Author's notes: Cross-posted from Ao3. Written by ArkTaisch, based on an AU and plot by rumpelstiltskinrocks at Ao3.
So, remember those true love saplings from season 6a? No? Neither did the writers. But rumpelstiltskinrocks remembered, and had an idea for a whole damn forest of those trees, all grown up! We thought it would be fun if I wrote it up in an actual story based on their world-building notes.
Rape/noncon: marriage arranged under duress, but also Gaston is a rapey asshole in this AU
Underage: nothing physical happens, but due to the premise (arranged marriage with an unborn child), I can't completely avoid the suggestion of this. It is a problematic situation, and I don't recommend it for anyone IRL!
Some snippets of dialogue quoted from canon. You know the drill: I don't own OUAT or its characters.
I'm sorry, my dear Rumple. I'm not going with you.
The words echoed in his ears long after Cora had gone. She had ripped out her own heart rather than allow herself to love him, but the pain was his to endure. She felt nothing, could no longer feel anything.
Rumplestiltskin bit back a wordless scream of anguish.
She was never going to go with you, you fool, sneered the dark voices that never left him. What do you have to offer anyone?
Nothing but darkness and isolation.
He wrapped himself in that darkness and retreated in an eyeblink to his castle, to the great hall filled with the trophies of his power — none of them worth a damn except one.
"Oh, Bae. I betrayed you again." Rumplestiltskin picked up the humble wooden staff leaning in the corner, tracing the markings by which he had once tracked his son's growth.
I will do nothing else. I will love nothing else.
"Another promise broken," he whispered. And for what? Nothing. This great hall with all its baubles — it might as well be empty. Because Bae wasn't there. "I thought... I thought we could be a family. That she would help me find you. But Cora, she—"
He shut his eyes against the memory. How could he have deluded himself again? No woman would ever love him. He was pathetic. He was weak. He shook his head, trying to deny the thought. He had power now, didn't he? Kings and queens came to him for assistance.
Then he opened his eyes and glimpsed himself in the glass doors of the cabinet in front of him and he saw...
You'll always be a coward. A monster.
"No!" The staff smashed into the cabinet, glass breaking in a cacophony almost loud enough to drown out the voices of his self-loathing. "No. I'm still his papa... I will find him."
I will find a way.
He had lost everyone he had ever loved, but he would find his son. He had been promised. He had Seen it in the visions he had torn loose from the Seer.
That was worth a smile against a broken heart, wasn't it? Rumplestiltskin set down the wooden staff and sighed, looking at the spinning wheel sitting humbly in the corner of his great hall. He settled himself on the bench, slowly turning the wheel, summoning the images to his mind.
Bae. I will see you again, someday. After so many centuries of research and scheming, he had his curse and he knew where to find his caster. True, she hadn't been born yet, and her mother had just walked away from him, but all was not lost. Only his own chance at love was lost, but that was unimportant as long as he could find his son. You're all I have, son. You deserve to be loved. To know that your papa came back for you, that he made a mistake, that he's sorry. You deserve a chance at happiness.
The visions came in fragments, as they always did. He found solace in the fleeting glimpses of his son, all grown up now, in a strange land where machines did more than magic. He couldn't see Baelfire's face; he never could, but he knew in his heart.
Then the vision changed. As if Cora's rejection had shattered the last bastion of hope in his soul, Rumplestiltskin saw himself kneeling on the forest floor, his son lying before him. His son's hand clasped between his own, the life seeping away into the cold. A young man's hand, though his face remained a blur. A young man, dying with years cut short.
Sometimes there was snow. Sometimes only bare dirt and damp leaves, but the end was always the same.
His son died.
He would find his son only to lose him. That was their future.
"No!" Rumplestiltskin staggered to his feet, backing away from the wheel with his hands pressed over his eyes, as if he could force the images to change.
Death. There was only death. And it was his fault.
