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From Troubled Seas

Chapter Text

You're the Dark One again.

It was too much. Another shock on top of all the other shocks Belle had already suffered that day. First, Zelena, the Wicked Witch of the West, had returned to Storybrooke, disguising herself as Mother Superior in order to get her hands on her baby. With the help of the real Mother Superior, Belle had done her best to protect the infant. Except that a portal had opened up right underneath her, dropping her, the baby, and Zelena into a hellish version of Storybrooke.

Literally. They were in the Underworld, Zelena informed her. Seeing how shaken the witch looked, Belle had to believe her. Belle had escaped into the decayed replica of the library, only to run into her husband coming out of the elevator.

Rumplestiltskin had been the one to create the portal. Belle should have caught on at that point, but she had been too overwhelmed when he next informed her that she was pregnant with their child. And that Hades had a contract for that child. Only when he began assuring her that he would use all his power to fix things did she realize what he was saying. She really looked at him, then, and he returned her gaze, his eyes telling her what she should have known all along.

"You're the Dark One again!"

At which he had simply nodded, and shown her the cursed dagger with his name inscribed on it. The rest of the conversation passed in a blur. Belle couldn't take it all in through her haze of shocked anger. How could he have done such a thing? He had finally rid himself of the darkness, become a pure-hearted hero. And now... and now he had thrown it all away to become a beast again. And to admit it with such bleak resignation. She couldn't accept it. Couldn't accept him. Not like this.

You're the Dark One again.

Belle all but fled the library, Zelena's baby clutched to her chest, the only thing anchoring her to her new, treacherous reality. She walked aimlessly through the cracked mockery of Storybrooke, ignoring and ignored by the shades haunting the gloomy streets. Pregnant. She was pregnant with the Dark One's child. What that heritage meant for the baby, she shuddered to think.

This was all her fault. She had known, in her reunion with Rumple, that he had wanted to talk to her, but she hadn't let him. She hadn't wanted to listen, not then, and he hadn't gotten in a word edgewise, in her hurry to forge a new start with him. Her hurry to erase the events of the previous day, to erase her betrayal at the well.

She had gone to the well meaning to reconcile with him, but at the last moment, upon seeing his face, all the old fears came flooding back. In her terror at having her heart broken again, she had broken his first. She wished she had never come to the well. She regretted the cruelty of crushing his hope, then wished she had the courage to take back her rejection. But the words stuck in her throat as she walked slowly away from him, not daring to look back. The regret grew heavier later, even as she allowed him to send her out of Storybrooke. She had known, then, that something was wrong, but not that it was more than their personal doom.

Henry's phone call had given her the chance she secretly longed for, the chance to go back and do it all over again. To undo her abandonment, to pretend that she had never left him at the well, to close that yawning chasm of lost faith between them.

Only now did Belle realize that it had been too late. That moment, once gone, was gone forever. In that gap, Rumple was abandoned, alone, and marked for death. No wonder he had reached for darkness, when he had nothing else left. Damn his weakness. Damn her own. She felt tainted now. How had she not known what she was sleeping with? Or had she known, after all? Thinking back, there had been something different about him. At the time, she had attributed it to his being uncursed, but now... now that she knew, she could feel the darkness that filled him, thicker than ever. It prickled on her own skin where she had touched him. She tasted darkness in her mouth, inside her where he had...

No. Illusions. Memories. She shook off that line of thought. She couldn't afford to let her imagination run away with her, not when she had to return this infant in her arms to its parents. Robin was here somewhere in the Underworld, she knew. He had always been more comfortable in the woods than the middle of town. Guessing that the geography here mirrored that of the upper world, Belle headed out of town towards where the outlaw camp would be.

Eventually, she came upon Robin and Regina. Relieved of her burden, Belle stood aside, lost in her own thoughts. Only Zelena's arrival drew her out of her confusion. She watched the witch plead for a chance to hold her own baby, to feed her and comfort her. If even someone so wicked could genuinely care for a child, then surely Belle and Rumple could do at least as well? Belle clung to that glimmer of hope.

On the strength of that hope, she later left the others and struck off alone. She found her husband in the Underworld version of his pawn shop. She could have wept at the welcome that brightened his face, his longing for her acceptance.

Be strong, she told herself. They neither of them could afford to give in to the darkness. She had to insist on light magic. She couldn't let his excuses and rationalizations sway her. She refused to give in to the doubt that lurked in the back of her mind. If even Rumplestiltskin can't turn darkness into light, then what chance do you have?

A few frustrated hours later, Belle knew she had to leave, before he succeeded in wearing her down. For once, Rumple followed her out the door. His next argument was cut short by the sharp thunk of an arrow hitting the wall next to him.


Her fiance. Her dead fiance. Her dead fiance, whom her husband had murdered without ever telling her. Who was now hunting him with a bow and arrows specially forged by Hades.

Easy. It would be so easy to let Rumplestiltskin dispose of Gaston, whispered an insidious voice in the back of Belle's mind. She refused to listen to it. Refused loudly and forcefully, telling herself as much as Rumple that they would take the hero's path and try to save Gaston.

That was not so easy. Gaston was hell-bent on his vengeance. In the end, he wouldn't give it up, and Belle had been the one to push him into the River of Souls, damning him to eternity in order to save Rumplestiltskin.

And that had been easy. Far too easy. Perhaps it had been the adrenaline. Perhaps it had been something more, something dark that Belle refused to contemplate.

Hades had shown up to gloat, but Belle had been too numb to comprehend his purpose. Rumple had comforted her as best he could, but the horror of what she had done gnawed away at her until she couldn't bear to even touch the man in whose defense she had acted. She loved him, but that love had become tainted with darkness.

This time, when Belle walked away from Rumple again, she was barely able to conceal her shakiness. She had lashed out at him, trying to cover her own sense of guilt. Darkness had taken root in her soul. She could feel it growing, feel its unnatural glee as she hurt her husband. It's only what he deserves, hissed the darkness. How many times has he disappointed you with his lies and his scheming? You can't let him get away with it anymore. Belle stumbled out of the shop, hugging herself around the belly. She had to protect herself and her child, but she couldn't trust Rumple not to hurt someone in the name of that protection.

She knew she couldn't trust Zelena, either, but at least she was a mother, too. Belle did her best to appeal to the witch's empathy, such as it was. Zelena smirked in her smug way, offering Belle a magical solution. The Sleeping Curse was not ideal, of course, but Belle had little choice at this point. True Love's Kiss, as well as waking her from the curse, would lift the darkness spreading through her soul. She hoped.

She hoped, but kept that hope to herself. Rumple was upset enough already. She didn't want him to be burdened with this. She had seen his reaction to her accusation that he had darkened her soul, and knew that he had not intended this. Intent is meaningless, mocked the voice of the darkness, but she had never believed that. Aloud, she only told Rumple to do whatever he had to do to get them out of the Underworld, and then to bring her to her father. Her father would be the one to give her True Love's Kiss.

And then she let sleep take her.

"Who are you?"

Rumplestiltskin didn't recognize him. That hurt the dreamer more than anything else: his father  didn't know him. Proof, then. Proof that he was in no future the Dark One wanted to See. Proof that he had been right. He answered as he had always answered, "I am Morpheus. Welcome to Belle's dream world."

Was there a flicker of doubt? The dreamer pressed on, "Would you like to wake her up?"

Of course he would. The dreamer led his father deeper into the nightmare he had arranged, brought him to meet his mother again in the Dark Castle. The dreamer listened as Rumplestiltskin proclaimed his love for Belle, for his child.

Lies!  thought the dreamer. More of his father's tricks. Only enough truth to manipulate events, but not enough truth that he could be trusted with their hearts. He wouldn't let himself be seduced by the illusion. He would be the one to manipulate things this time, not his father.

The dreamer didn't have as much control over the dreamscape as he would have liked, but he still had more power than Rumplestiltskin, who was an intruder here. The dreamer belonged. This was his place. This was his mother, and he would protect them both. Here, in dreams, the seer's powers he had inherited from his father allowed him to traverse his own timeline, even back to this point. He was little more than a cluster of cells at the moment, but it was enough to anchor his soul. He wove illusions from his mother's memories, then drew on her doubts and amplified them.

He would have to be careful. If his mother failed to wake up, he would never exist. If he failed to protect her, he would die, as his brother had died, as his brother's mother had died: at the hand of his father. He had Seen how they had died in his visions, had felt the trauma of their deaths. He had vowed to save himself and his mother from any such fate.

He hid himself in the dreamscape and watched his father woo his mother, waiting for his chance.

"Rumplestiltskin..." Belle couldn't shake the sense that something was wrong. Anxiety fogged her thoughts. The Dark One did nothing to dispel her confusion; instead, his behavior was more erratic than ever. She humored him, fearing the consequences if she did otherwise. She was terrified that at any moment, the world would come apart beneath her. She would go mad, or the castle would devour her alive, or the Beast would crush her heart. She had been warned about him.

The Dark One lies, the Dark One tricks.

At any moment, he might do something truly dreadful to her.

But he didn't. He wanted to dance. Dance! She let him spin her across the floor.

Why was his touch so familiar?

He kissed her.

It had all happened before.

And then she remembered.

"Our child will be better off waiting with me than being in debt to you."

She broke off the magic exactly as the dreamer had intended. They would wake from the Sleeping Curse, but the Dark One Curse remained intact. And she wasn't going to go back to Rumplestiltskin. The dreamer wanted to shout in relief and triumph, but he restrained himself and only said, "I was really hoping that you'd say that."

He revealed himself to his parents. He managed to keep his mother lingering in the dreamscape long enough to deliver his warning. Already his consciousness was fading. He forced himself to stay long enough to kiss his mother. An illusion, but she was convinced. That was all that he had needed.

"I'm not making a home with you."

She refused to listen to him. Rumplestiltskin watched in despair as Belle stepped through the portal without him. After everything, after even her own father had refused to wake her, she accused him of trying to put their child in debt  to him. How could she think that, when he had always, always given everything freely to Baelfire? Just as he would for his second child. A child who hated him already.

Was it possible? Had it truly been their son in the dreamscape?

For the first time since his resurrection, Rumplestiltskin made a conscious attempt to see into the future. When he had been held captive by Zelena, the strain of carrying his son's mind in his own had made it impossible to focus. After Baelfire had died, Rumplestiltskin had known that his own heart was dying, and had had no desire to see that fate in all its gory detail. Now, however, with a new child in his future — he needed to know. To sift truth from lies in what "Morpheus" had told them.

A seer required three things: the inborn talent, magical power, and the opening of the inner eye. Rumplestiltskin had already had the first two when he achieved the third by ripping the knowledge from the seer he had met in the Duke's war camp. And now, as he looked into time, he realized that his son had acquired the first from his father, the second from being conceived as a child of true love, and the third from the trauma of the Sleeping Curse. Visions of possible futures flickered through his mind, and Rumplestiltskin strained to draw meaning from the images.

One thing became clear. He closed his eyes, whispering, "He was telling the truth. He is our son."

Then another revelation burned into his thoughts. Belle. Belle holding a beating heart in her hand, her eyes blazing with magical energy. There was no mistaking the aura around her. She was a Dark One.

That was what he had done to her. Rumplestiltskin collapsed to his knees, clutching his head in a vain effort to banish the vision. Tears seeped from his tightly lidded eyes, and he gasped out a choked apology. "Oh, Belle. I'm so sorry."

Chapter Text

Us being together only causes heartbreak.

Belle missed him already, but she told herself to be strong. She had to protect their child. True love's kiss had woken her. She and the baby could make a fresh start, free of darkness. She couldn't afford to let Rumple slip back inside her defenses. She needed a place to stay, somewhere that wouldn't remind her of him. At first she thought to beg a room at Granny's inn, but then Hook offered to let her stay on the Jolly Roger.

A pirate ship? Belle was dubious at first, especially given that this pirate had tried to kill her on multiple occasions. He gave her his best charming smile and apologized, blathering something about wanting to make it up to her.

Well. If she was going to be a good person, she had to give him a chance if he was sincere. But stay on his ship? "If Rumple finds you harboring me..."

"His wrath will be an added bonus." The pirate smirked, clearly proud of his own bravery in angering the "crocodile".

We both know he won't kill you, or he could have done it long ago! Belle bit back the retort. It was an added bonus. Rumple disliked Hook intensely, which meant he would be that much less likely to seek her out if she was staying here. And if it hurts him to lose a second wife to the pirate's ship, all the better. She shoved back the vindictive thought and concentrated on the more heroic reasons for avoiding her husband: he had proven himself too untrustworthy for her to continue as his wife. She decided then to accept the pirate's offer.

The antique ship turned out to be barely more comfortable than her cell under the hospital. It was cramped, creaky, and lacking in the modern conveniences she had become used to while living in Storybrooke. Still, that was unimportant. It gave her the peace she needed to think about what she was going to do. A child! She had barely ever had a chance to live on her own, and now she was going to bring a baby into the world, a baby that she would be solely responsible for if she couldn't trust Rumple.

You can't trust him. The darkness owns him. He killed his first wife on this very ship.

She didn't know where the thought had come from. A memory, perhaps, of something her son had told her in the dreamscape. She had felt his terror as if it were her own. She wrapped her arms protectively around her abdomen. It was true, though. Killian Jones — Hook — had told her... and Rumple had later confirmed it. She had never been afraid of her husband before, but things were different now. At night, she fell asleep to the soft lapping of the water against the hull. Her dreams were full of forboding images, veering into nightmares that left her crying and shaking underneath the thin shield of her blankets.

The next morning, Moe French came to see her. Father and daughter threw their arms around each other with watery smiles, a family reunion thankfully free of magical complications. After she told him about her pregnancy, Moe urged Belle to move back to his house.

Belle shook her head. "I'm fine, here. I'm a grown woman, Father. You don't have to worry about me." In fact, she was more worried about him. The last thing she wanted was for her father to be caught in the crossfire between herself, Rumple, and Rumple's enemies.

"I know, love." Moe sighed, shaking his head. "Thank the gods you've left that beast, finally. We did everything we could to keep you from him."

"What do you mean?" Belle still wasn't sure what had happened while she was under the Sleeping Curse, wasn't sure she wanted to know what darkness Rumple had unleashed in trying to wake her.

"He came to the flower shop and demanded my help. Of course, I refused, as long as he was with you. Wake you up only to be his prisoner again?" Moe drew himself up proudly. "I would never do that to my little girl, no matter how much he threatened me!"

"Oh." Belle hadn't realized that Rumple had gone to her father after all. A twinge of anger stirred at the thought of her father meddling with her fate again.

Moe nodded. He continued on, oblivious, "The whole town stood up to that monster. When Rumplestiltskin tried to steal all the magic, the Savior and the mayor stopped him."

"Steal all the magic?"

"Well, not even the Dark One has enough magic on his own to break a Sleeping Curse. But don't worry, love, he failed." Moe frowned. "But he still stole you away and..."

"You were all trying to stop him from waking me?" Anger boiled up again. Didn't they realize what kind of nightmare the Sleeping Curse could be? The "whole town"? Even all the people she had thought of as her friends?

"It was for your own good," her father said, gripping her hands placatingly. "We just wanted to free you from that beast!"

"My own good?" Belle jerked her hands free and took a step back. "No. No. This is the mines all over again!" The past replayed itself vividly in her mind. Her father had kidnapped her and tried to send her across the town line in a mine cart, which, due to the curse, would have erased her memories, her self.

"Belle," pleaded her father.

"No. You do not make my decisions for me! If you really cared about me, you would understand that."

"I do, of course, but that beast has you confused. It's a father's duty to—"

"Stop. Don't." Belle raised a hand, and her father shut his mouth abruptly, eyes widening. "Just. Go. Please. It's my  life..." She willed him to leave. Leave, before she... before she...

Moe turned and left, stumbling slightly as he walked down the gangplank onto the docks, and Belle didn't have to complete her thought. Instead, she retreated back to the dim security of her cabin on the ship. She was confused, by Rumple and by her conflicted feelings for him. Confused by the lurking darkness that continued to cling to her, the darkness that she didn't want to acknowledge.

To her relief, Rumplestiltskin stayed away from the Jolly Roger. He sent David Nolan to deliver a cassette tape to her. Of course her husband had made a deal with the Sheriff to act as his messenger. Simple friendship was obviously beyond him. Bitter and contemptuous at the thought at first, it twisted in her mind after she had listened to the tape. A poem for their unborn son. And then it struck her how isolated Rumple was, how utterly alone. Nothing was ever given freely to him, nor would he ever ask. That had been his life for centuries, and that was what it was again, now that Belle had left him.

And who's to blame for that? If he would be the good man he could be, maybe people would be friendlier to him. It's only his fear and weakness that lets him down, lets you down. Every time. Don't be his enabler. Stay strong.

Her darker thoughts were confirmed a week later when Rumple showed up at the ship only to trap her aboard it with his magic. Protection! It was only his paranoia speaking. Furious, she could only wait until he had destroyed whatever threat he imagined. And why had he cut his hair? She thought it just made him look more sinister. There was a ruthlessness in the way it was cropped so close to his skull.

At least a visitor came by to distract her from her thoughts.

She was grateful. Grateful, all the way up to the moment when Jekyll tried to kill her. He slammed Hook's enchanted seashell to the ground, smashing it. She screamed the pirate's name at the shards, knowing it was no use. All she could do was to pick up the biggest piece and stab it into Jekyll's shoulder. It bought her enough time to flee to the deck of the ship. And there she was trapped, Rumple's spell a wall she couldn't break.

"Rumple!" She begged him to release the spell, but to her horror, he refused. The man beside him held his dagger, controlling Rumple completely. For some reason, he wanted Rumple to watch her die.

And she would. She saw Jekyll emerge from the hold, murderous intent clear. It was like a nightmare. Reality slid away from her. Belle froze, unable to wake from the dream. And then, in the way of dreams, Captain Hook was there. He and Jekyll grappled. Jekyll was flung back, right onto the point of a harpoon. Moments later, he was dead.

Rumplestiltskin watched, helpless. His soul enslaved to the dagger, he could do nothing to save his wife. He cursed his own stupidity in this matter. His fears had overwhelmed him and he had made one mistake after another. Now he was left with nothing, nothing that could save her. Only she could... if only... he held his breath, hoping.

And there was a shimmer of magic, invisible to everyone else. A transport spell! The pirate. Of course. He appeared on the scene as if he had always been there. Rumple could see the false memory sink into his mind, smoothing over the continuity. Another adjustment, and a harpoon angled itself to impale Jekyll right through the heart.

Rumplestiltskin let out his breath, his eyes turning to Belle. She blinked, looking like someone just waking up out of a nightmare. Did she know?  No. Her shock was genuine, as was her gratitude to Killian Jones. He gritted his teeth, swallowing his annoyance. It didn't matter. Belle was safe. Jekyll and Hyde were dead.

He retrieved his dagger. His name was solid as ever, white lettering on black metal. He turned it over to study the other side. Where it had once been blank, now faint, barely visible pale streaks had appeared, spelling out another name: Belle French. He glanced over at her, wondering how long she had before her soul was completely tethered. Until he could free her, he had to make doubly sure that the dagger did not leave his possession.

Regina, then Sheriff Nolan and Emma Swan, showed up, too late to make any difference. Rumplestiltskin had little attention to spare for them. He needed to talk to Belle. To apologize. To explain. He fumbled with his words, as clumsy with them as he had ever been.

Belle wasn't in any mood to listen to him. Too angry. Too frightened. She demanded explanations from him, but not about what was truly important. So he told her about his history with Jekyll. The reminder of their Dark Castle days did nothing to soften her stance. Well, not when he himself admitted that he had seen his feelings for her as a weakness.

In the end, he could only leave her on the ship while he returned to his shop. Now that his vision had been confirmed, what could he do about it? Would it be any kindness to tell her? When Killian Jones had suddenly realized that he was a Dark One, he had summoned the shades of the previous Dark Ones to murder everyone he cared about. Rumplestiltskin didn't think that Belle, gentle Belle, would do anything like that, but you could never predict someone's reaction to the darkness. No matter what happened, she would suffer from the knowledge.

No. Better if he could contrive some way to free the darkness from her, the darkness that he had inadvertently infected her with. Better that she never had to consciously bear the burden of the Dark One. If he acted quickly enough, he could divert her from the path that led her to become the woman he had Seen. Let her curse his secrecy. Let her never speak to him again. Whether she ever forgave him or not, he would never forgive himself if the darkness taught her to hate herself.

And if she killed someone with magic as he had foreseen, crushing a heart in her fist, she would hate herself.

Chapter Text

Belle tried to put the attack out of her mind, but it was impossible. The scene replayed itself over and over again in her memories. She had been lucky to survive. Luck? Or was it more? She had sensed the presence from the dreamscape once again. The Dark One's son. Hades had wanted him. Why? As a target, as leverage against Rumple, or as something powerful in himself? In dreams, she returned to the burning room of the Sleeping Curse. The flames spoke to her with the voice of her son, giving her warnings that she couldn't recall when she was awake.

Was her child even human? Anxiety spurred her on to see a doctor. Lacey's memories told her that in this world, expectant mothers were supposed to schedule regular visits for medical care. Here in Storybrooke, that meant the hospital. And so she went in for her first ultrasound. Modern technology revealed nothing unusual about the fetus. Perfectly normal, said the doctor. Belle stared at the picture. Normal. If the child was normal, did that mean it was Belle herself who had—

She shook her head. No point dwelling on past unpleasantness. She had to move on. Go forward. As for Rumple, she still had no wish to see or speak with him, but she couldn't deny him his fatherhood, not completely. She walked by his shop and slid the ultrasound picture under the door.

The golden shears of fate — Rumplestiltskin could have asked for nothing better. Those blades were sharp enough to cut the darkness away from Belle, their magic delicate enough to do it without harming her life. It was worth enduring the touch of the Evil Queen, if he could gain possession of the Shears of Destiny. The future he had seen for Belle need never come to pass.

So he held himself still, steeling himself under the queen's embraces, and then allowed her to believe her seduction had moved him. It was all he could do to keep from running away. Ever since his captivity in Zelena's cage, subject to the witch's every crazed whim, forced to permit her every violation of his autonomy and his body, he had hated and feared to be touched by anyone except Belle. Too many bad memories.

It was a weakness in him, he knew. One he had to overcome before his enemies found out and exploited it.

Thus he pulled the queen closer, locking his lips on hers. He convinced her of his sincerity, or at least a plausible degree of physical attraction. If nothing else, it would drive a wedge between the queen and Zelena. Those two had become far too cosy of late for his comfort.

And if she wanted the water from the River of Souls in return for the shears, she could have that, too. Let them play out their family drama. It was something they had to work out between themselves. A pity that his own grandson was entangled with them, but the boy had chosen his side. At the least, he had three mothers who each loved him in their own way, ready to protect him (even if it was from each other.)

Meanwhile, he was more interested in the ultrasound pictures Belle had slipped under his door. At this early stage, the crude black and white images didn't show much. Even so, they were true images, linked to the essence of their subject. Rumplestiltskin used his magic to enhance that link.

The child would also be a Dark One. The potential was latent now, but it was clear what he would be once he was born. Rumplestiltskin knew from the memories he had gleaned from the former Dark Ones that this had never happened before. Oh, Dark Ones had spawned offspring, but they had been born as ordinary mortals. This one was different: he had inherited darkness from both his parents.

Rumplestiltskin stared at the image, feeling sick with guilt. A baby deserved to be born in innocence. No child should be burdened with such a grim destiny. No wonder his son hated him. No. Destiny could be changed. He would use the shears to free his boy.

The difficult part would be explaining the necessity to Belle. He couldn't deny the child's mother a say in his fate. He knew he had no right to keep this secret from her, no matter how much pain the truth would cause them. He just had to figure out a way to break it to her gently...

Rumplestiltskin was in league with the Evil Queen.

The Storybrooke heroes had told her that when they called Belle in to consult her about the water from the River of Souls. Emma seemed surprised at Belle's lack of surprise.

It seemed obvious to her. The Evil Queen was isolated from the rest of the town, with the possible exception of Zelena. Of course she would be a vulnerable pawn for Rumple's games, Belle thought wearily. Aloud, she only muttered something about him not acting like the man he could be.

She left soon after that. Rumple wasn't the only one who used people for his convenience. The so-called "heroes" were no better, treating her as a walking reference library, but content to leave her to eternal cursed sleep if it suited them. She was sick of them all.

You don't need them. They're weak and selfish. No one cares about you. Even Rumple can only love you if you're one of his "things".

The dark thoughts nagged at her, and she no longer had the energy to shut them away. Instead of returning to the Jolly Roger, she continued wandering aimlessly, her thoughts drifting in a half-dream. When she found herself standing in the graveyard among a crowd of townsfolk, she was almost sure it was a dream. The Evil Queen's threats seemed unreal against the backdrop of the peaceful, sunny day. No one took any notice of Belle except for...

Zelena! The dreamer recognized the face, seen through his mother's eyes. He could sense the witch's magic wrapping her in layers of protection spells.

Danger. She was a danger to them. The dreamer sang softly to his mother, lulling her back into that state of half-sleep that allowed his consciousness to coexist with hers. He sent threads of dark magic twining around her thoughts.

Keep your enemies close, advised the voice of the darkness inhabiting them both. And Zelena was an enemy. He had seen her. Heard her laughing after she sent his brother to his doom. In his visions, he knew that hateful face as it ordered his mother's death.

Through his mother's senses, the dreamer focused all his thoughts on the witch. Not on her words, not on her spikes of jealousy or her gleeful malice, but on her magic. Every spell had its weak point, and Zelena had always been too powerful to pay much attention to the small details. The dreamer was not so careless. Given time, he would find a flaw in her defenses.

The tinkle of the shop bells shook her out of her daze. It was as if a thousand internal voices had suddenly stopped, leaving her alone in a cold silence. Belle looked across the room to where Rumplestiltskin was standing, the ultrasound picture in his hands.

He looked up at her arrival, his expression softening. "I've been meaning to thank you for this."

She cut him off before her weakness for him betrayed her. "Zelena told me about you and the Evil Queen."

His face fell. He hastened to explain, to excuse himself. It meant nothing.

Belle cut him off again. She told him she didn't care. And it was almost true, as long as she didn't think about it. As long as she ignored the pain that hit her behind the ribs when she remembered how long it had been since she had so much as touched her husband, while the queen—

She banished the too-vivid image from her mind and remembered the purpose of her visit. The Shears of Destiny. That was why she was here. She would not permit Rumple to tamper with her son's life with magic.

Rumple stammered something about love, but she had seen through his excuses now. She wasn't falling for that anymore.

He is weak. A coward. His fear will drive him to destroy his child. To destroy you.

"...too weak to be good," she spat at him, echoing the voices hissing from the shadows of her mind.

Rumple stared at her, frozen in dismay. He seemed to struggle for words.

Belle didn't wait for him to find his tongue. Words were his weapons. She couldn't afford to allow him to use them against her. She turned and left before he could break the brittle silence between them.

In dreams, she saw her son again. Her heart wrenched painfully at the fear on his face. His thoughts flickered with the flames that surrounded him.

He means to cut us off from our power so that he can control us. Remember what it was like to be trapped on that ship? It will be like that, forever!

But she didn't want any power, especially not this darkness that corrupted everything it touched.

Then you will be at his mercy. And the Dark One has no mercy.

That's not true, she protested silently. But then she remembered the water from the River of Lost Souls. Rumple might protect Belle, but he didn't care if everyone else in Storybrooke died. Had he cut off the last remnants of his humanity along with his hair? He was a monster now.

Run! We need to leave.

He will follow us, thought Belle.

We don't need to run forever. Only long enough for me to be born. Then we can fight him together. Two against one. We can win.

Win? The notion sat uneasily in her mind. She didn't want to fight Rumple. And besides... besides... darkness against darkness only created more suffering. It was light magic that they needed, light to dispel their darkness. She didn't want her son to grow up mired in hatred and fear. Merlin had suggested that it was possible to turn darkness towards light. Though he and his apprentice were dead, there were others who might help them. Help her, help her child, and even help her husband.

With light magic? Who? The savior?

Belle shook her head slowly. Emma was already preoccupied with her own problems. It would be no use asking for her help.

Then who? The fairies? Never!

Not the fairies.

Who else is there?

There was one other. Belle remembered what Rumple had once told her. Glinda. The Good Witch of the South, banished to the Enchanted Forest and never brought over to Storybrooke. She must still be there. They had to go to the Enchanted Forest.

When she woke up the next morning, she didn't remember everything from her dream, but she remembered enough. She had to find Glinda, and that meant she would need a portal to the Enchanted Forest.

Zelena. She could create portals. But Belle knew the witch was also full of spite and not anyone to be trusted. No. Maybe if she talked to Rumple, she could get through to him. Now that her initial anger had cooled, she found herself regretting her harsh words of the previous day. She had wanted to hurt him as he had hurt her, but that made her no better than Zelena. It was what Zelena had wanted, telling tales to Belle to provoke her, using her as a weapon against Rumple and the Evil Queen.

I've been a fool, she thought. She would go see her husband, this time with a clearer head.

The pawn shop was locked. Locked against her! Belle was stunned. He had never done that before, not against her. She dreaded to think what he might be doing in there. Did he truly consider her his enemy, now?

The enemy of your enemy is your friend, advised the darkness.

Friend? Hardly that. But it seemed she was out of options.

Belle swallowed all her misgivings and went to see Zelena. She felt a twinge of discontent from her unborn son, a tug of darkness at the back of her mind. She did her best to project soothing thoughts at him. Surely he was too young to feel anything? Yet she knew it was more than imagination. Some trick of magic let him slip back and forth in time even from her womb.

Belle considered her options as she made her way to Zelena's house. The witch was a prickly narcissist with no interest in helping others. She despised heroics, but desperately wanted to be appreciated. To be sympathized with and looked up to. Playing on those traits, Belle managed to persuade Zelena to assist her.

As it turned out, Zelena needed a wand in order to open a portal. A wand from Rumple's shop. Undeterred, Belle arranged a meeting with the famous thief, Aladdin. Although the princess, Jasmine, tried to hold him back, Belle knew just what to say to secure Aladdin's cooperation.

That night, as she watched Aladdin leave for the pawn shop, Belle felt disgusted with herself. Was this what she had learned from her association with Rumple? How to manipulate people? How to run away? But she had to do it, to protect her son. To her relief, the thief returned without mishap, wearing a cheerful grin as he handed over the wand.

She went on alone to find Zelena. Suppressing her doubts, she handed the witch the wand and urged her to hurry.

It was already too late. She didn't know if he had been following her, but Rumple appeared in the room before Zelena had any chance of opening a portal. After recovering his wand, Rumple swiftly moved forward to slap a golden cuff on Belle's wrist. She could feel the magic on it, locking onto her.

"You really are a beast." Belle was shocked at the cold, distant look in his eyes. Although he spoke of love, it was fear that she heard in his voice. "I almost won today. Next time I will run so fast and so far that you will never even set eyes on this child."

Rumplestiltskin looked even more remote and angry as he replied, "Let me remind you, dearie, that Rumplestiltskin takes children, not the other way around."

"Tell that to your firstborn," quipped Zelena.

Rumple reacted instantly, choking her off with magic. It rebounded on him and he sank down in obvious pain.

A surge of terror and rage washed through Belle's thoughts, her own and that of her child, channeled through the darkness that linked them. "What's happening?"

She heard Zelena's smug explanation with mounting horror. As she stared at Rumplestiltskin, memories of his past torment flashed through her mind. Rumple on his knees in the snow while Zelena taunted him. In Zelena's cage, helpless and hopeless, the witch standing behind him in the shadows. Not again. She couldn't bear to watch this, not again.

Papa!  The plaintive cry vibrated along the thread of darkness binding mother and son. The word carried with it a tightly coiled packet of arcane power. It unfolded in Belle's thoughts...

...and she knew what she had to do. Shifting quietly to a position right behind the witch, Belle gathered the darkness in her right hand...

...and plunged that hand into Zelena's torso. In the space of a single heartbeat, Belle closed her fingers around that heart and ripped it free. Then she squeezed.  The layers of protective spells unraveled in her grip, burned to nothing. The heart fell to dust. "Enough!"

Zelena emitted one last tiny gasp. And then she dropped, dead before she hit the ground.

Chapter Text

Zelena was dead.

Rumplestiltskin straightened, catching his breath with a gasp. His heart resumed its rhythm, the pain quickly ebbing. His hand dropped from where he had been clutching his chest. He met Belle's eyes across the witch's corpse. "Belle..."

Her gaze fell to her own palm, and she stared in disbelief at the dust trickling through her fingers.

Rumplestiltskin moved forward, instinctively reaching out for her, but she flinched violently away. He stopped at once, hurt by the rejection but not disputing the justice of her reaction. "I'm sorry."

Belle's eyes flicked back towards his face. Her own was appalled, guilty. "I'm not. I should be, but I'm not. She's dead. I... I killed her. How is that even possible?"

Rumple grimaced. He slid a hand into his jacket and retrieved his dagger. He held it up horizontally, turning it so that Belle's name was clearly visible along the blade. "I am sorry. It must have happened the night... the night I took the darkness back. I should have told you then, but I just... I just thought... we could have that one moment of happiness."

Belle took another step back, rubbing a shaky hand against her shirt as if to wipe away the stain of darkness. "You... you knew."

"I..." He swallowed, then nodded slightly. He put the dagger away again. "Yes. Not right away. After the sleeping curse."

"You knew, and you never thought to tell me?" Belle's voice took on a dangerous edge. All around them, cabinet doors rattled and curtains flapped violently. "How long were you planning to keep this a secret?"

Rumplestiltskin reached out sharply with a tendril of magic, and the bracelet on Belle's wrist glowed for a moment. The room settled at once. "Please, calm down..."

Belle cried out in surprise, then pried at the golden cuff. "What have you done? This isn't just a tracking spell!"

"No," admitted Rumplestiltskin. "Or, not only a tracking spell. It's also a magical dampener. So you don't... leak. It's only until you can control the darkness better."

"The darkness that you cursed me with." She glared at him in outrage. "Why? Did you think I would suit you better if you made me as dark as you?"

"No, of course not. I had no idea anything like this... it's never happened before," he said, wishing desperately for her to believe him. He had only lied to her once since he had woken from his coma, and that lie had been meant to save her. She had seemed to forgive him at the time, but in truth, their broken trust had never healed. The darkness infecting her now would only it make it more difficult. "It's nothing I ever wanted to happen. Belle, we can fix this. We can."

"And our child?" A new horror filled her eyes and she clutched at her abdomen.

"He'll be all right. Whatever it takes, I'll make sure he has his best chance." He raised his hands in reassurance, but Belle's fear only seemed to grow. If her back hadn't already been at the wall, no doubt she would have retreated another step or three.

"Whatever it takes? Rumple, what else aren't you telling me?" Belle's voice shook as she finished in a whisper, "I am so damned sick of your secrecy."

"I was going to tell you," he insisted. "I... I just didn't know how."

"Just tell me the truth, that's all!"

"It's not that simple."

"Why not?"

"Because the truth is useless as long as you're unwilling to hear it." That was painful enough, but there was worse. "And because it's a weapon in the hands of an enemy."

"Is that it, then? I'm your enemy? When did that happen?" Belle's voice rose in anger again. "You locked your shop against me. What was I supposed to think!"

"You had made it clear that you wanted nothing to do with me. That you would rather befriend Captain Hook and Zelena than continue your relationship with the beast." He had always known she would see him that way in the end. The darkness merely accelerated the inevitable. She was a spear aimed at his heart in the hands of his enemies, who knew that he would not hurt her. He had hoped that locking his shop would discourage any plan to use her against him, but it hadn't done much good in the end.

"Maybe if you'd just trust me, instead of hiding everything! Why didn't you ever tell me what happened in New York?"

Rumplestiltskin didn't answer at first. He was so tired, tired of all this. He collapsed onto a chair and ran his hands wearily over his face. Then he let them drop into his lap and he looked at Belle. Would she hear him this time? "I couldn't bear to let you see how weak I truly am." He snorted bitterly. "But you've always seen that, haven't you? As you said the last time you were in my shop."

Belle stared, silent for a long moment. Then she said in a low voice, "I'm sorry. That was the darkness speaking..."

Rumplestiltskin sighed. "Understand this: the darkness creates nothing that wasn't there already. It merely gives voice to the thoughts that you've buried. Fear, anger, hatred, shame — we all feel these things. The impulse to lash out at those who've hurt us—"

"No. No, that isn't the kind of person I am. This is dark magic. I refuse to give in to it!" Belle shook her head, fists clenching at her sides. She hit the wall behind her. Rumplestiltskin saw the bracelet glow again, capturing the excess energy and channeling it away before she brought the house crashing down around them.

"You're a good person. A hero." His heart broke at the anguished self-loathing that had crept into her face. But if she went on this way, she would be a danger to both herself and others. He had to make her understand. "But an action isn't good or heroic just because it was done by a good person, out of good intentions."

"Yet you're the one claiming to act out of love," retorted Belle.

"And love doesn't make my actions good," said Rumplestiltskin. That was what he had been hinting at, obliquely, when he had wanted to get her to stop and think before the darkness drove her to ever more rash actions, but it hadn't worked. Now that the cat was out of the bag, there was no point in not being direct. "Snow White and Prince Charming acted out of love when they kidnapped a baby, filled it with darkness, and sent it through a portal."

"What are you planning to do to my son? He's terrified of you. Maybe you do think you love him, but I won't ever let you harm him!"

"No! I would never harm... I'm only trying to protect him." He reached a hand out towards Belle, but her glare was unrelenting. "Look, when I first took on the darkness, I went too far, and Baelfire paid for my mistakes. I know that. This time—"

He was interrupted by the sound of a crying infant, coming from the next room.

"Oh gods. Zelena's baby!" Belle turned, but Rumplestiltskin was quicker.

He lifted the baby from the crib and rocked her in his arms. "Shhh, shhh, nothing to worry about, everything's fine..."

"Everything is not fine. Her mother is dead!"

"I know, I know," said Rumplestiltskin, keeping his voice low and soothing. "Look, I think she's hungry." He stuck a finger into the baby's mouth.

"What are we going to do?"

"Check the kitchen for baby formula?"

"Right." She went back, stepping carefully around the corpse on the floor.

Rumplestiltskin followed. The baby wailed at the change in brightness, but Rumplestiltskin bounced her gently, murmuring nonsense to calm her again. "What did I say? Rumplestiltskin takes children... not that I have any intention of keeping you, don't worry. All you have to remember is that revenge is a poor life goal."

"Says the power-hungry control freak," muttered Belle as she rummaged through the cabinets.

"Don't listen to her," he whispered to the baby. He closed his eyes and sniffed at her scalp, trying to find a future for her that would not result in even more suffering. He snatched a glimpse, then another. There. It was possible. "Shhh... shhh... no revenge for you, dearie. Live for the living, not for the dead. Let it end, let it go..."

Belle made a face at him, but forbore to comment. She handed him a bottle she had found in the refrigerator. Then, "You're not magicking the baby!"

"Just warming the bottle," murmured Rumplestiltskin. It had been a long time since he had fed an infant, but the trick of it came back to him soon enough. "In the old days, without someone to nurse the infant, we'd use goat's milk, cow's milk. This formula is so much better. It's amazing what you can buy in consumer-friendly cans in this realm. Speaking of realms, where exactly were you planning to run to when you stole that wand?"

"Somewhere you wouldn't be able to follow," she said. Then she glanced at Zelena's body, and her expression darkened. "Not that that's an option anymore."

"Belle, I—" He cut himself off at the sound of someone coming in the front door.

"Hey, Sis. You're up late." The voice of the Evil Queen carried clearly from the front hall. "You're not still sulking, are you? I told you it means nothing. I'm just ensuring that Gold is playing for our team..."

"I'm afraid it's too late for that, your majesty," said Rumplestiltskin, eyeing the crumpled figure of the corpse on the floor.

Belle gasped, and he knew that the Evil Queen had just walked through the door.

"Gods! You killed Zelena, you vile little imp!"

Sensing the sudden gathering of magical energy, Rumplestiltskin turned to face her, Zelena's baby cradled in his arms, still suckling on the bottle. "Careful with the fireballs, dearie. We wouldn't want any collateral damage, would we?"

"Rumple!" Belle had never approved of him playing the monster, and that hadn't changed despite the darkness that now haunted her.

"I guess this means you have your revenge at last," said the Evil Queen. The flames vanished from her palm, but the fury remained in her eyes. "Congratulations."

"It wasn't revenge, dearie. Your sister was responsible for the death of my first child. Do you think I'd allow her to take away my second child, too?" He choose his words with care to ensure that any vengeance on Regina's part would be aimed at him. He saw from Belle's expression that she knew what he was doing. For once, she held her tongue, probably for the sake of their unborn child.

"So what's she doing here?" The Evil Queen sneered at Belle.

"Nothing to do with you," snapped Belle.

The Evil Queen scoffed. She shifted her gaze back to Rumplestiltskin, but slowly, emphasizing the distance between the two. "Then something to do with you? It usually is, with the bookworm."

"Belle was conspiring with your late sister," Rumplestiltskin said dryly, "to make her escape from me."

"Didn't get very far, did she?"


"Well, that's certain to win her love back," said the Evil Queen.

"It's still nothing to do with you!" Belle, who had been edging towards the back door, paused to glare at the Evil Queen again.

"That's true enough," said Rumplestiltskin. "Whatever charms you may possess, your majesty, that part of our deal is done with."

"You seemed to find my 'charms' appealing enough the other day!"

Belle's glare switched to Rumplestiltskin.

"Nevertheless." He shook his head slightly as Belle narrowed her eyes at him. "A temporary lapse of judgement. And I had my reasons. Which are no longer applicable."

"In that case, why are you still here?" she snarled. When he didn't immediately answer, she waved a dismissive hand. "Never mind. It's a waste of breath, talking to you. If I can't kill you today, just go away and let me bury my sister in peace."

Underneath the spiky facade, Rumplestiltskin could see that she was in fact grieving. It showed in the slight tremble in her voice and the wounded way she looked at him, damning his betrayal and begging for his comfort simultaneously. She didn't have anyone left in this world that might care for her now that Zelena was dead. Her other half had tried to kill her, and everyone else in Storybrooke considered that half to be the real Regina. Well, almost everyone.

He set down the empty bottle in the sink, then picked up a dish towel. He arranged Zelena's baby over his shoulder, the towel shielding his clothes, and patted her on the back. "Look. This baby is an orphan now. She needs you. You're her closest kin."

"Me?" The Evil Queen looked taken aback. Had she expected him to keep the baby as leverage against her? "But... I... I have plans..."

"Yes, yes, yes, more evil schemes. The usual." Rumplestiltskin continued patting the baby, who burped and dribbled onto the towel.

The Evil Queen and Belle were both watching him, their expressions an odd mixture of wariness and disbelief.

"Why don't you let go of your desire for vengeance? It doesn't matter how much happiness you take away from other people, dearie. It does nothing to alleviate your own misery. It's time to try something different." Rumplestiltskin offered the baby to the Evil Queen to hold.

Belle cried out in alarm, "You can't give her to the Evil Queen! We have to take the baby to Regina."

Rumple kept his eyes locked on the Evil Queen. "This is  Regina. The part of Regina that she regrets. This is the person responsible for the choices that shaped her. All her guilt, all her anger, all her resentment. All that pain and darkness. But also her capacity to forgive, to love. Because you know what it is to be abandoned. To be unwanted. And you won't do that to an innocent child, will you?"

The Evil Queen's expression became uncertain, unbelieving. Then she reached tentatively for the baby. Rumplestiltskin waited until her grasp was secure before stepping away again.

"You're the one who came to Zelena," he said. "You're the one who came to me. You wanted a fresh start. Well, here's your fresh start, your majesty. Do you remember what I said to you when you had me procure Henry for you?"

The Evil Queen looked down at the infant in her arms. She said softly, "That...that when you become a parent, you must put your child first. No matter what."

"This child has no other family left. Are you willing to become a parent again?" Rumplestiltskin waited patiently for an answer. He kept a careful eye on the Evil Queen's face as she gazed at the child, and was relieved to detect a softening of her features.

"She's Robin's daughter. I once hoped that he and I might..." She left the rest unspoken, but her eyes glimmered with tears. She took a deep breath, then nodded. "Yes. She is my child, now."

"And we're supposed to believe you'll be a responsible parent? You? You'll just raise her to be evil," protested Belle. "Rumple, you can't allow this."

"Well, no more evil than Henry." Rumplestiltskin pulled out his phone and thumbed in a message, then tapped 'send'. "And when I said 'no other family left', I meant both halves of you, of course..."

Belle looked confused, but the Evil Queen's head snapped up. "No. You didn't!"

"Oh, yes," he said, slipping the phone back into his pockets. Before he needed to explain further, a cloud of purple swirled into existence and dissipated to reveal Regina.

"Gold! What do you mean, Zelena's dead..." At Rumplestiltskin's discreet nod, Regina whirled to see the corpse lying on the floor. "Shit."

"Well, I'd love to stay and comfort you in your grief, but I'm afraid that would be utter hypocrisy. At least you have each other. Now, if you'll excuse me..." He twirled a hand, casting a transport spell for himself and Belle before Regina, either half of her, could stop him. Dark maroon smoke billowed up around them.

And then they vanished.

Chapter Text

Belle blinked away the after-image of Zelena's kitchen to find herself in the foyer of Rumple's house. Angry at being teleported without even being consulted or warned, she stumbled away from Rumple as soon as her feet felt solid floor underneath them, and headed for the front door.

"Belle, wait." There was a click, then light flooded the foyer.

"Why, so you can corrupt me some more?" Half-blinded, Belle grabbed at the doorknob, found it locked. She fumbled savagely at the locking mechanism.

"Belle, please. We need to talk."

Don't listen to him, hissed the voice of the darkness. He wants to make us weak.

Belle gritted her teeth and yanked the front door open. A blast of cold swept over her face. The shock of fresh air scattered her thoughts. She turned and blurted out, "What is there to talk about? I murdered someone. Someone I was talking to just a few minutes ago!" She shivered, wrapping her arms around herself.

"Belle, you saved me. Don't blame yourself. It's my fault for not finishing the job the first time." Rumple stayed back, but his eyes pleaded for her forgiveness.

Belle bit back a hysterical laugh. The first time? The first time, when he had used her as his alibi, with the false dagger to convince everyone of his lies? She should have known better, even then. She shook her head and turned back to the doorway. The peace of the street beckoned. It was an illusion. With the tracking bracelet on her arm, there was nowhere to run where he couldn't find her.

"I'm so sorry this happened to you. I can't erase the past, but I can help you now, if you let me. Help you and our child."

He lied to you then, and he's lying to you now.

"I loved you, and you betrayed me. Why bother pretending now that I ever meant anything to you? Go back to your Evil Queen. I saw the way you two were looking at each other." Belle wished she could wipe that memory from her mind. It sickened her, that clear understanding between the two of them. She pulled the door shut again and rested her forehead against the wood, shutting her eyes against the pain of remembering. There was nowhere she could go to escape that.

Rumplestiltskin and the Evil Queen knew each other long before either ever met you. You were a fool to think he could love you. They're two dogs fighting over a toy — that's all you are to them. And you know what happens to every toy in the end. Run now, before they can take your son, too...

"It's not like that," Rumple protested. It sounded feeble in Belle's ears. "My love for you has always been true."

"But it's not enough to stop you from helping the Evil Queen. You gave her Zelena's baby. Then summoned Regina. What if there's a fight?" Belle turned again to face him, crossing her arms in front of her chest as if to shield herself. She wanted to believe in the good man she had once glimpsed in him, but he disappointed her, over and over again. "If they start throwing magic around—"

"They won't. Neither of them would risk injuring the baby. Now they actually have an incentive for peace."

"Oh, that's you all over. You always have some excuse." Belle was truly fed up with his manipulations. "And the water from the River of Souls? That's you promoting universal harmony?"

"No, that's Regina's fondness for theatrics getting the better of her, again." Rumple paced restlessly through the room, picking up random knickknacks from his cluttered collection before putting them down again. "Back in the old days, she massacred entire villages. No deadly water needed. This time, she didn't kill anyone. I'd say she's learning."

"Snow White and Prince Charming are under a horrible curse!"

"Any curse can be broken. You know that."

"And you won't lift a finger to help them."

"They haven't asked. Besides, it's really something they have to figure out for themselves." Rumple paused to give her a look. "Also, I've been busy with... other projects."

Belle froze. "You mean me."

Rumple nodded. "You, and the child you carry. This darkness that afflicts you both..."

"Can you take it off us?" Belle held her breath, hoping, despite the voice that told her, it's a trick.

"I think so. I have possession of the Shears of Destiny."

Belle's breath came out again in a surprised huff. "The shears? I thought... Zelena said you wanted to cut off our son's destiny, to make him love you."

"And naturally I make a habit of confiding my plans in the wicked witch," growled Rumplestiltskin. "No. Magic can't make someone love you. What makes you think I would try?"

"I... I thought..." Belle didn't know now, what she had been thinking. It was a tight knot of fear that was born out of the darkness of her nightmares. Then Zelena had fed that fear until Belle had been sure, so sure that Rumple would use his magic to corrupt their child. That the child was already tainted by darkness, and that Rumple would be trying to remove that taint, had not occurred to her. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I'm telling you now. I would have, before, but you were too busy running away."

"I just wanted him to be safe!"

"I would never harm him," he said, as he had before. "Not him, and not you."

"But other people?"

He didn't answer.

"We can't be with you, not when you're like this. Don't you understand?" Belle begged, but his eyes were unyielding.

"After all this time, you must know. I can never be the man you think I can be."

"If you'd only try..."

"I have tried," he said softly. "But in the end, I still lost everything. I was dust, Belle. I won't be that again. Not for anything."

"Don't give up, Rumple. Please. If you keep choosing darkness, you'll lose me forever. Is that a price you're willing to pay?"

"That's the other thing about love: it isn't a reward you can earn. Nor is love something you can trade for in a deal." Rumple's lips twisted in a thin line of pain. Then he shook his head. "That's a mistake both of us have made."

"That's not...that isn't... we didn't!" How could he think that of them? Of her? Belle's anger rose again. "That's you, twisting words and seeing the worst in everything."

"No. It bought us a taste of happiness, but I will enter no more deals with you," said Rumple. "But it's no matter. I know that the man I am, is a man that no one can ever truly love. I accept that. I only want to free you, and our son, from a destiny of darkness, and hope that you find the happiness you can't have with me."

Lies. He will cut away our futures and chain us to one of his own making! Don't trust him...

Belle pushed the voices back. It wasn't true. She had loved him. She would love him even now, if only... if only he wasn't so... wasn't... wasn't him? No, this wasn't who he really was. She refused to believe that. He had surrendered to the darkness. She never would. And she would lead him by example. That was what a hero would do. "I will never let the darkness defeat me."

"No," sighed Rumple. "And I don't wish that burden on you, or our child. But he already hates me, which will only make it more difficult to help him."

"He doesn't hate you," Belle said abruptly. "He's afraid."

"Why? Why is he afraid?"

"I'm not sure. It's what I feel from him," explained Belle. "I know he didn't want you dead. He showed me how to... how to kill Zelena."

"You can speak to him?"

"Sometimes. In dreams. But I can never remember the details once I wake up." Belle shook her head. "I wish you and he could speak. Maybe if you explained to him..."

"Maybe I can." Rumple eyed Belle speculatively. "I still have some of the Sands of Morpheus."

More magic. Belle hated the thought of letting it touch her again, but if it allowed hope of reconciliation between father and son, she knew she had to try it. Be brave, she told herself. She let Rumple lead her to the bedroom. She lay down on top of the blankets, trying not to think about the last time the two of them had shared this bed.

"One more thing." Rumple looped a crystal pendant around his neck, then handed a matching pendant to her. "This will give us awareness and control within the dreamscape."

Belle accepted the pendant wordlessly. Then she closed her eyes and tried to calm her thoughts. She felt the shift in weight as Rumple sat down on the edge of the bed. Then his fingers brushed over her forehead, carrying a trickle of magic, and consciousness fled.

The room was on fire. Despite the fierceness of the fire, the corners of the room were cloaked in impenetrable shadow.

The dreamer was accustomed to the flames. He could not be burned by them, because in this place, in this time, his heart was made of that same fire. When his eyes opened to the shadow place again, he was glad. Perhaps he would meet his mother. The meetings comforted him, gave him hope of existence, even if the memories didn't stay in her waking mind. Soon they would be together in the living world.

She was here tonight. The dreamer was about to blaze forth from the flames when he sensed another presence.

No. No. Not him. The dreamer shrank away into the deepest shadows, but he could not escape the voice, soft though it was.

"Call him."

Don't! The dreamer aimed a panicked thought at his mother. Send him away.

She hesitated.

But he was still there, standing behind her, touching her back, urging her on. "What is his name? Belle, please. Trust me."

You can't!

His mother wavered. But the Dark One's hold on her was too strong, and she admitted softly, "I was thinking, 'Gideon'. From the book."

"A strong name." There was a long silence broken only by the crackle of the flames. Then his father called into the shadows, "Gideon. Gideon. Gideon."

The name was a summons hooked into his soul. He clung to the shadows, resisted, but his father's voice sank deeply into him, seeking a version of him willing to answer. The years peeled off him, a tangle of someday and might-be and could-be, until the dreamer no longer remembered which possibility held his origin.

He only knew that the boy who stepped out into the flickering light of the flames was far younger than the 'Morpheus' who had met them before. This time, he felt small, vulnerable. He pulled at the shadows, but the darkness no longer obeyed his will. He was exposed to his father's eyes.

That intense brown gaze regarded the dreamer. "Please, Gideon, I'm your father. I would never, never try to hurt you or your mother."

The dreamer cowered away, shielding his face with an out-flung arm. "Lies!"

"No! It's the truth," came the hoarse whisper. His father sounded hurt, but the dreamer knew it was a trick.

Having lost control of the dream, the dreamer had no more power here. Nothing except bare words. "Then where is my brother? Where is my brother's mother?"

"They're gone."

"They're dead. You killed  them. I Saw." The dreamer began crying, then, with huge, ugly sobs wracking his body.

Then arms wrapped around him, and he felt the solid warmth of his mother's hug, softer than the flames, her breath a balm against the stinging fumes of the dreamscape. "He won't do anything to you. I'm your mother; I'll always love you and protect you."

"But...but...he'll kill you, too. J-just like Milah."

"Your mother is nothing like Milah," said his father. "Milah left us, left Bae, when he was only a child. She let us think she was dead. When I came across her, years later, after I had lost Bae, she... she didn't even ask about him. Not once. I...I was so angry."

"You ripped... ripped her heart out..."

"And crushed it right in front of her. I'm sorry. I'm sorry you had to See that." He took a step forward. "If I could have protected you from that, I would have."

The dreamer cringed, but his mother shielded him. She murmured soothing words into his hair, then said, "It was centuries ago. Lifetimes ago. He isn't... isn't like that anymore."

The dreamer sniffled into his mother's chest. Then he tilted his head to peek at his father through one eye. "B-but it wasn't... wasn't centuries ago. When my brother died."

"Your father didn't kill him," said his mother. "It was Zelena. She tricked your brother."

"I... I know. I Saw," whispered the dreamer. "B-but, he died to give my father life. In... in the stories, the fathers always kill their sons. Kronos. Theseus. Cuchulainn. Hildebrand. Rostam..." The names resonated in his dreams, in his visions: warnings of his own fate.

His father looked stricken. "I was given no choice. The key of the Dark Vault, once invoked, cannot be stopped."

"But he delayed it for almost a year," said his mother. "Even when it drove him half-mad. He did everything he could for Baelfire."

His father took another step forward and dropped to his knees. He reached out a hand to touch the dreamer's shoulder, but let the hand fall again when the dreamer shrank away. "I failed him. But I swear, I will do anything in my power to protect you, Gideon."

"Then why do you want to take away my  power?" cried the dreamer. If his father wanted him to be safe, why did he want to make his son helpless?

"Oh, son." His father slumped, his face crumpled in guilt and grief. "The curse of the Dark One is a terrible thing. I was a grown man when I took it on, and it nearly destroyed me. For a child to grow up never knowing You deserve better. You deserve a life free of that burden."

"He's right," whispered his mother. Her arms tightened around the dreamer. "We want you to have the best life you can."

"Besides, you are a child of True Love. That magic will always be part of you. You will never be truly powerless," said his father. Rumplestiltskin shared a glance with Belle, and for a moment, the dreamer almost believed his father.

Reality shifted, the possibilities trembled. He could See a future where he loved and was loved, his life untainted by the Darkness. It was tantalizingly within reach, that life of happiness strong enough to overcome any tragedy. Yearning for that life filled his soul.

Then fear washed over the dreamer again. He said, his voice trembling. "What if it's not enough? I Saw... I Saw..." The visions eluded him at the moment, but the fear accumulated in his bones. "...things that snuff out every light."

"Whatever you saw, we'll face it together," his mother assured him.

He believed her, but what if it still wasn't enough? What if he needed more? What if he needed to protect her, and he failed?

His father seemed to read something of his doubts. "It need not be lost forever. Just... just wait. Wait until you are old enough to understand what you are choosing, if you choose that fate. Until that day, I can hold the Darkness in abeyance. Somewhere safe."

The dreamer stared at his father. He could sense no lie, yet... "You can? How?"

"Well, I do have the Shears of Destiny. And the power of all the Dark Ones ever, which must count for something."

"Rumple, you can't be serious. You want our son to be a Dark One?" Belle sounded shocked.

"It will be his choice," said his father. "If it will help you believe me, then let's make it a deal."

Rumplestiltskin never breaks his deals. The thought hung unspoken in the air between them. Then it continued, Except once...

But there was a whispered coda at the end. The dreamer strained to hear it.

Never again.

Even the darkness accepted the sincerity of his father's determination. It understood the push and pull of a trade, understood the binding magic in a contract.

"You agree to give up the Darkness now, and I promise to keep it safe for you until your eighteenth birthday, after which it will be your choice whether to tie yourself again to that fate." His father spelled out the terms, catching the dreamer's eyes to make sure he understood. He proffered his right hand. "Do we have a deal?"

"Y-yes." The dreamer took it tentatively in his own. "The deal is struck."

Chapter Text

Belle awoke to light shining on her face through the window. The sky was a bright gray behind the bare branches of the trees. Rumple was long gone from the bedroom, but she thought she heard him moving about downstairs. Not willing to face him yet, she opted instead for a quick shower and change of clothes, working clumsily around the gold-threaded cuff magically attached to her forearm. Now that she understood its true purpose, she couldn't even honestly resent Rumple for it. Uncontrolled magic, light or dark, was dangerous. She didn't want to harm anyone out of blind emotion.

She picked at the cuff, testing its limits. She did resent Rumple for it, fairly or not. At least it didn't stop her powers completely. Now that she was aware of the binding magic, she knew that she could force a spell through, as long as she consciously willed it. She doubted she would need to, but she suspected that her husband had become even more paranoid about her safety after the incident with Jekyll. Well, it would all be moot, once Rumple took the darkness off her. She hoped that would be soon.

She found her husband in the kitchen eating a bowl of cereal.

"Hey." He set his spoon down and half-rose out of his chair. "Can I, um, can I get you breakfast?"

Belle shook her head. "I'll get myself something."

Plagued by constant low-key nausea from her pregnancy, she made do with two slices of dry toast and a mug of green tea as the least stomach-turning options. She sat down across from Rumple and nibbled at the toast in awkward silence. The silence extended to the voices in her head; she felt no warnings, no panicked urges to flee. The deal made in the dreamscape had reassured their son enough for him to tolerate his parents sitting at the same table.

Rumple dipped his spoon into his bowl, found it empty, and sighed. He fiddled with the spoon, not meeting her eyes. "So. About all this. You know I've been researching the magic required."

"Yes. You said."

"Well, it's complicated. I won't be able to detach the Darkness until after the child is born. It's too risky otherwise, with two lives entwined. I need to focus on one soul at a time."

Belle nodded. It made sense, she supposed. "I'm not due for another six months or so."

"About that." He hesitated for only a brief moment, but it was enough for her stomach to sink in dread. It was never anything good that followed after such a pause. Belle braced herself and he continued, "The longer you carry the Darkness, the more tightly it binds itself to your fate. The more difficult it is to cut you free."

"No!" Catching on at once to the implication, Belle slammed the mug down, not caring when hot tea slopped onto her fingers. "You can't do that to me!"


"You want to speed up my pregnancy, just like Emma Swan did to Zelena."

"Please. Hear me out." He didn't deny it. "For the sake of our child."

Belle gritted her teeth and nodded tightly.

Rumplestiltskin took a deep breath, then said, "If we do this within the next week or so, I estimate my chances of success at about ninety-nine in a hundred. But that goes down the longer we delay."

"What happens if you fail?" Belle ignored the dark thought that told her, He will fail. He always fails. He is fated to always fail...

"Your future — your timeline — is wounded. It becomes vulnerable to a predatory destiny grafting itself onto your name."

"A what?"

"The weave of fate contains many loose threads. Forgotten prophecies, hidden curses, lost possibilities, and the like. Some of them actively hunt for broken timelines to attach themselves to."

"Sounds ominous."

"Even if the wound heals, it leaves scars, a repository of bad luck that dogs your steps forever. At worst, your fate is cut short. Which means..."


Rumple nodded grimly. "Indeed."

"They say Aladdin cut his own destiny." Belle had heard the story from Granny, who always seemed to know all the gossip in Storybrooke. Everyone came through her diner eventually. "That was after being the Savior for months or years, even. He seems healthy and not particularly unlucky, by all accounts."

"Then he beat the odds. Not something I'd count on for us," said Rumple.

It was for the sake of her son, she reminded herself. She could do anything she had to do to protect him. In the grand scheme of things, what did it matter if she gave birth a little early? "All right. Should I make an appointment with Dr. Whale? I suppose he's used to dealing with this kind of thing by now."

"No. The hospital isn't safe. I can't ward it properly."

"Then where? Here?"

"Yes. Home births aren't unheard of, even in this realm. We don't need Dr. Whale. He doesn't even know any healing magic."

Belle was dubious.

"Belle, I reattached his arm after his zombie tore it off. I healed you  when you were shot. Trust me."

"But shouldn't we have a midwife?"

"I'm a midwife," said Rumple. "Among other things."

"You?" Belle stared at him. "I mean, I know you used to trade in babies, but..."

"Not just babies. Discretion, as well. Not everyone who became pregnant desired the pregnancy, nor did they want their condition to be known. Most such folk went to their local apothecary or midwife to end things, but a few... well, a few of them came to me." Rumplestiltskin waved his hand, and a vial of brownish dust appeared between his fingers in a puff of smoke. "This is the spell I used on those occasions."

"And you took their babies as your price?"

"Of course. There were always people who wanted children but were unable to bear them naturally, people sensible enough not to trust in fertility magic." He shook his head. "Now, that is magic more dangerous and unreliable than mine. It attracts attention from powers that... never mind. The point is, I've sped up and delivered plenty of babies in my time. No harm done to mother or child."

"I had no idea," Belle said. In her time at the Dark Castle, he had only once brought a baby there. Rumple had used it as bait to summon the Black Fairy — who had turned out to be his mother — and then let Belle return it to its parents afterwards. Belle had been relieved to find that the dreaded Dark One actually didn't steal or sacrifice children. His mother, on the other hand... Belle still didn't know the truth behind the stories. Rumple had never spoken of her again.

"It doesn't often come up in idle conversation. Regina made me a pawnbroker, lawyer, and landlord under the Curse." Rumple glanced down at the expensive dress shirt and tie that he wore even to breakfast. "So that's the part I play in Storybrooke."

"Maybe." Then again, she had a hard time seeing the giggling leather-clad imp of the Enchanted Forest as a convincing midwife, either. Belle smiled at the image.

Rumple shot her a startled look.

"What?" Her smile faded.

"Nothing. It's only that... I think that's the first time you've stopped being angry at me since you woke up from the Sleeping Curse."

"Oh." She thought about it. Then the truth of his words hit her, and sadness overwhelmed her. She covered her face with her hands, unable to stem the tears that flooded her eyes.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean..." Rumple stammered. He rose from his chair and moved towards her, but stopped himself, maintaining a rigid distance between them. "What's wrong?"

She sobbed even harder. Then, hardly knowing what she was doing, she was on her feet and reaching impulsively for him. He wrapped his arms around her and rubbed her back soothingly. She buried her face in his chest. "It's... it's nothing. Just pregnancy hormones."


"I read about it in a book," she said between sniffles. "Mood swings and... and..."

"It's all right," he assured her. He conjured a tissue and offered it to her.

"Thanks." Belle blew her nose. He handed her another tissue. Gods, how embarrassing, she thought. By the time the third wadded-up tissue joined the other two on the table, she had recovered her equilibrium. In a small voice, she admitted, "I missed you, Rumple."

His arm tightened around her. "Sweetheart..."

His touch only reminded her of other things she had read, namely the sections stressing the presence and support of a partner, and she almost began crying again. If only the book had also given advice on what to do if that partner happened to be the Dark One. A curse they now shared, she reminded herself. "What have we done to each other? What have we done to our son?"

"For his sake, we must work together," said Rumple. "It will be all right, Belle. He'll be all right."

"None of this has been anything like how I used to imagine it when I was a child," she confessed. "An accelerated pregnancy with only my husband present for the birth? No friends, no other family? I wish we weren't so alone."

"Considering who my parents were, it's just as well," said Rumple. "But maybe your father..."

Belle shook her head. "No. Not... not yet." She loved her father, but she didn't think she could cope with his overbearing nature during the stress of childbirth. And what if he and Rumple started something? "I'll visit him later."

"If that's what you want."

"I'm not even sure what I want, anymore." Belle forced herself away from Rumple, afraid that if she didn't, she would throw herself at him again, and they would fall back into their old, disastrous pattern. He made no move to stop her; he never had. But this time she wasn't walking out, she swore to herself. She was just... getting a pear from the refrigerator. She saw Rumple watching her, and averted her eyes.

Belle had just finished washing the pear when she heard the chime of the doorbell ringing through the house. Rumple moved at once to answer the door. Belle followed more slowly, wary of whatever new trouble had found its way to his doorstep.

"Sheriff Nolan. What can I do for you?"

At Rumple's greeting, Belle tensed and hung back, keeping out of sight while her husband stood in the doorway.

"Regina says you killed Zelena."

"Did she, now," drawled Rumplestiltskin. "You're here to arrest me?"

"No!" Belle couldn't let him shoulder the blame for her, not like this. She moved up behind Rumple and saw David Nolan outside, flanked by Emma Swan (who was carrying an unsheathed sword for some reason) and Captain Hook. "Rumple didn't do it. It was me."

"Belle..." Rumple broke the stunned silence that followed her confession. "You—"

"It was self-defense," Belle elaborated. "She was about to kill Rumple!"

Emma squinted at Belle and tilted up the sword, gesturing between her and Rumple. "Wait, I thought you two weren't together anymore?"

"Maybe not," said Rumple. "But I'm still the father of our child. Belle and I have things to discuss regarding his future."

"So, you're saying that Belle killed Zelena?" David put in belatedly, his tone incredulous.

"Some trick of the Crocodile's," said Hook. He looked at Belle. "You don't have to do this, love. We won't let him hurt you."

"You know nothing," hissed Rumple. Belle put a hand on his arm, knowing how the pirate's needling words always got under his skin. She could feel the strain as he struggled to keep his temper. "No one's going to hurt Belle."

"Did you make her kill Zelena?" asked David bluntly.

"He didn't make me do anything," said Belle, but they didn't look convinced. Interfering busybodies, whispered the voice of the darkness. She felt the cuff grow warm on her forearm and knew she was getting rattled. She bit her tongue, not wanting to let anything worse slip out.

"We could just arrest you both," threatened Emma.

"Or you could arrest yourself, Miss Swan. I see you've been helping yourself to items from my shop." Rumple nodded at the sword in her hand. His expression was again a cold mask, his voice even, tinged with irony. "Isn't that considered theft?"

"Yeah, well, I'm not stealing. I'm collecting evidence." Emma scowled at them. "Tell me about this sword, Gold."

Rumple shrugged lightly. "Nothing much to tell. It appeared in my shop after the third Curse. I never laid eyes on it before that."

"Huh," grunted Emma.

"About Zelena," said David. "Regina says her heart was crushed. How did Belle manage to do that?"

"Does it matter?" Belle snapped. "It was a one-time thing." Or so she hoped. The darkness laughed somewhere deep inside her soul, but she clung to her belief that it would soon be exorcised. She wished everyone else would just leave them alone long enough for Rumple to use the shears in peace.

"That's probably what they all say," said Emma. "So, what, you're a sorcerer now?"

Belle shook her head, not ready to confess the messy details of her guilt in front of people who were either going to judge her or pity her for her association with Rumplestiltskin. To her relief, Hook spoke up with an alternative explanation.

"The heart-ripping spell can be cast for another person to use. As I know all too well." The pirate cleared his throat, his eyes flicking meaningly to the hook he had in place of a hand. "I'll wager the Evil Queen learned that trick from the Crocodile."

"Well, she was my student," murmured Rumplestiltskin. The silence that followed was broken this time by David, who had his phone in his hand.

"It's Regina," he said. "She's found the Evil Queen. They're in the cemetery."

"You know, instead of harassing Belle, you should go after Regina first," suggested Rumple with a smirk. "She did kill Edmond Dantes not too long ago."

"It was the only way to stop him," said Emma.

"Mmm-hmm," said Rumple. "Oh, and she also killed your unfortunate predecessor, Sheriff Graham. It's not clear what threat the Huntsman posed. Perhaps you can ask her."

Before Emma could reply, her father pulled her away by the elbow. "We don't have time for this. Who knows what the Evil Queen may be up to? She still has Zelena's baby."

"Fine." After one last angry glare at Rumplestiltskin, Emma and Hook followed David Nolan and hurried away down the street.

Rumple sighed. He pushed Belle gently back inside, then shut the front door behind him. "And now all the warm air's escaped." He gestured, and a whoosh of heat blew through the foyer.

"Gods, Rumple." Belle felt weak and hollow now that the immediate threat was gone. She took refuge in the kitchen, sitting down again at the table, eyes fixed blindly on the pear she had washed earlier. "They'll put me in prison."

"I won't allow it," said Rumple. He collected the dirty dishes and moved them to the sink to wash. "You've spent enough time locked up."

"But I killed someone." She picked up the pear, feeling again the weight of Zelena's heart in her hand, the way it had crumbled to dust when her fingers closed around it. She forced the memory away and bit into the fruit. Its sweetness brought her back to the here and now.

"They've all killed people," said Rumple, "mostly for worse reasons than you. You heard what Emma said: the only way to stop him. If it was true for Edmond Dantes, it was ten times, a hundred times as true for Zelena."

"But what about the law?"

"The law! Law enforcement here is a farce." He gestured angrily with a sponge before using it to wipe the table. "Maybe it's the effect of losing their memories so many times, but our heroes are rather selective about which crimes they remember to punish."

In her heart, Belle agreed with Rumplestiltskin, but the guilt still gnawed at her. It didn't matter who had done what, it was what she was responsible for that mattered to her. She sighed. "I... I don't want our son to become a killer, too."

"No. No, of course not. We'll protect him," said Rumplestiltskin. "He will never need to... to stain his hands with blood. Not like his father."

Belle wished she could believe him, but she saw from his eyes that even he knew he could guarantee no such thing. She also knew that he would try. She prayed that it would be enough.

Chapter Text

"I need to pick up a few items from the shop." Rumplestiltskin glanced at Belle, who still looked upset, but not so upset that she would run away the instant he was out of sight. "I'll be back soon."

Then again, perhaps he ought to give her a little more time to process everything that had happened in the past day. He decided to walk to the pawn shop rather than transport himself magically. It was early, barely past sunrise, making for a quiet journey into downtown Storybrooke. Rumplestiltskin was beginning to feel almost positive about the prospect of being a father again when he opened the door of his shop to find the Evil Queen standing inside the front room...

...and Zelena's baby, stripped down with bare legs kicking the air, lying on top of the counter.

"Your majesty." Rumplestiltskin pulled the door closed behind him. He wrinkled his nose at the distinct odor of a fouled diaper. "How terribly unsanitary of you."

The Evil Queen glared at him, but kept a hand on the baby. "Well, if you don't provide proper facilities in your establishment..."

"It's a pawn shop, not a family restaurant," said Rumplestiltskin. He noted the fresh cut on her cheek. "Custody battle getting out of hand?"

"This shouldn't be possible." She gestured at the cut. "Why won't it heal?"

"Having trouble with your magic, dearie?"

"What do you think?" The Evil Queen waved her free hand, and a cloud of magic swirled around the baby, instantly cleaning her. Another spell swapped the dirty diaper for a fresh one.

"Clearly not." Rumplestiltskin approached her from the side, examining her face. He ran a palm over the cut and tested it with a minor healing spell, but the wound resisted his magic. No ordinary weapon was responsible. He saw again in his mind's eye the blade in the savior's hand. "Interesting. You had a run-in with Emma Swan?"

"She had a sword. From your  shop," said the Evil Queen. She didn't flinch at his proximity. Despite all the manipulations, threats, and murder attempts between them, they rarely held grudges for long. Each of them was guilty and deserving of death, whether they admitted it openly or not. In the end, when it came to Rumplestiltskin and Regina, expedience won the day, along with an underlying fondness that was as close as they got to friendship. "What sorcery did you lay on it?"

"I did nothing. She claimed the sword was 'evidence'. Evidence of what, I wonder?" If he had known that it was so effective against the dopplegangers created by Jekyll's serum, he would have used it on Hyde instead of risking his dagger. How had Emma Swan known?

"She's been having visions." The Evil Queen finished dressing the infant and put her into the baby carrier sitting on the floor next to the counter. She tilted her head up with a sly smile at Rumplestiltskin. "Would you like to know more?"

"Yes." He slid back a step, resting his arm on the countertop. At the Evil Queen's air of expectant waiting, he sighed. "So what is it that you want from me?"

"You said I was short on allies," she began. "But you're not Mr. Popularity, either. Even if you're not public enemy number one right now, you're never far down the list."

"You're proposing we renew our alliance?" It was worth considering, to have her aligned with him at least long enough for him to fix matters with Belle and their son. He could pursue his other investigations after that.

"'Alliance' sounds so cold." She aimed a smirk at him. Before he could retort, she held up a hand. "No, not that again. Keep your bookworm if you must. No, it's my niece I'm thinking of, since my other half is too busy pretending to be a hero to be any use as a parent."

"I suppose little Robyn could come over for playdates with my son once they're old enough," said Rumplestiltskin. "But I draw the line at child-betrothals."

"Don't be absurd," snapped the Evil Queen. "You know what I meant. She'll be targeted by every enemy who wants to use her against me, not to mention every nosy do-gooder who thinks I'm a bad mother. I want your help in protecting her."

He scoffed. "What, like a fairy godfather?"

"Do you want the information or not?"

"All right. Let me remind you that you've already promised to leave Belle and our child alone." He couldn't muster much enthusiasm for protecting the offspring of the woman who had killed his son, but it wasn't only hers. The baby was also Robin Hood's child, and Robin Hood had been an honorable man and Belle's friend. For their sake, he would try.

"I haven't forgotten," said the Evil Queen. "Do you agree, then?"

"I'll do what I can." He considered for a moment. "Why don't you and the baby stay at my cabin, for now? It's well warded against intrusion and scrying. I reinforced the spells after the last time."

"It's a start. All right. Being a savior isn't all sunshine and puppies, it turns out..." The Evil Queen told Rumplestiltskin — smugly, as if hoping for her old teacher's admiration — of her interrogation, then impersonation, of Archie Hopper. She had pressured Emma Swan into confessing all to her family: the tremors, the difficulty with magic, the visions of a hooded stranger running her through with a sword, the prophecies of doom that came with being a savior.

After the Evil Queen had left with the baby and the key to the cabin, Rumplestiltskin pushed her story to the back of his mind while he gathered up the potions and other supplies he would need. Later, he intended to look into Emma's prophetic visions, but it would be safer to do so after he had freed Belle and their child from their dark fate. He was afraid that if he peered too closely into the future now, he might end up locked into another few centuries of fate's twisted workings. The last time, he had submitted willingly to fate because it gave him a guarantee of finding Baelfire alive at the end. This time, he meant for his family to be free of destiny's chains.

Even so, he had enough inklings of danger that he took the time to prepare extra precautionary spells before he transported himself back to his house. He unpacked the contents of various chests and bags onto a workbench in his basement laboratory.

"Hey." Belle appeared in the doorway. "You're back."

"Yeah." He gave her a cautious, sidelong glance and gestured at the workbench. "Almost ready."

"Fine. Do what you have to do, but... no more than that." She fidgeted with the golden cuff on her wrist. "I suppose it's best this stays on until... until we're done."

"Yes." He knew her distaste for magic being used on her, but neither of them wanted to risk any accidents. "The spell will bring your pregnancy to term. That's the difficult part. Once that's done, the magic to speed up the birth process is much simpler."

"No. No, don't... don't speed up the birth."

Rumplestiltskin frowned in bewilderment. "What? Why not?"

"Just... don't." Belle shook her head, looking at him with an anguished gaze. "Can't you leave me that much? A few hours longer to let my son be born as he should have been, rather than ripped from his mother's womb."

"Very well." He couldn't find it in himself to refuse. It was a way for her to reclaim some autonomy, and he couldn't blame her for that. "We can let your labor proceed naturally. It's your first, which means it may...may take a long time."

"I know," she said. "I've been reading about it."

"Yes. Yes, of course." After he finished in the basement, he took Belle to the spare bedroom he had prepared. He indicated the clothes he had set out on the bed. "You'd better change into something looser."

"Is that a hospital bed?" As she picked up the oversized T-shirt and sweatpants, she glanced around at the furnishings. There was a bassinet by the bed, a padded rectangular enclosure on top of a rolling cabinet. A shelf held clean towels and there was a table with surgical instruments and supplies laid out.

"A transmutation of the bed that came with this room," he explained. "With a design copied from the hospital, yes." He averted his eyes as Belle disrobed, busying himself with checking the power cord and the controls on the bed, raising and lowering the back briefly in a quick test. "Despite my differences with Doctor Whale, I can appreciate some of the innovations of modern technology. This is better than giving birth over a layer of straw on a dirt floor, wouldn't you say?"

"Was it really like that?" Belle pulled on a robe over the sagging clothes she had changed into.

"Often enough." Rumplestiltskin remembered his own poverty before he had become the Dark One, when he couldn't afford a healer for Bae. He shook off the thought and mixed the brown powder from his vial into a cup of tea and handed it to Belle. "Brace yourself. It's a concentrated dose of time and energy that goes into this spell."

She nodded, taking the tea in a few quick gulps. Then she gasped, setting the empty cup down with a trembling hand. Rumplestiltskin was at her side at once, supporting her with an arm around her back. He could feel the magic seizing hold of her body. In only a few moments, the baby underwent months of growth. Thrown off balance, Belle stumbled forward a step. She grabbed at his arms, and froze. "That was...I think I felt a contraction."

"Yes. It's all right. You're doing fine." He guided her to sit in an armchair. "Here, let me check the baby..."

Belle looked away, but did not protest as he slid a hand under her shirt. Rumplestiltskin kept his touch as detached and professional as he could, using only a smidgeon of magic to make sure the baby was healthy and positioned optimally for the birth. "Well?"

"Yes," he said. He straightened. "He's fine." Using the technology from the Land Without Magic, he checked Belle's blood pressure and temperature. "All normal."

"Good." Belle glanced at the clock on he wall. "Half past ten." She pushed herself up from the chair. "I want to walk around a bit while I can."

"But stay inside," Rumplestiltskin said. "I have protection spells around the house. Just in case..."

Belle sighed. "What are you so afraid of? Peter Pan is dead. Hades is dead. Jekyll and Hyde are dead. Zelena is dead. The Evil Queen is no match for you. Emma and Regina aren't going to do anything to me. Who else in Storybrooke could even threaten you?"

"I just... there's something, a darkness lurking on the edge of my sight," he tried to explain. Belle's look was withering. He winced. "Please. Humor an old coward."

"Just this once," she assented reluctantly.

The hours ticked by slowly. Rumplestiltskin tried not to hover as Belle waddled from one end of the house to the other. She read for a while, then switched to watching the news channel on the television in his living room.

"There really is a whole world out there. Sometimes I forget, living here in Storybrooke." She glanced at him enviously. "Even in this realm, you've traveled more than me."

"Why didn't you go? You could have left. You had the chance."

She looked away. "I... I couldn't. Not knowing that you had stayed behind, thinking you were going to die alone. Again. I regretted... regretted what I said at the well."

"And now you regret your return."

"I don't know! I wish..." Her voice caught, and she didn't complete the sentence. Her hands clenched around the arm of her chair. A few moments later, after a glance at the clock, she noted, "Eight minutes."

Rumplestiltskin nodded, his fingers twitching anxiously. "You're all right?"

"Yeah." She bore it stoically, but he could see that it had gone past severe discomfort now. She saw him watching her and frowned. "What?"

"The pain... you can feed it to the Darkness." He saw the look of revulsion on her face, but continued anyway, "Yes, it's dark magic, but dark isn't the same as evil. Pay the price now, and your recovery later can be made quicker."

She was still frowning at him. "You've done this before? With the others..."

"Bought their healing with the agony of childbirth? Yes." Perhaps it was a monstrous thing to do, but that was the way of it: the balance of magic set such costs. Now that Belle was a Dark One, however temporarily, it was better that she channel the magic herself rather than have Rumplestiltskin do it for her. He stepped across the room towards her. "Let me show you."

She stiffened at his approach, but after a moment, nodded warily. "Ok."

Standing behind her, he laid his hand on her shoulder. His fingers trembled at the contact as he remembered better times when she had welcomed his touch. It tore at his heart to be this close to her now and yet not close at all. But it was no use to think such things. He emptied his mind and concentrated his senses on the Darkness that now linked them. He waited with her for her next contraction, then guided her pain, channeling it. He felt the sharp moment when she suddenly understood.

"There." Rumplestiltskin pulled back. "Just like that."

"Oh," she breathed. "It's not what I thought it would be."

He had never tried to teach her dark magic before, had never thought to do it, when she was so set on being a hero. But now that he had lost her love, all he had left was a selfish desire for her understanding. He wanted her to see him, rather than the good man or monster she imagined in him. "Darkness has its own paths and affinities. Pain turns to healing magic, anger fuels violence, fear drives protection and escape, and lust clouds the mind."

"And evil..."

"It's easy not to see the consequences of your actions when you're blinded by darkness. Easy not to care."

"When I used magic before. I didn't know... it just... it just happened," Belle said slowly. She twisted the golden cuff on her forearm. "But not now, since I'm wearing this."

"Instinct and desperation can take you a long way, but perhaps not to where you want to be. As I should know." He saw the flicker of doubt in her face, and felt guilty again for ensnaring her in darkness. "I thought you should have the choice."

"Pain turns to healing, you said. As long as we're not torturing someone or summoning any Furies, it's... it's not actually evil, is it?" She grimaced. "If it's my price to pay, that's fair enough."

"But don't wear yourself out," he said. "If you need help with the pain, if it's too much..."

"I can do this." Belle clambered back to her feet and paced the hallways. Her water had broken not long before, but it did not speed her progress as much as Rumplestiltskin had hoped. It was dark outside by the time she reached the next stage of labor. By then, he had helped her back to the bed upstairs. She was looking pale and wrung out from the increasingly intense contractions, breathing raggedly in the shortening respites in between.

An hour later, Rumplestiltskin held the newborn swaddled in a blanket. He had wiped him clean and cut the umbilical cord, clipping off the stump with another piece pilfered from the hospital. Looking into his son's face, he froze in sudden wonder. This was not just another baby he was trading away. This was his own child, his and Belle's.

He turned to Belle. She looked shaky, utterly exhausted, but her eyes went at once to the tiny bundle he held. Rumplestiltskin laid the infant gently in her arms. He said in a low voice, "See if you can get him to suckle. That will aid in the afterbirth."

Belle nodded. She pushed up her shirt and aligned the baby with her left breast. It didn't take long for him to latch on. She murmured, "My Gideon. Strong and brave..."

Birth was a long and messy business, and it didn't end with the delivery of the baby. As he had promised her, he guided Belle in using magic to heal herself. However, this also meant that she was more awake and alert than she might otherwise have been.

"There's a spell on the blanket!" she accused him, staring down at the gold stitching around the hem.

"It's for his own safety," he explained. He traced the designs. "Elven glyphs for 'peace' and 'love.'"

"He has our love. Why the magic?"

"Because he has magic, too, but won't be able to control it yet. A newborn knows no moderation." Her lack of trust still hurt, but by now, there was little he could do except be honest, and never mind whether it was what she wanted to hear. "I can't use the cuff because that will block the shears. This is the next best thing. Please, Belle."

She continued glaring at him for a moment, then nodded slightly. "All right. But you're going to take the Darkness off him. Now."

"Yes." He summoned the reel he had prepared, attaching it to the frame of the bassinet. He had modified one of the spools he used for his gold thread, fixing a handle to it to make it easier to wind. Another wave of his hand brought him the golden shears of fate. He warned Belle, "It's vital that you keep him as still and calm as possible. Any interruption in the magic could be fatal."

Fatal. Belle mouthed the word, her anger visibly fading back into the fear that had been there all along. She whispered, "Just do it."

The extraction process was slow and difficult, but he had rehearsed it so many times, both mentally and through physical mock-ups, that Rumplestiltskin felt confident of success. The magic of the shears called to the thread of Gideon's destiny, made it accessible. Rumplestiltskin drew the darkness from it, twining it around one of his own gold threads, enchanted for stability and preservation. This he then wound up onto the spool.

Then. One cut. That was all it took in the end to sever the dark fate from his son. He tied it off onto the reel and gazed at it for a moment, checking and double-checking the spells on it. It was done. His son was free.

Emma's hand shook as she contemplated her destiny, the destiny intimately linked to the bare sword she held in her other hand. With that sword, she could kill the Evil Queen. That same sword had killed her, in her vision. She argued the point with her son, until he simply walked away. She was glad of the interruption when her father rushed back into the room.

"That was Leroy." David Nolan held up his phone. "Trouble at the diner."

Still clutching the sword, Emma, along with Hook and David, headed down Main Street. The night had turned dark and foggy. Screams shattered the air, emanating from Granny's Diner. The three of them burst inside to find Granny, Jasmine, and a handful of customers caught in a net of shadows, purplish lightning flickering along the strands. The lines of the spell rose through the air to end in the curved fingers of a tall, black-haired woman — a stranger to Storybrooke, but clearly no innocent passerby from the Land Without Magic.

Before Emma could intervene, she saw Jasmine hand a bronze oil lamp over to the sorceress.

"Let them go!" Emma charged forward impulsively with the sword.

"Stop!" The stranger's fingers twitched, and Jasmine screamed. Emma froze. "I can snap her neck before you get a step closer."

"Who are you? What do you want?" Emma demanded, but she didn't risk moving, not while there were innocent lives at stake.

"Oh, introductions are so tedious. But I already know who you are, Savior," said the stranger. She rubbed a palm along the side of the lamp. There was a whoosh of sand-colored smoke, and Aladdin — Aladdin!? — materialized next to her.

"What the devil?" exclaimed Hook.

"Not the devil. My genie."

"Sorry," muttered Aladdin. Somehow — Emma was mystified, just when she thought she was getting a handle on this whole magic thing — the Agraban street rat had become a wish-granting supernatural being. And the stranger was all too ready to use her three wishes.

"Go ahead, wish," snarled Aladdin. "They always come with a price."

But the stranger knew that, too, and the wish she asked for was Emma's own wish. A wish she had confided in private to Aladdin. "You heard us?"

"I hear everything," said the stranger. "Wishes most of all. You wished you weren't the savior. So that's exactly what you're going to get."

They listened in stunned silence as the stranger spelled it out.

Emma found her voice at last. "No!"

But it was too late. Aladdin, face wracked by guilt, unable even to meet her eyes, stretched out his hand and granted the wish.

Emma Swan, the Savior, was gone.

"It's time," Rumplestiltskin told her.

Belle nodded tightly. "You're not too tired?"

"You're the one who just gave birth," he said. Both of them wanted to get this over with, he knew. The sooner the better, whispered a voice from the back of his mind. It hinted at murky dangers just beyond his grasp. He glanced down at their son, now mortal and fast asleep. Belle reluctantly let Rumplestiltskin pick him up and lay him gently in the bassinet. "He'll be right here where we can see him."

"Fine." Her eyes lingered on the baby as she bit her lip in worry. "What if he starts crying?"

"He won't. The spell on the blanket will keep him content for long enough." Rumplestiltskin gestured, taking the golden cuff off Belle's forearm with a flick of magic. Then he summoned a second spool and fixed it to the bed, much as he had done before. The golden shears of fate reappeared in his right hand. "Remember, you have to remain absolutely still for this."

The extraction was significantly trickier for an adult than a newborn. He had to use the edge of the blade to tease the Darkness away from the delicate mortal thread of Belle's life. One slip and that thread would break, killing her. Moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, year by year, he twisted the potential Darkness onto a golden thread and wound it around the spool. He was almost done...

...when something crashed through the wards on the house. Not something. Someone. Two someones.

Rumplestiltskin's hands froze. His eyes darted to the two figures who had materialized in the corner of the bedroom.

One of them smiled at him, a twisted, bitter smile of greeting. She had a face out of his nightmares, a face he would never forget, never forgive. "Hello, son."

He heard Belle gasp, but he didn't even dare do that, not when he literally held her life between his fingers. He recognized the other intruder as Aladdin, tasted the foreign magic clinging to him. Rumplestiltskin had known that he had stolen the genie lamp, but hadn't known that he would be foolish enough to bind himself to that magic. Once a savior, always a savior, he thought. So he exchanged one deadly fate for another...

"What, no warm words of welcome?" mocked the woman — the Black Fairy — his mother. She glanced at Belle. "Thank you for your invitation, my dear. It did simplify matters for me."

Keep talking, Rumplestiltskin thought as he resumed reeling up the Darkness, bit by bit by bit.

"Invitation! I never..." Belle protested.

"Oh, but you did. 'No friends, no other family? I wish we weren't so alone,'" said the Black Fairy, imitating Belle's exact intonation. "As fate would have it, I happen to have a pet genie. And as everyone knows, a genie's raison d'etre is to grant wishes."

"Sorry," mumbled Aladdin, shame-faced.

Rumplestiltskin's mind raced. So that was how they had broken through his wards: a genie's wish was a sharply focused, specific form of magic that trumped any kind of passive defense that even the Dark One could construct. Even as he thought, he continued to reel up Belle's Darkness. Almost there...

But his mother could see it as well as he could, and she didn't wait. The Black Fairy laughed and reached into the bassinet, her powers slicing through Rumplestiltskin's wards. As a fairy, her natural affinity for children, like the genie's wish magic, enabled her to pierce a protection spell.

"No!" cried Belle. Rumplestiltskin met her eyes, willed her not to move. Not now. She trembled with the effort to remain still. Trust me, he thought at her, hoping... Through his magical senses, he watched his mother.

Baby in hand, the Black Fairy then grabbed the spool of golden thread, the thread of Gideon's severed Darkness. There was a burst of violet light that seemed to crack open the air. It left behind a golden cuff wrapped around the Black Fairy's forearm. She hissed and pried at it with her other hand, but Rumplestiltskin's magic held.

"Run where you like. I'll find you," he said in a low voice, barely breathing as he closed in on the end of Belle's fate. Whatever else his mother had planned, he knew she didn't want the baby dead. He just needed time...

"Clever boy, but not clever enough." The Black Fairy twisted a hand, and Rumplestiltskin knew that she had taken the spool, breaking through the rest of his protections on it. Then she sent a surge of dark magic straight at his back.

Unable to dodge, unable even to block, lest he lose his grip on Belle's thread of life, he could only stand and absorb the spell. It burrowed into his heart and burned, fire rushing through his blood. He wouldn't die, but he...

"By the time you can walk again, I'll have this thing off," said the Black Fairy. And in another surge of magic, she was gone, taking the baby with her, along with the genie.

A moment later, Rumplestiltskin cut and tied off the Darkness. Belle was free. Dizzy with pain, he collapsed to the floor, drawing on all his magic to counter his mother's spell, but the damage had already been done.

"Rumple! She took our son!" Freed to move at last, Belle grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. "Why didn't you stop her? How could you let her steal our baby?"

"Couldn't..." he gasped. His lungs frayed with each breath, and he couldn't seem to get enough air. "...killed... you..." Then the last of his strength failed, and he knew no more.

Chapter Text

"Rumple!" Belle watched in horror as dark magic ripped through her husband. He bent double, coughing up frothing gobs of blood. The blood turned black, and when he fell over, slipping from her grasp, she saw the same black liquid seep from his eyes, nostrils, and ears. His hand jerked and his fingers loosened, dropping the golden shears he had been clutching. The blades skittered across the floor.

Belle fought her way free of the blankets and scrambled out of the bed to kneel beside him, hoping desperately that he had a plan, a spell, a potion, anything. He was the Dark One, wasn't he? Immortal, or so he claimed, unable to be killed except by his dagger. At least the Black Fairy hadn't had that in her hands. Bad enough that she taken Gideon and consigned Rumple to this agony.

"Wake up. Please, wake up," she begged. She needed him. Their son needed him. "Why? Why didn't you save him? You should have let me die!"

But she read the answer in the unseeing black pools that his eyes had become. Now that the Darkness no longer shaped her thoughts, she knew that her husband still loved her, and could no more sacrifice her life than she could his. She reached out to touch his cheek. "No... please..."

He didn't wake. Under her fingers, his skin blackened. The darkness spread to cover all of him, cloth and skin and flesh melting into a featureless black ooze. She had seen the process before, in reverse, when he had been resurrected from the Vault of the Dark Ones. Belle jerked her fingers back, a visceral reaction to the unnatural taint of elemental darkness, but at the same time, felt a glimmer of hope. He had emerged from this darkness once before. Surely he could do it again. Belle waited, praying to any gods that might be listening, hoping with all her heart.


Nothing. He remained a puddle of unresponsive black ooze on the bedroom floor. Thicker and more cohesive than water, at least he didn't seep away through the cracks in the wooden floor.

And every moment that passed was another moment for the Black Fairy to make her escape. Belle stood up, looking around wildly, eyes searching for something, anything she could do. Books! In a flash of memory, she saw Rumple with his head bent over one of his magic books. He had been researching. So could she. Of course.

Even though she hated to leave him so helpless, she couldn't do anything here. She bit her lip, giving the darkness one last look, then rushed down the stairs into Rumple's basement workshop. As she remembered, he had books and notes stacked up on his desk. She set to work at once, scanning through his papers for anything useful. Most of the bookmarked pages and annotations had to do with manipulating the threads of fate, but then another set of notes caught her eye. It was a book she had looked through before, but this time, new pages appeared under her fingers in a whisper of magic as familiar to her as Rumple's voice.

He still trusted her.

Tears blurred her vision as the realization hit her. Despite everything that had happened between them, he had trusted her with his secrets. In case she needed to know. She wiped her eyes with a sleeve and tried to focus on the words. Contingency plans. He had thought out dozens of possible eventualities, and made provision for each. Each, except for the one that had actually occurred?

Fate had never been kind to him. Belle sighed and skimmed through the notes. There. In case he cut too deeply, Rumple had worked out possible methods to restore a life. It should work on him, too, she thought. Belle frowned at the illustration inked in above the words. At first she thought it depicted the Holy Grail, but then realized that it was wider and darker: a black cauldron twelve feet across.

The Cauldron of Rebirth was stolen in the age of myth from the Underworld by a band of heroes, of which only seven returned. Should it be willing, the cauldron heals all wounds, even those of death. What goes in broken emerges whole. Yet while a heart may beat again, that spirit which has flown will not return. Beware the Cauldron-born, for they are savage creatures, soulless and silent and hungry for the flesh of the living.

In the margins, Rumple had scribbled his own addition: Shears to change fate. Poss. rebind soul?  Belle hoped that part wouldn't be necessary. Rumple wasn't actually dead, so his soul must still be connected to his body, no matter its current state. She read on.

Crafted by the gods themselves, the Cauldron cannot be broken by magic, moved by magic, or found by magic. Long and long was the Cauldron guarded in the treasure halls of the Elven King, but that kingdom fell in the breaking of the Mists. It endures in memory now as one of the Three Lost Treasures of Misthaven.

