In most of her dreams she’s wracked with pain and half-starved, feverish and tossing and turning to try and find cool comfort and instead inflicting more agony upon herself. She doesn’t know where she is or how she’s gotten there, or sometimes even who she is. Snow. I am Snow White, she remembers, but sometimes her name is Mary Margaret and there’s a woman who looks at her like she’s important. Other times, she hears a sneering voice she doesn’t recognize that talks about her death and her imprisonment and people she’s left behind.
Then one day, there’s someone beside her who feels more substantial than the blonde woman in her dreams and the jeering woman from afar, someone who spoons food into her mouth and sends unnatural warmth through her whole body, cooling the fever and snapping at the jeering woman and pressing a gentle, gentle hand to the lower half of her stomach. It feels important, but she doesn’t know why. She doesn’t know anything but pain.
She awakens to darkness, curled up on a dirt floor she doesn’t recognize with a faint thudding in her head when she tries to move it. Old instincts- from the last time she’d woken up in the dark, a refugee alone and afraid and in constant danger- caution her against speaking until her eyes have adjusted to her surroundings, and she tenses, preparing to attack whoever’s brought her here.
She can finally make out a figure sitting across the…room, is it? It’s deep under the ground, she thinks, far from the sun and the moon and illuminated only indirectly by a flickering light that must be a lamp somewhere nearby. It isn’t David. For a moment, she wonders Emma? but even in her dazed half-awake state, she knows that isn’t right.
No. She can see the outline of a woman, dressed in a high-collared dark coat and riding pants, her hair somehow immaculately piled atop her head even in what Snow is beginning to suspect is a dungeon of some sort, and she tenses automatically, old habits dying hard as she recognizes her cellmate. For a moment there’s the old panic as well, and she slows her breathing, her entire body suddenly hot and sweating at what it recognizes as its impending doom.
She notices, of course. She always notices. “Really, Snow, I’m not here to kill you,” Regina says dryly, and Snow can imagine the eyeroll without visual aid. “Believe me, I have much better things to do with my time than engage with you at all. Such as...” She cocks her head, considering. “Watching the fungus drip across these walls.”
“Regina!” She’s stumbling to her feet at once, memories flooding back with the former queen-turned-mayor’s words, and just as quickly she’s crying out as pain engulfs her left leg and she trips and falls backward, the shattered remnants of the limb collapsing beneath her.
Immediately, arms are stretched out to catch her, to settle her back down to the ground without any further harm, and Regina’s dark eyes are gleaming down at her in their scant light, expressionless as she lowers Snow with stiff but gentle guidance. Thank you, she means to say, but instead she blurts out, “Why?” and flushes in the dark.
Regina ignores her. “What do you remember?” she demands tersely, her fingers plucking at Snow’s injured leg, pinching along the bone as Snow flinches in protest.
“I…” She doesn’t remember this prison. She remembers the Enchanted Forest, remembers an argument with their resident sorceress regarding the dark magic surrounding her old home. Regina had advised them to let her take care of her own business (in Regina fashion, so with far more disdain and thinly veiled insults) and Snow had been reluctant, wary, with too many memories to spare of times when Regina had ‘taken care of things’ and left nothing but destruction in her path.
Effective destruction at times, she admits. But then she’d remembered her daughter (her daughter, her Emma, and sometimes hope isn’t enough after all) wrapped around her, holding her in place so Regina’s dark magic could save them, and she’d mounted an invasion of Regina’s land all on her own, with loyal soldiers and her husband at her side. She remembers a black cloud, dark and malicious, bearing over them as they’d approached, and something unnaturally strong swooping down from the sky to seize her, and then she remembers falling, falling, and nothingness.
“Sad as it is to admit, you weren’t entirely wrong,” Regina says. “Your pathetic army was defeated before they ever reached the castle, and you’d been taken prisoner long before that. However…” She squeezes too hard on broken bone in irritation, and Snow cries out. “The witch who’d invaded my castle appears to be more powerful than even I am.” Regina pauses, something dull and nearly translucent sparking from her palm to warm Snow’s leg. It’s not enough to heal her, but it dampens the pain, and Snow sags back against the other woman gratefully.
It isn’t any kind of comfort or victory to hear Regina admit that this other witch is stronger; rather, it leaves Snow sick with new fear and tense about the threat to come. They’ve only just managed to reach this tentative truce with her former stepmother, and now it’s for naught, both of them the prisoners of someone beyond even Regina’s capabilities. “What did she do to you?”
Regina sighs. “Would you kindly cease your jabbering until I’ve made some progress in healing you? The magic in this realm is nearly inaccessible without distractions.”
