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Emma Enchanted

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There is a tale, told often in the whispered hush of a dreadful fairytale to the children of the kingdom. Children listen, eyes wide, and the story spreads as gradually and as wholly as the grey spreads across King David’s beard, as the dark clouds spread across an estate at the edge of the kingdom where a fearsome witch practices her magic.

 

But the most exact version of the tale is never quite discussed. There’s a bit about a fairy, a princess, a new villain in every retelling, but only precious few know the reality of it. The queen, the king, the queen’s personal guard. To others, the nightmare of the story is the lack of explanation for what had happened. To them, the nightmare would be what might come next.

 

The tale, as it truly goes, is of Snow White, queen of the White Kingdom, bright-eyed and glowing with the birth of her first child. Her husband stands with her, her knight crouches beside her, and they wait together for the final moment of birth– the moment where the baby princess’s fairy godmother might come to touch her wand to the child’s forehead and gift her with something grand.

 

But the Blue Fairy had been late, caught up in a bitter feud with an imp, and another fairy, seeking to prove herself, had felt the pull of a new baby and arrived instead. Queen Snow had startled at the burst of green, and a tiny, fluttering fairy had thrown herself into a sloppy curtsy and said, “Your Majesty! It’s an honor. Blue is– Oh ,” she’d said, her eyes rounding as she catches sight of the new princess.

 

The princess had begun to wail, fairy dust caught in her little lungs, and Queen Snow had hurriedly hushed her without much success. The girl had cried and cried and cried, and King David had held her and Queen Snow had soothed and even Mulan had tried her hand at it as well. Nothing had helped, and Queen Snow had wrung her hands and said, “I’m so sorry. You’ve come all this way to grant her a gift and–”

 

“I know just the one,” the Green Fairy had said, bright and glowing at the opportunity that had presented itself to her. A royal baby had been far beyond her scope, and she’d immediately wanted to gift the girl with a treasure of which all fairies might sing. “I gift you obedience, Princess,” she’d said, tapping the baby’s forehead with her wand, and she hadn’t seen the queen’s and king’s eyes widening in horror. “There. Now, hush .”

 

The baby had quieted at once, her tiny fists still thrashing about as though the fairy dust irritation hadn’t ceased, and the fairy had disappeared.

 

The next morning, so had the baby.

 

The tales about her never include the gift. There is a fairy’s gift and a missing girl– there is always a fairy and a lost princess– but the gift is what keeps children awake at night, wondering what horror might have befallen the princess. Perhaps she’d been made to a creature of the night, to a bird that had flown away in the dark. Perhaps it had been a gift so valuable that the fairies had claimed her as their own before the kingdom could. Perhaps it had destroyed the baby, one moment at a time.

 

In reality, of course, the baby’s disappearance had had little to do with the gift– but the gift had been a horror indeed. And Emma Swan, orphan child, knows nothing of how she’d been cursed– only that she has been eternally cursed with terrible, terrible obedience.

 


 

When she’s very young, she can’t comprehend that anyone could possibly not be obedient. She’d been found by a childless family called Swan, and she’d never thought to try to resist any orders. Come with me, child. Stop sucking your thumb. Quiet down. Eat your vegetables. She’d listened, listened, listened. She’d been happy, young enough that she hadn’t thought much of how her own urges had been so easily dismissed.

 

Then one day in the market she’d seen a child screaming, beating at his father with fury. “Stop that!” his father had roared. “Shut your mouth!” But the child hadn’t stopped, and three-year-old Emma had watched with horror, then fascination, from behind her mother. “We’re leaving,” the father had ground out. “Come with me.” The boy hadn’t come. The boy hadn’t stopped.

 

“Come along, Emma,” Mother had said, shaking her head pityingly at the father and son.

 

Emma had said, “No,” and planted her feet firmly on the ground, struggling with a sudden headache. There’s a tightness in her chest that feels as though her heart is clenching, as though she can’t breathe, and it intensifies the longer that she stands there.

 

Mother had looked at her askance and her feet had begun to move, her mind and heart firmly steps behind her body. And Emma had realized, with a mounting sense of horror, that something is wrong with her.

 

It takes years for her to grasp what it is that her curse is. The Swan family has a child of their own and pass her off to a friend, and she’s sent away for being too difficult . It should be impossible for someone so obedient, but Emma has so little to fight for that she fights for this: a few extra moments of defiance, a way to twist orders into something she’d chosen. She grows accustomed to headaches and physical pain, to glaring darkly at those who issue orders to her and know only her resentment.

 

When she’s fourteen, she tells the truth to another runaway she’s fallen in with, hiding out in a little cave and stealing what they need. “I’m obedient,” she says, and Lily laughs at the idea of Emma Swan, thief and tiny scoundrel, being anything close to obedient. “No, really,” she insists. “I have to do whatever anyone tells me to do. Whether I want to or not.”

 

Lily casts a speculative eye over her, and Emma finds that she rather likes it when Lily looks at her like that. “Jump up and down,” Lily commands, and Emma finds that she likes that much less. “Stop. Start again.” She’s grinning like she still doesn’t believe Emma. “Do a backward flip,” Lily says, and Emma tries , her body moving into the right position and her arms arching backwards, but she doesn’t have the training and she topples into the dirt instead. She tries again and again, her body aching and her head hurting and dirt caking into her palms and knees, and Lily says at last, “Stop,” and gives Emma blessed relief as she falls to the ground. Lily stares at her with her brow furrowed in bafflement and then smiles, mischievous and daring, and says, “Kiss me, then, if this is real.”

 

Emma kisses her. Lily tastes like the berries they’d stolen and weeks of unspoken promise and abject betrayal. When it’s done, she shoves a startled Lily away from her, punches her hard in the face, and runs as far as she can from their secret little refuge together.

 

She doesn’t entrust anyone with her secret again. She grows adept at hiding it, at holding on for just a moment while she musters up the bravado to smooth over the moment she obeys. She’s caught twice when someone shouts, “Stop, thief!” and she learns to steal better, to steal faster and quieter before any orders can be issued.

 

As she gets older, men talk to her in innuendo and promises, and she learns the right things to say that will keep them from her before commands can be delivered. Meet me upstairs , she says in taverns, smiling promisingly. Let’s find somewhere a little more quiet , she invites when she’s accosted. And then she’s gone. She lurks in shadows, hides in the woods, and spends as little time as possible with other people.

 

She travels from King Leopold’s kingdom to Queen Snow’s, wanders in the hinterlands where the ogres lurk and travels beyond to other lands. She calls no land home and stays nowhere for long, and she picks up the languages of all the people around her far faster than she should be able to.

 

“You have fairy dust on your tongue,” an old woman in an elven forest tells her once. “You have their voice.” Emma sticks her tongue out and tries to squint at it, but it looks rather plain and pink.

 

It would be nice, she thinks, to have a superpower that isn’t obedience.

 

She tries speaking to the squirrels and they chitter back, and she doesn’t quite understand them but she can sense what they’re saying, speaking of hidden acorns and a place in the woods where the ogres might snatch them up. She speaks to strangers in taverns and understands bits and pieces– and then more, and more, and more. She speaks to songbirds and they flap excitedly around her, but they often have little to say. It’s almost always about when the snow will come.

 

The ogres, she stays away from. They may have once been blundering, hideous things, but the ones in the Enchanted Forest have begun to mutate into something far more intelligent and terrifying. It’s said that ogres can know a traveler’s darkest secret, can coax them closer with honeyed words before they become dinner. Emma, who wouldn’t need to be coaxed, doesn’t dare risk being in their vicinity. She hides from their sensitive noses and knowing eyes, and she flees to the towns when she has nowhere else to go.

 

It’s while fleeing a pack of ogres near the border between King Leopold’s and Queen Snow’s kingdoms that Emma celebrates her nineteenth birthday. She walks through the marketplace, watching shopkeepers with the eye of a practiced thief. There’s a fruit seller who isn’t keeping a careful eye on his goods, and she moves toward him before she’s distracted by a scuffle at a nearby booth.

 

There’s a baker’s apprentice who isn’t much more than a girl, a good ten years younger than Emma, and a gaggle of boys a few years older than her crowd around her. Her skin and her jewelry mark her as a foreigner from the Sunlit Kingdom, and she’s standing tall, scowling up at them as they jostle her, lifting her wares and jeering at them.

 

“Hey!” Emma says sharply when she’s close enough. “Don’t you have anything better to do than pick on little girls?”

 

The boys laugh, some uncomfortably, some nastily. “Step away,” one of them says, and Emma feels the compulsion and fights it long enough that her head spins. “This isn’t your business.”

 

She steps away at last, waiting a moment before her head clears, and the girl looks away from her in weary defeat. No . Emma’s jaw clenches and she shifts her path, moving away toward the fruit seller’s stand. She snatches a plum before the fruit seller notices, hurling it at the boy who’d spoken to her.

 

It hits with precision, crashing into the side of his face and exploding open, and the other boys howl with laughter. Emma throws another, then another, targeting only him. She’s learned long ago that people aren’t loyal , that they’ll turn on each other as easily as they’ll turn on her, and she throws fruit until the boy stomps off, the others following.

 

Emma takes some more fruit and makes a run for it now, hurtling into the crowd, and then she hears the inevitable, “Stop, thief!” The fruit seller has finally noticed her snatching his wares. Emma skids to a stop, waiting for her arrest, and she closes her eyes and opens them again.

 

The baker girl is in front of her, holding out a cupcake. “Thank you,” she says in a halting voice.

 

Emma glances over her shoulder. The fruit seller is running toward her, a soldier beside him, and he’s pointing her way. “Please,” she says in the girl’s language, a desperate idea coming to her. “I know it sounds absurd, but please, tell me to run from here.”

 

The girl nods, pressing the cupcake into her hand. “Run from this place,” she says, smiling at Emma, and Emma flees before she can hear another order. The fruit falls from her bag but the cupcake stays with her, and she runs until she finds a wealthy family’s stables, far from the marketplace.

 

There are rumors of a terrible witch here, and there are few servants because of it– and few people who might find her. Emma has stayed here from time to time over the years, when travelling near the edge of this kingdom, finding food in old travel bags and curling behind the hay.

 

At times, she indulges herself and peeks out of her hiding place during the day to watch the witch’s daughter as she strides into the stables. The witch’s daughter is just about Emma’s age and very pretty, and she brings treats for her horse and brushes his hair before she rides. Emma watches her fly across the grounds in awe, longing to ride beside her, with all the love and wealth that her station must afford her.

 

Perhaps not even with that love and wealth. Perhaps only riding beside her would be enough.

 

Today she shakes off that sentiment, reminding herself what comes of trust and pretty girls, and huddles on the ground behind the hay and opens the satchel with the cupcake that she’d stolen from a baker this morning. “Another banner year,” she whispers, biting into the cupcake, and she pulls a horse’s blanket that she’d borrowed from the back of the stables over herself and drifts off.

 

She dreams of horses leaping through fields and of pretty girls with dark eyes, and she dreams of a glittering green burst of light dancing around her. She’s crying, something caught in her throat, and the light touches her forehead and she screams.

 

When she wakes up, it’s to a sharp kick against her side. “Wha–”

 

“Get up.” The voice is like steel, and Emma scrambles up, stumbling back as she catches sight of the woman glaring at her. She’s smaller than the pretty girl, with the same shape to her face, and she walks with the confidence of someone who’s never obeyed an order in her life. “Who do you think you are? Does this look like a home for vagrants?”

 

The witch. This must be the witch. Emma doesn’t respond, wary of aggravating her more. The woman flexes her fingers and Emma flies , slams up and against the wall of the stable with blinding force. The walls of the stable seem to tremble around her. “Answer me,” the woman snaps.

 

An order. Emma answers carefully. “No,” she says stubbornly. No , it doesn’t look like a home for vagrants, but the woman registers it the way that Emma wants to mean it. Her eyes flash and Emma is brought forward through the air and then slammed back again to be pinned against the wall. And then again. And then–

 

Mother! ” says a voice from the entrance. The pretty girl strides in, and her eyes are wide with horror but no surprise. Emma doesn’t like how that lack of surprise settles in her stomach, like sick, sick dread. “Mother, no!”

 

“Hello, Regina, dear,” the woman says pleasantly, and even in the growing haze of pain, Emma seizes the name greedily and holds it to herself. Regina . Regina is the girl who rides like the wind and murmurs to her horse as though he’s her best friend. “Do you know this girl?” Now there’s an undercurrent of danger in her voice, a threat that Emma knows instinctively is to them both.

 

Regina doesn’t react to the tone, but her fingers press into her palms and then release as her face smoothes over. “Of course I do,” she says, and there’s a haughtiness in her response, a regality that Emma’s never seen when she’s watched her with her horse. “Don’t you remember my newest maidservant?” Emma’s eyes widen and she averts them, staring down as her mind churns furiously in confusion. “I found her rifling through my jewelry last night and sent her out here to sleep as– as punishment,” she finishes, and she stumbles over the last bit. “Have you learned your lesson?” she demands, her eyes piercing into Emma’s for the first time.

 

Beneath the darkness, her gaze is kind. Emma swallows. “Yes, my lady,” she offers, still bewildered and wary and a little afraid.

 

She’s dropped to the ground in a heap, the witch turning away from her in disinterest. “Finally,” the witch says, squeezing Regina’s shoulder with satisfaction. “You’re beginning to learn. These commoners will learn nothing if you are weak.”

 

“Yes, Mother,” Regina murmurs, and she’s staring at Emma again when Emma manages to pull herself to her feet. “Come,” she orders, and Emma is helpless but to follow, up the hill to a tree planted at the very top.

 

Regina waits until they’re out of her mother’s earshot before she rounds on Emma. “Have you lost your mind ?” she hisses. “Don’t you know better than to start up with my mother by now? Haven’t you heard the stories? You’re lucky I made it there in time or you’d be stuffed and mounted on the wall right now!”

 

She’s even prettier when she’s angry. Emma tries not to stare. “By now?” she repeats. “How did you know–?”

 

“Oh, I’m not an idiot,” Regina says impatiently. “I’ve seen you in the stables all the time. Watching me,” she says, and now there’s a flush of pink on her cheeks.

 

Emma wants to kiss them, just a little bit. Instead, she says defensively, “I was watching your horse. He’d fetch a pretty penny in town.”

 

Regina laughs. It’s probably the prettiest sight of all, and Emma can feel her own cheeks heat up. “He’d never come with you.” The horse snorts, nuzzling Regina’s hand as she reaches up for him.

 

“You don’t know that,” Emma says, her lip jutting out. “I can be very persuasive.” She lowers her voice to the one that always works on men to set them off guard before she flees, but Regina just watches her with amusement gleaming in her eyes.

 

“I don’t doubt it,” she says, and she reaches tentatively toward Emma, plucking a stray bit of hay from her hair. She blows it softly, letting it flutter to the ground, and when she turns back to Emma, it’s uncertain. “Mother will expect to see you in the estate,” she says quietly. “And I know…I’ve seen you here so many times before.” Regina’s words are careful, dancing around whatever else she may think of Emma. “Will you stay? For a little while?”

 

It isn’t an order, and yet, Emma feels compelled to respond regardless. “I suppose so,” she says, and she shrugs and flushes under Regina’s smile.

Chapter Text

The first matter that tends to be added to Emma’s mental catalog of each person she meets is which orders they’re most likely to give. There had been mothers who’d been accustomed to delivering sharp orders on every menial thing, reminders to children who huff and disobey them. There had been men who’d once been soldiers, who could control her movements with a few gruff words. And there had been other girls like her– never like her– who’d given orders when they’d wanted something. Give it to me. Tell me the truth. Don’t do that anymore.

 

For all her easy imperiousness, though, Regina rarely gives out orders. Perhaps it’s from nineteen years living with a witch, perhaps it’s from the lack of others to talk to, but her requests are almost always careful. When they aren’t, they’re either in jest or in despair, and the one order she gives most is go away . Emma quails at obeying, but it’s the one order that frees her from others, and so she does without question.

 

When Regina’s being playful, the go away is accompanied by Regina hurrying after her, her eyes bright and a little concerned. No, no, please come back , she says, and Emma grins and follows. She’ll never pass up a chance to be in Regina’s presence. And Regina seems just as reluctant to lose her chances.

 

When Regina isn’t being playful, the go away is dark and troubled, Regina already out of reach. Emma leaves and stands on the other side of the closed door, simmering with regret and frustration at the curse that doesn’t let her venture back inside.

 

In Regina’s home, as her maid, Emma is given a small room that attaches to Regina’s via a long hallway and a secret entrance. It’s old and dusty, as though it hasn’t been used in a long time. “Mother has trouble keeping servants,” Regina says darkly when she asks. “And she prefers to mold me than to allow some maid to coddle me. As far as she’s concerned, you’re here to fold sheets and dress me in those .” She jerks a thumb at a wardrobe packed with puffy dresses. “But you don’t have to,” she says hastily. “I mean, you always look so cold in the stables. I just thought–”

 

“How often have you seen me in there?” Emma asks. She’d thought she’d been subtle, emerging only at night, hiding in dusty nooks and corners. “How did you know? Did you realize the food in the travel bags was gone?”

 

Regina stares at her for a moment, then shakes her head ruefully. “The food was for you. I was trying to help. You’re not the only one who hides out in those stables.” She bites her lip, glancing toward what Emma’s beginning to suspect is her mother’s end of the house. Regina clears her throat, raising her chin in performed arrogance. “You aren’t nearly as good at it as I am,” she says haughtily.

 

Emma laughs, startled almost as much by Regina’s humor as she is by her kindness. There aren’t people in this world, she’s learned, who are kind for nothing.

 

And so she waits for the truth to emerge– for Regina’s hidden motives to emerge. She tidies Regina’s room until Regina says, looking pained, “Don’t do that. I didn’t invite you here to really be a–”

 

“Then what do you want?” Emma demands, the order settling into her skin.

 

Regina looks nonplussed for a moment. “Will you ride with me?” she asks.

 

Emma rides with her. Emma sits with her during her lessons, and Regina is in Emma’s room each night, curled up on the corner of the bed as she talks to her. Eventually, Emma begins to believe that Regina had brought her in out of kindness, and out of a deep and aching loneliness. There are no young women in the house, and none come to visit, either. Regina is alone, but for her father and mother and tutor.

 

Her tutor is a man named Merlin, who is very handsome for a man and smiles often. Sometimes, Regina smiles back and Emma feels a little flutter of jealousy that she struggles to suppress. Merlin is kind, and he teaches Emma without question when Regina suggests it. She doesn’t need to muddle this relationship over smiles .

 

She hasn’t learned to read since she’d been a child squinting at signs and she hasn’t had much use for it since, and she struggles through simple books, reading aloud haltingly only when Regina isn’t around. Emma doesn’t want Regina to know how little she knows; instead, she delights them both by showing off the languages she speaks.

 

“I wish I could travel,” Regina says enviously. “How do you know so many tongues?”

 

Emma shrugs. “They come to me. I speak Horse as well.” She does an approximation of Rocinante, Regina’s horse– faster, run faster, and there’s little more than that that he says– and Regina claps in delight.

 

Incredible ,” Regina says, her eyes shining. Emma beams.

 

Merlin says, “You have a gift.” He’s looking at her with keen interest. “A very unusual gift.”

 

Emma shrugs, self-conscious. “There was this old crone once who said that I have fairy dust on my tongue.”

 

Regina looks suddenly troubled. “Then it’s magic?” Regina, Emma’s come to discover, quails at magic just as Emma quails at orders. Merlin’s magic is subtle and he’s careful that Regina doesn’t see it, and Cora’s magic is unstoppable and cruel. Regina hates magic, fears it, and Emma can’t bear the thought of Regina hating or fearing any part of her.

 

“Hardly,” Emma says, shrugging. “I just learn a little faster than most, you know?”

 

She can feel Regina thawing, can feel her wanting to believe. “I suppose that makes sense,” she says grudgingly. “I mean, even I’ve spoken to some birds.”

 

Emma makes a face. “The only thing birds care about is snow.”

 

Regina gives her an odd look. “You haven’t been talking to the right birds, then.” She laughs, light and free, and Emma joins her. The moment of discomfort is gone.

 

There are few moments of discomfort between them, and nearly all revolve around one person. Regina returns at times from run-ins with her mother and she won’t let Emma in, sends her off with snappish comments and draws her own baths to brood in. Emma stays anyway when the comments don’t grow into orders, sees flashes of bruises and a split lip, once, that leaves a scar.

 

Most of the bruises are gone by the next morning. Cora leaves few scars behind. She’s furious at the one from Regina’s lip, and Regina is locked into her room after that for a full three days. Emma sneaks in food from the kitchen through her secret door, and she finds Regina curled up on her bed, a finger running over the scar as she stares at a shuttered window.

 

Emma sets down the food in silence, uncertain if Regina has even noticed that she’s in the room, and she hesitates for a moment before she turns back to the door. “If there’s anything I can do–”

 

“Stay with me,” Regina whispers, and Emma takes the order with gratitude, paces aimlessly through the room as Regina continues to lie limp and silent in bed. She sits after a while, perches on Regina’s couch and flips through books that Merlin has given her, and tosses glances at Regina’s prone figure from time to time.

 

After an hour, Emma says, “You should eat,” firmly enough that Regina rises at last and eats from the tray that Emma had brought in. “More,” she orders when Regina lays down her fork after two bites. “If you really want to stick it to your mother, you’ll eat enough that you don’t fit into any of those dresses anymore,” she says challengingly, and Regina laughs.

 

It’s just a little puff of an exhalation, but it’s enough to light a little flame of warmth in Emma’s heart. “What would I do without you?” Regina murmurs, and the little flame blossoms into a roaring oven fire.

 

“I’m a terrible maidservant,” Emma points out. “I spilled wine down your dress yesterday when you were supposed to be–”

 

“I don’t want a maidservant,” Regina says, and she walks across the room to the couch, to stand over Emma. She reaches out a hand, her knuckles nearly grazing Emma’s face, and then she yanks it back just as quickly, flushing. Emma seizes it before Regina can pull away completely. Regina’s hand is soft, unworked, the sort of hand that belongs in the grasp of princes and lords.

 

But it’s in Emma’s. And Regina leaves it there for a long time.

 


 

Emma stays for far longer than she’d meant to at Regina’s house. There are few run-ins with Regina’s mother. Cora is prone to quick orders that she expects obeyed, and Emma reacts immediately, lest Cora send her away. And she doesn’t want to go, which may be the most surprising part about living here.

 

She wants to stay, even as she can feel her feet hot to keep moving. She hasn’t stayed for this long in one spot in years, and certainly not living off of someone else’s kindness, and she’s antsy and restless. But still, she can’t bring herself to leave Regina.

 

Instead, she eats Regina’s food and rides Regina’s horses and studies with Regina’s tutor and Regina asks for little in return. Emma doesn’t understand, doesn’t want to trust, and yet she can feel old wounds beginning to heal, her heart whole and bright as though it had been stitched together again.

 

They’re riding with Regina’s mother one dim afternoon, and Emma stays silent, careful in the corner of the carriage with her head bowed as she holds Regina’s cloak on her lap. Cora spares her hardly a glance, focused only on her daughter. “All this land will be yours someday,” she says, gesturing to the moving landscape beyond the window with a careless wave. “You must be strong. There are men who will always seek to undermine you, and you must never let them get the chance to do so.”

 

“Yes, Mother,” Regina says dully.

 

Cora’s eyes harden. “Chin up, Regina. You have no grace. Sit like a queen.” She crooks a finger and Regina is yanked , back pulled up straight and hands folded onto her lap. Emma watches her arms flex and strain, struggling against the hold her mother has trapped her into. Cora turns back to the window, uninterested, and Regina presses her lips together and strains some more.

 

Emma keeps her head down, eyes on Regina as her knee strains. Emma can see the muscles clenching, and she knows it, knows fighting this kind of magic intimately. Regina pushes and pushes and pushes, and her knee pops up a hair. Another minute, and it pops up even more. Her teeth are gritted and her eyes narrowed, and she moves in tiny increments, pulling her knee up until she can finally tuck her foot under her in open defiance of her mother.

 

Emma watches her openly, breathless with awe, and she can feel tiny tears pricking at her eyes for ridiculous, sentimental reasons. Regina is breathing hard, the barest sheen of sweat at her brow, but she looks triumphant.

 

Cora says, “Regina, dear, enough ,” and flicks her finger again, looking annoyed. Regina’s leg pops right back to where it had been, straight in front of her once more, and Emma knows that Regina would have sagged if she’d been able to.

 

She edges over to her and lets a nail slide along the side of Regina’s dress, right by her thigh. Regina blinks in surprise, her eyes shifting to peer at Emma. Emma drags her nail along Regina’s thigh again, and this time, she can feel from the quickening of breath that she’d succeeded.

 

It’s a silly little thing, really. Emma remembers wondering, in moments when she’d been ordered not to move, what would happen if someone tickled her. No one ever had– she hadn’t had anyone who would have acted so playful with her– but she scrapes her nail along Regina’s thigh again and sees the barest hint of a smile twitching at her lips.

 

She keeps it in check– she wouldn’t be Regina if she couldn’t keep a straight face under severe tickling– but there’s a moment where she lets out a loud gasping sound and Cora’s eyes fly to Regina. Regina’s mouth snaps shut. Emma retracts her hand swiftly. Cora turns back to the window, disapproval making her lips thin.

 

When their carriage stops, Cora stands briskly, dropping the spell on Regina. “Come with me,” she orders, and they follow after her. They’re going to a dressmaker who’s good enough that she won’t make house calls even to infamous witches, and they walk down the road, Regina careful to keep her cloak above the dirt of the path.

 

The dressmaker is all business, stripping Regina down to undergarments as she measures her. Emma peeks at Regina through her eyelashes, then looks away, guilty at the sneaked glance. When she looks back again, Regina is watching her, a smirk playing at the edges of her lips.

 

Her cheeks are still tinted pink, though, and Emma looks away. Cora is watching them, her face giving nothing away. When Regina is done, neither of them can escape the dressmaker’s shop quickly enough. “Mother will stay for tea,” Regina assures Emma. “We’ve got some time to ourselves now.”

 

Emma glances around. This shop is in the woods, deep outside of any village where they might visit. This is the sort of place where she’d have hidden out for weeks before Regina. But Regina– who still lifts her cloak to avoid muddy roads and has a mother who might punish her for getting lost– doesn’t belong out here.

 

“We can take the carriage,” Regina says, as though she can sense Emma’s hesitation. “Mother doesn’t need it to get back home. Where do you want to go?”

 

Regina asks more questions of her than anyone else in her life ever has– where do you want to go? What do you want to do? – and Emma is at a loss whenever she’s presented with so many choices.

 

Regina takes her to a waterfall a half hour away. “It’s beautiful,” she says as they ride up the path. “Daddy and I used to picnic out there when I was younger, back when coming home with muddy skirts wasn’t a commoner’s pastime .” She mimics her mother, scoffing. “As though Mother couldn’t wave away the dirt with a spell.”

 

“But then you might not learn ,” Emma says mockingly, and Regina snorts. “You might even think that picnics and waterfalls were more fun than sitting at home and learning how to walk with a book on your head!”

 

“I am quite good at that,” Regina says smugly. “Look.” The carriage has come to a stop, and Regina digs into the travel bags and finds a book. She balances it perfectly on her head, hands flat at her sides. “Mother says that using your hands to balance yourself is weak. A true lady can maintain her posture while riding, while running, while standing upside-down in the void of the stars–” She’s laughing too hard to continue, speed-walking ahead of Emma, and Emma hurries to catch up.

 

“Where I’m from, a true lady is someone so focused on her posture that she doesn’t realize when someone’s stolen her money,” Emma says, producing Regina’s money bag.

 

Regina gasps in mock horror. “You cad ,” she says reprovingly, making a grab for her money bag. “Give it–” Emma shoves it back into her hands. “Oh,” Regina says, clearly startled. She tucks it into the pocket of her cloak. “I thought you’d make me work for it.”

 

“Why bother, when I can just take it again?” Emma says sweetly, and she snatches it once more, taking off toward the waterfall as Regina laughs and gives chase. The book is still perfectly balanced on her head when they reach the falls, and Emma stands at the edge, wavering a bit.

 

Regina seizes her money and gives Emma a shove, and Emma flies into the pool below the falls, a shower of water spraying onto her as she shrieks. Regina is laughing, a rainbow glittering in the spray and framing her within it, and Emma gazes up at her with the sort of affection she’d once reserved for food alone.

 

“What are you looking at?” Regina demands, grinning, and Emma almost pulls her in before she remembers what Cora might do to Regina for showing up at home, soaked.

 

“You,” Emma says boldly, and Regina glows as bright as the rainbow. “Did you know that when you blush–”

 

“I’m not blushing!”

 

“Your cheeks are the same red as the rainbow,” Emma says, and Regina blushes even harder and turns away, nose in the air and book still on her head.

 

“Nonsense. It’s just hard work, balancing this– ah!” she shrieks, and the book topples off her head.

 

“Regina? Regina!” Emma clambers up to see her, eyes rounding at what Regina has already spotted.

 

Ogres . Three of them, lumbering toward the two girls. Regina jumps back, reaching for Emma to pull her out of the pool. “They say an ogre needs only one look into your eyes to know all your secrets,” she says in a hushed voice. “That they can bend you to their will. And that they’ll eat you for dinner.”

 

“We’ve barely got any meat on us,” Emma says, trying for a laugh, but Regina only looks anxiously at her and at their carriage, just beyond the ogres. The ogres have already seen it, and they poke at it with interest, one peering inside as another seizes one of the horses that pull the carriage and snaps its neck.

 

Regina lets out a cry. The ogres turn, squinting toward them and lumbering in their direction. Their eyesight is famously terrible from a distance, but their sense of smell is good enough that they can follow any trail for days. Emma considers their options, her heart thumping and her throat strained with fear. If she’s torn apart by ogres, so be it. But Regina– not Regina .

 

Emma wraps an arm around Regina and leaps backward, tumbling into the pool. Regina clings to her, spitting out water, and gasps out, “What are you doing ?”

 

“They can’t follow our scent into the water,” Emma says, struggling to remember all she’s learned about evading ogres. “And they hate the water, too. They won’t come in here after us.”

 

“So we just wait here?” Regina demands. “Until we freeze to death and our bodies float over to them?”

 

“Do you really think a couple of ogres are that patient?” Emma demands, which isn’t really all that encouraging, now that she thinks about it. Regina gives her a dark look. “Okay,” Emma concedes. “I’ll go first, and maybe they’ll be so distracted they won’t realize that you’re here–”

 

“I am not leaving you to get eaten!” Regina snaps, horrified. “Emma–” She slides her arms around Emma in the cold water, both of them beneath its spray, and buries herself in Emma’s embrace. Emma holds her tightly, savoring this moment even as a trio of ogres bear down on them.

 

And then, a reprieve. A hunting horn sounds in the distance, then another. Up a nearby hill, there’s a crowd of figures dressed in browns, riding horses with dogs racing beside them. The flag of the White Kingdom is flying above them, and Emma sighs in relief as she sees them gesturing to the waterfall. “We’ve been saved,” she says.

 

There’s a grunt from in front of them. The ogres have reached them. You’ll be dinner , is the basic gist of the response, though Emma can’t understand much more than that yet. Regina squeezes her eyes shut, but it’s too late– an ogre is peering at her, its cruel eyes sharp with comprehension.

 

“Come to us,” he says smoothly. “I know what you want.” Regina shakes her head, trembling. “ Power ,” the ogre drawls out. “Power to defeat your mother. You want to be strong .” The ogre’s voice is honey-sweet, its words wrapping around Regina like a vise. “I can give you strength. I can give you freedom.”

 

Regina bobs her head, her eyes glazing over.

 

Emma steps in front of her at once, eyes narrowed, and another ogre catches her glare. Immediately, it begins to snuffle out a laugh, and it speaks to the other ogres in rapid-fire Ogreish that Emma slowly begins to understand. She catches the tail end– “–That one will deliver itself to us–” and she holds her breath, taking a step back.

 

The hunting party is approaching, the flag visible above them as they dip into the closest valley and race up toward the waterfall, and Emma and Regina are almost there, almost safe , when one ogre looks directly at Emma and says, “Come here.”

 

Emma struggles at once. Her head aches, her stomach twists, and she tightens her grip on Regina. Regina clings to her, murmuring a shaky question, and Emma’s fingers detach from her reluctantly. She doubles over from nausea, her head pounding, and it’s only been a few seconds. She can’t do this.

 

“Come here,” the ogre repeats impatiently. They only have a few minutes until the hunting party arrives. Emma stumbles forward.

 

Regina says urgently, “What are you doing? Stop!” Emma stops, breathing a sigh of relief.

 

The ogre says, “Come closer, dinner.” Emma takes another step forward.

 

“Emma, what is wrong with you?” Regina demands furiously. “Has it enchanted you? Are you–?” An arrow whizzes past her and impales itself in the ogre’s forehead. It roars, and more arrows fly, the hunting horn trumpeting again. The man who rides into view has a crown on his head and a look of fury on his face as he dismounts, swinging his sword at the ogre that had been giving Emma commands.

 

The moment the ogre dies, Emma steps from the water, still beholden to its command until she reaches it. She dodges an arrow, lying flat on the ground, and the king– the king! – lifts her up, raising her onto his horse as he reaches a hand out to Regina.

 

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Regina says in a shaky voice. She manages a curtsy in her soaked cloak, still the picture of grace, and King David nods to one of the women who fights beside him. She whirls her sword around, impaling an ogre and turning it to stone, and then she’s lifting Regina up onto her horse as well. “This is unnecessary,” Regina protests. “We can walk back on our own. My mother will–”

 

“We shall deliver you to your mother,” King David says easily. “What kind of leader would I be, if I found two young ladies besieged by ogres and made them walk home alone?” He smiles up at Emma. He has warm eyes, his face craggy and wrinkled with age, and his hair is beginning to silver. Emma smiles back uncertainly, still shaken by the experience. “Where is home?”

 

“At the edge of the kingdom,” Regina says, suddenly disconsolate. “My parents are Prince Henry and Princess Cora.”

 

The hunting company quiets at once. The woman says, frowning, “You’re the witch’s daughter?” She looks at a suddenly stone-faced Regina, then Emma. “Who are you?”

 

“I’m no one’s daughter,” Emma says, biting her lip. “I’m– I’m Regina’s–”

 

“Friend,” Regina cuts in smoothly.

 

“Poor dear,” an older woman mutters, her crossbow still in hand. Emma’s ears flame. Regina stares at the ground, her lips pursed together.

 

King David says, sounding perturbed, “Well! We’d better get you lovely ladies home.” He mounts his horse in front of Emma. “Hang tight,” he says, throwing a surreptitious glance at Regina.

 

“She’s not a witch ,” Emma mutters. It’s louder than she’d meant it to be, and she knows King David hears her from the way that he shifts uncomfortably in his seat. But he doesn’t respond, and Emma feels bold enough to say, “She isn’t. She’s nothing like her mother.”

 

“So she didn’t try feeding you to the ogres?” King David says mildly. Emma’s brow furrows. “I saw you moving toward them. You looked as though you’d been enchanted.”

 

Emma tenses. “Not by Regina,” she says, shaking her head. “Never by Regina. The ogres must have…” She can’t lie to the king, not without him picking up on it and blaming Regina. The truth, she finds, can be far more potent when coupled with a lie. “They told me to go to them and I just did . Maybe they did something–”

 

“Ogres can’t force you to go to them, only tempt you to…” The king falls silent, twisting in his seat to stare at her. “How old are you?” he says, his voice hushed and his eyes suddenly dark and focused.

 

Emma flinches back, suddenly certain she’s said too much even to this kindly king. “I’m…” She clears her throat, and the king’s face blurs in front of her, fading away. She blinks, and she’s on the floor of the parlor in Regina’s home, still crouched as though she’s riding a horse.

 

Soaking wet,” Cora says disapprovingly, her eyes narrowed at both of them. “What have you been doing, Regina?”

 

Regina is on the floor beside her, and she shivers uncontrollably. “Ogres,” she says, her teeth chattering. “Ogres. And the king.”

 

To Emma’s surprise, Cora doesn’t immediately punish them. Cora snaps her fingers and dries Emma’s clothes, and Emma runs Regina a warm bath while Regina recounts the story to her mother. “The ogres kept telling Emma to come to them, and it was like she had no choice!” she says, and Cora listens attentively.

 

“How odd,” she says, and she eyes Emma for the first time as though she’s noticed her existence. “If the ogres had mastered mind control, you’d think we’d be done for.” Emma shivers under her gaze. Cora says, “Now, tell me about the king.”

 

She’s far less interested in the story once Regina mentions that it had been King David who’d saved them. “It’s late,” she says, cutting off the story. “You have lessons in the morning.”

 

“Yes, Mother,” Regina says obediently, and she grins at Emma when her mother is gone. “Can you believe we got away with it?” she whispers, her voice giddy. “Ogres! Soaking wet! And nothing!” Emma shakes her head, just as nonplussed by their many near misses of the day. Regina leans over conspiratorially, and Emma’s eyes are drawn unconsciously to the swells of her breasts, poking out of the bubbly water. “Though I suppose I could have blamed you for being soaking wet. You did pull me in.”

 

“I was saving your life!” Emma sputters, offended. “The ogres would have chased you through the woods, and the king never would have seen us. You’re lucky you came out of that with just a–”

 

“Goodnight, Emma,” Regina says, and she slides across the bathtub, careful to continue to conceal herself under the bubbles. She presses a kiss to Emma’s cheek. “Thank you for saving my life.”

 

Emma makes a garbled sound that Regina must take as a goodnight as well. She can feel heat rising through her. The fumes from the bathroom are getting to her, perhaps. She creeps from the bathroom through their shared passageway, changing into nightclothes and staring out the window.

 

In the dark, she can see someone riding toward the house. The moon glints off the silver of his crown, and Emma recognizes him at that. Cora emerges from the house and King David gestures at her, even as his guards shrink back.

 

Emma opens her window, and the voices begin to filter up to her. “Who?” Cora repeats.

 

“Her name is Emma,” King David says, and he glances up, scanning the windows of the house with an urgency that Emma can’t understand. His eyes slide right over Emma’s window, the room too dark for her to be visible, and she watches in silence. “Your daughter said she was a friend.”

 

“That’s absurd,” Cora says, her voice smooth and just a little dangerous. “My daughter has no friends.” King David crosses his arms, disbelieving, and Cora gives a little laugh. “Perhaps she enchanted one of the cats again. She does so enjoy her pets.”

 

King David falters, suddenly unsure. “She said she wasn’t…”

 

Cora titters. “Your Majesty, would you take the word of a pet over mine? That seems…ill-advised.”

 

King David barely notices the threat. “She must…I thought that…” He shakes his head, looking to the woman who’d fought beside him. She shrugs, shifting her hand from her sword’s hilt. He glances up at the house again, and Emma shrinks back out of sight, wary.

 

“I apologize for the disturbance,” King David says formally, and Emma watches as he rides from the estate, turning to look back at it over and over again until he’s out of sight.

Chapter Text

“You should wear this,” Regina says, holding up a dress and issuing an accidental command. They’re in her room, preparing for a ball that Cora has ordered Regina to attend. “It matches your eyes. I wish I could wear it,” she says wistfully. The dress that the dressmaker had designed for Regina is a regal sort of number, far more elaborate than the simple dress that they’d found in Regina’s closet.

 

Emma takes the dress from Regina, compelled to pull off her maidservant’s dress in one swift move. “Oh!” Regina says, her eyes rounding. Her gaze burns into Emma’s skin, and Emma flushes and hates her curse a little more for this humiliation.

 

“Sorry,” Emma says. “I don’t want to…to waste time on me,” she mumbles, a feeble excuse that has Regina blinking confusedly at her. Her eyes fall back to Emma’s skin, her cheeks pink, and Emma bites her lip and pulls the dress over her head. “Let me help you get into yours. I’m sure you’ll look great in it.”

 

Regina unclothed continues to be a lot more impressive than Emma unclothed, and Emma trips over her own dress twice, thoroughly distracted. “Sorry,” she says again. “I’ll just…get the dress.” She makes a beeline for the wardrobe, seizing the dress hanging on the edge of it. “This looks like something a princess would wear.”

 

“A queen,” Regina corrects her, lip curling at the thought of it. “Mother has decided that I’ll be queen one day. So it’s only a matter of time before she gets her way, I’m sure.”

 

“The king is married ,” Emma says mock-reproachfully, determinedly ignoring the pit in her stomach that seems to grow at the thought of Regina marrying anyone.

 

Regina laughs tiredly. “She’ll get her way,” she says. “She always does.”

 

Emma’s stomach churns. “There’s always the newly widowed King Leopold from the next kingdom over,” Emma offers, grinning. “If you like them old and ugly–”

 

Regina throws a pillow at her head. “I’d rather die.”

 

“You’d have to hurry to do it before he does,” Emma says, and Regina chases her across the room at that, another pillow in hand. Emma dodges it, laughing, and holds up the dress as a shield. “Don’t! Respect the dress! I hear it’ll belong to a queen someday.”

 

Regina smacks her on the head with the pillow and takes the dress, stepping into it carefully and letting Emma draw up the sides over her arms. “It’s obscene. Going out there in a dress that doesn’t suit me, fawning over some prince in the hopes that he’ll fall madly in love and wed me on sight– what’s the point ?” she says exasperatedly, and Emma’s stomach flips again. “I don’t want any of it. I want to be…” She smiles suddenly, her eyes distant.

 

“Where?” Emma asks, and she regrets it at once. She doesn’t want to know where Regina wants to be now, where she’d be if she were given the chance. No future of Regina’s wanting involves this estate or her mother’s wishes, and Emma doesn’t want to hear about the version of Regina’s life where they aren’t–

 

“Riding,” Regina says, and Emma zips the dress, goosebumps breaking out at the feel of Regina’s back against her fingers. “Somewhere far from princes and Mother. With you.” Emma’s hand freezes at the nape of Regina’s neck, and Regina slides a hand onto Emma’s, holds it there for a long time.

 

When she releases it, she turns around to face Emma, smoothing down her dress self-consciously. “How do I look?” she asks, biting her lip. “Tell me the truth.”

 

Emma’s never craved so deeply to obey a command before. “You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen,” she says, her voice hoarse, and she takes a trembling step forward and touches her hand to Regina’s cheek, please, please, let me

 

Regina bobs her head, eyes gleaming, and Emma leans in and kisses her gently. Regina slides her hands to Emma’s wrists, tugs her closer until they’re stumbling against the door to the room, the two of them clutching each other as they kiss breathlessly. Regina is laughing softly, tears slipping down her cheeks, and Emma is without words, without thoughts, sustained only by Regina’s lips.

 

They go to the ball, Regina dressed to win a prince and Emma a demure handmaiden behind her, and they slip away from Cora and dance on the balcony together, kiss in the shadows, sip wine that neither of them can handle and giggle freely like two girls who’ve never known pain in their lives. Regina is tipsy when she meets the prince and Emma has to whisper reminders into her ear so Cora won’t glean it, and they make it home with minimal incident and no royal proposals.

 

Cora is displeased. Regina isn’t permitted to leave her room until dinnertime the next day, and she lies in bed after the high wears off, Emma curled behind her with her arms around Regina’s waist. “I’m sorry,” Emma murmurs. She’s spent a lifetime in a prison of an enchantment, but it’s seeing Regina locked up that’s unbearable, Regina restrained by a future that never stops bearing down on her. “I hate all of this.”

 

Regina twists around, pecking her on the nose. “Not all of this,” she corrects Emma, and she smiles, sad but fierce. “Not all of this.”

 


 

There are more kisses. There are days spent riding together across the plains, over into the next kingdom where they tumble to the ground in grassy fields and kiss until their hair is tangled with dirt and their eyes are bright. There are nights spent behind locked doors where Regina is bare below Emma, holding onto her as though she’ll never let go, and Emma wants to weep at her touch. There are weeks where there are no princes and Cora is distracted and Emma is happy , is free and in love and drunk on it.

 

Regina makes more commands as she grows bolder, and Emma wonders if this is what it means to be in love, to always comply and never feel restrained by it.

 

Tell me a story , Regina says one night, and Emma weaves a tale for her of a princess locked in a tower who escapes when a dashing rogue sweeps her off her feet. “–And, you know, the rogue had yellow hair and a charming smile and–”

 

“Musculature like this?” Regina says, sliding her fingers over Emma’s stomach. “No wonder the princess went with her.” She replaces her fingers with her tongue, pouncing on Emma, and Emma buries her hands in Regina’s hair and continues the story she’d been ordered to tell as Regina licks her way down Emma’s body.

 

Kiss me , Regina whispers when Emma opens her door one night. Regina’s neck is red and bruised as though she’d been choked, and Emma thinks only briefly of the same command when she’d been fourteen, meant then to prove her obedience. Today this is a desperate plea to forget, and Emma kisses Regina, kisses her neck over and over again as she plans useless vengeance on Cora.

 

Don’t , Regina says, as though she knows what has Emma solemn and dark-eyed. And it shouldn’t be enough of a command to hold, but it has Emma struggling to step into the room where Cora is reading, the next day, has Emma’s head pounding in furious protest when she even thinks about starting a fight. Emma retreats to her room, cranky and impotent, and Regina kisses the skin behind her ear and strokes her hair and says stop sulking and so Emma does.

 

Ride with me, Regina says one afternoon. Cora has gifted her with some unexpected free time, and they take their horses out into the fields, racing across the grounds. Emma can hear her heartbeat pounding in her ears, Regina’s laugh echoing beyond it, and she’s breathless with joy and disbelief at that joy by the time they stop at a willow grove, fishing out a picnic lunch. “What?” Regina says, the smile still shining in her eyes.

 

Emma shrugs. “It’s nothing.”

 

“Tell me,” Regina cajoles, and Emma has no choice.

 

“I never…I never thought I’d have this,” she murmurs, flushing, and she considers for a moment explaining her secret to Regina, to taking that final, monumental step to absolute trust. “I–”

 

“I love you,” Regina whispers, taking a step forward, and Emma draws her close, puts her own revelation on hold, and they sway together until a shout splits the air.

 

It’s a carriage gone astray, its horses spooked and tearing in different directions, threatening to break the carriage to pieces. The driver is shouting and there’s a man half out of one of the windows, staring about in horror. Regina mounts her own horse in an instant, racing after the carriage, and Emma climbs onto her own and follows.

 

There’s a looming sense of dread in the air, and Emma doesn’t understand why but she shivers anyway.

 


 

She finds out hours later, when Regina throws open the door to Emma’s room in a panic. “The king ,” she says, pacing furiously in the tiny quarters. “The king. That’s who I saved.”

 

“I guess we’re even, then,” Emma says, remembering the incident with King David with the strange emotion that arrives with it. “He saves us, you save him.” She’d had to run to the estate to get help, and she finds that she wishes she’d been there to see him again.

 

“King Leopold,” Regina amends, and she sounds despairing. “He came here today. To my house. To–”

 

“Your mother must have been thrilled,” Emma says, rolling her eyes and laughing a little. “Did she try to persuade him to adopt you–”

 

“He asked me to marry him,” Regina bursts out, and tears spill free, sliding down her face. Emma can only stare, her mind suddenly blank. “Mother said yes. Of course Mother said yes. I couldn’t even say a word. Emma, he’s old enough to be my grandfather! He doesn’t even know me. The way he looked at me– I can’t– I just want–” She staggers into the room, reaching blindly for Emma, and Emma holds her tight. “Emma,” she sobs.

 

Emma kisses her brow, a daring plan beginning to form. “It’s okay,” she whispers, pulling back from Regina to plant her hands on Regina’s shoulders. “It’s going to be okay. You’re not marrying him.”

 

Regina laughs bitterly. “I wish that were tr– Emma ,” she says, her eyes widening. Emma kneels on the ground in front of her, chewing on her lip. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

 

“I don’t have a ring,” Emma admits. “But I’ll get one. You’re not marrying some ancient king. You’re–” She shuts her eyes and tries again. “Will you marry me?”

 

Regina is still staring at her, open-mouthed. “Mother will never allow it.”

 

“Run away with me,” Emma says, feeling the urgency coursing through her veins. “We’ll take our horses and go. We’ll find somewhere far from your mother and the king, where no one knows who we are. I can’t–” She takes a deep breath, remembering her life before Regina’s estate with quiet dismay. “I can’t promise you comfort like this or a big house or even a house at all–”

 

“I don’t care about any of that,” Regina says, her eyes glowing. “I just care– yes , Emma. Of course I’ll marry you.”

 

They’re wrapped together in a moment, exuberant as they cling to each other. Regina kisses Emma’s cheeks, Emma’s forehead, the tip of Emma’s nose. “ Yes ,” she says again, almost a chant, almost a song. “Yes, yes, yes.” Emma holds onto her, blinking rapidly, and letting her go feels nearly impossible when Regina pulls away.

 

“I’ll get some things we can barter for money. And clothes! And food. I’ll meet you at the stables in one hour,” she says, and presses a kiss to Emma’s lips before she disappears into the passage to her room. She pulls the door open a moment later. “I love you,” she says, her smile bright, and Emma smiles as brightly in return as the door slams again.

 

Her heart is pounding, and she beams at herself in the mirror, terrified at their boldness and breathless at the thought of what might come next. Defying a king– defying Cora – won’t come without consequences, but Regina’s worth it. Having a home with Regina is worth it. She’ll have to find a place– a small hut, perhaps, that won’t impress Regina but will be enough that Regina will at least have a roof over her head. She’ll have to–

 

The door opens again, and Emma says laughingly as she turns, “Regina, we’re never going to get out of here if you don’t–”

 

“Ah,” Cora says from the doorway. Her eyes are cold and unfriendly, and she looks Emma up and down with a curled lip. “Regina won’t be running off with you,” she says. “I think I’ve tolerated this silly little fantasy of hers for long enough.” Emma stands in silence, her teeth grinding together.

 

Cora flicks her finger and they’re at once in unfamiliar quarters, decorated with rich linens and heavy, dark furniture. Cora’s rooms, then. “You will not marry my daughter,” Cora says, her voice imperious, and Emma feels her future fall from her grasp.

 

No . No, not Regina. She won’t lose Regina to this damned curse. “I will–” Emma says, and her head throbs, words straining to break free. She fights them with all she is, tries desperately through blinding pain to– “ Not ,” flies from her mouth, inevitable as furious tears prick at her eyes.

 

Cora cocks her head, watching Emma with a keen gaze. “Well,” she says. “That was easier than I thought.”

 

She can still leave with Regina. Emma can leave with her and tell her about the curse and Regina can counter-command that and they’ll be gone , be free . This isn’t the end. She just has to make it through Cora’s orders and then she’ll explain it all to Regina.

 

“Come here,” Cora orders her, and Emma fights the order for a single moment before her feet drag themselves forward. Cora waits until Emma is standing in front of her before she begins again. “Did you think I didn’t know what you’ve done to my daughter?” she demands. “Did you think you could get away with it? Answer me ,” she says, her voice sharp.

 

“I did,” Emma says blankly. “I thought we could escape before you realized.”

 

Cora lets out a snarl. “You little brat. My daughter spares your life and you try to ruin her prospects? She could be queen, and you think you’ll ever be worthy of her? Take a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror,” she scoffs, her tone hard and uncompromising. “Look at how little you have to offer her– where do you think you’re going?” she demands.

 

Emma squeezes her eyes shut and opens them again, her tone snide enough that she might irritate Cora instead of revealing anything. “I’m taking a long, hard look at myself in the mirror,” she says mockingly, doing exactly that.

 

“Enough,” Cora barks out, and Emma moves before she can think about it, hands snapping to her side as she steps away from the mirror.

 

Cora’s eyes flash, but not with anger. No, there’s something calculating in the way she watches Emma. “Turn around,” she says sharply. Emma turns, her teeth clenched. “Walk out onto the balcony. To the edge,” Cora orders her, and Emma walks. She can feel her heart thumping with dread, with uncertainty, with the sudden, terrifying fear that Cora might–

 

The balcony is connected to the topmost floor of the estate, and Emma stares down into the blackness of the path below them that she knows leads to the garden. Cora joins her, an odd little smile on her face. “Jump off the edge,” Cora orders her, and Emma jumps without a word or a moment to resist.

 

She’s flailing an instant later, mouth open in a silent scream as she drops toward her death, and then there are pink clouds around her and she lands instead in a heap on the balcony floor again.

 

Cora stands over her, and Emma thinks helplessly, drowning in fear, that she’d have been better off broken on the ground, half-dead and alone. Better death than Cora staring down at her with dawning realization on her face. Better incapacitated by her injuries than incapacitated by the inevitable, by a moment that she knows already is going to destroy both her and Regina.

 

“Aren’t you obedient,” Cora says softly, and Emma shakes her head desperately and waits for obliteration of everything she holds dear.

 


 

Regina is waiting in the stables when Emma walks in, her horse loaded with heavy bags and her smile bright with promise even as her eyes reflect worry. “This is mad,” she says, shaking her head. “We’re really– Mother’s going to find us.” She straightens, her chin firming with determination. “But I’m willing to try anyway.” There’s so much sheer stubbornness on Regina’s face, with the certainty that they can fight this together, and Emma feels dread settling in the pit of her stomach at what she’s going to have to do now.

 

“No,” she says. “It is mad.”

 

Regina’s smile doesn’t waver. “Emma?” she says questioningly.

 

“It’s mad that you’d think that I–” Emma swallows, straining with every fiber of her being to make her face do what she wants it to. But it betrays her, remains smooth and mocking, and she has no power to weep or scream or tell the truth. “It’s mad that you’d think that I would run off with you like this,” she says snidely, gesturing at the packed horse. “A single horse? A few dresses? Do you think that’s why I’m here?”

 

Now Regina’s face is changing, her brow furrowing. “I don’t understand,” she says.

 

“Of course you don’t,” Emma scoffs, and her heart cracks in her chest, old wounds stark and brittle. “You’re a spoiled little rich girl who’s never known hunger a day in her life. Did you think I stayed here because I loved you?” she says, her voice mocking, and Regina’s face crumples. “Did you think I would marry you for your personality ?”

 

She’s been ordered to do this in the cruellest way imaginable, to use nearly a year of time with Regina to find the most potent way to break her heart. And every word that falls from her mouth is poison. “Where are your jewels?” she demands. “Where are your parents’ riches? Did you even think to pack them, you stupid girl?”

 

Regina shakes her head, her eyes wide with horror. “Mother got to you. Mother must have–”

 

Yes. Regina, please– Emma’s heart pounds, but there are no counter-orders, no escape routes, only Cora’s commands. “Your mother had nothing to do with this. What else did you think you had to offer but your inheritance?” She takes a step forward, and for a moment, she’s close enough to Regina to kiss again, to hold her, to be Emma instead of this horrifying figure that Cora has crafted. “Where are your jewels?” she repeats, reaching for Regina’s hand in some terrible simulacrum of caring and Regina’s eyes harden.

 

“Don’t touch me,” she grinds out. “You said– you said we wouldn’t live in comfort and it’d be okay–”

 

Emma laughs, the sound forced and wild from her mouth as her body shifts back from Regina. “I was hoping you’d fix that for us. But you aren’t very smart, are you? Ten months together and you don’t know me at all.”

 

Regina’s face is very tight and cold, and it burns into Emma like the chillest of frosts. “I suppose not.”

 

“Regina,” Emma begins, and she’s only seeking to provoke now, to have Regina dismiss her at last so she can escape this horror and the hatred beginning to form on Regina’s face. “You must have–”

 

“Get out of my sight,” Regina snarls at her. “Get the hell away from me. I never want to see you again.”

 

Emma scoffs, still bound to Cora’s orders as she obeys Regina’s. “Fine. There are richer, more naive girls out there. You never mattered to me.” Her feet drag as she’s pulled miserably from the stables, and the tears of loss begin the moment Regina can’t see her anymore.

 

Carefully, she creeps back to the stables, peers in from a vantage point where she knows Regina can’t see her. Regina has crumpled on the floor, sobbing, and Emma aches to go to her, to comfort her– You will break my daughter’s heart. You will not tell her why , Cora’s order reverberates through her. Get out of my sight. I never want to see you again , Regina’s order reminds her.

 

Instead, she watches in silence, tears spilling down her face as she watches the girl she loves grow to despise her. She yearns for her as she has for nearly a year, as she had even before she’d known Regina’s name. That instant when a happy ending had been so close is gone, replaced with loneliness and despair like Emma had never felt until she’d had something worth keeping.

 

There’s a whirl of magical energy, and Cora appears behind Regina. “My dear,” she says, shaking her head. “Love is weakness. I’ve warned you before.”

 

“You did this,” Regina says, her voice hollow and wet. “You made Emma–”

 

“I didn’t have to,” Cora says serenely, and Emma despises her with all she is. “But she’s taught you an important lesson. Emma was nothing more than a street rat seeking to be pampered, but she grasped what you never have.” Regina stares up at her mother, her eyes red, and Cora cups her cheek. “There is no future in love. There is only power.”

 

Emma can see the lifelessness in Regina’s eyes, the heartbreak hollowing her out until she’s no one at all. Emma can feel the same heartbreak within her, making her void of emotion, a self-preservation that is all that’s keeping her from breakdown. “Go unpack,” Cora says, stroking Regina’s face. “The king expects you at dinner.”

 

Regina stands mechanically, and Emma watches the tears dry, the curves of her face turning stiff and hard as she stands. She doesn’t look back at the stables again.

 

“Excellent job,” Cora says, turning directly to face Emma’s hiding place. There’s a quirk to her lips, a smugness that might be impressed as well. “It’s a shame. I rather like you.”

 

“Go to hell,” Emma spits out.

 

Cora laughs. “Perhaps someday. For today, I have some more orders for you.” Her eyes are suddenly piercing as steel. “You will never tell Regina the truth of what transpired here, or of this...quality you have. And you will leave this estate now, and never return.”

