Author's Note: Yes so I don't even know what this is. I only fell into the OUAT fandom a few weeks ago (and fell hardcore) due to the Hook/Emma ship, and after feverishly watching all the episodes and reading Tumblr and fanfiction and everything else, the plot bunnies attacked me in a killer swarm at 3am this morning. I'm probably going to give priority to my other major ongoing project, The North Remembers, but if I don't get the ball rolling on this, it's never going to leave me alone. I own no characters, scenes, situations, etc; it all belongs to ABC and I am just playing with it while their back is turned. O January, why art thou so far away?
It is, however, totally my fault if this is terrible.
Prologue: The Deals I've Made
The only thing darker than the forbidding forest road was the man who waited at the end of it. She knew that, she knew that, and yet she continued to fly down it at a full gallop, skirts streaming out behind her in the night as she bent low over her horse's neck. Branches and twigs whipped at her face, the moon slid in and out behind a gauzy veil of clouds, and somewhere – not close, not far – she could hear a wolf howling. The sound might have made her shiver, but considering the business she was proposing to transact, a wolf was a pitifully small thing in comparison. There were dark tales of a pack of them roaming the woods, a big male and his brothers and his bitch, and she told herself that if she failed, it would not matter if they found her. They could tear her apart. It would be a more merciful fate.
The road bent sharply up ahead, vanishing behind a high outcrop, and Cora hauled on the reins, curbing her spirited filly hard into the turn. Her brown curls tumbled in her eyes, but she didn't dare to let go to push them away; she had never liked or trusted horses or those who liked and trusted them, but she was putting that aside in the urgency of her errand tonight. Therefore, she hurtled the last few hundred feet almost blind, crackling and crashing and otherwise causing an uproar that really should have brought the wolves down on her. But she just managed to glimpse the unholy blue glimmer of magic, dancing and glimmering around the clearing. Nobody, not even beasts, would come here. Except the one I seek.
Cora, gasping, managed to wrestle the horse to a halt, and remained in the saddle for a few more moments, then slid overboard, knees watery. She smoothed her tousled skirts and threw her head back, attempting to look as confident and devil-may-care as she could, as commanding. She cleared her throat. Now it came to it.
"Dark One," she said, her voice falling eerily flat among the trees. "I summon you."
She waited, tensely alert.
Trying to disguise her speeding heartbeat, Cora clenched her fists. "Dark One!" she repeated, louder and more angrily. She didn't have the knife, if she did she might well plunge it into his heart and never have to beg for help for anyone again. "I summon – "
"Well, you don't have to shout, dearie," a voice drawled, directly behind her. "I'm right here."
Cora spun around, stifling an outcry just in time. He was indeed standing right there, where a moment ago there'd been nothing but dust and shadows, leaning against a tree and smiling innocently at her – although innocent was the last word that could or should be used to describe him, this demented little gremlin with his filed black teeth and mad, laughing eyes, the dirty hair and tattered leather vest and the unearthly golden sparkle to his skin. But he was more than some strange will-o-the-wisp, a traveler passing by her in the night. He'd come after all. And now he takes his price.
"Dark One," she said, inclining her head and smiling, as if she was welcoming him to her drawing room and doing so with proper female graces. "I have need of you."
"Usually those who come to me do, dearie." He tittered, a high, manic sound. "It gets rather. . . hmm. . . boring listening to all those tender pleas. O help me, Dark One! O grant me riches, Dark One! O save me from this dreadful dull old man that I hate, Dark One!" He cut off abruptly and took a few mincing steps around her, examining her from every angle. "Is that what you've come to ask me about? A man? Hmm?"
Cora hated that he'd seen through her so easily. "I've come. . . on behalf of my marriage, yes," she was forced to admit. "I have contracted a betrothal with a young man of quality, one Lord Henry Mills. We will be very – "
"Very happy, yes," the Dark One finished. "With many years of happiness and a dozen fat children. I wish you well of it, dearie, but I can't see what it's a thing to do with me. Good evening." He started to retreat back into the trees.
