The "Hamburger Date" in this chapter uses dialogue from the original ("Into the Deep" 2x8) with deletions, variations and a lot of expansion to carry the conversations a little bit further.

For those familiar with Once Upon a Time, some details about Cora aren't TV canon; they're for my other WIP "Trick of Hearts."

Chapter 15

You Cannot Wish for Love

Mr. Gold (Rumplestiltskin): Be careful. Emotional entanglements can lead us down very dangerous paths (Fruit of the Poisonous Tree).

Neal wavered in the middle of the clearing. The last time he was here, he'd saved the day—snatching Slightly from the lightning sand and enticing the rodents-of-unusual-size to stop snarling and get tickled. He'd truly been the man of the hour—until Emma slugged him.

Now Neal hoped that last good deed would be how she remembered him—and how she'd describe him to Henry when she finally reunited with their son. The nine blade-swinging zombies slowly backing him up toward the sandpit would make sure he never saw Storybrooke himself. Without Tinker Bell and her amazing dust, he didn't stand a chance.

But I'll go down fighting. Neal raised his cutlass slashing edge out, level with the soulless eyes of the advancing corpses. Surrendering concern for his own life freed him to try close quarter moves he'd never attempted with a real live—or real dead—opponent before. The more monsters he took with him, the fewer his comrades would have to face later.

Done with regrets, Neal rushed forward, gashed a dead pirate from ear-to-ear, thrust upward under another's chin until the jawbone cracked, and slit a hole in the next one's chest. A saber flew into the air and an ax clattered to the rocky ground, but the third cadaver clung to his rapier. When it pierced Neal's shoulder, he winced. Using his hilt like brass knuckles, he smashed the carcass in the face. The stench of death was nauseating.

Emma can tell Papa I died trying.

"Ready?" Rumple's eyes sparkled in the party lights strung across the food tent's ceiling.

Like cinnamon mixed with sugar, Belle thought. She tore her gaze away to glance at the countdown clock displayed on her cell phone then focused on him again. "Ready."

Rumple tapped the screen with one hand and placed his other on the table. Returning her best rosebud smile, Belle laid her hand on his. Faster and faster, they stacked their hands, pulling from the bottom and competing for the top. When the virtual timer pinged, her right hand was draped triumphantly across his moonstone ring.

"Did I win?" Belle asked, though the laugh lines wreathing Rumple's cheeks told her it didn't matter.

He leaned back, grinning. "Indeed, you did. Again."

"Third time in a row." Forget chess and I-go. Pancake is my new favorite game.

Out the corner of her eye, Belle caught Ruby motioning with her head toward their table and pressing two plates heaped with burgers and fries into Granny's hands. The old woman—her dear friend of the last three weeks—looked disgruntled. In fact, as she plodded toward them, her mouth seemed to be warring between a professional smile and a personal scowl. Poor thing. She's probably knackered from serving the crowd that came to the fair.

When the old woman set the specials down, Belle cocked her head. "They smell delicious, Granny."

Instead of relaxing, the old woman's expression became more strained. "They are delicious. Didn't take any dark magic, either."

Belle's eyes widened. Is she mad at me?

Across from her, she saw Rumple avert his eyes until Granny about-faced and stomped to the counter. Then he glanced at Belle. At last, he uncurled an index finger to point surreptitiously at Granny. "I have a complicated relationship with her…" he sighed "…as I do with most people."

Oh, Rumple. "Did you know Granny… before?"

He grimaced.

Belle moistened her lips. "You can tell me anything or… nothing. Whatever you choose. I'm here to eat a hamburger." She dropped her eyes to study it. The layers of bun, patties, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and onions looked daunting. Good thing I've watched how people handle these. Lifting the monster to her mouth, she took her first bite. "Mm." As promised, the combination of textures and tastes—juicy, crisp, salty, fluffy—was scrumptious. But when she lowered her burger to her plate, she saw Rumple hesitating.

Looking down, he coughed. "Back in the Enchanted Forest, on the day Ruby was born, Granny was desperate. She called on me. In exchange for a basket of blackberries, I fulfilled her deepest, truest, most secret heart's desire." He fanned his fingers. "She never forgave me for it."

Belle's forehead pinched together. Rumple's confession was more cryptic than silence. Yet she could see from the faint flush on his cheeks how much the admission had cost him.

Abruptly, he grabbed the red plastic bottle standing at the end of the table. "You know, you should try it with ketchup. Condiments are this world's most powerful magic."

Gasping with relief at the sight of Tinker Bell, Emma tightened her grip on the dangling hammock. When she got her bearings, she realized the fairy was coming from the direction of the clearing where Neal had been headed. "Tink! Did you see Peter? Is he all right?"

