It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
It wasn’t supposed to, but it was. Him, struggling to breathe through the pain. Emma, cradling him and holding on so tight that he could feel the way her body shook. His papa, lingering in the background, broken and under someone else’s control.
He could hear himself talking, sounding more noble than he felt as his heart hammered in his chest, too hard and too fast to hold up for long. He was angry at that stupid candle and at Zelena and at himself, but above all of that… He was scared. He’d lived hundreds of years, but he wasn’t ready to die. Not here. Not now. Not before he saw Henry again and not before he got to have his family together as a whole unit.
Not like this.
He’d let his desperation to revive his father and get back to Emma and Henry overpower his common sense. He should have looked at it like he used to look at his old heists, planned and careful, but he’d rushed into it instead. He’d ran in head-first and, now, the price of magic was killing him. If the others couldn’t find a way to get his papa’s dagger back from Zelena and beat her…
This whole thing was his fault.
Emma bent in towards him, her forehead against his, and he tightened his grip on the two hands he had wrapped around her one. Between them, that little necklace that she’d kept for years and that had stuck with him since she’d slid it across a dirty bar in Manhattan. At least he’d gotten to give it back to her, he thought as a sob forced its way out of him.
He could feel the darkness creeping in at the edges of his vision. Not unconsciousness, he knew. Death. The cold was seeping into his body too much to be explained away by the weather and he could feel his grip on her hands weakening. She must have felt it, too, as she made a noise that sounded half-strangled and less than human. She knew what was coming.
“You can’t…” she breathed, shaky. “Neal…”
“Wish it could have been different,” he choked out. There was wetness on his cheeks, but he wasn’t sure which one of them was crying. It could have been both. It probably was. “Us…” Every regret he’d had since he got in the car and left Emma behind. Everything he could have done different and didn’t, because he’d been too scared of his papa finding him. Everything they could have had and that they’d lost.
“Me too,” she whispered. “I love you…”
His mind flashed back to the cannery, his body dangling above a portal as she tried to hold onto him. She sounded the same way she had back then, broken and scared and unwilling to let go. Now, he’d put her through this hell twice. He wanted to apologize, to tell her how sorry he was, because she shouldn’t have to go through something like this, but I love you too came out instead.
Another sob and she shifted her head, her forehead lifting off of his so she could get an angle to kiss him. One last kiss. A goodbye.
Their lips touched for the first time in twelve years and something rushed between them, bright and pure and warm.
He heard his father gasp.
The world exploded into white.
His fingers tapped against the steering wheel in a chaotic rhythm. Anxious. Guilty. Heartbroken. He hadn’t even reached city limits yet and he knew he’d never forgive himself for this. He’d never forgive himself for leaving her.
“People always leave,” she said as they lay together in the back seat of the Bug.
He kissed her temple, fingers running up and down her arm. “I won’t.”
He’d lied. Lied about that. Lied about himself. Lied about everything and, now, he was running like he’d been running for the last three hundred years. Maybe his father wasn’t the only coward, he thought bitterly.
The red light stared back at him the same way it had been since he’d slowed to a stop and he sighed, bending forward until his forehead rested against the steering wheel. Let it turn green. Let people blare their horns at him. He didn’t care. He felt like he’d torn his own heart out, but without the magic his papa used to do it. No. He just felt the gaping hole in his chest, bleeding and ugly, because his heart was back with the girl he was leaving behind.
Until right then, he’d never realized just how much of it he’d given her.
He couldn’t do this.
The thought hit him like a truck and his eyes snapped open.
Go back to her, you idiot.
He could hear the voice in his head, yelling at him to turn around. Heard it almost battle with the ghost of August’s words. August’s voice was losing, dimming until it had disappeared completely and the other voice made his stomach flip.
The light turned green and he pulled forward before he cut the wheel. Pulled a u-turn where a sign said they weren’t allowed, and drove. Away from the city limits. Away from another escape. He drove towards Emma and where she’d be waiting for him.
He wasn’t running away this time. Not without her.
His eyes darted between the road and the clock the whole way, worried that he’d be too late. She could have already left, realized that he wasn’t meeting her and walked away.
He pressed down on the gas harder.
He saw the cop lights before he saw the cars and his breath stopped. No. No. They shouldn’t have found her there. There was no way they could have known unless… August. That son of a bitch. He was the only other one that could have tipped them off. His fence never would have given up the chance for those watches.
