“I want to make them bow. I want their kneecaps to crack, and freeze on the stones. I want their necks to break from bending.”
One Week Before the Curse
This wasn’t the way things were supposed to happen. Sitting in a rat-infested cell, slowly going (more) insane, Rumplestiltskin had supposed that he would get more out of his intentional imprisonment. When he’d originally conceived the plan, it had seemed so perfectly formed, so controllable and so predictable. But he’d introduced an inherently unpredictable force into the game, used a queen instead of a pawn, and now he had to reap the consequences of the chaos he had sown.
“It’s just us, dearie,” he called into the blackness surrounding the cell that Snow and her oh-so-charming prince had put him in. “You can show yourself!”
One of the rats—indistinguishable from the others until it twitched just so—slowly transformed into a cloud of wispy purple smoke, swirling around once, twice, and then a third time before they resolved into a regally-dressed woman clad in red and black. She wore a crown on her head and her chin was high, just as it always was, as if she was waiting for him to drop to his knees in supplication. It’s going to take a bit more than a little theatrical magic to make me do that, dear, he didn’t say out loud. Instead, Rumplestiltskin lounged back against the far wall, crossing his ankles in the very picture of casual indifference.
“Cora,” he said levelly, his voice low and smile sharp-edged.
“Rumple, dear. It’s so good to see you.” Her eyes went a little too wide, the pity a bit too feigned. “Though I do have to say that I find the conditions they keep you in quite appalling. It’s such a pity you turned down my offer. Then you might not be here at all.”
Barking out a high-pitched laugh, he bounced forward, and even Cora flinched a little to find herself face to face with a maniac Dark One. “Having problems with the curse already?” he taunted her.
Cora’s eyes darkened. Like Rumplestiltskin, she was undoubtedly remembering the day he had handed her the Curse to End All Curses, smiling and laughing he listened to her talk of everlasting vengeance. He’d known Cora’s penchant for extremes even then, so Rumplestiltskin had made her work for it, withholding the means for her revenge until Cora was well-nigh desperate, furious with him and ready to tear the world to pieces. But he couldn’t have her casting the curse too soon, so Rumplestiltskin had still left out a few key things. After all, he needed her to come to him, and unlike the daughter whom he had thought would cast the curse, Cora had few scruples left to worry her.
“It isn’t working,” she admitted coldly. “Your spellwork must be flawed.”
“Oh, is it now?” he countered, flinging his hand to the side a little more wildly than he intended. Perhaps he was going insane. “Or is it your execution of said spell?”
“You always insert a loophole. You would not otherwise have given me a curse requiring the heart of the thing I love most. You know I am heartless.” Now Cora smiled, that little secretive smile that Rumplestiltskin had once loved so much. She knew that, of course. “You have said it often enough yourself.”
“Well, if the shoe fits…”
Cora’s eyes flashed; she never liked being refused, and refuse her he had. Without telling her his reasons. “Tell me what the loophole is.”
“It requires a heart, dear. There’s no avoiding that,” Rumplestiltskin told her honestly. “Now, given your past actions, I would say that you should use your own heart, because it’s plain what means the most to you—”
“Enough!” Magic flared, with purple lightning zeroing in on him and trying to make a roast out of Rumplestiltskin. He dodged, jumping aside and feeling the power sizzle in the air, barely missing him. His magic was no good in the cell given how well the fairies had done their work, and Rumplestiltskin didn’t want to tip his hand by walking out now. But he hadn’t antagonized Cora too much; he just needed her angry enough that she forgot whose heart would make a very good ingredient indeed. “I tire of your antics.”
“I might say the same about you,” he shot back. “You know who you love. A certain daughter, hmm?”
This time the power ripped out too fast for even the Dark One to avoid, slamming him against the back wall of the cell and holding him there for several moments. But even Cora could not keep that up for long; the fairy magic surrounding the cell was sapping her magic, too, so she had to let him go as he laughed. Rumplestiltskin hit the floor harder than he would like, but even as pain reverberated up his legs, he scented victory in the air.
“I will not kill my daughter for your foul curse. Come up with something else.”
Still chuckling, Rumplestiltskin picked himself up. “For that, there’s a price.”
“Then tell me what you want,” Cora replied.
“It’s rather simple. In this new land, I want comfort. I want a good life,” he told her, knowing better than to try her patience and try to draw this out. No, he needed Cora on edge, not furious, and he already had her there. Just angry enough. “Riches. Power. The usual.”