"No, no, no, no, no!" The nightmare haunted him, sleeping and waking, no matter how he tried to find an alternative. All his books, all his study of magic, all his centuries of learning—
Finally, exhausted and out of hope, he rode the wave of his own despair to a nondescript patch of forest, like any other. Unlike any other.
Rumplestiltskin stared down at the leaf-littered ground, seeing in his mind's eye a bright green swirl of light opening beneath him. A night much like this one. A night unlike this one at all.
The voice came from behind him, carrying no threat, but Rumplestiltskin whirled, calling fire to his hand. His lips drew back in a snarl, anger cloaking fear, fear that someone was powerful enough to catch him unawares (distracted though he had been). "Who's there?"
"Remember us?" A monstrous figure stepped delicately from the deepest shadows under the trees, joined a beat later by another. They loomed over him, dragon-like creatures with long, sinuous necks. He could just make out the shapes of horns curving back from their heads.
Rumplestiltskin froze. He lowered his hands, the flame still burning in his palm. "Ah. You."
Centuries ago, in the same forest...
The fairy fluttered above him, always above him, face full of sanctimonious condescension. "You drove him away."
Rumplestiltskin had no words left, only rage and determination. This meddling blue firefly thought she could stop him? He gritted his teeth and swung his dagger out in a wide slash.
She dodged. She could dodge his dagger, and she could dodge her culpability, but not forever. Her sins would catch up with her, someday.
Not someday. Today!
Vast black wings swept out from the shadows, trapping the fairy in a rush of wind. Long claws closed around her like the bars of a cage. Two pairs of glowing eyes fixed on her.
Rumplestiltskin stumbled backwards, nearly falling in his shock. He could feel the magic roaring from the creatures, strange and more powerful than anything he had ever encountered.
"How dare you?" The fairy's voice trembled, but her eyes met those of her captors in recognition. "Your queen has an agreement with the Order..."
"Which you have overstepped, Reul Ghorm," said one of the creatures.
"I have not!"
"One could cite your remarkably ill-timed revelations of prophecy," said the other.
"I was cleared of any wrong-doing," retorted the fairy.
"Which is not the same as 'innocence'," remarked the first creature.
Rumplestiltskin slipped as unobtrusively as he could behind a tree, watching everything through a haze of terror. What were these things that claimed such authority and who was their queen? He had to know. Ignorance was more of a risk than staying to find out.
"So, the past is the past," said the second creature. "But now, oh, well, we hear of your so-careless distribution of magic beans."
"Not careless. We could have been rid of a great evil!"
"'We'?" The first creature chuckled. "Oh no, no, no. You acted towards your own ends, my dear. The Queen will have words with you."
"Wait—" The Blue Fairy's plea ended in a squeak, lost in the whoosh of air as the shadowed wings flapped once more and her captor vanished, taking her into darkness.
The void between the worlds, Rumplestiltskin realized, astonished. This could mean—
"Wait!" Rumplestiltskin scrambled out from behind the tree, an outstretched hand reaching out in desperate hope before the second of the creatures could vanish. "Wait..."
The creature hesitated. Eyes turned towards him, flickering orange like candle-flames. "Yes?"
"My son," gasped Rumplestiltskin. "You can travel between realms. My son... you can take me to him. Please."
"All magic comes with a price," said the creature. "You know this."
Rumplestiltskin nodded. "Anything. Whatever it takes."
The creature regarded him with something like pity. Finally, it sighed and said softly, "Alas, no, it is not to be. You cannot pay that price."
"What price? What do you want?" Rumplestiltskin felt his heart crumbling, but refused to let go of hope.
"As I have said. You cannot pay that price..."
In the silence that followed the creature's words, Rumplestiltskin thought he could hear an unspoken 'yet'.
Grasping at straws won't save you from your failures, fool. That creature is merely toying with you. Destroy it!
