A/N: Two chapters in almost one week. I'm actually kind of proud of myself for that. I have no idea where the sudden inspiration came from, but I'm glad it did. I have a couple of surprises in store for you in this chapter (good ones). Enjoy!
It was past midnight, but Rumpelstiltskin was not asleep. Sleep never came to him very easily after he lost Bae in the Enchanted Forest, combined with the fact that the Dark One didn't seem to need much sleep at all. It wasn't any different here in Storybrooke, especially without Emma or Henry by his side. Going to bed was futile when the house was so silent and empty. So cold. All he would end up doing was staring mindlessly at the ceiling until a dreamless sleep carried him away.
At the moment, he was perched on his stool in the basement, his concentration fully trained on spinning. It eased his mind, until there was nothing but the straw sliding through his fingers, the gold spooling out, the wheel creaking as it spun…spun…spun…
Someone was knocking at his door.
The sound was distant at first, a simple nuisance in the background. Louder and louder it became as his concentration ebbed. It sounded almost…desperate. The wheel stopped. Who could possibly have need of him at this hour of the morning? Was it Regina rearing her dark head? Unlikely. Or was it…?
With renewed energy, he grabbed his cane and pushed his body as hard and fast as he could up the basement stairs. His breath came in quick gasps, but he didn't dare slow his pace for an instant. Oh, please let it be….please let it be her…
The knocks had turned to insistent banging by the time he reached the front hall. It sounded like she was using both fists and a foot now. He didn't know why she didn't use her key. It made him worry about her state of mind if she was panicked enough not to abide by logic. He opened the door and a stream of gold flooded his vision, punctuated by two hard emeralds.
"Emma," he breathed happily in spite of his worries. He couldn't resist sweeping her into the security of his arms. She fit perfectly against his body, her head falling into the crook of his neck. He buried his face in the halo of golden hair and inhaled her natural scent. Enticing as always.
Overcome with relief as he was, it took him a moment to realize she wasn't returning his embrace. Her hands were crushed against his chest, scrunching his shirt in her balled fists. When he pulled back to survey her face, he recognized the numb horror inscribed there. Something terrible had happened. This visit wasn't intended for pleasure.
Just as he feared.
"Regina," she whispered. It was the only thing she had to say to deaden his excitement. Ice poured through his veins. What had the wicked witch done this time? "Belle's father is dead. Had his heart ripped out." His own heart ached for Belle's sake. It didn't come as a shock to anyone in town that he and King Maurice never saw eye to eye, cursed or not, but anything that hurt Belle ended up hurting him, too. She would always be his most loyal friend, if not his love. If anyone else had come to his door with the news of the florist's death, it would have been in the form of an accusation. I had nothing to do with it, he would have calmly told them, followed by a command to get off his porch.
Of course, Regina welcomed such savagery. When will she stop? But he already knew the answer to that. Regina would not relent until Henry was in her possession once more and their heads were severed from their bodies.
"There's more to tell. I can see it in your eyes," he said, brushing his finger along the corner of her right eye. She blinked and her eyelashes tickled his skin. There was that look. That stubborn look that suggested she did not know how to put the truth into words—or she did not want to at all. "Tell me," he implored her, cupping her cheek. Emma hesitated for a heartbeat and then he felt her give in.
"She sent me a note. An ultimatum. She wants me to surrender Henry."
His eyelids narrowed, his teeth clenched behind his carefully clasped lips. He would rather rip out his own beating heart and grind it into dust than hand over his stepson. He was certain Emma felt the same way.
"Of course she did," he muttered. Regina had conveniently shoved her foe between a rock and a hard place. The choice was never easy when your child's life was at stake.
"And if I don't," Emma continued as if she hadn't heard his interference. "She's threatened to kill someone in town every night, just like she did with Belle's father. What am I supposed to do? I can't give Henry over to her, but then it means people will die. I'm the savior; I'm supposed to protect them!" She broke away from his arms and her fingers crawled through her hair in frustration. "You said it yourself—I can't save everyone."
He flinched. All at once, he deeply regretted ever putting that foul thought in her head, even if it proved true from time to time. This was a situation that needed to be handled delicately, a time where Emma needed to be strong, not doubting herself. It pained him to admit that his brave swan might have finally reached her limit.
"No, don't think that way. It'll only make you vulnerable to Regina's manipulation. I should never have said that." He tugged tenderly on her wrists, pulling her back into his arms where she belonged. Softly he kissed the crown of her head. A mighty gust of wind enveloped them both, the chill blowing straight through his suit. Emma shivered in his arms. "Come out of the cold and try to relax. The prolonged stress is not healthy for the baby."
He led her inside and bolted the door. Then he silently cast a protective charm over it, just in case. It was a logical rule of survival: be ready for anything, at any given time. Once they were safe and warm in the kitchen, he guided her into a chair and fixed her a soothing cup of tea. Normally, Emma did not care for tea of any kind, but tonight she accepted the cup without complaint. After a few timid sips, the color rushed back into her frozen cheeks.
"If Regina's word is true," he mused, lowering his body into the chair across from his wife. Doubtful, he added to his spoken thought. He figured that was the main reason Emma ran to him—counsel—and he gladly administered it. "It means there will be no more deaths tonight. I know Regina. Fond of gloating as she may be, she won't risk being out in the open. She'll assume you'll search relentlessly for her in the shadows. Mirrors are her windows to the world. For now, I suggest you sleep on this and regain your strength. Call a town meeting tomorrow. They deserve to know."
He waved his hand toward the kitchen wall, indicating the sleeping town beyond it and its people. Matters had become exceedingly trivial, too trivial to keep hidden any longer. Their lives were endangered by Regina before, but now the queen was carrying out the threat of picking them off one by one. Their savior needed to rise from the ashes and prove she was fighting on their behalf.
Emma understood and nodded in agreement. The only sound issued from her was the slurping of her tea.
"Rumpel?" He took ahold of her hand. The palm was warm from wrapping around the cup of tea, but her knuckles were still pale and cold.
"Yes, dear?" Her eyes lifted from the pool of tea in her cup. Those eyes could have belonged to a frightened child. He longed to hold her and whisper promises in her ear that everything would be alright, even if it wasn't true. However, that was more along the line of Charming's relationship expertise, not his. He had seen too much of the world and its cruelty to hide behind a veil painted with pretty colors.
"Can I…stay here for the rest of the night?"
Her lip trembled and he let his thumb trace it. He did not need to ask her reason for asking to stay. Tonight, she needed comfort that an empty bed in her parents' apartment would not provide. She needed to be close to someone else, someone who was fighting this war just as much as she was. Most of all, she had been reduced to a child by Regina's startling threat and needed protection.
The savior was meant to protect the town…but who protected the savior?
"Of course," he replied instantly. He allowed her to finish her cup of tea and waited until the chill had left her bones. Then he brought her upstairs and held her through the night, to ensure that no evil queens would intrude in her sanctuary. Both slept soundly through the night.
