A/N: Next chapter, obviously. Thank you again to those who have been reading this! Still a little slow on action for now but things pick up next chapter, I promise. And this thing with Vivienne becomes important later…not necessarily in this story but in the overall arc of who she is and becomes. Let's just say that Vivienne can only let a good thing go on for so long before her inner Imp pops up…
Expectations: Lorna in Moonlight
Rumple takes no chances with his children around the cabin lake. He's enchanted the water to buoy them back to the surface if they stay under too long, and he and Belle supplement that by strict rules regarding when they can swim, how far out, for how long, and how an adult always has to be in the water with them. Faith, at 10, is already old enough to find their conditions unfair and restrictive, and complains often about being held to the same standards as her younger brothers and sister.
At six, Andrew is already a stronger swimmer than Faith, which Rumple credits to his natural water affinity. Four-year-old Haylan isn't bad for his age, although he tires quickly and his strokes tend to turn more into dog-paddles before long. But to the surprise of everyone, it is Vivienne who takes to the water like a small fish, darting through the water so quickly she's almost a blur in her purple one-piece suit. The little girl delights in the fact that she is far better than either of her elder siblings, something that never fails to rankle the older children.
Holding her breath as long as she can, squeezing her eyes shut, Vivienne propels back and forth and pretends that she is actually flying, with clouds and birds around her, the ground a blur below, the spell only broken by her mother's faint orders for her to come out and have lunch. And when she reluctantly walks back to shore her body feels awkward and heavy and weighed down by more than the water of her swimsuit. She hates her parents in those moments, hates them for forcing her back into this mundane and cumbersome world.
Just let me fly, she thinks bitterly. Why can't you just let me fly?
The boarding school has a pool that's open for any students to use provided they don't have class and there aren't any competitions going on at the moment. Vivienne supposes that some of the parents, perhaps her own, might be upset to learn that there are never any lifeguards on duty and that the girls are responsible for their own safety. She doesn't care one way or another: she often gets up earlier than the other students to go for a pre-breakfast swim, allowing her mind to race free as she swims rapid laps.
I wonder what they're doing right now, in the Enchanted Forest? What time it is there? Have they met with the Coven yet? What are they thinking about? Do they miss me at all? Are they glad I'm not around to screw things up for them and get in the way? I bet they are. I bet they're glad to be so far away from me.
There's usually not anyone else around, so she's surprised that morning when she drags herself out of the pool (still hating that sensation) and sees a teacher she is vaguely familiar with waiting for her. Miss…Waddleton, she thinks. It makes her think of a duck, which is rather appropriate since she believes this teacher is also in charge of the swim-team. Waddleton is wearing grey shorts and a grey tee-shirt in contrast to what some of the other teachers wear, and Vivienne inwardly sneers. Well, if she doesn't care what people think of her, no wonder she's still a "Miss" instead of a "Mrs."
"You're Vivienne Gold, right?" Miss Waddleton inquires, and Vivienne nods, bracing herself for even more questions about Faith's recent disappearance. "Glad I caught you. I've been meaning to speak with you for a while."
"Did I do something wrong?" Vivienne tries to look as innocent as possible, and is relieved when the woman laughs and shakes her head. "No. On the contrary. I've been watching you for a while now. Have you ever done any competitive swimming?"
Vivienne shakes her head. "No. My family has a cabin at a lake. I've been swimming there every summer since I was a baby. I love it."
"I can tell. You're fast, Vivienne. Really fast. I'm the swim coach here and I'm always looking for new talent. We're still in our pre-season right now and technically the team is full, but I can make room for one more. Are you interested?"
Vivienne considers. Swimming will take away time from her sewing, and yet the idea stirs something inside of her. There's no competition right now as far as her designs go, no one going head to head with her, no feeling of triumph when she completes a piece and has no loser to gloat her victory over. To actively compete against the other students, to prove time and time again that she's the best…
"Yes. I'm very interested. I'd love to join."
