AN: As it turns out, this last chapter didn't upload when I last tried to upload. You have my sincerest apologies. Here's the long-overdue conclusion:
The Queen's command echoes in Rumpelstiltskin's ears, but she says it again anyway, for spite.
It digs into his skin like a fresh tattoo, twisting around his bones, burning into every fiber of muscle. His fingers twitch for her throat of their own accord; his hands shake even as he forces them to stay still.
Magic gathers at his fingertips, but he crosses the threads of devastation with sky blue and smiles and chipped cups, leaving its power snarled and hopelessly tangled.
Belle stares up at him in alarm. He couldn't keep this off his face if he tried—every second of resistance is a firebrand in his core.
"Rumpelstiltskin?" Her voice is high and frightened. "What is it? What's wrong?"
How silly, he thinks, the thought numb despite the pain. You should be worried for yourself.
The shaking spreads, grows like a cancer. His knees buckle beneath him and he falls—would fall, except Belle's arms wrap around him, lower him to the floor as gently as she can. Comforting the man who's going to murder her. The irony of it hurts almost as much as the compulsion.
"Belle—" He can barely get out her name. His tongue rebels, trying to twist the syllable into the beginnings of a curse. "You need—to go. Run. Please. She—she'll make me kill you."
Like running away will save her. Like the compulsion will get any weaker if she's in the jungles of Cathay or the bottom of the sea. He'll track her down, hunt her like an animal. Slaughter her.
And there's nothing either of them can do about it.
"I can't stop—please, Belle—"
But Belle pulls him closer, cradles him in her arms despite the convulsions. She's smiling, but her eyes glitter with tears as she takes his hand in her own. Pulls it to her chest. Lays it over her heart.
"It's all right," she whispers gently. "I'm not afraid."
His traitorous fingers twitch. All he has to do is pull a single thread of magic. Stop her heart. It would be quick. Painless.
And then she'd be gone forever.
There has to be something he can trade, some deal he can strike. He'll level continents. He'll build galaxies. He'll beg. He'll die. Anything. Anything but this.
You idiot. Zoso is gasping from pain and the effort of reining in the compulsion. Can't do a goddamned thing to stop the curse. You know that.
The realization strikes Rumpelstiltskin just as Zoso forms the words: So take it out of the equation.
Rumpelstiltskin hands over the last of his control to his old benefactor. Magic takes too much focus, and he can't afford to concentrate on anything else.
He pulls Belle down to him—he can't lift himself up to meet her anymore—and covers her lips with his own. His mouth is begging, pleading, even though he's shaking too hard to really feel her against him.
A scream fills his ears, and he presses harder against Belle. It's been centuries since he stopped caring about gods, but now he prays to every last one of them: Don't take her away from me.
His own voice echoes in his head: my power means more to me than you. Blasphemy. Let them take it all. Let time take their boon and rot him to dust. Just let her live.
Something shatters inside him, like metal struck on stone. Vaguely he's aware of scales falling away in a shower of gold, the odd silence in the back of his head, the throbbing pain of a heart as it beats for the first time in centuries. But he isn't paying attention to any of that.
Because he tastes blood in his mouth.
He doesn't want to look. Doesn't want to see if the kiss came too late. If he really killed her. The coward in him is looking for corners to hide in, shouting desperately for Zoso and knowing the Dark One will never come back.
Another part of him can't stand not knowing. That part swallows the fear along with the lump in his throat. And opens his eyes.
Belle stares back at him. Her eyes are wide, her breaths heavy, her lips bruised from the intensity of the kiss. A trickle of blood flows from a fresh split where her lips were forced against her teeth, and he can't even think to be annoyed with himself.
He shudders, suddenly cold and numb from relief, and lets his head fall to her shoulder. She holds him close, runs her hand over his back as though he's a child with a fever.
"Are you all right?" he asks. His voice is lower, huskier, than it's been in centuries. "Did I hurt you?"
"I'm fine," she whispers into his hair, and he can hear the smile in her voice. "What about you? Are you—"
Rumpelstiltskin feels the crackle of magic before he hears the familiar click of heeled shoes on the stone floor. Belle goes rigid, grabbing him tight against her chest. He has to crane his neck to see the Queen approach, her too-red mouth curled into an annoyed smirk.
"Well. That's one way to do it." She shrugs, her smirk turning feline and cruel. "I suppose congratulations are in order for the happy couple?"
"I appreciate the sentiment, Your Majesty," Belle says with a forced smile. She shifts just slightly, letting go of him to reach into the pocket of her dress. "Is there any chance of you letting us go, then?"
The Queen's lip curls. "Hardly."
"I'm sorry to hear that." Belle draws the last firecracker from her pocket and hurls it, unlit, into the Queen's face, as magic curls around the Queen's hand.
Abruptly it strikes Rumpelstiltskin that he can see it. Feel it. The magic that's gathering around them. He sees the threads weave into a wall around the Queen, while others, like puppeteer's strings, wrap around Belle's throat.
I think not, dearie.
There was a time when he would have delighted in watching the bitch die a slow, painful death. Five minutes ago, perhaps. But now Belle is in his arms, and he won't make her witness another torture. Today he'll content himself to watching his enemy die. She'll never take revenge on Belle. She'll never harm another soul.
Her defense is excellent, but now he can see the holes in it, the weaknesses, the little bits here and there that he need only push—
The walls crumple around her. The firecracker ignites, explodes—and now he's weaving the magic around it, fanning the flames, shifting the air, twisting the bits of paper into razor-sharp diamonds, throwing up another wall as naturally as breathing.
Time begins again. He didn't realize it had stopped. The firecracker explodes, swallowing the Queen in flame and shrapnel. He can feel the thunder and force and fire on his shield, but it gets no further. Doesn't even ruffle Belle's hair.
Such beautiful hair, really.
There's work to be done—a body to dispose of, a castle to reclaim, a platoon of soldiers to evict or hire or turn into snails. Magic to reacquaint himself with. A beautiful woman to make love to.
He's particularly looking forward to that last one.
All in good time. For now he only climbs to his feet and helps Belle to hers. They stand ankle-deep in debris, in the crater that once was the Evil Queen. The air is rank with fire and flash powder and burnt flesh, but underneath it all is a new scent. He's never tasted it before, but he recognizes it instantly, crisp and clean as a mountain spring: the chance of Happily Ever After.
Belle stares at the charred remains of their attacker. At him.
He twitches his head to the side and smiles in the old way. The way she remembers him. He thought it would calm her down, but she blinks back tears.
They don't look like happy tears.
"I don't understand," she whispers. "I thought—I thought it would free you."
Ah. And suddenly her logic is clear. True Love's Kiss should have done the trick. And if it didn't, then surely it wasn't True Love, was it?
Unless the magic stayed behind when the curse dissolved. It's a part of him now.
He cups her head in his hands and kisses her again, soft and sweet.
"It did," he whispers into her mouth.