Lost? Maybe not so lost. Belle remembered Rumplestiltskin's collection of rare objects, magical and otherwise. Yet she had never seen anything like the cauldron depicted in the book. Certainly not in the pawn shop or Rumple's house — and he could hardly hide an object of that size in a closet! And if it couldn't be moved by magic, how could the Dark Curse even have brought it to Storybrooke? But he must have marked that page for a reason. She read the description again, then the rest of his notes. To her disappointment, there was nothing else about the Cauldron, no hints as to its location. On her third read-through, another idea came to her.

Dove! How could she have forgotten him? He was Mr Gold's handyman and enforcer. A quiet man, he kept to himself when he wasn't at work, never socializing with anyone else in town. Belle herself had never met him back in the Enchanted Forest; he had never come to the Dark Castle in her time there. All she knew was that Rumplestiltskin never questioned the man's loyalty, trusting him to maintain all of Gold's properties in Storybrooke. If anyone knew where Rumple was keeping a giant cauldron hidden, it would be Dove.

Belle found Rumple's phone in the pocket of the suit jacket he had left hanging on the back of a chair and called Dove. "It's Rumple — Mr Gold. He needs...needs your help. Please, can you come to the house?"

Dove didn't ask questions, neither over the phone nor when he arrived on the doorstep a few minutes later, his massive frame looming over Belle.

She led him into the kitchen and showed him the book. She stabbed a finger on the picture of the cauldron. "That. That's what we need..."

Dove nodded, looking as surprised as she had ever seen him. After a moment, he said in his deep, rumbling voice, "Buried. In the mines. He told me once."

"Where? We have to find it, quickly!"

"Dunno. Sorry." Dove frowned. "Only Mr Gold knows where. Ask him?"

"I can't. He... he can't answer!" Belle fought back tears. "That's why I need the cauldron."

"What happened?" Dove's frown deepened.

Belle hesitated. Rumple trusted Dove, but Dove was no sorcerer. Should she let him get involved? Dove wasn't an enemy, but he wasn't exactly a friend. How much did he care about his employer's fate? She studied his face, wishing she had taken the time to get to know him before, but something about the man had always set her on edge. But that was unfair of her. He had never to her knowledge done anything to merit her unease; in fact, he was guilty of far less than Rumple himself!

He gazed stolidly back at her, waiting for her reply.

Belle took a deep breath, then shook her head. "Come upstairs. I'll show you."

"Ah." That was all of Dove's reaction on seeing the black puddle spread across the floor. He glanced at the bed, then the empty bassinet, then at the spool of gold thread hanging on the bedpost.

"The Black Fairy kidnapped our baby!" Suddenly all the words burst out, and Belle found herself telling Dove everything.

"Yeah. Not good," he said once she had finished. He was silent for a long moment. Then he nodded decisively. "Pour him into the cauldron. Dark One. He'll live."

"But how are we going to find  the cauldron? He's the only who knows where it is!"

"Magic," suggested Dove. He tapped a finger to his skull, then jerked his chin at the black puddle. "Look inside."

"How?" Belle demanded. She stared at Dove, who shrugged back at her. Then she remembered. "The dreamcatcher!" A dreamcatcher could be used to look at or alter memories. She had seen it done, had even had that magic used on her before.

It didn't take her long to find one in the house, but that only left her with another problem: who could cast the spell? She went through her options aloud while Dove listened patiently. "Not Regina. She may claim to be reformed, but I don't trust her. And certainly not the Evil Queen!"

Dove didn't argue.

"Emma? She won't want to help Rumple. Especially now that she's with Hook." Belle thought sadly that Rumple was the grandfather of Emma's son, but now, with everything that had happened, she seemed convinced that Rumple was her enemy. And as for the Blue Fairy, she had always thought the worst of Rumple. "I suppose there's no use going to Blue."

Dove looked glum at the prospect.

"Maybe if I begged her for help?" She had relinquished the Black Fairy's wand to Rumple back when they had a common enemy in Peter Pan. Would the threat of the Black Fairy herself be enough to put them on the same side again? Belle wished she knew. "We need  Rumple."

"Yeah. Need him." Dove stared back at Belle, and she suppressed a shudder. He wasn't trying to be creepy, she told herself. There was just something in the quality of his voice that triggered instinctual fears she was barely aware of. "Not others. Cauldron hidden. Mr Gold had his reasons. Won't want you to tell."

"This is an emergency! And anyway, it's his secrecy that causes half the problems in the first place."

"Dangerous." Dove shook his head. After a moment, he added, "Price. Too heavy."

"'All magic comes with a price.' I know  that. But I have to save my son. And for that I need Rumple's help, no matter the price."

Dove pointed a finger at her. "You pay. You. Cast the spell."

"Me? But I can't..." Belle saw Dove glance at the spool of gold thread. Understanding came in an appalled flash. There was a way she could use magic. "Oh. You mean... you think I should take it on again... No! Not after everything it cost us to remove the Darkness from my soul!"

Dove continued to gaze steadily at her. Belle wondered then just how much the man actually understood about magic. Or the Darkness. How long had he been in Rumple's service? How much had he seen of his master's dealings? His silence gnawed at her resolve.

From the first, Belle had benefited from Rumple's dark magic. It had saved her family and her kingdom from the ogres. It had saved her, more than once. Yet when Rumple was the prisoner, when he needed her help, she had been unable to save him. When he was dying of a darkened heart, she had been helpless. When Hades held a contract over them, she hadn't been able to do anything. And so it had gone, all the way up to the last time Zelena had threatened him — and Belle had finally acted, using dark magic to kill her.

"No. I can't. Not again!" Belle sat down heavily on the edge of the bed.

Dove answered by retrieving the golden shears from where they had fallen under a chair. He handed them to her. "You can. Need you."

She accepted them reluctantly. She could do it, in the sense that she knew how, having read all of Rumple's notes on the subject. It was a far simpler task than removing the Darkness had been. Simpler, and potentially irreversible. If she took the Darkness on again, knowingly, then it would become part of her soul image. In the same way that Rumple's limp could never completely be healed, the Darkness would forever haunt her fate. He would never be rid of it either, she realized.

If you want me to be a different man? I'm sorry. This is who I am.  He had said that to her when they had met in the Underworld, but back then, she had hoped that he would reject the Darkness for her sake. It was only now that she understood what he had meant. It was the man he had become. Whether he acted for good or for evil, it was a dark path that he had chosen, and that choice would forever define him.

To protect his family — that had been the reason Rumple became the Dark One in the first place. And now when their child needed that protection, needed magic to save him, was it fair of her to push all of the darkness onto Rumple, just so that she could think of herself as a hero? She could hardly condemn him for wanting power, when she needed to use his power to rescue Gideon.

"But is it the right thing to do?" Belle's fingers tightened, keeping the blades of the golden shears closed. She could feel the power locked inside the metal, accessible to even a non-magical mortal.

Dove met her eyes, then glanced at what remained of Rumple on the floor, then back at her. He said nothing. Needed to say nothing.

"Yeah, that's what I thought." Belle shut her eyes. Could she really do this? Did she need to do this?

Yes. She could.

It wasn't difficult, technically. Rumple's spellwork was impeccable. All Belle had to do was to wind the end of his enchanted gold thread around the shears, then retie it to her own fate, and it was done.

Darkness flowed back into her blood, settled into her bones. Magic sharpened her senses. When she opened her eyes again and looked at the black ooze, she saw how magic had ravaged her husband's structure, had taken him apart particle by particle until nothing of his form was left. She sensed the emptiness where his thoughts had gone silent. Wanting nothing, reacting to nothing, he couldn't activate his magic because magic required motivation, and in his current state, he had none. Left on his own, it might take weeks or months before enough of his identity reconstructed itself for him to wake up.

What he lacks can be borrowed from another, hissed the darkness that once again shadowed her thoughts. The idea unfolded in her mind. Simple. Quick. More reliable than a cauldron that chose its own miracles. Belle could rebuild Rumple by using a living scaffold, something close enough to his shape to jump start the process. She could use Dove. The Darkness would sear his soul image and leave him crippled, perhaps dead, but she knew it would work.

It would work, and she could do it now.

Belle lifted her gaze to Dove. He probably didn't deserve this, but they all had to make sacrifices, didn't they? She had to save her son, and out of the three of them, it was the two with magic that were needed the most. "I'm sorry."

Dove frowned, but didn't say anything. Belle reached out with the darkness, grasping for Dove's soul image. It slipped free, eluding her magic. She tried again. Again she failed. Then she looked at him again, and a shock of recognition sent her reeling back with her heart pounding in terror. Dove was no human man. And her magic had failed because —

"You're an ogre!"

Chapter Text

Dove was an ogre.

Seized by instinctive terror, Belle flung up a hand, invoking dark magic to push him away from her as fast as possible.

He didn't move. Only a slight crease on his forehead betrayed his concern. "You all right, ma'am?"

Belle laughed hysterically. Her gaze flickered around the room, never quite letting Dove out of her sight as she sought out any possible weapon. The Shears of Fate. She scrambled to pick up the golden shears from where she had dropped them and held them up like a shield. "You're an ogre!"

He nodded.

"How can that be right? What's an ogre doing in Storybrooke?"

"Work for Mr Gold. You know that."

She stared at him in disbelief. She did know that. And yet. An ogre. Ogres had killed her mother. They had nearly destroyed her homeland, and Belle had sacrificed her own future to the Dark One to save her people from them. Fear flooded through her again. Her fingers tightened on the shears. Now. Do it now. Plunge the blades into his heart. Darkness twined through her thoughts. She could feel it already, magic wrapping around her hands, strength enough to shatter bone.

Ogres killed your mother. A memory flashed through her mind, a memory of a library, a memory of crouching under a table with her mother. Then only a blank — and the next she saw of her mother was a closed coffin at the funeral. She felt again the terror of that day. The helplessness. The hate. Today, finally, she had the power to strike back.

Dove watched her, his expression unreadable. He made no move to flee or to defend himself.

He knows his guilt, hissed the darkness. Did he? The thought froze Belle in her tracks. Was he guilty at all? Until she knew — knew if he was one of the ones who had attacked her kingdom — she couldn't... Her hand shook with the effort to hold it back, and she said through gritted teeth, "Why aren't you fighting back!"

"Said already. Work for Mr Gold."

Belle gaped, the meaning of the words sliding out of her grasp. She forced herself to think through the voices urging her to protect herself, to strike first to be sure of victory. What did Dove mean? Why did he work for Rumple, and why did that matter now? What did it have to do with her?

She struggled to make the connection in her mind. She knew, she knew, she was missing something, some thought which would make everything make sense again. She forced herself to concentrate. In her confusion, her fears ebbed away, forgotten. And then it was as if a fog had lifted. Belle gasped, dropping the shears and clutching the corner of the dresser for support as she realized how much the Darkness had distorted her judgement.

This time, having taken it on consciously, it had affected her even more strongly than before. Darkness urged her to selfishness. It weighed the interests of whatever she valued against everything else, and found everything else expendable. Darkness narrowed her view, constricting the circle of her caring to herself and others only as they were extensions of herself. Any risk, however small, was intolerable.

Knowing this, she hoped that she could compensate for its malign influence. She just had to remember, and to think, about what was right. Her raw impulses could no longer be trusted. But if her own feelings could be wrong, that meant that her soul had been compromised. Belle winced. Was this the same doubt that had fed into Rumple's self-loathing for so many centuries? No wonder he hated himself, if what he wanted  was shrouded in so much darkness. No. She had to have faith that somewhere beneath darkness lay a deeper truth, some shred of good that persisted in their hearts.

You can do this, she told herself. If she had lost a piece of herself, so be it. That was the price of magic, of power. It didn't matter, as long as she could use it to save her son. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then looked over at Dove. Patient and unmovable as a mountain, Dove waited for her to recover her wits. She forced herself to focus on his face, to see Dove and not a nightmare from her past. He was a person. She had to remember that. If she knew his story, she would be able to move past her fear. You don't have time for this! screamed the darkness from the back of her mind. But she needed Dove's help. So, her voice trembling, she asked him.

"Wolf war," Dove told her. The story came out haltingly, as he explained in his terse, awkward way, the words pulled out one at a time. Many, many years ago, a border dispute had escalated into full-blown war between the humans and the ogres. The balance had tipped when the human king had called down a monstrous curse:two demonic wolves that no weapons could hurt, wolves that scattered the ogres, tore apart their villages, and hunted down the strays. They had been unstoppable. In desperation, the ogres had called upon the Dark One. Dove had been chosen to pay the price.

"'Forever'," breathed Belle, remembering her own bargain with Rumplestiltskin. "You had to go with him, forever?"

Dove nodded.

"And he stopped the war?"

Dove nodded again.

"What happened to the wolves?"

"He knew their names. Freki. Geri. Sent them away. On two legs, to live among the humans."

"Oh!" Recognition sparked in Belle's mind. "Wolves. Like Granny and Ruby Lucas."

"Half-bloods," Dove said. "Moon-bound. Weaker."

She looked at him again. That war must have been a century ago. How long did ogres live? Longer than wolves, apparently. For all their history of conflict, the humans of the Enchanted Forest knew little of their enemies. And for Rumplestiltskin of all people to help them — hadn't he lost as much as she had to the ogres? Belle shook her head, dismissing the question as irrelevant. Time enough to ask him after she got him back. And knowing now that she couldn't burn away Dove's life for Rumple just because the darkness demanded certainty, she steadied her thoughts and picked up the dreamcatcher. "Right. It's the Cauldron we need. I hope he remembers where it's hidden."

Memory extraction — the spell came together in her mind from the bits and pieces she had seen and read, guided by the whispering darkness in her soul. Belle swept the dreamcatcher through the air just above the black puddle that her husband had become. "Show me the Cauldron of Rebirth..." The center of the dreamcatcher misted over, a scene coalescing from a blur of sounds and images...

You're safe, Bae. Do you feel safe, son?

His son didn't feel safe. That much was obvious. He looked terrified. Rumplestiltskin's newfound confidence as the Dark One dimmed when he saw his own child shrink away from him in fear.

Was it the sight of the corpses strewn in their front yard? With a wave of his hand, the Dark One reduced the bodies to dust. If anything, Baelfire looked even more scared. With an inward sigh, Rumplestiltskin searched for some way to reassure his son. Then he remembered. He took Bae by the arm, pretending not to notice his son's terror, and led him inside their house. "Wait here, Bae."

"Where are you going?"

"I will end this war, son. I'm bringing them home, all the children. Just as I promised." He left Bae huddled on the bed and turned. Zoso, the former Dark One, stood in the doorway, his hood drawn up and his face in shadow, but Rumplestiltskin could sense his disapproval. He's not real, Rumplestiltskin reminded himself. A ghost. A memory conjured by the Darkness.

Zoso shook his head. "This is a fool's errand."

Rumplestiltskin walked through him.

"Papa! Don't go."

That stopped him. He turned, trying to smile. "It won't take long. I'll be back, Bae. Stay in the house, and you'll be safe." He had magic, now. A wave of his hand called up darkness to protect his home. Until he returned, no one would be getting in.


The sound was muffled behind the protection spell. He blinked away. He would prove himself to his son, and Bae would never have to be afraid again.

Magic took him to the forest near the battlefield. Or what used to be the forest: large swathes had been cut bare, leaving only stumps and sawdust. The air reeked of smoke and blood, of rotting meat and excrement. His senses were sharper than they had ever been, yet he no longer abhorred the stench of decay. The Darkness that filled him savored the taste of death. From now on, he would be the hunter and not the prey. Magic was power. Power was life. For the first time in years, he dared to dream of a future with his son, to think of more than simply surviving another day. Once he was done here, he would have everything he had ever wanted.

He walked to the edge of the forest and surveyed the situation. The Duke's army was dug in with its back to the river at Haseford. This was miles deeper into the Frontlands than the ogres had penetrated since Rumplestiltskin's stint in the army, almost fifteen years ago. This war had to end, or there would be nothing left of his homeland.

"It won't be that easy." Zoso stood beside him, watching the battlefield with him. "Ogres have bred themselves to resist magic."

"I have the dagger." Rumplestiltskin fingered the serpentine blade, its power thrumming under his touch. "That's enough."

"You may push them back for a day, a week, or a month, but it's not enough. I killed plenty of ogres in my time. But they always come back."

"What?" Rumplestiltskin was shocked into finally giving Zoso his full attention. "How?"

Zoso told him about the Cauldron of Rebirth. The ogres possessed it, using it to create an endless undying horde that no mortal army could stand against.

"Why didn't the Duke order you to capture it for him?" Rumplestiltskin asked, but he saw the answer before Zoso could reply. "The Duke doesn't know. You never told him!"

"It didn't serve my best interest."

"You wanted to die." Rumplestiltskin thought about how the former Dark One had manipulated a desperate crippled spinner into arson, theft, and murder — succeeding only because the Duke's resources were so strained that his castle had been left practically empty. If Zoso had ended the war too soon, he might still be a slave. Besides, he had wanted the Duke to suffer for his temerity in daring to command the Dark One, and never mind everyone else that suffered, too. Fury filled Rumplestiltskin at Zoso's heartlessness, and he spat at the ghost, "You don't have any interests now, sunshine. Now tell me what I need to know..."

The cauldron was hidden by mist — the same magical mist, Zoso told him, that had once protected Misthaven before it became splintered into the multitude of human kingdoms of the Enchanted Forest. The Frontlands was at the border of those kingdoms, abutting the mountainous territory occupied by the ogres.

A spell took him to the source of the mist: a gaunt, starved creature chained inside an iron cage. Scarred and mutilated, it gripped the bars of the cage, staring at Rumplestiltskin in a mute plea. Chains dragged from its ankles, rattling softly when it moved, but no sound came out of its mouth — it exhaled a haze of befuddlement with each breath. Only Zoso's guidance enabled Rumplestiltskin to see the prisoner.

"Cages again," he muttered, remembering the Seer once held by the Duke's army. A tormented child, she had begged for his help while frightening him with her prophecies. At least this one didn't speak. "Always cages. What is this magic?"

"Illusion," Zoso told him. "Glamour. The cauldron is here, but you won't be able to find it unless he permits it."

"Why is he in a cage? All this magic. Can't he escape?"

"He's an elf. Iron binds him to this place," Zoso said with a malicious smirk. He flickered out of existence, then reappeared inside the cage behind the prisoner, a ghostly hand indicating the chains running to a ring fixed to the floor.

"An elf? I thought... they say elves are extinct." Rumplestiltskin studied the prisoner more closely. It could have been human, except for the sparks of magic that infused its aura. He moved up to the cage and reached through the bars, grabbing the creature by the collar and pulling him close. "You're an elf? Where is the cauldron? Show me!"

The elf glared back at him, panting. Magic washed over Rumplestiltskin, a wave of confusion that nearly made him forget why he was there.

He shook off the spell, blinking the fog away. Then his hand twisted, his grip tightening. "How about a little deal? Show me the cauldron and I'll get you out of this cage."

"There's only one way out for this one." Zoso's eyes glittered as he explained, "He's one of the walking dead — one of the cauldron-born."

"In that case..." Rumplestiltskin brought up his dagger with his other hand and thrust it between the bars of the cage, slipping it easily under the prisoner's ribs and straight into the heart. The spell ended with the elf's death. Mist dissipated, revealing... enormous black cauldron, standing on three massive iron legs. Half a dozen ogres attended it, keeping the fire underneath fed and stirring the contents with a wooden spoon the size of a young tree. Firewood was stacked on one side, dead ogres on the other. As Rumplestiltskin watched, a long gray limb emerged from the cauldron, gripping the lip and pulling itself up. Another hand joined the first, and then a corpse-pale ogre climbed out. Its skin glistened with traces of magical broth.

Rumplestiltskin gasped. Seven pairs of eyes turned towards him at the sound, and he realized that just as he could see them now, they could see him.

Or perhaps not. While two remained by the cauldron, the others shuffled towards him, their gazes unfocused as they sniffed the air, heads cocked as they listened.

"Do you know why ogres have such bad vision?" Zoso said conversationally. "It's because they've blinded themselves rather than be fooled by elven glamours."

The ogres growled and grumbled to each other, fanning out as they approached. They were talking. Ogres could talk? The soldiers had told Rumplestiltskin and the other conscripts that ogres were mute beasts, cunning and savage, but barely more than animals. He stared at them in appalled fascination, having never seen them so close before. They were even bigger than he had imagined. And the Duke sent children  to fight them? One hit with an ogre's club would have turned Bae to paste!

"Of course they can talk. It's just that their voices are below the range of human hearing — it frightens people even when they don't know why. But as a Dark One, your senses extend a bit farther." Zoso paused for a moment, then added, "If you don't want to be an ex-Dark One, I suggest you get out of their way. Now would be good."

Rumplestiltskin shook himself out of his daze, using a whisper of magic to transport himself behind one of the ogres left guarding the cauldron. Kill them. They all have to die, or Bae will never be safe. Anger and blood lust filled him, and he buried his dagger in the ogre. Darkness gave him inhuman strength and stamina to strike over and over, pulling his opponent to the ground. One fell, and then the other. At the sound of their death cries, the other ogres raced back.

At five against one, it was a close thing, even with dark magic. When it was over, the weight of the bodies crushing him was nearly suffocating. He crawled out, all his limbs shaking from the effort and the memory of having the dagger knocked out of his hand. He had barely snatched it off the ground in time. Shutting his eyes, trying to banish the thought, he said hoarsely, "Is that how you lost the dagger?"

"Me? I wasn't stupid enough get into a brawl with five ogres at once," Zoso scoffed. "One slip in your defenses and they would have torn off your whole damned arm, never mind holding onto the dagger then!"

Rumplestiltskin shuddered. He pushed himself into a sitting position and stared at the blood-stained blade that now held his name. "Yet the Duke got it off you somehow."

"Not him. It was a gods-cursed elf," said Zoso. "Worse than ogres, elves."

"No one's ever seen any elves, not for centuries."

"Not that they know about, you mean. But no, it's true that they mostly stay under the Hollow Hills," said Zoso, seating his ghostly form next to Rumplestiltskin. "Except when they come out to meddle. How do you think this war started?"

Rumplestiltskin frowned, shrugged. "The ogres attacked the Frontlands."

"And why did they do that?" Zoso answered his own question, "Because some bastard fey-spawn told the ogres that the Duke controlled the Dark One, so they'd better get the magic dagger away from the Duke first."

"The dagger... that the elf gave to him?" Rumplestiltskin pieced it together slowly. "And that the Duke used... to make you fight the ogres?"

"And the more success I had, the more threatened they felt, and the harder they fought," said Zoso.

"For fifteen years?" Rumplestiltskin leaped to his feet, fueled by new outrage. "Oh, this has to end. Now."

He turned all his fury on the cauldron, but it was as Zoso had said: it was immune to his magic. Even with his enhanced strength, he only managed to tip it over, smothering the fire in a rush of bubbling broth. He cursed and beat at the sides with his fists, bruising himself but not even denting the iron.

"Stop it," Zoso said in his ear. "You're out of time."

Rumplestiltskin leaped back with a snarl, slashing his dagger futilely at the ghost. Then he looked past Zoso and his breath caught as fear choked him. Ogres. Even more than last time, all of them headed towards the toppled cauldron, with Rumplestiltskin trapped in between. He wanted badly to run, to flicker out of existence and be simply elsewhere.

No. He swallowed his fear and forced himself to stand his ground. He had to do something about the cauldron. Even if he couldn't destroy it by magic — he summoned darkness and sent himself inside  the cauldron. He knelt on the curved metal surface; it was so heavy that it didn't even wobble under his weight. He wrapped both hands around the hilt of his dagger and stabbed it into the cauldron, yelling wordlessly as he forced all his power into the point.


Time froze. Rumplestiltskin found himself adrift in darkness. Words and meaning passed through him in soundless voices.

So it's you, said one.

Only in part, said the other. The rest of me still sleeps in a bed of stone.

You've changed. You let them do this to you...

I put myself in their hands. So did you, yet you remain as you were. Will you not go home? You are missed.

Not until HE is gone.

And when will that be? He is immortal.

I can wait. Enough of that. What of you? Did you find the ones you sought? The instruments of your purpose?

I thought I had. I was wrong.

This one, then? How frightened he is, this desperate soul you've found.

We shall see. He's come to put a stop to your miracles.

He can try. It doesn't matter what form you've taken — you have no power over me, little brother.

I know.

Time restarted with a jolt of lightning that ran up Rumplestiltskin's arm right through his bones. He stumbled backwards with a grunt of pain, shaking his head to clear it of the alien voices. His scattered thoughts came back together, converging into a plan of action. He laid his palm flat on the side of the cauldron, reaching through it to the ground beneath. Even if he couldn't affect the cauldron itself, he could still take it away from the ogres.

Dark magic struck the earth with enough force to crack it open. The cauldron tipped, then plunged downwards. Rumplestiltskin gritted his teeth and sent magic down, down, and further down, burrowing deep into the bedrock. The sudden crevasse shook closed above them, debris falling onto the cauldron in a thunderous din. He diverted just enough power to shield himself while the cauldron tumbled into the passage he had opened. If magic couldn't move it, gravity could.

They came to a stop at last, the magic ebbing away through Rumplestiltskin's fingers. Buried under a mile of rock, he imagined he could feel the weight pressing down on them. The air was stale and thick with dust, irritating his lungs and making his eyes water.

"Don't breathe," Zoso advised. He stuck out a ghostly hand into the surrounding rocks. "In fact, there's not much point to staying here, unless you enjoy small confined spaces."

Rumplestiltskin shuddered violently. No. "I still have to stop the war."

"Do you have a plan? Or are you just going to stand on the battlefield and shout?"

By that point, he was exhausted and deranged enough to do exactly that. The transport spell took him to the surface, where the ogres, shocked by the loss of their secret weapon, had come out with an all-out assault on the Duke's forces. Rumplestiltskin materialized in a billowing cloud of darkness and a shout backed by enough magic to set the ground to shaking, hard enough to knock even the ogres off their feet. "STOP!"

Stunned by surprise, both sides retreated to regroup and assess this new threat. Rumplestiltskin didn't give them any more time to think. His magic worked well enough on humans, so he collected the Duke and his war council and transported them to the hillside where the ogre leader was camped.

"The war is over," he told them. Then he reached out for Zoso. The former Dark One sank into his skin, letting Rumplestiltskin borrow his fluency with the ogre language. He repeated his words to the ogres, his voice sounding strange in his ears.

Humans and ogres glared at him in disbelief. The Duke seemed shocked at his Dark One's sudden rebellious turn.

A knife through the heart cured him of his skepticism.

After Rumplestiltskin had done the same to the ogre leader, everyone else was suddenly eager to negotiate a truce.

Hours later, he was weary but triumphant. The children of the Frontlands were going home. Imagining Bae's joyful appreciation was about all that kept him on his feet. He had won this time, but the narrowness of his victory had shaken him. There would be other battles, with enemies more subtle, more dangerous than ogres and dukes. He would never be safe, and his son would never be safe, unless he had more power.

More power than anyone.

"Damn it, Rumple... nothing ever changes, does it?" Belle sighed at the dream-catcher as the images faded. She shook her head. This was not the memory she needed. She tried again, summoning more recent recollections. "Show me where the cauldron is now, not where it used to be."

She scooped up more memories and watched as another scene unfolded inside the circular frame...

A voice called him inside his mind: a warning, or an omen. He followed it underground, into a section of the mines sealed away by a rockfall. The Cauldron of Rebirth had made its own space, carving a hollow out of the tunnels to squat there in the darkness like a giant three-legged spider, although in this realm, it was only about half the size it had been when he had first encountered it.

"So. You followed us here." Rumplestiltskin approached it warily, knowing that the Dark Curse couldn't have moved an artifact of such power unless it had chosen to move. It had remained in the Enchanted Forest before, but something had changed this time around. "Was it because Excalibur was awake?"

When it didn't answer, he closed his eyes and let his cheek rest against the rough iron of the cauldron, the chill seeping into his skin. He drew the dagger from his jacket and touched its tip to the side. This time, the response slipped soundlessly into his head.

His time is coming.

"Whose time?"

You travel to the Underworld. A dangerous proposition.

"I have my reasons," he said, and he didn't mean Emma Swan's blackmail attempt. His son might be there. He had to know...had to be sure that Bae's soul had found peace at last.

And I have mine,  whispered the cauldron. Excalibur, is it? That name comes with a price.

This isn't Camelot, and that isn't my name now. The dagger had its own voice, purified now that Rumplestiltskin had filtered out the imprints of the previous Dark Ones when he had taken the Darkness back. I doubt we'll be able to kill Hades for you.

I don't ask it of you.

Then why did you summon us?

Curiosity. This soul you've bound yourself to again. It's been a long time.

He's endured longer than all the others.

"What does it matter?" Rumplestiltskin asked tiredly. "What's done is done."

Indeed, said the cauldron.

"Don't start anything, or you'll be swimming in magma."

I'll be sure to await your return, then. Take care, little brother.

"What touching concern," said Rumplestiltskin, troubled by the cauldron's presence in this realm, but it was a lesser concern than the journey looming ahead of him. Time enough to worry about the cauldron later...

"That's it. Right there." Belle reached through the memory to pinpoint the location, a form of divination that would allow her to magically transport herself there. As for Rumple, she would need some kind of container to carry him in.

Dove found an empty plastic trash can in the garage and helped mop up the black goo into it.

"Sorry, Rumple." Belle tried not to think about the unfortunate symbolism. She clutched the can by the handles and tested its weight. She could carry it. Barely.

Tick tock, time's running out...

She tapped on the fear that ran underneath all her thoughts, the fear that she might be too late to save her son, and rode that wave of panic deep into the mines where the cauldron was hidden. She poured the remains of her husband into the cauldron into a "broth" made from the water of the wishing well, as Rumple's notes had suggested.

It has the power to return that which one has lost, he had once told her.

The cauldron hissed and sparked with magical energy. Then, like the beginning of a zombie apocalypse, the haggard form of her husband surfaced, hands clawing over the rim. He hauled himself up, then threw himself over the side.

Belle rushed to catch him, but his weight sent both of them tumbling to the ground. "Rumple!"

He opened his eyes and stared blankly at her, with no recognition in his face. His clothes, soaked through, clung heavily to him, water running off in little rivulets as he twisted in her grasp. If this sharply-tailored suit was what he imagined himself wearing, that was all he seemed to remember of himself.

"Rumple, please." She gripped him more tightly, willing him to wake up. And then he did. Belle knew the moment when his memories returned by the sudden tension in his body and the devastated look of guilt that contorted his face before he could hide it.

"Belle," he gasped. "Belle, I'm so sorry. I...I failed..."

"Rumple, she took our baby!" All the fear and anxiety she had been holding at bay came crashing back into her consciousness, and Belle crumpled, sobbing, into her husband's embrace.

"I know," he said softly, into her hair. He held her close, offering what comfort he could. "We'll get him back."

Chapter Text

As the night wore on, the remaining Storybrooke heroes (except for Henry, who was now considered old enough to be designated as his baby uncle's caretaker during times of crisis) found their way to the Evil Queen's vault under the cemetary, where Regina had all her magical supplies stored. She worked on a divination spell while Captain Hook, David Nolan, and Princess Jasmine lounged around the confined space in varying states of impatience.

Hook watched in amusement as David hovered behind Regina, an earnest but clueless expression on his face. The sheriff wasn't any more of a sorcerer than he was, so why pretend to understand magic? He was only going to end up irritating the woman, who still had a temper despite renouncing her Evil Queen half.

At David's latest query, Regina snapped, "This spell traces genie magic. That will lead us to the lamp." She put the finishing touches on her potion, then lifted it up to the light and peered critically at it.

"I hope this works," said Jasmine. "I hate to think what that woman is doing to Aladdin."

Regina snorted. She laid out a small mirror and let the potion drip onto the reflective surface. After a few moments of staring into it, she looked up at the others. "It's in Gold's shop."

"Right. Let's go." David had armed himself with a sword, arguing that it would be more visually threatening than a gun to a foe who might be unfamiliar with the Land Without Magic; he now pulled it from the scabbard and brandished it menacingly.

Regina waved a hand, surrounding them with a cloud of smoke which dropped them into the even tighter quarters of the cluttered pawn shop. The sign on the door was turned to "CLOSED", but that had never stopped anyone. The lights were on and the woman from the diner, the same one who had stolen the genie lamp and banished Emma, was there behind the counter, a wand in her right hand and a cloud of gold billowing from her left hand. Sitting on the counter was the genie lamp and a baby in a wicker basket.

A baby? That was new, thought Hook. And an old-fashioned basket rather than the oversized carriers most people used in Storybrooke. Huh. Well, that made things easier. Even as David lunged forward with the sword, Hook snatched the basket. But before he could pull it away, the woman waved her wand and a bolt of purple lightning struck out at Hook, sending him crashing backwards into a cabinet, where he lay stunned, thoughts scattered and pain shooting through all his limbs.

David fared no better, magic freezing him in place where he stood.

However, strength of numbers told in the end: Regina cast a fireball at the stranger, forcing her to defend herself, and in that moment of distraction, Jasmine darted in and grabbed the lamp before fleeing through the curtained doorway that led to the back room of the pawn shop.

The woman snarled, "I don't have time for this nonsense." She stabbed her wand at Regina, sending out a blinding flare of gold-hued magic.

Hook threw up an arm to shield his face. He blinked as the light faded, and by the time he could see again, the stranger had taken the infant and gone. "Where did she go?"

"How the hell would I know?" Regina gestured at David, releasing him from his paralysis. Then she glanced past the sheriff and her eyes widened. "Maybe ask him."

Aladdin had just pushed his way through the curtain, Jasmine at his side with the lamp. He looked dazed, rubbing at his face in confusion, while Jasmine frowned at him with a worried expression. "Ask me what?"

"Who was that woman? What does she want in Storybrooke? What did she make you do?" David shot the questions one after the other at the genie.

"I...I don't know." Aladdin shook his head, looking more dazed than ever. "I can't remember."

Regina sighed. "A memory spell. I should have known."

"Yeah, I guess." Aladdin looked sheepish. "Sorry."

"Never mind," David cut in. "It's not your fault. We should be used to this by now. We'll work it out. The important thing is to get Emma back safely."

"Our new friend wished her away," said Hook. "Remember that bit, mate?"

"I... No. Last thing I remember is sitting in Granny's Diner with Jasmine." Aladdin glanced at the princess, and she nodded.

"And then that woman suddenly appeared, and stole the lamp, and when Emma tried to stop her, forced you to send her away," Jasmine explained.

"Right. So you want to find Emma, all three of you?"

"Yes," said David and Hook in unison. Hook scrambled to his feet and prepared himself for another jolt of magical transportation.

"No." Regina's voice overruled them both. "It'll probably take magic to get Emma back. So unless you two have secretly been studying wizardry at night school, that means me."

"I'm coming with you," insisted David. "She's my daughter."

"David, you need to stay put." Regina's expression was even more unyielding. "You have another child to protect, not to mention Snow. My other half may be busy with Robin's baby, but if she sees an advantage to take..."

David grimaced, but conceded the point. "All right."

Before Hook could voice his own objection, Regina continued her argument. "And if this stranger means harm to Storybrooke — she already stole the genie lamp and a wand, possibly a baby: not a good start — then your only hope of finding out her plans is him." She turned to glare at Hook, stabbing a finger towards his chest.

"Me?" Hook was baffled but flattered. Obviously, he had the advantage of experience and wisdom over the good-hearted but rather naive David, but he hadn't expected Regina to acknowledge that.

"Yes, pirate, it's time to use your powers of treachery for good."

Hook scowled. So much for being appreciated.

"What, have you forgotten already? Because I haven't." Regina gave him a nasty smirk. "If you can worm your way into the good graces of my mother, then turn around and work for evil Mulder and Scully, I'm sure you'll have no problem dazzling our latest Big Bad with your roguish charm."

Bitch, he didn't say. Instead, he bit his tongue and agreed through his teeth. "Fine."

Regina took the lamp from Jasmine, holding it just long enough to establish possession before setting it down on the counter. She nodded to Aladdin, taking a breath before making her wish to be sent to the same place as Emma Swan.

"Your wish is my command." Aladdin smiled and stretched out his hand, and Regina vanished in a puff of sand-colored smoke.

David stared blankly at the spot where she had vanished.

Jasmine picked up the lamp. "Don't worry. Regina won't let Emma down; she'll bring her back in one piece."

"I hope so," said David. He sighed, shaking his head and re-sheathing his sword. "What about you two?"

"We need to find Agrabah before anyone else gets their hands on the lamp," said Jasmine.

"You're going to use a wish to get there? That might be dangerous," warned David. But the pair were adamant. Soon Hook and David were alone in the pawnshop.

"What now?"

"I'm calling Gold, letting him know someone broke into his shop," said David, already holding the phone to his ear.

Hook snorted. "Why bother? I'll wager this stranger is in league with the Crocodile."

"We have no evidence for that." David frowned as his call went unanswered. He lowered his phone and started typing. "And even if they are working together, no point in letting them know that we know..."

That task completed, David headed back to the sheriff's office. "If someone's missing a baby, they'll probably look there for help..." He glanced over at Hook, the implicit request clear in his expression.

"And with you at the desk, that leaves me to investigate the stranger." This was proving to be a long night, thought Hook, and not in the enjoyable sense. Damn Regina for sticking him with the legwork.

"Would you? Thanks, I'd appreciate it." David smiled and disappeared inside the building.

"Yeah, no problem, mate." Definitely a long night. And he was in no hurry to catch up to another bad-tempered magic-wielding woman. No reason he couldn't stop by the Rabbit Hole for a drink first, as part of his inquiries. So he did. An hour or two passed pleasantly enough, with no further news of the sorcerous stranger. With a sigh and a wistful glance at his empty glass, Hook pushed himself away from the bar and headed back out to the street.

As he passed by Granny's Diner, he was startled to find it lit up like a trapped lightning storm. The door opened and two dwarves hurtled outside. One of them (he thought it was the one called Leroy) shouted, "Portal! We've been portal-ed!"

Hook backed away a step to avoid being knocked over as they fled down the street. "Bloody hell."

A few moments later, after the lights had died down, a tall, ominous figure in a hooded robe emerged from the diner and headed down the street, his path taking him past Hook.

Hook looked the new arrival up and down, the haze of alcohol muddling any natural caution he might have in confronting a sorcerer who might well be Emma's prophesied killer. "Who the hell are you?"

The figure stopped, head turning to face him, features still hidden under the hood. "You're... Killian Jones. Captain Hook."

Hook grinned, unsurprised to be recognized — after all, his trademark feature was well-known. "Fame at last!"

"Yes, I know you, you foul serpent."

"Well, that's a bit harsh," began Hook, but before he could marshal his wits, the stranger came a step closer, raising a hand to point at him accusingly.

"You tried to kill my mother!" A flicker of orange spat out from the stranger's fingers.

The world seemed to swirl around Hook, the robed figure taking on gigantic proportions while Hook's legs seemed to collapse under him. He tried to shout out a curse, but it came out as an inhuman hiss. Worse, he found himself trapped inside a metal cage with enchanted bars that burned at his touch. His touch... his hook was gone. His arms were gone. Looking down at himself, he saw only a coiled, scaly length...

The bastard had turned him into a snake!

"Belle... what happened?" Rumple rocked back in horror, his hands sliding down to grip her wrists too tightly. It hadn't taken him long to detect the Darkness coiled around her soul. "Did... did my mother do this to you?"

She flinched, twisting her hands and looking away. "I made my own choice."

"You..." His voice was choked, anguished. "The Darkness..."

"It doesn't matter. We have to save Gideon." Belle pulled away again, and this time Rumple released his grip.

"Oh, Belle." He struggled to stand up, nearly fell over when his ankle gave under his weight. "I failed you again."

She started to move forward to support him, realizing that his old injury had returned with this latest resurrection, but he shook his head and turned instead to lean against the giant cauldron. Belle bit her lip, wishing that things were different between them, but what was gone was gone. "Don't... don't blame yourself. It's not your fault."

"It is." He glanced down at himself, concentrated for a moment, and after a swirl of magic, he stood up straighter, his clothing once more crisp and dry. Only his demeanor was as defeated as ever. "It seems the price of my sins isn't so easy to evade, shears or no shears. I incurred that debt when I repaid mercy with evil — the healer, I murdered him, that's how Hades acquired the contract — but the fates are cruel to force you and Gideon to pay for my  villainy. If only I had been stronger — if I had stopped, that night when we were together.."

Belle closed the distance between them, stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. She met his startled, guilty gaze. "No. Don't you dare wish our son out of existence! Besides, I was equally to blame. I wanted you so badly, I didn't stop to think... to ask..."


"It's funny, isn't it, that I get angry at you for assuming that you'll lose me, yet I always assume that you'll take me back, no matter how many times I leave." She let go and half-turned, stepping away, unable to face him as she continued her confession. "I told myself that it was my choice not to return, and that was the only thing that mattered. But then, as you said on the Jolly Roger, necessity would make me come to you..."

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him watching her. He lifted a hand, then dropped it again, as if afraid to approach her. "Belle, I'm sorry. I was angry, too."

Beginning to feel chilled, Belle paced back and forth in the dim tunnel, rubbing her hands for warmth. "No, I do need your help, but it's time I stopped hiding behind your dark magic and then hating you when I can't accept it. Dove was right, what he said."

"Dove?" Rumple lifted his head sharply. "What did he say?"

"Only the truth." Belle stopped pacing to look at him. "Don't be upset."

"I know how 'truth' can be used to manipulate people!"

"Don't." She touched his arm, not wanting this distraction now. "He was helping me. Really helping... not like Zelena. Please. Anyway, that's not important now."

Rumple lowered his head and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "You're right." He closed his eyes and laid his palm against the side of the Cauldron of Rebirth. Some troubling thought seemed to pass between them, just beyond the range of Belle's hearing.

"What is it?"

"Nothing. There's a price for my restoration. I'll deal with it later."

Belle looked at him in alarm, but he shook his head and with a wave of his hand, transported them both back to his house. Dove was still there. He met their arrival with his usual imperturbability, even when Rumple gave him a narrow-eyed glare. Belle braced herself to intervene, but all Rumple said was, "Things are moving. You shouldn't be here."

Dove nodded, raising an eyebrow in query.

"Go to the cabin. Keep an eye on the Evil Queen and her baby niece."

Dove nodded again and left without another word. Nor did Rumple comment. He merely picked up the golden shears and stowed them away in some extradimensional pocket inside his suit. He did the same with his phone, after checking the messages. "Ah, Sheriff Nolan. How thoughtful of you."

"What did he say?" Belle asked.

"Nothing I didn't already know. She was at the pawn shop."

Belle didn't need to ask who 'she' was. And even though they teleported themselves there in an instant, she was already long gone. Tiny wisps of gold thread covered everything like a layer of magical dust. Belle swiped a finger across a shelf and examined the residue. The Black Fairy had managed to break Rumple's tracking cuff, and far sooner than they had hoped.

"She took her wand. She must have used the genie to break through my wards. Damn it!" His cane suddenly in his hand again, Rumple swept it across a counter, sending fragile objects crashing violently into the far wall. "We're too late."

"Rumple! Don't say that. We'll...we'll find her." Belle forced herself to believe that. "Where... where would she have taken him?"

Rumple didn't answer at first. Breathing heavily, he dropped the cane and rested his hands on the edge of the counter, his head bowed. Then he spoke softly of realms of dark magic, where time ran differently and nothing made sense.

"There must be something we can do." Even if that meant diving headfirst into the dark realms.

"There is still one hope. I...I set a fail-safe." Rumple avoided her gaze, in that way he had when he had done something he knew she wouldn't approve of. "A last resort."

"What fail-safe?" Belle deliberately moved closer, not letting him slither out of the truth this time. "Tell me."

He sighed and held his hand up to the lamp. "Look."

Belle frowned, not seeing anything of note in his hand. Then she looked past his fingers and saw what was missing. "Your shadow!"

"Aye, my shadow. I set it to guard our son. Just in case."

Belle remembered that he had cut off his own shadow once before, when he had gone to Neverland to face Peter Pan. Most people who had their shadows torn away died of that loss, but not Rumplestiltskin. It was a strange gift, not something intrinsic to the Dark One, nor any spell she had ever read about, but rather something that had passed down through Rumple's maternal line. Or so she surmised, from the few hints he had dropped later. Dark fairy magic. Nothing he took any pride in. "Then we still have a chance."

"My shadow shares my name and my nature, but not my full powers." Rumple grimaced. "I'm afraid it's no match for the Black Fairy."

"Then...?" She tried to think what it would do. If Rumple's shadow shared his intelligence and even some of his powers, it would still be a force to be reckoned with.

Whatever Rumple meant to say was cut short by the tinkle of bells as the front door was pushed open. A tall figure in a hooded robe stepped inside and stopped, dramatically pushing back the hood to reveal his face — a face familiar to Belle from her dreams. His voice, too, was the one she remembered, as he dropped his greeting into their stunned silence. "Hello, Mother. Hello, Father."

Drawn together instinctively, Belle and Rumple turned to gape at their impossibly grown son.

Rumple found his tongue first. "How? How is this possible...?"

Gideon's answer confirmed their worst fears. The Black Fairy had taken him to a place where time moved differently, and raised him to be her instrument, all in the blink of an eye. And now he had broken free, hell bent on fulfilling a mission of his own: to kill the Savior and take her powers. He thought it would make him a hero — he smiled softly at his mother when he explained it. Because he needed light magic to free the other children from the Black Fairy.

Shocked, Belle and Rumple did their best to dissuade him. Rumple stammered something about the difficulty, which Belle thought was entirely beside the point, but her attempt to convince Gideon that murder was wrong and un-heroic fell on deaf ears.

"One life, against the lives of hundreds who are lost, crying in the darkness, without hope," said Gideon. "And who will care for those lost, if not I?"

"There must be another way!" Belle tried again to get through to their son, but to her despair, he seemed as stubbornly pig-headed as his parents had ever been. Then another thought crept into her mind, Your son deserves light magic more than the so-called Savior. When did Emma Swan ever save you? When Rumple was powerless, she sent Merida to kill you. When you were under a sleeping curse, she didn't care. None of them cared. Belle banished the dark thought, but after that, her arguments felt weak even to herself.

"We'll help you, son," said Rumple, and Belle didn't miss him not specifying what they would help Gideon with, but she bit her tongue, hoping that her husband's tricks with words would succeed where her blunt pleas had failed.

No such luck.

"Help! As you helped me for the past twenty-eight years, Father?" Gideon's face twisted in resentment. "You promised to protect me."

"Gideon... I..." Rumple stumbled through an apology, finally running out of words.

"I've seen it in a vision," stated Gideon. "This is my destiny." And then he vanished in a spiral of orange smoke.

"Visions distort the truth; visions lie," whispered Rumple, but he was speaking to empty air. "Oh, son." Then he turned to Belle and they stared at each other wildly. In heavy silence, their disbelief at finding their son suddenly full-grown and homicidal settled slowly into dull acceptance.

"He can't kill Emma," Belle said at last. "We have to find him, talk to him."

"Isn't that what we were just doing?"

"Yes, but we didn't have time to think." Belle refused to give up so easily. "I know there must be good in his heart."

"And that might stay his hand, if  he had his heart."

"What?" Belle jerked backwards in fresh shock. Rumple couldn't mean...

But he was already nodding glumly. "That fail-safe I mentioned. Belle, I did it to protect him."

"Gods, Rumple! Your shadow ripped out our baby's heart?" Every time she thought she knew what he was capable of, he did something like this? "And did what with it?"

His fingers twitched in agitation. Whatever the answer, Belle knew she wouldn't like it.

"It would have run to the one place it knew the Black Fairy wouldn't be able to follow."



Neverland? Belle shut her eyes, appalled. This was getting worse by the minute. "Rumple, how could you do that to him?"

"It was my last resort, to shield him the only way I could from pain and suffering. And... Belle, if an enemy got their hands on his heart... I couldn't risk that." His voice broke, and she could hear the fear that lay underneath, the same fear that had driven every awful deed he had ever done. The terrifying thing was that she was beginning to understand that fear all too well. To lose a child — it was unthinkable. She didn't, she wouldn't think it.

"We have to give him his heart back. We have to stop him... stop him from..."

"From falling deeper into darkness. I know." Rumple touched her arms lightly. "We will. We just have to find him first."

Before he kills Emma Swan. Or she kills him.

Chapter Text

Once upon a time there was an infant...

Sleep weel, my bairnie, sleep.

...who was taken by the Black Fairy...

The lang, lang shadows creep.

...and grew up in a cage...

The fairies play on the munelicht brae...

...a child of darkness and a companion to fear.

An' the stars are on the deep.

In dreams, he tasted freedom. In dreams, he remembered things he had forgotten in his waking hours. Mother. Father. Love. Hope. But dreams changed so easily to nightmares where shadows crowded around him, filling his heart with the cries of lost children. At first he took their sorrow for his own, but as he grew older and his understanding matured, the tears were burned from his eyes and he could distinguish their voices from his own.

When he was awake, nothing mattered. He knew hunger, or cold, or fear, but none of it touched him, not truly. He took what he needed from his guardian and didn't care that he was a prisoner. For his first few years, his world was a small, dim cell enclosed by bars like jagged teeth, shaped from stone and enchanted with fairy dust.

"Such magic once held your father. It will keep you safe," his guardian told him, "when I cannot be with you."

Later, she took him with her, now and again, showing the boy her realm. It was a tower, or perhaps a labyrinth, or perhaps a forest gloomy with eternal night. Sometimes she taught him the lore of the dark fairies. Sometimes she told him stories that would have frozen him in terror if he had still been capable of terror.

"Heartless child," she called him. "No matter. Your brother may have slipped from my grasp, but Pan is gone and you are mine."

His guardian watched his growth with a gaze full of cold satisfaction that valued his existence but not his happiness. Her smiles were always for her own plans, never for the boy himself. Her eyes held a bitter cruelty when she fed him, bathed him, clothed him, and schooled him. The boy didn't want to look at her, yet it was better than looking at what lay behind her. She wore a cloak of darkness that had swallowed two hundred souls, tormented souls that raged and wept in unbearable anguish. It was better to look at her face and pretend he couldn't hear the other voices trapped beneath her own.

"Why? Why do you hate me so?" He asked the question once he was old enough to put words to the emptiness between them. He asked the question to distract himself from the voices that echoed in the space where his heart should be. He asked out of a curiosity that sought to replace what he lacked with knowledge.

"You are my grandchild. Of course I don't hate you." She led him by the hand back to the cell that he called his.

There he climbed onto his cot and drew up his feet to crouch with his hands over his ears to shut out her lies. Of course they were lies. If she didn't hate him, why was there a lock on the door? Why had she stolen him from his parents? Why did she fill his sleep with nightmares? The contradictions made him dizzy.

She read the accusations in his silence and answered them aloud, "Because your father failed me, and your father's father."

Failed? Failed how?

Weak. That was the sum of her words. Weak, she said, and coward. Liar. Traitor. Selfish. The withering contempt in her voice made the boy shrink back with a twinge of pain, or the memory of pain. "You are not so weak, are you, boy? You have my strength and you will fulfill your destiny."

"Why then did you bear a child with him?" Meaning his grandfather, who was named Malcolm, or perhaps Peter Pan. "If he was so weak?"

"For all that he was a scoundrel, a cheat, and a drunkard, he had one quality rarer than sapphires."

"What quality?"

"As a grown man, he remembered what children by nature forget in their passage to adulthood."

"What did he remember?"


"Neverland? What's that?"

"It is the homeland that was taken away from us," said the Black Fairy. "But that matters not. You and I, we will construct it anew. That is why we are here, in this realm of chaos. Chaos, you see, is the mother of creation."

The boy didn't understand, not then. He had no magic, no power to create anything more than his own questions. He didn't know why his guardian would go to such lengths to create a place feared by so many. And it was feared. In his dreams, the children showed him visions of the nightmare isle, ruled by his grandfather and his Shadow. Their visions were what the Black Fairy would use to shape the raw chaos of the dark realm. Only you can stop her, the children told him, because she needs you.

Did she? Waking, the boy asked his guardian, "Is it true? Do you need my help?"

"Yes. That is your destiny."

"Then what are we waiting for? Let me fulfill it now and be done with it."

That struck a raw nerve. The boy read clearly the black look in her eyes. It was rare to see her so angry, angry out of frustration. "Curse your father. He did more than take your heart. He laid it on you, that you should not take up your full powers until you were eighteen years grown."

And she could not break that geas, thought the boy, though she wished to. Not all-powerful, then. More, the choice was his alone to make.

And he chose not. More precious than magic, this power to defy his guardian's will. Because he was heartless, her persuasion meant nothing to him, not the temptations and not the threats. Only in sleep did he feel the tug of longing towards light, towards love. Hero. Hero. Hero... came the refrain from the half-remembered stories he had once heard when walking his mother's dreams.

The thought wormed its way through his soul, as he sat in silence in his locked cell while the Black Fairy railed at his defiance. In ten years, even a tiny thought may grow to be heard by a heartless man. His father had protected him, perhaps, but a hero didn't need protection; a hero needed to save those who needed his help, no matter the risk. He could sit here until he died, but the children would remain the prisoners of the Black Fairy forever. He couldn't be a coward any longer. He saw the path that he needed to take, glimpses snatched from an uncertain future. The future was always more difficult than the past, but any chance was better than none.

He called for his grandmother.

Pain. Betrayal.

In retrospect, he should have expected it. His grandmother's triumph had left him broken and mutilated, abandoned in his cell to rot. He clung to the Darkness, gathered it in his fingers, and wondered how long he would have even that.

She had not wanted him, after all, not all of him. With one hand, the Black Fairy had given him the spool of gold thread that held the Darkness. He had not seen her other hand until it was too late, and he was caught in her web, unable to move. Then, only then, did she reveal the blade of light that she gripped in her other hand. Its magic burned, shearing away his shadow.

The Black Fairy had stolen his shadow.

Alone in his cell, he tried to see a way out, but the future dissolved into a blinding gray fog wherever he looked. He shifted his fingers and pulled a thread free. It was a snippet of the gold thread his father had used to bind his fate that he had snapped off before his grandmother left him. It shimmered with residual power, and for a moment, his vision cleared. This thread was still bound to the rest of the spool, which lay discarded on the floor outside the cell.


In a sense, the thread in his hand was already outside. He only had to follow the path it traced through the enchantment on the bars. His future snapped back into place, and he was free, and he knew exactly what he had to do. He drew strength from the Darkness, healed his wounds, cleared his thoughts, and focused on his plan. It was simple enough to evade the Black Fairy while she was busy tormenting his shadow, and simple enough to open a door to step into another world.

His parents couldn't stop him, neither with their magic nor with their words.

Gideon, they called him. It was the name he remembered from his dreams, the name that he had not heard spoken aloud in years. That had shaken him, but he refused to let it sway him from his path. Time enough to be Gideon once he had defeated the Black Fairy. It was the fusion of light and dark magic, Savior and Dark One, that could destroy her power. He had seen himself take the enchanted sword from the Savior. Blood blurred his vision after that, but he was confident of the outcome. He had been taught by the Black Fairy, after all, while this Emma Swan was an unbelieving mortal from the Land Without Magic.

...she wasn't here. He sank into the shadows and lurked, watching and waiting. He had transformed her lover into a serpent. Surely she would show her hand to change him back? But it was the old werewolf who found the caged pirate. She recognized his scent despite his transformation and delivered him to a man she called "Sheriff." Neither of them had any power to undo the spell, and nor did the Blue Fairy when they summoned her, being laughably weak in this realm where few believed in magic.

Later, long past midnight and heading towards dawn, the one he had been waiting for finally arrived at the sheriff's office. She was not alone; the mayor was with her — Regina, the Evil Queen — he knew her from his grandmother's stories. He listened as they discussed their situation in some agitation. For them, his grandmother had arrived in town only recently, though more time had passed for the Savior, who had vanished into a wish-made realm until Regina had managed to fetch her back. Eventually they turned to disenchanting the pirate. It didn't take them long to discover that it needed the Savior's magic to break the spell.

He considered interrupting, then thought better of it. Here was his chance to watch her in action. So he watched, gauging the Savior's skills, and came away unimpressed. Though she had plenty of raw power, she barely scraped her way through the counter-spell, needing her friend's guidance every step of the way.


Better to do this outside, where the shadows worked in his favor. He picked his spot on the street, then sent a blast of force to rock the walls of the sheriff's office. All four came running out the door, but only the Savior reached the street. The others he froze in place with the spell he had prepared.

She stared at him in shock, the sword tilted up towards him just as he had seen in his visions, visions he saw reflected in her own eyes. "Who are you?"

"Your death."

"I don't think so!" The Savior lunged forward with the sword, slashing at him.

He parried with his own sword conjured from the darkness. With a few swift motions, he locked his blade on hers, then twisted, a shock of magic loosening her grip on the hilt. In a moment, he had both swords. He dismissed his conjuration and held onto the other, sensing its enchantment through the gloves he wore. He need only bury the blade in her heart, and the sword would channel her power to him.

He was wary at first that she might strike back at him with the light magic he coveted, but then he saw how her hand shook as her self-belief wavered, rendering her power inaccessible. Simple enough, then. He thrust the enchanted sword forward and it pierced through cloth and skin and flesh...

...while the Savior skidded backwards and away and it was Regina who faced him, her bare hands clasped uselessly around the blade, glaring at him in hatred.

He froze for a moment, the hilt slipping from his numb fingers, shocked that she had broken his binding and transported herself between them, though not in time to muster any other protection for her friend besides her own body.

"Regina!" The Savior caught her as she fell. The tremor was gone from her hand and her eyes blazed with fury. A burst of white enveloped the fallen queen. The sword pulled itself free, reversed course, and flew straight at Gideon.

He stumbled backwards, hastily reaching for dark magic to shield himself, but the enchanted metal rode a wave of light magic that burned away his spell to bury itself between his ribs.

Wrong. This was all wrong. The vision... he shook his head, grabbing the hilt and yanking the blade out. His own hand shook and his fingers loosened, the sword falling to the ground. He couldn't... he couldn't stay here. He ran blindly down the street, clutching his side, feeling the magic scorching through his guts.

He barely noticed when the pirate, released from his paralysis, picked up the sword and gave chase. A burst of Darkness, all that he could manage at the moment, sent him a block away, two blocks, three. There he collapsed against a wall. He closed his eyes, the visions once again a confused jumble inside his head. How could they have betrayed him thus? He looked again, into the past, into the future, for a way out, a way through. He could call for his parents, but that would mean the end of his quest. No. He had to find another strand of fate...

There. He forced his eyes open again, willing the magic to keep him moving. Another step, and he made one last leap to a tiny, run-down house two streets away. He battered at the door, focusing all his wishes on the inhabitant of this house. Such was his concentration that when someone pulled the door open, he nearly fell over.

"Who the hell are you?" A woman in a faded green nightgown squinted at him blearily. She held the door with one hand. The other was out of sight; he suspected a weapon. "It's the middle of the fucking night."

"Almost... dawn... actually," he gasped, catching himself on the door frame. He stayed bent over for a moment, waiting for the pain to subside to a dull throb before straightening warily. "Please. I need your help."

The woman looked him over more carefully. "You're bleeding! I'll call—"

"No! No. Don't... they'll kill me." If he wasn't dead already. He thought ruefully that a second-generation Dark One wasn't quite as indestructible as the original, and wondered how much blood he had already lost. He was spending far too much energy keeping himself from falling apart.

The woman hesitated. "And just what do you expect me to do? If you're looking for magical healing, you've come to the wrong person."

He couldn't remember. His thoughts scattered away out of his grasp. Fate had led him here. Why? For some reason, this woman felt like family. A memory tumbled out of his mouth, "You...helped my brother. In Neverland."

The woman stiffened. "Neverland?" In a sudden blur of motion, she had a knife pressed against his neck. "You were a Lost Boy? Who's your brother?"

His head bent back in a futile effort to evade the blade, he gasped, "Baelfire. You were his friend. Baelfire..."

She stared at him over the knife. "Impossible. He had no family except... Who are you?"

He struggled to answer, but everything was going dark around the edges, and he couldn't think anymore. He swayed, losing all sense of up and down.

The woman cursed and stepped back.

He found himself on the floor, staring hazily up at her. Then her attention shifted outwards.

Footsteps. Heavy, quick, approaching the house. A shout.

"Captain Hook." If anything, the woman sounded even less pleased than before. "What do you want?"

"Him." Metal flashed, magic stirred — Hook pointed the enchanted sword at him.

"No, wait..." The woman took a step forward, standing between him and the pirate.

"Out of my way, Tink."

"Or what? You're gonna stab me? I thought you were one of the 'heroes' now, Hook."

"He's trying to kill Emma!"

"He's not in any shape to kill anyone at the moment."

"He has magic."

"So what? That doesn't mean you should — hey!" As the edges of his vision went black, he saw the pirate push forward, only to be pushed back by the woman. A fierce scuffle ensued. He wanted to watch, wanted to help the woman, but the world was fading around him. The last thing he heard was the woman, 'Tink', shouting in pain...

...then nothing more.

Chapter Text

"It didn't work." Belle frowned at him over the spellbook she was reading.

Rumplestiltskin winced as she stated the obvious, but he continued on doggedly for another half minute before admitting defeat. He muttered a curse and swept a hand over the table, instantly incinerating the map of Storybrooke that he had been using for divination. "No. Gideon cloaked himself too well."

"We have to find him!" Belle slammed the book shut, not having found any better location spells than the ones they had already tried. Anything stronger required a sample of Gideon's own blood or hair, not just that of his parents — useless thought.

"I know." Rumplestiltskin fought down the all-too-familiar, breathless feeling of teetering on the edge of panic. Events were spinning out of control, and he had failed again. "He said he was going after the Savior. If we can find her first..."

Belle nodded, a spark of hope lighting her tired eyes. Half an hour later, that hope had been snuffed out — Emma Swan was nowhere to be found in Storybrooke. Her house was empty, and Henry had been the one to answer the door at the Charming residence. According to him, his mothers had disappeared into a wish. If there was a story in it for the Author's Book, it hadn't revealed itself yet.

From there, he and Belle went their separate ways, as a means of covering more ground. After a long, fruitless search through the streets and then the woods, they found themselves converging as if by subconscious agreement at the wishing well. Rumplestiltskin arrived just as Belle dropped in a coin.

"Making a wish?"

Belle turned and met his gaze bleakly. "We haven't had much luck with wishes lately, but if this water really can return what's been lost..."

Rumplestiltskin sighed. Lost, thrown away, forgotten... the list was endless. "It can't hurt. But he isn't out here. We should go back to the house. When was the last time you slept properly?"

Belle shook her head, but her voice trembled with weariness. "I can't... what if Gideon—"

"The shop, then." He wished he had better answers to offer her, but lacking that, he could only look to her physical well-being, and he could see how tired she was. She had given birth mere hours ago, a draining ordeal under the best of circumstances. Only the seething energy of the Darkness kept her upright now. "You can rest in the cot, at least."

"But..." Belle bit her lip, then nodded. "All right."

Rumplestiltskin swept them back to the pawn shop in a cloud of magic. He had just settled Belle into the cot and started preparing a pot of tea when the ground shivered with the tell-tale shockwave of magical energy.

"Rumple!" Belle was on her feet again, pushing through the curtain and on her way to the front door.

He joined her hastily outside, scanning the skyline carefully. Then, "That way."

Rumplestiltskin heard them before he saw them; he and Belle rounded the corner to the street in front of the sheriff's station to find Emma Swan crouched on the sidewalk, Regina collapsed in her arms, while David Nolan grappled with the Evil Queen, holding her away from the other two. A futile endeavor, thought Rumplestiltskin distantly. Either she was too weakened to pose any threat, or else Charming had no chance of restraining her without an anti-magic cuff.

Too weakened, he decided, turning his gaze to her other half. He could smell the blood, and far too much of it.

"I'll kill him, I swear to you." Emma's hands still glowed with magic, but her voice held only rage and grief. Healing had failed, then.

Regina whispered something.

Whatever she said was drowned out by Belle's raised voice. "No, you can't! Please, it's not his fault."

Four pairs of eyes turned to her in shock. David spoke for them all, "You know him?"

"He's our son," said Rumplestiltskin. A quick magical scan of the scene before him had confirmed Belle's intuitive leap on the identity of their assailant.

"Your son? But—"

"It's complicated," Belle tried to explain. "My pregnancy...we had to accelerate it. And then..."

"The Black Fairy kidnapped him. Time runs differently in her realm." Rumplestiltskin eyed the ground. There was more blood... there. He bent down to test the wet splotches with a finger.

"He's confused." Belle continued to plead with the others. "We just need to find him, talk to him."

"He tried to murder Emma." David's tone was unforgiving. "If Regina hadn't stepped in..."

"And now she's dying," said Emma flatly. "I don't give a crap whose son he is. You're going to heal Regina, Gold."

Rumplestiltskin ignored the Savior and caught Belle's gaze. He said softly, "This is Gideon's blood. He's wounded, too."

"Well, the Savior... was hardly... hardly just going to... stand there and let him... kill her," said the Evil Queen, gasping out the words even as she doubled over in obvious agony. Though she looked uninjured, she shared a life with her other half; a wound to one was a wound to the other, and they would die together.

Belle rushed over to the blood stains, not even seeming to hear the Evil Queen's words, reaching down to touch her son's blood. "We can track him. Rumple, let's go."

He nodded, straightening as he ran through the spell in his mind.


Rumplestiltskin hesitated, turning his head at David's shout. The man looked like he wanted to forcibly drag the Dark One back, except that the Evil Queen had become a dead weight in his arms, and he was unwilling to drop her.

"You can't leave them like this. You have to help Regina."

"A wound made by that sword... I don't have the power to heal it," he said.

"But you know something," accused Emma, glaring at him. "Don't you?"

"I don't know," he equivocated.

"Let's go, Rumple." Belle was already halfway down the block, but now she stopped to call out to him. "Emma Swan is a Savior; let her do the saving for once. Regina isn't our problem, but who else is going to help our son?"

"You're right," he said hoarsely, but his blood froze. This wasn't Belle. He could almost see the Darkness gnawing away at her compassion, taking advantage of her exhaustion and fear for her son to gain a foothold on her soul. He was responsible for this corruption: Belle's darkness, and Regina's. He owed too many debts to let his protege die in the street like this. And he had promised Belle to be a better man. "You go on. I'll be there soon."

Belle blinked at him in incomprehension, then turned and sped away as her dread overcame her again. The tracking spell would be simple enough to cast, now that she had a few drops of Gideon's blood. Rumplestiltskin only hoped that their son was not as badly injured as Regina.

Rumplestiltskin turned his attention back to the others. "There is one thing I can try. But all magic comes with a price."

"I know that. I don't care. Whatever it is, I'll pay," said Emma. "Just save her."

"Very well." He gathered his magic and transported the two halves of Regina, along with Emma and himself, back to the cavern where the Cauldron of Rebirth was hidden. Only David was left behind — Rumplestiltskin didn't want to involve any more people than necessary. He caught the Evil Queen before she hit the ground, silently assessing her condition, which was worsening quickly.

"What is this?" Emma blinked as Rumplestiltskin conjured a lamp onto the closest supporting beam. "We're in the mines?"

"This is the Cauldron of Rebirth. It heals all wounds, mends what is broken." He looked at the massive construct, wondering if he was imagining the avid sheen of its surface. He owed a warning, as much as he owed the Cauldron his own debt. "Its magic is not mine, and it demands its own price."

"Is it dark magic?"

"No. Its powers are what some might call miraculous. Divine. Neither light nor dark."

"Fine. Let's get on with it. What do we do? Put Regina in that thing?"

"Yes. Both halves." With a magical assist, it didn't take long to move both versions of the Evil Queen into the oversized cauldron.

"Now what?" demanded Emma. "Do we chant, sprinkle holy water, or what?"

"A blood sacrifice is called for. Specifically, mine." Rumplestiltskin drew out his dagger and closed his left hand around the blade. As wickedly sharp as ever, it didn't take much pressure to open a cut. He pressed his palm against the side of the cauldron. As promised. The price is paid.

For you. But not for her. Temporarily linked by blood, the cauldron's voice was clearer than ever in his mind. Then the rim of the cauldron glowed with a pearly white light and he could feel the iron thrumming underneath his hand. Rumplestiltskin hopped back with a hiss, eyes widening as he sensed reality fraying around the cauldron.

"What the hell?" Emma shot him a hostile, uncertain gaze. "What are you doing?"

He shook his head. "I told you. This is not my magic."

"Fine. What's the damned cauldron doing?"

He took another step back. "I believe it's opening a portal, Miss Swan."

Even as he spoke, the cauldron shuddered, tilting sideways into a space that hadn't been there before.

"Regina!" Emma ran forward and grabbed at the cauldron. The ground dropped away from it, dumping both the cauldron and the Savior into a billowing vortex of white.

A moment later, darkness closed once again around Rumplestiltskin, who was suddenly alone in an empty cavern.

Rumplestiltskin! The name shot through the silence straight into his thoughts.


He followed the tug of the summoning and vanished from the cave.

His son was alive. Barely.

Gideon lay unconscious on the floor of Tinker Bell's living room. Rumplestiltskin easily recognized the house, as he had rented it to the fairy not that long ago. Belle knelt next to their son, holding a preservation spell in place. Tink herself sat on a chair in the adjacent kitchen, wrapping a piece of gauze around her left hand. The enchanted sword, still slick with blood, was propped against the chair.

As she looked over at him, Rumplestiltskin reacted with instinctive alarm, raising a hand for a spell, but Belle caught the motion and said hastily, "Don't! She was defending him. From Hook."


"I sent him away," Belle said. "Somewhere in the woods. Not sure where."

Rumplestiltskin nodded, grateful that the Darkness hadn't pushed her any further than that. He said to Tink, "Then I owe you my thanks." He frowned at the insulated lunch bag sitting on the table in front of the fairy, then at her hand. "What...?"

"Yeah. Bloody sword sliced off three fingers." She frowned at the object in question. "Belle says it's enchanted, that magic won't heal its wounds. Maybe you two don't trust Dr. Whale, but I'm willing to take a chance on him. Now are you going to tell me what's going on? This really is your son?"

"Yes." Rumplestiltskin crouched down across from Belle and made his own examination of Gideon's injuries. "Belle's pregnancy was sped up. He was born only a few hours ago, except that my mother stole him and kept him for twenty-eight years in a realm where time runs faster."

"That hardly explains why everyone is suddenly trying to kill each other."

"He's confused." Belle herself looked confused, and sick with worry. "Rumple, isn't there anything we can do? What about the cauldron?"

He shook his head. "That's no longer an option. It's... gone from this realm."

"Gone? You lost it?"

"It makes its own choices. I'm sorry, Belle."

"Then what about Dr. Whale? Maybe Tink has a point. Gideon could heal naturally..."

"I'm afraid not. This magic will burn through him and kill him first." Rumplestiltskin took up the threads of Belle's spell and wove them into a sturdier protection. Gideon's breathing steadied, and the ghost of a heartbeat became stronger. "But this spell will keep him alive long enough for us to save him."

"How? You just said... oh. You have a plan!" Belle's eyes brightened and he wished he deserved her faith. His 'plan' was nothing clever, merely the last ploy of a desperate man. "We can save him?"

"Yes." He reached into his jacket and drew out the Sorcerer's wand. "First we go to Neverland. The last thing we need is interference from my mother."

"Neverland? Have you lost your minds? Who is this mother of his, anyway?" Tink frowned at Belle. "Is she as bad as his father was?"

"Worse," admitted Belle. "His mother is the Black Fairy."

Tink boggled.

Rumplestiltskin smiled without much humor. "What, your precious leader never told you that?"

Tink shook her head. "Blue didn't like to talk about her."

"Probably for the best. Once we're in Neverland, I'll return his heart. And then, well." He looked down at his son and wrapped his fingers around his hand. If fate had decreed that they would only have this short time together, so be it. At least this child of his would be able to outlive him. "We'll do what we have to do."

"And what's that—" Belle stopped abruptly. Rumplestiltskin glanced up to see the blood draining from her face. Ah. She must have arrived at the same solution as he had. She opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again. "No. Not again. I'm his mother. I'll do it."

Tink looked in bewilderment from one of them to the other. "Do what?"

Still watching Belle, Rumplestiltskin carefully laid down the wand, then reached into his jacket again, this time drawing out the Dark One dagger. "My life is tethered to this dagger. It's more powerful than that sword, and basically the only thing that can kill me."

Belle raised her hand, gently turning the blade over to reveal her name on the other side. "Or me."

"Wait, wait, wait. Your plan is to turn your son into the Dark One?" Tinker Bell's tone suggested that dying might be preferable. "Bad enough that you cursed your own wife with it!"

"He's already infused with the Darkness," said Rumplestiltskin, not taking his eyes off Belle. "His choice, now, much though we might wish otherwise. If he binds himself to this blade, that will preserve his life."

Belle's fingers reached for the hilt of the dagger. "Then let me do it. Let me be brave, for once."

Rumplestiltskin tightened his grip. "It's not a matter of bravery. This life I have... it was given to me by Baelfire. I think he'd agree his brother deserves this chance more than an old man who's already lived centuries."

Belle stared at him mutely, and he stared back, neither of them willing to yield the point, and both too tired to muster any better arguments. It was obvious to him that he should be the one to die. He should have died long ago, but Belle was too generous for her own good, Darkness or no Darkness.

"You're both being idiots." Tinker Bell broke their impasse. She picked up the enchanted sword and stabbed the point into the floor behind Gideon's head. "There must be another way."

Rumplestiltskin whipped his head around to snarl at the fairy, but relented when he saw that she was sincere. He sighed and lowered the dagger, while at the same time Belle released her fingers. "What do you suggest?"

"Whatever enchantment is on this blade, between the two of you, can't you engineer a counterspell? The most powerful sorcerers in the realms, and you can't magic up a better answer than suicide?"

"She's right," said Belle.

Rumplestiltskin echoed the thought, feeling as if the fairy's words had wakened him from a nightmare. Fear and lack of sleep had made them stupid.

At Tinker Bell's urging, he and Belle put their minds together to concentrate on the problem. To Rumplestiltskin's surprise, they actually did find another way. Two Dark Ones working in counterpoint could accomplish more than one alone.

"It will destroy the sword," he warned her.

"We don't need an enchanted sword. We need to save our son's life." Belle picked up the sword, its blade now wiped clean of blood.

"Indeed." He turned to Tink. "And not only that, I think we can restore your hand while we're at it."

"For what price?"

"Nothing. We owe you one, fairy." Rumplestiltskin picked up the Sorcerer's wand and drew a portal in the air, an empty door frame leading to another realm. "Well?"

"Neverland, huh?" Tink sounded uneasy. Even so, she picked up the bag where she had stashed her severed fingers along with an ice pack.

"Neverland." Rumplestiltskin hoisted his son's limp body over his shoulder (how was he so tall?) and smiled tightly at the other two. "Shall we?"

"What the hell. Let's go."

Chapter Text

After Belle stepped through the portal, her next footstep sank into wet sand. The sky was dark overhead, starless and moonless. The only light came from the thin wisps of clouds that glowed faintly against the pitch black background. She heard the crash and hiss of the waves rolling up the shore, and scrambled away from the waterline, doing her best not to trip and fall onto the sword she held.

Rumplestiltskin and Tink joined her in the dry sand. Somewhere in their passage through the portal, Tink had managed to change out of her nightgown and into a rugged outfit more suited for adventuring. Rumple hadn't bothered, his clothes staying the same as he had worn in Storybrooke.

"Where's your shadow?" Belle looked towards her husband, but his features were lost in the darkness. With magic, she could see more with less light than she once had, but this gloom seemed to resist her vision.

He carefully set Gideon on the ground, then stared towards the interior, where a darker edge hinted at a forest they couldn't quite see. "I don't know..." He raised a hand and sent out a whisper of magic, but nothing answered.

"I don't like this," said Tink. "Something feels off."

"Time. Time is broken. This is only the outer perimeter; my shadow hid itself deep inside Neverland. I can't reach it from here."

"What do we do? What if you can't find it? What if the Black Fairy..." Belle clenched her jaws shut, keeping her worst fears from spilling out. She clutched the sword in a reversed grip, leaning on it for support, but the tip sank into the sand and she swayed where she stood. She caught her balance and found herself shivering, though it wasn't cold. The wind picked up around her, roaring in her ears while sand swirled up in agitated puffs. Then she felt the light touch of Rumple's hand on her shoulder.

"It's all right. Calm yourself. We're both tired." He guided her towards the tree line. "We'll find somewhere to camp for now. If we're lucky, this night will break in a few hours."

"And if we're not lucky?" asked Tink.

"One thing at a time." Rumple found a sheltered spot near a rocky cliff. "Stone may crumble, but we can use it to shield us." He lifted a hand and magically shifted Gideon to a makeshift bed that he conjured out of brush and fallen leaves.

"Should we build a fire?" Belle longed for a bit of brightness, anything to relieve the oppressive darkness.

"No!" Tink's answer was immediate. "No. Not on a night like this, not when Neverland feels... feels..."

"Feels what?" Though his face was hidden, Rumple's voice sounded more wary than impatient. Of them all, Tinker Bell had spent the most time in Neverland.

"Hungry." Tink paused after the word, then continued, "Pan and his Shadow may be dead, but this is a strange realm. You can't trust anything here."

"That's true enough," said Rumple. "All right, we'll take your word for it. No fire. I suggest you and I keep a watch and sleep in turns."

Belle sensed a surge of magic as Rumple raised protective wards around them. After that, Tink took up the first watch. Belle was reluctant to sleep while her son's life still hung on a thread, but she forced herself to lie down on the bed of leaves and close her eyes. She heard Rumple ease himself to the ground a careful distance away.

"Sleep, Belle," he said softly. "We won't be able to help him if we're too exhausted to think straight."

"I thought Dark Ones didn't need sleep," she mumbled. Of course she had slept before, even when infected with the Darkness, but that had been before she had such urgent reasons to stay awake.

"That's what the Darkness wants you to think, but if you push past natural limits with dark magic, you'll become its puppet. Sleep, dreams — such things help keep us human, keep us sane."

She didn't think she would, but in the end, she slept. She didn't know how long, only that it was still dark when Rumple shook her awake again. The next thing she noticed was that her son was missing. "Gideon!"

"He's fine, he's fine." Rumple held onto her arms, repeating the words until they penetrated through her panic. "I put him in here for safekeeping."

He showed her the snail shell he had apparently enchanted while she had been asleep.

"Oh." Belle managed a weak chuckle as her heartbeat slowed back to normal. "Not using Pandora's Box, then?"

"Last time I brought that to Neverland, I ended up trapped inside." Rumple stood back up. "This is similar, but with the difference of being a house rather than a prison."

Belle nodded, also standing up. She brushed the sand and leaves off herself and tilted her head back to stare at the eerily glowing clouds. "It's not morning yet?"

"No," said Tink. "I'm not sure it ever will be. The magic was already failing the last time we were here. Now... I don't know."

"We need to get to the heart of Neverland — the cave inside Skull Rock. From there, I'll be able to summon my shadow," Rumple said. "Geography is unstable in this realm, but if we follow the shoreline, we'll eventually find the place."

Part of Neverland's coast was made up of sandy beaches and coves, but more was steep and rocky, forcing them to move inland and navigate the tops of cliffs.

After part of a ledge gave way underfoot and Belle nearly fell off, Rumple summoned a flaming torch to his hand. "Enough stumbling around in the dark. We need to see where we're going."

The newly illuminated landscape was less than reassuring.

"The trees are dead," Belle noted. "All the plants."

"It's what may still be lurking out there, alive, that we need to worry about," said Tink.

"If they have any sense, they'll refrain from testing my patience," muttered Rumplestiltskin. They trudged on in silence after that for what felt like hours. Then—

"Do you hear that?" asked Tink softly.

All three of them stopped and listened intently. And there was something. Belle strained to hear what sounded like voices. A distant whooping cry that might be animal, or might be human. She leaned closer to Rumple, whispering, "I thought you took all the Lost Boys back to Storybrooke."

"The ones that were willing to leave," he answered. "But some hid themselves from us."

"The worst of them," said Tink. "Driven mad by Pan's games, they run wild in the darkest places in Neverland."

Belle shuddered. Was it her imagination, or were the voices coming closer?

"Come on. We should keep moving," said Rumple.

They quickened their pace as much as they dared, but still the voices — hunting cries, thought Belle — closed in on them, and they had nowhere to run, with the sea cliff never far to one side and the dead forest on the other. Bobbing lights that might have been torches flickered through the trees, and the dead brush rustled with ghostly movement.

"Games with lights, games with echoes," hissed Rumple, swiveling to aim his own torch towards the forest. Tink had her dagger drawn and Belle brandished the sword.

The voices ceased and the lights blinked out. Silence and darkness enveloped them, Rumple's torch carving out a small bubble against the vastness of eternal night. The seconds ticked by with no signs of life.

Finally, Rumple gestured along their route. "Let's go."

There followed a scramble down the rocks onto another of Neverland's sandy coves. They were halfway across when the dead forest burst open into a whirlwind of lights and ululating whoops, the chaos behind the lights resolving into a pack of indistinct human-shaped figures charging towards them. Flames glinted off the metal blades of their swords and the blackened tips of their spears.

As Rumple raised his hand and sent them flying back with a wave of magic, more came rushing in from every direction. They were surrounded. Savage, boyish faces grinned at them, the shadows rippling across their features like water as they shrieked promises of murder.

Belle and Tink turned outwards, doing what they could to fend off their attackers. Belle wrapped both hands around the hilt of the sword and swung it back and forth, wishing that her education had included fencing. She reached for the Darkness and channeled it through the blade, sending the closest boy sprawling backwards onto the sand. She had meant to sweep them all away, but they skipped through in jagged steps from moment to moment, evading her magic.

"So many of them," gasped Belle, fumbling for more magic.

"Too many," said Tink grimly. "This isn't right. There were never so many Lost Boys..."

Far too many. Belle retreated in the only direction she could, towards the water. The Lost Boys surged forward, cutting her off from her companions. Belle pushed back with another gesture of the sword, but once again they slipped free of the spell, and she stumbled back another step. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Rumple turn towards her. He lifted his torch and the Darkness thickened around him. Lines of magic snaked out, caught each of the Lost Boys around the neck, becoming collars of pure flame.

Their cries became shrieks of pain. Dropping their weapons, the Lost Boys turned and fled into the trees. All except one. A boy previously knocked down had scrambled upright once more, and now crept up behind Rumple. Before Belle could shout a warning, the shadowy figure had leaped up to wrap his arms around her husband's neck.

Rumplestiltskin turned and threw back his assailant. And then he seemed to freeze, as if caught in a spell. The Lost Boy laughed and renewed his attack. An instant later, Rumple was down, the boy's knee pressed into his chest and a knife readied to strike.

"Rumple!" Belle ran towards him, the sand making her clumsy. She slashed the sword at the Lost Boy. The boy rolled out of the way, then bared his teeth at her before he, too, ran off into the woods. Belle stared at him in shock. That face. She had seen it before. It was—

"Bae..." muttered Rumple. Then he sat up and stared into the trees. "Bae!"

Belle lowered her sword, following his gaze. She gripped Rumple's shoulder. "It can't... it can't have been..."

"It was him. You saw," he insisted, his voice rising in near-hysteria. "It was Baelfire!"

"That's not possible." Tink rejoined them, picking up the torch that Rumple had dropped. Magically sustained, it burned as brightly as ever. "It couldn't have been Baelfire. A trick of the shadows."

There had been a wrongness about them, Belle thought. Something hollow, inhuman. They had been difficult to see. Slippery.

"Boys eaten from within and fallen out of time," Rumple said in a low voice. He shuddered and shook his head. "He was here, once. It could have happened. I don't know... I don't know. Maybe it was only a stray wish, an illusion, showing me what I wanted to see."

"Don't overthink it," said Tink, handing him the torch. "We can't stay here."

Rumple nodded. He squeezed Belle's hand, then stood up and accepted the torch. He didn't say any more, but led them onward, still following the line of the coast.

"How much farther, do you think?" wondered Belle, but he didn't reply. She sighed. "I'm starting to hate this horrible place."

It was Tink who answered, "It wasn't always like this."

Belle glanced at the fairy, who had moved up alongside her. "I suppose not. I've only seen pictures in books. Jungles and caves and such."

"Neverland was meant to be far more than that. Children came here in their dreams..."

"Seemed more like a nightmare, from what I've heard."

"That, too, but Neverland was supposed to be a realm where the children were safe, where adventures could be scary but never truly harm them." Tinker Bell gazed wistfully out at the sea. "We should never have abandoned it."


"Well, not me, personally. I mean, fairies. Neverland was once our home. Blue is the only one of us old enough to remember how it was back then."

"I never knew that," Belle said. It must have been a long time ago. The fairies had lived in the Enchanted Forest as far back as the history books recorded. She peered out at the decaying wasteland. "I wonder if there's any way to restore it? You're a fairy..."

"Not one of the powerful ones," Tink demurred. "Even if I had pixie dust, I'm not sure what I could do."

"But you have a good heart. Isn't that what matters? They say Neverland runs on the power of belief."

"Even if I had the power, it would still require the cooperation of the Shadow. Star and shadow, night and day — that was how Neverland was kept in balance. But now the Shadow is destroyed." Tink walked on for a few steps in silence, then said musingly, "I did try to persuade Pan to revive the old magic, for the sake of those few children who still dreamed their way here, but he laughed at me. He said he was the only child that mattered. Selfish bastard... Sorry." She glanced at Rumplestiltskin's back in apology.

He chuckled bitterly, without turning around. "Oh, I know what he was, believe me. No. You'd have more luck asking my mother."

"The Black Fairy? Yeah, no thanks," Tink said. "There's no use talking about it. Let's just get this done. Heal your son, heal my hand, send me back, and then, if you can spare a thought for the rest of us, you three run somewhere far enough that even if your mother finds you, you won't destroy thousands of innocent lives between you."

"A pleasant fantasy," said Rumple, "but I make no promises on that account."

"No, of course not, not from the bloody Dark One. What else did I expect?"

"Your expectations mean nothing to me." He didn't look back, but an ugly edge lay underneath his words.

"Please, let's not fight," Belle broke in. "We just want to protect our child."

At that, Rumple did stop. He turned his head, and Belle's heart sank at the look on his face. He was trying to pick a fight, but why? Tinker Bell had never done anything but help them. Then he glanced at Belle, and his expression eased. He said to Tink, "Belle's right."


They resumed their trek in sullen silence. Belle stared at Rumple's back as they walked. He must be more shaken from his firstborn's unexpected appearance than she had realized. Baelfire's death would never be far from his thoughts, not now, while his secondborn was in such danger.

He's plotting something, hissed the voice in the back of her mind. Beware!

He's always plotting something, she thought. But maybe that was unfair — Rumple just liked to plan things out as a way of asserting some control over his fate, and could she really blame him for that? Belle shoved her doubts aside and kept walking.

Skull Rock was just that, a large rock formation shaped like a human skull, separated from the main mass of the island by a narrow channel. Rumple conjured a rowboat out of driftwood, and they were soon climbing up the stairs into the hollow interior of the rock. Once inside, he fixed his torch to a bracket on the interior wall.

Dominating the chamber was a giant hourglass, broken. Its sands spilled across the floor, mixed with a jumble of actual skulls. Belle wondered whose heads they were, if they had ever come from anything living, or if they were only an expression of the magic of Neverland. She watched Rumple stoop over to pick out one of the skulls, saw him turn it back and forth in his hands. He clapped his hands together, crushing the skull between his palms into a dust that vanished in a sparkle of gold before it reached the floor. Then he turned to her and held out a hand for the enchanted sword.

Belle set the hilt against his palm, then hesitated, seeing something in his eyes that made her uneasy. There had been magic in the skull, magic that she had never seen before. What was he up to? They had agreed to do this together, but now— "Aren't you going to call your shadow?"

His eyes flickered towards Tink, who was standing off to the side, watching them warily. "It's already here."

And it was: an eerily detached blackness that hovered in the air above and behind the fairy. Without warning, it swooped down and grappled her, wrenching her arms up behind her back, effectively immobilizing her. Tink cried out in shock, struggling to free herself. "What the hell are you playing at?"

Rumple didn't bother to answer. A twist of his hand left Tink unconscious, her limp body dangling from his shadow's grip. With his other hand, he wrenched the enchanted sword from Belle, then strode forward to rest its tip against Tinker Bell's abdomen.

Belle hurried forward and grabbed his elbow before he could thrust the blade up into her heart. "You said you'd heal her!"

Rumplestiltskin turned to face her, and she could almost see the sanity slipping away from him. "You don't understand. Bae is out there, lost. Time is broken here. I can reach through the cracks and bring him to us. I just need..."

"A sacrifice?" Belle dug her fingers into his arm, trying to will him awake from this nightmare that seemed to have possessed him.

"Something like that." He stared at her with mad, inhuman eyes that no longer seemed to see her at all. "A fairy's blood has the power to shape Neverland. I can channel that power through the sword, and Bae will live."

"That's..." Against the laws of magic, she didn't say. Of course he knew that. Time was the thread that stitched their reality together. She stared back at him, appalled. "Rumple, you can't change the past. You shouldn't."

"Time is already split open. I have to take this chance. Save my boy..."

"He wouldn't want you to! Not at this price. Please, Rumple. You didn't when Zelena cast her time-travel spell..." Belle bit her tongue, but it was too late. The mention of Zelena only enraged him. Darkness gathered around him, thick and bitter. Belle flinched, but refused to loosen her grip.

Let go. This is what he is. This is his true self, the one that will stop at nothing to get what he wants, even if it means ripping reality apart at the seams...

No. She refused to believe that. There was darkness, but there was also love.

Love! Love is a flame that burns the world to ash. Love dies. Only darkness is eternal.

Compassion, then. That was what the Darkness refused to understand. Yet she had known it, once, and she had glimpsed it in Rumplestiltskin, even when he had been the cruel lord of the Dark Castle. It was compassion that they had to remember. She took a breath. "This isn't right. Tinker Bell is innocent, and so are all those you would destroy if you meddled with the course of time."

"Let go of my arm," he growled. "I have to do this."

"I understand why you're tempted. I do. But you have to resist."

"I'm not that strong."

"You are. You are. Please. For the sake of the child who is alive. For Gideon." She felt his arm tremble when she spoke the name. Still, he refused to lower the sword. He raised his other hand, and Belle sensed him gathering his magic. She tensed, her heart pounding, but forced herself to stay calm, to offer no defense. She didn't even breathe. As she held his eyes, she saw recognition seep back into his gaze.

"Belle!" he gasped. He twisted free of her and hurled the sword away, then staggered backwards, falling into an anguished heap with his back against a boulder. He slid his hands over his face and wept. "Baelfire. I'm so sorry. I should have found you sooner... and now it's too late."

It was a moment before Belle could breathe again. Then she went to Rumple, crouching down in front of him and resting her hands on his shoulders. "Shhh. He's gone, but he's at peace now. That's what you said."

It was one of the things he had talked about back in Storybrooke, a way of passing the time during those interminable hours of her labor. Not so long ago, but it felt like an eternity. Now he mumbled without much conviction, "A better place..."

"That's right. It'll be all right." Belle poured as much belief as she could into her words.

After a long silence, he lifted his head and met her eyes. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking clearly."

He fumbled in his pocket for the snail shell. With a wave of his hand, he set Gideon's spell-locked body into a clear space on the cavern floor while Belle retrieved the enchanted sword. Then his shadow left Tink lying next to Gideon and flew to meet Rumplestiltskin's hand. A heart materialized in his palm. Once Gideon's heart was back in his chest, Rumple cast the healing spell together with Belle as they had planned. The sword turned to smoke under their hands as they shifted its magic into the wounds it had caused, leaving two healthy but slumbering bodies lying on the cavern floor.

Tinker Bell was the first to wake, an angry curse still on her lips before she looked at her hand and found her fingers flawlessly re-attached. "Ah. I thought you were going to kill me."

Rumple gave her a sidelong glance, looking vaguely ashamed. "My apologies. I plead temporary insanity."

"Yeah. Well, it's nice not to be dead." Tink looked over at Belle. "I suppose I have you to thank for my life?"

"I'm sorry. He won't try that again." Belle frowned at Rumple. "Will you?"

Rumple shook his head.

"It's all right." Tink sounded resigned, if not especially forgiving. "Neverland catches people like that sometimes. It stirs up all kinds of dreams and nightmares."

Belle crouched down by her son's side. She stroked his hair and held his hand. "Gideon? Can you hear me?"

Slowly, all too slowly, her son's eyelids fluttered open and he murmured, "Mother?"

"Yes, it's me." Joy and relief flooded her at seeing her son awake again. Her happiness lasted until the sickening moment when Gideon tried to sit up, and failed utterly. And that was when she saw the unnatural bleached pallor of his cheeks, felt the weakness in his grip on her fingers. "What...what's wrong?"

"The Black Fairy," whispered Gideon. "She..." His voice trailed off and his eyes closed, and he seemed to drift back into sleep.

"She took his shadow," said Rumple, dropping to one knee next to Belle. He reached out with a hand to scan their son magically.

Belle rocked back, grabbing her husband's arm in shock. "What?"

He looked down at the pale face. "She has her wand. With it, she can... drain his power through his shadow. And she's... I think she's scraping his name from it. That would sever the link between them. It would be as if he has no shadow."

"Wouldn't that... kill him?"


"Why?" Tink circled around and peered down at Gideon. "Isn't she his grandmother?"

"She's doing it slowly, on purpose," said Rumple. "To let me know she has leverage over me."

"But what does she want?" Belle didn't understand how someone could do that to their own flesh and blood. Then she remembered that Pan had stolen his great-grandson's heart, dooming Henry to a painful death. Well, it wasn't going to happen to Gideon, she swore to herself. She summoned as much magic as she dared and channeled it into her son. He stirred and opened his eyes again, but now that they were linked, she could feel the steady erosion as his life was siphoned away.

"What she always wanted." Rumple joined his own power to hers, but even that could only delay the inevitable end. "What I never gave her."

"And what is that?" asked Tink.

"To summon her. She wants me to break her banishment and call her back to Neverland."

Chapter Text

"They say dead men tell no tales, but my father was surprisingly chatty the last time we met." Rumplestiltskin spoke slowly as he drew a circular design on the floor, using the glittering powder he had extracted from the skulls that once encrusted the base of the broken hourglass. He added fairy glyphs inside the circle, ones that represented his mother's name. Because he was no longer a child, his bare wish wasn't enough to call her; he needed the added power of this spell. "So I asked him about my mother. She left us when I was an infant, and I had never known why..."

"Did he tell you?" Belle sat off to one side with Gideon resting next to her. Tink stood watch at the entrance to the chamber, alert against the possibility of another attack from the Lost Boys.

"Yes. Perhaps he thought it made him look better in comparison." Rumplestiltskin shifted to the other side of his circle and continued with his drawing. He added a pinch of sand from the broken hourglass, turning the spell into a trap as well as a summoning. "No love lost between my parents, though at the beginning my father thought otherwise."

"Hard to imagine Pan in a romantic relationship with anyone," said Tink. "He never seemed one for women, and even with the boys, it wasn't... wasn't that kind of attraction."

"No. He gave all that up without a second thought when he became 'Peter Pan'," agreed Rumplestiltskin, "and I don't think he ever missed it. Neverland's magic required a child, and that was enough for him. But my mother, whatever her other shortcomings, isn't lacking in the looks department. She could be... persuasive. You can imagine."

"Yeah, but it's not the fairy way. It's the kind of thing Blue would take your wings for."

"I remember she wouldn't let Nova and Grumpy be together," Belle said. "But Rumple, your mother was already an outcast, wasn't she?"

"So she was. At any rate, she came to my father and made him all sorts of promises. He was flattered, I suspect, and felt as much for her as he ever had for anyone." Rumplestiltskin remembered the anger still simmering in Pan's eyes even after so many years. "That made it all the worse when she dumped him, and their newborn child, without a flicker of regret, only a reminder to fullfill his promise to her when the time came."

"What promise?" asked Belle. "Why did she abandon you?"

"Malcolm was supposed to take them to Neverland and make Father wish for her," whispered Gideon, rolling onto his side to look at Rumplestiltskin. "She told me... she sent them the magic bean when her son was seven years old, the most powerful age for a wish..."

Rumplestiltskin nodded to Gideon. "Yes. I didn't wonder about it then, but how else would the spinsters have acquired a magic bean? And so my father took us to Neverland, just as my mother wanted."

"Yet you didn't wish for her?" Tink glanced at him in puzzlement.


"Why not?"

"Fairies don't always understand human nature." Rumplestiltskin smiled faintly. "As you should know from your experiences with Regina."

