James pauses with his hand on the doorknob. It is not fear which makes him hesitate. Fear tastes differently; fear is locked for him with the stench of dragon-hide, the cold bite of crystal on his fingertips, the vision of Snow leaping into the abyss.
He does not fear Rumplestiltskin.
But certainly there is a reluctance. His fingers tingle. There is a great, brooding silence over Gold’s house, an invisible shield of magic, and his legs want to take him away. Leave, the closed shutters say, the roof jutting over his head and blotting out the stars. Leave now, it whispers, and James suspects it reflects its master’s mood.
His teeth clench, and he pushes against the weight of the door. It yields, suddenly, leaving him to stumble on the threshold, and James wonders what the hell he’s doing. He hasn’t told a soul that he was coming here, too tired to deal with Red’s concern. Grumpy’s anger. Snow would understand, if she were here.
So simple even David Nolan could do it, and it stings, even now, that Rumplestiltskin thinks James of so little worth. He couldn’t help it, during the curse. David Nolan was only a fragment, cast off from his whole, bewildered, doubting. Now he can make it right. James has enough prince in him to wish to bring the people of Storybrooke together, and enough shepherd to remember that it was only a fool who shunned the powerful.
He steps inside.
The house is dark, but as his eyes adjust, James recognises the flickering red light of fire, and he treads cautiously over the silent floorboards towards it. He enters a handsomely appointed sitting room, unlit except for a fire roaring in the hearth. A log shifts, stirring sparks, and James whirls to find Gold watching him through hooded eyes from a deep armchair in the shadows. The firelight glints amber tones in a bottle of scotch on a small deal table near to his right hand.
Gold looks pointedly at James’ hand, which has automatically reached to clasp the hilt of his absent sword.
“Lose something, dearie?”
His tone is as James remembers, light and mocking, but the flamboyant gestures which used to accompany his words are missing. He looks tired and worn, weary to the bone, and the firelight does no favours for the lines on his face.
He stands, swaying a little on his cane, and James realises that Rumplestiltskin is very drunk. He is not sure if that makes him less dangerous, or more.
“No. I came to talk.”
The sorcerer abruptly turns his back on James, pouring himself another drink. His hand is steady on the glass.
“If this is about Moe French, I have no plans to kill him. Well, so long as he keeps his distance from Belle.”
“I don’t think Belle would agree with that. Do you?” James uses her name deliberately, and is rewarded by Gold’s back tensing, his knuckles white against the crystal glass.
“What do you want?” The other man snarls, turning to face him again. Talking of the girl pains him, it is clear.
“Peace.” James says simply, repeating Gold’s request of a few days before.
“And more than peace,” James adds. “I would have you as an ally.”
Gold’s eyes flash and for a moment he looks again that scaled and beast-eyed creature of the Forest.
“You would have me protect you from Regina, is that it? You would have me protect this town from her wicked spells, monster against monster?”
His smile has no trace of humour, a thing of teeth and bitterness.
“Would you make a deal with the Dark One?”
“No.” James says firmly.
“No deals. Even you must tire of making them.”
Rumplestiltskin laughs silently and drains his glass.
“Yes, dearie. Even the Dealmaker himself tires of it in time.”
He moves to set his glass down, and the house groans, a terrible, keening shudder that shakes the floor under James’ feet. Gold crumples against his armchair, sliding to the carpet. An oath springing to his lips, James reaches his side in a few strides, but Gold holds up his hand to ward off any help he might have offered. He gathers his legs beneath him and rises shakily with the aid of his stick, hissing in pain.
“What was that? Are you all right?” James doesn’t know what to expect; was that some attack by Regina on Rumplestiltskin’s house? He regrets leaving his sword at Snow’s apartment, on the top shelf of her closet to guard against Henry’s insatiable curiosity.
“I’m fine.” Gold says tersely, seating himself again. He is certainly not fooling James, who can see the sweat beading on his brow, the greyness of his skin. James folds his arms and raises his eyebrows. Gold rolls his eyes at the sight of him.
“No need to concern yourself, princeling. It is simply a…reaction.”
The sorcerer stares into the fire and sighs. His reply is almost too soft for James to make out.
“All magic comes with a price.”
For a moment James doesn’t understand, but then he recalls the shriek of the mine cart as Rumplestiltskin reeled it backwards, the handcuff on Belle’s wrist falling away. The wraith that had torn through Storybrooke.
“It hurts you to do magic?”
Gold scoffs and his lips thin in annoyance.
“No, it tires me. Magic is different here, the way to it less simple. No doubt Regina discovered the same thing after that little fireworks display at the town hall.”
“So you used magic to save Belle knowing this would happen?”
“Of course I did. She is worth any price, anything.”
The passion in his voice takes James aback, but even as Gold speaks he rubs a hand over his eyes and gathers back his usual icy self-control. James sits down in the armchair that is twin to Rumplestiltskin’s own, facing him with the fire smouldering between them. A very faint perfume rises from the chair, as though someone else has sat here, very recently, looking at the sorcerer just as James does now.
“Tell me about her.” He asks quietly, trusting this strange moment, the shadows and the dancing flames, Rumplestiltskin’s weariness, his own exhaustion. Here, Snow does not seem so very far away.
Rumplestiltskin looks at James in surprise a moment, and then away.
And then he begins.