A/N: Wow, this took forever to get done and I have a feeling I could have written an entire novel on the subject, but I had great (tearful) fun writing it and I hope you all enjoy. It probably won't happen anything at all like this, either - completely a shot in the dark! :) Special thanks to nowinlivingcolor for the great prompt!
Disclaimer: Characters and plot points are owned by others; no copyright infringement is intended.
When he stepped off the boat back onto the transient ground of Storybrooke, his son was there. Alive. Breathing. Standing with his hands in his pockets, his eyes locked on Emma and Henry. For a moment, all Rumplestiltskin could do was stare. Even knowing, even possessing the advance warning both Charming and Henry had conveyed from Maleficent's sleeping beauty, Rumplestiltskin couldn't really believe that things could turn out this way. It was too good to be true (his Bae still alive, his chance at restoration still possible), and that could only mean that it was a trick or a trap waiting to wound. But Belle (coming toward the dock, surrounded by the dwarfs, her coat blue and bright against the misted morning and marking her out even from a distance) loved him and he himself was still alive despite the prophecy and his doomed mission, so maybe…maybe things could be good. Maybe it was possible for even monsters to have happiness.
But he was Rumplestiltskin, so of course happiness was beyond him. And yet, he was Rumplestiltskin, so of course he hoped even it when it only made the eventual disappointment hurt all the more.
Hook's ship (battered and bruised but in one piece and therefore in better shape than the pirate captain) bumped up against the dock behind him, and in the moment Rumplestiltskin took to stare at Bae (to convince himself that he wasn't just imagining things), the opportunity of taking hold of his son (of taking hold and not letting go or letting it slip from him) passed him by. While he stood motionless, trapped by his own uncertainty, Henry was a blur of motion, running past Rumplestiltskin and diving full force into Bae's arms (and Bae had never been able to do that with his own father, had he, not with a cripple too weak and doddering to sweep his boy up in strong arms), and an instant later, Emma was there, too, hesitancy turning into a desperate embrace Bae returned with all the fervor and love Rumplestiltskin knew he possessed because once that devotion had been directed his way. Another moment, and Rumplestiltskin was excluded entirely as Charming and Snow followed their daughter, a wall of flesh and blood and morality between him and his boy.
And yet Rumplestiltskin was not wholly a coward anymore, nor fully a monster, so he opened his mouth, ready to rend and tear or placate and manipulate (anything and everything he had to do to get to his son). "Bae," he said, and even though the royals moved aside to give him a clear view of his son, his chance at happiness had already gone up in flames.
Bae's eyes went cold, impassive, his face closed off as it had been when he walked away from Rumplestiltskin in a faded apartment in an alien city. "Mr. Gold," he said, a sardonic twist to his lips as he cut deeply with the blade of the name he chose to use (not Papa or Rumplestiltskin or even monster; instead the name of a man he'd never known and yet had clearly heard all about from the townsfolk in Rumplestiltskin's absence). As if they were strangers. As if they were not bound by blood and love and devotion and a world-destroying curse. As if closing the final chapter of their story with polite, jagged farewells.
He should have known (he had known) better than to hope, than to dream, than to think his dearest, oldest wish could come true. He was a monster, but worse than that, he was a coward who always chose too late to fight for what was his, and he lost everything because that was the way the world worked. It was what he deserved. He'd lost all of his chances with his precious son centuries ago (before he'd taken on a curse and a powerful dagger, before Hordor and running in the night; with a hammer in his hand and a desperate wish that was far beyond him burning in his heart, driving him to insanity, losing him his son even before he'd had him), lost his chance, and his quest ever since that moment had been doomed even before it began.
Emma looked between Bae and Rumplestiltskin at the cold greeting (the final farewell), but whatever she had to say, she didn't have the chance to utter it.
"Rumple!" The call was desperate and rushed and relieved and disbelieving all at once. Everyone (the staring Charmings, the hesitant savior, the trembling boy, the son-who-wasn't, and even Regina, still on the deck of the Jolly Roger) turned to see Belle running from the edge of the pier toward Rumplestiltskin, winded and disheveled but oh so beautiful, her eyes locked on him as if nothing else in the world existed at all (not even sons he'd failed and vowed to find and lost all over again). She stopped just in front of him, breath caught in her throat, and reached out to touch him with delicate, soft fingers, as if to verify his reality (he knew the fear that led to such movements, knew it and lived it himself). And then she fell, sobbing, into his arms.
"You're alive, you're okay, you're here," she gasped, reassuring herself and him both. Rumplestiltskin (shattered and broken, and he hated that she always had to hold him together even as he loved her for pretending he could do the same for her) held on as if his life depended on it (and maybe it did). Belle buried her face in his shoulder and whispered, "I was so scared for you."
He held on tighter (this lesson he'd learned, finally), and offered her a weary smile, wiping away her tears with the hand that should have been holding a cane. "Never scared," he murmured. "Not you, my brave, beautiful Belle."
"I'm not so brave without you," she said ruefully (lied through her teeth and a smile and the fluttering of wet eyelashes) before burrowing deeper into him. "Don't leave me again," she begged in a whisper only he could hear.
"Belle," he breathed into her fluttering, scented hair (she deserved a sweetheart, but he needed to say her name, to gather the strength it afforded him), and it was promise enough for her.
He could have sworn he felt Bae's eyes on him, but when he could finally bear to pull away from Belle and look up, he saw only Bae's back as he ushered Emma and her family (Bae's family now, and maybe one day they'd invite Rumplestiltskin for dinner, but not today), and he must have only imagined the feeling of being watched. Just as he only imagined any reason for hope at all.
He stood alone on the pier, his hope in ashes at his feet, his disappointment (anguish and grief and regret so strong it swept through him in a pouring deluge) red and raw and throbbing through his being, and only Belle was real. It should have been enough (she should have been enough).
But it wasn't. As always, he wanted more. He was Rumplestiltskin, after all, and he never stopped wanting.
Belle took him back to his home. He saw the evidence that she'd been staying there while he'd been away, the high-heeled shoes lined up by the door like breadcrumbs to lead him back, the dishes stacked next to the sink to dry, the papers on the coffee table in front of the couch where a discarded blanket and piles of books painted a clear picture of her evenings here. The tiny signs (numerous, mundane, and as beautiful and shocking as they'd been when appearing like magic more powerful than any he could conjure in the Dark Castle) made his heart twist, his frame straighten so that he wasn't leaning quite so heavily against her (at least not physically, but only her image and the love she held for him had kept him upright and resolute in Neverland, had led him back to Storybrooke despite the concealing spell she'd cast). She noticed the changes (as she always did) and let him stand alone, leaning on his cane that Emma had found for him, his legs spread to counter the roll of a wave that didn't come. But she kept one hand on his arm, as if afraid he would vanish should she stop touching him completely.
