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Second Chances

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It was a cold and crisp autumn evening. The kind that promised a harsh winter was well on its way. A lone traveler walked along the mountain trail leading to a quite foreboding castle. The traveler wore a rich red cloak, his face buried deep inside the cowl. He paused for a moment once the castle came into full view, a dangerous smile that none could see dancing across his lips. This will do he thought to himself. The castle in question was made of dark stone and sprawled across the encompassing land. It’s many spires and towers spoke of extravagance and riches, but the traveler was most interested in its location. Buried high in the forbidden mountains, natural barriers isolated the fortress. The traveler knew that if he had waited any longer, the mountain pass he was currently treading would have been covered in snow and the castle would be nigh impossible to reach without magic. Yes, this castle would do nicely as his new home.

Rumpelstiltskin continued his tread towards the appropriately named Dark Castle. He could easily have teleported himself to the doorstep, but considering the castle was currently owned by a dark sorcerer that might be a tad rude. Not that he cared of course, but it might turn the deal he was hoping to propose sour a tad too quickly. So instead he found himself walking the long pass from the village below to what would soon be his castle. The walk gave him time to clear his mind as well and he knew that he would need to be at his best for this little interaction.

As the Dark One, he now had unlimited power; however, that unlimited power had not come with instructions as to how to wield it. Five years after taking on the power he had more control and a better understanding, but the voice of his curse was still strong inside his mind. He managed to push it down most of the time, but every now and then the curse, along with his temper, managed to get the better of him. The little debacle with the Seer and with Milah had taught him what could happen when he let his emotions rule him. Still those incidents were years in the past. Today he knew he could keep both in check long enough to make a deal and secure himself a castle fit for the Dark One. Especially now that he'd taken time to mentally stuff said temper and voices down as far as he could.

Yet the need for a new home brought up unpleasant memories. The most unpleasant being the reason Rumpelstiltskin needed a new abode. He had stayed in the Frontlands for two years after losing Bae. Had stayed in the cottage he had improved for his son, allowing the darkness to feed on him and drive him slightly mad. Hoping against all hope that Bae would soon return, and he knew if that happened, Bae would go home first. But two years in the cottage that reminded him of all his failures had been too much. He paid his neighbors well, instilled enough fear in them, and promised to continue paying them if they would watch the property and let him know if the boy ever returned. After that he continued his search for a way to his son.

The Dark One had spent the last three years jumping from realm to realm making deals and enemies as well as finding informants and learning about his new powers. After three years of work – and an unfortunate encounter with the Seer – the imp knew he must remain in the Enchanted Forrest and begin work on the curse he needed. The curse which would take him to Baelfire. So here he was walking up the front path to an isolated and lonely castle befitting of an old monster who needed quiet and no prying eyes. Rumpelstiltskin knew that a castle such as this would be the only way to keep people from intervening in his work and to keep him focused on the task he needed to fulfill. He’d promised to never again care for or love another person and he damned well meant to keep that promise until he got his son back.

His musings carried him to the large front doors of the Dark Castle. Before he could raise a finger to knock, the doors opened into a large hall. The large foyer was impressive, and Rumpelstiltskin could tell that with a little work it could be something spectacular. However, under current ownership the hall was dimly lit and as unattractive a place as any he’d seen. The Dark One walked forward and pulled back his hood. A quiet sound came from two equally large doors down the hall on his right. Since there was no one to accept him at the door, he assumed that that was the direction in which to head.

These doors also opened for him and led Rumpelstiltskin into what was obviously meant to be a grand dining room. However, this room was equally as dirty and unattractive as the one he'd just left. It seemed as if the current owner had little consideration for cleanliness or perhaps he just simply did not care for the state of the magnificent home. Those two conjectures told the former spinner much about the sorcerer he was about to meet. Someone giving such little notice and care to this striking of a castle either came from a splendid lifestyle and no longer cared or was simply squatting here before moving on. Either way, the imp knew that this deal should be an easy one.

“I’m not usually one for visitors,” a gravelly voice called from the center of the room. Rumpelstiltskin located the voice and beheld an aged man with long greying hair and tanned skin tinkering with some potion or another. His thin and lanky form didn’t look imposing, but then looks were often deceiving.

“I figured you could make an exception for me,” Rumpelstiltskin replied in a high voice. “I’ve come to strike a deal.”

The elder man looked up from his concoction as the stranger moved into the room. “A deal?” he contemplated. “What sort of deal could the Dark One offer me?” A knowing smirk crossed the old man’s face as he saw his guest for the first time.

“Well it seems as if I’m at a disadvantage,” the imp answered without missing a beat. “You have obviously heard of me, not surprised, and yet I’ve no idea who you are.” The insulting lie was simple, but effective. He’d researched the man as well as any could: listening in to conversations at the local village, threatening and bribing those who’d met the sorcerer, and generally wedeling information from anyone he could without his inquires gaining too much attention.

The aged sorcerer noticed the mild insult at once and straightened himself, the potion on the table forgotten. “You’ve been away for too long Dark One. Or perhaps you’re just too young yet to know who you should and should not fear. My name is Silas and you are currently trespassing in my home.”

“Now now dearie, it’s hardly trespassing if the doors let me in,” Rumpelstiltskin quipped ignoring the other man’s posturing and noting the annoyed twitch in Silas’s jaw. “However, it is interesting that you mention your home in fact, because that is why I’m here.” The imp ran a clawed finger along one of the many rickety tables along the wall, creating a long trail in the thick layer of dust. Giving the owner of the treasure trove of dusty objects a dissatisfied look he shook to the dirt from his fingers.

Silas watched the Dark One with calculating eyes for a long moment, “What is it that you want?” he asked slowly.

“Straight to the point, I like it!” the imp extolled with a high-pitched chuckle. “I find that I’m in need of accommodations,” he twirled his hands for emphasis as he spoke, “and this castle is exactly what I’m looking for. If you are willing to part with it, I’m willing to provide you with something valuable in exchange.”

A sneer crossed the aged man’s face, “And what could a lowly spinner hope to exchange for my home?”

Rage flared inside of the imp for a moment and a dangerous gleam entered his eye, his face however remained blank. “So, you’ve heard of me, how intriguing.”

“I make it my business to know about those who hold power as well as knowing about those who merely think they hold power,” the sorcerer acknowledged evenly.

“Well then, if you know my reputation you know that I am more than capable of providing you with an equal payment,” Rumpelstiltskin retorted ignoring his curse’s assertions that he should just kill the sorcerer and be done.

The two men stared at one another for several long moments, each sizing the other up while assessing the situation. Finally, quiet footsteps entering from a door which could only be a servant’s entrance broke the spell between the two. A young boy in tattered clothing entered the room. “Cheshire,” Silas’s voice rang out making the young boy flinch, “make yourself useful and bring some tea for me and my guest.” The child nodded slightly and darted back through the door. “Why don’t we sit and discuss this deal of yours then,” Silas continued directing the Dark one to a table and two mismatched armchairs settled next to the fireplace. Rumpelstiltskin nodded and followed the man to the other side of the room; his thoughts however were no longer on the deal he’d come to discuss. Instead the spinner’s thoughts drifted back to the young boy.

“Who’s the boy?” Rumpelstiltskin asked partially out of curiosity and partially to divert the other man’s attention for a moment.

“He was sold to me as an apprentice, but he’s bloody useless. I’ve kept him around for cleaning and cooking and the likes,” Silas commented offhandedly as the two settled back into the two chairs closest to the fire.

“Seems as if he’s useless in that sense as well,” the imp observed indicating the exceedingly impressive collection of dust around the room. The quip did much to mask the growing anger of Rumpelstiltskin.

The other man nodded before continuing the previous conversation, “So, you want my castle. I can’t say that I’m particularly surprised, it is rather impressive. But I am curious, why not build your own elsewhere? Why not create something specifically yours?”

“All magic comes with a price dearie. I’m not quite prepared to pay such a large price for comfort. I am however willing to pay you for this already completed estate.”

Silas contemplated that statement and shot Rumpelstiltskin a calculating look, “It would seem that you’re rather more knowledgeable about magic than many of your predecessors Dark One. But if you aren’t willing to pay the price of the magic to build such a place, how are you prepared to pay the price to acquire the amount of gold I would require?” So, the man knew of other Dark Ones. Much to the imp’s irritation, Silas had once again impressed him.

“I spin straw into gold,” the imp countered nonchalantly “price on that front shouldn’t be a problem.”

That at least seemed to catch the sorcerer off guard, “You spin straw into gold? How interesting.” He gave the Dark One an appraising look over his templed fingers, “how much would you be willing to pay me Dark One?”

The imp let out yet another high-pitched chuckle, “That’s not how I operate dearie. How much do you want for the whole castle and its surrounding lands?” Rumpelstiltskin made certain to specify exactly what it was that he was after and saw brief irritation flash through the other sorcerer’s eyes.

Silas scowled in return, but before he could respond the boy walked back into the room carrying a tray with two cups and tea pot on it. “It’s about time,” the old man snapped at the child. “How incompetent are you, that it takes you this long to boil water?”

The boy flinched at the harsh words, but his only reply was to keep his eyes down as he drew closer. As the boy stepped into the firelight, Rumpelstiltskin got a better look at him. He looked to be about the age Bae was when his father took on the curse of the Dark One. The boy’s hair was a dark and matted mess and he looked as if he hadn’t had a decent washing in years. His skin was taught across his face and Rumpelstiltskin guessed that the boy’s ribs would be easily visible under the tattered tunic that hung loosely around the child. When the boy handed him a cup he could see slight bruising on the child’s wrists and arms. Rage once again poured through Rumpelstiltskin and it took every ounce of his self-control not to murder Silas on the spot. He nodded his thanks to the young boy as he took the cup.

As the boy, handed Silas a cup the man roughly grabbed the boy’s wrist, “remind me to have a discussion with you later about letting people in the front doors,” the man growled in a low voice. The boy began to shake slightly as he nodded his head never taking his eyes off the floor. “You’re dismissed,” he ordered roughly as released the child’s wrist. The boy darted back to the servant’s entrance. “It’s so hard to find good help,” Silas continued oblivious to the vicious gleam in the imp’s eye. “Back to business then. What if I choose to ignore your proposition and simply send you packing.”

A slightly victorious chuckle escaped the imp, “Now you see that is where you’re mistaken. I’m not making a proposition. I’m taking this castle tonight. The deal is that I will pay you well for it and I will allow you to retain the possession of your miserable little life.” The last came out in a low growl that held none of the imp and only barely concealed the rage that was building inside the Dark One’s heart.
The temperature in the room dropped several degrees as all hope of a calm agreement fled. Rumpelstiltskin knew it was unwise to threaten the man, knew that it would end messier than he anticipated, but the Dark One couldn’t find it in himself to care. He felt magic begin to build around Silas, even as the man continued sitting calmly. “You must think much of yourself if you believe that something like you could ever hope to threaten me in such a way. Such arrogance is normal in Dark Ones.”

“I think of it more as confidence dearie,” the imp chided. Rumpelstiltskin knew that the man sitting across from him had more knowledge in dark magic than he did, but he had not spent the past five years idle. What magic he didn’t know his curse could guide him in, especially now that Rumpelstiltskin agreed with it about the death of the old sorcerer.

Silas’s attack came with little warning as the spry old man leapt up from his chair. The Dark One was able to easily counter the attack with a flick of his finger. In return he sent an equally powerful attack at the offending sorcerer. Silas quickly shielded himself in surprise. The imp had yet to leave his seat and retained an air of boredom about him. Rumpelstiltskin felt the following attack building before Silas ever moved and was able to easily dismantle the spell sent his way. At the same time, he constructed another nasty wave of darkness and sent it towards the elder man. The spell connected and sent Silas flying into the opposite wall. A satisfying crunch told the imp that the hit was sufficiently hard. He stood as Silas woozily regained his footing. In a flash he teleported directly in front of the lesser sorcerer and grabbed Silas by the throat. While Rumpelstiltskin had a slight build, his curse lent him unparalleled physical strength. He lifted the man and pushed him back into the wall. Power radiated off the imp as the Dark One and its host battled for control once more.

“I really hoped that we could just make a deal,” the imp snarled. Silas’s eyes went wide with terror in the moment before the Dark One shoved his empty hand into the man’s chest. He crushed the old man’s heart before he had it fully out of the body. The once great sorcerer crumpled to the floor as Rumpelstiltskin struggled to push the voice of his curse aside. Defeating the older sorcerer had been far easier than he could ever have imagined, but then his anger had gotten the best of him after seeing the young boy.

On that thought the imp turned and looked back to the servant’s door. He sent a spell to sweep the castle, searching for the child. Allowing his magic to lead the way, Rumpelstiltskin made his way through the door and down several long hallways. At the end of one hallway he found a staircase which seemed to lead to the bowels of the castle. He descended the staircase and after several turns found himself in a dark and dank corridor. Found the dungeons easily enough, he thought to himself as he created a ball of light in his right hand. He followed the passage until he came across a partially opened solid oak door. Now that the imp found himself at the door, he didn’t know what to do. The child would obviously be frightened by him, especially once he discovered what the Dark One had done to the boy’s master. But then again, he might be thankful for his freedom. Rumpelstiltskin took a deep steadying breath, banishing the imp as well as the many voices of his curse from his mind. He needed complete control of himself in this moment. However, pushing out the voices proved more difficult than usual after having allowing them such freedom moments ago. Stealing himself Rumpelstiltskin knocked lightly on the door before pushing it open.

The cell was small and held no insulation against the frigid cold of the lower castle. Straw littered the floor and rodent eyes flashed at him from the far corner. The boy sat huddled close to the door. He had a piece of fabric that might have at one time been a blanket draped around him. The child looked up in surprise at the visitor, light grey eyes reflected the light before being cast quickly back to the ground. "Hello,” the man offered quietly. When the boy didn’t reply Rumpelstiltskin took a small step forward. The boy flinched slightly making the imp curse himself.

Crouching down he tried again, “My name is Rumpelstiltskin and I’ve come to help you.” Despite the boy’s refusal to look up at him, the former spinner could see confusion dance across the child’s features. “I know this may be confusing, but this is my castle now. Silas is gone, and he’s left you here with me.” At the mention of his former master’s departure something akin to joy lit the boys features before slipping back into a blank stare. The imp let out a long breath as he realized that this would not be an easy venture. “How about let’s start by getting you out of here and finding something warm to eat?”

Much to the imp’s surprise that suggestion brought the boy to his feet. Rumpelstiltskin stood as well, moving slowly and not getting too close to the child. Any sudden movements or unwanted touches were sure to scare the already petrified child. Yet the boy didn't move to follow the imp from the room. The child was wary and Rumpelstiltskin couldn't blame him for that. In an attempt to find some common ground between them, he put on the least terrifying voice he could muster, “Before we leave, why don’t you tell me your name.” When the boy merely continued standing in place, he tried again, “Just so that I have something to call you.”

“Cheshire,” came the hoarse reply, “My name is Cheshire.”

Chapter Text

The Dark One managed to coax the boy out of the dungeons and into leading the way to the kitchen. Rumpelstiltskin used magic to light the torches along their path as they walked in silence. He gathered his thoughts about this newest discovery. It would take a fair amount of work to get the boy to trust him – to get rid of the boy, his curse howled. He'll only betray you in the end, the voices continued, kill him now and be done. With a great amount of effort Rumple pushed away the imp's voice. He may never earn the kid's trust, he wasn’t even sure why a part of him wanted that trust, but he wasn't killing this boy. He may be a monster but even with his curse demanding more violence, Rumpelstiltskin drew the line at harming children. The perplexing question now was what to do with Cheshire – the boy, he though correcting himself. In the end the old spinner decided that the least he could do was get the child cleaned up and provide him with warmer clothes before allowing him to leave the castle.

Cheshire suddenly stopped beside a worn door. Taking this as a sign that he should go first, the Dark One pushed it open and stepped through. The kitchen was larger than any he'd seen before. Cabinets lined the walls and two huge sinks adorned the far side. A large stove top and oven sat in the center of the spacious room. Locating an immaculate fireplace at the back of the room, the imp threw a fireball into the hearth. Warmth suddenly accosted the two silent companions, driving out the cold. Light filled the room and Rumpelstiltskin realized that the kitchen, like everything else in the castle, was filthy and seemed to be hardly used. Oh, it had far less dust and grime than any other room he'd seen so far, but it would assuredly need some work. He shook his head just thinking about how much cleaning he would have to do to get the place in order. He could use magic in many areas, the cost for dusting wouldn't be high but he didn't want to build up too high a price just yet, especially not for something as insignificant as cleaning. The curse inside of him gained just a little more leverage any time he didn’t carefully balance out the cost of his magic. While he’d almost perfected his methods of dealing with that, it wasn’t something he was prepared to deal with for the price of such a whim. Once the place was clean he could use magic to keep it that way and dole out that cost with ease, but until then manual labor would do.

The boy followed him into the room, immediately moving to the pantry and began removing pans. "Sit down boy," Cheshire -no the boy, don't get attached- flinched at the older man's sudden assertion and Rumpelstiltskin cursed himself quietly. "Let me take care of this," he said in a softer tone as the boy moved to the rickety table by the stove.

He grabbed a pan from the boy's hand and moved to look in the pantry. To his relief it was well stocked. He saw a few eggs and a loaf of bread and inspiration struck. "It's been a few years, but I think I remember how to cook an egg," the imp smirked giving the boy a wink. To his delight something close to a smile pulled at the boy's lips.

He set to work lighting a fire under the stove with magic. Silence reigned once again broken only by the sizzle of the pan. He looked up from his work to observe the child in the now well-lit room. The boy’s dark hair was a mess and his light grey eyes had a haunted look about them. The father in Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t stand the frightened manner in which the child sat perched on the edge of his seat. As if he was unsure of what would happen to him next. "When I was young eggs in a basket was always my favorite. Have you ever had that?" Rumpelstiltskin inquired in the most human voice he could muster.

Cheshire shook his head at the imp. "Well you're in for a treat, then," Rumpelstiltskin replied with a chuckle. "My boy's always been fond of it as well." Had he really just mentioned Baelfire to this child? The Dark One shook his head in exasperation then focused on the task at hand. Both Rumpelstiltskin and his curse agreed that he could not get attached to Ches- the boy.

The imp shook his head, he’d come to this castle to liberate it from its owner not to take on a charity case. As he sat a plate in front of the boy, the child eyed it hungrily but made no move to eat. Instead he shot a glance at the now thoroughly confused Dark One. Rumpelstiltskin had never met a hungry boy who didn’t immediately tuck into food when placed in front of him. "Eat up then," the Imp insisted. The boy needed no further persuading, quickly wolfing down his helping. Rumpelstiltskin found himself staring at Cheshire, pity stirring in his heart once more. When the boy's plate was clean, the imp pushed over his own. He received a distrustful glance from the child. "It's alright, I can always make more," Rumpelstiltskin encouraged and the boy seemed to take him at his word.

Several plates later Cheshire had apparently had his fill much to the imp’s amusement. “Always nice to see a young man with a healthy appetite,” he chuckled lightly before donning a more serious tone. “How long have you been here boy?” The boy simply shrugged in reply refusing to look at the Dark One. “You don’t know then?” That got him a short nod. Had the boy not spoken his name earlier Rumpelstiltskin might have believed the child was mute. This was going to be more challenging than he originally believed.

“If it helps,” the older man attempted, “the Ogre wars in the Frontlands and surrounding areas ended five years ago. The northern territories became a single kingdom seven years ago. About three years ago the King of the Marshlands was overthrown by his nephew. Does any of this help?”

Cheshire grimaced and finally looked up at the imp as he replied, “I’m fifteen.”
Rumpelstiltskin cheered internally at this small progression. “How old were you when you became an apprentice here?” he encouraged.

Cheshire thought for a moment before answering, “Ten. I was ten.”

The Dark One examined the young man in front of him thoughtfully. The boy refused to make eye contact of any sort and rarely looked up past the imp’s mouth. The child’s years in the castle had obviously not been happy and rage for the now dead sorcerer built inside the Dark One once more. With some effort Rumpelstiltskin pushed that anger down. “So, you know the castle fairly well then?” the boy only nodded to the question this time. It seemed that the discovery of how long he’d been in the castle was overwhelming the boy. Rumpelstiltskin made a quick decision about how to handle the situation before continuing, “Look Cheshire was it?” The boy nodded once again in reply, “Quite the mouthful isn’t it,” the imp quipped.

Surprisingly the boy snorted, “No more so than Rumpelstiltskin.”

Terror crossed Cheshire’s face as he realized the impertinence behind his comment, but the imp in question let out a small laugh, “Fair enough.” Rumpelstiltskin noted that some tension left his companions shoulders when he didn’t rebuke the snarky response. “To the point though,” the older man continued, “I’m not going to hold you to Silas’s apprenticeship. You’re free to go home to your parents. I’ll arrange for your travel and every-“

“They’re dead,” Cheshire mumbled cutting him off.

“What?”

“My parents are dead,” the child repeated.

Rumpelstiltskin didn’t know how to reply to the newest development. The father in him wanted to pull the boy into his arms and comfort him, but the Dark One saw the child as a danger and wanted him dead. Unfortunately, it was taking the majority of Rumpelstiltskin’s will power to keep the Dark One caged, so he settled for turning a softer gaze on the boy. “How can you be sure?” the older man asked lost for words. Cheshire merely shook his head and sat quietly. Apparently, those were memories the child didn’t wish to share. The boy looked so very lost and scared leading Rumpelstiltskin to decide that such questions could wait for the next evening. With a flick of his wrist he cleared the table, cleaning the dishes and returning everything to its proper place.

“We’ll talk more in the morning, it’s getting a bit late,” he advised standing from his chair indicating that Cheshire should do the same. “Can you show me where the rooms are?” the boy led the way out of the kitchen which the imp took to mean yes. He could easily locate the rooms himself, but some remaining parental instinct told him to give the boy a job, something practical for the child to do. Such a task would allow Cheshire to occupy his mind with something other than thoughts about his apparently dead parents.

“Surely, we can find ourselves a couple of livable rooms,” the spinner commented as they walked up the stairs leading from the entrance hall. Cheshire stopped walking and turned a questioning gaze back at Rumpelstiltskin. “You can have any room you like Cheshire. I won’t have you spending the evening in that dingy cell you called a room.”

A slight spring appeared in the child’s step as he continued leading his companion towards a large staircase in the entrance hall. “Silas slept in the East Wing,” Cheshire divulged quietly as they reached the landing.

“West Wing it is,” the imp replied.

Cheshire led Rumpelstiltskin up the stairs and down several long corridors until they reached a large door. The boy led the imp into a lavish and luxurious room covered in dust. A huge canopy bed sat in the center and an equally luxurious fireplace adorned the far eastern wall. “Now this will do,” the imp chuckled. “Where will you stay?”

The boy answered by stepping back out the door and pointing to a room across the hall. Rumpelstiltskin nodded and walked across the corridor. He found a slightly smaller room that was no less sumptuous. Calculating the slight cost, he waved his hand and the copious amounts of dirt and grime disappeared as a fire leapt to life in the fireplace. “Sleep well,” the Dark One said dismissing the boy.

Rumpelstiltskin did the same for his new room and began pacing once he was alone. As the Dark One he didn’t require sleep which was beneficial for this evening. Thoughts swirled around him as he stalked from one end of the room to the other. This boy could become a large problem for him a voice which he believed was Nimue insisted. He was a liability, just another person who would eventually betray and leave the weak spinner. Rumpelstiltskin had trouble quieting that line of thinking.
Of course the boy would leave, Rumpelstiltskin insisted to himself. Cheshire had been neglected and abused by his previous master only to be rescued by a monster. Once the child realized that the Dark One was even worse than Silas, he would run as fast as his legs could carry him. No, growing attached wasn’t an option and yet Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t help himself. No matter how hard he tried to see the boy’s future it alluded the still learning Seer and that in itself was disturbing. It meant that he was walking into this blind and the Dark One hated not knowing ahead of time. However, knowing that it was a mistake to allow the boy to stay and abiding by that knowledge were two very different things. After seeing the boy and realizing all that he’d been through, the old spinner wanted to make sure Cheshire was okay. If that meant allowing the young man to stay for a few days until Rumpelstiltskin could find him a place to go, then he could provide that. After a few hours of pushing aside his curse’s assertions to kill the boy and working through his own uncertainty, the fire had died low and the imp decided that perhaps he could use a few moments of rest.

As he laid across the thick blankets of his bed he heard the door to his room open ever so slightly. Tensing up, he lay as still as possible waiting to see what the intruder would do. To his surprise the intruder in question had a familiar quaking gait and recognizable messy hair. Cheshire snuck into the room and made his way to the plush armchair that sat in front of the fire place on the opposite side of the room. Rumpelstiltskin watched as the boy wrapped a blanket he’d brought in around his shoulders and settled into the chair. In that moment that Rumpelstiltskin decided the boy would stay. At least until he could find a safe place for the child.

For the first time in five years, the Dark One curse was completely silent, and Rumpelstiltskin felt something close to contentment.

Chapter Text

Rumpelstiltskin awoke the next morning to an empty room. After checking the boy’s room and using magic to check the castle he concluded that Cheshire was gone. Of course, he left a voice that sounded like Zoso whispered in his ear, why would he stay with yet another monster. As much as Rumpelstiltskin wanted to dismiss the voice, this time he simply couldn't. He'd known the boy would leave, he'd prepared himself for it. But that couldn't help the surprising disappointment that gripped tightly at his heart.

Followed the corridors and stairs back down to the Great Hall, the imp turned his mind to the many things he would need to do in order to make the castle livable (and extravagant of course). Yet despite his best attempts, Rumpelstiltskin found himself unable to banish thoughts of the boy. As he walked through the double doors leading to the dining hall he glimpsed a sight that momentarily stole his breath away. The boy who’d occupied his mind since waking was crouched next to the crumpled body of his former master. The sight was rather troubling in many ways, but the imp couldn't help the way his stomach flipped in joy at the rather macabre sight. The troubling thought about how his magic had missed the boy settled in the back of his mind, but the spinner wasn’t focused on that at the moment. The child had stayed.

Yes, Rumpelstiltskin would now have to deal with whatever level of trauma the boy experienced from seeing his cruel master's body at his feet. Not my best moment, the imp thought as he finally considered what the boy must be thinking. But the boy remained. For whatever reason, this child meant something to Rumpelstiltskin. Maybe it was simply pity at the boy’s plight or perhaps it was the child’s uncanny resemblance to Baelfire. For whatever reason the imp felt lighter knowing that Cheshire remained for a little longer. Maybe helping this child could help Rumpelstiltskin further his quest to find his own child.

Thoughts of Baelfire reminded the spinner that he was now dealing with a child. Furthermore, he was dealing with a child who now faced the knowledge that his master was dead. In an instant Rumpelstiltskin’s joy dissipated. Now that he had seen the handiwork of the Dark One, Cheshire would flee. The boy would want to leave now and if he was honest with himself, Rumpelstiltskin couldn't blame him.

"Sorry I meant to clean that up last night," the older man intoned quietly so as not to further startle the child. He hated to break the silence but prepared himself for the inevitable fear of the child. He wasn’t exactly attached to the boy, but Rumpelstiltskin knew that earning the boy’s fear would hurt the part of him that was still a father.

The boy turned slowly to face the intruder and for a brief moment Rumpelstiltskin saw something very dark glint in the boy's eyes. A shiver ran down the Dark One's spine as he considered that look, but before he could tell any intent the boy's face changed. Cheshire cast his eyes to floor and resumed his fraught air. Yet the boy didn’t run in fear from the imp. The child was understandably distressed, yet – from what Rumpelstiltskin could tell – that distress was not aimed at the new master of the castle.

With a flick of his wrist the imp made the body and all evidence of the previous night's struggle vanish. "How about some breakfast?" Rumpelstiltskin asked, hoping to stave off the inevitable for just a few minutes more. Your weak his curse whispered, the boy will betray or abandon you eventually. Just kill him now and be done with it. The former spinner shook away those dark thoughts and with a snap of his fingers a plate of biscuits and jam appeared on the table. He indicated for Cheshire to join him for the meal. Hesitantly the boy walked to the table and began piling a plate with food.

The two sat in silence while each ate his fill. Anytime the plate appeared to be running low more biscuits appeared, much to the boy’s delight. While the boy ate Rumpelstiltskin once more contemplated the young man in front of him. During the night he’d decided to help the child whose services he’d unintentionally inherited with the castle. Regardless of what the voices of his curse insisted the imp couldn’t simply kill the boy or turn him out into the world without any aid. Generally speaking, Rumpelstiltskin often lost these battles with his curse. But this time the spinner reigned control from the darkness. He would help this boy find whatever family was left to him.

Clearing his voice, the imp addressed Cheshire, "I spent the evening considering our predicament.” The child’s head snapped up and his eyes traveled to Rumpelstiltskin’s general direction. “I've decided to help you find whatever family you have left. I'll make sure they have whatever they need to care for you of course, and I don't mind you staying here until we find them. But hopefully by the end of the week we'll have a new home for you."

The boy sat back in his seat, food forgotten, and silence reigned for a long moment. Finally, the boy broke his silence, "What if I want to stay here?"

Shock coursed through the Dark One causing him to sit in silence once more unsure of how to respond. The boy couldn’t really want to stay. "I don't think that's a good idea," Rumpelstiltskin confessed.

"Why not?" When the older man didn't divulge further the boy continued, "I don't have any family left. They'll have nothing to do with me."

"Then we'll find you a caretaker or an apprenticeship," the Dark One answered easily, leaning back and observing the boy over steepled fingers. The child could not stay here. He would only bring danger and inconvenience to the new master of the castle. Rumpelstiltskin didn’t need his curse whispering in his ear to know that. Nevertheless, the part of the former spinner that had been lonely for the past five years yearned for even the hope of company.

"I've already had an apprenticeship and I'm past the age most will take on," Cheshire reasoned quickly. For the first time the boy looked up to the area around Rumpelstiltskin’s face. He still refused eye contact, instead looking slightly to left of the Dark One, but the imp noted the effort of such an action. "Why can’t I stay?"

"Ches-" he attempted weakly realizing that previous statement was the most he’d ever heard the boy utter.

"I can help you,” the boy professed daring to cut of the Dark One, “I'll show you the ins and outs of the castle - it's tricky sometimes- and I can help you get it cleaned up."

"I've seen your cleaning skills and they leave much to be desired," the older man quipped even as he felt his resolve slipping.

"I rarely cleaned for Silas. I mostly was just his errand boy and cook,” Cheshire admitted looking down at his hands once more.

"You can't stay here," Rumpelstiltskin replied with finality. He tore himself from his observation of the boy by shaking his head and standing. With the decision made the imp moved to leave the room, before he could take more than a few steps the boy tried again.

"Please,” Cheshire pleaded softly, “I'll be helpful I swear. I can be your apprentice."

"I'm not looking for an apprentice or help. Besides I'm far too busy for anything of the sort," Rumpelstiltskin was close to caving and the boy must have sensed that.

"What entertaining your many guests?" the child quipped boldly.

Damn this kid was quick, the imp thought as an involuntary snort escaped him. Despite himself, Rumpelstiltskin found that he liked the kid’s wit and his moments of bravery. "What makes you think I don't have people coming to be with me?" He asked turning back to face the child and accentuating his question with a flourish of his hands.

"You killed a man to get a castle that can't be reached without magic or a lot of willpower for six months out of the year. I doubt you'll be hosting many balls." The boy was sharp, not even the Dark One could deny that. And it would be helpful to have someone clever around. "I've nowhere else to go," the last was said with such quiet honesty that the imp knew he could no longer deny the child.

"If I were to let you stay there would be contingencies," he intoned seriously.

"I'd expect nothing less. I've heard tell that you like making deals,” Cheshire remained seated but an air of something close to confidence surrounded him now. The kid could tell he was winning the argument. “Will you make one with me? I'll show you around and acquaint you with this place and the fiefdom -it's a small village at the base of the pass - that goes along with it. I'll help you clean and I'll even cook. In return you give me a place to stay and teach me how to control my magic."

"I have business across the realms to attend,” Rumpelstiltskin answered carefully weighing each word as he laid out his contingences to this deal. “This business will take priority over everything. There may be days or even weeks where I'm gone. I won't divulge anything to you and you will keep your nose out of my business. Anything that you see or hear in this castle will not be repeated outside these walls." The boy nodded excitedly in reply. “You cook, clean, and show me around in exchange for magic lessons and a place to stay. You keep your nose clean and your mouth shut, and I won't turn you into something small and slimy. Is that the deal you're proposing?"

"Yes"

"And you're sure it's what you want? I can offer you little more than darkness and even further isolation," the imp warned.

"I'm good with that. It's not like I have anyone to disappoint anymore. Deal?"

"Deal"

Rumpelstiltskin was impressed with the boy. He had greatly misjudged the child. Cheshire had a keen mind and was clever enough to cajole the Dark One into a deal. While the curse that raged inside of him was equally impressed by the boy’s show of intelligence, it raged at Rumpelstiltskin for agreeing to such a deal. It constantly called for him to kill the boy or at least send him far away. However, that was one impulse of the darkness that ruled him that Rumpelstiltskin had no trouble ignoring. He might hurt others without so much as blinking an eye, but he refused to hurt an innocent child. Sure, he was known for stealing first-born babies, but he always had a place for them in mind. Besides any parent who would willingly give up a child did not deserve to keep said child. Actually harming or putting a child in danger was the line he was unwilling to cross. He knew that if he were to cross that line the darkness would win, and he would most certainly lose what remained of his soul to the darkness that had already taken so much.

Rumpelstiltskin also knew that he was now walking a precarious path with this boy. It was inevitable that Cheshire would one day leave, so he must not become attached to the child. But he could teach his new apprentice and maybe gain a few insights to his new home along the way. He would not get attached, he had Bae and that was the only person he had room for in his heart. He would not get attached.

****

The two fell into a rhythm over the next several days. They would wake in the mornings for breakfast together and then tackle some room or area of the castle for cleaning. As they cleaned the imp would answer the many questions the precocious child had about everything from magic to current events to books he’d read. Around midday Rumpelstiltskin would leave the boy to clean and head to the tower he had chosen as his work room. The Dark One would spend the rest of the day in his tower researching a variety of curses searching for the one mentioned by the blue fairy. He knew that there was a way to get to his boy, his Baelfire, and he'd vowed to do all in his power to find the curse that would take him to the Land Without Magic. He refused to allow this newest distraction to keep him from fulfilling his vow. Cheshire would find him in the evenings with dinner and the two ate while the imp instructed the boy in potions and magical items.