"If you were as perverse as Regina was, I almost feel sorry for the Black Fairy," Tinker Bell grumbled.

"I don't think he was being perverse," said Belle. "If Rumple never knew his mother, if he thought she had abandoned him, naturally he wouldn't think to wish for her."

"She never wanted me. She hated me. That's what I thought — my father made sure of that. You see, people don't like to feel used. And if that was all he was to her, a means to an end, when he had once loved her — well, spite isn't pretty, but it is understandable." Rumplestiltskin reflected that he himself had been no more than a means to an end for his mother. At least his father had tried for awhile to care for his son, despite his resentment. His mother had abandoned him the day he was born.

"She said he was selfish," said Gideon.

"That he was." Rumplestiltskin remembered all too clearly the day his father had cast him away in exchange for eternal youth and magic. "Instead of a new start for his family, he decided to take Neverland and all its power for himself alone."

"That's awful," said Belle, her eyes wide and hurt on his behalf.

He looked away, knowing that he didn't deserve her sympathy, not when he was himself equally selfish, and continued so. "It doesn't matter anymore. It was all long ago. We need to get Gideon's shadow back. If that means my mother returns to Neverland, so be it. Look at the state of the place — she's welcome to it!"

"But will she cooperate? Do you have a deal with her?" asked Tink.

"Not as such," he had to admit. It was a gamble, but the alternatives were worse, and there was no point in discussing them now. "But she knows what I want. I've taken precautions. If she won't deliver..."

"We'll make sure she does." Belle's face took on a determined, almost murderous expression. She gripped her son's hand. "We'll never stop fighting for you, Gideon."

"Be careful," said Gideon. "She... she's powerful. Her cloak of shadows draws on the power of two hundred souls. Her wand—"

"I know. I've used it before." Rumplestiltskin stared down at his spell circle, hoping it was strong enough to hold his mother. "It doesn't matter. We'll do whatever we have to do. Now..." He swept his hand over the spell and concentrated, focusing his wish on the Black Fairy.


Like an arrow flying through the ether, Rumplestiltskin's wish pierced the barriers between realms to reach the one he sought. Ancient bindings crumbled, and the geas that once kept the Black Fairy in exile faded into memory.

A cloud of darkness swirled up from the spell circle, dissipating to reveal the tall, elegant figure of his mother. Her gaze swept over the faces gathered around her, then stopped on Rumplestiltskin. Her lips curved in a triumphant smile. "At last. Thank you, son."

"Spare me your gratitude."

"Now, now..." The Black Fairy started to take a step, but a shimmer of magic locked her in place. Her expression changed. "What is this? Release me!"

"Return Gideon's shadow, first."

"A deal, is it?" The Black Fairy laughed indulgently. "Surely there's no need for such formality. We're all family here."

Rumplestiltskin shot her a cold glare. When had she ever been family to him? When she had stolen his son and imprisoned the boy for twenty-eight years? But he bit back the words. If she didn't already understand their pain, she never would.

"Oh, very well. I release Gideon's shadow, and you unlock your little spell trap. Do we have a deal, Dark One?" Her tone was mocking, but her eyes were merciless. If he didn't agree to the deal, she was fully capable of finishing what she had begun, leaving his son to die the death of the shadow-torn. And that would leave him no option except — no, it wouldn't come to that.

"Yes," he grated, aware of Belle and Gideon listening and hanging on every word of the exchange. Even Tink was watching them. "We have a deal."

"Good." The Black Fairy gestured carelessly towards Gideon. A shadow flew out of her cloak, overshooting its target before returning to circle over his head. At her expectant look, Rumplestiltskin gritted his teeth and released her from his spell circle. She smiled and scuffed the sandy floor deliberately with a foot, erasing his carefully drawn patterns.

Meanwhile, Gideon sat up with his mother's help. He reached up for his shadow and it mirrored his movements, lightless arms stretching back down, but their fingers passed through each other. He bit back a frustrated cry and tried again, but once again his hands slid through the shadow. No matter how many times he tried, he couldn't grasp the dark, immaterial shape, not even when Belle added her own efforts to his.

"A shame." The Black Fairy smirked at the sight. "You lack your brother's affinity for shadow magic. The blood runs too thinly in you, boy."

"You knew," Rumplestiltskin started angrily, but he had no time for his rage. He moved forward. "Gideon, I can help you."

"No." The Black Fairy's hand clapped down on Rumplestiltskin's shoulder from behind, and he froze in place. A tingle of magic ran down his spine, shooting out tendrils through every muscle, holding him immobile.

Furious, Rumplestiltskin gathered all his strength, but he found himself unable to break free. How? How is she doing this?

Fool! hissed the darkness. You gave yourself to her. The law of three...

Magic worked by threes; he already knew that, but when had he given himself into his mother's power?

Once by birth, once in wishing her to Neverland...

That's two, he thought. But the third? Then he heard his own voice in memory: ...Rumplestiltskin is your son! Stupid, stupid, stupid. He cursed himself for an idiot. He had freely offered up his own name, years ago when he had first met her in the Enchanted Forest, an act of bravado in confronting the mother who had condemned him to a lifetime of pain. He had never thought that he would ever call upon her again.

A mistake that his son was now paying for.

"Rumple!" Belle's frantic plea woke him from his nightmarish reverie.

He longed to speak, to save Gideon, but the Black Fairy's spell was unbreakable.

"Oh, you don't want his 'help'," she said. "Don't you know what he had planned?"

"What are you talking about? The only plan is to save our son."

The Black Fairy scoffed. "Of course he didn't tell you, you silly, naive child. But he can't hide his secrets from his own mother."

"What secrets?" Belle stiffened, and her gaze went to Rumplestiltskin.

His heart sank. He wished he could shut his eyes, so he wouldn't have to see the doubt in her face.

"He is too much his father's son: weak as his father, selfish as his father, dishonest as his father," said the Black Fairy. "And now that he's slain Pan, he intends to take his place as master of Neverland. Why else is he here?"

"We came here to avoid you!" Belle protested.

"Yet when he realized I had what he needed, he summoned me."

"But why would he want Neverland? It's a nightmare. We've had nothing but trouble since we arrived."

"That's what it is now, but it has the potential to be much more. And my son knows exactly how to restore it."

That's not true, Rumplestiltskin wanted to say, but his mother's binding held him silent. And even if he could speak... maybe it was true. The pieces fell into place in his head, and he saw how it could be done, how Neverland could be renewed, how its power could be his to control. If he was willing to pay the price.

"No..." Belle looked at him.

"Yes," said the Black Fairy. "Why else did he bring Tinker Bell? He needed a full-blooded fairy on the one hand, and his son's shadow on the other — a shadow fed from infancy on the dreams of lost children."

Was that why she had kidnapped Gideon? Rumplestiltskin had barely dabbled with shadow magic, but his mother was an expert. And she had no qualms about using her own family...

"He did heal my hand." Tink raised the appendage in question and wiggled her fingers. "He may be the Dark One, but everyone knows that the Black Fairy's evil is even older."

"Is that what Blue told you? That treacherous hypocrite may believe her own lies, but she is responsible for more misery than I ever was."


"Oh, shut up." The Black Fairy gestured impatiently, freezing Tinker Bell in place. She turned to Gideon. "Boy. Listen to me. You wanted to be a hero. Your father would deprive you of that opportunity. If you let him get his hands on your shadow, he'll never let it go."

"Gideon is our son. He wouldn't..." Belle began, but her voice trailed off into uncertainty.

"He sacrificed one son. What makes you think he won't sacrifice another?"

No. Never. Was that what his mother really thought of him? Rumplestiltskin knew he was no hero, knew he had made mistakes, but that was not one he would repeat. Bae... And if Belle believed her — he knew how thin a thread the trust was between them. Not that long ago, Belle had been afraid of what he might do to Gideon. Now, after what he had almost done to Tinker Bell, he deserved all her doubts...

"No. You're wrong." Belle met his eyes, and he saw that despite everything, she still retained a sliver of faith in him. Then she turned back to the Black Fairy. "You're the one who wants to sacrifice Gideon. This is your plan!"

"Is... is this true?" Gideon gave up his futile efforts to catch his own shadow and turned back to face his parents and grandmother.

"I'm acting for the greater good. My son only wants more power for his own selfish reasons, the same as his father before him."

"What greater good could be worth the death of your own grandson?"  Belle asked in angry disbelief.

"You told me you wanted my help," said Gideon. "But it was my death you wanted all along?"

"It isn't death; it's apotheosis." The Black Fairy moved to sweep a hand over the broken hourglass. The sand sparkled briefly before returning to a dull off-white. "Together we can make Neverland whole again: your shadow will ascend to the Throne of Day, as I will take the Throne of Night. What is your fleshly form or earthly name compared to that glory?"

"They told me about Neverland," said Gideon, staring into the Black Fairy's cloak. "It's a place of nightmares and terror."

"That's only half the story. The nightmares of Neverland show you fear that you may learn courage; the dreams of Neverland show you impossibilities to open the doors of imagination. When the Final Battle comes, where else will the children find refuge and hope if not in Neverland?"

"Wait, what 'Final Battle'?" Belle broke in.

"Oh yes, the Final Battle is nearly upon us." The Black Fairy smiled grimly. "The powers of heaven and hell will be loosed upon the realms, and horror will stalk the sleep of children." She looked at Rumplestiltskin and Gideon. "You who are of my blood, you share my Sight... you know this to be true."

Gideon shrank away, covering his eyes with his hands and shaking his head. "I... I don't know..."

Belle reached out to her son with a comforting arm, but her eyes turned towards her husband. "Rumple...?"

And he didn't know what he would have said, if he could have answered her. The future had never been clear to him. Once he had indeed prophesied a 'final battle', but he had been mad from his captivity at the time, barely holding onto enough sanity to say what he had to in order to move the Evil Queen and the Charmings into position right before the first casting of the Dark Curse. After that, the realms had been torn open and in their new lives, he had only had Mr Gold's mundane memories. Later, events had overtaken him and he had not had the inclination to reconsider his own demented ramblings.

"Deny it if you wish," his mother said, "but your cowardice changes nothing. You've played the part required of you. Now it's your son's turn to fulfill his destiny."

"Destiny..." Gideon repeated the word slowly.

"There's no 'destiny' except the one you choose," Belle told her son.

It's not that simple, thought Rumplestiltskin. But Belle wasn't a seer. She couldn't sense the lines of fate tightening around them, a deadly net of inevitability. Gideon had seen it, when they had met him in the dreamworld before his birth. Even Emma Swan had glimpsed something of that future, according to Regina. The Final Battle.

Gideon's hands slid away from his face and he gazed distantly at the Black Fairy. "My destiny was to destroy you, Grandmother."

"Nonsense. It is transformation, not destruction."

Rumplestiltskin wondered why she bothered. Why did she feel the need to justify herself to her grandson? Would it assuage her guilty conscience? If Gideon consented to his own sacrifice, then she wouldn't have to call herself a murderer? Tell yourself you did the right thing... He was all too familiar with that litany. He struggled again to break free of his mother's spell, but it was useless. He was trapped, bound to watch open-eyed as another son died before him.

"Don't listen to her." Belle hugged Gideon protectively. "If she had any good in her heart, she would return your shadow."

"Clinging to your life when so many others are at stake — I thought you were stronger than that, Gideon. And you, Belle, you filled his head with ideas about heroes and bravery, yet here you are with your coward's counsel." The Black Fairy sneered, "You and my son, you make quite the pair."

"What kind of hero sacrifices their own family? That's the opposite of heroism!"

"But what if... what if it's true? About the Final Battle?" Gideon shifted away from his mother, his expression troubled. His gaze became unfocused, as if lost in some private vision. "If Neverland is needed..."

"We'll find another way," Belle said fiercely.

"There is no other way," snapped the Black Fairy. "Neverland has become a festering wound. It has to be either cauterized or healed, or the infection will spread, and the outcome of the Final Battle will be darker than you can imagine."

Belle looked at Rumplestiltskin again, and again he was uncertain. His mother's words could well be true. Time was broken in Neverland. The magic that remained was corrupted. That much he had seen for himself. But the lengths she was willing to go to in order to fix this realm, the price she would pay... it was a terrifying thought.

"What if she's right?" Gideon wavered between his mother and grandmother. "I saw... I'm not sure what I saw."

"I'll make the decision easy for you," the Black Fairy said, her patience clearly at an end. "You wanted to free the children I've taken. Well, now that I'm here, I don't need them anymore."

"You'll release them?" Gideon straightened, eyes locked on his grandmother.

Don't trust her, thought Rumplestiltskin, but he had no power to intervene. It broke his heart to hear the hope in his son's voice, knowing that it would be betrayed.

"Certainly." The Black Fairy swept her arm up, her cloak of shadows billowing outwards with the movement. For a moment, the walls of Skull Rock vanished, and the cloak flew up to cover the sky. Small, cloth-bundled shapes tumbled out of the shadows. Then time took them, and they grew up, grew old, as time seized them and aged them in an instant.

Then the chamber closed in around them again, and there was only one left inside, writhing on the ground and mewling piteously.

"What...what's happening?" Belle stood frozen in shock, while Gideon moved to the wizened figure before them.

"He's... he's dying. You did this!" Gideon lunged at his grandmother, but she batted him away.

"I did nothing. It's only that outside the protection of my cloak, they are vulnerable to time." The Black Fairy gestured, and her cloak folded itself back around her body. "It was my magic that kept them children. You were twenty-eight years in the Dark Realm, boy. How long do you think it was for them?"

"No..." Gideon clambered back to his feet. "Fix this! You can fix this."

"Yes, I can, if Neverland is restored and its time mended. Then the hours and years will no longer weigh upon the children; the clock will turn back and their youth be returned." The Black Fairy paused, lifting her gaze to Gideon's detached shadow. "Of course, to do that, you know what is needed."

"Gideon, no," whispered Belle, reaching for her son's arm.

Gideon didn't look at her. "I... I promised them. That I would save them."

Oh, Gideon. Rumplestiltskin knew, then, that his mother had won. His son would not abandon the children he had promised to protect, even ones he had only met in dreams.

"And so you shall."

"Then let's get this over with." He slumped back, then, as if the life had already been taken from him. Belle caught him and eased him to the floor.

"You can't do this!" she cried out, lifting her hand in a last-ditch magical attack against the Black Fairy.

"Your son is a hero. Don't take that away from him." The Black Fairy blocked the spell, then reached out, holding Gideon's shadow in one hand and her wand in the other. She completed what she had begun, draining the dark energy out of Gideon and transferring it into the shadow, then erasing the name that bound them. Gideon fell back, unconscious, into his mother's arms.

The rite was ancient, its roots buried deep in Neverland. Rumplestiltskin could see that much, though the details of the magic eluded him. His mother enacted it without hesitation. Soon enough, the oversized hourglass, the symbolic heart of Neverland's timeless power, was clean and whole again. Sand filled the top, trickling grain by grain through the neck. The skulls surrounding its base grinned once more with secret knowledge.

The Black Fairy gleamed with new authority. Above her, the resurrected Shadow of Neverland circled, eyes glowing with no hint of its old identity. Yet — something of memory remained. The Shadow swooped low, dragging time in its wake, and wherever it flew, ancient bodies were pulled back, rejuvenated. The lone figure on the ground became an infant again. And in Belle's arms, Gideon slipped back in time as the years were unwound.

Of course, thought Rumplestiltskin. Gideon, too, had once been carried in the Black Fairy's cloak.

Already, the Shadow had flown out the window, traveling with the speed of thought through the rest of Neverland. Then—

The silence of the night broke as two hundred abandoned babies burst out crying. Here in the magical center of the realm, they could hear all of them, as wishes if not as literal sound, no matter the physical separation.

"The children! You can't just leave them out there," said Tinker Bell.

"No, of course not. I'm not a monster." The Black Fairy glanced at Rumplestiltskin, but he had hurried to Belle's side as soon as he felt his mother's spell lift, and he had no attention to spare for her. Distantly, he heard the Black Fairy and Tinker Bell talking, but they were soon gone from Skull Rock, along with the baby that had been on the ground.

"Belle." He touched her shoulder gently, and she raised a tear-stained face to him.

"Our son, Rumple." She held the infant Gideon close to her chest, as if she could infuse him with life. He lay in her arms with unnatural stillness. He looked no more than a few days old now, as if he had never spent decades in the Dark Realm. "He's..."

Dying, she didn't say. Rumplestiltskin longed to reassure her, but he didn't want to give her false hope after his plan to summon the Black Fairy had done nothing but delay the inevitable. He slid his hands around their son. "Please, Belle. Let me... let me say good-bye."

After a long moment, Belle loosened her grip. Choking back sobs, she nodded and whispered, "All right." Then she pulled Gideon away. "You're not, not going to... with the dagger. Not when he's, he's just..."

"A baby. I know. I won't curse him. Trust me, Belle." It wouldn't work, anyway. Without his shadow, Gideon's soul wouldn't be strong enough to tether itself to the Dark One dagger. Not that Belle needed to hear that right now. "Please."

This time Belle allowed Rumplestiltskin to lift their son in his arms. As Belle sank down with her face hidden behind her hands, Rumplestiltskin turned and took a few steps away and knelt with his son at the base of the hourglass.

The spell wasn't difficult, not for him. It wasn't even that painful — just a quick slice across his left palm, and a few drops of blood daubed on his son's tiny hands. He called his shadow back to him, drained its Darkness back into himself, then bound the rest to Gideon. Blood magic allowed him to rechristen the shadow with his son's name. Even as he slumped with his back against the stone, feeling weaker than he had in centuries, he smiled to see his son drawing strength with each new breath.

It had worked, then.

Before he could call out to Belle, Gideon, unsettled by his father's unsteady hold on him, wailed in distress. Across the chamber, Belle jerked up her head in shock. She scrambled over to them at once and scooped up the baby from her husband, bouncing him gently until he quieted again. "He... is he...?"

"He'll live. He'll thrive," whispered Rumplestiltskin, struggling to draw breath. "I promise, Belle. He's fine."

"But... how...?" Her eyes widened as she took in Rumplestiltskin's condition. "Rumple, what did you... no... you gave him your shadow?"

He nodded slightly. "I'm afraid so. I'd hoped to avoid it, but, well." He lifted a hand in resignation. "I ran out of options."

"But you'll die!" Belle shook her head. "No. Not again. There must be some way, some loophole..."

"No loopholes."

"Can you... can't you, I don't know, split your shadow and you each have half? Snow White and her prince share a single heart."

"It doesn't work like that." Rumplestiltskin knew how tenacious she could be, but the last time it had only led them into tragedy in the end. This time, he hoped she could find peace, but he knew he had only left her with an even heavier burden. He dragged the dagger out of his jacket and tossed it on the ground between them. His name was already beginning to fade from the blade. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I leave you this legacy. You deserve better, but we have no choice at this point. Use it to protect our son..."

"No!" Belle dropped to her knees and picked up the dagger. "What if I...what if I command you to live?"

"Belle, stop. You'll only make things worse." He felt too tired to explain, but he caught her gaze and saw that, deep down, she understood. They had done this before. Magic always came with a price. "This is for the best."

"The best!"

Rumplestiltskin's eyes closed, and he no longer had the energy to force them open again. "You were right, after all. I am too weak to be good. Better that I remove myself before I do something unforgivable. I almost... with Tinker Bell..."

Suddenly, he felt her hand on his shoulder. "But you didn't!"

He let his head tilt to one side in negation. "You... stopped me."

"You stopped yourself, Rumple. What I said — I was wrong. You mustn't think that," she pleaded. "If you die thinking that..."

"It doesn't matter. Not anymore. I love you, Belle. And Gideon..." The rest of the sentence faded as blackness closed around him.


Chapter Text

Through the twin set of holes that formed the "eyes" of Skull Rock, the sky grew lighter.

Dawn at last. It should have been a comforting thought, but Belle was beyond consolation now. She gripped Rumple's hand as if she could pull him back by force of will alone, wishing for him to wake up and be well again, but not even Neverland could grant that wish.

Cursed. You are cursed, the two of you doomed forever to be parted, your moments together fleeting sparks in the infinite darkness...

Numb with grief, Belle wondered if that malicious voice was right — had she been deluding herself all along that she could have any kind of life with Rumple? Was Gideon to be the only good thing that survived from their love? Ever since they had met, they had spent more time with one or the other dead, thought dead, cursed, imprisoned, lost to evil, or comatose than awake and together.

The restless squirming of the baby she held woke her from her dark thoughts. She shifted her weight and her grip, holding Gideon one-armed, reluctant to let go of Rumple while he still had one breath of life left in him. Then she felt a light touch on her back, and heard Tinker Bell calling her name. She looked up to see that the two fairies had returned. The Black Fairy stood at the far side of the chamber, her stance aloof, while Tink was gazing down at Belle sympathetically.

"What happened? Did Rumplestiltskin...?" Tink asked.

Belle explained, choking back her tears.

Tinker Bell hugged her gently. She reached out, offering to hold Gideon for now to give Belle a chance to share a last moment with her husband. "I'm sorry. I know he loved you both."

Belle allowed the baby to be lifted from her arm. She nodded numbly to Tink as the fairy backed discreetly away, then wiped her eyes with a sleeve. She looked down at Rumple. His eyes didn't open even when she adjusted her grip to pull him half into her lap. His breathing was shallow and his skin pale, bloodless.

"Well, this is a surprise. I didn't think he had it in him, poor boy."

Belle glanced up to see that the Black Fairy had finally deigned to approach them.

Now she regarded Rumplestiltskin with an inscrutable expression. "Die well, my son."

Belle was shocked at the coldness of the Black Fairy's tone. Grief gave way to fury. "You! What kind of mother are you?"

"None at all, soon," the Black Fairy said. "But I honor his sacrifice." Despite her words, her gaze was distant.

She can't bear to even look at him. Make her suffer. Make her pay...

Belle pushed back the dark thought and focused on the Black Fairy. "Look at him! See him. This is your son! He sacrificed himself to save an innocent life that you destroyed. His death is on you. How dare you talk about 'honor'?"

"That was your doing, you and all your 'heroes' who trapped and destroyed the original Shadow, leaving me no choice but to create a replacement."

"By killing your own grandchild? Whatever Rumple's done, even as the Dark One, he's always protected those he loves." Belle held him tightly, wishing that she had been able to shield Rumple from this fate. Not again...not this time... think... there must be a way...

But the Black Fairy was contemptuous. "A selfish love. At least your son was able to transcend such limitations at the end."

"You're calling Rumple selfish? You?" Belle shifted around Rumple, reaching underneath his body to retrieve the Dark One dagger from where it had fallen. She pointed the tip at the Black Fairy. "You know what? This damned dagger has been more of a mother than you have. It made him what he is, it protected him, and it's never abandoned him. No wonder he thinks he loves it!"

For the first time, a trace of regret crept into the Black Fairy's face. In a low voice, she said, "It didn't have to be that way."

"You abandoned him at birth."

"Because I knew I wouldn't be able to do it if I kept him for even a day. It was only meant to be a temporary thing." The Black Fairy sighed, shaking her head. "Just a few years, a small sacrifice against the greater good. But they refused their duty, refused me, and refused to be a family."

"Maybe his father did, but after Pan abandoned him, why didn't you return? Rumple was only a child."

"If he had wanted me, he would have wished for me. Since he didn't, better that he stay with those two spinsters — they had enough love to spare."

"You didn't even try," Belle accused. "You didn't even bother to find out his name. Were you that full of spite?"

"I had a duty to Neverland. I had to think about all the children in the realms, not just my own."

"Well, now you've saved Neverland for them. Maybe it's time you spared a thought for your own son." Belle paused, thoughts falling into place in her own head. There IS a way. Blood magic, shadow magic. A life for a life... She pinned the Black Fairy with a glare. "Because what he did for Gideon, I bet you can do the same for him. Can't you."

"Perhaps," deflected the Black Fairy, but the truth was clear to Belle. She could. She just didn't want to. "But Neverland needs me."

"Neverland needs a Shadow and a fairy. That's what you said. Well, you're not the only fairy around here." Belle's gaze swept the chamber, fixing on Tinker Bell.

"Don't look at me!" Tink backed a step in alarm, holding up the baby in her arms as if to defend against the very notion. "I don't have that kind of power."

"But you could. If she was willing." Belle was relentless. She turned her eyes back to the Black Fairy. "Isn't that true?"


"Then if you have any good left in you, you will do this for your son. You owe him. Or are you a hypocrite, and for all your talk of the 'greater good', you only care about power?" How many times had she been down that road with Rumple? He claimed to want power to protect his family, but all too often craved it out of fear and for its own sake. But he had proven that his love was stronger in the end, more than once, though it had taken this long for Belle to see it. So many foolish mistakes along the way, from both of them, and now it was all for nothing. Rumple would die here, unless his mother made the same sacrifice as her son had.

"I..." The Black Fairy stopped, swallowed, then began again, "I have always served the greater good..."

"And you think your son will not?"

"He is the Dark One! He caused a curse to be cast that tore apart an entire realm, a curse that condemned thousands to misery."

"He also made sure the curse would be broken. And you know why he resorted to the curse? Because fairies like you, fairies who only serve the 'greater good', separated him from his son and refused their help when he would have done anything to find Baelfire again." Then another thought came to her, and her anger sent puffs of sand spiraling up from the ground. "None of you ever helped him! Not his own mother, not the Blue Fairy. Did she hate Rumple because he was your son?"

"Most likely," the Black Fairy admitted. "She would have considered him tainted by darkness."

"Underneath the darkness... he is a good man. Can't you see that?" Belle pleaded. "But if no one can believe that, not even his wife, not even his mother, how can he? He'll die here, thinking himself a monster. Is that what you want for your son?"

After a long silence, the Black Fairy shook her head. "No. No, it isn't. I... I will do as you ask." Her head turned towards Tink. "If... if you are willing."

Tink stood frozen, uncertain, glancing between Belle and the Black Fairy. "I... I don't know."

"You know what Neverland should be," said the Black Fairy. "And your heart is true — the realm would accept you."

"Tinker Bell, please. Look." Biting down her desperation, Belle turned the dagger to display the blade. "His name is almost gone from the dagger. Soon it'll be too late." She held her breath, clinging to this one last scrap of hope.

For an agonizingly long moment, Tinker Bell didn't answer. Finally, the fairy's troubled expression shifted into something more decisive, and she gave a single slow nod. "All right."

Belle's heart jumped painfully, and she let herself breathe again. "Thank you. Thank you."

"Yeah," muttered Tink. She crossed the chamber and handed Gideon to Belle again. "Well, I did say I wanted Neverland restored. I just had no idea it would turn out this way."

Everything after that felt like a dream to Belle. As if from a remote distance, she watched as the Black Fairy clasped Tinker Bell's hands in her own and enacted the ritual that transferred the majesty of the Throne of Night to the younger fairy. Her wand, too, changed possession.

Then the two fairies separated again. The Black Fairy stood before the wall, her shadow pinned there by magic. Then her hand seemed to become a blade of pure light, light that severed the shadow where it met her feet. Before the dark shape could flow free, she caught it in her fist. She took it and knelt by Rumplestiltskin's side.

Blood. Sorcery. Light and dark magic came together as the Black Fairy transmuted her own shadow and bequeathed it to her son.

Light magic? Belle wondered through her daze.

For once in her life, the Black Fairy acts out of love rather than duty. Darkness recognized its opposite by instinct. But to drain the life from one to give to the other, that exchange is always dark, because it comes from the beast's longing to survive.

It didn't take long. As one grew stronger, the other weakened. The Black Fairy met Belle's eyes, a look of resignation on her face. "No point in prolonging this. My son I give into your care."

Belle managed a nod. No matter what happened between them, she would always care for Rumple. They had promised each other forever on the first day they met.

Then the Black Fairy looked at Tinker Bell. "And Neverland is in yours."

"I'll do my best." Tink sounded unsure, but Belle could see that her aura was bright, blazing with hope and fairy magic.

The Black Fairy nodded. She knelt down by Rumple's side and brushed her fingers over his face, then touched her lips to his forehead. "Live well, my son."

She straightened, then, and with a graceful twist of her hand, cast one last spell, this one aimed at her own heart. A shimmer of magic clouded her face. For one brief moment, Belle could see the countless centuries that had been hidden behind the illusion of youth. Then the Black Fairy was only an empty shape hanging in the air. Then a fall of sparkling dust. And then only a memory.

From the space where she had been, a scrap of black cloth drifted down onto Rumple's chest. With a gasp, he sat up abruptly. His hand clutched reflexively at the cloth and he crumpled it in his grip as he stared in confusion over at Belle.

"Rumple, you're alive!"

"Belle..." He glanced down at the black cloth entwined in his fingers, then brought up his other hand and stared. "This... this is my mother's cloak of shadows. The children..."

"We put them back inside for safekeeping," said Tinker Bell. "Don't worry, they're sleeping peacefully. No nightmares."

"But my mother..." Rumple's eyes flickered around the chamber, searching. Then his gaze fixed on the baby in Belle's arms. "Gideon...?"

"He's fine." Belle couldn't help smiling as she shuffled closer to her husband and showed him their son. "See?"

With an astonished, wondering expression, Rumple touched Gideon's cheek. "He still has his shadow. But so do I. How...?"

Belle's smile slipped. "Your mother. She saved you, the same way you saved Gideon."

Rumple rocked back, his expression turning to shock. "She... but..." He clenched his fingers around his mother's cloak. "Where is she? Let me speak to her..."

Belle was already shaking her head. "She's gone, Rumple. She... she went to dust, and now even that's gone."

Rumple closed his eyes, bowing his head over the scrap of cloth that was all that remained of the Black Fairy. "Why? Why would she sacrifice herself? She never loved me. She didn't even want to know me."

"No. No, you're wrong." Belle reached out, drawing him into an awkward, one-armed embrace. She could feel him trembling with anger, or guilt, or perhaps both. Resting her head against his, she said softly, "She did. She did love you, even if she forgot. Even if that love was buried for a long, long time. But she remembered, in the end."

"And look what that memory cost her," said Rumple, his voice choked with pain and regrets. "She's dead. My mother is dead."

"I know. I know. So is mine." Belle comforted him as best she could. "But their love isn't lost, isn't wasted. We keep it in our hearts."

"I wish..." Rumple cut himself off without saying what he wished, but Belle could guess. So many things might have been different, so much suffering averted, but it was not to be. The only thing they could change was their own path.

Belle sat back a little, and glanced down at Gideon. "Rumple, we can't — we mustn't — change the past. It's out of our hands, but the present belongs to us."

Rumple nodded. Then his voice turned bleak, "And the future?"

"The future..."

"The Final Battle." Rumple opened his fist and shook out the scrap of black cloth, letting it hang from his fingers like a flag. "She warned us. Her death changes nothing. The Final Battle is coming."

Chapter Text

The Final Battle is coming.

It was Tinker Bell who broke the tense silence following Rumplestiltskin's portentous pronouncement. "So, it's coming, this Final Battle. But how much time do we have? Minutes? Days? Years?"

Rumplestiltskin shrugged, mentally still reeling from the shock of his confrontation with the Black Fairy. Not to mention nearly dying, only to be given a last-minute reprieve, then waking up to find that he had lost his mother again. It left him feeling too drained to make any attempt at peering into the future. Besides, now that Neverland was restored, its temporal peculiarities blocked his vision.

"And who exactly is fighting in the battle? And why? What are they fighting for?"

He shrugged again, out of answers. Belle squeezed his hand, but he didn't quite look at her. It was a miracle that she was still here at all.

"Bloody hell." Tink threw up her arms in disgust. "Why do people even bother with prophecies, when they're so vague and useless?"

"I like to be prepared. I'll take whatever warning I can get."

"If it's the 'final' battle, presumably there's been a war going on, and this will be the end of it." As she spoke, Belle returned the dagger to him, another gesture of trust which he doubted he deserved. "That could be a good thing! Maybe we've been looking at this all wrong."

Rumplestiltskin tucked the dagger away, still not meeting her gaze. "A fair point. Once we figure out what war the prophecy pertains to, we may be able to infer the rest."

"And how are you planning to do that? It's not as if you can just look it up, especially since we don't have any libraries in Neverland," Tink said, rolling her eyes in Belle's direction.

"Yes, well, you should do something about that someday. Rumple, what about the books back in Storybrooke? Maybe the Sorcerer's mansion will have something. No one ever made a proper catalog of his collection." Her words were drowned out as the baby began whimpering, not quite up to a full-force wail, but enough that Belle moved a few feet away to sit on a rock. She pushed up her shirt and arranged Gideon at her breast, making small, encouraging noises. Once the baby seemed to have latched on, she made a face. "Ow."

"Don't worry, your milk will come in soon," said Tink. "Though you may have sore nipples for awhile, from what I've seen. Not that I have any personal experience. Strictly speaking, fairies aren't really... mammals."

"Insects," muttered Rumplestiltskin, watching Belle out of the corner of his eye.

Tink glared at him. "Yeah, so what does that make you?"

"Fine, unnatural, magical insects. But my mother was in human form when she had me," he said. He frowned at the scrap of black cloth that was all he had left of her. "And speaking of human, the children in here need homes, but outside of Neverland, this cloak is the only thing protecting them from the ravages of time."

"Isn't there some spell or potion you can use?" asked Belle.

"Maybe. I need to do some research." He glanced over at her and saw how pale she looked. "Meanwhile, you should probably eat something."

It was easy to conjure food in Neverland, but Belle had never been fond of magical sustenance. Tink showed them where to collect the tropical fruit that flourished on Neverland (now that it had been restored), as well as how to make meals out of fish and seaweed. Rumplestiltskin was grudgingly grateful to the fairy. It was better not to live on dreams alone. Tinker Bell also helped them find — in the peculiar Neverland sense of the word which included a component of wishing — a cottage by the beach to stay in while Rumplestiltskin studied temporal magic. As it turned out, Neverland wasn't completely frozen in time. Mortal creatures experienced birth and death, while plants flowered and bore fruit. Only those with enough awareness to tie themselves to a name floated above the underlying currents of time.

The logic of dreams, thought Rumplestiltskin. He sat on a flat boulder on the edge of a cliff, staring out at the pattern of the waves. The water of Neverland mixed with the seas of countless realms. Time must work like that, too. He just needed to understand it better.

He didn't know how long he had been sitting there, nor how long they had been in Neverland, when Tinker Bell hiked up the cliff to find him. "You're avoiding her."

"I'm not—"

"You are. And she's doing the same," Tink said. "A fine pair of idiots."

"I'm working on a spell..." Rumplestiltskin shook his head and said without standing up or turning around, "You need not concern yourself with my personal life."

"I don't need to, no. But I was thinking... in a funny way, we're family. Your mother—"

"Don't start." He rubbed a hand over his eyes, pushing back a stab of pain at the reminder of his mother. She was gone, and he didn't want to think about her, any more than he wanted to think about his father. Really, there was very little that he wanted to think about at all. As for Belle and Gideon — no, it was safer to contemplate the workings of time and magic. He curled the fingers of his other hand over his knee, hoping that Tink would simply go away again. When she didn't, he opened his eyes and snapped, "I don't need another auntie!"

"Maybe not, but I think you and Belle need each other."

"Why? Single motherhood can't be all that strenuous now that she has magic," said Rumplestiltskin. He knew it was the wrong thing to say as soon as the words left his mouth, but it was still nothing he wanted to think about.

"That's hardly the point! Your son should have a father. Belle is practically living in that house alone..."

"I'm giving her space." Damn the fairy and her meddling. "Once we get back to Storybrooke, she can have all the company she likes." He grimaced at a sudden memory of Belle on the Jolly Roger. Surely she didn't intend to continue living on Hook's ship?

"You're avoiding her," Tink repeated.

"We only cause each other heartbreak," he muttered, remembering Belle's words all too clearly. She was right, as usual. He didn't think he could go through it again. She might extend him a moment's grace when their son was in danger, or when he was dying, but that wasn't the same as wanting him with her. He couldn't forget the way she had looked at him in his shop, loathing him for his weakness. Weakness he had proven once again when he had almost murdered Tinker Bell in the pursuit of a wish that could only have destroyed them in the end. Worse than being evil, she had said. "She doesn't need me. She's safe here; both of them are safe."

"That isn't the point," Tink said. "Look, I'm not sure what she sees in you, but you two... someone needs to smack some sense into you. Just go talk to her."

"If she wants to talk to me, she knows where I am. I'm not hiding." Rumplestiltskin scowled at the horizon. Sea and sky, water and air, two antithetical elements came together, met — but it was an illusion. They never truly touched.

Tink laughed. "You know, that's exactly what she said about you."

"It means nothing!" He stood up abruptly and turned to face her. "Now if you don't mind, I have work to do. And I'm not going to get anywhere if some damned fairy comes up here to stick her nose into my business every five minutes."

"Actually," said Tink, "I found something that may help."

"Pixie flowers?"

"They're starting to grow back." Tinker Bell hovered easily in the air in her fairy form, her feet dangling over the flowers clustered up on the highest branches of the trees. The petals gleamed faintly with traces of pixie dust, the concentrated magic of starlight. Dwarves could concoct a close substitute using the fairy dust they refined from crystals, but the real thing originated in Neverland.

Rumplestiltskin balanced precariously on a branch, one arm wrapped around the trunk of the tree. He had never liked heights, but he did his best to look calm, while silently readying an anti-gravity charm, just in case. After a moment, he inched out and touched the closest flower. "May I?"

"Go ahead."

Rumplestiltskin nodded and plucked the pixie flower, then leaned back against the trunk. He didn't look down. "Thank you. Yes, this should indeed prove helpful."

Tink regarded him curiously. "If you're half-fairy..."


"Can't you fly?"

"Don't be ridiculous." He ignored the sweat forming at his hairline and the agitated thumping of his heart. He stilled the tremor in his hand as he slipped the pixie flower into a pocket. "The Dark One doesn't go fluttering about on tiny wings, dearie!"

"Hey, don't knock it until you've tried it."

Rumplestiltskin closed his eyes. "I'm not my father." Malcolm had been obsessed with flight. And unafraid of heights. For years, Rumplestiltskin had had nightmares about his father scaling a tree just like this one. In his nightmares, his father had never returned and left him waiting, waiting, waiting... Sometimes it ended with a shadow seizing him, only to drop him out of the sky, leaving him to spin downward, helplessly falling.

"Sorry," said Tinker Bell. "I'll leave you to it."

He waited, but the sound of her wings didn't recede as he had expected. Finally, he opened his eyes. "Well?"

"One more thing."

He sighed. "Spit it out."

"Your mother was going to let you die. Belle is the one who convinced her to save you instead." As soon as she finished the sentence, Tink took off through the trees.

Rumplestiltskin stared after her, dumbfounded. Belle had saved him? He didn't know which was more miraculous: that she still thought him worth saving, or that she had managed to change the mind of someone as ancient and immovable as his mother. Even her shadow was stiff and unyielding at his back. Maybe... maybe... if he spoke to his wife... He cut off the thought. Not now. Not until he finished working out this spell.

Coward, sneered the voice of the darkness. Hoarding false hopes and putting off the time of reckoning.

No. He knew better by now. Rumplestiltskin reminded himself that hope was the gift of the young and the innocent, and not for the likes of him. He was here to collect pixie dust. He forced himself to concentrate. A basic gathering spell shook the magic loose from the flowers, a stream of sparkling dust flowing to the glass vial he held in his free hand. Then he was done, the vial stoppered again.

He didn't bother climbing down the tree. A transport spell took him directly to the cottage at the edge of the beach. He materialized a few steps from the front porch, where Belle was sitting next to a table with the baby in her lap. The chair was slanted sideways so that she could use her right hand to hold a pen and write in the notebook lying at the edge of the table.

Of course, of all the things she could conjure, it would be that, thought Rumplestiltskin. Then as he took in the exhaustion shadowing her face and the rough, unkempt braid she had thrown over her shoulder, he was overcome by guilt. Magic or not, he had left her with a newborn infant all by herself.

Then she glanced up and saw him, and his mouth went dry. Their eyes met and he didn't know what to say.

She spoke first, greeting him softly. "Hey."

Seeing that she didn't seem to be angry, he found enough courage to approach her. On an impulse, he took out the pixie flower and set it down on the table by way of a peace offering. "I didn't... didn't mean to abandon you."

"It's all right," Belle said. "You needed space, after everything that's happened. I don't blame you." Then her eyes focused on the flower. "Is that—"

"It's a pixie flower."

"They're not extinct? That's amazing! I'll update the entry in my book." She flipped back through the pages to find a rough illustration that matched the flower, scrawled a note next to it.

"You're writing a book?" He was surprised that she had the energy for it, but then, unlike him, Belle had never been prone to moping about in a depressed funk. Not even the Darkness could sap away her fundamental enthusiasm for life.

"Well, I thought, since we're here, I might as well. You know, a new guide to the new Neverland."

"Oh. Oh, good," Rumplestiltskin said lamely. "You've mastered that transport spell? So you've been exploring the island? Lost Boys haven't given you any trouble?"

"No, Tink settled them in a valley on the other side of Neverland. They're much more peaceful these days. A couple of them agreed to let me interview them."

"Ah. Well, don't overdo it. Your health..." He gave her a worried glance. "Don't forget to sleep."

"That would have been easier if you'd stuck around to help with Gideon," Belle said, an edge of annoyance finding its way into her voice, but before she could continue her rebuke, the baby woke up and started squirming. Belle sighed and stood up, carrying him off the porch and to the edge of the woods, where she unwrapped his clothes and let him relieve himself into the dirt.

"I didn't think you wanted to see me..." Rumplestiltskin trailed after her, then blinked in surprise. "What, no nappies?"

"I'm going diaper-free," Belle explained. "Better for the environment, and cleaner for him. When he's a bit older we can teach him about toilets."

"Yes, but..." After so many years of living in Storybrooke, he had forgotten that such alternatives were possible. "Wait, how did you know he needed to...?"

"An attunement cantrip. I admit magic can be useful. It's not all ripping out hearts and throwing fireballs!" Belle shot him a reproachful look.

"I don't do it to entertain myself," he protested. But it wasn't much of a defense. He knew full well he was guilty of many terrible deeds, and Belle knew it, too. The question was whether he had stopped. Given what he had nearly done to Tinker Bell, he hadn't. He wasn't sure he could. "I'm sorry, Belle. I can't... can't be the man you want. I've always been weak..."

Her expression changed. "Rumple, stop. Don't say that. It's not true!"

It was true. He couldn't bear to see Belle deceive herself again, but he couldn't move, couldn't think of anything to say. He looked away at the beach, his jaw tight with unspoken pain.

Then Belle was there, too close, with Gideon. And then she thrust the baby gently at him, nudging his arm and encouraging him to hold their child. "Rumple, look... he's alive, our son, because of you. You saved him. That's not weakness. You don't always fail, no matter what the Darkness says."

He swallowed hard, his eyes drawn despite himself to the infant resting between them. When Belle didn't back away, he nodded and tentatively raised his arms to take Gideon. Still small, but, "He's growing so quickly." Rumplestiltskin managed a faint smile. "His mother must be feeding him well."

"I'm glad he is growing," said Belle. "I wasn't sure he would, in Neverland."

"He will, until he's old enough to know his own name," Rumplestiltskin replied absently, still taken with wonder at having his son in his arms. "That's how the magic works in this realm."

"Really? I didn't know that." Belle went back to her table and scribbled another note in the book.

He followed, but stopped at the edge of the porch, leaning back against the wooden railing. He knew she was trying to distract him from his self-doubt. He looked sadly down at Gideon. "Belle, you know what I am. I'm not a hero, not a savior."

Belle stared down at the page, the pen gripped tightly in her fingers. "You're not a monster, either."

"I... look, the Final Battle is coming. What if you find me fighting for the wrong side? You saved me, but we may all regret it, in the end." He had never wanted to be the villain, but he knew by now that his priorities made his choices darker than Belle could accept. If whatever war was brewing threatened his family, he would do anything to protect them.


"You said it yourself: my fear makes me too weak to be good. I'm a man who makes the wrong choices."

"And it was my fear that made me say that!" said Belle, finally looking up from her book to stare at him. "I was afraid of what you might do to Gideon. What you might do to me. I wasn't... wasn't thinking clearly."

"It doesn't mean you were wrong about me."

"I was! You didn't kill Tinker Bell. You saved Gideon, even at the cost of your own life. Even with the Darkness eating away at your soul." Belle's eyes were haunted, and her voice shook slightly as she said, "And now I know what that feels like, how difficult it is to fight that voice..."

And there was another tally mark on his ledger of evil. He had done that to her, darkened her soul, even while professing his love.

"You shouldn't blame yourself for that, either," she said, knowing him too well. "It's not your fault. I chose freely to go with you, every time. I'll never regret Gideon, and if the Darkness is what we needed in order to save him, then I don't regret that, either. If there's blood on my hands, it was for the sake of people I love."

She had talked his mother into sacrificing herself. Magic couldn't have done it. Belle didn't need magic the way he did, and so the Darkness took a different path with her. "I'm sorry. You deserve so much better."

And then she was up, moving around the table to grab him by the shoulders, standing as close as she could with Gideon held in between them. He thought she was actually going to shake him, but she merely looked earnestly into his eyes. "And you deserved parents who loved you, but this is where we are. I  love you. Even if... even if we lost our way for awhile. You're still the best man I know, whether you call yourself a hero or a villain."

"You can't mean that..."

She did. Impulsive as she was, he thought she would have kissed him, if it were not for the baby held awkwardly between them. She looked like she was about to try it anyway, but Rumplestiltskin twisted and slid away. "Rumple..."

"I've lied, I've murdered, I've created monsters and caused immeasurable harm," he said. "How is any of that good?"

"Because I don't know anyone else that would have done better in your place. Oh, maybe here and there, but not overall." Belle moved around to face him. "Whatever this Final Battle is about, I know you'll do your best for Gideon."

"Yes. But..." He stopped. They had said it all before. She believed in him, until she didn't. He didn't want to hurt her, but he did. If they wanted to change... if they could... time would tell. Meanwhile, he looked down at their son. "I think he's hungry."

Belle let him hand Gideon to her, then sat down again in her chair and positioned herself with the infant. "It's so peaceful here. Just... lonely."

"I'm sure Tink could be persuaded to drop in more often for a neighborly chat if you'd like," he said, but he knew that wasn't what she meant. Rumplestiltskin moved around the table to look at Belle's notebook. He reached down to flick through the book. She had already filled up over half the pages. How long had they been in Neverland?

Belle's hand touched his and he glanced up, startled. "Rumple, stay. Maybe I can help you with your research. Or, if not, can't you just... stay for the night?"

"I... I don't know." He watched her warily. She had forgiven him, for the moment, but how long would that last? Coward, mocked the voices in the darkness, and he accepted it for truth. He couldn't, couldn't face her inevitable future rejection, no matter how much he longed for them to be together now. "I'm sorry."

A pained expression flickered across her face, and Belle withdrew her hand. "No, I'm sorry. I told myself I wasn't going to do that anymore, but sometimes I just wish..." Her voice trailed off, then she shook her head. "I'm not asking you to share my bed. But maybe we could have tea together, like we used to? Do you remember?"

"Tea, in Neverland?" he scoffed, but couldn't help feeling wistful at the thought. Of course he remembered. "Oh, all right. But it'll be conjured tea, and that's never as good as the real thing."

"I don't mind." Belle smiled warmly, and he thought that for a few hours at least, he could pretend that they were back at the Dark Castle, before everything had gone so horribly wrong between them. He conjured a whole tea set, while Belle contributed pastries in the style of Avonlea, all her childhood favorites. Once Gideon was asleep again in her lap, she asked Rumplestiltskin about his research. He told her everything he had learned so far, and added his speculations about how pixie dust could be the catalyst for making the temporal magic work.

Both of them stared then at the flower he had given her. Belle conjured a glass bowl, filled it with water summoned from one of Neverland's hidden springs, and set the flower in it.

"What about Gideon?" she asked suddenly.


"If you get this spell to work, do we use it on Gideon? He already grew up once, even if it wasn't with us. Should we take that away from him?"

"We'll ask him. The same way we did before, in the dream world."

Gideon wanted his childhood.

Rumplestiltskin was glad for Belle's sake. Though she had been afraid of his answer, she had been willing to give up that precious span of motherhood if he chose not to relive those vulnerable years again. But he had. Even without his heart, he had missed his parents, and now that his heart was restored, he wanted more than ever to grow up within the circle of their love.

Gideon would remember, of course. They had done nothing to erase his memories of the Black Fairy and her dark realm. In dreams, that other life would always be part of him. But for now, Belle had her baby again.

Rumplestiltskin slipped back outside while they slept. He sat on the edge of the porch to watch the stars and the sea. Eventually he, too, drifted off, slumped against the wooden post of the railing.

"I like to watch the sun rise." Belle joined him on the porch, Gideon cradled in her arm.

Rumplestiltskin grunted noncomittally. Together, they watched the sky turn bright and the red disk of the sun sliding up over the horizon. It darkened briefly.

"Did you see that?"

"The Shadow, sending the dreamers home," said Rumplestiltskin. Smaller shapes, ghostly spirit-forms of children, had flown in a ragged line behind the demon of Neverland.

"Do you think he remembers us?"

"I don't know. Belle, it isn't... isn't Gideon. The Shadow is part of this realm. That's all."

Belle was silent for awhile. Then, as she stood up again, she said softly, "Perhaps your mother was right. Neverland is worth preserving."

"I'd like to think so. I'm sure she does; after all, she gave up her life and her family for it."

A few days later, Rumplestiltskin completed work on his new potion. To his surprise, Belle had a new potion of her own.

"It's a cure for the sleeping curse on Snow and David," she explained, her eyes bright with triumph. "They had me studying it before, but I didn't have the right ingredients back in Storybrooke. I needed the pixie flower and the Neverland water to make it work."

"A clever solution; I'm not sure the Charmings deserve it." He scowled, remembering their responsibility in the matter of Belle's most recent kidnapping.


He sighed. If she had forgiven them, he could hardly hold a grudge. Besides, she was safe now. Hyde was dead. "Fine. I hope they appreciate your help."

Tinker Bell saw them off. She handed them a letter to give to the Blue Fairy. "I doubt I'll ever return to Storybrooke, but if any of the sisters want to come here, let them know I'll welcome them."

Rumplestiltskin snorted at the idea of the Blue Fairy deigning to set foot in a realm ruled by one she considered far beneath her. One who had, in a way, usurped her former position as the so-called "Original Power of the Night." And as long as she didn't approve of it, who among her followers would dare move an inch out of line?

But Belle was more optimistic. "Of course. Neverland is a beautiful place; I'll miss it!"

"You're welcome here, too, Belle," said Tink. She gave Rumplestiltskin a less enthusiastic look. "And you, I suppose."

"I'm overwhelmed." Then he glanced at Belle. "Well, maybe after the Final Battle, should we be so fortunate as to survive it."

Belle smiled bravely, clutching Gideon close to her chest.

Rumplestiltskin tried to smile back as he annointed their child's forehead with a drop of his new potion. Then he took out the Apprentice's wand and drew the portal. "Wish us luck..."

A moment later, they were back in Storybrooke.

Chapter Text

Time snapped back into place around her, digging its teeth into every particle of her being. Belle instinctively tried to ward her son with magic, but it was unnecessary. Gideon remained an infant. A moment later, the cold hit her. Even indoors, Maine in winter was far chillier than Neverland. She shivered, trying to keep her teeth from chattering. She glanced around and recognized the foyer of Rumple's house, the late afternoon light providing dim illumination. The ground outside was covered with a layer of fresh snow.

Rumple steadied her with a touch on her back. "I'll turn up the heat." He gestured, and Belle could hear the fan whirring. Warmer air gusted from the vents.

"Thanks." Central heating. Plumbing. All the trappings of modern civilization. Rumple headed for the kitchen and she followed him, feeling suddenly grungy and out of place in the midst of all that gleaming technology. What she wanted now was a bath and clean clothes. She knew it was petty and meaningless in the face of whatever disaster loomed ahead of them, but the thought overwhelmed her: she hadn't had a proper bath or even a shower in— "How long have we been gone?"

"I'm not sure. A week or two?" He was clearly guessing. And looking as neatly put-together as ever, but he was using magic, damn him. "Oh, and as no one knows we're back yet, I'd like to keep it that way for now..."

"But..." Belle frowned, hating his constant paranoia, but reluctant as she was to agree with it, she was beginning to feel the same way. With everything that they had already gone through, she didn't want to take any more risks with their son's safety.

The world is a cruel place, full of evil intentions, whispered the voice of the darkness.

"Not for long. Just until we can assess the situation. This town attracts trouble, and there may be more untold stories holding grudges..."

"Fine." Belle supposed the Charmings could live with their curse a little longer. "I understand."

Looking relieved, Rumple changed the subject. "Are you hungry? Do you want something to eat? Soup? I can get you something from the freezer, or the cupboard..."

"What I want..." Belle thrust Gideon firmly in Rumple's direction. " for you to hold the baby while I take a bath. And wash my hair. And take a bath..."

"Ah." He stared back at her, wide-eyed, accepting the transfer without argument. Gideon waved a tiny fist at his father, then settled back into his usual state of new-baby stupor. "Right. Of course. I'll, uh, I'll wait here, shall I?"

The bath was beautiful, especially the second one, after she had washed off the week or two's worth of grime. Belle sank down into the tub of hot water, her thoughts drowsy and more relaxed than they had been in a long time. As much as she adored Gideon, it had worn her out to have to hold onto him every hour of every day for however many days it had been. Sure, magical attunement spells let her have a few moments apart, but the baby had still required her constant attention.

Now, however, she could trust Rumple to look after their child. And she found that she did trust him, at least with Gideon. More, she wanted them to do this together, to be parents together. When their son grew up again to become the man they had so briefly met, she wanted him to have the memory of a happy, loving family. She knew that Rumple was still wary of their being together again, but she also knew that she didn't want to go back to Hook's ship. Whether it was the Final Battle or the ordinary trials of parenthood, she and Rumple were better off working together, if they could just be honest with each other.

She went downstairs to tell him so.

The sound of voices gave her pause. Then she smelled the food. She peeked into the kitchen to find that Dove had come by with a bag of cheeseburgers and fries from Granny's... and also Zelena's baby. Belle gasped, instinctively scrabbling for magic at the sight of a human child dandling on the ogre's knee.

"It's all right, sweetheart," Rumple said hastily. "Dove hasn't eaten a human in decades, and I assure you, he isn't about to devour an infant now."

Dove grinned and nodded.

Though she was unsure if her husband was joking about the eating humans part, Belle saw now that the baby, at least, looked happy enough, chewing on a brightly-striped squeaky toy. And Rumple apparently trusted in Dove's discretion about their return to Storybrooke. Belle let out her breath and released the spell harmlessly, turning her attention to her own child, reactivating her attunement cantrip. Gideon was sleeping contentedly in the crook of Rumple's arm. Nothing to worry about, then. She moved forward to snag a fry, then glanced sideways at Dove. "Hold on... you've been looking after Robyn all this time?"

Dove nodded. "Three weeks." His grin broadened and he tugged playfully at the baby toy.

Belle blinked. "You... do you have children, then?"

He shook his head.

"Then how...? I mean, taking care of a human baby?" Belle had a hard time wrapping her head around the concept. Perhaps he had memories of babysitting from the Curse? Or...

"Youtube," said Dove. "How-to everything. Better than magic."

Rumple's lips quirked in amusement. "He seems to have bonded with the child. Just as well, since Regina and Emma Swan are still missing."

"Wait, missing? What happened?" Belle stuffed another fry into her mouth to stop herself burying them in more questions.

"You were distracted at the time, but if you think back, you may recall that Regina took a sword through the gut. The same enchanted sword that nearly killed Gideon..." Rumple pushed a cheeseburger towards Belle as he explained. "In order to save her life, I put her in the Cauldron of Rebirth."

"You said you'd lost the cauldron." Belle absently picked up the burger and nibbled at it.

"Not exactly. It had its own ideas, and decamped from this realm with Regina. Miss Swan decided to accompany them."

"Well, are you going to get them back?"

"The cauldron is a divine artifact. It may not be wise to interfere."

"Hades was divine," Belle pointed out. "Do you think this cauldron can be trusted?"

Rumple looked at her, and sighed. "I'll see what I can find out. I suspect its fate may be entangled with this supposed 'Final Battle.'"

Dove stood up, lifting Robyn to sit in his arm. He glanced at Rumple and coughed discreetly.

Rumple nodded. "Thank you for coming by. I think we have everything we need for now. And... I suppose you'd best keep Robyn. I can see we'll have great fun explaining 'Uncle Dove' to Regina once we catch up to her."

Dove chuckled.

"But don't neglect the rest of it. Now that Hyde's dead, the Storybrooke properties technically revert back to me. That was the deal."

Belle was surprised. "Hyde agreed to that? Wouldn't that just give you more of an incentive to kill him?"

"He gambled that he could complete his revenge before I could achieve his death." Rumple's eyes slid away guiltily. "And he almost won that game..."

Belle leaned forward and touched his knee gently. "But he didn't."

"No." Rumple shook away the memory. "Well, anyway, I'd rather not play property manager right now. Dove, how are Jocko and Chance shaping up? Think they'll do for the job?"

"They'll do. Good lads, both."

"Excellent. You can see to it, then."

As Dove headed out with Robyn, Belle tried to remember who Jocko and Chance were. It wasn't until she had finished eating that the memory came back to her: they were two of the Lost Boys who had been saved from Neverland along with Henry. Rumple had felt some responsibility for them, as it had been his father who had kidnapped them in the first place; although he had never said anything openly, Belle had known. But he had only had time to place Jocko and Chance with Dove before... before he had died. After that, the Dark Curse had been destroyed, Storybrooke undone, and all its inhabitants dispersed into the Enchanted Forest. If the subsequent curse cast by Snow White had returned the Lost Boys, Belle had taken no notice of it at the time.

"What about you?" Rumple's soft query woke her out of her wandering thoughts, and she looked up to find him watching her.

"Me? I... oh." Belle swallowed, then recalled her original intentions on coming into the kitchen. "I'd like to... can I stay here? For Gideon's sake, we can at least... be under one roof?"

Rumple's expression eased fractionally. "Of course."

It had been her reading room, once, comfortably tucked away in the southeast corner of the second floor. Now Rumple added a bed and a bassinet to go along with the bookshelves, desk, and rocking chair. After a moment's thought, he summoned a plastic basin from somewhere for Gideon, since it was too cold to take him outside and it would be a shame to ruin the rug.

"I cheat a little when I'm sleeping," Belle admitted. She sat on the edge of the bed and took Gideon back into her arms, unsurprised to find him hungry again. "I conjured some cloth diapers."

Rumple snorted. "It's not a contest. There aren't any rules; you do whatever works for you and Gideon." He glanced around. "I should... check some things. But if there's anything else you need..."

"Yeah, I'll let you know." Belle bit her lip, wishing there was something she could ask for to make them whole again. But there wasn't, and she watched in silence as Rumple turned and left her alone in her room with Gideon.

Once Gideon was peacefully asleep again in the bassinet, Belle turned to her books. It was too early to sleep, and Rumple wasn't the only one who could do research. She put away her Neverland notebook and started a fresh one, this one for anything she could find out or deduce about the Final Battle.

A couple of days later, Belle transported herself along with Gideon to the Sorcerer's mansion. It was dustier than the last time she had been there, with more cobwebs hanging from the corners, but otherwise unchanged. It was hidden away at the edge of Storybrooke, where most townsfolk preferred to forget its existence. Belle headed straight for the library and began sorting through the books. Among them were ancient, hand-written journals kept legible by preservation charms.

"Merlin's records," she told Gideon. By now, she was adept at holding a baby in her lap while reading or writing. "Oh, this is clever: the language he wrote in is long dead, but he wanted to be understood, so he bound a translation spell into the paper."

The story Merlin told was half-familiar from things he had said to Belle and the others when they had been in Camelot, but this time, she paid closer attention to the details. Two fugitives fled into a desert, saved by the miraculous appearance of a cup from heaven. Or perhaps not. The first fugitive had been struck down instantly when he touched the cup, reduced to a smoking pile of ashes.

"Whoa. That's... harsh." Belle read it again, but it looked even worse the second time. "Maybe he had darkness in his heart, and the holy grail knew that...?" Her arms tightened instinctively on her son. He had been born with darkness in his soul. Would the magic have struck Gideon down, too? Or Belle herself? She shuddered, remembering that Excalibur, the later form of the grail, had been just as ruthless. And yet Rumple had pulled it from the stone without being harmed!

She read on. Merlin had humbled himself before the gods, and been permitted to drink. He had received a gift of great magic, which he used to heal the land and its people. The power bestowed immortality upon him, but also a new responsibility: the messenger of the gods tasked him with appointing the Authors down through the ages.

And so it went, until Merlin met Nimue. Nimue, whom he loved, had secretly drunk from the grail... and overwhelmed by the thirst for vengeance, crushed her enemy's heart. The violence of the act had transformed her into the first Dark One. Excalibur had been broken on the night of its forging, and Merlin had tethered Nimue's soul to the fragment that became the Dark One dagger in order to control her. A betrayal, that, but done in order to prevent her evil from harming others. Darkness begat darkness, even in Merlin.

Belle stopped again. Nimue had been able to drink from the grail without being struck down. And centuries later, Arthur had likewise drawn Excalibur from the stone. Arthur had been no hero, either, by the time Belle met him. So what did that say about the grail's judgement? Was it simply that they had been sufficiently humble? She thought back to the one instance she had witnessed its test — with Rumple. Was it humility or purity of heart that Excalibur recognized? Or something else? At the time, she had wanted so much for him to be a hero that she hadn't questioned the traditional story.

She had met Merlin. The old sorcerer hadn't been evil. And yet... the source of his power killed without mercy. She had seen that kind of cruelty before, in Rumple, when he was lost to the Darkness. He had killed people with that same ease. Belle had wanted with all her heart for Rumple to turn darkness into light, but if the holy grail had held darkness from the beginning, perhaps it had been futile all along.

Troubled by the thought, Belle forced herself to turn the page. This was getting her no closer to understanding the Final Battle. But there was little more left in the book. Once Merlin had been trapped as a tree, his writing had slowed to a trickle of fragmented hopes and warnings. Some of it concerned Camelot, and Arthur. The last few pages spoke of a girl growing up in another realm who was destined to be a Savior. Then premonitions of his own death.

Belle sighed and shut the book. From what she had heard, Merlin was dead now, though she was unclear on the details. "Sometimes I'm very glad I'm not a seer."

She replaced it on the shelf and picked out another. It turned out to be a very early volume of the Author's books, maybe even the first. She read a story of the gods fighting back darkness and primal chaos to bring light and order to the world. But the chaos was a constant threat. If the gods faltered, anarchy would be loosed...

"Aha. That... that sounds like a war, doesn't it?" Belle murmured to Gideon. "The gods battling the forces of chaos."

The book didn't actually mention a 'Final Battle', but it hinted at ongoing conflicts throughout history, with gods-chosen heroes defeating the monsters spawned by chaos. And that was the closest she came to anything relevant that day, even after searching through dozens of other books in the library.

She reported her results to Rumple that afternoon when she handed Gideon over to him for his turn at parenting duties. "Sorry. Not very helpful, I know."

"I haven't had much luck, either," he said. "But there's a spell I'm working on that may prove illuminating."

When Belle returned to the sorcerer's library the next day, she found Rumple already there.

Physically, at least.

He had cleared the furniture from the middle of the room, rolling up the rug to reveal the hardwood floor, a floor which was currently marked up with barely-dry acrylic paint. Belle recognized a spell circle when she saw one, and that this was one of the more obscure configurations. Rumple, stripped down to just his dress shirt, the sleeves pushed back to his elbows, lay face-down in the center of the circle. His left hand was locked around the Dark One dagger while blood dripped down the blade onto the book that lay open under his fist.

"Rumple!" Belle left Gideon in his bassinet at the door and hurried forward. "What have you done?"

At the sound of her voice, Rumplestiltskin's shadow vibrated and hissed, rising up like a hooded serpent with two glowing eyes.

Belle stopped short at the edge of the circle, sensing the power still sparking through it. She poked a wary finger through the space above the lines. An invisible force pushed back at her. "Rumplestiltskin!"

A moment later, he gasped, his whole body seeming to convulse. Then his shadow subsided back into ordinary flatness, its eyes shuttered once more. He pulled himself up shakily onto his knees and turned his head until he faced Belle, but his gaze was unfocused, as if he couldn't really see her.

"Rumple, you're bleeding..." She tested the circle again, but magic threw her back as before.

"No... no, stay back." He lowered his head and shook it slowly. "It's fine. I just... I had to know..." His hand opened, dropping the dagger, and he pressed his bloodied hand against the pages of the book, fingers splayed. "My mother's visions. And mine."

"What... what did you see?"

He stared down at his hand, or at the book, or at the dagger — Belle didn't know which. His lips drew back and he bared his teeth in a pained grimace. "..."


He rocked forward, leaning onto his hands. Then he flung out his left arm in a violent, sweeping motion that hurled the book upwards. It shot through the spell barrier, disintegrating it in a shower of crimson sparks, and flew straight at Belle. "See for yourself!"

Belle flinched back, fumbling with both hands at the flying book. She caught it clumsily, then righted it and saw that it was a black, hardcover sketchbook, the pages blank except for the ones he had bled on. All she could see was the blurred print of his hand pressed over a random splatter of blood. "What...? I don't understand. I can't read anything here..."

He scoffed, a harsh, nasty sound on the edge of madness. "Of course not."

Belle clutched the book to her chest and stalked forward into the circle. "Damn it, just tell me!"

"A hair cut and a memory potion!" He spat out the words as if they were the answer to a riddle. Then, in a lower voice, "I was afraid. I was always afraid... but useless, so, so useless. It knew. The dagger always knew."

She took another step forward, crouching down in front of him to set the book at his feet. "Please, Rumple. Whatever it is, you can tell me." She reached out to touch his shoulder.

He lifted his head, his eyes finally seeming to find her. "The question, my dear, is, 'What does Rumplestiltskin do when he sees too much of the future?'"

Belle gaped. A memory potion, she could understand. Some things no one wanted to know. But what did his hair have to do with it? She felt him shiver under her touch.

"How many times do we die?" His voice had dropped to a whisper. "How many times can we return before our thread is cut forever? Before the story ends?"

"You saw a vision of your own death?"

"There's a lot of that going around. My death, the Savior's death, Gideon's death..." Rumple sat back on his heels and smiled mirthlessly. "But in the vision I had long hair..."

"You thought you could change fate by cutting your hair short?" Belle blinked at him in disbelief. "Did you use the magic shears?"

"No. That was before." He sighed, his smile vanishing. "It was merely a small gesture of defiance on my part. A fresh start, a new future... ignorance is bliss, isn't that what people say?"

"So you took a potion to forget?"

"I wasn't sure what I had seen. Looking too closely might have locked it into truth. But as it turns out, I wasn't the only one 'blessed' with that knowledge." He lifted his bloodied hand and frowned at it as he turned it palm up. "My mother was another. And there was an oracle... the Evil Queen killed her. And Emma Swan, of course. But I think it originated with Merlin. He's the one we need to talk to."

"Merlin." She hadn't found anything about it in his journal, but perhaps he hadn't written everything that he had seen. Sorcerers liked their secrets. "But Merlin's dead, isn't he?"

"His heart was crushed when Hook cast the Dark Curse to bring you all back from Camelot," said Rumple, speaking with a seer's certainty. "But the Sorcerer being what he was, he isn't entirely bound by linear chronology. And when we were in Neverland, I acquired something of a familiarity with time."

"Are you suggesting...?"

"Yeah. There's an old mask... It's in the vault under the Dark Castle." Rumple drew his right hand down his face, as if lowering an invisible visor. "If I use that, I think I can reach Merlin. Close enough to ask a few questions, at least."

"And if he's the one who started these prophecies, maybe he can stop them!" Belle frowned down at the blood-stained book. "Because I am not letting fate kill our son. Or you."

Rumple squeezed her hand gently. "No, of course not. We'll protect him, Belle."

She let out a long breath. She gestured at the marked-up pages. It still looked like meaningless splatters to her, but... "So, um, you can read something in this? It's something drawn from your memory?"

"Yes." He picked up the dagger and traced the patterns with the tip. "The Savior moves towards the Final Battle. The rest of us orbit that fate... we will meet Regina again, that much is clear. A third line ties us together, but see how faint it is, sometimes there, sometimes not..."

"And the deaths you foresee?" Belle held her breath, wanting to know, but afraid of his answer.

"Ah. In battle, there are always losses." The dagger stopped, the point digging into the paper. Rumple picked at the tear with his other hand, methodically stripping the page apart bit by bit.

"Fate can be changed. You have the Shears of Destiny..." Belle couldn't believe she was the one saying this, but if Gideon's life was at stake, they had to try to save him however they could.

"And I used them, thinking to spare you, to spare our son — yet here we are. Fate has a way of twisting everything we do. I should have known better."

"Then what do we do? Rumple, we have to do something."

"Yes. I'll grow out my hair."

Belle stared at him in outrage and disbelief. "What?"

He lifted a palm in surrender and sighed. "We can't evade fate with cheap tricks. We'll find Merlin, see what he knows. We'll figure out another way..."

Before they could leave for the Enchanted Forest, they had two tasks to complete. The visit to deliver the cure for the Charmings went about as well as could be expected. They found David Nolan in the Sheriff's office.

"What have you done to Emma and Regina?" he demanded as soon as he recognized them, jumping out of his chair and reaching for his gun.

"Nothing, beyond saving Regina's life. You're welcome," said Rumple, taking no notice of the gun. "That's not what we're here for."

"I don't care what you're here for." David eyed them suspiciously, his gaze fixing on the baby in Belle's arms. "Is that... did you... did you sacrifice them to turn your son back into a child?"

"Of course not," snapped Belle indignantly, angling herself to keep Gideon out of the line of fire as much as possible. She mentally rehearsed a protection spell, just in case. "We came here to help you."

Ungrateful bastards... they're not worth it. Kill him before he hurts Gideon... The darkness pushed for something more lethal than a mere protection spell, but Belle reminded herself that David was understandably worried about his own child.

"Then where are they now?"

"In another realm," said Rumple. "Worry not, they will return to you. I haven't seen all the details, but our paths shall cross again."

"When? And are they all right?"

"Patience, Charming. You waited twenty-eight years for your re-union the first time."

"Not by choice!"

"Nor mine. Believe it or not, there are greater powers at work here than the Dark One." Rumple's smile was biting, but Belle could sense the worry he was hiding behind his mask.

"If you don't trust us, why don't you check Henry's book?" suggested Belle in an attempt to defuse their hostility. Henry was the current Author, and everyone's stories seemed to end up in his book, whether he was consciously aware of writing or not.

"We did," David answered, looking calmer now, but no less troubled. He re-holstered his gun. "He's written nothing of you two since we left the Underworld, and the last mention of Emma was the fight in the street with... with your son." He frowned again at Gideon.

"It's a long story," said Belle. "We were in Neverland. Its magic restored him to this age." Well, that was a simplification, but she wasn't in the mood to explain the details. She took out a vial and slid it onto the sheriff's desk. "This holds the cure to your particular sleeping curse. Just drink a few drops of this, each, and you'll both be fine."

David eyed the vial dubiously, then looked from Rumple to Belle and back again. "Why are you helping us? You were working — and pretty closely — with the Evil Queen, last I heard."

Belle saw Rumple twitch violently, but he managed to contain himself. "For old time's sake? Believe us or not, I don't care. You can thank Belle for this."

At which David had the grace to look ashamed for doubting Belle. She rolled her eyes in exasperation, tempted to remind him of all the times she had done the magical homework for the Charming-Mills family. "Well, if you don't want it, I'll wait and ask Snow."

"No, no, I'm sorry." He reached out a conciliatory hand to accept the potion. "Thank you. I was just... surprised."

They were interrupted at that point by Hook's arrival. Not bothering with any preliminary insults, he drew his sword and aimed it at Rumplestiltskin the moment he stepped into the office. "Damn you, Crocodile! What have you done with Swan?"

Rumple batted the sword away with an irritated wave of his hand. "Feel free to ask her the next time you see her. We have other business to attend to."

A moment later, he swept Belle and Gideon up into his transport spell and they were standing outside the convent, up to their ankles in wet snow. Fairy magic kept them from teleporting directly inside.

"Well, at least Mother Superior probably won't point any guns or swords at us," Belle said lightly.

"One would hope," grumbled her husband. He reached into his coat and retrieved Tinker Bell's letter. He gestured at the door. "Shall we?"

Even though she called herself 'Mother Superior', the Blue Fairy was not truly a nun in the sense of those in the Land Without Magic. She kept the order and discipline of a convent, but her devotion was to the gods she had followed in the old realm. Whether the fairies were actually some kind of religious order was an open question. Belle had read contradictory accounts, all of them written by outsiders. If there was anything more revealing, it must be locked away in the secret vault of the fairies that rumors spoke of.

In any case, Belle thought that this was not the time to ask. Not when she was here with Rumple, and not when Blue, who had come out to meet them inside the entrance hall, was glowering at Rumplestiltskin with such obvious distaste. The two other fairies who accompanied Blue were no more welcoming, but hid their fear with less skill.

Rumple handed over the letter stiffly, explaining Tinker Bell's new role as the fairy guardian of Neverland and her open invitation to her fellow fairies.

The Blue Fairy looked surprised. "Tinker Bell? Not your mother?"

"My mother is dead."

Blue had "good riddance" written all over her face, but she restrained herself to a simple, "I see."

Belle longed to ask her what else she saw. Did she know about the Final Battle? Was she their enemy, as Rumple always thought, or could she be persuaded to help them? But Blue's disappointed glance in her direction stopped the words in her throat.

"You persist in walking in darkness, child," said Blue, her voice gentle as falling snow. "Will you not think of your son?"

Belle edged closer to Rumple, holding Gideon safely locked in her arms. "I am thinking of him. I'm thinking he needs his father..."

Blue pressed her lips together in disapproval.

And that was that. Rumple took them away again in a cloud of red smoke. This time they materialized in his cabin, where Dove and Robyn were already waiting for them.

"Dove asked to come with us," Rumple said, taking out the wand to create the portal.

Belle glanced at the ogre curiously. "Why?"

"Helping," Dove said. "Needed me before."

"What?" Belle shot Rumple a bewildered look.

"Never mind. I'll explain later." Rumple gestured towards the door that had appeared in the air. "Come on."

The Crocodile wasn't anywhere in Storybrooke. Captain Hook came to that conclusion after searching high and low for three days. David had aided him in the search, but only half-heartedly, now that he and his wife were freed from their sleeping curse. Hook wasn't so easily fooled by a show of generosity. The Crocodile was full of lies, and this just the latest. He must have kidnapped Emma for another of his nefarious plans. It was just a matter of tracking him down and putting the question to him forcefully enough.

Unfortunately, Hook's quest failed on the first leg. Tired of going around in circles, he decided to take the edge off his frustration with a few well-earned drinks at the Rabbit Hole. His tongue loosened by alcohol, he complained of the Crocodile's treachery to everyone and anyone who would listen. Those listeners were few and far between, but when at last he stumbled out the door, he was followed into the street.

"Bloody hell," he said when he finally noticed his tail. "What do you want?"

"It seems the Savior is in need of saving. And you're just the man for that task."

"Oh, aye?" Hook peered more closely at the other. Something about his face struck him as familiar. Young, enviably handsome, but annoyingly smug. "How's that?"

"I can tell you... in exchange for a small favor."

"What favor?" Hook frowned in suspicion. "Who are you? I know you, don't I? You're—"

The other man held up a hand in warning. "Indeed I am! So, are you interested in my offer, Killian Jones?"

"I'm listening..."

Chapter Text

They stepped into darkness, the air chilly and damp around them, smelling of wet stone. Magic bubbled just underneath the surface of reality, so much easier to reach here than in Storybrooke. It was making him giddy. After taking a deep breath to steady himself, Rumplestiltskin dipped into it and conjured a silvery ball of witchlight to his fingertip.

He glanced at Belle, saw her look at him, then at Gideon, then at her own hand. Their clothes had shifted as they crossed the portal, back into their Enchanted Forest garb. She wore her blue dress underneath a heavy cloak, while he had on his dragonhide coat over a silk shirt. However, their own appearances had not changed. When the Apprentice had taken the Darkness out of Rumplestiltskin and contained it in the Sorcerer's hat, the resulting explosive reaction had destroyed the hat, but it had also tamed the intrinsic virulence of the curse — it no longer erupted in scales and skin discoloration over its hosts.

Not that Rumplestiltskin was much to look at either way, but Belle seemed relieved to be spared the distortions of the Darkness. Then her gaze flickered past him and she yelped in shock.

Rumplestiltskin turned to see Dove, restored to his natural form, looming over them. Robyn was nearly lost in the palm of a gigantic ogrish hand.

Dove grinned apologetically, but the hideous row of teeth was less than reassuring. Then he seemed to shimmer, with specks of glowing dust swirling around him, and he shrank into the human shape he had worn in all his years in Storybrooke.

Belle gaped at him. She clutched Gideon closer and took a step back. "Since when have you been able to do that?"

Dove shrugged. He bounced Robyn up and down in his arms, then explained, "Ma taught me."

"His mother is an ogre mage," Rumplestiltskin put in. "Formidable woman."

"I didn't know ogres did magic," Belle said weakly.

"It's rare. A few have a talent for self-transmogrification. Which is all very well, but not much use against demonic wolves. Or felines in fancy dress."

Dove frowned at him. "Only the one!"

"One is all it takes, dearie." He mimed a cat pouncing on a mouse. He said in an aside to Belle, "His uncle, that was. Sad story. I'm sure you've come across it before." Then he gestured at the witchlight, sending it bobbing ahead of them. "This way, if I recall correctly..."

Belle turned to follow him, Dove a few steps behind her. "Where are we?"

"Caverns under the Dark Castle." It was a long climb up, first through winding tunnels smoothed out of the natural passageways, then up a zig-zag set of stairways to a door hidden under an obfuscation charm. It opened into the back of the cistern. The main access was across the expanse of water, but a narrow walkway hugged the back wall, taking them to the bottom level of the dungeons. Rumplestiltskin had far more dungeon cells than he had ever needed, but he had liked them for their contribution to the whole doom and gloom ambience. Not that there was much of that left after Belle had moved in. Sauntering blithely in and out, releasing his prisoners...

Lost in his memories, he didn't realize at first that the voices he heard weren't just in his head until Belle tugged at his arm.

"There's someone here!" she whispered urgently. "Upstairs..."

He froze, sending a tendril of magic to revive the spells he had once woven through the castle walls, spells that had fallen into decay since the casting of the first Dark Curse. Intruders. He touched Belle's hand. "In the great hall. I'll go."

He transported himself there quietly, hidden underneath a glamour. For a moment, a memory of the last time he had been there flashed before his eyes, and his heart thudded in panic. Then he forced himself to breathe. Zelena was dead. He had control of the dagger. There was nothing to fear, not from... not from this... rabble...? He blinked in surprise. The hall was more crowded than he had ever seen it — the cage of his nightmares was gone and the dining table was back in place. The air smelled of roasted meat rather than monkey droppings.

Rumplestiltskin scanned the faces gathered around the table, watching them eat and chatter away. Ah. Yes. It would be them: Robin's merry band of outlaws. No doubt this was a more comfortable dwelling than Sherwood Forest, but to take over the Dark One's castle was a cheeky move. A flare of irritation surged through him; bad enough when he had found Robin in Baelfire's apartment in New York. Now this...

Filthy creatures crawling through your home. Exterminate them all!

He ignored the murderous impulse and made himself visible again, standing in the open doorway. "Well, well, well. Quite the party we have here. I don't recall issuing any invitations!"

In the abrupt silence, a dozen or so pairs of eyes turned to stare at him. Hands reached for weapons, but Little John, who appeared to be their leader now that Robin Hood was dead, gestured for peace. He stood up and addressed Rumplestiltskin with forced brightness, "Ah, um, welcome back! We thought, since the place was empty, why let it go to waste, eh?"

Rumplestiltskin grinned, casually raising a hand to send Little John flying back and knocking his chair over. He opened his mouth to say something suitably scathing when Belle came up behind him and grabbed him by the elbow.

"Rumple, stop it," she said breathlessly.

He made a sour face, but relented, releasing Little John from the spell. He turned to see Belle flushed and panting, Gideon clutched in one arm. She must have run upstairs rather than risk teleporting herself into potential danger. Dashing in head-first, on the other hand — well, that had always been her way. He was about to chide her for it when she dropped his elbow and stared past him, her eyes widening and her face breaking into a smile.

"Mulan!" Belle scooted around him and ran into the hall.

"Belle!" came the answering cry. A woman stood up from her place among the Merry Men and braced herself for the oncoming hug.

Rumplestiltskin eyed her warily. She wore armor even to dinner. There was something familiar about her face, though he couldn't remember where he might have seen her before. But he relaxed slightly once it became apparent that she was genuinely glad to see Belle.

"Mulan, what are you doing here?" Belle wrapped an arm around her friend. "I heard you were in Oz."

"I was, but I didn't fit in with the color scheme, so I struck off on my own. A few adventures later, I ended up with the Merry Men again." Mulan drew back a little and regarded Gideon. "This... is this... you...?"

"This is my son, Gideon," Belle said proudly.

Mulan glanced quickly at Rumplestiltskin before turning back to Belle. She lowered her voice and said, "And that's him — your husband...?"

As the warrior and the bookworm caught up with each other, Rumplestiltskin sighed and exchanged a look with Little John.

The leader of the Merry Men set his chair back upright and seated himself again. He cleared his throat uncertainly. "Ah..."

Rumplestiltskin gave up on his attempt to instill a proper degree of terror and submission among the squatters and waved an annoyed hand at them. "Make yourselves at home. It seems we're all family here." He turned his gaze to the young boy sitting among the band. The boy's eyes were solemn and a little scared, and Rumplestiltskin felt a twinge of guilt for frightening him (for the second time in as many encounters). "Roland. It's all right, boy. I'm not here to hurt anyone. Look, there's your sister." He gestured to Dove, who had arrived a few moments after Belle, to come forward with Zelena's baby. "Do you remember little Robyn?"

Another round of introductions followed. Some of the Merry Men (and Women) had joined since they returned to the Enchanted Forest. They were farmers and hunters now, there being no wealthy nobles left to steal from nor anything that gold could buy. The Dark Castle itself seemed to be their most valuable possession now.

"It's not as if you ever needed that much space," Belle reminded him when he grumbled another complaint.

Well. She wasn't wrong. It grated to share his territory without signing a contract first, but he supposed he hadn't been around to negotiate a deal. At least the vault was secure, and nothing else held much importance to him. He admitted as much to Little John, and after that, tensions eased to the point where Rumplestiltskin found himself pulling up a stool and drinking mediocre ale looted from the neighboring village.

"But seriously, why are you all living here? You have your pick of all the castles in the Enchanted Forest, and this isn't the most convenient location." He had made sure of that when he chose this place originally, all those years ago, and the mountains hadn't grown noticeably smaller since.

"Actually, it is." Little John's tone turned grim. "This castle and the land around it... it's the only place the ogres don't come."

"Ogres?" Belle turned sharply at the word. On her left, Mulan leaned over and muttered something in her ear. "Oh."

Little John nodded. "Ever since the Dark Curse, the realm has been overrun by ogres. For awhile, the wicked witch kept them busy, but now..." He turned his palms up in a helpless shrug. "We don't have the manpower to fight them. At least not fight them and win."

"I see." Rumplestiltskin hadn't given much thought to what would happen to the Enchanted Forest once the Dark Curse was cast. All his energy had been devoted to finding his son. He had intended to spend the rest of their lives in the realm Baelfire had chosen, the one where his father was a mortal man. As usual, Rumplestiltskin had made a hash of it, and now Baelfire was dead, and the consequences of his single-mindedness were coming back to bite them.

"You're the Dark One," said Friar Tuck. "Can't you do something about them? Get rid of them somehow..."

"What, kill them? Are you advocating genocide?" Rumplestiltskin bared his teeth in an ironic grin. "And you a man of God."

"You must have done something to them," Little John said, "or why else do they leave the Dark Castle alone?"

"They know better than to break a deal with me. Even so..." Rumplestiltskin turned to Dove. "More information never comes amiss. You'd better go."

Dove nodded. He glanced over to where one of the other Merry Men was holding Robyn.

"Never fear. We'll look after her," Rumplestiltskin said. "Just don't take too long about it." He gestured at a window, pushing it open magically.

A moment later, Dove was gone, and a pale gray bird rose in a flurry of wings to fly out into the evening sky. Rumplestiltskin waved the window closed again. Everyone else boggled, and he decided it was worth the loss of a secret (that was no secret to any experienced magic user) just to see the expressions on their faces. "What? Never seen a dove before?"

As the night deepened, the group dispersed. The quiet couple who had taken Roland in after his father's death volunteered to look after Robyn until Dove returned. After checking the rest of the castle and making the acquaintance of those who had not shown up for the common meal, Rumplestiltskin and Belle went to her old bedroom. The wards were still intact in that wing of the castle, and the rooms there had been untouched since the first Dark Curse. While Rumplestiltskin built a fire in the hearth, Belle sat down on the bed, unlacing the top of her dress in order to feed Gideon.

Rumplestiltskin averted his gaze. He cast about for something to say, and settled on, "Did you meet Mulan in Avonlea? I don't remember her ever being in Storybrooke."

"I met her after you threw me out of the Dark Castle," said Belle. "And later, when I ended up back in the Enchanted Forest after the Dark Curse was destroyed. When you were dead."

"Ah." Rumplestiltskin realized with a jolt that it must have been Baelfire's memory of Mulan that had given him that sense of deja vu earlier. He stared gloomily at the fire, then fed it another log. So much for light conversation.

"We have to help them, Rumple."

"Pff. That list is only growing longer." He sat back and flicked his mother's cloak of shadows out from inside his sleeve. He spread it out in front of him as if reading a map. Dream roads connected the separate dots of life that represented the sleeping children. All still at peace. Good. "Gideon's two hundred foster siblings. The Merry Men. Who's next? I don't help people; I make deals. There's a reason for that."

"Selfishness? But Rumple, you don't have to be selfish. You're better than that. I know you—"

"It's not that." Rumplestiltskin folded the black cloth and slipped it back into his sleeve. "What I am — what we are — we have to step carefully. There's a balance. Every action we take disrupts that balance. It's far safer to wait to be asked, to strike a deal and set a price as much within our control as possible. Look what happened when I 'helped' Regina."

It wasn't any advice written in lore books, nor was it a heroic way of thinking, but rather something he had learned through experience. The kind of experience that he hoped Belle would never need to endure.

"But we have to help our friends!"

"The Dark One has no friends. Family is dangerous enough." Darkness and isolation... He should have warned Belle more clearly, but love and wishful thinking had blinded them. "People want things. The Darkness is only too happy to fulfill those desires — yours, mine, or theirs... in the most destructive way, and at a steep price."

"That's horrible." It sounded more like a token protest than anything else.

By now, Rumplestiltskin thought, she must have some understanding of how dark magic worked. He sighed. "Being the Dark One isn't like being a king, a thief, or a hedge witch peddling charms on market day. It's..."

"It's what?" Belle demanded when he trailed off.

He shook his head, trying to put his feeling into words. It was a constraint that weighed even more heavily on him after he had taken on the Darkness the second time. He knew how easily obsession could trap him, just as he knew that the dagger in another's hands spelled only disaster and pain, intentions be damned. "Be careful of entanglements. We can't be too quick to judge, nor can we afford to be bound by the expectations of others."

"Well, I'm not going to abandon people who need us," Belle said obstinately.

"The people who need us may not be our friends," he countered.

"You can't mean you're going to help the ogres!"

"I'll wait to see what Dove reports. Don't worry, I won't make any deals in secret. At least, not from you." At least, not until he lost her for the last time. Somewhere in the back of his mind, the clock counted down the moments, tick-tock, until she could bear no more of him. Entanglements, indeed. He cursed himself for a hypocrite. It was all he could do to keep even this much distance between them, and he would never willingly give up his son.

"I should hope not." Belle finished feeding and cleaning Gideon, then handed him over to Rumplestiltskin. "So, what about Merlin? You said we could contact him."

Rumplestiltskin settled the baby in the crook of his arm before he answered. "Yes..."

He had a few preparations to make, so it wasn't until the next morning that he was ready to cast the spell. Since Belle insisted on taking part, they left Gideon in the care of the Merry Men.

"You see? Friends aren't so useless as you seem to think."

"They've also eaten their way through half the grain, a third of the salt, most of the sugar, and three-quarters of the jars of pickled cabbage I had in storage," Rumplestiltskin retorted.

"What, would you rather they starved?"

At which point he decided he would be wiser to shut up and concentrate on the spell. He held up the mask that he had retrieved from the vault. "This was once Nimue's. Everything we see and hear will be relayed through it."

Long ago, in Camelot, the Dark One stood before a tree. "Merlin..."

The moment repeated itself, a memory unmoored from time. Rumplestiltskin and Belle looked through the mask along with Nimue. They borrowed her thoughts, her voice.

Dark One, came the response from the tree.

"Nimue. I am Nimue."

I loved Nimue. You killed her. You're nothing but a monster behind a monster's mask...

"Damn you, Merlin. I loved you, too. But this is who I am. It was you who couldn't accept me. You killed 'Nimue' when you named me Dark One and made me your slave."

Darkness... darkness cannot be allowed to run loose across the land...

"Yet now I am free and you are powerless. Tell me you love me, and perhaps I'll release you from this prison."

You're not Nimue. Who are you?

"Merlin..." Rumplestiltskin forced the name through Nimue's voice. "Merlin. Merlin!"

Reality shifted. They were no longer in Camelot. Walls of bright crystal shimmered around them, emitting light that dazzled the eyes. Merlin stood before them, human again, awake again, though perhaps not alive. "Dark One... Dark Ones..."

Rumplestiltskin kept a tight grip on Belle's hand, trying to shield her from the magic trying to force them away. "We can't stay for long, so we'd appreciate it if you'd answer a few questions..."


"I'm sorry. Nimue's dead," Belle said softly. "What is this place? It's not the Underworld. Your apprentice was there, and Nimue, but not you..."

"They've trapped me here."

"Who?" Rumplestiltskin asked. He was beginning to feel light-headed, and he had to draw on the Darkness just to keep from dissolving into the crystalline reflections. Belle added her strength to his, and it was enough, for now.

"I've seen too much." Merlin seemed to struggle to get the words out.

"That's 'why', not 'who'. Never mind. What did you see? The Final Battle?"

"It's not what I thought. It never was." Merlin stared urgently at them, as if trying to send them a message through thought alone, but whatever spell stifled his words was too effective a gag. "From the beginning, we were used. Remember that, and don't ever lose each other."

"What do you mean, 'used'?" asked Belle. "I've read your journal. You didn't say anything about a Final Battle."

"Light to destroy the dark, dark to destroy the light. What I told Emma. What Nimue told her. Lies we took for truth. Pride we mistook for wisdom. The only destruction would have been self-destruction. To succeed is to fail, to fail is the lot of mortal man."

"Enough with the cryptic babble! Can you not tell us one useful thing? One? Is that so much to ask?"

"You took the power back. 'With great power comes great responsibility.'"

"Spare us the pop culture allusions." Rumplestiltskin longed for his gold-handled cane, wanting to smash the glittering crystals that surrounded them. He wondered what, if anything, lay behind those enchanted walls. But he was little more than a phantom, and his cane had no substance here.

"No, he has something specific in mind," Belle said. "What responsibility?"

"To the many, to one and all. Do you know how to count?"

"Of course we know how to count," Rumplestiltskin hissed. It was taking more and more energy to stand within this crystal cave.

"Then count! Count them all, and remember. You help them, and they help you. In a game, every move generates a countermove... just know when the board is reversed."

"What are we meant to count?" asked Belle, while Rumplestiltskin fought back an urge to pummel straight answers out of Merlin's skull.

But time had run out. They fell back into the library in the Dark Castle, Nimue's mask slipping from Rumplestiltskin's numb fingers. Shaky and weak from the exertion of the spell, his vision spangled with a lattice of diamond-shaped after-images, he half-collapsed against Belle. She guided him to the armchair, where he collapsed with an angry grunt.

"Well, that was spectacularly useless." He couldn't meet her eyes, knowing that he had failed again. "Was he like that in Camelot?"

"No. I think he's under a spell." Belle picked up the mask, then sat down on the edge of a small table.

"Obviously. I would have tried to break it, but it took everything from both of us just to maintain contact."

"Such a strange place." Belle sighed. After a moment, she mused, "I've never heard of magic like that. He said 'they', so he has at least two very powerful enemies. Who could be our enemies, too. We don't know who or why. I don't like not knowing."

"No," agreed Rumplestiltskin. "For what it's worth, I believe Merlin was trying to help us. Death seems to have blunted the edge of his hatred of the Darkness. You note he said I took the 'power' back, not the 'darkness'."

"That's good, then. I just wish his help was more, you know, helpful." Belle set down the mask, but continued sitting on the table. "What do we do now?"

Rumplestiltskin chuckled joylessly. "What else? We find out what we're supposed to count. And we start counting..."

Chapter Text

Rumplestiltskin materialized in the library in a swirl of black smoke and ill temper.

"What's wrong?" Belle looked up from the history book she had been poring over in hopes of finding some hint as to the identity of Merlin's enemies (enemies, wars, battles, prophecies... went the refrain in the back of her mind.)

He scowled, brushing snow off his coat and letting it melt in wet clumps on the floor. "The village. Do you remember the village, the one down in the valley?"

Belle nodded warily. She had made the trek down the mountain a few times in her days as Rumplestiltskin's servant, bound by magic not to escape. Lost in nostalgia, her mind drifted. The next thing she knew, Rumple was standing disconcertingly close to her, waving a hand in front of her face. She blinked as he stepped back. Had he just cast a spell on her? Her mind felt oddly fizzy. He's hiding something from you... She shoved down the spike of paranoia and adjusted her grip on Gideon, making sure that he was safe. "What? Did you say something?"

"...?" Rumple's question slid right through her without making an impression.

"Sorry, what?" She had a vague memory of him asking the same thing before, more than once (why couldn't she focus?) but he repeated himself patiently.

"Do you remember the innkeeper? Tall, bald, with a passion for fast horses?"

"Him. Yes. I remember his wife hated his gambling," Belle recalled. The image snapped into place in her mind. She hadn't thought of them in ages.

"What was his name? What was his wife's name?" Rumplestiltskin's eyes were intent as he waited for her reply.

"..." Belle opened her mouth, the names on the tip of her tongue. Try as she might, she couldn't remember. "Sorry. It was a long time ago."

Rumplestiltskin held her gaze for a moment longer, then turned and slapped a hand against the table. "I can't remember, either."

"Wait, what?" Belle peered at her husband in disbelief. He remembered everyone. Names were his stock in trade, as he liked to say.

"I went to the village. It was empty. Not one human soul left. And the same for the rest of the Enchanted Forest."

"Well, that was the Dark Curse. Snow White wouldn't have left anyone behind."

He turned to look at her again. "And you don't see anything wrong with that?"

"She isn't a sorcerer. It's not as if she had that much control over it, even with Regina's help." At his frown, she sighed. "Look, they did their best... we didn't know how else to defeat Zelena."

"No, that's not what I meant." He straightened and began pacing back and forth, frustration emanating off him in waves. "The Dark Curse ripped the realm apart..."

"Yes...?" Hadn't that been the point? Belle wished she knew what he was getting at.

"People fell through the cracks. Did you ever see the innkeeper or his wife in Storybrooke?"

Thinking about it, Belle shook her head. No, she hadn't. "But I didn't meet everyone in Storybrooke."

"I did. I collected rent from most of them. Oh, not always in person, but I knew who they were." He gestured. An enormous plastic binder, ill-matched to the ancient tomes of the Dark Castle, appeared in his hand. "I knew everyone. All their names are listed in here..."

"You should have been a spy," Belle quipped, but he only looked more upset at her words.

"I've been so stupid," he hissed. He came over to her and forced an exchange, lifting Gideon out of her arms and dropping the binder in her lap. "I'm a fool. I didn't care enough to think."

"What are you talking about?" If anything, she would have said Rumple had a tendency to overthink everything. She opened the binder and looked down at a list of names, addresses, phone numbers. Each entry included both the Storybrooke identities and their Enchanted Forest equivalents. She flipped through the pages, then glanced back at Rumple. "Wouldn't a smartphone or a tablet be lighter?"

"Paper holds enchantment better. You need to concentrate." He gestured with his chin, directing her attention back to the binder. "Sort by location."

