“I got a letter from my father.” Belle found Rumplestiltskin reading, something he seemed to be doing more these days now that he didn’t have voices in his mind to distract him. He’d been poring through some ancient books on realm crossing with a scowl on his face, which told Belle that he could use the distraction.
“Has he decided that he regrets letting you leave with the beast?” Rumplestiltskin’s tone was light, but Belle thought she could detect a hint of self-loathing.
“No, he actually seems to have accepted my decision.” Belle was pleased with that, although not quite as satisfied with the rest of the letter. “He did also ask how you’re treating me, and if I need anything,” she admitted.
“Do you need anything, sweetheart? You know that I’ll put the world at your feet if you want me to. All you have to do is say the word.”
“Really, I just want you.” She leaned against his shoulder with a smile. “Though, if you’re offering, I could use a few new dresses.”
“Of course!” Rumplestiltskin slammed his book shut with gusto. “Would you like me to call seamstresses? Or would you prefer to travel? Or we could travel to the seamstresses, of course.”
“Seamstresses? Travel?” Belle blinked, taking the options in. “I thought you’d just magic me up a dress or two!”
“Magic?” Rumplestiltskin’s lips curled into a magnificent sneer. “Of course not. Anything magic can make, magic can unmake. Even the finest gown made of magic can be dispelled by a semi-competent sorcerer, and we can’t have that, can we?”
Belle felt her eyes go wide. “No. No, we definitely don’t need that.” Not that she minded the idea of encouraging Rumplestiltskin to pull her clothes off—she’d only just recently convinced him to do so at all—but the idea of some unscrupulous enemy doing it made her shudder.
Rumplestiltskin must have seen her reaction, because he reached out to take her hand. “I’ve never been much of a seamstress, or I would offer to make you something. Instead, however, I can offer you the finest seamstresses in any realm.” He shot a glare at the book he’d been reading. “Or almost any realm, anyway.”
“Can we go somewhere where they won’t recognize you like this?” Belle reached up to touch his cheek. “I like this face.”
He blushed adorably. “I’m sure I can think of somewhere.”
Zelena’s vault was ridiculously unguarded. A few spells lay in Fiona’s way, ones easily waved aside, and finding Mulan’s heart among the many was easy. The boxes were even labeled, so Fiona did a quick dance around the room, spying out this name and that, making sure that no one useful might be bereft of that rather vital appendage. But she didn’t recognize any names, and she made a mental note to let Tink now that the friend she was worried about wasn’t missing her heart. Zelena could have left it elsewhere, of course, but she seemed a bit too obsessively organized for that. That hardly matters, though, does it? I have what I came for, and Zelena’s little spy won’t help her any longer. Smiling, Fiona stepped out of the vault—
Only to run right into an obnoxious little manchild she had devotedly hoped to forget.
“You again?” Her lips curled into a snarl, and Fiona instinctively snatched Mulan’s heart closer. Heavens only knew what Mal—Pan!—would do with it. He’d probably steal it for fun.
“Fiona, my darling. It’s been so long.” He offered her a mocking bow, which only made her scowl harder.
“Not long enough. Besides, I thought you liked that nasty little world you made for yourself.” She snorted. “Why slum in the Enchanted Forest again, darling? It doesn’t suit you.”
“Oh, it certainly doesn’t.” He was so smug; was he ever not? “And you can rest assured that I won’t stay here for long. I’m not sure the place could last between the two of us.”
Fiona rolled her eyes. “I have better things to do than pick a fight with you.”
“Particularly since you know you’d lose.”
“Must you sound like the child you turned yourself into? It’s terribly wearying.” Fiona groaned. “Now, if you must, gloat about whatever clever trick you’re up to, and then get out of my way. I have places to be.”
“And a stolen heart, I see. It’s nice to know that we’re both so naughty.” Pan grinned, but Fiona didn’t take the opportunity to correct him. She wasn’t sure she wanted him to know that she was here to help someone. He’d probably laugh.
“Do just get on with it.”
“Don’t you worry, love, I’m not here for you. Even if that would be an interesting battle.” He actually leered at her, and although Fiona had once—many times!—taken this man lovingly into her bed, the look on his face left her feeling vaguely nauseous. “I’m just here to find two missing lost boys and bring them home.”
“You’ve come yourself? Either they must feel honored, or they’re too clever for you to find them.” She couldn’t resist a little snicker. “I’m going to bet I know the answer to that, though, don’t I?”
Pan’s leer whipped into a snarl. “Don’t be too happy for them, Fiona. When I get ahold of them, I will make them suffer.”
