Disclaimer: This is a not-for-profit work of fiction, I do not claim ownership of the characters or settings in this story.
Notes: Ack! What happened? It's the end already? Remind me to get cracking on that other fic I mentioned. To everyone who read, and to everyone who reviewed, thankyou so much. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it.
The Royal Forest was quiet, only the noise of distant birds and animals or the rustling of the wind in the trees to break the silence. With no guard patrols, no villagers or hunters, no travellers passing through, the place was eerie in its silence. The only unnatural sound that could be heard was the sound of their own feet crunching on dried leaves and twigs.
The group approached the south wall in silence, stopping when Mary-Margaret held up a hand. The drainage grate was low against the wall, covered with a set of rusting iron bars. A small semicircle that a person could squeeze through just by crouching. At Mary-Margaret's signal David and Neal moved forward to crouch low against the wall out of sight. They positioned themselves on either side of the grate and tugged hard on the bars.
The rusted iron gave way quickly, coming apart with a soft clatter and a small rain of stone and dust. They waited a moment to see if the noise had alerted anybody or anything that might be guarding the castle, then ducked through.
After a moment David's hand motioned for the rest of them to follow.
Courtyard deserted, it was easy to sneak through Mary-Margaret's hidden passage and into the dungeons. From there they bypassed the empty guard station and went up the stairs to the ground floor. Following the servants passages they made their way to the kitchens. Then, as David had said, it was a straight shot up through the servant's stair to the royal wing of the castle.
The whole time they were sneaking through the castle they saw no sign of any guard. There were no magical protections set up, no traps to trip. In a way, the lack of resistance was eerie.
It carried on this way until they got to the suites of rooms reserved for the royal household. Rumpelstiltskin stopped them before they could walk into the nearly invisible wall of a barrier spell, thrusting his cane in front of Emma before she could bump into it. He held up a hand – close to the magic without touching it, and read it as easily as reading a book. Once he knew its nature he relaxed a little.
"To keep people from getting out," he murmured thoughtfully, "not from getting in."
He gently pressed his hand against the barrier, feeling it sink through easily. No alarm spells rippled through the air. They wouldn't, if she only wanted to be sure things were kept in. "Harmless," he told them, and stepped through to prove it.
The rest of the group followed, each with varying levels of hesitation. Only Belle stepped through without any hesitation at all, her trust in him as unconditional as it always was.
The door closest to the barrier was an empty suite of rooms. They had been cleaned recently, but showed no other evidence of life. The window had been barred from the inside, iron magically melted into the stone wall. Again, a measure to prevent escape, not to prevent entry. The next door was to the nursery, a set of two connecting rooms. Here they found evidence of someone living in the castle. In the first room toys had been flung around the room, some of them broken, the handle on the inside of the door had been pulled on so hard that it had bent out of shape and there were scratches around the key hole as if someone had tried to pick the lock. And in the second room…
"Henry!" Emma exclaimed in a whisper, rushing forward to the bed where her son lay facing the wall away from the door.
The boy sat up at the sound of his birth mother's voice, turning around so quickly he almost fell off the bed. "Mom!? You came!"
"Of course I did," Emma replied, nearly in tears as she swept her son into a hug, holding him tight.
"I told her you would," Henry's voice was muffled by his mother's shoulder. He sounded close to tears himself. "I told her. I said you'd come. You wouldn't care how long it took, you'd come and you'd find me."
"I will always find you," Emma assured him. "I will always be there for you Henry, always."
She pulled away from him finally, allowing Henry to see the rest of their motley group. He blinked at them, then broke into a huge smile. "Grandma, grandpa… dad."
Neal smiled, looking a little awkward but pleased by the greeting. "Hey kiddo."
"You all came!" Henry looked gleeful. And then he spotted the final two of their number. The joy on his face turned to wary confusion. "And Rumpelstiltskin… and the Enchantress."
