For those who don't know TV's Once Upon a Time... click on my profile for a quick background on the story world and story characters.

For those who already love Once Upon a Time ... Waylaid starts just before "Child of the Moon" (2x07) and veers into an alternate universe story after.

Warning: Because this story began posting before the canonical Neverland story line, the story plot and character choices related to that land are quite different. Occasionally, a flashback from later episodes makes its way into the characters' backstories.

Chapter 1

Nothing in This Shop Belongs to You

Leroy (Grumpy): Just 'cause you possess something don't mean it's yours (The Crocodile).

Smee stared at the sign proclaiming Regina Mills Park that some scalawag had spray painted over with Evil Queen Park. He chomped down on his wad of gum, worked it around a few more times in his mouth, then spat it out the window of the parked floral van, aiming for the Q.

Nearly twenty minutes he'd been waiting, and the damn kids wouldn't get off the playground castle. The X marked on the base of the orange tower thingy teased Smee with its promise of a hard-to-find-object buried nearby. He wanted to start digging—but not in front of a bunch of nosy kids. So here he sat as his midmorning break ticked away. Well screw Moe and the dozen radiant-assortment-of-fall-color bouquets chilling in the back of the van. He wasn't making another delivery until he'd picked up what he'd been sent to find. The nobleman-turned-florist might provide a safer work environment than Captain Hook, but his old boss sure paid better.

At least I hope so, Smee thought. Truth be told, he didn't really know who'd hired him. But didn't marking the spot with an X scream classic Hook? Just because he'd told Mr. Gold he'd never seen Hook in Storybrooke, didn't mean the captain hadn't been lurking, waiting to rebuild his crew. One could dream.

Smee glanced over to the picnic tables where nuns—or fairies, or whatever they fancied themselves these days—were arranging stacks of paper plates and unwrapping platters of snacks. Finally. The kids in uniforms from the Sisters of Eternal Purity Home for Lost Children would be clearing out. That left the pipsqueak in the Donald Duck T-shirt trying to build his own castle out of playground mud.

Smee treated himself to a third stick of gum.

Then annoyance turned to exasperation. Just when the nuns were calling their kids away, what does the pipsqueak do? He spots the X.

Smee gripped his door handle—ready to sprint out if the kid's inspection of the strange graffiti sparked his interest. When the kid hunkered down and stuck his garden spade into the muddy ground beside the base of the tower marked X, Smee shot from the van like a cannonball.

"Hey, bucko. Scram."

The kid glanced up through shaggy black bangs but never stopped digging.

"Hey! I said—" The dull thud of the metal spade hitting a hollow metal box brought Smee to a dead halt. Then the kid struck the box again, scraping dirt away from its side. Smee jumped and grabbed him by the wrist.

The kid screamed.

Just as quickly, Smee sprang back, waving his hands for Stop! He barely had time to mutter "I'll pay you" when the youngest of the nuns came trotting over from the picnic tables.

"How much?" the kid whispered.

Smee peered at the partially exposed biscuit tin. Would Captain Hook pick a rusty box sporting a wreath of Christmas bells to hide a treasure? If this ain't what I came for, at least buying it will get rid of the pipsqueak. "Everything I've got on me," he whispered back.

The gangly nun came to an awkward stop, her navy blue cape swinging. Her big doe eyes looked embarrassed and determined at the same time. "I think you need to leave. Mother Superior has a cell phone, and she's calling Sheriff Nolan right now."

The kid looked up with an engagingly toothy grin. "It's all right, Miss. This is my... uncle. We were just goofing around." The kid resumed his task of prying the tin box out of the mud.

"Oh! Your uncle." The nun looked relieved.

Smee winked at the kid. To the nun he said, "Maybe you better go tell Mother Superior to hold that call."

The nun's mouth formed an Oh! She about-faced and raced back to her group.

When Smee looked down at the kid again, he was clutching the grimy box to his chest. "Empty your pockets, uncle."

Despite turning out every one, all Smee could come up with was $14.27 in change plus the rest of the pack of spearmint gum. When he held out his meager liquid assets, the kid hugged the biscuit tin tighter.

"Whatever's in this box is pretty valuable, huh? Maybe I should find someone who'll pay me more."

Smee smiled. Looking at this kid was like seeing himself, only younger. He'd feel really bad punching him after the nuns left. But he remembered the words of wisdom he'd once heard Mayor Mills give Moe: Strong men take what they need.

