It took a minute or so for everyone to move. No one really wanted to break the spell of the moment. Finally, Emma slung her arm around Henry's shoulder. "Come on. There's food waiting. And that barbeque smells great."
Regina put out the fire with a wave of her hand. Snow and David went ahead to start laying out food and silverware. Belle went with them, since she knew where everything was.
Rumplestiltskin lingered, his hands tracing over the two scrolls and the notebook he'd been given.
Neal took the chance to slide sideways next to Emma as Regina escorted their son inside. "Hey. Got a second?"
"Sure." Emma stuffed her hands in her pockets. "What is it?"
Neal watched as his father gathered the papers together and made his way inside. He didn't know if his dad had realized he wanted privacy, or if he just wanted to follow Belle, or even if he was just hungry, but he appreciated it. "When you told my dad that you were glad he got us back together, for Henry...did you mean it?"
Emma cocked an eyebrow. "You have to ask?"
Neal shrugged. "I don't want to make assumptions." And he didn't. Things were so fragile between all of them.
Emma considered him a moment. Then she nodded. "Yeah. I did."
"So...are we still at 'get to know you' or...is there something else you want?" Neal knew what he wanted, but he wasn't going to pressure Emma. "Is this just for Henry, or..."
"This is going to happen one day at a time. You've got a dad to reconnect with, and I have my parents, who I barely know, and we both have Henry. Plus, there's Regina, wherever she fits into this whole complicated thing. And Belle. So..." She smiled and poked him with a finger. "This is going to happen one day at a time. And we'll see where it takes us from there. Okay?"
He'd have to wrap things up and cut some ties in New York, but that didn't bother him nearly as much as it could have. Not when he had his papa back, and a son, and Emma to look forward to. Not to mention watching his father and Belle, a sight he'd never thought he'd see, even when the man had been just a poor spinner. "Yeah. That sounds..." He considered his words, then answered her tentative smile with one of his own. "That sounds really great, actually."
"Good. Then let's go inside. Cause I really am hungry." She smirked and ducked inside, and he followed after, uncaring of the foolish grin on his face.
Barbeque, ribs and coleslaw and beans and rolls, covered a long table in a room just off the kitchen. White and blue plates had been set out, along with silverware. Spoons were tucked into all the appropriate dishes. Someone had found glasses, and while he twitched, seeing wine when it was so out of place, he had to admit it suited the occasion. Even if he would have preferred beer.
Neal managed to nudge his father into sitting at one end of the table. He sat on his father's right, Belle on the man's left. Emma and Henry took the other two seats on his side, Snow and David beside Belle, and Regina at the far end. It looked right, somehow.
Once they were seated, he served his father a plateful of ribs and sauce, with a little of everything else. Rumplestiltskin tried to protest once, but shut up after Belle smiled at him and contributed a roll. Neal grinned, then turned his attention to filling his own plate.
It was one of the oddest dinners he'd ever participated in, but all he could bring himself to care about was his father, eating with an appetite that proved he was finally recovering from his ordeal, and Emma at his side.
Most of them had finished their first helpings, and Neal was contemplating seconds when Emma broke the quiet. "Hey. You owe me a story."
Neal blinked, but her eyes were on his father. Rumplestiltskin frowned. "I'm sorry."
Emma sipped her wine, tipping her chair back just a little. "You. Owe me a story." She pointed at him. "In the hospital. You told me that if I still wanted to know why you'd pay Henry's price after the curse was broken that you'd tell me."
Rumplestiltskin stilled, then set his cup down, suddenly drawing in on himself. "I did indeed."
Emma nodded. "I want to know. Why? Why do this?"
Rumplestiltskin swallowed hard. "It's a bit of a complicated tale."
"We've got time." Emma gestured. Everyone else at the table nodded, and Neal found himself leaning forward, watching his father's face.
Rumplestiltskin looked around, gauging each expression. Then he sighed and held up his glass. Neal got the bottle from Snow and refilled it. Rumplestiltskin took a long swallow, then set it back, resignation in his face. "All right."
He paused a moment, fingers tapping nervously. "The story starts around the time Bae was born. I'd been drafted into the army, to fight in the First Ogre War."
Snow, David and Belle winced. Even Regina looked a little sympathetic. Rumplestiltskin kept his eyes on his glass, voice soft as he spoke. "I wasn't much of a soldier, but I was determined to do my part. I'd been branded a coward all my life, the son of a card cheat and a runaway, so...the war was my chance to escape my father's shadow. Or so I thought. And then, the night before battle, I was given a special assignment, to guard a wagon."
"A wagon?" Neal frowned. He hadn't heard this tale before. His father had never told him about his time in the army.
