61. Your freedom to choose is more important than anything.
"Mom?" Henry's voice echoed distantly through the dark like a faded shadow, flitting here and then just as quickly, gone.
She jerked round, eyes straining, trying to pinpoint the sound, her fingers gripping securely at the sagging rigging as the Jolly Roger splintered and tore. Yanked into suffocating oblivion, the deck buckled beneath her feet while the ship heaved and spun and she lost her balance, skidding sideways. Trapped in some kind of freak circus ride, her nauseous stomach slingshot along behind as the trapping ropes snaked tight around her wrist.
Time and space held no meaning within the churning sucking void. There was no escape. Nothing was solid. Nothing was safe.
"Kid?" Emma's shout came out hopelessly garbled against the crushing weight of seawater and she lost precious oxygen to the bubbling exhale of breath.
The pressure threatened to burst her burning lungs yet the determination to find Henry sharpened her mother's sense of survival against the onslaught. She wrenched herself upright only to be flung against the railing, the violent impact jarring throughout her aching body. Still, all that mattered was finding her son. "KID!"
Peering down, she couldn't make out anything. Then a blinding golden fireflash sent the ship foundering bow over stern through the seething water in a disorienting reversal that wrenched her backward like a puppet snapping on a string.
Her yell of rage could have woken the dead. The only thing she could think was that Henry was down there somewhere and she had to go back.
The power of the blast twisted the shattered wreckage into a tangled knot of canvas, rope and groaning wood.
Thrashing limbs battled uselessly against the torrent. She couldn't get free. Confusion muddied her desperate brain while she grimaced and hacked toward a way out with a sword arm that felt sluggish and stuck in wet concrete.
The shockwave might have accelerated though she'd lost any semblance of reference. She needed air, desperately.
As she hurtled through the vortex, Emma had a vague fleeting impression of a massive clawed gash spewing lava and an expanse of rough and bulbous chimneys rising precipitously from the sea floor; nearly collided with one of the giant rocky columns belching a sulphurous black cloud of scalding water. They seemed to appear from nowhere before receding into gloom beneath her like a polluted industrial cityscape from centuries past.
It didn't matter.
It used the last of her air and she couldn't help but gulp down a choking mouthful of seawater. Her son. She had no more breath to shout.
The dull haze suddenly decreased as she was thrown upward, finally breaking free from the rope and she arced through the air, landing on her stomach in the water with a hard splash. Emma spluttered back to the surface, dragging in a deep breath. Head whipping around, her gaze rapidly took in a stark shoreline harshly illuminated by tainted moonlight. Nothing looked familiar though that didn't necessarily mean much.
A radiating wave from the Jolly Roger sloshed over her head as the remains of the hull and myriad scattered flotsam propelled itself to the surface. The ship immediately began listing hard and sunk back down, settling partially submerged on the bottom.
Tired arms breaststroked herself closer to shore and her toes touched rapidly shallowing gravel; she staggered upright into a drunken walk. Her whole body trembled, feeling as if she'd been wrenched apart joint by joint. Miraculously she still gripped her sword and she automatically shoved it back in its scabbard.
"Emma? Emma!" Snow's panicked voice called from somewhere hidden on the other side of the broken ship.
"I'm here. I'm okay," she responded, immediately grateful that her mother had survived as well.
"Henry?" Regina coughed and shouted.
Emma spun mid-step and pinned the queen with piercing hazel eyes, exhaustion completely forgotten. "You heard him too?"
She paused, surprised, then clearly deflated. "Yes." Regina dropped her eyes in disappointment as if she suddenly wasn't sure whom Henry had been calling for after all. She swam closer then gained her footing though Emma was already on the move.
Splashing recklessly through the knee deep water, she was inches away from diving underneath.
"Think!" David hauled her backward with an arm around her waist.
"I'm going. He's down there!" She fought against his grip, her fanatical stare locked on the inky water. Logic didn't apply. They'd spent weeks sailing around Neverland with nothing to show for it and the futility was ripping her heart to shreds. "My son..."
"We'll find him. But that's not the way."
