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this is my kingdom come

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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.

Chapter Text

The morning is dim through the heavy curtains of Regina’s room, and she’s still sore from the ride the night before. Eternal youth had seemed a gift when she’d thought of it before, frozen in time forever, but she can feel her age in her bones where she can’t see it on her face, small and frail as though she has already lived her lifetime and is only its echoes.

 

Maybe it’s only that she has moved very little in a very long time. She remembers Prince Henry last night, convinced that she’d been a ghost, and she glances at the covered mirror in the bedroom with annoyance, then at the closet that had once been her mother’s. There are rows and rows of black, severe and intimidating and abandoned over the years, and Regina digs through the closet in a wave of frustration until she sees something green near the back.

 

It’s a simple dress, only bejeweled in the front and plain at the bottom, one of her old dresses from childhood. She tries to ignore how it doesn’t quite fit right anymore, too loose where it shouldn’t be, and she pulls down the cover over the mirror and stares at herself critically.

 

If she’s going to hold the prince hostage without him uncovering her identity, she’ll have to look a bit less like an old crone of a witch. She applies makeup carefully, bold but not stark, and when she smiles coldly at the mirror, she’s pleased to see that she looks a little less like a phantom.

 

She exits her room, walking carefully down the hall to not aggravate her muscles anymore, and she makes her way downstairs when she hears a battle in the main foyer.

 

No. Snow can’t be here already. She was supposed to have time, to make Snow suffer, to make her dread her daughter’s fight. She wasn’t supposed to be found and destroyed, just like that. This isn’t how it ends. She won’t– she’ll make them chase her, at least, and she will throw herself on a sword rather than be forced into another of Snow’s prisons. She’ll have to–

 

She’s breathing hard when she strides into the foyer, and Henry looks up from where he’s swinging his sword, panting and going through his paces as loudly as a full-on battle, and says, “Good morning! Is it okay if I practice here?”

 

Regina exhales, desperate plans fading back into her skin. “Of course,” she says, giving him a weak smile. “Though you might prefer the grounds. There’s plenty of space there and much fewer vases.”

 

“Oh.” Henry looks apologetic. “I’m sorry. I haven’t broken any,” he says quickly. “Mom had to replace the vases in our chambers eight times last year, but only twice so far this year. I’m getting better!” He grins, impish, and Regina’s smile feels stronger, less breakable.

 

“I don’t doubt it, Sir Henry,” she says formally, just to watch his smile grow as well. “How do you like your eggs?”

 

“However your cook usually makes them is fine,” Henry says, waving a hand. His sword slips and he seizes it before it can behead another vase.

 

Regina raises an eyebrow, holding out a hand for the sword. Henry hands it to her, shamefaced, and she hesitates, weighing the weapon in her hand, a whisper of vengeance thrumming against her chest. Henry has already turned around, looking for the kitchen, and he doesn’t notice the way that Regina stares at the sword.

 

Princess Emma does. Her gasp rends the quiet air, and she stands at the top of the staircase, a hand pressed to her mouth in despair. Henry twists to face her, his brow furrowed. “Mom? What’s wrong?” he says.

 

Regina runs her fingers across the sword, lifting her gaze to meet Emma’s. She’s wearing the same clothing as she had the day before, her hair combed free from her braid with her fingers, and the circlet still rests on her head. She still looks like a princess, after a night spent, Regina imagines, weeping in terror, and she flinches back barely perceptibly when she sees Regina’s eyes on her.

 

Regina sets the sword down calmly, her eyes still fixed on Emma’s, and Emma exhales and descends the staircase. “How did you sleep?” she asks Henry instead of answering him, and Henry takes her hand and leads her down the last few steps.

 

“Really well,” Henry says. “My room was facing the sun, so I woke up right on time.” He gestures to Regina. “And– and she– I’m sorry,” he says suddenly. “I never even asked your name.”

 

Regina tenses, unsure of what she might give away. Emma nods from beside Henry, very subtly, and Regina says, “Regina.”

 

There is no recognition, no knowledge that the Evil Queen had ever had a name. Henry just frowns, brow furrowing. “I’ve never heard that name before,” he says.

 

Of course. There are some names that are never used once they’re infamous, names that carry too much baggage to ever be common again. Regina smiles at Henry, then sharpens it to something far colder for Emma. “I suppose they thought that they couldn’t improve on perfection,” she says lightly. Henry laughs. Emma’s eyebrows quirk, but she is silent as they move toward the kitchen.

 

Henry is stunned to discover that Regina doesn’t have a cook. “How do you eat?” he asks, looking very alarmed. “Is this why you’re so skinny?”

 

Henry,” Emma says sharply, as automatic about rudeness to an Evil Queen as she must be for anyone else. Henry hangs his head. “I’ll cook,” Emma says suddenly, reaching for the eggs before Regina can touch them. Her eyes are wary, and she’s still trembling around Regina, but she still takes the eggs and then stares at them helplessly.

 

Henry looks at her dubiously. “I think you crack them,” he says. Regina snickers silently. Emma closes her eyes and then cracks one, too hard, and it slides to the floor instead.

 

As entertaining as it is to see exactly how useless Snow’s child is, Regina is beginning to find this tiresome. “Apple?” she offers, plucking one from the basket on the counter and offering it to Henry. He takes it, and Emma spins around and yanks it from him, eyes wide in horror.

 

Henry stares at her mother as though she’s lost her mind. “I…I’m hungry,” Emma says, unconvincing, and she takes a big bite of the apple and then chews it carefully while Regina watches in amusement. When she doesn’t collapse to the floor, she takes another bite.

 

Regina makes the eggs. Emma hovers over her as she does, jumping back each time Regina makes a sudden move. There are a lot of those, and a lot of nearly comical leaps backward. Regina could, maybe, grow accustomed to her visitors.

 

As though he senses what she’s thinking, Henry says suddenly, “So, when are we going to head back out? This has been really great,” he says, smiling up at Regina. “But we were going to go out into the Infinite Forest for the weekend. It’s been a long time since Mom and I got to spend time together, just the two of us.” He smiles warmly at his mother.

 

Emma looks sick, trapped. Regina knows why, had spelled it out to Emma last night. If Henry learns who Regina is, Henry becomes a liability. And if Henry finds out that they’re trapped on Regina’s property, it’s only a matter of time. “I…” Emma swallows, and her voice shifts, becomes soft and gentle and assured. She sounds like a princess when she speaks again, like a diplomat, like someone who’s been trained to deal with difficult situations since childhood. “Actually, our hostess has a beautiful home, and she’s offered it to us for our time away,” she says, smiling a terrible, blank smile.

 

Henry doesn’t seem to notice its falseness; or if he does, he doesn’t comment on it. “Really?” he says, turning to Regina, and she nods. He turns back to his mother, looking very pleased. “There are secret passages in this house,” he says. “And places for me to practice with my sword. And fields to ride on.”

 

“I know it’s no royal castle,” Regina says, and the old bitterness is still poison in her veins. “But it was a lovely place to grow up.”

 

Emma’s head jerks to face Regina. “You grew up here?” she says, looking startled at the idea.

 

“No, I sprang from the womb fully formed and immediately began my life’s quest to…host you here,” Regina says sarcastically, and Henry looks at her in deep disapproval. “…Your Highness,” she finishes, the barest hint of any respect in her tone. Henry still looks perturbed, though not as much so as his mother. “Why don’t I show you the fields?” Regina suggests.

 

It’s the distraction that they all need, and Henry heads outside eagerly, hurrying ahead of them. Emma’s eyes are fixed on Regina, narrowed, and Regina turns on a whim when Henry’s already out there and says, “Boo!” jerking forward. Emma springs back, a hand clutching her chest, and Regina snorts and stalks for the door.

 

She hasn’t been outside without her cloak in years, and she almost reaches for it when she feels Emma’s eyes still intent on her. There’s something about that unwavering gaze that makes Regina self-conscious, makes her determined not to show weakness. She steps out into the sun and then flinches unconsciously.

 

The sun scorches her, and she imagines her skin peeling, imagines herself burning alive under its dominion. It’s too bright, too hot, and Regina holds onto the doorway and steadies herself, stepping back into the shadows and breathing hard.

 

A hand takes hers, and Henry says, sounding very worried, “What’s wrong? What do we do?” He takes her shoulder with his other hand, staring into Regina’s eyes, and Regina focuses on him and breathes, breathes, breathes.

 

After a few moments, she manages a strained smile. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I haven’t– I don’t spend a lot of time outdoors.” The words catch in her throat, sound hoarse and vulnerable, and she can’t look back to see Emma’s expression. If it’s hatred, she can handle that. She fears it might be pity. “I’m all right,” she promises Henry.

 

He holds her arm anyway. “It wouldn’t be very knightly of me if I didn’t,” he insists, and he escorts her back out into the sun again, and then again after she has to retreat, patient in a way that’s beyond his years. When Regina can finally move on her own, the sun bright and warm instead of threatening to turn her to ash, he runs ahead again, charging into the paddock where their horses remain and then peering into the stables.

 

A flash of terror. “Don’t–“ she begins, and then he’s already inside. She knows that the scars of the past aren’t visible within the stables, that there’s nothing within them that can hurt this little boy. Still, she shakes for a moment, hands buried in the deep sleeves of her green dress and jaw tight.

 

Emma starts forward, her eyes flickering to Regina, and Regina snarls, “I brought your mother to those stables to give her a poisoned apple.” It’s meant to make Emma angry, to keep her from staring at Regina with that damned inquisitive look, and it works. Emma lifts her chin and gathers her skirts and runs for the stables, terrified again for her son.

 

If Regina had had her magic, she could set the building on fire now, enact her final vengeance in the place where it had all begun. But she doesn’t, so instead, she wraps her arms around herself and waits until Henry emerges from the stables, beaming up at his mother. Emma is smiling back, a tight, anxious smile, and it fades when she sees Regina watching them.

 

Good.

 

Henry retrieves his sword after the tour, setting himself up in the courtyard, and Regina takes a grateful seat at the edge of the low stone wall to watch him. Emma sits a few feet away, leaning down to pick wildflowers and wind them together into a little crown absentmindedly.

 

It’s so nauseatingly princessy, the sort of prettied-up habit that Snow had picked up when she’d been an adolescent. Regina wrinkles her nose in disgust. “Please tell me you don’t talk to birds,” she says, and Emma jumps, glowering up at her. “You’re as sickening as your mother.”

 

“Thank you,” Emma says stiffly, winding a flower behind her ear. It doesn’t sit quite so perfectly now that her hair is down, and it looks a little askew, a little less pristine. “I don’t,” she says suddenly, and Regina blinks, startled at the reply. “Talk to birds, I mean. My mother is…much better at that sort of thing. At most things,” she mutters under her breath, and Regina’s eyebrows shoot up.

 

Emma flushes pink. “I did once talk to a swan,” she says abruptly, steepling her fingers and sitting back on the wall. Her posture is perfect, and she faces straight ahead, watching Henry instead of Regina. “There was a man stalking me when I was a child. I suppose he was…some enemy of my parents’, out to abduct me. I was deep in the swamp and he started wading out to me; and when I cried out for help, no one was around but a single swan.”

 

“And the swan protected you,” Regina says, bemused. She has spent too much of her life resenting Snow and her charmed life not to see this as more of the same, but…a swan. Ridiculous.

 

Emma smiles, a secret little smile that passes so quickly that Regina thinks she must have imagined it. “Have you ever seen an angry swan? It chased off the man, right into the arms of my hapless knights. I was scolded, but Mom was so excited that I’d spoken to a bird that she couldn’t even punish me for running off alone.” She shakes her head, wistful, and Regina doesn’t know how to respond to this, to a woman who calls Regina’s mortal enemy Mom and thinks wistfully of winning her approval.

 

The sun is warm now, the sort of warmth that Regina’s had so little of over the years. Henry is doing some ridiculous pirouette with his sword, and Emma is watching her with quiet wariness and a tentative sort of expectation. Regina says, “I can’t see you running off alone into a swamp.”

 

“I was a rowdy child,” Emma admits, and Regina almost laughs in surprise. “I used to run wild all the time. My parents had their hands full. I’d dress up as a peasant and sneak into town, I’d upset royal parties and spill soup on queens, I’d ride bareback within the castle walls…” She tilts her head to the sun, this demure and fearful princess who saves her defiance only for her son. “My mother despaired.”

 

“That’s what I like to hear,” Regina says, and Emma throws her an unamused look. She doesn’t look nearly as afraid anymore, and Regina says absently, “Imagine how  much she must be despairing now, wondering what has become of you.”

 

Emma’s jaw stiffens. Her fingers scramble for purchase on her arms, wrapping tightly around herself as she remembers the threat that Regina poses. Good. Regina sneers at her, content that the moment between them has been shattered.

 

But the curiosity is too much, and she says suddenly, against her better judgment, “What happened to you, then? When did you become the…” She clears her throat, “The pathetic specimen of cowardice that you are today?” Emma recoils, looking down. Regina sneers again, though her heart isn’t in it.

 

“I grew up,” Emma says dully. “I never…I never had to be anything but what my parents wanted me to be. So I did what I could to become her.”

 

Her, she says, as though there remains a fundamental split between the girl she’d been and the woman she is. Perhaps there is. Regina had never had that split, had never had the luxury of deciding who would dictate who she is. She had been Mother’s daughter, and any rebellion to that idea had been quashed immediately. “So Snow White ruined your life, too, hm?” she says smugly, and Emma rolls her eyes and turns away.

 


 

It’s strange, having people around her again. It’s been many years since she’s even spoken with anyone, and far more since she’d lived with others in her home. Daddy had come with her when she’d first been exiled, but she’d been so angry for so long, and he hadn’t been able to help her. By the time she’d regained enough of herself to appreciate his presence and find comfort with him, it had become clear that only one of them had stopped aging. They had had barely a year, and decades have passed since then.

 

This is different, and not only because she’s technically holding Emma and Henry hostage. Daddy had looked at her, for those awful early years, as though he’d been afraid of her. He’d looked at her like he’d once looked at Mother, and that had shaken Regina so much that she’d eventually wept in front of him, clinging to him until the wariness had faded into tired love again. Emma watches her with muted terror, most of the time, but there are flashes of loathing at times that Regina embraces, if only to feel something.

 

There are flashes of curiosity, too, which leaves Regina utterly flummoxed. Not that she would ever allow Emma to see that.

 

Henry is all curiosity, all eagerness, and he shifts between gallantry and childishness as swiftly as he swings his sword. He’s only a child, she has to remind herself sometimes; at other times, she can’t forget it. There is something very familiar about him– about the easy way that she’s come to adore him, about the way he smiles and the way she smiles back– but she knows, instinctively, that if she unpacks that then she might break for good.

 

She’d thought she’d been already broken, but still she stands. Henry is insistent. Come outside with me, he urges, day after day until she goes without protest. Ride with me. Sit with me. There are few moments in the day when he isn’t there, pulling her to life with firm, sure hands, taking her from the darkness and forcing her into the healing light of day.

 

She looks in the mirror now more, sees her golden complexion return and her face fill out and her eyes growing softer than the fathomless black pits they’d been on that first night. She shies away from wearing black now, afraid of Henry connecting the dots and knowing exactly who she is. When she stares at herself now, she doesn’t recognize herself, but that doesn’t fill her with dread anymore.

 

Henry is very pleased. “See?” he says. “You don’t even look like a ghost anymore.”

 

“Henry,” Emma says automatically, scolding, and then she gives her head a little shake, as though she can’t believe she just stopped Henry from being rude to the Evil Queen. Regina waits until Henry is looking away before she sneers at Emma, watching with satisfaction as Emma flinches.

 

The flinches are becoming less and less pronounced now. Emma is getting used to Regina, and Regina knows that it’s only a matter of time before she’s going to have to display some form of magic. Emma’s timidity will last only so long without it. Without it, Emma might put the pieces together and realize that Regina has no magic and is as weak as she is. Without it, Emma might pose a real threat.