"How do I..." She looked back down at the pages, and the entries blurred, re-arranged themselves. "Ok, but any decently implemented database can do as much, without any magic..." At Rumple's snort of surprise, she glanced up again and said, "Come to think of it, why don't you use computers in your magic?"

"Oh, and that doesn't have the potential to end badly..." He began pacing again, this time with Gideon cradled in his arms. "No, they're soul-less constructs. That kind of emptiness attracts things, entities better left unnamed, that seek a foothold in the mortal realm."

"So... magical energy would give them power?" Belle shuddered as she imagined the implications. "What would they want in the mortal realm?"

"Slaves. Snacks. Worship and terror. There are realms where it's happened. I don't recommend visiting. No, if I ever use artificial assistance of that nature, I'll seek out a laminated mouse brain or two."

"Are those even real?"

"Who knows? I found Doctor Frankenstein, after all." Rumple stopped in front of her again. He said something, but it didn't register. Then he freed a hand from under Gideon and tapped Belle's forehead. "Please, try to focus..."

Belle shifted her gaze back to the binder in her lap. "What am I supposed to be looking for?"

"The innkeeper. His wife. Think. The village..." Belle turned the page, and it was there. The village was listed in the directory as "Dark Castle Village" — and there were no entries under the heading. She glanced up, startled. "There's no one there..."

"Exactly. Regina never cared enough about our neighbors to bring them over."

"Then where are they? You said the Enchanted Forest was empty—" Belle stopped, her hand sliding over her mouth as if to stop the words. Cold horror sank into her belly. Were the villagers dead?

"Their names are gone."

What were they talking about? Belle blinked in confusion. Why had Rumple dumped this brick of a binder in her lap? She flipped through the pages. "I thought all this stuff had been digitized. Why the dead tree version?"

"I already told you." Rumple snapped his fingers in her face.

She flinched, feeling a buzz of magic hit her between the eyes. "What was that?"

"Please, sweetheart, you need to concentrate. If I can't even get you to see it..." Rumple bit off the sentence, but his worried look deepened. He said something, but Belle was distracted by her sorcerous link to her son.

"I think he needs to pee," she told Rumple.

Rumple grimaced. "All right, I'll take care of it. And take him for some fresh air while I'm at it."

Belle hefted the binder up and dropped it onto the table in front of her. "What about this?"

"Count the names. Double check your count. There's something... I'll show you later." Rumple made a hasty exit, already beginning to unwind the blanket wrapped around Gideon.

Belle stared dubiously at the binder. Count the names? Was that what Merlin had meant? But why? Names had power, she knew that, but she had never heard of anyone using a phone book as a magical item. Paper holds enchantment better. The words came back to her in Rumple's voice. Had he said that? Had he enchanted these pages? Belle touched the paper with the tip of her finger, traced the line of names, sensed a hint of magic embedded in the list. Well, he had seemed insistent. No harm in humoring him. Belle turned back to the first page and began counting.

It felt like hours, but she finished at last. She scribbled the total in her notebook. The number nudged at her mind, but no thoughts came loose, so she decided to make a second count, as Rumple had suggested. Midway through, she heard boots coming up the stairs.


"No, it's me." Mulan appeared in the doorway, carrying a tray. "I saved some food for you. Otherwise those pigs down there would have eaten everything."

"Oh! Thanks. Sorry. I forget sometimes." Belle's appetite suddenly awoke at the smell of food. She accepted the tray gratefully, picking up a skewer of roasted meat and chewing off a piece. "Are you calling my husband a pig?"

Mulan chuckled. "No, of course not." She glanced over her shoulder as if he might be listening. "He'd probably turn me into one if I did..."

"He'd better not!"

"Well, he hasn't done it to any of the Merry Men so far, and honestly, some of them are asking for it." Mulan circled around the table, pausing to examine the stacks of books Belle had collected from the shelves. "You're lucky they don't like books. They're a sticky-fingered bunch who take 'share and share alike' a bit far. They have generous hearts, but thievery isn't exactly honorable. At least now, there's no one to steal from except each other."

"Evil queens levying back-breaking taxes on the peasantry isn't exactly honorable, either," Belle pointed out. "Using your army to steal is still stealing."

"I know," said Mulan, "but back in my homeland, we overthrew our tyrants through honest rebellion." She eyed Belle askance. "But your husband supplied the Evil Queen with the Dark Curse, or so they tell me."

"Honor's never been a priority with the Dark One," Belle had to admit. Even if Rumple always kept to the word of his deals, she couldn't call them honorable. "Rumple's always loved his family, though."

Mulan smiled. "Yes, I saw him with the baby. I admit I had my doubts when you said you were going to try to get him back, but he's looking good for one of the walking dead."

"There was a price." Belle closed her eyes, remembering talking to Neal in this very room. She remembered their desperation, a desperation that made them easy victims of Zelena's schemes. "Neal died."

"Neal? Oh, Belle, I'm so sorry." Mulan reached over to hug her. "I didn't know..."

Belle swallowed, banishing the memory. "It's all right. He's in a better place now. Emma... his shade spoke to Emma."

Mulan nodded. "I'm glad. He was a good man." She straightened, glanced at the binder. "So what is all this about?"

Belle chewed on a piece of coarse flatbread (they must have ground the flour by hand, she thought, since the village watermill was currently iced over) and eyed the binder. "There's a prophecy about a 'Final Battle' that's headed our way. Rumple seems to think this list of names will shed some light on it."

"And has it?"

"Not really." She rubbed her eyes, which had no effect except to turn the letters and numbers into a blur. "What about you? In all your adventuring, have you come across any rumors about saviors or final battles?"

"Not really." Mulan offered up a rueful smile. "Plenty of petty squabbles and bloody feuds, but nothing so grandiose as a final battle."

Even so, Belle encouraged her friend to talk about her various quests and travels. She couldn't help but feel a little envious. Mulan seemed to manage her adventures without being kidnapped into them or being leveraged as a hostage. The warrior was recognized as a force in her own right, not as a pawn to be used against another. But there was a loneliness there, too. Though Mulan didn't say anything about it, her tone was wistful when she asked Belle in turn about Rumple and their child.

After Mulan left, Belle returned to her perusal of the Storybrooke directory. A few yawns later, she rested her head (just for a moment) on her arms and nodded off.

The library shifted around her, the layout familiar. It was her family's library, where her mother had taught her to read when she was a child. Later, her father had hired a tutor to instruct her in history, geography, mathematics, philosophy, and the theory of war.

Her tutor stood behind her now, quizzing her. "And the human population of the Enchanted Forest is...?"

"Three and a half million living souls," she answered at once.

"And how many names are accounted for in the book?"

"What?" Belle didn't understand. The book listed only kings and warlords, the rulers and great thinkers who shaped history — a select few who were deemed important enough to write about...

"How many names did you count?"

"Four thousand two hundred and ninety-nine," she answered automatically. Then she jerked her head up, confused for a moment to realize that this was not her family's library, and that the question had not been asked by her tutor. Then she remembered her dream. "No. No, that can't possibly be right!"

"Do you see it now?"

Belle swiveled in her chair and stared at Rumple. He stood in the doorway with Gideon in his arms, and his slight nod confirmed Belle's dawning realization. "A few thousand... out of three and a half million." She echoed the thought from her dream, "A select few who were deemed important enough to write about... Rumple..."


"No. No, why can't I remember them? The others?" She didn't remember the name of her tutor. She could barely recall the sound of his voice. How many others of Avonlea were lost? "Where... where are they?"

"Well, that is the question, isn't it."

"You! You did this." Seized by sudden anger, Belle flung herself out of the chair and advanced on her husband, stabbing an accusing finger at his chest. "It was your  Dark Curse. What did you do to them? Millions of people, Rumple!"

Rumplestiltskin flinched, lowering his eyes guiltily. "It was not my intent. Nor was it entirely my curse. I... I based it on an older curse that I... acquired."

"But you studied it. I know you. You wouldn't have blindly copied anything."

"No. But it seems there were complications hidden inside it that I didn't fully understand. Now that I see what happened, we can fix it. Any curse can be broken." He met her gaze, pleading for her understanding.

"What happened? Where are they?" A holocaust on that scale. She couldn't hold it in her mind. "Are they dead?"

"No. Not dead. If they were dead, we would still remember their names." Rumple eased her back into the library, guiding her to a chair before he sat down next to her with Gideon. "If we're all characters in the story, then they're the ones lost between the lines."

"How do we get them back? The Dark Curse was broken. It's been destroyed, even Storybrooke was unmade. Why didn't everyone return?" Belle remembered the emptiness of the realm in the lost year after Pan's death, after Rumple's death. She hadn't wondered about it then. No one had noticed. That must have been part of the spell. Was still part of it, except that Rumple had broken through it now.

"If I could only remember their names, I might have enough power to call them back."

"Three and a half million names?"

"Time to fetch the laminated mouse brains?" Rumple suggested with forced levity. Then, "No, but as long as they still remember their own names, we can find a way to remind the world. I just don't know how they were hidden away in the first place."

"Well, if you didn't intend it, if you didn't write it into the curse, someone else must have," Belle reasoned. "We need to ask whoever wrote the original version of the curse, the one that you 'acquired'. Please tell me that isn't a euphemism for 'murdered them and stole it off their corpse'."

"Not this time. I had the help of our old friends, the so-called 'Queens of Darkness'. No one died, but I managed to retrieve the scroll from its hiding place. When I wrote my version, it was a new layer on top of the old scroll. A pity it had to be destroyed."

So now they only had Rumple's memories of the curse to go on. Belle sighed. "Right. So who put it there? Maybe they made more than one?"

Rumple shook his head. "I doubt it. The curse, in its original form, didn't work. That was why I had to make so many modifications. That was probably why it was dumped under Bald Mountain without ever being cast."

"Yes, but who?" Belle asked for the third time.

"An elven wizard. They didn't sign their name, but judging by the language and the style of magic, definitely an elf. Written by an elf and meant to be cast by a human..."

"What? Why?"

"The scroll didn't say, but the form chosen for the curse was the one elves call 'Poetic Justice' or perhaps 'Disproportionate Retribution' — it's not always easy to distinguish the two."

"Oh." Belle only knew of elven curses from stories, but elves were an elusive race, and she didn't know how accurate those stories were. "I've never met any elves..."

"As far as you know," Rumple said. "But it's true, most of what's written about elves comes from humans who were raised among them."

Belle had read some of those accounts, although so-called 'Changeling Narratives' had gone out of fashion sometime in her grandmother's generation. "But they were treated well, with courtesy if not warmth. Their captors were said to be loveless by nature, yet fascinated by love. I never read that the elves were evil... why would they create such a dark curse? What grudge do they bear against humankind?"

The answer became clearer the next day, after Dove returned and made his report.

"Celebrating? They're celebrating?" Belle asked, incredulous. But it was so. According to Dove, the ogres had come down from the mountains and the elves out of the Infinite Forest. Misthaven, their kingdom of old, was reborn. The thousand year war between them was ended at last. "Thousand year war? Wait, was there already a final battle and we missed it?"

"We should be so lucky," said Rumple. "No. There was no battle. Their war came from... you could call it a curse."

"What curse?"

Rumple and Dove explained. A thousand years ago, the folk of Misthaven had sent an expedition into the land of the dead. Of that mighty company, only seven returned, bearing as their prize the Cauldron of Rebirth. Of the seven, three were elves, three were ogres, and the last was a goblin. Upon their return to Misthaven, a dispute broke out over possession of the cauldron.

"The ogres said it was their strength that brought back the cauldron, but the elves said it was their cunning that opened the way. They turned to the goblin to judge between them, but he refused."

"Couldn't they share?" asked Belle.

"Ah, but the cauldron, being what it was, demanded singular possession. And it was powerful enough that a sort of madness came over the entire realm. War was inevitable. War devastated the land. And when Misthaven was broken... well, flies are attracted to corpses, aren't they?"

"What?" Belle was startled at the sudden darkness in Rumple's expression. She glanced at Dove, but he only frowned in apparent agreement. "What do you mean?"

"Reul Ghorm," snarled Rumple.

"Blue fairy. Led invasion," said Dove. "Ma told me."


"Blue and her coterie, and an army of deluded children and obedient puppets turned human. Using magic never seen before in Misthaven, magic they had no defense against, Blue wiped out nine-tenths of the original denizens in an instant."

"But that... that's..." Belle's grip tightened on her son. An invasion? The oldest histories spoke of fairies guiding the ancestral clans out of hardship into a new world. Of building kingdoms of peace and prosperity. Were those kingdoms founded on lies and— "Murder?"

"It's not murder when you kill a monster." Rumple met her gaze with dark irony. Not murder. Any atrocity could be justified. "Or ten monsters. Or ten thousand."

Such is their morality — the Blue Fairy, or Snow White, heroes all. And now you are a monster too, you, your husband, and your son, hissed the darkness.

Rumple circled around behind her chair, leaned forward with a hand on her shoulder, and said in a low rasp, "Besides, she didn't kill  them. She turned them into all manner of creatures cute and fluffy. Centuries of hoarded pixie dust used up in a flash."

"Even the elves?" Belle was appalled. The ogres were capable of great evil; they had slaughtered her own people. But as far as she knew, the elves kept always to themselves. She twisted around to look at her husband.

He released her shoulder and stepped back. "To the human eye, ogres are monsters for their ugliness, elves for their beauty. To the Blue Fairy, both are equally a blight upon the realm. Of course, from their point of view, it is we who pollute their land. Maggots crawling across a realm too weak to resist. Should we be surprised that they give us poison?"

"The Dark Curse?" Belle whispered, chilled at Rumple's bitter recitation.


"And the curse of the Cauldron?"

"Lifted, now that it's left this realm."

"So now they're celebrating." Belle closed her eyes. "Because they're at peace. And because their invaders have so conveniently removed themselves!"

"Just so."

"Three and a half million people, Rumple. We can't..." Belle took a deep breath, trying to think clearly. "Even if our ancestors wronged them... we can't just... we can't let so many innocent lives just vanish. We have to save them."

"I know."

"There must be something we can do!"

"Yes," Rumple said slowly. "First, I think we need to negotiate a new deal."

"What? With whom?"

"Dove's mother."

Chapter Text

"Dove's mother is really the queen of the ogres?"

Rumplestiltskin smirked, but he understood Belle's skepticism. The ogre village looked unpromising, being little more than a cluster of half-buried lumps protruding from the hillside. The walls of stone and brick were built into a terraced hillside, surrounded by long curving fields hidden under several feet of snow. A vast earthen rampart and ditch discouraged easy passage into the settlement. "Of the Nine Chieftains of the Fomori, she is the eldest. I suppose one could call her their queen, and this their capital."

"But it looks so... so..." Belle shut her jaws, her teeth chattering. She pulled her cloak more closely around herself and Gideon against the freezing gusts of wind, a flare of magic enveloping them inside an insulation spell. She had refused to stay behind and refused to be separated from their child, leaving Rumplestiltskin little choice but to transport all three of them magically to this place. They had timed the trip so that the baby would sleep through as much of it as possible.

"Crude?" he suggested. "Well, we can't all live in castles, dear."

"Right." She sounded uneasy, and he didn't blame her. He was fairly sure they could protect themselves, but the danger was real. Real enough that he hadn't risked bringing Dove, who would be forced into a betrayal no matter which way he turned, if things went badly. Which they wouldn't, Rumplestiltskin told himself.

He surveyed the village from the height of the stony crag where they had landed. Wisps of smoke rising from the buildings hinted at activity, and a lone ogre stood watch on the squat tower at the main gate of the village. Rumplestiltskin pointed him out to Belle. "I don't think he's seen us yet."

Belle gasped. "I didn't see him!" She stared. "He looks... I thought he was... I don't know. A tree, or part of the wall. Is that some kind of magic?"

"Only the magic inherent in this realm. Ogres draw strength from the land, taking on the stillness of earth and stone. It's what gives them their size and endurance and makes them resistant to our magic." He checked his protective wards again, the ones that affected the caster rather than his attackers.

"We're just going to walk up to the front door?" Belle bit her lip, eyes narrowing as she seemed to summon her resolve.

"No, no, no. We can make a better entrance than that." He gestured at a patch of ice in front of him, transforming it with a scrying spell into a window into the interior of a dim, smoky hall. The image centered on the ancient, hunched figure of the ogre matriarch, her status marked by the elaborate stitching on her fur-trimmed leather vest and the strings of beads she wore. He zoomed the picture out, noting the layout of the room and the positions and relative alertness of its occupants. "It's all about stagecraft."

"'Stagecraft'? Gods, Rumple. Must you play these games?"

"Yes." Things which had become second nature to him were still foreign to Belle, but now that she had marked herself as a player and not merely a pawn, it was harder for him to keep her out of the fray. "Games, on the whole, are the tamer and less bloody form of war..."

"War!" Belle rocked back away from him, clutching Gideon protectively. "Are we at war?"

"Despite your newfound appreciation for our cuddly and wholesome 'Uncle Dove', yes, we are, when there are so many centuries of hatred, violence, and fear between our races." He glanced sidelong at Belle. "But because Dove's mother is, in her way, a wise and honorable woman, we should be able to keep it a cold war, and make the deal we need... and it's our skill at the game that wins us a better deal."

Belle didn't buy it. "You just enjoy out-maneuvering people. It makes you feel clever."

"Maybe. A little." Rumplestiltskin made a face. "It's one of the few pleasures I've enjoyed in my tenure as the Dark One, that and the moments I've spent with you. But all this posturing you hate so much — it's less dangerous than an all-out sorcerous duel or overt war."

"All right," Belle said slowly. "But we're here to help people, not to score points off them..."

"The stronger my position, the more I'll be able to help," he said. Games within games, he thought. What he would give for something as simple as chess. At least then he would know who all the players were and what they wanted.

Pathetic coward, sneered the darkness. Games are for the weak. For all her fine words, it is strength she desires in a man. Kill these ogres. Once we're knee-deep in blood, none will dare oppose us. That's what Belle wants, in her heart.

Rumplestiltskin gritted his teeth. You know nothing of what's in her heart.

I know that she left you when you were powerless, and came back as soon as she caught a whiff of darkness.

Not true, he told himself. He met Belle's eyes with an effort.

"What's wrong?" The concern in her voice seemed sincere, but the darkness mocked him for his stupidity.

Do you think she cares? Be strong for once, before she leaves you again.

"Nothing." Even if some part of her wanted the ogres dead, there was more to them both than darkness. "We'll set things right."

Belle nodded, moving forward to study the image. "Wait. Who's that? He — she? — doesn't look like an ogre."

"Ah. No. That's an elf." The slender humanoid figure looked tiny compared to the company it was keeping, despite the antlered helm that broadened its width and added a foot to its height. "She doesn't look too worried, but appearances can be deceptive."

Belle let out a breath, letting it hang in a cloud between them, then said, "Well, that's convenient. We need to talk to the elves, too."

"Indeed." He cursed inwardly. Because the ogres were generally simpler and more straightforward, he had intended to deal with them first, before tackling the slippery, secretive elves. Divide and conquer was a time-honored tactic, but that possibility was apparently closed to him. So be it.

"What?" Belle had noticed his hesitation.

"For any talking to take place, you'll need to know the language." He touched Belle's arm, sharing his own knowledge (originally acquired from Zoso) with her magically. He made no comment when she hid Gideon under an obfuscation charm. "Shall we go?"

The ogre matriarch showed only a flicker of surprise at their appearance at the other end of the table — she knew how that game was played. Her eyes remained heavily lidded, only a slit revealing a gleam of alertness. She inhaled, sniffing ostentatiously. "Dark One. Rumplestiltskin and... can this be your lady wife?"

Taking her by the elbow, Rumplestiltskin lifted Belle with him as he leaped onto the surface of the table, giving him the height to look the ogres in the eye. Most of them gaped in shocked apprehension, nostrils flared at the scent of the intruders, except for the elf, who looked as inscrutable as ever. "Belle, meet Shrike the Ancient, the first of the Nine, and Dove's mother. Your majesty, may I present Princess Belle of Avonlea."

At this, the elf's gaze turned sharply to Belle. "A princess of Avonlea?"

"Yes." Avonlea had never been large, and it currently lay in ruins, but Maurice had styled himself its king. Rumplestiltskin had never put much stock in it, but he hoped that the title could add to whatever authority they already brought to the table as the Dark One.

The elf studied her a moment longer. "The child of Colette and Maurice?"

Rumplestiltskin frowned at the elf. "What is it to you?"

The elf didn't answer. Into the lengthening silence, the matriarch said, as if oblivious to any tension, "And this is the elven ambassador, Sir Yvanne of the Verdant Grotto."

Belle smiled, her eyes wary but filled with curiosity. "Well, I'm pleased to meet you, Sir Yvanne. Yes, I am their daughter. Why, did you know my parents?"

"I know their names, but lack the honor of their acquaintance," demurred the elven ambassador. On her tongue, even the ogreish language sounded refined.

Rumplestiltskin suspected her of lying, but this wasn't the time for accusations. "We're not here to discuss my wife's family tree."

Yvanne lifted a graceful hand to yield the point. "As you say."

"What do you want, Dark One?" The ogre matriarch's voice deepened, pitched to fill the hall with a bone-shivering resonance. "No one here is interested in another deal. We have all that we wished for."

"Yes, so your son informed me." He smiled sardonically. "You have your happy ending. Bravo. But how long will it last?"

"Threats may be free, but harm us and the price will be dear. Our kingdom is united now: you will find us no easy prey no matter how much magic you command." Ogre and elf stared him down, one face harsh, the other one icily serene. A low rumble rattled the wooden table, a subsonic show of support from the other ogres.

"Commendable," said Rumplestiltskin. "But I'm not what threatens your happiness."

Insolent wretches. Kill one or two, show them what a real threat looks like...

"What, then?"

"I'm talking about the Final Battle." Rumplestiltskin watched them carefully for their reactions. What might they know? What had they seen?

The ogres fell silent, and Shrike the Ancient went very still. "What do you know of the Final Battle?"

"We are all characters in a story." Because that was the larger game, wasn't it? Played out between the Author, the magic pen, and the books that shaped and were shaped by all their lives. And Merlin had been taken out — because he had seen too much? Because he had wished to change the plot? "And at the end of the story comes a final battle. A battle where the heroes triumph over the villains. And in this story..."

When Rumplestiltskin let his voice trail off suggestively, the elven ambassador picked up the conversational thread. "In no story have I ever heard that the Dark One was a hero..."

"No more than ogres or, for that matter, elves. The fey folk are reputed to pay a tithe to Hell, even in the lore of the Land Without Magic."

"Baseless slander," Yvanne said lightly.

"Yet it was the elves who created the Dark Curse, and elves who knew enough of demons to summon a guardian for their creation."

"Well, there's always more than one story." Yvanne stopped short of actually denying Rumplestiltskin's accusations.

"But only one is written in the book of fate. One story becomes history. One story is real. And in that book, we are all villains." He didn't dare look at Belle. She was no villain, but if she stayed with him, she could only be written as a tragic character — a fallen hero. For her sake, he had to find another way. Given enough provocation, elf and ogre might reveal a solution to him. "And everyone knows what happens to villains at the end..."

Shrike hissed. She slapped the tabletop viciously with both palms, making all the dishes jump and rattle. "'Villain' is only a word. We are the ones wronged by history. We will have our justice."

"Yet the book favors mercy and love." Just like Belle's favorite book, he remembered. Was Her Handsome Hero an echo or shadow of the Author's storybooks? "And your people do not love, do they?"

"What is love but a word for injustice?" Shrike growled. She opened her eyelids fully, revealing eyes clouded over with white. "We value lives as they are worth; we do not spare some while punishing others out of unreasoning bias!"

Belle made an incoherent noise of protest.

The elven ambassador turned to her with an enigmatic smile. "You disagree? Ah, but you would. It is true that the fey do not love. Does that make us 'evil'?"

"N-no," stammered Belle. She shifted closer to Rumplestiltskin, magic running in tense sparks across her skin. Gideon was quiet, still hidden underneath her spell, but something about Yvanne's gaze suggested that she had seen through it. Rumplestiltskin put a reassuring hand on Belle's back. "That's not what I meant. But love isn't like that. It's about compassion and empathy. Forgiveness and seeing the best in someone. It's understanding someone's heart and feeling it as your own..."

"True Love, the most powerful magic in all the realms," Rumplestiltskin added softly. Trust Belle to see the best in love, no matter how much pain she had suffered because of it. He ignored the inner voice that told him, Love is a disease...

"Indeed," said Yvanne. "A magic that we may never truly know for ourselves..."

"But not for lack of trying," grumbled the ogre matriarch. She closed her eyes once more. "Enough. If your heroes think to wield love against us in the Final Battle, it will be turned back on them. Remember what power fueled the Dark Curse, and take that as a warning."

The price for casting the Dark Curse was the heart of the person the caster loved most. Even love could be turned to the most terrible of purposes. The elves had that skill, to manipulate the magic of True Love, that was what Shrike meant.

"Ah, confidence." He looked at the faces glaring at him. They were united, but behind that unity... "But there's more to it than that, isn't there?" They didn't answer. Yvanne's expression gave nothing away, but Shrike's mask slipped for an instant and Rumplestiltskin seized upon it, following a flash of intuition. "What was it you said? 'There's more than one story.' You have your own prophecy, one in which you are the heroes."

Yvanne smiled. "One in which the Dark One doesn't appear at all, so I suggest that the Final Battle is no concern of yours." Then her gaze shifted towards Belle, and her smile slipped. But whatever thought crossed her mind, she kept unvoiced.

"In that case, what makes you so sure that your prophecy is the true one?"

"It came first," growled the ogre matriarch. "All else is a perversion of the true vision. Confabulation and deceit, lies upon lies, falsehood upon falsehood."

Her voice held utter conviction. The truth, then? Besides, he had never known her to lie. He frowned, thinking.

"What about humans? Do we appear in your prophecy?" Belle asked, the questions tumbling out in an anxious rush. "Do we fight in the Final Battle?"

"Humans never belonged in Misthaven. They may have stolen our land, but they cannot steal our destiny!"

"Well, now, you can't be so sure, matriarch," Yvanne disagreed, her voice as cool as ever. "Oracles are never so precise. A vague word here, a cloudy vision there, that's all: footnotes and appendices not included."

"But you always said—" Shrike turned to Yvanne, betraying a moment of surprise before she tightened her lips again.

"Mere speculation." Yvanne looked at Belle. "There was a sword..." She gestured and described the enchanted sword that had nearly killed Gideon. "Do you know it?"

"I...yes," said Belle. "Why do you ask?" And why ask her, said her bewildered expression.

"You ask if you fight in the Final Battle. That sword...that sword had a fate laid upon it. Perhaps it has a part to play in the prophecy."

"Oh. It's gone. We had to destroy it," Belle admitted.

"Ah. Or perhaps not." Yvanne's eyes narrowed, but she didn't elaborate further.

"What does this mean?" demanded Shrike. "Our prophecy is the true one!"

"Was the true one, perhaps," said Rumplestiltskin. "But now there's more than one. Reality can be changed, the story rewritten."

"Impossible," said Shrike, but Yvanne looked less certain.

"No. It's quite possible," said Rumplestiltskin. "I should know; I tried exactly that, once. And I almost succeeded..." It had been the last ploy of a desperate man, but he had come close, so close.

"'Almost'? But you didn't. Failure proves nothing."

"He didn't fail," interrupted Belle. "It was real. For a while, we lived other lives. Only Henry, who was outside that world, was able to break the spell and restore the original story before it was erased forever." She clutched Rumplestiltskin's arm. "Rumple, is that what's happening here? We're being re-written?"

"Ye-es. I think so."

"But Henry is the Author now, and he would never do anything like that."

"Not on this scale, no." His grandson wasn't above the odd bit of trickery and quixotic crusade; he remembered the theft of the Olympian Crystal all too well. But this — no, he wouldn't. "You say your prophecy came first... when was it made?"

"Long ago, long before your people ever set foot in Misthaven, we were visited by an oracle," said Shrike. "At the cost of her life, she betrayed the secrets of heaven, giving us a prophecy and setting us a quest."

"Let me guess." Rumplestiltskin glanced around the room and found oddly reverent expressions on the ogres' faces. "You went after that oversized bit of kitchenware."

Shrike growled at his flippancy, but Yvanne nodded, unperturbed. "We found a way into the Underworld and returned with a divine treasure..."

"More like a curse," muttered Belle.

Yvanne looked at her. "That was the way of it, yes, as we found to our sorrow. The prophecy was never meant for our ears nor our benefit, yet we found in it strength to endure, no matter how the gods assailed us. Even when war broke us and the invaders cast their alien magic upon us, some of us survived, and remembered: there is a future for us on the far side of the Final Battle."

"But can you trust it? Over a thousand years old... that makes it older than Merlin, older than the Authors," Belle said.

"Such a prophecy is made for each age of the world, opening the years with a new beginning and closing them with a final battle. Never has it failed before." Yvanne motioned with her hands, as if turning a wheel.

"Never," echoed the ogre matriarch.

"There's always a first time." Rumplestiltskin could see that they were far less certain than they tried to appear. "It's different now, isn't it? What's been foreseen... it doesn't match."

"Nevertheless." The elven ambassador's eyes flickered with a moment of doubt before she said firmly, "It is fate, and even the gods must bow to fate."

Belle's jaw dropped. "Wait... wait, are you saying it's the gods who oppose your prophecy?"

"Makes sense. They're the only ones powerful enough," said Rumplestiltskin. Fate could be changed, or what was the point of the Shears of Destiny? His fingers twitched and he reached into his jacket, instinctively going for the moment of theater to win his argument. But the instant he touched the enchanted metal, his thoughts disintegrated into chaotic fragments of possible futures. He shut his eyes in an effort to control the visions, but it only resulted in more pain stabbing through his skull.

Dead, dead, dead, hissed the darkness through the whirlwind of images. All life is born to die. Sooner or later, by fate or random chance, it's all the same in the end... why should you care?

Meanwhile, Belle pressed on with her line of questioning. "What is this prophecy of yours, anyway? You still haven't told us your version of the story. What is the final battle that's been foreseen?"

"Don't you know?" Yvanne's voice rose briefly in surprise. "Why, it's the battle between heaven and earth. At the end of the age, darkness overthrows heaven and earth ascends..."

"What? No, that can't be right!"

"It is foreseen."

"Then it's a dark prophecy, the darkest! No wonder the gods are trying to change it. Rumple..."

He barely heard her. His mind was in turmoil, flooded by new insights as Yvanne's words unlocked a door that had always been hidden from him. The future... their future. "No. No. The gods are wrong... their story... is wrong." He gasped, staggering back a step and forcing his hand away from the Shears of Destiny, barely remembering not to collapse in front of the ogres.

Belle touched his cheek, catching his gaze, her own eyes filled with a plea for him to hold onto his sanity. "We can't give in to the darkness, Rumple. That's the future it wants."

"Belle..." He reached up and caught her hand with his own. Then he shook his head and drew away, steeling himself for what he would have to say. "I've seen the end of the book."


"Gideon dies." The vision was seared into his mind: Belle, grief-stricken, bent over the lifeless body. Prophecies were imprecise, but sometimes — sometimes, a single glimpse sufficed. "He doesn't live to see another winter with us."

Chapter Text

No. Not again. Belle screamed inwardly. They had just saved their son from one doom, and now another one threatened. When Rumple had hinted at danger for Gideon in the Final Battle, she had hoped that it was only a false vision. Then, when the possibility of alternate prophecies came up, her hope had grown stronger: maybe Rumple couldn't change things, but the gods could. Maybe a better future was possible. And then hope twisted like a knife in her heart...

Gideon dies.

Rumple's words came weighted with all of a seer's certainty. For once she wished he was lying, but she knew better. It was all true. The darkness closed in around her, and she felt as if she would suffocate. She couldn't bear to listen to those words, couldn't bear to let her son hear them. Overcome by the need to escape, she took herself away on a thought, instinctively returning to the crag where they had initially landed.

The blast of icy air across her face was enough to shock her out of her daze, and she hugged Gideon close, fighting back tears. She couldn't lose him again. Not even if the gods wanted him dead. Why would the gods want him dead?

"For the greater good..." came the mocking voice of the darkness. For someone's good, your son must die. The needs of the many outweigh the petty desires of a nobody like you. Or don't you have the stomach to make this sacrifice... hero?

"No," she said. It was one thing to sacrifice herself, but to sacrifice an innocent child? Even if it was for some greater good... what kind of greater good could that be?

"Belle!" Rumple materialized in a cloud of smoke. "Are you all right?"

"How can I be all right? After what you just told me!"

Rumple flinched, looking as guilt-stricken as she had ever seen him. "I'm sorry." He reached hesitantly for her, but she shuddered and turned away.

So that was what he had meant before, about being on the wrong side for the Final Battle. But was it the wrong side? "So the gods are trying to change the story. They're supposed to be on the side of good, but are they? What about Hades? What about Zeus? Why did he resurrect Hook but not Neal? What about the Holy Grail? How did an artifact of the light give birth to such darkness? How could the gods want our son dead? A heaven willing to sacrifice a child is a heaven not worth saving..."

When she ran out of breath, panting, eyes stinging from the cold, Rumple said softly from behind her, "Belle, stop. You don't have to rationalize it. Of course we have to protect Gideon."

She turned back to him. "I just... I just want him to be safe. Why do we always have to... why is it always so hard?"

"It's never been easy for us..." This time, when he slid an arm around her, she leaned closer, drawing comfort from his support, her initial panic seeping away at his touch.

"But a future of darkness, Rumple..." She looked down at Gideon, who was still peacefully asleep. In less than the time between one feeding and another, everything had changed for him. "What future is that for our son?"

"The best one that we can make. If there's no light, we'll have to create it ourselves for his sake. And think...for the fey, the world has been dark for a long, long time. The gods' story may look bright to some, but their happy endings come at a cost. As does ours..."

"You mean we have to help the ogres." Belle swallowed her distaste. "And the elves. If this other prophecy is our only hope, we have no choice."

"I know it doesn't seem very heroic," Rumple admitted. "But at a time like this..."

"At a time like this, can we afford to be heroic?" Belle finished. Then she shook her head. What was she saying? "No. But we can't afford to be selfish, either!"

"You sound like my mother," Rumple mumbled, then apologized. "Sorry."

"I mean, we have to help everyone. That hasn't changed. Maybe we do have to use darkness. But we can't only use it to help ourselves." The voice at the back of her mind told her she was a fool, that selfishness was the way of the world, but she knew that they had to try anyway. Justice demanded as much. To lose sight of that was to lose themselves.

Rumple sighed, his arm tightening around her. "You're right. It was selfishness that led to all my failures. Selfishness and cowardice."

"You're not a coward." That he was here, now, proved that much. She had once blamed him for being afraid to trust anyone, unable to believe in her love, but that had been the rash judgement of someone lucky enough never to have been betrayed. Only now, after so much pain between them, did she understand how much courage she had demanded of him. "And whatever needs to be done, we'll do it together."

"All right." He looked grateful, even relieved, for her forbearance. Belle realized then that he must have been terrified that she would leave him again, and a pang of sorrow twisted in her heart. Some of the desperation lifted from his eyes. "I'll offer the fey my help in return for restoring those lost in the Dark Curse."

Convincing Rumple was the easy part. The elf and the ogres were a different matter.

"No." Shrike the Ancient glowered at them, every line of her face set in determination.

"One doesn't invite a thief back into one's house." Yvanne's tone was more gentle, but just as unyielding.

"We're not thieves," Belle snapped. "Whatever our ancestors did, we had no choice in it. Let us make reparations, but let us live. Peace can benefit us all."

"She's right, you know." Rumple had conjured a chair for her this time, a human-sized piece of furniture dwarfed by the vast expanse of the table underneath its legs. He stood next to the chair, one hand gripping Belle's shoulder in reassurance. "And it's not as if the land can't support us. In the Land Without Magic, they have ten times as many in the same amount of space."

"That's as may be, but we don't want them here," Shrike said. "This isn't their home."

"It's become our home," said Belle. "Where else can we go?"

"Anywhere. Not here." The ogre matriarch scowled. "If that means we don't have the Dark One's help, so be it. We never asked for it in the first place."

"Not yet, no. But you've asked before, twice. Third time's the charm... and I wouldn't wait too long, or you may find my price going up..."

"Rumple!" hissed Belle, wishing he wouldn't antagonize them. Then she was struck by curiosity. Twice? Once for the Wolf War, as Dove had told her. She twisted her head around to look at him. "What was the other time?"

He seemed to deflate slightly, then muttered sheepishly, "...potatoes."

"What?" Belle blinked, not sure she had heard right.

"They needed a crop that could grow up here in the hills," he said, rallying. He took a step back and gestured broadly. "Hence, potatoes! Luckily for the ogres, I'd come across many a botanical wonder while looking for a way to the Land Without Magic."

"I see. And what did you get in return?" The ogres must have been starving if they had gone to the Dark One for help. She hoped he hadn't driven too hard a bargain.

Rumple shrugged. "Their agreement to stay away from the Dark Castle and the land around it."

Was that all? Relieved, Belle turned to the ogre matriarch. "Was it worth it?"

"It was and it is." Shrike shook her head. "So what? It has no bearing on our current situation."

"It does!" Belle thought furiously, looking for anything to persuade them. "Potatoes... potatoes were foreign invaders, too, but now they're part of your way of life!"

Yvanne chuckled. "Are you saying that we should retrieve the humans in order to feed them to the ogres? I've never partaken myself, but I'm told human flesh is quite the delicacy... M'lady Shrike may indeed agree to those terms."

Shrike snorted in derision.

"No! Of course not." Belle flushed. "I just meant... even if something is new and strange, in time you can find the value in it."

"Well, that's true enough," Rumple put in. "For example, when Belle first came to my castle, I had no idea that she would become..." He stopped, and the note of wonder in his voice turned to something darker. "But we're talking about more than potatoes and land deals here. If heaven is turned against us, we need every advantage. Don't underestimate the power of three million independent souls. The fewer the pieces on the board, the easier it is for them to be manipulated, whereas the sudden addition of so many people is a wild card that can turn in our favor."

"Or against," said the ogre matriarch. For a moment, no one spoke. Belle knew, as they all knew, that Rumplestiltskin could offer no guarantees for human behavior.

Then the elven ambassador looked at him, a hint of curiosity slipping past her usual bland mask. "Why do you fight for them? You're the Dark One. They have no right or power to command you. What profit for you to bring them back when they hold you as their common enemy?"

"They're innocent people who were caught in a curse they didn't deserve."

"Didn't they? They came to our land. With their magic they turned us into beasts, then hunted us like beasts. They had no mercy even for our children..."

"As you had none for ours," Rumplestiltskin reminded her.

"What of it?" Shrike snapped before Yvanne could answer. "You breed like flies; you throw away your own young, your people. We hold our children to be precious, while you..."

Belle bit back a furious retort. Anger wouldn't help their case. The fey were angry, too. She remembered how Gaston had tortured an ogre child. He hadn't been the only one. Her father's soldiers had done the same, and worse, to any ogre who fell within their grasp; that was why she had tried to let the ogre child go free. Once war had started in earnest, there were atrocities to spare on both sides. She shuddered. Not another war...

"Don't tell us what we hold precious." Rumple reached out a hand to calm Belle, sensing her agitation. "And you've had your price in blood. You've tanned our hides to make your shirts, you've ground our bones to make your bread. Let it be enough."

"Please," Belle begged, trying to banish the horrific images his words conjured out of her worst memories. "Peace must be possible."

"What peace, when your people were brought to this land to destroy us?" Shrike's hostility seemed implacable, to Belle's despair.

The arguments dragged on, going nowhere. Gideon stirred. Belle could sense that he would wake soon, and if she didn't get up out of this chair, he would pee on her. She wanted to scream.

At which point the elven ambassador gave her a long look, then broke their impasse with a simple request. "If we're to be allies, perhaps a little trust would be in order. Lady Belle, isn't it time you introduced us to your child?"

Belle gasped in shock. Rumple's fingers tightened on her shoulder, but he didn't speak, leaving the choice up to her. Names have power. She didn't need to hear the words aloud to know what he was thinking. She swallowed, frozen in indecision. Finally, she nodded. Do the brave thing... They had to make this alliance work. "And it's time you tell us why you think our people were brought here to destroy you."

Shrike and Yvanne agreed readily enough.

"Well, then. This is our son, Gideon." Belle let the useless obfuscation charm drop away, revealing the infant cradled in her lap.

"Not to be confused with a potato," said Rumple in a tone that promised death to anyone, god or mortal, that tried to harm his son.

"Hmph," grunted Shrike. "Tiny thing like that would barely fill the gap between my teeth."

Belle glared at the ogre matriarch. "I've told you his name. Now for your part."

Shrike nodded, glancing at Yvanne, as if to say, this was your idea.

The elven ambassador smiled faintly. "It was prophesied that the gods shall be brought down by one bearing elven blood."

"Typical oracular vagueness," Rumple said.

"Vague or not, it was to prevent this prophecy that they tried to exterminate our entire race," Yvanne said. "Oh not directly, never directly, but we could see their hand behind the invasion. It's said the Blue Fairy serves Hera, the Great Queen. Is she not responsible for the bonds of love among mortal beings, the benefactor of kings and queens, and the promoter of civilization?"

"A civilization that we have no part in, lacking love," growled Shrike.

Rumple snorted. "She didn't have much use for the Dark One, either. You're not the only ones she tried to remove from this realm..."

"Yet here we all are," said Yvanne.


"But you'll have to do without me for a moment. Excuse me." Belle stood up and teleported outside again, this time remembering to bring a bubble of warm air with her. By the time she had finished taking care of Gideon's needs and returned to the ogres' hall, Rumple, Shrike, and Yvanne seemed to have come to a new understanding.

"I doubt it'll go so smoothly once the humans are back in the Enchanted Forest," said Belle. She and Rumple were alone for the moment, outside once more to speak privately. "Will they all agree to this?"

Rumplestiltskin shrugged. "Agree, leave, die... any of those must be better than non-existence. Would you prefer we settled it with another Ogres War?"

"No. But how do we prevent one?"

"Well, let's hope they listen to our sensible counsel when we present the case to them." He explained that the fey wanted the two of them to stand between the races and maintain the balance.

Belle could see that he was uncomfortable with the idea; he had never liked that kind of responsibility. "I suppose it makes sense. You're the one who says you're a man and a monster. Who better to build a bridge between the two?"

"To get trodden on by all sides, you mean." He grimaced. "Perhaps a wall would be more practical. The elves have agreed to raise the mists again to hide the fey from human sight, rather than fight, if it comes to that. As for me, I haven't promised to incinerate the first human or fairy to step out of line, but then again, I haven't promised not to, either."

"You won't!" Belle had seen his violence in Storybrooke, but it had been far more controlled than what she had known of him in the Enchanted Forest. She hoped that it had been Rumple himself that had changed, that it wasn't merely a side effect of changing realms. Magic and darkness both simmered closer to the surface here, but so far he had not reverted to casual murder. "Rumple, you can't."

"No?" Then he relented, sighing. "I suppose not. You can do the incinerating."

"What?" Belle was taken aback for a moment, then horrified to think that such a thing was now possible. "Do... do they know about me?"

"Well, you did poof out of there in a cloud of smoke, so that ship's already sailed. As to whether they realize it's anything more than ordinary human magic, we didn't discuss it. Does it matter?"

"I... I don't know." She hadn't told Mulan or anyone else while at the Dark Castle. Tinker Bell knew, of course, as did the Lost Boys still in Neverland, but none of them had anyone to tell. She didn't think anyone in Storybrooke knew what had happened. When she had saved Gideon from Hook, she hadn't waited for the pirate to turn around and see her.

They'll never accept you, not if they know what you are. Look how they see Rumplestiltskin... a beast to be caged, to be used when convenient and forgotten otherwise. That will be your fate if you aren't careful.

"The elf was looking at you oddly. I don't know if it was because of Gideon, or if there's more. If it will make you feel better..." Rumple drew the Dark One dagger from his jacket and ran his palm over it. Belle's name smoothed over and vanished. "There. Another obfuscation charm. No one who doesn't already know the truth will stumble across it. No one human, anyway. Be careful around magical creatures."

"Thank you," she whispered, feeling ashamed at her relief. She didn't want to live a lie, yet if she was known as a Dark One, that was all that most people would see. If she could just prove herself first, then when she revealed the truth, they would understand that she was still herself.

Hypocrite, sneered the darkness. Coward. Are lies sweeter when they fall from your lips?

Seeing her expression, Rumple's eyes softened. "You shouldn't have to bear the guilt of the Dark One's name. What you are... you're not like me. You didn't murder a man for this power. You didn't take pride in the darkness, nor did you go on a killing spree the moment you possessed it."

"I was lucky. I wasn't alone in the darkness." Belle shook the thoughts away. "It's probably too late to hide. You said the fey wanted both of us."

"Yes. We still have to hash out the details, but that's the gist of it." Hashing out the details took them into the next day. Rumple insisted on having a free hand, while the ogres claimed large swathes of territory, including areas where humans had been settled for centuries. As for the elven ambassador, her demands were few, but she dropped enigmatic hints about fate and destiny.

"Can you speak for all the elves?" Irritated by Yvanne's air of smug superiority, Belle was moved to question her authority to negotiate on behalf of her entire race.

"Oh, she'd like to think so." The new voice came with a rush of wind down the chimney that sent flames and sparks flying out. A woman solidified out of the air and nodded with cold formality to the elven ambassador. "Sir Yvanne."

Yvanne's eyes twitched, but she maintained her calm. "Owlflower. The king's monster. What brings you here?"

The newcomer, this "Owlflower", was neither elf nor ogre. She could have been human, by appearance a few years younger than Belle, with a face that might have been called beautiful if not for the bleakness of her expression. "The news has reached the king's court, of how you extend your embassy to the Dark One himself. I came to see for myself..."

"See what you will. Report what you will. The king is a relic of the past. It is the future I am assuring for our people..."

Owlflower's gaze went to Belle, then lingered on Rumplestiltskin. "It's true? You seek to undo the Dark Curse?"

Something in the woman's eyes made Belle's blood run cold. There was an emptiness that reminded her of Regina's eyes looking into her prison cell after the the Dark Curse had been cast. The touch of Rumple's hand on her back brought her out of the memory.

"It's true," he said. "Sir Yvanne has agreed that is the course of action that serves us all best."

"Then you betray your king." Owlflower glared at Yvanne. "You know what price he paid for the Dark Curse... would you throw it all away?"

"I act in his best interests." Yvanne held up a finger as Owlflower started to object. "No, no, I know what price he paid. Yet what is gone is gone, and can never be recovered. This is false reasoning, to count such costs against the choices we face now, in deciding our current path."

"All the pain, all the suffering — it counts for nothing?"

"To be ruled by it, that would be the greater betrayal," Yvanne said.

Belle looked over at Rumple, and their eyes met in a moment of understanding. He nodded slightly, and she found her voice. "Sir Yvanne is right. I don't know your past, or your king's, but this, today, is a chance to move forward into a better future. As someone who's had some experience with such choices, I know it's not easy, and it doesn't always work, but it is possible..."

Owlflower stared at Belle, eyes narrowed. "Who are you to say such things?"

Yvanne answered before Belle could speak again, "She is Belle, the daughter of Colette and Maurice of Avonlea. Also the Dark One's wife and mother of his son."

Owlflower's head whipped back and she stared even harder at Yvanne. "What? I thought she was lost in the Curse."

Yvanne met Owlflower's gaze without flinching. "No. She wasn't. As you see. Or are you still blind?"

Then the two were silent, some unspoken argument passing between them. Belle glanced at Rumple, but he seemed to have no better idea than she did what the argument might be. The ogre matriarch sat unmoved throughout, with a face that suggested that she found elven politics unspeakably tedious.

Finally, the silent conflict resolved in Yvanne's favor. Owlflower nodded and backed away to lurk near the fireplace, lips pressed together in unhappy concession.

Yvanne smiled and looked around at the others. "It's decided then. We have a deal?"

"Huh," grunted Shrike. "We do."

Rumple nodded. "Yes." He paced along the table, then came back to stand next to Belle and gave the others a hard look. "As everyone knows, Rumplestiltskin never breaks a deal. So, you first. Return the people lost to the Dark Curse, and I'll do everything in my power to help with your prophecy."

"Agreed." Yvanne waited. She and Rumple eyed each other expectantly. Then, "There's no time like the present..."

"You're an elf. It's your curse. You undo it," Rumple said.

Belle clamped her mouth shut, trying to ignore the sinking feeling in her stomach.

"You're the Dark One," said Yvanne. "You undo it."

Belle didn't know whether to laugh or cry or tear her hair out. Rumple, you idiot! He had been bluffing. Of course he had been bluffing. He hadn't known back at the Dark Castle how to undo the curse, and he was no wiser now.

"You don't know how. Neither of you knows." The ogre matriarch was the first to state the obvious. She cocked her head and listened, waiting for someone to contradict her, but no one did. She bellowed a laugh, then shoved an oversized drinking bowl towards Rumplestiltskin and Belle. "Talk, talk, talk, and for what? Nothing. Here, your mouths must be dry. Drink up!"

Belle caught a strong whiff of alcohol and waved a hand in front of her face. "Um, no thank you."

Rumple eyed the bowl and wrinkled his nose in disgust. "Potato vodka. We're not likely to find much inspiration there."

"No, for that you'll have to go to the one who wrote the original Dark Curse," Owlflower spoke up, turning back from the fire.

It was Yvanne who answered, "Surely that would be you."

Owlflower shook her head. "No, I cast it from my heart. The king was the one who inscribed the words onto a scroll."

Belle stared at the woman. "You cast the Dark Curse?" When had that been? She had never heard anything about it, but wouldn't something like that have ripped the realm apart? Unless they had somehow reversed it.

"I cast a dark curse. Not the same one, nor to the same purpose."

"That's right," said Yvanne. "You had your revenge. But the king learned from it, enough to craft a more powerful magic."

"If anyone knows how to undo it, it will be the king."

"The elven king?" Shrike was incredulous. "You must be joking. You'll have to find some other way, then. He hasn't seen anyone in four decades. At least that's what the ambassador here told me. Are you saying she lied to me?"

"Well, he sees me," said Owlflower. "But he'll make an exception this time, too. For her." She nodded at Belle. "If Sir Yvanne is correct in her supposition..."

"What? Me? Why?"

"I suppose he would." Yvanne smirked, then added in explanation, "After all, you are — we think — his granddaughter."

Chapter Text

"A human changeling," said the hollow-eyed wraith of an elf who received them in the dim cavern that served as a throne room. Yvanne called him Gwyn, Lord of Annwn, but that seemed to be a grim joke. Owlflower named him the king of the elves and Belle's grandfather, which was enough to gain them entrance, but no warm welcome. "She is no blood of mine."

"So it was always said, and so I always thought," Yvanne said, "but it may be that we were all mistaken. She is wed to the Dark One — the Dark One whose power is that of the grail of heaven."

Belle shifted closer to Rumple, who was now carrying Gideon slung across his chest, supported by his left arm. He said nothing, but she could feel the magic he held ready, just in case.

"What of it?" The elven king's voice was dull, drained. "We once held the cauldron of hell, and it nearly destroyed us. Just as all the Dark Ones have been destroyed in their turn..."

Not this time! Belle bit back the words. If this man was any relation at all to her, even adopted, she needed to hear him out first.

"Perhaps, but Rumplestiltskin has proved remarkably durable thus far," Yvanne noted.

"The prophecy, my lord," Owlflower said softly. "Can you not smell the hand of fate on them?"

"What, you think she is the one?" The haunted eyes turned to scrutinize Belle more closely. "'...bearing elven blood'?"

"Wait, what? You think I'm the one foretold to bring down the gods? You can't be serious!" Appalled disbelief drove Belle to break her silence, polite listening be damned. They hadn't even been able to take on Hades directly. Though Rumple must have won in the end, with Hades somehow ending up dead, it hadn't been through raw power. If Rumplestiltskin fails, you are the only thing that stands between the gods and your son. Are you so weak? Will you let fear stop you? If you don't bring down the gods, Gideon will die...

Rumple touched Belle's arm gently. "They're just guessing." But he was staring at the elven king as if trying to find some family resemblance.

"Anyway, my mother was as human as they come." This was all a misunderstanding. Nothing else made sense. "A mix-up with the names. Maybe your daughter was one of the people lost in the Dark Curse..."

"No. My daughter Colette married a King Maurice of Avonlea."

"Then she played a trick on you... perhaps a maid swapped places with her mistress. It has been known." Belle had read stories where such things happened. Not that she wanted to believe it of her own mother, but it was the likelier explanation.

"Your mother is dead. Did you see her body?" The king leaned forward, a spark of animation taking him out of the deep shadows.

"The coffin was closed. My father... he said it was better to remember her as she had been."

"She had cast a shape-change on herself," said Yvanne. "Such spells unravel upon death. Maurice may not have wanted it known that his wife was not human..."

"Even so, to bear a child with a human... impossible. Our races differ too much." The king sank back down, gloom swallowing him once more. "She must be a changeling."

"Was your daughter's magic less than yours? Could you have done it?" Owlflower's tone made the questions sound more like statements of fact.

"...yes. But to what purpose? After what happened to her brother..."

"All the more reason for her to redeem his death with her own success," said Owlflower.

"She was always a stubborn child. Idealistic." The king sighed. "If she took such a mad notion into her head..."

"It's easily tested," said Rumple. "All you need is a hair from Belle's head."

Belle knew the spell he meant. She could have cast it herself, if she dared, if she truly wanted to know. My mother was a shape- changed elf? It was inconceivable. Her mother had loved her. It wouldn't have mattered if she was her daughter by blood, but to these elves, that was all that mattered. Which proved Colette was no elf! Well then. The sooner this was settled, the better. She tugged at a loose hair and yanked it off her head, then stepped forward to hand it to the elven king. "Your majesty."

The elven king accepted Belle's hair, twisting it around his fingers with one of his own. He murmured something under his breath. The hairs glowed silver. The king gasped. He stared at Belle, and the glow blurred as his hand trembled. "This... this..."

Belle gaped. Her legs felt suddenly weak, and she clutched at Rumple's arm. "But... no... my mother..."

"She never told you?" The king released the hairs, the glow fading as they drifted to the cavern floor.

"No... unless..." Because there was the one gap in Belle's memories — the hour of her mother's death. She had tried once to recover the memory, going so far as Arendelle, but her quest had ended only in bad choices and guilt. Her father had discouraged the venture, she remembered. Had he known something? Had her parents been lying to her all along?


Slowly, reluctantly, Belle explained. He had a right to know, she told herself. Colette was his daughter. Her mother was the king's daughter. None of it felt real...

...until the elven king was in front of her, his gaunt stare drilling into her eyes. She hadn't seen him move. He was just there, a skeletal hand reaching towards her head.

"Don't touch her!" Rumple snarled, throwing up a shield of magic and drawing Belle back a step.

Thin lips drew up in a bleak smile. "I mean her no harm. I seek only to unlock her memory..." The elven king's fingers brushed the magical barrier, pressed into it. "Hmm. You are faster, today, but I think someday she will match you... if she so desires..."

Belle swallowed, her mouth suddenly too dry to speak, feeling as exposed as if the Darkness was visibly marked on her forehead. But the elven king must be one of the most powerful sorcerers in the realms if he had crafted the Dark Curse, first draft or not. There would be no hiding from him.

"Belle, you don't have to..."

"No, I want to know. I have to know." She forced herself to step forward through Rumple's shield. "Show us."

The elven king's spell took shape in long strands of mist that wove themselves into a web hanging mid-air. "Look into the center and think back..."

She stared into the mist. The library, she remembered. The ogres were coming, and she and her mother were saving the most precious books...

They had taken too long, and now the ogres were upon them, from every direction, leaving them no retreat.

Colette huddled under a table with her daughter. Heavy footsteps approached. In the last moment before they were discovered, Colette touched her hands to her daughter's temples. "Forgive me, Belle."

For what, she wanted to ask, but all the strength had gone from her, and she couldn't speak, couldn't move. Only the weak draw of her breath and the rapid beating of her heart remained to keep her alive.

When the ogres flipped the table, revealing their prey, Colette was ready for them. Unarmed, she had turned herself into a weapon: a giant wolf such as the ogres feared, with magically armored skin and magically augmented strength. Yet even enhanced with magic, she was untrained for such a brutal battle. At the end of it, she was almost as broken as the ogres she left bleeding on the floor. The wolf pulled itself free, its shape falling away to leave the woman behind, but she wore a stranger's face now — it was no human woman in Colette's torn and bloody dress.

Belle watched, helpless, as her mother changed, and changed again. She couldn't speak when Colette collapsed halfway back to the overturned table, reaching a hand towards her shocked daughter.

It was her father who gave voice to her questions. Maurice rushed into the library, sword drawn. The confusion and dread on his face gave way to horror when his wife lifted her head with his name on her lips — lips wet with ogres' blood, her face a mask of gore that could not conceal the inhuman features underneath. "Colette! What... what happened to you? Belle! No!"

"Belle... is safe." Colette's voice was barely audible. "Had to... draw on her... magic. Drained... but she... alive." She closed her eyes, taking a long, careful breath. A silver glow surrounded her briefly, and whatever she had done seemed to lend her strength to speak. She wiped a sleeve across her face. It was the same and not the same as before. Subtle shifts to her features now marked her as fey. "Maurice. I'm sorry. I never meant for you to find out this way, but it can't be helped."

"You're... you're not who I thought you were." Maurice stared at his wife, the sword half-raised again. "You... you had me under a spell. All this time..."

Colette looked down at her hands. "I meant for you to be happy. For you to be married to someone you loved. If you could see that person in me..."

"It was a lie! Everything was a lie. Did you ever love me?" His face red with fury, Maurice took a step forward, and for a moment Belle was afraid he would use the sword on her mother.

It was a long time before Colette answered, and she didn't meet her husband's gaze. "No. I thought... in time, I would. But it is not in my nature, and perhaps it can never be, for my people."

"Gods, what about Belle? Did you love her... no, of course not. You can't." Maurice looked over at Belle. His face contorted by a new suspicion, he pointed the sword at her. "Is she even my daughter?"

"Of course she is!" Colette turned to Belle. "She is real. If my life was a lie, hers is real. Daughter, when I am gone, remember that I tried to teach you love and compassion..."

Belle couldn't move, couldn't react. All her thoughts felt slow, stunned at her mother's revelation. Why? Why had she done such a thing? Belle was numb with incomprehension and grief. Her mother was mortally wounded. Whoever she really was — it couldn't all be a lie! — she was dying. She had sacrificed herself to save Belle. That was the truth.

"You're a monster."

"Perhaps," acknowledged Colette. "Be that as it may, you'll be free of me before the hour is out."

"I should cut your head off right now!" Maurice raised his sword again, but then his eyes flickered towards Belle, and something in her stricken expression seemed to give him pause. He growled a curse and tossed the sword away. "No. Belle deserves better. This is not how she should remember her mother's death! She should remember that her mother loved her and died a hero. Not this... this..." He clenched his fists, looking sick at the thought. "Not that she's the spawn of some elven sorceress and her mortal plaything!"

"That's... that's not how it was."

"That's exactly how it was!"

Colette sighed, bowing her head. "I did truly try to love you. But... you're right about Belle. She deserves better." She concentrated for a moment, and a small blue vial appeared in her hand. "Have her drink this. Then she won't... won't remember..."

Maurice snatched it from her fingers, but before he turned to Belle, he had one last question for his wife. "How many times have you used this potion on us before?"

"A few," she confessed. "That's too many, I suppose, but I was careless, and let you see what you shouldn't have seen. At least you know this time will be the last!"

As Maurice advanced on her with the vial, Belle wanted to shake her head and shout no, but her body, still unable to respond to her wishes, betrayed her. Her father tilted her head back, opened her jaws, and poured in the potion.

By the time he finished, Colette was dead.

"Mother!" Belle lunged into the mist towards her mother, but as soon as her fingers touched the image, it evaporated as if it had never been. "Mother..."

The elven king's face appeared behind the mist, a grotesque replacement for the mother she had lost. "So, then. She was the youngest of my children, the last to die and the farthest from home. What did she hope to win in her fool's quest? Was it you, granddaughter? Will you be the hero your mother wanted?"

"I don't know!" Then she couldn't speak any more, her throat constricted with tears. She crumpled to her knees, the images of her mother's last moments replaying themselves again and again in her mind.

"Belle, sweetheart, it's all right, it's over." Rumple knelt next to her, pulling her into an awkward half-hug with Gideon still in the sling, pushed to one side. "Shh, shh, you'll be all right."

Belle sniffled, choking back another sob. For a long time, she rested against her husband, wrestling with her emotions. Emotions that apparently didn't disturb her grandfather in the slightest. Get a grip, she told herself. The truth was that her mother had been dead for over thirty years now. All that had changed was Belle's memory. It changes everything... you were never who you thought you were. "You saw?"

"I saw." He helped her to her feet again. "Does it matter? Your mother had nothing but kindness and hope for you, and protected you to her last breath. You already knew that."

"But she was only pretending. Her life was a lie... she was an illusion." The pain was inescapable. "And my father... no wonder he never believed I could love you."

"He was afraid for you," said Rumple. "For good reason."

"I made my own choices." Belle took a deep breath, pushing back the memories. Later, she promised herself, she would think about it later. She couldn't afford to dwell on the past when the future loomed so ominously over them. She turned to see that the elven king had returned to his throne. The other two, Yvanne and Owlflower, flanked him on either side, their faces shadowed. She stood up straighter, taking a step forward. "I don't know if I can be a hero, and I'm certainly no savior, but we came to help people. All the people, whether that means undoing the Dark Curse or fulfilling the dark prophecy. The way my mother died — I don't want anyone to suffer like that again."

Naive fool. This world will never be free of deadly strife. Your only hope is to be stronger than the rest!

The elven king watched her, and something in his gaze made her wonder if he could also hear the dark thoughts that she couldn't banish. "You are sentimental, offering such mercy even to the ogres. Is it love that makes you thus?"

"Love is what makes us stronger," she insisted, both to the elven king and the insidious voice of the Darkness. "You know that, or you wouldn't have used love to power your Dark Curse."

"Ah, the Dark Curse. So you've come to me to undo it." The elven king hesitated, his expression giving nothing away, but at last he said, "It was out of my hands once I gave it to the keeping of the Chernabog. Its casting I left to fate."

Rumple snorted at that. "Fate generally needs a helping hand, dearie."

The king turned his gaze to Rumplestiltskin. "Which you were eager to provide. I heard you moved heaven and earth to find someone to cast the curse for you. And now you regret it?"

"I always meant for the curse to be broken."

Belle nodded, remembering. She had been so glad when Rumple had told her that, soon after their re-union in Storybrooke. It had proved to her that he wasn't the evil man his reputation suggested, shown her that her love hadn't been completely misguided. "He used the curse to find his son. He wasn't doing it out of hate or revenge."

"Do you reproach me, granddaughter?"

"I know you've suffered. So many people have. Please, there must be another way."

The king let out a long sigh. "In some ways, you remind me of your mother. Perhaps fate truly is with you. Very well. To undo the curse, I need the scroll it was inscribed on."

"It was destroyed," Rumple said. "Can't you make a new one? If it's power that's needed, Belle and I can help with that."

"No. It was more than power. It was unique. A relic of the world before, something outside the bounds of ordinary fate..."

"Well, where did you get it, then?" asked Belle. "Maybe we can come up with a substitute."

"It was given us by the Chthonian Oracle, when she told us of the prophecy. But she is gone now, struck down by the gods for speaking out of turn. As for a substitute..." The elven king shook his head slowly. "The fey have no such power."

At this, Owlflower spoke up. "Not the fey, no. But what of the other? He who made the sword might have other secrets hidden in his forge..."

"Yet you've never had any luck in prying them free." The elven king chuckled dryly. "He hasn't taken an interest in our fate since he gave us that sword, and that brought us no closer to our destiny."

Yvanne glanced at Belle. "They destroyed the sword, too. They seem to be making a habit of it. I'm not sure we should entrust them with any more priceless artifacts..."

Belle flushed guiltily. The enchanted sword had been as powerful and skillfully wrought as anything she had ever come across, even in Rumple's collection. It had taken both of them to undo its magic, and even then, she thought a trace of it lingered in Gideon's soul. It was a shame to destroy it, but they hadn't had any other way to save their son.

"Everything has a price," Rumple said. "Especially magic. Take us to this swordsmith."

Chapter Text

The labyrinth defied rationality. Its geometry confused even magic, making it impossible to scry or teleport inside. It was the pride of the dwarves, who had constructed it a thousand years ago for its sole inhabitant, who in return had taught the dwarves the arts of metal-smithing and magic.

"We were new then," explained Delling, the dwarf appointed to guide them. It hadn't taken Belle long to charm him into divulging all their secrets. "The king that was, he boiled stones in the cauldron of hell — to learn how to work it, see? And the magic, it quickened the stones so that they hatched, giving birth to us dwarves. Our heads were empty then, with us only knowing our own names and nothing else, and our hands idle, until we met him in the labyrinth, only it was just a wee cave back then."

Well, not really secrets, Rumplestiltskin admitted to himself. More like common knowledge, here in the underground dwarven city. And because Belle was genuinely interested, they were willing to talk. He suspected that she was trying to distract herself from being overwhelmed by more personal matters.

"So that was a thousand years ago? But how did some of you come to work for the Blue Fairy?" asked Belle.

Delling scowled. "She and her minions stole a clutch of eggs. When they hatched, the younglings, not knowing any better, impressed on Reul Ghorm like ducklings following a flag. And there'll be no telling them any different, not anymore, so that's the one we call the 'lost colony'."

"Then this smith who lives in the labyrinth isn't a dwarf?"

"No, no, though he's been a good friend to us, down the generations." Delling stopped at what seemed to be a blank wall, until he fitted a key into a previously invisible keyhole and the outline of a door appeared in glowing red lines. "Here we are. The Dark Labyrinth: he designed it, but it was dwarves who built it."

Rumplestiltskin ran his fingers along the wall in appreciation. It was a clever bit of construction indeed.

"But why? It seems a strange place to live."

"Not if you're hiding," muttered Rumplestiltskin, but he didn't elaborate on his suspicions.

"He's hiding?"

"It's not for me to say." Delling twisted the key and pushed. The door swung inwards, revealing a stone passageway marked with more faintly glowing lines. "If he's willing to see you, you'll find him."

"And if not?" asked Belle.

"Then the only thing you'll find is the exit." Delling took out the key and tapped it on the door frame three times. The sharp, almost metallic sound echoed hollowly, transmitted through the walls. "There, that'll get his attention. Now go on in."

"Fine. Wish us luck!" said Rumplestiltskin, taking the lead and stepping into the passageway.

"Thank you, Delling." Belle followed with Gideon a moment later.


The sound of hammer on anvil and the smell of smoke guided them, louder and stronger the deeper they went into the labyrinth.


Louder and louder, enough to wake Gideon.

"Shh, hush," murmured Belle, rocking the baby in the sling. "Don't cry...good boy, Mama's here..."


Gideon whimpered, and Belle increased her efforts to soothe him.

"Do you want to go back? I can go talk to this smith, then meet you later," suggested Rumplestiltskin.

Belle gritted her teeth. "No. We'll go together."

Rumplestiltskin nodded, continued on.


At the heart of the labyrinth burned a magical fire. Rumplestiltskin felt the arcane energies prickle against his skin, and the contrasting flow of fresh air drawn in through invisible vents in the walls. Water trickled from a fountain into a pool.

The smith stood in that fierce light, hammering a piece of glowing metal held against a dull black anvil.


He gave his name as "Volund", and he was lame in one leg, using an iron crutch to support himself as he worked.

"The Dark One and the sword of destiny." Volund's voice was hoarse from smoke, dry and heavy. He didn't turn around. "Are you here to kill me?"

"What? No!" Belle spoke first, and Rumplestiltskin didn't contradict her, though he would have preferred to leave his options open. "We're here to ask for your help."


"And what help would that be?"

As Belle explained about the Dark Curse, Rumplestiltskin moved into the chamber, examining the items that cluttered the shelves. Most of them weren't magical, but they all showed the hand of the same craftsman. And it was familiar, and not only from the sword. Then he realized what it meant.

"I don't meddle in the affairs of gods or men," the smith said.


"But you made the enchanted sword," protested Belle.

"Yes. Long ago." After a brooding pause, he said, "It has a fate of undoing on it, but I left it to find its own path. It is my penance."

"Penance for what?"


When Volund didn't answer, Rumplestiltskin moved forward into his line of sight. He held up the Shears of Destiny, the gold blades tinged red by the light of the forge. "Was it perhaps for making these? Who did you make the shears for, and whose fate was cut with them?"

"Ah." Volund stared back at him. "You've guessed this much. Now guess the rest."


The rest? Rumplestiltskin hesitated, letting the pieces fall into place in his head, guided by whispers from the shears themselves. "Your name isn't Volund. You're Hephaestus, and it was Zeus who commissioned the shears from you..."

"He's Hephaestus?" Belle looked at the smith in astonishment. "Zeus wanted the shears?"

"And it was his own fate he cut, his own and those of his fellow Olympians," Rumplestiltskin finished. "That was how he meant to defeat the prophecy of his eventual overthrow..."


"After he overthrew his father Kronos, Zeus went to the Chthonian Oracle to learn his own fate," said the smith. "That was when he heard the prophecy."

"And it foretold his own end. Oh." Belle clutched Gideon to her chest, then glanced at Rumplestiltskin. "I guess he didn't take it well..."

"It was to be the end of us all, or so he told us, and to our shame, we conspired with him to change the story."


"To your shame? You regret helping Zeus?" asked Belle.

"It cost me my wife, and it cost my wife her sanity," said Hephaestus. "As for those who opposed Zeus, it cost them their names and their lives."

Rumplestiltskin frowned, remembering from his studies that Hephaestus was said to be married to Aphrodite.


"I left Olympus, but was forced to swear an oath not to act against Zeus."

"You made the enchanted sword," Belle pointed out.

"I didn't name a target nor did I give it to any enemy of Olympus."

"So it found its way to us by 'chance', and we haven't sworn any oath." Rumplestiltskin wished he had known this before. Maybe he could have preserved the sword.


"But we don't have the sword anymore. It's the Dark Curse we need help with," said Belle.

"You have the Shears of Destiny," said Hephaestus.

"It's not enough," said Rumplestiltskin. By now intimately familiar with what he could do with them, he knew they weren't powerful enough to cut through the Dark Curse.


"True. You also need power from a god. But it will not be me. I swore an unbreakable oath."

"Not you, not you... then does that mean there's someone else out there willing to help us?" Rumplestiltskin asked.

"Go to Delling. Tell him I said to give you the Book of Volund." He freed a hand, reached into the smock he wore, and flicked something through the air at Rumplestiltskin.

Rumplestiltskin snatched it from the air. It was a nail.

"Guess we don't got much use for it anymore," Delling said, the words distorted by the nail hanging at the side of his mouth. (He had bitten it when first presented with it. "Yeah, that's one of Volund's, all right.") "If he says give it to you, guess he's got his reasons..."

"Our hopes rest with you now," the elven king told them as they took their leave of the hollow hills.

"No pressure, then," said Belle. "Um. We'll do our best."

Rumplestiltskin took her hand, for what meager comfort he could offer, then transported them back to the Dark Castle.

"No one died. Yet." Rumplestiltskin answered Dove's unspoken question when the transmogrified ogre met them at the door. "I promised to help and they promised to give peace a chance. If that isn't a sign of the end times, I don't know what is..."

Dove let out the breath that he had been holding in a soft huff. He looked down at the baby in his arms and smiled. Unintimidated, Robyn twisted a hand in his shirt. "Good. And now?"

"Belle and I need to do some research, and then we'll see what I can actually do about fulfilling my promises."

The "Book of Volund" was a slender volume of loose papers inside a wooden box. The papers were currently laid out in careful rows on the big table in the Dark Castle Library.

"They look like pages from one of the Author's books," Belle observed. The writing was in no language that either of them could read, and the paper was ancient, preserved by magic. She turned it over to look at the scrawls on the back. "But this looks like some kind of architectural sketch."

"And notes on magic." Rumplestiltskin examined one of the other sheets. "See, these are the same kind of symbols the elves use."


"Most likely," he agreed. "Instructions for the construction of his labyrinth."

"Poor Hephaestus. Has he really been lurking down there for a thousand years? He must be so lonely."

"He has the dwarves."

"Hmm. When you said who he was, I was afraid at first that he would try to kill Gideon. Because of the prophecy." Belle seemed reluctant to let her son out of her sight, even though the Merry Men had offered to take a turn at babysitting. She had Gideon in a bassinet now, resting on the floor next to her feet. "But he tried to help us, even knowing who we were."

"I think he wants an end."

"Do you think Hades knew? Do you think that's why he wanted our child?"

"I don't know. It's possible." Rumplestiltskin scanned the pages. One of them caught his eye and he picked it up, and saw that it had Hephaestus's notes on the spells used for the enchanted sword.

"He said we need the power from a god. What about Poseidon? Which side is he on?"

"I don't know. On the one hand, he isn't living on Mount Olympus. On the other, he's acknowledged as the ruler of the oceans, which suggests he's still in Zeus's good graces." Rumplestiltskin frowned at the paper. The magic was complex, too potent to be dispelled without having fulfilled its purpose, even if the sword had been destroyed. Which meant... he looked over at his son.

Belle noticed the direction of his glance. "What? Is something wrong?" She picked Gideon up out of the bassinet and checked him anxiously. "I don't feel anything out of place..."

"No, no, he's fine. It's just that I was thinking..." He rubbed a hand over his mouth, not wanting to say it. Don't tell her. She'll try to take him away from you again...


"The magic of the sword is still in Gideon," he blurted out before he convinced himself to keep yet another secret from his wife. "That means we could..."

"No!" Belle said sharply. "We can't."

He met her eyes, and saw that she had leaped intuitively to the same conclusion as he had. Or she had already known that the spell was lying dormant in Gideon. "If it's our only chance..."

"No. Your mother... both our mothers... wanted to use us for their 'greater good.' We can't do that to our own child!"

Rumplestiltskin swallowed his arguments and nodded, moved by the anguish in her voice. She was right, of course she was right. They couldn't use Gideon that way. They had to... they had to learn from the mistakes of their parents, or they'd be perpetuating the cycle of misery.

You fool. Power is power. You have god-wrought magic in your grasp. Don't throw it away, when you can use it to save your son...

Not by turning him into a weapon, he told himself. The cost to Gideon would be too high. He forced himself to turn the paper over to look at the other side. "Well, then, I guess we'll have to see what we can find in these pages..."

Unable to read the words, they pored over the illustrations. One of them depicted a man and a woman holding an ornate cup, pouring black liquid from it into a glass vial.

"That looks like the black grail," Rumplestiltskin said. "Henry found it in the New York Public Library of all places. He used it to absorb all the magic I had gathered."

"Where is it now?"

"I don't know. In Regina's vault, perhaps. Or in the back of a closet in Henry's room?" Rumplestiltskin had been too preoccupied with other matters at the time to pay much attention. Besides, the cup had been inert once it had absorbed the magic.

"There's lines going out of these two into the cup. What do you think it represents? Some kind of magical energy?"

"Could be. I wonder who they are? Do you recognize them?" Rumplestiltskin had lived for a longer span, but Belle had read a wider variety of books than he had.

"Not their faces, but..." Belle stared at the figures, then said, "Look at their clothes, at their headgear. I think these are gods. Olympians. See, there's a lyre in the background, and a spear. Apollo and Athena."

"Hmm. You could be right. Enacting some sort of divine ritual? I don't recognize it."

"Well, maybe the other pictures will explain it." Belle reached for the papers. Only two others were illustrated. One showed Hephaestus at his forge, handing a pair of golden shears to his visitor.

"That must be Zeus," said Rumplestiltskin. "We already know this part. What's the other one?"

"Oh, I know this one, too. I read about it in Merlin's journal. This is the messenger of the gods bringing him the book and the pen. Wait, there's a vial, too. The same one as in the other picture?"

"It must be the ink." Rumplestiltskin stepped closer to look over Belle's shoulder at the illustration. He froze in shock. "No... it can't be!"


"The messenger. I know him. So do you..."

"You're joking." Belle took another look at the page. "His face does look familiar, but..."

"Oh, not in those clothes... and not in those sandals. No, think of him with a hat."

"You mean..."

"It's Jefferson. The Mad Hatter."

Jefferson's house in Storybrooke was a small mansion in the woods on a hill overlooking the town. Rumplestiltskin's portal opened to a point at the bottom of the driveway. Belle followed him with Gideon slung across her chest. They had left Dove with Robyn back at the Dark Castle.

"It should be safer," Rumplestiltskin had decided, and the others had agreed. "She'll be with her brother and the Merry Men. We'll be back soon enough — the curse needs to be undone from the point where it was first cast."

That was assuming that they could acquire the necessary divine power from Jefferson — not something Rumplestiltskin would have wanted to bet on. Still, they had to try. More snow had fallen in their absence, but the driveway had been shoveled clear. A good sign, he thought. And even better when Jefferson answered the door.

"Rumplestiltskin," said Jefferson, eyeing his visitors in surprise. "Belle. And baby makes three? How time flies."

"You've been holding back on me, old friend." Rumplestiltskin gave the Mad Hatter his best menacing glare.

Never one to be intimidated, Jefferson simply raised his eyebrows and said, "Have I?"

Rumplestiltskin pulled the page from the book out of his jacket and handed it to Jefferson.

Jefferson unfolded it, stared at the picture, then muttered, "Fame at last?"

"It is you, isn't it?" Belle pushed forward, as if she could squeeze all the answers out of him through sheer force of presence. "The messenger of the gods... which makes you one yourself!"

Jefferson chuckled uneasily, but he stepped back and let them into the foyer. He folded the page and handed it back to Rumplestiltskin. "Oh, well, technically, once upon a time, long ago in a galaxy far, far away..."

"Ha!" said Belle.

"But I'm past all that now." He snapped his fingers. "See? Not a spark of divinity left. Mortal through and through."

"Portal jumper," said Rumplestiltskin, noting the fresh new hat on the rack in the foyer. Its aura was bright with magical energy. "I wouldn't say you've lost your touch entirely..." He shut the door behind him.

"Well, maybe not." Jefferson smirked. Then he invited them into the living room, letting them defrost while he bustled into the kitchen to get them tea.

Rumplestiltskin noted the mini-trampoline in the corner, the colorful backpack shoved underneath, the scatter of hair ties and scrunchies strewn on the coffee table, and the huddle of stuffed animals by the fireplace. "Where's Grace?"

"Having a sleepover with her friends," said Jefferson, back with the tea.

"She likes living in Storybrooke?"

"Loves it. I mean, it's one crisis after another in this place, but she has friends. Friends who invite her to sleepovers!" Jefferson shook his head in amazement, and Rumplestiltskin remembered the poverty and isolation they had endured in the Enchanted Forest before the curse hit. "She's on the gymnastics team with them. Now that the spell on the town line is broken, they're talking about competing in the state league."

"Ah." Rumplestiltskin felt a twinge of regret that he was about to ask the man's help to, in essence, undo this new life that he had built for himself and his daughter.

"So, what about you, old man? Since when did you two have a baby?"

"It's a long story," said Belle, then let Jefferson coax it out of her. She didn't stop at Gideon's birth, but went on in far too much detail (in Rumplestiltskin's opinion) about the events that followed, including the prophecies and the Final Battle.

Better her than me, he thought. Belle had always been better at talking to people, and who could deny her anything? Even if they had come here to destroy everyone's happy endings.

"I didn't think this was a social call, but what you're asking..." Jefferson shook his head. "People have lives here, and you're planning to rip it all away?"

"Lives built on a curse, may I remind you," Rumplestiltskin said. At least Jefferson had been quick to understand what had been lost. He had always been resistant to the Dark Curse, able to keep his Enchanted Forest memories when everyone else, including Rumplestiltskin, had forgotten themselves.

"And all those other people — what about all those little girls who don't even exist now? Don't they deserve a chance to live?" Belle looked earnestly at Jefferson. "Please, we can't abandon them."

When Jefferson didn't answer, Rumplestiltskin said, "We all came from the Enchanted Forest, but that doesn't mean everyone has to stay there forever. Portals are easier now. You can still live in Maine if you want, afterwards."

"I don't know..."

But Belle knew what was right, and Rumplestiltskin was glad when she eventually convinced Jefferson to help them. She didn't even have to threaten him, though the threat of the Final Battle was inherent in her arguments.

"You may be right," Jefferson conceded at last. "I always had a bad feeling about Zeus's plan. That's why I bailed after what happened to Athena and Apollo."

"Wait, what did happen to them? Rumple, show him the picture."

Rumplestiltskin complied, handing the page in question to Jefferson.

"Yeah." He studied the illustration and nodded. "The grail of earth. They burned themselves up making that thing. I had to wipe their ashes off afterwards."

"What was it all for?" asked Belle.

"Something about binding the storyline. That first vial of ink poured from the grail was used to annoint the Author. Nasty stuff. After I handed the book, pen, and ink to Merlin, I ran... burned my sandals, then took a swim in the River of Souls and washed off my old name." Jefferson squinted at the writing underneath the illustration. "And everything that went with it, including the ability to read Olympian script. Huh. Never noticed that before."

"The River of Souls?" Belle looked at the Hatter in disbelief. "I thought the water trapped people for eternity."

"Well, I knew a trick or two, darling." Jefferson handed the page back to Rumplestiltskin. "Still do... got myself reborn, didn't I? After that, I lived a string of mortal lives. Not a bad gig, until I ran into the Evil Queen and your Dark One here." He scowled at Rumplestiltskin.

Rumplestiltskin scoffed. "Come now, what did I ever do to you besides pay you handsomely for your services?"

"You cut me off from my daughter for twenty-eight years, you bastard. Regina may have cast the Dark Curse, but we all know who was behind that."

"Water under the bridge, dearie. What's a few decades between friends?"

Jefferson shot him a black look, but he had already agreed to help. "Fine. You need divine power, but your Dark One dagger isn't enough? Or the shears?"

"The dagger was reborn into the earthly realm, and the shears were made for a specific task. I need something more personal, something freely given."

Jefferson sighed. "Like I said, I'm no god. But I did keep one memento of my past — insurance in case someone up there decided they wanted me out of the way. If I give it to you, then you owe me your protection!"

"Against heaven?" Rumplestiltskin snorted. "If I had the power to do that, I wouldn't need your assistance in the first place."

"He's your friend, Rumple," hissed Belle, poking him in the ribs. "He freed me from Regina without waiting to make any deals with you!"

"Yes, well, there is that." He looked at Jefferson. "No deals, because I can't guarantee anything, but I'll try my best..."

Jefferson nodded, satisfied for the moment. He retrieved his hat, cleared a space on the coffee table, then set the hat spinning. Magic crackled in a glowing vortex around the hat. Jefferson reached in and plucked out what looked like a golden feather. As the hat slowed to a stop, the portal closing once more, Jefferson held up the token. "The lucky feather from my winged sandals."


Reality split open, and an arrow whistled through the gap, striking the golden feather dead on. Before anyone could react, it hit the far wall and exploded into a cloud of magical energy. Streaks of white light shot outwards.

Rumplestiltskin flung up a spell barrier, but he was too late. Light filled his vision...

He was mortal, an empty vessel for his fear. He cowered in the Storybrooke library, his bad leg throbbing with pain. He looked up to see...

"Belle," he gasped. They had to get out of there, had to run. Merida had been sent to kill Belle, and he had no power to protect her.

"Rumple?" Belle sounded bewildered, lost. She was holding a baby. Their baby. "What's going on?"

They were in the back room of the pawnshop. He shushed her frantically, hoping that Merida wouldn't find them.

An arrow thudded into the wall, missing Belle's head by a bare inch. She stared at him, terrified.

"Belle, run!" He limped out into the open, clutching a table for support. Merida had another arrow nocked. She was already aiming...

Belle turned to flee, too late — the next arrow took her in the shoulder.

"No!" Rumplestiltskin threw himself at Merida, but no matter how many steps he stumbled forward, he couldn't close the distance between them. She nocked another arrow, her eyes shining in anticipation of the kill...

The door opened, bells jangling...

"Artemis!" Jefferson's desperate shout of recognition jarred Rumplestiltskin out of the illusion. Then the Hatter fell back with an arrow protruding from his chest.

In a confusing moment of double vision, he saw both his pawn shop and Jefferson's living room. It was Merida and it wasn't. But he remembered himself enough to draw the dagger. Its touch infused him with enough power to shake off the spell, enabling him to reach his magic once more, just in time to catch the next arrow before it impaled him.

Belle was down. The arrow must be poisoned or be-spelled. Gideon was crying.

Rumplestiltskin sent a blast of energy at the archer, hoping to distract her long enough to get his family and Jefferson away. An arrow split the blast, parting it harmlessly around the archer — Artemis? — and narrowly missing Rumplestiltskin.

The goddess of the hunt. Even with all his magic, it was all he could do to shield himself and his allies. And then she summoned her hounds. With teeth of moonlight and nightmares, they could rip him apart in seconds, if they managed to close in.

Clenching his fingers around the hilt of the Dark One dagger, he forced them all into stillness.

You cannot have him. He is not your lawful prey. It was the voice of the dagger, speaking mind to mind with the goddess.

Lawful or not, Artemis would have all their lives if he weakened for even an instant. Rumplestiltskin held on with every last ounce of strength left to him, even when he fell back with his legs collapsing under him. He still had the dagger, still held the hounds away. And while she concentrated on the hounds, Artemis had no leisure for arrows...

Then a flare of light, streaked purple and white, enveloped Artemis from behind. The rent in reality broke open again, and light pushed her through. The gap snapped closed again with a sound like a thunderclap. The hounds howled and shivered apart into nothing.

Stunned at the reprieve, Rumplestiltskin could only lie there clutching the dagger as footsteps approached. He looked up to see two familiar faces staring down at him. He caught his breath with an effort, then choked out a greeting. "Ah. Regina and Miss Swan. What an unexpected pleasure."

Chapter Text

A month ago...

A body thrown into the Cauldron of Rebirth is mended of all physical injuries, but a soul split in two is not as simply healed. Inside the cauldron's dream, the two halves of Regina awoke to darkness. A disembodied voice summoned them to their accounting.

A pretty puzzle. Two Reginas, two Evil Queens. Which is real and which is false?

"Who's that? Where am I?" asked the one who called herself Regina.

"We're dead, aren't we?" guessed the one who was called the Evil Queen. "I saw that wound. A pity you threw away all your good sense when you split yourself from me."

"I had to save Emma! Not that you'd understand."

"Oh, I understand your martyr complex all too well. I just wish you didn't have to drag me down with you. So who turned the lights out? Is Underbrooke suffering a power outage?"

You are within the Cauldron of Rebirth. Your body is whole once more, which is to say, singular and unwounded. The question is, which of you shall wake inside that flesh?

"Hold on, you've merged our physical bodies again?" asked Regina.

Indeed. That was a wound more grievous than that inflicted by the sword, but by my power I have healed it. In the darkness, the rectangular outline of a doorway took shape, traced in faint blue light. One may step through the gateway and live again. I await your choice.

The voice faded away, leaving the darkness emptier than ever. For a long time, neither woman spoke.

Regina was the first to break the silence. "Well, it looks like I can finish what I began. I'll finally get rid of you, for real this time." She headed towards the doorway warily, gathering magical energy to her hands, ready to fight. When no attack came, she paused. "Aren't you going to try to stop me?"

"Why should I?"

"What is this, some trick?" demanded Regina. "It won't work. I'm going to win. I'm going to have my happy ending..."

"And none of it will be real." The Evil Queen laughed. "But go ahead, deceive yourself. That's what you're best at."

"I'm not the liar here!"

"You're nothing but a lie. All that was true you gave to me. That's why I'm stronger than you," said the Evil Queen.

"You're not! You're just more ruthless, more—"

"More evil? You ripped out your darkness, but what do you think that darkness is? You didn't want to feel guilty anymore. You didn't want to suffer the pain of loss and regret. That's what you filled me with: guilt, pain, resentment, and anger. As for love, family, happiness — you kept all that for yourself."

"Are you calling me selfish? You?" Regina scoffed. "I was trying to help everyone, not just myself, by putting evil behind me. You weren't meant to..."

" Well, guess what, I am alive. But every moment of that life has been agony. A torture that I inflicted on myself! Only the thought of revenge gave me the strength to go on. The hope of making you lose everything..."

"And if you walk out that door, you'll have succeeded," Regina said. "So what's stopping you?"

The Evil Queen continued her tirade as if her other half hadn't spoken. "...then I thought, if I choose to stay, that proves once and for all that I am the better half. So go ahead. Walk through that doorway. You'll always know what you really  are: someone who ran away from her own past. Someone too weak to look in the mirror and face herself. A pathetic coward begging forgiveness from someone else's family because she's destroyed her own..."

"Shut up! Shut up."

"Deep inside, you're still the little girl who craved her mother's approval, the little girl who wanted to be accepted. I've grown up, but you've only grown hollow. 'Regina' is a shell, a reflection of what they want from you — what Henry wants, what Emma wants. But it won't work, because she'll see through you in the end."

"You're wrong. You're lying!"

"Am I? Then take that step...just one step. The day will come when you look at yourself and realize that in cutting away the 'darkness', you've cut out your own heart, and finally become exactly like Mother."

Regina didn't move. Neither did the Evil Queen. Other than the door, there was nowhere to go in the featureless darkness.

After a long time, Regina spoke again. "There's one more thing that I kept, that you don't have."

"And what's that?"

"Hope. True hope." This time, Regina's voice was quiet, calm. "You're so angry that you can't see past your own misery. You don't believe that you can be forgiven. That's what locked us onto the path of evil. When I did what I did to you, I thought I was freeing myself to live again."

"We don't deserve to be forgiven." The Evil Queen's voice was equally calm. "Everything we've done, all the people we've killed... how can we ever atone for that?"

"Maybe we can't, but it doesn't mean we should give up. Henry believes in us. He showed me that there is a way out of the darkness."

"Only you decided to take a shortcut."

Regina sighed. "Maybe you're right, and self-amputation wasn't the way to go. Neither of us is whole."

"It's a bit late for second thoughts."

"Maybe... maybe not."

"What do you mean?"

"You said I want to be accepted. Yes, I do, because that's part of being human. Only, it rings hollow as long as I  don't accept myself." Regina took a deep breath. Reaching out into the darkness, her fingers touched those of her other half. "We go through the doorway together. As one person..."

"Is that even possible?"

"This is the Cauldron of Rebirth, reputed to heal all  wounds. We won't know until we try."

The Evil Queen's fingers gripped Regina's. "Fine. Let's do it."

Regina opened her eyes again to find Emma's anxious face peering down at her over the rim of the cauldron.

"Regina! Are you all right?"

Regina sat up gingerly and inspected herself, patting down her clothes, finding them to be in the style of the Land Without Magic rather than the ornate dress of the Evil Queen. Her injuries were perfectly healed, and even the bloodstains were gone — the cauldron apparently mended clothes as well as bodies. "Yeah. I think so."

Emma frowned in confusion. "What happened to the Evil Queen?"

Regina clambered to her feet, then gestured, indicating herself. "This is it. As the poet said, 'I contain multitudes' yadda yadda yadda."

"You... you mean you've... re-integrated?"

Regina grimaced. "Such a waste after all the effort I spent in putting my past behind me, right? But I like to think I'm a bigger person now. Sorry. Still getting used to it... my head feels a lot fuller than it has for awhile." She took a step to the edge of the cauldron and jumped for the rim, grabbing it and awkwardly hoisting herself over it with Emma's help.

She found herself in a large open chamber reminiscent of the throne room in her castle, except that instead of a throne, the raised dais was fitted with some kind of strangely articulated metal stand which clasped the cauldron in a spidery grip. The wall behind it was fitted with an array of pipes, chutes, and control mechanisms, while the floor was grooved with more channels in a circular pattern, draining away to the gods knew where. The design had obvious magical significance.

"What happened? Did you put me in the cauldron? I thought that thing was mythical... where did you find it?"

"It was in the mines under Storybrooke," Emma said.

"How did you... ah, let me guess, you made a deal with Gold?" Regina shook her head in disgust. "I wonder what else that secretive bastard has squirreled away that he never told me about..."

"At least it saved your life."

"What price did he ask?" She remembered what her "Evil Queen" half had been up to with him, and shuddered at the memory. For all her faults, Emma would never have tried to make that kind of deal. Even if the pirate had weaseled his way into a kiss back on Neverland... Stop it, Regina told herself, knowing the futility of pursuing that line of thought. She chose to be with him.

Emma snorted. "Nothing. The son of a bitch said the cauldron would take its own price... which apparently meant opening up a damn portal and dropping us straight into literal hell. As far as I can figure, this is the Enchanted Forest annex of the Underworld."

"Looks a bit like my castle. Except for whatever this contraption is." Regina peered up at the convoluted array, then poked at the levers and wheels.

"Looks a bit Rube Goldberg to me. I didn't know fancy plumbing was a thing in fairy tale land."

Regina continued exploring the controls. Somewhere, a valve opened, and she heard water trickling in. It reached the outflow on the wall and dripped into the cauldron. The water swirled with glowing green lights.

The River of Souls!

Regina hastily shut down the flow again. "Well, it's a good thing you didn't get bored and start fiddling with the levers while I was still in there..."

"I'm not a complete idiot," said Emma. "I know to keep my hands off unknown magical devices." She gave Regina a look.

"I know what I'm doing," Regina asserted, but they both knew it was a lie — this place was strange to both of them.

"Well, do you know how we get out of here? Hades isn't around anymore to open a portal for us, and I get the feeling it was a one-way ticket with the cauldron."

"We need to find a ferryman. Without Hades to command otherwise, there's no reason to keep us here. The living don't belong in the Underworld."

Regina headed for the doors and pushed her way outside, where the air was thick with the red-tinged mist that permeated the realm of the dead. As she had guessed, the castle was situated right next to the River of Souls. In fact, it was on a rocky island, with the river forming a deadly moat around it. A high, angular bridge of black metal arched across the channel from one side of the castle onto the shore. At the base of the bridge was a stone landing and a shabby wooden pier. No boats were in evidence.

"Can you summon a ferry?" asked Emma. "Do you have a spell or potion or something?"

"I haven't exactly spent much time studying the ins and outs of the Underworld. So no, I can't. It's not like whistling up a cab in Manhattan."

"Ok, but maybe it's like a bus stop, and we just have to wait for the next one."

"You'd think they'd post a schedule, in that case," grumbled Regina, but perhaps it was worth a try. "Fine, you look out for the ferry. I'll see if I can find a mirror I can use to see through."

But before Regina found anything suitable, Emma called her back outside. "There's someone watching us from across the river."

"Hmm. Let's see what he wants." Regina started across the bridge, Emma a step behind her. But as they approached the shore, the watcher darted off into the misty woods that lined the river here.

"There's a road," Emma noted. "Why don't we see where it goes?"

"This isn't a National Geographic expedition," Regina said. "And it could be dangerous. I'm not sure what the situation is in the Underworld now that Hades is gone."

"We can talk to someone and find out."

Time and space were uncertain concepts in the Underworld, but the road eventually emerged from the woods onto a rocky promontory overlooking the river. There they found what looked like an inn in the style of the Enchanted Forest. There was a courtyard with a well, a two-story main building, and two wings that seemed to contain the stables, though there was no sign of any animals. Nor was there any scent of smoke, cooking, or even dung. The wooden sign that hung over the front door was cracked, its painted eye faded.

"'The Eye of the Oracle'," read Emma. "So, not creepy at all, then."

"Yeah." Regina leaned over the mouth of the well and looked down. More water from the River of Souls. "I hope you aren't thirsty."

Emma shook her head, then crossed the courtyard to the door and opened it. Coming up behind her, Regina saw that the common room was not empty as she had thought, but occupied by a scattering of shades clustered at three or four tables. They seemed to be drinking from cups, but the cups were empty. They played at dice and cards, making their bets in pebbles, seeds, and dried twigs. Not recognizing any of the customers, Regina wondered how long they had been here and what their unfinished business might be.

At the entrance of the two living women, the shades turned to stare silently, their games put on hold. Regina scanned the faces, but didn't see the man who had been watching them from the shore earlier. Regina strode boldly to the bar at the end of the room and hailed the bartender. "So what do you serve here?"

The bartender was an old man of medium build. He wore a heavy cloak and robe even indoors, the hood thrown back to reveal a bald, tattooed head. He studied Regina for a moment, then glanced at Emma. "The past. The future. Things done and things undone. But you two have the stench of story clinging to you."

