Chapter 2: Twenty Questions
Baelfire shot upright, a shrill, incessant beeping knifing into his unconscious mind. For the briefest of moments, he couldn't remember where he was. Then his living room came into focus. He'd fallen asleep on the sofa again. He'd been dreaming, he realised. Of being alone, abandoned, wandering through the woods. Technically, it was a memory. He hadn't had that dream for a while.
With a frustrated sigh the man swung his legs onto the floor, wiping his hands across his face to clear the sleep. "Wake up, Ben. You're not there anymore. Ben," he repeated, as if saying his chosen name would ground him in the right timeframe. He was Benjamin Thatch, thirty-two. He had a job, and an apartment. He didn't think about that other world anymore. And his watch was still beeping.
Ben slapped at his wrist, silencing the alarm. He stared at the clock-face. "Shit…" He also had a date. And he was going to be late.
After five minutes of dashing about his apartment, Ben managed to find something respectable to wear. The next stop was the bathroom. He stared at himself in the mirror. His hair was ruffled, the short, brown locks were getting scraggily and he was probably in need of a haircut soon. He ran his fingers through his hair and decided it would pass. He angled his chin at the mirror. The five o'clock shadow could probably stay too. He retrieved a bottle of after shave from under the sink and tossed a bit on, and then he was headed out his apartment door and barrelling into the lift.
He jogged down the street, deciding it'd be quicker than waiting for a bus. He quickly checked his wrist watch; he wouldn't be very late if he hurried. Ben had not been on a date in a few months, probably due to the general apathy and occasional confusion he felt for the whole process. Most of the time it seemed that finding true love, what Ben would have thought would be the point of going out to dinner with the opposite sex, was not the ultimate objective. Perhaps it happened, but when it did it was more like a bonus. The point seemed to be to enjoy the moment, that one date, and anything that came immediately after.
But this woman had piqued his interest. She didn't seem like some of the women he'd been out with when he'd first started the strange custom of dating, a few of whom had tossed their drinks on him. She seemed like someone he could spend a pleasant evening with, if nothing more. When she'd brought her beat up yellow Volkswagen into the mechanics shop where he worked, needing a headlamp fixed (and far more besides, though she'd refused) they'd gotten to talking. She'd asked him to dinner, and despite his usual apprehension about going on a date, he hadn't hesitated to accept.
"There you are."
"Sorry…" Ben was drawing in deep breaths when he got to the restaurant. "I got a bit held up." He looked the woman up and down. She was wearing a black dress, her blond hair falling over her shoulders. "Emma Swan, wow. You look beautiful."
Emma smiled, and Ben couldn't help but feel relieved she wasn't upset at his tardiness. "You don't look so bad yourself. Even without all the grease… hang on…" She reached up and straightened his collar. "You forgot didn't you?"
"No… fell asleep…"
"Come on, you're not that late. They'll still have our table."
The two sat down and ordered some wine and food.
"So," said Emma as she took a sip of her wine. "Where do you want to start?"
"I'll be honest… haven't been on a date in a few months." Ben gave a half shrug.
Emma grinned. "Okay, well that makes me feel special. Alright, we'll start with something easy. Twenty questions?"
Ben tried to supress a wince. He wasn't out of the game enough to not know what that was. Sometimes it could be good, sometimes bad. It usually depended on whether his date was more interested in what he was doing now, or about his childhood. "Alright." That didn't mean he was going to chicken out though. "You start then."
Emma studied her wine for a second, chewing her lip. "Well, I already know you're a mechanic. What made you choose that?"
An easy question. Ben felt himself relax a little. Of course, it was only the first. "It is just a job. But I suppose when I was younger I had this weird notion that cars had some sort of creature inside them. All that growling and rumbling… when I got under the hood of one, saw the engine and realised it wasn't alive, I wanted to figure out how it works. So when I was old enough to work, well, old enough to be allowed to work, I got an apprenticeship."
Emma smiled. "That's just a little bit cute… so was it your father that showed you the engine?"
Ben cleared his throat. "Hey, my turn."
Emma leaned back in her chair and gestured for him to continue.
"You haven't even told me what you do. So I suppose, what and why?"
"I'm a private investigator. I find people."
"Oh, wow, that's definitely more interesting than a mechanic."
"Yeah, well I was abandoned as a child. Didn't know who my parents were… I started doing this because I wanted to help other people find those they'd lost… but I found my parents again recently."
Ben smiled slightly. "I'm glad you found them."