“Done,” the Evil Queen replied without blinking an eye. She’d known poverty, after all, little though Queen Cora liked to admit that these days. She knew why Rumplestiltskin would desire such assurances, because she was one of two breathing people who knew enough of his past to understand.
Bouncing forward once more to bring his face close to hers, he cut her off before she could say more. “I’m not finished. There’s more.”
“There always is,” Cora drawled.
“I want one more thing, in our new land,” Rumplestiltskin murmured softly. “Should I ever come to you for any reason, you must heed my every request. You must do whatever I say. So long as I say ‘Please’.”
Cora studied him for a moment, turning the idea over in her mind. “Clever. You want me to insert that as a caveat in the curse, to give you a hold over me.”
“I do prefer to have some assurances that my life will be what I desire, yes,” he answered bluntly. There were other reasons, but what Cora didn’t know would protect others.
“You do realize, that when I cast this curse, your memory will be as wiped as anyone else’s. A clean slate, you said.” Cora smiled, and there was something dangerous in that secretive smile, something Rumplestiltskin could not control. “You won’t remember this deal at all.”
“Oh, well, then what’s the harm?” he countered as flippantly as he could.
“Very well,” the Evil Queen drew herself up, looking him straight in the eye. “Tell me what heart I must use.”
“The heart of the one you love most, of course.” His own smile was mysterious, and Cora’s rage was tangible as she pulled her magic back a hair’s breath away from flattening him.
“Do not toy with me, Rumple!” she snapped.
“But I’m not.” Now he used the more soothing tone, the one that always brought her back from the edge. “I understand that you hold a certain stableboy’s heart.”
“What of it?”
“They say that the hearts of two True Loves are shared…” Rumplestiltskin led her to the answer, pushing aside a twinge of regret. Regina would never forgive him if she learned his part in this, but she had made her choice a long time ago.
He didn’t have to say more. Cora was more than capable of putting the pieces together herself; she was almost as good at exploiting loopholes as Rumplestiltskin. He had found that out years before, much to his own heartbreak. So Cora left, smug and victorious, ready to crush a heart that she should have crushed years earlier and create her everlasting vengeance. But it would serve his purposes well enough, Rumplestiltskin supposed, even if events were not turning out the way he had intended at all.
No, he had not wanted Cora—unpredictable, powerful, and heartless Cora—to cast his curse at all. He had wanted someone with a heart, someone who would feel the emptiness that came from embracing that darkness and shy away from it in the end. He had wanted Regina, of course, but Regina had gone and changed everything.
15 Years Before the Curse
Regina had never felt so free. Two months after running away, she and Daniel had crossed three kingdoms and finally settled in a maritime kingdom ruled by a Dowager Queen for her young son. Queen Elena was well known for both her dislike of magic and her love of horses, which meant that Cora was unlikely to locate them and Daniel was able to find a job. His obvious touch with training horses quickly gained him a place in a nobleman’s household, and if people looked at him strangely for having his wife as his assistant, the whispers were nothing Regina couldn’t handle. She was free, she was happy, and she need not worry about her ambitious mother forcing her to marry a king who was twice her age.
Her only regret was that her father had not been able to be there for her wedding. It had been a simple affair one night when they’d stopped in Midas’ kingdom, just the two of them with only a pair of witnesses who Daniel had befriended in the tavern the night before as guests. A friendly cleric had married them with a smile, and Regina had been in heaven ever since. Now she had been married to her True Love for almost a month, and although Daniel often said how he wished he could provide a more luxurious life for her, Regina did not care. She preferred hardships and happiness over wealth and misery.
“How was work?” she asked Daniel as he came home at the end of the day, giving him a smile and a kiss that promised more. Regina never would tire of the ability to love him openly and fully, to show everyone what the former stable boy meant to her. Mother doesn’t understand. If she did, she’d be happy for me.
“The Count’s new stallion from Agrabah arrived today. He’s a little wild, and doesn’t seem to like men. Do you want to give him a try?”
“Do I? Of course!” Regina kissed him again, but then sobered quickly. “Perhaps if I’m training him, you’ll be able to cook dinner. I fear I’m a failure.”
