A/N: And here it is, the last chapter!
There's someone on Belle's land.
She can sense it, the little crackle of power as someone crosses the barrier, blasts through the briar walls and onto her property.
She's had visitors before, the odd lost peasant or desperate beggar. To those she grants entrance through the ten-foot rose vines, and grants food and shelter. She never shows her face, of course, but she has a whole mansion to herself and it seems selfish not to.
But she hasn't granted entrance to anyone in months. Whoever this is has made it through on their own, and these were his spells before they were Belle's. These are strong magic, and that means that sorcerer has passed her defenses.
She's only been at this a year, and while a year of constant study and practice – and half a lifetime of exposure – has taught her the basics, she's not attuned enough to tell who it is.
The magic is dark, though: it hangs like a dense, forbidding cloud over the estate.
And whoever it is has made it past the wall of briars that she's grown to surround the place, her roses that have twisted into arm-thick vines of thorns. Someone has made it through on their own, without her permission: someone intends to invade.
So she readies herself: she pulls on one of Emma's donated leather jackets and changes her slippers for sturdy boots. Jeans and t-shirts provide a mobility and strength that dresses cannot.
Not to mention how much easier they are to repair and clean.
The intruder is nearing the castle, and Belle begins to gather her power. She holds it in the spindle, which she wears on a chain around her neck. It's the one part of him she has left, the one reminder she allows herself to keep, and it works as a conduit and a talisman.
He never needed anything like that: he was stronger and more powerful than she.
And now someone has come to take her home, their home, from her. Perhaps the Queen never truly perished, and has returned hoping to rule once more. Perhaps some new enemy has arisen (she'd known this supposed peace was too good to be true) and decided to make a name for themselves by defeating the Dark Witch and stealing her fortress.
She's nowhere near as powerful as legend would have it, but that's not important.
Even when she was just an ordinary woman, foolish and brave, she had had a power. Even he hadn't messed with her when she was angry, in this world or the other, and with an enemy at the gates and a world of pain and loss and stolen magic at her fingertips, she is ready to do battle. This old, broken sorceress still has her (his) spells to keep her warm.
She stands in the centre of their hallway, and doesn't flinch when the door flies open, and a cloaked figure emerges.
Rumplestiltskin spreads his arms, and the wall of roses and thorns parts before him. It's a simple, physical manifestation of the magical walls he'd put up when he lived here: in fact, it seems to have fed off those same spells.
He'd expected them to fall and crumble after he'd left them alone for so long. Their maintenance isn't a good sign: whoever is inside has some power of their own.
Not a poor old woman then: maybe the legends are true.
Now he's going to have to do some actual fighting, and Rumplestiltskin has spent most of his long, long life doing all he can to avoid that.
He considers turning back and returning to the village. He can get a beer in the tavern, return to his safe, drunken state, and never think on this again. The idea is immensely appealing, and almost causes him to pause.
Her face, as it always does at the most inopportune moment, flashes through his mind. He sighs through the now-familiar pain in his chest.
This is their home. And while he'd left it to rot and ruin after he learned of her supposed death, after the Queen had visited and fractured his world, this is still their palace. This is still the place where she lived, where she pulled down the curtains to let a hundred years' worth of sunlight come pouring in, where she shook him out of sleep, however briefly.
He'll go inside, tell whoever's decided to move in to clear out, and vanish.
Then he'll strengthen the magical protection field to prevent anyone from entering ever again. These briars will rise a hundred feet, impenetrable, and bury this castle and its beautiful, shining, awful memories with it.
He bursts through the front doors ostentatiously, and shrouds himself in a cloud of smoke. His hood (peasant fabric, brown and dirty like all his clothes) is up, hiding his face in shadows, and his cloak billows.
He needs to look powerful, forceful, and terrifying. He needs to be the vengeful and omnipotent Dark One.
There's a woman waiting for him, with short dark hair and clothes he hasn't seen since Storybrooke fell. He recognises the coat as being one of Emma Swan's old jackets, and the boots as well. Someone's filching clothes from the old heroes and selling them on, apparently. There's something mildly offensive about that thought.
"Leave this place!" he thunders, impressively, even as an inner voice cringes. He's not entirely sober, he'll grant that, and while no one else can ever tell when he's intoxicated (except for her, she always could, and she'd shut him up and put him to bed), he does tend to get a bit... loud.
The woman doesn't even move. But she does shout, in a voice that's both painfully familiar and entirely strange, "No!"
She's raised her own hands, and a beam of barely-controlled, raw power slams against him. He returns in kind, and the room crackles with the force of their magic as it clashes in the middle. And it feels good, to release this, to let rip just a fraction of the power he still possesses, and throw the force of his grief, his pain and confusion into it.
The woman stumbles, and he stops for a moment as her power seems to fail. He watches her dark, slight figure fall to her knees in the rubble, head bent.
"If you leave now, dearie," he calls, using his old tones as he throws a bit of insane malice into his tone, "Then you'll be spared."
She looks up at him, and there's such anger twisting her face that even across the room, he can see it.
He also thinks he recognizes her, but he's seen that face on every brunette from here to the Outerlands, so it means nothing to him.
"Don't you fucking dare!" she screams, and a ripple of magic, stronger than before and heartfelt, agonised, emanates from her and throws him backwards, "Don't come here and speak to me like that! No one talks like that anymore!"
She's on her feet as he regains his balance, and storming toward him, lightning crackling and burning from her hands as he throws up a strong shield to defend himself.
She's covered half the distance to him, before the lightning abruptly stops. She almost smiles as she raises her hands, summoning a wind, and he raises his a moment too late: the wind rips his hood from his head, and his hair is whipping across his eyes, and through the smoke and dust he can see her clearly.
And she can see him.
