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Storybrooke is cursed.

It sounds like an exaggeration, but for once, this is the truth of the place.

Only two people knew the truth: the creator of the curse and the instigator who cast it. Times are changing, though, and now, the one who will break the curse is in the town. It won't happen overnight. A curse never is broken to a schedule. It takes time.

In this case, the hero is a woman called Emma Swan. She doesn't know it, but she was born to break the curse. Well, at least she doesn't believe it, not yet. She has been told, but in a world of cynicism and reality, who believes in magic anymore?

She has already saved one person, and no one realises yet, but that person could be the most important person to help her complete the story.

Her name is Isabelle French, but once she was Belle, the girl who was braver than she knew.

No one in Storybrooke really knows her except two people, the creator of the curse and the instigator of the same. One of them loves her more than anything, and the other would happily slit her throat from ear to ear just to get at the former.

It's just fortunate that the creator of the curse is on her side.

He's powerful, as he was in the other world, even if he wears the guise of a businessman. He looks breakable, with a thin, unimposing body and a limp, yet people still fear him, even if they don't know why. Even the woman who instigated the curse - once a Queen, now a Mayor - fears him, though she will never admit it.

On the outside, Isabelle doesn't seem like much. The Queen - the Mayor - made sure of that. She spent the twenty-eight years of the curse sealed away in a cell, ignored and forgotten, with nothing but her memories of a life forgotten by everyone else to keep her sane. She seldom speaks, her voice worn away by years of silence, but that certainly does not mean she's dumb.

Isabelle isn't mad or broken, as the Mayor hoped.

She's quiet and she's thoughtful, but what might have turned to insanity on a weaker person has turned to diamond in Belle. It may be newly-hewn, only just broken out of the dark grimness of the cells, but Gold is gently chipping away the isolation, the trauma and the fear, and she is becoming something that will shine.

She revels in his company. After nearly three spell-twisted decades of isolation, being in the presence of the man she loved and still loves is the best balm for the damage that the Mayor has done to her. He holds her when she sleeps to keep the nightmares at bay, and in daylight, she stands by his side, showing a humanity in him that was often thought to be fictional.

It doesn't stop the malicious rumours.

Though they can never be traced to the Mayor's offices, both of them know that Regina, once the terrible Queen who drove them apart, is responsible. She is a spider, with many threads to her web, and a desire to destroy all that may be good.

The guiltiest culprit is The Mirror, spouting surprisingly detailed lies about the madwoman in Gold's attic. At first, Gold tried to keep the stories from her, but Isabelle is familiar enough with him to recognise when he's trying to keep secrets.

He reluctantly lets her see the newspaper, and to his surprise, she laughs and starts calling him her Mr Rochester. It leaves him nonplussed. She assures him that it's a compliment, but he has a feeling she's teasing him again.

From then, she orders a copy of every issue of the paper. He often finds her poring over it, some articles highlighted or circled. Memo-notes are stuck all over them, but when he asks what she's doing, she only smiles and says that she's catching up on lost time.

It is only weeks later than he realises just what it is she has been doing.

A new paper has arrived in Storybrooke, anonymous and scathing in its honesty. It's called 'The Word', and is clearly lovingly put together with nothing more than a type-writer, glue, and a photocopier, but it's causing a stir.

Three grammatically accurate and factually correct pages, stapled together, no pictures and no price, and yet, it’s suddenly the most read thing in town. It just started showing up, stuck in mail boxes or heaped beside the newstands. He overhears murmurs as he passes the cafe. People are talking about Regina in a way he's never heard before.

Naturally, The Mirror brings out a dismissive report on the pitfalls of amateur and inaccurate journalists within hours, but the implied prohibition written into the text only makes The Word more interesting and tantalising.

Gold returns home to find Isabelle inky-fingered and innocent in the kitchen. She doesn't say a word as he sits down at the table, but he can see the smile she's trying desperately to hide.

The next day, he goes to the stationary store and buys her several reams of fresh paper.

 

________________________________

 

“I don’t understand, Madame Mayor.”

Regina loathes the Sheriff with every fibre of her being, but everyone knows that Swan is good at what she does, and sometimes, needs must. “You know what I mean, Sheriff Swan,” she says. “This… farce of a news sheet needs to be shut down.”

Emma swings her feet up onto the desk, crossing them at the ankles. She’s holding a copy of The Word, and casts a cursory glance over it. The article on the front page is more than enough to infuriate Regina, and Sidney warned her that the inside pages were just as biting.

“Well?”

Emma lowers the paper, looking amiably over the top of it at her. “Last I checked,” she says, “it’s a free country. Unless you’re asking me to break the first amendment just for you. Which, I have to warn you, I’m not gonna do.”

“This is nothing more than libellous trash!” Regina snaps, gesturing to the paper. “If I recall correctly, that’s an offence.”

Emma gazes at her, then looks back at the paper. She reads in silence for a moment, or maybe she just looks as if she is to get on Regina’s last nerve. “As I recall,” she says in the same tone as Regina, without looking up, “it’s only libel if it’s not true. Do you have evidence?”

Regina hisses like an indignant cat and snatches the sheet from her hands. “If you won’t get to the bottom of this, I’ll damn well do it myself.” She stalks towards the door, then spins on her heel. “The Sheriff’s duty is to uphold order, Sheriff Swan.”

“And to protect the citizens, Madame Mayor,” Swan replies, lacing her fingers behind her head. “You can’t stop people reading or writing whatever they want, no matter how much you try. Especially not if someone out there is telling the truth.”

Regina’s teeth grind together so much her cheeks ache.

It doesn’t matter that the little bitch is right about the truth.