The burned mess still smoldering on the stove was evidence of that; Cora had always told Regina that women of royal blood did not cook. Fortunately, Daniel was the oldest of three brothers, and his mother had taught him many useful skills.
“Don’t call yourself that.” Slipping around behind her, Daniel wrapped his arms around her and Regina leaned back into his embrace. “You are brilliant, bold, and beautiful. I don’t care if you can’t cook.”
His compliments could still make her color a little, and Regina smiled bashfully. “You’re too good to me.”
“I’m sure you’ll repay me somehow,” he growled in her ear, and Regina giggled.
“I bet I can—” she started to say, only to be cut off by a pounding at their door.
Knock. Knock. KNOCK!
“Coming!” Freeing herself from Daniel, Regina made her way towards the door. She didn’t have far to go; their one room apartment was rather tiny, for all it was in a prime location. Living over the town’s bakery made for great smells, warmth on cold nights, and free bread from time to time—but not for a lot of space. She and Daniel didn’t mind, since it let them save money for something better, and their nest egg was growing nicely.
Regina opened the door, blinking in surprise. “Alfonso,” she said with a welcoming smile. “Why are you up so early?”
Alfonso was the night baker, the actual baker’s younger brother and already a good friend. The burly baker lived in the other small apartment over the bakery while his brother owned a house further down the street, but Regina rarely saw him in daylight due to the hours he kept. Alfonso would usually still be sleeping right now, and he looked tired indeed—but also very worried. And out of breath.
“Can I come in?” he asked, chest heaving. Was that nerves?
“Of course.” Regina stepped aside as Daniel approached, clearly having deemed the mess on the stove unsalvageable. She closed the door. “What’s wrong?”
“I overheard Maria talking to a pair of clerics a few minutes ago,” Alfonso replied, looking worriedly towards the open window and keeping his voice down. “They were talkin’ about ye.”
“About us?” Daniel echoed.
Alfonso shook his head. “No. About Regina. About how she’s obviously better born than—sorry, Daniel—than you deserve. Maria thinks you stole her from someone.”
“I what?” Daniel gaped as Regina exclaimed:
“That’s ridiculous! Daniel is my husband, no matter what my background is, and he is my choice.”
Maria was the baker’s busybody second wife, the sister-in-law who hated Alfonso and her three stepchildren. She had never been happy that her kind-hearted husband had rented their spare apartment to Regina and Daniel instead of giving it to her own wastrel brother, and she disliked the couple despite their efforts to be nice to her. It was just like Maria to spread spiteful rumors with no basis in fact.
“I know that,” Alfonso replied gruffly. “And even a fool can see how happy the two of ye are. But…”
“I’ll talk to her,” Regina decided. “I’m sure we can work this out.”
Alfonso shook his head again. “That’s why I’m here. There was another man with ‘em. He looked military, sounded like he was from one of the northern kingdoms. He said they’d been looking for someone just like ye.”
“What?” Shock startled the whisper out of Regina, and she felt her heart sink. She’d thought there were home free. She knew enough about magic to know that it wasn’t infallible, and that if they got far enough away quickly enough, even her mother’s spells would not be able to find her. But this…
“Ye need to go,” Alfonso told them with a strained smile. “I dun know what ye’re hiding from, but if ye want to stay away from it, ye need to run.”
October 22, 2013
“But why would he run away?”
Regina sank onto the bed as the whisper tore out of her, trying valiantly not to cry. Her mother had been less than helpful when she’d called her—oh, Cora had promised to send Graham out beyond the town line and call local bus companies, but Regina knew in her heart that it was too late. Whatever had happened, Graham had found no evidence of foul play. The Sherriff had been so gentle when he’d asked her if it was possible that Henry had just run off on his own, and although Regina had snapped at her old friend that of course Henry wouldn’t do such a thing, doubt started gnawing at her now that Graham was gone.
“I don’t know,” her husband replied gently, sitting down next to her and wrapping an arm around her.
Leaning into his familiar embrace, Regina closed her eyes on tears, but they started trickling down her face, anyway. Their marriage had been so troubled once, but bringing Henry into their lives had brought them so much closer. Even when they had their differences, Henry was the glue that held them together and made them into a family. He was the best thing that had ever happened to either of them, and even when Henry was difficult, he was their son.
“He was a little obsessed with finding his birth mother…” he trailed off after a moment, and then shrugged. “Maybe Graham’s right. Maybe he went to find her.”
