Well, OUAT has managed to take root in my head these last few weeks, and last night's episode has finally pushed me into writing some fanfiction. I'm officially on the bandwagon! First OUAT fic, obviously, so enjoy and let me know what you think!
Entirely Up To You
When he magicks himself into the main hall, Rumplestiltskin expects to be met with resistance. Half-expects it, at least. The circumstances of his client, after all, have changed, in no small part thanks to him. When the conspicuous emptiness of the room touches him, his nerves twinge a little in warning. Something is not quite right. He can't say he's not glad to be able to approach the lord and lady of the manor with his usual dramatic flair, undisturbed. He's beginning to grow a little tired of people swinging swords in his face in the hopes that the Dark One will be intimidated by a sliver of steel. Still funny, but also tedious.
No such displays here. No attempts at heroism or escape. His arrival is expected. Not many clients have been half so gracious as the couple seated beneath the marble archway. That's a joke, of course. They're not being gracious – Rumplestiltskin can read the fear in the man's eyes, and the veiled disdain in the woman's. They've just decided not to be fools. A few armored knights do stand at attention along the walls – the standard security measure. Pointless, to be sure, but nobles are nobles. They have plenty to lose and enough sense to guard what they consider precious to them.
The ancient imp wonders if in fact this is the case now. The stiff, somewhat regal posturing of the lord and lady and their knights form a sparse gauntlet around a white crib. No sound issues from the crib, but Rumplestiltskin can sense the being lying in its comforting confines. He can't help but smile widely, hoping to increase the unease of his hosts.
"What a pleasure it is," he announces without being addressed first – formality as the nobility defines it has long lost its charm on him. He's established his own rules of etiquette. "To see my lord and lady so well, and so eager to uphold our deal."
"Your deal is with me," states the lady. Her red hair, once loose and relaxed the way peasants wear it, sits high on her head in a braided crown. She still has some youth. Not quite the slip of a girl he met a few years ago, face tear-stained and eyes imploring for help. Outwardly she was like many girls who've called for his aid in a moment of desperation. At first he expected things to play out rather typically. Now, though, even Rumplestiltskin can't brush off the glint of icy resolve in Lady Cora's eyes. There is intelligence and, even more unsettling, cunning in her gaze. Much good that does her now, though. Her firstborn is being presented to him on a metaphorical platter. For all they know he does view his reward as sustenance. The tales about him have certainly taken on a life of their own these many years. He, more often than not, is disinclined to contradict them. It's good for business.
"But of course." Rumplestiltskin bows low, arms extending in mock courtliness. "And if you wouldn't mind, I would like a moment to examine the . . . merchandise."
He giggles at the squirming Lord Henry. The man is, for all Rumplestiltskin knows and cares to know, the child's father, yet he seems incapable of asserting any say in the proceedings. Obviously his wife has informed him of the arrangement, yet no threats or entreaties came the Dark One's way to somehow alter or cancel the deal. And now he watches the lady glance sidelong at her husband and raise a hand that dismisses him as if he were an intrusive insect. That he is.
"Leave us," she then directs at the knights. Like automatons they obey without question. The protectors of the hall abandon their posts to follow the cowardly Henry out of sight. Rumplestiltskin's grin widens. The miller's daughter has adapted well to her new role. He never doubted that. Even the yards of emerald silk skirts and the bejeweled bodice seem more natural on her than the modest chemise, blouse and petticoat she wore when she summoned him to the tower filled to the ears with straw. A pity her status will decline in a handful of years. War and droughts will reduce the standard of living for these nobles until they have about as much as the serfs who work their land. Rumplestiltskin sees it and never mentions it to Cora or her husband. It's part of the price. There is always a risk that the happily ever after you strive for won't be clear of pitfalls of its own, even without the interference of magic.
In this moment, the future of Lord Henry and Lady Cora is of no concern to either person remaining in the hall. The lady keeps her dark, chilling eyes on Rumplestiltskin while gesturing toward the crib. "Please, have a look."
