Ignominious defeat is the last way that Regina had ever imagined that this would end. Death, perhaps. It had been an inevitability that she would end, and that that ending would be with Snow White’s destruction or with her victory. That had been the goal, if she thinks deeply enough about it.
Not trudging through her parents’ estate, powerless and fuming as Snow White marries and raises a baby to adulthood and then raises that baby’s baby, sailing into old age with her happy ending intact. Regina craves the release of death, but even that won’t come to her. Something had gone wrong when Snow had taken her magic, and now she is trapped as she’d been, young and beautiful and fearsome and without a single soul around to let her enjoy that.
Henry, the young prince, is knighted. She hears about it when she makes her way to the town, dressed in a hooded cloak that is beginning to grow threadbare. There are whispers that he shall be king someday, that he will be even mightier than his grandparents have been. Regina scowls under her hood and buys her apples and goes.
There is always gossip. The villagers love their prince, and speak often of his mother, the princess, and her beauty and grace. It’s irritating, truthfully, particularly the fact that Snow’s child doesn’t seem to have any…well, fire. Regina is oddly disappointed at that, when she isn’t fiercely resenting the girl for even existing.
Then again, she had been a girl whose beauty and grace had been much-touted, right up until an imp had appeared in her rooms and offered her a way to be so much more. She wonders what Princess Emma might be like, if given the chance.
She wonders what she herself might have been, if given the chance.
She’s brooding again. It’s infuriating, as infuriating as when she strikes out to destroy with white-hot fire and nothing emerges from her palm. She hates this, being the sort of woman who can lose and still have to live her life beyond it. She replays the final battle in her mind, remembers a dozen ways that she might have been killed instead, and she mourns that none of them had come to pass.
She had been robbed her blaze of glory, is only ashes as they float through the wind, and she stalks through her parents’ home in the darkness just to feel the hard stone under her feet.
A voice breaks through a silence. A boy’s voice in a place where no one has spoken in decades, and Regina stands very still as he says, “This place looks abandoned. Maybe we can stay here for the night.”
“I guess so,” says a dubious voice in response. A woman with the boy. Regina creeps closer, reaching for a poker that she knows is against the wall by the fireplace. She keeps her breathing light, her eyes narrowed, and she raises the poker just as the boy manages to light the fire.
The fire illuminates the room, illuminates the mirrored wall opposite them, and Regina sees herself as she hasn’t in years, sees a sallow face with blazing eyes and the light flickering off of her raised weapon. The boy jumps back, drawing a sword, and Regina sees–
–the markings on his breastplace, the thin circlet resting in his mother’s hair. It can’t be. The world isn’t so kind that it would bring her the two people she wants most to destroy. Nothing has ever worked so easily for her, but here are Princess Emma and Prince Henry, her eyes wide and alarmed and his fierce but lacking the same horror as his mother’s.
Princess Emma recognizes her. Prince Henry does not.
Princess Emma is wringing her hands, despairing, and Regina says, “Your Highness,” looking at the boy alone. “My goodness. I thought you were an intruder.” Her voice is rough and scratchy, not the slick tone she’d intended to disarm the prince, and Prince Henry hesitates. Regina lowers her poker. “I haven’t had any visitors here in a long time.”
The boy begins to relax. Of course. These pampered, peaceful royals have never known fear, let alone caution. Princess Emma trembles, her eyes darting to her son and back to Regina as though she wants nothing more than to shout out the truth to him, and Regina smiles coldly at her. “My dear princess,” she says, sliding a hand onto Princess Emma’s elbow. “Please, allow me to show you to some rooms. There is so little suitable in my home anymore, but I’m sure we can find somewhere comfortable.” Princess Emma flinches, her big eyes still terrified. It’s endearing, a bit, like a startled chipmunk. Regina does love knowing she can still make Snow White’s blood roil.
“My home is your home,” she says to the prince. The longer they’re separated, the better. “Feel free to explore. I’m sure a…valiant knight like yourself will find plenty to do here.”
Prince Henry grins, preening a little at the compliment, and scampers away. Princess Emma mouths wordless responses, still frozen in place out of sheer terror.
