No, she was letting this one slide. "Oh," she added, remembering, "Belle wanted to know if you could give her a call when you've got a minute."

Whale smiled wearily. "So I've heard," he said. "You can tell her that I'm picking up my messages and I will return them as I'm able." Then he pulled up his mask and went into Gold's room.

Gold was lying in bed, his eyes wide with apprehension and a white tissue clenched in one tight fist. Whale couldn't see whether there was any orange on it, but going by the expression on his patient's face, he thought he could guess. "Hey," he said. "Good to see you awake. I think now's the right time to go over some details of your treatment with you…"

After Whale left, Rumple was alone with thoughts that would not quiet. Always, in the past, he'd known that if he didn't look out for his own interests nobody would. Oh, he knew that he could expect a certain modicum of assistance. If he were to collapse on the sidewalk, he was reasonably certain that someone would lift him up and carry him out of the way of passing pedestrians—if only to prevent them from stumbling over him. At any given time, a number of people in town were indebted to him and could be called on to discharge their obligations. And, if nothing else, his knowledge and power made him, at least, useful to have around.

He couldn't say that he was surprised that Regina had brought him here. Despite their frequent mutual antagonism, they'd often united toward a mutually beneficial end and, in getting him the help he needed, she had placed him squarely in her debt. But ill though he'd been when he'd returned here, he hadn't been so far gone as to miss her concern.

It's going to be okay. You're back. You're home.

We'd better get you to the hospital.

And then, enlisting Robin Hood's aid in keeping an eye on him. Almost on reflex, he gripped the edge of the cotton blanket that covered him now, but he was thinking about the one Robin had wrapped about him before helping him into the car. It had been quite a bit coarser than this one, but still welcome and far finer than any he might have thought he could expect from a man whom he'd brutally tortured back in the Enchanted Forest, and whose son he'd threatened—however unwillingly—in this land.

More. He remembered Regina's reaction to the most recognizable symptom of the condition plaguing him now. He would have understood revulsion and recriminations. She might have demanded, however unfairly, to know why he hadn't warned her at once as to what she might be exposing herself to. Accused him of endangering the town, even. Instead, once she'd understood what was going on, she'd taken matters very much in stride.

He wasn't surprised by Belle's reaction to his return, but he certainly couldn't have predicted Emma's. And as frightening as it was to be lying here, hooked up to an IV, ill, weak, vulnerable… Understanding what was going on made the situation somewhat easier for him to bear and he had Whale to thank for that.

He wasn't used to any of this. He was used to being left alone to lick his wounds and soldier on as best he could. He was used to being expected to push his own turmoil aside, pull himself together, and help the town—no matter how many times he rebuffed such appeals. Something had changed. Something was different.

Was it them?

Or was it he?

Had he changed something in the past that was making them so solicitous now? Doubtful, he realized. In the time he'd spent in the Enchanted Forest, most of Storybrooke's current residents had yet to be born. And he certainly hadn't had any encounters with the pirate. So, what then?

Had they always been like this, while he'd been too caught up in his own Darkness to recognize it?

These last years would have been enough of a gift even if it had only been that he'd spent them with Bae, but clearly there had been more than that. So much more…

"Forty-five shillings and four pence a week to start," Rumple's new employer said flatly. "Subject to review in three months' time."

Rumple nodded. "That would be acceptable," he said, hoping his nervousness didn't show.

"By the way, Mr. Cassidy, I mark a Scots cadence in your words, but none in your boy's. If anything, he sounds like an American."

Rumple nodded again. He'd been prepared for such an inquiry and coached Bae on the story he'd concocted to explain matters. "Well, I was born in Glasgow," he said, ducking his head a bit, "but I married an American woman and we settled down in a small town in Michigan, several miles outside of Detroit. Bae was born there. Tragically, I lost my wife some three years ago." He shook his head. "They say time heals everything, but there were just… too many memories. I thought a change of scenery might be in order and, enticed by stories of gold in the Klondike, Bae and I headed west into Canada. We got as far as Vancouver and decided to settle there instead. It seemed a more wholesome place to raise a child than a prospector's camp in the Arctic," he added with a self-deprecating smile.

"Yes, quite," his interviewer agreed, clearly fascinated by the tale Rumple was spinning.

"Well, building a house was the first order of business, and it was in the construction that I lost my footing and was pinned under a log." He sighed and let his hand stray to the top of his cane, resting against the chair in which he sat. "I'm afraid that the damage to my ankle was permanent."

"I'm so sorry," the other man murmured.

Rumple sighed. "I've grown used to it. Though it did squelch any dreams I might have yet retained for further adventures. We settled in. I opened a pawnbroker's shop. As it happened, I had more of a head for business than I'd realized." He shook his head sadly. "Just six months ago, I received a telegram that my father had passed away. I came here with Bae to settle his estate and," he inserted another sigh, "discovered that there wasn't any."

"Gone?" the man across the desk inquired with a note of sympathy.

Rumple gave him a pained smile. "My father lived off the income of his investments. When I went through his papers, I quickly discovered that much of his portfolio had been devoted to ventures of high risk. The hoped-for commensurate returns, however, failed to materialize." He lowered his eyes. "A gentleman must pay his debts, of course and, for the most part, I have done so. But it was at the cost of liquidating all of his estate's assets and all of my own. I'm afraid that Bae and I have come down quite a bit in the world, now. But we are making the best of matters, I assure you, Mr. Darling."

George Darling nodded, but there was no mistaking the shock on his face. Rumple had been expecting that, too; there weren't many gentlemen taking entry-level clerical jobs in this time and place. On the other hand, his story did much to explain his accent and Bae's. If they occasionally phrased things differently or didn't understand the local jargon, they could chalk it up to having lived elsewhere—and Rumple doubted that many of the bank's customers would be hailing from the US, much less Michigan. As for British Columbia, that province was clear on the other side of North America, bordered by the Pacific Ocean. Rumple rather doubted any of its denizens were likely to step through the bank's doors either. While this backstory was unusual, it wasn't completely implausible. And it wouldn't be easy to disprove.

Purporting to have come from so far abroad would help his cover—and Bae's—in more ways than one. Should his speech and manners seemed to be more polished than the likes of Bae's new friend or the other clerks in the office, then that could be attributed to the life he was claiming to have led before coming to such reduced circ*mstances. It was easier than trying to pretend that he and Bae were native Londoners, accustomed to their current position in society. Rumple had noted that, for all Robertson Ay attempted to imitate the speech and manners of a more educated social class, his regular speech patterns came through every now and again, when he dropped an 'h' or added one that didn't belong. And that lad was merely trying to affect the air of someone from a more well-to-do section of the same city. Rumple knew that he and Bae would give away their foreign origins a dozen ways daily. Far better to embrace that status and fasten it to a backstory that was unlikely to be vetted. There were no computers in this time. No internet. Rumple rather thought that any such inquiries might take months to bear fruit—if they bore it at all. Meanwhile, it was clear to him that the man seated behind the desk had taken his story at face value and swallowed it completely.

"I'm so sorry," Mr. Darling said, dismayed. "Well, at least your penmanship more than qualifies you for this position, and there is opportunity for advancement in time. And if you should require any manner of assistance as I can provide, I trust you'll call on me."

Rumple nodded and murmured his affirmatives, even as he resolved to do nothing of the kind until he could discern whether the offer was genuine, or just a polite nicety, never intended to be taken seriously.

"Right," Mr. Darling said, pushing the employment contract across the desk. "If you'll take a few moments to peruse that and sign at the bottom, I'll show you where you'll be starting."

Rumple accepted the sheet. The terms of the offer were straightforward, he noted, with none of the loopholes and twists he might have inserted in days gone by. He picked up the fountain pen and signed the name he'd chosen for himself the night before: Gilbert Trout Cassidy. As he'd told Bae earlier, the name 'Rumpelstiltskin' would never work here. But with a bit of finagling, 'Gilitrutt' was a different matter entirely…

On the whole, Rumple reflected, they were better off than they could have been. Yesterday, Robertson Ay had stopped by and offered to show them about the area. While so doing, he'd cheerfully imparted useful tips about which green-grocer could be counted upon to discount slightly irregular produce and which baker made the best bread. And you'll want that bread. We used to buy elsewhere, but it oftentimes made us poorly." Their guide had dropped his voice to an undertone as he clarified. "Trots and bellyaches. I had a friend worked in this one and he told me they add bean flour to the mix so they can sell cheaper-like. He said other bakeries add other things, but we never got sick off of bean flour, none of us, so now we know, we're not about to look elsewhere."

Rumple had nodded and tried not to shudder. Such adulteration had been known in the land he and Bae had left; when most of the wheat harvest went to the rulers and the soldiers, bakers found ways to make the flour stretch. Bean flour was, indeed, one of those ways. Alum salts and chalk were two more, either of which might cause the symptoms Robertson Ay described. At least bean flour was meant to be eaten.

Thanks to their new guide, Rumple and Bae now understood that humble though their lodgings might be, they were fortunate indeed to have them—and to be their sole users. Many boarding houses rented rooms in shifts; each bed might have as many as three lodgers, each occupying the mattress for a maximum of eight hours.

There were 'doss houses'; common lodging houses where a bed could be had for pennies a night in a communal sleeping room that might accommodate upwards of forty people. If one couldn't scrape up even the modest four-to-sixpence required, one could choose to rent the bed for a shift as well. Or barring that, a 'penny hang', which—as the name implied—involved paying a penny for the 'privilege' of sleeping over or against a rope stretched between two supports. Upon hearing that bit of information, Rumple had resolved on the spot never to complain about the long staircases leading up to their current accommodations. To be sure, he'd remain on the lookout for something nearer the ground that wouldn't tax his ankle nearly as much, but understanding how much worse their lot could have been, he was rather inclined to count his blessings for the moment.

Right now, he and Bae were both employed. And while their wages, from what he'd adduced thus far, wouldn't suffice to lift them out of the area in which they now resided, they would be sufficient to meet their needs and, perhaps even set a bit by.

Rumple had lived through enough lean times to know the importance of setting a bit by. And his time in Storybrooke or, more to the point, his 'curse memories' had given him enough broad-strokes knowledge to navigate this new place in which he found himself. He might have more grounding in the political history—that of rulers, governments, wars and revolutions—than in the cultural and social history that made up this era's day-to-day life, but he would learn quickly.

He spared a glance for Bae, walking easily beside him, though the boy could have gone much faster and farther, had he not been matching his steps with his father. A look of pain crossed his features and seeing it, Bae stopped.

"Papa?" he asked, "Do you need to rest for a moment?"

Rumple shook his head and forced himself to smile. "No, I'm fine, son," he said. "Besides, we're nearly home."

Home. It didn't much feel like home, not yet, but for now, it would do quite nicely. He wanted better for Bae, though. The land they'd left had had a rigid class structure and, though there was room to rise beyond one's birth rank, it was no easy task. Had they arrived in this land a hundred years from now, Rumple knew that Bae's prospects would have been far better, but even here, he thought that there was some opportunity for rising above one's circ*mstances. Bae wouldn't be a messenger all his life; Mr. Darling had made it clear that there was room for advancement for both of them within the bank. And beyond it? Rumple wondered which avenues would be open, to Bae at least, if not to him.

He'd need to make inquiries about schooling; he couldn't recall whether one needed to pay for such things in this time, nor whether there were community schools or if it was mainly governesses and private tutors. Somehow, though, he would see to it that Bae obtained whatever education and skills he might need to make his way in life.

He ruthlessly stamped down on the traitorous voice in his head that reminded him that Bae hadn't spent long in this time. He and his boy were together now, as they should have been from the start. In this version of events, there was really no need for the boy to go to Neverland, was there?

Emma. Henry.

Rumple clenched his teeth and flung a furious thought at his memory of a father who'd thrown him away for a promise of perpetual youth. You won't get your hands on him this time. You don't deserve him and he doesn't deserve you.

And as to the family that Bae would have in the future? Rumple was certain that if they were meant to be, Fate would arrange it somehow.

He simply refused to accept the most obvious way in which it might.

Chapter 20: Chapter Twenty

Notes:

A/N: A Child's History of England by Charles Dickens (Published between 1852 and 1854) was included on the curriculum in British schools well into the first half of the twentieth century. Today, Birkbeck College is part of the University of London and is known for its evening course offerings (among other strengths). At the turn of the twentieth century, it was formally known as the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution. In 1904, the economist Sidney Webb, 1st Baron Passfield described the college as delivering 'the kind of evening instruction for the intelligent workman that is unique in the world. No other city has anything to equal it' (Source: Birkbeck website).

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty

"You don't mind, I trust?"

Rumple shook his head. "It's only the one copy, correct?" He smiled. "I believe I should be able to accomplish that much before your meeting, Mr. Banks."

George Banks surrendered his document with a sigh of relief. "I must say I appreciate it, Cassidy. When I've the leisure, I can certainly put more effort into my penmanship, but when one's nanny departs without notice, and one's children are tetchy enough that their squalls can be heard clearly from the nursery, and one sits down in one's favorite straight-backed chair only to spring up again upon the discovery that one's houseboy actually did what was asked of him and varnished it but failed to caution against using said chair until the varnish dried…"

Rumple lowered his eyes and fought the smile that tugged at one corner of his lips, as he murmured deferentially, "I shouldn't have thought that to be a standard task for a houseboy."

Banks coughed. "He won't hold that post forever. I thought I'd give him the opportunity to perform other duties and possibly let him grow into the role of general handyman over time."

"Yes, while paying him a houseboy's wages, Banks." Mr. Darling had seemingly materialized from nowhere. "Economical, but scarcely cricket to my mind." A supercilious smirk appeared on his face as he sniffed disdainfully. "Well, carry on, gentlemen."

After he'd swept out of the room, Banks shook his head irritably. "I may have my little economies, but at least I can afford to pay a proper nanny instead of pressing an oversized Saint Bernard into the position, you pompous old popinjay," he muttered. Then, as though the interruption had never taken place, he smiled. "By half-past two, Cassidy?"

Rumple nodded, not entirely certain he could trust himself to speak without chuckling.

Schooling was only free through age fourteen, Rumple discovered. And while the fee for higher education wasn't prohibitively expensive, it would mean having to come up with the amount while, concurrently, managing without the wages that Bae was bringing in. Seven shillings and sixpence a week wasn't really very much, but it helped. Rumple rather thought that they might just get by on his own earnings, provided that there were no unplanned expenses. Unfortunately, there were always unplanned expenses. Whether it was a new shoestring to replace the one that had snapped, or fare for the motorbus on a damp morning when he knew that his ankle wouldn't support him all the long walk to the bank.

Moreover, while purchasing food from a cook shop or peddler's cart wasn't overly expensive, it did take up more of their funds than the raw materials to produce their own fare would have. But to turn groceries into food, one needed a kitchen or, at the very least, a hearth. Their attic had neither. There was a hot-water radiator, but Rumple feared that using it to warm up already-cooked food might prove a fire hazard and there was no question actually cooking anything on it from scratch. He was keeping his eyes and ears open for something more suitable. In the meanwhile, they were buying ready-made food and trying to consume it while it was still warm.

He shook his head. If they had a kitchen, next they'd be wanting plates and cutlery, and pots and pans. Or at the very least, one pot or pan. There would be no end to the necessities that they were somehow managing without for the time being, but would want as soon as they'd set enough by for their purchase. And somehow, there would never be quite enough put by that he'd feel confident enough that he could afford that schooling.

"It's okay, Papa," Bae had reassured him, when he'd brought the subject up. "I've never been to school, so I don't know what I'm missing. And we're doing all right without it, aren't we?"

"Yes," Rumple allowed, "but I want better for you. And I mean for you to have it."

Bae smiled. "I'm fine, Papa," he said. "I won't be a messenger forever; in a year or so, I'm sure to have something that pays better, whether the bank trains me or I find something elsewhere."

Rumple forced himself to smile, but he was still troubled. An education might not be as important in this decade as it would be a century from now, but it pained him to have Bae dismiss its import so cavalierly. While one might be able to obtain decent employment without one, education also conferred status, respectability, and increased opportunity. Somehow, some way, he intended Bae to have one.

He smiled as an idea came to him. Yes, perhaps he did know where to begin his inquiries, after all.

George Banks listened intently. "You understand," he said, "that I was, at best, an indifferent student myself. I'm not sure there's much I can teach him."

Rumple nodded. "But whatever you can teach him will be better than he has now." He looked away. "I can't afford a private tutor and I must admit that, if we're to find our way into better lodgings, I'm loth to get by without his earnings. If he could come to you in the evenings, though…"

Banks considered. "It's mainly history and Latin that he's lacking, correct?"

"I believe so," Rumple nodded. "There might be some other gaps. I've taught him to read and write, and he attended school as much as was possible. I'm not sure where he's gotten up to in mathematics, but he's always had a head for business and I think he might be able to grasp the material on his own, if he could be given the right books." A quick smile flashed across his face, but it was followed by a rueful sigh as he continued. "While I can't be certain whether the lessons he's had thus far would place him on equal footing with boys his own age here," he shook his head, "I'm much afraid that they didn't teach him much about Britain in the school he attended in Michigan, apart from, well, that 'War of Independence'." He smiled uneasily, not certain whether that event was yet a sore spot in the country in which he now resided. Then he remembered that he, himself, was supposed to have come from here originally. "They do tend to paint us as the villains in that drama, still," he added.

Banks snorted. "I can't say I'm surprised. But surely in Canada…?"

Rumple shook his head apologetically. "It took time for us to settle in. And then, well, I was adjusting to my injury and it was difficult for me to learn to manage without Bae, at least initially," he lied smoothly. "Thus, his school attendance was sporadic, and while I did try to instruct him as best I could so he wouldn't fall behind, well, my own schooldays were long behind me and I'm afraid I was scarcely the most conscientious of pupils myself."

"I see," Banks remarked. And then, nearly at once, "I think I must ask your pardon; I certainly hadn't meant to pry."

Rumple smiled. "Not at all. It's probably best you understand the situation if you're going to instruct him." He hesitated. "That is to say, if you are…?"

Banks considered silently for a moment. Then, his mind made up, he gave Rumple a short nod and a tight smile. "All right. If you're willing to come over several evenings a week to revise and rewrite my reports, and you bring your son with you, I'll see what I can do to coach him for the secondary school scholarship examinations. Different schools are likely to have different expectations, but there are certain basic requirements he'll need to meet, regardless. I shouldn't imagine it would be difficult to discover those details. And I should have some of my old schoolbooks lying about. They'll do for a start. It would be best if he had a set of his own, mind. I think you're likely to find second-hand copies in Portobello Road."

Rumple filed away that information, even as he extended his hand with a smile. "I believe we have a deal, sir."

Banks's grip was firm as he shook it.

Bae was more than a little wistful two evenings later, when he and Rumple made ready to depart for the Banks household. "It just seems like a lot to do," he said, "working at the bank all day and then studying all night."

"It'll hardly be all night," Rumple retorted. "And it's only two evenings a week."

"Evenings are for resting," Bae grumbled. "Or, at least, they're supposed to be."

Rumple smiled. "I suppose there was more opportunity for sleep when one had nothing more than a candle for light after sunset, instead of these gas lanterns and kerosene lamps. Still, it seems to me that a full day's work used to be a good deal more strenuous than ferrying various sheets of paper from department to department and purchasing lunches from the pie shop down the street."

Bae smiled reluctantly. "I know, Papa." He shook his head. "It's starting to feel like all of that was so long ago." His smile fell away. "We're never going back there, are we?"

Rumple hesitated. "I'm not certain. In the manner in which events unfolded before I traveled back in time, you found your way there twice and I, once. I can't say whether the same will hold true now that I've been tampering. It's safe to say, though, that if we both remain in this realm and in this time, your statement is true." He smiled. "After all, the only ways in which I know to travel between realms involve magic and there's none of that stuff here."

Not until your grandfather sends that shadow off to abduct… Rumple went cold.

"Papa?"

He forced himself to smile. "Oh, just a trifle homesick, I suppose. I imagine I'll soon adjust at least as well as you are."

Bae smiled back and reached for his overcoat—recently purchased from Spitalfields market second-hand (at the very least!).

As Rumple fastened his own, though, his thoughts were reeling. At some point, perhaps in a day, perhaps in a year, but soon, Pan would be sending that… demon… to the window of George Darling's nursery.

And, when he did, Rumple resolved that that Bae would be nowhere near the place.

"What progress, Cassidy?" George Banks asked heartily after what seemed like no time at all. Rumple tried not to appear rattled as he looked up from his papers. It wasn't that his task was hard, but he certainly hadn't bargained on a particular hourly distraction. He was doing his utmost to persevere for Bae's sake, but he had to admit that it was something of a strain. Their arrangement had been going on for just over a fortnight now, and though—in addition to the aforementioned distraction—the long walks and extra hours were beginning to wear on him, he thought he was concealing his tension well enough that no sign showed in his smile.

"Nearly done, Banks," he replied. "Nearly done. Bae?"

"We read about Athelstan and the six boy-kings," Bae replied. He frowned. "But they weren't all boys, I don't think. Twenty-three isn't a boy anymore, nor eighteen. Not when…" His voice trailed off, but Rumple knew what he meant.

Not when a boy of thirteen is ready to propose marriage in hope of saving a friend from being sent to the front. Not when one can be drafted into the army at fourteen. And not even when the law of the land deems it sufficient for children to receive free schooling through age fourteen, after which it's considered meet for them to join the workforce. Not at an adult wage, of course, he thought with a faint bitterness.

"Well," Rumple murmured, "no doubt Mr. Dickens had his reasons." He picked up the fountain pen once more. "There's but the final two paragraphs, yet," he said apologetically. "I'll just need another moment or two. The lesson went well, then?" he asked, getting back to the page before him.

"The boy has a talent for memorization," Banks smiled. "I do believe that it will be to his credit when he's ready to sit the scholarship examinations. It's been some time, but as I recall, much of the material was rote learning."

"I hadn't realized you'd taken the examination yourself," Rumple said. His pen scratched on the sheet of paper as he inscribed the last word. Then he gave the page a cursory look, noting with satisfaction that there were no blots or smears to mar his work.

Banks coughed uncomfortably. "Yes, well, I've come up a bit since then."

He recognized a demand for reassurance when he heard one. "I can see that," he smiled. "And I must compliment you on your home; I was just admiring the quality of this desk earlier. It's rare nowadays that one finds a Wooton in the Renaissance Revival style."

Maybe he was laying it on a bit thick, but Banks's answering smile was almost boyish in its excitement. "I received that piece from my great uncle's estate almost a decade ago. They haven't made them like this in over thirty years!"

"I know the model quite well," Rumple nodded, judging that a small fib might be in order now. "My own father had one that was similar, though I believe that one might have been graded as 'extra'. I think this one would be 'standard'?"

Banks raised an eyebrow. "You certainly do know your desks, Cassidy. I'm impressed. Well," he went on, "I shan't keep you if the work's done."

"It is," Rumple nodded. "And the ink ought to be dry by now as well, though if you'd prefer to wait a moment or two just to be certain." In Storybrooke, there would have been no doubt, but Rumple wasn't certain whether the inks in this time period might not dry a bit more slowly.

"Right then," Banks said. "I'll see you both in the office on the morrow. And for now," he reached for the bell-pull that hung on the wall, "Robertson Ay shall show you ou—."

"Posts, EVERYONE!" a woman's voice shrilled from the hallway.

Abruptly, Banks caught up the inkpot from the desk with one hand, while he braced the other on the fireplace mantel, blocking the Royal Doulton figurines. Rumple tensed, as he and Bae exchanged a resigned look. After two weeks, unbelievable though Banks's assurances had seemed initially, they found that they were indeed growing accustomed to this, though Rumple doubted that he'd ever be able to face the ordeal with equanimity. He locked his hands tightly about the armrests of the padded desk chair. Bae latched onto the bracket that held the drapery sash.

They were just in time. No sooner had they gone into position when there came a deafening roar, followed by a shockwave that shook the house and set Rumple's heart pounding, even though he knew what to expect by now. Unperturbed, Banks slid the figurines back into place and set the inkpot back down. "As I was saying before that interruption," he went on calmly, "Robertson Ay will see you to the door." He smiled and tugged at the bell-pull. "I bid you both a good evening."

"You're sure you're alright, Papa?" Bae asked, as they made their way down the street.

"I'm fine, son," Rumple lied quickly. His heart was still pounding and he imagined that he could still smell the gunpowder in the air, though they were now several streets beyond Cherry Tree Lane and the stuff ought to have dissipated by now. He couldn't seem to get clear of the odor though, mingled as it was with the pungent stench of…

…turmeric paste and honey.

A chill that had nothing to do with the night air washed over him.

"Papa?" Bae ventured, "Do you think Mr. Banks would let you write his reports at our home instead of his?"

Rumple stopped. "What?"

"Well, at least, it would be quieter."

While he took his son's point, he rejected the suggestion at once. "We've no room for working there. I'd need a proper desk, a-a place to put the ink pot where I wouldn't knock it over, and if Mr. Banks should take it upon himself to call for his reports or bring you back here after your lesson, I shouldn't like him to see the state of our lodgings." He forced himself to smile. "I'm sure I'll get used to those cannon blasts; after all, if Mr. Banks and his family can live with it on a daily basis, I can manage a few evenings a week."

There had been canons at the front during the Ogres War. During the day, during those short weeks of training he and the other new recruits had received that they might prove a slightly greater liability to the Ogres than to their own troop, a spirit of camaraderie had persisted. Even his commanding officer hadn't stood on rank much unless absolutely necessary.

At night though, the tent to which he'd been assigned had been only a few yards from that of the camp healers, where the wounded were treated. Through the thin canvas walls, Rumple had been privy to the circ*mstances of many an injury. Not all were incurred against the ogres. He vividly recalled the teenaged 'powder monkey', who had panicked during an early artillery drill and, disoriented, run in precisely the wrong direction and been hit by a cannonball. 'Friendly fire,' they called it, but thinking of the term now brought to Rumple's mind a phrase he wouldn't come across until centuries later, in Storybrooke, when he'd been channel surfing one evening, only pausing long enough to determine whether a program was worth tuning in to watch.

…With friends like these, who needs enemies?

If there were magical healers at the front, their craft was reserved for the officers and the aristocracy. The youth's wounds had been dressed with poultices of turmeric paste and honey. Rumple didn't know if they'd worked; once it was ascertained that the patient wouldn't be restored to fighting prowess in time for the battle, he'd been sent home to recover or die on his own time. He wasn't the only one, just the first. And Rumple's memories of his brief time in the Frontlands' army were infused with cannon fire, gunpowder, shaking ground, and the smells of honey and turmeric pastes.

"You're sure you're all right, Papa?" Bae asked. "I mean," he tapped the copy of Charles Dickens' A Child's History of England that Mr. Banks had loaned him for emphasis, "I can learn this on my own time, if it's hard for you to—"

"We have a deal, son," Rumple cut him off. "I mean to keep up my end of it."

"I don't even know if I want to sit for this 'scholarship exam' thing if I'm doing fine without it."

"We're doing reasonably well now," Rumple admitted, "though things could always be a bit better. But from what I know of this land's history, a lack of education will hamper you and hold you back far more as the years pass. Things change rapidly here. At least, they do in this time. The Industrial Revolution was only the beginning. In a few years…"

He stopped. Stopped talking, stopped in his tracks, the realization that hit him then nearly stopped his heart.

"Papa?"

Rumple willed himself to smile, willed himself to take another step, willed himself to spare Bae from knowing what he himself knew to be inevitable. "In a few years," he said, "if you don't sit for the examination, I fear you'll realize to late the opportunity you let slip through your fingers. You'll sit the examination. And you'll attend school as soon as you're able."

Bae sighed. "Yes, Papa."

Rumple smiled his satisfaction, but beneath that smile, his innards were churning. He'd become the Dark One to spare Bae from being caught up in one war. In less than a decade, he realized, it was all too likely that his son would be swept up by another. And this time, Rumple realized, he would truly be powerless to prevent it.

As he and Bae continued home, Rumple found himself wondering which circ*mstance could truly be said to be the lesser of two evils: for Bae to find his way to Neverland…

…Or for him to be conscripted to fight in the First World War.

"All right, Papa," Bae sighed, as they closed the door of their attic room behind them. "What's the matter, now?"

Rumple lit the kerosene lamp, bathing the room in dim light, and didn't reply for several long moments. Finally, he said, "I suppose I'm just concerned for the future."

"If it's a question of getting by on just your salary if I go to school," Bae said, "Papa, I don't have to! I know you want me to. I know you've told me it's my best chance and maybe it is. But if it's too hard, I can take second-best! Robertson Ay told me that I can take night classes in mechanics at a place called Birkbeck's on Fetter Lane. I know where that is now, Papa. Meanwhile, there's the bank. I know we're barely earning anything now, but if we get promoted…"

Rumple nodded, not really listening, although his son's enthusiasm made him smile. "You… you're happy here, son? I mean," he looked meaningfully about their small room, "I can't help thinking that for all its lack of opportunity, our old life had a few things to recommend it over this one."

"Papa!" Bae exclaimed and Rumple realized his error at once.

"Oh, I don't mean the power, Bae," he blurted out. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss it, but I made the mistake once of letting my fear of losing it override my love for you and I spent more than two centuries paying for that moment of weakness. No. But… fresh air? More sunny days and less of these belching chimney stacks? Grass beneath your feet without your needing to traverse over a dozen blocks to find a park?"

Bae nodded slowly. "I do miss all of that sometimes," he admitted. "Maybe it would have been better if the bean had dropped us in the countryside or something. But it didn't and we're here and for now, unless we know for sure that some other place would be better, I think we need to make the best of it." He dropped down to his mattress, stowing his books beneath the bed.

"Papa?" he asked. "Do you know what happens to Morraine? If she marries her cousin or…?"

Rumple shook his head. "I'm afraid I don't, son," he admitted. "I didn't remain long in the village after that night. In fact I…" He turned his face away in embarrassment. "If memory serves, I returned home, had one rather prolonged tantrum, and left that place for good. But I did leave a note on the sheepfold gate stating that I was leaving and for someone to take charge of the flock. I know Morraine was wont to stop by near first light and I'd imagine it was she that took them."

Bae nodded. "I hope so," he said.

"You miss her."

Bae frowned. "I don't know. I mean, I do wish I could still talk to her, but I know I can't go back, so it sort of makes it easier. And it all feels like it was so long ago and so far away. I want her to be happy, but… I guess it won't be with me."

"I'm sorry," Rumple said. "And don't try to tell me it's not my fault when we both know that's not true," he added, but without bitterness.

"You couldn't help when the magic changed you," Bae replied. "I know that."

"Well," Rumple allowed, "even then, one thing never changed. I still want what's best for you."

Bae sighed ruefully. "I guess I'd better review that history lesson before bed then," he said, picking up the book and carrying over to the stool nearest the lamp. "And I'll try to make some headway with the Latin translation I'll need for Wednesday's lesson," he added with another sigh. "Though I don't see the point in learning a language nobody actually speaks anymore…"

Rumple smiled, but his heart was troubled. He only wanted what was best for Bae. But his seer's talent was as yet keeping silent on which bad option was the better one.

Chapter 21: Chapter Twenty-One

Notes:

A/N: Some dialogue lifted from S3E8: Think Lovely Thoughts, S1E8: Desperate Souls, and S2E4: The Crocodile.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-One

Rumple's head felt a bit clearer in the morning. He wasn't even close to back to normal, yet, but over the last few months, the pains in his chest—pains that were worse when he coughed but present even when he didn't—had slowly intensified. And now they were… Well, if not completely gone, certainly down to a level he hadn't experienced in over a year. And in the absence of pain, he felt, well not lighter precisely, but somewhat light-headed. As though the pain had been steadying him and now he'd somehow lost his anchor.

He had lost his anchor, of course. And it had next to nothing to do with his illness.

He'd grown used to that pain over the centuries, much as he'd been used to hobbling about on his bad ankle. Neither had slowed him down appreciably. Pain was something to ignore, push through, and wall off as much as possible while one did one's best to get through one's day. And it had worked to a point. At least, until Bae had—

He didn't want to think about that now. If he did, his emotions would get the better of him and if he was going to break down, it would either be when he could be assured of privacy, or assured that those about him would understand and not pepper him with foolish questions or urge him to 'pull himself together' or edge away and mumble something about coming back at a better time.

The door to his room opened and Whale came in. Masked, of course, but the crinkles in the corners of the doctor's eyes told Rumple that the man was smiling. "I stopped by to give you some good news," he announced. "Sensitivity results are in and it looks as though the meds we've started you on are going to be… well, surprisingly effective."

"Surprisingly?" Rumple repeated dryly. "I hope you're not implying this treatment was expected to be palliative."

"Not at all," Whale replied. "However, as you're probably aware, science in this land has been treating TB for decades. Over time, it's common for a disease to develop a resistance to a previously-effective treatment, forcing us to come up with newer treatments. If you'd just come back from some part of the world where TB is more common today in the twenty-first century, we'd probably have to figure out which strain you had and what meds were best suited to fighting it. Thing is, you picked up a strain that's over a century old. Just about every drug in the arsenal is likely to work on it." He proceeded to deliver a jargon-filled elaboration that Rumple allowed he would have been able to follow better, were it not for his light-headedness, but he nodded along anyway. Whale had told him that he was on the road to recovery. Everything else he had to say was mere detail.

"Your weight concerns me, though," the doctor continued. "It's going to be an uphill fight, seeing as both the illness and the treatment have the side effect of decreasing appetite. However, if you don't eat enough, it's going to impact your recovery."

"There are ways around that," Rumple returned. "Though I understand the reason you're keeping me from using them."

"Hopefully, that's just going to be for another couple of weeks," Whale said. "And I'm not forgetting the trouble with letting your immortality handle the lion's share of your body's resistance to illness. Fortunately, there might be a solution in the offing."

Rumple's eyebrows shot up. "Do tell."

"I've been reading that book Belle brought to my attention. Tavronius was the author, I think?" He shrugged. "Looks like the guy treated a number of folk who," he cast about looking for the right words, "whose nature granted them a supernatural ability to heal from disease or injuries. Near as I can tell from the book, folk like that usually have strong safeguards against getting sick in the first place, but almost no means of fighting off a bug that somehow breaches those defenses. The work I'm reading has a number of chapters devoted to working with that…" He glanced at Rumple uncertainly. "…limitation?" he suggested.

Rumple nodded unoffended. "That sounds like an accurate term," he agreed. "I think I'd like to have a look at that volume myself, when you've quite finished."

Whale nodded back. "I'll probably need it until you're completely out of the woods, but after that, sure."

He smiled. "For now, though, I've asked one of our dieticians to stop by at some point today to go over menu options with you. Think about foods you'd like—there's no point in making things harder by giving you stuff you wouldn't want to eat in the first place."

A faint answering smile graced Rumple's face as he pressed the button on the remote by his side to raise the top of the bed slightly. "Are there any restrictions?"

"Honestly?" Whale sighed. "The main thing right now is to get you back into the healthy weight range. For that, you need to eat, full stop. As far as making sure you get enough nutrition along the way, you're at least drinking the supplement and we can mix protein powder into your meals. Plus, I'll add a daily multi-vitamin to your regimen for now." He smiled again. "While I think that the horror stories of unappetizing hospital food are a bit overblown at this institution, if you'd prefer meals brought in from outside, that's fine, too. I'd recommend home-cooked over takeout, but I won't insist on it. Or," he shrugged, "if you want to subsist on cake and ice cream for the next couple of weeks, I'll stop short of endorsing that plan, but I won't veto it either."

Rumple snorted. "Fear not, Doctor. I've never had that much of a sweet tooth. Though I shouldn't think I'd find some dessert to be amiss."

"I'll be sure to let the dietician know."

The dietician came some time afterwards. Rumple wasn't certain how much time it had taken her, but he'd managed to down half a bottle of a nutrient shake that tasted more of chalk than chocolate and a few sections of a clementine. Despite what he'd told Whale about his lack of a sweet tooth, he had to admit he'd relished it. He couldn't recall the last time he'd tasted one. They hadn't existed in the Enchanted Forest and the only citrus fruits he could remember seeing in Edwardian London had been oranges and lemons.

The dietician had been a fairy, though not one he'd had occasion to deal with in the past. She'd been nervous at first, but her bubbly nature had quickly asserted itself, much to Rumple's annoyance. She behaved as though she thought his lack of eating was due to fussiness, rather than lack of appetite and he'd had to remind her otherwise several times before she finally seemed to have gotten the message. In the end, though, they'd managed to carve out a menu plan that Rumple had to admit sounded somewhat palatable. He'd see whether that hypothesis was borne out when he got his next meal.

Before lunch, though, Whale returned, bearing a manila file folder. "It occurred to me," he said, with just a trace of embarrassment, "that I could photograph and print off some of the pages for you, since you seemed interested. Start with these and," he set the folder down on the tray table by Rumple's cot, "when you're done, I can bring you more. If there's anything in those pages you want to discuss, I'm happy to go over them from a medical perspective. For magical," he shrugged apologetically. "I guess Regina or Belle would be better candidates."

Rumple thanked him, though he waited for the doctor's departure before reaching for it. It appeared as though Whale had copied the prefatory material, which included a timeline and biographical sketch of the author, as well as the first chapter of the work. Curious, Rumple began reading and, as he did, a puzzled frown came to his face. Going by the dates, this Tavronius would have been one of his contemporaries. Rumple really thought he should have recognized the name. And yet…

His frown deepened. Come to think of it, he had heard it once before, just in passing. But it hadn't been the name of a physician or researcher—at least he didn't think so. Perhaps, it had been in reference to another Tavronius. But Rumple knew names and 'Tavronius' wasn't a common one.

He put the folder back on the tray, leaned back on his pillow, closed his eyes, and tried to recall the context in which he'd come across the name that other time. And while the memory didn't surface, he found his thoughts drifting back to another familiar scene. Curious, he let it come into focus, in the hope that it might, somehow, point him in the right direction...

It still felt like cheating to turn the straw to gold with a wave of his hand. It shouldn't have. All magic came with a price; using the wheel just commanded a lower one than bypassing it, it was still magic. But using the wheel required a certain level of skill and he could still hear the spinners who'd fostered him exclaiming over his talent.

Someone so young...

In such a short time.

Look at him.

He could spin for...

…for kings and queens one day.

He'd never quite gotten there, though he supposed that spinning for a duke's henchman was something. He considered for a moment. Last night, after he'd traded places with his younger self, he'd been left undisturbed until morning. While the same thing might happen tonight, he'd leave nothing to chance. The less he showed his hand, the freer he was to act. Or, to put it a different way, protection spells were harder to break through when they encompassed a smaller area. If Zoso realized that he was skulking about the castle, Rumple suspected he might find his freedom curtailed even more.

Oh, don't fret, a woman's voice said coolly in his head. It's just for another… twenty-eight hours or so, now.

Startled, Rumple froze for a moment. Nimuë?

Surprised to see me? she laughed. Don't be. And you really ought to thank me; I know your dislike of small cages, so I prevailed on Zoso to give you a bigger one.

Why? Rumple demanded angrily. Why involve yourself?

The voice in his head sighed. I suppose after a couple of centuries, you would need a refresher. I'm not Nimuë, not really; that's just the form I assume for these chats. Nimuë died centuries ago. Just as Zoso will tomorrow night. Or early the following morning, as I think you'll reckon it when you reach a realm where a day begins at midnight instead of a civilized dawn. Not that such calculations matter, of course, so long as things stay on track. I can't have you interfering with your younger self's choice. You're fully aware of the deeds he—or rather we—shall accomplish after he becomes my vessel. Scuttle that now and there's no telling how events might play out. But then, you already know that, too. She sighed again. I understand, truly. You wouldn't be who you are if you didn't succumb far too easily to temptation. But if I'm to continue through the ages, then I need you to cultivate that weakness; I can't have you changing tracks now. I'm sorry, Rumpelstiltskin, she continued—and she did sound regretful, Rumple noticed with some surprise. You can have the run of the castle. But you won't be able to break the protection spells Zoso laid about its walls until your younger self takes up my cause and fulfills his destiny.

Then I'll find another way! Rumple flung the thought at her furiously.

You might, at that, Nimuë admitted thoughtfully. I rather doubt it, but I'd be a fool to underestimate your imagination. For a moment, her voice was silent. Then, she continued brightly, Well, I shouldn't want to back you too tightly into a corner. So, let's strike a deal. If you can somehow manage to thwart my intent without leaving the castle or reaching out to your younger self—and I really must be firm on this point, she added. No contact, direct or indirect. No popping out from around a corner or passing word through an intermediary… Oh, and no slipping another note into his pocket—Zoso had a demon of a time disposing of your first one; his fingers were never that nimble even in his younger days and he's just not used to using magic for anything that subtle. Best not to put him through that again, I think. Rumple could almost picture her sage nod, though he could only hear her voice in his head. No leaving the castle, no attempt to communicate with your younger self… Yes. If you can manage to prevent him from fulfilling his destiny while abiding by those restrictions, I'll permit you to try. Or I can just block you from your magic entirely for the duration, though that will make things a bit difficult should Hordor deliver more straw to you at some point between now… and the hour he'll ride to his death. I daresay the Chamberlain will still expect it spun and for all he seems a reasonable sort, he might not prove quite so understanding should you fail him. In fact, he might seek to… persuade you to keep at it, even if you truly won't have the power to comply. She let that sink in. Well? Do we have a deal?

Rumple clenched his teeth. She wasn't making it easy for him, but he'd still take difficult over impossible any day. Deal.

By the diffuse glow of a lantern in her tent, Zelena examined the bottles she'd managed to squirrel away earlier. Not for the first time, she wished that she'd apprenticed herself to an instructor with greater breadth of knowledge. Healing was all well and good, of course, but there were so many other magical areas into which one might delve.

Miserably, she waved her hand at one of the bottles with a particular gesture, but its cork remained wedged in its opening as though to taunt her.

She sighed. At least magical ingredients could be combined by anyone, whether or not they were able to unlock an innate talent. Without said talent, however, if anything went wrong with the recipe, it was likely to go very wrong. She remembered a tale Rumple had told her when she'd been his pupil, about an apprentice who had animated a broom to assist him in the menial task his master had set him—carrying buckets of water to fill a cauldron—but had been unable to stop the broom from continuing to fetch water, even after said pot had been filled. Eventually, the sorcerer had set all to right and meted out the appropriate discipline to the hapless apprentice.

Zelena could not afford to have Fendrake find out what she was about. Not now. Eventually, when she reclaimed the power that had been stolen from her, it would be a different matter. She would make the healer pay for every moment of drudgery, every monotonous task, every humiliating exercise he'd set for her that she'd failed to complete… All of it. But for now, she needed to put up with this pettiness.

Tomorrow night, Rumple—the Rumple who had yet to meet her—would become the Dark One.

Zelena remembered what had transpired over a year ago now (or many years from now, depending on how you looked at it). Baelfire had raised the Dark One up from the dead and paid a heavy price for it. Rumple had fought to save him, and at least temporarily, he'd succeeded. But at a cost. Newly-revived, he hadn't yet been restored to his full strength. And he could not save his son and resist the tug of her magic on his dagger at the same time.

She smiled. When Rumple became the Dark One tomorrow night, he would be confused and frightened. He would have no idea of the forces that would then possess him. In that state, wresting the dagger from him would be child's play—even without her magic.

And with the Dark One under her control once more…

…Her current lack of magic would no longer matter.

And while she might not know exactly where Rumple would be when he summoned his predecessor and murdered him, she did know where he'd need to go to obtain the dagger.

Tomorrow night, when Rumple arrived at the duke's castle, she would be waiting.

Rumpelstiltskin wasn't surprised to find the door to the barracks room locked. He hesitated for a moment before giving it a tentative rap. He waited a few seconds for a response and when none came, he knocked a second time. Satisfied that there was no guard stationed outside, he lifted his hand once more, this time with his palm spread wide as he brought it close to the door and then waved it sideways, as though he was sliding back a bolt.

In fact, the door was secured by a strong lock, but the magic didn't care. Rumple could hear the tumblers moving and, a moment later the door eased open. He stuck his head into the corridor, looking in either direction. Satisfied that he was alone, he stepped outside the room.

He took the precaution of casting a glamor spell, taking on the livery of a footman. He didn't give the spell any particular direction for his face, save only that it not resemble the one he usually wore. He doubted that any noble would register more than his blue-and-gold uniform, but Hordor might recognize him.

Teleportation spells were risky when one didn't know the environs. Tonight, Rumple had one mission in mind: find out where the dagger was kept—after more than two centuries, his memory was spotty on that account—and discover a place near to it where he might secrete himself tomorrow night. True to his word, he wouldn't confront his younger self, but there might be something he could do indirectly.

He still wasn't sure he wanted to. If his younger self never became the Dark One, he'd lose Bae. If his younger self did become the Dark One… he'd lose Bae. He'd thought he had a chance to set things right this time around. Instead, it seemed that he'd become a spectator at his own downfall. Everything he did seemed to make things worse. And yet, if he was to do nothing, then why in hell was he here?

What would happen if he took up the dagger now, summoned Zoso to him, and stabbed him? It wasn't like he could become the Dark One twice.

Except that if he did, it would mean that his younger self never became the Dark One, never had a need to cast a Dark Curse, never met Zelena, never travelled to the past…

He couldn't risk it. Not unless he had a better understanding of the stakes. And somehow, he didn't think Nimuë or his other predecessors were going to be at all interested in walking him through this. No, he was on his own and even more so than usual this time.

The wind blew his cape-like cloak forward about him as he stepped outside the barbican and made his way across the courtyard to the castle proper.

Even within the courtyard, Rumple had no difficulty recognizing the part of the castle his younger self would set fire to tomorrow night. The treetops visible over the wall were enough for him to get his bearings. Once he entered the castle, though, things became more confusing. The guards accepted his disguise at face value, barely sparing him a glance as they waved him through, but once inside, he saw a long corridor that branched off at least three times before ending at a pair of iron-strapped wooden doors. He could hear the blade's siren song, yes, but it only told him that it was in the building and some way off. Had he been able to walk through walls, or even see through them, he would have had no trouble. As it was, he couldn't say which passage would lead to the corridor containing the room he needed. He knew that it was to the left, but which intersection was the correct one?

He looked over his shoulder and saw one of the guards looking after him, a puzzled frown on his face. It wouldn't do to loiter about as though he didn't belong here. He didn't want to cast any spells here unless he had to; he wasn't about to forget that all magic came with a price. He wasn't ruling out the possibility that he might have to fight Zoso in the end, and if he were to do so, he'd underestimated the wily old man too many times already to risk engaging him at anything less than full strength. Briskly, trying to act as though he belonged here, he strode forward, took the first left-hand turn, and hoped for the best.

The passage seemed to end at a blank wall, but when he approached more closely, he found that it turned slightly to the left, where an ill-appointed stone staircase stood. As Rumple looked up, he saw that it rose three stories high. The floors above him appeared to be lined with arched latticed windows, some of which were intertwined with metallic decorations that resembled climbing vines. On each landing of the staircase, a wooden door was set in the wall—nowhere near as grand as the pair that had been at the end of the first corridor, but rather like the one that had graced his barracks room in the barbican. The door on the second story opened and a gentleman in livery much like his own hurried down toward him, a tray of half-eaten food in one hand.

"Why are you just standing there?" the servant demanded. "His grace wants more mulled claret with his sweetmeats; mind you fetch from the ten-year-old stock." When Rumple just stood there, he added in exasperation, "Don't just stand there; go! Second fork to the right and down to the cellar. Don't keep his grace waiting!"

Rumple nodded quickly, ducking his head just a bit in case the man outranked him; really, he couldn't be expected to know the pecking order here. At least he knew where he was going. And since he'd been thinking about calling on the duke anyway… Well, really, this might be exactly the opportunity he was seeking.

As the afternoon wore on, Zelena applied herself yet again to the meditation exercise Fendrake had assigned her. If she could reacquire her gift tonight, even some small portion of it, she knew she'd be able to put it to good use.

But intruding on her focus, she could hear voices coming from the healer's tent. That boy helper of his was staying late tonight, helping him to treat a fairy that had flown too close to a dragon. Villagers had found her in the forest and borne her to the healer on a litter.

"…her wings?" the boy was saying. "But I've seen you reattach a limb before!"

"Not for a fairy," the healer said. "There are difficulties when one tries to heal a being that was never designed to sustain injury. Their bodies react badly."

"I don't understand," the boy protested.

"Remember that to heal a person often means that you are harming whatever it is that injured or sickened them. And magical beings, particularly immortals, but not exclusively so, are adept at neutralizing harmful substances, regardless of their measure. When you administer a juniper tincture to a burn site, it may heal you or me. A fairy, though, through no conscious action or fault of her own, may react to it as though you'd poured a pint of juniper concentrate over the injury. Her body won't recognize that a minute amount is necessary for healing, only that a larger quantity might kill. It reacts accordingly."

"Can nothing be done then?"

The healer was silent for a time. "I'm sure there's an answer, but it's not one I know. Nor any healer of my acquaintance. Fetch mallow and chamomile, now. They'll cause no harm, not even in large quantities, so they'll have some effect on our patient, though far from what's desirable."

"Yes, Master Fendrake."

Zelena heard the boy's footfalls as he padded through the clearing, crunching on leaves and twigs. Finally, she thought to herself. Now, that it was quiet, she might be able to accomplish that meditation. But try though she might, her magical gift continued to elude her.

She'd just have to hope that her wits and determination would suffice on the morrow.

The over-servant's directions had been good and Rumple found the wine cellar without difficulty. It took a bit longer to determine which cask held the proper vintage; as much as he would, in later years, pride himself on having the best, the painful truth was that while he'd refined his manners, his palate had never acquired the same polish. He had his preferences, but he certainly couldn't pick up on 'hints of cherry, cinnamon, and chocolate' or tell a superior wine from one that was merely average. Fortunately, closer inspection showed him that the barrels were properly labeled—at least, he hoped they were.

He found goblets and flagons in a wooden cabinet. It would be better to decant the wine, he knew, but that generally took hours. And at any rate, while he did want to speak with the duke, he didn't think he needed to go pandering to him. He uncorked the barrel and filled a flagon. Then, after a moment's consideration, he picked up a decorated wooden tray, one of several that were stacked in the cabinet and, using it to carry the flagon and a selection of stemware, made his way back up the cellar steps, casting a minor enchantment to ensure that nothing would spill or topple.

"No," a voice was saying, as Rumple pushed open the second-floor door with tray in hand and found himself in a marble-tiled anteroom. A number of chambers branched off from it and the voice was coming from one of them. "I will not set the Dark One against the Ogres and I am not going to entertain conscription of peasant youths below the age of fourteen when it's the nobility that starts weapons practice at ten!"

"Perhaps, if we furnished the peasant youth with the same instruction, Your Grace," another voice began. Rumple rather thought it might have been the chamberlain's, but he wasn't certain.

"And have them rise against us?" Rumple recognized Hordor's voice. "We can't risk civil war with the Ogres at our backs and gaining ground! Just have the Dark One end this and be done with it!"

"If I do that, then I've no more excuse for withholding troops for the war our king is fighting to the south. At least our soldiers are fighting for their own homes and fields. If I send them to another corner of the kingdom, you're likely to have that uprising, Hordor. And with veterans who do know how to fight."

"And instead you'll throw our people away against the Ogres."

"Put the question to any man or woman in our forces. Or any child conscript, for that matter. If they must die fighting for the Frontlands or the South Plains, where would they rather their blood be spilled, and I'll warrant they'll say the Frontlands."

"Or not spilled at all!" the maybe-chamberlain exclaimed. "Could we not parley? Perhaps some just peace might be sought even now."

"I tried," the Duke said heavily. "You can thank our king for my failure. It seems that the ogres discovered the purpose for which the Jewel of the Realm was dispatched more than ten years ago. I can scarcely blame them for refusing to deal with a kingdom whose ruler was ready to poison his enemies en masse. Its own captain turned pirate rather than complete the mission." His voice turned bitter. "My youngest son was a midshipman on board. When he was sent as one in a boarding party to capture another ship, he attempted to switch sides in return for passage back home. According to the sailor who brought me the details, the one of the 'Realm's own sailors ran him through, though not before he was able to pass on the pages he'd written detailing Captain Jones's betrayal. Or honor," the Duke concluded bitterly. "Apparently he'd been carrying them about, hoping for an opportunity to pass them along if he couldn't jump ship."

"Then set the Dark One to the Ogres and then to the enemy on south borders!" Hordor exclaimed. "Problem solved."

"All magic comes with a price. The Frontlands have already been beggared by the Ogres War. I've lost three sons to it; Moritz is the only left to me. Whatever this war has cost us in soldiers, in blood, in grain, in land, it will be as nothing compared to what the Dark One will demand."

"Is he your partner or your slave?" the chamberlain demanded. "Command him to waive his price!"

"Then the magic will exact it of me!" the Duke fired back. "One doesn't escape debt by borrowing more! We will make do as we are because there is no choice! And should our king learn of his thralldom, should he demand that I deliver up the Dark One to his control, can you imagine the tyranny that that would unleash?" Then in a different tone, "What's that noise? Is someone there?"

Rumple realized with a start that his hands were trembling and that the goblets, made of silver not crystal or they'd likely have shattered, were knocking against one another. His feet propelled him forward, and he mumbled something about refreshments with an automatic bow, keeping his eyes lowered, though he knew that his disguise would keep Hordor from recognizing him.

"Is all well with you?" the duke inquired.

Rumple nodded. "F-forgive me," he murmured. "I meant no offense. I've a boy of my own bound for the front ere long," he added, opting for a plausible half-truth.

"Perhaps it's we who ought ask forgiveness of you," the duke replied gently. "You can set the tray on the sideboard," he gestured toward the polished wooden cabinet, "and go. Send someone for it in an hour's time."

"Thank you, Your Grace," Rumple said, still murmuring. Moritz, he thought to himself. In two centuries, the pronunciation would soften to Maurice. He had no doubt that it was this son whose line would beget a namesake—one who would prove to be Belle's progenitor.

He was able to compose himself long enough to do as he'd been instructed, but once outside the room, he teleported himself back to the barbican room and all but collapsed onto the bed.

The duke, he realized, was no 'useless fool', despite Zoso's description. Nor was he some heartless noble, caring not a whit for the peasant children he sent to die. No, if anything, his fault lay in the opposite direction: he was a good man trapped in a bad situation.

Rumple shook his head vigorously, as though to shake the realization from his mind. He didn't want to empathize with the man. He much preferred seeing him as a ruthless, unfeeling child-snatcher.

Give it a few years. They'll be saying the same thing about you. With as much justification.

Yes, as the Dark One, he would separate children from their parents. Some would live, some die, but all would have their familial bonds severed and most through no fault of their own. He'd have reasons for it. Excuses. Rationalizations. And some might even be valid, but the damage would still be done.

If Zoso hadn't put up the protection spell—as neat a job as any Rumple might ever do—he'd go now; end the Ogre War, end the Southern Plains War, save all the children, let everyone go home. He'd do it in a heartbeat and pay whatever price the magic exacted. But he couldn't.

Well, then, he thought furiously, there had to be some other way. And he had just a bit over a day to think of it! Just a bit over a day to locate the dagger and find a hiding place nearby. Just a bit over a day.

It would have to suffice.

Pen Marmor, the following morning

Baelfire watched in confusion as his papa set the cauldron of sheep fat on the fire and handed him a large stick.

"Keep that fire good and stoked, Bae," Papa told him, as he wound wool fiber about a stout stick of wood. "The sheep's fat needs to be liquid. And get that wool good and soaked."

Bae obeyed, but his bewilderment only grew. "Why are we doing this, Papa?" he asked. "This is good wool we can spin and sell."

Another time, perhaps, Rumple might have praised his son's head for business, but fear and determination kept him focused on the task at hand. "These are our keys to the castle son," he explained, and as he continued, Bae's eyes grew wider. At first, Rumple thought that it was in wonder, but as Bae spoke, he quickly realized the truth. Bae was afraid for him. Afraid he'd fail. But not afraid to fight if he had to. And when Rumple tried to alert him to the danger, he realized his mistake.

"So it's true, then," Bae said sadly.

"What?"

"It's true. It's true you ran."

Rumple did his best to explain that he'd had no choice, but he knew his son wasn't convinced. Especially when Bae asked about his mother. For that, Rumple had no qualms about telling him she'd died. True he had no proof, but pirates were not known to treat their captives kindly, particularly not women seized for—

Enough. Enough. He'd been branded a coward when he'd maimed himself and fled the field. He'd known it was true when he hadn't fought for Milah's safety.

A man unwilling to fight for what he wants deserves what he gets. The pirate's taunt rang afresh in his ears and Rumple's jaw set. He wouldn't lose Bae from fear of doing what needed done. He would fight for his boy like he hadn't fought for Milah or even for himself.

Bae asked him what they were to do and with renewed purposefulness, he said, "The duke's castle is made of stone, but the floors and the rafters are made of wood."

Still perplexed, Bae queried why any of that mattered.

A determined smile spread Rumple's lips. "Because wood burns…"

Chapter 22: Chapter Twenty-Two

Notes:

A/N: Crowsblossom is my own invention. The name 'Eliant' turns up as one of Arthur's knights in the Mort Artu. No real significance here beyond my wanting an actual fictional knight's name and but not wanting to use anyone famous who might have appeared/been name-dropped in 5A and slipped my mind.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Two

Hordor grunted his approval the next morning when he inspected Rumple's handiwork. "There might be something worked out after all," he said slowly, rubbing a golden straw between thumb and forefinger. "It will take time, and for now, your boy goes to the front with the others, but he likely won't stay long. With this, His Grace can hire mercenaries. Trained soldiers who know their craft. Perhaps they'll join our ranks before the current crop of recruits enters the field."

Zoso had been right, Rumple realized. His spinning hadn't even delayed the fate intended for his boy. Still he tamped down his anger enough to plead as Hordor doubtless expected, "M-my lord, please. Please, he's my only child. Couldn't you have him sent to a post behind the lines? A-a cook perhaps. Or a medic; he knows the herbs to staunch bleeding and turn away infection."

"As do most village children," Hordor replied, unimpressed. "If he were a smith, perhaps. If he could read and translate Ogrish, I could put in a word. Even then," he said, "it wouldn't be my decision. Once I deliver a recruit to the army, he's sent for training. After that, his assignment is determined by his commanding officer." He shrugged. "There are other youth in similar circ*mstances. We're at war." He held up a handful of golden straws. "But these may help to end it sooner. I'll see to it you've more raw materials."

He swept out of the room and Rumple heard the door lock behind him. The spinner clenched his teeth. Let them bring in more straw. Once the delivery was done and he could be assured of solitude, he was going to locate the dagger as he would have done last night, had he not been sidetracked.

He didn't delude himself that Bae's life depended on his actions. Bae would be safe no matter what; Rumple knew that. But 'safe' wasn't good enough. The seer had predicted that Bae would grow up fatherless. And Rumple would do anything in his power to avert that prophecy. Anything.

"I'll want henbane and hemlock," Fendrake informed Zelena the next day. "A basket's worth of each."

Zelena raised an eyebrow. "Isn't that your other helper's job?" she demanded.

Fendrake peered down his nose at her. "I only have one helper," he said mildly. "And one aspiring pupil. Since meditation has thus far failed to unlock your talent, and since my porridges, soups, and stews now only go half so far as formerly, I think it's time you earned your keep. I trust you know how to identify the plants in question?"

Zelena lowered her eyes, feeling her face grow hot. "Yes, Master Fendrake," she said as pleasantly as she could.

"Off you go then."

"Wait," Zelena said. "I know henbane grows where it's sandy and that's easy enough seeing as we're right by the sea. But hemlock is found by stream borders. Where am I to find one of those?"

"It grows in neglected meadows as well," Fendrake informed her. "You'll find one a league or so to the north, through where the tree cover is thinnest along the main road. I expect you won't be back till near supper time, so here," he handed her a small burlap travel bag. "You'll find bread, cheese, and dried fruit in there, as well as a flask of water." As she started to smile, he continued, "I'll defer the accounting until such time as you're able to pay."

