A/N: I love Charming so much and it was fun to get to explore his character a bit, as well as Regina's. And of course, it's always a delight to get to write more about Rumplestiltskin and Belle! A huge thank you to Roberre for her wonderful help beta-ing this story for me; she corrects my mistakes and encourages me when I'm unsure about stories and of course lets me talk about OUaT and Rumbelle incessantly! I hope you all enjoy the story, and I'd love to hear what you think of it!
Disclaimer: The first nine episodes of season 2 are referenced and most of the dialogue is pulled from them; they were written by others and don't belong to me. No copyright infringement is intended.
The Charming Side Of Evil
"I want to redeem myself," Regina says, and for a perilous instant that teeters over a precipice, James can see the girl she must have been before she became the evil Queen everyone in town knows and fears.
She is trembling and there are tears hidden behind onyx eyes and she looks lost and alone and vulnerable when Henry leaves to retrieve his ever-present backpack. It is a picture James had never thought to see, the Queen crowned in fragility and robed in hopeless longing. A sight he would have, only moments earlier, doubted could exist at all without descending into parody. And yet there she stands, alone and straight-backed and oh so very broken and he doesn't at all feel like laughing.
She is evil and cruel and heartless, but she is not a pretender. Her heart—strange to think, to know, that she has one—is small and twisted and hollow, so that whatever emotion fills it consumes her utterly, unhindered by conflicting feelings, undimmed by twists and turns and people stored away to keep for darker times, flashing through like a fire razing everything in its path. She feels with all that she is, so strongly that her emotions obliterate any and all pretenses. So as ridiculous as it seems, James trusts her. Trusts this revelation he sees before him. Trusts her because she is letting Henry go.
He is a Prince—a King, really, for so short a time that he has to forcibly remind himself of it—and he knows to cultivate allies. He is a shepherd and he knows to take an easy path if it is presented to him. He is a man and so he is impatient. He is a husband separated from his wife and the daughter he doesn't even know—the infant he thought he'd died for and the woman shown to him through the memories of another, different and yet similar man—and so he is desperate and strained and single-minded.
"Then prove it," he challenges her, and maybe he sounds like a King or perhaps it is only that she sees the terrible fear he denies in the hopes that it will fade away, swallowed up by the bottomless faith he strives for. King or shepherd, it hardly matters, because she is a woman, too, a mother separated from her son and a lost girl striving for redemption.
So she listens to him.
She blinks and straightens so that when she turns to face him she once more resembles the Queen who put a price on Snow's head. And yet, it is a shoddy representation, as ill-made as his mother's cottage after years of too little resources and never enough energy or time to repair it. For the first time, James thinks of the stories Snow told him, of a young woman in love who ran down a wild horse to save a little girl's life. He thinks of them and he wonders if maybe her façade of royalty is as unpracticed and unfamiliar as his own, a foreign mask fashioned of stories and rumors and imagination and placed over frailties and weaknesses as insufficient armor.
Maybe she is faking—playing him with strings as fine as any Rumplestiltskin could craft—or maybe she isn't—maybe she is honest in her ruthlessness. It really doesn't matter.
All that matters is Snow and Emma, in danger and alone and perhaps thinking he has abandoned them, and Henry, his grandson who every day marches stolidly and cheerfully further into James' heart. All that matters is his family.
Everything else can wait.
"Oh, no, it's Charming I worry about," Gold admits, as if remarking that he worries about rain on his way home. The statement pierces James at first, a hurtful reminder of all that had occurred during the few months of the curse he was awake for, as casually and purposely dropped as any of Rumplestiltskin's verbal barbs.
And yet there is more to it than that. There is reassurance and hope there, too—because the Dark One has never feared anyone. Because Rumplestiltskin is not afflicted by the frailties of humans and so does not worry about small things. So this, this revelation that he thinks enough of Charming to care about what he does or doesn't do…it matters. It is a peace offering every bit as helpful as the potion he holds in his forestalling hand.