"Yep, living the fairy tale, that's us," said Emma. "Listen, what we really want right now is a way out of this realm."

The bartender set out two empty mugs onto the bar. "Drink up. If you're here, this is where you're meant to be."

"Still keeping the faith, gramps?" Another man sidled up next to Regina and winked at her, then swiped the mug from in front of her. "This is no drink for the living."

"Infidel," said the bartender. "I haven't forgotten—"

"None of us have." A red-haired woman had approached from the other side, claiming the stool next to Emma. She let a pair of dice clatter onto the bar. Every face was blank. Her own, however, was scarred, the eyes sewn crudely shut. "Those who wish to forget go to the river."

Emma's mouth opened and closed at the sight of the mutilated woman. "I don't want to get into a religious argument here..."

"Never mind them, Emma," said Regina. "We got out before. We can do it again. Not to sound like my step-daughter, but as long as we believe in ourselves, there's hope..."

"You were here before?" The man stared at Regina and Emma over the empty mug. "When was that... no, don't tell me. You had something to do with Hades's destruction. Who are you?"

"A queen and a savior," said the red-haired woman, running her palm over her dice. Then she scooped them up again, and Regina saw that her hands, too, were badly scarred.

Regina sighed. "You could say that." She tugged lightly at Emma's sleeve, then turned to leave. "Come on, there's no help to be found here."

"No, wait, wait!" The so-called infidel hopped off his stool and scurried around to block them, sticking his arms out to either side. "We didn't say we wouldn't help. This place being what it is, we don't get fresh meat, uh, new people very often. So you'll understand if we're curious about you."

"The urge to gossip never dies, huh?" Emma folded her arms across her chest and narrowed her eyes at their interrogators. "Fine. Do you know how to summon a hell-boat?"

"This inn has stood at the river's edge since this age began. We've seen more ferries than you've had hot dinners," boasted the infidel. "Of course we know."

"And you'll share that knowledge with us?" Regina didn't trust the man, but they had to work with what they had.

He grinned, teeth flashing white in a dark face, and bowed theatrically. "I will."

The red-haired woman snorted in derision. "You will give them the knowledge, Spider, but it will not serve them as they believe."

"We'll take our chances," Emma said. "What do you want to know?"

"Why, tell us a story, of course. The story of the queen and the savior's first trip into the Underworld!"

It took a long time, because all the patrons of the inn, as well as the bartender, crowded around to listen, and they turned out to be an annoying audience, constantly interrupting with questions and comments. So much for the silence of the grave, Regina thought wryly. She pushed back the grief that gripped her heart once Emma began talking about Hades's brief sojourn in the overworld, and Robin Hood's death at his hands. Not even his shade survives... If there is any justice in this or any other world, may he be at peace, if anything of him remains.

Finally, there was silence. Then Spider clapped his hands and said brightly, "Quite the tale!"

Regina nodded impatiently. "Now we've fulfilled our end of the deal..."

But Spider looked at Emma. "So it seems your pirate caught the eye of almighty Zeus. Got the kiss of life and everything... and I mean everything. Pretty lad, is he?"

Emma frowned at the insinuation. "Zeus rewarded him for his heroism."

Spider chuckled. "Oh, is that what they're calling it now?"

"Never mind Hook," Regina broke in, having no wish to pursue this line of conversation. "You were going to tell us how to summon a ferry."

"She's right," said the bartender. "Is this relevant?"

"It isn't," snapped Regina, with too much force. Before she could say more, Emma turned to her, an accusing look in her eyes, and Regina cursed herself for her own lack of subtlety.

"Hold on. Regina, you know something... what is it?"

Regina sighed. "Let it go, Emma. It really isn't relevant."

But it was too late. There were trolls and there were trolls, and this Spider seemed the type that delighted in stirring up doubts. "Whatever her majesty says. I'm sure she has your best interests at heart. Now, about the ferryman—"

"No, wait." Emma caught Regina's gaze. "I thought we were in this together. And now you're trying to hide something from me?"

Regina shook her head in exasperation. "I don't know anything. It's just rumors, myths..."

"What rumors?"

"The king of the gods has a certain reputation... and it's not for his generosity in saving mortals from death."

"But Zeus told him it was for his heroism. Killian redeemed himself from the darkness, and he didn't deserve to have his life cut short."

"'Cut short'? The man's some three centuries old. Look, it's not as if he even remembers the truth, whatever it is. Zeus always erases their memories afterwards." Regina winced at the hurt look on Emma's face. Emma had a blind spot where the pirate was concerned, and Regina usually tried not to poke at it. "Something about maintaining the dignity of the gods..."

"Dignity be damned," scoffed Spider. "It's because the missus hates it when he polishes his thunderbolt on the mortals."

Regina scowled at Spider, but she couldn't refute his reasoning. "Hera is the goddess of marriage. He can't afford to let her have proof of his indiscretions. It would give her too much power over him."

Emma looked around at the others in the room. "Is this true? You all think Zeus resurrected Killian because—" She choked on the words.

Some of the shades had the grace to look embarrassed. The bartender shook his head slowly. "We have no proof."

"Unless you count the mob of demigods claiming him as their father." Spider smirked.

"He hasn't affirmed them," said the bartender.

"No, he's simply forgotten to strike some of them down."

The red-haired woman consulted her dice once more. "Killian Jones is favored of Zeus. That much is truth."

"And everything else is mere conjecture," Regina said firmly. "What does it matter, as long as you two love each other?"

"Right." Emma still looked shaken, but she took a deep breath and steadied herself. "What about summoning a ferry to get us out of here?"

"Yes, there's a ritual..." began Spider, but before he could finish his first sentence, the front door burst open.

A troop of armored knights stomped their way into the common room. Though their swords were sheathed, they had their hands on the hilts, ready to draw. The leader said into the silence following their unannounced arrival, "We've had word that two people were seen coming out of the castle on the river, and that they were headed this way."

The bartender looked at the knights. "And if they were, what then?"

Regina and Emma exchanged glances. If it came to it, they would step forward rather than let their hosts be drawn into a fight.

But the leader only smiled. "Then we would extend to them the welcome of New Camelot..."

New Camelot? It was only then that Regina recognized the voice, and knew who the speaker must be. She made her way forward through the crowd, Emma at her side. "King Arthur."

Arthur turned to meet them, then stiffened in surprise. "Regina? And Emma Swan? You're the strangers from the castle?"

"Yeah," said Emma. "It was a surprise to us, too."

"I... see. It must have been a wondrous adventure."

"'Wondrous' isn't the word that leaps to mind," said Regina.

"I can't wait to hear the tale. But perhaps it is better told in the comfort of the court." Arthur inclined his head graciously, gesturing in invitation. "My ladies, I hope you will do me the honor of being my guests."

Regina frowned. "The last time we accepted your hospitality, it didn't end well."

Arthur smiled disarmingly. "Things are different now. I admit, I was consumed by obsession back then, and I wronged you all. Please allow me this chance to make it up to you."

Regina glanced at Emma.

Emma shrugged. "He did help Killian in the Underworld when Hades was in Storybrooke."

"Hmm." Regina didn't think that was as much of a ringing endorsement as one might hope for, but it was something.

"If not for me, then what about your sister?" Arthur said. "She is currently at my court. Don't you want to see her?"

"Not particularly." But then she felt guilty for her reaction. Zelena was family, and Regina owed it to her to make the effort, even though Regina harbored a lingering resentment for Zelena's role in Robin's death. This could be their last chance to make their peace. She sighed, then nodded. "But I will, anyway."

Emma gave her an understanding glance, one that promised, Whatever happens, we can handle it together. Aloud, she only said, "Fine. New Camelot it is!"

Chapter Text

The bartender and the patrons of the inn had gone quiet again, not saying a word when Regina and Emma left with Arthur's troop. Only Spider managed to brush against Regina 'accidentally' as she stepped through the doorway, sending a whispered "later" to her as she passed.

Arthur and his people hadn't come on foot: a silent gathering of spectral horses waited with unnatural stillness in the courtyard, their eyes lit with orange flames. Two of the knights stepped forward, inviting Regina and Emma to ride double with them. As Regina mounted, she felt bare bones underneath the saddle blanket. It was a skeleton, clad in the memory of flesh — necromancy, she thought, something that her mother had dabbled in, but Regina had never had the stomach for. She had only ever wanted to resurrect Daniel, her first love, not command an army of the undead. Arthur evidently had no such qualms.

As they rode along the forest road, Regina asked the knight before her, "Why does Arthur have the castle watched? The place seemed deserted."

"It's one of the oldest places in the Underworld, but it's not always there. People say that..." The knight paused, giving King Arthur a wary glance before continuing in a lower voice, " was the seat of power before Hades took over this realm."

"That old? It's in remarkably good condition, then." But this was the Underworld, thought Regina. Magic was different here — everything was different. No life meant no decay; the veneer of despair and ruin was a reflection of the state of their souls rather than any evidence of time's passage.

"Sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's a crumbling heap of rocks. Don't ask me to explain it. All I know is that no one ever goes in or out of there."

"But he still had it under surveillance? And I thought I used to be paranoid," muttered Regina under her breath.

"Pardon?" The knight glanced back over his shoulder.

"Never mind." It wasn't long before they were on a paved highway that Regina recognized. "New Camelot" turned out to be no more than a re-branding of Underbrooke, with Arthur's "court" lodged in the town hall, according to the knight riding with Regina. She looked across at Emma, who seemed as unimpressed as Regina felt, and they exchanged an amused glance. Arthur hadn't lost his penchant for grandiose pretension even in death. The horses drew to a silent stop in the street in front of the town hall. The knight dismounted first, then offered Regina a polite hand, but she ignored him. As soon as she hit the ground, she was striding towards the front doors, possessed by a sudden impatience.

Zelena. What do I say to her?  Her own feelings remained as conflicted as ever. Regina grimaced and slowed again before she reached the building.

Emma touched her arm. "You ok?"

"If Zelena's here, she has unfinished business. Probably with me." She watched as one of Arthur's knights slipped inside ahead of them.

"Well, it would make sense, what with you being sisters. You can do this. Just go on in there and help her move on."

"Knowing her, the mere fact of me being alive will fuel her envy..."

"Yeah, well, she'll just have to get over it. I don't think there's any coming back this time. I don't think Zeus is about to do Zelena any favors." Emma sounded slightly bitter. She shook her head. "Come on. No point dragging this out."

"You're right." Regina moved forward. One of Arthur's servants held the door open for them, and she headed inside straight for the main meeting hall, where she assumed Arthur held court. It wasn't much different from the Storybrooke version, except for the new banners hanging on the walls and the antique chair set up as a throne on the stage. However, it wasn't the decor that she was interested in, but her sister. She searched the room to no avail.

Just as she was about to turn and ask Arthur about it, the guard standing next to the door slapped a black leather cuff around her left wrist. The guard on the other side simultaneously cuffed Emma's right wrist.

"Shit!" Regina jerked back in shock, but it was too late. The cuff had locked itself, and it was as if it was welded to her arm. She reached reflexively for magic, but it was gone, cut off. She saw Emma wrestling with the guard for a sword and moved to help.

Then more knights arrived, swords out, surrounding them.

"All right, all right. We surrender," spat Emma, giving up the fight before the two of them were skewered. "Arthur, what the hell is this?"

"Where's Zelena?" demanded Regina. "You said she was at your court..."

"And so she is." Smirking, Arthur swaggered over to the cabinet behind his "throne" and took out an unlabeled green wine bottle. He held it up and swirled the contents. "But much less vexatious in this form, wouldn't you say?" He moved back to Regina, the guards parting to give him passage, and handed the bottle to Regina. "I don't know how much she can hear in there, but let it not be said that I prevented a sisterly re-union."

Regina snatched the bottle from Arthur and glared at him. "You bastard. She was your ally!"

"'Was', yes," agreed Arthur. "But sadly, once she moved down here on a more permanent basis, she became a danger to New Camelot."

"What do you mean, 'danger'?" Emma asked.

"She laid claim to its throne, on the basis of being the true love of the former ruler of this realm. Now, whatever your thoughts on that  relationship, I'm sure we all agree that the Wicked Witch was no fit leader for any kingdom. I mean, who wants flying monkeys running the Underworld?" Arthur glanced at his knights, and there was a general murmur of agreement. "You see? For the good of everyone, Zelena had to be... contained."

Regina clutched the bottle closer. "There was no need for this! You could have used one of the damn cuffs on her..."

Arthur shook his head in a show of regret. "Alas, she put up too much resistance for that to be possible. We were forced to shoot her with one of Hades's arrows."

And where had he... Regina clamped her lips shut. Arthur had been down here long enough with his band of thugs to thoroughly ransack Hades's vaults. There would have been enough he could use without needing any magical skills. Those undead horses, or the anti-magic cuffs, for example. It made little difference. They were at his mercy now. She met his eyes and tried to gauge his intent. "We came here as your invited guests. Again. Last time you at least threw us a royal ball before trying to kill us..."

Emma snorted. "I doubt he has the budget for it anymore, if his people are camping out in Town Hall. And there's no magic sand to make it look pretty."

"I don't need magic. This kingdom is under my protection — whatever you're plotting this time, I'll do whatever I must in order to keep my people safe."

"We're not plotting anything! Look, we just want to get back home," said Emma.

"Don't bother," growled Regina. "He's already made up his mind."

Arthur seemed to have no immediate plans to execute them. That was some consolation, after Regina and Emma were marched off to the sheriff's office and locked into adjoining cells. Zelena's bottle had been stowed back in Arthur's cabinet.

"It could be worse," said Regina. "We could be dead."

"And at least Henry is safe." Emma pointed out the other small mercy in their situation. This time hung in the air between them, unspoken.

"True." Regina sighed. "Thank you for that."

Emma looked away, but Regina saw the guilty expression on her face. "I'm sorry. I should never have let him follow us into hell. I just... I don't know what possessed me."

"Grief can really do a number on your head," Regina acknowledged. "Gods know, I've done plenty of crazy shit in my time. But I'm Henry's mother, too. I should have stopped him, but I thought I could protect him better if he was with me. As it turned out... we could all have been trapped here forever."

"And now we're back, and it's no safer this time around," Emma said ruefully.

"If we die, at least he'll still have your parents. And Gold, if he remembers his grandfatherly duties. And... I suppose... Hook..."

"Yeah," Emma said without much conviction.

Regina decided this was not the time to bring up the pirate's poor record as far as loyalty to family was concerned. She remembered all too well the little "test" she had set to him before employing him as her assassin. The man had orphaned and abandoned his own baby brother in a fit of pique that their father had dared to build a life without Killian in it. He claimed to be a better man now, but Regina had her doubts. In any case, she intended to get them out of here, and then the pirate's redemption or lack of it would be moot. "Look, there's no advantage to Arthur in keeping us imprisoned. On the other hand, if he returns us to the living world, it'll make him look like a hero."

"Still not exactly the stuff of legend," said Emma, "but I guess you have a point."

"Exactly." Regina nearly convinced herself, to the point that she felt only mild apprehension when three knights appeared at the sheriff's office some time later to collect the prisoners from the guard on duty. Before he released them, the guard handcuffed them behind their backs. It was only then that Regina saw who had come for them.


But she managed no more than a gasped "You!" before the naked blade of his sword caressed her throat.

"Be silent."

Regina bit her tongue, even as she looked at the other two knights and realized with a shock that she recognized them as well. Underneath a layer of mail armor, one was the man called Spider from the Eye of the Oracle inn, while the other... the other had once been one of her own guards back in the Enchanted Forest. She tried to remember how he had died.

The man scowled and prodded her in the back with his own sword. "Move."

Meanwhile, Spider took Emma by the elbow and guided her out of the office. Regina swallowed her questions, relieved when Percival lowered his sword rather than murdering her on the spot. That had been his last goal when he had died, on the night of the ball Arthur had hosted to welcome her to Camelot, all those months ago when Emma had been the Dark One and Regina had been pretending to be the Savior.

They walked past the town hall, down Main Street, turned, then continued walking until they reached the docks.

"What is all this? Why did you take us here?" Emma asked. If they planned to push her into the water — water that flowed here from the River of Souls — Regina knew she wouldn't go down without a fight, cuffs or no cuffs.

"His majesty's orders," said Percival.

"You're still working for Arthur? Didn't he fire you after you tried to kill me in the middle of his ballroom?" said Regina. Percival had been the sole survivor when Regina had destroyed his village, escaping to eventually become one of Arthur's knights. When the Evil Queen had turned up in Camelot, he had seized his chance at revenge, only to be foiled by Robin Hood and Prince Charming. Ironic, considering that those two had as much claim to vengeance as Percival, that they had been the ones to defend Regina.

"He doesn't care about that. In fact, that's probably why he picked me for this job..."

"What job, exactly?" Emma asked.

"He said to bring you out here and summon a ferry for you. But alas, a tragic accident will befall his guests before they reach dry land..."

"He wants to get rid of us that badly? Why not just kill us back in the cells?"

"That would be dishonorable. But if some of his knights hold private grudges, why, then, it's not his fault, and if it happens on the river, that's outside his jurisdiction."

"Well, I know why you want me dead. But I don't even know you." Regina nodded at Spider. "Are you really one of Arthur's company?"

"I am here to summon the ferry."

"Ah." Regina turned to the third knight, the one who had once worked for her. "And what about you? You want me dead, too? Why?"

"Guess. Your majesty."

And then, with a sickening lurch, she remembered him. Remembered his voice delivering the news that Snow White had escaped yet again. And in a fit of temper, Regina had killed the messenger.

He smiled grimly as her expression betrayed her knowledge. "So you do remember."

Regina swallowed dryly, nodded. "Yes."

"Time enough for all that later. First..." Spider gestured at the water. "Allow me." He smirked at Regina. "And you may want to pay attention to this part..."

Spider sauntered to the end of a wooden pier, then began chanting and gesturing, magical force gathering in the air around him. Regina could see how he shaped it and wove the pattern, then sent it skipping across the surface of the harbor. The air grew taut as reality pulled apart. From the rift, mist spewed out in a roiling mass over the surface of the water. A moment later, a ferry slid silently towards them out of the mist.

So that was how it was done, Regina thought.

Spider held the boat in place alongside the pier with a touch of his hand to the prow. "All aboard!"

With their hands still cuffed and swords at their backs, Regina and Emma stepped gingerly onto the unnatural craft. Their three captors followed, and Spider took the place of the ferryman, propelling the boat with magic that seemed drawn from the haunted water of the River of Souls. To Regina's surprise, there was no attempt to force the two prisoners overboard.

As she stepped onto dry land, she frowned at Percival. "I thought your orders were to throw us into the river..."

"Orders? Not in so many words. But Arthur made it clear enough what he wanted." Percival spat into the water. "Just as he made it clear that you were not  to be harmed, in Camelot when I first told him who you were. Oh no, it was inconvenient then, when he thought you would be of use to him. He didn't want that  boat rocked."

"Then what do you want?" asked Emma.

"From you? You owe us nothing," said Percival. "You may take the ferry, if you wish. Spider can send it back to the world above for you."

"And what about Regina?" Emma glanced at her, making no move to return to the boat.

"Justice. The Evil Queen must pay, and not with so worthless a coin as mere death," said Percival.

Spider chuckled at that. "Yes, we're all dead here. Supply and demand, you know. A living soul is much more valuable."

"What do think you can do to our souls?" Regina wrenched uselessly at her handcuffs, the metal digging into her wrists. Percival and her ex-guard might not have magic, but Spider was obviously a skilled sorcerer. "And why are you helping them?"

"As to that, Arthur isn't my  king. I do what I want," Spider explained cheerily. "Now move along, will you? People are waiting for you."

"People, what people?"

"People you sent into this realm, of course. All the ones who remember you."

Shades crowded in on both sides of the dirt road, with shadows of remembered cottages forming a murky backdrop. It was like some ghastly parade, reminding Regina of the times she had ridden through villages and towns in her black carriage, demanding a show of loyalty from her hapless subjects. There was no forced cheering this time: the dead stood in their accusing silence and Regina was exposed to every hate-filled glare as she trudged past.

Emma walked with her, offering a pained smile of support, but her eyes revealed her shock. She leaned closer and murmured, "These... are these all people you killed?"

Regina said tightly, "Killed or had killed." She couldn't bear to look at their faces, but couldn't look away, either. They had been peasants and she had been their queen — once upon a time she had taken it for granted that their lives belonged to her. Now... now she acknowledged in her heart that she owed them a debt she might never be able to repay.

"Regina..." Emma sighed and shook her head, biting back whatever else she wanted to say.

"I know." The Evil Queen had been a monster. She had to accept that. But Regina had changed. That was also true. There must be a way to reconcile the two truths.

At the end of the road stood a raised platform with an executioner's block set prominently in the center. The one who had been one of Regina's guards — his name was Miles, she remembered at last — forced her to kneel at the block, her head bowed and neck bared for the headsman's axe he now wielded. Everything unfolded with unsettling familiarity. But last time, she had been spared. This time—

"I thought you weren't planning to kill me." Regina kept her voice as steady as she could. If she was going to die, she refused to disgrace herself in a futile melee with a mob that was already dead.

"What is all this?" Emma moved to block Miles with her own body. "You said..."

"It's a reminder," said Percival. "A reminder that your life is ours, your majesty."

Regina closed her eyes. "Enough games. What do you expect from me? Apologies? Yes, I am sorry. Sincerely and truly sorry. I was... I was wrong. Lost in darkness when I murdered your people for hiding your princess from me."

"She is no princess of ours."

Regina's eyes flew open again. Percival's face was as cold as his tone. She said in bewilderment, "What? You were willing to die for her, all of you..."

"Just as I was willing to kill for you," Miles said.

"And what did our loyalty buy us?" Percival swung around in a wide circle, gesturing at the shades crowding the base of the platform. "We died, but Snow White spared you, forgave you, and her husband's sword silenced the last witness of your crime."

"I slaughtered innocents at your command, your majesty, but you repaid me with death," said Miles. "Now this is my atonement, to fight for those I put to the sword."

"No more do we serve queens or kings, princesses or lords. It is you who shall serve us."

"Oh, great. Revolutionaries." Regina's sniping was halfhearted, as she knew she was completely at their mercy. Their unfinished business...

"Power to the people?" Emma chuckled dryly. "I suppose not even fairy tale land can stay in the Middle Ages forever." She narrowed her eyes at the crowd, then at Percival and Miles. "What exactly did you have in mind?"

But it was Spider who stepped forward. "Ah, now, that's where I come in."

"A magical solution? I might have known." Regina tilted her head to look at him. "So what is it?"

"The cauldron... you brought it back to the Underworld. Or it brought you."

"The Cauldron of Rebirth?" Emma sounded confused. "What does that thing have to do with you?"

"It was lost long ago. Now it's come home, and some of us see that as a sign," said Spider.

"Of what?" Regina kept her suspicions to herself. After all, she might be wrong.

"It was once the cauldron of the Chthonian Oracle, until Hades severed her from it and buried it in his vault. Now Hades is gone, and so is the oracle, but the cauldron is back. And you came with it. Coincidence? Or were you chosen?"

"Chosen for what?"

"To serve the cauldron," said Percival. "He told us all about it. Bound forever to send other souls on their way, but never able to move on yourself. To stand on the threshold of heaven but never to step across it. A fitting fate for my angel of death, is it not?"

Regina looked at the shades of her victims, their faces only hinting at the pain and blood lust that drove them. "And this would satisfy you?"

"We are dead," said Miles. "What other reparation can you make?"

"No, hold on," Emma broke in. "This is...she'll be trapped in the Underworld?"

"It's not a job that comes with vacation time." Spider clapped his hands together gleefully. "But it's not all bad. She can call herself 'queen' again, and we'll even bow to her if she is faithful to her duties."

"Queen?" Regina scoffed. "It was my mother who wanted me to be a queen. I never had any choice in it."

"But it's different now," Emma insisted. She glared at Spider. "I don't know what you're getting out of all this, but there must be some other way... all these people, what about their families? You know, people who are still alive and can actually benefit from Regina's help!"

"She had her chance. Wasted it," said Percival. "Now fate has delivered her to us, so this is our chance, and we won't waste it."

"I see." Regina understood then that the decision had already been made, and they were only waiting for her acceptance. Acceptance, hell! She wasn't a sheep to be led tamely to the butcher. She was... she was... not the Evil Queen anymore. She saw again the stark faces of the crowd, saw herself reflected in the eyes of the dead, and her resentment and fear both faded. They hadn't wanted to die at her hands, hadn't accepted it, yet here they were. Dead. "Very well. I presume this 'service' doesn't begin with chopping off my head..."

"No." Spider smirked. "It's simple enough. You must drink the water of souls from the Cauldron, and if you are indeed the chosen one, you will then be bound to its service."

"Wait. What if she's not this chosen one of yours?" Emma asked.

"Then she'll suffer the same fate as everyone else who touches that water: her soul will be lost." Spider twisted his hand, and Zelena's bottle appeared in his fingers. He set it down on the block next to Regina's head. "Just like her sister."

Regina lifted her head and stood up again. She picked up the bottle and stared into it. "If this works, maybe I'll be able to help her. If not, I suppose I'll be joining her." Whatever happened, she would not be returning to the world of the living.

The great hall in the castle on the river easily held the crowd gathered there for Regina's trial by cauldron. Added to the shades of the dead peasants were the patrons of the Eye of the Oracle. The bartender stood on the dais, overseeing the mechanisms that allowed water from the River of Souls to flow into the cauldron. He had already activated the spells carved into the floor, causing the lines to glow an eerie green.

"Are you really going through with this?" hissed Emma. She had refused every offer to leave, instead sticking close by Regina's side. Apparently she hadn't yet given up on making some kind of escape attempt, especially now that their captors had removed Regina's handcuffs as a prelude to handing her whatever deadly cocktail of doom the bartender was mixing from the infernal water.

Regina gave her a grimace and a half-shrug. They were still surrounded, outnumbered, and stripped of magic. "I guess this is my fate."

"Fate, my ass! I should have known your evil half had a death wish. If we ever get out of here, you're going to talk to Archie if I have to tie you to the chair myself..."

Wishful thinking. "Miss Swan, I'm afraid it's too late for psychiatric intervention."

Indeed, the bartender had already dipped one of his mugs into the cauldron and was now approaching them with the tortured, glowing liquid. "It's time."

But before Regina could take the mug, the doors burst open and a troop of knights marched in.


King Arthur. Again, but with an even larger force than he had brought to the inn. His soldiers seized Percival and Miles, then Regina and Emma. Arthur himself snatched the mug from the bartender and threw the contents at him. "Traitors! You are all traitors!"

The bartender vanished in a puff of gray smoke before the water could touch him. He reappeared on the dais, disapproval etched into his face. "You dare? I serve a far older power than you, Arthur."

"You're an innkeeper!" Arthur tossed the mug aside and drew his sword. "You can't even name this power you supposedly serve."

"Her name may have been taken from her," the bartender said calmly, "but I revere her memory."

Arthur turned to Spider. "And what about you? What's your excuse? You wanted to play king-maker behind my back, is that it?"

Spider grinned. "I play whatever game presents itself, that's all. But you're welcome to join in, if that's what you want, your majesty."

"I don't need to play any games. I am the king of this realm," Arthur said darkly. "Who dares say otherwise?"

Spider coughed into his hand. "Well, as to that... basically, everyone. Everyone who's not one of your goons."

Regina smothered a laugh. At least the man was an equal-opportunity irritant.

"I am Arthur. I pulled Excalibur from the stone. I am king by right!" declared Arthur.

"This is not Camelot," said the bartender. "No matter what name drops from your tongue, you cannot change the nature of this realm. The cauldron has returned to its castle. It will choose our king. Or queen."

Arthur glared at Regina. "Her? I think not!"

"The proof is here." As if he had never been interrupted, the bartender filled another mug and lifted it. "Whoever drinks this water and survives is the one chosen."

"Go on, drink up," Spider taunted Arthur. "Or have you become a coward, an old man clinging to the tattered glories of your youthful triumphs?"

Arthur scowled at Regina. "You were going to drink from that cup?"

Regina shrugged. "They didn't give me much choice about it."

"You think you can usurp my place so easily?" Arthur gestured, and one of his soldiers nocked an arrow and drew his bow, aiming straight at Regina.

At this range, with no magic, held immobile by two more of Arthur's men, Regina knew she could not survive — she recognized one of Hades's arrows by the unearthly gleam of its tip. "Your place? I hate to break it to you, but the thought didn't even cross my mind..." Gods, let it be quick...

"If you shoot her now, everyone will know you were afraid of her," said Emma. "And that a woman showed more bravery than you ever could."

Arthur scowled, visibly hesitating.

"Of course, if you drink first, then, well, that's different, isn't it?" Spider's mocking tone drove Arthur relentlessly towards the brink. "Then, then you'll be the king. The real  king."

"I am the real king. I'll prove it, just as I did before." Arthur strode forward towards the bartender. "Give me that!"

The bartender handed the mug over without comment.

Arthur lifted it to his lips, tilting his head back and gulping down the liquid. Nothing seemed to happen. "Ha!"

A fierce grin spread across his face. Then his expression changed to one of horror. "No..." Smoke rose from his body, taking with it all color. Gray, then translucent, Arthur held his shape for a few moments longer before falling to the ground as a silvery puddle.

In the shocked silence that followed, the bartender turned a lever. Mechanisms creaked, and then the puddle drained away into the channels carved into the floor. Another mug was poured and raised in Regina's direction. "Your turn."

Arthur's archer lowered his bow, letting the arrow drop from the string. He wouldn't meet Regina's eyes, and the others of Arthur's soldiers were no bolder. They shuffled back, clearing the way for her to step forward. The other dead, the ones there for Regina, continued watching, as if Arthur had only been a side show, and this was the main event.

Regina gulped back her terror, shaking her head at Emma's attempt to catch her gaze. There was no running from this. "Tell Henry... tell Henry..."


Regina took the mug from the bartender and drank. The water from the River of Souls was cold. It slid down her throat, liquid death whose effects she knew all too well. The empty mug slipped from her numb fingers. Regina closed her eyes, fists clenched at her sides. She waited, not even breathing. What would she feel? How long did she have?




Then a door opened at the back of her mind and something stepped inside. A presence. A voice at once possessive and familiar. The Cauldron of Rebirth.

Regina Mills. My new servant. At last...

Chapter Text

By day, the duck pond (and its surrounding park) was a family-friendly oasis in the middle of Storybrooke. In winter, it froze over, becoming a skating rink if the ice was thick enough. At the moment, it wasn't, but more dangerous than thin ice was the pond's night-time potential to become a portal into the Underworld. So it was that as the full moon reached its zenith, Captain Hook stood on the shore pouring the contents of the black grail onto the frozen surface. It was a mixture of water from the wishing well and his own blood, sanctified by the magic of the grail, and it hit the ice in a blaze of energy. Cracks shot outward from the point of contact, widened, and swallowed up the ice in chunks until the pond was a black rippling sheet of liquid.

As gray mist rose from the water, Hook crouched at the edge of the pond and stuffed the grail into the bag he had been given, a bag woven of invisible thread. He was glad to have it hidden away again — he found its icy touch disturbing, and blamed it for the bad dreams that had plagued him of late. He straightened, then peered out across the pond, muttering, "Come on, Swan. Time to come home..."

"Go home, Emma."

"No way. You got me out of the wish realm. You think I'm just gonna abandon you here?"

Time was always muddled in the Underworld, but Regina guessed that they had been there for about a week already. She and Emma were living in the castle, with the bartender and the eyeless woman from the inn staying on to advise Regina on the magic peculiar to her new station in life (or death).

The two shades were both initiates of the Chthonian Oracle. They had never known each other in life — he had died centuries earlier and she was the last of the order, taken prisoner as a child after her master had been killed. Both went nameless in solidarity with their lost goddess, though Regina had heard his customers calling the bartender "Dook", while the eyeless woman was ironically known as the Seer. Regina had sent them on errands to the far ends of the realm so that she could have this chance to talk to Emma alone and convince her to return to Storybrooke.

"Henry needs you, Emma."

"He needs both of us."

Well, that made a change in attitude from the combative birth mother who had challenged her custody back when they first met, thought Regina. Heartwarming, yet hellishly inconvenient right now. Her stubbornness, which Regina found by turns admirable and infuriating, wouldn't let Emma give up on a friend.

"I'm bound to this realm," Regina explained with as much patience as she could muster. "Magically speaking, I'm as dead as dead can be. More dead, in fact. It means the upper world may as well not exist for me anymore. You could open up a portal right here and I wouldn't even be able to touch it."

"There must be some way," Emma said mulishly. "You managed to wake me up when I thought I was a singing Disney princess."

"I hope you don't resort to such... extreme... measures as I did," said Regina. She hadn't thought the wish realm versions of Emma's parents were real enough to matter, but it was hard not to feel guilty about killing them so brutally in front of their daughter. In the end, it had been the threat of wish-Henry killing Regina which had woken Emma... the implications of which still troubled Regina's heart, but it wasn't something either of them dared talk about openly. She pushed the thought away. "Because the people here may be dead, but they're as real as we are and they need me, too. I can't let you try to sacrifice them for me."

"No, but..."

"It wouldn't work, anyway. Not without serious divine intervention, which we really, really don't want." Regina had learned too much of the history of the cauldron to trust in the gods anymore.

"Well, ok, Hades was a back-stabbing asshole, and maybe Zeus isn't all he's cracked up to be, but aren't there other gods — I can't believe I'm saying this — we could ask for help?"

It would be most unwise, whispered the voice of the cauldron. An honorable god would not abet such dereliction of duty, while a dishonorable god would leave you worse off than you are now.

Regina sighed. "I can't run away like that. These people need my help."

"Yeah, but..." Emma bit her lip, brows furrowed in thought. "But they're already dead. Can't they wait a few years? You've worked so hard and come so far. You deserve a chance at a life, at happiness."

"Tell that to the mob of angry ghosts out there." Regina's personal shades had taken to lurking around the castle and the island it stood on, watching her silently. They didn't actually look angry anymore, but that was only because they had Regina trapped where they wanted her. A handful had moved on already, but the rest lingered here, haunting her. "I don't see myself leaving this place anytime soon, if ever..."


"Hey, cheer up. We're bound to see each other again, eventually. Even Henry — not for decades, I hope, but... maybe death won't be as frightening if you know there's a familiar face to greet you." She forced a smile. "So get on the boat, go home, and think of it as me taking a job in a foreign country. That's life, it happens."

"I'm not giving up on you. There's gotta be some loophole, something." Emma glared at Regina until the latter lowered her gaze in acquiescence.

"Fine. You investigate." Regina gestured vaguely. "There's a library in one of the towers." Not that she thought Emma would find anything, but hopefully she would come to her senses after her search proved fruitless. "Meanwhile, I have duties to attend to."

"This is it, Zelena. A final good-bye." Regina addressed the bottle in her hand, but the lost soul trapped inside showed no sign of comprehension. Regina forged on anyway. "Our relationship hasn't been the best, but you were still my sister and I won't forget that."

After days of instruction and practice, Regina finally felt ready to use the cauldron on her own. She had already activated the preliminary spells; now she uncorked the bottle.

"You will forget, though. You'll be reborn again in the world of the living. I don't know which realm, or to what life, but it's a new chance. I hope you make the best of it." She paused, then added, "I'm sorry I won't be there for your daughter. I made a deal with Rumple... I hope he's kinder to your child than you were to his."

Regina lifted the bottle and poured the contents into the cauldron. She heard the sizzle as liquid hit iron. Then steam rose in green- tinged tendrils and spiraled away into nothing.

It is done.

Regina let out the breath that she had been holding. "Well, then. That's one down... how many more to go?"

Two days later, as Regina was working on reincarnating her eighteenth lost soul (she hoped to become more efficient with practice), Emma barged in, excitement radiating from every pore.

"Regina! I've got it."

"What?" Regina halted the mechanisms instinctively, but it took her thoughts a moment to catch up. "What are you talking about?"

"You have to marry me."

"What?" Regina gaped. Had Emma just said...? Did this mean... Regina barely dared to hope.

"No, no, hear me out," Emma said hastily, waving her hands in a placating gesture. "I figured it out. I don't mean..." She hesitated a moment before continuing, "...a real marriage. But it's like people in my world who get married to get their green cards or whatever. I'm alive, so if we get married, that means I can share my 'citizenship' in the living world with you."

Regina stared blankly. "Oh. A marriage of convenience." It wouldn't be the first for her. Only this time, it would be arranged for her sake. She suppressed a surge of disappointment. "I... see."

"It'll work, I'm sure it will."

"And how do you come by such confidence, Miss Swan?"

"It was in the law books in the library. Spider's been translating for me. As far as we can tell, it's an obscure rule, but still valid."

"How generous of him to help us." Regina suspected ulterior motives, but was still too stunned to dwell on the thought. "And... how will this work, exactly?"

"That bartender is technically a priest, and since you drank from the cauldron, that technically makes you a member of the same faith, so by the laws of the Underworld, he has the power to marry me to you."

"Hmm." It sounded plausible enough.

"You'll count as a living person once we're married, and you'll be able to leave the Underworld."

Is this true? Regina directed her question at the cauldron.

True enough. Of course, it goes both ways. She will count as a dead person once you're married. For every day you spend in the living world, she will need to spend one here...

"I should have known there'd be a catch!" Regina scowled.


And you will not be able to dwell more than half of a year in the upper lands...

Regina explained what the cauldron had told her.

Emma grimaced, looking pale but resolute. "Six months here, six months there. So, it's just a residency requirement. We can handle it."

"It's literally a life and death situation, not a tax dodge," snapped Regina. She took a breath, forced herself to think it through. "And marriage... that's not something to enter into lightly. My last one didn't end well, you know."

"I know. I'm sorry." Emma gave her a sympathetic look — more sympathy than she had ever received from King Leopold. Regina's husband had never seen her as more than a pretty ornament for his court and a substitute mother for his daughter. "And it's too soon, you've just lost Robin. I wouldn't be suggesting this if there was any other way to save you."

Regina sighed. "I appreciate the thought. But this isn't really fair to you. What about your Captain Hook?"

"Ah." Emma's gaze fell and her lips thinned.

"I have no wish to break up your relationship for my sake." Regina ignored the treacherous voice at the back of her mind calling her a liar. This isn't about you, she told herself severely. This is about Emma's happiness.

Emma didn't speak for a while. Finally, she cleared her throat. "Yeah, well. Even if this wasn't the only way to get you out of hell, I... I don't think I could stay with him any longer."

Regina was speechless. Emma had turned her pirate into the Dark One rather than lose him. He had nearly brought death to them all, but Emma had instantly forgiven him when he changed his mind with a last-minute sacrifice to save her. The very next day, she had dragged them all to the Underworld to get him back. Even though they had failed in their quest, Zeus himself had returned Hook to life, and as far as Regina could see, the couple had been inseparable ever since.

Except that now Emma was here and Hook wasn't. Regina longed to ask Emma what had finally brought her to her senses, but the words stuck in her throat.

"This past week, I've had time to think," Emma continued slowly. "No, it started before that. When I met Killian in the wish world. He was... older. And... to be honest, kind of gross." She shook her head. "I told myself I was just being shallow. That my Killian was better than that. That we could be together just like my parents. But... I couldn't help doubting."

"Oh." And in a flash of insight, Regina realized that must be why she hadn't tried True Love's Kiss when Hook had been turned into a snake. Emma must have suspected, deep inside, that it wasn't True Love, and been afraid of confirming her suspicion.

"I thought it was my fault. That maybe I was too damaged to love properly. That if I worked at it..." She sighed, running a hand through her hair. "When Zeus resurrected him and gave us a second chance, I thought it was a sign that we were destined to be each other's happy endings. But if Spider's right, if Zeus really is just some horndog with superpowers, then I've been fooling myself."


"He really hurt me, when he was the Dark One. Called me a 'pretty blond distraction'." Emma quoted the words as if they were etched into her heart. "He...he wanted to hurt me."

"But you forgave him..."

Emma nodded. "I'd tell myself, he was the Dark One then, he didn't mean it, that he was lashing out because he was in pain. That I was the one who hurt him first. But the things he said... I don't know anymore. I was the Dark One, too, and I didn't stop loving Henry, or my parents, or..."

Regina held her tongue. The gods knew she had spent enough time trying to kill Emma's parents, not to mention anyone else who stood in her way. She had sacrificed her own father in pursuit of vengeance. Anything she said on this point would be hypocritical. Villains could claim to change, could offer their apologies, but in the end that judgement was out of their hands. But even if she had taken on the Darkness — a fate Emma had sacrificed herself to save Regina from — would she have lost herself enough to want to hurt Emma? She hoped not.

Emma stumbled on in the face of Regina's silence, "And the worst thing was, he was willing to kill Henry just to hurt me. Even Henry. He'd have done that to a child..."

Emma didn't cry. Emma Swan did not cry. But she looked utterly wretched.

Regina longed to take her in her arms and hold her until the pain went away, but she was the Evil Queen. The Evil Queen didn't hug people. But somehow she had crossed the distance between them and Emma's face was pressed against her shoulder and Regina was patting Emma awkwardly on the back. "Oh, Emma..."

"Maybe he was actually more honest when he was the Dark One. When he wasn't trying to 'win my heart'. He lied to me about the magic shears, you know," Emma said, her voice hitching only slightly at the end. "He didn't trust me to make my own choices. Just like I didn't trust him when I forced the Darkness into him and wiped his memories."

"But you trust me?"

Emma chuckled weakly. "It's not something I would ever have said when we first met, but yes, I do."

"That's something, at least." Making her decision, Regina rushed the words out before she could think better of it, "All right, then. A marriage of convenience it is."

The ceremony was far simpler than Regina's first marriage had been. The cauldron served as the altar and the witness, while Dook the bartender-priest recited the ancient words of binding. The audience was made up of all the castle's shades, along with a few visitors drawn by curiosity to this once-in-a-millenium event. Regina did her best to ignore them as she and Emma exchanged simple vows of faith and loyalty.

The kiss that sealed the deal was almost chaste, a quick touch between their lips. Regina was afraid to let it become any more than that, so she drew back as soon as the formalities were satisfied. Keep this simple, she told herself. Don't make things more awkward with Emma now that she's stuck with you for better or worse...

For their "honeymoon", Regina summoned a ferry to the castle island. Ignoring the disapproving grumblings of the cauldron and its priests, she and Emma stepped aboard.

Finding a path out may not be as easy as you think, the cauldron told her.

"I don't care. We have a chance, and I'm not going to miss it," Regina said.

Emma glanced at her. "Hearing voices again? Should I be jealous?"

Regina snorted. "Says the woman who once had her own Dark One imaginary friend." But Emma looked concerned behind her snark, so Regina gave her a slight nod of reassurance. She was fine. Moving to the prow, Regina drew on the magic of the River of Souls as Spider had shown her, nudging the boat into motion. "And we're off. Storybrooke awaits!"

But hours or days later, they seemed no closer to their goal. The river had become a borderless sea, mist rising from the waves to swallow them up in a maze without walls.

"We're lost, aren't we?" Emma stared glumly out into the mist. "No stars, no compass, no landmarks, no GPS, no nothing."

"We're not lost," Regina insisted. And they weren't. She could still feel the tug of the cauldron, drawing her back to the Underworld. At first she had though she could use that to orient herself by steering in the opposite direction, but that had only led them into this featureless mist.

Emma turned and stared at her. "Sure. This is just the scenic route. Pull the other one."

"Ok, fine, I can't find Storybrooke. Or any other point in the living realm," Regina admitted. "I've tried every spell I can think of." She eyed Emma speculatively. "But you haven't."

"Me? I can barely fetch a coffee cup. I don't know any spells."

"Yes, but you have the advantage of counting as a living soul. It's my presence that holds us back. Sort of like gravity, pulling me back to the Underworld," Regina explained. "Look, I'll walk you through the steps..."

Regina had never been much of a teacher, and she hadn't tried teaching Emma after the latter had become the Dark One. As it turned out, Emma had operated mostly on instinct when possessed by Darkness, not retaining much in the way of practical magical skills once she was free again. But they had no choice about it now, or they would have to concede defeat and return to the castle of the cauldron.

Hours later, exhausted by their efforts, Emma was sitting on the floor of the ferry, head back and eyes closed, while Regina slumped at the other end, about ready to give up. Then Emma's eyes snapped open.


"What?" Regina stumbled to her feet. "What is it?"

"That light, can you see it? All silvery, almost like a path on the water." Emma stood up and stared intently into the mist.

Regina saw nothing. Nevertheless, she nodded. She fought back her weariness and moved to Emma, placing a hand on her arm. "Keep focusing on it."

She closed her own eyes and concentrated, summoning the ferry's magic and channeling it through Emma's vision. With that new source of guidance, the ferry moved again. The mists slowly took on a different flavor, the temperature dropping drastically. The air lost the sterile, haunted quality of the Underworld. Regina opened her eyes a crack, and this time she saw it: a silvery line across the water... the light of the moon!

A moment later, they emerged from the mists, the ferry floating in utter silence into the duck pond. To Regina's amazement, there was someone standing there on the shore, even though it was the middle of a frigid winter night.

"Swan!" called a familiar voice.

"Killian?" Emma sounded stunned. She was still frozen in place by the time Regina had nudged the ferry against the muddy bank.

"Come on, Emma," Regina said in a low voice, offering her a hand to help her back onto solid ground. She turned to the pirate. "Well, fancy meeting you here. I take it you had something to do with providing us a beacon of light?"

Emma took a step towards Hook. "You did that? I didn't know you could still do magic!"

Hook shrugged, his face lost in the darkness, but he sounded smug as he replied, "What can I say? I'm a man of many talents, Swan. You think I'd let the bloody Crocodile steal you away from me?"

"Huh? Well, it was a little more complicated than that..." Emma said.

Regina waved a hand, casting the spell to dismiss the ferry back into the mists. "Not that we're not grateful, Captain." She watched as Hook reached out to hug Emma possessively and sighed. She touched Emma on the back gently. "But... I think you two need to talk. I'll leave you to it."

"No, wait..." Emma turned her head and shot Regina a pleading look.

Regina was already backing away and shaking her head. "I'll wait over there."

Emma watched her go, but didn't follow. Regina found the bench on the other side of the pond and sat down. From this distance, Emma and Hook were dim shadows barely distinguishable from the background darkness. She listened as their voices rose and fell, the words too faint to catch.

In the end, Hook stalked away by himself. Emma stood there for a long moment, then turned and trudged around the pond. She slid wordlessly onto the bench next to Regina, shoving her hands into her pockets and frowning at her feet.

Regina exhaled slowly. "Well."


Regina touched her arm and tried for a note of optimism as she said, "Maybe your parents will take the news better!"

Snow White had a binder. As far as Regina could tell, Snow had been planning Emma's wedding ever since the first Dark Curse broke. Once she and David had gotten over the shock, the Charmings were disgustingly supportive of their daughter. They weren't so happy about the "spend half a year in hell" clause, but they were eternally optimistic, and Emma managed to sell it as a way of bringing happy endings to all those lost souls.

So naturally Snow insisted that they had to have a proper wedding, a ceremony held on Earth, not some perfunctory oath-taking in the Underworld. David smiled and nodded, not one to argue with his wife on such points. Regina gave up in the middle of trying for the third time to explain the "marriage of convenience" aspect of their arrangement. She sneaked a glance at Emma, who simply shook her head and shrugged ruefully.

Henry was delighted to have both his mothers united at last. He had never really liked the pirate, Regina knew. She suspected that the feeling was mutual, even though she gave Hook points for making an effort for Emma's sake.

Regina spent the next few days catching up on paperwork in the mayor's office. She would have to resign, she thought after she finally cleared her inbox. Maybe Maleficent could step up for the job? Well, the townsfolk could decide. They could hold a special election. She resolved to work out the details once the wedding was over.

Another wedding! Even now, her mind boggled at the idea. At least it kept her step-daughter — who was now also her mother-in-law! — busy, and distracted Emma from her breakup with Hook. With both of the Charmings awake, they had energy to spare. That was one spell she no longer had to worry about. Rumplestiltskin and Belle had apparently woken them up and then vanished, along with baby Robyn as well as their own child, who had been improbably grown the last time Regina had glimpsed him, but was now a baby again, according to David. Well, at least she wouldn't have to invite them to the wedding — the presence of the Dark One would inevitably strain the festivities. As for the pirate... if they were lucky he would stay drunk for the next month, or take off on his antiquated ship and good riddance to him. He had already moved out of Emma's house.

Regina put pirates and Dark Ones out of her mind. She set herself to undoing the last of the Evil Queen's spiteful little curses. The next day, she headed for her vault, accompanied by Henry, who was bored to tears by wedding talk. Emma had been dragged off by Snow to look at dresses, while David took refuge in the sheriff's office.

"What's next?" asked Henry, notebook in hand, ostensibly here to bear witness for his magical storybook, but Regina knew he was hoping to secretly learn some sorcery by watching her.

"The Dragon," Regina said. "We need to free him from the mirror realm."

"Awesome. You're really one of the heroes, now." Henry grinned happily, his tone infused with pride for his mother.

Regina smiled, ruffling his hair fondly. Sometimes he still sounded like a little boy. "Ok, now, stay back. I've already mixed the potion, but it can be volatile." She moved a large standing mirror into place in a relatively clear section of the vault.

It took time and concentration, but Regina unlocked the path and summoned the Dragon back into their realm. He flew towards her as a dragon, but as soon as he passed through the glass, the dragon dissolved into a cloud of smoke, leaving behind the old man. Considering how many fragile objects were contained in the limited confines of the vault, Regina was grateful.

"Regina." The Dragon smiled, patting himself as if checking his own reality. "It is good to be back. Thank you."

"You're welcome." Regina turned to Henry, intending to boast about her success to her boy, but to her shock, he was staring straight ahead, his eyes clouded over with a layer of milky white. He stood with unnatural rigidity except for his arm, which jerked mechanically as he scribbled in his notebook like one possessed. "Henry!"

Henry continued scribbling, not even seeming to hear his mother.

Regina dashed over to him, trying to ease the notebook and pen away from him, but he maintained a death-grip, not even looking at what he wrote. The symbols were strange to Regina, resembling no earthly language she had ever seen. "Henry! Wake up!"

"Oh, this is bad. Very bad." The Dragon had come up behind her. "We have to stop him before he finishes the summoning..."

"Summoning? What summoning?" Regina asked sharply, but she didn't wait for explanations. If Henry was in danger... she focused her energy and snapped the pen out of his hand with a twist of magic.

But it was too late. Henry's other hand opened and the notebook fluttered to the ground, the pages flapping as a harsh wind blasted through Regina's vault. Then she heard an abrupt "huh" from the Dragon, and even as she turned, he was knocked into her, an arrow in his back.

Regina staggered, losing her balance. A stranger had materialized in the middle of Regina's vault. She was dressed like a hunter from the Enchanted Forest, a bow raised to shoot again. Another arrow thudded into the Dragon, exploding on impact into a net of silvery light that tightened around him.

Magic, thought Regina, throwing a fireball at the archer. It never hit. The archer had vanished.

The Dragon gasped for air, but his limbs seemed paralyzed. The net of light sliced through his clothes, through his skin, and into bone and flesh. Then...

...he disintegrated. All in a blink of eye, before Regina could think of any way to save him. The Dragon was gone, leaving behind only a single arrow, its shaft splintered and broken.

It must be the first one that hit him, Regina thought blankly. She turned to her son. "Henry! Henry, wake up!"

Henry blinked back at Regina, a dazed expression on his face. "Huh? Sorry. I must have drifted off... what's wrong?"

So much for a peaceful wedding. Regina declared a halt to the plans until they could deal with this latest threat to Storybrooke. Henry hadn't written any more in that strange script, but if something had gone wrong with his Author powers...

"We can ask the previous Author if he knows anything," Emma suggested.

But when she and Regina went to the cell where Isaac had been imprisoned, all they found was a life-sized cardboard cutout of the man.

"There was a glamour on this," said Regina after she examined it. "To make people think he was still here."

"How long has he been gone?"

"No idea."

They took the news to David, and he organized a search for both the missing ex-Author and the mysterious assassin. No trace of either was found.

"There's no spell on the town line anymore," Emma noted. "They could be anywhere in this world, or any other, if they have magic!"

Regina showed Emma the arrow she had kept. "I still have this. I've cast a spell on it, so that if the archer returns to Storybrooke, I'll be able to find her."

A few days later, in the middle of doing his homework, Henry was seized again by the unnatural writing. Regina wasted no time in walking or driving, teleporting straight into Emma's living room.

This time, he only covered half the page before the fit passed, and he was staring again at his parents with bewildered eyes. "It happened again?"

"It did," said Regina. She took out the enchanted arrow and checked it. "Damn! She's back." She looked at Emma.

Emma glanced anxiously from Regina to Henry and back.

"I'll be fine," Henry said, catching their exchange. "You guys go. Someone may be in danger!"

Jefferson's house.

It took Regina only a moment to recognize it. She and Emma materialized in the foyer. The archer stood a few feet away, with her back to them. Without needing to discuss it, Regina and Emma raised their magic and blasted the intruder...

...and reality, already frayed, broke apart at the seams.

Regina shaped the spell even as Emma pumped more and more energy into it, and shoved the archer through. Then the rift shut again with a sharp thunderous crack, and reality snapped back together again.

Chapter Text

A road runs from the lowest pits of Tartarus to the highest reaches of Mount Olympus. Spider followed that road as far into the light as he could bear. He stopped there, under the fluted marble columns that marked the entrance of Olympus, and waited.

"Wretched vermin." The voice emanated from the air right beside Spider.

Spider folded his arms and leaned back against a pillar, affecting casualness. "I did as you asked. Your Savior walks again in the lands above."

"I did not ask you to return the Evil Queen, you treacherous son of a she-dog." A man's silhouette took shape against the brightness of the light.

Spider bared his teeth, biting back a vicious retort. Instead, he said lightly, "Who am I to stand in the way of true love?"

"You are my servant. Do you forget that?"

"No." Spider dropped his gaze. "My lord, your promise... my reward..."

"Do you accuse me of breaking my word?"

"Did I say that?"

"Your turn will come."

"When? You passed me over for Killian Jones..."

"You're more useful where you are, although lately I question that. The Evil Queen was meant for the River of Souls. You know that."

Spider shrugged. "The cauldron has a mind of its own. How was I to know it would spare her? I mean, even the mighty King Arthur..." He raised a closed hand and flicked his fingers open. "Poof!"

"They gave her to the cauldron on your advice."

"A joke. It's always more fun when the victim has a hand in her own undoing!"

"Your 'jokes' are about as amusing as a wad of chewing gum in my hair."

"When have I failed to accomplish any task you set me? If you don't like my service, you have plenty of brothers and sisters more than willing to help you, my lord..."

"Be off!" growled the faceless silhouette.

It was as if a door slammed shut in his face and he was left in darkness. After a moment of waiting for his eyes to adjust, Spider set off back down the road, barely keeping the smirk off his face. Zeus had plenty of kinsfolk, but none he trusted. Fewer now, with so many already eliminated.

Including Spider's mother. But that was his secret, kept locked deep behind walls of meaningless memories until he came to the bridge. The River of Souls was the other of the main highways that traversed the length of the Underworld. By the laws of magic, the bridge was a crossroads that transcended the realms, and as such not under the oversight of Olympus.

After making sure that he was unobserved, he reeled back the strands of the invisible web that surrounded him. From each strand, he harvested minuscule specks of divinity and added them to his invisible bag, one he had woven in secret after being forced to give up the original to Zeus. Now he kept it and its contents well hidden. Every close encounter with a god added a tiny grain to his hoard. After so many years, it was just about enough concentrated divine power to create a new deity.

Spider sat in the center of the bridge, eyes closed, and cast his thoughts into the void. Mother. It's done.

Then there's hope for us yet. And how does our little upstart fare?

She'll grow into the role, replied Spider. How are things on your end?

Watching. Waiting.

It's been so long. When will we meet again?

Not in this life. And not now, not when I can't even hold my own form.

That doesn't matter. You're my mother.

And you're a sweet boy. But don't worry. Soon all this will be over, and you'll see the sun again.

The sun. It was freedom she promised him, and her promise was worth a thousand from Zeus — Zeus, who had destroyed her with oaths that she could not keep without betraying her soul. Mother!

But she was gone. She was only a remnant of what she had once been, with little power to exchange more than a few words with her son. Someday he would avenge her.

For now, he remained Zeus's agent in the Underworld.

"...arrows tipped with a mixture of dreamshade and squid ink. Luckily, I still have vials of antidote from the last batch I mixed..."

Belle woke up to the sound of Rumple's voice and a bitter astringence coating her tongue. She was too disoriented to understand what he was talking about, but one thought penetrated her befuddled mind. She sat up abruptly, too abruptly, and everything went black for a moment. "Gideon!"

Then Rumple's hands were easing her back onto the couch — in Jefferson's living room, she realized hazily — and he reassured her, "He's fine. Emma's holding him."

"Emma! No, no, she'll kill him!" A rush of panic flooded through her, but before she could unleash any magic, Rumple reached out for their son and transferred him to Belle.

"He's a baby! I don't kill babies," Emma said with an edge of exasperation in her voice. "It's only when they suddenly turn into fully-grown, sword-waving maniacs that I have to defend myself. You guys still haven't really explained that bit, by the way..."

"It was a complex situation, which has since been resolved," Rumple said firmly, but Belle knew that was more hope than certainty. Emma had been implicated in his visions: what if there was still some prophecy that the savior and the Dark One's son would meet in the Final Battle?

Belle clung to Gideon, fighting a panicked urge to transport herself away. She forced herself to breathe and not reach for magic. Emma, clearly not as attuned to magical energy as Rumple, didn't seem to notice.

"Resolved, hell. Ok, leaving aside any weirdness with your baby, what's all this about the Dark Curse — I thought it was already broken — and why did crazy archery lady attack you guys?"

"Jefferson! Is he all right?" Belle sat up again, looking around for their host.

"Regina's with him." Rumple rested a soothing hand on her shoulder. "His wound was more serious than yours. I patched him up as best I could, but he still needs rest."

"Regina..." That was when Belle remembered that Regina and Emma had been missing. "Oh! You're back. What happened with the cauldron?"

For a moment there was a standoff, as Emma demanded answers to her questions first, but then Rumple argued that all of that should wait until Regina and Jefferson had rejoined them.

"Fine. It's like this..."

Emma's story was a strange one, but by this point, Belle knew better than to expect their lives to follow any straightforward path.

They gathered in Jefferson's living room again a day later, now joined by Henry and Grace. Belle had pulled in a chair from the kitchen, and Gideon slept in the bassinet at her feet.

Emma brought three boxes of pizza with her to the conference. "Whatever magical apocalypse we have on our hands this time, we won't face it on empty stomachs."

"Thank you, Emma," Belle said with as much friendliness as she could muster. Anything to humanize herself and her son in Emma's eyes — to appeal to the Savior's conscience, if it came down to another fight. My son is not a monster... But Gideon was the Dark One's child, and she suspected that Emma still considered Rumple one of the villains and an enemy. Belle resolved to dispel that enmity if she could. Unfortunately, her husband had never cared about such things.

"Cheese and pepperoni on grease-soaked bits of crust... hardly the most inspiring of last meals," he groused. Belle glared at him to behave. They were family, weren't they? At least through Henry. And now that Regina was apparently married to Emma — Regina who was practically Rumple's stepdaughter (which thought still made Belle's head hurt) — that made Emma his daughter-in-law twice over. There must be some way to remind the Savior of their ties.

"I don't see you contributing anything," snapped Regina. "Rumple, what have you done with my niece?"

"Ah. She's back at the Dark Castle with Dove—"

"You left her with an ogre?"

"—and the Merry Men and her brother," finished Rumple. "She's... well, she's as safe as any of us can be."

"In a land overrun with ogres..."

"It's something we're all going to have to get used to, dearie." Rumple finally deigned to pick up a slice of pizza, balancing it on a napkin to minimize his contact with the greasy morsel. "We'll be living much more integrated lives soon. Ogres to the right of us, elves to the left, oh my."

Emma frowned at Belle. "You. Explain."

Belle took a deep breath, gathering her thoughts before launching into her explanation, keeping it as optimistic as she could for the sake of Henry and Grace, and avoiding any discussion of prophecies and the Final Battle. Rumple didn't say much, but he had to cast his mind-and-memory spell half a dozen times before the explanation stuck.

"So you think we should destroy Storybrooke and drop millions of people back into the Enchanted Forest to live cheek by jowl with the ogres and the elves?" Regina shook her head in disbelief. "It's a recipe for disaster."

"Yeah, having met an ogre before, I gotta agree," Emma said. "It'll be a bloodbath."

"Then we'll have to be creative, Miss Swan. Isn't your mother a famous proponent of peace?"

"She shot the ogre in the eye."

"Yes, I am familiar with how she treats monsters," Rumple said darkly. "Nevertheless, it's humans who are the interlopers in the Enchanted Forest. I've already spoken to the fey. They're willing to share their land with us in peace."

"At what price?" Regina looked at Rumple sharply. "What did you promise them?"

"My help." Before Regina could ask more, Rumple held up a hand. "It's to the benefit of us all, your child and mine... this is for the sake of their future."

"You expect us to trust you again, Gold?" Emma looked no more convinced than Regina. "After everything?"

"Everything I did was for the sake of my family. This, now, is me undoing the harm I inadvertently caused in that pursuit. Whatever you think of me, those millions of people are innocent."

"Yeah, innocent people you're throwing to the monsters."

"Please. I suggest it's time we work on our tolerance of those unlike ourselves."

"He's right," Belle said, but she was glad now that she had kept the truth about her own ancestry and status as a Dark One out of her explanations. "No matter what they look like, no matter what customs they have that seem strange to you, they are people."

"Well, you would say that," put in Regina with a snide glance at Rumple. "But maybe it would be simpler to kill them or drive them out..."

"Mom, you can't," Henry protested. "Belle's right."

"Henry, you don't understand how dangerous they are."

"You're just as dangerous!"

Rumple laughed. "Indeed she is, Henry. And if it comes down to it, so is your other mother. Between us, I think we can encourage some kind of accommodation short of mass murder."

"We can't leave all those people in oblivion," Grace said, looking at Jefferson. "You have to help, Papa."

Jefferson, who had been staying out of the argument, nodded slightly to his daughter, but kept his silence unbroken.

"Yes, we have to save them." Henry was eager as ever to do the heroic thing.

"Now hold on, we've put you in enough danger already," Regina said to Henry. Then she frowned. With a wave of her hand, she summoned a paper to her hand and showed it to Belle and Rumple. A page apparently torn out of a notebook, it was filled with cryptic scribblings. "Speaking of which, can you read this? Henry wrote it in some kind of fit. The Dragon said it was a summoning, presumably for the archer."

"It looks like Olympian script," said Belle. She passed it to Jefferson, who nodded in confirmation.

"Yeah. I can't read it either, but this looks like more than just a summoning." Jefferson glanced at Henry. "You're the Author. The story you write is the one chosen by the gods."

"Why would they want to kill the Dragon?" asked Emma.

The Dragon? Belle looked at Rumple in confusion.

"I don't know his real name," he said. "An old man, an old dragon — he was living in the Land Without Magic, only not without magic. And I doubt he's dead now, no matter what it looked like. At a guess... he is a god, but not an Olympian. I suspect he was in hiding."

"Then he was one of the lucky ones," Jefferson remarked. "Most of the other gods were banished to the Land Without Stories when the Olympians took control of the heavens."

"Someone up there was afraid he would help us," suggested Rumple. "Hence the summoning of the Huntress."

"The Dragon was a good man. I don't want to be used like that. Isn't there anything you can do?" Henry turned to Rumple. "You have all that magic..."

"If I could control the Author's magic, I wouldn't have needed the services of Mr. Heller," Rumple said dryly. "But perhaps I can squeeze some information from him."

"He's missing," Emma said. "We're not sure if he escaped, if someone broke him out, or what happened. Magic was involved."

"He could have retained some of his powers and written himself out," said Rumple.


"Well, we had nothing to do with it," Belle told her, seeing the suspicion on the Savior's face.

Emma frowned, but let it drop. She turned to Henry. "Maybe it'll be safer if we get you out of Storybrooke, kid."

"No way."

"Henry..." But Regina had no better luck in persuading her son.

Watching them argue, Belle was grateful that Gideon was an infant again, for now. They had enough to worry about without their child running straight into danger. By the time the pizza was gone, Regina and Emma had at least agreed to help with undoing the Dark Curse and dealing with the aftermath.

"If it's a god's power we need, the Sea King may be our best bet," said Regina. "Last I heard, Ursula patched things up with her father and is living in his palace."

"Ah, yes." Rumple nodded. "You're still an honorary member of the Queens of Darkness club, double agent or not."

"What's a betrayal or two between friends? Besides, you've sold them out more times than I have!"

Belle shuddered, remembering the sea witch's tentacles nearly crushing her. She had little desire to see Ursula again. "But what if her father can't or won't help? Isn't there anyone else we can try?" She glanced at Jefferson in desperate appeal. "You've probably traveled the most out of any of us..."

The Hatter didn't let her down. "There was one place I visited that had a whiff of divinity about its soil. You may have heard of it — Avalon."

"Avalon?" Rumple frowned. He had been there before, Belle knew. It was the source of a potent magical sand. It was mentioned in Belle's books as an island of strange enchantments, but a less sinister place than Neverland. "The Lady of the Lake?"

"She's older than you think," said Jefferson. "Older than you. Older than Merlin."

"I thought she was Lancelot's mother," said Belle. "Or is that a different Lady of the Lake?"

"There's only one Lady of the Lake," said Rumple, "but I've never had any dealings with her."

"Good," said Regina. "Then there's a chance she doesn't hate you yet."

In the end, they settled on having Jefferson take Regina, Emma, and Henry to Poseidon's palace, while Rumple opened a portal for himself, Belle, and Gideon to travel to Avalon. Afterwards they would meet in Regina's castle in the Enchanted Forest to undo the curse, assuming at least one group was successful in acquiring the needed divine ingredient.

The portal dropped them onto a rocky little islet off the shore of Avalon proper. Belle stumbled forward a step, glad for the sturdy boots of what she secretly dubbed her "adventuring" garb rather than the high heels she favored in Storybrooke, where flat, even surfaces were the rule. She caught her balance with an assist from Rumple's arm.

"We didn't tell them about the Final Battle," she noted as he closed the portal behind them. She was ashamed of her own dishonesty, but she had been too afraid of turning Emma and by extension all the heroes of Storybrooke against them.

"One thing at a time," said Rumple. "Right now we need a boat." He concentrated for a moment, then waved his hand. A wooden rowboat obediently appeared, and Rumple's magic seized it and kept it from being washed away by the waves. "Come on."

Belle picked her way over the rocks, cradling Gideon protectively in her arms, and clambered into the boat. "It seems cowardly. What if they need to know?"

Rumple shrugged. "Then Jefferson can tell them." He climbed in after her and pushed the boat off with another surge of magic before he took up the oars and started rowing.

"Is this the same boat from Neverland?" Ever curious, Belle prodded at the magic holding it together. "It is! Did you summon it out of a dream?"

He nodded and twirled a hand, showing her the folded square of his mother's cloak. "I used this."

"Clever." And he was, she thought. Despite all the darkness, she could see how he took pleasure in mastery of his craft. She had once resented it, resented him bringing magic to Storybrooke, fearing it would consume him. And in some ways, it almost had, corroding his heart and nearly destroying his soul, but even after being given a fresh lease on life, he had been drawn inexorably back to magic. Without that power, he was still a clever and determined man, but with it, he stood a little straighter. As he had once told her, magic had become a crutch for him — but was it truly a crutch, or was magic the pair of wings that allowed him to fly?

"What?" Rumple had noticed her staring at him. "Did I get tomato sauce on my nose?"

"No, it's nothing." Belle smiled and shook her head. "So... why did the portal drop us out here instead of someplace more convenient?"

"Ah, that would be the sands of Avalon. Even in its raw, natural state, the sheer mass of it contained in the island makes magical transport nearly impossible. This was as close as I could safely reach."

"Welcome to the Isle of Apples."

"Lancelot! Guinevere!" Belle was surprised to see the two familiar faces in the small group of riders that came out to meet them on the road.

Avalon had turned out to be a tranquil, pastoral island full of gentle hills and scattered farms. Stopping at one of the farms to ask for directions, Belle had found the locals to be a friendly lot. Belle and Rumple had taken their time along the road, and word had flown ahead of them via messenger pigeon.

"They don't get many strangers here." Lancelot dismounted, followed a moment later by Guinevere. "So when we heard there was a whole family visiting, Gwen and I were curious."

Rumple was watching them just as curiously. He quirked an eyebrow at Belle.

"I met them when we were in Camelot. Lance, Gwen, this is my husband, Rumplestiltskin."

"Yes, we've met," said Guinevere. "Though you looked a bit different that time."

Rumple cleared his throat. "Yes. Well. How did the sand work out for you?"

Guinevere glared at him. "It's the last time I make a deal for magic."

"And my mother gave me an earful when I told her about it," Lancelot confessed sheepishly. "How did you get your hands on a vial of enchanted sand, anyway?"

"Traded for it from a sailor." Rumple shrugged. "I didn't ask how he acquired it. I...well, let's just say I bought it when I was in a bad place, during a moment of weakness when I thought even the illusion of my family would be better than nothing at all."

Belle squeezed his arm gently. "It's not weakness to miss someone. But I'm glad you didn't."

"The sand may grant illusions, but it ended up revealing the truth for me." Guinevere sighed. "It wasn't your fault Arthur was consumed by jealousy and obsession."

"But it all worked out in the end, now that Arthur's gone, may he rest in peace," said Lancelot. "The people elected Guinevere to be their queen."

"And two weeks ago, Lance and I were married. We're here for a few days to visit his mother."

"Congratulations!" Belle was glad for them. She remembered how unhappy Guinevere had seemed in her marriage with Arthur.

"And to you as well. Is that your child?" asked Guinevere, glancing at the infant slung across Rumple's chest.

Belle nodded. "Our son, Gideon."

"So the Savior succeeded in destroying the Darkness, then?" asked Lancelot. "When I returned to Camelot, all they said was that your people had all gone back to Storybrooke."

"Ah. Not exactly," said Rumple. "Just call me the once and future Dark One..."

Belle winced as Lancelot and Guinevere flinched and took a step back. The two knights who had accompanied them drew their swords. "No, it's all right. It's not like that..."

"Then what?" Lancelot, his tone wary, gestured at the knights to stay back. He himself kept his hands away from his sword. "Maybe it wasn't a coincidence that you arrived so soon after us! Why is the Dark One here?"

"Actually..." Rumple smiled slightly. Belle saw him adopt his least offensive demeanor — and how threatening could he look while carrying a baby, anyway? Even his voice shifted a few tones closer to "friendly." "Actually, we came to Avalon to ask your mother for help."

"Maybe you could introduce us?" Belle looked hopefully at Lancelot. "Please?"

Lady Vivienne was a tall, solid-looking woman clad in layers of rich, colorful cloth, her hair in cornrows under a noblewoman's headdress. Her bearing was regal yet infused with warmth. Her hall was an open, welcoming space, rustic with its broad wooden rafters and large hearth. Belle sensed little touches of magic here and there, charms for good health and prosperity.

But was she a goddess?

After Lancelot's introduction, the Lady of the Lake treated them like old family friends, plying them with food, drink, and light chatter about the weather, the goats, and the amusing antics of the local children.

Belle glanced at Rumple. Was he waiting for her to ask first?

Before she could formulate the question, the Lady of the Lake herself broached the subject. "Lance says you came to ask for my help. Is it for your child? Because how could I say no to this cuddlesome darling?" She leaned over Gideon and pulled silly faces. "What do you need from your Mama Vee?"

"Mmm." Rumple looked a little nervous at the attention, only relaxing when the Lady of the Lake drew away again. "For him, yes, but really, it's for a great many people whose future hangs in the balance..."

"Well? Spit it out, boy."

"What we need—"

"Is not something she can give!" The front door was flung open, a large, dark shape outlined against the light that streamed in behind him. Then the speaker strode into Vivienne's hall, his footsteps heavy and unforgiving.

"And how would you know what we're asking for?" Rumple turned carefully, and Belle could sense him reinforcing his defensive spells.

"I had word from Volund."


"You need to leave Lady Vee's house and come with me."

"I don't think so." The Lady of the Lake stood up and confronted the intruder. "These are my guests. I don't remember inviting you."

"I'm your neighbor. Do I need an invitation to express my concern? You may not remember, but these three bring exactly the sort of trouble I promised to protect you from," said the intruder. "Now say your farewells and let's go."

"Hey." Lancelot moved forward as well. "This is my mother's house. You have no right..."

Rumple glanced from one side to the other. "Perhaps I was mistaken in coming to your mother, Lancelot. If your new guest here did indeed receive a message from Volund, then I think Belle and I need to speak to him."

Belle stood up and moved towards Rumple. She looked at the Lady of the Lake and smiled apologetically. "Rumple may be right. Thank you for your hospitality. It was lovely, but I'm afraid trouble does tend to follow us, so it's probably safer if we leave before it catches up!"

"What kind of knight would I be if I let a guest be driven out because I was afraid of trouble?" Lancelot glowered at the intruder. "Enough with the vague threats..."

"No, no, it's not a threat." Rumple stared hard at the intruder. "If I guess correctly, the Lady of the Lake is not what she once was... but you are."

"Oh!" Belle thought of Jefferson and how he had shed his divine identity to become a mortal. Had the Lady of the Lake done the same? 'Vivienne' was not the name of any deity Belle had ever heard of, after all. "Yes, if that's true, we definitely need to talk to this man."

It took a while, but in the end Vivienne let them go, mollified enough to show only mild annoyance at the insult to her hospitality.

Their new host was a large man, matching Lancelot in size and bulk, with dark hair and a swarthy complexion. He dressed like a simple farmer, and the house he led them to was furnished with a raised garden bed, a grove of fruit trees, and a pasture complete with a herd of goats.

Appearances can be deceptive. He has power, this one.

Uneasy, Belle lagged behind Rumple. Were they walking into a trap?

Rumple, seeming to share her misgivings, stopped before they entered the house. He glanced at the pasture, then back at the stranger. "So. I take it you're more than just a goat herder?"

The man grinned, showing white teeth too perfect for an ordinary peasant. "You could say so. I'm Ares."

Captain Hook sat alone in the back corner of the newest watering hole in Storybrooke, Aesop's Tables, idly scanning the clientele for a likely lass, one who might be susceptible to a pirate's charm. Someone who appreciated a real man, someone to take his mind off things. But instead of a woman, it was a man who slipped into the empty chair across from him.

Hook's head jerked back in startlement. It was Zeus. "You."

The room grew eerily quiet around them, the other patrons fading to indistinct shadows. Zeus smiled. "Captain Jones. Drinking away your sorrows? Surely you're not the kind of man to let a minor setback keep you from your happy ending."

"Bollocks." Hook took a swig of rum, then glared at Zeus over the glass. "I did what you said. I saved her arse from the Underworld, and what's the thanks I get? She can't be with me any more, she says. And off she trots with the bloody Evil Queen!"

Zeus chuckled. "And that's that? You're not going to fight for your woman?"

Hook growled. "The Evil Queen has magic. She's cast some spell over Swan, turned her against me. How the hell do I fight that?"

Zeus tapped the side of his nose. "Ah, now, magic is as magic does, and any spell can be undone. Especially with the right allies." He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Listen well. This is what you must do to win back your beloved..."

Chapter Text

Ares. Rumplestiltskin had not expected Ares. But if he was here and not on Olympus, if he was protecting another exiled deity, then he could be the divine ally they needed.

"This island is my home," said Ares. "A place of peace."

"Yet you are the god of war." Rumplestiltskin had faced enough gods by now to sense the power behind the name. Ares, unlike Jefferson or Vivienne, retained his full divinity, too strong at this close range to be disguised under the magic of the sands of Avalon. And on his home ground, his strength was magnified.

Run while you can!

"That's how I know the value of peace." The god's eyes darkened, and with a deft slash of magic that slipped right through Rumplestiltskin's defenses, Ares seized the Dark One dagger. "And I will not allow you to bring your war here."

You should have run.

Compulsion gripped him, and without a word being spoken aloud, Rumplestiltskin was forced to his knees. He gasped, bracing himself with a hand before he fell over. Shielding Gideon with his own body, he glanced up at Ares. "How...?"

"This is a weapon, and every weapon, in every realm, must answer to me." Ares looked past Rumplestiltskin. He raised the dagger higher. "Be still!"

Rumplestiltskin froze. He heard Belle cry out from behind him, then fall to the ground. Belle!

Ares nodded, as if they had answered some unspoken question. He lowered the dagger and contemplated it. "With this, I could command you to rend each other limb from limb, and you would obey. I could force you to tear out your child's heart with your teeth or break every bone in his body."

"Please..." Rumplestiltskin closed his eyes. No. Not again. Too weak... you should have died. That's the only way they'll ever be safe from you. He would resist. Belle would never... they would be stronger this time. They would... they would fail. It was all for nothing. No matter how much power he gathered...

"You have no choice. You would obey."

...he was helpless in the end.

"Wouldn't you?"

The question was a command, tearing the answer from his throat. "Yes."

And from behind him, he heard Belle's agonized whisper echoing him. "Yes..."

Rumplestiltskin knelt in the dirt. Gideon squirmed against his hold, but he was helpless to soothe him. He could only wait for the next command. Something thudded into the earth before him. Startled, Rumplestiltskin opened his eyes to see...

...the dagger! He scrabbled forward like a madman, snatching it up to clench his fingers around the hilt until his knuckles turned white.


"Yet even with this weakness you think to wage war against Olympus?" sneered Ares. He wiped his hand on his tunic as if the touch of the dagger had tainted him. "Better that you flee now. You deserted once before, abandoning your comrades to the ogres."

Rumplestiltskin stared. He couldn't speak. How did Ares know?

God of war. Of course he knows... he knows every battle, every war, every death and every coward who ran away.

"Go. Leave. Never come back."

Ares was right. He was riddled with weaknesses. Zeus would be able to take advantage of them as easily as Ares. Better to find a realm without gods, somewhere Gideon and Belle would be safe, free of prophecies and fate and final battles. They could have a life, be a family.

No. He had promised. He had made a deal. He couldn't abandon them.

Pathetic worm! Deals you don't have the power to keep...

Promises. Deals. Gideon and Belle were more important. If he was destroyed by the backlash of a broken deal, at least his family could survive. Better that than to see them killed at his own hand when another enemy took the dagger. He cringed at the thought, cowering over the tiny bundle that held his son. Gideon whimpered, seeming to sense his father's distress.

"Grovel as you will, coward, there is no mercy in the face of war."

He couldn't breathe, couldn't think past his own despair. The pressure built, urging him to...

Run. Give up. Die.

"Don't call him that." Belle's defiant words came in a murmur from behind him, jarring him out of his dark thoughts.

And then Ares turned his gaze to her, and Rumplestiltskin gasped, feeling as if a weight had been lifted from him. "Call him what?"

He heard Belle gulp. Her next stammered words died before they made it past her lips.

Ares continued, remorseless, "'Coward'? What else do you call a soldier who runs from the battlefield?"

Deserter. Worthless. Weak. Cripple. Rat.

It was true. What was the use of denying it? His fingers tightened on the dagger, and almost he told her to stop, stop before all the ugliness of his past was dredged out again. But he didn't.

Too late for that. Everyone knows.

"He came back," Belle said, her voice barely more than a whisper.

Ares glared at her, and Rumplestiltskin sensed the god's power pressuring her to silence. But she clung to the thread of her challenge.

"The first time. He did run away. So that his son would not be fatherless." Belle gained strength as she went on, "But he came back and he ended the war that the Duke of the Frontlands and his Dark One couldn't, not in fifteen years. He won that war, and the next two ogre wars, also. What do you call the man who does that? But it doesn't matter. I call him my husband, and he has a name. Use it."

Belle... Rumplestiltskin couldn't speak. Tears blurred his vision. Did she truly mean what she said? Sometimes she thought far too well of him — sometimes — which only deepened the pain when, inevitably, her faith ran out. Even so, it was all he had. He had to try. Had to hope that he wouldn't let her down this time. He stowed the dagger away, then sat up slowly, cradling Gideon in his arms and rocking him until he settled once more.

"And we're not running from this war." He heard her stand up, and she sounded more determined than ever. She stepped forward, resting a hand on his shoulder. "If you want us to win — and I think you do, or you wouldn't be hiding on Avalon — then help us. Give us what we need."

Ares stood there for a moment, blank-faced and silent. Then he broke into guffaws, slapping his hand against his thigh. Whatever spell he had used was lifted, and even the air seemed lighter. "Ha ha ha! Well, that's me told, then!"

"You'll help us?" Belle's voice brightened with sudden hope, but Rumplestiltskin was not so optimistic. Things were rarely that simple. He forced himself to concentrate.

Think! What does he want from you?

Ares shook his head slowly, all laughter abruptly gone. "I am bound by oaths not to act against Zeus and not to meddle in earthly affairs."

"Then what was this all about, if it wasn't 'meddling'?"

"Nothing but idle chatter. I told you nothing you didn't already know."

"He was testing us," Rumplestiltskin said thinly. Testing them, because there was more to the story. More here than met the eye. If Vivienne could not help them, nor Ares, then there must be more. He tugged at the loose threads of what he already knew. "Something drove you to leave Olympus. What was it?"

"Not what. 'Who'."

Who? Rumplestiltskin ran through all the names of the gods that he knew of. Then he remembered. "Hephaestus said... he said that what they did, this conspiracy that Zeus orchestrated — it cost Hephaestus his wife, and cost his wife her sanity."

"His wife? The Lady of the Lake?" Belle asked. "But she seemed perfectly sane to me."

"No. Not the Lady of the Lake," said Ares. "Come inside. I'll introduce you."

The door Ares opened for them was not the front door, but rather one set around the side of the house, one shadowed under a stone arch and carved with signs of containment. The tall, narrow windows that flanked the door were covered with thick glass that let in light but hid whatever was on the other side.

Even before he stepped through the doorway, Rumplestiltskin could sense the wrongness in the air. Avalon was its own realm, with magic trapped in grains of sand, but this chamber was built of stone where that magic was concentrated, twisted. Fragments of time and memory soaked the walls, forming a prison for...


Rumplestiltskin gasped. For a moment, impossibly, he saw Belle slumped in the corner, hair hanging loose over her face. His pulse thudded in his ears, and all he heard was his own need to free her from the chain fastened at her ankle, to hold her and take her away and...

It isn't Belle, you fool. Darkness cut coldly through the illusion.

Rumplestiltskin froze. He closed his eyes to shut out the image. Belle was behind him. It was her fingers he felt curling around his wrist. Their child whose weight he carried. He turned slowly, opening his eyes only when he was sure who he was facing.

Belle stared at him, wide-eyed. Ares had one hand locked around her shoulder, immobilizing her, but the god's gaze was focused past them both, on the prisoner in the room beyond.

Rumplestiltskin's jaws clenched and his fingers twitched; he hated to see anyone lay hands on Belle, but he recognized the divine magic protecting her from the seductive draw of the prisoner. He turned his eyes to Ares, his own thoughts racing. What was the god of war playing at? What did he want from them?

After a moment, Ares spoke. "You asked me why I left Olympus. This is why. This is—"

"Aphrodite," Rumplestiltskin breathed. Even mad, chained by fey enchantment, and held by the magic of Avalon, her power was unmistakable.

"The greatest of our weapons, once."

"What... what happened to her?" stammered Belle. She in turn kept her eyes on Rumplestiltskin, and he wondered what she had seen when she looked at the goddess.

"Every war has casualties." Ares glanced at Rumplestiltskin, then at Belle. "She... was cursed. At the end."

"War? What war?"

"Ours, against all the others. She blinded them with her seductions so that they made no resistance when we sent them into oblivion."

"The Land Without Stories," Rumplestiltskin said, remembering what Jefferson had said.

"Yes. But some of them broke free. Struck back." Ares sighed. "We won, at a cost. At first she seemed well enough, but later the curse took root in her mind and she... she came to me."

"Came to you?"

"Came, speaking words of love, but I can recognize the lust for blood when I see it. She tore at me like a starved beast, all reason gone from her eyes. So." Ares looked past him at the prisoner. "I was meant to kill her."

Rumplestiltskin nodded. As the god of war, Ares was one of the few who would have been able to do it. "But you chose not to? A touching show of sentiment..."

Ares's eyes snapped back to Rumplestiltskin. "She deserved better. But the healing she needs is not something I can give."

"What about Zeus? He can bring the dead back to life," said Belle. "He did it for Killian Jones. Couldn't he save Aphrodite?"

"I asked. He said not. Only Apollo and Athena, in their wisdom, had such powers."

"But..." Belle bit her lip, risking a quick glance past Rumplestiltskin. "They refused?"

"The king of the gods had set them another task to be completed first. Afterwards, he promised, they would be free to help Aphrodite."

Rumplestiltskin heard the anger beneath the calm words, and the rest of the pieces fell together. "Only there was no 'afterwards'. Zeus betrayed you. Apollo and Athena were gone, and you cut your losses and left while you still could, along with your guest here and the Lady of the Lake. As did 'Volund', of course."

"Leaving who... Hades? Hera? Artemis? And Poseidon?" Belle frowned, ticking off the known Olympians. "They didn't blame Zeus?"

Ares scoffed at the notion. "Blame meant nothing to them." Then he turned a twisted smile on Belle. "No, they stayed in Olympus, thinking that the crown of heaven might be knocked loose, and the fewer rivals left, the better."

"Something of a risk," muttered Rumplestiltskin. "Look what happened to Hades."

"But not at the hand of any god. No, we all swore oaths of peace and non-interference, Zeus included," said Ares. "Damn fools should have let me fight him, but the others had no more stomach for war. But this is no true peace, either."

"So what do you suggest?" Belle asked. "If you've all sworn oaths and can't help us, what can you do?"

"The mad can't be bound by oaths," said Ares, looking again at the prisoner. "And her curse has driven her mad."

"Ah! Then she's the one we have to ask." Belle let go of Rumplestiltskin's wrist and pried at Ares's talon-like grip on her shoulder. "Let me go."

"Belle, you can't!" Rumplestiltskin reached for her other hand. "It's far too dangerous."

"She's chained for a reason," Ares said, not letting go. "She'll have your heart out before you can blink."

"Then you hold it for me." Belle dropped her hand from her shoulder and plunged it into her own chest. She tore out her heart, shoving it at Rumplestiltskin. "You've done it before..."

Rumplestiltskin gaped. His fingers closed instinctively around her heart, shielding it against its unnatural exposure. "B-but..."

"Will she be able to understand me?" Belle's voice sounded calm, almost dull now in its heartlessness.

"Perhaps," Ares answered.

"Will she be able to speak?"

Ares shrugged.

"Belle, you can't mean to—"

"I can."

Rumplestiltskin took a breath, then exhaled slowly. "Belle, let me. I'm... I'm used to it..."

Belle smiled slightly. "But you're likelier to antagonize her."

"But..." He saw that her mind was made up and closed his mouth. No use telling her she was being impulsive, taking foolish risks. She was a Dark One now; she wouldn't die. And as long as he held her heart, he could offer her some protection. "You're sure?"

"Keep Gideon safe." She glanced back at Ares, jerking her chin up at him to let her go. The god opened his hand wordlessly. Belle shut her eyes and visibly steadied herself. A moment later, she shuffled past Rumplestiltskin, murmuring, "Don't let me do anything too stupid..."

Gods. Rumplestiltskin fought back an urge to grab her, pull her back. He felt her take a step, then another. He lifted the hand holding her heart, Gideon cradled in the sling under his elbow, and bent his head to whisper into the heart, "I'm here. Remember that. I... we love you. Please, please, be careful."

Then he heard Belle speaking, her voice too low for him to make out the words. There came a scuffling noise. Then Belle yelped, a startled noise with a note of pain she couldn't hide, not when the heart in his hand thudded in rapid, frantic beats.

"Belle!" Rumplestiltskin whirled. He had to see, had to help...

Two figures floated in a blur of blood and swirling cloth, caught in a dance that dazzled the eye. He couldn't see Belle anymore, but he started forward anyway.

Fingers like steel clamped around Rumplestiltskin's right arm, holding him back. "Don't move."

Rumplestiltskin felt the fiery aura of the god of war flare through him from the point of contact. His vision sharpened, and Belle came into focus again. She was pinned against the wall, her arm trapped between her and the monster that had its head bent over her neck, forcing her chin up. The monster growled, tearing away to turn back to face the doorway. It showed its teeth, blood running from its mouth. Belle had one hand free. Fingers wriggled above her head, as if to say that she was all right.

Not all right. Her heart raced against Rumplestiltskin's palm.

But she kept herself still, allowing the prisoner to sniff at her, licking at the blood and tasting the pain. Like some feral animal, Aphrodite clawed at her prey, shredding cloth and leaving long scratches, red against Belle's pale skin.

A vampire's curse. The Darkness recognized the cruel twisting of lust and desire into a blood hunger. A fitting vengeance to mark Aphrodite's betrayals in such a literal manner.

"Belle..." Rumplestiltskin longed to go to his wife and pull her away, to soothe her pain and heal her wounds. Instead, he forced himself to watch. To lose himself in the intricate patterns of magic woven here.

Study it well. There is power here...

He flinched at the thought, loathing his own fascination. But he couldn't look away again, even when the balance shifted, and Belle no longer tried to scream or struggle. She moved to welcome Aphrodite's touch, embracing a creature that would either devour her or seduce her.

He couldn't interfere. Belle wasn't him. She saw things in people that he was blind to. He had to let her try. She didn't always succeed, but sometimes... sometimes she astonished him.

They would endure whatever they had to, grasp at any chance. For their child's sake, so that Gideon could have a future.

Back in Storybrooke, Captain Hook prepared to ensure his own future. After making sure that he was alone on the Jolly Roger, he locked himself in his cabin, all the materials gathered for his next project.

"Think you're so powerful, with all your bloody magic, your majesty?" Hook slid his hand into his invisible bag and took out the black grail and set it on the table. He took a bucket of sea water from the floor and poured a portion carefully into the grail. "Well, I've faced demons before, and you don't frighten me. See, I have the gods on my side, and you only have a crocodile."

Following the instructions Zeus had given him, Hook added pinches of various herbs and powders into the grail, stirring the mixture with a glass rod and thinking of the results he wanted. "I'm going to free Emma from your spell. No one else will be taken in by your lies, and I'm going to have my happy ending."

The liquid glimmered as he spoke, tiny rainbow sparkles dancing over the surface. For a moment, a pair of eyes stared up at Hook.

"What the devil!?" He jerked his head back and stumbled back a step. Was this supposed to happen? Then the eyes blinked closed again, and the liquid settled back into dullness. He stared uneasily into the grail for a while. But nothing happened, and his confidence returned. He had done it.

Hook grinned in exultation, transferring the potion into an empty glass bottle and screwing on the cap. He cleared up the mess, throwing away all traces of his magic-working and stashing the black grail back into the invisible bag. Only one more ingredient was needed: fairy dust. Well, then. Time to pay a visit to Mother Superior.

Belle's heart pulsed in soft, unhurried beats in Rumplestiltskin's hand.

He didn't know how she had achieved this miracle, but the two women now sat side by side on the floor across from the door. Both were still smeared with blood, and Belle's clothes were reduced to rags that barely covered her. Long angry scratches marred her skin, but she had at least mended the gaping wounds on her neck.

Aphrodite was half-turned towards Belle, her hands touching the other woman's hair in light, curious strokes. They had nothing approaching meaningful conversation, but Belle's gentle murmurs seemed to soothe the mad goddess, who made incoherent squeaks and moans in reply.

Another shift.

Belle knelt on the mat that served as the prisoner's bed, while Aphrodite sat in front of her. Now it was Belle who, brush in hand, worked with Aphrodite's hair, working out the tangles and promising to fix it up in a bun just like her own.

Rumplestiltskin blinked.

But his wife was as good as her word, and after half an hour, she was holding up a hand mirror for the goddess to admire her handiwork. While Aphrodite was busy staring at the mirror, Belle extracted herself and tiptoed back to Rumplestiltskin's side. She lifted the hair brush, a glint of triumph in her eyes.

His jaw dropped. Before he could say anything, Ares pulled both of them back outside and shut the door. Feeling weak with relief, Rumplestiltskin reached for Belle and thrust her heart back into her chest. In the same motion, he summoned a wave of magic to heal her injuries and restore her clothing to a pristine state.

Warmth flooded back into her expression. "We did it!" She tugged a few strands of hair from the brush — translucent, they took on the colors imagined by the beholder — and twisted them together before handing them to Rumplestiltskin. "She gave me this. Divine power..."

Rumplestiltskin took the strands of hair and stowed them safely away in an inner pocket. "You did it. Belle, you are amazing."

"An unusual tactic," said Ares. "But it worked. It's good to know I wasn't wasting my time with you two."

Rumplestiltskin moved instinctively to Belle's side. "Let's hope not."

Belle's expression darkened. She looked at Ares. "Are we your weapons now?"

"I'm retired, remember? But as for using you as weapons..." Ares gestured, summoning the Dark One dagger to his hand again with terrifying ease.

Biting back a curse, Rumplestiltskin drew back a step, pulling Belle with him. "We're flawed. Yes, you already pointed that out, thank you."

"That it can be shattered does not make a blade less sharp," Ares said. "This one has the power to undo a god, but only under the right circumstances."

"Nothing so simple as walking up to Zeus and stabbing him with it?"

"Alas, no. Though we can recognize the instruments of fate when we touch them, it's impossible for us to foresee the detailed workings of that fate." Ares ran his fingers along the blade. "This dagger, the cauldron, the black grail of earth... the others fear to even touch them. We tried to be rid of all three, yet all three have resurfaced again."

Rumplestiltskin frowned, trying to recall his own visions. Three lines of fate. The Final Battle. Gideon's life hanging in the balance. Darkness, light. Two stories. But one of them was already rotting from the inside. Olympus had weakened itself with no interference from the Dark One. The king of the gods needed a savior and a sacrifice to secure his future. But even so, instrument of fate or not, Rumplestiltskin knew that the Dark One's powers could not match Zeus. Simpler to kill the savior instead.

Kill her before she kills Gideon. It's a father's duty to protect his son... what are you afraid of? What's one more life, after you've taken so many already?

No. He had to be better than that. No. Such a murder would send them down too dark a path. Unending war with all the heroes. Every death created the need for more death, and Gideon would inherit a future devoid of peace.

"Well, Zeus isn't going to get rid of us. I never wanted to attack anyone, but if he's going to use some prophecy against us, then we don't have much choice," declared Belle.

Ares looked at Belle, a trace of amusement in his voice as he said, "Then I suggest you keep your martial tendencies to yourself. A warrior knows the value of surprise. Where Rumplestiltskin falls, you may yet prevail." He handed the dagger to her.

Belle accepted it gingerly, then gave it back to Rumplestiltskin. "Here, you keep it."

He nodded. As he took the dagger back, he realized that Ares had strengthened the spell hiding Belle's name and her aura. "Ah. You're not just any weapon, sweetheart — you're to be a secret weapon."

Belle scoffed. "You make it sound like a promotion."

Rumplestiltskin eyed Ares. "I thought you weren't supposed to meddle."

"Have I meddled? It's your spell, not mine. You came to my house, I didn't go to yours. I gave you no welcome. In fact, I cast you out! Go!" Ares gestured accordingly. "Be off!"

"I see." Rumplestiltskin couldn't help but be amused. He wasn't the only one who split words and toyed with loopholes. "You heard him, Belle. Let's go." He hurried her away before she could make the mistake of thanking Ares aloud.

Any gratitude they felt in their own hearts was their own affair. But he was grateful — Ares had shown that their quest might not be as hopeless as it had sometimes seemed.

Chapter Text

"No singing, dancing sea creatures?" Emma asked in mock-disappointment. "Looks like Disney failed me again."

There was, however, a surprising variety of birds. As the Sea King's palace was mostly underwater, the aviary (built on a small volcanic island) was one of the few areas suitable for air-breathers. Ursula had left them to wait there while she went to convince her father to speak to their guests. It was spacious and well-lit, planted with a profusion of tropical trees and shrubs. A clear pool deepened into an underground channel that linked the chamber to the rest of the palace. Emma and Regina sat opposite each other across a marble chess table.

Regina idly moved a piece. "No, Ursula's the singer in the family. Her mother was a siren."