Stopping mid-air, the green light jingled.

Emma mentally kicked herself for bothering with a question. She hadn't a clue what Tinker Bell had answered. I should have just said, "Help me!"

But the fairy didn't.

Emma gaped. She'd never had any jealous run-ins with the Lost Boys' guardian fairy—not like Wendy in earth's version of Neal's story—but as the twinkling green light continued hovering just beyond reach, she wished she'd made an effort to be friends.

Emma's fingers slipped a knuckle-length. Her heart skipped a beat then surged to catch up. Mind racing, she blurted out the detail that had interested the fairy at her first campfire: "I'm the savior! Get me to Peter! I can save him!"

The green light bobbled as if Tink was making up her mind. Then she whizzed forward past Emma's ear, tugged on her jacket collar, and released a cloud of fairy sparkles.

Emma sneezed. Until now, she'd never flown with less than two Lost Boys. Could a single jingling light really keep her aloft? Then the tiny fairy zoomed skyward with a force so strong, Emma's fingers jerked off the hammock.

Fairy dust—who'd have thought it was this powerful? "Thanks, Tink. Take me back the way you came." The clearing was so close, Emma could hear the moans and groans of the zombies Neal had led there. Please, let it not be too late!

But instead of cooperating, Tinker Bell swung Emma in a wide arc and began hauling her in the opposite direction.

"Hey! Wait a minute! You're going the wrong way!"

The fairy jingled fiercely as if arguing back.

Noooooo. Not only had Neal ditched her to take on three dozen zombies alone, now he'd roped in his fairy friend to remove her even farther from danger. That's why Tink waffled. She knows her boy's committing suicide.

A knot formed in Emma's throat and came out as a sob. Yet inexplicably, the sound wasn't despair. It was joy. Neal loves me—really, really loves me. Grudgingly, she'd accepted the reason he'd abandoned her eleven years earlier—so she could fulfill her destiny, so she could save her mother, her father, and the ten thousand others who'd depended on her—but doubts about Neal's personal feelings had lingered.

Not anymore. Neal was sacrificing himself for her. The tragic beauty of it made Emma lighter than air. With growing wonderment, she realized gravity had stopped pulling at her legs. Instead, they were trailing behind her. Spreading her arms like wings, she felt herself lift higher.

I'm flying. Emma tilted and found herself gliding in a circle. Above her, Tinker Bell jingled and jangled as though she'd gone crazy, but Emma no longer hung from the fairy's itty-bitty hand. Now I'm giving Tink a ride. Homing in on Neal, she angled her arms like jet wings. As she picked up speed, she laughed.

A terrifying howl ripped the night, yet Emma felt no fear. "Hang on, Tink. Let's save Peter Pan."

Belle stared at her half-eaten hamburger, weighing the pleasure of taking another bite against the tightness in the waistband of her plaid wool skirt. When the plank floor creaked, she looked up to see Ruby zipping her puffy red jacket as she strolled toward her and Rumple. Surveying the dining tent, Belle realized the three concessions had closed and most of the customers had gone.

Ruby pulled her chestnut hair out of her jacket and draped it over her shoulders. "I'm off to August's party. He asked me to tell Mr. Gold his dad baked him some Brutti ma Buoni."

Rumple smiled at Belle. "Italian almond cookies. The recipe is an implanted memory but quite delicious."

August's dad. He was that nice old man Geppetto she'd met earlier. Before Belle could respond, Ruby continued.

"August also said he hopes that makes up for not having that other appetizer." She raised her dark eyebrows, clearly clueless about the message she was about to deliver. "The one he promised you in the sheriff's station? He said you'd know—"

"That young man does like dancing on the edge." Chuckling, Rumple shook his head. "Tell August, I live by his discretion. And tell him—" he paused, as if making sure Ruby was paying attention "—so does he."

Looking more perplexed than before, Ruby hitched her saddlebag purse higher on her shoulder. "Ohhh-kay." She turned then peered back at them. "See you."

"Later." Belle looked at Rumple. You were joking, weren't you?

Answering the question she knew was in her eyes, Rumple reached out for her. "I don't know what August expects from my presence, but I promised I'd come. Perhaps I'm the entertainment—a chance for his friends to see whether the scary stories are true. August had heard the one about me eating firstborn—"

"Oh, Rumple. Nobody believes—"

"Maybe not. But someone is bound to recall some dark tale not so easily belied." He patted her hand. "No matter. If I'm cornered, you'll rescue me."

Belle tried to smile. "It took me some time to get to know you."

