A/N: Thank so very, very much to everyone who reviewed, followed, and favorite this story, especially Gwenhyfer, xxxLeanniexxx, and kajan13 for your numerous reviews. It's been quite a journey for me to complete this universe, and I never would have been able to do it without you. I wish you all the best, and from the bottom of my heart, thank you.
Regarding your questions, I hope this chapter covers them. Again, thank you :)
Chapter 19: The End and the Beginning
Rumplestiltskin had thought that Zelena and his father would be their first departures. He had completed the barriers on the portal and trapped them in their new stories (from outside the room; neither Zelena nor Malcolm had been told the name of the Sorcerer that was facilitating their happy endings), and Emma was now standing by to escort him to the vault, the books in her arms.
Bae and Belle joined them at the portal, with Anton - Storybrooke's first official border guard - as the only other witness. David and Snow White would be hosting the official ribbon-cutting ceremony later that evening, but Rumplestiltskin had thought this a chore best completed now, before regular travel began.
Reul Ghorm, apparently, had had a similar idea. She swept into the hall, a satchel in her hand and every one of her fairies trailing behind her. Rumplestiltskin sneered. "Going somewhere, dearie?"
"We are returning to our rightful place, Dar- Sorcerer. Storybrooke has no need of us any longer."
"The ribbon cutting is tonight," Emma told her. "We'll be open for business then."
Reul Ghorm flattened her lips. "Ah. Hoping to avoid a scene, were you?" Rumplestiltskin asked. "As the Sorcerer, I suppose I could allow you through early - for a price."
"Beware of darkening your new heart, Rumplestiltskin."
"Oh, nothing untoward, I promise." He summoned a contract to his hand. Not a magical one: a legal contract. "According to your lease, you are required to gave me six weeks notice before vacating the convent. There is a fairly substantial fine for breaking this clause."
"That contract was created by a curse; I need not honor it."
He shrugged. "Fair enough. It's a small enough price to pay to see the back of you. But for passage though my portal, I am going to require signed notice that you have moved out and I am free to dispose of the property as I like. The town is already short on housing, and I anticipate that we will soon be receiving new arrivals." He presented the contract to her along with a pen. "Your choice, dearie."
It was such a small request. He was asking for nothing but her pride - to at long last have her signature, willfully given, on one of his contracts. He was inclined to frame it. He smiled, letting her know just how much he was enjoying this.
"We do need the housing," Emma said. "And the meeting space. Mom thinks it won't be long before we start getting refugees."
"I will give the town a reasonable rate," Rumplestiltskin promised. "Or perhaps I could sell it outright? It is in need of renovation. I'm not very comfortable with the idea of children being placed in those small cells…"
"Good point. I'm not a fan of cells either. We could have Marco and August come take a look at it, get some of the dwarves involved. Maleficent has been talking about building a house for her and Lily; she might have some ideas…"
Reul Ghorm snatched the paper out of his hand and signed quickly, a furious scowl on her face. "Your price has been paid, Sorcerer. Allow us through."
He took the paper and tucked it into his lapel with his wickedest smile. "A pleasure doing business with you, dearie." He took a step back and gestured to the portal with a flourish.
"Our doors are always open," Emma told, not Reul Ghorm, but her followers. "If any of you have problems with how she does things, you're welcome here, anytime."
They all avoided meeting her gaze as they followed their leader through the door. All but the last. Her color was yellow, if he recalled. Étoile - that was her name. A nervous, little thing. She looked at Emma, then Bae and Belle. But not him - her eyes hid from him as they had from Reul Ghorm. At the threshold of the portal, she stopped. "You don't have to go," Belle said kindly. "She can't take your wings here."
"We'll protect you," Emma promised. "This is the best chance you will ever get to leave her."
"I sh-shouldn't without telling her why."
"You don't owe her anything."
"If an explanation is owed, we can deliver it," Rumplestiltskin said. "The Sherriff and I are on our way to perform an errand on the other side."
"You want to hurt her," she said, still not meeting his eyes.
"I do," he admitted, "But I will not; I have too much to lose by seeking revenge now."
