"I hope the amount of liquid in that glass provides some consolation for its quality, Ms. Swan."
Experience with his tendency to drop in unexpectedly kept her from jumping clear out her skin.
"Let me guess—" Emma Swan twisted around in her chair to see the familiar silhouette of the pawnbroker, standing in dramatic relief in her doorway. "You're a connoisseur of scotch."
"I appreciate good craftsmanship as it applies to all things." Gold leaned on his cane, hovering at the threshold of Mary Margaret's loft apartment, as though some invisible line not unlike the one around the town was preventing him from crossing it. "Was my son here?"
Emma blinked in surprise.
"He was earlier. Henry wanted to have dinner with him, and David and Mary Margaret went out for the night, so we decided to eat in…" His eyes darted around the room, searching—as if willing the erstwhile Baelfire to materialize. "Neal went back to Granny's to sleep."
"Ah, of course—" His gaze flicked to the abandoned, half-full glass on the table. "I seem to have just missed him."
It was odd to hear that hesitancy, that uncertainty from him of all people. Rumplestitskin, the Dark One, the man who had known what she was destined for before she'd even been born.
But if Neal were any indication, he'd been an ordinary man once, too.
Emma was surprised when, instead of relocating to the inn down the street to continue his search, Gold entered the apartment. He tapped his cane against the chair opposite hers.
"I…" Emma was caught off guard. "Sure, of course."
They sat in silence for a moment. Emma poured him a glass of the whiskey—something so unmistakably cheap that he'd recognized it as such from a distance of twelve feet—and pushed it towards him. She'd needed a drink after that meal, why not share the wealth?
He thanked her for it, politely.
"Gold…" Do you want to talk about it? nearly tumbled out of her mouth before she remembered that this was Gold.
"Do not pity me," he said, sharply. "I don't want it and I'm the last man on earth who deserves it."
He was being particularly cold with her. After the little song and dance they'd done over Regina and her heart curse, it wasn't surprising. You never knew what you were going to get with him, mood-wise…she suspected that was how he liked things. She had, after all, heard what was meant for Belle and Baelfire's ears only—now he was oddly at sea with her, on strange, unequal footing. He had shared something he didn't want to share.
"I have a kid who's not really thrilled with me right now either—I get it."
"I don't think you really do." Her eyebrows shot through the roof as he knocked back the entire glass in one swig. "Did he tell you how he came to be in this world?"
"I'm not your son's confidant," she replied, brusquely.
She had actually tried broaching the subject with Neal only once, the day before. "It's in the past, Emma…just forget about it."
"Oh?" He gave her that sly, knowing smile that always made her want to punch him in the face. This was familiar ground for them—comfortable ground. She felt a little better. That might have been the alcohol. She poured more into his glass. "That's a very simple view of how things stand."
"In addition to being one of only a few people with connections to both this world and the Enchanted Forest…he's the father of your child—a man you trusted. A man you once loved." He swirled the glass of whiskey, somehow managing to make Mary Margaret's cheap plastic tableware look elegant. "A man that broke your heart."
"Look, I know you think you know everything about everyone because you see the future—"
"It doesn't take magic to recognize that, dearie—only perception. I know the look of love lost, and you've got it."
"He was a thief and a liar," she replied, flatly.
"Which is apropos of nothing." Sometimes he reminded her of a particularly smug college professor advising her, against her will, on the senior thesis called her life. "Women have loved worse men than that time immemorial."
The sheriff snorted into her glass.
"It's nice to meet a guy who isn't sentimental about his kid."
"I know he isn't just a thief and a liar."
"Let me guess—because he's your son."
"No, because I know you, Ms. Swan." She lowered her drink. "You would never love a man devoid of goodness. People who've been surrounded by darkness their whole lives rarely choose it willingly. Thereare a few exceptions, of course," he added, significantly.
"You want to know how we met? I was trying to steal his stolen car."
"A yellow Volkswagen you still drive."