Rumple's concentration switched to something beyond Belle's shoulder, and the tenderness vanished from his face. Then she caught a click, click, click that made her stomach twist. The Evil Queen. In the Enchanted Forest, the sound of her high heels had warned Belle of an impending slap, tirade, or boast about some petty triumph over Rumplestiltskin. In Storybrooke, Regina had been content to lift the flap on the door to her psych ward cell and gloat. Since both the woman and her malice had been mysteries, those visits had tormented her more.

When her former captor stopped, towering over them, Belle shuddered.


Mr. Gold squeezed Belle's hand. Seeing her lips quiver and her cheeks grow pale, he envisioned conjuring another wraith. No. This time, I'll reach down that evil queen's throat and rip out her soul myself.

"Gold," Regina began without pretense at a greeting, "we need to talk."

Indeed. At Regina's announcement, Mr. Gold saw the parents at a nearby table exchange worried looks. Hastily, the mother scooped up their children's submarine sandwiches. After the entire family scurried out, they were the only patrons left. He focused on Belle's eyes, silently cajoling the light to return. He waited until she managed a faint smile before answering, "Do we?"

"Yes." Regina retracted her umbrella with a snap then whacked it against her thigh, sending raindrops flying. "I'm coming about the one thing that might unite us."

Henry? Two days earlier, Mr. Gold had helped the boy when Regina's magic had floundered. He was more than willing to do so again—but only if she begged. Feigning indifference, he said, "What on earth can that be?"


Mr. Gold froze. Regina hadn't used her mother's name in his presence since the night before her marriage to Snow White's father—the night he'd goaded her into shoving their mutual bête noire through an enchanted looking glass into Wonderland. Hearing the name now raised the hairs on the back of his neck. Slowly, he slid his hand off Belle's.

Sidelong, Mr. Gold watched Regina cross her arms. "She's coming from our land. I need your help to stop her."

Coming? How could she be coming? "She's dead." Rumple's forehead knit together as he tried to process what he'd just heard. Cora could reanimate corpses—march them like rotting automatons to wreak her will. But she couldn't reanimate herself. Dead is dead. Reluctantly, he turned his head to stare at Regina. "You told me you saw the body."

"Apparently, you taught her well." Regina jerked her head as if to still a tremor. "She's not."

And apparently, you're the most pathetic, inapt, slipshod pupil a wizard ever had. You interred a woman in stasis from a sleeping spell—one of her own devising, one she could break. You were too dim to recognize the difference. Mr. Gold forced himself to breathe in, breathe out—to retain a semblance of calm. The day Regina had crowed she'd finally done it—sent an assassin to the Queen of Hearts via the hat she'd stolen from Jefferson—her claim had knocked the Dark One off balance. He'd dedicated years of scheming and counter-scheming to keeping Cora's unspeakable volatility contained. That someone could kill her had seemed unimaginable. After the shock had worn off—and the ache had subsided—he'd felt relieved.

Am I really going to have to deal with Cora all over again?

Mr. Gold gazed at Belle. She was the counter to Cora—the hero who, despite his complete unworthiness, fate had blessed him to know. The day he'd discovered her death was a lie, the explosion of joy had made him weep. Not so tonight's revelation. The thought of Cora alive filled him with dread. He glared at Regina. How could you be so incompetent?

Regina thrust out her jaw. "She's on her way. And I don't need to remind you how unpleasant that would be for both of us."

Casually, Mr. Gold took a sip of his iced tea. No sense in letting Regina know that for once he concurred completely. "Unpleasant for you. I can handle Cora."

Regina flung back her sleek black hair. "That's not how she told the story."

Oh, really? Who defeated whose desperate desire to be a queen in the Enchanted Forest? Who banished who to the most annoying of all the known universes? Mr. Gold jiggled his head—hoping his next words wouldn't sound like pure bravado. "I won in the end." I will again.

"Maybe. But there's a difference this time. This time, you have someone you care about." Regina slanted her gaze at Belle. "This time, you have a weakness."

Mr. Gold took a sharp breath. If there's one thing Cora knew, it was how to exploit what others cared about. Anxiety creased his forehead. He couldn't risk more harm to Belle.

"I'm not Rumple's weakness."

Startled, Mr. Gold glanced up. Belle still looked pale, but her back was straight and her chin was out. Bravo, sweetheart. She was steeling herself to face the Evil Queen. Just seeing her made him feel stronger.

Belle locked eyes with Regina. "I don't do magic, but I'm perfectly capable of helping in other ways. I can research, organize—"

"Research? You think that's funny? You have no idea who we're discussing."