“Why are you here?” Snow presses on, frowning. She can’t imagine that Regina would have gone through with her original plans to confront the witch on her own, not when their army had returned without her and the witch had remained an unknown. Regina may be dancing on a line of morality that Snow absolutely despises, but she’s no brash or foolish knight, off on death-defying missions without proper research. She couldn’t have been taken so easily.
And the words are emerging before she can stop them, the wishful thinking taken too far, as always, and why does she care anymore anyway? “Did you come for me?” She stiffens automatically, cursing her inability to seek out reasons for Regina to hurt her even more, and her own idiocy at inviting it. Regina hates her, has always hated her, and she’s no longer a child heartbroken over that realization. She knows better than to incite the queen, especially without the buffer zone that Emma and Henry had always provided so readily.
But Regina isn’t scoffing, isn’t lashing out at her with words that still wound despite Snow’s best efforts to ensure otherwise. She’s silent, her hand still pressed to Snow’s leg, breathing only through her nose.
And Snow, disbelieving and still too vulnerable around Regina Mills, dares to whisper, “Thank you.”
Regina sighs, long-suffering. “I didn’t do it for you.” It’s a phrase Snow’s heard from her dozens of times since Pan’s curse and their return to the Enchanted Forest, since they’ve been leaning on a still-grieving Regina and her magic more than ever and Snow’s had to learn to express gratitude to the woman she still holds too many grudges against to ever be comfortable with it.
The dark spot on her heart might have been from her one great evil deed, but she’s felt herself warring with darkness more and more as time has passed, as Regina has proven herself and earned the faith of her daughter and grandson and now much of the kingdom and is universally agreed to be on a path to redemption. And there’s still a voice in Snow’s heart that bitterly protests it, that longs for matters of good and evil to be simple again.
She’d wanted her love to save Regina, once upon a time, but Regina had chosen another path, and Snow can’t say what feeds her grudge more- Regina changing, reclaiming the love of her son when Snow’s own daughter had been separated from her for so long that they’ve been strangers (don’t think about Emma, don’t think about Emma, don’t think about Emma); or Regina doing all she’s done without Snow’s support this time. And it’s probably pure stupidity and that dark spite that makes her retort, “Henry isn’t going to know if you let someone else kill me.”
Regina rolls her eyes, shoving Snow away from her so quickly that her leg howls in protest. “Yes, well, that point aside, I’m not in the habit of taking mothers away from their children anymore.” Her eyes glint with darkness suddenly, and Snow is too afraid to think of reading into that statement. “Or manipulating children to rob themselves of their own mothers.”
And now it’s Snow who pulls away, dragging her injured leg across the floor as she slides across the cell floor, before she chokes out, “You and your mother killed my parents. So if you’re going to try to make me feel guilty-“
It’s unfair, it isn’t right that Regina could spend her whole life shrouded in darkness and still attempt to take the moral high ground now. It’s unfair that she’d striven to be good and noble for decades and that one single crime still feels as though it overshadows the rest of what she’s fought to become when she looks at Regina now. Evil, she reminds herself, because it’s easier to cope with hating Regina than to recall how much she despises herself sometimes. Selfish, wicked, cruel, she levels at the woman across from her, and somehow the words lodge inside her own heart instead, tearing into it with savage force until the tears are coming, shining on her face in the flickering light as Regina looks on.
The other woman’s face is unreadable as she assesses Snow, and Snow looks down, ashamed again. She feels naked in the face of Regina’s cool analysis, bared of goodness and righteousness and reduced only to the heart glowing red and black, and she shivers, scuttling further away from the former queen.
And when Regina speaks, it’s harsh and scathing. “Yes, well, you’re held to a higher standard because you’re so good.” She bites it out like it’s a curse, an insult, and Snow flinches automatically. “You save the town from a murderous witch and you still waste my time with self-pity at necessary evils. It’s a wonder you ever thought you could reign as a queen.” Her back straightens and she turns to the bars at the front of the cell, the conversation over as quickly as it had begun.
It takes several moments of poring over Regina’s retort, letting it sink in, before Snow notices that despite the tone and the antipathy that bleeds through all Regina says, her words are very much a comfort instead of a curse.
“It was cruel,” she whispers finally, what feels like hours later.
Regina cocks her head, perfect features tightening as she turns away. “What now?”
“What I did. It wasn’t a necessary evil.” She swallows into a dry throat. “I made promises to you and I gave you her heart and-“
Regina cuts her off, her voice pained. “I’d really rather not repeat this story, thank you.” She hesitates, her eyes still focused forward and away from Snow. “Yes. You were cruel,” she says finally. “Cruelty begets cruelty.”
“I’m supposed to be better than that!” Snow protests, and she winces in the next moment, aware of how she sounds.
Regina barks out a laugh, low and derisive. “And I, of course, am meant to be cruel.” She turns at last, her face twisted into a sneer, and Snow can read the pain hovering just below her surface disdain. “The fairest of them all, Snow White, dabbling in shades of grey for the sake of vengeance, and it consumes you.”
