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True Sacrifice

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“Forgive me, Belle,” he whispered, brushing her hair back from her sleeping face. She looked so pristine, pale skin surrounded by her dark hair, lips so pink and perfect. Everything about her was just...perfect. Far too good for him. He took her hand in his own. “All that I have will be yours, don’t you worry. You and our child will be taken care of, I promise. Our home, the shop, the library, it’s all I can give.” The weight of the weapon suddenly registered against his breast, burning where it rested inside his jacket. “That...and one more thing.” He swallowed, taking a moment to remember what her delicate hand felt like in his own, how their skin contrasted, how soft she was, how rough his centuries-old calluses were… “Please, tell our child I love them. And never, ever doubt that I loved you, Belle.”

He brushed the back of his fingers along her cheek, pursing his lips to keep tears from falling from his stinging eyes. He tucked a letter into the blanket, in case Maurice decided she didn’t need that either.

Belle and their baby were far more important than he could ever be. He’d lived long enough. Too many lifetimes for any person, Dark One or no. He could die for this. He’d died for his family once, and he’d do it again. And this time...this time it would be permanent.

Rumple forced himself away from her, trying to touch as much of her as possible, to remember what he could never forget. He wished he could hear her voice again. Just once. See her smile, maybe. This was enough. It would have to be enough.

Decades ago when he’d first set eyes on her sweet face he never once guessed that she would be the woman to bring him to his knees, to be the woman he would move stars and realms for. Foresight or no, he could have never predicted giving his heart to that girl. Here he was now, ready to die for her a second time. He didn’t regret it for a moment.

He placed her hand back on her chest, stroking her hair once more before he turned to leave.

Rumple flipped his phone open, setting his jaw and typing gravely. She’s in the shop. I’m going for good. Save her. ~R . And that was that. He closed his eyes, a solitary tear making its way down his cheek.

The phone snapped shut and he disappeared in a whirl of smoke, reappearing at the well. Their well.

Belle, exhausted and timid, following him here to bring magic to Storybrooke, his only hope to restore her memories to her, and then...then she brought life and light back into his bleak existence with two words.

“Rumplestiltskin, wait.

Her smile warmed him, brought feeling back into his cold body like sun on a frosted tree branch. That kiss, that beautiful, loving kiss put new air into his lungs, her care washing over him. That kiss was a baptism into a new life with her, even if he still had one foot in the past, shadows clawing at him to come back. Belle kept him from being consumed.

The starlight and fire glinting off her teary eyes, pristine in all white from head to toe, her brooding father not far off behind her. More love, pure, heated love that found its way into her tears and burned so beautifully. She smiled then because she couldn’t stop, bounced into their kiss like a woman starved. She was desperate to be his wife, and he was desperate to belong to her. To try again, to let go of his pains and losses to be with her.

He’d taken his heart from his chest and shown it to her, offered her the most vulnerable piece of him he could, and even without her heart Belle looked so broken to see and know his pain. Pain, their last visit here was painful to think about but it was worth it. Belle made everything worth it, every ounce of pain endured was worth it. She deserved her life. Their child deserved it too.

He took the crystal out with trembling hands. He promised. Whatever it takes to get her back. To save their child. Whatever it takes.

It hovered between his hands, glowing with power that he could feel pulsing through it. He extended his arms, putting it out in front of him. He took a shaky breath.

“I’m sorry I won’t get to see you, Bae,” he whispered. “But I love you.”

Another breath. He closed his eyes, listening to the wood around him. Belle’s eyes. Her dimples. The scent of her skin. Her voice. Her books.

“Belle…” One last breath, and let the crystal plunge into his heart.

The pain that shot through him latched onto every nerve in his body and throttled it. The curse shrieked  at the sudden onslaught and vanished from him, leaving him mortal in his last moments, the pain worse.

Then the stinking weight of his body was gone, fallen to the forest floor with the crystal landing with a thud.

He was floating, free, unbound, and fading. It wasn’t the greatest of feelings, but at least there wouldn’t be any pain and torture like the last time. No paradise either, but how could expect that after the life he’d led?

It was okay. It was okay to give up any speck of a chance at a happy ending. Villains don’t get happy endings. Death and all its emptiness -sweet, sweet nothing- wrapped itself around him and pulled him in, submerging him in its pool.

In his last seconds of existence, he regretted never knowing his child’s name.

And then he was gone.

~*~

Maurice had received the text from that damned demon, not entirely knowing what he meant by his words or where he might be off to, but he was gone. He would leave his daughter alone and that despicable enchantment he had over her would fade. No longer would she be running after that beast, full of ideas about heroism and domesticity with such a vile creature. Now she would be with him, at home, where she belonged. Even with Gaston dead he could find her a much more suitable man in this town. Anyone was better than The Dark One.

He stepped into the shop cautiously, eyeing the cane resting on the counter like a warning for him entering there, a reminder of what happens when the coward was unhappy. He wondered how many times he’d taken that to his daughter.

Pushing the curtain aside he saw her lying there, breaths deep and slow. “You’re free now,” he said quietly, standing beside the cot. “You’ve nothing to hold you back now, Belle. Nothing to be afraid of now.” He started to bend to kiss her head and wake her--

Belle gasped awake, sitting up fast and clutching her chest, looking around wildly.

“Belle! Belle, it’s alright, you’re safe!” Mo assured, touching her shoulder. He hadn’t kissed her, how was she awake?

“Where’s Rumple?” She asked, her breaths still quick, and she hardly looked at him. The caring vanished from his expression in an instant. “Rumple? Rumple!” She called, moving to get up. He stopped her.

“He’s gone, Belle,” he said, the affection gone from his voice as well. “He can’t harm you anymore, he’s gone for good.”

She stopped, looking up at him. What could that mean? ‘Gone for good’? Rumple was the Dark One he couldn’t just die, not unless he was killed with the dagger. She shook her head, not understanding. “What...what do you mean? Where did he go-?” An envelope with her name written across it in Rumple’s swirling scrawl fell to the floor. She snatched it up before her father could, tearing it open.

There was a dreadful feeling in the back of her throat, nesting there like bile, and it wasn’t from the baby. Something was horribly wrong, wrong enough that her heart was stinging and she’d woken from her sleep without her father touching her. She could tell that much by his expression when she woke.

The words he’d written her flew in front of her eyes, which steadily filled with more tears that fell down flushed cheeks. “N-no,” she stammered. “No, no, he can’t be…”

My dearest Belle,

Nothing would have made me happier than being with you for all my life. Raising our child, and perhaps even more children, would have given me that happy ending I’d always dreamed about having with you. I know how often and how much I disappointed you, and I couldn’t let you down again this time. You told me to do anything and everything I could to save our child, and wake you. This was the only option left.

Your father would not wake you unless I was ‘gone for good’ and by now I certainly am. The weapon I’m using will not let me come back this time. No deals, no trips to the Underworld or anywhere else can bring me back from the death I am about to experience. Know it was worth it, my sweet. I do not regret this decision, please do not think I did. I love you. I have always, and will always, love you.

Please tell our child about me. Whether it be good or bad things, please let them know that I didn’t leave them because I wanted to. I would never abandon my child, never again, please let them know that. I wish I could have seen them, and known whether they have your eyes or your smile. I don’t mind whether they look like me or not, jus so long as they are healthy and happy.

Every property I own is now yours. Sell anything you’d like should you need to. There’s enough so you and our child will never want for anything. My will is in the safe in case anyone attempts to dispute that.

I have caused you so much pain. I’ve broken your heart and let so many horrific things befall you because of my carelessness, my greed or my pride, and I know I’m hurting you again by doing this. I’m so sorry. For every time you questioned whether or not you were my first priority, that I loved you less than something else, that life with you would never be enough for me. Gods, Belle, I am so sorry for every second you spent in pain because of me.

My kiss couldn’t wake you in the Underworld, and maybe that means our love isn’t as true as we thought, and for that I am again  so sorry. But I do know I have never loved as fiercely as I’ve loved you.

Wherever I may be, know that my heart will always be yours. Have your adventures, Belle. Live your life with all your freedom and nothing to hold you back. Show our child the world, both in pages and reality. Be the hero I know you are, and know that whatever guilt you may feel for anything that’s happened, it’s alright. There’s nothing to forgive and please don’t think I’m simply being too kind.

I’m glad you chipped that cup.

Now, and for all the future yours,

Rumplestiltskin

P.S. I wish we could have danced one more time.

She broke down sobbing, hugging the papers to her chest, shaking her head. “He can’t be, he can’t be gone!”

“Belle-” Maurice reached for his daughter and she jerked away, standing.

“Maybe I’m not too late. Maybe. I have to go.” She bolted out the door, clutching her stomach, barely registering to grab her coat and the keys to Rumple’s car, which took multiple attempts to start before she peeled out of the drive and headed toward the woods.

Trembling all over, praying hard and begging the universe that this hadn’t happened yet, that she could still save him and tell him everything she’d kept locked up in her heart for so long. Her father was the last thing on her mind and she didn’t notice him following her, nor did she care.

She knew exactly where Rumple would go to do this, what he would want to see before he-

Eyes blurred with tears she hurtled herself out of  the car and rushed through the trail, ducking around tree branches, tearing her tights on brambles  and she didn’t stop until she saw the well. And not ten feet from it, Rumple’s body.

“NO!”

She screamed, dropping to her knees beside him and lifting him into her arms. “Rumple? Rumple, wake up. Wake up!”

Approaching footsteps vaguely reminded her of Father’s presence, but she didn’t look up. She shook her husband a little, tapping his face. “Rumple, open your eyes. Wake up, Rumple, you can’t be gone. You can’t-” She kissed him, waiting for something to change, for his face to regain color, for his limbs to warm, for his breath to start up again. Nothing. “Please!” She kissed him again, crying harder each time it failed. “Wake up! Wake up now! You can’t leave me, Rumple, you have to meet our baby!”

“Baby?” Moe blinked, taking a step back.

“You have to meet your child, PLEASE!” She screamed. “YOU WAKE UP RIGHT NOW!”

She grabbed the dagger that had fallen beside him, holding it tight. “Dark One, I command you, wake up!”

But he was still. The sun filtered through the leaves, splashing his silver-brown hair with color and warmth that didn’t reach his face. He looked younger, unburdened, empty.

Belle shook her head, hugging him to her chest and rocking with him while she cried. “No, no, no, Rumple please! You can’t leave me, not again. Not again, I love you! I love you, please come back! Please come back… We-we have to raise our baby, we, we need to dance again. Please wake up so we can dance,” she begged, crying into his hair.

She didn’t know how long she stayed like that before her father spoke.

“Belle...come on, let’s get away from here. You can’t stay like that.”

Belle looked at the hand stretched out to her, still clinging to Rumple’s body, her agonized eyes filling with fire. “What did you say to him?” She asked in a low, almost growling, voice.

“What?” He frowned.

“You said something to him, he told me!” She held up the letter, glowering at him. “That, that you wouldn’t kiss me awake unless he was ‘gone for good?’ Is that true?”

“Belle, I-”

“IS IT TRUE?!” She screamed. In a black corner behind her, the darkness that had left Rumplestiltskin rippled.

“...Yes. It’s true,” he admitted.

“How dare you-!”

“How dare I?” He snarled. “How dare you! Being so fucking blind to his villainy, trailing after him like some lost little girl, letting him use you and manipulate you! I know his temper, Belle, I know he put his hands on you, he hit you!”

Belle’s scowl deepened. She carefully rested Rumple back on the ground and stood, still holding the dagger. “He never put a hand on me. He loved me. Rumple was not a monster, not once, not ever. He didn’t bewitch me into loving him, I just did. I loved everything about him, dark or light. I wanted to be with him, I chose to marry him and dedicate my life together with him! You were there! You walked me down the aisle!”

“That doesn’t mean I was happy about it! My foolish daughter off on another fantasy of fixing and saving monsters. You would rather be with that demon than a human man, than Gaston!”

“Gaston was a real villain!” She cried, gripping the dagger tighter. The curse perked up again, readying itself. “He was the monster, and so are you! You wouldn’t take me out of that horrible curse because of who I loved? Do you know what kind of place you’re trapped in under a sleeping curse? Do you?! I do! Firsthand and it’s worse than Hell! You-you forced my true love’s hand-”

“His kiss didn’t work, he wasn’t your true love. I can’t believe you’re this delusional-”

“ENOUGH!” She cried. “He is dead because of you! He’s gone where I can’t follow him, where I can’t bring him back so he can meet his baby!”

“That demon spawn needs to be dealt with,” he snarled, gesturing to her stomach. “Nothing good can come from that man, nothing!”

“I SAID ENOUGH!”

The Darkness came out of its hiding place, frightening the girl’s father so much he staggered back and fell to the ground at his daughter’s feet.

“Belle, behind you!”

She didn’t move, she could feel it. The dagger was buzzing in her hand and she held it in front of her face, boiling with rage. “You want to see a demon, Father?” She asked, a cruel tint to her eyes, a sharp edge of pure anger and hatred in her face. “I will show you one.”

“Belle, no-!”

The Darkness swarmed her, twisting around her and the dagger, enveloping her body, then weaving into her soul, binding her to it, bones and all. She was surprised it didn’t hurt. When it settled she hadn’t disappeared like Emma had, but the dagger bore her name.

Never had she felt so strong, so capable, so utterly unafraid of herself, of her ability, of anything. For the first time in a very long time, Belle knew exactly what she wanted right at this moment. “There, Father,” she said softly, her eyes already changing into an eerily bright blue. “Now you have a monster. Shall I act like one?”

Every tug to manipulate her into the mold he wanted, every harsh, passive aggressive sentence made about her reading, her dress, her habits, her stance, her weight, her makeup, her hair, every single solitary moment he controlled her and used her for his own advantage, and when he sold her to Gaston all flooded her mind as she strode toward him, scowling deeply.

“This child is mine,” she hissed. “My love is still mine. And I won’t let you take anything else away from me!”

Before Moe could protest his daughter’s fist plunged into his chest, gripping his heart tight. She shook her head, sneering at him. “I wish it would have been you instead of Mother,” she spat, tearing his heart clean from his chest and crushing it in her hand without a second thought.

The dust fell between her fingers and she stood there a moment, swaying, the adrenaline still coursing through her. She touched her stomach, suddenly panicked about what the curse might do.

“Don’t worry, dearie, it’s fine!”  She spun around, facing The Darkness, who had taken Rumple’s form from the Forest. She let out a soft breath, swallowing the lump in her throat. “We can only possess one adult soul at a time, as it turns out. No Dark One fetus, I assure you!”

She continued to stare, looking between the figure in front of her and the body on the ground. “Didn’t he tell you about this part?” He asked. “Seeing things like me? Well, it varied a little for him, but eventually it was me.” He giggled. “I’ll take your silent gawking as a no.”

“What- I don’t understand,” she whispered, still looking. “He...You’re gone.”

“I’m not Rumplestiltskin, dearie. I just took the form I thought you’d like the most. I was right, wasn’t I?” He grinned, taking a step forward that she quickly backed away from. He chuckled. “I’m the Darkness,  dearie. The voice. A...guide so to speak to all your fun new abilities. This is new to me too, don’t worry. Never been absorbed willingly like that before. Just to do your Papa in, how delicious.”

“He threatened my child,” she whispered. “He killed my husband.”

“Actually he did that himself, I was there. Too bad I got out first!” He laughed again, and she wished it didn’t relax her to hear Rumple’s voice. “But, oh well. He always was a bit of a fool, hm?”

“You know everything about him, you even act like him, so…”

“Just an idea of him. A template, see. Why, is it comforting?”

“Yes,” she said softly, swallowing her fear. Belle rushed to him, throwing her arms around his neck, finding him solid only because she willed it so.

He stiffened, cocking his brow at her before finally placing a hand on her back. “I’m not him, Belle.”

“You’re the closest I have,” she grunted, feeling her skin change after what she’d done. “And I can’t get him back now.”

With the curse came knowledge almost instantaneously, and she knew his soul was gone. Not even the Underworld could have him now.

“Now why do you say that, dearie?” The apparition asked, stepping back and holding her shoulders.

“Because...h-his soul is gone,” she said softly.

The Darkness giggled, shaking his head. “Not quite!” He pointed to her stomach. She frowned, opening her mouth to ask a question but he kept talking, cutting her off. “There’s still a way, Belle. But it’s not going to be fun for you, or anyone else for that matter.”

“Whatever I have to do. I’ll do anything,” she swore, overwrought.

He giggled again, clapping this time. “I love it when they say that!”

“What do I do first?” She asked, refusing to let her emotions settle for too long. She’d break down again if she did, and the rage is what she needed to stay focused on.

“First, you should likely put him in stasis before he starts stinking, hm?” He laughed, pointing at Rumple, which in turn caused Belle to do the same, magic pouring from her fingertip and over her husband. She swallowed.

“And now?”

He grinned, circling her. “Now’s the fun part. Who do you want revenge on, Belle? Who else led your valiant little spinner to this untimely end?”

Kidnapped, used, abused, taunted, prodded, beaten, threatened, starved, bound, blamed, blackmailed, ignored, accused. She caused it all, it’s her fault any of this happened in the first place!

Belle’s eyes darkened again, the whites turning a darker shade of gray while the irises stayed bright blue. “Emma.”

“Then Emma is your first step bringing him back,” he smiled. “If you’re up to it.”

“I am,” she swallowed, then looked at him. “Why me? Why not go find someone like Zelena or, or someone else that might want you?”

The apparition came up behind her, pressing against her and speaking into her ear. “Because, dearie. I know how to recognize a desperate soul.”

Chapter Text

Power was never something Belle sought. Having internal strength was just as important as showing it outwardly. Acquiring some political power to control people is something she never wanted either, and as her time as a princess she never once abused her position. Even when Rumple had given her permission to use the ‘dagger’ on him and carry it around was too much for her to handle.

Having a curse this strong pump through her was entirely brand new. She felt the flex of her arm could overturn an ocean, a crick of her head and the world would fall apart. She felt alive...and like she was burning away. Like the longer she held this in her the more of her life she was burning up. A candle with a fuse rather than a wick.

“Don’t fight it,” the apparition of her husband reminded her, taloned hands on her shoulders. “Feel it. Let it flow through you. It’s part of you, Belle. A tool for your whim that you can extend at your leisure. You will only burst if you let it consume you. Harness it, find a path in you for it, and let it go.”

Belle took a deep breath in, finding that part of her that held her anger and her fears. She didn’t have much to be angry about, but still, she let the darkness, flow there and back around like a river of tar.

“There…” He grinned, clapping giddily. “You are a fast learner, aren’t you? You’re quite good at this.”

Belle looked beyond the two of them in the mirror above the dresser, to where Rumplestiltskin lay, motionless and pale. “I’m only doing this for him.”

“That’s what they all say,” he grinned. “That’s what your spinner said! Once I was in there, of course. He’d no idea what he was in for, bless him.”

Belle frowned. “What do you mean?”

He waved it off. “That part comes later. Right now, what you need to do is get a taste of vengeance.”

“I...I’m not sure I want to kill Emma,” she remarked.

“Oh,, no, no, no, dearie!” He said, giving a gesture of mock offense. “I would never ask that of you. Besides, you kind’ve broke the seal on killing with your Papa, hm?” She squared her shoulders, ready to retaliate. “Ah! Not that you need to regret it. I certainly don’t.”

“So what do I have to do to her?” She asked, confused. “If not harm her?”

“Words, little Belle. Words. You’re an avid worshipper of them if I’m remembering correctly, and I always am,” he gave a little bob of his head. “You know how to use them better than anyone. They are your solace, use them as your weapon.”

“You want me to what, call her names?” She frowned.

“No!” He said sharply, suddenly in front of her. “I want you to make her feel as sorry as you want her to feel with your words . Show her how you hurt, show her the pain she’s caused you and the spinner. And make sure anyone important to her can hear it.”

“And then?” She asked, seeing the addition in his eyes.

He grinned. “And then, you give her this.”

He held out a small glass vial, triangular in shape with markings on the side she understood. “‘Blood of the shamed’? You’re not serious.”

“Do you want him back or not?” He huffed, turning her so she was looking at him. The lump grew in her throat and she snatched the bottle back.

“Stop asking me that.” She walked away from him, going to the bed.

“Then don’t make me repeat it!” He said in his sing-song tone, flitting his fingers about.

Belle sat on the edge of the bed, tucking the blanket around Rumple a little more. Sleeping. Just sleeping until she could wake him. “You deserve to live,” she whispered, swallowing and looking around one of the dozens of bedrooms in the Apprentice’s home. This one happened to be where they’d spent their honeymoon.

She slid her fingers through his hair, the icy temperature of his skin making her shudder. Dead. He was just...dead. It wasn’t like when the Apprentice put him in stasis. He was warm then, chest rising and falling rhythmically. His eyes even moved beneath their lids every now and then.

This was ice. Empty, frozen, barren. This wasn’t her husband anymore… Would this even be worth it?

“Belle.”

His voice, the one outside the forest, spoke her name and she looked around. The apparition changed, a mirror image of the man dead beside her. He was kneeling beside the bed, looking up at her with those pleading brown eyes “I know it’s hard, sweetheart, but it’s worth it. After all we’ve been through, what you’ve been through, don’t we deserve happiness?”

Belle’s eyes overflowed with tears almost immediately, her hands shakily cupping his face. “This is a horrible thing you’re doing,” she hissed, feeling the warmth of his body under her palms, the color in his face. It wasn’t real, it was her own will, her own want and the Darkness taking advantage of that.

“You want to see me like this again, don’t you?” He breathed. She nodded weakly, swallowing roughly.

“Of course I do.”

“All I’m doing is reminding you of that,” the Darkness reminded, turning his face into her palm and pressing a delicate kiss there.

“What’s in it for you?” She croaked. “Are you using me? Are you, you tricking me into, into something horrible?”

“That’s not what I do,” he sighed, skin slowly changing right before her eyes, and she was grateful for it. “If I was, you would know. I know everything about you, you know everything about me. I can’t keep a secret from you, dearie,” he chuckled.

“Why are you helping me do this?” She whispered, letting her hands fall away when he looked as he had before.

“Because I miss the Spinner as much as you do!” He giggled. “No Dark One has ever lasted as long as he has, and he’s so…special.”

Belle looked back at the real Rumple, swallowing.

“So I… I get this blood from Emma, and then what?”

“Then we keep putting him back together!” He giggled.

“Back together?” She croaked.

“We have the base for his soul, dearie, but the rest? We have to put together. We have to gather up all the things that make your spinner who he is, put it all together and bring him back!” He explained, flitting his hands around and finally lifting her chin with his fingertips.

“It’s not going to be easy, dearie,” he said in a low voice. “In fact it may break you into teeny pieces. But putting a soul back together is no easy feat.”

“Has anyone ever done it before?” She whispered.

“Once. Eons ago, Merlin tried. For who I don’t know, but it worked. After that? Anyone and everyone that’s tried has failed entirely. Either driven mad or killed by it.”

“What makes you think I can do it?” She frowned, tone accusing. He laughed.

“I know you, Belle, remember? I know how hard you try, how determined you are. Nothing will stop you from doing this.”

“And the baby will be safe?” She asked quietly.

“Of course! No harm will come to the child.”

Belle swallowed, eyes downcast. “What if I can’t do it?”

“You can, Belle. Much as it disgusts me, your love for him can do anything.”

She swallowed and stood, the fire igniting in her eyes again.

“I’m ready,” she nodded.

“Not dressed like that you’re not!” He grinned, waving his hand, Belle moving with him unconsciously.

A plume of smoke engulfed her, and when it was gone she was standing in a long black coat that stopped at the back of her knees, tastefully tattered and shredded, much like the deep blue dress tightly wrapped around her torso and loose from the waist down. Her heels were black as pitch and violent in their own right. Her hair was pinned to one side in an elegant but disheveled style, eyes outlined in charcoal that made her unnatural eyes all the more terrifying, her lips painted dark red. She felt stronger already, far more confident than she had in the blouse and skirt she’d been wearing.

“See? Better?”

Belle nodded, looking at the wedding ring that had also reappeared on her hand. She swallowed. “Yeah. Yes, I’m...ready now.”

He grinned. “Then let’s show these heroes what you can do.”

~*~

“What the Hell?”

Emma stood, walking to the nearest window of the diner and yanking the blinds up, a frown pinching her brow.

The sudden camera bulb flashes of light had drawn her, and everyone else, to the windows, looking outside at the imminent storm. Lightning, as it were, flashed in rapid succession, wind swirling leaves with such strength they tore and disintegrated in the air as they were swept up.  A clap of thunder broke through the wind whistles so violently it  shook the building and cracked the asphalt.

“Another twister?” Regina suggested, frowning out at the night that had turned so drastically.

“It wasn’t me,” Zelena scoffed.

“Then what-?”

Another thunderous crash of metal on stone cut Regina off as every parked car on the street flipped over on its head by some unseen force. Regina threw her arm out in front of Henry, fire igniting in her other hand, readying herself for a potential fight.

“What is it, another curse?” Snow asked, confused, protectively holding the back of baby Neal’s head.

“The dwarf isn’t running around screaming about it, so I don’t think so,” Regina said flatly, hastily scanning the street and missing the glare from Leroy.

The streetlamps burst, the power dying on the rest of the street and Emma stalked to the front of the restaurant, ripping the door open.

“Emma!” Killian grabbed her arm to hold her back. “We don’t know what the hell is out there, you can’t just-”

“Mom…?” Henry said, squinting out into the dark before Emma’s agitated response could come out. “Is that...Belle?”

No sooner had her name left his mouth, the streetlight just outside flickered back to life, revealing Henry’s hypothesis to be entirely true. Directly beneath it, Belle. Her clothes were torn and dark, hair blowing wildly around her face while her eyes glowed like a nocturnal being suddenly caught in the light. And they were looking right at Emma.

“Bloody hell; what’s happened to her?” Killian balked. Emma shook her head, not looking away from her. “Did the Crocodile do this to her?”

“Why and how would he do that?” Regina asked, shooting the back of Killian’s head a fierce glare.

“I don’t fucking know but you don’t just turn up like that, now do you?” He bit back. Henry frowned.

“She’s looking right at me,” Emma whispered, caught in some sort of trance, like a rodent caught in the eye of a serpent. The others quieted, following her gaze.

“What does she want?” Henry asked quietly, looking between his mother and grandmother.

“I don’t know,” Emma whispered. “But it-” She jumped a little, having blinked, and Belle was gone.

“I think she might want some answers.”

Emma whipped around with everyone else, quickly putting herself in front of everyone else. Belle was even more terrifying up close, all signs of the sweet, gentle librarian vanished from her eyes.  A familiar feeling crept over her, one that squeezed her insides and injected them with ice. The glint of the light caught the metal of the dagger in Belle’s hand. She felt it whispering to her, reminding her of what she had once been and that her desire for it had not abated as she thought. It hissed and tempted her,  making her scalp tingle. She fought a shiver, still looking at the blade. Rumplestiltskin’s name was gone, and Belle’s had replaced it. “Belle,” She said cautiously, holding her hands out in a neutral surrender. “I don’t know what happened to you, and I don’t know how you got your name on that, but-”

“Why would you care?” Belle demanded, smiling a twisted grin. “When have any of you ever cared about me unless it directly affected you, hm?”

“Belle, you’re family-” Henry tried. She held up her hand, smirk deepening.

“No. No, see, I know you don’t think of me or Rumple as family. Family doesn’t leave family in the Underworld without even bothering to see if they’re alright. You all left without me! Knowing I was under a sleeping curse, most of you knowing what hell that is. You left!” She laughed, shaking her head. “No. No, Rumple is the only person out of all of you who cares about me.”

“That’s not true,” Regina said firmly, hands clenched into fists. Belle’s smile disappeared, gaze locking onto Regina’s face.

“You do not get to speak about wanting my happiness,” she said in a low voice. “You, who tried to trick me into stealing Rumple’s power so you would be the strongest wielder of dark magic in the Enchanted Forest. You, who kidnapped me, locked me in a tower, beat me, tortured me, and left me under the watch of a man you knew couldn’t keep his hands to himself. You, who trapped me in an asylum for thirty years, beating me again when you needed a punching bag, getting joy out of my being denied a blanket, a mattress, a pillow, meals, showers. You delighted in my suffering and Rumple’s for so long. My happiness, my well-being, has never been your concern.”

“Belle,” Regina said with a quiet plea. “What I did to you was wrong, and nothing I can say can make up for that. But it, it was a long time ago, I’m a different person now.”

Belle laughed, shaking her head. “So, ripping my heart out last year to intimidate Rumple, that was a different person?”

“Regina!” Snow balked, staring at her.

“Don’t look so surprised, Mary Margaret! It’s going around. I’m always the pawn in everyone’s game to hurt him, aren’t I? Right, Killian?” She glowered, nostrils flaring. “Isn’t that why you put a gun to my face on your ship? Isn’t that why you struck me unconscious in that tower? Why you shot me and made me forget who I was?”

“Hang on, love, that was before-”

“You started dating Emma? Right, your girlfriend doesn’t like to see your misdeeds, so you keep them from her. I know you beat Will before. I know you threatened Rumple with me, again. Threatened to hurt me. But it’s alright! If Emma does it, then it must be okay, hm?”

Belle settled back on Emma. “But I can deal with you later. Right now, Savior, I want to hear what you have to say.” She stepped closer to her, a wave of energy coming from her that moved everyone else back and kept them from her, an invisible barrier between them all.

“I thought you of all people wouldn’t be part of it. Someone who saw the complications of human decision, of how things might not be the best moral action but the way to get the right thing done. Someone who didn’t have the same stigmas as everyone else about Rumple because you came from this world. This cynical, amoral world.” She shook her head. “Couldn’t be more wrong, hm? The so-called Savior kidnapped my husband, woke him from stasis and then used him. Bound him, forced him to stand when doing so was unbearably painful, starved him, mocked his weakness. All to make another pawn in your little game.”

“Belle, I was cursed, just like you-”

“And? I don’t remember Rumple doing that to you. Any of you. I suppose using Killian’s heart to control him counts on some level, but we know how dark your heart really is, Killian, don’t we? Hunting Rumple to avenge your real true love, playing lackie to Pan and handing Neal over to him because he wouldn’t do what you wanted.” Emma stared at Killian, who fumbled for a response before pointing his hook at Belle.

“She’s got that demon inside of her, how can we believe-”

“Shut the fuck up.” She twisted her hand, choking off his words, taking his voice.

Belle was eerily calm now, turning back to Emma. “Rumple made you who you are, Emma. Made sure your parents were together so you would be born, gave you the power you had to break the curse. Without him? No Henry either. Who knows who you would have been, if anyone at all, without him. Your happy ending and nearly everyone else’s is owed to him. But sure. He’s the monster and I’m the stupid little girl trailing after him.”

“He’s not innocent, Belle, you have to know that,” Snow said softly, trying to get through to her. Belle didn’t even look her way.

“I know that. He admits it. Unlike you all.”

Emma swallowed, looking down at Belle more surely. “Belle, I’m sorry. I am. But this, the curse, it’s feeding on your anger. I don’t know how it got in you, but-”

“Rumple is dead,” she said flatly.

The room rippled with hard silence, the tension heightening immediately.

“If, if he died and you’re…” Charming asked, hands on Mary Margaret’s shoulders. “Doesn’t that mean you…?”

“You think I murdered my true love to take the curse from him?” She asked flatly, her cold gaze on him now.

“We don’t know what to think,” Snow said, trying to reason with her. “This isn’t like you, Belle, how can we know anything you’d do right now?”

Her eyes flicked to Snow. “It doesn’t matter. Nothing you think of me matters anymore. I see you all for what you really are, and you’ll pay.” She nodded, speaking more to herself now. “All of you, for what you did.” She looked up at Emma again. “You first, Savior.”

Emma swallowed. “What do you want?”

Belle smiled and held up the vial the Darkness had given her.

“Good, Belle,” he said softly into her ear, hands on her shoulders. His warmth kept her grounded, reminded her of what she was doing and why. “Very, very good.”

“I need your blood,” she said quietly.

“My blood? What the hell for?” Emma frowned.

“Did I question you going into Camelot? Stopping Zelena? Fighting the Snow Queen?” She retorted, her smile sickly sweet and dangerous. “I’ll get it either way, whether I have to take it or you volunteer it.”

“Emma…” Regina warned,, shaking her head.

“Fine. Fine, I’ll give it if you leave.” Belle merely smirked. Emma sighed, taking a knife off one of the tables and cut her arm, letting Belle hold her while the blood filled the little bottle.

“Thank you,” she said with another twisting smile, shoving the cork into it when it was full and stepping back. “If you all know what’s good for you, stay away from me.”

“Belle,” Leroy said, breaking from the crowd. “This isn’t you. You’re kind and good. Whatever this is is the curse, not you.”

“You’re right,” she said simply, tucking the blood inside her jacket. “It isn’t me. If it were, no one would have to answer for what they’ve done. Meek little Belle in her library until someone needs her little brain to fix their problems. Not anymore. With luck, never again.” She looked around, smiling at their horrified faces, The Darkness still at her back. “Bye-bye, dearies.”

She vanished in a whirlwind of midnight smoke.

When it cleared, the lights came back on and the storm retreated as suddenly as it had come, leaving them all standing there, dazed, while the jukebox played a too-joyful song for the current mood.

Regina looked to Emma, breaking the silence. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“Nothing would’ve stopped her from taking it,” she said quietly. “She’s too desperate right now to get through to her, so why cause more trouble by fighting her?”

“So that makes it okay?” Charming scoffed. “What does she want with it anyway?”

“I have an idea,” Regina said quietly. “And if it’s what I think it is? We’re all in trouble.”

~*~

Belle reappeared in the mansion, setting the blood down roughly on the table and shrugging out of her coat.

“Excellent work, dearie,” the Dark One giggled behind her. “Though I did hope you might rip her throat out.”

“I thought about it,” she admitted.

“I’m proud of you,” he said quietly. “You’re one step closer to bringing him back.” He stepped up behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist. Belle sighed, melting back into him, tears springing into her eyes. He was warm like him, his skin smelled like him, his voice, his touch, just as Rumple’s were. An illusion; her imagination projecting all of this onto the entity, but it was all she had.  

“You’re just saying that to get me to do more dark magic.”

“Well, sure, but using dark magic is the only way to do this!” He giggled.  

“Of course,” she breathed.

“You’re saving your husband, your true love, the father of your child, Belle.” He goaded. She nodded weakly, staring at herself in the mirror. “Is there a more noble cause?”

“Saving your son, maybe,” she whispered, glancing back at her Rumple now, his motives for taking the curse to begin with finally sinking in fully.

“Perhaps,” he agreed, gently petting her hair.

Belle turned and hugged him, desperate for the contact and familiarity after all of this mess. She closed her eyes, running her fingers through his hair. “What do I do now?” She asked without letting go.  

“We gather the pieces to your puzzle,” he said quietly, voice a little stiff, unused to this entirely. “Significant tokens from his past embedded with bits of his soul. And...you’ll need his memories.”

She looked up at him, confused. “His memories? How?”

He waved his hand, and so did she, in tandem, the crystal ball appearing in her palm. “A little conduit and my knowledge of him. You have to know everything, Belle. Good and bad, and there’s a great deal more bad than good. Every moment of his life is right here,” he tapped his temple. “And once you know it, it’ll go in here.”

She swallowed. “Where do we start?” She breathed, trying to prepare herself for the centuries Rumple had endured. The Darkness pulled her into an embrace this time, as if actually attempting to soothe her.

“The beginning,” he whispered. “And you aren’t going to like it.”

Belle looked into the mirror again, seeing Rumple’s cold, still form once again. She took a deep breath. “I’m ready.”

Chapter Text

“Shh, shh, I know. I know.” A woman with soft, fine golden hair held the tiny babe to her breast, her skin sallow, her grip weak. The baby couldn’t have been more than two, and he was already too small, too fragile. He looked as if he were made of glass and a stiff wind may well do him in. He looked stronger than the mother, but only by a breath. He cried helplessly, squirming in discomfort despite how his mother tried to appease him.

Each movement for her seemed painful, each breath a miracle, and her baby didn’t seem far behind her. She rocked him a little, closing her eyes at each tormented sob her son gave.

The little one slid fingers through her hair and twined a fist into her shirt, as if those little tugs would ease him, as if there were anything she could do for him. The mother smoothed her hand through his hair, cupping his cheek and smiling at him through her own pain, shaking her head at him. “Come now, Rumplestiltskin, it’s alright,” she said in a wavering voice. “Here, shh…” She took a faded piece of silk from beside the bed she was contained to, gently rubbing it against his cheek. “Papa will be back soon. He’ll have food for you, sweetheart. I know he will.”