"Actually, I do." Belle tilted her head. "Cora is a sorceress who used to live in the Enchanted Forest then went to Wonderland where she became queen. She's known for being a heartless woman who—"

"Heartless?" This time, Regina grasped her umbrella with both hands and laughed. "That's an interesting way of putting it—considering what a collection Cora had of other people's hearts."

Belle's gaze remained steady. "I know Cora's your mother. I can tell your childhood wasn't easy, and I think that explains a lot. Right now, you're frightened for yourself—that's clear from your face—but you're more frightened for the one you care about, the one you consider your weakness."

Mr. Gold's fingers touched his lips. They were parted. Belle wasn't merely facing the Evil Queen; she was making her crumble. If that wasn't magic, what was? Already Regina's haughtiness had sagged. Her shoulders drooped and her hands hung at her sides.

Mr. Gold compressed his mouth to keep from smiling. Belle knew how to cut through his bluster in exactly the same way.

"Difficult childhood," Regina muttered. "What would you know."

Belle shrugged. "Not much. My biggest trauma was having to hide books under my pillow so I could read them after everyone was asleep. Recently, though… I've been through some stuff."

Mr. Gold blinked. Had Belle just taken a dig at Regina? More surprisingly, her tormentor's eyes appeared guilty. She tugged at her neckline. Her red knit dress clung to her in ways that looked constricting rather than slinky.

"And," Belle continued, "I know the hurt, the anger, the fear—they're hard to sort out. Trying to make sense of bad experiences, it's easier to lash out at the people closest to us—issue ultimatums about how we want things to be—when the real way to gain support is patience, listening, admitting one's needs, trying to understand."

When Belle glanced over, Mr. Gold knew she was making her own admission to him. He nodded, his eyes acknowledging everything she'd said. A smile flickered on her lips. He returned it. In his mind's eye, their true love potion glowed in a swirling rainbow of sparkling light.

"Hah," Regina answered.

Belle gazed back. "Your immediate concern is protecting Henry from whatever anger you believe your mother harbors toward you. But deep down…" She drew a long breath "…deep down, you wish you could introduce them."

Belle nailed it. Mr. Gold could see it in the war between indignation and misery taking place on Regina's face. Was it possible? Could his beloved's insights transform an enemy into an ally?

When Regina planted her hands on her hips, he knew it wasn't to be.

"Introduce Henry? You understand nothing. I'd die before I let Mother anywhere near Henry. She's the reason I never bore a child myself. The night she caught my true love and me trying to elope, she reached into my Daniel's chest and yanked out his heart. Then, right before my eyes, she crushed it."

Belle's eyebrows pulled together. "You poor woman. That's awful. I'm so sorry."

"Hmm." Regina licked her lips. "And imagine how I felt when I discovered it was my teacher—your darling Rumple—who had taught my mother how to do it."

At first, Mr. Gold didn't fully register the blow Regina had struck him. Not until he saw the dismay in Belle's eyes. By then it was too late. The venom had taken hold. Of all the ways he'd imagined her learning something from his past too horrible to bear, a heart-to-heart with Regina hadn't been one of them. A deadening chill seeped through his body. No matter. Like the inevitability of succumbing to a sleeping curse, first the numbness, then the searing pain.

"You didn't know that, did you, Belle." Regina gave her a smug cat smile. "Every bit of dark magic my mother knows, Rumple taught her. That's why they're such dangerous rivals. When they get together, sparks fly. Everyone else is collateral damage."

"We're done, dearie." You've won. Mr. Gold clenched his jaw to keep it from trembling. He'd known the day Belle's love would die was only a matter of time. Now that it had come, he couldn't blame Regina and her spite. "I haven't created a passage to the Enchanted Forest, if that's what you're worried about. Nine vials of true love potion are required. I've only brewed four." The fifth, the most beautiful of all, is now a bottle of mud.

On Emma's first sweep over the clearing, she saw at least a dozen felled zombies—some with their dismembered limbs still moving. ROUS nosed around the scattered parts. Another dozen were just gone—no doubt buried in the lightning sand or broiled in one of the fire spouts that sporadically lit the night. The last dozen milled about, apparently still hunting for the bearer of the enchanted compass.

No Neal.

On her next pass, Emma noticed four creatures hunched down just beyond the swamp cypress, their hands snatching at something lying in the bracken.

Emma's heart constricted. "He's there!"

Tink's response sounded like a bell with a broken clapper.

Sword out, Emma dive-bombed the gruesome quartet. With the sharp side, she sliced off half of one zombie's face. With the flat side, she turned another's wobbly head clear around. An instant later, she crash-landed into the two remaining, shattering them into a heap of flesh and bones. Emma stayed grounded just long enough to wrap her arms around Neal and take flight again. Tink remained behind.

