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Ruins of Camelot

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Two Days Ago: the last acts of the Apprentice

“…does that mean his heart will be healed?” Belle asked, and the Apprentice glanced her way.

“Perhaps,” he said.  “If the strength is there.”

He had to give the poor woman hope, though there really was none.  He knew what he was doing, understood what would become of the host once the darkness was removed.  But if he tried to explain that now, Belle would only jump in the way.  She would try something, anything, to save the man she loved, not understanding that that man was already gone.  The true soul of Rumplestiltskin had vanished the moment the darkness consumed him; he had merely fought it longer and more effectively than any of his predecessors.  But even as the Apprentice pulled the blackened heart from Rumplestiltskin’s chest, even as he rose and chanted the words, he knew exactly what he was doing.

He was not saving Rumplestiltskin.  He was not even trying to.  He was trying to contain the darkness, as Merlin had once done, though in a far different way.  This was something Merlin had never tried, containing the world’s greatest darkness inside the Sorcerer’s Hat.  But it was the only way, lest the Dark One rule Rumplestiltskin’s body and thus gain absolute power.  Having consumed the human soul to which the kris dagger was tethered, the dagger’s control would be incomplete at best, and the darkness would reign supreme.  Those surrounding him did not fully understand the danger in this moment; fate hung in the balance, here and now, more so than with the casting of any mere curse or with the rise of any small villain.  Ironically, the only one who truly understood what had been at stake now lay unconscious on the floor, having tried to save them all from the darkness in the only twisted way the Dark One would let him try. 

Rumplestiltskin had turned to the Author, had asked him to write an alternate history where the darkness had never been chained to a human soul.  Interestingly enough, that world—backwards and twisted though it was—would have actually done what Merlin had never been able to do, and would have destroyed the darkness once and for all.  If it had become reality, he thought.  To the Apprentice, that idea was a mere intellectual exercise; he hardly cared which reality was in control, provided the Author allowed people freedom of choice.  Yet that had clearly been Isaac’s doing, not Rumplestiltskin’s, a fact that the Apprentice found very curious.  No Dark One had ever died to protect others, and one certainly hadn’t ever tried to write the darkness out of the story.  It was a shame that he had realized too late how different Rumplestiltskin was from his predecessors, but that no longer mattered.  That difference would serve Merlin well.

Taking a deep breath, the Apprentice began the spell, banishing Rumplestiltskin’s clumsy effort to eliminate the darkness from their world from his mind.  “Purest evil, blackest bloom, darkness, too, can find its doom.

“Never dying, but contained, bound inside the falcon's chamber, shorn of anger, thornless danger, there forever to remain," he finished the chant, and the hat obligingly opened, its power reaching out to consume the darkness.  The heart and the hat shook in his hands, and he almost let go of both several times, but after several agonizing seconds, the darkness tore out of the heart, vanishing into the hat.

He had done it.  Why had Merlin never tried this?  Surely it was easier than feeding a human soul to the darkness.  His old master should have thought of this.  Unless there was a catch?

No matter.  The heart he now held in his hand was glowing white, nearly a blank slate.  This was what he needed, particularly because the Apprentice knew that the hat could not contain the darkness for long.  No, it would do for now, but it would take all of Merlin’s power to stop the darkness from escaping.  The Apprentice knew that his own power would not be enough; it never had been.

But this, this white heart, transformed the man who had been the Dark One into the perfect host for something else.  Merlin was old, and the last the Apprentice had known, his body had been failing.  Creating the Dark One had taken its toll, even with the help of the Black Fairy.  The Apprentice had always suspected that she had done something to his old friend and master, but Merlin had never said.  But in past centuries—nearly a thousand years, truth be told—he had not spoken to Merlin save through the portal, in which Merlin’s power and essence could manifest itself across any realm.  He had not seen his master in person since the Apprentice had left Camelot.

Not since Camelot itself had grown out of step with normal time.  Merlin should have left then, but he had refused.  Now he would have to.  Now, he could leave his failing body, transferring his power and his soul to this new one.  Oh, it was battered, but at least Rumplestiltskin’s form was accustomed to handling great power.  That mattered, particularly with what Merlin would need to do.