"Shut up." Had Neal told him, or was he just doing that Gold thing where he suspected something and made you think he knew it so you'd confirm for him? "Why are you even still here?"
And more importantly, what's it going to take to get you out of here?
He sat up straighter in his chair. Gold was good at masking his intent, but a change in body language of that magnitude was unmistakable. He hesitated for a moment, weighing whether or not it what he wanted to say to her was worth it.
"Tell me about him."
"You lived with Baelfire—traveled with him. You know where he's been, what he's done," He paused. Who he loves passed through her mind—he'd said it back in New York, not knowing just what that meant to her. "I've been separated from my boy for hundreds of years, Ms. Swan. I want to fill in some of the gaps."
"Have you tried asking him?"
"I'm asking you." She gave him a long-suffering look. "A woman who truly no longer cared would indulge my request."
Emma buried her face in her hands.
"Don't assume you know how I feel."
"I wasn't aware that was what I was doing." His voice took on a faux innocent quality. "I thought we were having a nice family chat."
As tired and weary and done with this shit as she was (and generally had been, since the moment he had brought his purple, problem-causing haze to their little hamlet), Emma felt her temper rise.
"Oh no—you do not get to throw around that word whenever it's convenient for you—that's not how it works." As she brandished the glass at him, some of the liquor clumsily slopped out and ran down her hand—greatly lessening the intimidating factor. Cursing, she mopped it up with her other sleeve. "Look, Gold—I'll make you a deal."
"I'm listening." He might not be a gold-skinned imp in this land, but he was still incapable of resisting the lure of a deal. "And surprised you'd want to make another deal with me, given our…history."
"That's just how you operate and it feels more," She waved one hand vaguely, the other gripped to her glass of cheap scotch. "Normal for us. I'll tell you something about your son if…" Gold's eyes flashed, expectantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. "…You tell me about the deal with him that you broke."
He held her gaze for a long moment, carefully weighing it in his mind. Here was a man who didn't trust anyone—it had taken nearly dying for him let his own, admittedly fledgling, family in at all, and even then, it was only by absolute necessity.
"Deal," he agreed. There followed an expectant look. "Well?"
"Age before beauty."
He gave her a thin smile.
"After I attained it, my son didn't like my magic. What it…did to me." His voice halted. "He—he wanted to break the curse of the Dark One safely."
"Death is the only way to rid oneself of the power—it passes onto the one who kills the Dark One with his dagger. That was Cora's intention…the only other option is to go to a place where the dagger has no power at all."
Emma's eyes widened in understanding.
"A land without magic."
"That's how you knew he'd be here, in this world."
"We agreed that if he found a way we'd…both take it."
It brushed upon heart of it, the truth of what had happened—Emma could see in his face that he was steeling himself to say the words out loud.
"I let him go."
"Just like that?"
His eyes locked on hers—steady and calm. She tipped the crystal glass back and forth on the table, the memory of the one time she had held her infant son in her arms reluctantly swimming before her like the alcohol in her system. All it had taken was the one moment—the boy, so small and fragile in her arms—the prison hospital orderly unceremoniously taking him to another room, taking her away from him, never to be seen again—for her to have felt the irreparable ache of the loss for years after.
"Just like that."
"Hard to let him go, isn't it? Your son?"
"Yeah, pretty much the hardest thing."
"Now…" He drew himself from his remembrances. "Tell me about him."
The man in front of her was so eager—so desperate. Before New York she'd never imagined him needing anything, caring about anything except himself and the pleasure he seemed to take in toying with her and everyone else in this town. What he cared about, who he really was had always been obscured to her by his slippery personality. The day he gave her the walkie-talkies Emma had seen a glimpse of something else, but she wasn't sure she could trust her eyes. When he'd beaten up the man who she now knew was Belle's father she'd again glimpsed something of him, but it had been unhinged, almost frightening.
Seeing him pace around an airport, cling to an ancient scarf in the security line, plead with Neal…made him realer, more of a man than he'd ever been, even when all he'd been was a pawnbroker.