Despite his best attempts to distance himself from the boy, Cheshire was becoming adept at sneaking past Rumpelstiltskin's carefully constructed walls. In a few short days, the boy had become a constant presence that the spinner relied on and enjoyed. The Dark One's curse raged at him every time he let the boy get a little closer to the man behind the curse. But Rumpelstiltskin dismissed the voice in his head each time telling himself that he was simply helping an unfortunate child. In quiet moments alone in his tower he admitted that the boy was growing on him quickly. He'd always known he was weak and hated the idea of being completely alone, Cheshire's continued presence was just proof of that. While the boy could never replace Bae, Rumpelstiltskin found comfort in providing and (to a degree) caring for a child once more.

It was on one such morning about a month into his stay at the castle that Cheshire began asking more detailed questions about magic. "Rumpelstiltskin," the boy began as he and the older man swept a huge library. "Why don't you use magic to clean these rooms? Like you did for our bedrooms that first night?"

The imp leaned on the broom for a moment as he considered how best to answer the question. "All magic comes with a price. Regardless of what it's used for, the use of magic exacts a price on the user." Seeing that Cheshire wasn't completely following, Rumpelstiltskin continued. "Think about it like exerting energy. If I had taken the time to clean the bedrooms myself, I would have put a good deal of work and effort into the task. By using magic, I bypassed that work and the exertion on myself. The price for something like that was small in that it left me slightly fatigued. Even though it only took a flick of my wrist," he demonstrated the movement as he spoke, "I still had to pay for the exertion."

He looked over and saw Cheshire nodding slowly. Even after several days the boy still refused to make eye contact or even look him in the face for more than seconds at a time, but he was getting better at looking at his master as the older man spoke. The two had found some level of comfort with each other in these type of question and answer sessions. "Like the food we have every morning?" The boy asked, much to the imp’s delight.

"So, you've noticed," the Dark One replied proudly with a trademark chuckle.

"I… I mean… it's good and all," the boy stammered realizing that there was chance his caretaker might find offense with this line of reasoning, "but it's got a weird flavor to it. Like it's not quite real."

"Exactly right," Rumpelstiltskin applauded. He found himself impressed with Cheshire's observation on the matter. "The food tastes off because it was made by magic. Since we put no work into creating it, it doesn't taste the same as a home cooked meal might."

"Is the price always related that directly to the magic used?"

This time even his curse was impressed by the child's insight. If properly educated, this boy could become a force to be reckoned with, the voices in his head whispered.

"It's not. Though there is usually some correlation between the act and the price. A practitioner of magic may choose a path for the cost. That's why I always trade in deals. If someone wants something that magic can provide, I charge a price for it. That way they are essentially trading for the magic. I can channel the cost into what I deem an appropriate price as long as the value of the price is equal to what the magic demands,” the imp reasoned noting how Cheshire was drinking in every word he said. “It takes some time to learn how to do it, but you can guide or divide out the price of most magic. For example, if a farmer wants fertile soil, I might ask for his prize cow or his first-born child. Something equally precious or of equal value to the magic provided."

He'd snuck in the first-born child bit to get a reaction from Cheshire, but the boy didn't even blink at the mention. Instead he stopped his sweeping completely to continue his line of questioning. "Could you leave a deal open ended? I mean could ask for a favor or just tell them you'd return for the price later?"

The Dark One perked up at that question and the voices of his curse, Nimue especially, began changing its tune about the boy. "Yes," Rumpelstiltskin answered slowly weighing his words carefully. "You could do that, but it's a foolish move by anyone who chooses to make such a deal. Never promise anything to someone. Always make them spell out what they want from you. But if you can get someone to promise you anything, then yes, that can be used to assuage the cost of the magic. As long as the favor you require is of equal weight."

"So, you've done it before then? You’ve asked a person for a favor to be used later when you actually need it?" The boy leaned forward excitedly his eyes fixed on a spot slightly to the right of the Dark One's face.

Rumpelstiltskin felt a drop of unease nestle into his stomach. Cheshire's mind moved to manipulation quickly and that worried the little bit of human left in the demon. While he would have been impressed with an older person jumping on the possibilities of channeling the cost of magic into something devastating, it bothered the demon to see that line of thinking in a child. Rumpelstiltskin shifted his weight to his left leg clenching the broom tightly in both hands. "I have. It benefits me at times to not let someone know the price. But you should always strive to tell someone what the cost will be, at least until you've had enough practice manipulating the price."

"Are there times when the price can't be manipulated?"

"You're full of questions today aren't you boy?" The Dark One challenged wondering if he'd let the boy know too much already. The paranoia inherent in his curse believed that teaching the boy too much about the manipulation of magics price would backfire on him one day, but even the spinner was concerned at these questions.

"Sorry," the boy stammered suddenly nervous again. He cast his eyes down to the floor and began sweeping once more. The Imps eyes however never left the boy.

"The price can almost always be manipulated, but yes there are times when the magic demands something specific. However, we won’t discuss that until you're further along in your lessons." Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t help the disturbed feeling that nagged him as he ended the discussion of prices with the boy. “That’s enough for today Ches. I’ll be in my tower for the rest of the evening. I’ll be going out this evening so find yourself something to eat and don’t wait up.” With that he left the boy standing in the middle of the large room.

He didn’t know how to feel about Cheshire’s new-found skill. The Dark One was excited about the prospects of his new apprentice. If he could train the boy in some basic spells, he might even be able to send the boy out to do his bidding with minor deals. The boy had showed a lot of promise in his studies so far and they had yet to even begin constructing and deconstructing spells. A chuckle escaped the imp as he delighted in his apprentice’s newest skill set. Rumpelstiltskin still felt quite uneasy about how quickly the child jumped to manipulating people. He thought back to the dark look he’d seen in the boy’s eyes when he found the child crouched over Silas’s corpse and the fact that the boy had completely disregarded his mention of stealing first born children. But his concern took the back seat as his curse began driving him think of the many ways in which Cheshire had just become useful.

Chapter Text

Days quickly turned into weeks and likewise weeks into months. Before he knew it, Cheshire had been the Dark One’s apprentice for two months. Each day presented a new challenge of some nature or another, but Ches found that he was thoroughly enjoying himself for the first time in many years. While the Dark One could be down right terrifying at times, the boy found that he was comforted by Rumpelstiltskin’s presence. They’d found an easy companionship in one another and the apprentice was beginning to view his mentor as something closer to a friend than a master.

A few weeks earlier he’d finally cajoled the imp into teaching him the basics of a few spells. Rumpelstiltskin had even gone so far as to promise that before long they would begin actually using magic. Ches found uncharacteristic pride in knowing that he’d been progressing quickly as an apprentice. They’d covered deeper topics each day and had been discussing the finer points of the history of magic prior to today. The boy had even received praise about his keen mind from the imp a few nights back, which of course led to Ches asking to go with his mentor on one of Rumpelstiltskin's “business trips.” After days of badgering, well placed bribes, shameless compliments, and outright begging Ches had finally managed to talk his mentor into letting him tag along.

The fifteen-year-old had been beyond excited when the imp finally consented, but now as they walked along a wood lined road towards the tiny village Ches felt a tinge of nervousness creep into his stomach. He looked sidelong at his mentor noting the confidence in each of the man’s steps and attempted to emulate that. After so many weeks together, Cheshire had discovered just how peculiar his mentor was. He’s nothing like what I expected, Cheshire thought to himself, reflecting to the first time he’d met the sorcerer.

The boy had eavesdropped on many of Silas’s conversations about the newest Dark One and his dangerous dealings within the realms. Yet the boy hadn’t expected to find said creature at his master’s door that evening. Curiosity had gotten the better of Cheshire and he’d let the imp in, despite knowing that such action would undoubtedly incur Silas’s wrath later. They boy had gone into the Dining Hall that evening with the simple intention of getting a better look at the fabled demon and had not been disappointed. Though the imp was slender and of slight stature, power seemed to seep out of his every pore making the Dark One seem larger than life itself. The creature’s skin seemed to glitter as the fire light had danced off his golden scales. His reptilian eyes had been quite the startling feature as well. Nevertheless, Cheshire noted a softness in the creature’s eyes as it looked upon the boy who’d provided entrance to the castle. Still the supposed demon was a frightening sight and Cheshire had been glad to be sent away after delivering tea.

When the imp appeared in his room that evening he hadn’t know what to think. Certainly, Ches felt some amount of fear, but resignation told him that at least this demon couldn’t be crueler than Silas. At worse the imp would kill him and even that thought only brought the battered boy relief. But then the Dark One offered him kindness. He’d provided food and comforting words and better yet freedom. For the first time in many years, Ches had felt safe. The past few weeks had been the best he could remember since leaving his family.

In the weeks since he’d met Rumpelstiltskin the apprentice discovered that his master hid much behind the guise of the monster. Ches believed that it helped the Dark One deal with some of the atrocities he committed, but the boy believed it also stemmed from something deeper he’d yet to uncover. The man hid well behind his high collared vests and extravagant dragon skin coats. Allowing the imp to dominate him in view of the public, but around Cheshire he was softer. There was a man hiding behind the Dark One and yet, for whatever reason, Rumpelstiltskin felt as though the world should look on him with fear and disgust.

Ches thought back to the moment he stood over the lifeless body of his last master. Reminiscing in the blank stare of eyes that could no longer see and finding joy in the knowledge that Silas would never hurt him again. The Dark One no doubt committed terrible deeds, but with Ches he was different. The boy was grateful to Rumpelstiltskin for killing the hated man, more grateful than he would ever let on. He was indebted to the imp and that, in part, had led him to ask for his current apprenticeship.

Now he was even further beholden to his savior. Rumpelstiltskin had provided him with new rich clothing, an immaculate room in the vast castle (even if he did still sneak into his mentor’s room to sleep), and a feeling of security that was still very new to the young man. He owed much to the Dark One and the imp asked for little in return. All he required was a few simple chores as payment. However, Cheshire had begun wondering if perhaps Rumpelstiltskin kept him around simply for the company.

“Don’t look so nervous kid,” Rumpelstiltskin insisted pulling Cheshire from his thoughts as they neared the village. He cast a sidelong glance at his master and noted that the man watching him carefully.

“Sorry,” he replied quickly, his heart hammering in his chest. He hadn’t realized that his nerves were on display and he quickly attempted to remedy that faulty reaction.

“There’s no reason to be worried Ches,” the imp continued giving the boy a rare smile. “It’s a small matter. Just a farmer looking for a way to cure his cursed livestock.” Rumpelstiltskin must have noticed that his words had not comforted the boy because he added quietly, “though I guess the villagers won’t be surprised to see you looking terrified in my presence.”

Cheshire found that he was too nervous to even quip in reply, though he felt like he should. Thankfully, he was saved from the conversation as the two travelers reached the village. It was an unimpressive thing in the boy’s opinion. Full of dilapidated huts and sickly people. The stench of manure and human waste mixed poorly with the sweet odor of freshly baked bread, making Ches gag slightly. It was clear that this area of the Enchanted Forrest had suffered much during the Ogre Wars of five years previously. As the pair moved further into the village the homes began looking like actual houses and the villagers looked to be in slightly better condition. The whole place screamed of poverty, but this area of the village was a slight improvement.

“So, where… where are we going?” Cheshire stammered, finally finding the courage to speak.

“Just there,” Rumpelstiltskin pointed a clawed finger towards a tavern near the center of the village. “Our friend,” he continued with smirk, “claimed that he would wait there all day if I’d come to make a deal. Let’s see if he’s the honest sort.” Cheshire noted the higher than normal octave of his mentor’s voice and the arrogant cadence which now graced his steps. The Dark One was obviously present now, Rumpelstiltskin having retreated fully behind the imp.

Ches noticed that most of the villagers averted their gaze as the pair passed, but he also noted that when they were garnering more than a few odd looks. He supposed they did cut quite the figure. With him dressed richly in a white silk shirt and leather breeches, a heavy black cloak draped across his shoulder, and his mentor decked out in a high collared dragon skin coat that was adorned with an impressive neck piece. Their clothes were well cared for and obviously cost more than most of these villager’s homes. It was a sad thought, but one that filled Ches with a certain amount of pride. He would never know poverty again as the apprentice of the Dark One.

With a slightly more confident step the boy followed his mentor into the building. A distinct hush fell over the tavern as the Dark One and his apprentice stepped inside and made their way over to a table by the front window. Conversation picked back up as the two moved towards their query, but Ches noted the tension and fear which lingered in the air. Another surge of confidence swept through him as he noted the sheer respect and dread that his master’s mere presence commanded.
The farmer in question was a round faced man who looked as though he’d seen better days. The little hair that remained on his head was wispy and grey. His dark watering eyes provided him with the distinct appearance of a rat. The farmer might once have been a large man but now retained the sickly look of one who had lost a lot of weight very quickly. Cheshire noted the look of desperation in his eyes right away. In that moment all his nerves vanished. A simple apprentice he may be, but even Ches knew that he could work over this man. This desperate soul would give anything to them at this point, they simply had to decide what to ask. Such thoughts left the boy with a wonderful and heady feeling of power.

“Thank you for agreeing to meet me Rumpelstiltskin,” the man said standing as the other two joined the table.

How odd that he actually used the name of the Dark One, Ches thought to himself. In his experience most people were too terrified of the Dark One to even utter his title let alone the imp's name.

“It’s no matter,” the Dark One answered having a seat and directing Ches to do the same. “Let’s cut right to business then, shall we?”

“Of course,” the farmer replied as he took out a handkerchief and wiped his sweaty face, before regaining his own seat. “My farm has been cursed. Crops won’t grow, the livestock have withered or died, it’s a complete nightmare.

“Do you know who cursed you?” the imp asked as he leaned languidly back into the chair and observed his prey over steepled fingers.

The man shook his head, “I’ve no idea. It’s not like I have any enemies.”

Rumpelstiltskin mulled over this information for a moment before conceding, “It matters not. I can cure a little plot of land… for a price.”

“Name it. I’ll give you anything,” the man begged.

“Those are dangerous words,” the imp warned in an uncharacteristic show of compassion. “Tell you what,” he continued with a flourish of his hands, “I’ll provide you with a talisman that will make your lands fertile once more and will reinvigorate your livestock. In return you will give me a plot of your land on which to cultivate a certain bean. Do we have a deal?”

“Yes,” the man responded without hesitation.

“Wonderful,” the imp chuckled. He fished around in his jacket pocket for a moment and pulled out a mangy looking rabbit’s foot. “All you must do, is place this above your front door. Give it a couple of days and your farm should be restored.”

The man looked less than impressed as he took the object in question. “You’re giving me a rabbit’s foot to save my livelihood?” he asked incredulously.

“While such things are considered lucky by hedge witches and fools,” the Dark One explained in a voice that was both quiet and dangerous at the same time, “this is not a rabbit’s foot. This is the foot of a jackelope. It brings good fortune to the homes of those who hold such an item and this one in particular has been enchanted for your specific needs. Now do you want it or not?” The imp cocked his head and fixed the man with a steady glare. Ches knew that refusing this deal was not an option for the farmer. One didn’t simply call on the Dark One and then reject the offer, not unless one was unfortunately stupid or had a death wish at least.

Luckily the farmer nodded earnestly completing the exchange. Once the desperate man took hold of his new possession, Rumpelstiltskin motioned for Cheshire to get up and the two left. The whole scene had taken less than five minutes and the boy felt a little underwhelmed. “That’s it?” he complained in what he hoped wasn’t a whine.

To his surprise Rumpelstiltskin chuckled in response, “Not what you were expecting?”

“Not really,” Cheshire began but before he could continue a voice from behind them called out to them causing the two to pause.

“Bae?” the voice called clearer this time. Rumpelstiltskin spun around so fast he nearly knocked Cheshire to the ground. Cheshire turned as well looking up to his mentor as he did. Something close to hope was dancing across the older man’s features as he watched a girl a few years older than Ches run towards them.

She slowed when she got near them and disappointment settled on her face, “I’m sorry,” she said as she observed Ches closely. “I thought you’d found him,” the girl whispered glancing up at Rumpelstiltskin fear etched across her face. The man grimaced at the girl as a painful glint took hold of his eyes.

“No Morraine, I haven’t.” While the Dark One’s voice was lower and more human the usual high-pitched lilt Cheshire was familiar with, it held a coldness he’d never heard before. His mentor turned and stalked away before Cheshire even registered that they were leaving. Before they reached the far outskirts of the town, Rumpelstiltskin turned and grabbed the boy’s shoulder. Cheshire hoped his mentor didn’t notice the way he had tensed at the sudden contact, but he had little time to contemplate that fear. In a swirl of dark red smoke, they were suddenly back in the courtyard of the Dark castle.

The entire event was ridiculously strange. Who had the girl been and why did she act as if she knew Rumpelstiltskin? Determined to get the bottom of this new development Cheshire began his now normal habit of questioning a topic to death.

"Who's Bae?" the boy asked as they made their way through the doors of their home wondering what could cause such a sudden change in his companion.

 

The older man’s jaw muscle twitched, a sign Ches was learning meant that his companion was angry. "That's none of your concern," the Dark One returned his voice still cold and dangerous.

 

"I'm- I'm sorry," Che's stammered realizing too late the nerve he’d touched. Rumpelstiltskin rarely denied an answer to one of Cheshire’s questions and never with such blatant hostility. “I… I was… I was just curious, I didn't mean to pry."

 

"And yet you still are," the imp barked dangerously turning on the boy. Ches couldn't help but flinch as his mentor rounded on him.

For the first time since meeting the Dark One, Ches was truly frightened by the creature in front of him. The Darkness was fully in control and that usually spelled danger for the person who'd drawn the imp’s ire. Luckily, some of the boy’s fear must have shown, because with great effort and a shaky breath Rumpelstiltskin returned to the forefront. "I'm sending you to the village for these supplies," the man dismissed roughly conjuring a list of needed items. "Take the night off and enjoy yourself. You may as well eat while you're there. When you're ready to return call my name and I'll come collect you."

Without any more pretense Dark red smoke surrounded the boy and when he looked up he was in the village at the foot of the mountain. Despite being exhausted from the day's journey, Che's couldn't help but be relieved to be away from the castle at the moment. Rumpelstiltskin was angry, and it didn't bode well to be in the castle while the imp raged. He might as well have a good time while he was here, the boy thought to himself, because he wasn't calling the Dark One anytime soon.

Chapter Text

Rumpelstiltskin was in a world of pain as he collapsed to the floor of his work room. He'd completely destroyed his tower in the blind rage that followed their trip and yet he was still reeling. What had he been thinking taking the boy to a deal in the Frontlands. Memories of that place and another young boy still haunted him daily, taking his apprentice to the area only dredged up his many past mistakes. But he hadn't been able to find a suitable reason to reject the boy’s request. He'd been a fool, that much was certain. It was a wonder that no one else had mistaken the boy for his beloved son. Then again, they probably had. Cheshire might look different from Bae, but the similarities were there. It was an easy mistake to make. Morraine was simply the only one would have the courage or the inclination to say anything. She missed Bae as well.

Had it been anyone else, he would have delighted in killing them at once, but Morraine remined off limits. Had it been five years ago his anger would have consumed him feeding his curse and there would have been nothing left of the little village. Yet he had more control over the Dark One’s whispering in his head now. He’d worked so very hard for any amount of control over the darkness. It had been impossible at first but losing Bae had given him the necessary purchase to gain a foothold against it. Rumpelstiltskin had learned to make agreements with the darkness to keep it satiated and his soul somewhat intact. It was a fine line he walked each day and today had been a narrow escape. He would never have forgiven himself for losing complete control and hurting Morraine or his newest apprentice.

His thoughts turned to the boy now under his tutelage. Understanding dawned on the imp as he thought back to the boy’s reaction. He’d frightened his apprentice terribly in his anger. At the time it hadn’t mattered, but now Rumpelstiltskin berated himself further. Cheshire had been through so much already. The child didn’t need any further trauma or instability. Rumpelstiltskin knew that he could not continue teaching the boy. The darkness that writhed within him caused him to act unpredictably at times. That paired with his desire to reach Baelfire and the need to distance himself from others created too many challenges for him to continue this apprenticship. Besides he’d already proven that he was a failure at raising children.

His curse generally hated the child anyway. It had always hated Baelfire as well, but this new boy was even more dangerous. Rumpelstiltskin held resolute faith that Bae would never purposefully attempt to control or hurt him. The curse might believe otherwise, but he knew. Cheshire on the other hand created a complication. He couldn’t put such blind faith in a child he’d met only a few weeks prior. He was certainly fond of his apprentice, but he found it more difficult to silence the nagging suspicion that Cheshire would one day betray him. While his curse had at first been interested by the potential the child had, it had since seen that it’s host had reservations about turning the boy towards darkness. The boy obviously saw the Dark One as something of a savior, a foolish notion in itself. Yet despite all evidence to the contrary, the child seemed to believe he was safe with Rumpelstiltskin. The former spinner cherished Cheshire’s belief in him. Still, his own paranoia and insecurities mixed with the curse created an increasingly dangerous situation for the child now in his care.

Rumpelstiltskin knew himself to well to believe the boy was safe with him. What if his curse got the better of him one day and Ches paid the price? No, the boy would have to leave. Rumpelstiltskin was too much of a monster to care for a child. Besides he had a goal to accomplish and the boy was simply in the way.

The imp held onto that notion, repeatedly telling himself the boy didn’t matter, knowing that one day he might even come to believe it.

***

Cheshire sat at the furthest table from the door that the tavern could offer. Rumpelstiltskin had provided him with enough gold for the various supplies he’d sent Ches after, plus plenty of extra for the boy to spend as he saw fit. His mentor’s uncanny ability to spin straw into gold did have its uses.

Once again, he’d attracted more than a few curious glances. The people of the small town knew that he’d apprenticed himself to the Dark One. They also knew his previous master and had occasionally seen the boy on the rare occasions that Silas allowed him to visit the area. It seemed that no one knew how to approach the boy without fear, which made sense considering the company he was known to keep. Not that such a thing bothered Ches anymore. He found that he rather enjoyed the distress his presence caused others. Tonight, that anxiety allowed him plenty of time to think over the events of the day.

Things had turned sour between he and his master so quickly it sent his head spinning. He still wasn’t certain why the young woman’s words had triggered such emotions in Rumpelstiltskin. But he knew that his persistence at prying into the incident allowed the Dark One to turn that fury onto him. It had been several hours since Rumpelstiltskin sent him to the town and Ches still couldn’t bring himself to call on his mentor. Surely the imp would no longer wish to keep the boy as his apprentice. He’d be sent to live out his life in a small village like this, wasting his talent as a glorified hedge witch or worse.

As he delved deeper into his own self-pity and insecurities, a brightly dressed woman sat herself at his table. It took the boy several moments to notice her but once he did, he couldn’t look away. The woman had a maternal face that spoke of great power with a side of righteousness. However, that benevolently maternal look was oddly offset by the woman’s revealing and sparkling blue dress. The hair piled messily on top of her head caused Cheshire even more confliction about who this woman was supposed to be.

“May I help you?” Cheshire asked in a voice he hoped wasn’t too rude. It wouldn’t do to start of with abject rudeness, that could always come later.

“Actually, I was hoping that I can help you,” she replied in a sweet voice.

Cheshire pushed his empty plate aside and leaned forward feigning interest, “And what kind of help would you be providing?”

“I can see that there’s a great darkness in your life child,” she acknowledged. “The other fairies and I have taken notice of your predicament and want to help to you.”

Before he could stop himself, Cheshire began laughing. Not his normal laugh, no this was maniacal and high pitched. A little too similar to a certain imp he’d spent the past two months learning from. The woman across from him looked shocked at the boy’s eerie response to her offer. “You see darkness in my life eh,” the boy asserted once he had control of himself again. “That’s the biggest understatement I’ve ever heard lady.”

The fairy gave him what might have been a pitying look if she had been able to hide the small traces of annoyance prevalent in her features. “I’m the blue fairy, you may call me Blue if you wish.”

“What if I wish for you to leave?” he retorted leaning back and adopting the lazy smile he’d seen Rumpelstiltskin wear when the man was toying with visitors to the Dark Castle. It might have even been effective if he’d managed to make any form of eye contact with the woman. Or if he’d even been able to look her fully in the face.

The fairy in question bristled slightly at that comment but took a deep breath and attempted to reign the conversation in. “I wish to help you child. I understand that you have recently become an apprentice with the Dark One.”

It hadn’t been a question, but he suspected she was looking for some form of confirmation. “You understand correctly,” Ches consented.

“We will help you out of whatever deal you or your parents made with him. We can get you to a safe place,” Blue pledged with a tight but comforting smile.

So, the fairies knew that he was apprenticed to Rumpelstiltskin and they weren’t happy about it. Cheshire looked down at his hands while he digested that information. “What about my magic? It’s unpredictable without someone to train me.”

The fairy studied him, obviously taken back at his refusal to immediately take her offer. “We will find someone to help you. But you will be instructed in light magic instead of the dark arts you’re currently being exposed to.” Cheshire refused to say anything else. He hoped to goad the fairy into divulging more information about her presence. She obviously thought of him as some poor unfortunate soul who would jump at her command. It was also apparent that she thought of him as a child and a rather stupid one at that. Did she believe he was with Rumpelstiltskin against his freewill? Her next statement answered that question for him. “If you’re scared about leaving your current master, I can personally help keep you safe. Whatever his deal was we will find a way to negate that. We promise not to let him hurt you.”

The boy decided to play along and see what happened. If nothing else, toying with this fairy was becoming quite entertaining. “If I were to break a deal with the Dark One, how would you keep me safe? I’ve seen what he does to those who don’t hold up their side of an agreement. And, personally, I’d really enjoy not spending the rest of my days as a small and easily crushed creature.” Cheshire knew his tone was snarky, but today had been trying and he was enjoying venting some of that frustration onto someone else.

“We know of ways in which to control the Dark One. If you let me help you, we can protect you child.” The fairies voice was full of compassion and if he’d been any other young man that voice would hold comfort as well. But life had taught him to always question the motives of those that offered help and he could tell that this fairy wanted something in return. However, he did file away her mention of ways to control the Dark One, he would definitely need to return to that piece of information. For now though, he needed to find the price for the Blue’s offered aid.

“What would be the cost of you helping me?” he pondered aloud leaning forward once again attempting to display eagerness. He hoped to keep the woman off balance.

Sharp eyes appraised him in a new light. She hadn’t expected him to be clever or to ask questions about the cost of such aid. Ches swallowed hard realizing that he might have over played his hand by demonstrating his intelligence too much, but it burned him that the fairy had yet to take him as a serious opponent. “You’re a keen one,” she admitted. The woman hesitated for several long moments before slowly divulging the information Ches so desperately wanted. “There is an object we require that’s in the Dark One’s possession. If you can procure it for us, we can save you.”

“You want me to betray my master?” he asked carefully, consciously drawing his face into a blank stare.

“No, we want you to help us so that we can remove that monster’s hold on you,” Blue answered.

The anger that Cheshire had kept at bay began boiling over at that point. This sanctimonious bug had no clue who he was or what Rumpelstiltskin had saved him from. No matter how much she claimed to care about him, the boy understood that she had her own agenda.

“You know,” he began in a dangerously quiet voice like what he’d heard his mentor employ earlier, “I’ve heard of you before. In the kingdom I grew up in fairies were all the rage. If you had a problem all you had to do was wish on a star and one would come to help you.” She had the audacity to smile at his words, that is until Ches delivered his next line. “I used to call on the fairies every night. Hoping that one would come to save me.”

Confusion crossed Blue’s face for the first time that evening. “I’m afraid I don’t understand child.”

Ches was only too happy to aid her. “I spent five years as a prisoner in the Dark Castle under the ‘tutelage’ of a bastard of sorcerer. Five years,” he emphasized the last by slamming his hand on the table. “Where were you during then? Where were you and your precious sisters while I was forced to work from dusk till dawn and then sent to my cell without food? Where were you when I was punished for some insignificant mistake or for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Where were you when I watched my parents die? I called for you and you didn’t show.” The table they sat at began shaking ever so slightly and the boy knew that he was close to losing control. Magic was tied to emotions and currently, his were not under control.

The fairy’s benevolent facade had fallen, pity taking its place. That incensed the boy further and he raged on. “Now that I have someone who’s actually trying to help me, someone who cares about me, now you want to ‘save me.’ I. Don’t. Need. You.” With great effort Cheshire reigned in his anger and the table stopped its trembling much to his relief.
“I’m so sorry my child,” Blue began. “We didn’t know. The Dark Castle has so many wards around it, we could never have gotten to you or heard you. It’s no excuse, but I am sorry.”

Despite himself he believed the woman. But it didn’t change his choice. “I don’t need your pity. I need to get home,” he said standing and dropping coins for his meal on the table.

She stood as well and blocked his path. “I can’t in good conscious let you return to the Dark One. Especially now that I know how much you’ve suffered already.”

Cheshire couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “Lady I’m fine. I’m tired of this conversation, but really I’ll be okay,” He asserted slipping past her and out into the streets of the village. The sun was getting low and he could see the taverns caretaker lighting torches along the outside of the building. To his great annoyance the fairy followed him into the street.

“The Dark One does not care for you child. He doesn’t have that ability,” she attempted.

The irritated and tired young man turned on the annoying woman and snapped, “Rumpelstiltskin cares about me a damn site better than your lot does. I’ve made my choice now leave me alone.” He purposefully emphasized his master’s name. Hoping against hope that the call would work. The fairy was persistent, and he was slowly losing the will power to keep his powers in check.

“Rumpelstiltskin does not care about you child. He can’t. Such feelings go against the very nature of what he is,” the Fairy retorted in an almost smug voice.

“Is that so dearie?” A familiar high-pitched voice called from the alley in between the tavern and the bakery. To Cheshire’s delight and immense relief, the slender figure of his mentor stepped out of the shadows. The older man cast a searching glance at his apprentice. Apparently noting that the boy had not come to any harm, he turned his attention to the fairy.

“Dark One,” the Fairy acknowledged coldly her entire demeanor changing as she turned to face her antagonist.

“Reul Ghorm,” Rumpelstiltskin spat in return, “you’re a bit too close to my new home for my liking.”

“Lucky for me you don’t control who the fairies are allowed to help or where they’re allowed to be,” Blue chided before turning back to Cheshire attempting to ignore the man behind her. “Please remember my offer child.”

“And what offer would that be,” the imp challenged closing the distance between himself and the fairy.

“That really doesn’t concern you, now does it,” she answered refusing to back down.

Cheshire could feel the impressive amount of magic building within the tiny woman’s form, be he could also feel the pure power radiating off Rumpelstiltskin as his mentor’s rage built. Yet despite the man’s harsh tone, the imp’s outward appearance was calm and collected. Threatening for sure, but terrifyingly calm. “If you are offering something to my apprentice, then it most assuredly concerns me,” the Dark One growled.

The fairy turned her attention back to Cheshire in lieu of addressing the Dark One. “Ask him what happened to the last boy left in his care, then call me when you’re ready.”

Anger the likes of which Ches had never glinted in his mentor’s eyes and the boy could tell that the Dark One was seriously considering murder in that moment. “I think it’s time for you to leave before I decide to make you.”

“I’d enjoy seeing you try,” the Blue fairy scoffed. Yet before Rumpelstiltskin could reply, Blue shrunk to her traditional size and flew away.

 

***

 

Rumpelstiltskin seethed as he watched the self-righteous gnat fly away. With a great effort he brought his anger back under control as he turned to his apprentice. He’d already snapped at Ches once today, he wouldn’t do that again. “Let’s walk,” he commanded softly taking the lead out of town. It would be about an hour’s journey or more back to the castle, but he desperately needed that time to clear his head.

“Well she was a bit much,” Ches observed breaking the silence as they cleared the town.

“Now that’s an understatement,” the imp scoffed as he and the boy fell into a comfortable pace.

“Is it wrong that I kept thinking of her as a glorified mosquito?” Ches quipped.

To his great surprise Rumpelstiltskin felt a grin creep across his face and he couldn’t hold back a light laugh. “Just a tad more glitter.”

The boy beside him let out a chuckle as well and the imp felt his heart swell at the easy companionship they’d established. Of course, the boy was still a bit wary of his master at the moment, but Cheshire seemed to be trying to push past that. For a moment Rumpelstiltskin fooled himself into thinking that all might be forgiven. That is until his curse reminded him of the dangers of his companionship with the child. Kill him now, Nimue coerced, no one will see or know. Rumpelstiltskin shook his head to clear away those thoughts. “What did she offer you?” he asked turning to watch the boy’s reaction.

“To help me, the innocent and ignorant child, escape from the clutches of the horrible and dangerous Dark One,” Cheshire replied flippantly. The boy accentuated his comments with a familiar flourish of his hand. An act that firmly proved to the imp that he had far too much influence over his apprentice. Rumpelstiltskin must have paused for too long because the boy continued his assurance, “I advised her of where she could stick her offer and her little wand as well.”

Despite himself Rumpelstiltskin laughed, “You didn’t really?”

“Well maybe not in so many words,” Cheshire consented a mischievous glint apparent in his eyes, “but she got the message all the same.”

His apprentice was something else entirely the imp admitted to himself. Given time and the proper instruction this boy could become something amazing. Then he’ll use that knowledge to betray us, the voices in his head whispered ominously. That thought brought Rumpelstiltskin back to the heart of the matter. Whatever this boy would become, he could no longer remain in under the tutelage of the Dark One. The boy doesn’t matter, he told himself again.

“Maybe you should have accepted the fairy’s proposal,” the older man countered in a voice he hoped was cold rather than dejected. He looked over in time to catch the incredulous glare his companion shot him.

“Why would I do that? We have a deal and I’m not keen on breaking it,” Cheshire rebutted cautiously.

“What if I let you out of that deal, no strings attached,” the Dark One offered.

“I’d still stay,” Cheshire replied earnestly. It was obvious that the boy saw where this conversation was headed.

“Ches- “

“You’re not breaking our deal, are you?” the apprentice cut in. Rumpelstiltskin stopped walking and turned to face the child. The boy was making a valiant attempt at holding eye contact with his master. Something that greatly impressed the imp.

“I don’t break deals,” the Dark One bristled. “You’ve shown me the ins and outs of the castle and I no longer require a cook or aid cleaning the place. It’s best we end our agreement.”

“But I still have so much to learn!” Cheshire retorted defiantly. “You agreed that you would teach me, and I don’t feel as though the terms of our deal have been fully met.”

The boy was trying to appeal to the imp’s logic and while Ches had a decent argument, the Dark One held the better argument at the moment. “I never specified and now I am. It’s time for you to go. I’ll let you gather your things tonight- “

“I’m not leaving,” Ches barked making certain to keep his eyes locked on Rumpelstiltskin’s face.

“Yes. You. Are,” the imp asserted trying his best not to notice the tears forming in the boy’s eyes.

