Disclaimer: Characters and situations owned by NBC, with additional apologies to the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, E.T.A. Hoffmann and J. M. Barrie.
Thanks to: Kathy for beta-reading.
Timeline: Set between the end of The Kindness of Strangers (2.04) and the middle of Out of Time (2.07).
Author's note: I blame Neil Gaiman, though this isn't a Sandman crossover; after all, Heroes was kind enough to provide its own canonical nightmare space. Still, it would be coy not to acknowledge the inspiration. I also blame the season, which makes me write Heroes as a (Grimm) fairy tale while sitting in a train. Consider it my Christmas gift!
Molly Walker did not have to believe in monsters; she knew they existed. She did not have to imagine other realms and mighty powers, for she knew those existed, too. She had been Little Red Riding Hood, and the wolf had eaten her father and her mother, and the air had been full of the smell of their blood, the sound of their screams, the reek of his sweat as he slavered for yet another meal in his unending greed. But he had not found her, and instead, the brave hunter had come and saved her.
Molly knew about fairy tales, and she knew this: the monsters were real. But so were the heroes. And there was always, always a way out.
After the Nightmare Man had locked her away, Molly started to look around for an escape. There always was one; she just had to be patient enough to find it. The old, green wallpaper was bulging from the wall, and there were things crawling beneath it. She was quite sure they were cockroaches. Mohinder said cockroaches survived anything, and knew a way out when all other creatures perished. "Why is that?" Molly had asked, and Mohinder had said: "Because they care for no one but themselves, and they do not have the sense to miss anything if the world turns to ash while they thrive."
Molly did not want anything to do with cockroaches, but there was no one else here, and if they knew how to escape, she had to ask. So she reached out and tore a bit of the wallpaper down. It felt brittle and clammy in her hands, and sure enough, there was a cockroach wriggling underneath it, hissing at her.
"My powers," the disgusting thing said, "my powers are gone! I want my powers back! Find them for me!"
There was something familiar about it, about that smell of stale sweat it exuded, like old dried fat in a McDonald's where Matt took her when Mohinder was travelling again. Molly wrinkled her nose.
"Do you know a way out of here?" she asked.
"My powers!" the thing whined.
Its head turned towards her. "Yes," it hissed. "But I will tell you only if you tell me where to find my powers. They're beautiful and shiny, and no one else deserves them. They're all mine."
Molly knew, then, who the cockroach really was. The monsters always showed up in disguise at first. She had to be very careful now, and very clever.
"I will tell you," she said, her heart beating so loud that she wondered whether the cockroach could hear it, "I promise I will, but you must show me the way out first."
The cockroach slithered to the floor and said: "Then come with me, Little Red Riding Hood."
It crawled to the fridge that stood in a corner, and told her to open the door.
"I know how things work," it hissed. "He locked all the doors so you could not get out, but he forgot this is a door, too. Open it, get into the fridge, and you will be able to leave this room."
"Where will I be?" Molly asked.
"How should I know?" the cockroach asked back, indifferently. "In someone else's nightmare, I assume. That's how it works. But at least you won't be here. Now tell me where to find my powers."
Molly opened the fridge door. There was nothing inside, nothing but cold air and dried, yellowish ice, and the white space seemed to stretch into infinity; it definitely wasn't a normal fridge, and if she squinted, she could see something glimmering.
"Terrible things happen to little girls who don't keep their promises," the cockroach said in a threatening tone.
Molly closed her eyes. When she opened them, she said:
"Your powers are in a needle, and the needle is in the hands of a healer. But you have no right to get them back." And with these words, she stepped on the cockroach with her left foot, stamped on it, and its shriek filled the room as once the screams of her parents had filled her home. "They're not yours," Molly whispered. "You stole them, every single one of them." She lifted her foot and stamped on the cockroach again. When it finally stopped wiggling, she wiped her shoe on the floor, because Matt had said bloody footprints meant you could follow the culprit, and then she went into the fridge.
Molly wandered through a tunnel covered with old ice that reminded her of the dirty snow on the streets of New York, but the ice on the walls got brighter and brighter, until it resembled mirrors more than anything else. She found herself in a room with a high ceiling, and in the middle of it stood a woman clad in white crystals. Her hair was black as ebony, her lips were red as blood, and her skin was as white as snow. But she could not be Snow White; she was not young any more, and Molly needed just one look to know she was no princess, but a queen.
Her fingers were long and elegant, and her nails were red as blood as well; in her hands, she held a glass shard covered with blood, and when Molly saw this, she knew who the woman was.
"You are the Snow Queen," she decided. "But Gerda and the Robber Girl have already come and taken the shard out of Kay's heart, and so he is not yours any longer."