Regina gives her elbow a firm tug and the princess stumbles along. “You’ll just love what I’ve done with the guest bedrooms,” she says. Her scratchy voice is growing smoother with use, more polished than it’s been in years. “I have just the one for you.”
Princess Emma finally finds her voice, long after her son has gone. “I know who you are,” she croaks, and she jerks away from Regina, backing against the wall. “Do what– do whatever you want to to me. Kill me. Take me to your torture chambers. But let him go, please,” she says, her eyes wet with tears. “He’s never been a part of this. He doesn’t deserve–“
“I don’t care what he deserves,” Regina snarls, her voice low. “I care that his death will cause Snow White pain. And that is what she deserves.” There is an uneasiness stirring within her at the thought of killing Prince Henry, who is only just a child. She has commanded the death of whole villages, has sent children to what has wound up being their deaths, but it’s been a long time. She’s never hurt a child directly before, not since fantasies of strangling Snow had shaken her, and she doesn’t know what she’ll do with Henry.
Princess Emma leans back against the wall, already surrendered to her fate. She doesn’t know, Regina suddenly understands. She thinks Regina has her magic, and that she’s helpless before her. She’s given up before she’s ever fought, and Regina marvels at how soft and useless Snow’s child has wound up becoming.
“Torture chambers,” Regina says, her voice lilting in amusement as she struggles to keep a face that gives nothing away. “Is that what your mother told you was waiting in my prison?”
Princess Emma closes her eyes, tears leaking from their corners. Regina swivels away, irritated despite herself. It would take nothing at all for her to finish off the princess. And yet…
There’s no satisfaction to this kind of destruction. Regina has lived too many years of hollow emptiness to make this victory end so swiftly and easily. “Here,” she says, wheeling back around. “This way. The guest rooms are down this hall.” Princess Emma stares at her, uncomprehending. “What do they say in the kingdom these days?” Regina muses aloud. “Better stay in bed or the Evil Queen will get you.” She shifts closer to the frozen princess, breathing the words against her fair skin.
Princess Emma’s exhales are short and terrified against Regina’s lips, and her eyes are fixed on Regina’s. Something glitters in them for an instant– a deep stubbornness beneath muted levels of grace– and Regina can’t stop the shiver that passes through her at the glimpse of it. “Goodnight, Princess,” she purrs. Princess Emma really is beautiful, like a porcelain doll ready to shatter. “I’ve been waiting for you and the young prince for a very, very long time.”
The same stubbornness emerges again for an instant at the mention of Prince Henry. Regina files that away as she reaches out to touch Princess Emma’s cheek, sliding her fingers along the woman’s jaw.
Princess Emma stumbles backward, aghast, and she flees down the hall, hurrying into the first room she finds and closing the door tightly.
Regina leans back against the wall. She has to think.
There had been a time when she’d had a thousand plans all outlined in the event of meeting Snow White’s daughter, and then grandson. Each happy announcement to the kingdom had been accompanied by a surge of rage and then weeks spent imagining, in vivid detail, exactly how she might destroy them all. She’d longed for her lost Mirror, for a glimpse into lives that would feed her hatred, and she’d plotted and plotted.
Now, it’s been years since she’s even looked in a mirror at all. Mother had made her a servant to vanity, and her reign had been built on carefully sculpted appearances. When she’d lost the final battle, she’d broken every mirror in the mansion, and every single one had fixed itself, enchanted by her mother to keep the house perfect. She’d blacked out the lights then and covered the ones in the rooms she still visits, and now she’s lived in dimness for many, many years.
It had been a shock to see herself in the mirror earlier. She had thought, perhaps, that if she wouldn’t age, then her beauty would be retained naturally. She hadn’t imagined what she sees now when she lifts the covering over the mirror in the sitting room, lighting a lamp beside it. She looks ill, diminished, wizened to hatred and little more. She eats rarely, just enough to survive, and her once-golden skin has gained unnatural pallor from hiding in the dark. It’s a shock that Princess Emma had recognized her at all.
Though who knows what triumphant paintings adorn the halls of the White Palace, how Regina looks in them? She thinks with tired fury of the old gossip, that she had fought Snow to be the fairest of them all. She had never been fair, but she had been glorious and terrible in ways that none of Snow’s people had been able to comprehend. Maybe this crone is exactly how Princess Emma had imagined her.
