Title: Once Upon a Dream

By: TriplePirouette/3Pirouette

Category: AU

Spoilers: through 1.12

Disclaimer: They're not mine.

Word Count: 29750

Distribution: my , LJ, and my AO3. Anyone else please ask first :)

Summary: Rumpelstiltskin makes a deal to hide Princess Aurora from Maleficent for sixteen years. He was a father once, and finds himself thrust into the role once more, in and out of Storybrooke. Eventual Rumbelle.

Feedback PLEASE at:thriplepirouettephile (at) hotmail (dot)com Or just hit the little button there.

My most amazing thanks go out to hufflepuff_dearie/K.L. Hufflepuff and Schmoo999 for the absolutely fantastic betas they provided me with. I made several changes after they gave me back their edits, so any and all mistakes are mine- they're fantastic.

AN: Because this idea won't leave me alone. Vaguely touches on the ideas I put forth in "I Will Not Kiss you" regarding Rumpel's feelings about the curse of the Dark Magic, but keeps Skin Deep as cannon and everything up until ep 12 is considered cannon for this fic.

This is officially the second longest fic I've ever written. The first longest (Innocence and Beauty, my CSI epic) took me over 6 years to write, the third longest took me over three years. I banged this baby out in a month and a half. Started 2/17/12 finished 4/4/12 O_o (Technically the Breathe Symphonies as a series IS longer, but I don't see it as one fic, rather small pieces to a whole. Man, this fandom, it's upping my word count, man)

Also, the Rumbelle starts out SUPER slow, but if you bare with me, I think it's worth it. :)

Rumpelstiltskin sneaks into her chambers after dusk, but stays quiet until his heart nearly breaks at the way the young queen holds back tears while she tends to the baby in her arms. "Please, don't be frightened," he whispers to her, stepping out of the dark corner.

She jumps, but keeps smiling down at the infant. "That's an impossibility. I'm currently terrified."

The way her voice is steady and light chips away at the darkness surrounding his heart just a little bit more. If he hadn't been sure of his decision before, watching the way this woman cared for her daughter erased any doubt. "I know, which is why I am here."

"You could have come to court, like Maleficent." The queen strokes her daughters cheek, but the infant is still too young to do much more than press her lips together and continue staring at her.

Rumpelstiltskin carefully stays out of the infant's eye line, hoping to keep his form hidden from the babe's bright eyes, at least for now. "I could have, but I would not have been able to stop her."



The queen tucks her daughter to her chest and stares up at the enchanted imp. "Then what, pray tell, are you doing here now?"

"I cannot reverse the curse, Maleficent's magic is too complex for that, but I can protect her." Rumpelstiltskin steps forward and opens his hands to her. "I have come with an offer. In the black of night I will steal her away, keep her hidden until after midnight on her sixteenth birthday."

The queen stands, walking around him and studying him intently. "Why are you, a man filled with Dark Magic, a monster known for his deals made for children, to be trusted? My husband and I can hide her quite well on our own."

He waits until she stops before him and stares deep into her eyes. "Because I can use my magic to protect her, to hide her in ways that would not work in the court. Do you not believe that Maleficent will look for her? She will sneak into the castle every chance she gets, set traps for her. The only way to fight Dark Magic, my dearie, is with more Dark Magic." He sighs, looking at the small bundle in her arms. "Every child I take is also a child given. Mothers who are willing to give up their children to save their earthly possessions- and 'willing' is the correct word because I have never stolen a child- are not women who should be mothers at all. The babes are given to women who are willing to give up everything they own to have a child. I will protect this babe myself, in a hidden castle, fortified with my magic."

The queen's eyes lower, searching the face of her daughter. "Can you not protect her here?"

He drops his head, "No, no I cannot." He senses he is losing this battle. "She will never think to look for the child she cursed to die from the prick of a spinning wheel with a man who is known for his spinning. I can hide her carefully, I can study the magic Maleficent used on her, and perhaps, alter the spell."

The queen's gaze snaps up to him. "Alter?"

"Alter. Perhaps I can keep it from being...fatal."

After a moment the queen turns away, walking over to the cradle and setting the sleeping princess down within. "And what do you gain from all of this?"

He walks away, clasping his hands behind his back. He cannot answer. "I was a man once, with a wife and a son. I am sure that not only can my magic protect her, but that she will want for nothing in the way of raising. You would not be leaving her to a creature that is unprepared for what he is asking."

She charges to his path, forcing him to look her in the eye. "What would you be getting out of this? What makes this deal valuable to you?"

He holds her gaze, knowing the truth will make all the difference. "Penance," he whispers. "There is no cause to curse a child that cannot defend herself." He looks down and steps back, forcing a twisted grin on his face. "Don't let this offer get around, I would not want it to ruin my reputation."

Tears fall from the mother's face as she looks back to her daughter sleeping in the cradle. "You... you are certain that you can protect her?"

He nearly reaches for her hand, but instead twists his fingers together. "I know with every certainty that I can protect her better than anyone in this realm."

Her breath hitches. "Then come back tomorrow night. I will have her ready for you, and I will tell my husband she has been kidnapped."

Rumpelstiltskin steps forward and holds out his hand. "I will return her to you on the eve of her sixteenth birthday."

The queen reluctantly takes his hand, sealing the deal. "Should you be lying to me, I will not rest until she is mine again and you have paid with your life."

He smiles darkly. "As is only fair."

The first thing he does is change her hair from golden blonde to deep brown. The bright gold is too easy a give away- he cannot keep her hidden from every eye in the realm for her entire life, and they will all be searching for a toe-headed child.

When she opens her eyes and they shine bright blue at him he nearly changes them as well, but decides against it. He cradles the child to his chest, waiting for a scream that does not come. She reaches a tiny hand up, tangling it in his hair, but does not cry at his face.

He nearly cries at hers- with the bright brown hair she is the spitting image of a dream he once had, a dream about a second chance with a dead woman.

He employs a wet nurse fairly quickly, enchanting the woman into thinking that she is working for a kindly widower the next village over. She is simple-minded and easily manipulated with magic.

She is not fussy, or loud, but demands his attention and his alone. She will eat and sleep and even sit quietly for the nurse, but if he is within her gaze she will squirm and babble and even cry until she is sitting in his arms.

It makes his work a little more difficult, but then he's been far too absorbed by it lately. He takes to walking with her regularly and sitting by her cradle as she goes down for naps.

Her crying wakes him before the nurse knocks on his door one night, handing the infant over. They both expect her to soothe easily, but the crying does not stop. He sees the way the nurse's hands shake, how dim her eyes are, and sends her to bed.

He spends the night walking the upper lengths of the castle, gently swaying the child. She quiets enough to fall asleep every so often, but wails if he stops moving. He spent many cold winter nights pacing in front of a fire and warm summer nights roaming the fields with Bae held to his chest, his son's cries loud enough to wake the whole village.

He stops in his laboratory, magicking an old cloak to hold her tightly swaddled and swing her gently in mid-air while he works. He mixes herbs and flowers and tiny drops of oils from vials until he is left with a honey-thick liquid the color of blood. He swirls his pinky in the medicine he's concocted, lifting it carefully and reaching over, pressing his finger to her lips. "Here, dearie," he whispers as her lips suckle reflexively. She whimpers a bit, but after a moment settles, calmness replacing the tightness in her face.

He slowly releases the magic on the cloak, deftly picking her from thin air and cradling her close to his chest. She is still fussy, but not nearly as bad as before and finds sleep again quickly. He holds no hope that her state is permanent based on his experiences with his son. He paces the west wing of the castle until dawn breaks.

The nurse finds them in the Library the next morning, the sleeping child tucked tightly to Rumpelstiltskin's chest as he snores lightly in a tall leather chair.

The next night he takes the child from the nurse after dinner. He tells her he will tend to the child tonight just in case she is ill again. (It's what he tells himself, as well.) When he flicks his hand and re-orders the rooms in the castle so that hers is attached to his, he tells himself it is for convenience.

She sleeps easy through the night in his care except for the expected feedings and changes. He keeps her a second night to be sure, and she is quiet then, too.

By the third night he has figured out how to make goat's milk into mother's milk with a not-uncomplicated spell and finally accepts the truth of it: he's happy to have the small girl in his life.

The next morning he alters the nurse's memories, hands her a purse of gold, and transports her to a road just on the outskirts of her home town. That night, when he sings the babe to sleep, he doesn't have to worry about the nurse overhearing.

He quickly tires of calling her 'Baby' and 'Dearie' and decides he must choose a name for her that has not been given to her by her mother, least anyone ever over hear it by mistake.

He calls her Briar Rose after she reaches out and scratches her arm on that very kind of bush one day as they're walking through the garden. He soothes the scratch with a healing liniment as she whimpers and flails her limbs in distress. Rumpelstiltskin thinks that he'll always find some humor in the name he's chosen.

That night he redecorates the walls of her room with magical murals of roses that grow from floor to ceiling, making the bleak stone room much more inviting.

It has been centuries since he's raised his son, and it seems some of the less pleasant details were lost to time. She begins teething and it causes her so much pain it wakes her from her naps and in the middle of the night. She fusses in his arms, unable to be appeased. He walks the castle walls, humming songs that a dead woman sang in those very corridors once upon a time. He is off-key, but Briar Rose does not seem to mind. Even when she quiets he cannot stop humming or she will pull roughly at fistfuls of his hair.

He considers cutting it off. (His hair or her hands, he hasn't decided.)

The nursery he's created for her is bright and filled with soft colors and fabrics.

The rest of the castle is stones, marble, and sharp corners.

When she starts crawling, he scrambles after her in a most undignified manner, trying to keep up with the child as she crawls in, around, and through things every time he turns his back. She's no longer content to sit on a blanket while he spins, or lay in the magical embrace of a rocking cloak as he works.

She seems no worse for the ware, even when she flops unceremoniously to the ground, crying because of one bump or another. His nerves are another matter.

They do not leave the castle, because he can find no other place so easily fortified by his magic.

When she begins to find her feet and toddle about, however, he seals up the stairwells, hides the spinning wheels behind stone walls, and takes to living on the ground floor only. Anything sharp or pointed is hidden or covered or locked away. She's far too curious and precocious for this liking.

He also takes a very special tea cup and locks it carefully away from tiny, grabbing hands.

Her first words are 'rose' and 'sleep', not because they will both one day be used to describe her, but because she has so much energy and he's often asking her to do exactly that as he fails to calm her in the middle of the night. "Please, Briar Rose, sleep!"

Soon enough other words come, too. Colors and shapes as he starts to teach her about the world around her. He takes to constantly babbling to her about whatever he's doing rather than reciting songs and rhymes of childhood. He talks of the plants in the garden and the spells he's working on and the objects he's gained in his collection, all to her constant bright eyed amazement. The education he's giving her seems to take up more energy than he anticipates, and she starts sleeping through the night again. He falls into a routine of telling her bedtime stories as he tucks her in and her eyes drift closed. Some are true, some are tales from his childhood, and some are about the objects hidden within the house.

She picks up words like 'keen' really queen and 'pints' really prince and 'fahwe' really fairy from his tales and he works on teaching her to form the letters in her mouth, though there are too few teeth to really help her tongue do much yet. When she picks up 'papa,' perfectly formed and slipping out of smiling lips as she says it to him, his empty heart cracks in two. After nearly a week of trying to stop it, he lets her call him Papa because she is too small to understand what he really is to her and he doesn't have the courage to correct her.

When she starts sleeping through the night he takes advantage of her stillness to study the magic surrounding her. For months he tries to dissect the spell that Maleficent cast.

He finds what he expected: that though her magic is weaker, the spell is too tightly wound to be broken completely. What he didn't anticipate is how difficult it will be to manipulate it.

She wakes to find him standing over her one night. "What you doing, Papa?" she asks in a sleepy voice, the words not quite fully formed and heavy with slumber.

"Keeping you safe," he answers. She accepts this as truth and rolls over, closing her eyes again.

His resolve to alter the curse only intensifies.

He dresses her in tiny blue brocade dresses with golden thread woven into the cloth that he gets made specially for her. The eyes, the hair; they're nearly too haunting some days, but the smile is not quite right, and her laughter, though beautiful in its own right, is in a different key.

He finds her tea sets to play with and pour out measures of juice and water while he mixes simple spells. He crafts puppets that were not once people and makes them dance and perform plays to her squealing delight. He makes music float through the air as she presents dances for him after meals, clapping riotously at her creativity.

Briar Rose is the penance for so many things he has done wrong in his life. He wishes only to do this one thing right.

She has never been afraid of him, even when he took her from her mother's arms as an infant. His laugh, his crooked smile, the eyes that are not quite human and the skin that is more reptile than man; none of it has ever scared her.

In fact, she often finds him funny. Especially, he finds unhappily, if he is trying to be stern with her.

He takes to making silly faces just to see what will make her laugh and keeps a catalog of every reaction in his memory.

For her fifth birthday he fashions her a golden tiara from the threads he's spun. It's delicate and full of winding threads that make it seem like an incredibly artful spider created it just for her. "Can I be a princess?"

He twitters lightly at her. "You already are," he says, delighting at how she enjoys the small token.

He has hidden all of the mirrors within the walled up stair wells right next to his spinning wheels and spindles, so she observes herself in the reflection of the glass in the cabinets. "Only you believe so, Papa."

He sighs, knowing eleven years will come too slowly and all too quickly at the same time. "We shall see, my princess."

She looks up and turns to him with the perceptiveness of a smart child who is perhaps just too smart for her own good. "Why do you keep a chipped cup in the cabinet?"

His throat constricts. "That belonged to the woman I love."

She tips her head and nearly loses her crown, but she rights it quickly. "Why is she not here if you love her enough to keep her broken things?"

He sighs and pats her hand. "She is no longer with us," he whispers to her. He doesn't know what she will make of that, but he still cannot say that she is dead aloud.

"Was she my Mama?" she asks, quickly shifting into his lap, expecting to hear a story he never told before.

He cannot oblige. "No," he says, "But she would have been wonderful at being your Mama."

"Who is my Mama?" she asks with a bluntness that only a child can possess.

He smiles halfheartedly, "You shall learn in time, little one. Mamas are not for today."

She mulls this response over, one hand keeping her crown tightly on her head. She nods once, her mind made up to trust him. "Is there tea for today," she asks shyly, "with the sweets I can only have sometimes?"

He chuckles and lifts her from his lap. "Sweets, of course." She trails him as he heads to the kitchen to make tea. For the first time since Belle left, he takes his tea in the cup with the chip in it, replacing it carefully in the cupboard when he's done.

At six she decides she wants to be just like him. She tangles her skirts into pants and follows him around like a little shadow. She mirrors the way he eats, the way he stands, the way he takes his tea... every little detail she can copy, she mirrors.

At first he finds it endearing, but he tires of her game quickly. He repeatedly untangles her skirts (only to have her tie them back up again in a huff) and reminds her that it's not proper for a lady to do such things. She pouts her bottom lip out and continues to follow him, re-tangling her skirts whenever he lets them down with magic, fire blazing behind her eyes.

He sees the fire, the passion within her and knows that his little princess has the potential to grow up to move mountains and have armies kneel at her feet. If only he could get her to stop following him around first...

The first time he yells at Briar Rose, screams really, and punishes her comes at six and a half. Never in her years with him had she shown an interest in the vials and bottles in his laboratory. It never occurred to him, once she got older and he gave her a few words of warning to never touching anything on his table, that he would not be able to trust her alone.

He only leaves her alone for a moment, but when he comes back she's pouring bottles and tossing powders and mixing it all with a silver rod and he bellows. He screams. He roars and she freezes, her eyes wide and the smile disappearing from her face as she drops a handful of orange powder on the table.

He lifts her away, tossing her over his shoulder and removing her from the room, his mouth rambling about never, ever touching in stern tones that come out as growls. When he finally puts her down inside her room, her eyes are dripping tears and her chin is trembling. She can say nothing. He sits her on her bed and walks out, locking the door behind him.

