Science is simply magic tainted by a methodological prefix (explanations, examinations, experimentation), and although reality is a mere persistent illusion, it all begins like this. Mr. Gold lives string theory, but he would never call it that if asked; pressed for an answer, he would perhaps concede that timelines do not hum along fixed parallels, forever separate and yet mere atoms' distance apart. More probably he would say that timelines are not timelines but crystalized choices that go on without us, thin and fragile, attenuated right angles and sudden death drop-offs. They grow over each other and cancel out, they are infinite spokes in a spinning wheel sizeless and universal.

He has names of places hidden beneath his tongue—River City, Rydell—that he has never been to, that are nowhere and yet are somewhere, for someone has thought on them and so they exist because they are of a type, an archetype; updated modern fresh take on an old classic. Red Hot Riding Hood holding up a riveter's gun and Cinderella in saddle shoes and a poodle skirt; after all, the human condition is one addicted to telling and retelling the same stories, escapism too repetitive for a purpose now, no true inner reflection or inspection, just mass pleasure in recognizing an old trope here, a titillating subversion there. Reassuring cultural masturbation.

Mr. Gold has followed and skimmed his hands along threads whether they are shiny or dull; that is what he does. He has seen how this will play out if Henry had been grounded to his room on the night that Emma trucked him back to town, if Graham had never died, if Sidney were elected, if Kathryn had made it to Boston with feckless David in tow. All plausible, all possible, and yet these are dead ends.

The trouble with prescience, of course, is that the ultimate outcome is invisible, hidden in plain sight, the trees for the forest. He can see every scenario, but there is no bright blue arrow thrumming out of his chest and fading as it turns the corner to coax him to the right decisions or show him the way. There is no clear and dependable formula—and here we are back to the bit about science versus magic—for what is real and what is an escapist fantasy, for what is plausible and what will be recorded and actually remembered, and even human memory is a crapshoot at best.

Unfortunately the universe does not like a process of elimination: it will entertain a one-in-a-million mutation and let it live on, and so the string theory makes this difficult. There are some dead ends, yes, but there are other threads tantalizing and so realistic that he often has a hard time keeping everything straight, though he's managed. Destiny is not a karmic zero-sum game nor the best of all possible worlds, it turns out; it is where you end up when all the choices are made, when all the die are thrown, when you cannot go back and try again. Salvation will undo a curse, but humanity loves a fractured fairytale, and it worries him that in the real story, all he does is wind up torn in half. There are worse endings.

He wishes he could think of Belle as like Schrodinger's Cat—either she lives in a timeline or she does not, either he will have the happy ending or he will not. He could trip along down those timelines with her in them, toss aside the ones where she hates him or does not remember him or is engaged to some youth or is insane beyond the consequences of his magic, pick the best and brightest and happiest one of all, and bind himself to that timeline, and make paradoxically slow yet desperate love to that timeline, and kiss that timeline's lips and forehead and fingertips for being the blessed stable one, the right choice at the very center of the wheel.

Mr. Gold is not sure whether Belle exists or not, and this creates a third possibility, which is two more than is tolerable. This is frustrating, and he finds it a good justification for having beaten the ever-living shit out of Moe French. Yes, the people who survived Happily Ever After managed to make it to Storybrooke, and yes, there is no way to bring back the dead, but. There is always a but—but there are magic wells and wishes and genies and fairies and there isn't much history on what happens when all those things converge with our powers combined. There is Emma, but—again—she is not ready to lead, she's not even ready to believe. These are thin, quietly splitting hopes in a world where his cane is just secret storage for a dead wand, where you spin the wheel and the only thing that comes from straw is straw. Remembering isn't being.

The threads all lead to the same conclusion. She is dead; she is not dead. She is here; she is not here.

This is strange kindness, he thinks.

So the universe—and, it follows by association, the curse, because curses are powerful enough but even more powerful when they have room to really flow, as this one is meant to—continues to expand, new spokes growing, shooting out in trios and multiples where there had been only one before.