"Hmm." Emma glanced towards Henry, who was making pencil sketches in his notebook. "Maybe she'll tell Henry her story... you're sure she's not a villain anymore?"

Regina shrugged. "I think she just needed to get out from under her father's thumb for a while. I imagine it was a wake-up call for him, too. Hopefully he'll listen to her now..."

Speaking of fathers, Regina looked around for Jefferson. The Mad Hatter lurked under a tree, watching his daughter fuss over a large, flightless bird. Grace had refused to stay behind. She obviously remembered too well the last time her papa had jumped through a portal with the Evil Queen. Now she was talking to the ugly gray beast. More surprising, the bird seemed to be talking back.

"It's a dodo," said Henry, coming over to show his mothers the sketch he had drawn. "They're extinct in the Land Without Magic."

"I didn't know they could talk. Are they like parrots?" asked Emma.

Regina shook her head. "More like giant pigeons. But living in a place saturated with magic, this one's probably picked up a few tricks."

At which Emma muttered something that sounded like, " you have..."

Regina blinked. "Excuse me?"

Emma smirked and looked away. "Nothing."

Oh, this was ridiculous, thought Regina. They had to stop dancing around each other like this. Sometimes she was sure that Emma felt the same way she did, but neither of them ever admitted to anything. If she even did swing that way, Emma was deeply in the closet, as they said in the Land Without Magic. Well, Regina could understand about closets. Closets, and wardrobes with their mirrors that reflected far too much...

I'll invite her out for dinner, she decided. Somewhere classy, yet appealing to Emma's inner child, which liked her food greasy and colorful. Then she would tell her how she felt. If there was even a chance... she had to try. And they had so little time. In six months, they would have to return to the Underworld. No telling when they'd be able to leave again, what with the loophole being narrower than they had hoped. Hook was unlikely to help them the next time around.

They'd have to find another way, but as long as they worked together, Regina was confident that nothing could stop them for long. Emma had a gift for finding the out of the box solutions. She smiled to herself, remembering the time Emma had taken a chainsaw to Regina's prized apple tree. She could still see her in her mind's eye: Emma, defiant and angry, in her face and incredibly  hot in her white tank top.

"Henry!" Emma's horrified cry shook Regina out of her daydream.

Henry's eyes had clouded over again, and his fingers were clenched around the pencil as he wrote in a blind frenzy. As Emma tried to shake him out of his trance, Regina drew upon her magic and scanned the aviary for threats. The birds chirped and chattered undisturbed. Leaves rustled gently. Nothing seemed amiss: no rifts in reality, no sudden arrival of divine archers.

"The Sea King," Regina thought aloud. "What if it's aimed at him? We have to warn him."

"How?" asked Jefferson. "We don't have gills."

"Ursula." Regina went to the edge of the pool and dipped a hand in. "I'll try to contact her..." She shaped the spell in her mind, then sent it into the water. Her message took the form of a fish and swam away into the depths. A few minutes later, it returned, leaping into her mind in a splash of urgency.

You can't stay here. Danger. My father—

Then the message cut off. Regina stood, turning to the others. "Strange. She thinks we're the ones in danger."

And that was when the pool exploded into chaos as Poseidon's warriors burst out of the water and surrounded them. Large and alien in their scale and shell armor, faceless behind glistening helms, they wielded harpoons, tridents, and nets.

"Tritons," hissed Regina. Amphibious humanoids who served the Sea King, rarely encountered outside their ocean, tritons were related to mermaids, but even fiercer hunters and warriors.

Though Regina and Emma did their best to defend themselves with magic, they were overwhelmed by numbers and hampered by the nets. Henry, still seized by unnatural compulsion, was soon captured. Not daring to risk his life, the others surrendered.

Regina half-expected them to be killed immediately, but the tritons took them to a stone platform on top of a cliff. There they were put on trial. Guilt was a foregone conclusion, as the tritons made clear: all land-dwellers were enemies of the sea kingdom. Nevertheless, Regina tried to argue their case.

"There's some misunderstanding. We're here as friends of the Sea King."

"You are here as spies!"

"No, no. Just let me talk to Ursula—"

"Don't you dare speak her name!" The triton guarding Regina slapped her viciously across the mouth.

Things only went downhill from there. At the end, the five of them were thrown off the cliff into the sea, bound up in a net.

They were too bulky and ill-balanced in their frantic thrashing for Regina to teleport in a single spell. It was all she could do to cushion their fall, pushing them out to sea farther away from the rocky shore and the raging surf. She felt Emma pitching in from behind her, and she was grateful for the help. Even so, they dropped in a tangled mass beneath the waves.

Shutting her eyes, Regina groped at the strands of the net, channeling her magic into it, straining to undo the weave before she ran out of air. She could sense the others struggling around her, but had no concentration to spare. After what seemed an eternity, the net fell away and she found herself back at the surface, gasping for air and treading water. She pushed back the hair plastered to her face, blinking to find the one, two, three... and four heads bobbing above the water.

Her relief was short-lived. Before she could put together a stronger transportation spell, a dark current pushed through the water, swallowing her. It was cold, too cold, and hit her skin like a sheet of ice, shredding magical energy like... squid ink.

Squid ink. Regina turned her head and saw the giant tentacles rising out of the darkness, and behind them the vast eye and gaping maw of a kraken.


The ensuing battle was short and one-sided. Kraken ink was close enough to squid ink to render magic useless, even diluted as it was. And without magic, they had no chance here in the open ocean against a creature of that size, speed, and power.

A tentacle wrapped around her, dragging her under. Helpless, terrified for herself, for Henry, for Emma, she struggled even knowing it was futile. Her lungs burned until at last, she opened her mouth only to choke on the salt water.

Darkness closed in.

This doesn't feel like the Underworld, was Regina's dazed thought when she woke up again. The air was damp, heavy, and lacking the overlay of despair and regret that she associated with the land of the dead. She fumbled around herself and found her fingers touching cloth. A blanket. She was lying on her side, facing a wall.

"You're aboard the Nautilus," a man's voice said from somewhere behind her. "I'm Captain Nemo."

"Captain Nemo," came Emma's reply. "I remember, you were in the hospital in Storybrooke."

Then Henry muttered something too softly for Regina to hear. Making an effort, she rolled around to face the others. Emma and Henry were talking to Captain Nemo, while Jefferson and Grace sat crosslegged on a bunk across the chamber, eating sandwiches that they had somehow acquired.

"Mom! Are you all right?" Henry rushed over to her side. Jefferson and Grace glanced up from their sandwiches.

Regina pushed herself upright, though she had to duck her head to keep from hitting the bunk above. She hugged Henry awkwardly in the cramped space. "Fine. Which..." She looked past her son at Captain Nemo. " something of a surprise. I was sure we going to drown. But even my clothes are dry now."

"Atlantean life preservers," explained the captain. He stepped closer and took the orange blanket that had been draped around Regina, then shook it off and folded it neatly.

Regina nodded. She had heard stories of the magically advanced undersea kingdom. "Impressive. I didn't know the Atlanteans were willing to share their technology..."

"They aren't, or at least not with humans. This set was given to me as payment for the use of the Nautilus."

"Wait." Suspicion grew in her mind. "This wasn't just a coincidence, your being here to rescue us..."

Captain Nemo smiled. "Though the Nautilus has a gift of timing, no, it wasn't coincidence. I was directed here."

"By who?" Emma asked.

"Me." The Sea Witch appeared in the doorway, folding her arms as she looked them over.

"Ursula!" Regina tensed, but didn't call up the fireball that itched at her palm. If Ursula had wanted them dead, they would all be at the bottom of the sea or kraken food by now. Still, someone in the Sea King's Palace had wanted them thrown off a cliff...

Ursula smirked, leaning against the door frame. She looked over at Henry. "So you're the new Author, eh? Hard luck, kid."

"What the hell is going on?" Regina stood up and pulled Henry back behind her.

Emma joined her on the other side. "Yeah. Why did your dad try to have us killed?"

Ursula's eyes narrowed as she continued looking at Henry.

"What? No way. You're blaming Henry?" Emma's fists clenched, and a hint of white light flared between her fingers.

Ursula shook her head and sighed. "It's not his fault. Just keep him away from any writing materials for now, hmm?"

Henry raised empty hands, making a face. "I lost my notebook when we fell in the sea, anyway."

"As long as you're ok," Regina said. "Which, thank you for that, Ursula. Though how is it you have Captain Nemo and the Nautilus at your beck and call?"

"Just a bit of insurance I arranged when I moved back here. My father may mean well, but sometimes he gets overprotective. He can use blood magic to lock me in, but that won't work on the Nautilus."

"Ah. I know the feeling." Regina remembered the lengths her own mother had gone to in controlling her daughter's life. "But you were going to get us in to see him. What happened?"

"He was all right at first. I mean, he's been pretty reasonable about land-dwellers since I've been back, even if he still blames them for my mother's death. 'Not all terrestrials' blah blah blah, right?" Ursula frowned. "But then it was like we suddenly jumped a timeline. He ordered the 'invaders' to be apprehended and executed. I tried to talk him out of it, but he didn't listen to a word I said."

Damn, thought Regina. So much for getting a token of divine power from Poseidon.

"Weird," said Emma. "Was he under a spell or something?"

"What kind of spell could... Oh." Illumination struck Regina. She looked at Henry. "Let me guess. This happened right around the time you had your possessed writing episode..."

"It must have changed things. Fake memories, like when Isaac created that alternate universe," Henry said. "But he did it on purpose! Mom, I swear, I wasn't trying to—"

"I know, Henry. It's not  your fault."

"Then who's causing it?" demanded Emma. "And how do we stop this from happening again?"

"Turns out there's more to this 'Author' magic than I knew. My father  knew, but he never told me." Ursula laughed. "Wish he had, it might have saved me from falling for the Dark One's tricks. When Rumplestiltskin first came to us with some spiel about stories and happy endings, I didn't believe half of it. Ninety percent of what that man says is pure unadulterated bullshit."

Regina raised an eyebrow. She remembered her own less than illuminating conversations with him on the subject. "You went along anyway?"

"Ten percent chance at happily ever after is better than none." Ursula scowled at the memory. "And the second time, he spun some fairy tale about a magical little town. I was curious, not to mention stuck in a dead-end job in the Land Without Magic and living off instant ramen."

"Hmmph. You were quick enough to bail when Daddy showed up."

"I got what I wanted out of the deal. After what happened with the Chernabog, I wasn't going to wait around for the Dark One to decide I was expendable."

Regina sighed. "Too bad Cruella didn't show as much sense."

Emma looked guilty. "Yeah, well, I thought she was going to kill Henry."

"It's all right, Mom. It's not your fault."

"Yeah." Ursula didn't look too bothered by the death of her erstwhile ally. "The little mermaid told me later what had happened. Well, what's done is done. Anyway, the point is that I finally got my father to share a few of his secrets with me."

The secrets in question involved some kind of conspiracy among the Olympian gods, a plot to bind fate using the power of human imagination and the grail of inspiration. The Authors were told that they were only to record the stories as they happened, but those stories were the ones dictated by the gods.

"Well, Athena and Apollo were supposed to do the writing, originally — wisdom and poetry — but that didn't work out," explained Ursula.

There was a muffled snort from the other bunk. Regina glanced curiously at Jefferson, but the Hatter ostentatiously kept his eyes on the game of cards he had started with his daughter. Grace, less skilled at concealing herself, shot Henry a worried glance.

"What do you mean, 'didn't work out'?" asked Emma.

"They're dead," said Ursula. "Sucked dry, they were."

Regina felt the blood drain from her face. "No. No way. That is not  going to happen to Henry."

Emma wrapped an arm around Henry, who looked pale and terrified. "Damn that old man for putting this on our son. Did he  know—?"

"That bumbling fool? Hah!" Ursula rolled her eyes. "No, he was just following Merlin's orders, and Merlin was a pious idiot who willingly drank the heavenly Kool-aid."

"It's not his fault," whispered Henry. "I mean, I believed Peter Pan, didn't I?"

"It's all right, kid, we'll fix this." Emma looked hard at Ursula. "There must be a way to free him."

There was, according to what Ursula had learned from her father. They had to find the grail of inspiration — the one that had turned black in the gods' hands — and undo the spell binding its power to the human Author.

"No wonder it sucks up magic," Regina mused. "Magic takes its power from imagination, and the grail channels it all into a single person in order to manipulate reality itself."

"You have to find it, first," said Ursula.

"We already did." Regina was relieved that for once the solution was easily accessible. "Or Henry did, when we were in New York. I put it in my vault for safekeeping after we came back."

So they made their farewells, and Jefferson took them back through his hat to Storybrooke.

The black grail was missing.

Regina tried to remember who had been in her vault lately. Half the heroes of Storybrooke, it seemed. Out of those, Aladdin was the best-known as a thief, but why would he steal the black grail? As a genie, he had magic enough of his own. And if he hadn't stolen it, then surely Jasmine hadn't either. Charming, Snow, Hook, and various dwarves (in need of spell components to turn their brother back from a tree) had visited her there, but none of them should even know about the black grail, much less want to steal it. Rumplestiltskin could have done it, but he was too addicted to his deal-making to resort to thievery. Besides, she was well-acquainted with his magic and found no traces of it in her vault, even after checking three times to be sure.

Regina then had Granny Lucas come over with her wolf's nose to check for strangers.


And with no personal link to the black grail, she didn't have any magical means of tracking it down. The only one who did have a link was Henry, but she was unwilling to put him in any further danger.

After a few days of fruitless search — Emma hadn't turned up any leads, either — Regina became desperate enough to broach the idea to Henry.

"Of course I'll help," he said at once.

Emma disapproved, of course. "I can keep searching. Just give me some more time."

"Where are you going to search? It's not like finding a missing person!" snapped Regina. "And what if someone took it out of Storybrooke? Are you going to place an ad? Offer a reward?" She shook her head. "Just this one spell..."

"Which might drain Henry's soul if you're not careful!"

"I'll be careful. I'm always careful."

Emma stared at her in disbelief.

"Mom, Mom, I know you're worried, but it'll be all right. You don't have to fight each other." Henry looked at both of them earnestly. "You're the Savior and the Evil Queen, you'll always find a way. I trust you."

Emma sighed. "Fine. But Regina's not the only one who has magical skills. What about Mother Superior? Maybe she can help."

"Maybe. The bitch certainly never wanted to help me." Regina scowled at the memory. "In fact, she kicked Tinker Bell out for even trying."

"Um. Yeah, diplomacy was never your strong suit, was it? Look, I'll go and talk to her."

"If you insist. Though she always did like your mother's family," Regina conceded. In the end, they agreed that Emma would approach the Blue Fairy while Regina did the preliminary research and set-up for a divination drawing on Henry's mystical bond with the black grail.

"So what do I have to do?" Henry asked as soon as Emma was out the door.

"Nothing. We aren't casting it yet." Regina relented when she saw the disappointed look on his face. Maybe it was his youth that enabled him to put the risks out of his mind when there was potential adventure to be had. "Well, how about this: you can come with me to check out the site."

"The site?"

Regina nodded. "I'm thinking the clock tower. It's at the center of Storybrooke and a magical focal point."

With Belle French basically away on maternity leave and no new librarian appointed, the library was closed, but as mayor, Regina had the key. She and Henry climbed up the stairs to the clock tower at the top of the library building.

"Right. So, stand here, Henry." Regina positioned her son behind the clock face. "I need to take some aura readings to calibrate the spell. Then I'll test out different ingredients to see which ones have the best resonance."

When it came down to it, structured, premeditated magic did require a lot of fiddly details. Henry was soon yawning in boredom.

Thus lulled into complacency, Regina was all the more shocked when she turned around to see Henry, his face smeared with blood, seized by the Author's magic and drawing broad, jerky strokes with his finger on the wall of the tower.

"No!" He had bitten into his finger in order to use his own blood as the ink, Regina realized with horror. Desperate to stop him, she flung out a paralysis spell to hold him still.

Henry gasped, then panted wildly, trembling and shaking within the confines of the magic. His eyes rolled back, still clouded over. His face contorted in obvious distress, yet he couldn't seem to speak.

"Oh gods, I'm sorry, Henry." Regina wrapped her arms around him. "Shh, shh, it'll be all right. I promise, we'll free you from this." She closed her eyes and pressed her lips to his forehead, hoping against hope...

But there was no flare of magic, no True Love to free her son. Because it wasn't a curse. Curse or not, she swore silently that she would be there for him.

Then light flashed against her eyelids, and she opened them to see that everything seemed to flicker, as if reality itself was uncertain. She glanced out the window to see that the sky had cracked across.

"What's happening?" She slid her hands down to grip her son's arms. "Are you doing this?"

No answer.

Regina fought down panic. She clenched her fists, preparing a shielding spell. Outside, slivers of light and shadow rained down from the broken sky, leaving only the darkness of the void behind. She heard panicked screams rising up from street level.

Then the dwarf, Leroy, sprinted past, bellowing, "The sky is falling! We're doomed!"

Chapter Text

The atmosphere in the Dark Castle was tense after Rumplestiltskin and Belle's return. He had given the Merry Men warning as best he could of dangerous times ahead, and then gone to strengthen the defensive spells around the castle and the borders of his territory. Once the Dark Curse was undone, it would be the safest place in the Enchanted Forest. Even knowing that they couldn't hide there forever, Belle sometimes longed as desperately as her husband for a perfect haven from the world.

Soon enough, so would countless others.

"Don't close it off completely, Rumple." Having acquired what they needed in Avalon, the reality of what they were about to attempt sank in for Belle. Millions of humans would suddenly return to the Enchanted Forest, while a hundred thousand fey claimed the same land with only a fragile agreement to restrain their hostility. "What if people need our help? People who have nowhere else to go?"

"I'm not turning the Dark Castle into a refugee camp!"

"We have a responsibility to them." Belle knew he had a hard time caring about strangers, but the sight of his apparent indifference reminded her that they both had to make an effort to do the right thing, no matter their personal feelings.

You're only putting your own son in danger. People can take care of themselves, and if they can't, what point is there in helping the weak and foolish? When the Final Battle comes, will they fight at your side? I think not...

"I'm trying to help them," Rumple growled. Then he shook his head, his voice softening. "I'm sorry. It's just..."

"I know. I'm scared, too," Belle admitted. She held Gideon close and tried not to let her fears dominate her thoughts.

Rumple sighed. "All right. But if I leave a gate open, it'll need an active guard, and I can't be there all the time."

"The Merry Men can help with that. I'll talk to Mulan and Little John."

"And I'll have a word with Dove."

Once the Dark Castle was secured, Rumple transported them to the Evil Queen's palace. Instead of Regina, they were met by a contingent of ogres and elves. Sir Yvanne had apparently taken over the Evil Queen's throne.

"Of all the castles in the Enchanted Forest, you had to pick this one?" grumbled Rumplestiltskin.

"It was part of the agreement. This one is located most favorably for us," said Yvanne. "As Duke of the Reconciliation, I choose it as my seat of office."

"Wonderful. Regina will be delighted," said Rumple with heavy sarcasm. "Well, she should be arriving soon. I hope you have a spare guest room for us to wait in."

Soon became a day, two days, then almost a week. Rumple spent the first few days refining his calculations and putting the final touches on the scroll he had scribed for the undoing of the Dark Curse. But by the fourth day, he had nothing more to add to it.

Belle sat on the edge of the bed with Gideon, watching Rumple pace back and forth. "Why isn't she here yet? Do you think something's happened to them?"

"I don't know. We have to move on with the plan. The longer we wait, the more chances the king of the gods has to thwart us."

"What if Regina and the others are in trouble? Shouldn't we try to help them?"

Rumple shook his head. He ended his pacing at the writing desk and picked up his scroll. "They'll be brought to us when I cast the counter-spell."

"Along with everyone else in the realm." Belle winced at the inevitable chaos that lay ahead, despite all of Rumple's efforts to ameliorate the situation.

Back when he had worked on the original Dark Curse, he had written the part that granted them memories and identities to fit into a new realm. The details had been chosen by Regina, but the framework had been Rumple's. It was all part of his preparation for his search for Baelfire. Now he used that same magic to grant the victims of the curse knowledge of the truce he had brokered between the fey races on one side, and the humans and their allies on the other. It wouldn't force them into peace, but it would at least let them make an informed decision.

"What if they start fighting?" Belle couldn't help worrying.

"We can only hope that sanity prevails. And that elven mist-casting is as effective as they claim it is." He slapped the scroll back down on the desk. "Tomorrow. I'll cast the counter-curse at dawn."

Dawn found them up in the stone circle on the hilltop near the palace. Yvanne, Owlflower, and one of the ogres had joined them: Yvanne to represent the interests of the fey, Owlflower to watch over her kinswoman (so she claimed), and the ogre to bear witness for Shrike the Ancient. Belle and Gideon lurked with the others among the bare-branched trees that surrounded the standing stones. It was chilly, but nowhere as cold or windy as the land around the Dark Castle or the ogre capital.

Rumple crouched by the firepit in the center. A flick of his hand set a clutter of brush aflame. He took out the golden shears, then the Dark One dagger, then the scroll and the hairs they had collected from the goddess. He fed the latter into the fire, then the scroll. A thin ribbon of purple smoke rose from the fire. He used the shears to cut a slit in the air and the smoke vanished into the void thus exposed. Then he put down the shears and took the hilt of the dagger with both hands and pinned the smoky ribbon to the rim of the pit.

He muttered an incantation in elvish.

Nothing happened.

He repeated the incantation. The smoke thinned and darkened. Belle could feel the dark magic pressing in all around them, enough to make her ears throb, but it was no use.

Rumplestiltskin shook from the effort as he poured more and more of his energy into the spell.

Belle frowned. "Why isn't it working?"

"It's not from lack of power," murmured Owlflower from behind her. "He needs a link to the lost..."

Rumplestiltskin's eyes glazed over and his breathing became ragged. He looked to be on the brink of collapse.

Unable to bear it anymore, Belle called out, "Rumple, stop!"

He twitched and turned blankly towards her, but he didn't release his grip on the dagger or his spell.

"Rumple!" She ran to him and wrapped a hand around his. "Stop it."

He gasped, seeming to see her for the first time. "B-belle?"

She rocked back, releasing him. "'re only hurting yourself."

He stared at her in incomprehension. Then he raised a hand and roughly transported them back to their guest room, where he staggered backwards to drop onto tbe bed. He groaned, his face hidden behind his hands. "There was nothing. Nothing there. I couldn't... couldn't find them."

Belle picked up the dagger from where he had let it fall onto the covers and handed it back to him. "Owlflower says you need a 'link to the lost'."

"Link...? How could I?" Rumple dropped his hands to his lap and looked despairingly at her. "All their names are gone from this reality. None of them were remotely related to me."

She laid Gideon in his bassinet, then sat next to Rumple on the bed. "We'll think of something."

"It's no use." Rumple looked on the verge of either tears or a violent rampage against all the breakable items in the room.

Belle rubbed his back gently. "There must be a way."

They sat in silence. Despite her optimistic words, Belle couldn't think of anything that linked either of them to the lost souls.

After a few minutes, Rumplestiltskin was on his feet again, frustration driving him into restless motion. He raised a hand, bringing with it a coil of dark energy. "It's not enough. I'll never be... I'm not—" He turned to meet Belle's eyes for a moment, and she tensed, anticipating broken glass, but a motion from the bassinet caught his attention. Gideon fidgeted, gurgling softly. Rumple sighed and lowered his hand. "Not powerful enough. Not clever enough. Not brave enough. Not good enough... Never good enough..."

"Rumple, you tried. That's all anyone can do." She wished he could believe her, wished he could believe in himself, but she knew he would always be haunted by his losses. "That's life. You push it, it pushes back."

"And it goes on and on. Even if I reverse the Dark Curse, that only brings the Final Battle that much closer. It terrifies me," he admitted. "What if we lose? What if I can't save Gideon?"

"We haven't lost yet," Belle said with as much courage as she could manage. Then another thought occurred to her. "If it's any comfort, Zeus is just as terrified."

"What?" Looking startled more than comforted, Rumple was at least pulled temporarily out of his fear. "What do you mean?"

"Well, think about it." Belle smiled slightly as hope flickered back to life deep inside her. "He's afraid of this prophecy. And because of his fear, he made enemies of his family and drove away those who should have stood by him."

Rumple snorted in bitter amusement. "Ah. Yes, I know how that goes."

"Do you, indeed?"

"Well, I didn't have you to talk sense into me, back then. And later... you didn't know; I couldn't bear for you to know." He stared into the distance, as if looking into his memories. "If I could speak to my past self, would he have listened? Avoided all the mistakes, all the suffering that resulted from his bad choices?"

"If only it were that easy." She had mistakes enough of her own, reluctant though she had been to acknowledge them. And if one looked back farther... they each carried the weight of their parents' choices, too. Looking forward seemed no better, with the road ahead seeming to plunge over a deadly cliff. What was left? Where could hope survive? She said slowly, thinking about it, "I suppose the question is, what if your future self could speak to you now? What would he say?"

He met her gaze again, and this time she thought she could see the despair clearing from his eyes. "Belle... I don't know. But I wish..."

She held her breath, wondering. The way he was looking at her, as if he had finally seen past his own dark visions, shook her to the core. As if, despite everything, he dared hope for a future that might include her, and as more than a co-parent. As if he had confidence in his freedom to make such a choice. And she longed for that to be true, as much as she had ever wanted anything in her life.

"I wish I had the courage you deserve," he said at last. He crossed the room and reached tentatively for her hand. "My future self — he would tell me not to let go, not if we have any chance at all. Not to waste a moment of the time we have together, no matter when that time ends."

She clasped her fingers around his and pulled him closer. But before she could reply, Gideon woke up completely and a sharp pang of hunger hit her through her attunement cantrip. She grinned ruefully as their son began complaining noisily. "Don't take that as a vote of no confidence. He's just hungry."

Rumple huffed in surprise, thrown off by the interruption. "Ah. Right." He released her hand and backed away as she went to see to the baby.

A few minutes later, Belle had settled into a chair with Gideon in her arms. She saw Rumple watching her silently, and she began to feel self-conscious. Even though mother and child were by now well-experienced with the feeding process, it was still a bit messy, what with the leaking and the tiny fingers grabbing at her other breast.

It's not as if he's never seen you before, she told herself, and usually she liked the thought that he appreciated her appearance. Yet this felt different. He had an odd expression on his face, as if he really hadn't seen her before. Or as if he was seeing something else entirely.

"What?" she asked, mildly irked.

"Sorry." He blinked and shifted his gaze. "I was just thinking..."


"Neither you nor I have a link to those who were lost. But someone might." With a flourish, he whipped a scrap of black cloth out of thin air — his mother's cloak of shadows. "The last children she stole... their parents may still have been alive when the curse hit."

"The last children?" Then Belle realized what he meant. "Oh! They can summon their parents, just as your mother used you to summon her to Neverland."


"And... and since they were in your mother's realm, they won't have been affected by the Dark Curse. So they'll remember who their parents were!" Elation surged through her heart. "Rumple, that's brilliant!"

For a moment they grinned foolishly at each other.

Then Rumple dropped his gaze, running the cloth back and forth through his fingers. "Well. It will be, if it works."

It was a close thing. As it turned out, most of the Black Fairy's victims had been taken as newborns, and there was only one both old enough to remember parents and also born close enough to the first casting of the Dark Curse that those parents might still be alive. Rumple summoned the child, a girl about two years old, out of the cloak. He annointed her with his Neverland potion to stabilize her age while Belle held her hand and tried to reassure her.

It took patience, but eventually the girl stopped crying and gave her name as "Molly." Then she stuck her thumb in her mouth and stared anxiously at Belle and Rumple.

"Molly, we're going to help you find your Mama and Papa," Belle explained. "They'll take you home." If "home" still existed, but there was no use frightening the child with what-ifs. Molly looked confused enough already.

"There was a magic curse that took everyone away," said Rumple, "but it's ending now. That's what I need your help with."

Molly sucked harder on her thumb.

Rumple sighed.

"Don't be frightened." Belle led the girl to the bassinet. Molly stared down at Gideon, wide-eyed. "This is my baby. I'm his mama, but he was stolen away, just like you. I was so happy to find him again. Your family will be happy to find you, too."

Introduced as the baby's papa, Rumple seemed to frighten Molly a little less. He spoke to her in his best child-friendly tones. Eventually, Molly was persuaded to help them and given enough comprehension of what she was to do to satisfy Rumple. The Dark Curse was dangerous to meddle with, and a misstep could be deadly for a child.

"Don't let go of my hand," he warned her, right before he teleported the four of them back to the stone circle. The fire was still going, with Yvanne and the ogre sitting next to it. The ogre was chanting something in a low, droning rumble.

Molly screamed at the sight, dodging around to hide behind Rumple's legs.

Yvanne glanced up at the sound. She lifted a palm, and the ogre stopped. "I trust you had an enjoyable break. We certainly did. Redbrock was sharing an old Fomorian saga. Perhaps you'd like to hear it, too?"

"Maybe later," said Belle. She refused to let Yvanne get to her. If the elf was as superior as she pretended to be, she would have been more helpful with their Dark Curse research in the first place. "If there is a later."

"Indeed." Yvanne eyed Rumple critically. "You know, it's terribly dangerous to leave a spell hanging like that."

"I warded it," retorted Rumple. He looked down at Molly, who had grabbed hold of one of his legs and showed no signs of letting go.

"Passive defenses are weak defenses," Yvanne chided him.

"Then it's a good thing you were here to keep watch. Where's Owlflower?"

The ogre pointed a thumb at one of the trees. An owl perched on a branch right up against the trunk, almost invisible except for the two round eyes peering down at them.

"Ah." Rumple glanced at Belle, and she nodded.

"Give him some space." Belle moved a few steps back, gesturing at the elf and the ogre to follow her. Gideon continued sleeping soundly in her arms, undisturbed by the magic pervading the air.

After coaxing Molly into releasing his leg, Rumple crouched at the edge of the fire pit and positioned the child at his left with her hand in his. With his other hand, he ground the tip of the Dark One dagger into the stone edge. The ribbon of purple smoke curled up from it and into the void. "Call for your parents, Molly. Make a wish for them, do you understand?"

This time, with the child's plaintive calls added to his magic, Rumple's ribbon of smoke seemed to find its target. He reeled it back towards himself. The smoke widened, then billowed out in a rapidly-expanding cloud of purple.

"Mama! Papa!"

"Molly? Molly!" At first faint and distant, the answering cries from the smoke grew stronger. A figure stepped out of it, then another. A man and a woman, hands outstretched... Rumple released his grip on Molly. She dashed forward to meet the smoky pair. Before Belle could see them clearly, Rumple waved his left hand and all three of them vanished.


"They're safe," Rumple said. He shut his eyes in concentration. "There. I sent them home. I can sense the rest... so many of them, crowding behind..."

More ghostly figures appeared in the smoke only to vanish again. Then more and more, so many and so rapidly they were mere flickers of light and shade that were impossible to focus on. Then came one more solid than the others, one that stumbled out of the smoke and didn't vanish.

"Henry?" Belle was shocked to see blood on the boy's face and hand. She stepped forward to guide him out of the smoky cloud. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah...yeah, I'm fine," he said shakily. He looked around in bewilderment. "Grandpa Gold?"

"He's undoing the Curse. Don't—" she pulled Henry back. "It may take awhile."

"Is this the Enchanted Forest?" Henry asked. "Whoa, there's an ogre over there!"

"I know. He's a friend. Friendly. Or at least not unfriendly."

Then another figure stepped out from among the crowd of ghosts.

"Henry!" It was Regina. She collected her son, frowning at his blood-smeared hand. She pushed back his sleeve, revealing angry red marks running up his forearm. "I'm so sorry, baby."

"It's fine, Mom. I'll be fine. Don't fuss. What is this place?"

"It's a stone circle, an ancient place of power not far from my palace." Regina glanced at Rumplestiltskin, then at Belle. "So it was him all along. From the other side, it felt like the world was ending."

"Storybrooke, anyway." Belle had never been that strongly attached to the town, but Regina seemed to feel the loss more keenly. It had been her creation, after all. "But don't worry. At least this time you'll have Henry and Emma here, too."

"And the gods know how many ogres and elves and goblins." Regina eyed the two fey lurking in the woods. "Peace. I just hope it lasts."

"Ah, by the way, they've claimed your palace. Sorry," Belle said insincerely. In truth, she felt a petty satisfaction in knowing that the Evil Queen wouldn't be locking anyone up in her dungeons again.

"They what?" Regina looked outraged.

"Look, it hardly matters. Emma told me you guys now have a big magical castle in the Underworld. Besides, you got the Cauldron of Rebirth from the fey. You probably owe them for that."

"More like the cauldron got me," grumbled Regina. "And it always belonged to the Underworld. The fey just 'liberated' it."

"Well, you can take it up with Sir Yvanne. She's the 'Duke of the Reconciliation' nowadays, whatever that means." Belle gestured at the woods where the elf and the ogre stood watching them.

"Fine." Regina stalked off to meet Yvanne, with Henry trailing a step behind his mother.

Belle followed them with her eyes, but then another figure stepped out of the smoke and she had no more time for the Evil Queen. "Father!"

Maurice of Avonlea turned at the sound of her voice. He took three more shaky steps towards her and gripped her outstretched arm in greeting. "Belle!" Then his expression changed and his eyes darted towards Rumplestiltskin. "What has he done? Is this another curse? All these new memories... ogres? That beast has sold us all to the ogres!"

"No, no, it's nothing like that," Belle said hastily. "He's undoing the Dark Curse. We have to be fair to everyone, and that includes the fey."

"They're monsters!" Maurice started dragging her away from the stone circle. "Come on. This may be our only chance to get free. We'll find others, raise an army. We can fight—"

"Father, no. Please!" Belle dug in her heels, but without using magic, he was too strong for her. Instead, she twisted around, lifting Gideon in her other arm towards Maurice. "Rumple isn't some 'beast'. He's the father of your grandson! Look. You're a grandfather now..."

Maurice glanced down, reluctance written in the harsh lines of his mouth. But his fingers loosened on Belle's arm and he muttered at last, "The babe looks human enough. But that proves nothing. Anyone can look human."

"Anyone? You mean, like me?" She drew back and gestured at herself.

Maurice looked at her in shock. "What? You are human!"

"No. I know about Mother. I finally met her family, you see." Belle glanced down at Gideon. "And they're my son's family, too."

Maurice was stunned into silence.

"There's been so much violence already. We have to stop. All of us."

"But ogres," said Maurice heavily. He sounded almost sick at the thought. "Sweetheart, how can we ever have peace with such creatures?"

"We have to try. Please, for Gideon's sake." She offered her son up to his grandfather to hold, ignoring the voice that screamed at her not to let go of her child. If only Maurice could really see his grandchild, how could he not be moved by his own flesh and blood? It might take time, but she hoped he could come to accept them all as they were, fey or human, Dark One or mortal. And if her father could do it, so could other people. Would it be enough to make a difference?

Maurice sighed, reaching out tentatively towards his grandson. Gideon woke up, squirming in the clumsy, unfamiliar hold, but Belle helped her father adjust his grip and calm the infant.

Well, it was a start. Belle let out the breath she had been holding and glanced over to check Rumple's progress with the Dark Curse. The flickering shapes flowed unabated through the smoke, but the rate seemed to have slowed. As she watched, another group of solid figures emerged from it, crowding the hilltop as they stumbled away from the stone circle.

Belle recognized Prince Charming and Snow White, now again in their Enchanted Forest garb. Behind them came Captain Hook and Emma. The Blue Fairy fluttered overhead like some sparkling insect, wand in hand. Before Belle could say anything, Emma's searching gaze landed on Henry.

"Henry!" Emma started for her son, Hook by her side.

"Hey, guys! You finally made it over?" Henry turned, moving towards his other mother with a cheerful grin.

But Emma's expression was grim. "Henry, I need you to get away from her. Now."

"What?" Henry looked bewildered. "What's wrong?"

"That's not Regina. That's the Evil Queen."

"Yeah, she had us all fooled," Hook put in. "Now step away from her, lad."

"What? This is ridiculous!" Regina stared at Emma. "Emma, you know who I am."

Belle was just as confused. Was this some side-effect of the curse? She wanted to ask Rumple, but didn't dare break his concentration. She stepped closer to him, hoping that the undoing wouldn't take too much longer.

"Yeah. You're the woman who used dark magic to make us think..." Emma hesitated, then continued, "...think you're Regina, but you destroyed the real Regina and took her place." She glanced upwards. "Now, Blue!"

"That's not—" Regina began. Then the Blue Fairy swooped in overhead and aimed her wand at Henry, releasing a puff of fairy dust that settled over the boy's head and sank into his heart.

The reaction was immediate. Henry jerked away from Regina in horror. "I thought you were my mother! How could you?"


"No! I won't listen to any more of your lies." Henry let Emma draw him away.

"That's right, lad, you'll be safe with us," said Hook. He wiped at the blood on Henry's face. "We won't let her hurt you anymore."

No, this was wrong, hideously wrong. Belle turned back to the purple cloud. The flow was down to a trickle now, one shape every few seconds. Was it enough? She hissed at her husband, "Rumple!"

He didn't respond.

Meanwhile, Snow White was accusing Regina of all manner of crimes. "...conspiring with the Dark One and the fey to take over the Enchanted Forest. Well, we defeated you before, and we'll do it again. We won't stand for your tyranny."

"You're crazy. I have no desire to rule the Enchanted Forest. I have obligations elsewhere," Regina protested.

"Elsewhere? You sacrificed our daughter so that you could escape from hell, but she's not going back again. We'll find a way to free her!"

"Emma, you know this isn't true." Regina turned her pleas to the Savior.

"Then who were you talking to before we got here? Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny?"

Regina said through gritted teeth, "Yes, an ogre and an elf. Because we have to share this realm with them now. And if any of you lot have any sense, you won't start a damned war."

Whatever reply Emma meant to make was interrupted as Maurice stumbled into the group. "My daughter is under an evil spell, too!" Maurice, with Gideon still cradled in his arm, appealed to the heroes with the boldness of the desperate. "Please, you must free Belle."

"What? No!" Belle gaped at her father, appalled. "I'm not under a spell. There must be some misunderstanding here..." She lowered her voice. "Rumple, are you hearing any of this?" She touched his cheek.

His gaze focused briefly on her face and he murmured, "Just a few more to go."

On the other side of the hilltop, Maurice had cornered the Blue Fairy to plead for her intervention. Belle couldn't hear half of what she said, but Reul Ghorm seemed as evasive and unhelpful as ever. Belle was relieved not to have any spells sent in her direction. She just wanted Rumple to finish with the Dark Curse, then transport the three of them back to the Dark Castle, where they could figure out what had gone wrong in some semblance of peace and quiet.

Which was farther away than ever at this point, Belle thought in despair, watching as Prince Charming stepped out from the group, his sword drawn.

He advanced on Regina. "Look, we don't want to kill you, but we can't allow you to keep hurting people, either. So just go... back to the Underworld, wherever, just out of the Enchanted Forest. And keep your sick obsession away from my daughter!"

"Great. You've lost your mind, too?" Regina raised a hand, a fireball blazing between her fingers.

"Don't you dare." Emma joined her father, summoning her own magic in the form of blazing white light.

"You're really going to do this?" But Regina paused, the fire in her palm diminishing slightly. "Dammit, Emma. I'm not going to fight your father. Or you. I can't. I... I love you! Call it a 'sick obsession' if you want, but I do love you."

Emma wavered. "You what?"

"It's true. Please, you have to believe me."

"Lies." Emma's face hardened. "Tricks of the Evil Queen. I know what you're capable of."

"Yes, but—"

David lunged at her, cutting off her words. Regina threw the fireball, causing him to veer off, and she easily slipped out of the path of his blade.

"Fine. You win. For now." Regina waved her hand and vanished in a cloud of smoke.

A moment later, so did Yvanne and the ogre. Belle wanted to do the same. Instead, she straightened and headed towards her father. It was probably useless to try to talk to him any more today. She would just retrieve Gideon and bid him good day and hope for a more receptive hearing after Maurice had had a chance to think things over.

But instead of handing Gideon over to Belle, Maurice let Hook take the baby.

The plan must have already been arranged by then, because the pirate grabbed Gideon in one smooth motion and had his hook pressed against the infant throat. "Stay back, love."

"No!" Belle turned to her father, aghast. "Father, how could you?"

"You can't stay with the Dark One, Belle. He's betrayed us all again. But you can keep your son, just..." Maurice nodded to Hook.

"Just tell the Crocodile to hand over the Dark One dagger," said Hook.

"He's just a baby!" Belle started towards Hook, but she ran into a wall of magical force. She glanced up to find the Blue Fairy, wand in hand, looking triumphantly down at them.

"It's for the best. This is the only chance for your son to grow up free from the darkness, Belle."

Belle looked over at the other "heroes". They offered no objections to the pirate, and offered no sympathy to Belle, only a dash of pity and a trace of scorn. Then she met Rumple's eyes. Finally finished with his counter-spell, horror filled his face as he took in the situation.

"What'll it be? I'm betting you can't get through Blue's magic before I put this hook through his throat," Hook called out. "So if you don't want me to skin myself a baby crocodile today..."

All expression drained from Rumple's face, but Belle knew the rage and despair that he hid. He tossed the dagger to the ground, where it skidded to a stop a few yards away.

It was Maurice who moved forward to pick up the dagger. He read the name on the blade in disgust. "Rumplestiltskin. Stay away from my daughter. Don't move. Don't use any magic."

"My son..." begged Belle.

"Return him to his mother," ordered the Blue Fairy. Another wave of her wand dismissed her spell.

Numb, Belle extracted Gideon from Hook's grasp. Once she had secured her son, she would destroy  the pirate. Obliterate the fairy. Kill these heroes who stood by while her family was being torn apart. And as for her father...

But before Belle could act, the owl swept down from the trees and flew straight at her. Magic enveloped her, carrying mother and child elsewhere in the blink of an eye.

Chapter Text

"Let me go!" Belle fought her way free of Owlflower's magic, only to find the woman standing in front of her, blocking her way. Trees loomed all around them, far taller than the ones that grew on the hilltop.

"Wait." The eyes, once so cold, now blazed with urgency. "Don't. You'll start a war, a war you can't win, not like that."

"I have to try!" Belle tried to push Owlflower out of her way. "They took my husband."

"They took the Dark One's dagger. Are you ready to fight him when they command him against you?" Owlflower stood firm, anchoring both of them in place. "They have the Savior. Will you fight her, too? If you go now, it may be your final battle."

Or it may be only the beginning, if they see your name on the dagger. You can't bring the power of the Darkness against them without revealing yourself. What will they force you to, then?

Belle shuddered at the thought.

"And think of your child. Who will protect him if you fall?"

Belle opened her mouth, but no answer came out. As she stood there in the wintry forest, she felt suddenly weak and shaky. She backed into a tree and slumped against it with Gideon clutched in her arms. ", you're right."

Owlflower looked down at her in silence.

Belle sighed. "I suppose I should thank you. For getting me out of there. Why do you even care...?"

"You are my kinswoman." Owlflower's words sounded hollow, nearly bereft of meaning.

The voice of the darkness hissed in rage, 'Kin' is worth very little in this world. See how your own father treated you and your son...

Later. She would deal with her father later, Belle promised silently. Meanwhile, she couldn't afford to alienate a potential ally. Ally? Kinswoman?  "Why do you call me that? I mean, you're not... not an elf." Belle knew that a human face meant little when someone could use magic, but no fey could have cast any version of the Dark Curse. "They said you were the king's monster."

"That, too."

"Right." Belle took a deep breath. She had to figure out what had happened before she charged in blindly, and here was the original caster of the curse. "Will you come back with me to the Dark Castle? I think I need to hear your story."

"Very well."

But when Belle reached out magically, she found her senses confounded by the endless sea of trees in every direction. "Where are we?"

"Deep in the Infinite Forest," said Owlflower. "It holds a remnant of the enchantment that once concealed Misthaven."

"And it still hides the hollow hills of the fey." Had Owlflower meant to take her to the hall of the elven king? Belle shook her head. "Rumple found his way in and out. I can do this."

That proved easier said than done. Rumplestiltskin had the advantage of years of practice navigating the realm. In the end, Belle let Owlflower transport them away, with Belle herself as the key that passed them into the entrance chamber of the Dark Castle.

They were immediately accosted by two of the Merry Men. "Who... Lady Belle!" Mistaking the situation, they aimed their spears at Owlflower. "Release her!"

Owlflower flicked a hand, batting the spears away with a wave of magic. "I was invited here by my kinswoman."

Belle nodded. "It's all right. Owlflower is my guest."

The two Merry Men squinted suspiciously at Owlflower, but they pulled up their spears and stepped back. "Where's Rumplestiltskin? What's going on? We felt something change..." One tapped the side of his head. "Memories of things that never were. Is that the curse being broken, then?"

"Yes, he undid the curse. But... you... you don't think he's up to something nefarious? Plotting with... with the forces of darkness?" She searched their faces anxiously for signs of suspicion or hostility.

The Merry Men looked at each other, then back at Belle, and shrugged. "Well, he's the Dark One, isn't he? But he's done all right by us so far. They say he never breaks a deal."

Belle let out a breath in relief. "No. No, he doesn't."

Not bothering with the niceties of hospitality, Belle led Owlflower straight to the library. "So, not everyone is affected. Henry wasn't, until the Blue Fairy sprinkled fairy dust on him. And I'm not sure about my father — he's never trusted Rumple anyway. And the Blue Fairy... is she under the same spell? Or is she the cause of it? Did she do something to the Dark Curse?" Belle frowned at the books still stacked up on the tables from her previous research into the Dark Curse and picked one off the pile and flipped it open to a random, useless page. "We know it's possible. Zelena and Emma both managed to change things even when someone else cast the actual curse..."

Owlflower showed little interest in the books. She perched herself on one of the wooden chairs, sitting on the back with her feet in the seat, legs crossed and her hands clasped in her lap. "The Dark Curse tears open the weave of fate, both in the casting and in its undoing."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"That I doubt Rumplestiltskin wielded the full extent of its power, but someone else may have pushed for more. Whether it was Reul Ghorm or another, I don't know."

"Rumple wouldn't have allowed it." Belle knew how paranoid her husband was, how carefully he could plan out a piece of magic. With something as big as the Dark Curse, he would have noticed any interference.

He should have. But Rumplestiltskin is hardly all-powerful, is he?

Doubt crept into her thoughts. It wouldn't take much. Snow White and the others already thought of Rumplestiltskin and the Evil Queen as their enemies. A small nudge could set them into motion. To capture Rumple and banish the Evil Queen, exactly as they had done before. Under the Dark Curse, time became confused. Between now and then, then and now, history was easily repeated.

Belle sat down with Gideon across the table from Owlflower. "Blue used fairy dust. Not pixie dust, not dark fairy dust, not the sands of Avalon. So it had to be light magic, and light magic doesn't lie to people. Which means Henry... what does it mean? Is Regina actually the Evil Queen after all? If they thought Rumple was working with the Evil Queen, then naturally they'd think he was evil, too."

"Lies and truth aren't always clear-cut. The same person can look very different, depending on the direction of the light."

"Gods, now you sound like Rumple. 'It all depends on your point of view.' Maybe there's truth in that, but we need practical solutions here, not philosophy."

"Practical solutions. Well, tell me of this Evil Queen. I thought that was a name earned by Regina through her years of terrorizing the countryside. Why did everyone speak as if she was two separate people?"

"That's because for a while, she was." Belle explained about Jekyll's serum that split a person into two parts, and how Regina had eventually reassembled herself with the help of the Cauldron of Rebirth. "Or at least that's what she told us..."

"Have you reason to think she lied?"

"No, but Emma and her parents know Regina better than I do. If they think she's the Evil Queen..." And it was certainly something the Evil Queen was capable of. Even after she had been accepted among the heroes of Storybrooke, she had had no qualms about stealing Belle's heart and using her as leverage against Rumple. Belle hadn't even known of the theft until Rumple had returned her heart to her. It wasn't impossible that the Evil Queen was playing a long game here. "Maybe they're right."

"You trust Emma and her parents more than yourself?"

Belle opened her mouth to say she didn't, then closed it again. Did she? It was only reasonable to trust good people, but trust their judgement over her own? She couldn't, not if she wanted to save Rumple. Rumple had believed Regina. Or was he lying to her again? No. Not after everything they had been through. "They don't really trust me. And they certainly don't trust Rumple."

"So don't be too quick to judge. I was — once." Owlflower smiled thinly, a smile that bespoke pain too old to matter anymore.

"What... what happened? Was that when you cast your curse?"

"You said you wanted to hear my story. I'll give it to you. Then maybe you'll see better the limits of both love and darkness."

Owlflower's story began with a people at war, though the war was waged in secret and with weapons more subtle than swords and spears. The king suspected that the most powerful of those weapons might be love — a weapon that the humans possessed and the elves did not. He and his children went down countless paths to gain understanding of that strange power.

"The king... you mean my grandfather?"

"Yes. He studied changelings at first — humans raised among the elves. But always the secret eluded him. So at last he followed the path chosen by his own son..." Owlflower told Belle how the king had created a woman out of flowers, one human enough to love, and given her to his son to wed.

"That was you?" Belle didn't know if it was a better or worse deed than what her own mother had done in enchanting a human to be her husband.

Owlflower nodded. "But it wasn't the king's son that I loved..."

A stranger had come to her door while her husband was away, and found his way into her heart. "Goronwy was his name."

"What happened?"

True Love's Kiss had freed her from the spell that chained her mind, but she would never be free of her marriage until the prince was dead, never even have her own name. So she and the human Goronwy had conspired to kill the elven prince, and at the end of the year...

"You murdered my uncle?" Belle stared at Owlflower. She had always thought of her family as peaceful, even dull. But it seemed that half her relations were as violent in their passions and as free with dark magic as... as Regina's family.

"Oh, it gets worse." A shadow of regret flickered over Owlflower's face. "But yes. Goronwy held the spear, and I was the one who told him when to cast it. The king had protected his son with a genie's wish, that he could not be killed by day or night, inside or outside, riding or walking, on land or on water, clothed or naked..."

"Genie magic?" Belle winced. From all that she had read, genie wishes tended to backfire disastrously.

And that was the case with her uncle Lugh. Owlflower tricked him into revealing the loophole, and so he died at twilight at a riverbank with one foot on a goat, one foot on the rim of a bathtub inside a hut, clad in a fish net.

"But the king caught us. He called back his son's spirit into a form made of clay, and they made Goronwy take the same fatal blow in the same spot. He begged for a slab of stone to shield himself, but Lugh's spear went right through it. Then the king put me on trial and threw Goronwy's broken body before me. With his last breath, my true love pleaded for me to release him from his torment..."

Belle shuddered at the cruelty of it.

And if it was your son that was murdered? Would you leave Gideon unavenged?

Not by killing, she told herself, just as she had told Rumple not to kill Zelena after Neal's death. But her thoughts held little conviction. She herself had taken Zelena's heart and crushed it.

As Owlflower had done with Goronwy's heart — in the moment of her lover's death, she had cursed the king, condemning him to live to see all his children die.

"The Dark Curse..."

"Yes." Owlflower sighed. "So, you see, I was the one who killed your mother."

"The ogres..."

"May or may not have chanced upon her in any case, but my curse ensured that she would not survive the encounter."

Belle stared at her in horror.

"Ah, but your grandfather counted it worth the cost. He had made me for a purpose, and he achieved it in the Dark Curse, which he twisted to his own ends against the human folk of Misthaven."

Belle remembered the king she had met, the half-dead recluse drowning in shadow while his ambassador ruled his kingdom. Worth the cost? "Is that how the prophecies are supposed to be fulfilled? With darkness and death? I wanted a better path, and now look at us!"

"Yes, look! Out of darkness, you survived. And against all odds, found your true love in the Dark One and you have a child."

A child she had nearly lost again. She hugged Gideon close, her heart racing at the memory of the pirate's hook pressed into her son's throat. She would keep him safe, she vowed to herself. Trust no one.

But for now, she had little choice but to accept Owlflower's offer of assistance. Together, they searched through the library, trying to piece together a theory for what had happened.

A commotion at the gates drew Belle and Owlflower downstairs, where Mulan and the guards were holding Regina at spearpoint.

"Belle!" Regina's voice rang imperiously through the entrance hall. "Tell these fools I'm not the enemy."

Mulan glanced over at Belle, raising her eyebrows in question. "Isn't this the Evil Queen?"

"Well..." Belle equivocated.

Trust no one!

"Oh, for gods' sake, bookworm, don't tell me you believe that nonsense, too." Regina sounded exasperated, short-tempered, and worried in equal measure, but not evil. Belle had seen plenty of the woman in full 'Evil Queen' mode, and this wasn't it. "Look, you and Rumple traded away my castle. The least you can do is offer me your hospitality!"

Belle sighed. "Let her in, Mulan."

Mulan shrugged and waved away the guards. "Welcome to the Dark Castle, your majesty. You've missed lunch, but we can scrounge up something from the kitchen if you're hungry."

"Thank you." Regina frowned at Belle. "Where is your husband, anyway? Too busy to answer the door?"

Belle fought back tears. "He... they took him prisoner. They have the dagger."

Mulan gasped, her eyes flashing towards Belle, but she didn't say anything.

"Shit." Regina was not so restrained. "This just gets better and better. Come on, we need to talk..."

They sat down at the table in the great hall, with plates of bread and cheese for Regina, Belle, and Owlflower. Belle had little appetite, and sat with her chair pushed back, Gideon sleeping in her lap. Mulan posted herself next to Belle as a self-appointed bodyguard. Belle wasn't sure what the warrior could do against magic, but she was grateful for the moral support.

Regina waved a chunk of bread at Owlflower. "So who're you?"

"Owlflower. I am Belle's kinswoman." She inclined her head gracefully, then turned away from the group, apparently absorbed in a study of Rumple's collection of oddities and magical souvenirs, or at least the ones that remained on display along the walls even after all the upheavals the Dark Castle had endured.

"My... aunt," Belle decided. Besides being married to her uncle, Owlflower was the elven king's magical creation, and therefore in some sense his child. "On my mother's side."

Regina blinked. "Your mother? I had no idea she had any sisters."

"She was... estranged from her family."

"Ah. My felicitations on your reunion, then. But we have bigger problems on our plate right now. What happened to Rumple?"

Belle explained.

"I'm so sorry." Mulan hugged her gently. "We'll free him, I promise." She looked at Regina. "There must be some way to take this spell off of Snow White and her people."

"I'm not sure it's a spell, exactly." Regina grimaced. "Something like this happened when we went to see the Sea King..."

"Oh, you did find him, then?" said Belle.

"In a manner of speaking." Regina told them of Poseidon's sudden change of heart, and of how Ursula had rescued them, and what she had said. "So, right when the Dark Curse was being reversed, Henry was possessed again, and writing something on the wall in his own blood. I thought I had stopped him, but..." She shrugged helplessly.

"Zeus using the Author to rewrite the story again?" It fit. If reality itself had been changed, if the truth was wrenched away from them, then fairy dust could be used to reinforce the revised edition of reality. And it was likelier than someone getting past Rumple to meddle with the undoing of the Dark Curse.

Regina nodded. "And I don't know how to fight that, except that according to Ursula, Henry needs to use the black grail. So, where is it?"

"The black grail? I thought you had it!"

"I did. But it's been stolen. I thought perhaps Rumple might have brought it over when he was undoing the curse, but... well, I can hardly ask him about it now, can I?"

"No. I... I can check around the castle," Belle offered weakly.

"You do that. Meanwhile, I'll check out the lay of the land, see how people are coping with their new reality."

A new voice interrupted them. "Auntie Regina!"

"Roland?" Regina pushed back her chair and stood hastily to catch the boy in a hug as he rushed into the hall.

Dove, with baby Robyn, followed at a more measured pace. The transmogrified ogre took in the scene, then nodded. "Heard you were back." He looked at Belle, and added, "But not him."

"No," Belle said tightly. She swallowed, then got to her feet, re-balancing Gideon on her arm. "Regina, can you take Robyn for a moment? I need to talk to Dove."

The story didn't become any easier to bear on a second telling, but she hoped that Dove might have some insight that she had missed, or know of some contingency plan that Rumple had neglected to share with his wife.

He didn't.

Belle sighed. "Right. Well, what about the black grail?"

He didn't know where that was, either, but agreed to help her search for it.

The black grail was nowhere to be found in the Dark Castle, not even in Rumple's doorless vault. Plenty of other powerful magical artifacts were there, however, and Belle couldn't help but be tempted to use them. The fear that an unknown price might end up harming Gideon brought her to her senses just in time. She remembered how Neal had died; she couldn't let anything like that happen again.

Magic too dark and too dangerous  even for me, Rumple had once told her.

Besides, what she really needed to do was to get the dagger back, and none of the items in the vault seemed much use in that regard. With a twinge of regret, Belle transported herself back to her room and put the vault out of her mind.

There was one item that could help her, she realized. She found it in one of Rumple's locked cabinets.

His crystal ball.

Regina returned after two days of scouting out the newly restored realm. She reported confusion on a mass scale.

"The people are restless," she said. Thousands of displaced families needed to find new homes. The remaining villages were on edge, especially the ones on the border with the reclaimed fey lands. "The hotheaded idiots among them are raising militias, but so far, they just get lost in the mist and wander in circles without ever engaging in combat. So it looks like the elves are covering for the ogres now."

Belle and Owlflower exchanged a glance. "Then the deal is holding. Good. My news isn't as good, I'm afraid."

She had still found no sign of the black grail. As for refugees, a few strays had found their way to the Dark Castle, including a few of the Merry Men who were forgotten in the curse.

"Poachers and bandits," muttered Regina, whose opinion of the Merry Men had apparently not changed much despite her brief affair with their leader.

"We don't allow thieving here, and as for poaching, they manage their own hunting rights," Belle reproved the erstwhile Evil Queen. "Oddly enough, people can manage to share game equitably without over-hunting when they have a stake in the land."

People are selfish. They share because they must, and only cooperate in the face of a greater threat...

"That's great, but what about the rest of the Enchanted Forest?" Regina said, oblivious to the dark thoughts that plagued Belle. "Rumor has it that the Charmings have asked the Blue Fairy for magical assistance in driving out the fey, just as they once defeated the Evil Queen."

"A fine thought, but your people only won a foothold on this land because we were at war. This time, the fey are united and forewarned," said Owlflower. "Consider the ogre wars, then imagine battles ten times worse..."

"You're fey?" Regina blinked at Owlflower, then glanced at Belle curiously. Then she shook her head. "It doesn't matter. We need to go to the top and stop the madness before they start another war."

"And how will you do that? They'll try to capture or kill you," said Belle. "They're convinced you're the Evil Queen again."

"Only because they're affected by some alternate reality. You know, it's not that difficult to sway Snow White and Prince Charming. They only have one heart between them, which makes them more susceptible to these things." Regina paused, a small smile forming on her lips. "But keeping the Savior under... that's not so easy. I'm sure I can get through to her."

Wishful thinking. Blind optimism will only get you all killed. Besides, what if this is a trick and Regina turns on you? She's closer to them than she is to you... what if they got at her while she was away?

"Yeah, good luck with that," said Belle. "I tried it with Rumple when Zelena had the dagger. I failed both times."

Regina scowled. "Maybe you just lost your nerve!"

"Or I've learned from my experiences." Belle didn't voice her other fear, and tried to keep the distrust out of her voice. "We can't just go charging in, Regina."

"We can't hide here forever, either. I don't have much time in the upper world. I can't afford to waste any of it."

"It's too risky."

"What's wrong with you? I thought you'd be eager to save your Rumple!" Regina gestured, conjuring a mirror to her hand. She angled it to show Belle as an image took shape within the glass. "Look. There he is."

Belle bit her lip. She had already seen him in the crystal ball, but it hurt every time, seeing him imprisoned in his specially made cell in the dwarf mines, the one with the jagged bars like fangs and bare stone walls and floor. The mirror showed Rumplestiltskin hunched miserably in a corner, his features lost in the shadows. The only light came from torches set in the corridor outside the cell. Belle forced herself to look away.

"So will you help me or not?" demanded Regina, dismissing the mirror with another wave of her hand.

She wanted to. She did.

It's too dangerous. You can't risk Gideon! This is the only place where you can keep him safe.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "Not now. Not without a better plan."

In the end, Regina left, as alone as she had arrived. "I thought you had a bit of spirit, but I guess I was wrong. Fine. I'll do what has to be done."

"Did I make a mistake?" Belle asked Mulan afterwards, Regina's contemptuous words still echoing in her ears. "Should we have gone with her?"

"You made your decision. Whether it's good or bad, we'll have to deal with the consequences."

Chapter Text

Events unfolded with a sickening familiarity. Once again, Rumplestiltskin was taken to the dwarf mines, where a cell had been especially enchanted to hold him. The cell was bare, with not even moisture clinging to the stone walls. Emma and the others had made a thorough search, ensuring that there was nothing secreted away that might aid the prisoner. This time, he had no escape, not that squid ink could help him as long as they held the dagger and commanded him to stay.

He kept himself still, wiping any betraying thought from his face, but his mind was lost in fear and helpless rage.

Weak fool, snarled the voice of the darkness. Stupid coward. You threw away your own freedom, and for what? Do you think they truly dared harm your son? If Gideon had died, you could have washed his corpse in their blood, and they knew that. But now... now you can do nothing, and his fate is out of your hands.

He wanted to flee from that voice, to descend into the dark corners of his soul where he wouldn't have to feel anything anymore, but he forced himself to anchor himself to the moment. For his son's sake, for Belle's sake. He had to stay alert. In case there was any chance...

But not now. Not when his own name glittered at him from an enemy's hand.

Snow and David smiled with satisfaction that the trap was complete, but Maurice looked less sanguine, sweat glistening on his face as he clutched the hilt of the dagger. He waved the blade at Rumplestiltskin to force him behind the stone bars. "Inside! And stay there..." He turned anxious eyes back at the other heroes gathered with him. "What if my daughter sneaks in here somehow? What if he poisons her mind? Or tricks someone else into helping him escape?"

The Blue Fairy, hovering above the group, advised him, "You may command him otherwise, not to use magic or to engage in communication of any kind."

"Right." Maurice repeated the commands.

Rumplestiltskin felt the words sink in, binding him more tightly than a hand around his heart. He spat curses at his captors, but nothing reached his lips. He had not even that much ability to resist.

From the side, Hook moved in and pulled the lever to lock the cell. The gate slammed shut with an ominous clank, and Maurice flinched, taking a step back.

David clapped Maurice's shoulder in reassurance. "Don't worry. There's no loopholes this time. He's safe."

"Safe?" mumbled Maurice uneasily. He twisted the dagger around in his hands and stared at Rumplestiltskin.

The Blue Fairy waved her wand. Rumplestiltskin could feel the magic settling around him, reinforcing the wards on the prison. "Yes. No one, not even the Dark One, can open this cell from the inside. And without my leave, no one can get into this corridor to attempt anything so foolish."

"Good. That's good." Maurice turned towards the Blue Fairy and proffered the dagger. "Ah, then maybe you should be the one to keep this, your reverence."

The Blue Fairy grimaced delicately, shaking her head. "It does not befit a fairy to handle an artifact of such darkness..."

Lies! She's lying!

Rumplestiltskin looked at the fairy. Afraid. She was afraid. He laughed bitterly, but his amusement was trapped inside his head. Not that her fear made any difference.

The pirate stepped up eagerly enough, taking the dagger from Maurice. "I can keep it safe. I know the Crocodile and his tricks better than anyone."

David shot him a skeptical look. "But that much dark power — are you sure you can handle it?"

"He sacrificed himself to defeat the darkness," said Emma, her arm wrapped possessively around Hook. "He won't fall to it again."

Rumplestiltskin snorted mentally. What touching confidence. What had they done to the Savior? A faint aura of fairy magic still clung to the heroes, most strongly around the pirate, but they seemed oblivious.

"If you're sure, Emma," said Snow. "You remember what happened last time..."

Emma touched the blade, her eyes going distant for a moment. Whatever had affected them had not changed their memories, only their perceptions of them. "It... it is a burden. Killian, maybe I should be the one to do this."

Hook scoffed. "Bloody hell, Swan. You're the Savior; you've already done so much for everyone. This is something I can do, so let me do my part."

"All right." Emma gave the pirate an admiring smile. "You're a good man, Killian." She pulled him into an embrace and kissed him, and the pirate returned the gesture with eager passion.

Snow coughed, then said brightly, "So, that's settled. Come on! Let's see what kind of state the castle is in. Baby Neal is getting restless." Snow had been carrying her son, but her arms were no doubt tired from the weight.

David nodded. He glanced at Rumplestiltskin. "Magic or no magic, I don't think we should leave the Dark One completely unattended. I'll see about organizing our people now that they've returned. But in the meantime..."

"I'll keep an eye on him for now." Hook detached himself from Emma. "You go with your parents, love."

"All right. Be careful, Killian." Emma lingered for a moment, her brows furrowed in concern. "And be discreet. We have enough problems without greedy idiots trying to steal the Dark One's dagger from you."

Discreet? Well, Hook did have a streak of self-preservation. When he wasn't provoking Rumplestiltskin.

You should have killed him long ago.

But he hadn't. In a way, he took the pirate's continued survival as a sign of his own sanity. The one time he had almost killed Hook in cold blood was also the time he had fallen hardest over the edge into darkness. As she had so many times before, Belle had pulled him back. And each time, Hook showed his gratitude by finding some new way to hurt them...

And here he was now, swaggering up to the bars, gloating over his victory. "Well, Crocodile, it's just you and me now." He waved the dagger, summoning Rumplestiltskin to him.

No communication of any kind... Forced into silence, into utter blankness, Rumplestiltskin let the pirate's hook twist into his coat and drag him to the edge of his cell.

The pirate sneered, pressing the dagger up against his ribs. "I should kill you..."

Rumplestiltskin watched his face, knowing Hook was tempted. Was this the end?

"I could take all your power and watch you die as the sniveling coward you've always been."

Rumplestiltskin didn't even breathe. Nothing. He could do nothing.

Then Hook let the dagger drop away. He hissed, "But I won't. I don't need your power. Only a weak man clings to magic. I'll walk away from here and have my happy ending, and you'll stay here and rot."

The pirate freed his hook from Rumplestiltskin's coat and shoved him roughly away. Rumplestiltskin gasped, staggering back a few steps before recovering his balance, steadying himself with a hand thrown out against the wall. A few moments later, the door at the end of the dim corridor slammed shut. There was a guard post up the stairs on the other side. Snow White's guards had insisted on that much of a buffer between themselves and the dreaded Dark One.

This time they had complete control over him. A weapon they could unleash at any time. The nuclear option. Only to be used for good and light, of course. Kept out of sight and out of mind until then.

Stay here and rot. Rumplestiltskin slid down to the floor, wrapping his arms around himself and feeling sick.

Pathetic. Useless. Better to have died in Neverland than to be reduced to this...

He had a visitor.

Time had lost its meaning in the perpetual darkness of his cell. Knowing now that the Dark One was immortal, no one bothered to feed him, not even the worm-laced gruel of his first imprisonment. Perhaps it was a mercy — his skin crawled at the memory of Zelena forcing him to eat. But without recourse to magic, hunger crept up on him, consumed his thoughts, and ground away at his already-fragile grip on reality.

It would be easy, so easy, to slip away from this nightmare. Let the Darkness look through his eyes, let it giggle and bide its time — its time always came, and then it would slip its leash, in this body or the next...

No. Rumplestiltskin forced himself to stay. He was Rumplestiltskin, not the reason-less monster clawing at its cage. If a chance came, he needed to be awake and ready to act. No chances appeared; only Hook. Apparently assigned long-term guardianship over the prisoner, the pirate showed up at random times to gloat.

This time, it wasn't Hook.

Regina. The name never made it out of his mouth. (No communication...) He didn't ask how she had found her way in. Regina could be clever when she had to be, given time and motivation. The Blue Fairy was powerful in this realm, but a passive defense was still only a passive defense. He lifted his head, but didn't get up from the floor.

Regina gestured, sending light into the cell, and found him cowering in the corner. "Gold!"

He winced at the brightness, shielding his eyes with an arm.

Regina frowned. "You look terrible." She let the light fade, mercifully. "Never mind. I need your help."

He didn't respond. He couldn't.

"Look, who has your dagger? I'll get it back for you."

He lowered his arm and stared at her, the name Killian Jones trapped behind his teeth. The name swam away from him, and everything blurred.

"Damn it, Gold." Regina's voice dragged him back into the moment. "Just tell me."

He couldn't. Stupid, stupid Evil Queen. Couldn't she see that he was trapped, stuck, tongue-tied, de-fanged, useless... Stay here and rot.

"Is it the Blue Fairy?"

No. His face remained blank. Not a quiver, not a twitch. And he could muster no more reaction than that, as Regina rattled off a succession of names one after the other. None of them were the ones he wanted to ask about.

"Can you say anything at all?" Regina conjured a paper and a pen. "Can you write? Draw? Gesture?"

A game of charades? He wanted to laugh. Cry. Scream in rage and tear her open and dine on her entrails and...

"Oh, this is getting us nowhere," Regina snapped in frustration. "You're as useless as your wife."

Belle! Where was she? Was she all right? Was Gideon all right? He wanted to grab Regina and throttle the answers out of her, but his questions rattled uselessly inside his own mind.

Regina seemed to take pity on him. "She's holed up in your castle with your son. She seems to think she'll find an answer in the library, but books are the problem this time. Henry's book. Your grandson. He's being used by the gods..."

She had found something out, clearly. He couldn't ask.

"We need the black grail, Rumple. Where is it?"

He didn't know, and he couldn't answer if he did. The black grail? He wished now that he had examined it more carefully back when he had the chance. It was far more dangerous and powerful than he had realized. He couldn't warn Regina.

She glared at him, impatient with his continued silence. "Damn it. Why did you have to let them take your dagger?"

Because you're a sentimental fool, hissed the Darkness. You'll always be weak...

Regina sighed. "So much for the all-powerful Dark One. Enjoy your cell, Gold." She waved a hand and vanished in a cloud of smoke.

Rumplestiltskin dropped his head again, eyes half-closed and staring at nothing. Regina. If she was careful, if she was lucky... He tried not to hope. Hope could destroy him.

Hope died at the sound of the door creaking open at the end of the corridor — Hook. This time, it was more than a visit. Dagger in hand, the pirate opened the bars and forced Rumplestiltskin to heel. "Get up. Pull yourself together."

He complied, hating himself for his obedience.

"The Evil Queen," said Hook softly. "I knew she wouldn't be able to resist." He prodded Rumplestiltskin's chest with the point of the dagger. "The magic-suppressing cuffs. You still have one? Give it to me."

Wordlessly, Rumplestiltskin conjured the gold-threaded cuff and handed it over to Hook. It was one of his own creation, based on the design invented by Peter Pan.

Hook grinned and tested it on Rumplestiltskin, then took it back. "She's gone to talk to Emma. Let's keep that conversation short. Take us there and make sure we're not spotted."

Rumplestiltskin had no choice but to obey. He cast an obfuscation charm over the two of them, then transported themselves upstairs to where he guessed Emma was most likely to be staying.

Hook nodded in satisfaction as they materialized in a hallway. "This way."

Rumplestiltskin moved as slowly as the dagger permitted. Even after Hook slipped it back under his coat, the commands continued to bind him. He couldn't attack or resist, but given time, perhaps Regina would be able to break through whatever story held the Savior in its thrall. My happy ending. He remembered the smug gleam in the pirate's eyes as he boasted of his triumph — the same pirate who had been resurrected by Zeus himself, that was.

Blessed by the gods, a blessing that continued in granting Hook perfect timing as he burst through the doorway into Emma's rooms and clapped the anti-magic cuff around Regina's wrist before she even noticed their presence.

"Killian?" Emma stared at them in shock. Then her expression hardened and she stepped back from Regina. "Did you really think I'd fall for that crap? After what you pulled?"

"Emma, no!" Regina twisted around, yanking uselessly at the cuff. Her eyes fell on Rumplestiltskin, damning him silently for his betrayal before turning back to appeal to the Savior, "None of this is the real you. Deep inside, you must know that. You know me!"

"Yes. I've met your victims, and I'm not going to be one of them," Emma spat.

"You won't, Swan," Hook put in. He grabbed Regina by the arm and forced her towards the door. "Come on, your majesty. Your little reign of terror is over."

They wouldn't kill her, thought Rumplestiltskin. Even if they thought Regina commanded armies of ogres, she was still considered part of their family, and Snow White was squeamish about executing family members.

The Dark One would never be family, not as long as the Blue Fairy was their patron and protector. He was sent back to his cell where they wouldn't have to think about him until they needed to use him again.

Stay here and rot.

Chapter Text

Cages, always cages...

In sleep, she endured an endless succession of prisons, opening door after door only to find herself trapped again. The dungeon in the Dark Castle gave way to the bone-jarring cart where she was held inside iron bars. The gate clanked open, iron melting into the cold stone walls of the queen's tower, then faded into the dull white of the asylum cell under Storybrooke's hospital.

The door opened, and she ran to the pawnbroker's shop. The bells tinkled, the world shifted, light dimmed — she was in the monster's cell in the mines. The bars grinned at her, a stone maw sporting a line of uneven teeth, and she threw herself at them. Stone dissolved into metal wire, all right angles and gleaming forbiddance.

Never be free...

Darkness closed in all around her, always too cold, stifling her thoughts. She was alone, lost, hungry. And then she wasn't alone, and that was worse. A voice spoke, far too intimately, into her ears. Hands touched her, too close, and she couldn't even flinch away.

Be still, doll.

She couldn't breathe. Her heart thudded painfully. Horror, fear, and inexplicable grief paralyzed her. Over. Let it be over...

She woke in cold shock, to darkness and hunger. Alone — to her inexpressible relief. Alone, with her chin itching. She touched stubble...

It's not my dream...

And woke up again, tears in her eyes and a lump in her throat. It was a long moment before she realized what had woken her — Gideon was crying. Dazed, she lurched over to pick him up. As she took care of her son, Belle wondered if he had shared the same dream. They had met in the dream world before, the three of them. Some of the memories were hers, but others must have been Rumple's, or even Gideon's. She shuddered, belatedly recognizing Zelena in the malignant voice that still haunted Rumple's nightmares. It was early morning, and instead of going back to sleep, Belle went to make herself breakfast.

Mulan joined her in the hall. "Belle! You're up early."

Belle nodded dully, picking at a bowl of porridge while Gideon slept snugly in her lap. "Bad dreams."

"Ah. That's understandable. Try not to dwell on it."

Belle sighed. "I can't seem to shake it. That feeling of being trapped. One prison to another... and the worst cage is the one I can't see."

"What do you mean?"

"I wanted to decide my own fate, but it seems that no matter what I decide, things always go wrong. Rumple's been imprisoned, and I don't know how to free him. And if I do, what if the Final Battle takes him away again? Fate never seems to leave us in peace..."

"Oh, well, fate." Mulan shook her head, drumming her fingers on the table. "It's no use worrying about fate. Fate is tricky. In my country, we call that 'Old Man Sai's lost horse.'"

"Huh?" Startled out of her dark mood by curiosity, Belle couldn't help asking, "What's the story behind that one?"

"I thought you knew all the stories," Mulan teased her. "Read all the books."

"Not that one," Belle admitted, smiling reluctantly. She knew her friend was just trying to cheer her up, but she was warmed by the thought. "So tell me, please."

"It goes something like this: Old Man Sai lived in a village on the northern frontier with the barbarians. One day his horse ran away across the border, but when his neighbors came to commiserate on his misfortune, he only shook his head and said, 'Perhaps. Let's see what happens...'"

"So what happened?"

"A bit later, his horse came back, bringing another horse with him. This time, his neighbors came to congratulate Old Man Sai on his luck. He only shook his head again and said, 'Perhaps. Let's see what happens...'"

What happened, as Mulan told it, was that the old man's son went riding on the new horse, only to be thrown off, his legs broken. The son cursed his bad luck, but again his father took it all in stride. As it happened, war broke out and the villagers were drafted to fight, with nine out of ten dying as a result. Only the old and the crippled were spared from the draft, and so father and son survived to see peace again...

Mulan finished the tale and squeezed Belle's hand. "So you see, no matter what happens, don't lose hope. Unexpected good can come out of bad."

"And bad can come out of good," Belle pointed out.

"Also true. So, me, I just take it one day at a time. In my profession, one never knows what the next day will bring."

"I suppose my life was a bit like your story," Belle said. "I mean, the way I met Rumple in the first place, and everything that happened after that..."

A few hours later, Belle found herself in the library telling her life story to Owlflower, who was back at the Dark Castle again. She had been flitting in and out in owl shape for the past week. Today she claimed the most comfortable armchair in the tower and decided that it was time she became better acquainted with her niece. It was only fair, thought Belle, since Owlflower had freely divulged her own history already. And after days of her own thoughts going round and round in circles, Belle hoped for new insight from her kinswoman.

She talked about her childhood, then the coming of the ogres and the war. She explained her reluctant engagement to Gaston, nullified by her deal with Rumplestiltskin to save her people, and everything that had followed from that.

"You're young," Owlflower said at last, "to have lived through so much. But then, I was even younger when I was married off to a king's son. You were fortunate in breaking off your engagement and choosing your own way."

"Not that it ended any better for my prospective husband," Belle admitted guiltily. "Rumple killed Gaston, and then I... I ended up pushing his shade into the River of Souls."

"Upholding the family tradition, I see," said Owlflower, her tone more sad than mocking.

Belle grimaced. "I wanted to save his soul!"

"Is that what he wanted?"

"Well, no. He just wanted to kill Rumple."

Owlflower nodded. "No one ever asked me what I wanted, until I met Goronwy. Things... things like this never work if they're one- sided. Not in the long run."

And if it was true for Owlflower, and true for Gaston, then it was just as true for Belle herself and Rumple. And everyone else. 'Things like this' — that could encompass anything up to and including the destiny of their entire world. "The stories, the prophecies... who decided those? The gods? Fate? Who's been asked?"

"The fey have," said Owlflower. "This time. It was not only your grandfather's decision, or Shrike the Ancient's. As Ambassador, Sir Yvanne was not idle. She knows the will of her people. As for the fairies, I think we know where they stand. It is only your mass of chaotic, unruly humans that is in question."

"Does it count as deciding if someone throws fairy dust on you?"

"Ask the fairies, and they would say it's only revealing the true nature of things."

"Light magic." Belle remembered their earlier discussion. "The Blue Fairy says she only uses light magic. She turned Archie — Jiminy — into a cricket, but when Rumple turns someone into a snail, that's dark magic, because it was done against their will. But what about all the fey that Blue turned into animals?"

Owlflower shrugged. "That transformation was never broken, so perhaps there was a true decision in it, however deeply hidden."

"The Blue Fairy..." Belle thought about everything she knew about Reul Ghorm. "Maybe she's like Circe, who saw the beast in every man. The fey were at war. That was what Dove said. A terrible, devastating war..."

"War makes beasts of us all," Owlflower agreed. "Perhaps even the peace enforced by such a transformation came as a relief."

"So you think, this time, this rewritten story — maybe it's true because they've somehow chosen it?"

"Or because they believe in it."

"A matter of belief..." Belle took out the crystal ball, contemplated it without activating its magic. "Is that why I can't see them anymore? I can find Rumple in here, and I can find my father, but not the others... Snow White, Prince Charming, Henry, Emma, even Regina." She had not dared to seek out Blue, fearing detection. "It's as if they're no longer in the world."

"Not in your world," said Owlflower. "And you are not tied to them by blood to follow them into theirs."

"Blood. Wait — Henry's blood! He was writing with it." Belle was chilled by the thought. "Last time reality was rewritten, the ink was made from the darkness of the Savior. What kind of ink does the blood of the Truest Believer make? That must be why he was chosen. If he believes in the gods' prophecy..."

"Then we must stop him before we find our stories written over and our reality undone."

"Regina said the black grail could be used to free him, but I can't find it anywhere." Belle scowled at the crystal ball, which remained stubbornly blank no matter what spell she used to try to divine the location of the black grail. "Do you think it's still in the Land Without Magic?"

"I couldn't say. I only know that it's never passed through the hollow hills of the fey."

"Well, there must be something we can do." She sighed in frustration, feeling that if only she pulled on the right thread, she could unravel this web of fate that had them all trapped. Rumplestiltskin was imprisoned. The black grail was missing. All the heroes were caught in a nightmarish version of reality, one that had no place for Dark Ones or fey.

"There's always something. If you permit me the use of your workshops, I have some skill in potioncraft," said Owlflower. There wasn't a potion she could use to locate an artifact she had no link to, but Owlflower had others in her repertoire of general utility: spells for healing, stealth, protection, true sight, and so on.

"Are you suggesting a secret raid on Snow White's castle?" Belle sat upright in horror as the implications of Owlflower's list sank in. "Because I already said no to Regina. I mean, look what happened to her... oh, we can't! Because we can't even see!"

She means to betray you! Where has she been these past few days, if not to sell you out to the Blue Fairy? She cursed your family. Do you really believe she wants to help you?

"Peace. I said no such thing." Owlflower stepped back, holding up her hands in a conciliatory fashion. "Was it not I who advised you against starting a war? I only make preparation in case war comes to us."

Belle stared suspiciously at her kinswoman. She took a deep breath, trying to think rationally. She found no trace of deception in Owlflower's stance. She forced away her mistrust. "...ok." She eased back slowly. "Fine. Go make your potions."

After Owlflower left, Belle felt more useless than ever, and dark thoughts continued to roil inside her.

You're no hero, never have been. War will come, even if you don't start it. Let them fight. Stay safe, and when it's over, you can walk out of here, the strongest remaining player on the battlefield.

But if it came to open war between the fey and the humans, they would use every weapon they possessed — including Rumple. She had to stop them.

You can't. And Rumplestiltskin wouldn't want you to risk yourself or his son — are you going to throw away the sacrifice he made? Be patient. When the time comes, the hand that holds the dagger will have to show itself, and then you will have your chance to save both of you...

The darkness sounded so reasonable, so right, that the last nagging sense of wrongness faded from her mind. She was so tired of this, tired of being helpless, that she grasped at the chance of a way out. Wait. She would wait, and she would see. (How many people would die in such a war?) She refused to think about it. (There was nothing she could do about it.)

She tried to read one of Rumple's spellbooks, but she couldn't concentrate. (People will die...) She gave up at last, and headed back to her chambers with Gideon.

She was met in the corridor by one of the newly returned members of the Merry Band. Poacher, she thought wryly, echoing Regina's assessment. Belle tried to remember the name — Katrine, that was it. Before she could call out a greeting, Katrine raised her bow and sent an arrow speeding straight at her chest.

Tsshrrr... The castle's magic deflected the arrow, sending it thudding into the wall behind Belle. Belle frantically summoned a shield of protection, twisting aside to keep Gideon covered. Another arrow followed, and another, too rapidly for the eye to see. They hit her spell and exploded in light.

She was a doe fleeing through the forest, only faintly aware of her child struggling to keep up behind her. She leaped in zig-zags over the brush, glimpsing her pursuers out of the corner of her eye... a hunter, a pack of hounds, their voices avid for blood...

Belle gasped, groping blindly for the wall that she knew must be there. The Dark Castle. This is the Dark Castle and I am no deer... She gathered magical energy and shoved it violently at the source of the arrows.

It won her only a brief respite.

Another arrow whistled past her ear, and she still saw trees all around her. Dogs. She heard dogs.

Then the ground shuddered and the walls blazed red in her mind's eye. Spells burst into life in a chain reaction, drowning the mad cries of the hounds and washing the archer away. The forest turned pale and empty.

"Belle!" Owlflower's voice drew Belle out of the fading illusion.

"..." Words eluded her, but Belle's vision cleared enough to give her a blurry image of the corridor, and Owlflower's pale face swimming before her. She gripped her son tightly, feeling his racing heartbeat in her own chest through her link with him. But he was alive, he wasn't hurt.

"Belle? Owlflower?" A new voice called out to them. Mulan. "What happened?"

"She was attacked," said Owlflower. "By something powerful enough that all the spell-traps in these walls were discharged, and still barely drove that attacker away."

"Artemis," whispered Belle. She rubbed her throat, easing the sting as the power of speech returned to her. Then she blinked at Mulan. The warrior stood before them, sword drawn, feet apart in a battle stance. "She took...took Katrine's form."

"Katrine is dead." Mulan lowered the sword. "That's what I came to tell you."

Dead with an arrow through her heart, along with another of the Merry Band who had stood on duty at the gate that hour. Belle looked down at the bodies, appalled.

"The door was open when I found them," Mulan said grimly.

The intruder hadn't teleported in. They found tracks in the snow all the way down the mountain. Owlflower followed them as far as the road away from the village, then flew back to report her findings to the others, who had gathered for a conference in the great hall.

"She was hunting me." Or Gideon. Belle hadn't let him out of her arms since the attack in the corridor. "She killed everyone who was in her way to get to me. Oh gods, they died because of me..."

"It's not your fault," said Mulan.

"But they're dead because I was here." Belle found herself shaking uncontrollably. "And they're here because we broke the Dark Curse. Otherwise they'd still be safe—"

"Safe, but forgotten," Owlflower reminded her. "Immortal in oblivion. Here in the Dark Castle, they had their lives back."

"Lives they lost, protecting me." Belle had wanted to help people, not lead them to their deaths.

Mulan squeezed her shoulder. "It's our duty to protect the castle. We would do the same for any of us."

"Aye, my lady," agreed Little John. "We all have enemies, and our freedom has never come without a price."

"But enemies this dangerous... we brought them, Rumple and I." And if Artemis returned, Belle had even less chance now than before. It had taken Rumplestiltskin years to set up all the magical traps in his castle, and Belle didn't even know how to recharge most of them.

"That's as may be, but it's no use fretting about it," said Little John. "Now look you, you're dead on your feet, my lady. The huntress is gone — licking her wounds, I'll warrant. You get some food and rest, and see if things don't look better on a full stomach!"

Belle agreed, humoring him. At first, her mind spun endlessly in anxious loops of regret, guilt, and fear. Then—

"No. No, wait." She jumped to her feet abruptly and paced, all her nervous energy focusing on a single insight. "If Zeus sent Artemis to kill us, then that means he thinks we're still a threat. Which means..."

"I have to leave," she told Mulan and Owlflower. They protested, but she overrode them with her new conviction. "There is something I can do. This attack proves it. I just have to live long enough to figure out what it is, but I can't put everyone else in danger while I think about it."

"Where will you go?" asked Owlflower. "Your grandfather—"

"No." Belle knew he had powerful magic, but the thought of living in those shadowed halls frightened her on a visceral level. It was a way of hiding so thoroughly that she would lose herself. And besides... "It would only bring the enemy to his house, and I don't want to do that."

"Then I'll go with you," said Mulan.

"No. You two have to stay here. You have to protect all these people."

"Yes, but what about you? You'll be alone with a baby. It'll be safer if you have a friend with you."

It's safer alone. A friendly face is nothing but a trap, a mask hiding an enemy. Remember Merida? She nearly killed you, nearly killed Rumple. Twice. Once on Emma's command, and once at Jefferson's house.

The second time it wasn't her. Belle forced herself to be fair, but the darkness only twisted her thoughts around.

It wasn't Katrine, either. Katrine is dead. Do you want Mulan's death on your conscience?

Belle shook her head. "No, no, you wouldn't be able to stop the hunter. I'll only get you killed."

"Let me accompany you," suggested Owlflower. "I don't die so easily."

"Because you have magic. And that's why you have to stay," said Belle. "You have to help the people here. All those potions you talked about... they could mean the difference between life and death. It'll be proof that fey and human are stronger if they're on the same side."

Owlflower sighed. "Sometimes you sound like your mother."

"Because I believe in compassion and kindness?"

"Because once you take some mad notion into your head, you're too stubborn to heed any other counsel." Then Owlflower relented, lifting up a palm. "But yes, she too thought the world should be a better place than it is and never stopped pursuing that hope."

"Oh." Belle lowered her gaze. "Did you... did you know her well?"

"She... she used to talk to me. After...after my curse, but before she went to Avonlea. She knew what I had done, but she still... she wanted to know me. And she couldn't do that without revealing herself in turn."

"Oh," she said again, choking on the syllable.

"Being fey, she did not feel things as you do, I think. But she learned to recognize love and courage in humanity, and hoped in turn that humanity would learn to value the fey virtues of balance and harmony. In you, perhaps she hoped to build that bridge of understanding..."

"What if I fail?" Belle whispered.

"War," Owlflower answered bluntly. "Now that the veil has lifted, humanity will not rest until they drive the monsters from the land. With their numbers, they will inevitably prevail, though not without loss..."

"But the fey have more magic," protested Belle. She looked at Mulan. "Is Owlflower right?"

Mulan shrugged. "I'm no seer. But from what you guys have said, probably. Magic has its limits, in my experience."

"Our hope of victory through magic lay in the Dark Curse, but you and your husband have undone it."

"You agreed to that! My grandfather agreed..."

"Your coming was seen as an omen. That Colette's daughter should still be living... perhaps the fey prophecies would be fulfilled after all. So they acquiesced to your demands."

Her demands. Belle winced. They weren't her demands, were they? It was simply the right thing to do. Condemning millions of people to oblivion was unthinkable.

Unthinkable? Everyone wants to get rid of their enemies. Only the potential price keeps them in check. Humans and fey both want this realm, and each would be glad to see the other gone...

Mulan clapped Belle's shoulder and glared at Owlflower. "Don't blame Belle for this. Even war is better than the Dark Curse, and we aren't at war yet. Peace is still possible."

"And that's why I have to leave." A desperate, perhaps irrational need to get away possessed Belle. She would never find any answers while hiding in this castle that now felt like a prison, a trap. Images from her nightmares lingered in the back of her mind, turning every room into a cage. "The answers lie somewhere else..."

Never mind that she didn't know where. Once she had convinced Mulan and Owlflower that there was no way to keep her in the Dark Castle except by force, they agreed to help her pack. She took a magical atlas of the Enchanted Forest and dressed in drab, peasant clothes in hopes of blending in.

Owlflower gave her an enchanted brooch, a silver owl with tiny crystalline eyes. "If you won't take me, at least take this. It has a virtue of concealment on it."

Belle accepted it gratefully. It would hide her from scrying and magical tracking, and blur her memory from those who met her.

"They will not forget your words or actions, only your name and face," Owlflower warned her. "So take care and be not too rash."

"I'll keep a low profile." Belle pinned the brooch to her cloak. She eyed Owlflower curiously. "A useful bit of magic. Where did you get it from?"

"Many years ago, I made a deal with the king: my freedom in exchange for serving as his eyes and ears in the realm. The brooch was the token of our agreement."

Mulan cocked her head, squinting at Belle. "You haven't turned invisible or anything. Will I forget you exist when you walk out that door?"

"The subject of your question will slip from your mind," explained Owlflower. "In your memory, it takes on the air of an abstract inquiry of no practical significance."

Belle unhooked the brooch. "Don't forget me!"

Mulan blinked, then smiled. "No, of course not." She gathered Belle up in a fierce hug. "Good luck, and stay safe!"

Keep quiet. Keep a low profile. And keep your eyes open. Belle's admonitions to herself became a mantra to keep herself moving as she trudged away from the Dark Castle. As the hours wore on, the pack and the baby weighed more and more heavily on her steps, but she refused to use any magic to shorten her path. She had to blend in and not leave any spell traces that the hunter might track.

She spent the first night at the inn in the village under the Dark Castle. After that, she followed the road out of the mountains. As exhausting as it was to travel on foot, she still felt immense relief at being outside, away from confining walls and expectations. Fewer nightmares plagued her sleep.

She followed the lowland road that, with the redrawn boundaries, now skirted the edge of fey territory. Some of the land was wooded, while the rest had once been cultivated by human settlers. The fields lay fallow for the winter, and Belle wondered if the fey would plant them in the spring. Caution kept her from straying across the border; she didn't want to attract their attention.

The human villages along the road were crowded, with families taking in their kin forced out of their old homes. From the refugees, Belle heard rumors of eerie phantasms and uncanny music that haunted empty villages. Wild hunts were glimpsed at night, and dancing lights said to lead travelers to their doom. Ogres left their footprints in muddy meadows. A current of fear and resentment underlay the stories, fed by the confusion of conflicting memories — memories that everyone knew could not be natural.

Belle held her tongue and listened, even when she wanted to argue on behalf of her mother's race.

What good will it do? Who will believe you? And if their suspicions turn on you, will they spare your child? Keep quiet. Keep safe. Keep Gideon safe...

At the next village, the undercurrent had erupted into overt action. As she came down the road, she was hit by a swell of hatred and anger. A mob was gathered at the outskirts of the village, shouting encouragement while whoever was caught in their midst was viciously beaten by clubs and staves.

Belle broke into a run, her resolve to keep a low profile forgotten. She pushed her way into the crowd, only to see that the victim was a dog — a gray-and-white-patched bitch, solidly built under a heavy coat of fur, with sharp ears and a curled brush of a tail. She had been knocked off her feet and now scrabbled frantically in an attempt to evade the drubbing. She yelped piteously as the blows struck, but the mob showed no mercy.

"No! Stop! Stop it!" Belle didn't have enough hands free to force anyone to stop, so she interposed herself in between the mob and its target as best she could. She shielded Gideon with her arms, but the sudden movement and noise had awoken him, and he began wailing.

The abrupt appearance of a strange woman and a baby did more than words to distract the mob. Belle rocked Gideon to calm him, and met the sea of angry gazes defiantly.

"Who the hell are you?"

"I...I'm just a traveler," Belle answered, once Gideon had quieted enough for her words to be heard. She took a deep breath, then raised her voice a notch. "Never mind me. What the hell are you doing, beating this poor dog like that?"

"'Poor dog'? That's no ordinary dog. That's a fey monster. An ogre's hound! Just look at its eyes!"

Belle glanced down. The dog stared at her with a pair of mismatched eyes, one copper, one blue.

"It killed our son!"

"Wait, what?"

According to the bereaved parents, the dog was a stray they had taken in a few months ago, when their six-year-old son had taking a liking to her. This morning, he had gone into the local woods to collect brush for the fire, the dog following him as usual. But the boy had never returned. When the parents went to call and search for him, they found only the dog, with blood on her muzzle and a piece ripped from the boy's cloak between her teeth...

"That's not proof," Belle protested. "You can't judge someone before knowing the full story!"

"It attacked and devoured our boy," insisted the mother.

Belle looked at the dog again. Dogs did go mad (No rabies vaccine in the Enchanted Forest, thought the part of her that remembered the Land Without Magic), but according to the parents, this one had shown no signs of it. No. This was something else. "That can't be right. It doesn't make sense."

"Sense? What does 'sense' have to do with it?" scoffed the father. "Some things are just evil. We took it in and fed it, and it repaid us by taking away our child... hey, it's getting away!"

The battered creature had taken advantage of the distraction to scramble to her feet and take off at a limping, uneven run.

"Wait!" Belle stepped forward. She couldn't prevent the mob's pursuit, but she delayed it enough for the dog to achieve an unsurmountable head start. As the crowd surged past her, she could only follow helplessly into the woods after the dog.

The boy was alive, after all.

The child's soft, halting explanation finally put an end to the mob's blood lust, replacing it with a shamed silence. He had been attacked by a mountain lion, he said, and it was Hexie (as he named the dog) who had saved his life, fighting the lion until it fled, badly wounded. Scrambling around during the fight, the boy had fallen into a sinkhole, knocking himself out. His cloak was still snagged on the edge at the top. The dog must have torn a strip off to take to the parents, but they had misunderstood her message...

"You tried to kill Hexie?" The boy threw his arms around the dog. "No!"

"Yes," admitted his mother. "And she would be dead now, except for her..." She nodded at Belle, not meeting her eyes. "You were right, we didn't know the full story..."

The boy turned wide eyes on Belle. "You saved her? Thank you!"

Belle smiled. "I'm just glad everyone is all right."

"You saved the boy, too," the father said gruffly. "We might never have found him in time otherwise." They had needed ropes to extract the boy from the bottom of the sinkhole.

In gratitude, the parents invited Belle to their house to share a meal, and offered a warm spot to spend the night.

"Where are you going?" the mother asked the next morning as Belle prepared to set off. Her son loitered behind her, scraping a stick on the ground as he played with the dog.

"Wherever the road leads," Belle said. It was the traditional answer given by traveling minstrels and the like, and the mother accepted it as such.

"Oh! Are you a storyteller, then?"

"Yes," answered Belle impulsively. It was a good cover, and better than pretending to be a minstrel, as she wasn't musical at all. "Yes, I am."

"All by yourself?" the boy chimed in. "Isn't that scary?"