"Henry," Rumpelstiltskin greeted his grandson with a nod. He glanced at Neal, mischief in his smile. "You didn't tell him who you are? Who I am?"
Neal flushed, and Emma looked up at the ceiling sheepishly. "We figured that was a conversation for another day," Neal replied defensively.
"What?" Henry asked, looking between his parents. "What was a conversation for another day?"
"Maybe we should move this along?" David suggested, his eyes on the door, "we can talk all this out when we're out of here and safe."
"You can't leave," Henry informed them, all business. "She's got spells everywhere to stop me from getting out. I can't even leave the nursery without her knowing."
Belle looked at Rumpelstiltskin, who nodded. "I believe that's our cue," he told the group, moving towards the door. "We'll take care of Regina. Once the barriers fall go to the forest. We'll meet you there."
"Don't do anything silly," Belle advised them as they left the room, "you don't want to draw attention to yourselves if you can avoid it."
Their method of approach was to draw as much attention to themselves as possible. In the context of sneaking into the royal wing of the White Castle to do battle with the Evil Queen, that meant heading straight for the courtyard with the apple tree.
This version of the tree was overgrown and gnarled. Without anyone to take care of it the tree had grown wild, roots threatening to break the stone at the edge of its garden plot. There was some evidence of pruning, of someone trying to tame the tree, but so far they hadn't had much luck.
Belle looked at the tree, thinking it reminded her of the gardens in the Dark Castle.
"What do you think?" Rumpelstiltskin asked her.
"I think we can save the gardeners a lot of time," Belle replied, crouching down to scoop up a ripe apple that had fallen, "and get rid of it."
Rumpelstiltskin chuckled. He waited until she had moved back, then raised a hand and pointed at the tree. There was a massive cracking sound, the smell of burned wood, and the tree suddenly split down the middle as if cleaved in two with a giant axe. Apples scattered, leaves and twigs falling to the ground and dancing across the courtyard. A perfect red apple rolled to a stop at Belle's feet. She kicked it across the courtyard, raising the apple already in her hand to take a satisfyingly crunchy bite.
If the destruction of her beloved apple tree wasn't enough to get her attention then the noise certainly was. Regina appeared, livid, in a puff of purple smoke. She was dressed in a long black gown of the sort she had worn during her rule, nails painted blood red to match the colour of her lips. Her eyes narrowed when she saw them. "You," she hissed.
"Yes, dearie," Rumpelstiltskin replied, leaning casually on his cane. "Us. Did you really think we wouldn't find out about your little hat trick?"
"That hat was supposed to be destroyed," Regina snapped, "I crafted the spell to make sure nothing was left!"
"Well evidently you didn't craft it too well. The hat was a little squashed, but otherwise intact." He smiled at her, mock-innocent; "Very easy to repair."
"Sloppy work," Belle added, drawing attention to herself and the apple she was holding, "not at all up to your usual standard. Oh wait…"
Regina visibly bristled, her shoulders tensing as her gaze zeroed in on the apple in Belle's hand. You could practically hear her grind her teeth before she looked back at Rumpelstiltskin and asked pointedly; "What. Do. You. Want?"
"I'd like my grandson back," Rumpelstiltskin replied, his voice mild. Regina didn't react beyond a glare, no surprise, no shock at the revelation. "Ah," he continued, "so you know about that. Was that when you decided to leave, hm? When you found out that little titbit?"
"You are not taking my son," Regina spat, sparks and magic already collecting at her fingers.
"Ah, see, that's where you're wrong."
"We've already got a rescue party taking him away right now," Belle told her, quite calmly. "We didn't come here alone. We're only the advance party. The entirety of Storybrooke should be arriving within the week."
"Also," Rumpelstiltskin added pleasantly, "we might just kill you. It would be neater. Remove any future obstacles. You can be quite the nuisance and frankly… I don't need you anymore. You have fulfilled your purpose. You enacted the curse, you even indirectly help break it by adopting the son of the saviour. But now Henry has his real mother, the curse is no longer in play, and you are no longer of use to me."