It is also a farewell, James thinks. A last gesture, final words to encompass all that Rumplestiltskin and James have been to each other over the years. His memories are mixed up and tangled and swirled together in patterns that jar so badly they give him a headache when he attempts to decode and label them, yet there is enough there to know that they—the Dark One and the Prince—have been and meant plenty to each other over the years, not all of them good and yet surprisingly little of it as bad as one would expect of a man—an imp—with the reputation the Dark One wraps himself within.
He studies Rumplestiltskin, and he sees Mr. Gold standing there, and for the first time he feels as if he has nothing to lose. As if no price the deal-maker asks for would be too much. As if…as if he knows the deal-maker will not ask more of him than he has to give.
With that curious, strange sense of power backing him, he is able to see the impatience writhing like a tangible force about the man who had once crackled with power but now only hums with purpose. He is able to see hope skillfully concealed and focus so sharp it cuts like a blade and something else, something he cannot decipher because this is Rumplestiltskin—this is Mr. Gold—and it doesn't make any sense at all.
And yet Gold had only to turn and reach out his hand to pluck up this potion. It was close, near to hand, and maybe…maybe James is not the only one who is looking for something. For someone.
Something has changed, and James doesn't know if it is for the good or the ill. But he recognizes a man packing to leave when he sees one—remembers his own desperate stint of packing, envisioning a bird carrying away his letter, counting down the minutes, throwing what little he deemed important into a bag, a woman's face haunting his steps—and he wonders if for once he knows something the pawnbroker—the imp—does not.
Whether he does or not, Rumplestiltskin is the most dangerous thing facing this town right now, James thinks—no, he is sure—and James is their King, no matter whether his blood is royal or not, no matter whether he asked for it or not, and so he is responsible for their well-being. He is King because of the man now offering him a chance, a way, to find Snow and Emma.
So James takes the deal because he doesn't think it will matter. Rumplestiltskin is leaving, packing his things and saying his farewells and giving peace offerings in the form of insults, and maybe he will not be able to cross the town line or maybe he will. Either way, James remembers prophecies in the dark and purple smoke in daylight, and he thinks on how little Rumplestiltskin has been seen in the goings-on of the town, and he knows that Rumplestiltskin is more concerned with his own agenda than he is with Storybrooke.
He will leave Storybrooke alone so long as Storybrooke leaves him alone. For a creature who has used manipulation as weapon and tool and armor and power for centuries, it is an enormous gesture. A gift perhaps larger and more meaningful than any he has ever given before.
So James gives his own gift, makes his own peace offering, and he warns him of the dangers inherent in crossing the town line.
Then, true to his word, honoring their bargain, he leaves Rumplestiltskin to take the news as he will. It is not new, coming to Rumplestiltskin for help. It is new, thinking that nothing bad will come of this deal.
It is as strange as the world they are in. Strange and new and unfamiliar and even a little intimidating, but there is no time to worry about such things.
His wife and daughter are waiting for him.
"It's Henry." Regina sounds tired, dispirited, so dejected that if she asks him to stay for lasagna again, he knows he would accept. "He invited me to lunch but didn't show and my skeleton keys are gone. I think he's trying to find my vault."
He is bone-tired, weary down to the very marrow of his bones. He is terrified and awake, adrenaline lighting his every cell on fire. The town presses hard on him, the people's fears and needs and problems swirling around in his head, fog that hazes the clarity of the path he needs to take to find his way back to Snow.
But for all of Storybrooke's problems, it is the young boy—who is a prince greater than James ever was—that overtakes James' every waking thought, the shadow limning every plan and statement and action. He was a father for nine months, but that was easy because taking care of Snow is second nature to him. He was a father in physical, tangible force for only moments, but that was easy too because he knows how to fight, knows how to die, knows how to lay his life on the line when there are always so much more important things to fight for than himself.
He has been a father to Henry for days now, so much longer—and maybe easier, too, because there are no expectations, no preconceptions, no bad impressions to correct—than with Emma.
And now Henry has gone, and James should have seen it coming, should have expected this call, but he is tired and overworked and worried and so terribly, awfully afraid all the time, so he didn't. And now he is surprised and taken aback.
And filled with pity for the woman on the phone. Filled with empathy. He has wanted to be a father for so long, has dreamed of it, imagined it, painted pictures of the future with whispers in the dark between himself and his wife, but the reality of the thing is far different from those shadowy portraits.