Emma never really liked Archie's office. It reminded her of the days when Regina sent Henry to therapy, all because he had guessed correctly about the existence of the curse. This time, Henry wasn't the patient and that made her skin crawl even more.
"Are you ready for this?" Rumpel inquired as they stopped right outside Archie's door. It had taken her an unnecessarily long time to get ready that morning because she kept finding excuses to stall going to therapy. Every ringlet in her golden hair got more attention than it ever deserved. The shower lasted twice as long, until her husband threatened to come into the bathroom after her. Somehow, her legs dragged all the way down the stairs, all the way to the car.
Was this how Henry felt every time Regina brought him to therapy?
"No," she answered honestly. She knocked three times on the door. Better to get this over with as soon as possible.
"Neither am I," Rumpel replied, sounding tired. Not so much physically tired as emotionally. The door swung open and Archie stood there with a welcoming smile on his face. Neither Emma nor Rumpel requited the gesture.
"Emma, Rumpelstiltskin…glad you could make it." He stepped aside and motioned for them to enter the office. Emma's feet felt glued to the carpet until her husband took the first step forward. They were doing this together, and they were doing this for the sake of their family. Emma's eyes found the clock on Archie's desk. Right on time. Even for all their reluctance to attend family therapy, Rumpel insisted they be punctual.
Archie closed the door and it suddenly felt as though she were trapped within those four walls.
Bae was already there, hanging on the edge of the black leather couch. His hands were folded between his knees and he looked like he'd rather be anywhere else at that moment. He barely nodded his head when they settled on the other end of the couch. It only unnerved Emma more to realize she was stuck in the middle between father and son. How appropriate.
"Fancy meeting you here," Bae said without meeting her eyes.
"Fancy that," Emma repeated. Archie located a small notepad and pencil for taking notes. Emma figured he could probably publish a whole book about their family issues. It would be a miracle if he could even sort through the tangled web. Archie sat down in the armchair across from the couch and smiled at each one of them. It was terribly dark on their side of the room.
"So…what seems to be the problem?" That was a loaded question. Emma waited for the gun to go off. Three…two…one…
"Him," Bae exploded. Ka-boom, Emma thought. Bae stretched his arm around her waist and pointed at his father. "Him, him, him, him, him." Rumpel rolled his cane between his palms and avoided looking at anyone in the room. Emma pinched the bridge of her nose in exasperation. Already, this was on the verge of being a disaster.
"Why don't I attach a neon sign above my head and save you the trouble of pointing?" Rumpel muttered. Bae slapped his hands down on his knees. That sound alone was like a gunshot in the room.
"You want to know what the problem is? He is married to my ex-girlfriend! Diagnose that." The pencil was unmoving atop the pad of paper, the sharpened graphite tip still pressed to the first line. Archie clearly had no idea how to handle this particular case. Emma couldn't blame him; it wasn't like this level of craziness ever walked through his door.
"Um….well…I would suggest…" Archie's voice faded away. Emma decided to take the reins.
"I didn't know he was your father," she shrieked at Bae. "I didn't know that until I found you in Tallahassee. If I did, do you think I would actually be in this position? And why are you pointing fingers so much? You could have told me—"
"Oh, yeah, that would have gone over well," Bae cut her off midsentence. His knuckles curled and cracked, warning her that he was getting angry. "Imagine that, would you? Oh, hey, Emma, since we're together, I want to confess all my secrets to you. Get everything out in the open. Starting with: I'm the son of Rumpelstiltskin. Would you have honestly believed that?" Emma did not offer an answer. "Why him? Was it his money? The way he beats people with a cane? Or just the suits working their so-called charm?"
Rumpel squirmed uncomfortably in his seat, his hip brushing beside Emma's. His hand snaked along the length of his leg, stroking the silk material of his impeccable suit.
"How about some trust exercises? Those usually do the trick," Archie suggested through their intense arguing. Emma rounded on him with a look that said he must be the crazy one.
"I wouldn't trust him," she pointed at Bae's chest, "if he was Superman and I was Lois Lane falling off the Empire State building!" Bae glanced at Archie for help, but their therapist was struggling to keep up. It didn't help that his Ph.D. came from a curse. All he knew about handling stressed patients derived from the story Regina had spun in his head.
"Why would you be falling off the Empire State building?" Bae retorted. Oh, sure, you question that, Emma thought irately. But you don't question the part where you're Superman, right?
"I didn't say me. I said Lois Lane. And maybe she's sick of listening to her ex-boyfriend's woe-is-me attitude," Emma shot back. Bae pressed a hand to his chest, feigning injury. She shook her head in annoyance.
"That hurt, Emma," Bae moaned, rubbing his chest.
"Or perhaps some inkblots…" Archie carried on weakly.
"Just think: your baby is going to be my step-sibling!" Bae gestured his hands to her swollen belly. She cradled it to protect her unborn baby from his accusations. Why did he have to bring that subject into this session? "My son is both my son and my step-brother! How can anyone manage to cope with that?" Bae stretched his hands away from his head and made a brief pfft sound. Mind-blown.
"Now you're just being dramatic on purpose. What did you do? Plan all this out while you were sipping your morning coffee?" Bae didn't respond to her taunting. He craned his neck around her shoulder and glared at his father. Rumpel was staring hard at the clock, probably wishing the hands would move a little faster.
"What about you? You're being awfully quiet over there. Cooking up Evil Plan number 108?" Rumpel's mind came back to their strenuous family therapy session. He licked his lips slowly, weighing every word on his tongue before he dared speak. Emma wished him all the best of luck, because she apparently had none of it so far.
"I am delving into the depths of my cold, black heart in search of the proper means of saying I'm sorry and I love you in a way you'll actually believe," he said. Emma snuck her hand next to his thigh and rubbed it, telling him silently how much she appreciated his calm demeanor. Of course, he may have been calm on the outside, but Emma bet he was a wreck on the inside. Bae snorted.
"Apology not accepted," he grumbled. Rumpel finally turned his head in Bae's direction. Moisture clouded his eyes and the hurt bled through his controlled expression. Even Archie looked concerned as he gazed back and forth between father and son.
"You don't love me?" His tone was broken, barely louder than a whisper. Emma bit down on the inside of her cheek and she watched Bae from the corner of her eye. There was nothing more painful than the loss of love in a parent-child relationship. She was thankful Henry didn't harbor any hard feelings after learning she gave him up at birth.
"I did once. That was before you let go of my hand." Archie waved his hand rapidly in front of his eyes. Removing his glasses, he reached over the table for the box of tissues. It was supposed to be the patient that burst into tears, but somehow the box of tissues always ended up on Archie's side of the table. The three on the couch exchanged odd glances and wordlessly agreed to ignore the sniffling.
"He made a mistake," Emma told Bae. He slid further away from her on the couch. "A terrible one, but mistakes happen. What matters is that he spent three centuries trying to fix it. If he didn't love you, he wouldn't have fought so hard to get you back, would he?"
"No, a mistake is leaving the toast to burn or turning the clothes in the wash pink because of one accidental red sock. This was a choice, Emma. He let go of my hand and clung to that dagger. His power. It means more to him than I do." Rumpel nearly leaped over Emma to find Bae's hand. Bae whipped away and pushed himself against the opposite arm of the couch.