"Yes. There was a child on the wagon, locked in an iron cage. She asked me for water. I pitied her, so I got some for her. And then she revealed that she was a seer. A true seer. And she told me..." He paused, swallowed hard, and his gaze shifted to meet Neal's. "She told me that you'd been born. That I had a son. And that my actions on the battlefield the following day would leave my son fatherless. And I assumed, at the time, that she meant I would die in battle the next day."
Neal held his breath as his father looked away, shame coloring his expression. "I was terrified. Partly of dying, of course, but more of leaving my son without a father. I didn't want my son to grow up without a father, as I had. I didn't want him to feel that his father had chosen glory in battle over him. Of course, given the way things turned out in the end, it might have been better." His shoulders shifted in a helpless shrug, anguish on his face.
Neal caught his father's hand. "What happened?"
"The time for battle came. Everything the seer predicted would lead up to my death came true. And I was desperate not to abandon you. So I..." He shuddered. "I shattered my leg with a mallet. That night. The army branded me a coward and sent me away, and I came home to you."
"Holy crap." The words were Emma's, but the sentiment was one Neal could fully understand. After all, he shared it. And from the looks around the table, he wasn't the only one.
He'd never heard how his father had been crippled, and the story of it shocked him to his bones.
Rumplestiltskin kept speaking, the words breaking from him. "Of course, it went wrong. I was there for my son, but I wasn't a father he could be proud of. And fourteen years later, I made a deal I didn't understand, and became cursed, became the Dark One. Two years after that, I let my boy fall. And the seer's prophecy came true. I left my son without a father."
"Papa..." Neal started to speak, then stopped as Rumplestiltskin shook his head. It hurt for a moment, but then he understood. This was hard for his father. There'd be time enough to talk about what he'd just revealed, after he was done, but right now the story had to be told. Before his father's fragile courage gave way.
Rumplestiltskin swallowed hard. "After I lost Bae, I went looking for the seer who'd given me the original prophecy. I found her. I demanded to know whether or not I'd find my son again. She told me about the curse. That I would write it, but neither cast it nor break it. She told me that if I wished to know more, the price was that I would take her powers from her. So I did. And in return, after she had passed the burden of foresight on to me, she gave me my answer."
He paused, then raised his eyes to look at Emma, and at Henry. His eyes were full of wonder and regret in equal measure. "She told me I would find my son. That a boy would lead me to him. And...she told me that the boy who led me to my son would become my own undoing."
Henry sat back, surprise on his young face. "Me."
Rumplestiltskin nodded, and the regret intensified. "You." He sighed. "At the time, nothing mattered to me but finding Bae. I certainly didn't care about the identity of the boy. And I was too impatient, too arrogant, to consider what I'd been told about seeing the future."
Emma frowned. "What's that?"
"That the future is like a puzzle. Or a jumble of them. It's confusing, and often there are pieces missing. And no matter how hard you look, the full picture of it is almost never what you think it is, or what you think it will be. So...I knew, when we went to New York, when I found Bae, that Henry was to be my undoing."
He shook his head. "I didn't know, until you told me Miss Swan, that the boy meant to be my destruction was also my grandson."
Regina frowned. "Knowing you, that must have created quite the conundrum."
"Quite." Rumplestiltskin sighed again. "When the seer told me about him, the answer seemed obvious. Use the boy to find my son, then dispose of him in some way that would make it impossible for him to destroy me. When it became apparent that the boy would be Henry, I was...conflicted. He wasn't dangerous. I was faced with the possibility of hurting a boy I'd watched grow up, a young man I knew to be a good, kind young man. The boy who'd helped break my curse. I've never been one to hurt children, so...I was conflicted. And then, the truth came up. Not just a boy I knew, Henry was blood, was family to me. And if there was one thing I refused to do, in all my years as the Dark One, it was harm family."
He fell back against his chair. "So...I had a choice. To break my oath and protect myself, or to protect Henry, at whatever cost to myself there might be." He met Neal's eyes, then Henry's. "I won't lie. Self-preservation is a habit of mine, as strong as my instinct to protect my family. And I was afraid that I'd found my son, only to lose him to my own destruction. Those truths...terrified me, honestly. In a way, Hook's attack was almost a blessing. It gave me someone else to be afraid of."
He took a deep breath, speaking now to his grandson. "And then you were cursed. And I knew I was facing that choice all over again. I knew I could let you die. No one would even blame me. All I had to do was keep quiet. Or...I could save you, knowing the cost. I wish I could say I didn't have to think about it, but I did."
"And then you decided to save me."
"I did. Because you are my family. My grandson. I became the Dark One to protect my family and, for all my life since, that truth has been the only thing that has preserved even a shred of human decency in me. No matter what it cost, I couldn't break that promise to myself. Besides, I promised myself I'd never do anything to abandon or hurt my son again. And your death would have done so. I realized, when I thought about it, that you would be my undoing either way. I wasn't choosing to live or die, I had to choose which one of me you would destroy. The Dark One, or the man I once was. And so..."