“Why? I know it’s been a weird day, but I told the fairy off. I’ve done everything that you’ve asked of me and I haven’t complained. Why end it now?” The boy cried angrily brushing the tears from his face.

“Because I’ve decided I don’t need you anymore,” Rumpelstiltskin explained. His voice was still cold, but he could feel his resolve crumbling. He had ignored many a desperate soul questioning his motives over his five years as the Dark One. And yet a 15-year-old boy with messy hair and bright eyes was breaking him down. The small part of his soul that remembered being a father longed to wrap the boy in his arms and comfort him. But giving in to those impulses would only put the boy in more danger.

Cheshire leveled him with a broken glare and leaned towards his mentor, “That’s not the reason.”

A bit unnerved at the boy’s intuition, Rumpelstiltskin replied simply, “My reasons are my own.”

“I’ve told you I don’t have anywhere else to go,” Ches tried for logic once more.

“We’ll find your family,”

“I don’t have a family. You’re the closest thing I’ve got to that,” the child answered in a quiet voice which ultimately broke Rumpelstiltskin’s heart and the Dark One’s hold on his resolve.

The imp shook his head and placed his hands on the shoulders of his apprentice as he looked down at the boy. “Ches, you can’t stay with me. It’s not safe,” his noted that his voice sounded more human than it had in years and cursed himself for his own weakness.

“I’ll take my chances,” the boy objected bravely. Cheshire must have seen something in his mentor’s face which showed he was winning. “Why do you think it’s not safe?”

“Because of what I am,” Rumpelstiltskin confessed. “You can’t trust me.”

“Does this have something to do with what happened in the village today?” Ches guessed.

His apprentice never ceased to amaze him, then again it was a fairly obvious connection. Rumpelstiltskin took a deep breath and before he could stop himself the words tumbled from him, “I grew up in that village. It was the only home I knew for most of my life. While there I had a son and a few years ago I failed him. I kept him safe from everything but myself. I drove him away and then I lost him completely. Now I must find him again. Doing that is the most important task of my life and I can’t let anything get in the way of that.”

A long moment passed while Ches digested all that his master said and Rumpelstiltskin berated himself for divulging too much of his past. “What if I help you? You could have just said-” The boy began.

“Because I failed him, and I’ll fail you too. I can’t protect you from what I’ll have to do to get to him.”

“I can protect myself.” Cheshire stressed. Rumpelstiltskin searched the boy’s face as something incredibly dark danced across the child’s features. “Silas gave me years of practice. I don’t want to leave. I belong here.”

“Ches this is a bad idea,” the imp tried once more.

“I trust you. Please don’t send me away. I have nothing else,” tears rolled down Cheshire’s face and Rumpelstiltskin could no longer push the boy away. He nodded simply. Suddenly the boy wrapped his arms around the imp catching Rumpelstiltskin by surprise. He awkwardly patted the boy’s back unsure of how else to react.

Rumpelstiltskin knew that he might one day regret this decision, but for now he couldn’t help the warmth that spread through him as he accepted the boy’s offer. It might end poorly but until then he would enjoy each moment with his apprentice.

Chapter Text

A full moon hung high above the Dark Castle, casting an eerie light across the large estate. Winter finally arrived in full force and the castle was covered in a deep blanket of snow. The added aesthetic only enhanced the overwhelming sense of isolation and foreboding of the Dark One’s home. Rumpelstiltskin collapsed across his bed and stared up at the ornate ceilings of his room. Normally he spent very little time sleeping or in a bed, but recently he found himself spending more nights in the room. That probably had more to do with his new apprentice than his any exhaustion on his part.

While Ches spent a few nights in his own room each week, nightmares sent him into his master’s room more often than not. Even when the room’s inhabitant was not there, Rumpelstiltskin noted to himself. For some incomprehensible reason the boy felt safe around the impish man. A fact the former spinner reveled in and his curse detested.

A week had passed since their discussion about the Blue Fairy’s offer and the two inhabitants of the Dark Castle had easily fallen back into their usual routine. While Rumpelstiltskin knew that one day the boy would discover the monster and leave, he couldn’t deny that he’d immensely enjoyed teaching Cheshire. Before being drafted into the Ogre’s war he’d contemplated brining on an apprentice to help him spin and weave. At the time he and Milah had been doing well enough and an extra hand might have helped. Of course, after the disaster of his conscription, hardly anyone would buy from him let alone apprentice their child to him. But he’d always harbored the notion of teaching someone.

Bae had been a quick learner when it came to spinning but the boy simply didn’t have the temperament for it. He’d rather be out tending to the house or playing with the other children. Sitting still wasn’t in his nature. Yet some of Rumpelstiltskin’s fondest memories were of teaching Baelfire all that he knew. It was nice to be instructing someone bright and precocious once again.

With great effort, he pulled himself from such depressing thoughts as his life prior to being the Dark One. Your life before was pathetic, the curse whispered, why dwell on such things. Despite his dislike of the darker nature of the curse, Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t help but agree on this. His life before the curse hadn’t been anything to be proud of. He’d been a powerless cripple with no friends and no hope at becoming anything more. Being branded the town coward and having your wife leave you didn’t tend to help your prospects of upward mobility. No, the only good thing from his previous life was his son and he’d managed to screw that up too.

The boy would only have brought you down anyway, the curse began, you’re better off without him. He- Rumpelstiltskin cut off those thoughts immediately. Baelfire was the only good thing that had ever happened to him and he could never be better off without him, he reminded himself. He’d bargained with the curse soon after taking it on and loosing Bae. The love for his son kept him from allowing the darkness free reign. In exchange for the piece of his soul that loved his son, he promised the darkness anything to get back to his child. Oh, he had certain lines he’d never cross, but the darkness had quite a bit of sway over his actions. It delighted in blood and revenge and the imp had been to happy to comply in so many instances.

However, now he had a new reason to keep the darkness at bay. Another young man had entered his life and snuck a little bit of light in with him. Rumpelstiltskin was certain that Cheshire would at some point leave, but until then he was rather enjoying the boy. Cheshire picked up on lessons in magic as quickly as Rumpelstiltskin had. The boy took every challenge head on and proved himself to be a quick thinker with a knack for subtly and manipulation. Yet there was still something about the boy that left the imp with a few misgivings. Something dark and –

A loud moan pulled Rumpelstiltskin from his thoughts. The boy was once again tossing around on the cot the imp had conjured so many weeks ago. The nightmares were a regular occurrence. Vestiges of Ches’s time with his previous master.

Rumpelstiltskin had attempted to comfort the boy in a variety of ways. From allowing the child to sleep in his room without griping to sharing his own dealings with nightmares, the imp had tried every non-magical remedy he could think of. Yet the boy continued to battle with his horrors almost every night.

He walked over the Cheshire’s cot and sat gently beside the boy on the bed. The child’s face was taut with distress, his dark hair a sweaty mess framing his face in a macabre grimace. Sighing Rumpelstiltskin placed a cautious hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Ches,” he whispered, “Ches wake up. It’s just a nightmare.”

However, the boy did not wake. His movements only grew wilder at the contact and the moaning grew louder. Before Rumpelstiltskin knew what was happening the boy began screaming. “Cheshire,” he cried in a panicked voice, “Ches wake up!” He grabbed both of the boy’s shoulders and gave him a gentle shake. “Ches.”

The boy became more animated at the continued attempts to wake him. Not knowing what else to do, Rumpelstiltskin moved to the head of the bed and pulled the boy back into his chest as leaned against the bed frame. The teenager struggled wildly, but if the imp allowed him to continue flailing he was going to hurt himself. The Dark One held onto his apprentice, restricting his movements ever so slightly and gently rocking them both. “Shhh,” he whispered in what he hoped was a calming voice, “I’m right here Ches. You’re okay. You’re okay.” After a minute or so the boy began to slowly calm down. “That’s right Ches, it’s okay. I’ve got you.”

The boy’s body lost its tension as Cheshire’s eyes fluttered open. “Hey,” the boy muttered weakly.

“Hey yourself,” the imp replied softly. Cheshire leaned back against his master not seeming to realize what he was doing. “You okay kid? You… you scared me.”

“Sorry, bad dream,” the child replied sleepily.

“Want to talk about it?” Rumpelstiltskin asked. He couldn’t let Cheshire go back to sleep just yet or the nightmare was sure to continue. The boy only nodded in reply, so the imp shifted and sat the boy up, turning his body until they sat across from one another. “Ches, you can’t go back to sleep just yet.” He looked into the boy’s face hoping to see some form of recognition. “Talk to me okay.”

“Okay,” Ches answered rubbing his eyes with his now free hands.

When the boy hesitated for a long while, Rumpelstiltskin reached out and put a steadying hand on his shoulder. “You’re okay Ches,”

“I know. It was just –” the boy shuddered before continuing. “I dreamed that I was in this red… red room. And everything around me was... it was, like it was all on fire. I couldn’t get out and… I… the smoke was so strong. It –” Cheshire’s breathing grew to ragged for him to continue.

Rumpelstiltskin gave the boy a long calculating look. His curse was already supplying him with information about certain dream magic – something one of his predecessors was interested in – but he was fairly certain he knew what caused such dreams. “Have you had this dream before Ches?” The boy dipped his head in affirmation. “How often?”

“I’ve had…” the boy’s hesitation at the word dream confirmed more of the Dark One’s theory, “dreams like this for a while now.”

“I’ve never heard you have one this bad before?”

“You’re not always in here,” the boy confessed looking down at his hands which he folded in his lap, “and, um, I’ve- I’ve had them for longer than I’ve known you.”

The imp nodded again. “Ches have you ever been given a sleeping curse?” Cheshire went very still, which certainly answered that question. “How did you come across such a thing?”

Cheshire sat for several long minutes without making a sound or even moving. Just when Rumpelstiltskin didn’t think he was going to answer the boy began speaking softly. “Silas… liked to experiment sometimes. He was trying to create one… sometime back,” Ches took a deep breath for continuing to stammer, “Needed to test it out. That’s what apprentices are for.”

For the first time in five years the silver tounged imp was speechless. Anger made his chest tight, but pity for the child in front of him was winning out. Even his curse raged in defense of the boy, though that was more likely due to the possibility of bloodshed than any care for Ches. Yet something more important caught Rumpelstiltskin’s attention, “Experiment sometimes?” he asked. “Ches how often is sometimes?”

The boy shrugged sadly “Often enough,” he confided.

The imp saw red and it took every bit of his self-control to reign that rage in for the moment. Struggling to keep his voice calm Rumpelstiltskin began, “If he gave you a sleeping curse, how did he wake you? Sleeping curses can only be broken by specific means.” Though he was reluctant to admit it, the Dark One was beginning to understand the power and weaknesses inherent in true love. In this case however, the thought was sickening.

“He could never get it right. They never lasted for more than a few hours or one time a couple of days,” the boy admitted shrinking in on himself.

“So, he was incompetent as well as –,” Rumpelstiltskin changed his thought mid-sentence, “how many times did he give you a sleeping curse?” Ches only shrugged in response. “Ches how many times?”

“I don’t really remember,” the boy evaded.

Rumpelstiltskin moved his hand back to the boy’s shoulder, “Kid,” he said in a soothing tone, “it’s important that I know this. The effects of that curse are what’s causing these dreams and if you’ve been under one multiple times…” he allowed the sentence to hang in the air.

“At least four that I can remember,” Ches stated nonchalantly, still Rumpelstiltskin could hear the underlying terror in the child’s tone.

The human remnants of his heart ached for the young man sitting in front of him. The boy looked so very young and frightened at the moment. The demon and the man both agreed that he should have made Silas suffer before killing him. Had he known everything at the time Rumpelstiltskin knew that he would have allowed the demon free reign in killing Silas slowly. But vengeance wasn’t important right then, his apprentice was in desperate need for comfort. Despite his continued reservations concerning getting too close to Cheshire, he couldn’t allow the boy to face this alone anymore. Cautiously he patted the boy’s shoulder causing Ches to look back up at him. “I think I know a way to stop these dreams of yours,” the imp offered.

“Really?” Ches asked hopefully.

Rumpelstiltskin nodded before continuing, “There’s a certain fairy I know who likes to dabble in dream magic. And she owes me a favor.”

“A fairy? I thought we didn’t like them?”

“You’re learning well,” the imp snorted. “Usually we don’t, but this one is… well different.” Different being quite the understatement. “Besides, this is for you. I’ believe we can take on one nasty fairy for your peace of mind.”

Before the imp knew what was happening, Cheshire launched himself into Rumpelstiltskin’s arms. “Thank you,” the boy jabbered repeating the words several times before going quiet.

“Well a sleep deprived apprentice is of no use to me,” the older man assured. However, his words fooled neither his apprentice nor himself. Despite the many reasons he shouldn’t, Rumpelstiltskin cared for the boy. He might not be able to help or watch over his own boy at the moment, but he’d be damned if he was going to let another child in his care suffer. Assuredly, the boy deserved better than what he could provide, but for now Rumpelstiltskin would do all in his power to protect and help the child in his custody.

Chapter Text

Rumpelstiltskin hadn't slept a wink all night. The constant war between himself and his curse over the fate of his apprentice ensured that his mind was far too preoccupied for sleep. Every ounce of the limited remaining goodness in his soul wanted to save Ches from enduring such nightmares. Especially after the previous night’s incident. Ches had awoken with burns all down his arms. He was in real danger in this dreamworld he couldn’t escape. If there was even a chance that consulting with this fairy could help the boy Rumpelstiltskin was willing to risk it. His curse on the other hand felt differently.

Just leave the boy to his fate, Zoso-the voice of his curse today- whispered. This is our chance to be rid of the child without any fault, spinner. Surely even you can stomach allowing someone to succumb to their fate.

But at the moment Rumpelstiltskin was winning the fight. "No" he replied audibly to the voices in his head. "I'll not let that happen."

You need to rid yourself of this foolish notion that this boy is some second chance, Zoso fired back. You weren't even strong enough to save your own son, what makes you think this one will be any different. 

Rumpelstiltskin shook his head in attempt to dispel the voices, but he couldn't refute Zoso’s point. He had failed Bae. Who was he kidding? The Dark One couldn't hope- "Stop that," he commanded as he began pacing across his workroom. His curse was clever, preying on his insecurities, he had to block it out. He had to help Ches.

He'll only betray you in the end, this time it was Nimue whispering to him. It's the one thing you're good at Spinner, being abandoned. Being left-behind.  

"He wouldn't," the imp replied stubbornly.

Why because he's just a child? The first Dark One laughed, that didn't stop Bae from using the dagger on you.

"Don't you speak his name!" Rumpelstiltskin growled as mad laughter rolled through his mind.

The coward does have teeth after all. Your own child used the dagger and then left you-

"Bae didn't leave me. I let him go because you made me."

We can't make you do anything Rumpelstiltskin. Your actions are your own.

The imp actually snorted at that, "Yes, yes, you just ‘persuade’ and ‘aid’ me into your desires. You're completely innocent in all this."

Nimue continued, ignoring his latest comment, Your boy saw you for what you are. A cowardly, worthless, little man and he couldn't wait to leave you. What child would want to claim something like you as a father.

"You're wrong. He wanted to help me. He was trying to help me get rid of you," Rumpelstiltskin whimpered losing ground within his own mind.

You are the Dark One now. Until someone else takes the power, you cannot be rid of us. We are you.

"The Land Without Magic-"

Wouldn't stop us from existing within you. We may be powerless, but you'll always hear us. Surely your boy knew that. Surely the fairy told him.

Rumpelstiltskin dropped to his knees and put his hands over his ears hoping against hope that that might drown out the voices. He had been gaining so much ground against his curse, yet now he was slipping so easily back into the madness.

"Rumpelstiltskin?" A small voice called from the door.

The Dark One looked over and saw Ches standing in the doorway watching as the imp lost control of himself. Something akin to fear shone in the boy’s eyes and that gave the spinner something to latch onto. The father in him kicked into gear and pushed his curse back into its poorly constructed cage. He would not frighten Ches again.

Seeing that he had his master's attention Cheshire continued, "Are you alright?"

Rumpelstiltskin nodded slowly as he rose to his feet. "I'm fine," he lied easily and if his voice sound slightly more gruff than usual, the boy either didn’t notice or ignored the fact. The imp cleared his throat before walking over to Ches, his mind officially made up. "Ready to go meet a fairy?"

Cheshire nodded enthusiastically at his master before a cloud of maroon smoke enveloped them both.

 

 

***

 

They'd used a looking glass to get the most annoying little world Rumpelstiltskin had ever had the misfortune of venturing to. The two companions had then quickly found themselves in the seediest bar either had ever set foot in. To say that this excursion was off to a bad start would be a huge under-exaggeration. Not to mention that they would be meeting a fairy soon. His curse was having a field day over the sheer stupidity of the spinner’s actions. However, Rumpelstiltskin had thankfully relocated his determination in order to help his apprentice.

The imp adjusted his high collared dragon skinned coat as they sat down at a table in the back corner of the bar. His dark presence and growing reputation had garnered them quick entrance and many fearful glances continued to be shot their way. The Dark One rather prided himself on his newly acquired wardrobe. Dragon skin and sharp edges combined with fine silks provided him a menacing look that commanded far more respect than anything the dirty peasant he'd once been could have.

Rumpelstiltskin ordered Ches something to eat as a serving girl passed by and attempted to keep the boy’s attention away from the lecherous woman sitting at a table across from them. As he distracted his apprentice with tales of Wonderland a young woman in a deep purple cloak entered the room. She spotted their table with ease and made her way over.

The fairy was still young in terms of her kind. She’d yet to become a Godmother but had been working her way towards that lofty goal for years now. Rumpelstiltskin admitted to himself that, for a fairy, she was a rather handsome woman. Her light blonde hair sat in a prim bun atop her head with not a hair out of place. Her prominent high cheekbones and light blue eyes extenuated sharp features. She was both formidable and mischievous, while retaining some essence of the light inherent in all fairies.

Ever the gentleman, the Dark One stood as she approached, pulling out a chair for her as he studied the fairy. This was not their first meeting and he rather doubted it would be their last.

"So, the Dark One is finally in over his head," the Indigo fairy smirked as she leaned back in her chair, studying the imp closely. 

Right to business then, the imp thought to himself. Rumpelstiltskin merely sneered back at her, "I simply have a question or two for you about sleeping curses fairy. Whether or not you can answer them, well..." he let the insinuation of her intelligence, or lack thereof, hang in the air around them along with the subtle threat he’d implied. 

The Indigo fairy eyed the Dark imp carefully, "Idle threats will get you nowhere dear. You called for this little meeting now what exactly do you want?"


The imp shot the briefest of looks to his protege before answering, "You've the foremost knowledge of sleeping curses and spells of any magic user I know. I require information."

"Hmmm," the fairy's calculating look reminded Rumpelstiltskin why he rather liked this one. Or at least was less inclined to kill her on sight. "What type of information are we talking about?"


Clever clever, he thought to himself. "My apprentice has been placed under a few inadequately executed curses and is suffering some severe side effects." Purposefully he neglected to mention that it was not him who performed said inadequate curses. Let the fairy believe it was me, that can only help my -

"I didn't know you were the caring type," she smirked in return.


Damn it. Well so much for reputations. "I'm not," the imp giggled allowing none of his earlier frustration to leak into his expression or voice. "I simply require my apprentice to perform his duties and he cannot focus if he's constantly exhausted." There perhaps that's cold enough to win back that healthy dose of fear the imp thought.

The fairy obviously understood more than she let on but let the matter drop. "And what would I get out of the affair."

"I won't kill you where you sit," the imp quipped dangerously. 

Instead of the fear he was accustomed to seeing, Rumpelstiltskin saw humor flash through the Indigo fairy's eyes. "My my now dear," she laughed, "threats are well and good, but we both know that you won't kill me. I'm useful. And beside that you don't think I'm daft enough to have come here without back up." She indicated a small woman standing just outside the door of the tavern. The stranger looked small and was well disguised in a traveling cloak, but the Dark One could sense her magic even from this distance. 

Oh, this one was plucky and so very correct in her assumptions. Rumpelstiltskin found her as entertaining as he did useful. So, no he wouldn't kill her, not yet anyway. He wasn't even sure if he could frighten her as he did the other little bugs. But that didn't mean he was above blackmailing her.


"You're clever," he admitted leaning across the table towards the plucky woman, "but not nearly clever enough." Ever the theatric imp he paused for a moment to let his words sink in. He leaned his head on the hand closest to her allowing him to drift even further into her comfort zone. "But I do have information that I think you will find quite worth a trade…” Rumpelstiltskin paused once more for dramatic effect, before whispering in a conspiratory fashion. “You see I have many eyes across the realms and you can imagine my surprise when one of them divulged that he'd seen a fairy hanging around one of the clerics temples." The fairy in question paled ever so slightly. "Not strange on its own of course. The fairies and the clerics work together quite often. However, this particular fairy has been seen visiting a single cleric quite often and staying with said cleric for far longer than propriety dictates is suitable. Now what fairy might be willing to go against the Blue Fairy's wishes in such a fashion?" As he asked his final question he placed a finger to his chin in c contemplative manner, before turning a smirk to his guest.

If looks could kill the Dark One would have been a puddle on the floor from the glare that the little fairy directed at him. She hadn't expected him to be so very knowledgeable. He cut her a wicked smile and continued, "For your information on sleeping curses, I'm willing to hold my tongue."


A shrewd look crossed the fairy's face as she contemplated all that Rumpelstiltskin had divulged. 
She glanced at his enraptured companion as she thought about her response. "And you believe that the Fairies and the Holy Order will believe the likes of you?" She asked coldly.

The darkness inside him raged in pleasure as the unsuspecting woman fell further into his trap. "Oh, heavens no!" The imp scoffed flailing his hands flamboyantly as he spoke. "They'll never believe me, but they will take to heart the information my informant will provide. And even if it's nothing less than a rumor it's enough to ensure that you and your little toy never see one another again. Especially once others in the area begin sharing similar tales with the Holy Order,” he gave Ches a wink as the fairy’s mouth became a thin line of displeasure. “Do we have a deal?"

He'd won oh so easily and Rumpelstiltskin knew it. He loved toying with people but, felt vindictive pleasure beyond anything else while toying with a fairy. Even if he liked this one. 

"I'll have your information in two days. Let me contact you about the meeting place," she finally conceded. "I'll have everything you need to deal with your little problem." She rose gracefully to her feet and gave Ches a small nod, before turning her attention back to the demon who'd so successfully ensnared her. "Well played Rumpelstiltskin." 

As the fairy turned and walked away, Rumpelstiltskin couldn't help the smug feeling of joy that surged through him. He'd bested the fairy no doubt. She'd known that there would be a deal, yet she obviously meant to get something out of it. He sensed that she hadn't expected him to be so cunning. What had his predecessors been like if no one believed the Dark One could be as cunning as he could be powerful.

***


"Surely he has her enthralled in some manner or another," the Periwinkle fairy exclaimed to her old friend.

"I'm not so certain," the Green fairy confided. A day had passed since she'd witnessed Indigo's discussion with the Dark One. She tagged along when Indigo asked, fearing that the rebellious fairy had gotten herself into deep trouble. She never would have guessed the extent of that trouble. 

Indigo had been her friend for many years and the two had been through more than one scrape together. Green knew just how reliable the other fairy was in a fight, but she also knew that Indigo had a mischievous streak a mile wide. 

The Periwinkle fairy worried over her tea as the two companions sat in Green's assigned room. "Certainly, she wasn't working with such a vile creature of her own free will. It wouldn't be the first time this Dark One has used a fairy for his own purposes."

The two exchanged a dark look remembering the incidents surrounding the Magenta fairy's death. 

Green shook her head in reply, "The way she spoke, it seemed as though could be black mailing her. But she met with him on her terms. I don't think he's controlling this one."


Periwinkle's head bobbed as she took in the new information. "What kind of blackmail?"

Green had the grace to look uncomfortable for a moment before she further betrayed her friend.

Chapter Text

Their initial meeting had taken place in a very public forum, he'd no intention of being seen with her by so many once again. They both had reputations to uphold and neither wanted that tarnished by the other. When Indigo sent a new time and location to him the day following their meeting, Rumpelstiltskin was unsurprised at the cloak and dagger of the whole affair. 

Lake Nostos and its inhabitant had enough of a reputation to ensure that no one would happen across this particular business venture. But the imp couldn't help but feel as if this location held more importance than he originally believed.

"Don't get too close to the water," Rumpelstiltskin advised his apprentice as the two neared the bank.

Casting an apprehensive glance to the water Ches's voice shook a little as he asked, "What's in there?"

The Dark One couldn't quite hide the hint of pride in his voice as he complimented his apprentice, "You can feel it? Good, that's very good. You're becoming more in tune with magic. There's a siren who lives in these waters. When unsuspecting travelers come here for a drink she lures them in and then drags them to the depths." He leaned towards his apprentice as he pointed out at the water to illustrate his point.

 

The boy nodded as he listened to the explanation, “How do you fight a siren? Or can they be killed?”

 

The smallest amount of trepidation filled the Dark One before he jumped head first into his explanation. “Oh, they can be handled with magic or supposedly even with True Love,” the last two words left his mouth in bitter mockery. Yet Ches smirked right along with him. “A clear head is the first step, knowing what it is that awaits you and reminding yourself that it isn’t real. Magically silencing them or simply blocking your ears can stave off the effects and then it’s merely a defenseless creature to deal with as you please.” The imp saw all fear leave the kid as he explained, "What not afraid of the nasty beast in the lake?" The imp quipped.

"Not knowing makes everything worse," Ches replied. "Once you know what something is, know it's weaknesses, you can defeat it. There's nothing frightening about something you can beat."

Apprehension stole through Rumpelstiltskin and he couldn't tell if it was his or the curse's this time. Either way it sent a shiver down his spine. He eyed the boy a bit warily.

 

“Better watch the kid Dark One, he’s clever and brave,” a voice called down to the imp and his apprentice. “That’s usually a dangerous combination.”

 

Rumpelstiltskin saw the fairy as the little gnat flew in to hang in the air beside them. “Well look who’s finally decided to join us,” the imp mocked. “Took your time didn’t you, dearie?”

 

“I arrived precisely when I meant to,” Indigo retorted as she grew to regular size. The Dark One noted that today she wore her traditional skimpy fairy garb in her attempt to imitate a floating jellyfish. She ignored Rumpelstiltskin’s glare as she turned her attention to Cheshire. “How are you doing kid?”

 

Still leery of fairies, Ches folded his arms across his chest and shot a look to the Dark One. He replied only after receiving a nod from the malevolent imp, “I’m fine.”

 

“He’s not working you too hard, is he? Not making you do anything to heinous?” Indigo asked giving him a sly smile that Ches apparently liked.

 

“I stay busy. But then he’s only made me dispose of his victim’s bodies a few times,” the boy quipped, earning him a snort of laughter from the fairy.

 

“I like this one,” she announced turning her attention back to the imp. “Do try and keep him around.”

 

“I’m so happy you approve. Moving on to the reason we’re gathered here,” Rumpelstiltskin digressed. “What did you find?”

 

Indigo pulled a long-suffering look in answer to the imp’s question, “You really aren’t any fun. But in answer to your question, I did find some useful information.” Noting her now captive audience the fairy delighted in pausing for effect.

 

“And,” Rumpelstiltskin urged, his patience wearing thin.

 

“And after falling under a sleeping curse, well crafted or not, there are certain side effects to waking. While under the curse a person’s soul is trapped in a netherworld filled with their own regrets and worst memories. In a proper curse those feelings of hopelessness and despair are amplified, but even in a poorly constructed one the effect can be unpleasant.”

 

“So, the despair and darker feelings of life can leave an imprint of sort?” The Dark One inquired.

 

“Of sort,” Indigo replied unable to hide the impressed glint in her eyes. “It leaves a pathway open to this netherworld for those victims who wake up. There isn’t necessarily a trigger, but a bad day, fear, depression of any kind or even a bad dream are more likely open that pathway when one’s body is fully relaxed. But that’s not fool proof. You could be having the best day of your life and still find yourself in the netherworld.”

 

“I’m beginning to doubt there’s any kind of cure for this type of magic,” the imp growled.

 

“There isn’t a cure,” the fairy answered cryptically.

 

“You’re just as useless as the rest of your kind!” Rumpelstiltskin barked as disappointment turned to anger. “You-” he stopped himself as the spinner’s clever mind caught up to his curse’s constant anger.

 

The Indigo fairy nodded as she saw him begin putting the pieces together. “There’s no cure, but there might be a way to help someone while they are in the netherworld.”

 

“You’d need some kind of talisman to anchor the spell to the person. To make it appear in their dreams,” Rumpelstiltskin countered.

 

“Something like this,” Indigo said as she pulled a small necklace from a fold of her voluptuous dress.

 

A smile crawled across the imp’s face as he and the fairy exchanged a look. A glance at his apprentice confirmed that the boy had been following the discussion intently. For the first time since this whole mess began, the boy actually looked slightly hopeful.

 

“Which brings us to our current predicament,” the fairy continued.

 

“What predicament would that be?” this time it was Ches who broke into the fairy’s explanation.

 

She spared the boy a comforting smile and turned back to his master, “I have all but the final ingredient added to the necklace. However, that final ingredient is very specific.” She gave a meaningful look to the waters behind the Dark One and his apprentice.

 

“The siren’s pond?” Rumpelstiltskin scoffed.

 

“Lake Nostos has powerful regenerative properties. Using waters from this lake can restore the boy to a peaceful mindset once he grabs the talisman while in his dreams. Once he has the talisman he can control the dream and there’s nothing left to fear.”

 

The imp nodded as he followed the fairy’s logic, his eyes ghosting over the calm surface of the lake. “I assume that water from this lake cannot be magically summoned in any fashion?”

 

Indigo gave him a curt nod, “And for this particular spell to work properly the person who retrieves the water needs to do so for pure reasons.”

 

“What do you mean?” Ches asked when Rumpelstiltskin remained silent.

 

Surprisingly it was the imp himself who answered the boy’s question. “It means that this spell is an attempt to bring you from a place of harm to a place of peace while you’re sleeping. The water is needed for that restoration, but the price of such magic must come from somewhere. Facing a creature such as the one who lives in these waters by yourself for yourself might do the trick, but to have someone risk that danger for you for unselfish reasons would guarantee a stronger and far more potent ingredient.”

 

“So Dark One, are you going to keep stalling or are you going to get that final ingredient?” Indigo implored as she handed him a flask.

 

The imp took a long look at the flask and then turned his reptilian gaze to Ches. A hundred different reasons for why this was a bad idea ran through Rumpelstiltskin’s head. Those were propelled and then multiplied by his curse. He knew enough about siren’s and how to handle them that it shouldn’t be a difficult task. Yet he’d never actually faced one before. The coward that would always reside within him wanted to refuse. To tell the fairy to get it herself. For once his curse fully supported that portion of his soul. But the spell wouldn’t be as potent if the fairy retrieved the water. True she was inherently good, but she held no real connection to the child.

 

In the end he pulled his magic around him like armor and bolstered his limited store of courage. With all the confidence he didn’t feel, Rumpelstiltskin snatched the flask from the fairy and gave Ches a smile before walking to the water’s edge. It wasn’t until the flask was nearly full that he felt another presence close to him.

 

“Papa?” came a voice that very nearly made him drop the precious item he now held.

 

Rumpelstiltskin swung his head towards the voice, not daring to believe it to be real. He had sound enough mind to lift the flask from the water before dropping it into the sand as he hit knees. Standing not two feet in front of him was Baelfire.

 

“Bae?” he whispered brokenly, hardly daring to believe his eyes.

Chapter Text

“Bae?” he whispered brokenly, hardly daring to believe his eyes.

 

“It’s me papa,” Baelfire called.

 

His voice sounded eerily distant, but there he stood, looking exactly as he had the day Rumpelstiltskin had let him go. From his messy hair to his wrinkled clothes, nothing had changed. Even the ever-hopeful smile remained. Warning bells were going off in the back of the spinner’s mind but those were easily smothered. His boy was here, right in front of him, and now he could apologize for his horrible mistake.

 

The imp was on his feet in an instant as he moved towards Baelfire. He stopped when he was within arm’s reach. “Son,” Rumpelstiltskin gasped his voice thick with grief and guilt. Bae simply stood there waiting for his father to make the first move. Despite the five years of planning, all the carefully orchestrated words he’d planned for this moment now seemed so inadequate. He’d gone over and over his apology in his mind but now that his son was in front of him the silver-tongued imp was speechless.  

 

“I’m so so sorry son,” he lamented finally. “I, I know it’s not enough… but I’ve been searching for you every day since… since I let you go. And I’m so sorry that I did.”

 

“Why did you let me go?” the boy asked.

 

Rumpelstiltskin noted the glint of betrayal apparent in his child’s eyes and it broke something inside him. His own child was terrified of what he’d become. Tears streamed down the spinner’s face as he attempted to gain control of his voice. “I didn’t mean to. It, it was a mistake. A gigantic mistake and I’m so very sorry for that Bae.”

 

He tried taking a step towards Bae but each time he shifted forward the boy moved away. Completely focused on talking to his son, Rumpelstiltskin didn’t notice that they were now waist deep in the water.

 

***

 

Cheshire knew what was about to happen. As soon as he saw the figure standing in front of his teacher the boy's instincts kicked into over drive. However, he didn’t factor in how enraptured Rumpelstiltskin would be by the siren’s guise. There was only one person the siren could impersonate to make the imp act as he currently was. This was the son that his mentor claimed to have failed so terribly, or at least looked and sounded like him.

Ches took a moment to appreciate the certain similarities he shared with the boy. Messy brown hair that never behaved as it should framing round faces, small lean builds that made all clothes look baggy. Ches knew that if they were to stand beside each other they’d be within a hairs breadth of the same height. Yet despite his well-worn clothing Bae had the distinct look of a child who’d been well cared for. A look that Ches had so desperately lacked until recently. It was no wonder Rumpelstiltskin had had so much trouble keeping his distance from his new apprentice.

 

At first Ches wasn’t worried. Yes, the siren’s guise would surely trouble his teacher, but Rumpelstiltskin would never allow some harpy to best him. However, the imp began following the creature into deeper water seemingly without noticing the danger. Realizing his master was ensnared Ches moved to go to his aide, only to be pulled up short by a hand.

 

“Let your master handle this boy,” the Indigo fairy commanded. She didn’t seem perturbed in the slightest at Rumpelstiltskin’s current plight.

 

“It’s going to hurt him,” Ches exclaimed indignantly.

 

“It can’t hurt the Dark One child, not in any permanent fashion.”

 

Ches glared at the fairy. The Dark One might be safe from the creature but Rumpelstiltskin could most certainly be hurt, probably already was. As one of the few people who understood the difference between the man and the monster, Cheshire realized how dangerous things could get for his teacher. He shrugged her hand away and dashed out into the water.

