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A Different Fate

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Centuries Ago:

The boy didn’t have a bit of magic.  Not anymore.

Fiona sighed, watching through the crystal ball as a seven-year-old child—her child—struggle to raise the full bucket of water out of the well.  He was small and slight, perhaps a little underfed, yet was still heartbreakingly cute.  His sorrowful brown eyes were the same ones that haunted her in every dream she had, the ones she remembered staring back at her as she held him close as a babe…but he had no magic.  He was no Savior, her son.  Not after what she’d done to him.

I was trying to protect him, Fiona told herself for the thousandth time.  Yet she’d spent seven years searching for her son, for the boy whose name she didn’t even know.  Finding him in the crystal ball had been almost impossible; it had taken her years of working magic on the Dark Realm for her to be able to do so at all.  She’d studied and studied since learning of her son’s fate, but the books she had used to learn were beyond her reach, now.  Everything she had learned had been focusing on protecting her son and destroying the one destined to kill him, and she’d left the part of finding people to Tiger Lily.  Even worse, everything she had learned had been fairy magic.  Light magic.  And since her transformation, none of that seemed to work for her.

So, she had had to reinvent magic and re-learn from scratch.  Fiona did know that no fairy had ever gone dark before, not before her, and that meant she tread upon untouched ground.  It might have taken her seven years to find her son, but she had found him now, and soon she’d find a way to escape her exile.  Then they could be a family together.  Forever.

“I didn’t want to leave you.  My beautiful boy.”  The whisper escaped as she cradled the crystal ball in both hands, watching as the boy finally wrestled the bucket out of the well, filling the one he had brought along with him and standing on his toes to put the original one back.  Then he picked up his own bucket, lugging it inexpertly off to the east, towards the shops on High Street.

After a few minutes, the boy bumped into the baker.  Fiona concentrated hard listen to the short conversation, curious to see how the boy would handle the hulking man who clearly looked down upon him.

“Where are ye takin’ that water, laddie?” the baker demanded gruffly.

“To my aunts’,” the child answered, his voice so quiet that Fiona had to cast still more magic on the ball to hear him.  He was frightened, her boy was, and he shouldn’t ever have had to be frightened.

And why was he with his ‘aunts’?  Malcolm didn’t have any sisters.  He’d been an only child.  Had her husband remarried?  The thought made her heart twist in her chest, and Fiona felt furious darkness coursing through her veins.  She wanted to destroy this man who glared down upon her son, wanted to make him suffer for intimidating her boy.

“Who might ‘ey be?  I ain’t seen ye ‘round here before.”

“The town spinsters,” the boy whispered, and Fiona wanted to shake some confidence into him. 

Where is Malcolm?  Does he let people bully our son like this?  Surely he would not.  He loved us both so much.  They had been so certain that they had a bright and brilliant future ahead of them, that they would raise their child in the light of their love.  Blue had ruined everything when she’d exiled her, hadn’t she?  That bitch had made it so that her son would grow up with only his father, and Fiona knew how easily led Malcolm had been.  He’d always wanted someone to follow, and what if Blue had said something to him that turned him against their precious boy?

“Eh,” the baker spat.  “Strange ‘uns, those two.”

Fiona burned to hear her son speak up, but he only shrugged, cringing away the butcher ever so slightly.  She wanted so badly to be there, to flatten that fat bully of a butcher into goo, but only her magic could leave the Dark Realm, and not for very long.  The spell was even now becoming unstable, with the image’s edges growing blurrier and blurrier.  She could barely see her son, now, but even the distance couldn’t hide the way that the baker snatched the bucket away from her boy…or the way he walked away crying.

She had to reach him somehow. 


 

Years passed, and Fiona began to find cracks in the magic that held her in the Dark Realm.  She could escape, but never for very long—never long enough.  And it was too late.  By the time she could first slip out, her son would have been a man…and even in the Dark Realm, she had heard about the terrible war that had ravaged her homeland.  By the time she was able to return to the Frontlands, all she heard was tales of how the population had been decimated during the twenty years of war, about how every boy and girl over the age of fourteen had been required to fight.  Her son, her magicless son, would have stood no chance against such creatures, and that was all her fault.

I killed him.  I was trying to save him, and I killed him.  Fiona felt too numb to even properly grieve.  She didn’t listen to the rest of the stories, not about how a new Dark One had taken on the ogres and somehow won the war, saving all the children.  She didn’t care about that.  She had doomed her son, and that meant she really was as dark and as evil as Blue thought she was.  She had fulfilled the prophecy, albeit not in a way that she had ever wanted to.  Even though she’d stripped her boy’s fate away, she had killed him all the same.

She put up no fight while being pulled back to the Dark Realm.  Not that time.


 

The Present

Soon enough, she started taking children.  Fiona didn’t really think about it, not at first.  She just wanted to.  And the first two she took were abandoned, with nowhere else to go.  They came with her happily, eager to explore a new world and be with someone who might care for them.  Yet Fiona quickly learned that her dark little realm was hesitant to produce creature comforts for children; she tried and tried to be kind to them, and yet quickly found herself becoming more and more terrible.  She wanted to protect them, wanted to raise them to be strong, and yet everything seemed to go wrong.  Eventually, she set them to harvesting the dark fairy dust that the world was just so eager to create, thinking that she could use it to escape.

Of course, that attempt blew up in her face, just as she should have known it would.  Blue wouldn’t have sent her somewhere that she could escape with dark magic, would she have?  Damn her to every hell there is!  Blue had sent her to a place that only made her darker, that made even her love for her son sour and turn ugly.  My dead son.  She couldn’t get his seven-year-old face out of her mind.  Fiona hadn’t been able to find him after that, and she’d never known why.  No amount of dark magic, no seeing spell, had led her to him, and her heart still ached for the boy she had burned to protect. 

Yet now it was her body burning as the magic tried to tear her apart, and it killed four of the children whom she had brought there.  Two survived, however, but the boy was glaring at her.

“What are you staring at, child?” Fiona snarled before she could stop herself.  “Get back to work!”

She hated them all, she’d realized.  She wanted a child to love, but they weren’t her children, so they didn’t matter.  And Fiona wanted more than anything to hurt someone right now, because all the darkness had brought her nothing.  Taking power to protect her son had made her lose that son.  Losing that son had meant he died in a war she couldn’t stop, and now even dark magic failed to free her.

Her hands came up, power crackling in her palms and ready to rip the boy to pieces, when the little ingrate snorted.  “If I’d realized you were just as crazy as him, I’d have stayed with Pan.”

“With who?” Curiosity made her pause.  Had this boy been the one she’d taken out of that wretched little jungle world?  He’d been desperately wishing for escape, and she’d given it to him.  Ungrateful little snot.  Hadn’t his name been Edmund, or something like that?

“Pan.”  The boy actually had the audacity to sneer.  “He’s as crazy as you are, but at least we aren’t working in mines on Neverland.”  A roll of wrong-shaded brown eyes.  “And he’s more powerful than you.”

“Of course he isn’t, you adorable little fool.  No one’s more powerful than I am.”  Except for Blue, a traitorous side of her mind pointed out, but that wasn’t true anymore, was it? Blue might have exiled her and taken her wand, but Fiona had learned things about magic that Blue would never know.  And she didn’t need her wand any longer, either.  Still, she was interested.  Someone so powerful might prove able to get her out of this constricting little realm.  So, she stepped forward and smiled.  “Do tell me about this…Pan.

The boy just shrugged.  “They say he’s a demon.  He’s certainly not a witch, anyway.  I’ve met those.

“Neither am I, you silly idiot.  I’m a fairy.  A dark fairy.  And there’s no such thing as demons who can take human form.  There’s only darkness corrupting men.”  Fiona knew that for a fact.  She might not have been able to remember everything she’d studied, but she knew that demons couldn’t look human.

“They say he was a man.”  Edmund chewed his lip.  “Or Tiger Lily said so, anyway.  She said he was a man before he became Pan, but she might’ve been lying.  Pan says she lies, but on the balance, I’m more likely to believe her.  She’s not rotten to the core.”

Tiger Lily?”  Shock made her stumble back a step before Fiona could catch herself.  She hardly heard the rest of what the boy said.  “Tiger Lily is in that damp little jungle?” 

She had words to say to her old friend, after all.  And perhaps some very homicidal magic.  Fiona felt an anticipatory chill roll down her spine; even if she couldn’t get this Pan creature to help her escape, she could at least find out why her son’s fairy godmother had let him die in the Ogre War.  Fiona was a realist; she knew she had doomed her son when she’d stripped him of magic and then been unable to protect him.  Yet a small corner of her heart had always hoped that Tiger Lily might protect him in her stead.

Tiger Lily hadn’t, of course.  Fairies apparently didn’t care about unimportant children.  If they did, Fiona never would have been able to take so many of them.  She had half-hoped one of Blue’s minions would stop her, yet something around two hundred years had passed in the Enchanted Forest, and none of them had even tried.

“Yeah.”  He gave her droll look, and Fiona rolled her eyes when he volunteered no more.  She could try to frighten answers out of him, and while that could be fun…she had better things to do.

“Why?  Why would she be there?”

“Dunno.  Pan doesn’t like her, though.  And she most assuredly doesn’t like him.”

“Well, that does sound promising.”  Fiona discarded all notions of intimidating the boy and felt a real smile forming.  “Tell me more about Pan and this ‘Neverland’.”


 

“You told me your father abandoned you, but what about your mother?”  Cora’s words were quiet, muffled with the way her head was tucked against his shoulder, and Rumplestiltskin almost chose to ignore them.

You’ve told her too much already, Nimue’s voice whispered inside him.  He’d realized over the years that she always showed up when he was growing difficult.  The rest of the time she left the whisperings to Zoso, but the more he resisted, the more often she spoke in his mind.  Thus far, she hadn’t said much in regards to Cora, which a part of Rumplestiltskin knew was a bad sign.  He wanted to believe that was just because he had been the Dark One for so long and understood the darkness so well, but deep down, he knew better.

“She left.”  Rumplestiltskin shrugged.  It was unimportant, anyway, this information he’d given Cora.  “Or died.  It doesn’t matter.”

“Why not?”  Fingers played with the laces on his shirt, sending a shiver down Rumplestiltskin’s spine.

“She’s long dead, I’m sure.”  Pain welled up, but he pushed it down.  The past doesn’t matter, he told himself firmly.  “I never even knew her name.”

“But weren’t you curious?”  Cora sat up, giving him an enticing look at her breasts.  “Wouldn’t you even want to know her name?  My mother died when I was small, and I badgered my drunk of a father until he told me everything.”

He felt his eyes narrow.  “Mine didn’t stick around that long,” Rumplestiltskin muttered darkly.  “There’s likely nothing to know, anyway.  She didn’t even bother to name me.”

“Well, then I suppose that I won’t be gaining a mother-in-law, will I?” Cora’s laugh was soft, but there was nothing soft about the kiss she leaned in to give him.  It was hard and demanding, just like the woman herself, full of lust and darkness both.

And that was what he wanted, wasn’t it?


 

Tiger Lily was the one decent person on the entire island.  Baelfire didn’t know why she was there, but he sought her out as often as he could.  She was pretty good at scaring the Lost Boys away, even if Pan wasn’t really afraid of her.  Still, Pan mostly left her alone, which meant she was a good person to hide with when Bae had to get away.  She was nice, anyway, and he thought she was lonely, too.

Neverland, after all, was a lonely place.  No one really wanted to be there, except for Pan, and maybe Felix.  Sometimes Bae wasn’t even sure that Pan was happy with the world he ruled.  He certainly didn’t act happy between his power games and tormenting people.  Smirks and laughter aside, Pan often seemed as miserable as the rest of them.  Bae wasn’t stupid enough to ask, though.  Asking questions of Pan was something he’d learned not to do forever ago.  Time didn’t really make sense in Neverland, but Bae knew that a lot of it had passed.  Some of the other boys were convinced that it hadn’t, but he’d talked to new boy from the Land Without Magic, and he’d said that it was the 1940s there.  Some big war was going on, and according to Ed, it made the Land Without Magic even worse than this place.  Bae wasn’t sure which he’d prefer, but either way, he knew that time was passing in real worlds.  Unlike here.

“Tiger Lily? You there?” Anyone with sense approached Tiger Lily’s cave carefully; she didn’t like most of the Lost Boys, and her darts hurt like the devil.

“Baelfire?” The tall woman showed herself after a moment, her eyes narrowed suspiciously.  “What are you doing here?”

He contemplated lying, and then shrugged.  “Looking for Ed.  He disappeared a few nights ago, and I was kind of hoping he was hiding with you.”  

“Why would he be hiding with me?” Tiger Lily cocked her head curiously, which only made Bae shrug again.

“Better than the alternatives?”

“I suppose that’s true enough.”  She sighed, and then gestured him close to the fire, where there were a few logs to sit on.  “Ed’s not here.  I haven’t seen him since he was last here with you.”

“Oh.”  He felt his shoulders slump as he sat down.  “Do you think the pirates got him?”

Ed was about Bae’s age, after all, which meant he was old enough for Hook and his cutthroats to want to turn into a cabin boy or something else stupid.  Of course, Bae knew how well that worked out, but he hadn’t thought to tell Ed.  Ed had been supremely confident in his ability to survive anything and everything, and Bae hadn’t had the heart to disabuse him of the notion.  Whatever witch Ed had faced in the past—although how he’d done that in the Land Without Magic, Bae wasn’t sure—he hadn’t had to deal with Pan for very long.  He just didn’t get it.

“Maybe, but I haven’t seen Hook or his crew on shore in weeks.”  Tiger Lily’s eyes searched his face.  “Are you all right, Baelfire?”

“Sure.  Right as rain.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re a terrible liar?”

He snorted.  “Few times.  Doesn’t matter, not here.”

“You’ve been here a long time, haven’t you?”  Her smile was sad, but Bae brushed it off.  Tiger Lily had been here for quite a while, too, but he knew he’d been there longer than she had.  Still, that didn’t mean he was going to trust her.  Trusting anything in Neverland was just stupid.

“I guess, yeah.”  He wasn’t going to tell her about his escape plans, either.  All he had to do was figure out a way to catch that stupid shadow, and Baelfire would be out of here as fast as it could carry him.

“Where were you from originally?”

That question made him narrow his eyes, but it wasn’t like Pan didn’t somehow know everything about him, so there was no reason to lie.  Pan knew more about Baelfire’s family than Bae did, which was annoying because he never knew how Pan knew.  Maybe Hook had told him.  Hook was certainly happy to tell anyone who would listen about what had happened to Bae’s mother, and his story was always punctuated with long-winded speeches about revenge.  Still, it meant that Tiger Lily at least wasn’t fishing on Pan’s behalf.  “The Enchanted Forest.”  Bae kicked some dirt around with his toe.  “Like most people here.”

Of course, recently the shadow had been grabbing people from the Land Without Magic, and there was even one boy from Wonderland, but it was usually the Enchanted Forest.  Bae knew why, but if Tiger Lily didn’t, he wasn’t going to tell her.

“So was I.”  Her eyes focused in the distance for a long moment, and Bae thought she might look regretful.  “A long time ago.  Before I came here.”

“You came here willingly?”  He couldn’t stop his jaw from dropping.  Who in their right mind came to Neverland willingly?  “You’ve got to be—”

A cheerful laugh cut him off.  “Well, as exiles go, it’s certainly superior to the place some of us were sent.”

Tiger Lily shot to her feet right away, and Bae followed suit, twisting to see a dark haired woman clad in black standing in the mouth of the cave.   She was smiling a rather creepy smile, one that sent a chill down his spine, but it was the absolutely terrified look on Tiger Lily’s face that actually made him wary.

“How did you get here?” Tiger Lily sounded like she didn’t mean to ask the question, but she had.  “The Blue Fairy exiled you!”

“Oops.”  A giggle.  “Was that supposed to stick?”

“Baelfire, get back.”  Tiger Lily stepped forward as if to shield him from the newcomer.  After a moment’s hesitation, Bae complied.  He had enough trouble here with the way Pan targeted him all the time, and didn’t need to buy more.

“Oh, why so worried for the boy, old friend?  You can’t possibly think I’d hurt him.”

“I have no idea what you’d do.”  Tiger Lily looked as angry as she did protective.  “I don’t know you anymore.  Not after what you did!”

“It’s funny you should mention that.”  Another smile, this one even more dangerous than the first.  “Because that’s exactly what I’m here to talk about.”  Magic crackled in the air, suddenly, dark and dangerous.  “And let’s just say that I’m not interested in letting you avoid answering my questions.”

Chapter Text

“Let the boy go and I’ll answer your questions.”  Tiger Lily faced her so bravely that Fiona had to laugh.

“Why are you so worried about children now?  You never were worried about my son!”  Those words burst out with more emotion than she wanted them to; even after this long, that fact still burned.

“I had to protect all the children you wanted to banish!  You’re the one who cut your son off from his destiny, not me!”  Her old friend actually looked angry, but Fiona had to scoff.

“And after that, I’m sure you and Blue never worried for one measly moment about him.  After all, he wasn’t the Savior any longer.  He wasn’t important.”  She sneered, her heart racing furiously.  How could she still be so angry over what had happened?  She was different now, and yet the pain felt so fresh.  Pain makes me stronger.  Magic crackled in her hands, dark and powerful and so ready to make Tiger Lily suffer.  “I doubt you even looked in on him.”

“He was with his father.”  That answer sounded incredibly weak, even to Fiona’s ears, but she couldn’t bring herself to pounce on the weakness.  Don’t think about Malcolm, she told herself firmly.  Don’t think of how he must have wept for you. 

“But not his mother.  You saw to that.  You and Blue.”  She spat the words before drawing herself up proudly, allowing the darkness to wrap around her and comfort her.  They had left her with nothing else, and she’d let Tiger Lily see how powerful she was.  She giggled.  “And now you do nothing as I steal other children.  How appropriate.”

“I’d heard the stories, but I didn’t want to believe them.”  Tiger Lily had the audacity to look sad, but the boy got in before Fiona could laugh.

“You’re the Black Fairy.”  Brown eyes zeroed in on her, and although he looked wary, this one didn’t seem to fear her, either.

“And you’re a clever one, aren’t you?”  She cocked her head, taking his messy brown hair and lean build.  This one looked hauntingly familiar, although Fiona couldn’t quite say why.  Perhaps he was related to the last one she’d stolen from this island?

“No.  But it doesn’t take much to figure out who the child-stealing fairy dressed in black is.”  He shrugged diffidently.  “Funny you should come here.  Everyone here’s already been stolen.”

“Oh, have they?”  That made things more interesting, and Fiona turned back to Tiger Lily.  “Is that what you’re doing these days?”

“Of course not!  That’s Pan.”  A deep scowl.  “And he makes even you look…good.”

“I doubt that.”  Fiona had few things to enjoy in her exile, but she did like the way people were afraid of her.  Power was a cold comfort, but it was a comfort.  It was the only comfort she had. 

“At least you went dark trying to save your son.  He—” Tiger Lily cut off suddenly, shaking her head.  “He didn’t.  And now he steals children to torment them.”

“My, that sounds familiar.  I have to admit that I grow more and more curious about this Pan creature by the moment.”  Watching the boy shudder was supremely entertaining, and even Tiger Lily looked like she might get sick.  Of course, Fiona wasn’t going to tell Tiger Lily that she didn’t hurt the children she took.  She only disciplined them, made them stronger.  It wasn’t right—even she knew that—but it wasn’t for fun.  She let them go when they were loyal, too.  Sometimes.  Speaking of which.  “You can go,” she told the boy, waving him away.  “Unless you want to find out exactly how bad I can be, of course.”

He snorted.  “Not really, no.”

“Then shoo.”

The boy didn’t have to be told twice; he darted out of the cave and Fiona thought no more of him.  Tiger Lily, on the other hand, was fascinatingly pale.

“Don’t be curious about Pan.  Fiona, if you listen to nothing else I say, please understand that you don’t want to see him—”

“But I’m not Fiona any more, dear.  I’m the Black Fairy.”  Stepping forward, Fiona reached out to touch Tiger Lily’s cheek.  The former fairy flinched, and she loved it.  “You saw to that when you refused to help me save my son.  And now you’re going to answer for failing to protect him.”

“What?” Tiger Lily’s eyes were huge. “But I—I wasn’t his Fairy Godmother anymore.”

“Oh, of course not.  He wasn’t important enough, was he?”  Maybe she’d rip Tiger Lily’s heart out, finish the job she started all those years ago.

“No.  I gave up my wings after everything that happened.  After I failed to stop you.”  Tiger Lily looked away guiltily. 

“So, you just ran away instead of protecting him.  My, what a valiant and good fairy godmother you turned out to be.  So much for telling me that it was your job to protect him!”  Her hand fell to Tiger Lily’s throat almost on its own, and the way the bones constricted and Tiger Lily gasped felt wonderful.  “You made sure that I wouldn’t be able to protect him, and then you left my boy alone!  You—”

“My, this is an interesting reunion, isn’t it?”

Turning, Fiona found herself facing a smirking teenager.  If he hadn’t been floating in the air, she would have dismissed him utterly, but power radiated around the obnoxious child—and he was horribly familiar.  First that snarky boy, and now this smirking blonde had struck the same chord within her, yet she’d never seen either one before.  That realization made her shake her head, desperate to clear it.  This island realm was full of strange magic, and maybe it was making her think everyone was familiar.  There was no other reasonable explanation. 

“I fail to see what business it is of yours.”  Drawing herself up, Fiona released Tiger Lily and brushed her hands off.  “You must be this Pan I keep hearing about.”

“Peter Pan, actually.”  His grin was self-centered and loathsome; Fiona felt her lip curling up in disgust.  This was a boy—or perhaps a man, if young Ed had been right—who felt he was more important than everyone else.  And more powerful.

If he can get me what I want, I don’t care how cocky he is. 

“Peter Pan, then.”  She gave him her sweetest smile, which Fiona had to admit was not nearly as sweet as it had been back when she had been good and innocent.  Now it was predatory, but Pan didn’t seem bothered by that.  “I understand that this island is…yours.”

“Aye, it is.  As is everything on it.”  He landed lightly, smirk still in place.  “And that might include you, now, Fiona.

She glared.  “Silly little boys don’t get to call me by that name.  You get to call me the Black Fairy.”

“Fiona…” Tiger Lily’s voice sounded pained, but the brat just laughed over her.

“Aye, lass, I could, but I never have, and never will.”  Pan’s smile turned vicious.  “But of course you don’t recognize me.  I wouldn’t recognize myself, particularly not after so long.”  He gestured at his body, practically leering.  “And particularly not after I’ve grown younger and more powerful than you could ever dream of.”

“What are you talking about?”  Fiona tried to scoff the words, tried to fight down the growing sense of alarm.  There was something she wasn’t seeing, something just out of her reach…

“You don’t remember me, do you, love?” 

"I think I’d remember a singularly self-absorbed adolescent like you had we met before,” Fiona drawled before she could stop herself, giggling a bit.  The cocky little bastard radiated power, but she was certain she could handle him.  And if she couldn’t, well, the damned Dark Realm would pull her back soon enough.  To her children.

I am here to ask for his help, not antagonize him!  Fiona knew she didn’t have much time, and she couldn’t waste it.  She couldn’t bear spending more time in that Dark Realm; she was fairly sure that she’d lose her soul if she did.  She knew she was perilously close to that already.  For a long time, the thought of her son had kept her sane, but knowing he was dead had gutted her.  And being a bit further from the Dark Realm only reminded Fiona of how far she had fallen.  She hurt children when she was there.  What kind of monster was she?  I have to get away.

The boy scoffed.  “You think you’d remember the man you left behind, but I wouldn’t put it past you to forget.”  Pan gestured at her, sneering dismissively.  “After all, you abandoned your family.”

“And who told you that?” Fiona felt power crackling down her spine as her fury built and built.  Who was this little ingrate to lecture her?  He knew nothing about her, and—

“No one had to.  You’re here.”  Abruptly, Pan’s sneer veered into another smile.  “But of course you don’t recognize me.  You probably forgot all about the husband you left behind, didn’t you?  I knew that those pesky fairies calling it an ‘accident’ was a lie, but I never knew how much of one.”

She blinked hard.  “….What?”

“See?  Forgotten already.”  Pan shrugged showily.  “I suppose that’s the way of power, isn’t it?  Now that I’ve gotten a taste, I quite understand.”

“You can’t—you can’t—”  A sick feeling was starting to form in her stomach, heavy and nauseating. 

“Ah ,but I can.  Seems we both found our way to power without caring about what it cost others.”

Fiona felt cold.  So cold.  This could not be.  He could not be.  Not the man she still dreamt of, still ached for.  This arrogant and cruel child could not be her lost love.  “Malcolm?”

“Don’t sound so shocked, Fiona.  You gave our son and me up for power, and all I did was follow your example.”  His grin was sadistically smug.   “When you get down to it, love isn’t nearly as important as power.”

“You what?”  Shock made her words soft instead of sharp.  A distant tug accompanied them, but Fiona ignored it.  The Dark Realm suddenly felt so unimportant, and her exile was meaningless.  Was Malcolm saying what she thought he was.  “What…what did you do?”

“You might say I followed in your footsteps.  Being a single father was hardly in the cards for me.  Having a mewling, clingy little worm stuck to you every moment of every day gets old after a while.”  He shrugged.  “Rumple was a pathetic little brat, anyway, always demanding love and care, never standing up for himself.  When the shadow here offered me a deal to give him up, I was more than ready.”

“You gave up our son.”  She could barely breathe.  Her chest was tight and it felt like a giant weight was pressing down on her. 

“Aye.  It was easy, too.  As I’m sure you already know.”

Magic tore out of her, catching Pan by surprise and throwing him back against a tree hard enough that the trunk cracked.  “I promised to spend every moment of every day trying to find my way back to him, and you gave him up?”  A black wind started whipping around them, fast and strong.  “I was trying to protect him!”

“By leaving?” Pan snorted, freeing himself from the tree with an effort.  “That’s rich.  Now, do be a good little girl and leave my island, or you’ll find out how very powerful I am.”

“I don’t care how powerful you are.  I’m going to make you pay!”  Fiona had never hated anyone as much as she hated her husband in that moment; she had loved the man this boy had been with all of her heart, had trusted him, had believed he would care for their beloved son when she was gone.

He gave him up willingly, and people call me the monster.

She was shaking with rage, but the tug was back, and Fiona could feel it pulling her away.

“Fiona, he’s not worth it.”  Tiger Lily’s desperate whisper made her turn in surprise.  Her old friend was still there?  Why was she here on Pan’s nasty little island, anyway?

“Not worth it?  You and Blue sent me away from my son, only to let him trade my boy for power?”  The words were a shriek, but she didn’t care about dignity.  Her son had been abandoned by both of his parents.

“I couldn’t stop him.  Blue forbade me contact with your son.  She said since I’d failed to stop you, I wasn’t a worthy fairy godmother.”  Tiger Lily looked racked by guilt.  “But he grew up with two spinsters, who—”

“I’ve already seen them!”  Or heard of them, but it was close enough.

The pull was growing stronger, and Fiona could feel herself shrinking to fairy size.  She fought it desperately, wanting to make Pan pay.  He’s not Malcolm.  Not anymore. 

“Then you know he was happy with them.”  Tiger Lily shot an acid glare Pan’s way, reaching for Fiona’s hand before Fiona could jerk away.  “Happier than he ever was with him, and better cared for, too.”

“That doesn’t make it right!  And it’s his fault that our boy died!”  Fiona had never imagined that her son would be abandoned by his father, too.  Not by Malcolm.  Not her Malcolm.

“Is that what you think?” Pan’s laughter echoed around them as Fiona gasped.  She’d never fought the pull to the Dark Realm like this, and it was growing painful.  But she didn’t care.  What was physical pain, compared to this?

“It’s been hundreds of years,” she snarled, whirling back to face him.  Movement frayed her magic, and the tug grew stronger, as if gravity itself was trying to betray her.  “Of course he’s dead!”

“Dead? Oh no, he's not dead.”  Another laughing shrug.  “It's much worse. He's The Dark One.”

What?  No—no—that’s impossible.”  She felt like the wind had been sucked out of her chest.  All she could manage was a broken whisper.  “He can’t be.”

Pan threw back his head and chortled.  “Darkness seems to run in the family, doesn’t it?”

“No.  Not him.  Not my—”

She never managed the last word.  Suddenly, power swept her up before Fiona could find a way to counter it.  She was pulled into the sky at dizzying speed, sucked back into dead and dark exile. 


 

“I was starting to grow concerned.”  He had also been starting to pace a path into the ground, but Rumplestiltskin wasn’t going to mention that.  Even to Cora.  Don’t show weakness, Zoso whispered inside him, but he batted the voice aside.

He was happy.  He was finally allowed to be happy, and now he would have a bewitching and dark enchantress by his side.  Together, they would find Baelfire, and he would at last have the family he had always dreamt of having.

Cora smiled slightly.  “Well, here I am.”

Ignoring the strange stilted tone of her voice, Rumplestiltskin leaned forward to kiss her.  Cora’s lips met his readily, yet there was an emptiness in her that he had never felt before, something dark and deep and gone.  The spark between them was missing, snuffed out by something he could no longer touch.

“Something’s not right.”  The words came out even as the truth dawned on him, but he couldn’t, wouldn’t believe it.  He had to be wrong.  Something terrible must have happened.

“Yes.”  Again, her expression didn’t change.  “You’re correct.” 

“Well, what happened?  Couldn’t you take the King’s heart?” Rumplestiltskin leaned forward, willing the answer to be anything but the truth he knew.  His heart was already racing, beating an erratic and nervous tango out inside his chest.

She shrugged.  “No, I was able to do it. I chose not to.”

“Ah.”  That was the only word he could get around the sick bile bubbling up in his throat.  I told you so, Nimue whispered.  You know what she is.  You love her for what she is, you great fool. 

You should have seen this coming.

“I’m sorry, my dear Rumple.  I’m not going with you.”  Cora didn’t seem very sorry, but Rumplestiltskin wanted to cry. Nimue was right.  He was a fool, but he loved her.  Yet Cora went on in that same calm, unfeeling voice.  “You see, I have a wedding to go to—my own.”

Rumplestiltskin pointed down at the box she held.  “Whose heart is in the box?”  He had to know. 

Finally, she flinched a little.  “Don’t make this harder.”

“You lied to me!  Whose heart?”  He wanted to rip her to pieces, but emotion stayed his hand.  Furious though he was, he wanted to be wrong.  Or maybe he wanted to be right.  If it was hers, then he could convince her—

“Mine.”  A little shrug, and for a moment, Cora looked regretful.  Then she squared her shoulders like she was facing a demon.  “I had to. You told me not to let anything stop me until they’re on their knees.  My heart was stopping me.”

“You never loved me! Never!  You’re not getting away with this.”  He was shaking with rage, could hear a dozen voices within him screaming for revenge.  “We had a contract. I’ll take your baby!”

“You changed the contract, Rumple.”  Now she looked satisfied as well as sad, but sadness would not mend his broken heart.  “You only get your own child. And any baby I have…it won’t be yours.”

She played you, Spinner.  Gave you love and affection, and took what she wantedPower.  Zoso’s voice was almost wistful.  Still, she did seem to genuinely like us.  It’s a pity she didn’t go for the dagger.  She’d make a fine Dark One.

Shut up!  He wanted to scream, but instead, Rumplestiltskin dug into the darkness, using it as armor to shield his shredded heart.  If Zoso and the others wanted a Dark One, he would give them a Dark One!

“You never wanted me, did you?” he hissed, power swirling up around him.  He could destroy Cora utterly, could rip her to pieces.  Who cared if he needed her daughter for the curse?  He could find someone else.  “You only wanted power.”

“You’re the one who taught me that power matters.”  Cora drew herself up.  “Just as you told me how you let your son go to hold onto your power.  I’m merely following your example.”

“I—I—” His fury died, drowned in heartbreak.  Had Cora really thought that he wanted to give up Baelfire for power?  He’d been terrified and the darkness had—had—

We led you down the right road.  Power should always be chosen over love.

“Goodbye, Rumple.”  Cora gave him a sad smile, and then turned to walk away.

Heartbroken and deflated, Rumplestiltskin let her go.


 

“Get away from me!”

Two children approached as Fiona was slammed into the caves of the Dark Realm, but she swept them back with a threatening wave of one arm.  She wasn’t in any frame of mind to do magic, particularly without a wand—the fairy source of her power wanted a wand, and it had taken her years to learn any magic at all without one.  But the children weren’t fools; they fled when she screamed at them, disappearing into the caves and probably happy for the reprieve.  A  part of her wanted to chase them, to make them suffer for daring to approach her, but Fiona couldn’t handle that right now.

Her son was alive.

The thought should have been an occasion for joy, should have made her want to sing with happiness, but she could not.  Even the knowledge that Malcolm had somehow turned himself into a cruel self-centered adolescent hadn’t been enough to shake her like this, but what Malcolm—Pan!—had told her rocked Fiona down to her very core.  Her son was the Dark One.

How could that have happened?  How could her sweet boy, destined to be the Savior, have embraced such terrible darkness?  Fiona had never regretted turning to the darkness to protect him, but she had done so that he would never have to!  Her beautiful, perfect boy was not meant for such a terrible fate.  He was not meant to know what it felt like to have darkness coiling inside you, driving you to do worse and worse deeds, to hurt everyone around you.  He had been meant for the light, not for this! 

And how could he handle it?  Had cutting his destiny away made him more susceptible to the darkness?  Of course it would.  Images of a ravaging monster came to mind, of someone whose inherent light had been stripped away and left with nothing but darkness.  Even Fiona cringed thinking upon that; she had heard stories of the Dark One growing up, and knew what kinds of terrors one could unleash.  She shivered, hugging herself helplessly when she reached her private chambers.  Her son was a monster.  She had made him into a monster by taking away the power that should have kept him safe.  She could tell herself that she had been trying to protect him, but the truth would not change.  Her Savior had become a Dark One.

Yet when emotion gave way to reason, Fiona started to wonder about that.  If more than two centuries had passed in the Enchanted Forest, that meant he’d been the Dark One for almost that long.  No one survived more than two hundred years as the Dark One.  Fiona knew her history.  Even Nimue’s reign of darkness had only lasted eighty-some years, and most others were slain far more quickly than that.  But my son still lives.

Slowly, Fiona lifted her black crystal ball with shaking hands.  “Show me the Dark One.”

Fiona had been afraid to say the words, but she forced them out of her mouth.  Saying show me my son had never worked; even the crystal ball needed more guidance than that.  Outside the Dark Realm, a simple spell would have sufficed to let her see her son, but breaking magic through the walls of her exile was hard, even for a mother seeking her son.  She had tried so many times to find him, only for her spells to fail.  Now, however, the crystal ball grew cloudy…and then cleared, revealing a slender man dressed in leather and silk.

His face was golden and marred by scales, yet Fiona could see the slender bone structure underneath his curse.  The set of his cheekbones reminded her of her father, as did his messy curls.  But she only got a moment to study his face before the figure her crystal ball whirled away, a furious expression on his face—which was suddenly obscured by a cloud of dark red smoke.

Then he was gone, leaving her staring at a tree.  A tree.

“Bring him back!” she snarled at the ball before she could stop herself.  Yelling didn’t work, of course, so Fiona had to force her anger back and focus on re-creating the spell.  However, after a moment, her son’s image re-coalesced. 

Right as he smashed a candelabra into the smooth surface of a wooden table.  Sides heaving, he brought the candelabra smashing down again, and again, and then again.  Finally he flung it away with a soft, snarling noise of rage, only to grab a chair and smash that into the table.  A china cabinet with a glass door was the chair’s next victim, and unlike the table, it shattered, spraying her son with glass.  Foolishly, Fiona opened her mouth to object before snapping it shut again—she could do nothing from here, and her son was the Dark One.  A few cuts could be healed with the flick of his smallest finger.

So, she watched his face as he stabbed the chair towards the cabinet’s contents, and paid no mind as he smashed a bowl and some glass goblets.  She knew that kind of breakdown.  She could feel the heartbreak and pain radiating off of her son, could see the tears in his eyes that he refused to shed.  Something had broken him, something had cut him so deeply that crying would not even begin to ease the pain. 

Most mothers would weep with their son, but Fiona’s heart leapt.  Yes, her precious son was suffering—and she burned to seek revenge upon whomever or whatever had hurt him so—but that meant he was still there.  That meant that her son’s heart, fated to be so strong and so good, was not lost to darkness.  He was no mere vessel for the darkness, no ravaging monster whom the woman inside the Black Fairy might shrink away from.  He was still her son, Dark One or not, and she was going to find a way back to him.

No matter what it took.

Chapter Text

Weeks passed before she could manage to leave the Dark Realm again, and Fiona spent all of it plotting and planning.  She even ignored the children she kept there, letting them laugh and play if they wanted to.  They were unimportant now that she knew her son was alive.  She didn’t care what they did; all she cared about was finding a way to get to her son.  Yet her re-invented version of the Dark Curse was not ready; she lacked the scroll, and recreating the spell from memory was difficult.  As was acquiring enough dark fairy dust to do it.  No, she would need years yet before she could use that curse, and even then, there was a pesky matter of the price to be paid.  Fairy dust might be enough to counter that, but Fiona was not prepared to wait long enough to find out.

That left a Savior’s magic, but so far as she knew, there was no Savior at the moment. There would be one soon; the fairies’ book of prophecy had indicated that this would be another dark period in which one or more Saviors would be required.  Yet she wasn’t prepared to wait a generation or two, which only left one option.

Which brought her back to Neverland, of course.  But not to Malcolm.  If she never saw the pretentious little bastard he’d become again, Fiona would die happily.  She still could not believe that her sweet and gentle Malcolm could become that horrible sadistic child, but she knew that he had.  Accepting it was hard, and she’d spent more than a few days wondering if she might somehow find a way to save him, to bring him back, but she knew the look in his eye.  Pan wore the face of a man very happy with the darkness he’d embraced, and there was no going back from that.  She would know. 

Asking for his help in escaping the Dark Realm would put me in his debt, and I have a feeling that I do not want to be there.  Even Fiona shuddered at the thought.  This island was a wild and frightening place, worse, she thought, than even the Dark Realm.  It had its own insidious magic that got inside you and refused to let go.

“Tiger Lily?”  This time she approached the cave more carefully, not trying to startle the occupants.  Assuming there were any.  “Are you there?”

“Give me one good reason not to shoot you with this.”  Tiger Lily practically materialized out of nowhere, some sort of weapon in her hands. 

“Are those darts?  How quaint.”  She couldn’t help snickering.  “Do you really think they’d work on me?”

Her former friend snorted.  “I know they would.  You forget that I know where your magic comes from.”

“True.”  Fiona shrugged, holding her hands away from her body in the least threatening manner she knew.  Doing so was hard—it had been centuries since she had actually wanted not to intimidate someone.  “Then I suppose you shouldn’t shoot me because I’m here for your help.”

“I can’t help you with Malcolm.  He’s beyond help.”  A shadow fell over Tiger Lily’s face.  “I tried.  He wants to be what he is, and doesn’t care who he hurts.”

“Is that why you’re here?” 

“I had to go somewhere when I gave up my wings.  Blue made it clear I wasn’t welcome back home, and Wonderland was…not very wonderful.”

Fiona laughed bitterly.  “That makes two of us who Blue doesn’t want around.  Although I’d take Wonderland over where she sent me.”

“Where you kidnap children to, you mean?”  Angry eyes met hers, and the blowpipe came up again.  “Don’t lie to me.  I’ve heard about what you do.”

“Well, then, yes, I take children.  Mostly unwanted ones.  I was trying to fill the hole in my heart somehow when she sent me away from my son.”  Fiona drew herself up, squaring her shoulders.  She knew it was wrong, but she wasn’t going to apologize.  Going to the Dark Realm  hadn’t been her choice, and it wasn’t like Blue cared enough to stop her, anyway.

That only made Tiger Lily glare harder.  “You could have cut your fate instead of his.”

“I could have, yes.  But I can’t change that, now.”  She swallowed hard, but faced the facts head on.  “My son should have been the Savior.  Instead, he is the Dark One.  And I need to get to him.”

“And you’re here because you want me to help you find a way to permanently escape the Dark Realm.”  Tiger Lily sighed.  “I didn’t exile you, Fiona.  I can’t undo the magic Blue worked.  The wand she used was broken to keep you there.”

“She broke the most powerful wand the fairies possess just to exile me?”

“Yes.”

“That’s certainly flattering.”  An attempt to giggle fell a little flat, though; Fiona knew she would run out of time before too long.  I can’t meet my son like this.  Bits of conversation weeks apart is no way to rebuild a relationship. “But immaterial.  I think you know what I’m here for, and it’s not the piece of that wand you have hidden in your cave.”

Tiger Lily fidgeted furtively.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, come now.  Of course you do.  You used to know me better than anyone else, just as I knew you.”  She swallowed quietly, forcing herself not to dwell upon friendships lost.  “I cut my son’s fate away, but the power of a Savior remains.  You have it here, don’t you?”

“Why would you think I have it?  Blue would—”

“You were his fairy godmother.”  Fiona dared to take a step forward, forcing her pride aside.  “Please.  I need to get to my son.  I have to protect him.”

“He’s the Dark One.”  Tiger Lily crossed her arms.  “I’d say he’s quite capable of protecting himself.”

“That’s not the point!  He’s my son, and he’s alive.  I cannot leave him alone.  Not now.  Not after Malcolm abandoned him as well.”

That plea finally made Tiger Lily sigh.  “You do know that it’s been centuries.  He’s probably not going to be very receptive of your attempts to become part of your life.”

“I don’t care.”  But those words made her blink; the idea that her son might not want her had never occurred to Fiona.  But surely he would give her a chance?  Surely he would let her explain?  “I’m his mother.”

“And you’re the one who cut his destiny away and put him on the dark path he’s on.”

“I don’t care if he’s the Dark One.  I’m the Black Fairy. I’m hardly any stranger to darkness.  I revel in it.” 

“Then why should I doom the world by letting the two of you team up?”

Fiona made herself laugh lightly.  “The idea is certainly attractive, but that’s not why I’m here.”

“Isn’t it?”  Tiger Lily peered at her carefully, and Fiona didn’t like being studied so closely.  “I know you love him, Fiona, but people can grow too dark to love. Do you really want that for your son?”

“No!  I never have.”  Anger surged within her, the urge to just try to take the required power from Tiger Lily growing stronger and stronger, but Fiona shoved the feeling down.  She couldn’t afford to make a fight of this.  She didn’t just need a Savior’s power, after all.  She also needed someone to wield it and create a portal that she could come through.  Tiger Lily could do that—but she had to be willing.

“Then I’ll make a deal with you.  I’ll help you escape the Dark Realm so that you can reunite with your son…on one condition.”

“Tell me.”  Fiona knew that she’d agree to almost anything, but she wasn’t about to say the words out loud.  She’s going to ask me to give up my power, she realized with a sinking heart.  Could she do that?  She needed the power, and not only to protect her son.  I can do good with it.  I can help him.  I need the power.

“I’m not going to ask you to give up your magic.”  Tiger Lily’s voice was surprisingly gentle. “I want you to do something even harder.”

Fiona’s heart slammed to a stop in her chest.  “What could be harder than that?”

“I want you to restore your son to his proper path.”

“…What?  That’s not possible.  I saw the shears work.  There’s no restoring a fate that has been severed, and even if there was, I am not going to battle my son to the death.”   Fiona wanted to shake Tiger Lily.  What was she thinking, asking something like that? 

"You're not listening.”  Tiger Lily got that teaching look on her face that said Fiona was being a fool.  “I said I want you to restore him to his proper path.  To the path of the light, not the dark.”

Taken aback, Fiona hesitated before answering.  She knew darkness well, but centuries had passed since she’d read up on the Dark One, and what being one meant.  She didn’t know enough to know if that path could be changed—yet she was still inclined to agree.  She had taken on darkness so her son would never have to, and the idea of bringing him back to the light, of helping him after having left him alone for so long, was incredibly alluring. 

“Did you know?”  She had to ask. 

“No.”  Tiger Lily shook her head.  “I didn’t.  I knew about Pan, but not about your son.  He doesn’t exactly admit to having a child—he’s too fond of being a teenager.”

“Then why?”  Her eyes narrowed.  “Why you ask for this if not to make amends for your own failure?”

“This has nothing to do with me.  Don’t be so narrow minded.”  Tiger Lily shook her head.  “But there was more than one great evil born that winter…and others since then.”

“You mean Pan.  You expect my son to stop Pan.”  Fiona felt cold.  If not the Savior, could her boy survive being a hero?  Surely with her help, he could.

“It’s not just Pan.  Merlin made a prophecy about the Dark One long ago.  He prophesied that there would be a Dark One who would turn the darkness back to light, that a Dark One would finally defeat the curse that power became.”  Tiger Lily reached out to put a hand on Fiona’s arm, and Fiona couldn’t bring herself to pull away.  “Your son was meant to be a hero.  Surely there is no one better to turn the darkness to light.”

Fiona bit her lip, her mind racing.  “If I promise to do so, you’ll help me get to him?”

“I will.”

Anything could happen, of course.  She could make this promise and fail in her attempts, or her son could reject her utterly and Fiona might never get the chance to even try.  Or she could actually help her son, could bring him back to the light.  He was not meant to be dark, a quiet voice inside Fiona whispered.  And I was not meant to abandon him.  Could they find their true destinies together, or was the very idea only a flight of fancy?

“It might not work.”  The words came out before Fiona could stop them, and she hated herself for the honesty.  She’d built the last two centuries of her life on lies and cruelty; why was she telling the truth now

“The woman I knew before would not let that stop her.”  Tiger Lily met her eyes squarely.  “Fiona would have done anything to save her son.  Will the Black Fairy do the same?”

“No.”  She swallowed hard; all this honesty was going to kill her.  The admission came out in a whisper: “She wanted power too badly.”

Fiona had spent the first decade imagining that moment over and over again, wondering why she had chosen power over her son.  I need my power.  She still needed power, but at the cost of her son?  She hadn’t known Blue would exile her, but in her heart, Fiona had known there would be a price.  She had just never imagined that cutting away her son’s destiny would also cut him out of her life.  I promised to spend every moment of my life trying to get back to him.  If this is what it takes, if I must finally save my son instead of betray him…then that is what I will do.

“And now?” Tiger Lily looked curious rather than worried, and part of Fiona was offended that her old friend could read her so well.

“I’ll do it.  I’ll do whatever it takes to get to my son.”


 

The flash of white light was blinding, and it made Baelfire stumble back several steps. He’d come to see Tiger Lily again, mostly because he didn’t have anything better to do.  It wasn’t like Neverland had a lot of ways to entertain yourself, at least if you didn’t want to play Pan’s games, and Ed was long gone.  He was starting to think that Pan had done that, had taken away the one boy who Bae had started to actually like, just because the psychopathic ruler of this island thought tormenting him was fun.  Why he went after Bae in particular Bae would never know; but Pan seemed to think that he was extra ‘fun’.  There were times that Bae wished he’d stayed on Captain Hook’s ship, but he knew that wouldn’t actually have been any better.  Hook just wanted him to use against his father, to get the revenge he babbled on about all the time.  This place makes Papa at his worst look halfway decent, Bae thought, blinking rapidly to clear his vision.  Not that that helped.  His father had no idea where he was, and even if part of Bae wished his papa would show up and save him, he knew it wasn’t going to happen.

Laughter drifted down the hill, delighted giggling that made Bae stop cold.  People didn’t laugh like that on Neverland, at least not after the first few days.  And that laughter certainly wasn’t Tiger Lily’s voice, which left Bae wondering when another woman had shown up on this island.  Unless…?

“You did it!  I’m free.  I’m actually free.”  Yeah, that was the Black Fairy’s voice, and after she’d been all laughing and threatening before, Bae wanted nothing to do with her.  “I can’t believe you actually did it.”

“Yeah, and now you have to leave Neverland.  That’s not as easy as you might think.”

“I’m hardly going to let something like that stop me, Tiger Lily.”  The Black Fairy snorted out a laugh.  “Do you really think I would have come here without a way out?”

“Don’t get all high and mighty with me, Fiona.  I seem to remember a few half-baked ideas coming out of your head back when this all began.”

Bae barely managed to get his hand up in time to muffle his snicker, but the Black Fairy and the ex-fairy didn’t seem to notice him.  The Black Fairy merely laughed again.

“Dark fairy dust does have its uses, and crossing realms is one of them.  How do you think I got here in the first place?”  There was a hesitation, and then the Black Fairy continued almost…nervously.  “I can bring you back to the Enchanted Forest, if you want.  Or anywhere else.”

“You’d—you’d do that for me?”

“You were my friend.”  Bae glanced up at the two silhouettes just in time to see the Black Fairy draw herself up proudly.  “And I don’t like owing people.”

Tiger Lily snorted.  “You don’t owe me.  We made a deal, one you’re going to keep.”

“Of course I am.  Don’t look at me like that.”

“Then that’s all I ask.”  Tiger Lily was giving the Black Fairy a look that Bae had seen from her before, but usually it was Tiger Lily giving it to foolish boys who were trying to prove how important and tough they were.  “So, go.  Go to your son, and do what you promised.”

“Are you sure you want to stay here?”

“I can do good here.  Not much, maybe, since I gave up my wings…but more than I can in the Enchanted Forest.”  Tiger Lily sounded sad, but much to Bae’s surprise, the Black Fairy spoke passionately.

“If Blue thinks she can force you to stay in exile—”

“It’s not her, Fiona.  I’m staying here because I think I should.  Now go, before Pan notices you again and things get messy.”

The Black Fairy snorted.  “I can deal with that obnoxious little prat.”

“Well, I don’t want to be here for the fallout, so go.  Now.  Shoo.”  Tiger Lily waved her away, and much to Bae’s surprise, the Black Fairy suddenly shrank down into actual fairy size, and flew away.

He meant to wait a few minutes before showing up, to maybe hide for a bit so that Tiger Lily didn’t realize he’d been spying on her, but the former fairy’s voice floated down to him almost right away.

“You might as well come on up, Baelfire.  Hiding in the shadows accomplishes nothing.”

“Who says I want to accomplish anything?” he shot back before he could stop himself.  But Bae did head up the hill.  It wasn’t like he had anything better to do.  Not so long as Pan left him alone.

“Aside from hiding from Pan, you mean?” Tiger Lily’s voice was dry, but she looked tired when Bae approached.

Bae shrugged.  “Apparently, that’s easier than hiding from the Black Fairy.  Assuming you want to, anyway.  You two seemed pretty cool just now.”

“She’s…an old friend, I guess.”  Tiger Lily sighed and sat down on a rock, inviting Bae to join her with a gesture.  “Or she was, once.  Maybe she will be again.”

“I dunno.  She seems like a nasty sort, if she can stand up to Pan.”  In Bae’s experience, nice people lost out to Pan really easily.  Only the rotten ones could go anywhere near toe-to-toe with him and survive.

“She is, but unlike Pan, she embraced power out of love.  That makes a difference, or I hope it does.”  Another sigh, and then Tiger Lily waved her hand.  “But it’s out of my hands, now.  What about you?  I don’t think you’ve ever told me your story.”

“Not much to tell.”  And even less than he wanted to share.  “I’m here like everyone else, and it sucks.”

Tiger Lily cocked her head.  “I heard that you came here to save a family you were staying with.”

“Yeah.”  Bae figured there wasn’t much harm in telling the story of his time with the Darlings, or at least a little of it.  That didn’t say he was the Dark One's son, which he really didn't need Pan knowing.  Or anyone, for that matter.

“That’s incredibly brave of you to do.”

He just shrugged.  “Maybe.  Didn’t work out too well for me, but I’m surviving.”

“Sometimes that’s what counts.”


 

Cora had left him, but he would make her rue the day she had done so.  In the last two months, Rumplestiltskin had sealed her fate.  Cora wanted to be a princess?  Fine.  She could have her fifth son and her fancy dresses, have all the riches that King Xavier’s kingdom could offer—but at a discount, of course, because Henry was only the fifth son, and Xavier’s second least favorite at that.  (His elder brother, Joseph, held that honor, but Joseph was only the fourth son, and far less comely and intelligent than Henry.  But more stubborn. He would have survived power-hungry harpy far better, but Xavier didn’t realize that yet).  Rumplestiltskin didn’t care about riches or who got which title; he was the Dark One and above such things.

But he would make sure that Cora never wore a crown.  That he could do, because he wouldn’t have her as queen.  If she’d married him, if she’d kept her damn promises, he would have given her anything.  Crowns, power, the entire world if she’d wanted—but no, she had to choose the immediacy of ‘power’ over love.  So he would make sure that her dream of being queen was never realized. 

He enchanted Henry’s brothers against her, protected them.  All four would live good, long and healthy lives, as would their heirs.  Xavier would last, too; Rumplestiltskin didn’t blame the man for his part in Cora’s little charade.  Xavier was simply being what he was: power hungry and shrewd.  Xavier hadn’t lied.  Xavier hadn’t led him on.  Xavier hadn’t claimed to love him, hadn’t soothed centuries of loneliness only to make it worse in the end.  So Xavier would life.  That would be his punishment for Cora.  Her ambitions would be thwarted.  Xavier’s kingdom would prosper and shine, but Cora would never sit on its throne.  He’d made sure of that. 

Revenge was the best medicine for a broken heart, after all, and he’d hit Cora where it hurt the most.  Eventually, he’d have her daughter cast the Dark Curse, too, and wouldn’t that be sweet?  No matter what Cora did, the baby growing in her belly would be his monster.  Oh, not his daughter—and that was probably for the best, given what a disaster he’d been as a father and how horrid a mother he’d realized Cora would be—but he’d make her his.

“Hello there!”

Rumplestiltskin sat up straight, almost falling off of his stool as he did.  The voice came from the great hall, echoing into his tower and making him scowl.  Oh, joy.  He had another visitor.  Another young woman, even, from the sound of her voice.  Someone else to annoy him.

So he teleported into the great hall in a swirl of purple smoke, hoping to scare the life out of the stupid young thing.  “I’m not teaching,” he snapped.  “I don’t know why you people seem to think it’s open season on the Dark One, but I am not going to teach you magic, no matter what you offer.”

Somehow, word had gotten around that he’d taught Cora magic, and now every desperate young woman across nine kingdoms felt the need to come to him.  He wanted to kill them all, but if he did that, no one would know he’d rejected the lot.  Then they’d keep coming, so he sent them away in various stages of disrepair.  Their virtues he left intact—he wasn’t that sort of monster, and had never taken anything Cora had not offered freely, nay, hungrily—but he tore their dreams to pieces, scared the wits out of them, and left them with the irrevocable understanding that magic came with a price, and his was not for sale.  No matter how they batted their eyes at him and simpered.

Fools.  They would have done better to make a deal with him.

“I’m not here for magic lessons, dear.”  The newcomer turned to face him.  She was older than the usual young tart, this one, beyond the idealistic flush of youth, and the mirth on the surface of brown eyes hid a depth of battle and pain.  Her hair was a dark brown, falling carelessly around her face, but her bearing told him that she hardly some miller’s daughter.  Was she a noble, or something more?  The way she wiggled indicated jumped up peasant, but if she’d climbed the rank ladder, she’d climbed high.  He could always tell, particularly when she laughed so gaily.  “Rather the opposite, in fact.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Rumplestiltskin demanded, pitching his voice higher to appear more off-putting, less human.  But his scowl did nothing to frighten her.  Idiot.

“I am here because—because I am your mother.  And I was forced to be away from you for far, far too long.”

Chapter Text

“I am here because—because I am your mother.  And I was forced to be away from you for far, far too long.”

 “What?”

“I realize that this is probably just a bit of a surprise for you.  I don’t know what that obnoxious adolescent told you about me.”  The woman scowled, and Rumplestiltskin watched her warily, all the while feeling like his soul had just been emptied onto the floor at his feet.  There was no way—none at all!—that she could be his mother.  He was nearly three centuries old, and his mother, whoever she was, was long dead. 

And even if she wasn’t, she never wanted me, he knew.  The certainty that both parents had abandoned him had weighed him down for his entire life.

“He told me that she dumped me on him ‘like a needy, squealing, pig,” he snapped, goaded into anger.  Rumplestiltskin didn’t mention that he’d always assumed that meant his mother had died in childbirth.  It would have been typical of his father to try to make it her fault, and Rumplestiltskin had no memories of her, anyway.  It had suited the gentle spinner he’d once been to think kindly of her, this mother he’d never known.

The Dark One was not so kind.

“I never wanted to leave you.”  Her shoulder slumped, and her all mirth left her expression.  “I made a terrible choice that doomed you, but I never wanted to leave you.  I was forced to, and I’ve spent every moment since trying to find a way back to you.”

“Why should I believe that?” Hurt her, the voices inside him whispered, taunting him and driving him.  Rumplestiltskin could feel the darkness gathering within him, building and building as his emotions tried to go haywire, and he didn’t have the energy to put it down.  His head was spinning too badly, and hope—damn hope!—kept trying to lift his heart. 

She had said that she didn’t want to leave him. 

She snorted out a bitter laugh.  “Because the truth is much more brutal.”  She gestured towards his head.  “I will show you, if you’ll let me.”

“If you mean letting you touch me, dearie, you’ve a very poor appreciation of what the Dark One is.”

“I’m the Black Fairy, my son.  Of course I know what you are.”  She smiled slightly, but it was a surprisingly sad expression.  And it almost knocked Rumplestiltskin right off of his feet.

That was impossible.  His mother was dead.  Long dead.  His dear father had made sure Rumplestiltskin knew that growing up, that she’d abandoned him by dying and left Malcolm to deal with the ‘wailing, needy pig’ all on his own.  This woman—the so-called Black Fairy!—could  not possibly be his mother.  She probably wasn’t even a fairy, for which Rumplestiltskin was grateful for; the idea of his mother being a fairy made him more than a little nauseous.  Of course, the magic in the air hinted at power around her, but the Dark One knew that with power came lies.  Clearly, this was some sort of trick.  Maybe Cora was even behind it, looking for another way to make him vulnerable and weak.  As if breaking his heart wasn’t bad enough, she now wanted to send some sad fake fairy woman to pretend to be his mother?  He had known she was a cold-blooded bitch, but this was beyond what even he would have thought of her.  Kill her, the voice of his darkness whispered, sounding like Zoso.  He didn’t always see the other Dark Ones, not anymore, but he could always, always hear them.  Kill them both.

Magic leapt to his hands, making his entire body shiver with power and rage.  Rumplestiltskin needed Cora—at least until her daughter was properly damaged by her—but he didn’t need Cora’s puppet.  So, he teleported himself swiftly, landing inches away from her and reaching out to grab her throat in one clawed hand.  He squeezed roughly, using magic to move them both roughly until her back slammed against the wall and she made a gratifying little cough-like squeak.

“Joke’s on you, dearie.” The words snapped out of him like something breaking.  “I’m a little older than your typical Dark One by centuries.  My mother would be long dead, because she was no fairy.”

She burst out laughing, patting the hand around her throat almost fondly.  “But I am the Black Fairy, my dear.   I am not exactly what you’d call a normal human being with a traditional lifespan.  I’m so much older than that.  Older than you.”

Her other hand came up to touch his face, and suddenly images burst into his mind.  He could see this woman standing across from another fairy, this one dressed in red.  Strangely enough, she was wearing gold, and she was pleading with the other fairy, desperately and passionately.  He couldn’t make out all the words they said; the image flashed by too quickly, but he caught a few:

“…I will not let my son die!”  In a flash, his mother ripped out the other fairy’s heart.  “And if I have to kill his own fairy godmother to protect him, that’s exactly what I’ll do!”

The red-dressed fairy groaned, but her eyes were on the Black Fairy as she transformed from a gold fairy to black.  Her voice echoed eerily as she recited words she obviously knew by heart: “And you will know the great evil by the crescent it bears.  Evil was not born this winter.  It was made.”

“That’s not possible!”

More images ripped through his mind, and suddenly the Blue Fairy was there, opening a portal that immediately started pulling his mother back…and away from the child he had not yet noticed.  Was that him?  Could it be?  She howled in fury, fighting against the vortex that tried to suck her in. 

“I promise you, son, I will spend every moment of every day trying to find my way back to you!”

Rumplestiltskin dropped her like a hot rock, skittering backwards a step.  She couldn’t be.  His mother hadn’t been a fairy, and if she had been, she’d wanted to leave him.  This image had to be full of lies.  My mother is dead, he thought desperately.  Isn’t she?

She’s lying, Nimue’s acid whisper insisted.  Just kill her.  And part of Rumplestiltskin wanted to listen so badly.  The mere suggestion that this woman,  Fiona, might be his mother brought with it too much pain, brought up too many memories he preferred dead and buried.  Years of experience as the Dark One, however, told him that whatever Nimue wanted was probably in direct conflict with anything that was actually good for him, so Rumplestiltskin ignored her.

“Why should I believe you?”

“If what I have just showed you isn’t enough?”  She gestured at the castle around them with a shrug.  “I assume you would believe blood magic.  And I would think”—she glanced around pointedly—“that in a castle like this, you have several doors, locks, or other objects that are so enchanted.  Point me at one, and I will prove it to you.”

He was too much of a sorcerer to doubt she could pass such a test if she had suggested it—even if he would demand proof.  But that was simply him being detail-oriented, particular.  Ornery, even.  That did not, however, lessen the emotional impact that the realization had.  “You…you could be…”

“Another long lost relative? How many fairies are in your family tree?”  Her smile faltered after a moment, though, and the pain he’d originally spotted deep in her eyes came back to the surface.  She hesitated slightly, looking uncertain.  “But if you grew up in Hamelin and your father’s name was Malcolm….you are—”

“Enough!”  He loomed forward again, this time his fury all Rumplestiltskin and not the Dark Ones inside him.  He didn’t want to be reminded of his father, not even by this woman who claimed to be his mother.  Yet that line of thought, hateful though it was, brought up a thousand other questions.  “How would he”—he refused to use his father’s name—“manage to sire a child on you?  Assuming you are who you claim to be.”

Rumplestiltskin snapped the last sentence nastily, but he could hardly ignore the magic swirling around the Black Fairy.  It was dark and old, angry and desperate, tainted somehow by something dark enough to make even him shiver.  But there was certainly power there, real power, and old Malcolm hadn’t been worth anything in that respect.  His precious little game of follow the lady wouldn’t have won him the admiration of any woman with half a brain, and Rumplestiltskin had always suspected that his mother had been a whore, a fool, or too new to town to know what Malcolm was.

For the first time, Fiona looked away.  “I loved him.  He was…different when he was younger.  I gave up my wings to be with him.”  Her head turned back to him, and were those tears in her eyes?  The Dark One inside him wanted to scoff, but the lost little boy he’d been couldn’t help but listen.  “And the knowledge that you were with him gave me solace through all the long years that the Blue Fairy exiled me to the Dark Realm.” 

“Solace.”  Rumplestiltskin couldn’t help snorting.  “If you loved me so much, why didn’t you even bother to name me?”

“I was too busy trying to save your life.  And we couldn’t agree on a name.  Malcolm”—she swallowed hard—“wanted to name you after his father, and I said Tom was a boring name.  I wanted Myrmidon, but he thought it was too complicated.  He always said the worst name we could ever saddle you with was Rumplestiltskin—”

“And he did.”  He cut her off harshly, remembering the way his father sneered that name at him.  Go do something worthwhile, Rumple.  Earn your papa some money, you worthless little rattle stilt!  Rumplestiltskin felt his lips curling up into a vicious sneer.  “That’s exactly what he named me.  The worst thing he could come up with.”

Fiona jerked back as if slapped.  “He what?”

“You heard me.”  Rumplestiltskin sneered again, and spat the word at her.  “Mother.

Much though he wanted to, he couldn’t shake the realization that this woman was his mother.  She was the Black Fairy; he could feel her power.  And while the Black Fairy might be dark enough to tell that lie simply to amuse herself, doing so to the Dark One would be the height of stupidity.  And Fiona just didn’t strike him as stupid.  If she’d come in here with arms full of teacups and roses, there was no way Rumplestiltskin would have believed her.  But the haunted look in her eyes was one he knew all too well.  It was the look of someone who had made too many mistakes, had been ripped away from those they cared about and had embraced darkness and power because they had nothing else left.  Fiona looked lonely, and a little broken, and those brown eyes told stories that were far too much like his own.

He had to test her, of course.  A half dozen times, with different locks, spells, and traps, just to make sure.  But Fiona passed every one of them, all without using a bit of magic that Rumplestiltskin could detect.  By the end of an hour, there was no denying that she was related to him.  After a second hour, even Rumplestiltskin had to accept that he was facing his mother.

His mother.

For the first time in his life, Rumplestiltskin had a mother.  That didn’t mean he could trust her, of course; he knew full well that parents, at least his parents, were not to be trusted.  She’ll only want your power, Nimue reminded him softly, and Rumplestiltskin felt his odd and hesitant excitement cool abruptly.  Why would she want Rumplestiltskin?  Even Cora only wanted your power, and you thought she loved you.  Fool.  Banishing the small strongbox he’d held while Fiona proved she could open it, Rumplestiltskin pulled away from his mother.

He’d neglected to think of one other possible reason why someone like the Black Fairy would fall for a huckster and a thief.  She’s just like him.  Lies with a pretty smile, and then cuts you where it hurts.  He didn’t know if that last thought was his or one of the others; perhaps it had been Nimue, or even Zoso, but Rumplestiltskin didn’t care.  That didn’t make it less true.

“Do you believe me, now?” Fiona asked softly, as if she couldn’t sense his sudden coldness.

“Yes.”  Armoring himself with his anger—he would not suffer another heartbreak!—Rumplestiltskin swung to look at her with a snarl.  “And that brings us back to the original question, dearie.  What do you want?   Hmmm?  Come to find a willing tool to help you bring darkness down upon all the realms?”

She blinked, staring at him like he’d gone insane.  And maybe he had.  He was a Dark One who had thought he could find love, after all.  They didn’t come crazier than that.

Then his mother laughed.  “I don’t need your power to do that…Rumplestiltskin.”  She said the name like she was testing out its sound on his tongue, rolling it around to see how it fit.  “I have quite enough of my own, after all.  I am the ‘Great Evil’ destined to bring down a Savior.”  Fiona rolled her eyes.  “But I don’t care about that.  Not now.  I came because this was the first time I could come for you…and because your father told me what he did.”

“He what?”  Rumplestiltskin swallowed hard.  She’d been to Neverland.  Was his mother in league with his father, or was there something else going on here?

“He told me that he gave you up for power, and I realized that I had done the same…even if I hadn’t meant to.”  She grimaced.  “What I didn’t show you is that the Blue Fairy exiled me when I would not give up my power.  I gave up my wings to be with you father, but I turned myself back into a fairy to protect you.  And she…she didn’t like my methods.  But if I had not chosen power, I would  never have been forced to leave you.  And then perhaps he would not have done what he did to you.”

“You have no idea what he did to me.”  The words came out before he could stop them, but Rumplestiltskin already wished he could take them back.

“No, I don’t.”  She stepped forward, and much to Rumplestiltskin’s surprise, put a hand on his arm.  Rumplestiltskin twisted to stare at that hand, not knowing what to do with it, and he almost didn’t hear as she went on: “I only know that I am sorry that I could not be there to protect you, and I will never fail you again.”

Part of him burned to hear those words, and there was still a little boy within the monster who wanted to throw himself at his mother and cry.  But he was the Dark One, not a lost and broken boy, so Rumplestiltskin did no such thing.  He just narrowed his eyes.  “Easy to say that now.”  His smile was nasty, all sharp edges that were not caused by the broken shards of his soul, thank you very much.  “Particularly when I’m perfectly capable of defending myself.  I’m the Dark One, Mother, not some helpless child.”

“I know.”  Her smile was sad.  “And even if my apology means nothing to you, I want to you to know that I love you.”

“Why don’t you think that’ll mean anything?” he snarled defensively, trying to ignore the last three words.  He didn’t want a mother.  He didn’t need a mother.  It was far too late.  “Because I’m the Dark One?  Because the Dark One can’t possibly feel or care?”

Of course that was it.  He was a monster, and monsters did not have feelings like men.

“No.”  Amazingly, Fiona reached up, cupping his cheek in her palm, and Rumplestiltskin froze in shock.  “Darkness doesn’t make you feel less.  I should know.”  She laughed softly, bitterly.  “I simply meant that you have every right to be angry.”

How long had it been since someone had touched him so gently?  Cora had, but she’d only wanted his power.  This was…this was his mother.  She had to want something.  She had to.  He knew how to deal with that.  Nothing else made sense.

“Had I been here, perhaps you would not have had to make the choices you’ve made,” Fiona said softly. 

“I…”

His mouth worked uselessly, gums flapping emptily.  Rumplestiltskin, silver-tongued wordsmith that he was, had nothing to say.  He didn’t know how to cope with someone offering compassion.  This wasn’t darkness, this wasn’t lust born of a joined love for power.  This was a simpler love, something softer and more open than he’d ever experienced in his life.

“I will tell you my story if you tell me yours.”  His mother’s formerly bitter smile turned crooked.  “I think both have more than their share of ugly moments, but it’s a start.”

Don’t let her in.  She won’t love you.  She’ll see you for what you are and hate you for it!  He had to get control of this situation somehow.  “What makes you think that you can walk in my castle and make demands?”

“I’m hardly making demands.  If I were, I would—”

“I am not a child!” Rumplestiltskin cut her off, white hot fury rising to meet the infuriating smile she wore.  “I don’t want you here, and I don’t need anyone!”

“Oh, stop acting like a toddler!”  Fiona’s hand moved to his chest, one finger poking him in the sternum.  “Of course you do.  We all do.  Being a lonely monster in a castle may fit every cliché there is, if the Black Fairy can admit she wishes for family, so can you!”

That jerked him up short.  Rumplestiltskin didn’t really know how to respond to that, so in the end, he wound up telling her his story. 

All of it.


 

Rumplestiltskin told her his story haltingly, at first brokenly and then angrily.  He spoke of a boy who he loved more than life itself, of a Seer and a prophecy, of making a deal he did not understand.  Fiona listened without comment, burning to reach out to her beautiful boy who had lost far more than she had ever imagined he could.  He was meant to be a hero, she thought for the thousandth time, taking in the scales on his face and the darkness that had settled into his soul.  And he tried so hard.  Her actions had robbed him of that fate, and while Fiona had contemplated forgetting the promise she’d made Tiger Lily prior to coming to the Dark Castle, she now knew she couldn’t.  Had cutting his destiny away left him more susceptible to the darkness?  Had it left him knowing he should have power yet bereft of it?   She had no way to know, but she suspected both hypotheses were true.  Listening to his story  made her want to hold him so badly, but the way he kept himself in check stopped her from doing so.  His emotions were clearly whipping back and forth between every imaginable extreme, yet somehow, he didn’t lose control.

That was fascinating.

Only after he told her of Cora, of this miller’s daughter who he had taught magic, fallen in love with—in love with!—and who and then betrayed him, did Fiona ask her son how he had survived being the Dark One for so long.  She knew enough about that curse to know that most of Nimue’s spawn did not tend to last long before some would-be hero put the dagger through their heart or some power-hungry sorcerer thought they could control the darkness better.  There had been dozens of Dark One since the first, as any careful student of magic was well aware.  They never lasted, and the fairies counted on that fact as an absolute truth.  It kept Dark Ones from growing too knowledgeable, kept them from gaining too much power.

Yet Rumplestiltskin was a sorcerer.  Fiona hadn’t realized that until he told her of the way he’d studied, of the way he’d learned magic.  He learned like I did—by reading books others ignored, by exploring new magics that no one else understands.  She had not expected to find something else in common with Rumplestiltskin, and certainly not this. Fiona had been a minor fairy when she’d given up her wings for love, and she’d never regretted that until she’d learned that her son was supposed to die as the Savior.  Then she studied and studied, had turned herself back into a fairy and had learned everything she could find about magic.  Over the centuries since losing her wand, she had experimented with other magics, too, expanding her horizons past simple fairy magic. 

Now, sitting across from a Dark One who had done much the same thing, Fiona found herself looking at her son in a new light.  She had come to him because Rumplestiltskin was her son, and because she loved him more than she loved her own life.  Even her power was less important than her son, but now she could have both.  Her son was not a Savior destined to kill her, and she had promised to save him. 

Not that she told him that.  Instead, she told him the story of falling in love with Malcolm and giving up her wings.  She told him that she had learned of a threat to him and done everything she could to protect him, only for the Blue Fairy to intervene when she disliked Fiona’s methods and exile her.  None of that was a lie, and part of Fiona—shockingly!—wanted to tell the truth, but she sensed that her son was not ready to learn he had been destined to be the Savior.  There was too much darkness in him, too much pain, and that knowledge might just break him.  I will tell him when the time is right, she promised herself.  She thought she could even keep that promise, provided that the darkness did not eat them both alive in the meantime.

So, she shared her story and then finally convinced him to share his, listening to every word with a heart that wanted to break.  I made him into the Dark One, she knew.  I did not want to, but I chose my power over his, which meant I left him with no other option when his own son was threatened.  I changed his fate, when I could have chosen to change my fate, but I sacrificed his instead.  Yet it was too late to change the past; no one knew that better than Fiona did.  All she could do was fight to make the future better.

Chapter Text

“What do you care, anyway?” Rumplestiltskin snapped after he’d finished telling a story he should have known better than to share.  The last time he’d dared tell anyone about his past, the last time he’d trusted enough, he’d been rewarded with a broken heart.  Fool.  The next words snarled out of him like a rabid animal.  “You’re as dark as I am!”

Fiona rolled her eyes with the same wry humor she’d displayed over the last two days, nodding in acceptance without trying to excuse herself.  “Of course I am.  Although I do hope I am sometimes less likely to act like a manic toddler.”

Fury brought him to his feet.  “I am not a—”

“You’re not a child, I know.  You’re the Dark One.  Do sit down.”  The way she waved his fury away with a dismissive hand took the wind right out of his sails, and then the way she put a hand on his arm brought Rumplestiltskin back to the couch he’d been sitting on at her side.  “I care because you are my son, and because being the Black Fairy does not make me any more incapable of love than you are.  Now I cannot change the past, but I can be here now.  And I can promise you this: I will help you find your son.

Those words hit him like a lightning bolt.

She lies, the darkness whispered, sounding like Nimue.  Or was that Gorgon, with his broken heart over the woman who had cursed him into beastly form?

But she was his mother.  No one, not even Cora, had ever promised to help him find Baelfire.  Rumplestiltskin had never so much as dreamed that anyone would.

“Why?”  His whisper was harsh in the sudden silence, and Fiona reached up to cup his face gently in one hand.

That was the second time she’d done that.  The only person in the last two centuries to touch him without rancor had been Cora, and she’d never been gentle.  There was nothing about Cora that had ever been gentle; she was all lust and power and ambition.  This was a soft touch, a mother’s touch.

It nearly broke him in two.

“Because you are my son, and he is my grandson.”  Brown eyes so very like his used to be—Bae’s eyes—met his, and Rumplestiltskin couldn’t detect a lie in the simple statement.

She’ll use you!  They all do.  No one cares about you.  You are nothing, and always have been, the voices inside him raced to whisper, and Rumplestiltskin felt his throat grow tight.  He had never been worth loving, had he?  Milah had learned to rightfully hate him for his cowardice, Baelfire had come to fear his darkness, and Cora had used his weak nature against him.  What would the Black Fairy, the only fairy to ever have gone evil, do?

“I…”  He didn’t know what to say. 

Fiona simply leaned in and kissed him on the cheek, and Rumplestiltskin just didn’t know what to do with that.


 

Her son was not what she had expected.

She had expected the Dark One, frothing and foaming and just as dark as she was in her worst moments.  Instead, she found a man full of love, one who had lost his own child under circumstances eerily similar to the ones under which she had lost him.  He was broken in so many ways that she hadn’t anticipated when she’d blithely agreed to Tiger Lily’s deal; things had sounded so simple when Tiger Lily had made her promise to bring her son back to the light!  She’d also only known about Dark Ones in theory then, and had assumed that whatever power he had gained was akin to her own, something that could be dark or light depending upon how it was employed. 

She’d been wrong about that.  Darkness clung to her son like an ever-present cloak, and sometimes Fiona thought that she could feel it pulling on him.  She wasn’t positive—and she needed a lot more information on the Dark One before she could even begin to make guesses about how to help him—but Fiona had realized the darkness corrupting her son’s beautiful soul was not some simple matter of choice. 

Perhaps that was why she’d foolishly made another promise.  In concept, the fact that she had a grandson mattered very little to her, but it clearly mattered to her son.  She supposed that she might care about the tyke if she’d held him in her arms, if he’d been a real person to love, but this Baelfire was only a name to her.  Or perhaps the parallel of her son giving up his son to keep his own power had moved her.  Either way, she’d been foolish enough to promise to help find Baelfire…because Rumplestiltskin needed her to.  He’d only told her the barest facts of his life, and yet Fiona had already realized how utterly alone her son was.  She had lived her past life with friends, family, and love, but her son had all of those ripped away from him time and again.

Starting with me.  She hated her own role in this, and burned to blame someone else.  And she did blame Blue, because if that holier-than-thou bitch hadn’t intervened, Fiona never would have been separated from her son at all.  Yet her choices had brought her there, too, and watching Rumplestiltskin blame himself for losing his own son made those choices hurt worse than ever.  So, she had promised to help him, because she was beginning to realize that no one else had ever kept promises like that, not for him.

Now she quietly watched him spin, wishing the damned boy would go to sleep.  Unfortunately, he didn’t need sleep while she did, which meant she’d had no opportunity to sneak into his library and read whatever literature Rumplestiltskin had on the Dark One.   Still, there was somewhere else she knew she could get information from, wasn’t there?


 

Another three days passed in awkward conversation and strange motherly affection.  Eventually, Rumplestiltskin could take it no more and fled as soon as a summons gave him an excuse to do so; he was already starting to crave Fiona’s warm touches, and the darkness inside him simply couldn’t abide that.  Nor could the lost child he’d been, the boy who had silently wished for his father’s embraces and yet received none.  So, he stayed out of the castle for as long as he could, making deals and twisting magic to his own ends, trying to revel in exploiting one loophole after another.  Despite that, he found himself wanting to go back, no matter how much he fought the urge.  So, he finished making a deal with a pair of miserable peasant lads who reminded him far too much of himself and returned to the Dark Castle in a foul mood find his mother gone.  He didn’t want her in his castle, of course, and he should have been relieved, but he felt strangely empty.  I don’t want her here.  I am glad she’s gone.

Gleeful cackling filled his mind, but Rumplestiltskin tried to shove it aside.  Of course she wouldn’t want to be here, either, Nimue pointed out all-too-logically.  You are such a monster that you can chase the Black Fairy away!  Well done, Dark One.  You are truly one of us.

“You’re back.”

The voice startled him so much that Rumplestiltskin jumped.  Then he whirled around, his hands full of fury and magic, ready to rip apart whoever had dared intrude upon his brooding—only to find that it was his mother.  And she was smiling.

“Where were you?”

“Breaking into the Sacred Vault of the Fairies.”  His mother’s smile was smug, and the darkness inside Rumplestiltskin sang up to meet it.  “I figured I should go take what I needed before ‘good’ ol’ Blue realizes I’m back.” 

That news made him cock his head curiously, his anger momentarily forgotten.  Rumplestiltskin had tried to sneak into the Fairies’ sacred vault a half dozen times, but never with any success.  Only senior fairies could get in there, and he was certainly not a fairy.  Even if it turns out my mother is one.  “Did you manage?”

“Don’t be silly.  Of course I did.”  Fiona wiggled a little, and finally Rumplestiltskin could see where his own dramatic antics came from.  “I may not have my wand, but I learned more about magic in a month than most fairies bothered to do in a lifetime.”

Rumplestiltskin smiled despite himself.  “About that wand…I might be able to help.”

“I can do magic well enough without a wand.”  His mother shrugged, but the small smile of thanks she gave him sent a strange feeling of warmth stealing through him.  “You little collection of them is impressing, but rather unappealing.”

“Who says I’m talking about any of those?” He couldn’t resist a giggle; three days around his mother had taught him that catching her by surprise was hard, but not impossible.  And…well, he wanted to do something nice for her.

You fool. She’s only being kind to you so she can use you! Zoso snarled the protest, but he brushed it aside.  The other Dark Ones didn’t hate Fiona as much as they might; she was dark, too, after all.  Even if she was strangely affectionate for someone who still physically stank of dark fairy dust.

“Then what are you talking about?” Fiona leaned forward, and oh, he had her attention now.

“Perhaps something like…this.”  Rumplestiltskin summoned the wand to himself with a swirl of purple smoke, letting it land in his hand.  This wand always awed him a bit with its power; they said that the wand was a reflection of the fairy who used it, and if this was a reflection of his mother, it was interestingly protective.

“You have my wand!” Her gasp was full of surprised glee, and Rumplestiltskin wished he could stop his return smile from growing real.  “How?”

“I may have relieved the little blue bug of it.”  He giggled again, dancing playfully away from Fiona as she reached for the wand.  She gave him a mock serious  look before trying the second time, however, so Rumplestiltskin offered her a mocking bow and held up the wand like an offering.  “Here.”

“My darling boy.”  She squeezed his shoulder with a smile, and Rumplestiltskin did not enjoy it.

He managed to put on a scowl.  “I’m hardly a boy.”

“You always will be to me.”

Her smile was a tad too affectionate, though, and Rumplestiltskin couldn’t quite cope with that, or with the strange feeling of happiness trying to creep in on him.  So, he changed the subject as quickly as he could, uncomfortable with such a display of emotion.

“So, what did you get from the Sacred Vault of the Fairies?” he asked flippantly.  “I trust you didn’t leave empty-handed.”

“Of course not.”  She laughed lightly.  “I was searching for ways to reach the Land Without Magic, given how fond Blue seems to be of the place.”

Rumplestiltskin froze, breathless with a sudden infusion of hope that he couldn’t push back.  Fool!  “Did you—did you find something?”

“Alas, no.  Blue seems to have only sent people there via magic bean, and none of the books I found seemed to help.”  Her frown was deep.  “But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop looking.  I took plenty of other books, and there are other magical beings out there that aren’t fairies.  Most of them won’t respond too well to either of us, but a few well-placed threats—”

“If you mean the oh-so-moral Apprentice, I’m afraid I’ve already bled that well dry.”  Rumplestiltskin cut in, laughing nastily, hoping that she’d assume he had killed the useless old bastard.  He hadn’t, of course, even when the Apprentice refused to help him.

I only want to find my son! He had begged and he had pleaded, as some vestige of the spinner’s soul had demanded he do.  Rumplestiltskin had sought a way to spare the world the curse he knew he would enact, but no, that was not to be.  The Apprentice could have saved them all a great deal of trouble with a flick of his wand, but if the so-called protector of humanity could not be bothered to stop him, why should Rumplestiltskin care about anyone else’s fate?  He could have made me a doorway, and I never would have returned, he thought darkly.  Brokenly.  Instead, the Apprentice had refused him.  Again.

Fiona cocked her head, settling onto the couch near the window in his tower.  “Is he that strange looking old man who is friends with Blue?  And if so is he still breathing?”

“Don’t bother.  He said that his magic couldn’t create a portal for the Dark One.

Rumplestiltskin wanted to break something or kill someone; darkness boiled up under his skin like a thousand ants. 

Another frown.  “Hmm.”

Hm?” he echoed.  “Is that all you have to say?  Hm?  I should have killed the useless old carcass!”

Power ripped out of him, and without thinking, Rumplestiltskin launched a fireball in Fiona’s direction.  He changed his aim at the last moment, letting the fireball explode within the fireplace in a shower of sparks and embers, but that wasn’t nearly satisfying enough.  Stalking to the left, he grabbed his old walking stick from the corner where it stood, wheeling on the bookshelf and swinging the stick wildly.  It smashed into the shelves with a gratifying crash, splintering wood and sending books flying every which way.  He hit the shelf again, and then again, smashing the walking stick into it until his shoulders ached.

Finally, he stopped, winded but still broken, fury still racing through his veins.  Simple destruction often assuaged the darkness, but not today.  Today it was feeding off of his despair, and even though Rumplestiltskin knew that, he could not do a thing to stop it.  He hadn’t needed the reminder that the Apprentice had refused him, that there was a human with the ability to send him into the Land Without Magic, and yet that one man wouldn’t do it.  Over the years, Rumplestiltskin had uncovered many pathways to the Land Without Magic that the infernal fairy had failed to mention, but none of them would have been so easy as that one.

Small wonder he’d collapsed so willingly into Cora’s arms once he met her two weeks after the Apprentice’s refusal.  He’d known her daughter could cast the Curse to End All Curses, and he needed that.  There was no other way.

But just thinking of Cora made fury rise again.  He wanted to kill her, but he couldn’t.  Not while he needed her daughter, the girl not yet born.  He’d seen that in multiple visions, knew what it would take.  The darkness did not care, of course, and he could feel the pressure building, could feel it urging him to go to Cora and take his fury out on her. 

No.  Throwing the staff into the corner hard enough that he was surprised it did not break, Rumplestiltskin pushed back the desire to teleport across kingdoms and rip his former love to shreds. Still, fire began building in his palms, rage roaring through him like a thundering wind.  This so-called mother of yours is useless.  She is only trying to distract you!  He could almost feel Zoso breathing down his neck.  Kill her!  Kill her and get on with the curse!  Take her power and make yourself invincible!

“Are you going to throw those fireballs at me, son, or are your hands just very cold?” 

Rumplestiltskin’s head snapped up.  Fiona was on her feet now, and her tone was playful and somehow chiding all at once.  She sounded like a mother, which made him feel strange all over.  She didn’t look ready to defend herself, but if there was anything he had learned about her over the past few days, it was that one could never tell with her. 

Do it.  She mocks you.  His hands were shaking with rage, not all of it his own.

“Why did he refuse to help you?” Fiona asked softly, stepping forward fearlessly.

“Because I am the Dark One, of course.”  He let out a high-pitched giggle, trying to prove that he didn’t care, that it didn’t break his heart.  “I always have an ulterior motive.  Dark Ones always do.  Suppose I can’t blame him for knowing that.”

“Do you?”

“Of course not!” The words burst out of him with the force of a hurricane.  “All I want is to get to him!  All I want—I want—”

The last words caught on a sob, and much to Rumplestiltskin’s surprise, Fiona reached out for him.  He still teleported away from her to grieve in peace, but the gesture was as nice as it was unexpected.


 

A day after that unexpectedly emotional scene, Rumplestiltskin realized something that should have sunk in at least three days earlier.  So, he strode in on his mother reading some text or another that was clearly in the language of the fairies, pushing the doors to her chamber open without warning.  The very sight of that language made him scowl, because it was a reminder of what he didn’t want to think about.

“You said you gave up your wings to be with—with—” Despite his disgust, he still couldn’t bring himself to call that monster his father.

Not after Pan had tried to steal Bae away, which he hadn’t bothered to tell his mother about.  Or about how often Pan dropped by to remind him of how unlovable he was.  If she hears that, she might agree, Zoso whispered in his mind, and pushing those words away were hard.  They were too close to his own insecurities.

“With Malcolm, yes.”  Fiona seemed to sense his unease; she looked up calmly and folded her hands, ignoring the documents.  “I did.”

“So…you were a…fairy.”  He all but spat the word.

“Not a terribly successful one, but I was.”

Rumplestiltskin didn’t even try to stop the sneer from forming on his face.  It felt rancid and nasty, but it was right. His stomach rolled in disgust. “Then I am…part fairy.”

“That’s debatable, actually.”  Fiona looked thoughtful, as if she couldn’t comprehend how this might bother him.  “I was more or less human when you were born, as I’d given up my wings, but I technically remained a fairy, just one without magic.”

His eyes bugged out, and she finally seemed to notice that he was having difficulty with the idea.  “This bothers you, doesn’t it?”

“Of course it does!”

Fiona rose, still calm in the face of the distress Rumplestiltskin couldn’t hide.  “You dislike all fairies, not just Blue.”

“Doesn’t everyone?  What’s to like about them?  They’re greedy little power-grabbers, eager to gather all the magic they can and only help those they find ‘worthy’.”  Rumplestiltskin let a dark giggle bubble out, gesturing wildly.  “Not much there to love.”

“No, there isn’t.”  His mother’s easy shrug jerked Rumplestiltskin up short.  “Relax, my son.  You are not defined by your blood—we are each who we make of ourselves.  I was born as a minor fairy, unimportant and destined to be nothing and no one.  I chose to take my fate into my own hands and fall in love, and I don’t regret that, because it gave me you.”

Those words took the breath right out of his chest, and Rumplestiltskin could only stare.

“Destiny can guide us, but in the end we make our own decisions,” Fiona said fiercely, and he could see a deep pain and determination in her eyes.  “Yes, you are half fairy, but that does not mean you are anything like Blue or her minions.  And it doesn’t mean you have to be like me, either.”

He laughed nervously.  “That apple didn’t seem to fall far from the tree, Mother.”  They were two of a kind, weren’t they?  Black Fairy and Dark One, neither destined to be what they were, yet dark and powerful all the same.

Her smile was secretive.  “Perhaps.”


 

Exhausted from childbirth, Fiona still noticed the small forms approaching the window.  She hadn’t expected fairies, not at all—not for a fallen fairy who had chosen love over duty.  Her own superiors had been disgusted at her, but they’d let her go when Fiona made her wishes clear.  She’d only been a novice, after all, and not a terribly good one by their standards.  She’d been too emotional, too quick to embrace life.  Cyan had said that she lacked the proper perspective to be a good fairy, and Fiona thought they were secretly glad to be rid of her.

She was fairly certain that the Blue Fairy—the head of the entire order!—didn’t recognize her, and she knew that Tiger Lily couldn’t, since she’d never met the red fairy.  So, she played off her knowledge of fairy godmothers, still absolutely gobsmacked that her son would need a fairy godmother at all.  Her boy, special enough to get that kind of guidance and protection?  Usually that was reserved for royalty, or at least nobles, and Fiona had fallen for a simple blacksmith.  Fairies did not come for their kind, not ever.

“Is there something wrong?”  She tried to keep her voice level, but it was hard.

Much to her surprise, Tiger Lily’s smile was honest and open.  “Quite the opposite.”

“A prophecy told us that on this darkest winter's night, a boy would be born with great light magic,” the Blue Fairy continued, her smile less open.  Yet she seemed eager, almost too eager, to for Tiger Lily to say the next words:

“A child known as the Savior.”

Fiona blinked, stopping in the doorway of the tower room where her son practiced his magic.  Her son.  She had cut him off from his destiny, and yet he still took her breath away.  Part of her loved the darkness he’d found; she’d spent the last centuries turning to the darkness herself, so when she saw her son doing the same, much of Fiona just wanted to let him.  And would it be so terrible?  The Black Fairy and the Dark One were natural allies; they could find Baelfire together and yet still enjoy the benefits ignoring morality brought with it.  Couldn’t they?  She could simply forget her promise and love her son, darkness and all.

After all, Rumplestiltskin was proving more difficult than she’d ever expected.  She’d always assumed that he’d been a good and quiet child, smart and obedient, and eager to please.  Now she found that he was utterly brilliant, but also mercurial and volatile, furious and broken.  He was everything a Dark One should not be, and yet she suspected he was the most knowledgeable of the lot.  The way his hands moved over the potion he was working on caught her eye, and Fiona did not need more than a moment to realize that he was indeed an expert in the magic he practiced.  He knew potions better than she did, actually, for all of her natural aptitude and study.  That made a small smile touch her lips, and Fiona finally walked into the room, enjoying the fact that Rumplestiltskin was either ignoring her or hadn’t yet noticed she was there.

Either way, that meant she’d earned some small measure of his trust, and that left her giddy with hope.

“What are you doing?”  She had been in the castle for two weeks, and had been careful not to question him too much, even when she burned to.  It was important that Rumplestiltskin not think his mother wanted to control him in any way, particularly not using the thorny method they were both aware of.  Particularly since Fiona could feel where the dagger was hidden away.  Dark magic like that called to her, and even though she was trying to ignore it, the temptation to just take a look was hard to resist.

“An experiment.”  Rumplestiltskin’s voice was deeper when he was focused, lacking the high-pitched tones of the imp.  Was that what he should have sounded like? Fiona felt her heart skip a painful beat.  Was she prepared to sacrifice what Rumplestiltskin should have been to embrace what he now was?

“I can see that.  I wouldn’t ask if I knew what your experiment was, dear.  Do be more specific.” 

Golden eyes slid to study her inscrutably.  “True Love.  I am trying to bottle True Love.”

“That’s impossible.”  Centuries of practicing magic told Fiona that no one, no matter how knowledgeable, could harness the most powerful magic of all, but Rumplestiltskin scowled at her automatic response.  She might have tried herself, had she not known it was pointless.  Even if that much light magic still makes my skin itch.

“Impossible only means someone hasn’t done it yet.”

“Sometimes impossible is simply impossible.”

One of those off-putting giggles rang out, but Fiona was starting to think they were more a nervous habit than an attempt to frighten her.  Rumplestiltskin wasn’t stupid enough to think she was afraid of him, anyway.  “That’s what they want you to think, dear—uh, forget that last part.”

“Of course.”  Fiona barely managed to keep a straight face, knowing that if she laughed at his attempts to nice, her prickly son would never forgive her.  She’d witnessed Rumplestiltskin’s habit of calling anyone he didn’t like—and some that he did—‘dearie’, but apparently he thought that was not a suitable way to address his mother.  Instead, she studied his handiwork, watching the golden spark inside the rose colored potion fade into black ash.  “Your catalyst isn’t strong enough.”

“I know.” He scowled, the imp’s voice vanishing again.  “Something’s missing. It should work.  This is the Age of True Love—I’ve Seen it.”

Those last words made her cock her head.  “Seen?  You are a Seer?”

Her breath caught; how could she have missed that?  Of all things to miss, if her son was marked by such magic, did that mean that his destiny as a Savior hadn’t been completely cut away?

“Ah, yes.  I took that power.  Not that it’s been terribly useful.”  A nasty laugh came along with a dismissive wave of one hand.  “Made another deal I didn’t understand, that one.  Should have asked why she wanted to be rid of the blasted power so badly.”

That wasn’t something Fiona could really sympathize with; she’d never seen the future and didn’t really want to.  The one prophecy that had touched her life was bad enough, so she returned to the original subject.  “Why do you want to bottle True Love?”

“For the power, of course.”

“Don’t be intentionally obtuse.  We both know that True Love directly opposes everything you are, so why do you want to use it?” Fiona wasn’t sure what kind of answer she was hoping for.

Rumplestiltskin shrugged. “True Love can break any curse.”

“Even yours?” She cocked her head. “Do you want to be free of this?”

“Of course not!  What kind of fool do you take me for?” He swung on her, his golden eyes full of a strangely misplaced rage.  “I need the power to find my son.”

Now was not the time to mention that she had power enough for both of them; Fiona was wise enough to know that wouldn’t go over well.  Rumplestiltskin had had power for too long to want to live without it, so whatever she did—if she tried—to free him from his curse would have to include magic.  He was too used to it.  I would want the same, in his shoes.  I could never stomach being just some mundane human again.

“Of course you do.”  Stepping forward, Fiona reached out and squeezed his arm, studying the failed potion.  It had come close; she could tell because it was making her itch already.  Damn this dark fairy dust.  It’s in every pore I have.  The Dark Realm had marked her in ways Fiona wasn’t sure she liked, and that uncertainty was frightening in and of itself.  “I understand.”

Rumplestiltskin glared, but the obviously angry denial he was started to speak died on his lips.  His voice dropped to a whisper.  “I imagine you do.”

She should tell him, she knew.  She should tell him the truth of why she’d been banished, yet Fiona couldn’t bear to.  What if he hated her?

“It doesn’t matter.”  There was that giggle again, marking another one of his mood swings.  Fiona was even starting to be able to figure out where they came from; Rumplestiltskin grew ever angrier after he opened up about anything.  He seemed to hate his own need for affection and acceptance, and she burned to know how that had happened to him.  “Our family  may have a habit of abandoning children, but I will not let it continue.”

“Nor will I,” she said quietly, and much to Fiona’s surprise, she meant it.

