A/N: And here we are, ladies and gentlemen, the final chapter. I'm so incredibly proud of this story, one of the first things I've ever cared about that I've seen through to the end. I've had some amazing feedback and support, not to mention encouragement, from all of you. Thank you so much. Accio prompted "Under siege", Chip prompted "And he watches it burn", and Val prompted "Belle fights Blue."
"Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love." -Rainer Maria Rilke
Chapter 5: With Beauty and Courage
Rumpelstiltskin, formerly Mr. Gold, groaned, his body sinking against the side of Granny's Diner. He felt something hot and wet trickling through his hair, and he could only guess from his blurry vision that it was blood, though his leg had suffered more from a crowbar. Had anyone ever told him that the rubber spined genie of the lamp would have the gumption to hit him over the back of the head and beat him senseless, he would have been hard pressed to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Now? Not so much.
Red Riding Hood pressed him back gently against the building's siding, her pretty face screwed in worry. Her hair was tangled, knotted, and matted with blood that was also spattered across the side of her face and staining her white blouse. They had been lucky that the Fates had seen to it that the Final Battle took place at a full moon, even if it had been broken with broiling black clouds and rain sheeting against the steaming streets strewn with wreckage and the bodies of those slain and fallen.
Now, in the early morning, before dawn set against a backdrop of murky red sky, the wolf-girl and the Dark One had found a moment's silence in between two charred establishments. For a fleeting moment, Rumpelstiltskin thought of his own shop, a cavern of useful magic that could have aided them had Regina not seen fit to split the shop in half the first chance she'd gotten. It had been one of the first things destroyed.
"Are you alright?" the red cloaked girl asked, touching his shoulder. He found it amusing that she who had been so skittish of him as a normal man while under the fog of the curse was now unafraid to touch him, what with his green scaled skin peeking from beneath the collar of his suit, marring half his face, and bright frenzied gaze dancing lopsidedly. He was half man, half monster now, more terrible than ever.
He closed his eyes for a long moment, breathing steadily through his nose. As it stood, he didn't cut the same impressive figure as he so normally did, what with his suit jacket missing, his shirt sleeves rolled up, covered in soot, blood, and ruined by smoke. The blast that had torn apart the Mayor's home had backfired horribly, and Prince James had been thrown across the street. Rumpelstiltskin had been the only one there besides the savior, and she could hardly stand to see her father-the rightful king-in that much pain, much less been coherent enough to fix him. They'd been lucky that Rumpelstiltskin had experience in the art of replacing bones (albeit, he was more talented at breaking them), but when he shoved his knee into Charming's chest to keep him pinned down and popped his shoulder back into place, they had still thanked him.
"I'm fine, dearie," he said after a long moment, panting gently. The strain on his leg was taking its toll on the rest of his body, especially after he'd lost his cane in the first battle against Regina. Of course the witch bitch had lashed out with a revealing charm, but it had hit the wrong side of his body, his weaker side (an unfortunate instinct). She'd awakened the Ogres, and while Rumpelstiltskin had some varying expertise in battling the creatures, it had been nothing short of a horror trying to fight them. They'd torn people apart.
Red Riding Hood collapsed back against the siding next to him, covering her mouth. Tears welled up in her eyes, but the wolf girl made no sound. Whether she was trying to keep her dignity intact or simply swallow her fears, Rumpelstiltskin was not sure, but he covered her hand in his, offering an assuring pressure that seemed to comfort her.
"I killed people," she whispered, her fingers hovering over her broken, blood stained lips before sliding up the sides of her moon pale face, smearing the blood across her cheeks as she covered her ears with a whimper. "I can hear them screaming."
"You did what you had to do," Rumpelstiltskin muttered, his voice hoarse and cacophonous, the sound fused between the reedy Dark One and the earthy timber of Rumpelstiltskin. "We all did."
"It's not over."
The night had thrummed with the pounding hearts and the rushing of blood, and dimmed in the predawn, but the force, the underlying power of magic resurfacing, beating beneath the stone under their feet like a caged animal was still strong. If he closed his eyes and listened, he could hear the clash of steel several streets over, and could sense a larger, deeper hum of magic across town.