"They don't understand," the Queen sighed. "Neither of them does. There is a realm to rule, and if he had only done as I told him to, he would have become king, and his brother would not be lost. They would both still be mine. But instead, he choose to burn, the void took his brother, and now the realm will be undone."
For a moment, Molly wondered whether she should offer to find the king that wasn't and his brother for the Queen, but then she remembered that the shard in the Snow Queen's hand could turn a person's heart to ice, and that this was not a fate to be wished on anyone. It also wasn't something Molly wanted for herself, and so she knew she had to leave this palace before the Queen decided to keep her there. But there were no doors in the room she could see, just a window.
"Come here," the Queen said, lifting her hand with the shard.
Molly didn't have time to think about it. She couldn't go back, and she saw no other way. So she ran towards the window and jumped through it, turning her head just once to see whether the Queen was pursuing her. The Queen was not. Instead, the Queen took the shard and started to cut her own face.
Then Molly's body hit against the glass of the window, and broke through it, falling into the abyss.
Someone caught Molly as she was falling, and she needed a moment to catch her breath before she was able to look up to see who it was. It turned out to be a dark-haired boy in green tights, who crowed in delight: "Aren't I clever? Oh, how clever I am!"
Then he glanced at Molly, and frowned. "You're not Wendy," he said.
"No," Molly, who had never liked Peter Pan, said tartly. She didn't want to be brought to Neverland, either. Neverland might have pirates and Indians, which was cool, but in the end, you had to leave, and if you were a girl, you couldn't even have good adventures but had to play everyone's mother instead. She didn't want to go there, she wanted to go home.
"You can let me go," she said to the boy. "Just put me down somewhere."
"Are you an alien or a robot?" he asked. "I need to know, because trust me, you don't want to be left among robots if you're an alien."
"Robots are cool," Molly said, just to be contrary. "Matt watches reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation with me, and Data is the best."
"Fine," the boy said in a huff, and put her down in front of what looked like a huge house made purely of metal. "Your choice. But you could at least tell me where my shadow is. Or Wendy. Wendy and my shadow. I did save your life! Wasn't that clever?"
He was supremely annoying, but he did have a point, and besides, she didn't want to owe him anything. Consequently, Molly focused.
"Your shadow and Wendy are in two different places," she said after a while. "So which one do you want more?"
"My shadow, of course," the boy said promptly. "I can't be special without my shadow."
"Boys are stupid," Molly said, told him where his shadow was and didn't stay to watch him fly off; she walked towards the house of metal instead.
As it turned out, it wasn't as much a house as it was two towers, like twin horns of a buffalo, with an entrance in between that could lead to both. The entrance was carved out of dollar signs, at least that was what it looked like to Molly, and she wondered whether she should run away again. The Nightmare Man, too, had some connection to Dollar symbols. She looked a little more carefully at the two towers. One was made of gold, and it hurt her eyes; the other seemed to be made out of wood, out of many sticks in different sizes, and there was a man still building on it. Something about the man was familiar, and connected with a constricted feeling in her throat, but he wasn't the Bogeyman or the Nightmare Man; nothing in his shape suggested a wolf or a cockroach, either. He held a tool in his hand, probably some sort of measurement or another stick for his tower. He turned around, and she couldn't see his eyes. They were hidden behind big glasses, and the shine from the gold the other tower consisted of reflected on them.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"I'm finishing the tower I built for my daughter Rapunzel," he said. "To keep her safe, forever and ever. That's all I wanted: keeping her safe. I am a family man."
Molly realized, then, that the tower he was building didn't consist of wooden sticks. It consisted of bones, dry and bleached bones, and the thing in his hand was metal, glinting, as surely metal as the entire structure of the other tower was. She had seen him point it at her before.
Matt had saved her, then, as had Mohinder, but neither of them was here. She had to save herself. Molly tried to remember the story. That was always the key to escape. Remembering the story.
"Rapunzel isn't just your daughter," she said, and the words her mother read to her came back in a rush. "She has another family. They could keep her safe. You don't have to lock her up in a tower of bones. You don't need my bones."
"They sold her for a salad dish," the man with the glasses said darkly. "They can't be trusted, and they're not her family. I am."
Then Molly knew there was just one chance of escape left.
"Rapunzel, Rapunzel," she cried, hoping that the girl would let down her hair from the tower, and Molly could climb to safety on it. Instead, a voice cried from above: "I cut my hair so I would not be Rapunzel any more, but it keeps growing back. They gave me the wrong scissors!"
Something was flung out of the tower, and the man with the glasses looked up. It was a pair of scissors, and they plunged towards him, shattering his glasses and burying themselves in his left eye. Molly did not stay to watch. Instead, she ran into the other tower.