The voice from behind her is tentative and small. “Are you a ghost?”
She sees the boy in her reflection, the light dancing across his face. He’s in armor, his knight’s hat tucked under one arm, and he’s far too young to look like anything but a boy playing at being a man.
But his eyes are inquisitive, still young enough and spoiled enough to believe that he’s capable of anything. She laughs lightly, turning to face him. “I’m sorry?”
Prince Henry bites his lip, eyes still fixed on her. “Maybe not a ghost,” he amends, his brow wrinkling. “Can ghosts see their reflections? Some kind of witch, maybe?” Regina stares at him until he looks down, a blush pinking his cheek. “I’m sorry. That was rude. I just don’t understand.”
“Understand,” Regina repeats, taking a seat. She’s suddenly tired, under the anxious gaze of a prince who doesn’t know to hate her. “Understand what?”
“This house,” Prince Henry says, waving around at the dimly lit room. “The lamps look as though they haven’t been lit in years. But the house is in perfect condition. And all the mirrors are covered and there are all these locked doors and I thought– you must be a ghost,” he says earnestly. “It’s okay if you’re a ghost! I’ve never met one before. I met a ghoul once in the forest with my grandfather, but it just shrieked a lot and then ran off, and you seem way more real.“ He trips over himself in an attempt to validate her ghosthood, and Regina feels something within her twitching, old and dead and somehow still there.
Fondness. She has always had a soft spot for children, before they’d begun to run from her in fear. “I’m not a ghost,” she says, gesturing to the sofa across from her. Henry sits, a little clunky in his armor. “I suffered from…a great loss, many years ago, and I suppose I never quite recovered.”
“I’m sorry,” the boy says, and he looks sincere. “My grandma always says that you shouldn’t let the darkness consume you, that there’s always hope.”
Rage blazes through her, still hot and furious, and Regina can’t speak for a moment, her fury too great to do anything but clench her fingers into her palm. She leaves behind tiny crescents of blood, and she presses her palms against her knees and forces a smile at Henry. “Your grandmother is queen of the White Kingdom,” she reminds Henry through gritted teeth. “Why wouldn’t she always have hope? Not everyone is so fortunate.”
Henry regards her unblinkingly, thoughtfully, and he says, “I never really thought about it like that.” Regina’s fingers, brittle and stiff, loosen on her knees. “Still, though,” he says, frowning. “It’s so dark. How do you see where you’re going? I tripped three different times just coming downstairs.”
She laughs, more out of the relief of distraction, of something to think of that doesn’t tighten her chest and leave her glowing with a fury that turns her to ash. “You get used to it. I suppose we should light some of the lamps, if you’re going to spend the night here. I don’t want you to trip again.” She flashes him a wink, and he giggles, still just a child.
She can’t kill a child. Not anymore. The years spent wasting away have made her weak, have made her vengeance the stuff of wishes and dreams instead of her destiny. She is as frail as the princess shaking in the guest room upstairs, and she shudders and doesn’t understand the sensation taking over her chest when Henry laughs with her.
It feels warm, alien, and it makes her stand and reach out a hand to help Henry up. “I’m the knight,” he protests, standing on his own, and then he gallantly extends his arm for her to take.
“Very chivalrous,” Regina praises, and she sees the pink flush of delight on his face at that. Just a boy, playing at being a man.
Just a spoiled little prince.
But he bounds from lamp to lamp with a little torch they’ve found, happily illuminating the darkness ahead of her and beaming back at her as though he’s singlehandedly pulled her out of the depressive funk she’s been in for three decades. She finds it’s easier to put a false smile on her face when there’s someone smiling back at her expectantly, when it’s easy to pretend that it isn’t false at all.
“Mom isn’t going to believe this when she wakes up,” Henry says, grinning. “This place is really cool when you can see everything.” He traces murals on the wall, gazing in awe at a painting that she’d loved as a child. It stretches across the long hallway that had led to her childhood room, and Henry lights all the lamps in the hall before he hurries back to examine the painting.
“Here,” she says, guiding his hand to the horses that run across the the painting. “If you stare at it for long enough, you can see that the background is actually a dragon and the horses are its background.”