Whoever the author is, they’re taking nearly every article Sidney has written in the last month and pointing out the flaws with pinpoint accuracy. If she didn’t know better, she would believe that Gold was behind it, but she knows he’s not one for the full-frontal attack, and he only ever plays with words when he’s manipulating a deal.

On top of that, he has his little bimbo to keep him busy.

The girl must be a handful, after years of having her mind worn away by solitude and silence. Gold rarely leaves her alone, and that’s the only good piece of news Regina’s had all week. He probably expects her to be kidnapped at any moment, which is ridiculous. She’s out now, so there’s no point recapturing the pawn. If he’s distracted by the girl, he’s not going to focus on the Mayor or the town.

She stalks back towards City Hall. Her fury only rises when she sees more copies of The Word wedged in mailboxes and even blowing down the sidewalk. Everywhere she looks, the damned paper is fluttering around.

Sidney is waiting for her on her return.

“Will she…”

“Of course she won’t, Sidney,” she snarls. “She’s sitting there with her holier-than-thou attitude, as if she’s never set a foot outside the law.” She sits down at her desk, massaging her temples with her fingertips.

She knows Swan has never forgotten the French girl and her incarceration. It was only by luck that Sidney managed to rustle up some medical records in time, changing the name and birthdate, and while they were forged, they were done well enough that the Sheriff had no justification to charge her with anything.

Sidney paces across the floor to look out the window. “It’s getting everywhere,” he says. “I sent people out to collect them, but every time they clear a street, more are showing up.”

“And there’s no sign of where they’re coming from?”

He shakes his head. “Someone has the kids delivering them, and whoever delivers to the kids doesn’t show their face.” He turns to face her. “I could trail one of the kids and see where they lead, then stakeout the area.”

“Sidney, you’re many things, but you’re a useless spy,” Regina says impatiently. She taps her forefingers together. “You say this individual has worked through all your stories?”

“Pretty much any cover up in the last issue,” he agrees.

“Make a list of them and the story they tell in this scrap,” she says, pointing at the ragged copy of The Word. “Find out the common denominator. Someone has to have access to the truth, and once we find the link, we’ll be able to find out just who it is.”

Sidney hesitates. “Mr Gold…”

Regina waves him away. “Your only story that wasn’t covered was about his little madwoman,” she says. “That suggests that she’s in the state we hoped. He’s got his hands full at the moment. I don’t think we have anything to worry about there.”

Glass looked at the paper. “So I have to read it again?” he says morosely.

Regina narrows her eyes at him. “Sometimes, Sidney, when you screw up and someone picks up on it, you have to step up to the plate.” She stands up. “Find out the link and get me the person who did this.”

Sidney doesn’t say anything more, snatching up the paper and heading for the door.

Regina can feel the beginning of a migraine, and not for the first time, she misses magic. Right now feels like it would be a great time to blow up City Hall’s rhododendron patch.

 

___________________________________

 

Emma races up the steps from the patrol car.

When it rains in Storybrooke, it really rains, and even the sprint from car to porch leaves her wet through. All the same, she stops on the porch, pushing her hood back, and knocks the code before opening the front door of Gold’s house.

The first time she came to visit Izzy, she made the mistake of knocking too quietly, walking right in, and within moments, had Gold’s gun pressing at the base of her skull. It wasn’t a big surprise, but it was a hell of an unpleasant shock.

The coded knock was agreed on the same day.

Izzy was embarrassed that she’d almost shot the only person she knew and liked, and Emma wasn’t keen to repeat the experience.

Emma can hear voices in the kitchen, and stops in the hall to peel off her wet coat and boots. Gold is surprisingly particular about no shoes on the polished floors of his home, and barefoot on warm wood is never a hardship.

She heads towards the kitchen to see Izzy straightening Mr Gold’s tie and smoothing his lapels. Izzy’s small enough that she has to rise on her toes to kiss his cheek and he smiles briefly before he notices Emma in the doorway.

“Sheriff Swan.”

She nods in acknowledgement, knowing better than to bruise his fragile male ego by smiling at his obvious crush. “Gold. Shop?”

“Business to attend to,” he agrees briskly, striding past her, his cane tapping emphatically on the floor.

“Bye!” Izzy calls after him. Her voice is still fragile and hoarse, but it’s so much better than it was. The tapping of the cane pauses for a moment, then he’s gone and the door closes behind him. Izzy smiles warmly at Emma. “Did you see him blush?”

“Yeah,” Emma says, grinning. “You’ve got a loyal puppy there.”

Izzy laughs, putting the kettle on to boil. She looks at home in the grand kitchen, and the stacks of her books and notepads on the table on support the fact that this is her domain. “Silly man,” she whispers happily.

Emma drapes herself in one of the seats at the table. “How’s the next issue going?”

Izzy joins her at the table, holding out a neatly typed page. “Slowly,” she says. “Mirror’s being mostly accurate this week.”

Emma nods, scanning the text. “Regina was in my office, kicking up a fuss about it last week,” she says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she told Sidney to cut back on the hatchet jobs he enjoys so much.”

Izzy pulls a face. “Ruining my fun.”

Emma grins, putting the paper down. “You’re enjoying this way too much.”

Blue eyes meet hers and Izzy’s lips twitch. “You too.”

Emma raises her hands innocently. “Don’t look at me, kiddo,” she says. “I only deal with the truth and justice. I have a badge and everything.”

Izzy’s eyes dance and she pulls her feet up onto the chair, wrapping her flowery skirt around her legs. “Pleading fifth?” she asks, pulling another notebook towards her and flicking through it.

