Purposely vague about timelines and such, but just assume this is AU post-Quiet Minds.
If Only In Your Dreams
Someone screamed, their voice sharp and loud as it pierced through the darkness that never seemed to lift. There wasn't any light in this place. They were surrounded in nothing but black, cold and unrelenting.
Somehow, Neal had always thought hell would be warmer.
Another scream ripped through, this one downright gleeful and almost childlike in its excitement. It reveled in the pained scream that had preceded it and that second scream turned into a high-pitched giggle that reminded him too much of the laughter his papa would break into so long ago.
The waving hands.
Too late, he realized how little control his father had had over the curse. It hadn't just been the dark magic coursing through him. It had been the past Dark Ones, every last one of them acting like some kind of echo in the head of an already-weak man. His papa, always looked at as the coward, but who Neal had loved and accepted, because his papa was his papa no matter what.
Or he had been. Up until the curse came and, suddenly, his papa had begun to morph into someone else. It hadn't just been his face. The curse and the essences of his predecessors had eaten at him, chipping away at his papa's sanity and at his soul.
It was trying to do the same to him now. The Old Ones didn't like that he was there. They knew he wasn't one of them, that he was an outsider. His soul, torn from his body and sucked into the Vault as a trade for his father's. Eternity, they told him, cheerful and giggling the way that made him shudder. You're here forever. You're ours now.
The familiar voice of the First called his name, taunting—like he was calling a dog—and Neal flinched, cowering back in the dark. Months. He had been trapped here for months and he still couldn't make heads nor tails of his prison. His back touched something solid that felt like a wall, but he couldn't be sure. It wasn't worth the time it would take to question it. He just inched across it, curled in on himself, and tried to find a broken crevice to hide in.
The Old Ones could see here, not well, but well enough to find him. He wondered if it was part of the curse that still lingered in their souls, helping them cut through the darkness with reptilian eyes that acted more like a cat's.
"Come play, child," the voice called again. "We want to play."
Right. Play. His body—as incorporeal as it was—still had the markings of the last time they played. He couldn't see them in the darkness, but he could feel them, aching and making his movements sloppy. They were hot when he touched them and he wondered if wounds on a soul could get infected.
Just a soul, he thought as he rubbed at his chest to try and chase away the empty feeling. Not a person. A person had a body. His… God. His had probably been buried a long time ago, left to rot under the ground. He wondered what name they buried him under. If Henry ever remembered who he was enough to care. If Emma ever laid flowers.
He never had to worry about his papa. He could feel him, this barely-there presence in the back of his head. Pain. Guilt. Anger. His papa wasn't okay, no matter how much he tried to hide. Even with Belle, the darkness was eating at him. He didn't want to think how long it would take before the darkness won.
"You can't hide. We know every one of your little hidey-holes," the voice taunted. "Don't make us punish you again."
He pulled his knees to his chest, eyes pressed closed, and tried to slow his breathing. Block out the voices and the screams. Just breathe. Breathe and relax. Think of Emma, he told himself. It was nighttime. He could feel it in the back of his mind as his papa cooked a late dinner. Like a whisper, he thought. His papa was the only thing resembling a clock that he had here.
Emma. Focus on Emma.
He exhaled and let himself fall.
His eyes burned when he opened them, unused to the bright light of the sun beating down on him. He stared down at his hands, half-covered by long sleeves, because he couldn't find the courage to see if his marks carried over here. He didn't want to scare her.
He turned at the sound of her voice, his heart hammering in his chest, and let himself smile. "Hi," he breathed. "You look good."
She raised an eyebrow at him, judging, but he was telling the truth. Shorts and a t-shirt that hung loose on her. She was barefoot against the sand, toes wiggling. "Where are we?"
"Tallahassee," he replied, eyes drifting towards the water. Waves crashed up against the shore, soft and steady. Calming. Nothing like the chaos back in the Vault.
"This isn't what Tallahassee looks like," she told him. "This looks more like Martha's Vineyard."
He snorted and shrugged a shoulder. "Give me a break," he said as he sat down, the sand warm against his skin. "I've never even been to Florida."
She sat down next to him, legs splayed out in front of her. "You never went?"