He does. He nearly skips up the steps in giddy anticipation. Pink and white blankets that line the cradle suggest it's a girl. The child stirs as he approaches, blinking sleepily in the dim light of the hall's torches. He lets himself giggle some more. "Lovely. A lovely little thing, aren't we?" His large, mud-colored eyes turn up to Lady Cora. He doesn't need to ask for permission to hold the infant, but he wants to gauge his client a little more. He's waiting for panic and doubt to replace the business-like coolness in her expression.
Cora simply nods. A small nod to acknowledge that his asking permission at all, even without words, is an extra courtesy on his part. Although he smiles his eerie smile at her, something deep inside Rumplestiltskin twists in revulsion at her compliance. Perhaps the price he asked wasn't as high as she led him to believe. She seemed thoroughly distraught at the time he made his offer. Then again, she's had more time than one normally expects to come to terms with the situation. Three full years of avoiding the inevitable days of meeting and separation.
At least they didn't publicly announce the birth, only to willingly surrender the child a short time later. That would have aroused Rumplestiltskin's suspicions to an uncomfortable degree. The deal was already struck, but that didn't stop him from reconsidering the terms. To grant her the life she now led, and an exit from the one she wanted to escape, she needed to give up something truly precious. Many women don't even consider the idea of a child as payment. If they do, they might try to convince themselves that the loss of one child will not be so great a burden – not, at least, if they are fertile enough to have more. Terror and regret come later, right around the moment they can imagine their child as a real, breathing thing that they love, and as a part of them. Suddenly there are tears. Suddenly there are painfully desperate pleas for forgiveness or renegotiation. They can't, they mustn't. Almost always the same scenario.
Cora sits straight and flat against the tall wooden seat that she must view as a modest version of a royal throne. Her hands clench the armrests like a cat, kneading in meditation. Her eyes fasten on him like a hawk on a bold mouse. Rumplestiltskin does not betray any uneasiness at her composure. He turns his full attention on his prize. Long, grayish fingers with claw-like nails wiggle as they dip into the crib. They clasp around the infant and her soft wool blanket and hoist her up. She's more awake now. He brings her to his chest and holds her tightly so they may both get an eyeful of each other.
The baby's brow furrows, folding the soft skin of her high forehead in an endearing way. She's surprised and slightly perturbed, he can feel it. He finds it easier to sense babies' feelings than adults' with magic. Adults have a more complicated make-up. Their feelings, whether they know so or not, are more layered. A child holds simpler desires. He can feel an impulse to cry building up inside the little bundle of joy, but she hesitates. She's still deciding if it's necessary. As she does, she wriggles her fist out of the blanket and starts sucking on it. Crystal-clear drool leaks out of the corner of her mouth and flows across her chubby, rosy cheek. She is quite beautiful with her fair skin, silky black hairs and round dark eyes.
Another laugh bubbles out of him. Such a precious item. Rumplestiltskin peers up to check Cora's face for any glimmer of offense at his proximity and attentions. The lady fortifies her stony façade with an unflinching gaze. She's a tough egg to crack. It only spurs him on. He waltzes away from her, back down the steps, and coos at the child. He leans in close and breathes in her young scent. Sweet and clean and happy, like fresh fruit from a well-tended orchard. For all of Cora's attempts at feigned detachment and her husband's weak resolve, he can tell the child has been loved for what little time she's existed in this world. It assures him for more reasons than he's willing to express even to himself.
The infant keeps staring at him, not quite as anxiously as before, while he softly babbles nonsense at her. He spins slowly, rocking her into comfort. Her licorice eyes scan him, trying to make some sense of the unearthly beast holding her. Pausing a moment, he returns her stares and wipes away the river of spittle from her cheek with the blanket. It's now he notices some stitching on the side pressed against him. It's a name. He reads it and looks up at Lady Cora. "Regina. A name fit for a queen!"