"Okay, bucko," Smee said. "Have a peek inside and tell me what it's worth." He wanted to know, too. It would be a pity to hit a boy-after-his-own-heart over nothing.

The pipsqueak grinned. Then he set the box on his lap, brushed the dirt from the lid, and wiggled open the hook-and-eye fastener. He worked his stubby nails under the lip and tilted it up by its crusted hinges.

Looking inside, the kids' eyes bugged out like musket balls. "You want me to do w-w-what?!" He shrieked and dropped the box. Immediately, the lid clicked shut. For a moment the kid crouched there, trembling. Then he staggered to his feet and stumbled over the brambles that separated the playground from the road. When he touched pavement, he sped off towards town.

Smee burst out laughing. "Not so sharp after all. Go play with your dolls, you skinny git." He stooped to pick up the tin box. Maybe this wasn't a Captain Hook sort of job.

What the hell's in this thing, anyway?

The glass wolf sparkled and danced as Mr. Gold dangled it from its gray thread. Sidelong, he glanced at the wolf's owner. Evidently, Storybrooke's resident coquette had been anxious to keep her appointment with him this morning. She'd barely run a comb through her long chestnut hair. Elbows on the counter, Ruby stared fixated at her keepsake. Sure of his audience, Mr. Gold shot the cuffs on his indigo jacquard shirt and pointed at the glass trinket, suffusing the body with an unearthly green glow.

Ruby's eyes widened. "Do you think this'll work?"

"If your cloak is in Storybrooke, it'll be in my shop—unless someone stole it. The day after the curse broke, my place was a free for all. More than one prize ended up in the wrong hands when my back was turned."

"I need to find it."

Mr. Gold watched Ruby twist the fringe of her black-and-silver scarf around her scarlet-nailed finger. She's convinced that without her cloak she'll turn into a murderous wolf. Excellent. He'd always found it easier to influence a desperate soul.

"Tomorrow's the full moon," she continued. "If I didn't bring enough cash, you have to let me work out payments."

"Oh, no charge. It's your cloak. You never bartered it away. All I ask is—"

Ruby's sharp glance stopped him mid-sentence. "I won't report on Belle to you."

Damn it. Mr. Gold favored the lovely young woman with what he hoped was a pleasant smile. "Be my spy? Of course I wouldn't ask that." At least not directly. "What I want is for you to be careful about who else learns your secret. When someone is different, forced to struggle with a beast nature—someone like you or me—people can be judgmental… not like Belle."

"She's been a good friend," Ruby murmured.

Mr. Gold nodded. I've found the right tack. "You and I never met when I was under the Dark One curse. Back then, I was the stuff of nightmares: lizard skin, black talons, snake eyes. The sight of me scared wee children into obeying their parents and grown men into wetting their pants." Noting Ruby's faint smile, he added, "Belle could see past that."

Ruby's expression took on a wolf-like wariness.

I overstepped. Time to divert. "Here. Your wolf is ready to guide you. Let it swing freely. Possession will call to possession. When you near something that belongs to you, you'll feel a tug. When you're very close, the wolf will glow red."

Taking her luminous charm, Ruby's wariness melted into delight. "Where should I look?"

"Anywhere the wolf leads." Clutching his cane for support, Mr. Gold stepped back from his counter to gesture around the treasure-filled display cases, shelves, and racks gracing his pawnshop. "If your search brings no joy, try my office and storeroom."

"You trust me not to take something that doesn't belong to me?"

"Why wouldn't I, dear?" One must give trust to gain trust. Ignoring the tension he felt anytime he left someone unchaperoned in his domain, Mr. Gold pivoted on his cane and hobbled to his office. Sweeping back the curtains, he paused on the threshold. Today's stack of pestering, questionable claims for pre-curse property sat accusingly on his desk. His current restoration project—touching up the gold leaf on a music box—beckoned him from his worktable. His shoulders relaxed. Just a quick break before I slog through more inventory, he promised himself.

Mr. Gold limped to his table, lowered himself onto his chair, and arranged his tools. He paused to listen to Ruby bumping around his showroom. He was fairly certain the magical cloak that could prevent her transformation from human to wolf was not in his keeping. Vaguely, he recalled a swathe of red cloth in a display case that had nestled three violins throughout the long years of the curse. But when the trio of fiddlers had come for their instruments on Let's-Raid-Mr.-Gold's-Day, the cloth under them had turned out to be a witch's tartan cape.