Unexpectedly the anger fell from Regina's face, sparks of magic dying off, instead replaced with despair. "Henry… You can't… you can't take him away from me," she pleaded, "he's my son."
"He's Emma's son," Belle replied, crunching her apple.
"But I raised him, I… He's everything to me. He's the only thing I care about. Please…"
"Perhaps you should have thought of that before you kidnapped him," Rumpelstiltskin replied lightly.
Tears filled Regina's eyes. She raised a hand to cover them, her voice quivering when she replied. "I know… I know he hates me. I just thought… He's mine. I could take him here, to a land filled with magic, all of the things he loves. And in time…"
Belle shook her head, unmoved. "You took him away from everyone he loves," she explained calmly, "you locked him up in an ivory castle. He's the sum of his parents and grandparents. How could he ever love you for that?"
A sob stuck in the former queen's throat. She sank to her knees in the courtyard amongst the leaves and the twigs. "Kill me then," she whispered, "get it over with. I have nothing left to live for."
Rumpelstiltskin raised his eyebrows at Belle. He gave her a half-bow, waving her forward. Belle dropped her half-eaten apple and instead took a small potion from the pocket of her gown. She unstoppered it and walked forward, offering it to the queen. "Drink this," she said, in strangely soothing tones, "and all the pain will go away. Forever."
"It won't hurt," Rumpelstiltskin assured her, "it will be just like going to sleep."
Regina hesitated. She looked at Belle through tear-bright eyes, seeing only a gentle, calm face looking back at her. Belle's Enchantress' face, the one people always mistook for kindness. Regina reached for the potion, fingers trembling. She plucked it from Belle's hand and held it close to her chest, eyes closed as she took a deep breath. "Tell him I love him?"
"We will," Belle agreed softly.
Quickly, as if to do so before she changed her mind, Regina bolted the potion back. Instantly she collapsed, her body going limp. The empty bottle rolled from her hand, coming to a stop next to one of the apples she had cared for so much.
Rumpelstiltskin dropped his cane, and any pretense he might have been keeping. He walked forward and picked up the bottle, tucking it away and out of sight. He bent down and checked for a pulse, counting the slow, steady beats under his fingertips for a moment before he was satisfied that the curse had taken hold. "What do you think?" he asked Belle, straightening again.
She looked down at the queen, contemplative, then up at him. "They'll never forgive us if they know," she replied honestly, "no matter which version we tell them."
"Still…" He waved a hand, and the queen's sleep-cursed body vanished in a curl of smoke. Out of sight, out of mind, and as far as anyone else was concerned… gone forever. Rumpelstiltskin cocked his head to the side slightly, looking for the barrier spells with his own magic. He found nothing, only the barest trace of magic. A residue and nothing more.
Three generations of royalty, plus Baelfire, waited for them in a forest clearing, debating the merits of reclaiming the castle once Regina was defeated.
"You saw the state of it," Mary-Margaret was saying, "it would take years to get it back to the way it was. We don't have the tools, or the experience, to do it ourselves."
"The walls were fine," David argued sensibly, "it's just the furnishings that are in disrepair. The outer walls could use some work, but I doubt we'd see any trouble before then. If we did, the keep is in good enough repair that it would see us safe."
"But we wouldn't have the resources to outlast a siege," Mary-Margaret said, then shook her head. "Not that we're likely to see a siege at all."
"Maybe Rumpelstiltskin could repair it," Henry piped up, evidently none the worse for wear after his kidnapping and captivity.
"Yeah, for a price." That was Neal, just as jaded as ever. "I wouldn't hold your breath, kid."
"If your luck runs smooth," Rumpelstiltskin said, announcing himself as he and Belle strolled into their clearing, "the remainder of Storybrooke should be joining us soon and you'll be inundated with willing helpers. Unless of course you want to make a deal to see your castle back to its former glory before their arrival."