“Oooh, what a happy home you offer! You know, when I stole children, I at least had the decency to be upfront about making them miserable. You offer them fun and games until you decide to hurt them.”
“High minded words coming from the Black Fairy.”
Fiona rolled her eyes. “There’s nothing high about them. I am what I am, and I admit it. But at least—unlike you—I have not abandoned my son. He doesn’t remember you very fondly, by the way. In fact, I think he prefers not to remember you at all.”
Was that a flinch? She hoped so. But Pan came back on balance all too quickly for Fiona’s tastes, and the smirk was back in full force. “Oh, I know he remembers me. He knew me as a boy, unlike you. And that abandonment leaves a mark.”
“You’re actually proud of that?” she asked incredulously.
“Of course I am. You should be as well. Between the two of us, we created quite the monster.” Pan threw back his head and howled a laugh. “What a perfect little dark family we make, huh? It’s glorious!”
“There is nothing glorious about you, Malcolm.” Fiona snapped those words before she could stop herself. “And there never was.”
“I seem to remember you singing a different tune, once upon a time.”
“Reversion to childhood does wreak havoc upon memories, though, doesn’t it?” She smiled sweetly, and stepped around him, wrapping herself in a cloak of darkness for protection. “Go look for your lost little boys if you must. But leave our son alone, or you won’t enjoy the reception you receive.”
“I doubt you’d enjoy it, either!” Pan’s laugh wouldn’t have sounded hollow to someone who hadn’t once known him as well as she did, but Fiona could tell.
Her smile, on the other hand, was quite genuine. She knew that their son was no longer any sort of monster, and if Pan did drop by, the Rumplestiltskin he encountered would be far from the one he expected. Fiona hoped he would not, because she did know that the wounds Pan had spoken of were both real and deep, but her son had also come a long way. He had people who loved him now, people who would help him, and he never needed to worry about the father who had abandoned him again.
Blue made her wait, of course. As if trekking up to the fairylands—and burning the last favor she’d ever have with the Rose Fairy—wasn’t bad enough, Blue left Tiger Lily cooling her heels for hours while Blue did whatever it was she did. She supposed that she shouldn’t be surprised, not after all this time, but a small part of Tiger Lily had still thought of Blue as her friend. Even after everything that had happened, she had hoped their onetime closeness still meant something.
Two hours later, she was certain it did not.
“Tiger Lily!” Blue floated forward—full sized, so as not to offend her guest—and gave her a perfunctory hug. “It is so good to see you after so long. You’ve found your way free of Neverland!”
“I have.” Describing how that had been done was not on her list of things to do, nor was listening to some lecture about how she never should have gone.
Blue’s smile was thin. “I take it that Pan is still contained there?”
“Last I knew.” That really was all Blue cared about, wasn’t it? A few lost boys meant nothing to her, particularly since most had been foolish enough to go with Pan or the Shadow willingly. Tiger Lily gritted her teeth for a moment before forcing herself to smile. “But that’s not why I’m here.”
“No, of course not. I understand you’ve set yourself up as a healer in Port Mystic.”
“I have, yeah.” Tiger Lily felt her eyes narrow. Was Blue judging her? She was helping people as best she could, following the creed she had been raised to. “Is that a problem?”
“Oh, of course not. I am glad to see you doing well.” Blue’s smile was that patented shallow one, though, one Tiger Lily had never seen directed at her. She didn’t enjoy it one bit. You’re not a fairy anymore, she told herself firmly. Get used to it.
“Anyway, I came here to tell you about something, and then I’ll get out of your wings and back to my mundane life.” She squared her shoulders. “There’s a witch near Port Mystic who has a reputation for stealing young and beautiful people so that she can curse them with eternal life. And then suck out that eternal life for herself.”
Blue’s eyes finally narrowed. “I have heard of such terrible things. It’s disgusting.”
“Yeah, it is. And we need your help. There’s no one in Port Mystic who can stop her. Her name is Madam—”
“This really does sound like a problem for the humans, my dear.” Blue cut her off gently, but Tiger Lily still felt her eyes go wide.
“I just said there’s no one around who can stop her.”
“Oh, I’m sure someone would be willing. Or maybe the patron fairy of a nearby family might find it in her heart to help.”
“If her family is affected.” Tiger Lily ground the words out so hard her teeth hurt. “Madam Faustina seems to only go for youths no one will miss.”
“It is a pity, but—”
“Kind of like Pan. Is that why you’ve never tried to stop him?” She couldn’t help from snarling the words; part of Tiger Lily burned to punch Blue, but violence had never gotten her far before, so she didn’t. Even if the idea was attractive.