"No matter," Mr. Gold whispered to himself. Ruby will still owe me a favor. His thoughts strayed to images of Belle taking stock of the old library, holding fort at the lending desk, sharing nursery tales with the children at story hour. He might never again hear her gentle voice call him Rumple, but he could still hold her chipped cup and think of her. If he could wrangle a few details out of Ruby—what books Belle was reading, her reaction to movies, her opinions of the new people she was meeting, unsheltered for the first time in her life—then his fantasies of her would be enriched. That would be more than enough payment for a simple seeking spell.

Sitting at her desk behind the circulation counter, Belle surveyed the library. Nobody needed her. The fifth graders on their weekly book borrowing trip had quieted down to browse the young people's shelves. At a nearby table, Polly Jenks from the gas station was comparing the fragile maidens and dashing rogues on Barbara Cartland book jackets as if trying to recall which ones she'd already read. Seated by a window, Myrtle Kobbler thumbed the copy of Mother Goose Belle had helped her find. As the plump, gray-haired woman scanned her chosen page, her eyes narrowed and her jaw dropped.

She must be reading her own story. Belle had seen that stunned look on several faces since she'd reopened the library nine days earlier. She wasn't surprised when Myrtle snorted, slammed the book shut, and marched out the front door.

On the fifth graders' first visit the previous Monday, the sheriff's grandson Henry had shown her the fairy tale that pictured her and Rumple: "Beauty and the Beast." The version in my book was more accurate, he'd said, but my mom tore the pages out. I think she was hiding them from Mr. Gold. When Henry had let on his adoptive mother was Regina—something Belle hadn't heard before—she'd continued to smile. Such a sweet boy didn't need another tale of how the woman who'd raised him had wreaked havoc on someone's life. Besides, Belle never told anyone Regina had locked her up for the twenty-nine years of the Storybrooke curse on a psych ward for the criminally insane. Under false pretenses, of course, but she didn't like discussing it. So she had thanked Henry and promised to read the story later.

When she had, she'd cried.

The Belle in the book had contended with a spoiled prince cursed to beastliness for being rude. One kiss, and he'd turned into a shiny faced hunk ready to provide a pampered happily ever after. No unresolved issues. The end.

Her beast, Rumplestiltskin, was more complex—an enigma of light and dark, a constant challenge, a mystery to be uncovered. Back in the Enchanted Forest, she'd known he was the grand, boundless, unpredictable adventure where she wanted to spend her life. Here in Storybrooke, she'd been less brave. She'd wanted her beast to change and be done with it—no more surprises. After three decades as Regina's pawn, anything other than complete control over her circumstances had panicked her. When Rumple couldn't guarantee her a readymade happy ending, she'd fled.

How could I give up like that? Did I think he was a character in a picture book? What happened to 'I'll never stop fighting for him'?

Belle sighed as she matched returned books with their checkout cards. Nineteen days had passed since she'd last seen Rumple—the day his inquiries had secured her this job. Seventeen since Ruby, Granny, Billy, and Leroy had helped her make the second-floor apartment livable. Sixteen since she'd begun rehabilitating the shuttered public library. Eleven since she'd accepted her father's promise to never again tell her what she should think and feel—especially in regard to Rumple. Nine since she'd unlocked the front doors for the library's grand reopening. Day-by-day, her newfound independence as caretaker, dispenser, and promoter of Storybrooke's books was restoring her spirit.

If only she'd found this self-reliant life the day the curse broke, then she could have asked Rumple to be her partner instead of her protector. Maybe we could have restored each other.

As Belle stacked the books for reshelving, the first of the fifth graders presented her pick: "Who Censored Roger Rabbit." Paige certainly has a favorite animal. The week before, when she'd identified "Watership Down" as her number one book, Belle had suggested "Rabbit Hill."

She removed the checkout card and stamped in the due date. "You might enjoy 'Alice in Wonderland.'" Glancing over, she saw Paige frown.

"My dad's in that book. I'm working up to it."

Before Belle could respond, the front door opened and David Nolan called her name.

"Good morning, Sheriff," she said.

"Acting Sheriff." He flashed a smile that matched his nickname, Charming. "Did I understand you correctly on the phone? You found some information that could bring Snow White and Emma back from the Enchanted Forest?"

