With Cora's heart beating firmly in her chest, and the fairies putting every ward known to man around Regina's house to keep mother and daughter out of the way for the time being, Neal focuses on getting his father upright.
The poison had nearly killed him, closer than anything ever had. Rumplestiltskin's face is still an ashen shade of gray, his eyes hooded and barely able to stay open. His hands shake on his cane until Neal takes it away from him mutters "lean on me" instead.
Belle, pale and shaky, supports him on the other side. Between the two of them, and Emma opening all the doors, all hovering hands and wide eyes, they herd a weak Dark One into his car.
The suggestion they get to the hospital is met with a resounding no (and a meaningful glance between the two women), so Emma drives them to a sturdy pink house across town. Rumplestiltskin sleeps in the back seat, still and quiet. Belle sniffles occasionally, but they are quiet and she sheds no tears, and Neal wonders if she's really okay.
Cora had sent him and Emma to the outskirts of town, but she'd wanted Belle to watch her husband's death. He's not sure what had happened in the five minutes he and Emma had been banished, but magic brought them back into the shop in time to see Cora yanking the black poison out of his father's chest.
Emma had snatched up the dagger the second she'd spotted it, and Regina made no move to grab it back, even as Rumplestiltskin's name slowly faded back into view.
Belle has the dagger now, the metal balancing across her lap. A glance into the back seat lets Neal see the faintest outline of the 'R' and 'u', the rest of the letters barely visible or unable to be seen.
His father is weak, the car is silent, and Neal wants to hit something.
"I just made the wrong choice..."
Rumplestiltkin trying to mend fences upon his death, no tricks or spells or potions, just goodbyes. Snow White had retrieved Cora's heart, Regina had put it where it belonged, and it was the past, the memory of shared love that saved him.
So the Dark One lives. Neal finds he wants to stick around to see if his Papa does too.
Getting Rumplestiltskin up the stairs is a challenge, but the downstairs bedroom is too close to everything and once he's well enough to stand, Belle wouldn't be able to keep him still long enough for him to rest. At least in their room, Rumplestiltskin would have to try and sneak down the stairs in order to do anything.
Something tells Neal Belle is well versed in his father's tricks.
So upstairs it is, and they stretch him out on the bed.
With his father sleeping, and Emma downstairs calling her parents, Neal is left alone with his stepmother.
"Do you, uh, need any help?" he asks.
Belle sets the dagger on the nightstand, sets about removing Rumplestiltskin's shoes. "Thank you," she says quietly, and Neal tucks the blankets around the still form on the bed.
Belle isn't what he expected when he heard his father was married. He isn't sure what he expected (maybe someone more like Cora, or the evilest of stepmothers, or even someone with green skin and a mad, cackling laugh), but brown curls, big blue eyes, and quiet strength is what he got.
She looks tired, and he's ready to suggest she get some rest when he notices her hand.
"You're bleeding." His hand moves of its own violation, grabbing hers to examine the wound. An injured wife of the Dark One is Not A Good Thing.
"Oh." Belle blinks down at the wound. "I guess I cut it on the glass."
Neal winces, remembering Cora yanking Belle through the air with extreme prejudice, sending her crashing into a glass case just to get her out of the way. Though she'd been after Rumplestiltskin, hurting Belle had been the icing on the cake. Whether she enjoyed it because she enjoyed hurting people or because Rumplestiltskin had been too weak to protect his wife, Neal didn't know.
Either way, Belle had been hurt, and that, at least, Neal could help fix.
"Come on," he said, pressing a handkerchief against the seeping wound. "Let's get this bandaged."
"Henry's chowing down at Granny's. Ruby wanted to come over and check on you, but I managed to keep her away. For now." Emma checks though the list of people. "Mary Margaret and David are heading home, they'll get Henry on their way, and the fairies have Regina and Cora on lockdown. We still don't know how they, or Hook, got here in the first place, or why the curse didn't affect them."
She watches Neal wrap a bandage around Belle's hand.
"And the only person other than them who could possibly answer that is..." she trails off. "We're not gonna bother him." She looks Neal. "You gonna be okay here?"
He doesn't want to be here, but he does. He feels he should be here. (He wants to make sure his father will be okay.) He doesn't owe his father anything. If anything, Rumplestiltskin owes him. He shouldn't care if the Dark One is weak and all but defenseless at the moment.
"Yeah," he says. "I'll crash here for now. If that's okay?" he asks, abruptly remembering he has a stepmother who probably runs the house to her liking. She might not be up for a virtual stranger in her house after the day she's had.
Belle flexes her hand. "There are four rooms upstairs, and the one down here," she tells him. If she's surprised he wants to stay, it doesn't show on her face. "You're welcome to stay as long as you like."
Emma doesn't give him a chance to change his mind. "Cool. Now I have to go collect my very angry son and tell him his grandmother tried to kill his grandfather."
Belle gives her a tired smile. "I don't envy that conversation."