He stands in the middle of the hall, shaking. Her cries drift out from beneath the door, but he does not go to her. Instead, he wills his nerves to steady and marches back to his lab where he slowly and carefully cleans up the mixture she was making. If just an ounce more of the dust that was on the table had made it into her concoction it would have exploded, likely taking at least her hand if not her life.

When everything is clean and pristine again, the volatile substance now a harmless blob of goo cooling on a shelf high beyond her reach, he returns to her door. He sits against the stone wall for a moment, staring at the wood. He scared her. For the first time in her life he scared her. He roared, he screamed, he lost his temper. He can't even recall what he said. He stands, knowing it will be better to face her now than later.

He finds her lying on her bed, a rag doll in a gown pulled tightly to her chest. When he comes in, she turns her back. He flinches; her anger hurts more than he expected. "I'm sorry I yelled," he whispers. She sniffs, but doesn't move. "But you know you're not to touch those things." He walks in and sits on the edge of her bed, her back still to him. "Why were you touching my things?"

"Because I want to be like you," she hitches out, her lips slipping to a pout that he knows well. His heart twists. She may have given up following him around the castle, but not given up on her desire entirely.

He reaches out and turns her over to her back so her can look in her eyes. They're red and rimmed with tears, but he must continue rather than comfort. "I know. But those potions... Magic is dangerous. I always show you magic that is safe. The things you were mixing- they would have exploded- you would have gotten hurt. That is why I yelled. I needed you to stop right away before you got hurt."

"'Sploded?" she asks, her forehead wrinkled.

"Yes, exploded." He reaches out and drifts a finger over the wrinkles, smoothing her forehead and then back over her hair. "I got so angry because you could have gotten hurt and it would have been my fault. You know I will do anything to keep you safe."

She sniffs into the head of her doll and rolls into the side of his hip. "But, I want to be just like you..." Her voice is weak, the argument is weak, but she knows nothing else to tell him.

He reaches over and scoots her into is lap, thankful that he hasn't scared her so badly that she no longer cares for him. "How about... a deal my princess?" She nods, snuggling into him for comfort. "Alright. You will never, and I mean never, touch anything in that laboratory again without my express permission, and in exchange when it is safe, I will allow you to help me with mixing potions."

Her tiny fingers play with the top button of his vest, her voice small. "But I wanna help every time."

He tips her chin up so he can look into her eyes. "You cannot. Magic is not for the young because it can be dangerous. I will not allow you to do anything that could harm you."

She sighs. "That's your job."

The tiniest of smiles quirks at the corner of his lip. "What is, dearie?"

She tucks her head back under his chin, as if demonstrating the words she whispers out. "Protecting me."

He can't help but tightly wrap his arms around her. "Yes, yes it is."

Briar Rose is quiet for a moment, clutching at the fabric of her doll's dress before pulling back in his embrace. She puts on a serious face and sticks out her hand. "Okay, deal."

Rumpelstiltskin twitters a laugh and grabs the hand of his tiny charge, shaking it soundly. "Deal."

At seven he decides to give her chores. Nothing hard, nothing he couldn't do with a snap of his fingers, but he sees the way she starts to wander when he's busy, the way she dulls at the edges just a bit, and realizes she needs to find a way to measure accomplishments and feel as if she's contributed, and maybe just a tad more discipline will keep that bottom lip from making an appearance too often. He has seen far too many spoiled princesses, their outward beauty hiding ugly truths, to let her grow up without learning the worth of hard work.

She must make her bed every morning. He teaches her how. Her result is much more wrinkly than his, and every once in a while he goes in to straighten the tangle of sheets, but she smiles with pride when she meets him for breakfast every morning, telling him that she's made her own bed.

Her toys are to be away before tea every afternoon. At first, she tries to get away with shoving everything in a pile under her bed but he simply marches her back to her room and watches while she puts the dolls and tea set away. After a few repetitions of this, he finds that she's much more tidy.

He knows that he also must set a good example, so every Sunday they sweep the kitchen clean together. Some Sundays the chore goes by quickly and quietly. Those days he tries not to think of the ghost of a woman who haunts him, tries not to remember the way her blue dress would swish in counterpoint to the broom she would wield, tries to forget the way she'd chatter while she swept and he would watch. More often than not, they'll sing or he'll rattle off a quick tale to pass the time as they sweep away dust and crumbs. Some Sundays they end up in epic broom-sword fights, or battles for supremacy by sweeping dust onto each others side of the kitchen. At first he swept out of a sense of duty, but now he looks forward to the time that they've put aside for nothing but one another.

He starts a list of the chores he'll give her in her future, of things they'll slowly start to do as she grows. She must learn to sew, even with the threat of needles. She'll need to learn to cook, and though she's royal, he has a hunch that her hand might be far better at laundry than his. There is so much yet to teach her, and though they spend every day together, still so little time.

At eight she cries for three days and three nights because her skin does not shimmer like his. She has finally realized they are very different, and asks too many questions that he can't avoid. Instead of telling her the story about the kidnapped princess who will one day be restored to her rightful place, he tells her the story of a poor spinner who tries everything to save his son, but only ends up with a darkness in his heart that pushes the boy away more surely than the war would have.

"Bae? Would he have been my brother?" Is her first question.

He sighs, and finally tells her the truth. "I am not your Papa, my princess."

She sniffs, rubs at cheeks still irritated from so much crying, and shakes her head. "You take care of me. You feed me. You make sure I have pretty dresses and sweets and that I do my lessons." She thinks for a moment, the consideration on her small face distinct. "You heal my scrapes and tell me bedtime stories and give me hugs and make dolls dance when I am sad. If you are not my Papa- who could be?"

He doesn't answer her, but instead makes two princess puppets from across the room dance to magical music. He can tell she isn't forgetting, but she does not press any further. It is the beginning of a fragile future, for the both of them, and he is sad to see the simple days of her childhood end.

At nine he decides to leave the sure safety of the castle and take her abroad. Her eyes are too dull, her heart suffocating with routine and containment for far too long and he can think of no other way to bring life back into her. They travel by magic to a kingdom nearly on the other side of their world. People here do not even recognize him, never mind the young princess. They spend the entire year away from the castle living in a small home he purchases on the edge of the town.

He sends her to school with the local children and he's unsurprised to see she makes friends. He watches her happily as she finally gets to serve pretend tea to real guests instead of puppets and plays schoolyard games in a real school yard.

He ingratiates himself to those around him. He tells of an accident with a vindictive fairy (he hates fairies) that changed his skin and took his wife too soon. He weaves tales about his daughter's 'blood disorder' and how she must never, ever be let near a needle or anything sharp. He always keeps her in sight, but lets her visit other children and allows her to explore.

In the summer they spend days at the seaside. He teaches her to swim and how to use reeds breathe underwater. He teaches her to fish and the difference between the creatures of the sea she can eat and those she should never touch. He tells her stories of mermaids while they watch the setting sun, and how to defeat a siren as they build sandcastles. He finds her a pearl in an oyster one day and threads it on a chain of gold. Briar Rose tells him to keep it safe for her until they return to the castle. No one in the village has anything that extravagant, and she does not wish to make her friends feel bad. Her consideration for those around her makes his heart clench.

In the winter he teaches her how to darn stockings, turn lard into soap, and the value of having a stock of dried food. She learns how to start a fire with wet, frozen sticks. He takes her into the snow and teaches her how to survive, then they throw snowballs at one another until she laughs so hard she cries.

When spring comes around he announces that they must leave. She spends days saying goodbye to her new friends, and he feels guilt tug deep in his heart. In the middle of the night, only hours before they are to leave, she sneaks into his bed and curls into his side. "Papa?"

"Yes, my princess?" he asks, sleep still clinging to him.

She lays her head on his shoulder. "We can't ever come back, can we?"

He kisses her head and holds her tight. "No."

For most of the rest of the night, Briar Rose cries silent tears. She doesn't say why, he doesn't need to ask. She's asleep when the dawn comes and he untangles himself from her so he can prepare for the trip back.

Even at ten, she still asks for a bedtime story every night. One night, she is shaking with nerves when she asks. The thunder and lighting from a terrible storm has been assaulting the castle for almost two days straight, and though she tries to pretend that the booming does not frighten her, she can't help but jump with each explosive noise.

He puts away his potions and waves his hands, creating a tunnel in the wall that leads to a room deep below the castle. He waves his hand before the door and when he opens it without touching, she finds that it's filled with draped silks and feather pillows and a deep, bouncy mattress with soft blankets. Glowing orbs illuminate the windowless room. At first she's timid, but when she steps in she finds that the fabrics and lack of windows muffle the thunder to a low rumble in the distance.

He follows her in and settles her in the middle of a mountain of feathery softness. He wraps her up in blankets and silks and asks her what story she'd like to hear.

She's still shaking a bit when she talks. "Tell me the story of the chipped tea cup."

His throat closes up, but he's found that he can deny her very little anymore.

"Once upon a time," he begins as he always does, "There was a girl who was held as the most beautiful in all the land. Her kingdom was losing a great war, and she called for my help. Her father offered gold for my help, but as you know, I can make as much gold as I want." His tale winds through the truth deftly. He tells her how brave Belle was, but not how cruel he was in the first few days to see if she would break. He tells of the next months selectively. He speaks of giving her a rose, but not that it had formerly been Gaston. Briar Rose is fascinated and though he sees she is getting sleepy, she forces her eyes open until the last words tumble out of his mouth, "But the Queen told me that she had died. Of all her things, I kept the cup." He speaks not of flaying or scourges. Those things are not for bedtime stories. The memories bring up emotions that make his heart pound. He has never told another soul the true story. Though he's left out many of the details, it still opens the old wound just the same.

Briar Rose unwinds from the blankets and wiggles herself into his lap, hugging him tightly. "Thank you, Papa."

A tear slips from his eye at her acceptance. He hugs back, and wonders if the love he's feeling in his heart will change the color of his face even without a kiss.

At eleven she spends nearly the whole year deciding what her talent will be. She tries spinning straw into gold, but finds that without magic she only ends up with a big mess.

She bounces about the castle as an actress, singer, and dancer on and off for over a month, her performances changing by the minute. She gives up that dream after he refuses to create a mirrored studio for her without reason. (Though there is quite a lot of crying and pouting on her end, he refuses to tell her why he's hidden all the mirrors.)

Over the winter months she holes herself up in the library, and he finds himself sitting in a high backed leather chair, listening to her read to him out loud. He helps her with the larger words and corrects her pronunciation and explains things she doesn't understand.

(One evening he falls asleep to her reading. He dreams that instead of one high backed chair, there are two. He dreams that his Belle sits next to him, listening to their daughter -their daughter- read them stories. He wakes up smiling, but alone, to a dying fire.)

When spring comes she decides to paint, and takes to it with gusto. She has no talent for realism, but her splashes of color and bold shapes appeal to Rumpelstiltskin all the same. He provides her with paint in more colors than she could ever use and gives her free run of any wall, floor, or canvas in the castle.

He takes away the paint when she scribbles a still life of fruit on the back of one of his contracts. He thought it was lovely, but it was also quite hard to explain away to the royal he was dealing with that afternoon.

Over the summer she fancies herself a writer and tries to come up with new stories to keep in his library. Most are simple and full of bits and pieces of stories he's already told her, but a few show promise; those he binds with magic and keeps them on a shelf in the library put aside just for Briar Rose's creations.

By the fall she's decided that she must be a real princess. "Because only princesses are good at doing nothing," she tells him one afternoon. He tries to argue with her, but she shakes her head. "I have no true talent, Papa. Unless you count sleeping. You always said I could sleep through nearly anything once I fell asleep, that is. Perhaps that is my talent."

He sees the future, and her words twist his heart.

At twelve he finds himself handing her a pile of books all on the subject of anatomy and physiology. He even throws a book of romantic poetry and tales of the flesh in there and pretends that it was an accident.

He was a father once, but never father to a girl, and was not prepared for all that parenting a child of the opposite sex entailed. He is, of course, privy to the knowledge that she needs, but each time he tries to open his mouth and explain it, the words fail him.

In the end he finds the woman who was her wet nurse and comes to her as the kindly widower once more with an important request. She spends three days at the castle that she will never remember, answering all of Briar Rose's questions about becoming a woman while he locks himself in his tower, rolling the chipped tea cup in his hands.

Belle would have been such a help. She would have not needed days to find a way to assuage the panicked girl. She would have had words to say to her right then and there, known the perfect words to calm her that first moment when Briar Rose came to him, tears in her eyes and hands shaking as she told him of how she was bleeding, wondering if she was dying.

He's not sure how he never anticipated that moment, how he never prepared for it, but it leaves him feeling empty and an utter failure.

Rumpelstiltskin cannot move under Briar Rose's stare as he magics the nurse away. He's surprised when she hugs him tightly as he turns back to her, he does not feel like he deserves it. "What is this for, princess?"

Briar Rose doesn't let go, so he winds his arms carefully around her. "It's alright, Papa. I understand."

His hand falls to the crown of her head, stroking gently. "Understand what?"

"You." She leans up and kisses him on his cheek before she turns and heads back into the corridors of the castle.

Somewhere right around thirteen she becomes a woman. Not in the sense that most would associate with that use- she is still pure and untouched- but he notices things in her manner that have changed simply because she's growing.

She carries herself differently. Her steps are measured: they carry more grace than gangly insecurity about them. She walks with her head held high and she rarely skips or runs anymore.

She spends time dressing in the morning: taming her hair in new and different ways and wearing gowns and dresses more than simple, utilitarian clothing.

She thinks before she speaks. This one, of all the changes, startles him. Instead of flights of fancy and childish ramblings, they soon become embroiled in intellectual conversations over tea and across the dinner table. They talk of royal politics, the art of making a deal, the value of art in society... he finds that though she's only had him and piles of books for company for nearly her entire life, she is deeply opinionated and can create even the most interesting of arguments out of thin air on nearly any subject. He finds he must concede to her when she argues that potatoes are far more valuable than squash, if for the simple fact that potatoes can not only be eaten in so many different ways, but that unlike squash, they can be distilled into alcohol for many different uses. He begins to bring up random subjects just to hear what she has to say about them and could listen to her ramble for days on end.

The one childish thing she does not outgrow is her bedtime story. He's ceased putting her to bed for years now, but she still requests a story every night by the fire as dusk settles in. She no longer takes his stories at face value, though, and he finds her youthful criticisms and questions are even better than her accepting smile.

She grows, her body changes, and he thinks of the men who will line the court to dance with her at balls, the nobles that will vie for her hand. She is the epitome of beauty, and when he changes her curls from brown to blonde she will be every inch the princess she was born to become. He's not exactly sure why there is a knot in the pit of his stomach, but it is something that has slowly formed in his gut as she's grown.

At fourteen, her true education begins. He tells her it's because she is a young woman now, and soon she'll be presented to society. (He always skirts over the details, he cannot break his own heart so soon.) There are dancing lessons: reels and lines and the dances of the court that she'll be expected to know. He teaches her the proper way to address a royal and the way to eat in polite society (silverware outside to inside, top to bottom.) He teaches her the proper way to curtsey, though she'll not have to use it often, and the way to hide an insult in a compliment in a manner that he knows will come to serve her well.

He also teaches her things that he knows she'll need but that are not generally taught to princesses: cunning, slyness, ingenuity. Very basic sword fighting and hand to hand combat are also on the roster, and he finds she's surprisingly skilled.

Though young, he starts serving her wine with dinner. She'll need to build up a tolerance to alcohol the way it flows in the palaces of their land. Before she leaves he'll teach her how to drink a sizable man under the table, and how to subdue drunken fools who wish to steal more than just kisses.

He gathers the courage one day to start telling her of the evil of lust, and of what men will wish to do with a beautiful girl like her. She tries to stop him, but he knows she must hear the truth. He does not shatter her faith in other people, or her desire for true love, but makes sure she is wary. He then tells her of her own power- the power of a woman to reduce even the biggest men to love-struck fools who will see to her every whim.

Some nights, as he lay in bed, he wonders if he's creating a monster of his own- a girl who will not be the princess her mother had hoped for, a girl who will be as much a target as a weapon. Rumpelstiltskin knows intimately the evils of the world, though, and will not send her to the life of a royal without some armaments.