"Maybe." Belle moistened her lips. Thirteen days had passed since she'd begun opening the crates covering the second floor storage area and discovered the Dark One's library—thirteen days of debating with herself whether to keep the volumes from Rumple for his own good or trust his intentions to be a better man. After all, the first thing he'd done with the magic he'd brought to their new land was conjure a wraith to punish Regina. Protecting the evil queen was what had yanked Charming's wife and daughter out of Storybrooke. And yet, Rumple's most notable use of magic since had been a good deed—re-attaching Dr. Whale's arm. I have to trust him. "I found some books tucked away upstairs. I'll show you after I'm finished here."

She smiled at the fifth graders lined up at her desk. This week Charming's grandson Henry wasn't among them. He's supposed to teach me how to use a computer later. I hope he's not ill.

"Mr. Gold."

He continued exhaling a steady soft stream of air, guiding the tail end of the feather-light gold leaf until the sheet settled smooth and unwrinkled on the side of the music box. He looked up from his magnifying apparatus to see Ruby standing in the doorway holding a child-sized crossbow and three small arrows.

"The wolf charm works," she said. "Granny made me these when I was four."

"But no cloak." Mr. Gold swept his hand across his office. "Hopefully, your luck will improve in here."

As Ruby entered, Mr. Gold looked to his tool holder for his agate burnisher.

Abruptly, she said, "It's not a curse."

Startled, Mr. Gold looked up to see Ruby dangling her wolf at arm's length, stalking it around the shelf-lined walls of his office.

"My condition," she continued. "At least, I don't think it's a curse. It runs in the family. Wouldn't that make it… genetic?"

"With magic that's meaningless. The originator of the curse could have visited it on all future generations in perpetuity." As he spoke, Mr. Gold observed a sign of opposition in Ruby's eyes. Ahh, he said to himself and readjusted his answer. "But whether a condition is a curse or a natural trait, it's the individual that determines how it manifests." He leaned forward and lowered his voice. As intended, she stopped in her tracks to listen. "What you're thinking is that some aspects of the wolf are so much a part of you that nothing and no one could make you give them up."

A deep sigh went through Ruby. She lowered the glowing glass trinket.

I'm in. Tread cautiously. "You like the ability to distinguish scents and know what they mean, to bound and leap like a wolf, to feel no fear." Mr. Gold noted Ruby's reaction to each word before adding, "Only someone who's navigated the benefits and the risks of such power would understand it."

Ruby cocked her head, betraying a hint of suspicion. "Someone like you?"

Mr. Gold shrugged. "Before I took on the Dark One curse, I was one of the multitudes of powerless peasants under the boot of any nobleman's henchman who staked a claim to our hard-earned property, our skilled labor, our self-respect, even our children. Unlike you, I had a choice about taking on a beast nature. When I think of the consequences of my decision, I regret nearly everything… except this: having the power to face the bullies on their own terms."

Ruby nodded. "I hear you. Before I knew what I could do, the village jerks used to make me kiss them or they'd trample my berry baskets. I put up with it. But after, during the rebellion, I was Charming's best warrior. Hard core. All I had to do was touch the clasp on my red cape, and King George's twits would run screaming. I loved that." She bit her lip. "But the risks… I'm afraid that without my cloak, I'll do something awful."

"Ahh, the risks. Keep looking, dear, and I'll tell you a story."

Ruby resumed hunting. Mr. Gold tilted back in his chair. "In the old world, to stay grounded with everyday life, I'd masquerade as a hooded old man and walk among the common folk. I'd amuse myself with trifles—tripping up knights as they strutted around, spiriting coins out of tax collectors' coffers back to peasants' hidey holes. One day I was walking through a market when a riding party of young aristocrats on pretty white steeds pranced through the gate. An old woman passed too close for one knight's liking, and he reared up his stallion to knock over her potato cart. Then he raised his whip and lashed it across her back until she cowered, pleading for mercy. I didn't feel amused. Darkness filled me with one thought—to lock him and all his snooty friends in a strangling spell and make them fear for their lives."

Ruby stopped short. Once again, her expression was wary—even afraid.

Good. "Then something changed me. One young noblewoman jumped off her horse, slogged through the mud, slapped the knight's whip from his hand, crouched in the muck beside the old woman, picked up every last potato, and wiped them off on her own velvet riding breeches—all the while berating the knight." Mr. Gold paused and pressed his eye to his magnifier. "That's the first time I saw Belle."

Mr. Gold sensed rather than heard Ruby come closer. He felt his cheeks grow warm. I've overstepped again. What's wrong with me? But when he looked up to see Ruby standing on the other side of his table, her smile was pure sympathy. "So Belle is your magical red cloak? You should go to the library and tell her that story yourself."