"That's not true! I regret what I did, Bae. I have every day for three hundred years. I love you very much. So much that I strived for centuries to right my wrong and beg your forgiveness. I want us to be a family again." He looked from Bae to Emma. A family. All of us, his underlying meaning did not go unnoticed. At least Archie managed to swallow most of his tears.
"Bae, have you ever considered giving your father another chance? Perhaps the bridge can be mended," Archie spoke soothingly, balling the tissue in his hand. Bae let his head droop.
"No, it can't. I'm afraid that if I do give him another chance…there will only be regret and disappointment." Rumpel released a ragged breath. He shook his head, but the words and pleas died on his lips. Emma drilled holes into Bae's head with her eyes, but he would not pick up his head.
"You shouldn't let your fear make the decisions for you, Bae," Archie continued. Instantly, Emma knew the therapist had said the wrong thing. Bae's back arched and his fingers turned white from the way he was squeezing them together so hard.
"Are you saying I'm like my father? That I'm a coward?" Before anyone could react, Bae gave his father one last scornful look. "I will never be like you. I will never do to my child what you have done to me. You know what? I'm finished with this. Don't expect me to return next week."
Bae leaped up from the couch and circled it so that he wouldn't have to get close to Emma or Rumpel. He made a beeline for the door. Archie was astounded, sitting slack in his chair without a word written on the notepad. Rumpel was distraught, retreating to a secret place inside his mind where even Emma could not reach. She bolted up from the couch and pursued Bae, stopping him before he raced down the stairs.
"I'm not going back in there," he shouted, pulling away from her touch.
"I wasn't going to ask that," she replied coldly. He gripped the railing of the stairway and refused to turn around. "I thought I should warn you that Regina has made a threat against our son and the entire town. She killed Belle's father last night and if I don't surrender Henry, someone else will die tonight. The pattern will continue until I obey her request."
From what she could glimpse of his face, he actually looked sympathetic. He had sworn he would not abandon Henry and this was his chance to prove it.
"I'll do whatever it takes to keep Henry out of danger," he vowed. "What are you going to do about her? Obviously you're not going to sit around and wait for someone else to die. Are you going to use magic to stop her?" He half-turned to gauge her reaction. Emma wiggled her fingers by her side, testing the flow of magic in her veins. "Emma, I'm saying this for your safety and for Henry's. Magic is not a good idea. Look what it did to my father."
Emma closed her mind to his furious remarks. If magic was the only thing that could save her son and the town, she would use it. Of course, if there was another way, she would try that first. Even Rumpel had warned her about the dangers of depending on magic too heavily; she didn't need to hear the same from Bae.
"Will you at least come to the town meeting?" Bae's answer was to descend the stairs, declaring their conversation over. Emma bit down on her tongue to staunch the urge to punch the wall. Everything was falling apart at her feet.
"There's going to be a town meeting?" She noticed Archie standing in the doorway, with his notepad still tucked under his arm. She had been mulling over the best ways to spread the word about the meeting around town and now the idea hit her effortlessly. Of course. Why hadn't she thought of it earlier?
"Yes, I'm calling a town meeting in an hour. Do me a favor: tell Red to spread the word." At last, Red could put her false counterpart's gossiping nature to good use.
The town meeting was appropriately held in Storybrooke's Town Hall. It was the only place reasonably big enough to accommodate so many fairy-tale characters. Everyone in town gathered there fairly quickly despite the fact that the meeting was called on such short notice. They were either seeking comfort after the death of Belle's father or they were hoping to hear that Regina had been caught at last. Emma doubted she could give them the former and there was no way in hell to grant the latter in the next few minutes.
When everyone was seated, she shakily stood up at the front of the room with her parents by her side for support. Rumpel remained seated, unwilling to attract the town's attention away from Emma.
"You're probably all wondering why I called you here," she started uncertainly. It always made her uncomfortable to have hundreds of eyes on her. To have so many lives depending on her. She glanced sideways at her mother, who nodded encouragingly. "As most of you may have guessed, it's about Regina. By now, you have heard the news of King Maurice's untimely death."
Whispers floated throughout the room, a symphony of frantic voices echoing King Maurice. Emma's eyes flickered to Belle in the front row. Jefferson had his hand on her shoulder, but Belle stood tall and still as an angelic statue, jaw locked, and blue eyes set forward. Despite how strong she was trying to be, a silent tear slid over her rosy cheek.
"I wish I could have prevented it," Emma spoke for Belle's sake. Then she scanned the rows of frightened and pleading faces. They hadn't even heard the worst part yet, but they were all looking to her for guidance. She swallowed the lump in her throat. "Regina has issued an ultimatum. Someone will die every night…unless I hand over Henry. I figured everyone should be aware of the danger she's posing."
The whispers ceased. Panicked cries broke out across the room, heads spinning back and forth to seek comfort and to be reassured their family members were still there. Emma only caught snippets here and there from the rising murmur of the crowd.
"What are we going to do?"
"Who's going to be next?"
"He-hem," a raspy clearing of someone's throat was nearly drowned out by the woes and worries of all those that flanked it. Yet, it did not need to be repeated to issue the effect its owner desired.
Starting from the center of the circle and spreading outward to the edges, the townspeople fell quiet. Some did not even understand why they fell quiet; they simply noticed the dulling of the crowd's roar and hushed. In the very center of the crowd, King George stood proud and defiant. Every pair of eyes in the room focused on him, but his eyes were two frigid slates reserved for Emma at the head of the hall.
"Everyone else in this room is thinking it, whether they dare admit it or not. If not, then I declare you cowards. You've obviously got another child on the way. Why does that one matter?"
George pointed a knobby finger toward Henry, who was seated beside Grace. Belle pressed his face into her woolen coat, shielding him from the cruelty of King George's implication. Charming let his hand fall to his holstered gun. Rumpel's fingers curled around the head of his cane and he indulged in several gruesome yet satisfying fantasies of bludgeoning King George's head until it burst like a watermelon.
And yet, the malicious monarch was not finished. A sinister smirk crept over his dry lips.
"How many people are you going to let die, Sheriff? Or is it Savior, now?" He scoffed. "Some savior you're turning out to be. It's plain to see you take after your father." The barbs were flung harshly, with every intention of cutting to the bone.
"Enough," Emma and Charming exclaimed simultaneously. King George's smirk widened, screaming you-see-what-I-mean. Emma didn't know what he was so proud about. If he was attempting to turn the crowd of townspeople against her, it wasn't working in his favor.
"Don't make me bite you," Red warned, snapping her jaws together. King George looked at her like she was a slab of meat, ready for roasting.
"And what if I am the next victim? The Queen never valued royalty unless it was her own title to be compromised," George continued. While that statement was most likely true, it didn't win him any sympathy points. People may have detested Regina as queen, but King George wasn't very high on their top ten lists of rulers, either. I can see why, Emma speculated.