“You got that right,” Emma says. “Officially, I can say I have nothing to do with anything written in The Word. I have no idea what the mind behind it can be thinking. And I definitely don’t agree with every word of it.”

Izzy looks at her expectantly and holds out a hand. Emma hands her a folder. It’s not anything that couldn’t be found by the public, in the records office, but Izzy still isn’t comfortable in places that the Mayor has a hand in. As Sheriff, Emma has access to thousands of files, but for now, they only use public access ones. Emma knows that for Izzy’s paper to start tugging away at the bricks of Regina’s foundations, they have to do it with honesty and openness: that means no illegally opened files, no breaching of legal security, nothing that could jeopardise the morals of their cause.

Basically, they’re avoiding everything Regina would do, and doing everything that she wouldn’t.

“Tea or coffee?” Emma suggests, getting up.

“Anything,” Izzy replies, already nose-deep in the file.

Emma sets to work, going through the cupboards to find the cups. “So he still hasn’t said anything?”

“Hmm?”

“His blushing highness,” Emma says, shooting a grin over her shoulder. Sometimes, it’s a relief to know she isn’t the only one who goes crazy with focussing on a task at hand.

“Knows, but won’t put his mark to it. His reputation would sully it, he says,” Izzy replied, turning a page. “Still thinks it’s entertaining.”

“That we’re writing a paper? Or that we’re pissing off Regina?”

“Mm-hmm.” Izzy scribbles a note in her notepad. “Rumpel always did hate the Queen. Now, more than ever.”

Emma’s hand freezes on the cup. Izzy doesn’t seem to realise she’s said anything out of the ordinary. “I figured that much out,” she says, turning her head to watch Izzy out of the corner of her eye. “You know why?”

Izzy laughs quietly. “Apart from the personality?”

“Mm.” Emma watches her intently.

“For one thing,” Izzy replies, looking up at her, “she locked me away deliberately, just to hurt him.” She frowns. “What’s wrong? You look worried.”

Emma tries to smile and shake her head. “It’s nothing,” she says.

Izzy fixes her with a steely look. “Emma.”

“You said ‘Queen’,” Emma says quietly. “Not Mayor.”

It’s as if Izzy’s face freezes, and Emma sees the way her whole body coils as if ready to flee, but this is Izzy and she’s tougher than anyone Emma has ever met, which is really saying something. “Ah.”

“Don’t tell me Gold told you about Henry…” Emma offers as a straw of sanity.

Izzy frowns. “Henry?”

“He… didn’t?”

“Who’s Henry?”

Emma returns to the table and sits down. She can see Izzy isn’t lying. She isn’t insane either. Hours in her company over the past few weeks have solidified that certainty. “My… the Mayor’s son. He believes the town is cursed by the Mayor. The Evil Queen, he calls her.”

Izzy nods. “Yes. And?”

Emma stares at her. “You can’t be serious.”

Izzy shrugs. “I have two sets of memories in my head,” she says. “One of this place, and one where I was almost happy, if not for the Queen or the Mayor or whatever she calls herself. Everyone in town does. I just remember then more than now because at least there, I was almost happy. I didn’t forget because when you only have four walls, you look inward for something to keep you going. I found him.”

“But it’s…” Emma struggles for a word, “It’s impossible!”

Izzy smiles at her. “Doesn’t stop it being true.”

Emma stares at her. “I think I need a drink.”

 

____________________________________

 

Sidney hates the forest around Storybrooke.

Regina knows it, but it doesn’t stop her ordering him to accompany her along the tree-lined tracks. It turns out that the kids who have been distributing The Word were picking it up at the playhouse that Regina had built. Bundles would be waiting for them when they got in, and sweets were left as payment. No wonder the greedy brats were so keen to get it out there.

It could be worse, he supposes. At least the forest paths are mostly gravelled and not too muddy. If she’d ordered him into the wild brush that closed in on both sides, he suspected he would have refused. At first, anyway. He’s never quite learned how to say no to his boss.

Regina is stalking ahead of him, and he’s happier that way. Weeks of rants about his ineptitude stopped being fun on day one. It’s hardly his fault that they’ve got an enemy who keeps one step ahead of them.

Speaking of, he’s so lost in thought, he doesn’t notice she’s stopped until he walks into the back of her. She snarls at him, but doesn’t turn. Mumbling apologies, he peers over her shoulder and sees who has caught her eye: Gold and his girl are coming in the opposite direction, but have apparently not noticed them yet.

The smile that curves Regina’s lips is enough to make Sidney shudder. He doesn’t know what the girl did to earn her hatred, but he’s glad it’s not him.

“Mr Gold!” Regina exclaims, all sweetness and friendliness.

The girl’s scream of terror splits the air. She folds down on herself, crumpling to her knees and wrapping her arms over her head, as if that will make her invisible. Sidney flinches, but Regina is obviously delighted, especially when Gold goes down on his good knee and wraps his arms around the sobbing girl.

“You couldn’t just leave us alone, could you?” he snaps, looking up at Regina as she strolls closer, as if she hasn’t just reduced a mentally-ill girl to hysterical ruin on a forest path.

“I’m just out for a walk, Mr Gold,” she says, spreading her hands. “There’s no law against it.”

“Just keep walking, then,” he snarls, eyes blazing. The girl rocks and sobs beneath his arm, shrinking away from Regina.

She smiles, and Sidney averts his eyes. He’s loyal, yes, but sometimes, you just have to look the other way when the boss does as she likes. It’s that or acknowledge the uncomfortable twist of guilt.

Regina laughs and that’s even worse than the smile. “I’m sure you’ll have a lot of fun with her this afternoon, gathering her wits.”