 

“Rumpelstiltskin, stop!” the boy pleaded as he made his way to his master.

 

“I forgive you papa,” the fake Baelfire was saying as Ches finally reached the Dark One.

 

Now that he was closer the apprentice could see that imp’s shoulders were shaking as he held back silent sobs. Cheshire placed a gentle but firm hand on the man’s arm as the imp reached out for his son. “Rumpelstiltskin, it isn’t real” Ches persisted in what he hoped was a soothing tone. His master flinched at the contact, immediately looking down at the hand on his arm. The boy continued urgently, “It’s just me. It’s Ches. And I need you to get out of the water.”

 

“Papa who is this?” the siren asked.

 

With great effort Rumpelstiltskin pulled his gaze away from his child and turned it on his apprentice. “Cheshire?”

 

A brief flash of recognition flitted through the imp’s eyes as he turned back to the creature. A feral smile played across Baelfire’s face as the creature realized it was losing its prey. Seeing the apparently uncharacteristically ferocious look on his child broke the spell on Rumpelstiltskin. Ches could feel the heartbreak emanating from the man as his clever mind wrapped around the situation. Heartbreak quickly followed by a terrifying amount of anger.

 

Before Rumpelstiltskin could release his rage, the creature shifted its focus. A strange light covered the siren as her form shifted from Baelfire to a short and plump woman with strawberry hair. Ches felt his stomach flip as he looked into the oh so familiar face. She’s not real, she’s not real he thought to himself. But try as he might the boy couldn’t turn away from her.

 

“Ches honey, what’s going on here?” the portly woman asked.

 

But it wasn’t her. He wasn’t desperate enough to ignore the way her voice was slightly off. The way that there was nothing warm or loving about her gaze. Cheshire turned to his master and began walking back to the shallows. The imp turned his back on the woman quietly following his apprentice.

 

The figure transformed back to the Dark One’s son as it stalked them through the water. “Papa please don’t leave me again,” the figure pleaded.

 

Cheshire turned to see that his master had stopped. The older man’s eyes were closed, yet Ches could see the anguish he felt. “You’re not my son,” the imp whispered brokenly before making his way to the bank.

 

***

 

The Dark One never saw the creature lunge at him as bent down to pick up the flask. So buried in his own misery, he also missed the fairy’s magic which hit the creature dead in the chest, sending it hissing back to the depths.

Rumpelstiltskin could no longer feel the initial anger he’d had towards the fish who had fooled him. He couldn’t feel much of anything really. Instead numbness seeped through his every pour followed closely by the self-loathing he knew so well. His boy wasn’t in this world. He should have known better than to fall for such a trick. You’re still just as weak as you were when we first met spinner. Weak and gullible. Zoso whispered. You think that boy will ever forgive you. His curse cackled at the thought.

 

Try as he might though Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t shake their poisonous words. Truth be told he wasn’t sure he even wanted to right now. He deserved the shame that went along with abandoning one’s child. Deserved the pain the vile creature had caused him by taking on that guise. Turning away from his child again, even if it wasn’t really his child, had carved yet another deep hole into what was left of his heart.  

 

“Well that was intense,” the Indigo fairy commented as he and his apprentice made their way back towards her.

 

“I’ll say,” Ches agreed. “Let’s not do it again.”

 

The fairy snorted unable to hide how impressed she was with the boy’s guile in the face of such danger. “You’ll have to keep this one around Rumple. He’s quite intriguing.”

 

The imp knew she was speaking to him but found himself incapable of doing more than nodding in return.

 

“I’ll take that as a thank you for saving your skin. Now you owe me Dark One,” the fairy continued falling back to his usual moniker. “Give me the water so I can finish this little spell. Then we can all be on our merry ways.”

 

Wordlessly Rumpelstiltskin handed the flask over to the Indigo fairy. With deft movements she added a few drops of the precious water into a vial hidden within the necklace, causing a small flash of blue light to shine around the item. The fairy nodded obviously satisfied and handed the flask back to the Dark One saying, “You worked hard for this Dark One, might as well keep it. And this is for you,” she said turning to Cheshire indicating the necklace. “Put this on while you sleep, and you’ll be able to control your journey into the netherworld.”

 

“I’ll still go there?” the boy asked discomfort lacing his words.

 

The fairy’s gaze softened as she leaned towards the boy, “Yes, you’ll still go there. But this time you’ll be able to control your actions and movements. The flames won’t even be able to hurt you. And once you control the journey, well you need no longer fear it.”

 

As she moved to hand the trinket to the boy, it vanished from her hand. “I’ll be taking that Indigo,” a new voice interjected as two new figures walked out of the trees.

 

Rumpelstiltskin felt his rage from earlier stir back to the surface as what were obviously two very nosey fairies approached. “Get behind me kid,” he quietly ordered. The imp was relieved when his apprentice did as he was told without question. “What a horrible surprise,” he barked at the interfering little gnats. “That’s my property which you stole, and I’ll be having it back.” His voice ended in a growl as Rumpelstiltskin allowed the Dark One to take ahold of the reigns.

 

“This is a serious breach of protocol Indigo,” the Periwinkle fairy proclaimed ignoring the Dark One.

 

“That’s not my name,” the Indigo fairy hissed, “and I’m perfectly within my rights to help an innocent child.”

 

“Indigo-” the Green fairy began before faltering under the other fairy’s glare. “Fine Mal, you know we can’t help him. He’s chosen his path.”

 

“He’s still a child and he still needs help,” Mal beseeched. “It used to be our code to help those in need especially when those people can’t help themselves or are children. But for some undisclosed reason this boy is off limits? That’s crap and you know it Green.”

 

“The reasons are plain Maleficent,” Periwinkle stated firmly her lips drawn into a fine line. “The boy has chosen his path. He rejected Blue’s help and thus rejected all of us. Unfortunate as his situation might be, his decisions have left us with little choice. Unless of course, we can manage to sway him away from the dark forces in his life.”

 

“The boy is right here, and he has a name,” Cheshire snarled pushing his way from behind Rumpelstiltskin.

 

The imp placed a placating hand on the teen’s shoulder giving him the slightest shake of his head and a look reminding Ches to keep his temper in check. “Cheshire is quite right,” Rumpelstiltskin informed the surrounding fairies. “He does have a name and you’re speaking of him in a fashion that I'll no longer tolerate.”

 

“What you will and will not tolerate is unimportant Dark One. Our decision on the matter is final,” Green replied hotly. “What we refuse to tolerate is your tampering with yet another fairy’s mind in order to get whatever your unholy desires may be.”

 

The Dark One tittered at Green’s bold proclamation. “How adorable,” he sneered. “You think I have any need of a fairy to get what I want? No, no, no. While I do so enjoy toying with your pathetic race of bugs, I have no real use for any of you. Besides sheer amusement. This one is simply a convenience for the time being.”

 

“You will release Maleficent from whatever enchantment you have her under,” Periwinkle demanded.

 

“I’m not under an enchantment of any kind you ridiculous fools,” the woman in question snapped.

 

“Magenta didn’t know she was under an enchantment and look what happened to her,” Green stressed imploring her friend to believe them.

 

It was all nauseatingly sweet the imp thought, but this back and forth was getting old. He’d been through enough today. It was time to finish his deal and go home. “This will be your last warning bug. Give my apprentice what we came for or you and your little friend will be meeting your other friend very soon.” Rumpelstiltskin began gathering power around him as he spoke. Digging into the deep well of magic that his curse provided him. He could sense Ches slowly backing away from him, out of the line of fire.

 

“How dare you. You insolent little imp,” the Periwinkle fairy retorted looking down her nose at the Dark One. She never got any further as a blast of inky darkness jetted towards her.

 

Periwinkle managed to side step the Imp’s attack just in time to save herself, but not the vast extent of her ridiculous outfit. Even as her skirt smoldered the fairy pulled out her wand and launched her own attack. Rumpelstiltskin batted it away with ridiculous ease as he began laying the ground work for a few complicated spells. The Green fairy launched her own attack, which hit connected with the wall of magic that the imp threw up to deflect.

 

Out of the corner of his eye Rumpelstiltskin saw Maleficent pull Cheshire back from the fighting. He had time to feel a moment of gratitude before he was once again forced to deflect one of the fairies’ spells. He aimed a particularly dark spell at the Periwinkle fairy which landed right on target, slicing into her face and bare arms. A vicious smirk danced across his face as the little bug pulled herself from the ground decorated with a dozen new cuts.

 

That was the moment Rumpelstiltskin realized he’d made a vital mistake. He’d been focused on the wrong fairy for too long. He heard Cheshire shouting from off to his left and turned to see the Green fairy attempting to pull him away from a wandless Maleficent. His apprentice actually managed to get off a shot or two at the Green fairy, but he was obviously overpowered. Turning his attention towards eradicating the Green gnat, he lost sight of the Periwinkle one. The imp’s curse struck true as he watched the Green get lifted from the ground by a whirlwind of pure darkness. It cut at the bug and slammed her into the ground hard. Giving Maleficent time to retrieve the wand that had been wrenched from her.

 

The imp turned back to the find the other fairy inches from his face armed with a strange ball of… something. Rumpelstiltskin never had a chance to even contemplate what that might be. Pain filled his world as the fairy smashed whatever it was into his face.

 

A desperate shriek pulled all the air from his long as he collapsed to the ground. Whatever he’d been hit with burned through him. Down to his very core. White light pulsated across his vision as the substance ate through his clothes and bit down into his skin. His curse raged against the intruder but only managed to make the pain far more intense. It felt as if there was a war being waged within him. As if his magic was fighting to through every pore of his body.

 

He had enough presence of mind to hear a young voice call out to him and to hope that Ches was okay, before he fell into darkness.

 

***

 

Rumpelstiltskin had hit the ground in a heap screaming out in pain. It was a horrifying sound that sent fear racing through Ches’s blood. “Rumpelstiltskin,” the boy yelled as he ran to his teacher’s prone form. Dropping to his knees in the sand, the boy grabbed the imp’s shoulder and gave him a gentle shake. Tremors ran through the man’s body as he continued to whimper in pain. His master was out of the fight for now which meant they were woefully outmatched.   

 

A firm hand fell onto Ches’s shoulder as he desperately attempted to wake the Dark One. “Leave him child and we will help you.” It was the Periwinkle fairy. She had the gall to condemn him in one moment and offer aide in another.

 

Ches felt a blind rage growing in his chest. These fairies had reviled Rumpelstiltskin, refused to help the man’s apprentice, and now had hurt him terribly. The same fairies who had listened to his pleas for assistance for years and done nothing. The same fairies who claimed to be paragons of goodness and light.

 

Magic flew to the boy’s fingers as he turned on the falsely maternal figure. “You’ve made a mistake,” he growled before guiding his magic like Rumpelstiltskin had taught him to. Raw power slammed into the fairy knocking her off her feet. “I’m right where I want to be.”

 

The boy had yet to feel power like this and it left him with a heady sense of purpose. He lashed out again as the fairy tried to pull herself up. This time using more finesse ensured that the gnat received a few more cuts along her pretty face.

 

Off to the side Maleficent disarmed the Green Fairy knocking her out in the process. When she turned her attention to Ches, the boy was standing over the fairy unleashing a constant onslaught of power. Periwinkle was out cold by the time she reached him, yet the boy continued his attack.

 

“Hey kid calm down,” a voice broke through his blind fury. Cheshire turned to see Maleficent standing at his side. “She’s out of the fight kid.” He nodded slowly lowering his hands and looking down at the unconscious fairy lying at his feet. “That was pretty impressive kid.” When he didn’t seem to acknowledge her words, she placed a tentative hand on the kid’s shoulder noting how he flinched as she did. “I’ll make sure these two are immobilized, go check on your master.”

 

Cheshire needed no further encouragement. Turning away he knelt at his teacher’s side. Agony still shadowed Rumpelstiltskin’s features, but he seemed to be slowly coming back to himself. What looked like burned gashes ran across the man’s eyes and down his left cheek. Ches could see similar marks on the imp’s arms, hands, and chest. Where whatever the fairy had hit him with had burned through the thick dragon hide coat his mentor wore.

 

Ches bent over to check the man’s pulse. Finding a weak but steady beat, the boy let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. Not knowing what else to do or how to comfort the man who had come to epitomize security for him, Ches merely grabbed his mentor’s hand. Holding on the one person who seemed real and caring in his life gave the boy an anchor to ground him.

 

***

 

Maleficent watched as the boy moved quickly to the Dark One’s side. Relief seemed to pour off the child as he realized that his master was, at the moment, okay. It was endearing to see that Rumpelstiltskin’s little apprentice was so attached. The imp’s own soft streak towards the boy was even more charming. If the Dark One’s story about the boy being placed under several sleeping curses was true, then it seemed as if the former spinner might possibly have a mildly positive influence on the kid in some way. In any case these two desperately needed one another. Maleficent hadn’t been privy to the newest Dark One’s full story, but she knew enough to understand exactly who’s appearance the siren had taken earlier. It was fully possible that this new child could help soothe some of the darkness that tainted Rumpelstiltskin’s soul.

 

The fairy placed a powerful holding spell on her two former friends before she gathered their wands. Walking over to the boy and his master she noted the near devastation playing across the child’s face. Letting out a long-suffering sigh she firmly planted herself deeper into the mess, “I may be able to help him.”

 

Cheshire looked up at her unbelieving hope brimming in his eyes. “What did she do to him?”

 

“Pixie dust,” Maleficent answered. Seeing that Cheshire had no clue what she was talking about she elaborated. “Like super powerful fairy dust. And it would seem that this batch was heavily concentrated. Meant to take down dark creatures.”

 

“So it’s light magic,” the precious boy asked.

 

“At it’s lightest,” the fairy confirmed. “It attacked Rumpelstiltskin’s inherently dark nature causing his curse to fight against the Pixie Dust and him. It’s good for knocking out dark creatures long enough for you to contain them or dispose of them.”

 

“But he’s the Dark One,” Ches argued. “He can’t be ‘disposed’ of like that and I’ve yet to see a trap that could hold the likes of him.”

 

“Right you are,” Maleficent snorted. “They probably meant to disorient him long enough to get you and me out of here.” She paused for a long moment before turning to the far more serious matter, “You’re fond of him, aren’t you?”

 

Cheshire nodded, “He’s the closest I’ve come to family in a while.”

 

Maleficent mulled over that choosing her next words carefully, “Just be careful kid. He may walk, talk, and act like a man; but he isn’t. Don’t forget that. He also has his own agenda and from what I’ve seen so far he won’t let anything get his way to stop him.”

 

“You mean getting to his son?” Ches asked just as carefully.

 

Maleficent bobbed her head affirming his question. “I just don’t want to see you hurt if he starts prioritizing. You’re a good a kid. You might not know it yet, but you are.”

 

“He won’t hurt me,” the boy explained in that trusting assurance that only children can manage. Realizing that she didn’t quite believe him, Cheshire continued. “I can’t explain it, but I know he wouldn’t. I think he understands what I went through with my last master better than he lets on. I trust him.”

 

“On your head be it then,” Maleficent muttered.

 

The fairy stepped up to the shaking form of the Dark One and laid a hand across his forehead. She could feel the light magic coursing through his veins pulling at his soul and battling against the darkness. Maleficent took a deep breath and tugged at the loose strands of magic surrounding him. Removing the pixie dust was the easy part, disposing of it would be a bit trickier. A wicked grin crossed her lips as she thought of the perfect place to release it. Channeling the used pixie dust from Rumpelstiltskin and into her, she let it move through her body and out her hand straight into the siren’s lake. Let the creature have a bad day or two.

 

Once the task was complete she went about healing what she could of the Dark One’s body. However, his magic was quickly mending everything she set her hands on. Maleficent pulled away as the imp’s eyes slowly opened.

 

***

 

“Let’s not do that again,” Rumpelstiltskin quipped as he found himself hauled back to consciousness.

 

He sat up slowly, feeling his curse sweeping through his body to heal any wounds he might still retain. When it was apparent that he was steady enough to sit up by himself, he found his arms full of a much smaller body. Cheshire’s arms pulled tightly around his neck making it difficult to breath. “s’alright kid. I’m all right,” he grumbled at the boy even as he awkwardly returned the child’s embrace.

 

“You scared me there for a second,” the boy whispered so that only Rumpelstiltskin could hear him.

 

“Scared myself to be honest,” the imp replied quietly before he could stop himself. “What happened,” he asked the lone remaining fairy as he extricated himself from Cheshire’s embrace.

 

“Your boy here let off some pretty impressive magic and knocked out the light blue monstrosity while I handled the other,” Maleficent announced offering him a hand up.

 

The imp sprung lightly to his feet, ignoring the fairy’s offer, as if he hadn’t been writhing on the ground moments ago. He turned an appraising look on his apprentice before asserting, “He’s a force to be reckoned with I’m sure. Probably a good thing they didn’t know that.”

 

“I keep telling you that you need to keep this one,” she answered a surprisingly proud smile lingering as she looked at the boy. “If nothing else, he’s a far better conversationalist than you.”

 

“I’m hurt deeply Maleficent,” the imp replied.

 

A low moan cut their exchange short, alerting the party to the problem still at hand. “What should we do with them?” Maleficent queried hesitantly.

 

Rumpelstiltskin could feel the darkness radiating from him as he turned his attention to their aggressors. “Oh, I’ve something special in mind for them,” he hissed.

 

“I’ll leave them to you then,” Maleficent offered without a hint of remorse.

 

“No tearful pleading of sparing their lives?” the imp cajoled.

 

“Green knows about my lover. Threatened to tell Blue if I fought against them. I’ll not let my love life be tarnished by some greedy betrayer looking to climb the ladder of insufferability.”

 

The Dark One chuckled, “Not keen to head back to Ruehl Gorm?” Maleficent merely shook her head as an answer. “A fallen fairy then. I’ll tidy up here if you wish to run along dearie.”

 

A nod was all she gave in answer before turning to the boy, “I believe that this belongs to you Cheshire,” she said handing him the troublesome necklace.

 

“Thank you,” Cheshire responded giving the former fairy a mischievous grin. “I think I’ve finally met a fairy I actually like.”

 

“You ever need a hand kid, just come calling,” Maleficent grinned. “Now if you’ll excuse me I have a fairy to upset. Until next time Rumpelstiltskin.”

 

“Always nice to do business with you,” the imp tittered giving the woman a flamboyant bow as she shrunk and disappeared over the tree line.

 

Rumpelstiltskin turned to his apprentice giving the boy a once over. “You’re alright?”

 

“I’m fine. A little tired, but fine,” the boy answered.

“Good, good thing. I’m going to send you back to the castle while I tie up the loose ends here,” the imp informed the child as he stepped back.

 

“I don’t want to leave!” Cheshire protested panic rising in his tone.

 

The Dark One laid a comforting hand on the boy and noted that the boy didn’t flinch at the contact this time. “It’ll only take a moment. You don’t need to be privy to this.” Panic stilled bubbled noticeably inside the child, but there was no chance that Rumpelstiltskin would allow the child to watch while he killed the two fairies. “I’ll be home in a flash,” the imp concluded giving the boy a reassuring grin as maroon smoke swirled around him.

 

Once his apprentice was gone, Rumpelstiltskin handed the reigns once more to the Dark One as the imp spun on his heel towards the now fully conscious fairies. “Now, now, no need to be frightened,” the Dark One toyed with his prey. “I do have a time limit, so this won’t be too slow and painful.”

 

The spinner inside the imp cringed at the fairies screams, while the monster thrilled in the blood lust. But it had been a rough day and these two had attacked the ward he’d promised to keep safe. And Rumpelstiltskin never broke a deal.

Chapter Text

Some days were so much better than others, the Dark One reflected as he stared out the far window in the Great Hall. The beautiful blue sky and clean mountain air mocked him as the sun spread its light over the valley. For the world to continue moving forward completely unaffected by his heartache or despair, seemed such a foreign idea. But as usual the sky continued to hold its place while his world crumbled around him.

 

Today was one of those not so good days, the kind of day in which his curse raged, and Rumpelstiltskin could find little motivation to stem it. Six years ago today he’d lost the most important person in his life and he had no one to blame but himself. His recent catastrophe with the siren added yet another layer of sorrow onto the spinner’s heart. Turning an already painful day into something far worse.

 

He’d tried everything from spinning to burying himself into his research on a certain Dark Curse. Yet nothing could occupy his mind for long. Misery wormed its way into his mind and soul and clung to him like a shroud. Rumpelstiltskin had sent Ches out on his own for the day, thinking it would be far safer for the boy to be out of his company. The child had done well against the fairies and the imp couldn’t deny the boy the chance to further prove himself.

 

Some desperate soul or another had called for him earlier and, knowing it to be a foolish young peasant boy searching for riches, the Dark One sent his apprentice along to handle it. He’d provided Ches with a map detailing the whereabouts of a golden goose and told the boy to extract whatever price he deemed fit. With no actual magic involved in this deal it would be good practice for the boy without any real price associated with the deal. Start small the imp thought to himself.

 

Thinking of the boy currently in his care took Rumpelstiltskin’s mind off another boy if only for a moment. His heart continued to yearn for the presence of his own child, but for now Ches brought him some small amount of comfort. Not that you deserve any such comfort Zoso’s voice reminded him. But he was also helping Ches, and while the imp might not deserve comfort or happiness in any capacity, Ches deserved so much more. For whatever reason the boy continued to believe that he could find the answers and happiness he sought with Rumpelstiltskin. The imp couldn’t deny that having a distraction was quite pleasant as well.

 

He'd provided Cheshire with a necklace which, when twisted appropriately, would teleport the boy back to the gates of the Dark Castle. The fifteen-year-old had only been gone for a few hours at most yet worry crept into the spinner’s chest at the thought of allowing Ches so much freedom. Worry born from years of being the despised village coward told him that someone would surely hurt the boy as a means to hurt him. His curse’s ever-present paranoia insisted that the child would use this time to discover a way to control and/or destroy his master. However, knowledge born from being the sole provider for his son told him that the boy needed room to test his strengths and weaknesses. In this world Cheshire was well on his way to becoming a man and that required one to be able to depend on oneself. And Cheshire had certainly proven himself handy and trustworthy here lately.

 

He could allow Ches to do this without interference. But surely it wouldn’t be amiss to at least keep an eye on the boy, Rumpelstiltskin reasoned with himself. Duly persuaded the imp waved a hand so that a crystal ball appeared in his palm. After a moment of focusing his thoughts on Cheshire an image of the boy appeared in the crystal. In this small manner, Rumpelstiltskin might watch over his apprentice from afar.

 

***

 

The young man was an idiot, that much was for certain. It took every ounce of Ches’s considerable patience not to simply walk away and leave the woodcutter to his fate. But Rumpelstiltskin had finally allowed him to conduct business on his own and Cheshire refused to muck this up. Regardless of how much he longed to strangle the simpleton in front of him.  

 

The Dark One had given his apprentice a map containing the location of a certain golden goose, which supposedly could be found within the roots of some forgotten tree in some forgotten part of some forgotten forest. Even Ches could tell it was a long shot, but the man in front of him obviously didn’t realize the futility of his search. Realizing that the man would give him absolutely anything for the map alone, Ches affected a bored smile as he continued listening to the man’s prattling about his poor pitiful life.

 

“So, do you want the map or not?” Ches finally asked completely unable to disguise his impatience any longer.

 

“Well it’s like I was sayin’” the young man continued in a thick brogue, “me mam’s told me not to be off in the woods searchin’ anymore. But I’m just desperate at this point. We’ve got nothing, and taxes are comin’ due and we don’t have the money to pay them or things to sell or- “

 

“Let me just cut you off right there,” Cheshire interjected an edge creeping into his voice. The man went silent and still, eyes cast down to his stare at his feet as Ches glared at the man. The teenager remained silent for a moment to further intimidate the peasant, imitating that which he’d learned from Silas. Sunlight gleamed from the simpleton’s light sandy hair as it hung loosely around his gaunt face. The young man was dressed in what might to some be considered clothing but seemed closer to rags in Ches’s opinion. Having known his fair share of such attire, the Dark One’s apprentice felt the smallest surge of what might be pity towards the man.

 

More than the almost pity though, Ches felt a confidence like he’d never known before. Next to the woodcutter, the Dark One’s apprentice resembled a prince. His high-quality tunic and trousers fashioned him in a dignified light this peasant could never manage. Cheshire could look this man in the eye without even a thought of flinching. Here he was the apprentice of one of the most powerful sorcerers in the Enchanted Forest. That title alone provided him with power and an exceedingly large amount of pride. He was the authority in this situation, no one else. Such thoughts filled him with the sense of power he’d felt only a few times before.

 

After several daunting moments Ches continued, “I have a map. It will lead you to riches more than you know. Are you interested in it?”

 

“Well… it’s, I, I-” the man sputtered.

 

“Ah ah ah,” Ches chided. “It’s a simple yes or no question.”

 

“Yes,” the woodcutter finally relented.

 

“Good,” Ches purred a large smile creeping across his face.

 

***

 

Cheshire had to admit that the necklace Rumpelstiltskin had enchanted for him was quite an impressive bit of magic. One moment he was standing in a field several kingdoms away, the next he found himself just outside the gates of the Dark Castle.

 

The teenager smiled to himself as he walked along the garden path to the front door, twirling his new bauble along his finger. The ring he’d taken from the wood cutter was simple and obviously meant as an engagement token for a lovely woman, but for Ches it symbolized all he’d gained in the past three months. He was proud of his accomplishments as the apprentice of the Dark One, proud that he’d left so much of his past behind. At fifteen he was now a budding sorcerer under the tutelage of one of the most powerful magic wielders in the realms.   

 

The young man waltzed through the front doors of the Dark Castle an uncharacteristic confidence apparent in his step. Upon entering the Great Hall though, Ches lost a bit of his bolster. His mentor was sitting at the grand spinning wheel staring intently at its spokes as if they held some answer the imp so desperately sought. Rumpelstiltskin obviously had yet to notice that he was no longer alone.

 

Ches cleared his throat in an attempt to pull the spinner from his stupor. “Well that was an enlightening experience,” the young man observed.

 

The Dark One startled as he realized that someone else had entered the room. Shaking his head Rumpelstiltskin stood up quickly and walked towards the long table. “How’d it go?” his voice was casual, but Ches detected a good deal of dejection present as well.

 

“I wouldn’t really call him the sharpest knife in the draw if you know what I mean,” Cheshire chuckled as he sat in one of the lounge chairs by the fireplace. The teenager hoped that he could pull his mentor out of whatever depressed mood the Dark One currently found himself in.

 

A wicked grin graced the imp’s face, “I had deduced as much. What did you get in exchange for your information?”

 

 “He had some lovely biscuits that I bartered for,” Ches said with a slight shrug, “well that and his mother’s prized jewelry.” The boy held up the ring he’d collected as his latest prize for inspection, catching a smirk on Rumpelstiltskin’s face at the quip. The Dark One took the dainty piece with clawed fingers.

 

“Well done Ches,” the older man acknowledged once he’d examined the ring. Ches’s chest swelled with pride at the Dark One’s praise.

 

As the imp returned the teen’s trophy, Cheshire noticed long gashes that still covered Rumpelstiltskin’s hands. The silky sleeves of the man’s dress shirt barely covered the marks on his wrist and those most likely still extended up the Dark One’s arms. Ches took a deep breath and hesitantly raised his gaze to the imp’s face. Similar marks remained on his mentor’s face as well. The pixie dust from their encounter with the fairies had certainly left a mark that the Dark One wouldn’t soon forget.

 

“What’s the difference between pixie dust and fairy dust?” Ches asked. The words tumbling from his lips before he could stop them.

 

Perhaps unconsciously Rumpelstiltskin clasped his hands behind his back hiding the marks from view as he leaned back against the table. A long silence passed between the two companions, leaving Ches to wonder if he might have pushed at the wrong topic.

 

“Pixie dust is similar in nature to fairy dust, but its exceedingly more powerful,” the imp finally replied.

 

“Then it’s light magic?” Ches inquired further. Whatever had happened to his teacher at Lake Nostos had been terrifying. The apprentice hoped to learn anything more that he could about the substance so that he might better handle such situations in the future.

 

“Very light magic. That’s why it affected me so potently. The darkness inherent in my curse is its very opposite in nature,” Rumpelstiltskin answered.

 

Cheshire had never heard his master refer to his magic as a curse before. For now though, he decided to file that away for later, instead the boy focused on learning more about the magic he’d seen. “How do pixie and fairy dust work anyway? I mean what’s the cost for such magic.”

 

“Ah, that’s just the question isn’t it,” the Dark One smiled. “Fairy dust begins as diamonds crushed into a fine powder by the dwarves that mine them. The diamonds they find are crushed by strong axes and enchantments are woven in as they’re ground up. The extreme workload inherent in such a process negates the cost for the magic. So, in essence fairies can use fairy dust without any real cost to themselves or those they use it on.”

 

“Then why do fairies have wands at all?”

 

“Well the dust has limits as to what it can achieve and there is a finite supply each year. The careful distribution of fairy dust is in part a cost of the magic that it brings as well.”

 

“Then what is pixie dust?”

 

“Pixie dust is a naturally occurring substance found in flowers that grow in the tops of the tallest trees you’ve ever seen. It’s all the way at the top branches. The effort and danger you go through to get to pixie dust deals with a large portion of the cost for such magic. Yet even then, there is usually an added small price to go along with its use. Perhaps a bit of fatigue the next day."

 

“If pixie dust is so much more potent, why not gather more of it to use instead of fairy dust?”

 

“I know of only one realm in which pixie dust grows and it’s not one that anyone would readily or willingly go to. The person who lords over that realm is a demon who jealously guards the substance. It would take a serious amount of leverage to gain some from him.”

 

“So then how did those two dolts get ahold of some?”

 

“That’s a good question, now isn’t it,” another long moment of silence passed between master and apprentice, before Rumpelstiltskin apparently decided he was done with the discussion of pixie dust. “We’ll need to focus more on your training with magic. Your actions at Lake Nostos were impressive, but you’ll need to better understand how to properly weave spells if you’re going to start blasting fairies around.

 

“Little gnats are a nuisance aren’t they,” Ches snorted.

 

His master smirked along with him before taking on a darker look, “They are a nuisance but I’m sorry that you were put in danger by my actions.”

 

“I wasn’t in that much danger,” Ches replied easily as he fiddled with a loose string on the arm of his chair. “Besides, you were helping me.”

 

The imp nodded stiffly his face unreadable, “Yes well, still. I’d rather you not be present for such unpleasant business in the future.”

 

“Those fairies got what they deserved,” the teenager protested adamantly, as he forced himself to once again look up at his master’s face. “You did what you had to do, to protect me and the only fairy worth protecting.”

               

Rumpelstiltskin was silent for a long time after that. Contemplating both his apprentice’s willingness to defend his teacher and the boy’s apparent lack of sympathy to the death of living beings. 

 

Cheshire could tell that his mentor was warring over some idea or another, so he threw caution to the wind and jumped on the topic that he’d been so very curious about. “That siren was also a nasty piece of work.”

 

His master’s eyes became distant and his voice heavy as he answered, “that she was.”

 

“The image the siren took, that was your son,” Ches didn’t bother to phrase it as a question. The old imp stilled as the conversation turned to his son. “Sorry, I, I just-,” Ches stammered at Rumpelstiltskin’s lack of answer.

 

“It’s… it’s okay Ches,” the imp replied quietly. “Yes, that was my son. Baelfire.”

 

“What happened to him?” the question tumbled from the boy’s lips before he could even think to stop it.

 

“I became a monster and he left,” Rumpelstiltskin replied quietly. His whisper seemed to fill the entire room, a hint of resignation and something deeper settled around the Dark One as his thoughts appeared to take a darker turn. Just about the time that Ches believed his mentor had once again slipped into depression, a thought seemed to strike the imp suddenly and it was the Dark One’s turn to ask questions. “Who was the old woman the siren took the form of when it saw you?”

 

Ches had to take several deep breaths before he could answer. “That was my mum. She was a lovely thing wasn’t she,” Ches explained as Rumpelstiltskin nodded in agreement. Memories flitted across the boy’s mind as he thought back on the mother he hadn’t seen in so long. Despite himself the boy admitted, “I miss her terribly.”

 

Slowly Rumpelstiltskin walked over and crouched down in front of his apprentice, “I could help you find her,” the Dark One offered.

 

So many people believed the worst of the man currently stooped in front of him. Yet despite having been terrified of Rumpelstiltskin at various points, Cheshire knew that the imp had a kind heart hidden somewhere deep beneath the monster. And here was proof of that. Ches managed to hold the gaze of his master as he gave him a watery smile, “She died. A long time ago. I was about seven.”

 

Surprisingly it was the Dark One who looked away first, “I’m sorry,” the imp murmured. “I know it doesn’t help or anything, but I am sorry for all that you’ve lost.”

 

“So am I,” the boy replied, “but I had my dad for a few years. He took care of all of us.”

 

“You have siblings,” Rumpelstiltskin queried, noticing his apprentice’s use of plurals.

 

“Aye, four of them if you’d believe it. I’m the youngest of the lot. But Dad always said I was the most trouble,” an honest and small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

 

“I thought you said that you didn’t have a family?”

 

“I don’t anymore,” Ches answered. An old ache began creeping its way into the boy’s chest as he explained. “They died as well. Ogre Wars took a toll on our family.” The boy paused as Rumpelstiltskin nodded in understanding. “My dad was the only provider for our family, so he was never drafted into the Ogres War. But my oldest brother and sister both died on the battlefield. They were twins and the draft age was 17 when they went to fight. My other brother was drafted at 14, but the war ended before he saw any real action. My youngest sister and I were the only two spared. But I was sent to Silas when I turned 10, right after they lowered the age to 14. That’s the last time I saw them before they died.”

 

“I’m sorry kid,” for once the silver-tongued imp looked lost for words.

 

“I guess that’s life sometimes. The Ogres War was only partially to blame for tearing apart my family. I took care of the rest.” Before Rumpelstiltskin could get more on that particular subject the boy continued, “Don’t you have any family other than your son?”

 

“None that matter,” the imp answered carefully getting to his feet and turning his back to the boy.

 

“No wife?” Cheshire asked desperately trying to turn the conversation away from his family. He didn’t know if he was pushing too far, but anything was better than his current situation of drowning in past sorrows.

 

“She’s dead,” Rumpelstiltskin answered sharply without turning towards his apprentice.

 

“Siblings then?”

 

The imp shook his head. Ches could see the tension building in Rumpelstiltskin’s slight frame, but he couldn’t stop himself from his questions.

 

“Mother? Father?”

