Chapter 5: The Viewing
Ben had sat down that evening and started to make a list. Twenty questions had popped back into his mind, and he figured that these could be applied to a father/son meeting as well. The only problem with this, he soon realised, was that he had to phrase the questions in such a manner that the father didn't know they were coming from the son.
'Why couldn't you let go of the Knife?' was the first thing he'd written. Ben scowled, and scratched through the phrase with his pen so hard he almost tore the paper. It was pity; because that was one of the questions he really wanted to ask.
"It'd be a lot easier if you just told him the truth." Emma had come to lean over the back of the sofa, staring at his paper. "Not to mention safer."
"He's been bugging you to find me again, hasn't he?"
Emma shrugged non-committedly. "So I hear you've managed to get a job?"
"And committed to getting us a house through Rumpelstiltskin…"
Ben winced. "Yeah, not quite yet…"
"Just don't drag me into this too much," Emma shook her head. "I know you're trying to keep up an act and all…"
"Yeah, sorry. I won't commit to anything for you." He shrugged. "And hey, if I do do anything you don't like you can always dump me."
Emma smiled. "Sounds like a plan. Here," she took out a card and handed it to him. "That's the number for the sheriff's office. If you get yourself into any trouble… which I'm sure you will…"
Ben frowned. "Thanks. But if my father's as bad as he was this isn't going to help much."
"I can't imagine he'd be much worse… actually…" Emma looked at the ceiling as she contemplated. She looked back down at Ben, slightly hesitant. "How bad was he?" she eventually ventured.
Ben stared down at his still rather scanty list and swallowed hard. "Turned some guy into a snail because he knocked me down with his cart."
"… then stepped on him." Saying it somehow brought it out of the haze of the old world and into the reality of this one. Ben's chosen reality. A faint anger, buried long ago with his memories, started to burn.
"Wow…" Emma said after a moment. She frowned. "Ben, I'm serious. This is really dangerous. Are you sure…"
Ben stood up from the sofa and whirled around. "Emma, I know what I'm doing, alright?!" He swallowed, calming slightly. "I know what I'm doing. Henry was right… this apartment is too small…" He snatched up his paper. He needed somewhere he could think.
It was with trepidation that, the next day, Ben approached the house at the address Rumpelstiltskin had given him.
His list hadn't turned out very well. It contained a lot of questions he simply couldn't ask, and a few more that he could work in only with some difficulty. Eventually, he'd just thrown it away. The most important ones were firmly in his mind, and carrying a prompt was a dead giveaway.
He turned to examine the house. It was a cottage with a small, slightly overgrown but not untidy garden. And it looked about the right size for a small family. Not that he really needed to consider any of that, Ben thought with a wry smile, but doing so might help him stay 'in character'.
Ben looked up as Rumpelstiltskin stepped out of his car and onto the footpath. He glanced down at his watch. "So are you…"
His father gave a half shrug. "Well, we've got twenty minutes." He gestured towards the house. "If you're happy after that the place is yours. Shall we?"
Ben nodded and headed in. His father didn't seem as in a hurry as he had been yesterday. He was under less time constraints today, Ben supposed. Perhaps he would be able to work in a few questions without antagonising him too much. They entered in through the front door to the living area. It was well-lit, though looked a little disused. There was a simple wooden dining table and a sofa. Ben let his eyes wander over these, taking in the obvious, but without actually contemplating much of it.
Rumpelstiltskin had paused at the edge of the room, leaning on his cane, and just letting Ben look around. It appeared he was in no great hurry to recommend anything about the place, just content to let Ben decide. This was either a good or a bad thing. Ben realised he would have to lead the conversation, presuming that he could even start one. But it might also mean he could steer it.
"It looks alright..." Ben said noncommittally.
"Would you like to see the bedrooms?" His father sound mildly frustrated, though nothing like yesterday.
Ben nodded, agreeing only for the sake of giving himself time to think. "I'm not so worried about the house," he said as they relocated to the further end of the little house. "This seems pretty nice, and we really need it, but…" He chewed his lip.
"But?" Rumpelstiltskin prompted.
"I've been talking to Emma. She's not really all that keen about me entering into any sort of arrangement with you… or in dragging her in to it…"A half-truth. Maybe it'd help him be more believable; Ben wasn't sure how good he was at lying.