 

It’s an opportunity as much as it’s a curse. Emma finds her horse wandering around in the paddock, already saddled and loaded with what had been Regina’s possessions here, and she mounts the horse and rides away before Cora can issue any more orders.

 

She’s nearly twenty years old, and she knows the folly now of believing that she might have a future anywhere. And if she cries heaving sobs as she rides through the White Kingdom to the hinterlands beyond it, there is no one with her anymore who would know.

Chapter Text

There are few taverns this close to King Leopold’s palace that aren’t packed to the brim tonight. Brion had wanted to celebrate his induction into Commander Mulan’s page service, but he’d been stymied by the fact that none of the other pages know him yet or give a damn about him, and that there’s nowhere where he’d be fortunate enough to get a table, anyway.

 

Fuck that . He’s worked hard to qualify for the elite service, and he’s going to celebrate with a pint, even if it’s alone. Mulan had picked him , he’s wearing his brand-new page’s uniform, and he deserves a drink.

 

He weaves through the crowd with his mug, peering about for a place to sit, and he finally spots an empty chair in front of a hooded man– no, a girl, the hood sliding back just enough that he can see a flash of her face. He sits down at the table, grunting a half-hearted greeting, and she shrugs and returns to her own drink.

 

They drink in silence, the girl’s eyes flickering around the room from under her hood as though she’s searching for someone. Or perhaps she’s looking out for someone instead. Her gaze is wary, her figure drawn into itself, as though to ward off anyone who might speak. Brion should know better, but once he has enough liquor in him, curiosity overtakes caution and he leans forward. “So what’s a girl like you doing, traveling alone in these parts during a royal affair?”

 

She glares at him. “The answer’s no,” she says immediately. “Don’t talk to me, don’t try anything with me, or I’ll take out my knife and cut off your–”

 

“All right,” Brion says, holding up a hand. “All right. Just trying to be friendly.”

 

“Go to hell,” the girl says sourly. “I don’t do friendly .” And the alcohol has taken its toll on her, too, because she mutters loudly enough for him to hear, “Not anymore.”

 

“Anymore?” Brion repeats.

 

She gives him a dark look. “I told you not to talk to me.” She takes a long draught of her drink and then stares out blankly into the tavern. “I used to– when I was young and stupid, you know? You think you can find people just like everyone else does and suddenly you’ll have a family. But then a few commands and you’ve got to obey them, all the same.” Brion bobs his head, confused. He’s still sober enough to remember that he isn’t supposed to talk.

 

The girl drums her fingers against the table. “So you don’t make friends. You don’t get attached to people. You run off whenever anyone gets close. And then you meet this one person and you can’t get her out of your system, no matter how far away you run. No matter how long it’s been. Why can’t I stop ?” Her voice is loud enough to attract a few stares, and she glares around them until the others look away. Brion stays in place, a little woozy and a little intrigued. “I don’t want to be here. Everything about this is… pointless . Why am I here?” the girl demands, hands on the table as she rises, and now her glare is fixed on Brion.

 

“To watch King Leopold wed his bride?” Brion suggests. It’s why almost everyone in the kingdom is here. It’s why his entourage is here as well, the king and queen at the forefront of the celebrations.

 

And something he’s said has infuriated the girl. “ My bride,” she snarls, and she slams her drink on the table. “You,” she says, her eyes dark on Brion. “Come with me.”

 

Brion nods dumbly, suddenly very sure that he’s going to get quite the celebration for his first night as an official page. He follows the girl through the night, watching with awe the way she seems to vanish into the crowd, again and again, until there’s a hand yanking him forward and pulling him in one direction.

 

They find an exit and the girl looks around, nodding toward a dark alley. “What’s your name?” she says when they’re safely ensconced there, away from the crowds and alone at last. Her hands run through Brion’s hair, tugging off his page’s cap, her eyes gleaming in the night.

 

In the light, he can see that she’s very attractive. Brion can feel himself stumbling over his response. “Bri– Brion,” he manages. “I’m a page for Queen Snow. Tomorrow is my first day on the job,” he adds, because the girl should know that she’s a part of his celebration. Maybe she won’t cut him up after, then. “What’s your name?”

 

The girl smiles, no humor on her face. “Sorry about your big day, Brion,” she says, and she lifts her hand.

 

Something crashes into the side of his head– the girl is watching, and she isn’t smiling anymore– and everything goes dark.

 


 

Emma hasn’t seen Cora yet, but she’s certain that the woman is out here somewhere. There’s no way imaginable that Cora would allow her daughter to marry a king without breathing down her neck throughout, and so Emma ducks beneath her page’s cap and peers around cautiously.

 

She’d stolen the page’s outfit from a boy from Queen Snow’s entourage who’d been out drinking last night. He’d let it slip that it had been his first day on the job, and she’d knocked him out, left him to wake up drunk in his undergarments, and bound her breasts and slipped into his clothes. Even his superiors likely won’t know who he isn’t.

 

If she’s going to avoid Cora’s detection, this is her best option.

 

She’s lost in the cheering crowd as the future queen’s carriage races past them, and she can hear the whispers around her. “She’s lovely,” one woman murmurs. “But Queen Eva had a regal grace to her that this girl can’t capture.”

 

“She looks like she’s looking down at us all,” someone else scoffs. “As though she’s better than us.”

 

“She’s the new queen,” another responds. “She is better than us.” But even he sounds dubious.

 

Emma cranes her neck, desperate to catch sight of–

 

–and there she is. Regina is seated on a bench in the carriage, her father beside her, and her smile is wide and false. Her eyes are pools of abject pain that Emma could drown in, and there’s fear in how she waves, stiff and jerky, to the people around her.

 

She looks as though she’s being carried to her funeral, and Emma inhales sharply and wants to run to her. Get the hell away from me isn’t a command with any kind of longevity to it. There are no orders that Cora had given that can keep her from moving right now. But she’s rooted in place, breathless and heartbroken, and her feet won’t move toward Regina.

 

“Hey! Out of my way,” someone snaps behind her, and Emma steps to the side obligingly, the carriage just about gone by now.

 

She slips through the crowd, suddenly determined to get another look at Regina, and she weaves between men and women and climbs onto balconies, following the movement of the carriage. It will end at the palace, Emma knows, where Regina is to be married, and for a daring instant, she wonders what might happen if she’d be there waiting for her.

 

But she doesn’t wonder for long before even that flight of fancy is dispelled. “What do you think you’re doing?” says a woman from below the balcony on which she perches. Emma starts, jumping back. The woman frowns up at her. She’s a knight, the crest on her chest marking her as an elite guard from the White Kingdom, and she’s staring at Emma reprovingly. Emma has seen her once before, riding beside King David and lifting Regina onto her horse.

 

“The queen needs an attendant,” the knight says, and Emma remembers her disguise at last. “Go,” comes the order. “Her carriage is waiting on the royal road.”

 

Down this road. Emma has no choice but to obey, and her heart thumps in anticipation and trepidation. She climbs from balcony to balcony, jogging across roofs and climbing up and down stairwells, and she finds the carriage on the royal road, idling on its way to the castle.

 

She’s nodded into the carriage, a guard jerking a thumb to the doors. In front of it are a slew of the elite guards that Queen Snow keeps, and none of them look twice at here. There are no pages. Emma climbs warily into the carriage, and Queen Snow looks up.  “Ah,” she says. “Mulan has sent me a babysitter.”

 

Emma shakes her head feebly. “No, Your Majesty,” she tries, doing her best to deepen her voice, and the queen sighs.

 

“The king and I still have another five, maybe ten years, if we’re lucky,” Queen Snow says tiredly. “The disease is slow-acting. If Mulan would stop treating us like children –”

 

Emma ducks her head, biting her lip as she struggles to come up with a response. Queen Snow’s gaze is piercing, and there’s something familiar about it. Emma doesn’t know why. She hasn’t seen the queen since she’d been a child, and even then it had been barely a glimpse. If not for her face on the kingdom’s money, Emma wouldn’t have even recognized her.

 

“She would have been twenty,” the queen says wistfully. “Perhaps– perhaps somewhere out there, she has made it to twenty.” She strokes her dress, long and too dark for a wedding. Emma has heard before that the queen has dressed in clothes of mourning since the lost princess had been snatched from her grasp. “You know, Leopold’s new queen is only twenty as well. A child.”

 

“Yes, Your Majesty.” The words come out terser than she’d meant them to, and Queen Snow reaches for her hand and squeezes it.

 

“Love is an unexpected sort of thing,” she says, and Emma swallows back nausea. “It comes to us in the most surprising of ways, sometimes.” She smiles distantly. “Eva and Leopold raised me when I was orphaned and too young to rule. They’re like parents to me. I imagine that this girl will need guidance.” She reaches suddenly for Emma’s hand, gripping it tightly.

 

Emma tries to duck away again, but Queen Snow has caught her gaze, leaving Emma frozen. “We’ve met before, having we?” she says slowly. “Before you were a page.”

 

Emma doesn’t have a response for that. “Were you one of Mulan’s star proteges?” Queen Snow questions, and Emma nods quickly, relieved to be freed of her examining eye.

 

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

 

Queen Snow lifts a hand. “Come,” she says. “The girl queen is scheduled to return any minute. I would like to see her before the wedding.” She holds up a hand, oblivious to the way Emma stiffens at the order to join her. “I’m sure we’ll have much to discuss.”

 


 

Queen Snow’s legs are weak, and Emma thinks back to the mention of a disease that afflicts her and her king. She hides it admirably when they emerge from the carriage and pass by strangers, dropping her arm from Emma’s shoulder and waving in what only Emma knows is a flail. “Thank you,” she says when they reach an outer chamber, dropping heavily to sit. “I’m sure Mulan made it all sound very dire, but this really is hardly affecting me. I’m much younger than I look,” she offers.

 

She doesn’t look young. Grief and this disease have aged her, and the long, heavy black dress that she wears only enhances it. “You lost a daughter,” Emma says, and she doesn’t know why. Maybe it’s only because of those old fantasies, those dreams of being a lost princess, that make her feel oddly connected to the girl who’d disappeared. Maybe it’s only that Queen Snow had mentioned being an orphan, too.

 

Queen Snow blinks up at her, her brow creasing at how very forward Emma is being. But she only says, “Yes. Twenty years ago.” She leans back in her seat. “Mulan says that I must choose an heir soon, that I don’t want to leave my kingdom without a successor. David has a…terrible brother,” she says, making a face. “But an heir would mean letting go, and I simply can’t–” She laughs wetly. “Thinking about what life my princess must have led, what kind of future she’s had ahead of her–”

 

She falls silent, and Emma blurts out, “I’m an orphan.” Her voice is close to her normal, and she tilts her page’s hat as Queen Snow looks up at her curiously. “I mean– I never had a family or anything, but I’m okay. I’m…” She remembers suddenly that she isn’t, in fact, a page attached to the queen’s elite guard. She also remembers that she’s only here out of some masochistic desire to extend her heartbreak to Regina’s wedding day.

 

Queen Snow squeezes her hand, and there’s warmth in her voice as she says, “Thank you.” Emma exhales, embarrassed and uncertain, and Queen Snow murmurs, “You know there’s always a place for children like you in our palace. Even if you do wash out of Mulan’s page program.” She laughs wryly. “Mulan can be merciless. But there are other paths you can take.” She takes Emma’s other hand, her eyes shining, and Emma can feel the warmth flooding her.

 

It’s strange, how much she can run from every meaningful human connection but still find places where her feet won’t carry her away. Regina’s smile. Queen Snow’s eyes. Impossible dreams well up within her, and she hates instinctively how much she wants to stay in that moment.

 

And then there’s the sound of horses nearing and Queen Snow straightens. “Ah. The carriage approaches.” Emma shifts, grateful as the room begins to fill with guards and she can edge behind Queen Snow, out of sight for now.

 

Regina steps from the carriage as soon as it stops, the smile all but gone from her face. She’s dressed in finery and wears a silver tiara in her dark hair, but even the most elaborate royal clothes can’t conceal her weariness. She looks wan, smaller than Emma had remembered her, but she’s still so beautiful that it steals Emma’s breath away. “I would like some time to rest before the wedding,” she says to the attendant beside her.

 

The attendant shakes her head. “There are a dozen kings and queens in the palace who seek to meet you. You simply don’t have time.”

 

“Please–” Regina swallows the plea, straightening and forcing a smile onto her face as she ducks her head. “I’m so tired.”

 

Queen Snow chooses that moment to step forward, beaming at Regina. “I’m sorry, I must introduce myself. I’m Snow. Queen Eva was like a mother to me, but you’re so lovely.” Her eyes shine, and Emma ducks her head, winding. “I know we’ll be good friends.” She reaches for Regina, pulling her into an embrace, and Regina shuts her eyes and smiles a tight-lipped smile as she holds the queen back.

 

Queen Snow turns to Regina’s attendant, and Emma catches a flash of mischief in her eyes. “I should like very much to go for a walk with the bride,” she says, placing a hand on Regina’s arm. Regina jerks, startled. The elite guards straighten.

 

The attendant says apologetically, “I’m sorry, Your Majesty, but that’s impossible. I can’t–”

 

“I can,” Queen Snow says, drawing herself up to her full height. She trembles only the slightest bit, and Emma hurries forward to straighten her, keeping carefully out of sight. “Leopold would certainly think it more important that his queen meets with me than with the rest of those dullards.” Regina gives her a startled, appreciative look. “With me, dear,” Queen Snow says, patting Regina’s arm.

 

The attendant is still sputtering as they walk away, Queen Snow leaning heavily on Regina now. “I grew up within these walls,” Queen Snow says fondly, gesturing around them. “Hiding in passages and sliding down railings. The king and queen doted on me. King Leopold and my father were dear friends, and it was only natural that he would become my guardian after my father’s death.”

 

“Of course,” Regina echoes. Her voice is wan, weak, and Queen Snow seems to notice.

 

“Darling,” she says, and she guides Regina forward, past a knight’s suit in one hallway and through a door that seems to appear out of nowhere. Emma blinks, hurrying after them, and one guard puts a hand on her shoulder before she can step out of the corridor.

 

Queen Snow has taken Regina to a balcony, quiet and small, and she sits on a long seat and strokes Regina’s hair. “Tell me what’s wrong,” she says, her eyes shining in empathy. “Please, let me do whatever I can to help you. I want only for you to feel safe here.”

 

And Regina may not be cursed with obedience, but there’s something about Queen Snow that inspires trust. She’s a queen , the way the greatest of them are, and Emma watches them in silence as Regina begins to weep. “I don’t want to– my mother–” She sucks in a deep breath. “My mother orchestrated all of this,” she says, small and vulnerable. Queen Snow waits silently. “She’s– she’s gone now. Maybe forever. I don’t know. But I can’t run , and I–” She leans in to Queen Snow’s touch, hands wrapped around herself. “I can’t marry the king,” she whispers in a quiet sob. “Please…”

 

Queen Snow watches her, brow furrowed. “You can’t…”

 

“I can’t,” Regina repeats, the relief deep in her voice at Queen Snow’s assent. “I simply can’t do any of this.”

 

Queen Snow shakes her head, bewildered. “No, I don’t understand. You’re getting cold feet.”

 

Regina looks up at her in agony. “I don’t love him.”

 

“You will,” Queen Snow assures her. “He’s a good and kind king. I used to look at how much Eva and Leopold loved each other and dream that I could have a marriage like that.” She reaches out to squeeze Regina’s arm. “You have nothing to be afraid of. I know the age gap is…” She tilts her head from side to side. “...Considerable, but there are far worse fates for a young woman than being queen to a good, loving man.”

 

Regina shakes her head, tears still spilling down her cheeks. “I can’t– I won’t– Please ,” she begs. “ Please–”

 

Emma’s heart is in her throat as she watches them, the queen who can’t comprehend Regina’s pain and the bride who’s watching her whole life collapse in front of her. “You’re afraid. Of course,” Queen Snow says, stroking away Regina’s tears. “It’s hard to believe. This must be a dream come true for you– a commoner elevated to queen–”

 

“My grandfather was a king,” Regina says wetly, and through the sheen of tears, her eyes flash in humiliation and the stirrings of resentment. Emma aches for her, takes a step forward as the guard is turned, distracted.

 

“Oh, of course,” Queen Snow says airily. “But a fiefdom or two is nothing compared to the empire that Leopold holds.” She reaches for Regina, her eyes shining. “I know this is overwhelming. I want you to know that I’ll be here for as long as you need.” She reaches over to kiss Regina’s forehand, and Regina lets her, sitting silent and docile as a tamed creature.

 

“I’d rather die,” she says brokenly.

 

Emma knows what she’s about to do a split second before she does it. Regina is leaping to her feet at once, climbing onto the seat and propelling herself over the balcony, and Queen Snow barks out an alarmed call. “Guards!”

 

Her elite guards are fast , blurring through the air as they reach the balcony, retrieving Regina before she can fall. Regina fights them, claws at them and tears at her regal dress, and Emma steps forward desperately, reaches to Queen Snow. “Listen to her!” she says urgently. “Please, Your Majesty, don’t make her do this!”

 

Regina is being held in place, King Leopold’s guards ambling out onto the balcony to retrieve the runaway queen-to-be, and her head whips around as she hears Emma’s voice. Emma meets her gaze evenly, her guise all but fallen. “Your Majesty, she means it.”

 

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” grunts one of King Leopold’s soldiers. “The king can’t endure this kind of humiliation. Hold her. We’ll lock her in her room until the wedding.”

 

Queen Snow smiles kindly at Emma. “There are matters beyond the comprehension of those who are not kings and queens,” she says. “Regina will thank me for this someday.”

 

“Go to hell,” Regina grits out. “Go to hell . I will never forgive you for this.” Her blazing eyes turn to Emma with equal fury. “And you . How dare you come here.” She jerks her head back to Queen Snow. “You fool. You’re all fools .”

 

“I know it’s hard to believe that I might know better than you,” Queen Snow begins patiently, and that damned empathy is still gleaming in her eyes. She’s blinded by her affection for King Leopold, Emma is sure, and she sees what she wants to see.

 

Regina scoffs, furious and vicious as a cornered cat. “You don’t even know that your page is a fraud,” she sneers, and Queen Snow looks at Emma in alarm.

 

Emma had entertained for a moment– you know there’s always a place for children like you in the palace – and it’s gone as quickly as it had come, as Queen Snow looks Emma up and down and examines her face with sudden wariness. “Did you think you’d be invited into the palace?” Regina snarls, and all her fury is pointed at Emma. “Did you think you’d sate your greed with the queen’s silver? That is all you care for, isn’t it?”

 

Emma shakes her head frantically. It’s enough to dislodge the clips that hold her hair, and the page’s cap falls from her head. Her hair spills out over her shoulders, and Queen Snow stares at her, eyes flickering up and down Emma’s body as recognition begins to dawn, and she says, her voice fragile, “Who are you?”

 

Emma runs. There’s a mad dash of guards around her and she races down the hall, dodging them as they shout. There’s a closet around one corner. When she throws the door open, she sees that it’s a laundry chute, and she dives into it and flies down into the laundry rooms.

 

A man washing clothes yelps and Emma runs past him, down the next hall and through a curtain into another room. This one leads into the kitchen, where the cooks are preoccupied and shriek when a guard nearly topples a wedding cake. Emma dives below a table of pastries, listening to a cook berate the flustered guard, and she finds a hairnet on the floor.

 

She tugs it on and stands again, lifting a tray of pastries and walking casually toward the exit. The guards who pour in don’t give her a second glance at first, and she’s nearly at the exit when someone gives a shout and she runs again, dropping the tray and holding onto only one of the pastries as she goes.

 

She eats her pastry as she tears up the stairs again, and she emerges outside the balcony entrance where she’d started. The guards are still behind her, bellowing to each other and spreading out in every direction, and Emma darts to the right and yanks at the doorway of the room beside the balcony.

 

It’s locked, and she yanks out one of the hairpins she has left inside, jamming it into the lock with frantic movements. The door slides open just before the guards round the corner.

 

Regina is inside, standing with her arms wrapped around her waist and trembling as she stares into a mirror. She’s like a carved statue, beautiful and tragic and untouchable, and Emma is stunned into silence as she bolts into the room. Regina’s cheeks are wet, and she turns before Emma stops moving toward her, reaches for Emma as her eyes blaze with fury and hatred again.

 

Then they’re both surging forward and kissing desperately, Emma’s cheeks wet from Regina’s tears, Regina clutching onto her with clawed fingers until there’s no sensation but pain and pleasure. Emma kisses Regina again and again, both of them choking into the kiss, and Regina shoves Emma back as the embrace intensifies into an inferno. “Get the fuck out of my castle,” Regina snarls, and Emma breathes hard, hard, her lips on fire, and flees as the guards rush toward the open door.

Chapter Text

This time, she doesn’t come back. There are signs in the markets in the White Kingdom now, a close approximation of her face below the page uniform. Wanted Alive , they say, which she supposes is some sort of reassurance. She doesn’t know why they care at all, now that she’s gone, but she’s learned her lesson.

 

There is no one in this universe that is worth knowing. Not Snow White, with whom Emma had felt an instant connection. Not Regina, who hates her.

 

Rumors float about the kingdoms, reaching Emma’s ears on the rare occasions when she ventures out from the woods. She spends most of her time deep in ogre country, far from where humans might go out wandering. The worst an ogre can do is eat her. People are far more dangerous.

 

She learns to avoid ogres anyway, even if it begins to feel pointless after some time. What use is it to live, when her life is nothing more than scrambling for her next meal and dodging ogres? Why does any of it matter? At night, she lies within the grass, staring up at the moon, and remembers the last time Regina had given her a fierce, bright smile.

 

That Regina is gone, if the rumors are true. The people in the village squares always have much to say about her– the queen , they say, as though they’re frightened of calling her by name. King Leopold’s wife . It’s rumored that she dabbles in witchcraft; that she’d enchanted the king into being her husband. It’s rumored that she’s a dark and vile character, hidden away in the castle and taking advantage of the crown.

 

The rumors make Emma exceedingly cranky, and when there are whispers that the queen will ride through a nearby path on her way to the winter palace, she goes to see for herself.

 

Regina rides within a carriage, and Emma watches hungrily for the glimpse of her through its window. She’s perched in a tree, dressed in dark browns that conceal her from passersby from the nearby village, and she peers down at the approaching carriage.

 

It’s barely a flash of Regina before the horses are moving on, and Emma throws a rock instinctively, hurls it at the side of the carriage. The carriage stops. The driver steps off his bench, peering around as guards emerge from the carriage to give the villagers suspicious looks, but Emma pays them no heed. She’s staring at Regina instead, who watches blank-eyed from behind the window of the carriage.

 

She doesn’t look like a witch, not as her mother had. There’s hardness to her face that hadn’t been there before. Before, she’d been bright-eyed and soft, and there had been a roundness to her cheeks that had only made her look younger than she’d been. Now her face is sharper, her bone structure more defined and the roundness gone. Emma remembers how little Regina would eat when she’d been punished, remembers forcing her to sit in front of a plate and take a few small bites.

 

This must feel like an eternal punishment, and Regina stares into the distance with no longing, no desire to escape. Or perhaps she’s only given up on that idea.

 

The carriage moves on and doesn’t return for a long time. When it does, the wind is settling and the flowers are budding as the spring begins to show itself. Emma is crouched in the trees again, concealed behind greenery and just bit further up the road. This time, she’d dragged a number of heavy logs onto the road, blocking the way forward, and she watches Regina again as her guards clear the road.

 

Winter has taken its toll on her. She looks wan and pale– paler than her complexion had ever allowed her to be in Cora’s estate. Her skin turns brown in the sun, glows with health and life, and Emma watches her and knows that she must rarely have emerged from the dark gloom of a castle in the past months.

 

The next season, the carriage comes late. It’s already winter when Regina rides past toward the winter palace, and the horses move slowly, picking their way through the snowy path. Emma is dressed in a light grey cloak this time, huddled in the trees and shivering, and Regina steps out of the carriage for the first time.

 

She’s twenty-one now, a girl beginning to turn to woman, and Emma watches her with undisguised awe. Her clothes are the finery of a queen, long silks and velvets, and she walks with careful, regal poise toward the woods. “There is someone watching us,” she says to a guard, and her face swings toward where Emma is hiding. It’s sharp and pinched with suspicion, the eyes of someone who’s never found a reason to trust, and Emma shivers and scampers away.

 

In the spring, Regina rides her own horse and comes into Emma’s line of sight alone. Her gait is slow, even astride Rocinante, and she rides stiff and rigidly. Emma drops to the ground and sees, just in time, that there’s a whole company behind her, a couple of minutes away. In the center of it is the king, who pays little mind to his wife.

 

Emma scuttles closer, unnoticed by the entourage, and she speaks in the horse language to the king’s steed, startling it into jolting, throwing the king. The guards shout and shove past each other, hurrying to the fallen king, and Regina turns Rocinante around to glance back at the ruckus.

 

Emma dodges her eyes, running instead through the woods, and she hears, rather than sees, Regina give chase. Rocinante brays, a prideful warning to Emma, and she brays back under her breath and whips around a corner, into a willow grove. She flattens herself against the trunk of a weeping willow, safe beneath branches that droop to the ground around her in a massive, enclosed space.

 

Rocinante is silent now, still. Emma exhales with relief that turns into another intake of breath a moment later. Someone is walking toward her, quiet and cautious. There’s a rustle of the willow leaves being parted, and someone– it can only be one person– stepping into her hiding place.

 

She stands still, her hands flat at her side and her head pressed to the wide trunk as she waits for Regina to approach. The tree is thick enough to conceal her at this angle, but no further; and Regina needs only to take a few steps forward before she’d see Emma.

 

But Regina doesn’t step forward. She stands at the doorway she’d made for herself between the willow leaves, and she is silent for so long that Emma thinks she might have gone.

 

But she hasn’t gone. She speaks, her voice low, and the words are tentative. “You’ve been watching me, haven’t you?”

 

Of course . It’s Regina, who’d known that Emma had been hiding in her stables before Emma had ever suspected it. It’s Regina, who always seems to know when she’s being watched, who’s been trained to cultivate it. Four seasons have passed, two years gone, and she’s learned by now that she’s being watched.

 

Emma can feel her heart thumping against her chest, a sureness coursing through her that this is still her Regina. The rumors never abate, but Regina is Regina, and perhaps– the Regina she’d known might forgive her someday for breaking her heart. Emma need only step out to face her, to tell her why she’s here , and…

 

Regina speaks again. Her voice is stronger this time, and there’s a bite to it that sinks into Emma’s skin and shatters bone. “If you stop my carriage once more, I shall tear out your heart and crush it in my fist,” she says, her words dark and cold. She sounds like a stranger. She sounds like a dark witch, and Emma shudders in the warm spring air.

 

And then the tree begins to burn.

 

Regina is gone when Emma pulls away from the trunk, the beginnings of smoke beginning to drift toward her, and Emma jumps back in horror. The other side of the weeping willow is on fire. A sheet of orange flame licks up the side of it, crackling as it begins to spread, and Emma flees from it, runs from the tree the other way and watches, helpless, as the willow is consumed.

 

The rest of the grove is distant enough from the tree that it isn’t touched. Only the willow burns and burns, until branches are blackened and falling to the ground, until the soothing sea of green is black and ash rains around Emma. Emma watches, white-faced, and tears run freely down her face as ash flutters down to her hair, to her face, to the lips that had once kissed Regina’s.

 

By morning, there’s nothing left but a blackened circle of scorched earth where the willow had once been.

 

Emma doesn’t venture out to the king’s path when the winter comes next time. She hears the rumors, brushes them aside, and she believes more than she wants to and doesn’t see for herself. There are more immediate matters to concern herself with, like where she’ll sleep each night and how she’ll find enough food for the coming season.

 

She holes up in a cave for the start of the winter, but it’s an exceedingly cold one. There are stories that the Evil Queen had cursed their land, that the hinterlands will be forever blanketed in snow and crops will grow no longer. Emma listens in the taverns, her teeth chattering, and one innkeeper’s daughter says kindly, “You know, there’s a little alcove we have near the ovens for a dishwasher.”

 

“I can’t–” She’s afraid to work for anyone, not when their every order is a command. She’s preferred being on her own, stealing to live and avoiding setting down any roots around people. “I can’t be around anyone,” she mumbles, looking down.

 

“You won’t have to be,” the innkeeper’s daughter promises. “Only me.”

 

Marian is kind to her, and she survives several winters in the tavern, washing dishes and sleeping by the fire. In the spring, she emerges from the dark to blink at the sun, and she buries herself deep in the woods, distant from people and with only ogres to avoid.

 

It’s her third winter at Marian’s tavern when she’s called up from the kitchens one evening, Marian frantic. “The king is here,” she whispers. “Here, with his whole party! They had departed for the winter palace but the snow has slowed them down, and they want to spend the night here .” She wrings her hands. “We need help with serving. With preparing the beds. With–”

 

“I can’t,” Emma says, and Marian looks at her in deep disappointment. She can imagine how ungrateful she looks now, how ungrateful she will look when she has to do the inevitable, and she bites her lip and says, “I’ll go collect the linens.”

 

There will be no linens for the royal entourage. Emma has learned long ago that the best way to avoid orders is to volunteer before she cuts and runs, and she instead slips past Marian to the back exit of the tavern.

 

She turns back once and sees her.

 

It’s been four years since she’s last spotted Regina in the hinterlands, and she looks like a stranger now. Emma had thought her face hard that first year after her marriage, but now it’s carved of stone and steel and fire, eyes fathomless depths of calculation. There is no more pain, no more love. It’s all been sharpened, honed into a mask that Emma can’t recognize.

 

The king speaks, turning to face Regina, and Regina’s eyes shift downward, demure and soft and false. The king sees nothing. Emma stumbles away from them, from the ice-hewn sculpture of a woman that she’d once loved, and she flees back into the snow, her heart racing.

 

In the summer, news drifts to the hinterlands that King Leopold has taken ill in the night, poisoned by a set of Agraban Vipers. Emma thinks of cold, cruel eyes, and pushes all of it from her thoughts.

 

And then the ogres come.

 


 

More accurately, she stumbles into the ogres. They’re lurking by a cave, which is uncharacteristic for them. Most ogres sleep out in the open near mountaintops, confident in their skills and in the fact that few predators will venture near them. They catch scurrying animals quickly and humans who might climb the mountain to find them even faster.

 

So it’s surprising when she scampers across a net of trees that she knows will take her to an untouched cave, looks down, and finds herself surrounded by ogres. They stare at her. She stares at them, jerking her eyes from theirs just in time. One of them says something in a language that she hasn’t heard often enough to understand, and she drops to the ground and runs .

 

The ogres lumber after her, chattering to each other, and Emma slowly begins to understand what they’re saying. “This one knows the land,” one says. “She runs like prey.”

 

“Circle around,” the other orders. “There is water ahead. She will turn.”

 

Emma doesn’t turn. Emma leaps headlong into a freezing stream, and all she can think of is the last time that she’d jumped into water to avoid ogres. The ogres mutter with dissatisfaction and hunker by the water, waiting, and Emma shivers and turns away from them so they can’t catch her eyes.

 

“Let’s just go back,” one of the ogres rumbles. “We have a feast waiting for us at home. We can get dessert after.” They snort with laughter, and Emma’s brow furrows.

 

A feast . There is no creature out in these hinterlands but the odd white fox or rabbit. Certainly there aren’t enough of those in all the hinterlands to be classified as a feast , and Emma can only imagine one food that ogres would find en masse out here.

 

Humans . There are rare caravans that move down the road to the south, and the occasional drunken idiots on ogre-slaying missions that are more about posturing than about meeting any actual ogres. They likely don’t even deserve Emma’s compassion, but she hesitates.

 

It’s easy enough to crawl past the stream when the ogres have left, returning to her comfort zones in the trees and beyond the ogres’ sensitive noses. She creeps through the underbrush, climbs onto the closest tree, and dangles above the cave, watching carefully as the ogres lurch about near its opening.

 

And then an ogre lumbers from within it, complaining loudly, “When do we eat ? The humans are so noisy. And one of them tried whacking at me with this stick.” He lifts up a sword. It’s been tied into a knot, and the ogre touches the tip with distaste.

 

Idiots . Whoever they are. Who antagonizes the ogre about to eat them?

 

“Soon,” one of the ogres says. “The scent changed, and I don’t like it. We had seven, and now there are six.”

 

“And the dog.”

 

“And the dog,” the other ogre agrees. “The dog that wasn’t there at first. Something is wrong.” He twists the sword absentmindedly around his finger.

 

“I want to eat !” the ogre beside him says, and she throws out a hand, slamming it into Emma’s tree. The tree shakes violently, and Emma is thrown from it, landing with a crash on the ground in front of the ogres again.

 

This time, she doesn’t turn away quickly enough. “Dessert,” one ogre says silkily, and Emma shuts her eyes, hoping desperately that they hadn’t seen her darkest secrets just yet. “Go into the cave,” the ogre says, and Emma’s heart sinks. “Don’t run away.” The ogre begins to laugh. Emma stands still until the pain in her head is too difficult to resists. When she tries to run, the pain abates and she makes a joyful leap forward, as though the curse had shattered under her force of will, but she opens her eyes and she’s at the mouth of the cave instead.

 

Damn ,” she hisses, her mind working quickly. This isn’t the end. She hasn’t survived over twenty-seven years of obedience, orphanhood and heartbreak to be eaten by some ogres looking for a snack. That end is unthinkable.

 

But the cave looms closer and closer, and she’s stumbling forward, falling to the ground inside as an ogre pokes its head in. “Stay put,” it orders, and Emma spits at it, lodges saliva in the skin of its face. It laughs again, and it ducks its head out as Emma sits in furious impotence.

 

“Their faces are too leathery. Nothing gets past,” a woman’s voice says, and Emma blinks in the dim cave to find her. The older woman is sitting opposite Emma, legs sprawled out in front of her and her back against the wall of the cave. Curled beside her is an enormous wolf, its head resting on the woman’s legs.

 

She looks familiar, though Emma can’t place her immediately. “Are you the one who tried stabbing that ogre?”

 

“It’s worked before,” the woman says, shrugging. “Like a toothpick in the eye. I’ve been hunting ogres since I was a girl riding beside King David. I do know what I’m doing.”

 

Since I was a girl riding beside King David . The woman drops it casually, and Emma stares at her again, recognizes her for exactly who she is. She’d been beside him when he’d come to Cora’s estate, looking for Emma. She’d been the one to order Emma, as a page, to Queen Snow. This is one of the knights who’d saved her and Regina from the ogres all those years ago.

 

The woman is squinting at her now. “I’ve seen you before.”

 

“I don’t think so,” Emma lies, and she wants to sob with laughter. Of course this woman has seen her before. Her face had been plastered over every marketplace in the White Kingdom for years. What are the odds that now , in the cavern where they’d meet their deaths, they’d find each other again?

 

“Hm,” the woman says, unconvinced. “How did you get out here? Don’t you know this is ogre country?” She barks out a sharp breath of a laugh. “At least we came here for the ogres. I don’t know what a girl alone would be doing–”

 

“I live out here,” Emma retorts. The woman’s eyebrows rise. Emma shrugs, staring at the ground. “I didn’t get caught. I don’t get caught. I came back here because they said that there was someone in the caves.”

 

“Very noble,” says another voice from the shadows. There’s another woman back there– no, two, one dark and wielding a weapon that glows with energy and another pale with wild red hair and a bow slung over her knees. Across from them are three men of varying size and build, all sitting as though they’re waiting passively for their fate. The woman with the energy weapon rolls her eyes. “It’s a wonder you’ve survived this long in the hinterlands.”

 

The wolf rumbles something like a laugh. One of the men says sternly, “Be nice, Tamara. She’s saving our lives.”

 

Now they’re all laughing except for the woman with the wolf, and Emma’s face burns. The woman with the wolf says in a murmur, “They’re looking at their deaths right now. It isn’t about you.” She reaches out a hand. “I’m Mulan.”

 

Emma had known that, a long time ago. Queen Snow had mentioned her a number of times on the day of the wedding. “Emma,” she says, and Mulan’s eyes flicker again, as though she’s struggling to recall something from long ago.

 

There’s a movement from the mouth of the cave that distracts her, thankfully. Less thankfully, it’s one of their captors. It stares around with beady eyes and then says, in a language that they all can understand, “You.” It jerks a thumb toward Emma. “Get up.”

 

Emma clambers to her feet, her fists clenched. The ogre says, “Bring us the tastiest human. That one.” It jams a stubby finger at the largest of the men, licking its lips.

 

Emma glances around. Mulan is watching her, frowning, and the man says, “If you think we’re going to turn on each other for a chance to be the last you–” Emma lunges at him, kicking him hard in the gut. He doubles over, gasping. “What the hell ?”

 

“I’m sorry,” Emma says desperately. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to do this.”

 

The other men have sprung up to help the first, and an arrow whistles through the air and nearly takes off Emma’s ear. They fight her back and she scrapes her way forward, kicking and punching with years of practice, snatching a sword from one man’s hilt and swinging it around at them. Her attention is focused on the large man, eyes glued to him as she thrashes around, and the others snap at her as she fights to get to him.

 

“Enough,” the ogre says, looking alarmed. “Don’t kill each other. I want my meat fresh.” His voice changes, turning low and coaxing. “I know what you want,” he says, the cadence smooth and tempting. “There’s a warm meal just beyond this cave. There is honor and the love of your queen.” He’s still looking at the big man, and the man tilts his head and stands. “All you have to do is step out of this cave. I know what you want,” he says again, and the man steps forward.

 

The wolf moves before the man can, leaping at the man and swiping him with blunt paws. The man blinks, shaking his head as though he’s only just awakened, and Tamara leaps forward, pressing her energy weapon to the ogre’s side.

 

The ogre howls, rolling onto the floor and cuffing her, and the other ogres rush to them. And then there’s no more waiting. They’re yanked from the cave and trussed up, the energy weapon lost and bows and swords falling, and they’re each dropped to the ground in the light as the wolf howls and the redheaded woman spits out curses.

 

“You’ll choke on us,” Mulan hisses, and the ogres chortle. “I know what you want,” one says, sly.

 

Emma lies on the ground, tied up and gagged while the ogres prepare a fire, and she listens to their tone when they speak to Mulan, the slick way they wrap their tongues around the missives like a caress. Mulan is silent, affected by their promises, and Emma closes her eyes and thinks, thinks .

 

She imitates it in her head, the oily cadence and the purr with which it’s delivered. I know what you want . I know what you want , she thinks in Ogreish, and she licks her lips and is almost taken in by it herself.

 

The ogres have failed at their first fire. It’s too cold today, too windy, and the flames spark and then go out. “Again,” one ogre grunts. Emma can count them now that they’re all out of the cavern and all gathered together. There are eight in total. That’s exactly as many ogres as there are trussed-up snacks for them.

 

She has to think like an ogre– act like an ogre, and find the right words. She waits, wriggling closer to the firepit where she might be chosen first. The ogres have finally managed a fire, and they mill about, eyeing their prisoners together.

 

“That one,” the biggest ogre decides, pointing at the largest man again. He struggles in his bonds, but it’s to no use. “I want it.”

 

Two of the ogres lift him, bringing him toward the fire pit, and Emma swallows and says in Ogreish, the words curling out of her like a song, “I know what you want.”

 

The ogres slow, their heads tilting as they listen. “You’re all so full,” Emma coaxes. “You’ve eaten…a whole meal. A dozen humans. Maybe more. Six horses. You couldn’t eat another bite.” She can feel disbelieving eyes on her, and she takes a deep breath, sensing the ogres’ minds beginning to wander. For all their intelligence, they’re no masters of long-term planning.

 

“I know what you want,” Emma repeats, her voice gaining confidence with the familiar cadence. “A long, warm nap around this campfire. You’ve eaten your fill and you’re sleepy.” The ogres rumble around her. One yawns. Another flops on its side already. “All those humans,” Emma says smoothly. “You couldn’t possibly take another bite. You’d better untie me.” One ogre stumbles to her, loosening her bonds. “You’ll be sick if you eat any more. Go to sleep,” she coaxes in Ogreish, and their heads droop. “Go to sleep.”

 

The ogres drop to the ground at varying speeds, their eyes drifting shut, and they stretch out and curl up and begin to snore. Emma shakes off her bonds, hurrying to free the large man and then Mulan. Together, they make quick work of the others’ bonds. The knights immediately begin to truss up the sleeping ogres, Emma walking between them and crooning persuasive lullabies to them to still them.

 

When they’re done, the knights stare at her with new respect, and Emma stares down, embarrassed. “I didn’t–”

 

“You saved us all,” Mulan says wonderingly. “How do you know how to do that?”

 

“It sounded like magic,” a woman says. She has long dark hair and is wearing a red hood and she hadn’t been in the cave with them, Emma’s positive. She links an arm over Mulan’s. “Are you a witch?” There’s caution in her eyes, careful judgment, and Emma shakes her head quickly.

 

“I just…I pick up languages quickly,” she mutters. “I don’t know what it is.”

 

“Whatever it is,” the big knight says, and he spares a smile for her. “You did rescue us, after all. I think we owe you an apology.”

 

“That’s not necessary,” Emma says swiftly. “I’d better– I’ve got to go.” She can’t be here anymore, under admiring glances. She can’t be around people , who too quickly betray her.

 

She turns and runs, light-footed and agile as she rounds trees and swings up one, and she’s making headway when she sees a movement below her.

 

The wolf has caught up to her, and it circles below her tree, sniffing up at her as though it’s been tracking her. A moment later, Mulan has joined it, and she says, “Come down,” almost impatiently.

 

Emma slides down the tree, the command a blow she hadn’t needed after today. “What?” she demands.

 

Mulan shifts. “I could use you,” she says. “You put those ogres to sleep like it was nothing. I’ve never seen anyone like you.” She paces between the trees, her brow furrowed. “And you have this gift of tongues. You could do so much good in the White Kingdom’s personal guard, Emma.”

 

For a single instant, it’s tempting. Emma can imagine it, being surrounded by good people and hunting ogres together. Working with Queen Snow and King David, after all. Belonging , and she’s startled at how much she aches for that when she isn’t fleeing from it.

 

But no. She could never be anyone’s trusted guard, not when a single command can twist her away from her loyalties. It’s laughable to imagine her protecting anyone . Maybe Mulan had forgotten how easily she’d gone for the other knight when ordered, but Emma can’t– can’t forget an instant when she’d been suddenly sure that she’d been about to send someone to his death. “I couldn’t,” she says thickly. “I appreciate the offer, but I couldn’t.”

 

“You could ,” Mulan says stubbornly. “You would be invaluable. You are a gift , Emma.”

 

“I would destroy your kingdom,” Emma says, her heart aching. “I would never be a gift.”

 

“How can you say that?” Mulan demands. She doesn’t believe Emma– of course she doesn’t, because she doesn’t understand, doesn’t know that Emma’s a ticking time bomb.

 

And Emma trusts her implicitly, after only a few incidents together. Mulan engenders trust, screams the sort of uprightness that every royal would only wish to have on their guard. “Please don’t make me tell you that,” Emma whispers, a plea she can’t enforce as policy.

 

Mulan looks at her carefully, her brow furrowed. Emma stares down miserably, feeling those watchful eyes boring into her. “We have met, haven’t we? Do I know you?”

 

“Please don’t make me tell you that,” Emma repeats dully, and she can feel frustrated tears begin to gather in her eyes. She knows– somehow she knows that this encounter is going to end badly for both of them. The truth hovers between them, close enough that it’s nearly palpable, and she’s terrified of what it is that Mulan might understand.

 

Mulan kneels down suddenly, rubs the wolf’s neck and presses her cheek to its side. “Go back to the others,” she says quietly. “Tell them to go without me. I’ll be there soon.” The wolf whines questioningly, and Mulan scratches it behind its ears and gives it a little shove.

 

It leaves, trotting back to the ogre camp, and Emma thinks she should run now. Mulan is distracted, watching it go, and it would be easy to flee before the truth outs itself, before something terrible happens.

 

But she doesn’t. And Mulan turns back to her and says in a low voice, “Could I, Emma?” There’s something glistening in her eyes, something like wonder, but there’s no malice within it. This isn’t Cora’s calculating realization or Lily’s mocking response. “Could I make you tell me that?”

 

Emma closes her eyes, feeling tired tears leak from them.

 

“On the posters, you looked just like him,” Mulan murmurs, her voice hushed. “I thought it was wishful thinking. We all did. They’d see you everywhere, and we’d have to guide them back from the most ridiculous of schemes. They were so desperate to find you. And on the posters, you looked just like him.” She gulps in a breath. “But you do. You really, really do. I don’t know how I didn’t see it before.”

 

“What did you see?” Emma says, weary and wary. There is something lingering in Mulan’s voice, in her eyes, and everything about this moment feels monumental. “Who did I look like?”

 

Mulan reaches out to touch her hand. “I was sworn to secrecy when you were born,” she says. “I’ve kept that secret for twenty-eight years, and I’ve known all along that it would be the key to finding you. And here you are.” She smiles, her eyes bright and wet.

 

Emma shakes her head, at a loss, unwilling to process what Mulan is implying. “Who did I look like, Mulan?”

 

Mulan squeezes her hand, takes her other hand, holds both loosely within hers. “Like your father, Emma. Like your father.”

Chapter Text

Emma’s never liked riding in carriages, and she likes it even less now. She hasn’t been in one since that fateful day with Queen– with her–

 

She hasn’t been in one in a long time. She finds them claustrophobic now, the sides too tight and small, and the road is bumpy without warning. Mulan squeezes her hand, and Emma straightens, staring blankly out the window as she strokes the wolf’s fur with her other hand.

 

“We’re nearly there,” Mulan says. “I know you’re…I know this must be difficult to process–”

 

“You’re telling me,” Emma says with a dry burst of laughter. The wolf rumbles, laying a head on her lap with unnatural prescience. “I’m– I’m supposed to be some royal princess? Me? I don’t think so.”

 

“Your birthday is today,” Mulan says. Emma stares at her. She hadn’t known that herself, had estimated and guessed but never known for certain. “At birth, a fairy godmother gave you a unique, terrible gift.”

 

“An old woman once told me that I had fairy dust on my tongue,” Emma offers blankly. “That’s why I’m so good at languages.”

 

“Yes,” Mulan agrees, and she tells a story that dances around obedience , careful in the presence of the wolf to never name the fairy’s gift. “You stopped crying and your mother was terrified . Your parents didn’t leave your side that night, even after they had spoken to the Blue Fairy and been promised that it would be fixed. But something went wrong. In the morning, you were gone.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“No one does,” Mulan says grimly. “Not your parents, not the Blue Fairy, not any of the guards in the palace. No one knows why you disappeared or where you went.” She looks at Emma expectantly, but Emma just shrugs. She doesn’t know where she’d gone. She only has the barest memories of her early years, and almost all of her memories are keyed to her obedience instead of her location.

 

The carriage halts, and Mulan steps down first, the wolf stalking beside her. They’re inside the castle grounds, and right in front of them– right there, as though she’d been told, though of course she hadn’t been– is Queen Snow. She’s walking through the gardens, flowers in her hand, and they flutter to the ground when she sees Mulan and Emma.

 

She had looked older than her years when Emma had last seen her, years before. Now she’s even older, her features wan and wrinkles spread liberally across her face. The sickness she’d mentioned back then has taken its toll, but she still walks with the grace of a queen.

 

And she still sees Emma and knows , even without Mulan’s explanation or the wolf that gallops into the castle. “It’s you,” she breathes, and she gathers up her dark gown and rushes across the path, down toward them. She reaches up to Emma’s face in wonder, cradles it in her hands, and Emma stares down at her and doesn’t know how she knows . “I’ve been searching for you for so long.”

 

“I–” Emma stutters, and she doesn’t know what to say, how to explain any of this or even to introduce herself.

 

Mulan steps in, laying a gentle hand on Queen Snow’s arm. “This is your daughter, Your Majesty,” she says, smiling at the queen. “Emma.”

 

“Emma,” Queen Snow breathes, and she begins to sob.

 

Her arms wrap around Emma fiercely, trap her in an embrace like none Emma has felt in years– like none Emma has ever felt. Mother , Emma thinks, as some people think of mythical creatures that don’t exist, and she can feel hot tears threatening to fall.

 

Then King David tears out of the castle, wild-eyed as though he’s only just heard, and he throws his arms around them both. Emma is wrapped in a tight cocoon of love , of parents , of impossible things that she’s never even let herself dream of, and she shakes and shakes in their arms, shuts her eyes and waits to awaken to reality.

 

She doesn’t awaken. She’s too shellshocked to think, to feel, but this strange dream doesn’t end. She’s guided into a comfortable room moments later and seated on a couch, King David wrapping an arm around her and Queen Snow holding onto her hands, and Queen Snow nods to Mulan and the room is emptied. “All I’ve ever thought about is you,” Queen Snow says in a choked tone. “How you might have survived, being all alone in the world. What kind of life you might have led. If you were suffering, or if you were happy–” She gulps in a breath. “If the fairy’s curse had destroyed you–”

 

Emma can feel the tears still lurking at the corners of her eyes, barely held back by dazed disbelief. Queen Snow has no such compunctions when she cries. “You’re so beautiful,” she gasps out. “You’ve grown up and I’ve never seen it. I’ve loved you twenty-eight years and nine months and I could never imagine that you would be so beautiful.”

 

King David tightens his grip on Emma, and Emma wants to pull away by instinct. She doesn’t allow men to seize her like this. She doesn’t allow anyone to touch her, but all the queen and king seem to want to do is touch her, to feel her as someone solid who is still with them. She has little more to offer than that, and so she bears their embraces in silence.

 

She doesn’t know how to do any of this. She doesn’t know how to be a daughter, much less some long-anticipated princess. The lost princesses in the stories are always graceful and kind and readymade royalty, not a recluse who’s spent most of her life fleeing from everyone around her. She’s going to disappoint both of her long-lost parents, and it’s only a matter of time.

 

She wants to apologize, to insist there’s been some kind of mistake and to run back to the hinterlands. She wants to tell the king and queen that she isn’t the girl they’ve been waiting for. But there’s an equal part of her that’s already addicted to this, to parents who look at her like she’s a revelation and family , and she can’t seem to open her mouth to protest.

 

“I should change,” Queen Snow says suddenly, fingering her black gown. “Oh, Emma, I want to wear colors again.” She smiles tearfully. “I have my little girl back.” She kisses Emma’s forehead, her fingers brushing through Emma’s hair, and Emma swallows back more unfathomable tears that she doesn’t shed.

 

Mulan clears her throat. She’s still standing in the doorway of the empty room, and Emma looks up moments before Snow finally follows her lead. “I’m afraid you might not want to switch back to color just yet,” she says gravely. “I didn’t come all this way just to bring you Emma. I have some news of King Leopold.”

 

Emma stiffens. Snow’s eyes narrow. “No,” she says, her voice suddenly frail.

 

“Three days ago,” Mulan says gently. “He went peacefully, and spoke only of how proud he was of you in his lucid moments.”

 

Snow trembles, standing up, fists clenched and eyes wet. “Was she there?” Mulan shakes her head silently. “Of course not. Of course not. That witch .” She paces, her jaw set, and Emma watches her with rising dread. “She killed him. She doesn’t even try to hide how smug she is. Is she even holding a funeral? Or has she taken this opportunity to crown herself leader of King Leopold’s kingdom?”

 

“Snow,” David says, reaching for her, and she folds into his arms, sobbing. Emma stares at the ground, knowing exactly at whom Snow’s impotent rage is pointed. “Of course there’s a funeral,” he murmurs. “Regina wouldn’t be quite so callous. The kingdom loved their king.”

 

“They hate her,” Snow says viciously. “Everyone hates her. She killed– she killed the closest thing I’ve ever had to a father, David. What have I ever done to her? Why do I deserve this?” she says plaintively.

 

Emma remembers– Snow, so wise and motherly, believing that Regina had only had cold feet when Regina had begged for mercy. Regina, she imagines, can hold a grudge for a long, long time, particularly one so grievous.

 

But she says nothing until Snow turns to her and says, “We leave at once to pay our respects and make sure Regina hasn’t defiled the body. Won’t you join us, Emma?” Her eyes are beseeching, and Emma’s already going to have to let her down.

 

“I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I– I don’t think that would be a good idea–” She doesn’t dare explain to Snow why, how her simple visit will become so much more complicated if Emma accompanies her.

 

And then this cloud of something like joy or hope comes crashing down with a simple statement. “Emma, you must,” Snow says, taking her hands again. The command falls like a vise, like chains around her wrists, and Emma can’t speak or breathe, terrified as she is of sobbing right now. Emma, you must . One of the only people in the universe to know her secret has already used it against her, and hasn’t even noticed that she’d done it.

 

Emma nods and says dully, “Then I will,” and struggles to smile at Snow’s beam.

 


 

They climb into the carriage after a fuss of packing and dressing. Emma is wearing a dark gown that had been Snow’s (“I wore it just after I lost you,” Snow says tearfully, and Emma takes the gown without a word) and it itches, pulls at her waist and fits uncomfortably. Snow sits beside her, a hand on her wrist, and David sits opposite them and watches her with a smile.

 

She isn’t accustomed to being the center of attention. It’s something she’s deliberately avoided her entire life, wary of what too many eyes on her can bring. And now, she’s surrounded by people who know her secret, who know everything about her, and she feels naked before them, stripped of every protection she has. Trust doesn’t come with blood, she’s discovers. Trust comes with time, with care, with gentle hands that don’t seek to use her.

 

She smiles shakily back at David and looks out the window again. They’re crossing into the hinterlands, taking the longer, unobstructed route to King Leopold’s palace. This is the land that Emma knows, but she’s never seen it quite like this before, looking down from above in a royal carriage. “Oh,” she says suddenly, leaning forward. Marian’s inn is across the road, smaller and shabbier than she’d ever remembered it being from below.

 

“What is it?” David wants to know.

 

Emma shrugs, self-conscious. “There’s an innkeeper’s daughter here who gave me a job for a few years. I never really thanked her for it.” She’d run, as she always has, and she feels guilty for it now.

 

“We’ll send her a carriage full of riches,” Snow says immediately, her eyes warm. This is what it means, being so carelessly royal . Emma doesn’t know how she’s ever supposed to get used to this. “Anything for our daughter.” She leans over, stroking Emma’s hair. “Was there anyone else over the years? Do we owe our gratitude to others?”

 

Emma thinks, for one absurd moment, of a girl in a stables who’d only wanted to ride with her. She blinks rapidly, and says in a lower, shaky voice. “No one else. I kind of…I couldn’t really be around people. Not with my curse.”

 

“Oh, Emma,” Snow breathes, and she sounds so genuinely compassionate that it sparks something dark within Emma, something that Emma has to hurry to tamp down. “I can’t imagine how it must be to feel…constantly threatened like that.” She rests her hand on the nape of Emma’s neck, curling her fingers into Emma’s hair. “I swear to you, neither your father nor I will ever give you any commands. You’re safe here with us.”

 

She has no idea why Emma’s here at all, which commands had held her prisoner. Emma says blankly, “Thank you,” and Snow captures her chin, turns it to face her so she can examine Emma’s face.

 

“What is it?” she asks, her brow furrowed. “Emma, what did I–” Emma can see the way she’s thinking back, the moment when she finally makes the connection. “Oh, no,” she gasps, holding a hand to her mouth. “Oh, Emma –”

 

It’s been two of the most harrowing days of Emma’s life, but only now does she finally allow herself to cry. She tears her face from Snow’s grasp in an attempt to hide the tears rolling down her cheeks and Snow drops to the ground, the queen of the White kingdom kneeling before her as she cries out an apology of her own. “I’m sorry , I’m so sorry, I never meant to– I only meant that I didn’t want to be apart from you, Emma, forgive me–”

 

“I forgive you,” Emma says at once, and Snow stumbles back in horror.

 

“No. I didn’t mean– you don’t have to forgive me,” she says, stricken. “You don’t have to come with me. I’m– I’m not good at this,” Snow murmurs, wiping at her own tears. “I just want you to be free.”

 

Emma nods, wary and afraid, but there’s a glimmer of hope in the way that Snow kneels in front of her, penitent, as though she truly is sorry. “It can be hard to remember,” Emma says grudgingly. “For everyone else, anyway. Not hard at all for me.” She smiles humorlessly.

 

She wonders what it might have been like, to have grown up with her curse in Snow’s palace. She imagines she’d have been sheltered, Mulan shadowing her every move to be sure that no one would ever give her a command. She’d have been pampered and beloved and never quite grasping the horrors of what her curse can entail, and she’d have been happy.

 

That’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it?

 

Snow sits back beside her as the ride continues, and she recalls the day that Emma had been born again. “Tinkerbell,” she says. “That’s what the fairy was called. It took us years just to get that name out of Blue, who’s still very embarrassed by the whole affair. The fairy was cast from the fold after your gift, and she hasn’t been seen since, though there are stories of her gifting others with unfortunate curses.”

 

Snow twists her lips. “Never obedience, but eternal love that won’t die even when the lovers no longer like each other. Happiness that never allows for sorrow. One of her favorites is gifting a lonely person with a soulmate they must wed, lest they die of loneliness.” She shakes her head. “We’ve been searching for her for so long. We thought she might have known why you disappeared.”

 

Emma swallows. “Do you think she’d…take it back? The obedience. Maybe if I speak to her…”

 

David smiles encouragingly at her. “Maybe,” he agrees.

 

“We’ll send out soldiers to find her,” Snow says, patting her shoulder. “We’ll search everywhere. I know that–” The carriage jerks, coming abruptly to a stop. “Already?” Snow says, opening the carriage door. “Don’t we usually go straight to the stables?”