"Didn't want to," he murmured. "Wouldn't have been home without you."
The truth came easy here. No weight. No fear. They were both open with each other, more than they had managed to be before. There was no reason to lie here, not when it would all be broken soon. Emma would wake up and the dream would fade, probably forgotten before she could even remember the details.
Still, he found it comforting. The way her hand fit into his. The way she followed him when he lay back in the sand, resting her head on his shoulder. He wrapped his arm around her, holding her, and let himself smile. She still fit against him like she used to.
He pressed his lips to her head watching as she played with the edge of his sleeve. "Don't," he whispered.
"It's hot out."
For a while, they just lay there, watching the waves crash. The water never made it to them, always just a few inches shy of hitting their feet, and Neal let himself relax. He didn't have long. Knew he didn't. He could feel it in his bones, the way his strength was fading. His control over the dream would slip soon.
He should have waited longer, given himself more time to build his strength back up so that he could have escaped the Vault for a whole night instead of just a couple hours. He hadn't. He'd been so desperate for the escape and a way to hide from the First that he'd run, hid away like the coward people always used to say his papa was.
It would be months before he managed to build himself up enough that he could do this again. He'd only managed it a handful of times in the year—two years?—he'd been in the Vault. What used to come so easy when he'd been alive was suddenly so much harder now.
He shouldn't have been surprised. Back then, he had still had his body, a solid anchor for him when he had let himself drift out of himself and into someone else's dreamscape. It had grounded him, giving him the security and the control he needed.
His papa had called him a dream-walker, staring at him with terrified eyes as he told him in that stammering voice he used to have that he could never tell anybody. Natural-born psychics were rare, pulling their abilities from something bred deep inside their soul. Magic users like what his papa would later become and the others he'd met… They pulled the magic from the world around them twisting and manipulating it into something it shouldn't be. That was why theirs came with a price. His didn't for the simple fact that the power was a part of him rather than a piece stolen from the world. He let it flow like it was meant to, moving in harmony with it.
It was the only thing he had ever known how to do, slipping into other people's dreams and shaping the world they shared. He was no sorcerer. Someone like him… Seers. Telepaths. Dream-walkers. They all had that one ability they were in-tune with. No more. No less.
The Land Without Magic threw him for a loop, though, and something that was so normal for him had suddenly become harder to reach. He could feel his ability at the tip of his fingers, almost always out of reach, and it had been like losing a limb. Phantom pains. The pain and the anguish of being cut off from something that was a part of him. Even as a child, he'd been careful to never abuse what he could do, too scared that people would figure him out, and he had barely used it, but having it locked away like it was… It was cruel.
It was like the world had shut it up and sealed the door with a flimsy lock. Every time he thought he'd gotten past the tumblers, they snapped back into place.
Not having a physical body made it even harder, but it meant he wasn't leaving himself vulnerable somewhere. This way, it gave him an escape from the Vault as he pushed himself into Emma's dreamscape. The Old Ones would be angry when he got back and the punishment would be worse, but feeling Emma against him and the way she tangled their fingers together…
It was worth it. It was worth the punishment and it was worth how much it drained him to move between the different worlds.
"I miss you," she whispered, her face hidden in his chest.
"I'm right here."
"But you're not there." Sad eyes turned up towards him and Neal felt his heart ache. Emma knew this wasn't real. As much as he tried to create this world around them, she still knew this was a dream. Even if she didn't know how real he was, she had never let herself fully give into the fantasy.
"I know." He sighed, squeezing her hand. "But I'm here. Right now. Just-"
The First's voice cut through, pulling them both apart, and Neal swore. He'd let too much of his control slip. If the First had managed to find him…
The sound of the ocean disappeared and darkness swept in like a storm. Wind whipped around them and Emma scrambled to her feet as something pulled him to his. "Neal!" She sounded scared, like she thought they were getting attacked, but she wasn't. It was just him. The First only wanted him.
He shook his head at her, trying to look more calm than he felt. "Let go," he told her. "Wake up."
He let go of the dream and the First pulled him back into the dark.
Everything hurt. Every last bit. Wounds ached, pounding with the rhythm of a pounding heart that shouldn't exist. His body was dead, lost when his soul was torn out of it. Still, it gave him something to focus on, this pained beating that he tried to match his breath to. It only worked about half-way and he let himself drift back to unconsciousness.