Was he so broken before he became the Dark One, or did this come after?  He had told her his life’s story, but only the broad strokes of it.  She knew of how he’d crippled himself, how his wife had abandoned him for a pirate, and even how he’d killed said wife—which had been said with a devastated glee that Fiona sensed hit utter self-loathing.  Granted, she couldn’t pity the wench one bit—the idea of leaving a child willingly set her teeth on edge.  She knew how he’d lost his son, and the many paths he’d tried to find him.  She even knew a little of that foolishly ambitious miller’s daughter, who had for some reason thought that abandoning the Dark One—a trained sorcerer of a Dark One!—for a king’s fourth son would help her rise in the world.  But Rumplestiltskin had yet to let her see more than glimpses beneath the surface, and she suspected that a long time would pass before he did so.

“Yes, because that matters so much!” he snapped, his temper out again.

Fiona met his eyes, resisting the urge to shake the idiot temper out of him.  “Are you going to rage against the injustices of the universe again?  If so, do please go destroy something so you can make yourself feel better.  I cannot change the past, and you know I did not want to leave you!”

“I’m not talking about you!”

The image of Malcolm’s new face suddenly came to mind, smug and self-centered.  Rumple was a pathetic little brat, anyway, always demanding love and care, never standing up for himself, he’d said.  Her voice came out in a suddenly broken whisper.  “What did he do to you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  The broken expression was replaced by bored disdain, but Fiona reached out to take his arm before he could teleport away.

“Yes, you do.”  She wasn’t going to let him avoid this line of questioning.  Malcolm had been a sweet and gentle man to her, but evidence that he’d been everything but loving to their son was mounting quickly.  “Tell me what he did.  Did he hurt you?”

A shrug told her she was on the right track; Rumplestiltskin would not meet her eyes.  Yet Fiona sensed there was more.  Having a mewling, clingy little worm stuck to you every moment of every day gets old after a while.

“Did he?”

“It does not matter.”  He looked down.  “I’m used to it.”

“Used to—to being hurt?”  Rage surged up inside her, and Fiona wanted to kill Malcolm—Pan!—herself.  The bastard.  He hurt my boy!

“He traded me for power and eternal youth,” Rumplestiltskin spat.  “But I did much the same to my boy, so I am quite certain I deserved it.”

“You are not like—”

“I am.”  He jerked away from her, turning away almost before Fiona could see the tears shimmering in his eyes.

“Rumplestiltskin.”

I am!

He teleported away again, fleeing the castle to who-knew-where.  When he returned, he would not speak to her for days, and Fiona almost started to lose hope.

Chapter Text

Another month passed as they danced around one another, sometimes talking and sometimes ignoring one another’s presence.  Rumplestiltskin was glad that his mother didn’t try to, well, mother him too much; if she had, he would have undoubtedly have shut down entirely.  He’d never had a mother, and Rumplestiltskin wouldn’t have known what to do with one.  Moira and Parcae, the two spinsters who he had grown up calling his aunts, had been beyond good to him, but they had never been his parents.  Even at the tender age of seven, he’d been too aware of the fact that he’d had real parents, and the one who had raised him had abandoned him. 

Moira and Parcae hand’t actually been any relation of Malcolm’s, which made it even more awkward when the other boys in Hamelin discovered that.  He’d been mocked for being an orphan, mocked for being with ‘those strange women’, and mocked because he was taking up a woman’s trade and spinning.  It didn’t matter that he was more skilled than any spinster in town other than his aunts by the age of ten, and it didn’t matter that Moira got him apprenticed to a weaver when he was twelve.  Rumplestiltskin mastered that art, too, but it meant leaving home for two crucial years, which he’d spent in Brenan, which was the next town over.  He’d known how lucky he was, but that meant he wasn’t home when Moira died, and Parcae was never the same after that.

So, his experience with family had always been that they left or had him leave.  He spent that month expecting Fiona to walk out, to turn to him one day and say that she utterly despised him—either because he was a monster or because he wasn’t as dark as he could be.  Who could tell what the Black Fairy was looking for in a son?  He still wasn’t sure, and Fiona had been here for months. But she didn’t walk away.  Oh, she didn’t stay still, didn’t remain in the castle, but she told him before left, and she always came back.

His mother always came back.

“Why are you still here?” he asked sometime after the month ended.  His voice was harsher than he’d meant it to be, but Rumplestiltskin didn’t care.  Or did he?

She wants to find out your weaknesses!

“I already told you that.”  Fiona turned to face him, clearly trying to contain her impatience with his inability to accept her presence.  In some ways, he was glad that she reacted to his taunts and his demands; if she’d just sat there calmly, he wasn’t sure how he would have dealt with it.  Yet she didn’t bother to get up from where she was  sitting near the fire in the Great Hall, either.  Rumplestiltskin had strode in and opened the conversation without so much as a hello, but he needed to know.

“Tell me again, why don’t you?  You’re the Black Fairy, but we both know that you’ve been exiled for centuries and haven’t exactly done much.  Yet the moment you get free, you come to find your long lost son?  Except I’m not what you expected, am I?  Bit of a disappointment?”

“No, you aren’t.  Not at all.”  Rising, she turned to look him in the eye, and for once her smile wasn’t even slightly mocking.  “I expected a Dark One, someone who had long since given into the darkness…like I once did.  Not someone who had made the same mistakes I did.  Not someone I could understand.”

Rumplestiltskin couldn’t help flinching at the reference to the way he’d let Bae go.  “Don’t try to pretend that you don’t think I’m a monster!”

“I’m not so sure you are.”

Hearing the compassion in her voice as she said that nearly broke him into tiny pieces; Rumplestiltskin didn’t know how to deal with someone reaching out, with kindness he hadn’t asked for or hadn’t earned.  He wanted this, wanted it so badly that it hurt, but if his relationship with Cora had taught him anything, it was that he didn’t deserve love.  No one loved him, not the way he was now and not the way he had been before.  He was the one who was always left, the one who no one loved once they got to know him.  That was what he had always been, and now that he was the Dark One, Rumplestiltskin knew that it was only worse.

“Tell me what you want!” The words tore out of him in a bellow, and he couldn’t hold the fury and pain back any longer.  Rumplestiltskin gestured with his left hand, and the chair Fiona had been sitting in smashed into the fireplace, shattering into a hundred burning pieces.   “No one comes here without wanting something!

Fiona didn’t even flinch.  “You’re right, of course.  I do want something.  Everyone does.”  

“Ah, here it is.”  Rumplestiltskin giggled harshly, spinning and flinging a hand up to emphasize his point.  “What will it be, dearie?  Power?  Do you want the Dark One on your side to commit ‘unspeakable’ dark deeds, to cover the land in darkness?”  The words burned in his throat, but he knew they had to be true, so Rumplestiltskin tried to sound flippant as he went on.  She was the Black Fairy, after all.  Her gentle affection had to be a lie.  “Is it the same old game, covering all the realms in darkness, removing light and hope and love?”

Hurt her!  Make her regret trying to use your feelings against you!  The chorus of voices was almost deafening.  But damn it all, despite the rage filling him, Rumplestiltskin couldn’t bring himself to lash out at Fiona.  She was his mother, and he hated himself for wanting this.  For wanting her.

“No.  What I want is my son back.”  Fiona stepped forward, and before Rumplestiltskin could pull away, she’d cupped his scaled face in her hands.  “I don’t care that you’re the Dark One.  In fact, I’m grateful for that, because it let you live long enough to find you again.  I just want my precious boy, who I turned dark to protect.  I don’t care what you are.  You are my son.

Rumplestiltskin laughed, because a high-pitched giggle the only way he could think to mask his confusion.  “Stop lying to me.”

He’d meant the words to come out strong.  Instead, they wound up sounding like a plea. 

“I’m not lying, Rumplestiltskin.”  Her whisper was soft enough that he could pretend Fiona hadn’t said a word.

“Rumple.”  His lips moved on their own, and he wanted to curse them shut.

“What was that?”

He didn’t want to answer; he wanted to flee.  But his emotions were too tangled to trust his magic, so Rumplestiltskin wheeled around and made for the closest way out of the hall—until a hand caught his arm.  Gently.

“Rumple,” he all but muttered, blinking rapidly.  “You can—I mean—if you—never mind.”

He tried to pull away, but the hand squeezed his arm, and damn his broken soul, he didn’t want to. 

“Rumple, then,” his mother said softly.  Then he finally managed to scrape up enough focus to teleport away before he started crying.

Nimue was prattling on and on about betrayal or heartbreak, about not trusting and absolutely not letting her in, but he barely heard a word.  Rumplestiltskin just threw himself onto the window seat in his tower and stared out at the world, trying not to feel.


 

A week after that, they were at odds again.  Fiona thought things were going fairly well despite a few small arguments—they both had hot tempers and darkness that did not always mix—so she asked:  “Will you tell me about the two spinsters that raised you?”

“Why?”  Rumplestiltskin twisted to face her, his eyes narrowed suspiciously.  But he was always suspicious, her boy.  Before meeting him, Fiona had thought that darkness was merely a reflection of the methods one was willing to use, of the morality one was willing to ignore.  Now, however, she was starting to realize that the Dark One was something else entirely.

She’d also started reading up on her son’s condition, and learning that it truly was a terrible curse.

“Because I want to know you.”  Honesty was her friend in this case, even if Fiona wasn’t always used to telling the truth.  She swallowed hard.  “Because…I looked in on you once as a boy, the only time I could find you.  And because I hope they treated you well.  ”

“Would that make you feel better?”  He went all Dark One with that question, high-pitched and sharp.

“Yes.”  Bluntness often brought him out of those funks, so Fiona just looked him in the eye.  “And I’d like to kill them if they didn’t, but I expect they’re long dead.”

Rumplestiltskin’s shoulders slumped, the anger draining out of him.  “They were kind.  Moira and Parcae…they were good to me.”  A wistful edge entered his suddenly deeper voice.  “We didn’t have much, but they cared for me like I was their own.  And they made sure I had a trade, a good one, and hope for a good future.”  His face closed off.  “I ruined the rest myself.”

“I don’t find you very ruined.”

“That’s because you’re the Black Fairy.”  He shot her an annoyed look.  “And besides, I was talking about what I was…before.”

“You were a spinner.”  Even if he hadn’t told her that the spinsters had given him a trade, Fiona would have figured that out by the way her son spun for solace.  It wasn’t the life she would have chosen for him, but at least spinners were respected in society, valued.

“I was the town coward.”  Rumplestiltskin spat the words.  “Even before I ran away from the war, I couldn’t shake his reputation as a liar and a thief.”

Fiona felt her jaw drop open.  “Malcolm’s?”

“Who else?”  Bitterness made his tone even sharper, and Fiona filed away one more reason to commit spousal homicide.  Not that she was certain that Malcolm still counted as her husband after he’d been turned into a powerful-but-crazy-child, but the thought of killing him was growing more and more appealing.

She contemplated asking for more details, but she knew he wouldn’t open up about the neglect and abuse he’d suffered at his father’s hands.  Not yet, and perhaps not ever.  So, Fiona turned back to the women who she found herself absurdly grateful for.  “But before that…you were loved?”

“Yeah.”  The smallest tick of a smile crossed his face before his expression changed to one of curiosity.  “Tell me about the Dark Realm.”

“Why?” Fiona felt her eyes narrowing; she didn’t like thinking of that place, let alone talking about it.

“Curiosity, I suppose.”  A shrug.

“There’s not much to say.”  Fiona shrugged.  “It’s a dreary and dark place, and not just with all the dark magic.  I believe Blue created it, eons ago, to shove all the dark magic she could find into it.  Until she added me to the mix.  Foolish fairy.”

Rumplestiltskin cocked his head.  “Did it change you further?”

“Perhaps.  I only had one truly dark moment before becoming the Black Fairy, so I suppose it’s safe to say that the Dark Realm made me who I am today.”  She supposed she’d need to go back for the dark fairy dust at some point; leaving it there was reckless, and one never knew when it might prove useful.

“You stink of darkness.”

“Excuse you!” Fiona couldn’t help the way the words burst out, and she glared at her son for saying them.  “That’s no way to speak to your mother.”

He just laughed.  “Ah, but it’s true.  Every pore of you is soaked in it.”  A beat.  “How?”

“I had children harvesting it, of course.  Wasted innocence can turn any fairy crystal to darkness.  I tried it myself, in the beginning—when I was desperate to find a way out that lasted more than a few minutes—but ironically, I wasn’t dark or innocent enough.  I was a wretched kind of neutral that proved useless in that realm.  Until I started taking children.”

“Children.”

“Unwanted ones, in the main.”  She shrugged, thinking of the obnoxious boy ‘Ed’ who had mentioned Tiger Lily and started her on this road.  A proper fairy would take care of that boy for helping in such a way, but there was nothing proper about Fiona.  Not now.  Perhaps there never was, she thought sadly, the next words slipping out:  “I wanted to fill the hole in my heart, at first, to mother someone when I couldn’t find you.  But that realm only made me worse and worse, until I barely remembered what love was.”

Her love for her son had been the one white light in her world, and hearing that he was alive had rejuvenated her in ways Fiona had never been able to imagine.  But Rumplestiltskin wasn’t ready to hear how far she’d fallen, or why she had.  Perhaps he never would be.

The intensity in golden eyes as they zeroed in on her made Fiona shiver.  “And are those children still there, Mother?”

“I suppose.  They can’t leave without me, and—”

What?”

“What?”  The sudden fury in his voice, the way Rumplestiltskin shot to his feet, absolutely mystified Fiona. 

“I became this monster to protect children, not to abandon them in a realm that turns darkness ever blacker! And let me tell you, dearie, when the Dark One thinks you’ve gone too far, you’ve fallen quite hard.”

Fiona couldn’t help rolling her eyes.  “Says the man whose father runs Neverland?  I haven’t seen you racing to the rescue of those boys, now, have I?  Or did I miss something?”

“That’s different.”  The words were a mutter.

She laughed.  “How?”

“I was the price for his immortality.  To kill him, I’d have to die.”  Rumplestiltskin twisted to glare at her again.  “And I have no intention of dying.”

“You had best not!”  She was not going to lose her son so soon after finding him, and particularly not to that asshole her husband had become.  “Yet I do wonder…perhaps turning him back into Malcolm would sever the bond between the two of you.  He didn’t have anything to do with you becoming the Dark One, did he?”

His eyes darkened.  “No.”  Then he seemed to come out of his despondent funk enough to think.  “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, no reason.”

Because me giving up my power would have saved you from dying to defeat me, Fiona didn’t say.  I cut you away from your fate, but if we can remove whatever turned Malcolm into Pan, he can be stopped without you dying.  Fiona wasn’t ready to voice that, particularly because it would mean explaining what she’d done to her son, but it was worth thinking on.


 

His mother made no sense.

She was dark, yet she talked of ways to kill Pan without killing him.  She was ridiculously protective of him, too—a would-be hero showed up and tried to slay him a month after Fiona arrived, and Rumplestiltskin didn’t even get the chance to make the fool regret his choice before the Black Fairy tried to turn him into a frog.  He’d shouted at her that he could defend himself whilst being secretly pleased; Fiona cared enough to work magic on his behalf, even if it was just a foolish knight who didn’t even know how to kill the Dark One.  He’d insisted on dealing with the knight himself, of course, terrifying the poor bastard until Sir Amadas agreed to collect hairs from a potential True Love couple he had been tracking, all to spare himself.

Fiona seemed put out that she wasn’t allowed to kill the idiot, but Rumplestiltskin ignored her pouting.  She’d get over the disappointment, or she’d go find some fairy or another to take her frustration out on.  Rumplestiltskin found the fact that his mother hated most fairies very surprising, particularly since she’d been born one herself.  Yet her anger with the Blue Fairy surpassed his own, which Rumplestiltskin sometimes found suspicious.  He’d asked why, but she always demurred, referencing her exile and saying no more.  He knew there was something else under the surface, but Rumplestiltskin was patient.  It would wait.

Months passed, he grew to know his mother a little more...and he hated himself for loving her.


 

There was no time like the present to eat some crow, Fiona supposed.  The longer she was out of the Dark Realm, the more she realized that it had tainted her.  She’d grown to hate so strongly that she’d never noticed how much she was changing.  No, that was wrong.  She hadn’t cared.  She had known what she’d become, taking children and mistreating them, but her fate had seemed to be to embrace lonely darkness, so that was what she had done.

No more.  If she was going to help her son, she had to start by listening to him.  This would matter to Rumplestiltskin, and perhaps it would help him find his way back towards the light.  Even if certain insolent children were trying to drive her mad.

“What’s the catch?” Edmund demanded, his chin jutting out at her defiantly. 

“Would you rather stay here, stupid boy, or do you want your freedom?” Fiona hadn’t thought freeing the idiots would be so difficult, and she desperately wanted to rethink this entire plan.  I’m doing this for my son, she told herself.  If I can’t be better, he won’t even try.

“Freedom isn’t freedom if there’s a catch.”

“The catch is that I don’t want you anymore.  Any of you.”  Fiona sniffed, still annoyed.  “I want this realm to be empty of every living thing.  Forever.”

The darkness was already starting to eat at her.  She could feel it prickling on her skin, could feel its murderous touch.  Staying here much longer would doom her if she didn’t find someone to take her rage out on.

“Why?”

“Why do you care?  Just take your freedom and be happy!”

He just glared at her.  “I’m not going to be happy if you take me back to Neverland.”

Fiona barely resisted the urge to scream.


 

When his magic alerted him to the fact that someone had entered his castle, it had never entered Rumplestiltskin’s mind that it might be Cora.  But when he walked into the great hall, there she was, looking beautiful enough to break his heart all over again.  He stopped cold, and he was pretty sure that his heart stopped, too.

“What are you doing here?”

Rumplestiltskin had meant to sound threatening, but even he had to admit that he just sounded broken.  Cora, however, was all smiles when she turned to face him.

“Rumple.”  Immediately, she started forward, but he was wise enough to skitter back.  That made her stop.  “Can’t we talk like the old friends we are?”

“We’re not friends, dearie,” he snapped.  Then he swallowed hard.

“Of course we are.   You won’t let one small mistake get in the way of that, will you?”  Cora stepped forward again, reaching a hand out.

“One.  Small.  Mistake?” His voice small, Rumplestiltskin backed another uncertain step away from her.

“Yes.  A mistake.  And I’m sorry, Rumple.  So very sorry.  I never should have left you.”  Cora looked sorry, too, standing before him like a supplicant, her smile sad and wan. 

Nervously, Rumplestiltskin licked his lips, trying to slow his racing heart.  He’d been so furious with her, so certain that she’d never loved him.  He’d done his damnedest to deny her the power she wanted, too, but what if Cora had been wrong?  What if ten months apart had taught her that she wanted love more than power?  She looked like she was being honest; she looked heartbroken.  Just like he felt.

Don’t be fooled, Spinner! Zoso’s voice echoed in his head like thunder, making his head pound.  She’s using you again!  Yet he could still feel the darkness coiling excitedly; it liked Cora.  It always had.  Cora tasted of blood and ambition, of power and even more darkness.  Cora took what she wanted, just like it always wanted him to do.  Cora was not shy or uncertain.  Not ever.

“You’re not sorry.  You didn’t love me.”  He backed up another step, trying to push back how badly he wanted to fold into her arms.

“Of course I did.  And I still do.”  Finally, she managed to grab his hand, and Rumplestiltskin stopped trying to get away.  “I made a mistake, Rumple.  I thought that power would be enough.  It isn’t.”

“It…isn’t?” 

He didn’t want to sound hopeful.  He didn’t want to want her, but Cora had accepted him for who he was.  She hadn’t turned away from his ugly face, or been afraid of him.  Cora had embraced his darkness, and she’d loved him for that.  She said she loves me.  Those words had shaken Rumplestiltskin to his very core, because he’d been so utterly convinced that Cora had been using him before.  But what if she hadn’t?  Then use her, Zoso relented.  Use her love for you to manipulate her the way she manipulated you.  A cold chill ran through him, though, and Rumplestiltskin knew he couldn’t do that.  Not because he was too nice or too good to use someone, but because he wanted more.

So much more.

“Of course not.  I should have listened to my heart.”  Cora gave him a tentative smile, stepping closer.  He could almost feel her breath, now.  “I won’t ask for your forgiveness.  I know it’s too soon for that.”

“You’re—you’re still married.”  He couldn’t ignore the hand in his, but Rumplestiltskin could see the ring on her other hand.

“Unfortunately, yes.  You were right about Henry.  He’s spineless and weak, but he is the father of my daughter, and I cannot disadvantage her by leaving him.  You understand, don’t you?”

She was offering him everything save marriage, wasn’t she?  Cora wanted him.  He could see that in her eyes, could practically feel the desire radiating off of her as she moved closer and closer, her lips almost touching his.  Part of Rumplestiltskin, the foolish spinner who had once dreamt dreams of honor and glory, was repulsed by the very idea.  But the rest of him cackled at the thought of cuckolding a prince, of loving a princess-by-marriage and having the kind of dark partner who would revel in the curse with him.  My mother would do that, but her love isn’t the same as a lover’s.  Cora would help shape her daughter to cast the curse so long as it gave her power, and they could have that.  Together.

Take what you want.  She wants it to.  Don’t hesitate now, Spinner!  Zoso’s encouragement was almost enough to push Rumplestiltskin into action; he could feel his body quivering with desire and anticipation.  But, no.  He would wait for Cora to make the first move.  He had earned that.

Then she leaned forward to do exactly what he’d hoped and dreaded, lips brushing against his lightly and then more hungrily, and Rumplestiltskin could not help leaning into her kiss.  He’d hated her so much, but he missed her, missed this one chance at love, the only one he had.  Even with his mother there, he was so very alone, because he never could be certain when Fiona would decide he was just a beast and leave.  Cora was as dark as he was, though, and—

Magic sizzled through his body, suddenly, and everything stopped.

Cora pulled back.  “I’m sorry, Rumple, dear.  Did you think I would risk people questioning Regina’s legitimacy, or that of any other children I might have, all for love?”  She chuckled softly, stepping away from him.  “But I did do my research, just as you taught me.  Squid ink is remarkably useful, isn’t it?”

“You—you—you!” He was so angry he could barely get words out. 

You fool! The voices inside him shouted a raging chorus, each screaming for his attention.  How could you be so stupid as to let her get so close?  But he couldn’t move.  Not a muscle.  Not even an inch.  Magic wouldn’t respond to his commands, either; nothing happened.  He was an utter fool.

“Love is never enough.”  Cora shrugged, tucking away the handkerchief with which she had lightly touched his hand.  “But, as you’ve blocked my traditional avenues to power by protecting the lives of King Xavier and Henry’s annoying brothers, I shall have to reach for a different kind of power.  Yours.”

“…What?”

He asked the question, but his heart had already stopped. Rumplestiltskin knew exactly what Cora wanted.  She didn’t want him at all.  Maybe she never had.  I did do my research, she’d said.  And he’d told her too much, back in the months where he’d loved her and trusted her.  Cora knew.  And the darkness inside him was screaming as furiously as Rumplestiltskin wanted to, howling in rage and terror, knowing it was about to be trapped and used.

“I know your dagger is here.”  Cora met his eyes levelly, her face devoid of all emotion save satisfaction.  “And when I find it, I have all the power I could ever possibly want—and you on your knees before me.”

 

Chapter Text

“…What?”

Rumplestiltskin’s voice floated up to her, sounding broken and…frightened?  Fiona stopped cold, her foot freezing above a stair while she listened.  She’d heard Rumplestiltskin sound many things over the past months, but she’d never heard him sound so defeated.

“I know your dagger is here,” a female voice said calmly.  Coldly.  “And when I find it, I have all the power I could ever possibly want—and you on your knees before me.”

Fiona felt like the air had been knocked out of her chest.  How could she have forgotten about the dagger?  She’d put it out of her mind, confident that Rumplestiltskin knew how to hide it, since he’d clearly remained free for these many years.  What a fool she had been!  And others clearly knew about it, too; she had a guess who the woman talking to Rumplestiltskin was, but why in the world had he not already ripped the intruder to pieces?  She’d seen his temper.  He was devastatingly capable of dealing out death and destruction when he so pleased, and anyone trying to take the dagger should have been a more than adequate target.

But she felt nothing, no magic in the air, no matter how slight.  Quickly, Fiona continued down the back stairs, heading towards the great hall.  She had just—finally!—returned from releasing those be-damned children from the Dark Realm, and she’d been burning to vent her frustrations on someone.  This looked like a marvelous occasion to so.  Try to enslave my son, will you?  Oh, no.  No, that won’t do at all. Somehow, this other woman had disabled Rumplestiltskin, because all Fiona heard from him was more broken words:

“You’re a bigger fool than I took you for, dearie!  Your precious little dose of squid ink won’t hold me that long, and once I’m free, I will destroy you!” But his voice shook, and Fiona could tell that he was blustering.  He was afraid.

And that made her blood boil.

“I’ll have the dagger by then, Rumple, dear.  We both know that you’re only so clever, and I know you all too well.  I will find it easily.”  Fiona came around a corner in time to see a young, dark haired beauty reach out to stroke Rumplestiltskin’s cheek fondly.  “Then we’ll make up for lost time.”

“Don’t touch me.”  The words were a snarl, but they could both see how wide Rumplestiltskin’s eyes were.

“Don’t you want me?”  A theatrical pout.  “We both know you do.”

“Not anymore.

“Well, your opinion won’t matter, will it?” She stepped away as Rumplestiltskin snarled wordlessly, and the implication almost stunned Fiona into inaction. 

This sick woman was the one who her son had fallen for?  The one who had broken his heart?  Fiona was the Black Fairy, yes, and had done terrible—horrible!—things in her day.  But she could hear the implication hanging in the air, and it sickened her.  Rumplestiltskin might have loved Cora, but Cora clearly lacked the common decency to even care about his consent, or lack thereof.  Letting out a slow breath, she focused on her fury and gathered magic to herself, burning to finally be able to protect her son when he needed protection.  I have waited centuries to do this.  I will not fail him now.

“Oh, look.  A visitor!”  She put her brightest and nastiest smile into place as the younger woman whirled to face her.  “You must be Cora.  How exciting” 

Cora smiled.  “You didn’t tell me you had a new student, Rumple.”  Her eyes swept up Fiona’s figure and then down again; she sneered.  “She’s hardly up to your usual standards.  I feel slighted.”

“A student?  How terribly quaint.  Is that what you think I am?” 

“It doesn’t matter.”  Cora scoffed.  “Leave while you still can.  I have no quarrel with you.”

“Oh, but I have a very deep quarrel with anyone who tries to harm my son.”  Fiona moved forward, not bothering to summon her wand to hand.  She would use old and dark magic beyond what fairies understood, she decided.  It would even be fun.

“Your…what?”  Oh, seeing that perfectly sculpted face twist up in surprise was quite a treat, and Fiona couldn’t hold back a delighted giggle.

“I do hope you’re familiar with the concept?  I know it’s terribly complicated, but I understand you are recently a mother yourself.  For whatever that’s worth.”  Fiona let her eyes sweep disapprovingly over Cora.  Rumplestiltskin had told her too much about this wench he had fallen in love with, and while she appreciated the other woman’s cold-blooded approach to power, Fiona wasn’t about to let Cora hurt her son.  “Most new mothers don’t cavort off into situations that might well leave their new children motherless.”

“I have nothing to fear here.”  Cora came back on balance with a sneer, and Fiona burned to kill her as Cora turned her sickeningly sweet smile on Rumplestiltskin.  “Do I, darling?”

Rumplestiltskin snarled, his expression twisting up in fury that made Fiona’s own anger look pitiful and friendly by comparison.  “Don’t flatter yourself.”

“Well, you heard him, didn’t you, Princess?” Fiona couldn’t help purring out the words in an extra-sweet voice.  “He doesn’t want you.  Do run along.”

 “I have no intention of leaving until I get what I came for.”  Cora turned to face her, and Fiona finally gave into the very temptation that had been haunting her for months.

“You mean this?”  She summoned the dagger to her hand casually, watching Cora’s eyes widen and Rumplestiltskin flinch.  The dagger was warm in her hand, terrible, and while Fiona had been curious about how the Dark One’s dagger would feel, she immediately wished she’d left it alone.

She could hear it whispering to her.

“How did you do that?” Cora’s eyes were wide and hungry, and Fiona had to resist the urge to stab her with the thing.  Or to order Rumplestiltskin to kill her—but no, she would not abuse her son like that.  He’d never forgive her, and she wouldn’t blame him.

“My command of dark magic makes what you can do child’s play.”  She smiled sweetly.  “But don’t feel bad, dear.  I’m the Black Fairy.  It comes with the job.”

The vicious little chit was a sorceress, and hopefully capable of reading a little history, which meant she should recognize that name.  Fiona kept smiling, turning the dagger over in her hand casually as she watched the realization sink in.  Cora could call herself royal via her marriage to an utterly uninspiring fifth son, but Fiona had never been impressed with royalty, not even when she’d been a peasant.  Power mattered more than titles, and even queens bowed to fairies, anyway.

Cora clearly got the message.  Her eyes widened and her lips pulled back in an expression that was far more grimace than smile, and Fiona could tell that she’d barely stopped herself from taking a step back.  Yet she still obviously couldn’t believe it.  “You’re the Black Fairy?”

“Is that disappointment I sense?  I assure you that my reputation is entirely well earned, and I’ll be happy to filet you if you persist in staying.”

“How are you his mother?  But he was born—”

“As lowly as you were?  Yes, well, that was my mistake.  I allowed an impertinent Blue bug to separate us, but I’ve returned, now.  And I do think that’s a matter that properly belongs between my son and I, don’t you?”  Fiona cocked her head.  “Or are you now lamenting the fact that you married a magicless prince when you could have had the love of someone so much more powerful than you?”

The noise Cora made was a mixture of despair and outrage, but Rumplestiltskin giggled sharply.

“Fouled that one up, didn’t you, Princess?” he drawled, but Fiona could see the fear still dancing in the back of his eyes.  Her poor boy was stuck, and there was nothing she could do about it.  They would simply have to wait for the squid ink to wear off, though she could at least deal with Cora in the meantime.  He’s probably nervous because I have the dagger, too, but if I let it go, this wench might just find it, and I can’t have that.

The moment that Cora twisted to look at Rumplestiltskin, Fiona struck.  Magic raced out of her right palm as her hand snapped up, forming a black and gold spark that struck Cora right in the chest.  It threw her backwards, right into the ridiculous suit of armor next to the door, making her land with a crash.  Cora yelped, but came to her feet quickly, her hands full of dark magic.  She was readying something nasty, a spell driven by all the fury a heartless woman could muster, but Fiona just giggled and hit her again.  This time, the suit of armor came up, reconstituting itself in midair and smashing down into the young sorceress.  Small bolts of lightning played between the metal pieces as it hit, snapping against Cora and shocking her when she tried to move.

Cora cried out in pain, but Fiona only watched her try to fight the suit of armor off.  Drifting a few steps forward, she intentionally put herself between her foe and her son, who was watching with transfixed interest but still frozen.  His eyes showed a strange mixture of the Dark One’s typical bloodlust and an aching loss, and Fiona just wanted to wrap her arms around him and shield him from the hurt this toxic little wench had put him through.  Her first instinct was to kill Cora, but she could tell that there was something else going on within her son’s mind.

Fiona scowled.  “You want me to spare her, don’t you?  Just when I was starting to have fun.

“I need her.”

That made her frown, even as Cora screeched, kicking fruitlessly at the still-attacking suit of armor.  “Not for—?”

“No!

“Well, that’s a relief.”  If her son had simply been so in love with this woman who had just threatened to rape him that he could forgive that, Fiona would have incinerated Cora before she let her leave the castle.  She’d have to ask what Rumplestiltskin needed Cora for later, though.  For now, she would finish this battle, and they could sort the rest out when Rumplestiltskin was free.

She saw no reason to waste time, however.  Cora was still battling to get free of the suit of armor when Fiona hit her with another spell, and then another, twisting her this way and that and then slamming her against the wall once more.  Then she launched a particularly nasty and acidic spell right at Cora’s face, not feeling petty at all for wanting to ruin the vicious little twit’s sharp-edged beauty.  Cora had probably used that pretty face to seduce her son, and Fiona would be perfectly happy to remove that advantage of Cora’s forever.  Unfortunately, Cora was back on balance enough to bat the spell aside.  It sailed into a nearby wall, burning a ragged hole in the tapestry that featured a dryad and a flock of birds.  The hole did nothing to improve the already ugly wall-hanging, but at least it served some sort of purpose.  Maybe her son would finally throw that vile thing away.

“I’ll kill you for that.”  Cora’s voice was almost inhumanely calm; Fiona supposed that was the lack of a heart talking.  “And then I will take the dagger.”

“Do you really think that not having a heart helps you with magic, silly girl?  True dark magic takes emotion more than just anger, you know.”  She laughed again.  “And if you think you can kill me, go right ahead.  But even if you can, Rumplestiltskin will be free long before you manage it.” 

“Do you think I wouldn’t bring plenty of squid ink to prevent that eventuality?” Cora laughed.  “I know how long squid ink can hold the Dark One.”

“You think you’re so smart, don’t you?”  Fiona didn’t look over her shoulder at Rumplestiltskin; she could feel him tensing further without seeing his expression.  I will not let anyone enslave him.  Not my son.

Cora’s response was a tornado of power, black and purple and deadly, that roared across the great hall towards Fiona.  Had it hit, it undoubtedly would have sucked Rumplestiltskin in, too, but Cora was probably counting on the Dark One’s typical invulnerability to save him from harm.  Fiona, however, had no intention of allowing anyone to hurt her boy, no matter how slightly, so she brought her hands up and split the tornado down the middle, yanking the threads of its magic apart until Cora’s grip on the spell failed and Fiona could turn it to her own ends.  She didn’t need to steal Cora’s power, but it still felt nice.

Using the dagger to direct that magic back at Cora was even sweeter.  Fiona waved it casually, hearing the whispers rise to a crescendo but blocking them out.  The now-dual tornadoes followed suit, converging on Cora even as the sorceress tried to teleport away.  But Cora’s escape attempt came too late, and her own magic sucked her in, darkness mixing with Fiona’s protective brutality.  The tornadoes slammed into Cora, sandwiching her between them as she screeched in pain, tearing at her clothes, her hair, her skin, and her magic.  They wouldn’t kill her, not quite, but Fiona still laughed as Cora writhed and struggled to get free, blasting magic into the air.  Too late, Cora seemed to realize that the tornadoes had been tweaked to draw her power away as she fought, and then she started simply trying to escape them.

“Clever.”  Rumplestiltskin’s voice split the stillness; Fiona could tell that he was speaking as calmly as he could to mask how nervous being frozen made him.  My poor boy.

“I’m glad you approve.”  She shot him a grin over her shoulder as Cora tried again to teleport away.  “You did have to inherit it from somewhere, after all.”

“Modest, too.”  Her son snorted.  “So modest.”

“What use is modesty?”  Shrugging, Fiona held the spells in place for another few heartbeats, waiting until Cora was a hairsbreadth away from passing out from exhaustion.  Rumplestiltskin might want her alive, but that didn’t mean that Fiona couldn’t make her pay for what she’d done.  Finally, Cora collapsed, landing in a heap on the floor with a satisfying groan, and Fiona relished in her pain for a long moment.  Then she stepped forward, using her free hand to haul the younger woman to her feet by the arm of her very expensive dress.  Cora sagged against her, so Fiona pushed her into the wall, having no desire to hold her up.

“Understand me well, miller’s daughter,” she said softly, leaning in close, “because I will warn you but once.  If you return to this castle, you will die.  If you ever attempt to control or enslave my son again, you will die.  Rumplestiltskin may want to kill you himself, and I won’t interfere.  But I shall give you this one small chance, and only for the sake of the child whom you have so recently birthed.  I will not leave her motherless, even if you deserve death.  Not after what was done to my son.”

Cora’s eyes narrowed.  “You can’t—”

“Don’t tempt me, little girl.  I meddled with greater darknesses than you have ever dreamt of before you crawled your way out of obscurity.”  Fiona let her smile turn into a sneer. “Now go, before I change my mind.”

Interestingly, Cora’s eyes flicked to Rumplestiltskin, almost looking for reassurance, but he only bared his teeth in a snarl.

“I don’t recommend waiting until I’m free.  Not if you want to live.”  He said the last word in a sing-songy trill, and Fiona could tell that the Dark One was almost completely in control right now.  It sent a cold shiver running up her arm from the dagger, sent darkness stabbing into her that made even Fiona feel a little sick.

That seemed to decide it for Cora; she vanished in a swirl of purple smoke.  Her teleportation was a little uneven, made ragged by her exhaustion, but she did manage to leave the castle in (presumably) one piece.  Fiona half-hoped that she hadn’t; the idea of Cora accidentally slicing off a limb or two was quite attractive.  She still wanted to kill the wench, or at least to know why Rumplestiltskin ‘needed’ her, but that would be a project for another day.  And today had started so well!  How in the world had Rumplestiltskin gotten himself into this mess? 

Fiona twisted to look at her son.  “How in the world did she get close enough to you to put squid ink on you?”  He didn’t answer, and that only made Fiona’s eyebrows rise further.  “Well?”

“I was a fool.”  Rumplestiltskin’s eyes flashed; he was still stuck, the poor boy, unable to move and express the rage she could feel rolling off him in waves.  “Believe me, it’s not something that’s going to happen again.  And I can take care of myself!”

“Yes, you were doing so very well with that when I arrived.”

His eyes nearly bugged out, but Fiona could see fear underneath the fury.  “I—I—”

“My poor boy,” she said quietly, walking forward to touch his cheek gently.  “I’m not interested in controlling you.  I only summoned the dagger so that she couldn’t, and it’s yours as soon as you can move again.  I’m your mother.  I would never enslave you.”

She did.”  The unspoken words might as well have been shouted: And I loved her.

Fiona burned to embrace him, but even she didn’t dare.  The tension in Rumplestiltskin’s still-frozen body fairly well screamed that he was accustomed to being abused when he was helpless.  Stepping back lest her simple touch make him even more nervous, she set the dagger down on the table.  “I know.”  There was no way to make Cora’s betrayal hurt him less; all Fiona could do was offer support.  “But she failed, and you’re safe.  And I will always do whatever I can to help you.”

Safe was clearly a feeling that Rumplestiltskin was not accustomed to, but he didn’t argue.  And when the squid ink wore off a few minutes later, he didn’t flee right away, either, although he did grab the dagger quickly, staring at her with wide eyes.  He refused to talk about Cora or the dagger, of course, but they were able to sit in the hall amicably enough.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start.


 

Months passed, and Rumplestiltskin contemplated killing Cora, only to stop time and again because he needed her.  He couldn’t let what she’d done stand, couldn’t let his mother have been his only defense when someone tried to steal the dagger.  Fiona didn’t help; she pestered him time and again to just get it over with.  Or at least to tell her the truth of why he needed Cora so badly, but Rumplestiltskin found himself clamming up.  Legend said that his mother had created the Dark Curse, but he just wasn’t sure.  The fact that she had actually defended him gave him pause, as did the fact that she’d never given him up willingly.  The Black Fairy wasn’t what he’d expected, and Rumplestiltskin was more than a little afraid of losing her regard.

He also couldn’t remember the last time someone had helped him without asking for anything in return.

Somehow, he found his long-misused heart opening up after that.  Oh, he still snarled at her, and she usually snapped back.  He baited her and she goaded him.  They argued and they nearly broke his castle between them on more than one occasion.  Fiona developed a serious vendetta against the biting stairs, and then she enchanted his mirror to talk back at him when he’d been particularly obnoxious about her culinary taste one day.  It took Rumplestiltskin three days to unravel that enchantment because he was too proud to ask her how she’d done it.  Afterwards, Fiona showed him, anyway.  She also offered to teach him some fairy magic, which he automatically rebelled against—before becoming fascinated by the fact that he could.

“The world’s changing, you know.  Cora’s prince is now second in line for the throne.”   His mother mused the words aloud one day at dinner, making Rumplestiltskin glare.

“Due to natural causes, I assure you.”  Angrily, he bit of a piece of bread, resisting the urge to mention that the deal he’d made the baker had turned out quite nicely.  She’d suggested threatening the baker, or at least turning his wife into a frog until he provided bread, and Rumplestiltskin was starting to think he was going soft.  Still, freshly baked bread was far tastier than anything magic could make, even if Fiona did insist on drenching it in strange sauces.  At least he’d made her stop doing that to his food.

Fiona cocked her head curiously.  “Are you so sure about that?”

He snorted.  “Because I enchanted the lot of them not to die by any magical or mundane causes caused by Cora, that’s why.”  A giggle escaped as several voices inside him cackled, but Rumplestiltskin pushed them aside.  “Unfortunately, I can’t save them from drowning.  Nor from their own stupidity, which amounts to much the same.  It seems to run in that family.”

Fiona put her fork down and looked at him pointedly.  “And you’re going to let her gain power that way?”

“Do I look like someone who wants Cora to be happy?” he snapped.

“You said you needed her.  You’ve yet to tell me why.”

Rumplestiltskin looked away, his anger flagging.  He still wasn’t sure what she’d think.  Would she be glad he wanted to use the curse she’d created?  Would she tell him why she’d even written the Dark Curse in the process?  Or would she laugh at him because he couldn’t cast the curse himself?  Why do you care what she thinks?  It’s not like she ever cared about you, Zoso piped up immediately, and Rumplestiltskin shook his head to try to chase the voices away.  She would not have stopped Cora from taking the dagger if she didn’t care.

Or she just wants your power for herself!

Shut up.  His mother had given the dagger back.  If that didn’t prove she loved him, nothing else would.  Taking a deep breath, Rumplestiltskin forced himself broach the topic he’d been avoiding for far too long.  All worries aside, Fiona was an ally to put all others to shame.  Once the curse was broken, having her to back him could mean the difference between a roaring success and dismal failure, assuming she didn’t think him weak.

“It’s her daughter I need, really.”  The words came slowly.  “The Seer from whom I gained these powers Saw it.  She will cast—”

“The Dark Curse.”  Fiona’s eyes went wide, although whether that was from shock or dismay he couldn’t tell.  “You want her daughter to cast it?”

“Don’t laugh at me!”  He couldn’t take mirth entering her eyes, couldn’t cope with that from the one person who had actually stood by him.  Fiona had been in his castle for over six months, now, and he’d come to want her there.  Not that he’d ever told her that, or ever would.

“Rumple—”

“No!  It’s the only way!”  The words tore out of him, and somehow he was on his feet, towering over her.  “I can’t get to the Land Without Magic through any portal, and the beans are gone.  I need it!”

“To find Baelfire?” Her gentle voice almost calmed his temper, and then a warm hand landed on his arm.  She hadn’t pulled away, had she?  Even if she did sound confused.

Rumplestiltskin felt himself deflate, his anger morphing into heartbreak.  “Yes.  I have to.  Don’t you see?”

A soft chuckle.  “Oh, I’m not objecting, my dear boy.  Simply confused.”  Her voice was impossibly gentle as he slumped back into his chair.  “Why would you want to cast that curse?  All it will do is take other children out of this realm, not bring you to yours.”

“Eh…no.  It doesn’t.”  Rumplestiltskin blinked, trying to figure out where she’d gotten that idea from.  Hadn’t she written the curse?  Was he wrong about that?  Was everything he knew about that damned curse wrong?

“Of course it does.  I created it—” Fiona cut off suddenly, as if she was worried she had said too much.

So, he hadn’t been wrong about that.  Once, Rumplestiltskin had assumed that the Black Fairy had created the curse out of sheer evilness, out of a sheer desire to see darkness reign over all the realms.  Now, however, he knew his mother better than that.  He knew how the Dark Realm had corrupted her, and he knew how Blue had exiled her there.  Fiona hadn’t given him all the details about that—a fact that Rumplestiltskin had warily filed away—but even he could see the depth of her love for him.

Despite that, he narrowed his eyes.  “Why?  Why create such a curse?  Was it to free you from the Dark Realm—but no, not if it’s taking children out of a realm, for you are no child.”

“No.  I combined two other ancient spells to save you.”  Fiona looked away for a moment, and Rumplestiltskin thought he saw tears glistening in her eyes.  Don’t trust her, Nimue whispered.  She will ruin all your plans.  You know she will!  Yet he wanted to.  So badly.  She bit her lip.  “There was a prophecy about a great evil being born that winter that would kill you.  I created the curse to send all the other children away.  That was why Blue exiled me.”

That’s how she didn’t agree with your methods?” Rumplestiltskin couldn’t help the way his jaw dropped.

“Well, we never much saw eye to eye, but that did seem to strike the killing blow to our relationship.”

He felt his eyes narrow again.  “Whose heart did you intend to use?” Surely his mother hadn’t intended to use his; that would negate the purpose of saving him.  Would she have used his father’s?  There was a certain delicious irony there that Rumplestiltskin couldn’t resist a little giggle.  “Malcolm’s?”

“Why would I need a heart?”  Fiona’s genuinely confused look left him blinking.

“The heart of the one you love most.  The final and key ingredient.”

His mother stared at him.  “What are you talking about, Rumple?”

“That’s a requirement of the curse.  It will give the caster the ability to send everyone to the Land Without Magic, to destroy all the happy endings—if they so desire—and reshape a new world according to their own desires.”

“That was…not the original purpose.”  Fiona looked thoughtful.  “But I can see why you would want it, then.  Only the ‘heart of the one you love most’?  Who would add such a thing?”

Their eyes met, and the same thought sizzled into both minds simultaneously, and both said the name like a curse:  “Blue.”

“That vile little bug.”  Much to Rumplestiltskin’s surprise, it was his mother who managed to snarl those words first.  “She corrupted my beautiful and elegant curse to prevent others from casting it!  All because she was angry that someone other than her could twist fairy magic to their own ends!”  Fiona snorted before turning back to him.   “And you know of no other way to get to my grandson?”

“No.”  Rumplestiltskin let out a shuddering breath.  “There’s no other way.  It’s been Seen.”

Fiona’s upper lip curled in distaste.  “And it has to be that harpy’s daughter?”

“The Seer saw it.  I cannot.”  Rumplestiltskin shrugged miserably.  “I’m too close to it.  I cannot see Bae, or when we’ll find one another.  I only know that we will, and that the Seer said the curse will be cast, but I cannot cast it.”

“Hmmm.”  She studied him deeply enough that Rumplestiltskin had to resist the urge to get up and pace.  “Let me see the curse.”

Rumplestiltskin hesitated for a moment, deciding if he dared put the Dark Curse into his mother’s hands.  In the end, however, the fact that he probably couldn’t keep her away from the scroll made up his mind; his mother was the Black Fairy, immeasurably powerful and just as sneaky as he was.  She’d get ahold of the scroll if she really wanted to, and it wasn’t like she’d destroy the curse she created. 

“Fine.”  Concentrating, Rumplestiltskin summoned the scroll to his hand, and then put it on the table between them.  “Here.”

Unrolling the curse, Fiona studied it, clearly reading the words over and over again.  She let out a slow breath, and then shrugged.  “Very well.  I will make a deal with you concerning this curse.”

 “A deal?” 

Don’t do it.  Don’t listen.  Don’t—

Fiona nodded, meeting his eyes steadily.  “I’ll help you cast my curse, but on two conditions.  One: you let me deal with that ambitious little harpy.  I want her out of your life.  She’s had her baby, and she’s now outlived her usefulness.  I know her kind.  She will try to get your dagger again, and I won’t always be here to stop her.”

“I need her to push Regina towards—”

“Oh, phooey.  No one can make anyone else embrace darkness like I can.  Or you, for that matter.”  She smiled.  “I want that power-hungry witch away from you before she tries something else.”

“I can defend myself, Mother.”  He glared, but Fiona didn’t seem to care.  Or notice, for that matter.

“Of course you can.  And you’re welcome to, if you are so inclined.  But if you aren’t, I will.”  His mother’s eyes met his, and Rumplestiltskin almost jerked back from the intensity in them.  He wasn’t afraid of his mother, but the depth of her love for him was unsettling.

“What’s the second condition?” he asked to buy himself time.

“That you explore other options, other ways to find your son, first.”  She met his eyes squarely even as Rumplestiltskin blinked in surprise.  “I will help.”

“But—but it’s your curse, and—”

“And it’s been tampered with by Blue.  Did she tell you about it?”

“Yes, but…”  Rumplestiltskin trailed off for a moment before shook his head.  He couldn’t believe he was hearing this from the Black Fairy, from the curse’s very creator!  Don’t listen to her.  She wants the curse for herself, Zoso whispered.  “There are no hidden traps.  That blue bug doesn’t want the curse cast.  She said as much, as well as the fact that she didn’t think I could do it.”

Fiona snorted.  “If that’s not her way of manipulating you, I don’t know what is.”

But that made his eyes narrow suspiciously.  For some reason, his mother sounded like she didn’t want the curse cast, not even in its present form.  Why would she care?  Why it was her curse, the one she’d created to protect him.  Surely Fiona would appreciate why he would want to use it to reunite with his own son.  She’d broken out of the Dark Realm to come to him, after all.  Yet she hasn’t told you what she did to get here, now, did she?

“Why are you trying to stop me?” Rumplestiltskin asked, not keeping the hard edge out of his voice.  “Why so much sudden concern about what that insignificant little flea might have done?”

Abruptly, Fiona glanced away, looking uncomfortable.  “Perhaps I want better for you.”

That made him giggle before he realized she was serious.  “What?”

“I turned to darkness to protect you, and then doomed you to that life as well.”  The eyes that swiveled back to meet his were surprisingly sad.  “You were right about the children, you know.”

“Come—come again?” The non sequitur just confused him.

“In the Dark Realm.  You were right that I should not leave them there.”  She shrugged, clearly trying to look casual.  “I let them go.”

“You…you did?”

“You asked me to.”  Fiona’s smile was very small, but the way she reached over to take Rumplestiltskin’s hand wasn’t small to him.

“I didn’t think you would,” he whispered, feeling strange.

“Just like you have no reason to listen to me about this curse.”  Fiona sighed quietly before continuing.  “I do not doubt the depths to which you will go to save your son, Rumple.  And if casting my curse is what must be done, that is what we will do.  But Blue has changed the curse if she’s changed the price, and that means she was probably lying to you about it being the only way.”

“The Seer saw that it would be cast…” He trailed off, shaking himself.  “But not by me.”  Rumplestiltskin swallowed. “She said I would find my son, but she did not truly say that one would lead to the other.”

“Prophecies are terrible things.  Believe me, I know.”  Another squeeze of his hand made Rumplestiltskin want to cry. What if his mother was right? What if Blue wanted him to bring about the casting of the curse because she’d hidden something inside it that would change everything?  “Now, will you accept my deal?”

 Rumplestiltskin hesitated.  Part of the problem was that Regina was barely one year old.  Cora hadn’t had a chance to make her miserable, not really.  Right now, Regina loved her nanny more than she did her mother, which was certainly to be expected for any quasi-royal child.  In time, however, Cora would mistreat her and corner her, would take away those she loved, thoroughly abusing Regina and her too-nice prince of a father along the way.  That would shape Regina into the kind of woman who would cast his curse, and Rumplestiltskin needed that.

But did he need it to be Cora?  Enough to risk Cora getting the dagger?  He felt like he was drowning, faced with the ruin of all his plans or the possibility of enslavement.  Or was there an option other than the curse, one in which he would not need Regina at all?  Could his mother be right about that?  Perhaps her power and his combined could give them a new path.

“I will help you, Rumple.  Whatever it takes.  If necessary, I will cast the curse myself, if that’s what it takes to get you to your son.  After I remove her edits, of course.”  His mother’s voice was quiet as she interrupted his thoughts, and the gentle-but-determined tone made him swallow hard, his mind whirling with possibilities.  He had never expected to have help, never expected to trust anyone with his plans…yet here was his mother, offering. 

He did know a miserable little world that would be perfect for Cora, after all.  Or maybe he would let his mother have her.  The darkness in his mind howled a little in protest, of course—some of his predecessors were rather fond of Cora—but Rumplestiltskin ignored them and agreed to his mother’s deal.

She could deal with Cora.  He would explore other ways to find Baelfire, because Blue would lie about this, and he couldn’t afford to be wrong.  Not with Bae’s future on the line.

Two days later, Cora died quietly in her bed, a victim, some said, of using too much dark magic.  What none of them knew was that Fiona had laced her evening nightcap with squid ink, which was not quite toxic if ingested.  Or at least not right away.  What it did was freeze Cora, making her appear even deader than a sleeping curse.  She was alive when they buried her, and would die slowly of suffocation, unable to speak, move, or perform any magic.  Even Rumplestiltskin cringed a bit at his mother’s bloodthirstiness, but when he saw the relief in Prince Henry’s eyes, he almost forgave himself.

Somehow or another, Fiona wound up doing a good deed by allowing young Regina to grow up with only her father, but neither of them realized how kind their choice was at the time.

Chapter Text

Years rolled by after Cora’s death, and Fiona tried time and again to bring her son back to his proper position in the light.  Yet despite her promise to Tiger Lily, she always failed to do so, even though she could see the way he yearned for the light, could see the man he should have been peeking through.  At first, her efforts were subtle; she dropped hints about how he might want to be free of the dagger’s control.  Unfortunately, that only sent him towards the Sorcerer’s Hat, and while Fiona would never protest the idea of her son gaining more power, she did heartily object to the idea that the darkness might rule him.  Toying with the hat told her that Nimue would consume Rumplestiltskin if he managed to sufficiently power the thing, so Fiona found herself doing the unthinkable and returning it to the Apprentice.

He really was insufferably moral, too.  He was almost as bad as Blue.

“Take this thing back before I find a way to suck you into it before destroying it.”  She waved the Sorcerer’s Hat at him after teleporting into the Apprentice’s little home.  It was safely boxed, of course; she didn’t want the damned thing near her, not with its penchant for sucking magic users in.   

The Apprentice eyed her warily.  “And why does the Black Fairy return an object that her son the Dark One wants so desperately?”

Of course he knew Rumplestiltskin was her son.  They hardly advertised the fact—most of the Enchanted Forest seemed to think their alliance was perfectly natural, if abominable—but this unbearably smug man undoubtedly had his ways of knowing.  Blue might even have told him.  I haven’t seen hide nor hair of her, but I wouldn’t put that past her.  The only thing I’m uncertain of when it comes to Blue is which one of us she hates more.

“I want information in exchange.”  Fiona drew herself up, taking a page out of her son’s book and offering a deal.  “And for you to draw a portal to the Land Without Magic.”

“If you mean to take your son through that portal, you cannot.”  He didn’t look very sorry.  “My magic will not permit the passage of the Dark One into that realm.”

“Why not?”

“My magic was a gift from the Sorcerer himself, and Merlin wished to keep the Dark One as contained as possible.”

She rolled her eyes.  “It must be convenient to blame someone who is currently a tree and unable to defend himself.”

“I only speak the truth.”

“I doubt that.”  Fiona snorted.  “Very well, you cannot draw a portal, but you can give me information about how the original Dark One was created.  Tales say that Merlin did it, and I want to know how.”

He finally blanched.  “I would not share that information with you at any price. You would create a second Dark One if you could.”

“Hardly.  One is more than enough work.”  Particularly since she wanted to do the opposite, but Fiona knew that the Apprentice would blab that all over creation if she said so.  That would create more problems than she was prepared to deal with.  Not only was Rumplestiltskin very not ready to hear that, but Blue and her minions would undoubtedly try to prevent it, if only because it was Fiona’s idea.

She’d already had to curse two fairy spies into oblivion, and Rumplestiltskin netted a third.  His wand collection was growing quickly, but Fiona wasn’t going to encourage Blue to send more moles their way.

“Then what possible purpose could you have?”  The Apprentice’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“My purpose is my own.  It’s not your business.”

He crossed his arms.  “Then my lips remain forever sealed.”

“Fine, then I will take this back and give it to my son.” 

“You would not dare release Nimue and her spawn upon the world.  Not with unlimited power and unchecked control!”  The Apprentice looked aghast.  “Even you would not—”

She laughed, and hoped her scorn rang true.  “I’m the Black Fairy, you pompous old fool.  Of course I would.”

“Then what little is left of your son’s soul would be obliterated.”

Fiona shrugged as casually as she could, still smiling.  “One can always have another son.  Such power and potential as that hat contains might well serve as recompense for losing him.”

She would never do it, but the Apprentice didn’t need to know that.  And she could tell that her callous words struck home.  He looked ready to spit on her.

“You are an abominable creature.”

“That’s why they call me the Black Fairy, dearie.”  She gave him a sarcastic little curtsey, hating this wretched old man more and more by the moment.  It was a pity that she didn’t want to draw attention to herself by killing him—that would probably set Blue on her like nothing else.  Because this arrogant do-gooder was Blue’s particular kind of despicable.   They were probably friends.

Saving my son is more important than killing petty bastards who think they’re better than both of us, she told herself firmly.  And killing this idiot wouldn’t accomplish anything other than making me feel better.

“Very well.”  He heaved a sigh, but at least the Apprentice was smart enough not to pick a fight with her.  “I do not see what good the knowledge can do you, anyway.  Merlin’s powers came via drinking from the Grail, as did Nimue’s.  But Nimue drank with darkness and murder in her heart, and thus became the Dark One.”

Fiona couldn’t help blinking.  “It was that simple?”  The explanation was too ridiculous to be anything but true, yet she had a hard time believing it.  “She was a little angry when she drank from a special cup, so it turned her into a monster that has corrupted dozens of souls?”

“You of all people should not underestimate the power darkness has to pervert a human soul.”

I of all people know it is not so simple,” Fiona shot back before she could stop herself.  Yet her own willingness to crush Tiger Lily’s heart had turned her to darkness, too.  Was the world so black and white that one choice—even a choice not fully realized—could change your fate forever?

Perhaps it was the choice to use light magic for dark purposes that put someone on that road.  Had Nimue wanted to protect people, as Fiona once had, or did she truly desire the darkness?  Was that why the Dark One had become a curse?  She narrowed her eyes, staring at the Apprentice.

“And what was Nimue’s motivation for murder, hmm?  Or are you too good and pure to tell me that, too?”

“Revenge.”  The Apprentice spoke the word gravely, as if it was the greatest of sins.  Fiona just laughed.

“Well, that’s noble enough, if perhaps a little short-sighted.  But I can’t imagine she tethered herself to the dagger, so how did that happen?  And how is it that the curse lived on beyond her death?”

He shook his head, looking sad.  “Merlin tethered her.  How the Dark One has survived so long and destroyed so many remains a mystery.”

“Well, isn’t that helpful.”  Fiona sighed, and then threw the wretched hat at his feet.  He’d told her what she wanted to know, and she wanted that thing as far from her son as humanly possible. “But let it not be said that I don’t keep my promises.  Put that somewhere safe, and do try not to let my son outsmart you twice.”

“That you can be sure will not happen.”

The Apprentice never saw the spell that hit him in the back as he turned to go.  Fiona was good at subtlety, and she really did want to make him suffer, at least a little.  Killing was off the table, but after the hat was safely hidden away—Fiona wasn’t about to chance it destroying her son’s soul—the Apprentice would find himself transformed into a ferret.  He wouldn’t remain in that form for more than a few months, or less if someone helped him, but she still teleported away quite happily.


 

The stories were true, and an unholy alliance had indeed been formed.  Seeing the Black Fairy return to the Dark Castle made Blue purse her lips; she had hoped that Cyan had been wrong.  But Cyan would know the former Gold Fairy better than anyone.  She had been Gold’s mentor when the young fool had decided to give up her wings for a young blacksmith, and although Blue wished that Cyan had done more to dissuade Gold from becoming ‘Fiona’, there was sometimes nothing anyone could do.  At least the Gold Fairy had been insignificant and flighty, hardly the stuff a great fairy was made out of.

Until Fiona had turned herself back into a fairy, re-claiming her wings with a spell only Blue should have been able to perform!  Then she had become studied and powerful, suddenly blossoming into the type of fairy that Cyan had never dreamt she might be.  Now, however, Fiona was as dark as the night itself, and a fitting mother for the longest-lived Dark One in history.

I had hoped he would never find out, Blue thought sadly, hovering far outside the monstrous castle’s wards.  She should have been secure! 

Blue didn’t know how long Fiona had been free of the Dark Realm, or even how she’d accomplished that feat.  The magic holding Fiona in exile ought to have been unbreakable without a Savior’s magic, and Blue knew there was no current Savior for Fiona to have killed.  The Enchanted Forest was at peace, even more so than before with Cora’s unexpected death.  Yet it was that death that had tipped Blue off; even Rumplestiltskin, dark as he was, would hesitate to strike at a former lover like that.  He’d always been strangely sentimental, which even Blue would admit kept him from dropping to the absolute depths some of his predecessors had graced.  Upon learning of Cora’s mysterious demise, Blue had sent the Yellow Fairy to investigate, only to find that dark magic and squid ink had done the miller’s daughter in.  And I know who is to blame for that without question.

“This alliance must be stopped,” Cyan said from her side, sounding personally insulted by Fiona’s continued freedom.

“I agree.”  Blue scowled thoughtfully.  “But we cannot wrest the Black Fairy from the castle by force—that would only bind the two of them closer together.  No, we must find a way to turn the Dark One against his mother.”

Cyan snorted.  “He is the Dark One.  I doubt there’s anything she could do that will alienate him.”

“Oh, certainly not from a moral standpoint.  But they are both mercurial enough that something should present itself.”

Blue already had an idea, but it would take careful study to know if Fiona had told her son the truth of what she had done.  Rumplestiltskin, much though it pained Blue to admit it, was a cunning and intelligent creature.  He would not have accepted the Black Fairy as his long lost mother without sufficient explanation, but the question was how much Fiona had told him.

She would watch and she would learn.  They had time.


 

Fiona had not expected her son to bring a maid back when he went to Avonlea to deal with yet another ogre incursion.  She knew that Rumplestiltskin had a special spot of hatred for ogres, but she hadn’t expected him to acquire anything except some silly baubles in exchange for defeating them.  He certainly had an eclectic enough collection of things in his castle; what was one more added to the mix?  Or perhaps he’d add another to the long list of favors that various nobles and royals owed him.  Fiona didn’t precisely object to him bargaining for people—she wasn’t that much of a hypocrite—but she did find it strange.

But a maid?  And the girl was a noble, too; that much was made obvious by the fine gown she wore as Rumplestiltskin dragged her off to the dungeon.  The poor girl looked frightened half to death—but only half, which was rather impressive, all in all.  Amused, Fiona watched them disappear down the stairs and then listened as the dungeon door slammed shut and the girl shouted at him.  Rumplestiltskin giggled rather gleefully, probably glad that their new guest had a spine, and then he pranced into the Great Hall, looking rather satisfied.  Until he saw his mother standing there, head cocked and eyebrows raised.

“What in the world did you bring her here for?” Fiona managed not to imbue the words with quite as much scorn as she felt, but only barely.  She didn’t want some silly slip of a girl ruining her plans for her son.  Rumplestiltskin was still the Dark One—and a difficult and stubborn Dark One at that—but Fiona thought she’d brought him a little closer to the light over these twenty-five years.

Not that that meant much in the grand scheme of things.  It had taken Fiona far too long to realize that that the Dark One wasn’t like her; she chose darkness and could step away if she pleased.  Not that she usually did, but that wasn’t the point.  Her choices had turned her into the Black Fairy, but the Dark One was an infestation, a darkness that couldn’t be walked away from and had to be fought.  Rumplestiltskin actually won more often than he didn’t, a fact she put down to his love for his son—and maybe for her, maybe a just a little—but she had finally come to realize that he would someday lose that battle unless something extraordinary happened to change things.

And the last thing she needed was some useless chit here in the castle for him to torment.  She didn’t need the voices in his head getting their kicks out of that.  Not while she was trying to save him.

He shrugged, already looking defensive.  “The place was dusty.  I needed a maid.”

“The castle is anything but dusty, except when you want it to be, you silly boy.”  She rolled her eyes.  “And a noblewoman is going to make a terrible maid.  She won’t know how to clean, and she particularly won’t know how to cook, which is the one talent we could use around here.”

Fiona had never been much for cooking; Malcolm had done the cooking, although not well, but she’d always let him. But she did understand all the things that noblewomen weren’t taught to do, which was pretty much anything useful.  Spoiled hussies, all of them.

Rumplestiltskin could cook surprisingly well, she knew, but he didn’t.  Instead, he let magic do the cooking, which provided gourmet variety that lacked a particular bit in the taste department.  Everything was perfect, but it lacked the human flair that marked real food.  Fiona wouldn’t have minded if Rumplestiltskin had decided to bring home some lord’s chief cook, but his daughter?  That was ridiculous.

“I had to ask for something precious,” he snapped, crossing his arms in return.  “What would you have had me do, eliminate the ogres for nothing?”

“Of course not.  But now we have to—oh, goodness, is she crying?”  Fiona groaned.  Surely her idiot Dark One of a son could have asked for someone quieter?  Yes, the girl was likely terrified out of her mind—Fiona knew what kind of stories people told about the Dark One, even if she was pleased that most of them were untrue—but Rumplestiltskin really should have known better.

Rumplestiltskin just giggled nastily, waving a hand like he did when he was trying to put forth a confident front.  “She’ll get over it.”

She’ll be a headache from start to finish.  Why did you bother bringing her back if she was your price?  Surely there are a thousand and one diabolical fates you could come up with for her.”  The bawling was going to give Fiona a headache, but she was willing to bet that it would drive Rumplestiltskin crazy before it did her, so she was going to make him deal with his silly little deals.

“She volunteered.”  This time his shrug was more uncertain.  “Her blubbering father said no, but she said yes.  Even with a hulking knight of a fiancé trying to forbid her.”

“Really?”  That drew Fiona up short.  “How fascinating.”

“You see?” Rumplestiltskin started to giggle again, and then cut himself short.  “She’s…well, if she’s foolish enough to volunteer to come with me, she deserves what she gets!”

“You admire her courage.”  Fiona hadn’t thought she’d see the day when her son actually admitted to such a thing, but the way he turned away and started muttering under his breath gave him away.  She had lived in his castle on and off (though more on than off) for over two decades now, and Fiona thought she knew him fairly well.  She hadn’t truly tempered him; she wasn’t certain that one could do that to the Dark One, despite her best efforts.  But she had come to know him, and she liked to believe that she’d given Rumplestiltskin someone in his life to depend upon.  He even smiled sometimes, these days.  They fought more often than not, of course, but they also had quiet moments where they truly felt like family.

She had not thought such a thing was possible since she’d realized that the darkness inside Rumplestiltskin would not be easily removed.  Yet she’d also seen him fight that same darkness in small ways that surprised her and made Fiona more proud than words could express.  No, she hadn’t brought him back to his proper path as she’d promised—which a small voice in the back of her mind that sounded like Tiger Lily continuously chided her for—but she could see that he was not a truly evil man.  Not yet.  Not even with that darkness eating at him worse than the Dark Realm ever ate at me.  Free of that horrid place, Fiona could concentrate on building a family with her son, and she found that strangely fulfilling.  Once, she’d been obsessed with “winning” against the light, but her promise to Tiger Lily all but took that option off of the table, anyway.

Her son was enough, even when he confused her.  Right now, Rumplestiltskin was busy toying with his spinning wheel, his movements aimless and distracted.  He was pretending that he hadn’t heard her previous comment, which was generally how he dealt with things he didn’t want to deal with.

Not that Fiona was going let him get away with that.

“Are you going to leave her in that dungeon, Rumple?  It’s terribly uncivilized.” She gave him a pointed look, and he glanced over his shoulder at her.

“Why?  Do you feel sorry for her?  The Black Fairy, feeling pity!”  His face twisted up in a mocking smile as giggled, and Fiona heaved a sigh.  “Isn’t that remarkable?”

“Did those fools receive you so badly that you feel the need to take it out on your mother, or are you just in a particularly foul mood?”

He sneered.  “I don’t care what they think of me.”

That was a yes, of course, even if he wouldn’t admit it.  Someone had likely called him a monster again, or worse.  Rumplestiltskin flung labels like that on himself carelessly, and he never acknowledged that hearing others call him such things hurt.  But Fiona knew they did.  She understood, having been called the same thing herself the first time she tried to save an unwanted child.  Back then, she’d still wanted to be good, still burned to make things right with her family, and the label had burned particularly deep.  Yet she also knew that saying so wouldn’t help them at all.  Rumplestiltskin would only close himself off again and she would spend weeks pretending she didn’t notice that he was ignoring her.  Or throwing fireballs at him for it.

Are you going to keep her down there?”  The wailing was going to get old if nothing else did.

“Can’t very well be the beast if I don’t leave the beautiful maiden in the dungeon, now, can I?”  He giggled that annoying little laugh of his, and Fiona didn’t bother not to roll her eyes.

“Don’t blame me for people’s hatred when you insist on playing a part you are ill-suited for.  Your cackling villain façade could use some work.”

“Ill-suited?”  Rumplestiltskin giggled again, blithely ignoring her second sentence.  “I’m not sure what world you’ve been living in, Mother, but I am the Dark One.  There’s no one more suited than I!”

“This one’s better than the last,” she muttered dryly, but Rumplestiltskin ignored her, walking over to his spinning wheel and settling in.

Fine.  She would let him listen to the girl sob and see what he did.  Fiona wasn’t about to help him out of the idiotic situation Rumplestiltskin had gotten himself into; besides, she had better things to do.  She had spied on an interesting young fairy weeping for lost love just a week earlier, and Fiona was contemplating trying to turn Nova against Blue’s idiotic rules about love.  She knew what it was like to give up your wings for love—and Fiona also knew how to get them back without Blue’s permission.  Nova had fallen in love with a dwarf, which amused Fiona to no end, but it might also suit her purposes well.  Taking on a student would be fascinating, particularly since young Regina didn’t seem to need a teacher now that Rumplestiltskin had found Cora’s actual firstborn.  The insane chit had come from Oz to make herself King Leopold’s new wife, and Zelena was already grounded in dark magic.  Fiona didn’t like her at all, but if someone was going to pay the horrendous price that Blue had tacked onto her beautiful curse, Zelena was well-suited to such a nasty fate.

Zelena had also tried to follow in her mother’s footsteps and crawl straight into Rumplestiltskin’s bed, but Rumplestiltskin had avoided that adroitly.  Fiona often contemplated whispering the fact that Cora had beaten her into said bed in Zelena’s ear, yet she kept that fact in reserve for the perfect moment of irony.  She and her son had made a volatile and yet very effective team these past decades, and Fiona knew that this maid would be nothing more than a ripple on the surface of their lives.  Rumplestiltskin would bore of tormenting her soon, anyway, and find someone else to foist her off on.  Odds were, the girl would wind up better off after a little misery, anyway.

She wasn’t there when her son gave the noble wench a pillow, just to quiet her crying.


 

In hindsight, Belle’s first day in the Dark Castle hadn’t been too bad.  Aside from that incident with the cup, Belle thought things had gone all right.  She was still alive, anyway, and her virtue was still intact.  Belle had expected to lose either her life or her innocence by the end of her first night there, so the fact that she hadn’t was a pleasant surprise.  So, although she really did wish that she’d been wearing a more sensible dress when she’d agreed to go with the Dark One, Belle figured that she was still ahead of the game.

He’d barely even bothered to look at her when he let her out of the dungeon that morning, too.  Gaston and every other oaf in Avonlea and the surrounding kingdoms had leered at her with far more interest than the Dark One currently was, and Belle found that almost a little unsettling.  Aside from his one not-so-sly innuendo about his “very large estate”, the strangely-skinned sorcerer hadn’t so much as glanced her way with a hint of lust.  Having been drooled over by men from the age of fourteen, Belle understood what to do with males who desired her, but one who barely seemed to notice her looks was, well, different.  Does he really want a maid? she wondered, heading into the great hall to dust as she’d been bidden.  Rumplestiltskin had said so, but she hadn’t really believed him.

An hour into dusting his vast collection of strange and sometimes gross things, Belle almost wished he’d wanted a concubine instead of a maid.  Who could have known that dusting was so boring?  She found the odds and ends fascinating but was afraid to touch most of them; who knew what kind of magical traps the Dark One had set?  Still, the more minutes passed, the braver she grew, and about halfway through the left side of the room, she finally gave in to her curiosity.

After all, what harm could the large mallet with three runes on the end do?  She just wanted to pick it up and see what it felt like in her hand—

“I wouldn’t try that if I were you.  Not unless you want to lose that pretty little hand of yours.”

The new voice made Belle spin around guiltily, though she certainly hadn’t been expecting to hear another woman in this place.  This one was older than she, and dressed in an equally fancy manner, though she was in a fancy black and silver gown instead of Belle’s large-skirted ball gown.  She was watching Belle with an expression of frank amusement, with a naughty kind of mirth dancing in her eyes, but Belle squared her shoulders and met that gaze boldly.

“Who are you?”  Did Rumplestiltskin have a habit of grabbing noblewomen, or was this woman a visitor?

“I’d ask you the same question, except I know you are the new maid.”  The older woman cocked her head, giggling.  “Do you have a name, girl?  Or shall I make one up for you?”

She brought her chin up, refusing to be cowed.  “I am Belle of Avonlea.  And I may be a maid, but I am here by choice.”  But Belle was too curious to let the other woman’s lack of an introduction slide.  “And you might be…?”

“You are rather plucky, aren’t you?”

“If necessary.”  Belle did her best not to color in embarrassment.  “Are you the lady of this castle, or are you just a visitor?”

Perhaps Rumplestiltskin liked older women.  Belle had met men with stranger proclivities, after all.  If so, she had nothing to fear for a decade or so, and Belle devoutly hoped that ‘forever’ didn’t last that long.  Even if she was prepared to face whatever came.  Could this be her predecessor?  That was an unsettling thought.

The older woman laughed again.  “Rumplestiltskin has no lady, though I do live here.  I am his mother.  But you can call me the Black Fairy.”

“His…what?”  Belle’s mouth dropped open, and she just stared.  She didn’t even hear the last sentence until after the words were out of her mouth, and Belle couldn’t decide which part was more shocking.  Rumplestiltskin’s mother was a fairy?  An evil fairy?

“I’m sorry, were you expecting glittery skin and scales?” Another laugh.  “Or perhaps wings?  I do have the latter, but they’re terribly inconvenient when in human form, which I do prefer.  Unlike Blue and her idiot followers.”

“You’re…a fairy.  But he’s—”

“The Dark One, yes.  And you should be dusting, Belle of Avonlea, not gaping at me like a dead fish.  You never know what my darling boy might do to you.”

Belle clamped her mouth shut, her face afire with embarrassment.  Yet she hadn’t ever been the type to meekly to back to work just because someone glared at her, so she tried again, even as her mind boggled over the idea of the Dark One being anyone’s ‘darling boy’.  “Do you have a name, or do I just call you ‘Blackie’?”

Brown eyes narrowed ominously.  “You can address me as My Lady or nothing at all.”

That glare made her swallow despite her courage.  Belle had read books that mentioned the Black Fairy, and they all spoke of her as an exiled power whom the Blue Fairy had long since defeated.  Had Rumplestiltskin freed her?  “I just wondered—”

“Don’t look to me for pity.  You made your bed and now you can lie in it.  I’m hardly some motherly figure who is going to save you.”  The way the Black Fairy cut her off immediately made Belle glower.

“I wasn’t trying for pity!  I know what deal I made, and I’ll live up to it, thank you very much.”  Belle found the implication that she’d try to weasel her way out of work insulting.  “I was going to say that all the books I have read say that the Dark One isn’t human or part fairy.  How can he be your son if he is not?”

Rumplestiltskin’s mother studied her for a moment.  “Oh, dear.  You’re plucky and clever.” Suddenly, she laughed again.  “Some might even call you dangerous.”

“I’m not dangerous.  I’m just curious.  There’s no harm in that.”

“Don’t try to hide it, you silly girl.  Those two are quite often one and the—”

“I’m going to kill that witch!” Rumplestiltskin’s voice thundered into the hall before he appeared, striding through the double doors with murder on his face.  Belle flinched instinctively, not sure what to make of a furious Dark One.  Would he lash out?  Her books said that the Dark One was powerful but unpredictable, prone to harming anyone in his way.  She took a cautious step back, only to note that the Black Fairy had done no such thing.  Rumplestiltskin’s mother, in fact, had only sighed, looking quite bored.

“What has that idiot Zelena done now?”

“She killed Regina’s stableboy.  Something about how if she can’t be happy, why should her half-sister find True Love?”  His voice went high-pitched and sing-songy as his head bounced back and forth like it was on the end of a spring.  “And then she tried to have some poor sot of a Huntsman cut her stepdaughter’s heart out!”

The Black Fairy laughed.  “Oh, my.  That is a bit over the top, isn’t it?  But it does have a little panache, I’ll grant her that.  Except for the failure part.”  She put a thoughtful finger to her lips.   “Did she manage to kill Regina?”

“Of course not.  She’s on the run with precious little Snow White, of course.”  Rumplestiltskin snorted.  “So much for using that couple for my potion.”

“I did tell you that you didn’t need both of Cora’s daughters around.  Don’t complain to me when you can’t keep both of them in the air at the same time.  Cut your losses.  Kill the crazy one and corrupt the nice one, or embrace the insanity.”

“Oh, that’s terribly helpful, Mother.” Rumplestiltskin tittered nastily.  “I seem to remember you saying—what are you doing here?”

His unsettling golden eyes suddenly focused on Belle, who wished she could sink into the ground.  Clearly, she’d just witnessed something she wasn’t supposed to overhear, and as fascinated as Belle was—because she wanted to know everything!—she was smart enough to realize that this could get her in trouble.  Fast.

“Dusting?” She held up her duster desperately, hoping that might prove she’d been hard at work.

“Bah.  Go…go clean somewhere else.  Try the outer hall.”  He gestured dismissively, and Belle wasn’t stupid enough to argue.  Not on her first day.

Besides, if she didn’t fully close the door, she could keep eavesdropping, so she scurried through and eased the door most of the way shut behind her.  Just like she’d expected, Rumplestiltskin stopped paying attention to her the moment she was out of the room.  He’s just like other men.  If they’re not lusting after me and plying me with false compliments, they assume I’m an idiot, she thought smugly.  How many of her father’s war councils had she spied on using just this same method?  Far too many to count.  Rumplestiltskin’s mother might have been a fairy, but he seemed just as fallible as any other man.  That was good to know.

“Is she sniffing around you again, Rumple?” The Black Fairy practically cooed the words, and Belle thought she heard her bouncing in glee.  “I’d be happy to scare her away from you.”

“I can take care of myself, thank you very much.”  The words were a snarl, but they didn’t seem to elicit a response.  Curious, Belle peeked through the opening, and saw Fiona giving her son an amused look.  “I don’t need coddling!”

“Of course you don’t.  But you do need to find her some pretty and randy boy to take her mind off of you.”  Fiona pursed her lips thoughtfully.  “What about King Georgie’s boy?  The one you’ve been shepherding along so carefully?”

“Ah, no.  I have other plans for that one.”

“Then find someone noble who isn’t a prince.  A handsome enough face will turn her head easily enough, particularly if he salivates enough over her.  She really is that shallow, and she did kill her husband, so now she’s quite free.”

Rumplestiltskin swung into Belle’s line of vision, eyes narrowed.  “I don’t need advice, Mother.”

“Of course you do.  Don’t be silly.”

“Mother!”

Magic slammed the door shut before Belle could catch more of Rumplestiltskin’s response, but it sounded an awful lot like a temper tantrum through the heavy wooden door.  Unable to make out words, she finally turned to dusting the outer hall, her mind swimming with curiosity.  Rumplestiltskin hadn’t mentioned that his mother lived with him when he made a deal for her, and Belle was beginning to wonder what other fascinating secrets he had tucked away.


 

Of course his mother took the girl’s side, why he didn’t know.  Maybe she just liked getting under his skin.

“Give her a room, Rumple,” Fiona argued after he’d teleported Belle into the dungeon on that third night.  “It’s going to get cold in there, and frozen help isn’t exactly help.”

He rolled his eyes, trying to spin but unable to concentrate through his mother’s nagging.  “Hardship builds character.”

“No wonder you and I have more character than the world can stand.”  Her light response made him turn and glare, but Fiona only shrugged innocently.

Not that the woman had an innocent bone in her body.  Rumplestiltskin scowled.

“Pretty little thing has likely never known discomfort.  It might do her good.”  Never mind that he knew what a kingdom at war against the ogres was like, and what he’d seen of Belle didn’t make her seem like the hiding type.  She’d been brave enough to take his deal while her father blubbered and her fiancé failed at looking strong.  And she hadn’t broken under his nastiness during the last three days, either.  In truth, he was impressed, but not enough to admit it to his mother.

“That’s true enough.”  She shrugged.  “I don’t particularly care if she freezes to death, of course, but I thought the bleeding heart you try to hide wouldn’t like letting your new maid die by accident.

He glared at her.  “She’s not going to die in there.”  His dungeons weren’t that cold.  They were certainly warmer than Zelena’s.

“Humans are so fragile, you know.”  His mother’s tone was so blasé that he knew she had to be planning something.  Fiona often was, even though Rumplestiltskin still had a hard time figuring out what was going on in his mother’s head.  She was supportive of him, and gave him the unconditional love that he’d always wanted, yet he wasn’t sure he understood her, even after twenty-plus years together.  So, he said the only thing he could think of.

“Oh, shut up.”

Fiona laughed, and Rumplestiltskin turned back to his wheel, determined to ignore her.  She let him for a few moments, but he struggled to find his rhythm because of the way she was all too obviously watching him, plotting and planning.  Then Fiona finally commented:

“Are you looking forward to that ridiculous ball gown of hers being ruined by cleaning, or have you just not noticed she’s wearing it?”

“What if I want it to be?” Frustrated, he twisted on the wooden seat to face her.  “Maybe I fancy the image of the ragged noble servant.  Are you going to threaten to do it for me?”

Fiona didn’t interfere in his affairs, or at least not often.  She actually hadn’t since she’d killed Cora, a fact she was more than a little proud of.  He’d more or less allowed that to happen, anyway, so it wasn’t like he had a right to complain on that front . Still, he hadn’t a maid home since her arrival, either.  Was she annoyed that he’d brought Belle into their lives?  Perhaps he should have asked her.  This is my castle.  I can do what I want!  The thought sounded whiny even in his own mind, though, so Rumplestiltskin didn’t voice it.

Fortunately, Fiona snorted and answered his question before he could get stupid.  “Of course not.  She’s your problem.  And I do find it amusing.”

“Good!”

He didn’t know what else to say, and Fiona let the subject drop, so Rumplestiltskin turned back to his wheel.  Perhaps he should get rid of the girl.  If Belle’s presence was going to make his mother act strangely, he couldn’t handle that.  He liked having Fiona to himself, even if it had taken Rumplestiltskin years to admit that.  She was rather nice to have around, even if they spent half of their time fighting.  She was smart, and sharp, and didn’t care that he was the Dark One.  Oh, her strange schemes and inexplicable motives baffled him sometimes, but generally speaking, Fiona wasn’t terrible to have in his home.  Sometimes he even enjoyed the moments when they weren’t arguing.

So, if she started fraternizing too much with the help, well, he’d just get rid of the help.

Chapter Text

Belle had been sleeping in the dungeon for almost a week before Rumplestiltskin shouted at her to go up the stairs (fortunately not the biting ones) and into the second room on the right one evening.  Rolling her eyes, Belle obeyed; she hadn’t done as much cleaning that day as she had exploring, and she figured that he intended to punish her for her slackness by making her scrub the floors all night.  Much to her surprise, however, she found herself in a beautiful bedroom suite, complete with a four poster bed that was even larger than the one she’d left at home.  The room seemed spotless, too, so unless he really wanted to come up with some make-work—

“Proper ladies don’t leave their bedroom doors open, dearie.”  The familiar voice trilled out a laugh from behind her, making Belle jump.  She hadn’t heard him approaching, and now spun to glare at him.

“Proper gentlemen don’t scare the life out of ladies.”

He snorted.  “Who says I’m any sort of gentlemen?”

“You dress like one,” Belle shot back, acutely aware of her ragged gown and now incredibly worn (yet still ridiculously uncomfortable) shoes.

“All the better to fool you with, my dear.”  Rumplestiltskin danced forward, leaning in with a grin.  “Maybe monsters like fancy clothes.”

Belle fought the urge to back away when the Dark One loomed over her like that; he wasn’t especially tall, but even with heels on, he was bigger than she was.  And he has magic.  He doesn’t need strength or size to hurt me.  Swallowing, she glanced around the bedroom with new eyes.  “Is this your room, then?”

It didn’t look like she imagined his abode; for one, the bedding, walls, and draperies were all in pastels, colors she’d always been brought up to believe ladylike.  But she already knew that Rumplestiltskin enjoyed bucking convention, so the colors could mean nothing.  And her earliest fears might now be about to come true.  Why not take me earlier, then?  Why wait six days, until I’ve started to wonder if he’s more bluff than bluster?  Is that why?  Belle brought her chin up, refusing to show fear.  She’d volunteered for this…whatever it was.

“Of course not.”  Rumplestiltskin stepped back abruptly, staring at her like she was mad.  Then he flung a hand up in a wild type of wind-mill, twirling his fingers madly.  “It hardly fits with my reputation.”

Belle gave him a doubtful look, trying to conceal her relief.  After all, he might have wanted to take her to any comfortable room, and there was no knowing what kind of odd fantasies the Dark One had.  “Then…what are we doing here?”

“Weren’t you listening, or are all well-bred maidens idiots as well as sheltered?”

“I am not an idiot!”  She wanted to slap him.  Here she was, worrying if she was going to be raped, and he was calling her names?  Goaded into anger, Belle stepped forward to glare right into the Dark One’s eyes.  “It would simply help if you bothered to tell me what you wanted from time to time, instead of leaving me to guess!”

That made him blink, his strange golden eyes wide and confused until they suddenly became shadowed and guarded again.  He shrugged.  “You’re the maid.  I told you what your duties were.”

“And is that all?”  Belle might not have been so blunt if she hadn’t been so angry, but the words were out and she did not regret them.  She was sick of not knowing.  She couldn’t take the guessing any longer.  “You don’t have any more…personal requirements?”

“Of course it is.”  Rumplestiltskin looked offended.  “What do you take me for?”

“You’re the one who calls yourself a monster.”

“I’m not that kind of monster!”

“Well, it would be nice if you’d tell me that!” Belle shouted.  “I’ve been waiting all week for you to—to—”  She cut off, too smart to imply that he’d rape her when he looked so affronted at the idea.

Gaston would have cheerfully taken what he’d consider his if I made this sort of deal with him.  Just that thought made her shiver.  Rumplestiltskin on the other hand, skittered backwards, clearly having heard the words she didn’t say.  His eyes were wide but his expression had acquired a strange brokenness that mixed poorly with the fury on his face.

“If you prefer the dungeon, dearie, you’re more than welcome to return,” he snapped.

“I didn’t say that.”  Belle glanced around the room wildly, trying to discern its purpose.  “I just want to know why I’m here.”

“Well, I can’t have my maid catching cold, now, can I?”  His face twisted up in a sneer, making her wonder if she’d imagined his earlier vulnerability.  “But if you want hypothermia, you know the way.”

“What?  Are you saying—”

Rumplestiltskin vanished in a cloud of purple smoke.

“—that this is my room?” The words echoed around Belle uselessly, so she bolted for the door, hoping that he’d be in earshot.  “Rumplestiltskin!”

He didn’t respond, which only made Belle smack her hand against the doorframe in frustration.  Was he ignoring her on purpose?  Why had he given her a room if he didn’t want to take her virtue?  Everything Belle had read about the Dark One indicated that he was eccentric and dangerous, but the idea of him being virtuous or kind was nowhere in her books.

And now he was ignoring her, because she didn’t doubt that he could hear her shouting from any corner of the castle.  Belle heaved a sigh and tried one more time:

“Rumplestiltskin!”

“I wouldn’t bother trying to call for him.  When he gets in one of his moods, it’s best to simply wait him out.”

Hearing the voice made Belle whirl to face the Dark One’s mother, who stood watching her with an amused smile on her face.  She hadn’t spoken to the Black Fairy often; in some ways, Belle found her even more off-putting than her son.  The Black Fairy was a legend, and not a nice one.  Her laugh was off-putting, and Belle always got the impression that there was some game going on that she was not privy to.  Worse yet, the Black Fairy seemed perfectly content to let Rumplestiltskin continue on in his monstrous (or not so monstrous, Belle reminded herself, at least from a certain perspective) ways, and she didn’t seem interested in talking to Belle after that first time.

“What do you mean, ‘one of his moods’?” She crossed her arms warily.

The Black Fairy laughed again.  “He’s a bit fond of his dramatics, Rumplestiltskin is.  It runs in our family.  But he’s not always comfortable around people, a problem I clearly don’t share.”

“I’d argue that it’s more accurate to say that he makes people uncomfortable, rather than the other way around.”  Belle had seen how much he enjoyed making others look the part of the fool, after all. 

“Every story has two sides.”  The Black Fairy’s smile turned distant and sad.  “Even the Dark One’s.”

Belle perked up.  “Will you tell it to me?”

“No.  Of course not!  What kind of mother do you take me for?”  The Black Fairy’s glare turned speculative.  “My son’s story is his own.  You can ask him, if you dare.  He may tell you.  He might turn you into a snail.”

“I doubt that.”  Belle was unbearably curious, but she couldn’t imagine Rumplestiltskin ever talking to her about anything.  He seemed not to like her at all, and he definitely wasn’t going to sit around and answer her questions.  She wasn’t sure if she’d ever seen him sitting still when he was doing anything other than spinning, actually.

The Black Fairy shrugged.  “Then I suppose you’ll just have to wonder, won’t you?”

But there were some things Belle couldn’t bear wondering about.  “Can I ask you something else?”

“You can always ask.  Whether I answer or turn you into a bug is still undecided.”

Belle rolled her eyes.  “You would have done that already if you’d been planning to.”

“Or I might just enjoy the anticipation.”  A snorted laugh.  “Ask your question.”

“He said…he said he’s not ‘that kind of monster’ when I asked him what he wanted of me.”  Belle swallowed hard.  “Is he…am I safe from that?”

Somehow, she’d wound up hugging her torso, and Belle hadn’t felt so small in years.  But she was still terrified of what might come, still terrified that the Dark One would decide to turn her into some sort of concubine—or worse.  But the Black Fairy was a woman, even if she was Rumplestiltskin’s mother.  Surely she’d have at least enough compassion to answer her?

“Oh, yes.  He meant that.”  The Black Fairy looked her up and down.  “He’d never be interested in someone who was unwilling.”  Her smile was amused.  “Even if you are his type.”

“His what?”

“Nevermind.  I’m always one to speak out of turn.”

The Black Fairy walked away while Belle stared speechlessly.  She wasn’t sure what to say in response to that, though she supposed she was extremely grateful that Rumplestiltskin’s mother didn’t think that he’d rape her.  Of course, a mother might be the last to know…but even if the worst happens, I saved my people.  That matters the most.


 

A month after he acquired his maid, the infernal girl let a thief out of the dungeon.

Rumplestiltskin didn’t know what to do.  He couldn’t deal with this.  She’d let the damned outlaw go, and then somehow Belle had convinced him to let the man go.  Belle.  Was that the first time he’d used her name within the privacy of his own mind?  Rumplestiltskin thought it was, and he wasn’t sure what that meant.  And then…then she had hugged him.  Him.  She had hugged him, and said that he wasn’t as dark as she thought. 

Why in the world had she done that?

“You gave her a library?  Weren’t you supposed to be punishing her?”  His mother’s voice came from behind him; Rumplestiltskin had retreated up to his work tower, fleeing from Belle after he’d told her that she needed to keep the library clean.  He knew that she’d read more than she’d clean, yet somehow that didn’t bother him.

“Of course not.”  He spun to face Fiona, not sure why he suddenly felt so defensive.  “I told her to clean it.”

Fiona threw back her head and laughed.  “Of course you did, Rumple.  You silly boy.”

“Why would I do anything else?”  Her continued smile made him glare.

“Oh, no reason, I’m sure.  No reason at all.”  Fiona drifted over to the chaise lounge by the window, seating herself primly.  Then she returned to studying him.  “Do you like this girl, Rumple?”

At least he could answer that honestly.  “She drives me mad!”

One eyebrow rose.  “Is that all?”

“Why in the world would there be anything else?”  He could feel his hands flapping uselessly in the air, and Rumplestiltskin forced them downwards with an effort.  “She’s the help.  Nothing more.”

“I’m aware of what her job is.  I asked if you liked her.  She is your type.”

“I don’t like people.  I’m the Dark One, dearie, in case you’ve forgotten.”  The words snapped out before he could stop himself, but he could already hear Nimue coiling up excitedly.

Take what you want.  You know you want the girl.  That young, beautiful body, with those lips you keep staring at…it’s been a long time since you had a woman, Nimue reminded him needlessly, and Rumplestiltskin really wished he could drown her out.  Zoso’s contribution, however, was even worse: Take her and listen to her scream.  You don’t know pleasure until you—

“Shut up!” Rumplestiltskin shouted before he could stop himself, shaking his head to try to chase his predecessors away.  “Just shut up!”

“Rumple?”  His mother suddenly looked concerned. When had she gotten up and come to his side?  Why was she touching his arms so gently?

“Nothing.”  He hated losing control, particularly in front of her.  Fiona was the Black Fairy, perhaps even more powerful than he was—they’d never put that to the test—and he was a coward who couldn’t even ignore the voices inside his head.

“The other Dark Ones are at it again, aren’t they?” Fiona’s face screwed up in an angry sneer, but the hand on his shoulder was gentle, and no longer even made him jump.  “Ranting and raving inside your head?”

That made him go cold.  “How do you know that?”

She knows too much, feels too much.  This one is dangerous, dearie.  Kill her and take her power!  But he was too used to the other Dark Ones prattling to pay them any heed; his mother had earned his trust.  Even if she did know too much.

“Because I’m well-attuned to dark magic, of course.  How else do you think I could summon your dagger?”  She shrugged.  “Ignore them.  You’re so much more than the sum of the darkness inside you.”

Rumplestiltskin looked up at his mother, wishing he didn’t feel so lost or so monstrous.  Did he like Belle?  He was attracted to her, yes, but he would have had to have been dead not to have been attracted to her.  There was enough of the human man left inside him to notice Belle, but it wasn’t just because of her physical beauty.  She was stunningly to look upon, of course, but it was the sheer brilliance of her soul that drew him in.  He frightened her, yes, but she refused to back down even when he yelled at her.  She was brave beyond measure, bold and sassy, and she was brilliantly intelligent, too.  What was not to like?

“I don’t like her,” he mumbled, staring at the floor.

For once, Fiona didn’t call him on the lie.  Instead, she just leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead before changing the subject to his latest magical experiment.


 

A week later, Fiona watched from the doorway as Rumplestiltskin caught Belle when she foolishly tried to pull the curtains down.  Of course, her silly boy had nailed them down—he was determined to revel in the darkness that he hated so much.  Removing them had never occurred to Fiona, since she was steeped in the same darkness herself, but Belle, bless her cheerful heart, had clearly decided that the great hall needed a bit more light.  And then she’d promptly fallen off of the ladder.

Fiona breath caught in her throat as her son caught the girl, but it wasn’t the fact that the Dark One had excellent reflexes that surprised her.  No, it was the soft look on his face as he stared into Belle’s eyes, and the look of wonder and affection the girl sent back his way.  Could this be what I think it is?  Her chest was suddenly tight, and Fiona simply stared.  Never, not once, had she thought the answer so simple.  She knew that Rumplestiltskin could love—his never ending search for Baelfire proved that, as had his disastrous relationship with Cora—but could Belle love him?

She had searched and searched for ways to bring her son back to the light, but this one had never occurred to her.  Rumplestiltskin remained stubbornly on the path he had chosen for himself, with the darkness digging its claws in deeper and deeper as the years passed.  He needed something to pull him away from the darkness, something more than a mother’s love.  That realization burned, and she wanted to rebel against it, but Fiona loved her son too much to lie to herself.  Or too much to lie to myself again, anyway.  Twenty-five years together had taught Fiona a lot, and she knew that she wasn’t enough.  Not with that curse broiling inside Rumplestiltskin.

Yet simple love wouldn’t be enough, either, or else his feelings for Cora would have done the trick.  This girl would have to give more—and Fiona might just be able to help that along.