At last, she looked up. "She said we must never speak to you… she said a lot of things."
"You won't be alone," Belle entreated. "Nova and Tinker Bell know what you are going through. She's all you've ever known, and it's hard to leave her. They can help."
Étoile nodded. She sidestepped the portal and wrapped her arms around her middle. "Please… tell her I'm s-sorry."
"We will," Rumplestiltskin said before Emma or Belle could jump in with the instance that she had nothing to apologize for. Her lips twitched, and she tried to offer him a frightened, broken smile.
"You're very welcome."
"Here," Belle said, holding out her hand, "Let's have a sit down, and we'll find a place for you to live. The convent, if you like, or somewhere else."
"I'd like to- to talk to Nova if that's… alright?"
"Of course! I know Nova would love to see you." Étoile did smile then, and she placed her dark hand in Belle's pale one. "Take your time," Belle told Rumplestiltskin. "I'll see you for dinner."
"Have a good afternoon, my love." His was certainly looking up.
Well, maybe not entirely.
Informing Reul Ghorm that she had lost yet another follower had been amusing, as had Emma's comments on the matter. The faerie's lips had pursed in that familiar way, and they both knew her standing in the Enchanted Forest would never again be what it was. She had lost something she would never get back: blind worship. It was revenge enough.
But then they had taken the books to his vault and left them there, alone on the barren shelves - alone with their happy endings.
He wondered why the thought of Zelena existing in eternal happiness bothered him more than the thought of his father doing the same, but he knew the answer to that. As much as he would have liked to deny it, he would never forget being that little boy who would have done anything to make his papa happy. For Zelena, he had no softness at all.
They were both gone now, and that was what mattered.
He would keep repeating that to himself as he watched the clock and waited for Bae and Belle to return from the library.
The door opened, but it wasn't them. "Mr. Booth, what can I do for you?" he asked.
Hands in his pockets, the boy shrugged. "Nothing much. Bae and Belle will be over in a minute. You guys coming to the ribbon cutting?"
"I don't think so."
He smiled. "I figured. How'd the book disposal go?"
"They're securely hidden. No one should be able to access them, and if anyone manages to, I will be alerted."
"Good, good. You, ah, OK?"
"Any particular reason I shouldn't be?"
"I think we both know the answer to that. Look, I don't want to pry-"
"Then don't," he said tersely, "I did not disagree with your reasoning when it was proposed, and I don't now. The town is safe; that is what matters."
"I know. Doesn't mean you have to like it. If it helps, I don't like it. It was necessary, yeah, but not fair."
"Yes, well, as Regina said, life is not fair, not in any world. Nor always happy - except in theirs now, I suppose."
"Yeah… probably." Hands still in his pockets, he shifted on his feet.
Rumplestiltskin arched an eyebrow. "Probably?"
"You ever seen the Matrix?"
"OK then. I'm going to spoil it for you. The idea of the Matrix is that the world we are living in is just a computer simulation used to keep humanity under control."
"Like your books," he said carefully.
"Exactly. Well, there's this scene where Agent Smith - the bad guy - tells the hero that the reason the computer simulation is a recreation of the late twentieth century instead of a perfect world is because they tried that first, and humanity couldn't accept it as real. In fact, most people rejected it so badly that they died."
"What are you saying?"
"It just makes me wonder: can the human mind really cope with a perfect world?" He shrugged. "Maybe it's just a movie. Maybe they both really will get eternal bliss… but maybe not."
Rumplestiltskin placed his hand on the counter. "You had already thought of this when you proposed your solution."
"You're more calculating than I gave you credit for."
"From you, I'll take that as a compliment."
August smiled, both friendly and sly. "Anyway, have a good night. I need to go help set up for the ribbon cutting."
"A good night to you."
The door shut behind him, jingling the bell. Rumplestiltskin stood perfectly still at the counter until it rang again, letting his family inside. "We've got it all worked out!" Belle announced. "Mary Margaret is very interested in using the convent to house refugees. Étoile with stay at Granny's until it has been renovated and reopened, and then she and Tink will become the onsite managers."