No one visited his dreams.
All he got was darkness.
It took him months before he managed to see Emma again. She heaved a giant sigh of relief and let him pull her into his arms.
He shook his head and held her tighter. No words. He could already feel his control slipping. He didn't have the strength for this. The longer he was in the Vault, the harder it became to get a firm hold on his abilities. They were always there for him to touch, but the strength he needed to do it was never there anymore. At least, not enough for anything lasting. No matter how hard he held onto her—or her to him—he was going to lose this and get propelled back into the Vault like he always was.
The Old Ones hated when he got out.
"Don't leave," she begged when the scene around them began to fall apart.
His breath shook as he ducked to kiss her forehead. "I'll come back," he promised her. "Close your eyes."
"No." She stared back at him, upset and defiant. She wouldn't close her eyes when he disappeared. She'd watch and hurt herself doing it. He hated it and hated that it made him love her a little more than he already did.
The dream shattered.
Something sharp trailed down his skin, nails or knives, he wasn't sure, but pain came and he felt the warmth of his own blood spilling over frigid skin. He was surprised there was anything warm left in him.
Maybe this was what they meant when people said that a wound could be soul-deep, he thought one time after the Old Ones had left him alone. Lying in the dark, he snorted. A place like this wasn't meant for philosophy.
It became a haze. Darkness and pain with short bursts of light and Emma. The bursts were never long enough, the two of them wrapped up in each other's arms and trying to hold on while the world he'd created for them fell apart. Time and time again, it happened. He watched the happiness in Emma's eyes start to blend in with the sadness, because this always ended the same way.
Even in his dreams, he was hurting her.
He kissed her head like he always did now and felt himself get ripped back into the Vault.
He wondered if a soul could die. Figured that it had to be possible or ghosts would outnumber the living population, but what about for him? Could a soul die if it was trapped in the prison it had damned itself to?
These days, he wasn't sure what he hoped the answer was.
Minutes. They were only going to have minutes. Emma looked half-frantic when he found her, though, and he reached out to touch her cheek. "What's wrong?"
His hand tensed against her skin for a second before he was able to force the feelings back. Hook. Of course. He'd lost track of time so much now. He still had the vague ability to know when it was night in the real world, but how much time had been in there… He had no idea, but he would have had to be a fool to not think that Emma and Hook wouldn't have happened eventually. He'd known.
That day in the woods, he'd told her to find Tallahassee, knowing that it couldn't be with him, not as he lay dying in her arms. Something in the back of his mind said it would be with Hook, that the pirate was too persistent to give up before Emma truly gave him a shot. Even as his chest ached at the thought, he accepted it. He had only ever wanted her to be happy, whether that was with him or not.
Still, the thought of them together made him suddenly grateful for his prison. Seeing them would have hurt more than anything the Old Ones could do to him.
This time, when the dream fell apart, he let it.
"Do you love him?" he asked one time. He could only guess it had been weeks—probably months—since he'd last seen her. She didn't look frazzled anymore. She looked content. Calm.
She stiffened at the question, wide eyes shooting up to look at him, somewhere between shocked and shaken at the question. She didn't answer, though. She just turned her eyes back towards the waves crashing on the shore.
He didn't. He let it go and let the silence fall between them. The little time they had, they had to hold onto and for as much as he hated fighting with her in the real world, he hated it even more in this one.
The sunlight began to dim as the waves slowed to a stop and he knew he was losing his grip on it. Emma did, too. She turned her eyes towards him again, looking sad this time, and reached for his hand. "I do," she answered finally and he felt his heart break at the same time their little world did.
It was funny. He had expected the way the Old Ones taunted him. They had a better grasp in his papa's mind, able to see the world around him and know. They knew what Emma meant to him and how to hurt him. Their weapons. Their words.
He had expected that it would all hurt more once their whispers about Emma and Hook had become a proven fact, but knowing what he knew now… He just felt numb.
Maybe that was what he needed to survive in this hell.
To feel nothing.
"I love him," Emma said suddenly. The dream had barely started and it almost fell apart right there as he flinched. He might have been numb in the Vault, but never with Emma. He couldn't be.