"That was the original idea," Cora answers dryly.
"Ah." He's hit on something. There's more than coldness in Cora's voice. She's trying to hide it, but the heat of buried emotion always rises up and finds a way out, like steam from a pot or lava inside a volcano. "Well, dearie, who's to say she won't become one someday? Of course, you won't be around to reap the benefits of such a happenstance, but you can at least rest in the happy knowledge that your daughter will live a better life than you."
Cora takes a slow breath. She's trying not to rise to his taunt. He smiles wickedly at her restraint. She certainly keeps things interesting. "You and I both know that was not stipulated in our contract," she remarks frigidly. "But . . . I do wish for her to have a good life. I understand that you are not obligated to tell me what will become of her . . . but I would like to know all the same."
How calmly she asks! Such control and refinement. He finds it annoying, actually. While he does enjoy watching people tremble and bargain for leniency, and all the more so in this exact situation, it isn't purely for his entertainment. Parents ought to fight for their children, tooth and nail. Cora wants to treat this with political tact, not motherly fervor. He doesn't care if she is concealing true concern for her daughter; it still puts him off. He's hardly ever wanted to whisk away with his prize more quickly than now.
"You can be sure she will have all the considerations one would expect to give such a sweet, lovely child." That is all the specificity she deserves. More than she deserves, really. Feeling their interlude has continued long enough, Rumplestiltskin pivots to depart.
He is ready to believe that all has been settled. He wants to believe it. But, then, he could just magick himself out of there in a purple cloud rather than walk down the blood-red carpet to the door. Sometimes his choices are mysterious even to him. He tells himself that an abrupt teleportation spell would disturb the baby. He'll let her get used to him holding her first.
"Rumplestiltskin." The voice of his cool-headed client rings in the chamber like a death knell. He feels the pull of someone eager to barter. "I'd like to make another deal."
He stops where he is. The child wriggles and whimpers. Her forehead wrinkles again in unhappy confusion. Without thinking to do so, he gently bounces the babe in his arms and shushes her in his softest voice. Then he turns on heel and regards Lady Cora. His characteristic smirks and smiles are nowhere to be seen.
"You don't have anything I want anymore, dearie." His voice cuts through the empty hall like a blade.
Cora's voice come back to parry. "I'm pretty sure I do. You see . . ." She rises. The smallest hint of a smirk flickers across her painted lips. Rumplestiltskin feels his heart sink. He's beginning to understand what has happened. He's entangled himself with a girl who is really a dragon in disguise.
"You see, I have been quite busy these last three years. Not just with establishing my place as a noble or preparing for childbirth. I've been studying quite a bit, too." She descends the carpeted steps with smooth grace, as if she's been bred and groomed for power all her life. "Just the usual things one might expect of a noblewoman: etiquette, politics, strategy, economics . . . ancient sorcerers with personal agendas."
Rumplestiltskin's brow dips into a subtle scowl. A small hand, undoubtedly covered in saliva, grasps the lapel of his dragonhide coat. He pays it no mind.
The smirk on Cora's mouth lets itself be seen. She clasps her hands before her as she walks toward him. Is she still trying to look demure and innocent? He stays very still while she draws near. His gaze flits up and down her figure to make it seem he's assessing her like an item in a market. Really, he wonders if she has a wraith hiding underneath all those skirts.
"I came across a story – an older one, perhaps the oldest out there – that claims you are searching for something. It can be recovered only with very powerful magic." Her dulcet tones taste to his ears like sweet, poisoned wine. He locks eyes with her to steady himself. The move seems to encourage Cora to come closer. When she's just a pace away from him, she starts to circle Rumplestiltskin. Tempted as he is to follow her with his eyes, he instead turns himself into a living statue, staring straight ahead and doing nothing except breathe and firmly hold a gurgling infant to his chest. He realizes she's gurgling because she's suddenly very interested in the texture of his jacket. Her surprisingly strong fingers play with the open flap of the coat and slap and scratch at the leathery material.
