EPILOGUE: ELEVEN


Storybrooke, Maine. What a lovely name, Ruthie said; I must take the children there sometime.

"We make a left here," Ruthie says from the back seat of the rented Prius.

"Hey, don't you think it's just a little odd that he turns out to live in the exact same little town as that lawyer who arranged for me and Anna's adoption? Can we stop in and see him too?" Jeremy asks.

"We will," his father replies. "But we have something a bit more pressing to do first." For at last, Jeremy and Anna have been told the whole story, in preparation for this journey, and Jeremy, with some shadow memories of his past lingering, has suspended his disbelief long enough to pack up his infant son and accompany Jason and Ruthie.

As he has done for the past twenty miles, Jason scans the road for directional signs. "Wonder why it isn't on any of the four maps we bought. Not in the GPS system either. Not a sole solitary sign. Are we still on Highway 111?"

"Chill, Dad. So what if we get a little lost? We'll just find a farm and—criminetly!" Jeremy hits the brake, jostling his passengers, who would complain if not for the fact that they see what he does: deep craters punched into burned fields, an overturned Dodge Ram, the shards of torched house. He rolls up his window to block out the lingering smoke before lifting his foot from the brake to move slowly on.

Field after field, house after house, they find blackened corpses of livestock and dogs, trees torn from their roots—and two miles later, a cheery wooden sign welcoming all to Storybrooke.

Ruthie reaches across the infant car seat to grasp Bill's arm. "She told us to expect this."

Bill stares straight ahead. "Expecting it and seeing it are two different things."

The Prius rolls over a hill and enters the village. On the south side of the street, the charred skeletons of quaint little curio shops, restaurants, a school, a library and a bank stand like scarecrows in the noon sun. On the north side, an animal shelter, a restaurant, a B & B, a convenience store, a post office and some business offices, all of them intact but unoccupied, sparkle against the blue sky. A crew of ordinary citizens—some elderly, some children—are hard at work dismantling the south side.

"It's like the tornado that went through Greensberg," Jeremy says.

"It's a war zone."

Another mile on they pass the remains of the hospital. Here Jeremy turns right onto Pine Street, through shady rows of friendly but abandoned cottages, the overgrown lawns strewn with bicycles, toys and cars. In three miles they come to the end of Pine and the end of town, and in front of them lies a three-story gabled building.

As the Prius crunches over the gravel drive, a form appears in the entranceway. Jeremy parks and the form moves from the shadows of the porch into the sunlight at the top of the stairs. An unnatural silence here prompts the family to speak in whispers and to close the car doors with great care. Even the baby keeps soundless, his large eyes blinking in the sun as Ruthie unstraps him from the car seat. And then Ruthie figures out what's wrong here: the trees hold no birds to sing warnings of the humans' approach.

The figure at the top of the stairs lifts a hand in greeting. "Hello. I'm glad you found us all right." She doesn't need to identify herself; the family has spoken to her a half-dozen times via Skype. As they mount the stairs, she gives each of them a hug, with a soft smile and touch on the cheek for the baby. "He's beautiful," she breathes, then apologizes. "I'm sorry; it's just that there are so few babies in Storybrooke." She squares her shoulders and raises her chin. "But that will change. We're rebuilding. We'll be a town again."

"Nature has a way of setting things right again after a war," Bill says.

The woman turns to him and her eyes glisten as she admires the tall, broad-shouldered man in uniform, row after row of multicolored ribbons decorating his chest. Her voice shakes. "Baelfire. He's going to be so proud—" She can't finish her sentence. Ruthie squeezes her arm comfortingly.

"How is he?" Bill manages to ask.

She warns them, "Please remember, it's been a long time since you saw him last, and he's still recovering. Dr. Hopper says there was no permanent damage to his heart; it's just that—well, the battle took all the magic he had and it left him with so much guilt not even Dr. Hopper and Mother Superior have been able to raise him up again." She lowers her voice. "He's been afraid without the magic he'd never find you. When he had the magic he was afraid you'd never forgive him."

Bill stares at the floorboards. "He has nothing to be afraid of."

Belle kisses him on the cheek, then beams at Jason and Ruthie. "Thank you."

Jason peers past the women into the convent. "Where is the old boy?"

"He's resting in the garden, in the back. Fortunately, the garden came out unscathed: it produces enough to feed us—for the moment. By the end of the week, a refrigerated truck will be arriving and the town will have fresh meat and dairy again."