Higher and higher Emma soared, scanning for a spot far enough from danger to tend her lover's injuries. When Neal groaned, she whispered, "I have you."

But when she looked down at him, she realized there was something she didn't have: the lower half of his right arm.

After supper, Archie showed Vincent the upstairs guest bedroom. He'd never had a visitor actually sleep there, but—for as long as he could remember—every other Thursday, he'd changed the sheets. This week brown plaid flannel topped with a forest green comforter would keep his friend snug and warm through the night.

Because I want to, but I know I can't. After less than two hours together, Archie could no longer deny his feelings—and he felt as if he were going crazy. I'm non-sexual, he repeated to himself. Like a dwarf or a fairy. Tonight, to be honest, he was revising his analysis.

He forced himself to assess the room, assure himself it was comfortable. Feather bed fresh and tidy? Check. Oak armoire clean and empty? Check. Antique cherry desk stocked with paper, pens, and pencils? Check. His survey led him to the room's pride-and-joy: his telescope. Right now, Vincent was crouched on the window seat, elbows on the deep, bay window sill, face pressed to the eyepiece, peering into the darkness.

Crikey, is he handsome. Aloud, Archie said, "Too bad it's—it's raining." He coughed. "We have an—an expression about Maine weather. If you don't—don't like it, wait a half hour. It'll change."

Vincent chuckled, acknowledging his joke like the dear sweet man he was. "No point looking at the sky, of course, but I'm getting a good idea of your shoreline. Your house is fantastically situated. You have a marvelous view."

Archie gazed at his own marvelous view—Vincent—and assessed himself. Palms sweating? Check. Heart racing? Check. Light-headed? Check. Instead of staying up talking like we planned, should I say goodnight and immerse myself in a really cold bath? Check.

"I can see the small craft harbor. Not many boats. Wrong season for—hello. What's that?" His friend continued staring through the telescope. "Why, if that's not the cutest… Awwww... Arch, come here. You've got to see this."

Archie couldn't answer. Tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth? Check. Against his years of experience as a royal counselor, against his implanted psychological education and training, against every shred of common sense he possessed, he wedged himself onto the window seat beside Vincent. After a deep, calming breath, he put his eye to the telescope.

At first, Archie saw a blur. He tweaked the eyepiece to accommodate his nearsightedness. Then he said, "Awwww…"

Leroy was on the dock, ambling toward his houseboat. What made the sight so darling was what he was carrying—a woman in a fluffy pink skirt riding piggyback. He held her white-stockinged legs. One of her arms lifted a yellow umbrella over the both of them; the other hugged his chest. At first, Archie's mind drew a blank for who she possibly could be. Then she lay her cheek on Leroy's shoulder, turning her face enough to be recognizable.

"Jumping Jiminy," Archie breathed. "That's Sister Astrid."

Vincent laughed. "A nun? Are you kidding me?"

"Well, I guess, she's not—not really a nun… I mean, she wouldn't have taken—actually taken—vows. But she lives and works at the convent—the home for lost children—and… Oh, no!"

Just as Leroy raised a leg to board his boat, he slipped. He and Astrid tumbled onto the rain-slick dock. Through the telescope, they looked just yards away, and Archie felt guilty not reaching out to help. But then he saw they didn't need him. Grinning and laughing, they held each other. Then Astrid planted a boisterous kiss on Leroy's bearded face.

"Well, I'll be." The celibacy of dwarfs and fairies has been greatly exaggerated.

Vincent moved so close Archie could feel his breath on his ear. He continued gazing through the telescope.

When Ruby passed on Mr. Gold's message, August snickered. Baffled, she shook her head. "Well, I'm glad it's funny. I was afraid it might be some sort of, I don't know, threat?"

At that, August laughed so hard, he had to prop himself against the pine-paneled wall. "It is," he managed at last, then, "Hey, let me help you with—"

"I can handle my own zipper." With practiced ease, Ruby stuck out her elbow to block him. The story of how he'd gotten the reddish, purplish swelling over his right cheekbone had earned him points, but not enough for that. "Besides, I'm just poking my head in. I don't want you squirreling away my wrap in some closet where I can't find it when I want to go."

August contorted his mouth into a pout as Ruby shrugged off her red nylon jacket. Rolling her eyes, she sauntered over to the already stuffed coat rack. August kept in step, not an inch from her shoulder. Typical guy.

"At least stay long enough to see my Madagascar slides. You know, lemurs?"

Not finding a free hook, Ruby flung her jacket across the top and leaned her big, striped umbrella against the wall. Then she pivoted on her heel and crossed her arms. "You told me you saw them in Nepal. You lied."