"Me too," Emma looked him straight in the eye. "So what about your folks?"
Ben crossed his arms, leaning back in his chair. "I'd rather not…"
"It is my turn." Emma raised an eyebrow.
Well, this was turning out to be far from pleasant. Somehow, Emma had switched on an intense interest, and Ben didn't know why. Normally no one was as interested in the answers to the twenty questions as Emma now seemed to be. "Fine." He shook his head. "My mother left when I was young. My father…" here he trailed off, his mouth opening a few times as he searched for the correct words. Finally he sighed. "My father abandoned me too. There, you happy?"
"Have you ever thought of finding them again?"
Ben couldn't help but smile slightly. Perhaps her interest only arose from the need to stir up some business for herself. He couldn't quite hold that against her; but he couldn't help her either. "No. That would be quite impossible."
"So they're dead?"
"No. It's complicated. It's just impossible."
"I've got a confession, Ben."
"I'm on an investigation right now."
Ben frowned. "So I'm just a decoy…" He looked over his shoulder, seeing if he could spot anyone that looked as if they should be being stalked by this woman. When he turned back around, Emma was still looking right at him, her elbows on the table, chin resting on her hands. "Wait, you mean me?"
Ben stared at her for a long moment, dumbfounded .Then a smile slowly started to form on his face. He laughed. "Emma, sweetheart, I'm sorry. But you've got the wrong man."
"Really?" Still she stared at him.
"Yes! When I said it was impossible, I meant it! You could not possibly have been hired by my father. Look, whatever you're trying to do for this man, is great. I hope you find his son. But he's not me."
Ben blinked. "So you found that much out? That was a name I used when I was found. It's probably not even my real name; I was young I probably just made it up. That proves nothing."
"Alright then," Emma leaned back. "Then prove I'm wrong…"
"I don't think that's how it works…"
Ben sighed. He really didn't need this. He didn't want to think about his father. Or any of it. At least he knew that Emma Swan was wrong. The only problem was that she didn't seem to know it, and she was bloody tenacious. Then a thought struck him, something that he had never, ever, in his time in this world mentioned. It could not possibly exist in any piece of the mountainous, unnecessary paperwork that had been generated to prove he existed here. Something her investigation could not possibly have turned up. "The man who asked you to find his son; did he tell you his name?"
"His real name?"
Emma smiled. "Sure of it."
"Alright," Ben leaned forward onto the table, mirroring Emma's intensity. "Tell me his name."
Emma looked him right in the eye, leaned in and whispered: "Rumpelstiltskin."
"Not again…Hey! Ben, get back here!" Emma couldn't believe it. With an exasperated sigh she stood to her feet and followed the man out into the night air. She should have expected this. They always ran! Well, the runaway husbands, mostly. She couldn't quite remember how many grown, missing children she'd tracked down. Usually they were grateful and that was what she had been expecting. Of course, she hadn't actually asked Rumpelstiltskin what had happened between him and his son. It wasn't like she was getting paid for this particular job, which, technically, wasn't even her job anymore.
It had been late one night, not very long after Regina had been ousted, the curse had been broken, and that strange cloud had washed over Storybrooke. The cloud that had brought back magic, sporadically, thankfully, and luckily it hadn't seemed to give any of the inhabitants a sudden, exponential increase in power. This would have made her job as sheriff a hell of a lot harder. Not yet, anyway. Emma suspected the incident with the small time witch in the main street, who had attempted to turn a rival into a dust, and had instead turned herself into a small fluffy duck, may have had something to do with that. Apparently magic didn't work quite the same way in this world, and no one was yet game to test this to any great extent. At least, that's what Emma hoped. She had been working late when Rumpelstiltskin sauntered into her office, as if he owned the place (which technically he did). Emma had been none too pleased to see him.
"You've got a lot of nerve coming in here," she growled, looking up from her paperwork. "After what you nearly did to Henry…"
"I did nothing to you son, Miss Swan. He's fine now, isn't he?"
"No thanks to you. He could have…"
"But you fixed that, didn't you? True love's kiss, and all that. I knew you'd come through."
"I really don't appreciate being used when my son was about to die, whatever confidence you had in me. And I'd like to know what you ended up doing with that magic you had me retrieve…"
Rumpelstiltskin smiled, leaning on his cane. "Another time, maybe. I'm here on business…"
"Fine, let's get this over with. What business?"
"I've come to collect…"
"Collect what?" she said, tossing her hands in the air. She was too tired to really think straight. "Is there some rent or something I have to pay you to keep working in this…"
"Not rent," Rumpelstiltskin snapped, a hint of anger in his voice. "You owe me a favour, remember?"
