A/N: Thanks to everyone who reviewed and favorited my first Once Upon A Time story - I hope this one will be as well-received! It's fifteen chapters long, with all but the last three currently written, and I'll be posting once a week. Thanks to everyone who reads and reviews!
Disclaimer: Various plot points, characters, and dialogue are all taken from multiple episodes, which are written and owned by others. No copyright infringement is intended.
Chapter 1: Out Of Patience
The teacup sat there oh so innocently, mocking him, taunting him, tempting him. Anything—anyone—else that tried such tactics on him, that made the mistake of thinking Rumplestiltskin could be controlled or intimidated or guilted into anything, would have been obliterated, either with a high-pitched twitter and flourish of golden hands or a sharp word and the glitter of cold menace in draconian eyes.
But not this teacup. Not her teacup.
My teacup, he reminded himself sternly. She might have laid her mark on it, taken her pound of porcelain flesh, but he had long paid his price for it, paid for it over years without number missing her and regretting what could never be and wishing things could have gone differently.
His teacup, but it had once been hers, and the annoying habit of calling it hers had crept into his thoughts, and he had just recently paid a price higher than any other he had ever paid—save one; the one he paid for with every beat of his heart, every breath that whispered of another precious name—paid such a high price to get it back, so the prize was safe from his destruction. Safe from obliteration and mocking laughs and cold anger.
Besides, he wasn't Rumplestiltskin anymore, had left that name behind when he'd sold away a curse and given instructions on how to cast it, had bargained the once all-important name away to get back the very same teacup now taunting him with its presence where he'd set it.
It looked lonely and frail and altogether too vulnerable there in his cupboard, but it had looked worse on his bedside table, and he certainly couldn't carry it around with him. In fact, no place seemed safe enough for it, not after learning just how easily it could be stolen away from him. If he were still Rumplestiltskin, he could have magicked it safe and never feared that it'd be accidentally swept to unforgiving ground or carelessly dropped to harsh floors or snatched up by weak, foolish men intent on petty revenge.
But he wasn't Rumplestiltskin anymore—a fact that, after twenty-eight years, I really shouldn't have to keep reminding myself of—he was Mr. Gold. And much as Mr. Gold was universally feared and reviled and avoided, he was also just a man with no magical options open to him. A man who could so easily stumble and knock into the cup, who wouldn't be able to move swiftly enough to catch it before it shattered, who would never be able to wrap himself nearly well enough in twisted words and dark deals and centuries' old plans to protect himself from the loss.
No, much as he hated to admit it, he was vulnerable now, which meant the teacup was vulnerable, and no matter where he placed the cursed thing, it just never seemed safe enough.
And it was laughing at him.
With a growl, Gold turned away from it. The cupboard is closed and locked, and the teacup is placed beside a whole set of others that look almost exactly like it—there is no safer place for it. Much as the admission should have comforted him, though, it only shamed him. A cupboard, the safest place he could put his most prized possession? Maybe he should be glad she was gone, because as he was now, he certainly couldn't protect her.
Not that he'd been able to before, either.
With a disdainful sneer that would have immediately made anyone in town recoil and step out of his way, Gold turned away from the teacup, not for the first time, not for the last time, and tried to direct his attention back to the papers and blueprints spread out over his dining room table.
Gold was his name now, Mr. Gold to all the residents of Storybrooke—all save one, thanks to the thievery of that misguided excuse for a father and florist—and his power was less magical, more monetary, equally frustrating in how slowly it bestowed on him what he most desired.
Patience had been his byword for more years than he could count, surely for centuries, from the moment he'd made his snarling vow to a retreating fairy, through the long dealing and bargaining years, in that cell that young pregnant princess thought she'd tricked him into, and oh so maddeningly during the interminable twenty-eight years when time itself had stood still while his mind scrabbled uselessly at its unmoving prison. But now, now when time was moving again and the loophole savior he'd arranged for was here—and now that Regina knew he knew his real name, the name etched with power—now it was so very, very hard to hold onto patience. In fact, impatience practically burned like ethereal fire through his veins and settled as a deep, dull ache in his bones. He could all but feel magic at his fingertips again, could all but see Bae standing in front of him, could all but taste the end of his self-inflicted quest.
And it was too soon, far too soon to move, no matter how close it felt. Just a while more, he coaxed himself, and set weary, burning eyes to the papers scattered across his table. Just a while more to play these legal games so steeped in this world's rules, to manipulate from afar, to keep being just plain Mr. Gold without any hints of Rumplestiltskin, to keep all the pleases he wanted to lash out at Regina safely locked behind his lips.