"If you're next, then you know what I say? Good riddance," Granny bellowed from a few rows away. Immediately, George's eyes burned into her broad back.
"What did you say, old woman?" Snow and Red groaned from their respective seats. No one ever insulted Granny with such a flimsy title as old woman and got away with it. While Red might have been pleased to see Granny tear into George in a way her teeth could not, it meant she had to listen to Granny's griping all night.
"Sit down or I'll do the Queen a favor and personally introduce you to my crossbow!" Granny glared fiercely at George over the rims of her glasses. Surprisingly, King George plunked himself down on his chair. "Old Bessie won't be leaving my side until the Queen's head serves as a decoration in my diner."
Emma stuck her fingers in her mouth and whistled, directing everyone's attention back to the front of the room before any more arguing could commence.
"I understand your concern. Charming and I will take late night shifts and patrol the streets. Nighttime is when Regina will strike and if we can catch her in the act—"
A grunt came from the middle of the crowd. No one had to turn around this time to know who it belonged to.
"Yes, because it's done the town a hell of a lot of good so far," George interrupted. Emma's patience with the king was waning fast, along with everyone else's in the room. Once more, his chair scraped on the linoleum floor as he rose to his feet. Granny turned around and crossed her arms. "Have you ever considered, Almighty Savior, that if you were spending less time on your back, King Maurice would not be dead at all?"
It's your fault, the implication rang loud and clear in Emma's ears. That was it. Emma pounded her fist into the table. Now Rumpelstiltskin shot out of his chair, brown eyes ignited with fury and magic crackling along his fingertips. Charming stepped in front of Emma to block his daughter from King George's view. However, it was Snow White that remained calm enough to take control.
"Team Seven, please escort King George to the door. Since he is royalty, be sure to treat him with the care and respect he deserves," she commanded with the polite yet firm tone of a queen. The dwarves pushed through the crowd to obey her request.
"Alright, Baldy, start walking," Grumpy demanded, poking George's shoulder. The king gawked at the seven little men as if he'd never seen a dwarf before. Or perhaps he had never been handled so roughly by one. When he didn't move, Sneezy, Doc, and Dopey latched onto his arms and dragged him along.
"You're calling me bald? Have you glimpsed a mirror lately, you oversized Munchkin? Get your grubby hands off me! I am royalty! I have rights!" The dwarves were stronger than they looked, leading King George by his limbs out of the hall. They had to be strong in order to wield their pickaxes all day long and cut diamonds. George's complaints carried on for several minutes once the doors were closed.
When all was silent, the meeting continued. Only this time, Snow White was the one who did the talking. Everyone, including Emma, regarded her with awe and respect for the way she serenely handled King George. If this was The Lion King, they'd probably kneel and bow their heads, Emma thought wryly. But then who would be Simba?
She shook the nonsensical thoughts from her brain.
"We're not here to tell you that there is no hope of defeating Regina's ultimatum. We're here to counterattack, to devise a way to protect you. We will do everything in our power not to let last night's tragedy be repeated. But everyone needs to do their own part as well. Savior or not, there is only so much Emma can do in so little time."
Emma rolled her eyes to the high-vaulted ceiling.
"Thanks, Mom," she mumbled out of the corner of her mouth. Snow bit softly on her bottom lip.
"Sorry," she whispered back. Truthfully, people were too busy offering up passionate suggestions of their own to linger on Emma's inefficiencies as protector of the town. Desperate times called for desperate measures. These people had been ravaged and tormented by Regina long enough; they refused to let it carry on.
"There's a full moon coming," Red pointed out, glancing around at her fellow townspeople. Archie held her hand for support. "I know how to control my wolf form. I can patrol the town with you. If Regina pops up, I'll catch a scent. I'll take her down faster than if Archie tossed a chew toy." She blushed. "Not that…he's done that often." Archie grew visibly nervous, but he smiled at Red affectionately.
"I've never missed once with my crossbow," Granny boasted. Everyone in town already knew it—and feared it. "I'll get her right between the eyes, mark my words. No one is touching a hair on that boy's head so long as I live." Translation: forever.
"We have our pickaxes," Grumpy called out. He and the dwarves had returned from tossing out King George. On their tail, though, was Bae. Emma tried not to look at him as he took a place along the back wall. Rumpel couldn't do anything but look at him. "If those things can slice up a diamond, imagine what our pickaxes can do to the Queen. Woom-pah!" Grumpy mimicked mining, startling a few people around him.
"For the record, I've asked Rumpelstiltskin to place wards around your houses," Emma said. Everyone shifted their heads to Rumpel, each face mirroring an expression of disbelief that the Dark One would willingly help. In the back, Bae frowned, but he didn't make a move to object. "The wards would be powerful enough to keep Regina out until we learn how to deal with her. Until we learn how to stop her. Unfortunately—"
"He won't help?" Bae's voice rang out through the hall. Annoyance pinched Emma's brow. She hoped he wasn't going to be another King George.
The hurt radiated off Rumpel in crushing waves and Emma dipped her hand beneath the table to take his hand. The crowd did not register the change in his demeanor. To them, he was stoic and formidable as ever, but Emma didn't miss the ache in his eyes, the way he stopped breathing, or the tightening of his hand on his cane. Only Belle watched him closely, catching the change as well. People examined Bae curiously, the stranger in their midst. Those that he and Henry visited the day before passed the word along that he was the Dark One's son.
Emma forced herself to meet Bae's gaze.
"Rumpelstiltskin is more than willing to help, at no cost to you," she assured the crowd. "As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted…Unfortunately, the amount of magic required for multiple wards takes a great deal of energy and time on his part. The wards won't be up by tonight."
Not all of them, anyway, she added silently. The only reason she didn't voice it aloud was to spare the crowd from the debate of which houses would be protected by wards and which would remain vulnerable to attack.
"Most of the wards can…if I help," the Blue Fairy announced. The crowd parted to reveal her pristine figure. "With the aid of the wand you promised me, Emma, I should have enough power to set up efficient wards over half the town, at least. It would still take a day's worth of time to enact the wards, given the layers that are required, but it will be progress." Rumpel reared his head back in alarm.
"You would agree to combine your power with mine? Oh, dearie, I believe your devil horns are showing," he mocked. The Blue Fairy pursed her lips.
"I would if it meant the protection of this town, Rumpelstiltskin," she said, gesturing her hand to the crowd of people around her. "And look who's calling the kettle black. Clearly, your dark magic isn't as powerful as you once claimed." Emma restrained Rumpel by the arm before he could leap over the table. A few colorful words were hissed under his breath.
Emma suddenly noticed how Jefferson's head was bent close to Belle's. At first, she was afraid Belle finally suffered a severe breakdown, but then she realized the two had been softly conversing. Belle urged him to say what was on his mind, nudging him gently forward. Jefferson rotated to face the crowd.
"For those who are unaware, I have a house on the hill on the outskirts of Storybrooke. A mansion, really. Rumpelstiltskin just repaired it and cast powerful wards over it. Regina won't have a chance of getting through. If anyone wants protection, you're welcome to my spare rooms." Belle smiled approvingly at him through her pain. Even after such a heavy loss, she was willing to put aside her grief for the sake of others.