The day after Briar Rose turns fifteen Rumpelstiltskin tells her everything. He sits her down and tells her the story of a desperate mother and a cursed child. He tells her of the magical monster who is really just a lonely old man. He tells her about the deal they made, then reaches over and with a touch turns her hair to the color of spun gold.

He tells her that in one day short of a year he will return her to her parents and their kingdom, and they will never see each other again. Her hands play with the blonde strands. She cannot meet his eyes. "This is the truth?"

He sits, waiting for her to cry, to scream. "Yes."

Briar Rose does neither. She pulls strand after strand of her hair in front of her face, regarding the color with shocked eyes. "I am truly not your daughter?"

He wants to scream that in every important way she is his. He raised her, he loved her, he needs her... but he will not. "Not by birth, no. You are Princess Aurora, heir to an entire kingdom."

She whispers the next words, her head fallen so very low. "Did you ever even love me?"

His heart breaks, but he will not look away from her, he will no longer avoid her questions. "I do, very much so."

She looks up, her chin quivering as she finds his eyes, her face full of accusation. "Then why would you give me back?"

He stands and turns from her. "To give you the life you deserve." He would give her anything. Make entire continents kneel at her feet, literally move mountains, rearrange the stars in the sky, but in a year she must return. There is no future for her in the Dark Castle.

"What about the life I want?" she asks behind him. That's his girl, right there: fire and brimstone, fighting for what she wants. He bets if he turned around he'd see her lip pouted out, or her chin jutted high.

He turns and stares at her, and the look on her face is so familiar it nearly takes his breath away. Like the woman who would have been her mother, she stares through his defenses, leaving him no choice but to say what is deep in his soul. "You'll want that life, princess."

He turns away sharply and opens the door in front of him with the flick of his hand. It is too much to even dream that she'd want to stay here.

"And if I don't?" she calls after him.

He sighs as he leaves the room. "You will."

"Papa?" Her voice is soft, just audible over the creak of his wheel. He couldn't sit and do nothing, and at least the movement of the wood, without the spindle attached, has given him some measure of comfort. He hasn't sought it out in fifteen years, and though it soothes him, he finds that it is no replacement for Briar Rose's company.

"You don't need to call me that anymore," he says, not turning to look at her.

Her footsteps on the stone signal her approach. "What else would I call you? You're the one who takes care of me, protects me. You stayed up nights with me when I was sick, I wake you up in the middle of the night when I have nightmares and can't sleep. You taught me to read and write and told me all of my favorite stories. You taught me to defend myself, to stand up for myself, to form my own opinions." He can feel her behind him, but he doesn't stop the rhythm of his hand on the wheel. "You've been all that I have for fifteen years. That other man, the King, may be my father, but you are my Papa. I can't turn my back on that."

His eyes squeeze shut tightly. He cannot believe the words coming out of her mouth. He can't decide which he wants more: to hug her or to scare her.

He knows all too well what happens when he gives in to the urge to scare. Flashes of him shaking Belle, of him slaughtering soldiers in front of Bae, dance across his mind. He's already lost too much. "You flatter me, Princess." She can nearly hear the capital letter he puts on it, the way he tries to convince himself it is now a title over an endearment. It comes out just the wrong side of sarcastic, but he can't help it.

Her voice quivers with tears. "Papa..."

Rumpelstiltskin jumps to his feet and pulls her into his arms, holding her as she cries. "Oh, my love, I am so sorry."

Briar Rose sniffs and lays her newly blonde head against his chest. "The deal cannot be undone? Altered?"

He brushes wisps of wild hair away from her face. "No."

Her arms slip tightly around his middle as she mutters into his chest. "And once I'm given back..."

He fights emotions he never thought he'd feel fifteen years ago. "We must never see one another again."

She shudders, fresh tears seeping through his shirt. "But why?"

He sighs, wishing it were much easier. "There are far more reasons than you can ever fathom, but the most important being the contract. I wish them all to believe that I simply found you, though your mother does know the truth. If we are close, they will know you have been living with me. And I know from experience, dearie, that they will not take kindly to the idea that you may have lived with me. I am not all that well liked." His eyes shut tightly and he sees blood marring the skin of another woman, flayed and whipped, peeled and raw. He had nightmares for years of Belle screaming as skin was seared from her body. His dear girl will not suffer that fate, anything for his Briar Rose but that.

With a wave of a very special fairy wand, her green house dress turns to a ball gown the color of pink stargazer lilies. Her hair piles on her head, interwoven with the flowers and strings of tiny pearls. Heeled slippers appear beneath her feet, shining leather with silver buckles.

Briar Rose startles, looking down at herself. The dress is much more structured than she's used to, the shoes higher and the corsets tighter. He can tell by the way she stands, she feels different. He gulps back the emotion in his throat and returns the fairy wand into thin air. He sweeps a deep bow. "Princess Aurora," he whispers reverently, seeing her as a young woman of court and privilege for the first time.

She curtsies, never dipping her head. "Papa."

He stands straight and walks over to her, hugging her close and dropping a kiss on her forehead. "Last time to call me that, dearie. It'll be midnight soon enough." She hugs him tight but doesn't cry, and for that he is very proud of her. "Come now," he says, pushing her away and forcing a smile on his face, "you have to start pretending to be afraid of me."

"Never once was I afraid of you," she says, smiling.

His laugh is lower than normal, choked with emotion. "Not even when you were a wee one and didn't know better." He steps back and takes the single pearl on a gold chain that's around her neck in his fingers. "This will match better if it's silver."

She closes her hands over his. "Please, don't." She catches his eyes, her sixteen years not nearly enough for a girl who can be so wise at times. "I cannot see you again, I cannot take my things with me, I cannot even have my hair the color it's been all my remembered life. Please, leave me with one memory that doesn't have to be faked or altered."

He nods, slipping his hand away from the chain. "Very well." He purses his lips and looks at the floor. He sees her as the child he raised, not the woman that will be scrutinized at court, not the princess they all want her to be. To him she is still seven, raising hell and running around the castle and driving him insane in the best of ways, tying her skirts above her knees and playing in the dirt of the garden.

"If I asked you to take me away..." she leads, her voice small and not quite defeated, "to the town by the sea from when I was nine..."

He looks at her, his heart pounding in his chest. "I would."

He sees the very moment she leaves childhood behind and transforms into a princess. She squares her shoulders, takes a deep breath, and sighs. "Rumpelstiltskin, please take me to the palace."

He takes a deep breath and forces a wide smile on his face. "Of course, dearie," he says as he steps next to her to touch her back and envelope her in the transportation spell. "To your home and family."

She looks sharply at him as she pulls away from his touch. She cannot leave without him understanding. "No. Those things... those things are here. Take me to the palace. To my duty."

He wishes to hug her, to envelope her in his arms and wrap them in enchantments so they can never be found, but he knows it is not to be. Before he loses his nerve he gently touches her back and wills the enchantment to life.

They arrive in a small cove off of the main ballroom. They can already hear the revelry, but the cove is dark and quiet. Briar Rose cannot let the chance pass her by. She hugs him tightly, surprising the man who wears the dragon-skin coat like armor. He hugs her back fiercely. She leans up, pressing a kiss to his cheek before she whispers in his ear. "I love you, Papa. I always will."

He forces the words past the lump in his throat. "And I love you, my beautiful Briar Rose. I always did." He makes himself step away, though it takes all his effort to do so. With a deep breath he composes himself, and waits until she can do the same. "Now stand behind those doors there," he points, letting the affectation and the familiar character take over his posture. "I believe a grand entrance is in order."

She nods and steps away, her gown rustling.

Rumpelstiltskin's breath shakes as he closes his eyes. Time for the show to begin.

Rage bubbles up in him, exploding through his mouth like dragon's breath, tingling at his fingertips with power that he has not exercised in over a decade.

Aurora, his Briar Rose with newly blonde hair, lays on the stonework before him at the feet of a cackling Maleficent. She smiles, bearing teeth that look like fangs. "Don't be so surprised. I couldn't find her, so I found another way." She taps her staff, waiting for the attack.

Rumpelstiltskin has always been more powerful than she, but her spells are exquisitely crafted. She takes the time to weave them and make the threads of magic so delicate that when they're spun together they're stronger than any magic he's met before. He can always overpower her, but not always out-do her.

"How did you do it?" he demands, the words a threat deep in his throat. Everyone around them has run for their lives, the party at the castle interrupted by the kindly old woman and the gift to the princess- a spinning needle hidden in a flower. She's still breathing, though- he'd been able to remove the fatality from the curse after years of working.

She chuckles, sweeping her robe around her. "I stole your time." Her lips curl cruelly. "Just a second, here and there. From you, from her, from every person I could find..." She leans toward him. "I think it makes me look younger..." Her primping gets no response, so she returns to her former pose, gloating. A few stray guards start to sneak up behind her, but with the flick of only two fingers she throws them against the wall. "I stole your time, but not that of the world." She swings her cloak over Aurora, covering her securely as she whispers, her voice full of triumph. "It's only ten pm, not midnight. You're two hours early, Rumpelstiltskin."

She disappears with Aurora in green fire and purple smoke. People gasp, cry, and scream around him, the onlookers slowly coming out of their hiding spots in the castle's hall. Rumpelstiltskin is shaking with rage, his teeth grinding together and his fingers sparking with impotent magic. They keep their distance from his anger, all but for the Queen.

She strolls right up to him and smacks him hard across the cheek.

Rumpelstiltskin's face drops, some of the fight leaving him when faced with her mother. The Queen's voice rings hot in his ears, the King standing uselessly behind her, unsure of what is going on. "What happened to my daughter?"

His words are a whisper, venom and fire and darkness in his voice. "Maleficent stole time from us. The curse hadn't run out."

The Queen's hands shake, twisting in front of her. "She's...dead?"

"Sleeping," he says quickly. "Very much alive, and very much asleep. That much I was able to discern and alter."

The fear abates in the Queen, but the anger does not. "What did I tell you, Rumpelstiltskin, when we made our deal?"

He nods, and for a moment their eyes truly meet. In her eyes he expects to see the sadness of sixteen years without the only child she was able to carry to term, the loss of others weighing heavily on her soul. What he actually sees he cannot divine: her soul is a mess of emotions, but loss, pain, and confusion are not floating to the top. Anger is, and it only fuels him more. "Maleficent is not powerful enough to do this alone." Emotions well up in the man in such a physical way that the crowd flinches back, but the Queen does not budge. "I will find her and I will bring Aurora back, unharmed."

"And if you do not," the Queen whispers, "I will have your head." He does not like the way she says it. This is not the woman he met sixteen years ago, not the woman so distraught at the loss of her daughter. This is someone different, someone who wants a prize back.

Rumpelstiltskin knows a desperate mother when he sees one: this woman is not who she appears to be. It makes no matter, though. Maleficent must be stopped, and to that end they both agree. Their gaze meets for a moment more, a deal made, before he disappears into the ether, smoke the only trace that he'd been there.

The Evil Queen does not even flinch when he appears in her chambers, breath heaving and eyes alight with fire. "Where is she?" he demands, stepping to her and closing a clawed hand around her neck. He doesn't squeeze...yet.

Regina tries not to let fear show in her eyes, but he can see it glimmering, just in the corner. A wavering smile presses her lips apart as she tries to bait him. "Why, whatever do you mean?"

His face is in hers in a second, the spittle from his lips as he yells landing hotly on her cheek. "Maleficent. You helped her. Her magic isn't strong enough to do what she did alone. But the two of you together..." He runs a sharp fingernail down her cheek, his voice rising in tone. "Tell me where she is before I split you stem to stern."

Regina's not that innocent, though, and she licks her red lips seductively. She arches her neck and twists her body, excitement at a new game coiling in her chest. "Oh, how I wish you would."

She disgusts him. He flicks his wrist and the magic does the rest, tossing her against the wall. She lands in a very undignified mess of limbs and dress, it takes her a long moment of sputtering and muttered curses to stand. He turns his back on her, just as much because he can't stand to look at her as to show her that he is unafraid of the little power she wields. His voice is full of false delight. "Tell me where she is and why she wants the girl so badly."

Though he's turned away, Regina still makes a show of dusting herself off and rearranging her skirts. Her voice is as flat and uninterested as she can make it while her heart pounds in her chest. "Sentimentality was never really your thing. This is two now that I count that you've lost yourself over. How do you-" She doesn't finish, she can't, not with his face in hers, his hands fisted in the lapels of her skirted jacket, his teeth bared and rage shaking his body. This time, she has the grace to show how afraid of him she is in the trembling of her lip.

"I wouldn't expect you to understand, dearie," his words are harsh, cruel, designed to cut to the core. "What have you loved and lost? A friend? A potential lover? A child? Your heart is blacker than any I've known, incapable of real love anymore. Incapable of the joy and contentment it brings. Incapable of loving someone so very deeply that you would murder for them. For the princess I would bring the world to its knees if it would please her. Who do you care for like that? Hum?" He twitters high in his throat, the fire in his eyes lending to the look of insanity about him. "This is why you will never be more powerful than I am. Magic is powerful, but the heart, the soul must be involved, must be used to make your deepest desires come true."

Her breath comes in tight, controlled gasps. "But I will always be more devious." She smiles, red lips over shiny white teeth, and laughs at him. She thinks she has won.

He matches the smile, lips pulling up and twisting wryly to turn it into something grotesque. "Because you have no heart."

He tosses her to the ground and walks away.

The only recourse left to him is to trace the magic. A long, hard, drawn out process full of complex incantations and unpredictable results. He starts in the hall where Briar Rose was taken, and closes his eyes and walks.

The townspeople jump out of his way. Animals trot backwards and dip in respect when he walks by. Trees and roads and rivers shift to stay out of his blind path. He follows the thread in his mind; twisting and turning and never stopping or stumbling. He walks through rain and sun and blackness to a castle that he knows of, but to which he has never been.

When he opens his eyes he knows that Maleficent is not there. The magic surrounding the keep isn't strong enough to hold a witch, but there are spells and enchantments covering the place just as it is overgrown with thorny bushes that ascend from the moat. It doesn't matter why the witch isn't here, but he thinks perhaps Regina may have warned her away. Maleficent is a good spell weaver, always the show woman, but doesn't have the spine to fight hard for what she really wants. A dark smile crosses Rumpelstiltskin's face; he still has a reputation, but he will not seek his revenge on her...yet. There is something far more important he must do first.

He takes a step and rain starts to fall, the sky blackens and thunder and lightning crash around him. He laughs; a weather spell to scare away the cowards. He has not been a coward in more lifetimes than he cares to count, not since before his skin shimmered and he could spin straw into gold. Even as the storm beats down around him, it does not make him even falter in his step. His laugh rings through the valley, loud and filled with darkness.

He walks over the stone bridge, sparks and brimstone spitting from his fingertips. With a roar magic ripples away from his body, setting fire to the heavy drops of rain falling from the sky. They cease to fall on him, but the sparks and tiny flames fall to the overgrown Briar Rose Bushes that have become a forest of thorns and walls surrounding the castle. The fiery rain continues, setting the plant aflame until it ceases to be anything more than dust clinging to the small castle's outer walls.

He presses on, fire igniting the wood of the front door before he bursts through, sending flaming shards of wood scattering into the empty castle. He has set fire to the rain, and will pour scourges and plagues upon the world until he finds her if she is not inside.

He has nearly given up when he bursts into the deepest room of the deepest dungeon, his body trembling with rage. The slimy water from the moat flows through the cracks in the walls, trickling down to little rivers between the stones of the floor. His footsteps light the muck on fire in his wake as he pushes through the door.

There lays his Briar Rose, hair still blonde and shining, on a stone slab. She looks like a perfect porcelain doll, her eyes closed and her skin pale white against her bright pink gown. His heart stops, his breath hitches, and he nearly drops to his knees and sobs in delight. Now is not the time for celebration, however, and he shakes with the effort of keeping his emotions from exploding outward with magic. With a shuddering breath he steps forward, lifts her from the stone slab and carries her limp body from this hell.