Rumple turned his head into the soft cloth, suckling on the cloth, finding taste but no real nutrients. It sustained him enough, and the familiar texture on his face offered him a small form of comfort. He continued to sniffle, but the frail crying had stopped.

“There, see?” She smiled. “There’s my brave boy.” He blinked his big brown eyes up at her, smiling a little at the praise. “You remember, Rumple, there’s nothing on this earth you can’t do, you hear me?” He cooed softly. She looked out the window, out at the stars. “I keep wishing the fairies will come,” she smiled. “And they will. They’ll help us, Rumple. Fairies always come to those who need them most.”

Rumple pressed his cheek against his mother’s chest, still sucking on the cloth, staring out at the stars his mother wished on every night. She rubbed his back, the blankets pulled up around them. Her quiet, thoughtful child who only spoke when he needed to. Intelligence and recognition beyond his years had been in his eyes since he’d began to walk. Even if he was too small, too fragile looking, she knew he would be great. He would be loving and kind and smarter than anything.

And what’s more, her boy would be just fine...without her.

She whispered her wishes to the fairies to spare her baby, to come and grant them some relief from this hunger and her own plaguing illness that kept her breasts bone dry. Rumple was beyond that in age, but it would have been something for him.

The babe only knew his mother this way, and he believed every word about the fairies, that they would come and they would help. They always did to those who needed them, wasn’t that right?

The little one fell asleep with the stars in his eyes, and he only woke again when the steady beat of his mother’s heart had stilled.

“Mama?”

She looked like she was asleep, but her skin was cold. He set the cloth aside, jostling her a little. “Mama!” He said more urgently. “Mama, up! Mama!”

He began to wail, shaking her in his little hands, touching her face. “Mama! Mama!”

He hugged her tight while he cried, wishing in his broken babble that the fairies would bring Mama back to him, that they would let her wake up and get better and they could play and laugh and sing like they used to. Like she’d talked about doing for so long.

Eventually his little voice gave out and he lied on her stomach, tears seeping into her gown and the blankets while he held the cloth in his little hand. “Mama, Mama, Mama…” Hunger was forgotten now, a sickening feeling in his little belly and a weakness having settled over him he couldn’t fight anymore. Perhaps he would join Mama wherever she’d gone.  That deep sleep she wouldn’t wake up from. That would be nice.

The door opened and he jumped, but otherwise didn’t move, clinging to Mama’s cold body.

Aethelthryth?”

Rumple hadn’t heard Papa’s voice in so long it took him a moment to recognize it. He looked up at him, sniffling a little but was otherwise still. Malcolm rushed forward, touching her face and shaking her a little. “Aethelthryth, hey. Hey, come on, don’t leave me here with…” He looked at the child, his child that he never asked for, wasting away and needing more care than he knew he was capable of.

“Gods above,” he grunted, picking Rumple up, feeling his bones in his hands and looking at how the clothes hung off his body. “I never meant for this to happen,” he whispered, hugging him to him on instinct, lost. He pushed a bottle of milk from the bag he’d brought into Rumple’s hands, holding him while he drank and clung to the silk scarf, Aethelthryth’s only valuable besides the locket at her throat, which he took.

“Mama,” Rumple breathed, looking up at his father with teary eyes.

“She’s gone, son,” he whispered, looking at her lifeless body. “She’s gone. And we have to go too.” He shoved whatever essentials into a bag, mostly clothes for Rumple and his own things, walking out into the cold sun with him.

Rumple whimpered at the light, reaching over Papa’s shoulder for Mama. But she was long gone, too far away for him to ever reach again. They walked quickly through the village, milk finally filling his belly, the cloth all he ever had of his mother.

“Such a shame, isn’t it, dearie?” The Darkness hissed into Belle’s ear as she watched Malcolm and Rumple walk away from the little hut. “A sickly mother that could have shown him all the love in the world dies in his arms. Terrible luck your husband has, hm?”

Belle wiped her face free of tears. “Yes. I can see that.”

“Good,” The Darkness kissed her damp cheek. “Then wake up.”

~*~

Belle gasped awake from the trance, looking around the library of the Apprentice’s home, the crystal ball still in a vise in her hand. She looked at it, watching a plume of black smoke cloud it, emitting from her fingertips.

She sniffled and wiped her face. “That was horrible.”

“You haven’t seen anything yet, Belle,” the Dark One informed. “That was just the beginning. We have to go through everything to get your twoo wuv back in his entirety.”

“So now I, I need…The cloth?” She asked, her head still swimming. His suffering had started so early. Why couldn’t he have happiness, just for awhile? For more than a handful of months or weeks or even days before the next blow to his heart came.

“There’s the clever girl,” he grinned.

“Would, would Rumple still have it? After all this time… There’s been centuries for him to lose it,” she said, running a hand over her face in frustration.

“He kept his son’s shawl for that long, what makes this any different?” He asked.  “Come now, Belle, you know every inch of that shop, that house. You haven’t seen it anywhere?” The Darkness was hinting, toying with her, forcing her to think rather than just telling her.

She huffed in frustration and he giggled, standing behind her again, pressing his first two fingers of both hands against her temples, thumbing her skull and the crest of her ears. “Use that beautiful brain of yours… And… Think…” He cooed. Belle shut her eyes, finding it easier to give in to his methods than try and find her own.

The shop, the back, a large chest tucked in the corner brimming with fabric, rolled up at the bottom, faded pale blue, softer than anything, stains long set in-

She opened her eyes. “I know where it is.”

The Darkness giggled and removed his hands, waving them gleefully. “See? I told you! You just have to think. And listen to me the first time.”

“You aren’t always right, you know,” she said, gathering herself in front of a bookcase, trying to ignore how alone her reflection was and how unrecognizable she was becoming to herself.

“Mm, perhaps not,” he conceded, toying with her curls. She succumbed to his touch again, shutting her eyes to savor it, despite the doubtful hisses of another woman’s voice promising her it wasn’t real. The love wasn’t either it was all a trick, a game. Another lie to break her heart-

“Ah, ah, ah, now Belle,” her own Darkness said, turning her chin so she was looking at him. “Nimue never likes someone whose heart is brimming with love like yours, my dear. The man killed himself so you and your little one could live, remember that when she starts tickling your mind.”

Belle didn’t answer. She was already emotionally wrecked, she didn’t have time to fend off individual Dark Ones with their own motives for wanting her to perform dark magic.

She disappeared from where she was standing, reappearing in front of the chest she’d recalled and dug to the bottom. The cloth felt so fragile in her hands, and she was terrified to touch it, let alone use it in the spell.

“I don’t want to destroy it,” she said softly, unraveling it.

“So don’t! We only need a piece.”

She tore a little off, wincing as the memories, Rumple’s memories, pulsed through her just from touching it. “Emma’s blood. His mother’s cloth. The ball…” A conduit for memories as well as a tie to Jefferson. “What next?”

The Darkness clicked his tongue, giving a mock wince. “Nothing you’re going to like,” he assured, his own tone distasteful.

“What does that-?”

The bell at the front of the shop jingled, several sets of footsteps following the sound and voices filling the front room.

“-just vanished off the face of the earth. He has to be somewhere,” Regina’s voice said. Belle pressed back into the shadows, just beside one of the shelves where she couldn’t be seen. The Darkness perched on Rumple’s work table, watching Henry poke his head in and look around.

“Empty!” He called, disappearing through it again.

“No one back there either,” Snow said, apparently looking into the back room with the cot.

“How do you know Belle’s even doing that spell?” Emma asked.

“I don’t,” Regina conceded. “And I don’t even know if it can actually be done. But if there was anyone to make sure there were loopholes in his own mortality it’s him. Dark One or not, there’s always a risk.”

Belle could hear them rifling through things all over the shop, looking for something.

“What could he keep a piece of his soul in? A briefcase?” Emma asked, and a silence followed. “Right. Never seen Pulp Fiction, sorry.”

“They may take something you need if you don’t stop them,” The Darkness was suddenly right beside her, speaking in a low growl. “And you can stop them.”

“It has to be something here,” Regina continued. “There’s nothing at their house.”

Their home. Where their lives together, truly together, had begun. The home that held their bed, their clothes, their books, the memories of their love together was all in that home. Eating breakfast together, staggering drunk through the living room while he chased her, dancing gently on the back porch… These ‘heroes’ who had already violated every other aspect of Rumple’s life and hers had gone digging around in a space that was solely theirs.

She clenched her hands into fists, shaking with rage while she listened closer, barely keeping herself from going heart collecting or starting a new trend of ripping out throats. Or perhaps cutting off their hands…

The Dark One giggled, knowing what she was thinking, and crossed his legs, his head cocked as he listened with her.

“Well maybe David and Hook can find something at the Apprentice’s mansion. Maybe she took him there or has what we need there or...something,” Snow offered, her voice closer than everyone else’s. She was likely behind the counter looking through the cases as well as the extra inventory Rumple kept back there.

“Hopefully the pirate keeps his hook to himself,” Regina said distastefully.

“That’s why Dad went with him, to keep stuff like that from happening,” Emma defended quietly.

“Funny that your boyfriend needs a babysitter to make sure he behaves, huh?” Regina asked, quieting the Savior effectively.

Belle’s eyes grew, her stomach sinking as the words settled over her. Charming and Hook were going to the mansion. Rumple’s body was there, the pieces of the spell she’d already collected were there. If anything was lost, anything damaged or destroyed this would have all been for nothing. They were trying to stop her, trying to take Rumple away from her and stand in her way of doing something good, something they shouldn’t even care about if they didn’t care about Rumple or her!

The Dark One’s lips brushed against her ear. “Go get them.”

She stalked out into the shop, ignoring the surprised gasps and shouts for her to stop as she went forward, flinging Regina out of her path with a rough wave of her hand. She slammed her hand against the entrance of the shop, searing a symbol into it and effectively ejecting everyone from the premises.

One moment they were rushing to stop her, the next they were falling on the pavement outside.

She looked at them through the glass of the door, glowering at all of them while they pushed themselves up and stared on in horror. Never had they seen the librarian so feral, so vindictive in her behavior, and so angry. Belle wept when she was angry, not this.

Belle’s scowl turned to a smirk and she delicately turned the sign on the shop to ‘Closed.’ The sigil would keep them out, and she would do the same at the house soon, but for the moment she needed to keep Rumple safe.

“You’d better hurry, dearie, before that hooked monster decides to dismember your husband!” The Darkness called just as Belle waved her hand and disappeared in a plume of smoke.

~*~

“Well I will say,” Killian said, looking around the vast entryway. “I think I expected it to be a little more...I dunno, sinister.”

“Because Gold’s house is so sinister, right?” David asked. “Pink colonials filled with antiques scare you, Hook?” He was teasing lightly but there was always that edge in his tone when he spoke to him. Killian had learned to ignore it.

“The Crocodile and Belle are very different in their use of the curse,” he said, walking through the first big set of oaken doors. David pursed his lips, shining a flashlight down one of the hallways and following it to a grand set of stairs.

“You mean like you and my daughter?” He asked coolly.

Killian faltered for a moment before giving an arrogant little half-smile and turned on the staircase, spreading his arms. “And who would’ve thought the Crocodile’s missus would be the worst one of the two, eh?” He chuckled while David remained unamused.

The halls were filled with bedrooms, bathrooms, sitting rooms and everything else. It was a maze, nearly everything looking the same and if it weren’t for his own sense of direction he might’ve gotten seriously lost. At this point he wasn’t even sure what they were looking for. None of the rooms looked lived in, or as if they’d been touched in the thirty years Storybrooke had been here; what were they expected to find apart from a surprisingly dust-less atmosphere?

“Now, I know I was only the Dark One for a little while,” Hook said, pulling David from his thoughts. “But I would think this is where I’d do all my nastiest work.”

Hook was standing in front of two grand French doors made of dark wood, surrounded in ornate baroque molding. The doors themselves were pitch black, fixed with heavy bronze latches. It certainly seemed a place a Dark One would go.

“Wouldn’t Belle do most of her business in the library?” He asked with a sigh, walking up beside him so he didn’t do anything too impulsive.

“Belle, sure, but she ain’t Belle anymore, mate.”

Killian unlatched the door, and the moment he did they blew open, revealing Belle and part of the room behind her. Killian jumped, raising his hook on instinct.

“Wait, don’t!” David cried.

Belle smirked at Charming’s concern and delicately raised her hand, stopping Killian with her magic. “He can’t hurt me, remember?” She asked David quietly, twisting her hand so Killian’s hook came out and appeared in her own palm.

“It...still isn’t polite to be attacked in your own...bedstead,” he tried.

“It isn’t polite to break into anyone’s bedstead either. Yet here you are. Snow taught you some of her bandit tricks, hm? That’s sweet.”

“What are you doing, Belle?” Killian demanded, defensive and now unarmed.

“None of your business,” she said simply. “Now get out, or I will make you get out.”

David took a half-step back but Killian jerked forward. “It is my bloody business when you’re going around threatening everyone-!”

Belle merely looked at him and Killian stopped breathing. A slow cock of her head and he was up off the floor, clawing at his own throat, trying to get air. A quick jerk of her arm and Charming was rooted to the spot, unable to stop her or continue to try and get to him.

“You mean like you?” She asked, sneering at the pirate. “You, who threatened to take Emma and her entire family into the Underworld. You who were going to let them be dragged to Hell because you were a little irked. You, who once again forced a man who could not fight you fairly to duel you over a three hundred year grudge that should be well over with. Emma is your true love, hm? Or is she not? Is it Milah? Because if it is you should just tell her that so it doesn’t look so absurd when you go galavanting off to murder Rumple again.”

She giggled and looked at Charming. “Do you find this as amusing as I do?” She asked, indicating the gagging pirate.

“Belle, let him go, we just wanted-”

“To find Rumple’s body or meddle in what I’m doing, right?” She asked, tone sharp. “Because doing something reckless and dangerous to myself for the one I love is something to stop, right? I could have stolen a baby and tossed it into an unknown dimension to die. Would that have been better?” She asked, cocking her head again but David remained unharmed. “Don’t. You would have nothing if it weren’t for Rumple. No Snow, no Emma, no Neal, no princehood, and no life. That Neverland poison would have done you in long ago, wouldn’t it?”

“I-”

“And you,” she looked back at Killian. “You should be dead.” She grinned at him, tightening whatever hold she had, hearing something pop and blood filled his mouth. She grinned wider. “You should have stayed dead like you were supposed to. In the Underworld, forever suffering because you fucking deserve it. All those years spent raping and pillaging and murdering, walking around with your trophies on your hands, calling Rumple a monster? No. No, you have never stopped being who you are, Killian Jones. A murderer, a liar, a man undeserving of the chances he’s been given. Unworthy of the love he’s siphoned from Emma.”

She turned the hook over in her hand, smirking at him. “So pretty,” she said, mocking his tone, repeating his own words back to him. “And yet so useless.” Belle drove the hook into Killian’s arm and dropped him, allowing him to breathe and gag.

“Better get him to Dr. Whale,” she said coolly to David. “I’m sure he’d love to have at him again.”

David ran to Killian and hauled him up, cautiously backing away from Belle while Killian groaned and coughed.

“Oh, and David?” He paused, her little smile sending ice down his spine. “Don’t you or anyone else ever, ever come near here, the shop, or my house ever again. Or you’ll die.” She took a step back and the bedroom doors slammed shut, and the house seemed to be moving around them.

One moment they were in the hall, then at the stairwell, then the landing, each time a door slammed it set them back until they were sprawling on the grass outside.

David hauled Killian to his truck and backed down the driveway, watching the blinding blue light envelop the property and fade away. Belle had shielded the mansion.

He saw her in the window, watched her wave, then turn as if someone had called her and disappeared into the room. It took several tries with his shaking hands desperately calling his wife.

“S-Snow, get out of the shop right- What? Yeah, we just saw her, it’s not good. None of this is good.” He pulled onto the road and sped toward the hospital, expression breaking at the realization he hadn’t had, that honestly hadn’t occurred to him until now. “Belle...Belle’s not good.”

Chapter Text

“What Belle’s trying to do hasn’t ever been done before,” Regina sighed, lacing her fingers together on her knees. “Not successfully anyway. I read about it once when Gold was teaching me magic, and I thought it could be used on Daniel.”

“And it didn’t work?” Emma prompted gently. Regina shook her head.

“Are you kidding? I brought it up to Gold and he laughed in my face. No one except Merlin had ever tried that spell and lived. There isn’t enough magic in them to accomplish it, enough knowledge to complete it, or, like with Daniel, there’s no piece of his soul left to revive,” she explained, shaking her head again. “I don’t know what it is about this curse talking Belle into doing this, but more likely than anything, she’s going to burn herself and that baby up before she’ll actually bring Gold back.”

“What exactly is she doing?” Snow prompted.

“We didn’t find anything that could have housed a part of Gold’s soul for insurance or whatever, so that means… Belle’s using the baby.”

Mary Margaret held tighter to her own infant, looking absolutely scandalized at the thought. “She’s killing the baby to bring back-?”

“No!” Regina said defensively. “No, she’s not killing the baby. Before a child is born they have no soul of their own because they have no personality of their own. They’re two halves of two parents, and therefore its soul is half of each of them as well. Expanding that part of the baby’s soul through this spell will bring Gold back.”

“That’s it?” Emma frowned. “Then why take my blood, why talk about vengeance like that?”

“No, that’s definitely not it. That’s the easy part. She...has to put him together. With just a soul in him he’ll be alive, sure, but he’ll be empty. Hollowed out, no idea who he is and never able to grasp an identity, a relationship. He’d be alive, but he’d be better off dead. You have to gather pieces of the deceased person’s life, literally the physical pieces of them, and combine that with the soul,” Regina sighed, looking as if she were trying to keep it all straight herself.

“So she’d need stuff like Neal’s shawl,” Emma offered.

“Exactly,” she nodded. “But that isn’t enough either. That would just fill him with emotions and nostalgia, but nothing to put them with. He’d have the feelings and never know why, and he still wouldn’t know who he is. Belle is going to have to experience Rumplestiltskin’s memories. All of them. Then she’ll have to put them into a conduit to hold them, like that crystal ball he has, and add it to the spell.”

“How could she see all of Gold’s memories like that?” David asked.

“She has the Dark One curse inside her, the curse can show her his whole life, start to, to finish,” Regina sighed, looking to Emma, who scoffed a little.

“Three hundred years of memories,” she said softly. “And not very good ones either.”

“Belle can’t handle something like that; we have to stop her!” Snow implored. “She’ll die, the baby will die and that can’t be what Gold wanted.”  

Regina chuckled. “She had a point before, Snow. When have we ever cared about Gold when it wasn’t convenient for us to? Sure now we can try and reason with her, try to tell her it’s a fool’s errand and she’s probably going to get herself killed. But what good would that do? I’ve seen that little bookworm when her teeth come out and there is nothing we can do to stop her.”

“So we just give up?” Henry frowned.

“It’s not giving up if she doesn’t want to be saved in the first place. We just have to stay out of it, this time.

“How can we-!” The nurse behind the desk several feet away cleared her throat loudly, glaring at the group of them, especially Snow, who winced and waved a little apology before hissing out the rest of her question. “How can we do that when she’s putting people in the hospital?”

“She put the pirate in the hospital because he got in her way,” Regina reminded.

“And insulted her,” David added, earning a cross look from Emma. “I’m not saying she was in the right but he did provoke her.”

“So we just let her run rampant until she gets what she wants,” Snow huffed, lips pursed. “That’s the heroic thing to do in this situation?”

“We’ve got nothing to worry about. So long as we never harmed Gold,” Regina added quietly, pushing her hair back out of her face.

“Harmed how, Mom?” Henry asked, sitting beside her.

Regina chuckled. “The spell calls for acts of vengeance to be taken from those who’ve wronged the departed, as they are as much a part of them as anyone else. So she’s going to take something from people she sees that have harmed her husband.”

“Like when she took my blood,” Emma nodded, understanding.

“We just have to trust that Belle’s kind enough to let people live and only take what’s necessary,” she sighed. “Like not killing us. She had every chance to kill Emma, the pirate too, and she didn’t. That’s gotta tell us something.”

“Belle’s not completely gone,” Snow said, sounding relieved. Regina nodded her agreement.

“But everyone has their breaking point, a line that if they see it crossed they will unleash hell on that person.” She looked up at Snow and David, lips pursed. “Let’s hope hers isn’t imprisoning Gold and starving him, hm?”

The two looked at each other, Regina looked at her hands, trying to go over everything she’d done to Gold that might call for vengeance. Like...like imprisoning his true love for over thirty years. Whatever Belle was going to dish out for her, she would let it happen. She’d sacrifice what she needed to to atone for all of her misdeeds. Dark One or no, she shouldn’t have done what she had. Besides, what kind of a boring universe would it be without Rumplestiltskin in it?

~*~

A tiny boy fell onto the dirt floor, his lip busted, eye blackening more and more by the second. He shakily pushed himself up, coughing softly, pale face flushed from exertion, his hair mussed from being pulled on, his joints stiff from the abuse he’d just endured.

A large man emerged from the same door after him, smirking and looking highly satisfied with himself. “Here, boy,” he grunted, shoving money into the boy’s hand. “Tell your papa I expect to have this… service again within the next fortnight, should he want all of his debts forgiven.”

The child nodded, folding up the money and tucking it away inside his cloak. “Yes, sir,” he said in his soft brogue, his large eyes puffy and red, his voice wavering.

The man laughed and slapped the child’s tender buttocks lasciviously, the sound growing louder when the child yelped in pain. He waited for the man to quit the inn altogether before he went down.

Rumplestiltskin stepped back out into the cold night, too small to be seen by the innkeeper behind the counter as he left. He slowly toddled his way toward the bar Papa asked to meet him at, dodging puddles and travelers and a carriage as he went.

The pub was bursting with noise and drunken chatter. The air was hot and thick with smoke and the scent of drink, the floor dirtied with mud and sloshed ale. It was difficult for the waifish child to weave through the sweating men without being jostled or tripped, his expression breaking more and more the longer he struggled.

“Shh, up we come, dearie.” A woman’s soft hands plucked him off the floor and carefully rested him on her hip. “There,” she smiled. She was a young, soft woman, with bright hazel eyes and dark hair. Her smile was kind, her body soft and yielding compared to the men’s he’d been pressed against. “Now what is a young lad like you doing in a place like this?” She asked, walking him over to the actual bar and setting him atop it. He realized when she stepped behind the counter she worked here.

“I’m looking for my papa,” he croaked, shy and quiet.

She pushed a little mug of water into his hands, which he drained immediately. “What’s his name?” She asked, looking around as if she could tell.

“M-Malcolm,” he whispered. Her lips pursed and he ducked his head, realizing she recognized the game.

“I know where he is, love, here.” She set him back on the floor and let him hold onto the hem of her skirt while she walked him through the crowd to a table at the back, where dice were being tossed onto a table. There were two women draped on Malcolm’s shoulders, smoke thicker here, noise louder here.

“Oy! Hey, ya great idiot!” The woman smacked the hat from his Papa’s head to get his attention, quieting the rest of the players as well. Malcolm turned, still smiling, until his eyes landed on Rumple. “This your boy?”

Malcolm sighed. “Yes. What’s he done?”

“Walked into a frightening place and nearly got trampled is what he’s done.” She patted Rumple to him and disappeared into the crowd again. Rumple came up to him, looking at the floor and pressing against his side, handing him the money he’d ‘earned.’

“Here, Papa,” he whispered.

Malcolm pocketed the money quickly and snatched some more off the table, grinning at Rumple. “That’s my boy! Oh, I’m so proud of you, son. Comin’ through for Papa like that, good work!” He stood and bowed out of the game, walking away from Rumple, who grabbed his coattails and followed him as best he could, bruised and aching.

“Now you stay back in there awhile, son, I’ll be back-”

“Papa,” Rumple whimpered, holding tight to his coat. “Papa, you promised I could eat.”

Malcolm softened a little, just a touch, borne from guilt rather than real affection. He patted the boy’s hair. “You’re right, you’re right, I’m sorry, my boy.” He bent down and picked him up. “You go through a lot to pay me back for taking care of you. Of course you can eat.”

Rumple was glad for the familiarity of his father’s arms the softness of his hair and his neck, the smell of smoke and rum and the perfumes of ladies he’d seen in the previous nights and hours. He hid there, in the quiet solace he had, battered little face throbbing in the warmth but his papa was here, and everything would be alright tonight.

While the pub was still bursting with obnoxious, raucous sound, the small dining area beside it was nearly empty and quite silent. The fire crackled, warming the stone and the worn wood of the tables and benches. Rumple relaxed immediately being there, his shoulders losing their tension along with the rest of him.

“Nan, bring my boy here something to eat!?” He called.

Rumple felt so heavy, throbbing with agony and finally resting where he felt safe. The fire was warm and so was Papa, and even with the remnants of that stinking man wafting to his nose now and then he could still smell the food more.

Papa was in a good mood. He had to be. He was being kind and gentle and even fed Rumple when he proved too tired to properly hold his spoon for the stew that was brought to him.

He knew tomorrow he would be sold again, and then given a day or two worth of a break before he was back at work again. He could only hope tomorrow the man will have recently bathed. It was horrible enough having strangers press against him and touch him with rough, unfamiliar hands, but it was another when he had to stifle gagging being near them, let alone what might happen if he used his mouth.

He gave a shiver, and Papa slipped off his scarf and draped it over his shoulders.

Once his belly was full he turned into Papa’s chest and shut his eyes, clinging to familiarity while Papa began speaking to a stranger who’d approached him about an upcoming festival where people were easily swindled and swayed.

They spoke quietly enough that he could sleep contentedly, his bruised little face standing out against his pale skin.

“I’ve seen enough.” Belle choked, watching Malcolm brag about the ‘use’ of his child to this stranger, how he gave the boy away for a gold coin at a time, taught him how to please men and make himself more desirable. As Malcolm spoke each memory of Rumple’s suffering bombarded her, each incident of rape and molestation of his fragile body and quaking heart seared into her mind.

Malcolm’s foul, sick smile flooded Belle with hatred that bubbled into the Dark One beside her.

He clapped gleefully at her rage, smiling at her. “I told you it wouldn’t be pretty, dearie!” He reminded.

Belle tightened her jaw, looking at the sleeping boy with stinging tears in her eyes. “I said, ENOUGH!”

She startled awake, gasping and sitting up from the chair in the library. Cold sweat covered her skin and the crystal ball rolled onto the carpet from her hand. The Dark One smiled at her, just a few feet away.

“See, when I said it was going to be horribly unpleasant, what did you think I meant?” He asked, cocking his head with his large eyes glittering.

Belle opened her mouth to respond and suddenly lurched over the arm of the chair, retching onto the floor and coughing. She gagged and shook, and slowly the smile faded from the Darkness’ features.

She coughed up the rest of the bile, shaking with rage and pain. Rumple… “He was just a baby,” she croaked out. “He, he was so little, that’s not fair!” She cried, covering her face. “He’s been through enough, it’s enough, why this too?”

Hand shaking she reached for the crystal, falling to her knees in the process, hissing out in pain and crying still.

The Dark One had never felt anything close to care for someone before the Spinner met Belle. People were pawns, used to achieve a task of one thing or another. But Belle was different.

Belle had always been different.

Hesitantly, he knelt in front of her, clasping her hands in his own, holding them and the ball between them. She looked up at him with her odd eyes, her lips and nose pink from her tears. “It’s alright,” he said softly, trying to sound close to human, to connect with her somehow. “It’s alright, Belle.”

Tears slowly slid down her cheeks while she looked at him, awed and a little confused. She searched his face for deceit  or malice, finding nothing of the kind.

He shifted nervously, wondering briefly if he had done something wrong, made a mistake. But that’s what people did, what the Spinner did, wasn’t it?

At this point Belle didn’t know if she was controlling this illusion or the curse was thinking of its own free will, but...did it really matter?

She looked at him a beat longer before wrapping her arms around his neck and kissing him hard. He responded to her ferocity, returning it rather than yielding to it. Belle clawed at him desperately, raking her fingers through his hair, and digging into his scalp and neck. Her teeth found the sensitive flesh of his lips and she bit down, growling roughly against his mouth. His arms wound tightly around her, the crystal on the floor again, clouded with the Spinner’s memories and resting at the base of the table holding the rest of the ingredients.

The Dark One tipped his head to expose his neck when she went for it next, something of a shiver working through him. Her hands touched the bared portion of his chest, her teeth and lips biting and sucking at his golden skin like a woman starved. He wound fingers in her hair and yanked her head back, kissing her again.

It was strange, having all of her taste to himself. Having any part of her to himself like this. To feel so fully...it was like touching an open flame and welcoming the inferno into him. It was terrifying.

Belle was searching for remnants of Rumple in the Darkness, looking for what was familiar to her. The texture of his skin, how his hair felt in her fingers, his body, his voice...it was all the same but…

She looked up at him, into his eyes. There was tenderness there, some confusion as well, but it wasn’t her Rumple. It was the Darkness trying to discern what it should feel toward her at this moment, and it broke her heart. Tears filled her eyes again and her hands went slack.

“You were right,” she said quietly.

He nodded a little, letting her fall into his chest, holding her in a loose grip. “I’m not him,” he whispered.

She wiped her eyes. “I want to sleep,” she whispered. “I know there’s a way to. Rumple does it all the time.”

They vanished from the floor, reappearing in the bedroom. “Just shut your eyes, remember what sleeping feels like. Force it to come to you. Don’t want for it to take you, you’re in control. Okay?” He whispered.

Belle nodded, looking up at him and gently touched his cheek. “Thank you,” she whispered. “And sorry for, um…”

The Darkness giggled, shaking his head. “Nothing to apologize for, dearie! Not the first time I’ve been so readily praised.”

Had she been less distraught Belle might have returned his quip with banter of her own, but she couldn’t muster it now. The ache in her chest was stifling and maddening. She crawled up onto the bed beside Rumple’s lifeless body, pressing her cheek against his chest.

No heartbeat. No breath. No warmth. Rumple wasn’t here either. She curled around him, tears falling silently down her face. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry for what he did to you, I’m so sorry.”

Belle wanted him back. She wanted his soft, gentle voice and his warm arms. She wanted the way his hands felt after he was spinning, how he smiled at her across the dinner table, how he let her sit in his lap while they read together. She missed his darkness and vengeance, she missed the passion that gushed from him every time he kissed her and held her, the soft way he whispered to her to wake in the morning…

She fell asleep crying, the Darkness, behind her, watching.

“I told you, dearie,” he whispered when she stilled. “It wouldn’t be easy.”

Chapter Text

Belle slowly digested the years upon years of Malcolm’s abuse locked away in Rumple’s memories. The tears, the blood, the ache in his chest each time something hurtful was said or done broke her heart nearly every time she saw it. It broke her to know that he had been through so much, that his father had been as terrible then as he was in Neverland, and he’d still had all the drive and passion to be a good father to his own son.

That small boy was abandoned, carried away by the heinous shadow and dropped unceremoniously back in the Enchanted forest, falling in the dirt he felt no more worthy of being in.

He cried softly, his whole body shaking with pain in his big dark eyes. An unloved boy, unwanted by his father and thrown away like garbage, without a mother to tell him things would be alright. The poor child stumbled through the streets and no one so much as gave him a second glance. Just the boy, the coward’s boy, the wretch’s son. Poor thing, some said, gonna be just like him, others hissed.

And the child’s tears still fell, grieving for his father and going to the only place  he knew he would find a kind word, perhaps even a kind bed, even just for that night.

The spinsters were indeed kind to him. He hadn’t known such warmth and care since he was very small, reminded by only the cloth he kept in his pocket what love even was, if it even had existed. These women were sweet to each other and to him, giving him just enough confidence and just enough praise that he could better himself, and understand that his abandonment was not his fault. It was Malcolm’s, and Malcolm’s alone.

“No one gets to choose their parents, dearie,” the brunette assured one day, gently wiping his little face free of tears. “And when parents don’t want to have the responsibilities of raising children, it’s the children who suffer.”

“You didn’t ask for him to be your Papa, did you?” The other implored. Rumple weakly shook his head, and they smiled softly at him. “Then how could it be your fault that he left you?”

“I wasn’t good enough!” He sobbed out. “Mama died because I wasn’t good enough to save her, Papa left because I wasn’t a good enough son to stay around for.”

“Shh, shh...Hush, sweetheart.” They wrapped their arms around him, soothed him while he wept.

“No, dearie, no. It’s not your doing. This isn’t your fault. Your Mama didn’t pass because of you. You are good enough.”

“You’re good enough for us.”

“Always will be good enough for us.”

They tried everything to ease him from his sadness, to coax him out of his fatalistic thoughts and constant dread. It was no life for a boy to lead and if something didn’t heal him, distract him, let the wound heal rather than fester, then he would never be rid of it.

Playing outside, drawing, fishing, going for walks, nothing cheered him. Nothing but spinning.

They told him he didn’t have to work so much, that it was alright to take a break until he was well, but the two woke one morning to the quiet squeaking of his little wheel, his mind focused, his fingers moving mechanically as if he’d done it for decades instead of once before. They let him spin, not disturbing him beyond kissing him good morning and giving him some more wool when he was getting low. Dawn to dusk the child was relentless, but there were no tears. And he was quiet, but not depressingly so, just deep in thought.

He finally stopped and the women turned, so used to the noise by this point it was startling when it was gone.

“Is there more?” He asked, his little fingers pink and raw from all his work, the yarn piled neatly in the baskets.

“Dearie, you’ve spun all the wool we had,” the blonde giggled, giving him a deep bow that the other followed. “We’ve been graced with the presence of a Lord, it seems!”

He blushed and laughed, really laughed, and the two beamed. Spinning soothed him, calmed him, helped heal the wounds and helped his mind and his heart cinch back together. The pain remained, the ache enough to stay with him but not enough to stop him.

Belle watched him grow. She watched him change, watched his tenderness match his mothers’, his kindness forever at the forefront of his thinking. He never did anything to harm a soul, not a single one. And yet, all who knew him knew of his father, of the reputation he held, of the debts and things he’d done to twist his son into a smaller version of himself.

“I’m nothing like him,” Rumple spat, taller now, thin as most young men are at his age. He couldn’t have been older than fourteen. “There’s no reason to mistrust my goods or my word.”

“Your lineage alone-”

“I told you before, sir, I am not my father!” He stood proudly, his shoulders squared, aging mothers outside smirking to each other. Not such a timid mouse anymore.

“Look at it,” Rumple said, putting the thread down in front of him. “I dare you to say you’ve seen finer from anyone.”

The merchant turned it over, lips pursed. “I’ve not seen any man come in here with his own yarn spun before,” he snorted, giving Rumple a sneer. “But, it is fine work.”

The slight against his manhood was something Rumple was used to and could certainly stand. The profession wasn’t a strong one, but he was good at it. He liked it. He liked spinning, tending sheep, selling at market with his mothers. With them he had the chance to see the girl he fancied. Such a beautiful girl with long dark hair, bright blue eyes. A milkmaid always accompanied by her aunt, who cared for her after her parents were taken by a bout of fever that swept through the village. He hoped, in time, he might be brave enough to talk to her and learn her name. In time he hoped he could make a living for himself, have his own home, his own sheep to tend. He wanted nothing more than to be what this girl may want, and to be a better man than his father.

“The price is what it is,” Rumple said firmly, looking at the small pile of coins the merchant put before him. “I will gladly take this elsewhere, should you so choose.”

The man grumbled, paying Rumple what he was due and he stepped back out into the waning evening beaming.

He mused about talking to the girl at the wheel when they returned home, his solace from childhood, a delicate smile on his face.

“What’s that look for?” His mother asked.

He looked up, flushing. “What? N-nothing, I…”

“Oh, he’s daydreaming about the milkmaid again…” The other grinned, readying the table for dinner.

“Ah,” they giggled and he flushed some more, ducking his head.

“No idea what you’re talking about,” he muttered. Then, “Do you...know her name?”

“Milah,” they chimed.

Milah…

Belle felt the warmth and giddiness fill his heart, knowing her name and her face now. He loved her already, wished to do nothing but please her. He knew he needed time, he needed to rise further into manhood, make something of himself and then he could have her. It wouldn’t take long, perhaps a year or two…

“Does it bother you, dearie?” The Darkness breathed into her ear, holding her shoulders. “To see him so in love with another woman?”