"Travel in groups," Charming advised. "Stay indoors. Do not walk the town after sunset. Keep Emma's number on speed dial. Meanwhile, we'll keep searching for Regina."
"I swear I won't stop until she's subdued," Emma declared, meeting every pair of eyes in the room. Everyone was counting on her now. She made a vow not to let them down.
The meeting ended shortly after that. People were more visibly disturbed going out than when they first came in. Every person that passed Belle offered her some form of condolences for her father. Henry departed from Belle's side and joined Emma and Rumpel at the front of the room. Even he was trembling with fear, though he fought hard not to show it.
Her brave boy. Henry would have made an extraordinary knight one day, had he been raised in the Enchanted Forest.
"You okay?" Emma questioned, pulling her son into her arms. Really, it was her that longed for the comfort. Ever since Regina's threat, she had been reluctant to take her eye off Henry for an instant, for fear that he would have vanished when she sought him out again. Every parent's worst nightmare was becoming her reality.
Henry nodded against her shoulder. He was getting so tall. With everything going on, she hadn't taken the proper time to appreciate it. Pretty soon, he would be standing eye to eye with his stepfather.
"Why don't you just give me over to her?" Henry blinked up at her innocently. His grandparents overheard and froze in their tracks, wearing matching masks of horror. Emma's arms tightened around him, refusing to let him go. This was all Regina's fault. Surely he didn't blame himself for King Maurice's death and those that may follow?
"Henry—" She caressed his face, but he wiggled away. His eyes were wild and desperate, but wiser than any child's eyes should be at his age.
"Everyone is scared. People are going to die by her hands. She's only doing this because of me. If we give her what she wants, maybe she'll stop. She won't hurt me," he reasoned. Every syllable was a cruel, sharp knife slicing into Emma's heart. She could almost feel it struggling to beat as she scrutinized her son. So innocent, so young, so brave. Braver than most of the men that attended the meeting.
"You're right, Henry," Rumpel spoke up. Emma whipped around to stare at him, taken aback by his defense of Henry's reasoning. He didn't mean…he couldn't…Rumpelstiltskin would not meet her eyes. He looked past her, only choosing to hold Henry in his line of sight. "She would not harm you, but she will destroy us. Henry, what do you suppose the Evil Queen will do once she gets her hands on you? Her next move will be to wipe out everyone who poses a threat to her so-called happiness, to ensure that she never loses you again."
Emma released a sigh of relief. He wasn't proposing that they ship Henry in a box to the Evil Queen's lair. He was making a point of the weight of such a decision. Henry hung his head, admitting defeat. Emma knelt by his side and took ahold of his shoulders, squeezing them until he looked at her.
"I can't surrender you, Henry. You've suffered enough in her care and it won't stop death from following in her wake. I'm sorry, but we'll find another way." That was all she could promise for the time being. Rising to full height, she kissed Henry's forehead. Something tapped her arm and she glanced down to see her husband's fingers resting under her elbow.
"May I have a word?" He tilted his head toward the corner of the hall, where they would not be overheard. Emma tentatively entrusted Henry in the care of his grandparents and followed on Rumpel's heels. He bent his head low, his words only traveling to the shell of her ear. "I may have another way."
Emma's eyes widened. How long had he been sitting on such valuable information? She understood then that he must not be putting too much stock in its success if he didn't wish Henry to overhear. This was an act of desperation, a last resort.
"What is it?" He shook his head and watched the bustling crowd just beyond the hall's door. It wasn't so much the crowd that made him anxious, but the prospect that Regina could be hiding close-by, eavesdropping. Emma didn't dare call it paranoia.
"Not here. Meet me in my shop. Say, an hour or two. Right now, I'm about to offer my son a deal." The family therapy was nothing short of failure, so it was time for Plan B.
"A deal he can't refuse?" Emma's lips lifted slightly. Rumpel stole a small kiss. For good luck, she imagined.
"Ha, ha. Good to see you've maintained your sense of humor in these dark days." She shrugged loosely and watched as he limped toward the crowd. Laughter is supposed to be the best medicine, isn't it? From what she remembered, Regina's face had no laugh lines at all.
"Bae," Rumpel called through the chaotic crowd. It wasn't an easy feat to navigate past so many bodies with a lame leg. It was tempting to cure his leg in order to gain agility, but he drowned that urge before it could flourish. Not too long ago, that strength would have been nonexistent. He caught up to his son outside, grabbing ahold of his sleeve to slow him down.
Bae groaned loudly. Rumpel had a feeling his son had been ignoring him. Bae whirled with a protest on his lips, but Rumpel overrode any complaints with a handful of papers, thrust into Bae's hands without warning. The irritation dissolved into stark confusion.
"What's this?" Bae didn't bother to sift through the papers.
"A written contract," Rumpel stated, folding his hands neatly atop the head of his cane. Disbelief burned in Bae's eyes. His son had no reason to take a deal from him after the first one he broke, but Rumpel was desperate. "I know I've taken enough of your time, but surely one minute more will not kill anyone."
Bae's fingers curled over the edge of the contract, wrinkling it. Rumpel imagined his son tearing it up, the ripped pieces raining like confetti on the sidewalk. Gods, he hoped it didn't come to that. But Bae cocked his head, listening. It went without saying that he was on a time limit.
"Thank you," Rumpel said sincerely. Whatever bitter retort Bae might have given, he held his tongue. "According to this contract, which I fully intend to abide, I will settle the matter of Regina. After she has been taken care of, I shall willingly surrender my magic by whatever means necessary, in a reasonable length of time of your choosing. If not…" He hesitated. The knot in his tie felt too tight at the base of his throat. "If not….then you may take necessary precautions to ensure that my magic is not a threat to the ones you and I love dearly. Or to anyone, for that matter. If you wish it, I will even forfeit my right…to Emma and Henry. I've already signed the contract. All that is needed to enact it is your signature."
Bae studied the contract in his hands for a long time. So long that Rumpel began to fidget in place. The pages were flipped, Bae's eyes rolled back and forth as he scanned the neatly written words. He was searching for a loophole, Rumpel knew. A few times Bae's hands clenched the contract a little too hard and Rumpel held his breath, waiting to hear the rip of paper. Bae reached the last page, where Rumpel's signature looped over the appropriate line. Was his son on the verge of discarding the contract and all it entailed? Did he even have a pen to sign?
Finally Bae let the papers fall back into place and he sighed.
"You really care about her, don't you?" Rumpel did not dare to hope that his son would let him off that easy. But when he pictured Emma and Henry, two of the closest people in his world, he felt something inside him break.
"Very much, Bae. Regardless of what you believe, I do not disagree with you. Emma deserves much better than what I can offer. If she were happier elsewhere, I would let her go. The same goes for Henry. But Emma has chosen to stay and fight, so I strive to reciprocate. I only wish to give her everything I have. Above all, I want her happiness."