Patience. His byword for so long, now a special kind of torture.
And the teacup's laughter in the background wasn't helping anything.
The blueprints he'd managed to acquire without Regina's knowledge were blurring in front of him, the official documents detailing the list of employees and their jobs and salaries had stopped making sense an hour before, but still Gold gave no thought to abandoning his task for sleep. The night hours were too long for someone who possessed unbroken memories of a world so different from this one, and sleep was too dubious a prospect for someone who had so much cause for nightmares. Far better to look for just one more piece of information he could someday use against Regina when please and once-feared names and the beginnings of reawakening magic weren't enough.
"What do you have hidden in there, dearie?" Gold whispered, and if his voice was a bit high-pitched and a bit of Rumplestiltskin bled through, well, it was past three in the morning, the time of night when dreams of a life long gone were more acceptable than delusions of a life not lived.
Regina had something hidden away in the hospital, Gold was sure of it. She bought a rose once a month, not for her father's grave, not for any of the charities she thought made her look more benevolent, but for someone, something, at the hospital. She never visited it on the same day twice, never made it a habitual routine, except that once every month, she made a visit to the hospital, and as deeply as Gold had sunk his claws into informants and others beholden to him, he could not figure out what or who she saw there.
He had thought the blueprints might give him a hint since she obviously snuck away, out of sight of those who reported back to him, staying for only moments before once more leaving the hospital, sans rose. So far, however, the only thing the blueprints had shown him was that there were an inordinate number of rooms for as few patients as the hospital treated, there was an unusually large basement space for the boiler, and there were a few windows unaccounted for. As for the employee records, they were a mass of redundancy, proof that Storybrooke was too small a town to comfortably hold all the residents of an entire world, endless lists of doctors and nurses and orderlies and janitors, so many that Gold had to smirk at the mental image of the hospital exploding outward, raining uprooted-townsfolk-turned-amnesiac-victims over Storybrooke's provincial streets.
As hopeless as the task looked, though, Gold knew there had to be something there, and he wouldn't stop looking for it. No matter how deliciously freeing it had felt to finally, finally be able to speak his true name, he didn't like that he'd been forced into giving that valuable piece of knowledge away to Regina. Her teacup was worth it, but still, he needed to find a way to restore the footing between them.
"How much room do boilers really need, anyway?" he muttered with yet another close perusal of the complicated blueprints. "And why all the extra windows?"
There was something under there; he could feel it just as surely as he'd once been able to feel the desperation of souls around him. The dear little queen had stashed something away, a secret she didn't want anyone to know about. Well, the more she wanted something hidden, the more potential advantage it held, and that was something neither Rumplestiltskin nor Gold could pass up, not when the savior was proving so woefully slow in figuring out her part in this whole curse.
Gold straightened from the table, letting the blueprints flutter back to the wooden surface. Wincing, he had to grab hold of the table's edge; too many hours spent bent and huddled over these papers. Carefully, with memories of a dilapidated hut and the stench of wool and the sound of a child's voice chattering in his ear dancing through his sleep-deprived mind, Gold sat and rubbed out the cramp in his bad leg. If he'd stopped to think of it when writing the curse, he'd have known he'd have to deal with this pain yet again, but his mind had been focused on other things and so he'd made no loophole, no contingency for it and now had to live with it. He wondered, vaguely, how many other things he had missed in his single-mindedness. Not that it matters. Not anymore. We've come too far to go back now, even if we could.
He had learned everything he would from these documents. In the morning, he'd pay a visit to a certain Glass and spend a threat he'd been saving for a rainy day. He was tired of hiding, tired of waiting, tired of being Mr. Gold. He wanted to slip into Rumplestiltskin, even if only for a moment, an hour, a day, and even diluted by the absence of magic, making deals in this world was still one of the only things that could remind him of who he'd once been. He'd been Rumplestiltskin too long not to miss him, after all.
Very carefully, Gold did not look back at her teacup, did not so carelessly reveal how much it meant to him, just left it there, locked up, hidden among others so much like it and yet so removed, all alone. Very carefully, he did not think for the thousand-thousandth time just how much he had in common with that marked and desolate piece of tableware.
Very carefully, he pretended he didn't hear its mocking laughter ringing in his ears. Pretended that laughter didn't sound exactly like broken sobs. Pretended he was deaf as well as crippled, imp as well as human, strong as well as chipped.