 

“Perhaps under my dear husband’s reign,” says a silky voice that still sends shivers up Emma’s spine. “But as I’m sure you’ve heard, he’s gone now. Tragic.” There is no sorrow in Regina’s tone, just cool amusement, and Snow’s face goes hard and angry.

 

David extends a hand to Emma, and Emma takes it, her heart skipping beats as they step down from the carriage. Snow and Regina are hugging, both of them a careful distance from each other as they do, and neither looks up until they’re pulling apart. “Ah,” Regina says, turning slowly. “King David. A pleasure to see you again, though not under these–”

 

Her eyes flicker from David’s face to Emma’s, and the smile falls from her face for a single instant. Emma sees the moment it wavers and something dark and surprised crosses her face instead. Emma sees–

 

God , she’s still so beautiful. Regina is steel and hard lines, fury and disdain and a queen to rival her mother’s infamy, but she also looks just like the girl who’d once challenged her mother to save Emma’s life. She also looks like hushed kisses and long rides and secret smiles that had sustained Emma for a perfect year, and she also looks like irreparable, indescribable heartbreak in the stables that Emma can never explain.

 

“And who is this?” Regina says smoothly, her visage rearranged into the cool, untouchable queen. “A new guard? She looks a bit scrawny for the field, doesn’t she?”

 

“My daughter,” Snow says, moving to wrap a protective arm around Emma. David has already angled himself between Regina and Emma, his hand on his sword. “We’ve found her at last.” And even faced with a queen that she seems to despise, Snow still smiles brightly when she talks about finding Emma.

 

It makes Emma’s heart thud, just as much as Regina’s dark smirk does. “How… fortuitous,” she says. “After all those years of concealing Emma from you.”

 

Snow reacts to Emma’s name with a jerky movement, her finger stabbing out at Regina in startled shock. “You knew?”

 

Regina raises her chin, a smug devastation across their fragile reunion. “Of course I did,” she says, and she fixes her unrepentant sneer on Emma. Emma stares up at her, searching for some sign of a lie– for something , anything revealed in her eyes that might prove that Regina is playing games with them. “Don’t you remember who made her run from you?”

 

Emma remembers the day of the wedding– remembers Regina, vengeful and furious, and she doesn’t know if Regina is telling the truth about what had happened, but she can believe it. She recoils, shrinking into herself, and Snow squeezes her shoulder and glowers at Regina. “How much more suffering must you inflict on my family?” Snow asks plaintively. “When does it end?”

 

The false smile sits at ease on Regina’s face. “When you find everything you’ve ever valued stripped away,” she says, still smiling. “My dear Snow, you must be so cold. Come inside.” She puts a hand on Snow’s back and one on Emma’s, and Snow looks up at her with barely contained despair. Emma walks jerkily, the pad of Regina’s thumb rubbing mocking circles against her too-heavy gown, and she doesn’t dare meet Regina’s eyes.

 

They pay their respects. There is a royal funeral scheduled for two weeks from today, and Emma stands uncomfortably in the back of the room as Snow weeps over her surrogate father. Mulan hovers near Emma, a wary eye on Regina, but Regina has eyes only for Snow.

 

It’s strange, to envy someone else for being the target of Regina’s hatred. But Regina has essentially dismissed Emma, and she doesn’t look back at Emma again after they enter the room. She sweeps around Snow and the other royals present, deep sorrow on her face, and her every movement is careful and calculated.

 

Emma watches her miserably. There is little sign of any sincerity on Regina's face, but for the moment when she looks down at the open casket, unseen by anyone in the room, and she closes her eyes and exhales. It’s an expression of intense, long-awaited relief, and it’s the most human thing that Emma’s seen on Regina’s face since they’d gotten here.

 

They eat in the main dining hall. Snow has been named de facto leader of Leopold’s household without a vote or discussion, and she sits at the head of a table beside the king’s table with a crowd around her. Regina doesn’t eat in the dining hall, and Emma looks for her and sees only her back as she swoops from the room, slipping out to the gardens.

 

The grounds are beautiful, and Snow walks with Emma after dinner to show her where she’d grown up. “I used to get lost in the garden maze all the time,” she says dreamily. “And there were those beautiful cedar trees over– there. Regina planted this apple tree,” she says sourly, gesturing at a tree that stands tall in the garden. “I’ll never understand how someone can be so fortunate, can be given so much, and squander it all for power.” She shakes her head. “To think that she could have reunited us years ago…oh, you must be just as furious as I am.”

 

It’s not delivered as a command but a supposition. “I just feel kind of numb,” Emma says truthfully, letting her fingers run over the bumpy wood of the apple tree. It’s the right thing to say, though, because Snow links their arms and kisses Emma’s cheek, resting her head against Emma’s shoulder as they walk onward.

 

Emma feels eyes on them from afar, and she finally finds them when she looks up. Regina is glaring down at them from a castle balcony, and she stares back when Emma catches her gaze, eyes piercing. Emma doesn’t look away until Regina does, and Snow talks as she steers them forward, oblivious.

 


 

When Regina appears in her room that night, Emma somehow isn’t surprised at all.

 

Emma has been given the most luxurious room she’s ever been in, more impressive than Regina’s bedroom or anything her past has had to offer. It’s Snow’s childhood room and it’s too big, too empty. Emma is used to sleeping in caves and under trees, in little back rooms of inns and under market stalls. She isn’t accustomed to grand, bare spaces with a bed twice the size of her room at Marian’s inn.

 

A maid takes off her clothes and helps her into the nightgown provided to her, a thin, gauzy material that is nearly sheer. Emma shrugs her off, uncomfortable with the attention, and she sits in the bed, back against the headboard, and struggles to process everything that’s happened over the past two days.

 

Ogres. Knights. Parents . And now Regina. Her head spins, and she scrubs at her face with her hands. It’s too much, all at once. It’d be too much if it were just one thing at a time. But here she is, a princess in her ex-fiancée’s castle, and she’s overcome.

 

And then Regina appears at her door, still dressed in black and her eyes unreadable. In a strange sort of way, Emma’s expecting her. How else could this night end? Regina steps into the room, her hands at her side without a hint of discomfort, and she stares down silently at Emma.

 

Emma clears her throat, waits, gets nothing. She says finally, “Why slow-acting poison?”

 

Regina gives her a cold smile. She doesn’t deny it. “I wanted him to suffer,” she says.

 

“Me, too,” Emma murmurs.

 

Regina’s smile vanishes. “Don’t you dare,” she growls. “Don’t act now as though you cared .” It’s almost puggish, almost childish. It’s defiant and furious, as though Regina is outraged even at the idea that Emma would pretend.

 

Emma straightens in the bed, and Regina takes an angry step forward. Don’t act now as though you cared . It’s a command, and Emma can’t respond to it. Emma can’t do anything but wait, and it’s a blessed relief when Regina snarls, “Well? Tell me .”

 

“I did,” Emma says simply, the truth escaping in a whoosh. “Of course I did.”

 

Regina barks out a bitter laugh. “Liar.”

 

Emma watches her silently, the truth written in every inch of her face, and Regina whips around in a fury. “ Liar ,” she hisses– no, she cries out , a desperate plea of a long-gone girl. “If you aren’t– if you have the audacity to act as though I matter now– then what the hell was going through your mind when you threw me away?” Threw me away , and Regina looks very young now: no Evil Queen, only a heartbroken girl who still doesn’t understand. “Why did you– how could you–?”

 

Emma can’t answer any of it, not with Cora’s old missive still firm in her mind. You will never tell Regina the truth of what transpired here, or of this...quality you have. She curses Cora, not for the first time, and she can do nothing but sit silently in devastation as Regina rages at her.

 

“You’re a piece of work,” Regina says, her eyes glittering dangerously. “Sitting there in Snow White’s bed like you regret –”

 

Emma climbs out of the bed. There’s something about Regina standing over her now that makes her wary as she’d never been before, afraid of what this stranger-who-isn’t-a-stranger might do next. “Is this better?” she counters. “What good is it to– to dwell on–”

 

“Is it what you dreamed of?” Regina counters, stepping up into her personal space. She hovers, too close, and Emma can feel the nearly dazed effect that Regina has on her now. Once it had been lovesickness, hopeless infatuation with a girl who’d meant everything to her, but now Regina is intoxicating in her rage, beautiful in her fire, addictive in her familiarity. “Riches? Power? Fame? Is it everything you hoped for?”

 

Emma shrugs, irritation and grief fusing with guilt. “I met my parents under a day ago. I wouldn’t know.”

 

Regina’s eyes gleam. “Is that resentment I’m hearing in your tone?” She laughs, delighted and cruel. “Of course. One day with Snow White and I despised her, too.” She cups Emma’s face, mock-gentle as her fingers brush across Emma’s lips. Emma stands very still. “I wonder,” Regina muses, and her voice is low and throaty as she slides her fingers along Emma's face, dragging down Emma’s lower lip before she releases it. “Just how much you’ve changed from the con artist you were with me.”

 

Emma wants to shake her head, but Cora’s command catches that , too, and she’s left to stare up at Regina, helpless beneath her touch. Regina leans forward and Emma can only tilt her face to meet Regina’s, her lips to nearly brush Regina’s–

 

“I wonder,” Regina echoes, her voice nearly a whisper, “If your cunt tastes any different now that it’s royal .” She shoves Emma back as Emma gapes at her in outrage, Regina’s face twisted into a mocking sneer.

 

Emma finds words, painfully and humiliatingly honest. “No one else would know,” she retorts, her throat dry.

 

Regina’s eyes widen in an instant of surprise, one she can’t conceal in time. “No one,” she echoes dubiously. “Did your grand plan to whore yourself out to naive princesses fail so spectacularly?”

 

Emma wraps her arms around herself and her thin nightgown in an attempt to stave off a shiver. No, obedience doesn’t lend itself to flings or romance, not when a single moment of closeness is enough to risk her entire soul. She rarely trusts, and only once had she trusted so fully as to give herself to someone else.

 

“Pathetic,” Regina grinds out, but she’s moving forward as she spits out her disgust, pressing Emma back against the bed, and a dry sob escapes her lips when Emma lifts her lips to Regina’s. Emma kisses her desperately, her wariness forgotten the moment that Regina is against her, and her hands slide automatically onto Regina’s waist.

 

Regina lets out another angry sob, then a curse, and she falls into Emma, drops to the bed with Emma beneath her and digs her fingers into the skin below Emma’s shoulders. “I hate you,” she snarls, and she bites hard on Emma’s lip.

 

“Regina,” Emma murmurs, and she tugs Regina closer, desperate for the contact. “ Fuck , Regina–”

 

“Go to hell,” Regina hisses, and she jerks against Emma, rubs against her and tears at the gauzy nightgown. It’s a command that Emma can’t follow, of course, but it feels as if she’s close to tasting hell regardless, close to agonizing bliss that is something paradise could never conceive of.

 

Regina splits the nightgown down the middle and Emma yanks at her dress, rips her clothes viciously until there’s only a corset below them. Emma tugs Regina forward, feels her wet center leave a cool trail along Emma’s bared skin, and she kisses the swells of Regina’s breasts above the corset, sucks ardently until a purple bruise begins to form. Regina groans, pressing painfully against Emma, riding her body with furious movements.

 

Emma pulls her higher still and then sits in a surge of energy, Regina falling back as she does, and Emma yanks her back by the legs and hooks them around her head. She sucks hard and Regina writhes, dressed in nothing but the corset and heeled boots that slam into the back of Emma’s neck when Regina moves.

 

They aren’t talking, but for the scattered curses that escape their gritted teeth. Emma hasn’t done this in years– hasn’t done anything like this ever, but Regina is gasping and wanton, fingers gripping Emma’s thighs as she’s arched out over Emma’s body and Emma’s never acted so instinctively, ever . She flicks her tongue over Regina’s clit, feels her clutch Emma harder by the legs. It’s painful and it’s ecstasy, and Emma moves hard and fast, harsh and unyielding, and Regina strains against her own corset and makes black-blue crescents in Emma’s skin and hisses, I hate you, I hate you as she moans.

 

And then she’s surging forward, seizing the upper hand unexpectedly, and Emma finds herself flat on her back again. She’s completely naked, barefoot and lying in a bed of gauzy material that had once been her nightgown, and Regina crouches over her and stares down at her hungrily. She loosens her corset, panting, and her breasts finally bounce out from it, plump and inviting.

 

Emma reaches for them, kneads them hard until Regina throws back her head and groans, pressing into Emma’s palms. “Good,” she says fiercely. “Harder. Harder .” Emma pinches her nipples, squeezes her breasts harder, and Regina groans louder. Daring, Emma lifts herself up to wrap her lips around one, and Regina presses her back down, domineering, “Lie back,” she orders, and every breathless, needy part of Emma is silenced at once.

 

It’s like cold water rushing over her, the sudden transition from lust to horror. Regina doesn’t know , is still hovering over her as fury fades to confusion, as Emma lies back obediently and stops her ministrations at once. “Emma,” Regina says, her brow creasing, and with her hair down and her eyes unguarded, she looks like a girl whom Emma had once loved.

 

Regina shakes her head a moment later, jerking out of the moment of confusion. “ Princess ,” she amends with disgust, reaching down to Emma’s face. She caresses it for a moment, and Emma doesn’t know what she’s looking for– more kisses, perhaps, or the lust that had been undisguised in Emma’s eyes moments before.

 

Now, all Emma can feel is terror, dawning on her at her sudden helplessness beneath Regina and under the weight of Regina’s command. She knows it’s clear on her face, is giving even more power to Regina, and she’s petrified, fearful of what might come next.

 

But what comes next is that Regina pulls back.

 

Regina backs away, her eyes narrowed with what might be revulsion at Emma’s fright, and Emma wants to laugh and sob at it. Somehow, after years of corruption and magic and a metamorphosis into a stranger, Regina remains someone she can trust.

 

Regina, who pushes her back suddenly and flicks her wrist, dressing herself again in repaired clothes in an instant and magically rolling Emma’s blanket over her torso. “Never mind,” she says in disgust, sliding off the bed, and it all seems so much more false when her eyes are so shaken by Emma’s fear. “You’re not worth it.”

 

Emma still can’t move– doesn’t know how long it’ll be until the curse releases her from this most recent command– but she can feel the beginnings of tears at the corners of her eyes, tears of grief and loss and relief at once.

 

Regina strides toward the door, and she only pauses when she’s standing in the doorway. “I suppose congratulations are in order,” she says, and resentment and grief of her own are thick in her voice. “You’ve found your parents, and they’re every bit as wealthy as you dreamed. You have a home and a place to belong,” she says bitterly, reciting words from quiet wishes and promises of moments years before. “You have everything you’ve ever wanted.”

 

“Not everything,” Emma murmurs, and Regina laughs coldly.

 

“Go fuck yourself,” she says, matching Emma’s tone.

 

Emma swallows, watching Regina place a hand on the door handle to pull it open. “Did you really know?” she says abruptly. “About my parents. Did you know who they were?” There are lines in the sand even for her affection for Regina, unshakeable as it seems to be, and she can’t– she doesn’t know if she wants to find out if this is one of them.

 

Regina hesitates. “No,” she says at last, grudgingly. “But if I had, I would have kept you apart forever,” she adds hastily, vindictiveness in her tone.

 

It falls flat, and Emma smiles quietly to herself. Warmth floods her body, and she says with careful words, “Thank you.”

 

Regina snarls to herself and yanks the door open, storming out. Emma can feel the curse release her, allow her to sit up again, but she doesn’t move.

 

She lies naked under the blanket and sobs: breathless, choking sobs that she can’t even say herself are happy or desolate.

 


 

Regina’s eyes scorch her in the morning as the queen seats herself on the dais at breakfast, commanding attention and admiration and fear from Leopold’s sycophants around her. Emma sits beside Mulan and David, struggling to remember to cut her toast before she stuffs it into her mouth, and she glances up quickly and then back to her plate, sightless.

 

Mulan says quietly, “Late night?”  

 

Emma looks oddly at her. Mulan gives nothing away. “Not really, no,” she lies. “I just…slept. Same as always.”

 

Mulan cocks her head. “Same as always,” she echoes. “So you often entertain evil queens in your bedroom?”

 

Emma nearly chokes on her toast. Mulan pats her back, looking just as embarrassed about it. “Believe me, I didn’t want to hear any of that,” she mutters under her breath. “And I’d rather believe it never happened.” She puts a hand on Emma’s arm, gentle and knowing. “But I do remember who rode with you when you were last faced by ogres.”

 

Emma’s face flames. Mulan squeezes Emma’s arm. “Be careful,” she says kindly.

 

“Yeah,” Emma murmurs, glancing up again. Her eyes lock with Regina’s, and she swallows. Regina glares at her with the force of unfettered loathing.

 

Mulan’s hand, still on hers, jolts her from the glare. “I am here, though,” Mulan murmurs. “If you need a listening ear that won’t…that won’t judge. Too much,” she amends, and Emma barks out a humorless laugh.

 

She thinks about the night before, about Cora’s command that still lingers, about the moment when she’d lost every opportunity she could have had to consent to even what she’d wanted. “No,” she says, and she turns to Mulan with sudden determination flooding her. “What I need is a fairy.”

Chapter Text

The first visitors begin arriving at the castle that evening, and Leopold’s death is only eclipsed in Snow’s eyes by the return of her long-lost daughter. “Oh, she’s lovely,” Queen Aurora says fervently, clasping Emma’s hands in hers as she beams at Snow. “A queen in the making.”

 

“Can you believe Mulan used to have a thing for her?” Red, Snow’s lady-in-waiting, mutters under her breath when Aurora departs. Emma quirks an eyebrow, peering after the woman with renewed interest.

 

It’s enough to distract her from her discomfort for at least a few moments, but then there’s another queen in front of her and it’s back. Snow had warned her already about Queen Abigail, with whom their kingdom has a fraught relationship. She’s all sleek blonde, regal and less exuberant around Snow than Aurora, and she looks at Emma with a face that is coolly assessing. “A pleasure to meet you,” she says, and Emma is suddenly very aware of all the ways in which she’s lacking.

 

Not that she hasn’t been before now. Regina has always moved like a royal, and Emma imagines that it had been a far easier transition for her, where demeanor is concerned. Emma moves awkwardly and her dress doesn’t fit right, her hands twisting together and her feet tapping absentmindedly as she fights the urge to run. This isn’t where she belongs, and she’s acutely aware of it, but she sits as still as she can and tries her best to smile.

 

Snow holds her hand, stroking Emma’s palm with her thumb, and she presses her forehead to the side of Emma’s head and murmurs into her ear, “You’re doing wonderfully. Don’t worry. No one expects you to be a natural.”

 

A natural. She’d stumbled straight from the woods into a ballroom, the most powerful people in the Enchanted Forest milling about and nibbling at refreshments as they make small talk. A week ago, she’d have picked their pockets.

 

She does pick one pocket, but only because King Arthur leers at her even with his very lovely wife on his arm and he has it coming. She opens her fingers once he’s gone, staring down at the timepiece she’d snatched when he’d tried coming in for an embrace, and Snow snickers.

 

Emma looks up, startled and gratified. “He’s dreadful,” Snow says, shaking her head. “I hope he spends hours tearing through his carriage searching for that.” She laughs again, and Emma grins, closing her fingers around it again as she looks up.

 

She catches Regina’s eye from across the room, utterly by chance. Regina’s eyes had been bright with humor, too, her eyes flickering from the watch in Emma’s hand up to Emma’s face, and they both freeze at the contact. Regina is the first to look away, striding toward Sultana Jasmine and greeting her instead.

 

Emma squeezes her hand around the watch again, feeling her single moment of peace evaporating around her. “Snow, dear,” says the next queen to arrive, and she’s given a reprieve from thinking about Regina. “And this must be your princess!” She casts a critical eye over Emma, wrinkling her nose as Emma stands in humiliation. “Darling, you look nearly emaciated. We can’t have you appearing as though you were plucked off the streets.” She gestures at the spread behind them, pastries and fruits and appetizers. “Eat up.”

 

Emma stiffens. Snow is still smiling at the queen, chatting about some shared acquaintance, and she doesn’t notice when Emma twists around and begins eating the food at the table.

 

She hadn’t been hungry, and shoveling food into her mouth now is humiliating and nauseating. Pastry after pastry goes, a whole banana in three bites, twelve little wrapped cheese rolls that she would have thoroughly enjoyed in another situation. Royals are beginning to stare and whisper, but Snow chats on, oblivious.

 

Emma eats more, and more, and her eyes are beginning to blur, her stomach protesting each bite she takes. There’s another figure at the table, reaching for a cookie, and Emma grabs it before he can, stuffing it into her mouth.

 

“If this is your way of reliving your teenage years with a mother to humiliate, I support you wholeheartedly,” Regina rumbles in her ear, a light hand at her back. “Though you are going to make yourself sick.”

 

“I didn’t know you cared,” Emma mutters. She can imagine how this must look to all the people around them, the Evil Queen preying on Snow White’s daughter at the beginnings to her husband’s funeral. It’s nearly as humiliating to Snow as it is that Emma’s still eating, scooping up handfuls of nuts and raisins and–

 

Emma ,” Snow says suddenly, distracted at once by Regina’s presence in her proximity. She darts forward, wrapping a protective arm around Emma and tugging her close. Emma reaches helplessly for more food. “What are you– oh ,” she whispers, and then her forehead is back against Emma’s side, murmuring into her ear. “Eat as much or as little as you’d like,” she says, and Emma drops the handfuls of food, pulling away from her and fleeing the room.

 

She doesn’t know who will follow her, Snow or Regina, and she’s relieved and a little disappointed when it’s Snow who steps gingerly into the courtyard, her gait weak but determined as she moves to Emma. “I’m sorry,” Emma says immediately, so, so tired. “I didn’t want to– this is why I don’t spend a lot of time with people.”

 

“You have nothing to apologize for,” Snow says, her jaw set. “I put you in this situation and then I didn’t pick up on it when you needed me.” She looks angry, and not with Emma. “I’m going to assign Mulan to you to monitor everything anyone says to you. You won’t be alone around anybody without her there from here on out.”

 

“That isn’t necessary,” Emma says, embarrassed again. She’s already a drain on the crown, an embarrassing sideshow, and now she’s being given a babysitter. “I’ll be careful. I promise, I won’t humiliate the crown again–”

 

“Humiliate the crown?” Snow echoes disbelievingly. “I don’t give a damn about the crown. You could sit next to me wearing rags and picking your nose while you insult every royal in this castle and I’d still be glad to have you.”

 

Emma laughs reluctantly, uncertainly. “You don’t even know me,” she points out weakly. As wonderful as it sounds, that’s a constant refrain, a reminder again and again that this isn’t going to last . That she doesn’t belong, and Snow will discover that once the elation of finding her daughter wears off.

 

But Snow seems unperturbed. “I want to,” she says, and she strokes her knuckles against Emma’s cheek, tears in her eyes. “I want to know everything, for as long as I have.”

 

As long as I have . The elephant in the room is the disease they haven’t discussed, the way Snow walks as though with rickety limbs and her face grows more and more lined every day. Their conversation at Regina’s wedding is still seared into Emma’s mind, just as with everything else from that day, but she’s been cautious about mentioning, unsure of what she’s meant to know. Now, she repeats Snow’s words. “As long as you have?”

 

Snow sighs deeply, her hand tracing circles into Emma’s cheek. “Oh, Emma,” she says, closing her eyes. “We’re dying, your father and I.”

 

Dying. It had been easier to think of it as a disease, as something that had debilitated without taking them away from her. She barely knows them, has only just met them for real. She doesn’t even know if she likes them yet, let alone loves them in all the ways that children have always seemed to love their parents. “No,” Emma says, and she can feel her fists clenching in time with her heart.

 

“Not yet,” Snow murmurs, regret in her voice. “But soon. The sickness began… years ago, creeping in when we’d never expected it.” She sighs again as Emma regards her with rising horror. “We still don’t know how it happened. Perhaps we went somewhere we shouldn’t have, or met with someone who’d already been ill. For a long time, I thought the only reason to fight it would be to find my daughter.” She squeezes Emma’s shoulder. “And here you are. A queen in the making.”

 

“Queen,” Emma echoes, and the horror isn’t only about loss anymore, but this new, terrifying designation. “I can’t be a queen , Snow–”

 

“I wish you’d call me Mother,” Snow says. “I know it’s too soon, but–”

 

The idea of being a queen fills her with terror– terror for the parents she barely knows, terror that she might truly have to be a leader , terror of the one reason why all of this is impossible. She seizes on that one, which Snow might understand. “I would be a terrible ruler,” she says shakily. “I couldn’t…every single command, don’t you see? I would have no choice but to obey.”

 

“Mulan will protect you from those,” Snow promises, waving off Emma’s fears as easily as she’d waved off her own death. “She’s better at recognizing commands than I’d ever be.”

 

“She can’t be there all the time. I would doom your kingdom,” Emma points out dimly. It would paint a target on Mulan’s back, if anyone knew. At best, a few murmured commands would be enough to ruin them. Emma is vulnerable , and she’s never known anything else. She’s made up for it by being strong, by building defenses around herself and trusting no one (save one girl who’d ridden horses and held her hand under their tutor’s desk), but to place her at the head of a kingdom is sheer folly.

 

Snow’s eyes darken, her chin lifting up stubbornly. “I would rather see my kingdom go up in flames with you at its lead than see anyone else rule it,” she says fiercely, and she wraps her arms tightly around Emma, her whole body quivering as she holds on, and Emma hugs her back shakily until they’re both ready to go inside again.

 

It’s supremely irresponsible of Snow, Emma knows it already, but Snow still doesn’t quite understand Emma’s curse. No one who hasn’t endured it would grasp how dangerous it is. And it means something to have this kind of faith keeping her afloat, this unconditional affection that’s unlike anything Emma has had before.

 

(Not since–)

 

Emma smiles politely at newly arriving royals, and says nothing when Mulan steps up beside her. It’s easier now to pretend, somehow, to act as though she belongs here when she still so clearly doesn’t. But she’s wanted here, and perhaps that makes all the difference.

 

And if she can block out most of the conversation she’d had with her mother, it’s almost a good day.

 


 

Emma begs off dinner and retires to her room instead, David accompanying her with a steady hand on her back, even if the rest of his body trembles slightly. “Any excuse to get out of there early,” he says, grinning. “You know, I grew up on a farm. It’s been decades married to your mother and I still don’t know the difference between the white and red wine glasses at the dinner table.” He nods to the servant who pushes a tray behind them. “I do know the pleasure of a good, warm meal, though.”

 

There’s meat and potatoes on the tray, still steaming and set for them to eat. Emma eats gratefully, somehow already hungry again, and she notices with some delight that David doesn’t touch any of the extra forks or knives that the servant sets beside their plates. “You really were a commoner! Wait. You didn’t… wear rags and pick your nose while insulting some…” David stares at her, bemused. “Never mind.”

 

“Adapting takes a while,” David says, shrugging off her question. “But Snow has always been adored by our kingdom, and the people will adore as well the people she loves.” He puts a warm hand on Emma’s. “There have been celebrations for two days there now, since word came that you’d been found. They only want to know you.”

 

“I don’t think they’ll be very impressed,” Emma says, rolling her eyes. “I’ve seen all those other princesses today. I’m not what they want.”

 

“Really?” David says, spooning gravy onto his mashed potatoes. “You’ve lived among them. You’ve worked in their taverns and begged in their markets. You know more than any pampered princess what they want and need and dream of.” His eyes crinkle, smile at her, and she can feel a lump growing in her throat. “You understand the kingdom in a way that even Snow never can. I want you to keep that in mind.”

 

Emma stares at him for a long moment, setting her spoon down as her appetite wanes. “Please stop talking like you’ll be gone soon,” she says dully.

 

David keeps scooping up mashed potatoes, a crease in his brow. “You know, a few years ago, I would have been in that cave with you and Mulan. It’s been rough just admitting that this disease is taking its toll on me,” he admits. “I spent years hunting for cures and potions and ways to stop it, and then one day I just…collapsed in the middle of a hunt and jabbed my own sword into my gut.”

 

He slides up his shirt to show her the scar. “We’d clung to hope for so long, but that was the last straw for your mother, and then me. The doctors only give us months now, not years.” He touches a gentle hand to her arm. “We’re good at pretending,” he says, almost an apology, and Emma stands up, pulls away from him and stands at the window instead.

 

She can feel her jaw clenched, her hands stiff at her sides. She can see the setting sun beyond the castle, can hear the movements behind her, and she doesn’t turn around when David comes to stand beside her.

 

He doesn’t reach for her again, but he remains beside her for a long time, and emotions roil within Emma like a hurricane.

 


 

Mulan has a friend when she arrives outside Emma’s room, just after David has gone. “This is Shang,” she says, introducing a tall man who stands as though he’s on alert and wears the uniform of the Middle Kingdom. “He was my superior officer back when I served in the army of the Central Kingdom.”

 

“Did you?” Emma says curiously.

 

Mulan shrugs. “I dressed up like a man and went to war for my father,” she says, absolutely casual.

 

“As you do,” Emma says, bemused. “I guess it worked out okay for you?”

 

Mulan lowers her voice, sotto voce. “In part because Shang was besotted with me,” she confides, and Shang snorts.

 

“I was,” he admits freely, grinning at her.

 

Emma looks between them, at the casual way Mulan leans against him, not a hint of romance remaining. “What happened?”

 

“Shang found out I was actually a woman,” Mulan says, nudging him, and Shang laughs aloud. “He’s here with his husband to pay his respects from our country. King Leopold was a longtime ally of ours.”

 

“Self-important blowhard,” Shang corrects her, then glances warily at Emma. “Or is this one of his devoted mourners?”

 

“Definitely not,” Emma says hastily, with some relief. “Snow made it sound like he was…universally beloved.”

 

Mulan’s smile gets a little tighter. “Snow’s heart has a special place just for her foster father. I do respect that,” she says diplomatically. “My people’s wariness notwithstanding.”

 

Emma, who resents Leopold for far less noble reasons than a loyalty to another people, nods sagely. Shang says, eyes back on Mulan, “Are you staying for the game tonight?”

 

“Game?” Emma asks, and somehow that’s how she winds up at said game, flipping through cards and maintaining a straight face to mask exactly how terrible her hand is. Mulan, beside her, gives nothing away, and Queen Guinevere smiles just as blandly from her other side.

 

There are eight players in all, a number of others huddled around them, and Emma only recognizes about a third of the people in attendance. Few of them seem fond of King Leopold, though even fewer speak highly of his queen; and Emma has to restrain herself on two occasions from speaking up in Regina’s defense.

 

Mulan squeezes her thigh when the third time comes, and Emma exhales and focuses on her cards instead. The woman who’d spoken snorts and says, “Call off your wolf, soldier girl. I can see her looking at my cards.” She has a pinched face, unpleasant, and she scowls at her hand as the girl behind her smiles.

 

Emma watches the girl behind her, makes a bet, and the woman twists in her seat and hisses, “What did you do , idiot?” The girl sputters an apology, still smiling as though she couldn’t be happier about it, and the woman slaps her cheek hard.

 

“Watch it,” Emma says, leaning forward.

 

The woman scoffs. “You know how it is with servants. She needs to be trained.” She slaps the girl again, and the girl bobs her head in agreement.

 

Others at the table are beginning to look uncomfortable as well. “Enough,” Lancelot says sharply. “She’s done nothing.”

 

The woman sneers at them all, then turns to the girl. “Get me some of that mead from the kitchens,” she orders. “And hurry up .” The girl nods, wide-eyed, and beams at her master as she scampers from the room.

 

And there’s something about the way she moves, something familiar, and Emma lays her cards down a few minutes later and wins a handful of coins, absent-minded, as she exits the game. The girl had been only a bit older than Emma herself, maybe, and she’d moved to obey without question, without her smile wavering for a moment.

 

That isn’t natural , and Emma hurries through the corridors down to the kitchens, Mulan’s wolf silently dogging her footsteps as she catches up to the girl.

 

The girl is less than obedient, Emma realizes at once, if only from the leisurely way she makes her way downstairs. “Oh!” the girl says when she sees Emma. “I was only looking at these beautiful flowers. Have you ever seen something so lovely in your life?” she says, gesturing at the painted design that follows the staircase downward. “I’m so lucky that my stepsister sent me down here,” she says without a trace of sarcasm.

 

Emma stares at her. “Stepsister?” she repeats dubiously.

 

The girl bobs her head. “Oh, yes. Mother died a number of years ago and left father and me with her estate. And he remarried the most wonderful woman!” Her eyes are shining. “I moved from my bedroom to a charming little spot by the fireplace, and I’ve been allowed to be my stepsister’s lady-in-waiting now that she’s wed the prince. A lady-in-waiting!” she repeats, with all the wonder in the world.

 

Emma shakes her head, wondering if she’s been launched into some sort of nightmare. The wolf beside her rumbles with the same bewilderment. “And you’re happy about this.”

 

“Oh, yes. I’m always happy,” the girl says, beaming. “It’s my best quality. That’s what my stepmother says.” She smiles widely. “I’d better go get that mead. My stepsister so hates to be kept waiting.” She continues down the stairs, a spring in her step, and Emma hurries after her.

 

It’s not obedience, but there’s something to this girl, something that Emma recognizes as acutely as kinship. Emma knows gifts, gifts that begin as a seed of kindness and grow into curses that threaten her very essence, and this girl–

 

–it must be a gift. “Were you always this happy?” she says at the door to the kitchens, something in the back of her mind beginning to stir. “Haven’t you ever been…angry, or upset, or…?”

 

The girl nods enthusiastically. “Oh, yes. I wept on the day that Father announced that he would wed my stepmother.” She giggles gaily. “I wished for my fairy godmother that night, and she gave me a gift.”

 

“Eternal happiness,” Emma murmurs, her heart pounding. “Horrific.”

 

“Wonderful,” the girl corrects her. “I was so silly that night. Imagine, weeping over more family! And now I am nearly nobility. The prince is wonderful–” And for a single instant, her smile almost falters before she’s beaming again. “And I am to be a lady-in-waiting!”

 

“Yeah. Great.” Emma’s heart twists with knowing , with more empathy than she’s ever been able to afford before. “You know, if you wanted to be– there are kinder princesses you can wait on. There’s– I could–”

 

The girl smiles again, dreamy. “Oh, I’m very happy,” she says. “There’s no need to try to persuade me otherwise. Ariel did the same when she understood my gift,” she confides. “Not everyone is so joyful with theirs.”

 

Emma stares back at her, refusing to smile, and the girl’s smile doesn’t waver. This is…more than obedience, this is a loss of free will, and Emma can feel nausea threatening to overwhelm her. She’d only once been ordered to be satisfied, when she’d been a child of ten, and it had lasted days until a stray do what you want from a huffy shopkeeper. She remembers the haze over her thoughts then, the terrifying awareness when it had been over that she’d lost even her sense of self.

 

This girl lives in that nightmare perpetually, and she doesn’t even know it. For all intents and purposes, she’s a lost cause. And just as she’s given Emma her first clue out of their hell. “Ariel?” Emma repeats.

 

The girl nods enthusiastically. “Oh, yes. A lovely woman from the water kingdom ruled by King Eric and Queen Vanessa. She spoke of curses and fairies and an old crone who might find our fairy, but it was so hard to follow–” She shakes her head ruefully. “She was so angry.”

 

“Yeah,” Emma says. “Sometimes people get that way.” The girl looks at her as though she’s said something incomprehensible, and Emma reaches out and squeezes the girl’s hands in her own, a piece of herself hollowed out. “If you ever…if you need help–” The girl is already shaking her head. “If you want a friend,” Emma amends, and the girl smiles brightly. “I guess I’ll be in the White Kingdom.”

 

She watches as the girl flits off and blinks away something like tears from her eyes. She’d never imagined there could be someone out there with a worse curse than hers, but now–

 

“Making friends?” says a voice from the top of the stairs. Emma twists around, knowing the voice before she sees Regina leaning against the wall at the top of the staircase, arms resting casually together. “Ella’s stepmother frittered away all her money years ago,” Regina says, her lips twisting with distaste. “There’s nothing she can do for you.”

 

Emma clasps a hand to her heart. “Well, there go all my evil plans,” she says dryly.

 

Regina scoffs, then falls silent again, stewing. Emma watches her from the bottom of the staircase, wary and uncertain about what Regina might have heard. A stray piece of her thoughts still wonders what it might be like to climb the stairs and return to Regina, to stand with her and have Regina lean against her as they meander through the castle, to be something they haven’t been in so many years.

 

She wonders what it might have been like, to meet Regina for the first time now, without the past and a series of Cora’s commands weighing on them. Mulan would never have allowed anyone to command Emma. Mulan has stepped in twice this evening with a grave hand on Snow’s arm at a try the rice, it’s so tasty and join us tomorrow for a ride and Snow had recoiled twice, eyes wide, and retracted the commands and apologized.

 

It’s easy to dream of a sheltered life with guards around her, to be watched like a hawk in exchange for a certain freedom, but Emma can’t imagine herself as the woman grown from that gilded cage. Nor can she imagine knowing any other Regina first but the girl in the stables, lying to her mother and flushing at Emma’s appreciation.

 

“I’ve always been certain that Mother had been the reason you’d rejected me,” Regina says suddenly. Emma isn’t the only one lost in thoughts of the past and what could have been. “Though it hardly makes a difference, if you were so easily swayed.” Emma aches. “But it must have been Mother,” Regina says, looking carefully at her.

 

“It wasn’t,” Emma says immediately, beholden to a command from long ago. Her face gives nothing away, no clues to the truth, and Regina sighs.

 

“That makes no sense .” She sounds almost petulant, frustrated and tired with it. “What other reason would you have to lie about– you were lying, you must have been–” She takes a step down the stairs, Emma spun around to face her by some unspoken magic, and Emma only stares back blankly at her. “Or maybe not.” Regina sneers for a moment, halfhearted. “The girl I was once was…weak. Naive. Maybe you only saw it before I did.”

 

Emma closes her eyes and remembers a girl who’d shone once as the moon. “Don’t,” she whispers.

 

Regina exhales in disgust. “I will never understand you,” she murmurs, and she sounds as frustrated as she does lost.

 

They stand in silence for what feels like an eternity, frozen as though bound together by an invisible thread. Regina’s face is shadowed and creased, the flames of nearby lamps flickering upon it, and she looks as though she’s lived far beyond her years, endured too much to ever again be the kind, open girl whom Emma had fallen in love with.

 

But Emma has grown, too, has aged and endured loneliness and pain of her own, and she dares now to watch this Regina and try. “The stepfamily,” she begins tentatively. “Ella’s. They treat her miserably, and she has no choice but to endure it.”

 

Regina watches her for a long moment. “Are you asking me to protect your latest conquest?”

 

Emma ignores that latest conquest , puts it aside for after the important part of this request. “I’m asking you to put some healthy fear into them when it comes to their stepsister,” she says. “She won’t leave them, but if you could just…let them know that you’re watching, they might ease up on her.”

 

Regina smiles humorlessly. “Do you think the Evil Queen is in the business of charity, Princess?”

 

Emma can’t quite suppress the tingle that passes through her at that princess , lightly mocking in Regina’s rich tones. She shrugs, her voice a little wobbly. “I thought you’d enjoy terrorizing some royals,” she says. “Keep that reputation intact.”

 

Regina gives her a fleeting smile. “You do know me,” she says. They stay in their places, on opposite ends of the staircase with Emma’s face raised to Regina’s and Regina’s head bowed ever so slightly, and Emma can almost feel it when Regina turns away at last.

 

“Regina,” Emma calls out, and Regina turns back at once, her eyes gleaming in the dim lamplight. “Not a conquest,” Emma says, holding her gaze again. “Just a girl who needs us.”

 

Regina nearly smiles again, her lips tight but her eyes almost, almost… “I know,” she says, and she walks away from the stairs, fading into the darkness of the corridor above them.

 

Emma leans back against the wall, her heart warm with longing after years of pain, and she thinks, Ariel . An angry woman named Ariel is her next lead. Ariel who knows of an old crone who can take Emma where she needs to be.

 

And maybe someday, if Ariel holds the keys to finding Tinkerbell, Regina can know the truth.

Chapter Text

If Emma had thought she’d been on display at Regina’s castle, it’s nothing compared to what awaits her in the White Kingdom. Their carriage is mobbed the moment Emma steps gingerly from it, wearing a dress that Snow had handed to her before they’d left. It’s light and frilly, a dozen layers of skirts, and Emma’s never felt so trapped in her clothes before.

 

The people swarm around her, hands reaching out for hers and kisses on her cheeks and Emma panics and runs , dives through the crowd and fights her way out until she’s safely in the castle courtyard, her dress shredded and her heart pounding.

 

Snow accepts the disappointed crowd graciously, taking hands and holding children and sitting on the step of the carriage as though it’s a throne. If she’s feeling any claustrophobia, she doesn’t show it, and Emma watches her with a hollow sort of sensation of inadequacy.

 

“You’ll get there,” Red says encouragingly from beside her. “It’s your first time. No one expects you to be a natural.”

 

The people do, and Emma can already see their doubt when they look back through the gate into the castle courtyard. She waves a pathetic little wave at them, and one little boy waves back. The others just stare.

 

“We’ll do it again,” Snow decides that evening. “Throw a ball celebrating Emma’s return and let her meet the people on her own terms. How does that sound?” She looks expectantly at Emma.

 

Emma bobs her head, because even when she isn’t being commanded, does she really have a choice with Snow looking so eagerly at her? “I haven’t danced in years,” she admits. She remembers the last– the only– time she’d danced, wrapped in Regina’s embrace in the shadows of a ballroom, Regina breathing instructions in her ear about where her feet go and where her hands should be. It had been easy then, when she’d been so deeply in sync with Regina that she’d barely needed the tips, but she can’t imagine it’ll still be easy now.

 

Snow waves that off. “You won’t have to dance much. You’ll be receiving people. David can help you learn a few basic moves– did you say you’ve danced before?” she says curiously.

 

Emma shrugs. “I was…there was a year when I was a handmaiden for a while.” She chews on her lip. “It was a roof over my head, I guess. That’s all.”

 

“Were they kind to you?” The sheer sincerity of Snow’s question leaves a lump in Emma’s throat.

 

Yes. Kinder than anyone before. Crueller than– “They were just…fine, I don’t know,” she says, and she gives Snow a wavering smile. Snow looks at her, tears glistening in her eyes, and Emma stares at the ground instead.

 

Handmaiden , huh,” Red says slyly when they’re out of Snow’s earshot. “Sounds like a torrid romance to me.” Emma scoffs, looking fixedly at the doorway ahead of them. Red pats Emma’s shoulder. “I’ve had my share of those. Anything I missed in there?”

 

Emma shakes her head. Red is the only person at the palace they’ve told Emma’s secret, and only because she’s Emma’s new protection against orders. Mulan is off in King Eric’s realm with several of her soldiers, hunting for the mysterious Ariel, and it might be days or weeks before they have news.

 

Days or weeks in this palace, playing at being princess. Emma doesn’t think she’s ever heard anything quite so terrifying.

 

The ball is scheduled. Emma finds this out when Snow flies to her from the breakfast table and says, “King Midas is coming! Midas! I thought he’d never forgive us.”

 

“He doesn’t forgive us,” David says, grinning easily. “That man has held a grudge since the moment I ran off with you. He’s coming to turn us both to gold.”

 

Snow gives him a reproachful, amused glare. “Maybe so. But we can pretend.” She claps her hands together, leaning on Emma for support as she returns to the table. “Imagine, Emma. Can there be better new beginnings than your grandfather’s closest friend attending your first ball?”

 

“Not being turned to gold sounds pretty good, too,” Emma says, and then uncertainly, “Must I imagine?”

 

Red winces in apology. “No,” Snow hastens to amend. “No, please, do as you wish.”

 

And Emma does, until the next command.

 

There’s a dress fitting later that day. There are a lot of dress fittings, apparently. “You get used to them,” Snow says ruefully from where she’s standing beside Emma. “I was fitted twelve full times during my pregnancy.” Her eyes grow distant, lost in a more content world, and her legs buckle.

 

The dressmaker settles her down onto a chair, businesslike, as ladies-in-waiting rush forward to fuss over Snow. “I’m fine,” Snow protests, batting them away. “Just a muscle spasm.”

 

Just ,” repeats one of the ladies-in-waiting, scoffing. “Your last just a muscle spasm had you bedridden for a week. You must–” She stops at the sharp look on Snow’s face, and both turn to stare at Emma. Emma tries to wipe away the alarm on her face, but she knows it’s too late.

 

Snow rises again, shakily, slides a hand into hers and squeezes it. “There’s no need to worry,” she says firmly. “We’ll have plenty of time.”

 

“Yeah,” Emma says, and she hates the terror that grips her at the thought of losing her parents already, the weakness that caring this much this quickly brings. It’s fine. It’s fine. “Okay.”

 

And a tiny voice in her head reminds her, Better they’re gone before they realize what a disappointment you are.

 

She swats it away. Now isn’t the time.

 

Now is the time for dresses and planning, themed bouquets that look identical but you must pick one, Princess , napkin arrangements and signing personal invitations and more fittings and dancing.

 

“It’s step-forward, step-back, step-side-side-side,” David says, guiding her through it again. Emma spins at the end, landing opposite him. “Good. Very good!” He repeats the movements, twirling where she should. “Can you do it again? Step-forward, step-back–”

 

Emma twists him, stretching over David’s head and sending them both toppling backward. She lands on her knees, David sliding to the ground against the wall, and they both laugh giddily. “I’m terrible ,” Emma admits, still laughing. “I’m going to step on everyone’s toes at this ball. I’ll launch you into another century of feuds with King Midas. Maybe you can hire some blonde woman to pretend to be me?” she suggests hopefully. “The kingdom will thank you when she doesn’t accidentally start a war with her dancing.”

 

David grins. “I think we’ll manage,” he says easily, and Emma pouts what is definitely not a real pout of someone who’d just come up with a way out and been rejected. “I used to dream of teaching you to dance, did you know?” When she turns, he’s watching her, his eyes gentle. “After some time, I thought…even once we did find you, you’d be too old. You’d already know.”

 

Emma looks away, too many emotions welling up within her that she refuses to contemplate. “You didn’t count on me being a clumsy oaf,” she says lightly. David just smiles.

 

David is easier to understand than Snow. He doesn’t ask for much or press her when she’s skittish, and Emma enjoys being around him when he isn’t getting sentimental about her. The sentimental parts, she could do without. She isn’t sentimental. She can’t handle sentimental.

 

It’s Snow with whom she struggles most. She stumbles when she shows Snow what she’d learned dancing, and she picks all the wrong flowers and colors and dresses. Snow never says a word, but Emma can feel her dissatisfaction regardless, seeping through in every interaction they have. Emma puts on puffy dresses that she hates just to see Snow’s eyes light up for a few minutes before Emma inevitably does something to ruin it.

 

Today, it’s the list of White Kingdom allies that Emma still hasn’t memorized. “I’m working on it,” she says helplessly, staring down at the list. She can speak in dozens of languages by now, but her mind still goes blank whenever she tries listing any of these names. King Midas’s family is a whole column on here, and she only remembers his name and his daughter’s.

 

“Let me help you,” Snow says, leaning over to take the list. “I remember doing this when I was a child, before I returned home after my stewardship. I used to spend hours finding shortcuts to memorize each–”

 

“I don’t have hours,” Emma says, feeling defensive. “I have to know this by next week, and I still have to go to three more fittings and learn how to dance and sit for a portrait and pick out centerpieces and–”

 

Snow’s brow furrows. “If it’s too much, I can arrange for someone else to take care of the decorations. I thought you might enjoy…” She shakes her head, looking chagrined. “Of course you don’t. You didn’t grow up with any of this.” She rubs her temples. “We don’t have a choice on the dancing, but maybe I can cut out a fitting. Or the portrait. I don’t want you to be overwhelmed.”

 

She doesn’t think Emma can do it, which leaves Emma even more frustrated as she shakes her head and makes a beeline for the door. “I’m not overwhelmed. It’s fine. I’ll work it out.”

 

“Emma!” Snow calls after her, but Emma’s already bolting.

 

She’ll never be enough for her, and she can see it more and more every day. Snow is looking for some perfect princess, a future queen to rule her kingdom and be everything that Snow has been. Emma is none of those things. Emma can barely juggle her daily list of to-dos, let alone a whole kingdom. And she knows Snow means well, but all Emma can see is expectations piling up–

 

–and she’s going to fail .

 

She stares out the window later that day, hidden away in a tower room that she’d found in her second week here. From here, she can see past the villages around the castle and all the way to the hinterlands beyond the kingdom. If she’s calculating it correctly, Marian’s inn is right there , and there is the place where the ogres had found her.

 

It’d be easier, she thinks, to steal a horse and ride back into the hinterlands, to forget her newfound family and role in life and be nobody again. It’d be easier to abandon balls and dresses and crowns and go back to hunting rabbits and picking berries from bushes. But try as she might, she can’t summon up the will to try. She might not be enough for her parents, but a piece of her is already trapped here, burrowed into the ground and set in stone, and leaving feels like heartbreak.

 

Heartbreak . Unbidden, her eyes drift to the windows along the far side of the castle tower, where she can see the neighboring kingdom and its distant castle rising through fog. Regina’s castle is all sharp angles and sleek walls, meant to be intimidating even when Leopold had ruled within it, and now it only makes Emma wistful.

 

She doesn’t like to think about that single, happy year, not when it only reminds her of what they’ve both lost. Regina, an unwilling child bride. Emma, doomed at birth with a curse. What have they become? And now their paths are inextricably linked again, and Emma can feel foolish hope still surging through her that they can be fixed , somehow. That they can overcome the past and be…

 

Foolish , she reminds herself, wrapping her arms tightly around herself. She tears her eyes away from Regina’s castle and glances down instead, staring at the beautiful gardens that surround this castle. There are children playing in them, twisting flowers into crowns and rolling in the grass. One of them points suddenly to the right, and the others sit up, chattering amongst themselves.

 

Emma squints in the direction that the child is pointing and sees– at last, Mulan, riding swiftly toward the castle. She’s alone, but that doesn’t have to mean anything. She’s found Ariel. She knows something now, something that might bring them closer to breaking this curse.

 

Emma hurries down the stairs from the tower, hurrying through the corridors and down staircases until she’s flying out the entrance doors, into the courtyard where Mulan is knelt over her wolf. “Mulan,” she says, a little too breathless to seem as unruffled as she’d like. “Welcome back.”

 

Mulan looks up, her smile fading when she sees Emma, and Emma knows at once. “I’m sorry,” she says, and Emma shakes her head, shrugs, shrugs again without words. “I searched for Ariel for weeks. The last person who knew of her said that she’d vanished years ago. No indication of where she’d gone.”

 

“We can put out signs,” Snow says from behind Emma, sounding hopeful. Emma doesn’t know how she can still hope , how someone can be so accustomed to a life of privilege that they can’t imagine a situation where everything won’t work out just fine. “All over the kingdoms, searching for this girl–”

 

“It didn’t work with me,” Emma says blankly, and Snow reels under that reminder, takes a step back. Red is there, suddenly, a hand at Snow’s back, and Emma twists around, stumbling back to the castle.

 

“Emma, wait,” Mulan calls, hurrying to catch up to her. “We’ll keep looking. Ariel might have been our only lead, but we can talk to the fairies, to–”

 

“I don’t want to talk to the fairies,” Emma says, and she can hear how unsteady her voice is, how it threatens to crack. “I want to… I have a ball to plan, Mulan. I have to…I have to go.”

 

She flees upstairs and Mulan follows in silence, sits beside her in her bedroom as Emma flips through names and tries to memorize them through rapidly blurring eyes. “I’m sorry,” Mulan whispers, and Emma remembers that Mulan has spent weeks on this quest, had left her home and her post to chase phantoms for a lost cause.

 

Ashamed and disgusted at her own self-absorption, she reaches for Mulan’s hand and squeezes it. “It’s not your fault,” she murmurs. “It’s just…maybe it’s time for me to accept that this is a lost cause.”

 

Emma doesn’t know how she ever could be content with it, how she can stop traitorous hope from hurting her any more. But she knows that she wants it, desperately. She leans back against the wall, turns so she’s facing Mulan. “Would you give me an order?” she says suddenly.

 

“No,” Mulan says, and her eyes are sharp and serious. “I swear it.”

 

Emma sucks in a breath. “Even if I asked you to?”  

 

Mulan’s face gives nothing away. “What kind of order?” she asks, her voice even but for a thread of tension running through it.

 

“Would you…” Emma squeezes her eyes shut, searches for the right words. “Would you order me to stop hoping for a way out? To just…accept my life as it is? Would you order me to be happy about my curse?” Her voice cracks and she can feel herself hovering on the precipice of tears, traitorous, useless tears.

 

Mulan’s voice is careful, gentle. “I don’t think I would,” she says, and she slides an arm around Emma as Emma slumps, surrendering to desolation and the tears that come with it.

 


 

She’s better behaved after that, quiet and demure and obedient even with Mulan watching like a hawk for stray commands. She studies names that fly from her mind moments later, dances awkwardly and gets poked with needles at her fittings. She doesn’t go back to the tower, and she doesn’t speak of Tinkerbell again, not even when Mulan pushes.

 

Snow says, “I’m glad you’re settling in at last,” and she holds Emma and it feels like something , even if it doesn’t feel like freedom. It’s good. Her life is better now than it’s ever been since Regina’s estate, and it’s time to appreciate that instead of fighting for something more.

 

The ball comes before she knows it, or after an interminable time. It had felt endless when she’d been enduring it, trudging through every moment with renewed effort. But suddenly now, dressed in a silvery ball gown with a tiara in her hair, she can’t remember a single detail of the past week. She freezes at the door, and David puts a hand on her shoulder. “They’re going to adore you,” he says, beaming at her, and she smiles shakily back. Snow just holds her hand, serene.

 

A voice thunders, “The kingdom’s lost daughter, Princess Emma!” and guards are opening the double doors to the ballroom, revealing her to the crowds in the ballroom. Her parents are on either side of her, awash in joy, and Emma pastes a smile on her face and steps forward.

 

There is a smattering of peasants in the room, dressed up in finery that doesn’t compare to the castle servants’ clothes on an ordinary day. Emma watches them, not the nobles fluttering around the ballroom, as she walks to the small throne where she’s meant to receive everyone. They gawp at her like she’s something special, like her lineage has made her suddenly important.

 

She’s never been important before. She’d been a thief darting through their marketplaces, a stubborn dirty-faced girl they’d swatted from their homes. But she feels more of a kinship with them than with flowing gowns and elaborate jewels, and she leans forward with relief when she gets to speak to one.

 

Snow whispers names in her ear, reminders from a list Emma had never mastered. Emma greets and smiles and tries a strained laugh that begins to loosen after a half hour of receiving guests. It gets easier over time, even if she’s pretty certain that she isn’t impressing any of the nobles. She’s too awkward, not nearly as imperious as the other royals she knows. But she makes it through without incident, and she feels as though she might finally have gotten the hang of this by the time the music changes and David offers her his hand for the first dance.

 

She dances with him, with her mother, with the long list of nobles she can’t name. She steps on toes and catches grimaces, and she smiles sheepishly and apologizes to too many of them. “That’s all right, dear,” one says easily. “We know this is all new to you,” which is far more preferable than the man who says, “Don’t worry about it. I heard you were some sort of wildling before you were found.” He leers at her, and she stares back emotionlessly. Her heart is thumping, terrified of what he might say, but he pulls back and mutters something disparaging instead, slinking away.

 

There are more of those than she can ever feel comfortable with. Mulan hovers with a deep scowl, enough that no nobles say anything too forward, but she can feel their disdain the moment that her parents are across the room. None of these people respect her. None of them would buy her as royalty for an instant.

 

There are innuendos to ignore and snide comments that they must believe she doesn’t grasp, and Emma steps on a few extra toes and smiles winningly. A single command slips through, sometime during what feels like her twentieth dance. “I know you’re...inclined toward the outdoors. You must come with me to tour my gardens,” one woman chatters.

 

It’s a harmless command, an annoyance at worst, but Emma swallows and tries the response that Mulan had coached her on before the ball. “Are you presuming to tell the crown princess what to do?” she says lightly, her head already beginning to ache.

 

The woman’s eyes widen in alarm. “Of course not,” she says, tittering nervously, and the pain in Emma’s head fades. “I thought you might like them.”

 

“I may just drop by sometime,” Emma says graciously, and she takes the next dance easily, emboldened by this new power that her position gives her. Maybe, maybe – she can make this work.

 

She impresses foreign dignitaries by speaking their language and she remembers a dozen names that she’d thought she wouldn’t and she’s finally doing well , even surrounded by nobles who will never see her as princess. She nibbles at the food as is expected of her and whispers to one of her handmaidens, “Please send a plate to my room. A big one.”

 

One of the peasants overhears her and laughs. “I’d do the same,” she says, winking at Emma. “I like you.”

 

Emma moves to her. “That makes one of you,” she says ruefully. “I don’t think a single noble here is leaving this ball thinking that I’m one of them.”

 

“I’m sure that talking to me now is helping with that,” the peasant says, and she says boldly, “You’re not one of them. You’re one of us.”

 

It might be an insult, but it sounds like a reprieve to Emma. “I’d like to be,” she admits. “I want to…I grew up in the villages. I know that there’s plenty to do there still.” She wonders for a moment if she really can make changes, can help those who most need it.   

 

The peasant smiles at her, kind and already fond, and she says, “It’s been a cold season. Many of us are struggling to get by on what we’re able to grow, but–”

 

Someone behind them says, “Princess,” and Emma ignores it. “It has been cold,” she agrees. “Are there…is there a storehouse? I don’t know much about the kingdom yet.”

 

“Princess,” the man says more insistently.