"Yeah," Emma sighs. "I also kinda told him his dad was dead, so he's not happy with me. Like, at all." She rubs her forehead and avoids looking at Neal. "You know how to reach me," she says, shutting the door behind her.
Neal feels he should say something, anything, to Belle. She looks tired, brittle and worn down, but she stands and shucks her coat before he can open his mouth.
"Do you need anything?" she asks.
She's very neutral, his stepmother. He finds that she knows the boundaries, knows what landmines to avoid when speaking, but can gently work her way to the root of a problem before you realize she's there. Over the next few hours, she sets him up in a spare room, fixes a quick dinner, and fusses over the dishes while he tries to keep up.
Neal wonders how his father got so lucky- the beauty from the fairytale with brains and bravery and strength.
In the end, he retreats to his room before she can work her Jedi mind tricks on him. He has a feeling if he talks to her, he'll wind up forgiving his father long before he's ready.
It's been two days since Neal collapsed face first on the bed in a strange house in a strange town. A town in which his son... and father... and stepmother all live.
Emma comes back into his life and his family doubles, with more than a few surprises. (The son is one thing, but a stepmom too? Top two things he never thought would happen, ever.)
He wants to get to know his son. Badly. He never knew, never even thought... God, he sent Emma to jail to scare her straight, and she had their son alone, and Neal never even knew.
Emma will probably never forgive him for that, but she doesn't need to. Neal will do right by his son now. He's not going to disappear on him, or make promises he doesn't intend to keep or, say, drop him down a magical portal and abandon him.
He should probably call Tamara. She's usually very understanding during difficult times, but a kid is an entirely different ball game.
Neal's not even sure how to begin explaining- 'sorry I ran to a different state but my father was dying and he's still not okay but my stepmom is pretty cool as far as stepmoms go, oh by the way I found out my ex, the one I put in jail, I told you about her, right? Yeah, she lives in the same town my dad does and it turns out I'm a father. Anyway, be home soon...'
He needs a stiff drink.
But first, a phone charger.
"There's a phone in the kitchen if you'd like to use that one," Belle tells him when he asks. She has an old fashioned phone, and the charger isn't compatible with his smart phone, and Rumplestiltskin's is even older. "It should work now that the curse is broken, but if not you can use mine. Are you hungry? I'm about to start dinner."
Belle is really throwing the evil stepmother stereotype for a loop.
"Any change with Papa?" he asks. Belle tends to babble when she's nervous, or cook, and the house is full of cookies and some pretty pastries he's not sure he's allowed to eat.
The brittle smile she'd given him dims a bit. "No. He's... healing. He'll sleep until he's better."
The curse will keep him alive and they both know it, but worry curls in the air around them anyway, even as each letter of his name reappears on the dagger.
"I'm just... I'll call Tamara and... well I don't know what I'm gonna tell her."
"The truth," Belle suggests. "It'll come out eventually. It might as well be from you." She hands him the handset. Turns to the stove. "I'll start dinner."
Tamara doesn't answer- she never answers if she doesn't know the number, so Neal records and erases several voicemails before blurting out as much as he can and hanging up before he can change his mind.
"Hey, it's me. Uh, I'm okay, and I think my father's okay for now, but he's still not... Well, I'm helping his wife out, staying with her until we're sure he'll be fine. And there's... a lot that I found out. Emma's here. The Emma. And we have a son. His name's Henry, and he's eleven, and I never knew. So, uh, please call me, at this number. My phone's dead as usual. I'll see you soon. Also I need to tell you where I left your car."
He stares at the phone for a full minute, resisting the urge to try her again. She'll call soon, once she figures out how she's going to react. He'll explain in more detail when she does, and they can work out a plan. He won't be leaving his son without a father, even if Tamara freaks.
But she won't. That's why he's going to marry her. She's good in a crisis. And if this isn't a crisis, he doesn't know what is.
On the third day, curiosity gets the better of him, and they've run out of other things to talk about, so he sits in the living room with Belle and finally asks the one question he's been dying to ask her.
"So what's your story?"
She blinks tiredly at him over her tea. "My story?"
"You're not in Henry's book."
He'd poured over the book when he got his hands on it, mostly to see if he was in it, and partly because he wanted to know if he could see what dark deals Rumplestiltskin had made. But there were only mentions here and there of the Dark One in the tales. Brief glimpses, maybe a paragraph or two, and then it went back to Cinderella, or Snow White, or whoever the story was about.
He met the werewolf yesterday. She's pretty cool. And Belle's best friend.
Best friends with a werewolf, Grumpy the Dwarf, and married to the Dark One.
Clearly, she has a story.
"You mean, how did I end up with Rumple."
Caught, Neal grins sheepishly. "Can you blame me for wanting to know?"
She can't, and Rumplestiltskin can't exactly tell the tale himself, so she tells him, and she's honest with the details. He's expecting an edited version and instead she holds nothing back. It's raw and there's anger and hurt and pain and fear and the strong undercurrent of absolute love and faith underneath it all.