His father leaned on his cane and smiled. "That seems a bit hypocritical of her. She's entered into arrangements with me in the past."
"Perhaps that's why she's worried. And I don't want to get involved in anything that could end up hurting my family."
"Mr Thatch," Rumpelstiltskin shifted his weight off his cane. The movement caught Ben's eye, and he momentarily wondered why his father was carting that around. Back in the other world as soon as he'd inherited the Dark One's powers his limp had vanished. "I assure you that Sherriff Swan is being just a touch paranoid about my dealings. People who pay their rent in time and don't break their contracts have nothing to worry about."
Time to stir things up a little, Ben thought. But just a little. "She did tell me she'd made a deal with you. That you've got her doing something for you. She doesn't seem entirely happy about that…"
"And just how much did she tell about this deal I made with her?" His father took a step forward, his voice carrying a slight threat. Ben saw through it, or rather he saw the brief flicker of emotion that preceded it. Fear. Good grief, was he actually that worried about someone finding out he had Emma searching for his son? Did he think it some kind of weakness?
Ben exhaled, turning his head away to hide his contempt. "She didn't go into any details. Said it was personal. I don't mean to be antagonistic; I'm just trying to protect me family. You know, I kind of feel like I abandoned them, especially my son, and I'm just trying to make up for it."
"Yes, well, I can't blame you for that."
Ben glanced back at his father, but if his face had shown anything that might help him clarify that statement, he'd missed it. He took a moment to take him in. Some things about him were different then Ben's memories, some hadn't changed. The suit, for one. It was every bit the clean, crisp business man that Rumpelstiltskin was now portraying. Portraying was the right word. Ben was sure it was an act. In the other world, his father had started to change. Ben, the boy Baelfire, had started to see him becoming something else. A portrayal of power. Something that frightened those about him and stopped them from getting too close to its wielder. In this world, evil was not so obvious. It did not skulk around, nor take on the appearance of a monster. In this world, evil was more often subtle. His father had embraced that, and that was what now stood before him.
But he's not evil. Ben couldn't believe that. He's just… Ben didn't know. He couldn't tell from one meeting. Not with his father hidden behind his chosen persona.
"I didn't know I had a son, Rumpelstiltskin. When I found out… well, I felt like I had been a coward. Deserted Emma because I wanted to hold onto my old life. Basically, I abandoned my son, and…"
"Mr Thatch, I have no interest in hearing your sob story. I'm here to see if you want to make a deal."
Did he interrupt him just a little too quickly? Ben wasn't sure. He'd grown frustrated. A part of him wanted to just give it all up there and tell his father who he was. It would be the only way he'd get an honest reaction. The other half just wanted to get out of this little house and away from his father. Ben steadied himself, thrusting his hands into his pockets. No. Not yet. He wasn't done with his questions. "Alright, fine. I'm going to have to think about it; talk to Emma. And I'm just trying to figure out what's going on here. This town is strange… magic…" he shook his head. "I've never believed in magic. Obviously. It doesn't belong in this world. Whoever brought it… what's wrong with them, what could they possibly need it for?!"
"It bothers you that much?" Rumpelstiltskin was staring at him hard now. Ben looked at him. Continuing now would be too much too soon. He'd give himself away. He was too angry. As his father gave him that look, spoke those words, Ben couldn't help but wonder. Had his father really brought the magic? Ben couldn't make himself believe it.
His father's outfit, his demeanour may have changed. But as far as Ben could see he was still much the same man. Ben was scaring him now, ever so slightly, and if he continued his father might perceive him as a threat. Then what, turn him into a snail?
"I'm not from your world, I don't understand magic. Maybe it just frightens me. Maybe just what it could do to people. I'm going to have to think about it. I'll get back to you."
Rumpelstiltskin nodded, but he was now looking at Ben with a more intense interest. Not quite the same mild frustration and disdain he'd shown when they'd first entered this house. What he was thinking, Ben wasn't sure. He wasn't sure whether it would taint the rather haphazard plan he had to figure his father out. At the moment he couldn't be bothered thinking it through. He had to get out of this house. And only then, when he'd had a chance to calm himself down and think, would he contemplate his next steps.
"Alright," said Rumpelstiltskin. "I'll send over a contract for you to take a look at. Let me know when you decide, Mr Thatch. I look forward to doing business with you."