A/N: Here it is—the final chapter of this story. I find it as hard to believe as my readers do, mainly because it was so much fun to write it. I hope everyone enjoys it.
The wisps of violet fog parted, seeping away into the atmosphere as quickly as it had come. The sky brightened from the grim purple to a peaceful blue, uninterrupted by clouds. The sun beat heavily over their heads, casting its spotlight on their destination.
Belle slowly opened her eyes to witness the proud towers of a castle stretching toward the sun. It wasn't the Dark Castle, but there was no doubt in her mind that this was the Enchanted Forest. For one thing, the air was pure and untainted by smog like it was in the other world. The trees soared higher than any that existed in Storybrooke, creating a dense forest on every side. The waters that ran alongside the bridge of the castle sparkled with a reflection of the castle on its surface, a smooth mirror that kissed their ankles.
Many of them were gathered on a strip of beach with the castle looming in the distance, every face similarly awestruck. Snow and Charming appeared particularly emotional, blessedly absorbed in each other's embrace while drinking in every detail of their home. Belle laughed as Henry bounced on his toes in excitement, ready to race off toward that castle and explore its wonders. It was his dream come true.
"Where are we? What is this place? It's unlike anything I've ever seen," Sidney exclaimed from his spot several feet away. He gawked openly at the castle, his hand clutching his fedora hat to keep it from blowing away in the wind.
Belle bit her lip guiltily. She'd forgotten about Rumpel's first test subject that had inadvertently wiped the genie's mind clean of his true identity. She hoped the Blue Fairy would be able to fix it. The reporter was scribbling madly on his notepad, probably thinking he could turn this into a fantastical story.
"You there! Would you care to give me an exclusive?" He started rushing after Jefferson.
Belle was still hung up on the dilemma of Sidney Glass when she felt an arm drape her shoulders. Sidney was quickly forgotten as a pair of warm lips nuzzled her neck. She smiled up at her husband.
"Welcome home, Belle," he whispered over her slightly parted lips. Butterflies danced through her stomach, her body instinctively leaning into his touch…up until the point his head jerked up with his finger raised to the sky as if a light-bulb had clicked on. "By the way, you two lovebirds wouldn't happen to have a carriage to spare? It's a bit of a journey to my castle, as you know."
He pressed a firm hand to his chest, inches from batting his eyelids at Charming. Belle had the suspicion that he simply wanted to play a game of "my horse is bigger than your horse", should Charming insist on debating over the elegance of their respective castles.
"You have a castle, too?" Henry studied his paternal grandfather with growing fascination, his brown eyes gleaming with a thirst for all things mystical. No doubt he would want to visit the Dark Castle just to explore every nook and cranny. And personally experiment with any bottled ingredients Rumpel still had lying around in his library.
"Oh, yes. The biggest castle in this land, if I do say so myself. You should pay it a visit sometime; perhaps on the days your other grandparents require a little reconciling in their bedroom," Rumpel blatantly suggested, followed with a wink that brought a fresh shade of tomato-red to Snow's face. Emma's mouth twisted sourly. "Now, about that carriage? My lovely wife and I have much to discuss in private under the flickering glow of candlelight. It'll take all night long."
"TMI," Emma roared, shaking her head like a dog shaking off water. "I really didn't need that mental image in my head." She rubbed her hands over her arms in an attempt to will the disturbance away. Bae was one step behind her on that awkward parade.
"Easy for you to say. He's not your father," he retorted, giving Rumpel a look borne of embarrassment. Unfortunately, the comment only made Emma spin toward her happily cuddling parents and she shivered more.
Belle hid her inching smile behind her hand. Charming was fazed for a moment, his head swiveling between Rumpel and Belle. What did he think they were going to be doing on their wedding night? Playing checkers and singing duets? Swift anger flushed his neck as he opened his mouth to protest, but Snow lightly nudged him silent with an elbow to the ribs.