Belle’s soft voice suddenly broke the silence.  “Um…thank you.”

Rumplestiltskin put her down as if his hands were suddenly burning, backing away awkwardly as if he’d never held a woman before.  Silly boy.  We both know you have.  Yet Belle certainly couldn’t tell that by the way he was twitching.  “It’s no matter.”

“I’ll, uh, put the curtains back up.”  Belle looked sheepish, but she was still watching Rumplestiltskin as if she was suddenly seeing him in a new light.

Fiona held her breath.  Would he give a little?  Or would Rumplestiltskin dig his heels in, as he so often did? 

“There’s no need.”  His voice was strangely soft.  “I’ll get used to it.” 

Was that a tiny smile that touched his face as he turned back towards his wheel?  Fiona thought it was.  Belle, on the other hand, was not even trying to hide her grin, or the way her eyes followed Rumplestiltskin.  The girl had never looked at him that way before, not with those shining and fascinated eyes, and it made Fiona’s heart beat faster with hope and wonder.  Perhaps Belle was more than the spunky irritant she’d taken her for.

She slipped away before either of the two could notice her presence.  Fiona certainly wasn’t going to ruin this moment.  Besides, she had planning to do.  If Belle could love her son, if the magic Fiona sensed in the air was something larger brewing, the two idiots would need help.  She’d do whatever she needed to save her son, and if that meant facilitating a burgeoning romance with the maid, well, that was what Fiona would do.

At least she’ll give him good looking grandchildren, if it comes to that.


 

Belle’s sixth week at the Dark Castle opened with snow.  Big, beautiful, and wet snowflakes covered her windowsill when she woke up, and Belle threw back the covers to run to the window, grinning like a madwoman.  Snow hadn’t fallen often in Marchlands; her home was a temperate place where cold winters came without much in the way of snow.  They received dustings periodically, but that was it.  And this winter at the Dark Castle had been rather mild so far, despite the way the castle was nestled in the mountains; the most they’d gotten was an inch or two of snow, even though it was almost spring.  But today there was a giant blanket of snow covering the courtyard already, and the snowflakes were still coming down.  There had to be at least a foot of snow outside, and the thought of going out in it made Belle dress quickly.

Shortly after she’d been given her own room, the Black Fairy had pointed out the closet that conveniently produced dresses only in Belle’s size.  Of course, Rumplestiltskin’s mother had looked at her like she was an idiot for not realizing that sooner, but that didn’t dent her joy over not having to wear her old ball gown all the time.  Belle had gleefully thrown herself into discovering her new wardrobe, ignoring how the Black Fairy snorted over her prancing and preening.  She favored the two blue and white dresses, of course.  Both were good for working in, though neither was warm enough to wear out in that snow.  So, she chose a maroon and pink dress that had long and comfortable looking sleeves, and then skipped down the stairs to find Rumplestiltskin.

Typically, he was spinning.  She’d long since realized that he would forget to eat if no one reminded him to.  The Black Fairy nagged him from time to time, but Rumplestiltskin’s mother had disappeared a few days earlier, gone off to who-knew-where, which left Rumplestiltskin in a foul mood.  Belle still couldn’t quite puzzle out the relationship between those two; they seemed to fight more than anything else, but there was clearly a deep and caring bond between them.  Yet the Black Fairy was still gone, and Rumplestiltskin was still pouting.

Sometimes he acts the giant child, and others the wise old sorcerer, she thought to herself, heading into the kitchens to fetch some bread and fruit to give him.  The Black Fairy had refused to take down the magical spells that managed the food after Belle’s second attempt at cooking almost burned down the kitchen, so she could have called for anything she wanted, but Belle knew Rumplestiltskin better than that by now.  She’d be lucky if she could get him to eat the apple and bread she brought, particularly when he was like this.

He didn’t notice her coming back into the hall any more than he’d noticed her initial arrival, so Belle plopped the tray down with a louder clatter than necessary.  “Good morning!”

“Must you be so cheerful?” he demanded, obviously trying to look irate.  But Belle noticed that he omitted the usual ‘dearie’ that he would have stuck on the end of the sentence, which meant he wasn’t that annoyed with her.

“It’s snowing outside.”  She couldn’t hold back her grin.

“It’s winter.  It does that.” Rumplestiltskin waved a dismissive hand and turned back to his spinning wheel.

“Not everywhere, silly.”  Belle walked over to grab said hand, not even stopping to think how she wouldn’t have dared do so even a month earlier.  “Come eat breakfast.  You skipped dinner yesterday.  Don’t think I didn’t notice.”

“It doesn’t matter.”  He sounded resigned, yet he allowed himself to be led to the table. 

“Why not?”

“Dark Ones don’t need food.”  Rumplestiltskin sat down, though, flicking his fingers and conjuring up a chair to his left for her.  The Black Fairy always sat in the one to his right, and Belle usually ate on her own.  Servants didn’t generally didn’t have a place at the table, and despite her birth, Belle knew what she was here for.

She was so startled by the unspoken invitation that it took her a moment to realize that he had to be pulling her leg.  “Everyone needs food.”

“I don’t.”  But he started picking at the bread, anyway.

Belle snagged herself a slice of bread, and then decided that even if Rumplestiltskin didn’t want something more substantial, she did.  “May I have some oatmeal, please?” she asked the castle, and then turned back to Rumplestiltskin as a bowl appeared in front of her.  “I think you’re stretching the truth.”

“Hardly.”  He gave her a toothy but dark smile.  “Only men need food, dearie.”

Oh.  She’d struck some sort of nerve, but Belle wasn’t going to back down.  “Do you say that because your mother is a fairy?  She seems to need food, too, and her human form is, well, human enough.”

“Yes, yes, she eats.”  Rumplestiltskin’s giggle used to make her uneasy, but she’d learned that it was a sign that he was uncomfortable, or at least avoiding a subject, so she plowed onwards.  He could always tell her not to ask, after all.

“So, that means that even fairies eat.  Was your father like you?”

Immediately, a cloud settled over his expression, and his eyes flicked to the distance.  “No.  No, he wasn’t.  Just an average fool of a human.”

“Then you were once…human?”  Half-fairies were generally considered human in all the books she read, even if they tended to have magic.  Somehow, that realization made Belle’s heart skip in relief.  She’d come to care for her troublesome and ornery employer, and knowing that he hadn’t always been a monster was…wonderful.

“What does it matter?”  Rumplestiltskin turned to face her, his eyes suddenly blazing defensively.  “I’m not.  You’re not going to peel away the beast to find some prince charming.”  This time his giggle was higher pitched, angry and amused all at once.  “I am what I am.  Get used to it.”

“I know that.”  And Belle didn’t mind, truly, except when he was unnecessarily cruel.  “I just want to understand.”

He scowled.  “No, you don’t.  No one ever does.”

“Well, maybe I’m not just anyone.”  He’d stopped eating, so Belle reached out to put a hand on his arm, which made him jump.  “Eat your apple.”

Rumplestiltskin’s wide-eyed look was full of priceless confusion.  Belle gave him her gentlest smile.

“Please?”

He ate his apple.

Chapter Text

Belle waited until that afternoon to drag Rumplestiltskin out into the snow.  By then, the storm had mostly stopped, leaving a few innocent snowflakes floating in the air, and Rumplestiltskin’s sour mood had passed.  She brought him a steaming cup of tea before grabbing his hand and pulling him outside, half surprised (and half not) to find that the protesting Dark One followed her without actually resisting.

“What—what are we doing out here, Belle?” he demanded, looking very out of place in his fine silks and leather pants, surrounded by snow and hardly shivering at all.

The sight made Belle blink, realizing that she’d been sure to bundle up in a warm, fur-lined cloak, but she hadn’t thought to find one for him before pulling Rumplestiltskin outside.  Guilt made her throat tight.  “Are you cold?”

 “No…no.  I’m fine.”  He looked adorably confused, and Belle bounced forward to grab his hands.

“Surely even Dark Ones get cold.  Can I get you a cloak?”  If she let him go inside, he’d probably never come out, so Belle didn’t let go of his hands—even though he was looking down at their intertwined fingers like he’d never seen such a thing before.

“I can manage that for myself.”  His smile looked unsure, but Rumplestiltskin tugged one hand free to twirl his fingers, and suddenly he was wrapped in a large blue cloak.

“Good!  Come on, let’s build a snowman.”  Belle started to lead him deeper into the courtyard, but his response made her stop cold.

“A…what?”

“A snow man.”  She turned to face him.  “You’ve done that before, haven’t you?”

When he shook his head wordlessly, Belle felt a part of her heart break.  He’d been human once, but what kind of life had he led?  Swallowing resolutely, she decided that she would ask the Black Fairy about that later.  For now, she would show him how.

“Well, then, I’ll help you build your first.”  She gave him her best smile, and tried to ignore the way her heart fluttered when Rumplestiltskin gave her a timid smile in return.


 

Luckily, the Jolly Roger was ashore at the moment.  Under normal circumstances, Bae wouldn’t have been happy to see the pirate ship, but today was an exception.  He needed somewhere to hide, and a great big ship lying on the sand had to possess about a million hiding places.

And at the moment, Bae would take Hook’s merry band of cutthroats over Rufio’s sadistic little bunch.  He’d run out on their game of pin the tail on the “donkey”, because he’d been their chosen donkey and they wanted to use knives to stick the palm-frond tail into him.  He’d spent the last two days evading them, but he knew that Rufio was getting close.  He’d thrown the Lost Boys off of his scent a half-dozen times, but this time they’d split up and cornered him between the river and the beach.  None of them, however, expected said beach to have a ship on it.

 Bae vaguely remembered reading in one of Wendy’s books about how sailing ships like the Jolly Roger were repaired.  They were dragged onto shore and allowed to lean over like crazy so that the bottom of the hull could be patched.  Or something like that.  Whatever their purpose, the pirates had supplies all over the beach.  Barrels and barrels of what Bae assumed was rum and food were scattered everywhere, and some of them were even empty.  Those barrels would make for a great hiding place if he could get to them, because the Lost Boys weren’t going to dare hunt for him among Hook’s pirates.  Because, while Rufio and the others liked fighting pirates, they weren’t dumb enough to take on really long odds without Pan there to help, and it looked like Hook’s entire crew was out here.

So Bae sprinted for a group of barrels that was far enough from most of the pirates, and he made a run for it.  Panting, he dove between the two closest of the bunch, quickly knocking one on its side and squirming into it.  He pulled the lid in as fast as he could, his heart pounding in relief—

But a hand stopped the lid before Bae could get it settled.  “What are you doing there, boy?”

It was Smee.  Bae doubted Hook’s favorite henchman could tell him apart from the other Lost Boys, but he remembered Smee.  Smee had been the nicest of a bad lot, and right now he was Bae’s only chance. “Hiding.”  He figured honesty was best.  “From the others.”

“Now why would you want to do that?”

“Because they want to stick knives in me!”

“Well, that’s not very sporting of them.”  Suddenly, Smee turned away, and Bae could hear shouting in the distance.

“We’re going to skin you alive, traitor!”

“You can’t run from us!”  Laughter from Felix.  “We’re your family!

Smee turned back towards him.  “You say in here, all right?  We’ll deal with this later.”

Bae could barely breathe from relief.


 

Fiona returned in the middle of a snowball fight, and at first she thought she’d teleported to the wrong castle.  Where else could she find two overgrown adolescents throwing chunks of icy fluff at one another whilst they giggled?  Belle seemed to be winning, which was no surprise, and even as Fiona stared in shock, the maid nailed Rumplestiltskin right in the face with a snowball.

She jumped even as her son did, expecting the Dark One’s legendary temper to come out, to have to jump in to save the girl (more for Rumplestiltskin’s sake than Belle’s, because the girl might just be the key to freeing him, and if so, she couldn’t have him killing her).  But Rumplestiltskin only stared, looking utterly dumbfounded.  Belle took advantage of that opportunity to hit him with another snowball, although this one only hit him in the chest.  He blinked, looking down at the snow dripping off of his cloak, and then looked back up at the maid with eyes full of confusion and wonder.

Then his hands came up, and magic swirled in the air as a giant wave of snow picked itself up and landed right on Belle’s head.

“You cheater!”  Belle’s voice was slightly muffled from being under all that snow; Fiona could only see her feet and her hands until she scrambled out from under the miniature mountain, and it almost made her giggle.

Much to Fiona’s surprise, when Rumplestiltskin laughed, it was an actual laugh, not that irritatingly high-pitched giggle.  In all of her years living with her son, she had heard that laugh once or twice—and it had taken her a decade to find it.  Belle has been here for less than two months. 

“Of course I cheated.”  Rumplestiltskin’s grin severely undermined his serious response.  “I have magic.”

“Well, I’m clever, and that’s just as good.”  Belle clambered to her feet and walked up to him, flinging a snowball as she went.  Rumplestiltskin dodged—only to fall flat on his rear when Belle pushed him.

“Clever?!” he sputtered.

Belle grinned down at him.  “Clever—oh!

As Fiona watched speechlessly, Rumplestiltskin yanked Belle’s cloak hard enough to unbalance her, and suddenly she was in the snow next to him, laughing.

“Now who’s the clever one?” Rumplestiltskin demanded.

“Well, apparently you’re smarter than you look.”  Her cheeky grin took the sting out of the words—or most of it.  Fiona did see the quick flash of self-loathing in her son’s eyes, but she didn’t blame Belle for that.  It took a lot more than six weeks around Rumplestiltskin to understand how, despite the way he used his looks as a weapon, he hated them.

“Well, I’m not the only one,” he drawled, and Belle twisted to look at him.

“What, do you think that women can’t be smart?”

Rumplestiltskin shrugged.  “Usually, you get smart, pretty, or nice.  Pick two.”

“Do you think I’m pretty?” Belle cocked her head, and even from thirty feet away, Fiona could see her son blushing.  Oh, she’s a smart one!  I could almost like having her around if she wasn’t so insufferably good.

“I—um—uh, that is to say that…”

Fiona smiled to herself as he babbled embarrassedly, and turned to head into the castle proper.  She’d leave the children to continue on their merry way; it seemed as if the absolutely unforeseen solution to their problems had arrived in the person of Lady Belle.  Yet she was too distracted, far too pleased with this turn of events, to notice where she was stepping, and her foot found a branch under the snow, sending Fiona stumbling for balance.

“Damn it!”

“Mother!” Rumplestiltskin sounded surprised and pleased at the interruption—and no wonder; she had saved him from his inane gibbering.  But when she turned to face him, he also looked a bit like a child who had been caught stealing too many sweets.

Don’t think of what might have been, of how you could have played in the snow with him as a child, she thought heavily.  Rumplestiltskin mattered more than her own simmering anger over being forced away from him, and Fiona would give him all the love she was able to.  All the love I should have given him for his entire life.  Still, that didn’t mean she was going to let on how much she enjoyed seeing him have fun.  If he knew how much she approved of this turn of events, Rumplestiltskin would probably only clam up faster.

“I see the two of you have found something useful to do with the afternoon.”  She allowed herself a small laugh, because she didn’t want her son thinking she disapproved, and besides, he knew that she laughed at almost everything.  He was strangely loyal in matters of this ilk, particularly after what happened with Cora.

Belle, however, was clearly no Cora.  Not if she’d started a snowball fight.  That jumped-up miller’s daughter would never have dreamed of doing something so ‘demeaning’; only someone confident in the class she had been born in would ever dare.  Thank goodness she’s only a knight’s daughter.  Anyone higher would sneer at his peasant roots, Dark One or no.  Fiona knew she was a little biased against the nobility, but her time as the peasant she’d chosen to be had marked her.  But even a princess should swoon over a fairy’s son, peasant-born or no.

Rumplestiltskin went predictably red again.  “It’s, um…”

“Fun,” Belle supplied.  “Rumplestiltskin said that he’d never built a snowman before.”

Was the girl judging her?  Fiona felt her hackles rising, and she stared at Belle for a long moment, not missing the pointed look she was receiving after that comment.  Surely he did as a child, she tried to tell herself, and then remembered the hateful bastard that Malcolm had turned out to be.  The spinsters had been kind to him, according to Rumple, but he’d already been withdrawn and lonely by the time they took him in.  He’d buried himself in learning to be a spinner, so of course he’d never built a snowman.

Fiona refused to let Belle see how much that broke her heart.

“I don’t see a snowman here,” she said archly.

Belle giggled.  “We got a little distracted.”

“Yes, that’s quite obvious.”  She couldn’t quite tell if Rumplestiltskin was still embarrassed or he was crawling back into his shell.  Either was possible, so she gave him a gentle smile, the one she generally reserved for moments when Belle could not see.  “Then don’t let me stop you.”

Fiona headed inside after that, but the quartet of snowmen—one at least twenty feet tall and clearly built by magic—that decorated the courtyard for the next several weeks certainly did not escape her notice.  And she reveled in them as much as she hated the fact that Belle had been the one to show Rumplestiltskin how to build one. 


 

Confusion always made him spin.  It was the only way to clear his mind, the only manner in which he could find enough peace to silence the voices inside his mind.  And the memories.  Opening himself up—if that was even what he was doing—always meant reliving old hurts.  When he did choose to sleep, he was plagued by visions of Belle turning into Cora, or Milah, or even Zelena; she always turned on him, always came to hate him.  That was what happened, Rumplestiltskin knew.  The only people who hadn’t abandoned him were his son and his mother, and he’d done the abandoning in Baelfire’s case.  His mother had at least been taken from him, a thought which made his blood boil.

Dark though his mother was, she had stood by him for decades, now, and Rumplestiltskin could admit that he loved her.  At least to himself.

“Is something wrong?”

Now her voice intruded on his solitude sometime after midnight, when Fiona should have been long since asleep.  Still, that didn’t annoy him as much as it once would have; Rumplestiltskin had grown rather used to having someone to talk to.  His mother was prickly and difficult, yes, and took everything to greater extremes than even he did, but she was his…and he didn’t mind when she interrupted him.  Even if he didn’t want to talk about what was on his mind.

“Why would something be wrong?”  He didn’t turn to face her; Fiona was too damned good at reading him.  “Nothing’s wrong.  Life is as it has always been.”

“With the exception of the young lady who has been your guest for these last two months?”  Fiona was smiling; Rumplestiltskin could hear it.  Soon she’d start laughing, even if it was a gentle laugh.

He scowled.  “She’s just a maid.”

“Oh, let’s not lie to one another tonight, Rumple.  I’m too tired for that.”

“Then go to bed!”

“No.”

If she was going to be stubborn like that, at least he could still ignore her—at least until his mother put a hand on his shoulder.  She squeezed firmly, turning him on his seat so that he had to look at her.  Is this some trick that mothers have?  I don’t have to turn around, and yet I always do.  Rumplestiltskin knew that his frown had turned petulant, but he really couldn’t care.  Sometimes, Fiona made him feel like the small child who had never known her, the one who the Blue Fairy had deprived of his mother.  “What?”

“We need to talk about Belle.”  His mother looked down at him, her expression so serious that Rumplestiltskin had to swallow.  Had he ever seen her this serious, aside from when she’d spoken of killing Cora?  Rumplestiltskin didn’t think so.

“No, we don’t.”  He got up because he couldn’t bear the height imbalance, pacing towards the window nervously.  The window Belle opened.  He didn’t want to talk about her, though, particularly with his mother.  He just wanted to have his fantasies in private, to dream of things that could never happen, of companionship he knew he could not have.

I have a mother.  I never expected that, never imagined anyone would love me enough to stand by me, even when I’m like this, he told himself firmly.  It is more than I deserve.  Expecting—even wanting!—more is foolish.  Particularly since Mother is willing to help me find my son.

“Don’t be a fool, son.”  Fiona’s voice grew softer, which made him throw a peek her way.  She was watching him sadly, and that made him irrationally angry. 

“I know what I can’t have, Mother.  I am content to—”

“She expected you would rape her, you know.  Not an unreasonable assumption.”

“What?  No!”  The very thought made him backpedal furiously.  Belle had asked him if he expected that of her, but he’d thought she knew better by now.  Hadn’t they become more comfortable with one another?  He’d even started to think that she didn’t fear him. Was he wrong?  Was he fooling himself?

“Not now, of course.”  Fiona shook her head.  “She seems quite taken with you, now.  She thought that originally.  She clearly doesn’t believe so any longer.  Have you seen how she looks at you?”

“Like a monster.”  His whisper was bitter, but Rumplestiltskin knew the truth.  He wasn’t good at lying to himself, after all.

“Hardly, you silly blind boy.”  He heard Fiona stepping closer, but Rumplestiltskin refused to look at her.  Instead, his eyes found the floor.  “You rather like her, don’t you?”

His giggle wasn’t supposed to sound so nervous.  “So what if I do?  It doesn’t matter.  Beautiful young maidens do not fall for monsters.”

A moment of silence passed, until Fiona finally said: “You don’t know how the story ends if you don’t try.”

“I have tried.  You met Cora.”  Now he looked at her, feeling that old pain rage upwards.  He’d loved Cora so much, and she’d tried to take his dagger.  She’d tried to enslave him.  I would have given her anything, but she never loved me.  She only loved power.

The lesson had been simple: no one could love him.  His mother was the exception, but only because she was his mother.  Even then, if she hadn’t been the Black Fairy, Fiona undoubtedly would have hated him, too.  Even Bae probably hated him, even if Rumplestiltskin was willing to spend a thousand lifetimes groveling for his forgiveness.

“I hardly think Belle is cut from the same mold as Cora,” she said softly.  “Rather the opposite, even if her sheer goodness does drive me mad.”

Rumplestiltskin just shook his head sadly.  “It doesn’t matter.”


 

Belle didn’t really do much cleaning these days, but as spring approached, she found herself mopping the front hall more often.  Rumplestiltskin’s guests—often a frightening and unpredictable bunch—didn’t care if they tracked in mud, and Belle refused to live in filth.  Rumplestiltskin didn’t really seem to care if she cleaned or spent all day buried in the marvelous library he had given her, but Belle cared if the castle resembled a pigsty.  It didn’t matter if the floors would miraculously clean themselves overnight (a spell she suspected was Rumplestiltskin’s doing, after he’d tutted over her fight with the mop bucket one day).  She didn’t want them to look terrible when some morning visitor ruined everything with unclean boots and a muddy cloak.

This morning’s visitor had been the Hatter, who had brought his adorable young daughter along.  Watching Rumplestiltskin give young Grace treats and candy had been a little mind-boggling, but the mess the girl had left after exploring the great hall was far less pleasant to contemplate.  The Hatter had just departed—complete with a tangled ball of golden thread tucked in his pocket—so Belle pulled out the mop and decided she’d at least make the mess manageable.

She had just finished the front half of the hall when a red-haired woman strode in, stepping right onto Belle’s clean floors and looking around like she owned the place.  Fortunately, she didn’t bring mud with her, though she still left footprints, much to Belle’s annoyance.  Not that this newcomer appeared to care.  Many of Rumplestiltskin’s visitors were arrogant (though none stayed that way if they crossed him), but this woman certainly stood out from the others.  For one, she held her nose so high that she might have been trying to sniff the clouds.  And she was also green.

“Who in the world are you?” the woman demanded as Belle rang the mop out again.

“The person whose clean floors you’ve just ruined.”  She shouldn’t snap back, Belle knew, but after nearly three months in the Dark Castle, Belle had all but forgotten how to act cowed.

“I am Queen Zelena.  You will show me respect.”  The green-skinned woman looked her up and down with a sneer.  “You’re nothing but a servant.”

Belle couldn’t help the way her chin came up.  “I’m here by choice.” 

Zelena laughed.  “That’s what they all say.  Still, I suppose you’re pretty enough.  Rumple always has liked pretty things.”  Her smile turned vicious.  “Has he plucked your pretty little flower yet?”

“…What?” A moment passed before Belle fully comprehended what Zelena meant, and then she felt herself go red with anger.  “No!  Of course not!”

“Don’t play coy with me, little girl.”  Striding forward, Zelena grabbed Belle by the chin, turning her head this way and that as she inspected her.  Shocked, Belle submitted to the rough treatment for a moment before yanking away—or at least trying to.  Zelena held her firmly, nails digging into Belle’s jaw.  “We both know what kind of monster your master is.”

“He isn’t!”  Finally, Belle managed to wrench away from the witch, even though Zelena’s nails dragged along her jaw painfully as she did so.  “He wouldn’t.”

Belle knew now that her early fears about Rumplestiltskin had been needless; he wasn’t the type to take an innocent maid’s virtue away.  Even if I wish he’d look at me that way, now, she thought a little sadly.  Every now and then, Rumplestiltskin said or did something that made Belle wonder if he was attracted to her, but the man was so damned frustrating.  She’d come to realize that he’d never make a move on his own—he was far too unsure.  This idiotic queen, on the other hand, clearly didn’t know him as well as she thought she did.

“Oooh, do you like him?”  Blue eyes gleamed.  “Well, that changes everything.  Does he have tender feelings for you, too, or are you just pining after him?”

“That’s none of your business.”  Belle hoped she wasn’t blushing.

“No, you’re not his type,” Zelena decided, sneering again.  “Too pure and innocent.  He wants someone darker.

Was that envy Belle could hear in Zelena’s voice?  Either way, the possessive lilt that the other woman’s voice took on was downright terrifying, sending a shiver down Belle’s spine.  She’d heard of Zelena, of course; they called her the Wicked Queen, or the Evil Queen, depending upon who was doing the talking.  She’d married Good King Leopold, giving him smiles and coy looks, promising him that she’d make a good mother for her stepdaughter.  Of course, she’d ended up murdering her husband soon enough, making Princess Snow run to her good friend, Lady Regina, for help.  Lady Regina had defended the Princess, but her husband Daniel had died at Zelena’s hands, and now both were on the run.  Zelena’s reputation pegged her as slightly mad and utterly merciless; rumors said she had a harem of heartless men locked in her castle, bound to serve her every desire.  So, what was she doing here?  And why did she care about Rumplestiltskin’s entirely-too-elusive romantic feelings?

“What he wants is for you to stop invading his castle and harassing the help, dearie.” Rumplestiltskin’s voice was unusually high-pitched and sharp.  Belle could tell he was annoyed, but she was very glad to see him.

Zelena gave her the creeps, even when she cocked her head and gave Rumplestiltskin an innocent smile.

“Oh, don’t be so unwelcoming, Rumple.  You know you love seeing me.”  Sweeping forward—and utterly forgetting Belle, much to Belle’s relief—she tried to reach a hand out to stroke Rumplestiltskin’s red silk vest.

He batted the hand away.  “What do you want?”

“A little privacy would be nice,” Zelena cooed.  Then she twisted to glare at Belle.  “That one lusts after you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”  Under other circumstances, watching Rumplestiltskin sputter might have been amusing.  Right now, it just seemed dangerous.  Fortunately, he seemed to realize that, and snapped back on balance quickly enough to give Belle whiplash.  “She’s merely buttering me up for better treatment.  She’s a smart girl.”

“I prefer my servants dumb and heartless.”  She bounced towards Belle, giving Rumplestiltskin a glowing smile over her shoulder.  “Shall I do it for you?  Consider it a favor.”

“That won’t be necessary.”  Rumplestiltskin’s glare could have melted steel, but Zelena didn’t stop—not until another voice spoke up:

“If you try to take her heart, I’ll be happy take yours in return.” 

Spinning, Belle stared at the Black Fairy with wide eyes.  She was pretty sure that Rumplestiltskin’s mother didn’t like her at all, so why was she was defending her?  The fairy stood with her hands on her hips and her expression a sweet but poisonous smile, and the danger exuding from her seemed to make Zelena hesitate.

“Why do you care about the little chit?”

“She’s my servant.”  The lie made Belle gape for a moment, but she snapped her mouth shut.  Fortunately, Zelena wasn’t watching her at all.

“Yours?”  Zelena scowled.  “What do need a servant for?  You’re the Black Fairy!”

“Perhaps it amuses me to enslave someone from the nobility.”  The Black Fairy shrugged.  “I’ve always been a big fan of irony.  Then again, I’d contemplated upgrading to a sorceress, simply for variety.”

Rumplestiltskin tried a little too obviously not to snicker.  Zelena looked more affronted than Belle thought was humanly possible.  Could someone with green skin turn bright red with anger?  Apparently so.

What?  You can’t possibly think that I’d—”

“Come along, Belle.  We have things to do.” 

The Black Fairy beckoned imperiously, and Belle thought it best not to argue.  Part of her desperately wanted to see what happened; she knew that Rumplestiltskin could make mincemeat of Zelena if he so chose, but she didn’t know why the Wicked Queen was there.  She was ridiculously curious, but she really didn’t want to gather any more of Zelena’s attention to herself.

I thought I was giving myself to the worst monster of them all.  Who would have thought that there are far darker monsters, and that the ‘Beast’ could be so kind?  Belle had expected to sacrifice her life, or at least her virtue, not to enter a fascinating magical world full of knowledge and a prickly-but-adorable Dark One.  And his mother.  Belle could not forget the Black Fairy, particularly as she was led into what Belle could only guess were the Black Fairy’s own chambers.  They actually looked rather like Belle’s own, although the colors were darker and the room not quite as airy.  Rumplestiltskin’s mother seemed to favor blacks and silvers, but the furniture looked both comfortable and inviting, even if Belle felt strangely out of place invading the older woman’s private abode.

They stood in silence for a long moment, and then the Black Fairy sank into a high-backed chair with a sigh.  “You oughtn’t antagonize people more powerful than you, you know.  Not everyone is as tolerant as my son.”

“Thank you.”  Belle swallowed hard.  “I don’t know what I would have done if she’d tried to take my heart.”

The Black Fairy snorted out a laugh.  “Oh, my doting son would have stopped her, and then we’d be in an even bigger mess than we already are.”

“What do you mean ‘mess’?”

“Zelena isn’t green because she wants to be, or because of some curse, girl.  She’s green because she’s envious, and now she’s chosen you as her new target.  Or started to, anyway.”

Belle frowned.  “I don’t understand.”

“Oh, do sit down.  You standing around isn’t going to help anything.”  The Black Fairy gestured at a chair near her own, and Belle sat slowly, trying to wrap her mind around what the other woman was saying.  But it made no sense!  The Black Fairy, however, simply sighed again.  “Zelena lusts after Rumplestiltskin in the worst of ways.  She has ever since he started teaching her magic.”

“What does that have to do with me?”  Belatedly, Belle realized that a normal girl might have asked why Zelena lusted after Rumplestiltskin…but Belle couldn’t blame her.  His looks were strange, yes, a little alien and sometimes frightening, but she was beginning to see the good heart beneath all of his darkness.

“She views you as a rival.”

“As a what?” Her laugh had turned nervous, and Belle’s heart was hammering against her ribcage.  Rumplestiltskin would have stopped her..

“Do you have feelings for my son?  Romantic feelings?  Genuine ones, as in not a hope to seduce him to get him to let you go?”  The Black Fairy met her eyes squarely, and Belle felt herself shrinking back, just a little.

“I wouldn’t do that.  But I…I don’t know.  It’s—it’s hard.”  She licked her lips nervously.  “There’s a darkness festering inside him that makes it hard.”

“He’s cursed.  I love him despite that, but I am his mother.  And I’ve reveled in more than my share of darkness, so it does not eat at me like it would at you.”  She gestured at herself airily.  “You, on the other hand, have no obligations to him, yet you’ve befriended him anyway.  Be honest with me: is this you trying to find a way out of your admittedly uncomfortable predicament, or is there something more?”

“I want there to be.”  Admitting that made her feel a little freer, and Belle found herself smiling.  “But can he love?  Like this?”

“Yes.  Unequivocally.” 

Belle almost didn’t ask the next question, but she had to.  She’d never been the type to run away when faced with something difficult, but she needed to know before she lost her heart any further.  “Can he love me?”

The Black Fairy laughed softly.  “Why do you think we’re having this conversation?”

“I don’t know.”  Belle swallowed hard, forcing herself to face the facts and not be excited at the idea of Rumplestiltskin in love with her.  “I thought you might be jealous.”

After all, she’d seen the sour looks that the Black Fairy shot her way as Belle grew closer to her son.  She hadn’t failed to notice how unhappy her presence made Rumplestiltskin’s mother in the beginning.  Yet the Black Fairy had spoken up on her behalf today when she didn’t have to, so perhaps that meant things were changing.  Or she’s as changeable and as dangerous as the stories say she is, although I’m at least too old for her to steal away.

“I was, of course.”  The Black Fairy shrugged like the admission cost her nothing, but Belle could see old hurt in her eyes.  “I cherish my son’s affection, and I did not want to share it with some empty-headed noblewoman.”

“I’m not—”

“No, you aren’t, and that’s the point.  If you care for my son, if you truly care for him, then you and I are on the same side.”

That made Belle blink.  “I wasn’t aware that there were sides here.”

“Of course there are.  My son is infested with an ancient and dark curse that I mean to free him from.”  Unsettling brown eyes studied her.  “And you, my dear girl, may just be the key to that.”

Chapter Text

Bae had been hiding with the pirates—or, technically, with Smee—for days.  He’d lost track of how many, because telling time on Neverland was absolutely pointless—but he knew he’d be found out eventually.

He just hadn’t expected it to be by Hook.

“What have we here?”  The pirate captain pulled away the lid of the barrel Bae had retreated back into with a laugh.  He’d been hiding on the far side of the ship, mostly, except when the Lost Boys came back in that direction.  They were still looking for him, but no one seemed to have gone to get Pan, at least.

Maybe Rufio and Felix didn’t want to admit they’d lost Bae yet again.

“This doesn’t look like rum!”  Hook’s men all laughed, of course.  Bae had noticed long ago that they always laughed at Hook’s jokes, either because they were drunk or just stupid.  Or maybe scared.  Still, Hook’s grip when he pulled Bae free was firm and sober enough.  “You’d make for very poor drinking, lad, and I have an agreement with Pan not to steal any of his Lost Boys.  So, you’d best start talking before I make you walk the plank.”

“Right now, walking the plank would just put me in the sand.”  Bae shrugged as he straightened, figuring that he had nothing to lose by being brash.  “It’s not a great threat.”

Hook laughed uproariously before turning a hard glare on Bae.  “Right you are, lad, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a hundred ways I can make you suffer.  So, fess up—what are you here for?  What did Pan send you to steal?”

“Steal?”  Bae snorted.  “Nothing.  I’m hiding from Rufio and his sick band of jerks.”

“Hiding?  Why would one Lost Boy hide from another?”

“Because I don’t want to be here, and I wouldn’t be if you hadn’t sold me to them!”

“Aye, and I wouldn’t have sold you to them if you’d been cooperative, but we both know what you think of me, Baelfire, so let’s not play games.”  Hook shrugged.  “You don’t want to be a pirate, and you don’t want to be a Lost Boy.  It seems to me that you’re on the wrong island.”

“Tell me about it,” Bae muttered darkly.

“I do believe I just did.  Run along, lad.  You’re better off with boys your own age.”

Bae rolled his eyes and started trudging away.  “Fine.” 

There was no winning with the pirates, but at least they weren’t trying to make him the donkey in pin the tail on the donkey.  Part of him even contemplated the idea of asking if Hook’s old offer to become a pirate was still on the table, but Bae rejected that immediately.  Firstly, he didn’t want to play happy family with the man who had stolen his mother away (no matter how willingly his mother had been stolen).  And secondly, the fact that he was angry with his father didn’t mean he wanted Rumplestiltskin to die.  Hook had been pretty blunt about his desire for revenge, and Bae wasn’t an idiot.  Hook would want his loyalty and his help, and Bae wasn’t going to help anyone murder his father.

Even if his father was—

“Skulking with the pirates, are we?” Rufio’s voice interrupted his train of thought, and Bae froze.  The sun had set, which meant Rufio had managed to creep up on the pirates’ camp in the shadows made by their large bonfire.  Now he was all too close, and pointing a sword right at Bae’s heart.  “Traitor.  I should have known you’d come here.  You’re nothing better than a pirate.”

“I’m not, but it’s better to be a pirate than a lunatic like you!”  Bae couldn’t stop himself from saying that, although the way Rufio’s eyes went wide told him he shouldn’t have.

Rufio had always been a little unstable. He wasn’t sure where Pan had found him, but Rufio was dangerous.  He never went too far beyond the line, but he was always a little worse than everyone else, even Felix.  Rufio hated Neverland, too, but he liked the power that being one of the top Lost Boys gave him.

“I’ll kill you for that.”

Bae laughed.  “No you won’t.  Pan won’t—”

Rufio lunged, and he was too close for Bae to do more than dodge desperately.  But then Rufio swung back at him, lunging again, and Bae tripped over a rock.  He braced himself for the killing blow, thinking of home and his father and—

And that was Rufio impaled on Hook’s sword, wearing a slack-jawed expression of shock.  The Lost Boy took one last rattling breath before going limp, and Hook freed his sword with a jerk.  Bae could only stare.  After a long moment, he wet his lips and managed to say:

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me, lad.  We both know I’m not your friend.”  Hook seemed strangely serious, and a little self-conscious.  “But pirate though I am, I couldn’t let your mother’s son die today.”

“I…I…I don’t know what to say.”

“Best say nothing and run along, then.  Pan will be about shortly, and the last thing you want is him to know you were involved in his favorite psychopath’s death.”

“You’d lie to him for me?”

“Aye.  Or for your mother.”  Hook shrugged.  “Be gone, Baelfire.”

“But Pan will be angry.”  He should just run, but Bae was grateful.  Hook hadn’t had to save him.  Hook didn’t even like him.   He’d sold him out to Pan, after all, and Bae knew that was because he’d refused to stick around and be Milah’s adoring son for Hook.

“Well, there’s nothing new in that.  Irritating our childish overlord is one of my special talents.”  Hook grinned, but Bae could hear something odd in his voice.  “Now go before the other Lost Boys get here.  Likely, this one was just the advance scout.  Get you gone.”

This time, Bae listened, but it was with a funny feeling in his gut that he couldn’t quite explain.


 

Belle felt strangely optimistic.  Oh, the rational part of her said that allying with the Black Fairy in any way was a bad idea; legends said that the Black Fairy stole children, and Belle had even read one book that called her “an abomination against all things faery”.  Yet all the books she’d read called the Dark One the greatest of monsters, too, and Belle had already discovered that Rumplestiltskin could be strangely kind.  And gentle, even, at times.  The way he looked at her suggested that he had feelings for her, too; Belle just had to figure out what that meant.

She also had to figure out why the Black Fairy wanted her to join her in her rooms that day.  Rumplestiltskin was off making some deal or another, and Belle had hoped to spend the day in the library with a new book she’d started reading, but she wasn’t stupid enough to refuse the Black Fairy’s request, even when it was phrased nicely.  Her head was still spinning over what the Black Fairy had said several days earlier, about how she might be the key to freeing Rumplestiltskin from the curse that made him the Dark One.  She hadn’t even known that being the Dark One was a curse before that, but learning that the (supposedly) darkest of all fairies wanted to free Rumplestiltskin from that curse was still a shock. 

Still, she’d never shrunk from a challenge, and Belle wasn’t about to start now.  So, she stopped in the doorway, surprised to see the Black Fairy surrounded by books, scrolls, and aged pieces of parchment.  “What did you want to see me for?” 

“I understand you’re quite the little bookworm.”  The Black Fairy smiled as Belle bristled.  “Oh, don’t take that wrong.  I’ve been known to indulge more than once in a while, and you have seen the library my son gave you, haven’t you?  You’ve in good company, here.”

“I suppose so.”  Belle stopped herself from twitching.  She supposed that Rumplestiltskin had to have loved books in order to have enough to give her a library, so shouldn’t be a surprise to learn he’d gotten that from his mother.   “You still didn’t tell me what you want.”

“Your help, of course.”  The answer was brisk and blunt enough to take Belle aback.  “I liberated this information from the Sacred Vault of the Fairies, but there’s quite the mountain of it.  If you truly want to help my son, I thought you might help me go through it.”

She narrowed her eyes.  “You could just ask instead of trying to guilt me into it.”

“Why?  Don’t you want to help him, or are you just in this to find ways to make your servitude more bearable?”

“Of course I do!  But that’s not the point.”  Belle crossed her arms.  She might not have magic, but she didn’t like being ordered about like some inferior, at least not when the Black Fairy wanted her help.

“Then what is?  I’m hardly in the mood for a lecture about respect from some landed knight’s daughter, so if that’s what you’re getting at, do spare me and go away.”  The Black Fairy rolled her eyes, and Belle wanted to smack her.

That, however, was a bad idea no matter how it was sliced, so Belle resisted.  Instead, she shot back: “Would it lower you so much to ask nicely?”

“Lower?” The Black Fairy echoed the word like she wasn’t sure what it meant, and then she shook her head, her voice dropping to a whisper.  “Sometimes, I forget…”

“Forget what?”  Belle knew she shouldn’t ask, but she was unbearably curious.

“Nothing.”  A glare.  “Now, will you help me research, or not?”

Belle figured that was enough of a victory for the day, and she really did want to see what had come from the Sacred Vault of the Fairies.  So, she smiled and sat down at the table.  “Yes.  I will.”


 

King George had just put himself on the list of people Zelena needed to kill.

He knew that she liked Prince James.  And she was a queen, ruling her own kingdom.  Why would he want to look any further than that?  James was fond of her, too; in fact, Zelena knew he was most of the way in love with her.  But his idiot of a father had decided that Princess Abigail would suit his purposes better, all because Midas had an unfortunately golden touch?  It was ridiculous!  And now James was off fighting some stupid creature or another, all because Midas had issues and he couldn’t call upon someone logical to deal with them.  Really, how hard could it be to get rid of a dragon?  Only an idiot would set up a prince to fight said dragon to prove that prince was worthy of his pasty-faced daughter.

Zelena was of half a mind to go interfere in that little test and claim James as her own.  George was almost as stupid as Midas for going along with this.  Yes, she’d cut trade off to his little kingdom—she didn’t really care why Rumple had wanted that—but surely George realized that if James could win her over, that little problem would go away.  It was all so stupid.  Yes, she should go and—

“Your Majesty?”  One of her guards poked his head in the throne room, looking a little nervous.

“What is it now?”  She couldn’t remember his name.  Was it Colin?  Cameron?  Maybe Claude, though that didn’t sound right.  Not knowing made Zelena scowl, even though it shouldn’t.  She was queen.  She didn’t have to remember things like guards’ names.

“You have a visitor.  A pirate captain, who says he’s here to talk to you about ‘mutual profit’ of some sort.”

“A pirate captain?”  Zelena stopped her wild pacing and turned to glare at her guard.  “Then why is he outside, you fool?  Send him in!”

She was surrounded by fools, but there was naught to do about that.  Sighing, Zelena lowered herself gracefully onto her throne and waited for the pirate captain to arrive.  At least this should be interesting…and he turned out to be rather handsome, too.  She always did enjoy a pretty face.


 

“Can I…ask you something?” Belle asked the Black Fairy the second time they sat down to do research together.

Belle had thought a lot about her feelings for Rumplestiltskin in the week that had passed since the Black Fairy had first asked her about them, and her conclusions frightened her more than a little.  She was terribly attracted to him, even with his scaly skin and wild hair.  Truth was, she didn’t really care about his looks.  She liked his hesitant smile, the sweetness he tried so hard to hide, and the way he looked at her like she was the only person in the room.  She knew that he liked her, even when Rumplestiltskin tried so hard to act casually, and that knowledge made Belle’s heart flutter wildly.  And yet…she wasn’t some starry-eyed girl who thought every story had a happy ending.  Belle needed to know.

The Black Fairy turned to face her, arching an eyebrow.  “It depends on what you’re asking.”

“It’s about Rumplestiltskin.”  Belle took a deep breath.  “I don’t understand him.”

“That’s because he enjoys being an enigma.  It doesn’t come with the Dark One, though—the strong emotions and dramatics definitely run in the family.”  The Black Fairy laughed, and then her voice softened slightly.  “But the real problem, of course, is that he doesn’t know what he wants, so figuring it out can be a bit of a challenge.”

The way the Black Fairy laughed off the first part left Belle feeling a little unsettled.  She really didn’t understand the relationship between mother and son; sometimes, they seemed so very close, and other times, they shouted and threw things at one another, including fireballs.  Well, that was only once.  And it was Rumplestiltskin throwing it, though his mother sent it right back at him.  She thought there was a deep love between the two, yet what kind of mother called their son an ‘idiot boy’ to their face?  It didn’t make sense, and Belle didn’t dare get any deeper into this mess until she understood what in the world was going on.

 “He said he’d never made a snowman.”  The words blurted out before she could figure out what else to say.

“Ah.  That.”  There was a scowl on the Black Fairy’s face that Belle couldn’t quite decipher.  “That would be because his selfish father clearly never taught him.”

Belle blinked, trying to figure out why the Black Fairy would blame Rumplestiltskin’s father and not herself.  “And where were you?”

“Exiled.”  A snort.  “Exiled because the Blue Fairy and I had a…disagreement.  I never knew my son until after he was already the Dark One.  Why do you think I’m so determined to save him?”

“Oh.”  Belle swallowed; she hadn’t thought that could have happened.  Somehow, she assumed that the Black Fairy had borne Rumplestiltskin and raised him—but raised him to be the Dark One?  That made sense at first glance, but perhaps things ran deeper.  “Is that why you want to save him?”

“Of course it is.  He was not supposed to—well, no mother likes to see their son as the Dark One.  Even the Black Fairy.”

“I’ll help if I can.”  Belle wondered about what the Black Fairy almost said, but she knew she wouldn’t get an answer if she asked.  Instead, she squared her shoulders and looked Rumplestiltskin’s mother in the eye.  “But I won’t do it behind his back.  I’m going to talk to Rumplestiltskin about this.”

“You really are a direct hero-type, aren’t you, dear?”  The Black Fairy looked a little put out as she sighed.  “You do realize he’ll just get his impossible back up and resist us every step of the way, don’t you?”

Belle frowned.  “Why would he?  Wouldn’t he want to be free?”

“Because that insidious curse works on his mind in ways that even my darkest magic can’t match.  I am here because of the choices I made.  Rumplestiltskin is cursed.  And such a curse cannot be wished away.  It must be fought and defeated.”

“Then how do you expect me to help?”  Belle couldn’t argue with the sense behind what the Black Fairy said, and yet she rebelled against the idea of anyone, particularly the good man she sensed behind Rumplestiltskin’s monstrous façade, not wanting to be free of such horrible darkness.  Yet if the curse worked on his mind…maybe he couldn’t.  Maybe she had to help him despite himself.

I don’t know enough.  I don’t even know what she’s asking me to do, and she hasn’t said, Belle thought warily.  She needed to do more research, yet all the books she needed were here in the Black Fairy’s room.  How could she get at them without the Black Fairy knowing?  That would be hard.

“People need reasons to fight.”  The Black Fairy looked away, her eyes clouded by memories.  “Perhaps you can give him one.”

“No pressure, then.”

“Oh, there’s plenty of pressure!”  A manic grin.  “For both of us.  But let us start with these texts on the first Dark Ones.  If we know the roots of the curse, we can perhaps find its cure.”  A side-eyed glance.  “But you can’t read fairy, can you?”

“Actually, um, I can.”  Belle shrugged a little, secretly pleased by the shocked look that statement earned her.  “There wasn’t much to do at home other than read.”

“My, my, you are full of surprises.”   


 

He felt guilty.

That was the only possible explanation for the sickly tight feeling in his stomach, for the way he wanted to drink himself under the table—a difficult proposition for the Dark One, even when one wanted to get drunk.  He’d emptied his flask at the farmstead without feeling much, though, and now that he was back in the Dark Castle, Rumplestiltskin had already fetched a bottle of something stronger.  Having finished that, however, he lacked the motivation to go get a second one.  Or maybe he just thought he deserved to feel so horrible.  I took a son from a loving parent.  I am the monster they all take me for.

Even worse, I took both of her children away.

Yet if he’d let George have his way, it would have been threats and armed men fetching the shepherd away from his mother.  George would have himself a replacement son, one way or another, and he wouldn’t have given David a choice.  Rumplestiltskin had, and he’d been impressed by the young man’s desire to save his family farm.  Even then, he still felt guilty, because Rumplestiltskin knew David’s time as a prince would not end with dragonslaying.  No, he’d Seen what would come, had always known that one of Ruth’s sons would find Snow White and True Love.  Of course, given that Princess Snow was now a bandit on the run, she could very well stumble upon that farmstead…but he didn’t think she would.

No.  While the thought of tearing a child away from a loving parent had made him drink, the sick knowledge that George wouldn’t let this new ‘son’ go made him stop.  Rumplestiltskin knew the pieces he’d put into play, and he was monster enough to do nothing to stop George.  He needed David to meet Snow, needed the two to fall in love and fight for one another.  He wasn’t precisely sure how it was going to happen, but Rumplestiltskin knew that it would.  And then their daughter—

Crash.

Leaping to his feet, Rumplestiltskin whirled around to see the door to his tower workroom open and Belle flailing in the doorway.  His pretty little maid had managed to bump into the enchanted suit of armor that he’d been fooling with the day before, and even as he watched, she struggled for balance, her arms windmilling wildly.  That, of course, made her drop the tea service she’d been carrying, and the tray started to flip over as she gasped in horror.  Belle dove for the tray, but it was far too late—until Rumplestiltskin snapped his fingers irritably and teleported the entire tray (pot, cups, biscuits, and all) onto a nearby table.

Belle caught herself and gave him an embarrassed smile, brushing hair out of her face.  “Thank you.” 

“Can’t have you breaking my favorite cup again, can we?” He tried to give her a nasty look, but somehow it came out as almost a smile.  He didn’t know what it was about the girl—or, fine, maybe he did—but looking at her flustered-but-grateful expression warmed his heart.

You don’t have a heart to warm.  It’s a black lump of nothing, Zoso reminded him, but Rumplestiltskin shook his head to chase the voice of his predecessor away.  He didn’t care what Zoso thought.  He never had.

“No.  Of course not.”  Belle gave him a cheeky smile, but there was something off in her eyes.

Rumplestiltskin peered at her curiously.  “Why so clumsy?  It’s not like you to trip.”

“You moved the suit of armor.”

“Eh, no.  It moved itself.  Technically.”

“With your magic.”  She gave him a droll look, and Rumplestiltskin couldn’t help giggling.

“But not by my doing!”  He sing-songed the words at her, but Belle just rolled her eyes.  Normally, however, she would have laughed, and the difference made Rumplestiltskin cock his head.  “The tea’s getting cold, you know.”

She shrugged.  “I didn’t think you’d notice with so much alcohol on your breath.”

“I—” Rumplestiltskin chopped the word off, drawing back.  “I don’t see what business of yours that is.”

“It’s probably not.”  She met his eyes, and for once, Rumplestiltskin found her bravery more off-putting than enticing.  “But why the most powerful sorcerer in all the realms need to drink?”

“Perhaps I like to.”

“A whole bottle?”  Belle’s lip curled up in disgust as she picked up the empty bottle.  “Isn’t that a little extreme?”

Rumplestiltskin reached out and snatched the bottle away from her.  So what if it was empty?  He certainly wasn’t going to drown his sorrows by telling her how he’d let go of his beloved son, only to turn around and force a different parent to do the same thing centuries later.  “I’m the Dark One, dearie.  I live in extremes.”

“I’ve noticed.”  Crossing her arms, she faced him fully, and the intense concern in her eyes took him aback.  “And I don’t…I don’t understand you.  How could someone so kind revel in so much darkness?”

She thinks me kind?  “I’m not kind.”  The words came out automatically.

“But you can be.  Sometimes you’re very kind.”

Rumplestiltskin didn’t know what to say to that; he had to snap his mouth shut when it threatened to dangle open longer than necessary.

“But you’re so miserable.  You’re not happy like this, even when you say you are.”  Belle stepped forward, putting a hand on his arm that Rumplestiltskin found himself staring at.  She’s touching me.  Me?  Fair maidens were not supposed to touch the terrible monster gently, yet here they were.  Bringing his eyes up to meet Belle’s took a supreme effort as she continued:  “What happened to you?  What could be so horrible that it would make you want to stay like this?”

Rumplestiltskin blinked at her owlishly, trying to wrap his mind around the words she’d said.  She couldn’t possibly care about him, or about the desperation that had led him to become the Dark One.  It had to be a trick.  A ploy to discover his weaknesses.  There was no other explanation. She was just luring him into a dangerous complacency, that was all.  He knew this trick, knew where it led.

“And why would you care?” he snapped, finally remembering to pull away from her warm touch.  His arm felt cold where her hand had been, but Rumplestiltskin refused to let himself think about that.  “You don’t care about me!”

“You’re my friend.”  She looked stricken, like he’d slapped her.  Maybe you should, Nimue suggested.  She’s trying to use you, just like Cora.  Preying on your foolish desire to be loved.  But you know she could never love you!

Shut up!

“Employer, dearie.  That’s what I am,” Rumplestiltskin spat, backing up a step—before lunging forward to invade her personal space.  That always intimidated people.  “And I’ve clearly been lax on that front, now, haven’t I?”

“No, you haven’t.”  Belle met him glare for glare, and not admiring her courage was a struggle.  She doesn’t care.  They never do!  “You can be downright beastly at times!”

“Well, I’m glad I’m living up to my reputation.”  The smile he gave her was sharp and reptilian, but Belle only shook her head sadly.

“Who hurt you so much that you can’t believe someone can care about you?” she whispered.

My father.  The town I grew up in.  My wife.  But he couldn’t verbalize that.  Rumplestiltskin wasn’t going to sound weak, not in front of Belle or anyone else.  He was the Dark One, and he was the most powerful sorcerer in all the realms.  He’d worked for that title, too, learning and growing and becoming a more educated Dark One than any of his predecessors.  Yet none of that erased the pain of having been abandoned, reviled, hated, and shunned.  None of that changed what the gravedigger’s boys had done to him when he was ten, or the way Hordor and the other guards had looked the other way when people had stolen the weak spinner’s wares.  Everyone had hated him.  Everyone but my aunts, my boy, and my—

Belle continued hesitantly when he didn’t answer, reaching for his arm again.  “I know you didn’t start out as the Dark One. You told me you were human, once.”

“So?”   Rumplestiltskin snarled the word, fury whipping through him.  She asks too many questions, Zoso’s words stabbed into his mind like a hot poker.  She guesses too much.  Who knows what books she’s reading in that library you oh-so-foolishly gave her?  Or who she’s been talking to?

“I only mean to say—I mean, isn’t it possible to go back?  I don’t think you like being like this, and if there was a way—”

“Who’s been talking to you?”  Rumplestiltskin felt cold as he made the demand.  “Who put these ideas in your head?”

Nimue’s question was more subtle—and more on point.   Who turned her against you?

“No one!”  Belle looked offended.  “Do you think I can’t think for myself?”

“If that’s the case, I think you’ve been reading too much and thinking too much,” he snapped.  “Perhaps I should come up with more work for you to do.  Or a dungeon for you to stay in!”

“You’ve already done that, and it didn’t stop me thinking then.”  Hands on her hips, Belle glared at him, and damn it all if he didn’t find her intoxicatingly beautiful.

Don’t get distracted!

“Get out!”  He bellowed the words because he didn’t know what else to say; if he stared at her much longer, Rumplestiltskin feared he might try to kiss her.  And she’s no Cora.  Belle may be kind, but she won’t welcome advances from a hideous monster like me.

“I just want to understand.”  Blue eyes beseeched him to listen, but Rumplestiltskin had heard enough.  “Please, Rumple.  Let me help.”

“I don’t need your help.  There’s no going back from what I am.  Push those girlish fantasies out of your mind, wherever they came from.”  He barely had a grip on his temper; the darkness boiling up inside him wanted to tear her to shreds.  Yet a little corner of the man Rumplestiltskin had been refused to let that happen, particularly when Belle looked so devastated.  “And even if there was, I wouldn’t want one.”

“Why not?  You’re too kind to want to be like this.  I can see a better man in you, and—”

He stepped forward, leaning right into her face and summoning all the darkness and intimidation he had.  “Get out!”

“I’m not afraid of you!”

“You should be!”  Hit her.  Hurt her.  Grind her under your heel.  Boil those ideas right out of her head.  He couldn’t tell which Dark One was speaking; the chorus urging him to hurt Belle was a cascade of multiple voices.  Furious, Rumplestiltskin whirled to the nearby tea tray, grabbing the second closest cup, and flinging it in her general direction.  Make her fear you.

He was careful not to hit her, of course.  Or to grab his cup, which was already chipped and did not deserve to be broken.  But the cup he’d chosen did make a satisfying crash as it shattered against the far wall, making Belle jump.  Cut her.  Make her bleed.  Zoso was practically drooling on Rumplestiltskin’s synapses, but he ignored him as Belle backed away a few steps.

“What is wrong with you?” she demanded.

“Get out.”  Grabbing another teacup, he turned slowly to face her, his voice deadly quiet, now.  Pour burning tea on her face.  See if she’s so helpful then, Nimue advised.

Shut up.  Just shut up!  He couldn’t take the voices any longer; he was going to go mad if he didn’t get away from her.

Or he was going to hurt her, and as angry as Rumplestiltskin was, he didn’t want to do that.

“Fine.  I will leave, but only because civilized people don’t throw teacups at one another during a conversation.”  Belle spun on her heel, only pausing in the doorway to deliver a parting shot: “I’m not finished with you, Rumplestiltskin.”

“Yes, you are, dearie!”

He didn’t care if he sounded like a petulant child.  Rumplestiltskin couldn’t handle the strange compassion in her eyes, couldn’t handle the way she said that she just wanted to help.  The words didn’t compute, and that made him angry, made the Dark Ones inside him broil with fear and fury.  He wasn’t lying; there was no way to go back from what he was, and even if there was, he wouldn’t want to.  He even threw another teacup at the door for good measure when Zoso started taunting him again, listening to its satisfying splat as Belle hurried down the stairs.  She only wanted to figure out his weaknesses.  In fact, Belle probably wanted to find a way to split him apart from his mother, because she was smart enough to figure out that Fiona was the only one he actually trusted.  How could Belle say what she’d said?  Rumplestiltskin had started to like her, and…and…

Kill the girl, and everything will go back to the way it was, Nimue advised him, but angry though he was, Rumplestiltskin couldn’t quite listen to that.

He still refused to come out of the tower for the next two days out of spite.

 

Chapter Text

Three days passed before Fiona realized that her son was avoiding the maid.  Two weeks earlier, there’d been hints of a budding romance between the two, and now Rumplestiltskin was snappish and nasty when he did see Belle, worse than he’d been even in the beginning.  Fiona suspected what had happened, and she was half surprised that Rumplestiltskin hadn’t thrown Belle back in the dungeon.  I told the silly girl not to bring it up, and now I’m going to have to undo the damage she has done.  Hopefully, Belle had not mentioned who had put the idea of breaking Rumplestiltskin’s curse on her mind, but Fiona didn’t think she had.  If she had, my boy wouldn’t be speaking to me.

The more Fiona watched the pair, and the more she studied the fairies’ lore on the Dark One, the more she came to a depressing conclusion.  Oh, she knew that True Love’s Kiss could break any curse, and she had no doubt that her son could love, but Fiona had hoped to find a more proactive solution to the problem.  What manner in which the Dark One’s curse ‘broke’ had never been tested, and not knowing what might happen left even the Black Fairy nervous.  Such a kiss could unleash the darkness to torment someone else, leaving Rumplestiltskin a powerless cripple once more, which he would hate.  His soul would be free, and he could go back to his original path, but Fiona knew better than anyone that his Savior magic was gone.  She had used it to escape the Dark Realm, after all, and had watched it dissipate afterwards.  And this only holds true if he and Belle could share True Love.  Fiona wasn’t sure if that was possible, even for a Dark One as full of love as her son, but there would be no way to find out if Rumplestiltskin kept avoiding the girl.

Her line really did take every emotion to its possible extreme, didn’t they?  Sighing, Fiona strode into his tower, noticing the three or four shattered teacups near the door.  “What in the world has twisted you up so much, Rumplestiltskin?”

“Nothing.”

He didn’t even turn to look at her, keeping his eyes on whatever project he was working on like a petulant child or a distracted academic.   Only he could combine those two so well.  Fiona sighed.

“Two weeks ago, you were laughing and throwing snowballs at your adorable little maid.  Now you refuse to talk to her.  What happened?”

A long moment of silence passed.  “She’s a naive fool.”

“That’s not news.”  Fiona snorted.  “She’s always been that.  I thought you found it endearing.”

That finally earned her a glare.  “She pretends to care for me.  She doesn’t.”

“I do think she does,” she said softly, moving forward to stand at Rumplestiltskin’s side.  Thankfully, he didn’t pull away; he only laughed bitterly.  “I think you know she does.  And she understands more than you might think.”

“Of course she doesn’t.  She asked me if there was any way to undo what I am.”  A sharp laugh.  “As if I’d want to.”

“Would you not?” Fiona cocked her head, reaching out to touch his cheek.  “I can hear the voices badgering you.  Would you not wish to be free of them?”

The unspoken matter of the Sorcerer’s Hat hung in the air between them, but neither brought it up.  Rumplestiltskin just shrugged. “All magic comes at a price.”

“Yes, that is true.  And the price of darkness is the highest of all.”  She sighed again.  “Is that why you’re angry at her?  Because she thinks she can save you?”

“Because she doesn’t understand why I’d be like this.  She thinks she does.”  A vicious snort.  “She’s never known desperation in her life.”

Fiona agree with that utterly and completely, but now was not the time to feed her son’s angsty mood.  “Nobility isn’t a shield against being a desperate soul, you know.”

Dislike nobles in general though Fiona did—she’d watched too many of them line their pockets with peasants’ coin to even respect them—she wasn’t blind to the fact that Belle had sacrificed herself to save her small kingdom from the ogres.  Being willing to do that indicated a serious amount of courage—not to mention a deep and desperate need to make a difference that the peasant Fiona had been for a few short years recognized all too easily.  Even as a fairy, she’d wanted to make a difference, to matter, yet she’d never been allowed to.  Much to her surprise, she’d come to rather like Belle; the young woman was kind and smart, and she had brought a softer side out of Rumplestiltskin than Fiona had dreamed could exist.  She loved her son for what he was, yet she had not expected someone else to be able to do so.

Unfortunately, he well and truly had his back up, now, and was hardly in a receptive mood.  His scowl alone told the tale, particularly when he only snorted in response.

“Is that the only way in which she angered you?” Fiona needed to know if her own name had come up; if he was only furious with Belle for suggesting he stop being the Dark One, that was easy to deal with.

“She exists.”

“Oh, do stop acting like a child and answer the bloody question!”

He ignored her.

“You can tell me now or tell me later, but either way, I will find out.”  Fiona steeled herself to be patient; she could outwait Rumplestiltskin, even if she’d go crazy doing so.  He was her son through and through, and a stubborn silence would drive him mad.  He was perfectly capable of being even more patient than her, yet he wouldn’t—not when he didn’t have a pressing reason to do so.  Seconds ticked by, and then minutes, with Fiona simply watching her son, until the words finally exploded out of Rumplestiltskin in a snarl.

“She’s a fool.”  He turned to glare at Fiona like this was her fault, and although it was, she certainly wasn’t going to volunteer that fact. 

“She’s young, Rumple.”  Since when did I end up playing peacemaker?  Tiger Lily would laugh and say that she told me so, could she see me now.  “And she does care about you.”

His reptilian eyes narrowed.  “You say that, Mother?  After the hurry you were in to get Cora out of my life?”

“I was eager to get a power hungry viper out of your life when she tried to enslave you.”  Fiona glared right back at him.  “Was that a problem?”

“No.”  Her son blushed, just a little, and then suddenly looked away.  Bashfully.  “You think she likes me?”

“Only you could miss those signs, you silly boy.”  Fiona put a hand on his shoulder, smiling fondly as Rumplestiltskin looked up at her with owl-like eyes.  “Of course she does.”

“Oh.”

The look on his face made it obvious that Rumplestiltskin had no idea what to do with that information, and Fiona checked another sigh.  She was going to have to lead her silly child into this romance, wasn’t she?  How in the world did he manage to get married when he was human?  She wanted to ask that, but didn’t dare; Fiona remembered the unflattering picture Rumplestiltskin had painted of his first wife, of the woman who had abandoned him and his son for a pirate.  His relationship with Cora had been based on power and darkness, and while under other circumstances Fiona would hardly object to that, she knew that Cora had hardly been the type who would bring Rumplestiltskin back to the light.  Belle, on the other hand, just might do the trick.


 

Belle was half surprised that Rumplestiltskin hadn’t thrown her back in the dungeon.  Her employer certainly had avoided her like the plague ever since he’d thrown teacups at her like a barbarian, and he’d barked at her to get out any time she came near him.  In her opinion, that was a ridiculous overreaction to the argument they’d had—particularly since he’d been halfway to drunk at the time!  She’d tried to apologize once, but he’d threatened to turn her into a teapot and then teleported away before she could say another word, so Belle had taken to avoiding Rumplestiltskin in return.  He hadn’t restricted her access to the library, so she stayed there as much as she could, taking her meals in the kitchen as days ticked by. 

The Black Fairy spoke from her to time to time, but Rumplestiltskin’s mother was hardly a social butterfly.  They sat down to do research once more, but the Black Fairy demurred when Belle tried to bring up her son. 

“That’s his concern.”  The Black Fairy waved a hand.  “I can’t get between the two of you, dear, even when he’s being a fool.”

Belle felt her eyebrows rise.  “You think he’s being a fool?”

“He’s singularly good at it, yes.”  A small smile.  “Give him time.  He’s…well, few enough people have cared for him, over the years.  Sadly, Rumplestiltskin is not only difficult because of the darkness inside him.”

“Oh.”  Belle didn’t think that changed her opinion of him; she’d long since realized that there was an aching loneliness inside Rumplestiltskin, despite his mother’s presence in the castle.  “Do you think I should apologize to him, then?”

That made the Black Fairy laugh.  “Oh, no.  Don’t bend too fast—he deserves to stew a bit.  If he wants to fly off the handle every time someone expresses care for him, he deserves to be miserable.”

“That’s horrible!”

“That’s what being a parent is.”  A shrug.  “I love my son more than my life, but I cannot always protect him from his idiocies.  No mother can.  Even if I am more inclined to smother him than most.”

Belle couldn’t help snorting at that.  “I bet that doesn’t go over well.”

“Better than you might think.  He’s surprisingly tolerant of me.”  And the Black Fairy’s smile was surprisingly soft, too, which really reminded Belle of how much this woman—no matter how dark she was—loved her son.

“I don’t always understand him, to be honest,” she said after a moment’s hesitation.  “He’s so powerful…but so fragile.  Sometimes, I think words can break him when magic would just bounce away.”

“I told you life had been unkind to him, but I haven’t told you the half of it.  It’s not my story to tell, but he’s had a hard time of it, and not only because he’s the Dark One.”

Belle wanted to ask more, but the Black Fairy changed the subject to the research they were doing, and no matter how fun it was to point out that a fairy was translating something wrong, that didn’t solve her Rumplestiltskin problem.


 

Rumplestiltskin hadn’t been this happy in days.  In fact, he was contemplating a full on giggling fit, because this was just wonderful.

“I can’t believe this!” Zelena paced back and forth across her throne room, her magic smashing through anything that seemed to offend her.  “And you’re helping them!”

“Well, what would you have me do, dearie?” he trilled, enjoying every moment of her fury.  “I wouldn’t want to interfere in matters of your little kingdom, after all.”  He gave her his most innocent smile.  “You wouldn’t like that at all.”

Zelena glared.  “You already are!  And as for what you could do, you can stop helping my nauseating little stepdaughter when she asks!”

“Me?” Rumplestiltskin smiled innocently, waving a dismissive hand.  “I’ve only provided a trifle here and there, nothing major.  But you, on the other hand—well, it doesn’t say terribly frightening things about our dear Wicked Queen if she can’t catch an outlawed princess, does it, hmm?”

“Don’t test me, Rumplestiltskin!”

“As you pointed out, I’m the Dark One, Your Majesty.  Testing people is what I do.”  He grinned at her, enjoying Zelena’s wrath.  She wasn’t nearly angry enough to cast the curse yet—which was good, since he wasn’t ready for her to do so—but keeping Zelena near her boiling point was an art form he’d perfected over the past few years.

 “Hrmph!”  She drew herself up proudly, but the pretend dignity didn’t stop Zelena’s eyes from narrowing.  “Sometimes I think you’re a little mad.”

He giggled, liking the way this conversation was going.  It was an excellent distraction from maids he did not want to think about.  “It comes with the territory.”

“Then riddle me this, Dark One,” Zelena snapped.  “Why is it that my worthless half-sister is protecting Snow White?  She’s turned herself into an outlaw for her?  Who would do that?  Why give up a life of comfort and luxury for a dirty little campsite in the woods?” 

“I would think it started when you killed her True Love.”  Rumplestiltskin gave Zelena his toothiest smile.  “That does tend to turn someone against you.”

“She deserved it.”

Rumplestiltskin kept himself from saying something cutting in response to Zelena’s sneer; even at his worst, he’d never believed that someone deserved to lose their True Love simply because of who they’d been born.  Zelena was often torn between which relative she hated more: her half-sister or her stepdaughter.  Regina’s horrible crime had been being born to Cora in wedlock and raised as a half-royal noblewoman, whereas young Snow White was guilty of being loved by Zelena’s entire kingdom and having been the light of King Leopold’s life.  Neither had allowed themselves to be murdered at Zelena’s convenience, and now they’d become outlaws together.  The irony was absolutely beautiful, and Rumplestiltskin was more than happy to help both stay alive, just to keep Zelena annoyed.

And because he needed Snow White and her prince to have a child, of course, but that was only one of several True Love threads he was working at the moment.  He’d thought Regina might suffice until her stable boy had been killed—and hadn’t the irony of that possibility been enticing!—yet now Snow White was the frontrunner.  For the moment.

Rumplestiltskin pushed his thoughts aside and waved a dismissive hand.  “I find what life gives us usually isn’t about deserving.”  If it was, I’d never find my boy.  “Life is what we make of it.  What we take.

“Now that’s a philosophy I can get behind.”  Zelena’s smile was fierce, and for a moment—just one—they were on the same page.  Then she scowled again.  “But I still won’t have you helping the little brat.  The fact that Regina is helping her is bad enough!  Regina is my sister, and she should be on my side!”

Mentioning that Zelena had killed Daniel again was pointless, so Rumplestiltskin just giggled.  “You’ll take me as I come, dearie, or not at all.  Or I could always teach your little sister instead of you.”

He’d contemplated it more than once, but Zelena was an incredibly time-consuming and needy student.  Between her, his mother, and his maid, he had enough drama in his life without borrowing any more.

“You wouldn’t dare!”

He shot her a wolfish grin.  “Don’t tempt me.”

A howl of frustration escaped Zelena, and Rumplestiltskin felt himself wiggle in delight.  Most of the gleeful anticipation he felt was his own, but some of it was definitely due to his ever-unwanted internal passengers.  Isn’t her aggravation beautiful? Nimue crooned.  He could feel her gloating in his mind, and the others with her.  You’ll get that curse cast yet, and perhaps you will then prove yourself worth to be one of us.

Oh, shut up.  Rumplestiltskin barely managed not to roll his eyes.  I’ve lived longer than any of you lot and learned more than you ever dreamt of.  I will find my son.  I don’t care about the price.  He was here for a purpose, to drive Zelena closer and closer to casting the curse.  She was unstable, perpetually jealous and prone to fits of uncontrollable rage that drove him to insanity, but she was Cora’s daughter.  And even if Regina’s temperament made her far better suited to cast the curse—she would at least be less mercurial—Zelena was the tool he had to work with.  He’d invested too much time in her to stop now.

“I hate you sometimes!”

“I know, I know.”  Dancing forward, Rumplestiltskin leaned in close.  “But you know you need me.”

Zelena turned to glare at him poisonously, but he gave her his sweetest smile.  “They’re hiding in woods controlled by my enemies, and you’re helping them!  It’s not fair!

“No one ever said life’s supposed to be fair, you know.  The question isn’t how you complain about unfairness.  It’s what you do about it.”  Rumplestiltskin kept his wiggling to a minimum; Zelena needed guidance, so guidance he would give.  Even if she drove him insane.

And even if he was becoming slightly worried about whose heart she would use to cast the curse when the time came.  He’d hoped she’d want to use Prince James’, but the fool had gotten himself killed and replaced.  Zelena certainly lusted after the new ‘James’, but his chance encounter with a certain princess in the forest already seemed likely to derail any such opportunities on that front.  Besides, Rumplestiltskin needed the former shepherd to fall in love with Snow White, anyway, so he wasn’t going to let Zelena screw that up.   So, he’d have to put enough time in to keep her on the right track—and to find someone for her to fall for that wasn’t him.  I hate playing matchmaker.  Maybe Mother can help me find someone truly vile for Zelena.  The Huntsman certainly wasn’t going to do.  Zelena viewed him as a wretched little pet, not an actual lover.

There were times he actually hoped that his mother would find another way to get to the Land Without Magic and find Baelfire.  It would certainly be easier than getting Zelena to cast the Dark Curse.


 

She found another rebellious fairy quite by accident.

This wasn’t the heartbroken novice she’d seen before; no, that young fairy was still out there, presumably pining away for her dwarf.  Fiona hadn’t investigated how that little romance had worked out, but if she knew Blue, it wouldn’t have been well.  Blue seemed to dislike love on principle, and Fiona had gotten an earful after she’d re-become a fairy about how foolish she’d been to give up her wings in the first place.  Sometimes, Fiona wondered if Blue had exiled her because she’d dared to be a fairy and a wife (because even Blue thought it better to stop being a fairy if one was going to love).  Her attempt to cast a curse might have only been an excuse.  Blue had arrived with that wand, after all, and that did make Fiona wonder.

Thinking like that had distracted her enough that she failed to notice the young, green-clad fairy sneaking into the Sacred Vault of the Fairies.  They bumped right into one another as Fiona came around one line of bookshelves, and both jumped out of their skin.

“I’m so sorry!” The young fairy was blond, tiny, and terrified.  “I didn’t mean to—I mean—which is to say that I—”

“That you’re not supposed to be here?” Fiona asked the question kindly, trying not to laugh.  After all, there was nothing that would put a panicked expression on a young fairy’s face like being caught here.  Only senior fairies were allowed into the sacred vault, which was why  she’d needed Tiger Lily to get in, back another lifetime ago.  And that was why she’d disguised herself as the fairy she’d once been, instead of waltzing around the place as the Black Fairy.

“Um.  Yes.”  An abashed smile.  “I was just…curious.  You won’t tell Blue, will you?”

“Of course not.”  Now Fiona did allow herself to laugh.  “Doing so never entered my mind.”

“Oh.”  The green fairy laughed nervously.  “Thank you.”

“So, what brings you here, young Green?  Are you a naughty novice sneaking into the Sacred Vault, or a young fairy thirsting for knowledge?”

“I’m not a novice, not anymore.”   Fiona knew that proud smile; she’d once wanted to be exactly like this.  “I just graduated.  But my friends call me Tink, and I—I was just curious.  Cyan talks about this place like it’s something amazing, and I wanted to see.”

Cyan.  Fiona almost hissed aloud; Cyan had been her own former mentor, a stiff-necked fairy who had made her feel like she was never good enough.  She doubted Blue’s favorite crony had changed one bit, but that wasn’t a surprise, was it?  Fairies rarely changed.

“Tink?” she echoed curiously.  If this young fairy had chosen another name for herself—which she now understood was forbidden, unlike in her day where flowers were as acceptable as colors—she was rebellious.

“Short for Tinker Bell.  Blue says it’s improper, but I don’t want to be just one more shade of a green fairy.  I want to be me.”

“I like it.”  Having a conversation with someone who thought of her as something of an equal, or at least just another fairy, felt very strange.  Tink was looking at Fiona like she was someone to be admired instead of feared, and Fiona couldn’t remember the last time anyone save her son had done that.  Or perhaps Belle.  That child does surprise me.

“You do?”

“Well, I’ve always been a bit rebellious myself.  I’m Fiona.”  Fiona gestured at the books and artifacts surrounding them.  “So, why are you here?  Looking for anything in particular?”

“I was…I guess I was hoping for something that could help a friend of mine.”  Tink looked away, appearing embarrassed.  “She’s…got a problem.”

“What kind of problem?  Perhaps I can help.”  Fiona wasn’t sure why she was offering; she’d come to the Sacred Vault to find more on the Dark One, not to befriend a rebellious young fairy.  She reminds me of everything I wanted to be, Fiona thought before she could stop herself.  And I bet Blue hates her.

“She’s in love.”  Tink shrugged helplessly.  “Blue tells her that she’s wrong, and that it won’t last, but Nova loves Grumpy, and I want to find a way to help her.”

Gaping, Fiona tried desperately to hide her delighted reaction.  Tink was friends with the lovestruck novice she’d noticed!  Fiona hadn’t yet approached Nova, but this situation was just too perfect for words.

“What kind of help are you looking for?” she asked curiously.

“All the history of the fairies is here.  I can’t believe that we’ve always been like this—alone except for each other.  I mean, otherwise, where did fairies come from?  No one speaks of our origins, but I heard rumors that there used to be male fairies, or at least humans who fairies were allowed to love.” Tink’s chin jutted out rebelliously.  “There has to be some records of something.”

“There are, actually.”  Fiona put down the (useless) book she’d been carrying.  She’d found those references once, back in her quest to convince her superiors to let her love and be a fairy.  Her efforts had failed, but perhaps another fairy could succeed in her stead.  “Let me show you.”


 

Rumplestiltskin hated knowing that he was wrong.  His mother had told him that he was, and he’d ignored her because he hated it when she was right.  Belle’s too-nice attempt at an apology had told him that he was wrong, because she was good and kind enough to apologize to a monster who had thrown things at her and screamed at her.  Apologize for nothing, Zoso hissed, clearly irritated that he’d even contemplate acknowledging he had been wrong.  That clinched it.

So, he sought Belle out, his heart pounding in his chest.  But he tried to act casual, because Dark Ones didn’t apologize, and Dark Ones didn’t fall for—

No, he couldn’t even think those words.  It was too dangerous.  He was too dangerous.

“There’s, uh, something I wanted to show you,” he said by way of greeting, and then made himself sneer.  The effort fell flat; a nervous smile tugged at Rumplestiltskin’s lips as Zoso howled an objection.  “If you’re not too busy reading, that is.”

He’d meant the last sentence to come out sarcastically, so why did it sound like a plea?  Damn this girl!  The way Belle looked up at him with a smile made Rumplestiltskin feel strangely warm, banishing all of his attempts to be brusque. 

“Something to show me?” Her blue eyes were wide with curiosity, and Rumplestiltskin wanted to slap himself.  A gift is not an apology, he told his inner darkness firmly.  “Like what?”

“You have to come with me to find out.”  He was not smiling.  Nor was he wiggling in excitement. 

“Come with you?” Belle was on her feet in an instant, leaving her book on the divan.  “Are we leaving the castle?”

“Um, no.  Not exactly, anyway.”  Rumplestiltskin felt a little guilty there; Belle was allowed to wander the grounds, provided she didn’t wander off, but he wasn’t stupid enough to let her actually leave.  Any girl with half a brain—and Belle definitely had more than half of one—would vanish in an instant if he let her go, and he didn’t want the hassle of tracking her down.

And that’s the only reason.  Really.  It is.

“Then where are we going?”

He abandoned all pretenses of not grinning.  “To a place you’ve never been.”  

“But I’ve been everywhere in the castle—”  A swirl of purple smoke engulfed them, making Belle cut off with a surprised yelp.  They landed outside the door to the western tower, and Rumplestiltskin had to pretend not to like it when Belle grabbed his arm to catch her balance.   “Don’t do that without warning me!  That’s so rude.”

“I’m the Dark One, m’dear.”  He shot her a cheeky smile, feeling better about himself already.  “I am rude.”

“Only when you want to be,” she shot back.  “Or when you’re throwing teacups at people.”

He froze.  “I, uh—that was—I mean—just come with me.”  Shaking his head, Rumplestiltskin pushed the door open, heading into the room and hoping that Belle had missed how he was stuttering.  He didn’t dare look at her, and instead gestured at the oval window hanging on the far wall.  “I wanted to, uh, give you a way to see the world that you’re missing.”

“To what?” As he’d hoped, Belle’s curiosity overrode her anger, and she stepped up next to him, giving Rumplestiltskin a strange look.  “That’s just a window…with a wall behind it.  And curtains between the window and the wall?”

“Ah, it’s so much more than that.”  Rumplestiltskin gestured at the ‘window’ frame.  “Touch the frame and think of a place you would like to see.”

Belle did so immediately, and Rumplestiltskin supposed that he should not have been surprised when an image of her own home swirled into existence.  Belle loved her father, and her people—otherwise, she never would have sacrificed so much for them.  She gasped when Sir Maurice came into view, deep in conversation with a young man Rumplestiltskin had never seen before.

“That’s my father!”

“Listen closely, and you can hear him.”

Her eyes lit up, and Belle leaned close to the frame, glowing with happiness.  I should have done this sooner.  I should have shown her that she could still see those she loved.

“…don’t know, LeFou.  Gaston is a good friend, but I have cousins who would inherit before a friend.  And I still haven’t lost hope for Belle’s return.”

LeFou, whoever he was, shrugged.  “But those cousins can’t lead men in battle like Gaston can.  No one can lead men like Gaston.”

“With luck, we won’t have another war.”  Maurice actually looked sad as he spoke the next words, which made Rumplestiltskin’s estimation of him increase a little.  “Belle’s sacrifice ensured our safety from the ogres.”

“One never knows what might happen, Sir Maurice.”

“No, one doesn’t.  And you can tell Gaston to come himself next time, instead of sending you to argue in his place.”  Maurice gave LeFou a pointed look as Belle sighed sadly.  “You may be clever with words, but a brave man fights his own battles.”

LeFou bowed and backed off, but Rumplestiltskin didn’t miss Belle’s whisper of “Oh, Papa,” coming from his left.  He just pretended not to hear her.

He wasn’t always rude, after all.  Just usually.


 

A few hours later, Fiona watched her son and the maid come down from the western tower, laughing and talking about all the places Belle had seen through the ‘window’.  Fiona knew about that magical window into the world, of course; she’d used it to spy on Blue more than once.  But she hadn’t expected Rumplestiltskin to share that with Belle, even in lieu of the apology he should have given the girl.   Fiona almost asked if showing Belle the (distant) world made up for the fact that Rumplestiltskin had thrown things at her, but she managed to bite the spiteful words off just in time.

“Enjoying yourselves?” she asked instead, trying not to sound bitter.

Both froze, with Rumplestiltskin staring at her with owl-like eyes and Belle cocking her head in puzzlement.  Her son’s voice squeaked a bit.  “Mother?”

“Oh, nevermind.”  Fiona stalked out of the great hall before she could make a greater fool of herself, trying to get Belle’s happy laugh out of her mind.  She knew what her problem was, and she hated herself for it.

She was jealous.  Fiona was jealous of the way that a mere human girl could make her son smile, was jealous of the way Belle’s inner beauty could turn heads as much as her outer beauty.  This maid was the exact kind of woman that a Savior would have fallen for: good, brave, and full of light.  She was walking proof that the deepest parts of Rumplestiltskin’s soul remained as they should have been; despite being the Dark One, he still yearned for the light, and that should have made Fiona happy.

Instead, it made her furiously envious.  She wanted to be there for him.  She wanted to be the one he turned to, the one who made him laugh and made him happy.  She wanted to be the one who brought him back to the light, not to trust some girl to do it for her!  She’d enlisted Belle in her plan, hoping to see Rumplestiltskin fall in love with her, yet Fiona hadn’t fully thought through the consequences of doing so.  Rumplestiltskin was a man of extremes, and when he loved, he loved.  So, of course he was falling head over heels for the girl.  Of course he was looking at Belle with stars in his eyes.  Fiona had wanted that, and yet she didn’t.  She wanted to have her son to herself.

You can’t, a voice that sounded much like Tiger Lily said in her mind.  It wasn’t, of course; she was just imagining things.  Love isn’t limited.  The more you love, the more you can love.  He won’t have to choose between you.

But if that was true, why did Fiona burn to find someone and reduce them to ash?  Why did she want to rip that girl away from her son and keep him for herself.  She wouldn’t, of course.  No matter how badly she wanted to.  No, she would do something far worse.  She would watch them fall deeper and deeper in love, would facilitate this relationship every step of the way.  Fiona would do whatever it took to save her son, but that didn’t mean she had to be happy with it.

Or with Belle.

Chapter Text

“How did things work out for your friend?”

Fiona knew she should not be here.  She should not be making friends with young Tinker Bell, despite the enjoyable afternoon they’d spent together.  More importantly, she probably shouldn’t lie to the young fairy who looked at her like she was the only actual mentor she’d ever had.  I shouldn’t feel guilty for this!  I’m the Black Fairy, not some insipid lapdog of Blue’s!  Yet Fiona did feel guilty, just a little.  She hadn’t felt this strange sense of belonging since her short-lived marriage to Malcolm—or at least not anywhere outside of the Dark Castle.  She’d formed a small family with her son, and she was self-aware enough to know that her irritation with Belle was what had her coming back to the Sacred Vault.

Tink scowled.  “Not well.  Blue told her she can’t remain a fairy if she chooses love.”

“Ah, still singing that old song, is she?”  Fiona shook her head, wishing she wasn’t surprised.  She’d been young and in love once, too, and she’d taken the same road that Nova might end up taking.  I wish her better luck than I had.  Fiona surprised herself with the thought, and that made her swallow. I’m getting soft.

“I showed Blue the histories that show fairies—senior fairies!—falling in love and having children, but she told me to mind my own business.”

“She’s not terribly open-minded, you know.”  Fiona gestured towards herself.  “You might say that I know that from personal experience.”

“What, because there’s no Gold Fairy and you’re here in disguise?”

Fiona’s jaw dropped.  “What…what gives you that idea?”

“I asked around.”  Tink shrugged diffidently.  “No one’s heard of you, so either you’re changing your color, or you’re not a fairy at all.”

“No one’s heard of me.”  Fiona couldn’t help snorting in amusement.  “Oh, that’s not the problem, not at all.  Although I do suppose that I am somewhat disguised…as who I used to be.”

“What do you mean?”  Tink sounded more curious than angry or wary, and Fiona had to give her credit for courage.

“First, tell me why you’ve listened to a word I’ve said if you knew I wasn’t actually a senior fairy.”  Two could play at the curious game.

Tink shrugged again.  “You pointed me at the books I wanted, and your information was good.  So, that means you actually knew things and were willing to help, unlike ninety-nine percent of everyone else here.”

“I doubt you’ll say that once you know who I am.”  Sadness welled up, threatening to close off her throat.  This was the third time she and Tink had met, and perhaps Fiona had just been a fool to think they might be becoming friends.

I don’t need friends. I have my son, and that’s enough.

“Try me.”  Tink snorted.  “I’m a hairsbreadth away from being kicked out, anyway.  I told Nova that love was more important than being a fairy, and Blue was standing right there.  What can be worse than that?”

“Having actually been exiled.  Although, come to think of it, I don’t think dear Blue ever got around to officially throwing me out of the order.  She certainly didn’t take my wings when she sent me to the Dark Realm, anyway.”  Fiona pressed a finger to her lips as she mused, forcing herself to be flippant.  “But she’s always been just a tad inconsistent when it comes to taking fairies’ wings away, hasn’t she?  I think it’s her own little power play, personally.”

“Well, she is”—Tink cut off, her jaw dropping open.  “Hold on, did you say the Dark Realm?”

“I did.”

“But that makes you—”

“The Black Fairy.”  Fiona looked Tink straight in the eyes, keeping her expression aloof while she prepared herself for rejection.  But all Tink did was look at her incredulously.

“Really?  I thought you’d be a lot…I dunno, horrible.”

“I can be more horrible if you wish.”

“No!”  Tink looked so horrified that Fiona had to laugh.  But then the young fairy went on, her eyes wide and shocked.  “Oh, no.  You’re in here, around the most sacred information that the fairies have to protect, and I’ve just sat here chatting with you!  I’m such a—”

“Don’t call yourself names, dear.  It’s hardly necessary.”  Fiona waved a casual hand.  “If it makes you feel better, I read the dangerous tomes in here long before Blue exiled me.  I’m just here for other research, now.”  She’d copied everything she could duplicate with magic, too, and that information was already back at the Dark Castle.  But some old scrolls resisted magical copying, so Fiona was stuck reading them the old-fashioned way, which was how she’d met Tink in the first place.

“Aren't you supposed to be in exile?”

Come to think of it, it was a minor miracle that Blue hadn’t tried something in the decades Fiona had been free.  Had Blue not acted because she didn’t know how to imprison Fiona again, or because Fiona hadn’t done anything particularly terrible?  There was no way that Blue couldn’t know she was no longer in exile; Blue wasn’t a fool, and Fiona hadn’t been terribly subtle. 

She didn’t like the implications of that line of thinking, but Fiona smiled, anyway.  “I’ve never been good at doing what I’m told.”

“I should report you.”  Tink made no more to leave, though, or even to draw her wand.

“Go right ahead.”  Now it was Fiona’s turn to shrug.  “I’m hardly going to return to the Dark Realm quietly, not after I’ve been reunited with the son Blue kept me from for so long.”

Tink’s jaw dropped again.  “You have a son?”

“I do.”  One moment’s more spent studying Tink’s shocked expression led Fiona to make a split-second decision and tell the truth.  “Why do you think I’m here?  I’m looking for information to help him.”

“To help him?  Why would your son need help—and how would he still be alive when you’ve been in exile for hundreds of years?”  Tink was quick, and Fiona could see her doing the math in her head.

“Because my boy became the Dark One when I wasn’t here for him.”  Fiona felt her eyes narrow as anger boiled through her bones.  “And unlike Blue, I aim to destroy that curse once and for all.”

Tink just stared.  “But you’re…you’re supposed to be the evilest of all fairies.”

“Perhaps I am.  I’m no longer concerned with petty ideas of good versus evil.  I just want to help my son, and damn Blue for eternity if she gets in my way.  She let this happen to him.  I will not let it stand.”


 

She had been so engrossed by the window that Belle hadn’t seen Rumplestiltskin all day.  Or the night before, for that matter.  Finally, however, she tore herself away from watching her father and her friends—or even just the townspeople who lived outside the castle—and sought her employer out.  Belle wasn’t an idiot; she knew that showing her that magical window into the outside world was Rumplestiltskin’s way of apologizing.  Part of her thought that she should stand on ceremony and demand an actual apology for the way he’d thrown those teacups at her, but Belle really didn’t want to do that.  Rumplestiltskin wasn’t some knight raised with courtly graces; he was a damaged and lonely man who she was only just now beginning to understand.

And he’s not a monster.  Not deep inside.

So, Belle rushed to catch his arm before he could disappear up the stairs to his tower, where he always shut himself when he wanted to be alone.  “I wanted to thank you.”  He gave her a funny look, so she continued: “For letting me see my friends.  And my papa.  It’s wonderful to know that they’re all right.”

“Well, it seemed that you should know that I kept my end of the bargain.”  Rumplestiltskin shrugged like it was nothing.

“I already knew that.”  Belle smiled, though it seemed to throw him off balance.  “I trust you.”

A giggle.  “More fool you, then, dearie.”

“Will you stop that?  I’m trying to thank you for being kind.”

“Kindness is always an exercise in futility.”  His scowl was so deep that it was almost a pout.  “I’m not kind.  I’m the Dark One.”

“Being kind is never futile.”  Taking a deep breath, Belle lifted her chin and looked him in the eye.  “I am grateful.  And I’m sorry if something I said made things worse.  I just want to understand you.”

“I am what I am.  It’s best you don’t try to understand it.”  Rumplestiltskin sneered, but Belle could tell his heart wasn’t really in it.

“Why not?”

“Because you don’t need to know the monster’s weaknesses!”

Belle rolled her eyes.  “I just said that you’re not a monster.  Stop being ridiculous.”

“Ridiculous?”  He reared back, looking offended.  ‘I will have you know that—”  The words sputtered out of him until Belle put a hand on his arm, which made Rumplestiltskin’s mouth snap shut with an audible click.

“I want to know you because you’re you.  Your weaknesses are your own.  I just want to know Rumplestiltskin, not just the Dark One.”

“Why—why would you want to know that?” His voice had gone soft and uncertain, and his reptilian eyes seemed softer and browner.  Belle was sure that was just an illusion, and yet she could see how confusion smoothed away some of his rough edges, making him look more human than Belle had ever seen.

So, she smiled as gently as she could.  “Because you’re worth knowing.  Because you’re my friend.”

Last time, when they’d fought, he’d corrected her and called himself her employer.  This time, Rumplestiltskin did nothing of the sort.  His voice was a broken whisper.  “Monsters do not have friends.”

“Then it’s a good thing you aren’t a monster.”  Belle squeezed his arm again, and Rumplestiltskin flinched.  The movement was almost invisible, but Belle felt it through her fingers, and it made her stare.  How terrible had his life been that he flinched away from a gentle touch?  What caused that haunted mixture of longing and terror in his eyes?

The Black Fairy had said that life had been unkind to him, and not just because he’d been the Dark One.  Belle was beginning to see that.  She was convinced that Rumplestiltskin had been a good man before embracing the darkness his mother wanted to free him from, but what must it take to make a good man choose this kind of path?  Asking him if he wanted to be free of it had definitely been a mistake, and Belle promised herself not to do that until she knew a lot more.

She wouldn’t ask for details about his life right now, either.  Rumplestiltskin clearly wasn’t ready to share, not so soon after their fight.  She couldn’t understand why she hadn’t seen it before.  He hated himself, hated what he was.  He blamed himself for being a monster; that was clear from every iota of his body language.  The Black Fairy loved him despite the darkness.  She didn’t put up with any of Rumplestiltskin’s nonsense, but she loved him despite it all.  Can I do that? Belle wondered to herself.  She couldn’t lie; the depths of the darkness in Rumplestiltskin’s soul frightened her.  Yet she also found herself drawn to the light he tried so very hard to hide, so she squeezed his arm again, a little harder this time.

“I’m your friend,” she repeated.  “Assuming you will let me be.”

“I…I would like that.”  Rumplestiltskin’s smile was as hesitant as his smile, but it still warmed Belle’s heart.

“So would I.”


 

Even killing that annoying outlaw woman didn’t make Zelena feel any better.  The knowledge that her obnoxious little stepdaughter—an odious, spoiled brat if there ever had been one!—had found shelter with Regina, of all people, was enough to drive a woman insane.  And now she heard that James had abandoned Abigail for Snow White!  There was absolutely no justice in the world, and Zelena just wanted to scream.

Yet she didn’t.  Queens had more dignity than that, and she was the Queen.  She was the most feared monarch in all of the Enchanted Forest, and the powerful didn’t complain to their underlings.  No, powerful witches got revenge, and that was what she was going to do.  To start with, Zelena was going to put a few strings on her own bow, too.  She wasn’t going to wait for Rumplestiltskin to hand things to her—even if she was certain that her teacher was sweet on her and would give her all she wanted in good time.  Rumplestiltskin was nothing if not stubborn and unpredictable, though, so she needed some leverage of her own.

Which was why she invited the pirate back, of course.  The fact that he was easy on the eyes certainly didn’t hurt, either.  But he was there for business; he’d already proposed to undertake one voyage on her behalf which had turned out quite profitably, although Zelena now had a new proposal for him.

“If I hear right, you’re the Crocodile’s student.  So why is it that you’d be offering to help me get revenge?”  Hook eyed her cautiously, and Zelena made a mental note that he had something of a brain to go with that pretty face.

“Because I’m not an idiot.”  Zelena shrugged as casually as she could.  “Rumplestiltskin uses everyone.  And I’m not really in a mood to be used.”

She was in a mood to use this pirate, of course, but she wasn’t going to say that.  Zelena had learned to temper her impulsiveness in her years as queen, and she knew exactly what she was doing.  She also knew that Rumple saw her as different from everyone else, which probably meant she wouldn’t need the pirate—but it didn’t hurt to be prepared.

“Aye, he does.”  Hook sized her up, cocking his head.  “So, what exactly is it that you want me to do, love?  It seems to be that you’ve got magic in your corner already, so why come to a devilishly handsome pirate?”

