Everything looked familiar even if it was all wrong. Granny's stood just off Main Street, but there was trash littering the front yard and the roof looked like it might cave in at any time. The inn behind it had been completely obliterated. The windows were blown out on the pet shelter and a glance down the street a ways showed the clock tower was crumbling, the hands on the clock stuck at the exact time that Henry and Emma had crossed over the townline to escape. Gusts of wind picked the littered trash up, simply redistributing it down the otherwise abandoned streets and the skies overhead rumbled dangerously. It was like everyone had fled some great storm that had descended upon the little town in Maine, leaving only the destruction that followed in behind them.
There was one man left, though, and he felt the need to find someone welling up within him. Several someones, if he were honest with himself and he pushed through what was left of Storybrooke, calling out names as he went. No one answered. No one was left to answer.
It reminded him of what he'd seen in the Enchanted Forest when he'd been searching for a way to get to Emma and Henry. Bae knew that, somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind, but the thoughts didn't make sense. He wasn't sure what could have done this to the town and left him behind. As he looked around, he saw that he was truly, utterly alone.
His father's pawn shop still stood just down from Granny's. Of course it did. The world could crash down around it - and had - but it remained standing. The windows were cracked and the door was hanging open, slightly off its hinges like someone had forced their way in. He pushed it carefully, avoiding the glass that was littered through the opening. "Papa?" he called, his voice lost to the empty and damaged little shop.
"Dad?" came a voice in return and Bae knew it well. He darted for the back of the shop, not caring to avoid the shattered glass tops that had once been the viewing tables or the various bits and pieces that were scattered across the broken floor. Henry was in the back and in that moment he was certain he hadn't seen him in far too long.
"Hey, buddy," he greeted as he pushed back the curtain only to find the back of the shop empty, the exit just past his father's work table ajar as the front door had been. He opened it up and caught sight of the little yellow bug that he'd stolen, once upon a long time ago and that Emma, in turn, had stolen from him. It was on its way out of town, putting towards that line that was marked in bright orange and Bae felt fear rising up in him. They couldn't leave. If they left, they'd never remember any of them. That's how the curse worked. "Emma!" he called, trying to catch up, but the voice behind him made him stop.
"You'll never make it."
Bae whirled around, finding Henry standing at the door. He wasn't smiling, but instead looked at him with an expression he knew all too well. It was the same look he'd seen in the mirror after he'd fallen through the portal, his hand slipping from his papa's when the dagger had meant more to him than his own son. "Henry?"
"You let us go," his son said evenly, his voice cold. "You abandoned us, just like your dad did to you and his did to him. You were going to break the cycle, but you didn't."
"No, Henry, I'm trying to get back to you," Bae answered in a rush, memories crushing in around him and flying away again just as quickly so that he couldn't quite pick them apart. All he knew was that he needed to get to his son. Even as he reached out, though, Henry started to fade, that accusing look cutting through him sharper than any knife ever could.
Baelfire's eyes snapped open and he found himself looking straight up at what might have been an ornate marble ceiling once. There were cracks in it now, caused by a curse that had ripped everyone from the Enchanted Forest. A curse his father had used to get to him. The reversal of that curse had stolen Henry away, though, and that was what Bae had been trying so desperately to piece together amidst his nightmare.
He managed to disentangle himself from the sheets in a bed that probably hadn't been used in centuries - if ever - and pressed bare feet down to the cold wood, making his way down the hall of the castle, his mind spinning to put together facts. Henry and Emma were gone, trapped in the Land Without Magic with no memories of anything that had taken place in Storybrooke. Bae, along with everyone else, had been put back down by the curse's reversal into the land of his birth. Well, almost everyone else. His father hadn't come through with him. Rumplestiltskin had died to make sure that they remained safe. He'd died so that Bae could find his happy ending.
Instead all Bae had found was a lonely ache left behind. His son and his love were gone and the father that he'd just managed to find again had died for him. His papa had been right: there truly was no pain worse than regret. There were no happy endings in sight.
No, he reminded himself firmly, that's why they were there. He and Belle had split ways from David and Mary Margaret to journey to the Dark Castle and find a way to bring his father back. Belle seemed determined that the fact that the dagger was missing meant that there was a way and they'd stumbled almost immediately on a very helpful candle that had shown them the way to a key that would open the Vault of the Dark One. It was their best option and they'd made pans to leave at dawn for the vault.