The castle crumbles brick by brick behind him, leaving only smoldering rubble in their wake.

"But what must I do for her?" The Queen demands, holding the girl's hand tightly in hers.

Rumpel stands at the head of the ornate bed in the Princess's chamber, watching. It should have worked by now. Surely, it should have worked. "Your tear should have done it. A mother's love- a parent's true love- is what I crafted to break the curse."

"True Love's Kiss?" The father asks from the side of the room, pacing. "Then we must find a prince, any prince..."

"No!" Rumpelstiltskin snaps. "She's sixteen, what does she know of true love? She's grown up in the castle with only books and puppets as friends, with me as her caretaker. There is no true love for her yet." He shakes his head and looks to the Queen. "The spell specified love as set forth by Maleficent, but I knew true love would be impossible. It was one of the changes I was able to make: the true love of a parent rather than the desire of a lover. Your tear, that should have broken the spell."

The Queen leans over her daughter, letting the salty tears drip from her eyes to the girl's face. Aurora's ashen face is wet with rivers of tears that are not her own, but still she does not move. Rumpelstiltskin turns away, the tiniest tear dislodging from the corner of his eye. No one in the room sees the droplet land on the back of Aurora's hand except for the imp. His heart clenches and contracts, grows and shrinks in the same moment as he waits. Perhaps...

When she blinks open her eyes, the Queen screeches in joy. The King rushes to her bedside. Aurora is hugged tightly by the both of them, dragged to sitting, sputtering for breath as they vie for her, but her eyes only watch the man who raised her as he backs out of the room with a reverent bow and the trace of a single tear down his cheek, disappearing into smoke.

Three weeks later a pounding at his front door rouses him from his wheel. He stomps down through the castle, intent on turning the intruder into a toad, or perhaps a stone statue. He flings the door open and stops dead still, his jaw dropping. Rumpelstiltskin is not an easy man to surprise, but this is more than he is prepared to face.

Briar Rose brushes past him, dressed in bright blue court finery that was muddied at the bottom hem of her gown. Just inside the door she stares at him, points at her hair and demands, "Turn it back." He doesn't move, just stares at her, so she shakes her head and twists on the delicate heels that are meant for court, not traipsing through the forest, and heads deeper into the castle. "Or don't turn it back, at least close the door. Your call, I guess."

He snaps his fingers distractedly, the door closing and locking tightly behind him. He closes his eyes and mouths a chant, surrounding the castle with a charm to keep it hidden, just in case she was followed.

"You're a hard man to find," she calls from somewhere in the vicinity of the kitchen, he thinks. He finds her there and he leans against the stone arch into the kitchen, watching her tear her teeth into a turkey leg in a very unprincess-like manner.

He twitters a laugh, "Generally I'm an impossible man to find, princess."

She rolls her eyes and sucks a bit of meet from her teeth. "Always wondered why you called me that, you know." She sighs, shuffling over to him. "You saved me, Papa."

His heart soars for a moment- he never thought he'd hear her call him that again. He tamps the happiness down vehemently. "You shouldn't call me that anymore."

Her manner changes with the temper of the young. "I'll call you whatever I want, I'm a princess," her voice is tinged with a sarcasm that isn't quite reminiscent of her old, joking tone. "Did you know that they had plans for me?"

He steps away and falls easily into the role of caretaker. He pulls a linen napkin out of a high cabinet and walks back, draping it over her arm. "All parents have plans for their children."

She throws the napkin back at him, anger rattling through her frame. "Like selling them?"

His eyes widen, but he points a thin finger at her, "I never bought you-"

She shakes her head and sinks into the bench against the wall. Her voice is flat, resigned. "Not you. A maharaja in a kingdom the next continent over. The King and Queen traded me for a fountain that grants wishes. They sold me into his harem."

His eyes cloud over. "Don't lie to me," he forces out, "I saw your mother's eyes when..." he wants to say when Maleficent took her, but there was something peculiar in the Queen's stare that day. He changes his course. "I saw her cry over you..." his voice and his hands are shaking. Betrayal, rage, trickery... he cannot believe her words.

Briar Rose, not Aurora, never Aurora again, finally sheds a tear, her turkey leg forgotten and resting in her hands, venom in every word that falls from her lips. "Because I was payment. Even when I was born, I was payment. Without me, they wouldn't have their precious fountain. What with the curse, payment was just delayed a few years."

Rumpelstiltskin vows revenge. He vows hellfire and brimstone and evil will reign over these people who gave up their child twice far too easily. He will torture the woman who fooled him, who made him believe that she cared. He will craft a spell, a curse so dark, so evil, that they will suffer for eternity.

But for now, he has a young girl to take care of; a lost child returned home. Without a word, he reaches out and lifts a curled tendril of blonde hair. He twirls it deftly between his fingers, like the gold he spins, and pulls it out over her nose so she can see it. With a gentle breath, he blows magic into the hair and blonde gives way to bright chestnut brown. He lifts the turkey leg from her hands, discarding it next to them, and with a touch of one finger to fabric he cleans the mud from her skirt, making it as brilliant as when she first put it on. He flicks his wrist in front of her, and out of thin air appears a golden spun crown. He presents it to her with a smile. "Everything is where you left it, dearie."

She smiles, taking the crown in her hands and leaning into his shoulder. The thick leather is so much more comforting than she thought it would be. "You knew I'd come back?"

He pats her head, an arm slipping around her shoulder. "I never dared dream I'd see you again, my lovely Briar Rose."

In Storybrooke she's known as the only living being for whom Mr. Gold has a soft spot. Dawn, as she's known in this world, would slip into his shop after school some days, and he would smile at her, and she would help him dust and arrange the items that never seemed to get sold.

She would get in school yard fights defending him, and he is proud that she can throw such a great right hook. He also relents that perhaps he should have taught her to defend herself a little bit better in a fist fight, because she almost always ends up with a black-eye marring her beauty. He asks her to stop, but she just smiles and says that she will when the other kids stop saying things they shouldn't. She shows him top marks on the same paper that she writes over and over again, discusses the same books with him like clockwork because they are what she's reading in class, and sits in the corner of his shop making the whole place brighter.

When time starts ticking again and change is finally possible after nearly thirty years of mind-numbing stasis, she dyes her lovely blonde locks brown. He asks her why, but she can give him no other answer than she didn't feel like herself.

Her parents yelled, but he smiled.

Dawn brings a young man, Ryan, by the shop to introduce to him. Gold smiles and is as polite to Ryan as possible, doing his best to make a positive impression on the young man who stands tall and looks him in the eye when he speaks, despite the nervous twitch in his hands. Gold recognizes the young prince, though he has not been acquainted with him in this world or the other. Dawn hangs on the young man's arm and Gold can see the nervousness in her eyes. She desperately wants his approval.

"Have you met Dawn's parents yet?" Gold asks, leaning heavily on his cane and trying not to rake his eyes over the young man in a judgmental manner. He may be a fine lad, but Gold doubts that any number of good qualities would be good enough for his little princess.

"No sir," Ryan says, still doing his best to look the town cad in the eyes when he speaks to him, to stand tall and proud. He tips his head and looks at Dawn, just a hit of a smile on is face. "She insisted that I meet you first."

The pawn broker's eyebrows lift to his hairline briefly, and he has to press his lips together to hide his delighted smile. "Well, then." He doesn't know what else to say, so he leans forward and plants a kiss on Dawn's forehead. "She's very precious to me, you know. Behave like a gentleman and we'll be fine friends, Ryan." Dawns eyes widen and her jaw drops, but before she can protest he's turned the pair around. "You'll be late if you don't leave now. Go on..."

He chuckles to himself as they leave for a movie; watches as his shoulders slum as soon as they are out the door and her hands start to gesture wildly at trying to explain away his threat. Ryan had looked positively relieved that Gold hadn't threatened him, and Dawn had been absolutely scandalized. If only she knew the consequences of not being a gentleman that he wanted to threaten the boy with in that moment.

After all, he is pretty sure he could still turn people into toads, even in this world.

"I had a dream last night," she tells him, sitting on an antique bench while he updates a ledger behind the counter.

He smiles lightly, never looking up from his notes. "How original," he quips.

She just rolls her eyes in a disaffected manner that never quite suited her, but that she picked up from this world none the less. "No, I mean I had a very odd dream. In it, you were my father, but you looked like... I don't know. I thought you looked funny, but everyone around me thought you looked horrid." She lifts her knees to her chest and wraps them in her arms. "They tried to take me away from you."

He stops working in the ledger, closing it and giving her his full attention. "You were never meant to be mine," he whispers. Even in this history, he was simply an old family friend looking after her until they could get on their feet. A godfather of sorts for the child. He has the fuzzy memories of this world, but they pale in comparison to what really happened.

Her chin rests on her knees. She looks far too forlorn, but there is nothing to settle the melancholy of an uncertain youth. "I know. I just- I got this really bad feeling from it- and when I woke up... it sounds stupid."

He chides her, thumping his cane on the counter before he uses it to limp over and sit next to her. "Not stupid. Tell me."

She sighs and lets it float out of her mouth like a whisper. "I felt like this was the dream, and that was the reality. But it was a fairy tale world- filled with the people from all the stories I knew when I was a kid, the stories you used to tell me..." She trails away and leans into Gold, letting her head fall to his shoulder. It is such a familiar embrace for both of them, though anyone in town would have startled to see this man so close to another human being.

He wraps an arm around her shoulders. "Why does this bother you so? It was a dream."

Her breathing changes, and she sniffs lightly. She is crying. "I think I'm going crazy."

He is cut to the core. He knows why she is remembering slowly. She has been touched by his magic too often to ever be fully engulfed by this spell. He had made sure that his magic could halt it- break it eventually- and her whole existence and survival is based on the fact that his magic saved her. He cannot tell her that, though. He tips his head on hers, holding her tight. "No, no. I have known you your whole life. You are not going crazy."

"They weren't dreams," she hitches out, "they were memories."

He clutches her tightly, unsure of what to say next. She sniffles into his shoulder, and he can feel the warmth of her tears falling on his shirt. Her pain twists his stomach until he thinks he may be sick. "What if..." he begins, but his throat is choked with emotion. He clears it and tries again. "What if I told you that you were right."

"Papa..." she breathes out unknowingly, disbelief heavy under her tears as she tries to stop him from placating her.

Gold pulls away, forcing her to look in his eyes. Her chin trembles, her eyes wide as she realizes what she's said. "What did you call me?"

"I... I..." She shies away, the tears coming faster and her cheeks reddening further. Her lip trembles, but he only smiles at her.

"Say it again, dearie." He reaches up, holding her face and forcing her to see him, his smile a mile wide.

"Papa..." she whispers, on purpose this time.

He kisses her forehead. "My dear Briar Rose, you are not crazy." He holds her tight as the tears calm.

He intends to find a way to renew the magic around her, to help her forget if he can, but his magic has never been quite effective enough in this world to do much more than the rare parlor trick.

Until then, he contents himself with listening to her memories, reliving a different life with her as she wanders his shop every day after school, looking at each keepsake with new eyes. She spins the tales that he told her the first time about each of the objects, not the silly antiquity histories that belong to this world.

They smile secret smiles at one another each night before she leaves to go home to her parents and he heads back to his empty house.

She stops him right before they step outside the shop one night. It's been an unstated understanding that none of the memories get mentioned outside of the shop's four walls. "Do you... have anything else from there?"

He lifts his hand and taps her nose with his finger. "To what are you referring, my little princess?"

She laughs and smiles widely. "How can I be a princess without my crown?"

He opens the door and shows her out, turning back to lock it up tightly. "Of course. Tomorrow."

When he returns to his house, dark and empty and quieter than he's wanted it to be for a long time, he heads straight for the back room. Behind a painting, so cliche he knows, sits a safe large enough for only two items: a small crown of intertwined golden threads that shines as the light hits it, and a chipped china tea cup. He pulls out the tiny crown, still so full of magic, and slips it into his brief case. He can't wait to see her face tomorrow.

Tomorrow comes, as does the next day and she doesn't show up after school. It's happened before that she's become bogged down with homework or even been pressed into hanging out with her friends, and though he's slightly disturbed, thinking of the golden tiara in his briefcase that he knows she desperately wants to see, he doesn't think too much of her absence. On the third day he hears the bell above his door ring and thinks that it must be her. Instead, he finds a wild-eyed Ryan breathless and skidding to a halt in the center of his shop. "You have to help," the former prince gasps out.

In less than half an hour he's in a screaming match with her parents and doctors and she's laying, sedated, on a cot in the hospital while Ryan just stares at her from behind glass doors.

They found her diary. She had a penchant for writing everything down.

When she was eight and painted the stone walls with poems about butterflies and fairies.

When she was twelve and carved her name into the tree beside the front door.

When she was fifteen and a half and wrote him a treatise on why he shouldn't lie to her, and why he should keep her forever.

They were going to commit her. He had no legal right to make decisions about her life or health in this world. No magic, either, he laments.

Her parents did have the right, though. Even though she's nearly eighteen, she's still young enough that these two people who would give her up for a fountain that grants wishes for credit card debt and shopping addiction in this word can decide her fate. He's escorted off the hospital grounds after he refuses to leave her bedside.

He stands just past the property line, staring into the window of the hospital. He would move mountains for that girl, and now that she's remembered, it's even more important to make sure she's protected.

At first, Belle thought she was imagining it. It wasn't the first time she's heard something that wasn't there. Being imprisoned for so long, she has little to hope for anymore. She shifts, tries to go back to sleep, and wonders if the crying she hears in her mind could possibly quiet for a little while.

What clues her in to the fact that it is real is the sound of the orderly slipping another tray of food through another door. She's not sure how she missed the sounds of a new arrival since she's been the only sounds aside from the insects and orderlies in this godforsaken place for so long, but she did.

She idly wonders if they drugged her food. She thinks the answer might be yes, but finds that it doesn't matter so much.

She eats quietly, listening as the poor soul who is trapped down here as well vomits their dinner up. Belle isn't surprised, so few living things are accustomed to dungeons. She muses that she actually quite likes them, especially if the alternative is to be dead.

When the hysterics calm down to mere sniffles sometime between dusk and dawn, Belle crawls over to the door and lifts the small flap. She tries to say hello, but she coughs and sputters. She can't remember the last time she actually spoke. She tries again and her voice comes out rough like sand paper, "Hello? Is someone there?"

The flap in the door across from her opens and she sees red rimmed, bloodshot eyes. A meek, female voice answers her. "I'm not alone?"

Belle can't help but smile. What she wouldn't have given to have a friend for so long. "No, child, you are not alone."

They only talk at night. Belle quickly fills the girl in on the few rules she's learned: be quiet during the day, say as little as possible, and don't fight them.

"Or what?" the girl asks, full of the fire that Belle remembers feeling so many years ago.

Belle doesn't answer her. She doesn't have the heart to take away her hope, so she changes the subject. "What's your name, dear?"

The girl laughs, at first it's slightly manic, but it turns tearful quickly. "That's the question, isn't it?"

Belle leans back against the padded wall, holding the flap of the door open so that the sound of her voice can travel. "What do you want to be called?"

The girl is silent, and just when Belle doesn't think she's going to get an answer, the girl's voice rings out strong and clear. "Briar Rose."

"Lovely to meet you, Briar Rose," She smiles. She sees an image of a gnarled hand brushing through a Sweet Briar Rose bush, but she pushes the memory away quickly. "I'm Belle."

For what seemed like years upon years upon days the silence of Belle's imprisonment had blurred into itself. She could never tell how long she'd been asleep or awake, how long she stared and dreamt of a man with a silly laugh and a quick temper. She could never tell how many times she imagined him rescuing her, or why she felt so old when she was sure she had only been locked up for days. Things were less fuzzy recently, time seemed to go by and maybe, maybe she could feel like it had been a few years, not days, that she had been stuck down here, but she still waits for the moment when a magic man would bust through the door she had clawed at trying to break free.