"You chose to destroy the Dark One." Henry's expression cleared.
"I did. I wish it had been an easier choice. And I wish I could tell you that it was an easy sacrifice. But...I can't tell you that honestly. All I can tell you is that I...I made the choice willingly. And that, in spite of all my fears and all my foolishness, I truly do care about you, Henry. I'm glad you are who you are."
Henry grinned, then jumped up from his seat and wrapped his arms around his grandfather. "So am I. And I'm really glad you chose to be the good guy, rather than the Dark One. I'm glad I could help break your curse, even if I did nearly die."
"Thank you." Rumplestiltskin returned the hug.
"That was...not what I was expecting." Emma took a gulp of her wine. Then she glared at him. "You were going to kill my kid?"
"I wish I could say the thought never crossed my mind." Rumplestiltskin winced. "The Dark One's Curse changed much in me, Miss Swan. There was a time when I wouldn't have raised my hand or my voice to any man, much less a child. But...the curse made of me a monster. Or perhaps it only unleashed the one that was there all along. I'd like to believe that I would never have truly hurt Henry, but I also know that, in the wrong frame of mind, I am capable of doing a great number of foolish and terrible things."
Emma considered that. Then she shrugged. "Yeah, well, I guess that's true of all of us. I almost left Hook to get eaten by an ogre while Mary Margaret and I were in the Enchanted Forest. And since you didn't hurt Henry, or leave him to die...I guess it doesn't matter. What you did, saving him and cursing yourself, does."
"That's right. Everyone's capable of terrible things in the right circumstances. It's not what we could do, but we actually decide to do that counts." Snow nodded.
"Thank you." Rumplestiltskin was staring at Neal, and Neal could read the unspoken question in his eyes.
He laid a hand on his father's arm. "They're right." He saw the relief in his father's eyes as the older man finally relaxed.
"Thank you." Rumplestiltskin exhaled, warmth and life returning to his face, though a shadow remained in his eyes.
Henry tilted his head back, loosening his grandfather's embrace just enough to look him in the eyes. "So...now that we've cleared everything up..." His eyes glittered hopefully. "This is supposed to be a celebration, right? Cause...I could really go for some cake and ice cream, or maybe a milkshake at Granny's."
Regina sighed. Snow, David and Belle smirked. Emma pulled an exasperated face. Neal laughed, surprised and delighted when his father's warm chuckle joined his own.
Rumplestiltskin laughed quietly for a moment, then ruffled his grandson's hair. "I think that sounds like a fine idea. And if everyone else agrees, I'll even pay for it this time."
"If that's the case, I am definitely in." David grinned.
Regina shrugged, nonchalance failing to cover the amused sparkle in her eyes. "I could be persuaded."
Emma set the last of her wine aside. "Sounds great."
Neal smirked and shoved himself to his feet, then offered his father a helping hand. "Looks like we're all agreed." He studied his father's face. "Please, please tell me you've at least tried an ice cream sundae."
"I..." Rumplestiltskin blinked. "I never had much occasion..."
"Well, you're trying one now. Or you and Belle can split one." From the way his father and Belle both brightened, he thought he had a winner. "Come on, let's go get those coats and keys. Cause your Caddy is just begging for you to drive it."
Rumplestiltskin smiled, then vanished into the sitting room. Neal watched him go, moving out of the way as everyone else shrugged into coats and picked up purses or, in Emma's case, stuffed a wallet and key ring back into her pockets.
Rumplestiltskin returned a few moments later, and Neal grinned. His father had removed the restricting suit jacket, vest and tie. He'd even unbuttoned the top button of his shirt, making him look far more relaxed in the casual jacket he'd donned. The result was a man who looked something like Storybrooke's Mr. Gold, and something like a somewhat better dressed version of the spinner that Neal remembered from his childhood. Well woven cotton and linen had replaced the rough homespun of his youth, but the style was more to his father's taste.
He looked like the man Neal, the man Baelfire of long ago, had always dreamed he could be. Open, relaxed, smiling at his family as they bantered about who would ride in which vehicle. His shoulders were straight, not bowed by shame and the necessity of balancing burdens against a crippling limp. His eyes were clear, warm as they had been only during quiet nights in the hut, when Rumplestiltskin spun and told his son stories by the fire-light, then tucked him in.
It had taken three hundred years, two curses, True Love, a savior and a son and grandson. But watching his father, Baelfire knew.
At long last, they were both finally home.
Author's Note: And so it ends.
My thanks to everyone who followed me on this journey. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.