Rumplestiltskin was all but gone, anyway.  His battered soul would likely be happy to move on.  If it was not, well, Merlin’s strength would soon overcome whatever remained of the man behind the darkness.

Tiredly, the Apprentice put the heart back Rumplestiltskin’s chest, where it would wait for Merlin.  Of course, Belle spoke up immediately.

“He’s barely breathing.”

The Apprentice felt a flicker of guilt, but lied, anyway.  “Rumplestiltskin was the Dark One for centuries.  His return to the man he used to be will not be easy.”  A quick flick of his hand placed a stasis spell on the former Dark One, one designed to lift only when Merlin’s power came across the realms to inhabit it.  “This will preserve him until we discern if we can help him.”

“If?” Belle questioned, and the depth of her love for this man, for this former near-demon, resonated in the air, feeling like a magical spring squeezed too tight and ready to snap back.  He would have to watch her; she might inadvertently interfere with his plans. 

Merlin must return, the Apprentice thought.  He is the only one who can—

But then the hat began to glow, and the darkness reared out for him.  The Savior pulled it free—which she ought not have done—and he could feel his own body failing. Is this what happened to Merlin? he wondered helplessly.  There was not much time, not enough to explain everything to her, but the Apprentice knew that there would be a new Dark One before the night was out.

“The Sorcerer is the only one with the power to destroy the darkness once and for all, before it destroys everything,” he told Emma in a ragged whisper, and he told her to find Merlin, hoping that his old master would come quickly to inhabit the form and soul waiting for him.

He had left so much out, told too many half-truths, but there was not time to say more.


Two Days Later

Henry had taken the news of Emma becoming the Dark One badly, and he knew that, but the only way he could cope with that—or the fact that the darkness had gone for Regina first—was by trying to find a way to help.  No one quite knew what to make of what had happened; Storybrooke had been strangely quiet since Emma had disappeared, but Henry couldn’t forget what the Apprentice had said.

“The Sorcerer is the only one with the power to destroy the darkness once and for all, before it destroys everything.”

The Apprentice had told them to find Merlin, so find Merlin Henry would do.  And he knew that the answer had to be in the Sorcerer’s House, or at least he knew that it had to be after he combed through the Book (again) without finding any other doors or anything.  He even asked August if he knew anything about how to get to Camelot, but August only shrugged.  So, Henry started combing the house from top to bottom, looking for clues of any sort.  Unfortunately, he’d already searched that house from top to bottom, so two days after Emma had disappeared, Henry headed over to the small house the Apprentice had in town.  Regina had offered to go with him—she still felt guilty for what had happened—but Henry had refused.  He’d just taken a set of her skeleton keys and headed over.

He stopped by the pawn shop on the way, but the lights were off and the sign was flipped to closed.  Belle had been quiet and withdrawn when Henry had seen her, and he’d understood how she’d felt.  He’d lost his mom just like Belle had lost Rumplestiltskin, and neither of them knew when they were going to get those they loved back.  He really wished he could talk to his dad right now, because if anyone knew what it was like to lose a parent to becoming the Dark One, it would have been him.  Or, he would have loved to have talked to his grandfather, but Rumplestiltskin was still in stasis.  Or sleeping.  Henry wasn’t sure which, of if he’d ever wake up.

Some family this is turning out to be, he thought glumly, opening the front door.  The house smelled like dust and burnt toast, but Henry started poking around right away.  Soon enough, he found a locked door that lead seemed to lead into some sort of cellar, so he put a key in that and walked down the creaky stairs.  One of the steps was loose, almost broken, which was really odd for a house in which the Sorcerer’s Apprentice had lived.  Henry had seen him do all kinds of magic, so why would he leave his own stairs like this? 

There was a giant cauldron at the bottom, ringed with ornate carvings and an inscription in a language Henry could not read.  It was bigger than most bathtubs and made of some sort of metal; did the Apprentice do spells here?  Curiously, Henry walked up to the cauldron, peering inside. 