Her steps clicked and echoed in the room of gold she entered, and Molly put her hands on her eyes because all the glitter still made them hurt. She peeked through her fingers.
"It's not easy here," said a warm, familiar voice, "but it is safer than the alternative, at least for now."
There, in front of her, stood the woman who had shielded her at Kirby Plaza, Niki. She held out her arms to Molly, and Molly would gladly have thrown herself into them, because she really wanted a hug by now, but Niki wasn't standing there alone. Nor was a stranger with her. The problem was that Niki was standing in front of her three times.
"Jeez, kid, make up your mind," said the Niki who was standing on the left and had not opened her arms; on the contrary, her hands were resting on her hips, and one of her fingers was tapping impatiently. "Stay or go?"
"I don't care," said the Niki on the right, and twirled around herself. "I just wanna have fun. Go to the ball. Nik, why don't you let us have fun? You're such a spoilsport, Cinderella."
The Niki in the middle sighed, but her arms remained open.
"Are these your stepsisters?" Molly asked doubtfully.
"My sisters and my nightmares both," Niki replied ruefully. The Niki on the left grimaced.
"And look what you've done to us," she said, and stretched out one foot. It was clad in a silver boot, but blood was slowly changing the silver colour to red. Molly took in a deep breath, horrified.
"She cut off her toe, and mine, and hers," the Niki on the left said relentlessly. "So our feet would fit in those damned shoes. And now we can't run any more. She crippled us rather than let us run."
"I had to, Jessica," Niki said. "We cost DL his life. Molly, will you stay with me and help me count those peas in the ash? If I can do that, then maybe I can be free. Or maybe I'll sleep in the ashes again, but either way, I'll be at rest."
Molly wasn't sure whether being at rest was a good thing, but she didn't want to leave Niki alone with her sisters, and so she took her hand and walked with her. The other two trailed behind. All three left bloody footsteps. Molly tried not to wonder whether she did, too, if she hadn't managed to get rid of the remains of the cockroach entirely.
The kitchen they arrived in was warm and inviting, the first nice place Molly had found so far, and there was wood instead of all that metal, chairs and a table. They went to the hearth, she and Niki, and started to pick peas out of the ashes. Jessica sneered.
"Not you, too," she said to Molly. "Think it's nice here, do you? Sure, as long as you're a good girl and do what you're told. Just ask little Galatea."
"Who?" Molly asked back, confused.
"Olimpia," the third sister said, bored. "The little doll the king created out of scraps of his metal. She's in all the stories, too. And as bored as me, because her toy ran away. Can't we go to the ball now, Niki, please?"
"Nobody leaves if I can't," said a new voice. It belonged to another blonde woman – no, a girl, standing in the entrance. She was small and delicate, and very pretty, but she smelled like smoke coming from the ashes Molly was sitting next to. She held the doorknob in her hand, turning it idly, and then blue sparks flew from her fingertips. The knob lost shape, hot, molten metal flowed into the lock, and Molly realized she was trapped again.
"Olimpia, Galatea, Elle," Jessica said. "Same thing. Her father made her out of metal because that's what he does, formed her entirely, turned her into a blinking, shining thing, but he couldn't bring her to life, and so he made lightning do it for him. Put that lightning in her again and again. Now she's alive, but the lightning hurts her every step if she doesn't hurt others with it. Let that be a lesson to you, Molly. No matter how cute those Dads of yours are, fathers suck. All of them. If you ever stop being their little doll, they'll hurt you unless you hurt them first."
"Not Matt," Molly protested, "not Mohinder."
"And whose fault is it that you're trapped here again?" Jessica asked. "Who told you to find the Nightmare Man, and who didn't stop him?"
Elle laughed. "She has two of them? One who pushs and one who lets it happen? Lucky girl. I just have one and the same."
"Shut up, both of you," Niki said wearily, and put the plate with the peas she had rescued from the ashes next to her. "This is no place for you, Molly. Time to leave."
"Are we going to the ball now?" the third sister insisted eagerly.
"No," Niki replied, and with the strength Molly had seen her use to beat the Bogeyman, she ripped off the little finger of her own right hand. "Take this," she said, handing it to Molly. "It is strong enough to unlock anything."
"Unfair," Elle cried, while Molly hesitated, tears in her eyes,"why do my playmates always get to leave?" She stood in front of the door, crossing her arms, so that the lock was now protected not just by molten metal but by her body as well. Maybe she was small for a woman, but she was still far taller than Molly, and Molly would not be able to push her aside.
Molly pressed a kiss on Niki's forehead, then she took the finger and put it into the lock of the chest standing next to the fireplace. The chest swung open, and Molly, grabbing the finger, climbed inside, wishing with all her heart to get as far away from this place as it was possible to go.