It was more than he'd ever thought to hope (after Milah, after Cora), standing there in a home (not just a house anymore, but a home, made so by Belle's belongings next to his, her presence mingling with his) with the woman he loved. The woman who loved him, standing at his side as if she'd never leave. It was a dream come true, a happiness he'd always believed denied him because of who and what he was.
It was beautiful. She was beautiful.
And yet…it wasn't enough. Or rather, it wasn't all.
Bae wasn't here. He was off with his own family, reunited with the woman he loved and the son he'd lost (but Bae hadn't let go of Henry, hadn't crushed his ankle and ruined his life; no, Bae had been true and virtuous and he'd fought the battle before him, gone off to war even though he'd known it would cost him everything and make Emma hate him, and that meant he could come home and be accepted and loved as he deserved), and he had no use for a father he despised. A father who was only a disappointing reminder of the life he'd chosen to leave hundreds of years ago.
Bae was gone, and finally, at long last, Rumplestiltskin admitted to himself that his quest, his centuries of obsession, his sacrifices and crimes…they were all for nothing. Baelfire was alive and safe and happy, and for one shining moment, Rumplestiltskin had gotten to hold his boy's hand and touch his hair as he'd used to do.
But that was all he would ever get.
He'd let go of his son when it mattered the most, and only now did he realize he could never go back. It was a death, of a sort (the death of a father, of a son, of the family they'd been), and not even magic could bring back the dead.
This, right here, was all he would ever have. More than he'd hoped, less than he wanted, and so much he didn't deserve, didn't know what to do with (other than hurt, because that came naturally and easily).
"Rumple," Belle said, and in her voice was empathy and sorrow and undertones of her own joy that he was back (to drag her down and taint her and make her a target). Her hand tightened on his arm, and Rumplestiltskin forgot about standing straight and tall and strong. Forgot about not shattering her beneath the weight of his scars. Forgot about everything but her, alive and here and knowing his name and remembering their past and loving him anyway.
"I love you," he whispered between soft, raining kisses to her hair, again and again, a talisman against the darkness encroaching his mind, his being, his soul, an I love you for every time he should have said it (to everyone he'd ever loved) and hadn't. "I love you."
Belle bestowed her own rain of kisses to his cheeks and his forehead and his hair, to his hands and the tips of his fingers, to the human tears that fell from human eyes as his human heart broke and crumpled inside his fragile chest. "I love you," she whispered back, and he kissed her on the mouth and pretended that this was enough to sate his hunger for everything he couldn't have.
Belle was enough. She made it easy to breathe (even when he caught sight of Bae talking to Charming or helping Snow or having dinner with Emma at the diner or walking Henry to the park), easy to smile (even when he wandered the house at night as she slept because he'd never been able to sleep for more than an hour here and there, but there was no reason anymore to use magic, no goal to reach, no son to find), easy to love (because she spoke of Bae as if anything were possible but she didn't push because she knew him and loved him). She made him happy, and that was a miracle all its own.
He should have been used to always wanting more by now, but he was also used to not having it. So he became a voyeur. Watching from the outside. Looking in. Hungering for the breadcrumbs, like a beggar staring at a feast, longing for what he'd once had but couldn't find a way to again. It was a role he knew well, beggar and voyeur both, playing his games and manipulating others but trapped always on the outside, never invited in no matter what deals he made. It had just never hurt so much before.
He watched his son (this man he didn't know who carried inside him the boy Rumplestiltskin loved) make and bind ties with the people of this town, settle into the remnants of a world he'd long since slammed the door on. He watched, and he tried not to think about the fact that Bae was willing to live with magic and fairies and distant imps—but only for Henry's sake.
For Rumplestiltskin, Bae had been ready to give up his whole world.
For Henry, for Emma, he would stay in that same world.
It hurt, deep down in a place that ached constantly (had ached since green portals and slippery hands), ached like a bone-deep cold.
But it also made him proud. He'd always known Baelfire was a better man than Rumplestiltskin. Now he saw the proof of it, saw Bae holding onto his son even when it terrified him, refusing to let go and lose everything.
He saw his son, and his son was everything he'd ever wanted him to be. Loved and respected and accepted. Brave and true and a hero in every sense of the word.
So he turned from his post at the windows of his shop or the street corner across from the Sheriff's station or the sidewalk outside of Granny's, and he went home to Belle. He'd messed up with her, too (as he always did), but at least she'd come back to him. At least she loved him, and even though he loved two people in all the universes, being loved by even one was enough to make him feel grateful. So he went home to her. Because she was home. Because he loved her. Because she wanted him.
Because his son didn't need him.
He came up against Bae just in front of the library, unexpectedly. (He thought it was unexpectedly; he'd been sly and cunning so long even he couldn't tell for sure whether it was contrived, his presence here with his son, or not.)
As much as he knew there was no chance of finding in this man the boy who loved his father enough to look past crimes and curses, he couldn't help the small smile that rose to his lips, a name springing out into the air, as immediate, as instinctive as breath itself. "Bae," he said, the one thing he'd hung onto—when he'd let go of everything else, even a precious hand, he'd managed to hold onto that name.
But Bae hadn't. He'd given it up, as he had so much else.
So Rumplestiltskin bit the end of the name off, swallowed down his smile, and amended his awkward, wrong greeting. "Neal," he said instead, because he couldn't hold onto a boy who was gone, and he couldn't expect Neal Cassidy to be as miraculous as Belle, and he couldn't demand reality conform to his own wishes (not here, when doing that had been what drove his son away to begin with).
Bae—Neal—himself flinched, as if he'd never expected to hear Rumplestiltskin (the monster who was his father only when he was dying, when the end was near, but otherwise was a foe, an enemy to be cut down with cold words and sharp gestures and the sight of his back as he walked away) say the name he'd chosen for himself (a new name, a new world, a new family, and it hurt that when Rumplestiltskin had chosen new life, he'd done it all for Bae, but when Neal chose for himself, Rumplestiltskin wasn't even included).
Rumplestiltskin wished he could believe that he was presenting a neutral, patient front, but he knew himself too well. He knew his naked want, his impossible hope, was plastered all across his face. He could feel himself leaning ever so slightly toward Neal, his hands clenched white over his cane, his eyes deep pits of longing. All of him, his entire being, gravitating toward this man he wanted to be his son (wanted to know, to understand, to love as much as he did a small boy), and all of it for nothing. Neal wasn't Bae, and he didn't reach out a steadying hand, didn't hug him or call him Papa or love him.
But he didn't walk away either.