“That’s boring,” he muttered, leaning over the edge to take a closer look at the bottom.  If the Apprentice did do spells in here, maybe he’d left a clue behind.  To do so, Henry let his hands rest on the edge of the cauldron—until a sudden electric shock of power threw him backwards. 

“Whoa!”  Henry landed hard on his back, but by the time he managed to sit up, he’d forgotten all about any aches and pains.  A cloud of blue power and magic had billowed out of the cauldron, full of stars and brilliant lights.

“Who calls?” a deep voice said, sounding strangely empty to Henry’s ears.  “You are not my Apprentice.”

“I’m Henry,” he replied, scrambling to his feet.  “The Apprentice is dead.”

The swirls of power and smoke made a sound that might have been a grunt; Henry was not sure.  His mind was working too quickly to pay attention to that, anyway.

“Wait a minute.  You said ‘your’ apprentice!” he exclaimed.  “Does that mean you’re Merlin?  Are you the sorcerer?”  Stepping forward again, Henry studied the cauldron.  It couldn’t be a portal or a doorway; no one had come through it.  Just power.  “And is this a way to communicate across worlds?”

“Who are you to ask so many questions?” the cloud asked instead of answering any of his questions.  That usually means ‘yes’, Henry thought excitedly.  The Apprentice had told them to find Merlin, but he’d never expected it to be so easy.

“My mom’s the new Dark One,” he admitted.  “We’re trying to help her.  The Apprentice said that we have to find Merlin because you’re the only one who can destroy the darkness.”

Another interesting sound; this one was slightly like water swishing back and forth.  Or was that power?  Long moments of silence ticked by, and Henry tried really hard not to get impatient and demand more answers.  He had no idea what the etiquette was for talking to disembodied voices, but he’d long since learned that yelling at someone never got him what he wanted.  Unless it was Emma. Sometimes you had to shout truths at her until they hammered their way in.

Just thinking about his mom hurt, though, so Henry pushed those thoughts aside as resolutely as he could.  She’ll be okay, he thought desperately.  We’ll help her.  This is the first step.  Everything will be all right in the end.  Emma had taken on the darkness because she was a hero, and Henry was going to help her find her way back.  No matter what it took.  And she’s my mom.  I’ll love her no matter what.

“You must come to Camelot,” the voice finally said.  “There is a doorway…”

“Where?” he asked eagerly. 

“In the lakeside house, of course.”

Henry crossed his arms.  “But where?  I’ve looked everywhere in that house.”

“This…” the voice was starting to sound tired, but a broom leaning against the wall suddenly stood up and walked over to Henry, its strides choppy and a little unsteady.  “…will take you there.”

“Cool,” Henry breathed, and then looked back up at the swirling blue mist, which seemed to be weakening, somehow.  “Will you be there?”

“You will find…what you seek,” the voice whispered, and then the cloud vanished, as if sucked back into the cauldron by some great force.  Henry stood for several long moments, staring at the now-empty cauldron while the broom waited patiently by his side, and then he squared his shoulders and headed out of the house.

Emma needed saving, and this time Henry was going to do just that.


Kill them all, the voice in her mind whispered seductively, or was that her own thoughts?  Emma couldn’t tell.  She’d fled into the forest, her last act as Emma to leave the dagger behind where someone could keep it safe, but she could no longer tell where she ended and the Dark One began.  Kill.  Rule.  Power.  Power-power-power-power.  Must have more power.

Words like that had echoed through her head for hours.  Or was it days?  Time bled into itself; Emma had no idea how long had passed.  She’d tried desperately to think of Henry at first, of Killian, of her parents and even of Regina.  Nothing had worked.  Nothing calmed the boiling rage within her; magic roared out of her in bursts, laying waste to the trees around her until Emma sat inside a ring of fire.  But the fire only taunted her, full of the faces of people who would hate her now.  They won’t understand, she thought desperately.  They can’t understand.  Even her family, who had once loved her so much, would hate what she had become.