“Tsk, tsk.” Blue clicked her tongue disapprovingly. “You disappoint me, Tiger Lily. I do know who freed the Black Fairy, you know. Trying to guilt me into action after what you have done is not the right thing to do.”
“I don’t care about right and wrong,” she snarled. “I care about saving children from this witch!”
“You released the Black Fairy back upon the world, my dear Tiger Lily. That endangers far more children, don’t you think?”
“And has she been taking children again, hm?” Tiger Lily shot back.
Blue folded her hands. “It is only a matter of time.”
“Hm.” Tiger Lily rolled her eyes. “You really are a hypocrite, aren’t you? You don’t care about anyone other than your precious ‘chosen’ ones. As far as you’re concerned, the rest of humanity can be left to rot.”
“The fairies cannot save everyone, Tiger Lily. You were taught that in the very beginning.” Blue shook her head sadly, now, but after all this time, Tiger Lily was not fooled.
“Yeah, I was. And now I’m starting to be really glad I left.”
Mentioning the way they had both abandoned Fiona’s son to Malcolm was on the tip of Tiger Lily’s tongue, but on second thought, she stopped herself. If Fiona was right, she had freed her son from the terrible fate he had ended up with, and Blue should have been happy about that. Tiger Lily felt just spiteful enough not to share the good news, and left the fairylands as quickly as she could find a way out.
“Can I help you with this time traveling spell of yours?” Nottingham leaned in close, and Zelena couldn’t help preening a little. “It sounds impressive. Know, I know I can’t do magic or any of that, but if there’s any help you need—even in a little way—I would like to do that for you.”
“You really are quite sweet, aren’t you?” She smiled, and for once, the expression didn’t feel either nasty or forced. Nottingham was no prince, and he wasn’t a man with any magical power, but he was already proving to be quite devoted to her. And he looked at her like she was a beautiful woman, without even hesitating over the green skin that she hated so.
Nottingham was drawn to power more than good looks, Zelena knew, but she was all right with that. After all, she had power, and she liked the fact that he was amoral all around. He would be loyal to her, just like Tink had said. And she wouldn’t need to take his heart.
“Well, if we are soulmates—and I see no evidence to say we aren’t—I figure we should help one another.” His smile was genuine, if a little hungry.
She laid a hand on his chest, palm flat to touch the hairs peeking out from beneath the collar of his shirt. “And what help do you want from me?”
“Revenge. There are those I would make suffer.”
“Oooh, I like the sound of that.”
“Here. You’ve been missing this.” Fiona held the heart out as nonchalantly as she could, trying to pretend that the encounter with her ex-husband hadn’t rattled her. Mulan didn’t help matters by staring at her like she had two heads.
“Oh, bother, I’m not going through this with you. The compulsions are gone.” Fiona rolled her eyes. “And here is your bloody heart.”
She thrust it in with perhaps a bit more force than was required, making Mulan gasp. But the smile that lit Mulan’s face up afterwards was far more disconcerting than the pained gasp had been.
“Thank you!” Mulan looked down at her chest with wide and happy eyes, and then back up at Fiona. “You—you found my heart!”
“Well, it wasn’t lost. A little green goblin just happened to have it locked up in her vault. I just took it back.” Fiona shrugged.
“For me? I didn’t even think you liked me?”
“Don’t take it personally. I don’t like many people.” Fiona shuffled back a step, afraid Mulan might hug her or something. “But I particularly hate Zelena, so anything that annoys her is a worthy endeavor. And I also do like Belle, who wanted you to be, um, complete.”
“Thank you again.” Mulan didn’t hug her, thankfully; maybe Mulan wasn’t the hugging type. Fiona was so glad for that. “What, um, do I owe you?”
“Well, not letting Zelena steal your heart so she can spy on my son again would be a fantastic start. Other than that, nothing.”
“She wanted to know why Rumplestiltskin likes Belle. Or if he was just using her.” Mulan looked a little defeated, and very uncomfortable. Fiona knew why, of course. No one liked being used, particularly against their friends.
Fiona took a breath; they’d expected that, but it was still unsettling to hear. “How much did she see?”
“I don’t think that much. I avoided them unless she made me go watch them, and I could usually tell if she was spying through the buzzing in my ears.”
“Clever.” Fiona nodded approvingly. “And, um, helpful.”
“Please don’t thank me. Belle is my friend.”
Fiona nodded. “Well, then, I’m glad we can see eye to eye on this.” And she wished this could be less awkward, but she couldn’t figure out how, so she gave Mulan another nod and walked out of the room.
For her part, Mulan didn’t look like she knew what to say, either, so she didn’t follow.