Rumplestiltskin struggled with a flare of anger, anger at the fairies, anger at these strangers who refused to help him, anger at himself for his own weakness. Bae. I will find you. He couldn't afford to lose his temper, not now, not when he had a chance—
But the creature was already turning to leave.
"Wait! Will I see you again?"
"Perhaps later," it said, then vanished in a whisper of darkness.
"So." Rumplestiltskin stared at the creatures in recognition, releasing his fireball back into the void. "I take it this is 'later'."
"Indeed. There is a time for everything, and now it is time for us to speak." The creature's eyes gleamed like brass, its words as measured as clockwork, its motions elegant and precise.
"Let me guess. You want something from me." Rumplestiltskin tilted his head to the side and twirled his hands in his signature flourish, hiding his unease and anger. He couldn't afford to squander this chance at gaining powerful assistance, not if he wanted to save Baelfire.
In the centuries since his first encounter, Rumplestiltskin had learned a little more about the elusive creatures. They called themselves Timers and originated from another realm, said to lie outside time and space. They visited this realm to harvest the mystical saplings born of True Love — a magic powerful enough to transcend realms and break any curse.
Rumplestiltskin's own efforts to bottle that magic in a potion were only crude approximations at what Timers were rumored to do naturally. What could they possibly want him for that they couldn't do themselves? That he couldn't give the first time they had met?
The second creature, the one with eyes like candle flames, chuckled. "It is better said, all of us want something, each from the other, no? For example, you believe we can help you..."
"You can," breathed Rumplestiltskin. "With your powers, you can see what I cannot. A way to—"
"To save your son," finished the second creature.
"Yes. Can it be done?"
"But of course. Yet what you must understand, my friend, that it is not so simple a matter as saving his life once, twice, only to lose him again. When we speak of 'saving', we speak of something more."
"More? More in what way?"
"More than we can say," said the first creature. "That's why our queen has invited you to court. She will answer you there, and explain what she requires of you."
"The price of your assistance." It was what he had expected. "A royal invitation. How flattering! But the last person I saw you take to her never returned. Forgive me for being less than trusting."
"My dear fellow, you are our guest, not our prisoner." The creature drew itself up in mock offense. "But if it will reassure you, we two promise your safety, to and from the Wood Beyond and in the queen's court."
Rumplestiltskin eyed them. "Reassure me? I don't even know your names. Promises from strangers carry little weight." Centuries as a Dark One had taught him the power in a name, and he needed any edge he could find in case these creatures turned against him.
The second creature gave a little sigh and shake of its head. "We have none, not in your tongue."
"Come on, give it a whirl," Rumplestiltskin coaxed mockingly. "You know my name — yours can hardly be worse!"
"As you please." The creature with the eyes of candle flame thought for a moment, then said, "I am known among my people as 'a light of our own making'. Call me 'Lumiere' if you must call me something."
"Lumiere. Lovely to meet you." Rumplestiltskin turned to the other. "And you?"
Lumiere rolled his eyes. "A grand name for a fussy little counter of minutes, no? Ah, it is no matter to me what you wish to be called."
Cogsworth's tail lashed out, in impatience or irritation, Rumplestiltskin wasn't sure. "Well, shall we be off?"
Rumplestiltskin nodded, swallowing his reservations. He had to take the chance. His son needed him.
The Timer spread his wings, a breath of darkness sweeping up a swirl of rustling leaves along with Rumplestiltskin, dropping all of them out of one world and into another. Rumplestiltskin blinked against the sudden light, having gone from night to... day? He stood surrounded by trees vaster than the ones he had left and when he peered upward through the canopy, specks of dazzling light struck his eyes, but no sun was visible. Trees stretched out in every direction as far as he could see. They emanated magic of a purity rarely found in the Enchanted Forest.
Could it be? These were all the saplings of True Love, now grown to giants? He couldn't help giving voice to his amazement. "So many of them..."