Henry squints for a few moments before his eyes round. “I see it!” he says, turning to look up at her triumphantly. “That’s amazing. Are there more like it?”
“A few,” Regina says, that odd warmth in her chest still glowing each time he gazes at her. “This one was my favorite, though. I used to spend hours in front of it when I was young.” Mother had never approved of her wasting time gaping at paintings, and she’d torn it off the wall and hadn’t returned it until the day after she’d killed Daniel. A wedding gift, she’d said, and Regina had been nauseous each time she’d seen it since.
Now, though, she can’t summon up the same disgust. It has been so many years, and the king is dead. Only his daughter and her family await Regina’s punishment–
She has to swallow back her nausea again, and she says abruptly, “Let me show you to your room.”
She takes him to her childhood bedroom, knowing already that he’ll love the pictures on the walls and the books on the shelf and the view out to the fields, when morning comes. He asks only once about his mother, and she says simply, “She’s in a different guest room. I’ll let her know where you are.” He smiles at her, guilelessly trusting as though he’s never known any betrayal in his life.
It should make this so easy. She hurries through the mansion, down to the cellar, a strange lump of disappointment in her throat. Snow’s family is here, awaiting her vengeance, and they don’t know how to fight back.
Nevertheless. She finally has a plan.
Potions are the one weapon she still has. Her mother’s old stock of ingredients remain intact, though Regina has hardly used them. Potions don’t help when your enemy is across the kingdom, is living her perfect, happy life untouched by defeat. She had tried, early on, to cast a curse that would send them all into another world where Regina might win, but she had failed without her magic.
Now, at least, she has some use for her mother’s potions.
She mixes two of them. The first she knows from memory, a simple sleeping curse. The second takes some work, flipping through old books until she finds the perfect blend, sighing when she realizes what she has no choice but to do for it.
She steals upstairs when it’s all but complete, slipping first into the room where Henry lies, snoring lightly. A tiny snip and she’s taken a strand of hair, and he only grunts and rolls over, oblivious to the Evil Queen standing over him. She drops the strand into the second potion and heads to the other end of the mansion.
There is a low weeping coming from the guest room where she’d left Princess Emma, and Regina sighs in disgust and stalks inside. “Give me a strand of your hair,” she orders. Princess Emma’s face is tear-streaked and frightened, and Regina holds up her old fireball hand threateningly. “Give me a strand of your hair or I set it all on fire,” she says, imperious, and Princess Emma plucks it hopelessly and hands it to Regina. In it goes to the potion as well.
She takes the second potion and walks outside, to the stables where her horse awaits. She only uses him to ride to the village, of late, and she finds that she’s ill-suited to the circular riding that takes them around the border of her property. She’s gasping by the end of it, the potion spilling out in droplets and her thighs aching, and she slides off the horse and staggers into the house, made of old, worn bones and limp muscle.
She manages to make it upstairs, where the princess is still weeping softly, and she doesn’t miss a sob when Regina appears in her doorway. Regina sinks to the ground, leaning against the wall beside the bedroom exit, and Princess Emma cries silently.
“Will you stop weeping?” Regina finally snaps, tired of the incessant pity party. Her son might be everything that the rest of his family isn’t, but Princess Emma is already as unlikable as her mother. “It’s very unbecoming.”
There’s a flash of annoyance across Princess Emma’s face. It’s small and barely creases her eyes for a moment, but Regina is drawn to it at once. “Do you think I care if you find me becoming?” Princess Emma shoots back. The fear is still there, but it’s fading with Regina’s continued presence, and the princess isn’t begging anymore.
Good. It had been damned annoying. “I have figured out what I’m going to do to you,” Regina says casually, watching as Princess Emma flinches back. “You know, it’s no fun to kill someone who doesn’t fight back.”
“My mother didn’t fight back,” Emma says, eyes narrowed. “She was a child when you targeted her.”
“Is that what she told you?” Regina scoffs. “She deserved everything I’ve done to her and more.” Princess Emma is watching her, anger gone and replaced by fear. “And more,” Regina repeats, her voice soft and dangerous.
She fiddles with the sleeping potion, feeling Emma’s eyes on the vial. “You’re trapped here now,” she says in a whisper. “Both of you. I’ve enchanted the grounds so that you won’t be able to leave them. Snow White will never know where her daughter has gone. She will search for you and your son for a long time, certain that you’ve been killed or worse.”