"Wait!" Cora lunged after him. "You didn't let me finish!"
"My time is valuable, dearie. I've none of it to spare to throw rice at your wedding. Good evening." His silhouette was barely distinguishable from the rest of the weird, witchy moonlight.
"I know your name," she gritted out, running after him, making as good time as she could in a long, cumbersome skirt. "You had better not walk away from me. Rumplestiltskin."
There was a long, fraught pause. Then he turned back to her. "Had I not?" he said softly, and there was something different in his voice. "Why?"
"Because, as I said, you did not let me finish. Henry is the son of a great and terrible man, a. . ." She hesitated. "A wizard of wonderful power. He is so rich that he lives in a city built entirely of emerald, glass and jewels and gold. He is feared by all, and nobody gets in to see him, ever. Henry is the heir to all that, and I am a. . ."
"A foundling," Rumplestiltskin interrupted, completing her sentence again. He leered at her. "A poor little orphan girl who doesn't know her real parents, taken in and raised by a kindly but skint woodcutter and his wife, a kindly but lazy woodcutter who can't seem to stop having accidents with that enchanted ax of his. Such a shoddy piece of work. I wonder who could have possibly sold it to him. Your dear father will be made half of tin if he keeps this up."
"I'm not a fool, Rumplestiltskin." Cora moved closer. "I know who sold it to him."
The inhuman eyes gazed back at her, wide and unblinking. "Do you, dearie?" The threat in the soft voice was lethal enough to fell a dragon. "Do I recall giving you leave to call me by my name? And what, pray, does this entire woebegone tale have anything to do with your stated purpose for summoning me, namely your wedding?"
"Everything. We are betrothed, but we can't get married, our families will not permit it. And if we don't, I'll be ruined, I'll stay a – "
"Penniless little waif forever?"
"Would you stop doing that?" she hissed.
"Can I help that you wear your ambition so. . . noisily?" Rumplestiltskin tittered again. "So what is it you want? Twoo Wuv to make everything right and prevail against all obstacles? In which case, dearie, you're flat out of luck. As I've told to everyone who ever asks for it, true love is the one potion that cannot be bottled, the one magic that cannot be contrived, and if you were hoping I'd have a drop of it to spare, I'm terribly sorry but no."
He made as if to walk away a third time, then stopped. "Yet as it happens, dearie," he remarked, "I've been wanting a word with this so-called wizard for quite some time. And I notice you haven't said a thing about truly loving this Henry of yours, just desiring his money. That is the sort of honest villainy I can do business with. Do you love him?"
Cora bit her lip. "I want to marry him, yes."
"I said honest, dearie." He snapped his fingers.
"I don't want to live in that miserable little hovel with my foolish oaf of a father and my shrew of a mother, if that's what you mean!" she flared. "So far as I'm concerned, that ax was the best thing that happened to us – maybe he'll soon be made of tin all over and then I won't have to listen to his moaning and groaning any more. They're not even my real parents. I know you can help me. I'll give you anything."
"Anything?" He giggled. "Now we're talking. So, then. You and your dearly beloved Henry wish to become attached in matrimony, but are prevented by the inconsiderate objections of both his great and terrible father and your clumsy half-tin one? Thus also prevented from improving your worldly fortunes?"
"Well then. What a simple, simple matter. If you charm them and steal their hearts, they'd have no choice but to let you two be married."
"But you just said – "
"That true love could not be purchased at any price? I did, didn't I?" The grotesque little man beamed insincerely at her. "And yet, I said nothing about hearts. The expression, you see, is meant most literally. You steal them. The hearts. Beating from their very chests. And once you have that person's heart in your control, they have to do anything you wish. Otherwise you crush – "he made an explanatory gesture – "them like so much powder. And they're gone. Done for. Life and death in your hands. That's what you have to do."
Cora was repulsed. "Crush?"