"You're family. I'm sure there's a carriage around here somewhere. I recommend the scenic route," she complied. Rumpel grinned at her approvingly. He knew there was a reason he always liked Snow White. The fairest of them all exchanged a fond glance with Charming, as if the two were keeping a juicy secret.
"Speaking of our dysfunctional family," Emma intercepted, her green eyes rotating from Snow and Charming to Rumpel and Belle. "Where's Regina?"
Their savior looked to each of the members of her extended family, but all any of them could do was wear expressions of cluelessness. If we're lucky, Rumpel thought wryly as he led Belle along the strip of sand in the direction of the castle. She'll have had a house dropped on her.
Either way, the Enchanted Forest appeared to be a few shades brighter than the day they left it behind.
It was dark, as it had been for days now. Darkness had become Regina's enemy, companion, and lover. There wasn't a slice of light to interrupt the black void that was her world; nothing except the darkness and the sound of her own breath to rock her to sleep.
When was day? When was night? She had no clue anymore. There were no mirrors—she was beginning to forget what she even looked like. She must have slept in small intervals, anyway, because there would always be a tray of food just inside her cell door. Stale bread and lumpy soup.
Was this how that sniveling, goody-two-shoes princess felt during her imprisonment? Not that Regina shared empathy with the girl. No, it made her hate the bookworm all the more. She was as nauseating as Snow White.
Yet, through the malevolent shadows of her cell, Regina sensed something changing.
One moment, she was dozing in a flat, cardboard-stiff mattress in that cramped closet space. The next time she awoke, her cheek was pressed against something cold and grainy. Even the pillows weren't this rough. As she rose up on her elbow, she sensed that there was more space available to her than in the psych ward.
Had the little heroes moved her without her realizing it? How could they possibly accomplish that?
Regina groaned and gradually stumbled to find her footing. The pads of her bare feet recoiled from the damp floor. After about a day of confinement, her beautiful black heels hurt her feet too much to wear. Now, she wished she had them on again. This floor was filthy! Sand and pebbles caked and lodged between her toes.
Where the hell had they taken her?
She stilled her body long enough to listen to the sounds emerging from the darkness. Only her breath rose and fell in unsteady gasps; there was no one else here. There was an unnerving drip-drip-drip as water fell from the ceiling. The scurrying claws of rats made her jump, their squeaks piercing the air.
There were rats? What kind of place was this? A basement?
Like a blind person, Regina stretched out her hands to grope around and get a feel for her new surroundings. There was no bed at all—it was an empty cage. The walls weren't smooth, instead jutting with solid rocks and sharp crevices. Around in a circle she went, mentally mapping out her cell in her head. Eventually, she reached the front of the cell where the door should be. Her fingers closed around something narrow. Her other hand wrapped around a similar bar, testing its strength with firm squeezes and tugs. Did they stick her in some kind of underground jail cell?
Instinct niggled along the nape of her neck as she slowly brought her fists down, her palms sliding across the bars. Down, down, down…until she reached the thinnest point of the bars. Down further and the bars began to thicken again. Spikes. Jaws that swallowed her whole and refused to spit her out.
Regina frantically backed away from the bars, a familiar image popping into her mind. She had a sickening feeling about where she was. Just to test out her theory, she raised a hand palm-up in the air. It trembled with fear as she willed her magic to come. A drop of it, a tiny flame in her hand, anything. She squeezed her eyes shut, channeling her magic with every cell in her body.
No, she moaned inside her head. No, no, no! Those pompous fools!
Rage consumed her senses, enough to conjure ten fireballs. While the holier-than-thou Charmings were galloping about, harboring her son, being a family…she was trapped in here. Trapped inside Rumpelstiltskin's old cell in the Enchanted Forest, doomed to starve without the replenishing wealth of magic.
Emma's last mocking words echoed in her head. Karma's a bitch.