Patience and pretense, he reminded himself, and went to snatch a few restless hours of sleep.
Sidney Glass was none too happy to see him, but then, no one was ever happy to see him. The former genie's eyes were red-rimmed, his skin sallow, more lines crimping around his mouth; the supposed break between himself and the Mayor was wearing on him. He'd used a wish to bind himself to Regina's side, after all, and even in another world, wishes and curses and magic weren't so easily escaped.
"Mr. Glass," Gold said with the small, close-mouthed smile that took so little effort to make, even on barely three hours of sleep, and yet still, apparently—going off the reactions of everyone who saw it on him—was enough to frighten whoever was the recipient of it. Because he hadn't been able to stop thinking about her teacup—hadn't been able to stop worrying about it, no matter where he left it, since he'd found out just how easily it could be taken from him—because he could still hear its taunting chuckles, he couldn't entirely brush aside the memory of a brave princess who had not flinched away from his smile, who had smiled back at him as if there were no reason to be afraid.
But that was far away, long ago, and never again, he reminded himself, and wondered if, now that time had started moving again, he was actually forgetting things. As many times as he had to remind himself of basic details and facts, one would think he was growing absentminded. And he had worked too long to falter now, so close to his goal.
"Mr. Gold," Sidney said, his suave veneer not nearly enough to hide the nervous stutter to his words. No one could say Gold's name without fear, or at the least, wariness. "What are you doing here?"
"Well, to tell the truth, I really think the question should be what you can do for me." Behind the cover of his distancing sunglasses, Gold glanced around at the street behind them. He'd cornered Sidney Glass coming out of his house, and it was early enough there was no one else around. Still, his glance allowed him to examine the genie-turned-magic-mirror out of the corner of his eye without letting Glass know he was being watched. It allowed him to catch the beginnings of shrewdness make its clumsy way into the genie's eyes. Really, it was too bad he'd tied himself to Her Majesty; except for that flaw, he might actually have amounted to something. Gold hated wasted potential.
"I-I really don't know what you mean," Glass tried, narrowing his eyes. "Unless you have a story for me? I am still selling freelance—"
"Save it for the dense creatures who actually believe your drivel," Gold snapped, too edgy and irritable for beating around the bush, no matter what useful birds might come flying out into the sky to be knocked down with this single stone. "The new sheriff and her coterie of followers may believe whatever sob story you spun for them, but I know there's more than a job as editor of the town newspaper tying you to Regina. Of course, I'm sure that my passing on that information to Miss Swan would bring you some small amount of trouble." He didn't wait for the genie's revealing blanch, barely restrained himself from rolling his eyes at the man's inability to lie, then remembered that he wore his sunglasses and so indulged in the roll of his eyes. Not so much potential there to be wasted, after all.
"What do you want?" Sidney asked, almost petulantly. "What deal will you make?"
Gold felt a tingle of suspicion trickle up his spine, but after an instant's study was satisfied that the poor lovesick fool was only talking about Mr. Gold's penchant for deal-making, not Rumplestiltskin's. "I want to know what Regina's hiding in the basement of the hospital," he said bluntly, far more bluntly than he should have, but that impatience was like acid eating him away from the inside out. "And unless you want Sheriff Swan to find out just how securely you still reside in the Mayor's pocket, I'd suggest you start talking."
Sidney stared at him, incredulous, mouth hanging slightly open. "The hospital? What's so important about the hospital?"
Even if he hadn't been wearing his sunglasses, Gold still would have rolled his eyes. "I believe that's what I'm asking you," he said sarcastically. "For someone having once been so high up in the news business, you're not really up on current events, are you?"
The genie drew himself up, pretending to himself that he was still a man, still worthy of respect even though he'd thrown all of that away decades before. "I know everything that happens in this town. But why should I tell you? Sheriff Swan trusts me more than she does you—she'll believe me when I deny whatever accusations you bring against me."
"Really?" Gold scoffed. He readjusted his weight on his cane, regretting the hours spent bent over blueprints. "You care to test that, then?"
It took only a moment's stare-down before the genie dropped his eyes and shifted uneasily. "Fine!" he snapped grudgingly. "Regina visits the hospital because she—"
"I should mention," Gold interrupted, his voice a drawl, his tone casual, "that if you lie to me, I'll be letting our beloved mayor know who gave me this information. Voluntarily, even, if I recall how this conversation goes."