Indirect? I couldn't have been more obvious if I'd lumbered in waving a white flag. Possible approaches to saving the situation raced through his head until he decided on his least favorite: honesty. "I can't. I can't face her. I can't fix what's wrong between us. I can't think of a way to make things work. I just want to know… how she's doing."

The first time Charming had met Belle, down in the Storybrooke mine, he'd watched her tell off Rumplestiltskin for not being honest with her and her father Moe for trying to control her life. Her parting shot had been, I don't want to see either of you again. Ever.

As Charming followed Belle up the library's back stairs, he thought, She certainly has spirit for such a tiny thing—and nice legs, too.

After the mine incident, Charming had nearly dumped her father in jail. For Moe to have paid Smee to handcuff his daughter to an ore cart and send her across the border had been kidnapping, and the intended outcome—erasing her Enchanted Forest memories—a crime even worse. Then Moe had confessed his motive.

I had to free her from the clutches of Rumplestiltskin. Back home, he demanded her as payment for stopping ogres from massacring our town. She made the sacrifice. That's the kind of hero Belle is. I didn't see her again until Smee rescued her—over thirty years. Want to know the first thing she said to me? "He wasn't holding me captive. I chose to be with him." Now what does that sound like to you?

Stockholm Syndrome, Charming had answered and released Moe without charges. Good thing the Storybrooke curse had stored so much useful earth information in his brain. In the Enchanted Forest, he wouldn't have known what to call the situation except something no one wants for their daughter.

Reaching the landing, Belle stopped. When Charming joined her, he gazed down at her face. "I hope Mr. Gold's not bothering you."

"Rumple? No." Belle sighed. "He's never even called."

She pushed open the stairwell door and led Charming into the second floor storage area. When he saw the sea of crates, he whistled. "Wow. How many?"

Belle cocked her head. "Six hundred and forty-twostraight from the Dark Castle. Roughly half contain Rumple's library and half mine."

Charming raised his eyebrows. Who would ever want that many books? At least one of them must be a how-to on universe hopping. Raising the lid of a nearby crate, he scanned the spines and chose a volume. "How did you identify them? I've never even seen this type of writing before."

Belle shrugged. "I have kind of a knack for languages. I picked up more when I worked for Rumple."

Stockholm Syndrome, Charming repeated to himself. Thirty years as the Dark One's slave and she calls it working for him.

"Rumple had a rather wide acquaintance—elves, gnomes, bears. All sorts except fairies. I even picked up some Ogrish."

"Ogrish? Seriously? Is that what it sounds like?"

Biting back a grin, Belle nodded. "You do know Rumple brokered every truce between ogres and humans in the Enchanted Forest, don't you? One summer I accompanied him, took notes, kept his calendar."

I didn't know they had a language. Charming slid the hidebound volume back into the box. Then he pointed to two stacks of books near three open crates. "What about those?"

"Hmm, well... I was trying to separate them." Belle looked aside. "By subject... dark magic versus light. Then I realized nearly any magic can be used either way. And if the magic is really dark, well, good magicians need to understand it to stop it. And even light magic can be bad if it keeps people from tackling their own problems."

"I see what you mean."

"The important thing is the person casting the magic—whether their intentions are good or bad."

Which puts us the hell out of luck in Storybrooke. Of the three individuals who could really throw magic around, only one was noble, pure, and light—but the Blue Fairy needed fairy dust to be any use at all. Her plan for retrieving his wife and daughter was to repair the Mad Hatter's portal-creating hat, but that hope depended on the dwarf miners striking fairy diamonds. We're still waiting. As for the other two, Regina and Rumplestiltskin, their history casting magic was very dark indeed.

But with Snow and Emma dragged by a wraith into another universe, maybe we need a little dark magic.

"When Rumple comes, we'll just have to trust him to know what he's looking for." Belle pressed her hands together and studied the room. "I have some ideas to make this place comfortable for him—add some shelves, a desk, an easy chair."

"Don't worry. I won't bring Gold here. I don't want to cause that kind of trouble."

Belle tilted her head. "I know the stairs are steep, but Rumple can use the elevator. No trouble."

"I didn't mean for him. I meant for you."

"Me?" Belle frowned. "I'm sure Rumple will be researching in the evenings after he locks up his shop. By then, the library will be closed too. If he needs anything, my apartment is down the hall. Even bringing tea wouldn't be a trouble."