“Only because I know what she’s going to do to him,” she replied, hating herself for being comforted by this creature behind her. Perhaps she shouldn’t be so repulsed or ashamed. She said to herself and others repeatedly that she loved every facet of who Rumple was. Curse and all.

“You know I can sense your thoughts, right?”

Belle opened her eyes, back at the house suddenly, looking at the Dark One again. She nodded, scrubbing her face with her hand.

“I do. But I’m still going to think freely, aren’t I?” She challenged. He smiled, watching her pick up the orb and push the new memories into it. It swirled with the reddish black smoke, becoming more opaque by the hour with how hard she was working.

“Caring for me may not be the biggest disadvantage…” He ventured,  thinking aloud to himself, mostly.

“It’s not as if you and Rumple were involved that way,” she paused, setting the crystal back in place on the mantle, and looked over her shoulder at him. “...Were you?”

He gave a tittering fit of giggles, draping himself over the sofa. “Why? Does the thought tickle you, dearie?”

Admittedly it did, imagining the creature whispering into Rumple’s ear, coaxing him to let the dark magic flow through him more fully, comforting him with the heat of raw power when he was at his loneliest, when he needed that surge of animosity--

She shook her head, snapping herself out of it and pursed her lips when he giggled some more. “I knew it!” He cackled.

“Obviously it tickles you too,” she said pointedly, turning to him and fighting to ignore the grinding pound of her headache.

His smirk deepened and he rose, walking closer to her with that same sway Rumple possessed, though more fluid in his ethereal form than Rumple was physically. She didn’t back down when he was directly in front of her, his lips hovering just out of reach, taloned hand gently cradling her throat. “I’m tickled by anything that excites you, dearie,” he hissed, his breath hot against her face. She could swear she could smell his skin…ash and cinder, bleak, damp darkness and an edge of sharp frosted black.

She swallowed, not backing down from him and barely blinking. “I’m sure all those times I was with my husband...tickled you plenty, then,” she said softly. He smiled, brushing the pad of his thumb against her lips.

“It did.”

Blind lust was easy. She’d experienced it not twenty four hours before and she knew the moment she tried to capture these lips in front of her, that the lust would cool and harden into a lump of  tepid clay in the pit of her stomach. It wouldn’t be right because it wasn’t him. His skin alone should tell her that. The void in his eyes too. It would bring her nothing but more emptiness to become more entangled with this being.

The fire dimmed in her eyes and he stopped, letting her go and stepping back. “Let’s get back to making sure the two of you can be as excitable as often as you want, hm?” He chirped.

“The needle,” she said, blinking out of her trance. “The needle on his wheel, it’s the same one, isn’t it?”

The Dark One clapped giddly. “Very good, dearie!”

Belle rolled her eyes, shaking her head at him. “You’re utterly ridiculous,” she remarked, standing at the center of the library so nothing was broken when she departed. She felt the Darkness press up behind her, whispering into her ear again.

“I think you like it,” he growled.

She closed her eyes, not pulling away. No, it wasn’t right. Rumple smelled like fire on a cold night. Apples, cinnamon and paper. Not like death and dread.

“I like it enough,” she breathed before vanishing in a tornado of smoke.

~*~

Regina didn’t tell anyone she was going to be here. The chorus of goody-goodies begging her not to and talking her out of it was just too much for her to endure when she’d made up her mind like this. Emma couldn’t coax her into things nearly as easily lately, and Snow would just be maddening in her concern, she could hear it and almost taste the air of the Charming apartment just thinking about it. Funny how it included the Pirate’s cologne. That shit stuck to the back of your throat and refused to leave. A lot like him, actually.

She nodded at her own observation, sitting on the porch of Gold’s pink house, waiting. Belle would have to come back at some point, right? And if she could slip away for a few hours a night without Emma noticing or Henry asking her not to stay she could sort of not feel guilty about it.

“Your wife really is a handful,” she said into the dark. Rumple wasn’t here, and that was strange. As strange as the first time he’d died. The world just felt...incomplete without him there. It was an odd relationship they had, relying on one another when the heroes were obviously going to go round in circles without finding a solution, asking favors, teacher and student, rivals, enemies, friends...and whatever they’d last been before he…

She cleared her throat, finding it strange to think about the Dark One killing himself like that. Of Rumplestiltskin killing himself like that. “I said before that the bookworm had teeth, but I had no clue they could get this sharp,” she chuckled. “If you knew what she was doing right now-- hell, maybe you do-- you’d be furious with her. Doing all this to save you from a fate you chose? Kinda like the first time all over again, huh? Doubt this is gonna cost you another kid,” she remarked, looking up at the sky. “I never did apologize for that, did I? I know there’s shit you didn’t apologize for either that you really fucking should have, but… I am sorry about your son. I’m sorry that we…that I let Zelena keep you locked up for that long. I’m sorry I didn’t let you beat the shit out of her at the very least. If she would’ve done to Henry what she did to Neal I… I’d want vengeance too.”

Regina swallowed, clasping her hands and looking at the dirt. “I’m sorry I took the pen from you too. You were trying to save us, in a way. Save yourself too, but also us. Keep that Thing back behind you. Mr. Perfect-Dark-One. You never tried to send us to Hell, huh? Fucking pirate,” she chuckled, taking a sip from a flask she told Henry she’d tossed away.

“I wanted to say something about us taking you for granted, when the whole Emma-Hook Dark Ones thing was happening. I didn’t, I kept it to myself. Did that a lot. Kept thoughts about you to myself. Focused on other things. I don’t regret doing what I did to save my child. I don’t regret keeping myself safe or helping my friend to make up for all the things I’ve done. But I do regret putting the blame on you for how I was. You didn’t force me to learn magic. You did some shitty things to get me to want to, but you didn’t make me do what I did. My mother built the gun. You gave me the bullets to put in it. I fired it.

“But yeah, sorry I left you on the floor to lose your humanity. Glad you didn’t. Kinda nice having you comatose for a bit. You talk way too much.” She pushed her hair back, sighing. “I dunno, Rumple, I should hate you more. Some days I do. Some I hate you less. I agree sometimes that the world would be better without you but...I mean, in three hundred years you didn’t fuck up as much as Killian did in what, two weeks?” She snorted, shaking her head. “Or Emma in six? Psh. It’s weird without you. It’s weird seeing Belle like this. And it’s gonna be weird if she succeeds and brings you back.”

Again Regina looked up, toasting the sky. “I hope she does. Without Rumplestiltskin there’s no one to unload antiques on.” She laughed a little, trying to ignore the sting of tears in her eyes. “Without you, kinda feels like there’s no magic anymore either.”

“That almost sounds romantic.”

Regina looked ahead again, not all that surprised to hear Belle’s voice behind her. “It’s not,” she assured. “It’s a complicated relationship but romance certainly wasn’t part of it,” she grimaced, taking another drink. “Sorry for loitering.”

The younger woman descended the stairs and sat down beside her, staring at her. Regina was almost afraid to look at Belle. She could feel the power pulsing off of her, flowing through her with her blood. It made the hair on the back of her neck prickle and goosebumps crawl up her skin, like prey next to a predator, knowing that as the prey if the predator so chooses, you’re dead and there’s nothing you can do about it but hope they’re in a good mood. Regina worried that if she looked into Belle’s eyes and saw the Dark One, saw the evil consuming her she’d lose her nerve, or lose sight of Belle entirely and try to kill the monster instead of saving the woman.

She realized after about ninety seconds Belle wasn’t going to speak until she did look. She sighed, took a drink and looked into Belle’s eyes. They glowed, the whites gone, turned black as night but her irises glittered inhumanly. Regina imagined in pitch darkness Belle’s eyes could still be seen. She stifled a shiver and waited for her to speak.

“Did you not hear what I said about coming near my house or the shop?” Belle asked quietly.

“No, I did,” she assured. “I did. But I came here anyway.”

“To die?” Belle asked, brow cocking. Regina smiled.

“Only if that’s what you really, really want, Belle,” she said, offering Belle a sip of her drink. She took it, a pink light washing over it to do away with any curses, charms or whatever else may be in it and took a drink. It burned, but it was aged whiskey, of course it burned. “Gift from your husband, actually. Found it on my desk on Henry’s first day of school. Good stuff.”

“Not hard for him to find old drink, is it?” Belle asked, trying not to remind herself she was speaking about him in the present.

“I guess not,” Regina nodded. “Are you going to kill me?”

“Depends why you’re here,” Belle remarked, still holding the spindle in her porcelain hand.

“I’m not gonna stop you,” she assured. “If it were me trying to get, to get my true love back no one could stop me either. I just hope you know what you’re doing. What you’re getting into.”

“I think I have a pretty good idea,” she assured coolly. “It’s been laid out pretty clearly for me.”

“By the curse, right?” Regina asked. Belle nodded, listening to the crickets sing somewhere far away. They weren’t close to her anymore. Animals and insects alike wouldn’t approach her while she was like this.

“Yes. It told me what needs to be done.” The Darkness was in front of her, leaning against the railing and listening, staying within reach of her for comfort purposes. It wasn’t that Belle wasn’t embracing the darkness so he had to stay close. She was willing him here. She wanted him here. Like a hallucinogenic security blanket. “Collect his memories, collect pieces of him. Collect what I need from those who harmed him.”

“Sounds simple when you put it like that,” Regina chuckled. “So is that why I’m still alive? You need something from me?”

“I can get it whether you’re alive or dead. That gets decided by you, and why you’re here. Do pay attention, dearie.”

Regina’s stomach clenched at her phrasing but she hid it. “Belle, you look terrible. And you only just started. This is hard enough to do for someone living a normal lifetime, let alone someone working on four of them. The odds of you succeeding and the odds of you getting this right are slim, you have to know that. That curse will do everything to push you to do dark magic, everything to make itself stronger and get what it wants. It might say sweet things to you, but--”

“I know what it is,” Belle assured. “I know what part of Rumple it is, I know what it is, how it works. I get it. I understand the risks.”

“And you’re gonna keep endangering your child for it? To bring him back after he chose to die?” Regina asked. Belle scowled.

“You’ve no right to question any of this, Regina. What does it matter to you whether I do this or not? What does it matter to anyone in this town whether I get to see my husband again, in this world or the next?” She demanded. “None of you give a damn about me anyway, and if you do now it’s because I’m a threat!” The apparition touched her shoulder and she calmed. “This is my choice. I can do it. I love him so much and he didn’t know it. And I have to fix it. He deserves life. He deserves his happy ending.”

Regina just looked at her, seeing Belle, broken hearted and agonized beneath the facade, the mask the Darkness created for a person.

“What do you need from me? Blood?” She asked after a beat of silence. Belle relaxed a little.

“Nothing quite as costly,” she said softly, taking the dagger from her side.

Regina stared at her, then leaned forward, tilting her head a little so it was easier. “Do it.”

Belle hesitated for just a moment, moved the blade closer to Regina, and cut.

~*~

“See, now that wasn’t so hard, was it?” The Dark One asked giddily.

“No,” she assured, setting the needle with Rumple’s other belongings, and the lock of hair she’d taken from Regina with the bottle of blood from Emma. “We aren’t remotely close to anything,” she whispered. “Are we?”

“Of course not, dearie! You’re still at the part before I came in!” He giggled, holding her shoulders in his hands. She rested her cheek on one of them, exhaustion pulling at her. “Uh...rest for now. It can wait.”

“I don’t want to dream,” she said, obeying him anyway and climbing into bed beside her husband’s corpse, holding his frozen hand.

“I can manage that,” he whispered, watching her look at her dead beloved in such a way she wouldn’t dream to look at him. “Just rest, Belle. It’ll be better tomorrow.”

Belle closed her eyes, still holding onto Rumple’s hand, as if that somehow would bring him back. As if she wouldn’t lose him forever if she just held on to him.

She wouldn’t let go. She couldn’t. Belle had wanted to tell Regina that she was stronger than her, able to get past her love and allow them to rest peacefully in time. Belle couldn’t. Wouldn’t. Regina was right in what she said and she couldn’t forget those words.

It was like there was no magic with Rumple gone. No light, no color. Just emptiness and a ghost to follow her.

Chapter Text

“...So, she just wanted some of your hair?” Mary Margaret frowned.

“Yeah,” Regina said, tucking the severed piece behind her ear. “That was it. She took something from the house too. I think it was part of Gold’s spinning wheel.” The hospital room was acrid with the smell of alcohol and disinfectant. A warm, sterile smell that reminded her of death rather than wellness. The buzzing fluorescents over Hook’s bed weren’t helping either. She leaned against the wall, folding her hands together, too wound up to sit down.

Emma scoffed, looking up at her from her place at Killian’s side. “So from me she takes blood, but it’s just hair with you.”

“Well god only knows what she’ll be taking from me, then.” Hook said in a rasping voice. He’d just come out of surgery a few hours before, his insides torn from his encounter with Belle.

Emma frowned at him, touching his arm. “She comes near you and--”

“You’ll what?” Regina asked, exasperated. “You’re going to go up against her while she’s like this? You’ll get nothing but a crushed heart.”

“Mom, we can’t just do nothing,” Henry said, fiddling with the end of his scarf nervously. David put a hand on his shoulder.

“Henry, Belle isn’t going to stop. The Darkness isn’t going to let her. You two,” she pointed at Emma and Killian, “should know better than anyone what the Darkness can do. How persuasive it is, how it twists everything and will sacrifice everything to get what it wants. You,” she pointed at Emma, “hurt your son in the worst possible way because of what it told you.

“And you, Captain Destruction, just did whatever the fuck it said to appease it. Belle is fighting for her true love, and whether we like it or not it’s going to happen. Unless it kills her, she’s not going to stop. If one of us kills her, then we’re back to the Dark One being in Storybrooke, housed in the body of someone much, much less capable than Rumplestiltskin to keep it at bay.”

“Because Gold is known for being an upstanding member of society,” Emma spat back, defensive.

“You lost yourself completely in six weeks!” Regina spat, a small snarl in her lip that brought out the scar above it. “Your boy toy nearly murdered all of us in a matter of hours after knowing it was in him too.”

“You know, my throat may not work well but my ears work fine,” Killian croaked out.

“It would be in your best interest to just hush like Whale told you to,” she bit back, lips pursed.

She took a breath. “Gold went three hundred years without doing anything that catastrophic. You can’t take the high ground anymore, Emma. Your heart has been darkened, your morals have been compromised, and you’ve proven that it takes a certain kind of person to handle that amount of dark power. The holier-than-thou thing isn’t going to fly with me. Your parents can keep it, sure. Unless we’re talking about Gold taking a baby that didn’t belong to him.”

Mary Margaret looked up at her, then looked at David across the room. “What? I-- This isn’t about us!”

“It will be!” She insisted. “Everyone in this room has wronged Rumplestiltskin. Every single one. I know when Belle gets to the years I had her imprisoned she’s going to be coming for something more. Not long after that? She’s gonna come for you two. You imprisoned him and left him in that hole in conditions even rats weren’t fit for. She’s gonna see it. She’s gonna be pissed. You fight all you want but believe me, it’s a fruitless endeavor.”

“Mom, have you been drinking?” Henry sighed.

Regina frowned, crossing her arms. “Maybe. Why, am I too honest?” He nodded and she sighed. “I’m sorry. I am, and I’m on your side here. But...the best thing to do with this is let it ride out. We were just in a place where people had to face their biggest fears and regrets to move on, right? That’s what we’re doing here. We’re paying for the things we’ve done.”

They were quiet a moment, the sound of Killian’s heart monitor breaking the silence in a steady rhythm.

“You’re right,” Snow sighed, looking resigned. “What else are we supposed to do?”

“Fight back!” Emma huffed.

“Are you really going to murder Belle?” David asked. “Take the curse again and then what? We’re right back where we started.”

“Then, then let’s leave. Let’s get out of Storybrooke, even if she follows us she doesn’t have magic outside here and we stand an actual chance against her.”

The others looked at each other a moment, falling silent.

“I’m not leaving,” Mary Margaret said.

“Neither am I,” Regina nodded.

“What if she kills us? What if she brings Gold back and he kills us?” Emma huffed. “What about Henry?”

“I’m fine with staying, Mom,” he assured. She looked at him, brow creased. He nodded at Regina. “She’s right. We messed up and now we gotta deal with the consequences. We’re the good guys, that’s what we do.”

Emma sighed, looking at her hands, then at Killian. He shook his head a little, disagreeing with all of this. “The kid’s right,” she said, the panic in her dying into resolution. “We stay.”

Regina smiled a little, proud of her. She just hoped they weren’t made to regret this later.

~*~

“Milah…I, I don’t…”

“It’s alright,” she assured, wrapping her arms around his neck. “You and I both know that we’re going to be married, this isn’t bad.” She kissed him again, and Rumple melted into her touch, desperately seeking affection that often evaded him in earlier years.

“Y-yes, yes but it- I- you could get- what would people think if you h-had a child before we…?” He gulped, trying to focus on the matter at hand and not give in to obvious desires and the persuasive nature Milah had about her. She laughed softly, her nose wrinkling when she did.

“Now, Rumplestiltskin, since when do others’ opinions mean anything to you?” She smiled, twisting her fingers through his soft curls. “You’re too brave to think like that, aren’t you? The kind of man who takes what he wants?”

He wasn’t. Not in the sense she meant, but he did fight and claw and tear to keep the good things he’d managed to have. He pressed her against the wall of her father’s barn, holding her waist and lingering over her mouth. “I am,” he hissed before kissing her again, with passion and control he soon relinquished to her.

Watching, Belle could feel the patter in Rumple’s heart, the butterflies flitting around in his stomach and the utter fear that he had no idea what he was doing and wouldn’t be able to please his bride to be all washed over her in these moments.

Part of her was happy to see Rumple so delighted, so in love, with a woman who -at this moment- loved him too. Watching the shaky way he undressed her, watching them bump heads awkwardly and laugh softly because neither of them had experienced this before, it did warm her to see a good span of years in Rumple’s life, save for his mothers’ passing.

The two were buried side by side, as partners who loved each other all their lives. He was crushed that they were gone and Milah was there. She helped him through his grief, through the pain of loss. And underneath that initial facade Belle could see the root of why Milah warmed up to him so quickly after this happened. Everything they owned was his now, and after he sold the house, the land, valuables he did not want, he could build his own home, buy his own land and take the small sheep herd as his own. Rumple was closer to being as wealthy as needed to marry Milah, and it wouldn’t be long before he could give her the life he’d sworn to her.

Milah wouldn’t have to work anymore, wouldn’t have to tend her family’s farm any longer. She could come with him to the neighboring village and everything would be right with the world. He adored her, gave her everything she asked for and did all he could to please her. There was a strength to him too, a bite, an edge of steel she enjoyed. She liked it when he argued with her, stood up for her or himself and often egged him on like she had moments before.

Belle was feeling what Rumple was without the veil over her eyes. The rose colored glasses he saw Milah through weren’t an obstacle for her. She saw Milah for what she was; an opportunist who cared about someone when they could give her something. It wasn’t hard to see why she turned so hotly after the war.

But right at this moment, Rumple was happy. Terrified, but happy.

He handled Milah different than he did with Belle. She noticed right away that though he was attentive, he was answering to the demands Milah’s body was giving him, where her hands guided him. She used him like a toy, hissed where he needed to be, placed his hands and his mouth before letting his natural ability and instinct take over.

Belle remembered differently. How soft he was, how he took the time to map her body and cradle her. He worshipped every inch of skin, as he’d tried to do with Milah, and found each spot that drove her mad. He would tend to each one, kissing the breath from her throat and overwhelming her with pleasure until she was on fire, having at least peaked twice before he considered his own needs and made sure every moment was mutual bliss.

This was clumsy, one sided and without the warmth she was used to. It was love, or something like it, wet and desperate and hoping to cling to the happiness they felt right now.

They were lying in the hay when it was through, the soft sounds of the night and the sleeping animals surrounding them.

Rumple looked at her, panting and smiling warmly at her, his eyes sparkling with happiness and hope. Milah smiled back, touching his cheek and moving closer to him as the slight chill in the air settled over her sweat soaked skin.

“I love you,” he whispered, kissing her gently. “A-and soon we can get married. Start a life together, a family.”

“I can’t wait,” she confessed, working her fingers through his hair again. “I want to spend my life with you, Rumplestiltskin. You’re going to be so much more than your father ever was.”

His heart soared and the feeling echoed in Belle’s chest. He kissed his bride to be again, wrapping her up in his arms and clinging to her.

“Do you believe in true love, Milah?” He whispered, looking into her bright eyes.

She smiled, her hesitation missed by Rumple, but not the current Dark One. “Of course I do.”

“I...I think you may be mine,” he said, softer still, shy and blushing.

She touched his cheek, sighing happily. “You’re mine too,” she assured. “You’re everything I’ve ever wanted.”

He kissed her again, giddy and so hopelessly in love.

The dread in the back of Belle’s throat overwhelmed her and she forced herself to wake, jerking back into the real world with the memories pouring into the crystal in her hands.

“Well that was a little premature!” The Darkness said pointedly, leaning on the arm of her chair.

“It’s painful,” she grunted.

“Ooh, now how does that go again? Oh yes,” he cleared his throat and straightened up. “‘Life is pain, highness! Anyone who says differently is selling something.’” The Dark One went into a fit of giggles at his cleverness, and even she had to smile a little.

“Don’t quote that at me,” she said softly, trying to keep her resolve and her anger. It was hard when he smiled at her like that.

“Come now, dearie, this isn’t even the hard part! This is the sweet part full of little kisses and all the wuv you can stand! Don’t you like seeing your dear husband happy?” He asked, behind her now and holding her shoulders. She looked at him, not far from his tempting lips, staring into the strange, cold nebulas of his eyes.

“Of course I do,” she said quietly. “But I know how she hurts him. I know what she does.”

He tipped her chin up with a clawed fingertip, his expression serious now. “You don’t know the half of it, Belle,” he said in a low voice, leaning in. “You must remember how difficult it was for him to accept you loved him, eh?” Of course she did. It was the only time he’d ever put his hands on her like that, and though he hadn’t hurt her it frightened her. Shaking her, screaming at her that no one could love him, terrifying her into silence when all she wanted to say was that she did. She nodded once. “Then you know there has to be a reason!” He giggled again and let her go. She grabbed his wrist, keeping him near her.

“What’s next?” She asked quietly.

He grinned. “The wedding.”

~*~

“I-I don’t think we need all these people here, do we?” He stammered, watching people file in while Milah changed behind a partition in what would be their home in just a little while.

“Oh, you get so nervous, Rumple. Don’t you want to show the whole village that you love me?” She asked from behind it.

“O-of course I do.”

However, they could readily be told after the ceremony. Milah refused to have a small gathering for this, no matter how he protested that their uniting only concerned the two of them, why should anyone but her parents be there for it? Crowds of people did make him nervous, they always had. There was such a high chance of being harmed, of an opinion to sweep through the lot and wind up humiliating him. He’d learned as much as a boy.

But this is what Milah wanted. This is what made today perfect and he couldn’t bring himself to firmly refuse this wish. After all, what did it matter, so long as they were bonded together forever? Their love would be solidified for all their lives and yes, the entire village would be witness to it.

“Alright, I’m ready,” she said brightly. “Now hurry and get in place, you aren’t supposed to see me yet!”

He smiled and hugged her through the sheet that had been hung up, grinning as she giggled and kicked when he lifted her in the air. “Rumple! Put me down, you wicked man!” She laughed.

“But I can’t see you, it’s fine! I’ll just marry this ghost,” he grinned, gently setting her down after a moment.

“I love you,” she laughed, a little breathless.

“Oh, I love you too,” he breathed, hesitating a moment longer before he hurried outside, his heart pounding, hands sweating. He wanted to marry her so desperately.

In no time they were kissing, committing themselves to love forever, and the crowd was shouting happily. Music struck up  and in no time the celebration began.

He twirled his bride around as they danced, as adept at it then as he was now, and how his eyes shone. So bright, so filled with hope and love and beauty. The youth in his features, the weightlessness of him. His shoulders were straight, his entire being light, as if the traumas of his childhood were long gone.

And not six months later, the letter summoning him to the front came.

Belle watched Milah ask him not to go, saw the fear in her eyes as her livelihood was threatened, how alone she would really be if he didn’t come back from the same front that had taken most of her family along with it. Of course, Rumple went to training, filled with that same hope still that he could come out of this a better man, prove himself in combat, move up in his station and give Milah everything she deserved. He earned enough to keep them relatively comfortable, of course, but he could do more. He could give her everything if he accomplished this.

His training, short as it was, went well too.

He handled a sword easily, deftly, as if it were an extension of himself. Admittedly, Belle was a little struck by how he looked, sweating in a thin shirt and his uniform pants, tossing his hair out of his face and forcing recruit after recruit to yield to him. The mist clung to his skin, his breath fogging the air as he smiled, still full of confidence he’d managed to build up.

“Rather pretty, isn’t he?” The Darkness whispered into her ear.

“Yes,” she replied as Rumple helped the man he’d just knocked down back to his feet, the morning sun shining on his damp hair. “He’s beautiful.”

He laughed, putting the sword back, as there weren’t enough for everyone anyway, picking up his cloak and carried on to camp, where he was assigned to watch a creature in  a cart.

A seer. A child he took pity on, unable to watch her struggle with thirst despite his orders. A child who whispered things that would come to pass, that Milah was with child, that his child would be fatherless because of his actions.

The realization settled over her and she swallowed, shaking her head and looking t the Darkness. “Stop. Stop, I want to stop.”

“Shh…” He breathed, holding her still, making her watch. “Just get through it. Just watch, Belle. You can do this.”

She shook her head, feeling Rumple’s fear. The sickening, horrifying fear that he would die and leave his son. He wasn’t afraid of death before, but looking at his options, at the odds of coming back and living, of being able to care for his wife and child looked so bleak and impossible unless…

“N-no,” she whispered, looking at the hammer he’d also spotted. “No, Rumple, don’t, don’t…” He’d done it to himself, she knew that. She knew that. She didn’t know it was with this horrifying thing. That with the incredible amount of strength that was in his lean form he knew he could do it.

Out of options. Entirely out of time, that desperation Belle had heard of dawned in his face, held in his eyes that knew what he was condemning himself and his family to. But without him, they would likely die. His child would have no father and then he would commit the crime he could never forgive his father for, not ever. Leaving him. That bubbling pain and resentment he felt was something he would never wish on his own child and it burned him to even think that might be the case.

He made his decision, and Belle tore away from the Darkness, running toward Rumple though nothing in this vision was real, or something she could interact with. “RUMPLE, NO!”

The hammer swung and Belle was so close she could hear his bones break. She watched him buckle and scream, watched him ruin himself for the sake of his son and wife. He screamed and sobbed, approached quickly by nearby soldiers and officers, who quickly worked out what he’d done.

His hair was used to force his head up, his commander sneering at him with a burning hatred in his eyes. “Bring it here!” He barked at those standing around him, never breaking eye contact with him. “You scared to fight, soldier? Hm? I ought to feed you to the ogres myself, you pathetic little nothing. I thought you had promise, but I should have known. All the men from your village said you were a coward, just like your father.”

Rumple looked at him through sweat and tears, delirious with pain. “I’m n-nothing like my--” He was struck, hard, silenced immediately. He didn’t try to speak again, quaking and waiting for whatever punishment would befall him.  

The branding iron came into view quick enough, and he struggled to get away from it, grunting when his head was forced down, his hair moved from the back of his neck. “Please, please, stop it! D-don’t please, it’s not- My wife is with chi-” And again he screamed, the searing hot poker branding a C into the back of his neck.

“Coward,” the officer spat, kicking him into the dirt when it was done.

He was abandoned there in the cold, Belle on her knees in front of him, reaching for him and finding she was a ghost, unable to touch anything, unable to offer any comfort to him while he cried, the mark blistering quickly, ankle throbbing violently.

It took a nurse to come close before he moved, shrinking away in fear of being harmed more. She said nothing, helping him up and getting him to where she could care for him.

She put a splint and bandages on his ankle, put more in a bag with a blanket, water and what little food she could spare, pushing it into his hands.

“I-I, I-I can’t t-take--”

She looked at him steadily, her eyes firm, and pushed a walking stick into his hand. “I owed your mothers a debt,” she said, so quiet he could hardly hear her. “It is paid. Go.”

He didn’t understand, but he didn’t argue either. He started on the road back to his village, cold, tired, sharp, white hot pain jumping through him with each step his leg took. It would have healed fine, being a clean break, but he would not stop walking.

“Rumple…” Belle whispered, watching him, feeling his pain and heartache, knowing now that the raised skin she’d felt on her husband’s neck wasn’t a birthmark like he’d said.

He stopped seldomly to drink and eat and rest, sleeping fitfully. Few people met him on the road. Most ignored him. A group of three soldiers shoved him into a tree, checked his neck and beat him, taking the bag with them, laughing.

“YOU’RE THE COWARDS, NOT HIM!” Belle screamed at people who would never hear. She cried in her own pain, frustrated she couldn’t help him up out of the mud and wipe his tears, hold him, help him.

Relief flooded the both of them when the house came into view and he staggered inside, looking at the babe in Milah’s arms. Milah who had already gotten word what her husband now was. Milah who regarded him with such disgust. The woman who loved him, who wanted him to stay, to live, hissed and bit at him that he was supposed to fight, not run. That he was supposed to be better than his father and not burden her and their child with cowardice.

“I am nothing like my father!” Rumple bellowed, defending himself, and for the last time.

All the fight in his heart, the drive to get him home and be greeted by his wife, whom he loved more than anything, and meet the child he swore he would protect didn’t matter. And his faith in himself, his worth to Milah and the world, was shattered when she snarled at him that he should have died instead.

Instead of wandering the woods, being beaten and robbed, being branded and crippling himself, he should have just died. Left them all alone with nothing but a story, and a short one. Left them to starve. Left them…

Perhaps the other widows would have cared for them. Perhaps they would support each other and his son and wife would be better off without him.

He was convinced of that now, and it showed in his eyes, in the weight on his shoulders. His broken heart throbbed when she left, but…

His son was reaching for him. His sweet child, his precious baby who cared not about any of this was reaching for him. He wanted him.

“Oh, it’s alright, Bae,” he whispered, tears turning to joy when the babe grabbed his nose. He almost laughed. “Your papa’s here. And I am never, ever going to leave you.”

~*~

Belle forced herself out of the memories again, sobbing with her forehead pressed to the crystal, the phantom pain of Rumple’s injuries lingering with her. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair. He didn’t deserve this pain, he didn’t deserve to be treated so horribly. He didn’t deserve Milah’s hatred.

She wept, kneeling on the floor, gripping the crystal tight, the only thing that could console her.

The Darkness touched her shoulder and she jerked away, overwhelmed. “I know,” he whispered. “I know, I’m sorry. Really I am, Belle. But you have to get through it. You can do this.”

“I know!” She croaked, looking up  from the crystal, rage back in her eyes. Rumple walked three days and three nights to make sure his loved ones were alright, in horrendous pain for its entirety. He would do the same for her. He would endure anything for those he loved. She owed him as much in return.

She swallowed and straightened up, taking deep breaths. “I know I can. For him.”

 

Chapter Text

Things changed so quickly now that he was home. No one came by their home, not for anything but to fetch Milah now and then and take her away from the place he knew was suffocating her. He didn’t blame her for not wanting to be around him.

Rumple himself had nowhere to go. His leg still hadn’t healed entirely. Even going down the road was difficult and usually left him gasping in pain by the time he returned, sickening his wife all the more. People whispered when he walked past, glared. Several times he was spat at, purposefully tripped, openly mocked for his cowardice. It didn’t matter that he’d done it for his son, for his family, none of that could matter to them.

He attempted to sell his spun wool to the same vendor he always had, his head down, knowing that the quality of his work was still as pristine as it was before. The woman had sneered at him and mumbled something to her husband, who grabbed him by his hair and slammed his face into the booth. The brand on the back of his neck was what they were looking for. And once it was found he was thrown out, cursed at, kicked into the dirt and his wool tossed into the fire.

“Then go to the city instead,” Milah barked, glaring at him while she nursed Baelfire.

“I will,” he whispered, cleaning the blood and dirt from his face. “I don’t have enough wool worth selling right now. I...I’ll have to find something else.” The crackle of the fire was louder than his voice, the light casting shadows over his face that emphasized his shame.

“We barely have enough food to get through tonight, Rumple,” she hissed, shaking her head at him. “How could you lose that entire basket?”

“I didn’t have a choice, they burned it.” It was a feeble attempt at defending himself.

She scoffed, shaking her head. “You’re so weak.

He swallowed, painstakingly changing the bandage on his ankle. “I know.”

As Baelfire aged, Milah’s resentment grew. She tried to be at home as little as possible, constantly leaving to be with the friends that pitied her and loathed him like everyone else. A handful of people understood. A handful of people dared come close and still speak to him, but they kept him at arm's length. Showing kindness to a pariah like the town coward could ruin them too.

As soon as he was able, he began going to the city to sell his wares, and found how easily it was to prey on him in the darkness of the forest as well. Often those who harmed him were soldiers. Officers who escaped battle to recruit those in neighboring villages, who didn’t want his money. They wanted him to hurt, they wanted him to suffer. They humiliated him, beat him, sent him on his way weeping silently and bleeding.

Milah never said a word about it when he came home harmed, his face bruised and soaked in sweat and tears, clothes torn. She was simply grateful that she could go out now without their toddler trailing after.

“Bye bye, Mama!” he said brightly, running up to Papa to hear his stories about his trip as she left. Rumple smiled at him, patting his hair when he came close. “Papa! I-” The child frowned, looking at him. “Papa hurt,” he said, smile gone, tiny hand touching the tear still rolling down Rumple’s face.

“I’m alright, son,” he assured, smiling and wiping it away. “Just fell down, that’s all.”

The child wasn’t convinced, even then, but he’d no understanding of what to do because of it. He kissed a bruise on his Papa’s cheek, to make it better, just like Papa did for him all the time. He said a kiss from someone you love could make pain go away, and he hoped it was true.

Rumple’s arms wound around his child, holding back so much for the sake of the boy. “Thank you, Bae, that’s much better,” he smiled, and Baelfire beamed. “You know, I saw a real wishing well today.”

“Wish’ well!”

Rumple laughed and told him the story, eager to make his child smile and forget the horrendous trip home. The more he spoke, the more tired Bae’s eyes became. He dropped the volume of his voice, softer and softer until he was sound asleep, curled up against his chest. He didn’t move him right away, watching him sleep, his young face free of worry or dread or pain. He hoped to keep it that way for as long as he could manage. He kissed his forehead and lied him down in his little bed, tucking him in. His boy would learn someday that being his son would be a burden. A shameful thing, a thing to hate and loathe and he would grow to hate him as his mother did. He was sure of that.

For the time being, Baelfire thought the world of his Papa, and he wanted to cherish every moment. He delicately carded his hand through his dark curls, smiling softly.

Belle held her stomach as she watched, feeling that unconditional love for Baelfire surround her heart, warm it, embrace it. It hurt, but it was the greatest thing she’d ever experienced. She felt it through Rumple, and she felt it for herself for their unborn child.

Rumple stood and took the pot of water from its place over the fire, pouring it out in the basin hidden behind a gossamer white sheet. He hadn’t warmed it long, and Belle wondered vaguely if he would be too cold.

He undressed slowly, joints stiff, breath catching when a bruise or cut was agitated. He pulled his shirt off over his head, revealing tanned, scarred flesh. She could place each scar now, trace each one with her eyes and remember precisely where it came from, and now there were new ones to consider. The fire warmed his skin, still lean as ever, more gray in his hair from stress and fatigue but it wasn’t a bad thing. Before removing his trousers he glanced toward the door, then the window, a look of fear in his face just for a moment.

It was breathtaking, seeing him bare like this, alone and at ease.

Against the glow of the fire his scars shone against his battered body, pink and new, his bruises varying in color from a sickly yellow ringed in brown to a violent purple-black that decorated his entire torso.

He dipped his hands into the basin, leaning over on the stool he’d sat on while letting his bad leg soak in the shallow water. It wasn’t much, but it was all the comfort he could offer himself in terms of pain relief. His fingers slid through his hair, working through tangles and drying blood, using a rag to get the rest off his face. It was a soft, soothing ritual to watch. A calming peace through the storms endured by just one man for one mistake, one choice.

Belle wanted to find any person who put their hands on him, who hissed foul words at him and show them Baelfire. Show them the babe he’d hurt himself to save, show them precisely what he sacrificed his own physical health and stability for. Maybe then they would just leave him be, just let him live and enjoy the happiness he deserved.