 

Already, she’s everywhere. Regina hasn’t been alone with Henry since that first night, and no matter where Henry seems to go, pulling Regina along, Emma follows. Her eyes never leave them, her face set with hard determination, and it seems the only thing about her that is hard.

 

Emma nearly keels over when Henry says suddenly one day, “Will you practice with me?” He has his sword and a spare that he’d found in one of the little buildings outside the courtyard, a little more worn than his but still functional. He holds out the spare to Regina, and Emma starts forward.

 

“Henry,” she says, voice strained. “I don’t think…let’s not bother our host with that.”

 

“It won’t be a bother,” Regina says sleekly, and Emma glares at her, scowling. “I’m very out of practice,” she informs Henry, who shrugs carelessly.

 

“You’ll remember. I’ll go easy on you,” he promises, and Regina remembers being a young queen, disguising herself and sneaking out to practice with the guards. She’d imagined taking a sword to bed, sometimes, drawing it when the king would approach and enacting her vengeance in that way. But then she’d been caught by an awed Snow, who had immediately told everyone about it with the same pride that one might have for a well-trained pet, and the king had made his disapproval known instead. She hadn’t touched another sword until after his death.

 

She hefts the metal in her hand for a moment, testing its weight, and then she feints and points the sword directly at Emma. Emma stumbles back, eyes wide like a spooked doe, and Regina laughs. She feels better already. She swings around, remembering old practiced moves that she doesn’t quite have the strength for anymore, and Henry says, “You’re good,” admiringly. “Were you a knight?” he wants to know.

 

Regina shakes her head, melds fact and fiction as easily as she’s invented every other story during this farce. “The king’s knights used to pass through these grounds on missions to the south,” she explains. “I used to bind my hair and practice with them until I was found out.”

 

Emma watches her with wary uncertainty, but Henry bounces. “That’s so cool,” he pronounces, and she is dragged into a sparring match with him. She’s out of breath too quickly, but she does what she can to keep up regardless. “Did you ever get to fight for real?” Henry asks, eyes guileless and inquisitive. “My grandfather took me to the woods once on a hunting trip and I cut off an ogre’s arm,” he says proudly.

 

Regina raises her eyebrows. Of course the idiot sheep-herder would think that a thirteen-year-old boy would be just the partner for an ogre battle. “Very impressive,” she says instead. “I haven’t fought much in…a very long time. And rarely with a sword.”

 

Emma winces. Henry nods knowingly. “My grandma’s an archer, too,” he says. Regina doesn’t respond, just swings her sword a little too hard into Henry’s and sends him flying to the ground. Emma crosses into the courtyard instantly, eyes burning, and Regina drops her sword hand and says, “Oh, no, Henry. I’m sorry!”

 

“It’s okay,” Henry says, climbing back to his feet. He rubs his rear, making a face. “You have an icebox inside, don’t you?”

 

“I’ll show you–“ Regina begins, but Henry waves a hand.

 

“I can find it. You stay in the sun.” He jerks a warning finger at her. “It’s good for you.” She makes a face at him, and he laughs and runs for the house, still rubbing his rear where he’d fallen. Regina watches him, the world darkening just a bit as he disappears.

 

When she turns back, Emma has lifted his fallen sword with one hand, resting it on her free palm. “Have you ever seen someone eaten alive by an acid pit?” Regina says, fear roiling in her stomach.

 

Emma looks nonplussed at the non sequitur. “No?”

 

Regina makes her voice low, dangerous. “If you try anything with that sword, I can change that.” There’s a little dip in the ground right outside the side door where Henry had gone, perfect for an acid pit, and Regina sees the instant that Emma registers that.

 

She sees a sudden movement in her peripheral vision and strikes, slicing her sword through the air in an automatic movement that arcs straight toward Emma’s face. Emma reacts so quickly that Regina doesn’t register it until her sword is clattering to the ground with her, her wrist aching and Emma standing over her.

 

She’s let her own sword go, too, slipping to the floor, and she looks as discomfited by the disarming as Regina feels. That had been fast, practiced, and Princess Emma is the last person she’d have expected it from. A thrill of fear crawls through her. “When you say you were a rowdy child…“ she begins.

 

Emma lifts her chin, haughty, but it isn’t enough to disguise her discomfort. “It’s been many years,” she says, her voice unsteady. “I haven’t touched a sword since before Henry was born.” She looks desperate to talk about something else, suddenly, and Regina waits, eyebrows raised. “Did you really…did you bind your hair and practice with the knights?”

 

“Did you?” Regina counters, and Emma ducks her head in response, her long hair falling to conceal her face. It’s very fetching, Regina supposes. If someone were interested in that sort of thing. Princess Emma is exactly as beautiful as the rumors have always insisted. Regina had assumed they’d been pitying exaggerations for very long. Snow White has never encountered a beauty she hasn’t attempted to marry off to a man. “How did your family tolerate you having a bastard child?” she says, if only because Emma looks even more alarmed at this change in conversation.

 

There is something very entertaining about picking fights with Princess Emma. She thinks she likes it even more when Emma fights back.

 

But this time, Emma bites her lip and says, “My true love died,” in explanation.

 

Regina is oddly disappointed at that admission. “So did mine,” she offers.

 

Emma blinks at her, looking startled at even the idea that the Evil Queen could have had a true love. It’s irritating, infuriating, and Regina scowls at her and turns away, waiting for Henry to return so she doesn’t have to speak to the other woman.

 

Emma says, “Not my grandfather?” timidly. Regina turns back, murder in her eyes, and Emma says defensively, “Well, you did seduce him so he would marry you.”

 

Regina doesn’t recognize her own laugh, strangled and rough. “Is that what your mother told you?”

 

Emma folds her arms around herself protectively. “Didn’t you spook a horse and save my mother? I know the whole story. You maneuvered your way into the court, and then bided your time until you were powerful enough to have my grandfather killed–“

 

Rage is rising within her as it hasn’t in days, simmering nearly to a boil, and she can’t– not when she has a plan, when she’s going to wait until Snow is here before she enacts her vengeance– she’s close to– “You’d do well to stop reminding me that you’re related to that detestable specimen of human feces,” she grinds out, seizing the sword again, and Emma takes a step back, eyes fixed on her still.

 

Regina can’t do this, can’t relive any of the true accounting of what had gone wrong when it’s been so many years and her bones and heart still feel brittle enough to splinter. “My true love died in there,” she says abruptly, looking to the stables.

 

Emma follows her gaze, but doesn’t understand it. “In the estate?” she says, and her eyes are dark and turmoiled, uncertain in a thoughtful sort of way that unnerves Regina more than anything else that’s happened over the past few days.

 

“In the stables,” Regina says, and Emma’s eyes are still dark with curiosity, the closest she’s ever looked to Henry. It makes it a little more difficult to despise her, and Regina wraps an arm around herself and says, “Your mother’s story, I notice, omits that bit.”

 

Emma opens her mouth, about to ask something more, and Henry emerges from the house before she can say a word. Regina is relieved.

 


 

There is something about Emma that leaves Regina on edge. Perhaps it’s the dainty way that she eats, delicate in a way that Regina knows the people of the White Kingdom favor. Perhaps it’s the way she smiles at Henry, warm and sad and proud at once, and the way that the melding of the three emotions makes her glow. Perhaps it’s her shiny hair that she braids away where Regina doesn’t have to stare at it all the time, the eyesore.

 

Perhaps it’s the way that she watches Regina sometimes, thoughtful and searching, as though Regina isn’t the fearsome queen that she should be quaking before. “You know, when you take someone’s heart, you can control them,” Regina says under her breath. Emma and Henry have been at the estate for nearly two weeks, long enough that Henry has half-heartedly mentioned leaving earlier today and hadn’t protested when Emma had insisted that they stay. It’s late in the evening, and Regina had politely suggested that Emma go to bed, as she does every night.

 

Emma refuses, as she does every night. It’s been nearly two weeks and Emma won’t let Henry and Regina out of her sight for even a moment, even when Regina can still make her recoil and shake with fear. “Just imagine what horrors I can have you commit,” Regina says thoughtfully. Emma drops the teacup that she’d been preparing. It falls to the ground and shatters.

 

Henry comes running from the other room. “Mom!” he says, alarmed, and he kneels and begins picking up pieces of the teacup at once, staring up at his mother in concern. “Is everything all right?”

 

Emma bobs her head, her lip quivering just so, the picture of a fair maiden in distress. Regina watches in disgust. “It’s just a teacup,” she says patiently to Henry. “Don’t worry about it.” She finds a broom and sweeps, swatting at Henry until he ducks away, laughing, and his concern is forgotten.

 

“Why don’t you head to bed?” Regina suggests pleasantly to Emma. “You look exhausted. Henry and I will be fine down here. You get some sleep.”

 

“And miss all this fun?” Emma says lightly, but her eyes are narrowed at Regina. They fade into a distant sort of smile for Henry when she turns to him. “I love our nighttime chats.”

 

There has been very little that has happened in the past two weeks that Emma seems to love, least of all her sleeping schedule. She’s awake before Regina most mornings, pacing downstairs with her terrible hair already done and a new dress on that she must have found somewhere in the estate, because she can’t possibly have brought this many on vacation. In the evenings, she won’t sleep before Regina does, and Regina has barely slept in years.

 

Regina has had little to no moments alone with Henry, which she’s beginning to find as aggravating as she does his mother. Henry is the one saving grace of this endless hosting, of waiting day after day for Snow to realize just where her daughter has gone. “Tell me about training to be a knight,” she says when they’re settled in one of the sitting rooms. A fire is crackling in the fireplace, and they all have tea. Henry is on the sofa, his mother beside him, and Regina curls up in an armchair and refuses to acknowledge Emma’s eyes burning into her. “That must have been very exciting.”

 

Henry waves an irritable hand. “Not as exciting as it would have been if I hadn’t been a prince,” he says sulkily. “It was easy. My grandfather took me every day to train with the other knights, and they’d let me win because I was a prince. I had to fight harder just to prove that I wasn’t getting knighted because of my family.” He shrugs, bored with the topic. “My life isn’t interesting,” he says wistfully. “I’ve never had any adventures or seen– seen any magic…” Regina stiffens, and Henry’s eyes round. “Have you?” he says, leaning forward eagerly.

 

Emma is tense beside him. Regina says, “My mother was a skilled witch.”

 

“Really?” Emma says at the same time as Henry does.

 

Regina gives her a scornful look and gives him a smile. “Quite. When she was young, she made a foolish promise to a king. She told him that she could spin straw into gold, and he locked her in a room full of straw and told her that if she failed, she would die. If she succeeded, she would marry the prince.” Henry is leaning forward, fascinated, and Regina lowers her voice and tells the story as best as she knows it. Rumple had crowed over it, once, and her father had filled in the blanks. Mother had never shared the story at all. “She was visited that night by an imp who taught her magic, and her life was forever changed.”

 

Henry is open-mouthed. “Wow! Did she teach you any magic?”

 

“No,” Regina says truthfully. Emma is watching her again, that damnable gaze that seems to look right through her, and she tears her eyes away from Emma’s and back to Henry. “She wouldn’t have wanted me to become more powerful than she was.” Mother had never come to her after her defeat at Snow’s hand, and Regina wonders if she’s even still out there. She must have little interest in Regina now that she’s weak.

 

Henry looks deflated by that answer. It must not be what he expects of a mother and child, the push-pull that had dictated Regina’s relationship with her mother. Regina is glad to know it, somehow.

 

She steals a glance at Henry’s mother and finds her dozing off, eyes drifting closed as she struggles to stay awake. Henry winks and puts a finger to his lips, rubbing Emma’s arm until her breath finally steadies out. “Finally,” he says fondly, his hand still resting on her arm. “I’ve never seen Mom this exhausted.”

 

“I’m sure she gets her beauty sleep every night at home,” Regina says, not quite as sharply as she’d intended it. Emma asleep is Emma without those solemn, too-knowing eyes, and like this she’s far less threatening. She’s beautiful even in slumber, as unreal as a painting of some fairytale waif.

 

Her son, watching over her protectively, says, “Yeah. She’s more on edge here, but maybe she’s just not used to not being…I don’t know, waited on.” He says it without any embarrassment, unaware of his own privilege. “Mom’s delicate, you know? She's not like you and me.” If Regina weren’t unreasonably fond of the boy sitting opposite her, she might not have been able to restrain her amusement at the comparison.

 

“Indeed,” she says instead, though she can’t quite imagine Emma, who has faced down her worst nightmare repeatedly so as to protect her son, as someone quite so delicate anymore. “Has she always been like this?” she asks. Finally, time alone with Henry, and she’s frittering it away by talking about his mother. For fuck’s sake, she thinks frustratedly, and then waits with her breath halted for Henry’s response.

 

Henry looks confused. “Like what?” he says, and shrugs, conceding the point. “I guess. Once I was born, it was pretty clear that the royal line would go through me, not her. She’s a princess, not a queen. She’s really good at stuff like banquets and dancing and all the stuff my grandma has her in charge of. She doesn’t have to be strong. She taught me to be strong for both of us.”

 

It’s a rehearsed line, one he looks proud to say, and he looks down at his mother with deep love, if a bit patronizing. Regina raises an eyebrow. “What about your father?” she presses. “Was he there to teach you to be strong, too?” My true love died, Emma had said, biting her lip, and it hadn’t quite rung true.

 

Henry looks uncomfortable for the first time. “He wasn’t there until a couple of years ago,” he says. “He died a hero.” He smiles, a little wistful, a little proud. “I wish he’d gotten more time with us.”

 

Regina couldn’t care less about Princess Emma’s pompous true love if he’d been a piece of dead wood. But Henry’s eyes are dim, and so she musters up a sympathetic look. “As do I. He must have been very important to both of you.”

 

“Yeah.” But Henry looks suddenly troubled. “It was the only time I’ve ever seen Mom and Grandma fight,” he says abruptly. “Grandma wanted Mom to marry Dad. Dad proposed and everything. And Mom just kept saying that she needed time, that she wasn’t ready…” He slouches a little, turning to look at his mother with a lack of understanding that borders on resentment. “And then we were out of time.”

 

Regina watches Emma, still slumbering beside Henry on the couch. She imagines, were she a princess with a mother like Snow White, that she wouldn’t have thought back fondly to a man who’d impregnated her and then vanished for years. She wonders at Emma’s my true love died again, wonders at the way she’d bitten her lip.

 

Henry wouldn’t know any of this. Emma protects him expertly, even if she’d put aside everything else she’d been an expert at before he’d been born. Because he’d been born, perhaps. “At least you have each other,” she offers, and it brings a smile to Henry’s face.

 

“We do,” he says, and the wistfulness fades. “I’ll always keep her safe.” Regina’s heart, a dried husk with no life within it, stirs at his set chin and determined eyes. For the first time in decades, she is content, in the presence of this boy who’d stolen that broken heart of hers so easily. It’s easy to forget plots and plans with Henry, to be charmed and adore without compunction. And he turns his eyes on her with the same determination. “I’m sorry your mom wasn’t kind,” he says, very sincere.

 

He can be so insightful past all his royal self-involvement, so good in a way that reminds her of someone she can’t quite recall. “Thank you,” she says in a croak. There is something about a child’s earnest apology that makes her suddenly hurt more, makes her suddenly wish desperately that things had been different. “It’s been a long time.”

 

“Still,” he insists. “No one should grow up like that.” He broods for a moment, and then he says, “My grandma did, too. Her stepmother– she was the Evil Queen.” He says it with deep, seething loathing, and Regina freezes in place.

 

“I’ve heard a bit about that,” she manages. She wants to fight it, to tell Henry exactly what a brat his grandmother had been. She wants him to know exactly how much she had suffered for Snow White’s royal self-absorption, for her naive certainty in Mother’s goodwill and for her years spent winning over the populace and fawning over Regina as she might a pretty little kitten.

 

But something stays her words. She sits in silence, her lips pressed together thinly, and Henry says, “She chased Grandma for years and tried to kill her. To destroy the kingdom. Grandma suffered terribly.” There’s a hard note in his voice, one Regina’s never heard before. “But she won against that– that creature,” he spits out. “And now the Evil Queen is somewhere deep in exile.”