Useless or not, it seemed the closest they'd managed ever since Pan's mountaintop. And she hated not being able to do something.
"It doesn't work like that," Regina interjected, coolly explaining the obvious. "You need some way to open up a portal not to mention, a destination. We have neither. We don't even know for certain what that voice really was. Henry is still just as far away; just as lost."
With an angry growl of defeat, Emma stilled; leaned into her father's comforting embrace. They were right. She could swim these waters forever. It wouldn't matter one damn bit. They were still no closer to finding her son.
Her own expression sliding between grief and frustration, Regina continued on toward shore, leaving father and daughter alone.
David's fingers were comforting, cupped against the crown of her head and the loving caress broke through decades of painful isolation. She gave in, briefly burying her face in his shoulder. "The thing about our family is that we always find each other," he gently reminded.
She snuffled in a shaky breath then pulled back a little, embarrassed to have let him witness her weakness.
Returning to business she asked, "What did you get out of Gold before all hell broke loose?"
He pursed his lips. "He promised we would find Henry. And… he said everything happens by design."
"Typically cryptic." Emma rolled her eyes. "Neal said something similar the day we met in New York. There are no coincidences and… something about greater forces conspiring to make it all happen." Her mouth warped into a grimace and she looked away at the painful reminder of that day. "Do you think he was right?"
A palm affectionately rubbed her upper back and he smiled sadly, lost in remembrance. "My mother, your grandmother, once told me that my freedom to choose was more important than anything. At the time she meant she wanted me to marry for love then gave me the ring your mother wears now. Special people come into our lives at just the right moment…" David was staring across her shoulder and she suspected Mary Margaret was hovering nearby. "But I believe fate is what we make it."
"Fate sucks," she muttered with more vehemence than she'd intended.
"Emma." He sighed. "You know what your mother says: believing in even the possibility of a happy ending is a very powerful thing." She figured she didn't appear convinced when he dealt the blow, "You have to let yourself grieve for Neal."
The unfairness of it all… Happy endings were such a crock. Her fists clenched at her sides, his gentle observation dragging the halting confession straight from her broken heart.
"I… told him I… loved him. Right before he dropped through that damn portal." It was a truth she'd buried though it couldn't obliterate her anger at Neal for abandoning her to prison nor the deeply ingrained distrust his actions had spawned: a lingering scar kept just out of sight.
"I'm so sorry." David pulled her toward him and pressed a soft kiss against the side of her damp head and she screwed her eyes shut.
A father's soothing love: it washed over her in a way she'd longed for ever since she'd been a little girl, gently reminding that she wasn't completely alone any longer even though it still felt that way. She pulled in on herself, tamping the raw hurt back down inside.
"It's over. He's gone": a small lie to make David worry less even though she suspected he wouldn't believe her.
She focused instead on the positive. Henry's call hadn't been an oxygen deprived illusion: not if Regina had heard it too. Gold was right. Her boy was still alive.
And that? Gave her a focused drive like no other.
They staggered safely onto a narrow black sand beach, joined by Mary Margaret and her mother pulled her into a tight bear hug. Taking stock, she noted her parents, Regina and Hook were all accounted for.
"My ship!" The pirate stood ankle deep in water, staring in mournful disbelief at the scattered wreckage. He stooped to pick up the battered wheel where it floated in to shore.
"Gold?" Emma shouted, but there was no response. A quick search revealed they also seemed to be missing their captives from the Home Office as well as that mermaid turned girl, Ariel. She stood, hands on her hips while spinning in a slow circle on one heel, trained eyes taking in every detail.
Snow murmured worriedly, "I hope they're okay."
"Not much we can do about it," Regina responded indifferently. At her stepdaughter's dry look, she added: "What? I'm sure the imp is fine. A little bit of water certainly isn't going to kill him. As for Greg and Tamara, you don't seriously expect me to shed a tear do you? They electrocuted me and blunted my magic in order to do it."