Briar Rose seems to enjoy her solitude as well. She only calls out if she has a question, or a need to hear another person's voice. But she's listened, and never speaks when the sun shines through their dirty windows.

Belle shifts over and lifts the flap. "Briar Rose?"


"Why are you here?"

"Because I have memories that they say never happened." Belle feels emotion well up in her chest. "Why are you here?"

"I believe," she starts out cautiously, "that I loved the wrong man."

"He put you here?"

"No." She chokes back emotion.

"Can't he find you?"

Belle does not reply for the rest of the night.

They don't often talk of anything of consequence. Belle will sing Briar Rose lullabies when she can't sleep. Briar Rose tells Belle about movies she seen and music she's heard and about the first time she kissed a boy. Belle lets her talk mostly, reveling in the optimism of youth and the belief that they will get out. Belle is far too jaded to tell most of her tales.

Just a few words each night, maybe a short story, just enough when no one is around so that they don't feel so alone.

It's been nearly a month and a half when Briar Rose calls out to Belle one night. "Belle!"

Briar Rose hears her scramble to the door. "What?"

"I just realized, that when we leave, I can take you with me."

Belle sighs. If only it were that easy. "How do you mean, dearie?"


"Old sentiment, old friend. How do you mean you can take me with you?"

"My Papa, he's the most powerful man in this whole town. If I ask him to, he'll get you out."

Belle refuses to take the girl's hope away from her. "Perhaps he can. I'm sure your father-"

"He's not my father," Briar Rose interrupts. Her sigh is loud enough the Belle hears. "I wish he were. But he's going to save me, I know it."

"I wish..." Belle whispers, but leaves the sentiment unfinished.

Briar Rose cries out one evening, and it startles Belle so much she jumps. It isn't yet dark out, and they've only just been given their dinner and she can hear the nurse's footsteps still at the end of the corridor.

When the squeaking of rubber on the floor fades enough, Belle scrambles over to the flap. "Briar? Briar, what's happened?"

The girl thumps against the door. "Damn metal tray cut me. It's splintered on one end."

Belle sighs. It is not the worst thing she was imagining. "Is it alright? Is it bad?"

"No," the girl answers, "Not much more than a needle prick on my finger, but it hurt like hell."

Belle leans back against the door. "Good." She is careful not to say more. In all her blurry days here, she has never hand anything but the smoothest metal trays, the blandest gray and brown mush, and routines that never wavered.

Anything that wasn't routine made her heart pound.

Something must be going on, because it seems they've been forgotten about. They have the water from small sinks in their rooms, and bathrooms, of course, but the best way Belle can figure it, no one's brought down food in nearly a day and a half.

Annoying, certainly, but not nearly as distressing as the fact that Briar Rose is ill, moaning and crying and telling her how dizzy and achy she is. Belle yells until her voice goes raw, but no one comes. She calls to the girl, begging her to drink water even when Belle can hear her retching up the tiny amounts she manages to gulp down. She contemplates trying to get through the door, but she's spent so many hours and days and even what feels like years trying to unscrew tiny rivets with her fingernails and clawing at joints until her fingers bled that she knows beyond any doubt that she can never get through that door.

And even if she could, there would still be another door between her and the poor girl across the hall.

"What can I do, darling?" Belle pleads desperately through the door, her fingers pressing up the small flap to see if the one across the hall is open. It's not.

"Nothing," the girl moans pitifully. "Nothing."

Belle huffs with frustration, her voice nearly manic. "There's always something to be done, isn't there?"

She can hear the tears in Briar Rose's voice. "Unless you can get us out, or get my Papa, or even get that awful, horrible nurse, then no."

"How about a story?" Belle suggests, running out of options and ideas and dipping closer to desperation than she ever has in all the time she's been in this godforsaken place. Only a moan responds, so she starts talking.

She tells of a girl who lost her mother. A girl who was held as beautiful, but who wanted to be known as smart and brave. She speaks about the war that has befallen her people, and the last ditch effort to save them. She talks about a deal with an imp, and how she will leave her family forever.

"I know this one," Briar Rose says with pain lacing her words, "but you tell it beautifully. Please, tell me more."

"Of course." Belle smiles, feeling like perhaps she has done at least something to help the girl, even if it strikes her odd that she seems to know her personal story. She continues the tale, adding as many details as she can: the chipped cup, the nailed curtains, rambling sidebars about the treasures in the castle she eventually called home. There is no need for brevity, and Belle thinks that perhaps the longer the story, the longer Briar Rose will have something positive to focus on.

The young woman is quiet and every so often Belle prompts her with a question or by calling her name, each time she replies that she is listening, but her voice is still filled with suffering. After another half a day of telling the story while no one comes, Belle is finally at the end of the tale.

"She told him that all he would have would be an empty heart and a chipped cup, and walked out of the castle. She left everything she owned, intending to go back. She took a rest at a tavern halfway to town, thinking about going back, but the hurt was too raw and she decided to move on. She was leaving the inn when a familiar carriage assaulted her. The woman in black, with her great, sleek black carriage was back. She offered the crying woman a ride, and she was far too naive to say no. The woman pretended to care about her story, and offered to drop her in town with enough gold to spend the night at an inn. But the woman was a liar. The gold she gave her was poisoned, and the moment it touched her skin she fell into a deep sleep. When she next awoke, she was in a dark, cool prison below the earth. It was a proper dungeon, even bleaker than the one the beast had provided in his castle. She cried and screamed, but no one ever came for her. Only the evil woman in black came to see her, smiling cruelly and laughing before she would leave."

Briar Rose is quiet for far too long. "Dearie?" A hacking cough, then the sound of the flap across the hall opening. Belle opens hers as well and can just make out the ashen face and the broken blood vessels in the eyes across from her. "Oh my love," Belle starts, heartbroken at how ill the girl is, but she is quickly interrupted.

"You're telling it wrong." Her words are the most forceful that Belle's heard in hours from the girl. Her story has created some fire within her. Anything, as long as it keeps her from giving up.

Belle sighs heavily, elated at Briar Rose's seeming upswing (if only for a moment) and heartbroken at reliving the story in such detail. "Oh, my dear, I'm afraid I'm not."

"No, believe me," she says heartily, and from the tone Belle knows how sure the girl is of her words. "I know this story. My Papa used to tell it to me. It's the story of the chipped tea cup, and that's not how it ends."

It's the surety in her voice that surprises Belle. Her first instinct is to fight, but that would not be good for the girl in the cell across from her. "Well, tell me the ending of your story."

Briar Rose clears her throat, but her voice is still tired and strained. "Well, it's mostly the same as yours, though yours was a bit longer than the version my Papa used to tell. Anyway, she left him standing in the dungeon with his empty heart and chipped cup, and ran as fast as she could, leaving all of her things behind. He waited in his tower for her to return, he hoped she would, but he could not force her to love him, because he loved her, deeply, but he could not afford to lose his magic. 'Cause it wasn't a curse even if it behaved like one- it was just the Dark Magic, Dark Magic he needed to keep the Evil Queen in check. Good magic was never powerful enough to defeat evil, so evil needed to be fought with evil. So he couldn't let her break the curse. But he also couldn't believe she loved him, but he hoped, because he loved her..." She sighed. "Am I making sense? I feel... fuzzy."

Belle pressed against the door. "You're doing wonderful, darling." Her sentences did ramble a bit, but Belle understood them perfectly well. Maybe just a little too well. "Please, continue. There's more, isn't there?"

"Ok, um," Briar Rose moans as she repositions herself against the door, holing the flap open so she can see Belle's concerned gaze as she speaks. "Well, anyway, he waited for her. He thought at first that maybe she would come back because she left everything. But then he realized that she really did hate him, which was why she didn't take any of the things he gave her- she didn't want them."

"That's not true," Belle whispers under her breath.

"What?" Briar Rose asks sharply.

"Oh, nothing. Continue."

Her voice is fading a bit, but she tries to tell the story. "So he tried to forget about her the best he could. About a month later, The Queen came to him for help in one of her plans, but she didn't know that he didn't know about his Beauty. She told him that she went back home but was turned away. That they sent clerics and priests for her and tortured her, and when she could take it no more, she flung herself from the tower they held her in." Briar Rose sighs. "She died. And all he had was a broken heart and a chipped cup. That's why he kept the cup. It reminded him of her."

Belle is strangely wary of this story. She knows it is not what happened, but it seems only the other side of a single coin. It sounds too honest to be made up, and holds too many details to be coincidence.

And who else would know about the chipped cup?

"Briar Rose, love, why did you call it the story of the chipped tea cup?" Belle asks, her heart pounding in her chest.

She's let the flap fall, and her voice sounds far away. "That's what it's called."

"I lived it, my dear. I know that's not how the ending goes." Belle is shaking, full of nerves and emotions and she hasn't eaten in nearly two days and if someone doesn't get down here to help this poor girl she really might go mad.

"It is," Briar Rose nearly whispers, Belle has to strain to hear it, "because he has the cup."

Belle's heart stops. "Who, Briar Rose? Who has the cup?" But the girl doesn't answer. All that Belle hears is the sound of her body slumping against the door. "Briar? Briar?"

Belle screams.

"I don't know what to tell you, Mr. Gold," Emma says, sitting behind the empty desk of Storybrooke Hospital's reception area. The hospital is eerily quiet with all non-essential personnel waiting outside, only a few patients left in an upstairs ICU ward that they've already searched with only one nurse between them. She'll have to go out and let everyone back in, and Regina will have a field day with her after this yields nothing. "There is no sign of your goddaughter here, but there's also no sign of her anywhere." Emma smacks the file folder she's holding down on the desk. "Whatever they did with her, it isn't legal."

Gold sits in a plastic waiting room chair, massaging his thigh, his head dropped. "What else can I do?" He asks softly. Defeat clouds his voice and he looks up when she doesn't answer him. "No, I'm asking you, Sheriff Swan, what more can I do? How can I find her, where can I look? I truly, truly do not believe they've taken her out of Storybrooke, but if they haven't..."

"We've cleared out the hospital. She's not hiding in here, I'm sorry..." She takes some pity on him.

His lip quivers, but she doesn't say anything. She gives him as much dignity as she can. "Then she must be dead."

Emma's eyes widen at his declaration. "Hey now! It is not time to give up." She stands and walks over to the man who inspires so much fear, sees the fallen giant before her, and knows that his heart cannot be all black if it can love this much. "Either way, it is my job to find her, and I promise you, I will. No matter what's happened to her, I will find her."

Gold shakes his head. "I doubt you will. It's a small town, someone would have seen her by now."

Emma crouches in front of him. "Her parents put her in here, in this building, for a seventy-two hour psychiatric hold that she never came away from. We know that. I've watched the tapes over and over again myself. Something sinister is going on here." His lip quirks up at that, but he doesn't move or speak otherwise. After a silent moment, Emma tries another tactic. "You still have a favor, you know."

Gold's laugh is black, entirely without mirth. "I do believe I used that when I walked into the Sheriff's office last month and said 'I'm calling in my favor,' though I guess that sentence could be misconstrued."

Emma shakes her head. "Nope, doing my job is not a favor. I've told you before, if someone's in trouble, I want to help. It's my job to help. A favor is a pastrami sandwich when you're in jail, or helping you paint your living room, or dropping off your dry cleaning. Finding a girl who has disappeared? A girl who is in trouble and needs help? That's not a favor."

Gold looks up at her, trying valiantly to keep the tear in his eye from falling. "Miss Swan, you never cease to amaze me. Thank you. Thank you for listening to me when I came to you."

Emma stands, turning away to give the man who is always in control a minute to catch his emotions. "It's a sad story. She needs help, and after hearing about her past, I can't say that her parents are always thinking in her best interest. You are."

She hears him stand, his cane tapping lightly on the floor. "Well, I can't say that I've ever had anything else in mind when it came to her." The words slip past his lips like a prayer, like he may doubt they're the truth when it is plain to see they are. "Though I shall remember to give you a call next time I decide to paint my living room."

She smiles at him, the click of his cane in the empty hospital far too loud.

Until the silence is pierced by what sounds like a muffled scream.

Belle can't take it anymore. She's screaming her throat raw, banging on the door, throwing herself at it. This isn't right, any of it. How can they be forgotten down here? How can Briar Rose be so sick so quickly? How can she know about the cup? So many emotions war within her until there is nothing to do except throw her body to the door and scream, scream at the top of her lungs at the injustice of it all.

And for all the racket, Briar Rose does not stir.

She throws her body harder.

Gold and Emma look at each other for only the space of a heartbeat before he's hobbling back towards her. "Where is that coming from?"

The scream is muffled, but real, and punctuated by dull thumping sounds. They spin, clockwise, counter clockwise, taking a few steps here and there, but the sound doesn't grow any louder or quieter.

"Does that sound like Dawn?" Emma asks, pushing through a door at the end of the hall and listening.

Gold shakes his head, standing at a door that's deemed an exit, but also has a combination lock. He points at it, and Emma nearly runs to his side, raising her eyebrows as she hears just a slight increase in the volume of the screams. "Not her," he says, his voice breathless, "but it doesn't matter really, does it? Someone screaming like that, they need help."

Emma nods and pulls up the card she was given by the hospital administration, sliding it through the reader next to the key pad. The green light doesn't light. She does it again, then hits the pad with her fist. Gold tries the door, but it doesn't budge.

Emma starts punching numbers in the pad as Gold hits the safety glass with his cane. The glass shatters, but it is held in place by the wire within it. Suddenly, the door gives way, The screaming louder and a dimly lit stairwell just beyond. Gold looks at her.

Emma's tone is bitter. "Four digit code. I had a hunch and plugged in Henry's birthday." Gold's mouth twists into a scowl as he steps aside and lets her go first. The hallway isn't wide enough for two and it will take him him just a few seconds longer than the Sheriff to maneuver with the cane.

Emma rushes ahead, the sound of utter despair and pain coming from a raw throat and a body hitting a heavy door so much more pronounced. She passes an empty nurses desk, twists and turns through hallways until she's at a heavy door, bouncing back with cries of agony.

"Hello? Hello? Are you hurt?" Emma cries, pressing her hands against the door and looking for a way to unlock it.

"Oh, thank goodness, thank goodness. You need to help," the slightly accented voice on the other side rambles, her voice thick from crying and raw from screaming. "She needs help, the girl across from me. She's sick, and they forgot about us. Please, please help her." The flap in the middle of the door opens, a sweat slicked hand with chewed nails points to the door across from her, shaking.

"But you?" Emma pleads, looking back and forth between the two doors.

"Just trying to get attention," she heaves out, her voice shaking as the adrenaline rush ebbs now that there's someone else here. "Please, help her. Please."

Belle doesn't know the voice on the other side of the door, only that it must be a miracle. She's not one of the nurses, not one of the doctors, and not that woman. Briar Rose will get help today.

Shaking, Belle retreats to the farthest corner of her cell, sliding down the wall and trying to catch her breath.

Someone new knows they're down here. That's a whole new ball of hope but she can't hold her eyes open any longer. Oblivion envelops her as she hears voices trying to get into the door across from hers.

Emma lifts the flap on the second door just as Gold catches up with her. "Oh no," she breathes out, "It's Dawn. I found Dawn."

Gold bends down to look as Emma starts examining the door again. He's shaking; he calls to her just before realizes that she can't answer him. Emma's on her cell phone, barking orders frantically. "Get Doctor Whale in here, now. I don't care how, I don't care who. Get the whole freaking fire department if you have to! We have to get this door down and get her some help."

Gold doesn't listen as Emma starts talking of another woman who was screaming, he only hears words like sick and passed out and forgotten and he doesn't stop himself from crying this time. He reaches through the small flap of the door, unable to touch her. There are no spindles, no spinning wheels, and no curses. Just sickness. He can't heal that with old magic that doesn't even spark at his fingertips any longer.