"Thank you," Zelena murmured, trying to hide her sarcasm, as she took down two woven 'angling' baskets from the stand of cubbyhole shelves by the tent flap, made certain that the lids would fasten securely, and slung a leather carry strap over each shoulder.

As she proceeded down the path, a small smile played on her lips. The meadow, she realized, had to be right around where the duke's palace was. Fendrake had just handed her the perfect opportunity to slip away. If her plan tonight failed, she could return here with the herbs and an excuse that it had taken longer than expected for her to find them. Ah, but if it succeeded! If it succeeded, then she would still return, but it would be with a Dark One in her thrall.

And it would be Master Fendrake who would pay!

The chamberlain came by while Hordor's people were trucking in the bales of straw. "Will you truly be able to spin all of this?" he asked, wondering.

Rumple shrugged. "It seems I've been set a greater task today than yesterday," he replied, tacking on a 'milord' at the end, but making it sound almost like an afterthought, rather than a near oversight.

The chamberlain let it slide. "And you've been fed well?"

Rumple shrugged again. "I've no complaints, milord. My village is starving and with fewer able-bodied people available to work the fields, that's not likely to change. I daresay I'm eating better than those I left behind me."

"This war has us all minding our larders," the chamberlain said. "Of course, you and your kind are likely more accustomed to such things," he added pleasantly. "Such economies as you employ as a matter of course come harder to men like myself, I fear. I doubt our fare at the high table varies significantly from yours."

Rumple smiled and ducked his head, even as he noted that the chamberlain hadn't deigned to ask him how he'd been fed. It wasn't so much that Rumple would have complained. The millet porridge might have been thin, but it had been made with milk, and not water. And steamed fish was a treat his younger self had seldom been able to enjoy; spinning left him no time to learn such things as fishing and, not knowing the art, he'd never been able to teach Bae. True, Bae might have learned from the other village youth, but Rumple didn't like for his son to be so close to the water. Pirates had carried off Milah a decade ago. At the time, Rumple had never suspected that she'd gone of her own free will. He'd believed as he'd been led to—his wife had been abducted. Well, the army might have set the age of conscription at fourteen, but sailors could be impressed into the navy at ten. And pirates? One seldom heard of their asking a potential cabin boy his age. If they could abduct a woman from a wharf tavern in broad daylight, what was to prevent them from carrying off a child? So, he ate fish when he could afford to buy it from the fishmonger, and that had never been often. With the war exacting higher taxes and tithes every year, it had been a long time since he'd been able to make such purchases. No, while his current status sometimes seemed as though it resembled that of a slave in all but name, he did recognize the small amenities. But he certainly wasn't staying here to avail himself of them and had the chamberlain actually wanted his thoughts, Rumple would have been quick to express a lack of gratitude! And for the chamberlain to imply that he in any way envied Rumple his poverty as some sort of coping mechanism...! Here was a useless fool indeed! And Rumple saw no use in a prolonged conversation with one.

So he continued to smile as he reached for more straw to spin until the chamberlain and the servants bringing in the bales had all gone. Then he assumed his glamor once more and, unwilling to waste more time skulking about unfamiliar corridors, listened for the song of Zoso's dagger and willed himself toward it.

The meadow was within sight of the castle walls. Zelena found the hemlock easily enough; there was a stream meandering through the area. It didn't take her long to cut a number of leaves—it was too late in the season for blooms—and fill her basket with them. She was glad enough for the heavy leather gardening gloves. Hemlock in small doses was an effective pain reliever, but a larger dose often proved deadly. She had no wish to get any on her hands before she ate! She was glad that she'd already acquired the henbane on her way.

With both herbs harvested, she removed her gloves and shoved them into the pocket of the apron Fendrake had given—no, advanced—her. When she reached the meadow's edge and emerged through the trees onto the main road, she found a parade of farmers and tradespeople occupying the road, all bound for the castle gates. Some drove wagons laden with bushels of produce and sacks of grain and milled flour. Others carried their wares in hand, or in straw baskets hanging from yokes or lightweight poles. A number of scrawny girls in threadbare dresses bore clay jugs on quilted mats on their heads. Boys herded goats and barnyard fowl.

Zelena smiled. While her own palace in Oz had been a more dignified place, she knew that many castles had the custom of holding markets in their bailey courtyards. It saved palace servants the trouble of journeying into town for their wares and it made merchants and customers alike feel safer within castle walls than out in the open where bandits and ruffians might prey more easily. Privately, Zelena doubted that armed guards truly deterred a decent pickpocket or footpad—reason enough for her not to host such a throng in her own domain. But, she thought with a smile, if this 'Duke of the Frontlands' preferred things this way, she could use his magnanimity to her advantage.

She brushed her clothing off, patted her hair in hopes that any twigs or leaves that might have attached themselves therein would fall off and that she might look somewhat presentable. And then she stepped onto the road, joining the throng as they made their way through the palace gate, eyes alert for any opportunity to slip into the castle proper, where she knew that the dagger awaited. It proved easier than she'd thought.

The castle guards' eyes flickered over each member of the party briefly and, after that cursory inspection, most were waved through. Several of the men carried hunting knives in their belts, which they were asked to relinquish, each receiving a claim chit for later retrieval. Those bearing staves or slings were unchallenged; Zelena guessed that it was edged weapons that posed the concern. She smiled. Really, they weren't thinking cleverly at all. In the right hands, just about anything could be a weapon. A belt or scarf might make a fine garrote. The heel of a boot could inflict a nasty wound. Or…

She smiled. Once she found what she sought, she'd need to ensure that she could approach it with nobody the wiser. And it occurred to her that the means of so doing might just be found at an apothecary stall that was in the process of opening. True, she had no money with her, but she'd gathered quite a bit of henbane and hemlock for Fendrake. Perhaps she could trade a portion of that for something that would be of better use to her…

They were barely a quarter mile from the village when Bae realized that his father was perspiring heavily. "Papa?" he ventured. "Maybe we should rest. It's nearly noon; we can wait in the shade until the sun's not overhead."

Rumple shook his head and kept moving. "There's no time, son," he murmured. "Not if we're to reach the castle before they clear the bailey for the evening."

"Well, maybe I can run back and see if Morraine's father can spare his plow horse, now it's harvest time," he suggested. "It'll be easier; we'll make better time."

"No!" Rumple fought down the wave of anger that tended to surface when he was frightened and trying not to appear frightened. "No," he repeated, a bit more softly. "I'll not be beholden any man if I don't have to be. And if aught should befall his animal while it's in our care, he's lost more than enough already," he added.

They continued on in silence for a few minutes. Then, Bae asked hesitantly, "Do you think she's all right, yet? Morraine. You don't think she's…" his mouth was dry, "already… I-I mean…"

Rumple smiled and patted his son's shoulder. "No, not yet. Perhaps, not at all. Not every soldier sent to the front is sent into battle. There are always some who must cook and clerk. And even those meant for battle receive some training, for all the good it does them." He thought back. "I think mine lasted six weeks, though I can't say whether that's yet true. But if I'm successful this evening," he took another breath and one more step forward, "then she'll be back home safe in her parents' arms by this time tomorrow."

Bae's smile steadied him and frightened though he still was, he felt his resolve harden and he pushed onward.

In his near fourteen years, Rumple reflected, Bae must surely have known the talk in the village. He had to have heard, just as Rumple himself had, that he was a coward's son. But yesterday had been the first time that Rumple had thought his son believed it and that recognition had cut the spinner deeply. He didn't want to see that pain or disillusionment in his son's eyes again. And while the gossip might be true for the moment, come the morning, the bards would be singing a different song.

He pressed his walking staff into the dust of the road and pushed on.

The dagger's call was sweet to his ears, but there was an insistent irritating quality to it, too. The closer he got, the harder it was for him to think of anything but its siren song, urging him onward and yet, oddly, there was a dissonance in its melody that seemed simultaneously to repel him.

Soon, it seemed to tell him. Soon, I will bear your name, but not yet. I am not yet for you.

The idea of stabbing Zoso now came to him again. He didn't actually know that doing so would remove himself from the timeline. Maybe this would be akin to ruching—compressing and gathering the timeline like one would a piece of fabric for ruffles. Maybe he'd end up right where he was supposed to, just a bit earlier.

Earlier. He frowned, as he rounded the bend in the corridor. He'd realized in time that he didn't want to be directly in front of the dagger when he teleported, nor just outside the room. Later tonight, his younger self would set this hall ablaze and the chamber that housed the dagger would be left unguarded. But at this hour, such was unlikely to be the case and magically appearing before the duke's security forces might get rather messy. Rumple had no compunctions about using magic to subdue a threat when necessary, but age and experience had taught him that there were other approaches. The guards would merely be doing their jobs; he had no intention of harming them directly, nor of having them punished for dereliction of duty if, say, they were found to be sleeping on the job. One might hope that their superiors would consider the possibility that their condition had been magically induced, but one oughtn't to bank on it.

But the chamber door was unguarded. Rumple's eyes narrowed. Was the duke truly so naïve or trusting as to leave an item like the dagger unprotected? True, a command from him could keep Zoso from trying to steal it back, but surely he wouldn't risk someone else coming after it.

He did his best to assume the air of one with business in this part of the palace as he advanced. There was a guard station here, he realized. A recessed alcove, just to the left of the chamber door. But it was unoccupied. Curious. Rumple drew nearer. On a wooden shelf in the alcove was an earthenware cup. Eyes narrowed, Rumple picked it up. The dregs of some liquid remained there yet. Cautiously, he dipped a finger in and touched it delicately to his tongue. Tea. Tea and something else, something sweet. Sugar? No, there was a bitter aftertaste and something almost, but not quite, like a blend of clove and hazelnut… Crowsblossom. The tea had been laced with crowsblossom. And if he could detect its flavor in so small a sample, he imagined that it had been administered in a concentrated form.

His frown deepened. Crowsblossom, he knew, was a very powerful laxative. A liberal dose would definitely cause cramping, sweats, and nausea, in addition to the effect for which it was best known. The guard was, in all likelihood, currently shaking and moaning in some nearby garderobe. So, Rumple thought. It seems I'm not the only individual attempting to slip by undetected. He debated teleporting inside the room, but without knowing what awaited within, he thought he'd feel the better with an exit at his back than an armed or magic-wielding foe. All the same, he was careful to make as little sound as possible as he eased the door open.

There was someone in the room; a woman with her back to him in a simple village dress, her hair tied back in a long, neat braid, from which reddish curls struggled to escape. Was she an underservant, here to sweep up? But she carried neither broom, nor mop, nor even a dust cloth. In fact, she was behaving in a manner one might call suspicious, pressing on stones, lifting knickknacks, even attempting to twist the carved ornaments that adorned the wall trim. Had he stumbled upon a thief, then?

And then she turned to face him and, despite himself, his heart began to race.

Zelena!

Zelena's eyes widened at the sight of the liveried servant. Oh, this was bad! She'd neutralized the guard, but why had she not considered that others might enter the room as well? She smiled uneasily. "I was told that there was a passage in here that would lead to the kitchen," she said, lowering her eyes.

It took Rumple a moment to remember his glamour spell. Of course, she didn't know it was he! But seeing her again brought back the memories of the year he'd spent as her captive in full force and it was all he could do to answer, "Oh?"

Zelena swallowed. "I-I'm new here," she mumbled. "I suppose that someone was playing a cruel trick, hoping to get me in trouble."

"No doubt," Rumple managed, doing his best to keep his emotions under control. Whatever he did, it seemed to work, for the witch swallowed again.

"I-I guess I'd better try to find the real way over," she said, walking hastily toward the door behind him.

"Indeed," Rumple replied, realizing that, at least for the moment, he was safe. She didn't know who he was. And she wasn't supposed to be here. He was starting to enjoy this, although he maintained his composure until she was past him and he heard her footsteps moving off hastily. Then, chuckling a bit under his breath, he walked directly over to the hanging banner he'd approached all those years ago and would approach for the first time later tonight, and pushed it aside.

His smile dropped. "No…." Rumple breathed. "No, how…?"

The dagger wasn't there. He was staring at an empty compartment. But… but the song! He'd homed in on it, so how could the blade not be here?

And then he realized that the back wall of the compartment had a seam on one side, and a small, round indentation on the other. Calling light to his hand, he brought it to the indentation and realized that he was looking at the head of a screw. He blinked. Those things were common enough back in Storybrooke, but in the Enchanted Forest, something of a novelty. He wasn't sure that there was a single screwdriver—or turnscrew, to use the common vernacular—in the whole of Pen Marmor. But as to what a screw was doing here, well, it was clearly holding something in place.

Rumple looked at the seam again and he smiled. He'd wager that he was looking at a door. A door whose hinges were on the other side of the wall. And if the hinges were there, then the screw was probably attached to the knob. The cabinet was set in the wall between two chambers, and it could be opened from either side! The dagger was on the other side of the wall! His magic had brought him as close as it could to it without risking his being spotted… which meant that at present, there was somebody in the room with the dagger. Cautiously, keeping alert for footsteps down the hallway behind him, Rumple leaned into the cabinet. Yes, there were at least two people in the room beyond. He leaned in closer, to try to listen to what they were saying.

The duke reminded himself yet again that the emissary standing before him was merely performing the task that he'd been commanded. The knight in question was well-mannered, polite, and the laugh lines in the corners of his piercing hazel eyes bespoke a jovial personality. In other circ*mstances, the duke might have liked him. Unfortunately, as matters stood, the knight was but the latest in a long line of messengers sent by the king, all with the same demand. Briefly, the duke's hand strayed to the dagger at his hip. He wouldn't really unleash the Dark One on a mere messenger, and probably not on the fool who'd sent him. The king was his liege lord, after all, and some things just shouldn't be done. Probably shouldn't be contemplated either, but the duke couldn't control every thought that passed through his mind. Instead, he caught up a rolled parchment from the table beside his chair, and half rose, extending it toward his guest.

"Here," the duke offered and, as the knight came forward to take it, he elaborated, "It's the latest casualty list. Were our sovereign not currently embroiled in this other war, it would be me petitioning him for more troops. But understanding his situation, I know it would be folly to trouble him with such matters. However, if I cannot reliably defend the land that is my holding, how then am I to divert troops to a territory many weeks' ride away?"

The knight had the decency to lower his eyes and say nothing for a moment. When he lifted them again, though, his gaze was direct. "Your Grace," he began, "His Majesty is not insensible to your predicament. Of course, the border must be defended and it's understandable that a soldier's first loyalty is to his home fief. But as matters stand, yours is one of the only holdings that has delivered up to His Majesty no soldiers."

"I sent five wagon-loads of grain and three dozen barrels of good ale," the duke protested. "My own people look to a lean winter and less seed for spring planting. But as His Majesty's loyal subject, I—!"

"Be at peace, Your Grace," the knight said, raising his hands in a gesture that was meant to be placating. "His Majesty does not doubt your loyalty. All the same, though," he continued, "he does ask that you commit some… token troops to his forces. Perhaps, you've some in your holding whose loyalty isn't what it ought to be?"

The duke's eyes narrowed. "What are you suggesting?" he asked.

"Only that, if the land has been beggared," the knight said smoothly, "then it's understandable that it cannot feed those who must depend on it. And while some make do with less or seek honest means to acquire more, well, there are always those who would rob their fellows of the little they possess. Those who lie in wait for travelers on the road." His voice rose as he warmed to his subject. "Those who treacherously seek to avoid service to their liege, and whose actions may even cause those whose steadfastness was never in question to begin to doubt."

The duke's frown deepened, but the ire in his voice had lessened when he spoke again. "If I understand what you're suggesting…?"

"Subversive elements cannot be tolerated in wartime," the knight replied. "Or at any other, in my opinion, but particularly not now. Doubtless your dungeon currently houses a number of footpads and brigands. Perhaps the odd deserter, as well? Your Grace, it's been my experience and those of many of our fellow nobles that the average miscreant, when offered a choice between ten years at hard labor or five years of army service, the overwhelming majority will choose the army. But to then thrust such people in among their loyal and law-abiding countrymen, perhaps the very countrymen they robbed or otherwise harmed, is often asking for trouble. I've known many soldiers who've taken it upon themselves to… weed out such varlets and, while one can scarcely blame them, a company fares the worse when it thins its own ranks before it faces the enemy." He smiled. "But if they were to serve their sentences in temporary exile, where their names and crimes were unknown…?"

For the first time since the knight had announced his mission, the duke's lips spread in a slow smile. "It really would be an opportunity for them to start over, wouldn't it?" he murmured.

"And if they acquit themselves well on the battlefield, their commanding officers are likely to apportion them a share of the spoils. They might well return home in circ*mstances far improved from those in which they departed."

"They might, at that," the duke nodded. "And now I think on it, our food supply is scant enough without supporting those who do little to earn it." He reached up and tugged once on the narrow strip of patterned cloth that hung by his chair. From somewhere outside the room, a bell chimed and, a moment later, a liveried servant entered with a bow.

The duke smiled. "I require an accounting of all criminals currently incarcerated here awaiting judgment: their names, their crimes, and—" he raised an eyebrow in the knight's direction. "—Ages, as well, I suppose?"

The knight nodded. "And whether they are able-bodied or no, Your Grace."

The duke nodded and focused on the servant once more. "See to it."

"I'll inform the records clerk at once, Your Grace."

The duke smiled after the servant departed. "Well, Sir…?"

"Eliant, Your Grace."

"Sir Eliant," the duke nodded, "I must say this meeting has been more pleasant than I'd expected. Tell me, are you given to falconry?"

Sir Eliant's eyes lit up. "I've seldom the opportunity for it now," he said, "though I was reckoned something of an expert in my younger days."

"Well," the duke said, his smile broadening, "perhaps we'll grant you the opportunity to indulge that pastime again on the morrow…"

Rumple let the wall hanging fall back into place. He wasn't sure what to make of the conversation he'd just overheard. It had been interesting, to be sure, but of no real concern to him. In less than a day, if things continued on the path they originally had, the Ogres War would be over. And, so far as he knew, nobody from Pen Marmor was ever called to fight in this other war. In fact, last night had been the first Rumple had heard of it. He smiled a bit to himself. Either that war would resolve itself shortly without any assistance on his part, or the duke would realize that it would be unwise to conscript soldiers from the village that the new Dark One would yet call home for several months.

His smile dropped as he found himself wondering what would happen after his departure. When Bae was gone, he too would leave the village, and he would never return. Its fate had never concerned him before, but now he asked himself whether anything he'd done here had ever made a jot of difference after all.

He sighed to himself. In all likelihood, he would never learn that answer, and it was no good worrying about it now. He knew where the dagger was stored, and while it wasn't in that spot now, it would be tonight.

He wondered what Zelena had been doing here, if she'd known that the dagger was supposed to be here. During his year of slavery, she had asked him all manner of questions about his past and his power and how it had come to him. He didn't remember specifics very well; between the forgetting potion and carrying Bae's mind in his head, much of that year was a blur. But if she had been able to get the story of his becoming the Dark One out of him, then there was every reason to suspect that she too would be back here tonight.

He didn't know precisely what it was she had in mind, but he did know that whatever it was would almost certainly be to his detriment. He had to plan. He had to prepare. But for now, he needed to get back to the barbican room, lest Hordor or one of his underlings look in and find him missing. There was nothing he could do about Zelena for now.

But tonight would be another matter.

Heart pounding, Zelena re-entered the courtyard and did her best to blend in, examining merchandise, occasionally haggling for something to pass the time, but always bidding far less than the merchant's price. She had no money, after all, but simply loitering and wandering for hours at a time might be deemed suspicious behavior. It was, to her mind, precisely the sort of activity that a would-be assassin might indulge in, particularly here, inside the castle gates. And Zelena had no intention of calling any unwanted scrutiny unto herself. Not when—as was now apparent—she was going to need to slip back here after hours.

She hadn't found the dagger. She knew Rumple hadn't lied about its whereabouts. Months ago, when he'd been her captive yet, she'd interrogated him repeatedly about it: how he'd learned of it, how it had come into his possession, the nature of the tether that bound him in its thrall… everything she could think of. At the time, it had simply been a way to pass the days while Snow's pregnancy progressed. Forcing Rumple to open up to her about his past, dragging every delicious detail out of him, and watching him squirm and try unsuccessfully to evade her queries, well, she wouldn't deny that she'd found his frustration at being unable to resist her to be intoxicating. She'd never actually thought she'd need those stories for anything useful.

But the dagger hadn't been where he'd told her it was. He couldn't have lied; not when she'd commanded him not to at blade-point. Her mind ran through the possibilities. One: Rumple had changed the past somehow, and the dagger was elsewhere. Two: Rumple hadn't always been coherent when she'd questioned him. While he couldn't have lied, his mind might have been somewhat befuddled. He could have been hazy on some of the details. After all, she had been asking him to reconstruct the events of some two centuries earlier. The truth as he remembered it might differ from the truth that had actually been. Three: Rumple's accounting had been accurate and she'd been in the right place. And tonight, when Rumple came to claim it, the dagger would be right where it was supposed to be. And she would be waiting.

For now, though, she thought it best to stay in the courtyard. When the market closed for the evening, surely in the general confusion, she could slip back inside. She knew exactly how Rumple meant to take the dagger. And since she had no intention of taking it until it was his name engraved on the blade, she merely needed to seek some unguarded place to sequester herself within the castle…

…And later this evening, when the bell would toll its fire warning, she would have but to follow the smoke.

Chapter 23: Chapter Twenty-Three

Notes:

A/N: According to a respondent on TripAdvisor, deciduous trees in the UK (or, at least more specifically, London) reportedly used to commonly change color in September/October, though today it's generally more like November.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Three

Belle's eyes had always been one of her more arresting features. They were all the more striking when a mask and hood obscured the rest of her face. "I remember you used to like this," she said with a smile in her voice, as she set an insulated bowl down on the table by his bed.

Rumple pressed the bed control to raise the top part of the mattress, so he was half sitting up. As he removed the cover from the bowl, the aromas of saffron, cinnamon and cloves wafted toward him. The barley had assumed a golden hue, doubtless owing to the saffron. "Dried cherries?" he asked, smiling a bit as he indicated several deep burgundy objects in the porridge.

Belle nodded. "And blueberries and raisins. Uh… if it tastes a bit off, sorry. Dr. Whale suggested adding a bit of protein powder. Vanilla. I mean, it comes in a few flavors and I thought maybe strawberry, but I realized I could probably do more with…"

Rumple waved her gently to silence and took a spoonful. His smile widened. "I do notice a difference," he admitted, "but I think it owes more to the fact that vanilla wasn't a flavoring I was familiar with, back in our land." He took another spoonful. "I think this is quite the improvement."

Behind her mask, Belle gave a relieved laugh. "I'm glad you like it. You… uh… I think you look better today."

"I feel a bit better," Rumple admitted. "Though I'm a far cry from healed, yet, I'm afraid."

"You'll get there."

"With you," he supplied, with just a hint of a question in his voice.

Gloved hands sandwiched his free hand in a warm grip. "Always." He could hear the smile in her voice and dared offer one of his own in return.

He managed to eat nearly half the porridge, before he replaced the insulated lid over the bowl. "I'll finish it later," he assured her. "Since you've all found a way for me to retain most of my magic, I'll be able to refresh it when I'm ready."

Belle nodded, her eyes crinkling a bit at the corners. She sobered again, almost at once. "Regina told me," she ventured, "that Neal…" She took his hand once more. "I don't… If you'd rather not talk about it, I understand, but if you want to…?"

Rumple sighed. "I don't think I care to relate how I lost him," he said slowly. "Not now. But… we were together for a time. A good long time," he added with feeling. "And despite some rather penurious circ*mstances, we were quite happy…"

By September, the weather was turning chillier. Rumple and Bae had spent some of their hard-earned wages at the second-hand clothing market in Spitalfields to procure appropriate attire. There were pawnshops closer by, but by now, Rumple had come to realize that many people in the neighborhood turned in their 'Sunday best' during the week, to tide them over until their next pay, at which point, they redeemed the garments. At least, such was the typical plan. At times, though, unexpected expenses would crop up and force them to leave the clothing in the shop a bit longer. Once a certain deadline passed—often, but not always, thirty days—the shop would make the items available for purchase. It was understood. It was fair. It was perfectly legal. But Rumple was still unwilling to take advantage of another's misfortune when that other, much like he and Bae, was likely also scrabbling just to get by. Even as the Dark One, he'd much preferred bringing the powerful low than the destitute lower.

The clothes they purchased might not have been the height of fashion, but they were warm and designed to last, much as would have been the case in Pen Marmor. They'd had to examine them closely; people here were slow to discard a garment whose only crime was that of being part of the previous year's fashion catalog. Rumple knew a thing or two about getting stains out, and frayed stitching was easy enough to replace. It was a near-impossible task to find clothing that required neither amelioration.

Still, they'd done well enough and even had coins remaining for the tube fare.

"Bae?" Rumple noticed his son was lagging behind, peering in the window of a florist shop and drinking in its wares as a somewhat younger child might have, had the merchandise been sweetmeats.

Bae blinked and turned back. "Sorry, Papa," he said at once. "I guess I miss greenery."

Rumple understood what he meant. There were no trees in their part of the city and wildflowers didn't last long, sprouting between the pavement cobblestones. Gardens were for the wealthier areas. Still, there were a few options of which even the likes of them could avail themselves.

"Well," he said, "I suppose we could spend Saturday afternoon in Kensington Gardens. It must be a fine sight in daylight, and if we're to go, we probably ought to before the weather turns completely." He rather thought that London winters were milder than Maine's—or Pen Marmor's for that matter, but he wasn't certain if such was the case in this time, before global warming would be a concern.

Bae's face lit up at once. "That would be perfect, Papa! And could we stop at the stationery shop on the way home? If I could get some paper and charcoal, it's been ages since I've done any drawing!"

"I believe we might have enough for that," Rumple nodded. "Though I think you might also bring your history book along on the day."

Bae started to roll his eyes. Then he brightened. "You're right, Papa. It'll be good to have something hard to lean the paper on when I'm sketching."

Rumple smiled ruefully. His son laughed.

Saturday dawned overcast and foggy, but by the time the bank closed at noon, the sun was out. Rumple might have considered walking the distance, had it not been over four miles away. His ankle was starting to pain him a bit; a sign that winter was on its way. He made a mental note that they ought to look for better lodgings. Something with fewer flights of stairs, he thought. No, it would be the 'two-penny tube' for them today. And perhaps, if he rested the joint, it would cooperate enough that they could walk back.

He smiled at Bae. The boy was beaming as though they'd just arrived at Longbourne Fair. Rumple supposed he couldn't blame him. They'd spent these last three months getting their bearings, learning their way in this new world in which they found themselves. And while Rumple did have his curse memories to guide him, in some ways, Bae had the advantage.

Rumple wasn't quite fool enough to ask about computers or radios or other technology that was yet decades away from realization. However, there were a number of machines that, although already in existence, were not widely used. For example, the only reason that he currently had a job at the bank was because his penmanship allowed him to create legible copies of various documents. And yet, the typewriter had been patented about a half-century earlier. While its use was spreading, the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank still clung to tradition. At least, for now.

Typing was not a skill that had been imparted to him by the aforementioned curse memories, and he'd never had reason or occasion to learn it after the curse had broken. Well, he certainly had reason now, if he was to settle down in this place and time. And he thought he knew how to begin going about doing so.

"Bae," he ventured, "I-I was thinking. Perhaps, next week, we might call on that Birkbeck place you mentioned some time back. Now I do mean for you to sit the scholarship examination," he added quickly, even as his son's face lit up. "But I suppose it couldn't hurt to see what sort of classes they offer. Perhaps there'll be something to give you an advantage when the time comes."

And hopefully, one of those classes would be touch typing, so that when the bank was finally dragged fully into the twentieth century, Rumple would not find himself wanting for employment anew.

Bae knew he was going to need gloves before much longer. As much as he told Papa that his coat pockets were warm and they could save the money, the fingers that held the narrow piece of coal to the page were feeling a bit stiff. Still, he glanced again at the blue-headed bird with the yellow breast that was perched in a beech tree, standing out in bright contrast to the red leaves surrounding it. He looked down at his sketch again and added a few more lines. He wondered what one did for colors here. Back home, he'd found a number of berries that were either unsafe for eating or far too sour to be palatable, but which, when pressed, yielded juices of red, blue, and purple. He even knew of one with a faint yellowish tint, too faint to be of much use on its own, but helpful if he wanted to get a lighter shade from one of the other juices. He'd realized some time ago, that if grass could stain an article of clothing, it could also be used for dye, though he wasn't quite sure how to extract it in any measure. Papa hadn't been able to help him with that either, but he'd suggested that Bae might want to inquire of Wilona, the village dyer.

"If you're that interested, she might consider taking you on as her apprentice," he'd mentioned, when Bae had been about nine. And when Bae had hesitated, added, "It's a respectable trade, Bae. And one that might enhance my own. Many customers would rather pay extra for thread and fabric already colored than go to the inconvenience of getting it done themselves."

He'd thought about it. Even gone by Wilona's shop, but the dyer, a hard woman, still grieving the husband she'd lost to the Ogre War nearly a decade before, had been caustically berating a customer who seemed plagued by indecision. Bae thought he could still hear her demanding, "Well, did you want robin's egg blue or river? Or perhaps, sky? Azure? What am I to make of 'blue' when there are upwards of fifty colors of that name?"

And the hapless customer stammering, "Uh, l-light blue?"

As Wilona gathered her breath for another blast of invective, Bae had cautiously and prudently crept past the shop, his head bent low that she not spot him through the window.

So, Bae had never learned how to make those other colors and he had yet to see a berry he recognized as fit for the purpose in this new land. For now, he was making do with charcoal, but if money came a bit more easily, Robertson Ay had told him of paint-boxes that contained every color imaginable—or at least twenty! It was something to wish for.

Bae was shading in the bird's head, and the narrow stripe of feathers that ran down its chest, when it took to the air and flew off. The boy sighed, but he wasn't all that put out; the sketch was nearly complete. He could finish it later, even without its subject present. Meanwhile, his hand was starting to cramp a bit, and he decided that he could rest it for a bit. He closed the sketch book, set it down on the grass beside him, and opened the history book he'd been holding beneath it. Leaning back against the tree behind him, he raised the book to eye level and started to review the last lesson he'd had with Mr. Banks.

"I say!" a youthful voice exclaimed. "That's one of my books!"

Bae set down volume at once, to see a bespectacled youth a couple of years his junior smiling at him. Although there wasn't a cloud in the sky, the boy carried an umbrella in one hand and a top hat—the kind Bae had only seen adults wear here, and then only if they were going out for the evening—on his head. Behind him trailed a girl about his own age, a much younger boy, and a large St. Bernard who, strangely, gave Bae the impression that it was the one in charge.

Bae hesitated, not intending to give offense, but not ready to hand the book over either. "It was loaned to me," he said quickly, wondering if this boy expected to be addressed as 'sir' or 'governor'. He'd heard Robertson Ay use both terms, though Bae wasn't clear on when to use one over the other.

The boy laughed, but it wasn't a nasty laugh. "No, I meant I've one at home just like it. How far have you read?"

Bae glanced down at the page. "Um… Edward the Confessor," he said.

The boy sighed. "Dash it, I was hoping you'd reached the Restoration. It sounds jolly exciting, but my class hasn't got that far, yet and if you had, I thought perhaps, we could discuss it."

"John!" the girl remonstrated, drawing closer. "Where are your manners? You haven't even introduced yourself."

The boy rolled his eyes, but a moment later, he extended his hand toward Bae. "How d'you do? My name's John. John Darling." He turned to his sister. "For a formal introduction, oughtn't someone else be here to do it?"

Wendy frowned for a moment. "Well," she said finally, "since nobody is, I suppose I can rise to the occasion." She dipped a careful curtsey. "Allow me to present my brothers, John Napoleon Darling and," she pushed the youngest child slightly forward, "Michael Nicholas Darling." Then she leaned over to John and whispered loudly, "You do me."

"Um..." John cleared his throat importantly. "Good sir, I should like to present my sister, Wendy Moira Angela Darling." He was still holding his hand outstretched.

Bae shook it a bit hesitantly. "Baelfire. Bae," he added. "Uh… Cassidy."

The girl blinked. "Bae? How unusual."

"Wendy," John smirked, "manners?"

The girl blushed. "Well," she said, "now that we've all been introduced—"

The St. Bernard whuffled gently and Wendy smiled. "You're quite right, Nana," she said apologetically. "We haven't all been introduced." She turned back to Bae. "And this is our nurse, Nana."

Nurse? Bae realized that she was quite serious and fought back the laugh that had been rising in his throat. He dropped to one knee and extended his hand, palm up. "Nana? Hey, come here!"

Nana whuffled again, but she came forward, gave his palm a dignified sniff, and then trotted back to Wendy and sat back on her haunches.

"Well, since Nana likes you," Wendy said, "I imagine we can dispense with further inquiries into your character."

Bae tilted his head to one side, unsure what to make of this girl who spoke so formally, but seemed so… not full of herself. "Uh… all right," he said, with a hesitant smile.

The two older children grinned back. "Well then," Wendy said briskly, "what shall we play first?"

"I…" Bae realized that the games he knew back home might not be at all familiar to these new acquaintances. "I don't know; what would you like to play?"

"Follow the Leader?" John suggested.

Then again, maybe things weren't so different after all. He nodded happily. "Sure."

Had Rumple been a younger man, and had sitting on damp ground not been known to distress his ankle, he might have joined Bae under the tree. Instead, he was seated on a wrought-iron bench, some distance away, observing his son.

He'd tensed a bit when the other children had approached. From their clothes and manners, he took them for members of a social class somewhat higher than the one in which he and Bae currently found themselves and, knowing that in this time and place, such distinctions were rather rigidly enforced, he'd been bracing for trouble. No matter that the park was public, if these children meant to act as nobles back home might and order them to go, Rumple knew that it would be prudent not to argue.

He smiled and relaxed when he realized that the children intended no mischief beyond the usual exuberances of youth. Bae had, he realized, not been able to partake of such joys in quite some time. Rumple blamed himself for part of that. He'd become the Dark One and ended the Ogre War so that Bae—and all the other children—would be safe and free to be children. But then, in his fervor to protect his boy and ensure that no hand (or wagon!) would strike him with impunity, he'd forced Bae to put aside childish pursuits. For who, Rumple reflected sadly, would chance the scuffles and tussles of youth if it meant that one's friends (or even total strangers) might be turned into slugs for causing an accidental scrape or bruise?

Bae hadn't truly had the opportunity to be a child since the day that the soldiers had come for Morraine. Rumple's becoming the Dark One had only forced the boy to grow up that much faster. Rumple might have taken the dagger for his son's sake, but his son had taken the bean, made the decision to strike out—not for another village, as Milah had pleaded to, but for a different realm entirely—for his father's. Bae never should have been put in that position, Rumple thought.

And since coming here, Bae hadn't had much opportunity to be a child. At fourteen, he was working an adult's hours, though not quite for an adult's pay. And his wages were needed. The only friend Bae had made thus far, was Robertson Ay, but the older youth's leisure time seldom coincided with Bae's, apart from Sunday afternoons. And while Robertson Ay had cheerfully made it plain that it was his mission in life to do as little work as was needed to maintain his post, he couldn't generally leave the Banks home unless he was sent on some errand—a rare occurrence indeed, since his predilection for dawdling seemed to be known to the entire household of No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane.

So, it did gladden Rumple's heart to see Bae running and playing with these new children and their dog. Still, when their activities took them out of his line of vision, he got up from the bench and walked over to where he could continue to observe.

The sun was getting low in the sky; Rumple judged there to be another hour or so until dusk. Already, shadows were noticeably long, he realized, seeing his own stretching—

Eyes wide, he looked down at the grass again. There was no error. Months ago, he'd sent off his shadow to hide the dagger, lest Zoso hear its song, for all the good that had done. And now the thing was back.

But then, where was the dagger?

He raised an inquiring eyebrow at the silhouette on the grass, but he wasn't surprised when it didn't raise itself to reply. With a troubled expression, he lifted his eyes once more and fixed them on Bae and the others, now romping in the distance.

"You're quiet, Papa," Bae said suddenly. He'd been telling his father about his new friends, commenting about how surprised he'd been to learn that they were Mr. Darling's children, seeing as how they 'hadn't been a bit snooty'."

"I trust you didn't share that observation about their father with them," Rumple had remarked somewhat nervously. He knew Bae hadn't quite outgrown a tendency to speak before he thought, but he hoped his boy had been discreet enough not to disparage a man to his progeny.

"Of course not," Bae had grinned and continued sharing the details of the encounter with his father. And Rumple had assumed an interested air and thought he was nodding at the right places, but clearly, Bae hadn't been fooled.

Now, he shrugged. "I suppose I've a bit on my mind is all," he said, opting for a vague answer over an untruth. "My ankle's always worse in cold weather. I think we might want to look for better lodgings before the winter sets in." He gave Bae an apologetic smile. "The stairs," he added.

Bae gave him an encouraging smile. "Maybe we can find a boarding house where we won't have to give up our beds to other boarders during the day. And that way, we'd get our meals included, so we wouldn't have to keep stopping off to buy on the way back from work when our feet are hurting and we just want to get home." He stopped. "Would it be worth it?" he asked with a frown. "I mean, if our rent includes meals, then the rent would be higher, wouldn't it? Would it still cost less than we're paying now for food and lodgings?"

Rumple smiled. Bae still had his head for business he noted. "Why don't you check the advertisem*nts this week, son?" he suggested. "See what the rates are and compare them to our expenses now. I should think that it would be more or less the same outlay each week, but perhaps you'll prove otherwise."

Bae grinned back. "Sure, I can do that," he nodded. "And we'll find somewhere else before winter, you'll see."

"I'm sure we will," Rumple nodded.

As they walked, though, he was still trying to puzzle out the conundrum of his shadow's reappearance. And then a recollection surfaced from nearly two years earlier.

Graham Humboldt had been a good man. While Rumple had scarcely counted him as a friend, now that the sheriff was dead, it was only proper to attend the funeral and pay his respects.

The crowd parted before him as he approached the grave, his expression solemn as he dropped a single purple gladiolus into it. The flower, he knew, was a symbol of strength and integrity. It was also sometimes called a sword-lily. Rumple couldn't think of a bloom more appropriate for a man who had long ago found within him the strength to disobey a royal command that went against his moral fiber. Rumple had always admired such courage, having so little of his own. But as for where such defiance had led the sheriff…

Some steps behind him, Emma Swan was talking quietly with Mary Margaret Blanchard. Emma still sounded shocked.

"…I-I mean, one minute he's telling Regina it's over between them and he needs something more and then…"

"It was a heart attack," Mary Margaret murmured gently. "Not something you ever think would take down anyone his age. Our age. It just feels so… wrong."

She didn't know the half of it, though she would once her daughter fulfilled her destiny and broke the curse. Rumple wished she'd get on with it already; Bae was waiting in the outside world and Rumple couldn't begin to search for him until the curse was lifted from the town line. Still, it wasn't her fault she'd grown up with nobody to groom her for the role she was meant to perform. He'd just have to be patient a bit longer.

"Funny thing," Emma said, her voice sounding a bit distant. "That it was a heart attack. I don't mean it like it's a joke," she added quickly. "But just before we went to Regina's… mausoleum, Graham was insisting he didn't have a heart. That he had to-to find it. I tried to tell him he wasn't making sense. I even tried to show him that of course he had one. And when I felt it, it was, well it was a little fast, because he was upset, but it was beating. I mean, obviously it was beating, or he wouldn't have been standing there. And now," she added, "I'm wondering whether it wasn't just stress making it beat so fast. Maybe if I'd told him to get it checked out, the hospital would have caught it and he'd still be here!" Her voice was rougher now, as emotion raged and roiled, trying to break free. Mary Margaret hesitated for a moment, before wrapping an arm about the shoulders of the woman she'd one day soon call 'daughter' and pulling her close.

"You can't second-guess these things, Emma. Graham was a young man. There's no way you could have suspected anything was wrong. It's nobody's fault," she continued, her own voice breaking a bit, as she did her best to console the child she didn't know she had. "Nobody's."

But, Rumple realized, Sheriff Humboldt hadn't had a heart in his chest. At the time, he hadn't thought much of it, assuming that, not believing in magic at the time, Emma Swan had simply felt what she'd expected to feel when she'd laid her hand on his ribcage. Certainly, when Pinocchio had later admitted to him that his efforts to kindle such belief had failed, and that Emma hadn't even been able to see that he was reverting to wood, Rumple had assumed that the two denials were of a piece.

But what if they weren't? What if, in a land without magic, one whose heart had been taken somehow acquired an illusory heart to compensate for the loss of the true one? What if, similarly, in a land without magic, he'd somehow acquired an illusory shadow?

Had he his books of magical lore with him now, perhaps he could have found the answer. Instead, he was left to speculate and ponder.

Later that evening, after Bae had gone to bed, he went to the lone window in their room, opened it, and stretched forth his hand, willing his dagger to him. When he'd tried this a year ago, the shadow he'd last seen in Neverland had borne the blade to him in Storybrooke almost at once. But now, the minutes ticked by, and there was no response.

When the chill air grew uncomfortable, Rumple shut the window and readied himself for sleep. But slumber was a long time coming that night.

In Storybrooke hospital, Rumple opened his eyes. He wasn't certain if he'd been sleeping, dozing, or merely lost in his memories. He'd noticed that when he was alone in his room, and had no need to engage in conversation with another, he seemed to slip into a fog quite a bit. He knew from the information sheets that Whale had reviewed with him that at least one of his medications could be responsible. For that matter, it could be chalked up to fatigue from the tuberculosis itself. At any rate, when he'd mentioned it to Whale, the doctor hadn't seemed unduly alarmed.

It was dark in his room now. A glance at the window told him that it was the middle of the night. He thought it had been mid-afternoon the last time he'd looked. Where had the time gone?

A moment later, the irony of that thought struck him and his lips curved in amusem*nt. He recalled now that he hadn't finished the porridge that Belle had brought earlier. Perhaps a staff member had removed it while he'd been oblivious, but if they hadn't, he rather thought he might have the rest now. He reached over and turned on the lamp. Yes, the insulated bowl was still on the side table. He started to reach for it and then he stopped. Eyes wide, he waved his arm before the lamp again.

The result was the same.

His shadow was missing again.

Chapter 24: Chapter Twenty-Four

Notes:

A/N: Some dialogue lifted from S3E22: There's No Place like Home. The Bethnal Green Tube Station did not open until 1946, but the Shoreditch has been in existence since 1876. I haven't been able to find out whether a turn-of-the-twentieth-century East-ender would actually call co*ckney rhyming slang 'co*ckney rhyming slang', but that is what Robertson Gee is using. Apologies if the phrases referenced here didn't come into use until after 1905; finding the vocabulary is relatively easy, but finding out the first use of a given phrase in a particular context is a little trickier.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Four

Three weeks later, Bae excitedly informed Rumple that he'd found a place. "Or, at least, Robertson Ay did," Bae clarified. "His older brother is moving into a housing estate near Bethnal Green."

"Bethnal…?" Rumple repeated.

"It's near Spitalfields," Bae said breathlessly. "Anyway, the houses have six rooms!" He took another breath. "Six rooms, Papa! And Robertson Ay's brother is looking to let out one of the bedrooms." His smile dimmed a fraction. "It's still stairs, Papa; the houses all have the bedrooms on the second floor there. But even so, it's just one flight. And there's a scullery where we can cook our own food and a kitchen…"

Rumple smiled. By the middle part of this century, it would be the kitchen that was most associated with cooking and food storage. But in this time and place, a kitchen was more like the family living room—the parlor on the other hand, was where one would entertain company—while food was prepared in the scullery. He wasn't certain what the custom had been in the Enchanted Forest. In their hovel, cooking had either been done over the hearth or out of doors. And in his castle, he hadn't bothered himself with naming the rooms; he'd simply ensured that one of them contained a cooking range and used it as needed—when he wasn't brewing a potion in his workroom and had the hearth there free for a soup or stew cauldron.)

"But what rent, Bae?" he asked a bit nervously.

"Robertson Ay is going to find out when he sees his brother on Sunday," Bae admitted. "But he said that the whole house rents for twelve or thirteen shillings a week! We only need one room!"

It sounded like it was within their price range. Still, Rumple cautioned, "One bedroom, Bae. You recall how we were taxed in our village. It could well be that we'll be expected to pay for our use of the scullery as well. We might need to rent space in the larder to store any food. Or contribute to the upkeep of the grounds, if there's a garden."

"I don't mind tending to a garden," Bae said confidently. "And as for the rest, we can wait to hear from Robertson Ay. What have we got to lose, Papa?"

Hope, Rumple supplied mentally. We shouldn't raise our expectations too high with too little to justify them. Aloud, though, he only replied, "I should think a bit of sleep, perhaps. In the East End, we'll be a bit farther from the bank. We'll need to rise earlier to arrive on time, and we'll likely be home later as well. And it will make it more difficult to get to Kensington Gardens, should you be so inclined."

"It's near the Shoreditch Tube station," Bae said. "Like Spitalfields. We won't be able to walk it, but we can still get there."

Rumple hesitated. It sounded promising. Indeed, it sounded nearly too good to be true. But perhaps… "Well," he said, "I suppose it will do no harm to wait for your friend to come back with his report." Likely the brother had already found a lodger, he told himself. But perhaps not. "But Bae," he added, "if this opportunity fails to materialize, there will be others."

Bae grinned. "I know, Papa. Say, speaking of Kensington Gardens, when can we go back there?"

"Oh, Bae…" Rumple whispered, feeling his eyes burn. The door to his room eased open and he swiped at them furiously.

"Hey," Whale greeted him. "I just stopped by to let you know we should be able to move you into a regular room in about a week, assuming no setbacks."

Rumple forced himself to smile. "Well," he said, wincing a bit at the slight wheeze in his voice, "that is good news."

The doctor wasn't fooled. "But…?"

Rumple shook his head. "I was hoping I'd be able to leave this establishment altogether by now."

Whale shook his head, but his eyes were kind as he said, "Based on your progress, I shouldn't think you'll be infectious in a week's time. Once you aren't we can get you out of isolation. Like I told you the other day, you're responding extremely well to the medications. And although you'll need to follow the treatment regimen for about six months, I'm fairly sure we'll be able to discharge you long before that. But as far as discharging you soon? You're aware that TB is also called 'consumption'? There's a reason for that: the disease looks as though it's actually consuming the body of the patient. You weighed barely a hundred and ten pounds when you came in. That's down more than thirty percent from the amount recorded at your last physical. Now, as of this morning, you're up two point two. While that's good news, I still want to, at the very least, get you over the healthy weight threshold before discussing sending you home."

He'd lost nearly forty-five pounds. His head reeled. He'd noticed—how could he not have—that the clothing he'd procured in London had gotten progressively looser over the last year. More recently, it had appeared as though he no sooner took in a seam than he had to do it again. But he hadn't realized it was that bad! "How… how much more do I have to…?"

"About ten pounds," Whale said gently. "That's the bare minimum to get you into the proper range for your height and it still won't be nearly enough. At least then, though, we can have that discussion. Might be sooner than you think," he added. "Your appetite should be increasing as your condition improves. Don't worry," he continued. "We've got this."

Rumple pressed his lips together in a semblance of a smile and nodded jerkily. After the doctor had gone, he pressed his palms lightly to his elbows and wondered why he hadn't noticed how sharp they'd grown. Then he looked at his breakfast tray with its half-eaten omelet congealing on the plate, shook his head, and twisted the cap off the nutrition shake beside it. He concentrated on getting that down without swallowing wrong.

This time, when Emma stopped by to look in on him, he made certain that the blankets covered him from the neck down. The last thing he wanted was to be an object of pity. And while he suspected strongly that he already was one, he had no intention of letting anyone realize how frail he was if they didn't already know. And if Emma's earlier misplaced feelings of guilt had somehow blinded her to his gauntness, he wasn't about to give her another opportunity to notice.

"A regular room?" Emma repeated, smiling. "That's great! Henry will be glad to hear it too."

"Will he?" Rumple asked. It was good to hear, but his grandson hadn't been among his visitors thus far and Rumple rather wondered whether Emma wasn't stretching the truth just a bit, or perhaps blinding herself to it.

"Yeah," Emma said, sounding a bit surprised. "Whale told him he couldn't see you until you got out of isolation." She rolled her eyes slightly. "I thought most hospitals dropped age restrictions on visitors years ago, but either that's not true for isolation patients, or maybe since this place was frozen in the 80s for so long, it hasn't kept up with the times." She gave him a rueful smile. "I mean, if the library still uses a card catalog…" She left her sentence hanging and half-shrugged. "Anyway, he's been asking me and Regina how you're doing and I promised I'd give him a full report."

"Did you?" Rumple asked faintly. "Well. When you do, please tell him I appreciate his interest." It came out far more stilted than he'd intended and he murmured apologetically, "I-I meant… thank him for me."

"I will. I'm just glad we're staying here longer than I'd planned on when Killian found me in New York."

Rumple raised an eyebrow. "What were you doing there—?" Realization struck. "When Pan cast the curse…"

"It would have sent back everyone to the… the land they'd been born in. Regina had me take Henry over the town line before it hit. And she gave us new memories, because—"

Rumple nodded. He hadn't exactly crafted the Dark Curse from scratch; he'd taken bits and pieces from other curses and spun them together into a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. And he'd examined each diverse part, carding and combing it until he'd thoroughly understood the forces that he intended to unleash. Once it was set in motion, there would be scant margin for error and he'd tried to anticipate every consequence. He'd failed, of course. It had never occurred to him that personas intended to mimic that of the world to which the Curse would transport everyone would reassert themselves should anyone try to cross into that world after the Curse was broken. Still, he'd tried. And knowing all he did about the work he'd fashion, he knew clearly what must have happened when Regina had used the scroll to cast the curse anew. "When the town vanished, your memories would have as well," he supplied. "Both yours and Henry's."

Emma nodded. "I-I remembered what happened after Belle… I'm sorry," she said quickly. "But I didn't want to suddenly look at the passenger seat beside me and ask myself who this eleven-year-old was. And Henry could have freaked out and thought I was kidnapping him and… Anyway, when Regina offered to change our memories, so it would be like I'd never given him up, I went with it. And after we crossed over the town line," she shrugged. "I don't know. Things are kind of… hazy, but I think those false memories included one of my apartment in Boston being destroyed in a fire. Henry and I ended up in New York." She paused for a beat. "I mean, until Killian found me. Still not sure how," she added.

"Were you… living clandestinely?" Rumple asked, his interest piqued. "As Bae was when we went in search of him?"

Emma shook her head. "No. I probably should have had my number unlisted, what with bail-bonding being a profession that can, uh, make you a whole lot of enemies, but I didn't. I guess he could have figured out how to Google me. No, I meant he said he got word of Zelena's curse from a bird. He assumed it came from my mother, but she says never sent it."

Rumple smiled. "No, she didn't," he confirmed. "Bae did. You'll recall that before you separated us, there were times when one or the other of us came to the fore."

"I'm sorry," Emma said heavily. "I know you said it wasn't my fault, but it still feels like it was." She gave him a sharp look. "You remember that now? Because when I found you in the woods… I mean, I wouldn't have had to pull you apart if—"

"Having two minds in one head makes it harder, not easier to recall things. But when my mind was in the ascendancy, Bae… didn't know how to disengage. I suspect it has something to do with the focus and concentration that advanced spells require. When Bae's mind was dominant, I could draw on that skill, pull back and keep my thoughts from troubling him. But I was still able to observe everything from within his—our—head. And after you separated us," he couldn't quite keep the sorrow from his voice, try though he did, "well, I could still recall his words and actions. I can even now," he added. And he hoped he always would. Those memories were now all that remained of his son.

When Emma squeezed his hand through the blanket, he gave her a quick jerky nod and a smile that was equal parts gratitude and reassurance.

Bae's enthusiasm had been warranted, Rumple had to admit. The room that Robertson Ay's brother showed them was easily one and a half times the one they now occupied and it was a good deal cleaner.

"I suppose if we're to carry on the conwention, you can call me 'Robertson Gee'; Gee-for-George, y'understand," the older, stouter version of Bae's friend introduced himself with a half-smile. "I know the view's not much, but we're just a ball and chalk from the tube and me wife she sets a fine table, she does."

Rumple smiled. "I'm sure she must." Then, mortified, he realized that his comment might have been taken for a joke about his potential landlord's weight and he quickly changed the subject. "You said, 'ball and chalk'?"

Robertson Gee laughed. "Eh, course you wouldn't know what that meant, Guv. Sorry."

"It means a walk, Papa," Bae spoke up. "It's a rhyming code; Robertson Ay's been teaching me a little. 'Ball and chalk' means 'walk'; 'apples and pears' are 'stairs'—"

"Sometimes we just say 'apples,' lad," Robertson Gee rumbled. "Confuses those not in the know all the more. But I should know better than to use it with people not from these parts."

"How much are you asking, then?" Rumple asked, turning the conversation back to the business at hand. He knew what Robertson Ay had quoted him and the amount had been satisfactory, or he'd have never allowed Bae to drag him here. But Robertson Ay wasn't the landlord, and until a lease was signed, nothing was ironclad. Perhaps, not even then; he really wasn't familiar with tenant law in this time and place, but a rental contract would at least spell out for them what rights and protections they did have, the amount of their rent, and how and when it might be subject to change.

Robertson Gee named the same figure that his younger brother had provided, and Rumple thought carefully. It was a bit more than they were currently paying, but it included breakfast and tea (supper, Rumple translated automatically), and they were welcome to save a bit from breakfast and eat it for lunch.

"Well," Rumple said slowly, "the matter will bear consideration. May I inform you of our decision by week's end?"

"Not much beyond that," Robertson Gee cautioned. "We need a lodger's rent so's we can pay ours. If we wait too long, well, we can't fall behind." He lowered his eyes. "We can't be out on the street with a baby on the way, y'see."

"Of course not, dea—my dear sir," Rumple reassured him, even as he chastised himself for nearly addressing a potential landlord as 'dearie'. "Rest assured, we are interested. But I would like some time to think matters over. Should we send word with your brother, then?"

Robertson Gee shook his head with a smile. "Eh, Robertson Ay's a good chap, but if his head an't up on some cloud it's down on some pillow. You'd best hinform me direct-like."

"I don't understand, Papa," Bae protested, as they made their way back to the tube station. "The place looked fine. And I know we can afford the rent. I-I'll get up earlier and walk to work and back to save the fare, if it helps."

"And what about once you pass the scholarship exam and you're off to school instead of working?"

"I don't have to take the exam," Bae groaned. "Not if it means we can afford to live someplace better. Papa—"

"It's important!" Rumple snarled in a tone he hadn't used since they'd come to this land. Seeing his boy flinch, he fought to control himself and speak more calmly. "An education is important, son. You must trust me on this. Perhaps not now, but a decade from now, you will thank me." He hoped. A decade from now, Bae might well be in Neverland and by the time he returned, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century education would be all but worthless. But if that didn't happen, if Bae found himself caught up in the First World War, if the British army was anything at all like the armies of the Enchanted Forest, then those soldiers most likely to be officers were those who were either better born or better educated. Officers were less likely to be sent to the front, and those that were generally weren't thrown into the thickest part of it as cannon fodder.

Rumple wished his curse memories would give him some insight as to whether various professions would be draft exempt. Back in the Enchanted Forest, as he recalled, both those who practiced magic and those who served them enjoyed such an exemption, though many felt it their patriotic duty to volunteer. Smiths and armorers might be conscripted, but were generally placed well behind the lines to work their craft in safety. The same was true for horse-trainers and a number of other trades deemed too important to the war to risk their practitioners. Even as the Ogre War raged on and those classes became less-protected, there was still none of the wholesale conscription that had plagued so many. It was generally one crafter in ten—senior apprentices who knew their trade and were nearly ready to set up their own shop—promised a pension and commission after two years' service so that they might be able to do so in relative comfort once discharged. And again, they were far less likely to be sent to active combat. If there was anything like that here, Rumple had every intention of steering Bae in such a direction.

Bae shook his head dubiously. "If you say so, Papa, but I really think that—"

I think that one way or another, son, I will lose you. My becoming the Dark One might have hastened our separation, but you're beginning to know your mind and you're beginning to know your heart and I believe that sooner or later, you will strike out on your own and I don't know how I'll manage when that day comes. But one thing I do know is that the more I try to tie you to me, the more you'll struggle to break free and one day, like everyone else I've ever cared for, you will succeed. But if I'm to nurse any hope that you, unlike so many others, will one day come back, then I must accept that day when it comes. Until then…

Rumple smiled indulgently. "There's nothing wrong with the room, son. In a day or two, I'll advise Mr. Robertson of such."

"Then… Then I don't understand, Papa. Why didn't you just tell him?"

Rumple's smile broadened. "One oughtn't to appear too eager. It might make another man think he didn't ask enough and then he's like to start finding little tricks to push the price up. Waiting a little—but not too long—lets him know his rate was fair."

Bae thought about that for a moment and then his puzzlement gave way to a smile of his own. "It's like when you want five copper for a skein of wool, but you know if you ask five, a customer will try to haggle you down to three, but if you ask eight, he'll haggle you to five and think he got a deal, when all he did was pay what you wanted in the first place."

Rumple nodded approvingly. "You're catching on, son. And if you're fortunate, that customer might close the transaction at six and then you both feel you got the better end of it. In two days' time, we'll go back and tell Mr. Robertson we've had time to consider. He may just ask us our decision. Or…"

Bae frowned. "Or?"

Rumple chuckled. "Or he might offer to shave another thruppence or so from his original price…"

"Hey."

Rumple's eyes had been half-closed, but he opened them in response to the familiar voice calling out a casual greeting. "Twice in one day," he said dryly. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

Emma took another two steps into the room. "Uh… I was wondering, that is, my folks were… I mean…"

"Ms Swan?"

Emma took another breath. "My brother's coronation ceremony is at Granny's tonight. They're having a potluck." She tilted her head to one side. "I always thought a coronation was supposed to be when someone took the throne, not when they got their name, but I guess I was wrong."

Rumple smiled. "Well, there are some who say that a good name is a crown in and of itself, but what has that to do with me?"

Emma shifted her weight from one foot to the next. "According to my parents, the whole town is supposed to be there. I mean, they don't have to be, but they're all invited, and you too, of course," she added. "I mean, Mom was saying she wanted to wait until you were out of hospital, but we can't keep calling my brother 'Hey, you' all this time; it's been almost three weeks already."

"She wanted to wait," Rumple repeated disbelievingly.

"She… uh… said that if you didn't want to be there, that was one thing, but she didn't feel right about scheduling it when you couldn't be and she wanted me to ask you, if... if…"

"If I minded?" Rumple snorted. "I must say that that while I'm unaccustomed to this degree of concern, it's not entirely unappreciated. But since your brother does need his name, and since even in this realm, members of the ruling class seldom content themselves with filling out a few forms at the registry and mailing announcement cards, I'm hardly going to resent your having your little affair without me."

"Actually," Emma said, "she asked me to find out if you wanted to be part of it. We can… set up a video link in the diner, get a laptop in here—unless you've got your phone on you, I mean," she tilted her head questioningly.

Rumple responded with a quick shake of his. He had no idea where his phone was; he certainly hadn't had the opportunity to visit his house or the shop since the second curse had brought them here. He wasn't certain whether he'd been carrying it on Main Street before that when he'd finally confronted his father, for that matter.

"One wonders why your mother is suddenly so quick to include me in the festivities," he said, his eyes narrowing. "It's hardly as though there's any precedent for it."

"For the first time in what's probably forever," Emma replied, "she's not telling anyone anything about what she's thinking. But if I had to guess, well, the last time you were… uh… not being controlled, you did kind of save all of us. And from what they told me earlier, if you hadn't mentioned to them that Light magic was Zelena's weakness, they wouldn't have known to bring us all back here so I'd find them. And if Neal hadn't got that message to Killian, or…" She sighed. "Look, if it's not something you want, I'll just tell her you're not feeling up for it. But if it is…?"