"Do you feel like this is all coming too easily?" Belle asked almost immediately as he padded his way into the Great Hall. She was seated in one of two overstuffed chairs that they'd dragged into the room before splitting ways - so he'd thought - to go to bed, but by the looks of the fire she'd never left.
Bae quirked an eyebrow and took a seat across from her. It was freezing outside and the spells mean to keep the cold out of his father's castle had long since worn down, leaving it just as drafty as any of the other abandoned castles that littered the Enchanted Forest after the Dark Curse hit. "And you're complaining about this?"
Belle shifted a little, flipping the page of the book she was reading. There were stacks of others that she'd apparently made her way through, with bits of paper marking places that she'd taken notes in them. She'd been busy, without a doubt, and Bae couldn't help but wonder why she was trying to find a reason not to pursue this.
"No," she said at last, "I just keep trying to imagine what Rumple would say if he was here. He'd tell us that everything comes with a price, and I'm wondering what that could be."
She had a point, as much as he didn't want to admit it. Bae had been so laser-focused on finding a way to get back to Emma and Henry that he'd ignored anything that was inconvenient. The larger the goal, the steeper the price, but that was certainly inconvenient when all he could do was think about how quickly he needed to get back to his son. He'd be a fool to say that he'd pay anything, because even he knew that wasn't true. What would the point of returning to his loved ones be if it immediately cost him his life? Some prices were simply unmanageable, and with those words from Belle's mouth he could almost hear his father in them.
"Well," Bae said reasonably, "we traveled here and we're looking. That's something."
Belle laughed at him. "Something, perhaps."
He sighed. "No, I get it. I get what you're saying, but if it's a chance… If it can bring my dad back so that we can get back to Storybrooke, then we should take that chance. What if the price is in taking the gamble?"
"May I… ask you a very personal question?"
Bae stopped, finding her clear blue eyes fixated on him and he couldn't shake the feeling that the woman could look into his very soul. Not for the first time he could almost feel the depth of Belle's love for the man that they'd been speaking about. It was strange. He'd been young, certainly, but he'd never felt that from his mother when his parents had been together. Milah had been spiteful and she'd been angry. Her words were cutting and did more damage than any of the blows that somehow landed on Rumplestiltskin's shoulders in the little village in which Bae had been a child. Belle, though, was something entirely different. He hadn't spent a great deal of time around them together, but he had seen the influence that she'd made on his father and it couldn't be denied. No, that woman had somehow pulled back the many layers of evil that Rumplestiltskin had been wrapped in to show a glimmer of Bae's papa beneath, and for that, he nodded the go ahead. He thought he could manage a bit of honesty.
"I know, and of course understand, that you want to get back to Emma and Henry, but… even if your father couldn't help you get to them, would you still want to bring him back?"
Okay, maybe not that honest. Bae felt a coldness spread through his chest and he knew the question was loaded with pitfalls and dangers of all kinds. Not that Belle meant for it to be, he didn't think, but it was just the nature of discussing his and his father's relationship. His papa had been his entire life as a little boy, and even more so when his mom had left - abandoned - them. That's why the change had been so difficult when Rumplestiltskin had set out on his quest to find a way to save his son as himself, but had returned as a demon. Bae hadn't been willing to fully believe he'd lost his father to it, though, until he felt his fingers loosen around his own smaller wrist and the portal had pulled in him through, leaving the creature that had stolen his father's face and his father's life behind.
His first trip to Neverland had left him bitter and calloused to a great degree. Baelfire hadn't wanted to remember the good moments of his childhood - and there had been many - lest his heart continue to break for the man he'd known. Instead, he walled himself off, determined to forget his papa and make a new life for himself. He had done both and then the very same man - wearing the face of his papa, not the demon - had come barging back into his life with something that might have been an apology if looked at at just the right angle and all the wrong words. Bae had held tightly to his bitterness that afternoon and he'd shut him out until the idea of losing him was forcefully shoved in his face. Then, and only then, had he opened himself up to hoping again. It hadn't lasted, but he'd hoped.
The return to Neverland to find Henry had changed everything for both of them. Rumplestiltskin had thought his son was dead and his son had found out that his father wasn't really gone. He was just buried under layers and layers of hurt and regret and pain. They talked - really talked - for the first time in centuries on the deck of the Jolly Roger and the hope had returned to stay. They'd promised each other to try, and Bae had fully intended to live by that. He knew his father would try his damndest too, because even if he'd been on the receiving end of the one deal the Dark One had broken, Rumplestiltskin was well known to keep his deals these days.
