"Soon, soon, soon, soon, soon," Rumplestiltskin sang over and over again as he went back and forth in his cell, stopping the chant only to giggle and laugh.

He thought he was frightening the guards. He thought he remembered them barking orders at him, yelling commands, nothing he need pay any mind. He must be unnerving them if they thought that would work. Not that he'd have them around to play games with for much longer. So sad that would be. So humorless, so dull, even for royal guards. Where had the charming prince and his snowy princess found them?.

Rumplestiltskin wished he could see their faces when it happened, wished they would remember for just a few moments as their world was torn apart, as his prison vanished around him and he was set free. They would gape like fishes gasping for air.

Should he turn them into fishes? It would be so funny to see their shocked faces as they drowned in air.

No, no, he couldn't do that. There was a reason. Oh, yes. The cage. The cage they had him trapped in. Thought they had him trapped in. Should he let them know the truth? Surprise, surprise, children. Now, who wants to come out and play? He laughed again, picturing their fishy faces.

But, no. There was a reason he had done this, a reason he was waiting. Three hundred years of waiting. Three hundred years of carefully moving all his pieces into place.

He pretended to be mad (was he pretending? So hard to remember. A man would go mad, locked up in the dark. He wasn't a man. Could a monster go mad?). The guards might fear a madman but they didn't ask what he was plotting. They didn't wonder why he waited, patiently, in the tiny hole they had given him. Till now, when there was no need to be patient any more.

"Soon," he crooned again. "The curse, the darkness. Soon."

Oh, if only he had Regina here so he could tell her how funny it would be to let the guards remember, to know they had failed at something. She could give them whatever memories she wanted in their new world. Surely, she'd think it was funny, too? So hard to tell with Regina. She hadn't thought it funny at all when he told her how to make the curse work. . . .

He remembered a race of warriors who dealt with defeat and dishonor by taking their own lives. Painfully. What had they called it? Seppuku. Done right, they made a cut just large enough, just deep enough to let their innards fall out while bleeding as little as possible. That way, pain often killed them before the injury did. It was an agonizing way to die. He remembered his own time as a soldier. How funny for those warriors to believe death was something you actually had to find. He giggled at the foolishness.

Never mind. Let the guards forget. Let them never know what a good joke they missed. Soon, his one failure—no, mistake, his one mistake—would be set right. After so many years, so many different attempts, he would fix it at last.

So, let his guards live for all he cared. Even if it wasn't funny. See? He had changed. He would find Bae and his son would see he had changed, that he wasn't a monster anymore.

Except he was a monster, wasn't he? Belle had seen that, hadn't she? When he'd sent her away. Not one mistake but two—

No, don't think of it. Think of Bae. Think of the look on his son's face when he knew he didn't have to be afraid of his papa anymore.

Think of the guards gaping like fishes, think of the smell of their blood—

No, stop it. Not today of all days. Not a monster. Not that kind of monster. Don't think of faces twisted in agony, of the sweet tang of blood in the air—

Rumplestiltskin tried to clear his head. Beneath the humor, the expectation, something was wrong. Why was he thinking of this, now? Something was there, at the edge of his mind. What was it?

The cage bound his magic. But, not completely. The guards were right to be afraid of him. More right than they knew. And there was a reason the prince and princess had come to see him. The future. Was that what was tugging at his thoughts? Was some piece of the future trying to make itself known to him?

What did it matter, now? Now, when everything was finally ready to begin? When he could feel the curse gathering, just waiting for Regina to add the final piece? Why should—

Rumplestiltskin!

The name skittered across his mind, a silent scream only he could hear.

No.

No.

It wasn't possible.

She was dead. He had seen her grave. He had spoken to the villagers and heard their own version of the tale Regina told him.

Rumplestiltskin!

It was a scream of agony, a tortured soul.

Rumplestiltskin. . . .

And, now, it was weak. Fading.

Dying.

Impossibility didn't matter. How didn't matter. What mattered was what was happening. What mattered was what he needed to do.

He rushed to the small fissure in the wall. Where was it? He found the ink bottle, empty, and threw it aside. Underneath, there was the parchment, the scroll where he had scrawled the name he dared not forget over and over again.

He held it up, his hand shaking. The guards were staring at him, their weapons drawn, expecting the worse.

How wise.

He blew on the paper. Black ink scattered like so many autumn leaves. They flittered against the bars, dissolving them. He was free.