She starts with the fear of the deal, the second great ogre war, and Robin Hood, the library and then the months of teasing, the fall and the drapes, the kiss. Regina, the curse, the basement. She tells him the good and the bad, about the baby and the loss, how they began searching for him as best they could when they woke. Their fights, their hardships.
Neal finds himself covering her hand with his. He swallows hard and blinks back the tears, mourning the sibling he'd never get to know, and waits for her tears to dry. He offers her a timid smile, this amazing woman who is now part of his life.
Perfect relationships don't exist, but Belle is honest, brave, and strong, and he doesn't know Rumplestiltskin anymore. They work, Beauty and The Beast. He just can't wrap his head around it.
"How'd you do it?" he asks, because he has to know. "How did you change him?"
Belle shakes her head, finishing off her tea. Neal suddenly wonders if he's about to be scolded in a Mom-like fashion. "I didn't change him," she says. "I just loved him. I accepted, and prodded a little, and he began changing on his own." She gathers the dishes. "Never go into a relationship trying to change someone, because they won't change. Don't hope they won't change, because they will. Just love them, support them through all the bad times, and let them grow."
"I gave up on him," Neal says suddenly. "I tried, but-"
"You were young," she says. She places a gentle hand on his shoulder, warmth and kindness in the gesture. "A child should never have to see that happen to their parent, no matter their age."
There is too much sadness in that statement to ignore (and he's shocked she doesn't blame him, or deny that he did give up, merely accepts and offers more tea), but it is a story for another day, he decides, and heads for the ringing phone.
Tamara is quiet as he explains why he took off so quickly. Neal feels seeded doubts begin to sprout, even as she speaks.
"Well," she says, "you sound like you're exactly where you need to be. I'll get my car, and put in for some time off work, and we'll go from there."
"I could come get you," he offers, though he doesn't know how. He could take the pirate ship back to New York. She might believe everything else if he shows up on the Jolly Roger. "I'm actually just in-"
"No," she says quickly, and he winces at the sharpness in her tone. She needs time to figure this out on her own, and prepare for a big change in their lives. "No, I'll ask my boss for the time off and call you back. We'll figure this out together."
Time off work to come meet her fiance's baby mama and the not-so-much-a-baby. And also his magical father.
Where the hell was the liquor cabinet in this place?
Rumplestiltskin is awake. Belle is asleep, curled against his side, and Neal doesn't know what to say.
He's been awake longer and longer the past few days, and Belle is always the buffer between them, giving one status updates about the other. Neal is usually with Henry, or picking up easy to make meals so Belle can try and sleep (he knows she hasn't been sleeping well, no matter what she says), and usually misses the fleeting moments of consciousness his father manages.
"Bae," he murmurs, his voice stiff and hoarse. "Are you alright?"
Neal forces himself to step into the room, hands shoved into his pockets. He doesn't have to be here, or need to be. He can leave at any time, and god knows he should call Tamara and tell her where he is instead of leaving rambling messages for her to translate, but she can't even take the time off until the day after tomorrow anyways so he'll call her then and give her directions, and he's rambling in his own mind now and needs to shut up.
"No one was hurt," he tells his father. "Belle's fine, Henry's fine, Regina and Cora are locked up for now thanks to the... the fairies. Nuns? Whatever they are- god that's weird. This is weird, all of it."
"Yes." Rumplestiltskin's eyes close, but his mouth curves a bit. "I hear you're getting married," he says. "Does she know?"
"I never thought I'd have to tell her," Neal says honestly. "But now with Henry. I don't know. How do you even begin to tell someone that?"
"Start with the truth." Familiar words.
"You've changed," Neal blurts before his mind can activate the 'shut up' filter.
Rumplestiltskin forces his eyes open to look at him. His face has lost the gray sheen, but it is still pale as bone, eyes bloodshot and sunken. Belle stiffens in her sleep, a small noise escaping her before she stills, her head pillowed on Rumplestiltskin's arm.
"Yes," he says quietly. "I have. I still am." He swallows visibly. "I'm trying, son. I'm trying for her, for you, and now Henry. But if you can't... I don't deserve forgiveness. You and I both know it."
It's a speech, an 'I'm sorry' spiel from his absent father, the soliloquy he didn't stick around to hear in New York, instead diving out the window after his son while Emma and Rumplestiltskin stood alone in the apartment. Neal waits for the 'but if you can find it in your heart to give me another chance, then...' portion of the segment.
"Be a better father than I ever was," Rumplestiltskin says, and Neal feels his jaw go slack. "You have an astounding example of what not to do. You'll do fine." And he smiles, sadly, as his eyes begin to close. "You will be wonderful, and you will make mistakes. Just don't follow our legacy of absent, horrible fathers."
Rumplestiltskin's fingers curl slightly against the sheets, then go limp.
"I'm sorry, son," he breathes. "I'm so... sorry..."
Neal watches his father sleep, and searches for the anger he's carried with him, honed and sharped for hundreds of years. It's still there, but it is quieter. Not quite the raging inferno, but more than smoldering embers.
And brimming over it all is an acute sense of loss.