The adults glanced between one another, then Emma said; "I don't think we should be making any deals right now. Where's Regina?"
"Exiled," Belle answered, promptly and firmly.
"Ah yes, our former evil queen and mayor has agreed to live out her days in the lands across the black seas," Rumpelstiltskin smiled, the expression unpleasant, "on pain of death, should she return."
"You exiled her," Mary-Margaret stated, surprise showing on her face.
"That's all you did?" Neal asked, eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"She's not dead," Rumpelstiltskin confirmed with complete honesty, "and she'll no longer set foot in Starrow or any kingdom close by. Exile is the appropriate word for that, isn't it?"
Neal's suspicious look slowly faded as he examined his father's face, looking for lies. Finding none, he nodded. "It's the truth," he told the others. "I'd know if he was lying."
"Alright." Emma looked around at her parents, at Belle, Neal, and her son. "So what do we do now?"
All eyes naturally fell on Mary-Margaret and David who, as the rightful monarchs of this kingdom, were technically in charge. The couple looked at each other, communicating without words. "The castle?" David asked.
"We'll have to be prepared to do some work," Mary-Margaret said, "we'll need to hunt for our food. We can scour the local farms, but there's no guarantee they'll be able to feed us the way we're used to."
"I'm not afraid of hard work," Emma told her parents.
"Me either," Henry agreed.
"You could stay with us," Mary-Margaret offered, looking at Belle and Rumpelstiltskin. "There's plenty of room."
Belle shook her head. "We'll visit," she promised, "frequently, and you can do the same. But the Dark Castle is our home."
"Of course," Rumpelstiltskin added slyly, "if you need anything, just give us a call… We'll be more than willing to help. Within reason. You are family, after all."
The servant's wing in the Dark Castle was dark and dusty. It hadn't been used since Belle had moved from her first, tiny little room, to the room she'd kept briefly on the third floor. They had no servants here at the castle, and no need of them. Belle would dust, and keep things tidy in the rooms they used the most, but only because she wanted to and not because she needed to. They would never employ a staff. If they ever had guests they would stay in the guest rooms meant for nobles, not in the tiny single rooms intended for servants.
There was no reason for anyone to ever go there, not even curiosity – it was such an ordinary part of the castle, no store rooms or hidden passages to explore. It didn't even need locked doors to keep people away.
Regina's body lay peaceful and still on a single bed in a room intended for use by an unmarried servant. It was at the end of a corridor of similar rooms, each one furnished simply and boringly, each one shut off from the rest of the castle by a simple wooden door with a simple latch-lock on the outside.
Her face looked calm, as if she dreamed of pleasant things. She might. Rumpelstiltskin had needed to modify the curse somewhat for it to be administered in the form of a potion – for all he knew the modifications might mean sweet dreams instead of darkness and despair. Either way there was no way of knowing. Nothing could break her curse now, and even if her True Love existed they would need to know where she was and how to find her in order to save her.
Maybe in a hundred years, or a thousand, she would be woken by some stranger passing by. Fate under the guise of happenstance.
For now she would remain, lying lifeless and preserved on this small wooden bed. A fitting punishment for such a broken, wicked thing. Maybe when she woke up the world would be changed enough that she could finally find redemption.
Rumpelstiltskin closed the door on her, and slid the simple lock into place. He would give her no more thought for now. Doubtless Belle had already chosen to forget her in favour of cleaning her kitchen and rummaging through the store rooms for a new favourite tea set. They had only a few things to do, small repairs and adjustments to make before they returned to the White Castle to help with their repairs.
He'd felt it coming the night before, a vision that had come upon him involuntarily. The fairies had found his little note, and soon the Enchanted Forest would be inhabited again. They'd be inundated with confused, angry former citizens of Storybrooke who didn't understand why their lands had changed in their absence.
Perfect conditions for deal-making.