His first instinct was to refuse. He might be a part of this town, but he'd always been apart from it, as well. Always on the sidelines, tolerated at best, shunned at worst, and ignored most of the time—unless his expertise was needed and then they demanded it of him... No he didn't need their condescension or their pity. But what if he was misreading the intent? What if, in her bumbling, self-righteous, do-gooder way, Snow White was actually offering him a second chance? Well, he rather doubted that was the case. The last time she'd clapped eyes on him, he now recalled, it had been when Zelena had abducted the guest-of-honor-to-be at tonight's ceremony. And he'd stood at the witch's side when she had. He hadn't wanted to. He would have fought her if he could have. But he'd had enough exposure to these hero-types to know how comfortable they were with drawing a line in the sand and lumping all villains on the other side of it as though each was interchangeable with the next.

"I get Cora's heart, I control her and make her do the right thing, and I let you die. Takes care of two evils at once."

An evil. That was how she saw him. How she'd always seen him. There was no use getting his hopes up that she'd changed. Except that there were differences in the ways that everyone else acted in his presence now. Some of it was almost certainly pity. But perhaps…

Well, if this was truly a second chance, it would be the height of ill manners to fling the offer back in their faces. And if things grew too sickly-sweet, he could always turn off the machine.

"They won't be expecting me to make some gracious speech from my hospital bed to welcome the new arrival, I hope?"

Emma's eyes crinkled at the corners above her mask. "I'm pretty sure my mom's the only one who's going to be doing that. Dad hates that kind of thing and I'd rather retake my SATs than get up and talk in front of everyone." She rolled her eyes. "Actually, back when I ran for sheriff and you gave me all that help? In hindsight, I kinda think I ought to thank you for getting me out of that debate. Seriously, if I hadn't already owed you a favor before that…"

A wheezing chuckle escaped his chapped lips. Emma started toward him, but he waved her off. "I'm all right," he said, reaching for the open protein shake by his bedside. Chocolate this time. He took a careful sip from the drinking straw inside.

"All right," he allowed. "I suppose you can set up whatever apparatus you need to. I don't promise to be awake for it, but if I am, I will endeavor to watch."

Emma grinned. "I'll let Belle know," she said. "Chances are she'd rather watch with you anyway."

It was some time later that Belle knocked smartly on the door to his room, before entering, laptop in hand. "I… uh… was going to bring take-out from Granny's," she said, half-lifting the shopping bag in her other hand. "But when I went in to order, people were already dropping things off for the potluck and Granny had shut down the grill."

Rumple smiled easily. "Well, I'm sure something might be scrounged up from the cafeteria for you," he said. "And I believe a nurse will be in with my dinner shortly." Which he would do his best to eat. In actuality, his appetite was improving; he'd finished nearly three quarters of his lunch. It still wasn't anywhere close to where it needed to be, if he wanted to be out of here anytime soon.

"Actually," Belle said, setting down the laptop, "Granny packed up some of the potluck items for us. Here," she set the bag down beside him. "I'm just going to get the laptop set up."

Rumple blinked. "Well, that was… unexpectedly kind of her," he said. "You're certain it's not some lasagna she's fobbing off on us to clear space in her freezer?"

Belle made a sound that Rumple wasn't certain whether it was a snort or a chuckle. "Is there an outlet?" she asked. "Or do we need to use the battery?"

"I'm afraid I can't help you on that one," Rumple admitted. He'd barely stirred from the bed except to use the ensuite. Generally he could manage that much without needing to press the call button for assistance. And he did loathe having to ask assistance in general, but particularly when it came to matters such as that! And as much as Whale was encouraging him to rest and recuperate, he knew that getting on his feet now would save him a fair bit of physical therapy down the road.

"Found it!"

She turned on the laptop. "Now how do I…? Oh." A moment later, the screen showed the interior of Granny's. "I'm glad that Dr. Whale lifted that fifteen-minute visit restriction," she added. "The coronation won't really get underway for at least another hour," she added. "At least, not the naming. I think right now, people are just mingling. And eating," she added. Her hand flew to her mask. "Oh," she murmured in consternation.

Rumple nodded sadly. "I'm afraid we won't be able to eat together. At least, not until I'm in a regular room and the current precautions are no longer necessary. But if you want to make up a plate to enjoy elsewhere…"

Belle shook her head. "I actually had something not too long ago," she admitted. "Old habit."

"Sorry?"

She sighed. "The… uh… clothes we tended to wear to banquets back in our land were kind of… sumptuous. Not what you wanted to get stained. And Father didn't think that it was proper to go into the hall ravenous. So, I always had a light meal before the banquet, so I wouldn't be hungry."

Rumple nodded. "Did it work?"

Belle sighed again. "I wasn't hungry, but the conversation at those things was never very interesting and I kept reaching for the soft rolls just because, if my mouth was full, nobody expected me to make small talk." From the way her eyes crinkled above the mask, Rumple could tell that she was smiling again, as she continued, "I don't think that's going to be a problem tonight."

"Well, if it becomes one," Rumple said, "I certainly don't intend you to starve. Really, Mrs. Lucas is many things, but stingy isn't one of them. She likely sent more than enough for twice our number."

"I'll keep that in mind," Belle said, as she lifted a cushioned wooden chair and carried it closer to the bed. "Here. Let's see what she sent."

Rumple reached into the bag and pulled out a large Styrofoam clamshell. "There's a second one here," he said. "Yours, I believe."

"I'll take it with me when I go," Belle said.

Rumple smiled an acknowledgment and lifted the lid. "Well," he said, "I must say it's not my usual fare." He was looking at a spiral of dough with some sort of meat filling, a large stuffed mushroom, some sort of slider, a skewer of fresh fruit and cheese cubes, a slice of some sort of vegetable quiche, a cookie, and a frosted square that was either a brownie or piece cut from a chocolate slab cake. "Quite the feast, in fact." And he was likely to be three days eating it. "Might I ask whether you're responsible for any of these?"

There was a smile in Belle's voice when she answered, "The skewer. I… You've seen some of my kitchen disasters."

"And your successes," Rumple reminded her.

"Somehow," she replied ruefully, "I don't remember those nearly as well. And if I was making something for the entire town, it was going to be something even I couldn't ruin."

"Well," Rumple replied genially, "then I believe I know what I'm sampling first."

He finished the skewer. And, over the next hour and a half, he managed to down the quiche and mushroom as well. He'd been opting for the dishes that were most likely to be unappealing if left overnight.

He understood well Belle's aversion to small talk; it wasn't something he took interest in either. And Belle was one of the few people he knew who didn't think that there was anything wrong with sitting quietly and enjoying the company of another. The feed was on, but Rumple didn't pay it much mind. He couldn't see the point of watching everyone else filling their plates and indulging in meaningless chit-chat. When the prince rose to his feet and called for everyone's attention, though, he sat up a bit straighter, even as his hand reached absently for the cookie.

"Excuse me," he said, and while he didn't actually raise his voice, it carried clearly across the room. "If I could have everyone's attention, just for a moment? This coronation ceremony is something we've looked forward to for a very long time. The arrival of our new son has been a cause of great joy for our family. And we hope you can share in it as we name him for a hero. Someone who saved every one of us. Whom we loved… and he loved back." He leaned down slightly and rested a hand on his wife's shoulder.

Snow looked up and smiled as she shifted the baby in her arms. "People of Storybrooke, it's our great joy to introduce you to our son… Prince Neal."

The cookie fell from his hand and he didn't notice when he hit the floor. Eyes wide, he stared at the screen as though willing it to replay what he'd just heard. And then, Belle wrapped an arm about his shoulders, and his gaping jaw slowly closed in a disbelieving smile. He would have exhibited more self-control had he been there in person. He did have a certain image to uphold, perhaps especially now. But in the privacy of his hospital room, with only Belle present to see, he made no effort to stop the tears that leaked from his eyes and slid down his cheeks.

Chapter 25: Chapter Twenty-Five

Notes:

A/N: New York tenant law was revamped in 2019. Before that, according to the CityRealty article, "Security Deposits: Everything NYC renters need to know about new regulations and getting your money back," New York City owners and management companies were allowed to require tenants to pay a security deposit equal to several month's rent up-front. I'm neither a New Yorker nor a lawyer and I freely acknowledge that I don't know whether Emma's speculations in this chapter are accurate. However, since Emma isn't a lawyer either, and since there's nothing in canon to suggest that she was living in New York at any time previously to the very tail end of S3A, those speculations don't necessarily have to be correct.

I have "great expectations" that Pip Gargery's literary pedigree will be familiar to many.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Five

Moving into their new accommodations was easy enough. Rumple and Bae scarcely owned more than two suits of clothing apiece and a few odds and ends that fit handily into a canvas sailor bag they'd purchased second-hand for the occasion.

"Well, this won't do," Robertson Gee protested when he saw how little they'd arrived with. "Can't have you sleeping on the floorboards, can we?"

Rumple affected a shrug. "It wouldn't be the first time. I'm sure we'll be fine."

Robertson Gee walked away clucking. Within the hour, a stocky man with a handlebar moustache puffed his way up the steps with a mattress on his back, which he slammed on the floor with a grunt. "Gimme a minute to catch me breath, guv, before I head back for the other one," he panted.

"The other…?" Rumple repeated. "I-I'm sorry. I can't pay you for—"

The man broke into a broad smile. "No more than I could pay the bloke what gave them to me when me and me missus were getting settled, wot. They've seen their fair share of use, but there's life in 'em yet. And when you're able to hafford something better, well, I'll wager you'll know of some'un wot needs 'em more when the time comes. You pass these on to them for the same price I quoted you."

Rumple's eyes narrowed. He thought he understood the newcomer's meaning, but it was always best to nail down the terms. "I… I thank you," he said, "but I do believe you forgot to quote me your price."

"Well then," the man rejoined, "you'll just 'ave to forget to quote your price to that other chap, now, won't you?" He laughed and extended his hand. After a moment's hesitation, Rumple shook it.

"Pip Gargery the third, at your service," he introduced himself.

"Pip?" Rumple repeated. "That's not a name I've heard before. Would it be short for something?"

"Was once," Gargery replied. "Story goes me great-grand-da, he had the raising of his young brother-in-law, one Philip Pirrup. Well that were too much of a mouthful for the wee lad, so first 'e called his self 'Pip' and then the name stuck. Me great-grand-da lost his first wife, she wot was this Pip's sister when he was still young. He married again some years thereafter and had a son. Named him Pip in honor (here Gargery pronounced the 'h') of the nephew, now up and grown. That were me grand-da, and he give his son the same name, and that son, he give it to me. And, well, I just couldn't break with tradition, guv; I give the same to me eldest. So, y'see," he smiled, "it's not just furniture wot gets passed around in these parts. Harder to find wot don't."

"Well, we're obliged," Rumple said, feeling some of his tension ebb. "I'm Gilbert Cassidy and this is my son Baelfire."

"Baelfire, is it?" Gargery repeated, raising both eyebrows. "Well, now, that's a name that sounds as though it must have a story attached as well."

"It was my late wife gave it him," Rumple said, trying to put him off without offending him. "An ancestor of hers bore it well. I'm sorry," he added. "It's poor repayment for your tale, but it's the best I can do."

Gargery shrugged. "Think nothing of it, guv," he said with a wry chuckle. "Like I told you just now, I wasn't looking for payment when I brung these. But if you're looking for other odd bits—table, chairs, rugs, or the like, you give me the list and I'll make the rounds and henquire." He smiled easily. "We keep things cheap and cheerful here, and when folks are able to trade up, it's a shame to chuck what's still got use in it, and don't it still come up luvverly? Waste not, want not, guv; that's wot I say."

Had he been alone, he would have politely refused. Free gifts tended to leave one feeling beholden and he rather thought it best to owe the fewest people possible. But Bae deserved better than to suffer because his father was too proud to accept help when it was offered.

"Well, I'd be obliged," he said. "Thank you." And then, he smiled as he realized that perhaps he did have something worth bartering with. "And I should mention I've a bit of a knack for understanding contracts and other legal documents. I-I'm no solicitor, of course, but if there's anyone who thinks they might be about to sign their name to something they don't fully understand, I'd be willing to sit down with them and explain matters as best I can."

Gargery beamed. "Well, fancy that! Luvverly making your hacquaintance, Cassidy. I think you'll do right well here."

"Uh, is it safe to come in?" Emma asked, standing in the doorway.

Rumple opened his eyes, banishing the memories of London, and his dry lips twitched and settled into a thin smile. "Quite safe, Miss Swan." He gestured toward the remains of last night's feast, still sitting in the Styrofoam clamshell. "I've enough here that you need have no worries regarding my… biting your head off this morning."

Emma laughed behind her mask. "Good to know. I actually came by with a few leftovers from last night. I tried to go for stuff that wouldn't be gross a day later," she added. "Ashley did something with penne in tomato sauce that's probably good hot or cold. There's Mexican chicken casserole; I think Mr. Zimmer made it… I guess you'll see for yourself what's here."

"Indeed I shall," Rumple nodded. "Well, I thank you. And," he lowered his eyes for a moment, "I thank your parents, as well. That was… quite the unexpected honor."

Emma nodded. "I'll tell them," she said, coming closer to his bed and sitting down in the chair Belle had occupied the evening before.

"Did you know about it ahead of time?"

"No," Emma shook her head. "Mom told me not to ask her; she said she has a hard enough time keeping secrets when people aren't trying to get them out of her. I found out the same time you did."

"Ah." His expression turned serious. "Emma. There is something I've been meaning to ask you, but it either slipped my mind or the timing seemed inappropriate."

"Okay…"

"Regina mentioned to me some time ago that your magic hadn't returned; is that still correct?"

Emma blinked. "Uh… yeah. Not since I kissed Killian." She sighed. "I wish she hadn't made such a big deal over it; I mean, it's not like I ever really figured out how to use my magic until right before I lost it, and even then it was pretty hit and miss. I'm doing fine without it."

Rumple shook his head. "Not the point, dearie. It should have returned at the same time that Zelena's other spells unraveled. That it has not is… Well, it ought to be concerning, unless…"

His eyes narrowed. "You don't want it back at all, do you?"

Emma blinked. And then, her shoulders slumped, her eyes slid down toward her hands in her lap, and she mumbled, "No."

The word hung between them for a moment. And then Rumple sighed. "Emma. Why ever not?"

"Because I don't need it," Emma said, almost pleading. "I did fine without it for more than twenty-eight years! And I've seen The Sword in the Stone; I don't want to… to turn into a fish and run into a bigger fish that thinks I'm lunch, or get sucked into some… shape-shifting duel. I just want to be… me."

"And how can having, or for that matter, not having magic make you anything other?"

Emma blinked again. "I don't know. But not having it feels… normal. And if I get used to not having it, then…" She stopped. "Nothing."

But Rumple's eyes grew narrower still. "Then it will make it all the easier for you to leave town and return to your life in New York, is that it?"

"That's not going to happen for a while," Emma said quickly. "I mean, I wouldn't take Henry out of your life now. And when we do go, we'll be back for visits a-and you'll be welcome to come to New York and see us, if there's nothing going on with the town line." She forced herself to meet his eyes. "I'm not taking your grandson away from you so soon after you've lost your son."

"I hope you're not thinking I ought to be grateful," Rumple retorted. "If you're planning to leave, it would be far kinder for you to depart with all haste, rather than allow such connecting bonds to form and then rip them asunder. I would have expected someone with your history to realize it. And yet," he continued harshly, "here you remain, prolonging the inevitable. Tell me, dearie," he said slowly, his cracked lips stretching back to bare his teeth, "What's holding you back?"

White-faced, Emma got to her feet, leaving the shopping bag she'd brought with her on the floor, forgotten. "Nothing," she mumbled. "Nothing. I-I'm sorry. Really. I…" She shook her head miserably. And then she turned on her heel and left the room almost at a run.

"Emma," he called after her, as the door closed. Then, more loudly, "Emma, wait. Please. Don't go. I'm sorry. Don't…" She couldn't hear him, he realized, giving up. Why had he lashed out at her? He hadn't meant to. And he certainly hoped that she wasn't about to take his directive to heart.

"Don't go," he repeated miserably. "Please. Don't go."

Back in the loft, Emma flung open the closet in her bedroom and sent the clothes hanging there to one side with an angry sweep of her arm. Then she clamped both hands around the smooth wooden bar took a breath and hauled herself up until her chin was above the bar and she was getting a good look at the shelf overhead. So that was what had happened to the winter hat she'd thought had been lost in the move to New York; it had vanished—and returned—with the curse. Wait. Did that mean that her clothes had been in the Enchanted Forest for a year? Had anyone been wearing them?

Why had she let Gold get to her?

He'd caught her off-guard when he'd asked about her magic; she couldn't remember if she'd even mentioned it to him. But she'd mentioned it to a couple of other people. One of them must have said something. She should have anticipated that. She might have had… What? She gritted her teeth and pulled herself up again. A better story? A more diplomatic way to say she wasn't staying?

Had he been right? Was her magic still gone, because she didn't want it back? But she hadn't wanted it in the first place! Why—?

When my magic showed itself with Cora, it was after I'd started believing in it and then, no matter how scared it made me, no matter how much I didn't want it, I knew it was there. I could hide it, but I couldn't deny it. Yeah, it was one more thing I never asked for, but it wasn't like I had a choice. And every time I've gone looking for lessons on how to use it, I've realized just how dangerous having magic can be. Yeah, I had to learn how to control it, but I didn't want it. So when I had to kiss Killian, even knowing what it would do…

…She'd breathed a sigh of relief. She'd finally got rid of the power she hadn't wanted in the first place. She didn't have to worry about it getting away from her; she could go back to New York with Henry and just be… normal.

In her mind, she heard a voice very much like Gold's ask quietly, "But surely you've noticed that even in Storybrooke, those who possess magic are a tiny minority. Why can you not be… normal here?"

Because if her magic wasn't truly gone, then as long as she was here in Storybrooke, it might come back. And if it did, then she would have to control it. No matter how dangerous and how scary and how inconvenient it was. She let go the bar and dropped to the ground with an angry cry.

Damn it. She and Henry had been fine in New York! Who cared if it hadn't been real? It had felt real. It had felt good. And to be thrown back into this place of magic and curses and potions and—

Her eye fell on the nail file on her dresser. Mary Margaret had loaned it to her when she'd first moved in; an old-fashioned metal affair with a heavy silvery handle that kind of looked like a cross between a letter opener and a fish knife. A moment later, it lodged, quivering, between two of the broad horizontal beams of the bedroom wall.

It took Emma another moment to realize that that she was still standing a good five feet away from the dresser and that her hand had never even reached for the file.

Wide-eyed, she stared at the silver handle protruding from the wall. And then, shaking a bit, she sank down on the bed.

Now what the hell was she supposed to do?

"Baelfire!" A boy of about twelve thrust his head—with its mop of disheveled rust-colored hair—into the dining room, where Rumple, Bae, a new lodger who had moved in a week ago, and the Robertsons were in the middle of dinner, or tea, rather. "Bae, come on! We got us a pig's bladder; we're playing footie and we're a man short."

Bae glanced quickly at his father. Rumple glanced about the table. Until now, they'd never got up to leave before the meal was concluded and he wasn't certain the etiquette. It was only when Mrs. Robertson smiled indulgently that he nodded permission to his son. Bae's face lit up and he was out the door, almost before his napkin fell to the tablecloth.

A bit later, Rumple took himself to the front step, newspaper in hand. The game was in full swing, and the boys were laughing and shouting as they tried to kick the ball past the ferocious goaltender who blocked the brick wall with the white goalpost lines painted upon it framing the single word, 'GOAL'. And Bae, laughing and shouting with them.

Rumple's eyebrows lifted, as he realized that Bae's yells and taunts were virtually indistinguishable from those of his fellows. His boy was acculturating quickly to these environs, with an ease that Rumple doubted he himself would ever acquire.

Bae was growing into his own. Rumple only prayed it didn't have to mean that Bae was also growing away from him. Oh, he was glad that his son was fitting in so well. But Rumple couldn't help thinking that back in Pen Marmor, they'd shared a closeness that seemed now to be fraying a bit at the seams.

He wished he knew for certain that this was normal. His own father had abandoned him long before he'd been Bae's age. And for all the spinners who'd raised him had done their best, by the time he'd been fourteen, he'd had far more independence than he'd wanted. He'd hoped to spare Bae that burden, but Bae seemed to yearn for it.

So, seeing him playing in the street with other boys his age brought a smile to his face. For this evening, at least, he could tell himself that Bae was still a child.

"You've been quiet," Snow said at supper. "I mean, not that I mind a bit of quiet," she added, with a slightly guilty look at the cradle in the corner, "and not that you usually talk very much," she went on a bit hesitantly, "but you usually do talk more than this."

When Emma looked up briefly, picked up her grilled cheese sandwich and then, instead of taking another bite of it, set it back down on the plate and pinched off a small bit from the edge between thumb and index finger, which she popped into her mouth, her mother asked, "Emma? What's wrong?"

Emma shook her head. "Nothing. Everything. I don't know."

"Emma?"

Her face fell. "I don't know if I'm reverting, or if I'm being guilt-tripped, or if I'm just upset because I know what I have to do and I don't want to, or maybe I don't, or…"

"Who's guilt-tripping you?" David asked sharply.

Emma stifled a groan. "Not important. And, now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure he didn't mean to anyway."

"He?"

Emma tore off another tiny piece of her sandwich. "Not important." She looked to her left. "Henry? Do you… miss New York at all?"

Her son blinked. "I… It's weird. A couple of days ago, before you gave me back my book, I was ready to run away from here and go back there without you, but…" He took a breath. "None of that was real, was it?"

"Well, some of it was," Emma protested. "Your school, your friends…"

"Yeah, but they were friends with the person I thought I was when I didn't remember who I really was," Henry said.

"But that's still you!"

"Hang on a second," David spoke up. "I think I know what Henry's trying to say." He smiled at his grandson. "Tell me if I'm getting this wrong but, what a year ago at the town line, Regina told you," his gaze flickered to Emma, "both of you, that she'd do for your memories what she did for ours during the curse."

"Yeah…" Emma said, "But that was just changing our memories. We're still the same people."

"You are now," Snow said, smiling gently. "Emma, our memories are what make us who we are. Something your father and I understand all too well." She poured herself a cup of tea from the pot on the table. "Back in our land, I drank a potion once," she said slowly, "to make me forget something I thought was too painful for me live with remembering. And Emma, it changed me. I wasn't completely different," she added quickly. "I mean, I had other memories. And even before I drank that potion, I still wanted to get my kingdom back from Regina when she was the Evil Queen and I was a fugitive a-and a bandit, but after I did drink it, what it took away, or what I was left with… Emma, I was not the same person I'd been before."

"I can attest to that," David said with feeling. An eyebrow shot up. "You know, considering that you got that potion from Rumpelstiltskin, and knowing now what the Dark Curse involved, I'm thinking he might have been looking for a test subject, to see for himself how a person might behave if they… lost touch with who they were."

Emma frowned. "So… How did you get back to you? Wait. Did you get back to you?"

Snow nodded, still smiling the same gentle smile, and the gaze she turned to her husband was softer. "Your father brought me back. He found the real me, and he helped me see her too. And that other version, the one who wanted to take back the kingdom? Well," she reached for David's hand across the table and clasped it gently, "like I said, I'd wanted that, too." She tilted her head to one side. "Of course, since I was back to being me again, I didn't try to pierce Regina's heart with an arrow in the process. All things considered, I'm really kind of happy about that now."

"You tried to pierce…" Emma's voice trailed off, as her wide-eyed gaze moved from one face to the next. All three of the others at the table were nodding.

"It's in my book," Henry said, lifting it from the table for emphasis.

"Uh… yeah. Henry? How… How would you feel about going back to New York?"

Henry thought for a moment. "Well, if I knew that there wasn't going to be anything wrong with the town line, I'd love to go, just to say goodbye to Avery and Ryan. And... I think I left my favorite sweatshirt back at the apartment. Not to mention my boots. Oh. Do you have to pay anything to the super to get out of the lease before the year's up?"

"Landlord," Emma corrected, "And I'm not sure. It would have been up for renewal in about six weeks. Maybe I could sublet—" She stopped. "Henry, are you sure you want to stay here? Because you're right; something could go wrong with the town line again and if you were to change your mind, we might not get another chance. I-I don't want you feel trapped here."

Henry gaped at her. "Trapped? Mom, this is home! We belong here." Something about the look on her face made him falter then, and it was with just a slight hesitation that he added, "Don't we?"

From out the corner of her eye, Emma noticed that her mother's smile had frozen on her face. Almost fearfully, she glanced to her father and saw that he seemed to be steeling himself to hear whatever she was about to say next.

"I guess I thought that without my magic…" she said slowly.

"Emma!" Snow exclaimed. "With or without magic, you're still our daughter. We want you here. With us. We… I thought that was what you wanted, too." She frowned. "But if it's not…?"

Emma closed her eyes. This wasn't fair! She had a life in New York! And… and a job… But she knew that if she asked her father, she'd be sheriff again here in a heartbeat… And an apartment… With less than six weeks left on the lease, maybe the landlord would just keep the security deposit and call it a day. What was he going to do? Sue her? Good luck serving her papers in Storybrooke. And friends… Colleagues. The only person she'd met in New York who'd been more than that had really been more than that. Like 'flying monkey, minion of the Wicked Witch of the West' more than that.

Seriously? Everyone she knew, everyone she loved, everyone Henry loved… They were all here. In Storybrooke. And so was she. She belonged here. Henry belonged here. And not because Gold didn't want her to take him away, and not because her magic was…

"It's back," she said, softly.

"What?" Snow asked.

"What is?" David said at the same time.

"Mom?"

"It's back," Emma repeated. "My magic. I used it this afternoon. Uh, if you've got some pliers, Mom, I think I need them to get your nail file out of the wall."

"What?"

"Long story," Emma said. "But since I don't think Henry and I are going anywhere for a while, I guess there's plenty of time to tell it…"

Maybe he should have listened to Mrs. Robertson when she'd said it looked like rain that Sunday. Looking at the sky, he'd judged that there would still be plenty of time for an excursion to Kensington Gardens. And he'd wanted to spend the afternoon with Bae, just the two of them, the way it had used to be.

Not that he begrudged Bae his new friends. He was happy that his son was acclimatizing himself to this new life so well. At least, he knew he ought to be. At least, he tried to be. But he still couldn't shake the feeling that Bae was growing away from him and it terrified him.

Rumple knew from too recent past experience that if he held onto his son too closely, his son would struggle all the harder to break away. He didn't want to repeat the mistakes he'd made before, the mistakes he hadn't been able to talk his younger self out of making again. He had to give Bae the freedom to explore his own interests and spend time with friends his own age. But one afternoon a week with his son, surely, wasn't too much to ask. Besides, Bae loved Kensington Gardens and he'd jumped at the chance to go there.

Despite the cloudy sky, it had been a glorious afternoon. Somehow, the lunch they'd brought with them tasted better in the open air, beneath trees that hadn't yet shed their scarlet leaves on this late autumn day. By the round pond, a number of children were romping about, their shouts and laughter ringing across the grounds. Rumple didn't see the Darlings anywhere, and he couldn't help feeling a bit of relief at it. He really didn't want them intruding on his time with Bae. He didn't know how much more of it there would be and he wanted to make the most of it.

"I wonder what it'll be like here in winter, Papa," Bae said, looking up from the sketch he was making of some nearby trees.

"Well, if the weather allows, I'm sure we'll find out," Rumple rejoined mildly. In Storybrooke, there would be ice skating on the lake. And although he'd seldom ventured into the woods in winter, he knew that there were a number of cross country ski trails in the wilderness park and it seemed to him that Ashenputtel's Footwear typically boasted a seasonal display of snowshoes. He wondered how much snow they ought to expect in this part of the world, though. England was a bit further north than Maine, but it seemed to him that its autumn was several degrees warmer than the weather he'd been accustomed to. Would that mean a milder winter as well?

"I do believe your talent has improved since we've come here," he smiled, indicating Bae's sketch.

Bae ducked his head, but not before Rumple saw his smile. "I've just had more time to practice," he said. And then he slid a bit closer and peeled back some of the earlier pages in his sketchbook. "Here, Papa, see? This is the street outside the house. And here's Mike and Matthew playing conkers, and…" He caught himself and quickly turned the page, past the drawing of Moraine.

"You miss her," Rumple said sadly.

Bae sighed. "A little. But really, Papa? I drew her because I thought I was starting to forget what she looked like."

"I don't think you've anything to fear on that score, son," Rumple replied. "It's quite a good likeness."

Bae smiled. Something dropped onto the page and startled, Bae looked at the wet streak, several shades darker than the paper. "Papa!" he exclaimed, raising his eyes to the sky, "When did those clouds get so dark?"

Rumple looked up, too and his heart dropped. "Get up, son," he urged. "We need to get to shelter before the brunt of it hits!"

Bae rose at once. "Can we make it to the tube, or should we get under a tree?"

"Tube," Rumple said tersely. "If there's to be lightning, the trees won't be safe and I don't trust those gazebos either. Hurry!"

They were halfway out of the park when the downpour started. By the time they reached the tube station entrance, they both looked as though they'd dove fully clothed into the round pond. Soaked and miserable during the train ride back, they'd only just begun to warm up again when they reached their station and had to go back out in the rain.

On their return, Mrs. Robertson half dragged them both into the scullery, thrust a pair of woolen blankets at them and ordered them to shed their wet clothing and dry off by the stove. Rumple and Bae were only too happy to obey.

Despite the hot tea and soup that she pressed on them, by morning both father and son were sniffling. They still forced themselves to the bank that day, and every day that week.

Bae was never sure afterwards whether they'd caught a number of colds in quick succession or just one that lingered, but it seemed that winter that neither father nor son passed a day without a stuffed or runny nose, a headache, or a cough. Some days, they enjoyed all four of those symptoms. And since most of the employees at the bank seemed to pass the winter in a similar state, nobody commented about it except to cheerfully tell them they'd need to keep a stiff upper lip until spring.

It seemed a long time to wait, but there was no choice. And indeed, when the warmer weather slowly returned, their health did seem much restored. Although Bae still woke up some mornings with a bit of a stuffed nose.

And for all that Rumple's cough seemed to improve, it never did go away entirely.

Chapter 26: Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Six

"Up another half-pound," Whale told him cheerfully the next morning. "Keep this up, and you'll be back home before you know it."

It was hyperbole, of course, but Rumple managed a thin smile all the same, as he stepped off the scale and donned the hospital issue bathrobe again with a sense of relief. He still wasn't sure that he believed the nurse who had assured him that the ambient temperature was a standard 68 degrees; the gooseflesh on his bared arms and legs seemed to proclaim a different tale. He hadn't exactly doubted the nurse when she'd chalked it up to his being underweight, but he hadn't been expecting that explanation, and it had come as something of a shock to him.

Something about his inner turmoil must have registered with Whale, who had now taken a step forward to hold up the robe so Rumple could slip it on more easily. "Hey. You're on the right track," Whale said. "In fact, according to your most recent tests," he paused, waiting for Rumple to turn and meet his eyes, "well, assuming everything keeps on going like it's been going, we should be able to get you into a regular room by… day after tomorrow."

If that whole sorry business with Emma yesterday had accomplished anything, it had been to remind him that it was generally safer for him not to allow his true feelings to show unless he was alone and in private. But on hearing Whale's words, he couldn't help but feel his own smile widen to mirror the one now evident on the doctor's face.

"Thanks for letting me know," Regina said. "And if Emma's serious about getting some instruction, let her know that she's welcome to reach out to me. I might even call her myself," she added.

She and Snow chatted pleasantly for a few more minutes before they ended the call.

As Regina pocketed her phone, her pleasant façade dropped away. Emma's magic was back. Zelena wasn't. The facts pointed in one direction and Regina wasn't entirely certain she wanted to follow it.

She both wanted and dreaded the answer she sought, and she wondered whether she truly thought that it was a bad time to question Rumple again, or whether she was afraid to have her suspicions confirmed once and for all.

Was her sister dead?

And was Rumple responsible?

Two mornings later, Regina's questions were still unanswered, but she took care that none of her concerns were in evidence at the breakfast table, even if she didn't think that Henry would notice. Her son was eating hurriedly, even after Regina assured him that they weren't going to the hospital until at least eleven. "In fact," she continued, "early afternoon might be a better idea. I'm sure he'll want a chance to get settled, and it seems to me that first thing in the morning would probably be when Whale would order any tests that might need to be done." She was speculating, but it made a certain amount of sense to her.

"Henry?" she asked, pouring herself a cup of coffee, "How much do you know about your grandfather's condition?"

Henry frowned. "Well, I know he went through the time portal and when he came back, he was sick, but he's getting better now, right?"

"Yes, he is," Regina agreed. "But how much have the others told you about his illness?"

"Just that it used to be serious, but now they can cure it." His eyes widened. "They can, right? He wasn't too…?" His voice trailed off, but there was no mistaking his meaning.

"From what Emma and Belle have been telling me, he's going to be fine. But when you see him," Regina hesitated, "I want you to be prepared. Right now, he's not going to look it. Even though he is doing a great deal better than he was when I brought him to the hospital."

Henry swallowed. "When you say he's not going to look fine," he said, "what does that mean?"

Regina took a sip of coffee. "It means that he was dangerously underweight when he came back and it's going to take time before he's back to normal." She took a breath. "I think it would be a very good idea if you spent the next little while on the computer, looking up the disease, so you understand a bit better what your grandfather is dealing with. In fact," she continued, "maybe I'll join you after I'm done washing up," she gestured toward the remains of the meal on the table. "I know what it was back in our land, but I confess I haven't checked up on what the treatments are today."

"What were they in the Enchanted Forest?" Henry asked.

"Well," Regina said slowly, "for those who could afford them, there were healing spells and potions. If the disease was caught early enough, those could cure it. Otherwise, they helped to mask the symptoms so that the ill person could live normally. At least, for a good long time."

"And for those who couldn't?" Henry asked in a tone that suggested he'd already guessed the answer.

Regina sighed. "Mountain air, warmth, rest… I think I recall hearing something about vinegar massages."

"That worked?"

"No. But I suppose some of that list might have made the patient more comfortable and the rest, well, sometimes doing something—even if it's probably useless—feels slightly better than admitting a case is hopeless and doing nothing."

"I want to see him," Henry said quickly.

"We'll leave for the hospital around eleven. Meanwhile, I want you to prepare yourself by doing that research."

Henry nodded, his expression a bit more subdued, but no less determined, as he pushed his chair back from the table and headed upstairs.

Regina began collecting the breakfast dishes, happy to have her son back with her, but still half-wishing that Emma would be joining them at the hospital instead of being currently in New York to pack up whatever belongings she and Henry had acquired for themselves in the last year that they wanted to keep and make the necessary arrangements for disposing of the rest.

"Are you feeling up for some light reading?" Whale asked that morning, as he came into Rumple's room.

Rumple blinked. For a moment, he thought that the doctor had called on him to relate some setback regarding his condition and advise him that he wouldn't be leaving the ICU today after all, but though Whale's expression was serious, it didn't have the tinge of sadness that usually accompanied the delivery of bad news.

Unless he thinks keeping me confined here is good news for the rest of the patients, he thought mirthlessly. "Pardon?" he asked, going with the safest response under the circ*mstances.

For answer, Whale set a sheaf of papers down on the table beside the breakfast tray. "More Tavronius," he said with a weary sigh. "I have to admit, the guy was thorough. That book of his outlines a treatment that will keep your immune system working the way it ought to even after we take you off the current serum, instead of letting your immortality take over for it again."

Rumple's eyebrows shot up. "How very useful," he said dryly. "Well, I'll be happy to peruse those," he inclined his head toward the pages, "later today. I shouldn't think I've much on my schedule that you don't already know about."

Whale smiled at that, but his eyes stayed serious. "I'd appreciate it if you could get back to me soon. See, a lot of the ingredients he stipulates, well, I'm familiar with them. I'm not saying it would necessarily have occurred to me to combine them exactly as he says to—and by the way, while none of it looks like quackery to me, back in my own land, past generations swore by a number of… well, they said 'cures', but I say 'wishful thinking'. I think we can both agree that from a scientific standpoint, wearing a donkey hide won't help anyone's rheumatism in the slightest."

Rumple snorted. "I should say not." He frowned. "Did your people truly believe such a thing?"

Whale shrugged. "Not by the time I was born, but go back a couple of hundred years and…" He sighed. "The thing we need to remember is that those people weren't idiots. They may not have understood about placebo effects or they could have confused a coincidence for a cure, but as foolish as their beliefs seem to us now, back then they were considered standard medical treatment. And some of those treatments are still used today." He sighed. "I guess what I'm getting at is that this Tavronius character might have been brilliant, but it doesn't necessarily follow that everything he wrote about still holds up today. So far, he's been batting a thousand. But let's face it: strengthening your immune system now is a preventative measure to reduce the chance of something like this happening to you again. It's not an emergency treatment; it's a helpful addition, if it works. And before I authorize it, I would very much like to be sure that it does what it's supposed to or, at the very least, that it won't have any harmful effects."

Rumple's eyes had been slowly widening during Whale's speech. Now he nodded quickly. "I take your point," he murmured. "When would you need an answer?"

"Well, the standard treatment period for TB is six to nine months. Because you're responding so well to the antibiotics, in your case, it's probably going to be closer to six. Now if, after you go over the material, you're confident that the serum Tavronius describes won't interact poorly with the medications in your system, we can get started with it as soon as possible. If that's not something you're able to determine—and I realize that mixing magic and science can be… unpredictable," a quick smile flashed across his face when Rumple snorted again, "then I guess we'll just have to wait until you're done with the antibiotics. Either way, I want to know where we stand."

Rumple nodded. "I quite understand. And… I do appreciate your involving me in this process." A long time ago, he'd told Henry that when you could control a thing, you no longer needed to fear it. There wasn't much about his condition that he could currently control. As grateful as he was for the treatment he'd been getting thus far, knowing that his care was in the hands of others and that it could easily be withdrawn at any time terrified him. Even if nobody about him had given the slightest indication that they were considering such a thing, the mere understanding that it could happen was nothing short of horrifying. The more he understood about his condition and the possible treatments, the more options he had, the more in control he felt. He had no idea whether Whale realized this, or whether he would have done the same for any patient he thought knowledgeable enough to understand their situation, but he was grateful nevertheless.

"It's your body," Whale shrugged with an easy smile. "I think you're entitled to some say about what we're putting into it."

Rumple nodded again. "For the record, Doctor," he added, "this isn't magic. It's designed to accommodate magic, but it is science, and scarcely primitive science at that."

"Noted."

Rumple reached for the pages with a slight frown. "I don't suppose you could furnish me with the specifics of these antibiotics?" he asked hesitantly. "Not their purpose and side effects; we've gone over those already. I'm more concerned with their active ingredients. I won't be able to predict how this… serum would react to them if I can't even recognize what they are."

Whale smiled. "I can get that information to you. I should warn you, the literature is pretty technical. If there's something you need me to explain, barring some medical emergency, I can schedule some time to go over it.

"Now that," Rumple smiled back, "is a most generous offer. And one of which I expect to take full advantage."

"I'll look forward to it," Whale nodded. "Oh, and an orderly should be by in about an hour to transfer you to your new room."

Rumple thanked him for the information. This room was far from the worst place he'd ever found himself restricted to, but he'd be glad to leave it all the same. He settled back down in the bed—although he knew he was getting stronger, the medications still made him drowsy and now that he was alone, there was no reason to fight the effect. As he closed his eyes, his thoughts drifted to another time and another confinement…

Hordor had sent him a decent repast, Rumple was forced to admit. No delicacies, of course; just millet frumenty and a hearty bean-and-vegetable soup, but there were shreds of meat in it and several small flour-dough dumplings. Had he spent all his years as a peasant, this would be quite the feast for him. As it was, though, he barely tasted it, as he waited for the clock to chime nine. His younger self would be here at the third hour past midnight, and though Rumple was sworn by the terms of his agreement with Nimuë not to contact him, he still meant to go to the dagger's chamber early. Perhaps there was some loophole that he'd missed. Perhaps, there was a way that things might take a different course, yet.

He frowned. After all this time, all these past weeks and months, he still didn't know if that was what he wanted. He wanted power. He wanted Bae. He wanted to stop the Ogre War. He wanted a better life. He couldn't have everything and he was fast running out of options, hemmed in on all sides, trapped…

Trapped.

Thunderstruck, he thought a destination and found himself standing on the main road to Longbourne, a half-mile from the castle. Head spinning faster than any spinning wheel, he translocated himself back to the barbican room.

Zoso had done nothing. Nimuë had done nothing. Or if they had, it had only been because they were both part of his own Darkness. His indecision, his fears, his desperation—uncertain whether to try to change the past or let matters play out in the pattern he knew, he'd trapped himself and convinced himself that his predecessors had done it. Well. If he was free to act, then he could stop the Ogre War now, tonight and—

And the front was two days' ride from here. If he stopped the Ogre War now, Bae would still be taken. If he stopped this other war he'd just learned about, it would still take days or weeks for a message to arrive from that quarter. And meanwhile, there was no guarantee that Bae would remain safe. Rumple thought back to his own brief stint in the army.

He'd been a newcomer to the Frontlands then and a good deal older than most of the other recruits, but all men between the ages of eighteen and fifty had been liable for military service back then. Most men his age had served their three years in earlier wars and if they were now with the army, it was as officers and support personnel. Rumple had been tossed in among men half his age, most scarcely more than boys, though older than the boys that the duke was drafting now. Perhaps it was normal that such youths would be… boisterous. Away from home, many for the first time, freed from their parents' watchful eyes, most of the new recruits had only been too eager to drink freely, boast extravagantly, and brawl viciously. Several had been sent home injured before ever reaching the army encampment.

Once at the front, close quarters and poor sanitation caused periodic outbreaks of sickness and it mattered little that the latest soldiers arrived hale and hearty; they were just as susceptible to dysentery as those who had been there for weeks or longer.

Factor in that most peasant soldiers might know their way around a staff, a sling, or perhaps a dagger but more likely a hunting knife, and it was almost inevitable that lessons with sword and spear were likely to end with at least one recruit sent for medical attention. They were supposed to keep their blades clean, dry, and free of rust, but not all soldiers were that conscientious at first. And although the penalties for such dereliction were severe—Rumple could still remember witnessing that flogging—they wouldn't let a hand lost to gangrene grow back.

Once Bae was on his way to the front, he would be in nearly as much danger from his own battalion as he would be from the enemy and even stopping the war now wouldn't save him from that.

Rumple gritted his teeth. It appeared that he was going back to the castle after all. Perhaps, it would suffice to hide Bae for a few days, just long enough for word to reach the Duke that the war—both wars—were over.

And of his deal Nimuë?

In the darkness, Rumple smiled thinly. Really, he rationalized, he'd only made that bargain with himself in the end, hadn't he? And while he'd only broken one deal in his life until now, it wasn't as though he didn't have a history of lying to himself…

A moment later, the road was empty.

"Well," Regina said, as she came into the new room, "I must say you're looking quite a bit better than you were when I brought you in here."

Rumple pressed down on the control to raise the top of his bed so that he was half-sitting, half-reclining. "Regina," he greeted her with a heartiness he didn't truly feel. "It's a wonder what a few weeks of antibiotics can do."

"And here I thought you considered magic the superior option," she bantered back.

Rumple shook his head. "The right tool for the right job," he said, a serious note coming into his voice. "This time, magic falls a bit short."

The mayor nodded. "Henry's waiting downstairs in the cafeteria," she said, matching his tone, though still smiling. "I wanted to make certain you were up for seeing him before I brought him in." She hesitated. "And if you weren't, I didn't want him in the hallway where he might be able to overhear us." Her smile dropped. "Rumple, I wasn't being… kind a moment ago. You do look better. Only…"

"Only the last time that Henry saw me was the day I died and you're concerned that if he sees me today, he might worry about a repeat performance."

Regina pressed her lips together and gave an almost imperceptible nod.

"How much have you told him?"

"Quite a bit, actually," Regina replied with a sigh. "I had him doing a bit of research this morning. He knows this is something a bit more serious than a case of strep, or even bronchitis. I just don't know if he's truly prepared and," she took another breath, "I know you can get a bit… peckish when you think you're being pit—fussed over," she amended hastily.

Rumple nodded slowly. "Is he similarly aware?"

"I told him that some of the medications you're on might make you irritable. Since I don't know for sure that he's inherited Emma's superpower, I haven't actually checked up on that. I figured if I didn't know for certain, then I wouldn't be lying to him, just speculating."

"Sensible," Rumple nodded again with an appreciative smile. "How… how do I look?"

Regina took another breath. "Gaunt, tired, and not about to take the stairs over the elevator anytime soon." She hesitated. "Do you… want me to do anything about that?" she asked. "Or are you up for trying it?"

Rumple considered for a moment. Then, he shook his head decisively. "No. No glamour spells. He might as well know the truth. But even so, if you could adjust the blanket a bit before you fetch him?"

Regina smiled again as she moved forward to comply.

Rumple's eyes followed her to the door. No sooner had it closed behind her than he began second-guessing himself. Perhaps it wasn't wise to allow Henry to see him 'warts and all'. He had no wish to frighten the boy, nor to arouse his pity—Regina had been quite right on that score. Perhaps a glamour spell wasn't a terrible idea after all. He pushed down the blanket, grasped his IV pole, and made his way carefully to the ensuite bathroom.

One glance in the mirror confirmed the worst. He wasn't normally a vain man, not about his looks at any rate, but this was far worse than he'd anticipated. And since the 'Tavronius serum' was only suppressing his healing ability… He braced one hand on the sink and waved the other before his reflection. At once, his pallor vanished, his cheeks lost their hollow appearance, and his wrists their boniness. He sighed, partly from relief, but partly from exhaustion. He hadn't attempted any magical working since… Well, since he'd left the Enchanted Forest with Bae, really. Perhaps he was out of practice, but more likely casting the spell had simply taken more out of him than he'd expected.

Leaning more heavily on the IV pole, he made his way back toward the bed. Even with the footstool, he realized, there was no way that he was feeling steady enough to get back into it. There was a chair a few yards away. He could manage that. At least, he thought he could. Right up until he set his foot down in exactly the wrong fashion, his bad ankle gave way, and he crashed painfully to the floor.

For a moment, he lay prone on his knees and elbows as he mentally checked himself over. Nothing appeared to be broken. He didn't imagine he was that badly hurt, just sore and possibly a bit bruised. Groaning a bit, he gripped the IV pole once more and tried to pull himself up—a harder feat than it appeared when one coupled an old injury with a support pole that was mounted on caster wheels, which began to roll away as he tried to stand. Just then the door opened and an alarmed voice cried out, "Grandpa!"

There was nobody in the corridor as Rumple made his way toward the room where he knew the dagger would be. Even had he not heard its song this evening, the blade would have to be there when his younger self came for it. He still didn't know what he'd say when the time came, or if he'd say anything. He still didn't know what to do. Some of his indecision was natural and normal: he knew what was at stake. Whatever choice his younger self made tonight would come at great cost and even after all these months, Rumple still couldn't say which outcome was preferable.

At the same time, the Darkness within him was very invested in having the timeline play out as it had the first time, and Rumple had enough self-awareness to recognize that said investment might well be stoking his fears and manipulating his thought process. He knew his Darkness well; he recognized what it wanted. But taking everything that he knew had come about from his accepting its gifts—the costs and the benefits—and weighing that knowledge against an unknown that could just as likely—perhaps even more likely—result in a far worse outcome for him and for Bae, he was hard-pressed to take the risk. Not to mention Storybrooke. Not to mention Belle. Henry. Emma. Regina.

It wasn't fair!

So much was riding on his decision. His indecision. His…

He took a deep breath and rounded the bend. There was a guard half-dozing at his post. Rumple frowned. Then he made a peculiar gesture and the guard froze in his position. The spell wouldn't last long; he didn't want to risk tipping Zoso off to his precise whereabouts with a major magical working. But then, for his purposes, the spell didn't need to last long. Just the moment it would take Rumple to walk beyond him into the room and after that, when the spell wore off, the guard would be completely unaware of both his lapse of attention and the intruder who'd gone past.

Rumple took a breath and made his way into the room.

Once inside, he frowned to himself. It wouldn't do for his younger self to see him when he entered in search of the dagger. Nervous as he'd be then, if he perceived that he wasn't alone, he was likely to bolt before he registered the face of the man confronting him. Speaking of which…

His younger self would need to recognize that face. Rumple frowned in concentration for a moment and lifted the glamour spell. Now, to find a place to hide, where he wouldn't be the first thing his younger self saw when he opened the door. He cast about for a good spot. Not behind the wall hangings, not with a fire imminent. Then he saw it. On either side of the hanging where he knew the dagger now hung, was a small recess. It wasn't much, but it would conceal him. And when his younger self approached, Rumple wouldn't need to try too hard to get his attention in a room filled with the haze of smoke and the crackle of flames.

He backed into the recess and bumped into something soft and yielding. He didn't have time to register the oddity of it before a hand clamped itself firmly about his mouth, a second hand twisted his right arm behind his back, and a too familiar voice hissed viciously in his ear, "If you so much as breathe loudly you're a dead man!"

Zelena!

Rumple felt his face burning, as Henry hastened beside him. "It's okay, Grandpa," he said, lifting one of Rumple's arms and draping it over his shoulders. The boy slid an arm about his waist. "Can you get up?" he asked.

"I'm fine," Rumple lied testily, even as he hoped his grandson wouldn't take him at his word.

By now, Regina had taken his other arm, and the look she gave him was one of exasperation. "If you were fine, you wouldn't be on the floor," she informed him tartly. "Or a patient here in the first place." She sighed. "Come on. Bed or chair?"

Rumple considered. Although the hospital gown he wore was one that had been designed with a bit more concern for dignity than some styles, he wasn't about to try climbing into bed with an audience. "Chair," he gave in, forcing the word out through clenched teeth. He never should have got out of bed in the first place. If he hadn't been so concerned with a demonstrating his strength, he wouldn't have been exhibiting this level of weakness. Of dependency. Of…

He forced himself away from his self-pity and focused on getting back up on his feet. He heard Henry's sharp intake of breath and glanced up at the boy, to see him exchanging a look with his mother. Rumple realized why. While a glamour spell could project a convincing illusion, it had its limits. Henry had been bracing himself to support his grandfather's weight, and discovered that it was considerably less than he'd been bracing for. All magic came with a price and he really could have saved himself this one. He gave the boy an uneasy smile.

"You've grown stronger since last I saw you," he murmured.

Henry pressed his lips together until they were nearly white where they met, as he gave Rumple a jerky nod.

"We'll take this slow," Regina said. "Or would using the pole be easier for you?"

Rumple shook his head, and Regina reached out for it with her free hand, rolling it along beside them as they proceeded. It was only a few steps to the chair, after all. Even so, he felt a bit faint as they helped him settle into it.

"Okay?" Henry asked.

Rumple nodded as he sank into the chair's cushioned backrest and murmured his thanks. Then he looked up at his grandson and his breath caught.

"Grandpa?" Henry asked, his eyes widening a bit. "What is it?"

Rumple couldn't help it. He'd known Henry all of the boy's life. He'd watched him grow for more than eleven years. For over ten of them, he hadn't been a position to recognize… And then, he'd remembered that infernal prophecy and he hadn't wanted to recognize in case he had to… And then Neverland and Pan on Main Street and… "You," he forced his words passed the lump forming in his throat and tried to smile. "You look so much like your father when he was your age, I… I…" His face twisted and his eyesight blurred, and somehow, he and his grandson were locked in an embrace and crying on each other's shoulders.

"I wish I'd known him better," Henry choked out. "Or longer. Or…"

Rumple hugged him harder. "So do I, Henry," he managed. "I had," he continued, finally releasing his grandson, "nearly three years more with him than I did the first time and it wasn't enough. I thought I could change things. I thought I wanted to. But every action had its price and…" He tried to take a deep breath, but ended up wheezing a bit.

"I'm fine!" he said hastily, when Regina drew closer, concern writ large in her eyes. "I'm fine," he repeated in a calmer tone and struggled to reassert his usual composure. He glanced from one to the other with a thin smile.

"I suppose Emma had something else to attend to?" he asked a bit dryly.

"Yeah," Henry looked up, brightening visibly. "She went back to New York to pack up our stuff."

"Pack up your…?" Rumple echoed.

"Well, yeah. I mean, when Hook came to get us, Mom just packed us enough clothes for a week each, but she did it when I was still at Avery's. Uh, he's one of my friends; you don't know him. Anyway, she just grabbed whatever she saw first. And that's fine," he continued brightly, "only she didn't pack my Hulk T-shirt or my Star Wars hat—I mean, okay, it's a winter hat and it's too warm for it right now, but it won't be in a couple of months. And I had to leave all my action figures behind, too," he added. "And I know Mom's got a few things she doesn't want to lose either." He made a face. "Of course, she made sure she packed her favorite jacket when we came here."

Rumple hardly dared to voice his next question, but he needed to hear the answer. "Henry, am I to understand that you and Emma are… moving back here permanently?"

"Uh, yeah," Henry said, sounding surprised. "She didn't tell you?"

"No," Rumple replied. "No, she didn't. Well. Well, that's…" He smiled. "That's very good news, Henry. Very good news indeed."

He and Henry chatted for a bit. Well, in reality, he asked a few open-ended questions and let his grandson handle most of the conversation. He sat back and listened, even as part of his mind kept reviewing what Henry had told him moments earlier.

Emma wasn't leaving after all. And while he was glad of it, he also knew that she'd certainly led him to believe otherwise just a few days ago. Somehow, he didn't think that his outburst had gotten her to reconsider, but something had. It wasn't until Regina opened her purse, removed several small bills, and sent Henry to the cafeteria with instructions to bring her back a grilled chicken wrap and get something for himself as well that he discovered what.

Regina waited until the door closed gently behind her son before turning to Rumple with a weary smile. "I'm hoping he'll at least get a hamburger, but it'll probably be a donut."

"You could have said something to him," Rumple returned.

Regina sighed. "I've only just got him back. I figured I could indulge him a little before I started setting limits."

Rumple winced. Then he pressed his lips together and gave her a quick nod. "I quite understand," he said, his previous attempt at jocularity gone.

Regina sighed again. "Emma's magic is back," she said. "I don't know the details, but she did something the other day. I don't imagine it was anything serious; there've been no reports of property damage and I think I'd have noticed a forest fire or a tidal wave."

Perhaps his outburst had prompted her to reconsider, albeit indirectly. Magic was predicated on emotion and he'd certainly caused her some emotional upset at their last meeting. He hadn't meant to, at least, he didn't think he had, but one couldn't always foresee results.

Regina wasn't finished talking and he forced his mind back to what she was telling him now.

"Of course, if her magic is back and the witch isn't…" Regina said, "Well. Am I correct in my assumption that we won't be seeing Zelena again after all?"

Rumple frowned as he turned her words over in his head, looking for an accusation or some other hint that the astonishing solicitude he'd been enjoying since his return was at an end. But while he detected curiosity in her tone and perhaps a note of resignation, there was no blame there.

"I'd say that's a fair assessment," he said finally. And then, before she could ask anything else, he added, "I don't know her ultimate fate, but we were more than two hundred years in the past and if it were within her capabilities to create another portal, I really think she'd have managed it by now."

"So, you didn't…?"

"What? Kill her?" Rumple smiled. "I won't deny I was tempted. But I had… other priorities."

"You mean, you just let her go?"

"Initially," Rumple nodded. "But later when our paths crossed again, well, let's just say that my involvement in her fate was markedly less than it was in yours after the first curse broke."

Regina's eyebrows shot up at that. Of course she knew what he was referring to: once Rumple had learned that she'd kept Belle her captive for more than twenty-eight years, he'd been bent on vengeance. Belle, however, had elicited a promise from him to forgo any retribution, and so he had. He'd summoned a wraith to do his dirty work instead. But still, she found herself asking, "Rumple, just how much involvement did you have in her fate?"

"Hello, Rumple." Zelena was almost purring, as she bound his wrists behind his back with a drapery sash and then knotted the trailing end about one of the tieback hooks.

"Zelena." It was very nearly a snarl and Rumple hoped it masked his panic. He couldn't cast a spell with his hands bound and the witch bloody well knew it.

She smiled. "So, tonight is the night," she said casually. "I rather thought it might be. I suppose that was you skulking about before?"

She giggled when her captive glowered. Really, it had just been a lucky guess. Rumple was wearing the same livery as the man who'd surprised her earlier. Come to think of it, he'd only disguised his face, but not his voice or mannerisms. Perhaps she had suspected his identity. She'd been half-expecting to encounter him tonight.

She hadn't had occasion to discuss the Dark One dagger with many people since coming to this land, but she had engaged Tavro in conversation three—no, tomorrow was going to be the third day—two days ago, after he'd come rushing into Fendrake's tent, prattling about the village girl who'd been drafted to the front. He'd been startled at first; she'd barely responded to his greetings until now and Fendrake rarely assigned them to a task together. But when he'd mentioned how the girl's parents had tried to resist and the Dark One had prevented them, she'd had to know more. After a few probing questions, she'd realized that the boy knew little of the Dark One apart from what he'd witnessed that morning. All he'd been able to tell her was that he'd observed the cloaked figure from a distance, but that he clearly possessed strong magic. No, he didn't know its source. No, he didn't know how he came to be in the Duke's service. No, he didn't know…

Zelena doubted it had even crossed the boy's mind that the Dark One wasn't the Duke's champion, but his slave. It might mean nothing. Tavro was just an uneducated village boy who, like so many others in the district, had probably never travelled further from his home than this tent in the marshes. But uneducated didn't mean stupid, and Zelena had to admit (albeit grudgingly) that the boy had a sharp mind and an inquisitive nature. As far as he was concerned, the Dark One worked for the duke, whether as a mercenary or a henchman. And when Zelena had asked him if he had any idea how one might tear him from such employment, the lad had merely shrugged.

"If he's a mercenary, pay him more, I guess," Tavro had replied. "If he's a loyal retainer, I don't know."

It wasn't as though she'd polled any of the other villagers, but Zelena rather suspected that in this time, the nature of the Dark One and his dagger weren't common knowledge. Certainly that Charlotte Long-scar hadn't recognized it when she'd had it in her grasp. But if the local villagers and other riffraff weren't aware of the blade's importance, the duke certainly was. And so was Rumple.

She sighed. "What to do, what to do?" she mused aloud. "Had I still my choker, my path would be clear: assume your guise and accompany younger-you to the place where he'll slay the current Dark One. And then, as the power begins to take him, wrest the dagger from his grasp."

The curtain hook was digging into Rumple's back and he twisted about, hoping to loosen the cords or, at the very least, find a more comfortable position to stand. A narrow ribbon of patterned fabric caught his eye and he looked away quickly, hoping the witch wouldn't notice.

No, he thought with an internal sigh of relief. She was too busy gloating.

"Now," she sighed, "well, I suppose I'll just have to wait until I smell smoke, duck out into the corridor, and follow at a distance." She smirked. "The wresting part of the plan needn't change, mind you."

He couldn't get his hands free, but he rather thought his teeth would suffice. If he could manage it before she realized what he was about.

"I wonder, Rumple," she went on conversationally. "Once I have the dagger, once it has your name on it, will I only control him… or both of you? Two Dark Ones in my service," she smiled slowly. "One cowed and dispirited, one experienced and already skilled in Dark magic, and both mine to command. Oh, yes, this does have delightful possibilities…"

Chapter 27: Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Seven

"I'm sorry," Regina said, noticing that Rumple hadn't finished more than half of the tray the nurse had brought in. "I should have asked you if you wanted anything from downstairs when I sent Henry."

Henry popped the last bit of oversized chocolate chip cookie into his mouth and wiped his fingers on the paper napkin while he chewed and swallowed. "I can still go back," he offered. "I don't mind."