 

Emma ignores him again. “There are storehouses,” the peasant tells her. “But there are so many loops we must jump through to get that grain for ourselves that it can take weeks just to–”

 

Princess ,” the man says for the third time, and this time he grabs her arm.

 

“Don’t touch me!” Emma flips around by instinct, her stomach churning with revulsion, twists his wrist and throws him to the floor. The man hits with a sickening sound, his head crashing against the ground and his crown rolling from his head–

 

Crown. Crown . Oh, no .

 

King Midas lies on the ground, humiliated and injured as his guards rush forward, and Emma stares at them with her heart sinking. That’s it. Her big diplomatic mission at this ball, and she’s botched it in the most horrific of ways. She looks up– sees Snow across the room, eyes wide in horror– and she runs.

 

She doesn’t know where she’s going to hide, only that she can’t be here, in this room with these people who are right about her. She isn’t doing any of this right. She couldn’t follow this one simple instruction, is too rough where the kingdom needs someone delicate and royal, and Snow must–

 

Snow wants a princess , the daughter who can be everything that she is. Snow’s trying to accept Emma but Emma isn’t right , isn’t the girl Snow had dreamed of. All Emma has done since she’d gotten here is proven how poorly she fits, and this is only the final straw.

 

She flees upstairs, past curious guests and servants and weaving through the corridors, taking roundabout routes so even Mulan can’t find her. She can hear a tumult behind her, someone rushing after her, and she makes a sharp right turn in front of her room and dives into the next corridor instead.

 

She can’t talk to them, can’t see their disappointment right now. She could leave, maybe, disappear again as she’d wanted to before, and she pulls open doors, hurries into a quiet wing of the castle, searching for a balcony she might be able to climb down from.

 

She pushes open one door and finds a grand chamber. There’s a noise from the next hall– her pursuer is still hot on her trail– and she looks around desperately, finds a small door in the wall concealed by a bookcase on either side of it. The footsteps get closer. Emma yanks the door open and–

 

It leads to a nursery. A dusty, empty nursery, one that looks as though it hasn’t been touched in years. Emma stares at it, uncomprehending, and a quiet voice from behind her says, “It was meant to be yours.”

 

Snow . She walks into the room, past Emma, to touch the crib and the unicorn mobile above it. “You never even made it here,” she says, her voice thick, and she turns around to face Emma. “Now you have.”

 

“Yeah.” Emma’s heart twists and she doesn’t want to do this, to hear more about who she should have been.

 

But Snow isn’t thinking about what she should have been. “I wonder,” she says, and Emma tenses and waits for damning words. “I wonder if I might have been a better mother if I’d grown up with you.”

 

“No,” Emma says quickly, afraid of what might come next. “You’re–”

 

“I’ve been making you feel as though…what?” Snow says, challenging. “As though I care about any of the frippery downstairs? Do you think I give a damn?” She shakes her head, still tearful. “You looked at me as though you thought I might…I don’t know. As though you thought I would put anyone down there ahead of you.”

 

“I’m not who you wanted,” Emma says dully. “I’m not like you. And I’m only disappointing you.”

 

“Oh, god,” Snow says, and she slides to the ground, tearful, and says nothing else.

 

Emma swallows. “I can go,” she offers. “I can just…disappear. Make this easier for everyone. It wouldn’t be the first time I–”

 

Snow’s eyes flash with anger, hard and uncompromising, and Emma recoils at it. “Don’t you dare ,” she says fiercely. “Don’t you dare think for a moment that I don’t want you– You ,” she repeats, her body trembling with the emotion contained within it. “The woman I’ve seen these past few weeks, trying so hard to be everything for everyone. You danced with more visitors tonight than I’ve ever managed at a ball,” she admits. “I threw a tantrum at my first one.”

 

Emma lets out a startled snort, and Snow laughs, lowering her voice conspiratorially. “I was six. I also threw a plate of potatoes at the Crown Prince of the Sunlit Kingdom when I was sixteen, and he still won’t visit my kingdom. I used to sneak out of balls when I was older and no one once reprimanded me.” She leans back against the wall. “I have lists of names for every ball, too, and I forget a dozen every time. There’s no right way to be a princess,” she says, looking up at Emma. “And I was a brat . I don’t know if I’ve ever outgrown it, to be honest. And I should hope you wouldn’t be like me.”

 

Emma looks at her in astonishment, her heart in her throat. Snow rises, convulsing as she tries to stand, and Emma hurries to pull her up. “Come,” Snow says. “Let’s go apologize to King Midas before he turns your father into gold.” She pauses. “That isn’t a command,” she says, a tentative smile on her face. “I just want to make that clear. Nothing I have said in this room is a command. Okay?”

 

“The peasants have had a cold season,” Emma says instead, relief mingling with new determination. She's become a skilled expert at not processing anything, but she can feel the warmth of Snow's words sinking into her, taking hold where they mean more than she can say. “And the storehouse policies mean that they aren’t going to get food in time.”

 

Snow smiles at her, eyes gleaming with tears, and Emma swallows and feels warmth in her chest. “Then we’d better fix that, shall we?”

 


 

The ball continues, and Emma can feel herself relaxing at last, dancing easily with David again and then with Snow. Midas is gracious in his own apology, and Emma finds that he isn’t quite as uppity as many of the lesser nobles. Something about having a crown of your own seems to lessen the need to lord your status over others, if the kings and queens that Emma’s met so far are any indication.

 

And the night gets better. Emma steps on fewer toes and talks to more people, lets herself forget that she has to impress them and speaks earnestly instead. She’s never going to be comfortable in these situations, but she’s learning on the go, smiling more easily and gracefully rejecting dances without humiliating anyone.

 

And it’s going so well, right up until the moment that the lights flicker and there’s a loud boom as the doors fly open of their own accord. A dozen black-clad guards march in, clearing the space to the middle of the ballroom, and Emma watches with bemusement as Snow snaps orders to their own guards and Mulan steps in front of Emma protectively.

 

“It’s okay,” she says, and she already knows exactly what to expect. Or who. “It’s just Regina.”

 

“Regina,” Snow growls, and Regina strides into the room a moment later, clad in a sinful black dress that’s all sharp edges and a long cape. The room gasps as one, the people shrinking back, and Emma winds around Mulan to stand in front of her instead.

 

Regina inclines her head, tilts a defined jaw to evaluate Emma with a mixture of amusement and disdain. “Nice dress,” she says. “Very… safe , isn’t it?”

 

The audience murmurs fretfully. Regina walks forward and Emma does as well, as though drawn to her by an invisible thread. There’s a cleared-out space in the center of the ballroom, and that’s where Emma finds herself, in the center of the room with crowds around her and Regina circling like a hungry cat.

 

Snow and David step forward, Mulan beside them, and Emma holds up a hand. They stop just behind her. “Did you come for a dance?” she says, challenging and a little wistful, and soft longing crosses Regina’s face for an instant before she sneers it away.

 

“I come,” she says, imperious again, “To offer you an opportunity that I would never have afforded your parents.” She whips her cloak around herself once for dramatic flair. The crowd gasps. Emma rolls her eyes. Regina smiles, this time without any humor. “But you ,” she drawls, circling Emma again. “...fresh and wet…behind the ears…there may yet be hope for you, if you swear fealty to me.”

 

Emma’s eyes narrow. “Excuse me?”

 

“I do not grant this opportunity lightly,” Regina says conversationally. The room yields to her every shift in tone, to each smile and every word. Nobles and peasants alike are in thrall to their feared Evil Queen, and even Snow and David are frozen in place as they glare at Regina. “I would raze your kingdom to the ground and make it my own, destroy every last remnant of your family. Unless…” She lets the word dangle. “If I can make use of you…”

 

It’s peace , what Regina’s offering. Snow has been certain that it’s only a matter of time before their kingdoms go to war, before Regina is comfortable enough in her power to fire the first cannon. But she doesn’t want to fight Emma, whatever her reasons, and this her way of saving face.

 

“What do you want?” Emma says slowly. “What does fealty mean here? An alliance?”

 

Regina laughs coldly. “It would be a cold day in hell indeed if I ever allied with Snow White’s kingdom. No, Princess,” she drawls again. “I invite you to swear fealty to me. If you give me your eternal obedience, I shall gift you peace.”

 

Eternal obedience . Something hard and angry flares within Emma, and she’s speaking before she weighs any options, before she can think beyond anything more. Eternal obedience is all she has left to her, is her doom, and– “I will never swear obedience to you,” she says, her eyes flashing, and she can feel the fire she’s bottled up since Mulan’s return beginning to rise within her. “You can travel from kingdom to kingdom with your little act–” She jabs a finger at Regina, who is no longer smiling– “And collect vassals to preen over, but you’ll never have me. I swear that .”

 

Regina’s face is dark and stormy, and thunder rumbles menacingly from beyond the castle. “Then you will burn,” she hisses, and Emma reaches out behind her, grasps Mulan’s sword from her hilt and hurls it across the center of the ballroom at Regina.

 

Regina vanishes in a whirl of purple smoke, just as Emma had expected her to, and the sword clatters harmlessly to the ground.

 

Their audience exhales as one, and there are people milling around again in moments, rushing to Emma and her parents admiringly. “That was incredible,” one woman says. “Standing up to the Evil Queen?”

 

“You know, I thought you were just another country peasant, but you have your mother’s fire,” says another noble, and Emma isn’t quite sure if she’s offended or pleased at that one. It’s all ridiculous– it all presumes bravery without any comprehension of their history or Emma’s curse– but she can’t share any of that with the guests, so she smiles awkwardly and bobs her head, turning to the next guest.

 

It’s a woman with long red hair, wearing travel clothes and regarding her unsmilingly. She doesn’t speak, but her fingers move over and over again, repeating the same motions until Emma can finally understand the language in which she’s speaking. I’m Ariel, she signs. I heard you were looking for me.

 


 

It’s the second time tonight that she’s without Mulan, slipping away through the crush of guests with Ariel’s hand firmly in hers. Mulan is good at her job but Emma is good at hiding, and she doesn’t want to make a production of leaving the ballroom. Not when she has one chance to speak to someone who might hold the answers.

 

Ariel removes her hand from Emma’s so she can sign again. I was a girl when I first saw Prince Eric , Ariel says, her eyes distant. Of course I thought I was in love. Of course I wanted to know more about the land. I didn’t think I’d get to. And then this little fairy dressed in green was there and promised to give me everything that I, a foolish girl with a thousand dreams, had wanted.

 

Emma walks beside her. Ariel moves toward the harbor, almost unconsciously. “She took your voice.”

 

Ariel stares out at the harbor again. Worse than only that , she signs. She took my tail . She made me human Her fingers twist into the word with marked disgust. –And planted me in the rocks where Prince Eric might have seen me.

 

Emma winces. “And did he fall in love?”

 

Ariel laughs. It makes no sound in the busy harbor. Oh, yes. A helpless damsel in distress? What’s not to love? He found me charming and swore to wed me . She shakes her head. I grew to hate him. It wasn’t his fault, of course. He wasn’t the reason why I’d lost myself. I fled to a safe island and found a boy there, gifted to be forever young. He was the one who told me of the one who could find Tinkerbell. But I haven’t seen him since.

 

“Did you ever find the old crone?” It’s the question Emma’s been asking for weeks, been lying awake at night wondering how she might get the answers she needs.

 

Old crone? Ariel echoes, brow furrowing as her fingers fly. No, I was told of a sage, ancient and wise, who is the only one who can call Tinkerbell and make her come. Not that I ever found him. Or anyone, before you, who wanted to help . She looks curiously at Emma. What was your gift, Princess?

 

“Not one I can safely share,” Emma admits, and Ariel’s eyes soften in recognition. “Look…stay here, where I can find you easily. If I do find her, I’m going to try to make her help you, too. I don’t know if I can–”

 

I can’t stay here , Ariel signs, her eyes dim. I can’t be so far from the sea, not when it calls to me all the time. The captain who brought me here plans to be here a while, but there’s a woman from a distant isle who says I can leave with her tonight, and I must… She ducks her head. I hope you do find her. I can’t say I believe that you will, but I didn’t want to leave you without any answers. So here’s mine.

 

She turns to conceal her hands from their surroundings as a crowd of ballgoers pass them, chattering amongst themselves as they return to the harbor. If you find the boy who never grows up, he will lead you to the sage, if he even exists. And then you can try negotiating with a fairy . She gestures toward where a woman with brown skin and wild hair stands in front of a little boat, waving to her. I must go. Good luck , she signs as she backs away, and she runs from Emma to the boat, her legs wobbly still as though she’s never quite mastered them.

 

Emma watches her go, watches the boat depart without answers. But Ariel has given her a lead. A boy who never grows up, another of Tinkerbell’s gifts. She’s heard that legend before, not too long ago, in the inn where she’d once worked. A few stories at the fireplace, Emma collecting dishes as Marian enthralls her audience. Marian . Marian might know where to find him.

 

She turns around, emboldened by this new path opening up before her, and comes face-to-face with a man. “Excuse me,” she says, her heart beating hard at his sudden appearance. He’s standing too close, his smirk sending irritated, fearful prickles up her spine.

 

“Your Highness,” he says, and she doesn’t know if she should relax at the address or tense up even more. He knows who she is, but he still hasn’t moved aside. Decades of fearing strangers– and strange men most of all– well up within her, and she raises her chin, keeping her eyes steely and strong to conceal her fear. “I believe we have some matters to discuss,” the man says, and Emma’s eyes grow harder still. “Walk with me.”

 

It had worked earlier, and she tries the response again, gathers up her indignation to conceal her fear and the pain already throbbing in her head. They aren’t alone. The harbor is busy, and there can be no altercation. “Do you presume to tell the crown princess what to do?” she says, infusing her words with haughtiness and disgust.

 

The man only smiles. “I believe I do,” he says, and Emma’s fear surges, consumes her, threatens to destroy her with the knowing look on his face. “In fact, you might even call that a direct order.”

 

He walks, and she follows at once.

Chapter Text

Being in love the first time had been simultaneously one of the most energizing and most painful experiences of Emma’s life. She’d thought of little else but Regina in those days, and she’d been alive , full of anticipation for what might come the next day. She’d awakened in the morning and seen Regina beside her and known instantly that it would be a good day.

 

But with that had come indescribable pain, the dreadful moment when she’d been forced to use her knowledge of Regina to inflict agony upon them both, and love like that only seems to hurt.

 

Being in love this time is different. This time, it’s as easy as sliding her arm into his, walking peacefully into the castle with him by her side. Him , and she laughs gaily when she realizes that she doesn’t even know his name. She’s in love with a mystery. “Who are you?” she says, turning to face him curiously.

 

He nudges her. “Lean against my shoulder,” he says, and the twitch of irritation below the love is barely noticeable. “You walk like a man.” His lip curls in dissatisfaction, and Emma can feel her heart break a little at how she’s disappointed him. She clings to him, attempting to look as frail and womanly as she can manage, and he pats her shoulder. “Good girl.”

 

She wonders if he loves her as she loves him. Their first meeting is hazy in her mind, and she only remembers fear– overpowering fear, and then the two of them walking together and Emma nearly drowning in dazed love. Now he’s walking toward the ballroom with her and she realizes with a sudden thrill that she’s going to get to introduce the love of her life to her parents.

 

“Keep it casual,” the man mutters. “Don’t act so…moon-eyed around them. Don’t make them suspicious.”

 

Emma bobs her head, though she can’t quite stop the smile that blooms across her face when he looks directly at her. She can’t wait to be alone , to finally get a chance to–

 

“Emma!” The cry is loud and frantic, Mulan charging across the ballroom to them. Her eyes are wide and wild, and she stares at Emma and then at her True Love with bewilderment and despair. “Where did you go ? What have you– Who is this?”

 

“Killian Jones,” the man says, extending his hand with oily charm. “I am but an honest sailor.”

 

Mulan eyes him with deep distrust. “No honest sailor has to announce it with a qualifier,” she says.

 

“Is that so?” Killian keeps smiling and Emma smiles too, careful that it’s a casual smile. No one is going to be suspicious– though she can’t seem to recall why it is that they would be at all. Killian just fits with her, and it’s that simple. “I brought Ariel to this land,” he says, and he pats Emma’s hand, linked into his other arm. “I didn’t expect to hit it off with her princess.” He smiles at Emma and Emma beams back.

 

Abruptly, she’s yanked from Killian’s arm and dragged across the ballroom, Mulan intent on a distant corner. “What– what are you doing?” Emma asks pitifully. Already, being apart from Killian feels like agony.

 

Mulan stares at her, her brow knit. “What happened with Ariel?”

 

Emma shrugs. “There’s a boy on an island,” she offers. “He’s supposed to know where to find the old man. Old crone? Can I please go back to Killian now? I want to introduce him to my parents.”

 

Mulan looks hard at her, and Emma stands up straight, doing her best to look as casual as Killian wants her to be. “What did he say to you?” she asks. It isn’t an order, and Emma can lie.

 

“We just got to talking. We discovered that we’re kind of kindred spirits,” she chatters. He’s already her favorite topic, she’s found. “Isn’t he just so handsome?”

 

Mulan’s brow is still furrowed, and she shakes her head slowly. “I don’t believe you.”

 

Don’t make them suspicious . Emma is doing this wrong, and she can feel the nausea rising within her, the headache beginning to throb. “I’m sorry,” she says, caustic. “Am I supposed to be miserable all the time? Putting my life on hold while I wait for a fairy? Can’t I just…meet someone I like and be happy for a change, Mulan?” she asks beseechingly. “It doesn’t have to mean anything,” she lies. “But he’s nice to look at and nice to be around, and I want to be around him.”

 

She sees as the suspicion fades from Mulan’s face, as bit by bit Mulan begins to believe her. “Okay,” Mulan says slowly. “I won’t…I’m not going to use your gift against you. Are you sure he didn’t make some accidental commands?”

 

Emma bobs her head, very certain of her answer to that. “Okay,” Mulan repeats, and Emma twists away from her, already casting an eye around the room to find Killian. He’s chatting up a man she doesn’t know when she sees him, and she winces and feels a cloud of heartbreak settle over her.

 

She starts in his direction, determined to make right whatever she’d done to lose him for a moment, when she’s pulled back again. “Emma.” It’s still Mulan, leaning against the wall, her face troubled. “Don’t be alone with him,” she orders, and Emma looks at her in betrayal. Mulan doesn’t give her orders, doesn’t take advantage of her even by accident, and this is– “Unless you truly want to be,” Mulan amends, miserable. “I’m sorry, Emma.”

 

Emma shrugs sullenly, the sting of hurt hot in her chest, and she slides an arm around Killian’s as soon as she reaches him. “There she is,” Killian says, eyeing her keenly, and Emma closes her eyes and buries herself in Killian’s arms, searching for comfort.

 


 

Her parents are thrilled to meet Killian. David is nearly as besotted as Emma herself, and Snow sighs happily and whispers encouragement in Emma’s ears. “He does seem quite dashing,” she murmurs, and Emma grins, the happy haze of love settling down over her before she can remember to be suspicious. “I admit, I did secretly hope you might find someone at this ball. You deserve to be happy, Emma.”

 

Mulan lurks behind them, her jaw tight and Red frowning beside her, but neither one steps in to interfere. Emma doesn’t know what to do about this new Mulan, the one who gives her orders and doesn’t support her, and she gives Mulan uncertain smiles and wonders if maybe her long voyage to King Eric’s kingdom had made her resent Emma.

 

“I don’t think Mulan wants to spend all day babysitting me,” she admits to Snow later. “I don’t need a guard anymore, anyway.”

 

Snow shakes her head immediately. “You do,” she says, squeezing Emma’s hand. “If only to watch for commands. I haven’t forgotten what you’ve told me about it, and I’m trying to learn–” She presses a kiss to Emma’s cheek. “It’s a process. But I want you to be happy and safe.”

 

So Mulan stays, and someone must have told her that Emma hadn’t wanted her around anymore, because she’s more muted now, more watchful. She doesn’t speak against Killian again, which means that Emma can fall again into safe, indescribable bliss.

 

There is one snag, though, and Emma can’t figure it out. It happens the first night, when they’re standing outside Emma’s door in the castle, Mulan lurking behind Emma, and Emma wants nothing more than to bring Killian into her room. “Shall I?” Killian says, gesturing to the door. He strokes Emma’s hair for a moment, and there’s a reflexive shiver of revulsion before she remembers that she’s in love and this is what she wants.

 

“I want–” Emma glances from Killian to Mulan, and she blurts out, “Mulan, will you help me show Killian my quarters?”

 

Mulan’s face reveals nothing. “Of course,” she says, and Emma kicks herself mentally. Why had she done that? What had she been thinking?

 

She doesn’t know what it is that stops her, every opportunity they have to be alone. Mulan is always there– and if not her, then Snow, or Red, or David. On the rare occasions that they aren’t surrounded by people, there’s always some excuse to avoid being completely alone, whether it’s summoning a maidservant to her room or a guard to join them in the gardens.

 

Mulan’s order flits through her mind once or twice, but there’s no way that it has taken hold because Emma does want to be alone with Killian. She’s in love , and it still feels bright and new, like a high that she’ll never come down from. Of course she truly wants to…

 

She shrugs it off, and Killian grumbles sometimes but he can’t make many direct commands when there’s always someone around. Killian glowers at Mulan but is careful to say nothing. His provocations are far less cautious, though.

 

“Someday,” he says, strolling through the gardens with Emma on his arm, “We will rule this land together.”

 

“Yes,” Emma breathes, flooded with joy at the thought of it. Killian smiles down at her, still distant, but he tips his face down to kiss her lips, and she begins to lean up to him–

 

A harsh growl startles her, and she pulls back, looking in dismay at Mulan’s wolf. “What is it?” The wolf glares back at them, and Killian scowls at the wolf. “Don’t worry about the wolf,” Emma says hastily, but the moment is lost.

 

At least Killian still takes every opportunity to hold onto her, to wrap his arm around her and make sure that everyone around them knows that she belongs to him. She loves every moment of it– loves him , and doesn’t dare to think of who she might be without him.

 

It’s uncomplicated, too, and it begins to have an effect on every other part of her life. She continues to be more demure, to take interest in the etiquette lessons that will help to make her a good queen. She goes to fittings where Killian flirts with the apprentices and she listens to him with a wobbly lip and apologizes after for whatever she’d done to anger him. He is easily angered, she discovers, though careful that it’s never her parents who see that anger, and she learns all the ways she might appease him.

 

Mulan breathes down their necks when she’s around, and she’s almost always around. She glares at Killian and he makes snide comments within her earshot, but the moment he makes even the hint of a command around Emma, Mulan is drawing her sword, stepping forward and eyeing him suspiciously. “I don’t understand,” she says, pacing.

 

It’s another evening where they’re alone, Killian stomping off when it becomes clear that Mulan isn’t going anywhere and Emma isn’t going to send her off. These evenings have become more and more fraught, Emma biting back anger at Mulan’s insistence that Killian is anything less than the love of her life–

 

“Why can’t you just accept him? There were no commands,” she lies, and Mulan looks at her with indecision. “What will you do? Force us apart? Order me to– to–”

 

“I won’t take advantage of you,” Mulan says bitterly. “That’s what he’s doing. Don’t you see, Emma? You’ve…you’re different now.”

 

“I know,” Emma says, scowling at her. “I actually feel as though I fit in here now. The horror.”

 

Mulan shakes her head, and Emma wishes she’d just…get over this grudge. She’s in love with you , Killian had decided yesterday, and Emma had laughed hard at the preposterous idea as Mulan had rolled her eyes behind them. But what could be motivating her? Why won’t she– “Can’t you see I’m happy?” Emma says pleadingly. “Can’t you be happy for us?”

 

Mulan stares at her. “So you’re happy.”

 

Emma bobs her head. “Ecstatic,” she says earnestly. “This is everything I’ve ever wanted.”

 

Mulan’s expression doesn’t change. It gets harder, more stubborn. “Then why don’t you send me away when he wants to be alone with you?” she challenges.

 

Emma scoffs, incensed again at the reminder of Mulan’s single command. “I don’t like what you’re implying,” she says, and she feels sullen, angry like a scolded child. “And maybe it’s time you get over it. Killian will be king someday.”

 

Mulan’s stubbornness fades into horror, and Emma feels suddenly defensive. “He will ,” she says. “I love him.”

 

Mulan just shakes her head and stalks out to the balcony, her hand resting on her sword. Emma lies down in bed and cries silently. She doesn’t know why, where this pain is coming from through the haze of new love, but she sobs until she’s finally drifting off, the night air leaving her wet cheeks cool.

 

Mulan comes in when she’s nearly asleep and pulls the blanket up over her. She touches Emma’s cheek for a moment and speaks in a whisper. “I hope you will forgive me,” she says, and Emma is asleep before she can respond.

 


 

It’s a sunny day, Emma and Killian picnicking on the lawns with Mulan leaning against a nearby tree, when Emma first hears the news that her father has fainted. It’s been nearly a week since Emma’s last fight with Mulan, and Mulan has been silent since, watching Killian distrustfully but never speaking up against him. Her wolf is gone, though, another set of watchful eyes departed, and Emma dares to believe that this is the first step toward acceptance.

 

She’s deliriously happy, of course, even when she angers Killian by tripping and spilling the whole picnic basket over the ground. “Idiot,” he snarls out, and Emma flinches and apologizes vigorously until he’s appeased. Mulan’s jaw works under her skin but she says nothing, looking instead to the distance as though distraction might come from there.

 

And distraction does come, though perhaps not the one any of them had expected. A page has run from the castle to find her, his face wide and afraid. “It happened out of nowhere,” he says shakily as she follows him back to the castle. “As he stood up from his throne, his eyes rolled back and he– he–”

 

“Is he alive?” Killian asks, his eyes hungry, and Emma clings to him, hanging onto his arm for comfort. Comfort isn’t working , not when the distress is lurking beneath the warm haze of True Love, and she lets him go and stalks forward instead.

 

The page bobs his head. “Of course. Her Majesty is with him, in here–”

 

He opens a door and Emma flies across the room, her heart in her throat. She’d wondered as a child if her luck might ever change, if she really was doomed to an eternity of misery. She’d believed fervently back then that finding her parents would solve everything, and it seems cruel justice that she won’t even be able to keep them.

 

Snow’s arms are around her as she gulps back tears, and Emma falls into them, feels her mother’s bony arms and the way they aren’t nearly as tight as they might have been in health. “Emma,” Snow sobs, and Emma holds her carefully, carries both their weights as she guides Snow to the chair beside David’s bed.

 

In the bed, David is still, eyes closed and body shaking slightly. Healers are bent over him, working almost-magic to warm him and doling out potions, and Emma curls next to Snow in silence and tries not think about how Snow is shaking in time with David, her face worn and pale and her eyes empty.

 

Killian says, his voice somber, “Will he live?”

 

Snow jerks up to stare at him in betrayed silence. Killian holds up a hand. “We’re very close,” he says in explanation. “I am quite fearful that we will lose him.”

 

Snow curls back against Emma, appeased, and Emma rises when Killian holds out a hand, burying herself in his arms. “Soon,” he murmurs into her hair, and she doesn’t know what he means but she finds it comforting regardless. She leans back against him, letting the haze of love wash over her, and even with her father this ill, she feels–

 

The door slams open, and Regina walks in.

 

Everyone stares for a moment, frozen. It’s almost surreal, seeing the so-called Evil Queen standing in the midst of the hospital wing. It’s also impossible , given the amount of security in the castle, and Emma feels an instant surge of fear as she hides her face in Killian’s side. There’s a surge of something else, too, something as impossible as Regina’s presence, and Emma cowers.

 

Snow is the first to react, standing shakily as she glares at Regina. “What are you doing here?” she demands, wrapping thin arms around herself. “Did you have to come just to gloat?”

 

“Gloat?” Regina says, distracted. Her eyes flit to where Emma peeks out at her, her brow furrowed. Mulan’s wolf lets out a low growl from behind her and runs to stand between Snow and Regina. “Gloat about–” She catches sight of David on the bed, and she glances back at Snow with what might be discomfort. “Yes,” she says flatly. “That’s why I came.”

 

She’s still staring at Emma, and Emma looks out meekly, her heart thrumming and her head throbbing. There is something about Regina’s critical stare that cuts through the haze of love that she feels toward Killian, that makes her waver as she hasn’t since she’d met him. She holds onto him, desperate not to drown, but she already feels as though she’s breathing underwater.

 

“Pathetic,” Regina pronounces in abject disappointment, and Emma bows her head. “What the hell happened to you?”

 

Snow snaps, “Step away from her,” and Red is there suddenly, resting a hand on Snow’s shoulder. “Mulan,” she says carefully. “Why don’t you escort our guest downstairs? The king and queen are in no condition to see her.”

 

Regina snorts, and she glances at David once, something almost like indecision on her face. Emma memorizes her face as she would any piece of art, breathless and longing, and Killian tightens his grip on her until Emma remembers that she loves him now, not…

 

“I think I’ll stay a while,” Regina says, smiling mirthlessly. “As we are such dear friends. I couldn’t possibly leave you alone while you suffer.” Snow stares up at her in agony, and Regina says, “Well? Have your servants prepare a room for me and my aide.” She gestures to the girl standing behind her.

 

Emma sees her for the first time. Regina has the sort of presence that overwhelms everything around her, and everyone. It makes Emma’s head fuzzy as it never has before, and it’s a struggle to process each word and movement. Now, she clings to Killian and peers at the girl behind Regina, her heart clenching as she smiles distantly at her.

 

Ella smiles back, just as distantly, and she says, “Oh, that’s all right. I can stay by the fireplace like I did at–”

 

“No,” Emma blurts out, just as Regina says the same thing. Regina glances back at Emma, her brow furrowing, and Emma avoids her eyes and rests her head against Killian’s shoulder, seeking something solid to keep her standing.

 

Regina hisses to herself and turns away, her back very straight and her eyes flashing. “Now,” she says impatiently. “I won’t spend one more minute in this room with these insipid royals.”

 

Snow doesn’t react, and Emma realizes with a sinking feeling that it’s going to be up to her to arrange Regina’s stay. It’s strange, really, the way that her stomach roils at the thought of Regina. It can’t seem to decide if she’s pleased to see Regina or nauseous, and the effort of being utterly in love with Killian in Regina’s presence is beginning to feel grating.

 

“I…” She stutters, uncertain, and Regina watches her warily. “I’ll have my handmaidens arrange it.”

 

“Good,” Regina says, and she slides a casual hand onto Emma’s wrist. Emma jerks, shrinking back into Killian’s tightening embrace. “I shall escort you. I have no faith in your family’s taste.”

 

“Of course,” Emma says helplessly, and Killian pulls her closer. He stares distrustfully at Regina, and Regina stares back with open loathing. “I should…”

 

Mulan says suddenly, “Captain.” She’s never called Killian that before, and he’s startled by it, if the way he tenses is any indication. “Stand guard over the king and queen while we take care of your visitor,” she orders, and Killian stiffens.

 

But there are enough people watching that he can’t fight a royal captain, and he inclines his head and says gracefully, “Of course,” sitting beside Snow and glancing warily back at her.

 

Emma longs for him immediately, and even more so when Mulan takes her hand and guides her from the room. Regina is still standing outside it, alone and unguarded but for her single maidservant, and she walks silently with Mulan until they’re standing outside of Emma’s quarters. “You said…” Emma says, puzzled as she sneaks glances at Regina. Her heart is still beating too quickly, and she can’t quite summon up Killian’s face when she thinks back to him.

 

“She lied,” Mulan says sharply, and she pushes open the doors, taking a step back as Regina enters. She watches Regina with the same wariness as she does Killian, but there’s less suspicion there, and she stands behind Emma, but gives her more space than she’s offered her in weeks.

 

Regina swoops down to study Emma, eyes hard and dissatisfied at what she sees. Emma flinches back, looking down instead. Regina is dangerous– threatens her in ways that she can’t explain– and she’s terrified of what might happen if she meets her eyes.

 

But then Regina’s hand is on her chin, anyway, and Emma has no choice but to stare back at her. Emma’s stomach flips. Her heart clenches, something shifting within her deeper than the dazed love for Killian can ever reach, and she finds herself moving closer, caught in Regina’s magnetic pull. “Please don’t,” she says weakly, uncertain of what she’s asking. “Please, I can’t…”

 

“They said you were enchanted,” Regina says, peering into Emma’s eyes. Ella, who had once seemed important to Emma before Killian, beams at them, and Emma shivers in response, struggling to look at her instead of Regina. She fails. Regina is everywhere– all she sees, all she can think of, her perfume and her eyes and her voice overpowering.

 

Usually, she remembers loving Regina as though from a great distance, as though her emotions have been muted in the face of something real and new. But Regina is suddenly here , and Emma trembles, struggling desperately to resist her pull. “I’m not…” she says faintly, and Regina scoffs.

 

“You’ve never been afraid of me before,” she says, her lip curled, and Emma holds her hands out helplessly and has no response. Regina’s brow furrows, and she chews on her lip, looking very much like the girl whom Emma had first fallen in love with. Emma squeaks, her stomach twisting.  

 

Regina steps back, and Emma stumbles backward, dropping to the floor to stare up at her in agony. Regina crouches down, undeterred. “I’m not leaving,” she says in a fierce, low voice. “Do you understand? You left me when I had nothing, but I’m not going to leave you.”

 

Emma says weakly, “I want you to go away.” She does , she wants only Killian, and there are no commands about not loving Regina but it makes her head spin and she’s afraid. Her mind and heart are split, stretched to the limit, and she’s lost in this muddled swamp of emotion.

 

Regina shifts forward, still in a crouch with the long cape of her dress stretching out behind her like a train. Emma is sprawled against the wall, legs crumpled in a mess in front of her, and she couldn’t back away from Regina even if she’d had somewhere to go. “They said you were enchanted,” she breathes again, cupping Emma’s chin in her hand, and Emma stops breathing altogether.

 

Regina doesn’t move for a long time, nor does she speak. Emma thinks wildly of Killian, runs through commands in her head over and over again. None of them forbid this , or the wave of emotions that come with it. Ella is beaming tearfully at her. Mulan stands against the wall, her eyes creased with so much pain as she watches Emma that Emma can almost feel it through her dazed lovesickness.

 

Regina’s fingers brush against Emma’s skin, gentle on her cheeks, and Emma shivers. Regina’s eyes are on her, intent and cautious, and her onetime lover murmurs, “May I kiss you?”

 

Mulan stiffens. Emma stares at Regina in consternation. Somewhere in her hazy mind, she knows that this is because of their aborted something before the funeral, that Regina looks almost afraid to have asked at all. It isn’t a command, which fills a part of her that she hadn’t known existed anymore with relief, but it’s still somehow impossible to refuse.

 

She nods jerkily, yearning for Regina desperately, and her heart reminds her, Killian, Killian, you love

 

Regina’s lips touch hers and everything goes blissfully blank for an instant. The kiss is soft, tentative, and Emma closes her eyes and feels nothing else, no other sensation or emotion but Regina’s lips on hers. Her head begins to pound as it does when she disobeys orders, but there is blissful silence anyway, an instant of pure–

 

–of pure–

 

Regina pulls away, her eyes still closed for a moment, and when she opens them, they’re fixed on Emma. She reaches out and touches Emma’s cheeks, and Emma realizes very suddenly that they’re wet. She doesn’t remember crying. “Do you love him?” Regina murmurs, and Emma takes a moment to remember who him is. Her head is still throbbing.

 

Regina’s eyes are just beginning to brighten when Emma says, “With all my heart,” and the pain in her head finally goes away. The love haze returns, and she smiles, at ease.

 

Regina rises, spinning around in a fury, and she throws her hand out and hurls a chair into the wall. The chair shatters, and Regina grinds out, “Well, that tells us nothing ,” and pins an accusing glare on Mulan.

 

Mulan shakes her head in silence. She looks close to tears, too, and Regina spits out a curse and returns to Emma. “Stand up,” she growls, and Emma has to stand. Her legs are wobbly, and she thinks she might still be crying.

 

Mulan says tersely, her voice thick, “Don’t tell her what to do.”

 

Regina ignores her, eyes harsh and angry on Emma’s. Emma flushes, and Regina says, still a picture of frustration, “Tell me how you really feel.”

 

Mulan draws her sword. “I said–

 

In love , Emma thinks, but the word that emerges instead is strained and small. There are new tears on her face, and she knows they’re only going to make her head hurt more but she can’t seem to stop them. “Lost,” she whispers, and Regina stumbles backward, breathing hard.

 

“Come,” she says to Ella, and they vanish in a cloud of purple.

 

Emma slumps back to the floor, missing Killian desperately. Mulan sits beside her, stretched out on the floor with her sword still drawn. “I’m sorry,” Mulan whispers. “I’m so sorry.”

 

“My head hurts,” is all Emma can manage. Everything aches, as though she’s aged a dozen years in a single encounter. She doesn’t understand what’s going on, doesn’t feel capable of comprehension right now, and she says, “Killian?”

 

“Never mind Killian,” Mulan says, letting her head fall back in defeat. “I don’t– if it isn’t an enchantment, then it has to be a command. I swore…when I first met you, I swore that I would never command you. I can’t break that promise again. But…” She twists her fingers around the hilt of her sword. “There are potions. There are enchantments, and maybe the kiss wasn’t…” She pinches the bridge of her nose. “ Emma ,” she says helplessly.

 

“I don’t want you to command me.” Emma knows this, even from those she trusts. “And I don’t want you to take Killian away. He’s– I’m happy , Mulan.”

 

Mulan touches her cheekbone, traces wetness across it. “You’re still crying,” she murmurs.

 

“I’m happy ,” Emma repeats. “I haven’t…I haven’t thought about breaking the curse or Tinkerbell or going to Marian since Killian. Do you know how unusual that is for me?” she says pleadingly, and all she wants is for Mulan to understand. “Do you know how hard it is for me to forget my curse for even a moment? Please, I just want…” Her voice trails off.

 

Mulan is staring at her, her face suddenly tight, and she says, “Going to Marian? That innkeeper your mother had Red gift a fortune to? Was this a Tinkerbell lead?”

 

Emma waves a hand dismissively. “Ariel talked about this boy who might take us to the sage. I think Marian might know where to find him. It doesn’t matter ,” she reminds Mulan. “I don’t care anymore. I have Killian.”

 

“Right,” Mulan mutters, and she’s silent, brooding. Emma sits beside her, the pounding in her head fading to a more tolerable hum, and she can still feel tears falling from her eyes, silent and incomprehensible.

Chapter Text

Regina is everywhere. Snow is tearful about it, the rare times that she emerges from David’s room. “I don’t know why she hates me so much,” she says, not for the first time, and Emma almost says–

 

–but now isn’t the time. And she’s just as frustrated by Regina, too, she thinks. She thinks. Every single romantic moment with Killian is interrupted now, Regina materializing by her side without warning and scrambling her brains a little more every time. She’s strolling with Killian, the wolf on their tail, when Regina’s arm is suddenly wrapped in hers and she’s talking about what a lovely day it is. She’s at dinner, chatting mindlessly with Killian, when Regina is suddenly sampling her soup.

 

“Delicious,” she hums throatily, her eyes dipping down Emma’s body. “Simply luscious.” Killian glares furiously at her, and Emma closes her eyes to shut out the pain in her head.

 

Regina is there when Emma visits her father, resting her head on the bed beside him as she watches his chest rise and fall. The healers have succeeded in steadying his heartbeat, though they are dubious that he’ll ever wake. Emma visits on most evenings, staring down at her sleeping father and struggling to hide her devastation.

 

“I barely know him,” she whispers, and Regina listens in silence. “I barely know him, and I’m going to lose him.”

 

Regina opens her mouth to say something when Snow sweeps into the room, Killian behind her. “Get away from him,” Snow grits out, glaring at Regina, and Regina raises her chin and laughs scornfully before she sweeps out. She spares a hand for Emma, fingers brushing against Emma’s arm as she departs, and Snow watches her with distrust.

 

Emma, who doesn’t want arguments and more pain to follow them, stands with her mother until Killian tugs her away. Regina is still outside the room, and she falls into step with them while Killian glares at her.

 

Regina doesn’t give them a moment to breathe.

 

Emma is standing outside in the courtyard one afternoon, Red distracted for a moment by a friend, and she’s nearly about to get a coveted kiss from her true love when a voice behind her says, “You went from me to this?” in utter disgust.

 

Emma stumbles back from Killian, who looks very irritated at Regina’s appearance. “I must say,” he says snidely, glaring at the other woman. “This is getting very old.”

 

“Regina,” Emma says, rubbing her temples. “Why are you…can’t you give us some space?” she says pleadingly.

 

Regina puts an arm around her and Emma doesn’t pull away. Killian looks even more annoyed. Regina looks smug. “You’ll thank me someday,” she says, her thumb rubbing against Emma’s side. Emma can feel herself faltering, can feel a piece of herself yearning for Regina even as it makes her stomach flip and–

 

Regina brushes a lock of hair from Emma’s face and murmurs, “Blink twice if you want me to incinerate him.” Emma blinks dumbly at her. Regina says cheerily, readying a fireball, “Well, okay, that’s–”

 

“Regina!” Emma seizes her wrist, pulling her back. The fireball is extinguished the moment Emma touches her, and Regina pouts. “Stop,” Emma says warningly. “I love him.”

 

Killian smiles at her and Emma smiles back, feeling her nausea abate for a moment. Regina’s face turns sour. She drops her arm and takes a step away, her jaw clenched. “He’s a fop and a pirate,” Regina says, and she looks somewhere between sulky and hurt. Emma’s heart twists in helpless response.

 

“And yet she wants me,” Killian says smugly, and Regina’s eyes bore into him.

 

“I think I will kill you,” she remarks, her voice deceptively casual. “Not yet, but when the time comes. Emma will give me the go-ahead and I will take your heart from your body and then strip the flesh from it, bit by bit, until you experience agony like you’ve never known. And then I’ll crush your heart and watch you weep like a child as you crumble to the ground.” She smiles. Killian smiles back, but it’s a little unsteady.

 

Emma says, “Regina, please,” and looks helplessly at Red. Red shrugs.

 

Regina says, “You can’t possibly expect me to believe that you love this man. For one thing, you don’t even like men.”

 

“You don’t know that,” Emma says defiantly.

 

Regina laughs hard at that, tossing her hair as she walks alongside Emma. For all the talk of her being some sort of Evil Queen, it feels more and more as though that evil had never germinated within her. Instead, she’s using it as a script. Every motion is practiced with her, every statement an excuse for theatrics, and Emma is bemused when she isn’t fighting a headache. Regina makes her head hurt like nothing ever has. “I do love Killian,” Emma says in a futile attempt to make her headache abate.

 

“We’ll see,” Regina says, and she shifts so she’s standing in front of Emma, stopping her from moving forward. Their faces are inches apart, and Emma’s eyes drift to Regina’s lips unconsciously. “Emma,” Regina murmurs, her fingers running along the shell of Emma’s ear. “I’m going to help you, Princess.” The name is usually mocking from Regina, but today it sounds sweetly affectionate. And maybe a tiny bit mocking.

 

Emma wants nothing more than to– escape, flee into Killian’s arms– kiss Regina, succumb to so many years of unvarnished love– Killian, and a command– ReginaRegina

 

She falls to the ground on her hands and knees and vomits, her head pounding. Killian is rushing to her but Regina is already there, hands on Emma’s hair, holding it back before she pulls her into her lap. “Head hurts,” Emma manages, staring up at Regina in agony.

 

“You’re not well,” Regina says, her eyes so gentle that Emma’s head pounds even more.

 

Red says, “Killian, I’ve just gotten word that you’re needed in the library.”

 

Killian twists to glare at her. “You’ve been standing there this whole time! How could you have possibly gotten word that–”

 

“They say it’s urgent,” Red says, her face emotionless. “Better hurry.”

 

Killian spits out a curse and hurries away, and the pain in Emma’s head eases just a bit. She curls against Regina with her hard jewels on sweeping velvet and trembles, fingers digging into her temples. “You’re hurting yourself,” Regina murmurs, waving a hand over Emma’s head. The pain eases for a moment, magically gone as it hasn’t been in weeks, and Emma exhales, staring up at Regina through blurry, grateful eyes.

 

She fades out then for what feels like a minute, but when she wakes, she’s in her room and Mulan is leaning against the wall. The lights are dim, the room is silent, and when Emma sees Regina sitting in a chair by her bed, the pain returns in full force. “Hurts,” Emma chokes out again, and this time, Regina’s magic isn’t quite as effective.

 

She whimpers and croaks, “I want…I want Killian.” She does. Nothing hurts around him, and she doesn’t know why Red and Mulan and Regina won’t let her be happy anymore. She just wants to be–

 

“You’d think you’d know a con artist when you see one,” Regina says, her brows downswept in dissatisfaction. “He’s doing exactly what you claim that you were doing to me, though you did a better job.” She watches Emma with muted grief. “You were much more convincing when you were pretending to be in love.”

 

Oh. Emma’s head hurts almost as much as her heart, and she closes her eyes, frustrated, pained tears falling where they’re squeezed shut.

 

Regina cradles Emma’s cheek with her hand. “I won’t beg,” she says with finality. “I won’t beg you for the truth. You took enough of my dignity on that day.”

 

Please, Emma wants to say. Please beg. Please give me a reason to tell you– Her stomach clenches and she curls into a ball, gagging nothingness until she puts aside the thought of asking Regina any more.

 

Regina kisses her temple and tucks her in, another wave of magic passing over Emma and intensifying until Emma can close her eyes again and almost sleep. “I’m going to kill him,” she says flatly. “The people can raise an uproar over me stealing away their future prince. He’s going to die.”

 

“Yes,” Mulan agrees from the shadows, and Emma wants to protest but she can’t form the words. “She’s in so much pain.” And Mulan sounds sorrowful. “It’s because you’re here.”

 

Regina sounds outraged. “Me?”

 

“She loves you,” Mulan says calmly. “And however he’s bewitched her to love him, it’s hurting her whenever she’s reminded that she loves someone else more than that spell.”

 

“Oh.” Now Regina sounds dumbstruck, uncertain. “I…I didn’t think she still…” She swallows. “Whether or not that’s true,” she says, her voice more businesslike. “It isn’t because I’m here. It’s because of what he’s done.” She smoothes down Emma’s hair absently, massaging her temple.

 

“Yes,” Mulan agrees, and she sounds as tired as Emma feels.

 

Regina is silent for a moment. Then, “Take some time off,” she says, her voice astonishingly kind. “I can keep an eye on Emma and her moldy sea cucumber. You’ve been watching her all hours of the day.”

 

Mulan pauses, her voice very firm. “I don’t trust you, either, Your Majesty. I won’t leave my charge alone with you.”

 

Emma struggles to open her eyes and speak, fearful suddenly for Mulan’s life. But Regina only laughs. “I like you,” she says. “You’re wasted on Snow White.”

 

“Hn.” Mulan sounds oddly gratified at that. “Are you offering me a job?”

 

“Would you take it?” Regina counters.

 

Mulan must have shaken her head, because Emma hears Regina’s exhale of disappointment. “I’ve spent half my life searching for Emma,” Mulan murmurs. “I won’t leave her side now.”

 

“So many years,” Regina says, her fingers drawing absent patterns in Emma’s hair. “I wish I’d known when we were younger. When we could have…” She sounds wistful, at odds with her insistences before the funeral that she would have hidden Emma away.

 

Mulan says, “I remember when we met. I gave you my horse,” she says ruefully. “You were so young.”

 

“Was I so much older when you watched me wed the king?” Regina counters, and Mulan is silent. “A child bride.”

 

“Indeed,” Mulan murmurs.

 

It’s Regina’s turn to be quiet for a moment. “Did Snow tell you that I tried to throw myself off the balcony rather than be queen?”

 

Mulan sighs. “She’s under the impression that she saved your life,” she admits.

 

“Of course she is,” Regina says, and her anger is deep and hollow instead of raging hot as it had been before Emma had met her again face-to-face. “How do you follow her?” she says, and it sounds almost plaintive, a bewildered girl lost without support.

 

Mulan takes a long breath, pensive. “She is a good queen,” she says haltingly. “She is kind.” Regina scoffs and Mulan says, “And so are you.”

 

“No,” Regina says, and then again, stronger in response to whatever’s on Mulan’s face, “No.”

 

Mulan laughs. It’s light, no more than a whisper, and Emma can practically feel Regina sulking in the way that her hand moves up and down Emma’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. I still won’t leave you alone with her,” she says, and her voice is gently teasing. “But I do need one more favor from you.”

 

Emma’s head hurts, and Regina strokes it absentmindedly, soothing magic flowing into her skull. “What is it?” she asks, and Emma drifts off before she can hear what Mulan has to say.

 

When she wakes up, she’s in a carriage with Mulan.

 


 

The carriage rocks from side to side, and the wolf climbs onto Emma’s bench in the carriage to keep her in place. Emma jerks awake, looking around frantically before her eyes fall on Mulan. “What’s– where are we?” she demands. “Where are my parents? Where’s Killian?”

 

“At the castle,” Mulan says, glancing out the window. “I have Tamara shadowing him. One wrong move and he’s gone.”

 

Emma looks at her in consternation. Her head feels clearer than ever with distance from both Killian and Regina, but she can still feel a command and love pumping through her veins, directing her concerns. “What does that mean? What are you going to do to him? Where are we?” she repeats.

 

The carriage slows, then stops. “We’re here,” Mulan says.

 

Emma peers out the window. She knows this place, the wild grasslands on one side of the road and the tavern nestled on the other side. “Marian,” she whispers. “You brought me to Marian.” And a tiny bit of her, previously dormant, lights up with hope.

 

“It’s the only way,” Mulan says. She gives Emma a challenging look. “If you want to insist that you truly are in…love with Killian, then let’s prove it. We can get the curse lifted and see how you feel about him without any commands in the mix.”

 

“Oh.” Emma considers that. It’s a good deal, at least, and her mind doesn’t feel quite as much like it’s floating now. Suddenly, the idea of finding Tinkerbell is all she wants again, and she takes in a deep breath and then bobs her head. “I’m in,” she says.

 

“Good. Let’s get this done.” Mulan pushes open the carriage door, her wolf bounding after her, and Emma follows behind them with trepidation as they step into the tavern. She twists her fingers, remembering again how she’d run off when Marian had needed her, and she pulls her hood up, trailing in the back as Marian looks up from the bar with a smile.

 

The tavern looks the same, though there’s some sort of construction going on near the back. Marian is making an investment with the riches that Snow had sent her, Emma guesses, and she fiddles with her cloak and waits until Mulan speaks. “You must be Marian, keeper of this inn.”

 

“I am,” Marian says, and she squints at them in the dim light, her eyes settling on Emma’s face. “Emma,” she breathes, and she crosses the bar with a leap, hurrying to Emma and embracing her.

 

Emma hugs her back. There’s no tension in Marian’s embrace, no resentment, and Marian holds her arms when she leans back and beams at Emma. “Oh, you look wonderful,” she says. “I was so worried when you vanished.”

 

Emma finds her voice. “I’m sorry,” she whispers.

 

Marian waves it off. “You have nothing to be sorry for. I shouldn’t have pushed you to come out of your room. I thought…” She bites her lip. “Well, it doesn’t matter what I thought. I was so worried about you right up until I heard that your parents had found you.” She squeezes Emma’s arm. “What can I do for you now?”

 

“There’s a legend you once told,” Mulan says, immediately back to their mission. Emma is grateful for her, for all of them. “Of a boy who never grew up.”

 

Marian looks from Mulan to Emma, glancing downward at the wolf for a moment, and she says, “Come with me, if you’d like.”

 

They follow her to a quiet room, dark and cozy with long rugs on the floor and a crackling fireplace, and Marian closes the door and says, “She won’t help you.”

 

“She?” Emma echoes.

 

“Tink,” Marian says, and she sighs deeply as they watch her in astonishment. “Only she can lift your curse, and she’s absolutely impossible. Can’t ever admit that she doesn’t have the skill or the foresight to…every time we approach her, she only makes matters worse. It’s best not to go to her with someone else around either, or you’ll risk them as well.”

 

“You know about Tinkerbell?” Emma says dumbly. “You know I…”

 

“Oh, Emma,” Marian says, and she closes her eyes in deep regret. “Keeping you here was the least I could do. We weren’t allowed to meddle, but we–”

 

“We,” Mulan repeats, her eyes narrowed. “Who is we?”

 

Marian doesn’t answer immediately. She walks to the fire, warming her hands in front of it, and she says distantly, “After Tink gave you your gift, Reul Ghorm was furious. She took Tink’s wings as punishment. Should have taken her wand,” Marian says bitterly. “Tink tried to fix it, much as we all warned her not to.”

 

“What happened?” Emma’s brow furrows as the obvious conclusion becomes clear. “You’re a fairy, aren’t you?”

 

Marian smiles at her, sad and exactly as young as she’d been when Emma had thought her an innkeeper’s daughter on a cold winter’s night. “Tinkerbell wished your gift gone that night, in a bid to reclaim her wings. Instead, she made you gone. You vanished from your parents’ bed and it took many, many years before we found you again.” She bows her head. “I wasn’t even certain it was you when I first saw you, shivering near the fire. You had Tink’s magic floating above you, but she’s been…prolific. I didn’t know until I saw how afraid you were of everyone around you.”

 

She shakes her head. “Tink is dangerous, Emma. Everywhere she goes, people suffer. And you have had enough suffering in your life.”

 

“I want to be free,” Emma whispers, and Marian looks sadly at her. “That’s worth…isn’t that worth the risk?”

 

“That’s for you to determine,” Marian says wearily. “All I can tell you is that she won’t help you. And the last time she tried, it only hurt you more.” She clears her throat. “There is an island called Neverland, second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning. Peter Pan lives on the island, tethered to it and eternally young. I can draw you a map,” she says. “But I do hope you choose not to go.”

 

“Thank you,” Emma says instead, and she knows that stubbornness is written all over her face. She has no qualms about risking herself, and no fear of what might come. There is very little worse than what she’s already endured. For herself, she has no fear, but she glances at Mulan’s intent face and she fears for the first time. “For everything.”

 

Marian smiles warmly at her before a shadow crosses her face. “There’s something else you should know,” she says, and she looks at Mulan. “No news from King Eric’s land makes it across the sea. Someone sent that mermaid to you.”

 

Someone had sent Ariel to her. Someone had known about her quest, for reasons good or evil. Emma can feel old fear swimming within her, and the wolf rumbles and rubs against her side comfortingly. “Who?”

 

Marian spreads her hands helplessly. “If fairies were as powerful as the world likes to see us, the world would be a very different place,” she says, and she reaches out to grasp Emma’s hand. “Be safe, Emma. Remember what I told you.” The words fall on Emma and hold, somehow without a command attached to them. Fairy magic, perhaps, that can limit their commands but not her obedience.

 

Emma stays behind after Mulan has left the room, one final request on her lips.

 

After, they have a warm meal at Marian’s inn, the two of them huddled near the fire as the wolf sprawls out on the floor. “Isn’t she hungry?” Emma says, glancing down at the wolf.

 

“She’s fine,” Mulan says, smiling fondly down at her wolf. “We’ll need to arrange a boat.”

 

“Killian can–”

 

Mulan barks out a laugh. “Killian isn’t going near you. I sent a falcon to Lancelot to ready a small ship for us. I’m not much of a sailor but we should be able to go on our own.” Her expression is suddenly serious. “You heard what Marian said about Tink and innocent bystanders.”

 

“Yes,” Emma says, and she looks at Mulan, who is so certain that she has a place on this journey that will risk any innocents along the way. “I did.”

 


 

As they depart the inn, there’s a cloud of dust from the road in the distance, a caravan arriving as they leave. Emma watches it distrustfully from the window, remembering Marian’s warning. As they wind down the road, she sees it come to a halt outside the tavern, and she drums her fingers against her knee, tap-tap-tapping until Mulan says mildly, “The ship will be ready when we get there.”

 

“Yeah.” Emma stops drumming, chewing on her lip instead.

 

Mulan watches her discomfort and reaches for her hand. “I’m glad you still want to…” She thinks better of it, drops her hand again and sits back. “I thought you might have reconsidered finding Tinkerbell,” she says.

 

Emma can still feel it, the contentment tugging at her heart and reminding her that none of this matters very much. She’s found ways to silence it, though, to remind it. If you break the curse then Mulan will accept Killian. If you break the curse then you can finally be alone with Killian, command or not. Breaking the curse is the path to keeping Killian, and as long as she tells herself that, she can feel her determination soar. “I guess I’m ready to give it a try,” she says lightly.

 

She unhitches the satchel tied to her waist and gestures to the wolf again. “Don’t you think she should eat?” she says. “It’s been a long trip.”

 

“She’ll be fine,” Mulan says, rubbing behind the wolf’s ears. “We don’t have any meat for her, anyway.”

 

Emma absently pulls out the bread that Marian had given her. “So have her transform back and she can have some of Marian’s bread. It’s her best. I used to sneak into the tavern at quiet hours to get it fresh. What?” she says, blinking at Mulan. Mulan and the wolf are both staring at her, agape.

 

“Transform?” Mulan repeats.

 

Emma nods, her eyebrows raised. “Back to Red?” At their still-open mouths, she laughs. “You can’t tell me you thought I didn’t notice. Here,” she says again, holding out the bread. “Bread.” Mulan takes it, bemused.

 

Red transforms in barely a blink of an eye, the shift swift and graceful, and she takes some bread of her own. “I thought we were being subtle. We underestimated you,” she says, crouching, still wolf-like, on the floor at Mulan’s feet. Mulan strokes her hair fondly.

 

“You did,” Emma says, and she waits until they’ve each bitten into their bread before she leans back patiently.

 

Red is the first to crumple, her eyes closing as she drops to the floor in a heap. Mulan stares at her, then back at Emma, realization beginning to dawn in her eyes. “Emma–” she croaks, and her eyes begin to close.