"This is Nevethe, the Wood Beyond," said Cogsworth.
"Beyond what, exactly?" Rumplestiltskin had always wondered about that.
"Beyond time, beyond love, beyond everything," answered Cogsworth.
"Beyond your expectations!" put in Lumiere with a sly smile, the sharp curve of his teeth gleaming as they caught a stray beam of light from the blazing sky. "You think the saplings that grow in your mortal earth are all? No! It is here that is their true home. Come, come, the Queen awaits!"
Cogsworth shot Lumiere a look. "That is not precisely true. Didn't I just say this realm was beyond time?"
"No need to be so literal, my friend," Lumiere said airily.
Rumplestiltskin let his two squabbling guides lead him deeper (though he knew the word had no real meaning when he had no clear idea where he was) into the forest. As he learned to look through the fog of magic that pervaded the air, he found the individual trees reminiscent of the oaks, beeches, maples, and firs of his homeland, as well as others that were strange to him.
He could hear the rustle of animals moving on the forest floor, and hear the sound of birds and insects, but he saw only fleeting shadows, flickers of motion in the corner of his eyes. Sometimes he thought they were Timers like his companions, sometimes they seemed to be deer or other wildlife, and sometimes they seemed human.
The tree trunks grew sparser as they proceeded, yet the leaves overhead remained as thick as ever. Finally he saw why: a tree of almost inconceivable girth towered ahead, its roots as massive as mountain ridges, its branches spreading wide enough to shade a dozen villages under the leaves. The top of the tree was barely visible from the ground, reaching up to catch the clouds.
"The eldest," said Lumiere with soft reverence. "Born in the morning of the world from the first true love."
"The union of the light and the dark," Cogsworth continued, "that birthed all that is out of all that is not."
"And firstborn was our Queen, summoned from the shadows to the Wood Beyond," said Lumiere in turn. "The Wood is called Nevethe, and so is she, for they are of one spirit."
As they made their way closer, Rumplestiltskin saw another of the apparitions, more substantial than the others, standing on top of a giant gray boulder. It was as tall as a house, surrounded by a cluster of smaller boulders. A line of slate slabs marked the path to the boulder, and a stairway carved into the rock led to the top. The apparition looked human, richly clad as befit a noble or even a king. He knew the type well enough, and he instantly recognized the expression on his face: the outraged astonishment of a man who never heard the word "no" being denied something he wanted.
Well, well. Maybe this queen of theirs is someone I can do business with, thought Rumplestiltskin, having been the cause of the same expression on many a royal in his own time.
Then the apparition's face changed to one of sheer terror. The next moment he vanished in a swirl of air and magic.
And that, too, was familiar enough. The usual game, thought Rumplestiltskin as he started climbing the stairs. Just keep your head. Don't forget why you're here. Bae's future...
Then he reached the flat top of the boulder, and all his intentions scattered to the winds. Eyes like dusk-red moons rose high above him, their focus piercing Rumplestiltskin with the sharpness of their attention. Then the rest of her, of the Queen of Nevethe, shimmered into view, a shape so large and elusive that he hadn't even seen her until now. He hadn't felt the weight of any magical presence beyond Cogsworth, Lumiere, and the background of the Wood itself, yet between one breath and the next, the aura of her power washed over him, a wave capable of crushing him with barely a thought.
Eldest. Rumplestiltskin was old, but his centuries were nothing to this creature. He dropped to his knees, his gaze falling as he humbled himself, his hands trembling as he laid his palms on the ground in supplication. No wonder the ancients worshipped her as the Goddess of the Grove.
"Rumplestiltskin." Her voice was a dry rumble with all the gentleness of a friendly earthquake.
As well try to negotiate with a mountain, was Rumplestiltskin's panicked thought. He managed to croak out a single word, "Please..."
Then came a flurry of wings as Cogsworth and Lumiere flew up to the top of the boulder, landing one on either side of him.