She'd never imagined the two of them caring about the same person. Not that she still cared, Emma reminded herself. She was over it, after all.
"He was funny—he always made me laugh," Emma's voice caught in her throat, her mouth was dry. "He got me. He was the first person I ever met who really—got me. Knowing what I do now, I guess that makes sense." When she dared to look at him again, she was surprised to find such rapt attention. "I think a part of me always knew he was holding back, but I was so young I just ignored it."
"First love will have that effect, Ms. Swan."
"It wasn't—" She stopped herself at his sly smile. "You know what, forget it."
"The heart isn't logical—that's the great danger in following it," Gold raised his glass to hers in salute. "Something I suspect you know better than most."
I'm guessing you know something about it too, Gold.
"What made you stay with him, after you met?"
She closed her eyes and let the memories, long buried, rise to the surface. He was right—if she was over it, if it didn't matter anymore, then this shouldn't matter.
She should be past it by now.
"He never tried to pretend the bad things hadn't happened. We used to have this game we'd play," her voice petered out as she remembered a night spent drinking an even worse bottle of pilfered tequila and an entire package of Oreos, lying on the floor of a Motel 6 in the middle of Colorado and staring at a ceiling, pretending it was the stars. "We made it up ourselves. 'The worst thing'—you suggest the worst of something: worst meal, worst car, worst first date. You had to say what it was in one sentence, seven words or less, no other context."
"And whoever makes the most convincing argument with the greatest economy of language is the winner?"
"I got great at summarizing things that suck."
She blinked, taken aback.
"Oh, like what I said—worst meal. This is one of my best ones." She waved one hand. "Dehydrated enchilada in condemned carnival trailer."
"I'm surprised it's not the food you had in prison," He remarked, mildly.
"That was bad, but at least I had three squares a day."
"Can't say that was my experience in incarceration." Gold gave her a toothy grin, one that she could reconcile better with the description David had given her of him in the Enchanted Forest. "Maggot-infested gruel in a windowless cell."
"Maggot infested?" One eyebrow raised, one hand was under the table counting the words with her fingers. Of course he wants to play. "Seriously?"
"You can ask your parents if you really don't believe me. They were the ones who held me captive."
"I've seen your cell, it looked like something out of the Temple of Doom," She clinked her glass with his. "Alright, you win—this round."
They played the game for the next quarter of an hour—Gold had a talent for language, and he seemed to enjoy the challenge of viscerally describing horrible things with only a few words.
While he was probing her, learning little things about his son—that he and Emma had spent the 'worst night ever' camping in bear-infested woods of Yellowstone, for example—she was learning that three hundred years in the Enchanted Forest gave one the chance to experience many horrific things.
It was probably the most honest conversation she'd ever had with him.
"You have not seen a manticore mauling a herd of unicorns."
"I was under the impression that I didn't have to provide context—merely the facts, succinctly put."
She leaned back in her chair, its legs rising in the air.
"This is what I get for playing this game with a guy from a place where people frequently encounter ogres."
"There's nothing specific to the land where your parents are from—where you were born—that makes it better or worse than here. Pain is pain, no more, no less."
"I thought good always wins there," she said, dryly, taking another gulp. Funny how drinking and a bizarre, magical destiny-fueled shared past made Gold so much more palatable company. "Happy endings…that's what Henry's always saying. That sure as hell isn't true here."
"Good may always win—but evil never dies." He tapped his cane on the floor, emphatically, apparently sensing yet another 'teaching moment.' "I'm living proof of that."
"You aren't evil." His cough may have disguised a laugh. "All evil."
"That's optimism to rival your mother's, m'dear. Didn't know you had it in you."
"You know me—I'm no ray of sunshine." She leaned forward in her chair. "Look, I was there. I heard that phone call. And unless you've got some spell to erase my memory, I'll be hard-pressed to call you Satan incarnate."
"The greatest trick the devil can play is convince you he doesn't exist."
"You just love busting out oblique crap like that, don't you?" She abandoned the glass, instead taking a large, unladylike swig directly from the bottle. "Ooh—I thought of a good one." She slammed the bottle down on the table. "Worst break up."