Rumple shook his head. "No need," he replied. "The only thing wrong with what's left on my plate is that it's still a bit much for me to consume at one sitting. I'll likely want more in an hour or so." He looked at the tray again with a faint smile. "I must say that the dietician is showing a bit more creativity than I might have expected," he added. "None of this requires refrigeration."

He looked at the label that had been taped to the clear plastic cover. He wasn't sure he'd everheardof 'quinoa tabbouleh salad' before, though he needed no introduction to the accompanying olives, green beans, roasted almonds, and clementine sections. Well, whatever it was that had gone into the salad, it had certainly come out tasty enough. He wondered whether it was something Belle might be able to find a recipe for when he was discharged.

"So, uh… what do you do here all day?" Henry asked, looking around the room. "Just watch TV?"

Rumple snorted a bit at that. "That's hardly one of my preferred pastimes," he retorted. "At any rate, it wasn't one of the amenities in the isolation unit. It was here when I was transferred to this room. I've yet to turn it on."

"Oh," Henry nodded, but he was frowning a bit. "Don't you get bored?"

Rumple shook his head. "Not yet," he replied, "though I imagine that will happen sooner rather than later." He might have said that until now, he'd been too ill and spent to do much more than eat, sleep, and converse with the occasional visitor, but he didn't want his grandsonorthe woman who had been so often his antagonist, albeit less so lately, to see him as weak. His expression grew pensive. "I suppose I ought to ask Belle about some light reading material. She knows my tastes and they don't run to the periodicals in the waiting rooms here, which were likely published several years before the advent of the first curse."

"Next time, don't craft a curse that mirrors conditions in the outside world quite so well, then," Regina put in with a smug smile.

Rumple's eyebrows shot up. "Next time?" he repeated, a bit too innocently.

Henry shifted a bit in his chair. Under normal circ*mstances, he probably wouldn't even have considered raising the subject. Even if his grandfather no longer intimidated him the way he had when Henry had been younger, there were some questions you just didn't ask him; some things that you just didn't picture Rumpelstiltskindoing. "Grandpa? Uh… Do you ever…?" He lowered his eyes and mumbled the rest of his question at a rush, sure at once that he was just being silly, though whether he was silly for wanting to ask or silly for being afraid to was up for debate.

Rumple frowned. "Pardon? I didn't quite catch that."

Hesitantly, Henry pulled out his phone and drew closer to the bed, turning it on as he did. "Do you… Have you ever played computer games?"

He still wasn't sure he'd heard his grandson correctly. "Could you repeat that?" he asked.

"I'm sorry," Henry said quickly. "I know it was stupid. I just thought, I mean I play them whenI'mbored and… Sorry."

Rumple struggled to sit up a bit straighter. "No, Henry, wait. It wasn't…" He'd been surprised by the question, yes, but even more so by the intent behind it. His grandson wasreaching out to him, he realized. He was trying to find some sort of common ground, however tentatively. "It wasn't stupid," he said softly. "And to answer your question, no, I never have. At least," he gave his grandson a small smile, "not yet." He deliberately avoided looking at Regina; he imagined he could guess at the expression onherface and had no desire to have his suspicions confirmed. "But," he added, "if they're as diverting as you seem to be suggesting, perhaps you might suggest one."

There was no mistaking the surprise on the lad's face, but after the briefest of moments, Henry nodded eagerly. "Well, some of the best ones are on my Gameboy, but there are a lot you can just play on your phone. Here," he brought up a screen with a series of icons. "This one's a hidden object; it gives you a scene and you have to find the stuff it tells you to. And this one's a match-three…"

And Regina turned her face away carefully, knowing that if Rumple saw her smile, he'd think she found the entire thing hilarious—when really, she thought it was rather sweet…

Whale came in shortly thereafter, and Rumple was glad when he told his visitors that 'the patient needed his rest now' and that they could come back tomorrow. They'd spent over three hours with him and for all he'd appreciated their company, it was more of a strain than he cared to admit trying to stay alert and engaged enough not to have them thinking he was in worse condition than he actually was.

Besides, had they stayed longer, Regina might well have asked about her sister again, and although Rumple didn't mind divulging the fate that she'd been facing when he'd last clapped eyes on her, he rather thought it would be better to break the news carefully. For all that the witch had tried to erase Regina's existence, shewasthe queen's sister and Regina had always had rather… complicated feelings about family.

Best to take the time now to review the past and marshal his thoughts for when Regina asked him again.

As doubtless, she would…

A long time ago, or in just a few hours, Zoso had told or would tell him that he knew how to recognize a desperate soul. At the moment, Rumple reflected,thatwould hardly be much of a trick. There was so much that could go wrong. There hadn't been anybody about in the corridor and it was unlikely anyone would hear him if he shouted for assistance. If Zelena suspected what he was about, if that ribbon of fabric wasn't what he thought it was, if the few inches of slack in the cord that tethered him to the curtain hook wouldn't let him reach it, if the witch—

"You know, Rumple," Zelena said casually, "I'm not so sure it's a good idea for you to be out in the open like this. When other-you turns up, well, he'll be nervous enough without his seeing you. Yes, I think your original idea was a good one. I really should get you out of the way. And keep you quiet," she added, pulling a wicked-looking sickle out of her belt and lifting up one of wall hangings.

Shewasplanning to gag him, he realized. It was now or never. As the witch began hacking away at the fabric—really that sickle was entirely the wrong tool for the job—he jumped the few inches into the air that he could and caught the ribbon in his teeth. Some distance down the corridor, he heard the ringing of a gong as his heels touched the floor again. He'd been right. The strip was a sort of bell-pull, meant to summon a servant. Already, someone was running down the hall. The door opened and a young woman in plain, but neat attire stepped in. "You sum—" She choked off her words quickly, as Zelena looked up startled, and ran back down the corridor yelling for the guards.

Zelena whirled on Rumple, eyes blazing. "You!" she hissed. "I'll not have you defeat me now when I'm this close!"

Rumple swallowed hard as she raised the sickle. It wouldn't kill him, of course, but it would hurt. With his hands bound, he wouldn't be able to cast a healing spell, and he wasn't sure how his immortality would compensate for a slit throat. Would he become giddy or pass out or…?

The room suddenly seemed to be filled with the smell and clinking of metal armor, rough curses, and too many people. Someone was cutting him loose; someone else was holding Zelena, and the servant woman was standing nervously in the doorway. He met her eyes with silent appreciation.

"Are you hurt?" one of the guards asked him.

Rumple shook his head.

The guard turned toward the woman. "The seneschal should still be awake at this hour. Go. Tell him what you've seen."

The woman began to stammer. "Please, sir, if I disturb him, I may be turned out of doors without wages before I can explain myself."

"I'll accompany you," one of the other guards spoke up. "Milord Ollen's a fair man, but I imagine you've had scant opportunity to see that for yourself."

The servant nodded gratefully. "Thank you, sir," she murmured.

"Lieutenant!" Another guard was holding up a satchel, from which several green fronds protruded.

"That's not mine!" Zelena snapped. "It's his!" she added, jerking her head toward Rumple.

Rumple reminded himself that he was in no danger now. Even if they took her word over his, he had but to teleport away. "I'm afraid that's incorrect," he said mildly. "And you'll note I've neither mud nor grass stains onmyclothing. She really can't say the same."

The guard opened the satchel and his eyes widened slightly. "I'm a country lad by birth, Goodwife," he said slowly. "And I know my plants. You've hemlock and henbane here. Deadly poisons both. And this…" he held up a glass vial, unstoppered it, and took a whiff. "Crowsblossom, I warrant. The guard who was on duty in this corridor on second watch took ill sudden-like, with the sort of complaints that an elixir brewed of that plant is known to bring on." He lifted out a bundle of greenery and drew closer to the witch, but his next question was addressed to the guardsman restraining her.

"Would you say that these were cut with a sickle, the like of which you've just taken off of her, sir?" he asked in a tone that suggested he knew his answer.

The lieutenant gave the stems of the plants a cursory examination before he glowered at his captive. "I don't think I envy you your fate, goodwife," he said. "Who were you planning to murder? His Grace? Do you have a vendetta, or are you in someone's hire, hmm?"

"No, wait!" Zelena protested. "I-I'm apprenticed to the healer Master Fendrake! He sent me for those plants! Ask him!"

"A healer?" the guard repeated. He turned to one of the other men. "Fetch the records clerk. Have her check whether this…" He jerked his head at the witch. "Your name?"

"Zelena," she replied with a confident smile.

"Zelena," the guard continued, "is in his employ as she claims to be." He spat on the ground. "Magic. As if this evening wasn't trouble enough."

He turned to Rumple and seemed to take note of the livery he was wearing. "I'd tell you to go about your duties, but I imagine the seneschal will have questions. I'm afraid we'll need to keep you a bit longer."

And Rumple remembered that among the duties of the palace seneschal was the oversight of servants and realized that pleading heavy tasks and an unforgiving supervisor would likely bring the suspicions he'd thus far avoided crashing down about him. He nodded and resigned himself to waiting.

The records clerk was a dour, officious woman in her late forties, who wore her ash-blonde hair skinned back from her head so tightly that Rumple rather suspected it had left her eyebrows permanently raised in an expression of surprise or suspicion.

"Master Fendrake has registered in his service one Tavronius Gavver's of Pen Marmor," she said, peering down her nose over a pair of bone-rimmed spectacles that sat on the bridge of her nose without the benefit of earpieces to secure them. "A lad of twelve years. The contract was filed some four months ago and appears to be in order." She smiled humorlessly. "Unless you're the victim of a glamour spell gone awry, I must say you don't appear to match the decription."

"What?" Zelena tried to spring forward, but was checked when the guards on either side of her crossed their halberds before her, the blades at the level of her throat. "There… there must be some mistake. I signed a contract with him not a week after this boy entered his employ. Check again!"

"I have," the clerk intoned with a hint of asperity. "No other contract has been registered."

"Then someone's taken it!" She whirled toward Rumple. "You! You did it!"

Rumple tilted his head with a puzzled frown, not letting on how much he was enjoyingthisturn of events. "I've done nothing of the kind," he said mildly. He looked at the guards. "I assure you, sirs, this is the first I'm hearing of any such contract."

"He's lying! Search him!"

Rumple sighed. "Really, if I was going to abscond with such a document, I'd like to think I'd have had the good sense to burn the evidence, but if you'd prefer…" He took a step forward and stood with him arms spread wide. "Search if you like. I've nothing to hide."

The seneschal massaged his brow with a manicured hand. "Ride for Master Fendrake," he ordered one of the soldiers. "Tell him what's afoot while you bring him here. We'll settle the matter tonight."

"Wake a mage?" the soldier repeated, a bit nervously.

"He's a healer mage," the seneschal reminded him with a snort. "Worst he's like to do is give you a tonic without the honey to mask the flavor." Outside, the clock chimed the half-hour. "It's only half-past ten," the lieutenant continued. "He may not even have retired for the night. The faster you ride, the less likely it is that you'll wake him at all. Off you go."

Rumple kept his peace. If he called attention to himself, the seneschal might ask the kinds of questions of him that would make it clear he had no business here whatsoever, and having already caught one intruder, they'd be less likely to let another off with a warning. Even if he used magic to escape pursuit, it would raise the alarm and he wasn't forgetting that his younger self would be here in less than five hours. The wall where the blaze would start needed to be unguarded and it definitely wouldn't be if they were trying to hunt him down. Best keep his head down for now.

Besides, he had to admit that he was rather enjoying the spectacle playing out before him.

Rumpelstiltskin sat bolt-upright in bed, eyes wide. "Tavronius," he whispered. "That'swhere I'd heard the name before!" But it hadn't been the only time he'd heard it. TavroniusGavver's. He'd known a Gavver in Pen Marmor, a fletcher by trade. That skill had kept the man occupied in relative safety behind the main battle lines and he'd returned home after three years' army service to the embrace of a happy wife. There had been a son, he remembered now. A frail, sickly thing, a year or so younger than Bae. As he recalled, there'd been something wrong with his breathing. Perhaps today, it would have been diagnosed as asthma, but back in the Enchanted Forest, it had simply been termed, 'a delicate constitution,' 'weak lungs,' or something else, equally vague.

Rumple frowned. He vaguely recollected Bae's telling him that Gavver hadgoneto Fendrake in hopes of treating the boy, but had been unable to come up with the healer's fee. Come to think of it, after he'd become the Dark One, Gavver had soughthimout, as well. By then, the lad's condition had been dire and the parents desperate. He'd…

Rumple went cold. He'd made a deal for the boy's health. Some task for the parents he couldn't now recall. He'd promised to cure their son when it was completed. But that night, Bae had taken him to the woods and used the bean and when an anguished Rumple had returned home alone to find Gavver on his doorstep, he'd…No.No. No, no, he'd always believed that he'd only ever broken one deal in his life.

He'd been wrong.

"But you promised! I-I'm doing as you asked. Please, my son…!"

"Go! Leave me! I've just lostmyson, so why should you get to keep yours?"

He'd slammed the recently-replaced door in Gavver's face and commenced to lay his old walking staff into every stick of furniture and recently-acquired luxury he'd then possessed. Finally, when the hut was in shambles, he'd used his magic to transport himself 'someplace where I can dwell away from the company of other humans and perform my magical workings in peace'. There, in the wilderness, he'd arrived at an abandoned castle and it hadn't taken much effort to make it livable again.

And what of Gavver's boy?

Technically, the fletcher hadn't completed his end of the bargain, but only because Rumple had left the village before he could. The boy had never been in Fendrake's service—word of that sort of thing got around quickly. And by the time Gavver had sought Rumple's aid, the boy had been bedridden and the Dark One his last hope.

And yet, apparently, this child—this Tavronius—had been in the healer's hire before Rumple had ever become the Dark One and had grown up and gone on to do so much more. So much… that Rumple surely should have heard about over the years.

So, why hadn't he?

He was still pondering the answer tothatquestion when the nurse arrived with his supper tray.

Rumple knew that there was yet plenty of time to spare before his younger self arrived, but he still fought to remain calm when the messenger departed. And as the moments ticked by, he did his best to keep his worries from mounting. If Hordor appeared on the scene and recognized him… If the Duke's people decided to interrogate both Zelena and himself, if the steps he'd be forced to take to protect himself were to scare off his younger self or worse, put the castle on high alert so that the perimeter would be heavily guarded this time out and his younger self spotted setting the blaze…

His gaze stole toward Zelena, who was waiting with a confident smile on her face. She seemed to feel his eyes upon her for she turned to meet them and her smile broadened.

Rumple looked away.

The chamber door opened again and Rumple saw, with only momentary relief, that the newcomer was not Hordor, but the Duke himself.

"Your Grace!" the seneschal bowed respectfully, and the soldiers followed suit. After a moment, Rumple ducked his head as well and a light cuff from one of the two guarding her had Zelena doing the same. Her smile was gone, replaced by an angry scowl.

"I've just been apprised of the situation. What progress?" the Duke asked, and from the tone of his voice, it was impossible to gauge his emotions.

"We're just waiting on—"

"Your Grace!" a liveried servant who had clearly been standing just outside entered, two other figures following in his wake. "The healer, Master Fendrake."

"Well, finally!" Zelena huffed, as the healer strode briskly into the room, his escort trailing a pace behind. "Would you believe that these cretins couldn't find the contract I signed to enter your service?"

"Master Fendrake," the duke came three steps forward. "I do apologize for the late hour. My soldiers inform me that this woman was caught with hemlock and henbane within this chamber, and that she might have incapacitated a guard earlier. She claims to be in your service. What say you?"

Fendrake regarded the duke calmly for a moment. Then he shook his head. "She is not."

"Liar!" Zelena shrilled. "I signed with a blood oath! That hemlock and henbane was gathered on your orders!"

"And did I order you to carry it to this castle? Or indeed to pass its gates at all?" Fendrake shook his head. "As for the agreement you signed with me," he reached into his robe and withdrew a rolled parchment from its folds, "it has no relevance here."

"What?" For the first time, Zelena began to look a bit worried, and Rumple felt a bit of his tension ease.

The healer unrolled the parchment and ran his finger down the page, stopping near the bottom. "If Your Grace would care to read the relevant section?" he asked, approaching closer. One of the servants hurried forward to take the scroll, placing her finger where Fendrake had indicated.

The Duke looked at the paragraph in question and, with raised eyebrows, read aloud, "In the event that the party of the second part should demonstrate a magical proficiency to the satisfaction of the part of the first part, she will then enter his household as a journeyman apprentice for a period of not less than six months. Within twelve months from that day, the apprenticeship shall be reevaluated and a decision made as to whether to renew the contract under the same terms, renew with altered terms, or discontinue entirely…" He turned back to the healer, paying no mind to the widening eyes and smile playing on the lips of liveried man standing with the guards.

Rumple was doing his best not to laugh. He'd long recognized Fendrake's talent for striking deals—a trait he'd later cultivated in himself, of course, but he hadn't quite appreciatedhowwily the healer could be. And apparently, neither had Zelena.

"I believe I understand why you did not file this document with my records clerk," the duke remarked.

Fendrake nodded. "She is neither student nor servant of mine. I agreed to allow her to assist me on a probationary basis in exchange for room and board, in the hope that she might indeed prove to be as adept at magic as she claimed to be, but she is not bound to me and has always been free to stay or go at her whim." His voice hardened. "Until now."

Eyes wide, Zelena tried to rush forward but was checked again by the crossed halberds. "You tricked me!" she cried. "You knew I was under the impression that—"

"The terms of the contract are quite clear," Fendrake replied coolly. "Had you questions or uncertainty about the terms of our arrangement, you could have asked at any time. Much as young Tavronius did not long ago, if you'll recall. If you misunderstood the agreement, I am sorry, but your misinterpretation of clear wording is not my responsibility."

He looked at the duke. "I can assure you that I had no knowledge of this woman's actions this day. I sent her to the meadow outside these walls to gather the herbs in question, but she was under orders to return with them to me."

"So you claim no right to intervene in the judgment that awaits her?"

The healer shook his head. "Neither the right nor the desire, Your Grace. As your loyal subject, it cannot be otherwise."

Rumple did his best not to smile, but he wasdefinitelyenjoying this.

The Duke favored the healer with an apologetic smile. "We are sorry to have roused you from your home at this late hour," he said. "Know that I am satisfied with your account of matters." He glanced at the lieutenant. "See to it that Master Fendrake is fairly compensated for his time according to the rate due a mage for testimony before a tribunal. And see that he has an armed escort back to his home." His gaze was hard as he turned to Zelena.

"Your Grace," she began, speaking quickly, "I meant no harm. I—"

"—Entered my castle uninvited, drugged a guard, and when caught by one of my loyal retainers, attempted to incapacitate him as well, all the while believing that you could do as you pleased because you fancied yourself a mage's apprentice." The Duke's voice was hard.

"I could have you executed for even one of those offenses," he continued. "But I'm inclined to be merciful. This fief, this kingdom, is currently embroiled in a war and we've a shortage of able-bodied men and women of age to bear arms. This then is the choice before you: service in the army for a period of three years or six months past war's end, whichever comes first. Otherwise I'll have you hanged for treason in three days' time. You may have that long to decide."

"No," Zelena said, smiling with relief. "No, I'll take the army."

Rumple could well guess what was going through her mind. She knew that within twenty-four hours of becoming the Dark One, Rumple's younger self would put a stop to the Ogre War. And six months of army life when there were no inconvenient enemy troops trying to put an arrow through your heart (or, in the case of an ogre, a foot through your skull) wasn't so terrible a fate. At least one didn't have to worry about food or shelter.

"A wise choice," the duke nodded. He motioned to his soldiers.

"Take her away. She goes to the southern front for the King's war as soon as we've enough mustered for it."

"Wait," Zelena exclaimed, as a soldier took her arm. "The King's war? No, it's supposed to be the Ogre's war!"

The duke raised an eyebrow. "It is not for any conscript to dictate the front to which they are sent. You will be sent where I choose to send you and that is either to the southern front or…"

Perhaps it was only a shift in position that had the guard on her left move the blade of his halberd so that it seemed poised to descend upon her head. Perhaps it was a warning. Either way, Zelena had time to fling one half-furious, half-pleading look behind her as she was dragged off.

Rumple couldn't quite hide his smirk now. Really, he wished his future-sight had shown him this earlier; he'd have enjoyed anticipating this moment nearly as much as he had watching it. And it wasn't even midnight yet. He had plenty of time to—

He realized that the seneschal was talking to him now and he recollected himself. "Pardon, my lord?" He thought fast, faked and smothered a yawn, and asked the seneschal's pardon again.

"Tarry a bit longer," the seneschal said. "I know you've passed a difficult night, but I should like to hear your account of it before I release you to your duties. Or your bedchamber, from the look of you," he added, not unkindly.

And Rumple forced himself to smile and reminded himself that in this case, telling the truth—or at least most of it—probably was all he needed to do.

On the road, Rumpelstiltskin's leg was dragging. He had one hand tight on his staff, his other arm heavy on Bae's shoulders. He didn't know how long they'd been walking and he only hoped he'd make the castle before daybreak, but they were still more than a league away and three miles with a bad ankle might as well have been thirty.

They rounded a bend and Bae gasped. "Papa! We're nearly there!"

Rumple nodded, not quite believing it. He could have sworn that they hadn't passed the ruins of the old stone barn, nor the three pastures gone fallow, nor the bridge over the creek. But yet, here they were at the meadow and the castle loomed high scant yards away. "Come on, son!" he gasped, hobbling forward with renewed vigor. "And watch for patrols!"

From the shadows in the nearby trees, a hooded man smiled in satisfaction. "There will be no patrols tonight," Zoso said softly. "No guards outside the dagger's chamber. And no interfering witch or other version of yourself to keep you from your destiny. My ending and your beginning are both drawing near…"

…And all he'd had to do to ensure that thing proceeded properly was cast a simple teleportation spell to get the spinner to the castle two hours earlier.

Chapter 28: Chapter Twenty-Eight

Notes:

A/N: Although free elementary education began in Britain in 1833 with 'schools for poor children' and fee exemptions for parents unable to afford school fees at board schools where no other institutions existed, schooling was not compulsory until 1880.

Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book contains (among others) versions of "Little Red Riding Hood," "Sleeping Beauty," "Cinderella," "Aladdin," "Rumpelstiltskin," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Hansel and Gretel". But although "Snow White and Rose Red" is in there, the "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" story—or "Snowdrop" as it's called in Lang's compilation, only appears in the Red Fairy Book. Although the novel Peter Pan and Wendy was published in 1911, the original play came out in 1904 and was revived annually for some time thereafter. I'm being vague on the theatre, because I couldn't confirm where it would have played in 1906, but the 1904 premiere was at the Duke of York's in Charing Cross, so I can confirm that there was at least one theater in that part of London at the time!

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Rumple looked at his handkerchief again, hoping that this time, it would prove to be some trick of the light. He couldn't truly say he was surprised. He'd been more tired lately, less hungry, and of course, last winter's cough had never truly gone away. Another winter was nearly here now and Rumple suspected his health would fare all the worse for it. Until today, he'd tried blaming his troubles on air pollution. While the smoke from coal-burning furnaces and the odors from the wares of butchers and fishmongers did add a noxious brew to the atmosphere, Rumple supposed that deep down, he'd suspected the true cause of his affliction.

And now, a bit of bloody phlegm had confirmed it.

Consumption. In this time and place, it was a death sentence. Rumple closed his eyes. The seer had spoken truly. Bae—sometimes Rumple still couldn't believe the lad was already fifteen, but still only fifteen—would grow up without a father. He'd never see his boy grow up. Never see him raise a family. Never—well, actually, Rumple reflected, he would know his grandchild, but he'd learn about the relationship far too late and by the time he did, there would be so little time and he'd make such a mess of things. As usual.

And if Bae never went to Neverland, Henry would never exist in the first place.

Rumple set his elbow down on the table and rested his chin in his palm. He had to decide. He could try to let things unfold now as they must have the first time. Bae was still friendly with the Darling children and Rumple knew that they had played some role in getting his son to Neverland in the first place, although he was hazy on the details. Or he could choose to ignore what he knew of the future. They could leave London, perhaps go to someplace by the sea. It might buy him a few more months. Bae would be away from the Darlings. As to how they would live, well, he hadn't known the answer to that when he'd followed Bae here through the portal. Something would materialize. Somehow, they would manage.

Of one thing he was certain. He wasn't about to squander his remaining time wrestling with indecision as he had back in the Enchanted Forest. He needed to make up his mind on which course to follow and he needed to do it quickly.

He didn't have much time left to him, after all…

In Kensington Gardens, Bae sat on a bench and sketched the scene before him, wishing that Papa had come with him. Then again, he knew that his father seemed to tire more easily these days, and perhaps it was a bit dull for him to just sit here for hours and wait until his son was done with his sketching.

"Hello, Baelfire," a sweet voice greeted him, and he looked up to see Wendy Darling and her brothers heading toward him, Nana at their side. He smiled a greeting in return.

"Sketching again, I see," John said a bit pompously, but his grin was friendly and Bae took no offense.

"May I have a look?" Wendy asked. "Or is it a private affair?"

Bae fought not to laugh. Sometimes, Wendy sounded so stilted. Rather like a character in an old book, he thought, wondering why she couldn't just talk plainly like Robertson Ay or his brother. Without the rhyming slang, though; he really thought he would laugh if she tried her hand at that! "You can look," he said, handing over the sketchpad.

"Thank you," Wendy said, sitting down on the bench beside him and smiling as her younger brothers ran a short distance away. Bae chuckled a bit when Michael picked up a longish stick from off the ground and struck what had to be his idea of a dueling pose. John parried the thrust with the umbrella he always carried with him, rain or shine, and the two began their mock battle in earnest.

Wendy laughed too. "They're always playing pirate these days," she sighed indulgently. "I'm just curious," she added. "Every time we come here, you're always drawing. Papa has engaged a tutor for John and me to give us art lessons, but I don't think we practice nearly as much as you must and…" Her voice trailed off. "Baelfire," she said in a rather different tone of voice, as she turned through his earlier sketches, "these are really quite good."

"Thanks," Bae said, ducking his head a bit.

"Who's your instructor?" the girl continued. "How long have you been learning? I think Papa might consider hiring him instead if he could teach you to draw this well."

Bae shook his head. "I don't have an instructor," he said. "I mean, Mr. Banks was tutoring me in history and literature last year for the scholarship exam…" His voice trailed off as he felt a pang. Papa had been so disappointed, but there had been no help for— "I've just… always drawn," he finished, pulling his thoughts back to the present.

Wendy pursed her lips for a moment. "Could you… Could you let me borrow one of these? Please? I think I'd like to show it to my tutor. He might be able to, well, you know, analyze it for you."

"I couldn't pay him," Bae said quickly.

"I shouldn't think you'd have to, just to analyze. Why he didn't ask Papa to pay for John or me before he agreed to take us on. I think the fees are only for lessons, though Papa won't discuss such things with me," she added with a slight pout.

Bae smiled. "Well, okay, then," he said, flipping the pages back and carefully tearing out one heavy cream sheet where he'd drawn two children rolling hoops before the Albert Memorial. "You can give him this one. Actually," he grinned, "you can keep it."

"Thank you, Baelfire," Wendy said formally, taking the page and rolling it carefully, before putting it in the cloth bag that Nana wore on one side of her furry back. Then, flushing a bit, she added, "If you should ever care to…" her voice dropped to a whisper, "kiss me, I don't think I'd mind."

Bae's eyes widened. And then, almost unconsciously, he bent toward her and she toward him. Their lips were mere inches apart…

WOOF!

Startled, the two teens jerked apart, just as Nana hurried forward inserting herself between her young female charge and the slightly-older object of her affections.

"Uh… maybe today's not so good for that," Bae managed, as Nana nudged Wendy further away from him. A low growl pulsed in the dog's throat. "I… think maybe I'd like to draw this from a different angle," he said hastily, getting to his feet. "Another time?"

Wendy, still being herded away by her guardian canine, glanced back over her shoulder at the retreating youth. "Goodbye, Baelfire!" she called after him. Then, again more softly, "Goodbye…"

As he had in the Enchanted Forest, Bae rose with the dawn the next morning, without the need for an alarm clock. After he'd used the basin on the nightstand to wash and got dressed, he spared a worried glance for the bed on the opposite side. Papa was still asleep. That was fine; Papa didn't need to be awake at this hour, but he was usually stirring by now. Bae chewed on the inside of his lower lip. Papa's health had never quite got back to what it had been before that day in Kensington Gardens, but there were days when he seemed to be closer to it. There hadn't been many of those lately.

Bae went quietly downstairs to the scullery. Breakfast wasn't ready yet, but Emily was already poking at the fire. Mrs. Robertson was 'in a delicate condition' again and she'd recently hired a maid of all work to 'help with the lodgers and whatever else as needs doing when I can't get to it.' She greeted Bae cheerfully. "There's a bit o' cold roast left from last night," she said, setting down the poker and striding into the larder. "You'll want something heartier than bread to tide you till lunch."

"Thanks, Emmie," Bae said. "I mean, I could get something on the way—"

"Begging your pardon, Mr. Cassidy," Emily said with some asperity, "but you lodging here entitles you to bed and board. I rather think the missus'd take a dim view of me not giving you your money's worth. And I don't imagine we'll be seeing you at tea neither, will we?"

Bae shook his head. "No," he agreed. "You won't. Uh, say, in about an hour, could you knock on my door and make sure Papa's awake?"

"That gennulman?" Emily smiled, wrapping the food in a clean cloth napkin. "No trouble at all."

Bae grinned. "Thanks, Emmie, you're a brick!" He grabbed up the napkin, slid it into his bag and headed out into the city.

There weren't many jobs to be had in London outside of regular working hours, but Bae was looking. At the moment, he picked up an extra two shillings a week, one for reading aloud to an elderly man with failing eyesight for an hour in the morning and another for reading aloud in the evenings to a somewhat younger man who'd 'been a year too old to get schooling for gratis in 1880'. He'd never have discovered that there was work to be had that way, had he not decided several months ago to save money by walking the half-hour from their Bethnal Green lodgings to the bank on Lombard Street, instead of taking the tube. He'd had enough time to stop and get his shoes shined—something he never would have thought to bother with, had Mr. Lorry not delivered a scathing lecture early on, on the need for all bank employees, from the lowliest messenger boy (here, Mr. Lorry had put a bit of extra emphasis on the word 'lowliest,' while fixing Bae with a steely gaze that made it clear he had in mind one messenger boy in particular) to the partners themselves. Since that day, Bae had always made certain that his shoes were unscuffed and his clothing stainless and dust-free. It was worth paying a penny for a shine.

On this day, there had been a customer ahead of him.

"Sorry, guv," the shoeshine boy was saying. "In an hour, I earn more from shines and tips than you're offering me to read you the papers. If you want my advice, you'll run an advertisem*nt in the Times or Daily."

The elderly man nodded sadly. "I was hoping to save the notice fee, but perhaps you're right."

Impulsively, Bae spoke up. "You need someone to read to you?" Both the gentleman and the shine boy turned to him. "I'm sorry," Bae said at once. "I-I couldn't help overhearing."

The man smiled. "The curse of aging, lad," he said. "When one's hearing starts to go, one oftentimes finds oneself speaking louder as though it were everyone else having trouble understanding you. I'd thought that, at least, I could still read, but the print in these papers is so infernally small."

Bae nodded sympathetically, but he felt his hopes rising. "How much were you offering?"

"Well," the man said, "I thought I could do with a shilling a week for an hour of your time, daily. I don't expect you'll finish the paper in that amount of time, but it'd be a dashed sight better than nothing."

And the best offer he'd had yet. "It's a deal," he grinned, holding out his hand. The man shook it.

Now, Bae turned onto a side street and walked past a number of narrow, attached dwellings, before pausing some three quarters of the way down the block, mounting the front steps, and lifting the cast-iron door knocker. He rapped smartly twice and waited. After a moment, the door opened.

"Good morning, Cassidy," his employer greeted him.

Bae smiled. "Good morning, Mr. Winterwood."

This was it, Bae thought with a sinking feeling. He was about to lose his job. The words, "Cassidy, my office, now," didn't bode well. Not when the person uttering them was George Darling, whose daughter Bae had nearly kissed yesterday. He might have only lived in this land for a year or so, but that had been long enough to recognize that a bank messenger boy was nearly as unsuitable for a bank officer's daughter as a peasant boy for a princess! He knew that he and Wendy were just friends—or at least, he thought he had before Sunday in the park—but maybe even friendship was too risky. His hands sweating, he walked into the dark-paneled office.

"Close the door, Cassidy," Mr. Darling ordered, and Bae did so, taking care not to slam it.

Mr. Darling laid a paper on his desk. "I believe this is yours," he said. It was a statement, not a question, but Bae nodded all the same when he beheld the sketch he'd given Wendy.

"Yes, sir," he said, jamming his sweaty hands in his pockets.

"Take your hands out of your pockets, boy," Mr. Darling snapped, and Bae swallowed hard and obeyed, fighting hard not to wipe his hands on his trousers. Mr. Darling sniffed a bit. "I must say, I think it's a waste of time. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to make any sort of livelihood with this foolishness?"

Bae winced. "I-it's just a hobby, sir," he said.

"Do you imagine you've time for hobbies? Do you need more hours; is that it?"

Bae blinked. Mr. Darling sounded as though he was delivering a reprimand, but something about the man's tone suddenly gave Bae the impression that his disapproval was, at least partly, feigned. And the truth was that at this point, more hours—if it meant more pay—would be a godsend. But if he admitted as much and he'd misread his employers tone, an affirmative answer might be taken for cheek. He fell back on the safest response he could make. "Sir?"

Mr. Darling peered down his nose at the youth. "There's a position opening in the post room. It means another six shillings a week and you'd start an hour earlier. I had meant to recommend you for it, but if you'd rather indulge your hobby…"

Bae had a feeling that the wise response was to assure his employer that he'd give up the sketching immediately, but he knew it would be a lie. "I can do both, Mr. Darling," he said firmly. "I really only have time to draw now on the weekend. The extra hours won't interfere."

"Just see that they don't," Mr. Darling sniffed. "It's my reputation on the line as well if I put you forward."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

"Oh, and Cassidy," Mr. Darling added, almost as an afterthought, "I engage a private art tutor for my two elder children, as I believe my daughter told you. I never considered it a subject worth cultivating in a boy; it certainly wasn't done in my day, but times are changing. At any rate," he continued with a faint smile, "I'm informed that this work shows a certain degree of talent. At least, enough for the instructor I've engaged to consider taking you on as well." The answering smile that began to dawn on Bae's face froze with Mr. Darling's next words. "I imagine that for a young man of your background, such cultivation might be expected, despite your current circ*mstances."

"My… background?" Bae repeated. His hands were still sweating and the office suddenly seemed a lot stuffier.

Mr. Darling smiled. "I know your secret."

Typing, Rumple reflected, as his fingers hammered away on the keys of an Underwood No 5, had one thing in common with spinning: it occupied the hands, while letting the mind wander. And wander it did. He was dying. He needed to accept that. In this Land without Magic, in this time before antibiotics, well, there was always room to hope for a miracle, but he was no Hero who might reasonably expect such providence.

He had to tell Bae. Not just about his condition, though if he didn't, Bae would suspect soon enough. He wouldn't be able to hide bloody handkerchiefs for long. No, he'd been weighing out his options most of last night and all of this morning. He didn't know whether Bae's future could be changed. He did know that if Bae lived out his life in this time, there would be no Henry taking a bus to Boston to locate his birth mother. Oh, he knew his younger self would eventually cast the Dark Curse, and one might expect Snow White and her charming husband to send their daughter off ahead, just as they had in his past. But as to how Emma would find Storybrooke then…

He frowned. If Bae never went to Neverland, then when the curse came, Bae would be over ninety. Twenty-eight years later, he'd be…

Rumple typed furiously, trying to drown his thoughts in the clacking keys and ringing bells prompting him to hit the carriage return. The seer had told him that he'd be reunited with his son. He had to trust that whatever changes he'd made when he'd gone through the witch's time portal, he hadn't altered that. Bae would still be alive when the curse broke; he didn't need to worry about how. It would happen! It had to!

Otherwise, who was going to resurrect him so he could go through that portal in the first place? Second place?

His head was beginning to ache and it had nothing to do with his medical condition, for once. His fingers still flew over the keys. He came to the end of the sheet, pulled it out and set it face-up for the ink to fully dry, and fed in a new sheet of foolscap mechanically.

He knew what he had to do.

He only hoped that he could be brave enough to do it.

Bae swore he could feel every drop of blood drain from his face. "M-my secret?" he stammered stupidly.

Mr. Darling smiled. "When I interviewed your father for his position, he told me the truth about your background."

"What?" Papa wouldn't have—he couldn't have—not to a stranger, not after he'd impressed on Bae the need for secrecy, not—!

"Tragic," Mr. Darling continued. "Your family fortune swallowed up by debts and obligations and the two of you having no choice but to earn your way. But," he went on, "you were born a gentleman and blood will out. While art lessons would be wasted on most of the working class—allowing for the rare exception, of course—the man I engaged for my daughter claims to detect a fair amount of potential in your drawing." He wrote a number and street name on the top sheet of a pad, tore it off, and handed it to Bae. "You'll come around on Wednesday evening at seven sharp," he ordered. "Mr. Carstone will be waiting. He hasn't informed me of the fee he means to charge you; it's not my affair, I but furnish a venue where you can discuss the matter. Assuming that you and he agree on terms, I presume your current lodgings to be less suitable than you'd like for entertaining such company?"

Bae winced. "There's… there's nothing wrong with where we live," he said, feeling almost as though saying otherwise would be insulting both to Papa and Robertson Gee. "But it's just the one room and Papa might need to rest." Papa seemed to need to rest far more, these days.

"Quite. Well. I suppose if Mr. Carstone is willing to teach three pupils in the same hour, you'll take lessons with my children."

A broad smile spread across Bae's face. "Thank you, sir!" he exclaimed.

"Don't thank me yet, Cassidy," Darling harrumphed. "As I said, I have no notion of the terms Mr. Carstone means to set before you. And," he coughed, "I appreciate your… silence about my children's, ahem, unconventional nursemaid. It's not something I like getting out. This arrangement, an unrelated boy and girl taking lessons together, even with another boy in the room... Well, I don't see the harm of it with an instructor present at all times. After all, even some day schools are mixed these days. All the same, I trust I can rely on your continued discretion in both matters?"

It had never occurred to Bae that there might be anything odd about a dog for a nursemaid; he hadn't lived in this land long enough to remark on what might be out of the ordinary here. Coming from a land where magic existed (even if there hadn't been much of it in the peasant village of Pen Marmor), even that which might have been termed 'unusual' was likely to be accepted relatively quickly. Not like this land, where tradition and convention felt so stifling and everyone seemed so preoccupied with what the others of their 'set' might think of them. Sure, there'd been an 'order' to things back home, but everyone knew that even the poorest peasant had the chance to marry a princess if their heart was pure and they succeeded in some heroic quest (usually with the aid of a fairy or talking beast, but not always). Here, things felt so much more rigid most of the time. But Mr. Darling seemed willing to flout convention in more ways than one and Bae would have to be seven kinds of fool not to recognize the opportunity being handed to him. "Of course you can, sir," he said quickly, bobbing his head a bit. "A-and thank you!"

"Good lad," George Darling said approvingly. "Now, off to the post room with you. Two weeks' trial period. If Mr. Wallace is satisfied with your work at the end of that time, the position's yours."

Bae thanked him again and beat a hasty retreat from the office, his heart soaring higher than it had in a long time.

While Rumple missed going home with Bae, for once, he was glad that the lad had that other job to get to. He'd had time to think now, and he believed he knew how to prepare Bae for what lay ahead. About his own health, he likely didn't need to say anything. Bae could see for himself that he wasn't doing so well these days. If he didn't suspect the truth, he'd know it soon enough. But there were other truths Bae had to learn, and Rumple knew that broaching them was going to be the hardest part.

It wasn't so much because of the timeline. If destiny was destiny, then Rumple had faith that things would work themselves out, even if he was unlikely to see it happen. Whatever changes he made here, it would be his younger self who would live them—and when the Dark Curse created Storybrooke in just under eighty years, nobody would have any idea that the timeline had once gone differently, not when the only person who would remember the original would be long gone and likely forgotten. No, the trouble was that Rumple knew too much of what was to come and how intertwined and convoluted the stories would be. He'd get off on some tangent somewhere, and quite likely leave out some key detail that Bae would need to know before they both ran out of time.

He had to make sure Bae had all the key elements laid out before him at the very least. Then, Rumple reflected, if he wasn't around anymore to help Bae put it all together, at least, Bae would have some foundation to finish the job himself.

First, though, he needed to show Bae those elements. And this realm did, at least, furnish some basic texts that would serve to open the discussion, even rife with exaggerations, embellishments, and historical inaccuracies as they were.

Rumple made his way laboriously to the second-hand bookshop. Bae's extra two shillings a week, painstakingly saved for several months now, would make today's purchases a bit of a treat, but not an extravagance.

When he left the shop a half hour later, he carried with him a copy of Andrew Lang's (rather unfortunately named, in his opinion) Blue Fairy Book, with a broomstick-mounted witch in a field of stars emblazoned in gold upon a deep blue cloth binding, and a copy of his Red Fairy Book—this one depicting a dagger-wielding giant pursuing a boy clutching a harp, also in gold on a binding of red. He'd meant to only purchase the first; it had nearly all the stories he needed in it. Nearly. Of course one of the ones it had lacked had been one of the most important, even if it had misnamed the main character!

A handbill affixed to the side of a building caught his eye on the walk back and he shook his head slightly. The bill was advertising a play with an all-too-familiar title, currently running in some theatre in Charing Cross, but even if the price of tickets could be had, Rumple didn't think he could bring Bae to see that! Yes, the stories in the books he carried were badly distorted, but at least, for the most part, heroes were still heroes and villains, villains. To turn around and make the villain a hero, no, to keep all the carelessness, callousness, and irresponsibility but make those qualities seem admirable… and then, to expect him to suffer through three acts of that drivel—no. No, he'd have to discuss his father with Bae, of course—and he would. But here, his own experiences, painful though they were, would be more than enough—if he could but bear to revisit them.

For now, he decided, it would be best to begin by telling someone else's story. And thanks to the books he carried, he currently had a number to choose from...

The longer Rumple waited, the more he dreaded what was to come. It was all well and good to plan. The hard part was going to be doing. Finally, he heard Bae's step on the stairs and a moment later, his boy was greeting him with a smile. "Mrs. Martin made treacle tarts," Bae said, setting a small bag down on the table. "She insisted I take two back with me. And Papa, Mr. Darling called me into his office today and…"

On any other day, Rumple would have shared his son's enthusiasm at what was truly fine news. Instead, he had to force himself to smile and nod and think that, perhaps, he could let his son have this one happy evening before he—

"Papa?" Bae asked. "What's wrong?" A hard note crept into his voice. "And please don't start up about the scholarship exam again; I'm sorry I didn't get it, but it's okay. We're okay. I thought you'd be happy about the promotion."

"I am," Rumple said quickly. "I am, Bae, truly."

"Then…?"

Rumple debated with himself a moment longer. Like so many other elements of his plan, he'd gone back and forth, vacillating and second-guessing and debating how much needed to be said or unsaid. Bae had to know. Otherwise, he likely wouldn't take any of this seriously. Still, Rumple hesitated for one moment more. Then, slowly, he drew out the cloth handkerchief he'd soiled the day before, and laid it on the table, where Bae could see the stain. "Papa!" the boy exclaimed in hushed horror.

Rumple nodded. "I'm dying, Bae. Oh, not tonight, of course. Probably not for months. Perhaps, not for a year or more, but," he swallowed hard and forced himself to look in his son's eyes and continue, "a long time ago, when I was called to the front in the Ogre War, a seer told me that through my actions, my son would grow up fatherless. And I've done everything in my power to avert that fate for you. But this…" He gestured toward the handkerchief with one hand and swiped angrily at the tears forming in his eyes with the other. "I'm so sorry, Bae. Fate appears to have other plans."

"No," Bae whispered. "No! If we went to the seaside, o-or maybe the mountains—there are mountains in the north; I remember that from my geography lessons. Cumbria! Or Wales—you'll breathe better when we're out of the city, Papa. We started over in a new land; we can do it in a new area—"

"Bae," Rumple shook his head. "It won't help. It might buy me a bit more time, but this," he swallowed again. "There's no cure for it, son. I'm sorry." He took another breath, grateful that, at least today, he wasn't coughing.

"There are things," he said slowly, "things I think you'll need to know. I wasn't sure if I should tell you. Knowing the future, or the future I came from, at any rate, there are bits of it you'll want to change and perhaps some of it ought to be. But if you start unraveling one part, you can't know where that thread will lead." He closed his eyes. "When I travelled back to the Enchanted Forest, I thought I could fix everything I did wrong the first time, but I was so afraid of making things worse that I didn't act until it was too late to do anything more than follow you here."

"That was enough," Bae said firmly. "More than enough."

Rumple nodded, his lips tugging upwards in a watery smile. "Perhaps it was," he admitted. "But now, I-I'm in a similar circ*mstance. I don't know everything that lies in store for you. In my memories, you came to this land on your own and I spent two centuries trying to find you. What happened in-between, well, I know bits and pieces, but not how they fit together. And there are gaps," he added. "Many of them. So," he said, "since this is your life and your future, I think I must tell you what I can, and then," he met his son's eyes again a bit nervously, not at all sure whether what he was proposing now was the right thing to do, "well, you can decide how you mean to proceed with the knowledge."

Chapter 29: Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Rumple was pleasantly surprised to learn that the small unit by his bed was more than just a television; it also offered telephone and internet access. He was shaking his head with a bemused smile on his face. When the Dark Curse had created this town and brought everyone to this land, it had not only mimicked the technology of the world outside, but implanted a familiarity with it into the memories of everyone it transported. Even when the curse had broken, it had left those memories intact, so that the 'culture shock' had been significantly lessened. But for Rumple, who had just spent over two years in a land with no computers, no television, no refrigeration, no…

…This was going to take a bit of getting used to.

But then, becoming the Dark One and suddenly having magic at his fingertips had also required an adjustment. Strangely enough, losing it had been a great deal easier than he might have believed possible. He'd barely felt its lack when he'd been with Bae in turn-of-the-twentieth-century London. Nobody else had possessed such power, after all, and their technology—primitive by present-day standards, to be sure—had been wondrous enough for them. And for him and Bae, as well.

He was trying to recall the site that Henry had shown him yesterday; while he normally wouldn't bother with such diversions, he appreciated that some of the games of which his grandson was so enamored would require a bit more mental engagement than that of the television. And if he was still bedridden for the most part—something yesterday's embarrassing fall had brought home to him—he rather thought he'd prefer such a pastime to flipping stations, hoping for something mildly entertaining to watch. Belle had promised to bring reading material this afternoon, and he was hoping that he'd be able to focus enough to absorb it. Meanwhile, though, the games were probably the best option available to him.

"Uh… hey."

Rumple looked up, and his lips curved immediately into a broader smile than he usually would have allowed to show. "Emma!"

"I want you to read these," Rumple said, pushing the volumes toward him. "There is… much to discuss, and these will make it easier."

Bae took the books without looking at them. "Uh… if this is because you want to make sure I know about where babies come from, I kind of found out when I was nine." He flinched a bit at the incredulity on his father's face and said quickly, "I thought those sheep were just… wrestling, until Moraine explained it!"

"That… wasn't the discussion I was planning on having," Rumple managed. "Although if you didn't know the basics at your age, I really rather think we might have had to." It would probably be an easier one, at that. "No, son. Those books… Do you recall when first we came here, and I told you that I would need not merely to take on a surname, but a different name entirely?"

"Yeah…" Bae nodded uncertainly. Papa had only said that his name was far more familiar here than it had a right to be, and would evoke far too many of the wrong kind of question. When Bae had pressed him for a better explanation, Papa had only said that it would need to wait for another time.

"The first book," Rumple said, gesturing to the blue hardcover. "Open it. Read the table of contents."

Bae raised an eyebrow, but he complied. "The Bronze Ring," he read aloud. "Prince Hyacinth and the Dear Little Princess." He looked up. "Seriously? Wait." His father looked as though he was trying not to… laugh? "What's so funny?"

Rumple shook his head. "Oh, nothing. You just… reminded me of someone you've yet to meet. Possibly," he added. "Keep going."

"East of the Sun and West of the Moon," Bae sighed, rolling his eyes slightly. "The Yellow Dwarf. Little Red Riding Hood. The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood… Papa, what is this?" His father didn't answer, but indicated that he should keep going. "Cinderella or the Little Glass Slipper—who makes slippers out of glass? I mean, if you stepped down too hard in them, they'd shatter and probably cut your feet! Fine," he added. "I'm reading! Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, The Tale of a Youth Who Set out to Learn What Fear Was, Rumpels—" His head jerked up and his eyes locked incredulously on his father's.

"I think," Rumple said slowly, "you ought to start with that one. No need to read it aloud. Just say it over quietly to yourself. It's really quite distorted," he added, "but amidst the exaggerations and outright falsehoods, there lies a tiny kernel of truth. Let's begin there, shall we," he continued, not really asking. "And no, you're not in it. Truthfully, I'm not certain I am. But since the character in question is supposed to be me, well, just read. And once you have, we can begin our discussion."

"So, uh," Emma stepped into the room a bit nervously, "I guess I probably shouldn't have invited you to bite my head off if I wasn't sure I could take it."

Rumple shook his head. "If it helps, it wasn't my intention to do so."

Emma tilted her head to one side, as though weighing his words. "I think it kind of does, a little," she admitted. "I… I was thinking about a few things afterwards. Like…" She sat down beside the bed.

"Look," she said, taking a breath, "thanks to Sidney's smear piece on me in the Mirror, back when I ran for sheriff, it's no secret that, before I came here, cutting and running when things got too… intense was kind of how I got through life. Until Henry," she added, wincing a bit. Regina had confronted her about that habit early on, but Sidney had made it public to undermine her credibility in the election. "I was changing," she added. "Or trying to. Anyway, I stuck around. For him, at first, and later for other reasons. But after Pan cast the curse," she saw Rumple's face harden and continued quickly, "and Regina gave me those false memories, well part of that package was that I kind of… forgot about how running away from my problems used to be my answer to everything. Because with Henry in my life, it couldn't be. Maybe when he was younger, but once he started school, I couldn't just… uproot him because I was going through a rough time. So that whole cut-and-run thing I really used to do... just didn't happen. I mean, of course it happened," she said. "There's a paper trail to confirm it all; Regina's spell didn't erase that. But I didn't remember any of it. As far as I knew, I'd been pretty… settled for a while."

"Your point?" Rumple asked a bit sharply.

Emma sighed. "I think that when the potion restored my memories, it also gave me back those old… coping mechanisms, and maybe after having them blocked for so long, they came back a lot stronger. Even with my false memories, there were times I know I wanted to leave and didn't. And before Hook showed up, Henry and I were living a pretty good life in New York. It was just… easier to see this as a temporary thing: go back to Storybrooke, save the day, and then get home and get back to normal. Only," she sighed, "like it or not, being the Savior and all… this is home, and it's about as 'normal' as it gets. And talking to you about it just… reminded me, when I'd been trying so hard to forget."

She gave him a pained smile. "Still friends?"

"Still?" Rumple repeated, astonishment evident. "Whenever did that happen?"

Emma blinked "I-I thought… I guess… Sor—" She looked down in shock at the hand that was suddenly grasping her wrist.

"That's more than enough apologizing for one day," Rumple informed her tartly. "Particularly when," he sighed, "you weren't the only party at fault. Your offering me an opportunity to castigate you did not mean I should have taken it." He lowered his eyes a bit guiltily. "I-I was angry, yes. And," he swallowed hard, "afraid. Because, as you so correctly pointed out, your proposed action would have deprived me of my grandson. But if the two of you had gone," he looked up a bit nervously, "Henry would not have been the only person I would have missed." The admission came out so quickly, Rumple was half-certain it must have been garbled beyond comprehension. But then Emma's eyes widened and she brought up her free hand to cover the one he'd clamped about her other wrist. "I suppose," he murmured, looking away again, "lashing out at you was my coping mechanism." He met her eyes again, just in time to catch a slight understanding nod. He took another breath. "Now," he continued, "while I'll admit your question startled me, well, just because I can't pin down the precise moment when our relationship progressed to the point you mentioned earlier does not mean it didn't happen. Somehow," he added with a faint smile that was quickly matched and surpassed by a broader one on Emma's face.

Bae set the book down, his eyes wide. "How…?" he ventured. He looked at the cover again. "The Blue Fairy Book. Did… did the Rhuel Ghorm write this?"

"It crossed my mind when I came across it," Rumple nodded, "but there was an entire series of these volumes at the bookshop, each named after a different color. It would explain a great deal, though," he admitted.

"Okay, but this story… a miller's daughter, guessing your name… none of that happened."

Rumple smiled. "Oh, but it did. Or it will. Well, some of it at any rate. You see," he said, warming to his topic, "the miller's daughter—her name was Cora, by the way—was destined to have a daughter who would one day perform a great service for me." He was circling the issue and he knew it, but while he had every intention of telling Bae the truth, he was finding it more difficult than he'd thought to come out and speak it. The book was a good beginning, but it was only a beginning. The rest of the tale was still his to tell. "At the time," he went on, "I—that is to say, my younger self—meant to leave nothing to chance. He intended to raise the girl, so that when the time came, she would know the task she was destined to fulfill. But," he sighed, "while he did not acquire the infant, neither did he snap himself in two when he failed."

"And you were just… dancing around a campfire and telling anyone who could hear you your name?" Bae asked skeptically. "Papa, I know that the Darkness was changing you, but did it make you that stu—careless?" He corrected himself quickly enough, but Rumple smiled all the same.

"Another distortion," he replied. "No, while there's great power to be had in knowing someone's name, I never struck that bargain with her. If I had," he sighed, "she'd never have got the better of me."

Bae's eyes widened. "How?"

Rumple felt himself relax ever so slightly. It was never pleasant for him to discuss his failures, but this one had turned out well in the end, and now that the subject had been raised, it was a bit easier to lay it out on the table, as it were. "Well," he admitted slowly, "I'll admit that when first I approached her, I expected her to be like every other desperate soul needing a favor from the Dark One, who'd grab for my gift and ignore the price until it was time to pay the bill. But she wasn't." He smiled. "She knew the cost of my assistance and accepted the terms, with one alteration." He paused for a beat, gratified when Bae leaned forward expectantly. "She wanted to learn how to spin the straw herself. And that request impressed me enough that I was moved to tell her my name. Not that it was ever the secret that the book you hold would make you think it was."

"Wait," Bae said, worried now. "If there's power in knowing a name, then…?"

"There's more power in rewording a contract," Rumple sighed. "And in being able to lead someone to wish to do so." He shook his head. "She was," he said hesitantly, "the first woman who'd caught my interest in over two centuries. The first, in fact," he admitted, "since I lost your mother. I-I can stop if you'd rather not hear more," he added quickly.

Bae shook his head. "It's okay, Papa," he said. "You just surprised me is all. But after two hundred years? I think Mama would understand. And I do," he added. "Want to hear more, that is. What happened next?"

"Emma." Both Emma and Rumple looked up to see Dr. Whale standing in the doorway, his smile belying the serious expression in his eyes. "I need a private word. With Rumpelstiltskin, first, but then with you after that."

Emma blinked. "Uh… sure. Should I just wait outside?"

"There's a lounge at the end of the hall," Whale said. "I'll see you there."

After Emma left, Whale turned to Rumple, who was now sitting up a bit nervously. Before the doctor could say anything further, Rumple began hollowly, "I take it that, despite all precautions, I've managed to infect someone and now you're planning to run your tests on everyone else I've been in contact with."

"Pardon?"

"Please, tell me it's not Belle?" Rumple pleaded, talking over him. Then he blinked. "I didn't…?"

"Not so far as I know," Whale said. "But even if you had, it would probably be too early to tell. It takes time for the condition to show up on the test and even if it does, it'll almost definitely be dormant for months, if not years."

Rumple absorbed that. "Then, why are you here?" he demanded, more than a little testily.

Whale hesitated. "Actually, I think you being in the condition you're in, you might have done me a favor. But before I confirm that, I need to know: the curse that brought us here, it messed with our memories, but it didn't mess with our bodies, right? Ashley was in her ninth month when it hit and she stayed that way until time started moving again; the magic you used on your ankle wore off, and I'm guessing if someone had a cold, then they had it for twenty-eight years?"

"That would be a fair assessment," Rumple agreed.

"Okay. And I'm guessing that literacy rates could be chalked up to Curse memories, too?"

"Well, most people in our land had enough schooling to read a conscription notice or a tax assessment, but yes, you're correct." His eyes narrowed. "What's your point?"

"Did the curse do anything else when it was making sure that we had everything we'd need to interact with a world that was spelled to never find us in the first place?"

Rumple tilted his head with an annoyed frown. "Perhaps, you could tell me just what it is you're driving at?"

Whale took another breath. "Measles. Mumps. Rubella. Diphtheria. Pertussis. Varicella. The diseases that almost every child in this realm would be vaccinated against before their sixth year, unless there was some medical reason not to be. Were those inoculations worked into the Dark Curse, or…?"

Rumple's face turned several shades paler, as he realized what Whale wanted to know. The Dark Curse had frozen everyone's health in the state it had been when they'd been brought to this land. Those who had been ill or injured—as Rumple now knew the prince had been—had been treated with twentieth-century medical know-how. But the majority who had been hale and hearty when the Curse had come might well have had memories of receiving vaccinations, but not the vaccines themselves.

Whale sighed. "I was afraid of that. All right. I'd better talk to the rest of the staff here; we'll get a clinic set up. The logistics can be worked out; maybe we can set up centers at the library and the town hall…" he added, thinking aloud. He met Rumple's eyes again. "It's good you've responded so well to the treatment," he said. "If your TB were still active, we'd have to wait before immunizing you. As it is," he smiled, "I'll start preparing the inoculations and I'll be back to administer them within the hour. I'm glad we've started tapering you off of the Tavronius serum," he added, "Side effects of the vaccines are generally fairly mild: a bit of soreness at the injection site is the most common one, but there are a couple of others I'll go over with you when I come back. Generally, they all fade after a day or two. Still, having your healing spells back will help you cope with that stuff, right?"

Rumple's eyes widened, but he managed a jerky nod and a slow smile. "It will indeed," he murmured. "It will indeed."

Bae was wide-eyed by the time Rumple was finished. "So, she…" He frowned. "She didn't exactly trick you, did she? But kind of?"

Rumple shook his head. "Perhaps it would be fair to say that she let me trick myself. And I don't know," he added thoughtfully, "whether that was her plan from the start or whether," he sighed, "she gave up love for power. A choice I didn't realize I was making until it was made and—"

"—regretted the moment you did," Bae nodded. "I know, Papa. But you got a second chance and you chose right that time."

Rumple smiled sadly. How many times, over the past year, had Bae reassured him? Life in the early twentieth century wasn't always easy, but he didn't regret leaping after Bae and Bae never hesitated to let him know how much he appreciated it. "That I did, son," he nodded. "As it is, I don't know whether she meant to string me along until she'd got everything she could from me and manipulated me into changing the terms of the deal we'd struck until she could twist free from it, or whether she'd meant to run off with me as she claimed and—as she'd later told me—been so close to doing it that she'd ripped out her own heart to keep herself from being swayed." Cora had told him it was the latter, but he'd been as close to death as he'd ever been at the time. Cora had believed that victory—his death and her assuming the mantle of the new Dark One—were in her grasp. Under those circ*mstances, she might have told him a gentle fib to ease his mind before delivering her killing stroke. Some might have been surprised that he considered her capable of that small kindness, but Rumple had watched her over the years. Cora had been a monster, but a pragmatic one. Dangerously ambitious, yes. Unscrupulous, to be sure. And cruel when necessary, but rarely unnecessarily cruel. Yes, she might well have lied to him at the end; he'd never have the opportunity to ask her now. Well. Not unless he met her in the afterlife, anyway. In which case, he'd have that opportunity in the not-so-distant future.