 

“I’m sorry,” Emma says as Mulan collapses to the ground. She catches Mulan and eases her to the floor, curled around Red, and cradles Mulan’s cheek with her hand. “You’ve been a good friend,” she murmurs. “But I won’t let you put yourself in danger for me.”

 

Only she can confront Tinkerbell, can put herself in the crosshairs of a curse-inclined fairy. Whatever happens to her, she has nothing to lose.

 

The caravan is back behind their carriage when Emma peers out the window next, keeping its distance but following steadily.

Chapter Text

Lancelot is waiting by the boat when Emma gets to the harbor, and he raises an eyebrow when she arrives alone. “Mulan isn’t coming with you?”

 

Emma smiles as casually as she can manage. “She wanted to say goodbye to my mother first.” She’s thought of her mother and father nearly as much as she’s thought about Tinkerbell on this trip. If she loses them and doesn’t get to say–

 

She can’t think about that now. She can’t dwell on anything but the mission ahead of her. “I’ll wait here.”

 

Lancelot nods easily. “I’ll wait with you,” he says. “You’re a princess. You shouldn’t be wandering around on your own.” He folds his arms over his chest, glancing around idly, and then he frowns and turns. “Why wouldn’t you also go to say goodbye to– Your Highness!” he calls out, twisting around to find her.

 

Emma’s already untied the ship and has jumped aboard, and it carries her away from Lancelot as he races to the edge of the dock. She waves sheepishly, letting the wind do its work and squinting up at the sails with rising trepidation.

 

She might have a map and a boat, but she has no idea how to make said boat go where she wants it to. Already, the winds are carrying her toward the right, to the far end of the harbor, and she tugs at the sails helplessly before Lancelot can see her careening through the harbor.

 

It’s getting late, and she lets out a frustrated curse when the first raindrop falls. She can’t brave a storm when she doesn’t even know how to sail. She can’t– No . She grits her teeth, glaring out into the night. She’s going to get there if it’s by sheer force of will.

 

In the distance, she sees another ship leaving the far end of the harbor near the kingdom border. It turns almost immediately, waiting for her to move forward, and she pulls ropes and manages to let out the sail. Finally, the wind carries the boat away from the harbor, toward the sea, and she exhales with relief as she searches every memory she has for more clues on how to go.

 

Killian talks about boats a lot. She squeezes her eyes shut and struggles to remember, and with a few careful attempts, she’s finally moving in the direction the map indicates. She looks back at the shore: at Lancelot, who’s readying another boat. She looks back at the ship stalking her: it’s shifting, following her new path. She looks up, to the distance, to her parents’ castle, and she whispers a quiet apology to David for not being there.

 

Soon. She has to do this, and soon…

 

A fireball hits the side of the ship and the sails go up in flames.

 

Emma drops to the bottom of the ship instinctively, gaping up as the orange fire devours her sails. It hits the mast and begins burning it from the top like a candle, and she looks around frantically, searching for the source of the fireball. But there’s nothing in the direction from where the flames had come, just an empty berth at the harbor.

 

Desperately, she leans over into the water, flinging frantic waves up at the sails. They’re ineffectual, the fire approaching, and she tries again– again– and then a surge of energy slams into the side of the boat and it tips, sending her crashing into the ocean.

 

She thinks she hears Lancelot shout. She scrambles, slaps at the water and gasps as she tries to stay afloat. She’s never had much opportunity to learn how to swim– not in the cold rivers of the hinterlands and not before that– and she does what she can, slaps furiously at the water like a drowning puppy and cries out in furious, desperate agony.

 

Another surge of fire hits the water just to her right, and Emma steers to the left in a hurry. Another surge sizzles just behind her, and she spits out saltwater and tries to turn around– back to shore. No . No, she won’t go back.

 

Another fireball, just behind her. Either the mysterious person targeting her is a genuinely terrible shot, or she’s being herded.

 

Her eyes narrow, and she swims further to the left, not to the harbor but not away from it, either. Her arms are tired and she’s coughing up saltwater, her strokes weakening. Another fireball hits behind her, not to her left. Whoever is throwing fireballs at her, they’re trapped on her right, and she can–

 

A bolt of lightning splits the sky and hits a lightning-catcher on the harbor, and the ocean grows more furious. Rain is pouring down from the skies now, and Emma can’t tell if she’s choking on rainwater or ocean water. There’s no way out of this, no choice but to give up.

 

She won’t give up. She has one more trick up her sleeve, and she spits out water, lifts her head up for one moment, and speaks the clicking language of the dolphins.

 

She hardly knows it, had picked it up at a trip to the sea when she’d been a child, and she starts off with stuttering, confusing clicks and speaking the wrong words. Dolphin is really just a thousand different clicks meaning separate kinds of fish, and Emma accidentally speaks several of them until she’s finally crying out, help me. Help me.

 

And just as she’s beginning to fall unconscious in the cold and the water, a dolphin’s fin nudges her from below.

 

She jolts back up, clicking again and again as she begs for safe passage. The map is in her satchel, still tied to her waist, and it’s somehow magically dry. The dolphin nudges her again and Emma wraps her arms around its midsection, clicking out her gratitude.

 

And then the dolphin dives into the water. Emma tries clicking, but all it does is suffocate her, allowing more water into her mouth. The dolphin moves downward and then shoots up again, flying through the air, and Emma coughs and chokes and isn’t prepared when they dip back into the water again.

 

Please , she clicks hopelessly, but the words don’t come out. She’s drowning, and she gives up at last, letting the dolphin go and returning to the frenetic sea that’s trying to drown her as well. “Please,” she says aloud, and she doesn’t know who she’s begging for help, and in what language. “Please, please…”

 

Someone takes hold of her. She can’t see who– they look like girls, like women, but for shimmering tails, and they sing to her as they carry her forward. The rain and the water don’t seem to affect them, and Emma can feel them lifting her together, as though she’s being carried on a stretcher made of tightly locked arms. “Are you Ariel’s…?” she begins, and the voices sing more, sing save her, save her, bring her home . “Are you…?”

 

The mermaids carry her onward, to a ship that she recognizes as the one that’s been following her, and she raises her face to this next foe. She’s lifted up, up, out of the water, choking and coughing and still flailing as a familiar voice murmurs her name. “You,” she says dumbly, and she can feel her eyes going fuzzy and dark.  

 

“Me,” Regina agrees, and she snatches the map smoothly from Emma’s hand. “Let’s go.”

 


 

Emma has been wrapped in a towel and fussed over by a smiling Ella, who brushes out her tangled hair and tries dressing her in one of Regina’s outfits. Emma declines, shuddering at the idea of another corset after the ball.

 

The ship is manned by Regina’s new cadre of black-clad guards, but few of them are wearing their helmets anymore. Emma watches them with interest. They’re young and old, men and women, and they have Regina’s features rather than Leopold’s sallow skin. They’re far less intimidating with their faces visible, and Emma thinks that that’s probably the point of the helmets.

 

They’re busy with their work, and they don’t look over at the rail where Emma leans out, staring at the sea. “It’s going to be a long trip,” Regina says from beside her. “I recommend you get some sleep.”

 

“I don’t think so.” Emma twists to face her. “How long have you been stalking me for?”

 

Regina hisses out a sound of discontent. “I’m not stalking ,” she says haughtily. “I have my own questions for Tinkerbell.”

 

The sinking sensation in Emma’s stomach is only matched by the soaring that follows. She’s suddenly nauseous from the combatting emotions, and the headache that follows caring too much about Regina. “Tinkerbell?” she repeats.

 

“Tinkerbell,” Regina agrees. “Did you think I wouldn’t ask Ella what you’d spoken about? That I wouldn’t find Ariel and find out about their link?”

 

“You were the one who told Ariel I was looking for her,” Emma says with deep relief. There is no secret menace lurking in the background, then, though the fireballs hadn’t been coming from Regina’s ship–

 

Regina shakes her head. “No. I found her just after you did.” She taps her fingers against the rail. “Tell me, why are you searching for a fairy who gives terrible gifts?”

 

“Well, my mother’s birthday is coming up,” Emma jokes wanly, and there’s a new headache threatening to incapacitate her the moment she considers the truth. “I was thinking maybe a pony?”

 

Regina scowls at her. “Why must you do this? Why can’t you just–?” She takes a deep breath. “I will find Tinkerbell,” she says, and her voice is distant. “I’m going to find out what you’re hiding about…that night, and every night that’s followed.”

 

Emma is silent. The headache pounds but it’s a dull roar, the pain that comes when she doesn’t love Killian enough. There is no reacting headache to her exultation at the idea of Regina knowing , much as it fills her with trepidation.

 

But… “You can’t go,” she says dully. “You can’t . There was a reason I went alone.”

 

“You thought your drowned rat imitation might impress this mysterious Peter Pan?” Regina says archly, but she rests a hand on Emma’s back, where her towel is wrapped around her. Emma’s heart thumps and her head squeezes painfully in response.

 

“She’s going to do something to you,” she whispers, and she finds the strength to speak aloud. “I’ll stop you. I’ll hurt you if I have to. I can’t– I can’t have anyone else suffer because of me. Not you.”  

 

Regina isn’t smiling anymore, and her hand drops from Emma’s back. “I think I’ve already suffered enough because of you,” she says, and her voice sounds distant. Emma watches the sea in silence. She can’t– she can’t defend herself, and she can’t stop the pain that swells when she thinks about what that night had done to both of them. They had been children , and neither of them had deserved what had come next.

 

Soon. Soon, Emma won’t be helpless anymore. “Soon,” Regina echoes Emma’s thoughts, but her own mind is elsewhere. “I’m going to free you from that mass of seaweed you say you’re in love with and I’m going to get some closure on what happened between us.”

 

Emma recoils. “Closure?” she repeats. Closure , as though a door is going to slam closed between them, and she’s in love with Killian but oh how her heart burns when she imagines losing Regina.

 

Regina stares at her, her face giving nothing away. “What happened in the stables, Emma?” she asks, and Emma can’t answer. “What did my mother do? Why did you agree to it? Why did you…why did you break me?” The commands in place won’t even allow Emma to show her agony. They force her to conceal, conceal, as though she is nothing less than heartless.

 

Regina studies her face, and then she says, almost regretfully. “It’s time to move on. We can be…we’ll be queens, Emma. Perhaps not allies, since you refused to–” She slams a hand against the rail, cutting it on a little bit of metal sticking out. “I don’t understand , Emma. How can you just stand by and– tell me how you feel right now,” she orders, and it’s a command, a blessed command that gives Emma the freedom to speak.

 

“Heartbroken,” Emma whispers, and the words reverberate like little knives in her head, attacking her furiously until she can add, “I love Killian,” and silence them.

 

Regina watches her with tired eyes that seem to soften instead of harden at Emma’s postscript. “You can’t actually speak to me right now without adding that, can you?”

 

Emma stands in stubborn silence, unable to respond, and Regina reaches out with bent fingers, brushes them along Emma’s cheek tenderly. “I used to think that there was…that nothing in the world was worse than what you had done to me,” she murmurs. “I was young and foolish and I had never known that kind of pain from someone I had trusted.”

 

I’m sorry , Emma wants to say, but the words won’t emerge.

 

“I was wrong,” Regina says, and now her voice is sharp and fierce. “I learned that soon enough. There is nothing worse than being forced to be with…” Her voice dies suddenly, a violent shiver wracking her, and Emma reaches out to slide her hand into Regina’s. Her head protests, and she ignores it for precious moments before she has to release Regina’s grip.

 

Regina straightens, letting Emma’s hand slide away as she turns back to the water. “I’m going to free you from the pirate first,” she says, her voice like steel, and it gentles but never quite softens. “And then we can be…cordial. Maybe allies someday, after all.” Emma watches her, sees the wistfulness that shapes her face, and she can only nod somberly in response.

 


 

The trip to Neverland lasts through the night, and Regina tries again and again to get Emma to go to sleep. Emma refuses each time, even after Regina stations two guards behind her in a sheer act of passive-aggressiveness, the two carrying a stretcher for when she collapses of exhaustion . “I’m fine,” she says. “You sleep.”

 

Regina huffs. “I don’t need sleep. I didn’t nearly drown earlier.” In defiance, she stands beside Emma through the night, glaring out at the water with bleary eyes.

 

She’s drifting off standing up by the time the sun is beginning to rise, and Emma nudges her. “You know, it’s not a sign of weakness to take a nap, but it is one to collapse in front of your guards.”

 

“You know, it’s not a sign of buffoonery to not antagonize an evil queen,” Regina mutters back, and Emma fights down the fondness with all she has, struggling to quell a headache. When she dares think about what might have been if they’d had the past decade together– if this could be her wife , on a mission with her and making fond wisecracks– she’s hit with waves of such fierce longing–

 

She vomits over the side of the ship, gasping in pain, and she says in a desperate burst, “I love Killian so much. I hope we marry soon and have our happily ever after.”

 

Regina’s lips twist. “What were you thinking about that triggered that?” she wonders, and then sardonically, “Don’t tell me it was our broken engagement.” Emma looks away, and Regina says, “Oh,” in just a hollow breath.

 

“Go to sleep, Regina,” Emma says, her voice rough from the pain. “Please.”

 

Regina goes at last, and she doesn’t emerge even when they finally dock at an island. Neverland , a large, overgrown forest, and Emma feels a quiet leap of excitement.

 

Now, she just has to get to Peter Pan before Regina does.

 

The guards pay no heed to her, and none of them notice when she creeps from her spot by the rail and slips across the deck to where spare ropes are wound up. She ties one to the rail and lowers herself down carefully, dropping the last few feet to land on the ground in a crouch. She walks unsteadily, her feet slapping the ground too hard, and it takes several moments to get her bearings.

 

“Oh, this is wonderful ,” says a voice behind her, and Emma whirls around.

 

“Ella?” she demands, baffled. “How did you get here?”

 

“I followed you!” Ella says brightly. “The queen thought you might make a run for it. I’m meant to hold you while the guards are called.”

 

Emma reacts before thinking and dives away, into the underbrush. Ella follows her with equal gusto, chattering about Regina’s commands and this mysterious quest and oh, Emma, aren’t these leaves so beautifully green?

 

Emma grits her teeth and charges on. There’s a shout from behind them, the guards noticing her absence at last, and she can’t stop moving until she finds Peter Pan. “Ella,” she hisses finally. “How about you come with me and...have a fun adventure–” Ella nods eagerly. “But it’s only going to work if you stay quiet ,” Emma warns her.

 

“Of course!” Ella says, beaming. Emma holds a finger to her lips and Ella’s mouth snaps shut at last.

 

“This way,” Emma whispers, and she twists at the last moment, winding through trees as only a woman who’d grown up in the hinterlands can do. Ella stumbles after her, keeping up admirably, and Emma shimmies up a tree with a rock in hand, tossing it as far as it can go in the opposite direction. She can see the guards begin in that direction.

 

It’s only a matter of time before Regina awakens and finds her, and Emma climbs back down the tree and runs breathlessly, following the island’s curve as she twists around and around and around. There’s no boy, no animals or signs of life at all, and she pants and stops, resting her hands on her knees for a moment.

 

Maybe this is the wrong island. Maybe Peter Pan had escaped this island and his fate years ago, and maybe–

 

–maybe that open coconut shell on the ground is his.

 

Emma stares at it for a moment, and then twists around. Sure enough, there are more hints of a boy in the forest: reeds twisted together into some sort of broken instrument, and berry stains on the trees. There are shattered pieces of shell, a few discarded fruits that rot on the ground, and just beyond the next layer of thick underbrush is a boy, crouched on an outcropping of rock at the other end of the island.

 

He stares at them, his eyes dark and distrustful. “Who the hell are you?” he asks.

 


 

“We’ve been cursed, too,” Emma tries to explain after a few failed starts. “Tinkerbell gifted us with…terrible curses. We’re trying to find her, and Ariel thought that you might know of where to find the…old crone, or sage, or whoever it is who can tell us where Tinkerbell might be.”

 

The boy eats berries, tossing them and catching them in his mouth, and he cackles suddenly. “Idiot,” he says. “You think she’ll lift your curse? You’re fools to even try.”

 

“What happened when you asked her?” Emma asks on a hunch. This boy isn’t living alone on some island when he knows how to find Tinkerbell, not without seeing her first. “What did she do to you?”

 

Peter Pan catches a berry in his mouth and turns to face them, his face stained with red juices. “She gave me a gift,” he says. “She gave me exactly what I wanted.”

 

“What you–” Suspicion settles in Emma’s bones, disbelief with it. “You asked her to make you forever young.”

 

Pan smiles, the red juice still dripping from his mouth. “No responsibilities,” he says, almost wistful. “No parents or children . I got my wish, and I won’t send dissatisfied customers to Tink.”

 

“I’m very satisfied,” Ella pipes up, bouncing on her heels.

 

Pan takes a second look at her. “You’re a breath of fresh air,” he says, considering her. “You know what I could use here? A girl. A happy one.”

 

“I’d love–” Ella begins, and Emma cuts her off before her cursed enthusiasm casts her into a dim future alone on an island.

 

“So you got what you wanted. Fine. Why protect her now?”

 

Pan scowls at her. “Because,” he drawls, “If a fairy’s gift is returned, her magic loses its power. I will not go back to aging , and I don’t give a damn what you’re so worked up about.” He gives her an assessing look. “What is it? You’re not the mermaid. The girl who must tell the truth? The one who hates her true love?”

 

“I love Killian,” Emma says automatically, an instant before the headache can set in.

 

Something changes in the air. Pan drops his berries and sits up, jumping in one swift movement and landing in a crouch at the rock right above Emma. “Did you say Killian?”

 

His eyes are flinty, malice dancing within them, and Emma is suddenly afraid of what he might say next. “Killian Jones,” she says uncertainly. “My true love.”

 

Pan throws his head back and barks out a laugh. “Like hell he is,” he says, staring down at her in deep amusement. “Hook escapes my island and tries– what? Wooing some gifted girl? I’ll tell you what,” he says suddenly, the laughter gone from his eyes. “I will tell you where to find the one you seek, if you swear to me that you will kill Killian Jones.”

 

She gapes up at him. It’s a choice– a choice between Tinkerbell and Killian, between freedom and love. Love , her head says. Love , her body says. Freedom , her heart says, and her head and body revolt.

 

Pan is still watching her, waiting for a response, and Emma chokes and feels her lungs compressing, her stomach clenching, her head pounding as though it might explode. She struggles to speak, to choose– Tinkerbell, Killian, Tinkerbell – and it hurts , it hurts like nothing has ever hurt before.

 

Tinkerbell , her heart says desperately, but she can’t hurt Killian, can’t betray her true love. There are no direct commands about it, but it’s the spirit of the command that she wants helplessly to break– bend, not break – and she needs– wants–

 

She curls on the ground, writhing, and Pan watches her with an eyebrow raised. “Which will it be?” he says, unbothered by her state, and she struggles to respond, to say anything , to–

 

She just wants to be free , and she holds onto that fierce desire as tears spill down her face. Beside her, Ella is suddenly sobbing, in agony as she stumbles back against the rocks. Pan’s hair is fading from blonde to grey, his face growing craggy and wrinkled. I swear , she thinks, and her head is aflame. I swear , she thinks again, and she can’t feel her arms or legs anymore. “I swear,” she chokes out, and she falls back on the floor in dull pain as Ella cries beside her.

 

It’s a lie , she struggles to tell herself. I love him, I love him, I love him , and the pain slowly begins to fade. I still love him, no matter what happens next – She’s overwhelmed with her love, the pleasant haze falling over her for a long moment, and Ella is smiling and Pan is speaking when she finally returns to her surroundings.

 

Bent, not broken .

 

“The catacombs are below the rocks down there,” Pan says, gesturing at a pile of rocks in the distance with a smooth, unwrinkled hand. “If you follow the right side to the third light, then take the center passage, you will find your way to the child who can show you Tinkerbell.”

 

“Child,” Emma repeats, thoroughly confused about this old crone-sage-child-person. “Okay.” She glances at Ella, then back into the woods where Regina’s guards must still be searching for them. “Okay.”

 

And she runs, faster than Ella can chase her, faster than anyone can keep up with her. No one– no one – is going to cross Tinkerbell, no one but her, even if she’s lost Mulan and Killian and– and Regina– in the process. This is how it has to be.

 

This is how she finds freedom.

 

She finds the opening in the rocks that leads to a dim walkway of more rocks, tightly pressed together where she can barely squeeze through. The right passage is barely visible– only a crack in the wall, and Emma nearly walks into the first center passage before she notices it.

 

She slips into it, and she’s plunged into blackness in minutes. She’s beneath the island somewhere, no light shining through below, and all she can hear is the sound of her own breathing. “Okay,” she whispers to herself. “You’ve been alone before. Just keep moving.”

 

Pan had said there would be a light– that there would be three, eventually, and she creeps forward with her heart in her throat, fighting claustrophobia, until the walls finally wind around a curve and there’s a dim, glowing bug fixed to the wall. Emma dodges it, glancing around at her surroundings. There isn’t much, just rocky walls and a floor that might be dirt, and she notices with relief that the passage widens after the first light.

 

It tightens again after the second, and Emma isn’t sure that she’ll be able to move forward. At times, the rocky ceiling dips low enough that she has to crawl, and she wants to cry, to escape– she doesn’t want to think about getting out of this place, back the way she’d come– to just not be alone. To have Mulan or Regina or even Ella with her on this journey.

 

But she’s always been alone in her gift, and maybe this is a fitting ending. “Ending,” she repeats aloud, hearing it echo through the passage ahead of her. Ending . It echoes in her mind and she knows, suddenly, that this is it for her. If she’s been misled– if the child sage can’t help her– she isn’t going to leave. She’s going to remain here, in this darkness, for eternity, gone at last.

 

She’s ready to give up, and she crawls through the dirt with that awareness reverberating through her. It’s too hard, fighting. It’s too much. It’s been too much for far too long, and she can’t fight anymore. She’s just so tired, tired of moving forward with the world closing in on her, with nothing but darkness surrounding her.

 

And then she moves a few steps forward and the third light is ahead of her. It’s a bug affixed to the wall above a narrow hallway, three cracks splitting the wall in front of her, and Emma pushes with all her might and squeezes into the center opening.

 

She falls forward, landing on her knees and scraping them against the stone, and she lifts her face, desperate for answers.

 

The sage is a child, standing with his back to her, and he turns around slowly. He’s really just a boy, brown hair and a ready grin on his face, and his youth feels more genuine than Pan’s had. There’s a book in his arms, and he beams at her and says, “There you are!”

 

Emma bursts into tears. Maybe it’s been the long trek through the caves, or maybe it’s the weight of going on this quest and giving up , right at the end. Maybe it’s been twenty-eight years of wrongness, and a boy smiling at her who feels suddenly right , who might be the key to everything. She’s crying and she can’t seem to stop, and the boy clutches his book and watches her with warm eyes that seem to, impossibly, know her utterly.

 

“I’m sorry,” she manages. “I’m so– who are you?” she whispers, staring up at him.

 

“I’m Henry,” the boy says, and he puts the back of his pen in his mouth and sucks on it in an unconscious movement. “I’ve been waiting for you both for a long time.”

 

He sighs, a child exasperated with something that Emma can’t quite follow, and Emma says dumbly, “Both? Who both?”

 

“Both of you,” Henry says as though she’s missed something obvious. He lifts his eyes upward, as though waiting, and she stares blankly at him until the ceiling explodes.

 

“Henry!” Emma shouts, at once frantic about a stranger, and she charges forward into a spinning mass of rock, slapping them aside as they cut at her hands. Henry stands in the middle of the room, serene as he watches the world fall in around him, and Emma screams his name again and gets no response.

 

The rock is whirling around him, the dirt above it raining down on them, and Regina descends as though an angel of death, dressed in black with a cape at her shoulders. It fans around her as she falls, the blasting rock keeping Emma from getting any closer, and she says in the same wondering voice as Emma had, “Who are you?”

 

If Henry responds, Emma can’t hear him. Emma shouts again through the sound of the rocks and wind but Regina doesn’t seem to notice her. She gathers a compliant Henry into her arms and ascends again, glides into the sky with her cape trailing behind her, back onto Neverland proper.

 

The rock falls at last, nearly burying Emma, and Emma digs furiously at it, throws aside bits and pieces and scrambles up the hill of dirt and stone to land and fresh air and seawater lapping at the shore.

 

The ship is already departing, Regina standing at the mast with her arm around Henry’s shoulders as they sail away, and Ella waves gaily at Emma as Emma sinks to the ground, alone again as the frantic, all-encompassing terror returns in full.

 

Regina is hell-bent on getting answers from Tinkerbell, whatever the cost, whatever the gift that follows.

 

And she’s left Emma trapped where Emma can’t possibly stop her.

Chapter Text

The ocean is quiet now. Emma had tried launching herself into it and it had become stormy and vicious, whipping her around until more mermaids had carried her back to shore. Take me to Regina , she’d begged them, but they’d only sung back too far, too far and returned her to safety.

 

Now it laps at the beach, deceptively quiet, and Emma lies on her side on the sand and reaches out a hand to where the tide brings it, raking her fingers through the wet sand. She’s all cried out now, and she only feels hollow and lost.

 

Maybe a part of her should feel vindictive, should be gleeful in that Regina will have her comeuppance for ignoring Emma and leaving her behind. But she can’t– not after knowing so intimately what Tinkerbell is capable of. Not when it’s Regina , who’d only ever wanted the truth.

 

She wonders if Regina might come back for her afterwards, if she does find out the truth, if Regina might finally put together what had happened in the stables. She laughs aloud at the thought of it, because it’s a pipe dream now that they can erase the past. They can’t go back, even if Regina forgives her and understands. And anyway, she loves…loves…  

 

Regina will come back for her, she knows, unless she’s been gifted something that won’t allow it. And Emma would be trapped on this island forever, nearly alone.

 

She digs her hand into the sand and squeezes the wet, firm dirt. “Fine,” she says aloud hoarsely. “Fine.” It isn’t too different than the hinterlands, and she’d survived there for years. Peter Pan doesn’t know her secret, and Neverland seems otherwise unoccupied. This is fine. This is fine .

 

It had been a strange few months, finding a family and a home. It feels almost like a dream now. Chasing down a fairy and believing she might break her curse. Seeing Regina again, getting to find some peace for the both of them. Meeting her parents– she’s never going to see them again and they’re dying , god– and imagining being some kind of princess. Falling in love, though time and distance leave a bad taste in her mouth when she thinks about it. Having friends – oh, god, she’s never going to see Mulan again to apologize for leaving her behind–

 

She blinks, squinting out into the distance, because her words have summoned a ship. It’s small and fast, nothing like Regina’s royal ship, and Emma sits up to watch it approach in bewilderment. And then she catches sight of the figures arranging the sails and she knows.

 

Red sees her first, touches Mulan’s shoulder and points to the beach, and Mulan twists around to look at Emma in relief. Emma sags, an alien emotion washing over her. They’d come for her. She’d poisoned them and they’d–

 

Red is a wolf again before they dock, and she leaps from the ship and lands in the sand, racing to Emma. She buries her head in Emma’s shaky arms, and Emma rubs her head and the space behind her ears and whispers, “I’m sorry.”

 

Mulan follows a few moments later, once the ship is safely docked, and her face is careful. It’s almost as though she doesn’t want to show her disapproval, and Emma ducks her head, and drags herself to her feet, refusing to meet Mulan’s eyes.

 

“Lancelot said you boarded Regina’s ship and vanished,” Mulan says, her tone unreadable. “We ran back to Marian’s inn and got a second map. What the hell were you thinking, running off on your own?” Oh, she’s angry, seething like Emma’s never seen her before.

 

Emma clenches her fists, preparing for a fight. “I was trying to save the people I love,” she says, her chin jutting out stubbornly. She has no regrets, except that she’d been foolish enough to accept Regina’s ride to Neverland in the first place.

 

Mulan slaps her on the cheek, hard and quick. Emma stares up at her in hurt. “What?”

 

“Do you think this is what the people you love want for you?” Mulan demands furiously. “Putting yourself in danger all alone? Dying out on some deserted island because you’re too proud to ask for help? This isn’t noble .” She spits out the word, and Emma flinches back.

 

“Mulan is basically the model on which they based nobility, so if she’s saying that, you’re in trouble,” Red says mildly. She doesn’t look quite as angry as Mulan, to Emma’s relief, and Mulan softens just a hair from the light comment.

 

She takes a deep breath before she whirls back to Emma. “I can’t believe Regina allowed this. Where is she? I have some choice words for her–”

 

“She’s gone,” Emma says dully. “She took Henry and she left. She’s going after Tinkerbell now.” She can feel the weight of failure , of the devastation she’s wrought, and she knows better than anyone just how phenomenally this grand plan to keep everyone safe has failed. “So you don’t need to tell me how much I fucked up.”

 

The anger all but fades from Mulan’s eyes. “Oh, Emma,” she murmurs, and she makes as though to embrace Emma before she thinks better of it. “Let’s go,” she says, a hand moving absently to her sword. “We have no time to lose.”

 

And they run together.

 


 

Their ship is faster than Regina’s. It’s the only comfort Emma has right now, repeating that over and over again. Their ship is faster, and it might have been hours, but Regina might not have made it to Tinkerbell yet. And Regina is much too flashy not to have left a trail behind, so they might still be able to stop her, if they play their cards right.

 

Playing their cards right means making a beeline for the shore near Regina’s kingdom, where her ship is docked and empty now. “You again,” one of Regina’s personal guards says when he sees Red. “What now?”

 

Red gives him a wolfish smile. “We need to see your queen.”

 

“She’s gone off to Queen Aurora’s castle,” the guard says, bored, and he cocks his head as though remembering something. “And she said you three would be here, and I should…” Emma twists around, suddenly very aware of the guards draped around them, all very casual, all with their hands resting on the hilts of their swords. “What was it?”

 

One of the women guards calls out, “You should lock them up before they can follow Her Majesty,” and she charges forward.

 

Mulan is already moving, her sword crashing into the woman’s, and Red drops her cloak and shifts in a blur. She snaps at the guards, sending them stumbling back, and Mulan sends a sword flying that Emma seizes at once.

 

She’d rarely used a sword before now. Her survival skills had been in communication and camouflage, not in sparring, and she’s gratified now to discover that she’s actually not bad at this at all. She swings, hits the blunt side of a guard’s helmet, and sends him crashing to the floor. She parries a blow meant to hit Mulan, and Mulan slides around so they’re back-to-back, fending off new guards who rush forward.

 

It’s almost fun , if not for the urgency that still makes Emma’s heart pound, the awareness that they’re losing time. Exhilaration mingles with impatience, and Emma swings around, throws back one guard while Mulan fights off two, and Red chases the last of the guards away and runs to untie the horses from one carriage. Emma speaks to them breathlessly, and the horses wait until Mulan and Emma have found their steeds.

 

Only then do they take off, Mulan steering them toward the south and Queen Aurora’s kingdom. Red runs beside them and Emma rides, leaning forward and straining as the horses race down the road, and Mulan calls to her, “We’re going to have to add fencing lessons to your daily schedule.”

 

Daily schedule , as though the world is ever going to go back to the simplicity of castles and fittings and royal lessons. Emma can’t imagine it now, can’t see anything beyond getting to Regina in time, and she presses desperately, frantically forward.

 

It’s a full day’s journey to Queen Aurora, but they do it in a half-dozen hours, skid to a stop and drop from their horses as they pant together. “We made it,” Red says, dropping to the ground. “If Regina isn’t here, I swear, I’ll–”

 

“She isn’t,” Mulan says suddenly, and Emma looks at her in horror. “But she will be. Look.” She points back at the road to their right, the wider but more winding road that they’d avoided. In the distance, Emma can see the distinctive black and silver of Regina’s carriage approaching.

 

They talk to a stable boy who knows Mulan and doesn’t question their presence here or their request to conceal it from everyone else. “The queen is in labor,” he confides in them. “It won’t be long until the heir is born.”

 

“Oh,” Emma whispers, and she bites back her own horror as the stable boy looks at her questioningly. That’s why Tinkerbell will be here. Another little girl, cursed from the moment she’s born, and Emma grits her teeth and swears silently, Never again .

 

Mulan murmurs in her ear, “Soon.” Regina is approaching, and they slip behind a brush, watching as the carriage stops and Regina exits it alone. She pauses when she’s emerged, turning to hold out a hand, and Henry takes it and steps down from the carriage.

 

“Where is she?” Regina asks, her voice ringing out in the quiet anticipation of Queen Aurora’s castle.

 

Henry glances down at his book and Regina’s eyes follow his gaze. She reaches for the book and Henry snatches it away, looking frightened. “Please don’t,” he says. He’s skittish, shifting back as he watches Regina, and Regina softens.

 

“Where is she?” she repeats, but she doesn’t grab for the book again. “You said she would be here.”

 

Henry watches her warily, but Emma can already see the tentative trust in his eyes that has bloomed from Regina’s concession. “She’s planning on being here,” he says. “Upstairs, where Queen Aurora is having her baby. You only need to wait.”

 

“Thank you,” Regina says. They watch each other with cautious eyes, eyes that only seem to soften Regina further, and Henry nods sharply, assuredly.

 

He’s following Regina into the castle when Emma grabs his arm, yanking him into their corner. She slaps a hand over his mouth as he calls out for help. “Shh,” she whispers loudly. “It’s me. It’s okay. Are you going to yell?” Henry shakes his head, his eyes brightening.

 

“Emma!” he hisses when he sees her. “I didn’t think you’d get here in time.”

 

Emma manages a wan smile. “Regina been treating you well?” He has a little stain of chocolate beside his lips and he’s been given a new cloak. She thinks about Regina reaching out to help Henry down from the carriage and her heart clenches.

 

He looks at her seriously. “She feels really bad about leaving you behind,” he says. “She thought you’d have people come get you, but not this quickly. She doesn’t want you to stop her.”

 

Emma glances at Henry’s book. “Are we going to?”

 

Henry shrugs. “It doesn’t tell the future,” he says, twisting his fingers around his pen. “Just what’s happening right now. Tinkerbell is planning to come to Queen Aurora’s baby’s birth to prove to the world that her gifts are as grand as she believes. And Queen Regina is planning to come to find out about your gift.”

 

“You know all that from your book?” Emma says dubiously, remembering the way that Regina reached for it. “Do you know what my…” Her voice trails off, because of course he knows her gift. This child has frightening power, and he makes it so easy to forget it.

 

“I know everything,” Henry says, and there’s a weight to it, a glumness that feels almost familiar in a way that Emma can’t quite put her finger on. She cares, immediately, in ways she doesn’t understand.

 

“Who are you?” Emma wonders, staring hard at him.

 

He shrugs. “It doesn’t matter. But this does.” He squeezes her hand and runs back after the guards, Ella catching sight of him and hurrying to meet him. Emma watches him, feeling a little swell of worry when he trips on a branch, feeling a little surge of relief when he doesn’t fall.

 

Mulan touches her shoulder. “We’d better go,” she murmurs, and they hurry around the other way, through a side entrance that Mulan finds, seemingly out of nowhere. Emma tosses her a sidelong glance. “I used to work here,” is all Mulan says, and she leads them up a flight of stairs along the wall of the castle and through a high-ceilinged chamber. “This way,” she says, and they steal after her, into the next chamber and through another hall until they’re facing a set of Regina’s guards.

 

A baby is crying.

 

The guards raise their weapons and turn toward them, and Red leaps forward and bowls them over in one smooth move. Emma pushes through the doors they’d been guarding and hears a single, unfamiliar voice.

 

“Isn’t she darling,” a woman coos. No . Not a woman.

 

She stands in front of a pale-faced Queen Aurora and the baby wrapped in her arms, and she’s small, not much taller than an adolescent. There’s a little green halo to her wand, though not to her, sparkling with unnatural light, and she waves her wand as though it’s nothing more than a baton. “I’ve thought of so many gifts to bestow upon her,” Tinkerbell says, beaming.

 

Aurora says, her voice strained, “Please. Please, no–”

 

“Forget her,” says a sharp voice, and Regina strides into view. She glares down at the fairy and says, “I have some questions for you, and you’re going to answer them.”

 

“Questions?” Tinkerbell echoes, tilting her head. She turns back to the baby. “Wait your turn, my dear. I’m sure we have time–”

 

“No,” Regina snaps. “We don’t. I have travelled a long way and I don’t like to be kept waiting.” She looks irritable, tense, and she waves her hand so a glowing barrier falls around the inner room. Emma springs forward as it appears, but she’s too late, and she’s thrown back when she tries to cross it.

 

Regina ,” she grits out, but Regina doesn’t seem to hear her.

 

Tinkerbell looks perturbed. “How rude,” she says.

 

Regina draws a fireball, cradling it in her hand. “I can be ruder,” she says darkly, and Aurora whimpers and holds her baby to her. Her eyes are shut, as though she’s hoping this whole ordeal will disappear if she doesn’t watch. “Now. Why is Emma searching for you? What did you do to her? What gift did you–?”

 

“I don’t like your tone,” Tinkerbell says huffily. “You’re very unpleasant.” She brightens. “You know what you need? True love.” She waves her wand and Emma screams , slaps at the wall between them and is thrown back by it again. “Let’s see–”

 

“I had love,” Regina says sourly. “What I need is answers. About that disaster of a love–” She flinches at her own words and grits her teeth.

 

Tinkerbell cocks her head. “He broke your heart, didn’t he?” she says, and she rises onto her toes to look Regina in the eye. Regina is suddenly uncertain, young again, the fireball sputtering to nothingness. “I have just the thing for you,” she croons, and Emma shouts again, presses her fingers into Regina’s glowing wall even as they burn her.

 

Tinkerbell doesn’t seem to notice her, and Regina says, “You can’t gift me. I’m a witch . It won’t work.” She sneers at Tinkerbell.

 

Tinkerbell ignores her. “My gift to you is to move on! Such a lovely gift. You’re lost in the past, but it’s time for you to find new love, poor dear. I shall free your heart!” She waves her wand and a shower of sparks fall upon Regina.

 

Regina tries swatting them away but they seem only to absorb into her skin, glowing as they converge upon her. She lights fireball after frantic fireball and nothing , nothing but the magical wall around the room falling down at last and Regina sinking to the floor in despair.

 

Tinkerbell beams up at her. “I know you’ll find someone new worth making your king. I gift you balls, romance, and the time and will to find a true soulmate,” she says happily. “I haven’t put together a beautiful love story like this since Guinevere. Send me an invitation to the wedding!”

 

Emma staggers forward, drawing her sword. “Remove it,” she says furiously. “Don’t you dare leave until you’ve lifted that curse .”

 

Tinkerbell turns around to face her, waving her wand in the air. “And who are you? You’re just as cranky as the other one,” she says, frowning.

 

Emma squeezes her hand around the hilt of her sword. “You cursed me, too.”

 

Gifted ,” Tinkerbell corrects her. She heaves a sigh. “So ungrateful,” she says sulkily. “Humans!”

 

“You cursed me,” Emma repeats. “I’m Emma.”

 

Tinkerbell looks at her dubiously. “The joyful one?”

 

“Snow White’s daughter,” Emma clarifies, and Tinkerbell’s eyes go wide and alarmed. “ Please , Tinkerbell.” She’s begging, and she can’t even say the words because Regina’s in the room and Cora’s damned command is still in place. “Please, you have no idea how much I’ve suffered from your…your gift. I just want to be free.”

 

Tinkerbell flutters back, suddenly anxious. “I must go,” she says, flying toward the door. “There is a little boy weeping in a village in the next kingdom–”

 

“Tinkerbell!” Emma says, and she’s never felt so helpless, so desperate. “Don’t– please –” she says again, chasing after the fairy, and Tinkerbell turns back, her gaze still discomfited and still stubborn. She isn’t going to lift Emma’s curse, Emma knows at once. She’d known it from the moment that Peter Pan had told her the consequences of it. A gift returned is the dying knell of a fairy without her magic, of every gift returned. Tinkerbell will never take a gift back, whether hers or Regina’s.

 

“There is a command on me,” she says instead, careful to keep her voice low enough that Regina won’t hear. Cora’s command still looms over her, so many years after it had ruined her life, and even if Regina’s love for her has been taken away, at least… “It’s caused me– immeasurable pain. If you won’t take back my gift, then at least–”

 

Tinkerbell frowns, brow furrowing. “Ah,” she says. “I see.” She waves her wand once. “There you go. All done.” She waits expectantly, and Emma stares at her until she says with a sniff, “You’re welcome ,” and disappears in a shower of green sparks.

 

Emma takes in a shuddering breath. She doesn’t feel any different. But she can turn and raise her voice, can say, “Regina, my gift is obedience.”

 

No . All she’d said was Regina , and her head explodes in agony. She reels back– had Tinkerbell lied to her? Is there anything –?

 

She closes her eyes and feels within herself which command had been lifted, and it hits like a physical blow. She doubles over for a moment, her head pounding from something other than a curse, and when she opens her eyes again, it’s with new fury blazing within her.

 

She turns to stare at Regina, and then her fury is forgotten. Regina has a dagger. Regina has a dagger in her hand, and she’s very carefully lifting it to her own heart. “Regina!” she says, horrified, and she shoots across the room, back to where Regina is on her knees on the floor. “What are you doing ?” she demands.

 

Regina leans back against the wall of Queen Aurora’s chambers and laughs, low and bordering on madness. “I thought that was obvious. I’m ending this.”

 

“No,” Emma says at once, her heart aching. “No, you can’t– we’ll fight it. It’s just– so you’ll have to find a new true love, fine .”

 

“Fine?” Regina echoes. “ Fine ?” She laughs again, yanking the dagger out of reach before Emma can grab it. Aurora has made a hasty retreat by now, carried off by her guards with her new baby, and it’s only them in the room. “I’m glad you think it’s fine ,” she bites out, her tone scathing. “But I would rather die than be forced into another marriage.”

 

Oh . Emma stares at her in sudden, dawning understanding. She’d been so focused on the first part of Tinkerbell’s gift, on Regina falling fully out of love with her, that she hadn’t thought about what the rest might mean to her. “I’m sorry,” Emma whispers, and Regina leans against the wall and lets tears leak out from her closed eyelids. Emma dares to stroke her hair, to run her fingers along Regina’s arm comfortingly. “I’m so sorry.”

 

“I already feel this… compulsion ,” Regina says dully. “To attend a ball, to dance with everyone– to dance with princes ,” she says, her lip wobbling instead of curling in disgust. “I would rather die than find a king to rule my land, but it’s suddenly all I can think about.”

 

“Please stop talking about dying,” Emma pleads, and this time, Regina doesn’t pull the dagger away when Emma closes her hand around Regina’s, around the hilt. “You’ll get a choice. Tinkerbell’s gift was clear on that. You’ll get to choose who you crown. To find a soulmate.”

 

Regina sighs, deep and bone-tired, and her fingers don’t loosen on the dagger. “I suppose you think I deserve this,” she murmurs. “I didn’t heed your warnings, I chased your fairy, and now–”

 

“No one deserves Tinkerbell’s gifts,” Emma says instantly.

 

Regina peers at her for a single moment of clarity, and she says, wonderingly, “What did she do to you?” Emma bows her head.

 

She can feel the hand on Regina’s being slowly propelled forward, Regina’s eyes on the dagger with desperate longing, and Emma says meekly, “You know, you never designated an heir.” Regina stares at her. “I mean…” Emma clears her throat. “That would mean that, in the eventuality of your death, the kingdom would go to the king’s heir. And that would be…”

 

“No,” Regina growls, following her train of thought. She squeezes the dagger hard, bony knuckles straining below Emma’s grasp. “No, I won’t allow it. Snow White will not rule my kingdom.”

 

She drops the dagger with a clatter, and Emma snatches it away before Regina can change her mind. Regina looks at her askance. “Did you just…try to keep me alive with spite ?” Emma shrugs, a little proud of herself, and Regina laughs wetly and leans against her shoulder.

 

Tinkerbell might have taken away Regina’s love for her, but Emma savors this moment, holds Regina and tries not to dwell on how this might be the last time she ever will. “We’ll fight this,” she murmurs with certainty. “It isn’t over yet.”

 

“I have to go home,” Regina says, but she doesn’t move from Emma’s arms just yet. “I…There must be a ball. There must be a soulmate, and a wedding.” She sounds nauseous.

 

“Only if you find one,” Emma says stubbornly, and Regina sits upright, her features hardening.

 

“Only if I find one,” she echoes, and she smiles thinly. “And I never shall.”

 


 

It’s a somber departure from Queen Aurora’s kingdom. Queen Aurora has offered them a carriage, full of gratitude that they’d incidentally diverted Tinkerbell, and Emma dawdles outside of it, watching Regina climb into her own carriage.

 

“None of this was supposed to happen,” Henry says, brooding. He’s sitting on the bottom step of Regina’s carriage, flipping through his book.

 

“I thought you couldn’t see the future,” Emma points out, and Henry shrugs, staring into space with a very petulant look on his face. It mirrors how Emma is feeling, and she remembers that he might have some sort of vast power, but he’s still just a child. “Do you want to come back to my castle?” she says, on a whim. “There are gardens to play in and plenty of rooms to make your own. Definitely better than a cavern under Neverland.”

 

Henry tilts his head, considering, and Regina steps back out of the opening of the carriage. “Henry,” she says, and Henry looks between them, torn.

 

Regina is alone in her castle, and she’s about to begin an ordeal that will take everything from her. Emma can’t coax Henry from her right now. “Go ahead,” Emma says, offering him a weak smile. “I’m sure we’ll see each other again.”

 

“Emma–” Regina begins, and Emma looks up with sudden hope. But Regina only lifts a hand in farewell, her eyes already back on Henry. “Safe trip, Princess,” Regina murmurs.

 

“You too,” Emma says in a whisper, and Regina retreats into her carriage again, Henry ducking in behind her. “Regina,” Emma finishes, and she stumbles away back to her borrowed carriage.

 

Mulan and Red are waiting for her, curled together under a blanket they’d found in the carriage. “There are sweets,” Red says, offering Emma a plate of them, and Emma picks at them listlessly.

 

They don’t express any regrets or pity, which Emma is quietly grateful for. Mulan looks a bit shell-shocked, as though she’s been running on adrenaline alone for days and has only just realized it.

 

Emma can relate, and it’s a relief when Mulan turns up the blanket so Emma can squeeze in beside them. She wraps an arm around Mulan, and she murmurs, “I’m sorry,” because she has enough regrets for the three of them. “I sent you on this…pointless, useless quest, and–”

 

“And I’d do it again a dozen more times,” Mulan says without pause, and Emma stares at her in disbelief, blinking back sudden, inescapable tears. Mulan meets her gaze, a small smile on her face, and she says, “I am very glad you found me, Princess Emma.”

 

“Me, too,” Emma whispers. She hadn’t been sure of it for a long time, but even now, without any hope, she can’t regret what she’s found. Regina again, even if she no longer loves Emma. Mulan and Red. Her parents.

 

Her parents . She hasn’t thought of them since the race to Aurora’s castle, and only now does she remember with rising dread where she’d left them. She blinks away more tears, staring blankly out the window, and Mulan says, “What was the command?”

 

“What?” Emma says, distracted.

 

“The command Tinkerbell lifted. What was it?” Mulan peers at her curiously.

 

Emma doesn’t answer right away.

 

When they get back to the castle, Emma thinks home for a moment and slides from the carriage first, racing up the path into the castle and to where her father had been left lying. She takes the steps two at a time, slowing only when she’s reached the corridor. Suddenly, her feet are like lead, and she’s afraid to look inside.

 

She walks carefully, step by step as a healer moves past her with a sympathetic look. When she steps inside, she lets out a cry.

 

David still lies on the bed, his chest rising and falling in what is reassuringly even breathing. Beside him, on the same bed, is Snow, eyes closed and chest moving in time with David’s.

 

“No,” Emma whispers, and she crouches down beside them, pressing her forehead against the mattress. Her hand finds Snow’s and she cries bitter tears, exhausted and disappointed and so afraid. There are healers in the room, flitting around and giving her careful space, and when she feels a hand on her shoulder, she thinks at first that it’s one of them.

 

It’s Killian, his eyes keen on her, and she smiles tearfully up at him. “Oh, Killian,” she says, rising at once to embrace him. Her words feel like ash in her mouth. “Isn’t it awful?”

 

“Your mother spoke only of you at the end,” Killian says, gratified by the hug.

 

He doesn’t ask what had happened to her or where she’d gone, so she volunteers it instead. “It was just awful, being away from you,” she says wetly. “Mulan kidnapped me to keep us apart.” Which isn’t untrue, though they’d spoken little of Killian on the way back. “I don’t know if I can ever trust her the same way again.”

 

Killian turns, smug, and meets Mulan’s eyes from where she stands in the doorway of the room. Emma looks down guiltily. Mulan’s eyes flash and she opens her mouth, but she’s quickly distracted by Snow in the bed.

 

She kneels before her, her eyes stricken, and Red lets out a sob of her own behind her. “I spent my whole life searching for my parents,” Emma says, and her devastation is sharper than any lovestruck daze could gloss over it. “And now…”

 

“My poor love,” Killian murmurs, kissing her cheek. “Think instead of what comes next, of you and I as king and queen of this kingdom. That should comfort you,” he says.

 

Mulan misses the command, but Emma doesn’t mind. She thinks about what comes next and she thinks about Killian as the new king to her queen. “It does,” she admits, smiling faintly at him, and they walk arm-in-arm from the room.

 

There are new flowers in the gardens and a little team of puppies racing through them, and Emma leans against Killian’s side and walks as Red shadows them. It’s easier to forget the devastation of the past few days now, in the quiet of the garden, and focus only on what comes next. The new king to her queen . “I’m thinking,” she says when Killian asks why she’s so quiet, and she flashes him a warm smile. Red growls under her breath.

 

They all dine late together, Emma clinging to Killian’s arm, and Mulan watches them with distrust and distaste. After dinner comes another brief visit to her parents, and then Emma yawns. “I wish to retire to my quarters,” she says, and she remembers again which command Tinkerbell had lifted. “Come, Killian.”

 

Mulan follows them to the door to Emma’s quarters, and Killian sighs heavily. Emma says, “Why don’t you take an early night, too?” and Killian curls his lip in irritation. “Mulan,” Emma clarifies.

 

Mulan and Killian both stare at her. Emma flushes. “It’s been…I haven’t seen Killian in a while,” she says sheepishly. “I wouldn’t mind a…reunion.” She smiles charmingly at Killian. Killian smirks back.

 

Mulan looks sick. “You want to be alone with him ?” she says uncertainly.

 

“I do,” Emma assures her, and she knows she has a lovesick grin on her face. “I truly do.”

 

Mulan’s fists tighten at her side. Killian looks triumphant. “I won’t…” Mulan starts, and then she falls silent, her voice small. “Yes, Your Highness,” she says dully, and Emma tugs Killian into her room, closing the doors behind her.

 

He immediately goes for a kiss, but she pushes him back hard, into a chair, and grins at him. “Let’s make this a little more interesting, shall we?” She tears the ribbon from her hanging ballgown, untying it and climbing onto Killian’s lap. “How about it?” she croons, feeling a surge of excitement.

 

He bobs his head eagerly, his smirk fixed on his face. “Always knew you were a nasty one, love,” he purrs, and Emma presses a kiss to her fingers and then her fingers to his lips. He leans forward, and she winds the ribbon around his head, pressing it against his open mouth and tying it at the back of his head in a gag.

 

“Now that I have you just where I want you,” she breathes, and she puts a hand on his chest, moving it upward in slow increments. His eyes are closing in pleasure, and he says something unintelligible past the gag. She likes the gag a lot.

 

Her sleeve falls as her arm rises, and she shifts her fingers and touches Killian’s neck with the point of the dagger beneath her sleeve. “Speak one word,” she murmurs as his eyes open again, suddenly wide and afraid. “Try one command and I will slit your throat,” she breathes.

 

Killian chokes. He isn’t smiling past the gag anymore. He looks afraid, sick, and Emma is fiercely glad about it. Good , after the twisted imprisonment he’d put her through. Tinkerbell had lifted one command– Killian’s, from this moment onward, you will be madly in love with me – and it had been a salvation she hadn’t even known to want.

 

“Tell me,” she hisses, and she yanks him up and throws him against the wall, Regina’s dagger still against his throat when she stops. “Who the fuck told you about my curse?”

 

He stands still, wide-eyed. “You can nod,” she says, pressing the dagger in a little deeper. “Was it Lily?” A blank stare, but that had been a shot in the dark. She knows who she suspects, but she doesn’t want to believe that it’s possible. “Did one of my parents let something slip?” Silence. “Marian? Henry. Red? It couldn’t have been Mulan. Tinkerbell herself?” Killian remains silent, his body stiff and fearful.

 

It isn’t just fear of him. He’s afraid of the person he’s going to sell out, and Emma knows with growing dread that it can only be one person. “Did Cora send you?” she says, and full-fledged horror blossoms in Killian’s eyes.

 

Then she’s alive. Since Cora had been absent at Regina’s wedding, Emma had wanted to believe that Cora had died without sharing Emma’s secret. But it’s never that easy, is it? She remembers fireballs herding her away from the sea, back to shore, and she remembers the way Killian had spoken of becoming king and queen.

 

She’s been thinking about that since he’d ordered her to, and she’d come up with one terrible theory. “Was Cora the one who made my parents sick?” she demands. “Is it magical in nature?”

 

Killian nods, slow and cautious. Emma says, “I promised Peter Pan that I would kill you,” and watches new terror and hatred flash through his eyes. She digs the dagger in deeper, watching blood trickling past its point.

 

Instead, she grabs a lamp from the mantle beside her and sends it crashing into his skull. He drops to the ground like a sack of bricks, and she stands over him, feeling a wave of tired satisfaction. “But you’re not worth becoming a killer over, you sick fuck,” she says grimly, and she kicks him hard and goes to the door to let Mulan back in.

Chapter Text

“I heard that there are going to be dancers and singers from all over the Enchanted Forest,” one of the maids is saying excitedly to a healer. “Imagine that! Jesters and acrobats every night!”

 

“I heard the balls are meant to continue on and on until the queen finds a soulmate and weds him,” the healer says. “I would have never believed it from her .”

 

The maid giggles. “It sounds like a dream. I should like very much to make the trip to Queen Regina’s kingdom just to see it.”

 

Another servant interjects, “I would go to win her heart. She is very beautiful,” he says defensively at their laughter. “Regardless of her feelings toward our kingdom.”

 

“Oh, she is very beautiful,” the healer agrees. “But you aren’t.” They all laugh then, and they have to struggle to quiet it when they finally see Emma striding down the hall. She nods to them curtly, distracted.

 

It’s been three long days since she’d returned from the meeting with Tinkerbell, and her parents are still dying. Mulan has interrogated Killian and gotten a story from him– some old rivalry between Cora and Snow’s mother, though Killian hadn’t known much about it. Whatever it had been, Cora had been determined to claim both Snow’s kingdom and Leopold’s.

 

Emma hasn’t been down to the dungeons since Killian had been put in there. Even thinking his name sends a shiver of revulsion and violation down her spine. She tries not to think about him at all. That way lies trauma, and she’s the queen of repressing trauma. She focuses on her parents instead, on saving them and changing something that can be changed. Her curse will always imprison her, always control her, and there is no way to stop that. Right now, all she can do is move forward.

 

Regina seems to be doing the same, if the rumors floating in from her kingdom are true. The parties she’s been throwing are grand and welcoming, and fear from the surrounding kingdoms has faded into curiosity instead. There are princes riding through Emma’s kingdom now on their way to win Regina’s hand, and most of them give Emma a try, too.

 

She politely declines them, shuddering when they kiss her hand and touch her in any way. Regina, she decides with some satisfaction, will probably bring them all to tears. Serves them right.

 

God , she misses Regina.

 

She pauses in the hall, leaning back against the wall and taking in a shuddering breath. Somehow, this miserable longing is just as bad as it had been after Cora had first forced Emma to break Regina’s heart. It’s knowing that she’s lost Regina forever again, that–

 

Regina doesn’t love her anymore. Somehow, even when they’d been playing games and dancing around each other, Emma had been able to believe that Regina might still love her. She can believe it more now, remembering Regina arriving to save her from Killian and remembering a kiss that Regina had thought might break her enchantment.

 

Regina had spoken of moving on, but Emma hadn’t thought she truly would until Tinkerbell had waved her wand. And now Regina is gone from her forever, doomed to some soulmate she doesn’t want.

 

Emma had told her they’d fight this, but the balls continue. The princes speak of her with awe, as though she is some tender queen with her heart closed off whom they might charm. Regina hasn’t sought Emma out; rather, she seems resigned to this. And Regina is beautiful and witty and loyal and kind to the most unexpected of people, and Evil Queen or not, Emma can’t imagine that she won’t find someone more suitable than Emma to love.

 

She squeezes her eyes shut and calms her breathing, slowly and methodically, and she waits until she feels a little less defeated before she tiptoes into her parents’ room. “Hi,” she says, moving to one side of the big bed to hold her father’s hand and then her mother’s. The healers quietly exit the room, leaving her alone with them. “It’s me again. I’m trying to…there are some people Red is bringing today to see if they can free you from Cora’s poison.”

 

She gulps in a breath, afraid to hope. “They were both kind to me when I was lost,” she says in the silence of the room. “I know that was important to you. That is important to you,” she corrects herself hastily. “It was really just them, and one other.”

 

She lowers her voice and gathers her courage, wondering if they can hear her. “The other is…” But she can’t say it, can’t even speak Regina’s name right now. “I lost her,” she whispers instead, sinking down beside her mother’s side of the bed. Snow breathes, peaceful and silent, and Emma stares up at her still face. “It feels as though…as though Cora has taken away everything from me– everything that Tinkerbell hadn’t first,” she says ruefully, and then grows serious again. “I won’t let her take you.”

 

She exhales a sob, and she sits in silence until Red pokes her head through the door. “Marian is here,” she murmurs.