Regina is a mother, and the gap between herself and her son is almost as great as that between James and his daughter. She wants so much and feels so strongly and cares so deeply, and it doesn't matter because all of it is wasted.
James knows exactly what she feels like.
So he listens and he asks her questions and he feels her pain when she refuses his offer to accompany him. He doesn't wonder, anymore, if she's faking her contrition, not when the proof of it is in this phone-call.
"Hurry," she urges him. "There are…dangerous things down there."
The moment is odd, surreal. He has spent years of his life rebelling against Regina's authority, has founded his own reign on her defeat, has ignored her commands, and even in this cursed town, he has thwarted her at every turn.
But now, without second thoughts or qualms, he puts his phone down and he obeys her command.
In this, if in nothing else, they are united.
"Her name is Belle." Gold always speaks quietly, a startling contrast to his manic speeches as Rumplestiltskin, always rising and falling in tone and pitch and volume, but this statement, so sad and matter-of-fact, is even quieter than normal. So quiet, so restrained that James doesn't need to look down at the picture in his hands to know exactly who this woman is to Gold. It is the quiet of a man who's screaming inside, the restraint of a man who's about to tear himself and perhaps the world to pieces, and James recognizes it because it is what he has been feeling himself for long, tortuous days.
It is surreal, to stand here in his wife's apartment and look down at the drawing of a beautiful young woman and hear all these things in Gold's—Rumplestiltskin's—voice. It is surreal, and yet oddly, James is not surprised.
He had stood in a forest, before, and it had been him who needed Rumplestiltskin's help rather than the other way around, but the moment is much the same. Two men, the shadow of two women, quiet words exchanged, revelations wrapped up in ambiguous words.
Age has never applied to the immortal Dark One, or even to the powerful pawnbroker, but suddenly it does, a prison even more unbreakable than the one built in dwarf mines with fairy dust. It is not, strangely, the youth of the woman in the drawing that makes Rumplestiltskin suddenly seem old and frail and vulnerable; it is, instead, the hushed terror in his voice and the way he averts his eyes so carefully and the too-calm, too-still posture he adopts.
Rumplestiltskin is in love, and he is afraid, and it is taking everything he has to keep himself from running through town screaming her name—or more likely, considering his infamous power, tearing the entire town to bloody rubble as he searches for her.
James has dealt with the Dark One more than most, has made a handful of deals with him that cost him little compared to the cautionary tales he has heard, and despite his problems with the imp, he has never truly feared him.
Because if they cannot find this woman, this Belle, if she has been taken or hurt or killed…well, James remembers the rage, the loss of restraint that had engulfed his own being when he'd knelt on hard marble and clutched the remnants of the hat that stole his family from him. He also knows what kind of chance this town stands against a Rumplestiltskin who is truly and completely enraged. A Rumplestiltskin who no longer cares for his games and his schemes and his plots. A Rumplestiltskin who has nothing left to lose. As he'd said, they are still—long days later—recovering from the aftereffects of Rumplestiltskin's moment of 'poor judgment,' and that was when he had only meant to destroy one woman.
And now even that begins to come clear—a wraith sent in reckless fury, wrath that transcended the curse Rumplestiltskin had prophesied, and two teacups on a tray in a darkened pawnshop.
There is a mystery James hadn't even realized existed being solved right in front of him, and yet the biggest mystery of all is the pained fondness in Rumplestiltskin's human eyes and the static eyes of a woman staring up at him from the page in his hand.
"Her name is Belle," Gold had said, as if that is everything James needs to know. As if it is all that matters. To Gold, it probably is.
And that decides James even more than the earnest plea Gold makes so quietly, so calmly, so restrainedly. Because Snow is Snow and James will follow her through a hundred worlds if need be, will make a thousand unwise deals. And Belle is Belle, and maybe that means Gold will swallow back a hundred barbs to flavor his staunched pride, will beg a thousand people for help.
Love isn't something that can be defeated—that above all James knows. So he grants Rumplestiltskin's plea, and no matter what happens, he knows he made the right choice.