 

“I never knew my mother and I wish I never knew my father. Not all families are so close knit Ches. Be thankful for what you had at the time,” the imp replied a note of finality present in his tone. “I have work to attend to. You’ve done well today kid, so have the rest of the day off from studying.”

 

With that the Dark One turned on his heel and left the Great Hall. Cheshire sat alone in the silence turning over all that he’d learned in his head. His master was a complicated man, there was no doubt about that. Rumpelstiltskin spoke so kindly about his son, it was obvious to Ches that he cared deeply for the boy. Yet any other mention of family and his mentor shut down completely. Did he have no one else that he cared about?

 

Even knowing that his siblings and father had hated him in the end, Cheshire couldn’t imagine having no lingering feelings for his family. Thinking so intently about Rumpelstiltskin’s problems helped alleviate the numbness that had grown in Ches as they talked about his own family troubles. Maybe I can help hi., the teen thought. He quickly pushed away any notions of making the Dark One part of his family, he’d proven that he wasn’t meant for such relationships. But maybe just maybe, he could help Rumpelstiltskin find the only person that the imp still cared about.

 

***

 

Rumpelstiltskin had much to think on after discussion with Cheshire in the Great Hall. There was something about the boy’s family that he was refusing to talk about. It was a right little mystery that the spinner was more than eager to uncover. However, the imp had to admit that he’d been just as unsettled discussing his own family with the child. Some memories were best left in the past to rot. He decided against looking into the matter. If Ches wanted to talk about it, he could when he was ready.

 

The Dark One had been in his tower for hours now, working through a complicated spell that he would eventually be able to apply to this infamous Dark Curse he was searching for. Each element had to be precisely handled and perfectly implemented. Rumpelstiltskin had eventually broken down and sent Ches to town in search of a few supplies he needed to complete the spell. He felt bad doing so after giving the child the day off. But Ches seemed excited at the prospect and this enabled the imp to keep the boy from interrupting his work. Completely focused on his work he didn’t notice the figure sitting in his window until it was far too late.

 

“Hello Laddie,” the voice from so many of his nightmares called.

 

Rumpelstiltskin spun around quickly to face the demon that had once been his father. It was almost as if the teenager had been summoned by the mere thoughts of him from earlier. The imp called upon every ounce of darkness the curse provided to shroud his heart. “What are you doing here,” he called in what he hoped was a sneer but came out as more of a whimper.

 

You’re pathetic, his curse so helpfully added.

 

“Now is that any way to great your papa?” the teen reprimanded as he jumped lightly from his perch.

 

“I don’t believe you’ve any right left to that title,” Rumpelstiltskin snapped, happy to note that his voice was far more level this time. Yet when he attempted to relax his shoulders the action was to no avail, Peter Pan set him on edge like no one else could.

 

The immortal teenager tutted him sharply, “I thought you’d be so much more understanding these days Rumple. Now that you’ve abandoned your own son that is.”

 

The Dark One felt all the blood drain from his face at the accusation. Knowing that he’d become his worst fear had haunted him for six years now. Certainly, he was not as bad; he’d always put Bae above himself in matters of comfort and food, he’d never berated Bae in public, and he’d certainly never struck his child. But in the end, was he any better than the man who had abandoned him?

 

“What. Do. You. Want,” Rumpelstiltskin growled, eyes never leaving his father as the man sauntered about the room looking over his son’s collection.

 

“Straight to the point then,” Peter laughed. The teenager looked innocent enough, but one glance into his cold eyes could set anyone straight. “I’ve come to offer you a deal oh mighty Dark One.”

 

“I want no part in a deal with you,” the son answered curtly.

 

Peter Pan flitted about the room letting his son’s response hang between them for some time before he finally turned his attention back to the boy. He knew exactly how to get under Rumpelstiltskin’s skin and he could certainly use that to his advantage now. The teenager suddenly stepped straight into the Dark One’s personal space standing mere centimeters away from his face.

 

Rumpelstiltskin tried his best, but he couldn’t contain a massive flinch as his father got too close. He tried to back away but found his back already against the work table. The spinner took several deep breaths as he gazed purposefully into his father’s eyes. Something he wouldn’t have attempted years ago; however, being the Dark One had given him no small amount of pride.

 

“Come on now Laddie. At least hear me out first,” the demon crooned. Rumpelstiltskin refused to nod or break eye contact, knowing that his father would say his piece whether he wanted to hear it or not. “Word gets around you know, even finds itself in Neverland. And I hear that you’ve traded in your son for another young boy,” a dangerous and mocking smile played across the teen’s face. “And here you call me a demon, Rumple.” The quiet laughter that followed the statement sent an all too familiar chill down the Dark One’s spine.

 

“Your news source is apparently faulty. I’ve no one here but me,” the imp hissed.

 

“So, the name Cheshire means nothing to you then?”

 

Rumpelstiltskin had to give his father credit, the man didn’t have an ounce of back down in him these days. But then he never had been afraid of bullying his child. “Not a thing,” he retorted.

 

“Well if the name does start ringing a bell. You can meet me in the Marchlands. There’s a tavern in the duchy of Avonlea. Seedy place for the worthless scum of life, but then I guess you should fit right in,” Peter Pan jeered.

 

“Not interested.”

 

“Not even if I say I might know someone who traffics in hard to find objects. Objects such as, oh I don’t know a magic bean.”

 

Rumpelstiltskin felt his stomach drop somewhere around the region of his feet. It wasn’t possible. Was it? “You’re lying,” he growled.

 

“Now why would I do that,” his father protested feigning insult as he turned away from the Dark One. He paced slowly in front of the imp, like a predator sizing up its prey. “The bean is real, but the price is a steep one.”

 

“What’s your price?” the younger (older?) man asked despite his reservations.

 

“Not telling just yet,” the devilish child smiled. “Let’s just say that Neverland could always use another Lost Boy and leave it there for now.”

 

Peter Pan stepped once more into his son’s personal space. He lifted his hand giving Rumpelstiltskin a pat on the side of the face, which caused the terrible Dark One to startle away from him. The imp knocked into the work bench causing all manner of objects to topple over and spill. Rumpelstiltskin focused on the frustration at losing his hard work to cover the shame of retaining certain reactions to his father. The insolent teen merely flashed a devilish smile and walked over to the window.

 

“Three days Rumple. Be there or you may lose a chance at getting to your precious child.”

 

When he was certain that his father was gone, the spinner allowed his legs to finally buckle and he collapsed to the floor. Leaning back against the leg of the table he pulled his knees up to his chest and curled his arms around them. Shame bubbled within him as a few tears slipped down his cheeks. The imp buried his head and started counting backwards from 100 as he tried to calm down. A trick he’d taught himself so many years ago.

 

He could focus on what to do about this predicament later. Could deal with the dilemma of potentially choosing his apprentice over his child and whether he could believe anything his father had said later. For now, he needed to pull himself back from memories that should have been long since buried.

 

The imp never noticed the eyes that watched him fall apart from the doorway. The eyes that had seen the interaction with this strange teenager and the ears which had heard one very damning conversation. Cheshire backed out of the doorway, quietly making his way down the stairs. He could give his master the supplies later. For the time being, he was terrified of the mysterious light-haired teen and of what Rumpelstiltskin might be willing to do to get back to his son.

 

Chapter Text

His apprentice was most certainly distracted today. Rumpelstiltskin had given the teen, a simple locator spell to attempt and it was taking the boy an inordinate amount of time to complete. They worked in the tower today so that the Dark One could work while he instructed Ches. Normally quick to pick up on anything, Cheshire was currently cursing under his breath as the spell fizzled out of existence once again.

“What’s troubling you Ches?” Rumpelstiltskin asked as he perched himself on the stool before his spinning wheel.

The boy let his hands fall to his sides, keeping his eyes on the spot where the spell had recently vanished. Cheshire’s fingers fiddled with the ends of his sleeves nervously. Noting these signs, the imp contemplated his student. It had been many months since the teenager had shown any fear or anxiety towards his mentor. Rumpelstiltskin had even managed to relax a bit around his apprentice. He’d thought that they had been forming something akin to a bond, so it made little sense for Ches to be so nervous at a minor failure. Something was troubling the young man.

“We can talk about it or you can mope. Your choice,” the imp offered.

“Who was that visitor in your work room last night?” the boy asked taking the Dark One by surprise.

“Visitor?” Rumpelstiltskin implored terrified at what his apprentice might have witnessed.

“When I came to deliver the supplies you sent me after, there was a young man in the room. Who was he?” Ches looked his master straight in the face.

“You’re spying now?” the imp attempted to misdirect the conversation, throwing his hand out in a flippant manner.

The boy squared his shoulders as he continued the confrontation, “No. I heard him say my name, so I listened in. And I’m glad I did all things considering.”

“Not spying just eavesdropping. Not sure which is worse,” the imp sang out harshly. He didn’t want to get riled up at the boy, but he was horrified at the notion that the boy had seen his shameful display with Pan.

“It concerned me. He wants to know about me, why?” The boy refused to back down.

“He’s concerned with me, not you,” the Dark One corrected.

“Sure sounded like he was interested in taking me off your hands. You aren’t going to break our deal, are you?”

Cheshire knew too much, had seen too much. All the emotions that Rumpelstiltskin had managed to push down after his encounter with his father began to surface once again. Anger from his curse rose to squash out the grief. “You should learn to keep your nose out of places it doesn’t belong.”  

Before he could display further anger, before the boy could even so much as respond Rumpelstiltskin teleported himself from the room. He would leave tonight and head to Avonlea. Ches’s assumptions about his father’s price might be correct, but for Baelfire, Rumpelstiltskin had to at least see what his father had to offer. He would do anything to get to his boy.

 

***

 

The little village of Avonlea had prospered greatly in the past few years. The town was well on it’s way to becoming a center of importance. But even the greatest towns have poor sections. Areas that the rich refused to acknowledge and that the occupants were unable to leave. The sections that Rumpelstiltskin knew all too well. Both from the numerous desperate souls he’d encountered in such places and from his past experience as one such poor peasant. The seedy tavern his father had invited him to, was a ramshackle little place. Certainly, one that Malcolm would have felt right at home at. The type that still featured vividly in some of Rumpelstiltskin’s worst nightmares.

No one noticed the dark cloaked figure which slunk through the dirty streets before slipping into said squalid building. Noise assailed the imp as soon as he stepped through the door. Some fool was moronically singing along as an equally idiotic individual played some manner of instrument. The other patrons were either raucously drunk or obnoxiously loud. This tavern hosted the lower echelon of the area, those who were there to drink their misery away or to swindle some poor sod out of the limited goods he had. Ironically Milah would have enjoyed the place as much as his father did.

The Dark One kept his hood well drawn as he searched the tables looking for the insufferable teenager he was here to meet. Normally when he entered a place like this, silence reigned. A fact that he’d come to cherish over his six-year tenure as the Dark One. But tonight, he hoped that no one paid attention to the fact that the Dark One was visiting this little establishment.

A loud burst of raucous laughter rang out from the very center of the room and there right in the middle of everything was his father. Despite being dressed in colorfully expensive leather and silks, the teenager looked as if he belonged in the midst of the many burly and sleazy men surrounding him. Unsurprisingly the teen also had a woman draped over one arm. Malcom had always lived life to the fullest, that much Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t argue.

The imp stalked quietly towards the party lingering behind them just long enough to catch Peter Pan’s eye before seeking out a sheltered table in the back corner of the pub. Rumpelstiltskin made certain that his back was firmly placed in the corner in order to keep watch over the occupants. It was an old habit that he’d picked up from his days as the town coward, avoiding those that might see him as an easy target. In retrospect it made sense for him to keep up that custom. It had become a handy way to watch his back. The Dark One had many enemies and the imp had always enjoyed watching people from afar. The better to notice certain desperate souls.

“You showed up laddie,” a boisterous voice called out, pulling Rumpelstiltskin from his thoughts.

Rumpelstiltskin rolled his eyes as the teen fell into the chair opposite him, “Against my better judgement.”

Pan gave him a smile that on the surface was warm and friendly, but the darkness echoing from the chuckle that followed promised something far more malicious. “How about a drink then Rumple?” the younger/older man offered as he waved over a busty waitress.

“I’m quite fine,” the imp replied.

“Oh lighten up won’t you!” Peter insisted waving a hand at the Dark One. “Something to eat then?”

“No,” Rumpelstiltskin growled already berating himself for agreeing to this meeting.

The waitress must have sensed some of the sinister power residing within the cloaked man because her smile faltered as she approached. Choosing to stand closer to the real demon she flashed Pan a charming smile. “What’ll it be this time dear?”

“Just one pint of the finest ale you have,” the teenager answered providing his own dashing smile. “My companion here isn’t being much fun so he’ll just be having his own bitterness.” Peter winked at the girl, making her blush as she turned away to the bar. “Don’t you just love places like this laddie?”

“I rather detest them. They remind me far too much of you,” the imp quipped darkly keeping his voice low.

Pan gave a snort of disbelief at that, “You used to love coming to taverns when you were a boy.” The demon of Neverland was still looking around drinking in the merriment of the people around and enjoying every minute.

“I’ve never enjoyed bars full of drunken fools,” that got his father’s attention. Subconsciously Rumpelstiltskin assured himself that his hood obscured his face to the best of its ability, hiding himself from the full effect of his father’s gaze.

“Course you did,” Peter protested as the waitress returned with his drink. “You loved hanging around my coattails, watching the games, entertaining all those lads. You can’t tell me we didn’t have fun.”

Rage that had nothing to do with his curse boiled through Rumpelstiltskin at his father’s words. To have some of his worst memories debased and twisted by this man was almost too much. The imp leaned forward and before he could properly think about what to say, the words spilled from his mouth. “Oh yes, you’re right. I loved hanging around watching you drink and swindle people. Being forced to wait in the corner tables of who knows how many shit holes while you took swept some tramp of her feet. Dealing with your drunken corpse night after night. Being sold off to whomever paid the most for whatever service they deemed appropriate without-”

Rumpelstiltskin cut himself off before his anger dove too deeply into the past. He’d boxed those memories away in the back of his mind long ago. He could feel his curse reveling in his fury and driving it forward. Darkness swirled around him like a cloud just waiting to be released. This was what it had felt like when he’d killed Milah and he had worked too hard for control to give into that now.

His father was staring at him through the eyes of the demon that had overtaken him. But then his father hadn’t changed inwardly when he became Peter Pan. Only his outward appearance saw any transformation.

“You really have a way of twisting things don’t you Rumple,” Malcolm – for that disgusted smirk was pure Malcolm – reprimanded. The insufferable teenager took a long drink before continuing, “I took good care of you. Despite the ungrateful spineless child, you were. Still are. You didn’t deserve half of the kindness I showed you.”

“I must have missed the kindness part,” the imp retorted darkly even as his father’s words cut him.

“You’ve always been a churlish little worm,” Peter continued finishing his drink and waving at the waitress for another. “Even now that I’ve come to help you out of the latest mess you’ve created for yourself.”

The spinner took a long breath as he discarded the words his father had said. It doesn’t matter what he thinks he repeated to himself over and over knowing it would never be true. Regardless of what his father had done, he would always desperately yearn for the man’s approval. “Yes, the deal you mentioned,” Rumpelstiltskin conceded. “What do you want?”

After giving his son one more distasteful look the teenager leaned in so that the Dark One could hear his quiet voice. “There’s talk of a man who found a magic bean after sneaking aboard a pirate ship. He’s been moving around looking for an appropriate buyer and I happen to know that he will be in town a bit later tonight. Interested.”

Of course he was interested but the imp knew he had to be careful. He was emotionally charged at the moment and decisions based on pure emotion never turned out well for him. Plus this was his father, a steep price would be required for any such agreement.

“Why would you help me?” Rumpelstiltskin inquired as he peered at Pan over steepled fingers.

His father flashed him a dangerous smile and cocked his head. “I just want to help my son,” Peter intoned false affection seeping from his tongue. At a disbelieving snort and shadowed eye roll from said son Peter tried again, “Well there is a high price for this kind of information of course.”

“There’s the truth,” the imp agreed. “What do you want?”

“It’s a simple matter really,” the teenager reasoned. “I’ll provide you with a path to your son and you provide me with a new Lost Boy.”

“You want me to collect minions for you?” Rumpelstiltskin did nothing to hide the disgust that colored his tone or face.

“Just one specific minion,” Peter’s face split into a huge grin as his son put the pieces of the puzzle together.

“You want my new apprentice,” the Dark One asked leaning back in his seat and pulling a mask of indifference over his face.

“I want your new apprentice,” his father concurred. “A life for a life. It’s a fair trade.”

“And if I say no?”

“Then I guess poor little Baelfire will never see his father again,” Peter pouted before laughing at his son’s current dilemma.

“I’ll need time to think,” the imp began.

“Ah, but you won’t have that time laddie! The man in question is only here for the night before he finds his way into obscurity once more. Is that a chance you’re willing to take?”

Rumpelstiltskin’s head was spinning as he contemplated the deal his father was offering. His curse was finally on Ches’s side. Wanting him to stay in the Enchanted Forrest and continue gaining power. Part of him agreed with his curse. He’d made a deal with Ches and like it or not he’d become attached to the child. But an even larger part of Rumpelstiltskin longed to be with his son again. Either way he was betraying someone and he’d already disappointed his son once.

“I want to see this man you speak of first,” Rumpelstiltskin appealed. “If he has what you say he does then we can talk about an exchange.”

Mischief shone from Peter Pan’s eyes as he realized he’d won. “We have a deal then.” Something dark and hungry darted across his father’s features then. Something that unsettled Rumpelstiltskin to his core, but it was too late to back out now.

 

***

 

They sat at the tavern for several hours waiting for Pan’s signal that their man had arrived. Rumpelstiltskin had refused to continue talking with his father as they willed away the night. Pan eventually moved to another table to begin gambling while the Dark One sat deep in thought in the corner. Memories of so many nights spent in similar conditions constantly threatened to drown Rumpelstiltskin, making it one of the longest nights he’d experienced in a while. It was close to morning before it was finally time to leave. The two walked side by side down several grimy streets until they came upon a dark alley leading to the docks.

Pan held up a hand stopping his son midstride. The imp looked out towards the docks and noted a little round man making his way from one of the ships. The man was absolutely ordinary in every way. From his wispy grey hair to his rather impressive gut, there was nothing extraordinary about this individual.

Slightly confused Rumpelstiltskin held out a hand pointing at the man in question. “That’s your guy?”

A devilish smile crossed Pan’s face and the imp’s unease returned. “Of course not. I just needed you out of sight.”

Before the Dark One could form any reply, a black cuff appeared in Pan’s hand and the teenager closed an impossibly strong hand around Rumpelstiltskin’s extended wrist. The cuff burned ever so slightly as it touched the imp’s wrist. Pan released him almost immediately. In response, Rumpelstiltskin quickly reached for the bottomless ocean that was his magic, but for the first time in six years power didn’t rush to his fingertips.

His eyes went wide with fear as he tried repeatedly to reach his magic. “What did you do?” he asked finally.

“Made it myself,” Pan smirked. “It’s a magic blocking cuff. Works on even the most powerful of practitioners.”

“Why are-” Rumpelstiltskin began.

“Shh, shh,” his father shushed him reaching up to place a hand on the Dark One’s face. “Come on now Rumple, it’s all part of the game.”

Rumpelstiltskin backed away from his father as quick as possible and straight into the building behind him. “What game is that?” he tried to sneer but as terrified as he currently was, it didn’t quite come across as dangerous.    

“You never asked how those fairies got pixie dust?” Peter smirked. “How they knew it might stop you for a while.”

“Why?” the imp breathed. From the corner of his eye he saw two large men walking towards them from his right. To his left were the docks, if he made a run for it now-

But Pan obviously saw his thoughts shift to escape because the teenager grabbed his son’s shoulder and held him tightly. “I’ve sold you to the highest bidder again. Maybe this time I’ll actually be free of you.”

A final smile crossed Pan’s face as a fist collided with Rumpelstiltskin’s face knocking him to the ground. His head connected solidly with the ground and the Dark One knew no more.

 

***

 

It had been five days since he’d last seen Rumpelstiltskin and Ches was growing concerned. His mentor had been upset when he left but he’d never been gone this long without sending Ches some kind of message. Yet nothing arrived. Ches could only clean so much before worry began gnawing at him constantly. He couldn’t sleep, could barely eat. He’d been so angry when the Dark One left. Now though, he would take all that anger over the anxious fear he felt currently.

It was on the sixth day that the front doors burst open. Ches was sitting in the Great Hall cleaning the windows when he heard someone enter. Throwing down his supplies and sprinting to the Entrance Hall, Ches expected to give his master a thorough berating for leaving him to worry. He recognized the figure, but it wasn’t Rumpelstiltskin at the doors.

The former purple fairy stood expectantly waiting for him. “I see you haven’t run off yet, kid.”

At a loss for words he merely shook his head. She looked ridiculously different from the last time he’d seen her, a mere two weeks earlier. A long black dress covered her bodice showing off her slim lines. Atop her blonde hair sat a horned headdress that provided a malevolent look to the ensemble. This woman was obviously no longer a fairy and revealing in that fact.

“You best come with me,” Maleficent offered coming up close to the boy she barely knew.

“W-why?” Ches finally managed to stammer.

“Your fool of a master has gotten himself into deep trouble with some old acquaintances and he needs help. Again,” she replied as if she were bored by the whole situation.

Ches nodded and grabbed his traveling cloak from coat rack by the door. The castle would care for itself while he and the Dark One were gone. Following behind the fairy turned evil sorcereress, Ches couldn’t help but contemplate just how crazy his life had become since meeting Rumpelstiltskin.  

Chapter Text

It was dark and cold when he woke. Ever so slowly the imp’s eyes adjusted to the low light thrown off by a torch hanging on one of the walls. The wane light allowed him to determine that he’d somehow found himself in a dingy cell once again. Usually Rumpelstiltskin walked into these little excursions willingly in order to prove a point to some noble or another. Usually he had a deal or price in mind with such ordeals. Usually he was in complete control of these situations. But then usually he didn’t wake to find himself sitting down and chained to a wall.

Fear gripped the Dark One as he reached for magic only to find that he couldn’t touch it. He could still feel his curse raging through his veins but even that seemed somewhat muted. Panic threatened to overtake him at any moment. The imp steadfastly pushed that aside in favor of taking in his surroundings. Thick metal shackles surrounded his wrists and ankles attaching him to the right-hand wall, just in front of the bars. His arms were spread apart and strung up at about shoulder height. His ankles appeared to be fastened to rings in the floor. The damned cuff that his father had slipped onto his wrist, sat under the manacle on his right arm. It wasn’t a particularly comfortable position, but the imp had a foreboding sense that things could get much worse quite fast.

The cloak and boots he’d been wearing had been removed, leaving him in only his fine tunic and leather breaches. By turning his head, Rumpelstiltskin could see that while his cell was filthy it was also quite spacious. A fact that did not lessen his panic by any degree. Just when the Dark One had given up on finding any more useful information, a shift of the shadows outside the bars caught the imp’s attention. Had it just been his imagination or was there someone standing beyond his field of sight.

“Well this is rather unpleasant,” a voice called answering his last question.

Rumpelstiltskin pulled with all his might against the chains that held him in attempt to strangle the man just beyond his reach. “You-” the imp growled, but the man cut off his insults quickly.

“Come now laddie, there’s no need for all of that.” Light from the single torch illuminated Pan’s face, casting ominous shadows across the demon’s mischievous grin. “I just came to make sure they handled you properly.”

Rage that had nothing to do with his curse seared through the imp. Once again, he’d made a misstep with his father. He’d allowed his desperation for his son along his ridiculously childish need for his father’s acknowledgement to blind him. The demon staring at him now may resemble Malcolm in some ways, but any limited goodness that had existed within the man had obviously died in Neverland.

“You’re a monster,” Rumpelstiltskin hissed spitting the words at his father like venom. “And coming from me, that says something.”

“Oh, please Rumple, don’t say such things. You’ll really cut me deep.” Pan mocked as he crouched down in front of his son, only the bars and years of contempt between them. “Let’s not pretend you won’t deserve whatever they do to you here. You’ve always been a revolting thing but your little stint as the Dark One has certainly added to your sins, now hasn’t it.”

Unable to refute his father’s assertions, but not prepared to back down the imp tried a different route. “So you made a deal with the little doxies for some pixie dust?”

“Aye,” Pan admitted easily. “When the little gnats disappeared, I figured it must not have worked properly so I offered my assistance at catching the most dangerous creature in the realm.” The Dark One’s father smiled at that thought. “In exchange I go back to Neverland and they leave me in peace. Easy trade.”

“Yes of course, you just had to sell out your own flesh and blood. Never been a problem for you,” Rumpelstiltskin found himself incapable of keeping the betrayal out of his voice. He’d always known his father to be a right bastard but knowing something logically and facing it once again were very different things.

“It’s not like you’re the paragon of virtue on that laddie. You sold out your son too, don’t forget,” Pan chided. “Looks like I’ll finally be rid of you this time. Have fun with the clerics boy.” His father gave him one final mocking smile before standing and walking away. Leaving Rumpelstiltskin in the dark once more.

***


What seemed like several hours passed before Rumpelstiltskin heard the door at the end of the hall open once more. He’d wiled away the time thinking up escape plans, but he needed and wanted information before putting any such plan into action. A group of three clerics entered his cell. All dressed in what he supposed where long black cassocks meant to be disguised as robes. But he’d seen too many of these pious garments to be fooled so easily. The younger two looked almost identical with light hair and pale skin. Only the one’s green eyes and the other’s blue marked them as different beings. Twins then.

It was the older cleric that held Rumpelstiltskin’s attention though. Long silver hair was pulled back revealing a face with sharp lines and high cheekbones. But it was the man’s dark and cold eyes that set him apart from the others. Cruelty and malice clung to the man like a shroud, marking him as the leader of this little group and a high-ranking member of this order.

"I was growing concerned that you'd forgotten about me," the imp quipped in a high voice.

"Dark One," the eldest man replied. His voice was the gravelly sort that promised damnation and persecution with each syllable.

Rumpelstiltskin gave a mocking bow of his head "In the flesh. You seem to know me, but I've not had the pleasure of your name just yet. Care to share it?"

"That's not how this works Dark One. I ask the questions." Once again it was the elder who responded to the imp. The man in question walked towards the prisoner stopping only a few feet away, while the other two remained stationed by the door. From this new position, Rumpelstiltskin was forced to crane his neck in a rather uncomfortable position to maintain eye contact with the cleric.

The man was smart, that much was certain. Names were power and Rumpelstiltskin burned to know this one. But for now... "So what business do the clerics have with a degenerate like myself?"

The severe looking cleric gave him an almost approving nod, "You're clever, I'll give you that.

"Always nice to be appreciated," the imp jested.

"More clever than your predecessor at least." As the cleric spoke his two companions moved closer to their prisoner, until they flanked him on either side. One had picked up a long wooden staff from somewhere along the wall. An ominous sign in itself.

"So you knew Zoso? That contemptuous old bastard never struck me as the pious sort." Rumpelstiltskin was unsurprised to find that Zoso had had dealings with the clerics. Tricky old bugger like that was sure to have found trouble somewhere.

A smirk crossed the cleric’s face, "No he wasn't. He managed to hold onto the dagger for almost a year before we re-acquired it and placed him in responsible hands."

"How very noble of you." That remark earned him a slap across the face.

"You'll find that a mouth like that will hurt you far more here than compliance will."

"I've never really been the compliant type," Rumpelstiltskin sneered. A dangerous smile playing across his lips. This time he was struck on to left side by the cleric wielding the staff. "You know if this is the kind of hospitality you're offering, it's no wonder that you're not able to keep clientele."

Several blows later the cleric continued. "You have something that can no longer belong to you Dark One."

"And what would that be exactly?"

"Your dagger. Give it to us and we'll make certain that it ends up in safe hands," the elder man asserted simply.

"Oh you'll choose respectable slave owners, how kind of you." The last came out as growl as the imp leaned forward as far as he could manage.

The man in front of him chose to ignore Rumpelstiltskin's reluctance instead directing his attention to his aides. "Get him up," the cleric directed.

Rough hands grasped the Dark One's wrists and unlocked the manacles holding him to the wall. Once his hands were free and the imp was on his feet the clerics pulled his shirt over his head.

Feeling terribly exposed, Rumpelstiltskin did his best to hinder their work, knowing escape was futile for now, but wanting to be as much of a nuisance as possible. Leaving his ankles attached to the floor they chained his wrists to chains hanging from the ceiling that he'd missed in his initial observation of the room.

"You have two options here Dark One. You can save yourself a world of trouble and tell us where the dagger is. Or we can make you tell us where it is. Your choice."

"Tell you what," Rumpelstiltskin suggested in a sing song voice, giving over completely to the Dark One to mask his growing terror, "you can pry that dagger from my cold dead fingers." It was cliched, but oh did it feel good to see fury flash briefly through the eyes of his jailer. “Or better yet,” the imp continued “give me your name and I’ll consider your offer.”

The elder cleric chose to ignore the second part entirely. "We both know that death is not possible for you without the blade. Other than that, you can survive pretty much anything. Right?" Rumpelstiltskin merely stared coldly at the man, determined to not let any of the fear churning inside him show. "Have it your way then." The cleric whispered before stepping back and allowing his men to do their holy work.

***

One Week Later

The clerics had held him for an indeterminate amount of time. The only way Rumpelstiltskin could be certain days passed was by the change of the clerics who payed visit to his humble abode. He knew a few of their names. The few who were careless or those who'd enjoyed their work so much that he'd made a point of discovering their title.

He'd only been visited by the head cleric twice since his little induction to this current hellhole. Both of those visitations had been significantly unpleasant. But he'd finally learned something useful. So, on the man's third visit he was perhaps more cheerful than the occasion called for.

"Dark One," the bastard acknowledged walking up to Rumpelstiltskin who today found himself lashed to a table his hosts had so generously brought in. The cleric observed his men’s work as he walked around the imp.

It took Rumpelstiltskin several long moments to catch his breath before responding, "So nice of you to stop by and see me Frollo. I'm always glad to take time out of my busy schedule to see an old friend." A wicked smile danced across the imp's face as the name registered to the older man. A slip of the man’s mask informed the Dark One that his deduction was correct.

A steely look settled into Frollo's features and tension tightened the man’s shoulders. "You've been busy," was the short reply.

"Oh Frollo,” the Dark One sneered determined to use the name as often as possible. “You know I like to keep myself occupied during down time." Names held great power and right now he'd more than earned a little fun.

"Obviously you've been given too much 'down time.' We can rectify that. Unless of course, you're ready to give me the dagger."

Rumpelstiltskin merely laughed at the man who'd seen fit to have him tortured for the past several days. “You’ve been sloppy Frollo,” every utterance of the man’s name infuriated him further and the Dark One could feel the power he would be able to hold over the cleric once he was free. “Most people know just how important it is to keep their name out of my hands.”

If the last words came out as more of a wheeze than anything else, that was just fine. He’d gained something over his jailer and the look on the man’s face was worth whatever punishment Frollo deemed fit.

***
Several Days Later

Thankfully they’d left him alone for a short and reprieve. The clerics had left him sitting and chained to the wall once more of course, but at least alone he was able to start pulling himself back from the edge of sanity. As best Rumpelstiltskin could figure he’d been here a little less than two weeks. Two weeks of non-stop torture was wearing on the imp, but he couldn’t give in.

He had an escape plan prepared and in the rare quiet moments like this, he usually tried to gather enough of rational to work through that plan. However, focusing his mind was becoming harder each day. The cleric’s attentions alone were enough to ensure his brain was barely functioning. That added to their insistence that his lack of need for food and water meant they didn’t have to provide such comforts, was enough to guarantee that his sanity was precarious.

Before the Dark One could even contemplate going over his plan, he heard the door at the end of the hall open once more. Tremors began shaking his body as it prepared for the next round with the clerics. A brief moan escaped him at the sound of approaching footsteps. However, instead of his cell door swinging open he heard the torch pulled from its bracket.

Sudden light blinded him for a moment as it shone far too closely to his face. “Rumpelstiltskin,” a quiet and scared voice whispered.

Something about that voice pulled the imp towards coherency. He knew that voice, but it couldn’t possibly be who he thought it was. Not here. Not standing outside his cell in obvious danger. Rumpelstiltskin’s eyes flew open as he turned his face to the bars.

In an act of complete control, the Dark One’s jaw dropped as he took in the teenager standing in front of him. “Ches?”

Chapter Text

“Ever ridden a horse before kid?” the former purple fairy asked as Cheshire followed her down the Dark Castle’s front path.

“N-no,” the boy stammered. Ches was a complete wreck at the moment. Worry for his teacher mixed inconsistently with his fear of wandering away in the company of a woman he barely knew. Yet Maleficent had helped them before, he reasoned, perhaps she would again.

“Then I guess you’ll learn today. Unless of course Rumpelstiltskin has taught you how to teleport yourself?” Maleficent gave him a look that was almost hopeful until Ches shook his head in answer. “Well we wouldn’t want it to be too easy anyway.”

At the end of the path stood two large horses equipped with saddles and what looked like a week’s worth of supplies. Maleficent stopped and patted the nose of a beautiful black horse that looked almost as formidable as she did. Gesturing to the chestnut horse she continued in that same bored tone, “I guess you’ll be learning a lot today. He’s yours for the trip kid.”

Ches could take it no longer. “Where exactly are we going? And what is it that we’re doing?”

That earned him a rather impressive eye roll. “I told you. Your fool of a master has landed himself in trouble and I’ve decided to it’s worth my time to rescue him. With your help of course.”

“What kind of trouble?” Ches asked.

“Get on the horse and I’ll fill you in on the way,” Maleficent offered attempting to get them on the move.

But Ches didn’t budge. “How do I know I can trust you?”

“Oh, for goodness sake kid,” Maleficent groaned. “Now you decide to become cautious? You’re apprenticed to one of the darkest sorcerers in the realms. Just a few weeks ago you ran without hesitation into a lake to face a siren and fought fairies. I think it’s a little late for you to be thinking about caution.” When the boy still refused to be moved, she tried a different tactic. “You’re master knows a little too much about my love life and those who hold him captive just might find such information worthwhile. I don’t want him spilling my secrets to better his position. Happy?”

Cheshire took a moment to think through the former fairy’s words. If he was to trust any fairy, Maleficent would be the one. She’d already proven that she both liked him and thought him worth her time. He also knew that Rumpelstiltskin had some rather impressive dirt on the woman. Her claims rang of truth and he couldn’t find any falsity in her words. She was saving her own skin, that he could believe.

Ches merely nodded in response before walking over to his horse. He watched Maleficent gracefully mount the beast with ease. Can’t be that difficult then he thought looking at the saddle seated upon his horse. It took the boy a few tries, but on the third he finally managed to heft himself into position. Maleficent observed his struggle with a bemused expression that was swiftly beginning to annoy Ches to no end. “So where are we going,” the boy inquired in a frustrated voice.