He parked between two buildings, his heart pounding in his chest as he forced his breath to calm. Then, he let himself work, feet moving silently over the pavement while his eyes searched for any movement. If he was lucky, the cops wouldn’t have found the meeting place yet. This area was huge and he knew the shortcuts.
She was still there when he rounded a corner, leaning back against the building and checking the time on the watch he’d given her. One of the stolen watches. If the cops had caught her while she was wearing that…
He was going to kill August.
“Emma,” he called, his voice barely above a whisper, but urgent enough that she still caught it. He snapped his fingers at her, fast, in their little language that things had gotten bad. “We’re blown. Come on.”
She stared at him for only a second before she moved, rushing towards him. He grabbed her hand the second he could and they broke into a run. He half-dragged her, knowing the area better than she did, but she followed. She trusted him and he’d almost thrown it all away.
“What happened?” she asked, scared.
“We got ratted out,” he said. “I’ll explain everything after. We need to get out of here.”
“They’re in the car. We’ll fence them somewhere else.” Outside of Portland. Hell, outside of Oregon. They were leaving this state and they weren’t looking back. Ever.
He stopped so suddenly that she crashed into him. He caught her, his hands steadying her, and they shouldn’t have been stopping for anything, but they were and they did. “Do you trust me?”
“Yes.” No hesitation. No doubt. She trusted him more than she had probably trusted anyone in her life. The guilt at what he’d almost left her to made him sick.
“Then, trust me to get us out of here. I’ll tell you everything once we’re safe.” Everything, he realized, was everything. He couldn’t tell her about August without telling her the truth about him and the little he’d learned about her. She’d think he was crazy and she might even leave him because of it, but he had to take the chance. Nothing good would have come out of him leaving this city without her, he realized. Nothing.
She nodded and they started running again, moving until they had reached the Bug. “They’re going to see the lights.”
“Don’t need them.” The security lights around gave just enough that he could make it without the headlights. They’d have to move slow, but they shouldn’t have been trying to peel out of there with the cops around the corner, anyway. That was how you drew attention. The peeling would come once they were a safe distance away.
She covered one of his hands with her own, nervous, and he let go of the steering wheel to lace their fingers together. “It’s gonna be okay,” he told her. “I promise.”
They drove for hours. Out of Portland. Out of Oregon. His gut lead him east instead of north, leading them through Idaho and into Wyoming line before he finally pulled over at a motel. It wasn’t any prettier than the other ones they’d stayed in since they’d met, but it would do. Emma had been sleeping for most of the drive and exhaustion was setting in too much for him to go any farther. They’d get back on the road the next morning and he could only hope she’d still be with him for it.
He leaned over to kiss her head. “Em, wake up.”
She groaned, glasses askew as she peeked her eyes open. “Where are we?”
“Wyoming. I’m gonna go get us a room.” He’d pay for it. Get them a room the legit way for once, because he wasn’t about to risk pulling something in an unfamiliar state. “Get our bags?”
She was more awake when he came back, their bags lying at her feet, and he led them up towards room twenty-eight. The irony wasn’t lost on him as he remembered the things August had told him, but he wished it could have been. He tried to shake it off, a half-assed smile on his face, but the second the door clicked shut, it was like that crappy little room had dropped ten degrees. Emma’s arms were crossed over her chest, pretty eyes glaring at him from behind the glasses she hated but he loved.
He was in deep shit.
“Where were you?” she asked, sounding somewhere between accusing and betrayed. He wasn’t sure which he would have preferred. Whichever didn’t have that look to go along with it, honestly, but he was pretty sure that it came with either one of them. “I was starting to think you weren’t going to show.”
She didn’t have to say she’d thought he’d run off with the watches. It was plain as day on her face and he felt his stomach twist, guilty. In hindsight, he should have talked to her as he drove, he realized. Twelve hours in the car had given her time to sleep and them time to escape, but it had also given her mind time to go over just how late he’d been.
“I...ran into an issue,” he said slowly. Temptations to lie and leave the story at some vague mention of August floated through his mind, but a louder part overpowered them, yelling at him to tell her the truth. No more secrets. No more lies, even by omission. Even if she didn’t know who she was--what she was--he couldn’t lie to her anymore. She was a part of this and so was he. The second he spun that car around, he’d signed onto this with her, wherever it took her and however close it eventually brought him back to his father.