After catching their breath, Red Riding Hood pushed herself up on long, weak legs, stumbling for a moment before offering her arm. Rumpelstiltskin took it gratefully, leaning probably too much on the poor girl, but his own old bones were creaking from the strain of fighting through the night. It was infuriating, having his power, half his outward appearance, but still fused with his decrepit body in some ways. "Where are we going?" she asked, her voice suddenly much quieter as they came out of the alley onto the sidewalk. The street appeared deserted, littered with debris, but Gold couldn't shake the anxiety and tension from his shoulders.
"We have to find my cane," he said, grunting as he all but dragged his leg behind him.
"We need to get back to-"
"My cane first, dearie."
Red huffed under his arm as they hobbled down the sidewalk, "Can you make it that far?"
The doubt in her voice mirrored the tone of his thoughts, but he pressed his lips together grimly and they walked in silence, crossing the street as quickly as they could manage. They both knew they couldn't stay in the open. Regina's puppets, her mindless drones were slipping through the borders with ease, even escaping the lookouts. Their territory was the forest, a shelter from the whites of her eyes, and they shouldn't be in town, awash with blood and metal.
But Rumpelstiltskin was done with hiding, and he was done with running.
Once upon a time, he had been a dragon, a monster, a beast that was to be feared. He would not run, not from this.
"I don't even remember where you lost it," Red muttered, more to herself than him. He hadn't been overly fond of the wolf-girl, nor could he admit that he'd been thrilled when they'd placed them together, but she was swift and in more ways than her transfiguration. She could make decisions fast, especially in critical situations, something Rumpelstiltskin admired. She was also a quick learner, and a surprisingly good soldier, one to take orders and carry out her end of a deal.
Rumpelstiltskin winced, his vision still swimming as he tried to organize his thoughts from the night before. "Near my shop," he finally said. He doubted anyone would have touched it, amidst the rubble and fallen world, his cane would probably be more trouble finding than it was for someone who didn't know what it was to try to use it.
Red nodded, and they turned down onto the street. For a moment, both of them held their breath, but when no enemy presented themselves, Rumpelstiltskin relaxed, his ribs aching as he breathed out a sigh of relief. But Red was frozen at his side, and it only took him a moment to realize what she saw- and Rumpelstiltskin for all his delight in the atrocities of others, felt the bottom of his heart fall into the earth.
Red Riding Hood was shaking, and she moaned, "No."
Shoving away from him, she ran forward, but Rumpelstiltskin was anchored to the ground where he was, afraid to move as the girl ran to a tweed vested man who was lying slain in the gutter. She made no sound, though the absence of a wolf's howl was more deafening than the quiet that spanned between them. She knelt over her fallen beloved, her shoulders shaking as she tried to rouse him, but Archie Hopper, the conscience and voice of reason against the warring and the hate, was cold, and Rumpelstiltskin knew that no magic, not even True Love, could bring people back from the endless sleep he'd gone under.
Red tried True Love's kiss anyway. Rumpelstiltskin wanted to pull her away, for some reason, a harsh desire to turn her and protect her. Too many lives had been spent, too many loves had been lost. The cricket and the wolf had been unsuspecting, their differences varied to the point of a painful fall out, but he had thought they'd deserved their happiness once they'd discovered it between shy glances and affectionate murmurs of "love bug" and other silly nonsense.
And now with this girl streaked in someone else's blood, whispering her mouth over the dead man's, Rumpelstiltskin held his breath and hoped he was wrong about it all.
It didn't work.
The Dark One waited patiently, not for his own benefit, but for the girl's (and the cricket's) dignity, as well. By the time he approached, she had tearfully closed his eyes, her fingers covering her lips to keep her crying at bay. The Dark One swallowed thickly, resting a hand on the wolf's shoulder.
"They broke his glasses," Red whispered, nodding to the spectacles that were crunched upon the sidewalk. The girl whimpered, holding her lover's head in her lap, but she was able to swallow her tears. "He couldn't see them coming."
Rumpelstiltskin swallowed hard, and when he squeezed her shoulder the wolf girl snapped her face up to him, her eyes flickering between the deepest sorrow and a frightening terror of gold. "You kill her, Rumpelstiltskin," she hissed through her teeth. "You kill her, take everything from her, and make her watch the world burn."