“Well, the devilishly handsome part doesn’t exactly hurt.”  She gave him a smile, meeting his eyes with her own.  Hook didn’t seem to miss the unspoken invitation, but he didn’t jump for it, either.  That’s annoying.  Zelena bit back a sigh.  “I thought we might ally, you and I.  I’m sure a pirate such as yourself knows plenty of people who dislike the Dark One, and I’d like to become their patroness.”

Hook snorted.  “Would you, now?”

“Yes, I would.”  Not snapping the words took all of her self-control, and they still came out sharper than Zelena would have wanted.  “I also want revenge of my own, and I thought you might be willing to help with that if…properly compensated.”

“Now you’re talking, love.  What type of treasure do you have in mind to barter?”

Zelena blinked.  She hadn’t meant to give the greedy man gold, but he seemed to want it.  Was he so obtuse that he’d missed the not-so-subtle invitation to become the Queen’s lover?  Surely even a pirate could guess how lucrative that position could be.

No matter.  She’d give him gold for now, and seal his allegiance to her later.  Zelena was sure she could wrap him around her finger quickly enough, and that would serve her purposes, even if she did have to fork over cash in the meantime.


 

Belle hadn’t been expecting a visitor, so she’d headed out to the garden to pick some peaches after her conversation with Rumplestiltskin.  In the beginning, Belle had been surprised by how much life surrounded the Dark Castle, but after a while, she’d come to suspect that Rumplestiltskin actually liked the garden and the many types of fruit trees.  He’d never admit it, of course, but the Dark One could easily have destroyed the beautiful garden in a temper tantrum.  Except he usually breaks his own belongings, instead, she thought to herself, still mulling over what had happened.  She was glad that they’d spoken; it was obvious that he clearly regretted his actions.  The Black Fairy’s advice had been to let him stew, but she felt much better after their conversation.

Yet Belle still wanted to understand what had brought him to be like this.  His mother had said that his life had been hard, but how could that force someone to seek darkness like this?  Belle could see glimpses of a good man hidden beneath all that evil, but how could a good man want to become the Dark One?  There was so much that she didn’t understand.

“So, you are the poor child whom the Dark One has enslaved.”

The new voice made her spin around, almost dropping her basket of peaches in surprise.  Then Belle found herself faced with a real fairy.  This one, unlike the Black Fairy, was tiny and hovering in the air, and she was dressed in a brilliant, glowing, blue.  Belle recognized her immediately, having read plenty of books that described her.

“You’re the Blue Fairy!”

“I am.”  The Blue Fairy smiled gently.  “But you can call me Blue, if you like.”

“All right.”  Then she considered what Blue had just said, and Belle straightened instinctively, disliking the implication.  “I’m not his slave.  I came here of my own free will.”

“Of course you did.  People tell tales of your bravery far and wide.”  Blue’s eyes glistened.  “But it is still terrible that Rumplestiltskin has forced you to become a servant instead of the lady of your own castle.  You must be suffering.”

Belle shrugged.  “I made a deal with him.  Rumplestiltskin saved my people, and in return, I came with him.  Forever.”  She found a slight smile creasing her face.  “Besides, he doesn’t treat me badly.  Not at all.”

There were moments when she wanted to throttle her employer, but that didn’t mean Belle actually thought he was the monster he claimed to be.  He was kind to her, so very kind.  He’d given her the library, a beautiful room of her own, and Rumplestiltskin actually cared what she thought about things.  He was the first man in her life who had ever actually listened to what she had to say.  Yes, he was volatile and she hated the evil festering inside of him, but he could also be surprisingly good and amazingly gentle.  When he wasn’t throwing teacups at her, anyway.

He could have hit me with any of those cups, though, and he didn’t.  I don’t think he wanted to, even if that doesn’t excuse his poor behavior.

“That is a surprise.”  Blue looked thoughtful, and then shook her head as if to clear it.  Without warning, magic flashed in the air, and suddenly Blue was human-sized, brushing her skirt off daintily.  “As encouraging as that is, I can free you, if that is what you wish.  I can keep you from the Dark One, and to protect you from him.”

“But I made a deal.”

“Child, you’ve certainly served enough time in this terrible place to pay the price of the magic used to free you.”

“Maybe, but that doesn’t mean I’ll break my word.”  Belle squared her shoulders.  “That’s not who I am.”  A part of her almost mentioned that Rumplestiltskin would surely avenge himself upon her people if Belle broke her deal, but she wasn’t actually sure that he would.  After all, the ogres were gone, and Rumplestiltskin did always keep his end of a bargain.

“You deserve to return to the life you were meant to have, Belle.  This dreadful castle is no proper place for a young lady.”

“I don’t find it so terrible.”  And Belle had already discovered that she didn’t want to be proper, or at least not in the way that men like Gaston wanted.

Blue looked at her appraisingly.  “If you’re worried about the Dark One’s reaction, he need never know.  It can be arranged.”

 “Thank you, but no.  I will keep my promises, and that’s final.  I don’t need ‘saving’ from my own choices.”  If Belle spoke more firmly than she meant to, well, that was hardly her fault.  Rumplestiltskin might listen to her and care what she had to say, but she got the feeling that the Blue Fairy didn’t care about her opinion.  She kept pressing as if more reasons would make her forget her sense of honor and duty—or as if she wanted to leave at all!

Truth be told, Belle liked it there.  Even when Rumplestiltskin drove her mad, he was fascinating.  And…and he was kind.  When they weren’t fighting, she could talk to him for hours about books and history, about worlds he’d travelled to, or about great creatures and people he’d seen.  And Belle was freer in the Dark Castle than she’d ever been at home.  Here she would never be forced to marry an oaf who tortured ogre children, never forced to be a broodmare for his desired army of sons.  Belle could be herself here; even at his worst, Rumplestiltskin never implied she should be someone else or change her mind about what she believed in.

“I see.”  Blue pressed her lips together, looking displeased. 

Belle offered up what she hoped was a welcoming smile. “Is there something else you wanted?  Did you perhaps wish to visit with Rumplestiltskin?  I can make tea if so.”

Of course Blue didn’t want to see Rumplestiltskin, not if she was offering to ‘save’ Belle, so Belle made the offer with relish.

“No, thank you.”  Now Blue looked like the cat who’d been stuck catching the canary, and Belle felt a little guilty for enjoying the senior fairy’s discomfort.  She had meant well, hadn’t she?  Or was there something else that Belle wasn’t seeing?  The glint in Blue’s eyes gave Belle pause, and a knot of worry began forming in the pit of her stomach, until a new voice spoke up:

“Is this how you spend your time these days, harassing young women who don’t want your attention?” The Black Fairy laughed.  “Really, I thought you’d have something more noble in mind.”

“There’s hardly any cause more noble than saving an innocent girl from a monster, Fiona!”  The Blue Fairy drew herself up proudly.  “But I would not expect you to understand that.”

“My son is not a monster, and if he is, he’s only what you allowed him to become.”  The words were a dangerous hiss, and Belle felt the need to take a step back so that she wasn’t in between the two fairies.  She wasn’t afraid, not exactly, but getting out of the way just seemed sensible.

“I am not responsible for Rumplestiltskin’s choices.  He embraced Nimue’s path, and—”

“Oh, spare me your sanctimonious drivel,” Fiona snapped, and then much to Belle’s surprise, looked her way.  “Are you enjoying talking to this interfering little gnat?”

“Um.”  Belle swallowed, having not expected to be pulled into this conversation.  Every tale she’d ever read of the Blue Fairy said that she was good and wise, and even if that wasn’t entirely true, Belle didn’t really want to get on her bad side.  Not unless she had to.  “I think she was just leaving.”

“Oh, my, that’s diplomatic.”  Fiona—was that the Black Fairy’s real name?—laughed before turning back to Blue.  “I think that’s your invitation to leave.”

Blue’s glare at her darker counterpart was poisonous.  “Not without offering Belle one last chance to escape the both of you.”

“I don’t need escape.”  Belle tried to keep her voice calm, but it was hard.  “I already told you that I don’t need saving, either, and I certainly don’t need you interceding on my behalf. I am where I want to be, thank you.”

“Are you certain, child?  If it’s this one you fear—”

“I’m not here out of fear,” Belle cut in quickly, trying to stamp on her irritation.  Had Blue not listened to a word she’d said?  Then she changed the subject.  “But I do have one question.”

That made Blue smile again, and Fiona’s scowl deepen.  “All you have to do is ask.”

“Who is Nimue?”

“No one who needs concern you,” Blue answered just as Fiona said:

“The first Dark One.  Unimportant unless you’re interested in who started this whole disgusting mess.”  The glance Fiona sent her way said that she knew Belle was interested, but now wasn’t a time to ask.   Looking at Blue’s pinched expression, Belle supposed it could wait.

You are the one who started what you call a mess, Fiona,” Blue said archly.  “But speaking of which, have you told your son the truth of why you were exiled?  Have you told him what you took from him?”

Fiona froze.

“Leave.”  The word was as cold as ice, and made Belle shiver.  She’d never seen the Black Fairy look so dangerous, so frigid.  “Leave while you still can.”

“I will go, but not before telling you this.”  Blue’s voice was calm, but even Belle could hear the underlying threat.  “Go back to the Dark Realm.  Return to your exile, or I will tell your son what you did to him, and why he suffers from the fate you’ve deemed so disgusting.”

And then Blue was gone, leaving the Black Fairy pale in her wake and Belle staring at them both.


 

“My sister is insane.  I’m so sorry.”  Regina squared her shoulders as she spoke the words, prepared for her friend to blame her for the most recent atrocity—but much to her surprise, Snow just reached out and put a hand on her arm.

“It’s not your fault.  You never even knew her until she decided to kill us both.”

“And an entire town for sheltering us.”  Gritting her teeth made a sharp, grinding noise in her ears, but Regina didn’t care.  If Zelena had been in front of her right now, she probably would have done her damnedest to murder her sister. 

Unfortunately, Zelena liked to hide behind her royal guards, so that was obviously not going to happen any time soon.  That, and her sister had apparently inherited their mother’s magic, and Regina lacked any talent—or at least training—in that regard.  Maybe she could learn, but she had no one to teach her.

“She also murdered my wife.”  A new voice made her and Snow turn, and Regina felt like she’d been hit between the eyes with a hammer.

The man facing them grimly wasn’t the most handsome fellow she’d ever seen—though he was quite close to it.  But there was something about him, something about the pain in his blue eyes, or maybe in the way he held himself like someone who refused to fall apart no matter how broken his heart was, that made Regina’s heart ache.  There was something else about him, too, something that stirred feelings deep within her like she hadn’t felt since Daniel.  When Zelena had killed her True Love, Regina had thought she would never feel anything like that ever again, but she felt her heart flutter helplessly.

Don’t be stupid, she told herself firmly, not sure where these alien feelings had come from.  He’s mourning.

“Oh, my goodness.”  Snow, of course, reached out to put a hand on the man’s arm.  “I’m so sorry to hear that.  But you and your people are certainly welcome here.  Are you the man that Little John spoke of?”

“I am.  Robin of Locksley.”  A grimace.  “People tend to call me Robin Hood.”

“I’m Snow, and this is Regina.  Like you, we’re enemies of Zelena’s.”  Snow’s smile was so gentle that even a grieving man had to answer it, and Regina was glad that Snow was doing the talking, because she didn’t know what to say.  “John let us come to your camp after Zelena started hurting the people who were sheltering us.”

“And you’re very welcome here.  Any enemies of the Wicked Queen are friends of mine.”  His mouth set in determination, and Regina forced herself to focus.

“Thank you,” she said as calmly as she could.  “But…you should know that Zelena is my half-sister.  She’s no friend of mine, but…you should know.”

Most people didn’t react as well as Snow always did, but this Robin Hood just took it in stride.  “Well, if she liked you, I expect you wouldn’t be here.  Let’s find the two of you somewhere to sleep.  I can’t promise luxuries, but I can promise you’ll be safe with us.”


 

Fiona had no idea what to do.

Blue’s words kept echoing through her mind, reminding her over and over again that there was a terrible truth hanging over her head.  She had told Rumplestiltskin that she was exiled for trying to banish all the children born the same winter he was, but she’d never told him the most critical secret: that he’d been born to be the Savior and she had taken that from him.  Fiona had spent her first few years in the Dark Castle promising herself that she would eventually tell her son the truth, yet she’d thought of it less and less as time passed.

I thought I could leave that in the past, and bring him back to the light without that knowledge, but Blue is going to take that chance away from me.

She wanted to kill someone and the human girl who spoke up from her left made an incredibly tempting target.  “Are you all right?” Belle asked all too kindly, making Fiona wheel to face her.  “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Of course I haven’t!  There’s no such thing as ghosts,” Fiona snapped before she could stop herself.  Magic crackled in her palms, and for the first time in quite some years, she thought about how good it would feel to kill someone.

Rumplestiltskin would never forgive me.  But what did it matter?  Rumplestiltskin would probably never forgive her for the giant omission of the fact that he’d been destined to be the Savior, anyway, so what did it matter if Fiona killed the girl he was so busy falling for?  Might as well give it all up with a bang, she mused darkly.  Lose the family we’ve built.  Doom my son to a life of lonely darkness.  What does it matter?

“Well, I can’t help if you don’t tell me what the problem is!” Belle glared right back at her, and a part of Fiona knew exactly what Rumplestiltskin saw in her.  If Rumplestiltskin were not stupidly in love with her already—

She slammed the door shut on that thought with an effort and an external sneer.  “What could a stupid little human girl do to help someone like me?”

“Absolutely nothing if you refuse to tell me what this great secret is that you’ve kept from Rumplestiltskin.” Belle didn’t even flinch; she just crossed her arms and waited.

“It is no business of yours!”

“Of course it isn’t.”  She could tell that the girl was barely managing not to roll her eyes.  “But if it’s something so terrible, you should tell Rumplestiltskin before Blue can.”

Fiona narrowed her eyes.  “You assume I’m not leaving.”

“I hope you’re not.  It would—well, I think it would shatter him.”

The bluntness of that response took Fiona aback, and she found herself blinking.  Her poor boy was so fragile, and she knew that her leaving would hurt him greatly. Of course, if she did leave, he’d never know that she’d chosen her power over his—but Fiona had always known, deep down inside, that the truth would come out eventually.  Even if she’d been confident that it never would, Fiona couldn’t really contemplate leaving her son.  She’d just said that to see how Belle responded.

Damn the girl for being so good.

“Yes, it would.”  Fiona looked away, swallowing hard as she allowed herself to look at the choices laid out before her.  “But so might this.”

“The way I see it, you don’t really have a choice.”  Belle’s voice was more gentle, but she didn’t shut up, even when Fiona glared at her again.  “Either you can tell him the truth, or Blue will.  And…and I don’t think she’s one of Rumple’s biggest fans.”

“You can say that again.”  Fiona couldn’t help snorting, although she did feel compelled to be honest.  “That is probably my doing.  She hates me more than she’ll ever hate him.”

“And she’ll punish him for that hate.”  Belle looked angrier than Fiona had ever seen her, but it was worth noting that Belle didn’t seem to blame her.  Most people would.  “She’ll hurt Rumplestiltskin because she wants you to suffer.”

“She’ll tell him because she thinks I’m too much of a coward to do it myself.”  Fiona knew that was true, and as much as she hated to admit it, Belle wasn’t wrong.  She sighed.  “You’re right.  I have to tell him the truth of why I abandoned him.”

She just wasn’t sure how.

 

Chapter Text

He knew there was something wrong the moment his mother and Belle walked into the great hall.  Firstly, those two didn’t generally spend time outside together.  Belle liked flowers and plants while Fiona would probably burn the garden down if a bee stung her.  Secondly, the grim expression on Belle’s face and the way his mother wouldn’t meet his eyes told Rumplestiltskin that something had happened.

“The Blue Fairy paid us a visit.”  Fiona’s words snapped out peevishly, and Rumplestiltskin found his eyes flicking to Belle.  She was still here, but they all knew there was only one person in the Dark Castle whom Blue would find sympathetic.

Belle met his eyes before he could even form the question.  “I told her that I’d made a promise, and I’m staying here.” 

“Oh.  Ah, of course you did.  I’d expect no less from an honorable woman.”  Rumplestiltskin actually had expected Belle to jump at the chance of freedom, even though she’d promised to be his friend earlier that same day.  The fact that she hadn’t left him feeling strangely warm inside.  Desperately needing to cover that up, he asked: “And she just…left?  It’s not like the blue bug to be so obliging.”

That question made his mother and his maid exchange a meaningful look.  “I’ll, um, leave you to this conversation,” Belle said after a moment, but what really surprised Rumplestiltskin was the way she touched his arm as she walked out of the room.  “I’ll be in the library if you need me.”

He didn’t know what to say to that, and his arm almost felt burnt in the most wonderful way, even after her brief touch was gone and Belle had left him and his mother alone.  A long moment passed before Fiona cleared her throat.

“Blue wanted me to return to the Dark Realm.”

Rumplestiltskin snorted out a laugh.  “I trust you told her of the futility of that wish.”

“I never told you how I broke out, did I?”  His mother sighed heavily, walking over to the chaise longue near the fire.  “Sit down with me.  Please.”

“Does it matter?”  Something in her tone set him on edge, and Rumplestiltskin didn’t like that.

Here comes the catch, dearie!  Zoso’s laugh was triumphant.  You knew it was coming, but you’ve spent decades lying to yourself and saying there wouldn’t be one, that she ‘loved’ you.  Fool.

Try though he did, Rumplestiltskin couldn’t shut that voice out.

“Unfortunately, yes.  It does now.”  Fiona looked down at her hands, which were twisting nervously in her lap.  Rumplestiltskin had never seen his mother nervous, and that, more than anything else, made him sit down at her side.

Don’t trust her, Nimue advised him in a voice that sounded almost reasonable.  You know what it’s like to be burned by those you love.  It’s too late to stop her from getting into your heart, but you should protect yourself while you can.

“Why?”  He hated the way his voice tried to tremble.

“Because there’s something I never told you.  I told you that I was exiled for attempting to send away all of the children born the winter you were, but I never told you why a great evil was destined to kill you.”  Fiona looked up at him, and Rumplestiltskin was surprised to see tears shining in her eyes.  “And…you deserve to know.”

“Now that the Blue Fairy is blackmailing you, you mean?” Rumplestiltskin regretted the words the moment he said them, but by then it was too late.

“Well, I won’t lie and say that isn’t why I’m telling you now.  But I always did mean to tell you.  Please believe that.”  His mother’s expression was so sad that Rumplestiltskin found it hard to doubt, even as he tried to armor his heart against her.  “I just wasn’t sure when you’d be ready to hear it.”

Rumplestiltskin had to swallow the sudden lump in his throat.  “Ready?  Why—why would I need to be…ready?”

“Because you weren’t destined to be the Dark One.  You were destined to be so much more.”

“More?” He couldn’t help the incredulous way in which he snorted that word.  “A lowly spinner, bereft of magic and power, and—”

“No.”  Fiona cut him off with a gentle hand on his arm. “You were destined to be the Savior, my son.  But I took that away from you when I tried to save you from your fate.”

“You—you…what?” Rumplestiltskin couldn’t process the first part of what she had said.  He couldn’t.  He just couldn’t.  “How?”

“I trust you’ve heard of the Shears of Destiny?”  When he nodded mutely, she continued, her voice heavy: “Tricky things.  Blue had them, of course.  Tiger Lily—your fairy godmother—suggested I use them on myself, to cut away my fate of killing the Savior.  I thought instead that I could use them on you, that if I could make you not the Savior, we wouldn’t have to kill one another, and that I could use my power to protect you.”

A knot of sick dread was forming in his stomach, and listening to that explanation finally made her earlier statement register.  I was meant to be the Savior, Rumplestiltskin thought, feeling utterly dazed.

Well, that explains why you’re so annoyingly weak sometimes.  Nimue’s sneer meant nothing to him, though.  It felt distant and unimportant.

I was meant to be the Savior.

“Blue banished me after I cut away your fate,” his mother continued while Rumplestiltskin stared ahead blankly, not seeing the flickering fire in the fireplace.  “I never thought—well, I didn’t expect it to end up like that.  I didn’t expect any of this.”

Rumplestiltskin barely heard those words, even if they did register on some level of his consciousness.  Finally, he managed to form coherent speech through the fog in his mind.  “I was meant…to be the Savior?”

Someone like him could not have been meant to be the Savior.  He had been a coward.  He had been nothing.  Even when he’d been young, he’d been meek and inoffensive; he hadn’t been some strong hero.  Even when he’d tried to overcome his father’s sorry reputation in the First Ogre War, he’d been an utter failure.  He’d come home a despised coward whose wife couldn’t stand the sight of him.  Rumplestiltskin had never mattered, and he’d always known that he wasn’t supposed to matter, right up until he took his fate into his own hands and became the Dark One. 

There had always been an emptiness in him, a feeling of something missing.  He had always assumed that was because he’d never been meant to be anything at all.  Instead…it meant the exact opposite.

“Yes.”  A warm hand touched his cheek, making Rumplestiltskin finally look at his mother.  Her face, creased with worry, swam slowly into view as his heart pounded in his ears.  “You were meant to be the greatest of heroes, with deep and powerful light magic.  I took that from you.”

“All to keep your own power.”  The words sounded harsh, even to his ears, but Rumplestiltskin couldn’t stop them.  Parents giving up children for power.  This seems to be a terrible family tradition.  How could he be angry when he had done the same?  He’d given up Bae for power, and although he hated himself for that, he could see that his mother hated herself, too.  We are too much alike.

“Yes.”  Fiona didn’t quite flinch, but he could see the pain in her dark eyes.  “I chose my power over your destiny.  I did it out of love for you…but I was wrong.  I know that, now.”

“That’s…that’s why I’ve always felt so empty.”  Rumplestiltskin felt the anger drain out of him, leaving only that roaring emptiness, a pull towards the light that he’d tried so hard to fight ever since becoming the Dark One.

I was meant to be the Savior.

I was meant to kill my mother.

“I suspect so, yes.  I didn’t tell you before because I doubted you’d want to hear about such a fate—”

“I don’t.”  The flat statement was out before he could think, with darkness swirling into his mind, heavy and burning toxically.  Blackness narrowed his vision.  “It doesn’t matter.  You cut that fate away from me, and I’m glad for it.”

“Rumplestiltskin—”

“No.”  Jumping to his feet, Rumplestiltskin looked down on his mother darkly.  “You made me what I am.  I don’t regret it.  I have power.  I have the same thing you wanted to keep, so you of all people should understand that, shouldn’t you?”

“I do, but that isn’t the point.”  Fiona rose, looking more desperate than Rumplestiltskin had ever seen her.  “The point is that I took away the purpose you were meant to have.  If I’d not done that, you wouldn’t be cursed with this darkness you cannot shake.  Even I can see that there’s a good man underneath the Dark One, and it breaks my heart to see you like this.”

“Like what?  Dark?”  His giggle was sharp and bitter.  “The pot’s calling the kettle a little bit black there, eh, Mother?  I should think you’d be happy with how I turned out.  Or do you not like me like this?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Fiona snapped.  “I love you no matter what you are.”

“Then why complain?”  He may have sung those words in lieu of saying them, but Rumplestiltskin hadn’t felt this strange in centuries.  He didn’t want to know that he’d been meant to be the Savior, because that knowledge meant nothing.  That fate was gone, and if it having been cut away meant he felt empty from time to time, then so be it.  He was the Dark One, and he’d chosen this fate.  He didn’t want to know about what might have been.

You made a deal I didn’t understand, the quiet voice of his conscience pointed out, but Rumplestiltskin only batted it aside.

“I’m not complaining, you great fool!  I’m saddened because I inadvertently forced you to this path, forced you from a path where you could have power without the darkness.”

He pointed a finger at her, scowling.  “But I’d have had to kill you.”

“Not if I’d given up my power.”  Fiona sighed, suddenly looking old and broken.  “I should have, but I was blind.  And I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.  I did the same.”  He couldn’t take his mother apologizing to him, not after all the love she’d given him.  And he didn’t want to hear about what he should have been. What he could have been.

“Can you see me with that power, Bae?  I could turn it to good!”  He’d wanted to be a hero, once.  He’d even thought he could be.  His entire village had celebrated when he’d beaten the ogres, and they’d hailed him as a hero.  It hadn’t lasted long, but it had felt—

Don’t think of that!

“Rumple—”

“Don’t say it!” he cut her off with a shout, knowing that his mother was going to talk about what he should have been, about a son she could have been proud of.  He knew that his mother loved him—he was finally, utterly, convinced of that—but he couldn’t bear to hear her say it.  “I don’t care!”

“Oh, my poor boy.”  Fiona stepped forward to touch his face again, but Rumplestiltskin scrambled back.  He knew what she was going to say, and he couldn’t face her apologies.  Or her compassion.

So, he did the only thing he knew how to do, and teleported right out of the room.


 

“Did you know?”

Belle was pleasantly surprised that Rumplestiltskin sought her out a few hours after he spoke to his mother, but his harsh voice still made her jump.  When she turned to look at him, the uncertainty and the anger in his eyes made it obvious that his mother had told him whatever the truth Blue had threatened to share was.

“Your mother didn’t tell me, no.”  Belle rose slowly, shaking her head.  “I’m not sure what Blue threatened to tell you, except she said it was something she said that your mother had done to you.”

“Oh.”  For a moment, Rumplestiltskin looked completely lost, and then shook his head.  “Good.  It doesn’t matter.”

Belle cocked her head.  “You’re not angry with your mother?”

“Of course I am!”

“But you also don’t want me to know what happened.”  Belle could understand that; she was growing comfortable in their friendship, but the bond between Fiona and Rumplestiltskin was one she didn’t want to get in the middle of.

“I don’t—I don’t—arghh!”  Wheeling away from her, Rumplestiltskin grabbed a nearby vase—one Belle had filled with flowers just that morning—and flung it against the closed door to the library, making Belle jump.  Then he pranced away from her, sarcasm lacing every high-pitched word.  “She says she’s sorry.  Says she didn’t want this for me.  As if it matters!”

The next thing he threw was a candlestick, but fortunately not one that was lit.  The golden candlestick smashed into an ugly clock high on one shelf, but fortunately didn’t hit any books.  The clock face shattered, though, scattering glass and its tiny hands all over the floor.  The candlestick didn’t fare much better; Belle was pretty sure it was bent.  Wincing, Belle stepped forward cautiously, reaching out to put a hand on Rumplestiltskin’s arm.  Much to her surprise, he didn’t jerk away.

“Rumple?”  Owlish eyes turned to look at her, wide and full of confusion and pain.  “I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s the matter.”

His voice dropped to a whisper.  “Why would you want to help me?”

“That’s what friends do.”  Belle felt her heart break a little for the lonely man under the darkness; there was so much she didn’t understand about Rumplestiltskin, but she could see he was hurting.

“Oh.”  The wind seemed to go out of Rumplestiltskin, and he half-collapsed, half-sat onto the divan Belle had occupied a few moments earlier.   When he finally spoke again, his voice was so quiet and ragged that Belle could barely hear him.  “She cut away my destiny.”

Belle felt herself jerk back slightly in surprise.  She sat down next to him with a plop. “What?  How?”

“The Shears of Destiny. They can cut any fate, from anyone at all, and she used them on me when I was a baby.”  Rumplestiltskin closed his eyes briefly.  “I was supposed to be the Savior.”

Flabbergasted, Belle fell silent and stared.  She had read about Saviors, knew they were the greatest heroes humanity had, people born to stand between darkness and the rest of the world.  The idea that the Dark One could have been meant to be the Savior was staggering.  Even though Rumplestiltskin was a man capable of kindness and love—unlike what Belle knew of many other Dark Ones—the fact that he’d been meant to be the purest of heroes left Belle breathless.  Of course he was angry and hurt!  How could anyone learn they were supposed to be the Savior without mourning how that fate was taken away?

“She did that because she was the Black Fairy?”  Belle found herself disliking her previously cautious admiration of the Black Fairy.  She’d admired how Fiona loved her son without knowing this, and this new knowledge made her blood boil.

“No.”  He shook his head, opening his eyes and going so still that he might have been a stature.  “We were destined to kill each other.”

Belle gaped.

“I don’t care that she did it.”  The words were a snarl, and made Belle blink hard.  “I care that she won’t shut up about that stupid fate that isn’t mine.  That she’s apologizing for something I don’t care that she did!”

“How can you not care that you were meant to be a hero?”  All Belle had ever wanted to be was a hero.  All she’d ever wanted to do was make a difference.

“I’m no hero,” Rumplestiltskin spat.  “I’ll never be a hero.”  He flung his hand around in a sarcastic twirl.  “Monsters don’t get to be heroes, dearie.  It’s not in the cards.”

“But you were supposed to—”

“It doesn’t matter.  You can’t change the past, no matter how much magic you try with.”  His giggle sounded hollow.  “And why would I want to?  I have all the power I could possibly want, and none of the inconvenient morality of being the Savior.”

Belle couldn’t quite wrap her mind around the emotional whiplash he was displaying.  “Then why are you angry with your mother?  She’s just apologizing for what she did.  Surely you can see that she’s doing that because she loves you.” 

"Because she looks at me like I’m supposed to be something I’m not!”

“I think she just wants what’s best for you, whatever that may be,” Belle said carefully, not even wanting to allude to the fact that she knew Fiona wanted to save Rumplestiltskin from the horrible curse he was under.  “Isn’t that what parents do?”

Something broken crossed his face, and Rumplestiltskin suddenly went quiet.  “Yes.  That’s what they should do.”

“Don’t blame her for loving you, then.  Even if you disagree with her.”

“I…I’m still angry.”  He shot her a rebelliously hurt look, and Belle squeezed his arm gently.

“It’ll turn out all right.”  She gave him her most encouraging smile.  “You’ll see.”

“How do you know?” Rumplestiltskin’s voice was scratchy and hoarse; Belle wondered if he was trying not to scream or not to cry.  Maybe both.

“Because I believe your mother loves you and you love her.  You can work the rest out in time.”

He didn’t say anything in reply, but at least he didn’t run away.


 

She was going to make Blue suffer.  Suffer.  Fiona just hadn’t yet decided how.

In the end, she decided to seek out Tink’s friend, Nova.  Tink was already turning out to be an interesting acquaintance to have—perhaps she was even becoming a friend, although Fiona was hesitant to use that term.  It had been so long since she’d had a friend that she wasn’t sure what that felt like, but for some reason, Tink hadn’t turned away when she’d realized Fiona was the Black Fairy.  And Fiona wasn’t quite so narrow-minded as to blame Tink for Blue’s intervention; Blue had to have been aware of her leaving her exile for years.  Yet she’s chosen to act now, which means she fears what Rumplestiltskin and I might get up to together.

That was a thought, wasn’t it?  After she was done ruining Blue’s perfect little fairy world, Fiona would go take a new look at the Dark Curse.  It would serve the arrogant bitch right if Fiona cast that bloody curse herself and made her miserable while doing so.  The idea was rather attractive, certainly more so than letting Zelena cast the damned thing.  Of course, she’d have to find a way around the pesky price Blue had attached to the curse, because Fiona wasn’t about to kill her beloved son.  That would rather defeat the purpose of getting him to his son, she thought with a roll of her eyes.  Still, she’d written the thing in the first place, and if anyone could get around Blue’s annoying additions, she could.

That, however, was a project for later.  For now, she wanted to meet Nova, the fairy who had been turned down by a dwarf and had her heart broken.  Blue had been behind that, of course.  Blue always was.  Tink had told her more about Nova than Fiona had been able to spy out, and she was going to use that.

Still, the broken-hearted way in which the young fairy hauled around that giant bag of fairy dust did give her a little pause.  Fiona had taken her own fairy form to soar high enough to catch Nova, and she’d only meant to watch, until Nova lost control of the bag and almost dropped it right out of the sky.  A quick flick of Fiona’s wand caught the bag, however, leaving it hovering in midair as Nova twisted to face her.

“You can’t use magic to catch fairy dust!”  The poor girl’s eyes were wide with alarm as she lunged for the bag’s handles, grabbing them tightly.  “It’ll explode!”

“Is Cyan still selling that line?” Fiona had to laugh, and for a moment she felt like the innocent young fairy she’d been.  “It was as much a lie in my time as it is now.  Fairy dust won’t explode if it hits magic.  They just tell you that to frighten you.”

“Really?” Nova’s expression was comically shocked, but Fiona managed not to point that out.  “I’ve been carrying these by hand for months, and no one’s told me?”

“Pretty much, yes.”  Fiona found flying and talking at the same time was a little challenging; the last time she’d taken this form, she’d been hauling unconscious children around, not having conversations.  But she’d be damned if she’d show that, particularly to this slip of a fairy girl.

“It’s just like them.”  Nova heaved a sigh, and almost dropped the bag again.  “No one thinks I’ll make a good fairy, so they just use me as a delivery girl.  But it’s not like I have anything better to do, so I do it.”

Even Fiona’s heart twitched a little at that; apparently, even she could pity a lonely and broken fairy.  Had things gone differently, I might have been her.  For a moment, Fiona wished they had, that Malcolm had turned into a monster and broken her heart before she could give up her own future as a fairy.  But she would never have had Rumplestiltskin in that case, and there was nothing in the world that would force her to give up her son. 

“You’re still mourning your lost love, aren’t you?”

“Fairies aren’t supposed to love.”  Nova sounded more than a little spiteful, not that Fiona could blame her.

She snorted.  “That doesn’t stop it from happening though, does it?”

That earned her a glare.  “We’ve all been warned about you.  Blue says you’ll try to corrupt us away from what we know is right.”

“Does she?”  Fiona threw her head back and laughed.  “That’s rather delightful.  I didn’t know Blue cared so much.”

“I’m not sure I’d call it caring, at least not about you.  She seems worried that you’ll convince us to embrace the darkness.”  Nova laughed uneasily.  “Not that any of us would.  That would be…wrong.”

“Oh, don’t worry.  I’m not here to corrupt you.  Who wants a legion of little dark fairies, anyway?” Fiona countered with a grin.  “I certainly don’t.  I’m not terribly enamored of competition.”

Nova glanced around, and then spoke in a hushed voice as if afraid someone would overhear.  “Tink said you’re not so bad.”

“Did she?  I’m honored.”  Fiona found Nova’s innocence almost charming, or at least enough so that she didn’t say something sarcastic or cutting.  She had a feeling that it would wear on her nerves before too long, though.  At least Tink is sharp and sarcastic.  This one is pure naivety, and not nearly so smart.  “I’ve grown rather fond of my research sessions with her.”

“She said that there were fairies who had remained fairies and found love.”  Nova’s face fell.  “But Blue still says we can’t.”

“They’ve always said that.  I had to leave the order to find love, so I did.”  Fiona shrugged.  “I wasn’t much of a fairy, anyway.”

That made Nova frown.  “But you’re the Black Fairy. You’re powerful.  Everyone’s afraid of you, except maybe Blue.”

“Well, that came later, I’m afraid.  Once, I was like you.  I loved a man, and I was willing to give up everything to be with him, so I did.”  Fiona found a strangely genuine smile crossing her face. “Things didn’t turn out like I’d hoped, of course, but I could never regret having my son.”

“You have a son?  I didn’t—I didn’t think that was possible.”

“Of course it is.  Things work the same for us as they do for the humans.  It’s rather simple, and even enjoyable.”  Fiona couldn’t help enjoying how bright red Nova went; the girl really was that innocent, and it was gloriously funny.

Nova sputtered incoherently for several moments before finding words.  “But—but—I can’t listen to this!” 

“Oh, yes, you can.  Words won’t hurt you, and they certainly won’t corrupt you over to my ‘evil’ ways.  Not unless you want them to.”

“I don’t!  I don’t want to embrace darkness.”

“Neither did I, believe it or not.  I just did what was necessary to protect my son.”  Fiona took a deep breath, not letting herself grow too intense—that would frighten Nova straight away.  “And I’m not saying that you should follow my path…just that you shouldn’t be so preoccupied with following Blue’s silly little rules that you never live for yourself.  Having both magic and love is possible.  You just have to be willing to fight for both.”

Those words struck home; Fiona could see it.  Nova wasn’t exactly ready to run away with her dwarf, not yet, but she was starting to think, and that was the beginning Fiona was looking for.


 

“I think I’m in love.”  Snow’s entire face was glowing, and Regina didn’t have the heart to say something obnoxious to her friend.  After all, she had known Snow since the younger woman was a little girl; her father and King Leopold had been good friends.  Regina had found herself the shoulder Snow cried on when her mother died and her father married Zelena, and when Snow had to run from her wicked stepmother, who she’d turned to had been an easy choice.

Regina didn’t regret helping her, either, even though it had made both of them outlaws and had forced Regina’s own father to go into hiding.  Her uncle the king (her father’s brother) refused to go to war to protect Regina or Snow, but at least he was willing to protect her father.  That left Regina and Snow in the woods with outlaws, but that arrangement was turning out much better than Regina had expected.  Even if it means Snow robs even more royal carriages…she can at least pretend she isn’t doing it to meet a certain prince, she thought with a snort.

She rolled her eyes.  “Well, that’s obvious.”

“Regina!”

“What?”  Not snorting again was hard. “You’ve been mooning over Prince James for weeks.  Maybe longer.  Yesterday, you were on about how he was smart enough to catch you in a net, and let me tell you, I wanted to—”

“Oh, because you’re so much better about Robin,” Snow cut her off with a grin, and Regina jerked herself up short.

“I’m nowhere near as bad as you.”  Her heart was not suddenly racing.  “And besides, he just lost his wife.  Making romantic overtures when he’s mourning would be crass.”

Snow gave her a pointed look.  “But you like him.”

“Of course I do.  He’s a nice man.”  Regina shrugged as casually as she could.  “Stop changing the subject.  You’re in love with Prince James.”

“I think so, yes.  Is it weird, falling in love so quickly?  I know his father wants him to marry Abigail, but he doesn’t seem to want to, and—and I’m being stupid, aren’t I?  I’m just an outlaw.  Everyone believes I murdered my father, probably including Prince James.”

Regina shook her head.  “Love is never stupid, and it’s always worth fighting for.  My father taught me that.”  Thinking of Daniel made her smile sadly, but her daddy had been right.  It was better to take a chance on love than to live without it forever.  “Talk to him.  You never know until you try.”

Snow hugged her, and Regina hugged her back just as tightly. Zelena might have been her sister by blood, but Snow and the outlaws here in the woods were the family Regina had chosen, and she didn’t regret that for a moment.


 

Rumplestiltskin avoided his mother when she came back to the castle, but Belle didn’t.  If she had to choose a side—which she didn’t want to do—Belle was certain that she’d choose Rumplestiltskin’s.  Yet unlike Rumplestiltskin, she knew that Fiona was determined to free her son from the clutches of the Dark One, and that left her feeling torn.  She hadn’t really appreciated how much the darkness ate at Rumplestiltskin, yet she’d seen that in their conversation that afternoon.  He told himself that he wanted to be what he was, that it was better, when any person with eyes could tell that even Rumplestiltskin didn’t believe that.

“Are you waiting for something, dear, or are you going to stare at me all evening?” Fiona’s voice broke into Belle’s reverie, making her jump.  “We’ve quite given up on you cooking, but knowing if there’s dinner to be eaten would be nice.”

Belle rolled her eyes.  “You know that you can summon whatever you want and the castle will do the work.”

Fiona snorted.  “Of course I do.  That’s hardly the point.  You’re the maid.”

“And I’ve spent the day helping your son deal with what you did to him, so excuse me if I’ve been too busy to bake your favorite chocolate cake.”  Not that Belle had ever successfully baked a cake, but that wasn’t the point.

“How is he?” Fiona’s suddenly sober question almost took Belle aback.  “Did he take it terribly?”

“Of course he did.  He’s confused.”  Belle let out a breath.  “I think he’ll be all right, though.”

I think he hates me for it, and that’s anything but all right.”

Belle almost snapped at Fiona not to be so dramatic, but the woman was Rumplestiltskin’s mother, and overdramatic antics really did seem to run in the family.  Besides, it wouldn’t do any good, and would probably only create more over-the-top melodrama.  “I’d hate you in his shoes, but he keeps saying that it’s for the best.  That he likes being the Dark One.”

“Oh, phooey.  No one actually likes darkness, no matter how much we lie about it.  We just like the power and decide that darkness is a price worth paying for it.”  Fiona’s shoulders slumped.  “I can understand that far too well.”

“Look, I’m not saying he isn’t angry—because he is—but I wouldn’t say that it’s the end of the world.  He knows you love him.”  Belle was tempted to discuss the philosophical implications of what Fiona had just said, but she knew that she had to mediate the mess between Rumplestiltskin and his mother first.  This is not what I signed up for, but I’ll do it because it needs to be done.

And because she cared about Rumplestiltskin.  Belle could admit that in the privacy of her own mind, particularly since she thought he cared for her, too.  They were friends, and she wanted to help him, assuming he’d let her.

“Does he?  I abandoned him.  I’m sure he’s remembering that while he’s angry with me.”   Fiona huffed, and Belle wanted to shake her.  But when Belle opened her mouth to say something logical, Fiona held up a dismissive hand.  “I don’t want to hear it.  I don’t know why I’m telling you this at all.”

“Maybe because I’m the only one in this castle who doesn’t automatically become extra-dramatic the moment something emotional goes wrong,” Belle snapped before she could stop herself.  “Look, Black Fairy—”

“Oh, just call me Fiona.  You’re aware that it’s my name, and I do like you better than Blue, so you might as well use it.”  A glare.  “Despite your blatant disrespect.”

“You need my help.  You won’t hurt me.”

Fiona snorted.  “My son likes you, you mean, so I won’t.”

“Or maybe you just need someone who reads fairy better than you do.”  Belle couldn’t help smiling sweetly as Fiona’s glare deepened. 

“That was one time!”

Belle just grinned.

 

Chapter Text

“Why are there…flowers on my table?” Rumplestiltskin spotted the offending daffodils the day after he’d learned the truth of his destiny, and seized on them for a distraction.  Belle was pretending to dust near them, but he knew who the culprit had to be.

Fiona, after all, did not like flowers.  Unless she was turning idiots into them, of course.  Then his mother liked flowers just fine.

His cheeky maid just shrugged.  “I thought they’d look nice.”

“But—but this is the Dark Castle.”  He tried to giggle off-puttingly, but it came off weak and Rumplestiltskin hated himself for it.  His heart pounded every time he looked at Belle, but he could not afford to sound like that.  He couldn’t!  I’ve always been drawn to the light, he realized, and Belle is so light.  “People are supposed to be afraid of this place, not lulled into comfort by flowers!”

“Perhaps you can then lull them into a false sense of security?” Belle smiled at him, but it was the way her tongue stuck out slightly from between her teeth that did unfortunate things to him. 

“I’m—I don’t need—which is to say that I…”  Rumplestiltskin found himself stuttering, and then cut the ramble off with an effort.  “That’s not required!”

“You can get rid of them if you want.”  Her eyes were a little big and sad, but he was not going to be swayed by that.  “I just thought they’d look nice.”

The hopeful look on her face killed him, but at least there wasn’t anyone else around to witness his humiliation.  Or at least not anyone other than the voices in his head.  Rumplestiltskin tried to shrug casually.  “I’ll get used to them, I’m sure.”

 “Thank you!”  Much to his surprise, Belle bounded forward to kiss him on the cheek, and Rumplestiltskin froze like a frightened rabbit.

She had…kissed him?  On the cheek?  Why had she done that?  Why would she ever do anything other than shy away from the beast?  However, Belle was already gone, continuing with her ‘cleaning’, complete with cheerful humming, but all Rumplestiltskin could do was stare, dumbfounded.  Of course, Nimue took advantage of his distraction.

Burn the flowers! the first Dark One demanded.  Burn her with them!  Don’t let her be so disrespectful.  She’ll only take advantage of you.

Better yet, take advantage of her first, Zoso added.  You know you want to.  Several others murmured in agreement; Rumplestiltskin could feel their lust building rapidly, and it made him shiver in revulsion.  Take her.  She might not even argue.  Do it right there, on the table.  That’ll take care of the flowers, and then you can—

A hand on his arm cut the voices off like someone had pushed them straight out of his soul.  “Are you all right?”

“…wha?”  Blinking, Rumplestiltskin found himself staring into Belle’s concerned Blue eyes, floundering for mental balance in the sudden silence.

“Are you all right, Rumplestiltskin?” Belle asked gently, squeezing his arm.  “You look…tormented.”

He swallowed hard.  “Yes.  I’m fine.  Very fine.  Of course I’m fine.”

“I can tell.”  Belle’s laugh was soft, but somehow, it wasn’t mocking.  He still pulled away from her, though, and the voices came back in an avalanche of fury.

Destroy her!  Take her and burn her and—

Shut up.”  Rumplestiltskin hissed the words before he could stop himself, caught in a whirlwind of confusion.  The voices had stopped and then started anew, angrier and demanding blood and death and—

“What?” Her voice cut through the shouting like the sharp and clear noise of a bell, sounding hurt and worried.  “What did I say?”

“Not you.”  He spoke too soon, and Rumplestiltskin desperately waved a hand to distract her.  “Never mind.  I’m talking to myself.”  Her expression remained a shade wounded, but the apology he knew she deserved stuck in his throat.

You’re weak! Nimue’s mocking laugh filled his mind.  This slip of a girl has you--

Despite her hurt, Belle reached out for him once more, and Nimue was suddenly silent.  The transition was startling.  “You’re talking to Nimue, aren’t you?  I know that she was the first Dark One, but she’s not really gone, is she?”

“Wha—what did you say?” Utterly shocked, Rumplestiltskin actually stumbled.  “How did you know that?  Who told you—”

He managed to cut himself off, but the damage was done.  He’d said too much, and yet somehow, Belle’s soft hand remained in place.  Had Fiona told her?  No, even when he was refusing to speak to her—which he was—his mother wouldn’t betray him like that.  “No one told me.  Blue mentioned Nimue, and I asked who she was, and it wasn’t hard to figure out from there.  You’re a good man, Rumplestiltskin, but there’s a darkness festering inside you that just eats at your soul, isn’t there?”

“I made my choices.”  The words came out in a mumble, but he wouldn’t lie.  I wasn’t supposed to be like this.  “All magic comes at a price.”

“Is loneliness the price you have to pay?”  Her voice was still so soft and gentle that it almost broke him.  “Must you do this alone?  I can’t imagine how hard it is to fight back those voices on your own.  Can’t you accept help?”

Rumplestiltskin just stared, unable to form words.  After all she had just learned, how did she ask that?  Yet the compassion in Belle’s eyes was unmistakable; she was a direct woman and not given to lying.  But he still couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that Belle cared about him.  She’d said that she wanted to be his friend, and yet this…this was too much.  This was dizzying.  How could she possibly accept him for what he was?  Even his mother wanted him to be different, or at least he thought she did.  Before yesterday, he’d thought his mother accepted him for who he was, but Fiona was the Black Fairy. Darkness didn’t faze her, and even then, it had taken him long enough to accept her love.  Yet Belle was not Fiona.  Belle was sweetness and light, courage and gentleness.  Fiona all sharp edges and embittered passions gone wrong, someone as stained by darkness as he was.  Fiona understood bad choices; she’d abandoned him just like he’d abandoned Bae.  Belle had only ever made the right ones.

“Rumple?”

A few weeks ago, he would have snapped at her not to use that nickname, the one he’d discarded centuries ago and now only reserved only for those close to him.  But now the name of his old innocence, his softer and kinder self—Weaker! his own self-hated reminded him—sounded beautiful on her lips.

Except he still didn’t know what to say to her.  To any of this.

“I—I have things to do.”  His hands flapped uselessly as he spoke the words, and then like the coward he was, Rumplestiltskin fled.

Teleporting himself to his work room, however, didn’t take away the feeling of her hand on his arm or her lips on his scaly cheek.


 

By the time two days had passed since the Blue Fairy’s visit, Belle was tired of playing peacemaker.  Rumplestiltskin remained skittish, Fiona remained depressed, and they were both driving her crazy.  Rumplestiltskin was avoiding his mother, which made Fiona heave long-suffering sighs and watch him with sad brown eyes.   In turn, Rumplestiltskin snuck glances at his mother when she wasn’t looking, his expression hurt and longing all at the same time.  Belle wanted to smash their heads together, but only an idiot would try that with two of the most powerful magical beings in the realm.  So, since she had a lick of sense in her head, she went for the slightly-less-difficult one of the pair: the Black Fairy.

Not that anyone outside her situation would ever consider the Black Fairy easy to deal with, but at least Fiona wasn’t battling a curse that seemed to make her determined to believe no one could care for her.  The more time Belle spent around Rumplestiltskin, the more damaged she realized he was, and she didn’t think he was up to taking the first step.

That left Fiona, who was almost as dramatic as her son, but less broken.

“You can’t leave things like this.”  Belle spoke up as they both read through various books on curses and breaking them.  “You have to talk to him.”

“He’s made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t want to talk to me.  But I’m patient.  I’ll wait out this little snit.”

“It’s not a snit!” Belle couldn’t believe her ears, because she was pretty sure that Fiona knew better.  But Fiona clearly didn’t take rejection any better than her son, because now she was overreacting.  “He’s angry with you because he thinks you believe he isn’t good enough as he is, that you want him to be something else.”

“Of course I do!”  Fiona twisted to glare at her.  “I want to save him from that horrible curse, you silly girl.  I thought you understood that!”

“That’s not the point.”  How could such a smart woman—fairy?—be so dense?  Belle wanted to scream in frustration.  “The point is that he thinks he isn’t good enough for you, that you love him less because he’s not what he was supposed to be.”

Those words finally hit home; Belle watched Fiona blanch.  “That’s ridiculous.”

“Then tell him that.  He’s depressed because he thinks you think less of him, and your opinion matters to him.”

“He should know that already.”

Belle crossed her arms, biting back a groan.  “Aren’t you the one who is always telling me how that curse messes with his mind?  Can’t it be doing that now?”

“I hate you when you’re right.”  Fiona’s glare was back.  “You’re absolutely insufferable.”

Belle couldn’t help snorting out a laugh.   It was unladylike, and her old governess would have lectured her, but being a lady hardly mattered here in the Dark Castle.  “You’re one to talk.” 

Fiona’s growl promised murder, but at this point, Belle knew that she was safe.


 

The Jolly Roger was gone.  Forever, apparently; Pan wouldn’t talk about it, but rumor said that Hook had made some sort of deal with Pan, had gotten him something he wanted, and had somehow won his crew their freedom from Neverland.  Bae hadn’t believed it when he’d heard the news, but the ship had stayed gone much longer than usual, and he found himself angrier than he should have been.  Part of him hated Hook for not offering him a ride out of this hellhole, and the rest of him was just angry that the Lost Boys’ favorite target for their ‘games’ was gone.  Without the pirates around for Pan to play with, he turned to the other Lost Boys for entertainment, and Bae had found himself right in the crosshairs.

That left him seeking out Tiger Lily more and more, because as far as Bae knew, Pan never went to her cave.  Pan obviously hated her, but Tiger Lily seemed to have something going on that made him leave her alone.  Bae wasn’t sure what kind magical trick let her pull that off, but he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. 

Still, he couldn’t hide in Tiger Lily’s cave too often, because then the Lost Boys would figure out where he was.  So, he headed out yet again, hoping that his cave would be empty and there wouldn’t be any Lost Boys lurking around outside.  Things had gotten a little better since Rufio’s death, but Felix had stepped up as Pan’s new favorite, and he was almost as bad.  But he’s not as good at tracking, so at least I can avoid him better, Bae told himself, kicking a coconut out of the way as he walked.

“Feeling down, Baelfire?” The voice came from above him, and Bae stumbled to a stop.  Eyes wide, he stared up at where Pan was perched in a tree, and he felt his hands tighten into fists as the demon child of Neverland hopped down.  “That’s such a shame.  I hate it when my Lost Boys are unhappy.  Neverland is supposed to be a fun place!”

Bae snorted.  “Don’t lie to me.  You love it when we’re unhappy, except for your favorites.”

“My ‘favorites’ understand how Neverland is supposed to work.  There are no rules here, and no adults.  We get to play all the time, and the more brutal the games are, the better.”  Pan grinned.  “You could be one of those favorites, Baelfire.  We miss having you dance around the fire with us.”

“All the dancing got old, and my feet started to hurt.”  He rolled his eyes, not willing to give Pan the pleasure of seeing how wary of him he was.  Bae was wary, though, because he wasn’t an idiot.  Not many Lost Boys actually died, and the magic inherent in this horrible little island meant most wounds healed pretty fast, but that didn’t mean that Pan wasn’t fond of dishing out pain.

“You liked it well enough in the beginning.”  Pan actually looked like he was trying to convince Bae to come back into the fold, but Bae wasn’t going to be fooled.  Not this time.  “You  heard my music when no one else did—you’re practically one of the original Lost Boys.  C’mon.  Come back to the fire, and we’ll have some chocolate cake after dinner.”

For a moment, Bae hesitated.  He didn’t want anything to do with Pan, but playing along would make things better, wouldn’t it?  Avoiding the Lost Boys made him a target, and Bae was really sick of being chased and having stones thrown at him.  At best.  Rufio’s games were much worse!  He didn’t actually have to like their stupid games to pretend he did, after all.  Even if he felt more grown up by the day—and felt this place was stupid—drawing attention to himself wasn’t smart.  Escaping would probably be easier if they weren’t chasing him all the time, too.  Bae only had half of a plan for that, but being in Pan’s good graces would make everything easier.

“No hard feelings?” he asked cautiously.  “No price to pay?”

“Of course not!”  Pan grinned.  “We miss you, Bae.  We’re your family.”

No, you aren’t, he didn’t say.  I had a family, and even at its worst, it was better than you.  He was still angry at his father, still convinced that his real father had been eaten by the Dark One and was gone forever, but that didn’t mean that things hadn’t been good, once.  Or that he didn’t miss the life that was so much better than he’d thought at the time.

“All right.  I’ll come back.”  Bae shrugged, lying as best he could.  “I guess I kind of miss it, too.”

“There’s a lad!” Pan slapped him on the shoulder, and Bae managed not to flinch.  “Let’s go back to the others and celebrate our reunion!”

Swallowing back bile, Bae grinned and went along with it.  I’m going to get out of this place if it’s the last thing I do, he promised himself.  Whatever my papa became, he’s not coming for me, so it’s up to me.  I’m going to save myself, and then never, ever, look back.


 

Rumplestiltskin still wasn’t sure how to cope with the fate he was supposed to have had.  Even after two days to think about it—and avoid his mother—his head was still spinning.  He had been meant to be the Savior.  It still didn’t make sense.  He’d been no one and nothing before he’d taken power for himself, and Rumplestiltskin just didn’t know how to feel about the fact that he’d once been meant to be something.  The thought made him feel strange, lost and powerful all at the same time.  It left his stomach doing wild dances, made him unbelievably nauseous, and deposited a strange taste in his mouth that Rumplestiltskin couldn’t define.

“Will you not run away from me this time?”

Fiona’s voice made him jump; Rumplestiltskin had been in his tower, blessedly alone.  Belle had been the one bright spot in his last few days, inexplicably there when he needed someone and so very kind.  In contrast, his mother had clearly been waiting for Rumplestiltskin to talk to her, which he’d refused to do out of spite. 

He summoned up his most unpleasant laugh.  “Only if you give me a reason not to, Mommy.”

“If you’re going to be ridiculously stupid, I will just leave.”  Fiona’s glare bounced right off of him; Rumplestiltskin was determined not to care.

He shrugged.  “So, go, then.”  He added a twirling hand wave for good measure.  “See if I care.”

“Rumplestiltskin, be serious!” She snapped the words at him like he was a naughty child, making him giggle again.  “I am trying to apologize to you.  Again.”

“As you’ve adroitly pointed out, you’ve already done that.”      He snorted. “So, why do it again?  Are you hoping for a different reaction this time?”

“I was hoping we could actually talk.”  Fiona stepped forward, visibly stepping on her pride. Doing so clearly took an effort; she was scowling.  “About what I did, and what it means.”

Throw her out.  Let the Blue Fairy have her, Zoso whispered.  Send her back to the Dark Realm, and see what that does to her.  Nimue, of course, chimed in, too: It would serve her right to be lonely this time.  You don’t need her.  You don’t need anyone.

Except us.

Rumplestiltskin almost opened his mouth to say just that, but then he stopped himself.  Why would the Dark Ones suddenly want his mother gone?  Generally speaking, they were rather fond of her darkness; they certainly liked her more than they liked Belle!   They hadn’t pushed so hard against Fiona since the beginning, which meant there had to be a reason for that.  His internal passengers were rarely illogical, and everything they whispered or shouted at him was to serve the darkness’ purpose.  If keeping Fiona around suddenly contravened said purpose…well, that had to be because of what she had told him.

I was supposed to be the Savior.  The thought still felt strange, but no longer quite so alien.  The Dark Ones hated that; perhaps he might embrace it.

No!  What kind of fool was he, to think he could?  His fate had been stripped away, and he was the Dark One.  That was all he was…wasn’t it?

“Rumple?”  His mother’s voice suddenly came from right next to him, and her hand was warm on his arm.  He hadn’t let her touch him since that last conversation, and the unexpected contact made him shiver.  “Are you all right?”

“Of course I’m not.”  Despite his best efforts, the honest words slipped out.  “I’m—I’m…”

“Confused.  Hurt?” Fiona’s smile was wry and bitter.  “Betrayed?”

Rumplestiltskin’s throat threatened to close up as he shook his head.  “I told you that I don’t care about you stripping away my fate.”

“But you’re rightly angry with me.  I deserve it, but I do want you to know that I don’t think less of you.  I love you for who you are, not what you are—or what you could have been.”  She met his eyes, and try though he did, Rumplestiltskin couldn’t sense a lie.  “I know you don’t think yourself deserving of love, my son, but you are.  And if you won’t let me love you, don’t be afraid to let someone else in.”

“I, um, er…” Rumplestiltskin trailed off, not sure what to say.  She didn’t think less of him?  She didn’t love him less?  Breathing was hard, but after a moment, he managed to think.  His mother’s love was often overpowering, sometimes even suffocating, but he’d never wanted to reject it.  Not even now.  Finally, he forced out a coherent whisper: “I don’t want you to leave.”

“Oh.”  Fiona’s mouth hung open for a moment before she snapped it shut.  “Oh, that’s good.”

“I’m still angry.”  His voice felt very small.  He wasn’t sure why he was angry; he just was.

“As well you should be.  I tore something away from you that no one had a right to take, but I am here now to make things right.  Whatever it takes.”

Rumplestiltskin scowled in confusion.  “What do you mean…make things ‘right’?”

“For starters, I will stand by you, no matter what.”  Leaning in, Fiona kissed him on the forehead, and Rumplestiltskin felt a strange-but-welcome pulse of warmth and love.  Then she smiled.  “And I’ll help you win the heart of the maid you’re too obviously ‘not’ pining for.”

“Mother!  I’m not—I’m not—”

Fiona laughed.  “Oh, of course you are.  Don’t be silly, my boy.  She likes you, too.  Have you seen how that girl watches your backside when you’re walking around the castle?”

Rumplestiltskin had never felt his face turn so red in all of his centuries of existence.


 

He’d been watching her strangely all afternoon, but at least Rumplestiltskin was talking to his mother again.  That wasn’t to say that their relationship was normal, but what was normal for those two?  Today, Fiona kept shooting Rumplestiltskin significant looks that hinted at something, which would get him mumble-y and twitchy and make him stutter out things Belle couldn’t quite catch.  She would have been certain that the two were sharing a joke at her expense if Rumplestiltskin hadn’t seemed almost…embarrassed.

She contemplated going up to check on her homeland through the magical window just to get away from the pair of them, but Belle decided to curl up by the fire and read a book instead.  Neither Rumplestiltskin or Fiona actually expected her to do work these days, and while a part of Belle found that strange, she also found that she’d settled into the routine at the Dark Castle very well.  I could have a much worse life, she thought as she watched Fiona fidget curiously.  Rumplestiltskin was out in the entrance hall, meeting someone or another, and Fiona clearly didn’t know who, either.  I could be married to Gaston.  Here, Belle could read and learn all she wanted, and she had a purpose.  She hadn’t really believed Fiona in the beginning when the Black Fairy had asked for her help freeing Rumplestiltskin from the curse of the Dark One, but now Belle understood.  Rumplestiltskin had been meant to be a hero, and Belle would help him find that man again.

And perhaps she might find something for herself in the process, too.

Muffled voices came from the outer hall, and Fiona fidgeted more.  Biting her lower lip to suppress a giggle, Belle watched the Black Fairy over the top of her book, noticing how Fiona was no longer even pretending she was trying to read.  She looked ready to pop right out of her chair and stride over to the door leading out of the great hall, and the worst part was that Belle was pretty sure that Fiona was only bored, not worried.  Sometimes, she makes Rumplestiltskin look sedentary, and he’s the one usually prancing around with his hands going every which way!

Finally, Rumplestiltskin returned, carrying a furred cloak and looking very pleased with himself.

“Are we stealing clothes from princes, now?” Fiona got in before Belle could even open her mouth.  “And here I thought that your tastes didn’t run in that direction.”

“Mother!”  Was it Belle’s imagination, or did Rumplestiltskin turn red?  No, he was definitely blushing, and skittering back as if he was greatly offended.

Fiona laughed.  “Oh, do forgive me.  Now, what’s the cloak for, and who is it from?  Do tell me you didn’t make a deal for that when you could have gotten something much better from a prince.”

“I’ll have you know that this is exactly what I need.”  Rumplestiltskin glared.  “And the deal is done.”

“What did the prince want?” Belle finally managed to get her question in; she was terribly curious about why a prince would make a deal with Rumplestiltskin.  Usually, only desperate people—or Queen Zelena—stopped by the castle, so why would a prince need the Dark One’s power?

“A way to find his True Love and restore her to herself.”  Rumplestiltskin’s giggle was gleeful as he held up the cloak.  “And I received a hair in return.”

“A hair?” Belle asked, but it was Fiona who gasped.

“You’re trying again?  The potion?”

“Yes.”  He wiggled with glee, putting the cloak down on the table and summoning a magnifying glass.  “I’m going to brew True Love!”

“True Love?” Belle was on her feet before she could stop herself, her mind whirling with curiosity.  “How can you make a potion that will create something so special?  Didn’t you say that magic can’t make someone fall in love, let alone True Love?”

Much to her surprise, the look Rumplestiltskin threw her when he looked her way was appreciative, not annoyed by her questions.  “You are a clever one.”  He waggled a finger in the air.  “And you’re right.  Magic can’t make anyone fall in love, but bottling power from existing True Love, now that, I can do.”

“How?”

“Don’t take him too much at his word.  It’s never been done before.”  But Fiona was at Belle’s side, and looked just as curious as she felt.  Together, they watched Rumplestiltskin summon a set of tweezers and pluck a single hair off of the cloak.  That went into a small bottle that he pulled out of thin air, joining another hair that was already there—and the two hairs suddenly merged, glowing pink and then purple.  Rumplestiltskin squealed in delight, and even Belle could almost feel the magic radiating off of the bottle.

“That’s amazing,” Belle whispered, stepping forward for a closer look.

“Told you so.” Rumplestiltskin’s cheeky grin was aimed at his mother.

Fiona, surprisingly, just laughed.  “So you did.  So you did, indeed.”


 

Of course, the feeling of warmth and victory couldn’t last.  In Rumplestiltskin’s experience, those feelings never, ever did.  Not in his life, anyway.  Yet he still wasn’t expecting the Blue Fairy to summon him the next day; she generally stayed away from the Dark One at all costs—especially him.

He wasn’t sure if Blue avoided him because he had once been a peasant who dared ask for her help, or if she did so because he’d once been ‘worthy’ of having a fairy godmother.  Rumplestiltskin hadn’t asked his mother anything about his fairy godmother, and there were good reasons for that.  Firstly, because he wasn’t sure he wanted to know, and secondly, he was afraid that she was as bad as Blue—or that Blue had really been the one who botched everything up.  He didn’t want any more association with that damned bug than he already had, and if he’d realized it was her summoning him, Rumplestiltskin probably would have ignored her.

Alas, he had not.

“What do you want?” He didn’t even try to keep from snarling when he found himself face-to-face with the Blue Fairy; she was floating so primly in the air with her typical holier-than-thou expression on her face, acting like she was worlds better than him.

Once, Rumplestiltskin would have immediately agreed that she was.  Now he wasn’t so sure.

“Dark One.”  Blue folded her hands piously.  “I wished to speak to you.”

“That’s what usually happens when someone summons me, dearie,” he snapped.  “Get on with it.”

Kill her.  You know you can, Nimue whispered.  We’ll help.  Dispose of that blue-winged pest and do the world a service.  Rumplestiltskin shook the voices off with an effort.  He wanted Blue dead, but he wasn’t about to open himself up to that much of Nimue’s influence.  What kind of idiot do you think I am?

Nimue just growled.

“I’m afraid that it falls to me to share a truth with you that your mother has denied you.”  Blue looked like she was trying valiantly to give him a caring smile, but the effort came out more like a grimace.  “And while it grieves me to do so, you deserve the truth.”

“Do I?” Rumplestiltskin barked out a laugh.  “That’s certainly the first time you felt I deserved anything.  This must be giving you indigestion.”

Blue sighed a long-suffering sigh.  “Must you be so difficult?”

“It’s in the title, you know.”  He grinned at her, just to watch her scowl deepen.  “Dark One.  Not ‘Nice’ One, or ‘Easy’ One.  Nor even ‘Light’ One, contrary to what you’re about to tell me, hm?”

“She told you?”  The words ripped out of Blue in a gasp, and Rumplestiltskin couldn’t help a delighted giggle.

“Of course she did, dearie!  She is my mother.”  And he was rather offended on Fiona’s behalf that Blue assumed she wouldn’t, too.  Fiona might have been a lot of things, but she didn’t lack courage.

Pity you couldn’t inherit that from her, Spinner.  But he ignored Zoso’s bitter voice.  His habitual cowardice wasn’t important right now.

“I doubt she told you the entire truth, Rumplestiltskin.”  Blue squared her shoulders importantly, but all he noticed was that things had to be serious if she was actually using her name.  “She might have told you that you were destined to be the Savior, but did she tell you that she took that fate from you?  That she deemed her power more important than yours, and so she cut away your destiny all to embrace her darkness?”

“And if she did?”  Rumplestiltskin couldn’t help how sharp his voice grew; Blue’s assumption that his mother had lied to him grated on every nerve he had.

“Then I cannot imagine why she is still welcome in your home.”  Her expression turned to strained pity.  “To learn that your mother had lied to you, just like your father did—”

“Don’t compare them.”  His voice was ice-cold as he cut Blue off.  “You exiled my mother, in case you’ve forgotten.  You ensured I’d grow up without her.  Or does that not matter, because she dabbled in a bit of darkness?”

“A bit?!”  Blue looked aghast.  “If you knew what she had tried to do—”

“Something like, casting a curse?” Rumplestiltskin cut her off with a gleeful wiggle that he didn’t really feel.  Part of him was still sick at the thought; his mother had been willing to tear hundreds of children away from loving parents, all to save him.  He didn’t doubt her love, and he knew how desperation could turn one towards darkness, but it still made him uneasy.  At least my version of the curse will bring families to the Land Without Magic together.

“You’re despicable,” Blue spat.  “You’re a monster.”

“At least I’m not someone who tried to blackmail a woman into abandoning her family.  Is that what ‘good’ fairies do these days, Reul Ghorm?” He twirled his hands mockingly.  “If that’s the standard for fairy godmothers, I’m glad I never had to suffer through having one.”

“You have no idea what she took from you.  And I would feel sorry for you if you were not so terrible.”

“I don’t need to know that, dearie.”  Rumplestiltskin didn’t want to know, either.  In the end, knowing that his mother loved him was enough.  Fiona was not the only one who had made mistakes, after all.  “But do you know what is obvious?  You lack the power to force my mother back into the Dark Realm.”

Blue sniffed, clearly offended.  “Of course I don’t.  I simply wanted to give her the chance to do the honorable thing.”

“Eh, no you didn’t.  You wouldn’t know ‘honor’ if it ate you for breakfast.  You can’t force her back, so you resorted to blackmail.”  Rumplestiltskin giggled.  “And you really don’t like the idea of her and I teamed up, do you?  Afraid of what we might do together, hm?”

“I’m not going to listen to this any longer.  I came to help you, but it is clear that my assistance is not wanted.”  Blue looked towards the sky and started to fly away, so Rumplestiltskin cheerfully waved her on.

“Bye-bye!  Don’t let the darkness bite you on the arse on the way out!”

He really hated fairies.

Chapter Text

Tiger Lily didn’t spy on the Lost Boys often, but keeping an eye on Pan was her self-imposed duty.  She had failed to guide Malcolm onto a good path, even once she’d given up her wings and tried to live a normal life as a human.  Malcolm had ignored her then, just as Pan ignored her now.  In those early years, Malcolm had been determined to ignore his son, but as if that wasn’t despicable enough now he was determined to pit the boys on Neverland against one another.  Forcing alliances to shift and change, making friends into enemies, was what Pan loved most.  Malcolm had liked games when he was younger, but having become a youth, meant that he reveled in them.

She was certain that whatever he was doing with Baelfire now was just another of his games; Bae was the most rebellious and the clever of the Lost Boys, the only one who emphatically hated Neverland.  Unlike the others, Baelfire hadn’t ever wanted to be here, and it showed in how he refused to play along with any of Pan’s games.  That made Tiger Lily respect him even more, and the fact that she hadn’t seen him in weeks was at least part of the reason she was here.  Tiger Lily missed their conversations, missed Bae’s visits, and she was worried for the boy.  I could not protect Fiona’s son, but perhaps I can protect this boy, she told herself, peeking through a thick clump of trees.

The crackling of the fire could not obscure the laughter coming from the group of boys.  Much to Tiger Lily’s surprise, Baelfire was laughing, too.

“Did you see his face?” She had never seen Bae so animated, and yet there he was, sitting next to Pan and grinning.  “He was so surprised!”

“I think this new game is marvelous!” Pan threw back his head and hooted merrily.  “Who else would have thought of creating pirates out of Lost Boys?”  He raised his mug.  “To Baelfire, the smartest of the band!”

“To Baelfire!” the others chorused, and Bae seemed to turn a little red with pleased embarrassment.

Bae waved his hands for them to be quiet.  “We have to build boats, next.  We can race them, and see if we can sink one another!” 

“What about the mermaids?” Tootles frowned worriedly.

Pan snorted.  “Only a coward is afraid of mermaids.”

“But they could—”

“Eat some cake!” Baelfire interrupted far too quickly. 

The boys eagerly did so, scarfing down the cake created by Neverland’s magic, but Tiger Lily was left wondering what in the world Baelfire’s plan was.  Did he hope a mermaid could kill Pan when nothing else could?  The idea wasn’t a terrible one, even if Tiger Lily knew that it wouldn’t work.  Pan was too tied to Neverland for a simple trick like that to work, too much a part of the island’s magic.  It was a shame, because Tiger Lily knew that Pan’s death would leave all of these boys in a better place…but getting rid of him was just not that easy.


 

Now that the issue of the Blue Fairy’s inconvenient truths was dealt with, life in the Dark Castle had returned to normal.  Or at least to what passed for normal in this strange little world of theirs, anyway.  Rumplestiltskin returned to doing whatever he usually did—which included teaching the Wicked Queen magic, a fact that absolutely befuddled Belle—and Belle returned to doing research with Fiona.  Part of her still felt guilty that she hadn’t told Rumplestiltskin about the secret project she shared with his mother, but she was beginning to see how the darkness affected his mind.  He had said that he wouldn’t change being the Dark One if he could, but how could someone who was destined to be the Savior say that?

Fiona did say that being the Dark One corrupts his mind, she remembered, reading yet another book on atrocities attributed to Nimue.  Scanning the long list made her frown.  “Can one person really be responsible for all of these horrible things?”

“Probably.”  Fiona simply shrugged like it meant nothing, and Belle couldn’t help shooting her a sharp look.  “What?  Darkness begets darkness.  The more you taste, the more you want it.  Nimue stole light magic with murder in her heart, and there’s no bigger invitation for the darkness to eat you whole than that.”

“I’m not sure I understand.  Nimue’s magic was light magic?”

“It was supposed to be, anyway.” Fiona snorted.  “Apparently, she was a bit high on the idea of murder when she acquired it, which turned her towards darkness.  That strikes me as rubbish, of course, but I got that from as close to the source as you can manage these days.”  A laugh.  “That self-important do-gooder should probably be turned back from a ferret by now, but I’m not about to go asking for more details.  He wouldn’t share them, anyway.”

Belle blinked in confusion.  “What?”

“Never you mind.  It’s not important, and he got better.”  Fiona sighed, gesturing at the book Belle was reading.  “Suffice it to say that Nimue somehow managed to turn the most powerful magic in creation into a curse—how, I am not yet certain.  Perhaps it’s Merlin’s doing.”

“Merlin?”  Eyes wide, Belle sat up straight.  “I thought he was just a legend.”

“No, he’s a tree.”

“What?  You’re joking, right?”

“Hardly.  Apparently, Nimue turned him into a tree before she died and passed that dismal curse along.  No one but a Savior can free him, and unfortunately, the only Savior-type we have available is—”

“Rumplestiltskin could free Merlin?”  Belle didn’t need to ask if Merlin could help them; every story ever said that Merlin was the most powerful sorcerer in the history of humankind.

Fiona shook her head, looking sad.  “No.  It takes a Savior’s magic, and that my boy no longer has.  Merlin’s lost to us, and more’s the pity.  He might have been useful. His apprentice is just a horse’s ass.”

Belle couldn’t help gaping.  Fiona was always entertaining to listen to, and Belle almost always learned something from her.  Unfortunately, none of that knowledge got them any closer to how to free Rumplestiltskin, but it did tell Belle that the source of that curse wasn’t some primordial darkness.  She’d been half certain that it was, and had despaired of finding a way to save someone who didn’t want to be saved.  Can he be saved despite himself?  Belle didn’t know, but the idea felt a little wrong.  Surely there was some way to convince Rumplestiltskin.

“But that hardly matters,” Fiona continued briskly when Belle couldn’t quite figure out what to say.  “Merlin’s not an option, and the feckless ferret can’t or won’t help.  That leaves us to figure out how to save my boy, and I fear it won’t be as easy as unraveling that mess Nimue created.”

“How does someone turning light magic into dark become a curse?”  Belle had read a lot on magic lately, and that just didn’t make sense.

“I can only wish I knew the answer to that.”  Fiona heaved an over-the-top sigh that Belle couldn’t quite disagree with.  “Now, I’m going to tell you something, but this time you have to promise not to blab it all to my all-too-paranoid child.  Agreed?”

Belle frowned.  “Will it hurt him not to know?”

“Of course not!  What kind of mother do you take me for?”

One who isn’t always free of the same darkness you hate in your son, Belle didn’t say.  Instead, she gave a small shrug of her own.  “I just worry for him.  He’s so…lost, sometimes.”

“I know.”  Fiona softened immediately. “But he’ll not like me sharing this, so you must keep it a secret.  But the former Dark Ones are all a part of his curse.  I don’t know if it’s from the way Merlin tethered—oh, nevermind that—or what, but the previous Dark Ones are all inside him, in a sense.  He can hear their voices, and sometimes I wonder how they don’t drive him insane.”

“How…how many of them are there?”  Belle felt her chest growing tight with pity for Rumplestiltskin; no wonder why he was so mercurial, so off-balance!  Poor Rumple. How can you fight that and remain yourself?

Was that why he’d been so ferociously against the very idea of her helping him?  Had the other Dark Ones objected?

“I’m not certain.  Records are fragmented, but I’d think twenty or so.  Perhaps two dozen of them.”  Fiona scowled.  “They influence him, even when he fights them.  And I’m not always sure he can tell their whispers from his own thoughts, particularly when things get bad.”

“I won’t tell him you told me.”  Belle was able to say that with a clear conscience.  If there were voices inside Rumplestiltskin trying to hurt him, it was safer if he didn’t know that others would help him fight them.  “I promise.”

Fiona smiled.  “Good girl.  I knew I could count on you.”


 

You’ve encouraged this madness.”  Blue’s glare was sharp enough to pierce steel, but Tink didn’t back down.

“I’ve supported a friend.”  She crossed her arms and jutted her chin out defiantly.  “Nova deserves happiness, and so does Dreamy—Grumpy, I mean.  Keeping them apart is wrong.”

“It’s not the fairy way.  You know that.”

“I don’t care.”

Blue’s scowl only deepened.  “This is all the Black Fairy’s doing. She corrupted and encouraged you, and—”

“Stop blaming this on her as if I can’t think for myself!” Tink cut her off in a snarl.  “I am not an idiot, and I’d decided to help Nova before I ever met the Black Fairy.  And from where I’m standing, Fiona seems a hell of a lot more honest than you do!”

“How dare you?!”

“You’re not even denying it.”  Tink couldn’t stop the very un-fairylike snort. “You’re horribly unfair to the younger fairies, and you could have given Nova hope instead of forcing Dreamy to break her heart.  Instead, you took the coward’s way out and bullied a dwarf.”

She had never seen Blue go so red; she thought the senior fairy was going to spit fire at her.  “Of course I am not denying anything.  I refuse to dignify such ridiculous accusations with a response.”

“That sounds to me like you can’t think of an answer.”

“Be careful, Green.”  A steely glare.  “You’re treading on perilous ground.”

“My name is Tinker Bell,” she snapped.  “Like the fairies of old, I want to be more than just some generic color.”

“If you keep on like this, you won’t be a fairy any longer.  I will not tolerate this much insubordination.  You have already broken into the Sacred Vault of the Fairies, consorted with our greatest enemy, and encouraged another fairy to defy our most hallowed rules.   I would be well within my rights to throw you out of the order here and now.”

“So do it.”  The words were out before Tink really thought about them, but she didn’t regret her impulsive outburst for a moment.  “Go on.  Kick me out because I dared to disagree with you.”

After all, she was pretty damned sure she could make a life for herself better than any crap position Blue would give her.  Blue didn’t like Tink, but that was fine by her—she didn’t like Blue, either.

Blue shook her head sadly, but the angry gleam in her eye was obvious.  How long had it been since someone had challenged her?  “Don’t be ridiculous, child.  I would never cast you out for something so small as a disagreement. It’s your blatant inability to follow the basic rules by which we live that upsets me.”

“Fine, then.”  Tink could read the writing on the wall, even if Blue was going to give her sad looks and blame it all on her.  “I quit.”

“You can’t quit being a fairy.”  Finally, Blue looked taken aback, and Tink fought to keep her expression neutral.  She was too angry to grin, though baring her teeth at Blue would have felt nice.

“I just did.” 

However, she wasn’t stupid enough to give Blue the chance to take her wand, so Tink did the only sensible thing she could do: she took off and flew away, heading out of the fairies’ homelands and into the bigger world of the Enchanted Forest.  She had no idea what she was going to do or where she was going to go, but any life had to be better than this one.


 

“Are you doing all right?” Belle’s quiet question made Rumplestiltskin jump; he’d been spinning and minding his own business until his maid had approached, and now he wasn’t sure what to do with her.

Not that he ever knew what to make of this girl who called herself his friend.  Don’t be silly, my boy, his mother had said just a few days earlier.  She likes you, too.  That memory sent a strange shiver down his spine as Rumplestiltskin stopped the wheel with one hand.

She can’t love you.  Look at what kind of monster you are, Zoso interjected the moment the wheel stopped, leaving Rumplestiltskin to push him aside with an effort.  The other Dark Ones were growing louder and louder around Belle; they didn’t like her and they didn’t want him liking her.  Rumplestiltskin maintained enough ownership of his soul to know their dislike of Belle was probably a good sign, but it didn’t mean they weren’t right.  He was a monster, and beautiful, good-hearted women like Belle did not fall for monsters.  They just didn’t.

“Rumple?” Her hand landed on his shoulder, so soft and gentle.  “Are you all right?”

“Of—of course I am.”  Zoso laughed, and Rumplestiltskin shook his head, trying to clear his mind.  “Er, why wouldn’t I be?”

“I know you told Blue that you didn’t care about your mother cutting away your destiny, but I wanted to make sure you were actually all right.”

This again? He waved a hand as casually as he could.  “There’s nothing to worry about.  My mother did what she had to, and I am what I am.”  Figuring he could test her, Rumplestiltskin twisted to look directly into Belle’s compassionate blue eyes.  “Why, don’t you like me this way?”

Of course she didn’t.  But what would she say?

“You I like.”  Belle’s smile was a little sad.  “I’m still deciding how I feel about the darkness inside you.”

“Why, they’re one and the same.”  He laughed, but the high-pitched sound felt weird in his throat.  “No differentiating the two.”

“I don’t think that’s true.  I think there’s a good man inside you, one who is as human as the rest of us.”  Belle squeezed his shoulder before stepping away to lower herself into the chair across from his wheel.  “And that means you can be hurt, so I wanted to check on you.”

Flabbergasted, Rumplestiltskin could only stare.  He didn’t know what to say to that, didn’t know how to deal with the fact that Belle worried for him.  Belle cared for him.  She wasn’t lying; he could read the honesty in her eyes far too clearly.  She’d meant it when she said that she wanted to be the friend of a monster who was usually friendless.  But that doesn’t mean she can love me, Rumplestiltskin’s own doubts reared up, unbidden.  She’s too smart and too good for that.

“I, um…I am all right.”  The words came slowly, lacking his usual imp’s voice.  They felt more like him, like the man he used to be, and that left Rumplestiltskin reeling.

“Are you still mad at your mother?”

“A little.”  He wasn’t sure why he’d admitted that to her; Rumplestiltskin wasn’t furious with Fiona or anything like that, but the fact that she’d avoided telling him the truth for so long still stung.  Had Blue not shown up with her ultimatum, would Fiona ever have told him?

“Anger’s a good thing, you know.  In small doses, anyway.”  She chuckled softly.  “Maybe not at the throwing-teacups level, though.”

Rumplestiltskin felt his face heat.  “I…I oughtn’t  have done that.”  An apology was on the tip of his tongue, but an almost physical gob of darkness reached out and weighed it down, leaving him floundering.

Belle didn’t seem to notice.  “No, you shouldn’t have.  But I forgive you, anyway.”

“Um, er, thank you.”  He swallowed hard.  That was as good as an apology, right?  Even if it wasn’t, it made Belle smile, and that was enough to make Rumplestiltskin feel surprisingly good inside.


 

She waited until Belle skipped up the stairs to the library to wander into the Great Hall; not that Fiona disliked the girl—a fact she sometimes lamented—but she did enjoy speaking to her son alone.  She’d only caught the tail end of the conversation between Rumplestiltskin and the girl, but Fiona had seen enough to notice the starry-eyed way the two fools were looking at one another.  Leave it to my son to be completely oblivious, even though I told him that Belle has feelings for him, too.   How Rumplestiltskin had successfully romanced Cora was beyond Fiona, but she suspected that Cora must have taken the lead on that front.

“I told you so,” she said by way of greeting, sweeping into the same chair Belle had vacated.  “The maid—should I even call her that now that you don’t even pretend to want her cleaning?—has feelings for you.”

“You—erm—uh—don’t be ridiculous!” Rumplestiltskin’s squeaking and sputtering was rather adorable, but Fiona wasn’t about to let him off lightly.

“My dear boy, Belle clearly appreciates the leather pants you wear at least as much as she appreciates your winning personality.”  He turned bright red, and Fiona laughed.  “Though she’s enough of a treasure that she might actually like your personality more.”

“M—Mother!

Fiona grinned, but she continued doggedly, needing her blockheaded son to see the light.  “Oh, admit you like her, Rumple.  Unless you give libraries to all of your maids, and also get in snowball fights with them?”

She’d spoken to Belle earlier about ways to unravel the Dark One’s curse, but that had mostly been a ruse.  All of their research had proven to Fiona that there was no magical (or non-magical) way to undo that curse; it had to be broken.  And there was only one type of magic powerful enough to break a curse that was at least five hundred years old, which meant that she needed Rumplestiltskin in a properly loving frame of mind towards Belle.  She also needed him to want to let it go, but Fiona suspected that love—True Love!—would help move things in that direction, assuming she could manipulate events to her advantage.

“The girl’s well-read.  It’s nice to have intelligent conversation from time to time.”  He glared at her and completely sidestepped the second point Fiona had made, but that only told her that she was winning.

She snorted.  “Yes, I imagine that teaching Zelena does leave you with a dearth of that.” 

Rumplestiltskin rolled his eyes, but then he turned to her with a suspicious snarl.  “Why are you encouraging this?  You’ve never been exactly welcoming of anyone before Belle.”

“My dear boy, you’re the one who made the deal for her.”  Fiona blinked as innocently as she could.  It wouldn’t do to get his back up, after all; then all of her plans might fall apart!  “Are you having second thoughts this late in the game?”

“Mother!  That’s not what I’m speaking of.  I’m—I’m—”

She cut his irate frothing off with a hand on his arm.  “Peace, Rumple.  You don’t have to admit it if you don’t want to.”

“You’re a fool if you think I care for her!  I’m the Dark One, and I don’t care.”

“Do you not care for me, then?”  Fiona met his eyes squarely, and watched Rumplestiltskin flinch.  “I know how big your heart is, and I love you for it.”  So will she.

The eyes that met hers were so lost and broken that Fiona leaned in to kiss his forehead gently.  Only then did he whisper: “Do you think she can, Mother?”

This was the second time he’d asked almost that exact same question, and the doubt in Rumplestiltskin’s voice made Fiona want to resurrect Milah and Cora so that she could kill both all over again.  Or go to Neverland and incinerate the teenaged brat Malcolm has become.  She had been the first to abandon Rumplestiltskin, and Fiona knew that she’d played a large role in the hurt man he had grown up to be.  But at least she was trying to make up for that, trying to love him as best as she was able.  None of the others had ever bothered.

“I do,” she answered honestly.  “Belle isn’t Cora, my darling.  She doesn’t want your power—she wants you.”

Rumplestiltskin shot her another startled look before retreating to his wheel, and that look told Fiona all she needed to know.  Rumplestiltskin had fallen hard for this noblewoman-turned-maid, and that meant there was a genuine chance of saving him.


 

“Tell me again how we’re supposed to get by the guards?”  Regina clutched her sword nervously to keep it from slipping out of her sweaty palm; she wasn’t the best swordswoman in the world, but she was better than Robin, and he was the best archer in the Enchanted Forest. 

Robin turned to her with a laugh that did not make butterflies do laps in her stomach.  “You mean you don’t want to depend on my incredible thieving skills?”

“No offense, but when sneaking into my wicked sister’s vault of hearts, I prefer to have a bit more power on our side than that.”

“Relax.”  Snow’s smile was too easy, and Regina wanted to throttle her.  Snow was on the run from Zelena, for crying out loud, yet here she was, insisting that they break into the castle to steal the Huntsman’s heart.  “I’ve got it covered.”

Regina rolled her eyes.  “You’ve been saying that for days, but some detail would be nice now that we’re about to step through the gates of hell.”

“I know these guards.”  Snow gave them an earnest look, and if Regina hadn’t liked her longtime friend so much, she would have strangled her.  “Or most of them, anyway.  They should let us by.”

“And if they don’t?” she couldn’t help snapping.  “Because, unless it’s my imagination, you also know the guards who have been chasing you around three kingdoms for the last year.  That hasn’t helped you much.”

“The Huntsman saved me!  I owe him.”

“Yeah, and that helped him a lot.  Now Zelena has his heart and she’s using him as her favorite pleasure slave.  I’m sure he feels like that’s one hell of a promotion.” 

“I hate to disappoint you, Princess, but I’m on Regina’s side, here,” Robin spoke up before Snow could throw Regina more than a wounded look.  “It would be nice to know what the backup plan is.  I’d usually go for bribery, but since you don’t seem to be hauling a gold mine around in your pocket, I think we might be out of luck on that front.”

Snow snorted.  “I’m not that stupid, you know.  I have some dark fairy dust.  If any of the guards won’t help us, we can turn them into bugs.  I’m sure Zelena can turn them back later.”

She won’t, but now isn’t the time to trouble Snow’s conscience.  Once, Regina would have been just as worried for those guards’ fate as Snow, but her time as an outlaw had changed her.  She’d been hunted by her own sister, all for the crime of having been the daughter their mother decided to keep.  The fact that Cora had died when Regina was just a baby didn’t seem to matter to Zelena; the moment Snow had run to Regina for help—which Regina had provided, given their longtime friendship—Zelena had declared Regina an outlaw.  I’m just glad that Daddy is safe, she told herself for the thousandth time.  Zelena had killed Daniel, but she hadn’t managed to get Prince Henry.

“How did you get ahold of dark fairy dust?” Robin’s incredulous question jerked Regina back to reality, and they both turned to look at Snow.

Snow swallowed noisily.  “I, um, made a deal with the Black Fairy.”

“You what?”  Regina wanted to shake sense into the girl.  “Have you lost what little remains of your mind?  Magic like that is dangerous, and the Black Fairy probably wanted—”

“She wanted me to use it against Zelena.”  Snow shrugged.  “It was strange.  I was going to make a deal with Rumplestiltskin, but she showed up and offered me the dust, so long as I ‘used it to make Zelena miserable’.  I thought this would work.”

“Are you sure she didn’t ask for something else?  Something like your firstborn child?”  Regina didn’t know a lot about magic—she hated it, after what it had done to her mother—but she knew that dark magic users weren’t to be trusted.

“Positive.”

Regina sighed. Contrary to what she’d said, Snow wasn’t an idiot, and Regina did trust her not to make a stupid deal.  She’d dealt with the Dark One without losing her soul—or her firstborn—before, after all.  Besides, they were already practically at the outer entrance to the castle, which meant they might as well break in and see what happened.  It’s not like any of us have much to lose.  I’ve already lost Daniel, Robin lost Marian, and Snow’s prince is being forced into another marriage by his father.

“Fine.”  She heaved a sigh, and adjusted her grip on the sword.  “Let’s go rescue this Huntsman’s heart.”

Much to Regina’s surprise, an hour later, they escaped with the Huntsman’s heart.  They’d have to find a way to let him know they had the heart instead of Zelena, of course, but it was a start.

And even the smallest victory could taste very sweet.

Chapter Text

Zelena had always been difficult, but the more power she gained for herself, the less she respected boundaries.  Since usually disregarding people’s personal boundaries was Rumplestiltskin’s self-assigned task, he very much disliked it when anyone did that to him.  Worse yet, she’s not trying to make me uncomfortable.  She’s trying to get into my pants.  Worse yet, his mother’s repeated comments on said pants had made Rumplestiltskin somewhat aware of the fact that women found them—and somehow, him in them?—attractive.  Zelena obviously agreed with Belle on that front, but the way that the Wicked Queen was almost drooling on him made Rumplestiltskin acutely uncomfortable.

It never bothers me when Belle looks at me like this, he realized.  But that was different, of course.  Belle was softer, kinder, lighter, than Zelena.  Belle was better.

“Don’t you tire of living in this castle with your mother?” Zelena cooed the words practically in his ear, and Rumplestiltskin fought back the urge to shudder.

I need her to cast the curse, and to do it without hating me.  If she hates me, she’ll make me miserable when she has the power, and although I’ll suffer anything to find my boy, I’d rather have comfort. 

“Why would I tire of that, dearie?”  He trilled his most off-putting laugh, but Zelena didn’t even flinch.  “She’s the Black Fairy, and makes for an excellent partner in darkness.”

“She’s your mother.  Doesn’t a…real man want to be free of his mother’s apron-strings?”  She gave him what Zelena probably thought was a seductive look, ignoring the glare Rumplestiltskin shot her in return.  “Because I do have plenty of room in my castle if you’re brave enough to relocate.”

Rumplestiltskin barely managed to laugh in time to cover his disgust.  He’d slept with her mother—there was way he was going to touch Zelena with someone else’s ten foot pole!  Damn the woman for making him need her.  Rejecting her as obnoxiously as he wanted to would utterly ensure that Zelena would make him miserable under the curse.  Rumplestiltskin knew how vindictive she was, and he had no desire to be on her bad side and under her power at the same time.  Damn it all.  Mother hasn’t found a way other than the curse, nor has she figured out how to re-write the curse without copious amounts of dark fairy dust.  Without either, he needed Zelena.  He wanted to vomit.

 “I’m quite happy here, but thanks.”  He waved a casual hand.  “After all, it’s hard to be the mysterious Dark One from the Wicked Queen’s castle.”

“But we’d make quite the team, don’t you think?” she purred, and Rumplestiltskin felt his stomach begin to reject his breakfast.

“Not if you don’t learn your magic better, dearie!”  He danced away, moving towards the spellbook Zelena was supposed to be reading.  “You’re never going to master that glamour spell if you keep letting yourself be distracted.”

“Sod the glamour spell.”  Zelena sniffed.  “I don’t need silly things like that.”

Rumplestiltskin snorted.  “And here I thought that you wanted to learn everything.  Didn’t you say that you’d be the best student I ever had?”

“Of course I will be!”  He had her, now.  Zelena’s pride was engaged, and her attempts at flirting were—hopefully!—forgotten.

“Your mother learned the spell in a week.”

“Then I’ll learn in in three days!”

The unfortunate truth was that Zelena did learn the spell in three days, but at least it got her to stop drooling on him.  For now.


 

Fiona knew that her son wouldn’t thank her for interfering in Zelena’s lesson, but she burned to barge in and put that obnoxious little witch in her place.  Zelena’s possessiveness made Fiona’s own tendency to smother look positively harmless, and even Rumplestiltskin wasn’t so oblivious that he could miss the hints the Wicked Queen was throwing his way.  He was clearly uncomfortable, too, which relieved Fiona to no end.  While she was slowly warming up to Belle—whose utter light and goodness still could still turn her stomach—Zelena was another matter entirely.  Did Fiona like her son’s darkness, she might have somewhat approved of the green-skinned witch, yet there were more reasons to dislike Zelena than to like her.

First and foremost was the fact that Zelena kept her heartless harem of men and slept with them.  Fiona was no saint, but she knew that a woman who had grown a taste for controlling men wouldn’t lose said taste quickly, and her son had an Achilles heel more crippling than most.  Cora had tried to take the dagger, and it was clear that Zelena was cut from the same cloth.  Even if Rumplestiltskin entered a consensual relationship with her, there was no guarantee that he would remain willing, and Zelena was not the type to take rejection well.  And let’s not start thinking about how she’ll need the heart of the one she loves most to cast the Dark Curse.  Fiona scowled.  It would be a grand thing indeed to get to the Land Without Magic and have to explain to her grandson that his father was butchered to cast the curse meant to bring them together.

No, they needed to find Zelena a new beau.  With that on her mind, she walked into Rumplestiltskin’s tower well after Zelena was gone, resolving to see to the issue without her son’s messy input.  There are things you trust a man to do.  This is not one of them.

“How go preparations for the Dark Curse?  Is your little student progressing nicely?”

“Zelena is a far from ideal curse caster.”  Rumplestiltskin’s lips curled up in a sneer as he glared at her.  “Which would not have happened if you hadn’t intervened with Cora.”

“Yes, then you would have had Regina, who would have been miserable, and probably less useful.”  Fiona shrugged unrepentantly.  “But then Cora might also have your dagger, and then where would you be?”

That comment earned her a poisonous glare, but this was hardly the first time they’d had this argument, so Fiona ignored her son’s silent little tantrum. Killing Cora was not something Fiona would ever regret.  Rumplestiltskin was far safer with that poisonous little beast gone, Dark Curse be damned.  And he knew it, too, which was why he turned away with a pout before answering.

“She’s found herself an old friend to amuse herself.”  A nasty giggle.  “Couldn’t happen to a nicer pirate.”

“Pirate?” Fiona wasn’t aware of any history her son had with a pirate, save for the one whose hand he’d cut off centuries earlier, the one who had stolen Rumplestiltskin’s wife.  A woman who wants to be stolen is one best let go, anyway.  She didn’t care about Milah, though; she suspected the woman was shallow enough to have been an unimpressive daughter-in-law, and it was probably a good thing she was gone.  “Dare I ask?”

“No need.  Hopefully, she’ll make him as miserable as he deserves.”  A giggle and a wiggle followed the statement, from which Fiona deduced it was definitely the same pirate.