“Don’t hold your breath for that one, dearie,” The Darkness whispered, sensing her thoughts.

Belle swallowed and hugged herself.

Rumple scrubbed blood and dirt from his hands and nails, washed and shaved his face with some rough looking soap. He took his time, even when he was shivering because of the temperature of the water he continued, lost in the routine, in the quiet and peace. Belle had only seen him more relaxed behind his wheel.

Mundane as a bath was she still caught herself admiring him and all the little things about him. The sharpness of his nose and his cheekbones, the nimble way his hands moved, the water falling in droplets from his hair, some hitting the basin, some rolling down his back. He shut his eyes and took a deep breath, listening to the steady rhythm of his son’s breath and the cracks and pops in the fire.

The door opened.

A switch flipped in Rumple and suddenly everything felt cold and frightening. He curled into himself, hiding behind the sheet and trying to make himself invisible to his wife. The anxiety stuck his tongue to the roof of his mouth, and his stomach twisted into a knot. He’d forgotten to bring clean clothes with him back here.

Milah peered at the sleeping babe, touching his cheek with a mostly blank expression. She did love Baelfire, so, so much, as much as any mother loves their child. But he looked so like his father. His dark eyes, his dimples, the way he was learning to speak and his expression when concentrating was all the same, and her resentment spilled back onto the boy because of it.

It made her loathing for her husband greater.

Rumple felt her eyes on him, catching the glimpse of his face through the break in the curtain, and he barely saw hers. All he needed to see, really, were her eyes, and all that peace washed away. The fire in them, wishing he would burn away and leave her sight forever made his guilt overwhelming. He swallowed, trying not to make a sound and wincing when he did.

“Must you do that in here?” She said softly, her voice dripping with venom.

He was quiet a moment, trying to dry himself without making noise either. “D-do what? Bathe?”

“Yes. You’re sickening to look at. Do you really want our son looking at all the gore on you? It’s pathetic,” she said, still speaking quietly.

“I-I waited until he was asleep-- It’s freezing outside, Milah, I can’t-”

“Alright, alright, just stop talking,” she ordered, sitting at the table with a bottle of wine she took from the shelf.

He glanced at her again, resolving to step out with a sheet of linen tightly wrapped around his waist so he could get different clothes not stained in blood. She glanced at him and sneered while he dressed, taking a deep drink.

A shiver worked up Rumple’s spine he fought to stifle. Malcolm drank. When he drank he looked at him like that too. The likeness was uncanny and horrifying. He finished dressing and sat at the table with her, breaking off a piece of bread to eat. Still she scowled.

“You, you thought me handsome once,” he said, glancing at her through his lashes. “Or you said you did.”

“Once you weren’t a coward,” she bit back. “Things change.”

“Yes, I...I gathered as much,” he muttered, his appetite diminishing by the second.

“You brought this on yourself. Don’t act like you’re some, some kind of victim, here, Rumplestiltskin,” her words were slurring a little. “You’re not the one trapped here with no prospects, no wealth, and no  future other than this hell you’ve condemned us to.”

“I told you, Milah, if it weren’t for that I-”

“Would have died like a fucking man instead of running home to become more womanish than your wife,” she snarled, though quietly so Bae wouldn’t wake.

Rumple frowned and looked up at her, brows drawn. “I’m still a man no matter what happens, Milah, don’t… Don’t talk to me like that. I’m still your-”

The sharp crack of skin striking skin sounded through the little house, stirring the babe but he rolled over and settled again, oblivious that his mother had just slapped his father as hard as she could across his bruised face.

“You’re nothing ,” Milah said gruffly, standing. “I won’t pretend otherwise.” She went to her bed, a pang of guilt in her stomach that she ignored. He hurt her plenty, why shouldn’t he hurt back, the little coward.

Rumple just...sat there. A bright red handprint formed on his face, pain radiating from it as it heated up, but it didn’t hurt as much as his chest. She hit him. She hit him just like… How was that possible? How was it possible that the two people he cared for most in this world thought him worthless and deserving of pain?

Tears welled in his eyes, aching heart thudding brokenly against his ribs. He touched the mark she left, standing shakily. He blew out the candles and got into bed, practicing yet another technique he’d learned as a boy; crying silently.

He promised himself again that he would never strike out at his son. And if Milah tried...he didn’t know what he’d do but even the thought made something stir in him, something black and dark in the pit of his soul, feeding that anger into his heart and urging him to do something foul, something horrible if she ever, ever hurt their son.

Milah’s love for him had died, however, and there was no fixing that. He looked up at the window, able to see bright stars through the slats in the shutters. Tonight was about reminiscing, apparently. About falling back into a pattern of living he was used to. He found the brightest star and spoke so, so quietly he hardly made a noise at all.

“You’ve never helped me before. Not as a babe, not as a boy, so maybe...maybe now? Maybe now you can help me?” The fairies bestowed so many miracles on so many people. He just wanted a taste, just a little, little taste of that. One thing to go right, just once. He waited, holding his breath and waited for Reul Ghorm to give some sign she’d heard.

He fell asleep repeating his wish over and over again, begging for some mercy, for him to do something that made Milah happy with him so she never felt compelled to strike him again. Baelfire roused him at daybreak, gently touching his nose and peeking at him over the mattress.

“Papa, up!” He giggled. Rumple smiled and touched his hair, getting up to make him breakfast. Maybe this was the wish he’d had granted. “Papa, be’fast!” Rumple grinned and listened to him babble while he cooked.

Baelfire was his whole world, his reason for waking in the morning, for working like he did, for taking constant abuse from nearly everyone he met and his wife. The brightness in his son’s eyes and the smile on his face was worth any ounce of pain he had to endure.

He played with him when he asked him to, told him whatever stories he could make up and spoke in funny voices to make him laugh. It was difficult to keep up with him at times, especially when he wanted to run and climb, but Baelfire never complained once that it took his Papa longer to do things than it might for other people’s fathers to do. He would wait for him patiently, rest when Papa had to and never once fussed over it; he knew Papa was doing his best and told him so on several occasions.

The love Rumple had for his child was incredible, and Belle actually managed to smile through some of the short time of peace in his life.

Milah’s abuse grew more hateful every day. Her words became sharper, her need to put him down and make him hurt a constant cloud over their home when they were together. Every word he spoke sickened her, every attempt to connect with her caused a shudder and she was so utterly repulsed by him that tearing him down, hitting him, neglecting him, was all she could do  as revenge.

Rumple told Milah constantly that he could be whatever kind of man she wanted him to be, speaking sincerely with the softest, gentlest smile and vulnerable eyes Belle had ever seen. It echoed within her, remembering Rumple speaking to her that way, trying to reassure her that he could be who she wanted.

“There’s nothing wrong with him,” she hissed out, startling the Dark One.

“For a second there I thought you’d forgotten how to speak, dearie!” He giggled, watching her expression. “See, looking at a situation from the other side does wonders, doesn’t it?” He was speaking into her ear again.

“He...he loves her so much. He’d do anything to make her happy but he shouldn’t have to. It’s her who’s wrong, not him! It… I, I was wrong. Am wrong. I-”

Baelfire screamed then, jerking her back into this dreamworld.

Rumple’s panic was suffocating, his fear and anxiety, his need to make his son better was so stifling he would really do anything, bargain anything, sell his own life, everything he owned, just to save his fevered babe that Milah literally had to drag him away from.

“Papa…” Bae cried, coughing weakly and reaching for him as Milah scowled at him.

“We’ll be back, Bae,” he said, smiling through tears. “We’ll be back with some medicine, eh? We’ll fix this. We’ll make it better.”

Milah softened for a moment, kissing Bae on the head and leaving with Rumple, who still looked agonized for most of the walk.

“Sitting there isn’t going to help him,” she spat, sneering at his broken expression.

“He shouldn’t be with strangers,” he whispered.

“He shouldn’t have been out of your sight, either, but you left him alone!” She barked. He winced.

“This isn’t my fault, Milah,” he mumbled, shifting his grip on the staff in his hand. She scoffed and kept walking until they reached the sorcerer’s dwelling.

Belle’s heart raced with Rumple’s, hearing the price of such medicine, mind racing to find a solution, a bargain, something worthy enough to trade. He was about to get on his knees and beg that he take the last gold coin they had, all the money they had to their name and please spare his child. He would work off the rest for as long as he lived if need be, he would, but Baelfire needed to live, he was just a babe--

Milah cursed and left before he could do anything of the kind.

Her solution was far more sinister. Kill him. She spent the coin, their only literal bargaining chip on a blade and sat with him in a pub.

Kill a man who’d done nothing but ask what was no doubt a reasonable price for his work. An innocent man to save his child. But that would make him a monster. Make him a terror and his son would look at him every day and know something had been broken. Something irreplaceable and he couldn’t risk that. He couldn’t bear it.

There had to be another way, some other way… He wanted to ask his wife if she was so keen on killing him why she didn’t do it herself.

Then she kissed him.

Roughly, crushing his face between her hands, forcing her mouth on his like some reward, some incentive to sway his heart.

Belle loathed that it worked, that her sick manipulation of his tenderness, his longtime neglect leaving him starved for affection made him grapple for more. And if this was the way to do it, if this meant Milah might love him again, or even like him a little…

But of course, no matter how much he wanted to please Milah, he couldn’t become a murderer.

The deal struck caused Belle to touch her stomach, almost protectively, like she was shielding their unborn child from the curse that had nearly befallen it. She understood perfectly why Rumple agreed to it. It was a punishment to himself, it saved his son, and though Milah wouldn’t ever be intimate with him again it wasn’t as though they had been since Bae was born anyway. Nothing would change and Baelfire would live.

He didn’t understand her rage. Telling him he ruined their future together, that she was even more trapped now than before because of what he’d done, and he couldn’t find room past the lump in his throat to ask her when she had ever, ever planned to have another child with him.

“Why wouldn’t I be angry with you?” She snarled once Baelfire was asleep inside the doctor’s. “You gave away our child--”

“My child. Not ours, just, just mine, there are orphans from the war that we--”

“Take someone else’s child as some sort of consolation for your own guilt? You may well be the reason their families died, running away like you did!” She hissed, shoving him into the side of the building. He winced.

“I...I just mean there are other options we, we don’t--”

He should’ve seen it coming but it didn’t register until Milah’s hand struck his face. “Always a way to wriggle out of it, isn’t there?” She growled, close to him but gripping his hair to keep him still. “Always some way for Rumplestiltskin the coward to hide from the horrible things he’s done. You’ve made me a fucking prisoner in my own home. In our life and you won’t stop your selfishness for one moment to get us away from here. Everyone knows your name and your sickening face here, we could go where they don’t and start over but no--”

“Milah, we have no horse, Bae’s too young to walk that distance and my leg--”

She hit him again. Over and over and over again, knocked the walking stick from his hand and hit him so hard he fell to the ground, kicking it away so he couldn’t get up again.

“Why do you make me do these things to you?” She hissed out, venom dripping from her voice, her eyes watery. “Why can’t you just try to be what I really want you to be, hm?!” She kicked him and he whimpered, looking up at her.

“What do you want me to be, Milah?” He asked, voice shaking.

“Dead.”

It hurt worse than her anger, and he rocked as if she’d simply hit him again. He pushed himself up to his knees, grabbed his staff and pulled himself up the rest of the way. “I’m sorry,” he breathed, not looking at her.

Milah went to speak again, to berate him more, her hand already tingling with anticipated satisfaction of hitting him again, when:

“Papa?” Baelfire called from inside. “Papa, where are you?”

He didn’t bother looking to her for permission to move. He quickly wiped his face and took off the torn scarf on his neck, dusting away dirt as he came in, smiling. “Shh, hey, I’m here. I’m right here, Bae, it’s alright.” He sat on the edge of the bed beside him, softening when his son hugged him.

“I had a bad dream you were gone, don’t go,” he whispered, his face still clammy and a little warm from the waning fever.

“Shh, hey now, shhh, shh, shh…” He soothed, picking up his son and holding him, careful to keep the blanket around him so he didn’t catch a chill. “Bae, I’m not going anywhere,” he promised, kissing his head. “I’ll never leave you.”

Bae’s fist held onto his shirt, drifting off to sleep while Rumple hummed a lullaby to him. He clung to him and shut his eyes while he sang, wondering if Bae really did have a bad dream or if he heard what happened outside. He prayed it was the former.

He felt Milah’s eyes on him, knew she wanted to continue her berating, but each time he tried to lie Bae down he whimpered and held on tighter. He let him rest, kissed his hair and didn’t stop singing until he too fell asleep.

It was worth it. All of this was worth keeping his boy. It always would be.

Chapter Text

“Calm down, dearie--”

Belle turned and threw the fireball brewing in her hand at the Dark One, watching it hurtle through him and crash into the nearby wall.

“I’m calm!” She bellowed, panting, her fists clenched. “I’m calm. I’m...just ready to get my hands on that fucking pirate.”

The Darkness grinned, sauntering closer to her. “And what are you going to do to him when you do, Belle?” He asked, wrapping his arms around her waist.

Belle’s cheeks were pinked from her rage, her fists clenched, her chest heaving with the effort to keep the magic contained within her and not allow it to swallow up both her and Storybrooke itself.  She looked up at him, eyes ever the stranger, skin more and more porcelain, her voice sounding like the tink of two glasses striking with each passing moment. “I want to peel his skin off a layer at a time,” she confessed.

“But…” He prompted.

She sighed. “But I may need something from him later,” she resolved, looking away and briefly shutting her eyes.

Each time she blinked she saw Rumple’s broken face, helpless, humiliated and frightened. The guilt that gripped him for leaving Milah on that ship, for being unable to fight for her freedom after everything she’d done to him. She’d beaten him severely just the night before for kissing her back when she’d latched her drunken mouth onto him without warning, yet there he was, slight, small, terrified but still there to get her back. For his son, for her sake.

For Killian to even dare demand he fight, to jab him with the scabbard and challenge him as if it were on equal footing.

She had seen what the fight may have looked like in Rumple’s mind’s eye, were he able to stand on his own. She knew how well he could handle a sword, watched him train and fight with grace and agility and yet… to have such a thing dangled in front of him, a victory that could have been won half a decade before stuck to the back of the spinner’s throat like tar.

The choice wasn’t fight or flee, as Killian explained it. It wasn’t a choice of letting Milah die horrifically or running away. It was death or orphaning the son he’d given everything to be with. If he fought, he would lose, and Baelfire would live his worst fear.

Again, Rumple wasn’t given a choice.

He staggered home with such a weight in his heart, silent tears pouring down his face, believing wholeheartedly that he’d killed his wife. That Milah would suffer dearly before death took her and it was his fault for not being stronger, for having no one to help him, for being so weak, so cowardly.

He’d gathered himself enough not to alarm the sweet boy waiting for him, but it all came back the moment Bae began to cry. Belle watched him cling to his son until Baelfire cried himself to sleep, and then Rumple did the same, clinging to him and whispering over and over through the night that he would be there for him. He would always be there, he would never leave his precious child alone.

And Belle, knowing what truly had happened, what Killian had done for sport, thinking this man’s life a game after the insults, the infidelity, and other atrocities to come, had been sent into such a rage she’d scorched an entire room in the Apprentice’s house because of it.

“Hey,” The Darkness said softly, gently lifting her chin. “Your revenge will be exacted in due course, dearie. I know it’s difficult, but the name of this little endeavor is patience.

“All good things to those who wait,” she echoed, looking up at him again.

“Exactly!” He giggled. “Now, I believe we have some things to collect from the widdle pirate, eh?”

Belle smiled faintly and vanished them from the house, appearing in the one place an artifact of Milah’s may have survived: The Jolly Roger.

~*~

“Love, I’m not sure this is going to work out like you’re planning…” Killian muttered, watching Emma as she worked.

“Even if it’s half as successful as I want it to be it’ll be fine. I’m not playing this game with everyone else,” she grunted, not looking up at him.

“She can’t kill me, she still needs me for the rest of the Crocodile’s life. I do make several appearances,” he gave her a grin that usually soothed her, but it earned him a dark glare.

“Exactly. We need to stop this now before she gets worse. You just got out of the damn hospital and she didn’t even need anything from you, she just did it. Belle’s too dark, too powerful.”

“Emma, that’s my point,” he said, frowning as he looked back at her. “If this goes wrong…”

“It won’t,” she bit  back. “It won’t. I’m the Savior, this is what I do. Good versus evil and all that other shit, right?”

“If you say so,” he sighed, his voice still less than perfect from the attack.

“There, done,” she said, straightening up and going to wash her hands.

Hook lifted his arm, turning it over in the light. “How do you know this’ll be what she’s after?” He called. Emma glanced away from the sink.

“Can you think of something better to define that time in your life?” She asked lowly.

Killian looked at the glistening tattoo on his arm, the name beneath it, quieter now. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Okay. I’m gonna get Regina and we’re gonna do this. You ready?” She asked, standing by the door anxiously.

He smiled confidently, a gnawing anxiety in the pit of his gut he’d never admit to. “Ready as I’ll ever be, love.”

~*~

“Absolutely not.”

“Regina-”

Regina set the heavy crystal bottle down with a sharp motion, giving Emma a look she’d only seen on ‘Mayor Mills’ when she’d first arrived in this place. She fought the urge to take a step back. “I said, no. We talked about this and everyone agreed--”

“I didn’t! I thought I could but… If this were Gold we wouldn’t just be sitting here waiting for something bad to happen!”

“Shh! Henry’s asleep,” she hissed, walking closer to her. “If this were Gold there would be a much, much shorter laundry list of people to enact revenge on and retrieve artifacts from and it would likely already be over. Belle’s lived a fraction of what he has and so far the list of people that have grossly harmed Belle are me, your boy toy and likely her father. If this were Gold he could handle it. The whole point of this is it isn’t Gold. It’s not you, not Hook, it’s Belle. A desperate Belle fighting for an old soul with an ancient curse attached to her. She’s looking through three hundred years of life and trying to hold back that curse, she’s going to be a little unhinged. The worst she’s done is give Hook some non-life threatening injuries and honestly I can’t believe she’s managed that.”

Emma stared at her, jaw tight, mouth in a thin line. “If she gets worse, she could hurt Henry,” she said softly. “I don’t want that on my head, Regina. I don’t want it on yours. I can’t do this alone, please. I need you.”

Regina let out a breath, downing her drink in one gulp. “I’m not hurting her unless she bites first.”

“You shouldn’t have to,” Emma swore, stepping closer to her now. “Thank you, I-”

She held up her hand to quiet her. “Just tell me what you need me to do.”

~*~

Henry wasn’t asleep, he hadn’t been able to since this started, really. He’d been reading, researching, trying to find an alternate way for Belle to figure this out, or even a way to get the curse out of her without it having to take root in someone else or harming Belle.

It had gotten him nowhere, naturally, but he had to try. He wanted to do something to help and might have had more books to sift through if his grandmother didn’t run the library and his grandfather wasn’t…

He turned over with a huff, trying to get comfortable enough so his mind would wind down and he could rest.

Maybe he should have kept the pen. Just for emergencies, for times like this where he could simply write down a solution and it would happen. The Apprentice said you couldn’t bring people back to life but maybe he could have just said Belle had everything she needed to do it and...and everyone would calm down for a little bit. Especially--

The front door opened, his mother’s voice breaking the silence of the house, soon joined by the mother who owned the house. He frowned a little and got up, creeping out to the hall to listen, especially when their words were more intense.

He sat at the bottom of the stairs, quickly figuring out what they were talking about, and what Emma was planning on doing with Regina’s help. He frowned, shaking his head. This isn’t what they’d agreed to, this isn’t the deal they all made with each other. Now Emma was breaking it and using his name and his safety to justify it. She hadn’t been the same since she’d had the curse. She’d been distant and half-hearted. She always look tired and sounded irritated… He wondered if she should talk to Dr. Hopper, like he’d done before.

This was going too far, though. This wasn’t like her and it wasn’t about to be.

He heard his mothers approaching and quickly hurried back up the stairs, silently shutting the door and grabbed his cell phone.

“Grandpa? I know it’s late but...my moms are doing something really dangerous…”

~*~

Belle tossed another box of nothing over her shoulder, tearing through the various cabins and rooms of the ship to find what she was looking for.

“Not the tidiest, are you, dearie?” The Darkness giggled, leaning against the nearby wall. “You were a lousy maid…”

Belle frowned over her shoulder. “I was a damn good one, thank you, I just don’t have time for this.”

“Only teasing~” He sang. “You’re not being any fun right now, you know?”

“I might be a teensy bit stressed!” She barked. “You could help.”

“No I can’t! Not real, can’t help. Dunno where the barnacle riddled bastard keeps his things anyway,” he giggled, cocking his head. “Though if I were keeping something precious hidden from my new wuv, I’d put it in there…”  

He pointed to the hope chest at the end of Killian’s bed that Belle had just opened. She dug through things that didn’t matter to her, more trophies from people Hook had killed or terrorized and a few things of his brother’s, until she found a painted black box the size of a chessboard tucked away at the bottom. The Darkness laughed and waved his hands a little.

“Told you!”

“Yes, you’re very smart, shush,” she said, the box creaking open. Inside were a few articles of jewelry and some letters, and a lock of Baelfire’s hair. She sneered and took the neatly tied keepsake, shoving it in her coat. Even in death she didn’t deserve that.

It was an earring that caught her attention, one in the pair she’d seen decorating Milah’s person after she’d begun her affair. She ground her teeth, turning it in her hand. “I wonder who he killed to get this,” she muttered. “Must have been important to give it to her. Don’t you think?”

“She was worth it,” Killian answered. Belle turned, glancing briefly at the Dark One while she glowered at him.

“I’m so glad she was. Did you ever mention that to Baelfire?” She bit back, straightening up. “Was there ever any mention of the little ‘encounter’ you had with Rumple? Demanding he fight you unfairly? Or lying and telling him you and your men were going to rape her to death?”

“It was a long time ago,” he muttered, glaring right back at her.

Belle laughed. “Oh yes, of course, that’s why you’ve been chasing him for centuries, because it was a long time ago and you’ve grown so much, eh?”

“It was a jest, Belle. Just a bloody joke to get him to go away so Milah could be happy. He wasn’t a model partner for her, you know, he couldn’t even protect her!” He barked.

Belle waved her hand, clearing away the wreckage she’d brought to his room so she could walk closer to him, backing him into the hall as she did. “Milah was a petty, spiteful, cruel, greedy woman. She did nothing but take, Rumple only gave and when he needed something from her she turned on him. She took such joy in hurting him, and the malice she had for tormenting him… You know, I suppose you two were meant for each other, hm? So bent on making people suffer for your failings, never taking a moment to reflect, to grow. You start chasing Emma, trying to bed her the second Neal was gone, and now suddenly because she fell for it, I’m supposed to call you ‘hero.’ I’ve been so...unbearably blind and naive. I’ve let you people pretend and define what goodness is and just believed it! I believed you and fought for you more than I’ve fought for my own husband but I… I won’t be doing that anymore.

“You’re exactly the same, Killian Jones. Nothing about you has changed except the woman on your arm, both of which you’ve inherited from a ‘Stiltskin.” He sneered, backed into a support beam now. Belle grinned wider. “Does that make you angry? Knowing that at least in Emma’s case, you’ll never, ever be good enough. You won’t be better than Neal, and you know why?”

She grabbed his forearm, shoving his sleeve back so she could see the tattoo. “Because your true love is long gone, and you still can’t let go. Allow me to offer some help.”

A bright light emitted from her hand and Killian cried out, watching the ink slip away right into Belle’s hand, collecting what she needed from him.

“Wait, Belle-!” But the Dark One spoke too late. The moment the tattoo ink was in the vial she’d brought, the squid ink Emma had painted on it took effect.

“Emma, now!”

Belle couldn’t move, she could only look as Emma and Regina revealed themselves and hurried toward her. “We don’t have a lot of time, let’s go!”

Regina hesitated, looking into Belle’s betrayed, broken eyes and feeling a pang of guilt in her chest.

“Don’t do this,” she pleaded softly. “Please.”

“I have to protect Henry,” she said apologetically.

“Regina, let’s go!” Emma barked, panicked still.

The Queen pursed her lips and touched Belle’s shoulder, vanishing herself, Belle, Emma and Killian to the Sheriff’s station.

Once the smoke had cleared Belle looked around at the cell she’d been locked into, and she could feel the magic emitting from the bars.

“We’re trapped, Belle.” The Darkness was kneeling beside her on the stone floor, looking right into her eyes.

“No,” she grunted out, interrupting whatever Emma and Regina were muttering to each other. “No, you can’t keep me in here, you can’t!” She stood, throwing spells every which way she could, watching them bounce back and burn her when they failed to escape. “NO! YOU CAN’T DO THIS!”

She grabbed the bars this time, trying to force the door open, trying everything to get away. “I have to save him, please! Please, I can’t stay here, I don’t have that much time! LET ME OUT, LET ME OUT OF HERE, NOW!” Her voice trembled with tears, shrill, panicked, desperate. “LET ME GO!”

“Emma?” Charming called, jogging into the room with Mary Margaret not far behind, cradling baby Neal. “Emma, what are you doing?”

“We talked about this!” Snow said, searching her face for an answer. “How did you even think to do this?”

“Let me go, let me out!” Belle continued to shriek, her breaths short and panicked. Everything was undone, everything would be taken apart and ruined, it would all be ruined and Rumple would stay dead…

Charming guided Emma out of the room, looking at Belle sympathetically before quitting to the hall with everyone.

“Look-- I did the right thing here!”

“You trapped a grieving pregnant woman in a cage,” Snow reminded.

“Yeah, to protect us! I found the spell you used on Gold’s prison and used it. Killian still had some squid ink and I used that to get her here. She’s already hurt Killian, there’s no telling what she would’ve done to everyone else!” She looked at Regina, and the Charmings followed.

“If she gets out of control she could hurt us. She could hurt Henry.”

“I thought we discussed that part,” David scoffed. “You were the one who showed us we need to face up to these things, Regina!”

“I know,” she nodded. “I know and I… I don’t like this, but I didn’t want Emma to get hurt trying.”

“I’m not a child and I have fucking ears, guys,” she snapped, glaring around at them. “Mom, Dad you did the same thing to Gold for a lot less than this, you have no room to talk.”

“Rumplestiltskin wasn’t pregnant when we locked him up!”

“You can’t do that either you stole Lily from Maleficent when she was an egg, that’s as good as pregnant! I did what I thought was right. I’m the Savior and I did my job. I protected my family.” She said stiffly.

Mary Margaret exchanged a look with her husband and sighed, shaking her head. “So what’s the next step, are we gonna just keep her in there forever?”

“We’re gonna undo this spell, bury Gold and get this shit behind us.”

“Emma--”

“No, Regina, it’s too late now!” Emma bit back. “It’s not safe having her running around terrorizing people, it had to be done!”

Regina shook her head, looking more than defeated. “If that,” she pointed at Belle, who had collapsed to her knees sobbing now, her pleas soft, “is what we ‘do’, then I’m done with this hero thing.”

“Regina--”

She was already walking away and David put a hand on his wife’s shoulder to keep her with him.

“Oh, and for the record, Miss Swan,” Regina said, turning to face her again. “We all followed your boyfriend into Hell just ‘cause. Pretty dangerous thing for us to do, pretty reckless and a lot of us ended up hurt in one way or another. But I guess that had to be done too, right?”

“That’s not--”

“I’m not going to let you manipulate me like this again,” she said firmly. “You’re starting to act just like the pirate and I’m not having it. When Emma Swan gets back from wherever she went, then I’ll stand behind her. But not you. I don’t know you.”

She turned again, leaving  them with Belle’s crying and the silence that clung to the thick air.

“The whole point of this,” Snow whispered. “Is that we know what we did was wrong, and we were gonna pay for it. That’s what we agreed to, as a family.”

“How did you guys even know we’d be here?” She asked, looking hopeless and lost once more.

David paused as they went to leave. “Henry called us, to stop you.”

They walked away and Emma’s insides felt like ice, her heart bruised and hollow. She was alone. Even feeling Killian touch her couldn’t shake that feeling.

And Belle kept crying.

Chapter Text

Belle leaned back against the wall of the cell, her hands swollen, burnt and bleeding from the knuckle from her effort to get out. Most of the damage to herself had come from her own frustration, angry tears still drying on ruddy cheeks. She was exhausted and nauseous, likely from the baby, listening to Emma’s shoes pat across the floor while she paced.

“Breathe now, dearie,” The Darkness whispered, placing his hand over the one on her stomach. “Don’t stress the little one too much.” Belle nodded very gently, focusing on calming her heartbeat and whatever soothing thoughts she could muster. Most of them revolved around flaying Killian alive and using his skin to make a sail and ship him out into the ocean half dead, but it was enough. The Dark One laughed gently. “You’ve really become quite deliciously vindictive.”

“If I think about Rumple I’ll get upset again,” she explained. “I need to focus.”

“What?” Emma said, frowning at her from across the room.

She sighed. “Nothing.”

“Don’t play games with us, we know exactly what you’re dealing with. What your game is,” Killian spat.

Belle smirked a little, still breathing deep, eyes closed, but didn’t respond.

“That’s what I thought,” Emma muttered, going back to pacing. Belle frowned, anger sparked again, and looked at her.

Her tired eyes glared at her, following her, the ice against the inky black sclera sharp and off-putting on the already off-putting doll she had become.

“Keep looking at her like that and we’re going to have bigger problems,” Killian snarled, gaining her attention.

“I can see the life of every Dark One that has ever been. Did you know that?” She asked, cocking her head. “I don’t know if that’s something you managed to look into in your short time being one, but I can. I know all your sins, Hook.”

“So do I,” Emma frowned, crossing her arms and ceasing her pacing. Belle let out a sharp laugh that resembled sharp nails on crystal.

“You think you do. You think you know everything about him, but how can you when you’re so lost?” She asked, smirking at her. “You are in this...this fog, Emma, walking through a maze that he’s leading you through and you can’t see well enough to know you’ve been going in circles,” she smiled. “Since when does Emma Swan endanger the life of her beloved parents and her child for the sake of a man? Since when is Emma Swan so forgiving of someone that poached her so readily, waiting to snatch you away the moment Neal was out of the way--?”

“That’s not what happened,” Killian snarled, standing now. “Shut your fucking mouth! Emma, you know what that demon makes people do. She can’t be trusted.”

“Emma knows I’m right,” she said, still smiling. “If she took ten minutes without her head up your arse she’d see it too. You’re an opportunist, Hook. You lie in wait and take what you want from people. Emma isn’t a person to you, she’s treasure you’ve plundered. She’s another conquered ship, another stolen batch of goods. You keep her to yourself and relish her beauty and wonder but the moment someone more deserving reaches for it you practically cut their hand off. You’re a pirate,” she hissed. “You always have been, even before your brother died. You look for any excuse to be a bastard and run with it. I wonder what your excuses were sending children to Pan. Sending Neal to Pan--”

“What?” Emma frowned, searching Killian’s face. Belle grinned at him and the hatred burning in his eyes. “You...you’re why Pan had Neal?”

“He gave him to him,” Belle corrected. “After he found out who he was. The man who ran off with his mother, who was hunting his father. Neal was being used to find out Rumple’s weakness--”

“I cared about him!” Killian snarled, giving Emma a pleading look, though there was no sympathy in her expression.

“You care about lots of things you betray and ruin.” Belle was glaring at him now. “Once that boy rebuffed your affections and what have you, you were done with him. You threw your tantrum and gave him to that shadow, knowing what kind of monster you were sending him to. You could have taken him home, to Rumple. You could have buried your hatred for the sake of a lost child, but no. It’s not about others. Not about doing the right thing. It’s about vengeance. Temper tantrums. Like calling your so-called ‘true love’ an orphan to make her feel bad for saving your life.”

Emma’s jaw flexed and she straightened up, looking at Hook a moment longer before she walked out of the office altogether.

“Emma!” The front doors opened and shut. He glared at Belle again, reaching through the bars and grabbing her by her throat. “I will find that dagger and bury it in your chest,” he snarled. “I’ll make sure you, the Crocodile and that hellspawn of yours never stain this world again.”

Belle regarded him coolly, toes barely touching the floor. She smiled. “You spent centuries trying to kill Rumple and remained unsuccessful at every turn. You couldn’t even kill little bookwormy Belle. I’m not too worried.”

Killian snarled and threw her back, satisfied when she hit the ground and jogged out of the room, looking for Emma outside.

Belle slumped back, her smile gone, tears in her eyes again. “They’re going to take him away,” she croaked. “And all of this will have been for nothing! I-I need him, I need Rumple… I can’t stop now.”

The Darkness held her, gently petting her hair back. “Then we won’t,” he assured. “I can still show you his memories, they’ll just...build up, with nowhere to go. Could drive you a bit mad if too much gets in there without a release.”

“Like what happened to Rumple when he and Neal were sharing a body?” She asked, looking up at him. He nodded, almost wincing at the reminder.

“Yes. Precisely. But the spinner’s had a bit more practice than you, dearie.”

Belle swallowed, taking a deep breath. “I can take it. At...at least for a little while.”

The Dark One kissed her forehead, hugging her close. “These are happy, dearie, I promise. One of the happiest in his life, really. Just him and his son.”

Belle closed her eyes, holding his hand, and let the memories wash over her.

~*~

Love.

That’s what the next several years of Rumple’s life was filled with. Unconditional, pure love from his son, who adored him so.

Baelfire noticed quickly, once he was through mourning the loss of his mother, that Papa seemed much happier now. He didn’t get quiet and afraid just from being at home. He didn’t spend so many nights awake and fearful and Bae didn’t wake up to find him with fresh bruises anymore. Yes, people in town were still cruel to him, but he still seemed better.

The townsfolk were far crueler to Rumple now than before. Now it wasn’t only the tailor who wouldn’t purchase his goods, but most wouldn’t sell anything to him at all. If they did, the prices were much higher. He was forced to sell any means of luxury he owned, save for Baelfire’s toys, simply to keep them alive. A neighbor would sometimes buy things for him and bring them back, exchanging coin and food in secret, as if it were something horrible and not the means to survive.

“I’m doing this because your son doesn’t deserve to starve,” she hissed, pushing the bundle of food into his arms. “The favor is for Milah and for him, understand?”

They knew what he’d done. That he’d let those pirates take off with her, to save his own neck. Coward, beast, dirt, worm, things he was used to being called. It didn’t hurt him much, but he worried about Bae, about what he must think of him, what he would think in years to come.

Baelfire, however, still didn’t resent his father. Not for his limp, for his cowardly status. He resented others for causing all that fear and anxiety left palpable in the air every time he was spoken to by someone else. The moment he left the house he was afraid, and he didn’t calm until they’d returned. The looks people gave the pair of them, the things they whispered. The other children were far more brazen in their attacks, and the boy could only take so much.

“What, what’s happened to you?” Rumple asked, kneeling painstakingly in front of his child, whose fat lip was still bleeding, eye blackening lightly behind his tears of rage and pain. “Thomas wouldn’t stop calling you names. He said terrible things and I told him to stop but he wouldn’t! He wouldn’t so I, I punched him. And we fought.” He looked down, sniffling. “I’m sorry, Papa.”

“Sorry? Hey, hey, come here, love. Come here,” he said gently, hugging him close. “Oh, my dear boy, you don’t have to be sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong-- Well, you shouldn’t hit people but I...I’m proud of you for standing up for yourself. For...for me. But you don’t have to do that. There’s too many people who say rude things about me. You want to fight the whole village?” He smiled, trying to coax one out of Bae.

“...No. Mrs. Haddy’s too strong,” he muttered, a ghost of a smile on his lips. “I don’t think you’re  a coward, Papa,” he assured. “I know how brave you are.”

Rumple smiled sadly, eyes glassy as he held his son, touching his curls. “I hope you don’t change your mind one day, Bae,” he whispered, kissing his hair. “Truly I do.”

He made sure Baelfire knew how to read, how to write, explaining to him that while strength was important to survive in this harsh place, knowledge would be even better. He taught him about the stars, about plants, how to properly raise their sheep and answered any question the boy had to the best of his ability.

He grew so quickly he could hardly keep up with him. He made sure he had clothes that fit, that were clean and warm, and in the meantime he let his own wear. He darned the holes in his things, reused what he could of Bae’s old clothes to patch up his, and he didn’t mind a bit. He swore to himself that no matter what, Baelfire would never be hungry, cold or without a proper home so long as he could help it. Even if it meant he was doing without.