 

Regina nods mechanically, her smile fixed on her face. “You must be relieved,” she says weakly.

 

“Relieved?” Henry repeats, and then he shakes his head. “No way.” He straightens, bumping against his mother. “I became a knight– I’ve spent my whole life learning to fight so one day I could hunt down the Evil Queen,” he says, eyes flashing. “If she’s still out there, I’m going to find her and I’m going to kill her for everything she’s done to my family.” He smiles, his face shifting back into that familiar face of a cheerful child seeking her approval. “It’s the knightly thing, right?” he says, echoing back what she’s said to him a dozen times before.

 

She’s been a fool. Somehow, she’d persuaded herself that this is some sort of quiet idyll, that she can threaten Emma and make her squirm while keeping her vendetta separate from Henry. She’d been won over by him at once, had found something very dear in his eyes that she’d wanted to hold onto. She had deluded herself into believing that this child is different, that after four generations, she’d found one spark of hope for Snow White’s bloodline.

 

Somehow, she’d grown to adore this child who speaks of her murder as an inheritance, who is light to everyone he meets, save for the Evil Queen. He wants to kill her. He wants her punished again, as though thirty years hasn’t been enough, as though seeing how much he despises her hasn’t been the crushing, final blow dealt to her in this hell.

 

“It is indeed, Sir Henry,” she says, smile on her face and heart in her throat.

 

“I’m so glad we came here instead of going to the Infinite Forest,” Henry says, and he stands, walking easily to her to wrap in a casual hug. “I’m going to head to bed. Will you practice by sword with me again tomorrow?” He grins. “I’ve got to keep sharp if I’m going to take on the Evil Queen someday soon.”

 

She can only bob her head in stunned, helpless silence. Henry hugs her again, and she holds onto him, puts a trembling hand to his back as he begins to pull away. “Good night,” Henry says, and he makes his way to the stairs with a little spring in his step, put there certainly by thoughts of killing Regina.

 

She’s shaking. She knows she’s shaking, and she stares straight ahead, breathes in through her nose and out through her mouth until she gives up on breathing at all. It had taken less time, in previous years, for her vision to go fuzzy and black when she’d forgotten to breathe. She’s been healing the past two weeks, been returning to life when she’d only been a phantom for so long.

 

She shakes her head, restarts her breathing, and her eyes catch on Emma’s gaze. Emma. The princess’s eyes are open now, alert and unreadable. Regina doesn’t know how long she’s been awake.

 

Long enough, she’s sure. She wants to clear her throat but it’s scratchy and dry, and she can’t even speak to come up with something scathing. Emma keeps watching her with that long, long glance, and Regina lets out a cough that had been meant to be a scoff.

 

Emma tilts her head, unmoved by Regina’s disdain, and she watches Regina with a steady gaze before she finally speaks. “You’re not going to hurt him,” she says carefully, and Regina would loathe her even more if not for the fact that her tone is quietly relieved instead of smug. “Are you?”

 

Regina refuses to respond. Emma’s eyes crinkle into an alien expression, one Regina hasn’t seen in so long that she barely recognizes it on Emma’s face. “I’m sorry,” Emma whispers, as though–

 

–as though she hasn’t spent two weeks being baited and terrorized, as though she hasn’t spent her whole life being told how despicable the Evil Queen is, as though she knows exactly how devastating the idea of loving and losing Henry can be–

 

–and Regina still refuses to respond, sits frozen in her chair with the phantom touch of Henry’s embrace still around her until Emma exhales and says, “Good night.”

 

She glides upstairs with careful, slow steps, never a fabric out of place in her dress as she moves, and she doesn’t turn back once to peer over her shoulder at Regina in fear.

Chapter Text

The worst part of all of this, after the dread that suffuses Regina every time she sees Henry, is that Emma isn’t afraid of her anymore. Oh, she still jumps back when Regina thrusts out her hand suddenly as though to use her nonexistent magic, but it’s become barely a stumble, the expression on her face less frightened rabbit and more startled kitten. It’s shameful is what it is, losing the fear of someone like Princess Emma. Just another sign of just how weak Regina’s gotten.

 

She scowls at Emma when they’re alone in the kitchens one morning. “I’m not a morning person, either,” Emma says sympathetically, misunderstanding her expression.

 

At least she still wakes up early to protect Henry from Regina, or whatever that nonsense is. Regina says, “I’ve found that setting the bed on fire was always an excellent method to train my maids, if you need some motivation.”

 

Emma laughs. Laughs, as though she doesn’t grasp exactly how fearsome Regina is even when she’s being told so in excruciating detail. Regina is distracted by it, though. It’s the first time Emma’s laughed since she’s gotten here, and it’s louder than she’d have imagined, less restrained. Her eyes are glittering like perfect diamonds, and her smile is enough to stop Regina in her tracks.

 

Only a moment later, the laugh disappears. There’s a light flush to Emma’s cheeks, and she straightens, placing her hands primly together and regaining her composure. “Please don’t set my bed on fire,” she says. “The stove, though, could use a little magic.”

 

Regina nods curtly. She’d whipped up a potion last night that claims to do what her fireballs can’t anymore, and with a little sleight of hand, she waves her hand over the stove and lets a droplet fall from her palm.

 

The stove lights up, and Emma says, “I do find eggs more inspiring in the morning than flaming beds.” She pours oil into the pan, then reaches for the bowl of egg mixture. Regina hovers, putting a hand on Emma’s arm to steady it when the eggs splash too violently against the sides of the pan.

 

She’s gotten good at this. She doesn’t have a natural knack for cooking, but she’d picked it up quickly, and she’s made little changes to Regina’s recipe that haven’t been terrible. Everything tastes sweeter now, has a little more fat to it, and Regina protests but Emma insists. Between the extra food and the daily fencing, Regina’s body is filling out again, the concave hollow of her stomach finally flat once more.

 

Emma sprinkles more cheese on the eggs once they’re in the pan, quick as a flash before Regina can stop her. “You’re going to make me sick,” Regina complains, batting her away. “If you think I’ll release you over indigestion–“

 

“I’m going to make you healthy,” Emma corrects her, slipping her arm past Regina’s to put in more cheese. “When we got here, you looked like a skeleton. Now you look…” She hesitates. They’re tangled around each other now, Emma’s arm under Regina’s and Regina’s hand still pushing against Emma’s abdomen. Regina can feel Emma’s stomach as she breathes, shallow breaths that move Regina’s palm.

 

“I look…?” Regina prompts, staring up at Emma, and her hand rises and falls more rapidly.

 

“Whoa,” Henry says from behind them. Regina drops her hand abruptly, slipping away from Emma, and Emma turns back to the eggs with her cheeks even more flushed. Henry doesn’t seem to notice any of it. “Those eggs smell good, Mom.”

 

Emma glows. “I’ve been waking up early so our host would teach me,” she admits, tossing Regina a sidelong glance. Regina refuses to look back at her. “I think I could give Cook a run for her money now, don’t you?”

 

Henry raises his eyebrows. “Mom, have you ever even roasted a duck?” Emma looks sick just thinking about it. Regina snorts. “I’m going to stick with Cook for now. I can just imagine what kind of homecoming feast she’ll prepare for us,” Henry says, a little dreamy, as the two of them stare at him with growing alarm. “Regina should come with us. I bet she and Grandma would get along great.”

 

Regina lets out a strangled noise. Henry looks at her curiously. “Not that I don’t like it here,” he hastens to add. “I just thought…you know. We’ve been here a while. People might start getting worried.”

 

There’s only so long that a boy can remain in one house, in one quiet life where nothing changes, before he begins to long for more. Regina should have expected his restlessness, should have planned for some way to…

 

There had only been the sleeping curse, and then she hadn’t been able to think of cursing Henry at all.

 

Henry, who despises her with every fiber of his being, who would look at her now with hatred if he’d known who she is. There had been a time when she wouldn’t have thought twice about cursing him, regardless of how she’d felt about him. She’d done what had needed to be done. But the years alone have made her weak and greedy, have made her cling to this boy who makes her feel alive again. Suddenly, for the first time in decades, people feel precious, feel worth treasuring.

 

Emma, whom she certainly does not treasure, says, “I sent a message to Grandma a few days ago.” She’s lying through her teeth, of course. But she keeps her shoulders relaxed and scrambles the eggs absentmindedly and Henry can’t see her face to know it. “She’s just glad we’re having a good time. Things at home are very dull,” she offers.

 

Henry shrugs, still not persuaded. “You know,” Regina says thoughtfully, “Have you ever practiced with a lance? I’m certain we have a couple that Mother put up as decorative pieces.”

 

Emma casts a glare in her direction. “A lance? Really?”

 

“Dulled with age,” Regina promises, where she once might have given Emma a wicked grin and sauntered off. She sighs at herself. “Still good enough to unhorse a knight, though,” she says, and she flashes Emma the wicked grin now, sauntering off to the table.

 

Emma shakes her head. “I think I’ll go for a walk in the fields,” she says, and they both stare at her.

 

“Mom, are you sure?” Henry looks concerned. “You haven’t been out on your own in weeks. Do you want me to come with you?”

 

Emma shakes her head. Regina watches her hard. “You have fun with Regina,” she says lightly, as though she hasn’t been following them around since she’d gotten here. “I could use some quiet time.”

 

“Okay,” Henry says dubiously. Regina doesn’t say anything, and Emma gives her a swift, fleeting smile when they’re done with breakfast and leave to find the lances. The smile floods Regina’s chest, threatens to wash her heart away until it beats right out of it, and Regina wrenches her eyes away and stands, leading Henry from the room to where she remembers two lances crossed over a fireplace.

 

They’re old and a little rusted, but in mostly decent condition, and Henry hefts one while Regina struggles to hold the other. “I used to be stronger,” she says grumpily.

 

“I’ll bet,” Henry says, teasing. Every time his face lights up– every time Regina sees his expression grow bright– all she can think about is the deep hatred for the Evil Queen that had been carved into his face. She shudders, her lance clanging to the floor. Henry hurries to get it, stumbling a little as he carries them to the door.

 

“Hey,” he says suddenly. “Did you and Mom know each other before?”

 

“Before?” Regina repeats, befuddled at this change of topic. “I…not that I can recall,” she says honestly. “I’ve always known of her, of course, but we’d never met until now.”

 

“Huh,” Henry says. He’s watching her thoughtfully, and she stares back, confused at what he isn’t saying. “You two seem to have hit it off,” he says, shrugging. “It’s nice. Mom doesn’t really have friends at home.”

 

That Regina can’t believe. Emma might not be a warrior, but she’s exactly the kind of princess the White Kingdom loves, and the people would flock to her. “I’ve heard the peasants speak of how much they adore her,” Regina says dubiously.

 

“Everyone adores her,” Henry agrees. “But she isn’t really a people person. She’s really good at faking it, though.” He grins. “I remember three separate times when princes came to the castle just to make a diplomatic visit and came out of it convinced that Mom would marry them. And one king!”

 

The thought of it leaves a sour taste in Regina’s mouth, dredges up old memories best forgotten. “Isn’t...” She inhales a long, silent breath as she descends back into a place that will only cause her pain. “Isn’t that what happened to the Evil Queen?”

 

Henry frowns, his brow furrowing at the mention of the Evil Queen. “I don’t think so. I mean, I guess she married a king by faking it, but she wanted to.” His eyes grow thunderous with resentment.

 

“That isn’t what I heard,” Regina ventures. She doesn’t know what she might accomplish here, how she might get through to Henry at all. “I heard she saved Queen Snow’s life and the king thought she— thought she would be a fitting mother for his daughter.” The words are disjointed as she says them, old and tattered like pages thrown into a river and left to dry on the shore. “I heard it wasn’t her will at all.”

 

“You heard wrong,” Henry says, planting his lance against the floor and staring out into the fields. “I used to... When I was young, I used to sneak down to the dungeons and talk to the Dark One—“

 

Henry,” Regina says sharply, forgetting herself in her alarm. Rumple is still contained, at least, but the person she wants him talking to is Henry.

 

“What?” he protests. “It’s not a big deal. Mom did it when she was a kid, too! It’s the only way anyone tells me anything. I’m supposed to be the hope of a new generation.” He says it with a wrinkle of his nose. “Unencumbered by the past and all those other dumb excuses for hiding the truth from me. The Dark One told me the truth. Did you know that he was the Evil Queen’s teacher?”

 

Regina weighs her options, picks the riskier one. “And you believe that the Dark One was telling you the truth?” Worry overwhelms even her outrage. “Did he ever try to make a deal with you? Did he ask for anything from you? You can’t trust him, he’s the Dark One, he’s made a life out of manipulating children for his own purposes–“

 

Henry looks at her very oddly. “How could you know that?” he says. “You must have been a baby at the most when he was locked up. You talk about him like you know him.”

 

When she’s backed against a wall, she finds a truth and tells it instead of the truth the question beckons. “The imp who taught my mother,” she says, and Henry’s face clears up in comprehension. He understands very little about Regina by her own design, but he grasps this. “Henry, please tell me you didn’t make any deals with him.”

 

“I didn’t,” Henry promises. He shivers suddenly. “It’s creepy down there. When the Dark One told me that Mom used to go there, too, I couldn’t believe it. Mom would never.” He broods for a moment while Regina stares at him in consternation. “But he likes talking. And if you stay far back enough, he can’t grab at you.”

 

“And you think he was telling you the truth.” Regina struggles to keep her voice casual, politely dubious.

 

Henry bobs his head. “It’s the Evil Queen,” he reminds her. “How could he not be?”

 

Regina has no response for that.

 


 

It’s an odd little dance, being around Henry now. The Evil Queen is a fascination of his, and she’d opened the floodgates and let it all out. Emma sneaks worried glances at them, as though she thinks that Regina might snap. Regina drowns in misery, in Henry’s enthusiastic recounting of every plan he has to defeat the Evil Queen in combat.

 

Better that than his other topic of choice, which is how long they’ve been at the estate now. “We really should be getting back,” he says one day, as they clean their clothes in the laundry room. The room is down the stairs from the kitchen, through a passage and secluded from much of the rest of the house, but it’s warm and cozy and bright during the day.

 

“You’re just saying that because you don’t want to wash your trousers,” Emma says, wrinkling her nose at the mud-soaked pair she pulls from the hamper. “What did you do to these, roll in manure?”

 

“I was mucking out the stables,” Henry says, dropping them into the soapy basin and scrubbing at them. “Granddad always says that the most important part of bonding with a horse is taking care of it even when it isn’t fun.” He makes a face.

 

“He isn’t wrong,” Regina says. Much as she hates agreeing with the idiot shepherd, she can’t fight him on that. “I used to spend most of my time in the stables when I was young, caring for my horse.” Mother had hated it, had reminded her in the most painful ways possible that playing with horses wouldn’t make her queen. Then, of course, Mother had found a way that it would.

 

“I know all the stablehands’ names at home,” Henry says proudly. “I’m there all the time.”

 

“We just had the one,” Regina murmurs, and she can feel melancholy creeping in instead of rage. It is easier to control the rage here, up to her elbows in soap suds with Henry looking up at her with eyes that trust without question. “His name was Daniel.” She cradles the name with her voice, a precious memory even now, and she can feel, rather than see, the way that Emma watches her at it.

 

“Where did he go?” Henry asks. It isn’t an attack, it isn’t probing, it’s just an innocent question from a boy who doesn’t know what door he’s opening. She has to remind herself of that for a long moment before she can speak again.

 

“He died a long time ago,” she says.

 

It isn’t until Henry has disappeared upstairs to find a snack that Emma speaks. “Daniel,” she says slowly. “That was…”

 

“Don’t say his name,” Regina grits out. Emma is smart, not only in matters of etiquette and diplomacy. There is insightfulness hidden beneath the porcelain doll displayed to the world, and Regina fears it, just a little.

 

“Neal was mine,” Emma says, dragging a dress in circles through the basin. “His real name was Baelfire. He was the Dark One’s son.”

 

Regina chokes on her own spit, coughs hard as Emma waits patiently for her to collect herself. “I’m sorry, what?”