She knew enough of that story not to feel even slightly sorry for Killian Jones.

“Well, misery does grow character.”  She grinned back at her son.  “Now, do tell me that Zelena’s magical studies are doing better than her ghastly complexion is.”

“Oh, magic’s not the problem with dear Zelena.  She’s plenty of that, and anger enough besides.”  Rumplestiltskin wagged his fingers gleefully.  “Although no one’s had the heart to tell her that her precious Prince James is dead and has been replaced with his twin.”

“Who has, of course, fallen for her hated stepdaughter.”  Fiona loved the irony of the situation, and she could see her son’s fingerprints all over it.  Her boy was such a clever villain; it was almost a shame that she was determined to redeem him.

“The irony is rather delicious.”  His smile was almost genuine, if one could ignore the mockery beneath it.  “But there remains the problem of what heart she will use.”

Ah, so he had seen it, too.   Well, I knew he was smart, Fiona thought proudly.  She’d intended to do this behind his back, but Rumplestiltskin was, thankfully, aware of the problem.  The Dark One probably couldn’t be killed via heart-crushing, yet Rumplestiltskin probably could, which would leave Fiona with Nimue and company inhabiting her son’s body and Baelfire without a father to find him.   “Perhaps I can help with that.” 

“You?”  Years ago, her volunteering would have earned Fiona a suspicious look, but now Rumplestiltskin only peered at her curiously.

“Yes, me.”  She rolled her eyes.  “I still would prefer to re-create my version of the curse—or at least adapt that to suit your ends—but if this must be done, I would prefer for you to come out the other end alive and well.  Surely there’s some fool we can find for Zelena to fall for.  She’s lonely enough that anyone who adores her enough will probably do the trick nicely.”

“And you can…find someone?”  Rumplestiltskin sounded a little surprised.

“Of course I can.  How hard can it be?”

Now there was only the question of finding the proper fool for Zelena to love.


 

Somehow or another, they had managed to escape Zelena’s vault of hearts with the Huntsman’s heart, and then one of Robin’s men had managed to sneak a message to the poor bugger.  That led to a clandestine meeting in the woods, a great deal of hugging on Snow White’s part, and a new and slightly befuddled member of the Merry Men.  Robin didn’t mind the addition, of course; the Huntsman had obviously chosen Snow over Zelena when he’d tried to fob an animal’s heart off on the Wicked Queen.  But his camp was starting to resemble a small town in the heart of Sherwood Forest instead of the mobile campsite it had been, and that left him a little uneasy.

“Thank you for allowing me to stay.”  The Huntsman’s shrug was awkward, and Robin had to smile.   “I know I’m not exactly the most welcome man here.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.  We’re a truly reprehensible lot, and you’ve the handy excuse that a witch had your heart when you did terrible things.”  Robin laughed lightly.  “You’re welcome with us as long as you want to stay.  We seem to be gathering up anyone and everyone who would oppose the Wicked Queen, anyway.”

“Well, then I fit right in.”  His dark look lifted after a moment.  “The name’s Graham, by the way.  Most everyone called me the Huntsman after she took my heart, but that’s hardly my name.”

“Robin Hood isn’t mine, either, but these monikers do seem to stick.” 

Graham’s laugh sounded like it surprised the other man, who had thus far been a mess of uncertainty and long faces.  “They do, don’t they?  Are you certain that you’re all right with me being here?”

“Of course I am.  You’re a friend of Snow’s, so you’re a friend of mine.”  Robin wasn’t sure how he’d come to be good friends with a deposed princess, but he had.  It boggled the mind, given his own significantly lower birth and outlaw status, but Snow had become a friend over the long months she’d spent with them.  So had Regina, who was almost as royal as Snow, but Robin tried very hard not to think of that.  Or her.

There was absolutely no chance for a woman like her and a man like him, so dreaming about that was stupid.  Even if Roland was inordinately fond of Regina.

“Then you have my thanks.  And my loyalty, for what it’s worth.”

“No need to take an oath or anything like that.”  Robin slapped Graham on the shoulder lightly, figuring that the Huntsman had had plenty of swearing to people like Zelena.  “We look out for one another here, and we’re honest with each other.  If you want to leave, no one will stop you.”

“And go where?”  Graham’s expression turned bleak.  “I know she’ll want me back.  Besides, I can’t very well fight her from hiding somewhere else, and the only people willing to take on the Wicked Queen are here.”

Robin couldn’t help laughing.  “Aye, you’ve found the colony of fools willing to take on a powerful witch.  If you want to fight, you’ll fit right in.”


 

It was wrong. 

She shouldn’t be here, and Tink knew it.  Yet she really did have nowhere else to go; she’d stormed out on Blue, and she was no longer a fairy.  Granted, she still had her wand and her magic, but Tink was pretty sure that quitting in a huff meant you weren’t a fairy any longer.  At least I didn’t go and get myself exiled for being bad, she thought wryly, pausing on the path leading up to the Dark Castle.  She still had no idea what Fiona had done to get sent to the Dark Realm, but she really hoped it was more than mouthing off to Blue and falling in love.  Nova deserves better than that, anyway, and we all know she’s in love with Dreamy.  Or Grumpy.  Whoever he is now.

All the distractions in the world could not make her forget the fact that she was practically standing on the Dark One’s doorstep. I should leave.  I should go.  I shouldn’t—

“Are you lost, dearie?” The sudden ringing laugh made Tink jump, and by the time she had herself turned around, the Dark One was between her and the gates. 

Tink felt her eyes go wide.  Fiona had looked normal, for all the subtle darkness that surrounded her.  Her son, on the other hand, looked terrifying.  His skin was gold and scaly, and the fine silk and leather he wore could not disguise the way darkness wrapped around him like a cloak.  This was the Dark One that the senior fairies warned them about, a creature of darkness and despair.  How had he been human, once?  She could practically smell the lost and corrupted souls clinging to him.

“I, um—well, you see, I’m here to—”

“In case no one told you, this isn’t a terribly good place for a fairy.”  His grin was nasty, until he waved a dismissive hand.  “But I’m busy today, so I’ll give you a chance to leave before something…unfortunate happens.  So, shoo.”

Tink snorted, and her mouth ran away from her before she could think twice. “If fairies aren’t welcome here, you’d have a hard time explaining your mother.”

Rumplestiltskin’s eyes went wide with fury.  “My mother—”

“Is delighted to see that she has a visitor.”  Fiona’s sudden appearance made Tink almost go weak with relief, but she still watched in awe as the Black Fairy leaned in and kissed the Dark One on the cheek.  “Do run along and find the maid, Rumple.  Last I knew, she was picking peaches.”

“Visitor?” Rumplestiltskin threw his mother a dubious look.

“Of course she is.”  Fiona’s smile was sunny.  “Tinker Bell here is probably Blue’s second least favorite fairy—unless young Nova has taken that mantle away.  Or if we count Tiger Lily, although I daresay that Tink’s angered her more than Tiger Lily ever did.”  She waved a hand.  “Either way, you’ll not be hurting this one, young man.  She’s my guest.”

“All you had to do was say that to start with.”  His scowl was peevish, and made Tink bite back a laugh.  Fairy lore didn’t cover circumstances in which the Dark One looked like a petulant child.  “I didn’t need a rambling history lesson.”

“No, but you got one.  Do run along.”

Rumplestiltskin shot Fiona a poisonous glare before disappearing in a cloud of red smoke and leaving the two fairies alone in the courtyard.  Then the nervous laugh bubbled out of Tink before she could stop it.  “He listened to you?”

“Of course he did.  He’s my son.”  Smiling, Fiona closed the distance between them.  “But he is in a good mood today, otherwise he might have done something regrettable to you.  He really doesn’t like fairies, and Blue’s only made that worse, lately.”

“I know that Dark Ones don’t like fairies.  They’ve all hated us.”  Tink sucked in a deep breath.  “I wouldn’t be here if I had somewhere else to go.”

“Oh, his reasons are more personal than most of his predecessors, I assure you.  Good ones, too, if I do say so myself.”  Then Fiona’s eyes narrowed.  “But what do you mean that you don’t have anywhere else to do? Did Blue catch you in the Sacred Vault of the Fairies?”

“Oh, no.  It’s much worse than that.”  She swallowed hard.  “I mean, she did catch me.  But she said that you were corrupting me because I covered for Nova when she snuck off to meet with Grumpy, and so I, um, quit.”

“You…quit?” Fiona looked gobsmacked.  “I didn’t think one could quit being a fairy and keep your wand.”

“I didn’t stick around to find out.”  Tink shrugged.  “I just left.  Didn’t really give her a chance to steal my wings.”

Fiona threw her head back and laughed.  “Good for you!  That’s more courage than I showed when I gave up my wings.” 

“Yeah, but now I have nowhere else to go, so it wasn’t the best planning on my part.”

“Why, you can stay here, of course.  The castle is rather large, and there’s plenty of magical items to keep you entertained.  If we can drag Belle away from the magical window, there’s even a lovely view of anywhere and anyone you might even dream of looking in on.”

“I’m, uh, not really sure I’d be comfortable here.”  Tink wet her lips nervously, trying not to let her eyes go wide.  Fiona had become the first real mentor she’d ever had, and she admired the older woman’s brilliance and tenacity, but Tink had no desire to follow in her exact footsteps.  Tink didn’t like darkness or dark magic, and just being around the Dark One left her feeling vaguely queasy.

“Oh, don’t worry about Rumple.  His bark is far worse than his bite.  Most of the time, anyway.”

Rumple?  The very idea of the Dark One having a nickname was enough to make Tink’s head spin.  So, she decided to be honest, or at least mostly honest.

“It’s still all too weird for me.”

“Well, why don’t you stay a few days and then decide?  You can help me with a little project of mine—one that won’t keep you in the castle around my disturbingly giggly child.”  Fiona gave her a knowing smile, and Tink tried hard not to blush.  Being afraid of the Dark One was rather foolish when she’d become friends with the Black Fairy, but Tink couldn’t help herself.  Maybe it was just old fairy superstition.

“All right.”  Tink bit her lip.  “But only if you tell me what this project is.  I don’t want to hurt any of the others—”

“Not even Blue?”

“Um.”  She wanted to, and that was the problem.  Maybe Tink didn’t want to do physical damage to Blue, but she wouldn’t mind seeing Blue as miserable as Blue was trying to make Nova.  Yet Tink wasn’t sure she liked that about herself, or if she approved of how excited by that idea Fiona seemed to be.  “I don’t like the idea of hurting anyone.”

Fiona  heaved a dramatic sigh.  “You’re such a nice person, my dear.  Has anyone ever told you that?”

“Aren’t fairies supposed to be nice?”  Tink felt so out of her depth right now.

“Oh, of course.  But you usually have such nice teeth to you that I forget about your shiningly good soul.”  Fiona waved a hand when Tink opened her mouth to speak.  “No matter.  My little project has nothing to do with the fairies, and everything to do with keeping one Wicked Queen from doing anything too terrible.  Is that compatible with your moral values?”

“Yeah.”  She found it surprising, too; every fairy knew that Rumplestiltskin was teaching Zelena magic.  Some even thought he was the power behind the Wicked Queen’s throne.  “But why would you want to go against her?”

“Because that vicious little bundle of envy wants to seduce my son, and I won’t have it.”  Fiona’s nostrils flared angrily, and Tink almost took a step back.  “She’s as oblivious as a brick wall and twice as thick.”

Tink could barely keep her eyebrows from hitting her hairline.  Today is really not turning out how I expected it to!  This was undoubtedly a terrible idea, but fairy or not, Tink really did want to make a difference.  She wanted to help people, and if she could help keep Queen Zelena from hurting people, she would.  Even if that stemmed from the Black Fairy’s strange desire to keep the Wicked Queen from seducing the Dark One.

“Okay.  Tell me more.”


 

“You invited her to…what?” Rumplestiltskin barely got the words out as giggles drifted back to where he stood facing his mother in the great hall.  Belle had—of course!—taken to the young (not?) fairy immediately, and had promptly volunteered to give Tinker Bell a tour of the castle.  Belle and Tinker Bell.  I have a headache already.  “My castle is not an—an—an inn!”

“Of course it isn’t, dear.”  Fiona put a hand on his arm, but Rumplestiltskin jerked away petulantly.  And he knew he was being petulant.  He just didn’t care.  “But I didn’t think you’d mind letting a fairy whom Blue cast off stay with us for the time being.  She won’t be here for long.”

“For—for long?” Rumplestiltskin hated it when he stuttered, yet shock and dismay were making him do just that.  “Five minutes is too long!”

Oh, just kill her and be done with it, at least two Dark Ones whispered, but Rumplestiltskin batted their advice aside.  He wasn’t going to disappoint his mother like that.  The very idea was foolish.  Utterly.

“Pfft.”  She waved a hand, and a small, dark portion of Rumplestiltskin’s mind contemplated lighting that hand on fire.  Not that it would do him any good.  Fiona would merely put the fire out, heal herself, and then chastise him.  No, the momentary good feeling it would give him would not outweigh the lengthy term of feeling like an idiot.  “She’s going to help with a few things.”

“A few things.”  He felt like he’d been run over by a horse.

“Trust me, darling.”  A motherly smile.  “The less you know, the better.”

Mother.”  Make that a team of six in harness, carriage included.  Rumplestiltskin felt well and truly flattened.

Fiona patted him on the arm again.  “You’re just complaining because she’s monopolizing Belle’s time right now.  But don’t worry, Tink won’t convince your little maid to—”

“I am not worried about that!”  And his voice didn’t squeak, either.  It didn’t.

“Of course you are.  You’re always worried that someone might convince Belle that you’re not worth her time.” Fiona’s voice turned kindly, but Rumplestiltskin’s stomach still lurched nervously.  “But in case you’ve failed to notice, my son, convincing that girl of anything she doesn’t already believe is well-nigh impossible.  She likes you, and that’s that.”

Fiona’s confidence where Belle was concerned—confidence Rumplestiltskin could not share, because beautiful maidens did not fall in love with dangerous monsters—only reminded him of another topic he wanted to bring up.  And the less I think of that fairy visitor, the better, he thought, narrowing his eyes at his mother.

“Is that what the two of you giggle about when you’re holed up in the library or your rooms?” he demanded. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed, Mother.  If anyone is monopolizing her time, it’s you.”

“Don’t be silly, Rumple.  We’re discussing books.  In case you’ve forgotten, the girl is rather fond of them.  As am I.”

“I like books.” He didn’t like it when his voice sounded so small.  It made him sound weak.

You are weak, Spinner.  Weak and useless. 

“Well, then, try joining her when she’s reading some time.  Express a little interest.”  Fiona chuckled softly.  “She already likes the fact that you listen to what she says—most women do, because it’s a rare trait in a man.  Ask her about her books, and she’ll talk you ear off.”  Another laugh.  “At least then it won’t be my ear.”

Rumplestiltskin couldn’t help blinking.  “She…she likes it that I listen to her?  But why wouldn’t I?”

“My dear boy,” Fiona whispered, leaning in to kiss him on the forehead.  “Any woman who gets a good look at your gentle soul and doesn’t love you for it is a fool.  And Belle is no fool.”

He knew that he should argue with that assessment.  Dark Ones were not supposed to be gentle.  Being called gentle was anything but a compliment.  Rumplestiltskin had gone to great pains to distance himself from the gentle and weak spinner he had once been, had done dark and terrible things and steeped himself in the most powerful magics he could find.

Why, then, did Belle make him want to go back to that version of himself?

Chapter Text

Belle thought about asking Fiona before she tried to push forward in this relationship, but in the end, she stopped herself.  Rumplestiltskin was so frustrating, closed off and yet endearingly fragile.  She had to stop turning to Fiona for help with these things if she truly wanted to get to know Rumplestiltskin for himself, so she started in small ways in the days following Tink’s stay in the castle.  She didn’t bring up how the previous Dark Ones might be influencing him—even though Belle burned to ask more questions about that!  Instead, she just talked to him.  They talked about books in the library, about history, about places he had been and things he had seen.  And slowly, she started touching him more and more, laying a hand on his arm here and a kiss on his cheek there.  Rumplestiltskin seemed to soften every time she did so, his eyes looking more and more human as he gave her hesitant smiles.

Belle drank each one up like an elixir; she didn’t know why her ability to make the Dark One smile meant so much to her, but she wanted to see him happy.  There was as much sadness in him as there was darkness, she’d realized.  Rumplestiltskin was capable of terrible things, such as trying to kill that poor outlaw he’d nearly shot a few months ago, but he was also capable of deep and genuine feeling.  Can he love me? she had once asked Fiona.  Fiona, of course, had implied that he could, although Belle hadn’t been ready to believe her at the time.

She was ready now.

“Can I ask you something?” she asked that evening.  Belle had been reading while Rumplestiltskin spun—a habit they’d picked up sometime over the last few weeks—and Fiona was nowhere in sight.  The Black Fairy had said something about ‘finding a fool’ when she left to meet Tink hours earlier, and Belle thought now might be a good time to talk.

“Like what?”  Rumplestiltskin twisted to look at her, his eyes dancing with mirth.  “Do you have a desire to know what potions can keep you young and beautiful for a hundred lifetimes, hmmm?”

That question startled a laugh out of Belle, and the question that followed blurted out before she could stop herself.  “Do you think I’m beautiful, then?”

“I—I, um, well, as well you should be.”  Was he turning a little red?  Belle couldn’t tell, because suddenly Rumplestiltskin was up and looming towards her with comically feigned menace.  “A monster wouldn’t demand an ugly maiden, after all.  Only the best will do!”

“Oh, is that how it is?”  She couldn’t help giggling, though, particularly as Rumplestiltskin danced forward, clearly miming a terrible beast.

“Of course it is.  Haven’t you read the rules, dear?”

“Rules?  What rules?” 

“Of being a terrible monster.”  His hands flashed in the air, twirling.  “And I am the most terrible monster of them all.”

“Oh, stop that.  Of course you aren’t.”  Smiling, Belle reached up and grabbed Rumplestiltskin by the left arm, tugging downwards.  As she’d expected, his silly dancing had left him unbalanced, and a small pull from her made him topple onto the couch at her side with a surprised yelp.  “You’re certainly not terrible.”

Surprisingly sad eyes glanced her way briefly before looking away.  “I’m not a man.”

“But you were, once.”  Belle cocked her head.  “You weren’t always like this.”

“No.  No, I wasn’t.”  His voice was a whisper, barely audible.

“You can’t have always been alone, either, can you?” She squeezed his arm again, watching Rumplestiltskin’s face carefully.  He looked ready to clam up, ready to run away, but touching him always seemed to help.  Taking a deep breath, she decided to gamble.  “Was there a son, once?”

Rumplestiltskin’s head jerked around like a frightened rabbit, his eyes wide and almost afraid.  But he didn’t pull away, only staring at Belle while she watched his tortured expression.  Finally, his chin dropped to stare at the floor.

“Yes.  Once.”

There was so much pain in his voice that Belle could feel it hanging in the air, broken and yearning.  “What happened?” she whispered.

“I lost him.”

“I’m so sorry.”  Belle squeezed his arm again, noticing the way tears were welled up in the strange, reptilian eyes.  Despite looks, she’d never seen Rumplestiltskin appear so human as he did now, nor so small and so tired.  “What happened?  Will you tell me?”

He swallowed hard enough to make his adam’s apple bob up and down.  “There’s nothing else to tell, really.”

“I doubt that.”

“You had a life, Belle.”  His head came up as he changed the subject without warning, looking at her with a deep intensity that made Belle shiver.  “Before…this.  Friends.  Family. What made you choose to come here with me?”

“Heroism.”  Belle shrugged a little, wondering if she sounded silly.  But Rumplestiltskin clearly didn’t want to talk about his lost son, so she went along with it.  “Sacrifice.  You know, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for women in this land to… to show what they can do.  To see the world, to be heroes.  So, when you arrived, that was my chance.  I always wanted to be brave. I figured, do the brave thing, and bravery would follow.”

“And is it everything you hoped?”

“Well, uh… I did want to see the world.”  She laughed lightly.  “That part didn’t really work out.  But, uh… I did save my village.”  And Belle wasn’t so sheltered that she didn’t know how lucky she’d been.  She had expected Rumplestiltskin to deflower her, at best.  Not to make a friend who she cared for more than she’d ever cared for Gaston.

“By going with the terrible monster.”  Rumplestiltskin grinned as he said the words, so Belle smacked his arm lightly.

“If you want to frighten me, you’re going to have to do much worse than that.”

He giggled, going theatrical on her again, looming forward with a wolfish expression.  “Do you doubt I can?”

“At this point, yes!”  But Belle could barely contain her own attack of the giggles; facing that ridiculous expression made her laugh uncontrollably.  At least until a new voice rang out, rudely interrupting their fun.

“If this is what your mother’s maid gets up to when she’s gone, Rumple, you really need to find the girl some more work.” 

They both twisted to see that terrible witch of a queen, Zelena, standing by the long table.  Instantly, Rumplestiltskin was on his feet, his smile replaced by a scowl of epic proportions.  “Well, this is an unexpected pleasure, dearie.  Did you run out of peasants to torment?”  He danced forward, all danger and sharp edges, with none of the softness Belle had come to love so much.  “Or was it pirates this time?”

Zelena’s face twitched just so, and Belle knew that blow had struck home, somehow.  But she sneered right back.  “I came to speak to you about serious matters, and I find you acting like a child.  How typical.”

“Ah, but that’s the thing about power, isn’t it?” Rumplestiltskin’s voice dropped to a low growl, almost a purr.  “When you have enough of it, you can act however you wish, and no one will dare stop you.”  One finger went up, striking the air like he was poking holes in Zelena’s illusions.  “But I can understand your confusion.  You have rebellious princesses and irritating outlaws undermining you left and right.”

“Don’t test my patience, Rumplestiltskin!”

“I’ll test that and more.”  He laughed easily, wiggling a bit.  “And you know you can’t stop me.”

Belle couldn’t help snorting out a laugh; she managed to get a hand up to cover her mouth, but Zelena’s head still snapped around to glare at her.  The Wicked Queen’s eyes narrowed appraisingly, however, and then the anger seemed to melt away as she turned back to Rumplestiltskin.  “Do you know what else I know, Rumple?  I know that there are more worthy companions for you if you’re in a playful mood.”

“Are there, now?”  The way Rumplestiltskin sized Zelena up left Belle’s stomach heaving nervously.  His eyes were unreadable, with none of the softness she’d grown used to seeing, but there was something predatory about his body language, something almost sensual, that made Belle swallow.

Have I misunderstood the way he looks at me?  She wanted to creep out of the room, needed to get away to wrap her mind around this, but drawing attention to herself right now might be dangerous.  Is he only being a friend?  Does he like Zelena instead of me?  Belle had spent so much time talking to Fiona about if Rumplestiltskin could love that she’d never even realized she might have a rival for his affections.

And of course he’d like someone like her more than me.  She’s powerful.  She’s dark.  She’s a queen, not just some knight’s daughter who had nothing to barter but herself.  Belle bit her lip to keep her emotions inside, but it was so hard.  Why hadn’t she realized this might happen?

“Of course there are.”  Zelena swept forward gracefully, her voice a purr.  “We’ve always had a special relationship, haven’t we?  Send the maid away, so we might…talk.

Say no, Belle begged him silently.  Say no.  Please tell her to leave.

But Rumplestiltskin did no such thing.  Instead, he waved a hand at her dismissively, still studying Zelena with an intensity that made Belle shiver.  “Go…dust something.  Or read.  Whatever it is that you do.”

“But I—” The objection rose instinctively before Belle could cut herself off.  She desperately wanted for him to say something, but Rumplestiltskin didn’t even look at her.  “Nevermind.  I’ll go.”

Gathering herself, Belle walked out of the great hall without looking back, keeping her head high and determined not to let her feeling show on her face.  She was beginning to think that she’d made a terrible mistake, and there was nothing to do but leave.

“Shall we go somewhere more private?” Zelena asked as Belle headed for the stairs, and Belle didn’t have to turn to see her suggestive smile.

Rumplestiltskin giggled.  “What are you afraid of someone seeing, dearie?”

She left before she could hear the answer.


 

If he looked at Belle, he was done.  Contrary to what his mother might say, Rumplestiltskin was not a fool.  He knew that Zelena hadn’t given up on him, and he knew that Zelena’s hatred for Belle would grow by leaps and bounds if she so much as suspected that Rumplestiltskin had feelings for his maid.  She’d probably try something stupid, knowing Zelena, and then Rumplestiltskin would have to stop her.  That would make an enemy of his star pupil, of course, and that was exactly what he was trying to avoid by humoring Zelena’s advances until his mother could find some suitably handsome idiot to wave under her nose.

That didn’t mean that returning any small measure of her flirting didn’t make him feel sick.

Rumplestiltskin made himself giggle.  “What are you afraid of someone seeing, dearie?”  He was not leaving the great hall with this dangerously obsessive woman.  Not when she was like this.  If he had any luck whatsoever, his mother would return soon.

Zelena huffed. “I’m hardly an exhibitionist.”

No, you just keep a harem of men whose hearts you have.  You just like to abuse them in private.

“Well, neither am I!  What a lovely coincidence.”  Rumplestiltskin grinned at her and danced away as casually as he could.  “Now, why don’t you tell me why you’re here.”

“I want to renegotiate the terms of our arrangement.”  Zelena looked taken aback at the change of subject, but she wasn’t an idiot.  Clearly, she’d come for more of a purpose than flirting with him, and that fact left Rumplestiltskin weak with relief.

“I wasn’t aware that we had an agreement, Your Majesty.”  As usual, she only noticed some of the sarcasm he infused the title with; Zelena still puffed up when someone called her that.

“You need me.  The way I see it, that means that you owe me something in return.”

Damn her intelligence.  Zelena was a pain in the posterior, but she was smart.  And she was far more ruthless than Regina ever would have been, even if Cora had raised her.  That, of course, wasn’t necessarily a good thing.  Nor was Zelena’s utter amorality.  Both were things he hadn’t wanted in his curse caster, but she was right.  He needed her.

Still, he wasn’t going to admit that, not to her face. 

“Plans can change.” Rumplestiltskin wagged a cautionary finger at her.  “Don’t tempt me too much.”  But he didn’t say he wouldn’t give her something.  Letting her think that she could win this round was probably advisable.  He needed her to believe in her own power if she was going to cast the curse.

“Of course they can.”  Zelena straightened her dress and her hair dismissively.  “I don’t mind that you have plans in mind for me, but I do insist that you show me a little respect.  And if you’re going to get things from me, I want things from you.”

He snorted.  “Such as?”

“I want you to stop helping that insufferable little brat who calls herself my stepdaughter.  I want her to suffer, and I want you to help.”

“No can do, dearie.”  Rumplestiltskin waved an airy hand, wiggling a little further away for good measure.  He certainly wasn’t going to help Zelena kill Snow White, not now that she was the other half of his True Love potion.  Dangling Regina in front of Zelena as bait, on the other hand…that he could do.  “Besides, I thought you wanted your sister to suffer more?  Can’t make up your mind?”

“I want them both to suffer,” Zelena snarled.  “They’re working together!  Still!”

“Surely that’s a problem you can solve on your own.”  He arched an eyebrow at her.  “Do you really want my help?  Next you know, people will be saying that the Wicked Queen is nothing but the Dark One’s pawn…” Rumplestiltskin trailed off suggestively, and watched Zelena go red with anger.

Or maybe it was more like brown.  Going red was hard when your complexion was already green.

“They wouldn’t dare!”

“Stupid people dare stupid things.”  He sang the words at her, just to watch her lose her temper, but much to Rumplestiltskin’s surprise, Zelena swallowed her fury with an effort.  She’s learning.  That could be dangerous.

“Fine.”  Zelena drew herself up again, clearly trying to look regal.  “Regina doesn’t matter, anyway.  Once I kill my brat of a stepdaughter, she’ll mean nothing.  But I insist on getting something in return for being used.”

“And my training isn’t something in return?”  Rumplestiltskin let his voice grow high pitched, rolling the words off his tongue as if he was more offended than he was.  Truth be told, he was a trifle annoyed; Zelena was clever, yes, but he was giving her a gift of magic like she’d never dreamt of when she ran from Oz in hopes of a better life in the Enchanted Forest.  She’d known enough magic to make herself into a queen, but not enough for much else.  He’d given her that.  “I think you overestimate your own worth, Zelena.

She sniffed.  “You’re hardly training me out of the goodness of your heart.”  Zelena cocked her head, suddenly starry-eyed and softer.  “Unless you are?”

“Of course not!  Who said I have any goodness in me to give?”  He laughed at that one, dancing even further away from this student who sometimes reminded him far too much of her mother.

“I’ll have the dagger by then, Rumple, dear.  We both know that you’re only so clever, and I know you all too well.  I will find it easily.  Then we’ll make up for lost time.”  Decades later, those words still made him shiver in sick fear.  Cora had meant them—and given half a chance, he was fairly certain that Zelena would do the same.

After all, he was well aware of the harem she kept buried deep in her castle, the one full of pretty but heartless men.  He’d actually cherished some unkind hopes that Killian Jones would find himself amongst their number, but the odious pirate still seemed to be free. 

“Your mother’s little maid seems to think you do.”  Zelena laughed, but the way she said the words made Rumplestiltskin’s nerves stand on edge.  “One would think she even fancied you, judging from the way she looked at you!”

He gave her his nastiest smile.  “Well, I do have that effect on women.”  A trilling giggle.  “Your mother could have told you that, had she survived.”

The low blow landed just as he’d hoped, making Zelena flinch, but alas, it did not distract her from the subject of Belle.  “Don't tell me you’re bedding the little twit.  She can’t be interesting enough for you.”

Perhaps I like a little light in my life, he didn’t say, even as Zoso chimed in: Even this one would be better than that stupid maid!  And you know she wants you.  That thought was nauseating, but the alternative of telling Zelena how he felt about Belle was even stupider.  He wouldn’t endanger Belle like that, wouldn’t let Zelena know what the girl meant to him.

“Of course she isn’t.”  He snorted with as much derision as he could muster, thinking about how unlikely it was that Belle actually cared about him as anything more than a friend.  That helped him feel incredulous, at any rate.  “What kind of lackwit do you take me for?”

“You’re male.”  Zelena rolled her eyes.  “It doesn’t usually take much.”

“I’m the Dark One, not some idiot man led by my desires.”  He waved a hand, shoving his guilt behind a cold façade and another giggle.  “Do try to keep up.”


 

The trick with the mermaids hadn’t worked.  Or at least not the way Bae had hoped it would.  The Lost Boys had made boats—very bad boats, which tended to sink without Pan’s magic—and they had raced them.  It had even been fun.  But Bae’s hopes that the mermaids might drown Pan were dashed.  Two of them had attacked Pan, but it hadn’t done any good, other than giving Pan a good laugh and making him send the Lost Boys hunting mermaids.  Bae ended up as the ringleader of one of those hunts, and it took all of the creativity he had to keep the boys with him from actually finding any mermaids.  Don’t they realize that Pan won’t save them from drowning?  He wanted to shake the other boys.  Tootles was the only one with a lick of sense, and that wasn’t saying much.  They were still laughing and joking like this was one big game.

Bae had to admit that things had been better in Neverland, lately.  Pan’s games had been more fun and less bloody, which left all the boys deliriously happy.  Not that they minded the bloodsport; those that hadn’t already been nasty when they arrived in Neverland usually turned that direction in self-defense before long.  It was hard to be a nice person in a place like this, and Bae knew he didn’t always manage, either.

That was probably why he’d walked away from the fire that night, hoping to get a little air, and maybe a little perspective, too.

“Did you hope the mermaids would get me, or was that just a happy coincidence?” Pan’s laugh came out of nowhere, making Bae jump.  When he spun around, Neverland’s boy ruler was floating in the air behind him.  “I saw you smiling before I went under.”

Bae scowled.  “I was smiling because my boat was winning the race.”

“Why the long face, Baelfire?  There’s no need to lie.  I know you hate me, even when you don’t want to.”  Pan drifted down to the, grinning.  “You probably hate yourself for that, too.”

“I don’t hate myself.”  Usually.  “Why would I?”

“I’d wager it’s because you don’t like feeling helpless.  You don’t like being here, but there’s no way out, is there?”  Pan leaned forward, his expression conspiratorial.  “Unless you can make a deal with me.”

The deal is struck.  Those words would forever echo in his mind, and just remembering them made Bae want to vomit.  “I don’t make deals.  Not anymore.”

“Put out by dear papa breaking his deal with you?” Pan’s face twisted into an ugly pout, and Bae wanted to punch him.  “It’s such a shame that such a coward—”

“Shut up!  You know nothing!”  The words burst out before Bae could stop them; he could hate his father all he wanted, but he didn’t want to hear Pan insulting him.  Unfortunately, Pan only laughed.

“Oh, I know more than you can possibly realize.”  His grin only grew.  “But that’s a topic for another conversation.”  Suddenly, Pan lunged forward, catching Bae by the front of the shirt, and now his eyes were no longer amused—they were blazing.  “Today, I’m going to give you a warning.  I like dangerous games as much as the next boy, but I like the odds to be rigged in my favor.  You won’t try something like that again.”

“Oh, yeah?  Why not?”  Bae knew that facing Pan down was stupid, but what did he have to lose?

“Oh, yeah.  I know you’re not afraid of risking your own life—you wouldn’t be here if you were.  So, I’ll make this so clear that even you can’t misunderstand.  If you try to get me killed again, I’ll start killing off your friends.  I know you don’t have many of them, but I can always start with Tootles.”

“You wouldn’t.”  Bae wanted so badly for this to be a bluff, but the cold feeling in his chest told him that it wasn’t.

“Test me, Baelfire.”  Pan released him without warning, and started grinning again.  “But play along like a good little Lost Boy, and maybe someday you’ll get the deal Hook got.  And then you’ll get to leave this island.  Wouldn’t you like that?”

“Not if it leaves me owing you,” Bae growled. 

“Your loss.”  Pan shrugged, and without a further word, wandered back towards the fire, leaving Bae standing alone in the dark.

He had to get out of here before he went insane.


 

Do the brave thing, and bravery will follow, Belle told herself firmly.  She just had to ask the truth, had to find out if she was pining over someone who didn’t even want her.  A few months ago, Belle would have said that asking hard questions like that would be relatively easy, but now that she’d fallen for someone, she was starting to realize that it wasn’t.  She knew that she had to grit her teeth and ask, that she couldn’t leave things as they were.  Belle couldn’t continue on blindly as if she hadn’t seen Rumplestiltskin flirting with Zelena, but why did it have to hurt so much?

Do the brave thing.  Squaring her shoulders, Belle marched out of the library and towards the Great Hall.  She’d left when Rumplestiltskin had dismissed her with that utterly uncaring wave of his hand, and Belle had given herself a few hours to think—and for Zelena to leave.  Now she was sure the Wicked Queen was gone since her annoying laughter was no longer echoing through the castle, and it was time to talk to Rumplestiltskin.

She found him spinning as if nothing had happened, and thankfully alone.

“We need to talk.”  Belle’s voice felt heavy and final, and she swallowed hard.  “I…I need to know something.”

Rumplestiltskin peered up at her in confusion.  “Know something about what exactly?”

“About you.”  She squared her shoulders.  “And Zelena.” 

Was that sneer on his face directed at the mere maid who dared question him?  Belle wanted to know where the sweet and joking man from that afternoon had gone, but she didn’t ask.  He wouldn’t like being called sweet, not right now.  Perhaps not ever, if he preferred Zelena to her.

“Whatever would you want to know about her for?”  Rumplestiltskin’s lip curled up in disgust, but Belle couldn’t figure out if the emotion was directed at her or Zelena.

“You two seemed awfully…cozy.”  Belle couldn’t quite bring herself to call it flirting.  Not out loud. 

He waved a dismissive hand.  “She’s my student.”

“Why do you teach her, anyway?  She’s an awful person.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, I am the Dark One.”  Rumplestiltskin laughed, but to Belle the giggle sounded hollow.  What was he hiding?

She crossed her arms.  “That sounds like an excuse.”

“Why are you asking this, hmmm?”  He stepped towards her, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.  “Why the sudden interest?”

“I just—I just want to know how you feel about her.”  Belle swallowed; this conversation wasn’t going at all like she’d intended it to.  Now Rumplestiltskin was on edge, and she knew by now that putting him on edge was not the way to get him to be honest.  He could talk his way around a subject on the best of days, and at his worst…

“Feel?”  A high-pitched snort of laughter.  “Why would I feel anything for her?  Or for anyone?  I’m the Dark One.  I’m not supposed to feel.”

“But that’s not true.  You do feel.  I’ve seen it.  You can be kind and thoughtful, and—and—I just want to know what’s going on.”

He just giggled again.  “That would be cheating, dearie.”

“Don’t call me that!”  Belle had thought they were beyond this, beyond the impersonal ‘dearies’ and him holding her at arm’s length. But why wouldn’t he answer her questions? If there was nothing going on, surely Rumplestiltskin would say so.

“Ooooh, that struck a nerve, didn’t it?”  Rumplestiltskin offered her a sweeping bow—but every line of his body screamed sarcasm, and the gleam in his eyes didn’t help.  “My apologies.”

“Do you have any idea how infuriating you are?”

He wiggled gleefully.  “Comes with the territory.”

“Why won’t you just talk to me?” Belle demanded, wanting to shake him.  She almost stepped forward to do so, but caught herself just in time.  If her relationship with Rumplestiltskin wasn’t what she thought it was, doing something so foolish could be really, really, dangerous.

What have I gotten myself into?

“Isn’t that what we’re doing?”  Rumplestiltskin struck a thoughtful pose.  “I do believe that’s what these silly mouth noises are known as: talking.”

Belle barely managed to bite back a groan of frustration.  “You say things without meaning.  You twist words like you twist magic.  Can’t you just be honest?”

For a moment, she thought that her words might have gotten through to him; Rumplestiltskin looked genuinely thoughtful for a moment.  But then he shrugged. “Honesty really isn’t in my nature, you know.”

“It could be if you’d just try.  You know that you weren’t meant to be like this.  You could—”

“Don’t you start with that.”  The words were a snarl, and all humor left Rumplestiltskin’s face as he glared at her.

“I’m not trying to start anything.”  And she’d thought he’d come to terms with the fact that he had been meant to be the Savior, too.  Apparently not.  “I just want to talk to you.”

“Not about that.”  Another glare.

“Rumple…”  Against her better judgment, Belle stepped forward to put a hand on his arm.  I shouldn’t.  Not if he won’t tell me what’s going on between him and Zelena.  I’m not in this to get my heart broken, or to be Fiona’s pawn in her plans, whatever they are.

But she still felt her heart going out to the broken man who stared at her like she was the first person to ever treat him compassionately, still felt herself burning to help him.  Rumplestiltskin stared at her hand for a long moment before he shook himself, as if he was trying to banish something Belle couldn’t see or hear.  The Dark Ones?  Are they talking to him?  She had just opened her mouth to ask when he pulled away without warning.

“I have to go.”

“Don’t—”

But she spoke too late.  Rumplestiltskin had disappeared in a cloud of purple smoke, and Belle was left standing alone in the great hall.

Chapter Text

She probably should have let herself calm down first, but Belle went straight for Fiona.  The fact that the Black Fairy had just returned to the castle probably helped with that decision; Rumplestiltskin was hiding somewhere and refusing to talk to her, but Fiona was right there.  And when Belle really wanted to break things down, this was at least fifty percent Fiona’s fault.  I should have known something like this would happen when I chose to believe the Black Fairy might have good intentions.  Why was I foolish enough to listen to her?  Belle wanted to scream in frustration.  She’d chosen to stay here because she believed Rumplestiltskin was a good man inside, but what if that goodness had been burned out by years and  years of being the Dark One?  What if the Blue Fairy had been right?

You know there’s good in him, a traitorous voice inside her pointed out, but Belle pushed it aside.  She hoped there was good in Rumplestiltskin, but there was no saving someone who didn’t want to be saved.  Even Fiona had to know that.

“Is this all a game to you?” Belle demanded as Fiona brushed dust off of her long black skirts.  “Playing with my emotions, hoping I’d fall for him, all so you could laugh behind my back?”

Fiona blinked, rearing back in what looked like surprise.  “A game?  My dear girl, if I were playing a game with you, you’d not be asking me these impertinent questions.”  She pursed her lips thoughtfully.  “You’d probably be bleeding by now, or at least in some similarly unpleasant condition.”

“Then why don’t you tell me what in the world is going on between Rumplestiltskin and Zelena?”

“Rumplestiltskin and Zelena?” Fiona gaped for a moment before bursting out laughing.  “He’s spent years desperately trying to avoid her romantic advances.  She’s always been clingy and grotesque.  Has something changed?”

Belle felt hope surging in her chest and ruthlessly suppressed it.  “Then why won’t he say that?”

“Because Rumplestiltskin doesn’t tell his left hand what his right hand is doing unless he needs both for his current scheme.”  Fiona snorted.  “Unfortunately, he needs the obnoxious little chit, so he can’t tell her to swan off.”

“Needs her for what?”  She narrowed her eyes distrustfully.  Fiona wasn’t above lying, Belle knew; she was the Black Fairy and would do whatever she felt needed to be done.  Fiona deemed nothing more important than protecting her son, and while Belle could admire that at times, right now it was more of an obstacle.

Fiona’s eyes shot to the side shiftly.  “Well…that’s complicated.”  

“Oh, really?”  Because that didn’t sound suspicious at all.

“Oh, don’t be a bother.  He’s not in love with the jealous green harpy, and that’s really all you care about, isn’t it?  Rumplestiltskin has nefarious plans involving her, of course, but that’s hardly to be unexpected.  She’s useful, even if she is the most annoying creature in creation.”

“And of course you’re not going to bother to tell me what that plan is.”  Part of Belle felt better hearing—twice!—that Rumplestiltskin had no feelings for Zelena, but even thinking that made her feel guilty.  After all, if the Dark One was up to something ‘nefarious’ with the Wicked Queen, that probably wasn’t good for anyone.

Except for perhaps Fiona, who just waved her question off with a languid smile.  “It’s his business.  I merely help when needed.”

Belle fought back the urge to groan. How did I wind up living with two capricious and (sometimes) evil people?  There’s good in both of them, real good, but they push it away like being kind to the average person might give them the pox.  Most times, she couldn’t decide which of the pair was more difficult, but today, Belle settled on Fiona.  Fiona enjoyed some of the games she thought Rumplestiltskin just played for show, and Belle was quite certain that Fiona wouldn’t care about redeeming the Dark One if he hadn’t been her son.  But she does care, because she does love him, so I suppose that’s enough.

“I asked him about it,” Belle admitted with a sigh.  “When I saw them, or maybe her, flirting.  He just avoided the question and got nasty about it.”

“Stupid boy.”  Fiona heaved a sigh of her own and turned to look Belle in the eye.  “You must remember that Rumplestiltskin is not good at expressing his emotions, Belle.  Even if not for that damned curse, he’s had his heart broken one too many times.  It makes him…touchy.”

“I’ve noticed.”  Belle knew that Rumplestiltskin had problems, but every time she talked to Fiona, it seemed there was another one to uncover.  A treacherous part of her, the part that wanted to take the easy way out, wondered if he really was worth so much work, but the rest of Belle quashed that notion immediately.  Of course he’s worth it.  I can see the good man, the loving man, trying to get out from underneath that darkness.  I can’t imagine how amazing he would be without it marring everything he tries to do.

Yet that was just her optimism speaking.  In her heart, Belle knew that she loved Rumplestiltskin as he was, even his dark parts.  She burned to save him, of course, but if he couldn’t be saved…well, Belle was pretty sure she could love him all the same.

Now if she could just convince Rumplestiltskin of that!


 

He’d made an utter ass of himself, Rumplestiltskin had.  Even with the raging chorus of the other Dark Ones shouting at him, Rumplestiltskin knew that.  Belle had asked him a perfectly reasonable question—and the fact that she wanted to know if he was involved with Zelena say volumes!—and he’d toyed with her.  He’d played with words and snapped at her, ignoring the compassion shining out of Belle’s eyes so that he could make himself feel better through cleverness.  His conversation and flirting with Zelena had left him feeling dirty, and Rumplestiltskin knew that he’d taken that out on Belle.

She deserved better.  Zoso growled something about him being the Dark One and doing as he pleased, but Rumplestiltskin pushed that aside.  His mother would tell him that he should apologize, and if the Black Fairy was going to say something like that, Rumplestiltskin knew that it was the right thing to do.  After all, Fiona wasn’t exactly the Queen of Making Good Choices (making terrible, family-destroying choices did seem to run in their family), so if she could see that Belle had feelings for him, and even encourage him to reciprocate, it had to be pretty damned obvious.  So, Rumplestiltskin swallowed, gathered his courage, and set off to find his maid.

Hell, even Zelena wondered if he had feelings for her.  That was worrisome, because Zelena’s petty anger could and would strike out at a ‘mere maid’ if Zelena realized how much Belle meant to Rumplestiltskin.  She was both too much like her mother and not enough like Cora; Zelena shared Cora’s ambitious dark streak, but she had none of Cora’s patient calculation.  She was petulant where Cora had been regal, impatient where Cora had been strong.  Zelena was a nuisance, but a dangerous one.  And now she was sniffing around Belle.

Belle.

The thought of her name left him feeling warm in ways Rumplestiltskin could not remember ever having felt, and despite the never-ending mess of voices in his head objecting to the beautiful brunette, he had no regrets.  He was starting to believe that she genuinely cared about him—him!—and somehow, her touch made the voices silent.  He had not thought anything could do that, not since Bae, and Rumplestiltskin found himself feeling actual hope for the first time in centuries.

She had laughed with him.  And at him, but that was all right.  He didn’t mind if Belle laughed at him, although Rumplestiltskin wasn’t quite sure when that had happened.  She was pure light, his Belle, and she had reminded him that living in the shadows was no life at all.  Just thinking of her made his heart beat faster.  Could she actually have feelings for him?  His mother thought so, and even he wasn’t so dense as to miss the way she looked at him.  Even if she didn’t, he owed her an apology.  Even if I can never love her openly…to have her friendship is no small thing.  So, Rumplestiltskin made detour to the garden before he went back to the great hall.  He almost chickened out, but remembering Belle’s words helped:

Do the brave thing, and bravery will follow.  He could be like his maid, couldn’t he?  She’d stepped into the unknown, sacrificing herself to save her people.  Surely he could dare to demonstrate his feelings, even a little.  So, Rumplestiltskin steeled himself and stepped outside, staring at the flowers he’d so often complained about.  Spying out the best red rose, he quickly snipped it off the vine and headed back inside to find Belle.


 

“You finally going to rid of that kid under the Hangman’s Tree?”

Felix’s question jerked Bae up short.  He’d been heading back from the creek when he heard Felix’s voice, and although he knew that he shouldn’t eavesdrop—particularly not when he was trying to pretend to be on better terms with Pan—he still crept closer to listen.

“Yeah.”  He could hear Pan’s sneer, and its toxic undertones made Bae shiver.  “Beans has outlived his usefulness.  He can draw pictures of the Truest Believer all day long, but he can’t tell me when he’s coming.  He’s worthless.”

“You want me to take care of it?”  Felix sounded excited, or at least as excited as he ever did.  “Or you gonna have the shadow take him somewhere?”

“Nah.  We can’t afford him sharing secrets about this place.  He’s a Seer.  He’s seen too much.”  Pan snorted.  “Not that he’s sane enough for most people to listen to, these days.”

Felix snickered.  “Being buried in a hole a tree can do that, I suppose.”

“It was a fun game, but it’s time for a new one.”  Pan seemed to shrug, not that Bae could hear him. 

“You want to find another Seer?”

“Maybe.  Maybe it’s just time to make my worthless son miserable again.”  He has a son? Bae was staggered by the very thought.  How could Pan have a son?  Pan was powerful, sure, but he was here in Neverland, which kept him young like the rest of them.  Pan was barely older than Bae, and Bae sure wasn’t ready to have a kid.

“You sure you want to do that?  From what you’re saying, the power here is fading little by little.  You really want to risk leaving before you find the Truest Believer?”

“Are you saying I can’t handle myself?” Pan’s tone turned ominous, and Bae shivered again.

“No.”  Felix, as always, was about as movable as a tree.  “Just that you might not want to screw around with the Enchanted Forest right now.”

“Maybe.”  Pan sounded petulant, but Bae barely heard him.  If Pan was going to go to the Enchanted Forest, surely there was some way for Baelfire to tag along!  It wasn’t his first choice of a world to go back to—he’d left for a reason—but anything was better than Neverland.  The Enchanted Forest was a big place, too.  Bae could lose himself there if he needed to.

He hadn’t managed to get the mermaids to kill Pan, but that wouldn’t matter if he could escape.  But then I’d have to leave everyone else here.  Swallowing, Bae turned that one over in his mind.  A lot of the Lost Boys liked Neverland, or at least claimed to, but Bae knew that some of them missed home.  Most of the others would be better off away from the island, even if they didn’t want to.  Neverland turned good people bad.  If he could find a way to save all of them, he would, but Bae wasn’t sure how possible that would be.  It’d be easier from the Enchanted Forest than from the Land Without Magic, anyway.  That was a thought for later, though.  Today, he could make a difference by finding this ‘Beans’ before Felix could hurt him.

Maybe Tiger Lily could help.


 

Belle almost ran right into Rumplestiltskin as he burst through the heavy wooden door leading to the garden, walking like a man on a mission.  She jumped out of the way just in time, and must have let out a little gasp, because he stopped cold, turning to her with wide eyes.

Was that a rose in his hand?

“Are you all right?”  Belle asked after a moment of awkward silence.  Rumplestiltskin didn’t seem to know what to say, or how to speak, until he licked his lips nervously and shook his head. 

“Of course I am.”  His rose-free hand waved jerkily, as if he was trying to push aside any hint that this conversation was outside the ordinary.  “Why—why wouldn’t I be?”

“I don’t know.  You look…hurried.  I just wanted to make sure everything was all right.”

Rumplestiltskin swallowed noisily.  “I, um, which is to say that I, uh—” His stuttering cut off abruptly, and Belle watched Rumplestiltskin try a very shy smile on as he suddenly thrust the rose towards here.  “Here.  An apology for my earlier words.  If…if you’ll have it.”

“Of course I will.”  A smile warmed her face, and on a whim, Belle offered him a curtsey as she took the flower.  Much to her surprise, Rumplestiltskin responded with a courtly bow.

Then, of course, he turned as if to flee.  “I should leave you alone—”

“Wait, please.”

Much to her surprise, he stopped, and Belle gathered her courage.

“Why can't you ever tell me the truth?  Why won’t you talk to me?”  She kept her voice as level as she could as he tensed.  “Is it your curse, or is it just everything that’s happened to you?”

Rumplestiltskin scowled.  “Why do you want to know so much about my curse, hmm? Are you trying to slay the Beast?”

“No, of course not!  I could never hurt you.”  Belle found the very idea insulting.

“Then what’s the difference?”  His voice went all high-pitched, like it did when he was using the darkness to hide behind, and Belle wanted to reach out and shake him.  “I’m the Dark One.  Smart as you are, I would have thought you’d have accepted that by now.”

“Stop it!  Stop hiding behind that mask and tell me the truth!”  Fed up, Belle gave up and just snapped at him.  He’d offered her an unexpected apology, but here he was acting like he had when he’d shooed her away so he could flirt with Zelena.  “You’re two different people: one with Zelena and one with me.  Which one is real?”

This giggle was so lengthy that it had to be hiding something.  “If you have to ask the question—”

Reaching out, Belle quickly grabbed him by the arms.  Not too hard, but hard enough to get his attention, to stop Rumplestiltskin’s stupid little imp voice and make him pay attention.  Really, her hands ended up resting on arms of the silk shirt he was wearing, pressing enough to make him look at her with suddenly owlish eyes.  For the first time, Belle felt like he was actually focused on her, listening to her instead of the darkness in his mind.  She’d meant to pull away after she got his attention, but somehow, Belle found herself standing there with her hands grasping his upper arms.

“What—what are you…doing?”  Rumplestiltskin’s voice was a startled whisper, nothing like the fiery mockery of only moments earlier.

“Talking to Rumplestiltskin, not the Dark One.”  Belle didn’t know why touching him seemed to help, but she’d noticed that, lately, and she wasn’t above taking advantage of it.  Not if it made him listen.

He swallowed so loudly that Belle thought she could hear his tongue working.  “I—I am both,” Rumplestiltskin said after a long moment.  “There’s not one without the other.”

“But the man you are, the man under the darkness…he can feel, can’t he?” Belle asked the question hesitantly; she didn’t think he was lying, now, or avoiding her questions, but he wasn’t exactly being helpful.  “You weren’t meant to be like this, and you aren’t always so dark.  You told me that yourself.  I know you can feel.”

“Why would that matter?”  Rumplestiltskin whispered, and Belle could hear his voice shaking.

The fact that he was as terrified as she was gave her courage.  Do the brave thing, she told herself, thinking of the rose still held in her hand.  Now it was pressing against Rumplestiltskin’s upper arm, and Belle was sure he hadn’t missed that.

“Because I could love you…if you’d let me,” she whispered in return, holding her breath.

Rumplestiltskin jerked back, his eyes wide, tearing away from Belle’s hands.  “…What?

“I think you heard me.”  Belle wasn’t sure if she had the courage to repeat the words, but she found them slipping out, anyway.  “I think I love you.”

“No.”  Now he skittered back even further, shaking his head wildly.  “No, no, no no, no.  You can’t.  You shouldn’t.”

“What?” Belle gaped.

“You can’t.”

“I think it’s up to me to decide who I love.”  She hadn’t expected this reaction, hadn’t been braced for Rumplestiltskin to respond so hostilely.  Was he that afraid of her?  Or had she misread all the signs of his affection during the last few months, the way he’d slowly opened up to her and the way he smiled at her?

“You can’t love me.”  Rumplestiltskin seemed to come back on balance, just a little.  “I’m a monster.  I’m—”

“Don’t call yourself that!”

“But I am.  And that is why you have to go.”  He held up a hand when she opened her mouth to argue, a twisted by sad smile crossing his face.  “I am not…someone who can love you properly.  And I am dangerous, Belle.”

She shook her head, her heart soaring as Belle realized that it wasn’t a lack of feeling that made Rumplestiltskin object to her words.  “I’m not going anywhere.  And I’m not afraid of you.”

“You should be.”

“I’m not.”  Belle reached for him again, certain that he wouldn’t pull away a second time—until he did. 

Violently.

“You should be!”  Rumplestiltskin’s snarl became a shout.  “Whatever you think I am, I am not.  I am—I am dangerous.  And you, little missy, should run from the likes of me screaming!”

“Well, I’m not running.  And I’m not afraid.”  Belle managed to grab his hand, and the softest and most broken expression she had ever seen crossed his face.  “Rumple, please.”

“No!”  He wrenched free of her again, his expression turning viciously furious.  The sudden changes were enough to give Belle whiplash, and she knew that he was listening to the voices in his head.  “Love is a distraction!  Love is nothing!  I don’t need this, I don’t—I can’t—” Rumplestiltskin shook his head so hard that his messy curls went every which way, backing up so quickly that he tripped over his own feet, barely catching himself before he fell.  “No.  No, you don’t know what you’re saying.  I won’t let you do this.  I won’t!”

“This isn’t all your choice!”  Goaded into anger, Belle strode forward, shouting back at him.  “No one decides my fate but me, and you don’t get to decide who I love!”

“Foolish girl!  I am the Dark One, not some suitor with a—a—” Rumplestiltskin seemed unable to carry his anger far enough to finish the sentence, and his voice faltered.  She could see the battle in his eyes, the war between love and darkness, but even as Belle reached out a fourth time, he vanished in a cloud of black smoke.


 

Bae took a few shortcuts and dashed away before Pan and Felix finished talking, even though he burned to hear more of their conversation.  Instead of eavesdropping and waiting to be caught, he sprinted towards the Hangman’s Tree, remembering what Felix had said.  Whoever Beans was, he was in a hole under the tree, and Bae was pretty sure he knew exactly where that hole was.

Maybe it was pointless.  Rescuing someone from Pan would probably mean nothing, but maybe Bae could save a life.  He’d failed at killing Pan—or at getting the mermaids to kill him, anyway—but Bae couldn’t really regret that.  Neverland did turn people bad, just like becoming the Dark One had turned his Papa bad.  But Bae was going to break the cycle.  He was going to save someone instead of hurting them, and he’d face whatever came afterwards.  But first he had to save Beans.

Finding the hole only took a few seconds; opening it was much harder.  Finally, however, Bae located the lever hidden in a dead tree stump not far from the Hangman’s Tree, and he yanked it as hard as he could.  The trapdoor swung open with a mighty creak, and he thought he could hear someone shuffling away from the opening inside.  Bae hesitated; Pan might have known he was listening and might have set a trap for him.  For all he knew, there was a terrible monster in that hole, but Bae didn’t think there was.  Or I might go down there and be trapped with whoever this Beans is.  That thought made him shiver, but Bae wasn’t going to back down, now.  After all, how much worse could being trapped in a hole be?  He was already trapped on this island.

Still, he approached the edge cautiously, calling in with a loud whisper:  “Can you hear me?  Beans?” 

A long moment passed before a scratchy voice answered.  “…Maybe.”

“My name’s Baelfire.”  At least the voice didn’t sound like Pan, and not even like Pan when he did funny impressions of other boys.  Pan wasn’t very good at that, but no one was going to tell him.  “I’m here to help you.”

A dry laugh.  “Funny joke.”

“It’s not a joke, but we don’t have much time.”  His heart was pounding in his chest.  “Felix is coming to kill you.”

“I know.”

“Then why are you just sitting there?” The words burst out of Bae in a shout; his eyes were wide and he felt his chest starting to heave.  Felix would be here any minute, and if Pan came with him, things would only get worse—

“Might be because I’m chained to the tree’s roots.  Might be I’m lazy.”  Bae thought he heard a snort over the sound of his own stupidity, but he wasn’t sure.

“Sorry.  I’ll come down.”  Quickly matching actions to words, Bae ducked into the opening.  Under the Hangman’s Tree was dark but surprisingly dry, and when Bae squinted he could make out the seated form of a boy a few years younger than him.  Not that age matters much here.  We’re all stuck marking time.

Beans’ uneasy laugh filled the cavern.  “You’re not him.  I thought this was another game of his.”

Bae scowled.  “Pan taunts you a lot, then?”

“Pan taunts everyone.”

“Yeah.  That’s true enough.”  He shrugged, and then started looking for the chains holding Beans in place.  As his eyes adjusted, Bae was able to spot where an old-fashioned (even by his terms) set of shackles were rooted into the base of the tree.  They looked almost like they’d grown out of the tree, but Bae recognized the chains as some that had probably been stolen off of the Jolly Roger

Never thought I’d regret turning down Hook’s offer of joining his crew, but if I had, I’d have gotten out of here, Bae thought bitterly.  Hook would’ve been easier to escape than Pan was, for certain, and at least the pirate seemed to actually give a damn about him.  Sometimes.

Not that it mattered now.

Suddenly, Beans jerked back, his eyes going glassy and strangely white.  “You should go.  They’re going to come—”

“‘Course they are,” Bae cut him off, grabbing for the lock on the chains near the smaller boy’s wrists.  “Told you that already.”

“Felix—”

“Isn’t killing you while I’m here.”  Bae didn’t know why he suddenly felt the need to save someone from this mess.  He didn’t know how he was going to hide Beans from Felix—though he supposed Tiger Lily might be able to help with that; Pan seemed to avoid her, particularly after the Black Fairy had shown up—or why he was even trying.  He was just so sick of going along with Pan’s twisted games, so sick of pretending he liked it here.  He needed to do something, even if in the end his efforts amounted to nothing.

“Why would you help me?”

Instead of answering, Bae grabbed his dagger and inserted it in the lock, shifting its point left and right until he found just the right angle.  Click.  Bae shot Beans a grin.  “‘Cause I’m sick of Pan’s games.”

“Most people here like playing them.  Or avoid being played with.”  Slowly, Beans’ eyes seemed to clear, losing that glassy, white look they’d held.

“Yeah, well, I’m sick of that, too.”  Bae pulled Beans to his feet, surprised by how light the other boy was.  He headed for the opening, glancing over his shoulder as he moved.  “You coming or not?”

Beans looked around with a snort.  “Anywhere’s better than here.”

“C’mon, then.”  Bae grabbed Beans by the arm and they ran through the jungle together.  Felix would be there soon enough, and he was a good tracker, but Bae knew where a stream was that they could erase their tracks in.  Tiger Lily’s cave was only an hour or two away if you managed not to get caught in one of Neverland’s never-ending loops, and he was sure she’d help Beans hide.

If Bae was lucky, Pan wouldn’t figure out who let Beans out.  If he wasn’t…well, he was rarely lucky here, anyway.  It wouldn’t make much of a difference.

Chapter Text

Anyone who dared use a locator spell to track Rumplestiltskin down would have been in line for a very quick death.  Unless, of course, that person was his mother. 

“I don’t want to talk to you!” he snapped, trying desperately to keep his tone dismissive instead of furiously wounded.  He didn’t need his mother, not right now.  Maybe not ever, not if she kept sticking her nose in where it didn’t belong. 

He didn’t need to turn around to know Fiona had crossed her arms and snorted.  “That’s because you’re being quite the little idiot.”

“This is your doing!”  Rumplestiltskin whirled around before he could stop himself, snarling the words.  “Don’t deny that that you’ve been trying to push us towards one another.  This has your sparkly little fingerprints all over it!”

“Actually, no.”  Fiona’s smile was wry.  “Not that I’m above playing matchmaker, mind, but the girl came around to her feelings for you all on her own.  Isn’t her saying that what made you run away?”

Rumplestiltskin glared.  “I didn’t run.  Dark Ones don’t run.”  But the coward he’d once been had, and even knowing he had been meant to be the Savior didn’t lessen the crippling guilt.  Power or not, I’m still a coward.  Always will be.

“If you say so, dear.” Fiona looked around, seeming to notice the hovel they were standing in for the first time.  Unlike everyone else of his acquaintance, she didn’t even blink at the humble surroundings, merely taking them in with a glance.  “Is that why you came here, then?  To remind yourself of what you were?”

Rumplestiltskin wanted to snap at her, but instead his voice came out very small.  “Baelfire grew up  here.”  I was loved here, even if only by him.

The love of his son and his mother was the only love he should ever want or need.  He had been a fool to fall in love with Belle, and even more of a fool to think that doing so might be safe.  Loving his maid from afar was one thing, but the knowledge that she could love him back—that she’d said as much!—broke him into tiny pieces.  Their terrifyingly honest conversation had brought so much into the light that Rumplestiltskin felt blinded.  He couldn’t do this.  He couldn’t

Focus on Baelfire, on the curse, and on getting to him.  Nothing else matters.  Yet he could still hear the faintly mocking laughter of his predecessors.  They’d stopped demanding he kill Belle a few hours earlier, yet they were all still rather amused at his expense.

“It’s not a betrayal to love someone other than him, you know.”   His mother’s voice was surprisingly gentle, particularly for Fiona, who embraced her darker urges as often as he did. 

“You know nothing!”  He wanted to throttle her, could feel the darkness boiling in him.  His rage over denying himself love demanded a target, but Rumplestiltskin would not let it hurt his mother.  Not after everything.

“Do you love her?” She put her hand on his arm when he turned away.  “Do you, Rumple?”

He snorted bitterly.  “Of course I do.”

“Then don’t try to punish yourself by denying yourself love just because you lost your son.  Come back to the castle and talk to her.  She’s confused and hurt, but you still have a chance.  Though not as much of one if you sit here and dither.”

Rumplestiltskin just shook his head, not trusting himself to speak.  After a moment, Fiona huffed impatiently and continued:

“Do you think she’s like Cora?  That she’ll betray you?”

“Belle is nothing like Cora.”  The words were harsh, but Rumplestiltskin knew they were true.  Even as Zoso cackled madly, he knew that Belle wasn’t after his power.

No, she wanted him, which was far more terrifying.

“Then come back before it’s too late.”  Fiona squeezed his arm again, and Rumplestiltskin just closed his eyes against her soft voice.  “Please, Rumple.  She makes you happy, and there’s nothing to fear in that.”

He wanted to.  Oh, he wanted to.

“I can’t.”  Rumplestiltskin swallowed hard.  Those were not tears trying to leak out of his eyes.  Go take her, coward, Zoso demanded.  Say sweet words and she might even let you.  Not that you’d ever be brave enough.  Opening his eyes did not banish the voices, but it made focusing on his mother easier.  “Love…love like that is not made for demons like me.”

“Oh, Rumple.  You silly, loving, fool.”  Suddenly, Fiona’s hand was on his face, soft and far too gentle, and Rumplestiltskin wanted to pull away.  Yet he couldn’t.  Not now.  “If a monster like me can love and be loved, what makes you think that you cannot?  Your heart is full of love, despite the darkness you’ve wrapped it in.”

He wanted to.  Burned to.  How had Belle become so important to him in the last months?  Had it even been a year?  He knew that he loved her; lying to himself was useless on that front, as was—apparently—lying to his mother.  Except Rumplestiltskin knew where this led.  Belle was not Cora; she would not seek his power only to betray him repeatedly.  She would love him honestly, if she could, and he would hurt her.  Or someone else would.  Who did hardly mattered; he was the Dark One, and his enemies were legion.  Even if he somehow overrode the voices in his head screaming for him to ravage her and own her, someone else would take Belle to hurt him.

Rumplestiltskin couldn’t let that happen.  He wouldn’t.  Not even if it broke his heart.

“I can’t.”  With an effort, Rumplestiltskin pulled away.  He had to harden his heart right now, had to distance himself from love as best he could.  So, he drew on the darkness, wrapping it around himself like a shield, and using its coldness to draw a line between himself and his feelings.

Fiona opened her mouth to argue, but he twitched his fingers and teleported her away before she could speak.  She’d howl bloody murder later, but for now, it at least gave him some peace.  That left Rumplestiltskin alone in his old hovel, in the home where he had both raised and lost Baelfire, a place where he had known so much joy—and so much pain.  He hated this place, but that made the hovel the right place to be.

For once, Fiona got the hint and didn’t return.


 

“I can help you find someone who will make you happy.” 

The stupid green fairy spoke so earnestly that it made Zelena want to puke.  As far as she was concerned, the midget’s only redeeming quality was that she had a good choice in the color of her wardrobe, but even then, Zelena wasn’t sure that the idiot wasn’t trying to suck up to her.  Why would she want a fairy’s help?  Did the oversized fly think that Zelena was so desperate that she’d turn to someone like her?  The very idea was laughable.

“Why would I want help from a pathetic little fairy to be happy?” She snorted before she could stop herself; snorting wasn’t terribly regal, but Zelena thought she could do it just this once.  “I have everything I could possibly want.”

The diminutive fairy stuck her chin out defiantly, hands on her hips and feet spread like she was ready to go to war.  “Except someone who actually loves you.”

“Love is weakness.”  A maid who had once served her mother had told Zelena that was Cora’s mantra, and Zelena liked saying it.  It made her sound strong.  Everyone said that Cora had been strong.

“Don’t be stupid.”  Tinker Bell rolled her eyes.  “Love is—”

This time Zelena scoffed, which was much more queenly.  “Love is a tool men use to keep women subservient to them.”

“And what if I could find you a man who would be subservient to you?” The fairy cocked her head, and then shrugged.  “Some men like that kind of thing.”

“Do they?”  The question wormed out of Zelena before she could stop it, but despite herself, she was intrigued.  James—her faithless prince who had chosen Snow!—had liked strong women, but he hadn’t exactly wanted to kneel at her feet.  Zelena wouldn’t mind an equal, someone who respected her and would fight beside her, the idea of a strong man who would let her rule was even more enticing.

“It takes all kinds.”  Tink laughed lightly, and Zelena found herself smiling before she quashed the expression.

Queens did not smile at fairies.  Not powerful queens, anyway.  So, she narrowed her eyes with suspicion.

“Why do you want to help me, anyway?  You fairies are a prissy lot, always following that holier-than-thou Blue Fairy.”  Zelena knew that.  The Blue Fairy had helped Snow more than once, so there was no way that any of her minions would help Zelena.  Not that the idea of having a fairy in her corner was in any way unappealing. It might even be useful.

Tink shrugged again.  “Blue kicked me out.  I tried to help a fellow fairy run away and find love, and she didn’t like that very much.”

“So, you’re not actually a fairy?” 

“No, I’m a fairy.  Blue couldn’t take my wings because I left before she could.”  A bitter smile.  “I don’t miss most of them, anyway.  But I do like helping people who actually need it.  You do.”

Tink’s answer made sense, even if Zelena figured there was a lot she wasn’t telling her.  Still, Zelena liked the idea of finding a man who would appreciate her for who she was.  She’d cast a line or two in the pirate’s direction, but he hadn’t seemed terribly interested in anything more than a fling, and Zelena really did want more than that.  She didn’t like admitting that, even to herself, but it was true.  She was lonely—but not so lonely that she’d let any man control her.  Not ever.  She’d follow her mother’s example and be the one in control, even if it meant taking her potential beau’s heart.


 

He knew what he needed to do, but Rumplestiltskin didn’t want to do it.  He supposed that he’d always been a coward, even emotionally.  Back in another life, it had taken him weeks to work up the courage to propose to Milah—something he’d been pitifully proud of himself for, even if he now half-wished he’d never done so.  She gave me Bae.  She might have hated me, but without her, I’d have never had my precious boy.  The other Dark Ones laughed in his mind at that thought, but Rumplestiltskin ignored their contempt for his son.  They were glad he’d murdered his wife; he wasn’t.  He still felt shame for what he’d done that day, even if a part of him was viciously proud that he’d finally fought back against the woman who had berated him for so long.

She’ll do the same to you, Nimue whispered insidiously.  If you let this one in, she’ll turn out to be just like your dear, departed wife.  You thought Milah loved you, too.  Just like you thought Cora did.  How did that work out for you, fool?

Shaking his head wildly, Rumplestiltskin squeezed his eyes shut, trying to shut the voices out.  “No,” he whispered.  “She won’t.”

That was the worst—and the best—thing about Belle.  He knew that she was no Milah, knew that she was no Cora.  Belle was nothing like either of them: she was honest, honorable, and she wore her heart on her sleeve.  Rumplestiltskin might have needed time to realize she was developing feelings for him, but he knew that her feelings were honest.  For now.

The problem was that he knew what kind of situation they were in.  Belle might have been young enough to forget, but he wasn’t.  He knew that so long as she was in his employ, as long as she was a servant in his castle, nothing between them was real.  Rumplestiltskin held incredible power over her; he could make her life miserable with a wave of one hand.  And yes, he could do that to almost anyone, but it was different for Belle.  As honest as she was, who could blame her for falling for him in self-defense?  Any maiden might do the same, what with the limited competition in the Dark Castle.  It was the only way of making her life better.

That left him with only one possible path, one way to do right by the woman he loved.  Belle was worth more to Rumplestiltskin than his own happiness, and even though he knew how this would end up, that changed nothing.  If you love her, the old saying said, let her go.  He had never done that before.  Rumplestiltskin had always held on too tightly, smothered those he loved until they ran for freedom.  But he would not make that mistake this time.  This time, he would do what was right.

Even if it killed him.


 

“Baelfire?  What are you doing here?”  Tiger Lily greeted them at the mouth of her cave, looking between Bae and Beans in confusion.

Bae had to suck in a deep breath of air before he could stop panting; as near as he could tell, the two hour trek to Tiger Lily’s cave had taken more like all night. Losing Felix had been harder than he’d expected.  “Um.  I need somewhere to hide Beans.”

“Beans?”  Tiger Lily stared at the other boy—who was panting even harder than Bae was, since being chained under a tree wasn’t really good for getting exercise—and blinked.  “You’re the Seer Pan has been using.”

“Using.”  Beans wheezed, and then snorted breathlessly.  “Yeah.”

“Come in, then.”  She shot Bae a hard look.  “What have you done?”

He bristled.  “Something right, for once.”

“Of course you have.  That’s hardly the point.”  Tiger Lily sighed as she led them past her fire and deeper into her cave.  “Not here on Neverland.  Here, right is never easy.  Sometimes, it’s even impossible.”

“Pan leaves you alone,” Bae shot back before he could stop himself.  He wasn’t here for a lecture.  He was here because Tiger Lily was their only hope for hiding, or at least Beans’.  Bae was pretty sure that Felix didn’t know who had let Beans out, so as long as he returned to the other Lost Boys fairly soon, Pan might not figure out it was him.

“Only because I leave him alone.”

“But you’ve got magic.  I saw.”  Bae frowned as Tiger Lily blinked in confusion.  But he’d seen her do magic, something white and flashy that had made the Black Fairy happy. 

“Oh, no.”  She heaved a sigh, sitting down hard on a rock.  “You came to me because you think I have the magic to protect you?”

“You don’t.  But you will.”  Beans’ eyes had gone a little glassy again.  “The fallen fairy will find her magic once more.”  Then Beans shook his head, squinting up at both Bae and Tiger Lily as they stared at him.  “What?  Did I prophesy again?”

Tiger Lily cracked a smile.  “Just a little.”

“You’re a Seer?”  Bae felt stupid for asking, but he hadn’t really thought about it.  But Felix had mentioned that, hadn’t he?  No wonder why they’d had Beans locked up.  Pan collected magical objects; it wasn’t hard to believe he’d collect magical people, too. 

“Hard to figure out, but true.”  Beans shrugged.  “It sucks.”

“Yeah, I can tell.”  Bae knew that a Seer had been the one to tell his father that he’d die in the Ogre Wars, that that knowledge had driven Rumplestiltskin to desert so that he wouldn’t leave Bae fatherless, as he’d been.  His mother had always scoffed and said that the Seer had told of the future that should have been, but Bae had always been glad that his father had listened.

He’d never imagined a Seer who was younger than him, though.

“I don’t have magic.”  Tiger Lily’s voice shattered the sudden stillness.  “Pan thinks I’m unimportant, so he ignores me, as long as I stay out of his way.”

“But I saw you.”  Bae knew magic when he saw it.  His last few months with his father had taught him a lot, and Neverland had taught him even more.

Her smile was sad.  “That was the last of someone else’s magic.  Mine is gone, and has been ever since the Blue Fairy took my wings.”

The uneasy feeling in the pit of Bae’s stomach was quickly becoming a rock of misery; now what were they supposed to do?


 

Belle didn’t see Rumplestiltskin again until the next morning.  She’d hoped he’d come back so that they could talk, but so far as she could tell, he stayed out of the castle until after breakfast.  Then, just as she was silently finishing her own meal in the kitchen, he appeared across from where she sat without warning, making Belle jump.

“Rumplestiltskin.”  Belle gulped, jumping to her feet to face him and trying to swallow her surprise.  Sitting while he was standing just didn’t feel right, not after their last mess of a conversation.  She wanted to face him on equal terms, not look up at him.  “I didn’t know you were back.”

“I’m releasing you from our deal.”

A long moment passed before those words sunk in.  Belle found herself stuttering.  “…what?

“Leave.  Go.  You’re not my prisoner anymore.”  He shook his head rapidly, and Belle couldn’t help but notice the way Rumplestiltskin wouldn’t meet her gaze.

“I haven’t been your prisoner since you let me out of that dungeon.”  He hadn’t really still viewed her that way, had he?  Belle thought they had something special, something more than that.

“It doesn’t matter.”  Rumplestiltskin finally looked at her, and she could see pain radiating out of his eyes.  “You can go.  You’re free.”

Blinking, Belle let the words sink in.  She was free.  Free from the deal she had made, free from staying in the Dark Castle forever.  She could go home, go adventuring, or do whatever she wanted.  Belle had never expected to be freed, even as she grew closer and closer to Rumplestiltskin and stopped wanting it, so the feeling took her breath away.  Her life was her own, probably for the first time since she was born.  Her father couldn’t command her, and Rumplestiltskin had let her go.

“What if I don’t want to go?” she asked curiously.

That seemed to jerk him up short.  “What? No.  You have to.  You have to go.”

“Why?”  Belle crossed her arms, jutting her chin out at him.  “Because I said I could—”

Don’t say it!”  Suddenly, he looked panicked, panicked and desperate all at the same time.  “You can’t.  You shouldn’t.”

“I think it’s a little late for that, don’t you, Rumple?”  Belle could read his body language, could see the way he leaned towards her without meaning to.  There was a yearning in Rumplestiltskin’s eyes that warmed her to her very bones, making Belle feel light-headed and giddy.  Deciding to take a chance, she reached for his hand, squeezing his fingers gently.  “Tell me you have no feelings for me, and I’ll go.”

“I don’t—I don’t—” Rumplestiltskin cut off, squeezing his eyes shut.  “I want you to be happy.”

“Well, that’s good.”  She smiled her best smile.  “Because I want me to be happy, too.  And I think that could be with you, if you’re brave enough to try.”

She knew he was afraid; every line of his too-tense body screamed that.  So, Belle squeezed his hand again.  Rumplestiltskin, however, just shook his head again.

“You can’t,” he whispered raggedly.  “I can’t.  Everything I lo—everything I touch eventually turns to dust.  I am a monster, Belle.  And that is why you have to go.”

“But that’s—”

“You deserve your freedom.”  Rumplestiltskin’s shrug was bitter and a little twisted.  “And if…if you come back, I’ll still be here.  But take your freedom first.  Remember what it is like to live away from a monster.”

“You think I’ll come back?”  Belle’s heart leapt; she hadn’t missed the word he’d cut off earlier.  Rumplestiltskin might believe that everything he loved turned to dust, but she could prove him wrong.  And if it took leaving to prove that to him, she’d come back again.  He loves me.  Her heart beat wildly in her chest, hammering out a rhythm that she could barely hear over.   Belle felt lightheaded.  That’s what he stopped himself from saying.

“Oh, Belle.”  His sad smile broke her heart.  “I expect I’ll never see you again.”

“Then why tell me to go?”

“Because I’m sorry.  For…everything.”  Slowly, his free hand came up to touch her cheek, but the contact was so fleeting that Belle almost thought she’d imagined the feeling of his warm fingers against her skin.  “Because you deserve better.  The castle will provide everything that you need for your journey, or if you desire, I’ll take you straight to your father’s castle.”

“No.  I don’t want to go back there.”  Still stunned, Belle shook her head.  She wasn’t sure if she wanted to leave, but she knew that she didn’t want to go there.  She wouldn’t go back to that suffocating world where she was expected to be nothing other than Gaston’s broodmare, to tie herself to a man who thought nothing of torturing an innocent ogre-child.  Her father was a little better; he did love her, but he thought nothing of her opinions or her intelligence.  But Belle felt like she’d drown if she returned home.

I want adventure, she knew.  But wasn’t loving Rumplestiltskin an adventure?  It would be, but only if he would let her.  And he seemed to think that she couldn’t love him if she left, that leaving would make her feelings fade. 

“Tell me what your desire is, and I shall fulfill it.”  Rumplestiltskin stepped back as she mulled her options over, offering Belle a courtly bow that made her smile sadly.

She almost told him that she wanted to stay.  Almost said that all she wanted was to stay here, with him.  Yet part of Belle could see the sense in what Rumplestiltskin said.  Trapped here, with no one but Rumplestiltskin and Fiona for company—aside from those who came for deals—could she truly know her own heart?  Belle was certain that she could, but she could see the doubt in Rumplestiltskin’s eyes.  He feared that she loved him out of self-defense, that she was only looking to better her situation through his good graces.

“What if I want to come back?”  The words burst out of her before she could stop herself, and Rumplestiltskin’s eyes went almost comically wide.

Then he seemed to deflate.  “Don’t—don’t say that.”  He gulped.  “But I would never stop you.”

“Good.”  Belle took a deep breath, steadying herself.  She could tell that he wanted to believe that she loved him as much as he clearly loved her, that her emotions matched those she could see burning in Rumplestiltskin’s eyes.  But he was so hesitant, her Rumple.  So afraid.  Fiona had explained to her how he had been hurt, and Belle promised herself then and there that she would not be the next person to break his heart.

“I…I wish you well.”  Rumplestiltskin’s whisper was almost a stutter, and on impulse, Belle stepped forward to kiss him on the cheek.

“Thank you.”  She gave him the most encouraging smile that she could, and then forced herself to back away.  If she didn’t, she might never leave.

Rumplestiltskin wanted to give her space, wanted to let her decide.  And maybe Belle needed that perspective; maybe she needed to be certain that he was what she wanted.  So, she would leave—and then she would come back.  Forever.

Chapter Text

Belle said farewell to Fiona and headed out, unsure if the Black Fairy would try to talk her out of this.  Belle thought she detected sadness in Fiona’s eyes, but it was hard to tell.  Fiona simply nodded stiffly and wished her well; nothing was said about how Fiona had asked her to help her save her son from the darkness, or of how Belle was now seemingly giving up on that.  Rumplestiltskin avoided her like the plague after keeping his promise to give her everything she could possibly need, and that left her feeling…well, not uneasy, but rather sad.  Unlike Rumplestiltskin, Belle knew that she’d be back—but she also did know that he was right.  He hadn’t quite said it in so many words, but a deal was no foundation upon which to build a relationship.  When Belle returned, it would be of her own volition, with no strings attached.

But she would miss him.  She would miss Fiona, too, even if Rumple’s mother merely rolled her eyes when Belle said so.  She’d even miss the Dark Castle, which had seemed foreboding and dark at first, only to become a place of hope and hominess.  It’s not forever, she told herself, refusing to look back more than once.  Her plan was to spend a few months seeing the world, finding adventure and maybe helping a few people.  Then she would return, not to her father, but to the “monster” whom Belle knew had a kinder heart than many so-called “good” men in her homelands.  Belle never doubted that her feelings were real, but she wasn’t foolish enough to refuse the opportunity to get her bearings before diving in.  Once, she might have been, but Belle had learned a lot in her time at the Dark Castle.

She hadn’t seen Rumplestiltskin in the window watching her leave.  Otherwise, Belle might have lost the courage to go.

Since she didn’t, she kept walking, looking for adventure.


 

She was gone.

That fact should have made Rumplestiltskin feel better.  The voices in his head certainly thought so; the other Dark Ones were actually congratulating him on sending her away.  Now that she was gone, they actually sounded relieved to see the back of Belle, relieved to hear the howling emptiness in Rumplestiltskin’s heart.  Had he been in a better frame of mind, Rumplestiltskin would have realized that there was something important hidden in their ill-concealed relief, but he wasn’t really thinking that straight.  No, he was too busy missing her.

When Belle had first come to the castle, he had never expected to have feelings for her.  And then when he had started to care for her, Rumplestiltskin had not once imagined that she might actually make him want to change.  Yet he was a better man for having loved Belle, even though he’d lost her.  Perhaps some of him was even human again, just a little.  She’d left a mark on Rumplestiltskin like he’d never believed anyone could, and a part of Belle’s goodness and light would always be with him.  I let her go, he thought, staring out of his tower window, staring blankly at the mountains beyond the Dark Castle.  For once in my life, I did the right thing.

Zoso said something about love being pointless, about how he’d missed his chance to bed a young and pretty thing while she was willing.  Rumplestiltskin barely heard him; for once, he could almost block out the voices.  Even Nimue sneering didn’t matter.  The darkness clawing at his mind seemed less cutting, even though that would never last.

Yet the darkness had gone silent when Belle touched him, too.  The lightest touch of her hand was enough to free him from its taunting voices. With her, Rumplestiltskin had truly felt like the best version of himself…and that was why he’d let her go.  He would never forget Belle, could never forget her, but he couldn’t chain her to a monster like him.

He would miss her forever, but nothing could be done about that.  Weeks passed, and he helped a pseudo prince find love, erased a princess’ memories only for her to find them again, and did a dozen deals that meant nothing to him.  Each took him one step closer to finding Baelfire, yet Rumplestiltskin found little joy in continuing on his ages old quest.  In time, he supposed that he could focus once more, but he couldn’t stop thinking about her.  Not yet. 


 

“Can I ask you something?” Snow peered at him curiously, and David felt his heart do a nervous flip. 

This love he felt for her was absolutely staggering.  They’d already weathered so much together—imprisonment, erased memories, fights with trolls and fleeing from his (supposed) kingly father.  David wasn’t nervous about what Snow would ask him, not really.  She already knew his heart, and he knew hers.  He still wasn’t sure how she’d managed to convince Robin Hood to help rescue him from King George’s dungeons, but now David found himself sleeping in the famous outlaw’s camp, on the run from the man who had promised to make him a prince.  He didn’t care about power and never had, but he was a little concerned about how she’d react when Snow realized that everything she thought he was was a lie.

He hadn’t even figured out how to explain to her that they were on their way to find his mother; Snow had insisted on coming when he said he needed to make sure someone else was safe from George’s wrath, and he just didn’t know how to approach this subject.  How do you tell the woman you loved that you weren’t a prince, particularly when she was a princess?  (And a rightful queen, but there was a small problem of Queen Zelena’s magic in the way of that one.)  So, he swallowed, hoping—as always—that whatever she wanted to know wasn’t going to require him to come up with an explanation for things he didn’t want to lie about.

David put on his best smile.  “Of course you can.”

“How is it that you’re the same man who was fawning all over Zelena just a few months ago?  I remember watching you with her a few times—from a distance, anyway—and you were so…different.

“Oh.”  David gulped.  He supposed that this was bound to come up; King George had mentioned that his brother had been romantically involved with Queen Zelena, although George had just advised him to steer clear of the queen.  He hadn’t, however, indicated how David should deal with the other issues arising from that relationship.  “I, uh, guess you could say that I’m not the same man.”

Snow laughed lightly.  “A blind woman could see that.”

“No, I mean I’m actually not the same man.  Literally.”  Now that he was talking, David figured he might as well go for broke.  What was the worst that could happen?  He couldn’t stomach the idea of Snow thinking that he was like his brother had been.  He would rather her turn away from him for being naught but a shepherd in a prince’s clothing.

“What are you saying?”  She took a half step back, and David felt his heart clench.

“James was my twin brother.”  David swallowed hard.  “King George adopted him when he was a baby, and I never knew him.  But he came for me when James was killed fighting some monster for King Midas.  And I became James.”

Snow’s eyes were huge.  “You’re actually a different person?”

“One hundred percent.”  While he was being honest, David decided to say everything.  “I wasn’t raised as a prince, though.  I was raised on a farm.”

Now was the moment she’d walk away from him, assuming she was going to.  But David didn’t think she would.  Most princesses would reject a shepherd out of hand, but Snow wasn’t a normal princess.  And he trusted in their love.  David believed in her, and always would.

Still, he didn’t expect a laugh to bubble out of her.  “That’s good.  I think.”  Snow shook her head wryly.  “Or at least it’s better than falling in love with the man who my stepmother was flirting with.”

“You can say that again.  In fact, you can keep her far away from me.  I’d rather kiss a frog.”

“How about an exiled princess instead?”  Her smile turned soft.

“I think I can manage that.”


 

So far, Tiger Lily had managed to keep them hidden for two days.  Bae hadn’t dared leave, however, even though his plan had been to head back to the Lost Boys.  He could only hope that Pan and the others assumed he was hiding in his cave again, because if they didn’t, they’d figure out where he was in a hurry.  Felix had visited Tiger Lily more than once, though, which meant he definitely suspected that Beans was hiding there.  He might think we both are, and if he does, I’m screwed.  The problem with Neverland was that the island just wasn’t that big, and how in the world were they supposed to stay hidden forever?

“Pan was here.”  Tiger Lily’s voice drifted into the small hole Bae and Beans hid in; it was covered by vegetation and Felix hadn’t come far enough into the cave to look there, but it sure was cramped.  Beans seemed right at home, but Bae was starting to go stir crazy.  The fact that that Beans had random visions every few hours really didn’t help, and killed off most of their better conversations.

Bae felt his breath catch and struggled to keep his voice level.  “Is he gone?”

“For now.”  Her frown was grim.  “We’ve got to find somewhere else for the two of you to hide.  I can do a few tricks with Neverland’s magic, but nothing that will stand up to Pan.”

“Like where?”  Bae had thought of everywhere already.  Cannibal Cove was just as dangerous as Pan; there were things there that would happily eat them.  Skull Rock was Pan’s favorite retreat, so hiding there would be an exercise in stupidity.  Pixie Hollow was said to be haunted, and it was too small to hide in, anyway.  The Maze of Regrets and Crocodile Creek were the Lost Boys’ usual haunts, so they were out, too.  That left jungle and more jungle, and Neverland just wasn’t big enough to hide for long.

“I have a Bean.”

Bae rolled his eyes; Beans had said something like that in the midst of one of his recent visions.  “Don’t you mean you are a bean?”  Earlier, he’d asked the other boy how he’d ended up with that name, and the only response he’d gotten had been ‘Dangerous Beans’.  Bae didn’t get it.

“No.”  Scowling, Beans dug deep into a pocket, rooting around until he found what he was looking for.  Slowly, Beans extended his hand, finally opening his palm to reveal a small, glowing bean.

Bae’s jaw dropped open.

“Is that…is that a magic bean?”  Even Tiger Lily looked shocked, although of course she’d know what a magic bean looked like; she’d been a fairy.  So much for the one Reul Ghorm gave me being the last, huh?  Bae thought bitterly.  But he’d already realized that Tiger Lily was different from Reul Ghorm.  A lot different.

“Of course it is.”  Beans shot them both an amused look.  “They do call me ‘Beans’.”

“Is that your actual name?” Bae had to ask.

“Not telling.”

“It doesn’t matter.”  Tiger Lily straightened.  “What matters is that the two of you can escape.”

“Both of us?” Bae hadn’t thought about that; his last experience with a portal hadn’t exactly been a good one, but if it meant leaving Neverland…

“You saved my life.”  For once, Beans looked like he was all there, not distracted at all.  “I’m not leaving you to Pan.  He’ll kill you for sure.”

“He won’t.”  Bae shrugged.  “If he wanted to, he’d have done it years ago.  Or centuries.”  He couldn’t keep track of how long it had been, but Bae knew that if Pan wanted to kill him, he’d had plenty of opportunities.   

Beans’ eyes went glassy for a moment.  “He needs you for the Truest—”

“There’s no time for that!” Tiger Lily grabbed Beans by the arm and shook him.  “One of my tripwires just went off.  They’re coming back.  You two need to go.”

“Pan won’t leave you alone anymore if he knows you helped us.”  Bae fought to keep his voice level, forcing aside the burning urge to ask what the hell Beans was talking about.  Felix had mentioned some ‘Truest Believer’, but Bae had no idea what that was.  And it didn’t really matter right now.

Tiger Lily looked uncertain, but Beans nodded emphatically.  “He’ll come.  He’ll come and he’ll come and he’s here.”

Shouts echoed in from the cave’s entrance almost on cue.  Felix’s was the loudest.  “They’re in the back!”

“Throw the bean!” Tiger Lily seemed to make up her mind, but it was Bae she looked at even as Beans tossed the magic bean down to create a swirling vortex of color.  “Where are we going?”

For a moment, he was tempted to say the Land Without Magic, but what was the point?  Pan’s shadow could find them there, and for all the Darlings had been kind to him, it wasn’t really a very nice world.  Bae had skills that he could sell in the Enchanted Forest, and Tiger Lily had been a fairy there, but in the Land Without Magic, they’d probably just starve.  Particularly Beans.  If his visions happen there, someone will lock him up…or worse.  Besides, the Darlings had to be long dead.  The only reasons he had to go to that world were long gone.

“The Enchanted Forest.”  Grabbing both of their hands, Bae jumped before he could change his mind.  Tiger Lily gasped, and Beans muttered something, but they were falling and falling and the shouting was fading away.

The unlikely trio landed in a heap in a field Bae didn’t know, but no Lost Boys came after them.


 

“You’ve been staring at that rose for the better part of three weeks.”  Fiona hoped that her dry statement might snap Rumplestiltskin out of his reverie—that he’d at least deny acting like a lovesick puppy dog!—but her son only shrugged.  He was miserable, and not even trying to hide it.  A bad sign if I’ve ever seen one.

“It doesn’t matter.”  The way his voice deepened with loneliness told her otherwise; Rumplestiltskin sounded heartbreakingly human, and Fiona both loved and hated that.  She had hoped that loving Belle might put him back on the path towards the light—but not like this!

“Of course it does, you silly boy.”  She didn’t try to sound less affectionate; snapping at him hadn’t worked over the last few weeks, so there was no reason to think it would start now. “You love her.  That’s why you let her go.”

Fiona hadn’t broached this topic since Belle had left, or at least not successfully.  Every time she’d tried, Rumplestiltskin had shut her down or teleported away, trying to keep himself busy by helping Regina’s princess friend find True Love.  Snow White and Prince ‘Charming’ were doing well, however, so he didn’t have a project to lose himself in.  Fiona suspected that was why Rumplestiltskin was now staring at that single red rose instead of admiring his work in creating the world’s first True Love potion.  She was still impressed by the latter, but she was also worried for her son.

I never really thought he could love like that, she realized.  Fiona had hoped, had planned, had schemed—but she hadn’t thought Rumplestiltskin could actually overcome the darkness enough to let Belle go.  She had thought that it would take more overt action on Belle’s part.  Yet he had, and now she was left with a depressed Dark One who could barely stop himself from moping around the castle.

“I had to.”  His whisper was so quiet that Fiona could barely hear him.  “She deserved better.”

“If Belle were here, I think she’d tell you that she gets to decide what she deserves, not you.”

Rumplestiltskin snorted bitterly.  “But she isn’t.  That’s the point, isn’t it?”  He swung to face her, his eyes less reptilian than Fiona ever remembered seeing them.  Then Fiona noticed that he was also holding that silly chipped cup, clinging to it with clawed fingers that were amazingly gentle.  “She’s smart enough to know to stay away from monsters.”

“You’re not a monster, Rumple.”  Stepping forward, Fiona put a careful hand on his shoulder.  He hadn’t wanted comfort after Belle left, and had slapped her away more than once, but today he let her squeeze his shoulder lightly.  “Particularly not now.”

“That’s kind of you to say, Mother, but I know what I am.”  That stupid little giggle came next, but Fiona ignored it.  “You can take the man out of the monster, but not the monster out of the man!”

She snorted.  “Now you’re just being melodramatic.  I should know.  It runs in the family.”

“Is that a surprise?”  His manic grin came back as Rumplestiltskin danced away from her, but Fiona saw how carefully he put that chipped cup down.  The rose he’d almost given Belle was still in full bloom, too, which meant he’d used magic to preserve it.  Sentimental.

“No.”  Fiona didn’t even try not to sigh.  Sometimes, how alike she and her son were was a true annoyance; that curse of his magnified his worst traits, most of which he’d inherited from her.

“Then I fail to see what the problem is.”  The words were a very annoying song, and FIona was having none of it.

“Go and find her then, Rumple.  Quit moping about and do something.”

That jerked him up short.  “What?”

“I said go find Belle.  You love her.  She loves you.  Go find her and tell her.”  Fiona didn’t add before it’s too late, but she was pretty sure that her son heard the words, anyway.  Besides, she missed the girl. Belle was annoyingly smart and damnably moral, but she’d been an excellent research partner.  Not to mention that Belle was the only person who cared about saving Rumplestiltskin aside from Fiona.

“I can’t.  I won’t.”  He was back to sounding human again, and heartbroken.  All this back-and-forth between personas was enough to give Fiona a headache.  “The choice is hers.”

“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic!  I’m not suggest you should kidnap the girl, or—heaven forbid!—make another deal for her.  Just that you should talk to her.  You might be surprised by what she says.”  Fiona knew that Rumplestiltskin was hopeless in a romantic sense, but even he should have been able to figure this one out.  If even she could see it, he should be able to, too.

Much to her surprise, he didn’t snap at her, or giggle mockingly.  Rumplestiltskin only shook his head.  “I let her go.  I told her that I would be here…if she ever wanted to return.  But if she wants freedom, I will…I will respect that.”

Left speechless, Fiona felt her heart and her hopes break in two.  All of her plans had been for nothing—yet she hardly cared about that.  Right now, she didn’t see the mess this had made of her scheme to break Rumplestiltskin’s curse.  Right now, she only saw her heartbroken son, who had, against all odds, made the right choice.  He had found love, and then he had let Belle go.  She had never thought Rumplestiltskin could do that; his curse was possessive and unpredictable, and while Fiona knew that her son could love, she hadn’t thought he could love selflessly.  Not while cursed.