The ferocity in her voice gave him pause, and for a moment he wasn't sure who was speaking, wolf or woman. There was truly on one being at fault for it all, even though there were so many people he'd like to see dead, and the thought was morbidly pleasing that he was being given charge. He nodded once, the fused voice cutting through the quiet street like a dagger in the dark. "Bury your dead, girl," he murmured as he turned, intent on finding his cane.
Rumpelstiltskin knew he was beyond redemption, but if there was truly a hell, he was going to see his enemy to it. She had sins to answer for, and he would see that she paid in full.
Without help, it took him much longer to get down the street with stealth, but by some kind of miracle, he managed to reach the clock tower without being seen. Before he made it to the front step, the door swung open, and he fell against the threshold, a pair of strong hands catching his arms.
"Easy there, Rumpelstiltskin," August Booth murmured, and before he knew it, Gold was sitting back on an ugly misshapen couch and his bad leg propped up. He felt hands roll up his pant leg, but the lighting was too dim to make out who was trying to administer the healing to his knee. The delicate features of a woman's silhouette cut against the light, but the pain radiating up his leg dismissed the notion that it was important.
"Where's the pup?" a low voice asked, and Rumpelstiltskin rolled his eyes over to the library's counter, a sneer curling his lip against the pain radiating up his leg.
The Mad Hatter moved from behind the counter, twirling his hat by the rim between his hands thoughtfully. "You were to bring her here. We're too scattered to-"
"Don't you dare presume to tell me my job," Rumpelstiltskin snapped, his hand kneading his forehead. The tension in his neck and shoulders had brought on a headache, and it was a struggle just to focus and think. He'd been without sleep for too long to be of much use, but he couldn't rest now. The end was too soon, and dawn was breaking.
"This will sting," the girl whispered, before he felt something wet and cold against the skin of his knee. He hissed a breath in, but bit down from making any other noise as she cleaned the wound with alcohol.
The boarded up library was dark and hard to see in, but once his eyes adjusted he could make out Midas' daughter sitting with his foot in her lap, a first aid kit perched on the arm of the couch. They were all quiet, Jefferson pacing languidly behind the counter and August peeking out between the blinds and boards over the windows.
Finally, as if he could bear it no longer, Jefferson spun to face Rumpelstiltskin, slamming his gun atop the counter. "This is a foolish idea."
"It's our only idea," the fight was gone from him now that he had a moment to recover, and fatigue was slowly settling in his old and weary bones. "Our best chance."
"It's not an impossible one," Abigail offered gently as she pulled out a roll of gauze.
The Mad Hatter scoffed, "Is that what you said when Sir Frederick followed Prince James into the fray last night before he was captured? Is that what you said to comfort yourself when your lover became a prisoner of war?"
"That's not fair," Pinocchio murmured somberly.
Rumpelstiltskin chuckled without mirth, "Jefferson has never been known as a diplomat."
"Which is why I feel no need to argue the fact that your apprentice will be leading this debacle," Jefferson said coolly, a smile curving his handsome face.
Rumpelstiltskin swung himself off the couch, halfway to the counter before Abigail took hold of his arm and jerked him back. His eyes were blazing, raven's wings in the dark as he snarled, "She goes no where near the Reul Ghorm . I forbid it."
"Stop, your leg is still bleeding-" Abigail pleaded, giving his arm a gentle tug.
Jefferson smiled, "Not so confident when it's one of your own?"
"I've lost one already, we all have," Rumpelstiltskin countered, his voice weaker than he would have liked, but the truth was there, feeble and hurting. "I will not lose her too, not after I found her again."
"And we all have to make sacrifices," Jefferson replied, aloof and disconnected. Rumpelstiltskin was not a violent man, but there was something about the Mad Hatter that made him want to take a shovel to his smug, young face. "And as I recall," the Hatter paused, using his gun to point at Rumpelstiltskin with an ironic smile, "I believe I was the one who found her. Not you. As much as you might like it, Dark One, she's not even yours to lose."