Rumpel was familiar with reading faces when it came to making a deal, but this time it was difficult to detect any sway in Bae's behavior. Perhaps it was because of the emotional investment and Rumpel's desire to have his son agree for once. It alarmed him when Bae handed the contract back.
"I want to talk to Emma first," Bae said, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "There are some things we need to get out of the way. Then I'll give you an answer on that deal."
It wasn't exactly a refusal, but Rumpel very much doubted that his son would miraculously change his mind. Sorrowfully, he folded the contract and slid it into his jacket. Bae must have spotted Emma behind them, for he ran past his father without so much as a farewell. That was it, he thought with more agony than he would ever let the world see. One more attempt to gain my son's favor, gone.
He looked over his shoulder to see Bae and Emma walking side by side. Most likely, they were going somewhere private to discuss their situation. Before she disappeared from view completely, Emma turned her head and looked back at him questioningly. His only answer was a subtle, solemn shake of the head.
They went to the beach, not far from where Henry's castle used to be. Very few people walked the beach in Storybrooke, so it was an ideal place for privacy. The peaceful isolation was one of the reasons she and Henry enjoyed the castle so much—it was a place they could talk about anything without fear of being disturbed.
It wasn't so peaceful with Bae, though. They walked along the beach in silence for a time, their hands red from the cold and snuggled in their pockets. Every time she thought Bae would get around to discussing what he so badly wanted to discuss in private, he never did.
"It gets chilly up here, doesn't it?" He shivered, but Emma suspected it was mostly an act. A way of breaking the ice.
"Yeah, it does," she replied unenthusiastically. Usually, she didn't have much patience for small talk. She busied her hands with zipping up her leather jacket. Her red leather jacket was starting to get tight with her baby bump. A few more weeks and it wouldn't zip up at all. She would have to borrow some of Mary Margaret's old oversized cardigans to stay warm.
"When did you start wearing leather jackets?" He nodded to her worn red leather. The girl he knew in the past hadn't been so rough around the edges and wore flower-print dresses among other things. Not leather.
"Shortly after I got out of jail. This is my favorite," she admitted.
"Oh," he murmured. Once more, they fell into an uncomfortable silence. Emma tilted her face to the sky and frowned at the swirling gray clouds. It looked like it was going to rain again. After five minutes of walking without a destination in mind, Bae abruptly pulled Emma up short by the arm. "Look, Emma, I didn't bring you out here to discuss the weather. Or fashion."
"No….really?" She mockingly batted her eyelashes. She was wondering when he would quit it with the small talk.
"Why do you like him?" The direct question took her by surprise. Apparently he was no longer interested in beating around the bush. There was no question about who Bae meant. Even without Rumpelstiltskin there, his presence filled the space between them.
"Don't hold back," she said sarcastically. During the car ride to the beach, she had had a sickening feeling that this was his reason for wanting to talk to her privately. It was time they stopped running and confronted the problem. In that case, she wasn't holding back, either. "Do you know how long it's been since I've been genuinely happy?"
"I can guess," he said, rubbing his jaw. Emma ignored his input. There was no stopping the venomous words from bubbling up in her throat, not when she had kept them bottled for so long.
"Since before you betrayed me," she roared. "Believe it or not, I was happy with you and you broke my heart. After that, I didn't dare make the mistake of trusting anyone again. I didn't even have the means to be a good mother to my son, so I gave him up. I thought he'd have his best chance without me. For ten years, I never settled anywhere; I never had a home. I was convinced that there was something wrong with me, that I couldn't be loved, so I put up walls everywhere I went. I was alone."
Her voice broke. She didn't realize she was crying until she could no longer see Bae clearly, her vision blurred with warm moisture. Angrily, she wiped the back of her hand across her eyes. It was impossible to blame it on the hormones when she'd thought those words hundreds of times in the past.
Her only consolation was that Bae had the decency to look guilty.
"Emma—" He reached a chafed hand toward her sleeve, but she tore away from him. She couldn't stop. If she didn't say what was on her mind now, then she never would.
"Henry found me in Boston and I returned to Storybrooke with him. After I saw that he wasn't being given his best chance, I couldn't leave. I ended up marrying your father….while drunk…and I agreed to give it a chance. I fell in love with him. He opened up to me and he gave me a home. A home was the one thing I wanted most. For the first time in ten years, I had something worth fighting for."
"Wow," Bae whispered behind his hand. It must have been a lot for him to take in. She didn't like the way his face remained hard, closed off to her. "He's really got you wrapped around his finger, doesn't he?"
Emma wanted to scream. She wanted to hit something with all her might. She wanted to toss Bae in the ocean. Deep down, she knew none of these options would be helpful in the long run, so she forced herself to take a deep breath of salty air and calm down. Now I know how August felt when he was trying to convince me to believe in the curse, she thought sadly. Talking to someone who refuses to see is like talking to a brick wall.
"I know you think it's wrong. But I'm happy being with him and I'm happy to be given a second chance with Henry. I can't live without either one. And after everything you put me through, I don't really think you have a right to take that happiness away." The accusation sent Bae spiraling into silence. He looked past Emma's shoulder, out at the water. His forehead creased with anxiety and deep concentration. She was almost afraid he wouldn't say anything when his lips finally parted.
"You're right. I'm sorry, Emma." She felt her jaw unhinge. Did I just hear that right? Am I finally getting through to him? In a snap, the irritation bounced back, as if she had simply wandered into a sweet daydream for a few seconds. "But do you know how painful it is to have the mother of your child choose your father over you?"
She spread her hands by her side and let them fall limply by her hips. Nothing she could say would ease Bae's frustration. It was easy to see how deep his despair ran.
"I can't change the way I feel. I understand that you resent your father for abandoning you and I get it if you want to hurt him emotionally. When I still thought I was abandoned by my parents, I always imagined seeking them out just to prove to them how badly they hurt me by leaving me on the side of the road. But in case you haven't noticed, you're hurting me in the process!"
That seemed to shake Bae's resolve. It wasn't as rigid as it was seconds before. As she watched, his wall began to crumble. True regret marred his face.
"The last thing I want to do is hurt you, Emma. Hell, all I ever wanted was for you to be happy. That's why I left you, so you can fulfill your destiny and reach that happiness you've only ever dreamed of." He paused to suck in a breath. Slowly, he released it. "Okay, if you're going to continue with this…marriage, I have to be sure you're doing this for you, not for anyone else. Don't think about what I want or what my father wants. Will this make you truly happy?"
"Yes," she answered automatically. "I'm sorry, but I love him. I want to be with him. He has done nothing but love me and he makes me happier than I've ever been." Bae nodded weakly. Honestly, he looked like he was inches away from emptying his lunch over the sand.
"I'm still not going to like it," he warned. Emma felt the beginning of relief rush through her mind, chasing at least half of her worries away. "But I'm not going to demand that you leave him. If this makes you happy, Emma, I suppose I'll learn to live with it." Emma couldn't contain her emotions any longer. She hastened to embrace Bae, repeating thank you in his ear until he patted her back to signal her to let go. "Just do me one favor. Don't ask me to call you Mom. That's where I draw the line."