Gold spits a profanity at her, which she ignores and strolls onwards.

Sidney looks down at the pair in front of him. Gold has drawn the girl to his chest, and she’s clutching at him with dirty fingers, smearing stains on the lapels of his coat, but he only murmurs to her and smoothes her hair. It doesn’t match with the hard-nosed bastard Sidney remembers.

“Sidney!”

Gold looks up at him, and for once, there’s no anger, just exhaustion. “What are you waiting for, Sidney?” he murmurs. “Your lady awaits.”

Your lady.

As Sidney trudges after Regina, he wonders if she could ever be anyone’s lady. She certainly wouldn’t curl in his arms in complete trust like Gold’s girl. In Storybrooke, Sidney can’t think of a single person who would.

 

_________________________________

 

“Emma?”

Emma is lying on her back on the tiles of the roof and staring at the sky. She doesn’t look down at Mary Margaret’s voice. It’s too much like acknowledging something is going on, and either everyone is nuts or the world is a whole lot bigger and more complicated than she imagined.

One day ago, the sane and sensible Isabelle told her that fairytales were true.

The next twelve hours were something of a blur of getting very drunk to stop her head exploding in confusion, and being dropped at home by a cab. Mary Margaret didn’t ask questions then, but now, she clearly wants to know what’s going on.

There’s a rattle on the edge of the roof and a yelp. A moment later, Mary Margaret claws her way onto the roof, flushed in the face. There’s a soaked patch on her shirt where the gutter spilled on her. Emma makes a note to scrape out the blockage some day when she’s not going crazy.

“Hey,” Mary Margaret pants, sprawling beside her. “Stargazing?”

Emma shakes her head. “Thinking.”

“Of?”

“How small I am in this big, messed-up universe.”

Mary Margaret sits up, surprised. “Has something happened?”

Emma looks at her. “You remember Henry’s book?” she says quietly.

“Of course.”

Emma sits up and wraps her arms around her legs. “What if it’s true?” she asks, hardly daring to believe she’s saying those words.

Mary Margaret stares at her. “You’re not serious?”

Emma shakes her head, then shrugs, then groans, pushing her hands through her hair. “I don’t know! Something happened today that makes me think it could be true, but I know it can’t be!”

The other woman sits in silence for a moment. “What happened that made you think it could be true?” she asks finally.

“Someone knew about it,” she says. “Someone who called Regina the Evil Queen without knowing about Henry’s book.”

“Who?”

“Isabelle,” Emma replies quietly. “She called Gold a fairytale name too, and Henry could never figure out who he was, so she didn’t get anything from him. She told me about the place they - you - all come from. There was too much detail for it to be made up, and she wasn’t lying, not consciously.”

“So I’m Snow White? And David’s Prince Charming? And we’re meant to be happy?” Mary Margaret laughs tightly. “Well, someone got their fairytales horribly wrong in that case.”

“No,” Emma says, frowning. “That’s the point. This curse, Henry had it wrong. He thinks it was just to break everyone up and make them forget, but she says it’s there to keep on making sure you don’t find your way back together. Like you and David. Every time an obstacle was removed, something else would get in the way.”

“Like the fact he’s a selfish, cowardly idiot,” Mary Margaret whispers.

“Maybe he’s not really,” Emma says, hardly daring to believe that she’s believing it. “Maybe it really is this curse-thing. You know the right thing to do, but something makes you do or say the wrong thing, just to be sure you don’t get your happy ending.”

Mary Margaret sighs. “Emma, it can’t be true.”

“I know!” Emma says, flopping back on the tiles. “This whole thing is nuts, but it makes sense. No one leaves Storybrooke. Regina has all this power and authority and no one knows how she got it. Prince Charming wakes up when Snow White is there. Hansel and Gretel find their father. Cinderella gets her happy ever after. Graham…”

“Emma…”

Emma stares at her, wide-eyed. “Mary Margaret, Graham said he had no heart.” She leans up on one arm. “He didn’t mean metaphorically. He meant literally. The Queen took his heart. The Queen, who wanted Snow White’s heart, took his.”

“You really believe this?”

Emma hesitates, then nods. “I think I’m starting to.”

Mary Margaret is quiet for a long time. She brushes at the damp patch on her shirt, then sighs. “Maybe we should bring David in,” she says. “You can explain the theory and we can see where we go from there. If it’s really meant to be true-love-kiss stuff, maybe it’s worth working for. Kathryn…” She squeezes her hands together. “I might want to strangle him for being an idiot, but if it’s true love…”

“Gotta be worth a shot, right?” Emma says quietly. “And if Regina goes crazy about it, then we know something hit a nerve.”

“Like she isn’t already planning to kill someone over the paper,” Mary Margaret quips weakly.

Emma laughs, putting aside thoughts of the curse for the time being. “The paper is only the start of it,” she says. “Never get on the wrong side of Izzy. That girl wants payback and justice, and at the rate she’s going, Regina’s going to have one hell of a fight on her hands.”

“I heard people discussing it in the diner,” Mary Margaret agrees. “People are wondering about Regina, about why she’s still in charge. I saw Sidney collecting as many of the papers as he could first thing. It’s like it becomes more exciting to read because we know we’ll be in trouble if she catches us.”

“That’s how prohibition always works,” Emma says with a smile. “Izzy’s using Regina’s tendency to clamp down on anything subversive to get the reaction we need.” She grins suddenly. “Madame Mayor has no idea what’s coming.”

 

____________________________

 

“You’re doing what?”