But Emma did not.  Emma was stronger than she had ever been.  The power at her fingertips was amazing.  If Savior magic had been strong, the Darkness was even stronger, and she barely even had to think before power leapt to do her bidding.  She could build herself a castle.  She could destroy her enemies.  She could turn those who had hurt her family to dust, all without blinking an eye.  She could make them pay.  She could make sure no one ever hurt her family again, no one ever took away someone she loved.  She could save them.  She could save Killian if someone tried to take him away the way Graham and Neal had been taken from her.  She could keep Henry safe—no one would ever dare harm the son of the Dark One .

Except they would.  Wouldn’t they?  They will try to control you.  Kill them before they can, the voice whispered, and Emma felt the rage building.  Common sense told her that she should not give in, so she tried to fight it back, tried to think of everyone she loved and everyone she needed to protect—and then wild purple lightning ripped out of her hands, crashing into a trio of oak trees and bringing them crashing towards the ground.


Instinctively, she lashed out, and all three trees disintegrated, reaching the ground as fine black dust.  Chest heaving, Emma stared at what she had done, not remembering even thinking about doing that. 

“What’s happened to me?” she whispered, looking down at her hands.  There was power there, so much power.  Power to do anything she’d ever dreamed of. 

There is danger.  Destroy the danger.   She should do that, right?  Emma had always been too worried about doing the right thing, but that was foolish.  Protecting her family was more important.  The darkness inside her was possessive over them, she realized, but she could live with that.  They were hers.  She would keep them safe.

Emma would destroy anyone who tried to harm those she loved. 


The broom had stopped in the middle of the back garden at the Sorcerer’s House, and at first, Henry had though that it had just run out of gas.  But it just kept standing there, like there was something to be found, so he started groping around, feeling a little foolish.  Or maybe like a mime.  Mimes did this kind of thing all the time, didn’t they?  Thinking like that didn’t make Henry feel any less silly, though, and he’d almost given up when his left hand suddenly came into contact with wood.  And the moment he touched the outer edge of the frame, the great oak door shimmered into existence. 

“Yes!” Henry hissed in triumph, and then pulled out his cell phone, calling his mom to get everyone over to the Sorcerer’s House.  It didn’t take long, but by the time everyone had arrived, the broom had dropped back to the floor and lost its magic.

Regina and Robin arrived hand in hand; they’d been talking a lot and trying to work through everything that had happened, Henry knew, and Robin was the only reason Regina was able to overcome how guilty she felt that Emma had taken on that darkness to save her.  Roland was with them, and Henry didn’t begrudge the little boy a bit of the attention his adopted mother was giving him.  Roland had been through a lot, even if he didn’t remember much of it, and Henry was a lot older than he was.  Henry was old enough to find solutions instead of waiting for some adult to hand them to him.

“What did you find, Henry?” Regina spoke up when everyone was there.  Snow and Charming had followed her in, and Henry’s grandparents looked terrible.  Henry was willing to bet that they hadn’t slept a wink in the two days since Emma had disappeared, and the Dark One’s dagger was clutched tightly in Snow’s white-knuckled hand.

Hook, on the other hand, just looked like he was waiting to be woken up from a terrible nightmare.  He didn’t look like he’d slept, either, and wore a glazed over expression that said he was still in utter shock.  Henry hadn’t always been comfortable with his mom’s relationship with the pirate, mostly because he wasn’t sure if Hook was good enough for her, but he did know that Killian really seemed to love her.  What would happen now that Emma was the Dark One was anyone’s guess, but at least Hook seemed to be sticking by her.  She deserves that.

For a moment, Henry contemplated calling Belle and asking her if she wanted to be there, because she was family, too.  But she had enough to worry about, watching over Grandpa Gold like she was, and there really wasn’t time.  He had no idea how long the door would last.  Instead, he squared his shoulders and pointed at the door to his left.

“I found a door.  I think it leads to Camelot.”

“Camelot?” David spoke up immediately, studying the oak door.  “What makes you think that?”

“Well, King Arthur was Arthur Pendragon, and the door does have a dragon on it.  And a sword that looks like Excalibur,” Henry pointed out.  “And the Apprentice did say to find Merlin, and that he was very far away.  It would only make sense that he’s in Camelot, and that the door would be here.”