"Bae?" Belle whispered and the elder man blinked, finding tears sticking to his eyelashes. "I'm sorry, I didn't meant to-"
"It's fine," he answered quickly and was surprised to find his voice rough. "Yes. Yes, I'd want him back regardless. I didn't…" Bae pulled in a deep, steadying breath. His emotions were always so conflicted when it came to his papa. Sometimes he felt guilty for not focusing on his own son more and then he'd feel guilty for not thinking about his father. That emotion was digging in deep at the moment and he closed his eyes to speak. "We didn't get to say everything that needed to be said. He needs to know that I love him too. I can't just let him go without him knowing."
His father's True Love offered him the warmest smile he thought he'd ever seen and she reached across the space between them, her small hand touching his. "We'll get him back," she promised, "and you can tell him."
Bae nodded, trying for a smile of his own. Putting his family back together might come at a steep price, but there were very few he wasn't willing to pay.
Belle hadn't slept. Granted, she hadn't slept a lot since the curse's reversal had put them back into the Enchanted Forest. Every time she closed her eyes she saw Rumple's face and those dark, so very human eyes of his turning to her, telling her that she made him stronger. How strong, though, had cut deeper than any physical wound could have. She'd felt her heart begin to crack a little when he'd spoken because somehow she'd known that this was his way of saying goodbye.
Then the dagger had gone straight through Pan - as small as he was there was hardly any doubt that it would - and Belle had known the instant that it had pierced her love as well. She'd known when he died because her heart shattered in her chest, the feeling dragging her to the ground as she cried.
She'd spent their night in the Dark Castle researching anything that she could find on the Dark One. She knew that if anyone had books on his curse, it would have been Rumplestiltskin. Many of the books that had been littered throughout his home in Storybrooke, in his shop, and even some that had made their way into the library had been returned to the tower he'd built just for her and while she certainly hadn't had time to look through them all, she'd at least had a pretty good idea where to start.
Something tugged at her mind when it came to their overly helpful candle that had somehow come alive in the library tower just for them. She'd never come across him in her time there and she was about certain that she'd lit every candle that there was to light, especially ones that were in the library. That didn't necessarily mean he was lying, of course, but it did make her question, so she'd set out to try to find anything that she could about the Dark One, the vault, and what it all meant.
The book that the key had been in held precious little, but there were a few tomes scattered about that she'd found and made note of. While many Dark Ones' names were lost to history there had been a bit about bubbling darkness from the depths of the earth and the tortuous screams of those left behind by their curse. None of it seemed well documented, but almost as if it had been lost to legend. In the end, she hadn't found anything that kept them from leaving out first thing that next morning, Lumiere tucked away in a satchel to keep him out of the snow. He'd given them detailed instructions that they were to make their way down the mountain away from ocean on the other side - and Maleficent's fortress - and past the village at the bottom. Some three or so hours later, if their pace was steady, they'd reach the edge of Sherwood Forest, the candle had told them, and from there they were to wind around, finding a stream - surely frozen over at this time of the year - and follow it along yet another hour at a good pace, then divate once they found the forked tree. Bae had had a snide remark or two about that one, but they were eagerly assured that they'd know it when they saw it.
"Lightning hit it," Belle said as she looked up at the charred, dead lump of wood split nearly in two. Her feet were sore and she was about half frozen. The trip down the mountain had taken longer than she remembered, though they hadn't had the luxury of Rumple's carriage that they had used when traveling before the curse. The snow hid the ice beneath it, and on the steeper parts of the path it made it very slick. Neither she or Bae had managed to avoid slamming down hard on their backside at least once each.
They'd left out just before dawn and the sun seemed to be setting by the time they finally found the tree. Bae shot it a distasteful look and stalked right past it. "This way, right?"
"It should be," Belle answered, shuffling through the snow drifts to keep up. While their journey had started off with plenty of chatter it had died down the further they walked. If she'd been tired before, she'd moved beyond it now into a state of drifting. Her thought had floated in and around, though the one constant through them was Rumple. "You know," she said as they worked their way through the foliage, "every since it happened I haven't been able to stop thinking about Rumple's sacrifice."
Bae turned towards her, the torch that they'd brought with them lighting their path and he gave her a questioning look.
"I mean how he died to save everyone in Storybrooke," she clarified.