“Not good enough, Neal.”
“I know.” He sighed, fingers running through his hair as he sat down on the edge of the bed. “Issue is that you’re not gonna believe me.”
“I can spot liars, remember? Magic power.”
He huffed out a laugh, but it sounded humorless. “You know I hate when you call it that.”
He turned nervous eyes towards her, half-begging, and held a hand out towards her. She didn’t step towards him or reach out and he let his arm drop. “Let me explain,” he told her. “And let me finish before you call me crazy, okay?”
“I’ve been calling you crazy since I met you.”
“Crazier, then.” He shook his head, trying to clear out the thoughts in his head, but it didn’t really work. “You know how I don’t really know...anything about pop culture? You keep calling me Amish.”
“You don’t know what Star Wars is.”
“They didn’t exactly have it where I grew up.” He paused as she watched him and swallowed around the nervous lump in his throat. “My name… I chose Neal. I made Neal Cassidy when I ended up here.”
She hummed, not seeming all that surprised. He wasn’t the first person she’d met that didn’t use their real name. “And before?”
“Baelfire,” he supplied. Her eyebrows wrinkled in that confused way she did when he said something that made her think he was from Mars. “It was a common name where I grew up...when I grew up. It was this stupid little village in the Front Lands...”
The words kept coming, spilling out of him as he told a story he had never told in full before. His chest ached with the memories of the life he’d had before magic changed his papa. His friends. That little shack. The comforting sounds of his father’s spinning wheel that used to lull him to sleep.
The war. Magic. His voice cracked when he told her about the portal and how his father let go of him, but she didn’t move to comfort him and he didn’t wait for her to. The Darlings. Neverland. A shiver broke out of him, his whole body trembling, and she sat next to him then, holding his hand like she would when his nightmares would wake them both up.
“I was there for so long, Emma,” he whispered, his voice hoarse. “That’s why I can never remember how old I am when people ask. I stopped counting years after a while.”
He wasn’t sure how long he kept talking, talking more about himself than he had in his whole life, but she let him do it. She let him explain like he’d asked her to, waiting to pass judgement on his lack of sanity until he was done.
“I was on my way to you when this guy found me,” he told her as his throat ached. “August. He knew my name. He knew you.”
This time, his story didn’t have as much detail, disjointed and as confused as she probably was. The hand she had in his tensed, ready to pull away, and he kept his grip light enough that she could if she wanted to. He wouldn’t trap her.
He let his voice fade off when there wasn’t anything left to say. No closing. No searching her eyes for some kind of response. He just put his head in the hand that wasn’t holding hers and waited.
For a while, she didn’t say anything. She didn’t pull away from him or even look at him once he’d stopped talking. She didn’t do anything. The seconds ticked into minutes, moving so slow that he thought he might throw up, but he choked it back. When she did finally react, it wasn’t with words. She stood up, her hand falling away from his, and walked out of the motel room.
His heart plummeted.
He woke up to hands shaking him.
“Emma?” Even with his eyes squinted and the darkness in the room, he knew Emma and the familiar smell of that apple shampoo she kept at the bottom of her duffle.
She pulled her hand away from him. “You’re insane.”
“I know,” he said as he sat up and reached over to turn the light on. It burned his eyes as he took Emma in. She’d taken her hair out of the ponytail she always wore, looking troubled as she played with what had fallen over her shoulder. “You came back.” As much as he’d been heartbroken when she left, he’d been worried too. Neither of them knew the area and no matter how tough she was, a pretty girl walking around in some unfamiliar place was never safe.
“I almost didn’t.” At least she was honest. He wouldn’t have blamed her if she hadn’t. “Everything you said… You’re talking about magic and different worlds, Neal. You said your father was Rumplestiltskin.” She shook her head. “And your name…”
“Baelfire,” she repeated. She looked frazzled. “But it makes sense and I don’t want it to. You’re so weird and there’s so much stuff you don’t know. I always thought you were from somewhere freaky, but you’re telling me you’re from some kind of magic garden.”
“Whatever. Your father is a fairytale character. There isn’t much of a difference.” She moved away from him, pacing. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I didn’t think that far ahead, Emma. I just...couldn’t lie to you about it anymore. Not when I knew how you tied into it. Would you rather I’d just taken off?”
Her pacing stopped so fast that she stumbled, wide eyes staring at him. “No!”