Doctor Hopper stands his ground in the Mayor’s office. He used to be afraid of Regina, but now, he lets his conscience guide him, no matter what. “The city council have discussed the matter, and there are questions about your position. There have been threats of a vote of no-confidence, and given how long you’ve been in post, there’s been questions raised about the lack of elections. ”

She’s staring at him as if he were some kind of insect to be crushed. “And I have no doubt that these… questions have arisen because of that ridiculous piece of home-spun hokum that someone has been posting through mailboxes?”

“These questions have been bubbling under the surface for a long time, Madame Mayor,” Hopper replies mildly. He can see the vein twitching in her forehead. He removes his glasses and gives them a careful polish. “Your iron fist in a velvet glove approach has been growing more unpopular lately. Especially since you seem to have lost your glove.”

“I made this town,” she says, venom in her eyes and voice. “And last time I checked, there’s no one else who even wants to take my mantle.”

He replaces his glasses on his nose. “Times change.”

She pushes her chair back and stands, glaring at him. “Did the Sheriff bring this up at the meeting?” she asks, her voice low and dangerous.

“Sheriff Swan was as surprised as you are,” Hopper replies. “We asked her to stand as a neutral mediator, since she’s on the side of the law.”

“Neutral. Ha!”

“Miss Swan is likely to be more lenient to you than you would be to her,” Hopper says calmly. Regina’s nostrils flare and he’s reminded briefly why angry people are so entertaining to annoy. They have so many tells that he could play anger-bingo. “As it stands, the council have asked for an open call for candidates at city hall in a week, and should someone stand, then we’ll have an election.”

“No one would stand against me,” Regina snorts.

“Then what do you have to worry about by showing up?” Hopper says with as friendly a smile as he can provide. “If no one will stand, your seat is secure, and you won’t have to think about it again for another four years.”

Her eyes narrow, and he hopes against hope that someone does have the nerve to stand, someone who isn’t him, because if no one does, and she’s in power again for the next four years, he has a feeling that it won’t be the best of times for anyone who sided with the council. Especially for their spokesperson.

“Fine,” she murmurs. “Call me to let me know the time and date, and I’ll be there to see this little charade through.”

Hopper inclines his head courteously. “The council will be delighted,” he says. He can feel her glare as if she were knifing him in the back as he walks out the door of the office. Only then does he breathe deeply, once in, once out.

He hopes they’ve made the right decision.

Very few people in town are brave enough to face Regina on a good day. On a furious day, it’s going to make for a very interesting meeting. Gold is the only person he can think of who would stand, simply to infuriate the Mayor, but because of his reputation, it wouldn’t get him anywhere.

The Sheriff is another likely candidate, but when he approached her to tell her of their plans and tried to indicate that she would be considered a welcome candidate, she rolled her eyes at him and told him she wasn’t there to lead. She also observed that a twinset and pearls look really wasn’t for her.

He straightens his coat, then heads back in the direction of his office. He thinks he can put together a shortlist, then maybe see about trying to persuade people to stand, even just for the sheer heck of it.

Who knows?

It may actually work.

 

_______________________________

 

The menus are already lined up like a wall.

“Y’know, kiddo,” Emma says as she slides into the booth, “I don’t think there’s any chance of your mom seeing us.”

Henry grins at her over his hot chocolate. “I know,” he says. “But I like to set up our secret operations table. Ruby even gave me a secret-agent cupcake for our meeting.”

Emma looks at the empty tabletop. “Uh-huh. And you saved it for your partner in secret crime, I see.”

Henry laughs. “I bet she’ll bring you one too,” he says. He kneels up in the seat and waves at Ruby, who grins and nods to him. “Mom won’t care that I’ve been eating cupcakes. She’s too busy.”

He sees the smile trying to get onto Emma’s mouth. “The council meeting thing is bothering her?”

He nods enthusiastically. “She thinks someone has been put up to it. She doesn’t think anyone will try and stand for Mayor, but she keeps yelling at Sidney about it. I think she’s real mad about the newspapers as well.”

“No wonder,” Emma says. She gives Ruby a quick smile as her regular drink is set in front of her. There’s a cupcake too, with a bright red heart picked out in icing, which makes her raise her eyebrows. Ruby winks at her and Emma laughs. “Thanks for the compliment.”

“No problem, sweetie,” Ruby says and strolls off.

“She’s friendly, isn’t she?” Henry says, sipping his drink.

“Very,” Emma agrees. She looks distracted and he can see her eyes are all puffy and shadowy, like she hasn’t been sleeping.

Henry frowns. “What’s wrong?”

She turns her cup around on the table. “Henry,” she begins, then frowns. “You know you think everyone is a fairytale person?”

“Uh-huh?”

“Mr Gold. I think I know who he is.”

“I do too,” Henry says eagerly. Everything has been so busy that he totally forgot to tell her he’d found out.

She looks at him in surprise. “You do? I thought you couldn’t figure it out?”

“You tell me first,” he says, grinning.

“Well… I think he’s Rumpelstiltskin.”

Henry nodded at once. “He is.”

Emma rubs her forehead tiredly. “Okay. I haven’t been sleeping right for days and I know I’m out of it. You’re telling me that’s right?” Henry nods. “But you didn’t know! How did you figure it out?”

Henry shrugs. “He told me.”

“He… told you? When did this happen?”

Henry ducks his head sheepishly. “You remember that day I came to see you at the office?” Emma nods suspiciously. “I actually kinda came to see him as well. Mom was way too happy and it was because of Mr Gold. I wanted to see if I could ask him and find out.”

“And he just told you?”

Henry feels his cheeks getting hotter and mumbles, “I kinda… took some pictures from your files. Made a deal with him.”

“Pictures?”

“Of that girl you were finding…”

Emma groans. “Henry!”