 


 

Marian does what she can, but there isn’t much that even a fairy can do. “I’m not a practicing fairy anymore,” she says, a little sheepish. “But this is beyond fairy magic. This poison goes deep. I can wake them up, but sleep is their body’s way of keeping them alive while it uses their energy for fighting the poison. I don’t recommend it.”

 

“Of course,” Emma says dully, and she struggles to smile at Marian. “Thank you.”

 

Marian touches her hair, cups her hand against Emma’s cheek. “How are you feeling, Emma? Red told me about your ordeal. I’m sorry that you didn’t have much success with Tink.” She sighs deeply, regretfully.

 

Emma shrugs, managing another smile. “It’s okay. I guess I didn’t really expect it.” It had been near-impossible even to imagine a life without obedience, like a rosy fantasy where she’d have everything she’d ever wanted with no strings attached. “I want to save my parents,” she says with determination, because that she has the capacity to do.

 

“Let me know if there is anything more that I can do,” Marian says, still without the magical command embedded in it.

 

Emma shakes her head. “I couldn’t. You’ve done too much for me already–”

 

Emma .” Marian frowns at her, and Emma feels ashamed and doesn’t know why. Marian’s voice is gentle. “I hear from your subjects in my tavern, did you know that? They speak of you with such pride, such hope…they see you as theirs , as the people’s queen, and they believe you’ll do much good as their ruler.”

 

“Oh,” Emma says, and she feels uncertainty, dread. “I’m not–”

 

“You will be,” Marian says forcefully. “Is it so hard to believe that we might just want to see you happy? That we want to help you?” She looks so kind, so knowing, and Emma gulps in a breath and doesn’t say what she’s thinking. She doesn’t say yes, because no one did before . Marian, Regina, now Mulan…the people who had helped her when she’d been a girl had been few and far between, and she still doesn’t know how to accept help without seeing it as a debt to repay.

 

Marian squeezes her hand. “If you need anything ,” she murmurs, and Emma can only nod silently.

 

She’s brought downstairs later that day by the cricket steward, who is very apologetic but firm. “The people need a ruler right now, more than ever,” he says. “They need to see that you’re going to be here for them.”

 

So she sits and received supplicants, at a loss for what to do with Red standing beside her and whispering tips. There is a woman who has lost her crops, and Emma promises her grain from the storehouse until she can get back on her feet again. There are two men who are fighting over a patch of property that catches the shade, and she contemplates it for a few minutes before she rules in favor of the one with less land. There are people who need her help, need her judgment, and she offers it to each of them while struggling not to let on exactly how much she’s making up while she goes along.

 

“If your son wishes to be a part of a traveling troupe,” she says to the father-son duo who are facing her now, “Give him one year to learn an apprenticeship first. Nothing good comes from stopping someone from following their dreams, but he should have a plan in case it falls through.”

 

Both father and son look satisfied, and Emma is relieved. The line stretches on, nearly out the door, and she wants nothing more than to escape and go upstairs to her parents again.

 

The steward calls, “Next!” Emma  wonders if Regina does this in her own castle, if she passes judgment on commoners who seem so afraid of her. She’d probably be a lot more forceful. Emma isn’t great at anything other than pretending, as she pretends now.

 

The next supplicant is a woman with two children in front of her, each of them with wrists bound behind their backs. The little boy is fearful, ducking Emma’s gaze, but the girl glares up at her in defiance– and some fear. “I found these two ruffians in my house,” the woman rasps. “Stealing my food and sleeping in my cellar! I brought them to the castle for judgment.” She gives the boy a shove. The girl shifts forward at once, arms straining against her bindings to catch him, but it’s too late.

 

He topples to the ground and Emma’s off her throne in an instant, slipping to the ground to crouch beside the boy and help him up. Her fingers move nimbly, untying his wrists, and he scampers back, still afraid.

 

Emma speaks gently. “Why have you been sleeping in this woman’s cellar?” she asks, though she already knows the answer. She’d slept in many a cellar herself when she’d been his age.

 

“We don’t have anywhere else to go,” the girl says, watching Emma warily. “Our mother is dead, and our father is missing.”

 

“Missing?” Emma repeats, and the girl just shrugs.

 

They’re just like she’d been, years ago, when she’d been alone and desperate and a little bit of food could have made a difference between life and death. She looks at them, hungry and scared, and she can only think of what she’d have thought of a princess at that age.

 

Angry, probably, that she has all the riches in the world when Emma had had nothing. She wouldn’t have liked her. She wouldn’t have trusted her. “Red,” Emma says, catching the eye of the woman. “Reimburse this woman for what she’s lost. Jiminy, would you take these children to the dining hall? They should be fed and kept here until we can locate their father.”

 

“Are you going to lock us up?” the girl asks, angling protectively in front of her brother as the steward flutters around, making arrangements.

 

The girl’s hands are still tied up, and Emma moves to her, unties her bonds as well. “No,” she says, meeting her eyes, and she keeps her gaze trained on the girl’s until the girl’s hostility begins to fade.

 

The woman looks unhappy, but Emma can’t bring herself to care. Maybe Marian’s right and she can be a leader they all need. Right now, she’s only certain of one thing.

 

Children shouldn’t be starving in her kingdom. The White Kingdom must become a place where children can trust that people will help them, and that’s never going to change without her. She has to do this, even if she hates it, because this line of people needs her; and until her parents are awake, she’s their only hope.

 

“Next,” she calls out, settling back onto the throne, and she sees the door to the room open and Lancelot slip inside. He has another man beside him, and it takes extra effort to focus on the people after that, finishing up with supplicants and heading upstairs to meet her second chance at healing her parents.

 

Merlin is standing in her parents’ room, hands clasped behind him as he turns. “It has been quite a while, Princess Emma,” he says, smiling. “Still picking up languages?”

 

“Of course,” she says, and she hurries forward to stand in front of him, bobbing back and forth anxiously. Merlin had been Regina’s tutor once, though Emma had thought it odd when his magic had seemed even more limitless than Cora’s. He hadn’t needed to be there, yet he’d been there all the same, teaching her to read and telling them both lengthy histories of the world around them. He had been a rare welcome face in Cora’s estate, and he might now be the only one who can save her parents. “Have you…have you seen Regina lately?”

 

“Not in many years,” Merlin says, and he looks troubled. “I was dismissed soon after her engagement. Her mother was quite suspicious of anyone who might have helped her flee.” He casts a curious eye on Emma. “Whatever her mother had done with you, it left her…quite withdrawn. And the rumors of her since–”

 

“They’re much exaggerated,” Emma hurries to assure him. Regina has yet to be anything close to an Evil Queen . Perhaps she might have, if they hadn’t crossed paths again just after she’d assumed her throne alone, if Emma had remained a terrible figure from Regina’s past. But maybe she’s overselling herself. No , it’s only that Regina had found another obsession in Emma’s curse. “She’s harder now. She’s been through…a lot. But she’s still our Regina.”

 

No longer Emma’s, not after her gift, but Emma smiles distantly, her eyes pained as she thinks of her. Merlin is watching her with still-bright eyes. “I am glad you found each other again,” he says, and Emma can’t bear to correct him.

 

She clears her throat instead. “My parents were poisoned by Cora,” she says. “It’s been ten years of this. The poison has taken root and they’ve been fighting it ever since, but now–”

 

“Say no more,” Merlin murmurs, and he crouches beside David, his hands over him and his eyes drifting closed. And for a moment, the sallow skin on David’s face begins to clear, the aged skin becoming more youthful. Emma holds her breath– and then the illness returns to his features and Merlin staggers back, breathing hard.

 

“Blood magic,” he says. “This poison can’t be lifted by anyone else.”

 

“Blood magic,” Emma repeats. She doesn’t know the term, but she can guess its meaning. “So the only people who can save my parents are Cora or…”

 

Merlin gives her a long, odd look. “Have you not asked Regina yet?” he asks, his brow creasing. “She may be your only hope.”

 

Emma forces the smile back onto her face. “Thank you,” she says gently. “You’ve been so kind to come out here to help me.” She turns back to her parents, feeling only a brush of Merlin’s fingers against her shoulder as he departs.

 

Regina is Snow’s only hope. It seems almost poetic, if she can look past the absolute knowledge that Regina will never–

 

She inhales and holds the breath for long enough that her head begins to ache. “I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I’m so sorry.”

 

She saddles up her horse and rides with Mulan to Regina’s kingdom.

 


 

Mulan has donned a beautiful but simple dress, blue and tied with a pink sash. Red is wearing a long gown beneath her wolfskin transformation. Only Emma is stubborn in riding clothes, a vest and trousers that she’s found in the back of her closet. “It’s a ball,” Red whispers in her ear as they join the crowds entering the castle. “You’ll stand out more if you’re not dressed up for it.”

 

Emma scoffs. “I want to stand out,” she says. “I want to go in, be thoroughly mocked by Regina for my presumption, and then be booted from the ballroom. What reason is there to put on a dress?”

 

Mulan and Red exchange a glance that has Emma scowling at them. “Maybe Regina will be more receptive if you dance with her first,” Mulan suggests with a straight face.

 

“Or reveal just a hint of cleavage,” Red says teasingly, and Mulan jabs her with her elbow. Red catches it, sliding a hand into Mulan’s other hand, and she wiggles her eyebrows, her eyes soft. Mulan’s eyes are just as soft, and they’re twirling in a moment, dancing into the crowd without another word. Emma drags her feet after them, but she can’t begrudge their smiles and the way they move easily together.

 

This is a fool’s errand, a last-ditch attempt for her parents, and Emma instead concentrates on how they’d looked, pale and quiet in the beds. She’s spent too long dragging everyone along on her own pointless, injurious quests. This time, she’s going to save someone.

 

The ballroom is full, and a room that had been grim and foreboding when they’d last been here is now bright, the dark walls only regal, the guards inviting. Regina is nowhere to be found, the dais bearing her throne empty, and Emma attempts to trail Mulan and Red as they dance a circuit around the room. She glances around warily, searching for the largest crowds, but they yield no results until she’s suddenly at the center of the room and a song comes to a close.

 

A boy takes her hand and she jumps, startled, until she recognizes him. Henry isn’t dressed in dirty, torn clothes anymore. Regina had put together a smart little suit for him and had his hair brushed, and he looks like a young prince when he holds out his hand to her.

 

He doesn’t dance much like one, and she grimaces as he treads on her toes. “Sorry,” he says sheepishly. “The queen could make me look the part, but I don’t think I’m very good at this. I’m an author, not a prince.”

 

She smiles down at him, her heart warm. “You look very dashing,” she offers, and he beams at her. “Regina’s been taking good care of you.”

 

“Yeah.” He lets their locked hands swing between them. “She seemed kind of scary at first, but she’s nice . Don’t tell anyone I told you that,” he adds quickly. “She does have me warning her about who to scare off how, though. I’m making myself useful." He shifts on his feet, uncertain, and Emma’s heart hurts for him.

 

She squeezes his hand. “I don’t think she cares about that,” she says, but Henry looks unconvinced. “She’s always had a certain affection for…finding lost people and keeping them,” she offers, and the melancholy returns, the memory of Regina in the stables when they’d first met with her eyes defiant and wanting. “Don’t tell anyone,” she says, lowering her voice into a mock whisper, “But the Evil Queen really likes kids.”

 

There had been a little girl at the mansion a few times, a daughter of the cook whom Regina had adored from afar, and Emma had watched surreptitiously as Regina had sneaked treats from the dessert table to the girl. She’d thought then about what a good mother Regina would have made, only daring to think about parenting alongside her when she’d been alone once more.

 

“I know,” Henry says, tugging her hand, and then he gives her a winning smile and a little push. She stumbles forward, just as she hears an unsteady, “It was a pleasure, Your Majesty,” and the music brings Regina into her arms.

 

She yelps. It isn’t her most attractive reaction, though it does make Henry snicker before he disappears. Regina stops dancing at once, and her admirers press forward, each eager to retrieve the queen from the interloper. “That won’t be necessarily,” Regina says stiffly, and Emma’s hands tighten unconsciously where they’re resting on Regina’s hips. Her hands are on Regina’s hips , Regina’s hand resting against her shoulder, and Emma stops breathing for a moment.

 

Regina lets her go immediately after. “With me,” she orders, and Emma stays close, Mulan and Red following in the least subtle dancing they’ve probably ever done. They stay close when Regina tugs Emma into a corner. “What are you doing ?” she demands.

 

“I came to dance?” Emma tries sheepishly. Under Regina’s hard stare, this entire trip already seems like a foolish waste of time.

 

Regina sweeps her eyes over Emma’s clothes. “Dress for it next time,” she says, and it could almost be flirtation, if Emma doesn’t already know that she’s lost Regina’s heart. “I have another few agonizing hours to meet prospective kings,” Regina says darkly, her tone becoming more distant. “You know that better than anyone. Why are you here?”

 

Emma blurts it out. There is no way to blunt this request, to make it more acceptable. There is nothing she can offer to tempt Regina. There’s only the truth. “My parents are dying,” she says in a rush. “And only you can save them.”

 

There is a burst of laughter from Regina, musical and bitter and delighted. “Emma, you beautiful idiot ,” she says, almost fondly. “You can’t possibly believe that I’d–”

 

“They’re all I have,” Emma whispers. She can already feel defeat stinging at her throat, stopping up her retort. “Regina, I know– I was there . I know what my mother did to you–”

 

“Your mother plied me with false sincerity and then handed me over into a prison ,” Regina hisses. “Your mother forced me into this marriage while she lived out her fairytale, and the only justice– the only justice I’ve had is this. Is Snow White dying before I’m forced into another marriage.”

 

“I know,” Emma says. Her voice is thick, hurt, and Regina is unmoved. She stands with her hands on her hips, looking beautiful and dangerous and so angry, and even Henry sidling up next to her can’t soften her expression. “If I had a choice, I’d never ask this of you. But I don’t . You’re the only one who can undo what your mother did–”

 

Stop !” Regina barks out, and the men clustering around in her wake murmur together as they eye them. Emma stops, because she has no choice, and she can feel the frustrated tears at the corners of her eyes. “Things have changed, Emma! You can’t waltz into my ballroom and expect me to drop everything and save my sworn enemies! We aren’t– I don’t–” She takes a deep breath.

 

Emma finds her voice again. “I’m sorry for disturbing you,” she says mechanically, and she grabs Red’s arm as Red and Mulan dance another round. “We’re leaving,” she grinds out, and she storms from the room in a wave of frustrated despair.

 

She doesn’t allow herself to cry on the way home, the wind stinging at her eyes as her horse whips down the path toward the White Kingdom. She really had been a fool to believe that she might have swayed Regina. They might have the history together now, but Tinkerbell had snatched away Regina’s love , and Emma has no chance of changing that.

 

Somehow, between the night they’d almost spent together and Regina being cursed, Emma had grown accustomed to Regina’s affection, had found it as natural as breathing. She’d known intellectually that Regina wouldn’t love her anymore, wouldn’t entertain the idea of helping Snow White just for Emma’s sake, but she’d somehow still, deep down, been incapable of believing it until Regina had laughed in her face.

 

She rides in silence beside Mulan, Red keeping pace, and her thoughts shift from heartbreak to her other heartbreak. Her parents won’t recover. She’s never going to get a chance to have a family, after all. She’s going to have to be–

 

She’s going to be queen , oh god.

 

She stops her horse short in growing horror. She can’t do any of this. This isn’t how it had been meant to go. She can’t lose her parents and Regina and be queen, not now. She isn’t ready , and she rides again with terrified fervor, desperate to get back to the castle and figure out a new plan of action.

 

The dreadful realizations never stop. Cora is still underfoot, and she knows Emma’s secret. Regina has no reason to be Emma’s ally anymore. The kingdom is barely warming up to her. She has no one in the world to trust, except for Mulan and Red. And she’s meant to be queen ? She can’t. She won’t.

 

She dismounts at the castle and can’t even speak to Mulan and Red, humiliated at her failed mission and filled with terror at what’s to come. All she can think of is her parents, being consumed by illness while she’d wasted precious time around them on a stupid

 

She throws open the door. Someone is already in the room, pacing back and forth. “What my mother did?” Regina repeats, still dressed in her ballroom finery.

 

Emma exhales. “It’s not your fault,” she says dully, but hope is surging anew. She quashes it carefully, refuses to allow it to make her vulnerable again. “Your mother has some long-standing grudge on my family. Merlin said that she’d used blood magic for the poison she’d used on them. You really are my last hope.”

 

“It’s very presumptuous of you to believe that I’d save your parents’ lives,” Regina informs her. “And why do you think my mother was responsible for your mother’s…?” She waves vaguely at the beds.

 

“Killian told us,” Emma says, and she adds, because every time she so much as says his name, she has to remind herself of what had come next. “When I stuck your dagger in his throat.”

 

Regina brightens. “The enchantment wore off, then.” There’s a note of hurt in her tone, and Emma remembers a kiss that should have broken any spell.

 

“Not an enchantment,” she hastens to say, and then she’s left at a loss when she wants to explain it. “I guess I was just…I was so desperate to fit in,” she says contemplatively. “To be exactly what my parents wanted me to be.” It might be a lie, in Killian’s case, but she doesn’t think that it’s too far off from what she might have done for them.

 

Whatever it is, Regina hears the note of truth in her voice and quirks an eyebrow. “I’ve never known you to be the obedient type,” she says, and Emma laughs so hard that she can feel the tears threatening to emerge again.

 

“No,” she murmurs. “No, I suppose you haven’t.” She reaches for Regina’s arm, and Regina pulls away gently.

 

She’s gutted at first, until Regina kneels beside her mother instead. “I loathe you,” she says to Snow’s silent figure.

 

“Wouldn’t it be so much more satisfying if she could hear you?” Emma ventures, and Regina gives her a look. “I’m just saying. Is this how you want your rivalry to end? Snow just dying ? By someone else’s hand?”

 

Regina stares down at Snow for a long time. “You can’t spite me into everything , Emma. I have my limitations.” But she reaches out, her hands settling somewhere above Snow’s body, and her hands begin to glow.

 

The magic bursts from Snow and David’s bodies at once in a furious rush of energy, as though the floodgates had been opened the moment that Regina had ventured forth. She’s thrown backwards with the force of it and Emma hurries to catch her, steadying her as she braces herself against the wall.

 

The magic that catapults toward them is sickly green and vile, and Regina coughs on it, pulling it in with her hands as years of poison pour into her. Her skin is stretched out thinly, her face becoming grown and lined with the age that she’s taking from Emma’s parents. “Regina,” Emma says, her voice high with panic. “Regina, stop . You’re not risking your life for–”

 

“Don’t…flatter yourself…” Regina chokes out, and she pulls harder, more fiercely, until she’s gagging and her head is thrown back on Emma’s shoulder, tucked into her neck. Emma holds her tightly, buckling from the energy battering them, and then– suddenly–

 

The magic is gone. Regina sinks to her knees, limp on the ground, and Emma holds her tightly. “Thank you,” she whispers. “Thank you, thank you– please be okay–”

 

“I’m fine,” Regina manages hoarsely, and she disentangles herself from Emma. “So are they.” She gestures weakly at the bed, and Emma scrambles over to the bed, keeping a worried eye on Regina. Her parents are still lying still, breathing evenly, but their faces are smoother, less sallow, and they look younger. “They’ll wake soon,” Regina murmurs. “I have to go.”

 

Emma helps her to her feet. There’s a curious feeling in her, a breathless sort of wanting and disbelief. “I don’t know how to say…” Her voice trails off, without the words to say how she feels.

 

Regina scoffs weakly. “Don’t flatter yourself,” she repeats. “I just didn’t want to let Mother have the satisfaction of eliminating my mortal enemy.” She twists around to the doorway, walking with steps that aren’t quite as swift and authoritative as they normally are.

 

“We’ll keep an eye out for her,” Emma says. “Wherever she is, she isn’t going to stand by for long.”

 

Regina gives her a long look. “Are you afraid of her?” she says suddenly.

 

“No,” Emma lies, straightening.

 

“You should be,” Regina says darkly. “I know what my mother is capable of. I’m not fool enough to pretend otherwise.” She tosses another sidelong glance at Snow and David. “You’d do well to let me know immediately if she appears here again.”

 

Emma blinks, startled at the offer when Regina’s still barely on her feet. “You’d help us?”

 

“Of course I would,” Regina says, and she’s beginning to sound testy, defensive. “Do you think me heartless just because I don’t– I don’t love you anymore?”

 

I don’t love you anymore . It hits like a sledgehammer, and Emma can’t breathe, can’t speak, can’t even meet Regina’s eyes. Regina doesn’t love her anymore, and she thinks it a given enough to drop it in a casual conversation.

 

Regina gets the wrong idea, of course. “You do,” she says, and she sounds more irritated than hurt. Because of course , how could Emma hurt her if she doesn’t– “You really do.” Regina’s lips twist in disdain. “Tinkerbell didn’t take my heart away, Your Highness. She just took it from you .”

 

It’s gutting, and Emma refuses to let Regina see that. Not anymore. Not when Regina is looking at her with that expression. She shrugs sullenly instead, glaring at the wall with a dozen mixed emotions roiling in her belly.

 

“I’ve met someone,” Regina says abruptly. “At the balls. He’s kind and we’ve danced every night and he doesn’t see me as the Evil Queen .” Emma looks up, on the cusp of admitting all, but Regina is looking studiously at the open door.

 

“Good for you,” Emma says, grouchy and frustrated and made more defiant with every moment that Regina speaks to her without the love apparent in her voice. It’s over , she’s lost her, and she has to stop caring so deeply. “So go marry him,” she snaps.

 

Regina’s hand hits the door hard, and Emma looks up. Regina is glaring at her again. “You are infuriating,” she growls.

 

“Fine,” Emma says huffily. “Good thing you’re in love with some dullard instead of me.” She hates this, she doesn’t want to fight, yet she can’t seem to stop. She wants to weep with gratitude and beg Regina to be hers , and instead, all she can think about is some terrible man who’s succeeded in wooing Regina.

 

Regina is still staring at her. “Yes,” she says coolly, and she looks just as frustrated as Emma. “A very good thing.” She storms for the door again, this time with more energy than before, and she turns back onto to hurl over her shoulder, “And don’t you dare tell your parents that I was the one to save them!”

 

Emma is feeling very cranky and fed up of being told to keep secrets right now, not that Cora’s order even matters anymore, and the challenge slips out. “Is that an order?” she demands.

 

“Of course not,” Regina snaps, and the command falls from Emma’s shoulders in an instant. “I’m not your queen, Princess .”

 

“Fine!”

 

“Good!”

 

They stare at each other in frustrated fury, and Regina snaps her fingers and disappears in a whirl of purple smoke. Emma sags against the wall, exhausted, and Mulan says from the doorway, “You two are worse than a pair of children in a play yard.”

 

“I hate her,” Emma mutters.

 

Mulan raises an eyebrow. “Do you, now?”

 

“No,” Emma admits, kicking the wall sulkily. “But she hates me.”

 

“She saved your parents,” Mulan reminds her. “I don’t think she did that out of a secret affection for Snow White.” And maybe not , but it hadn’t been out of love, either. Regina had made that clear, time and again, until it burns at Emma.

 

“She doesn’t love me anymore,” she says dully, and it had been easy to believe it for ten years, so she doesn’t know why it’s so hard now. Is it because they’d been so close to forgiveness? Or is it the promise of someone new , a man at the ball who had charmed Regina enough that she’d mention him now?

 

The only thing more painful than Regina not loving her anymore is Regina loving someone else; and try as she might, Emma can’t be happy for her right now.

 

“What a coincidence,” Mulan says, and she looks as though she’s hiding a smile. Emma scowls at her. “I heard a rumor that the queen has been throwing grand balls to find someone to fall in love with.”

 

“That’s not how it works, Mulan,” Emma says tiredly.

 

Mulan frowns at her. “Why not?” she says, and Emma opens her mouth to respond when someone else croaks her name.

 

“Emma,” David says again, and Emma hurries to him, to his craggy smile and the light bright in his sleepy eyes. “I feel…better,” he says wonderingly, and he sits up, staring at his hands and at Snow asleep beside him. “I haven’t felt like this in ten years.”

 

Snow shifts and awakens, touching her face and staring at them in disbelief. “You saved us,” she says, and Red tears into the room, laughing as she wraps Snow in an embrace. David smiles at Mulan, and then both of Emma’s parents turn to her.

 

“Emma,” Snow whispers, and she’s being wrapped in a hug, pulled to the bed and held to them. “Emma, how?” and Emma shrugs and mumbles something about a fairy she knows. She doesn’t need a command to protect Regina’s pride.

 

“We’re going to have a lot more time,” David murmurs, kissing the top of Emma’s head.

 

Emma holds them tightly, and if a stray Mom or Dad escapes, they’re all too overwhelmed to make a big deal out of it. Her parents have never been this strong before, this vital , and she basks in it as they laugh and talk excitedly, holds onto them for what feels like hours, and thinks of Regina over and over and over until Snow says, “We should celebrate,” and disentangles from her to dress.

 

“We’ll meet you downstairs,” Red says, beaming. “I have a lot of healers I’ll have to pay and send on their way.”

 

Neither Red nor Mulan comment on Emma’s wet cheeks, but they’re smiling over her head when she walks ahead of them on the staircase, at ease in a way that they so rarely have been. Everyone is at ease, from servants chattering loudly as they pass them to the maids who stop dancing sheepishly in the main hall when they see Emma.

 

Emma grins at them. “Don’t let me stop you,” she says, and she’s overwhelmed with gratitude and guilt and melancholy and joy at once. Regina did this. Regina did this, whatever her motivations, and Emma loves her, and now she’s going to–

 

She stops at the bottom of the stairs and turns abruptly. Mulan and Red nearly crash into her. “I want to do it,” she says, and her fingers dig into her palm as Mulan’s eyes brighten. “I want to go to tomorrow’s ball.”

Chapter Text

By the next morning, Emma’s goal has shifted from charm Regina into loving her again to the more realistic eyeball the idiot Regina’s chosen to replace her . The odds of Regina falling in love with her again are…less than likely, she decides as she sits with her mother, receiving supplicants. Snow is doing most of the talking, glowing with her renewed health and beaming at her subjects’ joy at it, which frees Emma up for brooding about Regina.

 

For one, Regina and Emma had met when Regina had been alone in the world except for Emma and her parents. It had been only natural that she’d have fallen in love with her. Now, Regina is surrounded by people, especially people actively trying to win her heart. Emma doesn’t stand out anymore.

 

Well. Not in any positive ways, anyway.

 

For another, Emma has no idea whether or not it’s possible for Regina to fall in love with her now. She knows better than anyone that Tinkerbell’s gifts manifest in the most unwelcoming of ways, and Regina’s soft spot for Emma seems to have disappeared entirely. But she healed your parents , a little voice in the back of Emma’s head reminds her.

 

No. She can’t read too much into that. That way lies madness.

 

Emma sighs, and Snow touches her arm. “We need a moment,” she announces, and their attendants usher them into a quiet room behind the throne room. It’s small, secluded, and Emma is left alone with her mother for the first time since she’d awakened.

 

Snow fixes her with a long look. “You’re not happy,” she pronounces, and her brow is creased with worry. “Emma, what’s wrong?”

 

It’s still a shock when someone notices her, let alone cares , and Emma manages a wan smile. “Nothing,” she says, and she means it when she adds on, “You’re here.” The truth is so many pieces that she can’t share with Snow, but this is good , the last good thing she has.

 

Regina had given it to her, and Snow doesn’t even know it. Not for the first time, she wonders if they’d all be better off if she doesn’t respect Regina’s wishes and tells the truth. But no , she has spent too much of her life in a fragile place where having her own agency is a rare luxury, and she won’t take Regina’s and make this decision for her.

 

It’s just…she wants to trust Snow, Snow who loves her and hates Regina. Sometimes it feels as though there’s a looming Shadow Emma within her, a person Snow can’t possibly see and Emma can’t possibly hide: the woman who loves Regina and is heartbroken for it. Sometimes she doesn’t know how anyone can miss that Shadow Emma. Sometimes she thinks it’d all be easier if Shadow Emma were out in the open instead.

 

“I am here,” Snow says, and she reaches out to stroke Emma’s cheek. “But that isn’t all of it. What happened when I was gone?” Emma can’t answer. “I remember– Regina finally left, just after you did. Killian came to visit us every day.” She smiles, fond. “You know, I wasn’t sure of him, but he does seem to love you so much, and that’s all I want for you.”

 

Emma tastes bile in her throat. “Regina–” she begins, and then finds that there isn’t much she can say that isn’t the truth. “Regina is throwing balls to find a new soulmate,” she blurts out, and Snow looks at her in bewilderment.

 

“A soulmate ?” Snow laughs, still confused. “Does Regina genuinely think that anyone would want to be with her after all she’s done?”

 

Emma winces. It’s never sounded more jarring to hear this kind of resentment from Snow than it does now, and she’s overwhelmed with secondhand embarrassment, with humiliation on Snow’s behalf and on Regina’s. “Tinkerbell gifted her,” she says miserably. “Instead of taking mine away.”

 

Snow’s eyes round in comprehension. “Oh. Oh, Emma.” She holds Emma to her, her eyes drifting closed, and Emma slides her hands up to Snow’s back uncertainly. When Snow pulls away, her eyes are dark and fierce. “It is not– it will never be your fault that Tinkerbell cursed someone else. Especially not her . You’ve been through far too much in your life to bear that weight on your shoulders.”

 

She shakes her head, holding Emma again, and Emma doesn’t have the right words to respond, not words that will keep Snow holding her without the love and pride fading from her face. Snow might be myopic when it comes to Regina, but she’s Emma ’s, and Emma selfishly can’t give her up. “We should go on a vacation soon,” Snow says suddenly. “To a far-off kingdom or on a sea adventure. Just the two of us and your father.” She strokes Emma’s hair. “We deserve some time to get to know each other without the outside world pressing down on us. And you deserve some peace.”

 

“That sounds nice,” Emma says, smiling tremulously. They’ll have to get rid of Cora first, but she finds that she wouldn’t mind a little escape.

 

“You’re welcome to go outside for a bit,” Snow murmurs. “Take a breather with Killian.” Her brow furrows. “Where is Killian? I haven’t seen him since I awakened.”

 

Emma exchanges a glance with Red, who is standing guard at the doorway. “He had a shipment to make,” she says finally. “He’ll be thrilled to know that you’re awake.” She smiles at her mother, sincere at least about her own happiness about that. Mulan and Emma had agreed to hold off on telling Snow and David about the Killian Ordeal until after the king and queen had recovered more. They don’t need any shocks right now.

 

Snow grins and leans against Emma, her crown brushing Emma’s cheek. “I’m glad you have him,” she says.

 

Emma takes that break.

 

She winds up wandering around outside instead, greeting the peasants who stream into the palace to offer their well wishes to the king and queen. “Thank you,” she says, again and again. She crouches down to speak to a few children and discusses the recent rainfall with their parents. It’s easier every day, and she finds that she likes parts of this, too. She likes helping people, and she grins when her father joins her in the front courtyard.

 

“We should put out some food,” she says, leaning against him when he puts an arm around her. “It’s always made no sense that people bring offerings to us when they come to the castle when we have so much and they have so little.”

 

David strokes her hair fondly. “You’re going to bankrupt us when you’re queen, aren’t you? I don’t think one warm meal will make much of a difference.” But he waves over a chamberlain and food is brought to the tables lining the inner hall where the peasants wait.

 

“There’s been rain,” Emma says, a little defensive. “While you were sick. But it’ll take some time before the crops begin to–”

 

“Who is that?” David says suddenly, distracted. There’s a carriage pulling up, marked with a royal seal that Emma doesn’t recognize. “It’s a little soon for news of our health to have spread this far, isn’t it?”

 

“It’s not about that,” Emma says, making a face, and David looks at her curiously. “He’s probably going to Regina’s ball.”

 

“Ball?” David echoes.

 

A princess emerges from the carriage, looking around curiously, and she smiles prettily at them, guards milling around her. “Hello!” she says brightly. “We’ve been traveling for days. Would you tell us which way Queen Regina’s castle might be?”

 

Emma eyes her. “You want to win her hand?”

 

“Doesn’t everyone?” The princess sighs dreamily. “But if not her, think of all the royals who are there, looking for a queen of their own. I’m not going back home until I find my true love.” She looks over Emma suddenly with a keen eye. “What did you say your name is?”

 

“I didn’t,” Emma says at the exact same moment as David says, “She’s taken.”

 

The princess falters, then brightens. “Ah, well. Queen Regina awaits!” Emma points unsmilingly in the direction of the royal road to the hinterlands, the fastest route to Regina’s castle. The princess bounds back to her carriage, off again.

 

David says, “ What is Regina up to?” and Emma can only shrug.

 


 

“You’re not coming with me,” Emma whispers as she climbs onto her horse.

 

Mulan stares at her, nonplussed. “Emma, if this is some other disastrous attempt at being noble –”

 

“It’s not,” Emma hurries to assure her. “It’s just…” She looks around cautiously, lowering her voice even more. “Cora is out here somewhere. We can’t leave the castle unguarded while I go off on…whatever this is.” She motions helplessly at herself. “I have a plan, okay?”

 

Mulan looks torn. “At least let me send Red with you. Your curse–”

 

“I’ve managed my curse my whole life,” Emma reminds her. “I can handle it for a night.” She smiles at Mulan, and she means it. “It’s going to be fine, Mulan. I promise.”

 

Mulan sighs deeply and changes tack. “You’re not planning on wearing those to the ball, are you?” she says, casting a dubious eye over Emma’s riding clothes.

 

Emma laughs and rides off, on the royal road where she’d sent the princess earlier. It’s already dusk, and the ball should be starting soon, but Emma doesn’t intend to arrive on time. Regina will be late, and Emma has no interest in mingling.

 

She wants to see whomever it is Regina has deemed kind . Regina had swooped over to her castle to eyeball Killian, and it’s only fair that Emma does the same to…whoever this useless fop is.

 

She glares at the road. He’d better not be another of Cora’s cronies. Though if he is…  

 

Stop , she orders herself before she goes down that road. She rides instead of thinking, faster and faster until Marian’s tavern is in sight. Only then does she slow.

 

She wraps her cloak around her as she enters. The tavern is full, crowded with princes and nobles on their way to Regina’s castle, and she listens to their chatter about Regina with a grimace. “Oh, she hasn’t changed,” one man says, taking a long draught from his tumbler. “Still evil. Still terrifying. But oh – that body–” He cackles.

 

Emma lifts a chair, very subtly, and slams it down to the ground so one leg smashes into the man’s foot. He yelps and she slips into the crowd, vanishing before he sees who’d hurt him.

 

“Please don’t assault my customers,” Marian says, appearing at Emma’s elbow. She nods to the door. “Come. We’ll talk outside.”

 

Outside, there are horses stabled and drivers idling beside carriages. A rat nibbles at a pumpkin, and two men begin a fistfight in the queen’s honor. Marian mutters, “Children, all of them.” She turns to Emma. “What do you need?”

 

“I want to go to the ball,” Emma blurts out. “Not to dance or– or win Regina’s heart, she just says that–”

 

Marian holds up a calm hand and says, “Emma, I know . What do you need?”

 

Emma ducks her head, embarrassed at her own fumbling, and says uncertainly, “Can you make me someone else?” Regina doesn’t want to see Emma at her ball, and Emma doesn’t intend to be seen. This is just reconnaissance. This is just…Emma making sure she isn’t thrown out when Regina sees her. The only way she can attend this ball is in someone else’s skin.

 

“I can do that,” Marian says, smiling, and she closes her hand and opens it. Her wand is there when her fingers uncurl, and she wraps her fingers around it again. “Ready?”

 

Emma takes a step back and nods. Marian waves her wand and Emma is changed.

 

She can see herself in the reflection in the window. Her hair is dark, a rich brown wound into an updo. She’s taller than she’d been minutes ago, and she’s dressed in a sleek white dress with feathered designs on its skirt. She looks like someone else entirely, someone regal and impressive.

 

The dress is topped off with a matching feathered mask. A swan’s feather is tied into her updo, finishing off the theme, and Emma remembers when she’d once been Emma Swan, before she’d been a lost princess or an outcast girl or Regina’s.

 

“The mask is what holds the magic together,” Marian says, sweeping her eyes over Emma critically. “Take that off and the glamour disappears. You can’t ride like this,” she says suddenly, and she waves her hand and the pumpkin on the floor disappears.

 

In their place is a carriage tethered to Emma’s horse, an open carriage that allows for only one person seated within. Emma gapes at it. “Marian… thank you ,” she says in a voice that isn’t her own.

 

She climbs into it, staring back at Marian in disbelief, and Marian pats her back and waves her wand again. “Go,” she says. “Get your girl.”

 

“I’m not–” Emma protests, but the carriage is already moving off in the direction of the castle. Marian waves goodbye when she twists back around, winking once, and Emma leans back and watches the road fly by.

 

It’s cold out, but the carriage seems to repel it. Emma reaches a hand out of the carriage and feels the wind against her arm, but not a hair is swept out of place within it, not a single chill comes over her. More of Marian’s magic. She touches the dress, tracing her fingers through the feathered patterns. It’s soft and delicate, the sort that she might trip over and tear if she dances terribly.

 

She isn’t dancing, she reminds herself firmly. She is going in, assessing Regina’s new love interest, and leaving. There is no other reason to be there.

 

She keeps that in mind as her carriage rolls on, until they’re pulling into the courtyard and a stable hand is reaching to help her down. “I’m fine,” she says, giving him a tight smile. He inclines his head and steps aside, allowing Emma to enter the castle.

 

The ballroom is even more full than it had been last time, and Emma can feel it like claustrophobia. She’s never been thrilled to be around people, and this is too many at once, eyeing each other as though they’re all fine pieces of meat.

 

And above them all, on the dais, presides Regina.

 

She doesn’t pretty herself up in the ways that some of the other royals do, making themselves soft and approachable. She sits on her throne dressed in stark brown, her dress nearly to her neck and jeweled. There is a look of supreme distaste on her face as she regards the room.

 

A man walks boldly to her and Emma freezes, watching him carefully; but it takes only a few words from Regina before his cheeks are flaming red and he stumbles away. Emma laughs aloud, and someone beside her says, “It is pretty funny, isn’t it? They really think they have a shot with her.”

 

He sounds smug. Emma blinks at him and is unsurprised to discover that her companion is Henry. “Because she already has a suitor?” Emma asks leadingly. “I’ve heard she dances with the same man each night, and he is kind and doesn’t see her as an Evil Queen.”

 

Henry squints at her. His eyes round. “ Emma ?” he says, gaping at her. “Is that you under that?”

 

“How–?” Emma sputters. “You don’t even have your book with you! How did you know ?”

 

“I just knew,” Henry says, shrugging. He lowers his voice, eyes sparkling. “Are you here to dance with the queen?”

 

Emma shakes her head vigorously. “No! No, no. Definitely not. That’s…over. I just wanted to get a look at her suitor.”

 

“Suitor,” Henry repeats, frowning. “Emma, she’s never even danced with the same guest twice. She scares them off and they run the moment they can escape with dignity.” He snorts. “Most don’t even do that.”

 

Emma stares at him. Not once had it occurred to her that Regina might have been lying all along. “No suitor?”

 

“Just one,” Henry amends, and Emma sighs with renewed exhaustion before she sees the look on his face. He beams at her, and she sighs again, this time exasperated.

 

“I’m not ,” she insists. “I didn’t come here for that.”

 

Henry gives her a skeptical look. “You dressed up like that to look at some nonexistent guy?”

 

“Yes!” She hadn’t even dressed herself . This is patently unfair. “I just came here to see– I’m not a suitor . I’m leaving,” she decides petulantly. Henry watches her with a raised eyebrow. “I am . Why are you still sticking around here, anyway? You looking for a prince or a princess of your own?” she says, eyeing him. He can’t be more than...ten or eleven. At most.

 

Henry bites his lip, the smug child vanishing and replaced with someone hesitant. “I don’t know,” he says, and she feels a flare of almost motherly dismay before she realizes that he’s answering her first question, not the second. “I like it here,” he admits. “I thought the queen would be done with me when I refused to show her my book, and I could tell she was mad, but…” He shrugs, lost in thought.

 

Emma can imagine how that must have gone. Henry’s mysterious book is powerful , whatever it is, and Regina must have sensed that as well as Emma had. “What did she do?”

 

“She just gave up.” Henry looks up at her as though she might have the answers. “She found me a room in the castle and invited me to the first ball and I tell her how best to scare off the worst people. I think she’s lonely,” he says with acute prescience. He lowers his voice so only Emma can hear. “And scared, maybe.”

 

“Yeah.” Emma remembers the moment when she’d first understood that she’d been cursed, but she’s borne this curse for her entire life. It has always been a burden she’d carried, and she’d never had to feel it settling down upon her for the first time as it had for Regina.

 

She looks up to find Regina across the room. Regina’s eyes are burning into hers from her throne, and Emma is afraid for a moment that her disguise isn’t working. But no, she shifts her gaze to Henry, and the dark look fades to soft worry. It’s not her who’s attracted Regina’s attention; it’s Henry.

 

The thrill that shoots through her at Regina’s attention is entirely irrelevant, of course. “Regina’s looking for you,” Emma says, nudging Henry. “Go to her.”

 

I think she’s lonely and scared. Emma can’t leave, not yet. Not with Regina suffering on her throne from a curse they can’t break. Regina doesn’t have a suitor– doesn’t have anyone here to fall in love with, and the curse is going to wear away at her until she finds someone.

 

Emma watches as Henry climbs up the stairs to the throne, and Regina takes his hands in hers and smiles her first real smile of the night. She speaks quietly, Henry bobbing his head and gesturing enthusiastically toward the desserts table, and Regina tilts back her head and laughs.

 

Her eyes glitter and her face is soft, her demeanor transformed, and it’s the moment that Emma sees a dozen princes gather up their courage and start toward the throne. Henry settles beside it in the throne that had once been the queen’s seat, curling up his feet and watching the crowd of men with amusement as he whispers in Regina’s ear, and Regina gazes down at her suitors in stiff disdain.

 

The first of the new suitors offers Regina a rose, and she takes it delicately, passing it to a guard. Her eyes are hard and the man doesn’t notice, keeps speaking until Regina cuts him off with sharp words. He leaves, his head ducked down, and Regina smirks.

 

The next few manage to escape with only boredom from Regina. The fourth suitor leaves crying. Emma is biting back a grin when Regina’s eyes fall on her again, and Emma looks away quickly.

 

When she looks back, Regina is regarding her with some interest and amusement. Emma scoffs at her and stalks into the crowd, where Regina will have to work to find her. When she looks up again, Regina’s receiving the next suitor, done with Emma, and Emma forcibly quashes her disappointment.

 

She twists away and comes face-to-face with a noble. “Dance with me,” he says in a voice that he must think is romantic. The command makes Emma’s blood boil instead. She steps forward silently, preparing to smash her heel into his feet at the first twirl, but then she glances up for a split second and sees Regina watching her again.

 

She bites her lip and then smiles at the man sweetly and moves into his arms. She’s gotten better at dancing after that endless night of practice, and he’s surprisingly good, too. She moves, twirls, and maybe it’s a little more of Marian’s magic, but she feels almost like she’s floating by the end of the dance, like she might actually be as graceful as a princess should be.

 

When she looks up, Regina is still watching her. Emma curtsies to her instead of the prince, and she smiles to herself at the tint of dark color high on Regina’s cheekbones.

 

She smiles less when Regina accepts the hand of her next suitor and allows him to lead her to the dance floor. Regina actually floats, dancing in the light like an autumn leaf in burnished browns and reds as it moves in the wind. Nobles and royalty scurry back to give her space, and she finishes her dance with only a murmur to her dance partner.

 

He parts from her and makes a beeline for the exit, but no one is watching him, only Regina. Regina dances with another prince, then another, and then a noble who looks old enough that he might die soon. There’s a cold, untouchable smile on her face as she dances with each of them, and it only seems to melt when her eyes alight on Henry on his throne and she motions to him.

 

Henry still hasn’t quite mastered dancing, but Regina’s eyes soften around him, and she laughs when he tries to twirl her and falls to the ground instead. She crouches down beside him, and Emma thinks that, for the first time since she’d entered this room, she’s witnessed love. Regina adores Henry, and Henry beams up at her with affection, and Emma moves forward, drawn to Regina’s glowing smile just as every other suitor in the ballroom is.

 

She’s cast aside all illusions of disinterest, right at the front of the circle around the queen and captivated by Regina and Henry. Henry spots her and smiles a secret smile, grinning at Regina, and a moment of clumsy maneuvering later, he’s spinning Regina toward Emma.

 

Emma means to back up, to step away and vanish back into the crowd, but the music changes and she’s suddenly in Regina’s arms instead. Henry ducks away, looking very pleased with himself, and Regina’s face hardens back into the cold facade that she uses with every suitor she’s rejected. “You hide your face,” she says, her voice mocking as she reaches up to brush the feathered mask. Emma stiffens, remembering Marian’s warning, and Regina sneers. “What horrors lie beneath it?”

 

Emma tenses. A command will come, she knows. Regina is a queen, and she tosses them out by nature, even when she’s around Emma and knows it. A guest she doesn’t care for will get one immediately, and she has no choice but to tell the truth.

 

She chooses her words carefully, judging them against the pounding in her head that comes with skirting close to defying Cora’s command. “If you order me to, I will remove it,” she says, her voice playful. “But where’s the fun in that?”

 

Regina eyes her in a way that immediately makes Emma feel as though she’s been found wanting. “A rebellious princess,” Regina decides, eyeballing her critically. “Off on an adventure instead of doing your duty. How offputting.”

 

She isn’t wrong , and Emma flushes and almost lets go. It’s only the smug look on Regina’s face that keeps Emma dancing, the certainty that Regina had broken another suitor. “Really,” she says, putting on a false smile of her own. “I’d heard a rumor that you were partial to rebellious princesses.”

 

She focuses on her dancing, worried suddenly that she’d given herself away, but no . Regina has been too public, both at the funeral and at Emma’s ball, and the rumors really must have spread far enough that Regina doesn’t bat an eyelash. “You’re not my type,” she drawls.

 

Emma cocks her head. “Too mouthy?” she suggests, and Regina’s eyes glitter in amusement.

 

“Too tall,” she says, and Emma remembers that Marian’s magic had definitely made her taller and swallows a terrible, foolish surge of hope. “Mouthy can be…quite endearing.”

 

“You’re really going to like me, then,” Emma says boldly, and Regina laughs, then looks surprised at her own laughter.

 

They dance in silence for a moment as Regina collects herself, and it feels almost as familiar as dancing in secret corners after their first kiss, a decade before. They aren’t girls fumbling in the dark anymore. Regina is effortlessly graceful and Emma is made more adept by her skill, dancing in tight circles that widen and constrict, and there are many eyes on them. Who is she? is the prevailing murmur, and Emma ignores them all.

 

Regina turns so her back is against Emma’s front and Emma can’t see her eyes anymore. She can feel Regina’s movements molding to her, their hands still locked together, and their audience blurs in front of Emma as she stares out at them. Henry is there in the front, and he gives her two thumbs up as she frowns at him.

 

“I must tell you,” Regina murmurs. “This is a fool’s errand.” Her voice is dark, and Emma tenses for another scathing comment. But Regina only sounds melancholy. “I will never fall in love,” Regina pronounces. “I know word of my…my gift has spread. This room is packed with imbeciles who believe that it means that I’ll…” She sounds nauseous, and Emma dances helplessly, chained from comforting Regina by her disguise. “I will dance in this room every night for the rest of my life, rather than wed a soulmate,” Regina says, her voice hard. “Your journey here has been a waste of time.”

 

“Sorry to disappoint,” Emma breathes. The music shifts and Regina turns, the dance bringing them face-to-face and far too close. Emma can feel Regina’s breath on her face and she’s afraid, again, that Regina can see right through her. “But I didn’t come here to wed you.”

 

Regina’s eyebrow rises, and Emma flushes despite herself. “Good,” is all Regina says, and Emma finds herself desperate to know what she means by that, why she’s smiling, if there’s–

 

The music changes, and the song is over. A bold suitor hovers behind them, waiting for his turn, and Regina gives him a dark, scorching look. But she does release Emma, her face far less stony than it had been before, and Emma slips back into the crowd, her heart pounding.

 

“You should go,” a voice hisses in her ear, and she turns with some bemusement to find Henry beside her.

 

“I thought you wanted me here,” she says, and she’s a little hurt.

 

He looks at her as though she’s an idiot. “Yeah, but you danced already. You’re not going to be a very good mysterious stranger if you stick around.” He gives her a little push.

 

She rolls her eyes at him. “I didn’t come to be a mysterious stranger . I came to see who…I’m leaving,” she says aloud, exasperated, and not for the first time.

 

“So soon?” says a silky voice from behind her, and Emma freezes and then turns, very slowly. Regina has an arm crossed, fingers wrapped around the other arm, and she’s watching Emma with an unreadable look on her face. “Have I not entertained you enough?” she purrs.

 

Emma arranges her face into something more casual, never more grateful for the mask she wears over most of it. “Well,” she says, her mind racing, and she settles on what has become the truth very quickly. “I only came to dance with you.” It’s meant to sound…seductive or mysterious or whatever it is that Henry wants her to be, but it just sounds raw instead.  

 

Regina blinks, the curve of a secret smile forming on her lips. “I suppose I’ll have to make you work harder for it next time, then.”

 

Emma laughs, more out of shock than amusement, and Regina arches an eyebrow and turns away haughtily. Henry gives Emma another shove, and Emma starts for the exit, a terrible, stupid smile on her face.

 

She turns at the door once she’s managed to wipe it off her face, and she sees Regina, dancing with another man, her eyes fixed on Emma.

 


 

None of this had gone how she’d planned it, and she replays it over and over again with exhilaration and dread as she rides home. The carriage ride is magically smooth, its movements quiet, and she slips out five minutes away from the palace and pulls off her mask at last.

 

Her dress vanishes, she’s suddenly a few inches shorter, and the carriage immediately turns into a pumpkin that her horse attempts to eat. “Hey, wait,” she says hastily, coaxing him away from it. “That might still be…something.” She puts the mask back on, stepping back, and the pumpkin begins to grow and turn silvery. “Oh, wow. Marian really outdid herself.”

 

She’s back to herself, in riding clothes and with her long, blonde hair resting on her shoulders, and she takes a deep breath and tries to wipe the smile off her face. Again . It keeps appearing unbidden, and she feels like…

 

Like a child , in love for the first time. Stupid , she reminds herself. But she’s been in love with Regina for years, and this had been the first time in a long time that she’d felt unchained around her, free to speak and flirt and be happy without the curse looming over her. Regina hadn’t asked anything of her, and Regina had liked her, and…

 

Maybe this will be enough. Maybe she can go back and dance with Regina again, make Regina’s curse more bearable than a hundred suitors she doesn’t want.

 

Regina will never love her again, but maybe she’d love the woman under the mask, and–

 

And . She thinks in grand plans that have no ending, no simple solution. There is no simple solution to any of this, no happy conclusion. Regina is cursed, and so is she, and a mask and a dance does nothing but eases the time until their inevitable destinies take hold.

 

Fine , she thinks sourly, and she doesn’t think about the future at all for the short ride back to the castle. She stables her horse and slips inside, creeping upstairs to her rooms.

 

Mulan is pacing in her parlor when Emma pushes the door open, and she doesn’t ask about the ball or Regina. She looks up, her face grim, and Emma feels the last bits of her ball-related rush fade as Mulan says, “Killian is gone. Cora has been inside the castle.”

Chapter Text

The fear strikes like a thousand arrows at once, each pricking and drawing blood. She doesn’t remember ever being afraid like she is now. But then, she’d never had so much to lose before.

 

Cora has been inside the castle. Killian is at large. Two people who know her secret and have malicious intent are nearby, and she has no way of knowing when they might attack.

 

She stares at her reflection in her mirror the next morning, studies the grim downturn of her lips and forces them upward. She smiles, and sees only fear bright in her eyes. She’s so, so afraid.

 

It follows her everywhere. She receives guests with Snow and stiffens at each peasant in a cloak before she sees their faces. She walks with Mulan through the garden and jumps at shadows, twists at every bird that flutters past. She draws a sword when she enters her quarters later and finds a maid straightening up her room. “I’m sorry,” she blurts out, setting the sword back down. “I’m so sorry.”

 

“I’ve sent Queen Regina a courier,” Mulan says blandly from beside her. “She’ll come as soon as she hears.”

 

“Regina?” Emma shoots her a betrayed look that does nothing to mask her relief. “She can’t– what if she sees me and knows –?”

 

“Knows?” Mulan echoes. “Knows what, exactly?” She raises her eyebrows, waiting for Emma to tell her what had gone on last night. There hadn’t been time to discuss it, with this new crisis. Emma had been privately relieved.

 

She wishes she’d spent the night rehashing that dance instead of staring at the window, watching for shadows. “Nothing. She doesn’t know I was there last night.”

 

“No,” Mulan agrees. “Just a beautiful stranger with a feather in her hair.” At Emma’s look, she rolls her eyes. “Do you really think I wouldn’t send anyone after you? Tamara is subtle. Regina doesn’t know her. You did not go there to spy on some suitor,” she accuses, but she’s smiling.

 

“I did,” Emma says defensively. “Dancing just…happened.”

 

Mulan smiles a private smile, reserved for polite disbelief. “Imagine that.”

 

Emma sulks for a minute before she says, “I want to go back. Tonight.” The idea of traveling on her own right now, with Cora and Killian out there, sends a prickle of fear through her. But it takes nothing more than that worry mirrored on Mulan’s face before she’s determined again. “I won’t let fear rule my life,” she says boldly. “I want to– this is…” She gestures helplessly, and settles on the simplest truth of all. “I want to see Regina again,” she whispers, and Mulan softens.

 

“You’re not going alone,” she says, and she makes plans for Tamara to trail Emma again, speaking distractedly to another guard as she puts it all into place. “By the end of these balls, Tamara’s going to have a dozen princes eating right out of her hand,” she mutters to herself.

 

“She can have them,” Emma says, and she throws a wink at Mulan as she ducks into her room. Mulan shakes her head, long-suffering, and Emma shuts the door, still laughing.

 

The laughter fades as soon as she’s back inside, and she can feel the fear again like a palpable thing. She takes a few long breaths and checks behind drapes and in closets, searching like a child afraid of monsters under her bed. She stops breathing altogether when she reaches the balcony, and a memory returns to her– nineteen, leaping off a balcony at Cora’s behest, enduring pointed commands that would ruin her future.

 

She doesn’t want to leave the castle tonight. She doesn’t want to leave her room . She wants to tell her parents everything and launch herself into lockdown, keep guards posted around her and never venture beyond it again. But she’ll be damned if she lets Cora take Regina from her again, and so she slips outside and rides to the forest where she’d left the pumpkin.

 

She puts on the mask again and feels the change come over her like a whisper in the wind. Her dress is different this time, a turquoise that seems to ripple like waves as she spreads it out around her, and her carriage shimmers in front of her in moments. The swan feather is wound into her thick, dark hair, and Emma touches it and remembers the first family she’d lived with.

 

She’d been Emma Swan once, before an unnamed girl with lonely eyes and before Princess Emma. She’ll be Emma Swan again tonight.

 

She doesn’t think about Cora when she’s Emma Swan, doesn’t peer behind her back as she moves and doesn’t jump at every sound. She glides from her carriage at Regina’s castle, where the ball is already in full swing, and she thinks only briefly to look around for a carriage bearing the mark of a White Kingdom courier.

 

There is none there, and Emma shrugs it off and ventures into the ballroom. Regina hasn’t made an entrance yet tonight, and Emma wanders over to the food table instead, putting together a meal that she would absolutely not be able to eat at an event if she’d been wearing her own face.

 

Regina’s cooks are good , and she recognizes the spicy tastes of some of the appetizers from her time at Regina’s estate. They taste like warmth, like safety, like heartbreak.

 

–The courier isn’t here, which means that he’d never made it here or that he’d left , and Regina hadn’t come with him––

 

She pushes the reminder that Regina doesn’t love her from her mind, instead giving the stink eye to a young noble who looks scandalized at how quickly she’s eating. He looks away quickly, and she sighs, impatient to see Regina.

 

Regina still hasn’t arrived when Emma makes her second plate, and Emma is beginning to feel claustrophobic in this room, surrounded by the thick press of people. She ducks out of the ballroom, just to be safe, and wanders through the gardens instead. She’d barely eaten all day, the fear more powerful than her appetite, and now she sinks down onto a bench and nearly swallows half her plate whole.

 

“You were far more graceful on the dance floor,” says an amused voice, because of course she’d be caught by Regina the one time she’s being embarrassing . Regina is in a gown tonight that allows for more mobility than her prior one, and the brown has been replaced by a wine red. There’s a circlet on her head, light and less severe than a headdress, and Henry is absent from her side, for once.

 

Emma winces and chews as quickly as she can, swallowing repeatedly as Regina watches her. “The dance floor had fewer appetizers,” she says glumly.

 

“Hm,” Regina says, her eyes raking over Emma in a very clear message of exactly which appetizers she’d found on the dance floor.

 

Emboldened by Regina’s eyes, Emma pushes her plate out to Regina. “Your turn.”

 

Regina looks bewildered. “Pardon?”

 

Emma shrugs. Regina likes mouthy, she says, and Emma excels at that , if little else. “Well, I’ve completely ruined my mystique as mysterious stranger because of your food. It’s your turn.”

 

Regina recovers quickly from her surprise. “Not my food,” she says, soreness touching her tone. “It appears each night, same as the music and decorations. I’m sure you’ve heard, I’m cursed,” she says bitterly. “Queen Aurora has made sure that everyone knows that delightful fact. Wed a queen, eat some hors d'oeuvres,” she says in a singsong lilt. “I hope they’re at least tolerable.”