Sidney hesitated, re-evaluating the shorter man before him. Rumplestiltskin, the lowly weaver, had hated his shorter height, hated how inferior it made him feel, how much easier it made it for everyone else to look down on him; Rumplestiltskin, the powerful Dark One, had relished the height difference, loved making others stoop to speak to him, amused himself with the look in their eyes as they tried to pretend that their few inches of height on him was enough to equal the ground between them. Mr. Gold had never much noticed his height, never much cared one way or the other, except now, when he cornered souls who didn't realize just how desperate they were and they had to look at him and register with surprise that he was smaller than it seemed he should be.
"Look, I don't know what's behind the locked door," Sidney finally admitted. "I only know that Regina takes a rose because she says it's a reminder of where she found her."
"Her?" Gold repeated, his brows rising slightly. So there is a person under there, he thought with dim surprise. He had rather thought it was a magical remnant the Queen had brought to this world, maybe the equivalent of his—her—chipped teacup.
"I don't know who she is, only that she says it's the final bargaining chip she needs if…" Sidney cut himself off, looked almost frightened as he glanced around the still-empty street.
"If…?" Gold prompted, leaning forward, intimidating without looming, a useful trick.
"If…" Sidney clamped his mouth shut, then closed his eyes and sighed. "If worse comes to worst between her and you."
For the first time in quite a while, Gold found himself at a loss. A bargaining chip? For me? He knew it wasn't the dagger; even if Sidney hadn't admitted it was a person, Gold would have known if anyone held his dagger. The magic was different here in this cursed world, but enough remained inside him that he would have immediately registered that his dagger had been taken. And nobody living knew about Bae. So…so who could be used against him? He'd intentionally kept himself separated from all, from everyone. Fear was useful for many things, one of those being keeping a firm dividing wall between himself and anyone who could be used against him. He'd learned his lesson with—with—
The world shifted, staggered, shrunk until there was nothing but her teacup, sitting in that locked cupboard, the feel and weight of it so poignant and tangible that he could have sworn it was in his hand. For an instant, Gold was so dizzy he knew it was only his cane, propped up against solid ground, that kept him upright.
Because there was only one person who could be used to control him. One person who could bring him up short as effectively as his well-hidden dagger. A person he'd once given a rose to. A person Her Majesty had used against him, sending her home so innocently with promises of curses and True Love's Kiss, bringing him tales of scourges and flaying and leaps off of towers—tales that still haunted his nights and had him tossing and turning until he stayed up for hours studying blueprints.
Blueprints of a hidden dungeon. With narrow-windowed cells. Containing a bargaining chip that could be used against him.
Hope and guilt and horror welled up within him in equal parts. So much so that he swallowed bile, the bright sunlight of hope dulled by the shadows of guilt and the curtains of horror, and all of it mixed up with the thought he could not stop winding through his head: What did Regina do to her?
Even thinking the name made him lightheaded. How long since he had spoken it aloud, felt its beautiful taste splash through his mouth like flowing rivers of lava, twisting in his throat like crushed glass made of spun fairy dust?
But it was impossible, because she was dead, because he'd killed her, shut her up, cast her out, tainted her, abandoned her, and she was dead. She hadn't come back to him, and he'd never found her, never seen her crystalline eyes shining at him or heard her soft voice, not in all the traveling he'd done, not in all the side-trails and detours he'd taken in the unvoiced, unadmitted hope that he would find her, not in any of his visions of the tangled, dark, hopeless future.
He'd found himself in love, felt his magic dwindle away, and oh, how he'd feared. Feared never seeing Bae again, feared losing Belle to some horror—hadn't even dreamed then of just how nightmarish words like scourges and flaying could be, not then—feared himself having to sacrifice her for the dark curse he'd spent so long preparing, feared breaking his vow to his precious son. And he'd sent her away, and now she was dead, and he was just clinging to straws, hoping they'd turn to gold in this magic-less world after long decades when nothing had turned to gold save Rumplestiltskin himself, and hoping against hope that the monster could not so easily slay goodness.
Sidney was staring at him, Gold realized absently, and so he pasted on the effortless, close-mouthed, terrifying smile. "And that's all you know?" And so skilled was he at this, so second-nature were all these deals that brought him closer to Bae and turned him more and more into a man Bae would turn away from, that his voice came out just as cold and harsh and intimidating as he needed it to, even without his conscious direction.