 

“That’s what he told me when he came back,” Emma says. “I was…when I first met him, I was a runaway.”

 

“A runaway,” Regina echoes, delighted despite herself. Every time Emma tells her another fact about her childhood, she can’t help but treasure them. Perhaps it’s only because Snow White deserves no less than a ruffian daughter. “You ran away from home?”

 

“Mom and I fought a lot when I was a teenager,” Emma admits, watching Regina as though she knows exactly why it is that Regina’s enjoying this so much. “She wanted me to settle down and learn how to be…you know. This.” She waves at herself, at the perfect braid wound in front of her shoulder and the perfect white gown and the perfect little tiara perched on her head. “The last straw was the betrothal.”

 

Regina’s blood runs cold. “Betrothal,” she repeats. “You were engaged.”

 

“I was furious. Mom thought it might teach me responsibility. So I ran off and didn’t come back for months, until after the alliance had fallen apart and the prince in question was out of the picture.”

 

Regina stares at her, her heart pounding rapidly. Of course Snow had found someone for Emma. Of course Emma had been betrothed, forced into the arms of a man she’d never wanted. It makes perfect sense and no sense at all, because how could Snow possibly… “And you met the Dark One’s son.”

 

“We stole the same carriage.” Emma laughs for a moment, her eyes turning soft and distant. Regina doesn’t like it, feels her hackles rising just at the look in Emma’s eyes and doesn’t know why. “We stole food and rode together for those months, and eventually…” She shrugs, looking suddenly uncomfortable. “When I realized that I was with child, I was terrified.”

 

“You told him and he left you,” Regina guesses, a quiet anger boiling up within her. “The coward.”

 

Emma puts a calming hand on Regina’s, leaning against the basin to steady herself. “I told him I was a princess, actually. That I was from the White Kingdom. He was quiet and kind about it, and when I woke up the next morning, he was gone and I was surrounded by my mother’s guards. I never got to tell him I was expecting a child.” Her hand remains on Regina’s, stroking the skin of her wrist, and Regina can feel only the soft pad of Emma’s thumb on her. “He told me when he came back that it was because his father was in my castle. I suppose it was a fair reason for leaving me.”

 

“Like hell it was,” Regina says, and Emma smiles at her, so warm that Regina is left without words.

 

“Thank you,” she says, her thumb still rubbing against Regina’s skin. It’s gentle, absent-minded, and Regina’s been starved for touch for decades or she’d have definitely pushed Emma away by now. Absolutely.

 

She struggles to imagine what she had that first night, a plan that had somehow made sense at the time. Snow White riding toward the estate, her face grim and that terrible high-pitched voice she puts on when she’s panicked. Regina standing with Emma, burying her hand in Emma’s chest and taking out her heart. Crushing it to–

 

There are too many ways that her plan doesn’t work. Emma is– Emma–

 

Well, it’s about her magic. She doesn’t have it, no matter how many times she uses mention of it to terrorize Emma. She can’t take out Emma’s heart unless she finds a potion that might do it. It’s that simple. That’s why she can’t imagine her plan coming to fruition.

 

“What are you thinking about?” Emma murmurs. She’s still leaning against the basin, curled up in her white dress that is stained now with grey water. Her eyes are on Regina, attentive and unworried, and her fingers are gentle on Regina’s wrist.

 

Regina says, “I’m thinking about killing you when your mother comes.”

 

Emma’s hand stiffens on Regina’s, then leaves it. Regina pulls her own hands close to herself, tangles her fingers together to try to stave off the feeling of emptiness that follows. She looks up, expecting fear and dread on Emma’s face, but instead she sees something new. Determination. Not about Henry, whom they both know is safe from Regina. But about…

 

“Tell me how Daniel died,” Emma says, and Regina recoils, jerking back and splashing dirty water over both of them. Emma doesn’t flinch. Her eyes still gleam, and she stares at Regina with a fixed, expectant expression.

 

Regina stumbles to her feet, and Emma follows, keeping up with her easily as Regina hangs up the last of the dresses and stalks from the room. “Didn’t the Dark One tell you?” she spits out when Emma falls into step with her. “Isn’t that what you people do? Go to Rumple and get his skewed stories–“

 

“That isn’t what–“ Emma begins, and she falls silent as they enter the kitchens. Henry is eating an apple on one of the counters, looking curiously at them.

 

“Lunchtime?” he suggests.

 

Regina jerks away from them. “I’ll take care of it,” she says briskly, ducking into the pantry. Her stores are just about gone, which means that she’s going to have to make a trip into town soon. Henry’s going to ask questions if she leaves and doesn’t bring them along, which means…

 

Nothing good.

 

She’s running on borrowed time, and she’s deeply aware of it now, can hardly move without thinking about it. Maybe that’s why she feels the need to remind Emma of it, again and again. This isn’t some fun family vacation at a friend’s house, regardless of how they frame it to Henry. This ends with Emma’s death, whether or not Regina has her magic. It must. It’s the only way.

 

Emma is at the table when Regina emerges from the pantry. She’s taken an apple of her own, and she eats it in big bites when she thinks no one is watching, wiping away the juices that make her face sticky. She sees Regina watching and takes a dainty, careful bite instead, back straightening and ankles crossing. Regina is awash with an emotion she can’t name. It feels dangerous, all the same.

 

This is a step closer to vengeance, to closure, to being safely free of Snow White. This ends with her death, and with all the harm she can cause to Snow before her end.

 

None of this is Emma’s fault, a voice within her heart reminds her, and she silences it, forces a false smile onto her face and spreads her palm suddenly right in Emma’s direction. Emma doesn’t even flinch this time, just arches an eyebrow and waits.

 

“How does a stew sound?” Regina suggests instead, and Henry hurries to get a pot to begin the recipe. Emma peels potatoes and Henry sits on the counter and pokes at the sauce with a spoon while Regina spices it, and it feels like something worth holding onto.

 

Henry is chattering about something inane beside her, an old recipe that the cook at the castle used to make. “It was awful,” he says, making a face. “Grandma loved it, and Granddad loved Grandma enough to pretend to like it. Mom used to pretend, too, but I caught her slipping food to Granddad’s dogs all the time.” He lowers his voice conspiratorially. “She gave two of them food poisoning after that stew.”

 

A potato strikes him on the side of his head and he catches it, dipping it into the sauce Regina had been mixing and hurling it back at his mother. It splatters against Emma’s cheek, leaving a splotch of red against her pale skin. Emma shakes a finger at Henry, and Henry says challengingly, “What are you going to do?”

 

Emma moves across the kitchen with sudden speed, taking Henry by surprise, and she’s grinning almost devilishly as she goes for the sauce pot. Henry says, “Regina, help!” and Regina upends the pot as Emma reaches it, sending red sauce dripping all over her front, splattering everywhere.

 

Emma stares at her filthy dress, wide-eyed, and then the smile curls back onto her lips. She’s fast when she wants to be, and Regina finds herself very suddenly in Emma’s embrace, under sauce-related attack.

 

She’s too shell-shocked to react. Emma’s arms are around her, and maybe it’s just a simple act of vengeance, but it feels– warm, soft and comfortable and enough that Regina’s mind is wiped clean of all other thoughts. Emma leans over to whisper to her, her breath tickling Regina’s ear. “Still thinking about killing me?”

 

She pulls back, eyes bright with delight at what must be a disgusting mess on Regina’s dress, and Regina can’t answer, can’t do anything other than gape at Emma, her heart thrumming faster than it has in years. Then Henry says, “You’re both gross,” and Emma quirks an eyebrow and Regina jerks back to life in time to join Emma in a group hug of a squirming, shouting, laughing Henry.

 

There is no more sauce, and the stew is scrapped, another unnecessary depletion of her stores. But Henry laughs and Emma beams and the dread that consumes Regina is frozen in place for a few minutes, for a few hours, held at bay.

 


 

They eat bread and cheese in their dirty clothes and then split up to bathe in the little lake at the edge of the estate. None of them have the energy or interest in drawing water for baths right now, and instead, Henry finds a small alcove and leaves Emma and Regina the main segment of the lake.

 

It’s a quiet, secluded area, trees surrounding the main pool of the lake and concealing it from anyone who might be riding by. Though, of course, there’s never anyone riding by. Emma slips out of her dress, wearing only a thin shift beneath it that barely reaches her thighs. “I…” Regina stares at her, feeling heat rising in her cheeks. Emma’s body is slender and barely toned, soft as a princess’s would be, and it’s shapely in all the right places. Beside her, Regina is suddenly very aware of the years letting her body atrophy and waste away, and a few weeks of treating it well can’t possibly return her to her former glory. “I’ll turn around,” she says weakly. “You can go ahead in.”

 

She undresses quickly afterward, watching Emma’s head tilting away from her with a tinge of pink on her skin, and slides into the water as quickly as she can. Emma relaxes when they’re both inside, and Regina can feel her eyes drifting down unconsciously, glimpsing a flash of distorted skin shimmering beneath the water before she snaps her eyes back up to Emma’s.

 

Emma is still flushed, and she reaches into the water to wash her face. “I’m surprised you didn’t just…snap your fingers and clean yourself after that,” she says, her voice a little breathless.

 

Regina shrugs, dread pooling in her stomach again. “Henry,” she says simply. She wouldn’t have risked Henry seeing her magic if she did have any to use, and Emma understands her well enough to nod in acquiescence. “Besides,” Regina feels obligated to add, “If I’d used magic just then, it wouldn’t have been to clean myself off.”

 

Emma gleans the threat and rolls her eyes, unworried. “There’s no point to killing me over that,” she says. “What a waste of my life.” She scrubs her arms, turning to expose the bare column of her back as she rises in the water. Regina’s mouth feels dry.

 

She watches her, swallowing hard, and her voice comes out a bit thicker when she responds. “Why do you speak so…so lightly of me killing you?” Regina demands. “Do you think I’m being facetious?” 

 

Emma turns back to face her. She isn’t rolling her eyes or laughing anymore. She looks contemplative, floating in silence in the lake. “No,” she says. “I suppose I’ve just…I’ve come to terms with it.” Regina stares at her, nonplussed and a little irritated at Emma’s tranquility, and Emma gives her a tight smile. “I know that my sole value is in hurting my parents,” she says. “I’ve known that for many years.”

 

Put like that, it sounds only sad, not accusing. Regina feels it like a quiet ache, seeping into her skin and pulling at her stomach. “That’s absurd,” she says hoarsely. “You’re not– you’re a princess, Emma. You’re the perfect princess, charming and beautiful and…“ Emma is watching her, eyes soft, and Regina cuts herself off. “You’re exactly what everyone wants,” she says instead.

 

“I’ve tried to be,” Emma admits. She looks troubled now, her eyes distant. “But I’m not. I feel as though…I’ve done everything right. I’ve spent thirteen years living up to every single one of my mother’s expectations, and now I see the way she looks at me and–“ She stops, takes a breath, and glances at Regina uncertainly. Something in Regina’s face must have encouraged her, because she clears her throat and murmurs, “And my parents are so disappointed in me. I don’t know how to do any of this right.”

 

“Your parents are dreadful,” Regina reminds her, and Emma gives her a look, a silent of course you’d say that that bothers Regina for reasons she can’t explain. “And if they do feel that way, they’re wrong.”

 

“Are they?” Emma demands. There is a spark to her now, past the defeat in her eyes, a fire that’s barely a puff of smoke and begs to be kindled. “I am useless. I’m weak, I can’t fight, and if you’d showed up at the castle and threatened me or my parents, I’d have probably just surrendered. I surrendered here, didn’t I? I’m a disappointment.”

 

She looks at Regina with eyes blazing with self-loathing, with tears offering her eyes a wet sheen, and Regina says at once, “That’s not true.” There is, again, that burn within her that there had been earlier when Emma had held her hand, that sudden awareness of how starved she is for touch. Emma isn’t even touching her now, but Regina can feel a phantom thread between them growing taut, tugging her closer to Emma in the water.

 

She reaches for Emma’s arm, touches her bare shoulder lightly and feels it like she’s been scorched. Emma looks up at her, her gaze still fiery, and Regina can’t look away. “I know what people say about me when my back is turned. I know what they think of me, as kind as they may be to my face.”

 

Regina wrinkles her nose. “You know what they say about me when my back is turned,” she says. “If it were all true, you’d be dead right now.” She regrets bringing that up when she’s mentioned Emma’s death more than once today. It must not be very persuasive.

 

But Emma’s eyes shine, just for a moment, the fire fading and replaced by something warmer. Regina clears her throat, the tips of her fingers still resting on Emma’s shoulder. “The people don’t know anything about you,” she says, and raises an eyebrow. “Do you think I’m the sort of person who’d sing your praises just to make you feel better?”

 

Emma shifts to face her. They’re close now, barely a step apart in the water, and Regina can only think of Emma’s naked body, hovering so close to her own. Her eyes drift down and stop at Emma’s lips. Emma wets her lips, and Regina jerks her head back up to stare at her. “I think you underestimate the sort of person you could be,” Emma says, her voice a lower register than usual. Her lips are parted now, her cheeks still pink, and she takes a deep breath.

 

Regina can’t move, can’t shift forward and can’t pull away. She’s frozen in place, eyes locked with Emma’s, and Emma says in a murmur, “I didn’t…blindly believe everything the Dark One told me, you know.” It’s almost apologetic, the way she says it. She twists her own fingers together, staring down at them for a moment before she locks her gaze with Regina’s again. “I was a rebellious child. You knew this. I was fascinated by the old paintings of the…the beautiful queen my parents hated, and I had to– to know everything.” She’s blushing again, staring down once more, and she says, “I built you up quite a bit in my head.”

 

Regina doesn’t know how to respond to any of this, to their proximity or to the gentleness with which Emma speaks to her or to Emma’s confession of– of something. She laughs shakily. “It must have been a letdown to see me in person.” She waves vaguely at herself. “I’ve let myself go.”

 

“Hardly,” Emma breathes, and they’re staring at each other again, Regina’s hand limp on Emma’s shoulder. Emma steps closer, her hand rising toward Regina’s cheek, and then she looks up past Regina and frowns. “What– what is that?”

 

Regina’s hand falls from Emma as she turns, peering over into the distance. When she squints, she can see what Emma had spotted: flecks of color against the blue skies, little puffs of brightness that are– that can’t possibly be–

 

They’re getting closer. Regina scrambles for the shore, yanking on her clean clothes and pulling herself to her feet. “Henry!” she calls. “Henry?”

 

Emma is dressed as well by the time Henry comes bounding to them, leading the horses. “What’s going on?” he asks.

 

“There’s a storm coming,” Regina says, waving vaguely in the opposite direction of the nearing puffs of light. “We’ve got to go inside. Ride along the woods back to the estate and go to the laundry room. You’ll be far enough underground there. I’ll take care of the horses.”

 

“A storm?” Henry says, puzzled. “I don’t even feel a breeze–“

 

“They hit quickly and unexpectedly here,” Regina says, her voice brooking no argument. “You must go. Take your mother,” she says, because she knows what works best with Henry. “Keep her safe. She shouldn’t be out here.”

 

She shoots an apologetic look at Emma, who nods grimly and then folds, tender as a flower. “Henry, please,” she whispers, and Henry softens.

 

“Of course,” he says, and he mounts his horse as Regina helps Emma onto hers.

 

Emma’s hand is in hers for a moment, and she gives her a tight squeeze. “Don’t let him look outside,” Regina whispers. “Please.”

 

She doesn’t know why she begs, why she asks instead of reminding Emma that their lives are in Regina’s hands. But she does, and Emma smiles faintly and nods without a word, riding with Henry back to the house.

 

They’re gone, specks in the distance by the time they reach the stables, and the puffs of color are nearing Regina now. There are dozens of them, framed against the darkening sky, and they hit the border to the grounds where Regina had planted her potion and recoil from the barrier.

 

“Again!” the first one orders, and the fairies flutter about, waving their hands as they work their magic. The barrier dissipates within moments, leaving a crowd of fairies hurtling through the air toward Regina, buzzing angrily.