She’s stung, even as Regina echoes words Snow has never dared say aloud. “You should know,” she mutters, and Regina’s smile widens.
“Indeed,” she agrees. “I am…uniquely qualified to grasp your situation. Of course, I truly committed myself to my vengeance for far longer than you did. Is that why you’ve been so impossible of late? Do you wish to be taught dark magic? Shall we crown you an evil queen?”
“Stop it!” The words tear from her as Regina’s words tear into her, and she’s crying again, huddled as far from Regina as possible. “This isn’t a joke, Regina! This isn’t…” Her words trail off and she doesn’t know what she’s going to say next, what more there is to say at all when her worst tormentor and only victim is mocking her for her regrets. She deserves nothing and everything and the best and the worst of Snow, and if Snow can only figure out which part of her is which, this would all be so much simpler.
She feels Regina’s presence before she looks up, standing over her in the musty air of the cell. “Of course,” Regina murmurs, the contempt barely present in her voice. “I very much doubt the evil queen would have suffered to save you as you did me just before Neverland.”
Regina shakes her head, sliding back down to crouch beside her leg again. “You would do well to be more like your daughter, Snow. Recognize, at least, that one dark deed does not beget another, and whiteness will always be tarnished in time.” A soft exhalation. “It does make it so difficult to hate you when you move from condemning me to another land to taking in my pain to rescue me.” She brightens. “Though it was rather accommodating that you immediately returned to your sanctimoniously pristine self following that.”
Oh. She’d nearly forgotten that, amidst the guilt of what had come before and the new resentments that had dogged their steps in Neverland. She remembers the shared agony, fleeting as it had been, remembers David telling Regina that they were family and the odd warmth that had glowed through her at the lack of a rejoinder from the other woman. For a brief time, she’d been allowed to love Regina again, and it had been freeing even between talk of Neal and triggers and the end of the world. She tries it out again, soft and tentative. “You’re family.”
Regina snorts, unimpressed, but there’s a blessed numbness warming her leg again as the sorceress turns her attentions to it again. “Henry and Em- Henry was my family,” she corrects, and Snow’s eyebrows shoot up at the slip as Regina’s magic intensifies unpleasantly against her leg. “I don’t have family anymore, nor would I name you dolts any replacement for them.”
You aren’t the only one who lost a child, Snow doesn’t say, and the thought of it, of Regina’s reckless love for her son, of a boy who’d been enough to transform the evil queen, burns and burns until she can’t breathe in the stifling prison that cages her body and her mind both.
She falls asleep against Regina and awakens curled against her, tucked under a protective arm of the slumbering brunette with her head resting against her thigh. She closes her eyes at the familiarity of it, longing for a simpler time, when she’d been blind to Regina’s agenda and besotted with her new child mother. How often had she fallen asleep in the queen’s bed after begging for stories or confiding some petty secret to her? It had been easy then to see warmth in Regina’s eyes, to love her guilelessly and never entertain the thought that the woman who’d held her close and who’d given her that shining smile- the one Snow hasn’t seen since- could have any hatred in her heart.
She’s spent all the years since wondering if it could all have been a lie, even when reason and logic insist that she’s a sentimental fool for entertaining any notion to the contrary.
There are footsteps clicking against stone in the distance, and her eyes snap open as she reluctantly disengages from Regina to scoot forward and peer into the dimness beyond their prison. Her leg still hurts, but it’s a muted pain, and when she squints at it she notices that Regina’s set it with a stick and wrapped white cloth- her dress, not Regina’s, because for all Regina’s unfathomable kindness to her down here, she still has her standards- and it’s stiff in place. She holds onto the bars of her cell, hoisting herself up to stand and face the intruder.
The woman who arrives is green-skinned and smirking, her eyes running down Snow’s dirty dress and injured leg with haughty amusement. “Ah, the slumbering princess awakens at last.” A green hand slides through the bars to squeeze her chin painfully. “Such a precious little dear, aren’t you? I’m sure I’ll find good use for you when the time comes.”
Snow stands stiffly, her heart pounding at the leer in the witch’s gaze. There’s darkness in her, more detached and cool than Regina’s had ever been. Regina had been barely restrained fire, anger perpetually burning within her as she’d carried out one plan after another to exact her vengeance on Snow. This woman’s evil is inherent in ways Snow can barely comprehend, nothing in her eyes but malice and desire. She’s terrified of speaking, of challenging the witch, and it’s a relief when she feels the rush of movement beside her, Regina awake and yanking her out of the witch’s grip. “A lily-white princess to corrupt?” her former stepmother scoffs. “Please, Theodora. I’d thought we were past cliché by now.”