Emma's blood ran cold. She'd dreaded this moment. "Alright…" She stood to her feet and faced Rumpelstiltskin, folding her arms across her chest as if bracing herself. "Out with it then…"
Rumpelstiltskin looked her up and down, a bemused, but somewhat sad smile crossing his face. "Are you that convinced that I'm going to ask for something dreadful?"
"You've given me no reason to think otherwise."
Rumpelstiltskin sighed and shook his head.
"Miss Swan…" he paused, and for a brief moment Emma saw hesitation cross his face. He looked away, swallowed hard, but when he looked her back in the eye his gaze was steady, and Emma knew his next words were sincere. "I need your help to find my son."
So here she was, doing what she used to do. Including chasing some scared witless man down the street. Or not. As she exited the restaurant she caught sight of Ben, sitting on a nearby bench with his head in his hands. Understandably, he'd just needed some fresh air. Emma winced. Perhaps she could have been a little gentler in her delivery. "Are you alright?" she asked, sitting down beside him on the bench.
Ben drew in a breath and lifted his head. His skin was pale. "No… not… not really. How did he… you're sure of this?"
"But… how did he get over here? I thought I'd never see him again!" A smile crossed the man's face, and he briefly seemed caught between breaking down and bursting out laughing. Well, Emma thought, that was an interesting reaction.
"He's not the only one that's come over from your world. There was a curse… look, it's a long story. But basically now the curse is broken, and for some reason Rumpelstiltskin thought now was a good time to start looking for you… he…. 'hired' me." Emma shrugged. "And now I've found you."
Ben shook his head. "I thought I'd never see him again," he repeated. "I… did he tell you how I got here?"
"No…" said Emma, leaning in. Ben seemed ecstatic, if still a little shaken up. Perhaps she could glean some useful information about Rumpelstiltskin. He'd been a worry before, but with magic's return, Emma was sure he was now downright dangerous.
"My father was under a curse, back in the other world. It made him… he used it to help people, but also to do terrible things. I made a deal with him – if I could find a way to break his curse without killing him, that he'd do it, no matter what it was. I found a way to come to this world – a world without magic. His curse would have no hold here. I opened up a gateway, and…" Here Ben trailed off, losing some of his momentum. "He was supposed to come through with me. He promised…" The man gritted his teeth, but pushed on. "But he didn't come through. He was too scared."
Emma raised an eyebrow. "Scared?"
"Yeah. He was scared of living without his newfound power, I suppose. And I suppose that's why he let me go. He let me fall through that hole… and I woke up here alone. I did it for him, and he let me go…"
"You would have been the first one here, all by yourself. Good God…" Emma shook her head. "How old were you?"
"Thirteen… look, yeah, I was mad at him. I still am. He should have been able to…" Ben shook his head again. "But that doesn't matter now. However it happened, he's here now." He smiled. "I don't care how long it took… but the fact that he could work up the courage to come here, a world without magic…"
Emma suddenly had a thought. "So he didn't want to come if he couldn't bring magic with him?"
"No! But now he has, and…"
"Without magic, his curse is broken. He's free!"
Emma's mind was racing. Why hadn't see seen it sooner? Ben mentioning Rumpelstiltskin not being able to let go of magic… and magic had returned with the curse being broken… the thing she'd retrieved from the dragon… somehow, these were connected though she couldn't quite figure out exactly how. "Ben, magic is here."
"Not here, maybe. But in Storybrooke… that's where everyone came over… Ben, in Storybrooke magic is alive and kicking."
If it were possible, the man had become even paler. "My father… he…" Ben's jaw shook. "Did he bring it over?"
"I don't know," Emma replied, honestly. "But I wouldn't put it past him."
"I don't…" Ben's hands were shaking as he stood to his feet. "After all this time… he makes it over and he can't even leave it behind! Why does he think I came over here in the first place?! I came to save him from magic! I came over alone and he couldn't even…"
"Ben!" Emma stood to her feet and grabbed his arm. "You need to come back to Storybrooke. If I don't bring you back I'm sure Rumpelstiltskin will come looking for you. I'm not completely sure what he's capable of… but I can't imagine it's a good thing for this world if he decides to go wandering. You can't run…"
Ben snatched back his arm. "I'm not running. I'm not a coward." He drew in a deep breath, exhaling slowly. "I'll come back to Storybrooke with you, Emma."