Rumplestiltskin could get used to this.
Their first stop had been Agrabah, which was admittedly not the place to find dresses of the type that a traditional lady of the Enchanted Forest would wear, but Belle had still enjoyed the sights and the wares. She had ended up with as skimpy little sari that made Rumplestiltskin’s jaw drop, though. He’d vowed that if anyone else saw her in that (excepting perhaps his mother), he would have to kill the offender, but Belle had only laughed. He’d bought her jewels, too, which she insisted she didn’t need, but he thought looked glorious on her.
“I’m no princess!” Belle had objected.
“You deserve to be treated like one, and more.” He’d kissed the side and talked her into it before sweeping Belle off to another realm almost identical to their own. He’d had to get Jefferson to play chauffeur, of course, but a healthy helping of gold and a promise that Jefferson could take Grace shopping made the Hatter eager enough to come along. Jefferson had the good grace not to ask about Rumplestiltskin’s suddenly human looks, too; he probably thought that Rumplestiltskin was just humoring Belle.
That didn’t keep him from needling them both about their romance, but it made Belle smile, so Rumplestiltskin didn’t threaten him. Much.
“Be nice!” Belle swatted his arm lightly as they popped out of the hat in the alternate version of the Enchanted Forest.
Jefferson laughed. “This is nice, for him! He only threatened to turn me into a puppy—that’s a significant leap upwards from the toad he usually chooses.”
“I think you’d make a cute puppy, Papa.” Grace grinned.
Rumplestiltskin gave the girl a sweeping bow, sharing her smile. “Shall we find out?”
“Rumple!” But Belle was almost laughing too hard to object, and he liked the way she glowed so happily. He would travel with her every day for the rest of his life if it would make her happy—if only they could find Bae, first. Bae would like this world, Rumplestiltskin decided. He generally avoided the Alternate Forest because it was so much like home, but with Belle at his side, things were different.
“How about I take a raincheck on that and show you to the finest dressmaker in any realm?” Jefferson put his hat back on with a flourish. “She’s a little bit crazy, but I promise, it’s well worth the trip.”
“A little crazy?” Belle looked dubious, and Rumplestiltskin had to agree. He generally trusted Jefferson, but he knew that his sense of adventure was a little more daring than it was intelligent. He was trying so hard to be good; the last thing he needed was to test his newfound ability to be nice to strangers with some ‘crazy’ seamstress.
Jefferson just shrugged. “Ah, Minnie’s a good sort. She likes to dress like a mouse for some reason—hence the crazy—but she makes dresses like queens can only dream of.”
Jefferson was right, of course; both Belle and Grace left with dozens of dresses after their two day trip to the Alternate Forest. Even Rumplestiltskin found himself with a few new suits, as did Jefferson, and Minnie the Tailor—who hated being called a seamstress—ended the day quite richer. She had a touch of her own magic, which was the only way the dresses could be done so quickly, but nothing that could be deconstructed by a well-placed spell or three. Belle did bring home a dress for Fiona, too, since Rumplestiltskin knew his mother’s size by heart, which she said she hoped would get Fiona out of those dreadful black things she usually liked wearing.
Rumplestiltskin wasn’t so sure that Belle could talk his mother out of being the Black Fairy so simply, but he did suggest gold for the dress.
His new book was fascinating. Bae hadn’t known that there had been so many Saviors; he’d known that people had once thought Beowulf to be one (they’d been wrong, even if he couldn’t remember most of those details or why his father had killed Beowulf), but he hadn’t heard of many others. Why hadn’t there been one there to stop the ogres? He hoped that reading further into the book could provide answers. Right now, it was just telling stories about various Saviors and one nameless boy who had had his fate as a Savior cut away before he could even help anyone.
“Do you know anything about this?” he asked Tiger Lily one night after she’d gotten back from her useless conversation with Blue. “It says that there was a Savior who had their fate cut away.”
Tiger Lily’s face went strangely still. “Yes, actually.” She bit her lip. “I was…I was to be his fairy godmother.”
“Is that why Blue took your wings?” Beans asked around a mouthful of beans. He really did love eating the things, provided they weren’t of the magical variety. Bae hadn’t asked if Beans had any more magical beans, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to know, but he did know that the normal variety made his friend fart non-stop.
Unfortunately, beans were cheap, and they weren’t rich.
“Yes, actually.” Tiger Lily swallowed. “I couldn’t stop it from happening.”
“What happens to a Savior who has their fate cut away?” Bae really didn’t know much about how being a Savior worked; the book said that the job came with great light magic, but what did that have to do with fate? He didn’t really like believing in fate, anyway, because if so, that would have meant that his father was meant to be evil, and he was meant to be let go.