“If I fool myself long enough, I can think that she might walk back in,” he whispered, and Fiona abandoned conversation to step forward and hug him.

For a moment, she thought Rumplestiltskin would jerk away.  He often did, after all.  Yet today he did not, although he did not weep.  He would not let himself, Fiona knew, and that was a pity.  Weeping would probably do Rumplestiltskin a world of good, certainly more than the destruction he had wrought in the great hall in the hours after Belle had left.  However, even Fiona knew better than to suggest it, so she merely held him in silence for as long as Rumplestiltskin would let her.


 

Travelling with Mulan had been one of the highlights of Belle’s life.  They’d fought the yaoguai together, revealing a hidden prince who they both then befriended, and then the three of them had travelled together to save Philip’s princess.  Watching Philip wake Aurora with True Love’s Kiss was both breathtaking and amazing, and although Belle was very happy for her new friends, she was also left feeling a bit…empty.  Those two were clearly so in love, sharing a deep connection of the sort that Belle had secretly dreamed of finding.  Philip and Aurora understood one another, supported one another, and loved one another even when they were arguing.  Belle had always told herself that she didn’t need romance; she was strong and smart, and she could get by on her own.  Yet watching the two lovebirds only made her think of the man whom she had walked away from.

“I think it’s time I left,” she told Philip, Aurora, and Mulan nearly three months after she’d left the Dark Castle.  “Being here has been wonderful, but it’s time for me to go back to my own love.”

“Gaston?” Mulan arched an eyebrow, looking at her strangely.  “I didn’t think he’d be your type.”

Belle felt her jaw drop.  “Gaston?  What made you think I was going to find Gaston?”

“There’s rumors everywhere about how he was betrothed to you before you were stolen away.”  Philip shrugged, exchanging a loaded glance with Mulan.  “Apparently, he’s taken over your father’s lands while he is ill, ruling in your name.”

“He’s what?  Where did you hear this?”

“From some passing traders.”  Mulan looked concerned.  “They said that Gaston’s own lands were destroyed in the Third Ogre War, so he’s now ruling yours.”

“And my papa is sick?”  Belle’s stomach was churning wildly; what had happened while she was gone?  How could she have been so selfish as to think nothing could have gone wrong at home while she was gone?

Philip shrugged again.  “That’s the rumor, anyway.  No one seems to know for certain, but Gaston is surely ruling in his place.”

Belle felt cold.  Cold and guilty and terrible.  But she knew what she had to do.  Belle was going home, and Rumplestiltskin would just have to wait.


 

“So, do you think she trusts you?”

Tink started to smile, but the expression died when faced by the outlaw’s intensity.  Robin was a good man, but she could see that what Little John had told her was true; he’d been gutted by Marian’s murder.  Zelena, of course, had killed her.  Fiona had already pointed Tink in that direction for her own reasons, but Tink had felt rather funny about finding Zelena a lover until she’d stumbled into joining the Merry Men.  She’d immediately befriended Regina, Snow, and the others, and she would have been willing to spy on Zelena for them alone.  The fact that it neatly coincided with what Fiona wanted was just icing.  Now that she knew Robin and Roland, she felt even less guilty.  Roland was a sweet little boy who deserved far better than having lost a mother he would barely remember.

“I’m not sure she trusts anyone, to be honest.”  Tink sighed.  “But she seems to be listening to me, anyway.  I promised her a lover who would let her rule him, and she’s definitely interested in that.”

Robin snorted.  “You’d best find a power hungry idiot, then.  She might be easy on the eyes, but from what I hear, the ‘Wicked Queen’ is crazier than a box of cats.”

“Crazier.” 

“My heart goes out to you for having to be around her, then.”

“I can usually avoid her—wicked witches don’t usually have a lot of free time.  They’re too busy tormenting people.”  Tink shrugged.  “It’s her pet ‘doctor’ who keeps trying to romance me.  He’s not a bad sort, at least not for someone who assembles bodies out of spare parts, but I am not getting attached.” Part of me wants to point him at Fiona, because it would at least be funny, but Victor’s too nice for her.

Robin barked out a laugh.  “It’s rather rich that you’re being picky and choosy about morality when you’re consorting with outlaws, you know.”

“At least you steal from the rich and give to the poor.  Frankenstein steals from graveyards to see if he can bring the dead back to life.” He also was a little charming, but Tink wasn’t going to say that aloud.  Zelena clearly viewed Frankenstein as a possession even if the ‘doctor’ disagreed with that assessment, and Tink was not stupid enough to get in the middle.  Besides, Frankenstein’s easy comfort around discombobulated arms and legs gave her the creeps.

“So, have you thought about who you’re going to point the queen towards as a love interest?”  Robin asked the question without any real interest, and Tink didn’t blame him.  After all, her goal wasn’t to help Zelena find redemption via love; Tink would have tried that if she thought it would work, but one look at the Queen’s heartless harem told her that just wasn’t going to happen.

“I was thinking about your good friend Nottingham.  Does he have any tattoos or identifying features I can use when the pixie dust trick falls through?  I’m going to have to fake it when she doesn’t have an actual soulmate.”

“You so sure she doesn’t? I hear the Dark One is single.”

Tink shuddered, thinking about how Fiona would react to that.  Or how Rumplestiltskin would, for that matter.  The tales Blue had told about Rumplestiltskin didn’t begin to approach the truth.  He’d been the Dark One longer than any other, and he’d mastered magics that his predecessors had only dreamt of.  He didn’t seem to be as terrible or as much of a threat as Blue claimed—after all, she’d stayed in his castle for a bit, and she’d even befriended Belle, who seemed to be head over heels in love with him—but Fiona was another matter.  She made mother bears look disinterested in their cubs’ safety, that woman did.

That pixie dust had better not take Zelena to him, she thought darkly. If it does, I am flying away as fast as I can.  I am not going to face Fiona if that happens!

“Don’t even joke about that.”  She was not going to tempt fate on that front.

“You think you’re wary of him?  He strung me up in a dungeon and was going to flay me alive.  If his maid hadn’t rescued me, I wouldn’t be here talking to you.”  Robin’s eyes narrowed as he misconstrued her meaning.  Then his scowl turned into a lopsided grin.  “But I did manage to steal the wand I needed, so it worked out all right in the end.”

“You’re crazy.”  Tink couldn’t help laughing, though.  Robin was a good man, and a good friend.  She hadn’t expected to end up here, but he’d taken her in when she had nowhere else to go, and she fit in far better with the Merry Men than she ever had as a fairy.

Outcast or not, however, Tink was still a fairy.  So, when she saw Robin and Regina together for the first time an hour later, she could practically smell the magic trying to bind those two together.  Neither had really noticed it, at least not yet, but Tink could see it.  I don’t need pixie dust to put these two together, she realized, biting back her grin.  They’ll do it all on their own.


 

“You really liked Aurora, didn’t you?” Belle asked Mulan as they crested a hilltop on their way to her home.  One more day and they would be there, and Belle could hardly mask her nerves. 

“Was I that obvious?”  Mulan looked vaguely alarmed, so Belle reached out and squeezed her elbow.

“A little, but only because I’ve gotten to know you pretty well.”  A year or so ago, Belle might have been horrified by the idea of one woman loving another, but she’d grown a lot since she left home…and she really did like Mulan.  Mulan had become the kind of friend she wished she’d had when she was younger—a woman who wasn’t afraid to fight or to get her hands dirty for something she believed in. 

“Oh.”  Mulan bit her lip.  “Don’t tell her.  Please.  She’s happy.”

“I won’t,” Belle promised.  “That’s up to you.  But I think you should.  Walking away from love is rarely the right answer.”

The slender woman shrugged, glancing down at the sword on her hip self-consciously.  “She’d never want someone like me.  I’m too…different.  I wear armor instead of dresses, and I know how to use a sword.”

Belle couldn’t help chuckling.  “I know that feeling.”

“What?”  Mulan snorted.  “You’re the perfect little lady.”

“Thank you, I think.”  She laughed again, shaking her head.  Mulan really didn’t know much about the nobility, and it showed.  Belle might wear dresses and have good manners, but that hardly made her a ‘perfect’ little lady.  Perfect little ladies don’t volunteer to save their people, she thought with a crooked smile.  “But I’m not.  I read.

That earned her a funny look.  “What’s wrong with reading?”

“It starts giving women ‘ideas’.”  The quote rolled off her tongue more caustically than Belle wanted it to, and she forced herself to shrug casually.  “Apparently, I think too much.  Everyone thinks so.”

“I don’t. If you hadn’t read that book, we’d have never found the yaoguai.” 

“And that’s why I like you.” 

Her smile faded after a moment, though.  They were so close, and yet so far away.  What would she find when they arrived?  Would her father be all right, or would his illness be a bad one?  And what in the world was Gaston doing claiming her family lands?  Even if Belle had been dead—which she hardly was!—she had cousins who would inherit long before some stranger from a neighboring duchy.  Gaston had no right to claim her father’s castle, and Belle was going to do whatever it took to save her people from him.

Chapter Text

“I want to go back in time.”  Zelena announced the words with a flourish, and they were certainly enough to get Rumplestiltskin to actually pay attention to his pupil.  He’d come to her—he didn’t want her in his castle, not if he could help it—but he’d admittedly been paying little attention to whatever revenge Zelena was prattling on about between lessons.

He snorted out a giggle.  “No can do, dearie.  Magic can’t change the past.”

“That’s what you think.  I’ve found a spell that can do it.”  She was proud of herself, but when Rumplestiltskin peered at her, he couldn’t detect a lie.  Zelena was serious, and that made him sit up straight.

“Show me.”  For once, the queen didn’t act offended to be gestured over by a mere sorcerer; Zelena rushed to him, book in hands. 

“Look.  If I can get the required ingredients, it can be done.”  Her grin made her look younger and far more innocent, but Rumplestiltskin barely noticed.   His eyes were too busy flying over the pages.

“This would take more power than you have.”  He glanced at her suspiciously, but Zelena merely folded her hands, looking innocent.

“That’s why you’re going to help me.”

“Oh ho ho, am I?” Rumplestiltskin rose to meet her eyes, hating the way she was taller than him.  Usually he could intimidate Zelena, but whatever bit of serene confidence she’d gained seemed to armor her against his normal methods.  “Why do you want to go back into the past, anyway?”

Zelena drew herself up.  “I want to save my mother, of course.”

“Is that so?”  Rumplestiltskin managed to keep all emotions off of his face, but it was hard.  Zelena didn’t know how Cora had died; she only knew that her mother had been sick and died in her sleep.  Zelena didn’t know that Fiona had killed her, or that Rumplestiltskin had been his mother’s accomplice, and he had no intention of ever letting that secret out.  Fiona was the only other person who knew what had happened, and his mother wasn’t about to tell, either.  Obviously.

“Of course I do!  What kind of daughter do you take me for?”  Zelena huffed, annoyed.  “I’ve even figured out how to do it without changing too much.  I’ll rescue her at the point of her death, and bring her forward.  Then she’ll be grateful to me, and I’ll have a mother here to appreciate my power.”

My, wasn’t that interesting?  Zelena didn’t want to change her past; she only wanted to rescue Cora.  And Cora would be delighted to find that her daughter was a powerful sorceress and queen, too; Rumplestiltskin didn’t doubt that.  Seeing her daughter in power would make his old lover happier than anything other than being a queen herself.  It was almost a pity that Rumplestiltskin would never allow that to happen.  Not with the way she wanted to take my dagger.

“What kind doesn’t matter if you can’t do the spell yourself.”  He wagged a finger at her as he sang the words, glad that Zelena had shown her cards so early.  He needed her to cast the Dark Curse, not go digging in his past.

And he was not going to even contemplate the idea of Cora casting the curse.  It would work, but she would be a monster with that much power, and he couldn’t risk that.

“I know you want to find your son.”  Zelena met his eyes calmly.  “If you help me, we can get him, too.”

“I know where he is,” Rumplestiltskin spat.  Kill her now, Zoso taunted him. Then go find your precious maid and cast the curse yourself. 

Shut up!  He would never hurt Belle.  Never.

“Then that’s even easier, isn’t it?”

He glared at her, already sick of her self-satisfied smirk.  “I don’t need time travel to fix my mistakes.” 

“Think of how easy it would be, Rumple.”  Zelena stepped forward, and she tried to put a hand on his arm, but he evaded that easily.  “You could go make everything right—”

“All magic comes at a price, dearie,” he snapped viciously.  “Playing with the past will have a steep one.”

“One I’m willing to pay.”  She glared, jutting her chin into the air.  “You will, too, in time.  You’ll see.”

Rumplestiltskin rolled his eyes and carried on with her scheduled lesson, but that didn’t keep a ball of dread from gnawing away at in the pit of his stomach.  He absolutely would not help Zelena cast her spell, but what if someone else did?  Cora coming back was not what he needed, not when the curse was closing in and all he needed was for the lovebirds to push Zelena just far enough and for the Savior to be born.  Things were coming to a head, and Zelena mucking about with time travel in the middle of his preparations could only make things more uncertain.

So kill her and use her sister, Zoso suggested, snorting at the irony of it all.  Or sleep with her and distract her.  Get some decent use out of that rusty libido of yours.

Oh, do be quiet.  Rumplestiltskin almost groaned aloud.  The best escape you could engineer was suicide.  You’re hardly one to talk about intricate plans!  He’d realized long ago that Zoso had a base kind of cunning to him, but little real intelligence.  Most of his predecessors had simply focused on how much damage and destruction they could cause, but Rumplestiltskin was driven.  He would find his son, and then he would fight to be the father Baelfire wanted him to be. That would be enough.  It would have to be.

Even if there would forever be a Belle-sized hole in his heart, his son would have to be enough.


 

Creeping into the dungeon was easy when you’d grown up in the castle and all of your father’s retainers were still in place. Gaston had replaced people a few key positions with his cronies, but most of the guards were still men whom Belle had known since childhood.  Being a troublesome and curious girl, she’d wandered everywhere, including dungeons where proper young ladies were not supposed to be.  So, she knew her way around and knew the guards who were supposed to keep her out, which meant she and Mulan easily found her father’s cell.

“Papa?” Belle tried to keep her voice down; the guards she knew wouldn’t rat them out, but there was no telling if one of Gaston’s hangers-on would show up. 

“Belle?” Maurice had been in the back of the cell, but her arrival made him stumble forward, blinking in the light of the lantern Mulan held.  “What are you doing here?”

“We’ve come to get you out and then free our people.”  Reaching through the bars, Belle squeezed his hand.  “This is Mulan.  She’s a friend.”

“You can’t be here, sweeting.  Gaston is—”

“I’m not afraid of Gaston.”  Belle squared her shoulders, looking around for a way to open the door.  No one had dared give her the keys, but she’d read a book on lock picking, and Belle was eager to test out her new skills.  “He’s nothing but a big bully.”

“He’s a bully with powerful allies, Belle.”  Maurice looked almost panicked with worry.  “There’s a witch and more guards than you think.”

That made Mulan go for her sword.  “Guards where?”

“Right here.”  But the voice that answered was Gaston’s, and Belle whirled around, taking in her former fiancé’s smug and gloating expression.  His smile was greedy.  “I’ve been waiting for you, Belle.”

"Good.  Then you can let my father out.  Now.”  There was nothing in Gaston’s expression that indicated he’d listen to her, but Belle figured that she had nothing to lose.  Some of the guards behind him were loyal to her family, and they might help her.

Gaston’s laugh put an end to that hope, however.  “Of course I will.  Right after you marry me.  It wouldn’t do to have my father-in-law imprisoned, now, would it?”

“Marry you?” Belle spat the words before she could stop herself.  “After you’ve locked up my father?  You’ve got to be joking.”

“Belle, sweeting, please—” Maurice’s desperate whisper was cut off by Gaston stepping forward as if to take her arm, only for Mulan to get in the way.

“Touch her and I’ll cut your hand off.”  Mulan’s eyes were cold and intent.  “Don’t think I can’t.”

Gaston’s smile only grew, which made Belle’s heart sink.  “I’d never hurt my bride-to-be.  In fact, I’d be more than willing to have LeFou here escort her to her chambers.  They’ve been made ready for her.”

Belle felt her eyes narrow.  “Made ready so that I can’t get out of them again?”

“I care for your safety.  Is there any harm in that?  We wouldn’t want the Dark One stealing you away again, after all.”

She wanted to throttle him, but Belle could tell when the odds were against her.  Even her old family guards looked well and truly cowed by Gaston—either that, or paid off.  Only LeFou looked a little guilty, and Belle knew that wouldn’t last long.  Not unless she could somehow build upon the unease she saw in LeFou’s eyes.  LeFou had always been Gaston’s loyal lackey, but Gaston treated him terribly half the time.

But if she’d learned anything in the Dark Castle, it was when to withdraw and fight another day.  Every inch of her railed against the idea of letting Gaston think he’d won, but Belle had to play this smart.  If she didn’t, her father would suffer for it.  I won’t let anyone else be hurt because of my mistakes, she thought, remembering the baby ogre who she had tried so hard to help.  Belle still wasn’t sure if she’d contributed to the war by letting the young ogre go or if Gaston’s actions had caused it, but she wasn’t about to be so reckless again.  Not with so much at stake.

“Fine.  I’ll go to my rooms.”  She squared her shoulders, glaring at Gaston as coldly as she could.  “But Mulan stays with me.”

“Oh, by all means.”  Gaston laughed heartily.  “I couldn’t imagine a better bodyguard for you—at least I won’t have to worry about a woman defiling my beloved!”

Mulan’s snort was quiet, and it took everything Belle had not to laugh out loud.  Instead, she followed LeFou in silence, with her friend right by her side.  They’d have to do something, and Belle thought she knew what.


 

“She needs a push.”  Her son was scowling, and Fiona had no doubt that the voices inside him were grumbling constantly.  Rumplestiltskin had been both touchy and incredibly focused on the curse ever since Belle left, and Fiona could see him throwing all of the love he had left in him towards finding Baelfire.

Worse yet, Fiona wasn’t done adjusting said curse, which meant Rumplestiltskin was still determined to put power over all their fates into the hands of that conceited little witch.  Fiona hated to admit that she was having a hard time recalling how she’d balanced out the various prices the first time around, and Blue had cleverly destroyed or hidden the original documents.  It was almost like Blue wanted the curse to be cast—but that wasn’t the issue at the moment, was it?

Her poor boy was clearly out of hope that Belle would come back, and truth be told, Fiona was really starting to wonder .  She had expected Belle to return by now, yet they’d seen neither hide nor hair of the damn girl.  Tink had told her that Belle had been seen in King Stefan’s kingdom, having apparently helped find the sleeping princess’ True Love.  Maleficent was reportedly wroth over how that had upset her revenge, but so long as Maleficent didn’t go after Belle, Fiona didn’t care what annoyed the ‘Mistress of All Evil’.  She hadn’t heard of Belle leaving Stefan’s lands yet, but Fiona was contemplating interfering once she did.

After all, someone had to find out of the girl still had feelings for Rumplestiltskin.  Heavens knew that her son was not going to do so himself, and Fiona needed to know if her plans had gone awry.  If they had, well, she had best figure out how to restore her own version of the Dark curse, because every other avenue of freeing her son had failed.  Perhaps if I gather enough dark fairy dust…

Still, Rumplestiltskin’s grumbled complaint was new.  “Why?”  Fiona tried not to roll her eyes.  “What has that obnoxious brat of a witch done now?”

“She’s working on time travel.”  Rumplestiltskin spat the words out like they tasted foul.  “Even worse, she’s found something that might work.”

“She has?”  Now Fiona was actually paying attention.  No one had ever managed that, before, or at least not managed to find a survivable spell.  Fiona had watched one or two smash themselves into goo over the years, and as entertaining as that was, it was also pointless.

“Yes.  An ancient spell from Oz.  It has…inconvenient ingredients, but nothing impossible.”  Rumplestiltskin’s voice dropped, losing any pretense at giddy high-pitched humor.  “She wants to rescue Cora from death.”

“Oh, dear.”  Fiona sat back in her own chair, her mind racing.  Unfortunately, that trick might just work.  It would also leave both the present unaffected and royally screw over their plans.  Cora might not know who fed her the squid ink that immobilized her and left her in a death-like sleep, but she’d figure it out fast enough.

Rumplestiltskin just snarled in wordless agreement, and Fiona hissed out a breath.  Yes, this was dangerously inconvenient.  The last thing they needed was that woman on a revenge-fueled rampage.  If Cora took it into her head to control Rumplestiltskin and succeeded, the curse would never be cast.  Because then I’ll kill her, and end up offing Zelena while I’m at it. Rumplestiltskin might not mourn either one, but he does want the curse cast to find Baelfire.  And if I can’t find another way to get him to the Land Without Magic, he’ll never forgive me if I kill his curse caster.  There was no winning here.  Not if Cora came back.

“We’ll manage, Rumple,” she said after a moment, watching her son see-saw between rage and worry.  “One way or another.  We will find your son.”  She couldn’t deny him that.  No matter how much she liked keeping her son to herself, Fiona knew the pain of being separated from her son far too well.

“Sometimes I wonder why you help me at all.”  His whisper was ragged, and the eyes that turned on Fiona were suddenly wide and lost.

Immediately, Fiona got up and walked over to her son, placing a hand on his arm.  She knew where this was coming from: again, he had fallen in love, and again, Rumplestiltskin had lost the one he loved.  His self-esteem had never been high, and the confidence he had in his magic greatly outweighed his confidence in his own person.  I started this, she thought brokenly.  I was the first to abandon him, and I only wish I was the last.

But at least she was here now.

“Because I am your mother,” Fiona said softly.  “We are family.  I love you, and I will always help you.”

Rumplestiltskin could have pointed out that she hadn’t always been there, that she’d left him alone as surely as anyone else had.  But he didn’t.  Fiona just watched his eyes close briefly, so she squeezed his shoulder once more, her touch gentle.  He needed her, and Fiona would be damned if she failed him again.


 

They’d landed outside Port Mystic, which had turned out to be a blessing in disguise.   Port Mystic had been a busy port town in Bae’s time, but nowadays it was smaller and much more run down.  Their only healer had also died a few months earlier, which offered a big opportunity to the three newcomers.  Tiger Lily might not have had magic any longer, but she knew her herbs and salves.  She immediately stepped forward to help with the sickness ravaging the village,  and found herself with a job when her cures worked.  The mayor handed over the old healer’s house (she’d died without any family to inherit it), and Tiger Lily and her two “apprentices” moved right in.

Bae had been nervous about going to the Enchanted Forest, but things didn’t really seem much different than he’d remembered.  After a few weeks, he started cautiously asking questions, and found that the apprentice blacksmith was the best one to go to for news.  Clank wasn’t the sharpest person Bae had ever met, but he was a good person, and Bae kind of liked him.  Clank was a little oblivious, though, and Bae was really glad for that.  He probably wouldn’t have asked so many questions if he was talking to someone likely to put the pieces together and figure out that Bae, Beans, and Tiger Lily were definitely not familiar with the town or the times, but Clank had yet to even act a little suspicious.

“So, um, what happened to the ogres?” Bae had been burning to ask that question since the beginning; his papa had won the war, but Bae knew better than most that the ogres would keep coming back. 

Clank just shrugged, his mouth half full of a piece of bread.  “Gone.  Came to the Marchlands about a year back, but they’re all gone now.  Dark One did it.”

“The Dark One?”  Bae felt his heart stutter a little; he wasn’t sure if he wanted to know about his father or not, but he knew that whoever the Dark One was, it probably wasn’t him.  Tiger Lily had been able to look at the town’s books, and that told Bae that it had been a few hundred years since he’d last been in the Enchanted Forest.

“‘S what they say.  Bobble told me ‘bout it.”

Bae knew that Bobble was the blacksmith’s other—and sharper—apprentice, but he really didn’t want to deal with the thousand questions Bobble would ask.  “Did he say the Dark One’s name?”

“Course not!  You think Bobble’s stupid?”

“Right.  Sorry.”  So much for that idea; Bae let out a breath and changed the subject.  He wasn’t sure why he was asking, anyway.  There was no way that his father had lasted so long as the Dark One, and even if Rumplestiltskin had, Bae wasn’t sure he wanted to ever see him again.

He still had nightmares about dropping through that portal alone.


 

“Where are your father’s people?” Mulan asked in an undertone as soon as soon as they were away from Gaston and his toadies. 

Belle glanced around cautiously.  LeFou led them through the corridors of the castle Belle had grown up in, and there were enough guards following them to keep them from doing anything reckless, but she didn’t think any of them were really paying attention.  Still, she kept her voice quiet.  “They’re here.  They’re helping Gaston.”

“Why?”

“I wish I knew.”  Belle let out an angry breath.  She was not going to do something stupid…but talking to LeFou couldn’t hurt, could it?  “LeFou?”

Much to her surprise, Gaston’s friend stopped, turning to look at her, quirking a nervous smile.  “I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not that simple.”

“Not as simple as betrayal?”  Mulan’s voice was a growl.

“People are scared.”  LeFou shrugged.  “Gaston has allied with the Wicked Queen.  He was on his way to find you, to confront that beast that took you, when he ran into her.  And she offered to help him take your father’s lands instead.”

Zelena?”  Belle couldn’t help gaping.  She knew Zelena didn’t like her, but the witch couldn’t have gone after her father because of that, could she?

Except Zelena was that petty, and she knew it.

“Yes.  Her.”  LeFou shuddered.  “Gaston thinks she’ll marry him, and that he’ll become a king.”

“Marry her?  He just said I had to marry him!”  Belle couldn’t keep her jaw from dropping, and a quick glance to her left indicated Mulan looked just as shocked.

“Nah, he’s not really interested in marrying you, or at least not for long.”  LeFou grimaced.  “Gaston…well, he has a plan.  And he says that he’ll get your marriage annulled after a week so that he can keep your father’s lands.”

“On what grounds?”  Belle had heard of such things happening before, of women left bereft because their former husband had gotten some helpful cleric or another to declare their marriage invalid—and yet left said husband with the lands the lady had inherited.  But she’d never imagined it could happen to her, even with an oaf like Gaston.

Then again, I was considering marrying him before the ogres overran his lands.  Rumplestiltskin might have ended the war, but that doesn’t restore Gaston’s lands or his people.  His castle was destroyed, and all of the peasants fled to places like here, Belle realized.  The end of the war had left her father one of the most powerful nobles in the region.  Sir Maurice might only be a landed knight, but his lands were vast and his people were happy.  They were working hard to recover from the war, whereas Gaston probably hadn’t bothered to lift a finger to help his people, or to rebuild.  Instead, he wants to steal mine!  Belle was not going to let that happen.

LeFou gave her a sympathetic look that was all too sincere.  “Because the Dark One defiled you, of course.”

“He didn’t!”

“It doesn’t matter,” Mulan cut in even as LeFou shook his head disbelievingly.  “Everyone will believe he did, and that’s enough.”

Belle gaped.  Yes, she’d expected Rumplestiltskin to want her to be his concubine—or worse—but he’d expected nothing of the sort.  The fact that she planned to go back to him had everything to do with the kind of man he was under his curse, not with anything he’d done to her!  “But I’m still—I’m still…”

“It doesn’t matter.”  The hand LeFou put on her arm was surprisingly gentle.  “The clerics will lie for him.  Like everyone else, they’re afraid of Queen Zelena.  The truth won’t help you.”

“Zelena won’t marry Gaston.”  Belle knew that much was true; Zelena looked at Rumplestiltskin like she wanted to devour him, and if Rumplestiltskin—or what she thought Rumplestiltskin was—was her type, she wouldn’t want Gaston.  “She’s just using him.”

LeFou’s snort was bitter.  “I wish someone would tell Gaston that.”

“You could,” Mulan pointed out.

“He’d never believe me.  I’m just his squire, someone to laugh at and have polish his boots.”  He looked sad, but Belle knew LeFou was right.  How many times had she heard Gaston berating LeFou?  LeFou was worlds smarter than Gaston, yet Gaston constantly called him an idiot and sent him to do the most degrading tasks.

“But our people are in danger.  We can’t do nothing!”  Belle met LeFou’s eyes square on, but after a moment, he looked away, seeming ashamed.

“I’ve tried talking him out of this.  He won’t listen.  And Gaston will doom everyone because of his ambition.”

“Then help us.  Help us save everyone.  Including you.”  On impulse, Belle reached out to take LeFou’s hands, so very aware of the guards behind them.  Yet none of those guards had said a word or even tried to interfere.  They’d all been her father’s men, and that couldn’t be an accident, could it?

Maybe LeFou already wanted to help them, and just hadn’t yet admitted it to himself.

“And what can a girl who’s been away for so long do?” LeFou asked.  But he sounded more curious than doubting.

“We can start by getting Sir Maurice out of that prison cell,” Mulan pointed out logically.  “With their rightful ruler to lead them, the people will fight Gaston and his goons off.”

LeFou shook his head sadly.  “Gaston keeps his own men guarding your father.  Otherwise, someone would have let him out by now.  And if he can’t lead the attack—”

“Then I will.”

Gapin, LeFou stared at her.  “You?”

“Yes, me.”  Belle crossed her arms, her heart pounding.  You wanted to be a hero, a voice inside her said, sounding much like her mother.  Now prove you’re worthy.  “I’m not going to stand by while others fight for my home.  No one decides my fate but me.”

“Are you sure?  You’re...” LeFou trailed off uncertainly, and then let out a huge sigh.  “Oh, hell.  No one deserves to be married to Gaston, even if it’s just for a little while. I’ll help you.  But even if we win, we can’t fight Zelena.  Even if she doesn’t come, her armies are huge.  And if she does…”  He shuddered. 

“Let me deal with that.”  Belle knew how to call Rumplestiltskin, after all, and if that failed, she knew how much Fiona hated Zelena.  Making a deal with one or the other of them shouldn’t be too hard, particularly since she had no intention of staying away from the Dark Castle.  “I know someone with magic enough to help.”


 

Elsewhere, Snow White prepared to go to war.  Not against her stepmother, not yet—no, the first war would be fought against King George, who had yet again sent agents to capture the man he still publically maintained was his son.  Robin had killed two of them, and David had taken out the third, cementing a growing friendship between the two men.  Tink, thankfully with them and not in Zelena’s castle, was able to heal the third would-be kidnapper, who was happy to provide them with answers after some prodding, and those answers set Snow on the warpath.

 David had never really been attracted by the idea of power, but even a shepherd knew that King George had to be stopped.  The man who had tried to kidnap David had told them that George was now in league with Zelena, and they all knew that alliance could not be allowed to stand.  Zelena was dangerous enough alone, and the fact that she wanted Snow dead was enough to make David willing to fight her. Now that George was joining his arm to hers, however, the Wicked Queen might very well be unstoppable. 

Against that, they had Robin and his Merry Men, a former huntsman who knew too much, a fairy who was spying on Zelena, and a werewolf.  The odds were long, but David wasn’t about to give up.  They would find a way to unite the kingdoms against George and Zelena, no matter what it took.

Chapter Text

“I was going to point this really obnoxious sheriff her way, but she seems to be playing with this buffoon of a knight named Gaston.”  Tink heaved a sigh, not sure how to frame the situation for Fiona.  “I really have no idea what she’s up to.”

Fiona scowled.  “She’s as self-centered as she is unpredictable.  I’d love to kill her, but…”

“But what?”  Tink was against killing on principle, but she had to admit that the world without the Wicked Queen in it would be a nicer place.

“Oh, it’s not worth the price, that’s all.”  Fiona’s shrug was a hair too casual, but Tink didn’t press.  She had something else on her mind, anyway—particularly since any distraction from Zelena’s romantic shenanigans was welcome. 

“Where’s Belle?  I thought I’d say hi to her while I was here, but the castle’s as quiet as a mouse.”

“She went home.”  Fiona’s sigh actually seemed disappointed.  “Rumplestiltskin let her go.”

“Why?  Did he get sick of her?”  Tink hadn’t been sure what to think of the strangely friendly relationship between the Dark One and his maid (who she knew he’d made a deal for; every fairy knew about that poor girl).  Belle seemed entirely at home in the Dark Castle and seemed to have few, if any, duties, but Tink  hadn’t really wanted to dig into that.

“Oh, far worse.  He fell in love with her.” 

Tink gaped.  “He…what?” 

“Oh, I know, you’re thinking of Blue’s party line, about how those steeped in darkness cannot love.”  Fiona snorted.  “Well, allow me to tell you what a lie that is, in case you hadn’t already figured that out.  I can most certainly love, and my son can as well.  He let her go because he loves her, and I’d hoped she’d be back.”

“Why?”  Thinking of how uncomfortable being the Dark One’s love interest would be made Tink shudder, until she thought of the glowing smile Belle had so often thrown at Rumplestiltskin.

“Because love can save as surely as darkness can doom, of course.”  A sad smile.  “A mother always hopes for the best for her child.”

“Um, yeah.  Right.”  Tink didn’t really have an answer to that, so she took a deep breath and forced a smile.  “You want me to keep an eye out for her?  Just in case something’s happened?”

“That would be quite lovely.  Would you know, I’ve grown a bit fond of the girl.”  Fiona shook her head.  “Despite my best efforts, she does tend to grow on you.  Rather like mold.”

“Fiona!”  But Tink had to laugh.  She really didn’t want to like the Black Fairy, but she did.  And now she’d become Fiona’s unlikely—and sometimes unwilling—partner in heavens-knew-what, but at least it was going to be interesting.

And at least I get to help some people I like along the way.  Snow, Charming, and the Merry Men were all good people, and Tink was proud to fight by their sides.  She found it a little strange that when she asked Fiona if she could borrow a magical ring of healing that she’d seen in the Dark Castle, the ring was freely given, without even a price asked for in return.  Blue would have found a band of outlaws, even one surrounding a princess, to be beneath her notice, but Fiona was willing to help.  Not for their sakes, of course; Tink wasn’t naive enough to think that Fiona cared about the Merry Men.  But she was willing to give the ring to Tink as a friend, and that meant a lot to Tink. 

Blue had been ready to throw her out for helping Nova; Fiona was willing to give her the means to help her friends.  If she had to pick one of the two as a mentor, it was absolutely no contest.


 

Rallying people to her banner was easier than Belle had expected.  Oh, some old men looked at her like she should go back to playing with dolls instead of assembling an army, but most people were happy to know that someone was willing to stand up to Gaston.  A few days’ worth of investigating told Belle that Gaston had already tried to bleed the countryside dry, gathering “taxes” that weren’t due for months, demanding tribute, and threatening to “collect” young women for his bed.  He hadn’t taken many women yet, but a few had disappeared into the castle, and Belle put finding them near the top of her list.  For a man who’s anticipating marriage to two different women, Gaston certainly has no idea what fidelity means, Belle thought bitterly.  He’d made a mess of her father’s holdings, and it was going to take months to win the people’s confidence back.

Despite the damage Gaston had done—or perhaps because of it—Belle, Mulan, and LeFou were able to gather a surprisingly large following in just three days.  From there, storming the castle turned out to be ridiculously easy.  Most of the guards deserted Gaston as Belle and her forces rushed in, and then Mulan led their people against those still loyal to Gaston.  The resulting battle was short and bloody, but in the end, Belle found herself looking down at where Gaston lay on the ground in the castle’s courtyard, with Mulan’s sword at his throat.

“Let him up.”  Her heart was still racing, which meant Belle was surprised by how calm her voice sounded.  But she’d done it.  She’d led her people to victory, and Gaston had lost.

She still had to deal with Zelena, but the Wicked Queen wasn’t here, and so far as Belle could tell, Gaston didn’t have a way of calling for her.  If he did, she had no doubt Gaston would have done so already.

Mulan twisted to look at her, jerking Belle free of her thoughts.  “You sure?”

“I am.”  She couldn’t afford to mention how unsure she was; Belle wanted to send Mulan down to find her father, but she needed her here.  LeFou had disappeared, though, and that was a little worrisome.  Gaston’s former squire had proven helpful so far, but what if he was playing another game?

She’d been around tricky and twisty people for too long.  Belle was starting to see loopholes everywhere.

“You can’t possibly think that you can hold me.”  Gaston climbed to his feet wearing a superior scowl, making Belle wonder if he even registered the fact that a woman had knocked him flat on his back.

“You’ve lost, Gaston.”  Belle held herself as straight as she could, too aware of how her former fiancé dwarfed her.  “That’s what matters.”

He snorted.  “No one will stand for a woman usurping a man’s place like that.”

“No, what no one wanted to stand for was you usurping my father’s place,” she shot back.  “These aren’t your lands, and I’ll never marry you.”

“You’ll be singing a different tune when my allies arrive.”  Would nothing wipe the smug expression off of his face?  Belle was going to have to deal with the potential of Zelena—or Zelena’s army—arriving soon.

“I doubt that.”  Belle tried not to roll her eyes, but it was hard.  “In fact, I’m not sure any of them will think you’re worth the work.”

“Just you wait, Belle.  I’ll have everything I want, and you’ll be reduced to nothing except the discarded whore of a beast!”  Gaston lunged towards her, but Mulan stepped in his path, tripping him before he could move more than two steps.

Gaston crashed back to the ground at Belle’s feet.  After a moment, she stepped forward to look down on him.

“I am not a whore, and Rumplestiltskin is not half the beast you are, Gaston.”  Belle looked up, ignoring him before he could sputter out an answer.  “Take him away and put him in the cell my father was in.”

“You wouldn’t dare!  You—Oomph!”  Gaston cut off as Mulan buried a fist in his stomach, and by the time he’d caught his breath to object further, someone else had shown up.

“Belle!”

Whirling around, Belle saw her father emerging from the castle on LeFou’s heels.  Without thinking, she rushed to him, throwing her arms around him.  “Papa!”

Her father caught her easily, and for a moment, Belle felt like she was a little girl again, safe and whole.  She’d been so worried about her father over the last few days, terrified that Gaston would take revenge on Maurice because of her disappearance.  But Maurice appeared all right, aside from being a little thin and pale, and the smile on his face told Belle that her father would be just fine.

“Oh, sweeting, I was so worried about you.”  He held her tightly for another moment before Belle drew back to shrug.

“I was fine, thanks to Mulan and LeFou.  It was you I was worried about.”

“I didn’t mean these last few days.  I mean when you were with that—”

“Rumplestiltskin let me go, Papa.”  She didn’t want to hear the word beast come out of her father’s mouth, particularly not now.  “And he always treated me quite gently.”

That was a bit of an exaggeration; Belle still remembered being yelled at for crying and threatened more than once.  Yet Rumplestiltskin had always been more bark than bite, and after the first few weeks her stay at the Dark Castle had been quite wonderful.  Belle had often forgotten that she was supposed to be a prisoner, let alone a maid, and she knew that Rumplestiltskin had, too.  Just thinking about him made her heart skip a little, but she forced away the dreamy expression that wanted to land on her face.  There would be plenty of time for that, later.  First she had to set things to right here.

“He did?” Maurice looked like he was certain she had to be lying, so Belle squeezed his arm.

“Truly.  He respected me far more than Gaston ever has.”  And I would marry Rumplestiltskin a thousand times over before I’d marry Gaston once.  The thought appeared unexpectedly and unbidden, but that didn’t make it less true.  Belle’s heart hammered hard in her chest before she could push the associated emotions aside, but she had to.  For now.

Maurice peered at her doubtfully.  “And he let you go?  At what price?”

“He said our deal was done.”  Now wasn’t the time to tell her father that she’d fallen in love with the Dark One.  Not with so many people watching.  Belle knew that Maurice would take it badly, but she’d have to tell him eventually.  In private.

For now, however, they had to finish making sure Gaston’s stooges couldn’t hurt anyone else, and figure out how to deal with Zelena.  So, Belle turned the subject to practical matters, and hoped that the truth coming out wouldn’t go too badly.


 

“There’s a curse coming,” Beans announced one afternoon after a particularly bad case of visions.  Fortunately, they were alone, although Tiger Lily and Bae both stopped cold.

“A curse?” Bae managed to speak before Tiger Lily could get the words out; the worst feeling had settled in the pit of her stomach, something dark and cold and terrible.

“The darkest of all dark curses.”  Beans shivered.  “It will be meant to take us all away.”

“Away to where?” Tiger Lily bit her tongue hard to avoid asking more.  This was starting to sound familiar in the worst ways.

“Another land.  A land without magic.”

Fiona.  Was she still trying to banish all of the children to the Land Without Magic?  If so, why?  Bae and Beans were children, but only barely.  Yet Beans had said ‘us all’, which had to refer to the children, didn’t it?

 “I’ve already been there.  It’s not much fun.”

Those words made Tiger Lily twist to look at Bae in surprise.  “You have?  How?”

“A magic bean.”  Bae shrugged.  “You’d heard most of the story, I guess.  The shadow took me instead of the family I was with.  I was just there, not here.”

“Oh.”  She almost asked why he’d taken a bean to the Land Without Magic, but that really wasn’t important, was it?  Instead, Tiger Lily turned to Beans.  “When will the curse come?”

“A long time, I think.”  Beans cringed, and Tiger Lily immediately headed over to get him some tea.  Seeing inevitably gave Beans headaches, and the longer the vision, the worse the headaches were.  “Not sure.”

“Well, then we have time.”  She made herself smile, but inside, Tiger Lily made a mental note to find Fiona and try to talk sense into her old friend.

She promised me that she would bring her son back to the light, but I’ve seen no evidence that she’s done so, she thought angrily.  Granted, the Dark One is hardly tormenting the countryside, but he’s clearly still out there, and that means Merlin’s prophecy still hasn’t been realized.  And now Fiona was planning on casting that damned curse again.  But what could be the purpose?  The children Fiona had once wanted to vanish were all dead, now, and Fiona herself had become the evil she’d fought against.   None of this made any sense.

Finding Fiona was going to be hard enough, too.  Without magic, Tiger Lily had no way to track her down, and she was not about to steal someone’s baby and make the weirdly-traditional offering that drew the Black Fairy in.  Asking Blue for help was out of the question, too.  Even if Blue considered helping her, Tiger Lily had too much pride to go crawling home.  Blue hadn’t been wrong to blame her for Fiona turning to darkness, after all.  Tiger Lily should have stopped her earlier, and she was determined to fix that problem without involving her old friend and mentor. 

Assuming Fiona would let her.


 

Tink couldn’t believe that Zelena had found her own handsome-but-brainless-and-willing boytoy.  She’d actually grown fond of the idea of pasting Zelena and Nottingham together!  Nottingham was enough of a bastard that she didn’t even feel bad about pointing him towards Zelena, but he was too dense to help Zelena accomplish anything.  Unfortunately, right before she could work up the required magic to fake pixie dust pointing Zelena to her “soulmate”, Zelena up and found herself an obscure knight named Gaston.  And he was even more braindead than Nottingham, a fact that still left Tink rather flabbergasted.

At least she could still be a spy.  Zelena’s romantic adventures had no bearing on that, or wouldn’t until Zelena decided she didn’t need Tink around.  Zelena was still after her friends, so keeping an eye on what the Wicked Queen was up to was far more important than finding her some idiot lover, even if that was supposed to be Tink’s ticket through the door.  Still, Zelena didn’t seem inclined to throw her out, so Tink decided to make the most of the situation while she still could.

Still, running into a leather-clad man with a hook for a hand did give her a little bit of pause.

“Is Zelena accessorizing her harem, now?” The words blurted out before she could stop herself, so Tink figured she might as well go for broke and gesture at the hook, too.

Miraculously, the dark-haired man didn’t look offended. Instead, he rolled his eyes.  “And here I was about to say that I thought you were shorter than Zelena’s usual type, love.”

“I’m not your love.  I’m a fairy.”  Tink glared.

“And I’m a pirate.  Fancy that, neither of us seem to be members of the dear queen’s heartless harem.”  He grinned at her, and the expression was almost a leer.  Tink found it a little off-putting, but she had the feeling that the expression was more a defense mechanism than a true attempt to get under her wings.

“Then what’s a pirate doing here?” She crossed her arms, studying him.  Zelena had plenty of less-than-moral allies, but most of them had magic.  This pirate definitely didn’t; Tink would have spotted any magic easily.  Except he definitely has been somewhere magical, she realized, squinting at him narrowly.

“Serving the queen, of course.  For now.”  His wry smile didn’t waver, and then he offered her a courtly bow, kissing her hand with a flourish.  “Captain Killian Jones, at your service.  I’m also known as Captain Hook.”

“That’s a really creative nickname.”  Again, the words slipped out before she could stop them, and Tink could have kicked herself.  “I’m Tinker Bell.”

“Sounds like I’m not the only one here with a nickname.  Don’t you fairy sorts usually go by color?  And yours seems rather appropriate for this castle, if you catch my meaning.”

That made her scowl.  “Touché.”  His ability to match her sarcasm didn’t answer her questions, though.  “Why are you working with Zelena?”

“Revenge.”  He shrugged.  “Treasure.  All the things that keep a pirate’s dark soul warm at night.”

“And Zelena’s going to help you get that?”  In Tink’s experience, Zelena was only out for herself.  She wasn’t likely to help anyone else, not unless it directly profited her.

Hook gestured airily.  “It passes the time, at least for now.  Having a patroness never hurts, either.”  What he didn’t say—but Tink still heard—was that Zelena probably had someone watching him.

That was interesting.  Hook was definitely Zelena’s type; she liked them tall, dark, and handsome.  Tink had originally thought that poor Frankenstein was yet another one of Zelena’s playthings, but it turned out that she only wanted him around to figure out how to bring her mother back to life.  That hadn’t worked, of course, which had resulted in Frankenstein narrowly escaping Zelena’s wrath just a month earlier.  His rescuer—ironically enough—had turned out to be Fiona’s son, who had whisked the mad doctor and the hatter away from Zelena’s temper before she could start killing anyone.  That had turned Zelena onto other pursuits, but Tink still couldn’t figure out where Hook fit into that, unless he was Zelena’s lover.

The caution in his expression, however, indicated that Hook wasn’t.  And that meant he might be of use to Tink’s cause.  After all, she was already consorting with outlaws.  A pirate couldn’t be much worse, could he?  She’d have to be careful, but Tink thought she could manage this.


 

Talking her father into getting everyone together within a few hours of securing the castle took more effort than Belle anticipated.  Maurice insisted on allowing everyone a chance to clean up, and while Belle couldn’t blame her father for not wanting to wear the soiled clothing he’d long been imprisoned in, she disliked the look he gave her when he hinted that she should change out of the trousers and tunic she was wearing.  Her clothes were comfortable and serviceable, and far more suited to fighting for her kingdom than a ball gown was! As far as Belle was concerned, the battle wasn’t yet over, so why should she dress up as if it was?

Fortunately, her father was too happy to see her to do more than hint that he didn’t like her clothes.  And then he raised a toast in her honor, which promptly made Belle forgive him for the slightly disapproving look he’d shot her trousers.

“To Belle!” Maurice raised his glass high, and much to Belle’s surprise, his assembled advisors did the same.  “Without her bravery and her courage, we wouldn’t be here.”

Her face went red even as her heart leapt; all of her life, Belle had waited for a moment like this, but now that recognition had arrived, she was all too ready to move onto the next problem.  “I had help.  A lot of help.”  She glanced over to Mulan and LeFou with a smile, which made both nod their thanks.  “And we’re not out of the woods yet.”

“Sir Gaston is in prison, and his remaining men are being rounded up now.  I think things are well under control.”  Captain Thenardier, one of her father’s advisors, gave her a funny look as he spoke up, but there was something in his eyes that made Belle uneasy.

“I meant Zelena.”  Using the Wicked Queen’s name seemed to make the air go out of the room, and several people actually gasped.  “We have to figure out how to counter her magic.”

“The Queen—the Queen was Gaston’s ally, yes.”  Even her father looked a little scared, and that made Belle wonder what exactly had happened while she was gone.  But there was no time to ask.  “But we can hope that if we pay her tribute, she won’t return.”

“That’s not going to work.”  Belle had met Zelena enough times at the Dark Castle to know that she was both petty and cruel, and she wouldn’t accept the loss of a client kingdom so easily, not even if they gave her all the jewels they had to offer.  “She’ll want to punish us for overthrowing her pawn.”

Those words brought about another long silence until Mulan spoke up.   “How do we fight her?  Even witches have weaknesses, and there has to be something we can do.”

“She’s too powerful.”  Maurice shook his head mournfully.  “Force of arms wasn’t enough to stop her last time.  She’s the one who took over the castle, not Gaston.  We have no weapons here that can face her.”

We don’t need to face her,” Belle cut in, hating the defeated expression on her father’s face.  “The best way to fight magic is with magic.”

“Sweeting, no one here has magic.”

“No, we don’t.”  Belle supposed that having to spell it out for her father was no surprise; she’d had to lead him to calling upon Rumplestiltskin in the first place.  Now she just looked Maurice directly in the eye.  “But we can make another deal.”

“No.  Absolutely not.  I won’t have you going back to that beast when you’ve only just now escaped!”

“I didn’t escape, Papa, he let me go!”  Belle could match him shout for shout all day long; somehow, arguing with her father didn’t seem nearly as daunting after she’d had screaming matches with the Dark One.  “And even if he were a beast—which Rumplestiltskin is not—he’s predictable in that he always keeps to the letter of his deals.  He’s also more powerful than Zelena.”

“Which you know exactly how?” Captain Thenardier sounded suspicious, but Belle just rolled his eyes.

“Because I spent nearly a year in his castle, of course.  I met Zelena there, and I know she won’t cross him.”

That wasn’t strictly true, of course; Belle was certain that Zelena was crazy enough to cross Rumplestiltskin if she wanted something badly enough, but she also knew that Zelena would lose.

“It’s still out of the question,” Maurice cut in.  “I won’t have you sacrificing yourself again.  You’ve already given too much.”

“It’s my life, Papa.”  Stepping forward, Belle put a gentle hand on her father’s arm. He looked truly distressed, and she wished she could explain that going back to Rumplestiltskin was something she wanted to do—but Belle knew better than to do that in front of everyone.  Mulan would understand, and she thought LeFou might believe her, but the others would simply say she was under the Dark One’s spell.  “I’ll do whatever I need to if it means saving our people, and besides…Rumplestiltskin was kind to me, before.  He will be again.”

Perhaps he would be better than kind, but Belle couldn’t count on that.  She’d been gone for months, and while she missed him dreadfully, she had to wonder if he felt the same.  Just the thought of going back left her breathless with excitement, but what if Rumplestiltskin didn’t want her back?  Yet she knew that was wrong.  She remembered the pain in his voice.  I expect I’ll never see you again, he had said so sadly, sounding so very human and broken.  He had let her go out of love, Belle knew.  If he hadn’t insisted she leave, Belle never would have, and she’d always intended to go back.  She just hadn’t meant for it to be like this.


 

He was insufferable, but he was the only person who would know the truth. 

Fiona waited until her son was off with the hatter to visit the Apprentice.  She knew that Rumplestiltskin hated the stuck-up prig as much as she did, and his presence would only pour oil on an already simmering blaze.  Still, enough time had passed that she had to face the fact that Belle was clearly not coming back, which meant that her hopes of using True Love to free Rumplestiltskin had been dashed.  Perhaps the prophecy meant some other Dark One, the voice of pessimism pointed out.  Or maybe Tiger Lily was wrong, and it was always too much to ask for any Dark One to turn the darkness to light.  There had to be a reason why it had never been done, after all.  So many Dark Ones had inherited the mantle since Nimue drank from the grail, and none of them had ever strayed from the dark path.  Perhaps Tiger Lily had simply expected too much, and she’d foolishly gotten Fiona’s hopes up.

Yet a part of her refused to stop hoping, which was why she had come to visit the Apprentice one last time, even though logic told her she ought not bother.  Particularly after she’d turn him into a ferret last time.

“Back again?”

She should have known that she couldn’t sneak up on him.  Not with the magic Merlin had long ago bestowed upon his favorite student.  “Do you always state the obvious by way of greeting, or is this just your way of complaining that I left you with a little gift last time?”

“I will not be so careless again.”  The look he shot her was anything but friendly. “If you are here about the young woman your son took—”

“I am not.”  Fiona didn’t know what the Apprentice thought had happened with Belle.  He would never believe her if she told him that Rumplestiltskin had let the girl go, so she wouldn’t bother.  “I am here about the prophecies Merlin made concerning the Dark One.”

That earned her a narrow-eyed look.  “There are not many.  Nimue trapped him in that tree before even a century passed.”

“I am quite aware of that,” she snapped, and then forced herself to take a deep breath.  “I know of one.  I would like to know if there are others.”

“You speak of the one about a Dark One who will turn the darkness back to the light.”  Merlin’s Apprentice shook his head sadly.  “You cannot possibly believe Rumplestiltskin can do so.  He has been the Dark One longer than any other, and is irrevocably stained by the darkness.”

“Oh, now you’re starting to sound like the Blue Fairy.  Is that on purpose?”  She shot him her sweetest smile.  No one wanted to be compared to Blue.

The insult clearly struck home.  “I am not nearly that narrow-minded, thank you.”  He glared, and then continued: “I do not doubt that it is possible for a Dark One to turn the darkness to light.  But it cannot be someone who has reveled in the darkness for so long.  I am sorry, but it will not be your son.  It cannot.”

“Just tell me what was said.”  Fiona bit back the urge to shout at him; further antagonizing the Apprentice would not get her what she wanted.  She had assumed that Belle’s kiss would be the vehicle by which Rumplestiltskin was freed, but she had been wrong.  Please tell me there is another way.

“He said that someday there might be someone worthy of holding that much power without letting it burn through to darken their soul.”  The Apprentice threw a sharp look her way.  “But Merlin also said that it would be simpler by far to destroy the darkness so that no one would ever have to.”

Fiona snorted.  “Yes, that’s worked out quite well for all of you.”

“Do not make light of the many efforts to snuff out the darkness.”  Now the Apprentice looked offended—but she really didn’t care.  Yes, he was the keeper of the Sorcerer’s Hat and what remained of Merlin’s magic, which meant that he was the closest thing the world had to a human master of magic.  He had tried several times to remove the darkness from various Dark Ones, but even Fiona knew that had never worked.  Some news always made it as far as the Dark Realm.

I want to save my son, you fool, not destroy him.  Fiona crossed her arms impatiently.  “Did he say anything else?”

“Only that once darkness takes root, it never truly leaves.  Love can overpower it, but such a love is but a candle in the vast darkness if not tended properly.”

“And what if it were?”  The question slipped out before Fiona could stop it.  “What if love was enough?”

“Then the darkness would still fight back.”  The Apprentice shook his head.  “Centuries of toxic power cannot be wiped away; the darkness will always fight to remain in power.  To be truly free of it, a Dark One would have to choose to let go, and none of them can.”  He studied her for a long moment as Fiona’s mind whirled.  “I know you care for your son, despite what one would think, but he will not give up the power any more than the others would.  A part of him may love you, but not enough to give up his power.”

“I would never ask him to give up his power.”  Fiona found the entire idea ridiculous; her power was as much a part of her as air.  Why would she ever ask anyone else to give up magic for a nebulous thing like love? Love was precious and love was light, but power was security and provided the ability to get things done.

One should not have to exist without the other.

“Ah, but you think of power as a natural part of you because you were born a fairy.  His power is not.”  The Apprentice held up a hand.  “Magic taken through darkness comes at a price.  And the price is his soul.”

“Which you think he’s already lost.”  Fiona didn’t need to see the Apprentice’s nod to know that he believed as such, but she knew he was wrong.  Rumplestiltskin loved Belle enough to let her go, but did he love her enough to give up the darkness?

Fiona chose not to prolong that conversation and left shortly thereafter.  She had work to do, and answers to find.

Chapter Text

Life had become rather ridiculous.

As if Rumplestiltskin’s pining was not bad enough, Fiona found herself missing the girl.  How had Belle gone from mildly entertaining servant to co-conspirator to something approaching a friend?  Fiona hadn’t had many friends in her life, and most of them had been fairies, but somehow Belle had crept into her heart, too.  Despite her wishes.  Oh, the girl was maddeningly good and all too often full of her (regrettably considerable) intelligence, but Fiona liked Belle, even though she didn’t really want to.

If Rumplestiltskin didn’t do something soon, Fiona was going to have to go after Belle herself.  That was that.  Either that, or she’d have to go find Tiger Lily, which was a far more intimidating proposition.  Fiona missed Tiger Lily, but the idea of telling her old friend that she’d failed to save her son made her chest tight.  She still wanted to save Rumplestiltskin, but her conversation with the Apprentice made it clear that—

“What?”

The sudden yelp jerked Fiona back to the present, and she realized that her son had bolted upright from his chair and was now standing, staring at absolutely nothing.  Every line of his body screamed tension and anticipation.  Fiona hadn’t seen him look so alive in months.

“Rumple?  Are you all right?”  The last thing she wanted to hear was about how the voices inside him were getting more powerful; sometimes, Fiona could feel them eating at him, and she worried for her boy.  The longer Belle was gone, the harder he had to fight to overcome them, and that broke Fiona’s heart.  She thought that her presence helped a little, but she wasn’t enough.  The sodding Apprentice had made that clear.

 “I’ve been summoned.”  He sounded like someone had hit him between the eyes with a hammer, and that made Fiona frown.

“That’s nothing new.  Idiot princes summon you practically daily.  Twice if there’s a dragon around.”  Three times if it’s Maleficent.

“Belle.”  Rumplestiltskin swung to face her, his brown eyes as wide as his favorite teacup was round.  “Belle summoned me.”

“Then why are you standing there, you fool boy?  Go to her!”  Stepping forward, Fiona punctuated her words with a gentle shove.  “But do try not to fall into any traps while you’re being so delighted.”

“I’m not—”

“Oh, do stop pretending.”  Fiona snorted.  “You love the girl.  You know it, I know it, and she knows it.  So shoo!”

Much to her delight, Rumplestiltskin didn’t need to be told twice, and he teleported away in a flash of red smoke after ascertaining Belle’s location.  Watching him go made Fiona smile, but she also threw a quick magical marker on him, just to make sure she could help out in case he got in trouble.  Still, she wasn’t expecting trouble.  Not from Belle.  And she’d check in on them before too long, in any case.  Belle has summoned him.  Finally!

Perhaps there was reason to hope, after all.


 

The summons caught Rumplestiltskin by surprise, particularly when the voice with which his name was spoken burned straight into his soul.  Belle.  Months had passed, and he’d assumed he’d never see or hear from her again, but there she was, calling his name three times.  A quick spell told him that she had gone home, despite the way she’d discarded that notion when they’d last talked, but Rumplestiltskin hardly cared.  Belle was calling for him. 

His excitement, however, did not lead to carelessness.  Oh, he might have forgotten to leave his mother any indication of where he’d gone—not that Fiona couldn’t track him down if she was feeling particularly over-protective—but he wasn’t such a fool as to simply teleport himself straight to Belle.  Unlikely as it was, the voice of caution told Rumplestiltskin that this could be a trap.  He hadn’t seen her in months, and anything could happen.  You’d deserve it if it was, Zoso snickered in his mind.  Pining over that stupid girl as if she were the center of the world.

Ignoring his predecessor, Rumplestiltskin teleported himself to the kingdom of Avonlea, straight to the hallway outside the council chamber in which he had first met Belle.  There he paused to listen to the rumble of voices coming from within, wondering why Belle would have called to him from there of all places.  She wasn’t alone, despite the fact that he’d hoped for a private reunion; in fact, she was quite surrounded.  Her oaf of a father was there, along with at least a dozen others.  But not the former fiancé.  The idiot who had claimed ownership over Belle wasn’t there, which at least led Rumplestiltskin to hope that he wasn’t being invited for a wedding.

A flick of his fingers sent a spell sailing out which let him see through the wall; Rumplestiltskin was always one for a show, after all.

“You see?  He’s not coming.  We have nothing to offer him, and he knows it,” some officious idiot in a uniform grumbled.

“He’ll come.”  Belle looked supremely confident, but it was her beauty that took Rumplestiltskin’s breath away.  How had he forgotten how beautiful she was?

Sir Maurice frowned.  “Sweetheart, are you sure you want to risk this?  We can find another way to defeat the—”

“Like what?” Belle’s chin jutted out defiantly, and Rumplestiltskin prayed she wasn’t talking about him.  “We need magic, Papa.  Gaston’s alliance with Zelena means she will come here, and we need someone more powerful than she is.  And that leaves Rumplestiltskin.”

The uniformed boor scoffed.  “Who’s to say that the Dark One is more powerful than the Queen?  If he is, why would he let her reign of terror continue?  Why not take power for himself?”

Oh, that was too rich.  Belle looked offended on his behalf, but Rumplestiltskin couldn’t let that stand, so he teleported into the room in a cloud of golden smoke.

Why gold?  Certainly not because it reminded him of the dress Belle had worn that first day.  He was not so sentimental.

“Perhaps I’m far too busy to indulge in simplistic things like ruling cretins.”  He giggled, gesturing at the glaring uniform.  “Such as yourself.  It’s terribly boring.”

The worm glowered, his face growing redder and redder with rage. But Rumplestiltskin’s opportunity to needle the fool dissipated as soon as Belle stepped forward, and the huge smile splitting her face made his heart skip several beats.

“Rumplestiltskin!”  She bounced right up to him, so close that he could have touched her if he dared.  “You came.”

 “You called.”  Not letting his voice deepen was impossible; Rumplestiltskin tried a twirling gesture of his hand to cover his emotional reaction, but he knew Belle wasn’t fooled. You’d best pray the others are, Spinner, Nimue’s voice growled.  You’re hopeless.

A little smile flickered across Belle’s face, and the twinkle in her blue eyes said that she was actually happy to see him.  She was happy because of him.  Rumplestiltskin could have walked on clouds without magic, even when she turned serious to say: “We need your help.  Gaston took over my father’s lands while I was gone, and he’s allied with Zelena.  We dealt with him, but she’s sure to come back.”

“We need to make a deal with you, Dark One.”  Much to Rumplestiltskin’s surprise, Sir Maurice stepped forward, looking both miserable and terrified.  Now this was a man who hadn’t had a good few weeks, although Rumplestiltskin didn’t find himself pitying Belle’s father overmuch.  Any man who let his daughter leave with a monster like him could not be much of a father.

Then again, would Belle have ever let someone else step forward?  The very thought was ridiculous.  Rumplestiltskin had lost more arguments with Belle than he’d won, and he knew how stubborn she was.  Perhaps Sir Maurice wasn’t the world’s worst father, even if he had let his daughter make that choice.  No one decides my fate but me, Belle had said.  Rumplestiltskin should not be surprised to see her running the show here, either.

“A deal?”  He let the words roll off of his tongue deliciously; Maurice was easier to rile up than Belle. She knew him too well.

“Surely there is something you want from us.”  Maurice said the words like he was dreading the answer, and Rumplestiltskin couldn’t help the way his eyes flicked straight to Belle.

Want?  Try need.  Love.  Any word but “want”, he didn’t say.  However, before Rumplestiltskin could find words, Belle spoke, meeting his eyes warmly.

“I will come with you, again.  If you want.”

Brash girl, to tempt the Dark One twice.  Zoso sounded hungry, and his sadistic glee made Rumplestiltskin’s stomach lurch. 

He could have her, he knew.  He could demand forever—even marriage, a thought that made his spine tingle—and Belle would come back to the Dark Castle without even a moment’s hesitation.  More importantly, Rumplestiltskin could see that Belle wanted to come back with him, so he wouldn’t even be taking an unwilling-but-brave girl as his indentured maid.  He could accept the terms of her deal with a clear conscience, could have everything he wanted.  He could tell her he loved her once they got home, could give her everything her heart might desire—

Except freedom.  He would be taking that from her a second time, and somehow, Rumplestiltskin’s long-battered conscience could not countenance that.  Not for Belle.

“No.”  His throat had gone dry and made the word come out hoarsely, but it was understandable enough.  “I’m not making a deal for you.

“Why—why not?”  Blue eyes wide, Belle stared at him in shock and hurt.  “Don’t…don’t you want me to come back?”

“Oh, Belle.” A soft smile took over his face despite his best efforts to keep looking like the fearsome Dark One.  “Of course I do.  But not like this.”

She was swift, his Belle, and he could see that she knew what he meant.  Still, her mind was clearly on her people’s safety.  “We still need your help.”

“Of course you do.  Zelena is always…bothersome.”  Rumplestiltskin took her hand and bowed over it, brushing his lips across her knuckles.  “But you have only to ask, and I will help.”

Just touching her sent a delicious chill down his spine, and the wide-eyed look Belle gave him made Rumplestiltskin’s heart beat still faster.  You fool! Zoso howled.  She’ll take advantage!  She’ll use—

“But surely there’s a price?”

She was right, of course, and Rumplestiltskin cast his eyes around the room quickly.  His magic would demand something in exchange, although standing up to his own student wasn’t the kind of hardship that dealing with hundreds of ogres had been.  “There’s always a price.”  He giggled for the audience’s benefit.  “I’ll take…that.”

He'd pointed at an ugly candelabra that was probably a family heirloom, but wasn’t magical or in any way special.  Still, Belle grimaced slightly—he’d need to ask her about that later.  Rumplestiltskin was trying to do this the right way, for once in his miserably dark life.  He loved her, heaven help him, and that meant he couldn’t ask for Belle.  Not even when she wanted to come.

“Only that old thing?” The uniformed nitwit demanded, reminding Rumplestiltskin that he was hardly alone with Belle.

“That candelabra has been in my family for generations, Captain!” Belle whirled to face the Idiot-Captain, but Rumplestiltskin could tell she was playing up how affronted she was on behalf of the ugly candelabra.  “It’s quite precious to us.”

On second glance, the thing was even sadder looking than he’d first thought.  It was far too gaudy, even for him, and given his penchant for gold and glitter, that was saying something.  The blustering fool had a good point, though; the candelabra was nowhere near valuable enough to broker a deal for the Dark One to protect them against the Wicked Queen.  Yet Belle calling it precious aloud was just enough to satisfy his inner demons, even though he could feel Nimue grumbling about being out-maneuvered.  Clever girl.  Not grinning at Belle’s act was hard.  Was she only doing that for the audience’s benefit, or did she know how such words affected his magic?  He wouldn’t the latter past her.  She was far too clever.

“Well, then, precious will do.”  He giggled and danced a little, just for effect, but what Rumplestiltskin really liked was how the smile Belle shot him made Sir Maurice turn a little green.

“That’s settled, then.”  Belle turned to her father, regality personified.  “I believe the meeting is over then, don’t you, Papa?”

Sir Maurice looked like he didn’t know what to say in the face of his daughter’s calm.  After a moment, the bamboozled man just nodded.  “Yes, yes, of course.”

“Are you certain, My Lord?” the uniformed nincompoop asked, which finally roused Maurice into glaring.

“Of course I’m sure. You all may go.”  He waved them out, and the crowd finally filed out, leaving Rumplestiltskin alone with Belle and her father.

He wasn’t expecting Belle to leap forward and fling her arms around him.  At first, Rumplestiltskin didn’t know what to do; she was so warm and so real against his chest that his heart almost stopped.  Finally, he realized that he should wrap his arms around her, and did so, holding on tightly.  Then her breath came softly in his ear.

“I missed you so much.”  Belle squeezed him tightly.  “I was about to head back to the Dark Castle, but then I heard that Gaston had taken over, and I had to come here, first.”

His breath caught in his throat.  “First?” 

“Yes, first.”  Belle pulled back and smiled at him, biting her lip in a way that made his stomach do a nervous backflip.  “I told you I’d come back.”

“You did, but I”—Rumplestiltskin gulped hard, possibilities flying through his mind.  She couldn’t mean what he thought she meant.  She had to have come to her senses.  “I…I was sure you would change your mind.”

“I knew what I was getting into.”  Her eyes glowed like sunlight, even when Belle gave an awkward little shrug.  “Or at least I did figure it out.  Eventually.”

A startled laugh bubbled out of him.  “Well, it did take you a little while.”

“Stop that.”  But the light slap she directed at his shoulder was accompanied by a grin, which meant turning her into something nasty never even occurred to Rumplestiltskin.  “You know what I mean.”

“I might.”  Damn it all, he was smiling.  He’d missed her so much that it hurt, and just having her nearby was a heady feeling.  Even more disturbingly, Belle was still touching him, with gentle hands lying on his arms, her fingers squeezing periodically to emphasize her words.  And all the voices within his mind were silent.

He almost didn’t know what to do, the feeling was so wonderful.

“You, um, know that candelabra isn’t much, right?”  Suddenly, Belle looked so hesitant.  “I know your magic demands a price.  I would have gone with you again. Forever.  It wouldn’t have been a hardship.  I—I still want to.”

“Oh, Belle.”  Rumplestiltskin had to fight back the soft smile that turned his lips upwards; he just wanted to hold her in his arms again and never let go.  “I know.  But I couldn’t ask that.  If”—he didn’t dare say when—“you come with me, I don’t want it to be part of a deal.  I want it to be your choice.”

“It is.”  Her quick answer made him smile, at least until Sir Maurice reminded them both that he was still in the room.

“Now, wait just a minute—”

“Papa, you don’t know Rumplestiltskin like I do.”  Belle swung to face her father, her expression every bit as stubborn as any of the ones she’d ever turned on Rumplestiltskin.  “And you don’t know anything that happened after I left home, either.  Isn’t it enough that he’s come here to help us against Zelena and has barely asked for anything in exchange?”

Maurice scowled.  “Belle, we should speak in private.”

Belle grabbed Rumplestiltskin’s hand defiantly, and his worry over how this was going to go evaporated.  “Anything you want to say to me, you can say in front of Rumplestiltskin.”

He almost jeered at the knight, but Rumplestiltskin managed to stop himself, no matter how good mocking Maurice would feel.  I should be worthy of her love.  The darkness inside him still coiled and burned, but the voices were silent while Belle held his hand.  He still wasn’t sure how or why that worked, but it made him more himself, and Rumplestiltskin actually liked that feeling.

“Sweeting, he’s the Dark One.  He’s offered to help us, but—but surely you don’t actually want to go with him?”

Ah, he’d been listening.  Rumplestiltskin rarely lost track of his surroundings, but he’d been too occupied with Belle.  This is going to get messy.  Surely Belle would tell her father that he’d misunderstood.  Rumplestiltskin wanted her to come back to the Dark Castle more than anything in the world, but even Belle, as good hearted as she was, couldn’t really want to come back to the monster’s lair.  Yet she said…

“Of course I do.  I love him, Papa, and he loves me.”

The bold statement clearly shook Maurice as much as it did Rumplestiltskin; both men staggered slightly, staring at Belle in shock.  Rumplestiltskin managed to force a smirk onto his face at the last moment, because he was not going to stand here gaping when Maurice was doing the same.  Maurice, on the other hand, gasped for air like a fish out of water.  “Belle, you can’t mean—”

“I meant exactly what I said.  Rumple let me go so that I could make my decision freely, and I choose him.”  Belle’s chin rose proudly as she spoke, and Rumplestiltskin marveled at her courage.

“And you?”  Unexpectedly, Maurice turned to look at Rumplestiltskin.  “Do you love my daughter?”

Rumplestiltskin swallowed hard; he’d never dared say the words before.  So, he turned to Belle, noticing the way her eyes shined as she looked at him expectantly.  “Yes,” he whispered, not caring that Maurice was watching.  “Yes, I do.”

Belle’s smile was as bright as the sun.

“Why would you want to come back?”  The whisper was out before Rumplestiltskin could stop it; even if he couldn’t hear the voices, his own doubts were raging.  Belle was so beautiful and so strong.  She could have anyone she wanted, so why him?

“You know why.”  She squeezed his hand again.  “If you’ll have me.”

“Of course I will.”  He’d meant to say something clever, but cleverness deserted him.  Belle just smiled radiantly again, and then she leaned forward—

Fiona’s voice cut between them moments before they could kiss.  “Aren’t they quite adorable?  From one parent to another, isn’t it lovely when your child finally finds happiness?”

Rumplestiltskin and Belle broke apart, and he glared at his mother.  Why did she have to show up now?  Belle loved him, he’d admitted that he loved her, and they’d been so close to kissing!  He wanted to strangle his mother, but the gobsmacked look on Maurice’s face almost made the interruption worth it.

“You—you’re—”

“The Black Fairy.”  Fiona reached out and patted Maurice’s arm in a friendly manner.  She smiled sweetly.  “And Rumplestiltskin’s mother, of course.”

Even Belle coughed back a giggle when Maurice seemed ready to faint.  “It’s all right, Papa.  Fiona isn’t here to harm anyone.”

“Aren’t I?”  His mother looked offended, until Belle glared.  “Well, perhaps not.  Not today, anyway.  Look at these two lovebirds!  They’re practically glowing.  I would ask if they needed privacy, but as a parent, I insist on proper supervision.”

“Mother!”  Rumplestiltskin felt his face heating up, and he wanted to sink into the floor and die.

Fiona just gave him a knowing smile, and while he thought he could see a glitter of something in her eyes, Rumplestiltskin really couldn’t deal with that right now.  He was too embarrassed to think so critically. 

“Don’t be difficult, Rumple.  If you’re going to court the girl properly, you shouldn’t start by kissing her in front of her father.”

“If I’m going to—what?” The words stuttered out incredulously, and Rumplestiltskin again found himself wanting the floor to swallow him whole.

“It is what’s done these days, isn’t it?”  Fiona turned an innocently curious look on Maurice, who looked as taken aback as Rumplestiltskin did.

Fortunately, Belle came to his flabbergasted rescue.  “I hardly think that’s necessary.”  She gave Fiona a hard look, which only made his mother giggle softly.  “Rumplestiltskin and I already know what our feelings are.  A courtship would be redundant at this point.”

Rumplestiltskin could have kissed her, and would have, if Fiona hadn’t started going on about how adorable they were again.  Maurice looked like he wanted to die, too, but that hardly made things better.


 

“My stupid little stepdaughter has gone to war against King George.”  Zelena’s sneer was epic, and it was all Killian could do not to roll his eyes.  How he’d ended up eating dinner with the Wicked Queen was beyond him; it probably had to do with the fact that her favorite Huntsman had gone missing, and she was looking for entertainment.

Killian still wasn’t sure how he’d get out of this one without sleeping with her.  It wasn’t that he found her physically repulsive—although the green complexion did take some getting used to.  And it certainly had nothing to do with any lack of willingness on her part.  Still, he was uneasy; Killian preferred to have an equal in his bed, and the power imbalance between him and a sorcerer left him on guard.

“That seems counterproductive.”  Killian was well aware of how powerful King George’s army and navy both were; in his line of work, it paid to keep track of both.  “Unless she has some backing from somewhere else?”

“Of course she doesn’t.”  An offended sniff.  “I’ve made sure no other royal is going to help them.”

Leave it to Zelena to think that only royalty mattered now that she was royal.  For a moment, Killian contemplated saying nothing, but in the end, his fortune was a little tied to the Wicked Queen, so he spoke up.  “And the people?  Do King George’s people prefer their ‘charming’ prince over their king?”

That earned him a narrow-eyed look, and too late, Killian remembered that Zelena had been somewhat involved with Prince James.  Guess he wised up.  Too bad I can’t do the same—I’ve gained a lot of treasure playing privateer against her enemies, and it pays to have a powerful protector.  He also was still counting on her for help against Rumplestiltskin, since he hadn’t been able to find the damned dagger on his own.  If it even existed.  Baelfire wouldn’t have lied to me, would he have?  Sometimes, Killian regretted not having brought the boy with him out of Neverland, but Pan would never have heard of that.

“They might.”  Zelena’s thoughtful sigh caught him off guard, and Killian had to remind himself that she was smart.  Too smart, really.  It was only that she let her emotions rule her intellect sometimes, and then she was catty and unpredictable.  “I’m going to have to offer him help, aren’t I?  If his own people can’t stomach him, that’ll give the repulsive girl a kingdom with which to attack mine.”

“I’ve heard it’s always better to fight a war in someone else’s territory.  Wiser to let George and his men do the bleeding, if you’re going to have to fight her eventually.”

“Indeed.”  Zelena sat back, pursing her lips thoughtfully.  “Excellent idea, Captain.  Why don’t you take an offer of alliance to King George for me?  I’m sure we can figure out some way for him to pay me back.”

The way she said that made Killian wonder if that way wasn’t going to be Zelena adding George’s kingdom to her own, but he really didn’t care.  His impending mission gave him an excuse not to wind up in her bed, and that was good enough for him.


 

They didn’t manage to steal a private moment until hours later.  Fiona had been all but stuck to them, and she’d dragged Belle’s hapless father along.  While Belle was glad that her father seemed to be leaning towards accepting the idea of her and Rumplestiltskin together—not that he was there yet, but he’d come around—Fiona’s constant presence left her a little confused.  She wanted us to fall in love, so why does she insist on playing ‘chaperone’ now?  Is that for Papa’s benefit, and if so, why?

“I do want to go back with you.”  Belle still held Rumplestiltskin’s hand, glad that she could do it openly and not have him run away.  “Forever, if you’ll have me.”

“Belle, I—”  Face red, he seemed to be trying not to stutter.  “Of course I want you.”  Rumplestiltskin’s voice dropped to that deep and human voice that always gave her the shivers.  “I always have.”

“But you weren’t sure I really wanted you, were you?”  She had to ask, even if it stung. “That’s why you wanted me to go.”

“I…I know what I am.”  He swallowed noisily.  “Beautiful maidens do not—”

“Hey.”  She smacked him lightly on the arm.  “I thought we were past that.”

Rumplestiltskin nodded shakily.  “I wanted it to be your choice.  Not a consequence of the deal we made.”

“You wanted it to be real.”  Belle understood that, and she really did like how Rumplestiltskin respected her choices.  Gaston never had.

“Yes.”

“Then can I show you how real what I feel is?” Coming up on her tiptoes, Belle leaned close, and—

“Gaston’s gone.”  Mulan’s voice broke them apart as they were about to kiss, and made both whirl to face her.

What?”  Belle felt her insides go cold.  Next to her, Rumplestiltskin let out a very quiet snarl, one that promised death and destruction.

For once, she agreed with him.

So did Mulan, judging from the look on her face.  “He bribed a few guards, and killed others. LeFou is looking for him already, and I’m going to go join him.  I just wanted to let you know.”

“Thank you.”  Belle watched Mulan nod and then depart before turning to Rumplestiltskin.  “You know where he’s gone.”

“To Zelena, of course.”  His sneer was a thing of beauty.  “Let her have him.  We always knew she’d come here eventually; now we know when.”

“Is she powerful enough to be a problem?”

Rumplestiltskin snorted.  “Hardly.  I’ve taught her everything she knows.”

“All right.”  Belle swallowed, though.  “This is my home, Rumple.  I want it to be safe, even if I’m going to come with you.”

“You asked for my help, and you have it.”  The soft smile he gave her warmed Belle’s heart.  “I will protect your people.”

I’m no hero, Rumplestiltskin had told her months earlier.  I’ll never be a hero.

Belle begged to differ.

Chapter Text

Killian had just returned from cosseting King George through the extremely obvious decision to accept Zelena’s help.  George’s armies were doing surprisingly badly against the rag-tag group that Snow White and George’s misbehaving son had assembled, so it seemed to Killian that accepting help from someone with a vested interest in keeping you on your throne was an absolute no-brainer.  Yet George had hesitated, probably because Zelena wasn’t asking for anything yet.  They both knew that Zelena would demand something unpleasant eventually, probably a chunk of George’s kingdom or gold he didn’t have.  Yet faced with losing all of his kingdom now or some of it later, George made the sensible choice: he threw in with Zelena.

Having made the same choice, Killian really couldn’t fault the man.  Zelena was unpredictable, petty, and brilliant, but the woman had power.  Real power.  She wasn’t the Dark One, but Killian wasn’t sure how the power fell out between them.  Zelena seemed torn between idolizing Rumplestiltskin and hating him, but so long as she helped Killian against him, the pirate didn’t really care what Zelena felt.

And, well, he did despise playing her errand boy, but at least it kept him out of her bed.  Killian wasn’t going to go there unless it benefited him, and so far he saw no reason to hop into bed with a woman who might just steal his heart to keep him there.

“Let me pass!”  The bellow startled Killian as walked down a hallway near the entrance to Zelena’s castle, and like any reasonably curious individual, he detoured to investigate.

One of the guards said something he couldn’t catch, but the large and angry man who had just thrown the second guard to the ground certainly got his attention.

“I am an ally of the Queen, and she will make you regret it if you do not let me pass right now.”  The speaker was a tall—taller than even Killian, who was not accustomed to looking up at anyone—and ridiculously muscled man with dark hair and blue eyes.  He looked pompously full of himself, and for Killian to notice that, he had to be quite the egotist.

The guards looked dubious, and Mister Muscles looked indignant, so Killian decided it was time to step in.  Even if he accomplished nothing, this would pass the time quite nicely.

“Easy there, mate.  Yelling at Her Majesty’s guards won’t get you anywhere—except maybe straight into a dungeon.”  He approached with a friendly smile, but Muscles glared right away.

“I’m not your mate.”

Killian snorted.  “Then why don’t you tell me who you are, and then we might be able to work something out.”

“Why should I answer a”—that was a definite sneer—“pirate?  You have no authority here.”

“Aye, not officially.  But this pirate is the captain of the finest ship on the seven seas, and I’m also an ally of the Queen—except I’m one who her guards actually recognize, and whose name she knows.”  Killian shot the other man a nasty smile.  He’d never felt the need to be nice to idiots or the weak, and Muscles here looked to be both.

“Sir Gaston, rightful lord of Avonlea!”

Killian cocked his head.  “Only a knight?  How unimpressive.”  He snickered.  “Most of the Queen’s allies are far more important than that.”

“Says a mere pirate.”  Gaston’s sneer would have been legendary if Killian cared.

He just shrugged.  “Says a pirate sent to negotiate with a king on her behalf.  Appearances can be deceiving, mate, so I wouldn’t go burning bridges you might need later, were I in your shoes.”

“I hardly need you.”

“Actually, at the moment you do.  Unless you have another way of convincing these fine gentlemen to let you in.”  Killian gestured at the guards, watching storm clouds wipe away Gaston’s superior expression.

“The Queen promised me assistance with taking Avonlea, and I mean to have it.”  But his voice was less certain now.

“And why would she do a thing like that?”  Killian hadn’t even heard of Avonlea, which meant that the city (town? Duchy? County?) wasn’t on the coast and couldn’t be terribly important.

Gaston looked like he had a hard time thinking of an answer to that other than his own importance.  Finally, he frowned and managed a decent response: “Belle the daughter of Sir Maurice.”

“Belle?  Who is this ‘Belle’, pray tell?”  Killian was starting to wish he’d never wandered into this conversation; it was giving him a headache.  He supposed the fact that talk had turned to a lady was a slight improvement, though.  Anything would be, at this point.

“She went with the Dark One as his maid.”  A scowl.  “She was supposed to marry me, and he stole her away!  The Queen said she would be happy to help.”

“Ah, so she’s moving against Rumplestiltskin.”  A slow smile spread across Killian’s face; now he was interested!  Reaching out, he slapped Gaston on the shoulder.  “You should have led with that, friend.  Anyone who opposes the Dark One is more than welcome here.  I’ll take you to the Queen.”


 

Belle had insisted on staying in Avonlea until things were settled, and she’d asked Rumplestiltskin to stay as well.  He was both touched that she wanted him there and annoyed to be tied to a silly little castle in a useless duchy, but he managed not to say the latter.  Courting Belle—even if he was officially doing no such thing—was turning out to be an interesting experience; Sir Maurice looked like he’d swallowed a lemon every time he saw them together, and his mother was unaccountably smug.  Fiona spent entirely too much time in Avonlea, too, which did leave Rumplestiltskin more than a little suspicious.  Particularly since Fiona seemed determined to interrupt the few moments in which Rumplestiltskin and Belle could sneak off alone.

“Mulan’s back.”  Belle sighed the words a week and a half after the search for Gaston had started.  “They lost his trail approaching Zelena’s castle.”

“Well, that’s hardly a surprise.  He is her type.”  Rumplestiltskin tried not to scowl too deeply, but it was bad.  Gaston had proven surprisingly astute when leaving the castle; he’d taken most of his belongings with him and burned everything he couldn’t carry.  That left Rumplestiltskin with no way to do a locator spell and find the bastard who had been determined to marry and discard Belle.

Much to his surprise, Belle snickered.  “All brawn and no brains?”

“She’s consorting with a pirate of much the same level of intelligence.”  Now he did let himself sneer.  “At least her mother sought power.”

“You knew her mother?”

“Oh, yes.”  Rumplestiltskin felt his eyes narrowing at the memory.  “Cora was also my student.”

“Cora?”  Belle bit her lip, clearly thinking hard. “Didn’t she marry Prince Henry?  I didn’t think he was Zelena’s father.”

“You know your royal houses well.”  Rumplestiltskin giggled.  “But no, Zelena’s the daughter of some gardener or another.  Cora tried to pass her off as King Leopold’s, but that didn’t work out so well for her.”

Belle blanched.  “The same King Leopold who Zelena married?  That’s disgusting.”

“The family does have an interesting tree, doesn’t it?”

“How can I be sure you’re not making this up?”  Belle peered up at him with an amused smile, scooting closer to him on the bench they shared.  They’d managed to find a quiet spot in the garden that Rumplestiltskin thought his mother wasn’t watching, and the peace was nice.

“Well, you could go ask your favorite outlaw about his friend the Lady Regina, who has the misfortune of being Zelena’s half-sister.  She knows the tale well enough.”

“You mean Robin?”  She brightened considerably, remembering the outlaw she’d saved from him.  Personally, Rumplestiltskin thought letting the fool go had been worth it—Belle had hugged him, after all, and that day had changed everything about their relationship.

Rumplestiltskin shrugged as casually as he could.  “Is that what his name was?”

“Rumple.”  Belle rolled her eyes.  “You never forget a name.”

“Well, no.  I suppose I don’t.”  He grinned, and she snorted fondly.

“Then tell me why you’re watching him?  You’re not still holding a grudge, are you?”

“Of course not.”  He waved away the very notion.  “It simply seems that my pet princess—Snow White—has fallen into his band of Merry Men, as has her paramour, or soon to be husband.”

“You’re still protecting her from Zelena?”  He’d forgotten that Belle even knew about that, but she was clever, his Belle.

“A little.”  He was, of course, but Rumplestiltskin didn’t like admitting that.  Mainly because then he’d have to explain why, and Belle wasn’t foolish enough to think he was sentimental or just trying to infuriate Zelena.  The truth, of course, would lead to her learning about the Dark Curse, and she would not like that idea. 

Not one bit.

Unease rolled around in his stomach; the thought of displacing thousands of people into a world where their happy endings were stripped away and where they were separated from their families no longer sat quite so comfortably as it once had.  Rumplestiltskin supposed that was Belle’s fault.  His mother didn’t care a whit for anyone outside her family, and the ever present voices in his mind only objected because it was a land without magic he aimed for.  But Belle was so light, so good, and Rumplestiltskin hated admitting that he craved her approval.

I am drawn to her light as much as I am to her beauty and intelligence, he realized for the first time.  The thought left him even queasier.  Rumplestiltskin didn’t like thinking of why that was the case, but he knew the truth.  I was meant to be the Savior.  I was meant to be like Belle—a hero for the light.  His stomach did a backflip, leaving acid burning in his throat.  Does that now mean I am drawn to what I should have been?  Fate could be cut away, but it always left its mark.

That didn’t matter.  What mattered was finding his son.

Light and darkness be damned.


 

“So, how did you get that magic bean, anyway?”

Bae waited until Tiger Lily was out at the market to ask the question; he’d often wondered if Beans was so reluctant to tell that story because Tiger Lily was around.  He didn’t think that Beans disliked the former fairy, but he couldn’t be sure that Beans just didn’t want to tell an adult the truth.  As near as he could tell, Beans was around his age, maybe a year or two younger.  Things like that didn’t really count in Neverland, but Bae supposed that he’d have to start keeping track of the years again.

It was kind of a nice feeling.

Beans just shrugged.  “I’ve always had it.”

“C’mon.”  Bae rolled his eyes.  “You weren’t born with it.  You can’t have been.”  

“Um.  Not technically.”

Bae crossed his arms.  “That doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Look, if you don’t want to tell me, just say so, and I’ll shut up.  But I know all the beans were supposed to be gone a long time ago.”

Suddenly, Beans got that weirdly stubborn look on his face that Bae had come to know all too well.  “How long ago?”

“Long time.  Does it matter?”  But Bae’s heart was racing.  He didn’t like talking about his past, not on Neverland and definitely not here.

“See, now who doesn’t want to say things?”

Bae could only glower and let Beans change the subject.


 

“We need to talk, Belle.”

Her father’s voice made Belle turn away from her conversation with Mulan about learning to fight for herself, and she checked a sigh.  Belle had been ignoring Maurice’s not-so-subtle hints for the last ten days, and she’d known this moment would come.  So, she squared her shoulders and shot Mulan a small smile when the other woman gave her an encouraging nod.

“I know what you’re going to say, Papa.  You don’t like Rumplestiltskin, and you don’t like that I’ve fallen in love with him.”  She was also certain that her father didn’t like Fiona, either, but that was a lot less relevant.

“My girl, are you sure that—”

“If you even hint that he’s enchanted me, I’m walking away.”  Belle had listened to her father mutter about that one too many times already.  “Magic doesn’t work that way—you can’t make someone love you.  My choices are my own, and I choose Rumplestiltskin.”

Maurice’s face went white.  “Belle, please.  I know that you never wanted to marry Gaston, but you’re carrying on as if you want to marry the Dark One!”

“And if I do?”  Belle met his eyes brazenly.  “It can’t go worse than the marriage you wanted me to have.  To a man who started the Ogre War, and then locked you away so he could steal our lands while planning to force me to marry him.”

“But…he—he’s the Dark One!”

“And beneath that he has a good heart.”  She couldn’t stop herself from sighing this time.  “He’s cursed, Papa.  Rumplestiltskin is human beneath the darkness.”  That didn’t matter to her, but she suspected it might matter to her father.

Maurice blinked with confusion.  “He is?”

“Yes.”  Stepping forward, Belle took her father’s hands.  “I love him, and he loves me.  Please say we have your blessing.”  She smiled slightly.  “Look at it on the bright side.  You’ll never have to worry about anyone hurting me.  Not with Rumple around.”

Her father looked like he didn’t know what to make of that nickname, so he just swallowed noisily.  “Sweetheart, are you sure this is what you want?”

“Surer than I have ever been about anything.”

“Then…then I suppose I have to accept that.”  An uneasy laugh.  “You always have been stubborn like your mother, after all.”

It wasn’t a blessing, but at least her father was trying.  And they had time.  Time for Maurice to get to know Rumplestiltskin, and time for—hopefully—Fiona to stop enjoying making Maurice cringe every chance she got.  Rumple was on his best behavior, much to Belle’s delight, but his mother was another problem entirely.

She’s enjoying this, and yet she keeps interrupting us.  The two don’t fit together, so why is she doing that?

Belle really could only tackle one troublesome parent at a time.


 

“I think the rumors are right.”  Charming sighed heavily, and Snow put her hand on his arm.  “King George is getting new soldiers from somewhere.  Queen Zelena must have joined in on his side.”

“Her generals are a miserable bunch, though.”  Much to her surprise, it was Graham who spoke up.  The Huntsman was generally a man of few words, but right now he looked determined.  “She has many of their hearts, too, which means they don’t exactly exhibit a lot of initiative.”

“Can we exploit that?”  Asking that made Snow feel a little guilty; Zelena was abusing the people she was supposed to be leading.  Those should have been her generals, and they deserved better than for the Wicked Queen to hold their hearts.

“I can’t see why not.”  Robin exchanged a look with Graham.  “We stole one heart.  We can take others and hope they’ll defect.”

“I’m not controlling anyone, even if they won’t.”  Snow wasn’t going to budge from that stance, either.  Some things were just wrong.

Robin shrugged.  “It’ll keep her from using them, even if we don’t.”

“I doubt any of them are feeling very loyal after she took their hearts, anyway,” Regina pointed out, giving Snow a reassuring smile.  “And if they forget what she did to them, we can help them remember.”

“Right.”  Snow nodded briskly.  “The other question is what we do against King George’s new general, this ‘Leviathan’.”

“My father says he knows him.”  Regina chuckled when Snow turned to her in surprise.  “He says his name is actually Lancelot, and they met at my grandfather’s court years ago.  Papa’s offered to meet with him if you think it’ll help.”

“Of course it will!” Snow beamed.  “Thank him for us, please.”

“I’ll tag along if you don’t mind.”  Charming met her eyes briefly, and Snow nodded right away.  She knew that David wasn’t George’s actual son, or even the prince he’d raised, but everyone else thought that David was James.  In a royal world, him being George’s son and heir made a big difference, and they needed to use every tool at their disposal.

Still, Snow wished that George hadn’t allied with Zelena, or that he hadn’t tried to kill Charming in the first place.  King George wasn’t a horrible king, and she would have had no problem with him if he wasn’t dead set on helping her wicked stepmother and murdering the man she loved.  Zelena had to be stopped, though, and if that meant they had to take down King George first, that was what they would do.


 

Snagging a hair from each of them was easy.  The lovebirds were ridiculously distracted when they were anywhere near one another, and had Fiona not been so happy for her son, she would have scoffed.  But she’d been young and in love once, and although she’d grown to despise she’d once been convinced had been her True Love, Fiona rejoiced to know that her son had found his own.  Rumplestiltskin had suffered so much, and the depth of his ability to love still could leave Fiona reeling.  Despite the darkness inside him, her son was good, and she was so very glad that Belle shared his feelings.

But she had to know.

Acquiring one of Rumplestiltskin’s hairs had been child’s play.  She did live with him, after all, and she’d long since formed a collection of his hairs.  They made excellent tracking potions, and one never did know what the idiot Dark Ones would talk her son into doing next.  Now she had free rein of Belle’s childhood home, getting one of hers was easy, too.  The potion, unfortunately, proved to be much harder to brew than she had expected.  Rumplestiltskin had made it look so simple!  He’d put the princess’ and the shepherd’s hair together, swirled a touch of magic together, and then viola! magic.  Fiona, however, was having no such luck.

She was glad that she’d stolen more than one hair from each.  Given the smoking mess her first two attempts had created, she was going to need hairs by the handful.

“Well, if you’re going to be stubborn, so can I,” she told the too-hot-to-touch vial.  “I’m going to prove it to those two fools before they kiss, and that’s just that.”

The alternative was not worth thinking on.


 

She’d made him wait, of course.  Zelena was the queen, and Gaston was just an ambitious little knight.  She’d hoped he might prove his mettle by taking away Rumple’s annoying maid’s home, but he hadn’t managed to do that, either.  He’d been driven out by two girls and some old men!  The very idea was laughable, so Zelena left Gaston cooling his heels while she decided what to do with him.  Obviously, she’d put him back in control of Avonlea—the idea of taking the little duchy off of Rumple’s maid was still too delicious to give up—but if he was going to make her work for it, Zelena was going to up the price.

Several other things came up, so she made Gaston wait almost the entire day before bothering to see him.  She was sure that Hook was keeping an eye on him; although the pirate had avoided her bed thus far, he’d proven useful in enough ways that Zelena wasn’t annoyed.  Speaking of bed warmers, she’d definitely decided against using Gaston in that role, which meant she’d need to see Tinker Bell again.  Maybe the ex-fairy was right and she just needed a little help finding someone.  Zelena wasn’t exactly going to depend upon pixie dust to find her ‘soulmate’ (assuming such things even existed), but she didn’t mind something that would point her in the right direction.

Yet that was hardly the point right now, was it?  Right now, she had an idiot knight on her hands, and Zelena was thoroughly sick of dealing with fools.

“I think your little ‘reign’ in Avonlea might go down in history the shortest in the history!” She didn’t bother with greeting him, and was glad to see Gaston leap to his feet as she stormed in.  “How hard is it to fight off two little girls and a ragged bunch of retired soldiers?”

“They caught us by—”

“With your pants down, yes.  I noticed.”  Zelena rolled her eyes.  “And now you’re here to ask me for help in fixing your mistakes.  How utterly revolting.”

“You can’t blame me when Belle was able to call on Rumplestiltskin for help.  You didn’t warn me that could happen!”  Gaston’s glare was so mulish that Zelena was tempted to turn him into one, but her curiosity stopped her.