"I...I'm used to it."

"But there might be bad people. You should take Hexie with you!" He patted the dog and sent her forward with a nudge. "Go on, Hexie."

Hexie ambled up to Belle, tail wagging gently. Belle let the dog sniff at her hand, but she said, "Oh no, I couldn't take your dog away."

"She wants to," insisted the boy. "You saved her life. And you're all alone with your baby. Hexie can protect you, just like she did me!"

Belle tried to argue, but when she left the village at last, she had gained a four-footed shadow. At first she thought the dog would go back home on her own, but Hexie had thoroughly attached herself to Belle and ignored all commands to leave. Even though her injuries caused her obvious pain, the dog persisted in limping after Belle.

"You're serious about this?" She finally gave up on shooing Hexie away. She stopped and crouched down to examine the dog, then used a whisper of magic to heal the worst of the damage. Just one little spell wouldn't endanger them, she thought. And besides... "That makes you one of the family, then. I hope Gideon likes dogs."

Hexie gave a cheerful wave of her tail.

"And I hope you like traveling." A traveling storyteller. The thought turned around in her mind. Stories. Told one way, the villagers killed an innocent dog. Told another way, two lives were saved. She stood up abruptly. That was it. That was what she could do. "Because we have a long, long way to go."

Chapter Text

Remember Belle.

Remember Gideon.


The thoughts went round and round in his head, just like a spinning wheel.

There's no spinning wheel here.

Rumplestiltskin felt his mind going. Past and present blurred, nightmares and reality becoming indistinguishable. Deprived of food and water, dark magic ran rampant through his veins, keeping him from death. It was magic he was forbidden to use, with one exception — for the convenience of Captain Hook. The cell had no toilet facilities except for the wooden bucket Emma had thrown in as an afterthought, and as Hook had no intention of touching the filthy thing, he ordered the Dark One to take care of matters himself. Otherwise the stench would interfere with the pirate's fun in gloating over his prisoner.

It was a loophole, but one too small even for Rumplestiltskin to slither through.

Remember Belle.

Remember Gideon.


He couldn't free himself, neither physically nor mentally. He wedged himself into the corner of his cell, arms wrapped around himself, and drifted into a hazy sleep without realizing it. He stumbled through nightmares from one prison to another until he finally woke, choking on his own screams. He lifted a shaking hand to his face and found a scrap of cloth clenched in his fingers — his mother's cloak of souls.

They had taken his dagger and they had taken the Shears of Destiny, but the cloak was only a powerless rag in the hands of any except its rightful owner. Which meant him, after his mother's death. It was still a powerless rag, because he had been commanded via the dagger not to use magic.

You can't use magic,  the cloak seemed to whisper. That isn't saying that magic can't use YOU.

Now there was a thought. A mad fit of giggles threatened to burst from him, but the power of the dagger's command held him to silence. He unfolded the cloth, smoothing it gently over his knee. Then he ran it through his fingers, letting his hands act as if of their own volition in tying the cloth around his eyes as a blindfold. He could feel them now, the souls locked inside the enchanted weave. If he allowed them access, they could—

He didn't know what they could do. His heart thumped in panic and his fingers closed again around the cloth.

Dangerous, warned the darkness, filling him with the need to assert control, to rip the cloth off at once. You can't afford to be weak...

He was already weak. He had already lost control. He forced his hands to stillness. It had been his mother's cloak, and he had never wanted to take up her legacy. But he already wore his mother's shadow — why balk at wearing her cloak?

You're making a mistake.

I've made many mistakes, he retorted silently. He forced his fingers to open one by one, drop away from the cloth. The souls of two hundred children. If they judged him irredeemably corrupt, he could neither plead with them nor use magic against them. But as long as there was a sliver of hope...

Do what you will, he wished them.

He heard the ghost of an ancient lullaby in the back of his mind. Sleep, it suggested. Sleep, and seek the freedom that we may find in dreams... Stiffly, he lay back down on the bare stone, concentrating on breathing in and out, in and out. As sleep crept up on him, he thought he heard children's voices singing. He strained to catch the words, but they floated away from his grasp, and then he followed, a speck carried on the same invisible current.

"Please." Regina swallowed the humiliation of begging her step-daughter for mercy, but she had no choice. She couldn't use magic, and any show of anger would only solidify their belief that she was the Evil Queen. "Why won't you let me see Henry? I've cooperated, haven't I?"

"She has been on her best behavior," conceded Snow White.

"I don't know. It could be a trick," said David, standing protectively next to his wife with his sword drawn.

"It's not a trick!" Regina gritted her teeth, suppressing the urge to curse them all for a pack of fools. "Look, what do I have to do to prove it to you?"

"You can tell us what the fey are plotting," said Snow White.

"I don't know."

"They're your allies," said David. "You must know."

"I. Don't. Know."

"Please, Regina. For Henry's sake. You claim to still care about him," said Snow. "You're all that's left of his adoptive mother, even if you're the evil half—"

"I'm not the evil half!"

Snow ignored the interjection. "—and you don't want him to get hurt in this war, do you?"

"I don't want a war at all."

"Our people have been driven out of their homes by monsters. We can't let that stand." David's tone was full of confident conviction. He and Snow had won against the odds before, as Regina remembered all too well. "If you think we're just going to surrender our land..."

"Well, there's your problem right there. 'Your' land? The fey would disagree."

"Our people have lived in the Enchanted Forest for generations," said Snow. "We're not going to let you hand it over to ogres. I don't know what they promised you—"


"—but light always triumphs over dark in the end. You won't win."

"No one's going to win, if you two don't come to your senses soon."

David and Snow drew closer together, taking her words as a threat. David aimed his sword at Regina. "I warn you..."

"Oh, put that away." Regina stood her ground, though without her magic, she knew she was as vulnerable as any mortal in the face of cold steel. "Let me talk to Emma. She'll understand..."

"You mean you'll cast your spell on her again," said David. "Not gonna happen."

"And the Blue Fairy has promised to nullify this marriage you tricked her into. You may be doomed to the Underworld for your sins, but you're not taking my daughter with you."

"Oh, for the gods' sake." Regina tried not to roll her eyes. "I told you. She proposed the marriage because she's my friend, and I wouldn't hurt her, because I love her."

"We can't let you infect our daughter with your darkness," said Snow. "Emma barely managed to free herself last time, and now you're dragging her back down!"

"You love her like a moth loves a flame," muttered David. "It's not real."

"This... this magic that's deluding you... that's not real!" Regina scowled in exasperation. "Emma and I... call it what you like, what we have is real."

"Even if that's true, that doesn't mean it's healthy," said Snow obstinately. "Look what happened to Belle after she married the Dark One — nothing but pain and misery."

"She seemed happy enough lately until you guys locked him in a cell — by using her baby as leverage to get to him!" Regina saw Snow flinch guiltily. "Yeah, Belle told me what happened."

"It was only because she didn't know the extent of her husband's treachery," argued Snow, rallying. "She fell for his lies again. Oh, I don't blame her — she's such an innocent, and he's nothing if not persuasive, but in time she'll understand why we had to do it. Just like Emma understands now that she let her own goodness blind her to your evil."

Regina stared at Snow in disbelief. "...fine. Let Emma tell me to my face, then. If she thinks I'm lying to her, I want to hear it from her own mouth."

The royal couple hemmed and hawed, until Snow finally declared, "She doesn't want to see you."

"You mean you won't let her see me."

"We all agreed, it's for the best."

"The Emma I know is strong enough to make up her own mind." Regina glared at Snow and Charming, daring them to disagree.

"She doesn't need to see you to do that," Snow hedged, and David nodded in agreement.

Damn, thought Regina. She just needed a chance to talk to Emma, uninterrupted. She had been so close to getting through last time, until the pirate had walked in. "How about this, I'll tell Emma my plans. You wanted to know, didn't you? Well, there's a certain powerful magical artifact, a black grail..." She dangled the bait, and for a moment she thought it would work.

Then Snow's face hardened. "No." She turned to her husband. "Come on, David. We can't fall into the Evil Queen's trap. Whatever this thing is, we'll find out about it some other way."

And that was that.

Think lovely thoughts. Think lovely thoughts.

The refrain swept through the boy in a storm of light and shadow, washing away names and years and memories. By the time the last echoes faded, he only remembered three things. He was hungry. He was alone. And he was in the land of wishes.

Oh, there were trees — tall, fearsome towers that he instinctively averted his gaze from — and there was the sandy lagoon and the water, sparkling under the light of the sun. But when he lifted his cupped palms and wished, he held a meat pie, warm and heavy, filling his nostrils with its rich aroma. Quickly, lest it vanish again, he crammed it into his mouth and gulped it down. Hunger satiated, he remembered a fourth thing.

You don't belong here.

High in the dappled spaces between the trees, a shadow screeched, a bone-chilling sound that sent the boy fleeing deeper into the island (he knew it was an island). He ran until he had to stop, panting, heart racing, half-collapsed behind a boulder. He huddled under the cover of strange, glossy oversized leaves, waiting for the shadow to pass. Finally, when his terror had subsided to a bearable level, he crept out from behind the rock and scurried from one hiding place to another. He didn't know where he was going (away) or what to do (keep moving) or who to wish for (no one). The sun shone relentlessly down, casting shadows, any one of which might turn out to be hostile.

The trees ended, giving way to the glare of sand and sea. A beach. The boy lurked at the edge of the woods, mesmerized by the crashing roar and hiss of the surf. Then he saw the dark lump lying in the sand, rolled back and forth as the waves washed over it. At first he took it for a drowned animal, but then the lump unfolded, extending an arm, then a leg. The limbs thrashed feebly, their efforts undone by the next incoming wave.

If it wasn't drowned yet, it soon would be.

No! Driven by a sudden pang of sympathy, the boy darted out from the trees to the struggling creature. It was another boy, much the same as himself in size and age. He reached out and grasped the other under the arms, hauling him out of the immediate reach of the water. He wanted to retreat back to the cover of the trees, but the other boy was too heavy for him to carry that far, and he didn't want to abandon him.

He squatted by the half-drowned figure, shaking him by the shoulder and wishing as hard as he could for the other boy to live. He whispered urgently, "Hey! Hey. Get up. You can't stay here."

"Wha...? Huh?" The other boy recovered enough to prop himself up on his arms, coughing and vomiting up the water he had swallowed.

"Come on." He helped the other boy to his feet, and half-guided, half-dragged him to the shelter of the woods.

The other boy slid down into a crouch, resting his back against a tree trunk. He squinted up at his rescuer. "Who are you? What are you so scared of?"

The first boy shook his head quickly. "I'm no one. There's a shadow." He shuddered at the memory. "It mustn't catch us."

"Jumping at shadows? What are you, a mouse?"

The first boy scowled. "It's true. Its eyes are like fire and it can fly. Its claws are colder than anything..."

The other boy looked at him askance. "A fine story..."

"It's true!"

"All right, all right, I believe you, mouse boy." The other boy peeled off his soggy clothes and wrung them out. He wriggled back into his trousers, but left the shirt hanging on a bush to dry. "So what is this place?"

"It's... this is... this is the land of wishes," the first boy said at last, dredging the description from his hazy memories. Its true name eluded him. "How did you get here?"

"I was on a ship." The other boy spoke slowly, his eyes distant. "With my brother. Papa... Papa sold us. He left. And then... and then there was a storm. The waves came over the ship." He focused sharply on the first boy, scrambling to his feet and grabbing at his arms. "My brother! We have to find my brother!"

The first boy hissed in consternation. "There was no one else."

But he yielded to the other boy's insistence. They returned to the beach and searched, the first boy keeping one eye on the sky. At last, with the sky beginning to darken, the other boy reluctantly gave up the search and the two retreated back to the tree line.

"I think he's dead," said the first boy in a low voice.

"Don't say that!" cried the other. Tears trickled down his cheeks, and the first boy looked down.

"I'm sorry." He reached out tentatively, wrapped an arm around the other boy for whatever comfort he could offer. For a long time, they sat together in silence.

"He is dead," said the other boy at last. "You said this was the island of wishes. Can I wish him alive?"

"No!" the first boy said at once, shifting away in alarm and scrambling to his feet. Then, shaken by his own certainty, he repeated it more softly, "No. You can't."

"That's what the wizard told me," the other boy confessed. His eyes flicked up in a shy glance, as if he was afraid the first boy wouldn't believe him.

"The wizard?" The first boy's eyes went wide, but from surprise, not disbelief. It didn't occur to him to doubt the other. "What wizard?"

"A wizard saved me from the storm. He said... he said he couldn't change things that had already happened, but that we could..." The other boy frowned. "We could change what was still to come."

"What did he mean? What does he want you to change?"

"I don't know." The other boy sighed. "Never mind. What about you? Do you live here?"

"Papa brought us to this place." The memory awoke in the first boy's mind, accompanied by a gutting stab of pain. "He said we could be happy. But then the Shadow came and he... changed. Papa didn't want me anymore." He stared down at his clenched fists, ashamed that he was only a burden to his family. "He sent me away."


"We don't belong here." The boy knew it for truth without knowing how he knew. They didn't belong because... because... the reason slipped away from his understanding. "But maybe if we're careful, if we're very quiet..." He glanced up at the other. "Are you hungry? You just have to wish for whatever you want to eat."

The other boy looked skeptical, but eventually was persuaded to try. When a blueberry tart materialized in his hands, he gaped in surprise. "It worked!"

The first boy nodded.

"Cheer up, mouse boy. Things aren't so bad." The other boy clapped him on the arm. "This can be our new home. If your shadow demon comes after us, we'll beat it together. It'll be an adventure."

The first boy sighed. He thought sadly that he didn't want an adventure. He wanted his family, even if he couldn't remember their faces or names anymore. At least he wasn't alone anymore, and the other boy had lost his family, too. Maybe they could be friends. Having a friend — that sounded better than having an adventure.

For a while, their life on the island passed like a pleasant dream. Bad memories faded to insignificance. They wished up all the food they could eat, wished up fine clothes, wished up anything they might need. It would have been paradise, except for the nagging feeling of wrongness, that neither of them belonged, a feeling enforced by the periodic appearances of the Shadow. Wishes had no power against the Shadow. It continued to haunt them, circling ever closer, a tightening noose of terror.

"What will it do to us if it catches us?" the shipwrecked boy whispered, crouching next to his companion under a fallen log as the Shadow swooped overhead, its shrill cry piercing their hearts with fear.

"It..." A memory of an endless void flashed through the first boy's mind, and the sensation of falling. He shuddered. "I don't know."

"Can it kill us?" asked the other boy once the Shadow had gone again.

"Aye." The first boy was certain of it. The Shadow's icy voice reminded him too much of death. "Unless... unless we're dead already. Are we dead?"

"Are you mad?" The other boy shot him a dubious glance. "Why would we be dead?"

"Sometimes I think we are dead." Was that why he couldn't remember who he was?

"I'm no ghost," stated the other boy. He poked the first boy in the chest. "And neither are you."

"Maybe." He caught the other boy's hand and moved it aside. Maybe not, but he thought they were indeed dead. Or had been. But he didn't say any more. He hoped he was wrong.

"Right." The other boy grinned and reversed his grip to squeeze his companion's hand in a gesture of encouragement. "And if we want to stay alive, it's time we fought back."

Torches. That was the other boy's idea — fire against the Shadow. The first boy took courage from the other's bold talk and confident swagger. The next time the Shadow found them, driving them to the edge of the island, they turned at the brink and finally stood their ground. Together, they faced off against the demonic creature, waving burning torches and shouting as loudly as they could.

Darkness snuffed out the flames. Darkness swept over them, a wave of cold that froze them where they stood, until one of them (he never knew which) screamed and broke. They threw their torches at the glowing eyes, then spun to run helter-skelter along the cliff's edge.

"In here!"

"What?" The first boy felt someone grab his arm.

"This way. It's a cave."

The two of them stumbled blindly down a tunnel, away from darkness into deeper darkness. When he could breathe again, the first boy stopped the other. He said softly, "I... I think we're safe. It's gone."

"The Shadow—"

"It's... it's darker than anything in here. No shadows without light." The first boy laughed, a hysterical reaction to cover his fear. "How did you know this cave was here?"

"I... I just knew."

The first boy nodded, though no one could see him. "That was lucky."

After a while, the shipwrecked boy grew restless. "We can't stay in here forever. Come on, let's go."

They groped their way through utter, unrelieved darkness, but somewhere along the way, they had missed the path to the exit and become hopelessly disoriented.

"We're lost," said the first boy. His voice caught on the stone walls and returned in a garbled hiss. Unnerved by the sound, he clamped his jaws shut and covered his mouth with a hand. The whispering sound continued. It was the wind. It had to be the wind — except that the damp, heavy air felt oppressively still on his skin.

The other boy's fingers tightened on his hand. "No. I know where we are. Listen."

The first boy shivered. "That's just...just the wind. Please, if you know where we are, let's go back outside. The Shadow must be gone by now."

"It's not that easy."

"What do you mean?"

"We're in the Echo Caves. The only way out is to tell a secret, the kind of secret that you don't want anyone to know about you," said the shipwrecked boy.

"How do you know?" wondered the first boy. Had the voices told him? He strained to distinguish words from the eerie whispers that surrounded them, but he heard only an incomprehensible muddle of sound.

"I just do."

"You've been here before?"

"No. Yes. I don't know... it's different..."

Both boys fell silent. The whispering noise gradually abated. The first boy wondered if he should risk wishing for a torch. What if they were standing next to a bottomless pit?

"I don't have any secrets," the other boy said at last.

"I... I don't think I have any, either." The first boy had already confessed the secret shame of his abandonment, hadn't he? What else could he—

"I doubt that very much." A woman's voice spoke suddenly from the darkness.

The boys yelped in shock, then fell back in terror as a flare of light blinded them both. The first boy peered up through his fingers to see a tiny green figure hovering in a globe of witchlight. A fairy! And behind her loomed the menacing shape of the Shadow.

"What are you two doing here?" demanded the fairy. "Skulking through the dreams of Neverland where none are allowed except fairies and children? And despite appearances, you are no children."



The first boy opened his mouth, then closed it again. Memories stirred in the back of his mind. Then he thought, It's dangerous to remember. Clinging to that thought, he let blankness wash through him.

The other boy managed a choked, "Neverland?  We're in Neverland?" Releasing his grip on his companion, he scrambled back a few steps, until the cavern wall checked his retreat. His gaze flickered from the fairy to the first boy and back again. "This... this is a dream?"

"For you, a nightmare, unless you tell me who you are and why you're here," said the fairy grimly.

"I don't know. Unless... unless it was..." Recognition blossomed in the other boy's face, twisting into a snarl of anger and disgust. "You. You brought us here, didn't you?" He advanced on the first boy, a fist raised to strike.

The first boy shrank away, sensing a menace beyond that of another child. "No, no. I didn't. How could I?"

"Hey!" The fairy pointed her wand, sending a bolt of green lightning sizzling between them. "None of that. If you have something to say, say it."

The other fell back, but his gaze was fixed on the first boy. "This is some trick of yours. Trying to trap me in a dream. What, I can't wake up until you do?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Something brought you here," said the fairy, studying each boy in turn. "Only the Shadow should be able to do that. But now that you're in the Echo Caves, you won't be able to leave until you reveal your secrets."

"I don't... I can't," mumbled the first boy. "I don't remember."

"Bloody hell." The other boy raised his voice to a shout. "Wake up, damn you!" When the first boy made no response, the other hissed, "Secrets? I'll give you a secret. Baelfire! You can't pretend you've forgotten him."

Baelfire. Stricken by an inexplicable sense of loss, the first boy could only shake his head dumbly. "Baelfire?"

The fairy sounded just as stunned. "What...?"

"Aye, Baelfire. I was the one who sold him to Pan." As the words diffused into the whispering echoes, light sparked around the other boy, forming a halo within which his form began to fade.

The first boy gasped. "No!" He lunged forward, filled with unreasoning rage, but his outstretched hand passed through the other (Killian Jones — his name is Killian Jones). Every passing moment took him farther away. There was only one way to reach him — the first boy spat out a secret of his own, one he had forgotten until that instant. "Milah. I threw her shade into the River of Souls!"

And then he remembered who he was. With the memory came the compulsion that rendered him mute and powerless, but he didn't care. He only needed to catch up to the pirate and break his neck with his bare hands...

For Baelfire.

But reality was dissipating all around them, and the boy Killian vanished in front of him.

This is a dream. You're waking up.


Caught by his name, he lingered in the hazy void between dreaming and waking, turning to face the fairy. Tinker Bell, he remembered. But he couldn't answer her.

"It is you," she said. Whatever she saw in him made her face darken. "You look to be in a bad way. What the hell happened to you?"

He had lost all power of communication. And he was fading.

Tinker Bell's eyes widened in alarm. "Wait. Listen. Listen..."

When did it ever help him to listen to a fairy? But this was Tinker Bell, who was less of a hypocrite than most. He forced himself to focus, to hear her.

"You can be here," she told him urgently. "Remember your birthright. Be your mother's son, not the Dark One. This is your homeland, too." She said more, but the rest was lost to him.

Rumplestiltskin woke with a start. He gasped, inhaling the stale air of his dungeon cell, and tore the cloth from around his head. A dream. How much of it had been real? The souls in the cloak had been used by his mother in an attempt to re-imagine Neverland. It was not surprising that they still had an affinity for that realm, only that they could carry him there in their dreams.

Be your mother's son.

Had that been the real Tinker Bell or merely a figment of his subconscious? At first, he thought he had no way of knowing, but then Hook came to him, and he knew. The pirate summoned him to the front of the cell and stared at him through the bars. He didn't ask, but he didn't need to: Rumplestiltskin could see from Hook's expression that the balance had shifted between them. Two orphans had run together on Neverland, and though those boys were only ghosts, they had left traces behind in memory.

It meant nothing; neither of them would let it mean anything.

He betrayed Bae to Pan! If Bae had told him, Rumplestiltskin would never have let the pirate leave Neverland alive. But Bae must have known that, and that was why he hadn't told his father. Oh, Bae... For his son's sake, he had to let it go. None of it mattered anymore.

Hook looked less forgiving. Holding the dagger to Rumplestiltskin's cheek, he growled, "Don't ever do that to me again."

Rumplestiltskin was silent as ever, but he thought that as he hadn't done anything in the first place, that was a rather useless command. Which begged the question, who had sent the pirate into the dream?

A wizard saved me from the storm, young Killian had said. Rumplestiltskin could guess the name of the wizard. But was the pirate suffering from a guilty conscience, or was there more to it? How could Merlin meddle in the affairs of the living when he was supposedly dead and trapped? What did he hope to achieve with Killian Jones? Hook didn't think to ask. After a few more idle threats, he was gone again.

Rumplestiltskin paced the confines of his cell, the cloak of souls twisted around his arm. Perhaps he wasn't as trapped as he had thought. Perhaps there was a loophole after all.

Be your mother's son.

Remember Belle.

Remember Gideon.

Find them.

Chapter Text

A thousand years ago...

Deep in the vault of the gods, among treasures and relics beyond mortal reckoning, the Holy Grail held pride of place. It had once blessed the union of the highest and poured wrath upon the lowest. But now. Now it shone no more from the altar; dust dulled its metal surface. It had been passed by a thousand times, ten thousand.

When Hera, the queen of the gods, came to the vault and ignored the grail once again, this time in favor of an amphora once used by the Thiasos, the grail could endure no more. As Hera reached the threshold to leave, it sent its thought to the goddess. Wait.

Hera turned, the amphora tucked under her arm, and raised a divine eyebrow. "Oh. It's you. What do you want?"

You would choose such a base vessel? Its power is nothing to mine, and yet you turn a blind eye to me once again?

Hera smiled, and her tone was sweetly infuriating as she answered, "It is only a small feast that I host, nothing worthy of your rank, ancient one."

So you say. How is it that you have deemed nothing 'worthy' of me since your ascension to Olympus, yet you find a use for every other magical artifact in this vault?

Hera lowered her eyes, affecting a reluctance to offend. "Forgive me, ancient one. It is only that... that..."


Hera sighed. "We are not the children we once were. The gods are...well, your powers are no longer what we need. Your place of honor is undisputed, but perhaps..."

Perhaps what?

"We're more enlightened these days. No one wants to pour the cup of wrath indiscriminately; only the guilty should be punished."

And everyone is guilty. Had the gods gone soft? The grail had been created for justice, not mercy. But it balanced love as well as hate, so even if the gods no longer punished evil, surely...

Hera cut off that line of thought before the grail could give it voice. "And as for love...well, we no longer bind ourselves with obsolete rites. After all, if our word is not enough, what is the use of honor enforced by divine power?"

Is that what you think? That I am 'obsolete'?

"Forgive me, ancient one. I meant no offense." Though her smile was apologetic, the words only angered the grail all the more. "Only that things have changed — evolved — since your creation."

Not that much. I am still needed.

"Oh?" Hera wrapped an infinity of doubt inside a tone of polite inquiry.

The Holy Grail wracked its thoughts, burning to prove this insolent goddess wrong. Finally it came up with its refutation: If not among the gods, then among the mortals.

Hera scoffed. "Mortals? Come, now. What would you do among those poor creatures?"

I would go where I am needed and find those worthy of my aid.

"Among mortals?" Hera shook her head. "Please. You may as well help mayflies. Besides, they are too weak to bear the burden of your power."

If they are weak, I will strengthen them. If they are foolish, I will grant them wisdom.

"You won't be able to return," Hera warned. "Will you sacrifice your exalted station for these creatures? Do you think they'll be grateful? Respect you? In time, they'll resent your meddling, and bear you only contempt. Better to retire in a place of honor than to sink into the muck."

I have never 'meddled'. I only do what I am called upon to do. And it was no honor to languish forgotten in even the most sacred of vaults. As for respect, this arrogant goddess seemed barely able to conceal her contempt. The grail vowed not to make that mistake again: it would strike down the next hand that touched it with insufficient piety. So be it. If the gods have no use for me, then I put myself in the hands of mortals.

"A mistake."

It is my choice.

In the end, the queen of the gods acceded to the grail's decision and cast it down into the mortal realm. There, on a cracked rock in a desert, it awaited its new destiny.

The present day...

After three months on the road, Belle calculated that she had walked farther in that time than she had in her entire previous life. As spring crept up on the land, the snow thinned to dirty patches in the shade and thawed into giant muddy puddles in the sun. Now nearly five months old, Gideon was more alert, able to hold his head upright to peer around in bright curiosity from his seat on Belle's back — she had re-rigged the baby carrier to support his increased size and mobility. The gray-and-white dog, Hexie, had faithfully accompanied their every step, even consenting to carry Belle's pack in lieu of any other other beast of burden.

It was a lean season for all. As far as the human population (and the material trappings that came back with them) was concerned, the realm had just recently suffered from a series of wars between Snow White, George, and Regina's kingdoms. With the influx of refugees from the fey lands, the threat of starvation was never far away. Belle reluctantly permitted herself a sliver of magic to extend her own rations so that Gideon and Hexie wouldn't go hungry. But that was no use as a large-scale or long-term solution.

The talk in all the villages was of the muster that Queen Snow had decreed, a gathering of force at midsummer — force squarely aimed at reclaiming the realm from the fey. And there were all too many eager to respond: displaced, desperate souls with little to lose, willing to kill to take their homes back.

A war would only make things worse. Belle remembered Avonlea's fate. Did Snow White and her band of heroes think it would be quick? Did they think they could keep the battles off their own territory? How many more years could the common folk afford to lose their harvests?

But people were angry. Hungry. Afraid. Violence offered them a simple solution. In village after village, the mood was dark and growing darker. Sometimes, when it was too much to bear, she camped by the side of the road, finding solace in solitude. Tonight, though, she stayed at an inn, one large enough to offer the luxury of a private chamber.

Downstairs in the common room, Belle listened to the villagers talk. She heard their fears, then countered them with stories of problems solved through kindness, generosity, and wits. She tried to put a human face on their enemies. She remembered Dove, and his mother, and his kinfolk that she had met. She remembered her grandfather and his court. She remembered the changeling narratives she had read.

"The fey are people just like us," she said at the conclusion of a fairy tale of the borderlands. "Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. They may seem strange at first, but we seem just as strange to them."

"Easy for you to say," challenged one of the refugees. His face took on an ugly cast as he stared her down. "You haven't lost your home to one of those beasts!"

"I lost my mother to ogres," Belle said. After three months, she had said it so many times that she had grown numb to its meaning. She hated that she had turned her own grief — turned the memory of her mother's death — into a tool she used to manipulate strangers, yet she couldn't regret it. She would say whatever she had to, if it meant that she was heard and believed, if it meant that she could secure a better future for her child. A future where his fey ancestry would not be held against him. "So no, it isn't easy for me to say. But it's the truth."

The challenger held her eyes for a long moment, then dropped his gaze at whatever truth he saw, shamed into temporary silence.

"And as for the elves... you don't have to take my word for it. It's been a long time since they've taken in a human child, but maybe some of you remember." Belle searched the crowd for the oldest faces, and was secretly relieved when some among them nodded sagely. "They could tell you how for all their strangeness, the elves are not monsters."

Prodded by her reminder, the elders admitted to hearing tales of humans who had grown up in the hollow hills. And for all their haughty airs and odd accents when they returned, in the end they were no different from anyone else, bleeding as freely and aging just the same as the village-raised folk. And if that was true, then maybe the elves weren't so terrible, were they?

"They call themselves the 'People of Peace' now," said Belle. "Because that's all they want, a chance to live in peace on land that was once their home, before humans ever came to the Enchanted Forest."

"That's well and good," grunted one of the elders, "but there's no one ever lived with ogres and come back to tell the tale. They're monsters who'd eat you as soon as look at you."

"They eat potatoes!" Belle looked around at the disbelieving faces and took a deep breath before continuing, "I've seen it myself. Yes, they were at war with us in the past, but plenty of human kingdoms have been at war before, and we still hope for peace afterwards."

"That's different!" The old man, who needed a stick to walk with, was incensed enough to rise to his feet. He clutched the edge of the table and banged his staff on the floor for emphasis. "Ogres are different."

"How? How are they different?"

"How!? Just look at them! They're ogres." The old man shuddered and collapsed back onto his bench.

"I know they look frightening," Belle conceded softly. "Their faces seem ugly to us. Their voices are too deep. They're big. They're strong. But hey, most of you lot are bigger and stronger than me. And maybe some of you won't win any beauty contests. Does that make you monsters?"

That won her a few chuckles, but just as many scowls.

Belle sighed. "Listen. They like a good story as much as any of us. They grow potatoes in the mountains and make cheese from goat's milk..."

"Then why do they attack our villages?" asked one of the other refugees. "We have a right to defend ourselves."

"As do they. When ogre children are hunted like beasts and their parents slaughtered in our dungeons, it's no wonder they fight back."

"What are you talking about? We never hunted no ogres!"

"You may not have, but the nobles who rule you have. I've seen it with my own eyes." Belle wished she hadn't. Her father and Gaston had always justified it as a brutal wartime necessity — Ogres are not men, she remembered Maurice saying — but how much of the war had they created themselves?

Resentful muttering filled the room. "Not our fault."

"Do you think the ogres can tell the difference? That's why you must speak up and not let your rulers lead you into committing atrocities. You have a chance to stop this war before it starts." Belle remembered that Rumple had ended three ogre wars, but wasn't it even better to prevent one? "Tell Snow White that we can have peace. That you all want peace. Bring flowers, not spears, to the muster."

"Flowers!" The crowd gaped at her in disbelief.

Drawing on what she had read of the history of the Land Without Magic, she told them another story, this time of violence being stopped with nonviolence, of how common people could stand together to change the world. And if the realm is at peace, she thought later in the silence of her room, perhaps she could convince Snow White to let Rumple go free.

Don't be stupid. There's no chance of that. The Dark One is too useful a slave to ever let go. Freedom must be taken. The chaos of war would have made that so much simpler...

No. She refused to go down that path.

But fomenting rebellion, that's almost as good... A wisp of darkness chuckled in appreciation, and when it withdrew from her thoughts, Belle shivered at the drained weariness left in its wake. How much had dark magic been pushing her? Pushing at fate? Was she falling into its trap?

It's not rebellion, Belle told herself. She just wanted to change the queen's mind. Since the "heroes" would never listen to Rumple, it was up to Belle to do something. And since they never listened to her, either, she had to amplify her voice by persuading people who were willing to listen.

"I have to try, for all our sakes," she told Hexie and Gideon.

Gideon had fallen asleep in her arms, but the dog stared back at her mournfully, tail swishing in acknowledgement of Belle's argument.

Belle sighed. "Rumple's still alive. I know that much. And I know he doesn't want a war any more than I do. He's a good man, Hexie. Even though he killed people to stop the ogre wars, he saved more lives in the end. But I... I can't do it that way. Not by force. Even if my way takes longer."

Hexie regarded her without comment.

"We'll free him. Somehow. I haven't abandoned him," she insisted. She just needed a solid plan to rescue Rumple from the "heroes" without getting anyone killed or herself imprisoned. The threat of the dagger's control loomed ominously in the back of her mind. "Thankfully, Snow White isn't the torturing type. If she doesn't think she needs the Dark One, she'll probably pretend he doesn't exist. At least, that's what always happened back in Storybrooke."

Hexie huffed. She circled twice around her chosen spot on the floor, then lay down and rested her muzzle on her paws.

"Yeah, you're right. Time to get some sleep." Belle set Gideon down on the bed, snuffed out the candle on the table, then lay down carefully next to her son. She whispered, "Perhaps you'll see your papa in your dreams tonight. If you do, tell him I love him, and I will always fight for him."

She continued to catch fleeting glimpses of Rumple in her own dreams. Sometimes he was in his cage, but sometimes she saw hazy images of Neverland behind him. Had he fled into his memories? Why Neverland? Had captivity driven him into madness again?

Don't lose hope, she wished him, even as she struggled with her own despair. Was it their family's destiny to always be separated?

Destiny revealed itself in a flickering image in the Eye of Olympus, the shallow reflective pond in the sibyl's cave in the heart of the heavenly mountain. The water shivered, rippling under the touch of invisible currents, though the air was perfectly still. Zeus and Hera gazed into the circular pool, frowning at what they saw.

"Why has it not settled?" growled the king of the gods. "Whose will disturbs our vision?"

"The other gods were banished," said Hera. "And the three grails were disposed of."

"Yet they don't stay banished. The Dragon..."

"Artemis took care of him."

"And the Cauldron is awake again. It's bound the Evil Queen in its service and used the Savior to send her back to the realm of the living."

"We can handle that, too. Your agent holds the grail of earth. He will bind the Savior to the destiny we've chosen."

"Will he? He lost her once already..."

"I shall see to it. The Evil Queen must return to the Underworld, and this time the door will be locked against her." Hera smiled. "Worry not, husband. I'll bestow my blessing on the new union."

Zeus looked at her, startled. "In person?"

"The law permits it." It had been a long time since she had visited the mortal plane — it was a filthy, violent world that she preferred to improve from above. But she wanted to be present for the final battle, when their future would be assured once and for all. The Savior would be the key. Hera knew that much, though Zeus was reticent about sharing the details with anyone.

"I suppose it does. But it may be dangerous... the grail of heaven is still in play, somewhere in Misthaven."

"Bound to a mortal," Hera reminded him. She smirked at the memory of how she had ensured the Holy Grail's fall from grace. "In the mortal realm, it has no more power over us. As a dagger, it retains only an echo of its divinity."

Zeus scowled at the rippling image in the pool. "Yet our destiny remains in doubt. I sense its influence. A vile, insidious thing..."

"Nonsense. The Dark One is safely imprisoned. Artemis will hunt down his mate, destroy his spawn, and secret the dagger where none will ever stumble upon it again."

"Will she? Will she indeed!" The god's voice turned stormy and his eyes flashed, a gesture of his hand disrupting the pool to open a glowing window.

Artemis stared back at them from the other side. Her voice tinged with impatience, she bit out a greeting. "My lord. My lady. What is this?"

"His majesty doubts your prowess. How goes the hunt?" asked Hera.

"Well enough," Artemis answered flatly.

"It's been months!" Zeus glared at her in disgust. "And you no closer to your quarry..."

"She is elusive," admitted Artemis. "I believe the elves have hidden her in their mists. But she cannot hide every trace of her passage, and I have means to draw her out."

"Then see that you do so, and quickly." Zeus gestured again, dismissing the Huntress from the pool. He turned to Hera. "She doesn't fill me with confidence, no. And the longer the grail's influence persists, the more it disrupts our future. I can sense it trying to wrest the story from my grasp. It is a corruption... the mortals are losing their faith in the gods..."

"A temporary setback. The Savior's wedding will restore their spirits," said Hera. "Then she will lead the faithful to purge the realm of darkness. That is the story that shall be written in the end. The last chapter."

"It's the story that should be written." Zeus's eyes darkened. "But if it's corrupted, the wedding may never take place, and the darkness will consume us. We need to turn things in our favor now, before it's too late."

"Then what do you suggest?" Hera saw by his expression that he had something in mind.

"We've tried using mortals. We've tried using a goddess. They haven't been enough. No. We need someone — something — stronger."

"Stronger? It's forbidden for us to intervene directly." Hera frowned at Zeus. He knew that, knew they couldn't afford the backlash from fate. Only in specific circumstances were the gods permitted to act in the mortal realm. That was why they had sent Artemis, whose Wild Hunt knew no boundaries.

"Yes. But we have other resources, yet untapped. It's time to fight darkness with darkness."

"Fight darkness with — no!" Hera gasped, guessing at his meaning. Those resources? "They were bound in Tartarus for a reason. We've always protected the mortals from them!"

"Then when they are loosed, it will serve as a reminder of why we are needed. Once the mortals have faced the truth of the darkness, they'll turn back to us in droves. They will once again put their faith in the true story. What prayer is more sincere than that of the terrified?"

Hera stared at her husband, still shaken. "No. No, that's going too far. People will die — children — and their blood will be on our hands."

"We've already come this far. Better not to have started than to stop short! Don't turn squeamish on me now, Hera." Zeus grinned viciously. "Don't delude yourself; you're no innocent. Plenty of people have already died for the sake of our future..."

"Elves, ogres, goblins," protested Hera. "Soulless monsters. But this is different. These are our people. We have a duty to protect them."

"And so were Apollo and Athena our people," said Zeus. "As well as Aphrodite."

"They sacrificed themselves."

"As above, so below. A few mortal lives, given for the greater good."

"I don't like it," said Hera, but she was weakening, and Zeus knew it.

"Do you stand against me?"

"I..." Hera swallowed her misgivings. She knew what happened to those who opposed Zeus. Even though this was not the vision she had hoped for — she meant for the mortals to come to them out of gratitude, not fear — she didn't dare let her husband doubt her loyalty. "No."

"Then we are agreed. It's time to unleash the Nyx."

Unleash the Nyx.

Even though his mother had long foreseen it, Spider was shaken to hear Zeus's command. Long after the king of the gods had left him to his task, Spider stood in numb anticipation at the end of the road. Finally, hands trembling, he scraped the last crumbs of divinity from his web into his invisible bag, hoping it was enough. This was it. Time to go...

A single road linked the gods of Olympus to their demons in the depths of Tartarus. The Nyx. Enchanted gates locked them in hell, prevented them from ravaging the mortal world. Spider opened the gates.

Night poured through, a seething mass of chaos that swallowed light.

Spider knew better than to stand in its way. The Nyx, one entity and many in one, had no appetite for such as he, but it would devour any opposition without a thought. It found its own path, following the scent of children's nightmares into the world above. As the last tendril of darkness slithered away, Spider caught it in an outflung strand of silk.

Reality shattered around him. Then — daylight! Spider leaped clear, scurrying into a tree on eight legs. He had done it. He had hitched a ride into the sunlit realm at last.

Under that light, the Nyx attenuated into insubstantial specks of darkness. Harmless — until day ended, as it must. And then — night. Night would awaken. Night, that was the mother of monsters. He had loosed it into the world.

"I had no choice," he muttered. "It was always destined to be so."

But he knew better. He had chosen this. Every destiny had its price. The children of this realm would pay.

"I'm sorry," he said, but it was pointless to apologize when there was no one to hear. All he could do now was to minimize the damage. Find the destined one, then, and end this game at last.

He hoped it would be soon.

Chapter Text

Hook made no more appearances in Rumplestiltskin's dreams. Instead, he took to more frequent visits in the physical plane — at first to gloat, but then to grouse, much to Rumplestiltskin's annoyance. Nights spent in Neverland had restored a certain amount of clarity to his mind, but that meant that he had no easy way to tune out the pirate. He was forcibly summoned to stand on the other side of the bars, a captive audience.

"They want me to marry her. Make things proper. She hasn't said so, but I've seen the way her father looks at me."

Have you mistaken me for someone who gives a damn? Rumplestiltskin wanted to say, but he couldn't forget who held the key to this prison. If he was to have any chance of getting the dagger back, he had to play along. And if the pirate would rather confide in his old enemy than, say, Archie Hopper, Rumplestiltskin couldn't afford to waste the opportunity. Not that Hook permitted him to talk. Perhaps that was his advantage over the cricket: less of a sympathetic ear, but also less of a challenge to the pirate's self- image. Not that Hook seemed to harbor any guilt over kidnapping and torturing Hopper (who was incredibly forgiving in any case, as Rumplestiltskin knew from his own history with him.)

"Now, Milah never wanted marriage. Once she had a taste of freedom, she never wanted to be shackled again." Hook eyed Rumplestiltskin disparagingly. "With a husband like you, who could blame her, eh?"

Milah was the last person Rumplestiltskin wanted to discuss, but he had no choice in the matter.

"Milah." Hook sighed. "Ah, Milah. Now there was a woman who appreciated life under the black flag. Swan's different. The Charmings expect me to be a hero. An admiral in their bloody navy!" He scoffed. "Me, in a uniform again?" He leaned closer into the bars and confided, "The other sea captains resent me. They know what I was. They don't want a trumped-up pirate set over their heads. Truth is, I don't want it either."

What, too much like honest work? Can't handle the responsibility? guessed Rumplestiltskin. Not that anyone had asked for his opinion.

Hook paced restlessly, mouth twisted in a disgruntled frown. "Wearing the royal yoke on my neck, all tied up in rules and regulations, what kind of life is that? The lads think I've gone soft. Why haven't I had my way with Swan and moved on? The seas beckon... but it's a small sacrifice to make for my happy ending."

Hook came back the next day to complain about his crew again. "Half of them have found new berths while the other half plot to steal the Jolly Roger, the mutinous rats."

Rumplestiltskin amused himself by imagining them as literal rats. A pity Hook didn't think to order it from the Dark One. But after he had dealt with his crew, Hook returned to the subject of Milah. This time he was soaked in alcohol and inclined to be weepy with it.

"Stuck in the Underworld for centuries. Then you go and shove her into the river. Bloody tragic." He shot Rumplestiltskin a red-rimmed glare. "Bastard."

Rumplestiltskin ground his teeth on a futile defense. It wasn't as if he had wanted to do that to Milah. But Hades had threatened them all, and if it came to a choice between the living and the dead, the living had to take precedence. Naturally, the pirate was too thick to see it. All he saw was the Dark One in the villain's role again, "stealing" his glory.

Then Hook's face fell and he leaned against the bars, staring earnestly at his nemesis. "What do you think her unfinished business was? Was it me?"

It wasn't with me, or she'd have moved on after our talk, thought Rumplestiltskin. Still, perhaps the pirate was serious about his redemption, if he spared half a thought for Milah herself rather than using her name to justify his obsessions. Unfortunately, a redeemed jailer was no less a jailer.

"If only she'd come in with Emma to find me," Hook muttered resentfully. "Didn't she want to see me?"

As if things weren't already awkward enough? Rumplestiltskin snorted inwardly. Easier for Milah to pretend to be useful by keeping an eye on her ex-husband than to see for certain that she had been replaced in her old lover's affections. Replaced by someone willing to brave hell itself to retrieve him, when it hadn't entered anyone's head to even make the attempt for Milah.

"Was she waiting for me to kill you?" Hook stabbed a finger at Rumplestiltskin. "But it's too bloody late now. She's gone. Baelfire's gone. Your demon dad's gone. Just us left. You and me and Smee. You and me and Smee!" He laughed drunkenly.

Wonderful. Rumplestiltskin had no choice but to let him ramble on.

Hook slapped the bars of the cell. "But that's no matter. I'm to marry Swan! I'll be a new man. Reborn." A moment later, his face twisted with worry and he lowered his voice. "D'you think she wants more children? Milah didn't. But what if Emma wants a full clutch? Bloody hell, I was never cut out to be a father."

On that we can agree, thought Rumplestiltskin. Though who knows, maybe it would give you something to think about besides yourself. Not that Hook wanted his advice.

Hook groaned and buried his face against his arms. "But if she asks... she's the bloody light of my life, isn't she? And every man should have a legacy. Even you, Crocodile — that murderous brat of yours is still out there somewhere." Hook lifted his head to glare at Rumplestiltskin. "If he shows his face again..."

Rumplestiltskin kept his own expression neutral. Trust me, I want him as far from here as possible.

After letting the threat hang between them for a few breaths, Hook shoved himself away from the cell and stalked out again, leaving Rumplestiltskin to stew in his own thoughts.

So the heroes were planning a wedding, binding the Savior to the (ex-)pirate. They meant to cut the ties between the Savior and the Evil Queen, then. Poor Regina. She must not have had any better luck breaking free than he had. What this meant for their futures... Rumplestiltskin sat down heavily and tied his mother's cloak around his eyes again. He stared into the darkness, trying to piece together the puzzle that continually shifted in his inner vision.

They walked on a razor's edge. Golden shears cut their path, and a stain of blood spread, washing away all hope. His hands shook as he willed the visions to change, but without using his magic, he had no control over what he was shown. White mists darkened to black. Space shrank, invisible boundaries closing in. Then new stars arose in the darkness, opening space in directions unconceived.

He came back to himself, the cloak of shadows twisted in his fingers. The pattern on the cloak matched the pattern of the stars. A guiding constellation. A beacon of faith.

Faith? Rumplestiltskin grimaced. That had never been his strong point. While fairy magic depended on belief, dark magic was by its nature disruptive to faith. His mother had tried to harness both. Could he do the same?

Be your mother's son.

He had to try. He believed in Belle. If she still believed in him, it was a miracle, but miracles... well, they had to make their own miracles. His mother's cloak had taken him to Neverland in his dreams. Could it take him further than that? If the Shadow could do it—

You're clutching at straws.

Ah, but straw could be spun into gold.

Belle? Rumple's voice came from behind her, soft but distinct.

Rumple? Belle sat up abruptly. Where was he? Why couldn't she see?

He repeated her name, but his voice was drowned out by angry shouts... and a barking dog.

A dog?

Then she woke up, finding herself reaching for empty air. Dim light filtered in through shuttered windows, and the muffled shouting of her dream. Hexie stared at the door, bristling, ears and tail up in high alert. She barked again. Belle picked up Gideon, then crouched next to the dog. She laid a hand on Hexie's neck. "Shhh. Don't. I'm trying to hear..."

Someone rapped softly on the door. Belle stood up and opened it a crack. "Who is it?"

"It's me." The innkeeper's daughter. Her voice trembled with urgency as she beckoned to Belle. "Come on. You have to get out of here. Hurry!"

"What?" Even as she asked the question, Belle packed up her belongings.

The innkeeper's daughter pushed her way inside and moved to help. "My mother's holding them back for now, but I don't know how long she can..."

"Hold who back? Why?" Bewildered, Belle followed the girl down the steps to the back door, Hexie tight on her heels. "Wait..."

"It's the butcher's son. The wee lad's fallen ill, only they're saying it's a curse," the girl explained in a low rush. "They're blaming..."

"They're blaming me?"

The girl flinched, but nodded. She eased the door open, peeked outside, then led Belle around the building, cutting behind the stables. She pointed out the path that led to the woods, only a short length away. "After all that you said last night, they think you're trouble. Maybe you bewitched the boy, or maybe it's the gods punishing us for listening to treason."

Belle caught the girl's arm. "No. No, that's crazy."

The girl jerked free and backed away a step. "Everything's mad lately. Or haven't you noticed?"

Belle sighed. "I know. But surely you can't believe that I would harm a child?"

The girl shook her head. "I don't know. How would I know? But Mama says we're innkeepers, we have a duty — we can't betray our guests. So go, damn you."

She's running scared. They all are. You frightened them last night, giving them thoughts that don't fit into their tiny little world. So a boy falls ill. They take it as a sign. Superstitious peasants. Leave them. They won't even remember you, only the stories you told them, and they're trying to forget that, too, by the sound of things.

But what if it really was a curse? And even if it wasn't, if the villagers redoubled on their old beliefs and violent solutions, all of Belle's efforts here would have been for nothing. She frowned at the innkeeper's daughter. "I can't leave. Maybe I can help. I have some experience with curses."

"No one wants your help!" The girl made the sign against evil. "Go away!"

"All right, I'm going, I'm going." Belle moved away slowly, making her way to the cover of the woods under the watchful gaze of the innkeeper's daughter. Hexie trotted after her faithfully. Belle ducked behind a tree. She clasped Owlflower's enchanted brooch and glanced down at the dog. "I'm not really leaving. I can go back to the village in a bit, and they won't recognize me. You'd better wait here, though."

In the meantime, she saw to Gideon's needs. By now, she was accustomed to caring for an infant no matter where she found herself.

A few hours later, she left Hexie tied to a tree (promising to return soon) and sneaked back into the village with Gideon. On her first visit, she had deliberately drawn attention to herself as a storyteller, but now she kept in the background of the crowd that had gathered outside the butcher's shop. It was not just blind fear stirring the villagers up — the fear had a voice.

"The darkness is all around us! We must be vigilant. Be not seduced by a fair face or charmed words into blasphemy and sedition — they will not save us. Only faith in the gods will save us."

A holy man, by the look of his black and red robe. And not a live-and-let-live renegade like Friar Tuck, but a fire-and-brimstone fanatic like the bishop who had ministered to Avonlea's royal court. Belle's heart sank in dismay as she remembered how uncompromising he had been even during the desperation of the ogre war. He had denounced their plan to send for the Dark One, threatening Maurice with excommunication; but as the gods had clearly already withdrawn their favor, it meant little by that point.

"But you! You have wavered in your hearts. You contemplate treason to your rightful rulers. You have opened your ears to filth — and let evil escape justice. See the result! You are cursed by heaven, and a child pays the price."

Belle clapped a hand over her mouth, biting back an outraged protest.

Did you think you were the only storyteller in Misthaven?

Belle shook her head in mute denial, but she dared not speak out now, not without causing worse trouble.

"Repent! Repent, and pray to the gods for forgiveness."

She tried to squeeze her way through the crowd towards the shop. If she could somehow help the sick child, then maybe...

Then the door opened and a man stepped out. He cradled a small, limp form in his arms and his face was contorted in grief. A gasp rose from the crowd. The man shouted hoarsely, "Out! Get out! Vultures...vultures." Then in a soft, broken voice, "He's dead. My son is dead."

Too late.

"It is the dark magic of the fey," proclaimed the holy man. He swept his gaze around the shocked faces gathered outside the shop. "And this poor boy is only the first victim. Whose child is next? Will it be yours? Or yours? How will you save them?"

No one answered. The silence was broken only by the labored breathing of the butcher, who no longer seemed to see anything beyond his dead child.

"Then listen, and listen well. The gods have spoken to me. Let you open your hearts and pray to them, and they may speak to you also. They offer us their protection, but only if we give them loyalty and faith in turn. Follow me, if you would live..."

It was to the village temple that he led them. Like most in the Enchanted Forest, it was dedicated to the Olympian gods. Belle let herself be drawn along after the crowd, but she stopped once she saw where they were headed.

The gods have no love for you...

At least, not those gods, Belle thought bitterly. As a child, she had been taught that the gods were good. The gods protected humankind. Lies. At first she had thought Hades to be an anomaly, a villainous god, but now she knew better. The gods were as selfish and short-sighted as mortals. As the fey? What if it was a fey curse that had struck down the child? Belle remembered Owlflower's story — remembered that elves, too, were capable of great evil. Even if ninety-nine out of a hundred committed to peace, that left one who was not. And if the one was skilled in dark magic...

Belle shuddered and quickened her pace — she had to see, had to know. The butcher had not moved from the threshold except to sit, his head bowed over the body gathered in his lap. Now that the crowd had dispersed, Belle saw the sign against witchcraft crudely painted on the wall next to the butcher. As for the butcher and his son—

It's not a curse. It's a contagion.

And nothing natural. A haze of darkness hung over the corpse. Nameless dread emanated from bloodless skin, clung to the father. A contagion of horror.

Belle stopped and stumbled back a step, a chill running up her spine. It wasn't fey magic. It wasn't human magic. It was... it was a greedy, empty hunger. Belle swallowed her revulsion and forced herself to inch closer. She crouched down a few feet in front of the bereft father, wishing to comfort him, but it was as if even that much proximity left her frozen.

The man lifted his head and stared at her blankly. His jaws worked for a long moment before he found his voice again. "What do I do?"

Belle couldn't answer.

Tears ran down the man's cheeks. "They said. Cursed. Unclean. They won't... they won't let him. Be with his mother."

Why? Belle mouthed the question soundlessly.

"Hallowed ground. They won't let him in. My boy."

Because he was "unclean"?

"He was all I had left. Last one." The man's eyes focused sharply on Belle. No. On Gideon. "You have a child. Give it to me!" He scrambled to his feet, dropping his own son, and lunged at Belle.

An invisible force smashed him back into the wall, his head meeting the bricks with a sickening thud. Shocked, Belle jumped back, her hand raised to strike him again before she even realized what she had done. "No!"

The unnatural miasma stretched out from the butcher and from the corpse on the street, reaching out for her — for her son.

Run! a voice shrieked inside her mind. It will take Gideon!

Fear flooded through her and she raised a shield of magic around her son, all caution thrown to the wind. A moment later, she was back in the forest, dropping to the ground to cling to Hexie (warm, alive). She shook uncontrollably, breath shuddering harshly through her mouth.

"We have to go," she whispered when she could speak again. "I don't know what that... what that was. I don't know how to fight it. Whatever it did to that poor boy... it was horrible."

Hexie whined and licked at her.

"I don't know." She remembered the man's question, What do I do? He had sounded so lost. Until he had found an answer, a madman's answer that was worse than no answer at all. "What should I do?"


"Your reverence?" The voice came muffled through the door, but the knock that followed was clear in its urgency.

The Blue Fairy hastily shut her cabinet before moving to answer the door. She arranged a confident smile on her face as she greeted the visitors. "Geppetto. Pinocchio."

"Your reverence, please, is there any news?" The old woodworker's voice was edged with anxiety, but he managed a veneer of calm.

Pinocchio — or August, as he now preferred to be called — was less restrained. "It's been almost four weeks—"

And they had come to her door daily for the past two. The Blue Fairy forced herself to patience. "I'm sorry. Fey magic is difficult to see through. If they have Jiminy, they've hidden him well."

"Yes, you said that before. Many times." August glowered at her. "I should have gone with him."

The Blue Fairy shook her head. "On such an ill-advised mission? He should never have gone at all. Snow White should never have allowed..."

"He insisted," said August. "And if there's any chance of a diplomatic solution, well, Archie's the best one to find it."

Geppetto nodded. "He has a good heart."

"That means nothing to the fey," Blue said sharply. "They're full of darkness, and there's no negotiating with darkness."

"I don't know. Regina and Rumplestiltskin seemed to have some success," August muttered.

"They betrayed us all. We're fortunate we caught them in time."

"You're a little harsh." August stared at her rebelliously. "There's always some give and take in diplomacy. Surely it's better than all-out war."

"Not at the cost of our souls! Any peace they offer is illusion. A slow corruption and slide into the dark." Blue glanced at Geppetto, drawing a wisp of belief to push his fatherly instincts. "We must fight for our children."

Geppetto sighed, patting August on his shoulder. "She's right, son."

"Is she?" August scowled. "Even if we could save Archie? If there's nothing you can do, maybe I should ask Rumplestiltskin for help."

The Blue Fairy shuddered at the name. "He tortured you!"

"Yeah, well, he also saved me. Thinking back..." August shook his head. "He didn't have to do that. After the pain I caused him the first time we met, I could have expected more payback, but he only took advantage of spells already laid on me. And there's always a price for magic."

"A high price. You had a second chance. The childhood you were meant to have, with your father." The Blue Fairy had hoped it would alleviate some of the guilt she bore for their separation. She had hoped that this time Pinocchio could grow up without being tainted by his experiences in the Land Without Magic. "You had your innocence back."

"I know, and I'll always be grateful to you for restoring me to life. But—" To her disappointment, August actually clung to his corruption. "—all those years, they made me who I am today. So yeah, I'm grateful to Gold, too, for restoring my memories, my self."

"But he's the Dark One. He can't be trusted." Blue appealed to Geppetto, who had always been more susceptible to her influence. "You know what he did to your parents..."

The old man grimaced. He tugged at August's arm and said softly, "She's right, son. Just give her a little more time. We'll find Jiminy without dark magic."

August reluctantly allowed himself to be persuaded, at least for now, finally leaving Blue in peace. She breathed a sigh of relief, but her peace was short-lived.

A few moments later, Snow White and David were at at her door.

"It's Henry," Snow White explained. "Doctor Whale says there's nothing he can do about magical ailments, so we were hoping you could help..."

Blue and her fairies had taken up residence in the palace, as the only experienced light magic practitioners available to the Charmings. Their daughter, though gifted as a Savior, lacked proper training. Doctor Whale had set up a makeshift hospital nearby, in what had now become the medical wing, grumbling all the while about the lack of modern technology. He was stuck in the Enchanted Forest for now, as no one had seen Jefferson or any other portal jumper since the Dark Curse had been lifted.

"He looks so drained all the time," said David. "It's not right for a boy his age."

"And he's always writing in that book of his, in that language none of us can read," Snow said in a rush. "I know he's the Author, but if it's affecting him like this, isn't there anything we can do?"

"He's the Truest Believer. I'm afraid that can be a burden, but it'll work out in the end." The Blue Fairy gave them her best reassuring smile. "The gods have gifted him with divine runes. He's using them to stop the darkness from rewriting the happy endings you deserve."

"The darkness? We can't let it destroy our grandson!" Snow's expression grew determined. "How do we help him?"

"You're already helping him, by being the leaders this realm needs. In order to take it back from the fey—"

"Wait." David frowned. "He's just a boy. Not a warrior."

"Oh no, I don't mean he needs to fight, not physically. No, he needs to write the final chapter, the one where light wins over the dark. Where his mother marries her true love, and his family is united at the end."

Snow nodded decisively. "Then we'll make sure that happens, won't we, David?"

The Blue Fairy smiled. It didn't take much encouragement to restore Snow White's optimism, and where she went, her husband followed. The royal couple was all that she could hope for, paragons of human virtue that would set the realm to rights at last. It was an honor to be chosen to guide them, and guide them she would.

Nevertheless, the strain of keeping them aligned with the gods' plans — even the best humans were such flighty creatures, prone to straying on the slightest whim — wore on the Blue Fairy, and she sent the Charmings on their way after assuring them that Henry's sacrifice was for the greater good.

All their sacrifices were for the greater good. Even if she imagined she heard a gentle voice emanating from her cabinet.

You know this is wrong, it reproached her.

"I only do what I must," she said aloud, though she knew the wards were secure around her cabinet. No voice could possibly be heard from it, especially not one so soft as—

The Blue Fairy opened her cabinet again, revealing a cricket locked in a golden cage. "Jiminy."

"Please, there's no need for this." And then, in the exact tones she had imagined, "You know this is wrong."

"You get above yourself," snapped Blue. "You're not my conscience."

"I'm your prisoner." Tiny jeweled eyes peered out at her. "Why do you feel that I'm a threat to you?"

"You threaten our future. I can't allow you to betray us to the fey, not when we finally have a chance to secure the realm from them. No more ogre wars, no more children lost to the mists."

"But what about their future? The fey have a right—"

"They have none. They are an abomination. A flawed creation from before the true gods ascended, from before true humans arose." The only redemption for such monsters was transformation into innocent beasts. Mute beasts. The one exception only proved that her initial assessment had been correct. "They have no future. They belong to the past."

The cricket seemed to wince, its antennae twitching nervously. "I think there's a little more to that..."

"I used to think so, but look at you. Even after all this time, after everything I've done for you, you run to the fey." It had caught her by surprise, and only a chance sighting by one of her fairies had alerted Blue to the danger. She was just glad she had found him before he had found the fey. But the betrayal still rankled. "Blood will out. I should have known better than to trust in—"

"That isn't why...why I went. I don't wish harm to Geppetto or August, or anyone else. I only want peace. Isn't that what you want, too?"

"They don't know what you are. And they shouldn't have to find out." Blue reached into the cabinet and lifted out the cage. "Perhaps I should move you. The puppet may not bother to knock the next time..."

"It's only natural that August would be worried. Have you considered trusting him with the truth?"

"Why didn't you?"

"I didn't feel it was relevant."

"And it's not relevant now. But I have more pressing concerns." She carried the cricket's cage with her as she passed through a hidden passage, leading to an even more tightly warded chamber underneath the palace, one that had been erased from the memories of everyone except Blue and her followers — and its sole inhabitant (prisoner, she admitted to herself.)

The Blue Fairy strode in and set the cage on top of the desk where the prisoner sat, scrawling away, studiously ignoring her. She cleared her throat in irritation. "Isaac Heller."

Isaac Heller, erstwhile Author, glanced up with a scowl. "Can't you see I'm busy?" Then his eyes narrowed at the cricket in the cage. "What's this? Do I look like I need a pet, lady?"

"You know who this is. You two can keep each other company. At least I know you can't possibly corrupt each other any further."

Isaac snorted. "Why don't you send me back to the Land Without Magic? Everyone you care about is over here, now, right?"

"I'm afraid I can't do that," Blue answered primly. "But perhaps I can appeal to the Great Mother on your behalf when this is all over..."

As Jiminy introduced himself to Isaac, Blue turned and walked away. She couldn't permit herself to doubt her own actions. She served the higher powers. Whatever she did in that service was justified.

She just had to see it through to the end — the final battle.

Chapter Text

Away from the village, away from people, and now camped away from the road, Belle felt the fog of terror gradually clear from her mind. Pangs of guilt filled her instead.

Coward, she reproached herself. She should have tried to help. What kind of hero ran away from people who needed her?

You're no hero.

She had magic now. If she didn't use it to fight evil, wasn't that a betrayal of everything she had ever believed?

"I had to protect Gideon. You understand that, don't you?" she pleaded to Hexie.

Pathetic. Talking to a dog because you know she can't answer you. What are you afraid of hearing?

Belle sighed. So what if she had suffered a moment of weakness? She tried to shake off the guilt, promising herself to do better in the future. Right now she had more important things to worry about. Belle remembered the mob of villagers and the accusations of the holy man. She wasn't afraid of their words, but rather, afraid that they would refuse to listen to hers.

And what are your words worth, when their children are attacked?

Very little, she concluded grimly. She resolved to be better prepared the next time she went to the village. She would find a way to defeat the thing that had infected and consumed the butcher's son. She had to prevent it from killing anyone else. Surely there was some magic effective against it.

Even as she ran through a mental list of spells, a distant shriek interrupted her thoughts. Hexie was on her feet instantly, staring out into the twilight, tail stiff and teeth bared. Belle instinctively scooped up Gideon and pulled him close to her chest. "What was that?"

The cry repeated itself, and Belle strained to hear.

Help! Help me! It was a woman's voice, frantic and terrified. Belle started after the sound, but Hexie moved as if to block her. The dog met her eyes steadily, almost in warning.

"Move, Hexie. I have to go," whispered Belle. She nudged Hexie with a knee, but the dog didn't budge. Belle frowned and shuffled around the living obstacle. "We don't have time for this!" She oriented herself again towards the scream and hurried off into the woods, forcing her way through the brush that snagged at her clothes.

It's a trap.

Belle ignored the insidious voice inside her mind. She couldn't be a coward again. It was possible it was a trap. It was also possible that someone was in danger, and she couldn't just ignore that. She mumbled under her breath, "Do the brave thing..."

You're putting your son in danger.

She would be careful. She tightened her grip on Gideon, spells of protection dancing in her mind. She slowed her steps and listened again. The screams had stopped. She might be too late, or—

You fool. It's the oldest trap in the book. There are songs about it!

She peered through the trees, hoping to find whoever it was before twilight turned into full night. As she eased forward, she heard the faint trickle of flowing water. And then a splash. Definitely a splash! Belle rushed forward, caution forgotten, and found...

...a pale, naked figure bathing in a small, bubbling pool — a spring. Belle thought blankly, irrelevantly, It must be freezing in there! Then the figure turned to face her, and all coherent thought fled.


Belle gasped. It wasn't Merida, wasn't Katrine. Bare of illusion, unmasked, the goddess's divine aura was unmistakable. Belle reached at once for the magic to transport herself away, but her concentration collapsed under the glowing-eyed stares of a dozen sleek white hounds, their ears as red as fresh-spilled blood. They had appeared from nowhere to surround her in a wide circle.

The goddess pirouetted in a cloud of sparkling silver, her hunter's garb wrapping itself back around her. Then she drew an arrow from the quiver on her belt and lifted her bow with sadistic leisure. She met Belle's gaze with a smile that promised death.

Frantic, Belle struggled to assemble her escape spell, but the hounds' eyes drove away darkness. All her power dissipated under that blinding assault.

"So, the Dark One's mate is brought to bay at last. I knew you couldn't stay hidden forever, despite that trinket you wear." Artemis eyed the brooch on Belle's cloak.

Belle flinched. Her panicked surge of magic earlier that day had been as good as a beacon to the Huntress. A rough location was all that Artemis needed, when a simple ploy was enough to draw her quarry into the open. She swallowed her fear, and said with as much dignity as she could, "Kill me, then."

Artemis chuckled. "Perhaps it is not your death I am here for."

"Don't toy with me!" Anger darkened her vision, and Belle thought about fire, but her magic had gone thin and insubstantial. She was powerless. "What do you want?"

"Any man who looks upon my unclad form must pay the price," said Artemis. "Such is the law. His life is forfeit." She nocked the arrow and aimed it at Gideon — who was indeed awake and staring with childish curiosity at the goddess.

"What? No!" Belle's blood ran cold. She tried to turn, to shield her son at least, but found herself paralyzed. "No, you can't. He's... he's just a baby. Hardly a 'man'!"

"He is twenty-eight summers old."

And that was technically true, Belle realized in horror. With the force of divine law behind her, Artemis's power was absolute. Gideon would be executed for an innocent transgression. "Please. Not my son. No... no. You're supposed to be a goddess. Where is your divine compassion? This isn't even... it's not even justice, murdering an innocent baby!"

Artemis regarded her coldly. "The law is clear. But I am not without mercy."

Despite herself, Belle felt a flicker of hope. "What... what mercy?"

"Give him to me, and his life may be spared."

"What? No!"

Artemis continued inexorably, "Reul Ghorm holds the Shears of Destiny. If she cuts your child free of his name and fate, I would have no claim over him. Raised under her guidance, he would be free of the darkness that taints you."

An image of Mother Superior's haughty, disapproving smile hovered in her mind. What fate would the fairy then bind Gideon to? Appalled, Belle clung to her son, her own tension making him squirm and whimper. "No."

"It is his best chance. Come. I will deliver the child to her."

"No," Belle said again, more weakly. Her heart sank. If this was the only way to save his life — but it would be the worst kind of betrayal. And she knew she couldn't do it. She scrabbled futilely at the threads of her magic. "Never. I'm his mother. I will always be his mother. I'll die before I let you take him from me."

"From your own mouth you have said it. So be it!" Artemis drew the arrow back and loosed it, her motion almost too quick to follow.

Belle threw herself towards the ground, trying to wrench her body free, but the magical compulsion held. She barely stirred aside an inch, and the arrow was too fast—

Time slowed. A blurry shape interposed itself between Belle and the gleaming point of the divine arrow...

...and plowed into the ground a moment later in an explosion of leaf litter.

Belle blinked in shock as time resumed its normal pace. The shape stilled, resolved itself into— "Hexie!"

The dog emitted a low growl, then lurched back to her feet, shaking with enough vigor to shrug off the leaves and dirt, but not the arrow embedded in her left shoulder.

Out of the corner of her eye, Belle saw that Artemis seemed just as amazed. But she had no time to wonder, because Hexie had reared back on her hind legs, her body elongating oddly. And then she shrugged off her form like a cloak, revealing an old, old woman underneath. She had wispy gray and white hair the same color as her fur had been, a wrinkled dark face, and hands like talons — one pushing back the dog skin while the other plucked the arrow from her flesh. The tip dripped with blood.

"You!" Artemis burst out at last. "You're dead. You broke the Accord."

Belle gaped, not understanding any of this. She still couldn't move, and now she couldn't even speak. It was as if all the meaning had drained out of her words.

"Yes," croaked the old woman in a hoarse rasp. "And I... was punished for it." She paused for breath, then continued, "But you've shed my blood." She held up the arrow. "Now you've broken the Accord. Your life is forfeit."

"I...I didn't mean... it was an accident," stammered Artemis. She stumbled back in shock. Her hounds wavered in and out of reality. "Have mercy!"

"The same mercy you offered?"

Artemis turned pale. "No." But despite her protest, she stood as if mesmerized when the old woman closed the distance between them.

"Shh. Hush. This is your fate." The old woman reached up with the blood-stained arrow and touched it to Artemis's cheek. Belle felt her guts wrench, as if some force had been pulled out of her, and then she had to blink. A flash of light burned against her eyelids, and when she opened them again, Artemis was gone. So were her hounds. A gleaming golden hind leaped away into the woods.

Belle opened her mouth to ask, but no question emerged.

The old woman answered her anyway, "She's spent one age of the world as the hunter. Let her spend the next one as prey." She opened her gnarled fingers, letting the spent arrow dissolve in a shower of dust.

At first all Belle could feel was relief. Gideon was safe. Then fear caught up with her again and she inhaled sharply, her eyes turning back to the old woman who had been 'Hexie'. Who, and what, was she? What did she want? Shaky-legged, Belle stumbled back, released from her paralysis now that Artemis was gone. She leaned heavily into a tree, fumbling for a protection spell, but her magic felt weak, exhausted. What had the woman done to her? Why?

"Peace, child, I mean you no harm." The old woman turned and hobbled over towards Belle. "Your son is in no danger from me."

Belle nodded, but still no words came out. Alarmed, she touched her lips.

"Fear not. Your loss is temporary." The old woman sighed. "I am a dead woman walking, voiceless and powerless. Hence..." She gestured between herself and Belle. "Needs must. I call upon the ancient ties."

What ancient ties? Belle wondered in confusion. Was the woman a witch of some kind? Or some enchanted animal, a shapeshifting dog — maybe a type of werewolf? Or something far more powerful? She suspected the latter.

The old woman eyed Belle, then nodded decisively. "Well. My debt to you is paid. I thank you for the opportunity."

Opportunity? What? Why? The old woman had saved her, saved Gideon. In return for Belle's intervention when the villagers had meant to kill 'Hexie'? But what kind of debt was that? Surely someone who could defeat Artemis was under no threat from mortals with sticks and stones?

The old woman seemed to sense Belle's confusion, and something darker surfaced in her eyes. "As I say, I am a dead woman. Artemis's arrow spilled the last drop of living blood from my veins. My means of action are... limited. But you will do."

Do what? Before the old woman could elaborate, a cloud of dark smoke swirled behind her. Belle caught an impression of too many sharply- angled limbs, and then a man's form solidified.


The old woman whirled. "Spider?"

"Mother," the man repeated, his voice thick and his eyes glistening with tears. He caught the old woman in an embrace. "I didn't think I would ever see you again."

The old woman patted the man called Spider — her son? — on the back. "My dear boy. One last meeting at the end."

"But you told me... not in this life."

The old woman sighed. "Indeed not. What makes you think I am alive?" Before Spider could answer, the old woman swayed, falling limp in her son's arms, as if all the breath had gone out of her.

"Mother!" Spider tottered back a step, then lowered both of them to the ground gently. "No. No, no."

But it was as the old woman had said: she was dead, her death held in abeyance until now by some magic Belle didn't understand. Belle was seized by a desperate longing to flee, to leave this madness behind. She felt a stirring of darkness within her and knew that whatever force had stopped her before was no longer in effect.

Take Gideon and run!

She couldn't. Not again. Not in the face of such grief. Not when the dead woman had saved her, saved Gideon.

She saved you for her own reasons. You cannot trust them — they're dangerous!

Belle took a deep breath, then forced herself to approach Spider. To her relief, her voice had been restored along with her access to magic. "I'm sorry. She... your mother saved my son's life. If there's anything I can do for you—"

Spider turned sharply, pinning Belle with his gaze. "There is."

Belle involuntarily fell back a step, unnerved by the intensity in his eyes. "Wh-what?"

"I need you to save them." At Belle's questioning gaze, Spider turned his face aside, but not quickly enough to hide the guilt on his face. "I...I've done something terrible and it can't be undone, but can still save them."

"Save who? What are you talking about?"

"I brought the Nyx to this realm." He looked down at the dead woman, his own hands wrapping around hers. "My mother said... she foresaw... but I was the one who opened the gates and set them loose. The demons of night."

The demons of night. Was that what had taken the butcher's son? Belle remembered the unnatural miasma of darkness that had clung to the child, and then his father. The Nyx? Anger rose like bile in her throat. "You set them loose? Why?"

Spider refused to meet her gaze. He said in a low voice, "I was commanded to. And I am sworn to obey him — Zeus."

"Zeus? Why would Zeus...?" Belle was aghast at the idea, but she could hear the truth in Spider's voice. The king of the gods was sending demons to kill children?

"Think of him as a shepherd driving his flock back into the fold, and the Nyx as his dogs."

"The boy died!" Belle hissed in outrage. Sheepdogs didn't kill the sheep they herded. No, she refused to accept any such benign analogy. This was the act of an extortionist willing to murder a few to intimidate the rest.

"And more will die, until enough prayers reach Mount Olympus to pay the price of heaven's intervention," said Spider, confirming her thought. "Only then will Zeus send his thunderbolts to drive the Nyx from the earthly realm."

"That's horrible." Belle glared at Spider. "You have to do something."

"I can't." Spider's gaze dropped in shame. "I am bound by the Accord not to oppose him. That's why it has to be you."

"Me?" Belle shook her head. "I... I saw it. The Nyx. I didn't know how to stop it. I think it wanted... wanted Gideon."

"Yes, it would." Spider reached inside his coat, retrieving something Belle couldn't see. His fingers twisted around the object. "I can't interfere directly, but if you permit, I can give your son my blessing. That will protect him from the Nyx."

Can you trust this stranger?

His mother had given her life to save them. Why would his son betray her sacrifice? Belle swallowed her doubts and nodded. "Yes. I would like that. Thank you." It was only when Spider had one hand resting on Gideon's forehead and his other ready to sprinkle some invisible "blessing" that it occurred to Belle to catch Spider's wrist mid-air. "Wait."

Spider paused, cocking his head at her. "What? It won't harm him, I swear it."

"If this can protect my son, can't it also protect all the other children?"

"Ah." After a moment, Spider shrugged. "That, I couldn't say. It's powerful, but whether it can spread so far? If you want to risk it..."

You can't! You have to protect Gideon.

She looked down at her son. He smiled back at her, eyes sparkling and innocent. Surely she had to save him first. How could that be wrong? Wasn't that what Gideon would want his mother to do? Then she swallowed, forcing herself to think. Magic always came with a price. As did selfishness. Or her stories were all lies, and she a hypocrite. No, a hero would protect everyone. Wouldn't she?

Before she could change her mind again, terrified that she was making another mistake, Belle rushed out the words, "I'll risk it. I have to try."

"As you wish." His tone was neutral, but his eyes glinted as if she had passed some unstated test. This time, when Spider sifted the blessing through his fingers, Belle could see the tint of magic coloring the specks of dust falling onto Gideon. As he worked, he explained to her how it would be held in reserve in her son's soul and how it could be shared with another.

Once she was sure she understood the technique, Belle thanked him again.

Spider nodded. "It's what she would have wanted."

"What will you do now?"

Spider sighed heavily. "What can I do?" He knelt by the dead woman and took her hand. "I'm going to bury my mother."

"Oh. Of course." Belle swallowed. "I'm so sorry."

"It was her time." Spider looked up at Belle, and for a moment he seemed to smile. "She chose this. Chose you. And... you haven't disappointed us so far." Then he gestured, and he and his mother vanished in a cloud of black smoke.

Not wanting to waste more time trudging from place to place (how far had the infection spread?), and knowing that her most powerful hunter was gone, Belle transported herself magically back to the village she had fled earlier. It was full night by now, but she found the butcher's shop dark and silent. The interior was empty, lamp and hearth unlit. All that was left behind was a lingering sense of dread, a dark spoor that Belle realized she could trace.

She followed it to a farm on the outskirts of the village. The trail led into a meadow. It wasn't until she tripped over a wooden marker and the soft crumble of freshly dug dirt that she understood. They hadn't let the butcher bury his son on hallowed ground. But why here? Not wanting to let any more lives be lost to misunderstandings, Belle hid herself under an obfuscation charm and went to the farmhouse to suss out the situation before revealing herself.

She walked into a tangle of grief, misery, and angry recrimination. The butcher was there — lost, silent, and forgotten — a dark lump hunched over a stool in the corner. The Nyx had taken its toll from him, then moved on. Another child now lay ill in the bed in the loft upstairs, while the mother blamed her husband for his compassion. She sat at a work bench with a basket of mending, needle barely pausing as she berated him.

"You let him across this threshold. He's cursed, unclean." The farmwife's strident voice barely hid an undercurrent of fear. "I went to the temple to pray for our family, but you... you let evil in at the front door."

"He's my brother," protested the farmer. "The boy was my nephew. I couldn't turn them away."

"And now our daughter lies dying," hissed the farmwife. "Thank the gods her brother and sister were with me at the temple."

The farmer sighed. "They'll be safe enough at your sister's house."

"And what about our Gretchen? We must take her to the temple!"

The farmer glanced at his brother, then back at his wife. He said in a low voice, "We can't. The priest won't help us. He'll condemn her as he did my nephew. He wouldn't even let the body be buried on sacred ground!"

"We'll make him help."

"He's already painted the witch mark on our wall."

"Then we'll go ourselves, make our pleas directly to Olympus. The Great Mother loves all our children. She will listen!" She grabbed her husband by the hands and made as if to drag him to the door.

The farmer stayed stubbornly in place, pulling her back. "She didn't listen to Jakob, did she? We have no money or power, only this little patch of dirt. The gods hear the prayers of kings and priests. Curse them, I say, if they won't save a little boy."

"Then what, we give up? Never. We'll find someone."

"The healer's already seen her. She said she could do nothing. Only told me to give Gretchen such comfort as we are able." The farmer sighed and dropped his hands. "Please, let's not quarrel. If..."

"No. Don't say it."

The farmer nodded.

This conversation wasn't going to end well. This night wasn't going to end well. Belle reminded herself to be brave, and stepped back outside to knock on the door, dropping her concealment. When the farmer answered the door, she introduced herself as a traveling healer. "I heard that there is a sick child in this house." She jerked her chin back, suggesting sources back in the village. "As you see, I'm a mother myself. I only want to help. May I?"

The farmer glanced down at Gideon's face, then back at Belle. Finally, he stepped aside and nodded, gesturing at her to come in. "Thank you."

The farmwife had risen from the bench, needlework forgotten. Hope and suspicion warred in her gaze. "Who are you? Were you sent by the gods? Or—" She made the sign against evil. "—are you one of the fey come to ensnare us?"

"Gods." Belle huffed at the irony. She shook her head, but then another thought stilled her. "Sent by the gods? Perhaps I was." Though they never said as much, 'Hexie' and her son must have been of that kindred. In retrospect, it was obvious. "And I have no plans to ensnare anyone, but..."

"You're fey!" The farmer grabbed at the axe balanced by the door and swung it up awkwardly. "Get out!"

Belle retreated a step. "No, I only meant—" She took a careful breath, holding the darkness locked down. She didn't want to scare these people with magic, but she didn't want to lie to them, either. "The gods who sent me aren't the ones worshipped in temples, and what does it matter what race I am?"

"Not worshipped in temples? Is it demons, then?" The farmwife made the sign against evil again. "I'll not let you take my Gretchen's soul!"

"I'm trying to protect her from demons!" Belle pleaded. "I'm a mother, too. I know you're afraid, because I'm afraid, too. What if something happened to my son and I couldn't help him? That's why... that's why I'm here. I think I can help your daughter."

The couple hesitated. They glanced at each other, then briefly at the butcher, who had not moved or spoken in all this time. He had shown no flicker of recognition at Belle's appearance, but when Gideon babbled softly, the butcher turned his head towards them.

"Too late," he mumbled. "Too late, too late."

"Shut up," hissed the farmwife. "Don't say that. It's bad luck." She turned back to Belle. "And you. Who are you? You talk and talk. Were you the storyteller? The one who cursed our village?"

"I didn't! No matter what your priest told you, I came here for the sake of peace."

"Why should we believe you?" countered the farmer.

"Look, I understand your fear. I'm a stranger. How can you trust me?" Belle remembered her own doubts about Spider. You still can't be sure... "Fear can save your life, but it can also be a trap. Sometimes you need to take a leap of faith."

The farmwife scowled at her, but something seemed to shift in her eyes. She touched her husband's arm, nodding at him to lower the axe. "Fine. I'll trust you with my child if you trust us with yours."


An image flashed through Belle's mind — a sharp metal hook pressed to Gideon's neck. Her own father couldn't be trusted, much less these strangers. Then her own words returned to her, and she winced at her own hypocrisy. Was it a foolish risk, or a necessary leap of faith? Belle still could not be sure of the difference.

The farmwife saw Belle's hesitation, and her face shuttered as suspicion rekindled. She barked in bitter triumph, "Ha. I knew it. You stay away from my daughter, witch."

The farmer glanced at his wife anxiously. He whispered, "But... what if she really can help? You said we should find someone."

The farmwife's hand tightened on her husband's arm. "She found us. You think that's a coincidence?"

"I followed the trail of the demon." Belle bit her lip, not sure how to allay their suspicions. Except—

You can't put Gideon at risk again!

She was asking them to put their daughter at risk. How fair was it to ask them to trust her when she didn't trust them?

It's your son, not some abstract principle, at stake here.

But she had told Spider she had to protect all the children. She could hardly back out now at the first sign of difficulty. Or was she plunging headlong into another disaster? She knew she hadn't always trusted the right people, but she also knew that the darkness could push her too far into paranoia. Yet it wasn't always wrong. If she ignored its warnings, she could be putting them all in danger.

And if she stood here paralyzed by indecision, the farmer's daughter would die whether Belle reasoned her way to the optimum choice or not.

"All right. I'll trust you." In the end, she couldn't abandon anyone's child to suffer such a dark fate. And once introduced, they were no longer strangers.

"I'm called Lise," said the farmwife as she took temporary custody of Gideon. "This is my daughter, Gretchen."

Gretchen lay asleep in the loft. She had not wakened even to her parents' raised voices earlier. The same unnatural miasma hung over her as had consumed the butcher's boy. Belle moved closer, preparing to share Gideon's protection with Gretchen.

"Mistress Belle, wait." It was the farmwife again. "Magic doesn't come cheaply. What's the price of your help?"

Belle paused, troubled. Fool. You leaped into this blind. As usual. She bit back the thought and answered, "I can't be sure, but I promise it's no more than what I pay, to protect my own child." She glanced uneasily at Gideon, resting peacefully enough in Lise's arms. "If there is a price for your daughter, it is the same for my son."

Lise nodded. She said, her voice now barely above a whisper, "Save her."

Belle tried.

It didn't work. It didn't work.

"So. It was you who cursed us, after all." Lise's eyes glittered with tears and her voice cracked as she spat her accusation at Belle. "Don't toy with me, witch! Remember I have your son." And her arm tightened around Gideon's neck...

"No!" Belle reached out reflexively, but she stopped herself with an effort. "No. I swear, I didn't. I know there's a way to save your daughter. I just need to think!"

To her relief, they backed down, giving her the moment she had asked for. She couldn't concentrate, not when the farmwife had her son in her grip, held too tightly to extract without hurting him. Held too tightly. "That's it. The Nyx, the demon, is wound too tightly around your daughter's soul — feeding. The spell will only bind the creature to her. I have to go into the dreamscape and try to separate them."

Easily said, less easily done, but Belle remembered enough of Rumple's spell to recast it from the memory etched in her own soul. She dove headfirst into the dream to find the girl, Gretchen.

Instead, Belle herself became lost.

The Nyx was all around her, a creeping hunger against her skin. A clammy fog insinuating itself into her thoughts, it fed on her hopes, her future...

She couldn't find the child anywhere. Instead, it was Gideon who found her. He appeared out of the fog, wreathed in fire, his form that of the child she and and Rumple had once summoned to the burning room of the Sleeping Curse. "Mama!"

"Gideon! What are you doing here?" Belle rushed to embrace him. The clinging miasma fell away from them in rivulets of darkness. Spider's gift had worked, then. Her son was protected. Weak with relief, she held him tightly. "Go back, baby. It's not safe here."

"I came to help you, Mama."

"Oh, Gideon." Guilt moistened her eyes. "You're just a child, you don't have to..."

"I want to help," the boy insisted. He showed her his hands, hands bright with flames. "See? I can help you fight the demon thing."

He could, she realized. Together, they could slash this darkness apart and drive it away in shreds. "You're right. Gideon..." She lifted her head and glared out into the void. But then she remembered. "We can't. That little girl is still lost somewhere in there. If we hurt the darkness, we'll hurt her, too. She'll die."

"Oh." Gideon's face fell. "Can't you find her?"

"I've been trying," Belle said. She shut her eyes, ashamed to let her son down with her failure. "But I... I can't. The Nyx is hiding her. I can't sense her anywhere."

"Oh," Gideon repeated. Then he tugged at her sleeve until she opened her eyes again. "What about Papa? Can't he help us?"

Now she really wanted to cry. "Gideon... no. Your papa is..." She choked on the words. "He's... I know he wants to help, but he can't be here right now, ok?"

"That's because you have to call him first," Gideon explained innocently.

"It's not that easy."

"He has to come, because the little girl is lost," Gideon insisted. "If you summon Papa in her name, no matter what bonds are on him, he has the right to answer the call."

"What?" Belle was shaken out of her dark thoughts by bewilderment. It almost sounded like Gideon was quoting back a lesson. But neither she nor Rumple had ever said anything like that before, so— "What do you mean? Who told you that?"

"My grandmother," Gideon answered, as if it were obvious. "She told me. The Black Fairy answers the calls of lost children. But she died, and Papa is her son, so he's the Black Fairy now."

Belle's jaw dropped, speechless at her son's bold assertion. Could he be right? The Black Fairy had taken lost children. As had Peter Pan. Could they have chosen to help them, instead? Rumple wasn't like his parents. He had always protected children, hadn't he? It just hadn't occurred to Belle that it could be an actual magical part of his bloodline. She remembered the Blue Fairy telling her that the Black Fairy had been meant to protect children. Had that been the truth? In retrospect, so much else had been a lie — the Blue Fairy manipulating her to interfere in that first re-union between mother and son — that Belle had put it all out of her mind. "But your papa isn't... is he even a fairy? He's the Dark One. He always said that his magic didn't mix well with fairy magic!"

"Papa can do it," Gideon said with a child's confidence. "I saw him."

"You saw him?" Belle asked faintly.

"In dreams."

"And this is a dream, now. Right." Belle thought it over. If Gideon was right — she hardly dared to hope — she had to try. "Well, here goes..."

Gideon squeezed her hand in encouragement. "Use both their names, Mama." As if she were the novice, he explained solemnly, "Magic is more powerful when you use names."

So it was with a huff of laughter that Belle finally called out to the void, "Rumplestiltskin! Rumplestiltskin, in Gretchen's name I summon thee! Rumplestiltskin!"

Chapter Text

The cloak of shadows spread night across his vision, each soul a star. Rumplestiltskin let them show him what they would. One of the stars dimmed, its light occluded by fear.

Someone was calling his name.

Where his name was, he was. It wasn't a spell; it was a natural law, a manifestation of what he was when wrapped in his mother's cloak. Wherever a child in need called to him, he existed.

He saw her first, a girl of seven or eight years, caught in the darkness. Like a serpent, it tightened its coils around her, squeezing the light from her future.

Gretchen. The girl's name had been linked to his own in the summons, but forbidden to speak, he could only stretch out a hand towards her.

She recoiled in fear. "Who are you?" It was not the same voice that had called him.

Then he saw the others standing next to her and realized who had summoned him. Belle! And at her side, his hand in hers, Gideon. Rumplestiltskin's eyes went wide, but he still couldn't speak. What was she doing here? She was supposed to be safe in the Dark Castle with their son.

"You have to help her," Belle begged him. "The little girl, Gretchen, I can't find her. The Nyx took her soul. I know... I know you're trapped. To call you like this, when I can't even free you... I'm sorry. But this child is dying, and I didn't know what else to do. If there's any way..."

Belle. He longed to go to her, but she was insubstantial, a shadow inside a dream. Only the girl, Gretchen, was real.

Nor was Gideon real, but his words reached his father nevertheless. "Papa, you have to protect her."

The little girl peered at the two phantoms, her jaws parted in surprise. Then she looked back at Rumplestiltskin. She gulped. "Did she mean me? Am I dying?"

She was. But he couldn't tell her that. He couldn't tell her anything. He had no way to secure her trust.

"Can you help me?"

He couldn't answer. He could only wait, his hand outstretched.

"Rumple, can you see her?" Belle whispered, following the direction of his gaze, but apparently finding nothing there. Looking blindly into the darkness, she addressed it, "Gretchen. Don't be afraid. He's a friend. Just take his hand. Please."

Gretchen took one hesitant step towards him, then another. Darkness twined around her, but she stretched out a hand, breaking free for a moment. In that moment, her fingers made contact with his.

That was all it took. In a magical sense, the deal was struck, and Rumplestiltskin was able to draw the child into the shadow of his own aura. One form of darkness repelled the other, laying its own claim on the innocent soul. Ignoring the voice that cackled in gleeful pleasure at its fear, he met Belle's eyes, hoping for her understanding despite his enforced muteness.

She nodded, the flash of her smile enough to make his heart constrict.

Belle! But the alien darkness was reaching for him, for the soul he carried, and he dared not stay. He let the cloak of shadows lift him back into the ether. Dream currents carried them to Neverland. He landed on a starlit beach, the girl still clutching his hand.

Two fairies swooped in to meet them, assuming human form as they touched ground. One was Tinker Bell, the other a stranger in brown leather with her hair in two dark braids.

"Rumplestiltskin." Tinker Bell eyed him, then his small companion. "What's this? Are you putting the Shadow out of a job?"

"Rumplestiltskin?" The other fairy seemed taken aback. "You're Fiona's son?"


"The Black Fairy," Tinker Bell said. "Not that any of us were on such familiar terms with her as to use her name, except for Tiger Lily here. A friend of your mother's, apparently."

"Like her, I was banished. But it's been a long time since I called her friend." Tiger Lily sighed. "We... parted ways when her path led her to the dark realm and she began taking children there."

"Tiger Lily has been in the Land of Untold Stories, but she came back over with Hyde," Tinker Bell explained. "And when she heard that Neverland was restored, she came here."


Tiger Lily narrowed her eyes at Rumplestiltskin in suspicion. "And now you're carrying on just like your mother? You have the cloak and you're taking more?"

He took a step back, unable to speak to defend himself. Gretchen clung to him. Poor girl, trapped between monsters.

Tinker Bell laid a calming hand on the other fairy's forearm. "No, I don't think so. He... he wouldn't hurt a child. If he brought her here, it was for a reason."

"What reason?"

"I don't know." Tinker Bell let go of Tiger Lily and moved to crouch in front of the girl. "Why did he bring you here?"

Gretchen looked at her warily. "Are you fairies? Like fairy godmothers?"

"That's right," said Tinker Bell.

"Well, I'm more of a fairy gardener," muttered Tiger Lily.

Tinker Bell glanced back in surprise. "Really? Blue says there haven't been any fairy gardeners in centuries!"

"How convenient for her. Reul Ghorm never met a magic tree she didn't prefer as a puppet or a wardrobe." Tiger Lily grimaced. "She exiled us long ago, knowing we would never support her plans."

"Well, she's not here now. But yes, we're fairies. I'm Tinker Bell, this is Tiger Lily, and your silent friend is Rumplestiltskin, the Dark One."

Gretchen squeaked in alarm, and Rumplestiltskin sighed inwardly, letting her pull free to scamper a few steps away from all of them.

"Don't worry. You're safe here. This is a dream. Neverland is where children come when they need to. And fairies." Tinker Bell lowered her voice to add, "But don't call him that. He'd rather be a grumpy crocodile."

Rumplestiltskin scowled, but couldn't help glancing at his hands. If anything, they were even scalier and less human than ever, tipped with black claws. The dreamscape had cast him as a monster, but there was nothing he could do about it.

"A bit glittery to be a crocodile," said Tiger Lily. "What do you look like when you're awake, I wonder?"

It was more than idle chatter. Though the two fairies were at first occupied with soothing the little girl, he was the next item on their agenda. Tinker Bell obviously guessed something of Rumplestiltskin's captivity, and meant to send Tiger Lily to the Enchanted Forest to investigate. Gretchen's presence had thrown them for a loop, but it was ultimately just another mystery to add to their list.

Gretchen paid them little attention. In the way of dreams, she soon forgot her fear and was happily meandering along the beach, collecting shells in her skirt. But Neverland could only be a temporary respite, both for the girl and Rumplestiltskin himself. Still linked to her name, he heard when it was called across the night. As gently as he could, Rumplestiltskin picked her up and let his cloak carry them back across the ether.

He would wake up back in his cell. As for Gretchen, he could only hope that Belle had been able to save the girl's body while her soul had gone wandering.

"Rumple!" Belle panicked for a moment when his ghostly image snuffed itself out, along with the girl, but then reason caught up. This was exactly why she had summoned him: he had found Gretchen and taken her away, just as Belle had hoped. She couldn't afford to waste the time Rumple had given her.

Combining her power with Gideon's, Belle sent a lash of fire into the Nyx. Light flared, driving back the suffocating darkness. She burned it out from where it had burrowed into the child's flesh, scouring thoughts and memories until every trace was gone. Then she sealed the scars with the blessing Spider had given them.

"All done, Gideon. Time to wake up," she told her son.

Distracted by the brightness of the sunlight on her face, it took Belle a while to realize that she had been tied to a chair. It was a depressingly familiar situation for her, but this time was different: she had the power to free herself whenever she wanted. It was an intoxicating feeling — no wonder Rumple was so addicted to magic. For a dazed moment, she saw it in her mind's eye. She could do much more than merely free herself.

Ungrateful peasants! Give them a taste of your power. Make them beg for your forgiveness.

Belle gasped, blinking herself fully awake enough to get a grip on herself. No. She couldn't let the situation escalate.

Already, the farmer had pressed a knife under her chin, and his wife still held Gideon in her grip. "You were calling for...for Rumplestiltskin. I've heard that name before. You're in league with the Dark One!"

Forcing herself to take careful, calming breaths, Belle kept her voice low as she answered, "I did call for him. But only to save your daughter."

"Save?" Lise scoffed, incredulous.

Belle fixed her gaze on her son. If that woman tries to hurt him... "Yes. She's safe now." Belle prayed that she was right. "Go on. Call her name. Wake her."

The farmer and his wife exchanged a skeptical glance. Lise turned back to her daughter. Keeping Gideon under one arm like a sack of flour, she reached out hesitantly with her other hand to stroke her daughter's cheek. "Gretchen? Gretchen, wake up, love."

The girl stirred under the touch. Gretchen opened her eyes and murmured in a sleepy voice, "Mama?"

Belle let out a relieved breath. She's alive. She's alive! We did it, Rumple. We saved her. And they would save the others. Wherever the Nyx hunted, she would follow, snatching its prey from the jaws of darkness. More than that, there was another story she had to tell. A story about Rumplestiltskin, the protector of children. A monster with a kind heart. A name to be called upon when all other hope was lost. A man who deserved his freedom...

For the first time in months, Belle allowed herself to believe that she might actually succeed.

The Eye of Olympus was said to be all-seeing, all-knowing. That was not entirely true, but the images that Hera called up now were clear enough.