"You've got a winner, I take it?"
"I don't know, does, "'Sent to jail, pregnant, on Pinocchio's orders' sound like a winner to you?"
The imp's face darkened faster than you could say all of her father's names.
"Booth told Bae to leave you?" His fingers gripped the cane more tightly. It looked as though he was itching to use it on someone—she would tell Marco to lock his doors at night in the future. "Seems he was pulling more strings than I knew."
"That's rich, coming from you." She leaned her chair back again. "Come on Gold—I dare you to top that, ogre-ridden country be-damned."
He thought for a minute, and Emma guessed he was weighing two different incidents in his head. Which was disturbing in and of itself, because, her brain always stressed, this was Rumplestitskin.
"Ripped her heart out, married another man."
There was a long, ringing silence before the legs of the chair slammed onto the wooden floor of Mary Margaret's studio.
"No way. No fucking way."
"I believe I'm not required to provide context beyond—"
"You and…Cora?" He didn't immediately respond—all the confirmation she needed. "Oh, dear God, there is not enough alcohol in this apartment. Talk about a match made in hell."
"It's probably better that it didn't work out. We never brought out the best in each other."
"Yeah, I can imagine." This was only slightly less surreal than getting hit on by Captain Hook. "She tried to kill you."
"She had no heart," he answered, quietly, with a hint of sad wistfulness. "She ripped it out of herself."
"Does Regina know?" Emma asked, trying not to linger on the revulsion she felt at the very idea of rendering oneself heartless.
"Oddly enough, it's never come up. I'm not sure how she'd…take it." He grinned at her grimace. "Do I disgust you, Ms. Swan?"
"There are about twelve things I'm trying really hard not to think about right now—" Her eyebrows rose. "But no. I doubt dating Cora even ranks on the scale of screwed up things you've done."
"She wasn't always like that, you know." There was a light earnestness there that suggested it's a story she's never likely to hear in its entirety—then his voice took on a familiar slyness— "She was a very beautiful woman—"
"Okay, Gold, enough—that's all I need to know," She gesticulated at him a little too wildly. "Really."
"You aren't surprised."
"No, the weird thing is, I can actually see it. This town is clearly warping me." She took a swig, almost swaying in her seat. "I think I speak for all of us when I say that I'm glad you're with Belle now."
His face, formally so amused by her discomfort at imagining himself and Cora en dishabille, hardened nearly instantaneously. He was the man of jealously guarded secrets again, of ironic, amused attachment—his eyes wary and guarded.
"Am I?" he asked, heavily, leaning back in his own chair. For the first time since she'd met him, the fact that he was three hundred years seemed not out of the realm of believability. "I'm afraid that's a point of contention for her."
"We'll find a way to get her memories back." It was gentle, for her, but full of conviction.
He fiddled with his cane, again avoiding her eyes.
"I've brought nothing but pain to her life," he said, finally. "She…may be safer as she is."
"Oh, come on. You're the guy who spent hundreds of years trying to get here so you could find your son. You can't expect me to believe that you're giving up on her."
He smiled, and if she hadn't known him as well as she did, she might've confused it for fondness.
"You know me better than that."
"Damn right I do." She rose to clear the plates away from the meal she, Henry and Neal had shared hours earlier. "Leroy and the rest of the dwarves are looking for a way to bring back Tom Clark's memory—"
"Fairy magic is feeble compared to what I have," he dismissed, airily as she turned the sink on. "Speak of the devils, that reminds me of something else I wanted to talk to you about."
Emma tried to concentrate on the dish in front of her—the alcohol only dulled her ability to sense a needling Gold to a point.
"You. And your magic."
Oh for the love of—of course.
"I do not want to talk about this right now," she groaned.
"Hear me out—consider Regina."
"I try not to, if I can help it."
"With her mother dead, Henry is all Regina has left," he continued, ignoring her half-hearted attempts to rebuff him. "You have to face the fact that she is never going to relent. She may change her tactics, but at the end of the day, unless you do something drastic you're going to spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder."