Neal has decided he hates this wrinkled, elderly body he's temporarily trapped in. This surprises him because he's never really considered himself a vain person. He doesn't think there's anything wrong with how he looks: he's been told more than once that he's attractive. It isn't really the lined hands that bother him or the unfamiliar coolness on his scalp: it's the lack of…vigor, he thinks, for lack of a better term. He feels drained, like a half-charged battery. He wants his youthful energy back: maybe this body will be his in time (should he even live through this) and probably by then (hopefully after a long and busy life with Faith and perhaps a family) he'll be ready to slow down and take things easy. Mentally, however, he's not even close to being at that stage and he finds himself growing resentful of it.
This was your idea, Neal. You volunteered for this crap. You have to see it through.
The book he's been looking through is a history novel, detailing a war so long ago that not even the Imp had been born yet. The queen of one kingdom married the king of another, and when the marriage went sour the queen returned home and started a war that raged over the next five years. Thousands of lives were lost, homes and crops burned, innocents enslaved. Then suddenly the feuding monarchs made peace with each other and spent the rest of their lives in blissful matrimony. The story makes Neal feel angry and ill inside. He's sure those who lost everything during the war would have also liked a chance at a happy ending. He feels even worse when he traces the family line and realizes it runs through his mother's side and into himself. Wonderful. Just the kind of family history to make a man proud.
He shuts the book after glaring at a colored engraving of the king and queen, and satisfying himself that they don't look a thing like him or his mom. He places it back on the shelf and rubs his eyes. He's used to reading in proper light, not torches and candles and hearthfires, and another side-effect of this aged body is that his vision isn't as keen as he is used to.
It's a reminder, and a strong one, of how different he is than his parents. That if they had to they could be happy living here again, resuming their old lives. He doesn't think he ever could be: he's too spoiled by the luxuries of his own world, too much a child of Maine, and he wants desperately to go home.
Since that isn't an option, he leaves the library and heads down through the twisting passageways of the Hall. From behind closed doors he hears giggles and laughs and the occasional scream, at one point the sound of glass breaking, and behind another door what he would swear is the howl of a wolf. He takes a moment to wonder how Aunt Ruby managed to sneak in here, and has to smother down a giggle. She probably has a season pass or something.
Still, this place makes him feel like the history book did. Unclean, somehow, in spite of the hot pools. Decadence he doesn't have a problem with. He thinks he could definitely use more decadence in his life. But he has a feeling that wealthy or not most of the people here would happy stab each other for increased profit or status or hell, just to amuse themselves. For some reason the image of Faith's younger sister pops into his head.
Neal's mother has always been one of the few people in town to defend Vivienne Gold, to argue that she's simply a spoiled little girl with plenty of time to grow into a charming and gracious young lady. Neal's father isn't so sure about this, and neither is Neal. He suspects that quite a few of the people in this Hall may have started out like Viv. Well, he'll just have to help do something about that, then. Being in love with Faith means accepting her rather…unique…family as part of the package. After all, Vivienne isn't nearly as scary as Mr. Gold, and Neal has found himself much more comfortable around Faith's father these days. Or in any case less terrified that Mr. Gold is going to do something wretched to him for having the hots for his oldest daughter.
He feels better when he steps outside onto the back porch area. The air is cool and sweet and he realizes that all the time inside he felt as if he was suffocating. That inside of the Hall, where he is free to leave any time, he actually feels more of a prisoner than he did during his brief confinement to the Dark Castle.
There's a full moon tonight, and he studies it carefully, and realizes there are subtle differences between this moon and his own. Impossible to tell about the size, but this moon just looks older, somehow. More marked and pitted. A reminder that he's really on another planet, even if it makes him somewhat uneasy to think of it in such terms. Has anyone ever walked on this moon? How far away is it from Earth if you went in a shuttle? How did two completely different planets evolve so similarly and how did the stories and truths of this world leak into his own and become the bedtime stories of that one?