Both the Madman and the Dark One stared each other down, faces darkening and eyes gleaming with challenge until the golden princess stepped between them with a steady voice and firm hands, "You must sit, before you die from losing so much blood that I can't fix you."
Rumpelstiltskin was the first to give, then, and allowed Abigail to sit him back down and tend to his leg. His hands curled in his lap, his mind trying to work through the fog of exhaustion to digest what was being given to him. He had never been one to take orders, not even before his curse. It was not that he was rebellious- that wasn't his nature- but he would do anything and all to avoid confrontation. It had been the reason for him protecting Bae, choosing to run rather than fight. It was the same instinct he held then.
When he finally found words, they were loaded and deliberate, "What makes you think Belle would even agree to this," he growled out, his eyes lifting in a glare at the Hatter.
Jefferson smirked, leaning both hands on the desk, "Why wouldn't she? It was her idea."
Rumpelstiltskin had no time to process this, because the next moment Pinnochio was jumping up from the chair, "They're coming. Abigail, help me."
Midas' daughter finished wrapping Rumpelstiltskin's leg and hurried to help remove the boards from the doors. Rumpelstiltskin rolled his pant leg back down and pushed himself to sit on the arm of the couch. He felt Jefferson move behind him, coming to stand closer as Pinocchio opened the door to let in a dwarf, a fairy, and a long lost princess. Snow White was cradling her arm to her chest as the wooden boy and Grumpy boarded the doors back up. They were too afraid to open them very frequently, the dragon fire had done considerable damage to the structure of the entire building, but there was really nowhere else they could congregate to regroup.
"Half this war is fighting blood and torn flesh," Abigail muttered, helping Snow White down into one of the overstuffed armchairs they'd gathered from the main room of the library.
"Doc's been with Emma," Snow White whispered, trying not to hiss when Abigail gently turned her arm for inspection. "She needed our best aid- no offense," she added quietly to the princess tending her wound.
"None taken," Abigail smiled. "Doc's far better than I am."
"Yeah, well, doesn't help that traitor Whale sided with the rival," Grumpy grumbled from his post near the door, he and Pinocchio taking turns looking out the window.
"What did you expect? She 's there," Abigail snorted, testing Snow's wrist gently as she bent it back and forth.
Rumpelstiltskin had been blocking out the conversation until Nova sat down beside him. Her hand on his arm made him jump, and she startled in return, her large brown eyes blinking anxiously, "Sorry," she whispered, breathless, "It's just- I'm sure they've told you by now-"
"Yes." It was biting, and he knew he shouldn't snap at the poor young woman; it wasn't her fault.
"I just wanted you to know- Belle knows what she's doing," Nova looked down at her hands which were scarred and very, very burned, the spiral shaping of a familiar pattern branding her hands. Most likely permanent, by his guess. "We practiced all night."
"This kind of magic takes years to become accustomed with," Rumpelstiltskin replied scathingly. He shook his head, so frustrated he ground his teeth, his good leg bobbing up and down as he tapped his heel impatiently. "What has gotten into her, thinking of taking this on alone?"
"You're not the only one protecting someone," Snow White said suddenly, and they all turned to look at the fairest of them all as she set her lovely eyes fearlessly on Rumpelstiltskin. Abigail had paused in her ministrations as Snow leaned forward, her knees almost touching Rumpelstiltskin's as she put her face close, intimidatingly so until he leaned back from her ferocity and confidence. She smirked, "As I recall, she's saved your life not once but twice, once upon a time. It seems to be a pattern, if I'm any judge."
"She deserves a knight or a prince doing this- putting herself deliberately in danger is reckless at best," Rumpelstiltskin replied, but with every word he grew more and more lame in his defense. He knew Belle was strong and capable, her mind adept to almost any situation. She had planned wars once. She had no skill with a sword, but her mind was quick and lethal when the occasion called. Her bravery often balanced out his cowardice, especially in these last days of attacks. She had been his support, anchor, and harbor in times of doubt. She'd been everything, a voice of reason and comfort. "Compensation for my shortcomings won't win this war."
"No, it won't," Snow White allowed, and sounded wiser than her years as she leaned back and bowed her head. "But perhaps third time's the charm we're hoping for."