“Papa, aren’t you hungry too?” He asked, looking up at him from the rickety table. Rumple smiled and sat across from him, winding his thread up neatly.

“I’m alright, Bae,” he assured. “Don’t need to worry about me. You eat up.” Of course he was hungry. It was gnawing at his gut, every brush of wind through the house sending the smell of food at him again. Bae needed it more than him. “I had an apple earlier when you were playing outside.”

“No you didn’t,” he retorted, straightening up. “I counted them last night and the night before. You haven’t eaten them. I counted how much meat and bread we have too and you haven’t eaten any of that either.”

Rumple paused, admittedly impressed with his son’s cunning. He looked at him steadily. “You need to eat, Bae. I’m fine, but you’re a growing boy. You need it.”

“Papa, if you don’t eat, you’ll die,” he gushed, his worry mounting. “And, and then I’ll be alone, I’ll lose you like I lost Mama and I can’t--” His voice broke, as did Rumple’s heart. “Please eat.” He looked at him tearfully, pushing a bowl toward him.

His heart clenched and he took it, placing his hand over Baelfire’s. “I will. Right now, alright?” He said softly. “Don’t cry, Bae, I’m eating. I won’t leave you. Not ever.”

He ran around the table and hugged him around his middle, frail as he was, face in his chest. “When I eat, you eat too. That’s our new rule. Okay?”

Rumple kissed his forehead and wiped his eyes, nodding. “We have a deal.” Bae grinned.

Rumplestiltskin had to take Baelfire with him to sell wool now. It wasn’t as often as before, because of how difficult the trip was for his child, but Baelfire was happy to go. Adventures, he called them, goading Rumple to tell him something fantastical about the wood around them, elated when he obliged and went along in the fun. It was fun, being with him throughout the long walk.

He had to stop every so often and rest his leg, and Bae didn’t mind. He set snares for rabbits while he waited and collected them on their way back, always grinning so happily when Rumple gushed out his pride for him.

Of course, it wasn’t always so pleasant. If they were lucky anyone they passed merely spit at him. If they spoke they hurled insults at him, ridiculed him openly and Bae couldn’t stand it. He chucked stones at them, reassuring Rumple softly that it was alright, trying to ease the shame from his expression.

Rumple never fought back. In words or otherwise. He tucked Baelfire behind him and took the abuse and simply moved on. “I won’t put you in danger for the sake of my pride,” he would tell Bae after.

“I can handle myself, Papa, you shouldn’t let them talk to you like that,” he implored, holding his arm.

He didn’t answer him after that. He patted his hand and continued walking back home.

Baelfire wasn’t sure if Papa knew how to fight at all, and it worried him a bit. If something dangerous were to happen, something beyond the usual bastards they came across, what might happen. He knew how to fight a little but those men were so much bigger than him. He could try to protect Papa, but what if it didn’t work?

He was mulling this over when a small group of drunken men barred their way on the road, demanding Rumple hand over all the gold on his person.

“Please,” Rumple said softly. “It-it’s all we have, and it’s not much. Just, just let us pass, please.”

“I don’t think you heard us,” the one closest to him snarled, grabbing the front of his shirt. “Give us everything you have, or else.”

“Papa!”

“Shut your fucking mouth, runt!” The man snarled. Rumple felt some of his fear leave him.

“Don’t talk to my son that way,” he said softly. The man laughed and punched him, hard, shaking his head.

“I don’t fucking care about your bastard, coward,” he spat.

“I said don’t talk about him like that--” He said in a low voice, a very soft warning.

“How about this!?” He tossed Rumple to the ground, snapping his fingers so one of his men approached Baelfire, catching him by his hair and pressing a dagger to his throat.

“NO!”

“Papa!”

Rumple scrambled for his staff, painstakingly pulling himself up, fear, rage and panic welling in his fluttering heart. Baelfire struggled weakly, wincing against the cold blade and the fist in his hair.

“You give us everything you have,” the bandit continued, smirking. “Or we take your bastard instead. I’d imagine he’d bring a fine price, wouldn’t you, boys?”

Belle could feel Rumple’s panic begin to overwhelm him, knowing that he should hand over everything he had. But what was to stop them from taking Baelfire anyway? He could drop his goods and they could take Bae away, or slit his throat and leave him to bleed out on the forest floor. There was no guarantee for Baelfire’s safety, no way Rumple could foresee knowing precisely the outcome of this.

A drop of blood slid down Bae’s neck from the knife.

“Are you ready to see what happens when a beaten dog is backed into a corner, dearie?” The Dark One whispered, holding Belle’s shoulders.

“What--?”

Before she could finish, Rumple’s staff cracked across the first bandit’s face. The man grunted, falling to the ground and Rumple continued hitting him, beating him in a blind rage until he stopped moving. The other two rushed him, the one with the knife leaving Bae behind where he was safe. He came at Rumple with it, realizing the mistake too late when Rumple grabbed his wrist and forced it into his shoulder, knocking him to the ground where his head struck stone and knocked him out. The third man simply ran off without them.

“Papa?”

Rumple turned, seeing Bae peeking at him through his fingers, his voice trembling with the rest of him. He rushed to him, picking him up with one arm and limping away, shushing him gently. “It’s alright. It’s alright, you’re safe. You’re safe, I’ve got you. Papa’s here, shh…”

The boy cried softly into his shoulder, still scared and confused. “I-I didn’t know you could fight like that,” he rasped.

He nodded a little, kissing his hair, still shaking from the adrenaline. “I, I didn’t either.”

“See, Belle?” The Dark One whispered. “That darkness was always lurking there. How desperate he’s always been to protect those he cared about. He did all that without even thinking. He’s always been cursed, long before I was around. Do you understand?”

She nodded, feeling Rumple’s budding darkness, that fire he always kept smoldering and ignored because it frightened him, still bubbling deep in his belly. The number of times she’d seen that expression, when she’d caused it, when he was so afraid he acted rashly. She felt it now, how overwhelming it was, how his anxiety choked the life out of all other options and left him in a tunnel. She swallowed, watching Rumple’s tears slip from his frightened eyes as he limped home with his son. “I understand.”

~*~

“Emma, answer the door!” Killian called, pounding his good hand against the door. “Let’s talk about this, eh? I know you said you didn’t want to see me but, but I deserve a conversation, at least, I-”

The door swung open and he nearly toppled inside, and would have, if not for David shoving him roughly against the wall, the door to his and Mary Margaret’s apartment clacking shut behind him. “What the hell is your problem?” He scowled.

“I just need to talk to Emma, please. Just let me--”

David scowled at him, gripping the front of his shirt still. “After she said she didn’t want to see you or talk to you? You call her how many times and she doesn’t answer so your next big idea is to harass her at her parents’ place?”

“I’m not--”

“I’ll tell you when you can fucking talk again,” David snarled. “I didn’t step in last time, not nearly enough, because you helped save my life. You’ve also taken my daughter from me, lied to her, lied to everyone, terrorized us all and nearly got everyone she cares about killed because of you . Belle’s right, you haven’t done anything to redeem yourself other than show a little restraint around Emma, because she wouldn’t approve. But all bets are off when she’s not lookin’, huh?”

Killian sneered. “I will see Emma,” he spat. “You’re not going to stop me.”

“I think I already did,” David reminded, keeping his hook in his line of sight. “If you really do care about Emma more than you care about yourself and what you want? You’ll stay away from her til she talks to you. That could be in an hour, tomorrow, or six years from now. She owes you nothing, understand? The world owes you nothing.”

He shoved him down the hall, glowering and barring his way to the door. “Those are her words, by the way, not mine. You let her figure this out on her own time. Stay away from her. I see you anywhere near her until she’s ready and I’ll hand you over to Belle myself.”

He turned, heading back inside, Snow peering around him to glower at Killian as well.

“So you’re just going to take the bloody Dark One’s side, then?!” He barked.

“No, we’re not on her side. We’re on Emma’s,” Snow growled out, holding David’s arm. “And she’s not on yours.”

The door closed heavily, the extra locks clacking shut as well, keeping him out.

Inside, Emma was still fuming, fire back in her eyes and her face. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking at her parents, leaning on the island. “I’m sorry for…” She searched for a place to start.

Mary Margaret crossed the kitchen and hugged her. “We know,” she said softly. “It’s okay.”

Emma clung to her mother, feeling awake for the first time in a long time. She felt freed, she felt light. She…

She felt like Emma Swan.

Chapter Text

The war was only getting worse. Rumple could feel it in the air, see it in the faces of the soldiers who were becoming a more frequent sight around the village. Recruiting, they called it, or passing through to get from one battlefield to another. The pounding of horse hooves on the dirt lanes sent the village into paralysis, watching them and their black uniforms like omens of death rushing before their eyes.

Many times, people could be seen falling to their knees and clasping their hands together, praying to their respective gods that they would simply ride through and not pluck their sons, their daughters, their husbands or wives, from their worlds and feed them to the massacre machine that this war had become. It was a murder of peoples, a murder of humanity with no real end in sight. It could have been avoided, it all could have stopped if humans simply left the land of the Ogres alone, but powerful men, men like Hodor, would not relinquish their greed. Not for anything.

Not for the screaming of widows, the cries of babes left without parents, without food. The young, the able-bodied, were all snatched up and thrown into war and returned dead within a week. No time for training, no time for proper planning and tactics. Only death.

It startled the spinner how little the war had changed since his time of enlistment. How it was still one that need not be fought. This fight was not theirs, this war was not theirs. And yet...here they were.

Baelfire wasn’t afraid, and that frightened him more. Baelfire wanted to fight, the bravery and fire in his chest outweighing Rumple’s words explaining there was no fight to be won. This war was an impossible, horrible, revolting thing meant simply to kill thousands to prove a point.

“But I can do it, Papa! What if I can make the difference?” He implored, reaching across the table and grabbing his Papa’s wrist to regain his full attention. “You’ve told me over and over that I’m going to do great things, what if this is it?”

Rumplestiltskin had frequent nightmares of a simple image of his boy, so young and innocent, his whole world, in a black uniform. Lately, it had evolved to reveal a torn hole in his chest, his heart and innards spilling onto the ground, his soft features brimming with pain and a quiet, wavering sob -”Papa?”- before he fell, the light gone from him forever.

He didn’t tell his son about these dreams, of course. Why worry him with such things? Burden him with the nonsense of his rambling, worried mind. “I know, son,” he whispered, meeting his eyes and cherishing the warmth, the life, in them. “But it’s not something you have to worry about for awhile yet. You’re only thirteen.”

Baelfire nodded, swallowing roughly. “I know. You’re right. Who knows, maybe by the time I’m of age, the war will be over.” He offered Rumple a shaky smile, which he returned.

“That’s right, my boy,” he nodded, squeezing his hand. “That’s right.”

Belle felt the sinking feeling along with her husband, watching his tired eyes realize that nothing ever went his way. Nothing turned out for him, nothing even remotely went right, and these few years of happiness or what he could even consider bliss in comparison to other times, would of course come to a gritty, bloody end.

“Is this where you come in?” Belle asked, looking over her shoulder at the Dark One, who  was holding her this time, one arm around her waist, his other hand gently combing rhythmically through her hair.

“Indeed it is, Dearie. Your husband’s saving grace, as it were.”

“I don’t think he sees it that way,” She breathed.

“Maybe not at first, or when I was inconvenient for him. But he came to see it that way, in time. Though I’m not sure if you want to get all of that now.”

Belle frowned, looking up at him briefly while Rumple and Bae cleaned up after dinner. “Why?”

“You’ve nowhere to put all of this,” he said, gesturing theatrically around them. “Isn’t your head starting to ache?”

“Yes. But I don’t want to stop. What else do I have to do?” She frowned, staring at him. The Darkness giggled.

“He said the same thing to me when the Charmings had him imprisoned…” He mused. “Didn’t work out so well for him then either.” Belle’s expression stayed hard, determined. He sighed. “If you’re sure… I can’t deny you, dearie.”

“Because as your host you have to do what I say?” She chuckled.

“Not remotely,” he breathed, his lips beside her ear. She stifled a shiver. “It’s because I’m experiencing something I didn’t think possible. I care for you, Belle. I know it’s not the care you want, what you crave, that uniqueness that the Spinner brings for you, but I do care. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be helping you undertake this task at all.”

She swallowed, the memories around them turning to a blur. They were still in her mind, but outside of Rumple’s past. She tipped her head a little, looking at him but not quite. “You...wouldn’t have?”

“No. What host I have doesn’t matter to me. Freedom matters to me. Power matters to me. This?” He shook his head, lips brushing her neck now. “But you are special, Belle.”

“S-special how?” She asked, closing her eyes as he held her closer, pressing his body against hers.

“If you were to try and get rid of me, to destroy me entirely and make me disappear? This time, I would not fight you. I would leave, simply because you wished it. Whatever you ask of me I will do, simply because of your nature, your being. You are set apart from the world, the world I have seen a thousand times over through hundreds of pairs of eyes, and yours are different. The Spinner was different in his resilience, his intellect, his strength. He used this curse longer than anyone, and in ways no one else ever has, and you will see that. And you?

“I have seen you through his eyes. I’ve seen you firsthand. I found myself regretting your leaving, missing you even, and joining in the self-loathing the Spinner’s had for harming you, or for thinking we’ve harmed you. If there is a love I can experience, this is the closest I will ever come to it. Being with you, knowing you, seeing you. I know you all the more intimately now. I know your desires, your thoughts, your dreams. I know your aspirations, your fantasies and your utmost primal wants. I know precisely who you are, Belle. I see you. Every part of you amazes me so, every part of you traps me, entangles me, enchants me. Me. I am the source and spawn of evil, of darkness and horror. I am the thing that goes bump in the night, that tears away souls and safeties and livelihoods. I am the devil if there ever was one, and my will shall always bend to you. And you alone.”

Belle turned now, facing him and his cold eyes, the black in them swirling with Rumple’s brown, green and gold striking in the light. She knew he was sincere, genuine. She could feel it in her own heart and it was...frightening. But good. She reached up and gently touched his face, brushing his hair back as she’d done with Rumple thousands of times. He was not her enemy, he was not the force she should be fighting. He was Rumple, part of him, as much as anything else about her true love.

The Darkness held his breath, afraid an exhale would remove her touch. He found her much more frightening than he could ever be.

“I’ve, I’ve said this before,” she whispered. “That I...I love all of Rumple. Even the parts that belong to darkness. To you. To his own he’s had all his life. I...I do love you too. I know he and you coexist together. You’re each other, you’re yourselves.” She slowly caressed his cheek, lips parting a little when he pressed into it. “I don’t want you to go,” she breathed. “I don’t want to cure him of you...because…” She swallowed. “Because you’re not a disease.”

He blinked, just looking at her. “If the Spinner wants to be rid of me in the future,” he explained quietly, “I will go. Deal?”

She smiled a little, moved. She’d no idea in this place, between wakefulness and sleep, between memory and dream, she looked like herself. “Deal,” she nodded, trying not to choke up. “Should, should we seal it, then?”

The Dark One smiled his wicked smile and leaned in, tipping her chin up. “Yes.” This kiss was different than previous ones. That burning desire, that consuming flame, was still there, but something else as well. It wasn’t a desperate attempt to reach Rumple, to be reminded of him even though she ached feeling his lips against her own, it was acceptance. Understanding. Something like love, or as close to it as either could feel for the other.

Belle thought it only fitting this  fantastical, unexplained feeling could only exist somewhere just as fantastical and unexplained.

“Let’s keep looking,” The Dark One breathed. “Let’s bring him back to you.”

~*~

Emma sat quietly in her old spot at her parent’s place, rocking baby Neal in his crib with her foot while he cooed and bubbled quietly before bed.

In her hands, she held the dreamcatcher. She traced the lines, the beads, feeling the supple leather that was twisted around it against her fingers. It was comforting, memorable. The soft brush of feathers reminded her of how Neal’s long eyelashes would brush against her cheek when they kissed. The taut strings running through the circle brought images of his smile, captivating as it was. His heart was so warm, so good, so kind… And she felt as if she’d forgotten about him so quickly. Her lost boy, lost to her because...because Killian blindsided her, really. She wasn’t ready when he approached her, and he didn’t let that stop him.

It only really occurred to her now that her ‘no’s had meant ‘yes’ to him quite a few times. She said back off, he said he’d never stop trying. She told Neal to back off and he gave her space, he stepped aside and allowed her to have her own choices, her own decisions.

Knowing what Killian had done to him made her feel sick. It twisted her insides and brought her mind to all the sadistic places Pan’s horrifying grin hinted at. For hundreds of years Neal endured so much pain and fear, away from a father desperately trying to find him and make it right and kept apart by a grandfather who tormented him simply because of their shared blood.

Emma felt as though she should apologize to Neal himself. She wanted to ask for some kind of forgiveness, go back in time and tell him she loved him and never stopped and never would stop. But he was gone. Dead. Died in her arms, in front of his father who spent his life trying to find him. It was one of many times she herself felt solidarity with Rumplestiltskin. Doing anything for his child, breaking in front of her like that, the screams he gave simply holding himself together and keeping Neal alive…

Gold was not her enemy. He hadn’t been for some time. He was a flawed man doing his best and his best always seemed to backfire on him. She’d been his hope to allow him to find Neal again. He couldn’t foresee they would be family someday, but because of him she existed. Because of him she was the savior. Because of him, Henry was born. Gold was family. Her link to her fallen true love. A long-time victim of circumstance and cruelty of foul men with horrific sense of humors.

Men like Killian Jones.

She pursed her lips to keep her angry tears at bay, holding the dreamcatcher to her chest. She didn’t even hear Henry come over, and quickly wiped her face when he sat on the little bed beside her.

“H-hey, kid,” she said, smiling a little at him. Henry smiled back and pushed a mug of cocoa in her hands, and she felt her tears come back all over again.

“Thought you could use this,” he said gently.

She nodded, taking it and setting it on the table beside her, hugging Henry tight. He hugged her back, his face pressed into her shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” she forced, squeezing him tighter. “I’m so, so sorry, Henry.”

He shook his head, smiling a little. “It’s okay, Mom. You tried your best, it’s okay.  It’s okay. It’s alright.”

“We’re gonna help your grandma,” she assured. “She’s family.”

Henry smiled more, nodding. “Yeah. She is.”

Emma kissed his head, still holding onto him. This was her top priority. This is who she had to keep safe and do everything for. Her son.

And Regina. God, did she need to apologize to Regina.

Family first. Always. She wouldn’t dare lose sight of that again.

~*~

Regina took her shift at the station, warding it from anyone named Killian Jones so he couldn’t get inside. He’d caused enough trouble lately, and after his stint with Emma she didn’t want him returning and trying to hurt Belle. Hurt her anymore, really.

She was very proud of Emma for finally snapping out of whatever goddamn spell he had her under. She would guess it was something along the lines of emotional abuse, a fostering of codependency and taking advantage of her when she was at her most vulnerable. It was amusing that Belle was the one to break her out of that. The Dark One taking something else from Killian Jones, how lovely.

Laughing would be in bad taste, so she found herself smirking a lot when she thought about it.

“That happy to play jailer, hm?” Belle croaked, looking up at her from her spot beside the bed.

“Hm? No,” she assured, shaking the thoughts away. “No. I’m not happy about this at all, really.”

“Then why are you here?” Belle challenged.

Regina held up a bag from Granny’s. “Thought you might be hungry. Baby cravings, right?”

She pursed her lips. She’d been craving a grilled cheese for about five days now and been so wrapped up in her endeavors she’d forgotten about it. “Maybe,” she grunted, getting up shakily and taking the bag from her and started to eat. Regina rolled a water bottle in with her, which she stopped with her heel and opened.

“Why am I still in here?” She grunted between mouthfuls, glaring at Regina through her lashes.

“Right now, for your own safety,” she said. “We haven’t…discussed anything since this whole ordeal with Killian.”

Belle cocked her head. “Ordeal?” The Dark One chuckled, leaning against the wall of the cell.

“Yeah, he and Emma, well… She couldn’t get past what you told her about him.” She leaned on the edge of the desk across from her, arms folded over her chest. “Seems like you’ve had quite the impact on everyone around here.”

“Funny,” Belle rasped. “I was sure I was just getting started.” Her head gave a nasty throb and she winced, pushing her hair out of her face. “I need to get out of here. I have to help Rumple, I have to get him back. You know I don’t have a lot of time as it is, and every second I’m in here the closer he gets to death.”

Regina sighed, walking closer to her to take her food trash from her. “It’s not that simple, Belle, and you know that. In...in their own way, the Charmings are trying to help you.”

“But not Rumple,” she spat, laughing ruefully. “Never, ever Rumple.”

“I...I know,” she breathed sadly. “I know, I’m sorry. But they’d rather worry about the living.”

She turned, and Belle shot forward, falling to her knees and grabbing the hem of her jacket, stopping her. “Please!” She hissed, tears in her eyes. “Please, Regina, I have to do this. I have to help him, I have to get out of here, now. If I don’t he’ll be gone. He deserves to see his child, to know their name, to be a father. Please…”

Regina looked at the floor, holding her resolve to their agreement. “Belle, I can’t--”

“If you had the chance to save Robin,” she choked, “to do what I’m doing right now, with a speck of hope you could bring him back, wouldn’t you?”

She closed her eyes at the mention of his name, a deep, horrible ache overcoming her. Tears immediately welled in her eyes, falling rapidly. Robin… She swallowed, sniffling, silent for quite some time while Belle’s fierce grip never wavered.

“If...I let you go, you can’t kill anyone,” she whispered harshly. “That includes Zelena. You can’t kill my sister.”

Belle swallowed, the Darkness close behind her. “Take the deal, dearie. It’s all we’re going to get.”

“Deal,” she surrendered. “I, I won’t kill anyone. I won’t kill Zelena.”

Regina let out a breath, closing her eyes, and waved her hand, unlocking the cell and walking away. “Hook might be more of a nuisance now. Keep an eye out. Be careful. We’ll be in touch.”

Belle gently pushed the door open, pulling herself to her feet and stepped out. “Regina?” She turned, expression agonized. “I...I’m sorry. That you can’t do the same for Robin. If there was a way, I...I would help.”

She smiled very faintly. “I know you would,” she assured. “It’s why you’re still one of the good guys.”

Belle was alone soon, the Dark One in front of her, holding her face in his scalding hands. “Let’s get all of this out of your pretty head, hm?” He smiled. “You’ve got a lot to handle in these next ones.”

She nodded, closing her eyes when he kissed her forehead, taking her away from prison, back home to Rumple.

And when she did, she wasn’t alone.

“Time to pay, love.”

Chapter Text

Belle glowered at Hook, hatred bubbling at the back of her throat like the tar her curse was made of. It heated her bones and ignited every ounce of rage within her; a white hot flame beneath a frothing cauldron.

He was in her house, again, somehow, smirking at her with that condescending look of his. His smugness only made her more volatile, and she couldn’t wait to flay him like she’d been fantasizing about before. God, how she wanted him to suffer what he’d put Rumple through tenfold. She wanted him to know what fear really was, what loss and pain truly felt like in that partially human heart of his.

The house itself seemed to breathe with her desires, wrap itself around her as the curse had done. It was an equal witness to both her and Rumple’s misdeeds and magicks, why shouldn’t it begin to revel in such things rather than fear it? The Apprentice never did practice such wonderful things all that much. The hardwood held her firm, the lights glinting off Killian’s hook and damned eyes, ready to witness all that was about to unfold.

Belle took a singular breath, just an ounce of calming to savor this.

“Thank you,” she snarled. “For giving me the excuse to do this to you.” A grin spread over her inhuman porcelain features, a fireball igniting in her hand, which she raised to fire at him. The cursed doll poised and lethal as any predator would be.

Her curse, however, was not as overjoyed as she was, or the house, for that matter. He appeared behind her and staggered back, paling and quite unable to speak, to warn her. It shifted, trying to get into her line of vision.

Before she could wonder why Hook’s godawful smirk had not faltered, she felt this choking sensation all over her body, as if thorns were stuck in her lungs and twisting around her very essence. The burning wrapped around her bones and forced her arm to stop. It worked around the curse, diminishing the fire in her to a smoulder that could not help her. The Darkness, for the first time since he had appeared to her, looked terrified. He looked sick, drained, and scared for her, appearing over Killian’s shoulder and reaching for her.

“Belle, he has the-” His voice died in his throat, choking off.

“Doesn’t feel so good, does it, love?” Killian drawled, brandishing the dagger bearing her name at her. Belle paled, glancing at the Dark One again, who felt what she felt, shared its own pain with her… Killian chuckled. “I think you need to try a little harder to conceal the most important piece of you, love. Your leash.”

Belle felt as though a choke collar were around her neck, cinching her larynx closed more and more the closer he came to her. She could not move, she couldn’t even lower her hand. She could only stare at the pirate with violence etched in her face.

The Dark One watched her, helpless, too far away from her but it was as if he couldn’t get any closer. He could do nothing to aid her, not this time.

“You’re supposed to be clever, aren’t you?” He laughed, swaggering closer to her. “See, after you turned Emma against me and somehow bewitched her parents from inside your little cage, I began to wonder: Where would the little missus keep the dagger? The Crocodile liked to hide it somewhere pointless. Somewhere indiscriminate. Fields, quarries, places like that. I really thought you’d be more clever than him.” He chuckled and walked closer to her, something in him willing her to move on her own. She dropped her arm, the flame extinguished, and jutted her chin out defiantly. She would not show this monster fear.

Her bones were vibrating with pain and a deep, deep seated agony that welled from her core making her teeth rattle in her head, and it only got louder when he pressed the blade to her throat.

“I am your power, I am your pain, I am your demise, I am your gain…” The dagger was singing to her, her Dark One watching still.

“You see why the Spinner wanted to get away from it so eagerly?” He whispered, looking tired, worn. He looked like he was fading. A pang hit her stomach and she met Killian’s eyes while he continued speaking.

“...easy to get in here, once I realized I had some of the Crocodile’s blood handy. Blood magic, right? No one who isn’t related to you could get in. Aw, I know, I know, he’s not related to you, right?” He said, noting the confusion in her expression. He took the dagger from her neck, briefly, and tapped the hilt against her belly. “But that is. I kept his after our second duel. Still can’t believe that pathetic little imp managed to defeat me. Curse must favor him, eh?”

“He’s a better swordsman than you,” she hissed. “Based on natural talent and training. You were too busy fucking your way through the towns you docked in to pay attention to your own abilities.”

He sneered, cutting Belle’s cheek. “You think you’re so smart, don’t you? So clever because you’re going through all of this, doing what no Dark One has ever, ever attempted! And yet… You keep your most prized possession on your dead husband.”

Belle opened her mouth to speak but he twisted the dagger, choking off her breath entirely. He chuckled. “So pretty, and yet so useless,” he snarled. “You’re mine now. My pet . And I’ll use you to get my life back the way it was.”

Her heart was beating in her throat, eyes flicking back to the bedroom she’d kept Rumple in. Was he still in one piece? Was he mutilated and hurt worse? Would she be able to rectify that? Oh, she couldn’t breathe, her baby, the baby...

Her hands unconsciously clenched on her stomach. He laughed and lowered his hand, allowing her breath, shaking his head. “Right, right, your little demon in there. So sorry. Keep a civil tongue in your head and I won’t have to do that again.”

Belle coughed, taking in gulps of air, desperate eyes locked with his.

“What do you want?” She grunted haggardly. The Darkness was behind her now, shaking, weak hands on her shoulders, but barely able to touch her at all. He was separated from her, her one comfort since Rumple’s death. “What do you want me to do about your pathetic state?

Killian laughed. “I want my life back. I want Emma back. I had everything exactly as I wanted before you opened your mouth. You’re going to fix it.”

Belle laughed, her voice still rough. “Don’t you remember, you fucking idiot, time travel isn’t possible without Zelena’s little spell, and it’s not as though the elements are just around, hm?” She snarled, still laughing.

“What did I say about that mouth?” He spat, cutting her again, making her jump. “You’re going to wipe memories, threaten who you must, destroy who gets in the way. Do you understand?”

She pursed her lips, silent. He cut her mouth in warning. “Answer me, demon!”

“Yes,” she blurted, the corner of her mouth dripping blood.

He smirked. “Yes, sir.

She glared, and he brandished the dagger, jerking the invisible collar. “Yes, sir,” she growled. He laughed again.

“Now, before all that, we’re going to do what Emma and I planned before. We’re gonna stop this little game of yours and keep you from causing anymore bloody mayhem,” he spat. “Show me where you’re keeping the trinkets.”

She moved automatically, as if there were strings plucking at her legs to force her to walk, the curse inside of her stagnant and unmoving, helpless. “Stay calm, dearie,” The Dark One whispered. “Just stay calm.”

“He’ll kill my baby,” she whispered back.

“Shut up!” Hook snarled, effectively silencing her. Belle opened her mouth but there was no sound, as if her voice had been snatched away, something she may not have even ever had, with how this felt.

“You think I’m going to kill your baby?” He laughed, stopping the pair of them on their trip. They were standing in the middle of the dining hall. “No, I wouldn’t do that. Pick that up, now.” He used the dagger to point at a carving knife. The gesture was unnecessary; Belle knew what he meant simply because he thought it and was holding the dagger when he did.

“Throb with magic, poisoned malice, trapped inside this blackened palace…”

She picked up the unremarkable blade, fear in her eyes. Hook relished it, leaning in too close to her porcelain face, which he pinched between ringed fingers. “Gut yourself. Kill your baby.”

“NO!”

It was the Dark One who screamed. Belle was still muzzled on Hook’s orders, but her lips trembled, tears pouring down her face and her body shook with silent sobs. She raised the knife, knees shaking, bile in the back of her throat.

Internally she was shrieking in agony, her heart unable to take this, her mind unable to comprehend what she was about to do. She would live, her baby would die, and no power on Earth could stop it from happening. Her pain and her youth showed in her expression, silver streaks of her tears falling down her face in grief.

Her knees gave out and she fell on them, dropping the large blade, which she immediately picked back up. Her eyes rose to Killian’s face, begging, pleading silently for mercy. For her child’s sake.

The light glinted off the blade and she drove it toward her stomach, about to bury it, nicking her flesh and--

“Stop.” The blade fell, and Hook gave her her voice back, allowing her to sob brokenly, clutching at her belly. Her hair hung in a wild curtain around her, shielding her from his smirk, from the delight he took in seeing her in such pain. His punishment for taking Emma from him, punishment for yet more imagined slights.

“See how it feels, to lose everything that matters to you?” He asked, chuckling.

“I ALREADY HAVE!” She screamed, crying harder, breaths coming out in heaves. “I ALREADY LOST RUMPLE YOU can’t take my baby!” She sobbed, glaring at him through heated, hateful eyes. Hook sneered again, shaking his head.

“Keep a civil tongue in your fucking head and I won’t have to make that threat again. Get up.” She stood immediately. “Stop crying.” Again she ceased without question, feeling like an overstuffed suitcase, hastily crammed with too much and barely hanging on. “Keep walking, go on.”

The Dark One was seething, glowering and trying to reach Belle through the veil he was being hidden behind. Belle gave him a longing look, scared, bleeding, holding her stomach protectively. She’d never been one to pray, especially since her mother’s death, convinced if anything were watching over anyone they simply didn’t care. After seeing what happened to Rumple as a babe it was even more solidified but right now, right this minute, she begged the universe, the world above her, for mercy. To spare her baby.

Belle stopped walking when she reached the library, the crystal ball, the silk, the needle, the earring, the blood, the lock of hair all resting on the center table.

He cackled, shaking his head. “God, you are predictable, aren’t you?” She said nothing, in a daze. If he destroyed all this...then there would be no getting Rumple back. Losing any of this, particularly the silk and the needle, would keep her true love gone forever.

She could only hope Killian hadn’t mutilated Rumple’s body beyond repair in his demented sense of justice through Emma’s rejection.

He smirked, picking up the crystal ball swirling with deep blue and black memories, a few gentler purple ones flowing through as well. “All that work...and for what, exactly? Especially when it’s so...fragile…”

“It’s alright, dearie,” The Darkness assured, watching with a pained expression. “Keep your chin up, keep your eyes on his. He’s a coward, a liar, a thief, a pathetic excuse of a man, a rapist, a murderer. He’s nothing and you are everything, whether he holds the dagger or not. Understand? You’re stronger than him, Belle, believe me. I’ve been privy to both of you and you are so much stronger.”

The words washed over her, soothing her heart a little, watching the pirate hold those precious memories in a precarious, reckless hold.

And then it fell, bursting on the hardwood. The memories bled into the grain, writhing and searching for a place to go, a place to stay. Belle cried out and dropped to her knees again, trying to gather them up while they pooled in her hands. “No, no, no!” She sobbed. “No, no, come back, come back, don’t--”

“Belle, wait!”

The blackened shadows, echoes, had found where they were wanted, and flooded into Belle’s body and mind. In an instant she was blind, the decades she’d currently collected pouring in and writhing around her head, loud, searching for their proper place. But they wouldn’t find one, there was absolutely nowhere for them in her own mind, bleeding into her brain and confusing her, filling her with too much noise.

She was screaming, covering her ears, more of Rumple’s memories coming without her thinking about it, with no way to control what and how much she was getting.

Hook staggered back from her, unaware of what he’d truly done to her, what he’d caused. What he did understand, however, was Belle was useless to him now. She was overcome with madness he’d heard of, of how the Crocodile had been under Zelena’s influence, and he had been entirely unhelpful and broken to her plans.

And now this screaming, sobbing thing in front of him was going to do absolutely nothing for him. If he didn’t want this filthy curse burrowed inside of him again, he’d kill her right here just to silence her blubbering.

Belle was unaware of her potential demise, instead being forced to watch the events leading up to her husband’s final moments as a human man with nowhere for it to go, now place for it to escape, no relief from what she was seeing. She had no control, no freedom.

At her most vulnerable, Belle only had Hook’s presence to accompany her.

She wished- somewhere in her addled mind- she’d simply stayed asleep, in the hell of  the sleeping curse. It was so much better.

~*~

“Are you sure that was a good idea?”

Emma wasn’t accusing her, and therefore Regina was genuinely listening to her and open to this conversation. She was true to her word, after all. Emma found herself again, and she was so fucking relieved.

“No,” she admitted. “But leaving her in there like that doesn’t do anyone any favors. Especially her.”

Emma nodded, crossing her arms. “Okay. And she made the deal not to kill any of us?”

“That’s what I’m the most interested in,” David piped up, bouncing baby Neal while he fed him.

“Yes, she promised not to kill us. Made a deal. With Rumple likely being her guide through the curse she wouldn’t have done that lightly. Besides, if she breaks it...well, all magic comes with a price, right?”

Emma sipped her cocoa thoughtfully, brow drawn. “She wouldn’t risk something going wrong with her spell, not now.”

“And we’re all agreed to just, stay out of her way and let it come in strides,” Mary Margaret nodded, stirring the pot of mac n cheese on the stove. “So there’s no one to stop her from getting Gold back.”

“Which we’re all fine with,” Henry said, looking up at Emma, who nodded.

“Only person who would try is…” She trailed off, sighing and shutting her eyes. “Fuck.”

Regina frowned, confused for a moment, then her expression cleared. “...Fuck. Fuck, we have to go, right now.”

“But, dinner,” Snow said, looking at them. “What did you--? Oh, fuck.”

“Henry, stay here with your uncle, lock the door behind us,” David said, hurrying around the island and handed Neal and his bottle over to his grandson. “And do not answer it unless you’re absolutely sure it’s us.”

Emma shrugged her jacket on, kissed Henry’s head and hurried out, grabbing Regina’s sleeve. “...Do what you have to do,” she said quietly. “If you need to take him down...do it.”

“...You know what you’re saying, right? You’re giving me the green light to kill your ex.”

“He might be making Belle do horrible things right now if he got ahold of that dagger. If he doesn’t have it, fine, we need to make sure it doesn’t end up with him and possibly offer Belle some extra protection. If he has it…”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Regina concluded, pausing to look at her. “I missed you. This you. Miss Swan.”

Emma found herself blushing a little, still holding Regina’s coat sleeve. “Yeah. I kinda missed me too.”

Regina smiled a little more and vanished them from the spot, David and Mary Margaret added as an afterthought once they’d caught up --bow or no bow it’s constantly a tug of war in convenience and comfort for Snow-- and in a puff of purple smoke they were in front of the Apprentice’s mansion.

Belle was still screaming.