So Rumplestiltskin hoped (and maybe he hadn't ever left his hope behind; maybe he'd only buried it deep and far, somewhere it couldn't be hurt and destroyed). And he threw aside his façade, took a single trembling step forward, and dared to say, "How are you—is Henry?" he corrected before Neal could throw accusations at him or flee from him. Henry was Neal's reason for being here; surely he was a topic, then, that he'd be willing to talk about, even with the Dark One.
"Good," Neal said, shifting as if nervous (or afraid, but true as that probably was, Rumplestiltskin couldn't bear to give it credence). "I mean, the kid went through a ton of hurt he shouldn't have had to, but…but he's strong, you know. He's adjusting."
"Of course," Rumplestiltskin said, that tiny, wistful smile rising traitorously to his lips once more. "He is your son, after all."
Neal's eyes narrowed as he studied Rumplestiltskin, and his hands clearly tightened into fists within his coat pockets. His mouth was a narrow line, but he let out a short bitter sound that almost could have been a laugh if it weren't so brittle.
Rumplestiltskin froze, afraid to say anything, afraid to ruin even this ice-thin truce between them.
Neal paused, as if waiting for something, as if on the verge of making a leap (Rumplestiltskin tried to make himself look small and harmless, strong and brave). But then Neal let out another mirthless laugh and gave a half shrug. "Well," he said, looking away, "I've gotta be going."
He was already turned away (already walking away) when Rumplestiltskin took a hasty step forward. "It was good," he said, the words clumsy and uncertain and stumbling. But Neal looked back to him over his shoulder, so Rumplestiltskin pressed forward blindly the future hidden to him ever since Pan had touched him. "Good to talk to you," he added, then forced himself to say, "Neal."
And again Neal flinched. "You don't—" he began but cut himself off abruptly.
Rumplestiltskin felt himself turn to steel, to ice, to brittle broken clay. He straightened, tightened, couldn't breathe, his pulse beating out a rapid murmur of desperation, straining against his throat and wrists. (He was caught in the instant before irrevocable shattering, terrified that even this shadow of his boy would forbid him from talking to him, from trying, from hoping, because if that happened, he'd have only Belle and he was so afraid that he'd break her should he lean on her alone, should he turn his gaze solely and terrifyingly onto her to the exclusion of all else).
Neal regarded him for a long moment (and if he were still Bae rather than Neal, Rumplestiltskin would have said he looked nervous, torn, wanting). Finally, he gave a sharp shake of his head. "I have to go," he said, and as easily as that, he left.
But he didn't forbid Rumplestiltskin from trying again, didn't tell him to leave forever. He didn't close the portal between them. And Rumplestiltskin wondered if maybe his quest wasn't over after all.
He had existed for over three hundred years on the glimmers prescience allowed him, the dying promises of a woman who'd used him, and the knowledge of a chance curse. It seemed easy, in comparison (yet so much more dangerous, so much more likely to lead to complete and total heartbreak), to exist on sheer hope and desperate longing now, when his son was alive and in the same town and at least willing to say hello to him should they meet again on a cold street. But then, in the old world, it had been all a matter of learning magic and gathering spells and wasting years and moving pieces; now it depended on openness and forgiveness and apologies and knowing the right thing (not the expedient thing) to say, and all of those were oh so much harder than ripping out a heart or acquiring ink from the deepest ocean. He'd already seen how even the wrong name, the wrong look, could send Bae (no, Neal, and he must remember that from now on) lashing out or running away.
He needed help.
Charming didn't look too thrilled to see him, but he didn't make any move to get Rumplestiltskin to leave the Sheriff's station either. They'd been somewhat easier around each other since their time together in Neverland, prisoners of Pan while the women and Hook had used the diversion of their captivity to reach Henry, but they had hardly spoken since returning to Storybrooke and tension rose like booby traps around them as Rumplestiltskin walked forward to stand before the deputy's desk.
Charming regarded him levelly, seeing too much and not nearly enough. For a moment, Rumplestiltskin regretted his decision not to go to Belle instead (but she needed time to follow her own dreams of adventure in the library and the mayor's office, needed to be first in his life and not to hear again that he needed more than her). So he steeled himself and tried (and failed, he was somehow certain) to hide just how desperate he was.
"I thought you and Belle were doing better," Charming said before Rumplestiltskin could present his carefully rehearsed appeal.
"We are," Rumplestiltskin said (and willed it to be true).
A flicker of surprise ghosted across the prince's features. "Then why are you here? I recognize that look you're wearing—you only use it when you need to ask my help for something personal."
Apprehension, thick and oily, covered all of his thoughts before he could steady himself. This was no time for carefully planned approaches, he decided. He had to be honest because Charming was one of the few who knew him well enough to see past his facades (weak and strained lately, lack of sleep and loss of purpose telling on him after all this time). "Emma," he said, and vaguely enjoyed the flash of alarm Charming betrayed.
"My daughter—" the prince began vehemently, but Rumplestiltskin waved him to silence.
"Your daughter," Rumplestiltskin repeated. He'd never felt so old, so defeated, but he stood straight anyway, faced down this man who was so much he could have been but had never been able to reach. "You sent her to another world when she was an infant and were only reunited with her a short time ago. There was…tension…between you for a time. But now…now she comes to you. You live together and she sees you as her father. You've won her heart."
"Neal," Charming said, letting out a small, resigned sigh. "That's why you're here."
"I just want to know how you did it," Rumplestiltskin said, and hated the pleading note adorning his words. "He's my son, we were separated when he was young, but he…I just want him to talk to me. He doesn't have to forgive me. He doesn't have to love me. Just…just tell me how to make him talk to me."
"It's not about making him do anything," Charming corrected, almost gently. He leaned back in his chair, looking up at Rumplestiltskin rather than down at him; the difference in postures eased something in Rumplestiltskin, made it possible for him to relax a bit.
"Then what is it about?"
Charming studied him closely, then sighed and leaned forward, resting his weight on his hands, his elbows planted on the desk. "Look, Gold, I'm not exactly an expert on parenting. I'm not the best person to be giving out advice on this kind of thing."
Rumplestiltskin shrugged. "And yet, here I am." (He hoped Charming didn't hear the words he left unvoiced, the fact that he had no one else to turn to; but the prince was good at hearing the things Rumplestiltskin most wanted to keep hidden, so he did hear it.)
They locked eyes for another moment before Charming gave a miniscule nod and the suggestion of a shrug. "It was patience. Just be patient. Be there. All the time, no matter what, make sure he knows you're there. But don't push, don't demand things, don't expect things. Just be there and love him and wait. When he's ready, when he wants to, he'll come to you. Or at least, that's what Emma did, but I have a feeling there's a bit more between you and Neal than there is between me and Emma."
"I just need a chance," Rumplestiltskin insisted (because to think anything else was to give up before he'd even begun).
"Then be there for him," Charming said. "And wait. Wait for as long as it takes."