August returned a hangdog smile. "The only lemurs in Nepal are in zoos." He held out his hands. "When I first came to Storybrooke, everyone was under the curse. I was testing you guys, seeing how good your earth info was."

Mine wouldn't have won me any money on Jeopardy, that's for sure. Ruby's store of local knowledge was what one would expect from the town slut. She knew shoe brands, the hottest knock-offs, club music, makeup tricks, and every detail of Johnny Depp's career. Until she'd met August, her familiarity with earth's wildlife had been on the level of a child's ABC book. Maybe Belle and I should start a get-to-know-your-earth study group. "Madagascar, Nepal, and now Singapore. You're just rubbing it in that you can travel and we can't."

August leaned forward. "I'll bring you back something."

"Yeah, sure." And Ruby knew just what it would be: perfume, jewelry, or a fancy silk scarf. The Storybrooke curse had also implanted a thorough education in men who wanted to get into her pants.

"How about a Wushu sword?"

Ruby's mouth opened. "What?" Now that would be different.

August raised an eyebrow. "I've heard, back in the day, you were quite the warrior."

Grinning, Ruby curled her fingers at him. "Fangs and claws. All a girl needs."

"I bet that got them howling."

Still grinning, Ruby shook her head. "A Wushu sword. It's not like I'd ever want to use it. Goodness, no. I hope I never have to use my fangs and claws like that again, either. But still…" Wouldn't a sword look cool hanging on her wall next to her crossbow? And trying it out would be fun. David favored the broadsword, but he could show her some moves. Good exercise.

Thrusting her hands in the pockets of her vanilla white chinos, Ruby turned away. After a few steps, she peeked over her shoulder. August does have the most amazing blue eyes—especially with that bruise under them. Kind of a badge of courage. "I can't wait till I can visit places like Madagascar, Nepal, and Singapore, too."

Again, August closed the distance between them. "That's one of the reasons I asked Mr. Gold. Everyone wants to know how close he is to figuring out how to keep memories past the town line."

Ruby frowned. "I thought he was a guest. You're going to let people grill him?"

"Ah, come on. He can take it. Nobody's going to ask him a question without saying Sir in front of it—except me, of course. I mean… he's Mr. Gold."

"I don't know…" Can't the guy catch a break for one night? Ruby remembered how blissful he and Belle had looked—like between them they'd created a happiness spell. She was about to say so when she saw August's I've-taken-on-the-world swagger disappear. Suddenly, he looked like a little boy—unsure what he'd done, but sure there was something.

"Good evening, Ma'am."

Ruby turned to see Mother Superior gliding out of a back room, trailed by Geppetto. In the Enchanted Forest, the Blue Fairy had allied herself with Charming's and Snow White's rebellion—mustering a battalion of fire-lobbing fairies for the final battle—but she'd been too high up for Red to ever have talked to her directly. In Storybrooke, Mother Superior sometimes dropped by Granny's for a beer, but even then she commanded respect. Ruby glanced at August. His level of deference bordered on flustered.

"I'm so glad Mr. Gold is coming," Mother Superior said. "I have some questions for him myself."

August swallowed. "Uh, I doubt he'll actually show. I mean, Mr. Gold at a party? And if he does, it'll be really late. Way past the time the convent closes up for the night."

"Oh, Pinocchio. I don't have a curfew. What a silly idea." Mother Superior gave him a kindly smile. "And besides, I'm not a nun, I'm a fairy."

Emma chose the second lookout post to nurse Neal. The swaying hammock provided the gentlest haven possible for her brave hero's care. Blinking away her tears, she unzipped her jacket and tore a strip from her blouse. Filthy, but it will have to do. In jail, an impromptu how-to session from a fellow inmate had taught her the art of fashioning a tourniquet. Thank goodness I was there.

"Neal, Neal, what were you thinking?" she mumbled as she hurried to stem the loss of precious blood. "Why did you leave me?"

Emma couldn't see his face but, as he rasped out his words, she could hear his smile. "Leave you? Force of habit."

Emma whimpered. Oh, Neal. She knotted the ends of the tourniquet around a stick she'd cut and twisted it tight just above his elbow. "How come you didn't fly when they attacked?"

"Couldn't," Neal managed between breaths. "No dust."

"Really? I thought…" Oh, it doesn't matter. "I'm just grateful Tink sprinkled me." Though where she was now, Emma didn't know.

"So am I." Neal's voiced started to wheeze. "I'm grateful you… you had a… despite everything… happy thought."

"My happy thought was us reuniting. But now your—your hand. I don't know if I'll ever fly again." Behind her, Emma heard tinkling. In a moment, a green glow illuminated Neal's face. He looked revolted.

"Tink," Neal said. "Why did you bring that?"