"Where do you think we are?" Emma interrupted. The sky had lightened somewhat and she sensed dawn was not that far away. The water appeared abnormally still, the waves forming from their appearance having long since dissipated. And there were no trees or bushes in sight: not even a single blade of grass or patch of lichen dotted what she could see of a desolate rocky landscape backed by steep rugged cliffs.
"As in which world?" her father clarified.
"It's a start. Neverland?" She directed the question mostly at Hook.
"Maybe. I don't recognize the place." He looked up. "Though the constellations appear right."
"So we sail until we do…"
He snorted. "Could prove problematic. Well other than because my ship is smashed."
Emma honestly didn't know what he was talking about. "What? Why? We have magic. Surely we can fix it."
"Because, Swan," he pointed dramatically, "that is not salt water."
She squinted in disbelief then heaved a sigh: an inland lake. Terrific. "One problem at a time." Emma seized the ship's broken wheel from him and rolled it a quarter turn toward herself, the handles leaving deep divots in the wet sand that sluggishly filled with water.
"Well, go on then." Regina swept a motioning hand from the wheel toward the broken ship while looking at her like she was some odd sort of science experiment.
Faced with an audience, the ship seemed larger than before; more broken. Still, the curiosity to explore what she was capable of easily won out. Thinking back to her first lesson from Gold, she muttered under her breath: "Will it. Right."
Instead, all Emma could feel were the four pairs of eyes watching her progress like hawks. They bored into her back and try as she might she simply couldn't grasp at the slippery threads of magic: sporadically there but formless, resistant to the moulding of her design as if she were swiping at scattering mist.
"It's emotion," Regina instructed from the sideline. "Harness the rage inside. Let the magic feed on your anger."
Dubious, she tried again. The smooth wooden wheel leaned against her palms and she imagined it whole and attached to the housing where it belonged.
Out of the corner of her eye she watched Mary Margaret's fists clench, her expression one of blatant concern yet her mother visibly bit her tongue. Her daughter was an adult and Emma was glad to be treated as such. Her parents hadn't been there for her growing up years. They'd forfeited the right to have a say when giving her, her best chance, had in reality condemned her to an agonizing life alone. The woman understood the logic behind the decision. The vulnerable child within could only know…
Why would anyone give me away?
Her parents and then later, Neal. The anger and hurt engulfed her soul like a vicious seething torrent. Emma's hands shook and again the magic wouldn't form, though this time it was as if she'd been flung bodily against a massive impenetrable dam. Her breath hitched at the slamming blow of absolute darkness. She couldn't break it down. She was too weak; was drowning in the suffocating wake and suddenly terrified of what might lurk upon the other side.
Rumplestiltskin hadn't said anything about channeling anger.
You must ask yourself, why am I doing this? Who am I protecting? Feel it.
"No," Emma gasped, cutting off the painful surge. Snow's palm on her temple gently soothed away the rough tainted edges as she wobbled unsteadily on her feet.
"You don't have to," she murmured quietly with just the faintest tinge of hope.
Emma spared her mother a determined glance then glared back at the wheel. She hadn't been weak when facing down Cora. Her strength had come from… from love. Her head snapped up in realization as she addressed the queen. "Maybe that works for yours, but my magic is… different."
She closed her eyes, drawing instead from her happiest of memories though it built from the worst of wrenching grief. For a parent to lose their precious child was a severing of heart in the deepest reaches of one's soul… She'd fought against the bond at first, but he was too special to ignore; too wonderfully affectionate to push aside forever.
They'd connected. Then the stark, sterile vision of a hospital ward and deathly pale skin underneath her fingertips… She'd lost Henry to magic. Yet incalculable sorrow had given way to utmost joy when she'd gently brushed aside his hair then pressed a kiss to his brow and a curse had melted instantly away. The radiating blast of power had rushed through her body and not even death could hold against a mother's love.
A mother's True Love.
He'd told her he loved her too.
You saved me.
The memory was seared upon her heart. And she'd do it all again.
Her head tipped back and the rapid rise of power manifested as an incendiary blast of pure white light, flowing strong and true. The wheel flung through the air, reattaching itself to the proper shaft within the ruined hull and she staggered backward a pace as the surge faded.