"Hello?" She cried out into the darkness, willing the torches to light and a single footstep to fall on the gritty trail leading to her cell. But the only sound that returned was a distorted mimic of her own as her voice bounced off the walls. "Can anyone hear me? Hello!"
So much for her happy ending.
Bae stood on the threshold of the balcony branching off what was once meant to be Emma's nursery. Tomorrow, the Charmings were redoing it and transforming it into Henry's bedroom before getting too familiar with the duties of the kingdom. It was hard to believe Emma might have learned to walk and talk in here, but the curse sucked that chance away not ten minutes after her birth. Ripped away, just like the families of countless others.
But Bae wasn't thinking about any of that.
He was thinking about her. Rapunzel.
Where had she been dropped after that purple mist disappeared? Was she happily reuniting with her own loved ones? Or was she stranded out there in the Enchanted Forest to fend for herself? Would he ever see her again? It bothered him that he didn't know the answer. His legs ached from standing in one spot too long, but he didn't dare move as his eyes swept over the green horizon.
A door closed behind him and he glanced over his shoulder to meet Emma's gaze. He nodded briskly.
"Henry finally got his wish. He and Grace have gone off with Jefferson and Char—I mean, my dad to learn how to ride a horse 'the real way'," she informed him, hooking her fingers into air-quotes while mimicking her father. Or was that how she mimicked the hatter? It made him smile faintly. Her cheeks glowed bright pink as she struggled with getting used to having parents.
"He'll need to learn if he wants to become a real knight, right?" He replied, but both of them could tell his heart wasn't in it. He was too distracted by the unexplainable worry he felt for Rapunzel even though he'd only met her no more than two days ago.
Bae heard Emma's hollow footsteps as she crossed to his side. From the corner of his eye, he watched her lean on the other doorframe of the balcony and peer into the seemingly everlasting forest beyond the castle.
"You're worried about her," she spoke after a few strained beats of silence. It wasn't a question. She stated it like a cold-hard fact of life. You're worried about her. The sky is blue. The trees are green. The sun will rise tomorrow. You're worried about her.
His lips flattened into a thin line, nearly turning white from the pressure. Emma was involved with Jefferson now, but for the first time Bae had to wonder what she really thought of Rapunzel. The two of them had been introduced at the wedding and Emma was polite enough, but she was also good at shielding her emotions. It came with the thieving her taught her ages ago.
"Emma, if the idea of me getting close to Rapunzel bothers you—" But she waved it off with a quick shake of her head. Whereas Rapunzel's hair was pure golden, Emma's was several shades lighter, almost ghostly blonde.
"If I were bothered or…jealous…which I'm not…do you think I'd be putting stock in a relationship with Jefferson?" She scoffed at him, a dry chuckle escaping her lips. "I just suddenly understand how you felt in Manhattan, when I told you I didn't want to be with you. It's hard to let go of the past; nobody knows that better than me. But I'm happy that you've found someone who might make you happy," she assured him, one corner of her mouth lifting in that half-smile he always used to love. He returned the smile, feeling that everything might turn out decent in this land.
Maybe things were starting to look up.
"Bae," a tiny voice shouted his name.
Emma's eyebrows arched with unadulterated surprise. A blue glowing ball rocketed over the balcony. As it practically flew up his nose, Bae recognized the Blue Fairy, reverted to her true form. The only time she showed up out of the blue—no pun intended—was when an urgent matter called for it.
"What did Rumpelstiltskin do now?" Emma moaned from where she stood across from Bae, her eyes studying the wide expanse of forest below. Luckily, there was no black smoke, unexpected fireworks, screams of torment, or uncontrollable forest fires.
The Blue Fairy regarded Emma with a respectful air-bow.
"So far? Nothing devastating that I know of. I think Belle will be able to distract him until tomorrow afternoon," she said rather calmly. Emma threw her hands up in the air while a disgusted groan erupted from her throat. Bae cringed at the mental image of his father's wedding night. "Bae, I need you to come with me. Immediately."