In the end, Jefferson smuggled both Rumpelstiltskin and Nova with him. The plan was not complicated: at nine in the morning, Emma and Regina were to cross blades (so to speak) in front of city hall, drawing the bulk of the fighting toward the center of town while the greater evil gained force near the edge of the forest.
Because the side of good did not join hands with the darkness.
Because that was sympathizing, that was apologetic, and that was not how fairy tales worked.
Because such melding must be smothered and brought through the fire to burnish, to be made new. Prince James and Snow White had given their daughter her best chance twenty eight years prior to that very day, and they were doing the same again by accepting Rumpelstiltskin's hand. They knew he had his own reasons for taking down Regina, just as they did, and that trust was too high a price to pay when their daughter and grandson were at stake, but they were smarter than to take the gamble of putting faith in determination without cleverness.
The Blue Fairy, their patron and ally for so many years, had not seen it in those terms. She never had, truth be told, and her gentle manipulation had reached its limit with Snow, who saw her husband and daughter off to war, and when she bared her teeth to the little woman in blue, she had burned her bridge and not regretted losing that side of magic.
This was no longer a fight of good and evil, but right and wrong, and they all, each and every one of them, fought with fangs and claws and flame to keep what they had and protect who still remained. It was a struggle for magic, for power, and Rumpelstiltskin wanted both.
And the Dark One did not intend to lose.
The dawn did not bring light, nor had it since the war took hold and magic was brought back. The sky was boiling black and gathering a mile away in a storm cloud, but Hatter stalked, the Dark One limped, and the fairy scuttled along unhindered between the buildings nearer Mr. Gold's shop.
"This is where she's been?" Rumpelstiltskin asked doubtfully, looking up and down the deceptively deserted street.
"The most damaged sites were best for cover," Jefferson muttered under his breath as they came up the back alley behind the shop. "Regina has assumed she's scattered us by attempting to destroy our strongholds. She is, of course, wrong."
"This place could collapse at any moment," Rumpelstiltskin snapped, glaring at the Madman's back. Jefferson ignored him as he opened the back door, shoving his shoulder against it to unwedge the threshold. A sprinkling of glass crunched underfoot as they entered, and dusty light spilled in from the cracked ceiling overhead.
"Yes," Jefferson hummed, stopping just inside the office with a frown as he looked around the dilapidated room. His brow furrowed as he paused. "Belle?" he called.
No one answered.
Jefferson spun on his heel, his lip curling back as he growled at the slight little fairy at Rumpelstiltskin's side, "Where is she?"
Nova's eyes widened more, a feat Rumpelstiltskin had been sure was impossible, and her lip quivered in anxiety, her words stumbling between wavering attempts to rein in her emotions, "I left her here last night- she was fine-"
And then a heavy, muted feeling, like an eruption passing beneath the floor seemed to spread across the world and shook the walls of the fallen shop. A light followed it, bright against the darkened day, and they could see it flash past the door through the windows of the front of the store.
Rumpelstiltskin's barely beating heart fell through the floor. He pushed past Jefferson through the shop, his weak knee making it hard to manuever through the wreckage until he was able to slam the front door open. Outside, in the middle of the street, amidst fallen electricity poles, totaled cars, crashed siding and charred billboards, his little Belle, Beauty of the Enchanted Forest, was knelt down behind her father's overturned florist's van, her arm wrapped around her middle. She was maybe twenty, thirty yards away, and Rumpelstiltskin didn't even think-a first in his many years-when he took off in a hobbling excuse for a run. Belle looked up just in time to throw out her arms and catch him as he fell to her side, and another quake shook the ground, followed by an ear piercing shriek of twisting metal and a deafening crash. They both hunkered for a moment, Belle pressing her face into the side of his chest as he put his arm over her, both ducking their heads under a rain of glass.
"What the devil do you think you're doing," Rumpelstiltskin hissed, his voice muffled by their hair. "You were supposed to wait for us to find you."
Belle pushed her elbow against his arm, the heels of her white hospital shoes scraping the pavement as she pushed herself up closer to him, muttering breathlessly, "She came early, what else was I supposed to do!"