The glint of Killian’s hook shone in the moonlight, reflecting right into Emma’s eyes. The light it reflected sparked a fire deep inside of her, every instance of Belle’s unconditional help, her kindnesses passed through the forefront of her mind. Whatever he was doing to her was inexcusable.

And she was done protecting Killian. Done making excuses. Done.

She suspected Regina felt the same, because she engulfed the window and what of Killian she could see, in a raging inferno.

Honestly, she hadn’t noticed how awesome Regina looked with the scar on her lip raised in a smirk.

Chapter Text

Rumplestiltskin looked from the dead beggar to the dagger in his hand, staring at the ruby droplets dripping into the damp earth beneath his knees like the freakish sands of a full hourglass. Each drop took away his humanity and allowed the curse to invade him further.

He realized now, taking in heaving breaths of icy air through shaking lips, that he had no idea what he thought this would do to him, what a damning thing like this would feel like. He stayed still, trying to feel it, find it, scared to death that he even possessed it. Trembling, he closed his eyes.

Oozing, black tar, ebbing into his bones like a slow burning fire. The gentle spinner felt it consume and invade every part of his body, sink into his mind, a separate entity becoming one with himself. The power throbbed in his temples, his fingertips, so much he felt a single gesture would eradicate the wood around him. It circled around his soul, finally settling in a hard, white hot ember in his heart.

It seized him, causing him to gasp and clutch his chest, coughing as he grew used to the sulfuric burn in the back of his throat. He took slow breaths, working through it as he had any other pain or discomfort, the dagger so tight in his fist it was beginning to hurt.

Whispers flooded his ears, a symphony of voices he’d took for the hiss of leaves now forming words. So many words, so many separate creatures all existing in one mind, one louder than all the others.

“A new soul to keep, one who herds sheep. A father, a coward, a dragon asleep.”

The dagger was speaking, singing to him. Its whispers were...soothing. The notion frightened him all the more, and he thought he heard a chuckle.

“Spinner, Spinner, how you ache. I’ll show you care in my dark wake…”

The burns he’d sustained obtaining the weapon didn’t hurt anymore. In fact, as he looked at them, they healed entirely. A soft purple glow emanated from his own hand, healing them, his bruises, his joints. He’d no idea how he was doing this but suddenly there was no pain. Not an ounce of it, anywhere. Not even...

The staff that had fallen into the dirt and dead leaves and rolled several feet away from him. His means of mobility, his totem of cowardice he was forced to carry everywhere and announce to the world what he was... That he was helpless. It had been part of him as well, much as the dagger seemed to be now. He even held it in the same hand. He swallowed, daring to believe for a moment that he could do what he was about to attempt.

Rumplestiltskin stood up.

For the first time in fourteen years, he stood without struggling. No shooting agonies, no pulsating aches, no threat to send him back to the ground; he simply stood. It had healed.

Rumple laughed. He laughed and jumped a little simply because he could, and then he laughed harder, echoes of pain still surrounding him because he was used to it. He was so very, very used to hurting all over his nerves still remembered it, but that would fade in time.

“Remarkable what it does, isn’t it?”

The smile was slapped from Rumple’s face and he turned, holding the dagger aloft. The beggar stood before him, seemingly very much alive. He took a step back, glancing at the dead body bearing the man’s face lying nearby.  

“Don’t be confused, Spinner, I’m not him. I’m...the curse. The Darkness, your personal guide to havoc and mayhem,” he grinned, walking closer to him. Again he stepped back, brandishing the knife more boldly.  

“Why?” He demanded hoarsely. “Why you? Why do you look like--?”

“I thought this would be preferable to other forms I’ve taken. But if you prefer something else, I suppose I have a few options…”  

In a blink the beggar had transformed into a large boar belching fire into the air and gnashing at Rumple, who staggered back into a tree. “Stop!” He demanded, frightened.

“What?” The Darkness chuckled, changed back. “Not a fan of that one? Perhaps Nimue, then…” A courtesy gush of smoke enveloped him this time, dissipating to reveal a woman in a long, billowing black cloak with a golden face. She looked at him intently, her head cocked, creeping toward him with such fluidity she seemed to glide across the forest floor.

“Is this better?” She asked, her voice unsettling, echoing deep inside his head as if she were speaking there. He winced, shying from the creature now directly in front of him. Nimue smiled, placing her hand on his chest. He shrugged away from her, quickly shaking his head and slashed the dagger through her so she would vanish, stalking through her.

“No!” He barked, turning back to face the Darkness, who had taken Zoso’s form once again. “No, it isn’t, I… I don’t know what I thought would happen if I took this. I, I don’t know why I thought this would help. I don’t even know what I’m doing, I-I’m not the person to do this. I’m not made for this. I can’t--”

“Hush!” The Dark One snarled, shaking his head. “Do you know what you need to do? Hm?” He snapped his fingers, and simply looked to be a mirror image of Rumple himself, only with dark, inhuman eyes. Rumple’s shoulders relaxed a touch. “Trust yourself, Spinner. You’re the only one you’ve ever been able to count on. The only one that has survived this long and gotten you this far, eh? This is your life, your choice, your chance to make things right. Do you want to save your son?”

“Yes,” he blurted immediately, holding the dagger tight again. “That’s...that’s why I did this. To save my boy.” The Darkness grinned, reaching out and taking his wrist, so they both were holding the knife.

“And don’t you want to make those people pay for threatening him?” Rumple looked at the ground, lips pursed. The curse persisted. “For humiliating you right in front of him?”

“How about a little fealty?” The laughter of Hodor and the other soldiers, Baelfire tense and ready to fight back, even fight in that godforsaken war… He simply couldn’t allow it to happen, he couldn’t lose him, what was he to do? “Kiss my boot.”

He could still taste it. Leather and grime, his own stinking fear filling his nostrils and twisting his stomach, knowing Bae was witnessing this. After his son spent so long defending him and attempting to save him from such horrors this is what he had been reduced to. A wretch in the dirt kissing the boots of a monster who took glee in his suffering. In Baelfire’s suffering. Bae would be taken at dawn. He would die within the week. He knew that. All because of that man and his war.

“Yes.” There was fire rising inside him now, the ability to do something about it, to stop himself from cowering in the corner with Bae behind him and actually come back fighting overtaking him. His only desire was the life of his boy, and if blood and suffering such as he’d endured came along with it, then so be it.

The Dark One grinned, slipping around behind Rumple, a gentle whisper in his ear, their hands still joined. “Good,” he purred. “That’s very, very good. Use that rage, Spinner. All that nasty, nasty pain that’s been bubbling inside of you, every slight this world has given you, find it. It’s time for you to fight back. Take what’s yours.”

“Bae,” he growled out.

“And…?” He goaded, his other hand on his shoulder.

“Hodor’s worthless life.”

“There it is… This is what Zoso saw, what the dagger can feel inside of you. You’ve always had that little spot of black in your soul, haven’t you? Even that wee babe crying for his Papa wanted him to suffer, just a little, didn’t he?”

The Dark One’s voice came from inside his own head, pulling back curtains of when his own evils had surfaced, when he’d allowed himself to show what had always lingered, what he’d always feared. He’d seen that blackened char in his father’s actions, in his words, felt it bleed from his hand whenever he struck him, and he never wanted to unleash it.

“Now it’s the only way to save Baelfire…”

Rumple stood so still, the heat of the curse -imagined or otherwise- burning hot against his back. “How?” He stammered, swallowing roughly. “Please...tell me what to do. Show me how to stop this. Please.”

“You ask so nicely, isn’t that sweet?” He crooned. “Find that anger, the source. Kissing that wretched bastard’s boot, right?” He inhaled sharply, as if he could smell the wave of anger, chuckling low in Rumple’s ear. “That’s right. Hold on to it. Let it flow through you from here,” his fingers ghosted over his temples, gliding down his throat to his chest, “to here. Let it grip you, fuel you, as if it needs to be released right from your fingertips.”

“Release it?” He questioned, turning his head so he and the curse were quite close.

That Dark One grinned, hands gliding down his shoulders to his wrists again, guiding his hands. “Let it out, right through here. Give your rage power and let it flow.”

Fire bloomed in the palm of Rumple’s hand and he threw it, watching it engulf a sapling and destroy it. His breath caught, body rocking a little, watching the skin on his arm shift to a darker, golden color.

“What...what is...what is that?” He breathed, throat tight.

“That means it’s working, dearie,” he chuckled. “Deep breath now, come along.” He pressed his palm into his chest, coaxing his breaths. “We’ve got a lot of work to do before morning, and you must embrace this, me, to save Baelfire. Understand?”

Rumple placed his hand over the Dark One’s, knowing somewhere there was only one hand on his chest anyway. “Yes. I understand.”

His fate was sealed.

~*~

Killian was hastily putting out the fire that had suddenly erupted on his person, falling over himself to grab the heavy curtains and stamp out the flames searing his skin.

The snarl in his face deepened and he lunged at Belle, grabbing the babbling, terrified girl by her hair and holding his hook to her throat. “YOU DARE DISOBEY YOUR MASTER? You bitch, I’ll kill you here and now!”

The pirate realized too late he no longer held the dagger, and that it had skittered across the room in his urgency to put out the flames. He cursed loudly and began dragging Belle toward it, screaming at her to silence her helpless cries, the vise in her hair that much stronger.

He’d nearly reached it, arm outstretched for it, when a familiar boot stepped on it, crushing his fingers.

“Enough, Hook,” Emma said darkly, aiming a gun right between his eyes.

He stopped, looking up at her in disbelief, rising slowly, hand and hook in the air, Belle on her knees behind him. She rocked back and forth, muttering and hugging herself with one hand on her aching head.

Emma nudged the dagger behind her, where Regina picked it up gently. Snow aimed her arrow at Killian as well, David beside her with his hand on his holstered firearm.

“Emma,” Killian began, moving away from Belle when Emma motioned him to, cautious, “not two days ago you were on my side. I’m doing this for us, for everyone. You know in your heart this is the right thing to do, the heroic thing to do.”

“You haven’t done one goddamn heroic thing in your life,” she scoffed. “You’ve done a handful of things to earn my trust, to make me think you’re different or better but you aren’t. God, Killian, you aren’t. You haven’t changed, you’ve just put a muzzle on until I’m not looking. You’re not a good guy, you’re an opportunist.”

“But, but we love each other--” He implored, taking a step closer, which only made Emma cock the gun.

“Yeah,” she said softly, pain in her eyes, jaw tensed in anger. “Yeah, that’s the shitty part. I do think you love me. I know I love you. But this...everything. Everything you’ve done to people I care about, my son, Neal, my family, me...Belle and Gold both, I mean… even if you actually started to redeem yourself you’re nowhere near forgiveness.”

“And the Crocodile is?” He growled.

Belle looked up.

“All the evil he’s done, the pain he’s put all of you through--”

“Henry wouldn’t be here without him,” Regina said darkly. “Snow would still be under a sleeping curse, Charming in a loveless marriage. Emma wouldn’t have met Neal.”

Emma swallowed, glad for Regina’s grounding presence at her side. “He’s saved us more than once. Saved you too. He’s done some shit, none of us are denying that, but there’s good there too.”

“Gold did everything for the sake of his family, when it boils down to it. What about you, Hook?” Mary Margaret asked. “Why do you do the things you do? Why’d you take Ursula’s voice from her when she was a child? Why did you kill all of those people? Why did you work with Cora, imprison us and leave us for dead?”

“That was a long time ag-”

“Not really,” Emma said dryly. “You’re going to jail. Maybe even over the town line, I dunno yet. You’re gonna pay for what you did.”

“While you help this witch bring back the Crocodile?” He snarled.

Belle stood.

“Yeah probably,” Emma shrugged. “Fuck it, right? Can’t be worse than getting dragged to Hell.”

Regina watched Belle closely, glancing at the dagger she was holding, which she gingerly placed on the shelf nearby. She saw what even holding it did to Emma, and what the orders made her do, got an insight into how it felt. Belle was lost somewhere in her mind, the shattered glass on the floor giving her some insight into where that might be. She didn’t need to be leashed on top of whatever nightmare she was living.

“You’ll regret this,” he barked, glaring at the heroes while Belle moved so silently, like the wisp of smoke from a freshly burnt out candle. “You’re all so deluded to think that bastard won’t be the downfall of us all, that this fucking demon locked in this woman won’t murder all of you for the sake of carnage. You think me killing half a dozen fucks because I fancied it is bad? Look at the fucking state of the bitch, she’s seen what he’s done and--”

Without flourish, smoke, or other indicators, Belle appeared in front of Killian in the blink of an eye, her hands latching on to either side of his head.

They froze, Belle taking trembling breaths, and looking right into Killian’s eyes. Midnight blue light glowed from her hands, pouring into Killian’s head in a tar-like flow. Killian’s eyes began to change to the same dark color, the horror growing in his face until he was screaming instead.

Every ounce of suffering the pirate had ever caused flooded his mind. With each second that passed Belle pumped more and more of his misgivings into his mind, shredding his sanity with pain, agony, unapologetic harm he’d put into the world. Including Rumple’s.

The shame caused on that ship, the ache from losing Belle when he shot her, knowing he’d threatened her again, the poison that nearly killed him, every bit of it. Every single bit flooded him with as much mercy as he’d every offered anyone else; none.

As suddenly as Killian started to scream he stopped, falling onto the floor, eyes blank and staring into a void. Belle bent down, easing the hook from its place and held it in a shaking hand.

“Pain, pain, go away, haunt the pirate all his days…” She sang quietly. Her head was too full still, bursting with nowhere to put it. She moved through the room as though she couldn’t see the four heroes gawking at her, picking up the dagger and placing it back on her person. “Mine. Mine, that’s mine. Minemineminemine, it’s mine, mine--”

“Belle?” Regina dared, stepping in her line of sight.

“Hey!” Emma grabbed for her arm to stop her, panicked, but Regina evaded her, giving her an assuring look.

She turned her gaze back to Belle, expression gentle a hand on her shoulder to hopefully gain her attention and not the same fate Killian had been given. “Belle, can you hear me?”

Belle’s eyes met hers, searching for something she couldn’t find. “Hear the girl, hear her well, pretty student learned so well…”

“Yeah, yeah that’s right,” she nodded. “Belle, what’s wrong? What happened?”

She tapped both sides of her head. “Too much, t-too much, there’s too much, too much nowhere to go, no room for Rumple…” She hiccuped and looked as though she might cry, overwhelmed again.

“Okay, okay, it’s alright,” Regina said, holding both of her shoulders. “We can help. We’ll help you, okay? Just hang in there.”

“Dad, can you get Killian to the hospital?” Emma said, watching Belle closely. “Mom and I’ll go with Regina and get Belle some help.”

“Yeah, I’ll manage,” he nodded, kneeling down to make sure Killian was still breathing and everything.

“Okay, Belle, just come with me, okay?” Regina coaxed, taking her arm.

“Where are we going?” Mary Margaret asked.

“She needs a new conduit. The pirate broke the other one, but I think I have something that’ll help in my vault.”

“Vault, vault, Regina’s pain all Rumple’s fault…” Belle mused sadly, vanishing in the cloud of smoke Regina engulfed the four of them in.

~*~

“You did it.”

Rumple grinned, thirst for suffering slaked in the bodies surrounding the edge of the village. The horses, spooked as they were by his presence, galloped away back to the camp they called home. The rest of the village had retreated to their doorways, watching him fearfully, eyes wide and scared of the man they’d long scorned, bullied and beaten for over a decade.

The Darkness was at his side, gleeful and beaming at the fruition of his labors, and how quickly the spinner had embraced this curse. He had a knack for dark magic, and it was certainly something to behold.

“Papa?”

Rumple’s malice shifted, his eyes meeting the frightened ones of his child. “Papa, what...what happened? What’s the matter?” Baelfire asked, creeping closer to him. That face was not one he’d ever seen on his Papa before. That amount of anger, of bloodlust, had never graced the familiar, beloved features and to see them now, with bodies slain around him, the blood still fresh and wet on the grass, was jarring. He was, for the very first time, scared of his father.

“I told you, Bae,” he giggled, voice tittering sharply on his ears. “I took back what’s mine. I’m not afraid, I never have to be afraid again!”

“I’m afraid!” Bae said, his voice breaking a little. “Papa, I’m afraid, please.” He took his hand, and it was like a switch flipped in Rumple, all thoughts of power, the curse, everything, vanishing in an instant.

He blinked several times, kneeling beside him, the realization of how he hurt his son dawning in his dark eyes. “Bae...Bae, it’s alright. It’s alright, hey…”

The young boy threw his arms around his father’s neck, crying into his throat as the adrenaline set in. Papa took the curse, like he said he would, and it had turned him cruel. He did it for him, he killed those men for him, he sacrificed his very soul, for him.

It broke the boy’s heart knowing how far he would go, what he would do, to keep him safe. But was this really, truly, worth it?

He clung to his father tighter, knowing how narrowly he’d missed death, holding on to the familiarity of his parent in shaky little arms.

“Shh, shh, I’m sorry. I-I’m sorry, Bae, I didn’t mean to scare you,” he whispered, kissing his hair. “This...this is very new and, and strange for me, I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry, my boy.”

“I don’t want to lose you, Papa,” he croaked out, looking up at him. “Please...please, don’t lose who you are because of me? Please?”

He spoke so softly, so genuine and with so much love, the Dark One faltered at the mere sight of just how fiercely Rumple loved his child. “You won’t,” the spinner promised. “You won’t lose me, Bae. I’m here, I’m right here…”

“What are you doing?” The Darkness growled, glowering at him across the way. “What did we work all night for? For this? You can’t ignore me, you can’t give me up!”

Rumple glared back at the curse, holding Bae fiercely. “The love for my son will always come first,” he said softly. “Nothing will change that. Better get used to it now.”

Baelfire looked over his shoulder, following Rumple’s gaze, frowning. “Papa, who are you talking to?”

“No one, son,” he assured, speaking softly and standing with him, guiding him inside. “No one at all.”

He passed through the threshold of their shack, glaring right back at the curse that now understood the Spinner was a force to be reckoned with, and this struggle would be a constant battle between them.

Rumplestiltskin’s heart would not be easily conquered.

Chapter Text

Belle didn’t react much once they’d teleported to Regina’s vault. She retreated back into herself, trying to weave through memories, former dark ones, pain, screams, her past and her own desires to find what she wanted.

Emma, Regina, Snow, they were all afterthoughts. Their voices were slightly louder than the other echoes, and she could only discern which was which if one of them touched her. But even then, when she could hear Regina calling her name, she wouldn’t listen. She needed to find what she was looking for first.

“Wait, wait…” She breathed, shaking out of her grip.

She couldn’t find Rumple. Her Dark One. She couldn’t find him in all this mess and she needed him, desperately. She held her hand out, tears welling in her eyes. “Rumple? Rumple where are you?” She breathed.

Regina exchanged a worried glance with Emma.

“I can’t find you! Come back, pl-please…”

“I’m here.” And so he was, right in front of her, eyes soft and warm, engulfing her little hand with his own. “I’m here, Belle, I know how loud it is. I know how hard this is but you have to focus, darling. Can you do that for me?” He was her Rumple, not the Dark One. Her soft-spoken, loving Rumple she’d so often taken for granted. Her husband who gave his life for her. Twice.

She opened her mouth to speak but the roar around her grew. She covered her ears and screamed, falling to her knees. Vortigan, Nimue, Zoso, Rumplestiltskin--

Past, present, flickers of the future, so many voices. So much blood, so much death and destruction at the hands of this curse and the beings it inhabited. Pain, suffering, woe, misery, loneliness, agony-- No, that was familiar, that was Rumple’s. Every ounce of hopelessness rushed around her like fallen leaves in a storm, overcoming her mind and her heart.

“Belle!” Two voices at once, Emma and Rumple, and then someone was touching her shoulders.

“Belle? Belle, listen to me, can you hear me?” Regina implored. “Belle--”

“TOO MUCH!” She cried, raking her hands over her head and her face. “Too much TOO LOUD! Too loud, no room. No room!”

Emma faltered, taking a step back as words she’d heard Gold cry out moments before Neal died echoed back at her. She gripped the edge of the table, watching suffering she couldn’t help twist her guts.

It occurred to her that this was her doing. Her actions put Belle here.

“Evil isn’t born. It’s made.”

She made Belle.

“I know, I know,” Regina said, coaxing Belle to look up. “But I can help, okay? Just touch the mirror. Touch the glass and put it all back in there, okay? It’s okay, you have to trust me--!”

“TRUST, TRUST, THE QUEEN SAYS I MUST! LOCK THE BOOKWORM AWAY, I’LL NEED HER SOMEDAY, MAKE THE DARK ONE PAY!!” Belle shrieked in Regina’s face, her own so darkened and twisted Regina jumped back from her and bumped into Emma, who immediately held her arms.

“Belle!” Rumple’s voice again. She looked up, sobbing. Rumple was between her and the glass, on his knees and reaching for her. “Listen to me, listen to Regina. We can make this stop. We can give you your mind back but you have to try. You have to reach out and touch the mirror, sweetheart. My darling, Belle, please. Please…” He started to slip away from her, almost as if he were disappearing into the mirror. “Don’t lose yourself and me.”

“No, no, Rumple!” She cried, lurching forward, trying to touch his face, to keep him with her. “Come back, come--”

Her hand touched the glass, and it all came flooding out of her. The forty years or so she’d managed to collect gushed into the mirror, swirling blacks and purples and reds foaming in the glass like raging waters.

She blinked, staring at it. The shadows on her face receded, leaving the porcelain like skin in place. Humanity shone in her eyes and her expression. “Oh,” she whispered, raking her fingers through her hair, feeling the headache fade along with the voices.

Snow, who had been standing guard outside, peeked down the stairs, glancing at her daughter, who was still holding Regina, and Belle. “Um...everything okay?”

“Yes,” Belle said, standing slowly. “Yes, everything’s fine now.”

The Dark One was back to how he usually appeared to her, standing close. Long fingers twined through her hair simply because he missed her - and ‘every wee hair on her heed’, as he told her repeatedly, lips curled in a smile.

Regina let out a breath, relieved. “Good. That’s...that’s great. Cause that was mildly terrifying.”

“Not that mild,” Emma said, dropping her hands from Madame Mayor with an embarrassed blush. “So is that okay for, for your new conduit or whatever?”

Belle nodded distractedly, touching the mirror again. “This was in the castle,” She said. “Rumple was screaming at it when...after we kissed. I nearly broke his curse and… I didn’t understand at the time what he was doing. Was this yours?”

“My mother’s,” Regina corrected. “You’ll...get to that part. Eventually. It’s significant to his past as much as it is mine. I thought it might help.”

“Thank you,” she said sincerely. “All of you. I...I won’t apologize for what I’ve done to Killian. It’s his own reckoning he should’ve gotten a long time ago.”

“No one’s disputing that,” Emma assured. “You...you were right. You and Gold were right about him from the beginning. I should’ve listened to my instincts. To Neal. To...everything.”

“I know my relationship with Rumple hasn’t been the healthiest at times, but he’s never made me someone I’m not. He’s never tried to either. Powerful and manipulative as he is, he never, ever once said anything close to what Killian has to you. I’m sorry it took this to show you that,” She remarked, tone cold, practical. Snow pursed her lips at it but Emma appreciated the straightforwardness.

“Yeah. Me too,” she said, shifting a little.

“This...doesn’t change what I have to do,” she reminded. “I have to keep going. And I have centuries to work through, still. I hope you can understand that.”

“That’s why we brought you here, Belle,” Mary Margaret said. “To show you that we’re on your side. That this, what you’re doing, it might be unsafe but if we can help you along then it might not be so bad for you. And...we have a lot to apologize for.”

“This is the best way we know how to do it,” Emma finished.

Belle nodded, eyes sweeping over them. “I’m going to take this with me, if that’s alright. And I, I need to make sure Hook didn’t harm Rumple’s body. Then I’m going to get back to work. If you all have questions, just--”

“Say ‘Belle, I summon thee’?” Regina asked. Belle smiled, just a touch. “I’ve done this before.”

“Thank you again. Emma? I hope you can find more...meaningful people to spend your time on.” Belle glanced at Regina, put her hand on the mirror, and vanished with it.

Regina blinked, glancing at Emma. “What did she mean by that?” Mary Margaret covered her mouth to keep from laughing, watching Emma turn as red as her jacket.

“I, I dunno. Family and, and friends I guess. Y-yeah,” she stammered. “Let’s go, yeah? Yeah. Mom, what- Stop.”

Emma ascended the steps still talking to herself, the other two close behind.

“Is she alright?”

“Oh, she’s fine,” Snow assured, smiling at her. “She likes lillies, though.”

Regina stopped, cocking her head. “She what?”

Mary Margaret laughed.

~*~

“That fucking bastard,” Belle snarled, looking at the deep gash on Rumple’s face from Killian’s hook. It wasn’t bleeding, but it was deep, tearing, like her sudden appearance surprised him out of his mangling attempt. She cupped his face, gliding her hand along his cheek to heal it, then gently brushed his hair back in a tender hand.

“He’s fine, dearie. Well--”

“Don’t,” she warned, glancing at the Dark One.

“...I’m glad you’re better,” he said, sitting beside her on the bed. “It’s never fun when something like that happens, but...you know how I feel about you.”

“I like hearing you say it,” she prompted. He sighed, ruffling like a troubled bird.

“I...care about you,” he added. “There, that better?”

Belle gave him a soft look. “Much. Thank you.” She took a slow breath in, running her hand over his face in delicate praise. To his surprise he pressed into the touch, seeking more of it. She smiled at him, carding fingers through his hair a moment longer before turning back to her Rumple. Belle found another gash carved into his side through his suit. She cursed at the jagged mark, placing her hand over it through the layers of fine silk and cloth, an ache in her chest feeling how lifeless he was. The longer she looked, the more tattered she realized his suit now was. It was ruined, body violated even in death. It made her sick.

“Like cleaning up after an ornery child, isn’t it?” The Darkness tutted, the echoes of Belle’s warmth resonating still. It would be greedy to ask for more.

“Something like that,” she said, healing the injury and others she found. She eased his body up, letting him rest against her while she pushed the ruined jacket off his shoulders. The weight of him was familiar, wanted, but he was so still. So cold, and empty. Shakily, her fingers folded into his hair, arm wrapping around him to hold him. “I wish you were here,” she whispered to him, unable to look at the utter stillness of his features. “You could’ve done this in no time at all. If it were me I would’ve been back the same day I died. I’m...I’m so sorry I’m not faster.”

It was like cradling a block of ice and desperately trying to warm it. She may as well have been speaking to the duvet or the bedpost for all her efforts. Rumple was long gone and she was holding a husk. Before, when he’d gone into the coma and she stayed with him, it was so different.

Holding him to change the bedding or shed some of his layers never felt like this. He was breathing then, and if she was still enough she could hear the soft, gentle snore that often lulled her to sleep. She could feel his heartbeat against her own chest, hear him coo or grumble now and then. He was alive. Warm, soft and there.

Now she spoke to an empty body in an empty room with only her figmented appearance of the Dark One to comfort her. It was frighteningly lonely.

“Belle.” She met his eyes, Rumple’s icy cheek on her arm. “You’re doing brilliantly. You’re going to make it, I know you will.”

She nodded weakly. “I don’t feel like I’m enough,” she confessed. “That I can do enough, that I’m...strong enough to get through this. We aren’t even a century in and I nearly lost my mind.”

“Because of the Pirate’s interference. He won’t be doing that again, now will he?” The Darkness urged.

“No, I suppose not, but--”

She blinked and suddenly she was standing, Rumple laid neatly back on the bed, just like before, The Dark One holding her hands. “Look at him, dearie,” he urged, voice low and rumbling. She obeyed, chest aching. “That, yes, hold onto that. That pain. That yearning for him, your longing to hear his voice again. Really hear him, not from me. That is what will save him, Belle. Your unrelenting love for him will drive you and bring him back. You cannot forget it.

“You want him to meet your child, yes?” She nodded weakly and he grabbed her chin, staring through her to her very soul. “Then don’t you dare forget how you felt when you lost him. Don’t lose your fire now, dearie, don’t you dare.”

“I won’t,” she said firmly, jaw tightening.

“Good,” he smirked. “Why don’t we take another look back while you take care of him, eh?”

She didn’t need to answer aloud. All she had to do was think on it, the mirror across the room from them, and drift away.

~*~

“Promise me, Papa.”

“Bae--”

“Please?”

Rumplestiltskin sighed, cupping his son’s face in his now inhuman hand, the plea in his dark eyes making his chest throb again. He’d been through so much that day, they both had, and he couldn’t make his son cry again today. If he could help it, he never wanted to be the cause of his son’s tears ever again.

“Don’t be a fool,” The Darkness hissed into his ear. “How can you protect him without dark magic? Without Me? You couldn’t do it before, what makes you think you can do it now.”

“Light magic,” Rumple thought. “I can use light magic instead. I’m already doing both. I can do this for him.”

“Yes, yes, good luck. Idiot. Coward.”

The word stung and the old scar on his neck throbbed, causing him to grimace. “Papa?”

“I promise,” he whispered, expression cleared, meeting Baelfire’s eyes. “I promise, I will not use Dark Magic.”

The world heaved itself off of Bae’s shoulders and he curled up against his Papa, like he used to do when he was smaller. “Shh…” He soothed, rubbing circles in his back in an attempt to ease him to sleep.

So much had changed so quickly for them. The boy was bound to be more overwhelmed, knowing now not only was his Papa no longer the town coward, but all signs of his previous reputation disappeared from his physical appearance. He could walk without struggle, and that alone was enough to send those waiting for easy prey to scurry back to their respective shadows.

Rumple hadn’t the heart to be rid of the walking stick, however. How could he, with Bae’s height carved into it every year? He’d be bigger than him soon.

“Are you still going to kill the ogres, Papa?” He whispered, hardly louder than the hisses and pops from the fire.

“Of course, my boy,” he nodded. “I said I would, didn’t I? I’ll save those children as soon as I can.”

“We should go tomorrow.”

“We? Bae, now, that’s very dangerous--”

“What if you’re tempted to do dark magic and I’m not there?” He asked, turning his eyes up to him again. He often wondered if Baelfire knew what that doleful look did. He could never say no when he looked at him like that.

“Alright, alright,” he sighed, shaking his head. “You can come. But you have to do as I say. You have to listen to me, understood?”

“Yes, Papa.”

It was quiet for awhile, just them, the wind and the fire, Bae slowly settling on the bed so his head was in Rumple’s lap while he played with his hair to soothe him.

“Papa?”

“Bae?”

“I...I can’t sleep,” he mumbled. “Could you...could you recite that poem for me? Like, like when I was little?”

Rumple’s smile turned warm, gentle as could be, and Baelfire had no doubts that his papa was still right there where he could reach him. “Of course, son. As you wish.

Sleep weel, my bairnie, sleep.

The lang, lang shadows creep,

The fairies play on the munelicht brae

An' the stars are on the deep…”

Baelfire was asleep before the first verse had ended, lost in gentle dreams with peace settled over his young features. Once he was breathing deeply, Rumple spoke.

“Dark Ones don’t sleep, do they?” He asked the being leaning against the rickety table-top, who looked both bored and sickened by the loving display.

“‘Fraid not, dearie,” he snickered. “No rest for the wicked, eh?”

The Spinner quieted and very carefully lay Bae on the pillow, tucking the blanket around him delicately so as not to wake him. On sleepless nights past he could only think of one thing that brought him peace.

He sat down at his wheel and began to watch it turn, working the threads through practiced fingers.

Despite his promise, he couldn’t help but think on how good dark magic felt. Using it to give him more strength, strength enough to break Hodor’s neck and gut his men was exhilarating. The satisfaction of his vengeance, the symphony of sound when the bastard’s neck snapped was all palpably delicious.

It was then he noticed the thread had changed in his hand. The texture was wrong, and looking at it, it had changed color as well. He frowned, examining it more closely.

“It...it’s gold,” he whispered, eyes glowing in awe. “I...I spun gold?”

“There are other perks to being you!” The Dark One giggled, cocking his head at him. “But whatever will you do with it?”

A strong wind gusted outside, finding its way through the cracks in the shack, causing its bones to creak and groan, the fire to flicker and Bae to curl into himself tighter.

“I think I have an idea,” he breathed, glancing around the shack again.

“Better get to it then, eh?”

The wheel spun throughout the night, gold piling up at his feet until he was out of wool, and then he tried something else, something that might otherwise be ridiculous, but he had to try.

Rumplestiltskin discovered he could spin straw into gold.

Chapter Text

He saved the children. All of them. He slaughtered every ogre in sight on the front and made doubly sure that, at least in this part of the land, no one would lose their life to this war again. He helped where he could, goaded by Baelfire for his Papa to do good rather than bad. To use light magic instead of dark.

Except once.

“I didn’t know it felt like that,” he whispered after it all happened, watching Bae sleep nearby. His boy would have no memory of what he made him do. He’d no idea, ever in his life, that he forced his papa to use dark magic, to kill someone. For his son to have to live with that, to have made that choice when it needn’t be done… Rumple couldn’t stomach having his child live with that all his life. It wasn’t fair.

He’d taken this curse, not Baelfire. But that didn’t make how having the dagger control him feel any better.

“What did you think it was? A trance? Empty hypnosis to distance yourself from? ‘Fraid not, dearie,” the Darkness chuckled, daintily observing his claw-like nails. “The dagger isn’t controlling me. It’s controlling your soul.”

The Spinner attempted to stifle a shudder. “To keep you reigned.”

“And it did that so well in the hands of your little one, didn’t it?” He purred, speaking into his ear.

“He...he didn’t…”

“I don’t know why you took away the memory. I think it was a real bonding experience for you,” He sang, lips brushing against Rumple’s skin. “And what’s more, you may find out he really is your son. You glimpsed the darkness in him, perhaps you--”

Rumple shoved away from the apparition and stepped outside, a deep snarl in his face. “Don’t. I will not regret saving my son from darkness. I spared his heart, I spared his soul. I took this curse to fight what he couldn’t, to keep him safe. I can use it to keep darkness from him too.”

“And what about your own heart?”

The sting was still there. Baelfire taking up the blade, ordering him clearly with hate in his eyes to murder that man, knowing he couldn’t say no. It hurt him so, jerking strings on the marionette he’d become that were rooted in his chest. Baelfire had done the one thing he was so sure his bright-eyed boy would never do; he used him.

Used him like Malcolm used him to gain funds at the expense of his innocence and his body. Used him like Milah had to do her bidding with an unfeeling kiss that swayed his heart regardless. Bae used him as other people he loved had.

“It may be all you’re good for, you know,” The Dark One suggested, holding his shoulders. “They only love you if you’re of use to them somehow.”

“Not Bae,” he whispered. “No, he...he’s just a boy. He had a lapse in judgement. That’s all. That...that’s all.”

He swallowed the lump in his throat, lips pursed, the truth in the Curse’s words settling in his belly with the rest of his shame and pain.

Back inside the draft stirred up again, causing Baelfire to tremble again in his sleep. Rumple sat beside him, gently petting his curls back, watching his blissful slumber with some envy of his own. He took the cloak from his shoulders and tucked it around his son to warm him more. The child cooed and snuggled into it, resting more peacefully.

“I have to get us out of this place,” he breathed. “He deserves better.”

“If you say so.”

Rumple shot the curse a dark look and went back to his wheel. “Go away. I don’t want to hear you right now.”

“Fine, fine… You know, someday I might be all the company you have.”

“Perish the thought,” he muttered, banishing him with the wave of his hand and went back to spinning.

With the gold he could make from nothing, Rumple was able to put him and Baelfire into a new home. A better one in a more lively village thriving in trade and with other children to play with. Children who didn’t know his Papa as a coward, but as The Dark One.

It took a great deal of getting used to, for both of them. Sleeping in separate rooms seemed to be the most difficult thing for Bae to adjust to.

“Bae, I haven’t slept since I got cursed,” he chuckled, speaking gently. “Why does it bother you now?”

“I, I don’t know. We were still in the same room and...it’s strange, being alone. I don’t like it,” he muttered. “I’m...I’m not afraid, but…”

“What if I spin until you fall asleep, eh? Then you can still hear the wheel like nothing’s changed. How’s that sound, my boy?”

Bae blinked sleepily and nodded, and the routine was set. Though on nights when his son couldn’t seem to find sleep, he shuffled his way downstairs and curled up on the sofa near Rumple’s spinning wheel and slept there instead. Rumple never fussed or thought ill of it; it was nice knowing his son wished to be around him.