"Only if you're angry." Rumplestiltskin chucked her under the chin. "Very angry. Now then, dearie. A bargain. I'll teach you how to do this. Generous soul that I am, overcome at the thought of keeping two young souls from their rightful place with each other. It's not very difficult. All it really takes is steely resolve and a general lack of consciousness, which I can see you possess in the any case. And then a quick rip, and all your problems are solved. Take Henry's father's heart. Take your own father's heart. Their objections to your wedding will abruptly cease. Do with your father's whatsoever you wish, but bring the wizard's here to me. A small favor."
"Done," Cora said immediately. "And I – "
"Ah-ah-ah, dearie. I wasn't quite finished either." He smiled. "In exchange for my teaching you how to take hearts, you'll allow me to. . . pop in on you from time to time? A brief visit only. Out of my own paternal feelings. To see how you're doing. Eheehee."
"Yes. You can see me every so often if you like." Cora's mind was already racing ahead. In the life she envisioned, she would indeed see the Dark One regularly, but when she pleased.
"In a looking glass?" He emitted that obnoxious little titter again.
"If you want. Anything." She shrugged impatiently. "Why do you want the wizard's heart?"
"That, dearie, is certainly nothing that I am under any obligation to tell you. But since you are doing me a small service, I daresay I will. This wizard of yours is from a mysterious and peculiar place, and I have a certain interest in following him there. It's. . ." Rumplestiltskin paused for effect. "Nebraska."
Cora frowned. "Nebraska? What on earth is that?"
"Pray you never find out, dearie." Rumplestiltskin quirked his eyebrows. "But I've been searching for a path to that world for a. . . great while. I believe something of great value to me, which was stolen by the fairies, may just have wound up there."
"Ah. Now that would be telling. So then. Is it a deal?"
"It's a deal." Cora held out her hand, expecting a shake.
Rumplestiltskin glanced at it, glanced at her face, and stood so still that she thought he was about to up and vanish on her again. Then suddenly he darted forward, reached for her, his hand moving almost too fast to be seen, and –
Cora stumbled, retching, gasping, as the worst pain she'd ever known flooded up her bones and folded in on a hot, clenching explosion in her chest. Sparks of magic crackled around her, that or the pain driving her to her knees, as she writhed and thrashed uselessly on the ground before him. Glancing up, shaking, she saw the glowing red sac in his hands, the way his fingers caressed it almost tenderly, and felt the pressure mounting in her throat like a scream. "What. . ." she barely managed to choke. "What are you. . ."
"Just showing you how it's done, dearie." He smirked, holding her own heart above her head. "You know, it's careless. Keeping your heart in your chest like that, when any old ruffian could reach in and pluck it out."
"Give it back!"
"I've made you angry now, have I? Good." His obscene little smirk widened. "You'll remember that then, won't you? When it comes time to pull the wizard's heart out, and then your father's. . . you don't like him much, what's one heart? He'll never miss it. And then snap of the fingers, you're married to Henry, and a rich woman for the rest of your days. The deals you made to lift yourself ahead in the world, dearie. The price you're going to pay."
"I know what it is."
"Do you?" Rumplestiltskin reached down and with a twist of his fingers, shoved her heart back into its proper place, where suddenly she could feel it beating again as if nothing had ever happened. "Do you, indeed? Well, then. The bargain's done. I am an open book to you. I'll teach you how to take what you want. Come back tomorrow, and you're my pupil."
"You'll teach me now. I'm not leaving. I won't let you disappear on me."
"Such a lack of trust." Rumplestiltskin shook his head. "And yet, so determined, so noble to take her fate in her own hands. Yet it is me, dearie, who still has what you need, and so you'll come back to begin your studies when I say so. Which is tomorrow." He turned to go. "But just one last thing. Far be it from me to dissuade you from your heart's desire of wealth and power – how unoriginal, I was really hoping for better – but don't go blaming me if your newfound wealth and your husband and your precious home in the emerald city turns out to be a good deal more. . . illusory than you dream."
And before Cora could ask him what he meant, get her breath back from his assault, or insist on anything, any answer at all, the Dark One, graceful as a serpent, was gone.