“Nothing good.” Her sigh made Tiger Lily look very sad and very old. “A Savior is meant to help others in times of the greatest need…and if that fate is cut away, they are unable to help at all. Often times, no one does.”
Bae frowned. It sounded to him like Tiger Lily was avoiding answering questions again. “But what happened to the would-be Savior?”
“Um.” A long moment passed before Tiger Lily spoke, her voice very quiet. “He became the Dark One.”
“What?” Surprise jerked the word out of Bae, and he knew—knew—right away what that had to mean. A funny feeling coiled up in his stomach, one that was sick with what-might-have-been and a loss he hadn’t known he’d suffered. “Can you imagine me with that power, Bae? I could save all the children?” The memory of his father’s voice rang so loudly in his ears that Rumplestiltskin might well have been in the room. The next question blurted out of him: “Is that why there was no Savior during the Ogre Wars?”
“Yes, actually. The would-be Savior you’re asking about was supposed to stop the First Ogre War, and then it would have been the last.” A shrug. “If things had gone according to plan.”
“But they didn’.” Beans even sounded interested, now, despite his usual disdain for human magic. “There been three Ogre Wars, now.”
Tiger Lily looked away. “Unfortunately.”
“But what happens to the Savior?” Bae already knew about the Ogre Wars; they were terrible, but not new and interesting. But his father…what had that done to his papa? “If their fate is cut away, are they supposed to die?”
“No.” Tiger Lily’s face took on a strained sort of grimace. “No, they don’t die. A Savior without their fate—and without the power they were fated to wield—is left empty and rudderless. They can become anything…good or bad.”
“The way you say that makes it sound like the Savior becoming the Dark One was just meant to be.” Bae didn’t like that, not at all. It made him feel so trapped.
“The one that it happened to, the Dark One…well, let’s just say that he suffered for it before causing suffering in turn.” She heaved another huge sigh. “I should have been there to help, but without magic, I could do nothing. So, I went to Neverland. It seemed as good a place as any for exile.”
“You mean a miserable place.” That was Beans, but Bae agreed wholeheartedly.
“Perhaps I was just punishing myself.”
“I imagine you don’t want to see me, but I’ll leave all the sooner if you would bother coming out of whatever hole you’re hiding in.” Fiona bit back a groan, sitting on a rock in front of the Apprentice’s house. She’d contemplated just blasting the door in, but that wasn’t really a good way to ask someone for help.
She hated playing nice. It was so boring.
“I am not sure why you have returned, Fiona. I cannot help you.” The Apprentice finally emerged, his face long and haggard.
“Do you always look so down in the dumps? I promise I won’t turn you into a ferret this time.” Fiona tried a winning smile, but the Apprentice only grimaced. “Truly.”
He just scowled at her. “I am merely saddened by the state of the world and the coming of the Dark Curse.”
“Well, if it’s the Dark Curse you’re worried about, you’re in luck today. You can help prevent it. Right here, right now.”
“How?” The Apprentice’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“My son only wants that curse cast to find his son, as you well know. And you and I both know that you can create a portal to the Land Without Magic.” Fiona sat up straight, looking him in the eyes. “Create one so that we can find Baelfire, and I give you my word that the Dark Curse will never see the light of day again.”
“I have already told you that my magic cannot create a portal through which the Dark One can pass—”
Fiona cocked her head innocently. “Oh, but what if he isn’t the Dark One any longer?”
“That would be impossible.”
“So you said, but you don’t know my son.” She couldn’t restrain her grin; Fiona was still so proud of Rumplestiltskin that she could burst. “He has fulfilled Merlin’s prophecy. Rumplestiltskin has turned the darkness to light.”
“He could not have possibly done so. Not after so many centuries.” The Apprentice crossed his arms crankily. “You are wasting my time. Why? If you have some nefarious plan in mind, I assure you that it will not work.”
“I honestly don’t. I’m here to help my son find his son, nothing more. Although you are so terribly annoying that the urge to turn you into a ferret again is almost overwhelming.” She groaned. “Why will you not believe me?”
“Because I have seen that curse and the rot it causes. It eats at the host’s soul until there is nothing left, and none of your son’s predecessors have lasted as long as he has. The fact that there is enough love left in you that you hope for him is impressive, but—”
“True Love’s kiss,” she interrupted him, unable to take more of that dreadful monologue. “True Love’s kiss did the trick, and the Dark One is gone forever.”
Fiona smirked. “I do believe there’s nothing wrong with your hearing.”
“This I must see for myself.”