 

The Blue Fairy is at the forefront, hovering above Regina as Regina glares up at them. “What do you want?” she demands. “Is my defeat and exile no longer enough for Snow White?”

 

Blue scoffs down at her. “Where are they, witch?”

 

She hadn’t seen Regina’s companions– no, hostages– retreat, then. Regina masks her relief with bored puzzlement. “Where are what? Have you misplaced some of your fairies? I haven’t had fairy flambé in decades.” She smiles a tight, amused smile, the sort that none of the so-called heroes had never been able to make sense of.

 

Blue hovers around her, still deeply suspicious. “We’ve been here before to watch you and you’ve never looked so…alive before,” she says, eyeing Regina with distrust. “What could have possibly revived you like this?”

 

“I bathe daily,” Regina says promptly, running out of patience. “If there’s something in particular you want from me– to kill me, perhaps? To haul me to Snow White for another execution– get on with it, mosquito.”

 

The fairy lets out an angry little sound, and Regina waits, her face emotionless. “And if Queen Snow rides here to find out the truth?” Blue hisses.

 

“She will be wasting her time,” Regina says evenly. “As are you. Begone, insect. I have dinner to cook.” She turns around, her heart thumping so hard that she’s surprised that Blue can’t hear it.

 

The fairies don’t go into the house. They’re still afraid of Mother’s booby traps, which suits Regina just fine, and she watches from the corner of her eye as they flutter angrily around the windows of the kitchen and the rest of the house, searching for proof of any visitors staying with Regina. They won’t notice anything amiss in the bedrooms, she thinks as she prepares a new stew for dinner. Emma and Henry had come here expecting a camping trip, and they had brought few possessions along. The question is only if they venture into the stables and recognize royal horses.

 

Regina doesn’t think so. Fairies have never paid much heed to horses.

 

The laundry room is mostly submerged in the ground, with only small windows at the top of the walls. If Henry is looking out– if the curtains aren’t drawn– then they’ll have a problem. But Regina is too aware that she’s being monitored to dare rush down there, not until her stew is complete and she sits down alone to eat it, glaring out the window as the last few fairies finally give up.

 

Their voices filter in from the open side door. “There’s nothing,” one of the fairies says in a tinny voice. “I checked every window I could see.”

 

Blue says, “She could be holding them in underground dungeons.”

 

“Why hold them at all?” the fairy points out. “Why not send their bodies to Queen Snow, if she has them? Why not ransom them or use them to bring Queen Snow here?” The other fairies gasp, and the fairy says, a little huffily, “Well, I don’t want that. But she would.”

 

“You’re right,” Blue says grudgingly. “I suppose there’s nothing to report to Queen Snow. We shall continue our search.”

 

Regina eats in silence, waiting until the little puffs of light are back in the sky, illuminating the grounds as they take off back toward the White Kingdom. She gives it an extra few moments before she circles the house once, searching for any stragglers, and then descends at last into the laundry room.

 

The curtains are all drawn, and the room is dark. “Sorry,” Henry whispers when she comes in, and Regina makes her way to him as her eyes adjust to the dimness. “I wanted to come out and check on you, but Mom had a panic attack. She had me cover the windows and then she…” He gestures helplessly to his mother, who is quivering in his arms, shaking against him like a true damsel in distress. “I didn’t know what to do.”

 

“You did what you had to,” Regina says, exhaling in silent relief. “I’m proud of you.” Henry smiles at her like that means something, and Regina suddenly wants to cry for the first time in many, many years. This is a farce, and Henry smiles at her like it’s real, damn it. “Why don’t…” Her voice is small, exhausted, and Henry looks at her with sudden concern. “Why don’t you go up to the kitchen and have some stew? We’ll be right there.”

 

She doesn’t know if Henry will release his mother, who is ostensibly having a panic attack, to her. But he trusts her, more than he ever should, and he carefully shifts Emma’s weight from his arms to Regina’s. “Take care of her,” he whispers, and he presses a kiss to Emma’s cheek, then another to Regina’s.

 

“Of course,” Regina murmurs, and she watches him go, still on the verge of tears. She leans back against the basin where Henry and Emma had been curled, pulling Emma closer into her arms, and Emma takes in a shuddering breath and looks up at her.

 

“It was the only way I could think of keeping him distracted,” she says. Her face is tearstained, her words wobbly. “Henry is…Henry’s a knight, you know?”

 

“I know.” Regina’s own voice is a little wobbly, and she still hasn’t let Emma go. “The fairies…your mother sent them.”

 

Emma leans against Regina’s shoulder, looking up at her with dark eyes. “Did you tell them to bring her here? Isn’t that your plan?” The words are almost challenging, almost gentle, as though she already knows the answer to that question. Regina shivers and doesn’t answer. “Regina,” Emma whispers.

 

It’s the first time Regina’s ever heard Emma use her name, and it sounds in the room like a caress, like an embrace as soft as the one in which Regina holds Emma now. “I’m–“ Regina clears her throat, feels the tears thick within it. “I’m still going to kill you,” she says raggedly.

 

“Right,” Emma says, and she disentangles herself from Regina, sits beside her against the basin and looks almost hurt. Regina closes her eyes, very guilty. “I know, you have a plan.” The words are wry, gently mocking, and Regina is suddenly angry.

 

Anger is better than guilt. “Stop acting as though I’m harmless,” she spits out. “I’ve devastated whole kingdoms! I’ve killed and– and tormented and– I’m the scourge of millions–“

 

“You’re a lonely old lady,” Emma says, and her smirk is still sad, still uncertain.

 

“Old?” Regina echoes, and that hurts almost as much as it had when Emma had pulled out of her arms. She doesn’t want Emma to see her as old, even if she feels it in her bones, in her heart, like the slow degradation of her soul.

 

Emma raises her eyebrows. “You’re my mother’s age.”

 

“I don’t look it!”

 

Emma’s hand is on her cheek before Regina can think to pull away, her soft fingers tracing smooth skin and her eyes very dark. “No,” she agrees. “You really don’t.”

 

“Regardless,” Regina points out, and there’s a hitch to her voice that hadn’t been there before. “I am evil.”

 

“That is what they called you,” Emma agrees, but she’s pensive, her thumb stroking Regina’s jawbone.

 

It’s insufferably naive. It’s foolish and it’s presumptuous and Regina can’t– she can’t– “Do you think it was some silly little name?” she demands. “Do you have any idea– how much that the Dark One told you that was probably true? Do you have any concept of just how steeped in darkness my life was?” Her words are coming out in spurts, starts and words that cut themselves off midway through. “Do you know anything of the sort of horrors I committed? What I had my guards do to ensure my vengeance? Do you know what I live with every day?”

 

Regrets. Hatred, vengeance, and they’ve torn her to shreds. She has nightmares that have haunted her for decades, memories of all the ways that she’d gone so terribly wrong. She shrugs them off, tells herself that her victims had deserved it, that they’d been enemies of the kingdom for sheltering Snow White, that she’s been maligned and suffered as they never had.

 

But in the end, she dreams about broken necks and weeping peasants, about a day spent in the woods under another face only to find an entire town left dead by her orders. In the end, no matter how much she’s denied it, she feels the weight of a thousand misdeeds on her shoulders, and Emma should be horrified by her, not staring at her with dark, fathomless eyes. “Did you think–“ She has to swallow past her tears now, feels them threatening to emerge. “Did you think that I could be swayed into goodness by just the kindness of a boy and his mother? Did you have some fanciful ideas of redemption? There is no redemption for me. There’s only death, and goodness’s victory over evil.”

 

“I don’t believe that,” Emma says, her words barely audible. Her hand is clasped against Regina’s cheek still, and she looks tall, suddenly, strong in a way that she’s eschewed in the past. “I can’t believe that about you.”

 

Regina wants to call her a fool for it, wants to lash out and make it clear just how incapable she is of living up to Emma’s images of her. Instead, she just shudders against Emma’s hand, her eyes watery. “The fairies lifted the enchantment around the grounds that keep you in,” she says thickly. “You should take Henry and go. I wouldn’t stop you. Go home. Be a princess.” Emma closes her eyes, and Regina can’t help but amend, but foolishly, foolishly care, “Be the princess you want to be, Emma. You’re so much more than– than what they think of you–“

 

Emma leans in, eyes intent on Regina’s lips, and she kisses her.

 

The tears erupt with the first touch of Emma’s lips to hers, and Regina quakes, sobs and kisses Emma back as she tastes the salt of her own tears on Emma’s lips. “No,” she sobs. “No, I’m not– I can’t–“ This is wrong. This can’t happen. She’s spent a lifetime plotting Snow White’s destruction, and she can’t be broken like this, shredded to pieces in Princess Emma’s arms.

 

Why isn’t Emma afraid of her anymore? Has Emma seen how weak she is, how helpless she is beneath her bluster and despair? Why can’t she– why can’t she pull away, when all she’s supposed to be now is vengeance and regrets? “It’s all right,” Emma breathes, and she strokes Regina’s face tenderly as she might some daring prince who’d charmed her instead of the Evil Queen. “It’s all right.”

 

Emma settles against her, molds herself to Regina, and Regina clings to her with the same desperate need. Emma holds Regina in her arms, pulling her close. The kisses are small and quiet and heated, frantic from Regina and slow and calming from Emma; and Regina kisses Emma until she can’t anymore, until she can only fall against Emma and shut her eyes, blinking tears away.

 

“What now?” Emma whispers, and she sounds breathless and full of trepidation at once. Regina has no response, no answer that can possibly make sense in this senseless, senseless world, and she buries herself in Emma’s embrace.

Chapter Text

It’s late now, and Henry has finally gone to sleep. He’d lingered in the kitchen for a long time after dinner, full of questions about the “storm” and what damage it might have left. There is still something about his openmouthed curiosity that feels so utterly familiar, like a shadow of the past that Regina knows instinctively not to dwell on. Regina had fielded his questions, a dull weight in the pit of her stomach growing heavier with each lie told.

 

The barrier around the estate is gone, and with it, Regina’s last hope of keeping Henry and Emma here. Oh, she can threaten to use her magic, can mix more potions, but the fairies will be back if they can’t find their royals. Snow won’t stay away forever. It’s only a matter of time, and Regina can only slow the onset of fate, not stop it.

 

Eventually, decisions will have to be made.

 

Emma had excused herself hours ago, still distracted and dazed, and Henry had attributed it to her feigned panic attack instead of anything else. Regina had kept her eyes studiously away from Emma’s, relieved at the reprieve.

 

Emma must be asleep now. Regina checks the stores again, notes grimly that the trip to the market is going to have to happen sooner, rather than later. She seals the doors and peers outside again, searching for any telltale glows of nosy fairies. Nothing. The house is safe for now.

 

She ascends the stairs, heading for her room, when she rethinks it. She doubles back in the hallway, toward the guest quarters, and she pauses outside of Emma’s door, hesitates with her fist raised to knock.

 

Emma opens the door, wearing a long pale dressing gown and her hair still braided in a band around her head. “I was wondering if you’d come,” she breathes, and Regina can’t avoid her gaze or pretend to be focused on something else anymore. She’s pressing Emma against the wall of her room in a moment, attacking Emma’s lips with her own, kissing her with the same desperation as before.

 

She pulls away of her own accord, breathing hard. “I’m sorry. I’m…this is a terrible idea,” she manages, because it is. Emma is, and yet Regina can’t tear her eyes from her, can’t stop tracing the smooth skin of Emma’s neck as she insists that this is a mistake.

 

“It really is,” Emma agrees, and she shifts, turns them in place and sweeps Regina’s hair back behind her shoulders to kiss her again. Emma’s kisses are tentative but calm, healing when Regina feels only her own fragility. “You’re the worst person I could probably have ever developed…feelings for.”

 

“Feelings?” Regina echoes, and Emma kisses her neck sweetly, nuzzles it with such gentleness that Regina can feel herself on the verge of tears again. She hasn’t experienced gentleness in decades– since before she’d been a queen, since a single night in the stables so many years ago– and she trembles at it now, shudders at how it seems to grip her body and consume it.

 

Her hands reach out, find Emma’s hair and burrow into it. Regina squeezes her eyes shut and Emma kisses her jaw, lowering her down until they’re both seated on Emma’s bed together. “I’ve never…” Emma stares at her, suddenly solemn. “I didn’t tell you everything about Neal.”

 

“I don’t think there’s anyone I want to know about less right now,” Regina says dryly, but she smiles to ease the sharpness of the response, waits uncertainly for Emma’s revelation.

 

Her hands are still in Emma’s hair, absentmindedly tugging the locks loose of their braid and twisting them between her fingers. Emma leans into Regina’s hands, staring out at the rest of the room. “When I came back home– in disgrace, betrayed, lost…” She blinks rapidly. Regina strokes her hair, waits. “The kingdom needed a fairytale, if they were to accept Henry as their king someday. So I gave them a fairytale instead of a terrified girl running from the threat of marriage into the arms of the first person she’d met, and even Neal himself bought into it. I think I did, too, at first. It was easier to believe than the truth.”

 

“So there was no great true love.” Regina had guessed, based on Henry and Emma’s recountings. She hadn’t been entirely sure that Emma had known it. “What kind of a White are you?”

 

Emma laughs shakily. “There’s never been a great…anything,” she admits, leaning into the mass of blankets on the bed. “My mother spent years throwing handsome princes at me in the hopes that one might turn my head.” She makes a face. “There was also a period where she thought I might be otherwise inclined—“

 

Regina perks up. “Handsome princesses?”

 

Emma laughs, eyes bright and glittering. “Handsome shepherds,” she clarifies. “Like my father. There were no princesses at all. I’ve never...” She clears her throat. “I’ve never wanted anyone before,” she admits, almost bashful at the admission of wanting.

 

Regina has wanted before, had wanted once so deeply that she’d been crushed for good when she had lost him. Then she’d wanted everything, vengeance and hatred and ownership and never anything like this, that she’d admit. “You certainly picked the wrong time to start,” she murmurs, and Emma laughs helplessly, curls against Regina as Regina unravels the last bits of her tightly wound braid.

 

Emma’s golden hair falls around her in glorious waves, and Regina tugs her up again and kisses her, her urgency fading at last. This is languid, comfortable and sheer pleasure, tangled in a mass of blankets on a bed and kissing the daughter of her worst enemy as though they’re adolescents beginning their first romance, hiding away from the world with the fierce joy of a beautiful secret.

 

And then Emma’s hand slips onto Regina’s thigh, tugging up her dress, and Regina is reminded suddenly that they are far from adolescents. Her stomach clenches with desire, and Emma’s fingers move smoothly against her skin, stroking her inner thigh with gentle, coaxing movements.

 

“Em–ma,” Regina manages. Whether or not Emma has ever wanted before, she clearly isn’t a stranger to what comes next, and her gracefulness translates to steady, confident movements, a tease that has Regina trembling again. Her own hands clutch at Emma’s back, move to her front, find the opening in the front of her dressing gown to slide her fingers into and wrap her fingers around a breast. Emma shudders and smiles, pressing her forehead to Regina’s and brushing a kiss to the tip of her nose. “We have to–“ Regina remembers, which is the point of coming here, talking this over, making it clear that this is doomed. “Emma–“

 

Emma’s hand leaves Regina’s thigh, and Regina sags, her fingers still brushing against Emma’s delicate skin at her breast. “What?” Emma whispers. “Are you going to tell me what I already know? That we’re not– that my mother will come, someday? That Henry won’t stay here forever? I know.” She kisses the corner of Regina’s mouth. “I know what this means. I don’t care.”

 

“You should,” Regina whispers. “You shouldn’t be here at all. I know it’s easy to believe that I’m somehow not the woman everyone says I am– that I’m different, just because I see you as something more than an insipid princess.” It had been when Emma had kissed her before, when Emma’s eyes soften around her, and it’s so foolish that Regina wants to scream. “My seeing what…what everyone around you is too idiotic to notice doesn’t say anything about me. It says everything about youstop looking at me like that,” she says desperately, because Emma’s eyes are shining like jewels in the dimness.

 

“Regina,” Emma murmurs, and she tugs her closer, holds her on her lap and kisses her hair. “Let us have this. Please?”