Patience was a lesson long since learned, but a slippery one, and it proved harder than he liked to settle into a pattern. Neal (the man who had once been Bae) was a good father (and Rumplestiltskin wished he could have claimed some credit for that), single-minded in his devotion to Emma as he courted her (but able to take a step back and leave her space, already so much wiser than Rumplestiltskin who had to learn everything the hard way), and eagerly lapping up the attention Snow and Charming and their followers gave him (and Rumplestiltskin felt his heart go heavy and ponderous in his chest as he realized this was probably the first time in Bae's entire life that he hadn't been ostracized because of his father).
Rumplestiltskin wondered, sometimes, what he would have thought of Neal Cassidy had he not known he was Bae. Would he have smirked at Neal's grinning sarcasm (displayed only when he didn't realize Rumplestiltskin was present, watching from a distance)? Would he have sneered at the man's pursuit of the savior (who didn't appear too inclined to avoid her suitor)? Admired Neal's obvious dedication to Henry?
Or would he have looked at him only to see how he could use the man to his advantage?
Rational thought told him it would have been a mixture of all these things, but different name or not, Neal was Bae, and Rumplestiltskin didn't think it was possible to apply rational thought to his beautiful boy.
So he watched. And he wondered. And he always gave a smile and a nod when Neal noticed him watching. And he always walked away afterward, as if it didn't kill him to be separated from his son, because Neal needed time and space and distance, and if that was all Rumplestiltskin could give him, then so be it.
It was hard, but nothing in Rumplestiltskin's life had ever come easy, and of everything he'd ever suffered for, Bae was the most worthy of his pain.
It was hard, but he couldn't imagine giving up.
"Are you following me?" Neal demanded, the cold drizzling rain between them fogging his features and obscuring his eyes so that he seemed even more like a stranger than usual.
There were a thousand replies Rumplestiltskin could have made (once, the future would have spilled out in front of him, like dozens of skeins of wool all tangled and twisted together, distinguished by differentiating colors shaded along the spectrum of possibility), but he could think of none that were right. He couldn't find his voice at all, could only stand there and gape at his son (as if he were guilty, and maybe he was, he couldn't even remember), and his silence only made Neal angrier.
"I can't believe this!" he shouted, his arm like a ward between them, waving wildly in the air, scattering raindrops. A few landed in Rumplestiltskin's eyes, and he blinked, half-hoping when he opened them, he'd be alone on the street leading to the library. "Every time I turn around, you're there, and it's…" Neal paused, searching for words, his hand opening and closing as if to snatch them out of the air (but if the right words were so easy to capture, Rumplestiltskin would already have collected them all). "You don't even come to me, and now you're following me around, lurking in the background! It's ridic—"
Neal fell silent, his face impassive, misted through the rain; his hands fell to his sides, his strings cut, whatever he'd been about to say (and even if it'd been an indictment, Rumplestiltskin almost thought he would have preferred it to the constant silence between them) locked away behind his thick, high walls.
Belle glided forward through the cold evening, bringing sunshine with her. Her eyes sparkled with more than crystalline reflections, her mouth curved in a smile evident despite the steady sprinkling between them, and her hands were warm enough to cast a smothering blanket over the chill that had frozen Rumplestiltskin. He relaxed slightly, calm flowing through him as she wrapped her hands around his arm, standing oh so close.
"I'm sorry I'm late." She looked up at Rumplestiltskin, met his gaze, a flicker of concern marring her smile for only a second before she turned her smile to Neal. "I usually meet him at the door at five sharp," she explained, as if he hadn't been just accusing Rumplestiltskin of stalking him. "But the dwarfs had a last few concerns to bring me about the site of the bean fields. Anton didn't think that anywhere near the road was a wise decision."
"It's fine," Neal said after a long moment. He shrugged (uncomfortable, awkward; it was something Bae had done, and it cut like a knife through Rumplestiltskin, this single familiar gesture) and stuck his hands in his pockets. "I…look, I'm sorry, all right? It's just…"
"No matter," Rumplestiltskin said, quickly, because hearing his son apologize to him might destroy him utterly (the balances should never be shifted so wholly to one side). He leaned, ever so slightly, against Belle, craving her strength, and she willingly gave it, giving no sign to betray the extra weight. "You know Belle, of course?"
"Right," Neal said, still so awkward. Rumplestiltskin cursed the rain, then, for obscuring whatever other familiar gestures he might have seen in this grown stranger.
"We met when Phillip, Mulan, and Aurora brought him to Storybrooke," Belle stepped in gracefully. "Would you like to step into the library, Bae?" she asked innocently, but Rumplestiltskin knew her (her sharp-sightedness, her insight, her clever empathy) and he was sure she noticed Neal's familiar flinch at the sound of the name that had once been his. "It's warm, and I can probably scrounge up some hot chocolate."
Rumplestiltskin knew even as she framed the question that Neal would never agree, but all the same, he was cut to the quick when Neal gave a sharp shake of his head. "No," he said. "Thanks all the same, but I should be getting back. Henry made me promise to watch some movie with him tonight."
"Oh." Belle's smile failed her. Rumplestiltskin pretended not to notice the quick look she shot him out of the corner of her eye, the way she shifted that much nearer, the tightening of her hand on his elbow. "Of course."
Neal gave a stilted nod, then turned and left. Again. (Sometimes Rumplestiltskin began counting the number of times his son had walked away from him, but he could never finish, not when all he could see, dwarfing everything else, was the memory of the one time Rumplestiltskin had abandoned Bae.)
The raindrops pattering against his skin, his hair, his clothes, seemed to transform to lightning, scattering electrical charges across his flesh so that he was filled with sudden, violent energy that crackled with fire on his nerves. He felt the sudden urge to lash out, to lift his cane and hit the side of the library, the sidewalk beneath his feet, the cars parked across the street, anything, everything, just to move the chaotic frenzy within him to the open where it couldn't hurt him anymore.
But Belle held onto his arm, leaned her cheek against his shoulder as they watched Neal fade into the bleak night. (She held on, as if to remind him of the dangers of letting go.)
He took a deep breath, let it out, took another, breathed it out, warming the air with the flames burning within, and he didn't move, not even to turn his face and look to Belle.
"How did you know I was coming to meet you?" he finally asked, when he could speak without loosing the roar of thunder.
Belle cocked her head, her expression confused. "You always come to meet me."
"Oh. Right." He tried a smile that didn't fool her in the least.
"Why?" she pressed. "What's wrong?"
And there were a thousand replies to that question, too, but just a few he could voice without hurting her.