Ruthie nods. "We saw how hard everyone was working as we came through town. You'll get there, Madame Mayor."

The woman laughs. "Just Belle, please. I don't feel very mayorly yet." She holds the door open for them. "Please, if you don't mind, I thought we'd go inside for a minute first. Some iced tea?"

She leads the family into the foyer, where they are greeted by two nuns and the Mother Superior. "We're glad you could come," the latter says. "Your presence will do this town a lot of good."

"You're our first visitors," the nun called Astrid remarks.

"Since the war?"

"Since ever." Astrid and the other nun excuse themselves to prepare the tea.

As the Mother Superior brings the family into the parlor, Ruthie casts a subtle glance at the woman's feet and is pleased to note a lack of high heels. "It's amazing to me. Rumplestiltskin—here—with—"

Mother Superior winks, then waves a hand inviting them to be seated. "With fairies."

"Never thought I'd see the day," Jason says.

"Nor did I. But we have come to an understanding, now that Regina is gone." Mother Superior glances down at her hands. "We came to realize that forgiveness was needed, on both sides."

Astrid and Bernadette return with a loaded tray and serve the tea.

"So you'll stay in Storybrooke, then?" Jeremy asks.

"We're needed here. And frankly, I, for one, prefer a world in which the magic is left to God."

Though he listens politely, Bill's anxious gaze drifts to the windows. Belle takes the hint. She rises, and everyone else follows suit. "If you don't mind being patient just a few minutes longer, Bae—Bill—I'd like you to come with me. Before you see him I think there's a tale you need to hear, about the battle for Storybrooke and your father the warrior."

Reluctantly Bill allows her to link her arm through his. To Ruthie and her family, Belle says, "Mother Superior will take you to him now." Belle escorts Bill to the front porch.

Mother Superior leaves them alone at the edge of the deep garden. Jason takes the baby from Ruthie and advises, "Jer and I will give you a moment alone with him. We don't want to overwhelm him." He passes the baby on to Jeremy.

Ruthie draws in a deep breath. She doesn't want to go alone, because she's about to come face to face with the incontrovertible truth that her life—that is, the 55 years she's lived in this world—is a lie. But then she remembers she is a woman with a heritage and an obligation, and she has carried with her throughout her existence the Dark One's blessing. She grins and marches forth.

His back is to her, his head is bowed; she wonders if he's sleeping. She calls out softly, "A long and happy life, Rumplestiltskin the First, and true love."

His head snaps up.

She comes around to face him and reaches out her hand. He takes it and his face is full of so many emotions she can't decipher them. When he speaks his voice is huskier, less accented than she remembers. "Rumpie." Neither of them can say anything more for a few minutes. Belle has forewarned her; nevertheless, it's disconcerting to find her rock god now requires a cane to walk.

She notices something else too. "Rumplestiltskin! You're so young!"

That makes him laugh; clearly, he doesn't feel it, but an outsider would think her the older of the two, for she has lived in this world as he has not; she has aged. She lowers herself, her middle-aged joints protesting, to join him on the wrought iron bench. She clicks her tongue. "Egads! I wanted to say something profound, or at least pithy. After all these years, the little girl in me still wants to impress her namesake."

"You have never failed in that regard, child." He is genuinely amazed to see her; she takes pride in that. "How is it you're here? How did you find me?"

Through Belle's explanations, she understands now about the breaking of the curse. As she looks up at Rumple, the little-girl awe with which she once revered the man of magic leaves her, and in its place she finds respect and affection for the human man. She revels in sharing her accomplishments with him, because he helped to make her the person she became. "A little of your magic, and a little of the world's." She tells him that Belle found her though the websites she had created, and then she tells him that his guidance through her dreams led her back to her family.

"That was not my doing, dearie. I had no magic then; I didn't even remember who I was," he says gently. "It was within you, a residual memory, perhaps. But I'm grateful for it just the same."

He studies her, and she him. In his present form she could have easily passed him on the street without recognizing him: he is entirely human now. His large eyes still draw her in, though now she can see guilt and disappointment in them. She wonders if the pain had always been there, when she was too young to see it. She believes she can take that pain away, but first she has a deal for him.

"There's so much I want to tell you! This has been such an interesting life! And I want to hear your stories, and have a cup of mead and a game of chess. I've missed you so much and most of the time, I didn't even know it."

A little of the guilt leaves his eyes. "You have been happy in this world, then?"

"As happy as I ever was in the old world!"