"Buck up, old chap," muttered Cogsworth. "She won't bite your head off."
Really? Rumplestiltskin swallowed, thinking he wouldn't be able to stop those massive jaws from closing on him. He barely restrained himself from teleporting away in terror. Coward.
"Ah, one grows accustomed, such is the way of it," put in Lumiere. "You will see how it is, in time."
"Peace," said the Queen. The eyes blinked, just long enough for Rumplestiltskin to collect his scattered thoughts. "Stand up, little man. I do not require your obeisance."
Rumplestiltskin wrenched himself upright, trying not to wobble. Under that luminous gaze, he felt as vulnerable as the crippled spinner he had once been. He took a breath, steadying his voice. "But you require something, or why else invite me to the Wood Beyond, your majesty?"
"Your allegiance to Nevethe."
"Allegiance to your kingdom? Or to you?" Rumplestiltskin fought down an instinctive revulsion. Back to kissing boots? sneered the voice of the darkness. Fealty, Hordor had said. And here he was again, desperate, hoping for mercy from the powerful.
Burn them all! hissed the darkness, heedless of consequences.
"Allegiance to the magic of True Love," said the Queen. "To the Wood that preserves it. To the idea that love is worth saving. You must believe that, or why else would you go to such lengths for your son?"
Rumplestiltskin's jaw tightened. She had him, and she knew it.
The Queen sighed. "I'm not asking you to kiss my boots." At Rumplestiltskin's startled hiss, she softened her aura in an approximation of an amused smile. "Oh, I have known Rumplestiltskins a-plenty, across the worlds and timelines. I know who you were before you became the Dark One."
"Then why ask for me?" Rumplestiltskin managed to ask. He knew there were other worlds that mirrored his own, where other versions of the same souls might exist, but for him, it had merely been a theoretical knowledge.
"A thousand small things, that together mean you are the one we need. Take comfort that in serving the Wood, you serve the ones you love."
"There is only my son," grated Rumplestiltskin.
"Ah," said the Queen. "I spoke out of turn. Yet in the future, you may have more. Perhaps a grandchild?"
Rumplestiltskin shut his eyes, gathering his resolve. For Bae. "My son will live? A full life, and death in an old age naturally reached? You will swear to it?"
"I swear to use all the power at my disposal to ensure it," promised the Queen.
"No loopholes. What do you mean by 'at your disposal'?" asked Rumplestiltskin, his eyes still closed in order to filter out distractions and focus on hearing the truth.
"I am bound to Nevethe. My influence outside its borders is wrought through my agents, such as these two."
"An agent such as you wish me to become?"
"Just so," put in Lumiere. "Help us, and you help yourself."
Rumplestiltskin sighed, opening his eyes at last. He had little choice. He could See no way to a happy ending for Bae, but at least here in Nevethe, the Queen was well-nigh godlike in her power and Sight. "Very well. I swear allegiance to Nevethe, on my name and honor, such as it is."
"Then accept this token of your oath," said the Queen. She tilted her head, focusing her gaze on Cogsworth. "If you would...?"
"Of course." Cogsworth sat up on his haunches, lifting up a foreleg to catch the clear white crystal that materialized between his talons, handling it with his customary preciseness.
"What... what is that?" Rumplestiltskin felt no magic from it, but it was surely no mundane rock.
"You know of amber, the blood of the tree, yes?" said Lumiere. "This is the crystalized tear, a rare gem granted by the Wood to those it favors."
"A catalyst," said the Queen. "To bind you to Nevethe, and to allow you to become that which you must be."
"Which is what, exactly?"
"More than you are now. Cogsworth. What are you waiting for?"
"Yes, my queen." Cogsworth shifted into motion, shooting Rumplestiltskin an apologetic glance. "Please hold still." He thrust his foreleg forward into Rumplestiltskin's chest, as if about to rip out his heart, but when he withdrew his talons, they were empty.