Before Bae could ask about the problem, the Blue Fairy added two words that vanquished all reluctance.
The name echoed in Bae's head, weaving its own unique heartbeat. He quickly looked to Emma, who encouragingly nodded toward the door. Then he dashed from the room faster than if flames were licking his heels.
Not far from Prince Charming and Snow White's castle, buried among the mountainous pine trees, was a tower. No castle attached to it—just a singular stone structure rising from the roots and layered with moss. There was a window at the top; the only one, as a matter of fact. Bae shielded his eyes against the sunlight that poured through a hole in the canopy of the trees, but he couldn't see anything beyond the sill.
Despite the eerie stillness of the tower, he smelled lilacs mixed with summer rain and he knew somehow that it wasn't anything to do with the way the tower smelled or the forest surrounding it. She was here.
"Up there, she waits," the Blue Fairy pointed while hovering like a glowing dragonfly over Bae's shoulder. "This has been her home for as long as she has lived in the Enchanted Forest. She knows nothing of the world beyond the tower's walls. That is why she was returned here," the Blue Fairy explained patiently.
Bae's heart convulsed with sympathy for Rapunzel. What must it be like to be confined to a world so small, with only those gray walls to hold you? What was it like to watch the sun rise and set through that window and never know the land in which its golden beams melted each day? It would be madness to smell the scent of the pine trees, to watch the sun peak in the sky, to hear the music of the birds and to never be part of it. That window was Rapunzel's mirror into that world, showing her something she wanted but could never have.
Suddenly, Bae realized that he and Rapunzel had once ridden in the same boat. Both had been stuck in worlds they wanted so desperately to escape.
"Who did this to her?" Someone she loved? Someone she trusted to protect her as Bae had loved and trusted his father as a boy? This went beyond overprotectiveness and a fear of losing a child. This was strictly imprisonment.
Bae found himself holding his breath as the Blue Fairy smiled sadly, her fingers rumpling the glittering powder blue fabric of her skirt.
"It's no coincidence that this tower rests a short distance from Snow and Charming's castle. Now, don't look so stern—it had nothing to do with them, I assure you. That castle originally belonged to King George before Snow and Charming conquered it. He and his wife ruled it for many years. Their marriage was a bitter one, riddled with poison and spurred by power. That poison only spread when his wife succumbed to a barren curse—a powerfully dark curse that shrivels a woman's womb and prevents her from ever giving birth to a child."
Magic, Bae mused bitterly. It always came down to magic in this world. Bae scornfully kicked a flat rock, uprooting it and hurtling it noisily against the base of the tower.
"What does that have to do with Rapunzel?" The Blue Fairy zoomed forward, her wings flitting faster than his eyes could follow. She tapped him on the nose with her wand. He rubbed it, mostly to make sure it didn't stretch like Pinocchio's.
"Patience," she warned. When he offered nothing but silence, she continued. "King George was furious that his wife was unable to bear him an heir, leading him to make a deal for one in the trickiest way possible: through your father. That's a different story, though, and now is not the time to tell it. Mother Gothel—that was King George's wife—desperately longed for a child of her own, one that would not be corrupted by King George's hands or those of the Dark One. A little girl."
"So, she stole one and locked her in a tower?" Bae tilted his head decisively. After a tense moment, the Blue Fairy nodded gravely.
"In one of the neighboring kingdoms, one that had since fallen into King George's rule, a queen had given birth to a beautiful baby girl. Mother Gothel went to see for herself. The child had skin the shade of winter, the eyes that shone like spring, and long golden hair that seemed to be made of the sun itself. Needless to say, that was the child Mother Gothel wanted. In the dead of the night, she returned to that kingdom, infiltrated the castle, and stole the child.