"Yes. Well, she has a code on the keypad, but I don't—"
"Don't know what it is," Gold finished for him irritably, and he was starting to remember who he was and where he was and the world had started to right itself—because it was impossible, and it was just a baseless, useless hope—and the dull, roaring pain in his leg was enough to ground him for the moment. Later, later, he could curl up in the darkness of his shop, surrounded by tokens of a lost world, and protect this precious, flickering light that had so suddenly sprung back into being within him. "Yes, yes, I think we've already established your basic ignorance. Still, Glass, even for someone with as little knowledge of current events as you hold, you do know, I should think, just how badly things would go for you should the mayor find out about this conversation. In fact, I daresay she'd be so upset you might just find your pretense of estrangement becoming reality. And that's if you're lucky."
Heavy-handed, really, such a blunt threat, not at all like his usual self, but maybe the world hadn't completely righted itself, and it was all he could do not to be completely and wholly inundated with the memories of a woman who had deserved all the good and wonderful and bright things in life and yet had been given only servitude with a beast as a master and a tragedy as her end.
Gold smiled mirthlessly at Sidney again—amazing how useful that little smile could be—made sure the genie was properly cowed beneath his fedora and hopeless desire to please Her Majesty, and then gave a nod and a look that had the man scurrying away as fast as he could go while still keeping the shreds that remained of his dignity.
For so long he'd kept her name away, unable to think of it, that one syllable the most potent magic he still possessed, able to conjure up hope and light and warmth and redemption, delicate magic with the price of the resulting guilt and sadness and bleak, awful grief, so harsh and choking, because there was a chance, a hope with Bae, but no magic in any world could cure death.
She told me she was dead, he thought despondently, staring ahead at nothing. She died.
Maybe he was a foolish, weak old man who couldn't help but grasp at straws, who couldn't help but go after the one chance he had of keeping what he loved. Maybe it was weakness, frailty, idiocy, or just pure lunacy brought on by centuries of guilt and grief compounded by decades more of added grief and guilt and regret and twenty-eight years of living one life in his mind and another in his body. No matter what it was, though, he would grasp at it. He would try to find it. He would, because the last time he had grasped at straws, he'd listened to a beggar's tale, and the last time he'd gone after the one chance he had of keeping what he loved, he'd become the Dark One and ended the Ogre War and saved thousands of children from war…and saved his own son from a brutal death on a bloody battlefield. He'd lost him afterward, yes—and maybe this hope he'd found now would turn out to be just as short-lived; maybe it'd dwindle away and be doused when he found what really was underneath the hospital—but Bae had lived. He had survived.
And maybe Belle lived too.
It was the first time the thought, the idea, had ever come to him. The first time he'd allowed himself to even think it. Because as awful—world-shattering, heartbreaking, soul-rending—as it had been to lose her before, it had been what he'd known would happen the instant he'd recognized what he felt for her, the moment he'd realized that monsters didn't get happy endings and beasts didn't end up with princesses and villains didn't receive blessings. But now…now, if he let himself think that she was alive….then how much worse would it be to lose her again?
Still a coward, magic or no magic, he thought bitterly. And yet…and yet that was Rumplestiltskin. And he wasn't Rumplestiltskin anymore. He was Mr. Gold, and Mr. Gold didn't have to be a coward. He could be brave, bold, daring, everything that Belle needed him to be. He could be stronger, better—after all, he was a human now, an ordinary man, and yet he still possessed the power to protect her. Maybe he was still a monster, but it was a more human bestiality now, a monstrousness that was perhaps easier to accept.
He was still a desperate soul, but maybe…maybe he could be a brave one, too. For her, he could be.
When Mr. Gold started walking down the street, it was with a purpose, his steps quick, his eyes fixed on the Sheriff's office, his mind awhirl with plans and power and potential. It would be easy to get the savior to agree to search the hospital when he showed her the questionable blueprints and spoke of Regina's clandestine visits. A bit harder but still doable to acquire a search warrant from the judge, what with those pesky debts the man owed him and their approaching due dates. Hardest of all to stand before Regina should he find that it really was Belle—his Belle, and images of blue dresses and shy laughter and books left open and the scent of roses on his shirt assailed him like gale-force winds that bent him beneath their pressure—hardest to stand before the Queen and not kill her with his bare hands, to do nothing but utter that all-important please, the full power of which he'd been saving for when he needed it most.
And Belle….Belle counted for needing it most.
Belle counted for everything.