"So," Bae frowned, "the story in here, it's about a man who tricks a woman into a contract, and she finds a way out. And the way you say it really happened," his eyebrows shot up, "most of the details are different, but it's still about a woman finding a way out of a contract. Are the rest of the stories in here the same?" He frowned. "I mean, are they right about what happened, but not how?"

Rumple's eyebrows shot up. "That is a very astute observation," he remarked. "One I'll leave you to mull over as you read some of the other tales in here. Not all are relevant to our discussions; there might be a number that hail from other realms entirely—including this one," he added. "But I've gone ahead and marked the ones I know are," he frowned, "well, let's call them apocryphal history." At Bae's puzzled frown, Rumple smiled.

"Sometimes," he said, "history, particularly history meant to captivate the minds and hearts of schoolchildren and impart to them some value or life-lesson, includes fictional episodes in the lives of factual people. Do you recall when Mr. Banks told you about Sir Walter Raleigh lowering his cloak for Queen Elizabeth to tread upon?"

Bae nodded. "I didn't want to argue with Mr. Banks, but I know what went into making clothing for nobles back in our land. The thread had to be finer. And the weave. And the stitching! A-and nobles usually put furs or gemstones on everything they wear. A noble's cloak," Bae shook his head, "could probably have paid Pen Marmor's taxes for five years and had a bit left over. But fabric so fine… It would've been ruined in the mud, especially if someone walked on it! When Mr. Banks told me that Raleigh was later beheaded, I had to fight not to say that once he lost his mind, he probably didn't have much use for the head in the first place!"

Rumple chuckled. "Well, I'm sure you'll be relieved to know that the incident never transpired. But generations of schoolchildren likely remember him for it. And, incidentally and likely more importantly, know to list him amongst the famous personages of the Elizabethan era. Now," he gestured toward the books, "I don't pretend to know how these tales reached this realm at all. Particularly since some of these stories are several centuries old, while some of the people in them have yet to be born."

"Maybe someone travelled through time?" Bae suggested. "I mean, you did."

"That was the first time that such a spell worked, and I wasn't its caster," Rumple replied. "For what it's worth, son, I do have a theory. It doesn't fit perfectly, but it would explain a bit more than it doesn't."

"I'm listening."

Rumple shook his head. "And I'm tired. And you'll have a longer day than usual tomorrow, if you're to report for those art lessons Mr. Darling arranged."

Bae shook his head. "That was before I knew that…"

"What?" Rumple smiled. "That I was dying? All the more reason you should report for those lessons. If you've enough talent to earn your way with, you need to hone it as much as you can now, while we're both still capable of working. Once that changes, you'll like to find you can't afford the lessons."

"I-I don't know if I can afford them, yet," Bae protested. "I haven't even met the tutor or discussed prices."

"Then go tomorrow," Rumple said. "Find out what you need to. And we'll discuss it when you get home. For now," he smiled, "I'm going to bed, son. Take care you douse the candle before you do."

The books, Rumple reflected lying in bed that night, had been a good idea. Even if they'd brought on a fresh crop of questions, they'd at least allowed Rumple to take the first step. But how far could he go? If he were to tell Bae everything, that knowledge might sabotage his future. How would the lad react when first he met Emma? If he knew that he was destined to have a child with her, might he not say and do things differently than he had in the original timeline? Might those new words and actions not drive her away?

He turned over in bed. Months ago, he'd warned his younger self that knowing too much about the future might change it. He couldn't give Bae that knowledge. Not all of it, anyway. So, how much was too much?

In the darkness, a worried frown creased his face. It was good of George Darling to take an interest in Bae. The extra wages would be welcome, and he'd scarcely dared hope that his son would have an opportunity to develop his artistic talent. Rumple knew that he ought to be thankful, and he was. He was. But at the same time, he wished that the opportunity had been coming from Mr. Banks or Mr. Gargery, or even Robertson Gee. Actually, anyone who wasn't a member of the Darling family would have been preferable.

Rumple didn't know all the details. In his past, he and Bae had caught up a bit on the trip back from Neverland, but there hadn't been time to discuss everything that had transpired during the years they'd been apart. He knew that Bae had spent many of those years in Neverland, and that the Darling children had been instrumental in getting him there. He didn't know how or when it had happened—would happen. He didn't know that it had to. But if Emma was to come into his son's life, Rumple rather suspected that it would.

He rolled over again, drawing the coverlet tightly about him. Using the fairytale books to broach the subject of the future had been a bit of an awkward start, but at least he'd been able to distance himself somewhat. The way he'd been depicted had been so far off the mark, that he'd almost been able to convince himself he'd been discussing a different story entirely, before Bae had put his finger on the essential similarities—and by then, he'd already relaxed. But if he had to bring up Neverland, then he'd have to discuss his father.

And Rumple wasn't at all certain that he was ready to do that.

But if he didn't, then in all likelihood, Bae wouldn't recognize the danger until it was too late. And what if Bae had to go to Neverland, so that he would be able to meet Emma some ninety-five years from now? If he did… If he did, then he'd have to be prepared. He'd have to know everything Rumple could tell him about Neverland—

—And Pan.

Somehow, Rumple didn't think that a book would be enough of an ice-breaker for that one. Especially since James Matthew Barrie wasn't going to publish the relevant text until 1911…

Chapter 30: Chapter Thirty

Notes:

A/N: 'Diagramless Challenge' is my own invention, based on Zynga's "Words with Friends" (a knockoff of Scrabble), though I've made a couple of tweaks to their parameters. New York flashback happens between S2E14 (Manhattan) and S2E15 (The Queen is Dead).

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty

"Well," Carstone said, handing Bae back his sketchbook. "Well."

Bae waited. "Uh… well?" he repeated.

"You say you've had no formal instruction at all?" the art instructor asked, peering down at Bae through a pair of rimless pince-nez spectacles.

Bae shifted a bit in position, but his voice was firm as he replied, "None, sir. I-I didn't even know that was an option. I've just always drawn is all."

Carstone sniffed. "It's really quite remarkable. Oh, don't mistake me, lad; while you seem to have mastered a few techniques admirably, this is still the work of a talented amateur. You're scarcely a candidate for the Slade." At Bae's blank look, he huffed a bit. "The Slade School of Fine Art, boy. You don't mean to say you've never heard of it?"

"I'm sorry," Bae said uncomfortably. "I didn't know that there was such a thing as a school just for art. If I had," he added a bit more quietly, "maybe I would have worked harder for the scholarship exam."

Carstone shook his head. "A scholarship for secondary school? No, the Slade is a level beyond that. Fortunately."

"Fortunately?" Bae repeated.

The art instructor smiled. "It gives you a few years to fill in the gaps. I called you a talented amateur a moment ago, and I meant it," he stated firmly. "You do have talent, lad. A great deal of it. But it's raw and uneven. If you're to be considered for acceptance at the Slade or another school like it," his voice took on an ominous note, "I fear you'll have a great deal of work ahead of you."

"I… How much would it cost?" Bae asked faintly.

Carstone frowned. "Well, if you're to take lessons jointly with my other students here," he said slowly, "I suppose we might do with…" He named a figure and it was Bae's turn to frown.

"I-I think I can manage that," he said, tacking on a 'Sir' belatedly. "At least, for now." He wasn't going to think about what would happen when Papa wouldn't be able to work anymore. Or how he could think to pay for art lessons now, when they might have to pay for medicines or special foods or who even knew what in short order. "And anything I learn from you will be more than I know now, won't it?"

Carstone sighed. "I trust I shan't be instructing a mere dabbler," he cautioned. "I wouldn't consent to this arrangement if I didn't think that there was a chance you could be more with a bit of tutelage."

"I'll do my best, sir," Bae assured him.

"Yes," Carstone said firmly. "For I'll accept nothing less. Right, then. Turn to a fresh sheet. While my other pupils," he added, gesturing to a bowl of fruit on the nursery table, "will continue with still life, I have a different exercise in mind for you." He held out his hand and Bae hesitated for a moment before handing over his sketchbook.

"Right," Carstone said, holding the book upside down. He dipped his pen in the inkwell and scratched it briefly on the page. "My signature," he said. "No, don't turn the thing right-side up. Draw what you see from this perspective. We need to break your preconceptions. Copy the design without thinking about what it represents. Just capture the loops and swirls, note where the lines are thicker or thinner. Don't see letters; focus on the design elements." He picked up a charcoal and handed it to Bae. "Proceed."

Bae accepted the narrow stick. Still not entirely certain what he was doing—with the charcoal or with this instructor—he frowned at the inverted signature and set about trying to replicate it.

Rumple still wasn't sure that he was doing the right thing, but he was doing something, which felt a great deal better than doing nothing. He'd done nothing in the Enchanted Forest and events had unfolded more or less as they were supposed to; the only difference, he thought, was that he'd been able to watch them from a slightly-more-detached perspective.

His future-sight was being decidedly silent and had been since… Well, since he'd been resurrected after defeating his father. He couldn't say which events were fated to transpire no matter what and which were merely likely to. He only knew that if Bae was doomed to go to Neverland, then this time, his son would be armed with the knowledge he should have had in the first place.

On the other hand, Rumple thought he might hold back with details of Emma and Henry. If it was meant to be, then it would be. And if Bae somehow managed to avoid Neverland, then Fate would simply have to make other arrangements.

As he waited for his boy to return from the Darling household, Rumple found his thoughts straying to Bae's questions the evening before. The lad had managed to pinpoint the most puzzling aspect of the whole business: how this realm without magic could possibly have knowledge—however distorted—of events that were going to transpire in another realm entirely. Why, he'd even discovered a copy of Pinocchio in the shop that he might yet return for after he received his next wages, and Gepetto's parents hadn't even been born yet, much less the toymaker himself!

Rumple had considered the problem before. During those first weeks, when Emma had arrived in Storybrooke and his true memories restored, he'd spent some time pondering those stories and wondering how they'd reached this realm. There were a number of possibilities, but none completely satisfied him.

First, Neverland was a place that was accessible to children across every realm in their dreams. And perhaps, some of those dreams could be shared. If young Snow White had, say, met Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm—or Andrew Lang, for that matter, and shared her story with him—well, first, she wouldn't know how her story ended while she was still in the middle of it, and second, it was a common thing for a person to awaken and remember some of what they'd dreamed, but not all. So, if the brothers Grimm had tried to write down their dreams in the morning, it was entirely possible that they would have used their own imaginations to fill in any gaps. But although people didn't age in Neverland, if time didn't pass there, then when Bae finally escaped, it would be to find himself returned to the precise moment when he'd left—something Rumple knew wouldn't be the case. So a meeting of two people separated by two realms and two hundred years was, well, perhaps not impossible, but decidedly improbable.

Second, while divination could be a form of magic, not all divination was magical in nature. The two talents were similar and there could be overlap, but it was also possible for one to be a seer and yet possess no magic. And Rumple knew first-hand just how murky and muddled a gift future-sight could be. If this realm's writers and compilers of 'fairy tales' (a misnomer if ever there was one; fairies certainly weren't present all of these tales. In fact, Rumple wouldn't have been surprised to learn that they were in the minority!) were learning the details through an unpolished talent for divination, it would explain the distortions.

Those were the theories he'd hypothesized while still in Storybrooke, before the First Curse had broken. But now, a new idea struck him.

When Zelena had disclosed her plan to him, he'd dismissed it at once.

Time travel spells have been written since the dawn of the dark arts, he'd informed her, but never cast. It's against the fundamental laws of magic.

He'd believed those words then, but time and a witch's determination had shown him that perhaps those fundamental laws weren't as restrictive as he'd thought. And perhaps, while no time travel spell had been cast successfully, those earlier attempts might have some effect after all. Zelena had wanted to visit the past. It wasn't impossible that some previous spell-caster had been trying to reach the future. And perhaps, while time travel hadn't been physically possible, something less tangible, like a story, had been able to cross over.

It did no good to tell himself that the reasons didn't matter. Perhaps they didn't but he still wanted to know them. Then again, he reminded himself, he was a villain. Getting what he wanted wasn't generally in the cards for him. One couldn't generally bargain with Fate, but he was still going to try. Let Bae be safe, he implored fervently. I'll be content to live out my remaining days with this curiosity unsatisfied, if you'll grant me this one thing.

It was a hard deal, but one he was more than willing to make. Unfortunately, he had no way of knowing whether Fate had agreed to accept it.

Regina listened carefully, as Whale explained the situation, and though her composure barely faltered, one hand gripped the edge of her desk and didn't release it. Her voice was calm, though, when she replied, "Thank you for letting me know, Doctor. Of course you'll have my full support. Might I ask what prompted this realization?"

Whale steepled his hands, leaned back in the padded armchair, and took a breath. "Rumpelstiltskin," he said slowly.

"He alerted you?" Regina asked, concealing her surprise not nearly as well as she had her alarm at his first revelation.

"No," Whale corrected her. "Last night, at home, I was just thinking about how far this realm has come along scientifically in just a bit over a century. How in 1905, tuberculosis was a death sentence and today, it's a six-month course of antibiotics. And about how true that was of so many other illnesses; many we can treat, most we have vaccines for." He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "And that was when it occurred to me that during the curse, the only person I ever vaccinated was your son Henry. Since its breaking, I've had occasion to do a number of the infants and the children who've started school this year. But the older children, the adults… I have the records in their files; I guess the curse included them, just like it did birth certificates, driver's licenses, and all the other documentation we'd be expected to have. However, regardless of what the files say, the only people in this town I've ever vaccinated have been your son and the other children I just mentioned. And if I never administered any other shots, and if they weren't done before the curse or by the curse—and Rumpelstiltskin confirmed for me that the curse wouldn't have done it—then…"

Regina nodded, a slight widening of her eyes the only indication that she'd grasped the enormity of the matter as she asked, still calmly, "How long do you imagine you'll need to rectify the problem?"

"Well," Whale said, "giving the inoculations is something anyone can be trained to do, and most of the hospital staff has been. I think we could probably do the town in about five days, if we have three clinics operating twelve hours a day—say, eight am to eight pm." He pressed his lips together firmly for a moment before continuing. "The thing is, it's not safe to give all the vaccines at once; the body needs time to adjust. I'd say it'll take two, maybe three rounds, spaced one to two weeks apart."

Something must have shown on the mayor's face, because he added, "If we could be guaranteed that this town would be sealed off from the rest of the world permanently, I wouldn't be as fussed. Unfortunately, I don't believe we can be. Even before the curse broke, Henry was able to leave here for Boston. Now, he was vaccinated, but the thing you need to realize is that vaccination doesn't always confer total immunity. It can and usually does. Still, it's possible that Henry could have been exposed to, say, chicken pox out there and, vaccination notwithstanding, returned home with a mild case of it. Now, that would have given him a miserable week, but afterwards, he would have been fine. However, once he'd been infected, vaccinated or not, Henry could have still passed the illness onto others he'd come in contact with, and that would have been another story." His expression was dead serious as he went on, "Had that happened, he could have inadvertently infected the entire town. But now that the curse has broken…"

Whale let his voice trail off meaningfully, waiting for Regina's nod. When he got it, he took another breath. "Actually, we're fortunate that Rumpelstiltskin 'only' came back with tuberculosis. It's serious, yes, but it's also relatively hard to spread and fairly easy to treat. If it had been smallpox," he said quietly, "vaccination is a preventative, but there's no treatment beyond bed-rest, time, and hope. And in about forty percent of cases," he continued, "those hopes aren't realized." He waited to let that sink in, too. "Also," he continued, "I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that this place has had a number of visitors coming from other realms. So far, we've been fortunate that none of those… guests were carrying measles or diphtheria or…" He shook his head. "We just can't expect to be that lucky forever. I've got no doubt that you, Emma—and once he's fully recovered—Rumpelstiltskin will be able to recognize and handle most magical threats. As far as the medical ones, I want to move ahead with the vaccinations as soon as possible. As the old cliché has it, an ounce of prevention…"

"…is worth a pound of cure," Regina nodded. "I quite agree. There's a town council meeting scheduled for tomorrow night. I'll put you on the agenda. Draw up a detailed plan, including any budgetary requirements you might have. My endorsem*nt should suffice for its approval."

Whale slapped a manila folder onto her desk with a tight smile. "One step ahead of you on this, madam mayor," he said.

"Excellent."

There was nobody in the room with him, but Rumple still felt ever-so-slightly self-conscious, as he logged onto Facebook for the first time. In the past, he'd eschewed such social media. He could see the advantages to advertising his business, but the town knew the shop's location and the merchandise in which he dealt. He'd never felt the need to create a page for it. And, while information was its own currency, he'd always felt that he had better things to do than scroll past cat videos, selfies, and quizzes purporting to disclose which fairytale character he was—as though there could be any doubt!

However, when he'd mentioned to Emma the games to which Henry had introduced him and, admittedly with some embarrassment, asked whether there were others she recommended, she'd directed him here. "Uh, you can 'friend' people, too," she'd added. "A lot of the games here, well, it's social media, so you sort of… reach out to your friends list and ask them to send you extra lives or…"

Rumple shook his head. That sort of thing had the potential to become a nuisance fairly quickly and there weren't many people in this town he'd call friend at the moment, anyway. In fact, he was speaking with one of the few on that very short list. "Do you play any?" he demanded.

"Uh… not regularly," Emma admitted. "And a lot of the ones I used to have shut down. Hey, but if you don't want to spam your friends list, I think there's one that's still out there."

Now, Rumple typed two words into the search bar at the top of the page. A faint smile came to his face, when the game icon came up. He clicked the bar to indicate that he did, in fact, wish to play 'now'. A pop-up appeared on his screen, asking whether he wished to invite an opponent or have the computer select one. He hesitated for a moment before making his choice. A new box immediately replaced the previous. Here too, he was faced with two choices:

Play as Rumpel Stiltskin

Create new user profile.

This time, he hesitated quite a bit longer, before making his choice. While he did believe he could rely on his grandson's discretion, it wouldn't do if other eyes were to see his name on Henry's screen! And that was assuming that Henry would even be interested in the game!

Well, Rumple reflected, if he was to play this game under an alias, then should Henry accept his invitation, it would only be because his grandson was interested in—or at least curious about—the game, and not out of some sense of obligation. Or worse, pity. He typed a new name into the text box. If this went well, he'd let Henry know fairly quickly. And if it didn't, then best to keep this venture a secret anyway.

At recess, Henry checked his email on his phone. He was half-hoping for a message from one of his mothers offering to drive him by the hospital after school.

Instead, there was a notification from a Facebook game he'd heard of but not yet played.

Gilbert Trout has invited you to play Diagramless Challenge.

Henry frowned. From what he'd heard, the game was basically a Scrabble knockoff. He was good at creating words, but not great at finding the best place to put them. Still, he didn't get invitations that often. He wondered how he'd got this one; he didn't know any 'Gilbert Trout'. At least, he didn't believe he did. Come to think of it, the name was familiar, but he couldn't think from where. There was, pardon the pun, something fishy about this. He shook his head. Maybe it was one of those things where, when you asked the computer for a random opponent, it sent an invite to a Facebook user who wasn't yet playing. Maybe it was some kid from his school in New York, but a grade above or below, or someone in his old apartment building, so he'd heard the name but couldn't put a face to it. It would come to him.

He still had almost ten minutes before the bell would send him back to class. He hesitated just a moment before pressing his fingertip to the 'Accept' button.

If the game turned out to be a dud, he could always delete it.

It was only a bit past nine when Bae came home; it might have been sooner, but he'd walked the distance from the Darling's house. Papa was sleeping, but he'd left the oil lamp burning, so Bae could see his way around the room.

The youth shook his head. He'd wanted to discuss the art lesson and, more to the point, the Slade School. He hadn't really cared about not scoring high enough on the scholarship examination, but Papa had been disappointed. Truth be told, Bae hadn't wanted to spend hours poring over schoolbooks and papers every day and, though he'd put forth his best effort on the exam, he'd been more than a little relieved to know that he'd been in no danger of having to abandon his job at the bank. The idea of a school for drawing—painting and sculpture, too, Mr. Carstone had told him, but drawing!—for adults to attend was something that had never crossed his mind. Back home, he'd always drawn when he had a stick and some soft earth, or a bit of charcoal and something to rub it on, but he'd never heard of schools for it or thought about how really good artists—the kind nobles paid to paint their likenesses—learned their craft. If pressed, he supposed he might have guessed that there was a guild for such things, and that one apprenticed to a master painter or draughtsman. There had been no such guild in Pen Marmor, but one might have assumed that a larger town like Longbourne might have boasted one. Bae had heard that in Longbourne, spinners, weavers, dyers, and fullers each had their own guild—in its own building—instead of being lumped together into 'wool-workers', as they had been in the village. Perhaps there would have also been guilds for artists, musicians, astronomers, and other professions that weren't often found in small, impoverished, border hamlets.

And now, here was opportunity falling into his lap! Nothing was free, of course. Whether back in Pen Marmor or here, everything had its price. But the cost of lessons, at least at the rate Mr. Carstone had specified, was actually workable. It would mean putting off another trip to Spitalfields for a new suit and hoping the shabbiness of his current one wouldn't invite comments at the bank. It helped that the post room wasn't a place where one had to face the public, though he had a feeling that Mr. Lorry would still take him to task for threadbare elbows and patched knees! Hopefully, it wouldn't come to that for a bit. His suit might be old, but it was good cloth and well-made. Bae imagined he could probably get another year or so's use out of it before it needed replacing. At least, unless he kept growing. He checked the inner sleeve of his jacket, noting that there was, perhaps, another inch-to-inch-and-a-half of hem that might be let down. He imagined that the trousers were much the same. His wrists already stuck about two inches out of his shirtsleeves, but the jacket hid that much, thankfully.

Well, he would make do.

Walking by the table, he spied a note on the two stacked volumes.

Bae,

If you aren't too tired when you come in, read "Snowdrop" in The Red Fairy Book. We'll talk about that one next.

Bae rubbed at his eyes. He knew he really ought to do as Papa was asking, but he was tired. And he didn't want to oversleep, not when he was walking to work in the morning. And if he meant to save up enough for Mr. Carstone's instruction, then he was definitely walking to work in the morning.

He quickly changed into his nightshirt, left his suit folded neatly on the chair, and turned out the gas lamp before getting into bed.

New York, over a year ago

Henry was dimly aware that Emma and Mr. Gold were trailing behind, but he ignored them. He was still trying to wrap his head around everything. Mr. Gold—Rumpelstiltskin—was his grandfather. Baelfire was his dad. His mother had lied to him, been lying to him practically since he'd found her. Yes, about his father, but was that the only thing, or just the only thing he'd caught her at? It hadn't been the only thing he'd caught her at it, he realized. Right before he'd bitten into that turnover, she'd let on that she'd just been playing along with Operation Cobra and didn't really believe anything he'd been telling her all this time. So, twice that he knew about and both times, about really important stuff. No, he didn't really want to talk to Emma right now.

Instead, he smiled up at the man he'd just met a couple of hours ago, the man who'd been just as floored as Henry had been to find out that they were connected, but was trying, however awkwardly, to get to know him. Baelfire—no, Neal, he'd insisted his name was Neal now—had asked him a few halting questions, what grade he was in at school, what his favorite subject was, whether he'd seen any movies recently, that kind of thing, but so far, none of the important stuff. But Henry had a few questions of his own. And maybe they could wait, but he didn't want to.

"So," he began, "was it scary? Coming here all by yourself, I mean?"

Neal smiled down at him. "I didn't," he said. "Papa came with me."

Wait… what? "Huh?" Henry gaped at him. "No, he created the curse to find you."

"I know," Neal said. "Because he hasn't come with me, yet."

"I…" Henry frowned. "I don't understand."

Neal sighed. "I know that the last thing you probably want to hear right now is that it's complicated," he said, "but it is. All I know is that at some point, he's going to make it back home to try to fix some of what went wrong. I don't know how well it works, but he always told me the one thing he did manage to get right the second time was going through the portal with me."

Henry tilted his head to one side. "Wait. Do you mean that there's another Mr. Gold o-or Rumpelstiltskin here? Where is he? You've just got a one-bedroom apartment; does he live close by?"

"Not here," Neal said, glancing nervously over his shoulder. Seeing how far behind the other two were, he relaxed. "The bean brought us to London in 1905. We lived there for a couple of years. And then, well," he hesitated. "You know, you should really make up with your mother. If I'm right, she was trying to protect you, not hurt you."

"By lying?"

"More like by keeping the truth to herself, for just a little bit longer than she should have. Then you found out about it at the wrong time," he paused for a moment and added under his breath, "Not that there was ever going to be a right one."

Henry frowned. "I don't want to talk about that right now," he said flatly. "What happened in London?"

Neal looked like he was debating whether to keep pushing, and Henry was relieved when he decided instead to let the matter drop. "Well," he said, "we found jobs. I was a messenger in a bank; this was way before email and I think there was only one telephone in the building—it wasn't like today, where every office has an extension. So my job was to run messages between different departments and sometimes different people in the same department, if their desks were at opposite ends of the room. I got promoted to the post room after a year. And Papa copied out documents."

Henry raised an eyebrow. "Y-you mean," he looked back at his grandfather briefly, then jerked his head back before he could make eye contact with either of the adults trailing them, "he made photocopies?"

"No," Neal said, grinning. "There were no photocopy machines back then, at least none I ever saw. If you needed something copied, you had someone sit down and write the whole thing out by hand."

Henry's mouth dropped open. "B-but what if you needed fifty copies? You mean, someone had to write it out fifty times?"

Neal's grin widened. "I mean, there were printing presses for books and newspapers. And typewriters were starting to catch on; they'd been around for a while before that, I think the first one was patented in the 1880s or 1860s or something, but that didn't mean that every business had one. Papa knew it was just a matter of time though," he added. "So, he took a night class to learn how to type so he'd be ready when the bank upgraded."

Now he had even more to wrap his head around. "Was that when you started using Neal, instead of Baelfire?" he asked shrewdly. To his surprise, his father shook his head.

"No, I added Cassidy to it; back in the Enchanted Forest, we didn't have last names; you'd give the name of your father—or mother if she was widowed—when you had to. I was Baelfire Rumpelstiltskin's," he added, his voice softening a little at the memory. Then he told Henry how he'd gotten the job and how he'd hit on a surname from a newspaper headline on his interviewer's desk.

"It was different with Papa," Neal continued. "He already knew he'd have a hard time with his first name, so he picked another one. He'd been using 'Gilitrutt' in the Enchanted Forest, and since I'd already told them at the bank my last name was 'Cassidy', he used that one too, and called himself…"

Rumpelstiltskin smiled, as he set down his next word. His concentration was a bit off, but while his grandson was a competent player, his skill was still developing. Right now, Rumple judged, they were fairly equally matched.

Perhaps, in a week or so, he'd reveal himself to Henry, but for now, he rather enjoyed the anon—

A chat box opened up on the right-hand side of the screen next to the game board. And Rumple's jaw dropped, when he read the one-word message.

Grandpa?!

Chapter 31: Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-One

He was still staring at the screen when Emma came in, rubbing her arm. "Bad news?" she asked, seeing the expression on his face.

Rumple blinked. "No, not at all," he reassured her. "Merely unexpected." He frowned. "Are you quite all right?"

Emma sighed. "Yeah, Whale just stuck me with a needle. It didn't hurt when he did it, but it does now."

"Ah," Rumple said delicately. "Yes, I believe I understand." He smiled, but the smile quickly shifted to a puzzled frown. "But you grew up outside," he said slowly. "Surely, there was no need for him to have…?"

Emma sighed again. "If anyone ever told me I needed a tetanus booster every ten years, I don't remember. Technically, diphtheria-tetanus-whooping cough, but the only one of those I've heard of adults getting is tetanus. I figured, so long as I was here, I might as well pop in and see how you're doing today."

Rumple blinked. "Well, I do appreciate the thought," he said, injecting a bit of warmth into his voice. He debated whether to mention Henry's discovery, but decided against it. He could ask the lad himself.

"So, how are you doing?" Emma asked.

Rumple considered. "I believe I'm well enough, thank you," he said. His arm was hurting a bit, for much the same reason Emma's was.

"You look better," Emma said judiciously. "Any word on how much longer you're stuck here for?"

Rumple shook his head. "I'm afraid not." He'd gained another pound, as of this morning, and he did rather think that his gauntness had lessened somewhat, although he was still—as Whale had informed him—underweight.

Emma shook her head. "That can't be easy for you," she murmured. "Hey. Do you want to stay in here? I-I mean there's a lounge down the hall, if you'd like a change of scenery. If you feel up for it, I mean."

Rumple hesitated. "Well, I haven't been advised I'm confined here," he replied at last.

Emma grinned. "You're not. I asked Whale before I asked you. After all, it'd look pretty bad if the sheriff was seen 'kidnapping' a patient."

"Indeed. Well," he said again, "that's a… kind offer, Emma. And much appreciated." He took another breath. "Though as I haven't been doing much walking lately, perhaps a chair would be advisable."

London, 1906

Rumple was grateful that his job was sedentary. It meant that he'd be able to keep it a bit longer. Had his work required a greater activity level—say he'd been hired as a messenger, limp notwithstanding—he'd likely have resigned by now to spare himself the humiliation of being sacked. One couldn't move with alacrity when fighting increasing weakness, fatigue, aches and pains, and violent coughing. Eventually, of course, even his current position would be too much for him, but for now he was managing.

He told Bae as much, as the two walked into the bank the next morning. He'd taken the tube, while Bae had walked there after reading the newspaper to his morning client. Bae had arrived a few minutes earlier and waited for him on the steps, doing a bit of sketching while he did.

At ten minutes before the hour, Rumple prepared his work area, ensuring that he had sufficient paper—both white and carbon, typed a test paragraph to ensure that the ribbon was well-inked and that the margins were properly aligned for the first document in his stack.

At two minutes to the hour, George Banks walked in and placed a new item atop the pile. "We'll need three hundred copies of this," he said. "By midday, if you please."

Rumple nodded his acknowledgment and began layering blank sheets with carbon paper in preparation. Practically speaking, he would be able to make five copies at once, though the quality of the last would suffer somewhat. Had he a looser deadline, he'd likely have gone with four. He glanced up. Mr. Banks was still standing there, looking uncharacteristically nervous. "Was there something else, sir?" he asked politely.

Banks hesitated. "What's your secret?" he asked finally.

Rumple blinked. He wasn't aware that anybody here knew he had one. "I beg your pardon?"

"You and your son," he said. "I… Well, I'd like to know how you do it."

"It?" Rumple repeated.

"He's a credit to you, sir," Banks said quickly. "One day, I hope people will say the same of mine. But the relationship the two of you have, well," he took another breath. "How might one achieve that?"

Rumple frowned. "May I ask a question of you?" he began, trying to find the right way to phrase what he wanted to know, "One that might appear to be impertinent, though I don't intend it to be so?"

If Banks was put out by the idea, the only sign of it was a slight raise of his eyebrows, as he pleasantly replied, "By all means."

"How much time do you spend with your son?"

Banks shook his head clearly perplexed. "Michael's only a year old."

"I'm afraid that wasn't what I asked," Rumple said, fighting hard to keep his tone diffident.

"Well, at that age, his domain is the nursery. I've engaged a nurse for him. Eventually, we will need to employ a nanny as well."

Rumple's frown deepened. "But surely you spend some time with him."

"Well, I do peep in from time to time. He's usually asleep by the time I come home, of course. And when he's awake, he much prefers his mother's company." He shook his head. "I'm afraid he's squalled rather loudly on those few occasions when I've attempted to hold him. In a few years, when we can have an intelligent conversation, it'll be a different matter, of course."

"No doubt," Rumple murmured. "It's been my experience that one reaps what one sows. If you mean to have a good relationship with your son when he's older, the time to plant those seeds is now, while he's young. Oh, I don't mean for you to dispense with your nursemaid," he said. "But the more time you spend with him now, the less a stranger you'll appear to him. Find pastimes you can do together. Young he may be, but you can yet take him to the park."

"What, in a pram, you mean?" Banks asked, astonished. "Me, push a pram? Why, what would people say?"

Rumple raised an eyebrow. "In ten years' time, hopefully, 'There goes Master Michael Banks. Quite the credit to his father. And the two are so close that I do wonder what Mr. Banks's secret might be'." He smiled. "Being directly involved with his upbringing may not be the sole criterion, but it's a definite factor. Likely the most significant one."

Banks shifted a bit uncomfortably. "Well. Well, there may be something in what you're saying. I'll give the matter some attention. But, really, Cassidy, now? I rather think matters can wait until he's a bit older Well, until he's out of nappies, at the very least."

Rumple shrugged. "You know best, I'm sure," he murmured, reminding himself forcefully that how George Banks chose to bring up his child—and come to think of it, there was another one too, wasn't there? A daughter, he believed—really was George Banks's own business and nobody else's. That in this land, class hierarchy was still a powerful thing, and it was hardly Rumple's place to contradict a man in a higher position than his own. That Banks was likely only raising his son according to the standards of the day and that the advice Rumple was giving him probably sounded more than a bit bizarre.

All the same, as Banks departed—reiterating the need for three hundred copies of the new document by midday—Rumple couldn't help feeling a pang of sympathy for young Michael Banks. If his father insisted on conforming to convention in matters of child-rearing, maintaining such distance, however much he might yearn for closeness, well, Rumple expected that barring some sort of magical intervention, it was extremely unlikely that the relationship Banks sought with his son would ever materialize.

And magical interventions were in somewhat short supply in this time and place.

He was glad he'd swallowed his pride and asked Emma for the chair. Just getting into it had been quite the challenge after several weeks of off his feet; he doubted he could have made it out of the room under his own power. Yes, he'd known that this was likely to happen and he had tried getting himself out of bed a few times, just to prevent it, but it hadn't been enough and after he'd fallen a few days ago, he hadn't dared another attempt.

"I, uh, broke my leg chasing after a bail-jumper once," Emma remarked, as she wheeled him toward the lounge. "I needed PT after the cast came off."

Rumple snorted. "I don't need you to attempt to bolster my spirits, dearie." And then, quickly, he looked back at her over his shoulder and added, "Although I appreciate your efforts." He sighed. "This is what it is, and once my body is up to paying magic's price once more, I believe it will compensate for whatever Dr. Whale's ministrations fail to achieve."

"Sure," Emma said, as they crossed over the lounge's threshold. "Um, if you're okay with heights, I can bring you to the window. We're on the seventh floor, so I guess there's probably a good view."

Rumple considered. "Another time," he said finally. He was no longer accustomed to being more than three stories up, and if he were to get dizzy for any reason, he wasn't ready to have it chalked up to a fear of heights. The truth was that he was generally fine with them—provided that there was a solid barrier between himself and the drop. (Dangling in midair while Pan's Shadow carried him out of Neverland had been quite a different matter!)

"Okay," Emma replied, rolling the chair next to a padded sofa and sitting down across from him. The lounge was deserted at the moment. "Seriously," she said after a moment, "you're looking in much better shape than you were when you came back through the portal."

Rumple smiled. "I'm reasonably certain that being hauled back from death's door has something to do with it."

Emma grinned back. "Yeah," she returned. "That's probably it."

Silence stretched between them, but somehow, it wasn't awkward.

When Belle arrived some twenty minutes later, Emma took her leave, promising to return soon.

"You might bring Henry with you, if it's outside of school hours," Rumple suggested.

"Sure, if he wants to," Emma replied.

Rumple nodded, reflecting that a year ago, he'd likely not have dared hope that Henry would want to. Now, he realized, he felt nearly certain that the lad would be eager to. What an amazing thing that was!

"Rumple?" Belle's voice intruded on his thoughts and when he met her gaze, she smiled softly. "Is everything… all right?"

He nodded again. "Surprisingly so," he murmured. And seeing her perplexed expression, he continued, "It was… quite an experience reliving the past, you understand. I'd always thought I understood how others viewed me back then." He smiled bitterly. "The One Who Ran. Coward. Cripple. And worse," he added. "I was called all that and more by the duke's soldiers and," he exhaled and his voice dropped several decibels," my first wife. And yet," he went on slowly, "when I found myself thrust back into those days, I… Well, let's just say that I discovered that the perceptions I had as a younger man were… rather at odds with the reality I witnessed my second time around…"

"All right," the seneschal said. "Who are you? And please tell me you're not the real assassin and that woman here to thwart you," he added wearily. "It's late and I don't want to deal with anymore paperwork right now."

Rumple blinked. "I beg your pardon?"

"I've personally interviewed every servant in this castle who didn't come over with the duke's retinue—and those who did, I know by sight. I've never clapped eyes on you in my life. So, suppose you tell me who you are, what you're doing here, and whether there's a footman bound and gagged in a wardrobe in his undergarments right now, while you're wearing his livery."

The noble's eyes crinkled a bit at the corners as he uttered that last bit and, despite himself, Rumple realized that he was smiling a bit himself. Funny. He'd never had much use for nobles until he became the Dark One, and even then, it had been more about the satisfaction of watching them squirm.

"If you really believed that," Rumple said slowly, "I doubt that this interview would be in private."

The seneschal gestured to a hanging cord, not unlike the one Rumple had pulled earlier. "The guards are just outside the door; I can summon them if need be. For now, though, I'd rather believe you've done your liege a service this night. So, how came you here? Better yet, let's start with your name."

"Gilitrutt," Rumple said at once, and the seneschal frowned.

"That's not a common name in these parts."

"No, it's not," Rumple said guardedly. "I'm from the north."

"And you're here because…?"

If the man spoke to Hordor or the chamberlain, certain facts were certain to come to light. "I've been visiting family. I've a nephew in Pen Marmor."

"And the nephew has a name?" Before Rumple could answer, the seneschal added. "I'm no barber-surgeon who likes the idea of pulling teeth. Instead of just confirming that this nephew of yours does, in fact, have one, please be good enough to tell me what it is."

Despite himself, Rumple felt the corners of his lips tugging ever-so-more-slightly upwards. "Rumpelstiltskin," he said quietly.

"The one who—?"

Rumple's smile dropped and he felt his jaw muscles clench.

But the seneschal finished with, "—wove the receiving blanket for His Grace's daughter three years ago?"

Rumple's eyebrows shot up. "I-I think he might have," he murmured. He had, of course, using the best lamb's wool he'd been able to procure. If the seneschal was aware of that bit of work, then the duke must have been pleased enough with the gift to show it off.

"I think I should probably visit Pen Marmor," the seneschal mused. "As much as we've been cutting back on unnecessary luxuries with the war on, perhaps we might budget for some commissions from skilled artisans." His eyes narrowed. "But that doesn't explain why you're here."

Rumple swallowed. And then an idea occurred to him. "I came to ask a favor. Not for myself, nor for my nephew, but… he has a son. And that son turns fourteen tomorrow. I was hoping to spare him from being sent to the front, but I know how hard it can be to get an appointment on His Grace's calendar to make such a petition. I suppose," he said with a self-deprecating smile, "it wasn't much of a plan, but I thought that if I were attending His Grace, then there might be a chance to speak with him alone and…"

The seneschal shook his head. "It wouldn't have worked. Not then. Not when His Grace's own children have been fighting and dying in the war. However, you have done us a favor this night," he said. "I make no promises. The boy goes to the army; there's no getting out of that. But as far as to the front," he paused. "Does he perchance speak or read Ogrish?"

Rumple shook his head.

"Has he learned healing, smith work, or fletching?"

"He's a quick study," Rumple said firmly.

"That's 'no', then," the seneschal inferred. "Does he have any talents?"

"He's an artist," Rumple said, not really expecting anything to come from it.

Still the seneschal didn't scoff. "An artist," he repeated. "I wonder. We do need to know the layout of the ogre encampment. If your grand-nephew has the talent to draw a scene exactly as he sees it, and if he can do so quietly, mind, then there are enchantments we can supply that will help him avoid their sentries and patrols."

Rumple thought about that. It wasn't a bad deal. Bae wouldn't be in the thick of the battle and, at any rate, the war would be over by tomorrow. He could stop it, save his younger self the trouble, and even if doing so meant that he would vanish from the timeline, his younger self would remain and likely have a better, happier life. He realized that he was willing to pay that price, if it meant that Bae would be safe at home. "He has that talent," he said firmly. "I'm certain."

The seneschal smiled. "I'll advise the knight commander to deliver the boy here instead of to the army on the morrow. If he demonstrates the skill you're confident he possesses, then I do believe we have a deal." He extended his hand across the table. Disbelieving his fortune, Rumple reached for it—

"FIRE!" a shout rang down the corridor as a bell in the distance began to clang. "There's fire in the north stables!"

The seneschal rose to his feet. "I'll have to ask you to remain here while I attend to something," he said firmly. He strode out of the office briskly and Rumple could hear him in the corridor telling the guards not to allow anyone else to leave the room. Rumple gave a mental shrug. It wasn't as though they could prevent him. He focused on the chamber where the dagger was kept and concentrated.

A moment later he was rubbing his forehead. The protection spell hadn't hurt exactly, but it had startled him. And this time, it wasn't a mental block his own Darkness had put in his head; it was a bona fide spell that had been cast on the chamber in which Rumple now found himself. He could push through it in time, but if his younger self was here already, Rumple reflected, then that time was in short supply. He gritted his teeth and set himself to the task.

The seneschal smiled in the shadows and let the glamor spell surrounding him fall away, revealing the face and form of the current Dark One. He heaved a sigh of relief, as he made his way through the castle. The older version of the crippled spinner had very nearly thwarted all, but thankfully, it appeared as though the problem had been corrected. There was only one thing left to do.

He walked calmly down the corridor, unaffected by the rising heat and stinging smoke. The guard at the chamber entrance was nervously shifting from one foot to the other, clearly weighing his sense of duty against his sense of self-preservation.

The Dark One was in a good mood tonight. In just a few short hours, he was quite certain that his decades of servitude would be over. True, the man he'd picked as his successor might attempt to control him rather than kill him, but Zoso rather thought not. He'd been with the spinner long enough to get a sense of what drove him. The right words at the right time and Rumpelstiltskin would play his proper part. Always provided that the spinner could reach the dagger unhindered.

At Zoso's approach, the guard leveled his halberd. He was nervous, the Dark One noted. It wasn't just the perspiration beading his face; that could have been chalked up to the climbing temperature in the corridor (really, it did feel rather like a stone oven). "Calm yourself, my friend," Zoso said jovially. "I'm not here for the dagger. Long ago, the duke ordered me never to reclaim it, nor even touch it; I'm quite powerless to disobey that command."

"Then what do you want, Dark One?" the guard demanded, not relaxing his stance by a fraction of an inch.

Zoso chuckled. "I want to save your life," he said, his smile friendly. "Come. Let's depart this fiery deathtrap together."

"I'm not deserting my po—" With a wave of Zoso's hand, the guard vanished, only to reappear in the woods several leagues away.

The Dark One gave an elaborate shrug. "Well, I suppose there's no harm done if we depart it separately." It didn't matter where he went now; the dagger would pull him to its wielder at the right time. But Zoso preferred to await that time in a more comfortable environment. One that was rather less smoky, for one thing. His cloak billowed about him as he waved once more.

When a scared-but-determined Rumpelstiltskin came haltingly down the corridor, some minutes later, he found it deserted.

"So, even when the seneschal heard your name, he…" Belle let her voice trail off with a smile.

Rumple nodded. "I've no doubt he knew who I was. There weren't many men took a sledgehammer to their ankles right before a charge. Word of that deed reached my home village ahead of my return; there's little doubt it reached other ears—both highborn and low—along the way. Certainly, the knight commander who would have taken Bae from me knew it," he added bitterly.

"But," Rumple continued, "while it's possible that I did read more into his reaction than was actually there and that he truly didn't know my reputation, I can't account for the behavior of those in my village once I saw it with… older eyes, and—" And perhaps I wasn't quite as meek as I recalled either. It seems that even without my Darkness, I did have something of a temper, for all I usually stifled it.

Belle gripped his hand and he squeezed hers back. "How much time," he whispered thickly, "did I waste in my hovel, certain that I'd only be greeted with contempt to my face and whispers behind my back if I dared venture down into the marketplace? I thought myself outcast, but was it truly so, or did I just let my fears and insecurities convince me that it was?" Tears were burning his eyes and he could feel his face twisting with the effort of keeping them back. He dared not speak more now, certain that one more word would shatter his defenses utterly, but he brought up his free hand to sandwich Belle's.

And when he met her blue eyes, he saw that they too were glistening.

Rumple flung himself against the protection spell, grunting with the exertion. He could do this, blast it! He'd broken through the last one! But the last one had been spread out, meant to confine him to a much larger area. This spell was more concentrated. And this time, he realized, his own Darkness wasn't bolstering it. That had been a double-edged sword with the first spell: on the one hand, it had leeched away some of his own power to keep it in place, but once he'd realized what was going on, he'd been able to wrest that power back and weaken the enchantment. This new spell, though, was all Zoso, and it felt as though this era's Dark One was pouring everything he had into it. That, Rumple reflected was most unwise. Sooner or later, he was going to burn through this protection spell and once he did, there were a few things he intended to do to Zoso and the old man would be powerless to prevent him.

A sneer curled his lips. Really, one would have thought that this predecessor of his would have enough sense to keep something in reserve. Because—

Rumple felt as though he'd just been doused with a bucket of ice water. Zoso didn't have to keep anything in reserve. After tonight, there would be no Zoso, save for the shred of him that would be retained by the Darkness! All Zoso had to do was keep him here until…

Desperately, he attacked the protection spell, his focus no longer on the chamber—the dagger was almost certainly there no longer—but on the clearing in the woods where he knew his younger self would be bringing it. A cry of frustration burst from his lips. Dimly he realized that the sound might bring the guards rushing in, but he didn't care. He had to break through! He had to stop Zoso, he had to save himself, he had to—

All at once the spell was gone and he was hurtling forward as though he'd been rushing against a door that had suddenly opened. Out of control, he seemed to fly over stone floors, broken ground, and ancient trees. He was probably screaming, though the force of the traveling spell was roaring in his ears so loudly that he couldn't be sure, until he crashed without warning onto a bed of leaves and twigs, his heart pounding and his throat raw. It was several moments before he'd recovered enough to attempt to stand. Bracing his hands on the thick trunk of a fallen tree, he shakily found his footing. As he rose up, he felt his heart plummet.

He hadn't broken through the spell after all.

When a wizard died, their spells died with them.

In the clearing before him, his younger self stood trembling, and in his hand was a bloody kris dagger.

Chapter 32: Chapter Thirty-Two

Notes:

A/N: Achren is the evil sorceress queen from Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain. The Prydain wiki describes her as "beautiful, yet very deadly… older than she looks… Proud and ambitious, vengeful when crossed, and merciless when doling out punishment to captives or underlings. Given to fits of rage that fueled her drive for victory, in defeat she became morose, even suicidal." In other words, imagining her as a Dark One isn't that big a stretch…

Episode references: S2E14 (Manhattan); S6E13 (Ill-Boding Patterns).

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Two

"You knew he'd been in the past since Manhattan?" Emma demanded. "And you never said anything?"

Henry tilted his head to one side. "Well, when Dad told me, it was back when I wasn't talking to you." He winced for a moment. "Sorry about that, by the way. But then," he continued, "Grandpa got stabbed and all we were thinking about was getting back home with him, and I still wasn't talking to you if I didn't have to. Plus, Dad was teaching me how to sail the Jolly Roger," he added. "As soon as we got home, you sent me off with Ruby, so you could deal with Cora, only after," he winced again, "Grandma dealt with her, I guess I wasn't thinking much about Dad and Grandpa being in England a hundred years ago. And then, we thought my dad died after Tamara shot him and before I could deal with that, Greg and Tamara dragged me to Neverland, Peter Pan captured me, and after you saved me, I spent most of the trip home and part of the rest of my time in Storybrooke in Pandora's Box and by the time I got out of it, Pan had already cast the curse and you and me went over the town line and forgot everything." He gave her a pained look. "Sorry, Mom, but when I got my memories back, that wasn't the first thing I thought of."

Emma groaned. "Okay, fine, kid. You win. Hey. I don't suppose Neal ever mentioned Zelena?"

Henry frowned. "No. We only talked about England. A little. Or he talked, and I listened and asked a couple of questions."

"And he told you the names he and Gold were using back then," Emma nodded. "Okay. So, it was just the two of them, I take it? Zelena didn't go with them?" Before Henry could reply, she went on quickly, "I know. You said Neal didn't mention her, so I'm guessing she didn't. Regina's been wondering what happened to her is all and from what you're saying, it… sounds like she never made it out of the Enchanted Forest. Unless she somehow made another portal later on."

"I… don't know anything about that," Henry replied.

Emma nodded again and ruffled her son's hair absently. "I know, kid. But if you do remember anything about her later, tell Regina? I think it'll be a load off her mind."

"I will." Conversation over, he pulled out his phone. "Meanwhile, let me just check if Grandpa made his next word." He looked up. "Uh..." He moved aside, so that his mother could see the in-game chat screen. "Maybe it's good we were just talking about this, since he's asking me about it now, too..."

Bae had told Henry. The full import of that revelation crashed in on Rumple with the force of a tidal wave. Bae remembered his being in the past with him. His son hadn't grown up fatherless! At least, Rumple reflected sadly, not as quickly.

Actually, one could argue that… No. No, Bae had been cheated of his childhood, forced to take on adult responsibilities too soon, but he'd done it with his father beside him. At least, until—

A puzzled frown came to his face. If Bae remembered that he'd gone with him, then what had been behind his son's hostility when they'd finally found one another again in Manhattan? Or was that something else that had changed? Because Rumple had definite memories of spending over two centuries trying to find a way to follow his boy to the Land Without Magic. And presumably he—that was to say, the he who'd been left behind—had still done so in the end, else this town probably wouldn't exist. Hard though that meeting had been for him, he knew all too well the pain of being abandoned by a parent. It didn't matter that Rumple had let his boy go in a moment of terror, nor that he'd been trying to yank his boy out of the portal, but that the magic's pull had been too strong, while his own father had sent him away happily, even eagerly, for the promise of eternal youth. It had still been abandonment, and Rumple understood perfectly why Bae was still angry even after so many years.

But since he had gone…

He was getting a headache. One that he'd warrant wasn't a side effect of one or more of his antibiotics or the inoculation Whale had jabbed into his arm earlier. It occurred to him that, perhaps, his memories of that earlier incident were no longer accurate. He'd lived them, yes. But if he'd changed the circ*mstances, perhaps he was the only one left who could recall how they'd originally played out.

Well. That was something easy enough to check up on.

He brought up the game. Henry had made his move. Jolly. A fine word that would have been even finer had Henry managed to get the J on the triple letter score, instead one of the two Ls. And if he hadn't left Rumple with a clear path to a triple word score, but right now that was an unnecessary distraction.

He opened the chat window. Henry, he keyed carefully—a touch screen was nowhere near as easy to type on as the Underwood No. 5 he'd used at the bank—what else do you recall about that journey to Manhattan?

Henry's reply was succinct and lacking both capitalization and punctuation. Rumple read the lone 'everything' and grimaced. And then, almost at once, a new line of type appeared: Why? What do you want to know?

Rumple considered. I believe that 'everything' would sum up the answer to that question nicely. But perhaps, you might begin with what happened when first you clapped eyes on your father.

"Henry, go wait in the bathroom."

And there they went again. Right when something exciting was about to go down, it was always, "Henry, go with Ruby." "Henry, stay at Granny's." At the back of his mind, he'd been almost celebrating that apart from the whole 'going on an adventure outside Storybrooke with his mom and Mr. Gold' he was actually going on an adventure. No way they'd be able to shunt him off to the background now!

"Henry, go!"

He'd been wrong. Of course, they could. And they were. At least, his mother was. And just when things were getting interesting, too! But even through the bathroom door, he could hear Mr. Gold shouting.

"Did he tell you something?"

"Gold!" Mom didn't shout back, but her voice seemed to fill the area.

"Did he tell you something?!"

Mom was trying to calm him down, but she was getting agitated too, and Mr. Gold was getting angrier as he demanded answers. And then, he heard a new voice shout, "Hey! Leave her alone!"

For a moment, there was silence. And then, in a far gentler tone than he'd been using until now, Henry heard Mr. Gold say, "Bae… you came back for me."

"No," the new voice said harshly. "I came to make sure you didn't hurt her. And to see if you'd… Well, the hell with that, you haven't. I've seen what you do to people who break deals and the only reason you haven't done it here is because you can't."

"Please, Bae," Mr. Gold sounded unnervingly like he was about to cry, "I just want to talk."

"I've got no interest in talking to you," the other voice—Baelfire, obviously—shot back. "I'd hoped. I saw what you became after— I wanted so much for… for something to have started, but I've just remembered why I needed that bean in the first place. The father I know, the father I hoped to see…He's dead. He died over a century ago. You aren't him. Now go."

Henry had read his storybook cover to cover, backwards and forwards, under his covers with a flashlight, and side to side. He knew what kind of a person Rumpelstiltskin really was, for all he usually tried to hide it. But hearing those words, the coldness and finality with which they were uttered, Henry couldn't help the sick feeling in his stomach. It was mirrored by the pain in Mr. Gold's voice when he spoke next.

"I'm not going anywhere."

"Get out of my apartment!"

Henry couldn't take it anymore. He didn't want to hear the rest of this conversation. It was private and personal and even though that normally wouldn't have stopped him, he had a very clear feeling that this really wasn't meant for his ears. So, he clapped his hands over them. It didn't help enough. Although he could no longer hear what was being said, he could still hear the shouting and the accusatory tone of voice and—

Before he knew it, he had the bathroom door open and was back in the living room. "M-mom?" he began, hoping that whatever they were going to say or do, they wouldn't want to do it in front of him. As one, three faces turned to him and he managed to ask, "W-what's going on?"

And that, of course, was when his world really started to turn upside-down.

It had been like pulling teeth to get the story out of Henry, and Rumple really thought that Henry probably remembered more than he'd relayed.

Grandpa? Are you okay?

Rumple blinked at the new text that had just appeared on the chat screen. He supposed it had been a few minutes since Henry had typed in his account, and he hadn't responded.

Fine, he typed back. Nurse came in. A lie, yes, but one that harmed nobody.

I'm sorry, Henry typed. I was just reading over what I wrote you and I didn't realize how bad it would sound written down. Maybe this should have waited until I came to see you.

Rumple was shaking his head a bit, as he replied. I did ask. And I didn't want to wait. But I am gratified to know that you plan to return. In the meanwhile…

He made his next word on the board; it only earned him twelve points, but unless Henry could come up with a seven-letter word ending in 'K', the triple word score was safe.

As he waited for his grandson to take his next turn, his face was creased in a frown. The scene Henry described was so very close to the one he recalled, but there were a number of glaring differences. So. He had changed the past. Perhaps, not drastically, but still, some of his efforts had clearly had some sort of effect. But in the long run, did anything he'd accomplished truly matter?

And had he accomplished anything else?

A new word appeared on the board, and he started. Then, his lips relaxed in a rueful smile. Artwork. Well. His grandson had just given him a puzzle to ponder and there was no denying he could do with a bit of intellectual stimulation. He supposed the lad had earned that triple-word, after all.

"I remember that," Emma said slowly, in response to Rumple's query the next day. "Yeah, I mean at the time, I thought Neal was talking about the guy you used to be, uh, before you got your hands on the dagger, but he wasn't, was he?"

Rumple shook his head. "No. No, evidently, he recalled my being with him in this world's past, but…"

"How does that work?" Emma asked. "I-I mean, if you went through the portal with him, then how did you create the curse that brought us all here, if you were…?"

Rumple smiled. "Because it wasn't my younger self who went through the portal. I—the current version of me, that is—crossed over, leaving my younger self behind. And he—or I, I suppose—never gave up hope of finding him." He chuckled slightly and Emma tilted her head.

"What's so funny?"

"Well," Rumple sighed, "since I don't have any recollection of what my younger self did after Bae and I went over—that is to say, my memories of that period of my life do not include a two-hundred-odd-years older version of me popping in to spend the better part of a year with me—I can't say for certain. But I've always tried to protect what was mine, even when I had no power to do so. And seeing as my younger self accused me on more than one occasion of coming to take Bae away from him, well, I shouldn't wonder if he spent the next two hundred years cursing my name."

"Uh… considering that it was his name, too," Emma replied, "maybe not."

Rumple's eyebrows shot up. "Well, perhaps you're right," he allowed. "Of course, the irony was that I was actually trying to ensure that Bae wouldn't feel the need to obtain that portal bean in the first place…"

"I missed you at the common this week," Morraine said, as she set a basket of fresh vegetables down on the new stone windowsill of the hut-that-was-no-longer-a-hovel.

Bae looked up from his sketching. "Thanks," he said, smiling. "I missed you, too."

"How come you didn't answer when I knocked?" she asked. "And how did you build on so quickly?"

Reflexively, Bae's gaze strayed from the new wooden front door, solid oak and sturdy enough to probably outlast the rest of the house to the other door in the opposite wall. "Papa needed a workroom," he explained, ducking the 'how' for the 'why' that hadn't been asked of him. "Sorry about that," he added. "Papa doesn't want me letting people in now."

Morraine frowned. Then, she gripped the sill with both hands, hauled herself onto it, and slid inside. "Surely, he didn't mean me?" she asked, not sounding very sure. "Bae, what's wrong?"

Bae shook his head. "Nothing," he said, feeling his smile stiffen as his voice rose slightly higher. "Everything's wonderful. Thanks to Papa, the war's over, we're all home safe, there's going to be a bumper crop, and Papa made a deal with the duke that we don't have to pay taxes or tithes for the next three years. What could be wrong?"

Morraine sat down at the table beside him. "I never see you anymore. Bae. When's the last time you were outside?"

Bae shook his head. "I have everything I need here."

"Nonsense!" a merry voice chortled and both teens started. The door to the workroom hadn't opened, but suddenly, Rumpelstiltskin was in the room with them. "The ogres are gone, the village is safe, and you're free to romp about as children ought. So, off you go then! And be sure you're home for supper."

Bae hesitated. "Don't you need me to card the wool?"

The Dark One giggled. "Not when magic can get the job done. Run along now! Both of you," he added with another giggle.

Morraine took his hand. "Come on, then!" she said with a grin. She dipped a hasty curtsey. "And thank you!"

Bae hoped he wasn't making a mistake. The more time Papa spent in that room, the stranger he seemed. Lately, Bae felt as though his presence was the only thing keeping Papa from losing himself completely and the more time he spent away the worse Papa seemed when he got back. But the day was warm and sunny, the air smelled of fresh hay, and he'd barely seen Morraine since her return. Suppressing his qualms, he let her pull him along.

Rumpelstiltskin waited until the two youths had put enough distance between themselves and the hut that he was certain they wouldn't be back before he went back inside and closed the door. His smile fell away, as he went back into the new workroom. "All right," he said testily. "I sent him off to play. But if any harm befall him—"

"It won't," his elder self said quietly. "And time spent with friends will do him a world of good."

"I don't like him out of my sight," the younger Rumple snarled. "What if Beowulf has a younger brother or a son out to avenge him?"

"He doesn't," the elder said. "But why speculate? You know how to make a scrying crystal to see for yourself. Or, at least," he turned his attention inward for a moment, searching the memories of his predecessors, "Achren did. She'll be happy to show you."

His younger self's face contorted in a sly frown. "I see what you're up to. Bae says the more magic I use, the more I change. He doesn't like me dabbling. And yet, here you are encouraging me to use more, as if I don't have enough voices leading me down that path." One lip curled back revealing yellowed teeth. "You mean to turn him against me and then? You'll take him and he'll go willingly!"

The elder Rumple bit back an angry retort. The more he antagonized his younger self, the less likely it was that he'd be able to keep him from driving Bae away. He reminded himself that this younger version didn't have the benefit of centuries of experience. He hadn't yet learned how to be patient and bide his time. Here he was, flush with power for the first time in his life, drinking it in like the finest of clarets, casting magic about willy-nilly and heedless of the price it commanded. Still, the elder Rumple believed that it might be possible to temper this newly-awake Dark One, instruct him—not in magic; they both had the same teachers in their heads for that—but in discipline and moderation. If his younger self would only manage to learn to delay gratification, if he wasn't so quick to demand his due and exact retribution for every slight or damage, no matter how small or inadvertent, then perhaps Bae would never seek out that blue flea.