Emma's drying tears gave way to lines of laughter. She was almost hysterical with happiness.
"And no playing footsie at the dinner table."
"That I can't promise." Somehow, her husband's foot always happened to find hers under the table, whether he claimed it was an accident or not. Bae's face twisted, as if he sucked on a lemon. He really hoped she was kidding. He shuddered at the intimate gestures Emma and his father might share, but Emma didn't notice. If she did, she didn't say anything to spur it on. "I have to meet your father in his shop."
"I'll stay here for a bit," he said, turning to behold the endless water. It was tranquil and beautiful, the waves shining as though lined with thousands of white diamonds. "I can see why you and Henry enjoyed this place. It's a nice spot to clear your head."
Emma smiled as she studied his back. The anxiety rolled off him like the water rising on the beach to kiss his boots. She dug out her cell phone while she trudged through the sand, retracing her steps to her car. She had to tell her husband the good news.
Even after Emma left, Bae continued strolling along the beach. The thoughts and dilemmas that were stuck at the back of his mind came forth effortlessly then. He made the decision to stop pestering Emma about marrying his father. All we ask is that you don't take it out on her, Snow and Charming had requested. He may be miles from forgiving his father yet, but at least this way he could stop hurting Emma.
He hadn't been lying. All he wanted was her happiness, same as his father apparently did. After everything she'd endured, she deserved it. His own happiness, however, didn't appear to be waiting right around the corner.
"La-la-la-la-la-la!" The unmistakable sound of someone singing drifted to him from the distance. It wasn't exactly the enchanting singing of a siren, but it lured him in nonetheless. Instead of his passion, his curiosity was to blame. Who would be singing on the beach on a cold day?
"La-la-LA-la-la-la!" He followed the disharmonious singing to a massive boulder. Circling it, he discovered a young girl hunched on the ground behind it, her knees tucked to her chest. She must have been swimming because she was shivering profusely and water rolled off her ivory skin. The water under her eyes might have tears, though.
She was also naked.
The girl gasped when she saw him standing there and curled tighter against the boulder. Her damp, stringy red hair covered her face, the strands glistening with pearls of water. Bae spun around and held his hands in the air.
"Whoa! Sorry! I…uh….I didn't see anything! I definitely didn't mean to intrude on your skinny-dipping," he said over his shoulder. He was flustered and his cheeks blazed. He heard the girl shift through the sand. From the corner of his eye, he saw her unfurl from the boulder.
Maybe she presumed he wasn't that much of a threat.
"I wasn't…I'm sorry, what did you call it?" Bae was tempted to glance back at the girl, incredulous as he was by her naiveté. Despite her lack of singing, he found her voice to be smooth and gentle, lapping in and out like the calm waves of the ocean.
He had a funny feeling about which particular fairy-tale character the girl was.
"Skinny-dipping?" Slowly, he lowered his arms. The girl did not cower. "You know…where you take off all your clothes and dive into the ocean? Usually at night? Usually with another person?"
That was another detail that concerned him. She was alone. There wasn't another individual in sight on the beach. Who went skinny-dipping alone? Or did someone play a cruel prank where they snatched her clothes as soon as she was in the water?
"People in this world do that?" The distaste was evident in her delicate voice. "How unsanitary. I'm a mermaid. When I step out of the water, I lose my tail." Bae couldn't help turning around then. He had suspected that the girl in front of him was not actually a girl and she had just proven him right. This was a mermaid. And not just any mermaid, if he had any money to put on it.
"You swim where you pee and you call us unsanitary?" The mermaid wrapped her arms around her knees, though it wasn't the protective stance she assumed initially. This was more along the lines of a child pouting. The gesture reminded Bae of her current predicament. If it weren't for the inescapable nudity, he might have taken the time to admire the cerulean blue shade of her eyes. "Sorry. Again. I'm having trouble talking to you when you're…."
He motioned to her body, absent of a stitch of clothing. What if some other guy had stumbled across her, someone whose intentions were not as pure as Bae's?
"Why don't you wait here and I'll be back with some clothes for you? You'll probably have to go commando for a bit, though." At least until he could escort her to the nearest clothing shop. The mermaid's face rippled with confusion.
"Go…where?" Bae dragged a hand across his face. The method of conversation in this town would have to take some getting used to. I really need to start thinking before I speak, he thought.
"Never mind. Stay here and I promise I'll be back with fresh clothes." He dashed off like the devil was chasing him. In fact, he was running toward the devil, not away. It was amazing what one could find in a small-town pawnshop.
The first thing he noticed was that Emma's car was parked outside his father's shop. Hello, Sunshine, Bae thought, patting the yellow hood. He might have decided to come back later, but he remembered his promise to the girl—mermaid—on the beach. The front section of the shop was empty, which meant they were together in the back. There was a bed back there and Bae hoped they weren't doing what he was afraid they were doing.
As he waited—because he had absolutely no intention of peeking through that curtain—he looked around the shop. He bet Henry would love giving him a personal tour of the pawnshop and its wonders. Something on one of the shelves caught his eye. It was his old leather ball. Sensations of nostalgia and warmth invaded his chest. Henry had said the ball was in the back of the shop, but his father most likely put it out front for Bae to see. He reached out to caress the scuffed leather and almost smelled the livestock and fields of home.
"Reminds you of home, doesn't it?" His father's voice claimed his attention. He had emerged from behind the curtain. Bae hadn't even heard him move. His father's suit wasn't the least bit disheveled, wasn't thrown on in haste, but Bae didn't take that as solid evidence of innocence in the back room. Appearance was very important to Rumpelstiltskin. "What can I do for you?"
Bae knew that contract was still inside his father's suit jacket. He knew his father waited for him to sign it or tear it to shreds. However, the issue with his father wasn't what brought him to that pawnshop, so Bae cast all thoughts of it aside. With the face of that girl in his mind, he charged to the front counter.
"I know you have women's clothing in the back of your shop. I need it," Bae stated. His father stiffened, his brows furrowing slightly to betray his bemusement. Now that I think about it, that probably didn't sound right, he thought, feeling his cheeks flame.
"May I ask why?" Rumpelstiltskin's curious brown eyes roved up and down, surveying Bae dubiously. Bae hesitated. How best to explain this situation?
"Let's say…I met a girl on the beach…who happened to be naked." His father's lips quirked upwards. He obviously found this to be amusing.
"So, you're trading Emma for a mermaid with two legs she has no idea what to do with?" His father's accent thickened while he spoke. It meant he was struggling to hold back his laughter. Bae gripped the edge of the counter and glowered. That only made his father's lips twitch more.
"Why do you have to know everything? Just because she's naked on the beach does not mean she's a mermaid. There might be another reasonable explanation for her lack of clothing," he argued.
As always, his father was right, but Bae didn't want to give him the satisfaction of admitting that. Rumpel laid his palms flat on the counter and loomed closer to Bae. He was much too relaxed. When Rumpelstiltskin was certain about something, there was no chance of convincing him otherwise. It was a trait that Emma shared. Bae imagined that, if she and her devoted husband ever argued, it must be equivalent to World War III, with neither side willing to accept defeat.