“It was my deal!” he protests. “Not his! I’m not in danger!”

“Not from him,” Emma says, “but maybe from me! You stole documents from an ongoing police investigation!”

Henry blushes and stares down at his hot chocolate. “I thought it would help,” he mumbles. “It let him see she was still alive. I think it made him feel better.”

Emma sighs, and he knows he’s forgiven. “I’d say you’re growing up into a trouble-maker, kid,” she says, “but you’re just like me.”

That makes him grin from ear to ear.

She studies him. “You know what? I think there’s someone you should meet.”

“Who?”

Emma smiles suddenly. “Someone you’re going to like a lot,” she says. She drains her cup and snatches the cupcake. “And your mom would kill us both if she knew.”

“Awesome!”

She drives them through town in her squad car, right to one of the biggest and most fancy houses in town. He knows who it belongs to, because his mom made sure to tell him never to go there.

“Mr Gold?”

“Not exactly,” Emma replies with a smile. “C’mon.”

She knocks on the door, then walks in, like she’s been there a hundred times before, and Henry trails after her curiously. The house is really nice, all bright and warm and he’s surprised because Mr Gold doesn’t seem like someone who would like bright and warm.

“Hi Emma!”

Henry stops short. Mr Gold is also not a woman.

Emma catches him by the back of his shirt and hauls him through the a huge kitchen, where a lady is sitting at the table by the window. The table is covered in piles and piles of books and files. She looks up, and he recognises the woman from the pictures he took.

“You’re her!” he exclaims. “You’re his happily-ever-after!”

The woman smiles, and it’s like her face lights up. “I am,” she agrees, getting up. She’s as pretty as the pictures, young and dark-haired, with big blue eyes. She holds out a hand and says, “You must be Henry.”

Henry nods, speechless. She didn’t just laugh when he said happily ever after!

“Henry, I think you should show Izzy your book,” Emma says. He looks at her in alarm. It’s their secret after all. She pats him on the shoulder. “Trust me, kid, this is someone who will understand.”

The woman nods. “I know about the curse,” she says. Henry stares at her, and she smiles. “You didn’t tell him?”

Emma squeezes his shoulder. “I thought he’d like the surprise.”

“You do?” Henry asks. It’s weird. No one except Emma has ever spoken about the curse like that.

She nods and pushes a seat out for him at the table, then clears some space for his book. “I know all about it,” she says. He hesitates and she smiles. “If it helps, I can tell you who I am.”

He sits down and nods.

“My name there was Belle,” she says. “Do you know the story of Beauty and the Beast?”

He stares at her wide-eyed. “But Mr Gold is Rumpelstiltskin, not the beast!”

Belle smiles at him, and he can see why she’s the Beauty from the story, and why Mr Gold - Rumpelstiltskin - wanted to find her so bad. “Rumpelstiltskin was the beast there. You know how frightening people find him. He was even worse when he was more than just a man.”

“He isn’t in my book,” Henry says. Ever since he found out, he’s looked for any sign of Rumpelstiltskin, but there’s only been the mention of a name here or there. No story, nothing about where he came from or where he went.

Belle smiles. “A lot of stories aren’t in your book yet,” she says. “But they will be. That’s what a story is: a journey. You have to be patient, and eventually, you’ll get to the end.”

Henry stares at her for a long time, then he takes the book out of his schoolbag and lays it on the table. Emma sits down on his other side. “Does this mean you believe in the curse?” he says to Emma.

She smiles. “Let’s say I’m starting to consider the possibilities.”

 

____________________________

 

David obviously thinks she’s nuts.

Mary Margaret folds her hands, then refolds them again. He just keeps staring at her and finally she sighs. “Just say something, David.”

“I don’t know what I’m meant to say,” he says with a shrug.

They’re sitting in her kitchen, just far enough away from each other that they aren’t touching, but just close enough that they could be, and it’s frustrating and painful, and why does he have to be such an idiot?

“I know it’s kind of… crazy.”

“A little.”

Mary Margaret looks at him, then reaches out and takes his hand. The spark, the fizz of chemistry that always was there when he touched her still is there. It’s faded and dull, but it’s there, even if she doesn’t want it to be.

“I’m going out on a limb here,” she says. “From the moment you came out of that coma, there’s been something between us. I don’t know what it is and I don’t know why, but when I’m with you, it feels right. Even when Kathryn was around. Even when you kept on being an ass. No matter what happens, I feel like I have this link to you and I can’t ignore it.”

He looks at her hand. “So you’re blaming this curse for us breaking up?”

She wishes she could punch him in the mouth, which is a very un-her thought. Or is it? She’s been thinking a lot more directly lately, and with all this talk of the curse, she wonders if she’s really as gentle and weak as she usually feels.

“Mostly, I’m blaming you for being a coward,” she says, “but if Emma and Henry are right, and there is a curse, then that would explain things.” She squeezes his fingers. “All I’m asking is that, if we’re going to make this work, you can try to be honest and brave and face things rather than avoiding the truth.”

He grips her fingers convulsively, almost painfully. “I never lied,” he says.

“No,” she agrees, “but you never told the whole truth. I need you to be honest and if you can’t promise to do that to the best of your ability, then maybe the curse is going to keep working and both of us will be miserable for the rest of our lives.” She lifts her other hand to touch his cheek. “Think about it, David. Am I worth it?”

“Of course…”

She surprises herself when she swats him sharply on the cheek, and he clearly is surprised as well.

“I don’t want an automatic ‘of course’,” she says, forcing her voice to stay steady. “I need you to think about this. Even if there isn’t a curse, I want what we have to work, and that means we have to work at it. Saying ‘I love you’ isn’t enough. You have to show you’re going to be there for me. No matter what happens.”