"Where did you hear such a fanciful tale?" he asks, letting feigned amusement slip into his voice to throw her off.
"Does it really matter? If it's true, I'd like to be of help."
Every fluid in his body turns to ice. His lips curl into a half-snarl, but he still doesn't look her way. She's coming around behind him. She'll see his face soon enough. "Not possible, dearie. No one can help me."
"Ah." She steps in front of him. Her smile is both gentle and triumphant. "So there is something you want beyond your silly deals. And what makes you think I can't help? I have magic now, too."
"Hardly," he snickers. "A parlor trick. That's all you have. You don't think I actually taught you anything useful with my little book, do you?" He throws a nasty cackle in her face.
Cora raises her chin, deflecting his words and laughter. "I could learn more. You can't say I didn't learn quickly and use it well."
True. In spite of what he knew her future held in store, she's used what little power he bestowed to ensure a comfortable life with her husband. Their hall is empty of people, but not of fine carpets, expensive tapestries and golden tableware and decorations.
"Perhaps," he hisses under his breath.
"Tell me what it is you want."
Another cold front passes through him, from his scalp to his toes. He hates it when his own words come back at him. He meets her gaze, anyway, and smirks. "All right, dearie. I'll tell you what I want. There is something in another world I need to retrieve. Something very precious. The only way to get it is to cast the most powerful curse the Realms have ever known."
Lady Cora nods. He wonders if she's still composed because she doesn't understand the gravity of his wish, or if she has no qualms about dabbling in dark magic. If it's the latter, maybe letting her use his book has posed a greater risk to him than he could have ever conceived.
"Fine," she says. "Why haven't you been able to do it yet?"
"There's a lot to prepare for. Can't rush a curse like this one, dearie. Every drawback must be considered. The pieces must be in just the right place for it to happen. I have all the time in the world to set the stage."
A breath of silence passes between them. Cora studies him, then studies the child. Rumplestiltskin feels the infant's head press against his chest. He looks down to see that she's turned her face up to look at his, her rosebud mouth wet and slightly agape. Her features suddenly strike a familiar chord in him. The eyes, especially – deep, warm and innocent. They remind him of another baby he held many years ago. The resemblance, even it is mostly a projection of his inmost desires, sends a needle of pain through his heart.
"Here is the deal," Cora declares at last. She's already decided on what to say. In such a short time. Rumplestiltskin is liking her less and less. At the same time he's increasingly impressed. "I will provide you with whatever you need to make the curse happen, on two conditions. The first is that my daughter and I are safe from harm while the curse is in effect. The second . . . is that you return her to me, right now, and I raise her in whatever way I see fit."
Her words settle around them like airborne dust. Stories have been passed around that the terrible Rumplestiltskin cannot resist a deal. That's not entirely true, but it's not that far from the truth, either. It all depends on what's being offered. And this girl from nowhere – the child of a poor but ambitious miller – has placed her finger on the pulse of his greatest desire. She doesn't understand it entirely, of course. That's a small mercy he'll cling to. It doesn't change what she is offering, though. Her conditions have been specific, but not what she's willing to do for him, and that makes the deal all the more irresistible. And she knows. She knows and it frightens and intrigues him that she reads him as well as she does. He's equally inclined to shake her hand and strangle her.
Rumplestiltskin does find this deal irresistible, but he cannot accept it yet. He steps back and does what his clients should do whenever he presents them with a tempting contract. He thinks it through. He thinks and clutches the child that is now, by conditions of the first deal, rightfully his. His feet hardly make a sound as he paces across the hall. Now and then he shoots a glare at Cora, to make it clear he knows she's watching him. Watching him squirm. Oh, yes. He most definitely hates and admires her right now. He didn't see that price coming his way.