“He should have just asked us. One of us would have taken him anywhere,” Regina whispered against his chest, feeling utterly helpless. “Now Mother is involved, and you know she’s going to demand we punish him.”
“He’s our son, Regina, not hers,” her husband replied with uncharacteristic firmness. “What we do with him is up to us. Though I can’t say that I’m against grounding him for the next year or two.”
The unexpected humor startled a watery laugh out of her. Regina swallowed. “Do you think he’ll come back, then?”
“Or we’ll find him. We’ll always find him. That’s what family does.”
Nodding, Regina pulled herself upright. She’d had a good cry; now it was time to get to work finding her son. Her smile felt surprisingly natural as she stood, holding a hand out to her husband.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you, David,” she said honestly.
He smiled. “Probably take over Storybrooke out of boredom.”
That drew another laugh out of her, and Regina squeezed his fingers. “Probably,” she agreed. “Now let’s go find our son.”
Then the unmistakable sound of the door opening overrode the knocking, and a familiar voice called out: “Mom? Dad? I’m home.”
Mary Margaret Blanchard sighed, but looking away from the stack of bills didn’t make them go away. Or even shrink. She knew she had enough money to pay her rent this month, but how was she going to pay the next loan installment? Payment was due in six days, and Mr. Gold was not exactly known for his compassion. How her late father had managed to secure a loan from the scrooge of a pawnbroker Mary Margaret would never know, but Leonard Blanchard had blown it all on gambling instead of investing in the publishing company he had supposedly been opening. Even worse, he’d dragged her good-for-nothing husband down with him. Not that Daniel had ever been much of a catch. Mary Margaret’s father had pushed them into marrying after a youthful indiscretion resulted in an unexpected pregnancy, but now both her husband and unborn daughter were dead. Mary Margaret had lost them both within a year of her beloved father’s death, which had sent her into her own downward spiral of drinking and gambling.
She had her life back on track, now—she’d been sober for two years and was teaching elementary school again—but recovering from alcoholism didn’t equate to recovering from her debts. Or her father’s. She should never have co-signed those loans, but it was a little late for regrets.
An insistent ringing interrupted her musings, and Mary Margaret left the table covered in bills to answer the phone.
“Mary Margaret,” a familiar voice said from the other end, making her heart sink. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, Jefferson. I thought I asked you to stop calling me.”
“I know you love to hear from me, doll.”
“I just…I don’t have time for this right now.” She wanted to tell him to leave her alone, but Mary Margaret didn’t like being that mean to anyone.
Dating the well-to-do manager of Modern Fashions had been one of the worst mistakes of Mary Margaret’s life. He’d seemed like such a gentleman, and he’d been there just when she’d been emerging from the throes of addiction and ready to life a little. Everything had been fine, even fun, until he wanted her to quit her job and cater to his odd eccentricities full time, and Mary Margaret had not been prepared to go so far so soon. Having daily tea parties was well and good when you had a different place to go home to, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to live like that. Besides, she’d jumped—or been shoved—into a miserable marriage once. So, in a rare act of courage, she had put her foot down and broken up with him.
Now he was stalking her, turning up wherever she was. She saw him peeking through windows while she was teaching, bumped into him constantly at the grocery store, and even caught him following her to the library. It was really starting to make her afraid. Jefferson had a temper, ad although he’d only hit her a handful of times, she wasn’t sure he’d show such restraint now that she’d left him.
“Oh, just let me come over. You know you want to see me,” he replied.
“Actually, um, I’m kind of busy tonight.” She wished her hand wasn’t shaking, but at least he couldn’t see her.
“I have to grade papers.” The words came out in a rush. She hated telling him no. It had never gone well in the past.
Jefferson laughed merrily. “That doesn’t sound like real fun, doll.”
“I have a name,” Mary Margaret objected weakly.
“Of course you do, Mary Margaret. I just call you doll because I like you,” was the flippant answer. “Tomorrow night. I’ll pick you up at seven. No excuses, okay?”
Her resistance crumbled. At least it would be nice to have a meal she didn’t have to pay for. “Okay,” Mary Margaret gave in. “I’ll be…ready.”
“I have to go home, Tony,” Lacey told her towering companion. She refused to think of him as her boyfriend, even though it felt like half the town was still pushing for her to marry Anthony Rose. But she didn’t feel much of anything for Tony, and hadn’t since they’d dated in high school. Tony was terrible with kids and had the manners of a star hockey player—which he wasn’t. All in all, he drove Lacey French insane, and she couldn’t imagine spending the rest of her life chained to him.