"Do you think so little of him, then?" he asked sadly. "That he'd willingly abandon you for a man he didn't know existed less than two seasons ago?"

"He's a child!" his younger self shot back. "Easily led, easily influenced."

"He's older than his years," the elder retorted, still keeping his tone soft. "Adult enough for the army, until you put an end to that war—"

"With no help coming from you."

"I didn't need any the first time," Rumple pointed out. He still would have gone with his younger self, but for the point that Zelena had raised. With the dagger now bearing his—their—name, when Bae had wielded it, would it have controlled both of them? The memories of his year of slavery were still too fresh. His younger self, who still equated power with freedom, had easily forgiven his son. The man he'd become was no longer certain he'd have that magnanimity in him if put to the test. And so, knowing what was coming, he'd contrived to be as far away from the front as possible. Far enough away that he wouldn't be able to transport himself back in one leap. He still wasn't sure whether he'd actually felt the dagger's tug when Bae used it, or whether he'd merely felt the urge to return and witness afresh what would transpire, but by the time he'd reached the battlefield, the deed had been done and Beowulf slain. Funny. When he'd actually done the deed, the struggle, the rage, the screams, the blood… It had all seemed to last so much longer. But really, it didn't take that long to kill a man when you just wanted to get it over with.

He took another breath. "Just… try to remember that he's not quite as young as you seem to think he is. He's getting to an age where most would chafe at restrictions, particularly when they see the freedom their friends enjoy. But since he isn't yet saddled with all an adult's responsibilities," he smiled, "well, if you must treat him like a child, perhaps you ought to do it by letting him run about and play with his friends outdoors."

His younger self frowned as he turned the words over in his head, but after a moment he gave a grudging nod.

The elder Rumple smiled encouragingly and breathed an inward sigh of relief.

It was maybe an hour later that Rumple rose to his feet. "I'm heading into the village," he told his younger self. "Did you need anything?"

The younger Rumple barely looked up from his spinning. "If I did, dearie, I'd have it already," he giggled. "But if you're not back at sunset I'll not wait supper."

Rumple started down the road, his thoughts in turmoil. His younger self didn't seem to notice how much his power had already come to consume him. At this rate, it would be a miracle if Bae stayed around as long as he had in Rumple's memories. He shouldn't have suggested the scrying crystal, but perhaps it had been the right thing to do after all. The suggestion, not the scrying, at least. Ever since that sorry business with Beowulf, his younger self had refused nearly all of Rumple's counsel.

"You're trying to control me!" he'd snapped. "You want to harness my power and add it to your own!" It did no good to point out that his younger self's power was already Rumple's own. His younger self was like a child with a stuffed toy, clutching it close and ready to throw a tantrum at the mere hint that someone might want to take it away. Rumple had been frankly surprised when his younger self had agreed to let Bae go off with Morraine. But from the way he'd reacted when Rumple had suggested the scrying… Well, reverse psychology hadn't been the intention, but it might just prove an effective tactic in the long run.

Hoof-beats sounded behind him and he moved to the side of the road to let the wagons pass. There were three, each a cage on wheels that carried a dozen or so captives, their wrists chained, their clothing ragged and dirty, their faces blank or despairing. It wasn't until they were a quarter mile or so down the road that Rumple realized that one of them had been Zelena. He wondered whether that would be the last time their paths would cross.

"Bae!" Morraine exclaimed excitedly, "Look! Rowanberries!"

Baelfire's eyes lit up, as he saw the clusters of scarlet fruit hanging among the mountain ash boughs at the edge of the wood on the village's outskirts. "I'd forgotten it was the season," he replied. "I haven't had rowanberry preserves since we finished our last crock midwinter." His face fell. "Wish I'd thought to bring a bucket."

Morraine was already taking off her shawl. "Here," she said laying it on the ground. "Looks like someone's beaten us to the lower branches, but there's plenty higher up."

Bae hung back. "Papa doesn't like me climbing trees," he said nervously.

"I won't tell him," Morraine replied, eyes dancing.

"I can't," Bae said.

"Baelfire!"

"No, I mean I really can't." He looked down at the ground. "Papa never let me, so I don't know how."

Understanding dawned in the girl's eyes. "I'll climb then," she said. "You stay down here. Maybe you can still reach some of them. And if not," she grinned, "well, once it starts raining berries, gather up whatever doesn't land in my shawl and toss them in!"

Bae's embarrassment gave way to a relieved grin. He watched as Morraine scaled the tree, her hands and feet finding easy purchase in the silvery branches. Then he turned his attention to the lower boughs.

The earlier berry-pickers had either missed or left behind a few clusters. By the time Bae had collected them, Morraine had begun her task. Many of the berries did land in her shawl, but more fell on the springy turf, landing more-or-less intact, and Bae hastened to scoop them up. It really was a perfect late summer's day. Warm, but not oppressively so, with just enough of a breeze to refresh. The scent of guild weed perfumed the air, and while Bae didn't always usually notice such things, he had to admit it had been a long time since he'd breathed in that fragrance. He wondered whether it was the sort of thing that went into ladies' perfumes, or if the scent was 'too common'. He wondered whether Morraine would appreciate such a gift, if it were possible to obtain it. He wond—

A mailed glove clamped down on his mouth, a muscular arm encircled his chest and pinned him to its owner, who had crept up unseen behind him, and a harsh voice growled in his ear, "You. The boy who controls the Dark One!"

What? Through the gauntlet, Bae tried to protest that his attacker was making a mistake, that he didn't control Papa, but the man didn't seem interested in listening.

Above, a branch splintered and the man just barely managed to sidestep as it came down. "Let him loose!" a furious voice called from the branches.

"You hold your position if you know what's good for you, girl!" the man called back. "My business is with the lad." He began dragging Bae toward the wood.

"Now," he said, "as soon as we're away from prying eyes, you're going to tell me exactly how it is you command the Dark One and why he obeys you. And then? You'll teach me that same trick. If you don't…" The man chuckled mirthlessly. "Well, perhaps, I'll decide that your little friend in the tree is worth my time after all."

Chapter 33: Chapter Thirty-Three

Notes:

Episode references: S3E4—Nasty Habits; S6E13—Ill-boding Patterns.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Three

Talorc was using smoked fish in his hand pies today, flavored with dill weed, leek, and 'a family secret I'll not divulge'. Rumple took the information in good humor and smiled appreciatively at the vendor after his first bite. "You're not worried about your living arrangements?" Talorc asked.

Rumple blinked. "Not at all."

"All sort of stories making the rounds," the vendor remarked, turning his back on Rumple to roll out a fresh ball of pastry dough. "About that nephew of yours."

"I don't hold with rumors," Rumple said firmly.

The vendor shrugged. "No concern of mine, I suppose. Though if you cross him and he turns you into a frog, I'll miss our conversations."

Rumple snorted. "No fear of that," he replied, taking another bite of the hand pie. After he'd chewed and swallowed, he added, "And I wouldn't pay much mind to those stories about Beowulf's company either. More going on than meets the eye there, I'm quite certain."

Talorc's muscular arms pumped back and forth as he rolled out the dough. "Seems to me like you're spreading a rumor to counter a rumor and just adding to the pile of rumors," he said laconically. "Unless you were there and saw it all, of course."

Rumple opened his mouth to respond when a slight figure came charging toward them. "Morraine?" he asked. The girl looked a sight. No shawl, twigs in her hair, clothes stained and dirty and a fresh rip at the elbow of one of her sleeves. His heart dropped. "What's happened? Where's Bae?"

"G-Gilitrutt!" the girl exclaimed, gasping for breath as she clutched the counter of Talorc's market stall. "He… He took Baelfire. The woods," she added pointing back in the direction she'd come. "A s-soldier."

"What? Why?" Rumple forced down his rising panic; the girl was frightened enough already. "Who took him?"

"I was up a tree," the girl panted. "The soldier came up behind Baelfire. Grabbed him. I was too high up to hear why."

Rumple turned to Talorc. "She needs a drink," he said tersely. "I'll settle the account on my return."

"I'll get a search party together," Talorc said, as he set a clay mug down on the counter. The girl gulped its contents hurriedly.

"No need," Rumple said, already striding away. "I'll deal with this myself."

As soon as he was past the crowded market square and away from any eyes that might behold his use of magic, he vanished.

Bae tested the leather strip that held his wrists together. He was standing against the trunk of a slender tree, his arms bound behind it, a rag in his mouth, while his captor ran the blade of a wicked-looking short sword against a wide leather strop.

"I'll let you speak in a bit," the soldier said, "and for your sake, I hope you'll tell me what I need to hear." He stropped the blade again for emphasis. "I was there, you know," he said. "When Beowulf asked for volunteers to hunt the Grendel. And when the killing started, I rabbited, I did. Hid in the woods. I meant to sneak back later and tell what I seen, but then I saw you, boy. Stole a blade from out Beowulf's belt you did an' I near laughed aloud at your audacity. Though I suppose it took less courage than it seemed, what with it being you what commands the Dark One."

Bae shook his head frantically, trying to voice his protests through his makeshift gag. He hadn't done that! The man was mistaken; he had to be!

"And aren't I telling you, you'll have your chance to talk soon?" his captor demanded cheerily, still stropping the blade. "You'll sing like a proper canary, you will. But not for the Dark One," he added. "If I even think you're about to summon him as I watched you do here in these woods, I'll have your throat slit ear to ear before you get the words out."

The leather thong wasn't coming loose anytime soon, Bae realized. Instead of trying to snap it, he moved his wrists up and down against the trunk as best he could, hoping to saw through it.

His captor plucked a hair from his bristling beard and tested the blade on it. "I think this will do," he said, drawing nearer to Bae. "Now, as I was say—"

Without warning, the burly soldier suddenly exploded in a ball of flame and smoke. The next thing Bae registered were a pair of anxious golden eyes staring into his and hoarse voice choking out his name.

"Bae?"

Papa!

The elder Rumple wished he'd questioned Morraine further before rushing here. The woods that edged the village were vast, and while Rumple knew the outskirts well, the trees were thick and there was a lot of ground to cover. He checked the ground for tracks, but he was no woodsman and he carried no locator spell. Tracks abounded, both human and animal, but many villagers used the forest to hunt and forage and footwear didn't vary much. Shoes or boots were made of calfskin with soles made either of the same material or of wood. A person might go barefoot in the village proper, but not the woods where sharp rocks, thorny undergrowth, and splintered bones from some carnivore's meal were all too common hazards. Bae's boots were leather-soled, but so were those of half the village.

Morraine had mentioned a 'soldier'. Well, their footwear ran the gamut, especially now, with supply lines stretched thin. Rumple remembered his own brief time at the front. While they'd all been issued armor and helmets, footwear had only been dispensed to those whose own was worn and rotten. And there had been no 'standard issue' for boots. In fact, thinking back, it occurred to Rumple that they might have come from off the feet of those who would never want for anything again, saving a decent burial.

He doubted matters would have improved overmuch in the last fourteen years.

He moved as quietly as he could, not wanting to reveal his presence to anyone within earshot. He moved carefully, keeping his eyes and ears open, trying to find some trace of his son.

And then, he felt the familiar surge of magic in the air several yards to his left, he smelled smoke, and he realized that his younger self had found Bae. How had he—?

You know how to make a scrying crystal… Or, at least, Achren did.

His younger self must have decided to check up on Bae after all. Rumple hurried in the direction from which the surge had emanated, plunging into a thicket and coming out in a small clearing. Bae's back was to him; his son and his younger self locked in a tight embrace.

"It's all right, son," his younger self was saying soothingly. "You're safe, now."

The elder Rumple realized now that the clearing was strewn with bits of charred leather and rapidly cooling globules of metal. He thought he could smell burnt meat, too. No need to wonder what had become of Bae's kidnapper, then, Rumple realized with grim satisfaction.

His younger self looked up then and locked eyes on his. His golden eyes went flat, but there was no hint in his voice that he'd seen the elder. "Come on, son," he said softly. "Let's go home." He slung an arm across Bae's shoulders and proceeded to steer him out of the clearing, choosing a path that didn't involve passing his counterpart.

The elder Rumple debated whether to follow, but decided against it. He knew better than anyone how he reacted after a nasty scare. Better to give his younger self time to recover. Meanwhile, he'd go back to Talorc to pay Morraine's account as he'd promised. Hopefully, by the time he returned to the hut, everyone would be calmer.

His younger self met him when he was halfway back to the hut. "How is he?" the elder Rumple asked him at once. Bae was fine, of course; he knew that much, else his younger self never would have left him, but he still asked.

"I had to give him another dose of memory potion," his younger self rasped. "It seems that the man who took him watched Bae order me to kill Beowulf. Somehow, he didn't realize that the command needed the dagger to give it force; he thought it was all Bae. But of course, when he told Bae what he'd witnessed, it started Bae wondering. Questioning. And if he should learn the truth…"

Rumple nodded. "Yes, I do understand. And you needn't worry; I've no intention of telling him." He took another step down the path, but froze when he saw the point of a serpentine blade leveled at his chest.

"Intent is nothing," his younger self grated. "You won't tell him. I command you not to tell him."

Rumple's eyes widened, but his younger self wasn't done.

"You're going to find some other place to live. You're not going to talk to Bae. You're not going to come within twenty yards of him. If he seeks you out, you just tell him that this is for the best and that it's your idea. You send him home to me. Don't do anything to let him think otherwise, not a word. Not a gesture. No note, no action…" His eyes narrowed, "and if you should find any other loophole in this command," he smiled nastily, "you don't exploit it. Do you understand me, dearie?"

Rumple nodded miserably.

"Good. And let's just keep one other thing in mind. One day," he smiled, "I'm gonna be you. At least," he giggled, "assuming I live long enough. So, I think it's fair to say that you've got a vested interest in keeping me alive to reach that point. Because if anything happens to me now, I don't believe you'll be around to see it. But," the point of the dagger was suddenly against the elder Rumple's tunic, "that vested interest?" His smile took on a feral cast and he nearly hissed the words, "not mutual! You have anything further to do with my boy?" He giggled. "Well when I was at the front, they used to tell us that somewhere out there, was an arrow with our name on it. In your case," he giggled again, "it's a blade. I wonder if killing two Dark Ones might just give me twice the power."

Rumple's throat went dry, but he somehow managed to keep his voice level when he answered, "It won't."

"Perhaps not," his younger self rejoined, "but at least I'll be rid of you."

"What… What's brought this on?" Rumple asked, keeping his voice soft and raising his hands in a placating gesture. "Why are you doing this?"

"Why? Because if I hadn't listened to you, Bae would've been safe at home! You told me he'd be safe and like a fool I listened to you! Against my better judgment! You said you were here to save him, but you nearly got him killed! Or was that your plan all along?" He asked slowly.

"What?"

"Yes," his younger self snarled. "I see it now. He giggled as his voice slid into a sing-song. "You wanted to be the hero. You wanted to play rescuer. Why else would you have headed into town just after he left?" All playfulness disappeared, as his younger self growled, "You set that whole business up so you could come flying in to save him! You think I didn't see you skulking about in that thicket? You knew where he was going to be!"

Rumple shook his head desperately. "Morraine found me in the square. She pointed me in the right direction—"

"I don't care! You stay away from me and my boy or…" He withdrew the dagger point from his elder self's chest, but brandished it threateningly. "Go!"

Rumple nodded miserably. Shoulders slumping, he took several steps backwards, before he turned and started walking toward the village.

He'd been trying to make Bae's life easier. If Bae didn't feel as though he was a virtual prisoner, he wouldn't go looking for a way out. If his younger self could just… relax a bit more, trust that Bae would be safe, loosen the strictures…

Well, there was a fine chance of that happening now! However, as Rumple made his way toward the tavern, where he supposed he'd pass tonight, he realized that he'd also learned something significant today. When his younger self had commanded him with the dagger on him just now, he'd felt the compulsion, but it had been somehow hollow. It had taken hold, yes, but with nothing like the usual force that frog-marched him along with no hope of resistance. He hadn't wanted to test it in the moment; the dagger might not be able to command him, but it was still a magical artifact and all-but-certainly capable of killing him. Besides, it was better to let his younger self believe that he had the upper hand, at least, for now.

But tomorrow, he was going to test his theory. Oh, he wasn't going to talk to Bae, not now. He couldn't risk Bae innocently mentioning such a conversation to his younger self. No, better to keep an eye on him from a distance. Particularly since all he needed to do to confirm his suspicions was approach within twenty yards of his boy.

Unconsciously, he quickened his pace when the cries of the market vendors reached his ears.

The next weeks were miserable ones for Rumple. He brushed off curious inquiries from those villagers he'd come to know far better having met them again this second time around, stating only that his nephew needed his space.

Talorc had shrugged and added a fifth hand pie to the four Rumple had requested.

Aulina had shaken her head a bit sadly. "I suppose it's understandable," she'd murmured. "You're staying at the tavern, then?"

"For now," Rumple had nodded.

"Well, if the carousing keeps you awake, I've room in my home to curtain off a section. I'd be glad of a few coppers a day and my children are old enough to mind their manners and keep quiet when told to."

He didn't think she had anything more in mind than a business arrangement, but he didn't take the deal either. Friendships such as these were well enough when kept casual, but the more time he spent in the proximity of others, the sooner they'd realize the kind of man he truly was. Being on his best behavior was wearying, especially now that he was away from, perhaps, the only person who made him appear good in comparison. Besides, he knew he wasn't going to spend the rest of his life in this place and it struck him that it might be unfair to give anyone reason to believe otherwise. So, he'd merely smiled, told her that it was an unexpected offer and he'd certainly think it over, though if another prospect were to offer to take her up on it, he'd scarcely fault her.

To which she'd sniffed, "Because, of course, strangers simply stream into Pen Marmor every day seeking long-term lodgings." A sigh. "I'm that grateful your nephew's got us some respite from taxation for now, but in three years' time, I'll need something set aside to pay them again and the soil's not been let fallow for this half-tenyear. I'll let one half rest next spring and hope the littles and me can survive on what we reap from the half I plant, but a bit of coin would go a long way toward making that hope real."

Again, Rumple had smiled and said he quite understood and would think the matter through. He doubted very much he'd still be here come spring. But if he could learn in advance which half of her field she meant to till, well, perhaps he could arrange for her to plow up a small pouch of silver when she did.

Meanwhile, he stayed at the tavern. There, he had a room that looked out on the common. Aulina's hut was further back, along the road that skirted the vineyards and orchards, or at least, what remained of them after years of war and the tithes and taxes to pay for it.

He might have been barred from talking to his boy, but meant to watch over him as much as he could.

But as days stretched into weeks, although he did see Morraine out his window, and he noted she often had his younger self's sheep together with her own family's, he never once saw Bae with her.

Still, he didn't give up hope.

And then, one night, he mounted the stairs to the tavern's second story where his room was located. The hour was late; he'd lost track of time, staring into the dancing flames that warmed the common room. And yes, very well, he'd had a bit more strong ale than he normally would have, but with the turn his fortunes had recently taken, he doubted any would blame him.

It was near midnight when he'd finally gone upstairs. Dark Ones usually didn't sleep, but enough alcohol could make an exception to that rule. He didn't recall getting undressed or getting into bed, but he did recall opening his eyes some time later, to the sunlight stabbing his eyes, a wiry hand clamped around his throat, and a harsh voice grating in his ear, "What have you done with him?"

Rumpelstiltskin had known, of course, that Bae hated being confined at home; known it before his elder self had prevailed on him to let the boy go off with Morraine. That had proved to be a mistake in more ways than one. Not only had Bae nearly been killed less than three hours later, but that small taste of freedom had only served to let his boy resent being confined to the house all the more. And under the circ*mstances, Rumple didn't see how he could let Bae go outside where any number of enemies might be ready to pounce on him. To Rumple's mind, there were already too many people about who knew that he could be controlled with his dagger, but there were far more who—like that misguided fool of a soldier—might try to control him with his son. He meant to safeguard both. The dagger didn't chafe at its confinement, but Bae did.

He understood, of course. And he'd tried to make the hut an abode so pleasant that Bae would have no desire to leave it, but to no avail. The boy wanted freedom. Rumple had tried showering him with gifts, ranging from the practical to the extravagant. He'd offered Bae a castle and been rebuffed. Still, he'd hoped that in time, his son would accept the situation and realize that, as always, his papa only had his best interests at heart.

But now he'd come back after a night of bargaining and haggling, ready to present Bae with a crown, only to find his son gone! There were no signs of a struggle or of forced entry; wherever Bae was, he'd gone of his own free will. With someone he trusted. Someone who also claimed to have his best interests at heart.

Rumple knew that if their positions had been reversed, he would have waited for a time when the boy was alone to spirit him away. True, he'd taken steps to prevent that, but it seemed as though despite his best efforts, his elder self had found a loophole after all.

Bae wasn't at the tavern. Perhaps, Rumple allowed, he'd been mistaken and his elder self had nothing to do with the boy's disappearance. Or perhaps, that was exactly what his elder self wanted him to think. He was going in circles; he knew what he'd do in such circ*mstances and how he'd behave to throw off any suspicions, but then again, he'd be acting the same way if he were innocent. Perhaps, a direct approach was best.

He seized his elder self by the throat, shook him awake, and snarled in a voice not meant to carry beyond the bedchamber's thin walls, "What have you done with him?"

The elder Rumple really didn't recall ever having been this paranoid. Then again, after he'd lost Bae, he'd slowly relearned patience and self-control. If he hadn't, he'd never have had the necessary focus to find a means of getting him back.

More to the immediate point, if he hadn't, he might have forgotten himself far enough now to cause his younger self some permanent damage—which would only hurt himself in the end. And the beginning. And if he continued to think along those lines, he'd only give himself a headache on top of everything else. Carefully, firmly, he locked both hands about the wrist of his assailant and pulled the hand it was attached to away from his neck. Well, at least his younger self wasn't using magic to enhance his grip. "Now, then," he said, keeping his tone pleasant, even as he bared his teeth in a smile that was at once both friendly and dangerous, "what's going on… Dearie?"

He should have been taking better note of the days, he realized, once he'd heard his younger self's explanation. Or perhaps, 'accusation' had been the appropriate term. He would have remembered sooner that this was bound to happen. "Our father," he groaned.

"What?" His younger self's eyes widened. "What does he want with Bae?"

"He's assembling a crew of… playmates," the elder Rumple explained. "It seems Neverland can be a lonely place when its sole permanent residents are himself and his shadow."

His younger self bit back an oath. "All right. I don't suppose you've a magic bean hidden about you, so how else am I supposed to get there?"

"No need," the elder Rumple replied. "They aren't there, yet. You'll want to seek out the village of Hamelin, four leagues to the northwest. He's a bit closer than that, if memory serves. In the woods that surround it." He took a breath. "There's more."

"Of course there is," his younger self snapped. "Well, what is it?"

"Trust Bae."

His younger self's eyes narrowed. "As I told him yesterday, I do trust him. It's everyone else I can't trust. Including you!" His coat flared about him as a puff of dark smoke sprouted from his hand.

"No, wai—!" the elder Rumple started to say, but his double had already vanished in a cloud of sulfur. His eyes wide with horror, he whispered to the empty room, "Trust he'll go back with you if you ask him!" It was happening again. It was all going wrong. He had to get there first and try to fix things!

A moment later, he was gone and a second cloud of sulfur smoke hung in the bedchamber, beginning to dissipate.

Chapter 34: Chapter Thirty-Four

Notes:

A/N: This chapter references S1E19 (The Return) and S3E4 (Nasty Habits).

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Four

Rumple had to break off his narrative then, as a coughing fit seized him. Wide-eyed, Emma handed him a tissue and, after he took it, gripped his free hand. "Easy," she said. "I thought that would've stopped by now."

He shook his head. "Water, he managed to gasp, and it wasn't until she twisted her hand free to fill the disposable cup from the sink behind his bed that he realized he'd been squeezing it. A moment later, the cup was in his hand, and he gulped its contents greedily. "It's not the consumption," he reassured her. "I believe it's simply the effect of too much talking."

"Oh." Emma eyed the small paper cup. "Should I get you a refill?"

He handed it back to her with a grateful nod. "Perhaps, it would be better if we were to pick this up tomorrow," he suggested.

"Sure." She reached over and adjusted his blanket, smiling a bit self-consciously, when she realized that he was staring at her as she did so. "Sorry," she said at once. "I-I thought it was uneven."

"No need for apologies," he murmured. "It was." But a year ago, would she have noticed or cared? She was still watching him, a puzzled frown on her face, as though she wasn't quite certain whether she should have made the gesture. He gave her a smile he hoped was reassuring. "Have a good night, Emma."

She smiled back, still a bit worriedly. "You too."

And then, she was gone, leaving him alone with his memories. And though he turned on the television and tried to lose himself in some inane situation comedy, his mind took him back to the Enchanted Forest once more…

He knew he probably wouldn't find Pan or Bae until nightfall, but he still hoped he might get lucky. He would have given nearly anything to have had one of Bae's possessions in his grasp and the ingredients to brew a locator spell right now. Hamelin wasn't far away, and the town itself wasn't large, but it was surrounded by forest on all sides and while the Duke's highways were well-maintained, the rest of the wood was dense and dark at the best of times. The town preferred it that way; they charged a toll to all who sought to enter or leave and limiting the ways in and out ensured that all travelers would have to pass through one of the four checkpoints. It was a good system for what it was, but it also meant that Pan didn't have to search very hard to find a spot he could be sure wouldn't be disturbed by passing merchant caravans or noble coaches. If he kept out of sight of the main roads, he could be anywhere.

Rumple frowned. His younger self was going to bungle this again, unless Rumple found him first. And how—the dagger. His younger self wouldn't leave the blade behind, not at this point in time. He was carrying it. And if he was carrying it, then all Rumple had to do was follow its song and stay out of sight.

A thought brought him to the woods about Hamelin and he listened carefully. The dagger was close-by but not here. Memory flooded in on him. He hadn't come here to explore these woods straight away last time. No, he'd tracked Bae to Hamelin and, once convinced that the villagers hadn't had anything to do with his boy's disappearance, he'd sat on a rooftop waiting. And when night fell and more boys slipped out of their homes, he'd followed them. Well. Rumple meant to keep up with his searching. And if it proved futile, then so long as his younger self followed the boys, he could follow his younger self.

The hours flew by. The sun climbed steadily from east to west. The dim light that filtered in through the dense foliage faded in the lengthening shadows. Soon, he told himself, straining his mind to pick up the direction in which the dagger's song would point. And then his eyes widened and he nearly doubled over when another song reached his ears as well. His younger self didn't yet know its meaning, but he would before the night was over. Once again, he heard his father's mocking voice in his mind.

The only thing magic about this pipe is that only certain boys can hear it... boys who feel unloved, boys who feel lost. I guess that's why you can hear it, Rumple. Isn't it?

He had to stay focused. It didn't matter why he could hear the song; it mattered that he could. Because if he could hear it, then he could find Bae. And this time…

…This time was going to go just as badly as it had the first time, wasn't it? Since it was still that first time, unless—

He was going to follow that tune, yes. But not because it would lead him to Bae. Because it would also lead him to his younger self. And Rumple had to talk to him before he made the second biggest mistake of his life.

Otherwise, in less than three weeks, he'd make the biggest.

Meanwhile, the younger Rumple was already in the woods, trailing the music. He didn't trust his future self, not entirely. He didn't know for certain if the elder Rumple was manipulating him; he only knew that if he'd been playing some other game, he wouldn't confide in his pawns either. Perhaps, he thought, since he'd used the dagger to order his elder self away from Bae, his elder self had employed the piper to spirit his boy away. Perhaps his elder self was hoping that the younger would exact retribution on the piper and meanwhile, he meant to…

No, the younger Rumple realized. His elder self still shouldn't be able to approach Bae. Not with that command he'd issued. Unless the dagger hadn't worked on him. Somewhere, probably in his elder self's possession, there was another dagger with his name on it. What if his own dagger only affected him, and his elder self was pretending otherwise? If that were the case… If that were the case, then Bae wasn't safe. He had to find the Piper and make certain his elder self didn't interfere!

He inclined his ear toward the tune and tried to gauge how far off it must be. Then he willed himself there, as a precaution directing his magic to ensure he'd arrive at his destination undetected. Yes, now he could hear boyish cries of laughter close by and smell smoke from a campfire a bit to his left. He drew nearer and saw a dozen or more figures laughing, dancing, and tumbling around the fire, while the pipes played on. "Bae!" he cried out. The youths ignored him. At least, he assumed they were youths; they were masked and many wore animal furs, so he couldn't see their faces, but grown men didn't cavort so unless they were players or acrobats, and the dancing lacked the skill that such professionals ought to have.

He grabbed for one of the dancers, pulling him out of the circle. "Bae!" Not Bae; the eyes were green and the arm was gripping had a bit more muscle on it than his boy. And he was an inch or two taller, besides. He released the youth. "Bae!" he cried again.

He turned frantically toward the source of the music, desperation overriding reason as he tore off the hood of the piper's pied cloak. "Where's my son, Piper?"

And then he looked full into the face he'd only caught a fleeting glimpse of once, years before, when the Shadow had carried him out of Neverland. A face he'd never forgotten. A face that hadn't aged a day in decades.

His father gave him a co*cky grin. "Is that what they're calling me?" he laughed. "We both know who I really am. Been a long time, laddie. Glad you could make the show."

The elder Rumple groaned inwardly when the piping stopped. He knew what that had to mean: his younger self had already discovered their father. Maybe his warning had been enough after all. Maybe his younger self would—

Who was he trying to fool? He knew how this would play out. Still, maybe…

He stole closer to the camp, feeling all the while as though he ought to be teleporting himself back to the tavern. He watched as his younger self turned abruptly away from their father and approached the leaping youths.

And then he stepped on a dry twig.

The sound of its snapping startled him, even though he doubted it could be heard over the crackle of the flames and the shouts of the boys.

But then Pan looked up, looked right at him. For a moment, his father appeared to be startled. Then his face relaxed in a cheerful grin and he got up and started walking toward him, appearing to have forgotten all about the younger Rumple. And Bae.

He thought he'd been prepared for it. His younger self had warned him, after all. But seeing his father's boyish face was still a shock, for all it shouldn't have been.

Pan smirked. "Surprised to see me, Rumple? I don't blame you. I'm a little surprised myself. Look who's all grown up and become the Dark One! Good for you."

He couldn't tell if his father's praise was mocking or sincere; that smirking tone could go either way. But wasn't he long past needing such praise at all? A quick interrogation told him that his younger self had been telling the truth. His father was recruiting. Well, good for him. But he'd taken no youth from Pen Marmor. Except one…

"You're here for my son!" he accused.

And unlike the elder Rumple, his father didn't deny it.

But it would take far more than a magic pipe to steal Bae away! However, when Rumple told his father as much, the youth merely grinned again.

"The only thing magic about this pipe," he said, "is that only certain boys can hear it. Boys who feel unloved. Boys who feel lost. I guess that's why you can hear it, Rumple. Isn't it?"

He was getting to him. Getting under his skin. "Don't pretend to know me," he snapped. "You don't. Not anymore!"

"Oh, I think I do," his father retorted. "Beneath all that power, you're nothing more than an unloved, lonely, lost boy." He was smiling again, as though a new inspiration had struck him. "Hey," he went on, "I like the sound of that. That's what I'll call my new group of friends: the Lost Boys. It has a nice ring, don't you think?"

Don't let him bait you, Rumple told himself furiously. He wants to get a reaction. He wants… He wants Bae. "You can call them whatever you like," he gritted. "Baelfire will not be part of it."

"Oh, he's already a part of it," Pan chortled. "The question is, What are you willing to do to get him back?"

He wasn't a lost little boy. Not anymore! And he didn't have to stand here and be mocked. He didn't have to plead. Not with his power! Was he or was he not the Dark One? "I'm going to make you regret ever asking that question."

Pan didn't even flinch. "Oh," he replied. "I understand you're upset. Most parents' worst fear is that their child will be taken away from them. But that's not yours, is it, Rumple?" he asked, his voice intent. "No. You're not afraid Baelfire will be taken from you. You're afraid he'll leave. After all, being abandoned is what you're good at, isn't it? Everyone you've ever known has left, haven't they? Like Bae's mother Milah. Not to mention your own father. Why should Baelfire be any different?"

Don't let him bait you, Rumple pleaded with himself, even as he heard his voice replying, "You're wrong." But was he? Bae hadn't been happy with him, not lately. He'd been crying out for freedom and here was Pan offering it in spades! His elder self had tried to warn him. He should have listened. Or let him take Bae—at least then he'd be certain of being reunited with him in future. At least, he thought he'd be certain, since he was going to become his elder self, wasn't he? His mind was whirling, his thoughts were spinning, he was going to lose Bae after having fought so hard, given up and taken on so much to keep him and— Pan was speaking again and Rumple pulled his focus away from his inner turmoil to listen.

"…find out, shall we? You ask Baelfire if he wants to come to Neverland with me or stay here with you. If he wants to stay, I'll leave and never return. Deal?"

"I don't have to make any deals with you," he snapped, already feeling the pull of temptation. Normally, he probably would have. It was a sure bet. Almost. Bae was certain to want to return home with him. He was nearly positive of that. And under most circ*mstance, he didn't turn down deals. But this one? There was a catch. There always was with his father. Always had been.

His father was smiling again, that same, open, friendly smile; the one that almost didn't let you see how sharp the teeth behind it were. "But why wouldn't you?" he asked. "If you're so sure he'll stay."

This was another one of his father's games. His father had never won a game he hadn't cheated at and Rumple rather suspected that perpetual youth hadn't changed that. The trouble was, his father always cheated. But he didn't always get away with it. And sometimes, the only way to cheat a cheater… was to cheat in turn.

One thing was certain: he was leaving this clearing with Bae, no matter what.

His father was still smiling but his eyes were now looking past him. Rumple turned to see their focus and beheld his older self's startled visage. The two of them were working together, he realized furiously. Well, they weren't about to take his son! He stormed over to the campfire. One of those masked boys was Bae and it only took him a moment to recognize him.

"Bae," he said. "Baelfire, all you all right?"

He certainly looked it. Apart from the belligerence of his stance and the annoyance of his expression. "I'm fine," he snapped. "What do you want?"

He wanted to embrace his son, apologize, and beg him to return. He was ready to throw himself at his son's feet and promise that things would be better. But not in front of Pan. Not in front of the elder self who seemed so much more confident and self-assured and would be certain to turn away from him with the same contempt Milah had all those years ago. After all, he'd hated himself when he'd been a weak, cringing creature of a man. Surely his elder self felt the same. "I know you think I don't care about you, son," he said thickly. "But I do. And I'm here to prove it."

"How?" Bae demanded.

He heard Pan in the background egging him on, but Rumple knew he had nothing to prove. Not to his father, not to his self. All he had to do was save his son. He grabbed hold of Bae.

"Papa!" Bae exclaimed. "What are you doing?"

He smiled. "I'm protecting you," he said, feeling oddly calm. An instant later, they were out of the clearing and back in Pen Marmor.

Bae broke free from him and took a furious step back. "Don't touch me!" he cried out. "Get away!"

"There seems to be a lot of that going around," Regina remarked, when Robin rubbed absently at his arm.

The archer smiled apologetically, as he reached for his glass with the hand that had been doing the rubbing. "It does smart a bit," he admitted. "But having lived through a measles outbreak when I was a lad, I know firsthand the devastation such a plague can wreak on a community. A jab of a needle and a day or two of mild discomfort is a small price to pay to avoid it." He took a sip of cider, set the glass down and rubbed his arm again. "All the same," he added, "it's a relief to be able to do this. Roland's turn is tomorrow and he's nervous enough that I'd rather not let him see the extent of this mild discomfort."

Regina smiled, but her eyes were troubled. "Maybe he should," she suggested. "Otherwise, he might feel like it's childish to be inconvenienced by it."

"He is a child," Robin protested. "He won't even be six until midsummer."

"A child in a company of adults, with a father he wants to impress," Regina pointed out. "Sometimes, maybe a parent's job is letting them know that they aren't nearly as grown-up as they're trying to act and that's okay." She sighed. "Honestly, sometimes I wish my mother had told me something like that a time or two when I was growing up, though in her case, I'll admit it was a futile wish to make. But you're…" You're a much better father than Cora was a mother and anyone who ever had occasion to meet you both can tell that. But she wasn't ready to share quite that much. "You're not her," she said, with an uncharacteristically weak smile.

Robin shook his head. "While our paths never crossed, I'm aware of her reputation," he said. "It strikes me that a woman that forceful would have set standards nearly impossible to live up to. And you're right," he murmured. "I don't want to do that with Roland. If he's still awake tonight when I return to camp, I'll tell him I'm not quite the stoic I've been pretending to be. Otherwise, it'll keep until breakfast." He sighed. "I hope he won't think too poorly of me for—"

"Being human?" Regina smiled. "I rather doubt that." She raised her own glass of cider as Robin chuckled.

The elder Rumple watched as father and son vanished in a puff of smoke and felt his heart lurch. He knew the aftermath that stunt would bring, knew it would only drive the wedge between them deeper, knew his father had engineered the whole thing, though he still wasn't entirely sure why. Dimly, he saw Pan's smirk and registered that his father was approaching, but that was an encounter he had no intention of subjecting himself to. He was already miserable enough without having that conversation.

Instead, he took himself back to the room at the tavern.

Downstairs in the common room, the crowd was getting rowdy. Someone seemed to have commenced to sing a bawdy song that had been popular even when Rumple had been a boy, waiting outside the taverns while his father had tried to swindle those within. Hearing that melody now, just after having seen his father did nothing for the rising tide of emotion swelling within him. The other customers didn't seem to be enamored of the song either. Or perhaps, they were merely critical of its performer. Jeers and raucous laughter almost-but-not-quite drowned out the singer. The loud banging of wooden tankards slamming down on bar and tables and work boots stomping on a hardwood floor served as a counterpoint. And with all that noise, Rumple realized, any noise he might make up here would be virtually undetectable.

Deliberately, he picked up the tin washbasin from its shelf and, holding it in both hands, swung it into the looking glass with a furious cry. The basin survived unscathed. The glass, however now sported a veritable spider's web of cracks. He heaved the basin again and several shards fell to the floor. Again and again he swung, until only the shallow wooden tray that had backed the glass remained.

Not satisfied, he caught up the small footstool and heaved it into the wall. After the third impact, the seat cracked in two and he was left holding one leg in each hand. He tossed them aside and flung himself down on the lumpy rag-stuffed mattress and howled his frustration.

He wasn't sure how long he lay there, but when he lifted his head, the sun hadn't yet risen, though the sky was starting to lighten. It was quiet below. And, evidently, he realized, the rooms on either side of his were unoccupied. Either that, or he'd so thoroughly intimidated their dwellers that nobody had sought out the tavern-keeper to complain about the noise earlier.

He took a breath. He had to make another attempt to head off what he knew was coming. Maybe it was important to the future, but if that future was meant to come about, then it would find another way.

He did his best to ignore the voice telling him that the future rather liked the way it had already found and was going to keep steering right on down that road. There had to be some way to stave it off!

He waved his hand once and the destruction he'd wrought upon the room reversed itself, restoring the chamber to its previous state. Then he quietly eased the door open and made his way down the stairs.

He'd paid up front and in full for the week. The burly guardsman the tavern employed to deal with rowdy customers and prevent lodgers from skulking off without settling their bills waved him on with a quick smile. Rumple returned it automatically, but his thoughts were elsewhere. He was already trying to figure out what he was going to tell his younger self.

Well, it was nearly a half-hour's walk back to the house and after the magic he'd been using in the last day, he wasn't about to teleport. The walk would do him good and he could formulate his arguments on the way.

When he'd departed the inn, he'd had every intention of warning his younger self about exactly what was going to transpire less than two weeks from now. Ten minutes on the road and he was seeing things a bit differently.

He thought back to those last days before Bae had left, willing himself to think past that one act of cowardice that had parted the two of them for over two centuries. Bae hadn't wanted to leave him, not then. He'd been trying to cure him.

"You're different now," he heard Bae's voice echo in his mind. "You see it, don't you? You hurt people all the time."

He'd rationalized it then. He'd never been able to protect himself or his loved ones before, not really. Now that he had the power to do so, he was going to, and woe betide anyone who tried to harm them. Whether they meant to or not. Bae hadn't accepted that. He'd been sure that they'd both be better off without his power. And Rumple, convinced that there was no way to do so that wouldn't involve his death, had given the lad leave to try. He'd never expected Bae to find one. Never expected Bae to acquire that bean. If he had…

If I had, I would have kept Bae locked in the house before I'd have given him the chance to go running to the fairies. I'd have told him it was for his protection and after that encounter with Beowulf's man, I might even have believed it. But it wouldn't be for his protection nearly as much as it would be for mine.

Would that have been so terrible? The hut was small, yes, but a castle wouldn't be. If Bae could have the run of a castle, his confinement wouldn't chafe nearly as much.

But it would chafe. The man I was then wouldn't see that. The man I am now... The man he was now had spent too much time in captivity to fool himself that the size of the cell would matter in any way that meant anything. Even when Zelena hadn't kept him in that cage, knowing that she held his dagger and no matter how far away he got, one tug on his tether and he'd be kneeling at her feet had eaten away at him day by day and hour by hour. He'd thought of freedom constantly, always alert for the chance that he might be able to somehow wrest himself loose of her.

Bae loved him. But how long would that love last if he were imprisoned, even if the prison was a palace?

A new scenario occurred to him. Bae, struggling to find some way out, perhaps out of desperation trying to get his hands on the dagger to force his father to let him go free. Perhaps not giving back the dagger, out of fear that the moment he did, he'd be shut up again. Bae might not remember having commanded him before. And he might not do it again. But if someone else were to get the dagger from Bae, someone who knew what it could do…

And if Bae tried to get the dagger and I stopped him? Or if he did manage to get it and I got it back? When I stopped the Ogre War, I wasn't yet as… corrupted by power as I'd become by this point. If I came to see Bae as a threat… What would I do? How far would I go? If I thought he was trying to take my power, would I hurt him?

He didn't like the places his imagination was going to. He tried to focus on events as they'd actually occurred, not as they could have. But in his mind's eye, he saw himself ripping out Bae's heart, using it to force his son to obey, keep him from ever leaving…

Crush it? I don't want to believe I'd ever sink that low, but if I truly believed that he was threatening my power, is it possible that I could?

Never, he told himself firmly. It would never come to that. But in his heart of hearts, he wasn't anywhere near as certain. The more he used his power, the Darker his heart would grow and the further he'd get from the good man he'd once been. Could he truthfully say he'd never reach a point where he'd turn on his boy?

If he couldn't, then he needed to be very careful about what he told his younger self now. Because if there was the slightest possibility that his worst fear might be justified, then Bae had to get that bean. For both their sakes.

His younger self was waiting on a new chair just outside the hut's door. "I was wondering whether you'd be able to show your face here," he snapped by way of greeting. "But I suppose that clears that up."

For a moment, Rumple wasn't sure what his younger self meant, but then he realized. Bae was inside the house. Less than twenty yards away. He shrugged. "You made it clear you didn't want me about. I thought it better not to press the issue."

"So the dagger doesn't control you," he said, taking out the blade.

Rumple sighed. "You've been struggling with self-control since you took a wild stab in the night, and at the moment, you've yet to achieve it, dearie," he drawled, mentally preparing to teleport if it seemed like his younger self might want to attempt another stab.

His younger self's lip curled back, baring yellowed, uneven teeth. "You just keep away from me and Bae!" he snapped. "I know what I saw tonight!"

"And what was that?" Rumple asked, fighting down his irritation and using a faint sneer to mask it. Here he was trying to warn him about what the future likely held, and this… imbecile… still thought he was out to spirit Bae away. If his younger self would only listen half a moment, he'd see that the last thing the elder Rumple wanted to do was separate the two of them!

"Our father wasn't acting alone, was he? The two of you were colluding to get my boy away from me!"

The elder Rumple couldn't quite suppress a startled laugh. "I beg your pardon?"

"Oh, don't think you can pull the golden straw over my eyes. This is your last warning. You leave us alone or…" A ball of fire appeared in the palm of his hand. "I don't know if the dagger can kill you, but I think I know what sort of spells might make you wish it would."

Rumple swallowed. And then he felt his jaw set, as he straightened his shoulders and looked at the flaming globe. With a thought, a jet of water shot forth from his fingertip, snuffing out the fireball with a hiss. "And now," he said quietly, "this is my last warning to you. Be very careful what deals you make, dearie. And be even more careful you keep them. Because the night you break your first will be the night your worst fears will be realized."

He was actually rather proud of his phrasing. He'd worked it out on the way. It was the most explicit warning he thought he could provide that wouldn't make Bae more a prisoner than he already was. By no means was he looking forward to what came next. And he did hope that his younger self would understand when he heard Bae's desperate cry—the same cry he'd heard in quiet moments of introspection, echoing down through the years, while he'd struggled to perfect the Dark Curse.

You coward! You promised! Don't break our deal!

If his younger self heeded that warning…

No Dark Curse. No Evil Queen, no Snow White and Prince Charming, no Emma, no Henry, no—

Well, actually, come to think of it, Belle probably would be born in some two hundred years. And if his younger self went through the portal with Bae, Rumple imagined that he would likely still be here when she was. At the right time, perhaps they could…

If his younger self went through the portal with Bae.

Right now, however, that younger self was still glowering at him. "I don't break deals, dearie. And thanks to this," he brandished the dagger anew, "I don't have to be afraid of anything."

"Almost anything," Rumple replied sadly.

"Get off my land. And stay away from Bae!"

Rumple swallowed hard, but he nodded and started back toward the tavern. He'd done as much as he felt comfortable doing and he hoped it might be enough. One way or another, though, Bae needed to be safe. And Rumple no longer believed that the lad could be if he were to remain with his younger self in this realm. The Darkness was seeping in and his younger self wasn't even trying to control it. In the original timeline, it had taken Bae's leaving to shock him back to some semblance of self-discipline. If his younger self didn't heed the warning Rumple had just delivered, he'd have to hope that history would play out again as it had then.

Because this time, Bae wasn't going to pass through that portal alone. If the younger Rumple didn't accompany him…

Then the elder one would!

Chapter 35: Chapter Thirty-Five

Notes:

A/N: References and dialogue from S1E19: The Return.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Five

"Your color's a bit better today, I think," Belle said, smiling.

Rumple finished his porridge—a food so far removed from the gruel he'd endured in captivity that he wondered that they were both made from oats—and set down the bowl on the table, then extended his hand to her. "There's a terrace off the solarium," he said. "Dr. Whale's been encouraging me to avail myself of it." He frowned. "I don't suppose you might find something a bit more suitable for me to wear?"

Belle hesitated. "I-I could do that," she said slowly. "I mean, I can't go into your house, I don't think; not if you've a protection spell about it, only…"

"You've been able to get inside the shop?" he asked. At her nod, he smiled. "I think you'll find a spare suit of clothes in the back room. I generally kept one there for emergencies." Antiques were often quite dusty, he reflected. And lanolin stained.

Belle smiled. "Yes, I think I've seen it hanging there, now you mention it." Her smile fell away then, as she went on, "but do you think it'll still look… right?"

For a moment, Rumple didn't understand her. Then, he felt his face grow warm as he realized that, thin as he was, he'd probably look a perfect scarecrow in it now. "Well," he murmured after a moment's pause, "I'm sure there must be something hanging there a bit more dignified than a cotton gown and a bathrobe."

Belle nodded, noting that Rumple hadn't mentioned using magic to alter the suit to fit properly. "I'll see what I can find," she said. "Uh… I guess it probably won't be your usual style."

Rumple snorted. "You might ask Regina about the garments I was wearing on my return here. For the last two years and then some, that was my usual style. I'm quite certain that whatever you bring will do quite well."

Belle nodded. "All right, then," she said. "I'll head to the shop after I leave here. And when I come back, perhaps we could go out on that terrace together."

"I must confess, I was hoping you'd suggest that," Rumple said, and though his expression was serious, there was more than a hint of a smile in his voice.

Regina found him alone in the solarium when she and Henry stopped by a bit later. "No offense, Rumple," she said tartly, after he'd explained that he was waiting for Belle to return with more suitable attire "but I've seen the clothes you keep back there. Not only are they not your style; I don't actually think they're anybody's."

"Yes, well, they were created by the curse," Rumple murmured. "And it would seem that the curse has a bit of a sense of humor."

"It must, if it provided bellbottoms and zoot suits," Regina deadpanned. "I may have recently made the switch to Light magic, but even so, I can appreciate the leverage potential obtainable from a single photograph."

"Mom…" Henry cautioned, and Regina sighed with mock disappointment.

"I suppose I'll forgo the temptation," she said. "Meanwhile…" A frown creased her face for a moment. There was a flash of light and several neatly-folded garments appeared on the chair beside her. "I know elastic isn't generally your style either," she said, shaking out a pair of dark slacks, "but under the circ*mstances…"

Rumple's eyebrows lifted. "Well, they're certainly a sight better than the scrubs I was offered earlier," he said, pleasantly surprised. And while a cable-knit sweater wasn't at all like the suit jackets and ties he'd been wont to wear both here and in the early twentieth century, it would, at least, grant him a measure more dignity than the clothing Regina had referenced previously.

"I thought you might see it that way," Regina nodded. "Well. I'll leave Henry with you while I have a chat with Dr. Whale."

"You're not ill, I trust?" Rumple asked.

Regina shook her head. "No, just curious as to the progress of the vaccination initiative. I shouldn't be too long." For a moment, Rumple thought that she was going to say something else, but then she seemed to catch herself, and rose from her chair with a quick smile.

Henry scooted closer, his phone already out of his pocket, and she smiled to see Rumple lean over to look at the screen, his expression one of unfeigned interest. She still wanted to know what had become of her sister. Truthfully, she rather thought she did know, but she still wanted confirmation. However, instinct told her that now wasn't the right time. Especially not when she'd just done him a favor. With anyone else, such an action might predispose the recipient to tell her what she wanted to know. With Rumple, he'd almost certainly see it as contriving to have him owe her a favor. And maybe it was, in a way. But that wasn't the main reason she'd done it, not this time.

In any event, she didn't need her questions answered today. Down the road, it would be another story.

She glanced back once over her shoulder as she made her way out of the solarium. Neither Henry nor Rumple looked up. She shook her head tolerantly. Then she went off to look for Dr. Whale.

Rumple realized that Henry had been waiting for him to make his move for well over five minutes. The lad had found an old Scrabble game on the shelf below the coffee table and they'd been trying the physical game for the last half hour or so. He mumbled an apology and placed his word, realizing too late that he'd left two triple letter squares wide open. Henry used both, and while one was wasted on a vowel, the other was under a Q.

"You okay?" Henry asked. "I mean, if you're tired, we don't have to finish."

"I'm not," Rumple assured him. "Forgive me. I… suppose my mind's been elsewhere."

Henry pushed the board away slightly. "We can always go back to playing the computer game," he said. "It sort of seems more okay to take longer between moves."

Rumple smiled. "It's an option," he allowed. "And I am sorry. I…" He hesitated. "You know, Henry, when I was back in the land of my birth, there was so much I wanted to change, so much I thought I could set right. But each time I thought about it, I also realized how many things only came to pass because I was trying to reach Bae. Without that incentive," he said, his eyes softening a bit, "events would have transpired rather… differently."

"You mean, there wouldn't have been a curse. O-or Storybrooke," Henry supplied.

Rumple nodded. "And there were many… lives that would have gone rather differently, had I not interfered in them. All so I could craft that curse." A faint smile curved his lips. "There was a moment, though, when I thought I really could have it all. That is to say, if I could convince my younger self, the… me from that earlier time not to make the mistake I knew I'd made, well then, there'd still be a way for subsequent events to mostly transpire as I knew they had. Well," he said softly, "most of those events, anyway…"

Rumple kept turning the pieces over in his head, but no matter how he tried to arrange them, the picture still came out the same. Bae wasn't happy in the village and he no longer felt safe. And Rumple was painfully aware that his son might truly not be, not with his younger self growing more irrational, seemingly by the day.

Had he been this volatile back then, back now? Or was his very presence here making his younger self worse? He was ready to keep away, even to leave the village for now, if it would help matters, but he didn't think it would.

"You're quiet," Talorc noted, punching down the dough.

Rumple made a noncommittal sound.

"Not that you're usually one to act a chatterbox," the vendor added gruffly. "But if there's something on your mind, I guess I've had enough coin from you these last months to hear you out."

A kind offer, Rumple reflected, but not one he was about to take up. And then, he saw another figure approaching.

Talorc saw her too. "Ah. And here comes someone even less talkative than you are. Hello, Honora," he greeted the newcomer. "I think you must know my granddaughter," he added, turning back to Rumple. "She's recently started working for your nephew, I believe. Not sure how much truck I take with the stories that are spreading but one thing I know for a fact is that he pays her a fair wage. Don't rightly know if my son could feed her on what's left of the farm if she didn't have that income."

Rumple managed a smile, as the girl cheerfully set a pail of soft cheese down on the counter.

Talorc moved over to inspect it. "You tell your mother I'll be by tomorrow to settle up for this," he said.

Honora shook her head, her hands making clear and comprehensible gestures, though her pleasant expression never faltered.

"I'll be by," Talorc repeated. "Gods, girl, I pay all my suppliers; I'm hardly about to make an exception for family."

Still shaking her head and grinning, Honora set a second pail down. Then she turned and hurried away.

"Off to your nephew, I suppose," Talorc rumbled. He tilted his head curiously. "Are you all right, Gilitrutt? You look a bit pale."

Rumple blinked. "Oh, I'm well enough, I suppose," he said. "Tell me, am I to understand that your son is a dairy farmer?"

"Well, it's my daughter-in-law doing most of the dairy farming now," Talorc said. "My Bentham does what he can, but the Ogre War… He's not the man he was when he set out for the front. But," the vendor said decisively, donning a pair of quilted mitts and taking a metal tray out of the brick oven behind him, "at least he returned alive." He smiled wearily at Rumple. "They just need a few minutes to cool," he added, "and then I'll wrap up your four."

"Yes, of course," Rumple said. "And if I wanted to purchase a bit of milk, have they a booth in the square?"

Talorc shook his head. "The renting of the spot, that's an expense they can't meet now. Mostly, they sell to other vendors who know to come by for it; Honora just brings me the cheese as a favor to family or I'd do the same. But if you were to head down the west road and take the second turning southward, five minutes walking that path and you'll find the farm. I shouldn't imagine they'd refuse your money."

Rumple murmured his thanks. He did his best to listen to the pie maker's conversation and nod in the right spots until the pastries had cooled. Then, with another expression of gratitude, he made his way down the road Talorc had indicated. And even though he knew that there was no real need for it, once past the village proper, he quickened his pace to a brisk trot.

Rumple had never spoken much with Bentham, but he knew him by sight. That would have been the case, even had they been living in a large town instead of a small village; half the man's face was a mass of scar tissue and one arm hung like a slab of useless meat. He'd taken an ogre's kick and lived, but the spiked sole of the creature's boot had disfigured his face and the blow had also shattered his collarbone. It had never healed right. It was less clear whether Bentham's mind was as it had been. His speech slurred a bit and he spoke slowly to make himself understood. He'd never been known for quick wits before going to the front and he tended to keep close to his farm now and avoid contact with his neighbors. Still, his wife Solara was, as Talorc had mentioned, quite capable of running things. And hopefully, Rumple reflected, capable of understanding the danger.

He took a breath as the farm gate came into view and made his way up the path.

Solara hailed him from the barn. "Good day to you," she called, hurrying toward him. She frowned. "Is that Rumpelstiltskin?"

Rumple smiled. "It's not the first time I've been mistaken for my nephew, goodwife. I'm called Gilitrutt."

"Master Gilitrutt," Solara nodded, and Rumple could tell that she was committing the name to memory. "My father-in-law speaks well of you, I recollect. And how might I assist you?"

Rumple hesitated for a moment. He didn't know whether today was the day that Honora would overhear something she oughtn't—that was, if she'd ever overheard it at all. But his younger self would believe she had, and he'd do what he thought he had to in order to keep her from revealing it.

He was still debating whether to interfere. He knew that Honora's death would be the final straw that would send Bae to seek out the Rhuel Ghorm. If he prevented that, would Bae remain until it was too late and the younger Rumple cut off all avenues of escape for his boy?

My younger self turns peddlers into snails and steps on them. If Honora isn't his next victim, someone else will be. It's only a matter of time.

He'd really taken things much too far in these days, Rumple reflected. Most of those excesses probably hadn't been necessary. Nearly three centuries later, everyone knew about the dagger and here he was still. Whatever Honora knew or didn't know, whoever she might tell or not tell, the secret was going to get out. He'd lasted this long. And the girl didn't have to die for having been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"Your daughter," he said tightly. "Is there a way that you can get her out of the village for a while?"

Solara frowned. "And why would we want to do that?"

Rumple took another breath. "I presume you've heard the talk about my nephew."

"One of the advantages to living on the outskirts is that we hear less idle gossip," Solara remarked. "And for what I do hear, I tend to discount more than half of it."

"Well," Rumple said seriously, "I pray you'll heed this talk. For your daughter's sake…"

Convincing Solara took time. Time enough for her husband to come out of the house to find out what was keeping her, and for Rumple to deliver his warning again. Finally, though, Bentham spoke.

"Cohr's Aw-oh," he said, and it took Rumple a moment to translate.

"Cotter's Hollow," he repeated slowly. "You've family there?"

"My sister," Solara admitted reluctantly. "I still think this unnecessary. We… the farm hasn't had a profitable year in a long time, and even though the tax relief's welcome, we've had to sell off some of our stock, while the army requisitioned others. I'm told those will be returned to us eventually, but I'm not holding my breath. Honora's wages help a great deal and sending her away might well cost her her position."

"And keeping her where she is may cost her her life," Rumple said quietly. "My nephew…"

"Rumpelstiltskin wouldn't harm a mosquito that was feasting on him," Solara said.

"He would now," Rumple said, even as he felt a rush of warmth wash over him. How… why had he always assumed his fellow villagers believed the worst of him? More and more, he was coming to see that he could have reached out to most of them at any time and they would have clasped his hand in friendship. Could his pariah status truly have been only in his own head (and perhaps, Milah's taunts) all this time?

"Cotter's Hollow," Bentham slurred again, but Rumple understood him better this time. "A short visit." Really, if Rumple focused, it was fairly easy to make sense of his words. Bentham fixed him with his good eye. "You. Tell your nephew this. So if you're wrong, he knows this was your idea. My Honora, she's a good girl. A hard worker. You keep her job for her or you find her a better one."

Rumple smiled. "If she loses her position through my interference, I'll hire her myself for the same wage." His smile faded. "In fact, I think it would probably be a good idea if you all left tonight. A very good idea." At least, he reflected, he knew that his younger self would wait until the morning after he suspected Honora of overhearing about the dagger. He'd catch her at home before she left for work, while Solara was milking and Bentham… Truth be told, he didn't know where Bentham would be. Perhaps, in the barn as well, or in the bedroom—the farm had been built in more prosperous times and the farmhouse was no one-room hovel. At any rate, Rumple recollected, when he had decided to neutralize any threat the girl might have posed, he'd caught her alone. But if his younger self came tomorrow and found her gone, he'd want to know where. And he wouldn't take 'no' for an answer.

"Perhaps, I'm as… wary and suspicious as I'm accusing my nephew of being, but you haven't seen him these last weeks and I have. If he does come here and she's not about, I can't vouch for your safety, should you remain."

"Honora's given no indication that she's witnessed any such unpredictable temperament," Solara protested

"Would she, though?" Rumple asked. "I don't mean to offend, please, but I can't help noticing that in our conversation," he inclined his head toward Solara, "you've spoken far more than your husband has. It's been my experience that people who have difficulties with communication tend to initiate it only when absolutely necessary. And your husband," he nodded toward Bentham, "can get his point across rather more clearly than your daughter."