For this new deal to work, he has to be sure that Cora can provide him with most of what he needs for the curse. His studies on the subject have made the most important element clear: the ultimate sacrifice. The death of the thing you love the most. But Rumplestiltskin has nothing he loves in this world. That is why he needs the curse, and yet that's also why he can't cast it. He has vowed to love nothing else as a sign of unbending devotion to his quest. Now it's his greatest obstacle to what he wants. So he needs someone else to make the sacrifice in his stead. Someone he can wield and control to fashion the curse to suit his needs.
He turns his eyes to Cora again. Now he sizes her up, and to his relief a trace of discomfort colors her face. Whether or not she actually loves her daughter enough to involve herself so intimately with a creature like him, her desperation is potent. Rumplestiltskin reaches out and dissects it. They are all bound by desperation – his clients by immediate need, he by a long-reaching goal – but everyone's individual desperation has a distinct taste. He has to know if love lurks in the cocktail of motives propelling Lady Cora to this arrangement.
Even with magic, it's a challenge uncovering the true impulses of a person. Certainly not with someone like Cora. She guards herself on many levels, even within her own mind. To him, though, that fact is evidence that her intentions are far from pure. A candid mind and heart pose fewer barriers, and thereby are easier to trust. Cora's soul feels like a labyrinth inside a Russian doll. If he tries to delve too far, he'll become lost. So he pulls out of her, away from her, and physically turns his back and stares down at her daughter.
Just a minute ago he believed little Regina was loved and well taken care of. But now he considers the actions of her parents. Her father, who left his infant at the mercy of his overbearing wife and the Dark One. Her mother, who was willing to trade away her unborn child in the first place. She's trying to reclaim her now, of course, but the baby is already out of her power. If he says no, what will she do? Find another way to get her back? Even if she does, he still fails to sense the powerful tug of parental protectiveness and caring. She may very well not see the child as her daughter, her family, but as her possession. Something of hers that she wants back by virtue of her being the previous owner.
That thought alone impels Rumplestiltskin to leave with the baby. Lady Cora will have other children she can groom into social climbers – into potential future kings and queens. She has surrendered this one in exchange for a new life. One life for another. A fair trade. He can dismiss any sympathy or empathy for her motherly woes. The only matter keeping him in that depressingly empty hall is what he will get out of it.
He needs the curse to get Bae. He needs his son more than anything in the world – more than food or sleep or oxygen; by extension, he needs that curse more than any of those things. And, unfortunately for Lady Cora, Rumplestiltskin feels quite sure she can't help him cast it. It requires someone capable of love. It requires someone who can both truly love and who can hate with enough passion to sacrifice that love for terrible power. Cora can do neither. She neither loves nor hates with nearly enough depth. She is calculation and temperance. She seeks power on her own terms. He cannot push her to the brink. She is already ruthless, and he can't take her much farther than where she already is.
That's it, then. There's no deal to be made. She can't give him what he wants. He's ready to tell this to her, to turn and gladly deliver this disappointing news, when the child he's forgotten he's holding gives a shriek. Rumplestiltskin awakens from his ponderings. He looks and understands that the cry is not from fear or pain. The baby has taken hold of the ruffled cravat around his neck. Her little mouth bends into a delighted, open smile. She tugs and shrieks again, demanding to be given free reign of her new plaything.
He lifts her up so she can reach for the fabric, and so that he can look more squarely into her little face. He watches her yank at the ruffles, feel their delicate softness between her fingers, and stuff them in her mouth.
A new possibility dawns on Rumplestiltskin. As little Regina enjoys gnawing on his cravat with toothless gums, he lightly touches her temple with his thumb. He closes his eyes. Images flash before him. They pass quickly, like any other vision, but he can discern what he sees without doubt. There's a young, vibrant, beautiful woman with shining eyes and flowing black hair. She rides across a field on horseback, laughing and brimming with life. He watches her descend from her beloved mount and greet an aged Lord Henry with a warm hug. Her emotions and desires emanate from her like heat waves. She glows in the love she and her father share, but she also hungers for freedom – freedom to be who she wants and to love who she wants. She yearns for so much, but in this moment she cannot conceive of hurting anyone to get those things. She's not desperate yet. She doesn't feel trapped yet. Love is still thriving in her life, if only in a few select people.