She shook her head, moving closer to him. "You don't get it," she insisted, hesitating before she touched him. "I love him. Just…not like I should." Open. Vulnerable. Honest. Everything she never let herself be in the real world, she let herself be in these dreams. He could see it in her eyes, the wish and the want to love Hook like the pirate loved her, but that something wasn't letting her.
"I'm in love with a dead man," she said, but he thought she was mostly talking to herself, so he didn't reply. "These dreams are so real and…" She shook her head, sadness giving way to raw pain. "Every time someone says my brother's name, I think they're talking about you."
Her voice cracked at the end and his heart broke for a whole other reason than it did before. He pulled her into his arms, his lips against her temple. "I'm sorry."
She shook her head again, clinging to him.
He couldn't do this anymore. Standing there, he knew he couldn't. He had started this dream with the intention of saying goodbye and he had to see it through. Before, it had been because of him and the selfishness of not wanting to see her and think about her and Hook, but now… Now, he just wanted to stop hurting her. If he stopped the dreams, she could move on. She could be happy.
His lips brushed her cheek before he pulled away a fraction. "I won't come here anymore."
She reared back a few inches, staring at him like she'd just been slapped. "What?"
He sighed and raised one hand up to touch her cheek, but he stopped halfway there and let it drop. He didn't want to do this, but he had to. Visiting her dreams had started as something to still see her with the added benefit of escaping the Vault, but it wasn't worth hurting her. There had been enough hurt between them in the past. He couldn't add more to the pile. "These dreams," he told her, his voice soft. "You won't have them anymore."
"Not exactly how dreams work, Neal," she said slowly, like she was trying to explain something to a drunk person.
He shook his head at her, sad. "There's a lot I never got to tell you," he murmured regretfully. He wished he had. Wished he'd told her the truth about what he could do, but what did it matter anymore? There was nothing he could do to change it. He was a soul, torn from its body and locked up in a prison somewhere in the bowels of the Enchanted Forest. He'd said goodbye in the woods that day and he should have let that be the end. All he'd done with this… He'd made it harder.
He leaned down to kiss her head as she frowned, his eyes pressed shut, and told himself that this was the last time. No more escapes. No more dreams. There wouldn't be any visits to Henry, mostly out of the fear that the boy still didn't remember him, and there wouldn't be any dreams to his papa. If his papa thought he could save him, he'd tear both worlds apart to do it. Nothing was worth that price.
"I love you," he whispered before he could stop himself. "Always did. Always will." His vision got blurry, but only half of it was because of the tears that were rising. He was extending himself too far, pushing a dream that should have only lasted a minute to something much longer. It was going to fall apart soon and he had to end it before that. So many of their dreams had ended in nightmares as they got pulled apart and he couldn't let this one go the same way.
He pinched his nose to keep it from running and saw the blood on his fingers when he pulled his hand away. Too much, he told himself. If he still had a body, he'd be killing himself.
She croaked out his name, biting at her lip.
"Let yourself be happy, okay? That's all I ever wanted," he said. Even if it meant with Hook.
Her breath shuddered, fear and indecision in her eyes, and then, she pulled him into a kiss. Her hands planted on either side of his face and he only had a few seconds to relish in their first kiss in over a decade—and their last ever—before the shock came.
A red hot pain slammed into him, ripping through his body, before it all went white. He gasped as he pulled away from her mouth, not sure how to scream.
Emma shouted his name.
His knees buckled.
Everything went black.
Neal whimpered softly, his eyes still closed, and unwilling to open them back up to the darkness of the Vault. Not now. Not yet. He could hide until someone found him. They always did.
A hand touched his arm and he stiffened, his breath caught in his throat. There they were.
A voice shushed him softly, comforting, and a warm hand touched his cheek. "Open your eyes."
That wasn't the voice of one of the Old Ones. No matter how many times they mocked him and his feelings, they had never been able to replicate Emma's voice like that. Never.
He opened his eyes too fast and the light burned. He shut them again, one hand acting like a shield over his face.
"I'll turn the lights off," she said and panic grabbed him.
"No," he gasped, urgent. "Don't." Please.