 

It’s a simple request, free of any grand declarations of what they mean to each other, and Regina is helpless to resist it. They move in light touches, in dancing fingers that never quite reach their mark, and Emma falls asleep before the main event. Regina kisses her eyelids and then gazes down at her, the churning in her stomach replaced, for a time, with peace.

 


 

The fairies don’t come back, and for a few days, Regina breathes easily. Every moment is quiet, every interaction peaceful, and Henry doesn’t speak about leaving even once. There are kisses whenever Henry’s back is turned, and Emma sleeps in Regina’s bed for two nights following the first.

 

There are sleepy morning kisses and legs tangled together and waking up in the middle of the night to a warm body in her embrace. It’s nothing she’s ever experienced before, sleeping in a bed with someone she wants there, feeling peace instead of rage and conflict and despair. It’s addictive, caring and being cared for. It’s healing in a way that she’s never experienced before.

 

Still, Regina’s stores are depleting more and more, and with them goes her contentment. No one comments on how little is in the pantry, even Henry, until a lunch that is only biscuits and butter and impossible to overlook.

 

They’re sparring after lunch, Emma picking wildflowers and shouting encouraging things to either of them, depending on who’s winning. “You can do it, Henry,” she calls. “Knock her on her–“

 

Regina cuts her off before she says anything too unprincesslike. “You fight, if you want to take me down.” She holds out her own sword challengingly, smirking at Emma. There is something about Emma with a sword that has stayed with her, that has felt more natural an image than Emma picking wildflowers or sitting in her white gowns with perfect posture.

 

Emma laughs lightly, shaking her head. “That isn’t how I fight,” she says, but there’s a wistfulness to it. She drifts off after a while, wandering to the stables, and Regina freezes for a gripped moment before Emma emerges again with her horse. She rides beautifully, and Regina is distracted from her sparring and disarmed in a moment by a smug Henry.

 

“Look alive, Regina,” he says, dancing away when she flips her sword back into her hand and swings it at him. “You can do better than that.”

 

“I don’t know about that,” Regina says, parrying his next blow with some difficulty. “You’re getting very good at this.”

 

“You don’t let me win,” Henry points out. His footwork is light now, difficult to follow, and he swings with energy that belies his youth. “I had to get better.”

 

“I’m glad I’m good for something,” Regina teases. It’s easy to forget sometimes that Henry loathes everything she represents, when they’re like this. Their interactions are free of tension and resentment, and Regina can push aside her foreboding and the niggling sense of familiarity that always seems to surround Henry.

 

But reality still lingers at the edge of her consciousness, a warning she can’t shake entirely today, and Henry must know it, too, because he says, “I know Mom doesn’t want to go back.”

 

“What?” Regina asks, startled. Henry has been silent about leaving since the fairies had come, and she’d let herself believe, for a little while, that it had been because he’d dropped it entirely. But no, of course there is an explanation. Emma and Henry both are too much like their parents not to let their hearts lead them. It had been disgusting on the Charmings, but it’s endearing on them.

 

Henry gives her a look, an I’m not stupid that feels so much like her own that she’s delighted beneath the dread. “Every time I brought up leaving, Mom would come up with some reason why we have to stay. It’s why I stopped saying anything about it. I know Mom doesn’t want to go home.”

 

Oh. He’s so caught up in the tired traditions of knighthood that Regina forgets sometimes that he really is noble. “Why wouldn’t she want to?” she asks gently. She had told Emma to leave, and Emma had chosen not to. She still can’t quite grasp why.

 

Henry shrugs, setting his sword down and sitting on the low stone wall of the courtyard. “I guess…I know that sometimes being a royal in the palace can be…” He  hesitates, afraid to complete the sentence and reveal too much.

 

“Lonely,” Regina murmurs, understanding at once. This is Snow White’s world, and they all live in the sidelines, forcing smiles and being overlooked in her shadow. Regina remembers the early years, being desperate to be liked, to do her best in the palace. She had instead been so alone that she’d even missed her mother.

 

“Yeah,” Henry says, smiling with uncharacteristic melancholy. “You really understand us, you know? I get why Mom wants to stay.”

 

Regina frowns. She’d heard about the loneliness plaguing Emma before, had gotten plenty of hints at it from Emma herself, but she hadn’t imagined it from Henry. “You, too?”

 

“I have…I know there are lots of people who love me,” Henry admits. “Dwarfs and godparents and fairies and…sometimes it’s still lonely. Especially when you’re a bastard prince.” The final admission comes out in a whisper, and Regina sees red in an instant, is seized by fury like she hasn’t been capable of feeling in a long time.

 

Henry stares at her with round eyes. “You look like murder,” he says, but he sounds awed by it.

 

Regina can only nod jerkily, furious and with no way to channel it, no magic to unleash or threats to toss out at the skies. “How dare they,” she finally manages. She will kill them, every single person who has threatened Emma or Henry, who treats them as though they’re lesser. She will–

 

A hand grasps hers, and the darkness slides away as Henry squeezes her hand in his own. “It’s okay,” he says. “It’s not anything I can complain about. Everyone is very kind and respectful to my face. It’s just…I know how they look at me. I know how they look at Mom, hoping she’ll find someone new to marry so she can have a nice legitimate heir for the kingdom. I hear what they whisper behind my back. Everyone just loves Grandma so much that they don’t question me as heir.”

 

She wants to point out that all of this is Snow’s fault, that Snow should have been able to stop those whispers, that Snow has failed both Emma and Henry– But she isn’t supposed to be the Evil Queen here, with Henry, and so she nods jerkily and says, “They would be very fortunate to have you as their king.”

 

Henry has Emma’s smile when he looks at her, his eyes shining brighter than any magic Regina has ever wrought. “You’re…you’re one of the most important people I’ve ever met,” he says, his fingers brushing against her palm. “I’m really glad we stopped here for that night.”

 

“So am I,” Regina murmurs, and her heart might be black and shrunken in her chest, but she can feel it twist and clench some more.

 

“I don’t even know if I want to go,” Henry admits. “I like it here. I know we’ll visit, but I’ve gotten used to seeing you every day. And at home, there’s no one who sees me as my own person.” He frowns, staring up at the sky. “But I guess…I keep thinking about what a hero would do.” 

 

Regina knows, remembers what it had been like to be thirteen and still believe she might be a hero someday instead of the villain. “A hero doesn’t run from his problems,” she says softly, in defeat. She can lie to Henry, can persuade him to stay with her, but to what end? What will Emma and Henry become, isolated from the world, with only a corrupt influence living with them?

 

There will be no return visits, Regina knows. Emma will go home and remember how very stifling her parents’ expectations are. Henry will be a knight and forget her entirely. And that’s only if she survives their return at all. Regina’s days are numbered, regardless of whether or not she dies at the end of this visit.

 

Henry must sense her tension, because he wraps his arms around her suddenly. Henry hugs with his whole body, throws his arms around the other person and holds on so tightly that it’s like a wave of affection that leaves the subject of the hug tumbling helplessly within it.

 

Regina places her hands on Henry’s back and shuts her eyes, drowning gladly. “You know,” she whispers, a near-silent admission. “If I’d ever had a son, I’d have wanted him to be just like you.” She’d wanted a child desperately in the final years of her rule. She’d wanted to be needed, to be loved, to be someone’s only person.

 

Henry lets her go so he can look up at her, his eyes still very warm. “You’d be a great mom,” he says, and he hugs her again tightly.

 

She hadn’t known that being around a child can be like this: awash in emotions, fragile to his every changing mood, prepared to give up all she’d planned and decades of dreaming of destruction just to see him smile again.

 


 

There is nothing left for dinner but flat flour cakes that Regina fries until they’re crispy. Henry eats them without complaint, and Emma tosses worried glances at him and Regina.

 

“He’s ready to leave,” Regina says when they’re cleaning up. Henry is curled up in the next room with a book, and Emma is drying dishes beside her. Their fingers brush against each other each time Regina hands Emma a dish, and both of them shiver. “He thinks you’re the one keeping the two of you here.”

 

“Aren’t I?” Emma sets the dish down, tugging Regina to her instead to dot kisses against Regina’s lips. “I want to stay. He will, too, if he thinks about it enough. There’s nothing for us in that castle.”

 

“Except for a whole kingdom,” Regina reminds her. “And if you stay, your parents will come.” There’s a shudder of revulsion that accompanies that, a reminder that Emma’s parents are the banes of her existence. What is she doing?

 

Emma leans back against the kitchen wall, her eyes expectant. “Are you trying to get rid of me, Regina?” she teases, but there’s a note of hurt in her voice, of uncertainty. She is as fragile as Regina is, and Regina is finally trying to do right by Emma and Henry and is failing them instead.

 

“No,” Regina murmurs, and she can’t speak the emotions she’s feeling, but she strokes Emma’s cheek and says, “I just really loathe your parents.”

 

Emma watches her solemnly, and she leads her outside silently, to the stone path that winds around the house. Her hand lands in Regina’s, and Regina holds it tightly, an anchor in these changing seas. “Tell me what happened to Daniel,” she says. “That’s where this began, isn’t it?”

 

Regina’s first instinct is always to push back, to reply with scorn and make Emma regret ever asking the question. Tonight, though, she thinks of Emma and the gentle way she grooms her own horse, the fierce joy she has on her face when she’s riding, the way Regina’s heart stops whenever she enters the stables. “No,” she says. “It began with your mother.”

 

“Tell me,” Emma whispers, and Regina finally does.

 

She imagines that the Dark One had told the same stories, but with a different bent to them, enough that Emma had rejected them but they’d still niggled. Regina remembers Snow on a wild horse in these fields, remembers her father proposing to Regina and Mother accepting it. She remembers Daniel, who had been kind and gentle and the only person she’d really had, and she remembers Snow telling a secret and Daniel’s heart plucked out and crushed.

 

Love is weakness, Mother had said, and Emma’s jaw goes tight and tense when Regina tells her that. “No,” she says simply. “I can’t believe that.”

 

“Your love for your parents made you hide away all the parts of yourself that made you strong,” Regina points out.

 

Emma swings their joined hands together, her fingers tight in Regina’s. “My love for Henry is the only reason I’m alive right now,” she counters. “Your mother was manipulating you, just like she manipulated my mother. And she’s wrong.”

 

“I don’t know,” Regina says. She’s tired, suddenly, exhausted by the secrets she’d revealed after decades of a reprieve from reliving that anger and loss. “I was strong for a very long time, you know. My vengeance kept me alive through the years in the palace, despising Snow White and her father–“

 

“All this because my mother told a secret?” Emma says, and she sounds…not dismissive, exactly, but perplexed. She understands grief, Regina knows, and she doesn’t question how vital Daniel had been to Regina, but she doesn’t grasp–

 

“Emma,” Regina says, and her hand leaves Emma’s. She backs up to sit on the low stone wall at the courtyard, staring up at Emma and wondering just how much she can reveal before it shatters her. “If the king had wanted a caretaker for Snow and nothing more, do you think he would have married me?”

 

Emma takes a step back, her eyes shining with dawning horror. “Regina,” she says, reaching out for her. But she doesn’t move forward, is frozen in place, and Regina can’t move to bring her closer.

 

“I used to lie beside him at night and imagine…imagine strangling him, dream of taking his kingdom as he had taken from me,” she confesses. “But I was too weak back then. By the time I was strong enough to try, he had grasped what the resentment in my eyes had meant and learned to keep me caged. And Snow White never– never, for all her supposed love for me– understood that I might be suffering, that I might have wanted more in my life than to be her stepmother.” She rubs the heels of her hands against her eyes, staring down at the ground when she’s done.

 

Emma drops in front of her, abruptly in her line of sight. She’s on her knees, her eyes fixed on Regina, and she doesn’t say a word. Regina is relieved, relieved not to have to fight her, relieved that Emma isn’t offering her empty condolences, relieved that Emma’s still here

 

Love is weakness, Mother had said, but Emma reaches for Regina’s hands and holds them in her own, warm and steady, and they sit in silence, their hands joined and their eyes locked. “Your mother will always see me as the Evil Queen,” Regina whispers. “She isn’t wrong.”

 

“Stop,” Emma murmurs back. “Stop calling yourself that. It’s been so many years, Regina. You might be angry, but you aren’t evil. I spent…I spent so many years in the same castle, remember? Hiding away my anger so I could be what everyone needed me to be. You’re the only one who’s ever let me be angry. Who’s wanted me to fight. Do you know what you’ve done to me?”

 

Regina laughs wetly. “I’m corrupting you.”

 

“You’re freeing me,” Emma says fiercely, and Regina slides from the wall, drops to her knees so she’s sitting opposite Emma, and presses her lips chastely to Emma’s lips. Love is weakness.

 

Love is…

 

It’s a good thing she isn’t capable of love anymore, she decides, and she holds her lips there for a long time, Emma’s eyes drifting closed. Regina’s remain open. She can’t bear to look away.

 

This is all going to end so soon. Regina knows it, has known it was doomed from the start, and had been free of any protections that might have kept her safe from this well of emotions. This is going to end.

 

She murmurs, “My stores are gone. We’ll need to go into town tomorrow,” and she has to swallow back a sob when Emma nods reluctantly.

 


 

“Regina values her privacy,” Emma reminds Henry again as they climb onto their horses. “And so do we. We can’t be wandering around the marketplace, drawing attention to ourselves.”

 

“I know, I know,” Henry groans, looking to Regina for an ally in his mother’s reproving. Regina can only manage a strained smile, too tense to speak. “Cloaks on, we buy food, we leave. No loitering or making big pronouncements in the town square while wearing the family jewels. I got it.”

 

“Henry,” Emma says, and she gives him a significant look. Regina watches it pass between them and can’t read it, not until Emma murmurs, “This is for Regina’s sake.”

 

Henry stops rolling his eyes at once, looking to Regina so warmly that Regina is left without words. “I’ll be careful,” he promises, and he flashes her an affectionate smile.

 

True to his word, he ties his cloak and raises the hood, riding alongside them in silence. Regina’s hood is already up, and she can’t see Emma’s face when they ride, which has her even more on edge. She doesn’t like this, riding into the unknown where anything can happen. If Henry and Emma weren’t on the verge of being without food, she would have eschewed it altogether.

 

The village marketplace is one of the smaller ones just outside of Snow’s kingdom, an hour from Regina’s estate. When Regina had been exiled from the kingdom and imprisoned in her childhood home, it had been Daddy who’d found the only marketplace within the enchantment that had held her there, who’d traveled there once every two months to buy food for them. Regina had only begun going after he’d passed, reluctantly dragging herself there a few times a year.

 

She hadn’t been interested in eating, in caring for herself; and she had always bought little and eaten less and less. She had been there just days before Emma and Henry had arrived, and she hadn’t expected to return for a very long time.

 

The market is noisy and crowded, and Regina had found it disorienting all the other times she’d been there. Today, though, it’s far less jarring. She’s used to having people around now, though not strangers, and she only stops and leans against her horse for a moment to adjust. There are curious, unfriendly eyes on her, merchants who recognize the cloaked woman and wonder at her companions, and Regina tenses even more.

 

A soft hand slips into hers, and Regina exhales and peers past Emma’s cloak to see her face. “Stay with me,” Emma murmurs. “Henry’s going to go explore. Let’s find the supplies we need.”

 

Henry is halfway across the market already, peering at wares and tasting samples and spending money that must be his own on everything he can choose. Emma leads Regina away from Henry, toward the other end of the market.

 

It’s obscene, the number of items they pick up. It’s almost as though Emma is determined to prove that she and Henry will stay, that all this food will be needed. Emma lugs a massive bag of flour, tips vegetables into their cart, finds a block of cheese that would mold before Regina could ever eat it alone, and makes a beeline for the fruit–

 

Regina stops her at the apples, frowning hard enough beyond her cloak that she’s sure that Emma can sense it. “I have apples,” she reminds her grouchily. Emma returns the apples grudgingly, turning instead to buy a pastry from the next booth. Under her hood, her eyes widen in delight, and she purchases two.