Emma walks with Gold when they're finally allowed in to see her. He didn't leave Dawn's side from the moment they found her to when the doctors rushed her upstairs, leaving Emma to deal with the room with the screaming woman who had gone quiet. His devotion was no longer unexpected to Emma, but she'd seen the way some of the doctors and nurses watched him. The man needed a friend right now, pure and simple. Especially since 'coma' is a horrible, horrible word, and she doesn't want the heartbroken man to face it alone. Gold limps slowly to the bedside, slipping into the chair there and resting his chin on the top of his cane because it seems his body can't hold it up any longer. He reaches out, his fingertips gently ghosting over Dawn's pale hand.

"My own little Sleeping Beauty," he murmurs, deftly avoiding the IVs and taking her slack fingers in his.

Emma can't hide her surprise. "What?" She watches a mask fall over his face, and knows whatever he says will be a lie.

"She used to sleep so well as a child. Anywhere, any time." He clears his throat. "Called her my Sleeping Beauty."

After a few quiet, uncomfortable moments Emma steps away. "I'll uh..." but he doesn't turn from the bed, doesn't even acknowledge that she's leaving. She closes the door behind her quietly, leaving him sit vigil for the poor girl.

Belle wakes up in a different room. This one is stark and while, but it's very much a hospital room, not a padded cell. Her eye flutter shut again all too soon, but she smiles anyway.

It's a change. Change has to be good.

Emma finds Henry sitting on a bench outside the hospital, away from the prying eyes of his mother who is trying to sweet talk several hospital administrators and board members. Emma doesn't think she has enough to arrest her, but she knows that she was involved. Henry sighs as she sits down, flipping through his fairytale book. "What's up, kid?"

He twists his mouth tight. "I think I've figured out who Miss French is. Well, sorta." He flips back and forth between two different tales, staring at the pictures. "I mean, the hair isn't right, but that's just a detail."

Emma leans over, but can't get a clear peek. "Who do you think she is?"

"Well, the first choice is obviously Rapunzel. A princess locked up against her will." Henry points to the illustration. "But Miss French's hair is brown, and so far the pictures have always been more right than wrong, and Rapunzel is famous for being blonde."

Emma pulls her own hair front, looking at it. "People can dye their hair..." she mutters, thinking of the muted brown she was as a child.

Henry looks up at her as if she's grown two heads. "In a secret padded cell?"

Emma clears her throat. If nothing else, Henry always keeps her on her toes with his thinking. "Good call. Who is your other option?"

Henry flips the page again and reveals a picture that looks much more like the scared and barely conscious woman that Emma pulled from the cell after they'd rescued Dawn. "The other option is that she's Belle... or the Beauty from Beauty and The Beast. But the story is different then."

Emma leans back, prepared to really listen to what he has to say. No matter what, the boy knows his fairy tales, and after pulling those two sickly, disheveled women out today, she needs something to soothe her soul. "What do you mean?"

Henry points to the book. "In here, Belle dies at the end. The beast- who is actually Rumpelstiltskin- turns her out for trying to kiss him and take away his power. Then she returns home, but her father turns her away after living with someone who posses Dark Magic." Henry saddens. "He sends priests and clerics after her and they lock her in a tower, too, trying to cleanse her. But she has nothing to repent for, so she jumps."

"Jumps?" Emma asks.

Henry nods. "Commits suicide." He rests his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands, "If she's dead there, then she shouldn't be alive here. But if she's alive here, then that means either the book is wrong about what happened, or she's not Belle."

Emma panics internally. This is what she had wanted at first- for Henry to come across a contradiction on his own, for the book to be wrong and for him to start accepting reality again. But somehow it just feels wrong for that to be the case. She looks at the picture of the girl in a gold dress holding a chipped cup and she just knows, knows in her bones that it is the same woman who screamed and cried and pounded at the door to get help for Dawn. She's still raw and tired and full of emotions that she can't sort out: the burnt out edges of adrenaline on her system, memories of the cruelty, Gold's sadness, his elation, his devotion... she'll be thinking of this day for a long time to come. The last thing she wants to do right now is take away the only hope Henry has found in this place.

She smiles and changes the topic. "Well, we can think about that more later. I think I know who someone else is, though."

Henry's eyes light back up, a half smile showing her teeth that will one day need braces and that squint to his eyes that will eventually make tiny lines as he grows. "Really? Who?"

"Well," Emma starts, her face a little confused as she thinks about what actually happened, "I went with Mr. Gold to see Dawn, and he called her his Sleeping Beauty. I mean... she is in a coma and anyone might have said it, but I always get the impression that Gold knows more than he's saying, don't you?"

Henry's eyes grow wide as saucers. "He called her Sleeping Beauty?" Emma nods. "And he was the one who was looking for her...even took care of her most her life." His voice drifts off and he starts flipping through pages. "And he wanted Ashley's baby..." He finds another page, reads for a second, then moves on, "And he's always making deals..." Until finally he looks up at her. "What did he get from my mom, that day that he was in jail?"

Emma shrugged. "A broken mug, why-"

Henry practically jumps at her. "You mean a chipped tea cup?" She shrugs at him. "Do you know what this means?"

Emma shakes her head, a little nervous at the manic excitement he's displaying. "No, actually I really don't."

Henry leans over, whispering to her. "In this book the stories are different. There's a lot of things that are the same as the stories most people know, but a lot of things are different, too. In these stories, Rumpelstiltskin makes a deal with Cinderella for her baby. Rumpelstiltskin and not the three fairies take care of Sleeping Beauty before her sixteenth birthday. Rumpelstiltskin is Belle's Beast." His words come out hushed and amazed. "Mr. Gold is Rumpelstiltskin..."

"You mean the little guy who spins straw into gold?" Emma asks, completely bewildered by the intertwining of so many stories.

Henry shakes his head, "No. In the book he's not just an imp. He's a spinner who steals the Dark Magic to try to save his son. It doesn't work, though. He ends up keeping the Dark Magic, mastering it, and becomes a great adversary to the Queen. She's the one that made the curse happen, but he's the one that created it." Henry gets even quieter. "And according to those pages I tore out, he's the one who is going to help you break the curse."

The spinning in Emma's head and the roiling in her gut have not been abated by sitting here, and she feels the first pangs of a migraine. If anything, this has only added to her confusion. "Ok, so what does Operation Cobra do now that we know this?"

Henry leans back on the bench, shutting the book in his lap. "I don't know."

Emma's unhappy. She's getting a lot of stress, a lot of paperwork, and absolutely no answers today. She's come to see the screaming woman, but she hasn't helped her one bit.

"Look Miss..."

"French." The girl spits out, like the name is foreign on her lips.

"Miss French," Emma says cautiously, more puzzle pieces slipping into place, and fairy tales mingling with reality. She can't help but see everything in two lights now, not with how much time she spends with Henry. "Isn't there anything you can tell me about her? About what happened?"

Her voice is still horse, and she is pale and tired. It only makes Emma more frustrated at the work she has ahead of her to find out why these two women were imprisoned. "Please, Miss Swan, you'll understand if my trust is a hard thing to come by- but I truly have told you all I know." She sighs heavily. "How is she, is she alright?"

Emma shakes her head sadly. "No, I'm um... I'm sorry to have to tell you, but she's in a coma."

Tears spring to the woman's eyes. "Oh, the poor thing." She looks down, feeling the IVs under her skin. She looks up, panic in her eyes. "She's not alone, is she? I don't think the poor thing could stand it if she woke up alone... just in case..."

Emma lays a hand on her elbow. "Her godfather is with her. He basically raised her, so she's in good hands." A small smile creeps up on the woman's face, and Emma can't help but match it.

Miss French stares out the window, watching the setting sun through clean panes for the first time that she can remember in years. "That's good. I wouldn't want her to be alone."

Emma presses her lips tight, tossing the idea out on a whim. "Miss French, can I call someone for you? Is... is Moe French your father? Can I call him?"

"I'd rather you didn't," she whispers, sadness overtaking her again.

"There's no one?" Emma asks carefully.

She looks up, eyes completely dry but full of old hurt. "I don't know who had me put down there. So no, please don't call anyone."

Her words sink into Emma's consciousness for a second. On one hand, it tugs at her heart to hear the plight of these two poor girls. As the Sheriff, however, it just means more mystery and the zipped lips of a tight knit, small town. Emma reaches into her pocket and pulls out a card. "Here. You can trust me, even if you think you can't. You need anything, you call me, ok?"

Miss French nods as she takes it, holding it in her hands as the sheriff starts walking away. "Miss Swan?" she calls when Emma's just a step away from being out the door. The blonde turns, her eyebrows raised and a slight smile on her face. "Do you think, do you think I can see her? Br- Dawn?" She almost slips, but the right name comes out in the last second. "Just to even tell her godfather how sorry I am."

Emma nods, stepping out. "I'll see what I can arrange."

Gold doesn't turn around when he hears the nurse help someone to the door. He hasn't moved but for a cup of stale coffee in hours, and he doesn't plan on going anywhere any time soon. He hears the squeak of the wheels on the IV stand, the shuffling sound of hospital issue slippers- he's been told the other woman down there wants to come see her, to make sure she's alright, but can't help but keep his gaze on the girl in the bed.

Her breath stops when she sees him. She doesn't know where to start, but he doesn't turn and it gives her a few seconds to think after the nurse leaves her just inside, closing the room's door as she leaves. His profile is more than enough with her suspicions already peaked. She doesn't know if she should be furious or happy, if she should be relieved or afraid. Her heart pounds in her chest and her lungs fight for air.

She'd always remembered. At first it was bits and pieces as fuzzy histories warred with one another and days bled into each other, but the longer she sat down there, the easier it was to remember with nothing but memories to keep her company.

So this was what Rumpelstiltskin looked like as a man. A broken one at that.

She longed to go to him, but she felt rooted to the spot. What if he didn't remember?

What if he did?

Things had been left so poorly between them. But she remembers Dawn's words- her version of the story. He thinks she's dead. No wonder he never came looking for her- who searches for a dead woman?

She steps forward, dragging her IV stand with her until she's next to him. She sees his eyes shift to her slowly, then back and forth twice so quickly she almost doesn't believe it. His head tilts up, disbelief written on his face. "I'm sorry, Rum," is all she whispers. Her words are left open, apologizing for a million things all at once.

All it takes is one word from his lips to prove to her that he remembers. "Belle?"

She smiles. "You're a papa?" Her words are full of wonder, not really seeking an answer she already knows. "She is lovely." Belle reaches out, dropping her fingertips over their entwined ones. "You really were so lonely in that castle, weren't you?"

His cane clatters to the floor as his hands grip hers tightly, his fingers running up and down the insides of her wrists, gripping her elbows, his face a manic mask of hope and disbelief and heartbreak as he stands, looking at her eye to eye for the first time in far too many years. "How...?" slips out shakily. His heart sits on his sleeve, his emotions more on edge than she's ever seen. "You're..." His hands flit over her body, pressing and drifting over her form to prove that she is solid and real.

"Here," she finishes strongly, emotion welling up in her throat as she tries to smile at him. "I'm here."

His hands continue to flit over her for a second before he pulls away, grabbing another hard plastic hospital chair from the wall and dragging it over, limping slightly. "Sit," he urges, taking her elbow and guiding her down, carefully arranging the tubing and stand around her. "Please, you must tell me... how..."

Belle sees how he refuses to take his eyes from her, sees the desperation and hope and utter, earth shattering sadness behind it all and can't help but grab for his hands, reinforcing with contact the fact that she is really sitting beside him- as much for herself as for him.

"You always were good at telling tales, Rum," she whispers, "but it seems you may have gotten a story quite wrong." His eyebrows wrinkle, his lips work, but no words come out. Belle looks over at the girl who seems so small in the large bed. "Tell me the story of how you became a Papa, and I'll tell you how the story of the chipped tea cup really ended. Deal?" She smiles at him, wider than she has in so long, and it makes her cheeks ache.

A smirk picks up the corner of his mouth. "Deal."

Emma steps into Regina's path, stopping her from drifting down the hospital corridor that leads to the ICU unit where Mr. Gold watches vigil over the young woman in a coma. "Madam Mayor..."

Regina's chin juts out. "Sheriff Swan, can I help you?" Her eyebrows raise, a challenge.

Emma rises to the occasion, a hardened look falling into her eyes. "They're not taking visitors right now."

Regina shrugs a shoulder, the act that she puts on irritating Emma's already raw nerves. "I simply want to pay my respect, assure Mr. Gold that we'll do our best to figure this out."

Emma steps toe to toe with the Mayor, her voice dropping to a dangerous whisper. "They don't need any of that from you. Dawn's medical records, her birth records, every trace of that child disappeared days after she was admitted here, just like her. The code on the door that hid them was Henry's birthday. I don't know how, and I don't know why, but I know you were involved. And so help me, if it's the last thing I do, I'll prove it."

Regina's smile slips and a dark smirk twists her lips. "You're sure of that, aren't you?" They stare. Their eyes hold each others gaze and they don't back down. Had this been a different place, a different time, a real glove- a gauntlet- would have been thrown. Thirty paces with pistols, or a ring of fire with swords. But as it is, the challenge simply hangs in the air between them, heavy and dangerous.

Emma lets loose the final perry with a biting smile, "They're not taking visitors, and I'll be happy to escort you out, if that's what it takes."

A wide smile takes over Regina's face as she steps back. "That won't be necessary, I do believe that I know this hospital like the back of my hand..." She lets the implication hang in the air before she continues. "I'll just get my son and be on my way."

It's a very low blow, but Emma doesn't let it show until Regina's no longer in sight. She sinks into a plastic hospital chair and drops her head into her hands.

"So what happened?" Belle asks desperately. "Did you go after them?"

Gold shakes his head and reaches out for Dawn's hand. "We had just over a year together. I made the cure... this curse, in fact... to get my revenge on her parents, but Regina was gaining power and I never enacted it myself. After I was captured by Cinderella," Belle starts to interrupt but he shakes his head. "Another story for another day. Briar Rose would have known enough to stay at the castle, but with the curse, and being just seventeen, when we came through in Storybrooke, she was with her parents."

Belle swallows, itching at the IV in her hand. "How did she find out that they sold her?"

Gold sighs. "A young prince in the court who had caught her eye, Philip, pulled her aside one night after dinner and told her what her parents had in store for her. It was what his father had been told when their offer of marriage was declined."

Gold reaches over and pulls her hand away from the where she is scratching the skin around the IV raw. "How did she know he was telling the truth?"

He drops his eyes to the girl in the bed, but doesn't let go of Belle's hand. His voice drips like the tears he refuses to shed. "She didn't. She went and asked her mother, and she told her the truth. Even showed her the fountain. Gave her a wish."

Belle whispers it. "What was the wish?"

His eyes glisten when he looks up again. "To be able to find me."

A knock interrupts them, they both turn to see the nurse who brought Belle. "Miss French, it's almost dinner time, you should go."

"No!" Gold blurts out. He quickly regains his composure, though both women are looking at him oddly. "Miss French is actually an... old friend." Gold looks Belle in the eyes, and she knows the word 'friend' is for show only. There are so many more emotions between them than that. "I find it very comforting for her to be here. I'd like her to stay."

The young nurse can see the way he clutches her hand, the slight angle she leans toward him. She doesn't have the heart to say no. "I can bring her dinner up here, but I'll have to take her back to her room before the night shift comes in- they need to monitor her there overnight." Belle's face drops in sadness. The last thing she wants is to be stuck alone in the hospital for another night.

He can't help the sarcasm dripping from his lips. "How very kind of you. Perhaps she can stay just five more minutes after that, then, too?" He grits his teeth and his eyes shoot daggers at the nurse, but Belle tugs on his hand and pulls his attention.

"She's trying to help." Belle admonishes. "I shouldn't be here at all. Any time we get is good enough." His anger melts when he meets her bright blue eyes, sees the desperation to stay in them.

"Perhaps," Gold offers, trying very hard to keep his voice even and stay polite, "Now, I know this would be an inconvenience, but I could compensate the hospital very nicely," he turns on his charm and smiles, even with the sadness and frustration lingering in his eyes, anger crackling just below the surface of his skin. "Perhaps we can share the room? What with Miss French being an old friend, I wouldn't want her alone tonight either after her ordeal." He squeezes Belle's hand once before dropping it and stands, grabbing his cane and inching over to the nurse. "Perhaps there's someone I can talk to about it?" He raises his eyebrows and pulls up to his full height, as imposing as ever.