Maybe she was just responding to his tone or maybe she heard the unspoken plea, but he could feel her settle in next to him. "Okay," she murmured, fingers drawing little lines up and down his arm in an effort to soothe him. "Not touching the lights."
He opened his eyes slower this time, first at a squint and, then, more. The light still burned at his retinas like they always did when he entered one of their dreams.
This wasn't one of their dreams, though. They were lying in a bed together, one of her ankles hooked over his calf like she used to do when they got a crappy motel room for the night. Fingers against his arm. Her other hand supporting her head as she propped it up, lying on her side.
He'd been dream-walking his entire life. He knew the flow and the feel of the real world versus the ones he created. There, he felt weightless, pulled from his body and into a nothingness that he turned into something. Here, he could feel the weight of himself and of the blanket covering them. It felt heavy. Real.
This wasn't a dream.
The realization hit him like a truck and his eyes widened, panicked and half-wild. "What did you do?" He couldn't let her take his place. He couldn't.
"I kissed you," she said simply. "That's all." She bit at the corner of her lip, watching him. "You made all those dreams." Not a question. A statement. She knew. She knew.
"Funny thing. Storybrooke? We apparently have a lot of books." The gentle, joking tone faded off to something serious at the same time something in her eyes darkened. "The one you used when you brought Gold back. Belle gave it to me. Said she found him looking at it and she didn't want him risking anything. You died to bring him back." She paused, swallowing. "Said you wouldn't have wanted it to be for nothing."
"I wouldn't. That doesn't explain how you know about the dreams, Emma. My papa was the only one that ever knew. We never even told my mother."
"I read it," she continued like he hadn't spoken, "I needed to know for sure that there wasn't anything I could have done to stop what happened."
He shook his head. "There wasn't. Price of magic."
"I know that now. Didn't know for sure before." She cleared her throat and pushed herself up into a sitting position. "I read the rest of the book. There was a chapter in there about psychics. They mentioned dream-walkers."
"And you figured it out," he finished.
"I guessed. Too much was adding up. The place didn't change, but what happened in there did. I didn't want Gold to know I had the book, so I asked Regina about them. She said psychics like that died out."
"They probably did. I spent a really long time in Neverland."
She hummed, but she didn't push to ask just how long it had been. "You were saying you weren't gonna come back," she said instead. "The book said your soul ended up in the Vault, but a dream-walker separates their soul when they go into dreams. I took a chance."
"And kissed me?"
She turned her head away from him, her hair falling over her shoulder to cover her face. "I didn't get to say goodbye."
"That's all it was?" he asked, careful.
"What do you think?" she asked, glancing back at him. That guarded look she never had in the dreams had come back. "You heard what I said in there."
"I know." It was on the tip of his tongue to remind her that she had Hook, but he didn't need to. He could see the guilt in her eyes. Whatever happened with her and Hook, she would handle it and he wouldn't push. Those decisions were up to her.
For a few minutes, they just sat there, staring at each other. Him, sitting back against the headboard. Her, turned towards him, legs folded underneath her body. He waited, wondering if she'd push and ask about the Vault, but she didn't. The questions never came and he was sure they would later, but right then… Right then, they were just relishing in the reality and the calm.
She sighed, shifting, and moved to lean against his chest. Her arm wrapped around his middle, resting there more than holding him, and he brought his own arm around her shoulder in return. "It's still early," she told him. "We can wake Henry up in an hour."
"He remembers me?" he asked. Wishing. Hoping. Nervous.
"He got his memories back not too long after you…" She swallowed. "He knows."
"How long was I…"
Surprising and not at the same time. He nodded, jaw clenched, and looked down at her. Closer to her face, he could see the little differences. The beyond-her-years wisdom in her eyes. The first hints of age lines. She looked a little older in this world than she had in the dreams.
Like she knew what he was thinking, she murmured, "You look the same."
"You might be older than me now," he joked, shooting her a playful smile.
She snorted and leaned her head back on his shoulder. "Fat chance."
He turned his face into her hair, lips brushing against her crown, and let himself relax. They'd wake Henry in an hour and figure out how to tell his papa after that. Until then… He just wanted to lay there.
The Old Ones weren't going to rip him back this time.