The witch’s sneer widens, and Regina’s grip tightens around Snow’s waist, tucking her just behind her. “Regina, it is such a surprise to see you here still. I hadn’t thought I could contain you so easily.” Her eyes darken, and there’s the hatred Snow remembers from Regina’s eyes at the height of their rivalry, so bitter and hot that she’d been afraid for her life then more than ever. Now, she leans into Regina, suddenly afraid for her cellmate’s sake. “You are even weaker than I’d imagined. A travesty that you could ever kill my sister.”
Regina rolls her eyes. “Your sister was a dragon by the time I’d finished with her, and I slayed her with no trouble at all.” Maleficent. Snow knows the story of what had been beneath the library in Storybrooke, just as well as she knows that Emma had been the one to slay the witch. Not Regina. But Regina bears the deed with pride, even as the witch’s eyes grow darker and darker with rage. “If I fought you in my land, you’d be reduced to…a frog?” she suggests, smirking. “Terrifying, really.”
The witch laughs, high and unstable, her eyes now glinting with madness and fury. “Regina, Regina, I should kill you now. But I think I’d rather you watch your little pet suffer first.” She turns her attentions back to Snow, reaching out for her again. Snow steps back instinctively, and the witch cackles. “Maleficent had been so certain that you loathed your stepdaughter. And yet,” she drawls. “And yet.” She turns on her heel and marches down the hall, her heels clicking with every step.
“I do loathe my stepdaughter,” Regina grumbles, but she’s moving to study Snow’s face where the witch’s touch still burns her, to bend again to inspect her leg. “Can you walk?” she demands.
“I…” Snow inhales, the scent of perfumed malice still heavy in the air. New fear washes over her- fear for Regina, fear for herself, fear for whatever the witch has planned for them both. And they’re here, helpless, with no defense but Regina’s weakened magic.
“Snow.” A none-too-gentle slap sounds against her cheek, and she jerks, staring at Regina’s unamused face. “I have been sitting in this cell for a week, healing you so you would wake up and we could leave before that blasted witch decides to exact her vengeance. I will not allow my work to be in vain. Do you understand?”
She nods faintly. Regina smiles. “Good. Now. Can you walk?”
“I-I think so.”
“About time.” Then the other woman is pressing a hand to the closest cell bar, squeezing it within her fist until it crushes into fine dust before their eyes. She turns to the next bar, magic floating from her hands as she does the same.
Snow stares. “Have you been…able to do that all along?”
Regina ignores her.
“So why didn’t you leave right away?” Why remain a prisoner of a witch who clearly wants her dead, who might have underestimated Regina but who had still managed to defeat her in the first place? For Snow’s sake? I didn’t do it for you.
But hadn’t you?
She’s a foolish girl, still desperate for affection she’s never going to receive from someone who’s hurt her far too deeply to ever deserve that desperation, but she limps after Regina without another word.
This is another land, Snow recognizes once they’ve made their way through the dungeons and up through the lower levels of the witch’s castle. There are no human guards around, just green-skinned imps and grotesquely oversized monkeys that Regina puts to sleep with a touch as they walk past. None are armed with bows, to Snow’s disappointment, but she claims a spear from an unconscious guard and ducks after Regina with it in hand.
“We’re near the surface,” Regina murmurs, steadying her when she slips on her bad leg. “Stay quiet- if that’s even feasible for you,” she adds for good measure, and Snow almost smiles.
It isn’t quite a companionable silence between them now, but it is focused, no space for old grudges when Regina is busy ensuring that they’re not caught and Snow has put all her energy into staying upright, her leg screaming for a rest that they can’t afford. Regina has put herself at risk for long enough for Snow to manage a little pain during their escape.
She trusts Regina not to leave her behind now, and her confusion at her own certainty grows with their every step. But it’s difficult to doubt her when she’s the only reason Snow is still alive, when Regina’s life is on the line to protect Snow and Emma both. She just doesn’t understand why, and it leaves her unsure and confident at the same time.
She limps forward to press a hand to Regina’s shoulder. “Wait.”
“Do you smell that?” Regina has been a queen and a mayor but she isn’t nearly as acquainted with the great outdoors as Snow is, and Snow grins, suddenly glad to be in her area of expertise again. “That’s fresh air, coming from down that corridor.”
“Oh,” Regina breathes, and she turns to where Snow is indicating, hastening her step so Snow is forced to hurry along on her protesting leg. “Show me.”
Snow hobbles forward, her eyes drifting closed as she allows her nose to lead them, and she stumbles toward the first door at the end of the hall, pressing a hand to it. “This will take us outside.”
Regina’s magic is getting weaker, whatever unrestrained levels it reaches in the Enchanted Forest muffled in this realm, and it’s one last tiny spurt of energy against the lock before the door swings open.
-To a forest entrance, a story too high, and Snow is grabbing Regina by the arm before the other woman can fall out. “Regina, wait!”