“But there’s no way to actually know where the door leads until someone steps through it,” Regina mused, stepping forward to study the door. 

“Well, not exactly,” he admitted, shrugging.  “But I did go to the Apprentice’s house, and I think there’s some kind of communications portal there.  I talked to someone—and I think it was Merlin—and he enchanted this broom.  It found the door.”

His mom and both his grandparents stared at him like he’d done something terribly reckless, and Henry braced himself for a lecture on how he shouldn’t fool with magical objects by himself.  The broom was worthless, now, but they had to believe him.  Didn’t they?

“It leads to Camelot,” Hook spoke up suddenly, making everyone turn to him.

“How do you know?” Robin asked.

“I know.”

“Now’s not a good time for secrets, Killian,” David admonished the pirate, sounding exhausted, and Hook shrugged.

“I’ve… been there before,” he answered slowly.  “I know the royal seal of Camelot, and that’s it.”

“He’s right,” Regina put in, studying the door again.  “I’ve seen that before, too.”

That made Henry turn to look at his mother, curiosity momentarily overriding his worry for Emma.  “You’ve been to Camelot?”

“Oh, no.  One of my early suitors was from there, though,” she replied.  “It was a long time ago, though.”

“That sounds like a heck of a story,” David commented.

“Not really.  I wasn’t what he wanted, and Mother was disappointed.”

No one seemed to know what to say about that, until Snow spoke up, still holding the dagger tightly.  “Should we summon Emma?” she asked softly.  “I mean, no one has seen her in two days, and this does concern her…”

“She needs time,” Regina shook her head.  “She hasn’t hurt anyone, and I think we should give Emma her space.”

“I feel wrong summoning her, but what if she’s hurt?” Henry’s grandmother said worriedly.  “We’re her family, and we should help her.”

“And we don’t know what we’ll find,” Hook pointed out.  “Best not to get her hopes up.”

“We?” Regina questioned the pirate, her eyebrows rising.

“Well, you can’t go, love,” he pointed out, much to Henry’s surprise.  “You’re the only magic user we have, so you pretty much have to stay.  As do David and Snow, because Emma might need them.  That pretty much leaves Henry and I.”

“I’m going,” Henry said before anyone could tell him not to.  He was old enough to cross worlds, old enough that he’d saved everyone in the alternate universe, and Henry was not going to be shut out this time.  “I can help.  I’m gonna go.”

“Henry…” David started to say, but trailed off, exchanging a helpless glance with Snow.  Then he sighed.  “Hook’s right.”

“The hell he is!” Regina snapped, turning to put her hands on his shoulders.  “Henry, I’m not letting you go into danger—”

“Mom, I’m always in danger.  Almost everything in Storybrooke is dangerous, and I’m almost thirteen.  You can’t protect me from everything,” he said as strongly as he could.  “And I can help.  I need to help.”


“I can do this.  Please don’t try to stop me.”


Will had helped Belle bring Rumplestiltskin home hours after the others had left the shop.  None of them had come back, although when Will had dropped by, he’d let her know that Emma had apparently taken the darkness into herself and disappeared.  Belle wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, except for being certain that the Charmings would eventually storm into the shop to demand answers about what being the Dark One meant for Emma.  I would love to help, Belle thought brokenly.  But I don’t know any more than they do.

That much grew painfully obvious the longer she sat at Rumplestiltskin’s side. Will had helped get her husband into the guest bedroom downstairs—the thought of hauling Rumple up the stairs had just been too exhausting after getting him to the pink mansion—but he’d left Belle alone after that.  In turn, she’d sat by Rumplestiltskin’s side, holding his hand and whispering to him, praying he’d wake up.  But for two days, nothing had happened.  No one had come by the house, and she had stayed with him, her despair growing by the moment.  The Apprentice had said he will wake up if he has the strength, Belle remembered, and that very thought made her want to cry.  Again.

“You make me stronger,” Rumplestiltskin had said to her once, just as he pushed aside centuries of self-loathing and fears to kill himself, saving an entire town full of people who hated him. 