The queen of the gods had come here alone to view the results of her husband's handiwork. Zeus didn't have the stomach to look upon his victims, but Hera knew they had a duty to know the suffering they had unleashed. She was prepared to count each death and exact the price from those who opposed Olympus. From the ones who had forced the gods to this extremity.

So she looked into the pool. And was surprised. There were far fewer deaths than she had anticipated. How...?

She looked deeper. The children were being saved...

By the Dark One and his mate?!

Hera slapped a palm into the pool, destroying the image. Hatred flared in her heart as she wished she could do the same to the two meddlers. Damn the grail! Damn its minions! If only they would submit to the divine plan, then there would be no need for any of this. It was an obsolete relic. Why couldn't it have retired gracefully? Why did it have to be so infuriatingly obstructive?

How dare it save lives the gods had condemned?

Then Hera's blood ran cold, the snarl melting from her lips as she realized what she was thinking. Fury drained away, revealing the guilt that lay underneath. With a trembling hand, she calmed the water until the image returned. She looked upon the peaceful face of a sleeping child. An innocent. The child would wake up again, no thanks to her. Hera shuddered in horror. She had blamed its saviors. What had she been thinking? How could she ever have agreed to this vile scheme?

She slumped back from the pool, covering her eyes with her hands, fighting back tears. When had she become the villain of this tale? What had happened to her? To the idealistic young goddess dreaming of overseeing a shining new order? She had once envisioned a peaceful realm bound by love and True Love. Humans, a young and vigorous race, would supersede the barbaric, loveless fey.

When Zeus had formed his alliance and overthrown Kronos, her dream had become reality. Almost reality. There was always just one more challenge, one more obstacle to overcome. A compromise here, a sacrifice there, and then everything would be perfect. Only it had come to this. Her husband sent monsters to torment the mortals, and she was complicit.

A shining new order? Hardly. Hera realized in shock that sometime in the last millennium they had become the old order. She laughed bitterly at the irony of her having once castigated the Holy Grail for being a relic of a forgotten age. Who was the relic now? Hera hadn't changed, but the grail had reshaped itself, been reborn. Its power was now wielded by mortal souls to protect the earth from the gods.

Was this the future she had fought for? A future where the gods committed atrocities, but only for the best of reasons? How far would they go to preserve their vision? Where would it end?

Only in death. Hera flinched away from the thought. She was no seer, but even she could see the writing on the wall. If they hadn't achieved perfection after a thousand years, then a thousand more would only breed new opposition. There was no end. As long as they had enemies, Zeus would never stop. And even if Hera wished otherwise, she stood alone now.

No. There had to be another way. Hera had to choose another way, or there would be no hope of saving her vision — if there was anything left to save.

Hera returned to the Olympian palace. The halls were quiet, as they had been for years. Empty. Even on feast days, she and Zeus now presided over a table seated with their lessers: minions and exalted shades, but never their equals. They had no friends among the other pantheons (for they had all been banished to the Land Without Stories) and none left of their own family. One by one, their brothers and sisters had fallen away to death or exile. Artemis had been the last.

Loneliness threatened to overwhelm her. How long until he rids himself of you, too? she couldn't help wondering. She had comforted herself with the thought that her husband valued her too much, perhaps even loved her in his distant way, despite his infidelities. She turned a blind eye to his dalliances, assuring herself that she was his only true match. She been deluding herself. When Zeus finally secured his future, he wouldn't need her anymore.

Now, now she doubted. Perhaps she and Zeus had never shared the same vision after all. The future Zeus envisioned wasn't for the betterment of the human race, but rather built to reflect his own glory. And his glorious new world would create its own shadows. Shadows that had to be fought. Shadows that welcomed all the survivors of the previous age that Hera had sought to sweep away. And now those shadows saved innocents, innocents that Hera was meant to protect, from horrors the gods had loosed upon them.

Once Zeus found out, he would not tolerate such resistance to his will. The horror would only escalate. More innocents would suffer. The wedding she had placed such hopes in was already tainted.

The Final Battle contained the seeds of its own sequel.

Chapter Text

Time was running out for Belle.

With midsummer only a week away, the roads were full of armed peasantry on their way to Snow White's muster. First would come a royal wedding, and then the war would begin. If Belle was to rescue Rumplestiltskin, it would have to be now. Because she knew she would only have one chance, she didn't try to break blindly into the palace. Instead, she found a hiding spot high on a hilltop, far from any trails, where the smoke from the war camp was only a distant smudge in the sky.

Knowing that accurate intelligence was crucial to her mission, Belle painted runes of sight on the back of a mirror and cast a scrying spell. Using hairs she had collected from villagers on their way to the midsummer muster, she gained enough affinity to get a closer look despite the wards the fairies had laid over the area.

For months, she had talked and talked, until she thought her tongue would fall off, but had it made a difference? She tried to count the numbers, but more arrived every hour. To her despair, all her effort had barely made a dent. Then a new group of arrivals caught her eye. She didn't realize why until the ragged trio was accosted on the road by a squad of earlier recruits.

"Where are your weapons?" demanded their leader, his voice barely audible through the mirror. He aimed a spear in accusation at the new arrivals, his followers outnumbering them four to one.

Of course. All the others had come with their spears and bows, or axes and pitchforks at the least. These three were empty-handed. Belle's heart leaped in joy. They had listened! She would no longer be the only voice for peace.

"We follow the teachings of the Storyteller," said one of the trio. The other two nodded in agreement. Their hands touched the wild dog roses they wore pinned to their chests, and Belle silently cheered them on. "We stand with our fey brethren as people of peace."

"Peace?" sneered the leader of the other squad. He flicked his spear out, faster than the eye could follow, ripping the flower off his opposite number and tossing it to the ground. As he ground his boot over the pink petals, he spat out a curse, then said, "This 'Storyteller' of yours spreads lies to weaken our realm. Just how gullible are you?"

"Traitors! Cowards!" came the chorus of angry shouts. "Godless heretics! Fey-loving scum!"

The leader held up a hand to silence his followers. "But seeing as you had the guts to show up here, I'll give you one chance. Throw away the damn flowers, pick up a spear, and we'll say no more about it, hmm?"

"No." The three new arrivals drew closer together. Though they looked pale and shaken, their faces were defiant. "This war is wrong. If we break the peace, then we're the monsters."

"Please, sir. We can't, not another war. Our village already lost last year's harvest. We'll starve," said the youngest of the three. "My mother is sick. She can't..."

"Flowers won't keep your mother out of an ogre's cooking pot, you stupid boy. We will." The leader slapped his spear to emphasize the point. "Now are you going to stand with the queen or not?"

"N-not when sh-she's wrong." The youth's fingers flew to his mouth as the words left it, as if frightened by his own temerity. But there was no taking it back now.

The others growled, their faces turning red at the insult to their queen. After that, it went from shouting to shoving to worse.

No! Belle watched in shock as the three protesters were knocked down, then punched and kicked mercilessly to within an inch of their lives.

When one of Snow's guard captains showed up to stop the one-sided brawl, Belle was relieved at first. But relief turned to horror, as an impromptu trial by the captain led to a brutal sentence: a public whipping that only reinforced the mood for war that permeated the camp. And as she continued watching, dipping into the recent past for a more complete picture, Belle saw that this was no isolated incident. Handfuls of other pacifists were mixed in with the war host, but their pleas for peace were met with violence.

How could Snow White and David tolerate this? Did they even know what happened outside their palace, among the common ranks? But when one of the protesters died of his injuries that evening, the royals could no longer pretend ignorance.

He died for you, for your cause, cackled the darkness. And you didn't even have to lay a hand on him...

Shut up, Belle hissed at the gleeful inner voice. She had never meant to start some kind of cult. Yet here they were. And that connection through their beliefs was enough for Belle to follow his story into the palace, to listen in on conversations that had been out of her reach before.

"We can't go on like this," said Snow White, the worry clear in her voice.

"A martyr." David sighed and shook his head. "That's the last thing we needed at a time like this."

"I don't understand. Our people always supported us before," said Snow White, "whether we were fighting the Evil Queen or King George."

"Well, battles and armies aren't kind to the land, between the deaths, the trampled fields, and the lost time. That's even assuming we win. A loss doesn't bear thinking about. Not surprising that some folk are grumbling," David replied. "But it would have come to nothing if it weren't for a few troublemakers stirring up the ranks."

Troublemakers? You're the ones starting a war! Belle wanted to protest, but the images in the mirror continued on, oblivious to her anger.

"What can we do about it?"

"That guard captain of your has been... having them whipped," said David, shaking his head. "He said that without strict discipline, morale would suffer."

"But having them whipped?" Snow White winced. "David, this has to stop. They are still our people."

After a pause, David said, "We can't win this war without unity. The dissenters are technically traitors — I'll have them arrested."


"Just for their own safety," he amended. "We'll pardon and release them once the war is over."

"I suppose that's best. At least this way they won't be at each other's throats," Snow agreed at last. "All right. You arrange that with the guards, and I'll go address the people. They need to understand how important it is for us to all work together — that this is the only way to win back our homeland from the monsters."

What about working together for PEACE? Belle wanted to scream at the mirror. But Snow had her mind made up that the fey were monsters, and she refused to share her homeland with monsters. Biting her lip in frustration, Belle waved a hand over the mirror, dismissing the image. She was in no mood to hear another of Snow White's speeches.

"Face it, we'll always be 'monsters' to her," came a voice from behind her.

Belle screeched and grabbed for Gideon. "Who... Owlflower? What—?"

Before she could react, Owlflower slapped a hand around Belle's wrist, and everything dimmed for a moment.

Anti-magic cuff! How could you be so careless? snarled the darkness, but it was no use. She was powerless now. Distracted by her scrying spell, Belle had not noticed when Owlflower had slipped through her defenses. Damned spook!

"Let me go!" Belle insisted futilely.

"That is not my decision to make. I ask your forgiveness." Owlflower twirled her hand in an all-too-familiar gesture. "Come along."

"No!" But it was too late. A cloud of pale green smoke enveloped them and took them elsewhere.

Time was running out for Regina.

In a week she would be dragged willy-nilly back to the Underworld. The only question was whether she would be going alone. A month ago, the blasted Blue Fairy had condescended to visit Regina, flaunting the Shears of Destiny which she planned to use to annul Regina's marriage with Emma.

"The Savior's path shall turn back to the light once your malign influence is cut away." Blue smiled beatifically. "All shall come to pass as was foretold."

"Great. Why bother telling me?"

"I am here to give you a chance. As I say, light will inevitably triumph over darkness, but if you cooperate, it can triumph sooner."

Regina snorted. "No, thanks."

"Not even for Henry? He once hoped for better from you. There was a time when you tried to turn towards the light, Regina."

"Oh, now I'm 'Regina'? What exactly do you want?"

"If I am to free the Savior, I must wait until midsummer's noon." The Blue Fairy proffered the golden shears. "But if you are willing, you can release her now. Think about it. A last good deed to lighten the weight of your guilt before you are banished to the Underworld for eternity."

"You must be joking," Regina said flatly. She crossed her arms over her chest without even looking at the shears. "What does Emma have to say about all this?"

"I have her best interests at heart," Blue replied. "Do you?"

"Stop waving those bloody scissors in my face and get the hell out of my room," snarled Regina, but deep in her heart, hope sparked again. Blue was not nearly as confident as she pretended to be, or she wouldn't be here now, trying to get ahead of her own plans. Things must not be going as smoothly as Blue wished. And they were afraid to let Regina see Emma. There was still a chance...

After the Blue Fairy had left, Regina redoubled her efforts to escape. But no matter what she tried, she couldn't get the constraining cuff off her wrist. As for breaking out in a more mundane fashion, she ran up against the wards laid all around her chamber. The stench of fairy dust pervaded the air. No one came in or out without Blue's permission. Well, if she couldn't leave, Regina thought, she could at least get a message out — but Blue had made that difficult, too. The rotation of palace servants who attended to Regina's needs was set randomly. Worse, they all hated the Evil Queen and refused to listen to a word she said.

I'm different now.

Regina tried to convince them that she had changed for the better, that she was no longer the capricious tyrant who had killed their fathers,  mothers, sisters, brothers, friends, and neighbors... It was no use. They had not been there to witness her redemption in the Land Without Magic. The servants were all chosen from the forgotten people of the Dark Curse. They had never been to Storybrooke, had never met Mayor Mills, and knew Henry only as the Savior's son and Queen Snow's grandson.

None of them would listen.

Until today. The maid who brought her dinner was no one she had seen before. Something in the way she was too slow to duck her head as she stole furtive glances at Regina aroused her suspicions.

"Wait," Regina called out as the maid was about to leave the room.

The maid stopped, her hand dropping from the door. "M'lady?"

Leaving dinner on the table, Regina stood up and approached the maid for a closer inspection. The woman froze, keeping her eyes downcast, the very picture of frightened submission, but it was a lie. Regina — the Evil Queen — had instilled fear in too many commoners to be fooled now. She reached out to finger the fabric of the maid's sleeve. It felt too stiff. And if hand and eye disagreed—

"You're under a glamour," Regina said softly. "Who are you?"

The maid hissed between her teeth. Then she shook her head. "I'm the person who brought your dinner today. M'lady."

Regina grabbed the maid by the wrist and pulled her back into the room. "No games. Who the hell are you? I may not have magic right now, but if I shout for the guards..."

"Please don't." The maid frowned, then sighed. "Very well." The glamour dropped away, revealing a leather-clad stranger, her palace manners replaced by something wilder and more arrogant. "My name is Tiger Lily."

"You... you're a fairy!" Regina's grip loosened at the realization and she stepped back in surprise. "What's that blue bug playing at now?"

Tiger Lily snorted. "Oh, I don't work for Reul Ghorm."

"Then what are you doing here?" demanded Regina, but she softened her expression. A renegade fairy could be just the ally she needed.

"I was curious." Tiger Lily finally turned to meet her eyes directly. "About the strange tales I've been hearing about the Penitent Queen."

"The what?"

"They say she repented of her evil deeds and made a pilgrimage to the Underworld, where she was anointed by the fates and sent back to bring peace to the realm."

Regina laughed incredulously. "Who says that? Ever since the curse was undone, all I've heard is 'Evil Queen' this and 'Evil Queen' that."

"Mmm. Tales of the Penitent Queen die before they reach this palace. Reul Ghorm sees to that." Tiger Lily eased the door open and peeked outside before returning her attention to Regina. "Did you know there have been petitioners?"

"Petitioners? What petitioners?"

"Not many, but a few. People asking for your release. And even more surprisingly, for the Dark One's release."

Regina scoffed. "That's never going to happen. So what did Snow have to say to them?"

Tiger Lily shrugged. "Nothing. Reul Ghorm makes sure that these petitions never reach the queen. She'd rather not let royal ears be dirtied by such heresy."

"Heresy? Is that what she's calling it now?" Regina clenched her fists in frustration. "Listen, you know she has everyone — everyone here at the palace — under this... this delusional reality, right?"

"Yes, but it's not like any spell I've ever seen," admitted Tiger Lily. "I have no idea how it can be reversed."

"I know how," Regina asserted, but at the fairy's narrow-eyed look, corrected herself, "At least, if you get me out of here, I think I can free Emma and Henry, and we can figure out the rest..."

"What about the Dark One? Do you know who has the dagger?"

Regina grimaced. "No. I tried to ask him, but I think he's been commanded not to speak."

Tiger Lily nodded.

"You want to free him!" Regina guessed suddenly, and the fairy's expression confirmed it. "Why?"

"I have my reasons."

"Never mind." Urgency wore away the last of Regina's patience. "Look. We all need to work together, but I... I don't have much time left. That part about the Underworld was true, and I'll be forced back to it at midsummer. So it has to be now."

Eventually, Regina convinced Tiger Lily to smuggle her out of her prison. For a few delirious moments, she felt freedom within her grasp. But the Blue Fairy had squid ink.

Squid ink. Regina could have wept at the unfairness of it all, except that she and Tiger Lily were both magically immobilized by the squid ink.

Blue sent Regina back to her tower and after shrinking the renegade fairy down, locked Tiger Lily the gods knew where.

A week. Seven days and counting until all hope was extinguished.

Belle found herself transported in an instant to the gates of what had once been Regina's castle, but was now the center of a martial gathering far too similar to the one she had just left. What the elves and ogres lacked in numbers, they made up in magic and size. Belle shuddered and turned her eyes back to the castle, looking up at the unfamiliar flags flying there.

"The war banners of the Elven King and the nine tribes of the Fomori," said Owlflower, following her gaze. "Come. The duke awaits."

Belle let herself be led inside, where Yvanne held court in the great hall.

"Ah, there you are, your highness." The elven ambassador — now duke — bowed in greeting. "Welcome home. So to speak."

"Why have you kidnapped me?" Belle held her son close. If Yvanne tried to use Gideon as... as leverage against her, she vowed to kill them all.

"Your grandfather wants you kept safe."

Safe? Belle forced herself to breathe calmly. She couldn't afford to lose it, not now, not here. "Sir — Duke Yvanne. What have you done? Why is there an army camped outside, your grace?"

"They wouldn't all fit inside the castle," Yvanne responded lightly.

"It's no joking matter!" Belle was furious at what she felt to be a betrayal of the deal they had made. "I've been telling everyone you're the People of Peace, and here you are armed to the teeth."

"Well, we haven't started fighting yet, have we? But if we do, we won't give up our lives cheaply."

"The treaty—"

"—is worth the paper it's written on, at the moment. No, we won't break a deal with the Dark One, but Reul Ghorm and her puppets have him imprisoned. If he can't hold up his end of the deal..." Yvanne shook her head. "We can't permit them to take you as well. Owlflower, show your kinswoman to her chambers."

"Of course." Owlflower touched Belle's wrist. "Belle. This way."

Belle gritted her teeth, shooting Yvanne a last baleful glare before following Owlflower. In the privacy of the guest chamber, Belle rounded on her aunt. "I thought you were going to stay at the Dark Castle to protect the people there!"

Owlflower shrugged. "They're safe enough, but they're isolated. They sent me to gather news of the world outside those walls. Besides, your friend Mulan was worried about you."

"At least she didn't try to lock me up," Belle said bitterly. She sat down with Gideon on the bed, a luxury she might have appreciated under different circumstances.

Owlflower took a seat in the corner. She gave Belle a sidelong glance and said softly, "Your grandfather outlived all twelve of his children. Are you surprised he would do anything he could to preserve your life?"

"I suppose not." Her father was no better, thought Belle. Worse, maybe. At least the elven king had seemed to accept her husband and child.

Owlflower nodded, her own guilt left unspoken, but Belle could see the regret in her eyes. Silence fell heavily between them for a few minutes, and Belle was lost in her own dark thoughts.

What's the use of preserving your life, if there's nothing you can do with it anyway? All your efforts come to nothing. Rumple's still a prisoner, your enemies have the dagger, and war is inevitable.

A whimpering sob escaped her lips.

Owlflower glanced over at her. "What's wrong?"

Belle choked out a hysterical laugh. "What isn't? In a few days, the killing will start. I can see that now. No matter how hard I try to stop this war, nothing I do matters in the end."

"It's not the end."

"Close enough. And all I did was to inspire additional suffering." Overcome with guilt, Belle couldn't meet Owlflower's eyes. "All those poor people punished for my words — people died because of what I told them!"

"Because they were willing to listen to your truth." Owlflower's calm voice cast no blame. "Because they saw a better way than they had been given before."

"Some 'better way'. If it really is better, why didn't more of them listen?"

"It's not easy to change. It's not comfortable. Besides which, the ones who marched out were the ones most eager for war. Those who desired peace stayed behind, hoping for safety in silence." Owlflower stood up, moved to the window, and gestured. "I've been to their villages and heard them talking among themselves."

Belle sighed. "But some who listened didn't stay home. Look where that got them! Thrown into a dungeon or worse."

Owlflower turned back to face her. "It was their choice. Think about it. They had no magic, no title, no power of land or money, no claim of blood or friendship on the queen. They knew that they were few and powerless, yet even so they spoke out. They walked empty-handed into a war camp, wearing flowers over their hearts. Such is the bravery you have inspired. It's not 'nothing'."

Belle flinched. "I'm a coward, you mean."

"That's not what I mean." Owlflower paused for a moment, then said, "Your story has been heard. And so will theirs. Beaten, killed, locked up — you can trust that they will not let themselves be silenced."

"Is this supposed to be comforting?"

Owlflower shrugged. "The king may order you held here, but no one can imprison your ideas."

Which would only be comforting if her ideas were powerful enough to make a difference. Despondent at the thought, Belle clawed at the cuff enclosing her wrist, but neither her ideas nor her fingers were powerful enough to set her free.

Time was running out for Hera.

Technically, the day of the fateful wedding began at midnight. She had twelve hours to walk the mortal realm and change destiny — or allow it to follow its course. At the first stroke of midnight, a new door appeared in the wall next to Reul Ghorm's chambers. It looked just like all the other doors in the passage, except for the peacock crown carved in the lintel.

"Serenity." Reul Ghorm met her there, bowing deeply as Hera stepped out the doorway. "You bless us with your presence."

"Hmm." Hera eyed her high priestess speculatively. The fairy was loyal, as devoted to Hera's vision as Hera herself. Would she accept a change to that vision? Perhaps, given time, but Hera had no time to spare. Forgoing explanations, she went straight into the fairy's room.

Reul Ghorm followed, consternation wrinkling her brow. "Serenity? Is something wrong?"

"No. Maybe. Things are not...not as I had thought." Hera looked around, but no other doors were apparent. "You have the former Author, this 'Isaac Heller', do you not? Or even better, his collection of writings. I must see them."

"Yes, Serenity." Reul Ghorm gestured, opening the hidden passage. "This way."

Isaac Heller was asleep in his alcove, and unhappy at being rousted out of bed. "Whaddya want?" Then his eyes turned blearily to Hera and his expression changed. "Hera! I am moving up in the world."

"Show some respect," Reul Ghorm snapped. "The Great Mother has expressed an interest in your... work."

The ex-Author chuckled and rubbed his hands together. "Ah, she's a fan? Your mistress clearly has better taste than you." He pawed through the volumes on the bookshelf built into the wall. "Here, Great Mother, how about an autographed manuscript? Any one you like — actually, I'll sign all of them. Just get me out of this dump!"

Hera hissed in irritation. Not wanting to listen to another second of this drivel, she snapped her fingers. Isaac Heller slumped over, rolling limply to the floor. After a moment of blessed silence, he emitted a soft snore. "Put him back in bed. And then leave us."

Reul Ghorm obeyed the first command, but lingered on the second, shooting Hera a questioning look.

"You have preparations to make, do you not?" Hera had already planted herself behind the desk, a book open in front of her. "See to it. If I need you, I'll find you."

"Of course, Serenity."

In truth, Hera wasn't sure what she was looking for. She knew that this Author had been unfaithful to the story, changing things as he saw fit, writing entire alternative histories into existence. He had been punished for his hubris, but perhaps he had been onto something, even if his imagination had been as stunted as his morality. Alternatives. As the Author, Isaac Heller had been privy to the visions of all the seers in the realm, at least in theory. Perhaps some of that knowledge had made its way into his writing, even now. Did any of his lurid fantasies hold hope for a better future?

Hours of frantic perusal later, she hadn't found anything of use. She was running out of time. With a cry of frustration, she slammed the latest volume down and leaped to her feet, knocking her chair over with a loud crash. Isaac Heller didn't stir, but Hera heard an alarmed chirp from across the room.

"Who's there?" Hera's gaze swept the room, finding the source of the sound in the oversized cricket in the golden cage on the top of the bookshelf. Having previously taken it for a lifeless ornament, she was startled by its sudden hop forward.

"Ah... my apologies. I didn't mean to disturb you," said the cricket, to Hera's astonishment.

Hera's eyes narrowed as she read the creature's aura. "You're one of the fey." She knew that Reul Ghorm had once used pixie dust to transform a multitude of fey, but unlike those others, this one retained its mind, voice, and lifespan. "A goblin."

"My name is Jiminy. Or Archie Hopper, if you prefer."

"I prefer not to deal with your kind at all." They weren't even supposed to exist in Hera's vision of a perfected world, yet like weeds they persisted, springing up even here in the heart of her domain. Between them, the fey, the grail, and her husband had ruined everything.

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"Be silent." Hera shut her eyes for a moment, drawing in a long breath and letting it out, trying to clear her thoughts. She righted the chair and sat down again, drumming her fingers on the desk, her gaze unfocused. Too many innocent people had already died. If the wedding went according to plan, more people would die in the war that followed. Though Hera had justified the deaths with the thought that this war would be the last, she knew now that it wouldn't be.

Hera frowned at the cricket. It had no place in the divine plan, so it must be some improvisation of Reul Ghorm's. A wave of Hera's hand transported the cage to the desk in front of her. "Why are you here? Are you some kind of spy?" As a rule, Hera left her priestess to her own devices, as long as she served faithfully. But now everything was in question, and Hera didn't understand why such a creature should exist. "How is it that you can speak?"

"I once wished upon a star, and the Blue Fairy offered her aid to me." Its calm tone lacked any hint of resentment.

"She transformed you into a sapient cricket?"

"It was what I wanted."


"I felt trapped by the life I had." At her questioning look, the cricket explained something of its history, of how its parents had forced it into a life of theft and trickery. "I hated the person I had become."

"So you turned to your enemy to save you?" Hera asked, incredulous. And Reul Ghorm had helped him? Hera didn't know which was harder to believe. "Even after what she had done to your people?"

"We can all change our destinies," said the cricket softly. "I believe that no matter what's happened in the past, reconciliation is still possible, if we are willing to work at it."

"Is it as easy as that?" Wishful thinking, Hera decided. After all, the cricket was in a cage, as trapped as it had ever been. It made no denial when she voiced her point aloud.

"You're right, it isn't always easy. We can't simply forget our fear and anger, and suspicion is a natural response to an uncertain world. But we don't have to let these feelings define who we are. The Blue Fairy believes that I betrayed her, but I hope that she may broaden her viewpoint to see that 'different' is not the same as 'evil.'"

Not the same as 'evil'? Hera stared at the cricket, at a loss for words. This was the first time she had deigned to interact on a personal level with any of the fey. It — no, he — was not at all the heartless monster that she had expected. Instead, he seemed to sense her inner turmoil, and offered her a sympathetic ear.

"You seem troubled. Sometimes it can help to talk things over with an outsider," he said, and Hera heard no falseness in his gentle tone. "For a long time, it was my job to listen."

"Your job?"

"In the Land Without Magic."

Hera had never paid much attention to the Land Without Magic, as it fell under no god's dominion, but now she couldn't afford to ignore any potential avenue of hope. "Tell me more."

The cricket explained his role in Storybrooke, and what that life had been for them all.

"You were under a curse. It wasn't real," was Hera's conclusion. Yet he had passed for human, and a kind and generous one at that. How was that possible? Weren't the fey cruel by nature? They had turned Misthaven into a wasteland; they had twisted the humans' gift of love against them with the creation of the Dark Curse. Then she remembered that it had been a human who had cast the curse, and she didn't know what to think anymore.

"My patients were real, even if their memories were false."

One question led to another, then another, until Hera found herself confiding her own doubts to the cricket, releasing a torrent of pent-up anger and bitterness that she had never dared confront before.

"Even though Zeus has never been faithful to me, I thought he was at least faithful to the better world we were building together."

"When you say he hasn't been faithful, how do you mean that? Emotionally? Sexually?"

"What do you think? Both. But I turned a blind eye, because that wasn't what was important."

"It wasn't important, or did you not want it to be important? It sounds to me like you do have strong feelings that maybe you haven't allowed yourself to acknowledge."

Hera glared at the cricket. Did he think she was some simple mortal wife, jealous of her husband's affairs? "I've always held myself to a higher standard. And for what? He praised me for my purity, when what he meant was my stupidity!"

"I see. And in what way do you feel you've been, as you put it, 'stupid'?"

"I let him use me," Hera snarled. "He took my future and twisted it to his own ends. He claimed it as his right as the king of the gods. But what right has he to be king, when he's betrayed us all?"

The cricket heard her out, answering her with his soft, careful words. Hera felt an odd relief in speaking openly for the first time in centuries, and as she spoke, a plan came together at last in her mind.

"I let myself be trapped in this false destiny. But if even a little goblin like you can change your fate, then so can I." She could derail the wedding. But the war? Zeus would see that it took place according to his vision. If Hera opposed it, she would be the first casualty — unless she took him out first. "You're not the only one who can seek help from an enemy. Thank you for showing me the way. If it works, you'll have earned your freedom."

"Wait, what—"

The rest of his question was lost as Hera transported herself back to her chambers. From there, she summoned Reul Ghorm. "Bring me the Dark One."

The fairy's eyes widened. "The...the Dark One? But why...?"

"I have need of him."

"But the risk, Serenity. The Dark One is dangerous," protested Reul Ghorm.

"Not if I have control of his dagger. Bring that also." Seeing the fairy's hesitation, Hera's tone grew harsher. "Do you question me, Reul Ghorm? Everything I do is for the sake of our future."

"Yes, Serenity."

As the fairy scurried off, Hera opened a window to find the sky already bright, the sun shining in dazzling slivers through the trees. Six more hours to noon. She hoped it would suffice.

Chapter Text

All in all, the dream was a massive disappointment. Captain Hook could have hoped for a vision of his bride-to-be, or at least a rousing adventure with imaginary houris for his last night as a bachelor. Instead, he was stuck in a dingy tavern with a dead wizard who wouldn't stop nattering at him about destiny and honor.

"Piss off, old man," groaned Hook, laying his head down on the table and waving the wizard away. "Go haunt someone else."

"Who else would I haunt?" Merlin sat across from Hook in all his youthful, energetic glory, despite being over a thousand years old. "You did kill me."

"That was Nimue, not me."

"Come now," Merlin said. "You know that's not true. It was your hand that crushed my heart, and your will that shaped the Dark Curse."

"Fine." Hook lifted his head to scowl at Merlin. "But that was my past self, the one who couldn't resist the Darkness. The Savior made a better man of me. That's why I was given this second chance."

Merlin raised an eyebrow. "Is that so? Truly?"

"Aye!" At the expectant look on the wizard's face, Hook sighed and added, "What more do you want? Dead is dead. I can't help you."

"Maybe not, but there is someone you can help: Henry Mills."

"Henry?" Hook remembered then that the lad suffered from some mysterious ailment, but— "I'm no healer."

"Nonetheless, his fate is in your hands."

"Wait..." The words sounded familiar, as if the wizard had told him this before, more than once, but this was the first time Hook heard him properly. On closer inspection, Hook could see the strain and urgency Merlin hid behind his calm facade. "Wait. What is it you want me to do?"

"You must give Henry the black grail of earth."

"What?" Hook pulled back in instinctive refusal. "No!" It was the key to his future — Zeus had told him that. Had promised him that as long as Hook kept the black grail, no one could take his happy ending away. Emma Swan would forget the Evil Queen and love Killian Jones above all others.

"I know what Zeus promised you. Did he tell you the price? Henry Mills, for one, will be lost, his soul sacrificed for your happiness." Merlin pinned Hook with a glare. "He's a child — the third child you've betrayed."

"I..." Hook wanted to deny it, but Merlin persisted.

"Baelfire. Liam the younger. They could have been family to you, yet you sold one and orphaned the other. Listen to me. This is your last chance."

"Last chance for what?"

"Remember when your father told you to think about the man you wanted to be? And you said you wanted to be a man like him, only he turned out to be a man who sold his children for his own gain..."

"Aye, and I did the same." In his anger at his father's selfishness, Hook had run him through with a knife, disregarding the half-brother he left behind. He had been just as selfish, he could admit that now, to put revenge and resentment above people he should have cared for. But that was all sorted, wasn't it? He had made amends with his brother, and Baelfire hadn't held a grudge. "But that's all in the past; it's not who I am, now."

"I'm pleased to hear it. So you'll be handing the black grail over to Henry first thing in the morning when you wake up. After your wedding, it will be too late."


"Zeus is willing to sacrifice children. Are you?"

"Bloody hell." Hook woke up with Merlin's voice still in his head. First thing in the morning? The sky had already begun to lighten, the sun just below the horizon. It was his wedding day. He tried to shake off the dream, to no avail.


This was no good. He had to see for himself. Ignoring the clothes laid out for him, Hook slipped into his usual black piratical garb and made his way into the sickroom where Henry Mills now resided under the care of the fairies.

"Pssst. Lad, wake up." Hook shook him gingerly by the shoulder.

Henry shot up, eyes opening but not focusing on Hook. The blanket fell back from the boy, revealing the book and pen clutched in his trembling hands. He didn't say anything, only opening the book to continue scratching out the incomprehensible gibberish he had already filled most of the pages with.

Hook thought guiltily that Henry was indeed too pale and thin, with dark smudges under his eyes. He slid his hook around the boy's wrist. "Hey. Come on, lad, surely you can find a better sleeping companion than a book..." But his banter fell on deaf ears. Henry tried to pull away from the hook, but lacked the strength. Another worrying sign. "Henry. Henry, look at me."

Henry didn't respond until Hook took the pen away from him, at which point he cried and whimpered like a forsaken puppy, scrabbling weakly at Hook, eyes fixed on the pen.

"All right, all right!" Unable to endure the boy's cries, and not wanting to attract undue attention, Hook relinquished the pen.

Henry quieted at once. He added one final flourish to the page, then shut the book and sat rocking back and forth, lips moving in silent recitation.

"Look, I'm sorry, lad, but..." Hook pulled the blanket back over Henry and eased him down to lie on his side. "It was just a dream. No sensible man would throw everything away because a dream told him to."

Hook edged away from the bed once it appeared the boy had settled. Damn his lingering sense of guilt, trying to sabotage his one chance at a happy ending. He wished he still had enough magic to put his bad memories in a dream-catcher and burn them once and for all. Meanwhile, he had a wedding to look forward to. He slipped out of the room and stood in the corridor with his back to the door.

Before he could return to his own quarters, a woman in a light purple dress spotted him — Lavender, he remembered. One of the medically trained fairies. He pasted on a smirk and dipped his head in greeting. "Good morning, love."

Lavender shot him a puzzled glance. "Killian Jones? What brings you here?"

Hook cleared his throat awkwardly. "Ah, well, in a few hours I'm to be step-father to young Henry. I came to see how the lad fared."

Lavender sighed and shook her head. "I'm afraid he's shown no improvement."

"But surely you lot can help him? I've always heard that the Blue Star is a great power in this realm." Certainly she had more magic than a mere mortal pirate, thought Hook. Why didn't Merlin plague her with nonsensical visions?

Lavender shook her head again. "There's little to be done. Henry Mills bears the burden of fate."

Henry Mills will be lost... his soul sacrificed for your happiness.

Hook tried to banish the image of the sick boy from his mind, but he couldn't. Henry was Baelfire's son. Milah's grandson. If there was any hope to save him... hell. He had to try. When had Captain Hook ever needed magic to guarantee a happy ending? Nodding to himself, he said aloud, "Perhaps he can bear it more comfortably — the lad seemed to suffer from thirst. Might you have some drink suitable for him...?"

As it turned out, the fairies had a medicinal tea especially prepared for Henry. Forcing a smile and a gentle tone, Hook persuaded Lavender to let him serve it to the boy. Once he was alone in the room with Henry, Hook retrieved the black grail from the invisible bag and set it on the table. Before he could change his mind, he poured the tea into it and brought it to Henry, whom he had already propped up against the pillows. "Here, lad, drink this. Careful, now..."

After the first few sips, a wave of silver light rippled over the boy, and Henry moved of his own volition to clasp the grail with one hand (the other still clutched pen and book). His eyes cleared and gained focus. "Hook! What...?"

"Easy, now." Hook smiled again, this time in genuine relief. Henry's face still looked thin and weary, but sanity had returned to his gaze. "It worked. I wasn't sure it would."

"The black grail! Where did you find it? My moms, are they ok?" Henry's voice rose, his breath becoming more frantic. "No, wait, something's wrong... I can't remember... too many memories..." His hands trembled, the grail wobbling dangerously.

"Steady there, lad. One thing at a time." Since it seemed to be helping, Hook encouraged Henry to drink from the grail again. Then, caught by the boy's demanding stare, Hook found himself divulging the entire story of how and why he had acquired the black grail.

"How could you be so selfish?" Henry's face twisted with hurt and betrayal. "Don't you know how much you hurt my moms? How much you hurt everyone, just so you could have a happy ending?"

Hook flinched at the accusation. "It wasn't just for me. It was the gods' will."

"Even when it meant stealing and lying? Hades was a god, and look what he did to us!"

"Aye, I know, but I thought Zeus was different."

Henry's expression softened. "I guess we all did. I mean, he did bring you back." Then he frowned. "But not my dad... I should have guessed, then."

"Baelfire was a good man, aye," Hook said. Compelled to honesty by the boy's sorrow, he added, "I can't say that I deserved life more than he did."

"I wish—" began Henry.

"Hush!" Hook held up a hand. Someone had arrived outside the room. At the sound of a loud knock, Hook helped Henry back under the blankets, hiding the grail as best he could. He opened to door to find the Lavender Fairy on the other side.

"Blue sent me," she said. "You are to deliver the Dark One and his dagger to she who bides in the chamber marked by the peacock crown — one door past Blue's. At once." Seeming unnerved by her own message, Lavender scurried off before Hook could ask further questions.

"I'm a pirate, not an errand boy," grumbled Hook, turning back to Henry. "Sorry, lad, duty calls."

"No, wait. There's one more thing."

What was Hera thinking?

Blue paced the confines of her chamber, throwing dignity to the wind now that she was alone. She had offered to stand watch over the Dark One, but Hera had dismissed her — her high priestess! — while retaining Killian Jones. What protection could the ex-pirate offer against the magic and trickery of the Dark One?

Rumplestiltskin had already served his purpose in the divine plan — arranging the birth of the Savior — and now he had even restored those lost to the Dark Curse. What possible use could the goddess have for him? To let him out now was to invite trouble. Nothing he offered Hera could possibly be worth the price. It must be some ploy. Rumplestiltskin was his mother's son, and the Black Fairy had always been opposed to the higher powers. She had never approved of Blue's service to Hera, being too blind to understand the limitations of their birth realm and too arrogant to accept change. Fiona was dead now, but what secrets might she have passed on to her son?

Was that why Hera wanted him now? It wasn't worth the risk, and Blue wanted to tell her so, but she hadn't the authority. Only one person outranked the queen of the gods. Blue debated with herself, loyalty to her mistress warring with loyalty to the plan. In the end, she decided that her silence was a disservice to both, especially at such a crucial hour.

The Blue Fairy opened her cabinet to a miniature shrine and began her invocation, "Hear me, Zeus, Great Father, mightiest of the gods..."

Old friend. It's good to see you again. Holding the Dark One's dagger, Hera entered the timeless otherspace where spirits could commune freely in their thoughts.

The dagger made no response.

What? Nothing to say? Hera wasn't completely surprised — the Holy Grail had a long memory and immense capacity to hold a grudge. Are you still angry because of Merlin and Nimue? That wasn't me, you know. It was Zeus who whispered in their ears.

Her husband had not been satisfied with the banishment of the Holy Grail. He had gone further, trying to trick its human hosts into destroying its power. It wouldn't have mattered whether they destroyed the darkness or the light: they were two sides of the same magic — the grail's magic.

Still no response.

Or is it that I tempted you to fall, knowing that your power was too great a burden for any mortal to bear? But I'm about to change that. You'll see.


Hera sighed inwardly. It didn't trust her. So, then, time to prove her sincerity.

"Well, well, well. The infamous Rumplestiltskin. Let's take a look."

In the material world, mere moments had elapsed since the door shut behind prisoner and escort. Killian Jones projected an air of nonchalance, but Hera could sense his uncertainty. He prodded Rumplestiltskin in the back, forcing the latter to stumble forward. Filthy and scruffy with several months' growth of hair and whiskers, half-starved and cringing, the Dark One looked more like a beggar than a powerful sorcerer.

"Don't look so worried," Hera told him. "I'm not your enemy." She circled him slowly, then stopped behind his left shoulder and whispered in his ear, "That would be yon pirate — Zeus's chosen. Look at the dreadful state he's reduced you to."

Rumplestiltskin said nothing.

"I'll let you in on a secret: I don't like him either." The glimpses she had scried of Killian Jones added up to this man she finally met in person now, and she felt sickened that she had ever approved of him as a match for the Savior. He reminded her too much of her own husband. "So, before we begin, here is my gift to you. I know you've desired this man's death, but withheld your hand out of respect for your wife's wishes. Well, let me help you out."

At this, the pirate raised his sword. "You're making a mistake, your divine majesty. Zeus—"

"This is the House of Hera. My word is the only law here." She stepped back from Rumplestiltskin and pointed the tip of the dagger at the pirate. "And I say Killian Jones must die. Dark One, you have no choice in the matter. Kill him."

"No!" Killian lunged forward, aiming a vicious slash at his nemesis.

Hissing wordlessly, Rumplestiltskin batted the pirate's sword aside before immobilizing him with magic long enough to thrust in a hand and remove Killian's heart. The pirate's face contorted with horror and pain as the sorcerer's fist clenched around the heart, reducing it to a trickle of dust. A flare of darkness enveloped them both, and when it dissipated, no trace was left of the victim.

The Dark One was certainly thorough in his revenge, thought Hera, but she had expected him to look more pleased. Instead, he stood without moving, head bowed and speechless. "Come. Let's get you cleaned up."

Shaved, hair trimmed, clothing magically repaired and laundered, he wasn't half-bad to look at, Hera decided. She sat him down on her bed and joined him there, examining him more closely. She touched his chin to turn his head, but feeling him flinch at the contact, drew back her hand and sighed. "We're on the same side, you know."

He stared straight ahead, keeping his silence.

"Were you like this with your princess?" Hera asked, half annoyed, half amused. "How ever did you two end up together?" When he didn't reply, annoyance won out. "This is no way to hold a conversation. You must do your part. So, you and Belle...?"

He shrugged slightly, then muttered, "It came as a surprise to both of us."

"Though I can see why she likes you." The darkness he carried within him hadn't extinguished the brightness of his soul — he was a creature of both light and shadow. The ambiguity made him dangerous, yet no less attractive. But Hera had never had the knack of seducing men, and it was too late now to learn it. Unless— "Have you ever strayed in your marriage? Answer."

"Once." He didn't look happy about the admission.

"Tell me."

"A broken half of Regina."


"She had a hole in her heart. I took advantage."

"Show me."

The Dark One nodded. Without meeting Hera's eyes, he touched her forehead lightly, letting her view the memories and all their associated pain.

Hera blinked, shifting back in surprise. It had amounted to little more than a kiss, in the end. Even though his wife had left him, even when she refused him at every turn. Even then, he had given the Evil Queen no more than that hint of passion. Hera's husband had never shown such restraint. "I see. It was for power, not for lust. Well, then.... I can offer you power. I can make you a god. Together we can have dominion over heaven and earth. Of course, it will take more than a kiss."

"Will it, indeed," he replied flatly, his hand dropping back to his side. He glanced at her, then, his eyes unreadable.

Hera stroked the blade of the dagger suggestively, but Rumplestiltskin's lack of response forced her to lay out the terms explicitly. "If you spill your seed inside me, I can share my divinity with you. And in the hands of a god, the Holy Grail has the power to judge all under heaven, mortal and immortal alike. This dagger has the potential to destroy even Zeus."

"Wield it yourself, then."

"I can't. It chooses its own instruments to work through, and it seems it's chosen you. What do you say? Our marriages have given us only pain. It's time to open our eyes and change our destiny."


"Abandoned you here. She's using you for your power, but prefers you at a distance. Forget Belle." The woman was half-fey, thought Hera. How could her love be as true as a human's, much less compare to that of a goddess?

"She's my wife."

"She doesn't have to be. My priestess holds the Shears of Destiny. I can cut us both free."

He said nothing, but his gaze went to the dagger in her hand.

"Oh, I won't force you. This must be your choice." She reversed her hold to offer him the hilt. "In other words, a deal. I'll return the dagger to you. Together, we have the power to make my husband pay the price of his infidelity. Once you and I are wed, the mantle of the king of the gods will pass to you. The power of life and death will be in your hands."


"Think what it means. Justice for your son whose life was stolen—"

"No!" The Dark One shut his eyes, his expression shadowed by grief. "No."

"Are you afraid I'll break the deal? I give you my word. Unlike some gods, I always keep my word."

He looked at her, then. "You're breaking it now. Or have you forgotten the vows you made to your husband?"

"He's the one who broke them. Repeatedly. While I've stayed foolishly loyal. This one time, why can't I be the one who..." She broke off, the pity in his eyes turning her pain into anger at his judgement of her. "Well, if you won't take my offer, perhaps the next Dark One will!"

He said nothing. He didn't have to. Hera knew that he knew that her threat was empty. She had no time to find another potential Dark One. And even without that constraint, she was still what she was: while she was permitted to test the bond between husband and wife, she could never punish their loyalty.

"So be it. You refuse me and doom us all." Hera fought back a flood of despair. "What now? Do you have a plan, or do we sit here and wait for Zeus to destroy us?"

Rumplestiltskin sighed. "I suggest that we—"

The rest of his sentence was lost in a deafening thunderclap that shook the floor and left Hera trembling in shock.


The king of the gods had materialized in the accompanying flash of blinding light. "Hera! It's true, then. You mean to betray me."

"My lord..."

"My wife, in bed with the Dark One," sneered Zeus. "You will die for this."

"Mercy!" Hera pleaded, but she saw none in her husband's eyes. And by the ancient laws of Olympus, she was undeniably guilty, leaving her vulnerable to whatever punishment he chose to inflict. Desperate, she raised the dagger she still held. "Dark One, save me!"

Having refused Hera's offer, mortal-born Rumplestiltskin was no match for Zeus. That didn't mean he didn't have enough power to throw himself between Hera and her husband, taking the brunt of the next thunderbolt Zeus flung at his wife. The third one took them both down. Hera felt the lightning seize her and throw her to the floor, all her limbs spasming uselessly. The dagger dropped from numb fingers.

But even as the Dark One collapsed in front of her, she sensed one last surge of magic from him. Clinging onto it for dear life, Hera let herself be whirled away into the mortal realm.

Belle was up at dawn, unable to sleep. By the end of the day, the realm might be at war. She sat curled up in an armchair with Gideon in her lap, pretending to read a book. She would have prayed for peace if she had any faith left in benevolent gods. Owlflower kept her company, perched on a empty coat rack in owl form.

Breakfast came and went. Belle left the tray of bread and fruit untouched, having no appetite but only a twisted knot in her stomach. Then the pain sharpened and she gasped aloud.

"Belle?" Owlflower blinked back into human form in front of her. "What is it?"

"I don't know. I felt..." Belle touched her chest. "Like a tightness. As if someone was squeezing my heart." Feeling Gideon squirm, Belle clambered to her feet, hoping to walk it off, whatever it was.

Owlflower's eyes narrowed, and she was silent for a few moments. Probing for magic, Belle guessed, cursing the cuff that blocked her from checking for herself. Then Owlflower lifted her chin abruptly and gestured at Belle to get behind her. "Someone's here. Show yourself!"

"I am here." A tall, regal woman shimmered into existence. Her hair and white dress were antique in style, but she wore them with an aura of timeless authority, as if she expected them to bow before her. Neither Owlflower nor Belle were inclined to such obeisance.

"Who are you? What do you want here?" asked Belle sharply, clutching Gideon tightly to herself.

"And how did you get through the mists?" Owlflower added.

"I come in friendship, seeking alliance," said the stranger. "I am Hera."

"Hera? Queen of Olympus?" Belle exclaimed, at the same time as Owlflower spat out a curse and raised her hand in a spell.

"You are no friend of ours!" Owlflower sent a fireball flying at Hera's chest.

"Wretched abomination." Hera let the flames fizzle out on her dress, but when another fireball came at her head, she snapped her fingers, and Owlflower dropped to the ground in a flurry of feathers. She stared over the owl at Belle. "Don't be a fool."

Belle gulped, forcing herself to stand her ground. Her voice shook as she asked, "Did you kill her?"


"Still. Not...not exactly a gesture of friendship, is it?" Belle managed.

"I don't have time to convince her!" Hera's mask of dignity cracked, and Belle saw a look of wild terror cross her face before it was smoothed away. "I'm out of options. We all are."

"The Accord... you aren't permitted to meddle in the mortal realm," Belle said slowly. She recognized the expression on Hera's face: she had seen the same panic in Rumple when his plans had come crashing down. He was prone to lashing out and making bad decisions out of fear. If Hera was anything like that, Belle had to try to calm her down. "How is it that you are here?"

"It is permitted. I owe your husband a debt, and a debt owed to him is owed to you, under our laws. Thus am I here."

"What? You've seen Rumple? Where is he? What's happened?"

"Zeus has him."

"Zeus... your husband?"

"I've broken with him. That's why I came here. You are the elven king's closest kin. Tell him to make this alliance with me."

This is some trick, hissed the Darkness.

Trick? It made no difference. Belle laughed bitterly. "Are you kidding me? The king won't listen to me." She raised her cuffed wrist. "I'm basically his prisoner now."

"You haven't even tried. You must try—"

"No, you listen to me. You say you didn't have time to convince Owlflower. Well, the others are even less inclined to hear me!" Belle's thoughts raced ahead, and she knew she was as bad as Rumple, panicking and acting on impulse, but they really were out of time. The armies were already gathered. Peace hung by a thread. The Final Battle. "You say you owe me a debt. Free me from this cuff. Then take me to Rumplestiltskin."

"My husband will kill you!"

"And break his precious Accord?"

"He can still strike you down."

"I don't care." At least she would be with him. If she went down, at least she would have tried to help. She had run out of time for clever plans. "Pay your debt. Take me to him."

"It could mean all our deaths." But at Belle's glare, Hera sighed and capitulated. "Very well."

Time to run.

He couldn't run. He lay on the ground in Hera's bedchamber, his limbs twitching beyond his control.

Get up!

Rumplestiltskin struggled for breath, for his magic. Darkness clouded his vision but slid away from his grasp. He stared up hazily at the man — the god — towering over him. Zeus.

Zeus grinned down at him. He held out his hand, and the dagger on the floor leaped into his palm. "Dark One. I have you now—" Then the dagger dissolved into a wisp of steam and was gone.

Joke's on you, thought Rumplestiltskin, watching the realization creep over Zeus's face. And on me... I should have run sooner...

"It's not real?" Zeus looked from his hand to Rumplestiltskin in angry bafflement.

The real dagger was hidden in an invisible bag, a bag tucked away in itself in an extra-dimensional pocket that not even a god could find. Hook had given dagger and bag to Rumplestiltskin in the privacy of the cell in the dwarf mines.

Why? he had asked the pirate.

Henry, had been the answer. He's your grandson.

And that matters to you?

He's Milah's grandson, too. Now go, damn you, before I regret this. Hera herself wants you... you won't have much time before you're missed.

And you?

I'll protect Henry.

No, wait. Rumplestiltskin held out his hand, giving Hook a dagger nearly indistinguishable from the real thing — he had improved the spell since he had used it to fool Belle — and deliberately put his head back in the noose. A summoning meant an opportunity, whether for more information or for leverage. Take me to Hera.

And it had been informative, indeed. Hera could have made a formidable ally, if she was willing to deal with him on his terms. Rumplestiltskin had seen a glimmer of hope... until her jealous husband had arrived and put an end to that. He didn't even have enough strength now to maintain an illusion.

"If it was never the real dagger, why did you save her?"

Why? Rumplestiltskin asked himself the same question. He had acted on impulse. A foolish impulse, to step between a god and the object of his wrath. A memory of Hera's terrified face flashed before him. For a moment, she had reminded him of Belle. An idealistic woman married to a monster who had betrayed her trust. And if he ever tried to hurt Belle, he would hope for someone to stop him. Just as he wished someone had stopped him when he had killed— "Milah."

"What?" Zeus raised his hand, magically flipping Rumplestiltskin onto his back. "Milah?" He scoffed. "The wife who betrayed you?"

Rumplestiltskin couldn't hide his shock.

Zeus sneered. "Oh, I know everything about you, little man, ever since you took it upon yourself to meddle in my plans. So, you regret Milah? The one time you killed with honor, yet you feel enough guilt over it to throw your life away? Why?"

"Because... because..." He gasped for breath, had to wait until air flowed more easily before he could continue. "Because you are husband and wife, and that should mean something..."

Rumplestiltskin and Milah had once promised each other their love and devotion. Look how that had turned out. Past, present, and future had tangled themselves in his mind, until the moment when he knew that to abandon Hera to her fate would be a betrayal of Belle. He was tired of such betrayals. This time... this time it would end as he had seen, with his lifeless body thrown aside by a power he had no hope of matching. He could only hope that the rest of his visions were equally accurate — that even with him taken off the board, enough pieces were still in play to win the game.

"You dare judge me?"

Ah, yes, here it came. Divine wrath descending on him like a hammer. Wielded by the king of the gods, no less. Rumplestiltskin braced himself for the inevitable. He could barely breathe, much less fight.

"You forget yourself. The Holy Grail fell from heaven long ago. You are nothing. You are less than the dirt you lie on."

Divine magic smashed into him, then. It struck his heart, stilled it.

Darkness closed in.

Chapter Text

He wasn't dead.

He wasn't alone.

Light filled his heart, and the warm touch of her lips brought him back.

Belle. Rumplestiltskin opened his eyes to a flash of light and her face, strained with anxiety and hope, drawing back to see... to see if he was alive.

"True love's kiss," someone said from behind her. "Zeus stopped his heart, but you saved him."

"Belle," he breathed. "Gideon." His son was sandwiched between them, grabbing at his jacket and kicking him in the ribs. Warmth flooded him and his eyes prickled. They were real; this was no dream. He reached out for her, terrified that she might vanish again.

Belle smiled, suddenly radiant. "We're here." She snaked an arm around him, helped him sit up. "Alive and free."

Rumplestiltskin rested for a moment with his forehead touching hers, too tired to move, unwilling to let go. Then he recovered enough to ask, "But did you find me?"

"Hera," answered Belle, shifting back enough for him to see the goddess standing behind her.

Rumplestiltskin shivered, trying to piece his thoughts together. Something was off. "Hera? But Zeus...he..."

"He's not here," said Belle. Her grip tightened reassuringly. "You're safe, at least for now."

"No, no." Rumplestiltskin shook his head. "Not... safe. He left. He left me here... as bait!" He jerked back in alarm, scrabbling to get his feet under him. "This is a trap." As Belle struggled to support his weight, he pushed out with magic to open the door. It didn't budge.

Hera crossed the room in three quick strides and used her hands, to no better result. "No." In a sweeping gesture, she sent a pulse of magic against the walls. "No. He can't have..."

"We have to go!"

Rumplestiltskin sensed Belle's fear, felt it when she tried to transport them away — and when her spell drained away without a trace, as if she had poured a cup of water into the ocean. "Too late for that."

All around them, the room melted away into nothing at all.

"He's cut us off," Hera said. "Cast my house into the void of uncreation."

"Is that where we are?" whispered Belle, her question almost inaudible as Gideon whimpered, fidgeting in her grip.

Rumplestiltskin wrapped his arms around them, wishing for a more comforting truth. He said in a low voice as the darkness closed in, "Yes. We've been taken off the board."

"Zeus has won, then?"

"Not completely," said Hera. "At least the wedding's off. He won't have everything his own way."

"Ah. About that." Rumplestiltskin grimaced, but knowing they couldn't see his face, he forced himself to explain, "I'm afraid Killian Jones isn't quite as deceased as you may have hoped, dearie."

"Not even Zeus can resurrect someone twice!"

"True, but as the pirate hasn't died twice, that fact is sadly irrelevant."

Hook had found himself dropped outside somewhere in the hills above the castle and the war camp. It took a few moments before the lingering pain of having his heart nearly crushed dissipated. All an illusion, but it had felt real at the time.

"Bloody crocodile!" He straightened and dusted himself off. He wasn't about to leave; he had promised to help Henry, and he couldn't abandon the boy now. He headed back towards the castle.

His good intentions went for naught when the Blue Fairy intercepted him, a worried look on her face. "Captain Jones! Where have you been? And what are you wearing?"

"I, uh, I went for a walk. To clear my head before the wedding," he explained lamely.

"Well, there's no time for that now. Come along." The Blue Fairy bustled him off back to his chambers to get dressed in his fine new clothes, and after that it was simpler to flow in the channel carved out for him. He had done his bit, hadn't he? He could still marry Swan. It would distract attention while Henry got on with his quest to save... Hook still wasn't clear on what the lad was trying to save, but at any rate he had recovered from his mysterious illness. Hook had delivered the black grail to Henry, and Merlin no longer haunted his thoughts. Everything would be fine. Nothing to worry about.


It was the last voice Regina had expected to hear today. She had been afraid she would never hear it again. But here he was at her doorstep. "Henry!"

Mother and son came together in a tearful hug.

"Are you all right?" Regina studied her son anxiously, reaching out to smooth back his hair and check his forehead for fever. He had lost too much weight, and his eyes looked sunken-in from exhaustion, but they brightened now as Henry managed a smile.

"Mom, I'm fine. I found the black grail. Well, Hook gave it to me—"

"Why did he have it?" asked Regina, immediately suspicious.

"It's not important now. We have to get you out of here. It took me ages to figure out how to get around the spells guarding you," said Henry, brandishing the Author's pen. "And there's a fairy asleep in the hallway. Sorry about that, I didn't know what else to do with her. We have to get to Emma."

Regina wanted to savor this longed-for reunion, wanted time to get all the details from Henry, but she knew he was right. By the angle of the sunlight, noon was less than an hour away. It took ten minutes for Henry to unlock the cuff from Regina's wrist. After that, things were easier. Regina hid them under an obfuscation charm and it took another ten minutes to slip through the fairy wards protecting the wedding venue: the same great hall where Snow and Charming had been married.

This time it was Emma Swan and Killian Jones standing on the dais, but their faces held only a fraction of the joy that had emanated from the Charming couple. Regina's heart sank as she took in the bloodless, forced smile on Emma's face. The bride looked trapped under the weight of an ill-fitting monstrosity of a dress. Who had chosen that for her? Not that Regina had always approved of Emma's fashion choices, but this was a nightmare, all white lace and ugly veil.

Then the Blue Fairy flitted into view, handing Emma the golden shears of destiny. A wave of her wand brought a thin red ribbon into visibility. One end originated from Emma. The other... the other end was fixed in Regina's heart. And now Emma opened the shears, preparing to cut—

"No!" Regina picked up the ribbon, folding up the slack as she crossed the space between them, emerging from invisibility to the horrified gasps of the spectators. "Emma, stop."

"Mom!" called Henry, a step behind Regina.

Emma froze, her gaze lifting to meet Regina's. When at last she spoke, her voice was soft, confused, meek. "Regina? Henry?"

At her side, the pirate reached out for her arm. "Swan." But then he glanced past Regina to Henry, and he shook his head. "Be careful."

"It's the Evil Queen," the Blue Fairy cut in sharply. "She has your son in thrall. She will destroy our happy endings, Savior. You must act quickly."

Emma looked from Regina to the Blue Fairy, then at her parents, then back at Regina and Henry, hesitating.

Regina's fingers tightened on the ribbon, feeling her way to Emma's heart. She must still be in there, somewhere. The real Emma Swan.

"What... what are you doing here, Regina?" And she was there, but distant, so distant, buried under layers of suspicion and happy endings as dictated by other people.

"I'm save your happy ending." Regina did not take her eyes off Emma. Without looking, she swept up her left hand, blocking the Blue Fairy's attempt to magically expel her. Regina concentrated, putting up a shield to prevent any other approach. Not today, you interfering firefly.

But the Blue Fairy didn't give up so easily. "I call upon Zeus to protect us from evil, on this sacred day of days."

Given the opening the fairy provided, Zeus manifested himself behind Emma, placing a hand on her shoulder. "She has my blessing, evil one. She will not hear your beguilement."

"No." Henry didn't give up easily, either. "A wedding is a time for love to make its free choice, and not even the gods can dictate that choice."

Regina didn't dare take her eyes off Emma, but she couldn't help feeling a surge of pride in her son. My brave little prince. She heard the flutter of turning pages. "Be careful, Henry."

"I've got this, Mom. Moms."

"Henry..." said Emma weakly, but she didn't try to stop him.

Regina heard the whisper scratch of pen on paper, sensed the power in the ink. He must have figured out how to use the black grail.

"Please, Moms. I don't know how long I can protect you."

Zeus glared at Regina, but seemed compelled by Henry's writing to release Emma and take a step back. "A free choice, is it?" He tilted his head at Hook. "Here is the Savior's choice. Killian Jones, she is your bride. Will you let her be ensnared by darkness?"

Hook glanced at Regina, then back at Emma. But all he said was, "Swan?"

"I...I don't know," whispered Emma.

"You do know, Emma Swan. And if you've forgotten, let me remind you." Regina reached into her own memories and when she held out her hand, an apple rested in her palm. Its skin gleamed red with hope, and its flesh held all the weight of their shared past. An apple as red as blood, as red as life against the deathly white of Emma's dress. "Remember that we were always stronger together."

The mines, when they joined their magic to save Storybrooke...

"That we are both mothers to our son."

Neverland, saving Henry together...

"That we never gave up on each other."

Emma promising to find Regina's happy ending, believing that it was possible...

"That we are our own saviors."

Emma, sacrificing herself to the Darkness to save Regina, and Regina to save Emma from the Wish Realm...

"That we can be honest, no matter how painful."

The wedding of two wounded souls in the Underworld, with no gods or fairies to set their path...

"That I love you."

A wedding that she wished had been real...

"But most important of all, that you don't have to let anyone else write your story, not even me."

Emma lifted her gaze from the apple to meet Regina's eyes. Then she looked at Henry, at her parents, at Hook, then at Zeus and the Blue Fairy, and the crowd of spectators, all caught in the frozen splinter of time that was the result of too many magical forces focused on the same moment.

Regina felt herself bound up in the same moment, not even breathing, her heart washed in ice as if it lay exposed before them, one side of a scale, waiting to fall — or to find its counterweight on the other side.

Emma didn't speak, not at first. Without taking her eyes off Regina's face, she closed her fingers around the apple and lifted it gently.

Regina opened her mouth, then closed it again, equally speechless.

Emma bit into the apple. The splintered moment broke open at the bite, and the red of the apple flowed out, staining the white dress that was her cage, turning the ribbon between them into a thread of crimson light. Her other hand shifted, and instead of cutting the ribbon, the golden blades sheared through layers of cloth and lace before clattering to the ground, discarded.

The air shimmered, and Emma stood a little bit straighter, emerging from the remnants of her wedding dress. "Regina..."

Regina swallowed, unable to get a word out, and nodded slightly.

"Regina." Emma's eyebrows quirked and her lips twisted in a sudden smile. She thrust the apple back into Regina's hand. "Never mind the metaphorical fairy tale crap. If you really meant all that you just said..."

Regina nodded dumbly.

"Then here's my answer." Emma closed the remaining distance between them and pulled Regina in, and there was no need for words now, as the two met in a kiss.

Lost in the heat of Emma's embrace, eyes closed as she savored the contact she had longed for for so long, Regina clung to the moment. She teetered on the brink of the abyss, and lived and died in a single heartbeat of sheer joy and relief. But time crashed inexorably over them; the pull of the Underworld claimed Regina. One palace gave way to another, and they fell together. For good or for ill, their story in the mortal realm was over. They had done what they could for the ones they loved; the rest was out of their hands now.

Leave life for the living...

The Blue Fairy had a bad feeling about the king of the gods, now that she had met him face to face. She had summoned Zeus, but had not expected him to take over as the divine sponsor for the Savior's wedding. Her questions about Hera had been brushed off with airy assurances.

And now this. The Savior was gone, dragged down to the Underworld by the Evil Queen, just as Blue had feared. She looked out into a sea of horrified faces and nearly panicked. Reality wavered in the balance. They would need a miracle now to salvage things. She had no such power. All she could do was to buy time. She lifted her wand and reshaped the fairy magic that had been meant to protect them (how uselessly!) into a spell to stop time and awareness for the mortal crowd.

Spell accomplished, she turned back to consult Zeus, only to find him with his hand outstretched. A thunderbolt cracked space open, and before she could blink, Killian Jones vanished into the crack. It closed behind him. Blue's jaw dropped. She stared at Zeus, speechless. Her ears were still ringing, but she read clearly the words shaped on his lips.

"He failed me." Zeus smiled viciously. "Such is the price of failure."

"B-but...I..." Blue retreated upwards, her limbs trembling. Zeus, having granted Killian his life, could withdraw that favor as he wished. Yet she was no minion of Zeus. It was Hera she had failed, Hera who had the right to punish her. But her whirling rationalizations couldn't shield her from Zeus's wrath.

Zeus eyed her balefully. "You may yet be of use. But not now." He gestured a dismissal and turned his attention to Henry Mills. "You, boy. Author. Listen well. Here is the story you shall write..."

"No!" Touched by the divine, the Author wasn't bound by Blue's stasis spell. "No. I'm not writing your story anymore. It's wrong."

"It is the will of the gods." Zeus loomed over the boy, and Blue wished she had the courage to intercede.

"I don't care." Henry was braver. Or more foolhardy. He looked down at his book and then back at Zeus. "You tried to separate my mothers."

"And you try my patience."

"The story doesn't belong to you! My mothers proved that. You can't control us."

"Well, boy. Your mothers may be out of my reach, but don't be too smug. Remember that I am the king of the gods, and I hold the power of life and death over all the realm."

Henry gasped. "You can't."

But the Blue Fairy knew that he could. And would. Feeling sick to her stomach, she realized that she had backed the wrong god. Where was Hera? She didn't dare ask. "Mighty one, have mercy on your people. If you slay them, who then will worship you?"

Zeus said, stone-faced, "Where one race falls, another may rise. Perhaps it's time to wipe the slate clean and start anew."

"But it's forbidden," protested Blue. "The Accord—"

"—no longer binds me. What other god dares stand against me? What other god is left?"

Blue dropped her gaze and whispered, half in prayer, half in defiance, "The Great Mother..."

"Has betrayed me, and pays the price."

"Poseidon," said Henry. "He'll stop you."

"He cares nothing for these land-dwellers," sneered Zeus.

"Ares..." said Blue, with little hope behind the suggestion. Ares had been gone for centuries.

"...burns the greater part of his strength in binding Aphrodite. Aphrodite the Mad, Aphrodite the Hungry. Reul Ghorm, what is this insolence? Are you not the servant of the gods?"

Blue lowered her gaze. "I...I would avoid bloodshed. That is my duty. To see love prevail over hate."

"So would we all." Zeus's smile turned even darker. "So, Henry, it is your choice. Do you write as I dictate, or is this the end of the story for you and everyone else here?"

"I...I can't. I won't." Henry clasped the book to his chest, his knuckles turning white as he gripped the magical pen. "I won't make everyone into your slave."

"Well, then." Zeus drew himself up, divine power thickening around him like a thundercloud. Henry flinched, but refusal was clear in the stubborn set of his jaw. How long would that last, once people began dying? Blue knew how softhearted he was beneath his rebellious exterior. Perhaps it would be better to get it over with. Seal their fate. At least some of Hera's vision might be preserved.

No. Zeus had betrayed his wife. Blue knew it now, no matter how he tried to twist his words. A god who could threaten his own people thus was not a god that deserved loyalty. She had to stop Zeus, and save Hera — if she could still be saved. Desperate, she played one last card. "The prophecy!" And when Zeus hesitated for a moment, she rushed on, "You engineered all this so that the Savior would protect you from your fate. Well, the Savior is gone now. If you raise your hand against your own people, fate will have its due."

To her shock, Zeus laughed at her. "Ah, but as it turns out, I had no need of a Savior after all. I must thank you and my beloved wife for giving me the freedom to act to dispose of the threat with my own hands. I have nothing to fear from fate."

"Are you so sure of that?"

Blue turned her head in astonishment at the unexpected voice. She found the speaker at the entrance of the hall in a swirl of orange smoke, a tall man in monkish robes. He strode down the aisle towards them. Blue asked faintly, "Who...?"

But it was Henry who answered, his incredulity turning it into another question, "Uncle Gideon?"

"No," said the stranger, smirking as his eyes found Zeus. "Morpheus."

Chapter Text

The void had no beginning and no end. It was the pure darkness of utter absence. Death hadn't been this empty, thought Rumplestiltskin. This was the oblivion of those lost between the lines of the Dark Curse. He had used a child to call those souls back. It had taken all the power of the Darkness, as well as the Shears of Destiny and a gift of divinity. Who, now, would be willing and able to call them back?

"There's nothing here and no way back." Hera's voice sounded dull in defeat.

"No. No, that can't be true. We're here." Belle clung to his arm as if she would never let go again. Gideon was a warm presence balanced on her hip. "We have each other...and we still have our magic. Rumple, how is that possible? Hera said it was true love's kiss, but the Darkness — our curse — it wasn't broken."

"Ah," sighed Rumplestiltskin. He rubbed a soothing circle on her back, but he had to be honest with her. "Sweetheart, the Darkness isn't a curse. It's a choice we've made."

"And, of course, the Holy Grail's choice, also," said Hera.

"True," said Rumplestiltskin. He could sense the magic that still shadowed his soul. "It's chosen Darkness, and while love can heal our hearts, it can't turn Darkness into Light."

"It... it seems quieter now," said Belle. "Not so intrusive."

"It must respect the power of true love. It must respect you." Hera laughed bitterly. "Stubborn old thing, finding its chosen vessels too late to do anyone any good."

"It can't be too late," insisted Belle. "Not after everything. You're a goddess. Can't you find a way out of here?"

"We're on the wrong side of oblivion. My powers mean nothing here."

"We may be on the wrong side of oblivion, but we are not yet truly lost." Rumplestiltskin felt Belle's fingers tighten on his arm, and hope surged inside him. True love. She hadn't given up on him. He could do no less. "We weren't sent here by the Dark Curse, but simply dropped into the void."

"So there is a way out," said Belle.

Rumplestiltskin thought back to his latest imprisonment. He hadn't had the power to free himself directly, yet some part of him had still slipped through the bars. "If we accept the nature of this place, and work within its laws, or let them work through us, yes, I believe so."

The void was a far deadlier trap than the enchanted cell, but this time, he had Belle's assistance. Even, after a while, Hera's. Three minds working in three directions cast a larger net than one and...

"There is a way. A way to open a portal." But he didn't like it. "If we become the portal." Two Dark Ones, joining their magic to pull reality apart at the seams. Two of them, pulling in opposite directions.

As he explained, Belle quickly caught on. "But that means we won't be able to go through it. As soon as we let go of the spell, it shuts. Rumple, are you sure? There must be a loophole. Think—"

"I have thought. We've all been thinking. And there's no other way: we are the only gate." Rumplestiltskin held up a hand before Belle could argue. "But once Hera passes through, she can summon us from the other side."

"That's true," Hera said. "I can."

"Then that's what we have to do," said Belle. "Once we're free, we can work together to stop Zeus and this whole stupid war."

"Very well," said Hera, and they were agreed, though Rumplestiltskin's murmured assent was warier than Belle's. Not wanting to burden her with his paranoia, he kept his thoughts to himself as he reached out and let Gideon grab his fingers.

"One more thing. You may be a goddess, your divine majesty, but we aren't your worshippers. You will need more than power to summon us — you'll need the bond between parent and child."

"Gideon?" whispered Belle, her own hand tightening around Rumplestiltskin's wrist.

"We have to send him with her, sweetheart." But not without safeguards, he thought. It took the merest whisper of magic, barely more than simple sleight of hand. "Just for now."

"No!" Belle's protest was instinctive. "I won't be separated from him again."

"We'll see him again. I promise. Whatever happens." With a flick of his fingers, he called up a sphere of witchlight, the silvery glow turning them into pale ghosts floating in a sea of darkness. Rumplestiltskin caught Hera's gaze and held it. "We can trust you in this... because that's the price. Or we won't open the gate and you'll be trapped here for eternity."

"So will you," Hera pointed out. "And there are three of you, so it seems to me that you need me more than I need you."

"Stop it, both of you!" Belle bit her lip, giving Rumplestiltskin a pleading look. "There's no other way?"

He shook his head.

Belle took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. "Right. Then that's what we'll do. Hera, they call you the Great Mother. Please, keep our son safe."

Hera nodded, stepping closer to pick up Gideon.

Rumplestiltskin held onto his son an instant longer. He said quietly, "We have a deal, dearie. Don't forget."

"I won't."

Olympus was only a step away. As she took that step, an infant cradled in her arms, Hera was as frightened as she was impressed by the skill and power with which the Dark One — both of them — had breached the void. Breached it from the other side. It should be impossible, yet they had done it. What other demons could they loose into an unsuspecting world?

What demons had already followed her through?

Hera shut the opening with a wave of her hand, but the unsettled feeling remained. What alliance had she committed herself to? Rumplestiltskin had made it clear he would never submit to her authority. Dark Ones with true love — a danger beyond the gods' control.

We're not your worshippers.

If she called him back, if together they overthrew Zeus, what then? Hera shuddered, remembering how she had once trusted in her husband to share her vision. He had not been her worshipper, either. He had come with his own agenda in mind. How would it be different with the Dark One? Now that she had seen their true power, her blood ran cold as she realized how close she had come to repeating her old mistakes. She could stop herself this time — if she broke her word.

We have a deal, dearie.

But with Rumplestiltskin gone, wiped out of existence, so was the deal void. She had given her word to no one at all. In which case... she didn't have to call him back. In fact, it would be the height of foolishness to do so. She didn't need him. She had something better in her arms. Something malleable yet dark enough to cut with — a sword made flesh.

Hera smiled down at the child. "Hephaestus may have crafted the spell, but he gave it no direction." She reached for the magic and called it forth. "You shall accept my purpose and no other."

All she needed was a power source: the boy was not the Dark One — the magic of the Holy Grail was not in him. As luck or fate would have it, she now had another source available. For the first time in an age, Zeus had felt secure enough to leave Olympus. No challengers remained to his throne, or so he thought. But Hera was here. Using the power vested in the child, she could — if she dared — dismantle that throne from underneath him. It was one last throw of the dice. If she lost, she lost everything.

If she won, the price of her success would be Olympus: power siphoned away, it would suffer the erosion of time and entropy like any mortal creation. But Olympus was an empty shell now, and once she had reshaped destiny, the new Enchanted Forest would rise from the ruins. This child would be its divine emperor, one shaped only by Hera. She brushed a hand over his forehead, stripping away all traces of his old identity.

"Your name," she told him, "is Morpheus."

Having made her decision, Hera began channeling divinity from Olympus into the Dark One's son. To her shock, her magic was met was an answering glow. Her plan had been anticipated. Then she recognized the weave of the spell. "That old bitch!"

A trap. She had stumbled straight into it — a web woven over centuries of exile. Its strands spanned the mortal realm, drawing strength from a thousand living souls that fought her control, souls each blessed with a minute spark of divinity.

"You're dead. However clever you were, your plans died with you," snarled Hera. It was a close thing, but in the end, she wrested control of the web away from the intent of its creator. In the process, she shaped the child into a man, a man who knew no other mother than Hera herself.

He knelt before her, robed by her magic and bound to her will. "Great Mother."

"Morpheus." Hera laid her hand on his head. "You understand what I require of you?"

"Yes." Then he raised his eyes to meet hers. He slipped away from under her, and before she could react, he was on his feet with his fingers locked around her wrist. "But what of that which is required of you?"

Hera pulled back, flooded with sudden horror. This was all wrong. He was to be her instrument. But he held her in an iron grip and stared insolently at her face.

"Have you forgotten? Is treachery etched so deeply in your bones?"

"Wh-what?" She reached frantically for the magic that commanded him, but found herself holding nothing — he had broken free of her, a beast run wild, its reins cut.

"My parents. You promised to bring them back."

Hera froze in shock. How could he possibly remember his parents, when she had removed all traces of them from his mind?

Morpheus smiled coldly. He lifted his free hand, showing her the dagger he held — the sinuous black blade with his parents' names inscribed in white. Did the dagger whisper to him as it did to the Dark One? Was that how he remembered? Then the blade was at her throat, and he said in a deadly soft voice, "There is a fate of undoing laid upon me. Shall we test it?"

"No," gasped Hera. How could the dagger be in his possession? She hadn't thought the Dark One capable of giving it up. Wrong again. She sensed its power where its metal met her skin. Morpheus's power, and the grail's. "Don't. I... I'll summon them."

Finding no better option, Hera opened a door into the void, and Morpheus called the Dark One back into existence.

"Gideon!" His parents looked shaken at finding him once more a grown man — Rumplestiltskin perhaps less so than Belle.

The name slid off him as he turned his back to his parents. Morpheus raised a hand and sent Hera crashing into a wall. "Well, goddess. You and your kind have meddled enough in our destinies. No more."

Hera scrambled desperately to her feet. Too much power. She had miscalculated. They all had. Each of them — Hera, the Chthonian Oracle, Hephaestus, the Holy Grail — had stuck in their oar and created this... this creature capable of taking down even the king of the gods. And she had lost control of him. "You... you mean to kill us?"

"Gideon, no!"

Morpheus hesitated at Belle's frantic cry, but then bared his teeth viciously. "It's the fate laid upon me."

"You don't have to—" Rumplestiltskin took a tentative step towards his son.

Morpheus brandished the dagger. "Don't try to stop me, Father. Mother."

And with that command, Hera's hope faded: there would be no salvation from his parents. She saw their agonized faces, but it was too late to undo what she had done to them, to their son. She concentrated, summoning as much power as she had, for one last defense.

But the attack didn't come. Morpheus lowered the dagger and stepped back. "Hera. You've caused my family so much pain... but also saved them. So you get one chance. Run!"

Hera didn't wait for him to change his mind. He means to go after Zeus first. Some small part of her hoped for mutual destruction. The rest of her channeled her energies into fleeing as fast and as far as she could.

Stunned, Rumplestiltskin watched Hera vanish in a cloud of smoke. A moment later, his son was gone, too.

"What did she do to him?" Belle grabbed him by both arms, shaking him out of his daze and demanding answers.

"The spell... Volund's spell. Gideon's fate." He struggled to string the words into coherent sentences. A kaleidoscope of visions spun across his mind's eye. "The fall of Olympus. The gods. The turning point where one age ends and another begins. The Final Battle. Whoever controls this moment sets the direction. That's why Hera..."

"Why Hera what?"

"Why she set the Savior's wedding for this day. But now Zeus threatens to hold the moment alone. Gideon... Hera set him up to challenge Zeus."

"Gideon has the dagger!" Blue eyes glared at him accusingly.

"I saw that he would need it." He blinked, forcing back the visions as he focused on his wife.

"To murder Zeus?" Belle's fingers clawed into him. "No! Rumple, that can't be right... what kind of new age begins with our son killing someone?"

"We can't stop him," Rumplestiltskin said bleakly. He knew Belle must feel the compulsion as much as he did. The command held them both.

"That doesn't mean we can't be with him." Belle's magic enveloped them, and he felt her take them along the remnants of her attunement cantrip: though worn thin by Gideon's metamorphosis, the link held by a thread.

The great hall of Snow White's palace seemed to have half the realm packed inside for the Savior's wedding, but neither bride nor groom were to be seen, and the crowd was frozen under some enchantment.

Rumplestiltskin had no attention to spare for them — his son was on the dais, holding the Dark One dagger to Zeus's throat with one hand while the other channeled the magic that kept the king of the gods motionless.

"Gideon!" Belle let go of Rumplestiltskin's arm and surged ahead, stumbling in her hurry to reach her son. Rumplestiltskin followed, steadying her as best he could. He felt her trembling as she fought to appeal to Gideon to stop, but nothing came out.

Rumplestiltskin struggled with the compulsion, but it was too strong, slowing their steps as they came closer, choking off their words. "Gideon—"

Gideon seemed to hesitate, then said without turning, "My name is Morpheus."

", you're still our son," insisted Belle.

There's your loophole. You can talk as long as you don't try to stop him, thought Rumplestiltskin, but he kept his silence. None of them were safe while Zeus lived. Yet what kind of father would he be to allow his child to become a murderer? He had to get the dagger back. There must be some other way...

Belle didn't wait for Rumplestiltskin to come up with a plan. All her thoughts were bent on saving her son. "No matter what that woman did to you, you're still our Gideon. You can always come back to us."

Gideon turned, then, to look at his parents. His eyes softened. His mouth opened again, and this time his voice was barely audible. "Mother?"

No! Instinct screamed a warning at Rumplestiltskin, but Zeus was lightning-swift in his reaction.

There was a flash of light, a crack of thunder, and Gideon cried out, staggering back. Blood dripped from his hand, impaled through the back with doubled golden blades.

The shears, thought Rumplestiltskin, sensing the magic, but it was too late. He felt the shift in power as...

...Zeus seized the dagger. "Dark One."

No, no, no...

"Slay this would-be usurper." And the dagger pointed at Gideon.

"Rumple, no!"

But compulsion ruled him utterly. Rumplestiltskin had no choice. And Gideon was weakened, in no state to resist as his father thrust a hand into his back and ripped out his heart. If only he could fake it, as he had with Hook. Useless thought. The dagger was real, and so was the command. Rumplestiltskin's fingers tightened involuntarily, and he shut his eyes, concentrating on slowing his movements. Slow. Slower...

Not Gideon! Rumplestiltskin begged uselessly, silently, but there were no gods to hear his prayer. He wished that he had died, that he had stayed dead. So much better dead. Two sons lost, and it was all his fault, always his fault. No matter what he did, no matter what he tried. He could feel the heart beginning to crumble in his grasp. No!

Then, miraculously, his fingers sprang back open. He blinked and saw the heart still lying on his palm, but he was unable to close his hand. Then someone touched his cheek, and he gasped, looking up to see— "Belle!"

She had stopped him, her magic equal to his. Saved him, saved Gideon. Tears of gratitude sprang to his eyes, but his relief was short-lived. Any moment now, Zeus would see, would realize—

"You? Two Dark Ones?" The king of the gods glared at the dagger until the second name appeared. "Belle French. Cease your meddling."

...and their reprieve was over. Their eyes met, and Rumplestiltskin saw his own despair mirrored in Belle. But even as his fingers inexorably began closing again, one last flicker of hope crossed her face.

"Rumple! You didn't kill me, remember?"

Rumplestiltskin remembered. Zelena had commanded him, the first order she gave him upon acquiring the dagger. He had been able to resist. Because... because he had Baelfire's strength to bolster him, because... because Rumplestiltskin had taken his son's mind into his own, in a last-ditch attempt to preserve his life.

Out of time, out of options, Rumplestiltskin lunged for Belle before his hand could squeeze shut around Gideon's heart. She met him halfway, throwing herself into the spell as he reached for her essence. With no leisure to be gentle, he forced the connection. He sensed her doing the same, neither daring to let go. And then his thoughts fragmented, lost in the confusion as their minds collided.

Minds, bodies, souls... he sensed Belle collapse against him, her form merging into his, just as it had happened with Bae. It was a spell born out of desperation, never properly researched, nothing he had intended to use again — and now he was in no state to refine it.

No room. No room! Too many voices!

Rumplestiltskin, wait!

"Ugh," he grunted, his limbs shaking as he fought to stay upright, to protect the heart he held. "No..."

"Kill him," hissed Zeus. "Now."

The command tore through his mind, their minds, forcing them apart and leaving their thoughts bleeding.

Don't listen. Don't... don't...

No choice... His fingers itched to crush—

Stop stop stop he's our son you can't we can't...

His thoughts dissolved into chaos again and he groaned in pain. I can't. I'm afraid...

It's all right. You didn't. He's alive. Still alive. Rumple, look at me.

Look? Rumplestiltskin's vision went black. Then he turned it inward, fighting for the image in his mind's eye. Belle.

I'm here. We're together. I love you.

Love? The image wavered. Darkness closed around him again, and he was caught in memory. His son, lowered into the earth for his final rest. Himself, rendered helpless by the dagger as the witch taunted him. History repeats itself, Zelena seemed to say. Love is pain.

Love is our strength. Belle's eyes shone out of the darkness, an unearthly blue.

He clung to the thought as the world blinked back into existence. Gideon's heart. He forced himself forward, and instead of crushing his son's heart, he restored it to its proper place.

"Impossible!" roared Zeus. "I hold the Dark One's Kris. You must obey me."

"No." Rumplestiltskin heard the echo of Belle's voice behind his own. We're together. He can't force us to do anything.

Zeus tightened his grip, and a bolt of agony shot through Rumplestiltskin. "On your knees, demon!"

Rumplestiltskin bit back a scream. He straightened himself deliberately, slowly enough to hide the pain.

Before Zeus could issue another command, a hand had closed over his own, a web of shimmering gold light dancing over the skin.

"No more," said Gideon.

The king of the gods froze. His mouth opened, but no words came out, and he made no resistance when Gideon eased the dagger from his fist.

"Gideon, please." Belle had stepped to the forefront, and Rumplestiltskin was struck blind again. "There must be another way."

"I told you, Mother, I'm Morpheus." Gideon's voice filtered into the darkness, faint but clear. "This is my fate — has always been my fate — to end his life.", not like this. In the darkness, he could almost see. Then he remembered, and fought his way back to the surface, finding his voice. "If you're Morpheus, then be Morpheus. Morpheus is the god of dreams. That must be where our future is decided. Where the end of the story is written..."

The realm slept. The denizens of Misthaven, of the Enchanted Forest, old and new, human and fey, fairy and troll — all were taken by sleep to meet on the plain of dreams. Names and identities flowing as easily as water, their souls were drawn out of the narrow confines of their skin. Every voice was given its say.

The sleepers stood outside time and space, and the question was put to them: what is the future you truly hope for?

Will you have war?

Will you have peace?

Which story do you choose to live?

Every ending comes at a cost. What are you willing to pay, and how much happiness can you buy?


Rumplestiltskin was the first to stir, then Belle, now snuggled against his side. They held onto each other, no longer sharing a single body, but still reluctant to let go.

Zeus was gone.

And Gideon had never been asleep. He met his parents' eyes, then wordlessly offered the dagger to them, hilt first.

Rumplestiltskin accepted the dagger just as silently, stowing it away again in the invisible bag that he had turned into a warded pocket inside his coat.

Belle found her voice first. "Zeus. What... where...?"

"Gone," Gideon said.

"You... you..." Belle swallowed, then began again. "What do you mean, 'gone'?"

"To wherever dreams go upon waking."

"And... and what did the dreamers decide?" Belle looked almost ill with worry at what the answer might be.

Rumplestiltskin held her close, wishing he could promise her the future she deserved. He had shared her memories; now he couldn't help but share in her hopes and fears. She had traversed the realm for months, spinning tales of a better future. Had enough people listened? Had they believed her? And if they hadn't... would she blame herself? He murmured in her ear, "You did your best, sweetheart."

For the first time since he had become 'Morpheus', their son looked uncertain. "We... we won't know until they wake up."

"And... you?" Belle asked softly. "What did you decide? What future do you want?"

Do you still plan on going after the other gods? she didn't say, but they all knew what she meant.

"I...I want to be Gideon," their son said, the harsh mask of Morpheus breaking down as he faced his parents, and Rumplestiltskin saw the shadow of the young boy he had been in their shared dreams. "But I don't know how. She... she made me be this."

"Gideon... darling..." Belle reached out, pulling him into a shared embrace with his father and mother. "You'll always be our child. And there must be a way back for you. Rumple..."

Rumplestiltskin nodded, closing his eyes in concentration as he probed the magic Hera had used. There must be a way back. He freed his right hand and drew the Dark One's dagger.

The Dark One...

The Dark One wasn't only Rumplestiltskin anymore; it was both of them, together, as well as the dagger that was once the grail of heaven. And just as that entity existed between the three of them, so was Morpheus the sum of every soul in the realm. He had seen it in Belle's memory, Spider's divine 'blessing'. It had formed the basis of the network that bound all of Misthaven together in a single dream to decide their fate.

And now it was indeed time to wake up from the dream. Rumplestiltskin channeled his thoughts through the dagger.

Help him. Belle added her mental voice to her husband's.

"Be Gideon," he told his son as he used the dagger to slice Hera's spell open along the seams. He pushed the fragments out to be shared among the multitude, to lie dormant until 'Morpheus' should be needed again. "Only Gideon."

And then Belle cried out, but this time in delight, not fear. It was again a child, a near-toddler, that she held in her arms. She pinned a brooch to his blanket. Rumplestiltskin recognized the spell on it, appreciating its power to keep Gideon beneath the notice of whatever crisis caught them next.

But the next to wake was Henry, one of the few in the realm who could honestly look happy to see Rumplestiltskin.

"Grandpa Gold! Belle! What happened?" Then the boy's gaze dropped to the pen and book he still held, and he read aloud in amazement, "And so the Final Battle was fought..."

Rumplestiltskin hadn't seen his grandson write anything, but the magic of the Author transcended mortal limitations. As for the outcome...

"And the king of gods was undone by one of elven blood," Henry continued reading. "And at last peace was chosen over war..."

Rumplestiltskin breathed again. He murmured, "You did it, Belle..."

"And just as the future was given back to the hands of the people, so were their stories freed. This power was never meant to be trapped in a single fixed object, for the true grail of earth lives in the imagination of the people who create its magic." Henry tossed the black grail into the air. It rose to the ceiling and beyond, the sky opening miraculously behind it. It grew brighter and brighter until it could no longer be seen. Then Henry sent the book after it, and pages exploded out in a shower of words and images, raining down on the confused faces of the crowd, just now climbing back to their feet.

"Henry! What have you done?" This, from the Blue Fairy.

"What needed to be done." And that, from Merlin.

Merlin? Rumplestiltskin inhaled sharply, instinctively stepping in front of Belle and Gideon as he summoned power to shield them.

Henry boggled at the shade of the dead sorcerer. "You... you were in the black grail all along?"

In the grail? Rumplestiltskin remembered the dazzle of the crystal cave where he and Belle had found Merlin. So that was what it had been.

"Zeus trapped me there." Merlin smiled. "But you freed me, and for that, and much else, I thank you. And you also, Dark Ones..."

"The Dark One!" exclaimed Snow White. She and David looked at each other in bewilderment, then turned to the Blue Fairy. "He..."

"Negotiated a treaty, which after some effort on my wife's part, seems to have proven acceptable to the majority of the realm, your majesty," interjected Rumplestiltskin. "Even if a sizeable minority insist otherwise. Well, Reul Ghorm?"

The Blue Fairy blanched under Rumplestiltskin's challenge. "I... I..." Her gaze darted to the royal couple, then back. "The Great Mother's will in this..."

He shook his head. "She changed her mind." At Blue's flicker of surprise, he continued in a gentler tone, "She needs you more than this lot do. Go to her."

Blue hesitated. "I can't leave them at the mercy of the Dark Ones."

"I assure you, they're safe enough from us. Today."

"The war's off, then," said Snow, relief lightening her expression. "To be honest, I wasn't looking forward to it."

"I guess the fey aren't quite the monsters we took them for." David frowned at Belle. "So you're... the elven king's granddaughter?"

Belle nodded warily.

"And also Henry's step-grandmother? Huh. I guess that means Thanksgiving dinner just got even more complicated," David mused, glancing at his grandson, who was now engaged in a whispered consultation with Merlin.

"David!" Snow gasped suddenly. "She's the Dark One, too."

Belle grimaced, but nodded again. "Look, none of that changes anything, really. I'm still me."

Rumplestiltskin squeezed her arm comfortingly, but held his tongue, trying not to provoke the royal family for Belle's sake. He doubted they would ever be friends, but they didn't have to be enemies, either, no matter what Snow White thought of him.

Merlin was not so reticent. He broke away from Henry to address the crowd, "She's right. Darkness is inherent in all of us. The Dark One is simply a focal point for that power."

Startled whispers circulated, as those who recognized the dead sorcerer introduced him to those who did not.

"What does that mean?" demanded David. "When Emma was the Dark One, it did terrible things to her. And after she put the Darkness in Killian, it only made everything worse. She nearly died. We all nearly died!"

Merlin sighed. "It isn't easy, I know."

Snow snorted at the understatement. She put a hand on David's arm and stepped forward. "Look, you're Merlin. Between you and the Blue Fairy, can't we do something...?"

Rumplestiltskin suppressed a growl. What did she want to do, lock him up in that damn cell for a third time? If they thought he would allow that... Belle's weight as she leaned against his shoulder calmed the terror underlying his flare of rage. No, he and Belle would simply leave. No need to end one war and jump into another.

Blue looked from the royal couple to Merlin's shade. "Sorcerer, her majesty does have a point. Surely your powers are equal to the Dark One?"

"My powers are irrelevant," said Merlin. "Nimue and I... she pursued darkness and lost the light, while I ran from darkness and lost my way. But these two have proven that they can live inside the darkness but not be consumed by it."

Rumplestiltskin blinked, unexpectedly touched by the sorcerer's words. He covered his reaction with a quip, "What, do we get an award? I'm afraid I don't have a speech prepared."

"Rumple!" Belle hissed at him to behave.

Merlin smiled at them knowingly. "That darkness is the voice of the world's pain. It is given to you to answer that cry. To say to those in the dust, 'I hear you. You are not nothing, no matter how powerless you feel. Those who oppress you can be stopped. And however steep the price may be, it is one that you can pay.' To offer that choice to those who are bereft of choice."

Belle's fingers tightened on his shoulder, and she nodded to Merlin, whispering, "We'll try our best."

Merlin's smile grew wider. "I wish you luck." And then he vanished in a puff of smoke.

"Where... where's he gone?" Snow asked.

It was Henry who answered, "I think he went to find Nimue."

"Merlin is far too trusting," snapped the Blue Fairy. She hovered in the air, looking down at Rumplestiltskin and Belle in distaste and fear. "He was wise to bind your power to the dagger, but now..."

"The binding no longer holds us," said Belle. "So don't even try stealing the dagger. It won't do you any good."

Snow shuddered. "But that means there's no limit to the Dark One's power now. Belle, please. This can't be good."

"Oh, and it's good to keep him locked up in your filthy dungeon?" Belle scoffed bitterly.

Warmed by her support, Rumplestiltskin cleared his throat. "The truth is, we only have as much power as you give us, your majesty."

"What do you mean?" David had his hand on the hilt of his sword, as if a few feet of steel could help him control the Dark One.

Rumplestiltskin smirked. "The Dark One makes deals with desperate souls. How many we find, and how desperate, well... it's your kingdom, dearie."

Tired of explaining himself, and feeling hemmed in by the crowd of spectators, he glanced at Belle, giving her a bare moment of warning before he teleported the three of them back to her room in the Dark Castle.

Peace and quiet at last. Even though the latter was soon broken by Gideon's demands for attention, Rumplestiltskin was grateful just to be able to breathe without a cloud of doom hanging over his head.

They were alive. They had their son again.

They shared a simple meal in the privacy of the tower, conjured from the kitchen because they didn't feel up to facing anyone else today. Later, thought Rumplestiltskin. They could go downstairs to find Mulan and the Merry Band later. He just wanted to enjoy a moment with his family. He wouldn't isolate them forever.

Then another thought chilled him: nothing lasted forever. He was the Dark One, and someday that burden would pass from him. He didn't need to be a seer to know that his life would end with the dagger in his chest. Or worse — in Belle's. That was what he had carelessly sentenced her to. They were now magically bound to live as one and to die as one.

"I'm so sorry, Belle." He felt more a monster than ever as he explained the consequences of his desperate action when Zeus had claimed the dagger. "I tied your life to mine, with that spell."

"Is that what you did? Or did you tie your life to mine?"  She put her hands on his shoulders and met his eyes. "Don't be sorry. I'm not. It saved our son. Saved everyone."

It's forever, dearie.

Rumplestiltskin winced at the memory. It was the price of their freedom, and any evasion would only cost them more in the end. "Belle..."

"Hush," she said. "It's a price I'm willing to pay."

Either she was reading his mind, or she knew him too well. He swallowed, not knowing what to say.

Then Belle ran her fingers through his hair and smiled suddenly. "It's long again — your hair."


"The way it was in your vision, you said. And we did all that — your heart had stopped and you were as good as dead. Then Olympus fell, and we had the Final Battle. Despite all that, here we are, alive and together as a family..."

Rumplestiltskin nodded cautiously.

"So are we done with prophecies yet?"

He blinked at her, then felt his face split apart in a grin. "Do you know, sweetheart, I believe we are. That's the lot. All done!"

Rumplestiltskin had never foreseen a happy ending for them. This was not that — it was a chance, not so different than the ones they had before, that they had let slip into lies and insecurity, fear and betrayal. But this time, neither of them was foolish enough to push it away.

"It's just us, now." He glanced over at Gideon, fast asleep in his cot, then pulled Belle closer a