He heard the guards panicked yells, saw the light of desperation in their eyes, knowing they faced death. Not gaping fishes, after all. No matter. He ignored them, vanishing in a cloud of gold and purple—

—reappearing in the same room as the one who had called him.

Belle.

If he had been only human, he would not have known her, not after what they had done to her.

As it was, he wasted precious time—a second? Half a second? It felt like eternity—staring at her wounds.

Torture. She had been tortured. Regina, curse her black cinder of a heart, had decided to make good on the story she'd told him. Floggings. And flayings. And burns and cuts and broken bones and—

—And the cut made across her stomach. It must have been done just before they threw her on the floor like so much garbage, done with her at last. It was not as perfect a cut as the warriors of that far off land would have made. Too much blood mixed with everything else spilled out on the dungeon floor. The pain would be great, but it would be the blood loss that killed her. And soon.

Rumplestiltskin stared at the men who had done this. Not clerics. None of the so called servants of light who, he admitted, at least had cause to mistrust anything he had held for too long.

No, these were just guards, just men of Regina's. Just human. Looking at them, he could see she hadn't even bothered taking their hearts. Whatever they were doing, whatever their reasons, there were no spells binding them. It had been their choice.

He wasted another moment before he went to Belle looking for traps. Regina had lured him here, after all. Though he thought his cell would have been an easier place to attack him. After all, she didn't know he had a way out. And, whatever protections the fairies may have set on the place, Regina had already bypassed them once.

But, the wards carved into the walls were already defaced, their magic broken.

He cast his senses outward, looking for something else. Regina was not always very creative but, when she put her mind to it—

(Like telling him Belle was dead when the witch had had her all along)

—she was vicious. It would be like Regina to leave a spell meant to kill Belle just before he could reach her. Or an enchantment ready to strike him down. Or, Regina herself might appear, demanding his dagger in return for not wasting more, precious seconds as Belle's life dripped away.

Rumplestiltskin could deal with any of those tricks—and make a pretty paste to recolor the walls out of anyone who tried them. But, there was nothing.

Because he wasn't meant to be here.

Regina thought he was trapped in his cell.

The wards had been erased so he would hear Belle's death screams but be unable to come for her. The injuries, the torture, that was so Belle would die calling for him. And think he had chosen not to come.

Slowly—it seemed it was slowly, but he knew he was running, covering the few feet separating him from Belle as fast as he could go—he went to Belle and gathered her up in his arms, reaching out with healing spells, mending her injuries.

Distantly, he felt the curse being cast. Regina had done it.

Of course, she had. The queen could be remarkably self-centered, but let no one ever deny her showmanship. It was perfectly timed. Torture Belle, let her die. Let Rumplestiltskin know what Regina had taken from him, how perfectly she had outmaneuvered him in the moment before he forgot everything, leaving him powerless to retaliate.

Holding Belle close, he vanished in another cloud of smoke.

Behind him, the guards, still stunned and silent, had no time to escape as the stones of the castle fell apart, crushing them beneath its weight.

Rumplestiltskin reappeared in the workroom of his own castle. Spells and potions lined the wall, but he didn't bother with them, placing Belle gently on the floor as he poured more healing into her. The broken skin knit back together. The burns vanished. Broken bones became whole.

He placed a hand against her stomach, soothing the pain, as he put back what had been torn out, making torn flesh whole.

And it meant nothing.

The curse was coming. He could feel it spreading out across the land, a black cloud destroying everything in its wake.

Soon, it would reach them. It would tear them out of this world. It would destroy their memories of each other.

It would trap them in a land where everyone danced to Regina's tune, where he would be powerless to protect Belle.

Worse, a land where his cursed self might even obey Regina if she told him to destroy Belle, where he might smile cheerfully and obey even if she told him to open up the very wounds he'd just closed. There was nothing he could do to stop it.

Except one thing.

Holding Belle close against his chest with one hand, he reached up with the other.

No one knew the curse as well as he did, every facet, every wrinkle, every weakness. It was child's play to weave the shield around them and around his castle.

I'm sorry, Bae. I am so sorry. Forgive me—

The only way to save Belle, to protect her, was to keep her from ever being cursed in the first place. And he could not abandon her here, alone in his castle without even an explanation of what had happened. Rumplestiltskin held her close as the curse crashed against his defenses, and he abandoned his son for the second time.