Regina blinks up at her, then back down to the woods, and she slumps against Snow, worn out. “I can’t conjure anything to take us down there,” she admits.
“We’ll have to climb.” Snow hauls her leg forward, testing its strength against a tree half beneath the door, and winces when it crumples beneath her. “Can you manage it?” she asks, half hoping that Regina will say no, that they can go back to their dungeon cell for another day or two and heal more before attempting this.
Regina instead takes her halfhearted question as a criticism and scowls fiercely. “Of course I can,” she snaps, and she brushes past Snow to launch herself out onto the tree, grabbing uselessly at several branches before she slides down the trunk, hanging on for dear life as branches fly past her and she falls to the ground, filthy and scratched up.
“Oh, no.” Snow jumps after her, disregarding her leg and using her hands to move from branch to lower branch, guiding herself through the trees until she finds one low enough to jump from. Her leg protests in agony as she hits the ground but she motors through the pain, staggering from tree to tree until she reaches Regina.
The former queen glares up at her, her normally flawless face bearing a bloody scrape across one cheek but otherwise apparently unharmed. “I swear to you, Snow, if you laugh at me right now, I’m going to ensure that you and your children and your children’s children-“ She stops, suddenly remembering exactly who it is Snow’s child’s child would be, and scowls even harder. “Do not talk to me,” she finishes, lurching back to her feet.
“Not a word,” Snow promises, and now they’re both staggering as though drunkenly through the woods, leaning on every tree and each other for support as they navigate through the woods.
Snow takes the first watch, insisting that Regina needs to sleep to recover any magic she can use here. It’s strange, relying on magic so heavily when she’s fought it until now, written it off as dark and evil and a threat to all she holds dear. You would do well to be more like your daughter.
Well, now she’s conceded that magic will save them, and that Regina can do good with her abilities. Striving to be more like Emma every day. Regina should be very proud.
She thinks of Regina and Emma, left alone in the woods in Neverland more often than Snow had been comfortable with, talking about magic and their son and the impossible bond between them because of both. She’d been quietly wary even as David had murmured comforting words in her ears, and she flushes when she remembers her relief when they’d split up to pursue Neal before Henry.
She hadn’t trusted Regina around Emma, not when Emma had been so ready to place her faith in the very recently reformed queen armed with dubious methods and dark determination. She’s still anxious about it even now without any rational reason why, when Emma is gone (long gone, gone forever, and she can’t think about that any more at all) and Regina’s influence is far away from her.
Magic doesn’t corrupt, not without a willing subject, and she can grudgingly admit that now. Regina has used her magic for nothing more than the safety of her family and then the kingdom since they’d first allied before Neverland. And as much as she hates that her daughter had gotten caught up in it- in Regina–
No. She bites back the bitterness, the impossible reaction to them both. Naming these emotions will get her nowhere, not when nothing there can change or will change. She can’t allow these dark desires to control her. Desires to be one of the few people in the universe Regina seems to respect. Desires to be as trusted and understood by Emma as Regina had been. She’s jealous of her daughter and her nemesis’s relationship, and how much of a mess has she become that this can affect her so deeply even a year later?
How much of her present animosity toward Regina is based out of Regina’s obvious affection (well, affection might be too strong a word for Regina, perhaps tolerance would suffice) for Emma?
She swallows, willing intrusive thoughts from her mind again. She’d learned to be good, to never allow herself the weakness of petty jealousy or cravings. She’s spent her whole life attempting to be a paragon of goodness, and now she feels weak and stupid and selfish all the time, caught up in agendas more convoluted than even Regina’s had once been. She doesn’t know how to do this, how to be someone who sees a full spectrum of grey within the black and white, how to be like the daughter whom Regina regards so highly.
Something wet nuzzles her hand and she blinks down at the purple-furred rabbit gazing up at her trustingly. Small animals remain her steadfast allies even in another realm, it seems, but her mouth is watering at the idea of something more filling than the prison gruel she’s been eating until now. They’re going to have to hunt to survive in this land, and this rabbit is presenting itself as a willing meal.
Regina wouldn’t hesitate to kill it for their survival, but Snow curls her hand around the little creature, holding it close as she considers her options. It feels…it feels wrong to hurt it when it trusts her, to do the coldblooded, necessary thing. She feels wrong just thinking about it, dirty and twisted and she retches, gags on her own saliva and drops the rabbit until it’s running away from their little clearing, confused and afraid. As it should be.
It makes it to the closest bush before a barely formed fireball hits it, killing it on the spot.
She turns so quickly that her leg sends shooting pains up to her back. Regina stares back at her, expressionless. “I wasn’t going to-“
“You didn’t,” Regina snaps. “I did. Now go cook it properly so we don’t catch Ozian salmonella from it.”