David looks dazed, as if she hit him with a rock instead of her hand. “Mary Margaret…”

“If you say ‘I love you’, I’m kicking you out right now to think about what you’ve done,” she cautions.

His lips twitch. “You’re such a school teacher,” he says and she can’t help smiling in return.

“That doesn’t change what I’ve just said,” she says, withdrawing her hands and folding them on the counter. “Are you willing to put in the work so we can be together or not?”

“You really have to ask?”

She shrugs and looks at her hands. “I wish I didn’t have to, but after what happened with Kathryn…”

He nods in understanding. She supposes he probably thinks she’s using the curse as an excuse to try and get back together. Maybe she is. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that she wants them to be together, and she knows he wants the same, but this time, there’s nothing to stop them.“This curse,” he finally says. “If we manage to be happy, we’ll break it?”

She smiles quietly. “That’s the theory.”

One of his hands covers hers and she looks up at him. The look in his eyes is about as far from David’s laidback expression as possible, and the little spark in her gives off a fresh glow.

“Well,” he says, flashing a devilish smile she didn’t know he had, “if I’m meant to be Prince Charming, how can I refuse?”

 

________________________________

 

Mr Gold always attends council meetings, though he seldom says anything.

Still, Regina looks surprised to see him, sitting in his usual seat, several rows from the back. It appears that Belle’s little charade is still holding, and she probably expected him to be at home.

The hall is busier than usual.

Everyone has heard about the latest drama, mostly from The Word. The Mirror strategically chose to ignore that anything was amiss in the Mayor’s camp and published a story declaring that Regina would be speaking to the people of Storybrooke about plans for the future.

He watches her as people file in.

She looks confident, and he knows that she really shouldn’t. Nearly thirty years of unwavering control have made her complacent. Things are changing, it’s in the air, but she chooses to wilfully ignore it, believing herself to be unbeatable.

Everyone has a weakness. Gold knows that more than anyone. That’s what makes a deal worth making. He can recognise a desperate soul when he sees one, and Regina was one of those when she used the curse he created. Her desire for vengeance led her strike out like a blinded snake, and now, she can’t see that while she hit her target, it was barely a scratch on the surface.

Gold is much more practical. If someone hurts you, hurt them by destroying their loved ones in front of them. Don’t do something that can be undone. The curse, while effective in its way, can still be broken. And what’s the point of taking away their happily ever after, if they can’t remember it and mourn the loss?

He turns his cane in his hands, watching the familiar faces filing in.

His eyebrows rise at the sight of Mary Margaret Blanchard hand-in-hand with David Nolan. People are looking and whispering, but she’s smiling and confident, and is more Snow White than she ever has been in this world. David looks at her with a smile, and lifts her hand to his lips to kiss her fingers.

Gold turns almost too late to see the look of venomous fury being veiled in Regina’s eyes.

She’s standing on a very fragile bridge these days, but she’s so lost in her own power that she doesn’t see the ropes fraying beneath her.

The hall settles, with Doctor Hopper presiding.

Emma and Regina are sitting at opposite ends of the table on the platform, and could not possibly look more different. While Regina is bolt upright, with her favourite power-suits and dark make-up, Emma is sprawling, arms draped over the back of the chair, completely relaxed.

The previous council meeting minutes are explained, summarising the reason for this gathering, and the people who haven’t seen The Word are marked out by their confused expressions. There are very few of them.

Regina stands. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” she says. “As my colleague has announced, it appears there have been some doubts raised as to my leadership. I’m here because I’m confident in your faith in me.” She ignores Emma’s muted snort. “If anyone does wish to stand, please, come forward.”

The hall is so silent that you could hear a pin drop.

“Well, in that case…”

The door opens.

“Sorry I’m late.” Gold almost drops his cane in astonishment. He turns in his seat to see Belle standing there, smiling and radiant, and armed with a bundle of files. “I’ll stand.”

He’s staring at her, as is everyone else in the hall. He can’t even begin to imagine what Regina’s expression is like. He knows his Belle, he knows she’s a cunning little vixen, and he knew she was working with Emma on The Word, but somehow, he never saw this coming. And all things considered, he knows he should have.

“You can’t!” Regina breaks the spell in two words.

Belle stops partway down the aisle, less than an arm’s length from Gold. “This is a public forum, Madame Mayor,” she says sweetly. “You asked if anyone would stand, and I nominate myself. I believe that’s permitted.”

“According to by-law seventeen b, clause thirteen, yup,” Emma says, gazing up at the ceiling. Regina fires a furious look at her and Emma rolls her head to look in the Mayor’s direction and smiles cheerfully. “What? You think because I show up like this, I didn’t do my homework?”

Gold almost finds himself applauding, but his eyes drift back to Belle. This is the first time she has been seen in a public place by so many. He can see her free hand fiddling with the belt on her dress. She’s terrified, and no wonder, but she’s always been the bravest person he knew.

She glances at him, as if she knows he’s watching, and he smiles just enough to let her know she has every bit of his support.

“She can’t stand,” Regina says again. “That woman is certified as insane. I saw her in the woods only days ago and she was a gibbering wreck! Sidney was there! He’ll confirm it.”

Belle lifts her head and practically glides down the aisle to the table. “A popular misconception,” she says. “Doctor Hopper will verify the documents I’m giving him as evidence that I was hospitalised under false pretences.”

Regina’s face goes waxen. “What?”

Belle’s back is to the hall, but she turns her head to smile at Regina. “Your Mirror is about as reliable a forger as he is a reporter and a witness,” she says. “When you forge documents using real medical files, you better make damn sure that the originals aren’t still accessible.”