"Lord Vader?" Someone asks him softly, and he turns to see a woman around his own age, dressed in a long, flowing gown that appears almost silvery in the moonlight. She's dark-haired and pretty, but he privately thinks she's nothing compared to his Faith.
"That would be me, my dear." He slips back into character easily. "What can this old gentleman do for you?"
"My name is Lorna. And perhaps I can do something for you, milord. I understand you were inquiring earlier about certain…services….that might be available.
"Perhaps. Perhaps." Neal coughs into his hand. "My dear, all me to be blunt with you. One of the privileges of old age, as you'll one day learn. You can speak your mind. I've buried three wives so far, made more money than I can spend, bred a lot of hounds and horses, tumbled a lot of skirts, and in short I've had a jolly time of it every step of the way. A fine life, and not one I'm ready to surrender over to the worms any time soon. If there's a way to go back and live it all over again, I'd pay the asking price and consider it a bargain twice over. However, I'm also not a fool, young lady. Not inclined to believe children's stories and rumors just on babble alone."
"Nor should you." Lorna agrees. "I wouldn't believe such things either had I not witnessed it for myself. How old do you suppose I am, Lord Vader?"
"About the same as my granddaughter Caroline, give or take a year, so around twenty if you're a day."
The woman laughs. "What would you say if I told you that I just celebrated my 75th birthday?"
"I'd say, my dear, that you're either a terrible liar or that you are remarkably well preserved."
"Well, I'm not a liar." Lorna looks amused. "I have grandchildren of my own. But you are correct, sir. People don't get to our age by going around believing everything they hear. Perhaps tomorrow you'd be interested in coming to a demonstration? We've a few like-minded individuals who wish to see first-hand what they're paying for. You're from Avonlea, correct?"
"Born and raised."
"Then you're familiar with the ruins of the original keep, in the Deepwood around the city?"
"Can't say I've ever had any desire to travel there myself, but I can find it well enough I suppose."
Neal can only hope such a place actually does exist and this isn't some kind of carefully worded trap.
"Come tomorrow at two hours prior to midnight. I believe you'll be most impressed with what you witness."
Never mention the Coven directly by name, Rumple had warned him. Neal bites his lip in frustration, and then realizes it is rather moot. Even if the Coven isn't causing the trouble, someone certainly is.
"I'll be there, my dear."
The woman leans over and kisses his cheek. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Lord Vader. Until tomorrow, then."
Neal leans against the cool wall of the house and watches until the woman vanishes into the night, and then lets out a long, shaky breath. He barely has time to pull it back in before he feels the tingly itch of magic around him, and a moment later he's standing back in the great room of the Dark Castle. He sees the relief register on the faces of his family and the Golds, and without saying anything manages to drag himself over to the overstuffed sofa and sink down upon it wearily.
"Hey." The cushion next to him dips and Faith takes a seat at his side. "You were awesome. You did it, Neal. You fooled everyone."
"Not bad." Rumple concedes. "Not as brilliantly as my children would have done, but under the circumstances…not bad."
Mary Margaret glares at him and moves to sit at her son's other side. "Are you okay, baby?"
"Just…that was harder than I expected." Neal admits with a rueful grin. "Staying in character, trying to make sure I didn't slip up. Didn't realize it would be exhausting. Especially in this body. Mr. Gold?"
Rumple waves his hand and a moment later Neal is restored to his youthful self, and seems to sink even more into the sofa. "That…is a thousand times better. Is there any food? I am starving."
After Neal manages to put away several plates of food, he feels collected enough to talk to the group about what they've learned. "So am I to go to this meeting tomorrow night?"
"No." Rumple shakes his head. "You, lad, will be staying behind. The stronger mages will go just because it might get a little tricky. And…that one." He gestures at Killian. "Because he's not useless in a fight. Mostly. You two…" He points at Mary Margaret and David. "You still want to see your castle?"