“It trusted me.”
Regina shrugs carelessly. “Yes, well, so did I, once upon a time. We all learn our lesson eventually.”
She wants to cry. She wants to scream at Regina, to shout that she’d been a child, that it’s her mother who’d been the true villain and that she’s more than paid the price for her girlhood stupidity. She wants to protest and curse this woman who still looks at her like she’s nothing, like she’ll never matter to her at all.
Instead, she collects loose straw as kindling and ignites it, and skins and roasts the rabbit in silence.
It’s only later, when they’re eating the meat and not looking at each other, that she remembers Regina’s words. “You said the same thing to me about Emma once. After you took that Lost Boy’s heart.” She didn’t. I did. That’s what I’m here for. Regina, glaring at Snow as though she were the enemy, as though she’d accused Emma of something more horrific than just a caution regarding magic. It had bridled at her for reasons she hates admitting.
Regina chews slowly, deliberately. “Yes, well, you put too far much stock in your own goodness and in Emma’s required purity. Apparently I have to coddle you or you’ll never stop whining about it.”
“Emma’s required purity?” Snow echoes. “You make it sound like I wouldn’t accept her if she wasn’t-“ She forces herself to stop.
But Regina cocks her head knowingly. “Wouldn’t you?”
Snow narrows her eyes. “I loved you even when you were an evil queen bent on my destruction. If you think that my love for my daughter is dependent on anything, then you…you don’t understand me at all.”
“You don’t understand you at all,” Regina mutters, and Snow drags herself to her feet, refusing to glance down at the other woman.
“I’m going to go find some water,” she snaps, leaning on her good foot. “Don’t follow me.”
Regina does anyway, her eyes reading far too much in Snow’s face and turning the silence oppressive and threatening.
They barely speak during the next day. Snow catches a deer-like animal with her spear and they don’t lack for meat, and there are edible berries a bit further into these woods. She remembers the Enchanted Forest longingly, fondly reminiscences about lush forests and the green and brown environment that had been her home once. These woods are sparsely forested, the trunks and the leaves of the trees all black as ash, and the ground is straw more often than dirt. The birds that flutter down to her shoulders are strangely shaped, with long, hooked beaks that are the mark of predators, not prey, and they regard Regina with distrust that sets Snow even more on edge.
An unkindness of ravens fill the skies overhead once and several flying monkeys scan the area where they’re moving, but little rodents and birds give warning and lead Snow to hiding places large enough to conceal both her and Regina. The witch from the castle must be none too pleased about their escape. And with enchanted animals at her disposal, it may be a long time before she gives up on locating them.
Regina’s magic grows stronger the further they are from the castle, and after another day spent healing, Snow’s beginning to regain strength in her leg. Regina is drained by the time the sun sets, and Snow is left tending to her again, gathering berries and using her spear to hollow out a wooden cup with which to retrieve water from the closest fresh lake.
And maybe it’s the silence with which Regina accepts her attention that creates a false atmosphere of near-camaraderie, that leaves her to comment, “This brings back memories,” when they’re really memories she’d rather forget.
But Regina nearly smiles. “Yes, I recall.” She’d been under a spell at the time, concealed as an innocent girl whom Snow had saved from a mob in town, and Snow had cared for her and told her about the Regina she’d still longed to know again back then. The girl had wept, and Snow had been touched by her connection to Snow’s story and had only realized later, after Regina had crossed yet another line, that it had been the queen she’d spoken to.
She hadn’t allowed herself to think of those tears for a long time, or to think of the Regina who’d been ready to make amends and gladly accept her love, not until Regina had been blindfolded and tied to a post, awaiting her death. I wouldn’t have been enough, she reminds herself.
“No,” Regina agrees, and Snow realizes that she’d spoken aloud. “I wasn’t ready to be saved. I didn’t want to be, not until after Storybrooke.”
“Because of Henry.” Another wave of irrational jealousy washes through her, this time directed toward a twelve-year-old boy who certainly doesn’t deserve it from his grandmother. Needy child, still desperate for love.
Regina tips the cup against her lips, sucking out the last drops of moisture from it. “Because I had nothing but my vengeance. I was hollow and empty and cold, and to take away that last bit of me would have been to leave me entirely barren. I had nothing,” she repeats, staring into the cup. “No one.”
“You had me!” The words burn her throat as they emerge, the petulant child still escaping even now around Regina. “You had…” She struggles to expand on it. “I would have forgiven you, Regina. I would have loved you.”
Regina scoffs, staring up at the alien stars. “I didn’t want your love. Your love destroyed my life.”
“And your hate destroyed mine,” Snow snaps back, her eyes narrowed and her ears and neck warm with anger.
Regina laughs, and it’s unkind and brittle. “I tried to rid you of your happy ending, and you still have your true love and your kingdom and all that you loved most. You’re hardly destroyed.”