Regina’s mouth opens and shuts a few times, but Belle ignores her, turning to face the hall.

“You don’t know me,” she says, “but thanks to a certain newspaper, I’m fairly sure you all know of me.” She curtseys. “I’m the madwoman from Mr Gold’s attic.” She smiles that smile of hers that makes men do stupid things, and women adore her. “As you can see, I’m neither mad nor in an attic.”

There’s a ripple of laughter, and Gold makes a note to keep an eye out for admirers, then kneecap them if necessary.

“My name is Isabelle French,” she continues, “and I’m the writer of The Word.”

Regina leaps to her feet with an explosive profanity, and the hall buzzes with sudden whispers.

Belle doesn’t turn, but her hands are small, tight fists by her sides. She fixes her eyes on Gold, and he knows she needs to feel strong right now.

“Sit down, Madame Mayor,” Emma murmurs. “Let the lady speak.”

“When this little bitch has been spreading libellous rumours about me?” Regina snarls. “No doubt Gold put her up to this, keeping her locked up in his house and doing his dirty work!”

Gold holds Belle’s eyes and rises to his feet in the middle of the hall. “Stooping to slander, Regina,” he murmurs, turning his gaze to the Mayor. “As the Sheriff said, let the lady speak.” His eyes hold Regina’s and he sees that she knows what he’s about to do. He smiles, feeling that warm glow of satisfaction at her expression as he adds, “Please.”

She opens her mouth as if to protest, but he knows his deals are too strong. She sinks down into the chair, eyes blazing with fury, and that is only stoked when Belle turns to her and thanks her for her graciousness.

Quite what Belle says through the course of the meeting, Gold doesn’t know. All he knows is that the moment she takes the stage, the moment all eyes are on her, the moment the truth is out, she’s soaring like a bird. He knows he’s never seen her look more beautiful, her eyes shining, her hands moving animatedly as she talks, her smile being bestowed on anyone who asks her a question.

He knows that if he didn’t love her before, there would be no question of it after.

It doesn’t matter that she’s affiliated with him. It doesn’t matter that she was locked away in an asylum. It doesn’t matter what happened to her then, because she makes it about who and what she is now, and that is a person who will tell the truth, and in Storybrooke politics, that is a rare thing.

When all the questions have been asked, and when Belle’s voice has run dry, Emma stands up. “As we have a new candidate, I believe we should look into scheduling a date for an election,” she says, and not even Regina can argue, not when the Sheriff, with all the by-laws to hand, will call Dictatorship.

Gold’s lips twitch.

When he planned that Emma would be the one to break the curse, he never imagined it would be down to her using Regina’s own power against her. He has a feeling that her friendship with Belle is just the beginning.

The crowd takes its time to disperse, which isn’t a big surprise. Too many new ideas to take in, and too little time. Belle is by his side within moments though, slipping her arm through his. He can see her heart is still racing, but she’s flushed and thrilled with herself.

“Mayor?” he murmurs, lips twitching.

She swats his arm with a giggle. “Well, you can’t be the only one with power now, can you?” she says.

Both of them are pulled back, when Regina grabs Belle’s arm and twists her around to face her. “You conniving little bitch,” she murmurs, her voice low enough just for them.

“I would let go of her, if I were you,” Gold says dangerously, his cane hooking Regina’s arm.

Belle touches his hand, steering the cane back. “Let her speak,” she says.

“You think you’ve won here?” Regina says. She’s smiling, as if it’s just a friendly chat, but Gold knows to watch her in case this is the moment she pulls a knife. “I hate to tell you, my dear, but this is my town. No one takes it from me.”

Belle gazes at her innocently. “I’m not taking anything from you, Madame Mayor,” she says. “All I am now is a candidate.” She reaches up and pulls Regina’s hand off her shoulder. “I thought it would be fun to see what I could do.” She takes a step closer and her eyes are dark and her lips are smiling, and she whispers, “And I haven’t even begun, your Majesty.”

Regina stares at her, as if she can hardly believe what she’s hearing.

Belle sinks into a formal curtsey that Gold recognises very well, a mode of bowing that was never used in the modern world, then she takes his arm again. “If you don’t mind, we have places to be.”

Regina bares her teeth in a false smile and steps around them.

“Hold on, Madame Mayor,” Emma calls from the platform. “We have some inquiries regarding the documents Miss French submitted.”

Regina whirls around and Gold is satisfied to see a glimmer of fear. “What about them?”

“Miss French’s medical records,” Doctor Hopper says, looking at the Mayor with contempt. “They’re clearly forged. Someone used records of a deceased patient and replaced the name and dates. Everything else is word-for-word the same.”

Regina looks around wildly, like an animal cornered, desperately seeking a way out, and she finds one. “Sidney!” she gasps. “What did you do?”

“Regina!”

She points him accusingly. “I asked you for her files! Not forgeries! Sheriff, I demand you arrest him.”

Belle tugs gently on Gold’s arm. “Enough excitement,” she murmurs, and he can’t help but agree. She’s leaning on him as they make their way to the door, followed by Sidney Glass’s pleas and accusations. Gold doesn’t need to stay to see the ropes beneath Regina giving way. It’s enough to know it’s happening.

“By the way,” Gold murmurs, as they descend the stairs, “you’re rather attractive when you’re smiting the wicked.”

She slants a look at him through her lashes. “Is that so?”

“Did I mention that I’m a villainous fiend with few redeeming qualities?”

Her lips twitch and he can see her eyes dance. “Are you asking me to smite you?”

He looks at her with an arched eyebrow and to his great delight, she blushes.