"You do nothing ," Rumpelstiltskin snapped, glaring at his little love. The last thing he wanted was to quarrel with her, but his anger was pushed to the forefront of his thoughts and in that moment he was between dragging her kicking and screaming into the woods or kissing her blind. Both seemed preferable to seeing her in the middle of the mayhem. "If you had gotten yourself kil-"
"A bit late for that, where we're sitting," Belle said tartly, her blue eyes glaring right back at him.
It was only then he noticed what she held in her hand. He could feel panic lacing through his ribs as he stared at the glass wand with the gold handle, the spirals of the wooden base curving perfectly in her palm where it had latched into his cane for so long. He had thought that Nova had given Belle her own wand, but for some reason this alleviated much of his worry to know she was wielding some of his own magic. "You found it."
"It took us all night," Belle admitted, wincing for a moment and he noticed she favored her right side, and as much as he wanted to reach out and examine every bruise, scrape, and scratch on her delicate skin, he resisted. He loved her, but he knew she would never forgive him if he let affection blind the purpose of their plan. "But yes, I found it," she smiled up at him, a dimpled smile that crinkled her eyes and ruffled her nose, and past the tangled, matted hair and soot and smoke stained skin, it was his shining little Belle.
Rumpelstiltskin could hear something building behind them, a terrible, thundering pull of energy-the inhalation of magic-but he stared squarely into Belle's gaze, an action that took all the bravery he had left, and whispered, "I cannot let you do this alone."
"I can't fight- not truly, not with a sword, or with my fists, and not even with my words," Belle winced before her dirty fingers found his own, slipping into his hand and squeezing tight. "But if this is the little that I can do, I'm going to do it, Rumpelstiltskin," a smile broke across her lips, and she looked down where their fingers entwined between pieces of rubble, "That night after we visited King Cornelius, and I thought so assuredly that you were dying- I had been so scared. So frightened," a knot formed in his throat, impossibly tight and painful, yet he didn't speak, or swallow, or breathe, just held her hand as tightly as he could as the world burned down around them, "And as horrible as it was, thinking you were dying, the worst part was feeling like I didn't know what to do, didn't know what I could do," she raised her eyes, blue against her pale, smoke burnished skin. "When I set you free, it was hard to feel scared of anything ever again. What had I to fear, knowing that a force dark enough to entrap the world's most powerful sorcerer was not enough for me? I know what I can do, now. And I'm not afraid, Rumpelstiltskin, truly, I am not."
Yes, yes he very much wanted to kiss her. He wished he could kiss the words right off her lips, but the thought was fleeting, barely registering and only giving him enough time to just squeeze her hand again when a voice, shrill and high in pitch cut across the dark morning, "I know you're there! If you think you can stop me, show yourself!"
The look that lighted Belle's eyes was the same he'd seen in her the day she'd asked to step into the dragon's mouth. A smile curved her lips, a quick, sad, determined thing, and suddenly she was gone- her hand ripped from his, jumping up atop the overturned truck and sliding across the metal siding over his head.
The Blue Fairy's hair was wild about her shoulders, falling from her so normally neat bun. Still clothed in her Mother Superior ensemble, though torn and tattered, she appeared a frightful visage against the hellish backdrop the curse was wreaking on their world. Belle did not flinch when the fae threw her spell, and Rumpelstiltskin saw why- she had no wand, simply using her hands. A dangerous thing, he knew, to not have a source to channel one's magic. It was harder to aim the spell, harder still to control how much force was being used to cast it. No wonder she had started tremors, but it seemed as though that were the desired effect.
When self-righteousness was tested, anarchy was easily bred.
Belle hit the ground and Rumpelstiltskin fell back down when the hex hit the side of the van, sending it skidding two or three inches. Had he not pulled his arms in on himself, he probably would've lost a hand.
Where the Blue Fairy was powerful with a mighty sway of reckoning force, Belle was quick, lithe, and sharp in her counter attacks. The blue light aimed at her met a shimmering golden shield that flashed against every thrown attack, and Rumpelstiltskin felt his heart beat out of sync to see his girl wield his magic so well.