"What a pleasant thought."
"That is why I'm suggesting you…" He tilted his head, thinking carefully about his next words. "…Prepare yourself."
"By learning magic?"
"It's the only way you're ever going to win against Regina." He was careful to qualify that with "you're," because he knew of several inventive ways to neutralize their beloved queen without so much as conjuring a handkerchief. "Trust me."
"Because that's worked out so well for me in the past." She tossed the dishrag on Mary Margaret's pristine counter.
"You think I'm using you."
"What tipped you off?" Emma retorted, acerbically. Why the hell hadn't she bought another forty? Was the remoteness of the liquor store yet another thing Gold had built into the design of the curse to deliberately torment her?
"What could I possibly gain by teaching you magic? If anything I'd be setting someone up to oppose me."
"I'm not going to beat you at the magic game. From what I understand, the deck is stacked in your favor."
"Maybe…maybe not." He smiled, serenely—for him. "Your type of magic is relatively untested. For all you know, you have the potential to surpass me."
She took a step towards the table again, slowly.
"You don't really believe that," Emma said, carefully gauging his reaction. Even through the booze she was adept at sniffing out a liar, always had been.
"I've learned not to bet against you, Ms. Swan. At least consider it—and consider that it would not be in my best interest to lead you down a path to ruin."
"Oh? Why not?"
He didn't break eye contact for a long, strangely sincere moment, before giving her his most knowing smile.
"Because my son would never forgive me."
The door immediately flew open.
"Hey, Emma—did I leave my wallet in here this afternoon—"
Neal stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of Emma and his father. No one spoke while the players of the scene came to terms with where they were and what was going on.
"It's there on the side-table, Baelfire."
Emma's head immediately snapped to where the distressed leather wallet lay—directly in the eye line of the doorway. He saw that when he walked in, that sneaky bastard.
"I…uh…" Neal looked at her, helplessly, then at the wallet, then directly above Gold's left shoulder. "Thanks." He shifted his weight, awkwardly. "What're you doing here?"
"I was just sharing a nightcap with Ms. Swan—and engaging in a little friendly competition." From across the room Emma could see Neal's whole body tense up. Gold stood, apparently realizing his words had been poorly chosen. "Nothing to be concerned about, of course. I should let you two…" He gave Emma an annoying, significant look. "Get on with it. Thank you for the libation. You'll think about what we discussed, I trust."
"The parts I want to think about." Of which there are few.
"Naturally." He limped towards his son, still gaping in the doorway. "Excuse me, Bae."
They were only a foot apart before Neal came to his senses and shuffled out of his father's way.
"I…" Emma couldn't see Gold's face anymore, but she could see him tense up, exactly as his son had. It was the same thing Henry did with his shoulders when he was anxious—with a start she realized that it very could well be a family trait. "Look, I…I know I haven't been—I mean, it's been a busy week with all this…stuff."
Apparently, they were doomed to have all of these, awkward, uncertain, intimate moments in front of her.
"You know, with Henry and everything," he added, hastily.
"It's only natural for a father to want to be with his son." His voice hovered somewhere between wise and soulful. Emma resisted the urge to roll her eyes—Don't lay it on too thick, buddy. "When they want me, people usually find me in my shop. Goodnight, son." He patted his arm before walking out the door.
You could have heard crickets.
"Wow…" She circled the table, picked up the desired wallet, and tossed it to her gob smacked ex-boyfriend. "I knew your dad was a master of manipulation—didn't know it was the emotional kind."
It snapped him out of his daze.
"Why didn't you warn me he was going to be here?" Neal plopped down on the chair his father had recently vacated, as though the brief conversation he'd just had was a battle survived.
"What, do you need a text alert every time your father pops up somewhere?"
"What were you talking about?" he demanded, ignoring the jab.
"A lot of things. I wondered why he was so chatty—he must've spotted your wallet when he walked in and needed an excuse to stay."