 

“You haven’t tasted them?” is all Emma can think to say in horror, and Regina looks very startled at her insensitivity.

 

She clears her throat. “I have been…rather occupied. It’s frowned upon to take snack breaks while hosting a ball.”

 

Emma lifts her plate again, this time deadly serious. Regina shakes her head. “I suppose I really should enjoy something from this experience,” she says, almost wry, and she sits beside Emma and delicately selects an appetizer.

 

She exhales after her first bite in pure pleasure, and Emma offers her another before she’s finished the first. “I’ll just get more,” she assures Regina. “Outrage some more princes.”

 

Regina laughs. Emma starves for it, is parched and needy for more from the moment she hears it, and Regina looks at her with muted longing. “You remind me so much of–” She cuts herself off abruptly. “Come,” she says instead. “I’m due to make an entrance.”

 

“Wait,” Emma says, though she has no choice but to stand. Regina waits, frowning up at her, and Emma dips forward and swipes a little splash of red from the corner of Regina’s mouth. Regina’s eyebrows shoot up, and Emma realizes too late how forward she’s been. “Sorry,” she says, biting her lip. Regina doesn’t know her with this mask on, though she imagines that Regina wouldn’t appreciate that from Emma, either.

 

Regina turns away coolly, and Emma follows her in silence until they’re almost at the entrance and Emma can’t bear the quiet anymore. “Assuming I can tear myself away from the buffet,” she says, and earns a smirk from Regina for it. “You did promise me a dance tonight.”

 

“Odd,” Regina says as they enter the ballroom. A musical introduction plays, and the room falls silent as Regina is announced. Princes press forward, drawn to Regina even as she glowers at the room, and Emma’s arm tightens on Regina’s.

 

Regina releases her arm a moment later, taking a prince’s hand and twirling with him as the music begins again. “I seem to recall saying that I’d make you work for it,” she purrs as she sways near Emma’s ear, and she’s twirling away again.

 

Emma watches her, open-mouthed, and then she laughs hard and heads back to the buffet. There’s something about being in Regina’s presence– talking to Regina, touching Regina– that makes her regain her appetite, and Regina shakes her head at her when their eyes meet again.

 

Regina does make her work for it. Emma surges forward with the crowd, hands out to Regina as a dance partner flees, and Regina’s dress just brushes the tips of Emma’s fingers before she’s twisting into someone else’s arms. Regina twirls into Emma’s arms for just a moment, and then she’s gone again, as fleeting as a kiss.

 

A woman taps Emma’s shoulder, delicate and coiffed, and says, “May I have this dance?” The music has slowed, the dancing with it, and Regina is wrapped in the arms of a man who does not yet seem cowed by her sharp words. Emma takes the woman’s hands, her eyes still on Regina.

 

“She is rather glorious,” the woman comments, unbothered by her distraction. “You’re fortunate to have caught her eye.”

 

“I haven’t–” Emma begins in denial, but she finds that she wants it desperately to be true, that Regina could have plucked her from the crowd even with a mask on. Regina had once loved her because she’d been the only one there . With this– if only–

 

The music changes, and Emma follows its steps, turns carefully until she’s pressed against the woman in the same way that she’d held Regina to her yesterday. The woman’s back is against her, and Regina is in the same position as the woman across the dance floor with a new suitor.

 

It’s too easy to imagine Regina in her arms instead, to make scorching eye contact with Regina as they move against their partners. Regina exhales, slow and sultry, and Emma lets the barest smile touch her lips. She knows Regina, knows how to end this game, and soon–

 

Regina murmurs something scathing to her dance partner and his face turns ashen. Emma winks at Regina when she looks back up, and Regina rolls her eyes, tilting her chin upward in a very queenly way. She dances away from her partner as his hands fall from her, and the young princess Emma had met on her way here offers her hand and is led into the dance.

 

Stubborn jealousy rears within Emma, and she twists around to her partner, who is watching her knowingly. “The queen says she shall never wed, curse or not,” the woman breathes. “If you choose to settle for someone more attainable…”

 

Emma looks at her. She’s beautiful, of course, but in a far less artificial way than some of the others. She has the eye of the royalty Emma has liked best– the ones who seem more interested in the day-to-day running of the country than in polite small talk and false smiles. She is certainly one of the most impressive women here, and she knows it.

 

But she isn’t Regina.

 

Regina has let the princess go with some gentle words, and the girl still glows with wonder at having danced with a queen. Ella is dancing nearby, dressed in a long and beautiful gown, and her smile catches the princess’s and holds. A man has stepped forward, hand outstretched to Regina as though he believes arrogance to be assertive, and Regina takes it with a tight smile as she looks back at Emma.

 

“Thank you,” Emma says to the woman still dancing with her, and she leans over and brushes a kiss to her cheek. “You are very kind.”

 

The woman laughs, barely a whisper. “And you’re in love, poor fool.” But she says it without judgment, and Emma relaxes as she twirls again, eyes drifting closed and then open again as she lands in front of Regina.

 

Regina’s eyes are dark as she regards the woman, who smiles politely and shifts away. Emma extends a hand and Regina takes it sharply. “You seemed like you were having fun,” she says tightly.

 

Emma scoffs. “Like you weren’t?”

 

“If you think any part of this is fun for me–”

 

“Making grown men cry,” Emma inserts without missing a beat.

 

Regina stops, smiles. “Well, yes,” she admits, and Emma laughs and turns with her. They follow tight steps this time, dancing in a careful line, and they meet only where their fingers tangle. Emma shivers anyway, overcome at the flush of warmth on Regina’s cheeks.

 

“I didn’t come here to dance with anyone else,” Emma says in a murmur, and she sees the smile that ghosts across Regina’s face before it’s gone. “Does that clear things up a bit?”

 

“A bit,” Regina acknowledges, and the music brings them closer. Regina’s fingers disentangle from Emma’s to trace Emma’s face like a caress, trailing along the edges of her mask. Emma shivers again, swallowing hard. “You haven’t even told me your name, mysterious stranger .” She mocks Emma’s admission from earlier with a lilting tone, but it’s all so much gentler than Emma could have imagined.

 

“Swan,” Emma says abruptly, touching the feather in her hair. “Only Swan.”

 

Regina shakes her head. “Someday, you will remove that mask of your own free will. And then… then we shall begin this,” she says, invitation in the barest whisper of her lips.

 

“What is this now, then?” Emma says, and the music slows again. She draws Regina closer and Regina twines her fingers with Emma’s once more, their hands out together as they dance cheek-to-cheek.

 

Regina doesn’t answer. They dance in silence through a second dance, then a third, Emma’s eyes drifting closed as they sway together. Henry appears during the fourth dance, book propped up on his knees as he curls up in the second throne on the dais, and he waves happily at them.

 

“My…” Regina clears her throat. “Henry seems to like you. It’s how I noticed you in the first place,” she admits. “I trust Henry’s judgment.”

 

“I’m glad I got the ten-year-old’s approval,” Emma says dryly. Curiosity overwhelms her, and she dares to ask, “I’d never heard that Queen Regina had a son.”  

 

Regina doesn’t answer, but she watches Henry for a long time. “I don’t,” she says at last. “But I don’t think children should grow up without parents.” It’s an odd statement, taken out of context, and it seems more like a personal revelation than intended for Emma. Emma, who has context– who has twenty-eight years of context, and a year spent with Regina in between– is moved.

 

“Stop looking at me like that,” Regina says, grouchy. “You’ll ruin my reputation.”

 

“I think the kid lounging on your throne might do that first,” Emma points out, her features rearranging as she follows Regina’s command. Regina looks almost disappointed by it.

 

Regina gives her a quelling look. “Not my throne. Never again my throne.” She stares up at the lower throne with sudden loathing. “If this curse consumes me and I wed, it will still never be my throne.”

 

She looks haunted, suddenly, the polish gone entirely from her face. “I deserve this curse, you know,” she says, her voice conversational. “I pursued it. When I was warned to desist, I ignored it and abandoned my…” She falls silent. Emma watches her, nausea rising in her belly. “I deserve every single thing that’s happened to me,” she says, and her voice is calm as she says it, as though she’s only stating facts.

 

“No one deserves this,” Emma whispers. She remembers dozens of sneering faces too close, dozens of times when she’d been terrified of what command might follow that sneer. Terror of Killian returns, crashing down upon a night when she hadn’t thought of him at all.

 

Regina scoffs. “Haven’t you done your research, Swan? Don’t you know what they call me?” She stares into the distance. “They’re not wrong. I’ve done vile things to survive in this world. If anyone deserves this fate, it’s certainly me.” They’ve stopped dancing without realizing, and the music plays lower now. The crowd has dispersed, only a few dancers left on the floor, and most of the guests are watching Emma and Regina.

 

“We’ll have to disagree on that,” Emma murmurs, and Regina shakes her head.

 

“You know…all the right things to say,” she says, and her eyes burn holes through Emma. “It’s strange.” Emma stays quiet, afraid of what Regina might put together in that moment.

 

Regina lifts her head, satisfied by something unknowable she’s seen in Emma. “Will you return?” she asks, and with a cool note of warning, “Will you see your friend again?”

 

“Did you dance six dances with me to keep me from kissing any other cheeks?” Emma counters, and she can’t hide her delight when Regina flushes. “You did! You really did. You’re an inspiration, Re– Your Majesty,” she corrects hastily, and Regina’s eyes glint dangerously. “Truly a role model in pettiness.”

 

Regina stares at her again, searching, and Emma knows at once that she’d gone too far, been too familiar. Henry had seen who she’d truly been in just an instant; Regina won’t be too far behind, and Emma tenses.

 

She leans forward, desperate to distract, and kisses Regina gently on the cheek. “One for you as well, Your Majesty,” she breathes, and Regina doesn’t reprimand her for her forwardness. She watches Emma as Emma retreats, and Emma only makes it as far as the White Kingdom border before she tears off the mask and rides home.

 


 

Regina dances with her again the next night, though she waits until the end of the night, flitting from Emma’s arms time and again. “Admit it,” Emma says when she finally catches her, Regina snug in her arms, “You won’t dance with me because you don’t want me to leave early.”

 

“Admit it,” Regina echoes, eyebrows raised, “You don’t want to leave early.”

 

Emma laughs and refuses to answer. Regina’s right, of course. Under this disguise, in this castle, Emma feels safe from Cora and Killian. This is her one safe place, and she walks through her own castle jumping at shadows but here, she can smile and dance and be everything she isn’t at home. Here, she can hold Regina as though she’d never lost her, and she can’t tear herself away.

 

The courier never returns to the White Kingdom, and at home, in the dark where she can’t dance with Regina, Emma worries about what that means. She’s lost Regina entirely, perhaps, and Regina doesn’t see her worthy of saving from Cora. She wonders if she could wear Marian’s mask for an eternity, if she could be someone else around Regina forever and never have to see Regina watch her with disinterested eyes again.

 

Emma goes back to ball after ball, and Regina has taken to reminding her nightly, “I will not wed.”

 

“I don’t want to wed you,” Emma says every time, and Regina is gentler with her for it, dances too long until there are whispers about them each night. The whispers reach the edge of Regina’s kingdom and continue into Emma’s, and Emma is sitting with her mother in the kitchens one afternoon when they come to the palace.

 

They’d come down here because Snow had insisted that Emma needed something warm and soothing. “You’ve been sleeping earlier and earlier, yet you look worse each day,” she says worriedly, pushing a chocolate drink to her.

 

“Thanks,” Emma says dryly, but she sips at the drink, letting it warm her belly. “I’m fine. Just…I guess I’m still recovering from finding Tinkerbell.” It’s a part of the answer, even if it isn’t everything, and the crease between Snow’s eyes deepens.

 

“Oh, Emma,” she breathes. “I know it can feel…sometimes it seems like all hope has gone, but I believe that hope itself can change even the most dismal of fates.”

 

Her eyes are shining, but Emma can’t share her optimism. “Very little in my life has changed when I’ve hoped ,” she mutters, and her voice feels thick, lost. It’s only a matter of time before Cora strikes, and there is nothing else to do when she does. Regina doesn’t love her anymore, and her moments with her now will vanish the moment that Regina realizes who she is.

 

“Isn’t there anything good about your life now?” Snow asks, her voice gentle, and Emma closes her eyes and nods shakily. There are her parents, and there are her friends, who spend all their time trying to keep her safe. Regina still looks for her masked suitor every night, and Emma glows in response. Even little Henry with his book and dreams has become someone to her. There are cracks of light around the dimness of the curse, and Emma needs only to focus on them.

 

Soon, all of this will end.

 

They drink in companionable silence after that, and the cooks and servants begin to chatter around them. There is some discussion of a birthday party being thrown for one of the nobles in the kingdom, and Snow mutters, “We’re going to be still-recovering-from-disease for that one.” Emma laughs and curls against her. There’s quite a bit of gossip about Lancelot and King Arthur’s wife, and Emma listens halfheartedly as the gossip is exchanged until she hears Regina’s name.

 

“–They say she dances with the same woman every night,” one of the maids says, sighing dreamily. “The woman wears a mask and they have eyes only for each other.”

 

“That’s not romantic, it’s terrifying,” one of the other maids says, poking her. “Imagine not knowing who you’re dancing with. She could be a murderer.”

 

“So is the Evil Queen,” the first maid retorts. “I remember when she was just a scared little girl. Maybe all she really needed was to fall in love.” She sighs happily again. “No one knows where the woman comes from. I wonder if Queen Regina must wed a man, or if the curse allows for her to choose another queen.”

 

Emma twists her spoon around in her mug. Snow’s face is very stiff. “Curse,” she repeats, looking at the maid with an unreadable expression. There’s something new in the way that she says it now, something that hadn’t been there when Emma had first mentioned Tinkerbell’s gift to her.

 

The maid bobs her head. “Yes, Majesty. The Evil Queen ran afoul of a fairy while you had taken ill. They say she must find a soulmate or never stop searching.” She seems to remember who she’s speaking to after a moment. “Though of course, she has it coming, after what she did to–”

 

Emma’s drink goes down wrong and she suddenly devolves into a coughing fit, bent over her mug and choking. Snow rubs her back, calling for another drink, then some bread. Emma eats as quickly as she can, suddenly desperate to escape the kitchens.

 

Snow seems to sense it, because she walks Emma out with their mugs and gracious apologies, guiding her outside to the courtyard. It’s quiet today, and the only people in the courtyard are Mulan and a few new guards she’s training. She walks between them, tossing out critiques, and they move better with each order from her.

 

Snow watches them, gathering her cloak around her, and she says, “Did Regina accompany you to Tinkerbell? Was that why she was there?”

 

Emma’s so surprised that she nearly drops her mug. “What? Who…who said that?”

 

“Aurora,” Snow says, her eyebrows raised. “She said you begged for Regina’s gift before your own.” Emma wets her lips anxiously. Snow says, “Emma, you are far kinder than Regina has ever deserved. But she knows that. She’s taken my kindness in the past and twisted it–”

 

“Do you remember when I pretended to be your page?” Emma asks, made brave by frustration. If she can only explain to Snow– if she can somehow make things right between them–

 

But no one will make things right between Snow and Regina aside from Snow and Regina.

 

Snow strokes her hand, unphased at the reminder. “I remember you begging for her then, too. I think…” She takes a deep breath. “I saw how Regina acts around Killian, how she acts around you. I think she sees your heart.” Snow clasps a hand over it, earnest and pained. “And I think she sees all the ways that she can use it.”

 

“It’s not like that,” Emma whispers, because her mother has it all wrong and she doesn’t know where to begin. There’s a building dread within her, a reminder of how quickly she can lose the favor of someone she loves with only the wrong words. Emma knows better than anyone the destructive power of words. “I…”

 

Snow kisses the top of her head. “Enough about Regina,” she says firmly. “I’ve been given a new lease on life. I want to spend it on the people who matter.” She squeezes Emma’s hand, and Emma squeezes back.

 

A trainee twists toward her and Emma sees the scruff on his chin, the blue of his eyes, and for an instant her heart stops. But no , it isn’t Killian. It’s just another man, and Mulan reprimands him immediately for the incorrect movement. Emma exhales again.

 

She wonders again about the missing courier. Maybe he’d never made it to Regina. Maybe there is some other reason why Regina had never come. Maybe Regina has grown to hate her, after all.

 

By late afternoon, she rides to Regina’s castle, on a different horse, and she keeps Marian’s mask hidden in her bag. She arrives outside the castle before the ball begins, and black-clad guards stop her. “What business do you have with the queen?”

 

“I’m just…searching for a missing courier,” she says blandly, and they glance at each other and seem prepared to send her away. Only when a senior guard steps forward and whispers something in their ears do they let her through.

 

She’s brought to the throne room– the real one, not the ballroom with the dais. Regina sits on a throne twice as impressive as the ballroom throne, guards lining the room, and a flicker of surprise is the most emotion that Emma gets from her. “Hi,” Emma says, standing in front of her. Maybe it’s because she’s been in a taller disguise so often with Regina lately, maybe it’s the throne, but she feels very small. “I was wondering if you…uh, if you ever got our message.”

 

Regina stares down at her, emotionless. “I don’t believe so,” she says evenly. “My guards say you sent a courier? We never received him.”

 

“Maybe she intercepted him,” Emma says uncertainly. She’d thought that seeing Regina again as herself might feel better, but instead she feels hopelessly adrift.

 

“She?”

 

“Your mother.” That gets a reaction from Regina, who straightens, narrow-eyed. “Killian disappeared from his jail cell. That’s…that’s all we know. I thought you might want to look around.”

 

“How long ago was this?” Regina asks. She sits back in her chair, no urgency in her voice, no care. Emma flinches at it.

 

They’d squabbled when they’d last seen each other, but that had been a long time ago, and Emma hadn’t thought much of it since. She doesn’t know what to do about this hard, untouchable Regina. “Early last week,” she says.

 

Regina sits back, politely dubious. “Has my mother done anything since?”

 

“Not that I know of,” Emma says weakly.

 

“Then isn’t it possible,” Regina says patiently, “That the pirate managed to break out on his own? My mother doesn’t wait to act. You would already see her mark on all of this.”

 

Regina’s dismissing her. Regina’s writing her off, and it hurts like a blinding pain, like another crack of light has been closed off from her forever. “Regina,” she says, her voice cracking. “Please. I’m so– I’m so scared.”

 

Regina looks away for a moment, her face obscured from Emma’s, and when she turns back, her expression is strong. “Not scared enough to have come to me a week ago,” she says, and is that– is this why Regina won’t talk to her right now? Does Regina care, or had she hurt Regina’s feelings? She’s lost, bewildered, and she misses the feeling of Regina in her arms, laughing softly as they talk about nothing at all.

 

For the first time, Emma thinks of how it must look to Regina, that she’s only coming to her now. That she’d made promises about fighting this with her, and Regina might have rebuffed her offers; but to her, it must have looked as though Emma had left Regina altogether except when Emma had needed her.

 

“Regina,” Emma whispers, and Regina turns away.

 

“I will send some of my best guards,” she says tonelessly. “They will make sure that your castle is secure. I must prepare for my ball now.”

 

She dances with Emma first that night, putting aside their early-evening flirtation, and Emma clings to her and feels Regina cling right back. “What’s wrong?” she whispers into Regina’s ear, and Regina twirls away from her, blinking away the red of her eyes and waving her hand. Her makeup sharpens, makes her look harder and more dangerous, and the last sign of red rimming her eyes is gone with a burst of magic.

 

Emma follows Regina’s twirl, their hands still linked. They hold each other for a long time, swaying to the music with their eyes locked and raw behind their masks.

Chapter Text

The next night, everything is back to normal. Regina teases her, avoiding her through the night, and Emma hears the whispers of guests about her. There are fewer suitors now, and Regina doesn’t stay away for quite as long each night as she once had. “When do the balls stop?” Emma murmurs one night. They’ve escaped the ball for now, walking through the castle grounds with Regina’s hand delicate on Emma’s arm.

 

Regina shakes her head. “Not until I’m wed to my soulmate .” She spits out the word darkly. “Then, my humiliation will be complete.”

 

“That’s…” Emma hesitates. She knows Regina, knows she won’t accept apologies or sympathy even though she craves them, and she struggles for apropos words. “That’s fucked up,” she says finally.

 

Regina sighs, just a breath. “Sometimes I think that it may be my best option. I find a tolerable man, marry him, and the fairy’s curse is lifted. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in limbo, waiting for…” She stares out into the night. “I was married before,” she whispers. “It ruined me.”

 

“You don’t seem ruined to me,” Emma murmurs, and Regina turns to face her, clasps her cheek. Emma trembles as Regina’s fingers brush against the edges of her mask, smoothing them down. “You seem…magnificent,” Emma finishes shakily.

 

Regina turns away from her. “Looks can be deceiving,” she says, and there’s a tremor to her voice, an unsteadiness that has Emma staring at her, alarmed. Regina can’t believe that she’s ruined . Regina deserves–

 

Regina deserves the world, and Emma is lost in thought as she rides home. She can’t help but feel as though she’s made it worse, by hiding under a mask and keeping the truth from Regina. Regina might not love her anymore, but Emma’s disappearance from her life had hurt her, and Emma had wanted nothing less than that.

 

She rides nearly back to the castle before she slips off her mask, tucking the pumpkin under her arm and trudging the rest of the way. The fear of Cora has faded over time, replaced with thoughts of ballrooms and Regina. Regina’s guards had come and never gone, and Emma slips past them to get into the castle.

 

She pushes open her door and finds Mulan inside, absorbed in a book. Mulan looks up when she sees Emma, brightening. “There you are. I’ve been worried.”

 

Emma grins. “Late night,” she says, sliding off her riding coat and hanging it up. She drops onto a cushioned seat, curling onto it like Henry does Regina’s throne. “We went for a walk and time kind of…got away from me.”

 

Mulan gives her an amused look. “It seems to do that a lot with Regina.” She shakes her head. “I remember the old rumors that would come from her castle. The people never truly accepted Regina, not as a replacement for their queen and not as an individual. The people found her too cold, too hostile, too unaccommodating. King Leopold, of course, never showed any interest in endearing her to the people.”

 

“King Leopold was a dick ,” Emma says fiercely.

 

Mulan doesn’t dispute that. “I was at the wedding, you know. We’d had some security issues– well, you know that, too.” Emma smirks. Mulan had been younger then, too, without grey-lined hair and the knowing face that comes with age. She’d been far more easily led. “I had heard that the future queen had to be incapacitated before the marriage, and I’d expected…I don’t know what I’d expected. Someone dangerous.” She sighs. “And instead, there was just this child with empty eyes, and I’d only understood then what had happened.”

 

“Were the rumors true?” Emma asks. She can imagine what they might have been, remembers the ones that had reached her. She remembers Regina riding through the hinterlands each year with her face made of stone. She’s wondered, sometimes, about those rumors.

 

Mulan sets her book onto her lap. “That she had magic? Clearly. That she’d killed and manipulated and done what she’d wanted under the king’s nose? I wouldn’t be surprised.” A touch of mischief in her eyes. “That she bathed nightly in the blood of babies to keep her beauty? Probably less likely.”

 

Emma barks out a short laugh before she falls back into somberness. “She’s a good person. She just has trouble seeing it sometimes. Especially when there’s no one around her who believes it.”

 

“Your mother…” Mulan begins, and then thinks better of it, her eyes serious in the candlelight. “Regina wasn’t kind to your mother. I know she had her reasons, but it was so calculated– she systematically removed protections from their land that had kept ogres out. She sent David on a number of wild-goose chases through distant lands, hunting for you. She did everything she could to make Snow suffer for her own pain, and she didn’t often think of the collateral damage.” Emma listens in silence, and Mulan says, “There are some who believe that the cold seasons were because of her.”

 

Emma hadn’t thought about what effect Regina might have had on their kingdoms, and what her vengeance had meant. “You’re telling me that my mother’s hatred is justified,” she says slowly, uncomfortable with this knowledge. “Just as Regina’s is.”

 

Mulan shakes her head. “I’m telling you that Regina was once like this. And after Leopold grew ill, we expected it to get even worse. Instead, Regina saved your parents’ lives. She fought for you while Killian had you under thrall. She’s been taking…every helpless child she finds under her wing.” Mulan leans forward, her words earnest. “You’re good for each other. Your mother will see that, in time.”

 

The melancholy strikes unexpectedly, and Emma can feel herself sinking into it. “I think I’ve only made things worse,” she whispers, and Mulan’s brow creases. “Regina doesn’t– she doesn’t love me anymore, and I went about everything wrong. She thinks I haven’t come to her, that I haven’t been there for her, and when we last…” She can’t even relive it. “She looked at me like I was a stranger, Mulan. If she knew it was me under that mask–”

 

Mulan stares at her in sudden consternation. “You haven’t told her yet?” she says disbelievingly. “I thought you were– because of your parents, but I thought that by now, she’d have–” She pulls her hair back from her face, gazing at Emma with bewilderment. “You’re telling me that the mysterious woman who’s stolen Queen Regina’s heart managed to do it without Regina knowing it was you ?”

 

“I can’t tell her,” Emma mumbles. “Not without losing her. You should have seen the way she looked at me when I… Mulan, she can’t love me,” she says helplessly. “What else can I do?”

 

“You should tell her the truth,” Mulan says, fixing Emma with a long look. “This isn’t a command. But you should tell her who you are. You’re building a relationship on a false foundation. It isn’t fair to her. It isn’t far to you, either,” she adds, and the concern shines in her eyes.

 

Emma can feel her shoulders rising in sullen acquiescence and stops them. She knows . There’s a discomfort to knowing the truth when someone else doesn’t, to living behind a mask just to pretend for a little while that everything is different. But this is harmless. Whatever the rumors, Regina is always firm in the fact that no relationship forged through the balls will ever go anywhere, and Emma is only providing her with a bit of comfort along the way.

 

“I’ll take care of it,” Emma says, without much feeling behind it. Mulan sighs to herself and is silent. “I’m sorry.”

 

“I know you will,” Mulan says, smiling at her, and she rises and moves toward the door.

 

“Mulan,” Emma says, and Mulan hesitates at the door. “I don’t know how to say…any of this, really…” Mulan’s eyes are creasing in concern, and Emma shakes her head, trying to convey what she wants to without words. She’s spent her life expecting agendas, expecting every kindness to be followed by a demand, and sometimes just being around Mulan makes her anxious. There’s so much kindness, so little that she can give in return, and she doesn’t know what she’s done to deserve any of it.

 

She takes a deep breath, and finally manages a strained, “You know I love you, right? I don’t…”

 

“Is the part where you drug me again?” Mulan says, laughing gently, and she moves back across the room to kiss the top of Emma’s head. “I’m going to go check the perimeter for signs of Cora. Will you think about what I said?”

 

It’s a gentle admonishment, a reminder that Mulan is dubious that she’s going to tell Regina. Emma looks down, embarrassed and ashamed. Later, she stretches out on her bed, remembering the feel of Regina’s fingers against her skin, and Regina’s eyes, lost and hollow.

 

She will . Someday. When Regina is…better.

 

There’s another lead the next morning, a report about their courier that sounds far-fetched, but Emma bobs her head and pushes Mulan to go. “Both of you,” she says, glancing down at the wolf beside Mulan. “It’s hardly a day’s journey to the edge of the North Kingdom, and we’ll be fine without you.”

 

“This could be a diversionary tactic,” Mulan points out, glancing around the room warily. “If you go to a ball tonight, then there’s no one here who can look out for her. My soldiers are good, and so are Regina’s guards, but there’s no one else who knows quite what to expect from her.”

 

“I won’t go to the ball tonight,” Emma promises. Cora has grown more distant a threat in Emma’s mind, and she thinks this errand is probably for naught. She’d tried something with Killian and failed, and she might regroup for another decade, for all they know.

 

They have to live their lives, and the ball calls to her, tempts her, and she flushes and looks down. “Here,” Mulan says suddenly, and she pulls a little vial from her pocket. “I had this made. If you encounter Cora, it might help. Just push the stopper out and…well, you’ll see.” She tucks it into Emma’s hand, and Emma pockets it, leaning in for one last embrace.

 

She doesn’t go to the ball that night, and she paces, wondering what Regina will think. Regina has no context, just a woman who flits in and out of her life, and Emma shifts guiltily at the thought of that, too. She can’t give Regina up, but she can’t–

 

Mulan has planted a seed of shame within her, and Emma can only ignore it for so long. She excuses herself early from dinner to go to bed, and she sees her parents’ foreheads wrinkle with worry. “I’m fine,” she promises them, and then she goes upstairs and misses Regina desperately.

 

Mulan and Red still aren’t back by the next afternoon. Emma wanders the grounds, an anxious eye to the distance until she can’t wait anymore. “It’ll be fine,” Tamara tells her when she sees Emma toying with her mask at sunset, smoothing down its feathers. “They should be back in a few hours. The rest of the guard will hold down the fort.”

 

“You’re eager to go,” Emma comments, looking keenly at her. Now that Emma’s aware that she’s being followed, she’s spotted Tamara on the dance floor a few times, all with the same man.

 

Tamara shrugs carelessly. “This hasn’t been my worst assignment ever,” she says, winking. “Go ahead. The castle is totally secure.”

 

Emma knows that. If not for her promise to Mulan, she wouldn’t have worried about leaving it yesterday, either. But Mulan hadn’t asked her for tonight, and two nights away without any explanation is unfair to Regina, too.

 

She arrives late to the ball, and when she gets there, Regina is absent as well. Emma is accustomed to the way that the ballroom conducts itself without Regina; how it becomes listless, the dances without direction or motion, the magic of the ballroom faded when its subject has disappeared. She wanders aimlessly, too, eyes flickering to the doors, but Regina doesn’t enter.

 

“She was here earlier,” says a voice from behind her, and Emma jumps. It’s one of the regulars, an older woman who seems to come to the balls just for the food and company. She smiles at Emma with gentle, knowing eyes. “She was here, but she left quickly.” She nods in the direction of one of the exits from the ballroom, a sly look on her face. “I’m sure she’d return if she knew that you have.”

 

Emma flushes, just a little. “Thank you,” she says formally, and the woman grasps her hand.

 

“I remember her grandparents,” she says abruptly. “There was quite the celebration when we heard that King Leopold was to wed a girl from her family.” Emma nods slowly, uncomprehending but glad, and the woman says, “I’ve traveled a long way to see my queen,” with deep satisfaction.

 

She lets Emma go, and Emma walks gingerly to the exit she’d pointed out. It’s dark beyond it, the lights extinguished and the moonlight hardly penetrating the narrow windows that dot the walls. Emma can barely make out a figure standing in front of one of the windows, light glowing off the skin of her face.

 

Still, she knows. She always knows. “Your Majesty,” she murmurs, and Regina exhales, barely audibly.

 

Emma had expected her to be angry, but Regina doesn’t rage at her or make the snide comments Emma had steeled herself for. She simply moves across the distance between them, her face nearly obscured by the dark, and reaches for Emma.

 

Emma catches her and lets out a sigh of contentment when Regina sways into her arms, a hand reaching to touch her skin.

 

They dance in the dark as the music drifts into the room, and Regina lays her head against Emma’s shoulder. “Where did you go?” she asks, and she sounds more lonely than she does angry.

 

“I gave my word to someone at home that I would keep an eye on…things…for them,” Emma murmurs. “I’m sorry. If I’d known, I would have told you.” The doubts and shame that had taken over her thoughts are all gone, chased away by Regina’s touch.

 

“Home,” Regina repeats, and then a breath. “Where is home?”

 

Emma hesitates. “If you command me to tell you–” she begins, wringing her hands.

 

“No,” Regina says at once. Her voice softens, and she touches Emma’s face again, stroking the sides of her mask. “I only wish you would choose to tell me instead,” she murmurs, and Emma looks down.

 

“It wouldn’t be a good idea,” she says. “Can’t we just…can’t we just let this be what it is?”

 

Regina doesn’t answer at first. She lays her head back against Emma’s shoulder, her arms around Emma’s neck as Emma’s hands rest on her waist. “I thought you were gone for good last night,” she admits. “It made me…think far too much about what, exactly, this is.”

 

Emma listens in silence, rocking with Regina, and she’s afraid of how she might be dismissed. Regina speaks slowly. “Last night was…agonizing,” she whispers. “I hated it so much more than I’ve hated any of our nights together. And it made me realize that I can’t do this.” A tear escapes her eyes, the infamous so-called Evil Queen crying against Emma’s chest. Emma holds her tighter. “I can’t live my life fighting this curse all the time,” Regina says, her voice thick. “I can’t spend the rest of my days throwing ball after ball as I fight my destiny.”

 

“I would be there with you if you did,” Emma promises. “If you choose to fight, I’ll be there with you.”

 

“I’ve heard that before,” Regina says broodingly, and Emma is ashamed again. “I’m tired of fighting, Swan. I’m tired of resisting this…this hell of a curse as it presses in on me.” She detaches from Emma’s arms, taking a single step back, and her eyes are intent on Emma’s face. Emma can’t look away. “And I think…I think it might be bearable, were I forced to wed, if I could choose to wed you,” she says softly.

 

The first time, Emma had proposed to Regina. They had been in the stables and so young and Emma had believed that they could do anything together. Regina had loved her, had known her, and this is…

 

“Regina,” she breathes, and Regina steps forward again, strokes Emma’s cheek, and her hand stops at Emma’s mask. “We can’t. You don’t…you don’t love me.” Too many rumors about them have left their mark on Regina, that must be it. Regina has always been firm about where her limits are.

 

“My heart is lost,” Regina agrees, and her voice is heartbroken and hopeful at once. “But I could try, I think. I think I could love you very easily.” She’s so close, and Emma inhales the scent of her, her presence before her for what might be the last time. Mulan had been right. This is too far. This is…

 

“You couldn’t,” Emma whispers as Regina’s lips brush hers, and she guides Regina’s fingers to her face, helps them unhook the mask from her face and pull it off.

 

It’s too dark to see. Emma can’t see Regina’s face, and Regina must not be able to see hers. Regina’s hands slide down, the mask hanging from its string from one of them, and she brushes her fingers along Emma’s face, learns it with her fingers instead of her eyes. Emma closes her eyes, lost in the sensation of Regina’s touch, and Regina says, barely audibly, “Emma?”

 

A door is thrown open across the room, a servant walking in with a tray and then backing up with profuse apologies, but the damage is done. The light bursts in from the outside, fills the room with dim candlelight, and Emma’s face is finally visible to Regina.

 

A myriad of emotions fly across Regina’s face. Surprise, then something almost like a lack of surprise. Anger. Despair. Despair is what terrifies Emma most, and she stumbles backward in her riding clothes and prepares to flee before Regina can say another word.

 

Regina says one. The same one. “Emma?” she whispers again, the mask still dangling from her fingers, and Emma runs.

 

She runs, runs, leaps on her horse and leaves the pumpkin behind, gallops out of the castle and rides through the night, faster and faster until the wind is too hard and angry for her to cry against it. She rides until she aches, and then she tumbles off her horse and staggers into the castle through the entrance hall, caution be damned.

 

“Emma,” Snow says, and Emma turns.

 

They’re sitting together at the far end of the entrance hall, as though they’ve been waiting for her for a long time. There are a number of guards stationed throughout the room, their faces grim, but Emma can’t look at them. Her eyes are fixed on the three people seated across the room.

 

Her mother. Her father. And Killian, his brow furrowed in what an unknowing bystander might see as genuine concern. “Emma,” Snow repeats, her voice fragile. “Killian has told us everything.”

 


 

They’ve been brought into the throne room, where Emma can’t run away. She hasn’t tried yet. She’s only stared at Killian with burning eyes and been unable to speak a word. Her parents move around her, guards on either side, and her father gives her a long, hard hug.

 

“We failed you,” he whispers, and she can’t respond.

 

It’s strange, the fear that incapacitates her now. She’d had her moment of triumph over Killian, had used his own casual commands to deceive him and stop him, but now, seeing him again, she can feel herself freezing up. She shakes her head helplessly, desperate to explain, and she shuts down instead.

 

Snow fixes her with a desolate look. “Is it true? Were you with Regina tonight? Every night?” she asks, and she looks sick at the thought. Emma looks down, unable to answer. “Oh, god,” Snow breathes.

 

“She enchanted her,” Killian says gravely. “This is the queen’s final vengeance against you. A love spell to bewitch your daughter.”

 

Emma finds her voice in a moment of pure outrage. “She did not,” she says. It’s unconvincing, and Snow and David exchange miserable looks. “She–”

 

“To think Mulan was the one to bring Regina to this castle. I can’t believe she has been a party to this. She must have been bewitched as well,” Snow says, pacing. She pauses only to put her hands on Emma’s cheeks, to stare into her eyes sorrowfully. “Regina stole our daughter. Regina–” She turns away, her eyes flaming.

 

“He’s lying,” Emma says hoarsely, glaring at Killian. “He’s the one who enchanted me. He knows about my curse. He used it to– to–”

 

“Curse?” Killian repeats, his brow knitting together in confusion. “What has Regina been doing to you, my sweet?” He reaches for her with both hands, as though to bring her into his embrace, and she recoils.

 

“Touch me again and I’ll kill you,” she snarls, and Snow lets out a muffled sob. Emma spins to her, her fury restored. “Yes, I’m in love with Regina, but it isn’t a spell , Snow, please –” Snow shakes her head, mournful. “She saved you!” Emma says desperately. “She didn’t want you to know, but when you were sick–”

 

“She was the one to make us sick!” Snow cries out. “Killian found out everything after you were bewitched. Her mother infected us right before she married King Leopold in a bid to conquer our kingdom as well!” She shakes her head. “Emma, you’re not thinking clearly.”

 

“I’m the only one here who is ,” Emma fires back, terrified and frustrated, and Snow softens.

 

She takes Emma’s hands in hers, holding them lightly. “Regina has spent many years doing everything in her power to punish me,” she says gently. “I don’t know why she’s been so–”

 

Emma grits out, “You fucking locked her up and handed her over to the king ,” how can Snow still be so oblivious

 

“I saved her life,” Snow says, her patience waning. “I gave her a future –”

 

“Would you have said that if it had been me?” Emma demands. “Because I’d rather die than go through what Regina did in that castle.” Killian’s smug face is still hovering in her peripheral vision, that damned false concern shining in his eyes, and Emma charges forward.

 

The guards are moving in an instant. They’re all unfamiliar, not part of Mulan’s handpicked elite, and Emma struggles as they seize her, kicks and grabs at swords and snarls like a caged creature.

 

“We’re going to save you, Emma,” David says soothingly, and she wants to scream. “Take her to her room,” he says to a guard. “Station someone outside the door. Any sign of Regina and you sound the alarm and fight to kill.”

 

“No!” Emma says desperately. “No, no–”

 

The door to the throne room is thrown open– too late, too late– and Mulan and Red stride in, Mulan’s eyes flashing as she catches sight of the scene before her. “What the hell?” she demands, and Snow opens her mouth–

 

Emma remembers she must have been bewitched as well and she cries out in the tongue of the Middle Kingdom, “ Run! Get out! ” Mulan can’t be taken, too, not when Snow and David are far beyond reason. Mulan has to be free to warn Regina of what’s going on, if Regina will come at all.

 

Mulan doesn’t question it, just turns on her heel and races from the room.

 

“Forget Mulan. Take Emma!” Snow orders. She’s crying, tears streaking down her cheeks, and Emma kicks away a guard before another presses in on her, then another. “This means war,” Snow says shakily. “Regina’s gone too far this time. We have to–”

 

The guards finally get a grasp on Emma, and she shouts, “NO! NO! REGINA!” but her cries won’t make a difference. She’s dragged from the room, her dignity forgotten, and she’s brought up the stairs, kicking and screaming, to her room.

 

“I’m sorry, Your Highness,” one of the guards says regretfully, and she’s dumped unceremoniously inside, the door slamming shut behind her.

 

She hears the latch before she can get up, and she does get up and bangs on the door furiously. “I’m not bewitched ! KIllian is using my parents! Would someone please just believe me?” Her shouts are quieter by the time she’s done, and she slumps against the door, succumbing to despair.

 

After a few minutes, she gives up with a sigh, turning to pace through her quarters to her bedroom. There must be a way to warn her parents about Killian. There must be a way to contact Regina before her parents start a war . There must be…

 

“Hello, dear,” says a voice as she enters her bedroom, and Cora steps out of the shadows. “Long day?”

 


 

Cora is smiling. She looks older now than she had before, more worn, but no less dangerous. Emma remembers her as deceptively proper, the smile on her face a crocodile’s before it moves, and she stays very still now.

 

“Hear me out,” Cora says, a simple command that keeps Emma rooted to the spot. “I’ve known since the moment I first saw you that you would be useful to me,” she says thoughtfully. “It was the only reason I spared your life.”

 

“You spared my life to make Regina suffer,” Emma says coolly. She can feel the heart-stopping fear thumping in her veins, the terror of what Cora might command her next, but she can’t seem to stop talking now.

 

“I spared your life to make Regina strong,” Cora corrects sleekly, and she turns, her eyes glittering. “Did you know that I was once engaged to King Leopold?” Emma stares at her, suddenly nauseous. Cora smiles distantly, walking toward Emma, and Emma fights the hear me out command enough to make a grab for her. Cora waves her hand, magic binding Emma to her position instead. “I was meant to be queen,” she says, smiling coldly at Emma. “And your grandmother arrived one day and made sure that I never would be. It’s a strange justice that Snow White would do the opposite with my daughter.”

 

“You have a fucked up idea of what justice means,” Emma growls.

 

Cora laughs, shifting closer to stroke a finger along Emma’s cheek. “Such fire,” she says approvingly. “My daughter must like that.” Emma spits at her. Cora laughs again. “Now, now,” she says silkily. “I’m giving you what you want.”

 

“What I want ,” Emma hisses, struggling against the magic that binds her, “Is for you to–”

 

“What you want,” Cora cuts in, “Is to marry my daughter.” She smiles as Emma falls silent, dread growing in her belly. “And you will.”

 

She paces in a loose circle around Emma. Emma remembers Regina resisting Cora’s magic, remembers that it can be resisted, and she grits her teeth and pulls, as hard as she can, against the magic that holds her in place. “Regina is going to ask you to wed her,” Cora says thoughtfully. “It’s only a matter of time before she arrives here. She will propose. And you will agree to marry her.” Cora smiles, and Emma doesn’t understand, doesn’t grasp why any of this could be bad

 

“You will not tell anyone you’ve seen me,” Cora adds in a low purr. “You will become Regina’s queen, and you will do everything I command you from that day forward.” She shakes her head in mock disappointment. “Regina has been such a disappointment. There’s a lack of ambition, a lack of focus . But you and I– we are going to guide her to be her best self, aren’t we?” She smiles at Emma in satisfaction. “Everyone wins.”

 

“No,” Emma says, gripped with new terror. This is– this is twisted , everything she’s ever wanted wrapped in a poisonous wrapping. Being with Regina now will mean Regina’s downfall, will mean handing Regina over to a mother who will torment and manipulate her through Emma. She’d thought once that no command could be as damning as Cora’s order to break Regina’s heart, but this is– this is a prison, settling down around her and an oblivious Regina. “No, I won’t,” she says fiercely, fighting the magic keeping her trapped. Cora’s hear me out command has faded as she’s been heard out, and all Emma needs to do is…

 

“You will,” Cora says, tilting her head in victory. “Because I command it.”

 

“Fuck you,” Emma says, and she rips her feet from the floor and runs, full-tilt, to the balcony.

 

Cora opens her mouth to snap out a command, and Emma remembers suddenly the vial that Mulan had given her for emergencies. It’s too late, too late , the new commands already burrowing into her skin, but she yanks it out and pulls the stopper. A shrill sound emerges from the vial, deafening. It’s enough to drown out Cora’s voice, to make Emma’s ears ache, but she doesn’t hesitate. Cora is still talking, shouting, and Emma has to go before it’s too late.

 

She runs to the edge of the balcony, judging the distance down. It’s too far. There’s ivy along the wall further down, below the curve of a turret, and Emma climbs without thinking, onto the balcony rail and along the wall on a narrow level of protruding bricks.

 

Don’t look down, don’t look down , she thinks desperately, hugging the wall of the castle as she edges along to the turret. The vial is still wailing, loud enough that she still can’t hear anything, and she hopes at least that her parents have heard it, that they might understand that something is wrong. That they might believe her and protect her now from Cora’s fate for her.

 

But in the end, in her life, it’s only ever come down to one person who can protect her.

 

She lets out a shallow breath, her fingers digging into the wall, and she looks to her right instead of up or down. The balcony is still empty. Cora hasn’t come after her yet– or maybe she won’t, now that her commands are in place. Cora has tangled her in another series of commands, these to doom Regina as well.

 

She blinks back tears, thinking of Regina instead of the wall that she’s scaling. Maybe Regina really will come after her, really will find herself capable of liking Emma, if she can’t love her. Maybe they could have found some peace, if not for Cora’s command.

 

Now…

 

Now, the one thing Emma has wanted for ten years since she’d knelt on the floor of her little room at the estate and asked Regina to marry her is impossible. Is another way to hurt Regina, and Emma won’t , Emma can’t

 

If Regina is going to ask Emma to marry her, then she’ll have to find her first.

 

Her foot hits the wider brick of the turret’s outcropping, and Emma breathes a tiny sigh of relief. Now, all she has to do is move to the other side of the turret and see if the ivy will carry her weight. She edges along it, now with her back against the curve of the wall, and she grabs a handful of ivy to test it.

 

It’s strong, strong enough to hold her, and she grabs onto another bunch of the wiry plant and pulls herself onto it. Perfect .

 

Perfect, except for the figure who jumps down easily from a spot above the turret and lands in a crouch beside her. The vial abruptly stops its wailing, and Killian smiles down at her. “Look what we have here,” he says silkily. “A runaway.”

 

No . Not now, not alone with him again when she’s almost away. “You know,” he murmurs, smiling down at her. “I’ve developed a bit of a soft spot for you. Cora has her plans, but I would be happy to rescue you from them.” Emma shivers with revulsion, the urge to let go and fall stronger than ever. “You’d make a fine pirate,” Killian says, reaching out to caress her cheek.

 

Emma reaches for him, too, the ivy shifting as she lets it go and reaches to Killian’s waist. His hand is nearly at her cheek, and she draws his sword in one swift move, twisting it upward at once and crashing it into his wrist.

 

It must be an enchanted sword, because it moves through his hand like a knife through butter, severing skin and muscle and bones before the hand reaches Emma. “I told you never to touch me again,” she hisses, and Killian howls in agony and surprise.

 

He screams and screams, blood dripping from his wrist, the hand fallen far to the ground, and he lurches on his spot on the turret wall. Emma watches him grimly, and he tumbles forward and falls, slamming against the castle wall and dropping spread-eagled to the ground.

 

It’s too dark to see him hit the ground, but she hears it as a sickening crunch . There is no scream.

 

Emma climbs downward as swiftly as she can, swinging around Killian’s remains and racing toward the stables. There are guards standing in front of them, looking up toward Emma’s window, and she curses and runs in the other direction instead, toward the peasants’ road.

 

There are no horses there. What there is is a large, hulking wolf, one she knows as well as she does the light of the full moon. It waits for her in silence, and she lets out a sob and tangles her fingers in its fur.

 

The wolf crouches down, and she takes the invitation and climbs onto its back. It takes off into the night, far from the castle, her parents, and Cora.

Chapter Text

Marian’s inn is quiet in the mornings. There are always a few strangers at breakfast, but rarely do they stay later than that. They pay for the night and leave quickly, their carriages carrying them far away, and Emma waits for them to go before she steals out of her room.

 

She still washes the dishes. Marian had scoffed and pointed out that she has magic for that, but Emma had insisted. Marian is shielding a runaway, and it’s the least she can do.

 

She’s gotten good at winning these little battles. She hadn’t let Red stay after taking her here, sending her back to the castle to protect Snow and David with Mulan. There’s no telling what Cora might do, and once Snow is ready to believe them, they might have a chance, at least.

 

Emma is beyond chances.

 

“Command me,” she’d begged Marian on the first night, though she’d been unable to explain why. “Free me from Cora’s commands.”

 

But Marian had shaken her head. “I can’t,” she says. “My commands don’t work on you. Only the fairy who gifted you can command you.” It doesn’t make a difference, anyway. As long as Cora is out there– as long as Regina must marry– as long as Emma has her gift– there is no way to put a stop to this nightmare. Cora will never stop using Emma. Cora has kept her alive for a decade to use her, lurking in the background and waiting, and Emma will be helpless to stop her.

 

She dons a cloak and sits upstairs during dinner, when travelers and villagers arrive at the tavern for the evening. There is much gossip, a murmuring undercurrent through the meals. “Queen Regina is scouring the land for the woman she loves,” one woman says to a crowd of attentive ears. “She won’t stop until she finds her.”

 

“I heard the woman was a maidservant, dressed up by a fairy,” one man says, snorting. “Typical. Can you imagine her wedding the Evil Queen?”

 

“I wish,” a grubby-looking girl says, brushing the dirt from her dress as she sighs dreamily. “I heard she kissed the queen and her disguise fell away with True Love’s Kiss.”

 

“Please,” a woman with a large wart on her nose scoffs. “True Love’s Kiss isn’t real .” She lowers her voice. “I heard that the woman was Princess Emma .” There’s a gasp of disbelief at the table, and Emma shifts in her seat, drinking the warm cocoa that Snow had introduced her to.

 

“Bewitched?” someone inquires.

 

“Certainly,” another says assuredly. “What else could it be?”

 

“She did come to the princess’s ball,” a peasant recalls. “Princess Emma didn’t seem very scared of her.”

 

The first woman slaps a hand on the table, commanding all attention. “Regardless,” she says, “Queen Regina will never be permitted into the White Kingdom now that we’re on the verge of war. If it is Princess Emma, then she has no chance.”

 

“The princess has been locked away for days,” the wart-nosed woman says authoritatively. “I have a friend in the palace. Queen Snow believes that the princess is bewitched as well.”

 

The girl scoffs. “Queen Regina doesn’t need enchantments to win over women,” she says, a bold statement that has the men at the table guffawing. Emma snorts to herself, listening carefully as they go on. The talk drifts to chatter of the possible war that’s coming. The two kingdoms are at a standstill, advisors urging caution and diplomacy, but neither queen is yielding.

 

Regina, what are you doing? Emma wonders. She hears more talk of Regina’s quest to find her dancing partner every night, only sometimes linked to her. Regina must know she isn’t in the castle, then, but she isn’t giving up.

 

As the days go by, the discussion becomes more mocking at times, more sympathetic at others. “You’d expect her to terrorize each peasant whose house she searches, but they say she only seems sad,” says a peasant one night. “She apologizes for the intrusion. The Evil Queen! Apologizing!”

 

“Love really does change even the blackest of hearts,” someone says reflectively, and Emma’s heart wrenches.

 

They’d both be better off if Regina stops, if she carries her people’s goodwill and compassion and rules in peace. The idea of the Evil Queen being in love, losing her love and searching ceaselessly for her, seems to have endeared her to her people, humanized her as nothing else before ever has. Regina could be happy now, a beloved queen, and free of Cora’s clutches.

 

But instead, day after day, there are more reports of Regina’s search.

 

“I can mask your presence from magical searches indefinitely,” Marian says gently one afternoon. “But is this really what you want to do? Spend the rest of your life hiding from Regina?”

 

“Not the rest of my life,” Emma says stubbornly. “Just until Regina stops looking for me.”

 

Marian gives her a long look. “Right,” she says. “Just until then.” She waves her wand and cleans the room with a burst of magic, heading back to the kitchen to prepare for dinner. Emma scowls after her.

 

It’s not like she’s enjoying this. She’s quietly miserable, lurking in shadows and listening to tales of the people she loves. It’s been a long time since she’d been all alone, and she’s gotten used to having…people. A home. A future.

 

Love , she thinks, and she stares dismally out the window. Cora can’t find her here, which is small comfort at this point. Is she really going to be able to wait out Regina, who’s by far the most tenacious woman she’s ever known? She has a sudden vision of herself, stooped over and elderly, washing dishes in Marian’s tavern and telling travelers that she was once a princess.

 

Ridiculous . But she can’t see any way out of this that won’t doom Regina and her both. Cora is careful, methodical, and she’ll use Emma’s curse against her for an eternity. All Emma can do is make sure that Regina isn’t caught in the crossfire.

 

In the distance, a carriage is nearing, and Emma tenses when she sees that it’s one of Regina’s. No. So soon? She isn’t ready , she has to hide from– from–

 

The carriage comes to a halt outside the tavern, and Emma scrambles from the window, hurrying downstairs to her room beside the kitchens and locking it. Regina has gotten past Marian’s magic, somehow, but she isn’t going to let her come any closer. She huddles on her bed and waits, eyes squeezed shut from the strain of hiding–

 

Someone bangs on the door. “Emma!” says an annoyed voice, and Emma’s breath escapes her in a whoosh. “Emma, open up ! I know you’re in there!”

 

Emma slides off her bed and walks to the door, opening it a crack. Henry stares up at her impatiently. “Well? Let me in.”

 

She unlatches the door with a sigh. “Henry, you can’t bring Regina’s guards here. She’s searching for me.”

 

“Yeah, and?” His face is defiant. “Maybe now she’ll find you and you two can–”

 

Henry ,” Emma says, sinking back down onto the bed. “You know it’s not that simple.”

 

Henry shrugs sullenly. Emma takes a deep breath. “I can’t explain exactly what happened–”

 

“I wrote it,” Henry says, and he holds his book out to her.

 

She takes the book gingerly. Henry has never let her read it, though he’s hinted at its contents before. Now, he sits back against the wall in her room and waits for her to open the book.

 

It’s a storybook. It’s her story, as she quickly begins to see, flipping through pages and looking at the pictures on each page. A tiny Emma stumbling after a guardian through the market, an older Emma with a sullen face hiding in the woods. The words have the storytelling quality of a legend, and she gets as far as a page with a picture of her kneeling before Regina as the book details her doomed engagement before she puts the book down. “Were you gifted, too?” she asks. She doesn’t know how she hasn’t realized it before.

 

Henry smiles faintly at her. “I would like to know a little less, I think.” He stares at the book. “Tinkerbell made me to find you, did you know? She thought she could return you to your parents and get her wings back for it. I don’t remember anything before… I don’t even know where I came from. I was so scared. I ran away from her and used the book to hide, but everyone who found out wanted me to tell them…”

 

He shrugs, his little face very somber. “Everything, I guess. They’d get really mad when I didn’t have the answers they wanted.” Emma prickles with rage and compassion for this…this child , another casualty of Tinkerbell’s. “Then Peter Pan found me and he knew who Tinkerbell was and I thought he might help keep me safe.”

 

“But he wanted his own gift,” Emma says softly, understanding. “He used you.”

 

“I stayed on Neverland. Tink gifted the island, not Peter himself, so I never aged. And I was afraid that other people might try to use me, too, so I hid for a long time.” Henry stares at his book. “And I wrote. I wrote everything I saw, everything about you and Regina.”

 

Emma turns the pages faster, past images of her hiding out in the hinterlands juxtaposed with Regina on her own in a dark castle. She flips through Mulan finding her, through both of them racing to Tinkerbell, to ball after ball after ball, to Cora standing opposite Emma in her room–

 

Her hand stops on that page. “You do know what happened,” she says.

 

“I know everything,” Henry reminds her, looking weary beyond his age. “And you’re being dumb.”

 

Emma stares at him. “Excuse me?”

 

“It’s Regina ,” Henry says, as though it’s very obvious. “You two spend all your time trying to solve each other’s problems without ever trying it together. You don’t have to hide from her.”

 

“She’s going to ask me to marry her,” Emma says, gesturing helplessly at the page. “I can’t do that!”

 

“Why not?” Henry demands.

 

“You know why not!” Emma says frustratedly. Cora’s command still stops her from speaking about what had happened, but the facts don’t need that corroboration. “I’m vulnerable , Henry. Anyone who knows about my gift can use it against Regina– can use it against our kingdoms. Even people who don’t know about it are a threat. I can’t do that to Regina.”

 

“She’s pretty tough,” Henry says stubbornly. “She wouldn’t care . She just wants you, curse or not.” He jabs a finger at the book. “This is your story. Yours and hers. They wouldn’t be together if you weren’t supposed to be together.”

 

“Not every story has a happy ending, Henry.”

 

“This one does!” Henry says, his voice rising. “I haven’t– I haven’t met a lot of good people since my curse, either. There were a lot of people who wanted to use me, who didn’t care about me as long as I told them what they wanted to know. But you two are good , and you’re going to be happy ,” he says.

 

“No!” Emma says, too loud, and Henry stares at her. She lowers her voice to some simulacrum of evenness. “The curse–”

 

“Break the curse, then,” Henry says fiercely. “ Fight it, if this matters to you.”

 

Emma throws up her hands. “It’s not that easy! You think I haven’t tried ? You think I’ve never fought it before?” She can feel tears threatening to fall. “All I’ve done my whole life is fight! And all that’s happened is that people have come into it and tried to crush that will to fight right out of me, so forgive me if I can’t see any kind of triumph from this. Life isn’t a story, Henry. It doesn’t tie itself up neatly into a bow and resolve itself, because…”

 

Her voice trails off. Henry is looking past her, at her doorway, and she says slowly, “Regina isn’t behind me, is she?”

 

Henry shakes his head, and Emma turns with trepidation.

 

Regina isn’t there. Her mother is.

 

“I received immediate word that Regina’s carriage was stationed outside the tavern,” Snow says, by way of explanation. “Who are you?” she asks, eyeing Henry curiously. Henry snatches his book and holds it to his chest, watching Snow with round eyes.

 

“You have people watching the tavern?” Emma says, her voice shaky. “How did you get here so quickly?”