Grabbing her reins with practiced knowledge the sorceress turned her horse to the South. Ches followed suit as she replied, “There’s a little village in the Marchlands that’s been making a name for itself lately. Avonlea is its name. Your master went there several days ago on business-”

“He made a deal with that young man that stopped by,” Cheshire blurted out before he could stop himself.

Maleficent’s eyebrows perked at that declaration, the only outward sign of her surprise that the Dark One could be fooled by a kid. Something about the situation still obviously rang odd to her. “Well that deal was a trap and now the clerics of the area have the Dark One under their power. I don’t think I need to explain just how dangerous that is.”

Ches shot her a look that clearly said he would need her to further explain. He capitalized on that fact by adding, “But I thought that the clerics were the good guys?”

“Yes, and fairies don’t have an agenda when they’re helping those in need,” Maleficent quipped, her point made quite nicely.

“Some fairies don’t have agendas,” the boy countered shooting her an appraising look.

“Look kid,” the former fairy explained. “There are good clerics just like there are good fairies. The world isn’t so black and white as you might think. Some people wear the mantle of hero or of kindness, but never actually live out those ideals. Where as some may have the appearance of a monster and yet have good hearts. The world is just messy like that. You can’t ever judge someone just by what they say. Actions are everything kid. Remember that and you might actually make it.”

It was the closest Maleficent had ever come to giving him sound life advice and Cheshire nodded at the sorceress’s wisdom. He didn’t necessarily understand all that she said or meant, but her words rang with truth and left him feeling as if they might be important later in his life.

Maleficent ran through the basics of riding a horse impatiently answering each of his many questions, before she informed him that the best way to learn was to give it a go. It was with a shaky start that their adventure to save the monster from the holy men began. Surely it can only get better from here, Cheshire thought as he left the safety of the Dark Castle’s lands and its master for the first time in years.  

 

***

 

Several days of camping and hard riding later, Ches decided that while he enjoyed Maleficent’s company immensely there was such a thing as too much quality time with the former fairy. He could respect the fact that she was sassy, and that sarcasm seemed to be her first language, but the woman was as moody as she was facetious. She also wasn’t very keen on what she liked to call “roughing it.” While Ches didn’t mind sleeping on the ground underneath the stars, Maleficent absolutely refused. She took time to conjure a tent each night and to ensure a fire kept them warm whenever they stopped. Such frivolous use of magic left even a novice like Cheshire quite uncertain. What would the price be for such luxury?

However, none of that mattered now that they’d finally reached the tower home to Avonlea’s Holy order. The cleric’s residence was a modest thing, yet the surrounding land spoke of a deep and old power that resided within and around the tower. Cheshire knew that it was supposed to be light magic but something dark permeated the air and left the hair on his arms tingling as they neared the place.

Maleficent pulled him aside before they got too close to the forebodingly tall construction. “So here’s the deal, I help pluck your master from the hands of the holy men and then you owe me a favor.”

“A favor?” the boy repeated suspiciously.

“Yes, just the one. And your master must keep his annoyingly busy mouth closed about my private affairs. Agreed?”

Rumpelstiltskin had warned Ches about promising something so open ended as a favor in a deal. Favors were wonderful for those making the deal but were to be accepted only in dire situations from someone else. Of course this certainly counted as a dire situation. He liked Maleficent well enough even if she was a bit high maintenance. But could he trust her? “Agreed,” the words slipped from his mouth before he even registered them leaving.

A coy smile flashed across the sorceresses face making Ches wonder if he’d just made a ridiculous mistake. “You’re a good kid,” she asserted giving him an appreciative nod and causing Ches to lower his eyes.

“We have to be cautious from here on out okay kid,” Maleficent insisted getting back to topic. Lifting his head and forcing him to look her in the eyes the woman continued, “They can’t know that you’re here with me or they’ll instantly suspect something odd.”

Eyes locked on the deep blue of hers, Ches nodded his understanding. “So, what do we do?”

Maleficent gave him a wicked smile that screamed he would regret asking that question. The sorceress extended her hand and allowed a golden chain to slide from between her fingers. “This is a charmed necklace. It will allow you to take on the form of another while you wear it. When you wish to transform back you simply run your finger across the clasp.” She demonstrated as she explained, but something in her voice caused suspicion to settle in his chest.

“What other form will I take while wearing this?”

The wicked smile returned, “Oh nothing horrendous, you’ll just be a bit more mousy than usual is all.”

 

***

 

Cheshire was beyond furious as the ex-fairy sauntered up the bridge that served as entrance to the clerics abode. His current position inside the sorceress’s front cloak pocket was exceedingly uncomfortable and he could barely see a thing. More than that though, his current predicament of being a mouse (ears, tail, and all) was what really set off his sour mood. He would certainly have to find a way to get some subtle revenge on Maleficent at some point in the near future. Very soon.

Their first obstacle was an oddly shaped man who stood guard at the front gate to the tower. From what little Ches could see of the man, he was hunched over and seemed to have a rather disformed face. Yet an odd kindness permeated from the smile he turned on his latest visitor.  Acting as if she’d done it a thousand times prior, Maleficent sauntered over to the young man.

“Now Ms. Mal, you know I can't let you in anymore,” the guard intoned giving the woman a shy grin.

“You certainly can Quasimodo,” Maleficent replied in the sweetest voice Ches had ever heard from the woman. “I have an appointment.”

“With who?”

"Deval." At a skeptical look from the guard she rolled her eyes and explained, "he happens to know a lord looking to sell a good deal of land. I'm an interested party."

True compassion shone across Quasimodo’s face as he looked upon Maleficent. “I'm glad to hear your getting back on your feet Mal. Truly. I hated to hear that you'd lost your wings. I'll send a message to Deval he'll meet you down here shortly."

"Now, now. There's no need for such propriety. I know the place inside and out. I can meet him in the usual spot," she urged.

"Begin' your pardon Mal I can't allow that. You're not a fairy no more. You have different rules to follow," an apologetic tone creeped into Quasimodo’s voice. Even Cheshire could tell that he would be an easy man for Maleficent to wear down.

"Always the stickler you,” she teased flashing the man a flirtatious smile before looking down at her perfectly manicured nails and lowering he voice to a conspiratory whisper. “I suppose you also have stronger security given your newest guest."

The man went stiff in an instant, "What new Guest would that be?" he asked unable to hide his discomfort at such a sudden change.

"Oh dear, news travels fast even to those of us no longer in Blue's good graces. I have my connections and they saw you bring in a certain Dark One."

“Miss Mal-”

"Of course I'm sure you can say nothing about that." The former fairy took a more endearing turn "I'll even admit that I wanted to sneak down and see the old demon in chains. His rightful place if you ask me."

"Story I heard was that consorting with him was what lost you your wings," the man questioned suspicion making his voice tight. However the fondness that shone from his eyes betrayed that suspicious tone.

"Well partially true. He had me bewitched, impressively powerful spell no doubt,” the woman lied easily throwing on her most pitiful voice. “By the time I came fully back to myself, I'd lost my wings and two dear friends were dead because of that creature. After learning that the others had died due to my mistake I chose to renounce my wings entirely and give up any right at reclaiming them. It's my penance."

"I hadn't heard all that!" Quasimodo exclaimed. True sympathy and bewilderment poured from the man as he reached out and gently took one of Maleficent’s hands in a gesture of friendly comfort.

"Well it was strictly between Blue and I. So, I guess I did hope to see the beast suffering if I could swing it."

“Now Mal you know I can't allow that.  I'm sorry for what the Dark One did to you and I'm glad to see him under some manner control as well, but it's just too dangerous to let anyone down there at the moment. Maybe once they've got him under full control I can swing it, but for now..."

"Ah well. A girl can dream right?"

"I can let you in to go see Deval though. I'll set you two up in the usual sitting room. That way you two can discuss business in private. But just this once now." He gave her a warm smile as he opened the gate and allowed her entrance.

The woman was impressive, there was no doubt about that. Ches squeaked loudly from her pocket as she pulled the guard in for a quick hug. But her voice drowned out the frantic squeals of an almost flattened rodent. "You really are the best of this little congregation." She said providing the man with a wink and following the cleric through the front gate. 

Ches watched from his tucked away position as Maleficent entered the foreboding tower and traveled what must have been a familiar route to her. The ex-fairy twisted around corners and traipsed up secluded staircases with a practiced ease that kept them from meeting anyone else on their travels. On the rare occasion that the sorceress did meet on another, she spun them the same tale about needing to see Deval and about Quasimodo’s allowances.

Finally, the woman opened a thick wooden door and entered a rather humble sitting room. A few chaise lounges and armchairs were scattered about the small room. Though the lone fireplace gave of a comforting warm light, it did little to dispel the chill that Ches believed had nothing to do with the still frigid air outside.

This place was dangerous. Some great evil retained a permanent presence within these walls. It was nothing like the clerics Ches had known back home. Those men had been kind and warm. They gave the best advice and were always prepared to help those in need. The clerics of Avonlea were dissimilar in every conceivable way.

“Well aren’t you a fine sight,” a low voice drawled from an armchair close to the fire.

Cheshire couldn’t see a thing until Maleficent turned her body towards the voice in question. “Oh, my dear, you give a woman such a fright.” To the great dismay of the mouse in her pocket, the sorceresses voice had gone deeply seductive.

 

“You knew I’d be waiting here,” the voice obviously belonging to a man returned.

“Yes but startling a person just as she makes her grand entrance… It’s bad form.”

“Well I’ll just have to make up for that then won’t I,” the man crooned seductively. A body unfolded itself from the armchair and gave Ches a visual to associate with the drawl he’d heard.

A young man moved closer to Maleficent and her unfortunate passenger. The man was tall and gangly with long greasy black hair that hung in curtains around his face. A beak like nose protruded from his face seeming at odds with the refined high cheekbones. Altogether he wasn’t an unpleasant site, yet something about him set Ches’s fur on end. He didn’t scream darkness like Rumpelstiltskin’s mere presence could, but something about the man seemed a touch menacing.

“It’s been too long my love,” Maleficent was saying as the two moved closer together.

“It’s barely been two weeks dearest,” the man replied humor and something like longing coloring his voice.

“Two weeks is so long to go without any companionship.” The voices of the two adults seemed very flirtatious and full of innuendo Cheshire didn’t even want to consider. It seemed that his carrier had forgotten about him while the newest member of their team had distracted Cheshire. He barely managed to squeak out a protest before he was crushed by the two bodies.

“Oops,” came the ex-fairy’s exclamation at the reminder that she wasn’t alone with her lover. “Sorry I almost forgot about you kid,” if Ches wasn’t mistaken he’d have sworn that Maleficent was blushing. The dark-haired cleric looked on with curiosity as she pulled Cheshire out of her coat pocket by the tail. The sorceress ignored his squeaks of pain as he writhed in front of the man. “That’s for being such a little smart ass on our trip,” she crooned smugly as she finally sat him in her hand.

Not to be outdone so easily, Ches bit the witch’s index finger rather hard. “You little-” she yelped but the cleric cut her off before the two companions could do further damage to one another.

“Now who might you be little one,” his low voice came as he plucked Cheshire from Maleficent’s deathly grasp.

“That is the apprentice of your newest resident,” the woman growled. At the man’s questioning glance, she continued, “his name is Cheshire. He’s going to help us with our little predicament.”

“Oh, is he?” the man asked curiously. “You’re quite sure it’s really an apprentice and not a gutter rat you picked up by mistake?”

“No gutter rat could be that purposefully annoying,” Maleficent retorted shooting a glare at the boy turned mouse.

Deval turned his full attention to Cheshire now. Clever dark eyes roved over his small form taking note of the small golden chain that was threaded across the mouse’s throat. “So, you’re the apprentice I’ve heard so much about then.” All Ches could do was give a squeak of acknowledgement. “You sure you’re up for this kid?” Another more forceful squeak followed that question.

A mischievous glint found its way into the man’s smile as he sat Ches down on a table by the fire.

 

***

 

It had taken Ches several hours to traverse the huge tower, following Deval’s precise directions. Granted the tiny legs of a mouse moved with less speed than those of a man. Still, it gave the trio abundant time for Maleficent and Deval to distance themselves from any possible association with what Cheshire hoped would be a grand escape.

The clerics had taken painstaking care in keeping Rumpelstiltskin well guarded. When Deval had disclosed that the Dark One’s cell lay at the lowest level of the vast structure, Ches hadn’t fully appreciated the full expanse of the cleric’s home. After sulking through the shadows past six or more clerics guarding the entrance to the dungeons below, Cheshire ran his paw across the gold thread at his throat.

A hot and unpleasant feeling overtook the mouse. Heat filled veins stretching muscles and bones until Ches felt they would be pulled from his body. Using all his willpower not to squeak in discomfort, Ches barely realized when the transformation was completed. Panting the boy stood on shaky legs and let out a tiny tither of laughter at the sheer cleverness of this plan.

While the clerics exhausted their resources on keeping Rumpelstiltskin trapped within the tower, they’d spared little thought at keeping someone else out. No one would expect that the Dark One had someone who cared about his welfare.

Making certain to keep his footsteps quiet, Cheshire walked down a long dim corridor. At the end of the corridor he could see a large steel door embedded into the stone of the wall. This was the place then. The entrance to where they had imprisoned his teacher. He encountered no guards at this level, just as Deval had said. The clerics were attending the Dark One at the moment and had no need for extra protection when so much lay outside the door Ches had just snuck through.

Magic whispered across his skin as the teen slowly approached the door. Strong and protective at its core though it was, Cheshire sensed the magic here was twisted into something far darker. As he approached the door the boy could hear tormented cries, loud at their origin but muffled by a distance. Shivers ran up the Ches’s spine as his imagination ran wild. What were they doing to his master?

With nothing left but to wait, Cheshire sought out a dark alcove in which to hide away. It barely covered him in shadows, but if he was quiet and still enough he was certain anyone passing wouldn’t notice him. People usually didn’t look for something they didn’t expect to see.

What felt like several hours passed before the boy heard movement from the other side of the door. Catching his breath in his lungs Cheshire waited patiently as three clerics passed by his hiding spot completely unawares. Hearing the door at the end of the hall slam shut, Ches allowed himself a sly smile at his own success.

It took several tugs and all the strength the teen had, but he finally pried open the door at the bottom of the dungeons. A long dark hallway smelling of blood, burnt flesh, and something like death greeted him. Shivers ran up and down the boy as he gathered his considerable courage to take the first few steps. The corridor ran a shorter distance than he’d believed it would, but it felt as if it took him ages to walk it. A lone torch sat in a bracket near the end lighting his way through the darkness. As the boy drew closer to the light he noticed thick bars set into the stone at the end of the hallway. Like rough dragon’s teeth, they sat guarding whatever horde the monsters had captured and left to rot in the cell.

A weak moan from the left-hand side of the prison caught Ches’s attention. He darted to the wall and yanked the lone torch from its brace. Its light poured over the cell as Ches held it down close to the bars of the cell.

The torch illuminated a limp figure secured to the left-hand wall. The figure shrank back from the light as far as it could, considering the heavy chains holding it in place. Cheshire watched as his master pulled himself together enough to squint around the light. The man was almost unrecognizable in his current state. His face swollen, and bruised with what looked to be dried blood clinging to him in various spots. The imp was dressed in only a pair of tattered cloth breeches and what Ches could see of his body was covered in bruises, cuts, whip marks, and burns. The Dark One looked horrible to say the least.

“Rumpelstiltskin,” Ches breathed, noting the terror that coated his own voice.

“Ches?” Came the disbelieving answer as the Dark One gaped at his apprentice. Rumpelstiltskin’s voice was hoarse and gruff, but a wisp of hope clutched onto his words. “What are you doing here?”

“You didn’t come home, I got worried,” the boy answered simply. But even Ches could tell that his voice didn’t sound quite right. Shock at his mentor’s current state continued coursing through the teen, coloring his words and drawing lines of worry into his young face.  

The imp struggled to move into a comfortable position. With his hands chained at shoulder height that proved a difficult task. “You can’t be here Ches, you need to leave at-”

“Now how did you get in here?” a grim voice called echoing around the room. Rumpelstiltskin tensed as an older man with silvery hair appeared from the shadows. Cheshire had never seen fear of that magnitude in his mentor, but it was certainly present at this appearance of this man.

“And who might this be Dark One?” the cleric asked as he moved to stand next to Ches and placed a strong hand on the boy’s shoulder. Rumpelstiltskin didn’t answer. Instead he fixed a deathly glare on the man beside his apprentice.

“No reply?” the man taunted, “No clever quip or impudent retort?” The cleric’s gaze pierced the Dark One. The faint amusement present in that glare that greatly unsettled Cheshire. “Perhaps he’s just an unfortunate who made a wrong turn?” The man’s voice was low and gravelly, menace coated the man’s throat and swam through the air on his words. It was a voice that would surely return to Ches in later nightmares. The imp’s expression didn’t change as his eyes followed the cleric now circling Cheshire. “Or perhaps he’s the spy of some noble or another looking for a new pet?” Cheshire bristled at that but before he could respond the man continued, “Or maybe he’s this apprentice you’re rumored to have acquired. It certainly wouldn’t bode well for the boy if that were the case of course.”

Two other clerics walked out of the shadows as the older man completed his circling of the boy. “Jehan,” the head cleric motioned at the blonde man with green eyes, “bring the boy.”  

Strong arms grabbed Ches by the shoulders as the indicated man led him into Rumpelstiltskin’s cell. Agitation that was likely not noticeable to anyone but Ches lined the Dark One’s face as the boy was roughly pushed in front of Rumpelstiltskin. The chained man allowed himself a brief glance at Ches, false assurance that everything would be okay littering his gaze.

“So Dark One have I jogged your memory yet?” the older man asked.

Cheshire struggled to get away from the cleric holding him, but the man’s grip was steadfast and strong. The other cleric, who Ches now noted looked eerily similar to Jehan with the exception of his eye color, moved to stand beside Rumpelstiltskin.

“Frollo, I’ve never seen the boy before today,” the imp lied casually.

 Anger briefly stole across the man’s face as the Dark One uttered his name, but he quickly regained his mask. “Phoebus chain the boy to wall.”

The blue-eyed cleric moved to pull Cheshire away, but his actions were cut short by Rumpelstiltskin’s interjection. “You’re not seriously going to harm a curious child, are you Frollo?”

“Curious children often need correction when they wander into dangerous areas.” Frollo replied easily gesturing for Phoebus to continue his work. “Unless of course you’re willing to make a deal to spare the boy some small discomfort.”

Fear coursed through Cheshire as he fought against the two clerics dragging him to the wall that Rumpelstiltskin was chained to. A chance look at his master calmed Ches ever so slightly. Try as he might to cover his worry the Dark One’s nervous glances and the taut hold of his jaw betrayed him. While his master’s face was a mask of indifference, distress seeped from the man at the clerics insinuation. “You’re bluffing,” the imp growled.

“In your short time here, have you known me to bluff about such things?” Frollo countered darkly. The older man leaned down until his face was inches away from Rumpelstiltskin’s. “But then why would you care about a boy you don’t know?”

Rumpelstiltskin refused to break eye contact with his tormentor, “Perhaps because, unlike some, I don’t enjoy the thought of children suffering.”

That was exactly the wrong thing to say. The two clerics who had paused to watch the confrontation between the holy man and the demon jumped back into action. Ches felt cool metal circle his wrists and ankles. The chains attached pulled tight causing his body to slam into the wall. The boy took several deep steadying breaths. He knew how to control this kind of fear, to send his mind elsewhere while a “correction” was enacted. But he’d forgotten such horrors in his months with the Dark One and his usual techniques were failing him.

A harsh hand gripped his hair and roughly turned his head until he was facing his mentor. At this point, Rumpelstiltskin was frantically pulling on his own bindings. Silently struggling to get free. Desperation shone from the man’s eyes as he shared a look with Ches.

“Would you like to explain yourself boy?” the man called Frollo whispered in Cheshire’s ear, sending tremors down the boy’s spine. When Cheshire held his silence, the cleric backed away. “Have it your way then.”

Ches heard the distinct sound of a whip sliding across the floor before a voice rang out. “STOP!”   

Cheshire opened eyes he didn’t know he’d shut and saw Rumpelstiltskin slumped in defeat. The chains securing him to the wall were the only things keeping the man upright. “I’ll do it,” he whispered to the floor.

“What’s that Dark One?” Frollo asked striding over to the imp and grabbing a fistful of the man’s hair, forcing his head back.

“I said, I’ll do it,” the Dark One growled defeatedly.

“What exactly will you do?” Frollo had a clever streak, Ches had to give him that. The man wanted specifics.

“I’ll give you the dagger, but there are conditions.”

Out of the corner of his eye Cheshire saw Frollo signal Jehan to let him down. As he was released Ches struggled to hear every word of their conversation. What was his mentor doing for these men?

“You don’t get to make conditions here,” the silver haired cleric advised.

“Yes. I. Do,” Rumpelstiltskin asserted.


Frollo's eyes scanned the Dark One intently. "The boy is your apprentice then." 

"It wouldn't matter if he wasn't," the imp answered quietly. "Now my conditions."

Surprisingly Frollo nodded for the imp to continue. “In exchange for the dagger, you let the boy go free. He is not to be harmed or killed by you, your followers, your employees, by anyone that you’ve coerced, persuaded, or bribed. Harmed includes physical and mental and also includes imprisoning or controlling him in any manner. You also cannot order me or have someone else order me to harm, kill, maim, or hurt him in any way. He’s to be left completely alone by your order. My freedom in exchange for his. That’s a fair trade.” The Dark One ran through his airtight list of demands with rapid speed that left Ches reeling.

However, the boy picked up quickly and understanding slammed into Cheshire as he listened to his mentor discuss terms with the monster that called himself a cleric. "No!" The boy shouted before Frollo could respond. Jehan and Phoebus held him in place even as he struggled to move to his master’s side.

The cleric's head whipped around to face the boy who'd dared to interrupt him. He released the imp and took two large strides to stand in front of Cheshire.

"You can't do this," Ches asserted looking at Rumpelstiltskin and ignoring Frollo and the two clerics keeping him from his mentor. 

The imp merely shrugged in response, but a new form of understanding seemed to dawn upon the head cleric. "Oh, how sweet," the man crooned placing a finger under Ches's chin. "It seems that the boy cares for you, Dark One." Frollo laughed at the impossible sentiment. A dry crackly sound that held no humor but was full of malice. An evil sound if Ches had ever heard one. "It's endearing really, but what form of spell or enchantment have you placed on the boy?” The man paused for a dramatic beat, a showman if Ches had ever seen one, before continuing “or is he just ignorant enough to not recognize a monster when he's sees one?"

Though none of the questions had been directed at him, Cheshire couldn’t hold his tongue. “I can tell the difference between a man and a monster like you,” the boy spat out with a sneer that rivaled any his mentor had ever worn.

Frollo released the boy’s chin and turned sharply towards his men. “Remove the boy to another cell.” As the other clerics began pushing the struggling boy forward, Frollo turned his attention to the Dark One once more. “You will disclose the dagger’s location to us now. Once I have it, your little minion goes free.”

“You might have noticed that I don’t operate well under orders,” Rumpelstiltskin replied as calmly as if he’d been discussing the weather.

“We’ll soon remedy that.”

“The boy stays with me,” at the imp’s words Phoebus and Jehan stopped their attempts to remove Cheshire and turned to their leader with questioning looks.

“And why would I agree to such a thing creature?”

“Because of the two of us, I’m more likely to keep my word. And I simply don’t trust you. The boy stays with me and in the morning, I’ll take you and the boy to the dagger. The boy leaves when you’ve seen the dagger and I’ll give it to you once we return.” A long moment passed as Frollo considered the imp’s proposition. Seeing that he was losing the man, Rumpelstiltskin added, “the dagger is in a secure location. No one can get to it but me and I refuse to hand it over until I’m assured that the child is safe.”

“Then what’s to ensure that you don’t break our agreement once Ches is out of the picture,” the head cleric stressed Cheshire’s name in a manner that was obviously significant to both the cleric and the Dark One.

“You have my word.”

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t trust the word of one such as yourself.”

Rumpelstiltskin bristled at that. “I don’t break deals, dearie. It’s your order’s job to go around making promises that can’t be kept not mine. So it’s my word will be trusting. I won’t give you the dagger until Ches is out of the picture.”

Frollo seemed on the verge of arguing further until Phoebus leaned forward to whisper something Ches couldn’t hear. A nod of the elder man’s head and a brief flick of his wrist seemed to settle the matter between the two of them. “Very well,” the man begrudged. “Say goodbye to your apprentice tonight Dark One.”

After instructing his men to bind Ches to the wall adjacent to Rumpelstiltskin, Frollo and his followers left their prisoners to the darkness.

“What are you doing here Ches,” the imp sighed deeply once he was certain the clerics were gone.

The boy in question provided a sheepish smile, “Rescuing you?”

“Well you’re doing a marvelous job,” Rumpelstiltskin snorted, shifting in yet another vain attempt to find a comfortable position and grimacing when he found only more pain.

“Would you believe me if I said this was all part of the plan?” Ches asked.

Rumpelstiltskin shot his apprentice a withering look before turning to the more serious matter. “When they let you go-”

“I’m not-”

“Don’t argue with me kid,” the imp barked shooting down Cheshire’s protests. “When they let you go tomorrow, I want you to find Maleficent. She’s not the most trustworthy but she liked you. Tell her to get you out of the Enchanted Forest if possible. There are many other realms that you’d do fine in.”

“I’m not leaving my home,” Cheshire implored.

“Stay away from Neverland at all costs, but Oz is similar to our realm in many ways. Wonderland should be a last resort,” the Dark One continued ignoring the teen’s comment and ticking off a list of possibilities. “You’d probably be fine in Camelot. It’s on the outskirts of the Enchanted Forest, but it’s obscure enough that few go there. Or perhaps-”

“Rumpelstiltskin,” Cheshire interrupted loudly. He leaned as far forward as his restrictive bonds would allow to ensure he had his master’s full attention. “I’m not leaving the Enchanted Forest. This is my home and I’m not letting these vile creatures force me out. I’m also not leaving you.”

“Yes, you are. They’ll leave you alone tomorrow, but I don’t trust them to keep their end of this deal for long. You’re my apprentice and I’ve obviously tainted you. They won’t let you continue to learn magic. You have to leave.”

“They’ll get over it, I’m sure.” Ches scoffed pointedly not listening to his mentor’s instructions. “I always wanted a bit of adventure anyway. Running from and thwarting the plans of the clerics. Sounds like an adventure to me!”

“Ches-”

“I’ve told you, you’re the closest thing I have to family,” Cheshire urged completely serious now. “And I’m not leaving you behind. Besides, like I said, this is all part of my plan.”

Rumpelstiltskin gave his apprentice yet another glare, but this one held no real bite. In truth he felt a surge of warmth spread through his chest at the boy’s words. After the latest unsurprising but no less painful betrayal by his father, and two weeks of the clerics administrations it was nice to have someone consider him worthy of being saved.

“Do you think you can walk?” the boy asked.

“I could do much more than that if I could get this infernal cuff off.”

“It might be time to test that,” Ches mumbled hearing footsteps approach their cell.

A tall and lanky figure emerged from the darkness beyond the cell. Cheshire saw his mentor unconsciously shrink in on himself as it became clear that this was yet another cleric. “So, you’re the fearsome Dark One then?” a familiar drawling voice called through the cell bars.

“Deval!” the boy exclaimed unable to contain his excitement.

“Yes, thank you so much for shouting out my identity to all kid,” Deval quipped in return as he unlocked the cell door.

Deval made his way over to Cheshire with a large set of old fashioned keys in his hands. “Don’t take one step closer to the boy,” came the Dark One’s voice, low and dangerous in his threat.

“You’re not really in any position to make threats imp,” Deval replied easily as he ignored Rumpelstiltskin’s order and unlocked the manacles surrounding Cheshire’s wrists. “You did good kid.”

Ches glowed with pride at the compliment, flashing the cleric a large smile as he stood. The sound of his mentor once again struggling against the chains that held him in place brought the teen back down to earth and he wasted no time in snatching the keys from Deval.

“Sorry, Deval is on our side,” Ches explained as he worked to free Rumpelstiltskin from his bonds.

The Dark One glared up at the cleric standing behind his apprentice as Ches worked. “And what does Deval get from all of this?”

“Your continued silence about my affair with a certain ex-fairy,” the man supplied easily.

The imp simply nodded in return, but Cheshire could see mistrust still lingering in his mentor’s eyes. “Got it!” the boy cajoled as he released the chains around Rumpelstiltskin’s ankles and quickly moved to his wrists. A few more seconds work had those free as well.

Rumpelstiltskin sagged as his arms fell to his sides no longer keeping him in place. Cheshire gave his master a quick once over and noted just how week the man was. “Do you think you can walk?” Ches asked again taking in the many cuts and bruises on the Dark One’s exposed skin and the odd angle that one of his ankles was pointed.

“As I said before,” the imp answered, “get this cuff off and I can do more than that.” Rumpelstiltskin extended his wrist out to the boy as he spoke.

“You’ll keep your silence?” Deval asked before Cheshire could remove the black cuff that encased the Dark One’s wrist.

“For your assistance here? Yes, I’ll keep your little secret all to myself.”

Deval nodded his thanks before stalking out the cell door. “I’ll give you a few moments before I raise the alarm. You shouldn’t have any trouble teleporting from there. That cell was never made to hold the likes of something like you.” With those parting words Deval disappeared down the dark hallway.

Cheshire turned back to the Dark One and quickly took hold of the magic blocking cuff. With a swift tug it came free. “All part of your plan eh?” Rumpelstiltskin repeated with actual humor coloring his tone.

“I learned craftiness from the best,” the boy replied with a grin.

Shouting from the end of the hall signaled that Deval had raised the alarm. “Hold onto my arm tightly Ches and don’t let go,” Rumpelstiltskin ordered quickly.

As the far door opened admitting a swarm of men, Cheshire closed his eyes and felt magic overtake him.

Chapter Text

The cloud of smoke dissipated leaving Rumpelstiltskin and Cheshire just inside the Entrance Hall of the Dark Castle. The two landed hard on the marble floors knocking the little wind left straight out of the Dark One’s lungs. His head ached with the effort of bringing them so far across the Enchanted Forest, but it couldn’t have been helped. And he would take a headache and lingering soreness over the clerics treatment any day.

“Rumpelstiltskin,” a worried voice called out. Realizing that he’d blacked out for a moment, the imp attempted to pull himself out of the fog currently encasing his mind.

“I’m just fine,” he assured, noting that the weaknesses of his voice couldn’t even convince him that he was fine, let along his frantic apprentice. As awareness crept back to him, he realized that he was currently lying on the floor of his Entrance Hall. When did that happen? 

Slowly the Dark One pried open his eyes and took in the entrance hall to his home, which had never been a more beautiful sight. Magic flowed through his veins leaving Rumpelstiltskin with a heady sense of power that had been notably absent in the past week or so.

After directing the flow to mitigate the pain and heal the worst of his injuries, Rumpelstiltskin found the necessary strength to sit up. Though his vision swam and for whatever reason the room had decided to spin, he succeeded in giving Cheshire a small smile.

“You don’t look fine,” the boy replied hesitantly. “You look like death warmed over.”

A chuckle escaped Rumpelstiltskin before he could stop it. “Well if I’d known I was going to have company, I would have spruced myself up a bit,” the man snorted.

“You’re fine,” Cheshire relented with an accompanying eye roll. A true smile worked its way across the teenagers face for the first time since his arrival at the cleric’s tower. “Can you heal yourself?”

The spinner contemplated that for a moment allowing the magic that claimed his soul to take stock of the damage. Some of the more serious injuries had already begun healing, but those would take the rest of the evening to completely mend. The more minor but still irksome ones could wait until morning. Of course, he could fix it all in one quick go, but Rumpelstiltskin didn’t relish the idea of spending the next week confined to his bed.

“I can heal some of it right now and some tomorrow. It’ll simply take time,” he answered evenly.

“Healing is light magic though?” his apprentice queried.

Another chuckle almost escaped (he really was out of it!) at Cheshire’s insatiable curiosity. However, Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t stop the smile that crossed his face. “That it is. But I find it’s beneficial to never limit oneself to a single study or practice. Healing is exceedingly helpful in many situations, not just those that pertain to deals and desperate souls.” His voice sounded gruff and far too human for his own liking. He was growing weaker just sitting here and the Dark One really didn’t relish the idea of spending the evening on the floor of his castle.

Yet he couldn’t help the warm feeling spreading through the place where his traitorous heart should be, as the boy nodded at the wisdom of such a mentality. “Plus being the Dark One does have its perks where healing is concerned.”

“How so?” Cheshire asked.

“You’re certainly full of questions. Did you compile a list while I was away?” the imp quipped, but without any real sarcasm or bite.

Cheshire had the good grace to look abashed, “Sorry, I’ve missed you.”

“You’d be the first,” Rumpelstiltskin mumbled slightly louder than he’d meant to.

The boy however seemed content to pretend he hadn’t heard a word. “Can I help you?”

Now that the room had come to it senses and stopped its endless spinning the Dark One was able to slowly lever himself to his feet. But that was as far as he made it. Swaying drunkenly, he stumbled into the lone table occupying the hall. He hated the notion of admitting just how weak he was but considering the table’s current occupation of keeping him upright, Rumpelstiltskin consented that he might actually need some help.

Theoretically he could teleport himself to his bedroom but even that seemed like a monumental task at present. Before he could contemplate further a small body wriggled under his right arm and took on some of his weight.

Rumpelstiltskin looked down at his apprentice, shock taking over more than anything else. Nobody had ever willingly helped him outside of Bae. As the son of card-cheat then later once his own cowardice had been exposed, he’d taken a beating more than once in his life. People were more inclined to kick him while he was down than help him back up. Yet here was this boy, who looked so like his lost son, offering aid without being asked. As it turned out, the Dark One did still retain that vital organ that so many believed he didn’t. His heart warmed considerably at the idea that perhaps for once he wasn’t completely alone.

The boy is becoming a serious weakness a voice that might have been Zoso whispered. Rumpelstiltskin easily shook the thoughts away. Those voices had been quiet while he’d been imprisoned, which probably had more to do with his coherency than their behavior or morals. However, he found that he could do with a little more time without them at present.

Cheshire helped him climb the many stairs of the castle, careful to maneuver them both over the stair they’d recently discovered had a tendency for biting unexpecting wanderers. By the time they made it to the necessary bedroom, Cheshire was almost fully supporting his mentor.