She had always been his strength .  That realization ripped through Belle with the force of a hurricane, almost sending her out of the chair and onto her knees on the floor.  She had sent him away, had banished him without letting him explain, all because she’d assumed she hadn’t been the thing he loved most.  She’d found that gauntlet, and it had led her to the dagger, and Rumplestiltskin’s words had echoed through her mind—but not all of them.  She’d only remembered how he’d said that the gauntlet led to a person’s greatest weakness, the thing they loved most.  Usually had been a word that was lost within her burning pain, and Belle had marched up to that clock tower full of righteous anger.  Oh, she’d also wanted to save the town, but truth be told, Belle’s fury had been rooted in the fact that she’d been convinced that he’d never really loved her.

“Why wasn't it good enough?” she had whispered.

“Because I didn't believe it.  Who could ever love me?”

The memory knocked the wind out of Belle, and made her tears start anew.  How could I not have seen it?  She had doubted his love…just as Rumple had wondered who could ever love him.  He had been so broken, and he had lost so much.  How many times had Rumplestiltskin told her that he knew she would leave him eventually?  That night in the shop, Belle had told him that she wasn’t going to leave, and he had said that he pushed her to it.  Yet…Belle knew that things were not that simple.  She had walked out on him before, and she had tried to force him to her will the one time in their marriage that they had disagreed.  Is that what he thought, even has he forgave me so freely? she wondered brokenly.  That I wanted to control him more than I loved him?

Her face was wet with tears already.  They really were a pair, weren’t they?  Each doubting one another, him lying and her trying to control him.  Perhaps they deserved one another, after all.  Belle had always thought that if she loved Rumplestiltskin enough, she could help him, and sometimes that even worked.  But he wasn’t the only one who had made mistakes.  She’d made plenty of her own.  They had wrecked their marriage together.

 “I think finally I understand what you were trying to do when you wanted the author to write a different ending.”  She bit her lip, studying the face that hadn’t so much as twitched for two days and trying to will it back to life.  The words came slowly and painfully as everything finally sank in.

“You were trying to save us, weren’t you?  It was the only thing you knew how to do, to have Isaac write the darkness out of the story…”  Belle swallowed, but she’d always been good at putting the pieces together.  “I heard what he said to you in our house, when I was supposed to be getting water.  He gave you a family to fight for, because he knew you’d do his dirty work for him if he gave you people that you loved.  People to fight for.”

Tears streaming down her face, Belle leaned over to brokenly kiss Rumplestiltskin’s hand.  “I’m sorry,” she whispered.  “I told you that I wasn’t going to pull back, that I knew what I was getting into, but you weren’t the only one that forced me to push you away.  I did that, too.  I promised you forever, and at the first real test, I let you down.”

Biting back a sob, Belle finally let her head fall to rest on her husband’s chest.  “I love you.  I want you to know that.  I love you, Rumplestiltskin.  Whoever or whatever you are. ”

He smelled right.  Closing her eyes, let herself imagine, just for a moment, that they were back before everything went wrong and they were happy.  There had been a few short moments of true happiness, like the day Rumplestiltskin had come back from Neverland, determined to do right by his family and finally having earned the forgiveness of his son.  Back then, she’d been so convinced that they could fight back his darkness, but then he’d died, and everything had changed.  And she would never have the chance to fix things.

“I’ll always love you,” she added quietly, finally just letting herself cry for what she had lost and the mistakes she had made.  “Please don’t leave me.”

“I love you, too,” a scratchy voice whispered.  But it had to be her imagination.  Rumple was in stasis, and might never wake up.  But, because hope was such a brutal thing, Belle had to sit up and look at him, turning her head to focus on his face through her tears.  His eyes were open.

Rumplestiltskin’s eyes were open.


“Hi,” he whispered, looking exhausted…and so very hesitant.  “Belle, I—”

“I know,” she cut him off, leaning forward to touch his face with her right hand, while still clinging to his right hand with her left.  “I’m sorry, too.”

“How am I awake?” Rumplestiltskin asked, blinking in confusion.  “I should be gone.  The Dark One should be in control.”