“Do you want me to leave now?”
“I wouldn’t have come back if I didn’t want to see you again.”
“I don’t know. You like calling me crazy.”
Like it was against her will, a ghost of a smile made the overwhelmed look on her face shift. “Because you are.” She sat down next to him, biting at her lip, and reached out to touch the scar on his arm. “Was that really from a knife?”
“Arrow graze,” he told her, his voice tight. “Neverland.”
She raised an eyebrow, skeptical. “Arrows? Seriously?”
“What? You thought the Lost Boys would have guns?”
“Until today, I thought they were characters in a Disney movie, so give me a break.” She shot him a look, fingers still on his scar, and she let her eyes drop, thinking. “Say I even believe you… If you’d known who I was when we met…”
“I wouldn’t have gone near you,” he admitted. “I’ve been running from my dad for years, Emma. I came here to get away from magic and you…”
“Brought it back,” she finished, sighing. “You weren’t gonna come back.”
Even with her head down and her hair half-covering her face, he saw the way she bit her lip. Knew her well enough to know the insecurities churning inside her. “So why did you?”
“Because it would have been the biggest mistake of my life.” He lifted her head, two fingers under her chin. Explanations of fight or flight responses flew through his head, half tempted to remind her that they were thieves. When they got cornered, their first reactions were to run. He’d done it. She’d done it after he told her his story. None of that came out, though. “You remember what I told you about home? How you know you’ve got one when you leave it and you just...miss it?” She nodded slowly, watching him, and he met her eyes. “I never would have stopped missing you, Em.”
There it was. Every bit of himself had been laid out on the table, honest and raw and waiting to see what she’d do with it. The truth about his past. The truth about who he was. His feelings for her. She was his home, had become it without him ever realizing until he’d almost walked away.
She shifted in closer to him, wrapping both arms up behind his neck, and they both sighed. She didn’t say anything about what he’d said or even said she’d forgiven him, but she didn’t need to. She was still hurt, he knew, but she understood. The two of them had learned each other inside and out and this… It felt like she finally knew him and even if she didn’t fully get everything, she wasn’t running either.
He murmured a love you into her hair and and she nodded, lips against his cheek.
“So what now?” she asked later, after they’d laid down and she’d curled against his side. “We go up to that freaky town? Storyland or whatever you called it?”
He shook his head. “You’re eighteen. It’s not supposed to happen until you’re twenty-eight.”
“That’s ten years. What-” Her body straightened suddenly as her words cut off and her eyes widened. “Your dad’s there.”
He thinned his lips. “Probably.”
“You’d have to see him again.”
He could see the indecision in her eyes and he understood it. She’d been alone most of her life until she’d met him. She had as many questions about her own family as he had scars from his. She was curious, aching for answers that she had only sort of gotten through the disjointed story he’d offered her. But she also knew about his past and the years he’d spent hiding from his father. She shouldn’t have worried about him like that, but she was as protective over him as he was of her.
She set her jaw and shook her head, her grip around his middle tightening. “We’re not going. Screw some stupid curse. Even if I believe it…”
It was on the tip of his tongue to point out that she wouldn’t have come back if she didn’t believe it, but he kept his mouth shut. “I can handle my dad,” he told her instead. “Don’t worry about him.” He reached over to take her hand, relieved when she didn’t pull away. “We have ten years. We don’t need to make a decision now.”
Surprise shone in her eyes, like she was floored at the idea that he’d still want to be with her in ten years, and he leaned in to kiss her softly. She pressed back into it, her free hand on his cheek. He smiled against her lips.
It wasn’t the perfect solution, he knew. Knowing her parents were out there and that she’d be able to get some kind of answers had to be torture for her, but there was nothing he could do to change it. As a child, he’d avoided as much magic as he could, but he had still learned a few things, namely that if a spell had a time-condition on it, there was no changing it. If his papa’s spell Emma had to be twenty-eight, there was no chance of her breaking it early. If August was right and there were some people that were aware of the spell… It wasn’t worth the risk. It would just put Emma in danger.
“Ten years?” she murmured when the kiss broke.
“Ten years,” he agreed.
She nodded, letting him roll on top of her, hands trailing up and down her sides as he kissed at her neck. “What name did you use to book the room, anyway? Prince Charming?”
He laughed, his hands stilling over her stomach. “Henry.”