"Very good," Rumplestiltskin said. "Happy endings all around."
"Happy, yes." She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and kissed him. "But not an ending, I don't think."
He kissed her back, deeply. When they parted, breathless, he agreed, "No, not an ending."
"You both are really lucky I'm not the type of kid to complain about PDA," Bae said dryly.
They fell into each other, laughing.
"I did it! I won Christmas!" the puppet declared, walking into Granny's with a large, wooden… something in his arms.
"I don't think that's how it works, August," Bae said. "Wait, is that..?"
He plopped it onto the counter with an enormous grin. "A wooden, clockwork dancing Groot? Yes, yes it is."
"Oh, Marco, did you make this?" Belle asked. "It's wonderful."
If Rumplestiltskin had been expecting 2014 to be an easy year after Zeus' downfall and his own ascension to Sorcerer, he would have been very disappointed. But he had learned enough by then to know that recovery and rebuilding was hard work, and after nearly of year of intensive therapy, difficult conversations, and more people claiming to be his friend than in every past year of his very long life combined, he could truthfully say: he was happy.
Marco smiled and nodded bashfully while August retrieved a metal winding key from around his neck with as much flair as a circus ringmaster. "Watch!" he said. "Oh, wait, let me queue up the music." He reached for his phone then looked up. "Or better yet, that jukebox hasn't been updated since 1983, right?"
"Yes," Bae said, running over to it with a pocket full of change.
"The song is I Want You Back, by the Jackson Five. Oh, and see what else it has from the movie. The Piña Colada Song, Ain't No Mountain High Enough-"
"Are you implying I don't know the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack?"
August raised his hands. "Sorry, sorry, I trust in your expertise."
Roland had his hands on the counter as he bounced up and down in anticipation. Belle and Rumplestiltskin shared a fond glance.
A poppy beat filled the diner and a young Michael Jackson sang,
"Just let me tell you now
When I had you to myself, I didn't want you around
Those pretty faces always made you stand out in a crowd…"
With nearly as much glee as Roland displayed, August wound his new toy, and the potted tree creature began to dance. Belle laughed in delight. Rumplestiltskin put his arm around her.
Roland immediately began to mimic the automation's movements, which of course meant that August did as well, joined by Henry, and by the end of the first chorus half the diner was dancing.
As he twirled Belle under his arm, Rumplestiltskin took stock of the year.
It had been no surprise to him that the most privileged classes of the Enchanted Forest had been the first to push for rebuilding and relocation. He'd been content to stay out of it, but Lily had seized the opportunity to sell her skills as a hedge-witch (and dragon) to any noble in need of her services - except Snow and David. From Midas alone she had amassed a small fortune, and Rumplestiltskin was both impressed by her acumen and more than happy to no longer be the first person people came to when looking for magic.
Nor was he the second. The predicted refugees had begun to arrive only a few weeks after the portal was opened, and by then the convent had been ready for them thanks to fallen fairy magic. Tinker Bell, Étoile, and later Nova became known as "the fairies of the people" (a title coined by August, naturally), and word had quickly spread through the storytelling realms that Storybrooke was now a haven to those who did not belong in their native worlds.
Belle, of course, had enthusiastically thrown the resources of the library into aiding the new arrivals, and it had truly become the community hub she had always hoped it would be. To the people of Storybrooke, it offered not only books and online resources, but also classes and tutoring in subjects ranging from literacy to modern household management to petitioning for placement in one of the rebuilding kingdoms. Knowledge was power, and the library shared it freely. What Rumplestiltskin would have given to have such a resource when he had been a fleeing peasant? His story would have been very different, that he knew.
And then there had been weddings.
Rumplestiltskin himself had attended three since their return from Camelot. The first had been Nova's. She had married her beloved dwarf the afternoon of the summer solstice, flanked by his six brothers, Tinker Belle, Étoile, August, Snow, Emma, and of course Belle. It was a charming ceremony, where the bride had simply laughed when she tripped walking down the aisle, and Rumplestiltskin had taken more than a little satisfaction from how much Reul Ghorm would have hated everything about it.