Neal knocked back the dregs of his father's drink.
"I learned way more about his love life than I ever needed to know—so there's that."
Neal's expression suggested he was torn between horror and curiosity.
"Wasn't aware he even had one until this week."
"It's colorful, trust me."
"What's…" It was with great embarrassment that he completed the question. "What's…Belle like?"
"I don't know her that well. She's sweet. Brave too, I'd guess, or she wouldn't be with your dad."
"And she and he are really…?" His eyes were trained on Mary Margaret's charming hanging wicker baskets.
"Look, how your dad got a young, hot girlfriend is one of many inexplicable things about him."
"Wait—young? Like, how young?"
Was it worth it to point out how immaterial it was to argue about the age appropriateness of a relationship in a town where time had been literally frozen for 28 years?
"Are you of all people going to call your dad out on this?"
He blanched and rubbed the back of his neck.
"Have you talked to him about anything?" Neal's eyes were now boring into the table. "Have you even introduced him to your fiancée?"
"I'm working up to it!" His voice rose, defensively. In all the time they'd been together, she'd never seen him as vulnerable as he was when the issue of his father was raised. "You know him, Emma—nothing's ever simple with him."
"I think some things are."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Neal, I was there when you thought he was going to die."
He ran one hand through his greying hair, anxious at the mere recollection of how close to death Rumplestiltskin, The Dark One—his papa—had really come.
"I just don't…I can't…I don't even know where to start with him. I don't even know if I can."
"You can't avoid him forever. Storybrooke's not that big." He rubbed his eyelids, sighing. "And you know he's been trying to find you for hundreds of years, I sincerely doubt he's going to give up now."
"I know, I know. I know all of this. It's just—hard." He dropped his hands, obviously worn out. Never a dull day in Storybrooke—she couldn't blame him if he was weary. "He can't be in a place with magic. It's dangerous and…it's not good for him."
"It's worse for us. He was the one who brought it here, Neal. He likes having it."
"It made him the way he is. He wasn't always like that." Perhaps less Neal and more Baelfire. It was then she remembered what his father had revealed.
"You didn't come here just to get away from magic yourself, did you?" He looked down at the floor, as if wishing it would swallow him up. "He told me."
"He was supposed to come with me."
"Three hundred years really stretches 'better late than never' to the brink, I guess."
"It doesn't matter now," he brushed her off. His fist was curled so tightly that his knuckles had whitened. "I don't care anymore."
"Sure you don't." She toyed with the rim of her glass. "That's why you're so pissed at him. Because you don't care."
"When did you get so in touch with your feelings?"
That was something they'd always had in common. That same biting, acerbic sarcasm that was a thinly veiled mask for something else. Guess she now knew where they'd both gotten it from.
Nothing breeds cynicism quite like being from a place called the Enchanted Forest.
"Around the same time I learned I had a family to give a crap about."
That was what they'd always wanted—wasn't it? Family…they were going to be each other's, that was the plan, and that was how it had worked out, in sick, ironic way, not at all like either of them had ever dreamed it would.
They don't really let you pick it, do they?
"It's getting late…I should…" go see Tamara she filled in for him, and mental inhibitions down, Emma allowed herself to feel bothered by the woman's presence, unabashedly annoyed. He stood up.
"Yeah, it is." She followed Neal as he traced his father's slow footsteps to the door, shoulders a little heavier than when he'd come in. Family was a blessing and a burden that way. "You should take Tamara to meet him tomorrow. Introduce them."
He stopped, hand on the doorknob, and turned.
"Yeah." She tossed the now empty plastic jug into her mother's hand-crafted wicker trash basket. They both watched it sail across the kitchen, bounce of the rim and land squarely in the middle of their kid's leftover pasta from dinner. "Tell him it was my idea."
In honor of Robert Carlyle and Jennifer Morrison's (belated) birthday! Hope you enjoyed my first attempt at OuaT fic. I love these two and hope to see more scenes with them…as well as family bonding and awkward Nealfire convos.