But things were beginning to falter. The curse wove its way through Rumple’s mind and body, twisting words and their meanings around to cause him to strike out for any reason at all. Like a cut on Bae’s knee. A scowl in his direction. A muttered insult spoken out of fear.

His son would plead with him to show mercy or restraint and oh, he would try. Until the Darkness hissed at him.

“Do you want to be weak again? You want to show this place, these people, they can push you around? Harm your son without consequence?”

It would all be over then. Never again did he want to taste the bitterness of shame and defeat, the cold, hollow stench of fear that clung to him like a second skin. Never again did he want to be the cowardly spinner who crippled himself and let his wife be kidnapped and murdered. Never, ever again, would he allow someone to hurt him or Baelfire. He would not lose his boy, not for anything.

That particular stranglehold, desperate to keep his son, shoved Bae right into the arms of a man he hadn’t seen in decades. A man with the soft, charming features of a well-mannered boy, and the dark, cold eyes of a monster Rumple continued to have nightmares about.

The curse could not reach him in Pan’s presence. It could not goad him into reacting, to striking out at the man who’d harmed him so much. In that instance. Rumplestiltskin was just a babe. A boy, lost and afraid, looking at his Papa who loathed his existence so much he abandoned him. Just another lost boy...Pan’s first lost boy who would always, always hear his music no matter how he aged, how he changed.

Caught in his throat with other words, explanations, a dam of pain that would not break, he couldn’t tell his son about any of it. He couldn’t utter a word about who Pan really was, what it meant that Bae heard the music, that his heart was in so much pain it threatened to suffocate him. He could only tremble minutely while Bae shouted at him, unable to move until he was upstairs in his bed once more.

“What the hell was that?” The Darkness snarled. “What’s the matter with you? You could have killed him instantly, ripped out his heart  and crushed it! Take back the life he took from you! Why didn’t you?!”

Rumple stared at the unmoving wheel, trembling fingers fiddling with the same piece of thread he’d been holding for quite some time now, unmoving. “I dunno,” he whispered, not looking at the monster.

“Yes you do!” It growled, appearing between the spokes. “Tell me why, say it aloud!”

“Stop,” he warned.

“No. I won’t. And you can’t make me even if you wanted to, Spinner. We’re past that. Why couldn’t you take your revenge on your father? Kill him, hurt him at the very least?!”

Rumple’s throat clutched on him, cinched tight. It took him quite a long time. “I… He’s my Papa. Still. It doesn’t matter what he’s done I...I can’t…”

“He would’ve taken Baelfire from you.”

“I should’ve let him choose,” he breathed, bowing his head. “I should have let him decide who he wanted to go with and not...not make him. He should have been given a choice.”

The Dark One grabbed his chin and forced him to look up, scowling at him. “You… What are you?”

“A coward?” He offered.

“That’s not what I mean,” he snapped. “Why aren’t you like all the others? Why do you feel this...this absurd way about people? So fierce in your affections. There’s never been a tie I couldn’t sever and you? You resist at every turn. I don’t know what you are, Rumplestiltskin, but it’s...it’s unnerving not knowing. I’m the Dark One, I’ve seen everything! Except...you.”

“Should I be flattered?” He huffed, standing. The Dark One didn’t answer, only followed him as he ascended the stairs, peering at Baelfire, who was asleep on top of his blanket, face hidden in his pillow.

He sat beside him a moment, brushing his hair back, looking at the drying tears on his face. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered. With gentle hands he eased the cloak from Bae’s shoulders and the extra layer of shirt to keep out the chill outside. He took off his boots and tucked him in, smoothing his hair back again, watching the boy rest.

A soft kiss to his hair and he stood to leave, ignoring the shadow of his other half leaning against the doorway.

“Papa?”

He stopped, smiling gently, falsely, and turning. “Yes, son?”

“I love you,” he said quietly, blinking at him sleepily. He strode back over to him, gently touching his cheek and kissing his forehead before pressing theirs together.

“I love you too. You know that, don’t you, son? No matter what might happen, how far apart we might be, how...how much this Darkness might change me, I will always, always love you. You will always be everything to me.” He spoke softly, sincerely. Baelfire looked as if he couldn’t believe it, that he was dreaming, but he saw his Papa again. Still in there.

“Okay, Papa,” he nodded. “I will too. Even if I get angry with you. You’re my Papa.”

He let him sleep, urging him to rest before their adventure early tomorrow morning; a trip to a real castle overrun with sprites and brownies that needed some dealing with. Plenty to explore and walk through; he’d love it.

Despite the reassurance, and how wonderful that day was, Rumple still felt as though a cold brick was settled in his stomach. Something terrible was about to happen, he could feel it. Like the prickling on the back of the neck when lightning is about to strike closeby.

“This is right before he loses him, isn’t it?” Belle whispered, watching Rumple sit and spin again.

“Yes,” he said softly. “You...may not like me much. After that. If you aren’t angry with me already.”

“Are you sorry you did it?” She demanded, looking up at him.

“Yes,” he said sincerely. “Had I not...done what I did, your husband may well be a happier man.”

“We wouldn’t be together if not...not for…” She shook her head, folding her lips. “It would’ve been better for him, though, you’re right. To have his son. His happy ending.”

The Dark One frowned, gently turning Belle’s chin in the heated, familiar hands she’d become used to. “Belle, don’t you ever think he regrets knowing you. That he would rather have Bae than you.”

“No, I know he would,” she assured. “Choosing between your child and your love… It’s not a choice. I know he’d rather have Baelfire, and that’s alright.”

“Belle, nothing is that simple.” He was in front of her now, holding her face in his hands. “I’ve been around for too long to see the world in black and white; nothing works that way. It’s not a matter of choosing one over the other. Your spinner took this curse so he could have a way to get everything . So he could have his son, his freedom, his dignity, his life. And that’s evolved over time. Now, it’s his son, you, his child, his life, his marriage. You are everything to him, Belle. You’ll see how you change things for him. But now…”

The Darkness looked back toward Rumple. “You aren’t going to like this.”

~*~

A deal struck. An understanding that there was likely no way that Bae would get his hands on something that could transport them anywhere, let alone to some place without magic. Could such a land truly exist anyway? What sort of terrible realm could there be to accomplish such a thing?

“Don’t underestimate your boy,” The Dark One growled. “He’s nearly as stubborn as you are.”

“I’m not underestimating him. I’m simply knowledgeable enough to know those beans aren’t lying around everywhere,” he nodded.

The Dark One circled him like a large, predatory cat, black eyes locked on him. “...Do you think you can escape me so quickly, Spinner? You think that somehow, going somewhere without magic, you’ll be rid of me?”

Rumple glanced at him. “Without magic, how could you even exist?”

“I cannot be destroyed simply by shifting from one place to another,” he laughed. “You may be without magic, but I will still be there. Only much, much, closer…”

The creature’s voice echoed deep inside his mind, making it throb. Rumple winced, closing his eyes as the cacophony rose of all the voices he could isolate away from himself were screaming and shrieking on top of one another, snarling and growling and clawing at the edges of his mind and his temples. “Stop!” He ordered, but it did not quiet.

“This is what it will be…” The creature cooed, rattling his teeth. “Every day of your life you will be powerless, weak, limping, hopeless, and insane. Your life, Baelfire’s life, will unravel entirely. How can you provide for him without us working properly? What can you do with all this noise in your head? Will you even be able to hear him over all of this? This isn’t even agitated, it gets worse…”

Rumple slapped his hands over his ears. It got louder, so much louder, screaming and shrieking, all of them. Their lives flashed before Rumple’s eyes, clawed into his heart and tore, shredded, ripped all they could reach, trying to find space for themselves. It was too much.

“ENOUGH!” He bellowed, throwing his hands out and casting the voices out with it. He glared at the Dark One before him, who smirked.

“You can’t handle a little taste,” he purred, holding Rumple’s face between his hands, looking at him steadily. “What makes you think you can take a lifetime?”

“I promised him,” he whispered, staring back at it. “I swore to him I, I would go with him. I can’t break a promise to him. I can’t.”

“You’d rather be weak?” It asked softly. “Be the man you were before me? You were nothing.”

“I have gold now. With enough of that I, I can make things better. You’ve shown me enough, I know gold can get us by anywhere. Anywhere. If...if I lose my mind, fine. But I promised.”

“You’re a fool,” he growled, pushing away from him. “You’ll be nothing without me.”

Fear. It was back again, and it carried that same foul taste, that horrifying cinch in his throat and icy feeling in his gut. Of course he was afraid. Faced with a portal again, after what happened before?

“Maybe. But he has to get his hands on something first, doesn’t he?”

Then he did.

The fairy that had eluded him all his life, that avoided him in all of his darkest moments, when he’d begged and pleaded for her to help, for any of them to help, answered Baelfire.

Was he really so cruel? Was he so vile and terrible, more terrible than a father giving away his child as his own had, more terrible than letting a mother expire and leave her child alone, more terrible than trying to appease an abusive wife. He was so terrible just by being that the fairies wanted to help his son. It hurt.

But he couldn’t say a word to Baelfire about it, not one.

His tenacious, brilliant, strong willed boy presented the bean to him proudly, looking at him with the same hopeful gaze he’d given his own father as a boy. A new place, a fresh start, where they could be happy and live without the one thing that made both of their lives terrible. Rumple had thought it was reputation, when he was small. He thought if Papa could escape what others thought of him, everything would be okay. With a fresh start, Papa could be happy and when he was happy he was kind to him, he loved him. He knew better now.

A tremble, faint but persistent, started in his hands, made his heart beat too fast and cause his ribs to ache. He went to the woods with Bae, afraid to speak too much.

The Dark Ones were getting loud again, surrounding them in a type of death march. They crowded around, all hissing and snarling at him, at Bae. Different faces he knew, spitting the slurs he’d heard all his life, emerged. He fought to ignore them, fought to keep his own fears down. It could work. It could be good for both of them.

The portal was as haunting as it had been in his nightmares. Baelfire saw hope, a new day, a better day. He knew once they were through things would be better. Once he didn’t have magic, didn’t think he needed magic, everything would be better.

Rumple was afraid. Of course he was afraid, he was always afraid.

“...No, no, no, it’s a trick, it’ll tear us apart!”

“The fairies want you to die, they’ll do anything to get what they want. They can do so much, they care so little. Why wouldn’t they murder you and your son now?”

“Lies, lies, lies, they bewitched the boy. They’re using him against you.”

“Is that even your son? Changelings invaded his bed and took him away, this is not your child…”

“It’s not! It’s not, it’ll be okay, I promise!” Baelfire held tight to his hand, pulling him closer, urging him to go, they had to go.

Where would they end up? Where would they go? He wished he weren’t so afraid, so he could think clearly. The Dark Ones were screaming, Baelfire was screaming.

They fell and he caught them on a root, pulling Baelfire away. It would tear them apart, even if it was real. New places, new realms, they didn’t change anything.

“He’ll leave you.”

“Leave you like Papa left you.”

“He’ll abandon you so quickly for the first kind face he sees. You’ll hold him back.”

“You’re holding him back now.”

“You’ll be lame again.”

“Pathetic again.”

“Poor again.”

“So, so, WEAK!”

“...It won’t stay open long, let’s go!”

“I can’t, I can’t!”

“You could have died!”

“I was never meant to be a father.”

“Papa, please!” Baelfire was so desperate, gripping Rumple’s hand with all the strength he had.

“Spindleshanks!”

“No, Bae, I can’t!”

“Hobblefoot!”

“You are nothing without me,” The Darkness snarled, eyes glowing against the light of the portal, surrounded in black smoke, flanked by Nimue. “Hobblefoot. Bastard. Worm. Pathetic. Nothing. You’re nothing without us, nothing, nothing, nothing…”

The noise was too much, the shrieking of the portal, the constant bombardment of his own memories, of the agony suffered without the curse. These portals meant pain, abandonment, losing everything he worked for, everything.

“Let him go,” Nimue hissed in his ear. “Let go of him, or he’ll let go of you. Do it. Do it, Rumplestiltskin. Be brave for once in your insignificant little life and let this bastard go.”

He didn’t want to. He didn’t want to let Bae go, but he couldn’t go through. He couldn’t do it, he would lose this. He would lose his power, his means of protection, everything he knew and Bae--

“YOU COWARD!”

“Coward.”

“I’m the town coward…”

“How about a little fealty?”

“Should feed you to the ogres myself, coward.”

“Filthy coward.”

“Pathetic excuse for a man!”

Bae called him a coward. Just like everyone else. No, this couldn’t be his son. Or was it? Not loved, loathed, hated, let go not real what was real let go was anything real in this horrifying whirlwind, let go in this nightmare he was living let go he couldn’t breathe let go he couldn’t stop Let Go he couldn’t do this Let Go! he couldn’t be awake he couldn’t lose Bae he couldn’t be weak disgraced foul nothing but a cowardcowardcowardcowardCOWARD! LET GO!

“--Don’t break our deal!”

“I SAID LET GO!”

He wasn’t in control of his body now. Not really. The tendrils of the Dark One’s hands came around his own, forcing him to still, to not fight them, clawing at his wrist and his fingers and it hurt.

“I have to!”

He felt his hand open. Heard Bae scream one more time.

“PAPA!”

Silence.

Deafening, ringing, silence. The curse receded, relaxing now that it had won. It was safe.

It had lied.

Rumple came back to himself, senses fully realized once more, his hand still burning where Baelfire had held it. The portal was closed. Bae was gone.

“Bae?” He squeaked. Nothing. Not a peep. Gone. “Bae!” What had he done? What did he do?! “No! No, no, no, no, no, Bae!” He clawed into the ground helplessly, tears burning his eyes, a deep, deep echo of pain in his heart. His world had just collapsed. His world had been taken from him-- No. No, he lost him. He let him go, he let him go, HE LET HIM GO! “I’m sorry, Bae! I want to come with you!” He lost his smile, his voice, his eyes. “I want to come with you, Bae!” He was all alone somewhere. No one to take care of him, no one to keep him safe. He killed his child. “Bae!” The curse opened his hand. “Bae!” His baby, his sweet child he swore to never, ever leave. “Bae!” Promised him from the moment he saw him.

The Seer was right.

He had done the one thing he’d sworn to never repeat. He abandoned his son. He abandoned… He…

In grief, rage, anguish, self-loathing, and helplessness, Rumplestiltskin screamed. He shrieked his agonies onto the wood around him, wordless, blood-curdling, brimming with suffering.

Belle lost her footing and collapsed on her knees, huddling over herself and crying, watching him. Magic flew out of him, black shards of hate and anger shredding everything surrounding the crater where he’d lost his son. Fire rolled and consumed it in green and black flames, forever killing everything around this place. It was as bleak and hopeless as he felt.

When his voice finally broke, breath run out, he cried. Quietly, alone. The force that had wrought so much damage now reduced to a small, brokenhearted man with fists in the dirt that claimed his boy. His fault. All his fault.

“No more,” he whispered, taking the dagger from inside his cloak. “N-no more of this. Of you . I won’t let you ruin anything else.”

“What are you doing, Spinner?” The curse hissed, standing before him.

Rumple held the dagger in a firm hand, clearly intent on driving into his chest as deep as it could go. “If, if I do this...you die. You’re gone from this realm and all others. You’ll have no vessel. You...you took him away from me and now--”

“Wait!” He looked up with his tear-strewn face, chest thundering painfully. “Just...wait a moment. Fine. Fine, you didn’t want to lose him, we panicked. All of us. You made the decision to let him go and--” Rumple scoffed and pushed on the blade, breaking skin. “I said wait! Just...hold on a second. Fine. Fine, we made a mistake but… but you can get him back.”

“How?” He snarled, pausing.

“Maybe start with the fairy who gave him a way out? You want vengeance? You want your boy back? You can’t do it dead. You certainly can’t do it without magic. Without me.”

The dagger fell back to the dirt, a drop of blood on the tip.

“Fine. But from now on… Don’t you ever do something like that to me again. I’ve nothing to live for now. Never forget that.”

The Dark One knew, given time, he could sway the Spinner again. The quest to find his son would also be the quest to gain as much power as he possibly could. He was patient. Very patient.

“As you wish,” It conceded.

Rumple stood on weak legs, looking empty and lost. He vanished from the crater, reappearing at home, in his son’s room.

He took the shawl lying at the foot of it in his shaking hands, pressing his face into it. Gone. His baby boy was gone…

Rumple wept. He grieved. He whispered his apologies to the cloth and held it tight in his hands and didn’t move until morning.

“Shall we pay the Blue Fairy a visit?” The Darkness growled.

Rumple lifted his bloodshot eyes, flexing his jaw. She would pay for this. He’d make sure of that.




Chapter Text

“Breathe, dearie, just breathe…” The Dark One had one hand on Belle’s back, rubbing soothing circles in the middle while he coaxed her to calm herself and her tears. He’d been whispering sweet things to her for roughly ten minutes now, urging her gently to focus, for the sake of her own babe.

The pain Belle had felt in Rumple’s heart had her bordering hysterics. She cried so hard, doubled over on the floor of the mansion, trying to work it out of her and shy away from it to spare her grief she did not know existed.

It was the fear she felt looking in Hades’ eyes while he had one hand on her stomach, swearing to her he would snatch the babe from her at any moment, only amplified a thousand times over. That feeling, knowing Baelfire was gone where he couldn’t follow, that he may have well murdered the one thing that ever mattered to him, was so intense, so utterly agonizing she had to grab the nearest bin and vomit.

And the way that fairy spoke to him, treating him as though he’d deserved that punishment, as if Baelfire deserved that level of pain and suffering as well. Her indifference made her blood boil, made Rumple’s anger and pain that much worse. He was left without answers, without a compass, and spent a good deal of time simply wandering the wood. Panicked, grieved, a headache splitting his thoughts in twain while the curse attempted to offer help, only to have all the voices speak over each other.

“Power, Spinner, that’s what you need. The more power you have, the larger chance of finding a solution. We can find where the power is and go get it, get your son…”

“What if I fail?”

“Well that’s simple, dearie!” The curse laughed, perched on a nearby log. “Don’t.”

And Belle cried. She cried and screamed to get past this ache but it would not subside. She didn’t know if she could feel anything else again, it was maddening, this pain.

But the Darkness was right, she had to breathe. She had to calm down or she’d hurt herself and her unborn child. She swallowed the lump in her throat and stood without speaking, face red and blotchy from the force of her sorrow. Shakily, she transported the pair of them to the shop, opening the safe without a word and gathered Baelfire’s shawl in her arms.

“Good thing he held onto that, eh?” The Darkness smirked, trying to catch her eye, to make her smile. It didn’t work.

“I’m so angry with you I may go blind with it,” she hissed out, glancing at him. He winced, clasping his hands and looking at the floor like a shamed child.

“I...I did warn you--”

“You did,” her voice was clipped and cold, “but that doesn’t take away how I feel. How Rumple felt.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, tone sincere and sobered, a rare sighting but Belle didn’t show any sign of being swayed. “Truly I am. If I could go back and change it I would.”

She steeled herself. “That’s easy to say when it can’t be done.”

“It’s what I am, Belle,” he reminded. “Whatever it takes to survive. This last time, when he died, I fled from him before he could take me with him. Without that instinct, you wouldn’t be here to loathe me so. You wouldn’t have hope, you--”

“I’m not thanking you , if that’s what you think I’m going to do,” she snarled, walking through him and transporting next to the basement of their home, where she found the walking stick he’d used in the forest.

“I don’t think that!” He implored, watching her. “But so much wouldn’t be if he hadn’t lost his son. So many things, even people, wouldn’t exist without that choice. His and mine. You have to think on that, dearie!”

She pursed her lips, standing in the library of the mansion again. “Can’t I just be angry for awhile?” She whispered, easing a thread from the shawl and cutting a sliver off the staff. “I...need to be angry right now. Please.” Her voice wavered, and, despite herself, she rested her head on his chest when he embraced her.

“Alright,” he agreed, speaking low. “Of course you can be angry. Be whatever you like, Belle. I... I am sorry.”

She merely nodded, standing there with him for several minutes. A great deal had been revealed to her in those memories, some beyond the events leading up to Baelfire being lost.

“I need to speak with Mother Superior,” she whispered. “Things...aren’t making sense.”

“You need answers,” he stated. She swallowed in reply. “That’s why you need to stay angry.” She looked down. “Well, then! We’d better get going, you laughable little bookworm!” He tweaked her nose and she scowled to hide the urge to smile.

“That the best you can do?” She asked. “I thought you were the Dark One, not the seven year old…” She turned on her heel and flounced from the room.

“Oi! Now that’s no way for a pwetty princess to beha- Ow! You know if I were real that would’ve really hurt! No throwing things!”

~*~

Blue had discerned from the goings on and whispers around town and the Abbey that the newest Dark One would pay her a visit soon. She found it rather amusing, Belle’s attempt to resurrect the most contemptible man in existence on the grounds of true love and devotion.

Her and the imp’s relationship and perversion of something as pure as true love had been a thorn in her side since its inception. It never failed to make her shudder, not in the Enchanted Forest, and certainly not now. Sure, it wasn’t entirely Belle’s fault. Her naivety was oftentimes admirable, which is why she offered the girl her help when it was convenient for her.

Camelot was an attempt to wean the woman off him, to see what she would be without him and if she could find it within herself to admit that she’d made a grave mistake and needed to leave him for good. Banishing him -after the fairies were imprisoned by his fanatical pursuit of dark magic- was the closest she’d come to being the hero she’d often claimed to be. Then it was all dashed when he returned her heart to her under the guise of wanting nothing else from her.

Blue knew Rumplestiltskin and his nature better than anyone. She knew what really needed to be done with him and how he should have been dealt with centuries ago. It was remarkable how resilient he was, how easily he bounced back and forth between existing and not, threatening and not, cursed and not. Much like a parasite or a worm burrowing its way deeper into a host for its own survival, that creature had wheedled into Belle’s heart and was apparently there to stay.

She would get her chance to say her piece in time. Belle was on some mad conquest to collect bits and pieces of significance from the scourge that was his life and use them to revive him, while also enacting revenge on those who saw him for what he truly was and reacted as such. Gods above, the delusions the Golds’ had…

It was all expected, which is why when the doors to her office burst open she wasn’t the least bit surprised. She looked up, pressing her skirt flat on her legs and regarded Belle as one might regard a mouse circling a trap.

“You and I need to talk,” Belle said quietly, bristling with anger and the sulfuric stench of the curse around her.

“Yes, I suppose we do,” she sighed, standing.

Belle narrowed her inhuman eyes at her, shaking her head. “I...just want to know why.”

Blue frowned. “Why what?” Perhaps a cat batting an irked mouse was a better analogy…

“Why...why did you let those things happen to him?” Her voice was thick with emotion. Blue didn’t care. “His mother dying while begging for your help, his father selling his body for coin and he pleaded with you to end his suffering, living in misery with a woman who claimed to love him once and getting no reprieve from any of it. And then, then you help his child instead when you knew full and well what his experiences with those portals were! You wanted it to happen, you let it happen and you did NOTHING!” Blue could feel the power throbbing from the young girl, and she pressed a hand to her cardigan to reassure herself she was armed with her wand. “All your power, all your omniscient observations and you let him suffer for no reason!”

“Belle,” she sighed, expression patronizing. “You know well enough by now that I don’t do anything without good, justified reason. Don’t you think that if there was good in him I would have helped? But there isn’t, my dear. Never has there been an ounce of innocence in him. It’s not entirely his fault, you see, but that’s simply how it is. I cannot offer help or fairy dust to someone I know is never going to use magic for good--”

“That’s not true,” Belle snarled, watching the condescension etch into the Blue Fairy’s face and stay there, frozen like a marble statue. “He saved those children, he stopped the Ogre wars--”

“He killed and plundered and corrupted his child. He used dark magic to achieve that. Explain to me how that is ‘good’ or ‘heroic,’ Belle.”

Belle shook her head, closing the distance between them and grabbing Blue’s wrist in a hard clutch when she reached for the wand in her coat. “No, no, no, you answer me first. Quid pro quo, isn’t that how it works? Answer me.”

“Answer what, exactly?”

“Why did you IGNORE HIM?! What makes him so evil?! What makes a baby starving to death while his mother withers away EVIL?! Tell me how you can turn a blind eye to a hungry child and a desperate mother--?”

“She brought it on herself,” Blue hissed, some of the marble chipping away to reveal the virus-like infection beneath. “I warned her what would happen, but she didn’t want to listen. She didn’t listen and look what happened to her! The same will happen to you if that demon inside of you isn’t dealt with, you mark my words--”

Belle wrapped her hand around Blue’s throat and squeezed . Her eyes burned into her soul, the tarnish in her porcelain face growing with the shadows that came with it.

“Tell. Me. Why. Last chance,” she whispered, her tone a gentle tinny of broken glass.

“H-his mother,” she choked. “Was one of us!”

Belle frowned and dropped her, staring at her hard. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“A fairy, his mother was a fairy,” she gasped, clutching her bruising skin. “Then she, she got pregnant with it. I told her, I told her if she didn’t stop with that vile human of hers I’d take her magic. Snatch it away. She claimed it was true love, just like you, but no. No, it was just as perverted, just as heinous and wrong . Then he was born, a changeling born under my watch! A savior, they said! That thing, a savior! No, no, I couldn’t let that happen…”

Belle shook her head, brow pinched. “You’re...you’re lying. You wouldn’t make a baby suffer because, because--”

“We have rules Belle!” She snapped, whipping out her wand in a white-knuckled grip. “Changelings aren’t supposed to be allowed to live, let alone be a savior . I told her he would die if he tried and she cut his fate! Took away his so-called ‘destiny.’ But I knew, I knew without that he would surely die. He nearly did so many times and now you...you want to bring it back.

“You dare spit in the face of rules laid down for thousands of years by beings far more powerful than you, conceiving with him, bringing him back twice. I let the Black Fairy die without her wings and starving to prove a point and hope the babe would just die without me getting my hands dirty. I was wrong to do so then. I was wrong to allow Baelfire to exist, but that seemed to solve itself in time. But now? I won’t make that mistake now.”

Belle glared at her, so overcome with white-hot rage she wasn’t sure what would happen if she attempted to cast any spell. “Careful, dearie,” The Dark One whispered to her. “She’s crafty, strong. Her magic matches ours. Think before you act…”

She couldn’t just stand there and allow this woman to speak to her so, to threaten her baby, to slander her husband and blame him for things far beyond his control. Face to face with the glorified witch Belle allowed instinct to kick in.

“Fuck you.”

She rammed her forehead into Blue’s face just as hard as she could. In a primal, ungodly need to react savagely she shattered the woman’s nose and left her disoriented.

“You-you horrible thing!” She shrieked, blood gushing from her face. “How dare you, you uncivilized monster!” A jet of magic shot from her wand and hit Belle square in her jaw, slicing her cheek open and injuring the bridge of her nose. “You’ll pay far more than that, believe you m-”

Belle punched her to shut her up and crushed the wand out of her hand when she’d fallen to the ground.

“Maybe,” she smiled, her own face bruising, nose bleeding. “Maybe I will. Everyone does in the end. But I will never be as pathetic and shameful as you.”

With a rough grunt Belle snapped the wand clean in half, absorbing the magic within with a wide smile. “Look at that…” She hummed, watching the fairy dim as her powers were taken. “You almost look sympathetic. What can I do to solidify that? Hm…” She snapped. “I know!”

A quick wave of her hand and Blue was no bigger than a twig, stuck inside a glass jar with a few holes atop it. Another flick of her wrist and they were in the densest part of the woods, surrounded in brambles, roots and thick brush.

She chuckled, watching her pound on the glass and throw her tantrum. “Don’t worry, one of your little minions will find you!” She tossed the jar over her shoulder into one of the masses of thorns and leaves amongst acres and acres of them. “You know, eventually.”

~*~

“Missing?”

“For how long?”

“A few hours,” David sighed. “The nuns are in a panic, they can’t find her anywhere.”

“She wouldn’t do anything drastic--”

“We can’t let her hurt people like that, at least we consented to it,” Snow sighed, distressed.

Regina pursed her lips, looking weary. “She and I made a deal. Gold didn’t break his, she won’t break hers. She can’t afford the consequences of magic right now, it wouldn’t be practical.”

“What exactly was the deal you had?” Emma asked, gentle and unaccusing. Regina smiled a little.

“The deal was, she couldn’t kill anyone,” she explained. “Which leaves a great deal of wiggle room in the torture and maiming department, I suppose. We all know the Blue Fairy has acted questionably on several occasions. She openly disliked Rumple, who knows what happened in their past. I know Belle isn’t going after innocent people. She’s going after all us poor sinners that wronged Rumplestiltskin one way or another. I get a partial haircut, Hook got a lobotomy. Whatever she does, it’s proportionate to what they’ve done.”

Emma nodded, absently fiddling with the petals on a lily Regina had in a vase on a table nearby. “So she’s probably around somewhere.”

“I’m sure if we ask Belle what happened she’ll talk to us. We reached an understanding. Didn’t we?” Snow asked hopefully.

“Seemed that way,” David sighed. “Alright, alright, if our search doesn’t bring anything up we’ll go talk to her. I know she doesn’t want to be...bothered. Right now.”

“Can we go to bed now?” Henry sighed, half asleep on Regina’s shoulder.

“Yeah, kid, let’s get you in bed,” Emma nodded, guiding him toward the stairs leading to his bedroom. “I’ll be there in a sec.” He grunted in response and waved a goodnight to his grandparents.

Emma turned back to them, hugging them both in turn. “Lemme know what you guys find out.”

David nodded and headed out, Snow right behind. She made eye contact with Regina and gave her an eager smile with a thumbs up, whipping out the front door before Emma could see her.

Regina blushed a little, sighing at this...foolishness Mary Margaret had her pursuing. But if she did this and got the reaction she expected then she’d leave her alone and stop playing matchmaker awhile.

“Emma?” She said, stopping her before she went upstairs again. “Um, here.” She took a vase of lilies off the countertop and offered them to her. “These are for you, actually.”

Her brows nearly shot up into her hairline, taking them carefully and searching Regina’s face. “Uh. I...thank you. These, these are my favorite, uh… What are they for?”

Regina’s blush deepened and she cursed herself for being so juvenile about this. “They...are a welcome back. I missed you, the real you and these… I hoped they’d remind you that I like you. Uh, I like having you around. I mean, no, I--”

Emma swiftly kissed her cheek, effectively silencing her. “I like being around you too.” She was red and awed and very, very confused but comforted. “I, uh, I’m gonna tuck Henry in. Yeah.” She walked upstairs, careful with the vase, burying her nose in the flowers and inhaling deeply, shooting her a shy smile before she set it down and went into Henry’s room.

Regina kept still, her aloofness clinging to her as per usual. But once Emma was out of sight, she gently touched the spot she’d kissed, and smiled.

Chapter Text

The world turned red.

Frothing pink foam gushed over levee after levee until they shattered. The stinking brew once held at bay set forth, poisoning all it touched. Deep, wet crimson so thick it seemed black, suffocating and choking out life, drowning the light in Rumple’s heart. In this time, Rumple’s soul suffered, and the Darkness thrived.

It began when Milah’s heart crumbled in his hand. The satisfaction that wafted over him was bittersweet. He had killed a source of his despair and misery, he had destroyed yet another parent that had abandoned their child…

Yet, a part of his own heart still ached when she...when she hissed at him that she never loved him. Their wedding day, the first time laid together, the smiles and laughter that filled their home like sweet music...was a lie. She loathed him in the end, of course. Before he’d thought her love had turned to hate, then to bitter, disgusted indifference. Something to hit, to break when she chose to. But in the end he’d believed that for a time, brief as it had been, they’d been in love. And happy.

Lies. All just...horrifying lies.

Belle watched hearts break on that ship. She watched Killian, still as vile and putrid as he ever was, swear his vengeance, bleeding over Milah’s corpse. She felt Rumple’s adrenaline thudding in his ears, the coppery tang of regret clinging to the back of his throat, and the satisfying shiver falling over him knowing he’d won.

Once he’d disappeared from that ship, and seen he’d taken an empty hand…

The flicker of hope that managed to rise in his heart shattered to pieces. The silver lining in this whole mess was gone. He would not find Bae, he would not travel to that place and get his son back like he’d been dreaming of for such a short time.

In his anger, severe and consuming as it was, he burned the house to the ground. Only Baelfire’s room and his spinning wheel remained untouched from the same poisonous flames she’d seen before.

Of course, his neighbors’ homes were scorched, their crops weakened, livestock stressed, and he dumped what gold he had left into their hands and vanished without another word.

Tales were written of this act, and the quiet spouts of generosity that followed Rumplestiltskin in his travels for a new home. Gentle stories of a golden serpent with a bite so venomous even a glance at his fangs could snuff out a life, but if one was pure of heart and intention, the serpent granted wealth. Belle remembered reading such stories in her youth, thinking them to be pure fantasy. She wondered now if Rumple knew they had been written about him.

His life became a series of filthy inns, deadly woods and stumbling shadows. A muttering madman lurking in the darkness, constantly alone with evil pouring off him like steam. He spoke little to real people, his clothes becoming tattered due to a lack of caring. He seemed to fade in and out of places without leaving a mark on them, and if he did it was usually in someone else’s blood. Rumple was a ghost. Neither living nor dead, the mutterings of the curse filling his head with more than he could focus on. He was lost in his own mind, deals and strifes consuming him.

Tiny needles scorched and pricked at every thought, the whispers stinging  and twisting deeper and deeper as they burrowed into him. The whispers promised to make the flooding stop, to put the levees of his happiness, his solace, things not consumed by the curse, back where they belonged and bring him peace. But the condition was hinged on power.

An addict teeming with an itch the Curse constantly scratched at, the burning nuisance throbbing in his ears night and day without reprieve. He hadn’t saved Bae yet, which meant he needed more. More meant less people to harm him, to challenge him. More meant less of a chance of being killed or overtaken. It meant a better chance of reaching through realms and plucking his boy right out and bringing him home.

Belle watched Rumple tear relics from tombs and crush them into his bleeding veins for a taste of more. Guzzling potions thousands of years old for another burst of an edge, fighting through armies of cursed men to condemn himself to a softer hex that ravaged his body with fever and anguish before settling inside his gut at last.

Wands splintered in clawed hands, the sharp light of their magic jolting through him harder than the silver lightning in the achromatic sky above. The colors swirled into his eyes, created a deeper void in his pupils and left them permanently open. Aware.

And it felt incredible.

Belle couldn’t help her own elation and desire in living through this frenzy with him. That feeling of invincibility, that no man or beast could harm them coursed through both their hearts and thundered along their veins like a symphony of hooves on an open plain. But as elated, distracted and high Rumple was on this, he began to slip.

His inhibitions faded in these two centuries, his constant hunger for more drawing out agony in those who dared to come near. Many a witch vanished in a plume of smoke with a simple look from him. He thought nothing of it, not once, as he daintily picked up their amulets, giggled and drank in the magic like a creature dying of thirst.

So many people were carted through the torture chamber Belle lost count of how many were harmed and how many died, and all of them eventually gave into whatever it was Rumple wanted. One thing after another, one dose of magic after another and it wasn’t enough.

“More, more, more, Baelfire’s corpse all in gore if Rumple Bumple doesn’t get more…”

Shadows clung to him tighter than his skin, wrapping him up in their embrace and welcoming him among them. He was more curse than man, more darkness than light, more monster than human. In these two hundred years, Rumplestiltskin lost himself. It hurt less to be this, to be snippets of those met along the way, pieces of other people he’d patchworked together to make himself a personae. A lie. The one Belle herself had met years ago but this was different. He was...terrifying.

Belle had never been frightened of her husband before. Even when he’d screamed at her for loving him and throttled her as he did she wasn’t afraid of him. In fact in that instance she was afraid for him and utterly confused by the rejection that made more and more sense each time she peeked into his memories. But looking at him now, at this muttering man raking fingers through his wild hair while books piled up around him, hunting down each new artifact relentlessly, she was afraid.

It was as though she were watching a star deliberately try to burn itself out. He neither ate nor slept, hardly sitting down for more than a moment. Constantly moving, constantly thinking, constantly consumed.

Once he acquired the castle he began to pace. He didn’t spin often during the stints of mania he had, and if he’d nothing to do at the moment he would walk. Back and forth, round and around with the curse like large cats mirroring each other.

“What else can there be?” He snarled, the sulfur and copper on his tongue and the back of his throat pluming from his lips.

“There’s always something!” The Curse giggled, flitting in and out of sight like smoke. The fire cast sharp, harsh silhouettes against their faces, breaths touching the cold air in hot, wet gusts. “You just have to look harder.