"I won't let you hurt him!" She is screaming, shrieking at him, batting at him with ineffectual hands that have ripped hearts still beating from human chests and crushed them to dust. He has no doubt that he should be dead right now, gaping down at the remnants of his heart as he collapses into darkness very much like the black oblivion that consumed him as the curse befell their world.
But he takes another breath, and another, and his heart still beats in his chest, and Regina is weeping, her frame shaking with the horrendous sobs—the terror and the panic and the agonizing hope; he recognizes it all, remembers glass coffins and apples and cells and mocking laughter, when he had stood on the other side of this tableau—and she does not touch him.
Instead, she begs.
In this moment, he doesn't think she remembers that she is a Queen. A witch. A mayor.
In this moment, she is young and in love and the thing she loved the most, the thing that was stolen from her, is impossibly standing in front of her and all of her dreams can still come true.
The gun weighs heavily in his hand even as the flimsy stable door shudders against his braced body. The gun is the smart choice. It is the prudent option, to remove the threat to Henry and the people relying on him—the grandson he loves and the townsfolk he promised he would protect. Everyone would be safe, a monster would be stopped, and who would care if such left the woman they all hated and feared in nothing but shattered pieces on this stable floor?
The gun is the smart choice.
It is also the wrong choice.
Regina is broken and cracked, and he hadn't seen the first hairline fractures appear so many years ago, hadn't seen her crumple and tear before harsh reality, but he did see her inept, cruel attempts at holding that heart together start coming apart at the seams. He'd watched her harsh exterior melt away to reveal wide-eyed faith and earnest joy when she'd said so softly, so longingly, "He believed he could bring him back from the grave, and I don't know how, but…he has!"
And he'd seen her heart crumple up like tissue paper when he'd reached for his gun, when he'd told her to use magic.
The Queen is gone. In her place is Regina. The Regina who once was. Who could have been. Who might still be. The Regina that is infinitely safer, infinitely better—for Henry, for the town, for everyone. The Regina who can help them and be the mother Henry has wanted for so long.
If he uses the gun he's pulled from the holster, he'll be as responsible for killing that young, idealistic, hopeful Regina as her mother is. If he pulls the trigger, he'll be the one who sparks whatever vengeance she decides to enact on the world—a world that would give her True Love and then snatch it away from her twice.
Those are good reasons, logic he will use to rationalize his decision later, when things are quiet and calm and the spidery fingers of night fall over Mary Margaret's white apartment and he feels too crowded with loneliness to take another breath.
But the truth is that those reasons don't occur to him in that stable. They aren't what makes him nod and stand back from the stall and leave Regina to face whatever will come of her long-desired miracle.
No, what decides him is the bright look in dark eyes. The crystal tears on shadowed skin. The vulnerable tremble to red lips. The quiet please that falls from a voice so used to regal command.
What decides him is compassion.
And that is never something he will regret.
"Belle's alone? Locked up?" Gold's usual control isn't quick enough—or maybe strong enough—to quench the alarm that sharpens his voice. As careful as James was to couch his report of Belle's condition in statements like she's fine, she's free now, she's safe, she's not hurt, he is suddenly worried that Rumplestiltskin heard none of them.
In their world, Rumplestiltskin was always spoken of in dark rumors, hushed whispers. The Dark One. The Spinner. The Deal-Maker. The Trickster. He was something different, something other, something not quite human. It was never the shimmer to his skin and the reptilian slant of his eyes and the claw-like nails on his hands that made James himself realize just how not-human Rumplestiltskin was. Rather, it was the madness shining there in that inhuman gaze, the feline grace coupled with the human speech, the lightning-like energy crackling through flourishing gestures. It was the smirk on his lips that gave away just how easy he found it to manipulate and control.
The Dark One, everyone knew—still knows—is something to fear, and Mr. Gold is little different. He has human skin and human eyes and human hands, but there is still that smirk on thin lips, still that flourish to his restrained hands, still that ease in his dealings with those around him. No one looks at him, even with their curse memories, and thinks him to be simply another townsperson.
No one expects him to be human.
But now, without being able to see him, with only his voice filtered through the phone, James recognizes him as very, very human, and so terribly, startlingly fragile.