"You know that wasn't it," Bae countered, his dark eyes meeting her own bright ones and she noticed as she had so many times since they'd set out on their journey together just how much like his father's they really were. "He died to save us. His family."
Belle knew that, but part of her wanted to believe that he'd grown to care about their little town too. He'd always told her that he was no hero like in one of her books, that he did everything for a reason and a price, but giving his life for them certainly hadn't been a selfish move. He'd broken past what he joked about as being a nasty habit of self preservation and he'd given everything to make sure they were safe. "At least he died a hero," she answered. Even if he'd never believe that he could be, she added silently.
"You surprised he had it in him?"
The question, especially after their conversation the night before, caught Belle a little off her guard, but she supposed that was to be expected. Bae loved his father and wanted him back, but that didn't mean that all of the years and years of hurt were suddenly washed away. There were questions and there were answers yet to be had, and she was certain that was part of what drove the elder man. "Course not," she answered truthfully and turned to him. "Were you?"
"I don't know," he said with a sideways look at her. His voice was guarded, not quite as open as it had been when they'd spoken about him in front of the fire, but it was thoughtful, like he was still working through so many of the emotions. "I mean, my papa was never the most selfless guy. I know he wished he hadn't let me go through that portal. I know how sorry he was, but now that I have a son of my own I can't imagine ever doing what he did."
Belle paused for a breath of a moment and looked at him. Conflict echoed in his eyes and she found herself wanting more than anything to help him do away with it. This man loved his father, loved what he had been as well as what he could be - would be - for him now. Rumple had chosen a better path and Belle had faith in him that he could continue to choose a better path as long as they both stood by his side. Bae needed to be strong for him as much as she did. "He regretted what happened with you so much," she said, hoping that somehow her words could convey even a fraction of what she knew that Rumple had felt. "He was willing to do anything to get back to you."
Bae chuckled, the sound tight and forced. "Well, that's one thing about him I can relate to. I'd do anything to get back to Henry."
He didn't say it, but Belle liked to think she was pretty good at reading between the lines, and if Bae was anything like his father, fear made him more prone to lashing out, even at those that he loved. He was worried that this wouldn't work, or if it did, that Rumplestiltskin still couldn't get him back to Emma and Henry. He was afraid that he'd never see them again and that he'd failed them. He didn't say it, but he didn't have to. She could see it in his expression and the way he carried himself. If he was anything like Rumple - and he was, more than he would probably ever care to admit it - it was time to change the subject.
"It's uh… It's getting colder." The snows had started to fall again, covering the ground in a layer of white. At first she'd thought that was the cause of it, but as they drew closer they could feel the unnatural cold of something dark and evil lurking near. Belle steeled herself. It was the Vault of the Dark One, not a grove of fairies. As they drew nearer it became clear that they were close and she saw the clearing, just as Lumiere had described to them. "Look."
The trees surrounded the clearing in nearly a perfect circle, but they hadn't blocked the snowfall. A lone stump sat just at the entrance and Bae moved to set the candle down on it and lit it. The flames leapt up and Lumiere appeared. "You found it!"
"Now what?" Bae demanded, patience apparently wearing thin.
Lumiere gave instructions to look at the center of the clearing for the door into the vault. Belle and Baelfire exchanged a look and their conversation from the night before passed silently between them before Bae's lips thinned out and he started in first. He walked to the center and sank down, digging in the snow as Belle came up from behind. Even as he called her name she could see the markings he was uncovering and again she thought that this all seemed much too easy.
"They key must go in the middle," she murmured as she watched him pull it from his jacket pocket. They looked at it and it looked like it would be a perfect fit. Though just because something fit didn't always mean that one should follow through with action. Knives fit well enough into electric sockets back in the Land Without Magic, afterall.
"You sure about this?" Bae called and they both turned to look at the irritable candle.
"I spent two hundred years in Rumplestiltskin's library witnessing more dark magic and sorcery than any living creature has ever seen!" Lumiere snapped and Belle stopped. That was it, the piece of the puzzle that had simply been missing. It was a damn big piece too.
"I'm sorry, how long did you say you were there?" she called out as Bae turned to continue studying the entrance.
"Two hundred years. At least!"
She quirked an eyebrow in a disbelieving look and reached out to grab Bae's attention. "He's lying."