"I do follow him," he admitted. Slowly, carefully, he extricated himself from her grip so he could pace, could wave his arm, could release tiny incremental measures of his inner turmoil without endangering her. "I follow him because I can't come closer. Everything I did, Belle, everything I gave up"—and he had to pause here, to draw a gentle finger down her cheek, to remind them both of all he'd given up for Bae—"it doesn't matter. He's still as far away as he's ever been. I've been patient, been good, and it doesn't matter! None of it matters—he hates me!" His voice was rising, was shaking, was boiling, his cane tapping a vehement counterpoint against the rain and his rant, and he had to spin away so he couldn't see whatever emotion was contained within Belle's eyes. "He hates me," he whispered, "and he should. Of course he does. Why shouldn't he?"
"Shhh." Belle's quiet murmur wound through the storm, the drizzle, the beat of his own frantic heartbeat. She slipped her arms around him, leaned her brow against his spine, her weight balanced between leaning into him and not overburdening him. "It does matter," she whispered, and he shouldn't have been able to hear her, but every word she spoke was emblazoned on his heart. "It matters because now he knows you love him enough to come after him. It matters because he knows, now, that he is loved and that you are here."
"I let him go, Belle," Rumplestiltskin admitted (and he could say it so calmly because everyone knew it now, because the crime was branded across his being so that it was the first, the only, thing everyone saw when they looked at him, because it defined him even more than did the word coward). "I was his father, and I let him go. Why would he ever forgive me?"
"Because you are his father," she answered, and she turned him (with gentle hands and tender nudging and quiet words) to face her. She was so full of faith, of hope, of pride, that he almost turned to ash beneath her eyes (almost turned to a noble prince by virtue of her own nobility). "He's been someone else for a very long time, Rumple—give him time to remember who he is beneath it all."
His hand framed her face, drew mysterious patterns against her wet skin simply because he could (because she was warm and because he wanted her soul to rub off on him). "I'm tired of waiting. I'm tired of standing so far away from him. I'm so…so tired, Belle."
And for that, she had no answer, but she took him in her arms and she kissed him, and reminded him that he was alive and there were still many reasons to live.
The pen fell from nerveless fingers and clattered to the floor, tip-tap-crashing against the glass counter on its descent. Rumplestiltskin hated waste (because once he'd needed everything, and more than, they'd had) and clumsiness (because once he'd been clumsy in every facet of his life, scorned and mocked for it), but in this moment, he didn't even notice the loss of the gold-capped pen. He could only stare (in astonishment, in hope, in fear) at Neal, standing in the exact center of the pawnshop, his eyes locked on the ball a younger him had once kicked over the dusty streets of a small portside town.
"Bae," he whispered, the name automatic, treasures slipping from his mouth a syllable at a time. Neal didn't flinch or start or scowl (he must not have heard the quiet exhalation of a name he hadn't claimed in over a decade), but Rumplestiltskin flinched for him. It was a clumsy (and this time he noticed), dangerous slip, a mistake that could send his son fleeing so soon after, for the first time, seeking him out.
"Neal," he corrected himself, more loudly, and Neal turned to him almost sluggishly. Not nervous (his hands were loose and steady at his sides), but as if he feared the slightest wrong move might shatter him. Or scare off Rumplestiltskin (because he knew better than any but Belle that his father was a coward, easily frightened, often provoked into running away). Rumplestiltskin straightened, stiffened his spine, tried to look patient and reassuring (a mask he didn't often wear, but it slipped on as if he wore it every day, comfortable and familiar).
"Hey," Neal said, his voice scratchy and hoarse.
Rumplestiltskin's brow creased; he took a short, involuntary step forward. "Are you well? You're not sick, are you?
"No, no!" Neal held up a forestalling hand, as if he thought Rumplestiltskin might throw a healing spell at him right then and there (and the thought had crossed his mind). "I'm fine." He cleared his throat and spoke more normally (in a voice deeper, more lilting and relaxed then Bae's impassioned tones). "See? Nothing to worry about."
"Good." Rumplestiltskin paused and almost had to clear his throat too. "Good," he repeated, and it was. His son had come to him and was looking at him as if seeing what he'd looked like before that green portal and cursed knife, and his chance at rebuilding something between them had never seemed so close.
They stood in awkward (clumsy, this, too, and it was both frightening and familiar how quickly, how thoroughly even this adult version of Bae could return him to the spinner who'd died centuries ago) silence for a long moment punctuated only by Rumplestiltskin's hand flexing over his cane, Neal's eyes darting from object to object, and the ticking of a dozen clocks, seconds trickling away as he stood petrified, too afraid of messing this up to do anything at all (and that would lose him Neal, too, wouldn't it?).
When Neal stirred, straightened, tucked his hands away in deep pockets, Rumplestiltskin felt a fizzing of panic blur urgency through him. "I'm sorry!" he blurted.
Neal froze (his eyes were dark blue, almost black in the shadows, dark as Bae's had been).
"I'm sorry…Neal," he said, because as hard as apologies were, at least it had made Neal stop in his move toward the door.
"For what?" Neal asked, his voice as hoarse as if he hadn't just cleared his throat.
And that was the question, wasn't it? Neal wouldn't stay long; even if Rumplestiltskin could find and deliver all the right words, he didn't have time to list all of the crimes he'd committed against the son he'd never deserved. But he couldn't lie either.
"For what?" Neal asked again, and Rumplestiltskin had an intimate familiarity with the mingled resignation and hope coloring his words.
"For not being the father you deserved," he answered. It was the only answer he could get out, and it held no hidden agendas, no subtle recriminations or temptations. Just a bare statement of fact. The bold truth.
The barest quirk of Neal's lip, the way he looked down at the floor, the expulsion of breath that was almost a laugh…it broke Rumplestiltskn's heart. Once Bae had smiled compassionately and laughed openly and beheld the world with eyes afire with idealism and courage. Once he'd been innocent of broken hearts and abandonment. Rumplestiltskin's ankle burned under the extra weight he was intentionally leaning on it, reminder of everything he'd sacrificed to ensure his child never suffered.
Reminder that he'd ended up inflicting all those same things on his son.
"B—Neal," he pleaded. He didn't know what he begged for; forgiveness was impossible, restoration improbable, understanding far-fetched. But he begged anyway—that was what cowards did.
"Don't!" Neal's hands weren't hidden away in his pockets anymore, but that was because they waved angrily between them, a barrier, a warning not to come any closer. The smile was gone, and Rumplestiltskin felt…numb.
It was odd. He'd thought that watching all hope disappear would be painful. He'd thought he'd feel his heart twisting and folding in on itself, devouring itself in order to save him from further pain. He'd thought he'd shudder and tremble and cry out and fall to the ground. He'd thought he'd lash out and destroy everything around him.
But all he felt was tired. Wasted. Hollowed out. Empty and lukewarm.