The nurse nods and leads him away. He takes one look over his shoulder; Belle is already talking softly to Briar Rose, her lax hand tightly gripped in Belle's. He does not want to leave them now, but there are always deals to be made, and power to be asserted.

"Oh, my dear, you must wake up. How his heart is breaking for you," Belle whispers to the girl in the bed. She never got such a clear look at her before, and though she isn't anywhere near health, she sees the beauty in her. Belle thinks back to the days in the cell, so long ago now it seems, but only a few hours, and knows that this girl was kept alive by the thought that her Papa would come find her. He did, the man truly did. It was the same thought that kept her alive, as well; Rumpelstiltskin would save her.

"You know that I know him, don't you? You figured that out, didn't you?" Belle whispers. The machines around them beep in the silence, and she feels her lungs tighten as she thinks what it must have been like for him when he lost her in this world. He was alone- utterly, quietly alone. Even simply sitting in this room reeks of loss and sadness.

Belle sits in the silence, holding Briar Rose's hand until she can take it no more. She doesn't know how he did it, managed to sit here, staring into the abyss of loss for hours on end before she came, before he told her grand stories. Beautiful stories... her mind, sharper than it has been in ages, slowly clicks a few pieces together and her stomach turns somersaults. "Oh, Briar Rose..." she whispers. "You told me once about how you never knew your Mama- the story about the little girl who so desperately wanted one, but knew that every time she brought it up it made her Papa sad, the man who saved her would-be Mama's broken things. It was the chipped cup, wasn't it? That was the broken thing he kept, wasn't it?"

The girl in the bed doesn't answer her, but she doesn't truly expect her to. It feels like hours in the quiet with the repetitive beeping she simply sits and holds her hand, but it can't be more than a few minutes before the limping gate and the tap of a cane that she's unfamiliar with breaks the silence. The voice is almost, but not quite the timber of her dreams and memories. It is several octaves lower.

"They'll bring another bed in shortly, and your dinner up as well. I hope..." He bites his lip, sitting gingerly back in the plastic chair. "I hope I didn't overstep my bounds. I can get you your own room back if you wish..."

Belle shakes her head, her eyes drifting back and forth between Gold and the girl. "No, I don't want to ever be alone again." Her voice is haunted, and she doesn't elaborate.

Gold stretches out his bad leg, carefully resting his cane on the side of his chair. He stares at her, still in some disbelief that she can exist, his hand rubbing over the stubble on his chin. Finally, he speaks. "I believe you owe me a story yourself. Said I may have gotten some of the details wrong."

His voice is light, but her returning look is heavy. "Perhaps not for today. It is... not a happy story."

"But it has a happy ending," he says, steepling his fingers together and staring at her.

"In a dungeon?" she whispers, patting Dawn's arm lightly before letting go and leaning back in her chair. "I don't think so."

He leans forward, dropping a hand gently on her knee. "This," he says, a smirk just lighting up the corner of his mouth. She can't help but smile a bit as she presses her hand, IV and all, over his.

"I suppose." She slips into a whispered tone to tell her story, starting with the moment she left the dungeon in his castle, bestowing on him just a little more detail and a little less fluffy imagination than she had Dawn.

She stops in the middle of telling him about the dwarf in love when orderlies knock and wheel in another bed and a far more comfortable looking chair for Mr. Gold. He smiles knowingly as she barely follows the nurse's order, reluctantly getting into the bed and waiting impatiently as the nurse checks all of her vital signs, pressing and poking and prodding. Belle and Gold both watch as the nurse's check of Dawn is much more perfunctory- only a glance at a few monitors: there's no change expected.

Belle doesn't start speaking immediately after the nurse leaves. Instead she pushes around the amorphous brown blob on the plate in front of her with a real fork. She'd only been given hard plastic spoons in the small room downstairs, the tines of the fork were a novelty to watch as they slid through what passed for gravy.

"Not hungry?" he asks gently as he sits in the cushioned chair between the two beds.

"Famished," she whispers with a laugh. "But I much prefer the gray slop to the brown slop they serve here."

He laughs. "I'm sure I can find you something slightly more appetizing." She smiles gratefully and pushes the tray away. "Now, you were speaking about a dwarf in love?" She sighs and leans on her side, taking the blanket oh so simple a thing, but how she missed it and holding it tight in her hands.

"I decided to go to town for the night anyway- just get a little farther from it, to really think. And then she found me again. The Queen. I didn't know it was her then- I had never met her before that first day on the road. I tried, but was unable to avoid her. She pried the whole story from me. I don't know how. The words slipped from my lips."

His fingers fiddle with the handle of his cane. "Did you eat something she gave you?"

She almost doesn't want to answer. "Yes."

"A truth charm. Simple enough, and something you would have been unable to fight even if you knew what was happening."

She sighs. "So many mistakes I made that day. She offered to lend me enough gold for a stay at an inn, and before I knew it she had taken my hand and put the gold in it. It must have been poisoned, because when I woke up, I was in a dungeon."

His lips purse tight. "The Queen does love to poison people."

"When the curse crossed the land, I found myself in the room below the hospital." He stares at her, unsure of what to say, when a knock sounds.

The door creeks open and Emma walks in, carrying a brown paper bag. "Hey, hope I'm not interrupting."

"Not at all, Sheriff Swan." Gold nearly smiles at her, and she smiles wholeheartedly back at his effort.

"I uh, thought you might like something to eat. I stopped at Granny's and Ruby said this was all you'd ever get when you went in, so..." She looks back at the second bed that assuredly hadn't been in the room a few hours before. "I'm sorry, I didn't bring enough for two."

Gold smiles at Belle. "We'll make do, I'm sure."

Though she objects, he feeds Belle forkfuls of chicken pot pie over the edge of her bed, his chair pulled close. He scrapes the bottom of the tin, licking the plastic fork. "I could rustle up desert, if you like."

"Oh no," she says, leaning back into the bed, "That was enough. I'm not accustomed to...real food."

She doesn't expect the broken look on his face, the way the corners of his eyes drag down as he presses his lips together. Regret. Defeat. Sorrow. She doesn't want to see it. She needs his smile, his affectations, his warmth now. She has had enough sorrow for two lifetimes, she wants to be as happy as they can in this moment.

"Come on then," Belle says, scooting over in the bed and patting the space she made next to her.

He limps away to throw the tin and bag in the small trash can by the door, staring at her as he returns to his chair. "What?"

"I know you're not leaving tonight, and even if you won't tell me about why you need that cane right now, there's no denying that sitting in that chair all night won't do your leg any good. I've plenty of room and..." her voice drifts away and she looks at her hands.

Gold reaches out, taking her hand in his. "And?"

"And I'm afraid if I go to sleep, you'll disappear." She shakes her head and scrunches up her nose. "Just... slip off your shoes and humor me, please?"

He looks for a second like he might protest, then like he may try to make a joke, but he does neither and simply nods, acquiescing a lot faster than she expects. "Alright, then." He takes a few steps and stands over Briar Rose for a second. He strokes his fingers over the back of her arm and leans forward to drop a kiss on her head. "Good night, my Sleeping Beauty," he whispers. He turns back to Belle and she can see a tear track running down his cheek, devoid of his tear.

A little bead of moisture drips down Briar Rose's cheek.

He sits on the edge of Belle's bed, slipping his shoes from his feet before scooting up next to her. Belle shifts to her side to give him as much room as she can. He lays stock still on his back, pressed against the side rail and hands clasped over his stomach. He shakes his head finally. "This is silly." He lifts his arm and tips his head to the right, signaling that she should move closer. Gingerly she slides against his side and he drops his arm over her shoulder, some of the tension drifting away from both of their bodies.

"You have no magic left for her?" She whispers into his lapel.

She can feel the defeat rush through his body. "No."

Her hand slides up, resting on his chest. "Is she truly sick or is it a curse?"

"No way of knowing. Though, if it were a curse, I should have lifted it by now." He rests his hand on hers, emotions of elation and frustration warring through him.

She lays her head on his shoulder. "How?"

"The tear." It is silly to even dream that it would work in this world, but he has no other recourse. His heart is aching with the loss he feels, and at the same time, his mind is left reeling with the woman in his arms. When he dealt with Regina in their old land, he thought he had made enough caveats for his life here to be good, but he had been desperate then, too. He hadn't paid attention to the fine print. He made the curse, he should have known. In this world, it was all happiness that came with a price. It didn't seem fair to lose Briar Rose to gain Belle, but there was nothing he could do.

After a quiet moment, Belle whispers against his chest. "Thank you, Rumpelstiltskin. For saving us."

He doesn't have the words, so he squeezes her tightly.

When she wakes up she's alone, but there is a strategically placed jacket right next to her head reminding her that he was not a dream. She smiles and pulls it close to her nose, smelling the scent. She stands gingerly, slowly shuffling- IV pole and all- to the small bathroom. It is only a few steps above the facilities she's had since she got here, but it is heaven to have a softer seat, a full size sink and a mirror. Even if her hair sticks every which way and she's far too sallow and thin. She relieves herself and washes her face and arms, using a rough paper towel to clean any place she can reach under her gown. She combs her fingers through her hair.

When she leaves the bathroom she finds that Gold- her dear Rumpelstiltskin- hasn't returned. She shuffles over to the first bed in the room and feels emotions that are far too raw for her liking. She leans over the tiny bed, the even smaller girl in it, and starts to whisper.

"My dear Briar Rose. Please wake up. You must see... you were right. Your Papa found us. He saved us both." She can't help it, tears spring to her eyes.

She didn't hear the door open, but the ticking of his cane comes up behind her. "They say people in comas can hear you."

"I hope she can," Belle whispers. "She was so lonely- she missed you so down there. She needs to know that it was you who rescued us- she was so sure you would." She turns and he's holding a small duffel in his left hand. "What's that?"

Gold smiles, "Called in a favor from a friend. Sheriff Swan, actually. She had to guess your size, but it's only a few things so if they don't fit right, I can get you new ones." He holds out the bag to her, grinning like the cat that are the canary. Belle opens it to find black leggings, a bright blue dress, and a white cardigan. There are a few pairs each of socks and simple cotton underwear, along with a set of soft sports bras. Underneath that she finds a pair of flannel pajamas and a pair of sweats. "The nurse said they would release you into my care this morning if you're well. I think you are."

She returns his smile and holds the bag gratefully. Her tongue is thick in her mouth, so she says nothing, but lets her eyes shine and say all that she can't.

"There's Granny's Inn, if you'd like. But I was hoping... I do have a guest room- and a home that's far too big for just one lonely, cowardly man. Though, for the time being..." He sighs, looking at the girl in the bed, "For the time being I believe I'll be here quite a lot. Just... just in case."

"A lonely man in a big house? That sounds familiar." Belle smiles and steps to him, taking his hand gently. "The guest room sounds wonderful."

They sit by her bedside, the extra bed already rolled out, through the midday and into evening where they can see the sunset out the window. With their chairs presses side by side she holds his hand all day and won't let it go.

She tells him, in whispers, about the darkness and solitude of the cell downstairs, of how the days bled into one another until the memories started to unfurl in her mind. She tells him of the way the memories of their real world surpass the fake ones of this world, how without the world to live in day in and day out she was able to understand the reality from the dream. She asks how long she's been held by the Queen. He holds her when she cries after she hears that it's been almost three decades since the curse plus nearly another two decades in their old world. She asks him how that can be as she cries into his lapel; how she can look and feel as if she's only left his castle a few months ago. He starts to list the spells Regina might have used to keep Belle out of step with time, but he stops when he feels her trembling against him and just holds her tighter.

When it's his turn he tells her the one story that he owes her: the story of a spinner and his small family, the story of how he nearly lost his life at the hands of the ogres, but ended up with only a limp. He tells her the honest truth of Bae's mother leaving, and of the lie he told his son to save him from being embarrassed of his father. He tells her of his desperation to save him, and how in the end, he could not.

He cannot look at her when he tells her why he had to keep his magic, why he got so upset with her when she left. He whispers excuses about opposing the Queen, but in the end, he lets the truth slip from his lips. "You were right," he says, his head hanging low. "I was a coward. Deep down I always was, and without the power... I would have been again. How could you have loved me like that?"

Belle rests a hand on his knee. "I was wrong, and all those people, they were wrong. You were not a coward. Hubris and pride and false belief in victory that leads to death and destruction, those are the things to be ashamed of holding in your heart. I've watched soldiers walk into certain death because they'd rather die than stand up for what they truly believe in, or be seen as anything other than strong." She leans and catches his gaze. "I came to you, remember? The destruction and death that I saw, that my father and Gaston allowed to happen in the name of bravery, haunts me still. There is no pride in sacrificing yourself for something you don't believe in." She reaches out and laces her fingers with his. "Leaving that war? That was brave. Raising your son on your own? That was love. Doing anything you could to save him? That was courage."

He clears his throat, but doesn't tear his gaze from hers. "It was desperation. The desperate will do many things..."

Belle shifts closer until their knees are touching, pressing her free hand to his cheek. "Desperation or not, a coward thinks of himself first, not of his family, not of his son, and not of his village. And a coward, even when fortified by magic, would certainly not decide to sacrifice his chance at true love to stand against the biggest threat in our realms. What kind of coward, what kind of tyrant, raises a child that is not his simply to keep her safe, knowing he must give her back? There is goodness in you, and though your methods are questionable, your motives are not."

"I have done awful things..." he whispers harshly even as he lets his cheek press into the comfort of her hand.

She strokes his jawline with her thumb. "But mostly for the right reasons."

His eyebrows knit together, disbelief across his face. "I have been cruel, especially to you."

Her smile creeps up her face slowly. "And I have forgiven you."

The air rushes from his lungs, his hand trembles. Her words take him by surprise and leave him reeling. He leans his forehead to hers, eyes shut tightly and lips pressed together lest he sob with joy. Her hand cradles the back of his neck, rubbing softly through his hair and calming his heart. "You shouldn't," he croaks out when he can speak without falling apart.

Her lips ghost near his, her breath warm on his skin. "But I have."

They sit as entwined as they can be in the two chairs, darkness settling outside, when there's a knock at the door. Gold turns, gently untangling himself and waving the young man behind the door in. The boy is tall and strong, broad and square, wearing a Storybrooke High Varsity jacket and carrying a vase of pink lilies. He dips his head with the respect of a well raised young man as he walks in, "Mr. Gold. Miss..."

"French," Belle supplies, standing as well, observing the two men carefully.

"French," he says, his voice shaking just a bit as he dips his head to her as well. "I hope I'm not interrupting."

Gold limps forward and rests his hand on the boy's shoulder, leading him closer to the bed. "Not at all Ryan. I trust the Sheriff filled you in?"

Ryan nods sadly, "Yeah, she did. Has anything..."

Gold shakes his head, standing with the boy at the side of Dawn's bed. "No, there's been no change."

Ryan fidgets for a moment. "I can, um, stay with her. If you want. Maybe so you could go home and get some sleep. She shouldn't... she shouldn't be alone if-" he stumbles and forces the word out, "when, when she wakes up."

Gold nods. "Good man, Ryan. I believe I'll take you up on that offer." He looks back at Belle and she nods silently, moving to gather the duffel and the small accumulation of things in the room that need to be tidied. "Miss French and I will be back in a few hours. You'll call if..."

"The second anything changes," he says, reaching down to let his fingers drift over Dawn's still hand.

The older man turns and moves his cane, but Ryan's voice stops him. "Mr. Gold?"

He turns back to him. "Yes, Ryan?"

The boy fidgets, forcing his hands to stop moving as he grasps the railing. "I was going to... well, I know that Dawn..." The boy shrugs, not really sure how to say what he wants to express.

"Just say it, son." Gold prompts on the edge of frustration, standing still beside him.

