It's a cosmic injustice, but I do not own Once Upon a Time.
It started that first night. There was a heavy rain covering his tracks. He'd gotten into the deep forest and wasn't sure where he was going. If he didn't, he told himself, anyone trying to follow him wouldn't know either. It kept him going till, cold and exhausted, he collapsed beneath the shelter of a tree.
He dreamt, as he always did, of the night he fell through the portal, the night his father let him go. Only, now the dream changed. His father was a man—a normal man. But, instead of being who he was before the curse, he had changed. Yet, despite that, Bae knew it was his father. His bearded face reminded Bae of Hordor, the soldier who had taken Morraine off to war and who would have taken Bae—Hordor, who had threatened Bae to make his father kiss his boots, then beaten him till Papa couldn't even stand. This man had the same cold, harshness in his eyes the soldier had had as he knocked Papa to the ground and kicked him.
His hair was about the same color as the beggar's, too, the one Papa had helped and who had then helped Bae get Papa home after the soldiers were gone—the beggar who had really been Zoso, the Dark One, the man who tortured and sometimes killed anyone who stood in the way of the duke's men. It was Zoso who had probably sent the soldiers to find Papa and Bae before they could escape.
Yet, his face was Papa's, too. Bae could see the lines of it, as if Papa's face had been rebuilt, strong and hard with none of the starved look Bae remembered from when Papa had been human.
And, even if he hadn't seen that, in the dream, he knew it was Papa, his Papa. He knew.
Before this, Bae had dreamt, night after night, of the portal, of Papa holding him, then letting him go. Now, it changed. At first, Bae dreamt they were back in their own world. Bae was just a small child, smaller than he'd been when the pirate had killed Mama (if that was what he'd done, if Hook hadn't been telling the truth and it was Papa who killed her). Yet, in the dream, Bae worked desperately at spinning, the way Papa had always done. In the dream, Bae was spinning for Papa, trying to save him, trying to be good enough so they would have money and comfort instead of being apart. He was the one, when men beat Papa, stepping in to stop them. Or trying to stop them.
In the dream, Papa didn't beg the men not to do this where Bae could see. Instead, after his beating, he looked down at Bae in disgust, telling him he was no longer any good to him if he wasn't small enough to make the men think twice about pummeling him. That was when he left Bae, when Bae failed him. . . .
And, then, the dream changed. Bae found Papa. He showed him the portal—and Papa went through it with him. Instead of the harshness of London, they found themselves in Neverland. But, this was a Neverland without shadows and poison. This was a land where children's dreams—not their nightmares—became real.
They could be happy here, Bae thought. He had finally given Papa what he needed. Papa would stay with him now, and they would be happy.
Except, in the confused way of dreams, Papa was gone. Bae was left alone and couldn't find him.
Till they were back at the portal, the night Papa let him go. Only, now, Papa was throwing him through. Papa was telling Bae he stood between him and everything he wanted, his magic, his power.
But, this time, small as he was, Bae managed to cling to him, to hold on tight while Papa tried to throw him away. And Papa called the shadow, the same shadow that had taken Wendy, then tried to steal her brothers. It seized Bae, dragging him away. Still, Bae held on—
-till Papa threw him off, watching as the shadow took him away, a look of satisfaction in his eyes.
In a final, nightmare twist, Papa transformed again. This time, he didn't become the scaled creature who sometimes still seemed to look at Bae with his father's eyes. This time, he changed into a completely different monster. Pan watched him with smug satisfaction as Bae was carried off.
Bae woke, his heart pounding. He got up and started running again.
The nightmare came back. After that first night, the bits and pieces of it mixed in with all of Bae's other nightmares. He saw the portal, he heard his father say how he didn't need him, how Bae was in the way.
And Papa let go, Papa threw him away. Neverland and the Shadows captured Bae because his father didn't want him.
Later, Bae would remember Pan's thinking tree, as he called it, and wonder what it really was and what had made it. It had the power to chain people to it with regrets. Yet, Pan had no regrets. What tied Pan to it, what made it his? Bae, who knew something of magic and how it worked, thought he knew how something like the thinking tree might grow. And what it might grow from.
Later, looking back, he would admit he first began to suspect the answer when he knew his father was in the world Bae had escaped to. When they stood face to face and his father begged him to forgive him, to let him make things right, the memory of those nightmares, relived night after night, sounded in his mind like notes that didn't fit.
"There's no greater pain than regret," his father said to him.
"Try abandonment," Bae said.
If Emma had been in the room, she would have hit him and he knew it. But, right then, he didn't care. He wanted to strike out at his father and make him go away. He wanted to hit him with the one weapon he knew would cut deeper than any other.
So, he ignored what he saw in his father's eyes, ignored the difference between three hundred years of nightmares and the memories he so often shoved aside along with the loose threads of a mystery he could already feel gathering in his mind.
"Every night for more years than you could know," Bae said, refusing to think about how ancient the man standing in front of him was or how he had spent that time in a world where years passed at the normal rate of minutes and hours and days instead of like a timeless dream in Neverland. "The last thing I see before sleep is the image of you—You and me over that pit, your hand ... wrapped around mine. And then you open your grip. And as I fall away, all I can see is your face. Choosing all this crap over me. Letting me go." He didn't say the rest of it, though it was on the edge of his tongue. He didn't say, "You threw me away," or "I remember what you said," (though he hadn't said it) "You wanted it, and I was in the way."
Instead, he kept it simple. "Now it's my turn. Now I'm letting you go."
Later, he would remember the pain in his father's eyes. Later, he would talk with Belle about his father and hear her innocently say, "I don't know everything about your father's life before we met. Just bits and pieces. But, I know he had a fear of people leaving him. It took him a long time to believe I wouldn't walk away from him or let him go."
People leaving him. Not him leaving them.
That was when he began to think back, to try to separate dreams from memories.
But, that was after it was too late, when the words were already said. It was after he had seen his father stop Pan when he was reaching for Bae's heart. Papa had had no magic, no power, nothing to stop Pan with except a single knife, a dagger that could only be used one way.
It was after Bae had seen his father push the blade through Pan's heart and into his own, their lives magically bound together, that he had understood.
Blood magic had allowed Rumplestiltskin to leave tools and protections only he—or Bae—could use, things that had shown Bae where he needed to go to save his own son.
Blood magic, despite everything Pan had done to sever the ties between them, still bound Pan to the child he had given life, the child he loathed and hated but didn't dare kill.
In that moment before death claimed them both, Pan's magic had slipped away. He became that other man, Rumplestiltskin's father and Bae's grandfather.
His face was a little like Hordor's, bearded and ruthless, a man who would humiliate a cripple in front of his own son, then kick and beat him for the fun of it. It was a little like Zoso's, eyes calculating and cold as he sought how best to manipulate others for his own ends.
And his face was like his father's, his father's face if it had had the strong bones of a man who hadn't grown up half-starved and always waiting to see how the world would hit him next.
That was when Bae understood what had been planted in Neverland's soil to create the thinking tree and whose heart it had come from, the tree that could tether souls with regrets but never had power over Pan. He understood, too, whose nightmares he had watched for years before throwing them back in his father's face.
And, then, it was too late. Too late to tell Papa what he knew. Too late not just to say he forgave him but to ask for his forgiveness. Too late—
Too late to speak. Too late to act.
Bae stood, looking at the place where Papa had stood. Behind him, he heard Belle sobbing. He knew he should turn to her, should help her. It was what Papa would want. It was the one thing left in all this world he might do for Papa. But, Bae stood frozen in place, unable to move.
Papa was gone.