She can feel the slow spread of pleasure through her, the very temptation that vengeance still offers her. Princess Emma is huddled against the pillows on her bed, blanket drawn up to her chest as she shakes. “And eventually, she will understand that you haven’t gone on some glorious adventure. Eventually, she will think of me, and remember that I still loathe her with everything that I am. And when that day comes– when she finally sends her army and rides to my home in a blaze of righteous fury– then I will wait for her. She will come to me.” She feels a thrill run through her. “And in the moment that she sees you at last, I will tear out your heart and crush it in my hands.”
It’s a bluff, of course. Regina has no magic anymore, but Emma doesn’t seem to know that, and she lets out a strangled sound and glares furiously at Regina. “You’re vile,” she says, and she’s shaking, fearful, helpless. It might have been attractive on someone else, had Regina not expected more of the princess. “Henry and I will never…”
“Henry,” Regina says, and Emma falls silent again. The meek, lost look is gone, replaced by fire that gives Regina as much of a thrill as her plan does. “It’d be a shame if he finds out who I am.” She suspects that Henry wouldn’t hesitate to attack her, magic or not, and what he’d reveal about her loss of magic would be…unfortunate. “That might make him a liability,” she drawls out, and Emma is crying again, silent, angry tears. “I only need one of you alive to break Snow White’s heart.”
“Kill me,” Emma begs again. “Kill me. I don’t– I don’t matter. I’m no one to anyone but my parents. Let Henry go. He can tell my mother what you did. You can have your vengeance,” she says, swiping at her tears. “He’s an innocent.”
Regina rises, her tired bones complaining as she moves, and Emma waits, leaves her hands on her blanket with her palms up as she passively accepts her fate. Regina walks closer to her, stands at the side of the bed and stares down at Emma.
Emma’s face is tearstained, but she isn’t crying now. She waits, does nothing as Regina slides fingers around her neck, a lamb led to the slaughter. There is something oddly brave about this cowardly surrender, and Regina finds that she can’t squeeze her fingers, can’t muster up the strength in brittle bones to end this now. Her fingers are limp, her hands on Emma’s shoulders as though to comfort instead of kill, and Emma whispers, “Please. Kill me instead of him.”
“I told you,” Regina breathes, and she’s weak, weak, weak. “I have a plan.” Emma trembles. She is beautiful and graceful even now, even when she’s trapped and afraid, the picture-perfect princess that Snow might have been if Regina hadn’t hunted her into the woods. I don’t matter, she’d said like she might believe it. Regina doesn’t matter, either, but she is reviled for it instead of beloved.
“If you touch my son, I’ll…I’ll kill you,” Emma says shakily, and Regina wants to laugh at the idea, at this soft royal ever even hurting a fly. But through her fear, that single determination remains gleaming in her eyes, remains something that Regina can’t laugh off.
“We’ll see,” Regina says, and Emma moves, thrusts a weak hand at her and shoves–
–and for an instant, Regina believes that Emma’s going to attack her, that she’s underestimated the timid princess and she’s about to be exposed as as helpless as Emma. But no, Emma isn’t shoving her. She shoves at the vial of sleeping potion that Regina has wedged between her fingers, sending it flying to the hard stone floor and shattering it. “Don’t hurt him,” she says, the note of pleading back in her voice.
“Don’t give me a reason to,” Regina says, still staring at the broken vial. There is violence in her skin, tapping a pattern against her heart; a reminder to strike out, to hurt, to avenge. But she feels numb to it all, even with Snow White’s daughter in front of her. She can’t muster up the energy to fight, to kill, to punish–
All she is is tired, and even Princess Emma won’t suffer Regina’s rage today. “I have a plan,” Regina says again, clinging to it, and Emma closes her eyes and lets the tears fall again. Regina spins around, the air in the room too thin to breathe, and she stalks silently to the door.
She has recovered by the time she reaches it, and she turns to speak with oily, threatening words. “Sleep well, Your Highness,” she purrs, and Emma huddles back into her blanket and stares at her with bare, apprehensive eyes that gleam in the dark as Regina escapes the room at last.