"Just don't!" Neal didn't seem to notice his father dying in front of him. He paced a short line, waved his hands some more (and Rumplestiltskin didn't remember Bae doing that before; his son had always been contained, his hands held close to him to keep from drawing undue attention his father's way, first to keep them from mocking Rumplestiltskin and later to keep Rumplestiltskin from doling out punishments for small slights). "Stop doing this!"
"Of course." Rumplestiltskin marveled, from some safe, hidden place deep inside him, that he could even manage the suggestion of a smile, that he could sound so normal. "Of course. I…I should have known not to expect anything. You made your feelings clear."
And Rumplestiltskin started, because Neal was right in front of him, was reaching out a careful hand that hesitated and fell away just before it could touch Rumplestiltskin's arm (and his numbness was shaken by the ache in his forearm where Bae had almost touched him). He was too close, his face too open, and oh, no, he looked just like Bae with that imploring expression and it was too hard to view him as a stranger with coincidental familial connections when he was so close.
"No," Neal said again, softly, gently. As if seeking to tame Rumplestiltskin. "I meant…stop trying so hard. Okay? Just…every time I turn around, you're there, watching me, and you call me 'Neal' and you just…you never come to me but you're always there! It's kind of…well, it's kind of freaking me out, to be honest." Neal laughed, a laugh that was almost real, as he took a step back, dropping his hands, closing himself back away behind his walls. "So, look, I understand a lot more now. Henry's my son, and I left him without even knowing—and being back with him, it's making me realize how hard being a father is. So I get that there were things happening back then that I didn't entirely understand, and I know that you're trying. But…but you've gotta back off. This isn't something that can be fixed up overnight."
It was more than he he'd thought to receive. It was very close to what he'd realistically hoped for. It was grace and more of a chance and reason for hope in the future.
But Rumplestiltskin couldn't let it go, because aside from one singular devastating moment, letting go wasn't something Rumplestiltskin ever did.
So he stepped up close to Neal and forced himself to meet his son's (a stranger's who was far too familiar) eyes. "I can't," he admitted. "I don't have anything else. Since the moment I found out about you, everything I've done…it's been for you. I made mistakes, wrong choices, and I let things get between us, but…but I can't stop trying, Bae. I can't pretend that I don't want more. Everything I've done for centuries has been to find you again. And now that I've found you…I don't know how to step back any further. I don't have anything to step back to."
Neal took in a shuddering breath, all the reaction he betrayed. "You have Belle," he said shakily.
"Yes." Rumplestiltskin looked away, took a step back, arranged his cane (with his hands folded on top) closer to his body (recognized he was mirroring Neal's earlier stance). Gave his son the distance he wanted. Because love was sacrifice (Belle had proved that again and again), and so his efforts at reconciliation would be the sacrifice to prove he'd never stopped loving Bae. "I do."
"Yeah." Neal hesitated, then gave a sharp nod. "Right, then. Well…"
And he turned and began walking away. Out of the store. Out of Rumplestiltskin's life.
"Wait!" Rumplestiltskin called (grasping at straws, trying desperately to keep his feet on the shifting quicksand of their relationship). "Here. This is yours."
He let his cane drop to the floor (careless and rash, and those things always led him into trouble, but he had no time for plans or plots) and reached up, grabbed hold of Bae's ball, held it out to Neal.
Neal regarded it for a long moment. There was something almost lost, almost yearning, almost shattered in his eyes (more pain Rumplestiltskin inflicted on his son) as he reached out a quaking hand to brush his fingertips ever so lightly against the worn canvas.
"Please," Rumplestiltskin whispered. "I've been holding it for you all this time."
"You…" The word was broken, but it was Neal's expression that was truly wrecked.
Suddenly unsure, Rumplestiltskin hesitated, almost drawing the ball back, away from Neal, frantic to undo whatever mistake he'd made this time. (He couldn't understand how completely he'd lost the ability to be a good father.)
Neal let out one more word and then he fled. (A short word, two syllables, filled with desperate longing and anguished pain. A word that was a name that was an indictment that was a reminder of better times that made Rumplestiltskin almost crumple to the floor as he'd expected to do earlier.) The bell rang with violent force, the door slammed, the blinds clattered against glass, and Rumplestiltskin stared down past the ball still held in his hands to the pen he belatedly noticed lying half beneath the counter, inches from his discarded cane.
He wanted to grab hold of his cane and smash the glass and figurines around him. He wanted to scream and shout and rend his own flesh and clothing. He wanted to let loose the numb, explicit frenzied contradictory maelstrom inside him.
But he was holding Bae's ball in his hands (Bae's past in his heart), and he didn't dare move and send this, too, tumbling out of control.
So he stood without moving, alone in the center of his shop filled with items of another world. A fitting fate for a failure of a man (of a spinner, of a husband, of a father, of a Dark One). The only fate left to Rumplestiltskin, the man who'd let go of everything that mattered.
His fate. Forever.
And finally, with the rubble of Neal's heart mixed with his own at his feet, Rumplestiltskin felt the last of his irrational, impossible hope flicker and fade and die.
He lived. Of course. It seemed ridiculous that he'd ever thought otherwise. Monsters didn't need hope to keep going. Beasts didn't need a goal in order to wake up every morning. Failures didn't need success to breathe in and out.
He eventually was able to move. He put the ball where it'd been for the last twenty-nine years. He picked up his cane (and the pen, because it belonged in the ledger open on the counter, not on the floor where it would be trodden underfoot) and he went home. He smiled at Belle and he ate dinner and he put his arm around her while she read on the couch. And the next morning he got up and he dressed himself and he walked downstairs and cooked breakfast for Belle before she rushed off to meet with the Charmings to discuss some details of the town's continued protection against the persistent Home Office. He waved her off, accepted the kiss she left like a hurried benediction on his cheek, and then he turned around and went back inside the house. He sat on the couch and did his best not to think, and he waited for Belle to come home.
When she was there with him, he was all right. He came alive, with laughter and jokes and discussions on the people of Storybrooke and the differences between their old world and this one. She smiled at him and he was warm and alight with emotion and sensation. She kissed him and he didn't think about anything but her soft skin and her caressing hands and her forgiving eyes. She infused him with life with her touch and her eyes and her voice. She loved him, and she (for whatever impossible reason) needed him, and he refused to let another person down, so he existed for her.
But when she was gone, when he was alone, there was nothing. No reason to go to the pawnshop. Everything there had been collected for the purpose of reaching this town, or manipulating the people of multiple worlds to ensure he could find Bae, to arrange deals that would help him provide everything Bae needed. No need to practice magic, either, because magic had only been a means to an end. Spells were useless when none of them could buy or force or cajole forgiveness from Bae. Nothing to do and nothing to strive toward, not when Bae was gone. Dead. He'd died a long time ago and Rumplestiltskin had been crazy for thinking he could bring him back from the dead.