There is horror and regret and such vast sadness that James thinks he has himself, for all his troubles, only tapped the lake of anguish Rumplestiltskin drowns under. It is there, and not there at the same time, emotion couched in impeccably pronounced words, in tone chosen by long habit. Slight deception betrayed by the urgency of the question, coolness belied by the heat simmering through his almost-accusation.
Rumplestiltskin is too crafty, too wily, too skilled with this game he plays with everyone—except, perhaps, for Belle—to say anymore, to give away the reason for his panic and horror. But James is not as dense as people would believe him to be, not as slow as his straightforwardness, his dislike of beating around bushes, lead others to believe. The imp—the man—does not have to say anything more to explain a great deal. Belle's poorly concealed hysteria. The scratches along her chained arm. The dark memories swarming cool blue eyes.
Belle has been locked up before, and perhaps it was Rumplestiltskin who caused it or perhaps he only thinks it was. Regardless, Belle was kept because of her usefulness to any enemy of Rumplestiltskin, and Rumplestiltskin knows this. The wraith and the rubble along the streets and the pure, unmasked venom in a smooth voice, the glacial fury so blatant in dark eyes whenever Regina is mentioned—James would bet his life and this town on the gamble that it was Regina who locked up Belle.
And now it is Ruby.
There is little to say that will gainsay Rumplestiltskin should he ignite a quest for vengeance. There is nothing James can do to stop him or divert him—galling as that might be for the once-King to admit—and so he can only hold the phone in a bone-white hand and stare blankly ahead. Ruby is a wolf and she is brave and good and valiant, but those things are no match against the Dark One.
"Should…should I go see her?" Rumplestiltskin asks, so quiet and uncertain that for a long moment James cannot hear it past his sudden spike of fear for his friend's life.
There is no anger or rage or betrayal or cruelty. There is only tentativeness and longing and hope and the slightest thread of question to his mild inquiry.
James wonders, idly, what he has ever done to make himself the Dark One's counselor in matters of the heart. He wonders, a bit more alertly, if he should feel honored or terrified. Right now, all he feels is relieved.
"That's why I called you," he finally settles for saying, quickly now because he does not want the silence to whisper the reminder of Ruby in Rumplestiltskin's ear. "I think you should go and make sure she's all right."
He has no doubt that Rumplestiltskin is afraid. It is there, plain to all who look and listen with open minds, in the catch to his breath, in his hesitation before he hangs up. But he also has no doubt that the Dark One will go to the brave, fragile librarian. It is obvious to any who have known True Love. Rumplestiltskin will go to her and she will welcome him in, and Ruby will be safe.
It is odd, not to fear the Dark One, but James thinks that he could get used to it.
"I'm so scared for him," Regina whispers as they stand side by side, watching the boy precious to them both sleeping so fitfully. "His hand…those burns…" She can't finish and James has to swallow and look away before he does something foolish like reach out and put a hand comfortingly on her shoulder. It's hard, when she shows her human side, to remember that she is the same person who tried to kill him and poisoned Snow and cursed whole worlds in the name of vengeance.
Snow is gone—has been gone so long—and it's at night when the candle is etching its tiny flame into the darkness and the town quiets so that he has time to actually hear himself breathe that James forgets that he has faith. He begins to doubt and fears wake and clamor for his attention, and he fears that the silence he hears is a premonition of the future. Alone. Abandoned. A failure who let his wife and daughter slip away from him because he wasn't strong enough, wasn't fast enough, wasn't smart enough.
Helping Henry, watching over him…it reminds him of long nights on the run, spent in drafty tents with sloppy candles and cold winter air slipping through the tent-flap, maps and strategies spilling over crooked tables. It reminds him of quiet nights in a castle, warm bed and soft blankets an unusual luxury, finally free to gather his wife into his arms unashamedly, fearlessly, evidence of the beginnings of a nursery scattered all across their rooms.
It reminds him of Snow.
Regina is not welcome here in these moments. She is an outsider, the enemy, the one who caused all this.
But Henry is her son. James cannot argue that—not after all that he has seen and all that Henry has let slip in quiet, unguarded moments—and so he does not begrudge Regina these moments or her worry.