"Mother Gothel had dabbled in the dark arts of magic before, a fearsome gift she never shared with her husband because of his thirst for power over everyone in his kingdom, including her. From the forest, she constructed a terrible tower to hide away the child, cloaking it from those who wished to find her. She refused to bring the child back to George's kingdom, afraid to watch something else die under his influence. It was to be her secret."
Bae raised a finger to stop her from going on.
"If this Mother Gothel was fluent in magic, why not conjure a child instead of stealing one?" He shrugged his shoulders inquisitively.
"The same reason your father always bartered for the children he collected. The price was much too staggering for any person to pay. Just as the dead cannot be brought back to life after their time, so new life cannot be breathed into an infant that was not born naturally. But Mother Gothel did pay a price for her secret: the acceleration of her aging. King George assumed it was brought on by grief of the barren curse.
"Every day she visited Rapunzel in this enchanted tower, her hair sprouted a few more gray wisps and the skin around her eyes would wrinkle. She would run her fingers through Rapunzel's golden hair, begging for it to give her true wealth in the form of beauty…but it never did. At one point, Mother Gothel had become too weak to leave her bed to visit the tower. Her price was ultimately paid through an early death and the secret of Rapunzel died with her. It was by chance that I broke through the ring of magic circling this tower, but even I couldn't release Rapunzel from her prison. Only one person can do that."
"Me," Bae murmured, only vaguely aware of the Blue Fairy's nod. His father was right: fate had its hands in everything. He scanned the tower as it rose above his head. He cupped his hands around his mouth. "Rapunzel!"
He cocked his head to the side to listen. The fluttering of birds' wings and the wind rustling the leaves were the only sounds he heard for several seconds. Then, at the very top of the tower, a familiar golden head poked out of the window.
"Bae? You found me," she exclaimed with obvious relief.
"Careful," he warned. "The Charmings might get offended that you're borrowing their romantic line." His father usually complained that Snow and Charming should just embroider that line on matching T-shirts. He studied the tower, traversing around it in circles. He scratched his head quizzically. How did Mother Gothel do it? "I'd love to stop shouting at you from down here, but I don't have anything to climb."
"I do," Rapunzel announced, disappearing from the window. He gawked openly at the Blue Fairy, but she wore a surreptitious smile. If Rapunzel had a rope up there, then why couldn't she just—
"Incoming," the Blue Fairy screeched.
Bae glanced up and suddenly wished he hadn't. The bundle hit him square in the face, knocking him to the ground. He swam in a pool of gold until he untangled his limbs and scooted away on the forest floor. Then he realized what she had tossed down.
Hair. A snaking rope of golden hair, hanging from the tower window. Of course.
Bae experimentally grasped the hair in his fist, testing its strength. He hoped the tugging wouldn't hurt Rapunzel too much. Planting one foot on the base of the tower, he slowly began to climb as he would scale a mountain, the rope of hair threading through his fingers.
It was a long way to the top. Twice he had to pause in his progress to blink beads of sweat from his eyes. That…and he was listening for any sign of discomfort. There wasn't so much as a squeak.
What would Rapunzel's marriage bed be like with all this hair? Not that he was entertaining the fantasy of marrying her one day after potentially being her rescuer. That…would be…ridiculous.
With every step, every roll of his muscles, every inch of hair being memorized and rubbed by his palms, he drew closer to Rapunzel. The sound of his pounding heart drummed in his ears, his breath coming in quick pants. Finally, he reached the window and hoisted himself up on its sill, tumbling into the tower. His strength left him as he sprawled on the cool stone floor and gasped for air.
A golden halo of light danced in his vision, followed by a gentle hand cupping the back of his neck. A cup was brought to his mouth, lukewarm water slipping past his lips. It was water all the same, so he thirstily gulped every drop.
"Thank you," he rasped afterward.
The cup was set aside and his head tilted back until he found himself gazing into the spring green eyes of Rapunzel. She brushed his damp hair back from his forehead, tenderly chewing on her lip. He smiled at the same instant she did.