Bae was dead.
It was enough to make him end things himself (the true coward's way out), and if it weren't for Belle, he was sure he would have done it (he'd been a coward all his life, so what difference would it make if he ended life as one, too?). It was hard to mourn a boy who'd died hundreds of years before, and he was grateful for the numb nothingness that enveloped him in the hours Belle wasn't there to revive him.
It took her ten days to realize that he wasn't leaving the house anymore. At first, she just asked him, worried, if something had happened at the shop. Then she wanted him to visit a doctor. She tried to wheedle him into telling her what was wrong, why he was staying behind, why he didn't go out to watch Bae anymore. After a few days she stopped asking anything, and Rumplestiltskin mustered the energy to feel relieved. He should have known better, though, than to think that she would ever give up. (She wasn't a coward, a failure, like him.)
Finally, while they were eating dinner, she stirred her soup and said, very casually, "I talked to Bae today."
The world went silent. Muted. The quiet of an indrawn breath before a shriek of agony.
Rumplestiltskin stared at Belle, his silverware falling from hands he could no longer feel (he couldn't feel anything but the resonance of Belle's statement, her easy use of Bae, the slow comprehension that she could so effortlessly do what he could not).
"He said he visited you a couple weeks ago. When I told him that you—"
"What?" Rumplestiltskin demanded (interrupting her before she could spell out the depths of his humiliation, his defeat). "Why would you do that?"
"Rumple," she said softly. She reached out and placed her hand over his, and he was so used to shutting everything out except her that he couldn't help but come alive at the touch. Couldn't help but calm and listen to her over the roaring of the blood in his veins. "I love you."
"But why did you tell him?" he pressed. "Why would you go to him?"
"I love you," she said again, as if she didn't hear him.
"WHY?" he shouted.
She didn't flinch (and he loved her for it). "Because," she said slowly, as if he were a small child, "I love you."
He was utterly confused, completely astonished, and he had to look away from her, trying to comprehend all the repercussions, the implications of this. "He hates me," he whispered, "and that's that. There's nothing to fix, nothing to change, nothing to hope for. It's over, Belle. I'm sorry that it didn't turn out the way you wanted"—the way she'd expected when she'd risked her life for Bae's shawl and ended up with a bullet in her shoulder and a void in her mind—"but this is the way it is."
"Stop it," Belle said, and he could tell she was battling for calmness even past the hint of horror creeping through. "This isn't you, Rumple. You don't stop fighting—you keep looking for a way, no matter what obstacles are between you and what you want. You keep going, no matter what."
Rumplestiltskin studied her curiously. "No, I don't. I give up all the time. I gave up on you when Regina told me you were dead, when you said you didn't want to see me again, when Storybrooke was about to be destroyed. I would have given up on Bae a thousand times over if I hadn't been promised by a seer that I'd see him again."
Belle shook her head sadly (as if she were about to tell him that this was the reason she had to stay with him, as if they were merely replaying a moment from the past). "You're human, Rumplestiltskin, and that means disappointments hurt. But no matter how badly you're hurt, you always end up trying anyway."
"I told you," he said, "he hates me. I destroyed him. There's nothing more to this story."
"Yes, there is," she whispered. Rumplestiltskin desperately coated himself in his numbness when she stood and moved to kneel before him, one hand on his knee, the other on his shoulder as she peered up at him, intensity in every line of her body. "He doesn't hate you, Rumple. He's just been running so long that he doesn't remember how to stay still. He's afraid, and you have to be the brave one."
There was something warm trickling down his cheeks, but he couldn't pull his attention away from Belle (from the hope she was offering him on a silver platter) long enough to find out what it was. "I'm not brave," he said in a weak, broken voice. "I don't know how to be brave."
"Oh, Rumple." Her voice was infinitely gentle, tender, her hand caressing the nape of his neck the sheerest sign of mercy he'd ever received. "You're the bravest man I've ever known. You love with everything you are and you hurt with every particle of your being and you still try anyway. If that isn't bravery, then nothing is."
There was something wrong with his spine because he was leaning forward, bowing before some form of pressure, sinking until his brow rested against Belle's shoulder, and he anchored himself to the feel of her hands in his hair. "I don't want to hurt him again," he heard himself breathe into her dark hair.
"Then just love him, and don't give up," she told him, and he soaked in her words as if they were magic and light and warmth and air. "Try again, and again, and again."
And it occurred to him, as he wound his arms around her and found himself on his knees at her side, that this advice she was giving him was exactly what she did with him. And that, all on its own, birthed his hope like a living, fiery sun within him.
It was windy and the clouds were dark, promising more rain, but Rumplestiltskin stayed where he was, one man on the hill overlooking the small green park. He'd come here often, before, when he'd followed a stranger around town and found his son in the man. It had been weeks since the last time he'd come, long days filled with nothingness and Belle, but he felt as if he'd been standing on this hill the entire time. Separate. Isolated. Alone.
"Be brave," Belle had told him. Bravery was hard. It required taking a chance, and that was something Rumplestiltskin had never liked doing, not unless he had all the tricks on his side, the future firmly in his pocket. But Bae (Neal, both, man and boy, past and future) was sitting in the park, and Henry wasn't with him, and he stared at nothing as if he were alone, too, and Rumplestiltskin had taken advantage enough times to know that this was his perfect chance.
To take it, he'd have to step off the hill, of course. He'd have to walk down into the park he'd never before entered and keep taking steps forward until he met his son in the middle. Rumplestiltskin hoped so many things, but he didn't often expect them. But this was Bae, and he deserved everything, including a father, even when Rumplestiltskin didn't deserve his son.
The first step, when he took it, wasn't even hard (if it had been, he was afraid, he might have given up), nor was the second, or the third. In fact, it wasn't until Bae looked up at the sound of his uneven steps and met Rumplestiltskin's gaze that it became difficult to not freeze and go quiet, to make himself small and try to disappear (to avoid more hurt for both of them).
"You're the bravest man I've ever known." Belle's words rang in his mind, and with their lilt providing a rhythm for his progress, Rumplestiltskin kept moving until he stood before Bae, looking down at him from above.
Neal watched him come. Expressionless. Motionless. Patient. (Hoping? And if so, it suddenly occurred to him to wonder whether Neal might be more like Rumplestiltskin than Bae had been.)
It was twilight, the heavy clouds bringing night early; it made the symbolism of this bold move all wrong, but that was all right. It was easier, less scary to do things in the darkness, to feel as if he could fade into the shadows should he fail rather than be exposed and vulnerable to the scorching light of day. The dim, misty illumination made Neal look young and old at the same time (a young man and a boy centuries old), grim and hopeful (Neal and Bae vying for dominance), and Rumplestiltskin had never felt as if he could identify with his son more strongly.