"Impressive. Perhaps 'The Saviour' might be a worthy adversary after all." The lanky teen that'd brought Henry to Pan emerged like magic atop a house-sized boulder, his sneering insult startling the group from the Jolly Roger.
Emma stepped to the front, naturally taking on the role of leader. She crossed her arms over her chest; rocked slightly on her heels, more than ready to provoke a fight. "Indeed. I'm pretty sure I can figure out how to turn you and your shadowy little boss into snails. I hear crushing is the best way to deal with pests of that nature."
"You should show more respect." His fingers flexed around the end of the gnarled wooden club resting against his shoulder; swung it in a gesturing arc across the water. "Legend has it this was the scene of a furious and terrible battle."
If nerves jumped in her stomach at the implication, she didn't let it show. "Who won?" Emma asked blandly.
He smirked, eyes narrowed. "Who do you think?" With that, the lad jumped down behind the rock.
"Follow him," David ordered, but Snow was already running uphill, swiftly tracking to the best of her ability though the teen quickly outstripped the group either through taking another route or simple familiarity with the terrain.
She muttered disgustedly, "Or maybe Pan vanished him back to base."
"At least we know for certain we're still in Neverland," he countered from close behind.
They continued carefully picking their way up the rough unstable cliff in the grey gloom, banging knees against blocky rubble and scrapping hands on sharp shards of glassy obsidian.
"If we catch the little prick maybe we can use him to sneak back into Pan's inner sanctum."
"His name is Eric. Get it right. Names hold power, Miss Swan." Regina appeared ready to give up on their dangerous climb and simply transport herself to the top of the desolate crag.
"Eric. Wait a minute." Emma cringed in eye roll-worthy incredulity as the connection was made. "As in Ariel. The Little Mermaid? And him?"
"What are you talking about?"
"Real world stuff. Never mind." She blew out a breath. "Seems she could do a lot better."
"He's cursed. This whole land is. And this is ridiculous." Disgusted, the queen waved a hand and vanished in swirling purple, reappearing high above them.
"So we get them to kiss, break in then get Henry–"
"Only we've lost the girl. Remember? Not to mention this Eric," Killian mentioned sardonically before slipping backward a couple feet; barely managed to jam his hook into a tapered fissure and arrest his fall.
"Well, it would've made a good plan."
"Your plan has holes I could have sailed my ship through."
Winded, the remaining four pulled themselves up and over the edge of the ridge to join a silent Regina just as the pair of blood red suns broke the horizon, spilling dawn over a new day, the lonely undulating ocean emerging slowly in the distance from the passing shadow of night.
Huddled on the jagged rim of a massive caldera, they surveyed a petrified melange of welded ash and congealed lava flows, hurled far downslope beneath them in a barren wasteland of destruction that tongued chaotically into the sea. Not a single living thing appeared to have reseeded during the intervening eons. The violent blast left even the tallest of trees withered and upended: fanned out in death and swept aside like nothing more than scorched matchsticks before a titan's blow, each now weathered grey with passing years and layered dust.
Oppressive evil sapped at the flickering light within her, the demoralizing perception of blackened malice intensifying with every thudding heartbeat inside her chest: a fleeting pulse of life seeming borrowed precariously against the whim of time. And it was slowly counting down.
Destiny... and an impression of standing upon the fiery doorstep of burning hell...
Emma shivered and witnessed Regina do likewise.
"The force of the explosion to create something like this…" Awed, Snow ran out of words to express the colossal extent of devastation laid out before them.
Hook extended his telescope and turned, peering through the eyepiece toward the hazy distant shore of what currently appeared a placid lake in the center of a vast volcanic crater. His perusal didn't take long and he instinctively squinted upward into the sky, Emma's eyes automatically following the track of his.
"Huge." She could tell he was making some mental calculations while snapping the scope shut. "This could have once been a mountain rivalled that of the main island."
55. Are you asking dating advice?
Neal glanced up at the clock tower as he walked by. Quarter past eight.