If he could be with Emma right now, he knows he would do it in a heartbeat. So he lets Regina be with her child and he watches the night settle shadows familiarly, intimately over her figure and he listens to her breathing even and calm and settle and he sees the tranquility and the cautious hope that strengthens her.
Night is her domain. It is when she is comfortable. It is when Henry does not draw away from her. It is what she knows.
Strangely, James is reassured by this. He can protect Henry by day. He can slay dragons and monsters and would-be fathers with long-standing grudges. He can slam shut boxes of snakes and walk him to a bus stop and play at sword-fighting. And then, when the sun and the moon trade their places in the sky, he can be reassured knowing that Regina can beat back the shadows and the darkness, can spot trouble coming from black depths, can protect Henry from all the things James doesn't himself see or know.
It is fitting that she be here, with him, watching over Henry. In some way James doesn't fully understand, Henry has become the linchpin, the key catalyst that brings everything together. It does not keep him safe, but it promises great things, and James cannot help but be proud of the boy, this young prince-in-training who wants to slay dragons and doesn't realize that he has already tamed monsters. Who wants to be a hero and cannot see that the ideal he stares at so longingly is his own face in the mirror.
But that's all right. One day he will realize it. One day, James is sure, Henry will surpass them all. And to get him to that day, James will work with Regina and ally himself to her and he will even trust her.
It's what Henry would do, after all. And for now, that is enough for James.
"It's imperative that Cora be stopped," Gold reiterates for perhaps the fifth time, as if James doesn't already know the imperativeness of their task. "If she arrives, she'll do whatever it takes to hurt us."
And suddenly James understands—understands the help offered without mention of reciprocation, the pawnshop opened for their use, the magical ingredients handed over to Regina, the directions he now gives to James—understands all of it. There is much more going on here than a town threatened by another witch, or Regina being threatened by her ruthless mother. For Gold—for Rumplestiltskin—there is one, precious life hanging on the line.
"Belle," James says in sudden understanding, and he knows he is right when Gold's eyes immediately shutter and turn reflective and oblique as the pawnbroker shifts away to hide his expression.
James has spoken to Belle multiple times, has watched Gold watch her from a distance, has heard everything he needs to know in the tones of their voices as they say the other's names, but it is still so very hard to wrap his mind around the concept of Rumplestiltskin in love. Of someone—anyone at all, let alone someone good and sweet and strong—in love with the Dark One.
Hard to comprehend, but James is quick to take advantage of it. Belle means that Rumplestiltskin is on their side for once, has more to gain from James' victory than from anyone else's. It is not the first time James has thought it—how could it be after all the imp did to ensure James and Snow ended up together?—but it is the first time he has not questioned it.
Snow needs him, now more than ever, but he has more than a wife depending on him now. He has a daughter, too, who needs him just as badly, if in an entirely different way. And he has a son—a grandson, though more and more he has to remind himself of the slight differences between those two words—who is in danger and who wishes to be a hero and who is the key to bridging the gap so cruelly torn between James and his family.
It is not wise to trust the Dark One. What you think you hear him say is often not what he truly said at all. Even the truth sounds like lies in the Spinner's mouth, and lies taste like truth spun into glittering gold. And yet…and yet Rumplestiltskin's hands are too steady as he readies a bed in his sequestered shop for Henry, and his eyes are too blank as he avoids James' stare, and his words have all stopped—and that is a rare thing indeed for Rumplestiltskin.
So James trusts him. Maybe trust comes easier here in this magic-less world where things are simpler and more complicated all at once. Maybe Rumplestiltskin has changed on the inside as much as he has on the outside. Maybe James is only desperate for a way to bring his family back together again.
Or maybe Rumplestiltskin is actually trustworthy.
For the first time, James is certain it is this last one, and so he puts Henry's life in Rumplestiltskin's hands. And he is not afraid.
"She can find a way—she will, I know it," James says, without doubt or hesitation.
Regina is doubtful, derisive, her hackles bristling as she stands between her son and Gold, ready to protect and defend and destroy should Henry require it.
Gold himself is merely patient, considering, waiting—perhaps he already knows what James plans. Perhaps he said what he did about sending Henry back to this netherworld because he knew what James would do in response. It is hard to outthink a centuries' old manipulator like Rumplestiltskin.