"Yes, please." Mary Margaret nods. "As soon as possible."
"Well then, off you go." The Imp waves his hand again and Mary Margaret, David, and Neal vanish into thin air.
"You could have least let them say goodbye!" Emma snaps, and the Imp snickers. "She said as soon as possible. Sent the boy along to keep him out of the way. One successful infiltration and he's bound to get too full of himself and do something silly. He's played his part: no need to put him in any more danger."
Emma gives a reluctant nod, and Regina echoes it. "He did do well today, though. Not bad for an amateur." She sounds proud. "But you're right. I don't want him around if there's fighting. Of course, when they see his pathetic little magic they might laugh themselves sick: we could use that as a distraction. What?" Regina grins at Faith's dirty look, and Faith shakes her head in exasperation.
Tomorrow should be interesting.
Only Belle has some idea of how much Rumple is struggling here, how much he's been struggling since first setting foot in this land again, since sleeping again within these castle walls. At home there's a barrier between her husband and the darkness that is always whispering at him, nipping at his heels, encouraging him to throw away the life they've built together and fully embrace the man he used to be. Here, she believes the itch must be almost unbearable for him, that the desire to travel the land again making his deals overwhelming.
He's restless tonight, unable to sleep, slipping out of bed to pace a little in front of the fire, unable to keep his hands still and his thoughts clear. He stares out the window, his forehead against the glass, and he squeezes his eyes shut trying to keep the dark thoughts at bay. Finally, unable to resist he leaves his bedchamber and goes up the twisted staircase into his own tower, locks the door, and conjures up a spinning wheel in the middle of the room.
A basket of straw appears next to him, and he sinks down into the seat with a sigh, feeding the first of the straw into the wheel by muscle memory and habit. He can't give into it, that call. There's too much in his life, too much at stake. Too much to risk losing. He wonders if a heroin addict feels like this, surrounded by what he must not allow himself to have. He spins and spins until his fingers ache and then finally leans forward with his head resting on top of the wheel, mind-weary and spent.
And he dreams of Bae.
There's no rhyme or reason to when his son comes to visit him. It isn't something Rumple can control or manipulate with magic. The timing is always of Bae's choosing, the answers he gives or doesn't give entirely of his own inclination. While usually it's to assist his father as best as he can with a problem or a thorny issue, sometimes it's simply just to remind him that there is more to the universe than any living man or woman could ever witness in a million lifetimes.
It's a beach today, warm and white-sanded, much like the beaches of St. Thomas where he loves to go with Belle. He stands there, watching the waves break against the shore, and he's unsurprised to feel his son's hand take his own.
"You're going to get through this, Papa. I promise." Bae whispers. "You're strong enough. Don't doubt yourself. Don't doubt the pull your family has over you. You have a lot of good days ahead of you before we're together again for good. A lot of happy memories you still need to make."
"I wish I felt strong." Rumple admits softly. "It's hard, you know. Harder than you think. The voice in my head keeps telling me that I don't have to choose, that I can have it all, and I know it's a lie. They deserve better than what I was: I can't give them that man."
"Then don't. And you won't. They need you, Papa. They need you right now and they're going to need you when they're a lot older. But I didn't just come here for a pep-talk, Papa. A member of the Coven broke from them tonight and confessed to the ogres. They're on their way to the Mid right now. You need to let the others know. It's about to get really messy."
"Bloody hell." Rumple mutters. "This is exactly what I need. Thank you, son. Suppose I need to wake up and handle it…"
"Yeah." Bae sounds as reluctant to let him go as he feels. "Just remember what I said. You are strong, Papa. And I believe in you. And remember this: magnets."
"Magnets? What…" But the dream has faded again, and Rumple wakes up sprawled across the top of his spinning wheel, his back aching and his fingers number.
"What the hell do ogres and the coven have to do with magnets?"