"We go," Bentham said, more clearly than anything else he'd articulated until now. "Ank u."

Rumple smiled sadly. "You are most welcome."

Solara sighed. "I'll have to ask the neighbors to see to the milking and trust they'll have it done by the time the first customers arrive." She reached for her shawl, hanging on a hook by the door. "I suppose one will be happy to sell it for us for a commission we'd rather not spare, but if we must..." Her voice trailed off and she smiled resignedly. "Perhaps you might help my husband pack a few things?"

Rumple nodded, glad for the opportunity to linger. He wouldn't feel relief until he saw Honora and her family safely gone from Pen Marmor. "I should be happy to."

Solara gave him a curt nod, donned the shawl, and hurried out the door.

Rumple turned to Bentham. "Have you carry bags or should we bundle your things in blankets and bedding?" he asked practically.

The younger Rumpelstiltskin ate his breakfast porridge and tried to ignore the silence of the teen seated across from him. Bae might have thawed somewhat since that night in the forest, and he certainly seemed more relaxed now than he had last night. Rumple shook his head ruefully at the optimism of youth. Bae seemed so certain that there was a way to free him from his power beyond the obvious fatal one. Rumple doubted it. The closest thing he knew of, after talking to the other voices in his head, was some sort of hat that could cleave him from the dagger so it could no longer command him. An intriguing thought; one he'd definitely need to explore one day, but thankfully, the artifact in question wouldn't remove his power, just the thing that could keep it—or, more to the point, him—in check. But something that could separate him from the power? He didn't believe that existed. He didn't mind if Bae tried to find it anyway; it gave the lad something to do besides chafe at his restrictions.

Perhaps, Rumple allowed, he could do something about those. He had an errand to run, one best taken care of privately. But while he was dealing with that bit of business, it would do no harm to let Bae have some fun with his friends. He'd be close by in case of any trouble, and after that business the other day with the peddler, he didn't really expect there to be trouble.

"What would you say to a bit of fresh air, son?" he asked.

Bae perked up at once. "You really mean it, Papa?"

"Well, so long as you're with your friends and not off by yourself, I think it should be fine." He smiled tolerantly. "Let's clear away the dishes; I'll wash, you dry. We can be on the road in half an hour."

Bae's answering smile was even bigger than it had been last night, when the two of them had struck their deal.

The farmhouse was deserted. Rumpelstiltskin looked about half-frantic, half-furious. The little minx had overheard. She was probably off selling his secret to the highest bidder! Or seeking out some hero-type to hunt him down or planning to drug his food tonight, so she could get the dagger off him, or…

He heard a tread behind him and a hearty voice called, "Solara? I'm here to settle for the cheese! Solara?"

He turned to see the open, honest face of the pie vendor from town. Talorc. Talorc… who was Honora's grandfather. "Where," he said slowly, "is she?"

Talorc's eyes widened. "Solara? I have no idea where she might be if not the barn, and I checked there." He frowned. "What are you doing here?"

"Just paying a call," Rumple said, trying to sound calm. "Looking for your granddaughter. Where is she?"

The vendor shook his head. "I've not seen her since yesterday morning." Something about Rumple's expression made him flinch and he swallowed hard and added, "Dark One."

"And she didn't leave you a note?" Rumple asked sarcastically. "Nobody left word with you?"

"No…"

"No reason for such a hasty departure?"

Talorc swallowed again. "What are you asking me?"

Rumple's thoughts whirled and spun. It was just possible that the merchant didn't know anything about this after all. If only there was some way he could be sure!

Actually, Zoso's voice spoke in his head, there is one. His heart. Take that and, if you do it right, it will command him as surely as that dagger can command you.

Rumple blinked. How? he asked that inner voice. Show me.

Zoso did.

"Dark One?" Talorc asked uncertainly. Then he seemed to collect himself. "I-I'll make inquiries in the village," he said, backing away.

Rumple snapped out of his thoughts. "Not… so… fast," he rasped, crossing the distance between them in an instant. "I think you might know where they've gone!"

"No!" Talorc cried. "I swear—"

"Even if they didn't tell you, I bet you've still got an idea. Now you're going to tell me what it is or I'll make you tell me!"

"Please!"

If he did this right, Rumple thought, as he plunged his hand into Talorc's chest, he'd have all the answers he needed in a moment!

He didn't do it right.

Chapter 36: Chapter Thirty-Six

Notes:

A/N: Episode reference: S1E19, The Return. Some dialogue has been tweaked to accommodate the new timeline.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Six

Zoso hadn't explained it properly. Or Rumple had been too nervous, or he'd missed a step, or… or… he didn't even know. He just knew that there shouldn't be this much blood. Or any blood. The heart should have just slid cleanly out in his grasp. Technically, it had. But there shouldn't have been blood or gore or Talorc collapsing at his feet, deadly pale, without even enough time for a choked-off cry before death claimed him. There shouldn't be a growing, darkening red stain on Talorc's shirt, not when Rumple's action hadn't broken bones or skin, or—

Rumple looked at the heart in his hands. His bloody hands. There was a bucket of water in the corner and he plunged his hands into it. The water turned red, but his hands were clean, well not really clean, but the blood was off, only it wasn't really off, was it. Talorc was dead and there was blood on his hands, even if he'd washed it off. And he was still holding onto the heart. Unthinking, he loosed his grip and the organ fell into the bucket. He wasn't certain whether he ought to retrieve it or leave it there. He wasn't certain of anything, besides the demise of the village pie seller.

When word got out about this, the maid and her family would never return, he realized sickly. She'd be out in the world telling—or rather signing what she knew. With his luck, she could read and write! And he'd never find her in time to stifle her now! Angrily, he kicked the corpse. He kicked it a second time and then a third. And then he stopped counting and just kept kicking. Until his boots were bloodied and the corpse was barely recognizable as human, much less as Talorc's. He was still trembling with rage and revulsion. He shouldn't have let himself get this carried away. At least, not this often.

He needed to leave before Bae came looking for him. Bae shouldn't see this, shouldn't see him like this, shouldn't…

He took several deep breaths and fought to compose himself. Only when he was certain that he was in control did he make his way out of the house and back to where he'd left his son. He was still thinking about the blood on his hands. So much so, that he paid no attention to the blood on his boots.

At first, Bae gloried in his freedom, but his joy faded considerably, when he realized that his friends fled at his approach. Bae wished he didn't understand it, but that skinned knee he'd gotten from the peddler's cart had been an accident. That hadn't stopped Papa from turning the man into a snail and stepping on him.

Like most of the village boys, Bae enjoyed sparring with wooden swords and rough quarter staves, not to mention a good game of tag or blind man's bluff. But with that kind of horseplay, bumps and bruises were common, almost inevitable. And none of his friends wanted to risk Papa's wrath should Bae be on the receiving end of one of those minor injuries.

When he found a way to rid Papa of his Darkness, though, things would be different—at least, he hoped they would be. As long as he found it soon! He sat down on a log to think.

Through the trees, the elder Rumple watched sadly. Why hadn't he realized at the time that in taking the power he'd never had, he'd turned his son into an outcast? It wasn't fair; it wasn't right. And he still hoped things might be different. With the maid gone, perhaps Bae wouldn't be so quick to seek out the blue gnat. And perhaps, Rumple reflected, he'd be able to talk some sense into his younger self so Bae would never seek her out at all.

He hadn't spoken to his son in weeks, not since his younger self had sent him away after that debacle with the lone soldier. He was about to approach now, when he realized that Bae wasn't alone. Morraine was making her way through the trees and, as Rumple watched, she sat down beside Bae. He couldn't hear their conversation, but he saw his boy's expression brighten. Good, Rumple thought. At least his younger self hadn't chased away all of Bae's friends.

A cloud crossed the girl's face and she got up quickly. Rumple could see his younger self coming down the path from Honora's house, looking… Rumple frowned. His younger self appeared a bit shaken, but nowhere near as angry as he should be to have found Honora missing. Perhaps, his younger self was merely hiding his frustration. The man he was now certainly could have managed that feat. But it wasn't something his younger self had yet shown any capacity for and—

The elder Rumple swallowed. The forest floor wasn't at all muddy. So then why were the boot prints left by his younger self so… dark? And… He squinted, through the trees, trying to get a better view of those boots. But while he couldn't see them clearly at this distance, there was no mistaking Bae's "Gods, no!". The boy's anguish rang out as clearly now as it had the first time Rumple had heard it.

But he'd sent Honora away! She was safe! He'd done that much right, hadn't he?

Heart pounding, he teleported himself into the farmhouse he'd visited not twelve hours earlier. His breath hitched, the room spun, and before he knew it, he was kneeling beside the body of the man he'd never quite dared to call friend, even if that was what he'd become to him.

"Talorc," he whispered sadly. "Oh, no."

The younger Rumple was still reeling a bit as he made his way back to his son. Bae wasn't alone, he noticed, happy to see him talking with Morraine, though he wondered where the other children had gone. As he drew nearer, the girl got up hurriedly and was gone by the time he reached his boy. He winced inwardly. He'd really thought better of her than that. "Your friend didn't want to say hello?"

Bae sighed. "You frighten them."

True, but Morraine had known him all her life. And she hadn't been afraid to come by the house the other day. He wondered now whether she'd witnessed how he'd dealt with the soldier who'd tried to abduct Bae. Well, what if she had? She should know she had nothing to fear from him; he reserved his wrath for those who'd hurt Bae! "What is there to be frightened of, Bae?" he asked. "They'll get over that in time."

Bae looked down. "You have stains on your boots."

Rumple winced again. Talorc hadn't hurt Bae. "Oh, yes, that. Uh…" He didn't want to try explaining this one. And it wouldn't matter what he said anyway; word traveled fast in a place like this. Bae would know the truth before long. And he doubted he'd ever see Honora again now. Still feeling somewhar flustered, the only thing he could think to say was, "We need a new maid."

Bae's eyes went round and he cried out, "Gods, no!"

Rumple realized what Bae was thinking and he was about to tell him what had really happened, but it hit him that the truth wasn't going to paint him any better and might paint him worse. And he had gone to the house with that purpose in mind. "She heard us talking about the knife," he said. "I had to—"

"She was mute," Bae protested. "She couldn't tell anyone."

"Even mutes can draw a picture," he retorted. "I have to protect what's mine." He held out his arm to show the way back to the hut. "Come."

White-faced and tight-lipped, Bae obeyed. Rumple smiled encouragingly at him, but his own heart was troubled. If he kept up these excesses, he really was going to lose his boy. He was going to have to try a bit harder. And give the lad a bit more freedom. And just as soon as he knew it was safe to do so, that was precisely what he was going to do.

The elder Rumple sadly healed the gaping wound in the pie vendor's chest. With a wave of his hand, the bloody evidence of his younger self's actions vanished. Rumple started toward the corpse, meaning to arrange it so it looked as though Talorc was lying peacefully, but then he realized it would prove to the next person who happened along that someone had been there to tamper with the body.

He thought for a moment. And then, thinking a silent apology to the dead man, teleported himself and the corpse to the middle of the path between house and barn.

The neighbors were coming to milk the cows; Solara had seen to that. Customers might stop by as well. To them, it would appear as though Talorc had suffered a heart attack and expired naturally. Well, that was half true.

He shook his head sadly and looked down at the body one last time. "Rest well," he whispered gently. "And I am truly sorry." Yesterday, he'd saved Honora's life. But now, he wondered if he would have, had he known the price.

The elder Rumple knew it wouldn't be long now. It might be tonight; it might be tomorrow, but soon, very soon, Bae would slip off in the night, looking for the little bug.

He wondered that his younger self hadn't put some protection spell about the house. Then he shook his head at his folly. Protection spells weren't difficult to learn, but they weren't especially dramatic either. At this point in time, he'd been all about punishing anyone who dared break into his house in ways that were both painful and memorable. He hadn't yet learned how to keep anyone from breaking out. At least, Rumple didn't think he had.

Worry seized him. What if that encounter with—Pan following on the heels of Bae's being seized by that soldier—had accelerated that learning schedule? Suppose Bae hadn't tried to leave the house because he couldn't? And why did that thought fill him with such dismay?

He pushed out with his magic, probing carefully. There was no protection spell on the house, and as he watched the door open and Bae emerge and head for the sheep pen, he understood why. The newly-erected fence and gate were another matter.

But then, Rumple saw Bae dart back into the house, pause on the threshold for a moment, and carefully shut the door behind him. Without wasting a moment, Bae clambered up the old rickety trellis that hadn't seen a bean plant in at least five years. From the top of the trellis, Bae raised himself to the recently-shingled roof. Rumple wasn't certain whether to applaud or curse the boy's recklessness, as he walked the narrow central beam until he could reach up to grasp the overhanging branches of the oak tree at the edge of the land allotment. In a trice, he was up in the tree, and in a twinkling, he was shinnying down its trunk—outside the protection spell.

In the darkness, Rumple smiled, half in relief and half in admiration. Bae had done it! He waited a moment or two before stealing off down the road after his son.

He wasn't certain what he'd imagined the conversation between Bae and the self-righteous flea to have been; he'd known only that it had taken place. Interesting that for all her priggish insistence about being on the 'right' side, she had been honest with Bae about what she could and could not do. Of course, as a champion of Light magic, she'd want the Dark One gone, but even at the outset, she hadn't tried to persuade Bae to abandon him. He really thought his heart might have broken had he heard her gently speak the same words to Bae that the spinners who'd raised him had told him about his own father. He'd grown up fatherless. Bae shouldn't. He wouldn't.

A merry giggle rang out in his mind. And a sing-song voice lisped mockingly, "More plans? More schemes? Still think it will 'all come out right in the end'? Really, dearie, for all your efforts, everything still seems to be running smoothly along the same track it has all along. Your boy has a date with destiny and there'll be no room for a third wheel on that chariot. But if you'd like to try yet again to change the winds of time, hee-hee, be my guest!

He didn't want to believe that voice, but it rang far truer than he wanted it to. For all his lofty intentions, for all his yearning to set right what he'd made wrong, it was all happening again and nothing he tried seemed to make any appreciable difference! There had to be some way for him to bring about a happy ending. If not for him, then at least, for Bae!

He was so lost in his thoughts that it took him a moment to realize that Bae was already on his way home with the bean and the gnat…

The gnat was looking directly at him. And as he felt the usual maelstrom of hatred churning with in him, a wild, nearly mad thought seemed to whisper to him from the storm. He tried to tamp it out but it persisted.

Just how far was he willing to go to get his heart's desire? His answer was a furious snarl: As far as he HAD to! But still, he second-guessed himself. Was he? Did he truly mean it? Because if he did…

"So," the fairy said in a voice that was at once cold and sorrowing, "I can see my effort was for naught."

If he meant it, then much as he didn't want to admit it, he knew where his best chance lay. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and when he opened them again, there was a smile on his face, though it strained him to keep it there. "Oh, I wouldn't say that," he said, coaxing a bit of joviality into his tone. "True, I didn't go with him, but I spent the next two centuries and then some trying to rectify that wrong. Two centuries and then some where I mostly kept to myself, or at least, out of the kind of mischief that would make you feel the need to step in. So, I suppose you get what you want after all."

The Blue Fairy sniffed. "I wanted the boy happy. And I wanted you gone."

She was beginning to annoy him as usual. "Well, then, I'm afraid I must inform you that tomorrow night, neither of your wishes will be fulfilled. Or," he smiled, "my way, you might find yourself oh, three-quarters of the way ahead."

"If you're asking me to join forces with you—"

"Join?" Rumple chuckled, but beneath his mirthful mien, his voice was deadly serious. "Let's just say that right now, our desires may just be the closest aligned they ever will be. You see," he took a step forward, "right now, there's two of me, one of Bae, and thankfully, but one of you. And strangely enough, all four of us are invested in Bae's happiness. We merely disagree on how he can best achieve it."

The fairy tilted her head slightly, her expression unreadable. "Go on."

Rumple bowed with mock ceremony. "As you've surmised, tomorrow night, Bae will use the gift you oh-so-generously bestowed upon him to whisk my younger self away to a land where no magic exists. Well, not very much of it, anyway. Unfortunately," he dropped his sing-song cadences and his face turned serious, "as I said, my younger self will balk. And as a result, as the seer on the battlefield told me long ago, Bae will grow up fatherless. Unless," he continued, "I go with him."

"What's preventing you?" the fairy asked coldly.

"Come now," Rumple retorted. "Didn't I hear you just tell my boy that there was… Oh, how did you put it? 'Something Dark in his life?" He hesitated for only the barest instant. Then he took another breath and forced his next words out past everything inside screaming at him to keep his mouth shut. "It seems I've much the same affliction."

The Blue Fairy frowned. "And getting clear of it is something you want?" she asked in some confusion.

"Let's just say I don't enjoy being controlled. Not by my dagger and not by my Darkness. In the place where Bae's bound, I'll have a fighting chance against at least one of those. And perhaps I'm old enough and wise enough now to accept the price of such freedom."

"And yet you ask my help."

Rumple nodded. "When Bae uses the bean," he said, "I'll be there. I'll see my younger self's doubt change to disbelief and then terror and refusal. I'll watch him dig his blade into the earth and hold fast to keep from being drawn into the portal." His expression turned bleak. "And I'll watch him let my boy go. I don't believe it will take more than a minute between the time Bae uses the bean and the time the portal closes. Less than a minute," he continued, "for me to take that escape and join him. But in that minute…" He couldn't believe he was doing this, couldn't believe he was turning to her of all creatures, but he'd tried to do so much on his own and it had all blown up in his face. "I fear that something might try to prevent me," he finished.

The Blue Fairy regarded him for a moment. "Darkness, of course," she said finally, "can be both external and internal. If you are intent on this course of action, I do believe I can slow the external Darkness enough that you might accomplish what you seek. But for the internal?" Rumple blinked to hear the kindness in her voice when she smiled gently. "I'm afraid that fight must be yours and yours alone."

He must have been holding his breath, for at her words, it seemed to whoosh out of him in relief. This time, he merely ducked his head, but there was more respect in that gesture than in the elaborate bow he'd shown her moments ago. "Well," he managed, "if I don't see you again in this land, rest assured that he will."

It was a warning and they both knew it. It was also as close as he could come, given the history he knew would yet unfold between them, to an expression of gratitude. But as he hurried away into the night, hoping to catch up with Bae, he was nearly certain he heard a tinkling voice whisper, "Good luck, Rumpelstiltskin."

"Uh, Grandpa?" Henry asked uncertainly, "are you sure that's the move you want to make? I mean…"

Rumple blinked. What his grandson meant, was that the word he'd just made had opened another clear path to another triple word score. He looked again at the word he'd just set down: Chance. He gave Henry a rueful smile. "I suppose my mind has been wandering."

Henry grinned back. "I was afraid maybe you were just… letting me win. Like Grandma does. Mom, too, but not as often."

Rumple shook his head. "Believe me, dearie," he chuckled, "letting people get the better of me isn't what I do." Although he wasn't opposed to letting them think such was the case, if it got him further ahead. "Should you ever defeat me, rest assured it will be solely through your own efforts."

"I'm sorry to interrupt," a new voice broke in and the two turned to see the Blue Fairy in the doorway. She nodded coolly to Rumple. "Dr. Whale will be by to see you in ten minutes. I'm to take you back to your room now."

"Personally escorted by the Mother Superior?" Rumple asked scathingly. "Should I be flattered?"

"I don't think you're likely to care one way or the other as to what I think you should be," Blue replied with polite calm. "If you're quite ready?"

Rumple sighed. "I suppose we'll start a new game next time," he murmured, not as sorry as he was feigning. The boy had a ninety-two point lead on him and it likely would have been higher had Henry not suggested Rumple rethink his last move.

"Sure," Henry said, folding the board to slide the letter tiles to the center and then tipping them back into the bag.

"Henry," Rumple tried to keep his voice casual, "I don't suppose you still have that book of yours about, do you?"

"The storybook?" Henry asked, surprised. "It's back at Grandma's loft. Why?"

Rumple shrugged. "I've recently had the opportunity to relive my own story. And, along the way, I noticed a number of details I believe I missed the first time. Now, I suppose I'm curious as to whether they might have been there all along. But, since I never bothered to keep a diary," he shrugged, "I suppose you've the next closest thing. So… next time?" he asked, as the gnat cleared her throat impatiently.

Henry nodded, as he put the game board and letters back in the Scrabble box and replaced the lid. "Sure."

As the Blue Fairy came forward to take the handles of the wheelchair, Henry quickly, slightly awkwardly, clasped his arms around Rumple's neck. "Bye, Grandpa," he blurted, and would have pulled away, had Rumple not fiercely returned the embrace.

"Stay safe, Henry," Rumple returned. "I'll hope to see you soon." And then Henry was gone and Rumple was on his way back to his room, accompanied by the Blue Fairy and his memories…

He didn't want to startle his son, and he knew Bae was likely to be more alert traveling alone in the dark at this hour. Instead of following Bae's trail, he teleported himself to a spot between the forest clearing and the house to which Bae was returning. Despite his efforts, though, the boy jumped nearly a foot in the air when Rumple stepped into view.

A moment later, he relaxed. "Oh, it's you, Uncle Gilitrutt," he breathed. "I thought it was Papa."

Rumple shook his head sadly. "Are you so afraid of him, then, Baelfire?" he asked, reminding himself not to use the diminutive. He—the elder he—hadn't spoken enough with the lad for that. At first, he'd been trying to still his younger self's fears that he was here to carry the boy off. And then, his younger self had taken steps of his own to distance them. Calling him 'Bae' now would be suggesting a relationship the lad simply didn't feel toward him now. But he would.

Bae shifted uncomfortably. "No. Not for me, I mean. But nobody else is safe."

Rumple swallowed. "Sometimes," he said slowly, "when a man who's never had power suddenly has it dropped on him, it can… Well, it can go to his head like strong drink. And sometimes, the hangover the next day isn't enough to teach him a lesson," he added, careful not to hint that he knew what Bae had gotten up to the summer before his arrival. Such rites of passage were common enough, and though he'd worried at first that Bae might be following Milah's path, he'd noted that Bae hadn't repeated the experiment and there'd been no reason to ever broach the subject.

"Drinking might make a man say things he shouldn't, or get sick in the mud. Maybe get him into a fight. It doesn't make him turn peddlers into snails or murder village girls!"

I hope you never need meet a drunken Dark wizard, Rumple thought. Or have occasion to learn what may indeed transpire in a fit of ale-induced rage. Murder in such circ*mstance is far from impossible. But it was unlikely in Pen Marmor, where the tavern keeper was wont to call the watch on belligerent drunks before matters got that far. Loud carousing and an occasional bar fight—usually with most of the serious damage inflicted on unfeeling tables and crockery—was generally as bad as it got before the aforementioned watch intervened. Or until a bouncer tossed a rowdy patron out on his ear. Aloud, though, he merely repeated Bae's last words. "Village girls?"

"Honora," Bae said at once. "Papa hired her after you moved into town. But when he thought she found out about," he glanced around worriedly, "about something he didn't want her to, he went to her house and he…"

So, Bae didn't know about Talorc. Rumple winced. The change he'd made to the timeline had been even slighter than he'd thought. And evidently, what with his younger self keeping him close to the house, Bae would have missed the talk about town. Or perhaps he'd heard it and guessed that Talorc's 'heart attack' had been brought on by grief at his granddaughter's death.

"He does love you," Rumple said heavily. "But that love makes him afraid. He's afraid to lose you, afraid that if he loses his power, he won't be able to protect you… Why, think about what happened when you were off with Morraine that day and the soldi—"

"I'm tired of hearing about that soldier!" Bae snapped. "Look, I'm glad Papa was there, but Morraine would have brought the watch or I would have got loose or I'd have made him see I can't control Papa—" His shoulders slumped and he added more softly, "No one can. Not without…" He shook his head. "But after tonight, that won't matter."

"Tonight?" Rumple repeated sharply.

"I don't dare wait another day now I've the means to help him!" Bae said, starting off up the road again. He went several steps forward and then stopped and turned. "Good night, Uncle Gilitrutt," he said. "I-I'm glad I had a chance to see you tonight. I mean…" He took another breath. "Goodbye."

Rumple smiled. "Probably best I don't see you to your door," he said, keeping his voice calm. "I rather suspect your Papa still won't want to see me. So, I'll just say goodnight here now."

He waited until Bae was out of earshot before he added, "But I shall see you again elsewhere before morning, son."

"And here we are," the gnat said, wheeling him back into his room. "Can you manage from here, or do you require further assistance?" Her voice was pleasant and professional, showing neither warmth nor rancor, and Rumple hesitated a moment before he replied.

"I believe you might assist me by answering one question." He glanced up, half-braced for a smug refusal, but the gnat merely inclined her head, a slight lift of her eyebrows the only hint of surprise.

Rumple took another breath. "You'll forgive me if my memory isn't what it ought to be. I suppose living parts of one's life twice can make one wonder which version is the one that stuck. However, it seems to me that at some point in the past, you might have done me some favor and thus placed me in your debt. Now, as I'm sure any association between us must be as detestable to you as it is to me, if such is the case, I hope you'll give me the opportunity to discharge that obligation so that we can each get back to the delightful business of staying out of each other's way."

The Blue Fairy shook her head. "Make your heart easy, Dark One," she said, still speaking pleasantly. "I'm sure I've never done anything of the kind."

"Ah." With that, Rumple rose from the transfer chair, took hold of the bed's handrail, and climbed in unaided. The fairy watched, her expression unreadable, until it was clear that he'd settled himself comfortably under the bedclothes. Only then did she depart.

In the hallway, she smiled to herself as she set out on her rounds. "The night Baelfire went through the portal, the enmity that existed between us merely as a matter of necessity became personal on your part. The only reason you never attacked me directly after that night was your quest to rejoin your son. Had you both remained, I've no doubt that you would have eventually joined forces. And then, you might have achieved both aims. So, you see, Rumpelstiltskin, there is no debt. On that night, we both helped each other. And I believe that we each received the greater part of what we wanted…"

"Where are we going, boy?" Rumple demanded, as Baelfire led him through the woods. He still didn't fully believe that Bae had found a way to free him from his power, but the boy clearly thought otherwise. "What kind of world is this we're going to? What kind of world is without magic?" And who was to say there was one and this whole endeavor wasn't some fairy trick?

Bae turned to him resolutely. "A better one," he pronounced, pulling out a bean so like the one he'd shown his own father so many years ago. But before he could fully process that, his son had cast it to the ground.

He'd known about the portal it would open. He'd done it himself long ago. But surely that time, the forces hadn't been so… violent, their winds so fierce they tore at him even though he was standing several feet away. And then the portal expanded before him and he wasn't so far away after all. No, it hadn't been like this last time "My gods, boy!" he screamed. "It's like a tornado!" It was a trick. Or the bean had been tampered with, or…

"We have to go through it!" Bae screamed back.

He'd always admired his boy's courage, but surely Bae had to know this wasn't safe! Deal or no deal, Bae couldn't mean to hold him to this! "No!" he protested. "No! I don't think I can!"

"We must!" Bae insisted. "It's the only way!"

From the trees, the elder Rumple stood watching, waiting for the right moment while his heart ached for both of them. Despite himself, he found himself hoping. Perhaps, his vague warnings to his younger self had been enough. Perhaps, this time, he'd choose differently. But in case he wouldn't, the elder Rumple now carried in his pockets some golden straws and small valuables he'd taken hurriedly from the house after seeing Bae and his younger self leave. It was no fortune, but it would, he hoped, be enough to start their new life with.

But if his younger self did choose differently, if he went through now, then the elder would make his own way home eventually. He knew the steps he'd need to take to craft the Dark Curse. He'd need to wait a couple of centuries for Cora to come along, and he could skip the ill-fated romancing this time and keep things strictly businesslike. No illusions, no pain, and he'd still get what he needed. He wouldn't even try to get Regina from her; Cora would start her on the path he needed her to walk. He'd give Snow White and her prince charming the proper nudges at the proper times and he'd never fling Belle headlong into Regina's clutches, not even when she tried to break his curse. He smiled. If he'd set up everything he needed in order to follow Bae by that point, he might even let her…

"What are you doing?" Bae's screams reached him. "Papa! It won't stay open long! Let go!"

As he watched his younger self jam the dagger even more deeply into the side of the pit that had opened at their feet, he realized that the events he'd lived once were about to play out again, just as they had before. Well, he told himself, not quite. He didn't need to listen to more pleas from Bae or protests from his younger self. If he didn't move now, he'd miss his opportunity. Again.

He plunged into the clearing toward the portal as Bae shrieked again, "Papa, please!"

"I can't!" his younger self cried out, letting go of Bae at last, and looking up. Their eyes met and his younger self's face twisted into a mask of fury as a globe of orange smoke formed in his hand.

"You coward!" Bae screamed. "You promised! Don't break our deal!"

As the elder Rumple tumbled into the vortex, in the instant before it closed behind him, he thought he saw an orb of blue-white light knock the orange globe from his younger self's hand and smelled the dusky woodsmoke and lavender fragrance of aged fairy dust swirling about him. The little sprite had done her work well.

Smiling, as he fell, he kicked his legs as though he were swimming, tried to catch up with Bae and thought of Storybrooke.

He was still thinking of it when they landed in Kensington Gardens.

Chapter 37: Chapter Thirty-Seven

Notes:

A/N: Thanks to "10 Weird Foods Sold by Victorian Street Vendors" by Nene Adams on ListVerse for telling me about saloop and plum duff. The book that Rumple purchases for Bae is the 1892 edition, published in the UK by T. Fisher Unwin.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Mr. Carstone had been delayed, or so Mrs. Darling had told Bae apologetically when he'd arrived for his lesson. "Have you had dinner, yet?" she asked, smiling gently. "Wendy and John usually eat earlier when Mr. Carstone comes, but as he won't be here for another hour, I thought they could eat at the usual hour.

Bae ducked his head and hoped his stomach's growling wouldn't put the lie to his words. "I've eaten already, ma'am, thank you." It wasn't a lie. The bread and cheese Emmy had given him for breakfast on his way to work combined with a cup of saloop purchased from a vendor along the way had been consumed nearly ten hours earlier, but he had eaten them. In the past, he might have bought a plum duff and splurged on a drizzle of treacle on top of it, but if he was to keep coming up with the money for these lessons, it was generally one or the other and saloop—a hot drink made from sassafras bark, milk, and a great deal of sugar—was better on a cold morning like today, when he'd been out before sunrise.

"Well, perhaps," Mrs. Darling said, still smiling, "you'll at least come up to the nursery and keep your friends company." She beckoned Bae into the house and began to escort him upstairs. "Really, there should be quite enough, should you change your mind." She made a show of sounding irritated, but there was a warm laugh in her voice as she continued, "I do think Liza sent up entirely too much food; she must think Michael's appetite as great as his elder siblings…"

Bae didn't intend to partake; he really didn't. He was almost glad when Mrs. Darling led him into the nursery and he saw that the others were just finishing up. From the look of it, they'd been having some sort of meat and potato dish and Bae thought he saw quite a bit of boiled cabbage on the nursery floor by Michael's seat. "C'mon, Nana," the little boy was coaxing. "Treats!"

From the look on the St. Bernard's face, she'd clearly rather have had a bit of the stew.

"Michael," Mrs. Darling said, trying to sound stern and failing rather badly.

"I didn't think it was fair," Michael said staunchly. "Everyone says cabbage is healthy and Nana never gets any. Isn't her health important too?"

"Ah, but what's healthy for a little boy isn't what a big, grown-up dog needs," Mrs. Darling informed him. She sighed heavily. "I suppose I'll have to ask Liza to sweep up after she brings your pudding."

As though in response to some prearranged signal, the little maid bustled in pushing a small, wheeled tea trolley. In a twinkling, the dirty dishes were swept onto the lower shelves and three, no four plates of milk pudding were set down in their place, and a bowl of milk laid on the floor for Nana, who thumped her tail in gratitude.

With a sniff, Liza exited the nursery, returning a moment later with a broom and dustpan. "I'll give it a proper mopping when Master Michael's bathing," she murmured, whisking away most of the wilted cabbage.

"Baelfire," Mrs. Darling said gently, "I can't have that extra portion going to waste and it won't be nearly as good if we leave it till tomorrow. Will you oblige us?"

"I can have sec—" John started to say, but Wendy, it must be owned, placed her hand firmly over her younger brother's mouth, even as she beamed and echoed, "Yes, Baelfire, do."

Bae hesitated. And then, ducking his head, he murmured, "Well, if you're sure you don't mind…"

Mother and daughter exchanged a satisfied look as he sat down.

Carstone still hadn't arrived by the time the last of supper had been cleared away, so Mrs. Darling suggested that Bae, Wendy, and John repair to the library to practice the last tasks the tutor had set.

Bae rather liked the library. While the nursery was usually cluttered with toys, games, and building blocks, the library—while perhaps slightly smaller—was light and airy with windows at each side and a glorious skylight. Bookcases lined the walls and though the wood was stained dark, the wallpaper bore a pattern of arcing golden-green leaves on a pale brown background and the carpet was of yellow and periwinkle blossoms on an ivory backdrop.

When the children entered, they saw that part of that carpet had already been rolled back and their easels set up with newspapers beneath. A low table stood a short distance from each easel with a fruit bowl at John's station, a sewing basket at Wendy's, and a shallow bowl of seashells at Bae's. Bae looked at his easel and the sketch he'd begun at the last session. In a way, it was harder to pick up where he'd left off in the still life than it was to start fresh, but he couldn't do that with a subject this detailed. He studied his watercolor paper, frowning a bit, before picking up his charcoal and adding a few new lines. Ordinarily, he'd be shading in his drawing with the charcoal, but Mr. Carstone had him working with colors now and he had to remind himself to draw lightly, using the lines as a guide for where to apply the pigments.

"How do you do it?" Wendy asked suddenly, startling him.

"Do what?" Bae asked, setting down the charcoal and wondering if he'd need to rub out the smear he'd just made or if he could just paint over it.

"Well, all the whorls and ridges and whatnot," Wendy said. "I can manage the contours, but I am such a dunce at the details."

"I don't know," Bae admitted. "I just… sort of look at it and draw what I see. Here," he took Wendy's hand without realizing what he was doing, just as though she were Morraine back home and not the daughter of his superior at the bank. "C'mon, let's look at it together." He started tugging at her hand and it was only when she hesitated, looking down a bit wide-eyed that he released her, feeling his face grow nearly as warm as her hand had been in his. "I'm sorry," he said at once. "I didn't mean to…"

"No," Wendy reassured him, smiling now. "It's quite all right." A bit nervously, she extended her hand to him again. "Please, Mr. Cassidy," she went on, affecting a greater maturity than she came by honestly, "if you would be so good as to show me what it is you mean, I should be quite delighted."

Bae thought he heard a derisive snort from behind John's canvas, but he knew something more of manners in this realm than he had a year ago. "It would be my pleasure," he said, the formality settling about him like the too-stiff frippery Papa had produced for him when first he'd become the Dark One. It might have fit properly, but nowhere near as comfortably as his usual attire. "If you'll do me the honor?"

Wendy's smile was warmer, as she matched her step to his.

"Here," he said. "Let's look at everything a little more closely. See how the thread isn't a solid piece. It might look it, but here and there, it's not perfectly wound; it slips a little, it's a bit thicker here and there and it looks a little heavier. And the pincushion, the pins are all different sizes and they're not all pushed in as far. And some of the heads are different, too," he added.

"How observant you are," Wendy murmured. "And I do see what you mean. At least, my eyes do. But when I pick up my charcoal again, my hand doesn't seem to know what to make of it."

"I think it will, if you keep at it," Bae said. "And your colors always come out so much better than mine."

It was true. He found it so hard to mix the tints and hues properly and once he did, if he miscalculated and needed to blend more, he never could quite seem to get the new batch to match up.

"It's kind of you to say so," Wendy said, taking a step closer. "Baelfire? Do you remember that day in the park when I said you might give me something?"

"Uh…" Bae's throat was suddenly dry and he wondered whether it was merely the scent of her lily-of-the-valley soap so strong in his nostrils, or… "I…" But she was leaning toward him, her eyes closed, a hopeful smile on her face and he felt himself leaning back toward those lips…

Just at that moment, Nana trotted in the open door, whuffling softly.

"Here," Bae said, reaching onto the display table quickly, grabbing something quickly, and pressing it into her hand. "I-I hope you like it."

He hastened back to his easel.

Wendy's eyes flew open and at first, Bae registered surprise, which yielded quickly to hurt. But almost as soon as it did, a faint flush rose to Wendy's cheeks when she beheld the St. Bernard. Flashing Bae a grateful smile, she exhaled and then examined the silvery object he'd given her. "Thank you for the thimble."

"Well, they do seem to like one another quite well," Mrs. Darling said later, after Carstone had finally bustled in, gasping apologies and promising such a thing would never happen again. "But are you certain we ought to encourage such a thing?"

"In our house, with a chaperone?" Mr. Darling harrumphed. "Times are changing, Mary. We need to acknowledge this. The old class structure is starting to crack. Not entirely so, of course, and thank goodness for that. But an intelligent hardworking youth can aspire to make more of himself now than he might have a generation ago. And it's hardly like he was born to the working class," he added. "His father's a gentleman fallen on hard times and forced into reduced circ*mstances."

"Still… I mean, friendship is all well and good. And there's no question that the young man is intelligent and personable. But a mailroom clerk, George?"

"He was a messenger a year ago, and I've been speaking with his superior. The boy's quite capable of advancing further, and I've no doubt he will. Why when Wendy's of an age where she might entertain such courtship, Baelfire might be a department head, or at least assistant to one."

"Or an artist, perhaps?" Mary Banks suggested.

George sniffed. "A bit of instruction does no harm, and I'm certainly not against nurturing his talent, since Carstone assures me he possesses it. A gentleman should have a bit more culture in his life or he'll feel its lack all the more keenly. Especially should he come into some better fortune and then rejoin his peers; it wouldn't do for him to feel disadvantaged when matters of culture become the topic of discussion. All the same, I think that when he realizes the future that awaits him in finance, he'll be sensible enough to do the right thing. It's not as though he won't be able to draw for his own amusem*nt on his own time, after all."

"And if he's less sensible than you think?"

"Don't worry, Mary," George reassured her. "I'll not see our daughter entertain the suit of a penniless artist. Meanwhile, they're both young. I'm hardly encouraging either of them, but should things spark, I'll not discourage it either. It might be a bit unconventional, but," he smiled, "I think perhaps easier for others to accept than a dog for a nursemaid, eh?"

Mary Darling laughed. "Well, perhaps…"

Bae could hear the Shoreditch bells chiming ten as he neared home and he picked up his pace. The streets were still relatively safe at this hour, especially the busy ones, but Papa would have expected him home by now and he was still more than a half hour away.

"Bother Mr. Carstone," he muttered under his breath, realizing that he sounded almost exactly like John Darling. "And bother Nana and Liza and children who throw perfectly good food away for dogs!" And bother that every time I start to notice that Wendy's getting to be a little more than a friend, that blasted dog pokes her nose in!

It wasn't funny, he thought furiously, even though he knew that Robertson Ay would split a side laughing when—no if—Bae mentioned it. Papa would probably smile, but that would be okay.

Lately, Papa's condition seemed to be improving. He hoped it would continue to do so, for all Papa told him that it was the nature of the illness to wax and wane, but that they ought to enjoy these better times while they lasted.

Bae had wanted to. He'd barely had time lately to go through those stories Papa left out for him, and when he did manage to read them, one or both were usually too tired to discuss them. He'd been hoping to do that tonight, but it was going to be nearly eleven when he got back and Papa would surely be asleep.

Or up worrying about me, Bae thought with a pang. Papa always did worry, and Bae no longer resented it. Not like he had when the piper had called to him. After all, he worried about Papa now, too.

It was twenty minutes to eleven when he finally made it back and mounted the stairs as softly as he dared. He needed no candle. The house was silent apart from his footsteps, though the door to the room creaked softly as he pushed it open.

"Bae?" a sleepy voice murmured.

"Sorry I'm late, Papa," Bae whispered. "Good night."

"Night…" Papa murmured.

Bae listened carefully, wincing a bit to hear the wheeze in his father's breathing. It wasn't nearly as pronounced as it had been several weeks ago, but it was still plain to hear. He should have left the Darlings at the usual time and come back sooner. Next time, he would. Because as well as Papa seemed to be doing right now, neither one of them knew how much longer that could continue and Bae didn't want to squander any more time than he could help.

"Henry!" Belle looked up with pleasure when the boy entered the library shortly before closing time. "Are you just browsing, or are you here for some school project?"

"I haven't started back at school, yet," Henry informed her. "I think my mom's taking care of that next week. One of them. I was, uh…" He looked away and scuffed his shoe on the library's marble floor.

"Henry?"

Henry winced. "I… You can tell me to butt out if you want. I don't mind. But, I mean, if one of my moms needs to talk to someone, well, Emma's got her parents and Regina's got Robin Hood now. And I've got," he gave her an embarrassed smile, "well, a lot of people. But you've mostly got Grandpa and… that's it. Only now, with him being sick and all, I guess…" He stared at the floor. "Look, I know I'm just a kid and all, but I know what it's like to not have anyone you can talk to when you really want to and I…" He took another breath and blurted out the rest of his words at a rush. "Look, if you want to talk to me ever, I'm here, okay?"

"Oh," Belle felt her face grow warm. "Uh… Thank you," she managed, feeling oddly touched. "I mean, I-I'm managing fairly well, I think, now that Rumple's back." But she'd watched him die, and she'd seen the abject horror on his face when the witch had got hold of his dagger, and after what she'd commanded him to do—

"Yeah," Henry nodded. "Sure. If there's anything I can do, though…"

Belle hesitated. Come to think of it, she had meant to pay another visit to that mansion with its library of magic and healing. She'd been so excited to find the answer for Rumple's immediate condition that she hadn't bothered to look at what else might be there. Perhaps there were other things on those shelves that might help Rumple! And while she had no intention of burdening a twelve-year-old with the pain she'd been carrying all this time, she couldn't deny that another pair of eyes and hands might be useful. She took another breath. "How comfortable would you be with helping me do a bit of research tomorrow?"

Henry beamed.

Rumple awakened in the middle of the night feeling worse than he had in a long time. He was burning, up, his forearm ached, and his stomach…

He managed to lean over the rail of his bed before it released its contents. Shaking, he pressed the call button and he kept pressing it until a nurse arrived. Light from the hallway stabbed at his eyes and he whimpered, even as a cool hand touched his forehead.

"Some fever," a concerned voice said. "Not high enough for concern. I'll have someone in to clean up in a moment."

"Not high enough for concern?" Rumple croaked. The nurse was moving away and he could hear water running from the sink behind him. A moment later, she was back, handing him a paper cup.

"Feeling nauseous?" she asked. "Do you think you can get this down? It's just water."

He'd risk it to get the sour taste out of his mouth. He lifted the arm that didn't ache to take the cup. The water was wonderfully cold going down and he had an urge to pour the dregs onto his forehead. Before he could consider acting on it, though, the nurse was offering him a damp cloth.

"Fever, nausea… anything else?" she asked.

Rumple didn't answer for a moment; he was too busy mopping his brow. Finally, he nodded. "My stomach hurts," he said. "And my ar—" Relief flooded through him, as he remembered what Whale had told him earlier. "This is a reaction to that inoculation, isn't it?"

"DTap," the nurse supplied, nodding. She pronounced it 'Dee-tap'. "It certainly looks that way." She frowned. "Was that the list, or are you dealing with any other issues?"

"Isn't that enough?" Rumple demanded incredulously.

The nurse smiled apologetically. "Just being thorough. The good news is," she went on briskly, checking his pulse as she was talking, "as unpleasant as you're finding them, none of the side effects you're having right now are cause for alarm. Your arm might hurt for a few more days, but most of the rest of what you're experiencing should clear up within the next twenty-four hours." She picked up his chart to make a note. "So, fever, nausea, stomach pain, arm pain…" She hesitated. "While I'm here, do you need some help getting to the ensuite, or should I get a bedpan?"

Right. That was another possible side effect, but one Fate seemed thus far merciful enough to spare him. "Thank you, no," he murmured, wondering whether it was just fever making his face feel hot now. "That won't be necessary."

The nurse nodded. "All right. So, we'll just mop in here and I'll be back with some Tylenol. It'll help with the aches and fever," she added. "And if you need anything else, just press the call button again."

Rumple nodded. He wasn't relapsing. Of course, he wasn't relapsing; the symptoms he was experiencing now were nothing like the lung complaints that had dogged him for nearly two years. But there had been other symptoms too, early on, and fever had been one of them. Knowing the cause of his current discomfort was nearly sufficient to alleviate it. Nearly. But he still took the Tylenol with alacrity when the nurse returned, an orderly with a cleaning cart a half-step behind her.

Henry blinked when the mansion came into view the following morning. "Where did this place come from?" he asked. "It sure wasn't here the last time I came this way."

Belle nodded. "Mr. Schuler told me about it shortly after Rumple came back."

"Who's he?" Henry asked, trotting a bit to keep up. "Or who was he in the Enchanted Forest?"

Belle frowned. "You know," she said slowly, "I'm not certain. He's elderly and quite well-educated. I suppose he might have been a court advisor, or perhaps a scholar of some kind. He might have been a tutor, but not one of mine. At any rate, when he told me about the collection here, I came to look it over. I'm wondering now," she added, "whether we might not be able to clear a space in the main library to transfer them over. Most of what I saw on those shelves weren't spell books; I'd never suggest making those freely available for anyone to browse. But the lore and knowledge from our realm and perhaps others beyond that… I'd never dreamed that it crossed over with the Curse. I'd hate to think of losing it all again."

They were nearly to the mansion's gate now. The wrought iron door was latched, but not locked. Belle lifted it, and the door opened noiselessly.

"Should we knock?" Henry asked, taking in the imposing front door.

"Well, it was open last time," Belle said slowly.

"Wait, you mean you just walked in?"

Belle raised an eyebrow. "Are you trying to tell me you wouldn't have?"

Henry looked down. "You've been talking to my mom?" he asked, horrified to hear himself whining.

"No," Belle smiled. "But you remind me of a character in a novel I read when I was about your age. Inquisitive, determined, quite observant, and fairly intent on getting to the bottom of a mystery, even if it meant bending a rule or two to get there." She fought an urge to ruffle his hair. "Those aren't bad traits, Henry. And yes," she added. "I did." So saying, she pressed down on the door handle and pushed. As before, it opened readily. She glanced down at him. "Shall we?"

The library was just as impressive as Belle recalled. The polished wood of shelves, tables, and chairs gleamed brightly. It took her a moment to realize how odd that was. "If nobody lives here," she murmured, "who's keeping it so clean? There ought to be more dust here."

"You think it's magic?" Henry asked.

Belle pondered that. "I suppose it's just possible that we aren't the only people who've discovered this place, but nothing else seems to be disturbed. Who'd come here just to clean?"

"Grandma might," Henry said thoughtfully. "But not when she's busy with the baby. Ashley used to be a maid, but she's also got a baby, plus she runs a daycare now. I don't know."

Belle sighed. "Well, I suppose we ought to be grateful we won't be breathing in dust. All right. The books we need are here," she gestured to the wall where she'd found the previous volumes. "I'm fairly certain I've read everything Tavronius had to say about treating magical beings, but let's look at some of these other tomes."

"Okay," Henry said, eyeing the wide leather-bound volumes as though they were a fortress wall to be breached. He panned the shelves slowly trying to find something that looked useful and not overly imposing. As his gaze reached the end of the unit, something on the adjacent wall caught his eye. "Hey," he said, "those books over there look like…"

His storybook…

Bae frowned when he woke up the next morning. Papa had been to the bookshop yesterday, it seemed, for a new book was lying on the table between their two beds. Bae imagined he would have seen it, had he used a taper to light his way upstairs when he'd got in.

He looked at the volume suspiciously. It wasn't very big: perhaps six inches long and four wide. Nor was it especially thick, in fact, he thought that the 'Fairy Books' Papa had bought before might have been thicker. It had a cover that might have been white once, but was now a dingy gray, with a blue floral pattern that reminded Bae of the arching leaves on the wallpaper in the Darlings' library. The title didn't sound as though it belonged to another fairytale collection.

"The Story of a Puppet?" he said aloud, as Papa began to stir.

"Good morning, son," Rumple said, greeting him with a smile completely devoid of any recriminations for his tardy return the night before. Bae tried to apologize nonetheless, but Rumple waved him off.

"I do believe that this may be the last title I'll ask you to read," he said. Then he frowned. "Actually, no. There's a volume by one Mr. Lewis Carroll I shall endeavor to procure, and perhaps another by Mary Shelley, just to make a clean sweep of it all. But once you've read those and we've discussed them, I do believe that it shall be time."

"Time?" Bae repeated. "For what? Papa, why have you had me reading these books for over a year?"

Rumple sighed. "Because, son, when first we came to this land, we had no opportunity to research it in advance. There was no way of knowing who we would encounter or what their stories might be. And there's still no way of knowing whether you will ever encounter any of the individuals I've had you commit to memory these many months. Well," he smiled, "apart from myself, of course." His smile fell away as his voice grew serious. "One thing we've touched on, but not discussed in any depth, is that my being here with you in this time and place didn't happen in my past. Not the first time I lived it."

"I know," Bae said. "Papa… my other papa… the other you, I mean… He's still back there, isn't he?"

"Yes. And he's trying to find you yet. And this is where things become… murky. You see, I know what happened in my past: as I told you once, I happened upon a seer who promised me you and I would meet again and I devoted more than two centuries to bringing that about, trusting that however much time would elapse, it wouldn't matter. But when I came here through the portal with you," he said slowly, "I may have altered how my younger self might receive that message."

"I-I don't…" Bae started to say.

Rumple sighed. "I can't overlook the possibility that when the seer tells him that he'll find you again, knowing as he does that at some point, he will travel back in time as I have, he could think that that's how it happens. In which case, perhaps, he won't create the curse that allowed him, or me, to find you as was done in my past."

"But if he doesn't create the curse, then that town you came from won't exist either," Bae said. "And the witch who made the time portal—"

"Baum," Rumple said suddenly.

"She made a bomb?" Bae exclaimed.

"No, no," Rumple assured him hastily. "No, I'd quite forgotten, there's one more author I'll need you to read." He took a breath. "But you make a good point. If I'm here, it rather suggests that my younger self will create the Dark Curse, just as before. And whether he takes as long to do it as he did the first time, whether his clear knowledge that time travel is more than theoretical leads him to crack that mystery before the witch ever dreams of doing so and he turns up in this realm a century early or…" He broke off suddenly, coughing, and Bae leaped up in alarm.

He shook his head. "I'm fine, son," he said. "At least for now. Merely a dry throat."

"I'll get you some water," Bae said at once.

Rumple nodded. "Thank you. And then," he said, "I think you ought to start reading this. Because there is a very good chance that the characters in this volume will, much like the characters in the others we've read, come into your life one day. And the more you know about them before that meeting, the better prepared you'll be for the encounter if I'm… no longer here to advise you."

Chapter 38: Chapter Thirty-Eight

Notes:

A/N: Paid holiday time would not become a reality in Britain until 1938.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Belle took another volume down from the shelf, flipped to the back, and smiled to find an index there. She knew the topics she was seeking, and it only took her a moment to ascertain that none were dealt with in the tome she held. While that was disappointing, there were many more books to check, and it was far better than spending an hour or more scanning each page in hopes of some tidbit of useful information.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Henry take down a book of his own, but instead of checking for an index, he opened to the front. Any thought Belle might have entertained that he was looking instead for a table of contents was quickly disabused. He gazed down at the first page, but then his eyes flicked to the other wall, where the storybooks were. He sighed, pulled his attention back to the volume in his hand, and began to read.

Belle had checked three more volumes before she realized that Henry had yet to turn his page. She shook her head. She'd cared more for fiction than academic writing when she'd been his age. Honestly, if she'd had to choose one over the other, she'd probably still rather curl up with a good novel than a good textbook, but over time, she'd come to appreciate and enjoy the latter as well. Just not quite so much as the former. Well, Henry might have offered to help her, but he oughtn't to be suffering for it! Aloud, she said, "Henry?"

Startled, the boy looked up and started to apologize, but she cut him off. "Why don't you take a break? We've been here nearly two hours. Why don't you," she shrugged, "walk about? Stretch your legs? Perhaps find something else to read for a change of pace? You can come back to this in half an hour."

Henry started to refuse, but his eyes were turning toward the other wall again, and Belle heard the hope in his voice, when he asked, "Are you sure it's okay? I-I really do want to help, I mean…"

"Well, I doubt I'll finish everything in the next half hour!" Belle laughed. "Go on, then."

"Okay," Henry said quickly. He was almost to the storybooks when he looked back over his shoulder. "Uh, thanks!"

Belle smiled. "You're more than welcome," she returned, reaching for a fresh volume. After a moment's hesitation, Henry did the same, but this time, it wasn't an academic text.

That evening, after supper, Bae was able to read the first four chapters of The Story of a Puppet, or The Adventures of Pinocchio, as the subtitle on the front matter proclaimed. After that, his mind started wandering. He didn't care much for the writing style of this one; it was hard to take in after a long day at work.

He cared for the illustrations even less.

Oh, there was nothing objectively wrong with them, he allowed. They simply didn't portray the characters and scenes the way Bae pictured them.

Thoughtfully, Bae reached for his sketchpad. Maybe it would help the story sink in if he tried his own hand at illustrating. Nearly an hour and a half later, he had four rough charcoal drawings. They weren't anything he was about to show to Mr. Carstone, he allowed. Not without refining them further. But he did find that he'd retained rather more of the novel than he had before making them.

"Work tomorrow, son," Rumple said. "We ought to douse the light soon."

Bae nodded and closed the book. "Yes, Papa." He frowned. "Papa? This story… It's not from our land, is it? The titles are wrong."

"Titles," Rumple repeated with a faint smile.

"Well, yes. It uses 'Mastro' instead of 'Goodman' or 'Master'. And there's a soldier called a carabineer—or, at least, the footnote says it's a military policeman, so I guess that's a soldier, right?"

Rumple nodded. "Ah, but Bae, remember that such stories from our land as filter through to this realm do so in a distorted manner. This author is a Tuscan, I believe. From Italy. It's reasonable to think that he'd try to fit his tale into the language and society with which he's most familiar." His smile broadened. "In fact, when you think about it, I believe you'll find similar issues with the stories you've already read, particularly when it comes to their treatment of women. Let me assure you that the Snow White I encountered back in our land may have been insipid enough, but she was nowhere near as timid or passive as the version I had you read makes her seem."

He glanced at Bae's rough sketches. "I can see your instruction is bearing dividends. These are really quite good."

Bae lowered his eyes, but he was smiling, too. "Do they look anything like the real Geppetto and Pinocchio?" he asked.

"Not in the slightest," Rumple chuckled, "but they're done well, all the same."

At first, Henry thought that it was just another copy of his storybook. But as he flipped through, he noticed that the illustrations looked subtly different. At least, he thought they did. Maybe it was a different printing. Curious, he reached for his book bag; he was hoping to swing by the hospital later and Grandpa had asked to see his book, and pulled out his own edition. No, there were differences. Who was this 'mute maid' that the Dark One was supposed to have killed? He frowned when he reached her name.

A moment later, he was turning to the story in his own book. "He didn't kill her," he whispered aloud. Then he frowned. "Did he?"

"Henry?"

Startled, he turned back to Belle; he'd all but forgotten that he wasn't alone. "The book," he said. "This one, I mean. It's… I thought it was the same as mine, but some of it's not." He flipped several pages ahead in the version he'd pulled from the shelf, and then turned to the same page in his book. "See? In this one, Gilitrutt—or, I guess I should say Grandpa now that I know it was him, though the book doesn't say it—never jumped after Baelfire. And…" His eyes widened, as he pointed to the illustration. In his storybook, as always, a ball of blue fire streaked toward the flaming globe in the Dark One's hand, as two figures plunged into what looked like a whirlpool of green smoke. In the new edition, there was no fire of any color, just the Dark One's empty hand and horrified expression… And falling into the whirlpool, there was only a single person, a dark-haired teenaged boy with a face twisted into a mask of rage and anguish.

"Rumple never mentioned…" Belle said slowly. "I mean, I knew he'd lost his son, but he never told me how it happened, only that he was still alive." She frowned. "And he never mentioned whether Baelfire vanished on his own or if anyone went with him."

Henry caught his breath. "I need to show these to Grandpa," he said, closing each volume, stacking one atop the other, and cramming the two together into his bag. "He's got to see both versions."

That Sunday, Rumple smiled at Bae across the breakfast table. "It looks to be a fine day," he said. "What would you say to a picnic in Kensington Gardens?"

Bae's face lit up nearly at once. "That sounds wonderful, Papa," he said. "But are you sure you're up for it?"

Rumple nodded. "I think so. And I rather suspect that we won't have many more suitable days for such an excursion this year." He was hoping he was mistaken, but he was starting to feel a familiar tightness in his chest, and he wasn't very hungry this morning, though he hoped the fresh air would give him more of an appetite later.

He was no fool. He knew that the less he ate, the weaker his body would grow and the harder it would be for him to fight off the next bout of the illness when it came. But he just wasn't hungry and although he knew he ought to force himself to eat regardless, that was often a thing far more easily thought than done.

Well. The outing would do no harm and it might even do some good. People did occasionally recover fully from his complaint—at least he thought they did. At least, he thought that the disease could become inactive for a long period of time; he believed he'd heard that it did in some cases.

Cases that occurred in people who could afford to go to sanitariums for rest cures. People who lived where the air and water were cleaner and the streets weren't crowded and filthy and the food wasn't adulterated with alum or chalk or who even knew what might go into it in this time or place.

Despite the bleakness of his thoughts, he kept a smile on his face as he looked at his son. Bae didn't need to share his worries. Soon enough, these carefree Sundays would be gone for both of them. At least they could have this one.

Any hopes Belle and Henry might have entertained of seeing Rumple's reaction that afternoon were promptly dashed by the Blue Fairy. "I'm afraid he's not up for visitors today," she told them firmly, though her voice was kind.

"Why?" Belle asked. "What's the matter?"

"I'm afraid I can't share that," Blue said. "For confidentiality reasons, I can't divulge—"

"I'm his grandson," Henry cut her off. "And right now, I'm his only living relative."

Blue shook her head. "Had Rumpelstiltskin provided written authorization, it might be a different matter. I am sorry, Henry, but I can't disclose any information to you."

Surprisingly, Henry broke into a wide smile. "That's okay," he said. "We'll try again tomorrow. Come on, Belle."

Belle would have argued further with the fairy, but Henry was tugging on her hand and it struck her that his enthusiasm was at odds with the situation. More to the point, it was difficult to keep one's balance on six-inch stiletto heels when someone was yanking you backwards. Casting one last pleading glance in Blue's direction, she let Henry pull her away.

"All right, Henry," she said finally, when the boy stopped in front of the elevator. "What's going on? I agree we're not likely to get past Blue, but I could have asked to speak with Dr. Whale."

"It doesn't matter," Henry said. "I mean, yeah, it would if Blue was lying to keep us out, but… she's the Blue Fairy. She wouldn't do that."

"I agree," Belle said, irritation giving way to confusion. "But why wouldn't it matter if we spoke to Dr. Whale?"

"Because we already know the most important thing," Henry explained. "Look, I've watched enough medical shows on TV to know that patient confidentiality is important and there's no way she'd tell us anything about grandpa. Except she did tell us the most important thing without knowing it."

"What are you talking about?"

Henry grinned. "Grandpa's going to be okay. If he weren't," his expression sobered for a minute, "if he were really bad, they'd have to break confidentiality to notify next of kin. And I just reminded Blue that that's me." His grin was back. "Grandpa's going to be okay. What else do we really need to know?"