Rumpelstiltskin collapsed gratefully onto the bed not caring that he was still only half-clothed in disgusting rags.

“What can I do?” Cheshire asked uncertainly.

“In my workroom, there’s a potion,” the spinner informed him. “It’s in the small cabinet directly beside my spinning wheel. Bottom shelf and on the right. It’s dark blue and thick. Bring it to me. Touch nothing else.”

Directions in hand the boy hurried from the room. Cheshire may have been gone for a few moments or few days for all Rumpelstiltskin knew. By the time the boy returned he’d blacked out once more. But the boy woke him without hesitation and pressed the potion into his master’s hand.

“Thanks.”

“What’ll it do,” Cheshire questioned.

“It’ll help,” was all that the imp managed before throwing back the full contents of the liquid and falling heavily back onto the bed.

 

***

 

The next time Rumpelstiltskin awoke he was shivering wildly and deep shadows had settled around him. It was well into the evening as evidenced by the low burning fire across from him. The imp took stock of his surroundings completely uncertain of where he was for several long seconds, until his gaze fell upon a mess of shaggy and unkept brown hair. Cheshire, his mind supplied.

Apparently, the boy had pulled a chair to the bedside in order to keep vigil over his mentor but had fallen asleep in the process. Trying his best not to wake the sleeping teenager, Rumpelstiltskin shifted himself under the bedsheets. Despite his best efforts, Cheshire’s head shot up as soon as the imp settled underneath the blankets.

“Rumple,” the boy murmured sleepily. “You okay?”

“I’m fine kid. Just got cold,” he replied evenly. The old nickname, which normally made the imp bristle, sounded rather endearing coming from his apprentice. Or perhaps that was just the healing potion talking. “Go back to sleep Ches.”

Ches stretched and let loose a long yawn. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep. Too much time with Maleficent I guess. Wore me out.”

“She has that effect,” the imp chuckled. When it became obvious that the teen wasn’t going back to sleep anytime soon, the Dark One found that he could no longer stem his curiosity. “Why are you helping me?”

To his credit Cheshire looked shocked at such a question. “It’s the right thing to do,” was the automatic answer. Confusion remained on the boy’s face though, “I’ve told you, you’re the closest thing I have to family anymore. I couldn’t anymore let you suffer than I could leave you to the clerics.”

“I’m not your family kid.”

The slightest touch of indignation resided in the glare Cheshire fixed upon him. “You’re the first person since my mother who has seen me as more than just a problem to be solved. My father believed my magic would cause us nothing but trouble. My siblings agreed with him. Silas didn’t have the patience or inclination to teach me.” It was one of the few times the boy willingly spoke of his previous master or family. Despite his muddled mind, Rumpelstiltskin paid attention to every word. “You are the only person who’s ever tried to help me with my magic. You don’t even ask for much in return. You can pretend to be a monster all you like, but I know a good man when I see one.”

Stunned silence met those words. What could he possibly say in the face of all that? “I’m hardly a man, Ches.”

“You’re less of a monster than those clerics,” the boy countered.

Sighing deeply, Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t think of anything else to say in the face of the vehement persistence of his apprentice. “You’re a good kid, Ches. You deserve far more than the life I can provide you.”

“Why don’t you get some rest and let me decide what I do and don’t deserve,” Cheshire retorted with finality.

The boy had come such a long from the terrified child Rumpelstiltskin found in the bowels of the castle all those months ago. A little self-confidence and training had greatly improved the boy’s stammer and his ability to confront others. If nothing else, the imp could be proud of helping Cheshire in that manner.

As he allowed sleep to take him once more, Rumpelstiltskin entertained the notion that perhaps, just this once, he would allow himself to believe everything the boy claimed. And to believe that maybe the boy had worked an improvement on his master as well.

 

***

 

The next day dawned bright bringing with it the first sting of summer. Warmth spread throughout the drafty castle for the first time since Ches could remember. With only the one interruption, Rumpelstiltskin had slept heavily throughout the night. The sorcerer seemed beyond drained and Ches couldn’t bring himself to wake the man as the morning wore on.

The apprentice of the castle spent the day throwing open windows in the west wing, allowing the summer air to breeze its way through the castle. Every half hour or so he made certain to poke his head in to his mentor’s room. He’d left breakfast on table next to the fire and did the same with tea and then lunch, replacing each old meal with something new.

He knew he shouldn’t be worried. The Dark One was the most powerful sorcerer in all the realms and simple clerics couldn’t kill him. Yet Cheshire couldn’t stop the pervasive sense of helplessness every time he looked in on his mentor. He’d been beyond frightened to find Rumpelstiltskin in such a state at the hands of the clerics. It never seemed possible that the Dark One could be brought so low by mere men.

Despite his horror at the situation, Ches also found that he was highly intrigued by the clerics actions. It bothered him to no end that his thoughts kept running in that direction and he was certainly glad that mind-reading wasn’t one of the Dark One’s many talents. But that didn’t stem his thoughts. The clerics were monsters, no doubt, but they’d managed to cage and contain the most powerful being in the realms. The demon that sometimes overtook Rumpelstiltskin was pure darkness, there was no doubt about that. How had they managed to trap such a force?

Cheshire tried to force his mind onto some other topic as he wandered down to Rumpelstiltskin’s room once more. He had to clear his head of such thoughts before attempting to care for the man whose imprisonment he’d been obsessing over all day. To his great relief all such thoughts were swept from his mind upon seeing his mentor awake and alert.

“You’re awake,” the boy exclaimed as he bounded into the room with perhaps a bit too much enthusiasm.

“So I am,” came the imp’s response. Rumpelstiltskin still sounded a bit weak to Ches’s ears, but he could already see improvement in the man’s countenance. The imp wasn’t quite as pale (or as pale as one could be with gold skin) and his face didn’t look nearly as drawn as it had yesterday.

“I brought you some lunch and tea,” Ches offered. “Would you like something?”

Rumpelstiltskin fixed him with another one of his disbelieving looks. As if he couldn’t quite understand just why Cheshire was staying and helping him. After several long minutes, the older sorcerer gave his apprentice a small nod and made to clamber out of the bed.

Ches put a stop to that immediately, “No, no, no! I’ve got it, I’ve got it. You stay right there.”

The boy had to admit, the ability to make the great and powerful Dark One look completely flabbergasted did make him feel a bit important – and it was a bit funny as well. Cheshire grabbed the lunch tray from its place on the table and brought it over to Rumpelstiltskin. The man took the tray with an appreciative nod before setting it between them on the bed.

“How long have I been out of it?” the imp asked after pouring two cups of tea.

“It’s a bit past noon,” the boy answered easily taking the proffered cup from his mentor. “I didn’t want to wake you. You looked like you could use a bit of sleep.”

Rumpelstiltskin merely nodded again. The two slipped into companionable silence for a while. Cheshire taking in the Dark One’s appearance as the older man leaned back into the headboard. He still wore the rags from the cleric’s prison. Ches wondered if the man even realized the fact. Where the day before the sorcerer’s skin had been tarnished with cuts, bruises, burns, and all matter of filth and grime; today all Ches could see were scars in various states of healing. Rumpelstiltskin moved as if he was still in pain, but it was as if the man hadn’t been halfway to death just this time yesterday. The transformation was quite impressive.

“You’ll stay in bed for the rest of the day, right?” the boy asked cautiously. Hoping that perhaps he could guilt his mentor into such an action just by insisting.

Much to his surprise it seemed that the Dark One agreed with him on the matter. “I think it’d be best,” the imp mumbled tiredly. “Let the cost of healing take its toll today and be up tomorrow.”

Cheshire could hardly believe his ears and couldn’t find the will to keep his thoughts to himself. “No offense, but I thought I’d have to chain you to that bed to keep you in it today.”

A smile danced across the spinner’s face at that quip. “I think I’m entitled to a bit of laziness every now and then. Besides I’ll be miserable all week if I try and push it now.”

“Speaking from experience?” the boy queried unable to hold back his now peaked curiosity.

“Perhaps,” was the only answer he received. “I don't think I've said thank you yet.”

“It was implied,” Ches insisted, surprised at the turn of conversation.

“Well it needs to be said as well,” the imp protested. “Thank you for saving me Cheshire. I owe you a great deal.

“I didn't do it so that you would owe me a debt or to have leverage for a deal you know." When his mentor remained silent Ches continued, "It was the right thing to do."

"I think you'll find that most people will disagree with you there."

"Only the crappy ones," the apprentice quipped easily. That got a smile from the sorcerer, but it was one that seemed more placating than genuine.

"You helped a monster escape from its cage, Ches."

"You're not a monster," Cheshire challenged, exasperated that they were once more on this topic.

"I think you'll find yourself in the minority there as well," Rumpelstiltskin countered.

He stated it with such sincere belief that Ches could no longer contain his frustration at the topic. "I've spent the last six plus months with you, I think I'm a better judge of who you are than the majority of people."

The Dark One merely stared at his apprentice with something akin to a pitying stare. Rumpelstiltskin believed the worst of the world and, despite everything they’d been through, that included Ches. There was little the boy could say that hadn’t already been said and he had no clue how to deal with such ingrained self-loathing. Even he wasn’t as jaded as his mentor and Cheshire had seen his fair share of darkness in his nearly sixteen years.

"You know when I was a kid," at the imp's raised eyebrow Ches consented with a laugh, "well a younger kid anyway. There was a woman who lived in our village. She lived alone at the top of the hill in this old dilapidated hovel. Everyone called her a hag, the village monster as it were. She didn't take proper care of herself, didn't associate with other people. She wasn't welcome in a lot of businesses. Town outsider, I'm sure you know the type."

Rumpelstiltskin grimaced in reply. Which Ches took to mean he'd struck a deal or two with one or might have none one in another life.

"Anyway, one day my sister and I were playing with some of the other kids. Usual game of chucking rocks at the old woman's house. Being bratty kids ya know. But me mum caught my sister and me at it. Now my mother was the sweetest woman I've ever known to walk this world, but gods help anyone who got on her bad side or made her angry. I got the tanning of my life that day and learned a lesson I'm not about to forget. She made me and Hatti - my sister that is - go up to the old woman's house and apologize to her. Tell her it wouldn't happen again and all that."

"You'd have thought we brought the old woman a basket of gold. She was so happy to have visitors that she didn't care about what we were apologizing for. Gave us tea and biscuits. Let us play with the little dog she had. And talked and talked to us. Told us stories asked us to tell her a few. That kind of thing. Well it became my routine to go see her every day after that. Turns out she hadn't always been alone. Her husband and daughter were killed by bandits on their way home from market one evening. Old Agatha apparently was never the same after that. Holed herself up with just her grief and her memories for company. 

“The others they forgot why she was sad and lonely and they left her too it. To the point that she became the village monster. People are like that sometimes. They get caught up in themselves and they forget that maybe everyone else isn't happy or okay. Point is if old Agatha had a reason to be up on her hill all alone, I figure you do to. And no offense or anything, but I'd rather face your wrath than another tanning from my mother any day." Ches felt an old smile crawl across his face. One that was full of loving memories and old humor. It had been so long sincere could think about his mother without the thoughts being painful. “If it’s between helping someone who might not know they need help or letting my mother down again, I know which I’ll choose.

Rumpelstiltskin had listened to his story with rapt attention, his eyes never moving from his apprentice’s face. A long silence permeated the room after Ches’s story before the Dark One finally spoke. "Your mother sounds like she was an extraordinarily woman."

"Aye, that she was."

"What happened to her?" Had his question been laced with anything other than genuine curiosity, Ches would have shut down. Grief cut through Ches's momentary nostalgia with careful precision. Something of that must have shown in his face because Rumpelstiltskin quickly backtracked, "Its none of my business of course."

"No it's okay," the boy answered cutting off before his mentor could get any further in his retraction. 

"It was my fault. Before I was sent with Silas, I couldn't always control my magic. I got angry about something stupid one day and next thing I know the house is on fire. Mum was up in the loft. She couldn't get out... Dad was never the same after that… Couldn't get past his anger at me. Neither could my brothers or sisters. Dad met Silas right after we got the news that one of my brothers and my sister weren't coming back from the Ogre's War. He sent me with Silas the next day. To save me from the war he said, but I think it was more to get rid of me. And that's that. My life story. Kind of sucks huh." Ches finished lamely. He could hardly believe all that he’d shared. He didn’t like speaking of his family, especially after Silas had… No, he couldn’t think on such things.

"Did your father know the kind of man Silas was?" Rumpelstiltskin asked pulling the boy from his thoughts.

"I've always hoped not, but I'm not sure. After everything I did to tear apart my family, maybe he figured I deserved it."

"You didn't," Rumpelstiltskin responded with enough force that Ches looked up and caught the man's gaze. "Never let yourself think that kid."

"What if I did though?" Ches asked hating how small his voice was in that moment. The boy redirected his eyes back to his hands as his mentor continued to speak.

"Silas was an adult and you're a child. He's a bastard who's better off dead. Nothing he did to you was your fault. You have to understand that Cheshire." The man's voice was full of such certainty that Ches had trouble denying what he was saying. A light and hesitant hand fell on the boy's shoulder causing him to look at the imp once more. Rumpelstiltskin had moved to the edge of the bed and was now sitting right in front of him.

"Sometimes adults make mistakes Ches. And they don't know how to deal with those. Some people, bad people, choose to hurt those who can't defend themselves. It's not your fault that Silas was a bad person. It's not your fault that your dad blamed you. And it's most certainly not your fault that your mom died. It was an accident."

And damn it all if the man didn't seem like he was talking from experience and knew exactly what he was talking about. Everything inside Ches wanted to believe Rumpelstiltskin. Wanted to let his words soothe the pain that he'd been carrying around for five years. But what if he was wrong?

"How can you be sure?" Ches asked in a bit of a stronger voice.

The Dark One didn't hesitate, "because I know you Ches. And I think that after six months in your company I'm a pretty good judge of your character."

 

***

Several weeks later

 

The Dark One stalked his latest prey carefully. It had taken time and patience, but he’d finally managed to pin down the bastard who’d held him captive. He’d gone to great pains to capture, maim, and kill as many of Avonlea’s clerics as possible, but it had been a slower process than he’d hoped.

Rumpelstiltskin may have been the Dark One, capable of great and terrible power, but even he would have been stupid to attempt taking the whole tower at once. So instead he’d played the long game. Gathering information about the holy men, stalking their usual haunts, discovering the names of the few he didn’t know. He’d left a rather obvious message with each body. A promise to the head of their order. And now, all his hard work had paid off.

“Frollo, my dear, it’s been too long,” the imp cackled as the man entered nobleman’s study.

The head cleric had an appointment today with one of the lesser noble’s in the region. A task that would prove difficult now that said nobleman found himself as the newest resident of the Dark Castle’s garden. But really one could never have too many garden gnomes.

“I can’t say that I’m surprised to see you Dark One,” the older man replied without a hint of emotion.

Rumpelstiltskin propelled himself from the decadent chair he’d been sprawled in. In a few long strides he sauntered up to his foe. “I’d think you rather daft if you were.”

“I received your messages. Rather messy business you occupy your time with.”

“Well one does need a hobby,” the imp quipped.

Frollo showed no fear despite the current uncomfortable lack of distance between the two. He was a tough old bastard that much Rumpelstiltskin could admire. But there was the business of the cleric’s threats towards his apprentice.

“If you’ve come for your revenge Dark One, then do get on with it,” Frollo demanded, closing the distance between them.

“With pleasure,” the imp hissed.

Rumpelstiltskin unleashed a nasty spell he’d been concocting during his wait for the cleric. It made contact, immediately freezing the cleric in place and opening large gashes along his left side. A manic giggle escaped the Dark One at the man’s gasps of pain. Another sweep of his hand caused bones to creak and break. Frollo couldn’t contain his scream that time.

“Now, now,” the Dark One tutted as he trailed a long finger down the man’s face. “Can’t have you passing out before the fun begins now can we.” Another dark chuckle escaped at the cleric’s bold glare of defiance. “But really we do have a few things to discuss before we get carried away.”

The imp grabbed the man’s jaw in clawed fingers, forcing his head up until they were practically nose to nose. “Now we struck a deal a few weeks ago,” Rumpelstiltskin growled darkly as he allowed the Dark One to take full possession. “One that never saw it’s way to completion. I’d like to renegotiate the terms.”

After pausing for a moment to let the man understand the gravity of the situation the imp continued, “I have two weeks’ worth of revenge to work out and I do plan on enjoying that. But… I’ll allow you to keep your pitiful little life for a price.” Rumpelstiltskin could feel the darkness that seeped from every pore of his being and danced around the room. His words were silky but so full of danger. And to his great delight he could feel the fear pouring from Frollo.

“You are to leave my apprentice alone. You, your agents, anyone who you hold influence over or might even persuade. Should I see a cleric or fairy, even one not associated with you even look in the direction of my apprentice, you’re the one I’ll take it out on. And trust me, that little meeting will make this one look like child’s play. In return for your agreement to leave him alone I’ll let you hold on to your life.”

He allowed those words to sink in, putting pressure on the man’s already damaged jaw. “Do we have a deal.”

Frollo nodded frantically. If he were a better man, or a man at all, he would have taken pleasure in that fear and left the cleric then and there. But he was a monster, a beast, the Dark One. Rumpelstiltskin had a few weeks of revenge left to enact and he wasn’t feeling very charitable towards his former tormentor.

Chapter Text

 

Rumpelstiltskin opened his eyes to find himself, once again, in the small white room. There were no defining features or remarkable attributes to explain exactly what the room was or where it was located. Only white walls and a small window far above his head which allowed light to filter in. The only light in the room came from the window, giving the room a dingy feeling. No matter how many times the imp found himself here, the room always felt as if it were collapsing around him. 

But this time he wasn't alone. In the corner sat a familiar looking dark-haired boy. Though the child kept his head down, buried into his knees, something about the figure tugged at Rumpelstiltskin's mind. This child was important. 

A noise from behind him, alerted the imp that the new child wasn't the only other person present. As he whirled around a very familiar face met his. Yet this face wasn't that of the apprentice he knew. The man in front of him had Ches's messy hair and distinct grey eyes, but he was aged some five or so years. Lines of hardship ran across Cheshire's face in a manner that made the boy almost unrecognizable. A dark hunted look lingered from the now cold grey eyes. A familiar stranger stood before him now. Completely different, but somehow the same.

A manic smile drew across the boy's lips as Rumpelstiltskin met his unflinching gaze. Darkness seeped from his apprentice in a manner that made even the Dark One shiver. Before the imp could take a step forward to acknowledge the young man, before he could even ask how this was possible, a flash of silver dashed across his vision. 

Pain burst from his chest as the Dark One looked down in time to watch his apprentice run him through with a nasty looking blade. Stumbling backwards, Rumpelstiltskin grasped the blade in attempt to pull it from his stomach. However, his strength was fading too fast. Already he'd fallen to his knees, lost in the pain of being betrayed by yet another person he thought he could trust.

The boy in question never lost that wide grin that transformed his face into something truly terrifying. As his consciousness began fading Rumpelstiltskin chanced a look back to the unknown boy in the corner. Warm brown eyes met his briefly before everything went dark.

**
Rumpelstiltskin awoke with a gasp from yet another nightmare of the white room. His heart pounding away in his chest, the imp quickly assessed his chest and midsection. No sword sticking out of his gut, no blood to speak of, it had just been a dream.

But then why had it felt so real?

Throwing back the bedsheets, Rumpelstiltskin jumped out of bed and began frantically pacing the room. He briefly noted that he was drenched in a cold sweat before a flick of his wrist donned him in his best silks and leather. 

What could these dreams mean. It was no coincidence that he'd had the same one night after night without fail. But until now, it felt like just another dream. At first, he'd rationalized it as his minds way of dealing with the clerics torture. And anything was better than those nightmares. But this time it felt real.

This dream had all the makings of one of his visions. He'd yet to manage gaining full control of that power and visions still tended to dance through his dreams from time to time. Weaving in among the false images to plant nuggets of truth. The visions always felt more solid, more sturdy, than a dream. They had a tangency to them that dreams so often lacked. Yet, if that were true what had he just seen?

He'd never been able to see his apprentice's future before now, so what could have changed? What if nothing had changed and he was just being paranoid?

Or what if this is the boy the Seer spoke of? one of the former dark ones whispered.

Rumpelstiltskin shook his head of such absurd thoughts. Ches was hardly a boy. And yet.... 

Undoing isn't such a nice idea, now is it spinner? Zoso taunted. I thought we'd just kill him and be done with it.

"No," came the sturdy reply. Shocking himself as he shouted out to the room. He was years away from the Dark Curse. Cheshire certainly wouldn't be a boy by then. 

It never specified that he would still be a boy when you got your son, the traitorous voice of the coward reminded him.

Have to pay attention to the loopholes, Nimue added.

Ches was interested in helping him finish his work...

"No," he said louder and more forcefully this time. 

"Rumple," came a sleepy call from Ches's usual spot by the fire. It was enough to make the Dark One jump from his skin. He hadn't realized that the boy was present.

"Sorry kid," he whispered in the most soothing tone he could manage. "Go, go back to sleep, its late yet."

A sleepy nod was his only reply as his apprentice drifted off once more. The imp teleported himself to his tower. He needed time to think.

The boy couldn't be his undoing. Not this one. He wanted to get to Bae as soon as possible, that much was certain. But what if the cost of such a venture was to darken the boy who helped remind Rumpelstiltskin of the man he'd once been? 

The dream could mean something else entirely. Perhaps it was a warning. A warning that taking Ches down the path to dark magic would only lead to the boy's corruption and the Dark Ones destruction. Perhaps it was a guilty conscience. Whatever it was, there was one clear meaning. He needed to put some distance between he and the boy as soon as possible.

***


By lunchtime Ches noted that Rumpelstiltskin was decidedly distracted today. The imp could barely keep ahold of thought outside of basic instruction needed to perform the spell Cheshire was expected to create. His mentor consistently trailed off mid-sentence or stopped instruction entirely in favor of pacing the room. Several times throughout the day, Ches caught the Dark One nattering about to himself. An occurrence that, in itself, wasn’t that unusual. However, it seemed far more frequent today.

“Are you okay?” Ches finally asked as the imp trailed off mid-sentence once again.

Reptilian eyes snapped over to Ches’s face. Locking onto his gaze with such intensity that Ches couldn’t help but look away. “’Course I am,” Rumpelstiltskin replied even as his brow furrowed as some thought chased its way into his mind. “Why do ask?”

The apprentice gave a minute shrug before answering. “I don’t know. You just seem… distracted.”

“Distracted,” the imp drew out the word as he meditated on what seemed to be a hundred different thoughts. With a shake of his head to dispel his mind’s wanderings, the Dark One gave his apprentice a contemplative look. “Perhaps I am a bit distracted today.” At an encouraging nod from his apprentice, Rumpelstiltskin continued, “It might be best if we conclude the lesson for today. I have a list of things I need from town. Up for a walk?”

Ches never got a chance to answer. The sound of the main doors bursting open echoed towards them, despite being in the far tower. A quick glance exchanged between master and apprentice conveyed equal portions of shock and anger at this latest intrusion. Before Cheshire could more than contemplate running to the door, smoke clouded his vision. He felt his feet leave the floor only to be quickly replaced solidly on the hard marble of the entrance hall.

Standing in the doorway, looking similar to the avenging angels Ches had heard of growing up, stood a beautiful but familiar blonde woman. The woman looked far more disheveled than the last time Cheshire had seen her, and yet she was still ridiculously composed. Maleficent’s hair hung limply around her face exposing a rather nasty gash along her jawline. Her immaculate purple dress was shabbier than normal, with cuts and tears evident in the fabric, and yet it still framed her perfectly. In fact, the only things truly out of the ordinary concerning the sorceress’s appearance was a large raven that perched on her shoulder.

“Maleficent dear,” came Rumpelstiltskin’s voice from beside Ches. His tone was playful, but there was an odd note of danger which crept into the end of his greeting. “You really should knock before simply barging into a man’s castle.

“I have a dilemma Dark One. One I think you can help me with,” came the ex-fairy’s reply without pretense.

 “What sort of dilemma?” Ches could tell from the imp’s reply that he was intrigued by Maleficen’ts impromptu appearance at his castle.  


The bold woman sauntered forward until the center table was all that separated her from the two inhabitants of the Dark Castle. Once there she offered her finger to the odd bird on her shoulder. The strange creature leapt from it’s perch without issue. The raven barely flinched as she moved to sit it on the table for the Dark One’s observation. It was a curious creature indeed.

“I assume it has something to do with your feathery friend here?” the imp asked as he moved forward to examine the strange creature.

“You assume correctly,” was the only reply.

Cheshire peered closely as his master looked over the bird. It was a beautiful creature. Rare in its docility as it was, that was perhaps the least stunning feature of the raven. Its feathers were pure black, almost to the point that they shone, reflecting the colors around them to create a macabre rainbow. Its eyes were just as extraordinary. Dark as any other part of the bird though they were, they held a light of intelligence and something about them was exceedingly familiar.

The raven let out a squawk of indignation as Rumpelstiltskin ran his hands over its wings. Whether it was the bird’s odd behavior, its strangely human eyes, the droll-like squawk, or a combination of everything at once; Ches finally grasped what had happened.

“Deval?” the boy queried hesitantly.

A shake of the wings and answering caw, confirmed the boy’s suspicions. Rumpelstiltskin shot his apprentice an appraising glance that was full of pride. Under any other circumstances Ches would have been glowing at such a look from his mentor, however he couldn’t help feeling anything but sick.

“Correct you are my boy,” Rumpelstiltskin’s voice was far too cheery for the occasion.

“Can you help him?” Maleficent asked ignoring the exchange between sorcerer and apprentice.   

"There's nothing I can do my dear," the imp intoned casually as he continued looking over the abnormally large and exceedingly magical raven in front of him. "Your lover is gone."

"I don't accept that oh mighty and powerful Dark One," the sorceress snapped harshly. "You've all that power now put it to good use."

"No," Rumpelstiltskin replied.

Maleficent stood still in her shock for a long moment. "After everything, your answer is just, no. Simple as that. All that I've done for you, the debt you owe me, and you can't find the time for a simple transformation spell."

A dark look crossed his master’s face. "I owe you nothing dearie, so let's not insinuate that I'm refusing a debt."

"I helped your apprentice when you asked and then helped rescue your sorry ass from the bloody Holy Order. You owe me." Righteous vindication shone from the woman as she railed against the most powerful sorcerer in all the realms.

"And both of those debts have been paid in full. Now remove yourself and your problems from my home," Rumpelstiltskin added the last with a note of finality as he spun on his heel and walked back to his apprentice’s side.

Despite his despair at Deval’s condition, Cheshire dared not utter a word. If Rumpelstiltskin refused this, there had to be a good reason. He tried to convey all his sorrow and his understanding into a look as he managed to lock eyes with the ex-fairy who’d helped him so many times.

A light gleaned from Maleficent's eye as her gaze met Ches’s, "The boy owes me a favor."

Desperation reeled from the woman, but Cheshire could tell that Rumpelstiltskin wasn't prepared to make this deal. At least not until the ex-fairy brought his apprentice into the mix. Head bowed, and eyes closed the Dark One took a deep breath and heaved out a sigh casting a searching glance at Cheshire. The boy met his look with a meek shrug. 

***

To say it had been a rough morning was an understatement. The voices in his head had yet to give him a modicum of peace and nothing could shut them up. Not focusing on the Dark Curse, not spinning, not teaching his apprentice, nothing. Ever since his nightmare from last night, Rumpelstiltskin had been ill at ease.

The boy looked abashed at Maleficent’s decision to pull him into this mess. Ches was uncomfortable in the face of Maleficent’s grief, that much was for certain. But he was certainly unhappy at the woman for outing his apparent debt. Rage filtered through Rumpelstiltskin. He’d explained the dangers of such promises to the boy repeatedly and yet his warnings had fallen on deaf ears. But he couldn’t leave his apprentice indebted to the ex-fairy.

The price demanded by this magic would be unbearably high. It would be better for the ex-fairy to mourn her love and move on. Sighing once more the imp asked his next question without turning back to the woman. "What was that dear?"

"Your apprentice owes me a favor," Maleficent repeated enunciating each syllable and word. "To rescue you he promised me a favor in return for my help. Now you wouldn't want your little minion in my debt, would you?" Self-assuredness had replaced desperation in a heartbeat. The infuriating woman knew she had won. A smug smile crossed her lips as Rumpelstiltskin turned back to her. "If you help me now, I'll consider the boy's debt paid. Now then. Do. We. Have. A. Deal?"

The imp calculated the cost of such a promise into the price of the upcoming magic for a long moment. The price would still be heavy, horribly so, but even a slight shift in the price couldn't hurt. Nodding to himself and the sorceress, Rumpelstiltskin walked back to the oddly well-behaved raven. 

"We have a deal," the man whispered. 

Once again, he ran his hands over the bird and felt the individual strands of the magic woven around the former cleric. "The price of this magic is a high one and not something you or I can push aside," he warned Maleficent. "This is very potent light magic and any solution my magic can provide won't be a permanent one."

Understanding and despair warred for dominance around the ex-fairy. She'd have discovered the powerful magic surrounding her lover and knew that Rumpelstiltskin spoke the truth. But it was Deval. The only person in the world who had ever understood her. He knew that the woman would believe that she had to try. "What's the cost?"

"I can transform him, but it won't be permanent. He will have a day at most before he becomes a bird once more. We can repeat the transformation once a year or so, any more than that and he wouldn't survive the process. But..." and here was the catch of it all. "Each transformation will shorten his life. So, the choices are a shorter life transforming every so often or an abnormally long life as the newest member of the avian species. Your decision my dear."

Rumpelstiltskin explained the deal in a flippant manner hoping against hope that the woman would see reason. Cut your losses dearie he thought as he fixed the sorceress with a piercing glare.

“That’s all you can offer?” Maleficent asked, desperation creeping back into her voice.

“That’s the best I can do.”

“They discovered that he helped you,” the ex-fairy admitted in a quiet voice. “I tried to help and made everything so much worse. Blue found us out. She cursed him for loving me.” Tears leapt into the woman’s eyes as she looked down at her former lover.

 Damn it Rumpelstiltskin cursed internally. He may not owe Maleficent anything but if what she said was true, it appeared that he did owe Deval. “Perhaps with time I could create a way for the two of you to speak, but even that’s a long shot. This is exceedingly light magic.”

“What would you do?”

“I’m afraid I’m the wrong person to ask my dear,” the imp replied in a softer tone than he was accustomed to.

“There’s no one you care enough about that you’d do whatever it took to see them? Even if it’s just for a day?” Maleficent’s voice was thick with grief, but the woman refused to let her tears fall.

Her words struck a chord in Rumpelstiltskin. He didn’t miss the significant glance she threw his apprentice, but the Dark One knew himself to well to believe that he would pay such a high cost for anyone who wasn’t his son. For Bae. He’d do anything for Bae.

“I’ll do what I can.”

Focusing his mind on the task at hand, the Dark One pulled on the bottomless ocean of power that his curse provided. As he pulled at the various threads that wove the spell into being, Rumpelstiltskin thought about a dark-haired boy with ruffled hair and bright eyes. Centering his emotions around thoughts of his boy allowed the imp to pour something a bit lighter into the disassembly of the spell. It wasn’t much, but maybe it would give the ex-fairy more time with her lost love.

The voices of his curse screamed at the use of magic lighter than what it was so accustomed to. There would be a price to pay for this later, but with memories of Baelfire running through his mind Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t find it in him to care.

Power flowed from the imp’s hands and the raven let out a squawk of distress at the pressure building around it. Minutes passed as the Dark One focused on the magic. A loud pop echoed through the room and where a moment ago sat a handsome raven there now sat a confused looking man.

“Deval!” Maleficent screeched flinging herself into the man’s arms.

Rumpelstiltskin allowed the reunited lovers a brief moment before interrupting. “You have your cleric back, now leave,” the imp commanded.

“Thank you-” Maleficent began as she pulled away from Deval.

“No thank yous. Consider yourself even with my apprentice and take your former bird elsewhere. You have little more than a day before he takes flight once more,” a coldness filled Rumpelstiltskin as he dismissed the ex-fairy and the former cleric. The memories of his son were clearer than they had been in months. The fact that he’d forgotten the exact manner in which the boy’s eyes crinkled when he smiled, brought grief crashing down around the spinner.

“What do I do when that happens?” Maleficent queried, wide-eyed with fear.

“Whatever you like my dear. I’ve already explained the dangers and timeline. I’ll see you again in a year. That gives you plenty of time to find something of equal value to trade.”

Maleficent left the castle with her lover in a huff of indignation. As he watched the two disappear from his property Rumpelstiltskin felt the Dark One’s rage fill him. He’d used light magic to help the witch. He’d used the memory of his son to become something more than the monster, even if just for a moment. And for what? A few hours of bliss before the welp returned to avian form? To fool himself for a second that he could be better?

You’re pathetic spinner, the voices whispered. Using memories of the son you failed to help with some sob story. Weak, weak, weak.. The voices repeated such truths and Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t shut them out. Such was the price of using light magic.

Turning on his heel the Dark One came face to face with his apprentice. The boy looked sheepish in light of his mistake being discovered. A distant part of Rumpelstiltskin (a portion that belonged to the former spinner and father) urged him that he was in no condition to deal with his apprentice at the moment. Unfortunately, he’d given too much in transforming the cleric. The Dark One was in control at the moment and it was all Rumpelstiltskin could do to keep that darkness from lashing out.

Ches made the mistake of speaking first, “Rumpelstiltskin, I’m sorry. I wasn’t-”

“Thinking? There’s a shocker,” the imp hissed cutting the boy off mid-sentence. “I’ve explained what happens when you offer someone anything. When you promise a favor to someone like that. She could have asked for anything boy! What if it had been more than just aiding her foolish lover.”

“I did it to save you,” Cheshire protested, even as the boy dropped his gaze to the floor.

“When you make a deal with someone like her, you seal it with magic. You’re bound to a magical contract, not just one of words. Do you understand how dangerous that is?” The Dark One continued as if he hadn’t heard his apprentice’s defense. He stalked up closer to the teenager as he spoke, implanting himself in Cheshire’s comfort zone.

“I, I, I, didn’t, I wasn’t, I didn’t think ab-about…” the boy’s words trailed off at the dark glint he found in his mentor’s eyes.

“We’ve already established that you weren’t thinking. Don’t ever pull something like that again. Am I understood?” The Dark One asked in a tone far harsher than any he’d ever used with the boy before.

Something sinister and hard flickered across Cheshire’s face causing the spinner to resurface for a brief moment. “I did it to save you. I’ll not apologize for that.”