 

Snow is standing in front of her, and the wariness and desolation that had been there when Emma had last seen her are gone. Snow manages a sheepish smile. “ Received word may have been an overstatement. I might have been riding outside.”

 

Emma stares at her, unsure of how she’s supposed to feel about any of this. “You knew where I was?”

 

“I didn’t know if you’d want to see me,” Snow says, her voice trembling just as much as Emma’s, and Emma stumbles forward and into her arms. “Emma,” Snow breathes. “Oh, Emma, I was terrified when I saw you’d gone.”

 

“Cora was there,” Henry says suddenly. “She made Emma promise not to tell. I don’t know exactly what else she commanded but…” He shrugs. “There was more, I think. You should be more careful.” His reproach is gentle, though, and Snow looks at him with bemusement. “I should go,” he says. “Regina will be looking for me.” There’s a touch of bitterness in his voice. “And I know we can’t have her here .”

 

“Henry…” Emma begins, twisting from her mother to take his hand. She kneels in front of him, meets his eyes pleadingly. “It’s going to be okay. Okay? It can go another way and still…still be okay.”

 

“No,” Henry says, his eyes narrowed. “No, it won’t.”

 

He stomps a little when he walks, and Emma watches him with a sinking heart. Years on Neverland, unchanging, have kept him a child for so long. He doesn’t understand. “I’m sorry,” she whispers after him. He turns and offers her a wan smile.

 

“It’s a terrible thing, to have someone who believes in you,” Snow says mildly. It isn’t a reproach, but it isn’t comforting, either. “It’s worse to have someone who doesn’t,” she says, and oh . This is an apology.

 

“Mulan talked to you.”

 

Snow snorts. “ Red spoke to me. Mulan found out what had happened and removed herself from my presence for several days until she wasn’t quite as angry.” She winces. “And finding Killian with that sword on the ground by your window clarified some things, too.” She bows her head. “I can’t believe I nearly lost you again.”

 

“You didn’t,” Emma says, anxious to make peace. “I wasn’t…I understood why you were so suspicious.” She’d been angry at first, but it had faded. It’s too difficult to hold grudges when she’s loved so hard, and so rarely. “But I couldn’t be around him anymore.” She would have run, Cora or not, would have fled the castle rather than open herself up to Killian’s commands again.

 

Snow stares at her, her lips parted as though she’s surprised by something, and then she sits down heavily on Emma’s bed. “Oh,” she says weakly, pressing a hand to her heart.

 

“Oh?” Emma repeats, puzzled, and Snow looks up at her. Shame has suffused her, is written across her face and is hollowing out her eyes, and Emma understands. “Oh,” she says softly.

 

Oh, because Snow is finally beginning to understand Regina.

 

Snow sits in stunned silence for a few minutes before Emma says tentatively, “I know she’s hurt you. A lot. Mulan has told me some of the cruelest things she’s done. But she’s also been hurt for a long time, and she hasn’t had anyone to…to be on her side, you know? You did find me in the end, and you kept the ogres away, and in the end, what does she have? What do you have?” Snow listens silently.

 

She says, “You were there when I…” She stops, and Emma nods. “You begged me to listen to her. And she told me you were a fraud.”

 

“She was pretty mad at me.”

 

Snow’s brow furrows. “Why?”

 

No one has asked before. Henry’s always known, Mulan has always respected her privacy too much to ask, and Regina, of course, can never know. It’s oddly freeing to be able to turn to her mother and say, “Her mother kind of ordered me to break her heart.”

 

Snow’s eyes widen, and Emma sits cross-legged on the bed and tells her everything that she can, everything that isn’t sealed away by orders and commands. She tells her about Regina taking her in, about that single year when she’d been happy , about the engagement and Cora and the aftermath of that disaster.

 

She tells her about chasing Tinkerbell and crawling through the catacombs and Regina’s gift, and Snow is crying too when Emma gets to coming home to two dying parents, to calling Regina desperately for help. She doesn’t interrupt, except to ask more specific questions; and by the end, Emma is curled onto her lap, recounting the balls as her mother runs her fingers through Emma’s hair.

 

“It sounds like she still loves you very much,” Snow says gently, and there isn’t any judgment in her voice. “She’s been scouring the land for her dance partner. We’ve been halfway at war lately and she’s still been trespassing to find you.”

 

“I don’t know,” Emma says dully. “I can’t– I can’t see her again.”

 

Snow watches her thoughtfully. “Because of what Henry said about Regina’s mother?”

 

Emma nods, then shakes her head. It’s because of Cora, because of the danger she poses– but she’s only one of thousands of threats to Regina’s kingdom and crown. Emma is a weakness, the weakness, the one that will ultimately destroy Regina. And the last thing in the world that Emma wants to do is marry Regina.

 

Marry her, because Regina’s curse wills it. Fuck Tinkerbell. Fuck her, Emma thinks bitterly, and she slumps against Snow’s leg. “Because of everything.”

 

“Your curse doesn’t make you weak,” Snow says gently. “It…it means that it takes more from you than any person should have to give. But the person you are beyond it is still…” She takes a deep breath. “You’re Emma ,” she murmurs. “And none of this has been easy for you, but you’re still the strongest person I know.”

 

She leans over and kisses Emma on the temple, and Emma holds back tears she’s been holding back for too many days, curled up against her mother as Snow draws a blanket over her. Snow sits with her back against the wall, stroking Emma’s hair until Emma finally drifts off, safe in her arms.

 


 

“I would like to stay for a little while,” Snow says the next morning after breakfast, glancing at Emma. “If that’s all right with you.” She offers Emma a tentative smile. “I rode my own horse here. No guards. Nothing that’ll give you away. But if you won’t come home, I want to be here.”

 

She doesn’t phrase any of it as a command, hasn’t made a single accidental command since she’d arrived at the tavern. Emma offers her a tentative smile of her own. “Okay,” she says, and Snow stays.

 

David doesn’t come, but birds bring them messages, reports of some tensions at the border that are eased and a proposal for a temporary armistice that Emma begs Snow not to sign. “You can’t let her come here,” she says, pacing. “She can’t find me. This is just over the border on the royal road, and she’s stopped here before on her way into the kingdom. If you let her in…”

 

Snow looks as though she might cave, staring down at the letter from David and then up at Emma, and she says, “Then do we fight?” and Emma sighs and sits back down.

 

Of course Snow has to sign it. Emma can’t justify starting a war over Cora’s command, and she finds that she doesn’t want to. The people of their kingdoms deserve better, and so does Regina. So do her parents.

 

So Snow leaves reluctantly, and Emma sits in front of the window of the tavern and watches listlessly as Regina’s carriage speeds past the next day, into the White Kingdom. There’s more gossip that night, more chatter about Regina that Emma hears from her corner.

 

“She came into my cottage ,” one woman says, sounding dazed. “ My cottage . Marched right in and demanded that every single person in the house line up before her.” She takes a long draught of her ale. “Then she stared each of us down and stalked out. I think I might be in love.”

 

“Who would hide from her?” someone else says, and no one has an answer for that.

 

The stories grow more numerous as the days of the armistice continue. The war between the kingdoms has deflated before it had begun, and Emma is relieved for that, at least. She still washes dishes for Marian, casting worried eyes out the window.

 

It’s just comfortable enough that Emma can imagine getting away with this, can picture Regina scouring the land and never once stopping at the tavern, and she indulges that fantasy right up until the day when Regina’s carriage comes to a halt outside the tavern.

 

It’s early, earlier than most of the drinkers arrive, and the tavern is empty. There are no horses in the stables, no way to ride to any of the nearby towns, no time for Marian to disguise her. Emma scurries from the main room, darting into her little bedroom and then back out, incapable of staying entirely away. She dabs her face and hair with soot from the fireplace and huddles in the kitchen beside the stove, a nameless vagrant.

 

There’s a pigeon on the windowsill in the kitchen, pecking at the crumbs that Marian leaves for the birds, and Emma hesitates, panic flaring in her throat, and then ventures in its language, “Go to my mother. Ask her to send Mulan with a horse. Please.” It flutters off as Marian gives her a long-suffering look.

 

Marian bustles around, greeting the guards who swarm into the room first. “Of course Her Majesty is welcome here,” she says cheerfully, darting a worried glance at Emma. “Are you staying the night or is this a stop along the way?”

 

“The night,” one guard says, and she lowers her voice. “The queen is tired. She speaks of going home, but I don’t think she will. It’s been a long month.” Emma ducks her head, watching the door through the kitchen entryway.

 

When it opens again, it’s with a rush of magic, and Regina stalks into the tavern with a scowl on her face. She looks…angry, as she hasn’t for a long time. Her expression is grim and beneath the layers of unhappiness is heartbreak, lurking at the corners of her eyes. Emma closes her eyes, her heart clenching in response.

 

It’s only an hour at most from the castle to the outskirts of the hinterlands, and pigeons are pretty quick. Mulan should be here before the meal is done, and Emma casts a surreptitious look at the outer door to the tavern. No one yet.

 

Just Regina, sitting stiffly in her chair at the tavern, one of her guards beside her. At her other side is Ella, smiling prettily at the guards. One of them mutters something to Ella that Emma doesn’t quite catch, and Regina’s head snaps up.

 

“Watch yourself,” she growls. “You know she can’t protect herself.” She stares blankly at the table as her guards make meek apologies.

 

The woman guard who’d spoken to Marian slides in opposite Regina, taking her hand gently. “Your Majesty,” she says carefully. “Some rest would do you some good. Have you considered–”

 

“Giving up?” Regina says mockingly, scowling at her. “Or have you found something new to urge in the past hour?” The guard doesn’t flinch, and Regina deflates. “I can’t,” she says miserably. “The last time Emma ran from me, I let her go, and I didn’t see her for ten years. I can’t give up this time.”

 

“The fairy’s curse–”

 

“The fairy’s curse was that I will spend my whole life searching for a soulmate until I wed them,” Regina reminds the guard. “So here I am. Searching.” Her tired eyes flicker down the walls, passing sparingly into the kitchen and over Emma. Emma hunches down deeper, hoping that the soot that disguises her will be enough. Regina’s eyes settle on her for only a moment before she’s looking back at her guards. “Snow is lying to me,” she says broodingly. “She claims that Emma ran from the castle and that has been corroborated, but not knowing where Emma is? While she sits comfortably in her palace? She might be a miserable excuse for a queen, but I don’t believe that she would ever give up on Emma so easily.” She says it grudgingly, almost admiringly, and Emma feels a rush of affection for her.

 

“Perhaps Princess Emma is in one of the more distant lands,” the guard suggests. They talk through several and their routes to each, though Regina sounds dubious.

 

“She would hide in the hinterlands,” she says, again and again. “She would hide where there weren’t any people who might be caught up in this…whatever this is.” She waves her hands vaguely.

 

“We’ve been searching the hinterlands for weeks,” a guard reminds her. “And you’ve used your magic to find her with no results.”

 

Regina’s lips tighten in frustration. “Still,” she says, and she takes something from her side and examines it. Emma freezes when she sees what it is. It’s her mask, the delicate lattice of feather across it still perfectly intact, and Regina looks at it with muted longing.

 

“I wish I knew why she ran,” Regina murmurs, mostly to herself. “I wish I knew why…why she’s done most the things that she’s done.” She laughs softly, sadly, and Emma shuts her eyes and stares down, relieved when the conversation shifts to the armistice.

 

It must have been an hour by now, maybe two. Where is Mulan? She looks up more often than is prudent, eyes flickering to the door, but there is no wolf slinking past, no sign that help has come yet. She looks up again, biting her lip, and this time, Regina sees her looking.

 

Their eyes connect and it’s an electric instant, a moment where Emma’s heart stops and she can’t look away quickly enough. She can feel Regina’s eyes on her for longer, and only when they shift away from her does she look up again, planning a route of escape.

 

Regina isn’t staring at her anymore, no. But her eyes are fixed on a decoration on the wall, a piece of artwork made of twisted feathers– swan feathers, the same that decorate Emma’s mask– and Emma can see the gears turning in Regina’s mind, the dawning suspicion.

 

“Innkeeper,” she barks out suddenly, and Marian takes a step forward. “Bring me all the inhabitants of this tavern. Young and old, man and woman. Every room must be emptied.”

 

The guards tense, looking at each other. “I’ve had a miserable headache since I got here,” Regina mutters, rubbing her temples. “Like all the magic has been sucked from me.”

 

Marian curtsies in silence, her face grave, and she disappears upstairs as Regina watches her fixedly. Emma takes advantage of Regina’s distraction to shift away from her spot at the ovens. There’s a back door to the kitchens, an easy escape, and when she squints out the window, she can see a horse and rider approaching. Mulan, at last .

 

Emma moves slowly, carefully, slipping behind tables and through gaps in counters as the guards begin to mill out through the rooms. Marian has brought down a few sleepy-eyed guests, and Regina says loudly, “This isn’t everyone. Where is the girl from the kitchens? What have you done with–”

 

Emma pushes the outside door open, heart racing, and the guard on the other side of the door says, “ Well ,” in just a breath. She tries to break away but there are others around her, seizing her and dragging her back into the kitchens, and the guard shouts, “Your Majesty! We got a runner!”

 

“Careful,” another guard cautions him. “Last time we found a runner, it was just a grubby thief. This look like a princess to you? The queen is going to have our heads if we–”

 

Regina swoops into the kitchens as Emma struggles, pushing silently against the guards as Mulan approaches through the window, and she says, “Not this time, I think.”

 

Emma stops struggling. Regina’s eyes meet hers, sharp and demanding nothing less than her honesty, and she whispers, “Release her.”

 

The guards let her go, but Emma can’t run. Her feet feel rooted to the spot, her eyes locked with Regina’s, and Regina stares at her with such wide-eyed longing that Emma can’t think of running anymore. “You know,” Regina says softly, “When Tinkerbell gave me my heart back, there were a miserable few seconds before I fell in love with you again.” She laughs softly. “Then you tried… spiting me into living again and I was gone. I never want to endure what I did in those seconds again.”

 

Emma shakes her head, can only shake her head, can’t find the words to say what she craves to. She’s already crying; she can feel it, great tears clearing the soot from her face when she’s stopped herself from crying so many times before. Regina touches her face, catches her tears, and whispers, her own voice thick with despair. “I don’t know what you’ve been keeping from me for all these years. I don’t know why you did what you did. But I don’t care anymore.” Emma shakes her head again, crying harder.

 

Cora’s voice is louder in her mind, Cora’s commands, Cora with malice gleaming in her eyes. She will propose. And you will agree to marry her. You will become Regina’s queen, and you will do everything I command you from that day forward.

 

She can’t. She can’t. She–

 

“I don’t care about the past,” Regina whispers, her eyes tormented as she gazes at Emma. “I don’t care about curses, or your parents, or any of the circles we’ve run around each other for all this time. I just want…I want the only soulmate I’ve ever chosen, Emma. I want you.”

 

Emma closes her eyes and Regina kisses her lips, gently and chastely. Emma leans back against the wall, tears streaming down her face, and she kisses Regina back with sooty, salty lips that don’t deter Regina in the least. “Come back to me,” Regina breathes, kissing Emma again. A command, and Emma is helpless. “I love you. I need you. Marry me, Emma,” Regina begs, and the kisses are wet and desperate, helpless, a command falling onto Emma like thunder.

 

Marry me, Emma . You will become Regina’s queen. Commands pile up, each more potent than the last, and Emma can’t hide from them anymore, can’t resist them.

 

She remembers Henry with his fierce little face. Fight it, if this matters to you . She remembers swearing to kill Killian in Neverland, remembers Ella sobbing and Peter Pan aging and remembers fighting , fighting instead of running, remembers Cora in her bedroom tossing out commands–

 

The first time she’d seen a disobedient child and wondered.

 

Lily, at fourteen, ordering a kiss.

 

Ogres with sly faces and all the right words to mock her.

 

Leaping off a balcony, breaking a heart, sealing her fate because of a miserable curse from a damned fairy–

 

“Marry me,” Regina says again, heart-stoppingly beautiful and longing for Emma. Another kiss, and it touches Emma’s lips like a terrible poison– no, Emma is the poison, about to shatter Regina’s world if given the chance.

 

Her head is aching. The nausea roils in her body as Emma fights responding the words she needs to. Her body betrays her, twists to the command, struggles to obey, and Emma thinks, No.

 

No, no, no. “Please,” Regina is begging her, her face flushed and her eyes lost. “Please, Emma, I’m cursed , I must…please, say yes…”

 

No. This is Regina’s doom. She clamps her mouth shut, and the pain is unimaginable. Her eyesight fails abruptly, and she can’t see a thing. Her throat is stopped up, her heart racing so fast that she can hardly breathe, and Emma summons up every last bit of herself that remains and chokes out, “No.”

 

Her body is on fire. Her mind is dazed, woozy from pain, and her stomach twists and twists and twists like pain she’s never known before. It feels as though a thousand hornets have entered her head and taken custody over it, and Emma says louder, “I won’t . I won’t marry you. I won’t!”

 

Regina stumbles backward, looking stricken– and Emma can see her, can suddenly see again. “I won’t ,” she repeats fiercely, and the hornets are fading, the nausea all but gone. “I won’t marry you! I…?”

 

Ella slides to the ground, her smile falling from her face to be replaced with disbelief and wonder. Regina is still staring, desolate, and Emma takes her by the hands in dawning jubilation and turns with her, pressing her to the wall and kissing her deeply. Regina kisses her back, utterly bewildered when Emma beams at her and says again breathlessly, “Tell me to marry you again.”

 

“Marry me,” Regina says, and she doesn’t look offended as much as she looks confused when Emma says giddily, “No. No, no!”  

 

“Emma,” says a strangled voice from the doorway. It’s Mulan, her eyes wide, and Emma brightens.

 

“Mulan! Tell me to do…something. Anything!”

 

Mulan shakes her head, her lips parting and closing for a moment before she says, “Sit down?”

 

“Go to hell!” Emma says gleefully, and she kisses Regina again, backs her against the wall and gathers her into her arms and says, “I love you. But I won’t marry you.” She presses her lips to Regina’s neck, to her shoulders, to her ear, and then she pulls away and says, “And your fucking mother ordered me to break your heart in the stables or I would have married you a decade ago.”

 

Her tears have dried and then begun again in pure relief, in joy, at Regina’s eyes beginning to clear up at that revelation. It feels like freedom she’s never known, like the world is hers for the taking, like the clouds have parted after twenty-eight years and the sun has finally emerged.

 

“I would definitely marry you, though,” she says reflectively to a still-bemused Regina, and Emma laughs and laughs and laughs, it echoing through the tavern like a song.

Chapter Text

First.

 

First is sitting on the floor beside the fireplace in the back room of the tavern, the innkeeper ducking in to offer them each a warm drink that Emma takes gratefully. “It’s cocoa,” she says, passing the second to Regina. “Try it.”

 

The innkeeper tilts her head, watching Emma with the gentle fondness that everyone who meets Emma seems to adopt for her. Regina doesn’t quite trust her, not after she’d hidden Emma from Regina for so long, but Emma smiles and so Regina does, too.

 

Her reputation is all but gone by now, she thinks ruefully. Terrorizing peasants while searching for true love seems to have the opposite effect. She’d bark out orders and they’d smile indulgently, offering her well wishes and sighing dreamily. One old woman in the White Kingdom had even patted her on the arm and told her We know you’ll win over Princess Emma , as though this is some sort of public matter.

 

No . This is private, a closed door and their backs against the wall and cocoa warming their hands. And this is Regina getting answers , at last. “What did you mean?” she asks when they’re alone. “My mother ordered you to break my heart?” She can’t imagine a world where Emma would ever cede to that, Emma who fights like hell even to be with Regina.

 

Emma runs her fingers through her soot-streaked hair, combing out the ashy lines of it. “When I was born, Tinkerbell gave me a gift,” she says, and she laughs giddily again, wonderingly. “I can’t believe I can finally say that to you. I’ve wanted to for so long.” She takes a long sip of her cocoa. “The curse is broken. All the curses are broken. Do you still want to marry me?”

 

“Yes,” Regina says, because that hasn’t changed since she’d first seen Emma again, days after the king’s death. “The compulsion is gone, though,” she concedes, because she’d felt antsy for weeks, desperate as though she’d been clawing blindly for something she can’t describe. She’d awakened with dread and fallen asleep with longing, dreaming of golden hair and eyes that had shone around her, once. “But I do still want to…” It’s not the time to discuss it, though Emma’s eyes glow and Regina’s heart glows in response. “The gift, Emma. What was it?”

 

Emma shivers, closing her eyes for a moment. “Obedience,” she murmurs, and Regina’s eyebrows shoot up. “Every command I’ve ever been given– whether or not it was meant to be obeyed– I’ve had to follow every single one, for my whole life.” She barks out a morose laugh. “I was going to tell you years ago. I almost told you right before King Leopold’s horse went wild in the field and then…well.” She pauses, watching Regina solemnly as she waits for it to sink in.

 

Regina’s first reaction is disbelief. There’s no way that Emma– Emma , the most frustrating and contrary woman she’s ever known– could be beholden to every command. She runs through her memories, desperately trying to remember a single time when Emma had obeyed without question, and she draws a blank.

 

Wait . Little incidents begin to drift back to her, moments that had seemed more of an oddity than symptoms of a curse. A casual follow me when they’d been girls that had had Emma dogging her steps, laughing as though it had been a joke while Regina had rolled her eyes. (“I’d follow you anywhere,” Emma had said breathlessly, and she’d backed Regina against a tree in the gardens and kissed her.) Emma gripped with nausea on the way to Neverland because she hadn’t been loving Killian enough. Emma on her back in her bed at Regina’s castle, Regina whispering lie back and the lust on Emma’s face fading into heartstopping fear.

 

Regina had been terrified then of what she’d done, of going further than Emma had been comfortable with and crossing lines she’d never meant to. It’s nothing compared to the sick horror that she feels now that she comprehends. “What have I done to you?” she whispers.

 

Emma shakes her head rapidly. “Nothing. You never did a thing,” she says, and she’s smiling, smiling as though all can be forgiven, forgotten–

 

“My mother,” Regina understands at last, her heart wrenching in her chest. “My mother tore us apart and I spent years hating you for it. How could you– how can you sit here with me after all I’ve–”

 

Emma scoots over, twists onto her knees and presses a kiss to Regina’s lips. “Stop,” she breathes against them. “You didn’t know. Do you think I ever once blamed you for any of this? Do you think I ever once hated you back?” Regina tilts her head back. Her eyes are wet, her heart aches, and she’s swimming in a sea of regret. She’d thought– she’d thought once, on a tired whim after she’d found Emma again– that at least they’d been on equal footing now, that they both have equal power and standing. But they had never been equal. “I love you,” Emma murmurs against her lips.

 

Regina wrenches away. “Stop comforting me,” she says, and then claps a hand to her mouth as that registers as an order. No . Emma isn’t being held hostage by them anymore, and she doesn’t react to it, only lays her head against Regina’s shoulder in defiance of the command. “You’ve been through hell, Emma.”

 

Emma doesn’t deny it. She closes her eyes again and says, “A little bit, yeah,” and Regina kisses the top of her head, lets Emma curl into her lap, and she listens silently as Emma murmurs, “It was always better with you.”

 

Regina waits. Emma has spent too many years of her life being told what to do, how to think, how to be, and Regina can only offer her silence as Emma begins to speak haltingly. There is more pain that Regina had ever imagined, more years spent alone and afraid of what new commands had awaited. There are years in the hinterlands, heartbroken and afraid, and there are the weeks of Killian’s command when Emma’s voice gets cold and angry and sickened.

 

They shift midway through Emma’s recounting of Cora’s appearance in her bedroom, and Emma plays with Regina’s hair, tugs it loose and twists it between her fingers. “She told me to marry you,” she says. “She told me she would use me to control you. And I couldn’t– I couldn’t,” she whispers. “Not even if it meant getting to marry you.”

 

“You broke your curse for me?” Regina whispers back, twisting around to meet Emma’s eyes.

 

Emma blinks back tears, smiles blindingly through them, and she amends, “For me. For us. I didn’t want to be used to hurt you anymore. I’m not a thing to be used, to be…shaped into whatever my obedience makes me. I wanted to have choices, I guess. I wanted both of us to have choices.”

 

“My mother took so many of your choices,” Regina says, grieving for ten years gone and ten years suffered, and Emma presses a finger to Regina’s lips and replaces it with her mouth a moment later.

 


 

 

Second.

 

Second , the first night in Regina’s castle for both of them. Emma is given her own quarters, both for their purposes and because Regina doesn’t want to presume, and she says, “When you marry me, we shall move into my quarters, if that’s all right with you.”

 

Emma looks miserable. “Of course,” she says shakily, and Regina turns in her embrace, presses her forehead to Emma’s temple and brushes a kiss against Emma’s cheek.

 

“Have I upset you?” she asks, and it’s easy to summon up the desolation that comes with her words. There are too many times when she must have left Emma just as stricken unknowingly, and the scene they’re playing out right now could have been…

 

She takes a deep breath and holds Emma’s hands in her own, swinging them with hers. “I love you,” she says, and she means it. “I…” She can’t say the words she wants to, not now, and Emma smiles at her tearfully as Regina flees the room.

 

She can hear Emma sobbing behind her as she closes the door and leans against it. She doesn’t need to feign her exhaustion and dread, not when this is exactly how it might have gone. She’d thought herself protective of Emma, but she’d never understood what had been in Emma’s heart, and it leaves her lost in self-loathing and frustration at how foolish she’d been.

 

Not tonight. Never again.

 

She goes about her business, Mulan lingering in Emma’s room after Regina has gone and another knight disappearing to keep Henry away; and Regina mixes potions absently, keeping an eye on the flickering little enchanted mirror that she keeps at her bedside table. Mulan says her goodbyes at last, stepping from Emma’s rooms, and Regina watches the mirror with fixed intensity until a panel slides open on the side of the room and Mulan emerges from it into Regina’s chambers. “Ready?”

 

“Of course.” Regina spins around and follows Mulan into the passageway, keeping her voice carefully low. “My room is warded from my mother. As long as she believes that I’m inside it, she won’t search for me.”

 

“Do you really think she’ll come tonight?” Mulan mutters back. Regina likes Mulan. She especially likes the suspicious way Mulan regards Regina herself, as though she still isn’t entirely sure that they’re on the same side. Suspicion of the unknown is good. Loyalty to Emma is even better.

 

“I know my mother,” Regina says grimly. “She never leaves unfinished business.”

 

And by the time they’re back at Emma’s chambers, peering from behind a bookcase inside, Mother is already there. “You will not attack me. Your loyalty is to me first. I knew you couldn’t hide forever,” she croons, passing a hand along Emma’s cheek. “And now you’re going to be my daughter . We have so much to discuss.”

 

“I won’t do it,” Emma says hotly. She gives no sign that she knows that Regina is watching. Her eyes remain fixed on Mother in loathing and dismay. Dismay , and Regina’s brow furrows as Emma says, “Why do you have to…Regina loves you. If you’d come to her now– if you’d try to understand her, instead of using me to use her…you two could still be family ,” Emma whispers. “I would do everything I could to help.” She means it, and Regina watches her with sorrow and affection and a tiny, useless bit of hope. “Isn’t that better than–”

 

“You will obey my commands over any others,” Mother says sharply, and Emma falls silent. Mulan touches Regina’s hand, an instant of compassion that never transforms into pity on her face, and Regina is grateful for it.

 

Mother circles Emma like a predator playing with its prey. “If someone else’s command supersedes mine for some reason, you will come to me and tell me immediately.” She ponders for a moment. “In fact, you will tell me immediately about any commands given to you, regardless of how big or small.” She smiles in slow, cold satisfaction. “You will begin by suggesting to my daughter that this armistice is a mistake. You won’t settle for anything less than your parents ceding their kingdom to you.”

 

She looks smug, triumphant at Emma’s horror, and Regina feels a burning fury at the web Mother has spun to imprison Emma in her clutches. “Be subtle. Don’t make it obvious that that is your endgame. Do nothing that will arouse anyone’s suspicions. Can you be subtle?” Mother says, her brow wrinkling in amused disapproval.

 

“I’d like to think so,” Emma says, and she finds Regina’s eyes behind the staircase and crooks a finger, beckoning her forward.

 

Regina pushes the catch on the back of the bookcase and it turns in place, bringing her and Mulan into the room. “Hello, Mother,” she says, and there’s a certain victory just in making Mother jump, in taking her utterly by surprise. She pauses as she strides forward, coming to a halt beside Emma. “Darling,” she murmurs, kissing her cheek. “Did you think my mother would come back from this place now?”

 

Emma sighs, reaching out to stroke Regina’s back. “I thought…before the end, she should have one last chance.”

 

“I love you,” Regina sighs, and she kisses Emma’s cheek again.

 

Mother eyes them, her lip curled. “Come here, you silly girl,” she orders.

 

Emma eyes her right back, her eyes triumphant. “I don’t think so,” she says.

 

Mother’s face darkens. “So you’ve found a way around your little curse,” she says coolly. “Do you think that’s enough to stop me? Do you think words are all I have at my disposal?” She flicks her wrist.

 

Nothing happens. She flicks it again, her brow creasing.

 

“Do you think I’d let you come here without any precautions?” Regina retorts, and she gestures at the room. “Blood magic, Mother. Making sure that you can never use your magic against me again.” She can’t imagine how Emma had felt after her curse had been lifted, dancing through the tavern on giddiness alone, but she supposes that it must be something like this.

 

Mother slumps, and Regina tastes a bittersweet victory. “You ordered Emma to break my heart,” she says, her words practiced over and over again in her head on the way home. She had planned to sound vindictive, but the words emerge simple and bland, statements instead of accusations. “You made me believe for years that I was unlovable, that I was a naive fool and the only way to survive was to change.”

 

“All I ever wanted was to make you strong,” Mother says, her eyes shining with the honesty of that statement. “I gave you the tools to make you powerful, even if it hurt a little along the way.” She reaches for Regina and Regina blanches, uncertain. “Regina, my dear, I made you queen . I gave you your princess in the end, didn’t I? All I have ever done is make you who you were meant to be, and if you’d rather see me as a villain than acknowledge that, then, well…” She shrugs her shoulders helplessly. Regina can feel the words sinking in, the doubt returning on the heels of her desperation for her mother’s love.

 

Emma says, “ Bullshit .” Her voice cracks across Regina’s self-doubt like a whip. “Regina didn’t want to be queen. You wanted to be queen. Don’t you dare justify the hell you’ve put her through as being somehow for her own good.”

 

Mother ignores Emma, but Regina stands taller, lifts her chin, feels her confidence swell again. “Perhaps you do love me, Mother,” she says. “We will have some time to talk through this, then.” She reaches into her dress and retrieves a box, ornate and silver.

 

Mother’s eyes fix on it, narrowing, and Regina opens it carefully. There’s a flash of light, an instant of magic, and Mother is suddenly inside the box, her tiny body spinning around in despair.

 

“Goodbye, Mother,” Regina says, and she closes the box and puts it away. Daddy will keep an eye on it, and if she wants to…

 

Not now. Maybe someday.

 

“So what do you think?” Emma says brightly, sliding an arm around Regina’s waist and nuzzling her ear. “Did I make a good impression on the mother-in-law?”

 

Is she your mother-in-law now?” Regina says archly, and Emma just laughs and kisses her hard.

 


 

Third.

 

Third , curled in Emma’s arms later that evening when Martín raps on the door. Regina rears up, infuriated at the interruption, and she dresses herself and Emma with an angry wave of her hand and stalks to the parlor door. “How dare you,” she says, and then she sees whom Martín is holding over his shoulder, wrapped in a rain-soaked coat and thrashing.

 

Henry is struggling against Martín’s grip, but he stops when he hears Regina. “My apologies for disturbing you,” Martín rumbles. “We found him sneaking out of the castle, and I didn’t think you’d want him in the dungeons.”

 

“You thought correctly,” Regina says slowly, and Martín sets Henry down. His pale face is defiant and guilty, and he stares at the ground as his cloak drips onto Regina’s floor. “Henry, I thought I made it clear that you aren’t a prisoner here. You don’t have to skulk about,” she says, taken aback at his sullenness. There has been something about him, since the moment she’d scooped him up and taken him from Neverland, that has felt like he belongs with her, like this is where he should be.

 

And he’s never fought it until now, has let her spoil him and dress him for balls and has sat beside her when the weight of the curse has been overwhelming and told her that it would be all right. She doesn’t understand why he’d leave now , when everything is finally good.

 

He doesn’t meet her eyes. “I’m not…I can’t be useful anymore,” he mutters, and Emma appears in the doorway from the bedroom, sleepy eyes focusing on Henry with keen understanding that Regina doesn’t grasp. “I just figured it was time to go.”

 

“Useful,” Regina repeats blankly, and Henry shrugs sullenly.

 

Emma says, “Henry’s gift is gone. Isn’t it?” Henry looks up at her, betrayed, and she steps through the doorway and makes her way to Regina, resting a hand on Regina’s hip. “Regina,” she says, and she doesn’t sound nearly as uncertain as Regina feels. “Are you going to send Henry away now that he doesn’t have his book anymore?”

 

Regina stares at her. “I don’t give a damn about the book,” she says, and Henry exhales, his arms sliding tightly around himself. He shivers suddenly, and Regina takes a step forward automatically, pulling off his soaked cloak and flicking a finger to dry his clothes.

 

“Come here,” she says, and Henry follows her silently into her chambers. She pulls a blanket from her closets and wraps it around Henry’s shoulders, sitting him down on her sofa. He snuggles into the blanket, into her side, and Emma takes a seat on his other side, slipping an arm around his shoulders. “Stay,” Regina whispers, and Henry looks up at her with wide, vulnerable eyes. She’s seen herself in him before, in the way he’s quick-witted and stubborn and has that same open-eyed wonder that she’d once had as a child. But today, there’s something lost and irrevocably Emma in the way he watches her.

 

“If you wish,” she amends, careful now about stray commands. Emma gazes at her with warm eyes.

 

Henry takes a deep breath and looks from Regina to Emma and then back to Regina again. “I do wish,” he says quietly. Regina reaches for him and he buries himself in her arms, Emma pulled into the embrace as well.

 

They hold him for a long time before he squirms, still just a child antsy with too much emotion. “I’m just going back to my room,” he says, looking up at them, and they walk him back to his room, down the hall from Regina’s.

 

He lets them tuck him into bed, and he smiles sleepily at them. “I knew the story was supposed to end like this,” he mumbles, and Regina kisses his forehead gently, smoothing down his hair as she rises.

 

“Night, kid,” Emma says, smiling softly.

 

When they’re back in the hall, walking to Regina’s chambers hand-in-hand, Emma ventures, “So I guess you’re a mom now.” Regina flushes but doesn’t deny it, doesn’t want to. Emma contemplates. “Or maybe we are.”  

 

Regina turns to watch her carefully, but Emma just winks, tugging Regina into her chambers. She has her hand to Regina’s back, and Regina doesn’t notice until she feels a cool touch to her skin that Emma has unzipped her dress. “I think we were in the middle of something,” Emma breathes, and Regina lets out a strangled gasp in response.

 

Emma dots kisses down her back, presses them against her skin, and Regina feels suddenly obligated to ask, “When you said that you’d never–”

 

Never ,” Emma sighs, sliding her hands beneath Regina’s dress to ease off the front. The corset is untied swiftly, Emma directing her attentions to the small of Regina’s back, and Regina arches her back and moans. “Couldn’t trust anyone with my curse. Couldn’t risk–”

 

Regina remembers again that moment in the castle, and her arousal fades away. “Stop that,” Emma murmurs against her skin. “Stop thinking about…” Her fingers creep downward, squeezing Regina’s ass sharply. Regina chokes. “Stay with me,” Emma whispers, biting Regina’s shoulder.

 

Regina splays her hands against the wall, propping herself up as Emma’s fingers slip inside her. “Missed you,” Emma says hoarsely.

 

“Missed you,” Regina echoes, and Emma plays her like a violin she’s never forgotten, draws out whimpers and moans and builds toward Regina’s release until Regina is panting and desperate, forehead pressed to the wall and teeth gritting together from the sensations. “Fuck it, Emma, just–”

 

Emma flips her around and pushes her onto the bed, her eyes intent, and she kneads Regina’s breasts roughly as Regina groans, needy and wanting. “Lie back,” Emma orders, and this is– this is catharsis, Regina is beginning to realize, a long-overdue healing.

 

Regina lies back, and Emma buries her face between Regina’s legs and licks her up and down until Regina shudders and cries out.

 

Regina stays on her back, limp and sated, and her hands fall to Emma’s hips, slide Emma’s disheveled clothes from her. It suddenly feels very important to whisper as she pulls Emma to her, “May I?”

 

Emma nods shakily, kissing her. Her tongue slips into Regina’s mouth, her teeth brushing Regina’s lips, and Regina tears herself away onto to press hot, open-mouthed kisses to Emma’s neck.

 

“May I?” she whispers again, and Emma nods fervently as Regina licks a trail down to her breasts, sucking on one nipple while she pinches the other, letting her teeth graze Emma’s skin until Emma’s squirming against her, grinding against Regina’s center and hissing out frustration when it isn’t enough.

 

Regina presses a kiss to Emma’s stomach, lifts Emma’s wrist and kisses it, too. “May I?” she says, bringing Emma’s hand to her breast, and Emma massages it in response, leaving Regina writhing above her in tandem with her.

 

“Please, Regina,” Emma begs in a breath, arching to her. “Please, please, please…”

 

Regina pulls her forward, drags Emma up her body until her sopping center is nearly at Regina’s breast, warm and wet against her stomach. She positions her fingers just so, trailing them along Emma’s thighs and angling her back just a bit, and Emma watches them with glassy eyes, thrusting forward wildly. “May I?” Regina breathes, her fingers just skimming Emma’s lower lips.

 

“You’d better ,” Emma says fervently, and Regina slides her fingers into Emma, arcs them and twists and pumps in and out, in and out, her thumb flicking at Emma’s clit. Emma keens, rocking against her, and Regina pistons her fingers into Emma, deeper and faster and harder until Emma is crying out. She replaces her fingers with her tongue, spells out I love you into Emma with her tongue, and Emma comes and comes and comes until she’s spent, tears of sheer pleasure spilling down her face as she drops to kiss Regina ardently.

 


 

Fourth.

 

Fourth , the inevitable. Snow White arrives at the castle, her husband beside her.

 

It isn’t as though Regina hadn’t known to expect them. Mulan had left to bring them here days before, and they’d heard reports of a formal diplomatic envoy being put together. “She’s my mother,” Emma reminds Regina, kissing her behind her ear. “And she’s trying . Can you be…” She swallows what she’d been about to say. “Be tolerant,” she decides on.

 

Regina gives her a dark look. “I have a reputation to uphold,” she says, pouting.

 

“You’re practically sitting on Emma’s lap,” Henry points out from the next throne. “In front of half the nobles in the kingdom.”

 

Regina blinks around the throne room. The nobles present suddenly find the walls of the room fascinating. One beams directly at Regina and says, “We’re so glad you’ve found true love.”

 

“They love you,” Emma murmurs in her ear. “You threw a bunch of parties and let them into the castle. Leopold would never.” She’s thoughtful for a moment. “We should keep that up, actually. Not every night, but often. Make the monarchy more accessible to everyone.”

 

Regina twists around to face her. “We?” she echoes, and Emma smiles enigmatically and nods to the door.

 

“They’re here,” she hisses, and she sits up straight, shifting over as the throne widens magically to seat them both. The doors open, Regina’s guards pulling them back as Snow’s guard enters, marching sharply to the center of the room.

 

“King David and Queen Snow of the White Kingdom,” the man at the front of the guard announces. Regina nods warily, motioning them forward, and Snow and David enter the room.

 

“Emma,” David says, distracted at once, and Emma climbs down from the throne to be wrapped into a hug. “It’s broken? It’s really–?”

 

“It is,” Emma says, eyes shining. “Tell me to do something. Anything.” Regina knows she secretly craves commands to defy, sees the barely-concealed grin every time she can disobey someone.

 

David says, bemusedly, “Do a cartwheel.”

 

“I couldn’t if I tried,” Emma says smugly. “And I’m not going to try.” She’s pulled into another hug, and Snow watches her with so much love in her eyes that Regina can’t muster up the fury she’s been holding onto.

 

She clears her throat, and Snow shifts to face her. “Regina,” she says, her tone cautious.

 

“Snow,” Regina responds warily. She doesn’t know what to expect from the other queen. Emma has been closed-mouthed about whatever effort Snow has supposedly been making, and Regina already knows how this will end. Snow is regarded as the victim in their feud by public opinion, is beloved by all, is as good as queen herself in Regina’s own kingdom. Emma might talk about Regina winning over the nobles, but Regina knows well enough that it’s the fact that it’s Snow’s daughter beside her that has won their loyalty.

 

She will have to apologize, make some amends for her angriest strikes against the White Kingdom, and maybe then Emma will be permitted to marry her–

 

–if there even is going to be a wedding, and Regina still can’t figure that one out–

 

She takes a deep breath, preparing for the worst, and Snow says, “I should never have sent you to marry Leopold.”

 

The room falls silent. The nobles gape at Snow, David’s eyebrows shoot up, and Henry exhales as though he’s been holding his breath for a long time. Only Emma, standing beside Snow, looks unsurprised.

 

Regina purses her lips. “Because now he’s dead, I’m queen, and I’m going to despoil your daughter repeatedly tonight?” she offers sleekly. Emma winces. David lets out a garbled sound from his throat.

 

Snow stands her ground. “Because you trusted me to help you,” she says, and Regina doesn’t have a response to that . “Because I saw your anger and thought you ungrateful instead of suffering.”

 

They’re…all the right words, all the right sentiments, and Regina is stunned to silence. They’re the words she’s craved for a decade , offered freely, and nothing demanded in return.

 

There’s a bitter instant when she thinks back to all she’s done, all she’s lost, every single thing gone in the past ten years because Snow couldn’t say those words until now. There’s a bitter piece of her that still craves to punish , to hurt, to strike out and tear apart instead of heal.

 

But Emma looks at her with so much faith that the bitterness fizzles and dies. “I suppose I have some things to apologize for as well,” she says grudgingly.

 

Snow waves a hand. “You saved our lives,” she says. David looks very confused at this revelation. Clearly, his wife has been keeping him out of the loop. “Consider this a blank slate for your future with Emma.” She shoots her daughter a look that makes it clearly exactly what her motivation is in making peace. Snow’s love for Emma is swiftly becoming her most redeeming feature. “Though I could do with a little less discussion of despoiling .”

 

“Oh, no,” Regina says, and she feels less weighted down, a burden gone from her shoulders. “That’s non-negotiable.” Emma rolls her eyes at Regina, and Regina can’t help the smile that creeps onto her face.

 

Snow notices it, too, and she takes a bold step forward, hand out. “Peace, then,” she says.

 

Regina rises from her throne, stepping down to meet Snow. “Peace,” she agrees, extending her own hand. Instead, Snow pulls her to her in an embrace, warm and unexpected. There is still something about Snow, a quality that feels as a mother should be even after the years of antagonism, and Regina can feel her eyes stinging within the hug.

 

When she can pull away, she does, slipping her arm into Emma’s and holding out her other hand for Henry. “There is a reception to attend,” she says, and if her voice is wobbly, no one comments on it.

 


 

Fifth.

 

Fifth , the urgent message that comes via bird one morning during Snow’s visit. There is a seabird rapping on the doors to the balcony when Regina rises, and it caws and caws until Regina sighs and says, “Emma, you have a friend here.”

 

Emma pokes her head out. She’s dressed in nothing but a pair of Regina’s royal robes, and she tucks them around herself as she pushes open the balcony doors and immediately launches into conversation with the seabird. Regina has always been fascinated by Emma’s skill with language, the way her voice shifts to mimic intonations and rises and falls with the words she speaks. She still sounds like Emma as she speaks, but she sounds alien at the same time, birdlike in an inhuman way.

 

When she finishes, the seabird flies away, and Emma turns grim-faced to Regina. “It’s Tinkerbell,” she says, and Regina tenses, preparing for the worst.

 

She doesn’t expect Emma to take a deep breath and then say, “She needs our help.”

 

“Absolutely not,” Regina says when they’ve dressed and made it downstairs to the council room. Snow has the same hard look on her face, and David is drumming his fingers on the table in agitation. Ella is biting her lip anxiously. Mulan and Martín are emotionless, and Red looks as though she might transform and tear out Tinkerbell’s throat, if given the go-ahead. Only Henry looks worried, and he squeezes her hand under the table. “We owe her nothing.”

 

“I took her magic away,” Emma points out. At their disbelieving looks, she says irritably, “I know she had it coming. But I can’t just stand by and let Peter Pan kill her when she’s asked for help.”

 

“Let her rot,” Snow says, teeth bared, and Regina is inclined to agree with her.

 

Ella clears her throat. “Is she really…is she trapped ? How did she get to Neverland? Doesn’t she have a way to leave herself?” Without her curse, she’s more subdued, more thoughtful. She remains a fiercely loyal handmaiden, though Regina suspects it won’t be much longer before those notes she’s been passing off to Princess Rapunzel culminate in her departure.

 

They’re all better off now, and no one will deny that. Regina hadn’t expected this, Emma beside her, advocating passionately for the fairy who had started all of this. “It’s the right thing to do,” Emma argues. “She doesn’t have her magic. She can’t hurt us.”

 

“Anymore,” Mulan corrects her, and Emma shoots her a tired, exasperated look.

 

She turns back to the whole table, finding Regina’s eyes and holding them. “Who am I if I knowingly let this happen?” she says simply, and Regina has no response to that.

 

“It’s what she deserves,” David argues. “She should be locked in our dungeons at best . And if she’s killed by some person she cursed, then, well…”

 

“He wanted it,” Henry says suddenly. His voice is low, angry, conflicted. Regina remembers what he’s told them about his past, about the years spent manipulated and used for his gift. “He wanted it, and if Emma goes to save Tinkerbell from him, then I’m going, too.”  

 

“She is not–” Snow begins, and Regina cuts her off.

 

“So am I.”

 

They all look at her askance. She shrugs. “Emma’s right. And so is David. She should be locked in a dungeon somewhere. But justice isn’t meted out by a vindictive child-man. That isn’t justice.” She tosses a sidelong glance at Emma. “And Emma’s going to go either way, so she might as well have backup.”

 

Emma sits back, her smirk threatening to consume her entire face. Regina rolls her eyes at her. “For the record, you’re an idiot.”

 

Emma looks around the table disbelievingly. “Do you hear this? Do you hear the way she speaks to me? Are you all just going to take this?”

 

Mulan cocks her head. “She isn’t wrong.”

 

Emma glowers at her. “I knew she’d wind up getting you in the divorce,” she says sulkily. Mulan snorts.

 

Divorce? Does this mean we’re…?” Regina begins, but everyone is rising, the tension at the table fading with the decision made.

 

“I’ll ready the guard,” Martín says, exchanging a glance with Mulan and Red. “We’ll have to coordinate with the White Kingdom’s guard.”

 

Red shrugs. “I can’t imagine anyone on Neverland will pose much of a threat,” she points out, and she and Martín begin a discussion of resources as the others file out. Snow is still arguing with Emma, and Ella and Henry go off in the direction of the docks to scope out the available ships.

 

The room is empty soon enough, and Regina pauses in the doorway, watching Emma and Snow from a distance. “She still doesn’t understand how she earns the loyalty of everyone she meets,” Mulan murmurs from the other side of the doorway.

 

“We’ve acknowledged that she’s a bit of an idiot,” Regina points out fondly. Mulan barks out a laugh.

 

She watches Emma with quiet, fierce affection. “I would lay down my life for her.”

 

“As would I,” Regina says.

 

Mulan looks at her appreciatively. “You really are growing on me,” she says. “But if you do break her heart, I’ll rip out yours.”

 

“You’d need to be a witch for that,” Regina points out.

 

Mulan’s eyes narrow. “No, I wouldn’t. I’d just need a really sharp sword.” She pats the hilt of hers and heads off, toward Martín and Red. Regina watches her, somewhere in the uneasy land between touched and disturbed.

 

Emma does inspire this sort of loyalty, and a surprising number of Regina’s own guards seem surprisingly loyal to Regina, too. There are too many people willing to join them, and they only choose a few guards in the end, enough to man the ship. Henry slips on against both their protests, too. “If you’re going back there, I am, too,” he says, and he stands grimly on the deck, Emma and Regina standing protectively beside him.

 

It’s a long, quiet trip to Neverland this time. The skies are clear and there is little tension on board, and Emma and Henry play cards with Mulan while Regina watches the sky. She doesn’t know what she’s looking for– a little flutter of light in the distance, a sign that the fairies are taking care of one of their own? Doubtful. They’re going to have to go back, and Regina worries about it in the same way that she worries about Henry’s eyes flickering out into the distance every few minutes, in the same way that she worries about Emma worrying her lip over and over again until it’s beginning to chap.

 

“I’m fine,” Emma whispers later, when it’s nearly sunset and the island is visible from a distance. “I’m doing what I have to. She can’t curse me anymore, right?” She laughs shakily and Regina strokes her hair, kisses her skin, holds her close until Emma is still and her breathing is even again.

 

They dock at nightfall, and Mulan calls out orders. “Spread out,” she says, eyeing the terrain critically. “Find the fairy, bring her back to the ship.” She pauses, contemplating, “Find out how she got here. Any sign that Pan can abduct people from the island and we take him, too.”

 

She bounds off in one direction with her werewolf beside her, the other guards fanning out at her orders. “Look how well they work together,” Emma says. “It’s good practice, I suppose.” Henry bobs his head in agreement. Regina stares at them, stymied.

 

They walk together along the coast, toward where they had docked last time. Emma had been so determined to do everything on her own then, so determined to save Regina from herself, and they’d both paid dearly for it. “How did you get into that hole in the ground last time?” Regina asks now. Emma isn’t alone, has an arm around Henry as they walk, and Regina is protective beside them.

 

Emma shivers. “I crawled,” she says, and she looks hollow and haunted as they approach it. Henry bites his lip, staring straight ahead to the crater in the ground, and Regina steps ahead of them, walking forward where they can’t yet.

 

It’s still a crater. Rubble blankets the bottom of it, broken trees and rocks and dirt everywhere, except at the very center.

 

Tinkerbell is there, gagged and bound to a tall stick that’s been embedded in the ground. Her eyes widen when she sees them at the edge of the crater, darting from Emma’s face to Regina’s to Henry’s, and she looks apprehensive.

 

One well-timed fireball, and she’d be gone. Regina knows this, just as well as she knows that neither Emma nor Henry will allow it. “She looks–” Emma begins abruptly, then stops.

 

Henry finishes her sentence for her. “Small,” he says. She does look small. Without the glow of magic around her, she looks small and afraid, diminished and furtive as she hadn’t before.

 

“Doesn’t she?” someone drawls from beside them. A boy is perched on a rock beside them, his face twisted into a sneer. Henry stands straight abruptly, his fingers tightening into fists. “All those spells and curses and she’s nothing with her magic gone.” Peter Pan sounds smug. “You know how I got her here? I sent her a note about the berries here. Food and a cave. That’s all she wanted.” He laughs shortly. “Pathetic. She doesn’t deserve to live.”

 

“Neither do you,” Regina says coolly. “But here you are.” Emma has filled her in on the pieces of Henry’s story that Henry is reluctant to repeat, and she feels a surge of loathing toward this man-child.

 

Pan snorts. “What are you going to do, lock me in a dungeon? Give me food and shelter and keep me safe for the rest of my days? I’m shaking in my boots.”

 

“No,” Regina says. “That’s what we’re going to do to the fairy. I have other plans for you.” She waves her hand and Tinkerbell is abruptly in front of them, the gag and bindings gone. “And as for you…” Pan is flung into the crater, and Regina concentrates and begins to build, step by step and tree by tree and rock by rock, recreating the prison that Pan had formed for Henry. Pan screams, shouts out curses and threats until they can’t hear him anymore and the ground is solid in front of them.

 

She twists around to face Henry and Emma. Emma says, “Is there food down there?”

 

“An underwater spring,” Henry says, staring at the space where Pan had been.

 

“Hm.” Emma catches Regina’s eye. “Strange how we never found Pan on this island,” she says, a ghost of a smile on her face, and Regina presses a kiss to her cheek, immeasurably grateful to know her.

 

She turns back to Tinkerbell, who’s smiling uncertainly at them as though they might be her allies. “You,” she barks out. “Walk.”

 

Tinkerbell stops smiling.

 

They wait while Mulan recalls the guards and readies the ship for departure. Tinkerbell’s wrists have been bound, and she sits on a bench on the deck, staring at the ground. Emma sits opposite her, and Regina tenses.

 

She doesn’t know what Emma might do, how Emma might be affected by Tinkerbell. When she thinks about Emma, when she tries to comprehend what the past three decades have been like for her, all she’s left with is the memory of Mother wrapping her in Rocinante’s bridle, leaving her helpless to do anything but Mother’s will. All she’s left with is the girl who’d had to do the king’s bidding and the horrors that it had entailed.

 

But Regina had pursued her vengeance for years following, had found power and control where it had been stripped away from her. She doesn’t know who Emma would be if given those tools.

 

She doesn’t think she could bear Emma’s compassion if she rejects them, either.

 

The ship is leaving, sailing off back home, and Emma says at last, her eyes intent on Tinkerbell, “Why?”

 

Tinkerbell’s shoulders slump. “I thought I was giving you something good,” she says. There are no more airy defenses, no more gifts to disseminate. Tinkerbell is just human, just a girl with her wrists bound behind her back. “I was trying to prove myself.”

 

“You’re a fool ,” Emma says fiercely. “You ruined lives.” Tinkerbell stares impassively, silently, and it only makes Emma angrier. “And you still don’t care,” she says disbelievingly. “You don’t even…do you even think of us as people ? Or are we just…toys to play with, to experiment on? Are we just stories to tell the other fairies about how much you’ve done to the stupid, helpless humans?”

 

Under Emma’s glare, Tinkerbell is muted, underwhelming, and Emma glows with her fury. “We could lock you up in the dungeons,” she says, her fingers drumming against her knee. “We could feed you and shelter you and take away your freedom like you took mine. But–”

 

She stops, takes a breath. Regina watches her in quiet awe. “But that’s too easy,” Emma says through gritted teeth. “I want you to– I want you to learn what it means to fight for every meal. To keep yourself safe when you have no one. To wander through the land and never know what might happen next, how you might be hurt or stranded or trapped.

 

“And while you’re there,” Emma says, her voice growing in intensity. “I want you to imagine what it might be like to go through that and– and be incapable of feeling the emotions you want to. Or be forced to follow the path someone else has decided for you. Or to have something everyone wants and no way to protect yourself.” She clears her throat, her eyes like steel. “I want you to imagine what it might be like to be obedient ,” she hisses, and Tinkerbell trembles. “And then you can begin to make amends.”

 

She turns abruptly and stalks from the former fairy, to the other side of the deck as Regina hurries after her. “I don’t want to hear about how I’m going easy on her–” Emma begins.

 

Regina cuts her off. “You were glorious ,” she breathes, and she means it. “That was…I’m going to have to get you angry more often.”

 

Emma raises her eyebrows, amused. “It turns you on, doesn’t it?”

 

Regina heaves a sigh. “You have no idea,” she admits. “If we weren’t surrounded by our loyal guards and Henry, I would have taken you right then against the wall, fairy be damned.”

 

Emma laughs, loud and delighted and free, and says teasingly, “Save it for the honeymoon.”

 

Which is– enough.

 


 

Enough .

 

Enough,” she barks out furiously, loud enough to attract the attention of everyone in their vicinity.

 

Emma blinks at her bemusedly. “Enough?” she echoes. “Enough of what?”

 

“I can’t do this anymore,” Regina says, her hands clenching into fists. Emma is beginning to look concerned. “I can’t–” She’s breathing hard, and she can feel the words threatening to escape at last, to unleash themselves, consequences be damned. “Are we…” She surrenders to them, bursts out the demand. “Are we engaged or not?”

 

Emma stares at her. “What?”

 

“You keep…talking about marriage and weddings! And divorce! Why are we getting divorced if we’re not even engaged!” Regina explodes.

 

Emma’s brow furrows. “Regina, I don’t–”

 

“And I proposed to you, but you said no –”

 

“I was trying to break a curse! I thought that was valid!” Emma spreads her hands, and Regina glares at her, absolutely stymied at all of this.

 

“Regardless!” The guards are staring at them with what seems like much amusement, and Regina glowers fiercely at all of them. “I have no idea if I’m supposed to be– to be planning a wedding or if we’re dating or–”

 

Emma holds up a finger. “Okay, first of all, I proposed ten years ago and you said yes, so I don’t see why we aren’t still engaged.”

 

“I got married in between,” Regina points out.

 

Emma makes a face. “Doesn’t count.”

 

“Second of all, I can just–”

 

She makes as though to get down on one knee, and Regina says, “Don’t you dare. I want an answer from you ,” and at that moment, she recognizes at last how ridiculous they’re being. A desperate, near-hysterical laugh escapes from her mouth, and Emma snorts, snorts again, until they’re both laughing hard enough that tears of laughter are streaming down their faces and they’re shaking, leaning into each other and pressing wet kisses to each other’s face.

 

Regina whispers, wheezing a little at the effort, “Marry me.”

 

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Emma says, and she laughs helplessly, kisses Regina on the tip of her nose.

 

Regina scowls, but she’s unable to muster up any outrage. “And you see, this is why I’m so frustrated–” she protests, and Emma kisses her again, her cheeks and earlobes and neck and finally her lips.

 

“I will absolutely marry you,” she says, and she pulls back, the laughter gone and replaced with a blazing, triumphant smile. “Because I choose to.”

 

And so she does.