In the autumn, Friar Tuck had presided over a double wedding, joining together Little John with Anton and Robin Hood with Regina. The ceremony was outdoors, and the bride had worn a designer suit in powder blue. It was the very antithesis of her first wedding, and he could truly say he had never seen Regina happier. He could even admit - privately - that he was the tiniest bit happy for her.
And then there had been the third wedding, not even a week ago: his own.
Belle had worn a hat, not a veil, with her tea-length dress, and Archie had officiated. Bae and Maurice had been the only witnesses (what feat of magic Belle had pulled off to compel her father to give her away he could only guess), and when Belle had taken his hands and become his wife, Rumplestiltskin had felt a joy paralleled only by the first time he had held his son in his arms.
But he had not forgotten Hestia and Dionysus, either, or how much Belle deserved to be recognized by her friends on her wedding day. The ceremony had been small, but the reception had not, filling the entirety of the Storybrooke theatre. There had been a great deal of wine and bread and even more dancing. The only surprise had been how happy the townsfolk had seemed for them - for him, the monster they had feared for so long, and for her, tying herself to that very same monster.
But he had seen many monsters forgiven in this past couple of years, and he had learned - with help, time, patience, and hard work - to see what was before him, not what he feared or imagined he deserved.
He'd learned a great deal in the past year… in the past few years.
He had learned he was capable of forgiveness - for Regina, for the pirate, for himself - and that it was not a weakness, but a strength. He'd learned that even after centuries , he could set aside the hatred and spite of his past to serve his future. They would never be friends, but he'd felt no bitterness as the Jolly Roger had sailed away through one of his portals. The Killian Jones was once again free to voyage the realms, and he did not mind it.
In November, Regina had been reelected as Mayor, after a bitter campaign against Bo-Peep. He'd voted for her, finding he preferred her not only to the erstwhile warlord, but the Snow and Charming, who despite all their good intentions would never understand certain realities. He and his former pupil had come to an understanding, and he did not regret it at all.
And then there was Emma. Still the Savior, still the Sheriff, and still the exasperated mother of the Truest Believer, newest Author, and now wizard in training: Henry. Rumplestiltskin watched with amusement and some pride as Regina imparted the knowledge he had taught her to her older son - his grandson, for all the hurt and machinations that had been involved in his birth. He'd honored her request to stay out of it, observing from afar and learning that Emma, Henry, and even Regina had let go of the hurt he had caused them long ago, and it was no evil deed for him to do the same.
Tonight's celebration had been Henry's idea, and Rumplestiltskin had had no reservations when Belle had told him she had accepted the invitation.
She giggled as the song ended, leaning against him affectionately. He embraced her, still warm from the memory of their wedding night. It had taken more months than he wanted to admit, but he had learned to once again share his body and his bed with her. Bae had kindly spent the night of their wedding at the loft with Henry and Emma, leaving the house to them and their lovemaking. The session had been shorter than he had imagined (Belle, after all, was still mortal and the day had been tiring), but soft and real and theirs. He would treasure that memory for the rest of his life. If he ever he had had dreams, she had fulfilled them, and likewise he had vowed to dedicate himself to making hers come true.
Tomorrow, they would leave in search of one. She had wanted to see the world, and he was finally ready to show it to her. They would spend the coming year exploring the United States, the cities and small towns and national parks. He had proposed a global tour, but Belle had smiled coyly and said, "We have time. There's so much in this world to see!" And that was Belle. It was not enough to see the sights; she wanted time to know the people.
She'd mapped out their route, beginning with a week in New York for New Year's then winding through the coastal states for the rest of the winter. In the spring, they would see the southern half of the Midwest, followed by the west coast, Hawaii, and Alaska for the summer and early fall, then the northern half of the Midwest. They would end their journey with pre-holiday celebrations in Vermont and New Hampshire and return just in time for a Christmas at home.