He leans forward, hopeful. "And love? Did you find true love here?"

She stands and waves at her family, then grasps her namesake's hand again. "Rumplestiltskin, I found them. You made it possible."

He turns his head to watch the parade coming his way. He recognizes Jason immediately—"Leofwin!" The other man is unfamiliar to him until she brings him forward.

"Rumplestiltskin, this is Ten."

Jeremy stands gobsmacked. In his Coldplay t-shirt and jeans, a smart phone hooked to his belt, he is a scientist of the modern world who has, in an instant, come to realize just how limited his training has been.

Rumple, chuckling, shakes his hand. "You've grown about six feet since I saw you last."

Disoriented, Jeremy mumbles, "I'm Jeremy now, or Jer."

"And we found Anna Marie—Amiria," Ruthie corrects herself.

Now it's Rumple's turn to be gobsmacked. "Anna Marie. . . Jeremy. . ." He stares at Jason. "And that would make you Jason." He turns to Ruthie. "And you're—" His voice fails him.

"Yeah, how'd you—" Jason begins, but Ruthie interrupts, peering at her namesake closely. "Rumplestiltskin, are you all right? Do you need—"

He waves her concern away and laughs, a from-the-gut laugh that she realizes she has never heard before. "I'm fine, dearie. Allow me to introduce myself properly. In this world, I'm known as Mr. Gold."

Jeremy is the first to regain speech. He slaps his forehead. "Well, now I've heard everything." He hands the baby to Jason, retrieves his wallet from his back pocket, removes a card from it, and rips the card to bits.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm canceling my membership in the Society of Freethinkers, 'cause I have no choice now: I'm a believer."

Ruthie looks at Rumple questioningly, but he shakes his head. "I don't know how it happened."

"'There are more things in heaven and earth,'" Jason mutters.

Ruthie collects herself and takes the baby from Jason. Clearing her throat, she announces, "Rumplestiltskin—Mr. Gold—I have a deal for you." She presents the baby to him. "This is Rumplestiltskin the Eleventh. I ask your blessing for him, in exchange for what we have waiting inside."

He grins and accepts the baby. "Blessings come free, dearie." As Jeremy looks on, flabbergasted, Rumplestiltskin cradles the infant in one arm and with his free hand, touches the child's fuzzy little head. Eleven seems to find this funny and swings his arms and giggles. Rumplestiltskin whispers the required words, then hands the baby back to its father.

"In that case, a job." She surprises herself and her menfolk, but as soon as she blurts the words she knows she's right. "This town needs a library; I'm a librarian. And I understand you have some pull with the mayor."

"Mom, are you sure?" Jeremy asks.

"I'm sure. KC's just a plane ride away."

Jeremy doesn't look convinced, but Jason nods and places an arm around her shoulder. "Just a plane ride. Mike's got a vacation coming in August. . . .I'll bet the fishin's good here." He kisses the top of her head.

Rumple takes it all in but merely says, "It's a deal."

The Rumplestiltskins Nine, Ten and Eleven, along with Leofwin, retreat to the parlor for more tea and conversation with the nuns. Ruthie notices a change in Bill's expression as Belle brings him into the parlor: his face is pale, his eyes haunted. She's seen him like that twice before: after he came home from Iraq and after he came home from Afghanistan. He straightens his dress jacket, which got a little wrinkled on the ride, and with a last hug from Belle and a supportive smile from Jason, he goes out to the garden to meet his father.

Ruthie's heart overflows.


RUMPLESTILTSKIN

Rumplestiltskin studies his hands. He remembers when the skin was taut and golden, not puckered as it is now. He remembers when his fingers would fly of their own accord, sketching the air, vibrating with power. With a single motion they could transport his body across distances, enchant a wedding ring, spin gold from straw, turn a man into a rose or a snail. The hands had incredible skill—but his talent, the greater power, was all in the show. As great a mage as he was, he was a greater showman. Perception is everything. That was the real magic.

And Gold was a far greater showman than Rumplestiltskin ever was.

But an illusion works only as long as the magician can prevent the audience from coming close, and Rumplestiltskin has come to doubt his choice. Again and again, he has given away to others, free of charge, the most important secret of all: that love trumps magic in every way and every place. But again and again, he has found himself too cowardly to trust his own words, because to unbind himself from his centuries-old devotion to power, he would have to let Bae go, truly and completely.

And then he hears a rustling and he looks up and he realizes that love has just trumped the Dark One, in spite of himself.

"Papa?"