Darkness surrounded her, and at first she thought she was still in a chest, but then someone said: "It's a glass coffin." A male voice, and she had not heard it before. Molly tried to see, but the darkness refused to go away. Hiding Niki's finger in her left hand, she reached out with her right and found a most curious thing; a swan's wing, richly feathered, ending in a human shoulder, lying next to her.
"Who are you? " she asked, more curious than afraid. "What are you?"
"I don't know," the voice said sadly. "I can't remember, not even in my dreams, though I remember more in them than I do awake. I know I'm in a glass coffin, and there is poison in me that once got out, so perhaps I should stay here."
"Maybe the poison was put in you to keep you here and make you forget, and not the other way around?" Molly suggested, hoping she was right. She did not want to be poisoned. "And why do you have a wing instead of an arm?"
"Because I am not one thing or the other, I think," the voice next to her replied. "I am not complete. Someone gave me a shirt, but it lacks one of its arms. Perhaps I was a bird before I ended up here, and the shirt made a human. Or I was human, and the shirt gave me a bird's wing. I often dream of flying, so I think I was probably a bird."
"Birds do not belong in glass coffins, either," Molly said decisively, and to her surprise, the voice chuckled. Then the man she couldn't see said:
"Little girls surely don't. You should leave."
She wanted to, but she didn't want him to remain alone, either. On the other hand, she did know better than to ask strangers to come with her; one of her fathers was a policeman, after all. Niki's little finger in her left hand still felt warm, and suddenly Molly thought that if it unlocked anything, it might at least help the stranger before she left. So she patted him on the chest until she found the place where her other father had shown her the human heart resided, and said:
"Unlock the past."
"No," the stranger cried, but whether this was in response to something he saw or to her suggestion, Molly never found out, because he pushed her away, against the lid of the coffin, and it sprang wide open. A great light came from him, blinding her, and she shut her eyes. Then the light was suddenly gone, and the man, and his glass coffin.
She found herself near a high hill, and in front of little house, where a fire burned, and she still wasn't alone.
The worst thing about the Nightmare Man was that he looked quite a lot like Matt; you could believe he was Matt's father. Right now, though, he was running around the fire, and chanting:
"To-day do I bake, to-morrow I brew,
The day after that the queen's child comes in;
And oh! I am glad that nobody knew
That the name I am called is Rumpelstiltskin!"
Then he turned to Molly and said: "But it's not, Smartypants. You know that, right?"
"You can't hold me anymore," Molly whispered, hating that he used Matt's nickname for her. "I have a key which unlocks everything."
And she clutched Niki's little finger tighter than ever as she made herself look the Nightmare Man right in the eyes.
"Mmmm," he said. "Maybe. You led me quite a merry chase through everyone else's nightmares until I found you again. And maybe you if you run again, you'll be able to run for a good while longer, because I have things to do and promises to keep, and that means I won't be able to chase after you until all this is done. But there is one thing you do not know, young miss, and I think that gives me the advantage."
Molly refused to look away. "You don't know anything," she said. "Mohinder knows how to cook, and how to sing. Matt knows how to make me laugh, and he knows how to fight. And I know how to find anyone, anyone at all. You don't know anything."
"I know my son," the Nightmare Man said. "If you run away again, he will never be able to find you. If he doesn't find you, well, then, my dear girl, he becomes me."
"That is not true," Molly cried out.
"Yes, it is," the Nightmare Man replied. "You know it in your heart. You knew when he became a detective by using his ability, and why not? We can do that. We can do anything. You knew it when he asked you to find me, because he wanted to so much, so very much. He will become me, and the only one who can save him from this is you. But only if he can find you first, and he cannot find you unless you go back to the room where I put you in."
Tears burned in her eyes again, but she refused to cry; instead, they made her voice hoarse as she angrily said:
"You just want to trap him, as you trapped me."
"Well, yes," the Nightmare Man said agreeably. "It will be nice to have a son and a granddaughter to visit whenever I can. But what I said is true nonetheless, all of it."
Perhaps, Molly thought, perhaps there is a time where Little Red Riding Hood must save the hunter. Fair is fair. She gave the Nightmare Man a contemptuous look, for she could see how little he was now; in truth, not taller than her.
"I will go back," she said, making a circle around him and moving towards the little house. "But you won't be able to trap Matt. He'll save me, and he'll never become you. Because he'll have me, and I'll have him."
She pushed Niki's finger into the small lock, and looked back to the Nightmare Man once more.
"And when he has saved me, I won't ever come looking for you again. Nobody else can find you except for me, and I won't come. Goodbye."
When she opened the door, she saw Matt in the room with the green wallpaper. Molly took her fears and her doubts, locked them in her heart, and hid the key in her pocket. Then she ran towards him.