Rumpelstiltskin found himself speechless in the face of such defiance from his mousy little apprentice. While the spinner was proud of the boy’s progress, the Dark One became incensed at the child’s insolence. The Dark One hadn’t liked Bae’s rebellious streak either and Rumpelstiltskin had far less control over his curse in the face of his apprentice. His love for Baelfire had been the truest possible and thus protected his boy. His mere fondness for Cheshire left the boy vulnerable to the rage of the monster that currently had possession of the man.

“You’ll do as I instruct, or you’ll leave,” the Dark One growled.

Something in his master’s shifting mood must have alerted Ches to the danger he currently faced, because the boy slowly began backing away towards the main doors. Seeing fear jump into his apprentice’s eyes brought Rumpelstiltskin back to himself, allowed him to push the Dark One back into its cage.

 “Go Ches,” the spinner pleaded.

“Go where?” Cheshire asked cautiously.

“Anywhere but here for now. Just go away.”

The boy needed no further urging. Rumpelstiltskin watched with growing relief as his apprentice fled from his presence. He’d almost hurt Cheshire in his anger and grief. The boy was becoming more and more of a liability for the Dark One. He’d have to be dealt with, and soon.

Chapter Text

The Dark One had been in control, that much was certain. Cheshire knew that his mentor battled with his inner demon daily but knowing and seeing were two very different things. Rumpelstiltskin had been the one to ask Ches to leave. The Dark One was the monster who’d come so close to hurting him.

The sun was fading fast leaving the trail in deep shadows that stretched out to envelop the lone traveler. Cheshire pondered his latest interaction with Rumpelstiltskin as he made the return trip up the mountain pass. The town had not been able to hold the boy’s interest today. He had too much to think on. Although he’d done it to save Rumpelstiltskin, his mentor had been furious with him for owing Maleficent. For dealing with her in the first place. Whether that anger was based in fear that Cheshire had gotten in over his head or based in fear of the liability that made him for the Dark One, Ches couldn’t decide.

Then there was the fact that he’d watched the Dark One use something that looked very much like light magic. Cheshire had seen Rumpelstiltskin use light magic to heal before, but he’d thought that to be an anomaly. How was it possible for one as steeped in dark magic as Rumpelstiltskin to use something so very light? What emotions had the old sorcerer tapped into for that?

There was only one thing Ches was certain that the man loved and that was his apparently long-lost son. Cheshire hadn’t learned much about his mentor’s child in his time at the Dark Castle, yet he’d seen Rumpelstiltskin wear the grief of that loss like a heavy cloak. Its presence was constant. There was no way to replace a lost family member, the boy knew that well, but he’d hoped that his companionship could help Rumpelstiltskin deal with that pain. Apparently, he’d been wrong.

And as much as tried not to let that sting, Cheshire couldn’t let it go. He wasn’t enough for the sorcerer. The man would always be looking for his son and Ches would once more take the back seat in someone else’s life. Jealousy pulled sharply at the boy’s heart no matter how he tried to ignore it.

This boy he’d never met was costing Ches the only bond he had left.

 

***

 

Long days turned into long weeks and long weeks turned into eternal months. Time ticked past the Dark Castle as Winter reasserted itself only to be thawed by the spring. 

It had been over a year since he'd taken on an apprentice. While Cheshire learned quickly and excelled at any task set before him, Rumpelstiltskin continued to grow frustrated with his apprentice. The boy helped dispel loneliness from the large castle, but such companionship came at a price. On days when the Dark One wanted to rage at the world and tear his castle apart, Rumpelstiltskin had to temper himself. Periods of necessary alone time were interrupted by chattering questions.

It didn't help that Rumpelstiltskin continued to hit dead end after dead end in his never-ending search for Baelfire. No matter what path he took, no matter how bright it seemed, at the end of the day he always ran into another wall. It was becoming unbearable. As another year passed him by, the Spinner grieved for his lost son. Hampered by the thoughts of his child left alone in the world. Failure ate away at him while guilt festered in his soul. 

Teaching and helping Cheshire offered the imp some form of relief, but it was becoming a distraction he could no longer afford. He was overly fond of his apprentice and resolutely ignored his curse's suggestions to kill the child. But that fondness was overshadowed by his desperation to reach Bae. 

He also had to contend with the constant nagging in the back of his mind reminding him of a certain prophecy. If Cheshire was the boy mentioned therein, then one day Rumpelstiltskin would have to deal with that. Such dark thoughts forced him to keep the boy at a little less than arms reach. Baelfire had to come first. Ches knew enough to understand that. Rumpelstiltskin constantly stressed the importance of this mission to his apprentice. The boy had to understand.

Yet the imp couldn't help but notice the slight signs of jealousy growing within his apprentice. It had begun with small matters. Ches's insistence that they practice spells he'd already mastered. The boy's questions which circled endlessly, keeping Rumpelstiltskin from slipping away to his tower. His apprentice was reluctant to even mention Baelfire's name or relation to Rumpelstiltskin. 

For whatever reasons Cheshire no longer sought to help the Dark One on his quest. Instead he'd become an unreserved hinderance. Which led the imp to his current predicament.

It became harder to fight the darkness with each passing day. He'd taught the boy all he was willing to, maintaining his refusal to lead Ches down too dark a path. The boy was already a liability and now Rumpelstiltskin himself was becoming the main threat to the boy. One wrong word or move during a high temper would cost the child more than he could comprehend. It was time for Cheshire to leave. For good.

 

***

 

It was late in the evening when Cheshire returned to the Dark Castle. He’d skipped his lessons with the imp for the fifth day in a row. If asked he couldn’t be certain as to why he was deliberately infuriating Rumpelstiltskin, yet the boy found himself doing so at every opportunity. Perhaps knowing that he could elicit such a response from the unshakable man goaded him, or maybe Ches just wanted someone else to hurt like he was.

The teenager couldn’t take his master’s deliberate attempts to replace him with the memory of a lost boy. So today, he’d decided he’d had enough and took a trip down to the village at the base of the mountain. If Rumpelstiltskin cared that his apprentice took off without a word, he hadn’t seen fit to display that care for the past four hours. That led Cheshire to believe he was safe from his master’s ire.

Which is why the young man was so shocked when he walked into the great hall and found his mentor sitting at the table facing the door. The glare he fixed on Ches sent shivers running down the boy’s spine. He’d earned Silas’s hatred on more than one occasion, so he was accustomed to anger from adult’s, but the disappointment mixed with thinly veiled rage plastered across Rumpelstiltskin’s face was a terrifying sight to behold.

The imp was completely still as his apprentice made his way to the long table. Having known the Dark One for more than a year now, Ches knew that the flamboyant imp was only that immovable while seething. For the first time since he’d met the man, Cheshire realized that he might be in danger.

“I’m glad to see that you saw fit to return,” Rumpelstiltskin observed from his seat. Reptilian eyes gazing at Ches over steepled fingers.

“I, I, I was,” Ches stammered for the first time in a long while. A deep calming breath and a determined gaze fixed that little problem. He was the apprentice of the bloody Dark One and such sorcerers did not stutter when faced with a challenge. “I’m glad you saw fit to notice my absence,” the boy fired back.

Rage flitted across the imp’s face almost to fast to see. “Where’ve you been?”

Cheshire strode forward and tossed his fine black cloak onto the table next the Dark One. The cloak was his favorite and had been his first gift from Rumpelstiltskin. Throwing it back into the man’s face held a vindictive sort of pleasure to it. “That’s my business.”

“Your business is my business. I’ll only ask once more. Where. Have you. Been?”

“I went for a walk through the village. You know the people you’re meant to rule over. Or did you forget about them too?”

On his feet in a flash, Rumpelstiltskin stood face to face with his apprentice. Leaning in closely he snarled, “you’re walking a very fine line right now boy.”

“Go ahead, Dark One,” Cheshire taunted unaware of where his anger was coming from. “Do your worst.” His rage ramped up to meet Rumpelstiltskin’s inch for inch.

The two inhabitants of the Dark Castle stared one another down, as anger bubbled between them. The months of festering frustration, jealousy, and impatience had created a chasm that neither could cross. And now the ground crumbled beneath their feet.

“Leave me now,” Rumpelstiltskin – for it was certainly the spinner’s request– growled in a low voice that was far more frightening than the pantomime he usually resorted to.

“I think I’ll stay. You don’t get to run from every fight.”

The Dark One wanted him dead in that moment. Cheshire watched the thought flicker through his mentor’s eyes. Instincts screamed at him to back down or walk away, but Ches refused. He was tired of pretending everything was fine.

He’d saved this man from sirens, fairies, and clerics, he cared deeply for Rumpelstiltskin and he knew that the feeling was a mutual one. The imp was his mentor, his friend, and something close to a father. But Ches couldn’t allow the man to keep pushing him away. He also could no longer pretend that the search for Baelfire didn’t eat away at him. The time for honesty had come.

“We’ve been avoiding this conversation for too long,” Cheshire said levelly, never taking his eyes off Rumpelstiltskin’s.

“What conversation is that?” the imp asked, impressively turning the question into a sneer.

“Baelfire is gone,” Ches replied bluntly. Several emotions danced quickly across Rumpelstiltskin’s features. Cheshire recognized shock, anger, and heartache, but the imp’s mood changed too fast for him catch them all. He had Rumpelstiltskin’s attention again, the Dark One momentarily held at bay. “But I’m here.”

“You can’t replace my son,” the man hissed.

“I’m not trying to replace him,” Ches all but shouted. “But if you continue down this asinine path, then you’re going to lose a real chance at family. Don’t squander what you have in search of what you’ve lost.”

His words hit exactly where he’d intended them. Cheshire could see visibly the war playing out within Rumpelstiltskin’s mind and heart.

“I can’t give up on him,” Rumpelstiltskin insisted quietly. “I can’t fail him again.”

“You’re failing him if you don’t allow yourself happiness.”

“How can I be happy knowing that I abandoned my son to another world,” Rumpelstiltskin keened, a wild anguish filling the sorcerer’s eyes. “I let him go. Gone to somewhere I can’t reach or protect him. My boy…”

“Rumple, it’s… he’d want you to find happiness,” Ches insisted gently.

“He’d want…” the imp swallowed before changing his tense, “he wants me to find him. For me to better for him”

“How is this better?”

Clawed hands ran wildly through long curly hair. “I can’t leave him. I can’t,” the imp was muttering to himself as he paced back and forth in small strides. Suddenly Cheshire found Rumpelstiltskin an inch from his face once more. “You’re trying to distract me.”

“I’m trying to save you from yourself,” Ches shouted, done with this insanity.

“You’ll not cost me my son.”

“Your son is gone, Rumpelstiltskin. Face that and–”

Cheshire never finished his sentence. A long-fingered hand choked off his words as it wrapped around his throat. For the first time, Ches found himself face to face with an unrestrained Dark One. Rumpelstiltskin wasn’t present in the hateful glare. Dark spots appeared before the young man’s eyes as he struggled for air. Automatically his hands grabbed the imp’s wrists, but Rumpelstiltskin was far stronger than he looked. Nothing he did could remove the Dark One’s death grip.

“Rumple,” the boy spluttered.

Recognition flashed through amber eyes at the sound of his name. Rumpelstiltskin dropped the boy and backed away swiftly, horror the only emotion visible. Staring down at his hand in disbelief, the imp whispered something that might have been an apology. Glancing up the Dark One saw his handy work displayed across his apprentice’s neck. Thick purple bruises were forming already and blood seeped from where a beastly claw had met tender flesh.

“Go,” the old sorcerer breathed.

“What?”

“Go Ches,” the man repeated, refusing to meet Cheshire’s eye. When Ches didn’t move Rumpelstiltskin shouted, “go! Leave. Pack your things and never darken this doorstep again.”

“Rumple-” Ches pleaded, completely uncertain of how things had gone so wrong, so quickly.

“GO!” the Dark One bellowed.

Terror filled Cheshire as darkness swirled around them. Snatching his cloak from the table, Ches fled from the room.

In ten minutes, he’d packed his meager belongings, leaving everything Rumpelstiltskin had given him except for the clothes on his back and his favorite black cloak. A rucksack filled with supplies and gold waited for him on the table in the Entrance Hall. A sense of foreboding followed Cheshire until he was clear from the castle and its grounds. As the large wrought iron gates slammed behind him with finality, Ches finally allowed tears to flow.

Chapter Text

He was a wretched and vile creature. A horrid old monster, good for nothing except spreading pain and darkness. Rumpelstiltskin berated himself constantly after sending Ches to safety. He’d hurt the boy, put hands on a child who’d already been hurt so much. He was the worst sort of monster. The kind he’d always promised himself he wouldn’t become.

Yet now the evidence lay in front of him, Rumpelstiltskin had become his father through and through. There was no denying it now. He’d abandoned one child and hurt the other. His father was right, Rumpelstiltskin was a worthless thing that ruined everything he touched. Misery ripped through the spinner cutting his soul into shards and leaving very little of the man he’d once been behind. The voices of his curse laughed in unison at his anguish.

Finally seeing your true colors for yourself eh spinner, Zoso taunted.

Certain you want to find your son now? You’ll only ruin him as well. Nimue mocked.

Weak, cowardly, horrid, disgusting creature, the imp named himself. Hating himself more and more with each passing moment, the Dark One wallowed in the grief of the former peasant. Rumpelstiltskin could only find a small spark of satisfaction in the fact that he’d sent the boy away. He’d managed to get Ches to leave. The further the boy was from him, the safer he would be.

Once again Rumpelstiltskin found himself alone and full of self-loathing. Wandering the dark and lonely halls of his castle, the Dark One reassured him that this was for the best. The apprentice had only ever stood in his way. This way Rumpelstiltskin could focus on getting to his son and the darkness could focus on wreaking its on havoc through the spinner. He had to apologize to the bo- to his boy. Only his boy.

The gaping hole in the imp’s heart ached with despair, but it was for the best. Rumpelstiltskin knew that he deserved to be alone.

 

***

 

The mountain path that was so familiar to Ches fell away in a blur as tears cascaded down the boy’s cheeks. Rumpelstiltskin had sent him away, banished him for good. And it was his own bloody fault. He’d forced the imp’s hand in the hopes that Rumple would see sense. In hopes that he would let go of his foolish quest. But no, Cheshire had underestimated just how much a father could love his son.

Of course, he had though. The young man had so little experience in what a father was supposed to be. The closest he’d come had been the Dark One and look how that had turned out. Rumpelstiltskin was an old fool, Cheshire could see that now. If the sorcerer wanted to waste his life on a pointless mission, then let him. Ches had always been better alone.

Despair hardened into resolve as the boy reached the village crossroads. Either direction would lead him to a new life, the only one forbidden to his feet lay behind him. Choosing the path to the left, Cheshire made his way to the Marchlands in search of adventure. Perhaps if he could fill his time with excitement he might forget the gaping hole in his heart that leaving home had left.

 

***

Three weeks later

Cheshire had been on the road for weeks now, taking his time as he made his way to the coast. He’d done a few odd jobs for a little cash and slept outside when he could in order to save his earnings. The gold Rumpelstiltskin had left him with, was more than enough to buy him a lifetime of comfort, but Cheshire refused to use the imp’s money unless it became necessary.

Through his weeks of travel the boy became accustomed to helping strangers for money and hitching rides with whomever would take him. Which is why the dark carriage that pulled to a stop behind him didn’t worry the boy a bit. Cheshire knew how to take care of himself, if nothing else, that much was for certain.

However, he hadn’t expected several men dressed in black cassocks to jump from the carriage as its door swung open. Ches also didn’t expected to be grabbed by said men and tossed roughly into the coach. Bright gold dust hit him in the face before he had time to do more than let out a startled shout. Sneezing and swearing, the young man took a swing at the man nearest him only to fell his hand connect with the hard wood of the carriage’s interior.

Pain blossomed for only a moment before the boy’s world went dark.

 

Cheshire awoke to find himself in a dark stone room. A single torch lit the room in a dreary light. He was strapped in a sturdy wooden chair somewhere close to the center of the room. His head ached from whatever they’d thrown at him and it took several long moments before his vision cleared enough to allow him a good view of his latest predicament.

The first thing he noticed was an all to familiar cuff attached to his wrist. Letting out a whispered curse, the young man pulled at his bonds, testing them for weakness.

“All that’s going to do,” a gravelly voice sounded from behind him, “is tire you out. And I’d hate for you to be too exhausted on your first day of training.”

Cheshire’s blood ran cold as he recognized that voice. It haunted more than one of his dreams lately, reminding him of an adventure he’d rather forget. However, Ches was no coward.

“So nice to see you again Frollo,” the boy intoned casually. “It’s been too long.”

The old cleric stepped in front of him into a pool of garish light. While his figure was a rather unimposing one, in the unforgiving light of a single torch Frollo was the most terrifying vision Ches had ever seen. The cleric tutted as he leaned in towards the youth. “You’ve spent far too much time with that imp.”

Even the mention of his former master was painful, but Cheshire allowed none of that heartache to seep through his mask. Instead he pulled a sneer onto his face. “I haven’t spent much time with him at all here lately. But I’d be happy to deliver a message for you.”

“I’m well aware of how long you’ve been out of the Dark One’s company,” Frollo disclosed. “I’m also privy to the fact that he’s disposed of you.”

Bastard, Ches thought as the cleric’s words cut him, but his resolve to drive the cleric mad outweighed his heartache. “You know you think you’re this terrifying holy man, but you’ve really got to work on your delivery,” Cheshire quipped with a laugh.

“I’m not trying to frighten you just yet, boy.”

“That’s good to hear. At least now I don’t have to pretend to make you feel better.”

A thick vein at Frollo’s temple began ticking as the man clenched his jaw. Cheshire’s expression grew smug after noticing that. He was getting under the cleric’s skin.

“That cheek won’t survive this place child,” Frollo responded coolly.

“Oh, I can’t wait to prove you wrong. Sarcastic comments are pretty much my only talent.” Cheshire’s smile grew a bit manic as the older man’s anger built.

“I can see why the Dark One discarded you. It’s amazing he didn’t kill you,” the cleric mumbled the last as he turned and gave a nod to someone standing outside of Ches’s periphery. “But don’t trouble yourself child, we’ll make good of his gift.”

“Gift?” Cheshire’s mouth opened before he’d given it permission. He cursed himself as a calculating smile spilt the clerics gaunt face into a macabre mask of death.

“Oh yes, you don’t think you ended up here by accident now do you?”

Ches desperately shook his head, unwilling to believe the old man’s obvious ploy. “He doesn’t like you.”

“Nor you it would seem,” Frollo countered. “The Dark One was very generous with his aid. Gave us a locator potion and one of your belongings to track you.”

Frollo paused to let his information sink in, but Ches saw an opening to stem this ridiculous ruse. He had to counter the cleric’s words, had to believe that Rumpelstiltskin wouldn’t sell him out. If he strayed for even a moment, then there would be nothing left to him. No happy memories or thoughts could oppose that level of betrayal. It didn’t matter how badly they’d hurt one another, Ches didn’t believe the imp wouldn’t hand him over to the clerics. He had to believe that.

“You know if you want to sell a lie, you should really do your research. Rumpelstiltskin didn’t have anything of mine, because I didn’t have anything to start with. The magic wouldn’t work on something I never considered as my own.”

That cold smile only grew as Frollo rebutted his words. “Not even this?” The old man let an object fall from his hand. It was a small round vial attached to a golden chain. His necklace. The one Rumpelstiltskin had given him to stop the sleeping curse nightmares. Ches hadn’t had a need for it in months. He’d left the blasted thing on his nightstand at the Dark Castle.

It couldn’t be true his mentor wouldn’t do this to him. He couldn’t believe it.

“Seems you misjudged the Dark One, eh boy,” the cleric laughed cruelly. “Did you hope he was a man still? Don’t feel too bad, many have made that mistake before you. You must have really angered him though. He was quite quick to make a deal. I gave him material to create a portal jumping hat and he gave me the whereabouts of his former apprentice. Now that I have you, that’s one more dark stain removed from this world.”

Cheshire’s world was spinning. It couldn’t be true, could it? The cleric could have stolen the necklace or made a deal for it like he said, but with Rumpelstiltskin none the wiser as to how it would be used. Or… or Ches had been a fool for far to long.

“He’s going to be pissed when he finds out you have me,” the teenager rallied with one last show of defiance.

“That creature isn’t coming to your rescue child. You belong to the Holy Order now and you will be trained by our specifications.”

“And if I refuse?”

“Then this won’t be a pleasant experience for you.”

The cleric’s face contorted into something that was not human by any standards. Rage and an age-old hatred were etched into every lone of the old man’s face. An involuntary shiver traveled up and down Cheshire’s spine. No, this wouldn’t be a pleasant experience at all.

 

***

 

Four years later

 

 A bloodied figure lay in the center of a stone room as a final breath wheezed past cold lips. The boy had fought with impressive strength, but in this place no spirit could survive for long.

“Well done my son,” Frollo’s praise sang out from across the room.

The old cleric hadn’t aged a day in the past several years, the newest member of the Order knew that there had to be some magic sustaining the old man. “Thank you, sir,” a calm voice answered. “This one proved a fair opponent. But no stands against the Order for long.”

Menacing as ever, Frollo’s smile created a knot in the young cleric’s stomach. “I think you’re ready.”

“Now?” the dark cloaked youth queried unable to contain his surprise.

“You’ve grown quickly, my son,” the elder man nodded. “I’m proud of what you’ve become, especially considering where you started.”

“Thank you master,” was the only correct response.

“You leave at dawn,” Frollo said, dismissal apparent in each syllable.

The young man turned on his heel and made to leave the dungeons he’d brought his latest enemy into. He made it to the cell bars before his master’s voice reached him once more. “And Cheshire,” Frollo called out, a note of steel prevalent in his tone, “do make you sure you finish the job this time. I won’t have old sentiments baring our way towards a realm free of darkness.”

“Yes, sir,” Ches responded.

He couldn’t fail at this most important task. He’d been training for this moment for years and it was finally time to prove himself. Soon he would show the world what he was capable of. He’d show them all that he was the most powerful sorcerer in all the realms.

But first, he had an old acquaintance to visit.

Chapter Text

Years passed Rumpelstiltskin in the blink of an eye. Days often bled into weeks without the imp ever realizing time had passed. The only change for the old spinner were those that he mourned. He’d failed two young boys and that pain was one of the few things that never faded. It would grow dull for a while until a stray thought or memory would remind him of the sharpness of its edges.  

The Dark One passed his time by making deals and creating chaos wherever he could. He took a sick pleasure in knowing that he wasn’t the only miserable sod alive in this world. By focusing on the despair of others, the Spinner granted himself some respite from his own constant agony.

“I’ve been expecting you for some time,” Rumpelstiltskin called to the cloaked figure lurked just inside the door to his dinning room. The imp’s hand never ceased its work at the spinning wheel, he didn’t even turn around to face the intruder. He simply continued working as if no one had entered.

“You know who I am,” came the deep voiced reply. Something about the young man’s voice rang almost familiar to the imp.

“I do,” Rumpelstiltskin supplied easily. Despite the long cloak and hood that obscured the young man’s features, the Dark One could tell he tensed at that revelation. “You’re the one who’s been causing so much trouble in the realm here lately. The latest spawn produced by that ridiculous sect of clerics. I’ve seen your work.”

The cloaked figure took several steady strides into the room before stopping at the long table in its center. “I’m glad to have made such a noticeable impression.”

“Yes, yes,” the imp tutted as he spun on his heel to face the intruder. “Child’s play really. You’ve slain a few wolf cubs and minor sorcerers and now you think you’re ready to face the Dark One.” Rumpelstiltskin’s hands danced as he spoke, mocking the young man and his purported accomplishments. “Word of advice child leave now while I still allow it.”

“You’re certainly the darkest creature I’ve faced,” the young man agreed calmly without an ounce of protest in his tone.

“Think you’re ready to slay the beast?”

“I’m ready to try.”

The young intruder spoke with an easy confidence. As if he knew he could defeat Rumpelstiltskin without a shadow of a doubt. The boy’s attitude irked the Dark One and set a chill about the Spinner’s spine. There was something about this stranger that the imp simply couldn’t place his finger on. Something familiar.

In a flash Rumpelstiltskin disappeared and reappeared right in front of the young man. Teeth bared and power building the Dark One snarled, “last chance boy. This is a fight you really don’t want.”

Quiet laughter emanated from deep inside the cowl of the stranger’s cloak. Hands reached up and swiftly devested the young man of his hood, revealing a face that Rumpelstiltskin knew all too well.

The imp’s jaw dropped right in time with his stomach. There wasn’t enough self-control in all the realms to keep surprise from displaying itself across Rumpelstiltskin’s face. “Ches,” he breathed.

“You don’t get to call me that anymore,” his former apprentice growled.

It had been years since Rumpelstiltskin had last seen the boy and those years obviously hadn’t been kind to Cheshire. A gauntness had reappeared in Ches’s face and his thin frame suggested he’d missed more than a few meals. However, it was his eyes that drew Rumpelstiltskin’s gaze. The bright light that had once shone there was completely gone. Replaced by a dark hunger that snuffed out all trace of the good that had once filled the boy.

Shock filled Rumpelstiltskin and left him drifting. His apprentice had come back, but not at all under the circumstances the imp had imagined. The boy hated him and though Rumpelstiltskin knew he deserved that, it broke his heart to see such disgust in the eyes of someone he cared for.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment Dark One,” Cheshire growled as he circled his former mentor like the predator he most certainly was. “Training for it, waiting patiently, building strength until I was deemed fit to the task. And now here we are.”

It took every ounce of his strength and self-control to bring Rumpelstiltskin back on balance. Even then, his emotions swung too quickly from fear to elation and back to terror for the imp to think clearly.

“So here you are,” the Spinner repeated in what he hoped was close to his normal voice.

“Scared, are we?” Ches taunted as he found in the wide-eyed stare of the Dark One without flinching.

“Not of you,” the imp answered evenly. “For you though.”

A manic grin that looked terrifyingly at home on Ches’s face, split the boy’s features. None of the humor reached his eyes though, those remained cold and unfeeling. “You weren’t concerned for me these past four years. Weren’t concerned when you tossed me out or prescribed me to a fate far worse than death.”

“Ches-”

“YOU DON’T GET TO CALL ME THAT!” the boy bellowed.

Rumpelstiltskin was too surprised to react. The wordsmith’s tongue fell loosely between his lips, unable to face the rage displayed in his former apprentice’s eyes.

“You betrayed me,” the boy continued loudly. Leaning in he dared to close the distance between himself and the Dark One, until they were inches apart. “You sold me out. Chose your long dead son over me. You’ve made your decisions imp, now you get to deal with the consequences.”

Shocked as he was, Rumpelstiltskin’s clever mind picked apart Cheshire’s words. “Betrayed you?” The imp asked, confusion joining his array of emotions. “Sold you out? Ch-, what are you talking about.”

“You handed me over to the same men I saved you from,” Cheshire accused. “I helped you, I saved your life, and in return for all of that you stab me in the back.”

“I didn’t-”

But apparently the young man had no intention of allowing his former mentor to speak. “They were right about you. Everyone who warned me, the fairies, the clerics, all of them. You’re a monster, Dark One. An abomination and a stain of darkness in this realm.”

Rumpelstiltskin could find no words to counter the young man’s charges. Everything Ches had said was true, everything except- “I know you don’t believe me,” the imp attempted, speaking quickly before Cheshire could interrupt again. “But I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. I didn’t hand you over to any clerics, least of all Frollo’s sect.”

“Keep your lies imp, I’ve no use for them.”

“I’m not lying,” Rumpelstiltskin protested. He had earned Cheshire’s ire years ago, that much was certain. He deserved the boy’s hate, but the spinner couldn’t abide by the accusations of betrayal. If Cheshire was going to remain angry at his former mentor, then he should remain angry for the right reasons. Not because he thought Rumpelstiltskin had purposefully harmed him like that.

Yet the Dark One’s protests fell on deaf ears. Cheshire had come here with a purpose one that Rumpelstiltskin would now have to face.

“I’m going to end you today, Dark One. The last thing you’ll remember of this world is my face. The apprentice who wasn’t good enough, defeats his old master. I rather like the irony of it all, don’t you?”

The two former companions stood face to face in the place where they’d first met. Knowledge that he wouldn’t be able to hurt the boy warred with Rumpelstiltskin nasty habits of self-preservation. “Don’t do this kid,” the imp warned one final time. “I don’t want hurt you.”

“It’s too late for that.”

Cheshire moved so fast that Rumpelstiltskin barely had time to react. A wall of powerful magic came rushing at the imp in an instant. But a flick of his wrist disassembled the spell in less than half a heartbeat. Pure power wouldn’t be enough to stop the Dark One, yet the display of magic Ches had just revealed was impressive. Though its roots were steeped in darkness, the end result was the most powerful light magic Rumpelstiltskin had ever seen. His former apprentice was certainly a force to be reckoned with.

Ches’s second attack forced the Dark One back a step but was met with equal results. Focused as he was on building strong defenses, Rumpelstiltskin easily ignored his curse’s insistence on killing the boy.

A strong wind picked up around Cheshire as the young man moved his hands and focused his mind. The spell that tore out of the boy destroyed Rumpelstiltskin’s defenses with ease and left him with gashes along his right side and cheek.

“So, the monster can bleed,” Cheshire chuckled darkly as he sent wave after wave of power crashing into his former friend.

Unable to sustain a constant shield, the Dark One took the brunt of one of those waves and it sent him sprawling across the Great Hall. Pushing himself up from the floor, Rumpelstiltskin recognized a dark high laughter emanating from the boy. Whatever Cheshire had faced these last few years, the boy he’d known was gone. All that remained was a broken replica of that innocent kid.

Thinking of his own child, the spinner resolved himself to the task. He wouldn’t kill his apprentice, he didn’t think he could. But for Baelfire’s sake Cheshire could not win today.

Pulling on the vast ocean of his power Rumpelstiltskin began weaving a powerful spell in the back of his mind. This one would take time and focus, so for now he needed a distraction. Channeling the Dark One’s rage at being challenged, Rumpelstiltskin sent a nasty spell in Cheshire’s direction, giving the boy ample time to deflect it. At the very least the retaliation ended the piercing laughter.

The two continued trading punishing blows back and forth as Rumpelstiltskin continued constructing his final spell in the background. The imp made certain that as few of his spells made contact with Cheshire as possible. The ones that did, weren’t powerful enough to do any lasting damage to the boy.

Conversely Ches was delivering each spell with precision and deadly intent. His hatred for the man he faced, became more evident each moment.

Seconds before Rumpelstiltskin could put the final touches on the spell he’d been building, the imp was blindsided by wave of darkness from Ches. The magic crashed into him, sending the imp crashing to his knees. He felt his right kneecap splinter at the contact, but that couldn’t compare to the blinding pain spreading thickly from the large gash that appeared in his side. Blood gushed from the wound even as Rumpelstiltskin diverted a small amount of magic there to begin healing.

 A second blow left the imp gasping for breath as he fell to the floor of his grand castle. White flashed across his vision as the pain receded, only to be replaced by another onslaught of pain. Rumpelstiltskin could feel fairy magic in the air around him as it burned through him, lashing out at his own brand of darker magic.

Coughs racked Rumpelstiltskin’s body as he tried to get back to his feet. He made it to his knees before his former apprentice lashed out again, sending him to the ground once more.

“Looks like you’re not a strong as you like to think,” Ches taunted, moving to stand over the prone figure. The boy sent a rough kick into the imp’s side, punctuating each of his words with a blow. “It’s a shame really, I expected this to be difficult.”

Pain coursed through the Dark One as Cheshire’s boot made contact with his wounded side. Through the stars that threatened to overtake his vision, Rumpelstiltskin saw the final strand of his spell fall into place. It was time.

“I’m sorry, Ches,” the spinner apologized, daring to look into the eyes of the boy he’d taught. “I screwed up and I’m sorry.”

A brief flicker of light flickered through the young man’s dark eyes at Rumpelstiltskin’s words. But the Dark One could feel the boy’s raw power being shaped into something particularly nasty. The imp shot quickly to his feet catching Cheshire off guard. Using the boy’s confusion to his advantage, Rumpelstiltskin allowed his hands to move in a familiar fashion.

As the spell left him and found its target, regret at all that could have been lanced the spinner’s heart. A quick snap of his fingers summoned a large looking glass into the hall. But Cheshire never noticed the newest addition.

Dark fur began sprouting all over the boy’s body as he let out a howl of pain and frustration. As his former apprentice began to shrink in stature, Rumpelstiltskin looked away.

“What did you do to me,” an ethereal voice called out angrily.

Turning, the Dark One got his first look at Cheshire’s new state. Dark purple fur shimmered across a small lithe body. Highlights that almost looked pink, stood out in wild contrast to the cat’s overall appearance. Bright eyes retaining their original color faced Rumpelstiltskin with bitter loathing shining through them. The cat was larger than normal, but smaller than Cheshire was accustomed to being. The feline stumbled and fell as it caught its bearing.

“I stopped you,” Rumpelstiltskin answered resignation lacing his voice with piercing coldness. “I refuse to kill you Cheshire. You’ve left me no choice.”

“You bloody coward,” the cat yowled in that same unearthly voice. “You can’t do the deed yourself, so you assign me a worse fate?”

“I could’ve left you as something easily crushed,” the imp reasoned. “Trust me this is better.”

“How is this better?”

He’d never seen indignation on a cat and despite the horror of the situation his curse was chuckling in the back of his mind. At least someone came out of this ordeal happy.

“You’ll remain a cat until you accept who you are Cheshire. Do that and you’ll become a young man again.”

“And be right back here to finish my job,” Cheshire proclaimed.

“Ah, ah, ah,” Rumpelstiltskin tutted, keeping his distance from the incensed cat. “Then you won’t have accepted who you are.” The spinner took pity on his former apprentice and continued his lesson. “Whatever those clerics twisted you into, it isn’t you Ches. You’re better than them. Better than me. And until you figure that out for yourself, you’ll remain as you are.”

The cat lunged at the imp in a pure display of anger. But, despite its size, the feline could do little harm to a full-grown man.

“I’m sorry Cheshire, I truly am.” Rumpelstiltskin repeated before sending the cat through the looking glass and far away from the Enchanted Forest.

Something within the imp broke as he cast the boy from his castle, into another realm where he surely wouldn’t last long. Whatever snapped in that moment left the Dark One on his knees as tears he hadn’t given permission to fall, poured down his face without restraint. Rumpelstiltskin had always known that he was a twisted and vile creature. He’d seen his own darkness drown others. He’d known the boy was in danger around him. But he’d hoped for so much more. He’d hoped against hope that he hadn’t fully corrupted the young man he’d come to care for so deeply.

In the end though, he’d led Cheshire down this path. In the end, he’d been hurt by yet another person he loved and trusted. In the end, the cries pulled from the imp were all too human.