"Belle, that's not what I'm talking about." Charming's eyebrows pulled together. "You ran away from him—"

"A lover's quarrel," she said quickly then bit her lip.

"Stockholm Syndrome," Charming muttered under his breath.

"What? Did you say Stockholm Syndrome? What is that? Why does everyone keep saying that to me?"

Poor Belle. Like Mad Hatter Jefferson, she didn't have a second identity. Since the Storybrooke curse hadn't bothered to implant one, it hadn't bothered to implant any earth knowledge either. "Dr. Hopper could explain it better."

Belle crossed her arms, her blue eyes glinting with the same spirit she'd displayed in the mine. "I know the term has something to do with the erroneous supposition that Rumple held me captive. Let me assure you, I was never his prisoner. Of my own free will, I agreed to a deal to—"

Charming's phone buzzed. "On duty. Got to take this." He pulled his cell from his leather jacket. "Hello?"

Without preamble, Regina launched into an accusation. "When were you going to inform me Henry's having night terrors?"

Her tone made his shoulders tense. Clasping his phone between his palms to silence her, Charming told Belle, "I'll get back to you."

Striding to the stairwell, he delayed returning the phone to his ear. Regina's a pain, but she is trying to reform. Maybe she could peruse the Dark One's collection. Surely, having another woman around would be less traumatic for Belle than facing her captor. She and Regina could get to know each other over tea.

Mr. Gold smiled at Ruby, taking in her details about Belle's life on her own. When Belle's introduction to hot dogs, French fries, malts, and chocolate sundaes had led her to lament about her skirt feeling tight, Ruby had introduced her to Zumba classes, jogging, and racquetball.

"She has yet to try a burger, though. She won't say why."

As Mr. Gold had imagined, Belle was devouring the books in the library, learning about their new world. Travel was her favorite—from earth's great cities to the astounding contrasts of its deserts, seas, forests, and jungles... all the places Mr. Gold was planning to visit with her on his quest to find his son—before he'd learned that crossing the border would erase his memories of Baelfire and before her doubts about their relationship had become certainties.

"She's reading a lot of psychology books, too."

And Belle—hidden away in an asylum throughout the 28 plus 1 years of the curse—was meeting her fellow residents of Storybrooke for the first time.

"Everyone loves her."

Mr. Gold remembered the chagrin on Gaston's face when Belle had scolded him. "She can even make bullies—"

The jangling of his front door bell interrupted him. What now? Gripping his cane, Mr. Gold hoisted himself to his feet. "Let me see to that. You keep searching."

As he made his way across his office, he let new visions of Belle form in his mind. They made his steps feel almost light. Then he passed into his shop and saw a man he never wanted to see again—Mr. Smee—squatting before a showcase. Even worse, he'd jimmied it open to poke around the knives, cutlasses, and swords inside.

Without a second thought, Mr. Gold raised his left hand and sent a lightning bolt of what-the-hell-do-you-think-you're-doing across the room to slam the cabinet door against him.

Mr. Smee squealed like a pig, fell on his butt, and clasped his bruised wrist. No longer blocked, the door shut and the lock clicked.

"I'm closed for inventory. Until further notice, people enter my shop by appointment. You don't have an appointment."

Mr. Smee scrambled to his feet. "Moe sent me to fetch something."

"Tell him to bring his pledge slip and final payment and he can have whatever it is back."

"Not something he pawned—" Mr. Smee adjusted his red cap.

Giving himself time to lie, thought Mr. Gold.

"—something from back home. A ceremonial iron dagger."

Mr. Gold sighed. How many times do I have to repeat this? "For something he owned in the Enchanted Forest, he needs to submit a detailed description. I have three days to turn it over or explain why I can't. If the claimant isn't satisfied, then he can petition Acting Sheriff Charming to arbitrate and, if needs be, conduct the search himself. That's the deal."

"I know. I was at the town hall meeting, too. But you got to admit—between Moe and you the situation is a bit more delicate."

Mr. Gold frowned. Not so delicate that you avoided ringing my bell. Did you want me to catch you?

"Moe doesn't fancy bumping into his daughter without an invitation. From what I just heard, though, he doesn't have to worry about bumping into Belle with you."

Mr. Gold clenched the head of his cane in his right hand and flexed the fingers of his left. Did you want me angry, too?

Once more, his bell jingled, and he glanced over to see Dr. Hopper gingerly opening the door.