But he knew that the battle had to end only one way. He had no bravery to offer her, but once upon a time, he had taught her deceptively simple tricks of magic, knowing that if she should ever need them, they would aid her. Ironically, they'd aided her in saving him when his life had been under siege, but he had never thought such matters would come to that. Now he recalled, bit by bit, those ancient words he'd read to her- spells to bend and bind, spells to fix and twine, spells of frost and fire, spells of devil's ire.
When Belle countered the next attack, Rumpelstiltskin pushed past the searing pain in his leg to move behind the crushed van. He grit his teeth against it and pulled himself up just long enough to growl out, "Belle-" when she looked to him, he resisted pulling her back, resisted telling her to run, to hide, to get down, because he knew she had to do this- that she could do this. "Belle," he said again, the old dragon growling inside, his eyes burning gold around the pupil and simmering beneath his skin, "Start a fire."
And oh, she was his clever girl in sorceress' robes again, the realization sparking in her face. She turned and met the next attack, but instead of dodging it, instead of running, Belle knelt to one knee to brace herself against the insurmountable force and threw up the shield again, only this time she whispered a word he'd taught her in the old tongue, a word she had never known the true meaning for until after she'd rescued and tamed a beast. It was a word she'd used to spark a kitchen hearth, to light a blaze in the great hall to warm the chill from the windows as she'd read and he'd spin. It was an ancient word in disguise of simple homespun magic.
Even across a battlefield, the beast inside him heard the word as if she'd whispered it in his ear.
The closest meaning was dragon's fire.
When the Blue Fairy threw her spell in a bolt of cobalt light, the shield, simmering gold sparkled at Belle's word, and grew red, flames dancing around the edges. It caught the spell instead of merely deflecting it, and instead the blue magic ricocheted back, striking the former Mother Superior squarely in the middle and throwing her back through the air to land hard with a crack against the ground.
The silence that followed was deafening, but as the smoke and dust began to settle, Rumpelstiltskin stood upon shaky legs and picked his way through metal and debris to the still kneeling girl. With gentle hands, he helped her to her feet and was only slightly aware she'd let the wand fall from her grip to the ground. Blood dripped from her palm, the entire face of her hand and fingers burned terribly where the magic had seared her skin.
As horrifying as it was to see Belle's blood, to see her blameless skin marred beyond recognition or repair, he couldn't help but feel relieved that it was the worst of the damage. Grown men had lost arms trying to summon dragon fire from magic, yet up until then, Belle's little spells for sparking hearths had probably given her a headache at best, though she no doubt hadn't noticed a correlation. Either way, magic always came with a price, but when he wrapped his arms around her, clinging to her as much as she to him, he sighed wearily into her hair, thanking the old gods and new that they had not more to pay.
Belle was still in shock, though, her eyes wide and her voice barely a whisper, "Is... is it over?"
He felt her nod against his chest, cradling her bloody hand against her breast before looking up at him, dazed. "How... did you know?"
"Fairy magic doesn't mix well with what I am," Rumpelstiltskin murmured softly, tucking tangled tresses behind her ear as he let his eyes take in her face, every scratch, smudge, and line. Belle nodded slowly, hearing and understanding the words gradually. He leaned forward and pressed a firm, warm kiss to her forehead. He tried to ignore the feeling of the hot, sticky wetness of blood soak into the front of his shirt where her hand pressed against his suit. Belle had worn his blood enough, though. To return the favor was more an honor than anything to wear into war.
"You knew, didn't you?" Belle whispered against his suit, looking up into his face, half mottled with monster's scales, the other with warm, smooth skin. She looked on him like he was a knight instead of a beast, and he held her like she was his queen. "You knew I would be able to do it- to summon magic. You knew all this time, since you taught me," she shook her head, looking up at him with unfathomable blue eyes. "How?"
Rumpelstiltskin smiled, a grotesque thing, but it was warmth and longing and truth as he cupped her face in hand and pressed a soft kiss to her lips, "You've always possessed the makings for a queen, my dear. A queen, a sorceress, a conqueror, a destroyer. I put my life in your hands time and time again, and I never felt you unequal to the task," his eyes flickered up to hers, hovering just on the edge of the most faith he'd ever had in anyone else in the world. "What is an old dragon worth in the end, beside the beauty of kindness that slays the dark?"
A/N: Reviews are always appreciated. Thank you so much for reading.