He knows the moment she recognizes him, the moment the wind stops and the magic dies from the air as fast as it came, and they're stood, stock still in the wreckage of their home, staring at each other. Husband and wife, and years and worlds apart.
She doesn't know what to say.
Rumplestiltskin, in all his green and gold, scaly glory, is standing before her. He's dressed as a pauper, smells like a sewer, and is somehow once more the terrifying, beautiful creature he was when they met. He is the incarnation that matches this place, reduced to the same ruins of smoke and rubble.
"Belle..." her name is whispered so reverently, so disbelievingly, that she can barely believe she's hearing it.
"You bastard!" it wasn't what she thought she'd say, if she ever saw him again. Her husband, her best friend and true love, resurrected, and all she can feel is a building, blinding anger.
She launches herself at him, tackles him to the ground, and even with no magic behind her the weight and momentum throws them both to the ground.
She's crying, she can barely feel or think or see anything for crying, huge wracking sobs that nearly break her bones and she pounds on his chest, fists beating every inch of him she can find. Her hands are little stones, clenched and hard, and they rise and fall without conscious effort.
Because he's here, he's alive, and he never came for her.
Because he didn't call her name, or send a letter, or tell anyone that he was even alive.
Because if there had been any chance at all that he'd lived, she would have walked every inch of the world to find him. And yet here he is, dressed as peasant, in her hallway, ordering her to leave.
"Belle, Belle, calm down!" he tries to soothe her, although she can't tell if the water on his face is her tears or his, but it's no use. He has to resort to grabbing her wrists in his hands and holding them still, before she'll finally look into his face, blurred from the moisture in her eyes.
"Calm down?" her voice is controlled, now, but shaky. Every word is a gamble: any moment the sobs could start again, and she doesn't know if she could even survive it, the pain is so great "You're dead!"
"No, you're dead." He corrects, and his own voice is hardly its normal self. He sounds as broken as she, and some of the anger starts to drain away.
"You weren't there when I woke up," she shakes her head, "You weren't – where were you?"
"I was in a forest. Somewhere near Snow White's old home, I think; with a banging headache, and no wife."
"You never even looked for me." She stares down at him, and holds nothing in. She watches him wince at the pain on her face, "I was with everyone else, everyone, Snow and Emma and Charming... and you weren't there. You were with me, and then you just... weren't."
"I thought you must have died."
"Why?" she's crying again, but it isn't quite as painful this time, "What made you think that?"
"I... I don't know. Monsters don't get happy endings, and no ending for me could be happy without you. I assumed your death would be my final punishment."
"You utter and complete bastard." She slaps him across the face, hard, and then leans down and kisses him breathless. He still tastes the same: like smoke and grass, and something spicy she's always assumed to be pure magic. Her lips work over his as he releases her wrists to hold her face in his hands, and pull her as close to him as possible.
She holds him as tightly as she can, drowning in him. She's angry, furious, and the grief she's carried for a year of isolation - of silent, mind-numbing agony - can't be removed so simply. But he's here, and alive, and kissing her as though he thinks she might vanish at any moment. And she's returning the favor, because here and now there are no certainties at all.
Then she pulls back, and the anger returns, "How many times do I have to tell you? You are not a monster!"
Then something else registers: she's right.
Not just in the fact that he isn't evil, that his crimes and the darkness in him doesn't bring him even close to the status Regina had held. But because now, in a much more physical sense, her statement was correct.
He's human. The man she'd married in Storybrooke, although his hair was a little lighter and he was perhaps a little thinner (she'd always had to remind the stupid man to eat) is now the one lying beneath her.
Absurdly, she starts to laugh.
"What is it, Belle, what happened?" he's frowning; concerned she's lost her mind. Maybe she has.
"It's like déjà vu all over again!" she can't stop, the whole thing is so funny. She grabs his hand, holds it up to his face so he can see the very human skin tone, "If you get up and scream at me now, I swear I will end you."
"Quite right, too." He smiles at her, and it's so genuine, and she's missed it so much, that she starts to cry again, "Did I ever apologise for that?"
"I think so... another time wouldn't hurt, though." She's smiling too, and she leans down to kiss him again.
"Sorry," he says between kisses, as he rolls them over "Sorry, sorry, sorry..."
They somehow make it up to his old bedroom, and it is hours before either of them is able to speak again.
When night has fallen, and they're both exhausted, he finally pulls the covers up over them. She snuggles into his side, buries herself against him as far as she can, and he rolls them over so she's spooned against him, so they're in contact as much as possible.
"You know, I think it's time for an 'I told you so'. She says, into the darkness.
"Oh, yes? For what, dear?"
"I told you that you weren't a monster. Or the bad guy, the villain, or any of the other nasty things you insist upon calling yourself. If you'd just believed me, we could have found each other much earlier."
"I missed you." There's no more he can say, because she's right. He could have written pages of apologies, and expressions of love, and long-winded explanations of how much he needed her, of how empty everything was when she wasn't around. But sometimes the simple statements are all that are needed.
She cranes her head around, and they kiss. It's difficult, and a little messy, but it still means the world.
"If you ever leave me again, I think I'll probably die." She whispers, and there's such sincerity in it that he can hardly breathe. She settles back into the pillows, and he can see her smile in the darkness, "Maybe I should handcuff you to me, to make sure you don't go anywhere."
"I would have no problem with that," he murmurs into her hair, "Although going to the bathroom would be a little difficult."
"Hmm, I guess," she agrees around a yawn, "Maybe we should just promise to not assume anyone's dead until we've seen the body?"
"That's a pretty decent rule, yes," he nods, and hears her giggle, feels the vibrations through his body. Her laugh has always been the purest, most beautiful sound he'll ever hear, and he adds it to the list of things he's missed.