No sooner did Emma wonder what that was, than the quirky little fairy dropped it in her lap: Neal's hacked off forearm. Emma flinched.

Zigzagging an inch from her staring eyes, Tink jingled excitedly.

Neal raised his head. "You can't expect—"

Tink's answer was a clank.

"Please! What did she say? I don't understand."

"Fairies. Nuts. All of them." Neal collapsed back on the hammock. His words sounded woozy. "Tink says… you're the savior. She says… save my hand."

By the time Belle and Rumple stepped out of the dining tent, the lights decorating the booths had been switched off. Here and there through the slanting rain, she saw concessionaires wrapping up their goods in water-proof tarps by lantern or flashlight, but the walkway between was dark. Without any fanfare, Rumple produced his large black umbrella, already open, and handed it to her. Then he swung out his cane to limp away. Belle hastened to catch up.

That Rumple preferred to slog through the mud in silence didn't surprise her. The news that the Queen of Hearts sought passage to Storybrooke was disturbing. Not until they passed the first lamppost lighting the parking lot did Belle realize just how devastated he was.

Gone was the scornful disinterest Rumple had kept up until Regina, smirking and tossing her hair, had finally left them. Alone with him now, Belle saw he appeared more broken and lost than the day he'd given her the keys to the library and said goodbye.

Belle cleared her throat. Instead of looking at her, Rumple leaned forward on his cane and hobbled more quickly toward the borrowed Cadillac. Sighing, she followed.

Rumple's shamefaced manner during Jefferson's tragic tale had alerted her that he felt some responsibility. Now that she knew he'd taught Cora her magic, she understood why. As for Regina's claims about Rumple's culpability for how her mother had used that magic—well, that was a different matter. For nearly thirty years, Belle had been the Evil Queen's prisoner. Who knew better than she how that woman could twist the truth?

So taking out a heart isn't just a Wonderland thing. That was a dark tale, indeed. If Rumple planned to remain silent about it, Belle wouldn't be happy. But I'll hold my tongue. This evening she'd promised to issue no more ultimatums—to instead show patience, listen, admit her own needs, and try to understand. If there was one thing Rumple had taught her, it was don't break a promise.

Rumple opened the passenger door. As Belle ducked past him and slid onto her seat, he mumbled, "I'll take you home."

"Of course." That had been her plan all along—drop off her dress and her roses before they drove to August's party. As he rounded the Caddy holding the umbrella, she saw he was using it too late. The rain had already plastered his hair to his head. Poor boy. When we get to my place, I'll towel you dry. When he reached his door, she unlocked it from the inside then sat back as he eased himself, dripping, onto the driver's seat. When she saw him lift his bad leg with both hands to swing it into the car, she bit her lip. "Your old injury—"

"No matter." He started the engine and backed out.

Oh, Rumple.

When he maintained his silence for the three blocks from the community center to the library, Belle knew she had to be the one to break it. But how? As he pulled the Caddy to the curb, she took a deep breath. "I have a confession."

Slowly, Rumple turned his head.

"That year I spent in the Evil Queen's tower, she must have burst into my cell, ranting about something, oh, nearly a hundred times. I observed her, evaluated her, listened for clues—all those things you taught me to do with the people who came to beg favors. I figured out she adored her father, was estranged from her mother, had lost her first love, yearned for a child, was insanely jealous of you, and was clueless about why her subjects didn't worship her. But I couldn't bring myself to talk back—not even once. Tonight, I finally mustered the courage because you—"

"My fault." Rumple heaved a sigh. "If Regina hadn't wanted to get the better of me, she never would have imprisoned you. All the horrible things that have ever happened to you, they're my fault."

"That's not—" Belle's forehead wrinkled "—that's not what I meant."

"Please." Rumple held up a hand. "Let me explain. Selfish of me, I know. But one last indulgence before…" He hung his head. "That thing Regina mentioned. I don't want you to think I taught Cora that most personal, most irrevocable of all retributions so she could crush the heart of a blameless stable boy—just because he had the audacity to love her daughter. Nor so she could become the Queen of Hearts, controlling her lords and ladies as if they were her deck of cards. Nor to carry out that final horror—turning her fallen enemies into zombie minions. That she would do any of that, I had no idea."

"No," Belle said softly. "I never thought you did."

Rumple leaned against the steering wheel. "Before we met, Cora had led an unbearable life. Regina doesn't know. At first Cora put on such a show that neither did I. The one person she cared about was her mother. When someone hurt her mother—for the most arrogant, selfish, callous of reasons—Cora wanted revenge. I told her that if the harm done had been so horrendous, it felt like having her heart ripped from her chest, then she could use that emotion to return the harm in kind."