Rumple growled in frustration and tossed his hand in the air to dismiss the apparition.

He needed to do something, anything, to right this. To dull this hunger low in his belly, the ache in his head from the voices shrieking for more and the tremors in his hands, though that could be from the bitter cold of this place.

“Is this what you did to all of them?” Belle whispered, watching Rumple scrape a hand over his face so hard he cut his cheek. “Turn them mad until they burn out and fight to be rid of you?”

“Seemed to be the easiest way to get what I want,” The Darkness admitted, holding her shoulders. “There was no journey I wanted to take, no real ambition of my own and I certainly never cared for a vessel. They were a means to an end, a chaotic, bloody end. So long as I achieved that I was satisfied. Most all of them didn’t last a month. Some, a week. But...he’s different.”

Belle swallowed while Rumple knelt in the dim light, opening a chest containing Baelfire’s clothes. Her heart gave a nasty beat, thunking heavily against her ribs. The longing cut so deep, the regret stifling.

His expression cleared, the voices growing quiet as he remembered. They still smelled like him, and running his wretched claws along the fabrics he could see his smile, hear his voice, his laugh. Rumple’s eyes began to burn, finding what he was looking for. His trembling hands ghosted along the shawl and lifted it from the box, hugging it to his narrow chest as tightly as he could.

“Not sure those will fit when you find him,” The Dark One snickered. “If I’ve counted correctly, he’d be older than you now. Well, older than when you became this.”

“I know,” he whispered, nearly sounding like himself.

“He might even be dead, you know. It could be too late. This might all have been for noth--”

“NO!” Rumple barked, his voice echoing through the halls, eyes brimming with rage as he looked at him. “No, he’s still alive. I know he is. I...I would have felt it. I would have felt him die…”

Still, the image of his little boy, curled up in a gutter with hands clutched on his gut as hunger took him, haunted him. A man matching his age, blood gushing from a gaping stab wound and falling to the ground. The light leaving his eyes, someone running off with the money stolen from him. Poisoned, beaten, homeless, frozen... All the horrifying ways he could have met his demise, because of him.

He swallowed, rubbing his eyes, shaking his head. “He’s alive,” his voice was so fragile. “My son is still alive.”

“You hope.”

“I know! ” He snarled, jerking toward him, teeth bared. “I know he is! I know he is…” He slumped back down, looking at the shawl again.

The Darkness gave a little bow and retreated into the shadows, leaving him to the fruitless hope still alight in his foolish heart.

The pale yellow sun filtered through the grime and thick curtains, casting a broken spotlight on him. His hair hung around his face, the dark brown and gray framed in gold, his clawed, unholy hands holding the little shawl so carefully. It was a lonely, broken sight, a tear falling in the light like a jewel.

Belle found herself wandering closer, resting on her knees in front of him. Despite the rage and despair he’d poisoned so much of the forest with, he looked human now. Without the facade, without the anger, she saw him. A broken-hearted father desperate to see his child again. She reached out, attempting to touch his face, watching her fingers fall through him.

“You ruined so much,” she breathed, looking up at the Darkness. “You cost him...everything.”

“I know,” he said softly, hovering behind Rumple like the despicable omen he was. “But I could never break him. I never, ever, managed to make him something he wasn’t. Not really.”

“He seems well on his way,” she muttered, looking through her thick lashes.

“Ah, but you and I know very, very well that the Spinner never fails to surprise, eh?” He said, kneeling beside her. “You’ll see. Don’t worry, Belle. Lost as he might get, he still finds his way to you.”

She swallowed, turning away while the memory dissipated. The mansion filtered back into her reality, her hand on the mirror rather than the edge of Rumple’s face. “What changed?” She asked, pressing her palm flat against the glass to release the memories into it.

“I’ll show you after you eat something,” he smirked. She frowned.

“After I what?”

“Eat. For both your sakes. Mostly the baby’s,” he said, expression sobering with genuine concern. Belle looked at him for a beat, once again astonished he took this time to care for and about her. “Please?”

She pursed her lips, clearly giving in. “Fine. Fine, I’ll eat.” She pushed herself up, and in doing so her entire state of dress altered as well. The ripped and weary layers of lace and black fabric were gone, replaced instead with a Victorian-esque navy dress that hung past her knees. The collar, sleeves and hem were all gently ruffled, the torso corseted but not too tight on her belly. Her shoes were still tall, sharp and mildly terrifying, just as she was. Her hair suddenly fell into elegant curls around her face, makeup tidying itself as well.

“What’s all this for?” He asked, cocking his head.

“I want a hamburger from Granny’s and I don’t want to frighten everyone too much,” she said simply, tossing her hair and strutting off.

The Darkness chuckled low in his throat, following after. “Good luck!”

~*~

Regina sat up , nearly leaping out of her chair altogether when Belle stepped into Granny’s looking more put together and almost like herself. She did look a bit, well, darker. And she radiated complete, total danger that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up.

Granny looked between Belle and Snow, unsure if she should serve her or not.

“It’s okay,” Mary Margaret assured, sidling up to the bar beside the new Dark One. “She’s not gonna bite. Er...are you?”

Belle gave something of a smile, exhaustion etched into her face. Snow could have sworn she saw a few, random silver hairs amidst the chestnut and auburn. “No. I just want a burger and an iced tea.”

She scanned the room, watching the residents all flick their heads down and pretend to go about their business. Her eyes rested on the booth she and Rumple had their first date, her stomach clenching unpleasantly.

Snow followed her gaze, eyes turning sad. “How, um, how’s it going? The whole...bringing Gold back.”

“It’s going,” she nodded, tucking her hair behind her ear. “Might even be halfway now.”

“Wow, that… that’s a lot to go through. How are you doing?” She asked, looking at her closely. “You don’t have to tell me, of course, but… I mean, I’ve had two babies. I know how rough the early stages can be. Even without all the stress.”

Instinctively, Belle wanted to keep everything to herself. The tight grip of the Curse’s arms around her was a reminder that she could only really trust herself and it, and Rumple were he here. Despite any kind words that fooled her in the past, she couldn’t count on anyone.

But...Mary Margaret was trying. “The morning sickness is hard,” she nodded, smiling a little. “But there hasn’t been any pain. I’d know if there were something wrong.” She wanted to talk about how hard it was to do all of this alone, to be so wholly isolated in this experience that she felt as if she were an island unreachable by anyone else.

Snow White could never understand such a feeling, not when she’d spent her whole life completely supported and loved by an entire kingdom. She kept it to herself and locked it away in her throat.  

“Of course, absolutely, um… I’m glad you’re okay,” she offered her a soft smile and a gentle touch to her arm.

“Thank you,” Belle said, watching Snow internally recoil at the icy feeling of her porcelain skin under her palm. Her food was set down in the usual brown bag and she grabbed it, leaving without another word or another look in anyone’s direction.

Snow sat back down with everyone else, sighing. “I don’t think I helped at all.”

“Why would she trust us?” Regina asked, squeezing her mug of coffee between her hands. “Even if we did help once it doesn’t make up for everything else. Everything she’s about to see.”

“She looks so tired,” Emma mumbled.

Regina nodded, lips pursed. “Unlimited power does that to people.”

~*~

Fire. A red sky filled with black fumes, the dead littering the ground while blood pooled beneath gaping wounds and clouded eyes. Smoke and rot filled Rumple’s nostrils, watching an entire village burn to the ground on his behalf. Soldiers were looking for him, bearing the crest of King George on their armor, their horses, their tattered flags plunged into the mud.

He’d been visiting this place, searching for rare volumes that might reveal the location of Excalibur. King George had been looking for him for some time, attempting to summon him and failing simply because Rumple wasn’t one to be ordered around. He’d better things to do with his time than listen to a newly coronated brat whine about problems he didn’t really have.

He blatantly ignored any and all summons, returning one of his written letters with a concise response, ‘Unless you’re proposing, leave me alone. If proposing, I think I can do better.’

This had sent the little brat into a rage that caused the carnage around him. Village after village had been plundered, searched and destroyed in his name, and finally they had found him.

Every soldier encountered was slaughtered, save for the one he tossed back like a weak fish to spread the word to his so-called king; if he wanted Rumple that badly, he’d have to start asking nicely. Rumple had left no trail to get to this place, spoke to no one getting here, seen no one outside the village at all before arriving.

Someone among the remaining villagers had brought this plague upon them. Someone had sent word to the soldiers to find him, and killed so many innocents in the process. And Rumple knew precisely where to begin looking.

The flames, smoke and screams provided a horrifying backdrop to the Dark One as he stepped through it. Fresh bone snapped under his boot, blood, gore and soot clinging to the hem of his cloak. His eyes gave off their own light, the flames dancing off of them in glittering beacons. The man he was after caught sight of him and screamed, turning to run.

Rumple was already behind him, smirking and grabbing his throat. “Ah, ah, ah!” He cackled. “Did you really think I wouldn’t know? From one coward to another, dearie, the stink of fear never really washes away.”

“They made me! They forced me to say where you were! I didn’t know they would do this, believe me!” He begged, gasping around Rumple’s hand as it squeezed tighter and tighter.

“I don’t,” he snarled, squeezing tighter.

“They had my son! Please, I had to protect--”

“Papa!”

Rumple froze.

His eyes locked with the young boy who’d come running to his Father’s aid, and the breath fled from his lungs. He knew this child wasn’t his own. He understood that. His eyes were too bright, his hair light and short but through the haze of heat and smoke it was still difficult to tell. Whether it be his mind or his heart, each blink transformed the child into Baelfire, standing tall and proud, bravely facing a monster that would likely tear him apart in an instance simply to save his Papa.

He blinked, letting the man go. The boy rushed to him immediately, staring up at Rumple with a broken expression. “It’s my fault, not his, sir, please! Please don’t hurt my Papa!”

Rumple said nothing, his mind silent, the Curse struggling to stay in his view, let alone speak to him. He took a step back, shaking his head, unable to form a coherent word past the lump in his throat. What had he done? What had he become?

He’d become the very man that brought all of this on to begin with. A man with so much power and the ability to abuse it he simply did without thinking. He’d become this boy’s nightmare, just as Hodor had been for his child.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m sorry…”

He vanished in a cloud of smoke, appearing in the dark of his bleak and empty castle. A fire ignited with a cock of his head, the light falling over the shawl he’d kept so close.

“I will not be that man,” he hissed, falling to his knees in front of it. “N-never again will I be that man.”

“Does that mean you’re giving up, then? Letting him go?” The Darkness scoffed.

Rumple cracked his neck, glaring up at him. “No. It means now? I have rules.”

The candles lining the halls ignited, basking the dusty, dirty stone in light for the first time since he’d acquired it. “From now on there will always, always be rules.”

Chapter Text

Contracts. A sea of parchment and ink passing faster than one could keep track of, all neatly written in Rumple’s elegant hand. Each condition was painted clearly, the exchange worded just tricky enough that no matter what may occur, The Dark One would get what he desired. No amount of begging, pleading or bargaining thereafter would allow someone to escape his wrath, or rather, the unmerciful scythe Magic would use to balance the world again. The contracts were a courtesy to keep as many as possible from the reaping. Or, rather, so that each client knew how deeply the blade would cut.

“All magic comes with a price!” The words rang out more times than Belle could keep track of. Rumple’s tittering song of a voice announced it to all that sought his aid, his power or his will to do their bidding. Some were more desperate than others and agreed to part with things so precious even Rumple ached for them to some degree. But such tangible objects that held enough sentiment to them, enough love, could also brew magic.

The price was named, the agreement signed, the deal conspired, and all benefited accordingly from the exchange.

Unless, of course, they tried to cheat.

It wasn’t often, of course, that someone dared to weasel out of their deals with Rumplestiltskin, but when it happened, catastrophe followed. Magic would always find those who attempted to rob it of balance, and it would turn cold against anyone who tried. Belle watched people fall by the dozens in the earlier days of this new course. The rules were broken and Rumple simply stood back to watch the chaos that followed with a gleeful laugh and a clap of his hands.

A duke who asked for an army to take his father-in-law’s land from him attempted to use Medusa’s eyes on the Dark One -instead of giving them to him as previously agreed- only to fumble with the box they were encased in and turned himself into solid rock.

“That statue in the garden,” Belle muttered, watching Rumple giggle and click his tongue, plucking the box from where it lay and carrying it back into the castle. “I...I always wondered where it came from.”

The Curse smiled at her, walking around the “statue” with her, as though admiring a museum piece. “He always was one for trophies, eh? Horrible pose for a statue though. Some people have no courtesy about these things.”

A woman foamed and melted into a heavy black ichor in the middle of a pond after trying to run from him. Despite getting the man she’d wanted, the life she’d wanted, through the use of a love potion strong enough to sway any heart, she refused to pay her price. She wished her heart to remain with her, so she could love him still, but Rumplestiltskin had named his price.

Her heart was golden instead of the usual red, and as the black overtook the pond it bubbled to the surface while her agonized screams echoed through the woods.

Rumple sighed, shaking his head. “I didn’t want to do that,” he said to the water, opening his hand to summon the heart to him. “I take little pleasure in being deceived. Even less when there’s no real reason for it. But!” He laughed, turning over the heart happily. “I suppose I got what I wanted anyway. Try not to poison any children!”

He was calmer now. His manic behavior had slowed to something more manageable that didn’t get out of hand too often. His anger really only flared now on nights when the voices simply wouldn’t allow him a little peace. Poking and prodding him to do more, to keep going, to never stop. It made his head throb with irritation. He knew the urgency of all this, he’d known since it began. But his rules were absolute. He would not break them to appease these bodiless nuisances.

“What makes you think he still lives?!” Nimue demanded, speaking directly into his ear with her smooth, echoing voice. Her vice-like grip on him choked his breath and cinched around his heart, her presence fogging his eyes with all the consequences of love. She knew how he yearned for affection so fiercely, even a scrap of it, and it sickened her.

“I would feel it if my son died,” he said simply, calmly.

“If he lives, if you find him, he will loathe you.” She forced the memories of that day on him, of his hand opening and letting Bae go, the anger and betrayal echoing in his young eyes. “As you loathed your father for abandoning you. He will never forgive you. Not after all this time.”

Rumple’s eyes were closed, watching Bae fall over and over and over again-- Then another memory broke through.

His son, just wee thing, taking  wobbly steps toward him. His tiny feet stamped purposefully in the dirt, arms outstretched to him.

“Papa!”  

“Come on, son!” Rumple couldn’t stop smiling, shouting his encouragement to him, arms opened for him in return. “You’re almost there, Bae! Come to Papa, now, you’re almost there!”

His little face dawned with new light, new determination, and he forced himself to stay upright. He teetered once, the grass threatening to trip him, but he kept on. One more burst, and he’d closed the distance between them.

“Papa!” The tot fell into his arms and Rumple exclaimed in triumph.

“That’s my boy! You did it, son, you did it!” He laughed, bouncing him into the air from where he knelt, too overjoyed to acknowledge the pain in his leg. Baelfire giggled and squealed in delight, beaming at him, eager to get back down and walk some more. He wanted to make his Papa smile.

Rumple bumped their foreheads together, laughing some more when the babe grabbed his nose.

“‘Gain, Papa! ‘Gain!”

“Yes, yes, again, alright, son.”

Rumple opened his eyes, turning his head to look at Nimue. “It doesn’t matter,” he said simply. “I just need to get to him. To tell him I’m sorry. To tell him I love him. To catch him if he falls. I’m still his father. Even if he hates me.”

He turned back to the wheel with a smirk, breathing easier when she faded away. This loneliness would be worth it when he found his child. All of this would have been worth it, so long as he found Baelfire and...and said what he needed to say.

Then he met Cora.

~*~

She set his life ablaze. For the first time in two hundred years, Rumple wasn’t lonely. He snuck away to see her at every chance, catching her wrist in the halls of her castle to steal a kiss before her intended rounded the corner.

“We can’t keep doing this!” She giggled, looking around to make sure they were alone.

Rumple chuckled against her neck, kissing every inch of her skin he could reach. The ball downstairs continued without her, and at any second someone might ascend the stairs to see where she had gone and catch them there.

“You like it,” Rumple reminded. “You like being so naughty, my dear. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be so pleased to see me.” His hand slipped between her legs through her skirts, a snarl in his throat when she clashed their lips together again.

“I do,” she confessed, biting his lip when she pulled away to watch his desire dilate his pupils. “You know I do. And you take advantage of that whenever you can, Dark One.”

“Mmn…” He latched onto her neck again, fingers rubbing against her just enough to tease. “You’re absolutely right,” he breathed, grinning at the little moans she let escape. “I simply can’t get enough of you, Cora. And I’m a very, very selfish man.”

“You’re a horrible incubus, is what you are,” she teased, raking nails down his neck. He purred, watching her rock a little into his hand. “A demon meant to seduce me and drive me mad.”

“If it’s a demon you want,” he growled, magic blooming from his touch to overwhelm her with pleasure, “then a demon you shall have.”

“You wicked thing,” she gasped, still grinning, fumbling to open the closet door behind her. “Take my body now, but you must come back for my soul!”

Rumple giggled and forced the door open with the tick of his head, gently but firmly pushing her inside and closing it behind them.

“My dear, by the time I’m through with you, your soul will be as black as your hair…”

It was a carnal thing, their love. Lust sank in like fangs and spread over them until they were consumed with each other. Each kiss was a hit of the drug, their hearts tangling in the sticky black web they weaved.

Rumple showed her magic, all he knew how to teach, in that time. Through it, through their feelings for the other, he wove together the tapestry of possibilities to her. Dark magic could give her everything she ever wanted, if she were willing to seize it. She tore out hearts with the same passion she kissed him with, made fire bloom in her hands the same way she ignited his skin with her touch. She had consumed him in thick vapors of smoke and the mirrors she so often enchanted, and he let her.

Despite everything life had taught him thus far, he let her. He let himself fall in love with her.

He let himself believe he might have a second chance as a father. That he might be able to wade through the ocean of darkness he’d surrounded himself in and break through the thorns around his heart to be a proper man again. To be the best version of himself for what mattered. Love. A family. He hoped so much, his chest so light he couldn’t hear the Curse warning him. He ignored their doubts, ignored his own inklings that this might all fail for that one shred of hope that it would be alright.

That things might not be so bleak anymore.

He killed the man who held the contract for his second child, doing away with the last obstacle there was keeping him and Cora apart. Now all he had to do was wait, right here at this tree, and wait for her.

Her marriage to that overly trusting and oblivious man Henry would not happen. Her life would be with him, in their castle, where he would show her even more magic that she could fill more than one spellbook with, teach her about everything he’d seen, experience life with her, choose a room for a nursery. It would be better than before. He would be happy.

They would be happy.

The night was still around him, stars twinkling above him, the moon igniting the hills so everything was clear, calm. A comfort the world offered him when he was about to fall from the grace he’d been reaching for.

Belle rocked when his heart shattered, again. She fell to her knees with the pain it brought, clutching her chest and screaming where Rumple was silent. Cora was so frigid, so unyielding in her words that dripped with apathy and indifference that cut him down worse than any blade could.

She felt his urge to strike out at her, to murder her for this humiliation, for letting him fall for her ruse and this fantasy she’d allowed him to foster in his pathetic little mind. Belle felt his fingers tighten like harp strings, tendons ready to snap his bones should his anger rise any further. His vision blurred with tears he refused to let her see, swallowing them down with the shameful bile that rose with them.

Nimue shrieked at him, the Curse mocking him loudly, laughing at him over Cora’s shoulder. “I told you, Spinner!” He called, cackling. “I’m all that you have in the world!”

“YOU VILE, PATHETIC, LOATHESOME IDIOT! HOW DARE YOU DO THIS TO US! HOW DARE YOU BE SO WEAK!” Nimue was relentless in her torment, wrapping him in a hurricane of her wrath, tainting every good memory he had of the two of them. She ripped his dreams apart, thrust his vulnerable heart at each and every horror that he’d brought on them because he’d been so blind.

“NO ONE COULD EVER, EVER LOVE YOU!”

Cora was gone now, forever. Her choice was made. She didn’t love him.

She used him.

Belle held her breath, waiting for Rumple to do...something. Scream, cry, rip the earth open, tear stars from the sky. But he didn’t.

He just stood there, in the dark, staring where Cora had been, for hours.

Each Dark One berated him in turn, overlapping each other in a grating symphony. He didn’t fight it. He let it happen, let his head ache more and more until it was sure to split clean open. When they were through, he was looking at the mirror of himself, the one he could only call friend as well as a burden.

“I’m a fool,” he confessed to it.

“You are,” The Darkness conceded, stepping closer to him and taking his face in his clawed hands. “A damned fucking fool of a spinner with nothing but me to console you.”

“I hate it,” he breathed. “I hate you.”

The sun peeked over the horizon, shining a light on his curse, who sighed.

“I know,” he assured. “But I’m all you have. Your only friend in the world. And I can’t break your heart. I can’t leave you.”

“But you can use me,” he reminded, still just looking at him.

The Darkness smoothed Rumple’s hair back from his face and brought his lips to his forehead. “And you can use me. It’s all the love you’ll ever know, Spinner. The only solace for a soul so damned.”

He closed his eyes, lips shaking just once. What choice did he have but to take it?

“Say it,” the Curse prompted. “Say what Nimue told you.”

“No one could ever, ever love me,” he breathed, opening his eyes once more.

He removed his lips and dropped his hands, taking a step away from him. “You’ll have your revenge on her,” he assured. “All good things to those who wait, isn’t that so? You just have to wait for the right moment. And it will come. After all, she may not have broken the deal, but she will pay for her magic. In time.”

Rumple nodded, smiling a little, then he laughed. “She will, won’t she?”

“Aye, of course! Only a matter of time! Now, we have some mirrors to cover! And I believe King George had some lands he wanted to take back from King Xavier! That should put a damper on her little wedding, eh?”

~*~

Belle looked at the mirror her hand was pressed against, watching the memories float into it, catching the Curse’s reflection behind her.

“You convinced him he couldn’t be loved,” she said. “You used what happened, what Cora had done, to make him believe it. You wanted him to yourself. To do your bidding.”

“Yes,” he said truthfully, no longer touching her.

Belle swallowed, vanishing from the library and reappearing outside Regina’s home, where she knocked loudly. “...She did love him, didn’t she?”

The Darkness was beside her now, looking at her guiltily. “Yes. She did. She tore out her heart to speak to him. The king spoke to her, I’m sure, about how little there was to be gained from love. That it was a weakness. But she didn’t tell him that when she left. I didn’t remind him. I let Nimue have her way with him instead. To get what I wanted from him.”

“But you couldn’t stop him loving me.”

He was quiet a moment, footsteps shuffling on the other side of the door. “No, I couldn’t. Not even a little.”

The door began to open and Belle reached for the Darkness’ hand, squeezing it gently. “Aren’t you glad that worked out?”

“Am I glad what worked out?” Regina asked, clearly just woken up moments ago, squinting at Belle in the early morning light.

“Nothing. I need your mother’s spellbook.” Belle’s voice was clipped, impatient, and musical. She’d changed again, fallen deeper into the curse. Her voice was so different now, her eyes, her hair, her skin.

Regina marveled at how much like Rumple she was becoming every day, and how much of herself might be lost when this was over. Or at least, she would have, were it not five in the morning.

“Now?” She grunted. Belle didn’t answer, only stared. Regina sighed, turning back into the house and leaving the door open behind her. “Did he hate my mother as much as she said?”

“Worse,” she answered, her voice echoing off the marble. If she stood perfectly still, she could be considered part of the architecture. “He loved her.”

Chapter Text

The frigid winter air whipped around the lithe frame standing beyond the bars on the glass doors. Black claws traced the glass with a soft scream, twisting sharply to force the door open with the dark magic that poured from them.

The soft warmth of the room stung his numbed face, large eyes looking about the bedroom quicker than any human’s ever could. The fire died to a smolder, popping weakly as it fought for life and found no purchase. A tittering giggle plumed into the air.

Tattered, warped, twisted, Rumplestiltskin stood between the billowing gossamer curtains, looking around slowly.

“There,” The Curse hissed into his ear, and though the black of the night offered no real way to see, his head ticked in the right direction.

He crept deeper into the bedroom, following the thrum of life he felt in this corner. The claws wrapped around the lace that contained the steadily beating little heart, a monstrous grin spreading over his face. He found her.

A baby girl, asleep in her bassinet, so fresh and new to the world and utterly unaware of the beast leaning in to have a look at her.

“You’ve found her,” The Curse said softly.

He slowly reached toward her, curling away when he got too close. Such a hideous sight he was beside such a pure thing. His head ticked again, and he looked at the specter before him.“She would have been mine.” His voice was coarse and hard. “She was promised to me. Cora took her away.”

“Take her back.”

The encouragement flooded him with the bliss of possibility. This child could be his if he snatched her away now. Cora would feel the pain that he had endured tenfold, his revenge would be complete, and he could be a father once more. He, himself, might hope to fill that void within him.

“Take her,” The Curse purred again, behind him now and pressed against him. “Steal the babe away, poison her against her mother, raise her to love you as Cora never did. She’s right here for you. Take her now.”

Gently, he gathered her in his hands and lifted her from the cradle, possessively pulling her to his chest. She cooed, stirring a little, before resting again, turned more toward him now.

Regina, she’d been named.

She was tiny, fragile, as most babes born in the winter would be. Spring was nearing every day, and with the sun the child would thrive and grow. She may even look just like her mother when she aged. Sound like her, smile like her, hurt like her.

“What are you waiting for? Let’s go,” The Curse demanded, peering over his shoulder at the child.

Regina yawned. The black broth in his heart cooled. “I can’t,” he whispered.

“Why?”

“She doesn’t deserve the hatred I may have for her. No child does. She didn’t choose to be Cora’s daughter.”

“And yet Cora chose to make sure she wasn’t yours. You’re owed her, Spinner, as any other price you might have named! Take the girl!” Rumple glared at the Darkness, fighting both it and himself.

“I…” He looked at the child again, gently touching the dimpled fist resting outside her blanket. Regina cooed and wrapped her hand around his nightmarish finger.

It wasn’t often his visions of the future bombarded him without first seeking them out, but this was one he couldn’t help.

A mirror with its own face, a dead man dying once more, a horse with no heart, a village murdered, a girl vanished, a student soaked in the desire for vengeance and, finally, a dark curse cast.

Reality hurtled itself in front of him once more , and the monster grinned. “No. No, she needs to stay right here. Oh, I’ve been waiting for you for such a long time.” He bounced the child giddily, careful not to wake her.

“...sure that chill is coming from the baby’s room. How on earth--?”

The bedroom door opened. Rumple turned.

Henry stared at the creature holding his child, its eyes reflecting the candlelight back to him and glowing in the night. It tensed, claws poised too near Regina’s throat for his liking, lips pulled back in a snarl. This demon had come from the bowels of Hell, oozed from the forest on this night seeking a pure soul to steal away forever.

Unable to help himself, he screamed. For the guards, for his wife, for someone else that might see this abomination to ensure to himself he hadn’t gone mad.

Quickly, Rumple put Regina, now bawling from the commotion, back into bed, tearing away into the night and intent on disappearing altogether before he could be found out.

“Rumplestiltskin!”

His heart stilled. He whipped around toward the voice, Cora’s voice, though he knew what pain it would bring him to see her. She stood behind her husband, gripping the cradle with white-knuckled hands, more anger and hatred in her face than he’d ever seen.

And yet, he laughed. He cackled loudly over Regina’s crying, making the windows rattle and the fire blaze back to life as his magic overpowered hers. “You’ll never be rid of me, dearie!” He snarled, disappearing over the edge of the balcony, smoke rising from where he’d gone.

He didn’t stop grinning for some hours to come. His apprentice had been born, and she would bring about the curse that would deliver him to his son. And, Cora had looked afraid.

She was scared.

And she should be.

~*~

“No one ever told me about that,” Regina said quietly, moving around the kitchen to make herself some toast -and Belle as well even though she tried to decline- and coffee.

“I’d imagine not. The less Cora mentioned him to you, the less likely you would be to seek him out, I suppose.” Belle walked silently about the room, looking at pictures and knick-knacks idly, Rumple’s laughter still echoing in her ears. She welcomed the sound, held onto its waning memory. She missed it. She missed him.

“Shh…” The Curse soothed, wrapping her in its arms. “We’re getting close. You’ll have him soon.”

“He told me, when he started teaching me, that he’d met me before. I never knew what he meant.” She chuckled. “My father’s face must’ve been priceless.”

Belle smiled. “It was. Cora’s was too. Afterward the rumors spread that Rumplestiltskin would steal your children in the night. Honestly, she only helped to make him more terrifying.”

“Seems to be a family thing. Making him out to be something he isn’t.” She sat at the kitchen table, waiting for Belle to follow and pushed the small breakfast toward her.

Belle nibbled the toast, bringing the oatmeal closer. “Do you regret it? Letting him teach you?”

“No,” she said immediately. “At times, I was sure I hated him. That he ruined my life, my chance at happiness. But I thought the same of Mary Margaret, of Emma. I blamed them all for so much when it was my own unhappiness that drove me to those lengths. I let myself become the Evil Queen. Even though Gold certainly helped.”

“You’ve lost so much,” she muttered, a film of guilt in her eyes.

“Yes,” she agreed. “But...without this? I wouldn’t have Henry.” She looked over at the fridge, where a picture of her son on his first day of school stood bright against the chrome. He was beaming, hugging his mother tight outside the schoolhouse. Belle smiled gently. “Gold gave me Henry. He found him and brought him to me. I know it was part of breaking the curse, of getting Emma here, but he still gave me a reason to keep going. Something that wasn’t the weird little Stepford town I’d made for myself. I don’t regret that.”

“I’m glad for that. Might make watching your lessons less...shameful.”

“You’re that far already?” Regina asked, cocking her head.

“Not quite, dearie,” The Curse reminded, and Belle echoed him to Regina. “Still have something to see first, be patient…”

~*~

The rain hissed on the dirt outside, drops pounding on the roof of the shack. Droplets wove their way through and leaked into the small room, tapping lightly on the table, the floor, the cradle.

Both babes inside, squished together in the space and sleeping soundly, didn’t stir when thunder shook the place. Asleep, oblivious to their world, to their father just outside, to their mother clinging to him and sobbing beneath all the noise.

Rumplestiltskin wished the rain would drown out that sound more. The Darkness was growing impatient and more petulant by the minute.

“If she doesn’t stop wailing, we’ll stop it instead!” The Curse huffed. Rumple glared at him, standing on the opposite side of the cradle and peering at the little ones. “ Come now, they’re twins! It’s not as if they’ll look any different than the other.”

“I need to see,” he said quietly, gently lifting one of the newborns into his grotesque hands. His scaly, hideous skin was unholy compared to the unblemished pink of the babe. Claws next to soft fat and delicate bones, he really did appear to be a devil snatching innocence directly from the cradle.

The baby grunted and squirmed a little, taken from the comforting warmth where his brother still lie and seeking it out again. His little face screwed up in discomfort, a cry brewing in his chest to express his disdain and misery of it all.

“Shh…” Rumple soothed, delicately holding the child aloft in both hands, one cradling his head. “Hush now, it won’t be long.”

His thumb brushed over the child’s forehead, calming him, and allowed the Seer’s power to overwhelm him.

Per usual, the power was horrible. The sheer volume of what could be, what paths could be taken, what decisions must be made all flashed before him so quickly it made him sick to give into it as he was now. Succumbing to it entirely would take the last shreds of his sanity, rip his mind apart and leave him a silent, drooling mess while the Curse waited for someone or something to put him out of his misery.

He didn’t blame that child for begging him to kill her.

Eyes wide, clouded with these images, he saw the man this boy would be.

A wicked one. Darkness caressed every moment, laced his words, his ambitions, his desires. It brought him joy to harm those weaker, to rip power from the lesser, to separate flesh from bone and let the blood of innocents wash over him like a baptism.

Perfect.

His eyes became clear again, regarding the child with an amused smirk. “Another villain,” he said, carefully lowering the babe back into the crib and retrieving the other.

“I have to be sure,” he snapped, glaring at the Darkness ready to wonder loudly why he would even bother, if he knew which one he would take.

This one woke immediately when picked up, eyes searching the room and landing on Rumplestiltskin. He didn’t cry or fuss, he simply looked at him, unafraid and waiting, it seemed.

“Such a hero already,” he murmured, searching his future as well.

Just a chance, that’s all. One glimpse of the girl in the prophecy and he’d know there was one sliver of hope to hold onto. All of this might work, it could work , but only with the girl.

Lips red as the rose. Hair black as ebony. Skin white as snow. It was all he had to go on, all he’d seen in the rare coherent vision this ‘gift’ gave him that led him here.

There was nothing, nothing but a Shepherd boy much like himself, the farm, his mother-- A carriage, a young woman with yellow hair-- Gold, gold, gold, fire and sleep too deep to wake from and a soft voice-- And then--

“Wherever you are, I will find you! I will always find you!”

He grinned, bringing himself back to the present and staring at the child. He laughed a little, gleeful, and kissed the boy’s forehead. “And you will. I’ll make sure you find her, dearie. For now, grow.”

He set him back down, and still the baby looked at him without a sound beyond a quiet coo.

Rumple picked up his brother again, wrapping him in thick blankets to save him from the rain’s chill. “Unfortunately for you,” he mumbled to him. “You’ll have to die. Gloriously, I’m sure. Evil as you are. But your parents will care for you.” He grimaced. “As much as King George can care for anything, anyway.”

The rain still poured around the small farmhouse, the remaining son comfortable in the one cradle they’d prepared, in the one true blanket they’d made in preparation for a child, clothes hastily being knitted in a desperate attempt to keep up with the second babe they weren’t ready for.

He lifted his hood over his head and stepped outside, where the parents were holding each other, hearts broken, relieved and grieved all at once.

“I-it’s done, then?” The father stammered, his voice wavering. “You’re taking--” His throat clutched. The mother took a half-step forward, reaching as if to touch the boy one more time, then retracted her hand as if it burned.

“Our deal is done,” he assured, the baby held close to his chest, protected and warm. “You, your wife, your son, will never go hungry so long as you live.”

“What are you going to do with him?” The mother burst, horrified at what this demon might do to something so innocent.

“I’m going to eat him,” he snapped, then cackled at their expressions. “He’s being taken to a new home, of course! He will want for nothing, he will be loved and none the wiser that you gave him away.”

The pair relaxed, glancing into their home where their remaining son was waiting for them, their guilt palpable in the wet air.

Rumple’s persona faltered, just a little, earning him a glare from the Darkness lingering in the corner. “You’re doing the right thing,” he said softly, then recovered. “Not many could hand their child to a monster such as me!” He laughed wildly, causing them to retreat into the cottage.

He turned away and went down the road, a gnawing in his own gut that he was walking this boy to what would be, in time, his death.

“It’s the way it has to be, dearie,” the Curse reminded. “Unless you want to risk your chance--”

“I know!” He barked, startling the baby, who began to cry. He shushed him softly, bouncing him in his arms to soothe him.

“So long as you don’t waiver~”

“Shut the hell up!” He snarled. The baby cried louder and Rumple winced. “Shh, shh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, little one, shh… I know, I know. Shh…”

He walked on, humming a gentle lullaby as he went. Part of him wondered what might be if he simply...kept the child. If he were the one to raise him instead of the tyrant king. What would he become then?

“Ruined,” The Darkness hissed. “Like everyone else you come close to. He’s better off a prince. Better off dead than with you.”

He wilted a little, watching the babe’s little fingers curl around one of his own as he fell back to sleep. “I know,” he whispered. “But it’s a nice thought. Just a happy little thought.”

~*~

Belle opened her eyes, back in Regina’s dining room with a cup of tea between her hands. “Alright,” she nodded, waking Regina from the doze she’d slipped into. “Now I’m where you come in.”

Regina took a drink from her coffee, running her fingers through her hair. “My mother was a horrible person, without her heart. She couldn’t be anything else, no one can like that. I know she loved me, she wanted what was best for me. But she was cruel. She used magic to punish me constantly. I thought Daniel and I could run away together, marry, and finally get away from her. That’s the happy ending I wanted.

“Then she almost killed Snow. Sent her horse out of control and I saved her. Her father was very gracious, of course, which is what my mother wanted. You’ve heard the rest of that story.”

Belle nodded, finished with the toast and working on her oatmeal now.

“I tried to run away. I stole her spellbook, opened it, and read out…”

~*~

“...Rumpleshtiltskin, I summon thee.”