"Yes, I'm sure she volunteered to go skinny-dipping and someone pilfered her clothes. It's the reason I choose not to do it. I value my suits far too much."
"Yeah, that's the only reason," Bae replied dryly. Since appearance meant so much to Rumpelstiltskin, it also made him extremely self-conscious. He wouldn't be caught dead in this town without his clothing.
Rumpel quietly begged for a moment and slipped behind the curtain. He was back before Bae counted to thirty, his arms full of female clothing. The pile of clothing was distributed on the counter. Bae didn't know the mermaid's style or size, but he selected the best dresses, slacks, and shirts. He hoped he wouldn't have to teach her how to put on pants. Women usually did not wear pants in the Enchanted Forest.
Once Bae had finished sorting through the clothes, his father bent behind the counter to retrieve a bag for the clothes. He lightly touched Bae's wrist while Bae was stuffing the bag.
"If all goes well, this may be a fresh start for you," he said. Bae paused with a white blouse in hand. His father thought…assumed…that he and the mermaid….that was ridiculous. It was about time he moved on from Emma since she belonged to his father, but…a mermaid? In the end, he didn't bother to confirm nor deny it.
Would it really be so bad if he earned a second chance with someone?
"By the way, I told Emma that I accepted her relationship with you. So you can stop sprouting gray hairs," Bae teased. His father made an exaggerated, offended humph and gingerly smoothed his hand through his hair. Only a few streaks of gray were visible.
"I know. Emma called directly after leaving your company and informed me of your change of heart. We're celebrating tonight." Rumpel's face was a blank slate, but it didn't stop Bae from interpreting the likely message underneath. He cringed.
"Ugh, Papa! I did not need to know that!" Rumpel tilted his head.
"I was thinking of celebrating with Emma by treating her to an extra creamy ice cream cone and a generous foot rub. What were you thinking of?" Bae gathered the bag of clothes in his arms and hurried out of the shop without answering that question. He swore he heard his father chuckling at him all the way out the door.
There was a serious problem waiting for Bae when he made it back to the beach. It wasn't just the lack of clothing on his new female friend. The girl—mermaid—was gone. Nowhere to be found. At first, Bae circled around and around the massive boulder, wondering where she could have gone. Wonderful, he thought, dropping the bag of clothes in the sand. Now I'll have to scour through the town for her and ask if anyone's seen a woman streaking lately.
A splash from the ocean broke through his panic. A dark head popped up from under the water. As he drew closer, he recognized the mermaid and his shoulders slumped in relief. She hadn't disappeared, after all; she only went swimming.
"You look worried," she commented. Her chin bobbed just above the line of water. Thankfully, the water more or less hid what was underneath. "I told you I was a mermaid. I decided to float around while I waited for you."
Just then, a scaly, forest-green tail sliced through the water and rose into the air. The scales shimmered in the sunlight, the fins flexible and seemingly woven with glass. The tail flopped back down, submerged by the water, as if it hadn't been there at all. Bae was sure his mouth had fallen open. He'd never been this close to a real mermaid before he left the Enchanted Forest.
"Oh…um…right. I like your tail. Uh, I brought clothes for you, just like I promised." He pointed to the bag of clothes on the sand. "I didn't know what you liked, so I took a little bit of everything."
The mermaid smiled appreciatively. He liked the way her blue eyes matched the water when she did.
"Any time," Bae said, out of habit. He rubbed his forehead, cursing himself for the eagerness. "I mean…not you and the…naked problem. I meant…." This wasn't working out well for him. Luckily, the mermaid giggled. Her tail splashed through the water again, spraying the air with mist. He took that as a sign of her happiness.
"I'm Ariel, by the way," she offered. He knew it. The notes of Under the Sea played in his head.
"Ariel? What happened to your singing voice? No offense." Her small white hand fluttered against the hollow of her throat. The sadness darkened the color of her eyes. Was that why she had been upset?
"I lost my voice in the Enchanted Forest, but it came back when I wound up here. It hasn't been quite right, though. La-la-la-la-la-la," she sang off-key. Bae tried not to wince at the scratchiness. He thought he knew the reason why Ariel's voice dilemma had occurred. This was originally a land without magic, thus the magic his father had introduced followed a different set of rules than the Enchanted Forest. Maybe his father could help Ariel regain her true voice.
"Do you have a name?" Ariel did backstrokes, swimming in playful circles. "Or should I just call you He-Who-Skinny-dips?" Bae threaded his fingers through his hair and tried to work through the awkwardness.
"My name is Baelfire, but you can call me Bae," he introduced himself. Ariel swam close enough to the shore to shake his hand and not be reduced to a naked female girl. Her long red mane was plastered to her skin, covering all personal parts of her torso. For a mermaid, Bae had to admit that she was attractive. It was easy for him to return her warm greeting and hard for him to let go of her hand. He almost fell into the ocean after her.
"Nice to meet you, Bae."
"Bae is having fish for dinner this week," Rumpel quipped when he parted the curtain and crossed into the back room of his shop. Sometimes he could not help himself when it came to knowledge other people did not yet possess. Emma lifted her head from the sheaf of papers on his desk. Atop the sheaf of papers was the Emma scroll, the ends held down by a crystal paperweight and an old scarlet candle.
"I'm not a fan of fish," she said dismissively, turning her head back to the scroll. He smirked.
"Good to know." It should make matters interesting when she learned that Bae's method of moving on involved dating a mermaid. He would leave that confession to Bae. Rumpel approached the desk and peered at the scroll over the curve of Emma's shoulder.
"So, why did you want to show me this again?" Ah, yes. He had been ready to explain the plan to her before Bae came to visit. The tip of his finger traced the mesmerizing squiggles of Emma's name. Even when his finger hovered over the scroll, he sensed the magic emanating from each drop of ink.
"I never confided in you the scroll's deepest, darkest secret. The ink I used to pen your name was none other than squid ink. Near impossible to obtain unless you live under the sea…or you're me." She pictured her husband swimming down to the depths of the ocean and battling a squid for a little bottle of ink. Rumpel raised an eyebrow, silencing her chuckles. "In our world, this particular brand of squid ink has the power to trap a magical being temporarily."
A spark of intelligence burst to life in Emma's eyes and he knew she was on the same page. When she looked upon the scroll again, it was with renewed awe.
"You mean, if we used this on Regina…"
"She will be rendered powerless long enough for you to subdue her however you desire," he finished. Having been a dealmaker for many years, he knew very few opportunities came without catches. The fine print of the contract, so to speak. "Of course, it means you'll have to get close enough to use it in the first place."
Their only option, since Regina was tricky about popping up of her own free will, was to arrange a meeting with her. It would require careful consideration and smooth manipulation to make it work. Emma didn't seem worried. Determination pulsed through every muscle as she picked up the scroll.
"What are we waiting for? Let's get her." If it meant being able to protect her child and the town at the same time, Emma would take it, no matter the cost.