 

“No,” Regina mutters under her breath to her. Emma is staring at the pastry as though she’s a child, as though some awful sugary treat is the grand answer to the universe. Regina hasn’t had a sugary treat in decades, and she shakes her head again as Emma holds it out to her. She isn’t a child, or a pampered royal anymore. She hasn’t enjoyed food in more years than she can count. She doesn’t want…

 

Henry is far across the market, out of sight, and Regina leans over and takes one bite of the pastry from Emma’s grasp and sighs in pure pleasure. Emma’s eyes light up. “I knew it,” she says gleefully, and she tugs Regina on to another seller, this one selling another frivolous food. “Try it. You’ll love it.” Regina tries it, because Emma is bouncing in place, thrilled at Regina’s reluctant concession.

 

“Why,” Regina tries.

 

Emma pats her arm. “You don’t ever spoil yourself,” she murmurs, sliding her arm around Regina’s so she can whisper in her ear. Regina can see the way that the merchants’ eyes follow them in suspicion, the way that peasants curl their lips when they see them together. “When’s the last time you let yourself enjoy something–“

 

“I liked terrorizing you,” Regina remembers fondly. “The way you’d jump and squeak–“

 

Emma rolls her eyes, grinning under her hood. “It did make you positively cheery.”

 

“It did. You had no right to stop being fearing me,” Regina says, sulking. “Villagers used to quake in their boots when I rode past. I’m positive your mother fell in love with your father because her brain was so addled with terror that I might find her–“

 

“My dad is great,” Emma says, outraged.

 

Regina snorts. “He’s a dullard.” They’re attracting more attention now, narrow-eyed merchants glaring Regina’s way, but Regina’s enjoying herself far too much to care. Let the villagers wonder at their mysterious visitor arriving with a friend. Let them resent her for it. As long as she’s here with Emma, she’ll gladly take it.

 

“Mom says I favor him,” Emma shoots back, which is really asking for it.

 

Regina grins smugly. “No wonder you’re not afraid of me anymore.” Emma is the one to snort now, and Regina narrows her eyes at her below her hood. “Couldn’t you at least do some of that yelping you did when I’d move in your direction? It was so endearing.”

 

“I can think of some more endearing things I can do,” Emma says, and she glances once in Henry’s direction– he’s picking up melons and then setting them down, his head never turning toward them– before she tugs her hood taut and leans in to kiss Regina swiftly.

 

“Oh, that’s enough,” says someone from behind them. Regina springs away from Emma, shifting position so she’s between Emma and the man speaking. “We put up with plenty from you, lady, but not this.”

 

Emma says boldly from beneath her hood, “If you have a problem with us–“

 

“I have a problem with her,” the man growls, jabbing a finger at Regina. “You think we don’t know who you are?” he demands, and she stiffens. “That we don’t know who lives in that old house down there? You slither in here every few months and take our goods, feed off of us like a parasite–“

 

“A parasite who pays,” Regina says snidely, straightening in anticipation for a fight. Emma presses her fingers to Regina’s arm warningly, her own posture tense beneath her hood.

 

The man scoffs. There are others behind him, hard-faced merchants from whom they’d purchased food just minutes ago. “We draw the line at you marching in here with a partner, as though you have the nerve to find any kind of love, you sick, twisted bitch,” one shoots out.

 

They’re all bearing down on them, getting closer and closer in a herd of threatening murmurs. Regina sneers at them, though they can’t see it beneath her hood. “Jealous?”

 

He slaps her, her hood falling with the motion and her cheek stinging. Regina lifts her face, her eyes dark and dangerous and nothing but murder in her heart. Emma says, “How dare you–“ and then there’s another shout from across the market, a figure throwing off his cloak and running toward them.

 

“No,” Regina says helplessly, but it’s too late. Henry has his sword out, his armor and royal breastplate displayed for everyone in the marketplace to see. He charges forward, his eyes blazing with fury, and his sword is at the man’s throat before Regina can say a word.

 

“You don’t touch her,” Henry snaps at the man, glaring at the others until they back away. “You got that? Back away. She’s under my royal protection.”

 

“Henry, no,” Emma whispers, and she reaches out to stroke Regina’s cheek where she’d been slapped, her eyes wide and sorrowful beneath her hood.

 

The man is staring at Henry disbelievingly, certainly in shock that the crown prince is defending the Evil Queen. Regina needs to leave, needs to be gone before anyone tells Henry the truth– oh, god, this is all going to end so soon– and she reaches for Henry, grasps his shoulder weakly, and says, “Can you help me back to the horses?”

 

“Of course.” Henry gives the man a shove, glaring darkly at him before he puts an arm around Regina’s back. He’s still seething when they load the horses and climb on, the cloaks forgotten. Regina’s cheek feels tender where it had been hit, and she winces as the wind whips against it. “I can’t believe that man, picking on a woman just for…for what?” Henry says furiously. “For being there?”

 

“He didn’t like the fact that I had company,” Regina says mildly. She doesn’t know what Henry had seen or if he’d understood the nature of Regina’s company. There is a part of her that seethes at the man’s presumption, at the slap, but she has some things worth protecting now more than herself.

 

“Company,” Henry repeats, and his eyes flicker from his mother to Regina. Emma has removed her hood as well, and she gazes back at Henry with some anxiety while Regina meets his eyes. “Oh,” Henry says, and he is quiet for the rest of the ride home.

 

Regina worries about that, worries about what they’re going to have for dinner, worries about everything but the pressing awareness that Henry’s reckless rescue has doomed her. She unloads in silence, kneads dough for bread and bakes it while Emma and Henry flit around the room, preparing their own parts of the meal in silence.

 

The moment the bread is in the oven, Regina slips outside, shivering in the cool night air and lifting her face to the sky. The stars are the same here as they’d been in the castle. That had once been a comfort, that she could look up anywhere and see the same constellations as she has at home. Today, tears slip from her raised eyes and down her cheeks.

 

“Henry thinks you’re afraid of his reaction,” Emma says quietly. Regina turns. Emma is standing at the door, the warm white cloak that she’d worn on her first night here now draped over her arm. She moves a little closer, wrapping the cloak around Regina’s shoulders, and Regina inhales Emma’s scent in the cloak and blinks away her tears. “But that’s not it, is it?”

 

“How is he taking this?” Regina murmurs.

 

Emma shrugs. “Well, I think. He hasn’t said much, but he’s been smiling at me as though he wants to.” Her hand is still on Regina’s arm from where she’d put the cloak, and she brushes a kiss to Regina’s ear.

 

Regina has to blink back more tears. “I…” She takes a deep breath. “Emma, please. After I’m gone, I know it’ll be…please do everything in your power to make sure that he never finds out who I am.” It’s what she can’t bear most of all, the thought of Henry despising her. Especially in death, when he’ll have nothing of her but slowly corrupted memories, memories that can be reformed from love to hate with only the passage of time. “I want him to remember me like this. Not as the Queen.” She turns to face Emma pleadingly, and finds Emma looking very perturbed.

 

“After you’re gone?” she says slowly. “Where are you running off to? I thought the barrier keeping you in was still active. We’ll come with–“ She stops, reading Regina’s face at last. “Regina?” she whispers, and she sounds young again, vulnerable and afraid.

 

“Emma,” Regina murmurs, and she can’t bear to say anything more to her, even when she’s already accepted this fate for herself. Not when Emma is staring at her, lost, and she craves to comfort her.

 

“No. No.” Emma shakes her head, and Regina sees more of the princess who’d been at the estate on that first night in her, in the way she retreats back into herself, small and helpless. “I thought…” She takes a deep breath, and her face hardens again, shifts to anger. “I thought by staying here and ignoring your warnings I was being…” A hard, sharp laugh. “Bold and romantic,” she mutters, and Regina’s heart swells, warms in a way that she hadn’t thought possible anymore. “But we’re going to get you killed, aren’t we?”

 

“It’s all right,” Regina says, and Emma shakes her head again, looks pained and desperate. Regina takes her hands and grips them in hers. A tiny part of her still marvels at this– at Princess Emma, Snow White’s daughter, her hands in Regina’s and her heart in her eyes when she looks at her. A tiny part of her still marvels that she’s felt hardly human in decades and yet here she is, suddenly made real by Emma and Henry. “I’ve always…I’ve always known how this would end,” she says, savoring the feeling of Emma’s soft, uncalloused hands. “I thought I might exact revenge before I met my fate, but I find…”

 

She would still kill Snow, she assures herself, but the thought of Emma’s eyes wide in horror– of Henry, backing away from her–

 

Her stomach twists and she lets Emma go, turns around to press her hands against the wall to steady herself. She feels rain dripping onto her cheeks, and it takes several moments before she realizes that no, she’s weeping. She’s so cold. This is the end, when she’s finally found something worth living for. “I find,” she tries again, and she gulps in a breath as she turns. Emma is watching her, her face twisted with agony, but she doesn’t step forward. “My revenge matters very little to me now.”

 

Emma’s eyes soften, then strengthen, her lips set into a line and her fists clenching. “There must be a way,” she says, furrowing her brow. “You could still take my heart. Use me as a hostage.” She takes a deep breath and then exhales, her face strong with determination. “Maybe there’s a potion in that cellar of yours that can let you take my heart without magic…what?” she says, frowning at Regina.

 

Regina is staring at her agape, her head shaking slowly back and forth. “You…you knew I didn’t have my magic?” she says disbelievingly. Emma is full of surprises, but this is the most startling of them all. “How long?”

 

Emma shrugs, nonchalant, but she can’t quite hide her pride. “I figured it out pretty early on. I thought you would want your dignity so I didn’t say anything.” Regina lets out a strangled laugh, her heart clenching. She doesn’t know if she wants to die anymore, when Emma is still a magnificent work in progress, when she might be one, too. Not when Emma is almost smirking at her as she says, “I may be weak, but I’m not stupid.”

 

Regina is flooded with affection. “You’re not weak, either,” she says honestly, and Emma’s eyes gleam. Regina craves her magic at once, if only to feel the air crackling between them in her veins, if only to know this pulsing emotion like a tangible, fragile thing.

 

“Your mother took it,” she says. “My magic, I mean. She made a deal with the Dark One. I only remember…” It had been before her final capture, when she’d been foolish enough to burst into Snow’s wedding to make grand threats. They had been expecting her. There had been a surge of magic hurled at her, and she’d been tamed at once, her magic sucked from her in a torturous, debilitating few days. They’d had her removed from the wedding aisle and put into a cell while they’d gone on their honeymoon, and then they’d returned when she’d been curled on the floor, in agony and spent, and had exiled her for good.

 

Emma listens to her halting explanation in silence, her hands loose on Regina’s hands and her eyes narrowed, and Regina doesn’t want to remember those days anymore. “Forget magic,” she whispers, because she wants this, wants to spend the time until her execution doing something real. “Come with me.”

 

Emma opens her mouth to object and Regina presses a finger to Emma’s lips, lets it delve into Emma’s mouth for a moment and traces it along her lips. Emma draws her close, tangles her hands in Regina’s hair and brushes her lips against Regina’s ear, then against her neck just below it.

 

They slip inside through the front door. Henry is reading by the fireplace, and he doesn’t notice them come inside, doesn’t look up as they steal up the stairs and into Regina’s room. Regina locks the door, just in case, and then Emma is upon her.

 

Regina has always noticed Emma’s careful movements, trained into her by decades of royalty, but now, that carefulness is going to be her undoing. Emma kisses slowly, meticulously, every movement of her hands and lips tugging just slightly at Regina’s belly, and Regina bucks against her, craves more. “Patience,” Emma murmurs, brushing barely-there kisses to Regina’s collar. Regina buries her fingers in Emma’s hair, leaving her braid a disaster, and forces her downward.

 

Emma gives her a little shove, backing her against the bed so she falls onto it. “I said, patience,” she says, and there’s definitely a smirk on her face now, a certainty in her power that has Regina in wonder. Emma climbs onto the bed after her, her fingers deftly unlacing Regina’s bodice as she settles onto her, and Regina arches her hips, presses her center to Emma’s.

 

Emma groans, rocking with her, and Regina reaches for her hips, slides her hands beneath Emma’s skirts to hold her to her. Emma grinds against her wantonly, throwing her head back and pressing her hands to Regina’s abdomen before she remembers, again, what she’d been planning and slides suddenly off of her. Regina is in agony, desperate to move against her, but Emma’s hands are firm on her abdomen, keeping her in place.

 

She hums as she peels off Regina’s dress, and Regina hisses, “Get back here,” but Emma just laughs. Regina is all but naked now, Emma hovering over her, and Emma kisses her breast, then the other, sucking at Regina’s nipples and making Regina writhe.

 

She laves them with her tongue, and Regina is thrashing, squirming as Emma puts a delicate hand between Regina’s legs and holds it there, very still. She needs this. She hasn’t thought of dying since Emma had first pushed her onto the bed, but she’s certain now that if Emma doesn’t curl her fingers into Regina soon, she is going to die. “Emma,” she says desperately, and Emma kisses her just above her navel, drags her tongue in a long line from her chest to her hips and then stops.

 

Regina is on fire, Emma’s lips and teeth and tongue playing at patterns across her skin, and she chokes, pushes desperately against Emma’s hand for friction, pulls at her damned braid until it comes out in an attempt to force Emma onto her. Her skin feels sensitized to every breath, to every touch, and she needs– needs– needs

 

Emma curls a single finger to brush against Regina’s clit, and Regina comes in a rush, quaking against her hand and crying out. Emma slips her fingers into Regina, pumping expertly until Regina comes again, again, over and over in bursts of energy that leave her dazed and trembling in pure ecstasy.

 

Emma finally settles against Regina as all her limbs go limp, kissing her soundly and smiling down at her with unconcealed affection. As soon as her arms are working again, Regina yanks her down, dots her neck with little bruises and listens to her breathy sighs in satisfaction. She grips Emma’s ass, squeezes it until Emma moans, and slips two fingers into Emma’s center. Emma squeaks in surprise and Regina pumps hard and fast, gazing up at Emma’s face in satisfaction as it flushes, as Emma gasps at her ferocity, as Emma’s eyes go wild with need.

 

She pushes with all of her might and flips Emma onto her back, crawling up her body and then back down again to hook Emma’s knees over her shoulders. Emma is lifted up, draped over Regina, and Regina reaches down to lick her experimentally.

 

Emma screams.

 

There is much more screaming, much more trembling and fighting for dominance, much more of Emma’s eyes alive with fire and mischief like they’ve never been before. Regina savors every moment, struggles to see Emma’s face again and again, kisses her every time they come until she can’t possibly move anymore. “You’re a revelation,” she whispers, and she would fight to stay alive if it had meant that she could do this again.

 

Of course, it won’t. Her future can have no Emma within it if she lives. If she finds a way to somehow escape the estate, she will never see her again, never see Henry again. There is nothing worth living for if she chooses to run, either.

 

“You’re,” Emma begins, and she doesn’t finish. Regina closes her eyes, her mind too overloaded with pleasure and emotion both to think beyond this moment. She’s drifting off when she feels Emma’s kiss to her hair, a whisper that she can’t quite make out.

 

And then Emma is gone, and the door clicks closed behind her.

 


 

Emma isn’t there in the morning. It doesn’t have to mean anything, not when they’d left things on very good terms and Emma has gone down to make breakfast early plenty of times in the past. Still, it stings a little to wake up alone on what might be the last day of her life.

 

It isn’t more than a half day’s journey from the estate to the castle, but it might take some time before news spreads to Snow of her grandson’s location. It’s a mystery as to how soon this will end for good.

 

She dresses carefully, knowing that this may be the last outfit she wears before her execution garb. She finds a black dress in her closet, ornately jeweled and with a sharp, tall collar. It looks forbidding on her, dangerous, and she stares at it for a long moment before she sets it down. It might give her a few moments of intimidation before Snow remembers that she has no magic, but the pleasure of that isn’t worth the pain of watching Emma and Henry see the Evil Queen before them.

 

There is a simple gold dress near the back of the closet, one she hasn’t worn since she’d been a young queen. When she puts it on, she feels…younger, softer. More like the Regina that her companions know. She sucks in a long, shaky breath, and then ventures downstairs.