“We just got here, Lace.”
She rolled her eyes. “We got here three hours ago, and I have to work in the morning.”
He snorted. “How hard is it to run a library, anyway?”
“It requires a certain amount of functioning intelligence,” she retorted pointedly, finishing off her chardonnay and standing.
“C’mon,” Tony wheedled, turning on his barstool to look at her pleadingly as he completely missed the jibe Lacey had thrown his way. “The place is hopping!”
Actually, the Rabbit Hole was doing anything but hopping. It was nearly eleven, and tonight clearly was a slow night. Lacey didn’t seem to be the only one uninterested in partying this evening; the bar was halfway to empty and getting their fast. Even Deputy Sherriff Keith Law had already left, although not without leering at Lacey in a hungry way that made her skin crawl. Dealing with Keith was one of the few times she was grateful for Tony—at least he chased the creep off. Tony was a bore, an absolute meathead who had taken one too many hockey sticks to the head in high school, but he was much more of a gentleman than the deputy was.
“I’ve got to go.” Lacey leaned in to kiss him on the cheek. Tony was her friend, even if she felt nothing romantic towards him. “I’ll see you later.”
“Fine,” Tony grumbled, and Lacey hurried out the door before he could decide that buying her dinner gave him an open invitation to her apartment over the library.
Errol Forrester and Meleville Anzo had been roommates for as long as either could remember, back from before Errol married his late wife Olivia. They’d been friends for that long, too; in fact, they’d known one another for so long that they often felt like they’d lived entire lives together already. After Olivia had died giving birth to Jamie, Mel had moved back into the old apartment to help Errol look after his three year old son. They had always been like brothers, so it made perfect sense for his best friend to move in and help once Errol decided that he wasn’t interested in marrying again. Besides, they still worked together at Storybrooke’s Fire Department, and it simplified things when the captain and the senior lieutenant shared the same phone number.
Unfortunately, it also meant that they usually had to leave at the same time, even when it was nine o’clock at night and Jamie was already in bed.
“Mel!” Errol shouted up the stairs, slamming the phone down. “Fire at Widow Morton’s!”
“Comin’ down!” The booming voice came from inside the shower, and Errol heard his big friend turning off the water and bolting out of the shower. Of course, Mel tripped on the shower curtain and fell to the floor, and a muffled swear echoed down the stairs as Errol headed for the door.
“I’ll be next door! Get dressed, you big lug!”
Bolting out the door, Errol headed right, banging on the door of apartment 4C. It took a few moments—Ms. Wells liked to go to bed earlier than her younger neighbors—but soon enough, Jane Wells opened the door. She was a gray haired, matronly looking woman, with a kind ready and a willingness to help that Errol feared he too often took advantage of.
“Called out?” she asked by way of greeting.
“How in the world did you guess?” he replied with a lopsided smile. “Do you mind?”
“Of course I don’t,” Snow White’s old nurse (if only she knew) told him. “I’ll be right there.”
“You’re the best, Ms. Wells!” Robin Hood (in another life) replied, pecking her on the cheek before he rushed back over to his own apartment.
By then his much-larger best friend had managed to throw clothes on and was thumping his way down the stairs. It was a miracle that Jamie slept through living with the two of them, but the lad really did have a gift for sleeping soundly. Given the number of phone calls or radio reports they received, Errol often wondered if it would be better to leave Jamie with his wonderful neighbor, but Jane Wells worked as the mayor’s maid during the day and besides, Jamie was his son.
But there was no time for that as the two firefighters hurried down the stairs, sprinting for the fire house that was just two doors down. Of course, the major fire turned out to be just a kitchen fire, and old Widow Morton had managed to overreact yet again and call in a “massive house fire” that was nothing of the sort. Her tiny little oven fire certainly hadn’t needed an entire team of fire fighters to put it out, so Errol and Mel elected to walk home and send the engine back to the station. It was a nice night, after all, unseasonably warm for October, and they’d still be home before ten.
“Someone get a new car?” Mel wondered as they walked by the Nolans’ house, pointing at a battered yellow bug.
“Doesn’t look that new,” Errol shrugged, and thought nothing more of it.