Main Street was pretty quiet after nightfall. Small town syndrome, he figured. Archie was out for an evening stroll with his dog and he spotted Ruby and Whale ducking into the diner: such a change from the crowded bustle of New York or the mostly deserted woods of the Enchanted Forest. If only Henry and Emma were here, it would be perfect.
Trying not to dwell on his aching loss and the futility of being trapped in Storybrooke, he stretched the tension from his shoulders while turning a corner then shortly veered through a park and down a path through the trees, making his way toward the bay. The enticing scent of the sea grew stronger with each step and his feet finally sunk into soft sand as he exited the woods onto the beach.
The stars were a glorious swath of twinkling light within a crystal clear night sky and Neal's searching eyes automatically picked out a certain pair: second star to the right… and straight on till morning. God, it seemed so far away.
His steps were automatically drawn toward the curving stretch where he'd told Emma he was sorry. He'd always wished he'd returned to her, but instead he'd been afraid.
Neal trudged on only to discover he was not alone.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to intrude."
Completely lost in her own thoughts, Belle was sitting with her knees bent upward, clutching a book to her chest while watching the waves slosh in and out. "You're not. Please, join me," she invited with a soft smile.
He noted a battered looking teacup on the sand next to her as he dropped to the ground and crossed his legs. It looked as if it had smashed and someone had glued the pieces back together though they'd missed a noticeable one in the golden rim.
"Come here often?" He really didn't know what to say to her. She wasn't what he'd expected.
"Mmm," Belle nodded in confirmation. "I like the beach. It's… comforting."
With that, the conversation threatened to sink into silence as he could think of nothing more to say. Luckily Belle seemed to have no such issue and he stared sideways as a memory played out on her face. "Your father and I… He broke my curse right here: True Love's kiss. And in our dreams we meet on a beach." Her melancholy was palpable as her eyes dropped to the sand. Hugging the book closer, she corrected: "We used to meet on a beach."
"Emma and I had a moment here too." Neal hoped she wouldn't ask.
Instead, "How did you two meet?"
"Ah. Well," he sheepishly scratched at his temple, "actually she was stealing a car I'd already stolen: the little yellow bug. Pretty impressive technique, really. I asked her out for drinks. She called me a pervert and then a misogynist when my quick thinking got us off with a warning from a cop after she'd blown through a stop sign. Typical boy meets girl."
Belle snickered and shook her head a little. "A destined love."
"I'd like to think so. We had this great Bonnie and Clyde thing going for a while. I even stole this for her. A swan. Get it?" Neal grinned as he showed Belle the silver key fob. "Then we were going to settle down; have a real life together…" The joy disappeared like smoke. He cleared his throat and looked away; tucked Emma's necklace safely back in his pocket. Tallahassee had turned into nothing but a vanishing mirage: a fantasy caught only at night in the web of a treasured dream catcher.
Every single day he wished he'd made a different choice. Cowardice: he was more like his father than he cared to admit. And Emma and Henry had paid the ultimate price.
As if she could see into his soul, Belle carefully added, "But things didn't turn out like that."
His expression tightened. "Hardly. And now Pan has my son."
"You'll get another chance to fix it. The new crop of magic beans will be ready to harvest in a few more weeks, maybe a little less, and then we can follow." Her solid belief helped yet she still appeared… worried. It was far too long. Anything could have happened by then.
"What aren't you telling me?" Belle wasn't the only one who could be insightful.
She chewed her lip a moment. Her pale eyes met his, still startlingly blue even in the moonlight. "There was a prophecy. Long ago, a seer told your father that a young boy would lead him to you and that… that the boy would be his undoing."
Like ripples in a pond, her words swept out, gaining lightning speed and hitting with the force of a typhoon. "What?!" He jerked to his feet. "Geez. Henry. Henry led him to me. He's going to kill Henry!"
"If it's a choice between his power and my son, he'll choose the power. Can you honestly tell me you don't think the thought of murder never crossed his mind?" She couldn't deny it and he identified exactly why. "I knew it."
"Rumple went to Neverland to save Henry."
Belle pleaded with him to believe, but in the heat of the moment he couldn't see past the horrors of remembered history. His papa was ruthless. Not even the man's own son had been worth sacrificing his power for and Neal had grown up alone because of it.