“Rumplestiltskin came to oust you?” Zelena cocked her head, narrowing her eyes to stare at Gaston.

He flinched.  “Well, not exactly…”

“Then do tell me what exactly happened.” Turning him into a mule was starting to sound extremely attractive.  Certainly more attractive than he is, she thought irritably.  That chiseled jaw and those muscled arms will only get him so far.  Zelena barely managed not to scream in frustration.  Her plan to make Rumple’s little maid miserable had been intended as a minor distraction, not a project she should have to pay attention to!

“He’s there now.”  Gaston’s chin jutted out in weak defiance.  “The Dark One.”

“And you just ran away.”  Rolling her eyes, Zelena strode forward to glare at Gaston.  “How courageous!”

“You promised your magic to help with that beast!”

She sniffed irritably.  “And you promised that you could hold Avonlea against anyone else.”  Still, Zelena sighed—she could salvage something out of this mess, even if the quality of Gaston’s brain had turned out to be inversely proportional to the quantity of his muscles.  “Still, I do always keep my promises, which means that I will assist you.  But that means I own you, Gaston.  You’re my creature now, whether you like it or not.”

Gaston had the sense to flinch, but really, what good was that going to do him?  Zelena was determined to get her money’s worth out of the fool, even that meant feeding him to Rumplestiltskin to keep her teacher sated when he realized she was behind Gaston’s shenanigans.  It’s not like he cared when I took over Leopold’s kingdom, even though he does keep helping Snow, she tried to tell herself.  He doesn’t care about politics or political power.  Avonlea doesn’t matter to him.

But she’d seen the way he looked at that stupid maid of his, and Zelena knew this wasn’t going to be simple.


 

“My mother died here,” Belle whispered as she led Rumplestiltskin into her childhood home’s library.  “She saved me from ogres, but I can’t remember anything else about it.”

Much to her surprise, scaly fingers squeezed her own gently.  Rumplestiltskin’s voice sounded thick.  “Any parent who would not die for their child is no parent at all.”

“I know.  I know she loved me.”  Belle closed her eyes for a moment, remembering Colette’s scent, her warm embrace.  “And I try to be worthy of her every day.”

“I’m sure she’d be proud of you, sweetheart.  I can’t imagine any parent not being proud of a daughter like you.”

Swinging to look at him and seeing the compassion in his eyes made Belle’s heart clench.  “Do you think so?” She hated sounding so uncertain, even with him, and she still didn’t know why she’d wanted to show him this library where she’d first learned to love books.  “I try, but—”

“You’ve saved your people, Belle.  Twice.”  His smile was soft, and the hand that reached up to touch her cheek was gentle.  “You are a hero.  You may not wield a sword or a bow, but not all heroes do.  You are the bravest person I’ve ever known.  And…and you find goodness in others.  When it’s not there, you create it.  I’ve never met anyone else who can do what you can do.”

“Oh, Rumple.”  Belle didn’t know what else to do, so she threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly.  Maybe he was right.  Maybe her mother would be proud of her.  Not all heroes wield a sword or bow.  She liked the sound of that; Belle had always wanted to make a difference, but since her mother’s death, she’d been driven to do so.  But Rumple understood.  Of all the unlikely people in the world to understand her, Rumplestiltskin did.  “I love you.”

She could feel him blushing.  “And I love you.”

Just as Belle shifted to kiss him, Fiona burst through the door.

Again?

Chapter Text

“I get it, you know.”  Mulan had found herself spending quite a bit of time with LeFou; they’d led the search for Gaston together, and in the process, she’d realized that she wasn’t the only one whose romantic tastes ran a bit outside the Enchanted Forest’s norm.

Learning that really was a relief.  There were times when Mulan felt like she was the only one.

LeFou jumped like she’d slapped him.  “Get what?”

“You like Gaston.”

“I mean, he’s my friend—or was before all of this, and—”

“Not like that.  I know how it is.  I’m, um, not really into men.  Not any more than you are into women.”  Mulan didn’t know how she could have said that more awkwardly, but at least it was out.  And at least she knew she wasn’t wrong.

“Oh.”  Crestfallen, LeFou peered at her out from under long eyelashes.  “Is it that obvious?”

“A bit, yeah.”  She shrugged.  “But maybe not to everyone.  I—”

“Well, what have we here?” A voice cut her off, and Mulan spun to face the newcomer, her sword already in hand.  But the green-faced woman just waved her hand casually.  “You won’t be needing that, I think.”

Suddenly, Mulan’s sword ripped out of her hand, tearing away and flying into the sky before she could stop it.  LeFou drew his own weapon immediately, lunging forward to her side, but the witch merely laughed and waved her hand again.  Now it was LeFou who went flying, flying far enough that he hit the castle wall with a loud thump.  He crumbled to the ground immediately, and didn’t move.

“LeFou!”  Mulan tried to rush to his side, but after three steps, her feet stopped obeying her commands.

“Not so fast, little warrior girl.”  Magic tugged her around like a puppet on strings, and Mulan found herself facing the witch.

“You must be Zelena.”  There was no one else this could be; the green skin was a dead giveaway, as was the entitled smirk.  Belle’s description was spot-on.

Queen Zelena.”  The smirk turned into a sneer.  “And you must be Mulan, the maid’s little friend.”

Belle has a name.”

“Yes, I’m sure she does, but why would I care about that?”  Zelena’s eyes narrowed.  “What I care about is having a little bit of insurance before I go talk to my dear teacher, and that’s where you come in.”

Mulan snorted.  “I’m not helping you with anything.”

“Silly girl.  Who ever said I was going to give you a choice?”

Zelena laughed again, and then her hand plunged right into Mulan’s chest.


 

“Mother, we need to talk.”  Rumplestiltskin was not in a mood for games; Fiona had managed to distract Belle with news that her friend LeFou had fallen and hit his head; Mulan had apparently found the clumsy fool, and Belle had rushed off to be with the pair.  Rumplestiltskin, however, was not so easily sidetracked.

“About what, dear?”  Fiona looked far too innocent, which immediately made his skin crawl.  This was hardly the first time she’d stopped them from kissing—or even the second!  Something was up.

“Your well-timed interruptions,” he spat.  But then an awkward feeling wrapped around him as Rumplestiltskin realized he was talking to his mother about this.  “Every time Belle and I, um—that is to say, we begin, uh…”

“Begin what, Rumple?”

“You know what I mean!”

“Of course I don’t.  If I did, I wouldn’t be asking.”  Fiona genuinely looked confused, and Rumplestiltskin couldn’t tell if she was acting or not.  He’d shared his castle with her for over twenty years.  Surely he should know the difference by now? 

I never thought you were smart, Spinner, but this really takes the cake.  How stupid can you be?  He could practically hear Zoso rolling his eyes, and Rumplestiltskin wanted to burn his predecessor out of his mind.  Will you just shut up?

Never.  You’re stuck with us, Spinner. 

Nimue’s smile sent a chill down his spine.  Forever.

 “Nevermind,” Rumplestiltskin muttered, looking away.  He didn’t want to discuss his romance with Belle with his mother, not when everything was moving so fast and there was so much hope for the future.  And certainly not when the other Dark Ones would not leave him alone.

You’ll break her heart, you know, Nimue said smugly.  Or she’ll break yours.  And we’re the ones who will be here when you fall apart.  We’re the only security you have.

Everyone else leaves.


 

It started with a stupid accident.  Although officially both Tiger Lily’s apprentice healers, Beans and Bae both often grew bored with learning herb lore and simple ways to patch up wounds.  Bae was better with the art than Beans was, but Beans was way better at growing all the various plants and herbs they needed.  Still, Beans was prone to wandering off when Tiger Lily wasn’t watching, and Bae looked up from crushing dried henbane to find Beans had climbed the tree that towered over the garden wall…again.  Beans was supposed to be picking more henbane while Bae crushed the stuff they’d gathered last week, but as usual, he preferred to be high off the ground.

“C’mon.”  Bae heaved a sigh. “You’re supposed to be helping me!”

“I hate that stuff!  You know that!”  Beans leaned out of the tree, waving to some cart as it rumbled by. 

“You think I don’t?”  Bae wasn’t really keen on playing with something that was poisonous, but Tiger Lily insisted that it was a good painkiller—at least in small doses.  Don’t really want to find out, though.

“Least you’re not—”  Crack!

“Beans!”  Bae was on his feet in an instant, bowl of henbane forgotten, but it was far too late.  Beans tumbled out of the tree as the branch his arms were hooked over broke, plummeting to the ground thirty feet below.  The other boy yelped and then hit the ground with a horrible crash.

Bae was halfway there when Beans screamed in pain.


 

Honesty was not her best color, but even Fiona was starting to realize that she had to enlist someone else to help with her scheme.  She contemplated shanghaiing Maurice to become her minion, but immediately discarded the idea—as much as Belle’s father might like to stop his daughter from kissing the Dark One, he wasn’t innovative enough to pull it off.  One more blustering and blubbering attempt at ‘understanding’ from Maurice might well send Rumplestiltskin over the edge, and while Fiona found the urge to turn the man into a rosebush entirely understandable, doing so wouldn’t do Rumplestiltskin’s relationship with Belle a whit of good.

Damn families, she thought irritably, staring at her third failed attempt at creating a True Love potion.  Always in the way.  Not that she wanted to think of her own husband.  Ex-husband?  Fiona thought that reverting oneself into an abhorrently obnoxious teenaged version of yourself negated your marriage more than turning into an evil fairy did.  Either way, her marriage was decidedly over, and that wasn’t the point, anyway, was it?  Not growling out loud was hard.

“Why are you so hard?” She shook the vial, or what was left of it, but the bottom had burned out without the requisite magic forming, again.  The last one had fizzled and turned into a truly noxious gas that almost knocked her unconscious, and this one had burned right through the glass, turning the bottom half of the vial into a melted puddle on her dresser. 

“Why is who so hard?” Tink’s question made her jump; she hadn’t expected the young fairy to show up quite so quickly.

Fiona scowled.  “You’re early.”

Tink snorted.  “And there’s no one else here.  You know, they say that talking to yourself is the first sign of—”

“Oh, do take your mocking little smile elsewhere.”  Fiona vanished the remnants of the vial with an angry wave of her hand.  “I wasn’t talking to anyone.”

“Do you want me to leave, or do you want me to stay?”  Tink cocked her head, all innocence.  “Because I seem to recall getting a message about you needing something.  Something about helping Belle.”

Heaving a sigh, Fiona threw herself into her favorite armchair.  She’d phrased her message that way because she knew that Tink liked Belle, and asking for help for herself really wasn’t in her nature.  And besides, this was helping Belle.  It just required a good bit more honesty than she was really prepared to embrace.

It’s what’s needed, Fiona told herself for the hundredth time.  And I will do anything—anything!—to save my son.  She checked another sigh.  Might as well get on with it.

“Well, yes,” she said after a moment.  “I need your help keeping her from kissing my son.”

“What?  Why?”  Tink blinked.  “Kissing is one of the better things you get to do when you’re in love—not that I’d know that from personal experience, but I’d think that you would.”

“Harrumph.”  Kissing Malcolm had been quite nice, at least before he’d become an overpowered manchild.  “Hardly the point.  If she succeeds in kissing him, Rumple’s likely to freak out—”

“What, he doesn’t want her to kiss him?  I thought you said he’d gone and fallen in love with her.”

“He has, but if she kisses him, his curse might break.”

Now Tink looked truly flabbergasted, which only made Fiona wish she’d managed the damned potion and could just get on with saving her boy. “How is that a problem?  I mean, I know you’re the Black Fairy and darkness is kind of what you do, but if you love him, you don’t really want him to stay like this.  Even if he’s surprisingly decent for a Dark One.  Sometimes.”

“No, I don’t want him to stay like this,” Fiona snapped before she could stop herself.  “But that’s exactly the point!  Think on what you know of the Dark One’s curse for a moment.  It’s the most insidious and corruptive curse in creation.  Do you think it would let a little thing like True Love’s kiss break it?”

“True Love’s kiss can break any curse.”

“A curse is not a curse if the bearer wants it.”  Fiona shook her head.  “No, he’s more likely to freak out, and the darkness inside him will feed that.  And then it’s over.  Once the curse is resistant to the kiss, it’ll never work.  No, I have to stop them from kissing until I know if they’re True Love, and then he has to make a choice to let it work.”

Blinking slowly, Tink seemed to mull that over for a long moment before speaking. “Do you think he will?”

“I hope so.”  She didn’t dare express how terribly she hoped, and Fiona tried very hard to hide the way her heart clenched.

“And you think they’re True Love?”

“You’ve seen how the idiots look at one another.  He dealt for an ugly excuse for a candelabra to avoid upsetting her at all.  If they aren’t True Love, I refuse to believe in the entire concept.”

Tink crossed her arms.  “Then why the elaborate plans?  Why not just talk to them?”

“Because the idiot boy won’t believe me without proof.”  Fiona flung a gesture towards the setup of vials and hairs on her dresser.  “Hence my need to make a True Love potion to prove it to them.  Or, namely, my son.”

“But no one can bottle—”

“Already been done.”  A frustrated snarl.  “Alas, I cannot ask the one who has done so, since it was Rumplestiltskin.”

“So you’re just going to keep them from kissing one another until you can manage to brew a potion that you apparently haven’t been able to.”  Tink arched a dubious eyebrow.  “Really?  This is your plan?”

“Yes!  And you’re going to help me.”

Tink groaned.  “There is no way I can see this going well.”


 

He should have been bored.  Belle was giving him the grand tour of Avonlea (which was a truly uninspiring little duchy, but Rumplestiltskin wasn’t about to tell Belle that!), and the darkness inside him positively itched.  Yet every time Belle so much as touched his hand the voices went silent, and Rumplestiltskin could listen to her talk all day long.  She was so passionate about her people, so caring and so very beloved by them.  He’d never seen this side of her, and Rumplestiltskin found himself positively enchanted.  The Belle he knew was brilliant and brave, but this Belle was a leader, too.  She spoke to her people with confidence and compassion, and they clearly looked up to her.

Of course, the same peasants admired her father, too, which possibly meant their judgment was a bit lacking.  Then again, he didn’t actually volunteer to give up his child.  As much as I despise him for letting her make such a sacrifice…who can tell Belle no?  Rumplestiltskin certainly couldn’t, and, well, if Belle regularly ran rings around Sir Maurice, who was he to cast stones? 

“Rumple?  What do you think?”

His head snapped around guiltily.  “Um, er, I think—”

“You weren’t listening, were you?”  Belle’s smile was fond, at least until the carriage they were riding across Avonlea hit a bump and made her oofh.  She bounced into his shoulder and Rumplestiltskin steadied her with a smile of his own.  He might not have been listening, but he adored her.

“Not really, no,” he admitted.  “I was, uh, thinking.”

“About what?”  Thankfully, her question was curious, not accusing; there were times Rumplestiltskin still couldn’t understand the basic goodness and compassion at Belle’s core.  Cora would have been incandescent if he’d ignored a question from her, and even his mother would have been sharp.  Usually.

“You.”  He was not blushing.  His cheeks were not heating up.  “You…you understand these people.  They love you.”  Who am I to ask you to come with me and leave this behind?

“They love me because I got rid of Gaston.  By next week, they’ll be back to thinking I have ideas beyond my station because I’m a woman.”  Belle sounded bitter enough to take Rumplestiltskin aback.  She snorted angrily.  “I read too much.  I think too much.  I should find myself a good husband and settle into my ‘duty’ of making babies.” 

Rumplestiltskin couldn’t help gaping.  “They can’t—what kind of fool thinks you can’t lead them because you’re a woman?”

“Pretty much every man in Avonlea.  And some of the women.”  Belle slumped.  “They only followed me because Gaston was stupid.  He was demanding twice the normal taxes, and taking any young woman he wanted.  If he hadn’t done that, they probably would have been fine with him.”  She sighed.  “Avonlea’s worse than most kingdoms.  Why do you think I wanted to come with you?  That was my only chance of making a difference.”

“Oh, Belle.”  Rumplestiltskin wanted to argue, but couldn’t find words.  He knew how the world was, even if he found it stupid.  Powerful women were hardly unknown in the Enchanted Forest; even if one discounted Zelena, there were plenty of others.  Yes, they had to fight harder than many to get to the top, but they were there, and refusing to follow someone because they were a woman was just stupid.

“It’s all right.  I know you don’t think less of me because I’m a woman.”  She laughed softly.  “I can’t imagine you trying that with your mother around, even if you’d been so inclined before she came to the Dark Castle.”

 Now it was his turn to snort.  “No, I wasn’t.”  Long ago, when Rumplestiltskin had been a peasant, he’d had a much narrower view of the world.  But realizing that the first Dark One had been a woman had very much opened his eyes—as had meeting several powerful sorceresses, and having more than one Queen refuse to back down even when he bullied them.  They usually fare better than the kings, really.

“Good.”  Belle’s smile was soft, but real.  “I’m glad to know I haven’t misjudged you, then.”

Rumplestiltskin giggled.  “Don’t be so sure about that, dearie.”

Belle just grinned and smacked him on the arm.


 

Bae had gotten Beans inside their small home by the time Tiger Lily got there; Beans had been drifting in and out of consciousness, but Tiger Lily managed to wake him as Bae hurriedly mixed the henbane with water.  It was the best painkiller they had, so long as you didn’t give someone too much—even Bae knew that henbane could also be used as poison.  Pretty sure this stuff was on Neverland, too.  Pity I didn’t know more about it, then. 

Tiger Lily took the newly-made potion out of his hands.  “Here,” she said softly, leaning over Beans.  “This will help with the pain.”

“Nuh.”  Beans shook his head dizzily.

Tiger Lily moved the worn clay cup towards his lips.  “Beans, I can’t set your leg without—”

“No!”  Suddenly, Beans’ hand snapped up, and he slapped the potion away.  The cup bounced off the floor with a crunch, shattering and spraying the table legs with dark liquid.

“Beans!”

“Can’t.”  Beans gulped, his face pale and hands shaking.  “Allergic.  All giants are allergic.”

Confusion made Bae frown.  “Is he babbling?” Giants were definitely not relevant to the situation.

“Not babbling.”  Beans glared dizzily at him.  “’M a giant.”

“You’re awfully small for a giant.”  Bae snorted out a laugh.

“And all the giants are gone,” Tiger Lily added at the same time.

“Got small.  And cursed.”

“What kind of curse?” Tiger Lily suddenly looked alert.  “The only thing I know of that can make giants shrink is mushrooms from Wonderland—”

“Ate one ‘for she cursed me.  Was a dare.”  Beans sucked air in quickly, wheezing.  “Then she found me.  She wanted to curse me to stay young forever.”

“Like Neverland already does?”  Bae couldn’t help sounding skeptical; this was all just a little too weird.  And way too convenient.  The only thing I believe right now is that he’s allergic to henbane, because who wants to stay in pain like this for fun? 

“Kinda.”  Beans coughed as Tiger Lily started crushing something else up; Bae thought it was poppy seeds.  “‘Cept she wanted to suck away the et—eternal youth so she could have it.”

“That sounds pretty dumb.”  Bae couldn’t stop himself, but Beans looked too dizzy to remember this later, so what did it matter how obnoxious he was?  “Why not just put the spell on herself?”

“Because you can’t grant yourself eternal youth.”  Tiger Lily looked grim, now, which made Bae blink.  Did she believe this?

“So you give someone else eternal youth just so you can take it away?”

“That’s the idea, yeah.”  Tiger Lily’s frown grew deeper.  “I’ve heard of that kind of thing, but the fairies should have put a stop to it.”

Bae snorted.  “Fairies helping.  Sure.”

Tiger Lily shot him a funny look.  “Is there something you’re not saying?”

“Yeah.  But I’m still not saying it.”  Bae really didn’t want to let an ex-fairy know that his father had been the Dark One, even if Tiger Lily had been good to him and was someone he considered a friend.  But the more he thought about the convenient way the Blue Fairy had given him a magic bean, the more suspicious everything sounded.  Beans was younger than he was—probably—and that meant Blue hadn’t had the last bean at all.  She’d seemed so nice, but the world she’d sent him to had really sucked.

Papa would have died there without magic.  I almost did.  Bae didn’t like thinking about that, but he knew it was true.  Had Blue wanted to kill the Dark One like that?  He knew that the Dark One was the enemy of the fairies and always had been, and that meant that Tiger Lily wouldn’t like who his father was any more than Blue had.  Fortunately, when she opened her mouth to ask for further answers, Beans groaned in pain and they both turned their attention back to him.  Tiger Lily mixed up a new painkiller while Bae started working on a splint, and by the time they were done, Bae’s past had been forgotten.

Or at least he hoped it had.


 

“We should talk about the future, Rumple.”  Belle waited until the day after their tour of Avonlea to bring the subject up; she knew that Rumplestiltskin would be skittish, but there was no way around that.  She knew that he loved her, and that she loved him, but a relationship needed more than just love.

True to form, Rumplestiltskin jumped.  “Future?”  He squeaked the word as if it could bite him if he held onto it for too long.

“Yes, the future.”  Belle squeezed his arm, hoping that the quiet corner of the garden she’d found to share with him would keep them safe from interruptions.  But his eyes were still wide, so she gave him her gentlest smile and tried to put him out of his misery.  “I want to spend that future with you.  Together.”

“You—you do?”  He looked adorable when he stuttered, but Belle could see panic starting to form in his eyes.  “But your home—your people—”

“My father will live a long while yet.  And when the day comes that he’s not here, I’m sure I’ll manage.”  Belle loved Avonlea and her people, and in the worst case, she’d make sure to select a good regent to be there when she couldn’t be herself.  But she saw no reason why Rumplestiltskin couldn’t bring her to Avonlea whenever she needed to be there—surely, he could create some sort of magical link between the two places.  Belle had read about such things.

“You still want to come with me?”  Of course, the way he spoke made the words all rush together, more like youstillwantocomewithmeeee? 

“I did promise, forever, you silly man.  You might have let me out of our deal, but I still want that.”

“Oh.  Oh.  You want…that?”

“To marry you?”  Belle found herself laughing.  “Of course I do.  Does forever mean something else where you’re from?”

Rumplestiltskin gaped, and then finally seemed to find his voice.  “You can’t possibly want to marry a monster like me.”

“I don’t find you a monster, but I’m willing to wait until you come around to understand that about yourself.”  Sensing that she’d pushed too far, Belle leaned in and kissed Rumplestiltskin on the cheek.  “For now, yes, I want to come back with you.  And I want to go as soon as Zelena is dealt with.”

As expected, that made him smile.  “Your wish is my command.”

“Good.”  Belle grinned, and then squeezed his arm once more.  Rumplestiltskin was still jumpy, and still clearly believed he was unworthy of her, despite the fact that he knew she loved him.  She’d have to work on that—and maybe she’d talk to Fiona, too.  No matter how strangely Fiona had been acting lately, her plan to free Rumplestiltskin of the darkness couldn’t have been discarded.  After all—

“Um, sorry to interrupt the moment, but Zelena’s here.”

The new voice made Belle and Rumplestiltskin both turn to face Tink, and for once, Belle wasn’t angry at the interruption.  She wasn’t sure when Tink had arrived, but that didn’t matter.  Keeping her people—and her father—safe did. 

“Where?” Rumplestiltskin snapped the word before Belle could.

“The war room.”  Tink flashed Belle a quick smile of greeting.  “Your mother is, um, dealing with her at the moment.”

“Oh, dear,” Belle muttered. Rumplestiltskin swore under his breath, and then magic suddenly tugged them away.

Chapter Text

Truth be told, Fiona was enjoying this little confrontation.  She didn’t imagine that her son would let her hold the reins for long—Zelena was his pet little project—but facing off with the ridiculously petty witch was fun.

As was Sir Maurice’s reaction to the whole debacle.

“Oh, do stop prancing about threateningly.  You are aware of the fact that you couldn’t intimidate me if you brought an entire chorus of munchkins along for the ride, aren’t you?”  Fiona thought on that one for a moment.  “Although their singing would make me tremble just a little.”

“I’m not here to deal with a dried up former fairy.”  Zelena made a show of sniffing as if Fiona were beneath her, which made Fiona giggle.  “I am here to ensure that Avonlea’s proper ruler is reinstated.”

“Oh, you mean that muscly excuse for a man behind you?  Please.”  Fiona rolled her eyes.  “He couldn’t rule his way out of a burlap sack.  And he doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on given that Sir Maurice is alive and breathing right here.  Granted, he’s not much to look upon, but Avonlea is his.”

The offended noise Maurice made was somewhere between a whimper and a huff, but they both ignored him.  Zelena rolled her eyes, but it was the overgrown idiot behind her who spoke up, puffing his chest out importantly.

“I gained Avonlea through right of conquest—”

“And then we took it back.”  Belle cut right over Gaston as she and Rumplestiltskin walked in with Tink on their heels, her eyes blazing with anger.  Fiona couldn’t help smirking; if her son was going to fall for anyone, she preferred it to be someone who could at least hold her own ground.

After all, what fun would a (potential) daughter-in-law be if she ran away every time Fiona said ‘boo’?

Her son looked ready to murder Zelena on Belle’s behalf, too, so Fiona settled in to watch the show, plopping down next to Maurice with a grin.  This should be quite enjoyable.


 

“So, who exactly is it that put that curse of eternal youth on you?”  Tiger Lily clearly wasn’t giving up; now that Beans’ leg was set and he was more comfortable, Bae wasn’t surprised to see her return to that subject.

Beans shifted uncomfortably.  “I think her name was Madam Faustina.”

Bae couldn’t help snorting.  “What kind of silly name is that?”

“Dunno.  It’s what she called herself.”

“I haven’t heard of her, but my knowledge is a little dated.”  A thoughtful frown creased Tiger Lily’s face.  “Or more than a little.”

“How dated?” Bae remembered Tiger Lily arriving on Neverland, but he knew that didn’t mean much.  Time was wrong there, and she might have arrived in the same year he had or a hundred years later.  Learning how long had passed since he’d left the Enchanted Forest had been a shock.  Maybe that was why he’d never asked Tiger Lily how long it had been for her.

Her scowl felt like one he might wear.  “Almost three centuries.”

Oh.  Damn.  That meant she was his contemporary, or near enough.  Bae hoped she’d never talked to Blue about the Dark One, or—more specifically—the Dark One’s son.  Not that I know who the Dark One is, now.  It’s hard to ask his name without someone getting suspicious.  Bae knew that his father had to be long dead, but even how everything had gone wrong didn’t mean he didn’t want to know what had happened.

“‘S a long time.”  Beans’ voice was still a little slurred, but he was coherent.  Or at least he was until he sat bolt upright, his eyes rolling back and his voice going all vision-y.  “The Savior becomes a battery.  Time folds in on itself.  The son of darkness meets the daughter of light after the Queen of Hearts returns.”

Beans fell silent, leaving Bae and Tiger Lily to stare at him in confusion. 

“What?”

“You were having visions again,” Tiger Lily said gently, reaching out to pull the blanket tighter around Beans.  It had almost fallen to the floor when Beans had sat up so quickly.

“Yeah, I noticed.”  Beans threw a glare at Bae.  “Why are you staring at me so funny?  ‘S not like this is new.”

Bae couldn’t help frowning.  “I get the rest—it’s your normal vison-y gobbley gook.  But what’s a battery?”


 

“Let’s cut to the chase, shall we, dearie?” Rumplestiltskin let Belle start the conversation, but he was determined to finish it.  His voice lashed out like a whip.  “We all know why you’re here, so do stop pretending there’s anything noble about you.”

Zelena turned to glare at him before drawing herself up with as much dignity as she could muster.  “Very well, then.  I want this meaningless little duchy, and you’re not prepared to fight me for it.”

He giggled.  “Am I not?” Rumplestiltskin drawled the words lazily, but he could see that Zelena didn’t miss the hidden edge.  “Are you so sure about that?”

“I know you’ll never chain yourself to some pissant little knight’s court, no matter how pretty his daughter is.”

Damn.  She was right about that; Rumplestiltskin had no intention of staying in Avonlea just to protect the place.  His love for Belle didn’t extend to staying and becoming some sort of court jester—or, worse yet, some sort of protector.  The very idea was ludicrous.  Next you know, that fat knight will have your dagger and you’ll be dancing to his tune, Zoso jeered in his mind.  Let’s guess how likely you are to be romancing his daughter then, shall we?

A wind whipped up as Rumplestiltskin’s temper rose, but it stilled almost the moment Belle put her hand on his arm.  She knew him too well, his Belle, and Zoso fell silent.  That let Rumplestiltskin smile toothily at Zelena.

“Then I suppose I’ll simply have to make sure you aren’t a threat.”  A snort.  “That’ll be a pity.”

Zelena rolled her eyes, stepping in closer than anyone save Belle or his mother would have dared.  “You won’t.  You need me.”

“Do I?”  Damn this witch.  She’s too smart and too powerful.  I should have chosen someone more malleable!

“Your precious curse won’t get cast without me.”  Zelena smirked even as Belle threw him a confused look.

“Curse?” she asked in an undertone, but Rumplestiltskin couldn’t spare the attention to answer her.

“And your precious life won’t continue without me feeling absurdly kind,” he hissed back.  “You’ll stay away from Avonlea unless you want to make an enemy of me, dearie.”

“Oh, I’m sure I could be convinced.”  Zelena stepped away, smiling contently, and Rumplestiltskin hated himself for dancing to her tune.  But Belle wanted her people safe, and he really didn’t want to have to work for that all the time.

I am not staying in this busy little castle.  Mine is far larger, and far less noisy!

“If you’re going to propose a deal, I recommend doing so before I run out of patience.”  But it was a bluff, and they both knew it. 

Zelena’s smile turned far too sweet.  “I don’t want much from you.  Simply for you to spin a golden brain for me.  Then I’ll leave your precious little Avonlea”—a dismissive wave of her hand indicated what she thought of the place—“alone.”

“You want it for your time travel spell.”  Rumplestiltskin felt his eyes narrow; to his right, Belle tensed.  Even his mother sat up a little straighter, wariness replacing her smug amusement. 

“The one you think won’t work?” Zelena cocked her head.  “If that’s the case, what do you have to lose?”

Thrice damn the witch; she had him over a barrel.  Still, Rumplestiltskin forced himself to smile and wiggle as if he was the one winning.  They had an audience, after all, and he was a master showman.  “You do know there’s no returns?” he sang.  “Buyers’ remorse doesn’t apply to deals with me.

“I wasn’t born yesterday, thank you.”  She met his eyes brazenly.  “Promise me the brain and I’ll leave this silly little place alone.”

“What about my claim?” Gaston suddenly seemed to realize that he was on the losing end of this deal, and he looked affronted.

“I could turn you into something small and stupid if you wanted,” Rumplestiltskin offered, feeling helpful.  “Ease the pain.”

“Rumple!” Belle sounded torn between amusement and horror, and even Zelena snickered a little.  His mother, of course, piped up to add:

“I’m thinking an adorable little ladies’ lapdog.  Something small, handsome, well-bred, and utterly brainless.”

Rumplestiltskin giggled until Belle speared him with a glare.  She turned to Gaston.  “I’m sure that won’t be necessary, will it, Gaston?”

You have no authority over me!”  Gaston started to loom forward until Rumplestiltskin cleared his throat gingerly.  That made the hulking knight back off.

“You’re not a citizen of Avonlea, but you’re not welcome here, either.” Finally, Sir Maurice found his voice, standing from where he’d been seated to watch this little fiasco play out.  “Should you return, you’ll be put to death.”

“By you?” Gaston reared back, laughing.  “What few forces you have could never defeat me.”

Rumplestiltskin raised a finger.  “I’d be happy to help.”

Belle didn’t even yell at him that time, and it wasn’t long before Gaston was ushered out despite his protests.  Zelena gleefully abandoned him; she wasn’t the sort to care about her tools when they ceased to be useful, and Rumplestiltskin knew that she had what she wanted. 

Damn her.


 

“He’s gone.”  Pan’s snarl was furious enough that even Felix backed up a step; he wasn’t going to explain to even his most loyal follower why Baelfire’s escape was so infuriating, but a blind man could have seen how angry he was.

Felix shifted warily.  “You think Tiger Lily had some magic hiding or something?”

“Or something.”  Pan scowled, allowing himself to pout.  There were definite advantages to having chosen to be an immortal teenager; no one would tell him to grow up and act like an adult.  “He took my pet Seer, too.”

“Well, then we’re just going to have to get them back.”  Felix’s drawl jerked Pan back to reality, and he felt a slow smile growing on his face.

“Yeah.  Yeah, we’ll do that.  And we’ll make all of them regret ever trying to leave Neverland.”

He’d make his wayward grandson pay, Pan would.  And maybe then he’d let Rumple know that his precious boy had been in Neverland all along, suffering and pining for the monster his father had become.  That would be suitable revenge for the way Rumple had clung to him and made him miserable.  Rumple had ruined his life, so Pan would ruin his in turn.  I’ve had revenge on Fiona for choosing power over me.  Now it’s Rumple’s turn.

Baelfire wouldn’t be around to see his father’s reaction, or of course.  Or at least not for long.


 

The lovebirds were off being lovebirds, but Tink was keeping an eye on them.  Supposedly, anyway.  The young fairy knew why Rumplestiltskin had to be stopped from kissing Belle, and Fiona thought Tink actually believed her.  Even if she didn’t, Tink had promised to help, and Fiona had better things to do than interrupt them again.

She was going to make that bloody potion, come hell or high water.  Then she’d have the answers she needed, and her boy would stop throwing her that irritated-and-mildly-suspicious look.  Fiona sighed, slowly lowering the second hair into the vial with the first.  Rumplestiltskin wasn’t stupid—Fiona liked to think he’d gotten his brains from her—and he was certainly able to realize that his mother wasn’t interrupting his budding romance for any silly reasons concerning morality.  She would be delighted to see him snog the daylights out of the girl; he was long overdue and Belle was a good influence on him, even if part of her disliked sharing Rumplestiltskin.  But if saving her son required surrounding him with love, that was a price she could pay.

She loved him enough to share him.

Suddenly, golden magic flared beneath her fingers, making Fiona jump.  Rumplestiltskin’s hair curled around Belle’s, both glowing gold and then slowly transforming into a purplish-gold liquid.  True Love.

She’d done it.  She’d brewed True Love!  Fiona squealed out loud.

What had been different from the last dozen failures?  She’d brought the hairs together, but she’d been distracted, thinking of her love for—Oh.

Oh.

“You’re at tricky little thing, aren’t you?” Fiona asked the bottle with a smile.  That was the missing ingredient.  That was why no one had managed to bottle True Love before Rumplestiltskin had.  The irony was incredible; her son, the Dark One, loved so strongly that he had done what no one else had.  His love had been strong enough to act as the catalyst, to cause a reaction creating a potion born of two other peoples’ love.  And now Fiona’s love for her son had done the same.

Now she had proof, too.  Her beloved son had found real, genuine, True Love.  The most powerful magic there was.  And it could save him.

Fiona wasn’t sure she’d ever felt so hopeful in her entire life.


 

“You’re going to go to the Dark Castle for me.”  Zelena smiled that sickeningly sweet smile, and Mulan felt her heart drop.

Rather, she didn’t feel her heart drop, which was the problem.  Because her heart was in Zelena’s hand, and Mulan could only scowl.  “For what?  So the Dark One can kill me for spying on him?  Surely it would just be easier to kill me yourself.”

“You really are a stupid girl, aren’t you?  All swords and no smarts.”  Zelena rolled her eyes, but her hand clamped down on Mulan’s heart when Mulan tried to argue, making her squeak in pain.  “No, you’re going to ask to accompany your dear friend Belle to Rumple’s castle.  I’m sure he’s taking her back with him.”

“Why?” At least she managed to hiss the word without being hurt more.

“Because I want you to.  And I need a spy.  I want to know what they’re up to, and to make sure Rumplestiltskin keeps his deal with me.”

Could she be any whinier?  Mulan would have asked that aloud, but she didn’t want to find out.  “And what excuse am I supposed to give for me asking to tag along?  It’s not like I’m friends with the Black Fairy.”  Which would be ridiculous.

“I’m sure you’ll think of something.”  Another infuriatingly self-satisfied smirk.  “And you won’t, of course, tell anyone that I have your heart.  Or hint at it in any way, including writing it down and drawing pictures.  You won’t indicate that anything is wrong, understood?”

Yes,” Mulan growled.  She wanted to lie and say no, but the gloating witch held her heart.

This was really going to suck.


 

Things were finally settled in Avonlea, or at least mostly.  Rumplestiltskin still had to spin that damned brain for Zelena, but at least she trusted his word to deliver it and had gone away.  Rumplestiltskin devotedly wished that he didn’t need her, but Zelena was the only one available to cast his curse…unless he took his mother up on her offer.  Fiona would have to restore the curse to much of its original form, but would that be so bad?  The fact that Reul Ghorm had changed it to require the sacrifice of the heart of the one you loved most was sickening even for the Dark One to contemplate.  Not for most of us, Spinner, Zoso pointed out before Rumplestiltskin could shove his voice aside. 

Even he had standards, and if he could see the curse cast by someone he trusted, well, that would mean much of his planning wasn’t so important.  His mother would even allow the curse to be broken when necessary, and that would certainly help the future Savior along.  In truth, Rumplestiltskin was afraid to hope for such a simple solution.  He needed to prepare for the worst—

“Rumple, are you all right?”

Blinking, he turned to face Belle.  They’d retreated to the garden again, hoping for some actual peace and quiet now that Zelena was gone and Sir Maurice had been convinced that she was sufficiently afraid of Rumplestiltskin not to return.  He’d been thinking about what Belle had told him before he’d willfully distracted himself with thoughts of the curse, about how she wanted forever…and how terrifying that was.

“I owe you a story.”  The words blurted out of him before Rumplestiltskin could stop himself, and even the other Dark Ones howling in laughter and protest couldn’t take them back.

“A story?”  Blue eyes met his eagerly.  “What do you mean?”

“I…” Rumplestiltskin gulped back the urge to run away.  Belle laid a hand on his arm, which at least quieted the voices, but that couldn’t give him courage.  The next sentence came out as a whisper: “About my son.”

“You said you lost him.”  Her voice turned soft, too, and she squeezed his arm.  Rumplestiltskin swallowed again.

“I…I lost him because I was a coward.”  Facing it was easier now than later; once Belle knew what he was, she would run away. Better to get it over with.  Rumplestiltskin squared his shoulders, using his old pain as armor against future loss.  “Because I chose my power over him, just like I almost did you.”

“What happened?”  Somehow, her voice was still gentle.  He’d expected her to start mocking him by now.

“Bae got a magic bean,” he whispered.  “He wanted to go to the Land Without Magic and start again, but when the portal opened, I let him go.”  Rumplestiltskin closed his eyes on tears, remembering Bae shouting for him, remembering the horrified look in his son’s eyes.

He would never forget that look of heartbroken betrayal, not if he lived another thousand years.

“Why?  What happened?”  Had her hand not reached up to touch his cheek, Rumplestiltskin might have pulled away.  But Belle’s touch was so soft, so loving

The words tumbled out, stuttering at first and then a little more certain.  He told her the truth, about how his father had abandoned him, about how he’d been the town coward until he had power, and about how he’d run from the war to be there for his son.  For the first time in decades, Rumplestiltskin spoke about how all he’d ever wanted was to be the father he’d lacked, and to his surprise, Belle listened

Then she embraced him, and she stayed.


 

Zelena’s distraction meant that King George didn’t get the forces promised to him, a fact that Snow and Charming were quick to take advantage of.  Prince Henry’s intercession with the ‘Leviathan’ let them find common ground with Sir Lancelot, and just like that, an enemy was turned into a friend.  Slowly, their rag-tag army moved towards George’s capital, and before long, they had him all but cornered.  They still had a long way to go, at least in Snow’s estimation, but the populace had responded surprisingly well to their invasion, and she was sure that things would work out for the best.

David, however, was a bit less confident.  In fact, he was more than a little dejected.  “They still think I’m my brother.”

“But they follow you.”  Snow squeezed his arm, smiling.  “It doesn’t matter what name they think you have.  Our army, our people, trust you.”

“And they trust you.”  He smiled back at her, finally.  “We’re in this together.”

“Of course we are.  And together, we’re not going to lose.”

“Things will be different when your evil stepmother re-enters the fray,” he warned her, looking thoughtful.  “She’ll only be distracted for so long.”

“I know.”  Snow sighed; she wished there was a way to make peace with Zelena, but she knew that there wasn’t.  Zelena had killed her father, and she’d never been kind to Snow.  As far as Zelena had been concerned, Snow had just been in the way.

Her childhood would have been miserable if not for her friendship with Regina.

“We’ve got to find a way to beat her at her own game.”  David gazed off to into the distance, away from their army’s camp and into the forest beyond it.  “I fear that means we’ll need to make another deal with the Dark One.”

“We’ll face that bridge when we get to it.”  Snow squared her shoulders.  She didn’t want to think on that right now, not when things were going well.  Perhaps if they were lucky, Zelena and Rumplestiltskin might destroy one another.  If that happened, she was sure the world would be a better place afterwards.


 

“Mulan.”

Tink smiled, immediately liking the warrior woman in front of her.  “I’m Tinker Bell, but everyone calls me Tink.  You helped Belle retake Avonlea, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but I think she would have done it without me.  She’s determined like that.”  Mulan’s smile was faint.  “How do you know her?”

“I, um, stayed at the Dark Castle for a little while.  After I quit being a fairy.”  Tink’s smile turned sheepish.  “We met then.”

Now probably wasn’t the time to mention that she’d become Fiona’s friend, first; most people were understandably creeped out by the Black Fairy.  Tink thought that was mostly Blue’s fault; she seemed to be the one who had spread the Black Fairy’s horrendous legend far and wide.  Tink wasn’t blind, of course.  She knew that Fiona could be perfectly awful, and had been in the past.  But Fiona seemed to be trying to be nicer these days, and she’d given Tink shelter when no one else would.  She also helped me help people I care about, and that goes a long way.

Mulan snorted.  “That had to be weird.  Staying in the Dark Castle.”

“Not as much as you might think.  The place is surprisingly…not creepy.  I kind of liked it, particularly in comparison to the woods I live in most of the time now.”

“You live in the woods?  Why?”  Mulan looked her up and down like she couldn’t believe someone as dainty as Tink would do that, and Tink tried not to bristle.

“I fell in with some outlaws.  I try to help them when I can.”  They were more than outlaws, now, of course; Tink’s friends formed the core of a rebel army.  Blue had even come to visit Snow, and had offered her help…which was one of the reasons Tink was happy that Fiona had asked her to come join them in Avonlea.  She swallowed.  “But I don’t think I’m going back to the forest right now.”

“Why not?”

“Professional differences.  Fairy stuff.”

At least Mulan seemed to take that at face value, smiling solemnly.  “So, you’re going back to the Dark Castle?”

“I think so, yeah.”  Blue would scream bloody murder if she found out, but that only made the idea more attractive.  And Fiona would probably want help, anyway.  “At least for awhile.”

“Do you…do you think I might be able to come with you?” Mulan sounded hesitant, like she wasn’t sure if she should be asking this at all.  “I feel a bit responsible for Belle’s safety after everything that happened…and I don’t really have anywhere else to go.”

“Well, I don’t mind, but you’d have to ask Belle.”  Tink thought it might be fun to bring someone else along, but it wasn’t her castle.

Mulan blinked, as if that idea hadn’t really occurred to her.  “Right.  Of course I will.”

Tink thought that was a little strange, but she barely knew Mulan, so she let it pass.


 

She had her brain—or would, anyway—but Zelena needed more than that.  She knew what ingredients the spell would require, but finding the right providers of those ingredients was difficult.  Rumplestiltskin had been the obvious choice for the brain; he was nearly as clever as she was, and no one else in the Enchanted Forest could match him.   But who should she use for innocence?  She had an idea of who she wanted to use for courage—just to spite her obnoxious little stepdaughter—but the resilient heart was going to be hard, too.  Zelena hadn’t imagined that finding the proper ingredients for her spell would be so hard, but she was going to do this.

Rumplestiltskin wanted her to concentrate on his curse, but she was going to save her mother, first.  Then Zelena would cast that curse, proving to everyone that she was the most powerful magic user in the Enchanted Forest.  She rather liked the idea of remaking a world in her own image, and having her mother there to see her succeed would just be the icing on the cake.  In fact—

“Your Majesty, King George’s messenger is still waiting.”  The guard flinched when Zelena wheeled around to glare at him.

“Let him wait!” she snarled, turning back to her work.  “I’m busy.”

“He says that their kingdom is in danger of falling—”

“Well, that sounds like it’s his problem, doesn’t it?”  How had she let the silly pirate convince her to help George out?  George had made a mess of his entire war, from hiring some outside general to having that same general betray him and join the other side.  He was an idiot man, of course.  Zelena would have crushed Snow and her sad little army by now.

“Yes, Your Majesty.”  The guard retreated, leaving Zelena to her thoughts.

She needed a child for innocence.  That would definitely work.  A newborn would be better, and one born of love and devotion would be best.  Surely she could take some peasant child without anyone noticing…unless there was one she’d rather take?  She would have to think on that.  I’m sure one of my enemies will be obliging enough to have a child soon, she decided.  Zelena was content to wait for the perfect moment, provided the right child came along.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only thing slowing her down.  She also needed to find a way to get more power than she had.  The spell would drain her dry if she didn’t find another power source.  Rumplestiltskin had refused to help her, so she needed to find someone else.  Far away, she’d heard of some ‘Snow Queen’ who could freeze an entire kingdom with her magic.  Perhaps she should reach out to this Ingrid.  There had to be something in the past that Ingrid would want.  Zelena didn’t like the idea of sharing her marvelous spell, but if that was what it took to get power, she would do it.

She would show everyone.


 

“Of course you can come!”  The look Rumplestiltskin gave her was priceless, but Belle hugged Mulan, anyway.  He’d whine about having a castle full of giggling girls, but he’d get over it.

After quite a lot of pouting.

Mulan still looked nervous, so Belle gave her a smile. “Tink is coming, too, so we’ll have a lovely time. And there are lots of weapons in the Dark Castle—you’ll love it.”

“Thank you.”  Mulan’s answering smile was hesitant, but real.

Rumplestiltskin, on the other hand, looked quite alarmed, with wide eyes and a pleading look meant only for her.  “Belle…”

“You can always invite Jefferson if you’re feeling outnumbered.”  She walked over to him, giving him her sweetest smile as she took his arm.

“I am not inviting the Hatter to live in our castle.”  His words were a grumble, but they still made Belle’s heart leap.

Our castle.  I like the sound of that.  “Don’t say I didn’t offer.”

His glare might have scared anyone else, but Belle wasn’t falling for it.  Mulan, on the other hand, looked very uncomfortable as she spoke up. “I’ll, uh, get to packing, then.  And I’ll leave you two to it.”

“We’re probably leaving tomorrow, assuming I can convince Papa not to try to send an army after me,” Belle told her with another grin.  She didn’t honestly think her father would send a rescue party, but Maurice still wasn’t happy with the fact that she’d fallen in love with Rumplestiltskin.

He would just have to get used to it.

“I’ll be ready,” Mulan promised.

Rumplestiltskin made a strangled little noise of protest, but Belle only laughed.  This was going to be so much fun.  And she was going home.

Chapter Text

There was one unfortunate thing left to do before he could leave this silly little duchy and go home to the Dark Castle.  Rumplestiltskin had stayed for Belle’s sake, but they’d been here for weeks, and there were no interesting people left to do deals with.  Even the few deals he’d made had been insignificant little things, hardly enough to hold his attention.  Truth be told, he was bored out of his mind when not with Belle, and even his mother spent more time in the Dark Castle than here.  And when she is in Avonlea, she’s busy interrupting us or having her little minion do the same.  The thought made Rumplestiltskin frown.  There was something going on with that, and he needed to remember to ask his mother.

But first, Sir Maurice.

“I’m not usually in a habit of coming when called by irate parents, dearie.”  Rumplestiltskin had intentionally ignored Maurice’s oh-so-polite summons for two days, but even he wasn’t crass enough to ignore the poor man forever.  Despite everything, the memories of a father lurked inside Rumplestiltskin, and now that there was not a deal to be made, he found himself unable to leave Maurice thinking his daughter was doomed to darkness and misery.

“And I’m not in the habit of letting my daughter go off with a beast,” Maurice shot back, turning to glare at him.

Rumplestiltskin had found Maurice in his own war room; the knight was staring morosely at the map.  Rumplestiltskin thought he knew why, but he still giggled maliciously.  “You should have thought on that the first time, then, My Lord.

Maurice flushed.  “You gave us no choice!”

“Well, I did give a choice, but it wasn’t to you.”  He flashed his teeth in a wide and nasty smile.  “Belle made her choice.  As she has now.”

“I know.”  Maurice’s shoulders slumped.  “And I’ve tried to talk her out of it, but she insists that there’s good in you that I don’t see.”

That made Rumplestiltskin fidget.  He knew that Belle saw light in him, but he was never sure how.  Even knowing what he had been meant to be didn’t change what he was, and Rumplestiltskin was a realist.  He was the Dark One.  He might restrain himself to keep the darkness from ruling him, but that was because he wanted to maintain ownership of his own soul.  Not for any other reason.

“Belle is, uh…” He cleared his throat, struggling for words.  “Good.  She always sees the best in everyone.”

“I know.”  For a moment, their eyes met, and Rumplestiltskin could see that Maurice was as frustrated—and awed—by that trait of Belle’s as he was.  Then Maurice squared his shoulders.  “Is she right about you?  About there being more than a beast in you?”

Rumplestiltskin blinked.  He hadn’t expected Maurice to be so brave, but he supposed Belle had to get it from somewhere.  And not just from her mother, I guess.  Still, being faced with a justifiably protective father was very different from laughing at a blustering buffoon, so he hesitated.  “Belle has”—he gulped, and then forced himself to stop—“always brought light to the darkness that is my life.  She makes me want to be a better man than I am.”  

She makes me want to go back to the best version of me.  But he wasn’t going to say that.  Not to Maurice.

“Do you love her?”  The question was unexpected, particularly since he’d answered it before.  With an audience, no less. 

“Of course I do.” Rumplestiltskin snapped the words before he could stop himself, and then added plaintively: “How could I not?”

There were a thousand words he could use to describe the perfection that was Belle, but Rumplestiltskin’s normally silver tongue failed him.  He loved her.  It was just that simple.  Loving Belle came as naturally as breathing.  You’ll never be worthy of her, Nimue whispered gloatingly, but Rumplestiltskin could ignore that easily.  He already knew he never would be.

“I suppose that’ll have to do.”  Maurice sounded more gruff than angry, much to Rumplestiltskin’s surprise.  “If you hurt her…”  He trailed off meaningfully, and Rumplestiltskin could have laughed.

In his mind, Zoso cackled.  What can he possibly do to you?

Rumplestiltskin ignored him and spoke the truest words he had: “I won’t.”


 

There were traders in Port Mystic for the annual fair, which gave Bae the chance he’d been hoping for.  He’d long since given up on asking the locals about the Dark One, because he didn’t feel like explaining why he wanted such information, but visitors were different.  He didn’t have to live in the same town as visitors, and as long as he was careful, no one would connect such questions to one of the healers’ apprentices.  This really isn’t the life I dreamt of, Bae thought, sitting on a wall and watching a pair of guards ride by.  The merchant who had hired them seemed to be one of the wealthiest, because the guards seemed both well-armed and sober.  He sighed.  I’d rather be one of them than doing this.

Being an apprentice healer wasn’t a bad thing, not really.  The skills he was learning really were useful, and Bae liked Tiger Lily and Beans both.  But he’d always wanted to do something more, to help people in larger ways than providing salves for small cuts or setting legs broken from a fall out of a tree.  Bae wanted to make a difference.

“…heard that the Dark One is in Avonlea?  Rumors says that ‘e made a deal to protect them from the Wicked Queen.”

The second guard snorted.  “I heard that Sir Gaston was kicked to the curb by Sir Maurice, and good riddance.  The man’s a hotheaded idiot.  I sure as hell wouldn’t follow him into battle.”

“If y’wanted to fight battles, you wouldn’t be guarding Master Potatoman, here.”  The first guard laughed, but his companion looked offended.

“Hey!  I fought in the Ogre War.”

“For about five minutes, ‘fore the Dark One ended that, too.  You might want to join the fan club.”

“If you keep mocking me, maybe I’ll make a deal to get rid of you.

Without thinking, Bae hopped off the wall and wandered down the road behind the two guards and the wagon they were following.  This was interesting, even if it didn’t tell him how his father had died.  Hearing that the Dark One had banished the ogres lined up with what Clank had told him, but the idea of the Dark One doing deals was new.  And protecting someplace from some wicked queen?  That’s weird.  Bae wanted to know more, particularly since this Dark One might have been the person who had killed his father.  Or what was left of Papa, anyway.  It was more likely that the current Dark One was three or four Dark Ones down the road, but there still might be clues.

He shouldn’t care about what had happened to the monster Rumplestiltskin had become, but Bae couldn’t help himself.  That curse had taken over his father, had turned a gentle man into a monster, but sometimes Bae had seen glimmers of the man his papa had been.  He wanted to believe that Rumplestiltskin was now at peace, that he was now in a better place…but he also burned to know what had happened.  He didn’t want revenge or anything stupid like that.  He just wanted to know.

“You’d havta have something ‘e wanted for that.” The first guard laughed.  “And on what we make, there’s no way you’re gonna able to scrounge up enough gold for that.”

“Shows what you know.  They say he doesn’t take gold.”

“Yeah, and what are you goin’ to offer ‘m then?  Your horse?”

“Maybe.”  The second guard glared—until he suddenly looked over his shoulder, straight at Bae.  “Or maybe I’ll offer him this kid who likes following people.”

Bae froze, but it only took him a moment to come back on balance.  “That sounds like a stupid deal that only a really dumb Dark One would make.”

“What makes you think he’s smart?” the second guard asked.

“What makes you think he’s not?”

He.  That was a new bit of information Bae hadn’t had before.  Even better, the guards both burst out laughing instead of growing angry—apparently, they liked his snarky response.

The second guard’s grin confirmed that as he swung down off of his horse.  “You’re a plucky one, aren’t you, kid?”

“I’m hardly a kid.”

“All right then, hardly-a-kid, why are you following us?”

Bae rolled his eyes.  “My name’s Baelfire.”

“And I’m Flynnigan Rider.  Why are you following us?  Curious about guarding boring merchants, or about the Dark One?”

“Um…maybe both?”

Flynnigan snorted.  “No one likes guarding merchants.  It just pays the bills.”  He nodded to his companion.  “You go on ahead.  I’ll catch up with you and Master Potatoman later.”

“Y’keep callin’ him that, and he’s gonna notice.”

“I’m sure I’ll live.”  Flynnigan grinned, but the other guard only snorted and rode on ahead, leaving Bae alone with someone who knew things about the Dark One.  Was that a good thing?  He wasn’t entirely sure.

 I hope there’s not an actual fan club.  That would be really screwed up.

“So, um, why do you want to talk to me, anyway?”  Bae fell into step next to Flynnigan a little awkwardly.

“I’ve been talking to him for days.”  Flynnigan jerked his thumb at his former companion.  “I could do for a change of pace.”

“Oh.”

“So, were you just bored, or do you really want to know about the Dark One?”

Bae couldn’t help giving the man a suspicious look.  “Why would you want to talk about him?”

A shrug.  “He saved my life.  Along with thousands of others, when he ended the Ogre War.  I never even saw him, then, so I tried to find out about him instead.”

“You were in the Ogre War?”  Bae had read a bit of history, and knew that the recent war against the Ogres had been the Third Ogre War, but most people these days seemed to have forgotten the first two.

“I was.  Conscripted right out of the orphanage.  They put a sword in my hand, and sent me off to fight for the Marchlands.”  Flynnigan’s face took on a faraway expression, one that told Bae how much he’d seen during the war.  “I turned out to be pretty good with a sword, but no one’s good enough to beat the ogres.  Not without magic.”

Bae knew far too much about that; it sounded like this Dark One had made a deal to do the same kind of thing his papa had done forever ago.  That was a surprising coincidence, but Bae supposed that it wasn’t so surprising that the Dark One’s magic could stop the ogres more than once.  Maybe whoever had made the deal had heard about Rumplestiltskin saving the Frontlands.

“So, uh, what happened?”  Bae figured that asking about the Ogre War was safe; Flynnigan seemed eager to talk about it.

And he was.  Flynnigan regaled Bae with the tale of the entire thing, from the loss of the northern Marchlands, including Sir Gaston’s family seat—which led to a long diatribe about the latter’s lack of good sense, leadership ability, and general morality—to the ogres’ mysterious disappearance.  Flynnigan and his fellows had only found out later that the Dark One had dealt with the ogres after making some sort of deal with Sir Maurice of Avonlea, but that had mad Flynnigan curious about him.

“Apparently, Rumplestiltskin makes all kinds of deals.  Not for horses or surly teenagers, usually, but—”

Bae had barely heard everything after the word Rumplestiltskin.  His mouth had been too busy dropping open.  “Wh—what did you say?”

“About the deals?  It’s more like he’s looking for—”

“No.  His name.  The Dark One’s name.”

Flynnigan eyed him strangely.  “I’m not going to repeat it.  They say that repeating it three times can summon him.”

“Can summon…Rumplestiltskin?”  The name tasted strange on Bae’s tongue; he hadn’t said it in centuries.

“Look, kid, I’m curious but not suicidal.  Don’t say it again.”

Bae felt like someone had punched him in the gut.  “Don’t worry.  I won’t.”


 

“We need to talk, sis.”  The voice came from behind Regina when she’d headed out of the camp to get some water, and she spun as quickly as she could, bow coming up to point at her green-faced sister.

“Is that before or after you try to kill me?” Regina snapped, hating the way her heart had leapt into her throat.  I should have found a way to learn to use my magic.  But that thought came years too late.  She’d never wanted to use magic, not after everything Daddy had told her about the way magic had turned Mother towards darkness.  Or after seeing how it had corrupted her sister.

“Relax, Regina.  I’m not here to hurt you.”  Zelena rolled her eyes dramatically.  “I’m here because we actually have something in common for once.”

“Really?  Somehow I doubt that I’m going to agree with you on that.”

“That’s because you haven’t heard what I have to offer yet.”  Zelena’s smile seemed almost sincere, but Regina wasn’t buying it.  This woman—her own sister!—had tried to kill her more than once, and had a vendetta against Regina’s best friend.  She was insane, and Regina kept her arrow pointed straight at her sister’s face.

Regina snorted.  “I’m not interested.”

“Not even in knowing your own mother?”

That jerked Regina up short.  “What?”

Our mother.  She was taken from both of us, and I’m going to get her back.”  Zelena preened a little before calming down; meanwhile, Regina had to blink hard. 

“She’s dead.  You can’t bring back the dead.”  Regina took a deep breath, considering.  She didn’t actually know that much about magic, only what her father had told her.  “Can you?”

“Of course not.”  Zelena rolled her eyes as if this was knowledge everyone had.  “But I can go back in time to a moment before she died and save her.  And then I can bring her here.”

“How?”  She cocked her head.  “I didn’t think time travel was possible.”

“Only if you’re me.”  The look of genuine pride on Zelena’s face was a little unsettling.  “I discovered how.”

“Then why come to me?” Regina knew that the other shoe was going to drop.  She just didn’t know what it was going to be.

“Because I thought I’d offer you the opportunity to help me.”

Regina couldn’t help snorting.  “You mean you need my help.”

“No, I don’t need you.  I could use anyone’s power.”  Zelena huffed irritably.  “I just thought I’d give you the chance to help save our mother.  If you don’t care—”

“I didn’t say that.”  The words rushed out before Regina could stop them, and she wanted to kick herself.  But a part of her really did want to know more.  She’d never known her mother, at least not so that she could remember.  Her papa had told her that magic had taken Cora down some dark roads, but that didn’t mean that Regina didn’t regret never having known her own mother.

“If you want me to leave you alone, I will.”  Zelena’s gesture was careless, but Regina had the feeling she wasn’t quite as blasé as she let on.  “I meant it when I said that I mean you no harm.”

“That’s going to take some getting used to,” Regina replied dryly.

“Yes, well, I’m new at having a sister, too.”  Zelena fidgeted.  “I may have come off a wee bit strongly.”

“You think?” She snorted again.

“Yes, well, I’m trying, all right?”

“I suppose you are.”  Regina checked a sigh.  “What exactly do you want me to do?”

Zelena brightened.  “I don’t actually need you to do anything.  I’ll do all the magic—teaching you to do any of it would take far too long.  I just need your power.”

Regina eyed her suspiciously.  “And how would that work?”


 

Belle hadn’t thought it would be so marvelous to be home.  She wasn’t sure when Avonlea had stopped being home and the Dark Castle had started, but she knew she was happy here.  Avonlea would always be the place where she had grown up, but it was no longer where she wanted to spend the rest of her life.  Belle wouldn’t stop loving her father, or her people, but the life she dreamt now was bigger that the small duchy she had given up her freedom to save.

And now she returned to the Dark Castle, not as a maid, but as the lady of the castle.  Rumplestiltskin had said that much himself.   Or he’d hinted at it, which with him was the same thing, particularly when he was emotional and tongue-tied.  Belle thought it was rather endearing; no one else could make her silver-tongued Dark One stutter and blush.  But she could, and the fact that he could be so open with her warmed her heart.

“So, what do you think?”  She’d just given Mulan the grand tour, and the warrior woman was looking around with curiosity.

“It’s a castle.”  Mulan shrugged, and then amended: “I mean, it’s a nice one, I suppose.”

“Gee, thanks.”  Belle laughed, though; she liked Mulan, even when Mulan didn’t feel like saying much.  “Seriously speaking, watch out for the biting stairs, and the suits of armor move around sometimes.  But it’s not so bad.”

“Yeah, you covered that with the ‘enchanted’ part.”  Mulan shivered. “I’m not sure how you live in this place.”

“You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to.”  Belle blinked in confusion.  Mulan had asked to come, as had Tink—who was already off with Fiona doing something or another.  Was there something she was missing?

“I don’t mean it that way.  I’m sorry.”  Mulan fidgeted a little, looking uncomfortable.  “And I’m glad to be here.  I…I’m not sure where else I’d go.”

“What about Aurora and Philip?”

“They’re living their lives.”  A shrug.  “I heard from one of LeFou’s friends that they got married last month.  There’s no place for me there.”

“Oh, Mulan, I’m so sorry.”  Belle reached out to put a hand on her friend’s arm, but Mulan just shrugged again.

“Enough of that.  I’m here to protect you, and that’s that.”

Belle started.  “To protect me?  I don’t need protecting, especially here.”

“Of course you do.  You’re living with Rumplestiltskin, and he can’t possibly love you enough to keep you safe from himself.”  A strange expression crossed Mulan’s face as Belle stared.  “He’s the Dark One, of course.  That comes with the territory.”

“You don’t know him like I do.”  Belle hadn’t expected this from Mulan of all people.  “I know he loves me, and Rumplestiltskin would never hurt me.”

“His enemies still might.”

Belle crossed her arms.  Was that what this was about?  “That’s a risk I’m willing to take.”


 

The girl really was quite nauseatingly loyal, wasn’t she?  Zelena wasn’t sure how Rumplestiltskin had managed to make someone so annoyingly good fall in love with him.  The maid seemed to be utterly smitten, and while Zelena could certainly understand the Dark One’s allure, she wasn’t sure what this Belle saw in him.  Did she perhaps have some well-buried and ruthless ambitions?  Or perhaps she was after the dagger.  That was certainly what Zelena would be doing in her place.  Concentrate on the matter at hand, she told herself firmly, realizing that Belle was waiting for Mulan to answer her.

Zelena looked back down at the heart in her right hand, speaking slowly as the soldier girl tended to do.  “How can you know he won’t get bored with you and just throw you away after he’s had what he wanted?  That’s what men do.”

Not snorting aloud and giving the game away was hard.  That’s the one thing this silly sword swinger and I agree on, Zelena thought, watching Belle scowl through the heart.

“Rumplestiltskin isn’t like that.”  Blue eyes zeroed in on Mulan.  “You’ll understand better once you get to know him.  He’s prickly and dangerous, but underneath that, he has a good heart.”

Oh, save me.  Zelena wanted to vomit.  Did this slip of a girl really believe that?  She was more deluded than Zelena had thought, but Mulan had to give in before someone got suspicious.  This is such a bother.  She sighed, and forced Mulan to shrug casually.  “I suppose.  I don’t really know anything about him, I guess.”

“Did my father put you up to this?” Belle’s eyes narrowed; and Zelena had to remind herself that no matter how naive the girl was, she wasn’t stupid.

“Maybe a little,” she said through Mulan, trying to convey embarrassment.  She hadn’t wasted time on Sir Maurice, of course, and he hadn’t talked to Mulan, but Avonlea was a long way away and taking the easy way out was so much easier.

Belle put a hand on Mulan’s arm.  “Don’t worry.  Papa’s just a little paranoid.  You’ll see how things are here.”

Yes, I will.  That would be worth the bother of taking Mulan’s heart, Zelena was certain.  Rumplestiltskin had to have a reason for humoring this silly girl’s infatuation, and Zelena knew that wasn’t because he loved her.  The entire idea was ludicrous.  Rumplestiltskin could never fall in love with a naïve little bookworm.  He was going to fall in love with her if he fell in love with anyone.  And if he didn’t, Zelena was going to make him fall for her.


 

He was finally alone in his tower, but his castle was full of giggling women.  Two of them were fairies, one was a warrior woman from a far-off kingdom, and one he loved beyond comprehension.  How had this happened?  Rumplestiltskin was supposed to be the Dark One, the most feared sorcerer across all the realms.  Power was his forte, and he was supposed to cause fear wherever he went.  He was a being of darkness, had spent years embracing that and knowing that it was all he had.  And yet—

Rumplestiltskin had not been meant to be like this.

“I was meant…to be the Savior?”

 “Yes.”  A warm hand touched his cheek, making Rumplestiltskin finally look at his mother.  Her face, creased with worry, swam slowly into view as his heart pounded in his ears.  “You were meant to be the greatest of heroes, with deep and powerful light magic.  I took that from you.”

“All to keep your own power.” 

“Yes.”  Fiona didn’t quite flinch, but he could see the pain in her dark eyes.  “I chose my power over your destiny.  I did it out of love for you…but I was wrong.  I know that, now.”

“That’s…that’s why I’ve always felt so empty.” 

He had been meant to be the Savior.  Rumplestiltskin had realized that before, but he’d never really thought about that that meant now.  A few days earlier, he had finally come to understand that was why he was so drawn to the light in Belle; it was an echo of the light he’d been born with.  Yet he hadn’t thought about what it meant to who he was.  He was the Dark One, yes, but he had been meant to be different.

Did that matter?  Reflex said no, but further and more honest examination of the idea made him wonder.  He loved Belle.  Rumplestiltskin had loved before, too, although he didn’t think it had been like this.  His ever-present passengers objected to the very idea of love—he could hear them howling now in the back of his mind—but he knew that his love was real.  And despite what Zoso and the others claimed, he knew that Belle loved him, too.  She shouldn’t, and he didn’t deserve her, but she did love him.

It doesn’t matter, Nimue whispered to him.  I was loved, too, and look where that got me.  They never stay.  Your son didn’t, either.

Rage boiled up immediately.  “Don’t you dare talk about him,” Rumplestiltskin hissed.  “You’re the reason he’s gone!”

You let go of him, Spinner.  Zoso again, even though it had been Nimue there at the crucial moment, Nimue who reminded him of his fears and made him so paranoid that he’d let go of his beloved boy.  Not us.

And we’re the reason you’ll get him back, Nimue reminded him, brushing Zoso aside.  Without your power, you’re nothing.  Belle wouldn’t want you, and you can’t find Baelfire without us.

Rumplestiltskin swallowed, images of Baelfire flashing before his eyes.  Where was his boy now?  Where had that portal put him, and what kind of life did he lead?  Was he still travelling?  Had the portal moved him in time as well as between realms?  How else would Baelfire still be alive when the time for the curse came?  I have to find him.  No matter what.  Why was Nimue bringing this up now?  It didn’t matter.  Only Bae mattered.  “I know.”

A wave of satisfaction swept through him, one that would have once made him smile.  But not today.  Rumplestiltskin still couldn’t escape the feeling that he was missing something, that he should have been different.  Did that matter?  He wasn’t sure.  But ignoring his fate might not be the right answer, either.


 

His father was alive.

Bae had avoided thinking about it until he was alone, having crawled up the same tree that Beans fell out of not long ago.  Maybe that was stupid, but he just needed some privacy.  The house was too small for that, and Tiger Lily asked too many questions.  She was starting to figure things out, a fact that left Bae even more uneasy now that he knew that his father was alive.  Or that whatever was left of his father was alive, anyway.  There hadn’t been much left after only a few months of being the Dark One, so what kind of monster would Rumplestiltskin be after centuries?  Bae didn’t want to know.

“He saved my life,” Flynnigan had said.  “Along with thousands of others, when he ended the Ogre War.  I never even saw him, then, so I tried to find out about him instead.”

He made deals, too.  Deals that he apparently kept; according to Flynnigan, Rumplestiltskin never broke a deal.  Except the one with me.  Bae swallowed hard.  There were stories about his father, and not all of them were bad.  There didn’t seem to be a lot of bloodbaths, and Flynnigan hadn’t heard of anyone being turned into a snail.  That was different.

Bae didn’t know what to think, but he knew that he needed to find out more.

Chapter Text

“You want to come with me?” Tink asked Mulan after they’d been in the Dark Castle for a few days.  Tink didn’t particularly dislike the place, even if watching Rumplestiltskin and Belle moon over one another was getting old, but she could tell that Mulan felt like a fish out of water.  “I think you’d like my friends.  They’re a bit rough around the edges, but—”

“No, I think I need to stay here.”  Mulan looked distant again, and Tink couldn’t escape the feeling that there was something wrong.

“Are you okay?”

“Of course I am.”  Mulan’s smile looked a little empty, though. 

Tink studied her closely.  “You sure?”

“I said I’m fine.”  Without warning, Mulan turned to stalk out of the great hall.  Tink made to follow her, only to stop cold when the doors suddenly opened, revealing a gaudily-dressed young woman.

She smelled like magic, dark magic, but Tink supposed that shouldn’t be a surprise here in the Dark Castle.  Really, she was surprised that there wasn’t more of the horrible stuff in this place, but this woman more than made up for it.  There was something off about her, too, something that made Tink’s fairy instincts want to run away.  It wasn’t dark fairy dust—Fiona had shown her some of that—but there was something abnormal about this deceptively beautiful young woman.  On the surface, she had long blonde hair and brilliant blue eyes; Tink had known more than a few men who would swoon at the sight of her.  Underneath that, however, seemed to be something much nastier.

“Who are you?” she asked before she could stop herself.

“I am Madam Faustina.”  A glare.  “And you are not the Dark One.”

Tink snorted.  “I’m most definitely not, thank you very much.”

“Then where is he?” Faustina snapped, looking at her imperiously.  Tink barely managed to resist the urge to roll her eyes.

“I’m not his keeper.  I can introduce you to the Black Fairy if you want, though.  I know where she is.”  She smiled sweetly when Faustina scowled.

People were as afraid of Fiona as they were of Rumplestiltskin, but this ‘Madam’ Faustina seemed to be more annoyed and impatient than frightened.  Too bad.  I wouldn’t have minded siccing Fiona on her, and Fiona would probably have enjoyed it.  Immediately, Tink felt guilty for the thought; a good fairy and a nice person didn’t fantasize about using the Black Fairy to frighten people.  Yet Faustina was hardly some innocent young woman.  She stank of dark magic and there was something about her that made Tink’s skin crawl.

“Then stand aside and I will find him myself.”  Faustina’s answer was almost a snarl, but Tink got to see her confidence waver when a new voice cut in:

“There’s no need for that, dearie.  I’m right here.”

Rumplestiltskin stood in the doorway to Tink’s right, his expression frightfully eager.  He does love his deals, Tink thought with a silent sigh.  She supposed there was nothing that would change that, not while he was the Dark One.  But if his mother has her way…well, everything will change.  Tink couldn’t blame Fiona for wanting to save her son; in fact, it was something she could definitely get behind.  Ridding the world of the Dark One was a noble goal, particularly if you could actually save the person who was the current Dark One in the process.  Thinking of him as the victim of a curse made Tink fear him a lot less, too, so she just shrugged Rumplestiltskin’s way.

“You’ve got a visitor.”

“Yes, thank you, I can see that.”  He scowled at her before shooing her out of the room, but Tink thought there was little bite in that scowl. 

Yeah, Belle was right.  There was someone very human beneath the mask of the monster, and his bark was a lot worse than his bite.


 

“I thought you were going to Avonlea to act against the Dark One, not to mildly annoy him.”  Killian snarled the words before he could think the better of it, and then added a belated “Your Majesty,” to soothe Zelena’s ego.

Not that it worked; she sniffed, clearly offended.  “My plans are my own, Captain.  I don’t need you second guessing me.”

He glared.  “I allied with you for revenge on Rumplestiltskin.  Not to play little war games against Snow White and her friends.”

“If you think you can do better without my help, by all means, go ahead and leave.”  Zelena laughed.  “But I assure you that your fantasies of waltzing into the Dark Castle and stealing the dagger are just that: fantasies.  You’ll die if you try.”

“Better than dying of boredom while waiting for you to act.”

“Tsk, tsk, Captain, do you really think I’m doing nothing?”

“From where I’m standing, it doesn’t seem like much.”  Killian had seen Zelena curse men for saying less to her, but he’d also noticed that she enjoyed it when people stood up to her.  Unless they knuckle under, like Gaston did.  Then she never respects them again.  He would not be such a fool.

“Then you’re not paying attention.  It’s a good thing that I’m the one with a plan, unlike you.”  She smiled mysteriously, but Killian had had it with mystery.  He’d had it with waiting.  He wanted his revenge, not to sit around and play lapdog for a notoriously envious queen.

“I had a plan.  I allied with you because our interests were in concert, not to be your lackey.”

“Oh, don’t let me stop you if you want to run off and play the avenging lover.”  Zelena waved a hand.  “I won’t get in your way.  In fact, I’ll even give you a little bit of help: ask dear Gaston about his former fiancé—and about how Rumplestiltskin has stolen her away.”

That got Killian’s attention.  “He what?”

“You heard me.  Do have fun.  Come back when it fails, if you want.  I never mind having another pretty face around.”

“Love, you can’t handle a face as pretty as mine.”

Her delighted laughter echoed in his ears as Killian left the queen’s presence.  He did have the feeling that there were worlds of information Zelena wasn’t sharing—she was certainly the type to send him off on a suicide mission just for her amusement, or to keep Rumplestiltskin distracted while she worked on her own plans—but that wasn’t the point.  Rumplestiltskin had stolen Gaston’s fiancé?  The irony was staggering.  He never would have thought that the coward-turned-Dark One would have the gumption to steal a woman, not in a million years.

Aye, and I bet she’ll be properly grateful when I rescue her, too.  Killian smiled to himself, heading towards the measly rooms Gaston had been given now that he was out of favor.  This could be an interesting adventure.


 

He’d heard of this little witch.  Rumplestiltskin folded his hands, watching “Madam Faustina” closely.  He knew that wasn’t her name, but for all of his efforts, he’d never been able to find out this Madam Faustina’s name.  He knew that the first one had been named Dacey Clearwater, and she’d been the fifth daughter of some merchant around his own birth, but that woman had been replaced by this one at some point since then.  She seemed fairly confident, despite his antics, and that was interesting.  There could be a good deal here, and it had been weeks since he’d had one of those.  Every deal he’d made in Avonlea had been a piddling little thing, barely worth his time.  But staying made Belle happy, so it was worth it.

Oh, please.  Do you realize how stupidly lovestruck you sound?  Zoso’s voice was a whine, and Rumplestiltskin slapped him aside easily.

Shut up.

“Well, dearie, now you’ve met the famous Dark One,” he trilled, wiggling his hands eagerly.  “Do you like what you see?”

“It is more a matter of if you like what I can do for you.”  She straightened, looking him right in the eye.  “I understand that you have an inconvenient young maid here at your castle.”

“Do I?” Rumplestiltskin cocked his head curiously, not allowing any of his sudden alarm to touch his face.  How many people knew about Belle?  What did they know about her?  How had this so-called Faustina shown up within a week of Belle’s return to the Dark Castle?

Zelena.  It has to be her.  He’d deal with the witch later, and she wouldn’t enjoy it.

“I hear she is young.  If she is under twenty-five, I can relieve you of the problem.”  An eloquent shrug.  “I imagine you are quite tired of her by now.”

Rumplestiltskin let his eyes narrow.  “And what exactly would you do to ‘relieve’ me of that ‘problem’, hmmm?”

“I shall take her off your hands.  I have uses for someone young and beautiful.”

“Do you now?” This was sounding more ominous by the moment; Rumplestiltskin considered incinerating the obnoxious little witch, but worry was starting to gnaw at his gut.  What kind of use could someone like Faustina have for Belle? He knew little of what she’d done to keep herself young and beautiful over the years, but no one managed to do that for two centuries without the use of dark magic.

Dark it must be indeed if it lets her continue to look like this, Nimue whispered in his mind.  Usually, we wear our curses in our complexion.  Not a curse, then.  This was something else.

“I do.”  Faustina folded her hands, looking supremely confident.  “I can acquire a magic bean for you in exchange for your maid, if that is something that you desire.”

A bean.  Rumplestiltskin’s heart dropped.  He had been looking, searching, scouring the world for—

“There are none left,” he spat, trying desperately to mask his fury.  Failing.

“I know of someone who has one.  Say the word, and I will get it.  Provided you will give me your young and beautiful maid in exchange, of course.”

Oh, he was going to kill Zelena.  Slowly and painfully.  After he found out where Faustina was going to get the bean from.  Assuming she has one.  The very thought made him short of breath, though.  To get a magic bean, to not need the curse, to find Bae… The thought was so tempting, and the chorus of voices egging him on did not help.  Forget the girl, Nimue whispered, all logic.  You can always find another.  Your boy is another matter, isn’t he?

You know you want to, Zoso added.  Just agree.  It’s so easy.  Then you’ll have everything you wanted, your boy back, your mother, your family intact

Except he wouldn’t have Belle, and that thought left him cold, no matter how fiercely the darkness coiled around his heart.

“Well?” Faustina demanded impatiently when his internal war kept Rumplestiltskin distracted.  “Do we have an agreement?”

Rumplestiltskin forced himself back on balance.  “Now what makes you think I’m interested in a magic bean, hmm, dearie?  Did a certain queen tell you that?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about.”  But Faustina flinched, ever so slightly.

“That’s what I thought,” Rumplestiltskin purred, and then bounded forward, closing the distance between himself and Faustina faster than she could move away.  She twitched slightly, but held her ground.  She was nothing if not brave, this two centuries’ old merchant’s daughter.  Still, he leaned in close, whispering: “So, the next time you see our dear queen, do tell her to stop trying to manipulate me.  And tell her to do her own dirty work.”

Faustina swallowed audibly.  “I will.”

“Good!”  Bouncing back, Rumplestiltskin gave her a wide smile.  “But do come back and see me after you have the bean, dearie.  Then we’ll talk.  There may be another deal in the making here.”

He wasn’t going to discount any opportunity to find a magic bean, after all.  Rumplestiltskin had no intention of betraying Belle like that, but he wasn’t going to ignore the opportunity to get a magic bean, either.  Belle probably wouldn’t let him find some useless young beauty to foist off on Faustina, but he knew magic users like Faustina.  They always wanted something, and this would give Rumplestiltskin time to discover Faustina’s weak points.

He watched her leave, wearing a satisfied smile.  The curse was on track—even if his curse caster was a little distracted by her silly little time travel spell—Belle loved him, and his mother was being typically annoying.  Life was all right.


 

“Can I ask you some advice?”  Regina waited until she and Robin had a moment in private.  She didn’t know who else to turn to.  Snow was too biased where Zelena was concerned—not to mention spending every waking moment with Charming—and Tink had run off to do who knew what.  Her father would be against the idea of her mother coming back, too, but even Regina knew that Henry wasn’t entirely logical where Cora was concerned.  Robin, however, was a good friend, with no preconceived notions about her mother.  And…she trusted him.

Zelena killed Marian.  I can’t forget that.  Still, she knew Robin well enough to know that he’d try to put that aside for her sake.

“Of course you can.”  His smile warmed her to her soul, and Regina lowered herself to sit on the log next to him.  Even now that they’d conquered more than half of George’s kingdom, Robin seemed to crave the wilderness.  He wandered off periodically to find a quiet spot in the woods, and today she’d gone with him.

“My…sister came to see me.  She needs my help with something.”

Robin’s eyebrows shot up.  “Your help?  I dread to think with what.”

“She wants to travel back in time and save my mother from what killed her.  Our mother.”  Regina took a deep breath.  “But she needs my help to do it.”

“Can that be done?” His frown was thoughtful.  “I don’t know too much about magic, but I thought time travel was impossible.”

“Apparently not.”  She sighed.  “Zelena says she can do it.”

“Do you believe her?”

Regina shrugged helplessly, picking at a leaf.  “I think so. Otherwise, why would she come to me?  It’s not like we like each other, but I’m the only other one who might want Mother back.”

“I guess then the question becomes what she wants you to do.  And if you can trust her at all.”  Robin didn’t have to list all the reasons why none of them trusted Zelena; they hung heavily in the air between them.

“I know she’s done terrible things.  She’s tried to kill me almost as many times as she’s tried to kill Snow, and she has killed countless others.  Innocents.”  Regina saw the pain flicker through his eyes, despite the way Robin tried to bury it.  “I can’t condone that, but I can’t ignore this opportunity, either.  I never really knew my mother…”

“And you want to.”

“Yeah.  Is that so wrong?”

Robin’s smile was gentle.  “Of course it isn’t.  If I had the chance to bring my mother back, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

“Zelena wants my magic for it,” Regina admitted after a moment.  The very thought left her uneasy, even though Zelena’s explanation had seemed to make perfect sense.

“You have magic?”  Robin blinked in surprise, staring at Regina like he’d never seen her before.

“I guess.  I’ve never learned to use it.  It never seemed important.”  Academically, Regina knew that she’d inherited magic from her mother, but she’d never needed it.  Even on the run with Snow and the others, she’d found ways to get things done without the magic that had corrupted her sister’s soul.  But that same magic might save my—our—mother.  Didn’t she want that?

Robin’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.  “Wait a minute here.  What exactly does Zelena want from you?”

“She wants me to put my magic into some gem so that she can use it for the spell.  She says it’ll take too long to teach me how to help with the spell myself.”  Regina thought that sounded logical; her father had made sure she’d never learned much about magic, but she knew enough to know that it was hard.

“And what happens to you?”

“I won’t have magic anymore, but it’s not like I use it, anyway.”  Regina shrugged.  “I can’t miss what I don’t know, right?”

Robin nodded thoughtfully.  “But can you trust Zelena not to turn it against you once she has your magic?”

“This is going to sound kind of ridiculous, given the kind of person that she is…but I think she’s telling the truth.”  Regina wished she knew, but she hadn’t met Zelena until they’d already become enemies.  “I think she really does want to save our mother.”

“And you want that as well.”  He gave her a reassuring smile.  “Understandably.”

“Yes.”  Regina was almost afraid to whisper the word.  “I don’t think Daddy would approve, though.”

“Why not?”

“It was…an arranged marriage.  Daddy tried more than she did, I think.  He told me once that Mother had a lover before him that she never really got over.”  Regina had always felt sorry for her father on that front.  Who wanted to marry someone when they loved a different person?  But she couldn’t imagine her grandfather having accepted anything less; once King Xavier had decided on the marriage, that was that.  And both her parents had been stuck.

“Ah.  The old curse of royalty.”

“Yeah.”  Regina surprised herself by laughing.  “I guess it’s a good thing that I ran away from that, huh?”

Robin’s eyes met hers with an intensity that took her breath away.  “Yes.  Yes, I do believe it is.”

Several long moments passed as they stared at one another, the feelings they’d been dancing around almost out in the open.  Months had passed, and Robin had become one of the best friends Regina had ever had, but she’d never spoken of her growing attraction to him.  Even when she played with Roland, she was careful to do so as Robin’s friend.  She hadn’t wanted to push him, not while he was still grieving for Marian, but now…

Figure this out first, Regina.  Then the rest will follow.  She sucked in a deep breath.  “Do you think I should do it?  Give her my magic?” 

“I think you should do what you feel is right.”


 

“I think you owe me another story, Rumple.”

The words made him jump.  He and Belle were sitting by the fire in the great hall, comfortably side by side.  She’d been reading to him—he loved that, even if just to hear the sound of her voice and the way she was so excited by a new book—but Belle had closed the book firmly at the end of the chapter.  Racking his mind, Rumplestiltskin tried to think of what Belle wanted him to share; he’d told her about Baelfire, and that was the only story he’d promised, wasn’t it?  He’d even told her a little bit about Cora, although he had no intention of sharing the details of that disgusting tale unless forced to.  Could she have overheard his conversation with Madam Faustina?  That thought made his heart beat fast in terror, but no, Belle wouldn’t have cuddled up next to him if she thought he might trade her away.

“A…a story?”  He swallowed noisily.

Belle turned to meet his eyes.  “Zelena mentioned a curse that you need her for.”

“Oh.”  That was better than Belle thinking he’d ever trade her away, but only by a little.  What would Belle think about the curse?  A strange knot of guilt bubbled up within him; Rumplestiltskin had never focused on the consequences of the curse, of the families he would tear apart to find his son.  It had never mattered to him.

So why did it matter now?

“Rumple?”  Now it was her turn to swallow uncertainly.  “It’s something terrible, isn’t it?”

She’ll leave you if you tell her, Zoso warned him.  You know she’ll hate you for it.  She’s too good to want something like this.  The feeling of guilt quickly turned to a feeling of terror; Rumplestiltskin couldn’t lose her, not now when he’d just gotten her back!  Lie, Spinner.  Use your clever little tongue to get out of this one.

I was meant to be more than this.  The inner voice almost sounded like Belle, but Rumplestiltskin knew that it was his own, long-dormant conscience.

“Yes,” he said after a long moment.  “Yes, it is.”

Belle seemed to steel herself.  “Tell me about it?”

“It, uh…it’s the only way to get to my son.”  The words came out in a rush, and much to Rumplestiltskin’s surprise, Belle squeezed his arm.  But he still felt like breaking.  “He’s in the Land Without Magic, and there’s no other way to get there.”

It was all wrong.  Even as the Dark One, he knew that facilitating the casting of the curse was wrong, but what else could he do?  He would not give up.  He could not leave his son alone in the Land Without Magic.  Not after everything.  He had sworn to get back to him, and Rumplestiltskin would keep that promise, no matter what it took.

Belle let out a breath, her eyes steely.  “You had best tell me everything.”

Against his better judgment, Rumplestiltskin did.  For the second time, he told Belle everything, even the fact that his mother did not want the curse cast—but had offered to cast it herself if everything did not work out according to plan.  Belle was not happy, and demanded many promises that he ensure the curse do as little damage as possible, that he see that families were not separated, and that no one was harmed unavoidably…and then she still wasn’t satisfied.  She had walked out.  To think, she said.

Part of him was certain that he would never see her again.


 

Port Mystic’s annual fair turned out to be a good time to learn more about his father.  Flynnigan wasn’t the only one there who knew things about the Dark One, and Bae was able to talk to several other people.  The general consensus was not what he had been expecting, even after talking to Flynnigan: Rumplestiltskin made deals, and he never broke them.  There were no stories about him hunting down people and hurting them, no tales of great and terrible deeds.  People even said that he had helped the rebels fighting against Queen Zelena in the kingdom to the north—for a price, of course, but Bae had learned the hard way that almost nothing in life was free.  He hadn’t even heard of anyone being turned into a snail for offending his father, and that was odd.  Surely people would talk about that if it was happening?

Tiger Lily was waiting when he returned home—was the healers’ house home?  Bae wasn’t sure.  Home had always been a peasant hovel plainer nice than this.  Even in Neverland, that had been the place he dreamed of, sometimes with the wealth and trappings his papa had added to it after becoming the Dark One, sometimes without.  This place was nice, and he liked Tiger Lily and Beans both, but they weren’t really family.

I guess that’s how you know you’ve really got a home: When you leave it, there’s that feeling that you can’t shake. You just miss it.

“Hey, you.”  Tiger Lily gave him a smile, but there was something behind it that made Bae’s hair stand on edge.

“Hi.”

“Everything all right?”

There it was.  The leading question that said she expected him to spill his soul out to her.  Yep, no thanks on that front.  “Yeah.  Everything’s good.  I was just at the fair.”

“I heard.”  There was a finality in her voice that reminded Bae painfully of the way his papa used to be.  Papa had always sounded like that when he knew Bae was keeping something from him.

You’re not my parent, he wanted to snap at her, but didn’t.  Tiger Lily was his friend, and she wasn’t trying to be his mother.  Even if she had been, she would have done a better job than his real mother had, anyway.  And he was willing to bet that Tiger Lily wouldn’t have run off with a pirate, either.  So, Bae took a deep breath and just got it over with.  “You gonna say what else you heard, or are you gonna make me guess?”

“Clank told me you were asking people about the Dark One.”  Tiger Lily looked like she was trying a little too hard not to frown.

“So?” Bae made himself shrug as casually as he could.  “I was just curious.”

“And there’s nothing wrong with curiosity.  I just…I just want to make sure that you’re not looking to make some sort of deal to get to the Land Without Magic.”  Her crooked smile was worried.  “Or something else.”

“Oh.”  A surprised laugh wormed out of Bae, even as cold misery welled up in the pit of his stomach.  “Don’t worry.  I don’t want to make a deal with the Dark One.  Not for anything.”  Last time didn’t work out so well.

Tiger Lily studied him closely.  “You don’t want to go back to the Land Without Magic?”

“Nah.  Everyone I liked there is dead by now, and it wasn’t really everything I thought it was gonna be.”  He missed the Darlings, but they’d lived a couple of hundred years ago.  What was he going to do, find their descendants?  That would be creepy.

“Oh, good.”  Now her smile was more open.  “I’m not against you leaving if you want to…I just want you to be safe, all right?”

“Yeah.  I get it.”  And he did, really.  It wasn’t like he had anywhere else to go, anyway.

“Were you really asking about the Dark One out of curiosity?”

“Course I was.  Why else would I ask?”

Tiger Lily didn’t look like she quite believed him, but she stopped asking questions.  Bae almost asked her why she cared, or why she got that extra-cautious look in her eyes when she talked about the Dark One, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.  Bae wasn’t exactly certain how old Tiger Lily was or how a fairy became an ex-fairy, and he really didn’t want to find out that his father had somehow been involved in that.  He didn’t like Pan, though, so he probably never had anything to do with Neverland.

His papa had been right about Pan, hadn’t he?  He went to a place called Neverland. He betrayed me, Bae. He can't be trusted.  That sounded about right.  His papa had talked about Pan’s dark soul, and Bae hadn’t believed him until he’d seen it for himself.  Yet Rumplestiltskin had been the Dark One when he’d said that…and that meant at least a little of his soul had survived.  Could it still?

Bae just didn’t know, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to find out.

Chapter Text

He didn’t know where Belle was, but his magic told him that she had not left the castle’s grounds.  That left Rumplestiltskin a little hopeful, but he had long since learned not to cling to hope.  She’s probably packing.  Belle’s too smart to only want to leave with the clothes on her back.  He felt sick, but in his heart, he knew that lying to Belle would only have made things worse.  Even though he would have done that not so long ago, would have avoided the subject for all he was worth, until he had no choice.  What had changed?

You’re growing weak, Spinner.

Rumplestiltskin shoved the voices aside with an effort, turning to his wheel for solace.  Spinning helped him clear his mind, no matter how much Zoso jeered.  And he did have a golden brain to make, much thought he found the entire concept distasteful.  Rumplestiltskin never broke his deals, and at least if he was giving Zelena what she needed to complete her pointless little spell, he would know when she started casting it.  Zelena had made the mistake of letting him read the spellwork in question, and he knew that the time travel spell might well work.  Rumplestiltskin had no intention of allowing that to happen, of course.  So, he placed a tracker within the gold as he spun it, enhancing loop after loop with a touch of his magic that Zelena would never notice.  That extra touch might well make the brain more effective for her spell, but that was a chance he would have to take.

Zelena had demanded a brain in exchange for the freedom of Avonlea, and a brain she would have.  It pooled at his feet quickly, loops forming and melting together when Rumplestiltskin flicked a bit of magic its way.  It was a good distraction, a good way to think of anything but Belle and the fact that his plans for the curse might well have ruined the future they’d spoken of having together.  Do I go to her and beg her to understand? The spinner he had been would have done so, would have dropped to his knees to beg her to stay.  But then again, the spinner would never have contemplated something like the Dark Curse in the first place.

What would the Savior do?  Rumplestiltskin knew that answer.  The Savior he had never been would have broken the curse, not seen to its casting.  But would a Savior nobly sacrifice their own child?  A Savior would not have let go in the first place.  That thought left him cold.  He was no Savior.  Even wondering what he might have done in that life that had never existed was pointless.

Yet he was not the same, either.  Something had changed in him, and Rumplestiltskin wasn’t sure how he felt about that.


 

“Well?” Zelena turned eagerly to face Madam Faustina when the witch was shown into her presence; she’d been waiting for the ‘young’ woman for what felt like ages.

“Nothing yet.”  Faustina sighed, her expression guarded.  “But I believe he’s interested.  He told me to come back to him after I have the bean.”

“Well, then why don’t you have it already?” Zelena didn’t care that it wasn’t regal to snap; she wanted that girl out of the way and out of Rumplestiltskin’s castle.  Belle was monopolizing his attention even worse than his mother, and Zelena didn’t appreciate competition.

She was certain that Rumplestiltskin would remember her own charms as soon as the insipid little beauty was out of range.  He was a man, and despite what he’d said, clearly distracted by a pretty face.  Zelena just needed her out of the way so that Rumplestiltskin would remember that power was far more important than beauty.  And this little witch had screwed that up, hadn’t she?  Faustina had one job, and all she’d done was tempt Rumplestiltskin, which was clearly not enough.  Do I have to do everything for myself?  Zelena wanted to howl those words, but she stopped herself.  Howling was not regal.

“I lost track of the boy with the beans.  But I have a lead.  I’ll find him soon.”

“You’d best make sure of that!”  Zelena glared, and was glad to see Faustina twitch.  Faustina was a useful ally, but Zelena didn’t really need allies.  So Faustina had better watch herself and make sure she stayed useful.  Besides, Zelena had no idea why Faustina had offered to help her with this; Faustina had approached her, not the other way around.

“I will.”  Faustina glared back, however.  “Provided you don’t forget what you promised me.”

Zelena drew herself up importantly.  “Of course I won’t.  A queen does not break her word.”

“Good.”  Faustina looked like she was going to say something else before stopping herself.  “I’ll take my leave, then.”

“Do so.  I have important visitors waiting for me.”  Zelena waved a hand imperiously, and was glad to see Faustina leave without arguing.  She didn’t really have anyone waiting, but it wouldn’t do to let on.

Zelena supposed that she could go help George against the rebels who’d almost overtaken his kingdom, but she really didn’t want to bother.  Snow and her companions couldn’t possibly hurt Zelena or her kingdom, and since George had been so incompetent about everything, Zelena didn’t see any reason to help him out of the trouble he was in.  Both sides would wear each other out, leaving Zelena as the premier power in the Enchanted Forest.  Then Rumplestiltskin would have to notice her, and he would end up helping her with her plans.  She’d even cast his curse.  After she saved her mother, of course.  She didn’t know much about the Dark Curse, but Zelena knew that casting it would be easy enough for someone of her power.


 

 What Beans had said about the Dark Curse coming wouldn’t stop running through Tiger Lily’s mind.  She knew what that meant.  There was only one person who had ever even contemplated doing such a terrible thing, and Tiger Lily had let her loose on the world.  She had believed Fiona when Fiona claimed she wanted to get to her son, had trusted her old friend to try to put her son—the Dark One!—on the path of redemption. 