She can feel outrage building in the secret place within her, the one she doesn’t dare to peek into lest she destroy herself, and she’s trembling with fury at the other woman’s dismissal of it. “You took Emma from me!”
Regina’s eyes are flashing now, something equally unstable within her awakened at the mention of Emma. “And you never loved her most, did you?”
The slap makes them both jump, even as Snow’s palm connects with Regina’s cheek for a second time and darkens it to red. “How dare you. How dare you,” she hisses. “You have no idea how I feel about Emma.”
Regina shoves her away. “I know you were going to leave her behind. Again. I know you were too busy making plans for your new future with the other idiot to ever contemplate how it might have affected the daughter you did have.” She clenches her fists together, her every word another red-hot arrow directed at Snow’s heart with unerring accuracy. “Emma Swan, probably the best thing to have ever happened to you and your family and Storybrooke, and you’d throw her away like an expired bottle of juice.”
“And now she’s gone!” Snow is shrieking and sobbing all at once, words emerging in a rush and then not at all. “Do you think I don’t know that? That this isn’t my punishment?” She tries to breathe and chokes instead. “Emma never even wanted me, Regina!”
Regina grinds her teeth together. “You can justify your selfishness however you’d like, but don’t delude yourself into thinking that Emma didn’t want-“
“She wanted Mary Margaret!” And Regina’s stunned into silence. “She wanted the friend that you cursed into being. The person I never was! And I was never enough of that person to be enough for her.” Tears are spilling down her cheeks, dripping onto the ground below them, and Snow doesn’t bother to wipe them away.
“So, yes, I did think about having another baby. I wanted to be…I wanted to be her friend, so maybe she wouldn’t look at me and long for that imaginary woman I was. I didn’t want to hurt every time I saw her, so I was selfish and I was insensitive and now I don’t have Emma at all and the idea of ever having another child after losing her makes me want to vomit, so are you happy, Regina?” she demands defiantly, her eyes burning into the older woman’s. “I’m just as miserable as you.”
But Regina is staring at her, undisguised shock on her face still, and when her eyes drift to Snow’s abdomen, it’s with quiet disbelief. “You don’t know, do you?”
“What are you talking about?” Bewilderment is replacing despair and the overwhelming relief of admission, of facing that darkness in her heart head-on. Relief that’s fading as Regina continues to stare at her stomach as though there’s…there’s… “No,” she whispers, and she heaves, gagging in the too-sweet odor of the forest around them. “No, it can’t be.”
“I thought you knew.” Regina had sensed it before her, had been aware of the tiny life growing inside her even as she’d silently wept for her other child. “You’re about two, maybe three months along.” She’s shaking her head, something close to compassion on her face, and Snow can’t- can’t–
“No.” It’s all she can say, again and again; and in the imaginary world in her mind where she sees Emma again, where her golden-haired princess child who’d been her friend first and still thinks herself an orphan is reunited with her at last, she cowers in front of her daughter’s betrayed look and pleads for apologies she’ll never deserve. “No, no, no, no.”
Again and again until she curls up on the forest floor, her hands on her stomach, mourning her own greed for happiness she doesn’t deserve, and for the honesty she’s stripped herself of ever facing. Warm arms encircle her, arms that feel like home and her childhood and love that had never been real, and she cries against Regina’s side until she sinks into blessed unconsciousness.
In the morning, when they’re both awake and the sun is casting warming rays down on them through the trees, Regina presses a hand to Snow’s stomach and says, “Don’t ever again resent that life growing within you, Snow. Emma would never forgive you if you did that your next child.”
Snow pulls away, enough so that Regina can see her face, and whispers, “I should never have killed your mother.”
“No,” Regina agrees, but there’s no more seething ire in her eyes, only weary resignation. “You shouldn’t have.” And she admits haltingly, “I think…I would have had to do it myself eventually, anyway, if she’d ever gotten near Henry and…” Her voice trails off, but there’s something on her face that Snow still can’t read, even after all they’ve been through.
She thinks she might be able to, given enough time, and she doesn’t know if she’ll like it very much.
Instead she finds herself saying, her filter gone for good, “Did you ever love me?” It comes out small, as small as she feels when she thinks about it, and she tenses in preparation for Regina to pull away. “After I…after I ruined everything. When you were almost my mother.”
Regina laughs, sharp and unamused. “I will never understand why you wanted my love. Have you not seen how twisted it is? How miserable I am at loving? Didn’t you see how I treated Henry? He was right to run away from me, you know.”
And it’s absurd, knowing how Regina’s love can transform and rejuvenate and shatter the world to its foundation, and hearing her disparage it as twisted and unhealthy. She envies Regina, she envies her capacity for love and the people gifted with that love and even the child growing within her, for the way Regina’s eyes turn tender when she considers it. “I wish I’d been able to love Emma as openly and unreservedly as you love Henry,” she says, and Regina stops laughing abruptly.