"You truly trust the Dark One to make the right choice?" he barked incredulously. Another few interminable weeks in this world: his son could be dead by then and it could easily have nothing whatsoever to do with Pan.
"Yes," she answered simply. "He loves you." Belle stared upward, swinging her gaze from Neal to the stars as her fingers absently touched the chipped rim of the cup. "He loves both of us."
Neal spat, "Have you considered that maybe you can't find him because he doesn't want to be found?"
Eyes flashed fire. "I believe in him. He wants to make us proud e-even if it c-costs him his life." Her voice trembled and she held out the empty hand that had clutched Rumplestiltskin's dark blade. She'd once more hidden it safely away. "Besides, the dagger doesn't work that way. He's bound to me."
"Which means absolutely nothing right now."
Frustrated, she murmured, "I want to show you something."
When he finally did as she bade, Belle offered the book she held. Thin and narrow, its shabby leather cover had seen much better days. The familiarity struck immediately and he frowned slightly, turning it over in his hands.
"I recognize this." She was clearly surprised and he offered a quick explanation. "My father… in New York. He thought no one had noticed him slip away to this antiquated little bookshop around the corner from my apartment. When he came back he was tucking this into a coat pocket. He bought it for you?"
"Oh," she breathed. "Yes, that makes sense now." Then to Neal, "He knows I love books."
"But… you didn't remember him at that point," he stated tactlessly.
"No." Her sorrowful gaze drifted down to the mended cup and he wondered what the significance was. "He'd frightened me and I didn't ever want to see him again. But he didn't give it to me then. I found it in the kitchen the day you came back to Storybrooke. Start with the inscription," Belle indicated.
The book was one of love poetry and he flipped to the front page. It was dark and he had to squint, but there was just enough moonlight to read the following, handwritten in a firm even script that looked to belong to another era:
My beloved Edie,
You are my heart, my soul, my love eternal.
Alas this leave could never be long enough.
And shall not thus time's eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore.'
Underneath he'd scratched his rank with the date and Neal feathered his fingertips across the faded words: Private G. Sadler, 1/7th (Robin Hood) Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, 6/17/1916. From the name of the battalion he figured the private had been English.
"Leave. That would have been in the midst of the First World War," he connected soberly, considering his own brush with battle against the ogres. Though just a teen, he'd been more than willing to join the throng; to take up a sword and fight.
So too had this world's Great War seen the slaughter of a generation. Neat row upon row of carved stone marked the burial of some though many more lay torn apart and never found again. Aged black and white photographs of massacre and carnage played through his mind, brought vividly to life by the simple words of one who'd lived and loved through what must have been a nightmarish hail of gunfire, explosion and pounding shells: an indiscriminate killer. He remembered how even in their world, the mutilated limbs and broken spirits of the living bore witness to countless others who would never return home the same. The No Man's Land between the trenches: a gruesome hell on earth of stinking mud and twisted razor wire mangled with those whose blank eyes could do nothing but stare skyward to oblivion. No more would they feel sunshine nor grass beneath their feet.
"Yes. In fact, it was less than two weeks before the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. So much death: twenty thousand the first day alone. He might never have seen his beloved Edie again," she whispered. "But I prefer to believe they were reunited in the end. Do you recognize the quote?"
When Neal shook his head indicating no, Belle continued: "It's from the poem Sudden Light by Dante Gabriel Rossetti." She took the book, flipping to a page about a third of the way in and showed him. "Here."
The spine had long since cracked, marking the place and her head bent low over the worn page as she read the poem aloud, slowly and with feeling, leaving him to picture how another woman long ago and lonely must have done exactly the same.
I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.
You have been mine before,—
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow's soar
Your neck turn'd so,
Some veil did fall,—I knew it all of yore.
Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time's eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death's despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?
Time stood still.
Belle nodded then uttered: "Love restored."
Her shining eyes, so full of faith, met up with his. It was all written down in destiny.