Ryan can't look at him, but his voice is strong. "Dawn cares about your approval more than her father's, so that's why I wanted to ask you. I'm still waiting to hear from a few schools, but I might not be in Storybrooke much longer if my scholarships come through." Ryan misses the way Gold's eyebrows jump, but Belle does not. She knows that come September the boy will still be in Storybrooke. "And, I really love her, sir. I know we're young, probably too young. But, I want to give her a promise ring, to let her know that I'll be back for her, and I wanted your permission." He turns, looking at Gold and hastily adds, "For when she wakes up."

"A promise ring?" Gold asks, studying the boy.

This time, Ryan holds Gold's gaze. "Yeah, a promise that I'll be back, and that I love her. Because I do. A lot. It's not an engagement or anything... But I thought since she'll be here at least another year maybe..."

Gold nods and smiles at the boy. "Of course, Ryan. She cares for you deeply as well. She'll be thrilled."

"Then I have your blessing?" Ryan asks, almost surprised.

Gold laughs a bit, rolling his eyes. "Do I look like a priest?" He pats the boy on the back, though and is thankful for the rest he'll at least be trying to get in his own bed tonight. "Yes, you have my blessing." He turns, limping away from the bed.

Belle is waiting for him by the door, but she stops him, leaning up to whisper in the ear that is away from the two young people. "That's Phillip, isn't it?" He nods, and she continues to whisper. "She loves him, too. She told me about them. Perhaps... it's worth a try..."

Gold looks down at Belle's bright eyes and she shrugs. He can't say that it's a good idea, but it's not a bad one, either. "Ryan," he calls, turning back to the boy.

"Yes?" the boy says, turning his head away from the bed.

"Can you.. indulge an old man's flight of fancy for a moment?" Ryan continues to stare, and Gold struggles for the words to frame what he's asking of the young man who has no recollection of their old world. "They can't find anything wrong with her. They've... given me no answers..." The words suddenly come to him, and he smiles. "When she was young, I used to call her my Sleeping Beauty. I can't help but think..."

Ryan smirks just a bit. "You want me to kiss her?"

Gold shrugs and licks his lips. "Can't hurt, can it?"

"Okay." Ryan nods and leans over. Gold reaches for Belle's hand and grasps it tightly as he holds his breath. She leans into his side as the boy who would be a prince leans down and softly presses his lips to Dawn's. He pulls back just a few inches after a moment, but nothing changes. Her eyes do not flutter open, the beeping of the monitors does not alter, her fingers do not stir with life.

Belle squeezes Gold's hand. "Well, it was worth a try."

The room is silent save for the beeping of the monitor across from him. Ryan can't peel his eyes from Dawn, laying slack and pale on the bed. He doesn't know how long he's been standing, but his feet hurt and he won't be leaving for hours yet. He pulls the plastic chair behind him close, and leans his arms on the bed. "So I guess it's not a surprise anymore, huh?"

He waits for an answer, even though he knows he won't get one. Her lips are too dry, too cracked to move, let alone speak. "Well, it was gonna be a surprise. Right after prom. I have one all picked out, too. It's nothing extravagant, but it's pretty, and it reminds me of you. It's like a... a rose-colored gold with a little pearl in it. I don't know why it makes me think of you, but it does."

Ryan reaches out and takes her hand, his heart skips a beat when he feels how slack it is. "My dad was letting me do some extra work for him to save up the money. He keeps saying I'll be a great addition to the business if my scholarship doesn't come through. I mean, it's not the worst thing in the world to help him run the butcher shop, but it sure as hell ain't the most glamorous." He holds her hand tight. "It's just, there's something about you that makes me feel like I've known you before. Like, I knew you in a dream or something. It's stupid I guess... but when Mr. Gold said that I should kiss you, for a second there? I really thought it would work."

Ryan's quiet for a moment before he finds that the incessant beeping is too harsh a sound to be left alone with. "That woman with him... I've never seen her before. He likes her, I mean likes her likes her. A lot. I could tell. I hope you got to see them together. I wonder... I wish you could tell me who she is, because now I'm thinking maybe she's that woman you told me about. The one Mr. Gold loved and lost." He laughs. "You know, with your hair brown like that, you could be her daughter."

Ryan folds his arms on the bed and rests his chin on them. He has a long night ahead of him.

Gold pushes the door open, sweeping a hand and gesturing Belle in before him. It's quiet and dark, the sound of her borrowed flip flops on the floor echoing through the hallway. She stops and leans against the bannister, looking around as he closes and locks the door behind him.

"So many of your things came through," Belle whispers as she puts the duffel down, her voice full of wonder.

Gold chuckles low in his throat as he steps over to her, letting his cane rest against the side of the stairs and holding onto the railing for support. "You should see my shop."

Belle reaches up, smoothing her hand down his lapel. Her face is bathed in multicolor moonlight as she smiles up at him. "And it all needs to be dusted, no doubt."

"Probably," he says, smiling down at her. "Are you volunteering?"

She smiles widely and laughs. "No."

His own laugh dies on his lips as he reaches a hand up to her face, letting his fingers brush over her jaw. "I still can't believe that you're here. That you're real."

She steps forward and hugs him tightly. His arms, thin but strong, wrap around her until she's lost in him. "I'm here," she says, tucking her face beneath his chin as his hands tangle in her hair. "I'm here." His hand slips under her chin and she pulls back, away from the lips that are about to touch hers. "But your magic...?"

He smirks at her. "It can't be lost in this world." His lips descend again, and this time she moves to meet him. It is soft, chaste, reminiscent of one they've already shared. Lips press together and apart, over and over as he slants his head to the side, endeavoring to get closer to her by the second with the soft, claiming kisses. Her hands grip his shoulders and he turns them, pressing her back into the railing of the stairs. Her lips, her embrace, is more welcoming than his house of treasures ever was. No matter what world, she feels like home.

He pulls back, licking his lips and trying to memorize the look on her face: eyes half lidded, lips swollen and well-kissed, her cheeks blushing with a hint of bright pink. Belle leans back up, pressing her lips to his again, just a hint of space enough for him to slip his tongue over her bottom lip. She moans, and he nearly melts. He can't help but be a little more forceful, a little more needy. He wants to posses her, feel her, lose himself around and within her and let her wash away the pain in his soul that she's already started to clear away. His kiss turns rough and he tears himself away, dropping his head to her shoulder and breathing heavy. His hands clutch the rails behind her as he tries to force some composure over himself.

One of her hands drifts to tangle in his hair while the other rubs circles on his back. When she kisses his temple, he can no longer contain the maelstrom of emotions raging within him. His breath hitches and his knees give out. She lowers them both, holding him as the sobs come unabated. "I found you," he says over and over, "but I've lot her."

"Not yet, Rum," she whispers, rocking him gently on the floor in a tangle of limbs as he crushes himself to her, tears welling up in her own eyes. "We haven't lost her yet."

The first few days are a flurry of activity. Gold closes the Pawn Shop indefinitely, sitting at Briar Rose's side for as long as he can stand. There are lawyer's papers and affidavits and pages and pages of paperwork that he leafs through over and over again. Emma is kind enough to help Belle shop and come up with a simple, but much needed, wardrobe from top to bottom.

After a week things calm. Gold can kiss her without crying, can hold her hand without losing his composure. After two, it feels like they've never spent a day apart.

Belle knows that there's very little hope left when what they're doing becomes a routine. They're off early in the morning, picking up breakfast at Granny's before they slip into the hospital and relieve Ryan so he can go home and shower before going to school.

They sit side by side all day. Sometimes they talk, sometimes they're quiet, but they sit vigil without fail. Gold leaves around noon to get them lunch. Belle offered, but he needs to stretch his leg and she suspects sitting there for too long takes it toll on his heart, as well. She stays, taking the time while he's gone to check Briar Rose over, brushing her hair or rearranging her blankets, making sure she's being taken care of properly.

He rarely lets go of her hand, and she's constantly squeezing it, silently telling him to bite his tongue when Gold gets too harsh, too demanding, to the staff people as they try to do their jobs around them. His moods are more volatile than she'd ever seen them in the castle, but she rides the waves of despair and happiness with him, and cannot fault him for lashing out when he feels so helpless. So she squeezes, and he presses his lips together. He stops talking, and she takes up where he left off making the demands requests, the criticisms kind observations, and keeps the staff as far away from him as she can.

They both leave for an hour around dinner time when the nurse comes in to bathe her and take care of things like changing sheets and refitting catheters. He wants to be there, but Belle knows that to see the little girl he's losing even more helpless would not be good for him. She doesn't have to fake it when she tells him that the hospital all day is too much, so they head out for a fast dinner, never more than an hour.

They return to her bedside until Ryan can come. He comes every night, without fail. At first he brought nothing with him, but he's forced to bring his books, to continue his school work. There's an extra pillow stored in the small cabinet in the room, and he pulls it out. His young body does not protest sleeping in the chair, and he never complains.

When they leave the two young people alone, Belle and Gold return to his dark, quiet home. Her plan to use the guest room was ruined that very first night. They'd ended up still clothed, on top of the blankets in his bed, sleeping curled around one another. It was ridiculous to believe they'd ever do anything else. Without conversation she simply followed him to his room every night there after, dressing in her soft nightgown and slipping in between the sheets and into his arms.

There isn't energy for anything other than a few stolen kisses, a few desperate caresses, but there doesn't need to be. They way he holds her at night, it tells her everything she needs to know.

From that very first kiss in another land, it was true love, and that hasn't changed.

Belle has been alone in the hospital nearly all day. When they arrived, Gold stayed as long as he could, but his vigil was cut short by a necessary court appearance regarding Dawn's power of attorney. Belle couldn't believe that her parents, who had sent her away in the first place, who hadn't been by her side at all in this, would have the gall to think they deserve any say in how she is treated.

She's sat through lunch, mostly because she didn't have the courage to wander through the hospital alone looking for the cafeteria. The afternoon is waning when she hears the tell-tale tap of his cane. "How did it go?" she asks, not moving to look.

The door clicks shut softly and she can hear the weight in his gait as he comes to stand behind her. His hands fall gently on her shoulders as he leans to kiss the crown of her head. "I've been granted power of attorney."

Belle twists her head and drops a kiss to his fingers before leaning her head back onto his stomach. "That's good."

"I suppose," he says, his voice gruff and deep. "I just spoke to the doctor, though. I'll have to be deciding soon."

She reaches up and takes one of his hands. "Deciding what?"

The words are flat, and she thinks that perhaps the meaning hasn't really sunk in yet. "She's slowly deteriorating. Just...slipping away. They...want to put her on a ventilator sooner rather than later."

"No..." it slips past her lips. Belle stands, turning and cradling his jaw in her hand.

He presses into the touch, battling hard to get a handle on the emotions threatening to burst out of his chest. "They think I'll have maybe three days to decide before... before it..."

She shushes him, crushing them together in a fierce hug as tears spring to her eyes. She doesn't think she's ever cried this much, not while she was captive, maybe even not when she was a child. But she can't control it, can't hold it in, the emotions are too close to the surface and she can't stop them from pouring out.

"I don't know what else to do," he whispers, his voice oddly even as he pulls away. He limps to Briar Rose's bedside, running his thumb over her sunken cheek. "I don't think there's anything I can do."

Belle slips to the girl's bedside as well, reaching out and lifting her small, slack hand. "We'll find a way. We won't give up, will we darling?" She's whispering to Briar Rose, not Gold, but he turns and watches her all the same. "She didn't give up on you, Rumpelstiltskin, and we won't give up on her." She smiles through the tears as they drip down her face.

He is astonished at the devotion Belle shows in such a short period of time. "She needed a mother, Belle. So many times, so many stories I could tell you where I was inept, where I didn't know how to deal with her, how to mold her into lady ready to be a princess... There were so many times that I wished to the gods that you could have been there. Good times, too." He looks down, shaking his head, "Sorry, it was a-"

"No," she interrupts him. "I can't say what I would have said if you'd brought her home one night, but now?" Belle brings the girl's hand up to her chest, cradling it carefully. "From the little we got to know each other... from your stories of her... I would be proud to be her mother."

The tear tracks down Belle's cheek, falling onto Briar Rose's wrist. At first, when the tiny hand squeezes, Belle simply holds it tighter reflexively. But her eyes grow wide and her chin wobbles as he looks to the girl in the bed.

The girl whose eyes are fluttering, fighting to find their way from sleep.

He leans over, his hand brushing the hair away from her face, his fingers tracing over her cheek. "Come on, my little Princess," he whispers, "wake up for me."

Her eyes flutter open, cloudy but awake, and they jump back and forth between the people at her bedside. Belle kisses the girl's knuckles, smiling so hard she might split her cheeks. "Papa..." Briar Rose gasps out, the word more breath than sound.

Gold smiles tightly as he leans over the bed, unable to hide the tears. "I'm here, my dear, I'm here."

"He found us, Briar Rose," Belle whispers, setting the girls hand down and placing her hands on Gold's shoulders. "Your Papa found us."

Briar Rose looks sleepily between the two, working the muscles in her face as she tries to focus. "She's your beauty, isn't she? It's her cup."

He laughs, high and tight in his throat and it reminds both women of the man he used to be. "Yes, my dear. Yes she is."

Briar Rose smiled at Belle, "I told you he'd come."

Belle nods as Gold reaches up and presses the call button, knowing that the doctors need to be called, no matter how private a moment he'd like to keep this. "Yes," Belle whispers back, "Yes you did."

The nurse doesn't even step all the way into the room before she's calling for a doctor. There's a short flurry where Belle and Gold are being asked more questions than they can answer before the doctor shoos them away from the bedside in order to do a more through exam. They watch from the other side of the room as he pokes and prods and measures with the help of the nurse.

"What happened?" Belle whispers to him. He still can't take his eyes off of her. "One moment she's not there at all and the next..."

Gold looks at her, astonished. "You don't know?" She shakes her head. "It was your tear. I don't know how, or why the magic has carried over, but it has."

Belle bites her lip. "My tear?"

"It was how I woke her up the first time. I altered the spell to be broken by the love of a parent for their child. Her real mother, no matter how hard she cried, could not get her to wake up. A single, accidental tear from me was what broke the spell." He reaches up and gently dries the tracks of her tears with his thumbs, smiling as his own tears gather in the corners of his eyes.

Belle catches his hands in hers, squeezing tightly. "But why me?"

He leans in and kisses her softly before slipping his lips to her ear. "She needed a mother."

Dawn's things are moved to the great pink house before she's even released from the hospital. Belle takes great care in making sure the sparse guest room that she was supposed to stay in is cleaned and filled with the girl's things.

Belle visits the hospital twice a day, bringing meals to Gold and sitting with the Papa and his princess as they eat. She can't stay within the hospital's walls any longer than she needs to now, and they all understand why. She spends her time acquainting herself with her new home, and making sure it's as welcoming to Briar Rose as it can be.

There's a new lightness to the man that she loves that Belle adores. She hasn't seen him cry since the day Dawn Briar Rose to them, always Briar Rose woke up, and he smirks and smiles more. He ventures into the Shop one afternoon and makes a production of telling her how dusty and dark it is when he returns home. She laughs and asks if he's nailed his curtains down.

"I might have," he answers with a curl to his lip, his tone just a tad more nasal than he speaks with normally.

Belle's waiting with tea and sweets and tiny little cakes laid out on the dining room table when Gold pulls up to the house, his young ward sitting in the passenger seat. Belle rushes out to the porch and watches as Briar Rose struggles a bit to get out of the car. The girl is still weak and unsteady on her feet, but Gold waves Belle off when she tries to leave the porch to help. They slowly make their way up the stairs. At the top, Briar Rose stops as smiles.

With two big steps Briar Rose engulfs Belle in a hug, holding tight to the woman she feels she's known all her life. Belle wraps her arms around the thin girl, smiling brightly. "Welcome home," Belle whispers, her voice wobbling with emotion.

"My home," The girl whispers, laying her head sideways on Belle's shoulder so she can look at her Papa as he stares at them, "and my family."

Gold stares from the top of the steps, unsure of when the pink of his house became so vibrant, or the stained glass ever seemed so bright. For all his things, all his trinkets, his house has never much seemed like home.

Until now.