"Are you mad? I should be the one thanking you. You're the one who scaled a tower for me. Supposedly, only my true love has the strength to do that," she replied softly. True love? Bae tried to wrap it around his mind. She and he were…true loves?
Rapunzel paused in weaving her fingers through his hair. He sensed what was coming next and he freely opened his mind to it, his lips parting soundlessly.
Her hair tickled his cheek as her head bent. Her mouth met his in a chaste, sweet kiss, a promise of what may be if only they had the courage to let it flourish. The taste, the tingling sensations firing away in Bae's body…there was only one word to describe what passed between them. Magical.
"You're just in time to watch the stars come out," Rapunzel whispered wondrously, helping Bae to his feet. He took her hand in his. Together, they stared up at the darkening sky as it began to glow with millions of diamonds. The blue evening star shined especially bright tonight.
"It's good to be home," Rumpelstiltskin sighed blissfully, smoothing his palms over the cold stone of the windowsill in his bedroom. The stars blinked in the night sky, shining bright as jewels. His breathing quickened when he heard the whisper of Belle's gown behind him. He was going to enjoy this night with his wife, no matter what hell may break loose over the Enchanted Forest.
"Are you finished with re-familiarizing yourself with your castle?"
Belle lightly tiptoed her fingers up the length of his clothed spine before rubbing his shoulders. He tilted his head back in response to her delectable touch. Her body pressed firmly against his back, her hands sliding their way down his chest, tempting him to turn into her arms. His fingers gripped the windowsill as a shudder of pure pleasure thundered through his body.
"Let me see," he murmured, his accent thick and raw as he fought to control his raging desire. His hands spread across the windowsill one more time, savoring the coolness that rivaled the fire building between his legs. He gratefully curled into Belle's embrace. "Yes, I'm finished. Now, I'm free to broaden my horizons and familiarize myself with other lands. Starting…right…now."
Cupping the back of her head, his mouth eagerly sought hers, pressing tenderly against her rosy lips. She opened her mouth to his tongue and he plundered it greedily, memorizing every last inch. He sucked gently on her bottom lip until she moaned, which in turn made him moan just as deep.
Her hands dropped to the buttons of his shirt, fumbling blindly with them in an effort to free his scalding skin. Reluctantly, he pulled away from her kiss to collect her small hands in his, placing soft nips on her knuckles.
"Patience, sweetheart. We have tonight," he reminded her, though she mewed in disappointment. He captured the sound with his lips, then proceeded to trail them across her velvety neck. "We have forever," he whispered in the shell of her ear. Taking the lobe of her ear into his mouth, he made her weak at the knees, his name hovering on the tip of her tongue.
Rearing his head back for fresh air, he gazed longingly into those pools of crystal blue. The intense love reflected there, combined with the subtle pink blush of her cheeks, offered him a glimpse of the passion they would share tonight and all the nights to come. So be it, he surrendered fully to its seductive allure.
In one swift dip of his knees, he scooped his bride into the cradle of his arms. She gave a surprised yelp, followed by a pleased giggle while she clung fiercely to his shoulders. He laid her atop their marriage bed and her fingers grasped handfuls of his shirt, tugging him down to meet her.
Finally, they ceased to exist as two separate halves. Instead, they thrived together as one entity, their love blossoming like the delicate rose adorning the bedside table.
There were no thorns to be found.
For those of you who are interested, I might have another idea for a Rumbelle story in the works. I'm playing around with it a bit, but we'll see if there will be more Rumbelle goodness to come. For now, I would very much like to thank all those that have supported this story to the end and gave me such awesome reviews. I couldn't have gotten this far without my readers encouraging me onwards. Here's to Huntress4455, discotimelord, SpeakerofTaleandLore, LionShadeSC, MyraValhallah, Grace5231973, Jennifer, cheesyteal'c, SwanQueen4055, Hyourinmarulce, The Auburn Girl, and kirauza343.