Bae was excited as well, particularly for Comic Con in San Diego, amusement parks (yes, they would be visiting Disney World), and the experience of fast food (he instead they try each national chain at least once). For his part, Rumplestiltskin only wanted to see his family's faces light up when they saw what this world had to offer. This was the future he had promised them, and at last, after so many years of obstacles and failures, he was giving it to them.
Belle brushed his hair behind his ear. "You're smiling."
"You're not going to miss Storybrooke too much? A year is a long time to be gone."
A long time without magic and without his wheel, he knew she meant. He kissed her. "No, I'm looking forward to it. I'll have what's important with me."
Considering that Storybrooke was now a thriving inter-dimensional hub, it had been quiet year. Emma had been afraid that with Gold gone, some god or demon or magical entity would show up and try to take over, or maybe one of Henry's spells would go wrong and turn them all into pineapples.
But short of a few brawls down at the Rabbit Hole and some minor political intrigues (with Regina as Mayor, there was always going to be some of that) nothing had gone wrong at all. Issac, Cruella, and George had all accepted conditional work releases and were now all mixing mortar, hauling lumber, or protecting the new settlements from chimeras on the other side of the portal. Here in Storybrooke, new housing was being built and new business where filling up the empty warehouses near the docks. The kingdoms of the Enchanted Forest were busy rebuilding, using a creative mix of magic and technology, and this provided any number of opportunities for people who had never had them. Times were good.
Maybe a little too good. Emma hated to admit it, but was bored.
She strolled down Main Street, a cardboard cup from Granny's in her hand. She was debating where to go for lunch. Gumbo from Tianna's or a sandwich from Sadira's? She saw Jefferson crossing the street and waved. He tipped his (non-magical) hat to her and continued on towards the library.
A couple of cars passed by and she nodded to them, sharing smiles with the drivers. Up ahead, a black Cadillac turned on to Main Street. Emma did a double take. "Gold?"
It was Gold. Belle sat in the passenger's seat with her head back and her eyes closed. Bae was in the back seat, speaking intently to her. Emma tried to flag them down, but Gold just shook his head, gesturing to the diner. She sprinted down the sidewalk to meet them, arriving just as Gold opened Belle's door and helped her out.
Belle was pregnant - very pregnant. "Are you in labor?" Emma asked, although she could not imagine why Gold would drive her to the diner and not the hospital if that were the case.
She laughed. "No! I just need the restroom. I'm sure you remember."
Emma chuckled at herself and jogged ahead to get the diner door for them. "I do. When I was nine months with Henry, it seemed like I was going every fifteen minutes."
Belle rubbed her belly, and Gold smiled softly. Granny and the others in the diner called out to greet them. "Look who's back early!" Granny said, "Missed my food that much?"
"You know we did, Granny!" Bae said, and the diner laughed. Belle let go of Gold's hand and made the last few heavy steps to the bathroom alone.
"So," Granny asked, "Here or to go?"
"To go," Bae said before Gold could answer. At his father's questioning look he said, "There's no food in the house."
"I called Dove yesterday."
"Ah. But do you really want to cook?"
"A fair point," Gold said. He placed the order with his usual business-like efficiency, and Granny pretended not to be smirking at him over her notepad. Emma took a seat at the counter, smiling openly.
"When are you due?" she asked Belle when she got back. She looked like she could be ready to deliver any day now, but Emma knew well enough not comment on a pregnant woman's appearance.
"Oh, not for another eight weeks," Belle said, "But we wanted to play it safe, just in case. The doctors said everything looks good, but twins do tend to come early."
"Twins?" Gold couldn't have looked more smug if he tried.
"Yes," Belle said, "A boy and a girl. We're excited, but it is getting a bit hard to spend all that time in the car."
"I'll bet. Well, congratulations!"
"Congratulations!" the rest of the diner agreed.
Belle and Bae filled Emma in on some of the details of their trip while Granny bagged up their food. Belle looked at the soup and grilled cheese like it was mana from the heavens, and Emma could remember that feeling too. They hurried out the door with another round of waving and congratulations, and Emma ordered another coffee to replace the one she'd dropped.
If this was what passed as the unexpected in Storybrooke these days, Emma decided she could live with it - even if she was bored.