The vision fades. Rumplestiltskin opens his eyes to meet the coffee-black irises of an innocent child. She's still chewing on his garment, unfazed by the bit of magic he's performed on her. He sees two things at once. There's the woman in his vision, the one who is so perfect for his purpose. Loving and harmless, yet surrounded by forces that will wreak so much damage on her if he lets it. The greatest force is standing a little ways from them, her vulture eyes never leaving them alone for a moment.
There's also a reminder of what he's lost, and a reminder of why he made this deal in the first place. He can never, ever replace Bae. He will always be searching for a way to get him back. But that doesn't mean he needs to leave the void in his life utterly empty. A small dose of companionship would make existence just a little more bearable. And he could do it. He could leave right now – leave Cora stupefied from what she's lost. He can raise this girl as his own and wait for another solution to come his way.
And he knows what will happen if he agrees to this deal. It won't be like other deals, where the unpleasant results are largely the fault of outside forces. The world is to blame, not he, for being so unfair. And those people were able to choose for themselves. Not so with this child. If he agrees, her life is his weapon to wield. Cora will have her own part to play – a part she has already agreed to – but he will guide her actions to his ends. He will push and poke her to become what he needs her to be. Her fate will be decided in her infancy, and she will have no choice.
No, he thinks. Everyone has a choice. He'll come back for her when she's grown, when she has a fully formed mind to make her own decisions. He'll do everything he can to get her to do what he desires, but it will still be her choice in the end. Just as he chose to become the Dark One, even if the old beggar did his fair share of provocation. He's accepted that, and so will she, one way or the other.
But even as he thinks this, a small, quiet voice creeps up from the depths of his blackened soul and whispers in his conscious mind. You don't have to do this. You want Bae, yes, but look at her. Look at how much she reminds you of him. Would you put him through this? You would murder anyone who dared place him in this situation.
But she's not Bae. She and no one else will ever be Bae, and that makes all the difference. He must love no one else, not matter how large that void is.
So Rumplestiltskin quells the annoying little voice. He gently frees his cravat from Regina's ruthless grip. She whines at this. He smiles. "Very well," he says while turning back to Lady Cora. He quickly closes the distance between them until they are uncomfortably close. He breathes right in her face as he speaks. "But you understand what this means, dearie. Whatever I need you to provide me for the curse, you will provide it."
"I understand," Cora answers without a hint of uncertainty or regret.
"Then it's a deal." He gives the infant one more smile, adding a giggle to it. To his and her mother's surprise, she giggles back.
Cora's arms quickly replace Rumplestiltskin's around the child. She still demonstrates no impassioned relief or gratitude at holding her daughter again. There is a long exhale she releases through her narrow nostrils, but that's it. His plan for the next thirty years starts to write itself in his head as he regards mother and daughter. He waits and watches them with a tilting head while Cora tries to soothe her now grumpy child. The infant's face winces and begins to turn red. That cry may decide to burst forth after all. Maybe we really do belong together, Rumplestiltskin thinks with immense amusement.
"Well!" he announces as the baby starts to fuss in her mother's grasp. He claps his hands together. "Why don't you summon your nurses to tend to darling Regina so we can set to work?"
For the first time in a long while, Cora regards the imp with a puzzled expression. Gods, how he's missed it. "Set to work on what?"
"Your magic lessons, of course." His smile puts all his sharp brown teeth on display. "You want to help me with the curse, right? No better time to start than the present!"
While this certainly can remain a one-shot, I did consider adding some more to this to further examine Regina and Rumple's relationship over the years. What do you think? Do let me know. Reviews will be cherished like newborn puppies.