Belle smiled back, deciding not to mention how many times, during those first days when Rumple had been so ill, Dr. Whale had violated patient confidentiality to keep her and Emma and perhaps even Regina informed. Henry sounded so certain and she didn't definitely didn't want to dampen his hopes.

All the same, though, she was going to talk to Dr. Whale later this afternoon or, perhaps, this evening. She had a feeling he'd be more forthcoming with answers than Blue had been.

Papa was getting better; Bae was sure of it. They'd walked from the Albert Memorial clear to the Italian Gardens and he'd only had to pause to rest three times! Why in winter, it had been an effort to get him out of bed some Sundays, though he'd always managed to be at the bank on time, no matter how tired he was.

When Bae had pressed him, Papa had said only that while this might be a realm without magic, it wasn't a realm without herbs and he knew of more than a few that would grant him the strength to persevere, at least, for now. But even with those herbs, Bae had seen how easily Papa had wearied, all efforts to hide his weakness to the contrary.

Today, today, Bae actually believed Papa might get well again, but he knew that damper days would return and when they did, Papa was often the worse for them. They needed to get somewhere drier and sunnier. Maybe, Bae thought with a pang, if he gave up his art lessons, he could put that money behind a trip to the seaside.

A cloud passed over the sun and Bae flinched in the slight shade. They might be able to get to the seaside, but the bank was unlikely to hold their positions open against their return. And would taking Papa out of London for a week or two be better or worse for him when they did return? Sometimes, it was easier to endure a bad situation when you didn't know that there was anything better. Maybe going and coming back would be worse than never going in the first place.

"Bae?" Papa was looking worried. "Is everything all right? I thought you'd enjoy the day here."

Bae turned to his father with a smile that belied his concern. "Everything's fine, Papa. I'm just getting a bit hungry. Let's look for a place where we can spread out our blanket."

Lunch wasn't elaborate, but it was filling enough. Afterwards, the two repaired to one of the wooden benches. Bae shared some of his impressions of the stories Rumple had marked for him to read and Rumple was only too happy to elaborate.

"So the evil queen is the Miller's daughter," Bae remarked.

"Well, she will be," Rumple nodded. "Though assuming she casts the Dark Curse—"

"The curse you created. Or," Bae frowned, "the curse you're going to create…?"

"In a manner of speaking," Rumple nodded. "I mean, the elements were fashioned by various wizards over the years. I didn't create the curse, so much as take advantage of the ingredients that were already there and reweave them into a pattern of my own devising. At any rate, when the curse brings everyone to this land, she'll find herself established as mayor, rather than queen."

Bae frowned. "Isn't that a big demotion in rank?"

"Well it's not as though there are kings and queens ruling the state of Maine," Rumple remarked. "Or did your studies gloss over that point?" He asked the question lightly, though it did pain him that Bae had ended his academic schooling so abruptly. Then again, in this time, the United States held only a fraction of the power it would later realize. Perhaps even the education Bae would have received had he earned that scholarship would have afforded him little help on that front. "At any rate," he continued, "the curse created an isolated town magically shielded from prying eyes and random passers-by. Whatever her title, Regina was very much the ruler of her own little kingdom, and all who dwelled therein."

"Surely not you, though," Bae said. "I-I mean, if it was your curse."

Rumple sighed. "One of the things I wove into that curse was a forgetting spell, designed to affect everyone except its caster. Perhaps, I could have exempted myself from it had there been time, and had I been free to do so, but it was more important that the curse bring me to this land than that I recalled the reason, until it became pertinent."

Bae frowned. "I-I don't understand."

Rumple sighed. "Do you recall what you shouted at my younger self, when he released your hand and we came here?" Seeing Bae lower his eyes, he smiled sadly. "I can see that you do."

"I'm sorry," Bae said. "I-I was angry, but I didn't mean to hurt—"

"I know. But you weren't wrong. When I made that deal with you, I meant it. Even when I was dragging my heels through the wood, I had every intention of going with you. But when the moment arrived and the portal opened, I… panicked. I knew what I'd promised, but I just couldn't do it. At that moment, I did everything in my power to remain back in our land. And then the portal closed and you were gone. The curse I created was my second chance to join you. Perhaps my last chance. And I couldn't risk my fear getting the better of me again. When the curse came, I needed to be powerless to prevent it or to prevent myself from being carried away by it. So, months before Regina cast it, I took steps to ensure that I would be powerless. Even if it meant that for much of the curse, I would be just as ignorant of the truth as nearly everyone else who was affected…"

The hour grew later as the two talked on, but Bae and Rumple scarcely noticed. Not when the children romping close by drifted away, bundled home for tea by parents and nannies. Not as the sun dipped lower in the sky and the shadows lengthened.

Not even when one shadow—a shadow that appeared to belong to a man, though there was no man present to whom it might fit—broke out from the penumbra of the trees to soar homeward through the clouding sky.

On it sailed, riding the air currents, testing the breezes, until it found one that smelled of milk pudding and stuffed toys—a breeze carrying a young child's dreams to the realm the Shadow called home.

Triumphantly, the Shadow leaped from the gust it was currently riding, landing easily upon new wind and settling in for its return to Neverland.

Pan listened to the Shadow's report, his cheeky smile never wavering, but there was a tightness in his eyes and a chill in his voice when the creature had finished. "So," he said. "Baelfire no longer feels lost and unloved." He shrugged. "Well, that's a shame. I suppose I'll have to find some other way to coax him here."

"Really?" the Shadow drawled. "Are you that upset he escaped you the first time?"

Pan smirked. "Come with me," he beckoned, taking to the air and sailing over the trees, guiding his companion to a clearing and alighting on a broad limb. He motioned toward another tree a short distance away, from which dangled a rectangular object about the size of a decent laundry hamper, covered by a woven mat of plaited grasses.

"Your disciplinary cases aren't of any interest to me," the Shadow remarked. "Why have you brought me here?"

"You misunderstand me, my old friend," Pan replied. "No, this one's here for his own protection. The other boys, well, they tend fear those who aren't quite like them and those whom they fear, they're likely to shun or destroy. They never once stop to think about how… useful such individuals might be."

Grinning, he flitted to the tree where the box hung and ceremoniously pulled back the tarp to reveal a wicker box with one end latticed. Judging by the light streaming in from above, the roof was similarly exposed. "Hello, again, lad," he said to the figure who crouched inside.

"P-please," a high voice whimpered. "The sun is so… bright in my eyes."

"And you've so many of them," Peter nodded, sounding almost apologetic. "Sorry. I just wanted to introduce you to a new friend."

"He's no friend of mine," the boy hissed, scuttling as far back as he could in the confined space. Even so, there was no missing the eyes that covered his exposed limbs, face, and the part of his torso visible beneath his ragged shirt. "Nor yours, for that matter."

Pan chuckled. "Well, perhaps not," he said, "but we've learned to get along. There aren't many of us on this island, lad," he went on. "Can't go making enemies when we all depend on each other, now, can we?"

The boy didn't answer the question. "Have you brought me any water, then?" he asked instead.

"Something better, actually," he said, handing over a small leather bag. "Eat them. They're sweet as well as juicy."

The child—who couldn't have been much older than ten or eleven—dropped the bag to the jungle floor. "You think to use wirberries to make me tell you more than I already have," the boy proclaimed. "But I've told you all I know."

"Then why are you afraid you'll tell me more?" Pan asked, the hard edge back in his voice.

The boy laughed. "Do you imagine that the future is an easy thing to see? Even with all my eyes, much is hidden. I've told you all I know now, but not all I may come to know in future. Someday, I think I will need my secrets and when that day comes, you will be far more suspicious should I refuse your berries then."

For a moment, something rather like anger flashed across Pan's face, but then he laughed aloud. "Well-argued, my friend! Well-argued, indeed. Well, then. Tell me again what you told me at our first meeting. About Baelfire."

"Your grandson?" Neal's whispery voice took on a mocking lilt. "Of course, Peter Pan does not like to be reminded that he's old enough to have one."

"Get on with it," Peter said sharply, giving the basket a kick so that it bobbed wildly in the tree for a moment.

The boy uttered no outcry, though he did clench dirty multi-eyed fingers about the bars of his basket. Only when the swaying stopped did he calmly reply, "Baelfire will come to you when he remembers who his father is. When the betrayal cuts so cruel and so close that he flees into the night. When that happens, he will become the hero he's never realized he can be and then, he will be yours until the time comes when you must release him."

"Must?" Peter prompted. He'd heard this before, of course, but he wanted this part repeated for the Shadow's benefit, as well. "Why must I release him?"

"The Truest Believer must descend from the greatest of Light and of Dark," the boy replied at once. His voice rose shrilly and seemed to whisper in the wind that rustled the trees about them, reverberating breathily in the leaves. "On the Island of the Skull, mark the sand in the upper glass. When half as much remains within as does now, the time will be at hand. Release the son of Dark to his fate and he will find it with the champion of Light. From that union will spring the Truest Believer, but take care lest that child come into his destiny too late to help you. For to fulfill his task, he must be of age to understand the sacrifice that must be made and do so both freely and of his own free will. He must reach this understanding before the last of the sand falls to the lower glass, for should he fail in this, so must you!"

As he finished, the boy slumped to the floor of his basket-prison, breathing heavily. Pan grinned. "Thank you, my dear friend," he said heartily. Now, he took a water-skin from his belt and dropped it through the ceiling of the basket. "Drink up, lad. You've done well. Rest now; I'll give you the peace and privacy for it." So saying, he replaced the grass mat, draping it carefully over the bars. Then he led the Shadow to another tree, some distance away.

"Do you understand now?" he asked, still smiling. "Go back to this 'London' place where you discovered him. Observe him. Find out all you can about him: how he spends his time, who his friends are… Report back to me periodically. I can't predict when my son might show his colors, but as for giving Baelfire an opportunity to play hero, well! I think we ought to be able to arrange that in due course…

"At first," Henry said, two days later, when he was finally allowed to visit Rumple again, "I thought that they were just more copies of my book, only they're different," he went on. "I mean, in this version, it says that you killed the maid when—" He looked away, "sorry."

Rumple shook his head. "Don't be afraid of the truth, Henry," he said softly. "I was considerably less… restrained," he smiled apologetically, "in my younger days." He sighed. "It happened."

Henry nodded. "But it happened differently in my book," he said. "In my book, it says that your uncle—who I guess was you?" He waited for his grandfather's nod. "You helped her escape and you," he took another breath, "the younger you killed her grandfather instead."

Rumple winced. "That was an accident," he murmured. "At least, I believe it must have been. Though since I imagine he'd gone to that house with murder on his mind, and since Talorc did pay the price for it, I suppose I can understand why the book left that part out of it."

Henry absorbed that. "But Grandpa," he said, after a moment, "how did it really happen? I mean, which version's the right one?"

Rumple smiled slowly. "Why both of them," he replied at once. "Of course."

Chapter 39: Chapter Thirty-Nine

Notes:

A/N: According to Wikipedia, an Oni is a demon, ogre, or troll in Japanese folklore.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Nine

"I-I don't understand," Belle said a half-beat before Henry could express similar confusion. "How…"

Rumple took another sip from the can of meal replacement drink and pointed to the book open before him. "This," he said, "is the account of our land's history as it happened when I lived it the first time and this," he gestured to the other one, "is how it happened after I stepped through the time portal. It seems," he said slowly, "that while I did make certain changes, it's as though I superimposed them over what transpired originally. Obscured," he clarified, frowning, "but not erased. Not entirely."

"Pentimento," Belle said suddenly.

Rumple looked startled for a moment, but then he nodded. "I believe that's as good a term as any for it, yes," he agreed.

"Huh?" Henry turned from one to the other. "What's that?"

Belle smiled. "Well, sometimes, an artist may paint a new picture over an existing one for some reason," she explained. "Canvas, good canvas suitable for artwork could be costly, particularly in kingdoms where conditions weren't suitable for hemp cultivation. So, if an artist had painted a picture that they disliked o-or recognized wasn't fit to sell or meet a commission, or they merely wanted to alter one of the details, they wouldn't just toss the thing away; not when the canvas could be reused."

"Okay," Henry said, "but they couldn't just erase the first picture?"

"Oil paints don't lend themselves easily to that," Rumple murmured. "There are some mediums that can be chipped off, but that can damage the canvas if one's a bit too vigorous. Painting over an unwanted image is generally preferable, even if, over time, the original lines may show through."

"Is that going to happen with what you did?" Henry asked. "I mean, if there are two versions of what happened, then I don't understand how they can both be right. I mean, either it happened one way or the other, right?"

Rumple's expression turned pensive. "I'm not entirely certain of that," he admitted. "After all, it's not like any time-travel spell has ever worked before. Be that as it may," he continued, "when I remember my past, it certainly doesn't involve an older version of myself turning up on my doorstep to try to convince me to make different choices. And yet, I do recall stepping through the witch's portal and doing something very much along those lines. I'm not at all certain how to reconcile it all, but I suspect that those volumes may hold the key." He took another breath. "Might I trouble you to leave them here with me? I think I'd like to study them at length."

Henry grinned. "No problem, Grandpa." But all the same, he kept his grip on his own storybook a moment longer than was strictly necessary. It was the first time he'd let it out of his possession since Emma had given it to him in the forest, restoring his memories. Maybe, he thought suddenly, it was going to do the same thing for his grandfather! Just not all at once.

They were able to get to Kensington Gardens twice more before the winter rains really set in. Rumple's cough returned in earnest that December and although he smiled and agreed when Bae told him it wouldn't be long before spring arrived and he'd feel better then, he rather thought that the real truth lay elsewhere. He believed he might have another year, perhaps two or three, but if Bae didn't recall that he'd been stronger at this time last winter, well, Rumple believed that his own memory was a bit better.

Meanwhile, he continued teaching Bae the truth behind the characters in the books that now graced the shelf on the wooden nightstand Mr. Gargery had helped them to procure.

"But will I meet them?" Bae asked one evening. "I mean, if you're here with me, am I ever going to find this Storybrooke place, or will I just stay here?"

Rumple sighed. "That's the conundrum," he admitted. "I do know that in the original timeline, you didn't stay in this place permanently. When I eventually found my way to this land and we were reunited, we," he swallowed and forced himself to smile, "well, we didn't focus on the time we'd spent apart. In that timeline, a timeline where, in a moment of weakness, I let you go through the portal alone…" His voice trailed off as he tried to find the right words.

"Papa?" Bae asked finally, and he blinked, startled and began to cough.

"I'm fine, son," he managed, crumpling his handkerchief without looking to see if he'd brought up any bloody phlegm this time. "Just fine."

"I can go downstairs and see if Emmy's still in the scullery. If she is, maybe she can make you some tea, Papa."

Rumple smiled sadly. "Trying to move back to a safer subject?" he asked.

Bae twitched guiltily. "I was just…"

"I know. And it's not an easy topic of conversation. The truth is," he shook his head, "the truth is that even on those rare occasions when your behavior was poor enough to warrant discussion, I hated doing it. And the way things happened the first time, the way I let you go, well, you had every right to still be angry with me when I finally found you again."

Bae's eyes widened with horror. "I stayed mad at you for two hundred years?"

Rumple sighed. And then, calling on a courage he hadn't thought he possessed, he steeled himself to say, "If it makes you feel any better, son, I stayed mad at my own father for quite a bit longer. And while the reason is similar, it is far from identical, though of course, I can understand why it must have seemed so to you…"

Maybe Bae wasn't going to meet any of the people he'd been reading about. Perhaps, in this new timeline, he'd never go to Neverland. But if there was any chance that he would, then the lad needed to be prepared for the latter at least as much as for the former.

He was getting a headache trying to puzzle things out. If he'd truly gone back in time to change things, then the younger man he'd once been should have remembered it. And yet, although he clearly recalled stepping through the time portal, arriving back in the land of his birth, and meeting his younger self, the man he'd once been had no recollection of ever meeting his time-travelling elder self.

He hadn't been lying or cryptic when he'd told Henry that both versions of the past were true; he'd lived each of them. But how could they both be true at once?

He thrust the book away with a frustrated sound and it wedged between the bed rail and the mattress. Wincing a bit, he remembered that the volume wasn't his, but merely borrowed, and he tugged it free and set it down atop its companion on the table beside his bed.

He was beginning to think that perhaps, no time travel spells had been successfully cast before now, not because they wouldn't have worked, but because their creators had been able to appreciate the paradoxes that might ensue if they had. Not wanting to risk such chaos, they had wisely backed away from making the attempt. He rather suspected that had such a spell come into his possession back in his land, he might have consigned it to the vault where he'd secured such dangerous and unstable magic as was beyond even his comprehension.

Or perhaps, he still would have seized the opportunity to go back and try to stop himself from making the errors that had torn Bae from him after all.

Like the two versions of his history sitting beside him, both possibilities might have happened. And he was hard-put to say which version was the more accurate.

Bae shook his head and whistled. "You had a bean, too," he said. "And you also wanted to start over…?"

"I did," Rumple nodded, taking a moment to cough into his handkerchief. A dry cough this time, mercifully; merely the result of a throat gone parched from prolonged talking. He raised the mug of water to his lips and took a gulp. "It seemed like our best chance: a fresh start, someplace where my father's reputation wouldn't ruin him in advance. I still had faith in him, you see," he sighed. "Well. I was a bit younger than you. I knew my father was far from perfect, but…" He shook his head. "I suppose it's one thing to be told your father is a good-for-nothing wastrel and another to realize that what you've been told is no more than what's true."

"Like…" Bae's eyes went wide and he nearly choked. "Nothing."

Rumple smiled sadly, guessing what Bae must have been about to refer to. "It wasn't 'nothing' when Hordor told you you were a coward's son," he murmured. "Nor when I confirmed it a day later. But, at least, for all I tried to hide them from you, I recognize my shortcomings. My papa did not."

"And you never saw him again after that," Bae guessed.

Rumple took another breath, coughed, gulped down a bit more water and finally managed, "Not until a bit more than two years ago."

"Before you—" Bae stopped himself. "No, It was almost three years ago that I saw you slipping into our sheepfold, so it must have happened back in our land, not that Storybrooke place," he said. "When? And what was he doing there? Why come all that way and not say 'hello'? Or was it you who went back to that place your bean brought you to…?"

"To answer your questions in order," Rumple said slowly, "it was shortly after you began to feel the restrictiveness of your environment most keenly. He was… gathering a collection of followers, or so he told me. And I believe you're best able to answer whether he did say 'hello' to you, or merely piped out a lively tune for you to dance about a campfire."

Bae's eyes went wide. "The piper," he breathed.

"Your grandfather," Rumple confirmed.

"Did…" Bae hesitated. "Did he know who I was?"

Rumple frowned. "By the time I took you back with me, he did. I'm not certain about earlier. He claimed that the tune he played could only be heard by those who felt… unloved and aban—"

Bae's hand pressed firmly down on his. "I don't feel like that anymore, Papa," he said firmly. "And even back then, I didn't feel like that all the time. Just when you'd spend hours spinning gold or polishing the dag—"

"That's," Rumple swallowed hard. "That's good to know, son. Truly."

"So we don't have to talk about him anymore," Bae said. "That's all in the past."

Rumple swallowed again. "Well," he said, "we can hope so."

"Papa?"

The clock in the downstairs hall chimed and Rumple counted the tones and realized that it was already eleven o'clock. He shook his head and smiled. "I fear we may indeed need to continue this discussion, but not tonight. The hour is late and you must rise before I do tomorrow." He affected a yawn. "I need my sleep, as well." Needed to marshal his thoughts and brace himself for whatever questions Bae might have on the next part of the story, more like, but he was indeed tired. And now that the tales he was sharing were more personal, they were taking a toll on his emotional strength, even as his illness taxed his physical. Both could use a rest. So he was relieved when Bae only nodded, pulled his nightshirt out from under his pillow, and, bidding him a good night, began to undress in the flickering candlelight. Rumple pulled his own nightshirt out from under his pillow and proceeded to do the same.

Bae knew he had to tell Carstone he couldn't continue with the lessons. Each tuppence (he finally believed he understood the money here, though crowns and guineas still tripped him up somewhat) and thruppence that went toward studies and supplies were tuppence and thruppence that might get them to the seashore if he could get together enough of them. He'd send Papa alone if he thought it would help, but he knew what Papa had told him back home when he'd talked about being called to the front.

I don't want to think that could happen, Bae. No, no, the war will end before you're of age for the army. It must. For if they took you from me, if you were lost, then I think I would be as well.

Something about his expression must have checked Papa then, for he'd immediately smiled and told him not to worry about such things and that he'd best see to milking the ewes now. But Bae still remembered the bleak desolation in Papa's eyes, and he suspected that Papa was a good deal sicker now than he was letting on. What if Papa was fighting his illness now, only because he still had so much he wanted to share? And if he went to the sea without Bae, would he still fight as hard?

More practical matters reared their heads. He couldn't just put Papa on a railway train and trust that there would be suitable lodging when he got there. No, arrangements would need to be made and Bae wouldn't feel right about them unless he saw the room for himself. He would have to go with Papa, and if he did, he doubted they'd be back in London soon. He'd need to find work to support them both. And while he might get a reference from the bank if he asked, suppose the bank in wherever they were going to had no position open for him? He could find other work, but that might take time. And when he heard people talk of going 'to the sea', they sounded as though they were talking of small towns and hamlets. There would be fewer jobs there, especially for an outsider.

Maybe, a thought came to him, maybe he could be an art tutor, like Mr. Carstone! He knew he couldn't teach the advanced stuff, but surely he could handle basic technique. He'd been living in this society long enough to realize that many parents wanted their children to know how to draw and paint reasonably well, but they didn't expect or intend for them to become artists. He might not be a great artist yet—or ever—but he did think he was good enough to teach what he did know, even if it would probably be to children slightly older than Michael!

He'd talk to Mr. Carstone about it tonight.

Rumple supposed that he could have used his magic to do something about his limp by now. The 'Tavronius serum' was probably out of his system and he was feeling a bit stronger. All the same, he was out of practice and magic could be physically draining, particularly when one was out of practice. Even when he'd brought the stuff to Storybrooke, he'd initially resorted to magical devices, like the one he'd used to summon the wraith. A day or so later, when Regina had come to him for Cora's old spell book, he'd conjured it up without thinking and paid for that extravagance with the worst headache he'd had in… well, over twenty-eight years, actually. After that, he'd gone back to spinning straw into gold until he got the knack of it back again.

Well, perhaps it hadn't been three decades this time, but three years was more than enough for him not to try dabbling unnecessarily. Leaning on his cane, he made his way out the room. Perhaps, he wasn't quite ready to go home, but the hospital had a rooftop terrace and, even if Storybrooke wasn't quite the town Bae had envisioned when he'd talked about a trip to the sea, it was on the ocean and fresh air would do him good. Or, at least, it wouldn't do him harm and he'd been cooped up long enough.

Once in the corridor, he headed for the elevator.

The lesson hadn't been going on for more than ten minutes before Bae realized that he was the only student who was actually focusing on the task at hand. True that Wendy and John had always been a bit less enthusiastic about the lessons than he was; he'd overheard Wendy explaining to Michael that it was something they needed if they were to become accomplished young ladies and gentlemen, but it sounded like she'd been repeating what she'd been told without fully believing it.

Not for the first time, he wondered whether they would have chosen these lessons had their parents asked them. It didn't seem fair to any of the Darlings: when you forced someone to do something, they usually ended up hating it, and why should their parents pay for the instruction if their children didn't enjoy it—especially since he didn't believe that they actually wanted their children to become artists in the first place?

Sometimes, Bae wished that he was living back in Pen Marmor. Life may have been harsh there, but it wasn't that much easier here. And the waters of the society he'd left behind were, to his mind, a good deal easier to navigate.

"Why do you two keep looking to the window?" Carstone asked sharply. Bae jumped a bit at the harsh tone. Wendy and John twitched guiltily.

"I… The stars are so bright this evening," Wendy said quickly and John pumped his head up and down in agreement.

Carstone shook his head. "Perhaps, we ought to try skyscapes next," he allowed, "but for now, young miss and young sir, I must ask you to focus on your still life."

The two children nodded, but it was clear that they were reluctant to tear their gaze from the window. Bae wondered at it. The view wasn't much to speak of; just the street below and the houses across it—houses just as staid and uninteresting to look upon as all of the other row houses on this block, the Darling house included. You practically had to go straight to the window and crane your head up to see any stars at all and there weren't nearly as many visible here as there had been back home. (Papa said that there probably were more stars than could be seen out there, but the fog and the factory smoke obscured all but the brightest.) Moreover, given that Wendy and John lived here, Bae imagined they must have seen those houses a million times, by day and by night, and they'd have a better view of the stars upstairs from the nursery window.

But when he sent curious glances in their directions, each smiled mysteriously and attacked their canvas with sudden vigor.

Rumple had the terrace to himself despite the mild temperature, and the sunlight felt good on his face. He still cast no shadow, though. Frowning, he lifted one hand in a peculiar gesture and a moment later, he smiled to hear a familiar-but-long-absent song in the wind. Well. There was nobody in Storybrooke currently in need of a good stabbing, not with the witch gone, and he wasn't yet up to full strength.

He waved his hand again and the song grew fainter, fading away utterly a moment later.

His shadow was here, after all. And so was his dagger. At the moment though, both could manage quite well at a distance.

He glanced at the sky and realized from the sun's position that he'd already been out here for an hour or more. While part of him rather wanted to see the entire hospital staff frantically searching for a missing patient, he reminded himself forcefully that this place was in the business of saving lives, both his and, perhaps, that of someone who might be of some use to him down the road. It would be a shame to lose such a potential asset to a moment's mischief. Besides, he was probably due for another round of antibiotics right about now.

Half-reluctantly, half-resignedly, he made his way back to the elevator.

When the doors parted at his floor and he stepped out, he realized that the elevator car beside his had also opened and Snow White had emerged. "Oh!" she started when she saw him. "Mr. G— Rumpelstiltskin," she corrected herself.

He inclined his head slightly. "You're well, I trust?"

She nodded. "Just here for Neal's two-month check-up," she said, smiling down at the bundle in the sling at her chest.

"Ah." He hesitated. "I do believe this is my first opportunity to thank you for your," he hesitated for the barest of instances, before continuing, "choice of names."

Snow shook her head. "We named him for a hero," she said firmly.

A year ago—or was it more than three—he would have heard, "Even though he was your son," in that rejoinder. But he was a bit older and, perhaps a bit wiser, now. At least wise enough to recognize that, as had been the case in Pen Marmor, perhaps keeping one's walls up allowed for as much heartache as it shut out. Still, he wondered whether he was making a mistake when he asked pleasantly, "And was that the only reason?"

Snow didn't answer for a moment. Then, tearing her eyes from her son to lock them on his own, she said, "I was… hoping… After you di— After you made the elixir for David and stopped Pan, and we thought…" She took a breath. "I know you wouldn't have helped Zelena if she hadn't held the dagger. Me casting the curse to bring us all back here, Emma and Henry returning…" Her words were coming fast, nearly tumbling out, but her eyes were steady as she took another breath. "This is a second chance for all of us. I thought that maybe naming our son after yours would help start things on the right foot." She gave him an apologetic smile. "Actually, I wanted to call him Leopold, but David wouldn't let me."

Rumple blinked. "I'm not sure how I'm supposed to take that," he admitted.

"Should we have gone with Baelfire instead?" she asked a little worriedly.

He shook his head. "No. That's a name for another realm. And as we appear to be making our home in this one for the foreseeable future," he smiled, "and let me assure you that I can foresee a great deal, yet—Neal is, by far, the more suitable choice."

Snow hesitated. And then she adjusted the sling so that Rumple could get a better view. "Zelena," Snow ventured haltingly, "she… she's not coming back. Is she?"

Rumple shook his head. "Doubtful," he said bleakly. "Not entirely impossible, I grant you, but very, very, doubtful."

"So, you didn't…?"

"What, kill her?" Rumple chuckled at that. He took her point. Had he killed her, he would have definitely ascertained that she was positively, absolutely, undeniably, and reliably dead. "No. Well. Not directly, at any rate."

"Not directly?" Snow repeated.

Rumple sighed. In point of fact, it was nice not to have people automatically assuming the worst of him. Moreover, he knew that Regina was lurking about hoping to get the whole story. Regina… and likely a number of others. But if he were to share the story with the woman standing before him now, there was no doubt in his mind that he'd only need to share it this once. By nightfall, the others would have the gist of it as well. "How much time can you spare?" he asked, gesturing toward a wooden bench against one of the walls of the corridor.

Snow looked at her watch. "Well, the appointment's in ten minutes, but I think Dr. Whale's running late. The nurse said she'd call me when he was ready," she added, sitting down.

Rumple nodded. "I think ten minutes might just suffice," he said, joining her on the bench. "Provided you keep your interruptions to a minimum." He waited for her to nod. Then, he settled himself a bit more comfortably, took a deep breath, and told her what she wanted to know.

"The Ogre War?" Regina asked later, setting down the cup that had been raised halfway to her lips.

"Well, technically, they were called Oni in the south, but it might have been the same species. Mulan suggested as much after we—that is to say, she, Emma, and I—fought an Ogre back in the Enchanted Forest." The warrior had noted then that the two races had virtually identical appearances, fighting styles and weaknesses, but that the Oni's skin had more of a reddish cast to it. Human skin came in a variety of shades; perhaps Ogres and Oni were much the same.

Regina shook her head. "So, that's what he was starting to tell me last week when I brought Henry to visit him." She shook her head. "Henry was down in the cafeteria when Rumple started to tell me, and when he came back, it kind of put a stop to the conversation. You know," she said slowly, "when all of this was over, I thought…" She exhaled. "Foolish, I know, but when I was a little girl, I wanted a sister. I suppose I was hoping that, once we defeated her—and with your charming husband and daughter on our side, we would have; Good usually does manage to carry the day in the end—well, maybe we could have given her a chance." She looked away for a moment, a faint blush coming to her cheeks. "It wasn't so long ago that I embraced my role as the Evil Queen, and now—"

"You used Light magic in that battle," Snow interjected. When Regina looked at her again, she shrugged. "David told me."

"Well, it proves my point," Regina sighed, after a moment. "If I could come back after being the Evil Queen, there's at least a possibility that she could have after being the Wicked Witch." She shook her head. "Not that Rumple would see it that way, I imagine."

"Not after that year," Snow agreed, shaking her head sadly.

Regina sighed again. "Well, if he told you the truth about what happened, I must admit it sounds as though her fate was almost entirely of her own making. And even if she eventually regained her magic—and I think that if she'd regained it entirely, we'd almost certainly have learned about her in the history books with that kind of power—to go about creating another time portal, finding the necessary components all over again…" She shook her head. "No, I'm very much of the opinion that, whatever ultimately became of my sister, we've probably seen the last of her."

Snow exhaled. "Are you okay?"

Regina blinked. Then she gave her stepdaughter a quick smile. "Oh, I'm hardly about to dissolve in a flood of tears over her any more than she'd dissolve in a bucket of water. All the same," she continued, pushing back her chair and rising to go to the sideboard, "I think this news calls for something a little stronger than tea. Care to join me in a glass of cider?"

"I'd better not," Snow said apologetically. "I'm nursing. Unless you've got any without alcohol?"

"I'll pour you another cup of tea."

"Well," David smiled, "at least we can be fairly sure that Neal's safe, now." Snow nodded, but her husband noted the strain in her smile. "What?"

Snow shook her head. "It was something he said when I… When I asked him to confirm that she wasn't coming back…"

She'd listened carefully as he told her the tale, not interrupting, just nodding and 'uh-huh-ing' at the appropriate intervals, trying not to let her feelings show on her face. She'd been steeling herself to hear what she'd guessed must have happened. She'd seen the cage. She'd seen the wretch that Zelena had reduced him to. She knew that the witch had not only enslaved him, but murdered the son he'd needed two centuries and a Dark Curse to find.

She also knew what 'not directly' had meant when he'd decided to avenge Belle's treatment before and during the curse at Regina's hands.

She'd been braced for, well, something entirely different from what she was hearing now. When Rumple was done, she sighed. "So," said simply, "she never made it back from the past."

"I wouldn't think so," Rumple confirmed. And then he'd raised an eyebrow and said almost casually, "so the portal took care of one evil anyway."

He'd said it almost casually, but there had been a bitter edge to the words she recognized as her own—or close enough to them.

—I get Cora's heart, I control her and make her do the right thing, and I let you die. Takes care of two evils at once.

"I…" Her throat was suddenly dry. "I was in a bad place when I said that."

He blinked and Snow suddenly wondered whether she'd only imagined the bitter edge she'd heard a moment ago. Then he smiled. "I suppose I've been in similar circ*mstances a time or two," he murmured.

And again, Snow wasn't sure if he was commiserating with her or subtly reminding her that his actions would have been far less likely to be excused for such a reason.

Was it the Dark One who was needling her, or the pricklings of her own conscience? She didn't know the answer to that question and she didn't think she could argue the point, whoever it was that was making it. Instead, she mumbled something about how she'd meant it when she'd been talking about second chances, no longer sure if she was offering one or asking for one as she'd hurried off to see if Dr. Whale was ready for her.

Now, as she related the conversation to David, she ended with, "When he's out of the hospital, we're taking him to Granny's to celebrate. Belle, too."

David knew that there would be no debating his wife when she took that tone, even had he wanted to.

Bae still hadn't got up the nerve to approach Carstone about his ideas. He suspected that the art teacher would scoff at him and tell him he was nowhere near ready, and perhaps that was true, but Bae still dreaded hearing it. Well, the lesson was over and Carstone had just left, so tonight was one more evening gone with his thoughts unvoiced. He noticed that Wendy and John seemed to be in a hurry to put their supplies away this evening. True, the lesson had run later than usual this evening, but normally, the siblings took their time, fussing with their canvases, chatting with him and with one another, and taking ten minutes to tidy what could be done in five.

"You see," John had explained once, "we're only allowed outside the nursery for lessons and once they're over we're supposed to go back there. And since Michael must be in bed early, we must as well. The longer we stay out here putting our things away, the longer we can stay awake."

Bae understood that, and he did agree with them that it was unfair that they all needed to be in bed at the same time. True, back in Pen Marmor, the entire household usually went to sleep at a common hour, but that was because once night fell, candles were the only option for illumination and highly dangerous inside a straw-thatched wooden shack. When it got dark, it didn't matter if you were two or a hundred and two; you went to sleep unless you absolutely, positively had to risk the candle and then you had to force yourself to stay awake while it burned. However, this wasn't Pen Marmor and Wendy and John never hurried.

Bae was just wiping down one of his paint jars, when he heard John ask, "Do you think the shadow will come tonight, Wendy?"

"Oh, I hope so," his sister breathed.

His interest caught, Bae turned to them both with a puzzled look. "The what?"

The Darling children exchanged cautious glances, first at one another, and then at Bae. Finally, John shrugged and Wendy smiled. "Why don't you come upstairs with us?" she suggested to Bae. "I'm sure it'll be all right for you to see it too."

"See what?" Bae asked.

"Wendy!" John urged, "If it's coming, it'll be soon!"

Wendy nodded. "Come with us, Baelfire," she said, seizing his hand eagerly. "I'll explain on the way upstairs."

Chapter 40: Chapter Forty

Notes:

A/N: Some dialogue lifted/tweaked from S2E21: Second Star to the Right.

Chapter Text

Chapter Forty

"What's going on?" Bae asked as Wendy tugged him along.

"Shh!" she enjoined. "Don't let Mother or Father hear."

Bae stopped short and Wendy, startled, fell back into him. He barely registered it. "I'm serious, Wendy," he said. "What are we hiding from your parents? What is it you want to show me? What—?"

"If he's going to be this tiresome about it, perhaps it's best he goes home, after all," John drawled from the top of the stairs. "It might not even come tonight."

"What might not come?" Bae asked, whispering now, but fiercely.

Wendy, still leaning into him, turned to face him and clapped her free hand daringly to his shoulder. "A few weeks ago," she said, "right about the time the winter rains set in, this… shadow—it came to the window. Only it's not attached to a body!" she exclaimed. Then she clapped a hand to her mouth, realizing her voice had risen in a squeal and looked about guiltily, but her parents didn't appear to have heard. "Baelfire, it can do so many wonderful things, like change its shape and fly and travel between worlds. And do you know why? Because it has magic!"

Bae felt his blood run cold. Magic? There wasn't supposed to be any magic here! They'd come to this place to escape it! And then he felt an almost wild hope surging in him. But what if magic could cure Papa? He didn't know what to do. Papa might, but if he found out that there was magic in this place, then what if he—

Bae squelched that thought. Papa had never once said he missed being the Dark One. He wouldn't—

But what if he did? He'd been desperate enough to become the Dark One to keep his son from being drafted and end the Ogres War. What if he was desperate enough to use magic to save his life?

And was that a bad thing?

It might not be. But…

"Wendy," he said urgently, "listen to me. Magic is dangerous. It always comes with a price."

"Oh, don't be silly," the girl scoffed.

"I mean it," Bae said. "Whatever you do, promise me you'll never open that window again. Promise me you won't talk to this shadow."

"I'm not going to promise anything of the kind," Wendy announced. "And you needn't be so horrid about things. Perhaps you'd better go home after all," she added. "It's getting late and John and I had best withdraw."

"Wendy," Bae said, grasping her sleeve, even as she released him. "Wendy, please, at least promise me you won't open the window tonight."

"What's so special about tonight?" John demanded.

"I want to talk to someone about this," Bae hedged. "Someone I trust who knows more about this than I do. Wendy, please."

Wendy sighed. "Oh, very well," she relented. "We've probably missed it by now anyway."

"Gracious," a new voice cut in. "Master Baelfire, are you still here?"

Bae turned to behold Liza approaching, her maid's black dress and apron as immaculate as always. "Only just," he said. "Wendy was showing me out."

"It's past the young miss's bedtime," Liza remarked. She nodded sternly to the children, but there was a twinkle in her eye as she said, "Upstairs, the both of you." To Bae, she added, "I'll see you to the door myself."

Bae had been debating whether to go up to the nursery after all, just to make certain that no 'shadow' was coming, but Liza's statement settled the issue. Belatedly, he remembered that he wasn't coming back here again until Monday, five days from now, and he'd only asked Wendy to keep away from the shadow this one night. But even wringing that concession had been like pulling teeth and he couldn't hope to prevail further, not with Liza here listening. He wondered whether he oughtn't to try anyway; perhaps the maid might be sufficiently alarmed to take precautions. No, he realized. Liza would think they were playing some silly game and take nothing seriously. So he sighed and said only, "Goodnight, Wendy. John."

With their soft farewells in his ears, he let Liza show him out. Once on the Darlings' front door step, he hurried off into the night. He had to talk to Papa.

"This looks good," Whale informed him cheerfully. "I mean, you're not quite back to where you were, but you're getting there."

Rumple smiled. "So, I can hope for a release in the not-so-distant future, then?" he asked.

Whale hesitated. "Level with me," he said, his smile vanishing. "You were on bed rest for a number of weeks before you started getting around again. Normally, that necessitates physical therapy to restore muscle function—"

"I was under the impression that those… jumping exercises your overly-chipper colleague pressed on me were to compensate for that," Rumple interrupted testily. Really, one might have been forgiven for thinking that leaping about in his condition would extend his bed-rest, particularly if he were to overtax his bad ankle, but the therapist had modified the program to compensate for his disability. "And those silly stretches."

"Not so silly, since they seem to be working," Whale pointed out. "But you seem to be needing your cane quite a bit more than you did a year ago, which would imply that you'll still need to continue with them." He hesitated. "That doesn't mean, however, that you need to continue them as an in-patient."

Rumple felt a faint stirring of hope.

"You could use magic, too," Whale continued. "Now that you're off the Tavronius serum. However, if you should ever find yourself over the town line, or if anything were to happen to neutralize magic here—"

Rumple winced. "I'd be a worse cripple than I was under the curse," he supplied.

"I've never seen anything like that serum before," Whale admitted. "I didn't know if it was safe to keep you on it indefinitely, so we started weaning you off it as soon as we knew that the TB treatment was working properly. At this point, now that your symptoms have cleared up, while you still need to complete the treatment, there's no reason to suppress your magic. But as for your muscle strength…"

"I didn't use the cane in Neverland," Rumple said softly. "Magic healed my ankle there, or at least, it," he smiled, "masked the injury. And when I returned, I continued using magic for that purpose. Spending over two years in Edwardian England was… quite the adjustment. Well. My ankle may be a lost cause, but as for the rest of it?" He shook his head, but he was smiling. "What must I do to regain that strength?"

"I believe Silvermist has a program drawn up," Whale replied, naming the fairy who'd assigned him the initial exercises. "Or will have by the time I have her stop by this afternoon. If she's satisfied you're able to complete the exercises on your own," he smiled back, "I think we can probably discharge you at the end of the week."

Rumple raised an eyebrow. "And by 'on my own', I take it you mean…"

"I mean without medical supervision," Whale said. "If you want to use magic as a crutch now, you run the risk of needing to do it on an ongoing basis down the road." He shrugged. "I'm not going to stop you from cheating, but you'll only end up cheating yourself in the long run."

"Point taken. Well. I suppose I'd best await the water sprite then," he said, with just a hint of his old sarcasm.

Whale grinned.

Rumple was in the scullery downing a cup of tea that Emmy had cheerfully provided him when Bae slipped in. He smiled a greeting, but it froze almost at once when he saw the expression on his son's face.

"Good," Bae said quickly. "I was hoping you'd still be awake. I have to talk to you about…" His voice trailed off when he realized his father wasn't alone in the scullery. "I have to talk to you," he repeated.

Rumple locked his eyes on Bae's and his smile dropped away entirely. "Well, then," he said, wondering what had so unnerved his son, "I suppose we'd best repair upstairs. Might I finish this first?" he asked, lifting his cup.

Bae nodded. "But I really do have to talk to you." He blinked as Emmy set a steaming mug down before him and smiled over his shoulder at her. "Thanks." Then he looked down at the cup and realized it wasn't tea. "What is it?"

The kitchen maid beamed. "Horlicks, Master Baelfire," she said. "Warming and it steadies the nerves."

Rumple sent a faint nod of approval in Emmy's direction as well. Alcohol and laudanum seemed to be common enough remedies in this time and place that shunning them brought odd looks. It had been much the same in the land of his birth. But three decades in Maine a century hence had given Rumple an attitude toward juvenile drinking that was, perhaps, ahead of his time. Ahead of this time, too, at any rate. Horlicks, though, was only hot milk with malt and barley. "Drink up, son," he encouraged. "And then, you can tell me what has you in such a state."

"Home?" Belle repeated, clasping Rumple's hands in her own. "That's wonderful!" Her smile dimmed somewhat as she continued, "I've kept the shop in good order, but as for your house, I imagine it's in need of a good cleaning after all these weeks. Is it… Did you, uh, protect it?"

Rumple sighed. "I'm afraid so. During the curse I suffered one burglary. As soon as I brought magic here, I made use of some security that's a bit more effective than deadbolt locks and alarms." He frowned. "Not that I'd advise you to experiment; should you run afoul of the spells I employed, you'd find yourself frozen where you stood until I happened by to release you, and seeing as it will be at least another week until I'm likely to be discharged, I imagine you'd find the experience," he gave her an apologetic smile, "somewhat distressing and not a little humiliating. However, it's just barely possible that those spells were undone when," he hesitated for just a moment, "well, when I died, I suppose, but weren't raised anew upon my resurrection."

Belle blinked. "You mean, you aren't—" She caught herself. "No, of course you aren't sure. Magic can't bring back the dead, or at least not usually, so until now the question's never… come up."

"Correct." He smiled. "I suppose it's a good job I was in such a hurry to stop Pan that I didn't think to raise the protections on the shop when I tore off into the street. Nor could I have," he recalled a moment later, "wearing the cuff as I was. At least you had access to its contents to aid you against the witch."

"For the small good it did me," Belle sighed. "Really, stopping her was all Emma and Regina."

"Ah, well," Rumple sighed, still smiling. "At least, it helped you to piece together what had happened after Bae brought me back. Well," he said again, taking another breath, "enough of the past. Once I'm free to return home, I can't imagine I'll care much how dusty the place might be. I must admit I'm looking forward to a night spent in my own bed again."

"Um, you know," Belle said, smiling in turn, "that house may be big, but it's quite a bit smaller than your castle was and I somehow managed to keep that clean and free of dust. If you need some help…"

"I will," Rumple said. He seemed to realize that he was still holding her hands, though he didn't release them. "But I've managed without a housekeeper here and I imagine I could continue to do so easily enough. However…" His breath seemed to catch and his tongue was suddenly heavy. "I…" Why was it so hard to get the words out?

"Rumple?" She started to withdraw her hands. "Are you all right? I'll call a nurse—"

"No!" he exclaimed, tightening his grip. Then, more softly, "No. Belle, I… I will need you. I do. But not as my servant. Not now."

"I'm not suggesting that," Belle retorted. "I just want to help."

"I know! I know…" And the words he wanted to speak still wouldn't come, as much as he tried to ask them. Instead, he asked a different question. "But why?"

Disbelief flared in Belle's blue eyes. "I love you," she said. "Don't you know that by now?"

"I do," Rumple assured her. "I do. And," and suddenly he had his words back again. "And because I return those feelings, I don't want you for a servant or a housekeeper or a fr—" He stopped. Of course, he wanted her for a friend, but that wasn't all she was to him. "I want you for my wife," he blurted out. Then his eyes widened and he looked away, but his grip on her hands didn't loosen. "I-if you'll have me, that is," he added, nearly whispering.

"Of course I will," Belle said, and when Rumple dared to look at her, he saw tears pooling in her eyes, even as her lips curved in a tremulous smile. He released her hands, she gathered him up in her arms, and as he rested his head on her shoulder, she whispered the words again. "Of course I will."

Upstairs Rumple heard his son out in silence and did his best to hide his turmoil. His thoughts, however, were in a flurry. He knew that if Henry was to exist, Bae needed to become acquainted with Emma Swan some ninety years from now, and decidedly not as a centenarian. Moreover, he also knew that in this time and place, there was no cure for the condition that was overtaking him. He was hard-put to judge whether Bae's best chance would be found alone in London with the First World War less than a decade away or in Neverland with his grandfather.

In the original timeline, Bae had gone to Neverland. They'd never gotten around to discussing it much in the short while they'd had together, but from the little Bae had told him, Rumple gathered that his time there had not been pleasant. But if he didn't go there, then there would be no Henry. And if there was no Henry, then what of the Seer's prophecy about how his younger self would find Bae? Or would the seer still deliver that same prophecy now?

His heart began to pound. Suppose that he'd changed matters so much that even the Dark Curse wouldn't help his younger self reach Bae? If Storybrooke was irrevocably lost… Well, he didn't really care much for most of the people in it, but he knew them and the idea that he might have erased the lot of them from existence bothered him more than he'd thought. More to the point, if the seer never told him he'd find Bae, he'd never bother crafting the curse. There would be no Storybrooke. There would probably be no Cora; he'd have no reason to help her avoid execution. And even if he did, he'd never need to train Regina.

And Zelena would never seek to supplant her as my pupil, probably never get the idea to travel back in time and remove her sister from existence. And if she never creates the time portal, then how am I to get back to my past and follow Bae here?

He was getting a headache that had nothing to do with the illness currently consuming him. Had his actions changed the past, or merely created an alternative timeline running parallel to the one he knew so well? And was Bae fated to spend years of his life in Neverland, or might that destiny be averted?

"Papa?" Bae asked, and Rumple blinked, realizing that his son was waving his hand before his eyes.

"Sorry, Son," he smiled. "I was," he took a breath, coughed into his handkerchief—an unsanitary article by future standards, but it was a bit early for disposable tissues here, "I was thinking," he admitted. "And the truth of the matter is that one way or another, I fear you've hard times ahead of you."

"Papa?"

Rumple closed his eyes briefly, and when he opened them again, his gaze was resigned. "I've tried to protect you as much as I could," he said softly. "Even when I was at my worst, I tried, though I know I went about it all wrong. Unfortunately," he said sadly, "the time is fast approaching when I won't be here to do that. I-I know something of how your future unfolded in the time I came from. I can but speculate on how it might unfold should you choose to resist that destiny."

"I don't understand."

Rumple shook his head. "A long time ago," he said, "you asked how it would be possible that we could be reunited, my younger self and you, after a century or more had passed. I didn't give you a full answer then. I couldn't. When you asked me, I wasn't sure I had the words in me to tell you about my father. But since I have done," he continued with a faint smile, "I believe I did mention that Neverland was a realm in which, however much time one spends there, one doesn't age a day. Well, in the past, in my past, at least, it seems that you spent quite some time there. After you'd spent a bit of time here…"

Bae was shaking his head as his father finished. "So, you're saying that this shadow Wendy's talking about is the same one that your father ordered to take you out of Neverland."

"I think so," Rumple said. "Obviously, I haven't met the creature here, but there aren't many beings that can cross realms. In particular, there aren't many beings that are able to travel from a magical realm to a non-magical. My quest to follow you led me down many avenues from beans to mermaids, and during my explorations, I learned that the Shadow of Neverland is one of the few creatures that can cross through. However, that Shadow is the only one of its kind and since it seemed to be allied with my father," he exhaled, "I didn't want to confront it and I wouldn't have known what to offer it or how to command it if I had." He frowned. "Had I had an inkling that you were in Neverland at any time, I would have tried going there for you, son. Truly. But so far as I knew, you were here."

"It's okay," Bae said. "But what does the Shadow want here?"

"Wendy didn't tell you?"

Bae shook his head. "She seems to think it's just there to visit them. The way she was talking, it was doing tricks like a stage magician or something."

"And back in our land, you thought the piper was just there to play a cheery tune," Rumple remarked.

"Uh… not exactly," Bae mumbled. He wasn't sure he remembered what he'd been thinking that night, but even then, he thought he'd known that there was more to the music than a few hours of fun and games.

"When I spoke to him that night," Rumple said slowly, "he told me he was lonely. He was assembling a band of… playmates to take back with him. I daresay he may still be on the lookout for new recruits."

"Yes," Bae said, "but then he was looking for… You told me his music could only be heard by boys who felt, well, lonely and unloved. The Darling children aren't like that."

Rumple sighed. "That criterion may no longer matter to him. Or he may have merely told the Shadow to find him likely candidates and the creature now travels here and flits about until he finds a nursery with an open window."

"What do I do?"

Rumple shook his head. "I can't answer that for you, son. I know that in my past, you went to Neverland. If there is to be a future in which I'm able to go back in time to tell you this, you may have to. But I don't know when or how it happens. And I don't know if it must. I just…" His shoulders slumped and his voice dropped to a whisper, "…don't know."

"And you're certain he spends time with them," Pan stated, not really asking a question.

"He was in the house this evening," the Shadow confirmed. "But the girl was unable to persuade him to follow her to the nursery. I could have taken him in the street, but had he resisted, it's possible we might have been spotted."

"Yes," Pan sighed. "Adults may, in general, pay little mind to the sky and stars, but they can, sadly, frequently see what's happening just in front of their noses. Well, no matter. Keep visiting the house, insinuate yourself with the children, and…" His voice trailed off and a sudden smile lit his face.

"And?" the Shadow prompted.

"You know, I know Baelfire," Pan said still smiling. "I took his measure when last our paths crossed. He's a cautious one, yes, but he's got courage and," he sighed with mock sorrow, "a sense of honor. Quite the gallant, actually, or at least he thought he might be, if someone would give him the chance." His grin broadened. "Perhaps we should. Do you know when he'll be next at that darling house?"

"He's there every Wednesday evening," the Shadow confirmed. "Though the girl might have scared him off with her talk of me."

"Oh, she might have scared him," Pan chuckled, "but somehow, I don't think he's about to abandon a damsel in distress. So," he added, with a nasty gleam in his eye, "distress her."

Chapter 41: Chapter Forty-One

Notes:

A/N: Some dialogue taken from S2E21: Second Star to the Right. I'm keeping the main thrust of it, but there are a couple of tweaks.

Chapter Text

Chapter Forty-One

"Well, Cassidy," Mr. Darling said to Bae the next morning, "you seem to have formed quite the friendship with my elder son."

Bae blinked. Had he? "With John, Sir?" he asked, trying to conceal his surprise and certain he was doing a poor job of it.

Darling smiled. "Well, he seems to think so at any rate." He pushed the ledger he'd been writing in aside and reached for another one. "I'm no fool, Cassidy; John's barely ten and you're more than halfway to twenty. I daresay you've not much in common. But he seems to look up to you and I'm not about to discourage him. At any rate, he's asked me to invite you to dinner tomorrow evening. I trust you won't mind eating in the nursery, Cassidy, seeing as you'll be his guest and childish conversation has no place in the dining room."

"Uh… no, Mr. Darling," Bae managed. "Dinner in the nursery should be fine. Thank you." He gave his employer an apologetic smile. "I'll just need to make sure it's okay with my papa."

"I shouldn't anticipate any problems there, I trust?" Darling asked a bit huffily.

Bae blinked. Had he somehow given the impression that he didn't want to accept the invitation and was using Papa as an excuse? He was a little nervous about it, now that Papa was sure that this Shadow was one of his grandfather's creatures, and the invitation might be a way for him to be up in the nursery should it arrive. But that didn't mean he didn't want to go, just that he wanted to find out from Papa what to do if it did happen to turn up! "No, sir," Bae said quickly. "But I still need to check with him."

Darling relaxed. "Carry on, Cassidy," he said. "I'll expect your reply by the end of today."

It had been more than three hours and Rumple still couldn't believe he'd screwed up the courage to ask her. He loved her, of course, but that wasn't the only reason for his proposal. The truth was that although he was heartily tired of being in the hospital and happy to hear that his discharge was imminent, the thought of going home to an empty house where it might be hours or even days before anyone came to see whether he was still alive bothered him in a way it never had before.

He acknowledged that Belle would probably still check up on him regardless, at least initially. But he never had been the sort of person people remembered until they needed something from him. In his heart of hearts, he wasn't fully ready to believe that had changed. He'd been away for quite some time; one year or four, depending on how one looked at it. Doubtless, in his absence, Belle would have found interests with which to occupy herself. She would have made friends. She would have made a life without him and while she might want him to be part of it, once he was out of the hospital and back on the street, surely she would realize, like the other women he'd loved before, that he wasn't worth her time.

She'd said yes. He still couldn't believe she'd said yes. Immediately, unhesitatingly, she'd said yes.

She must not have thought things through enough.

She'd said yes today. But would he see her again tomorrow? And if he did, would she still be of the same mind?

He wouldn't read too much into things, not now, not yet. He wouldn't let himself dream. He wouldn't even let himself hope.

Not until he knew for certain that she'd meant what she'd said and hadn't reconsidered.

Because if she had any doubts preying on her now, if she'd already changed her mind, if she… If she dashed his hopes now, he didn't think he'd be able to come back from this new loss. He'd already lost Bae. If he lost Belle, too?

Then he would truly, truly… be dust.

"What do I do, Papa?" Bae asked. "If this shadow means to harm Wendy or her brothers, I can't just stand back and let it happen!"

Rumple bit his lip. He wanted to tell Bae emphatically that he most certainly could, but he knew his son would never listen. Worse. Rumple well recalled the disillusionment in his boy's eyes the moment when Bae had realized that the knight commander hadn't been lying when he'd called his papa, 'the one who ran'. He never wanted to see that pain again, and he knew he would if he told Bae what he truly wanted.

Instead, he shook his head sadly. "No, son," he murmured. "I don't imagine you could." And I don't imagine you did the first time, either. He forced himself to smile. "Well. I think your first instinct—telling the girl not to open the window to that creature—was correct. Darkness, however, frequently presents an alluring façade, at least initially. One seldom recognizes the danger until it's too late. You need to make her see that danger as best you can."

"Maybe if I brought her here," Bae suggested. "You could probably explain it better than I could, and I don't think that shadow would come here, would it?"

"That's more than I know," Rumple admitted. "But I think you'd have a hard time bringing the young lady into this part of town and if her father should hear of it, even if no harm befell her as a result, I daresay you'd find yourself out of work—"

"I don't care about tha—" Bae started to say.

"And barred from the Darling home," Rumple continued. "You won't be of any help to the children then," he added, as Bae's jaw snapped shut.

"So, how can I help them?" Bae asked.

Rumple sighed. "I'm not certain. But if you're to have any hope of persuading them to keep their window shut, I suppose you'll need to attend that dinner. Be careful, son," he added, his brown eyes deadly serious. "The shadow seems to have set its sights on those children. Should you thwart its design, it may well choose to take you instead."

"Is there anything I can do to protect myself?"

Stay here with me tomorrow evening, he wanted to plead. Forget your destiny, forget the children, and stay here. And what would that do to the timeline? What would happen to Bae, alone in London, when he succumbed to his illness? Part of him didn't want to care about any of that. Part of him didn't want to believe it mattered. But deep down, he knew it did. So all he said was, "Be careful tomorrow, son. Very careful. But in case your caution avails you naught," he took another wheezing breath, "let me begin to tell you tonight the things I know of Neverland. For some of this is what you will one day tell me in the future…"

Bae was more than a little nervous the following afternoon when he accompanied Mr. Darling home. His mind was reeling with stories of a wild island of swamps and jungle where his grandfather ruled undisputed. There were other dangers, too: fierce mermaids who could call up storms to scuttle any boats that might approach or leave the island, trees that fed off of despair and regret, a pirate ship captained by a man who had sworn vengeance on Papa for something Papa's younger self would one day do, perhaps already done…

…There was something bothering Bae about that. It wasn't just that Papa hadn't gone into detail about what had happened; as open as Papa was trying to be, he still had his secrets. Oh, he'd tell Bae that a thing wasn't important, or that he was too tired to talk, or that Bae wasn't old enough or ready enough to hear it, but sometimes, Bae wished Papa would just tell him anyway and if the details went over his head, then so be it. No, but in this case, it was something else, something Bae could almost put his finger on, and yet at the same time, he was nearly afraid to probe further. As though this time, Papa was right and he wasn't ready to hear what he wanted to.

He tried to banish his fear; he tried to tell himself that Papa was probably right and he didn't need to know the details of… Of what, exactly? Bae wasn't sure. He was torn between wanting his curiosity satisfied and dreading what he'd find out when it was.

…Almost as much as he was dreading dinner with the Darling children tonight.

"Walk smart, Cassidy," Mr. Darling said heartily, swinging his brass-knobbed cane—not that he needed one for anything other than show, and Bae couldn't figure out what was so 'showy' about using a cane when you didn't have a limp—as he strode along the pavement. "We're nearly there."

And Bae pushed down his doubts and quickened his pace to match that of his employer's as they approached No. 14 Bedford Square.

"Congratulations!" Emma beamed. She wasn't much of a hugger under most circ*mstances, but the half-giddy, half-laughing expression on Belle's face was grounds for an exception. "Belle, that's…" she hesitated only for an instant, before continuing, "great. Really great."

Belle tilted her head to one side. "What's the matter?" she asked, her smile waning slightly.

Emma sighed and released her. "Never mind," she said. "It's not my business."

"But there is something," Belle said. "Tell me."

"It's probably nothing," Emma said quickly. "A-and, you know each other better than I know either of you, so—"

"So?"

Emma took a breath. "You don't think this is a little… well… rushed? The timing?"

Belle blinked. "Emma," she said, "he proposed to me after you all came back from Neverland. That was over a year ago; I'd hardly call it rushed."

"Yeah," Emma said, "but in that year, he died, he came back, he lost Neal, he was Zelena's slave, he was forced to fight all of us, he spent about three years in the past, where he lost Neal again, and he's recovering from a disease that might have killed him if he'd been back there any longer. He lost his life, his son, his freedom, his health, his… If I were in his shoes, I'd be trying to grab onto something or someone solid and hold tight with both hands, too. But with all that baggage…" She hesitated. "Maybe he needs to deal with all of that first, before he makes any other… changes."

Belle winced. "I can help him through that," she said.

"Yeah, but…" Emma smiled nervously. "Look, maybe a long engagement is the way to go."

"Or maybe he'll think I'm having second thoughts," Belle said. "And I'm not."

"B