George was a soldier. He knew the odds. To bravely walk toward the jaws of death yet give his love a sliver of hope to ease what must have seemed an inevitable and insurmountable grief spoke silently of that truth. Yet their love lived on forever if only in those few words that marked its depth and breadth before the passing into night.
Tilting his head, Neal's eyes were drawn to another message in the footer beneath the poem, this one much more personal to them both and written with a shaking hand while time was running out.
My darling Belle,
You no longer remember yet
'you have been mine before.'
When the end comes, know that
my final thought will be of you and my son.
I love you always.
He'd sketched a little picture of a teacup with a chip in the rim next to his name and Belle swiped at a falling tear before settling her fingers over his written love. "See? He loves us both. It's in his heart."
Neal matched the note with a hurried flight back to Storybrooke on a pirate's ship; recalled how his dying father had called Belle from the shop, his anguish and the beauty of how he'd shared a fragment of who Belle really was so that she would always know. At the time, he hadn't known his papa could feel anything so deep and true. And once more the lesson was stamped onto his core.
"What is it with this damaged cup?"
Belle picked it up, her thumb naturally tracing the blue branch along the side. "Much like Emma's swan, I suspect. I dropped it shortly after first arriving at his Dark Castle; was so scared he'd be angry, but Rumplestiltskin stared like I was nuts then said it was just a cup. It was the first time he made me laugh."
He tilted his head a little, evaluating. "It's not just a cup any longer."
"No," she said, a tender smile lighting her from within. "It became much more special to us than that. After The Curse hit, this cup, a kiss and someone who loved me: for a long time it was all I remembered."
"Wait, what?" Neal could have sworn he'd misunderstood. "How is that even possible? Emma told me that no one was supposed to remember any of their real lives."
She shrugged. "I'm not sure myself." Changing the subject, or perhaps continuing a thought from before when he'd been angry, Belle quietly insisted, "I see the good in him as well as the dark and love them both. He has changed, Bae. Truly."
"It's Neal now," he corrected just as softly. If only he could believe what she believed. But he was a father now. Henry was his son and the boy's safety and happiness was his greatest priority. Besides, if Rumplestiltskin had truly changed, how could his father even consider the idea of destroying his own son's chance at fatherhood?
The idea of being turned back into a teenager still left a bitter taste in his mouth.
"You're Bae to your father and that makes you Bae to me, but I will try to remember." Again, she fluidly switched direction. "Emma used to wear that swan all the time."
"Right now I'm not sure she wants the necklace back," he admitted. Why it was so easy to share with Belle, he wasn't sure. She was little more than a stranger yet her compassion rang crystal clear and the many differences were striking. There was little about his own mother that didn't absolutely suck: the belittling of his father and him left alone in tears...
A fourteen year old boy… He gaped at the brunette, suddenly suspecting Rumplestiltskin's secret wish had been a family of three. Only he hadn't wanted youth. And Belle hadn't wanted the special love behind that cup.
Was there burning disappointment and more than one shattered dream underlying Papa's inscription with the poem?
"Search out the layers hidden within each other and learn to love each piece."
"I have to find her first."
"Yes. We have to find them all."
Above them, Neverland's star pulsed brighter and Neal gazed upward, knowing it was in fact a double star. Her palm was comforting against his shoulder and the anxiety slightly waned as they stared up into the night.
61. Goodbye Belle.
The scorching roast of a blast furnace struck first. The wretched loneliness hit next. And the combination of both left him staggering under the agonizing weight of defeat.
He'd emerged as if a jolting tug of war had fiercely suctioned him through a blistering void, the receding starburst of aquamarine leaving his eyes dazed and blinking in the sudden harsh light. He gulped in a breath of air then nearly gagged on the acrid stench.
An oppressive sky overhead was blotted with dark threatening thunderclouds painted in swaths of bloody stained crimson. Yet it was the overwhelming sense of ruthless brutality; the perception of absolute evil, of millennia tainted with bloodshed and utter hopelessness that gouged pointedly at the tendrils of love nestled deep within his heart.