Instead, she learned that Fiona was trying to cast that same damned curse again.  And why?  Probably to prove she can.  Tiger Lily felt like screaming.  Had Blue said or done something to set Fiona off?  Or had she been wrong, and it was far too late for Fiona?  She’d been an utter fool.

Now it was time to set things right.

Eying the castle in the distance—made closer by a fairy friend who had sworn not to tell Blue—Tiger Lily squared her shoulders and headed up the hill.


 

“Rumple told me about the curse.”  He hadn’t said that Fiona was involved, but Belle would have been shocked if she wasn’t.  Fiona was her son’s biggest supporter in nearly everything—including their romance, strangely enough—and the Black Fairy knew exactly what Rumplestiltskin was up to.

“You’re still here.”  Fiona pursed her lips.  “Well, I never did think you weren’t plucky.  Are you here to yell at me?”

Belle sighed.  “No.  I’m here to understand.”

“Because my dear boy left you short of explanations?” Fiona rolled her eyes.  “Somehow I doubt that.”

“No, he told me that it was the only way to get to his son, but I can’t believe that.  There are hundreds of ways to travel between realms—”

“Magical realms, dear.  Only magical realms.”  Fiona actually looked sad.  “Believe me, I’ve investigated every one of them, both with and without him.  The Hatter can’t do the job, the Apprentice’s magic won’t work for the Dark One, all the magic beans are gone—you get the idea.  The ways are shut.  The curse is the only one.”  Her scowl said that she didn’t like that much, which left Belle encouraged enough to sit down by Fiona’s side.

“But it’s terrible.” Just thinking about people with their memories wiped, of families separated and a world torn asunder made Belle shudder.

“Yes.  It was designed to be, although not quite with the price that Blue added to it.”

Belle started.  “Blue?  How can the Blue Fairy be involved in something so awful?”

“Because she didn’t like my original work and saw fit to adjust it.  I’m still trying to rebuild the first curse I wrote, because I am not about to put up with the ridiculous price that Blue placed upon it.”  Fiona snorted.  “Using the heart of the one you love most.  It’s macabre, and if I can truly say that, you have a problem.”

What?”

“Oh, don’t worry.”  Fiona’s handwave was casual.  “That’s why he’s grooming Zelena.  Rumplestiltskin could never force himself to harm someone he loves, even at his worst.  And he loves you.”

Belle felt herself blushing, but she forced her mind back to the topic at hand.  “Tell me what’s happening?”

“Rumplestiltskin wants to push Zelena into enough of a corner so that she’ll cast the curse, but I plan on rewriting my original so that I can do it without killing anyone.”  Fiona met her eyes steadily, and Belle was startled by the fire burning in the Black Fairy’s gaze.  “I do not plan on putting my son—or you, I suppose—under that narcissistic witch’s power.  Or myself, but that goes without saying.”

“What about all the other people that will suffer?”  That was why she had come, after all.  Belle would not forget that.

“Oh.”  Fiona shook her head wryly.  “I guess you would care about that, wouldn’t you?”

Belle bristled.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Simply that you’re the hero type that my boy was meant to be.  Sometimes I forget that, particularly around here.”  Another airy wave at their surroundings.  “You don’t like this at all, do you?”

“Of course not!”

Fiona sighed.   “Well, the only alternative is to free him from the darkness once and for all.  Then the Apprentice’s magic could work for him.  Or his own might suffice, if what I suspect happens.”

Belle felt her eyes narrow.  She loved the idea of freeing Rumplestiltskin from that horrible darkness that held him in its grips, but she was beginning to wonder if Fiona was as passionate about that as she’d pretended.  “You’ve mentioned that before, but we’re no closer to finding the answer than we were before.”

“I know.  It’s damnably tricky, that curse of his.  But there is one thing—”  Knock, knock.  “Damnit!  What is it?”

The door opened, revealing Tinker Bell looking a little confused.  “Um, there’s an angry ex-fairy here to see you.”

“Tell her that this isn’t a boarding house, and that the Dark One’s head will explode if I add another girl to the castle.”  Fiona snorted out a laugh just as Belle repeated:

Another ex-fairy?”

“Uh, she says you’re going to see her if you want to or not.”  Tink shrugged apologetically.  “She said her name is Tiger Lily, and you owe her answers.”

“Tiger Lily?” Fiona shot to her feet.  “Here?”

“Downstairs.”

Fiona left the room so fast that Belle had to hurry to keep up.


 

Zelena was really starting to get on his nerves.  First, she’d tried to take Avonlea away from Belle, and now Zelena was using some silly little witch to try to get Rumplestiltskin to give Belle up.  Unfortunately, his mother had been right about Zelena’s jealousy; she’d noticed that Belle was important to Rumplestiltskin and didn’t like that one bit.  That’s just too bad for her, he thought viciously, sweeping two of Zelena’s guards aside with the wave of one arm.  Both hit the wall, grunting unhappily, and neither tried to stop him again.  Only Zelena would even think about having her royal guard try to halt the Dark One when he entered her castle, but Zelena was a bit of an egotistic fool, sometimes.

What did stop him, however, was the scowling muscle mass that Rumplestiltskin nearly ran into when he headed up the stairs towards Zelena’s private quarters.  Gaston flinched, and then tried to cover his fear by bristling in what he probably thought was an impressive manner.

“What are you doing here?”

“Me?” Rumplestiltskin let out a giggle, eyeing Gaston as if to figure out what best to turn him into.  “I have business with the queen that you’ve…chosen.”

Gaston puffed up importantly.  “I doubt she’d have any business with you after what you did in Avonlea.”

“Well, then the joke’s on you, dearie, because Zelena has plenty of business with me.” Not that Rumplestiltskin really wanted to be here, but he never broke a deal.  “Now do step aside before I turn you into something more amicable than you currently are.”  He cocked his head.  “What was it that was proposed?  A lady’s lapdog?”

“You wouldn’t dare!”  But Gaston still blanched.

“Don’t tempt me, dearie.  The idea has plenty of merit.  And Belle might like a dog.”  He wiggled his fingers meaningfully.  “More than she likes you, anyway.”

“You—you—”

“Can go right up.”  An unexpected voice intervened, and Rumplestiltskin turned in surprise to see his least favorite pirate approaching from a side corridor.  Hook didn’t look delighted to see him, either, but it was Gaston’s arm that his aforementioned appendage wrapped around.  “Sir Gaston here was just leaving.”

“I was—”

“Take the escape while you can.  Even if the company you keep is a little more than questionable.”

That made Hook glare, of course.  “Dark One.”

“Captain.”  Rumplestiltskin’s grin was all teeth.  “I see you new ‘hand’ is still serving you well.”

“Come a little closer and I’ll show you how well it works,” Hook growled.

“Tut, tut, where would the manners be in that? I’m sure your dear queen wouldn’t like you getting stabby with her guests.”  He wiggled.  “Not that it would do you any good.”

“What do you mean, it wouldn’t do any good?” Gaston demanded.  “You can bleed like anyone else!”

“Actually, no.  I can’t.”  Another grin, and he headed up the stairs, leaving the pirate to explain things to the idiot.  Hook clearly still held a grudge, but what did that mean to Rumplestiltskin?

It meant nothing, so he pranced his way into Zelena’s private rooms, somewhat disappointed to not find her with anyone else he could send scampering off in fear.  Even as that thought occurred to him, however, Rumplestiltskin distantly realized how wrong it was.  There was something toxic about this castle, wreathed in darkness as it was, that brought out the worst in him.  This is what you are, Spinner, Zoso whispered, but Rumplestiltskin wasn’t sure.  Belle made him want to be something better, made him want to be the man he’d been meant to be.   I was meant to be the Savior. 

But that was insane.  He was who he was, and there was no changing that.

“Rumple.”  Zelena swung to him with smile so glowing that his skin crawled.  “You’ve come to visit.”  A pout.  “You might have warned me.”

“And where would the fun be in that?” He giggled, but she wasn’t put off by it.  There’d been a time he liked that about her.  “But I’m afraid this isn’t a social call.”

“No?”

“No.  A deal’s a deal, and I always deliver.”  Rumplestiltskin wiggled his fingers, and the golden brain appeared on a nearby table in a swirl of purple smoke.  “Your brain, as promised.”

He didn’t point out that the brain he’d spun was probably more intelligent than her, because that would have honestly done Zelena a disservice.  She was plenty smart; she just needed to learn impulse control.  And how to mask her emotions.  She looks entirely too satisfied right now, silly witch.  A more cautious woman would conceal her glee and not let him know how important the time travel spell was to her.  But Zelena was not cautious.  And being denied that spell will push her closer and closer to the curse, which suits my purposes beautifully.  Rumplestiltskin wondered if he could somehow arrange for Snow White to ruin Zelena’s attempt to save Cora.  That would certainly kill two birds with one stone.

“Thank you, Rumple.”  She gave him another smile; he tried not to shudder.  “It’s always a pleasure doing business with you.”  Zelena started forward, her eyes intent on his, but Rumplestiltskin stopped her with a sentence.

“Ah, no, it’s not.  Because you’re certainly not going to enjoy this next bit.”

“Excuse me?”

“You sent a little witch my way, dearie.”  His lips peeled back in a snarl that was nothing like even his nastiest smile.  “You sent a little witch to take Belle.

Zelena shrugged, all innocence.  “I thought you might want a convenient way to get rid of the maid.  You’re usually much more easily bored, and she comes with so much baggage.  Really, Rumple, I was trying to do you a favor.”

“Well, don’t.”  His eyes narrowed.  “The next time you try something like that—whether it’s through another or not—I will end you.”

“Oooh, we’re taking this personally, aren’t we?” Zelena cooed.  “If you want me to apologize, I will.  The girl means nothing to me, after all.”

“She’d better.”  He knew that he was showing his hand with his ardent defense of Belle, but Zelena had already figured out what Belle meant to him.  All he could do was make sure Zelena understood the consequences of going after Belle.   In vivid detail, if need be.

Zelena waved a careless hand.  “Relax.  I’ll stay well away from her.  You’ll bore of her in time, anyway, so what does she matter?”

Everything.  She matters everything to me.  But he wasn’t going to say that.  Instead, Rumplestiltskin turned his mind to the other dangerous matter at hand.  “That brain won’t be enough for your little spell, Your Majesty, so what now?”

“Oh, I’m lining up what I need.”  A shrug.  “It’s going rather nicely, actually.  Are you sure you don’t want to help me with it?  You know you’d profit from it.”

Rumplestiltskin scowled.  “Some things should not be changed.”  Our bad decisions least of all.  Who are we if we cannot even learn from our own mistakes?  He would never forgive himself for letting Baelfire go, but that didn’t mean he deserved a chance to redo everything.  That meant he needed to fix what he’d broken.

“But that’s the beauty of this!  I’m not changing anything.  I’ve taken your advice, and I’m not going to try to change the past.  I’ll just bring my mother back here.”  Zelena’s eyes were shining with delight at her own cleverness, and even Rumplestiltskin didn’t have the heart to tell her what kind of woman her mother was.

It won’t matter.  She won’t meet her, anyway.  I’ll prevent that, so even Zelena won’t have to live with finding out what Cora’s ‘love’ is like.  Rumplestiltskin knew that Zelena wouldn’t believe him even if he told her what Cora had been like, anyway, so the sliver of pity he felt towards her was meaningless.  Cora would stay dead.  He’d see to that.


 

Fiona all but rushed into the great hall, hating and loving the way her heart hammered excitedly.  Logic told her that Tink had to be wrong, and that Tiger Lily couldn’t actually be at the Dark Castle, but she wanted to believe so badly.  She’d missed Tiger Lily more than she’d expected, particularly after they’d parted on good terms.  Once, she’d been closer to Tiger Lily than anyone—even closer than she’d been to Malcolm, much though she loved him—and Fiona hadn’t realized how much she wanted that friendship back until it was too late and Tiger Lily stayed in Neverland.

But there she was, standing in the middle of the great hall with the world’s biggest scowl on her face.  Fiona’s grin grew so big that it hurt, and she didn’t care that both Tink and Belle were on her heels.

“Tiger Lily! You escaped Neverland!”

“Not with any help from your maniac husband, before you ask. He wanted to kill uh—me.” Tiger Lily seemed to change what she said at the last minute, but Fiona didn’t care.

She waved a hand dismissively.  “Ex-husband, please.  I think turning yourself into a destructive, overpowered manchild certainly constitutes a divorce.”

“I don’t care.  That’s not why I’m here.”  Tiger Lily glanced at the two women behind Fiona suspiciously before turning a ferocious glare on Fiona.  “I’m here about the curse.”

“What curse?”  Fiona blinked.  There were so many curses going around that it was hard to remember them all, from Rumplestiltskin’s to the Dark Curse to the little memory one Rumplestiltskin had given Snow White to—

Your curse,” Tiger Lily spat.  “The Dark Curse.”

“What about it?”  Fiona didn’t see what the issue was; she’d hardly cast the damned thing, and even her current plans to do so weren’t nearly so horrible as her original ones.  I think motherhood has finally mellowed me.  How strange.

“I know it’s coming!”

“Really?  How?”  Fiona frowned.  “Have you been talking to Zelena?”

“Who?”

“The green goblin—I mean witch—that Rumplestiltskin—oh, nevermind.  Clearly you haven’t.”  Fiona sighed, stepping towards her old friend.  “Why don’t we go sit down and talk about this?  There seems to be quite a bit of information you’re missing.”

“I’m not interested in sitting down.  I’m interested in why you broke the promise you made me!”

Realizing how upset Tiger Lily really was made Fiona pause.  “I haven’t broken any promise, Tiger Lily.  Truly.  If you’ll only let me explain—”

“Are you planning on casting it?” Tiger Lily cut her off fiercely. 

“Not exactly, no.  Perhaps as a last resort, but I hardly want to.  Particularly with the curse in its present condition.”  She’d just had this conversation with Belle; did she really have to explain herself twice in one day?

“As a last resort?  What is wrong with you?  That curse will separate children from parents, destroy families just like yours was destroyed.”  Tiger Lily’s glare could have melted steel.  “I thought you said you wanted to help your son, not destroy the world.”

“And I do!” Fed up, Fiona finally snapped back.  “What do you think I’ve been doing here?”

“I think you’ve been plotting to cast that curse just to get one over Blue!”

Fiona snorted.  “Why would I care what she thinks of me?  She’s a washed up fool.  And I don’t want the curse cast, but I’ll do it if it keeps my son safe.”

“What are you talking about?  He’s no child, and you were the one he was destined to die defeating.”  Tiger Lily looked incredulous.  “Are you trying to set things up so that the same thing happens all over again?”

“Of course not.  Don’t be stupid.”  Sighing again, Fiona glanced over her shoulder at Belle and Tink.  “Would you two dears please excuse us?  I think we old fairies have quite a bit to talk about.”

“Of course.”  Belle’s smile was understanding, but of course, she understood.  Tink looked more suspicious.

“Sure.  I guess.”  Her eyes narrowed as Belle tugged on her arm.  “If you’re sure.”

“Quite.  We’ll be fine—just old friends having a lovely reunion.”  Fiona smiled as brightly as she could, and then waited for the pair to leave before turning back to Tiger Lily.  “Can we at least sit down?”

“You can.  I’m standing until you give me a reasonable explanation for all of this.”

“You really are still impossible, aren’t you?” Fiona couldn’t stop herself from groaning, and she made a point of sitting down on a nearby couch.  Tiger Lily was the single most stubborn person she’d ever met in her life—and that was saying something, considering who she was related to!  “I am trying to give you the answers you want, if only you’ll give me half a chance to do so.”

Another glare.  “Fine.  Talk.”

“I haven’t forgotten the promise I made you, and believe me, I’m still working on it.  That girl who just walked out is the center of it all.”

“Which one?  The fairy?” Tiger Lily looked dubious.

“No, the insufferably good and heroic one.  The one who used to be my son’s maid and is now the love of his life.”  Fiona wouldn’t tell that to just anyone, but this was Tiger Lily.  She’d been angry with her friend at first because she’d thought Tiger Lily had abandoned her son, but Fiona had come to realize how very much Blue was to blame for everything.  Blue had left Rumplestiltskin with Malcolm, and Blue had decided that Tiger Lily was no longer his fairy godmother.  It was almost like Blue had wanted Rumplestiltskin to fall towards darkness…

“I didn’t ask you to find him a lover.  Dark Ones usually do that fine on their own.”  Tiger Lily’s grimace spoke volumes.  “Or something like that.”

“Yes, you asked me to find a way to break an unbreakable curse that carries around the souls of its previous victims telling the current host not to let it break.”  Fiona snorted.  “I’ve studied that damned darkness for over twenty years.  It’s not going to peel off like snakeskin, no matter how bad my son’s complexion is.”

Her old friend blinked.  “It’s been that long?”

“Yes, quite.  That stupid little island world isn’t great for the passage of time, is it?  The Dark Realm was rather like that.”

For the first time, they exchanged an understanding look.  Tiger Lily’s smile was rueful.  “Not really, no.  Night and day were hard to tell apart, let alone years.”

“Well, I suppose that’s his doing.  Malcolm always was a bit of a drama queen, even when he was mortal.”  She shrugged. 

“You were telling me about how this maid matters.”

“So I was!  You’ve cut to the heart of it, of course.  The curse is unbreakable by any clever or magical means, which leaves True Love’s kiss.”  Fiona felt a triumphant smile tugging at her lips; Tiger Lily had thought she couldn’t do it.  Or that she wouldn’t.  See, Lily?  I keep my promises, or at least the ones I make to you.  “If my guesses are right, that will let him fulfill Merlin’s prophecy and turn the power back to light.  After all, Nimue started by drinking from the same grail that gave Merlin power; she merely corrupted it.”

“I don’t know if a Dark One can feel True Love,” Tiger Lily said dubiously.

“Oh, that’s not the problem!”  Fiona waved her hand.  “Rumplestiltskin’s different from the others, and I’m not merely saying that because I am his mother.  I’m biased, of course, but he’s also stayed alive longer than any other, and he’s not yet lost his soul to the darkness.”  She felt her smile turn melancholy.  “Sometimes, I’m not sure how he hasn’t.”

“Tell me more.”  Tiger Lily sat down next to her, enrapt.

“The trick is getting him to accept the kiss.  I’m fairly sure that we only have one shot.  If Nimue gets in and stops it, he’ll never be free, and all the light magic in the world won’t bring him back.  But I have a trick up my sleeve for that, and the girl is my partner in crime.”

Tiger Lily let out a quiet laugh.  “This is starting to sound overly complicated, Fiona.”

“My dear, if there was a simple answer, I would have accomplished this task years ago.”


 

She didn’t want to be here, but her legs had brought Mulan here all on her own, eavesdropping in a hallway just off of the great hall.  It didn’t take a genius to realize that Zelena didn’t like Rumplestiltskin’s mother; Mulan found Fiona more than a little off-putting herself, but Zelena clearly hated her.  So, Mulan often found herself listening to Fiona’s conversations, at least when Zelena could be bothered to control her.  Fortunately, that didn’t happen as often as Mulan had feared it would.

But it was still often enough, and the idea of being anyone’s puppet burned.  Mulan had thought of various ways to end the servitude that Zelena had forced her into, but none had worked so far.  If only she could tell someone, she was sure that Belle would work things out.  Belle was the smartest person Mulan had ever met, but unless Mulan could give her some kind of clue, that meant nothing.

So, she listened to Fiona talk to this (ex?) fairy named Tiger Lily, listened to them discuss Rumplestiltskin’s curse and how Belle could change everything.  Mulan hoped that Zelena wasn’t listening—sometimes she made her eavesdrop on something and didn’t bother to pay attention—because she would have liked nothing more than to see Zelena disappointed by this.  Zelena, Mulan had long since learned, was one of the worst people imaginable.  She didn’t care about anyone other than herself, and when even the Dark One could scrape up more compassion than you, you had serious problems. 

Fiona finished up as Mulan listened: “The only trick is getting him to accept the kiss and relinquish his curse before they can make him keep it.”

“Can’t you tell him that he should still have power?” Tiger Lily sounded thoughtful.  “If what you’re saying is correct, that’s more of a roadblock than him liking the darkness.”

“I can’t.”  Much to Mulan’s surprise, Fiona sounded heartbroken.  “I can’t promise he’ll have power because I could be wrong.  It’s never been done before.”

“I wish you hadn’t had to use his Savior’s magic to free yourself.  That would have been pretty useful right now.”

“Tell me about it.”

Footsteps sounded from nearby, and Mulan sprinted away from her hiding spot.  Finally!  As interesting as the conversation was, she’d been hoping for an excuse to stop listening.  Anything to keep the information Zelena wants away from her.

She had to find a way to do something, but what could she do?

Chapter Text

Nottingham, Regina decided, was a grade A jerk. 

Not that she was surprised.  Robin had told her as much right in the beginning, but she still hadn’t expected him to be quite so vile.  Snow and Charming’s army was growing every day, and by now they’d taken more than half the country.  Yet Nottingham and his little band of ‘law enforcement’ still roved the countryside, supposedly on King George’s behalf, pillaging villages and demanding taxes.  Robin had led the Merry Men out to stop Nottingham, and Regina had tagged along, but she hadn’t expected to encounter Nottingham after his band of supporters had fled.

She’d split up from Robin and the others, who had left to chase down a rumor about another band of outlaws terrorizing the countryside.  Regina had places of her own to go—assuming she stuck to that decision—and she’d headed northwards after they’d defeated Nottingham.  She’d assumed that he’d slink off into the sunset somewhere, having lost his followers and any ability to change the outcome of the war, but here Nottingham was, drinking in a bar.

That hadn’t been much of a problem until he wandered over to sit across from her without so much as a greeting.  “You’ve finally ditched the hooded outlaw.”  His words were a little slurred, but not as much as Regina expected.  “You’re alone.”

Great, so he’s a functional drunk.  That makes everything so much better. 

Regina snorted.  “I’m alone because I’m a woman who doesn’t need a man to tell me how to live my life, thank you very much.”

“A real man could do a lot for you.” Nottingham’s leer made Regina laugh.

“Let me know when you meet one, will you?”

“So you agree that ‘Robin Hood’ isn’t the man for you.”  He looked like he thought he’d won something.  “I knew you were a smart woman.”

“Too smart to touch you with someone else’s ten foot pole.”  Regina rolled her eyes, and didn’t bother to address the fact that Nottingham thought she had no interest in Robin.  Her love life wasn’t Nottingham’s business, and she and Robin were just friends.  Good friends.

That insult finally penetrated enough to make Nottingham scowl.  “I can give you so much more than that outlaw.”

“Seems to me that you’re going to be an outlaw yourself, soon enough.  Once Princess Snow and Prince Charming take this kingdom, people like you—people who abuse those who can’t defend themselves—are going to be looking for a new place to live.”

“I’m just enforcing the law, sweetheart.  That’s what sheriffs do.”

“Raping girls and stealing family fortunes isn’t part of your job.”  Regina stood, her appetite lost.  “And I’m not your sweetheart.”

“I didn’t say you could leave.”  Nottingham’s hand snaked out and grabbed her left wrist before Regina could walk away, jerking her to a stop.  For a moment, all she could do was stare; for all the time she’d spent in the woods with outlaws, Regina had been born related to royalty, and she’d never had someone manhandle her.

But she also wasn’t some wilting flower, so she reached out with her right hand and grabbed her mostly fill tankard of ale.  She poured the tankard right over Nottingham’s head, grinning as he howled in surprise.  His shock let Regina jerk away, but she paused to look down at him contemptuously.

“You want a bit of advice, Nottingham?  Never try to bully someone smarter than you.”

“You—you—”

“And since that pretty much means everyone, you should give up on the idea entirely.” Regina snot him her nastiest smile.  “Find a new line of work.  Something like shoveling pig shit would probably fit you just fine.”

She walked out as Nottingham continued to stutter, and didn’t look back.  Men like him weren’t worth her time.


 

Now that she knew the truth, what was she going to do?  Fiona had answered her questions—as had Rumple, if Belle wanted to be honest with herself—and now the decision was in her hands.  A hero, Belle thought, might walk away from someone willing to see such a curse happen.  Wouldn’t a hero dedicate themselves to stopping such a curse, no matter what their personal feelings?  The answer to that would be a resounding yes in every book she’d ever read, but Belle had seen a lot more of the world than just her books, now.  She knew enough now to know that dark wasn’t always evil, and that goodness could be found even in the strangest of places.

Perhaps the truly heroic thing to do was to stay.  To mitigate the worst of the curse—Belle had no illusions about finding some foolproof way to stop both Rumplestiltskin and Zelena—and to help where she could.  Rumplestiltskin would temper things for her if he could, she knew…and he deserved to find his son.  She knew how much he loved Baelfire, and Belle wanted to help them finally reunite.  Was the curse a price worth paying for that?  Belle wasn’t sure.  Fiona did say that if we get his curse broken, the Apprentice’s magic might very well be able to take him to the Land Without Magic.

A hero in her books wouldn’t look back, and would do everything possible to free Rumplestiltskin from the darkness and therefore save everyone.  But Belle was no longer so naive as to think that was entirely the right answer.  Yes, it was the good thing to do, but you couldn’t force someone to be saved.  Rumplestiltskin had to want it, too.  Talking to him over the last month or so had finally told Belle why he felt that he needed power, and she suspected that some of that need came from the fact that he’d been born with magic that had been taken away.  Magic was a part of him, and Belle couldn’t force him to give that up. 

Fiona hadn’t told her how they could go about freeing him, anyway, so Belle figured that the point was moot.  Maybe it wouldn’t ever matter, but for now, she would stay.  She loved him, despite the darkness, and Belle would help Rumplestiltskin however she could.

Now it was time to go find him and tell him that.


 

“I’ve noticed you’ve grown a bit impatient with your lot in life, mate.”  Killian found it interesting that Gaston no longer bristled every time he was called that; Gaston seemed to have accepted Killian as somewhat of a kindred spirit.

Saving the fact that I’m ten times smarter than he is and ready to use him, I suppose he can consider us that, he thought behind a friendly smile.  Gaston wasn’t the brightest, but Killian didn’t mind.  He was used to working with less intelligent men.  Oftentimes that was ideal, anyway.

“Zelena broke all of her promises.”  Gaston’s glare wasn’t directed at him.  “I was a fool to believe her.”

“Aye, it goes that way with magic users.  I’ve never met one that cares for us little folks.”

Gaston heaved a sigh.  “You can say that again.”

“Our queen isn’t even the worst of the lot, not by far.”  Killian didn’t consider Zelena an outright terror, anyway, not after spending so long at Pan’s mercy.  “She’s a useful enough ally, sometimes.”

“I’ve yet to see that,” Gaston snorted.

“Aye, well, it’s all in the eyes of the beholder.”  Killian shrugged.  “But she’s not the point of our little tête-à-tête today.  What I’d like to know is if you hunger for revenge against the demon who stole your fiancé.”

“Of course I do.  But if he doesn’t bleed like anyone else, what use are any weapons I have?”  Gaston’s question was more astute than Killian expected, but at least he already had an answer on hand.

“Ah, that’s where a little information comes in handy.”  He grinned.  “There’s a dagger.  One that will let you control the Dark One—or even kill him.”

Gaston perked up immediately.  “Tell me more!”

“All we have to do is find the dagger, mate.”  Killian grinned.  “And then we can do whatever we want.”

“I can think of a few things.”  Gaston actually licked his lips, but Killian’s grin didn’t falter.  He had no intention of telling Gaston what would happen if they killed the Dark One, or at least not yet.  Gaston was a man who lived for hunting and hurting his prey, and Killian was just a wee bit delighted to work with him on this.

And when they got the dagger, well, there was no knowing what would happen.  Killian wanted Rumplestiltskin dead, but the fact that killing him would turn Killian into the Dark One was a little off-putting, to say the least.  For one, he didn’t like what that curse would do to his complexion; he was quite happy with his pretty face as it was.  The thought of having that much power at his fingertips was tempting, though.  Killian supposed he’d navigate those rapids when the time came.  For now, he needed at least one ally, though.  And not one as likely to take the dagger for herself as Zelena, he thought, eyeing Gaston.

“I take it you’re with me, then?”

“Oh, yes.”


 

Ironically, it had been Rumplestiltskin who sent Tink back to Zelena’s castle; Fiona had been too busy with Tiger Lily.  Tink had a vague memory of learning about Tiger Lily in some lesson or another.  She’d been held up as the example of a failed fairy godmother, of someone not to be like.  But what little of the conversation between Fiona and Tiger Lily that Tink had heard left her wondering.  It wouldn’t be the first time that Blue had shaded some truths to make them more to her liking.  Tink definitely was going to ask Fiona about it later, but for now, she did appreciate the importance of distracting Zelena.

Fortunately, she was able to stop by the outlaw/army camp on her way back to Zelena’s castle and see how her friends were doing.  Snow’s army was proving surprisingly effective, but there was still a group terrorizing peasants and generally making things worse.  But that’s all right, she thought with a smile.  I can kill two birds with one stone on that front! Her original idea of who to promote as Zelena’s lover was about to pay some serious dividends.  She could help her friends and Fiona at the same time—even if Rumplestiltskin, who had sent her off to distract Zelena, didn’t know the roots of his mother’s plan, either.

I like Belle a whole lot more than I like him, but that does mean I don’t want to see an obnoxious, self-obsessed witch take her man, so here we go.

 “You’ve been gone a long time.”  Zelena scowled at her. 

Tink shrugged, meeting Zelena’s eyes as boldly as she could.  Zelena wouldn’t respect or believe her if she flinched.  “You seemed to be working on your own romance.  I didn’t want to get in the way.”

“Well, you were wrong.”  Zelena sniffed, her chin jerking up.  “I wasn’t romancing anyone.  That was all politics.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”  That was even the truth.  Tink was sorry that Zelena hadn’t fallen for Gaston, particularly after what she had learned about Belle’s brutish ex-fiancé.  They would have been a good match, and Gaston was even stupider than the man Tink had in mind.

Nottingham isn’t stupid when he’s sober, but he does have a hard time sticking to that.  Tink had no high hopes on that front, but then again, that was why she was going to dangle him in front of Zelena in the first place.

“I suppose you’re here to babble on about me having a soulmate again, aren’t you?” Zelena sounded more tired than affronted, though, and that was a good thing.

“No, but I can help you if you want me to.”  Convincing Zelena hadn’t done much good; Tink figured if she played it a little less eagerly, she might get further. 

“I don’t have time for romance right now.  I’m working on something absolutely historical.”  But Zelena didn’t look as certain as she was clearly trying to sound.

“That’s up to you.  But if you want someone to actually support you—someone you can actually depend on, maybe you do want to give finding your soulmate a chance.”  Tink glanced around pointedly.  “I think it goes without saying that you can’t exactly count on anyone else around here.”

Zelena rolled her eyes.  “You can say that again.”

“So what do you have to lose, other than a little time?” Tink asked, giving Zelena an encouraging smile.  When the other woman cringed slightly, she quickly added: “And it can wait.  I’m sure your soulmate won’t find someone else in the meantime, and even if he did, I’m sure you could win him over.  After all, who would want some tavern maid when he could have a queen?”

“No one with half a brain, that’s for sure.”  Zelena’s smile seemed more genuine now, and Tink knew she’d won.

“Well, not all men use their brain all the time, if you know what I mean.”

Zelena laughed at that, but the actual amusement on the Wicked Queen’s face made Tink feel a little sorry for her.  Zelena clearly didn’t have any real friends.  If she’d opened herself to caring for people, could she be different?  Part of Tink wanted to track down some actual pixie dust instead of the fake version she’d cooked up with Fiona’s help, but she wasn’t sure they could risk that.  First of all, Zelena might not have a soulmate…and secondly, it might be someone who was just as bad as she was.  And competent.  We don’t want to give her a smart counterpart who will only make her more effective. 

“No, they obviously aren’t.  But I guess we get what we get, don’t we?” Zelena grinned back, and Tink’s feeling of guilt deepened.

She had to stay the course.  She had to.


 

“Rumple?”

Belle’s voice made him jump; Rumplestiltskin had returned to spinning again, and he hadn’t expected her to come down from her room any time soon.  Or ever again, Zoso cackled, and Rumplestiltskin shook his head, trying to chase that annoying voice away.

He’d told Belle the truth.  Part of him hated himself for doing that—sharing so much was stupid, particularly for a man (monster!) in his position—but a part of his heart knew that it had been the right thing to do.  Belle loved him, against all odds, and she deserved the best man he could be.  He’d always be the Dark One, and would probably never be able to love her as well as she deserved.  Belle deserved a good man that he could never be, but he knew that he had to at least try to be worthy of her.  Assuming she’ll still have me.  Laughter echoed in his mind, but Rumplestiltskin tried to ignore them, turning to face Belle.

“Belle?”  His voice sounded a little like a yelp, no matter how hard he tried to keep it steady.

“We, um, need to talk.” 

“Yes.”  Swallowing, he jumped to his feet and tried to pretend his palms weren’t sweating when he wiped them on his trousers.  “I imagine we do.”

“I don’t like this curse.  I don’t like that you’re willing to rip families apart to find your son, even though I do believe you when you tell me that you’ll do your best to mitigate the worst of it.”  Belle stepped forward, boldly taking his hands.  “But I love you.  Even the darker parts of you.  And I want to help you find your son, no matter what it takes.”

“You…you what?”  This wasn’t what he’d expected to hear.  No one except his mother had ever really wanted to help him find Baelfire.  Zelena just wanted his power, not to help him, and Cora hadn’t cared about anyone other than herself.  But Belle…Belle wanted to help him find Bae?

She squeezed his hands.  “I know how much you love him.  And I love you.  How can I not want to help you?”

“Oh, Belle.”  Rumplestiltskin didn’t know what to say.  Further words failed him.

“But I also want to stay to help you fight the darkness.”  Belle bit her lip, suddenly looking uncertain.  “Can you do that?  I know it’s taken root in you, and I know it’s hard.” 

“I…I think I can.”  Rumpelstiltskin swallowed hard.  “For you, I think I can.”

Belle’s smile brightened the entire room.  “I love you, Rumplestiltskin.”

“And I love you.”  For the first time, Rumplestiltskin realized that the other Dark Ones were silent when Belle touched him.  They hadn’t said a word since she’d touched his hands, and this wasn’t the first time, was it?  But before he could begin to wonder what that meant, Belle leaned forward, her lips aiming for his.

Heart racing, Rumplestiltskin moved forwards to meet her, until his mother’s voice rang out:

“Stop!  Both of you, now.  Do not kiss.”


 

Riding a strangely guilty high, Tink headed out of Zelena’s castle.  Hook had leered at her a bit along the way, but since he was with Gaston—a vile example of a man if there ever was one—Tink didn’t spend much time talking to him.  Those two were planning something, but that really wasn’t her concern.  As long as it didn’t hurt Belle, anyway.  But she was pretty sure that even if Gaston tried to go after Belle again, Fiona and Rumplestiltskin could handle him well enough.

She didn’t expect to almost run into Regina on the way in, not with half of Zelena’s guards watching.

They both jumped, staring at one another, and Tink swallowed back the need to yelp in surprise.  What was Regina doing here?  She knew that Regina and Zelena were sisters, but she’d thought they were on terrible terms!  Regina was Snow’s best friend, deeply involved in the army that was fighting Zelena’s ally King George, and yet she was here?  Tink burned to know, but she knew she couldn’t ask.

“Excuse me.”  Regina sounded much more collected than Tink felt.  She even gave Tink the kind of respectful nod a noble gave to a stranger of questionable origins, which just made Tink blink harder.

“Of course.  My fault.  Sorry.”  She was babbling, and she needed to stop.  Tink gulped back more words.

Another nod, and Regina was gone, leaving Tink to fly away, still reeling.


 

Rumplestiltskin whirled around, glaring at his mother.  “Again?  Mother, this is getting ridiculous!”

“At least she was obvious this time.  For once, she actually said that she didn’t want us to kiss.”  Belle looked almost as annoyed as he felt, but her anger at least told Rumplestiltskin that he wasn’t crazy.  Fiona had been keeping them from kissing.  The last time he’d started to ask her about this, Fiona had managed to change the subject and distract him, but not this time.  Oh, not this time.  This time he’d have answers.

“That she did.”  Rumplestiltskin didn’t let go of Belle’s hands, but he did narrow his eyes at his mother, who looked rather more concerned than he expected.

“Yes, I have stopped you.  Repeatedly.”  Fiona sighed.  “And you have no idea how hard it has been.”

“Mother!”

“Shout all you want later, but you must listen first.”  Unexpectedly, Fiona stepped forward to touch them both on the shoulders.  “Rumplestiltskin, Belle, there is something I must show you before you proceed.  Something that you must understand.”

“This is beginning to sound ominous.”  Belle glanced worriedly at him, but Rumplestiltskin could only shrug.  He had no idea where this was going.

“Do you know what this is?”  Fiona stepped back slightly before summoning a bottle of shimmering purple liquid.

Rumplestiltskin saw red.  “You nicked that out of my—”

“No, this is not the potion you made from that nauseatingly sweet prince and princess.”  His mother’s smile was a strange mixture of sadness and pride.  “This is yours.  Both of yours.”

What?”  Surprise forced the yelp out of him, but Rumplestiltskin was too gobsmacked to manage anything more.  It was Belle who had the sense and composure to ask questions.

“That’s a True Love potion, isn’t it?”  She blinked hard.  “But that would mean that we—that Rumple and I”—she threw Rumplestiltskin a shocked look, her blue eyes wide—“are True Love?”

We can’t be.  This can’t be.

Can it?

“You are.”  Fiona answered both Belle’s spoken question and Rumplestiltskin’s unspoken ones grimly.  “I had a devil of a time making this bloody potion, and stopping you from kissing while I did so was even harder.  But here you are.  Proof.”

She extended the vial to Rumplestiltskin, who released one of Belle’s hands to take it almost automatically.  He wanted to say that she was wrong.  Wanted to deny that he—the Dark One, the longest lived of all Dark Ones!—could ever find True Love.  That was the epitome of impossible.  No one knew better than Rumplestiltskin that Dark Ones did not find normal love, let alone True Love.  The nature of his curse prohibited such love.  Did it not?

Yet the bottle in his hands was warm, comforting, and familiar.  No amount of denial would change the fact that Rumplestiltskin knew this potion had been made from his love for Belle, and her love for her.  It felt like her.  Even as the darkness in him recoiled from the golden-purple liquid, his humanity was drawn to it, just as he’d always been drawn to Belle.  Jaw dropping open, Rumplestiltskin stared at the bottle helplessly.  This was True Love.  They were True Love.  The proof was in his hands.

“Is that…is that why you’re stopping us from kissing?”  Leave it to Belle to get straight to the heart of the matter.  “I thought you wanted to free him!”

“What?” That took a moment to sink in, but when it did, Rumplestiltskin swiveled to face Belle’s suddenly guilty expression and Fiona’s worried one.  “What—what are you two talking about?”

“True Love can break any curse.”  Fiona gestured meaningfully.  “Even yours.”

“And you want that?” Rumplestiltskin snapped.  “You want me powerless?  I need my power to find Baelfire!”

He couldn’t believe that his mother wanted this.  He knew that she regretted what he had become, knew that she wished he’d never become the Dark One, but this was further than he’d ever imagined she might go.  Rumplestiltskin had thought Fiona loved him for who he was—and had Belle known about this plan?

He felt so cold.

“No, of course not.”  Fiona touched his shoulder again, but Rumplestiltskin yanked back, pulling his right hand free of Belle at the same time.  “I would never want you powerless, my son.  You are descended from a fairy, and I believe you’d be able to learn magic, particularly after being exposed to power for so long—”

“And you knew about this?” He wheeled on Belle, ignoring Fiona’s words.  Lies, Nimue whispered.  We are the only power you’ll ever have.  They lie and they use you, see?  “You were helping her!”

“No!”  Belle looked hurt, but how could he care?  “I love you.  I’ve helped your mother study your curse because we both want to free you from that terrible darkness, but I want it to be your choice.”

She lies.  She wants to leave you a powerless cripple.  The darkness swirled tighter and tighter around him, leaving Rumplestiltskin cold and increasingly empty.  He needed his power.  He was nothing without it.  He’d go back to being a coward and a cripple, to having nothing.  Back to being nothing.  You knew you couldn’t trust them.  Not either of them.  Your ‘love’ is playing the hero, and your mother wants to ‘save’ you so that she’s the one with all the power.  He wanted to cry.

“Rumple, please,” Belle whispered, reaching for him again, but he staggered back a step, shaking his head wildly.

“No.”  He needed room to think, needed to think and not listen to the voices—

Kill her.  Kill her and remove the threat.  It sounded so logical.  Love is nothing next to power.  Where did love get you with Milah?  With Cora?  Nimue wasn’t howling; she was speaking calmly and persuasively.  They betrayed you.  You thought Belle wouldn’t, but look at her now.  When he snuck a look at Belle, though, she looked hurt.  Not triumphant.  She looked worried for him, too.  Could that all be an act?

Of course it can, Spinner.  Zoso snorted in his mind.  You’ve never been very observant.  You thought Cora loved you, too, even though the signs were there for everyone else to see.

But Belle wasn’t Cora.

Was she?

Desperate for something to focus on, Rumplestiltskin swung to face his mother.  “You knew a kiss could take away my powers, so why not let it happen?  Why stop us?”

Maybe his mother didn’t truly want him powerless.  Maybe this was all Belle’s fault.  At least then one of them loved him.

“Because if my calculations about your curse are correct, it will only work once.”  Fiona looked grimmer than he could ever remember seeing her.  “If you force back the magic, if you cling to your curse, True Love will never be enough again.  Not for you, and not for any other Dark One in the future.  The curse will become immune.”

“That sounds rather ideal.”  Rumplestiltskin hated the way his heart leapt, hated the way the others whispered approvingly.

“Not if you ever want to be free.”  Fiona stepped forward again, but was wise enough not to touch him.  “My son, you were not meant to be like this.  Belle has always been right about you—there is a good man struggling to be free of that wretched darkness, and you deserve better.”

“Better?” Rumplestiltskin snorted bitterly.  “Better as in being a coward and a cripple?”  He jabbed a finger at his mother.  “You’ve never been truly without power.  When you needed it, you could just turn yourself back into a fairy and wish the human weaknesses away.  It doesn’t work that way for the rest of us!”

“No, it doesn’t.  But as I said—”

“No!  This is you wanting to have the power so that you can ‘protect’ me like you failed to do when I was a babe, isn’t it?”  His words struck home; Fiona flinched, white faced and clearly hurt.  “You want a do-over without the inconvenience of me having magic of my own!  Perhaps that’s why you stripped away my powers originally, hmm?”

“Of course it isn’t.”  Fiona’s words were a broken whisper, and part of him loved having hurt her so.  This is what she gets for plotting to take my power away.

Nimue’s satisfaction embraced him warmly.  Make them both—

Belle stepped forward again, and this time she managed to touch his arm, cutting Nimue off mid-sentence.  “Rumple, please, listen to us.  We both love you.  Neither of us wants to hurt you.  We don’t want to take your power away.”

“I need it to find Bae.”  The only thing keeping him from panicking was how gentle Belle’s voice was, and the warm vial of True Love still in his other hand.  “I can’t get to him without the power, Belle.  I thought you would understand that!”

“And I do.  I won’t kiss you unless you want me to.”  Her free hand came up to touch his face, and Rumplestiltskin tried so hard not to melt into her touch.  “But I do want you to think on this: which is more important to you, power or being a man your son can be proud of?”

Chapter Text

“Hello, Zelena.”  Regina knew that she shouldn’t feel this nervous; it had been her choice to come here, after all.  But coming to  Zelena’s own castle made her feel like she was betraying her friends, even if this had nothing to do with them.

Heavens only knew what Tink thought.

“Sister.”  Zelena turned to her with a smile that was surprisingly welcoming.  “I was starting to think that you’d never come.”

“I…I had a lot to think about.”  Regina didn’t mind admitting how awkward this was; there was no way to hide it, after all.  “It’s not exactly like we’re on the same side.  You’ve tried to kill me more than once, and you’re still trying to kill my best friend.”

“Oh, that’s water under the bridge!”  Zelena waved a dismissive hand.  “I think it’s safe to say that’s all behind us, now.”

“Is it?”

“Certainly!  Snow and her insipid prince can have George’s kingdom—he’s a terrible ally, anyway.  So long as they stay away from my kingdom, I’ll leave them alone.  Saving Mother is far more important than a petty little war, after all.”  Her smile was sunny, but Regina couldn’t stop herself from pointing out:

“You know, ‘your’ kingdom is Snow’s by right.  And you did kill her father,” she added dryly, resisting the urge to point out that the great lengths Zelena was willing to do to in order to save their mother indicated how important the loss of a parent could be.  “That kind of burns a little.”

“Well, diplomacy never does make everyone happy, does it?”  Zelena shrugged.  “I don’t get what I want—which is to kill my bratty stepdaughter—and she doesn’t get her kingdom back.  But everyone gets to live.”

Everyone except Leopold.  Regina had never been terribly enamored of King Leopold; he’d proposed marriage to her once, much to her horror, but she knew how much Snow had loved her father.  Still, peace was preferable to war, and winning George’s kingdom would give somewhere for all of the refugees fleeing Zelena to go.  It was better than nothing, Regina supposed.

“I’ll pass the offer along, but no guarantees on how well they’ll take it.”  She shrugged.  “Peace isn’t easy.  And you’ll have to stick to it, too.”

“As I said, I have much better things to worry about.”  Zelena arched an eyebrow.  “Provided you did come here to offer your help.”

“I did.”  Regina swallowed.  “I…I thought about it a lot, and the bottom line is that I want to know Mother, too.  I never really got the chance, and I like to think that if she hadn’t died, you and I might have met a lot sooner.  And maybe under better circumstances.”

Zelena brightened.  “You never know.  Maybe then you wouldn’t hate me so much.”

“I don’t hate you, Zelena.  I barely know you.  But I have to say that the fact that you’ve tried to kill me more times than you’ve tried to talk to me really doesn’t lead towards sisterly love.”

“Of course you hate me.  You grew up with everything.  You were practically a princess.”

Regina almost snapped back, until she realized that Zelena actually believed that.  What kind of horrible life did she have that this is her first assumption?  Swallowing back her anger, Regina spoke more quietly.  “I never did ask how you grew up.  After Mother, um, gave you up.”

“A woodcutter and his wife took me in after the tornado took me to Oz.”  Zelena scowled until her expression abruptly lightened.  “My mo—adopted mother was kind.  But the Woodcutter was awful.  He hated me, and when she died, he threw me out.”  The scowl was back, now in full force.

“That’s awful.  I’m sorry.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter now.” Zelena spoke briskly, but Regina thought she was just trying to convince herself.  “Now I have power beyond his puny imaginings, and I’m going to save Mother.  With your help, of course.”

Regina took a deep breath.  “Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.”

“Then let’s begin!”


 

“…But I do want you to think on this: which is more important to you, power or being a man your son can be proud of?”

“Bae hated the curse.”  The words escaped Rumplestiltskin before he could stop them, rattling around in his mind over and over again.  I just want my father back, Bae had said more than once.  Bae had loved him when he was a worthless cripple.  Bae had loved him no matter what he did until Rumplestiltskin had turned to darkness.

I did what I had to to save him.  He’d told himself that a thousand times, and it was probably even true.  But he’d also let go of his son because of this horrible curse; even now, Rumplestiltskin could remember Nimue hounding him and howling until he let go of Bae.  The choice had been his—or at least he thought it had been—but if he had not been the Dark One, they never would have been at that portal in the first place.  If I had not become the Dark One, I might have never lost my son.

I was meant to be the Savior.

For the first time, those two points connected in his mind.  He couldn’t blame his mother for cutting his fate away, not after what he’d done to his own son, but if he’d been the Savior, what would Bae have thought?  Bae would have been so proud.  That thought left him strangely warm and all too heartbroken.  Bae had always wanted to be a hero, to do the right thing, just like Rumplestiltskin once had before the world fell to pieces around him.  Bae would have been over the moon to have his father be the Savior.  He would have demanded to come with him all the time, to learn to fight and to help people, and they never would have been separated by dark magic.

“This curse is what keeps me from finding him, isn’t it?” he whispered after a long moment of silence, looking to his mother for guidance.

  “I think so, yes.”  Fiona took a deep breath.  “The Dark Curse should do the trick, but I do believe that the number of portals closed to you is because you are the Dark One.  The Apprentice all but confirmed that.”

Rumplestiltskin swallowed.  “When?”

“Months ago.  I went to him for information.  And I resisted the urge to turn him into a ferret again.”

“You what?” Belle glared while Rumplestiltskin snorted softly in amusement. 

Fiona just waved the question off.  “It’s a long story, and rather irrelevant at the moment.  But the sanctimonious prig is correct: his magic won’t work for you.  Not so long as you are the Dark One.”

“And if he wasn’t?” Belle asked the question for Rumplestiltskin when he was too tongue-tied to speak.

“It would work, assuming we could convince him.  The Apprentice is nearly as holier-than-thou as Blue, and I did turn him into a ferret, even if he did get better.”  Fiona shrugged, looking Belle over.  “But he probably would like you.  Either of you, really, without the curse.”

Rumplestiltskin snorted.  “You didn’t know me without the curse, Mother.  I was nothing.”

“Oh, phooey.  That’s the darkness talking, so stop it.”  Fiona’s bluntness made him jump, even as Belle squeezed his hand gently.  “You’re not the same man you were three hundred years ago.  What makes you think that losing all of those unwanted passengers would make you revert to a barely educated spinner who had no idea how to defend himself?”

It was a good point, but Rumplestiltskin wasn’t about to admit that.  So he flung the next words at her as defiantly as he could, even though he didn’t want Belle to think of him that way.  “I was a cripple!”

“And what good is having a fairy for a mother if she can’t fix your ills?”  Fiona relented a little when Rumplestiltskin bristled.  “Assuming you can’t heal yourself.”

“Assuming.”  He still wasn’t ready to fully embrace the idea that he might have magic even without the curse; Rumplestiltskin remembered what it was like to be powerless all too well.  Yet he knew that his mother had a point.  Power left a mark, and he had lived with magic for hundreds of years.  Unlike many of his predecessors, he had learned magic, too.  Rumplestiltskin was a true sorcerer, not just someone who bent power to their ends.  He had studied magic endlessly.  He knew the spells and the incantations, and could read every magical language except for fairy—which he’d long since realized his curse blocked him from understanding.

He was fairly certain that was Blue’s doing, but that was a conversation for another day, if ever.

“Rumple?” Belle’s quiet voice cut through the dark fog he’d descended into.  “Please don’t just stand there.  Talk to us.”

“You want this, too, don’t you?” Rumplestiltskin tried to swallow back the bitterness, but his words just came out broken.  “You don’t want…this.”  The last words were accompanied by a gesture at himself, at the monster had had become to save his son.

“I want you.”  Blue eyes met his boldly.  “Dark One or not, I love you, Rumplestiltskin.  And I’ll be here with you, no matter what you choose.”

“Why?” he whispered.

“Because love doesn’t walk away.  Love stays and fights.”

He wasn’t worthy of such love, but the proof was in a vial he still held in his left hand.  Desperate to find something, anything, else to refute this with, Rumplestiltskin turned back to his mother.  “And in your oh-so-enlightening conversations with the Apprentice, did you learn anything else helpful?”

“He doesn’t think your curse can be broken.”  Fiona shrugged.  “I think he’s wrong.”

“What does he think will happen?”  Belle sounded both intrigued and concerned.

“Oh, that the darkness will escape and run amok, I wager.”  Rumplestiltskin felt his old smile, the nasty one, cross his face, but Belle’s eyes went wide.

“That would be horrible!”

“It would be.”  Fiona looked like she was less concerned about that than either Belle or Rumplestiltskin, who wouldn’t actually wish his curse on anyone else.  “But I think that would only happen if someone were to draw the power out.  True Love’s kiss is not a bludgeon.  It’s more subtle than that, in addition to being the most powerful magic of all.  If anything has a hope of actually defeating the darkness, it would be that.”

Rumplestiltskin glanced down at the bottle in his left hand.  If a kiss was not enough…yes, yes, that would do the trick, he supposed.  He could stop the darkness if it escaped him, although it would be a shame to waste a True Love potion like that.  Do I really want to do this? he asked himself, but then he imagined Bae’s face if he found him and his father was not the Dark One.  Bae might well burst from happiness—after he got over his anger over being abandoned, anyway.

He could be free of this.  He might have power, and he might not—a terrifying thought—but if he could take a portal to find Bae, preferably with his mother and Belle, what did he care about Zelena’s shenanigans?  He still had the Dark Curse.  Zelena couldn’t cast it without his help, and so what if she dug Cora out of the past if he wasn’t in this world?  He’d always intended to go to the Land Without Magic to find Bae, so what did it matter if he lost his power before going there?  The thought still made Rumplestiltskin vaguely sick to his stomach, but it would be worth it to find his son.

And then I can love Belle like she’s meant to be loved.

“Rumple?” Belle’s soft voice made him look up at her.  “The choice is yours.  Neither of us can make it for you, and we’ll love you no matter what you choose.”

You weren’t destined to be the Dark One, his mother had told him ages ago.  You were destined to be so much more.  Now he looked at her, terrified that she would contradict Belle and say that she would only love him if he reclaimed something of his original fate.  But Fiona just smiled.

“I told you long ago that I love you no matter what.  A silly little potion doesn’t change that, even if it did take me some time to come to terms with your taste in women.”  She threw Belle an amused look.  “Although I will admit that you were always preferable to the last one.”

“Last one?” Belle looked curious despite herself, but Rumplestiltskin hadn’t really told her that story yet.

“Mother!”

“Oh, don’t be dramatic.  It’s every mother’s job to traumatize her child from time to time.  Don’t be surprised when I enjoy myself doing so.”  Her cheeky smile did more for Rumplestiltskin’s state of mind than he would ever admit, though; Fiona didn’t smile like this when she lied.  A lying Fiona was cutting and cruel.  His mother delighted in needling him and in being difficult.

A smile tried to make his lips twitch, but worry pushed it down.  Did he dare?  Did he not?

“Belle is right, though, my son.”  Fiona spoke quietly when he remained silent.  “It must be your choice.  Only by choosing the light can you truly banish the darkness.”

Rumplestiltskin couldn’t help arching an eyebrow at her.  “Know that from experience, do you?”

“Hardly.”  Her laugh was brittle.  “I think it’s far too late for me.  But it isn’t for you.”

“How can it not be?  I’m—”

“Don’t you dare call yourself a monster, Rumplestiltskin,” Belle cut in.  “You’re not.”

“I am.”  He felt the sad smile crease his scaled face.  “But it appears that even the worst of monsters can love you.”

She blinked.  “Does that mean…?”

“Yes.”  His heart was tight in his chest; Rumplestiltskin wanted to flee.  “I’ll do it for you—both of you.”  He glanced at his mother, surprised to see tears in Fiona’s eyes.  “And for Bae.”

Belle grinned, leaning towards him with shining eyes.  But as she did so, she released his hand to wrap her arms around his neck, and in the split second without contact, the other Dark Ones roared to life.  Don’t!  Don’t you dare, you fool Spinner! Zoso sounded desperate.  The others formed a chorus: Kill her kill her kill her kill her!  Nimue, however, wrapped him in darkness so deep that he could barely see, igniting power in every cell of his body.  You can’t trust this!  You’ll be powerless without us!  And he did feel more powerful than ever before.  Rumplestiltskin felt like he could move the world with a fingertip—but at what cost?

The onslaught made him stumble back a step, shaking his head desperately to orient himself.

“Rumple?”  Belle stuttered his name, looking horribly confused.

Rumplestiltskin could barely find his voice.  He could barely see her face.  The darkness was trying to cloud everything.  After a moment’s struggle, he managed to gasp: “Kiss me before I lose what little remains of my courage.”

Belle did, and light exploded within him.


 

Fiona had teleported her to a place close to Port Mystic, but Tiger Lily hadn’t dared let herself be seen with that kind of magic.  Had one of the townspeople discovered that their new healer had magical connections, they’d ask questions she didn’t want to answer—or desire magical solutions that she couldn’t give them.  It was better to keep things quiet, particularly given how curious her two apprentices could be.  The mystery of Beans had been solved after he’d broken his leg, but Baelfire’s origins remained obscure.   He didn’t like talking about where he’d come from, which Tiger Lily could understand, but she had a feeling that there was something more beneath the surface.  Possibly something dangerous.  Pan had been more interested in Bae than most of the other boys, she knew.  Not that Pan had cared about Bae—she was fairly sure that Pan wasn’t capable of that—but he watched him more closely.

In her experience, that was never a good thing.

“Hey.”  As luck would have it, Bae was in the front room when she returned home.  “You’ve been gone awhile.”

“I had to visit an old friend.”  Tiger Lily sighed, glad that the boys at least knew she’d been a fairy.  She didn’t have to hide that from them, which was quite the relief.  “I had a feeling she was going to do something…regrettable.”

She still wasn’t sure that she believed everything Fiona had said, but Tiger Lily could at least be relatively certain that Fiona didn’t actually want the Dark Curse cast.  And if it was cast, Tiger Lily could at least be sure that the curse’s form had been changed a great deal.  No children would be stolen from their parents…at least not in a permanent sense.  I still don’t like it.

“Like what?”  Bae was always full of questions, but he was less likely than ever to answer them now that they were in the Enchanted Forest.

“Like cast a terrible curse.”  The words slipped out, but at least Bae didn’t have the context to understand what a problem that would be.

“Huh?  Some fairy wants to cast a curse?  That sounds kind of backwards.”

Tiger Lily shot him a droll look.  “I do have friends that aren’t fairies.”  And I don’t have many left who are.

“Not ones with magic.”

“Good point.”  She sighed again.  “As it so happens, she’s an ex-fairy, like I am.  Except she didn’t lose her power.”  I saw to that.

 “Oh.”  Bae frowned thoughtfully.  “Didn’t know it could work like that.”

“It rarely does.  Now, have you two been helping people while I was gone?”

“Some.  Beans is resting his leg again, but Old Miss Hubbard came by and I gave her that cream for her rash, like you said to.”

“Good.”  Tiger Lily smiled; Bae really was a good kid, and she cared for him a great deal. 

“So, what kinda curse?  Is it the same one Beans was on about?”  Bae was also, alas, too smart for his own good, and was watching her closely.  “You seemed really worried when he had that vision.”

“That’s because anyone in their right mind would be worried by that.”

“An’ that’s not saying much.”

“Don’t worry about it, Bae.  The curse isn’t coming.”  Or at least I hope not, she thought behind the most confident expression she could muster.  Fiona hadn’t been lying, although Tiger Lily wasn’t certain she’d told the entire truth, either.

“Do I look worried?”  He shrugged, all overconfident teen.  “I can handle any curse that comes my way.”

Tiger Lily refused to be baited into telling him more.  “I’m sure you can.”

She changed the subject again, and Bae let her.  He still seemed curious, but he was a smart kid.  Bae knew that he’d have to answer her questions in order to get Tiger Lily to share more, and apparently he didn’t want to do that, either.

So they both remained in the dark.


 

Lightning cracked within his mind; Rumplestiltskin felt the world shift, and suddenly, everything went quiet.  Belle’s lips were still on his, and he kissed her back hungrily as warmth and love and light tore through him.  This feeling was akin to the spark he felt when they touched, but so much stronger.  Yet at the moment, the only thing that mattered was that Belle was in his arms and he could feel her love.  He’d never imagined that True Love could feel like this, had never imagined this perfect and pure magic racing through every fiber of his being.  He had studied True Love, chased it, and bottled it, but Rumplestiltskin would never have guessed it could feel so beautiful.

Smiling so hard that his face hurt, Rumplestiltskin eased away from Belle when they both started running out of breath.  She grinned back, her blue eyes full of love.  Rumplestiltskin felt so light, so free.  He hadn’t felt like this since he’d been young and optimistic, full of hope and—

Then the darkness clawed into him.  He couldn’t hear them, not so long as Belle touched him, but his throat closed up, making Rumplestiltskin squeak in distress.  His vision started blacking out again.  He felt like a tornado of darkness was closing around him, twisting ever tighter and tighter.  The only thing he could see was Belle, a small spot of light amid the darkness that battled to reclaim him.

“Kiss me again,” he gasped.  “It’s working.”

Belle complied, and light slashed through him again.  Rumplestiltskin closed his eyes, leaning into her and letting go of the power.  He’d never thought he would, never thought he could—he loved the power, even if he didn’t love the darkness—but he did.  He did it for Belle, for his mother, and for Bae, who had hated what he’d become.  Slowly, he felt his face beginning to change, felt the curse beginning to pull back, until suddenly something twisted.  A distant scream, and then more than one, tore through his mind, making him wince in pain and pull back, but the damage was done.

By the time Rumplestiltskin drew away from Belle the second time, he was free.

And then everything went dark.


 

“Is that it?” Regina had expected giving up her magic to be more painful, somehow.  Sure, it hadn’t been pleasant—there’d been an almighty jerk, and she was left feeling a little emptier than she had an hour earlier—but it hadn’t been that bad.  If she’d known it would be this easy to give Zelena what she needed to bring their mother back, Regina might have made the decision sooner.

“Pretty much.”  Zelena shrugged, holding up the sparkling red gem that now contained the magic Regina had never bothered to learn to use.  “Now your magic is in my hands.”

Regina tried not to shiver; that sounded ominous, but she was sure that Zelena didn’t mean it that way.  Mostly sure.  “And you’re going to use it to bring Mother back?”

“Of course I am.  Why would I have gone to the bother of putting your magic in a gem, otherwise?”  Zelena rolled her eyes, scoffing dramatically.  “It’s not like I need your power for anything else.  I have plenty of my own.”

“Right.  And I guess since I wasn’t using it, it doesn’t really matter.”  Regina felt strange saying that.  Giving up a part of herself had felt somehow wrong, but she wasn’t ever going to use it.  And she’d get to see her mother again.

All Regina remembered about Mother was a voice and the smell of her perfume.  Cora’s perfume had always smelled of orange blossoms, and Regina had found a bottle of it when she was nine.  Sniffing it had made her cry, and she hadn’t known why until Papa explained that it was her mother’s favorite perfume.  Regina had hidden that bottle away in her dresser for years and years; she supposed it was still there somewhere.  Holding it had made her feel close to her mother, as had the little stories her father would tell her.  She’d always felt sorry for Papa, who had known that Mother hadn’t loved him, but Papa still tried to be fair to her, telling Regina how Cora had saved the kingdom from bankruptcy and had made them prosperous again.

“I can’t imagine not learning to use my magic.”  Zelena interrupted her thoughts, but Regina couldn’t be angry with how pensive her sister sounded.  “It’s been a part of me since I was a babe.”

“Papa never wanted me involved in that.  He said that it changed Mother in bad ways.”

“That’s ridiculous.”  Zelena snorted.  “Magic only makes us better.  My stepfather didn’t like mine, either, but I showed him.”

“What did you do?”  Regina was almost afraid to find out.

Zelena drew herself up proudly.  “I became royalty.  He always said that I would make nothing of myself unless I learned to hide my magic, but I made myself into a queen with my magic.”

“Is he still alive?”

“I suppose.”  A shrug.  “He’s somewhere in Oz.  I never want to see him again, not even to rub my success in.”  Zelena turned a glare on her.  “You were lucky.  Mother kept you, and even after she died, you got to be raised by your father.”

“I know.”  Regina refused to apologize for something that wasn’t her fault, but she didn’t hesitate to add: “I wish I’d known about you when we were young.  I know Papa would have let me find you.”

“You—you would have wanted to?”  Zelena looked shocked, her anger draining away so quickly that her skin almost looked normal.

“Yeah.”  Now it was Regina’s turn to shrug.  “We’re sisters.  We might have gotten off to the world’s worst start with you trying to kill me, but I would have liked to know you before that.”

 Zelena blinked like she didn’t know what to say.  After a moment, she shook her head.  “Well, we’ll never know.  You should go.  I have what I need.”

Stung, Regina narrowed her eyes and studied her sister for a long moment.  “Sure.  I’ll leave.  I guess you got what you wanted, anyway.”

“I did.  Thank you.”  Zelena’s words were aloof, but her eyes softened just enough for Regina to wonder if there was a chance for her sister after all.

Maybe she was crazy for thinking so, but maybe Zelena didn’t have to be like this.  She’ll find mother, and then maybe we can all be a family.  Maybe that’ll save Zelena, and she can stop being the Wicked Queen, and just be herself.  Regina knew it was a fool’s hope, but maybe she was a fool.  In the meantime, she’d deliver Zelena’s offer of peace to Snow and Charming, and see what happened.  Maybe it would at least buy them some time to rescue George’s people and put that kingdom to rights.


 

“Is he going to be all right?”  Belle’s heart hadn’t come out of her throat since Rumplestiltskin had collapsed.  Fiona had moved him to the couch in the great hall, but he hadn’t stirred even though it felt like forever had passed.

“I believe so, yes.”  But there were worry lines on Fiona’s face that made Belle worry. 

“But you don’t know.”

“No, of course I don’t.”  Fiona gestured irritably.  “This is completely uncharted territory.  That bloody curse was the most toxic and corrupting bit of magic in creation—and I should know, given that I wrote the original form of the Dark Curse!  It’s had a hold on him for centuries, too, which means it’s even more loathe to let him go.”

Belle bit her lip.  “When will we know?  He…he looks human.”

Despite her worry, Belle was having a hard time not just staring at Rumplestiltskin’s face.  She’d known what its structure would be, but she hadn’t expected the wild curls to turn into soft brown hair she burned to stroke.  His cheekbones were more pronounced than they had been as the Dark One, or perhaps the scales had just disguised them, and she’d caught a glimpse of warm brown eyes before he’d passed out.  He looked so different, yet so much the same.  Rumplestiltskin was handsome, too.  Not that Belle had ever found him ugly—she’d even found much about his former form attractive—but even she had to admit that he was better looking like this.

“Hopefully soon.”  Fiona sighed.  “I’m hesitant to wake him.  Healing has…never been my strong suit.”

Belle didn’t have to ask why, but she still wanted to pace in frustration.  There were no books on this, no way to know what needed to be done.  Like Fiona had said, they were in uncharted territory.  No Dark One had ever been freed of the curse before, so there was no way to know what was going to happen until Rumplestiltskin woke up.

“At least the darkness seems to have dissipated.”  Fiona’s mutter made Belle twist to face her.

“What do you mean?”

“I half expected it to hang around looking for another host.  But it does seem to be gone.”  Another shrug.  “It could have gone either way.  True Love’s kiss might have been enough to transform it…or merely enough to free him.  We won’t know for certain until he awakes.”

Belle just swallowed.

Chapter Text

His mother’s voice drifted into him while Rumplestiltskin struggled towards consciousness.  “I half expected it to hang around looking for another host.  But it does seem to be gone.  It could have gone either way.  True Love’s kiss might have been enough to transform it…or merely enough to free him.  We won’t know for certain until he awakes.”

“…Transform?”  Rumplestiltskin forced his eyes open as he spoke, surprised to find that he was lying on something soft.  The couch.  That’s where I am.

Everything was so quiet.  No one was touching him, and yet the voices were gone.

“Rumple!”  Belle leapt into his line of vision, her expression a radiant mixture of worry and love.  “You’re awake!”

“How long…was I out?”  His voice sounded strange to his own ears. Lower.  Human.

With a start, Rumplestiltskin jerked his hands up so that he could see them, and for the first time in centuries, bare human skin greeted his eyes.  He was human again.  It had worked, and his power was gone.  For a moment, he wondered if he could get it back, if there was some way to summon the darkness back to him—but Rumplestiltskin pushed that thought aside with an effort.  I’m doing this for my family, he told himself.  Power had always been what he needed to protect those he loved, but if he had to get rid of the power in order to find his son, he would do that a thousand times over.

“About an hour.”  Belle answered his question after he’d almost forgotten he’d asked it. 

His mother, however, sounded far less concerned.  “Not too bad, all things considered.  It might have been much worse.”

“What did you expect to happen?” Belle demanded, affronted on his behalf.

“Well, fainting is certainly better than the darkness tearing him to pieces, which was always a possibility.  That would have created quite the mess in the castle for you to mop up, so let’s be glad we didn’t get that, shall we?”

“Fiona!”

Rumplestiltskin, however, saw the look in his mother’s eyes and snickered softly.  He’d always appreciated her dark sense of humor, after all.  Fiona did come over to squeeze his shoulder.

“I am proud of you, my son.  You have the strength that I have always lacked.”  Her smile was sad.  “If I had given up my power in the beginning, you never would have had to.”

Rage would have boiled up within him before.  Now, feeling strangely free of that, Rumplestiltskin just shook his head.  “What’s done is done.”  He studied her.  “Now, what exactly was it that you were saying about ‘transforming’ the darkness?”

“Ah.”  Fiona straightened, letting out a breath.  “There is something else I must tell you.  Something I have kept from you for some time, now.”

Belle shot Fiona a hard look at that, but Rumplestiltskin managed to grab her hand before she could tell his mother off for keeping secrets.  Rumplestiltskin knew how that worked.  The deeper you delved into dark magic, the more important secrets seemed to be.  Particularly if you’d been hurt by those you cared about, opening up was dangerous.  His mother was usually honest with him, and never actually lied.  She’d had logical reasons for keeping her plans to free him a secret, even if that did chafe.  Fiona had been right, after all.  If he and Belle had kissed unknowingly, Rumplestiltskin would have rejected his freedom.  Probably.

“Such as?” A cough tore out of Rumplestiltskin as he struggled to sit up, and Belle helped him do so.  I feel so weak.  Was that a side effect of the curse breaking, or had he grown used to how being the Dark One made him feel?

His ankle burned, damnit.

“There was a prophecy.” Fiona fidgeted, which definitely got Rumplestiltskin’s attention.  “I acquired knowledge of it secondhand, but the Apprentice ought to know what he was talking about, so here goes: Merlin prophesied that there would someday be a Dark One who could turn the darkness back to light.  I hope that is you.”

Back to light?” Rumplestiltskin turned that one over in his mind, not sure how it fit.  “Nimue was a creature of darkness from the beginning.  She never shared much about her origins, but she always hinted there was an elemental darkness, something primeval, beneath the curse.”

“Then she lied.  The power she took originated from the same grail that Merlin drank from.  Nimue twisted it to her own ends, but that is the truth.  The Apprentice confirmed it for me.”

“Before or after you turned him into a ferret?” Belle asked.

Fiona waved a hand dismissively.  “Far after.”

Merlin prophesied that there would someday be a Dark One who could turn the darkness back to light.  The words kept running through Rumplestiltskin’s head.  Back to light.  He could follow his mother’s logic, even if everything he was—and had been—rebelled against it.  He had been nothing, no one, before becoming the Dark One.  Then he’d become darkness personified, despite how he usually managed to twist his curse to fit his own ends.  Now he was nothing again…save for the love of a family who were worth everything to him.  I was meant to be the Savior.  Did that matter?  Could it?

He felt cold.  Only Belle’s hand on his shoulder kept him grounded; without it, Rumplestiltskin felt like he might pass out again. 

“Rumple?” Belle’s voice was gentle.  “Are you all right?”

He laughed, and how deep it sounded surprised him. “No.”  He forced a smile.  “But I think I will be.”

She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek, and Rumplestiltskin almost melted.  There was something in the back of his mind, something sparking with light and beauty—

“The question is,” Fiona interrupted his thoughts, “if you can still do magic.”

“I thought you said that he’d have to learn it again?” Belle sounded a little confused, but Rumplestiltskin’s mind was still racing.

“Phooey.  I said that to give him hope without overconfidence.  He shouldn’t need to learn it, assuming I’m right.  He should already have it.”  Fiona waited a moment before prompting him.  “Rumple?”

“I…I felt something.”  He was almost afraid to admit it out loud.  The power she took originated from the same grail that Merlin drank from.  That explained Nimue’s origins, but if he had turned that power back to light… Rumplestiltskin swallowed hard.  That wasn’t possible.  Not him.  Never him.  “But it can’t be.  I’m…well, I’m nothing, now.”

“You are not, nothing.”  Belle shifted to grasp both of his hands in hers, squeezing them tightly.  “Not being the Dark One—even if you don’t have magic!—doesn’t make you nothing.  You are a good man, and you did the right thing, not just for yourself, but for the world.”  He gave her a blank look, but she smiled brilliantly.  “Don’t you realize what you’ve done?  You’ve made it so that there will never be another Dark One again.  You have freed the world from that curse.”

Rumplestiltskin blinked.  “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

“You’re not nothing,” Belle repeated.  “You’re extraordinary.”

“I—I wouldn’t go that far.”  He tried a laugh, but it was as uneasy as his voice.  And he’d stuttered, too.  Damnation, was he at that again?  He’d not been the Dark One for less than five minutes, and he sounded like the coward already.

“Rumple.”  Belle’s expression teetered between fond and exasperated, but he could only shrug.

“Belle, if you’re expecting someone special, I’m afraid that we just kissed that away—”

“Oh, do stop whining and try to do some magic before you go all doom and gloom on us.”  Fiona cut him off, crossing her arms and glaring meaningfully at Rumplestiltskin.  “I’ll grant you the right to piss and moan if you have no magic, but at least wait until you’ve tried before you start.”

His mother’s characteristic bluntness made him flinch, which it never had done before.  I will not be this weak.  Rumplestiltskin tried to set his jaw and draw on some of the courage that having magic had given him, but he knew that the effort was futile.  He wasn’t a strong man.  Only power had made him strong.  He wanted to be more, burned to be, but what if he failed?  He’d be left with nothing.  No magic, no standing in the world.  What would Belle want in a man like that?  Even if he’d done one singular thing and banished the Dark One from the world—and good riddance to it; now that he was free of the darkness, Rumplestiltskin was glad to see it gone—that wouldn’t mean much for long.

“I…I’m afraid.”  He swallowed hard.  “What if it doesn’t work?”

Belle squeezed his hands again, but it was Fiona who answered, more gently this time.  “Then you learn magic the hard way.  You’ve fairy blood in you, my son.  There’s no logical reason why you shouldn’t be able to do magic, and if your worthless father had bothered to tell you that, you could have had power without the darkness.”

“I could have?”  He hated sounding so weak and needy, but Rumplestiltskin hadn’t ever thought of how life would have worked out if he’d known what his mother was from the beginning.

“Certainly.  Do you think no other fairy has ever had magical offspring?” Fiona snorted.  “They all have been magic, no matter how much Blue tries to hide them.  Look at Maleficent.  Her mother was a fairy, and she’s hardly short on power.”

“Maleficent’s mother was a fairy?”  Belle’s eyes had gone round and fascinated.

“Oh, yes.  Her father was a shape-shifting dragon, which accounts for her ability to transform, but not for her magic.”

“Huh.”  Rumplestiltskin hadn’t realized, that, either.  Oh, he’d known about Mal’s father, but all he’d known about her mother was that she’d died in childbirth.  Was that Blue’s doing?  He wouldn’t have been surprised if Blue at least refused to help Mal’s mother survive the birth of a part-dragon baby.

“It’s time to try, Rumple.”  Fiona’s voice was firm, but not harsh.  “And don’t you use that coward excuse on us, either.  We both know you’re no coward, and I doubt you’ve ever truly been one.  You were just desperate and out of options.  Now you aren’t.”

Wide-eyed, Rumplestiltskin’s gaze darted between his mother and his True Love before he was able to slowly hold out a shaking hand, summoning magic to his palm.


 

A magical ally would be ideal, although Killian preferred the idea of one with less power than Zelena.  Really, they just needed to make a deal for some magical lockpicks or something, anything that would get them through the gates of that bloody fortress Rumplestiltskin called home.  So, when they heard of a witch who lived not far from the border between Zelena’s kingdom and the Marchlands, Killian and Gaston headed that way. 

Madam Faustina was younger than Killian had expected, and much better looking.  He’d expected someone scaly, like Rumplestiltskin, or for her skin to be some other ridiculous color.  Instead, she was a tall woman with long blonde hair and brilliant blue eyes.  Her fashion sense left a little to be desired, but after hanging around Zelena for so long, Killian wasn’t particularly worried about that.  At least she’s not green.

“And you are?” she asked archly after introducing herself.

“Captain Killian Jones.”  He bent over he hand and kissed it, smiling when Gaston made a little strangled noise of objection.  He wishes he’d gotten in first.  Fool.

“I am Sir Gaston!”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you both.”  Faustina’s eyes swept over them, and then—much to Killian’s discomfiture—settled on Gaston.  “What brings you to my humble abode?”

“We were hoping that a lady of your great power might be willing to help us on a quest.”  Killian barely managed to get in before Gaston could say something foolish.  He liked the other man well enough, under the circumstances, but no one would ever call Gaston clever.

“What kind of quest?”

“We wish to destroy the Dark One.”  Gaston puffed up, jutting his chest out like a blowfish.  He probably thinks he looks heroic.  “We’re going to save the world from his evil.”

“Is that so?”  Faustina looked vaguely amused, and she looked Gaston up and down like he was a particularly nice cut of meat.  “That is a mighty task.”

“And one which we poor warriors need magical assistance to accomplish,” Killian interjected smoothly, trying to take back control of the situation.  “Is that something you can provide, My Lady?”

“Perhaps.”  She licked her lips.  “Or I might offer you other strengths.  You, Captain, are too old for my deepest magic, but the good knight here is just the right age.”

Too old?  How did she know?  Killian felt a strange wariness creeping up his spine.  Gaston, however, clearly felt no such worry.

“I am to please.”  He bowed again, trying to be gallant.  Killian, who had seen him with barmaids, tried not to laugh.

“As do I.  Tell me, Sir Gaston, do you desire eternal youth and beauty?  I can give you that, and more.”  Faustina stepped towards him, her blue eyes burning with something dark enough to leave Killian uneasy.  She almost reminded him of Pan—

“Of course I do.”  The oaf had no clue.  “What must I do?”

“Ah, perhaps it’s a mite unwise to be talking of eternal youth and beauty without discussing the price.”  Killian stepped forward hastily, his eyes on Faustina.  “I know enough about magic, love, to know that there’s always a price.”

She waved a hand.  “It’s negligible.  Nothing you need concern yourself with, dear Captain.  A death is required, but it is naught to worry your conscience.”

He narrowed his eyes.  “And what do you get out of this?”

“It is my gift.  I grant it to those I find worthy.”  She smiled, but the expression did not reach her eyes.  “It is a true pity that you are too old.”

“If it’s all the same to you, love, I’ll keep the pity and pass on the enchantment.”  Not shuddering took all of Killian’s self-control.  “Mate, you and I have a mission to accomplish.  Perhaps we’d best be about that, and then return to see about that eternal youth.”

Coming back here might be a good way to dispose of Gaston if that proved necessary, so Killian wasn’t going to rule the possibility out.  No price, indeed.  Faustina looks less trustworthy than the last Siren I met, and twice as tricky.  Gaston hesitated, of course, but a few not-so-subtle nudges from Killian got him moving, and before long, they’d put a decent distance between themselves and Madam Faustina.  She reminded Killian far too much of Pan, just more polite and less likely to sick a shadow on you.  She seemed to have a shadow, though, so this is likely some other bizarre enchantment.

I hate magic.


 

Fiona felt the explosion before it hit, and she reached out with her own magic just in time to pull Belle back from the blinding eruption of white and gold light.  Belle crashed into her—Fiona had been more concerned with speed than finesse—yelping in shock, but it was Rumplestiltskin’s gasp that Fiona listened for.  Magic filled the room, bright and beautiful and light, and the buzzing in Fiona’s ears would have told her what type of power this was had her eyes failed to identify it.

I did it, Tiger!

“What—what was that?” Rumplestiltskin still had a tendency to stutter, apparently, but that could be worked on.  Or not.  Fiona found it rather endearing, but even she admitted that, as his mother, she was bound to be biased.

“That was magic, of course.  Your magic, now.”  The smile that tugged on her lips was fierce enough to hurt, but Fiona didn’t care.  She could see his magic now, see it swirling around Rumplestiltskin in that same white and gold.  This wasn’t the darkness that Nimue had turned the Grail’s power to; no, this was the same power that Merlin had taken.

The urge to go fetch the Apprentice just so she could rub his face in this was overpowering.  But she wouldn’t turn him into a ferret again.  Ferrets couldn’t appreciate the enormity of what had just happened.

“But I—I—this can’t be.”  Rumplestiltskin shook his head drunkenly.  “Someone—someone like me can’t…”

“You’re stuttering again, dear.”

“Fiona!”  Belle twisted to glare at her.

“What?” She hadn’t said anything terrible, had she?  Rumplestiltskin had flushed a little, true, but Fiona was only pointing out the obvious.

“Be nice,” Belle hissed before pulling away from Fiona and heading back to Rumplestiltskin to take his hands once more.  Fiona wouldn’t have done it—not while his magic was still going haywire—but Belle had always been too brave for her own good.  That was no surprise.

Rumplestiltskin, on the other hand, looked completely spooked.  But Belle’s touch seemed to calm him, at least a little.  “I have magic,” he whispered, sounding confused.  “How—I mean, I didn’t expect this.”

“I think that means your mother was right.”  Belle smiled.

“Damn right I was.”  Fiona’s mutter went completely ignored, and if she hadn’t just seen this woman break her son’s curse with True Love’s kiss, she would have been frightfully jealous.

“Tell me about this magic,” Belle said when Rumplestiltskin fidgeted uneasily, staring at his hands, which Belle still held.

Good girl, Fiona thought.  She wanted to know, too; she’d never met Merlin—he was far before her time—and she’d often wondered if he was everything legend said.  After all, he’d let himself get turned into a tree by an ex-girlfriend.  That didn’t speak of complete and utter power.  Either that, or he had terrible taste in women.  Then again, that was Nimue…  She was glad to see the last of that toxic fiend. 

“It’s powerful.”  His eyes flicked up to look at Fiona.  “It’s…I do think this is grail magic.”  An uneasy laugh.  “You said that the Apprentice told you that that was behind the curse?”

She nodded.  “Nimue drank from the Grail and turned that power to darkness.  Now, what I hope is that it was her using light magic to murder—and taking it with dark intentions—that twisted it so, but the Apprentice had no idea.  He’s worse than a history book, in that way.  He’s terribly biased.”

Belle snorted softly.  “So are many books.”

Rumplestiltskin still looked a little overwhelmed, although he was trying valiantly to hide it.  Now was not the time to tell her son that his human face hid a great deal less emotion than it had while he was the Dark One, however.  Fiona sensed that was still going to be a sore point for some time.  The fool boy is equally powerful now, but change is hard.  She forced herself to take a deep breath and be patient—after all, her son was free of the darkness.  He need never be a slave to Nimue and her cohorts again, which made another thought occur to her.

“I suppose you can finally get rid of that damned dagger,” she mused, smiling nastily.  “Even if Zelena does manage to bring her blasted mother back, she’ll never be using it to control you, no matter how hard she wishes.”

Rumplestiltskin started, his brown eyes going wide.  “I—I hadn’t thought of that.”  A reluctant smile tried to tug on his lips, and Fiona felt her own expression softening.

“Well, there are some silver linings to this, aren’t there?”

“Yeah.”  He looked like he wasn’t sure what to do with such freedom.  “I suppose there are.”

“What dagger?”  Belle looked between the two of them in confusion, centering on Rumplestiltskin.  “Rumple?”

“Oh—uh, nothing.”  His face closed off, and Fiona could have kicked him. 

Nasty old habits, I suppose.  “Just a little perk of being the Dark One.”  She said the words as lightly as she could.  “There’s a dagger that could control him—or kill him.  Not that anyone managed either.”

Rumplestiltskin’s small cringe reminded her how close they’d come, but Fiona was not going to let that dampen her enthusiasm.

“That’s horrible!”  Belle looked suitably offended on Rumplestiltskin’s behalf, just as Fiona had known she would be.  The girl loved him, after all.  It was True Love.  Fiona didn’t particularly trust in love as a general rule—excepting familial love, which was a different beast than the romantic variety that had petered out on her—but True Love was of an entirely different breed.

“I suppose it doesn’t matter, now.”  Rumplestiltskin looked thoughtful.  “I can’t hear the dagger, not anymore.  Or the other Dark Ones.”

Fiona walked over to the pair, bending to kiss her son on the top of the head.  For once, he didn’t bristle, and the brown eyes that looked up at her were clear and bright.  “I’m proud of you,” she whispered.  “So very proud.”

Mother.” His embarrassed growl was almost a whine of the little boy she’d never known, and Fiona was not going to let anyone on to how badly that choked her up. 

She just grinned.  “You were both marvelous.  True Love wins out, and all those other ridiculously romantic mantras.  You’ve made a believer of me.”

“Mother!”  Rumplestiltskin glared, but Belle’s giggle undermined that as Fiona reached out to pull both to their feet.

“Now, what shall we do with our newly free little family?  Shall we go see the Apprentice and make him eat his words, or do you two want to wed first?”

“Wait a minute, I am not letting you propose for him.”  Belle pointed a finger at Fiona brazenly as Rumplestiltskin’s eyes tried to bug out of his skull.  “We’ll get to that in our own good time.”

She shrugged.  “Just be sure you don’t take forever.  I want more grandbabies.”  Both blushed furiously, and Fiona laughed merrily before turning back to her son.  “And I’d like to meet the one I already have, preferably without a curse and a twenty-eight year wait.”

“Yes.”  Rumplestiltskin glanced down at his hands, and magic sparked slightly from his fingertips.  “Much though I don’t want to wait, though, I think it behooves me to take the time to understand this magic.”  He grimaced.  “Assuming we’re going to return here.”

“We had better.”  Fiona felt her lips curl up into a snarl.  “Who wants to live in a world without magic?  That would be terribly uncivilized.”

Rumplestiltskin’s shrug said more than he clearly wanted to say aloud, but Fiona let it pass.  Her son was free, and they were going to find her grandson.

And then she could prevail upon the lovebirds to create grandchildren whom she could know from the beginning.


 

“Did you do it?” Robin’s question didn’t imply that he felt that Regina should or shouldn’t have given her magic up, and his face was full of concern for her.

Looking at him made Regina feel strangely warm inside, and she almost jumped out of her skin when he reached out to take her hand.  Forcing herself to focus took a moment; her heart was racing as fast as her favorite stallion could gallop.  “I did.  Zelena offered peace, too, much to my surprise.”  She took a deep breath.  “I think she might have meant it, too.  For the moment.”

They both knew how changeable Zelena was, but Regina thought her sister had been being honest.  This could change everything.  Could they stop the war?  It wasn’t ideal, but Regina knew that most peace treaties signed throughout history were far from perfect.  Anything that saved lives and ended the war was preferable to more people dying, particularly after they finished kicking King George to the curb.  The man had become a tyrant in the last few years, and Regina would not be sad to see him go.

“Well, that’s an interesting development.”  Robin looked like he wasn’t sure if he thought he could trust Zelena or not.

“I know you hate her,” Regina said softly, squeezing his hand.  “She killed your wife.  You have every right to hate her.”

“And nothing will stop that.”  Robin looked away for a moment.  “But that doesn’t mean I’ll oppose a peace with her if it save more lives.  Mind you, I might be tempted to put an arrow through her eye if I get a good shot, but I won’t do it if it dooms the kingdom.  We’ve worked too hard for that.”

“How have things gone while I was away?” 

“Good!  The army is almost at the capital, and our spies say that King George is contemplating running away rather than facing a siege.”

“That’s wonderful!  Are Snow and Charming all right?”  Regina hadn’t imagined the news could be so good—no wonder why Zelena wanted peace!  She couldn’t be confident they wouldn’t do the same to her.

“Just fine.  In fact—Tink, what are you doing here?” 

Regina turned, following Robin’s suddenly confused gaze, only to find Tinker Belle glaring at her.  Oh, no.  She saw me at Zelena’s and wonders what I was doing.  Not that it’s any of her business, but… This was going to be ugly.  Very ugly.

“Regina.”  Tink all but ignored Robin, who frowned slightly.  “Can we talk?”

Regina took a deep breath.  “Sure.”  She looked at Robin, squeezing his hand again.  “We’ll be right outside camp.  Will you let Snow know I’m back and that I’ll see her soon?”

“Of course.”  He looked like he wanted to say something more, but Robin gave her a soft smile and headed off, leaving Regina alone with the ex-fairy.

“Why were you at Zelena’s castle?” Tink asked before Regina had a chance to speak, barely waiting until Robin was out of earshot.

“I’m not sure I like your tone.”  Regina couldn’t help bristling; Tink’s abrasive manner was all but accusing her of treason.

“I’m not sure I liked what I saw.”  Tink glared back.  “Did you tell her that I’m working with Snow and the others?”

“Of course not!  What do you take me for?”

“Her sister.”

Excuse me?” Regina snarled the words before she could stop herself.  “I have been fighting by Snow’s side since before you decided you didn’t want to be Blue’s toady and decided to do something different!  Zelena may be my sister, but that doesn’t mean I’d betray anyone here!”

“Then tell me what you were doing.”  Tink crossed her arms.

“If you must know, I was talking to Zelena about making peace.”  Anything else wasn’t Tink’s business as far as Regina was concerned.  Her mother certainly wasn’t Tink’s business.  “And she might actually do it, too.”

 “Did Snow send you?”

“No.”  Regina shook her head.  “I can’t believe you’re acting like this.  I’m not some servant who can’t come and go as I please.  I saw an opportunity and I took advantage of it to try to save our people.  Crucify me for that if you want.”

“Regina, I’m not trying to say that you’re—”

“Yes, you are,” she cut her off harshly.  “You don’t want to say it outright, but you are trying to say that I am betraying my best friends.  For the record, I’d prefer to hear accusations like that to my face.”

“I just know that she can’t be trusted!” Tink looked hurt, but Regina didn’t care.  If Tink didn’t like this conversation, well, she shouldn’t have started it.  “I know she’ll make promises and break them!”

“Of course she will.  Do you think I’ve forgotten the three times she tried to kill me?”

Tink swallowed.  “I honestly don’t know what you’re thinking.  Particularly not if you won’t tell me.”

“I am telling you what I’m thinking.”  Regina bit back a snarl with all she was worth.  Antagonizing Tink wouldn’t help her cause, even if it would feel great.  “I’m not an idiot.  I know Zelena breaks as many promises as she makes.  But if there’s even a remote chance of peace, shouldn’t we take it.”

“With her?”  Tink shook her head.  “I don’t think so.  I don’t think it’ll be worth the price.”

“Well, lucky for us, you’re not making the decisions here, huh?”  Squaring her shoulders, Regina headed into the camp to find Snow and Charming.  If Tink was going to tattle, she planned on beating her to the punch.   

Chapter Text

Bae had found another merchant who knew about his father, and talking to him had taken his mind off of wondering about Tiger Lily’s mysterious trip that she still wouldn’t talk about.  Then he ran into Captain Thenardier.

“‘E waltzed right in like he was aspect—expecting—to hear from us.”  Thenardier was more than a little drunk, and Bae had been happy to buy him another drink to get him talking.  The Marchlands officer was in Port Mystic to visit some relative or another, but he’d obviously started drinking long before Bae showed up. 

And complaining about my father.  Bae swallowed before pressing onwards: “And then what happened?”

“Would you believe he swept the lord’s daughter right off her feet?” Thenardier snorted angrily.  “She was happy ‘bout it, too.  Strangest thing I ever saws.”

“Wait a minute.”  Bae had to blink.  “What?” 

Thenardier hiccupped.  “Granted, Sir Gaston was no price—prize.  But t’pick a scaly looking giggly imp over him has to be”—hiccup—“madness.”

“I’d say.”  How in the world did his father sweep some noblewoman off of her feet?  Bae couldn’t imagine any world in which that had happened.  Thenardier had to be wrong. 

“Rumor said she’d marry him.  ‘Parently her father was all worried ‘bout it, but Lady Belle’s always been a mite reck—well, stubborn.”  Thenardier blinked woozily at Bae.  “Why I am telling you this again, boy?”

“Cause I bought you a drink?”

Thenardier threw him a suspicious look before stumbling off, and Bae didn’t follow.  He wasn’t going to get any more information from the captain, even if he was drunk, and it was enough.  Weird, but enough.


 

“How are you feeling?” Belle came to sit next to Rumplestiltskin on the couch with the same ease she’d displayed a few days ago; if his new face was throwing her for a loop, she hid it well.

“Still a little strange, I suppose.”  Rumplestiltskin couldn’t help glancing down at his still-human hands.  A good night’s sleep hadn’t provided any answers, although he found that sleeping was quite novel.  He hadn’t needed sleep in centuries, although Rumplestiltskin sometimes sought it to escape the voices in his mind.  Now, however, the thought of going without sleep left him cranky and made him feel like someone had put his mind through a hand blender.

Her hand caressed his shoulder gently, and Rumplestiltskin had to use all of his self control not to melt into Belle.  “It’s so very different, isn’t it?”

“Quite.”  Rumplestiltskin swallowed.  “Everything is so…quiet.”

“You mean because the other Dark Ones are gone?”

“Yeah.”  Did he miss them?  Rumplestiltskin wasn’t sure.  Sometimes, he did.  They’d been the only companions he had had for so long, at least until his mother arrived.  And then Belle.  Belle, who had changed everything.

“Are you all right, Rumple?”

He finally looked away from his hands and up at her.  Her beautiful blue eyes were full of concern, and she wasn’t looking at him any differently than she once had.  That was good, right?  His answer came out in a whisper.  “I…I think so.  It’s so different.” 

“You look different, too.”  Belle’s smile took away any sting those words might carry, but he still felt them prickle under his skin.  “You’re so—”

“Old?”

She swatted his shoulder gently.  “Don’t be silly.  I was going to say handsome.”

That took a moment to process, and when it did, Rumplestiltskin felt his mouth drop open.  “You—you were?”

“Of course I was.”  Belle reached out to touch his cheek, and this time Rumplestiltskin did let himself melt into her touch, just a little.  “Don’t you realize how handsome you are?”

“I’ve never been handsome.”  He swallowed hard.  “I was just a poor crippled peasant, with no prospects and nothing except my son.”

“Peasants can be handsome, you know.”  Belle laughed gently.  “Although I’d hardly call you a peasant now.  Not with the castle and the magic.”

“I suppose not.”  Rumplestiltskin hadn’t really thought of it that way.  He was still uneasy about his new—old?—magic, but he was glad to have it.  So glad.  He didn’t know what he’d be without magic, aside from a father.

And Belle’s True Love.  Magic didn’t make you into that.  Your hearts did.  That inner voice sounded a little like his mother, but it spoke truly enough, even if Rumplestiltskin was still inclined to be terrified of this new beginning.

“See?”  She leaned in to kiss his cheek.  “It’s a new life, Rumple, and it can be a better one if you let it.  You don’t have to be afraid.”

“I’m—I’m afraid I’m not very good at that, sometimes.”

Belle drew back a little to study him.  “Why not?  You weren’t afraid as the Dark One, were you?”

“That was different.”

“How?”

“My magic—my magic was limitless, and the others…well, they made me bold, sometimes.  Even when I didn’t want to be.”  He couldn’t believe he was telling her this, but if Rumplestiltskin couldn’t trust Belle, who could he trust?  She truly wasn’t going to leave, not even now, and that thought left him warm and happy in ways that frightened him.

“You still have more than enough magic, don’t you?”

“I suppose.”  If his mother was right, the magic was the same, just without the taint of darkness.  And Nimue.  Without her and the other passengers, too.

Belle squeezed his shoulder again.  “Then what are you worried about?”

“I…for centuries I knew exactly who I was.  Now I really don’t know.”  He hated the way his voice shook.  Hated the indecisiveness.  Hated feeling like he might be a coward again.

“Of course you do.”  Belle smiled again.  “You’re Rumplestiltskin.  You’re a father, you’re a son, and you’re my True Love.  Isn’t that enough?”

Rumplestiltskin opened his mouth to say no, but stopped himself.  What had he wanted from life, back when he’d been young and optimistic?  He had wanted a family to call his own.  A woman who loved him, and a son who could be proud to call him father.  He’d wanted a good parent, too, although Rumplestiltskin had long since resigned himself to the fact that his father would never be there.  His mother, however…she was here.  And she had stayed with him through some of his worst moments before helping him find the courage to let his curse go.

“Yes,” he breathed after a moment, turning to look into Belle’s eyes.  “Yes, it is.”

This time he leaned