"I know I don't—don't have an appointment, but—"

"Please come in. You're always welcome."

Smee strutted across the floor, stopping squarely in front of the marionette couple of the peasant farmer and his peasant wife. Mr. Gold felt a twinge of remorse as he always did when he thought of the abject fear carved into their wooden faces—the terror they'd felt the instant before the potion he'd intended for a different couple had done its worst. That was the reason he'd kept them on display since acquiring them. Reminding himself just how easily magic could go awry was just another way to keep himself grounded.

Mr. Gold heard a gasp and looked at Dr. Hopper. His horror mirrored the marionettes'. Did he just now recognize them?

Smee sniggered. "These are a laugh riot. How much?"

"Not for sale, dearie," Mr. Gold snapped.

Hearing a noise behind him, Mr. Gold twisted around to see Ruby holding up an old world lock and key.

"These are mine, too." She smiled weakly.

"Ahh. Tomorrow night do what you must. If you leave me your scarf, dear, I should be able to come up with some useful spell by the next full moon."

Ruby opened her mouth to speak, glanced over at the new arrivals, and nodded.

"If I'm successful, in exchange I want… some nice takeout. Fish and chips and iced tea."

Laying her recovered treasures on the counter, Ruby unwrapped her fringed checkered scarf from around her neck and handed it to Mr. Gold. He watched her tuck her wolf into her breast pocket and scoop up the rest of her belongings. When she sauntered towards the door, he hobbled after her, noting the relative positions of innocent bystander Hopper and potential threat Smee. I took him before. I can do it again.

Stopping in the doorway, Ruby cocked her head. "When Belle asks how you're doing, what should I say?"

Mr. Gold felt a spark of electricity in his chest. When Belle asks… He coughed, elaborately casual. "Oh, tell her I'm getting by. People have stopped harassing me on the street." For the most part. "The deal I set for orderly property restoration has stopped the break-ins." Except for today's. "This week I haven't received one anonymous threatening phone call." Yet.

Ruby sucked her breath through her perfect white teeth. "Yeah. Belle told me about all that. She'll be glad things are better." With a lopsided smile, Ruby closed the door behind her.

She'll be glad, Mr. Gold repeated to himself as he turned back to his other customers. Nothing can anger me now.

He even nodded graciously at Smee. "Unless there's something else, I'm sure Dr. Hopper would prefer privacy to ask whatever it is—"

"Can you turn me young again?" Smee blurted out. "Like you said you would. I managed to stay this age for quite awhile, but what I really want is to be young." Glancing at Hopper, he snarled, "This doesn't concern you." He strode up to seize Mr. Gold's arm. Sotto voce, he continued. "You and me, we're the same. Independent contractors. You don't like surrounding yourself with minions. I don't like being under the thumb of a boss. I've got something you'd want. Let's do business, man to man."

Mr. Gold jerked away from Smee's grasp. "Can I make you young again? We'll never know, will we, dearie? I made that deal with you in exchange for a magic bean. You didn't deliver."

Smee waved his hands in the air. "Couldn't help it. My head was turned by a pretty woman. How was I to know she was Hook's pretty woman?"

Hook's woman? Mr. Gold felt cold anger in the pit of his stomach. Before that marauding cur came along, Milah was my wife. "Get out." He turned on his heel and limped across the floor, cracking his cane down sharply with each step. Out the corner of his eye, he saw Dr. Hopper cowering between a suit of armor and a grandfather clock.

"She was almost worth it," Smee added.

Furious, Mr. Gold swung around, barely keeping his balance. "Break a deal with me, dearie, you get no second chance."

"You'll want what I have. Trust me. It's information."

"Anything of value you know, you've already told me." Mr. Gold squeezed his left hand in a mock stranglehold. "Remember?"

Smee backed towards the door. "Your funeral."

Emma counted the corpses strewn across the Enchanted Forest clearing. Nine zombies. The monsters had been swinging swords and axes, but thank goodness they'd lurched slowly enough for three women to take down.

Of course, a soldier, a bandit-princess, and a bail bondsperson-sheriff aren't just three everyday women. Even more badass, they'd each overcome three zombies while protecting the land's least liberated princess.

Emma glanced at Aurora who, ladylike, was averting her eyes from the gore to pick brambles out of her tattered chiffon robes. Earth's version had her dead to rights—her biggest asset was looking beautiful while she slept. Of course, the princess deserved to be cut some slack. The day they'd met a wraith had taken her fiance's soul to who knew where. Seeing that would sap anyone's will to fight.