Slowly, Rumple raised his chin. For a moment, he stared at the raindrops splashing the windshield. Belle stared at him. Just as she'd thought—another wrong-headed attempt at establishing equity outside the rule of law, an attempt Rumple now regretted. That rang truer than Regina's jeers.

"You may ask, how did I know?" He jiggled his head in a mockery of his usual flourish. "Because that was the emotion that empowered me on the occasion that I did it."

Belle inhaled sharply. As soon as she heard Rumple's declaration, she knew she should have realized it all along. Some acts of magic can't be researched out of a book. "Revenge," she ventured. "Society can't run properly if it's… condoned. But… I can understand it. Some injuries are so severe, they…they…" She let her voice trail off. From his increasingly jagged breaths, she knew both her disapproval and her sympathy were inadequate. Whatever wound he'd suffered, it had been critical. Someone must have hurt a loved one—mother, father, sister, brother—or perhaps his wife… the woman he never talked about, the one he'd said he'd lost, the one who'd borne his Baelfire.

"I won't discuss what I did. I can't. I've regretted it every day since and yet… the feelings that drove me, they remain." Rumple shook his head, his expression unreadable in the darkness. "But Cora… how did she take such ghastly magic and make it commonplace? How did she discard the central requirement: extreme, agonizing emotion?" He clamped a hand across his eyes. His next words came in a rush. "Instead of taking out the heart of the person who'd wronged her, she took out her own."

Belle gasped and folded her arms against her chest. "That's why everyone keeps saying… Cora has no heart."

Rumple nodded, his breath catching. "When I met her, she was a beautiful, clever woman desperate to escape an awful life and ready to pretend, scheme, lie in order to do it—but she could still feel. By taking out her own heart, by locking it away in a box, Cora hoped to remove the last hindrance to doing whatever it took to fulfill her ambition to be a queen in the Enchanted Forest."

"But she failed."

"Because I blocked her." Again, Rumple hung his head. "When Cora married Prince Henry, I took comfort in the fact he was sixth in line. But when the crown prince died mysteriously, I saw her hand in it, improving her husband's position. So I acted. I cast spells of protection over the brothers still standing between Henry and the throne. They stayed mortal, of course, but she couldn't kill them. So she set her sights on a different kingdom. She waited years to make her move, but one day—without warning—she poisoned Queen Eva."

Snow White's mother. Belle shivered. Cora truly had become heartless. And now she wanted to come to Storybrooke. No wonder Rumple had looked devastated.

"I knew what her next play would be—make herself an eligible widow—so I cast a spell of protection over Prince Henry. But no matter what cards she's dealt, Cora can find a way to play them. She manipulated events for her daughter to marry King Leopold. What she'd planned after that, I'll never know. Regina and I banished her."

"To Wonderland." Where she did things even worse.

"Oh, Belle." Rumple exhaled slowly. "I promised not to lie to you—not even to misdirect—so I can't let you think I protected the royals for some noble cause… to save the Enchanted Forest from a tyrant… to spare the princes' lives... No. My motive was personal: to thwart Cora. I did it because…" His next words died in his throat.

Belle's head dipped like a flower wilting. Rumple's silence proclaimed the reason he had looked so lost and broken more loudly than words. "Because you were in love with her."

"No," he whispered. "I did it because she didn't love me."

What's Granny's beef with Rumple? During the canonical "hamburger date," Granny is rude to Belle while Mr. Gold acts guilty and embarrassed. Just what was their past encounter that caused their "complicated relationship"? For this fan writer's version, see "Trick of Hearts," chapter 7, scene 5 (fanfictionDOTnet/s/9028056/7/Trick-of-Hearts). Of course, I recommend reading my entire story, but this anecdote of Dark One Rumplestiltskin can be read out of context.

Just before Granny brings their burgers ("Into the Deep" 2x8), Rumple and Belle are playing a game at the back of the shot that Belle wins "third time in a row." Whether this dialogue was in the script or is Robert Carlyle's and Emilie de Ravin's improvisation, I don't know. The suggestion the game might be "Pancake" comes from: forumsDOTonceuponatimefansiteDOTcom/viewtopicDOTphp?t=1190.

Neal + Emma, an OTP bites the dust… after OUaT 3x15, SwanFire has been entrusted to the alternative universe of fan fiction. Not a burden I wanted to take up without the inspiration of Michael Raymond-James's scruffy charm and engaging laugh lines, but needs must. For SwanFire fans (and for readers who don't have a clue what Neal/Baelfire looks like), this chapter's fan video recommendation is "Say Something" (youtubeDOTcom/watch?v=7VHBD038uAg).