"What?" her love's son mumbled and she stood. The snow was coming down harder now, but she could see clearer than she had for the last day in which this trip had been planned. Something about the candle's story hadn't set well with her, but Bae had been determined that he needed to get back now. She didn't blame him, of course, because she couldn't possibly wait a moment longer than she had to for Rumplestiltskin to come back to her, but they had to be smart. They had to be as clever as the clever man she loved, and she knew they had it in them to be.
"Rumple built that library for me not long before the curse," she said by way of explanation as she moved to confront the lying table decoration. "It's been there barely thirty years."
She could almost feel Bae's rage take over as he lashed out, demanding to know who their supposed guide really was and leveled some fairly attainable threats at him, including simply leaving him there. Lumiere's eyes widened and he didn't seem to consider for a moment that they wouldn't do it.
The story came tumbling out that Lumiere had been cursed by Zelena, not Rumple, and that the witch had told him that he must lure them to this place. She wanted them to bring Rumple back, but certainly not for the reasons that Belle or Bae had. "She wants you to bring back the Dark One so she can control him with his dagger."
Belle felt the world shift. She was certain that Rumple had never told her everything about his dagger, but once he'd finally opened up to her about Bae, that conversation had led to mean others. The dagger had been one. The Kris dagger was what he called it and it held within it part of his curse. He was linked to it, mind, body, and soul, and whoever owned that dagger controlled the Dark One. It was how he'd become the Dark One and should anyone ever take it, he'd said, they could either control him or kill him with it.
She turned towards Bae, the cold settling much deeper now. "We need to leave."
"Belle, that means we can bring him back," Baelfire argued. "Does it matter who got us here?"
While Bae looked a great deal like his father at a certain angle, Belle hadn't thought he sounded a great deal like him until now. It wasn't too much of a surprise, really, with how he'd tried for so long to be anything but Rumplestiltskin's son, but in that moment she could hear Rumple. All he wanted was to get back to his family and he didn't care what he had to do to get to that point. The difference was that his father weighed the cost carefully. He may not have paid it himself, but he always knew what that cost was going to be. Bae was blowing right past it.
"Rumple didn't sacrifice his life for good so that he could return to be a slave to evil," she tried to reason with him.
"My father is the king of loopholes," Bae said as he started pulling his gloves from his hands. "I'm sure he'll figure out a way to deal with her."
"But what if he can't? Think about what she could do if the Dark One was under her control." She watched him carefully as he turned the key over in his hand. His mind, clever as it was, had to have been coming up with a thousand different scenarios just as hers was. He knew, possibly better than Belle herself, just what that dagger could make his father do. He'd come so far, given so much to be better than what his curse made him, and his son was risking all of that. What good was it to bring him back if he wasn't himself? "We'll find another way," she promised, reaching out to him.
He opened his mouth to argue with her and stopped, the words cut short as he snapped his jaw closed again. There was such pain in his eyes in that moment, such hurt, that Belle felt her heart break for him. She understood, but in that moment they needed to be strong. Not just for themselves or for Rumple, but for all of those that Zelena could harm if she got ahold of him.
Bae loosed a long breath. "It's too easy," he whispered.
"I think so."
"Papa always said things come with a price. A price equal to what you're getting."
She gripped his jacket and offered him a strained smile. "I promise you, Bae. There has to be another way. We'll find it."
"Okay," he breathed at last, slipping his gloves back on and tucking the key back into his jacket.
"Yeah. We can always come back."
The words were forced, but she'd take them. Even as she watched him trudge straight past a sputtering Lumiere and up the path they'd come down, as she followed and snuffed out the candle to hide their path from their enemy, she couldn't help but feel that they'd made the best decision they could. They might never know the terrors they'd avoided, but they could find something better. And Belle knew there was something better to be found.
Notes: I just realized that I forgot to put the notes on here when I first uploaded the prologue. This is what happens when I try to do fifteen things all at once. This has seriously been my entire day.
So this story was actually born out of a set of conversations with Robin4 over a movie (I can't tell you which one or I'll spoil it). I'd mentioned that I was going to go see it and she told me that plot bunnies would take hold. Well, they did, and here we are. I'm blaming her for this (in a good way) because she's let me bounce enough ideas off of her and helped me rework them into something that is turning out to be a very fun story to write. So major thanks to Robin for this one.
As always, let me know what you think.
Next time - Chapter One: The Prince of Loopholes. Bae and Belle uncover a spell in his father's castle that may help him get back to his family. All of his family.