Soldier Mulan protected Aurora in honor of Prince Philip's memory. Unlike the princess, she stared at the bodies as she cleaned her sword with a handful of grass. She was sterner than her movie counterpart, but that just made her more reliable in a fight. Emma was grateful for that.

And Mary-Margaret? Emma smiled to herself. Her mother could talk with birds like in her Snow White fairy tale. She could also fell a hammer-wielding dead guy from fifty yards with her bow and arrow. "Thanks. The last of the zombies nearly smashed my skull in."

"Zombies?" Mary-Margaret ran her fingers through her short black hair. "They can't be zombies. Not in the Enchanted Forest. Dead is dead."

Mulan's forehead pinched together as she ran her gaze over the tiny battlefield. "What are zombies? These were my friends."

The ones we buried last week. Emma grimaced, remembering their return to Safe Haven and finding everyone with their hearts ripped out. At least we gave them a nice funeral.

"The man over there? That's Durwood. He was a cabinet maker before the curse tore our land apart. For us he made spears. And Rhoda. The nets she wove caught supper for the whole camp." Mulan inhaled sharply. "How could they be here? How could they attack us?"

Emma stepped closer to Mulan, started to reach out, then dropped her arm. Hugging someone wearing full armor was kind of hard. "A zombie is not the person you knew—just their corpse. Re-animated."

Aurora made a gulping noise and clapped a hand over her mouth.

"Do I have to repeat myself?" Mary-Margaret perched her hands on her hips. "There are no zombies in the Enchanted Forest. If there's one thing magic can't do, it's raise someone from the dead."

Emma rolled her eyes. Why did her mother have to act like the expert all the time? They were practically the same age. "That's exactly what I'm saying. Zombies aren't someones. Zombies are puppets someone who's not dead is controlling. Someone like—"

"—Cora." Mary-Margaret scowled. "I knew she could command the living by removing their hearts but not the dead. I hate thinking about it."

That evil sorceress can command the living by taking out their hearts? Did she teach her daughter Regina? That was something Emma didn't like thinking about. "This time, we have to cremate. That should prevent them popping back to life like monsters in a video game."

"Video game?" Aurora asked.

"Hard to explain," Mary-Margaret answered.

Even over the phone, Charming could hear Regina's anxiety. "Henry said the nightmares are like being in the middle of the scariest video game ever. Flames everywhere. When I went to wake him for school, I found he'd been sitting up all night. I kept him home so he could sleep. An hour later, he woke up screaming."

"He'll get through it. He has an appointment tomorrow with Archie."

"Dr. Hopper? You think that's funny? These aren't psychological nightmares. Henry can feel the heat."

His grandson's first overnight with Regina since the curse broke, and she was acting as if she wasn't the one who'd sent him into counseling in the first place. "I know he can feel the heat. That's how Snow described it, too."

"Described what?"

As if you don't know. "The Sleeping Curse Netherworld. They both took a bite of the same apple—the one you poisoned."

"That second half wasn't meant for Henry. If Emma was a fit mother, she wouldn't have let him—"

"—eat sweets between meals? He grabbed your apple turnover from her because he knew you meant to poison his real mom. That's the kind of boy he is—a hero." Just like his grandparents.

Silence. Then, "Sleeping Curse Netherworld. I never heard of such a thing."

Maybe if you read up on your dark magic before you cast it, you wouldn't be so ignorant. And Snow claims only men refuse to read instructions. "The Sleeping Curse Netherworld is where Henry was until Emma's kiss broke your curse. Archie thinks the nightmares are a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. My wife had them for half a year. Then they went away." Charming leaned against the stairwell. "But if you think the nightmares might be supernatural, maybe you can research them. Belle found Rumplestiltskin's library."

Regina groaned.

"Wow. You're the one who hid it." Charming rubbed his forehead. "You knew I've been searching for a way to bring Snow and Emma back. You knew Rumplestiltskin said his books might help. Yet you didn't let on you knew where they were."

"Never mind that. I'll look at them now. I don't know all the languages. That imp had a lot of books. But maybe—"

"Forget it." Reform? Whom was I kidding? She'll do anything to keep Henry's real mom and grand-mom away from Storybrooke. "I'm picking Henry up at three o'clock. Make sure he's ready."

Without waiting for Regina's response, Charming ended the call. Now he had no choice. He had to talk to Rumplestiltskin.

Comments are appreciated.