Rumplestiltskin automatically straightened his black silk tie then adjusted the cuffs on his dusty suit jacket. Leather dress shoes squelched and sunk into the mucky stinking swamp as he skirted the warped limbs of dead trees horribly twisted in death, the weathered grey bark denuded of all traces of life.
Barren mountaintops rose in the far distance and he could feel the intensifying pressure of an invisible barrier as he slogged forward through the withered sedge.
Shortly he reached the edge of a stagnant river. A cawing wake of vultures circled and dove, their sharp beaks plucking at a decaying carcass partially embedded in the blood stained morass along the opposite bank. One of legion, it might once have been a person carrying all the cherished hopes and dreams sacred to life: now nothing but oblivion and a scavenger's meal half buried in the muck.
Flailing arms and hollow faces reached from the putrid water, desiccated ribbons of rotting flesh and matted hair hanging loosely from cracking bone. The sickening shrieks of the dead rose in a waved crescendo and the bile choked within his throat. They called for help, for mercy, but there was none to be had.
There was but one who stood apart. Sunken vacant eye sockets watched his unwavering approach.
A skeletal man, if he could be called a man, stood along the bank, wrapped in a ragged ebony cloak hanging from an emaciated frame. He was leaning slightly into the crooked wooden haft of a razor sharp scythe, clasped in his left hand.
A narrow wooden boat floated next to the creature, the roughly hewn bowsprit twisting up from the waterline into a set of snarling monstrous jaws. Dropping on a chain from its carved maw was a contorted cast iron cage holding a burning molten flame.
This. And no further.
Rumplestiltskin foundered to a halt as if some unseen force had jerked on his shoulder.
There was a sudden sure knowledge of what he had to do.
He slowly extended his left hand, palm upward. At first there was nothing to see but his scaled, cursed flesh then the fiery glow of a brand appeared in the wavering gloom: the deadly imprint where he'd tightly gripped the embossed hilt of a magical dagger and, through bloodshed, forged its evil as his own.
He bore the mark.
"Welcome. Dark One." The ferryman's brogue was sluggish yet carefully articulated and he held out a boney hand in return, silently indicating that passage would yet require payment of a toll.
An ancient golden coin materialized in the center of Rumplestiltskin's palm and he stared for a fraction at the intricate engraving before tipping it into the waiting fingers: a price now paid in full.
The unseen barrier seemed to melt away, immediately reforming behind him. No turning back. His past was a winding path, long littered with pain and selfishness. Now he would reap what he had sown.
Scant hours ago he'd lived; felt love for a beautiful woman and his boy…
He flinched. His conscience mocked that love as grossly insufficient. When it had mattered most, he'd failed to trust the woman and left the boy abandoned to a cruel, cruel fate alone. Those mistakes and rending heartache could never be undone.
The ferryman leered as if he knew exactly what Rumple was thinking and ruthlessly taunted him for it.
Instead, he drew himself up, daring to meet contempt with a flicker of courage gleaned solely from the example of another and the memory burrowed itself deeper within his heart: of a special cup, a kiss that once had worked and someone who loved him truly.
In death's despite… And day and night…
Letting the heartbreak slip away into a silent goodbye, Rumple stepped into the ferry and stood rock-steady at the bow. He looked neither left nor right and the boat glided wakeless through the inky water, silent as stalking fate while the creature slowly punted them across the river: across into the waiting world of the dead.
A/N: Branded palms and swan necklaces… Grumble, grumble… I really need to write faster. Or work less. Actually that last one is a given (think: 'blind squirrels running around looking for a nut'). Anyway, thanks very much for reading y'all and an extra special thanks for the guest comments. :)
Historical note – while George and Edie are figments of my imagination, the Robin Hoods really did go 'over the top', gaining special recognition for valour while suffering 424 (over 50%) casualties and 181 men killed at Gommecourt on the 1st July, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme – an offensive which would stretch over months of attrition and brutal trench warfare along the Western Front in France, ultimately claiming over 1,000,000 total casualties and 300,000 lives, many of whom have no known grave: a lost generation of young men on both sides that simply vanished into the blood and the muck and were never seen again. The land bears the scars to this day.