They are the enemy. James does not have nightmares, not usually, and he does not often let himself feel the cold stirrings of liquid fear in his veins, but those few occasions when he does, it is always one of their two faces that causes it. Gold ridging or red lips. Too-large eyes or midnight hair. Cackling plans that offer salvation and demand destruction or steel-sharp ultimatums delivered with sinuous smiles and stark hatred.
They are different, here, in Storybrooke, less noticeable than the differences between this town and their old world, but more stark and so much more dangerous. Weathered faces and smiles that are almost real; hair in altered styles and lengths; cackling and outright hatred replaced by sneers and underhanded plans.
Different, and yet still they remain Rumplestiltskin and the evil Queen.
Henry lies behind them both, watching and waiting. He wants to be a hero, and he thinks James already is one. His arm—flesh that had been a mass of blisters now smooth and unmarked—is cradled in his opposite hand. He looks small and frail and oh so impressionable.
His hair is still mussed from where Regina stroked it so tenderly as she calmed him from his waking panic.
His bed is shoved into a corner of Gold's shop, and there is a lamp there that Gold placed with the soft aside comment that it would drive away any shadows the boy might find fearful.
The choice is easy, then, in the end. Henry and Storybrooke are both his responsibility, his to protect—as King and as father, no, grandfather—and no matter how much he loves and longs for Snow, he was King for just too long to shrug aside his responsibility so easily.
But things are different now. There are cars instead of horses and a gun is in his holster rather than a sword in a sheath and it is a man—battered and bruised and hiding; ruthless and calculating but still a man—and a woman—broken and damaged and bleeding; vengeful and menacing but still a woman—who stand before him where once there had been a deal-making imp and an evil Queen.
James doesn't need faith to know that Regina will die before letting harm come to Henry.
He doesn't need trust to know that Rumplestiltskin will protect the town no matter the cost just to ensure that Belle is never put in any danger.
So in the end, there is no choice at all. It is Henry's life or his own, and James has never before valued his own life above anyone else's.
So he takes a deep breath, and he feels himself begin to smile, and he says, "And I'll be waiting."
Evil isn't always one-dimensional or easy to interpret or simple to denounce. Sometimes, he has learned, evil is loneliness and grief and desperation. Sometimes it is objectiveness and neutrality and insane devotion to hidden goals. Sometimes it is good cloaked and masked in the shadows of misunderstandings and bad choices.
That is the lesson Storybrooke has taught him that he values most, and he clings to it as Rumplestiltskin and Regina both bluster a bit before bowing to his plan. Regina agrees reluctantly but the relief in her eyes when she helps Henry to his feet is like a beacon adding light to dark eyes. Rumplestiltskin gives no hint of his own feelings, but there is the trace of a self-satisfied smirk hidden in the corners of his mouth when James asks what he needs to do.
James isn't worried or afraid or uncertain when Rumplestiltskin speaks of old-fashioned curses or when Regina comes forward with poison that had once threatened to kill what he loves most. Instead, he is confident and content—secure in the knowledge that he has not betrayed his responsibilities, that Storybrooke will be safe in Rumplestiltskin's care and Henry will be well in Regina's arms. He is excited and exhilarated and impatient, so very, very ready to see Snow.
He wants to kiss her—not so that he can wake from this spell, because as sure as he makes himself sound, he is not certain how magical dream-kisses are—but just because it has been so torturously long since he has been able to hold his wife in the circle of his arms and feel her fire joined to his steadfastness.
He needs Snow. Without her, he is lost and unsure and adrift. He is tired of having only one goal, one thought in his head, tired of being the leader they all need when all he can think of is his wife and his daughter. He is tired of having his understanding of the world challenged every time he turns around, every time he talks to someone. Rumplestiltskin and Regina—and so many others in this town, including David—are not what he thought, but he knows Snow as well as he knows his own soul, and he is more than ready to find a point of familiarity in this new, strange, alien world.
So he takes a breath and he leans forward and he pricks his finger on the spindle.
As he falls into deep, dark sleep, James smiles. Everything will turn out right. He and Snow will find each other. He will have a chance to be a father as well as a grandfather. He knows all of these things are true and so he is not afraid.
He has faith.