The sorceress says, “Yes,” and Snow doesn’t know what it’s in answer to, but her eyes are suddenly cloudy and her heart is contracting in her chest as their gazes lock.
The forest stretches on and on for so long that Snow begins to suspect an enchantment on the part of the witch in the castle. The whole of the Enchanted Forest isn’t nearly this large, and Oz had always seemed smaller from what she’d heard of it back home. They’ve been traipsing through the woods for over a week now, searching for paths out to a wizard Regina had heard might possess a magic bean somewhere near the center of the realm, and have had little luck at all. The ravens and the monkeys still pass above them, but now there are fewer daily and Snow thinks the witch might be giving up at last.
“Maybe she thinks we found her portal and got out,” she suggests one day, pushing aside branches to squint into the distance.
Regina shakes her head. “Her slippers are her transportation between realms. She has no portal.”
Their only indication that the forest might end soon is Regina’s magic, which she reports is nearly at full strength now as they get closer and closer to an escape from the woods. Snow has been fully healed by now and she has a bow and arrow courtesy of Regina, and in a strange way, this isn’t nearly as bad as she’d thought it would be at first.
They’re getting along. Regina is still snippy and knows exactly which buttons to push to get a rise out of Snow, but it’s easier to allow the words to slide over her now, to smile and brush it off or just admit the things she hasn’t dared admit before. It’s so easy with Regina, who gives her exactly the judgment she expects and then shrugs off all her concerns, who lectures her on taking care of herself now that she’s pregnant and expresses her deep condolences at the baby’s parentage, who doesn’t smile but whose face softens just a bit with each day they spend in the woods.
It’s on the tenth morning since they’ve left the castle that Snow’s the first one to spot yellow land, hiding between the trees. “Regina!”
Then she’s running, flying through the underbrush and pushing it aside with her haste to see their way out, Regina just behind her. “Ah,” she sighs blissfully when they emerge into sunshine, a yellow field stretching before them. And beyond that…
“The Emerald City,” Regina murmurs, and Snow is rewarded with Regina’s first real smile of their trip, wide and gleaming like she’d once grinned at a young Snow when they’d curled up together in Regina’s bed and gossiped about nothing at all. “We’re out.”
They’re running again, racing through the field without a care in the world, and they reach the city gates within only a few minutes.
And when they’re inside, they can only blink in astonishment, but it isn’t at the grandeur that spreads around them or the overwhelming mass of green that decorates everything in sight.
It’s at the blonde woman standing at the base of the road, staring at them both with vague amusement on her face. “That was quick,” she comments to her companion, who’s eyeing them both as though they’ve interrupted a lengthy planned vacation.
Which, knowing Hook, is exactly what they’ve done.
Emma is the first to move forward. “Mary Margaret,” she says, her eyes shining with tears, and Regina catches Snow’s eye as Emma rushes to embrace her mother. It’s easier to lean into the hug, somehow, after seeing that glimmer of sympathy from the other woman, and when she cries, it’s shaking off the bitterness that has guided her through the past year. Emma’s here again. Emma came to rescue them. That’s all that matters.
“I love you,” she whispers into Emma’s hair. “More than anything.” She thinks she might mean it, after the year away that had destroyed her. “I don’t…I don’t think I was good at showing it.” Emma doesn’t respond, just clutches her tighter, and Snow’s heart feels clean again with only an embrace.
“I trust the purely experimental potion I should never have trusted your father with worked?” Regina says dryly, and Emma pulls back to regard Snow’s companion, affection flickering across her face. “Or did Hook administer a kiss of true love?”
Emma stares at her for another moment, and Snow sees that thing on Regina’s face again, the thing she’s been afraid to contemplate much. Then Emma’s laughing, peals of mirth that spill out with her tears, and she says, “I can’t believe I actually missed you when I remembered,” and her arms are sliding up to pull a startled Regina into a hug and her head is pressed into the crook of Regina’s neck and Regina’s lips are somewhere near Emma’s ear and they’re both holding on so tightly that Snow doesn’t think she’d ever be able to force them apart.
Oh. So that’s what it is.
Hook’s looking like a kicked puppy and Snow identifies with the sentiment more than she’d like to admit, but then Emma and Regina are finally separating and Regina is demanding details on how her son has been and Emma is demanding details on the witch they’ve been fleeing, and they each move to either side of Snow without any coaxing as they speak to each other.
They might be sneaking glances at each other over her shoulders, but she’s still gratified to discover contentment, creeping up through months of self-pity and self-hatred and resentment to overtake the darkness in her heart entirely. This is who we are, she thinks.
This is how we heal.