"Neal," he said, careful with the power he wielded in this conversation, the flavor of the name he chose to address the hybrid stranger-son before him. "I'm not here to apologize," he assured him, and pretended to smile (as if it were a joke, as if it didn't still hurt). "I think we both know I could apologize for the rest of an immortal life and still not be able to say it enough. And I'm not here to force you to do anything, or offer any solution or spell or excuse. The truth is…there isn't any 'solution' for us, and I don't have the answers. I looked for you, son, all this time, but I never thought about what I'd say to you when I found you." He scoffed, then, unable to help it, trembling with the effort of staying in control in the face of Neal's silence. "Even if I had thought of nothing else, I still wouldn't have any better idea about what to do here."
"Then what are you doing here?" Neal asked, and anyone passing by at that moment would have thought he didn't care about the answer at all (didn't care about Rumplestiltskin at all).
"I'm being brave," Rumplestiltskin replied honestly. "I don't want to lose you forever. I want the chance to know Neal as I did Bae. And staying away…it's too easy and too hard all at once."
Neal nodded, his eyes drifting past Rumplestiltskin to some distant point. His hands were clasped in front of him, his elbows on his knees (he looked defeated). "I had another family, you know," he said, casually, conversationally (as if he hadn't just pierced Rumplestiltskin to the core). "After we were separated." His smile would have been wistful if it weren't so distant. "They took me in off the streets. A mother, who clothed me and fed me and kissed me good night. A sister who accepted me wholeheartedly and would have done anything for me. Two younger brothers, as different from each other as you can imagine but both so full of life."
Rumplestiltskin could say nothing. His words (right words, expedient words, wrong, angry, betrayed words, any word at all save a name long since given up) had abandoned him, leaving him trapped. He felt heavy, weighted down to this broken, crippled body. He felt himself spiraling away, snapped outside this life that never lost the ability to keep hurting. He'd never known this; the seer's ability hadn't shown it to him. He'd seen Neverland and Pan and fairies. He'd seen Cora and Regina and Snow and Charming and Storybrooke. He'd seen skyscrapers and asphalt roads, blonde hair and red scarf, True Love and favors. But he'd never seen a family, a mother that had done everything Milah hadn't, siblings Rumplestiltskin and Milah had never given Bae, a family Rumplestiltskin had destroyed with his cowardice.
"Pan wanted young boys," Neal said (as if he didn't know; as if all Rumplestiltskin's efforts to rescue Henry from Neverland had already been forgotten). "When his shadow came for John, I…well, I couldn't let another family be destroyed by magic."
"Neal," Rumplestiltskin breathed.
For the first time, Neal moved from his dejected pose, shrugging his shoulders sharply, as if chilled. "Don't! Don't." He stood, then, as if he would walk away, but he didn't. He just stood there, tilted ever so slightly toward Rumplestiltskin, ever so slightly away. Slowly, as if the movement fascinated him, Neal looked down at his own hands as he drew them from his pockets (and when had he put them there to begin with?) and began to play with the ends of his scarf.
"The thing is," he said, quietly, his voice like the rain misting down to wet their faces, "that whole time, in either world, I never had another father. Mr. Darling was wary and cautious, and I thought it was because I was a stranger, but now I wonder if maybe it was because I didn't need him. And in Neverland…" Nightmares, anguish, tears, all of it ghosted across Neal's features and were gone, a brief flicker of lightning against veiled skies (Rumplestiltskin would have given much to be able to bring out the sunlight again, but such magic was beyond him). "Well, that was only words. But I didn't need a father, see. In this world without magic, in Neverland, in our old world…I always had a father, and even when I couldn't see anything but your hand letting go of mine, I never forgot that you loved me once."
He wished Belle were there. He needed her to be here. Needed her to put her hand on his elbow and hold him in one piece. Needed her to remind him that there was still a chance. Needed her to smile at Neal and make him find a different ending for this speech of his.
But she wasn't there. So all he could do was stand there. And watch. And listen. (And still, even now, hope, because despite everything, he was still Bae's father.)
"I thought you were perfect." And now Bae turned to look straight at Rumplestiltskin, and there were no walls anymore, only naked hurt and regret and something Rumplestiltskin couldn't read because this man was more than Baelfire, was lost boy and Neal Cassidy and lover and father too. "I thought they were wrong about you—the townspeople, the soldiers, everyone who scorned you. And you stopped the war. You saved the children, all of them, Moirraine and everyone else. You saved me."
He fell silent, shared memories dancing between them, between falling raindrops, between the passing of years. "I thought you were perfect," he repeated, "and then I thought you were a monster. But through it all, no matter what happened, no matter what you did…you were always my father." Neal hesitated, his head tilting, expression almost confused, as if he were just now discovering the things he spoke aloud. "But what I didn't realize," he said intently, "was that, spinner or Dark One…you're human. You were always just too human."
"Neal," Rumplestiltskin said, because he didn't know where this was leading, didn't know what Bae was trying to say, but he couldn't give up. He couldn't go back home and sit there alone and regret everything he'd let slip away. He couldn't give up and tell Belle that it was hopeless.
"Don't call me that!" Neal shouted, and his hand latched onto Rumplestiltskin's arm.
Both of them froze, silent. Both of them stared at the point of contact. Both of them, mirror reflections of each other, breathless, poised on the precipice.
Slowly, gradually, Bae loosened his grip until his hand simply lay there, a warm weight through Rumplestiltskin's coat. "Don't call me that," he said again, so softly Rumplestiltskin didn't hear him. "I don't want to be Neal, not with you."
Rumplestiltskin couldn't breathe, and yet, he couldn't stop breathing, sharp, shuddering breaths that tore through him as if he were weeping.
"Please, Papa," Bae whispered. "I'm sorry."
"Bae," Rumplestiltskin said, and then he was weeping, dropping his cane and pulling his boy into his arms (taller than him, as he'd always known he would be). A long, violent shudder ran through Bae's frame and then he was clutching at Rumplestiltskin's coat, pulling him closer, and his tears were white-hot against Rumplestiltskin's neck. "Oh, Bae," Rumplestiltskin murmured. "Bae, my beautiful boy, I'm here. I love you. Bae. Bae, my son."
"Papa," Bae said (he was a grown man, but he sounded like a child). "Don't let go of me. Don't let go."
"Never," Rumplestiltskin vowed fiercely (and as before, long centuries ago as a different man entirely, he'd begun a family with a vow to cherish and protect, now he reformed his vow with another). "Never."
It wasn't perfect. It was messy and bleak and sometimes hopeless. It was clumsy and stumbling and awkward. It was half-formed and still full of so much potential to see it all come crashing down on them.
But it was Bae, in his arms. His son. Calling him Papa. And in the end, that was all he'd ever wanted.
It was enough.