She shook her head.  “The Apprentice pulled the darkness from your heart.  He tried to trap it in the Hat, but it escaped.” Sucking in a deep breath, Belle said the rest in a rush: “Emma took it on.  She’s the Dark One, now.”

“That explains why it’s so quiet,” he said softly, blinking something away.


“In my head.  For three hundred years, my curse—the darkness—it’s whispered to me, latching on to my emotions and my fears, driving me… Oh, I suppose that doesn’t matter, now.”

“Why not?” Belle asked, squeezing his hand as his eyes drifted away from hers, focusing on the far wall.  She let her hand fall to his shoulder as his head turned, trying to offer support without being overbearing.  There was an emptiness in him like Belle had never seen before.  Was it because the Apprentice had sucked everything out of his heart, not just the darkness?  Belle couldn’t remember if the sole spot of red had still been there or not when the Apprentice had put Rumplestiltskin’s heart back in.  She’d been too terrified of him dying to notice at the time.

“My choices were my own,” Rumplestiltskin whispered raggedly.

But there was something in his face that gave her pause.  “Were they?”

“I’m not trying to make excuses.”  Now Rumplestiltskin bit his lip, still staring at the wall.  His hand was limp in hers, and Belle got the feeling that he was drowning in the emptiness, unsure of what to do or who he was.  “I know I did unforgivable things.”

“Please tell me the truth,” Belle pleaded.  “Please don’t lock me out.”

A long moment passed before he answered, still not looking at her.  But his face was set, as if Rumplestiltskin was bracing himself against the truth.  Against rejection?

“I…I don’t know.  It was so hard to tell, towards the end,” he admitted.  “Before I died, I could hold the darkness at bay, could keep it from consuming my heart.  My soul.  But when I was brought back”—his voice cracked, and Belle squeezed his hand tightly—“I couldn’t.  Zelena wouldn’t let me, and by the time I was free, it was too late.  And I couldn’t tell the difference between my thoughts and the darkness.  Not anymore.”

“What about when you gave me the dagger?” Belle had to ask, bracing herself for the truth.  She needed to know.   “Was that real, or was it a fake all along?”

“Oh, no.”  Finally, he turned to look at her, his expression broken.  “That was real.  I…I hoped that your goodness could stop me.  That if you had the dagger, I could stop myself.”

“Why didn’t you say that?” she whispered.

“Because I couldn’t.”

Belle wanted to shake him, but again, there was something in Rumplestiltskin’s expression that stopped her.  Something tormented and so utterly broken.  He wasn’t trying to cover up his errors, and he wasn’t trying to make excuses.  But is he trying to take all the blame when he shouldn’t?  “Why not?” she asked as calmly as she could.

“I…I tried.  I wanted to make things right, and every time I took the dagger, I wanted to give it back,” Rumplestiltskin admitted.  “But I couldn’t.  And I honestly don’t know if that was my own fears or the curse.  There was no way to tell.  I was in too deep.” He cringed, and there were tears in his eyes, too. “I know I can’t make it up to you.  I know I ruined everything.  I just…”

He trailed off, looking helpless, and Belle felt her heart twisting in her chest. 

“Oh, Rumple,” Belle breathed, squeezing his hand again.  Much to her surprise, that made him jump.  “I still love you, you know.  Every part of you.”

“You do?”

Her laugh was watery. “Of course I do. I always will.  None of this would have hurt so much if I didn’t.”

The smile that lit his face was as hesitant as it was real, but Belle could see that her husband felt guilty for any joy her statement had given him.  “It was never a contest between you and power,” Rumplestiltskin whispered quickly.  “I always wanted to choose you.  I just…didn’t know how to live without power.”  His laugh was bitter.  “Now I suppose I’ll find out.”

“Do you regret not being the Dark One?” Belle had to know.  She knew that she shouldn’t ask, that his answer would likely hang over them for the rest of their lives, but she needed to know.

“I don’t regret owning my own soul,” Rumplestiltskin whispered.  “I just don’t know what I am without magic.”