 

Emma isn’t in the kitchen. “Mom went outside a while ago,” Henry says from where he’s consuming a small mountain of oatmeal. “Said she wanted some fresh air before breakfast.”

 

“Oh.” Regina’s heart starts to thump with trepidation, and she shuts her eyes and takes another breath.

 

Henry peers at her, almost uncertain. “I’m here, though,” he says, and Regina forces her worries away and gifts him a real smile.

 

“I am very grateful for that,” she says, sitting beside him. She butters her bread, feeling Henry’s eyes on her, and she remembers suddenly, past all the thoughts of capture and execution, that Henry has just found out about them. “Emma and I…”

 

“I know,” Henry says quickly. “Mom talked to me. It’s still very new, you don’t want to jump into anything, I shouldn’t make a big deal about it, I know.” He rolls his eyes, and Regina can just imagine the conversation they’d had, Henry planning a mile a minute and Emma resolute.

 

But then he’s smiling at her, and it’s bright and impossible not to smile back at. “But it’s good, right?”

 

“It’s one of the only good things I’ve ever done,” Regina says honestly.

 

Henry makes a face at her. “Come on, Regina,” he says, his tone making it clear that he thinks she’s just being dramatic. “You’re amazing.”

 

He’s so young, so earnest, and he looks at her with so much affection that she wants to set the world on fire if she loses it today. She smiles, her chest constricting. “So you’re not going to warn me to get the hell away from your mother?”

 

Henry laughs. “I used to try scaring off some of the worst suitors who’d come after Mom. There was one who wouldn’t back off during a ball, and Mom was too nice to snap at him so I ’tripped’ and ‘accidentally’ kicked him in the shins. I was five.” He grins up at her, so warm and trusting that it hurts even more. “But not you. Never you.”

 

“No?” This is quiet torment, earning Henry’s approval on today, of all days.

 

“No way.” Henry shovels another spoonful of oatmeal into his mouth. Regina raises an eyebrow and he closes his mouth and chews silently until he’s done. “Mom really likes you,” he says. “And I knew that before I saw you two kissing yesterday. I’ve never seen Mom look at anyone the way she looks at you.” He looks glum for a moment, and he admits with some difficulty, “Not even my dad. I guess she really didn’t love him, did she?”

 

Regina stays tactfully silent. Henry clears his throat. “She’s different here,” he says thoughtfully. “Happier. She’s always happy, but it feels real here, with you.” He shrugs, self-conscious. “It feels like we could be a family.” Now he’s looking up at her with solemn eyes, and Regina remembers you’d be a great mom and a sob catches in her throat.

 

She holds it back, keeps her words as clear as she can manage them. “I don’t think that would be possible outside of this estate,” she murmurs.

 

“You could visit,” Henry says eagerly. “My grandparents would be so excited just to know that Mom has someone– and they’d like you a lot. Grandma especially,” he says, beaming at her. It isn’t the first time he’d said that, and it still makes Regina want to let an hysterical laugh free, to scream out her truth to the skies. “You wouldn’t be a very good princess, though,” he says, studying her thoughtfully. “But you would be a great queen.”

 

Regina can’t respond. “Mom might be a pretty good queen, too,” Henry says. He considers for a moment. “I think I might have underestimated her.”

 

“You did,” Regina can’t quite stop herself from saying. Henry looks miffed, then sheepish. “So did I, when I first met her.”

 

“I think it’s better now,” Henry says, and he stands up, his mountain of oatmeal defeated at last. “I’m going to practice in the courtyard. Want to come?”

 

“Not just yet,” Regina says, glancing out the window, and Henry wraps an arm around her, light and casual. Regina, who knows what’s coming, twists in his embrace and stands, holding him tightly.

 

When Henry pulls away, it’s with a look of dismay on his face. “What’s wrong?” he asks, searching her face for answers.

 

“Nothing,” Regina manages, kissing the crown of his head. “I’m just happy.”

 

It’s the last lie she’ll tell him for a long time.

 


 

She’s relieved to find Emma at the edge of the estate, sitting on the ground and wearing a nightgown she must have found in Regina’s room. She’s shivering in the morning coolness, and Regina takes off her cloak to wrap it around Emma’s shoulders. “Tell me you haven’t been here all morning.”

 

“Kind of,” Emma says, drawing the cloak closer. “Just watching the clouds.”

 

Regina drops to sit beside her, and Emma slips the cloak around both of them instead. “Watching the clouds, or watching the road?” she says gently, huddling beside her.

 

Emma laughs in a breath and a sigh at once. “You know I spent most of my first night here weeping, imagining my parents meeting the same fate that I would. I was terrified that they might come here. I’m still terrified,” she murmurs, staring into the night. “But I’m…I’m trying to find the words that will save you.”

 

“There are no words,” Regina says, and she feels Emma’s hand on her skin, tender and sweet, and relishes the touch as a parched man in an oasis.

 

“Words are all I have,” Emma says quietly. “I’m not…I look at the way Henry fights, at the way that so many people do with fists and swords, and I know I can’t do that. I can’t be that person. I don’t know how to be that person.”

 

Regina wants to ask– do you want to be? but that isn’t what Emma needs right now, and Regina is beginning to care more about what Emma needs than is reasonable. She thinks of Snow and she isn’t filled with loathing as much as she is exhaustion. It has been too many years of silence, of emptiness, of being spared Snow White’s insipid goodness. It has been too long spent with nothing worth living for to scramble for vengeance again.

 

“Promise me,” she says suddenly. “When your mother comes, promise me you’ll find Henry and keep him inside. I don’t want him to see what...I don’t want him to see what happens.” She can’t imagine David waiting for a formal execution when she’s holding his daughter and grandson hostage. Maybe Snow will stop him in time. Maybe she’ll be just as out for blood. Her memories of Snow filter in like a patchwork quilt, her predictions shifting with every new recollection. She can’t predict any of this, or change how it ends.

 

She can only make sure that Emma and Henry don’t witness it. “Promise me,” she says again, urgently.

 

Emma’s face is tight, stubborn, and she turns away. Regina sets her jaw. “Emma, will you at least give me my dying wish?”

 

Emma stands suddenly, taking her cloak with her, and she draws it around herself in a single move. It’s regal, almost imposing, and she casts her gaze out into the distance. “You’re not dying,” she says, and Regina follows her gaze to a cloud of dust in the distance that can only have been picked up by a hundred racing horses.

 

Regina stands, unsteady, and Emma says without looking back at her, “After you went to sleep last night, I took your keys and let myself into the cellar.”

 

Regina gapes at her, half impressed, half concerned. “Emma?”

 

She reaches for her and Emma moves swiftly, faster than Regina can pull away. A vial is opened, and a crimson liquid splashes onto Regina’s right hand. Her hand glows red for a moment, then the liquid fades into it and Regina can feel magic thrumming through her like fire.

 

“If you can mix potions without magic, I realized, so can I,” Emma says with satisfaction.

 

Regina takes in a deep, shuddering breath, squeezing her hand and releasing it. It isn’t much magic, and it feels specific in a way that her magic never has, but it’s a taste of color in a dim, grey world.

 

As is the woman in front of her. “What happened to words being all you have?” she says wonderingly.

 

Emma smiles, a little shy, a little sly. “I should have said that my tongue was all I have,” she amends, licking her lips, and Regina remembers exactly what Emma’s tongue had been capable of last night. She’d been dazed enough that she hadn’t even noticed Emma taking her keys when she’d left.

 

The dust cloud in the distance is nearing, and Emma’s voice lowers as her eyes turn hard and serious. “If the enchantment works the way it should, you will be able to take my heart. Negotiate for a way out,” she says, and she doesn’t even flinch at the idea of Regina taking her heart. “Keep my heart until you’re sure that you’re safe. I’ll come back for it when I can, and we can…”

 

Her eyes are filled with hope as she speaks, the lightest promise in her voice, and Regina suddenly can’t bear it anymore. Regina imagines waiting, imagines spending years living with Henry hating her and only a heart cradled in her hands instead of Emma herself. It’s another future in limbo, one that will never come to pass, and she won’t wish it on Emma, either. “Emma…” she says, wringing her hands.

 

The horses are approaching. Regina can see the sun glinting off two crowns at the front of the group, though she can’t make out any faces yet.

 

“I love you,” Emma whispers, and it hurts, hurts like an ending when she’s never even gotten to the beginning. Emma stands still, her arms wrapped tightly around herself, her eyes on Regina’s hands.

 

Finding the words is even harder. “You won’t,” Regina whispers, her voice thick. “You’re going to go home to your castle where I’m not the only person you see every day and you’re going to remember exactly who I am. Your parents are going to spend every waking moment reminding you of all that I’ve done to your family, and you’re going to hate me. I’m not what you want, and you might love me right now, but–“

 

Emma watches her, her own eyes glistening. “Do you love me?” she says, her voice wavering.

 

Regina can’t answer that, can’t think about that now, at the end of all things. “I’m…” She looks down. “I’m not capable of love,” she says dully, and she can feel the lie twisting nausea into her stomach, hurting her heart like someone has been tugging at it for hours. “I’m the Evil Queen. I warned you–“

 

“Then take my heart,” Emma says, and she lifts her head up high, chin out and mouth set. “Isn’t that what you planned all along?”

 

The horses are coming up the road, and Snow cries out, “Stay the hell away from my daughter!” in a piercing shout as soon as they’re within earshot. Regina raises her face to watch them approach, Emma beside her, and her hand thrums again, reminds her of her one way out.

 

“Do it,” Emma murmurs, and Regina lifts her hand and presses her palm to Emma’s chest. She turns to face Emma, and Snow shouts a frantic command and halts all the horses.

 

“You don’t have magic anymore,” Snow bites out. She’s close now, just beyond the border. She looks older now, grey-haired and with a rounder face, and her eyes are burning as she stares at the witch who has a hand over her daughter’s heart. “You can’t hurt her.”

 

The guards are converging around her, though they don’t pass Snow. David, beside Snow, makes a move to dismount, but Snow holds up a hand and he stops. They’re all frozen in place, waiting for Regina’s next move, and Regina remembers when she’d first imagined this, dreamed of Snow standing and watching as Regina had taken away someone as precious to Snow as Daniel had been to Regina.

 

She hadn’t expected Emma to feel just as precious to her, and she catches Emma’s calm, trusting gaze and holds it. Emma won’t love her anymore, not back in the castle where the weight of her parents’ expectations are so strong. Emma won’t want her heart in Regina’s hands anymore, and Regina finds…

 

She’s taken so many hearts, killed so many and reveled in her destructive power. She doesn’t know what taking Emma’s heart might do to her, but she doesn’t want to see it, doesn’t want to know what Emma will be without her heart. She doesn’t want to hold a piece of Emma hostage anymore.

 

She doesn’t want to destroy, and her hand falls from Emma’s chest as she says, “No. I can’t.” Emma looks as though she’s been slapped, a flush in her cheeks and anguish in her eyes.

 

“Run. Hide, please,” Emma begs her in a whisper, and she turns to her parents desperately. “Mom. Dad. I know you think…I know she was the Evil Queen, but she’s changed. She’s–“

 

“The Evil Queen?” Henry says, his voice raw.

 

Regina whips around. Henry is standing behind them, his sword still in his hand, and he’s staring at Regina with a look of abject betrayal on his face. His eyes are wide and horrified, his hands are shaking and Regina realizes finally with grim hopelessness exactly whom he reminds her of.

 

But of course he does; she has always been predictable with royal children who are full of idealism and love and never quite grasp the darkness. She had loved Snow as well, once, hadn’t she? And Snow had broken her, too.

 

Her heart breaks, shatters into shards of glass, and she says in a desolate tone, reaching for him as he backs away in horror, “Henry–“

 

There’s a flash of a sword– David, not Henry, she thinks with a deep-rooted relief that seems to dull the feeling of it, that dulls the sound of Emma’s scream– and then she thinks nothing at all.

Chapter Text

On her third day in the dungeons, she gets her first visitor.

 

She had expected someone earlier, truthfully. She doesn’t remember much of anything about how she’d gotten into this dungeon, and if the helmeted guard who brings her food hadn’t been wearing the White Kingdom armor, she wouldn’t have even known where she is.

 

The guard doesn’t speak, and she can’t see his face. She tries grabbing him through the bars at breakfast when he leaves her tray, but he steps back too quickly, and she spits out a curse and kicks the tray furiously.

 

The bread flies out of the cell, and the guard is already gone and doesn’t kick it back through. She’s hungry for the rest of the second day, but at dinner he’s brought two rolls for her, and she eats greedily. The weeks with Emma and Henry have made her more accustomed to three meals a day, and she’s hungry all the time.

 

She wants to believe that the guard’s consistent food deliveries means that she has a friend in the castle, that there is someone who is looking out for her up above the dungeons. But she gets no visitors, and she knows better than to hope. Instead, she marks the meals on the wall with her spoon and keeps track of the passing days.

 

She is marking dinner of the third day on the wall when there’s the sound of footsteps in the hall. She combs her fingers through her hair, wondering how dirty and pathetic she must look, and she calls in a hoarse voice, “Emma?”

 

“Don’t you dare speak her name,” Snow says, striding into view. There are two more guards beside her, these without helmets and with matching sneers on their faces. They love this, Regina remembers bitterly. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as watching the Evil Queen reduced to grime and despair.

 

But they wait at the entrance, and Snow’s face shows nothing but patronizing sternness. “You’re looking well,” she says, her tone unreadable.

 

“You’re looking ancient,” Regina retorts, and she’s pleased to see that Snow looks stung at that. “The years have been a little too kind to you, I see. You’re soft now.” She spits it out like an insult, as though she hadn’t treasured her own softness just days before. “Have you come to gloat?”

 

“I don’t understand,” Snow says, and she takes a step forward. She’s just beyond the bars of the cell now, staring at Regina as Regina lounges back on her hard bed. The key is to look unaffected, bored by Snow’s threats when they come. But Snow isn’t making threats, not yet. She grasps onto the bars of the cell, her brow furrowing. “You had them with you for weeks. I don’t understand why you didn’t kill them right away.”

 

Regina sneers at her, feeling an old mask settle over her expression. “I was waiting until I could kill them in front of you,” she says. “I wanted to watch you suffer.”

 

She’d forgotten, in the past thirty years, what it is to stand opposite Snow White. There is rage thrumming through her veins like wildfire, hatred so deep that little can sway it. But there is also familiarity, something intimate between them, two women who have spent so much of their lives opposed that they can’t help but recognize something of themselves in the other that they’d left behind.

 

“You fed them,” Snow says slowly. “They were walking about freely, and they even went out to the marketplace where Henry was seen. The villagers claimed…” She shakes her head, her jaw set. “Never mind what they claimed,” she says, and Regina breathes. “Henry has sequestered himself in the library since he came home. Emma won’t even leave her room. She says she’s ill and barely eats.”

 

Emma?” Regina says disbelievingly, before she can catch herself. The sheer improbability of Emma not eating is as invigorating as the idea that Emma hasn’t quite moved on yet. Snow’s eyes turn sharp, incisive, as though this is what she’s been waiting for. “She ate everything in my stores,” she mutters, attempting to save face. “I’ve never had a hostage as demanding as she was.”

 

She doesn’t think Snow will believe her, not when Emma has built her entire adult life on being anything but demanding. But Snow raises an eyebrow, the ghost of a smile on her face. “Good,” she says.

 

She stands in silence for a few minutes, still studying Regina, and Regina finally grinds out, “Are you here to tell me when my execution is or are you just here to make my stay in your dungeon even less pleasant than it already is?”

 

“Execution?” Snow repeats, and she wrings her hands, looking suddenly uncertain. Regina is fed up with this back-and-forth, Snow unsure if she wants Regina dead or not. They’ve already been through this twice. She refuses to languish in this dungeon any longer.

 

“Execution,” Regina says sharply. “Do you plan to keep me alive for another half a century? Shall I exact my revenge upon your great-grandchildren? All your descendants?” A muscle works in Snow’s jaw. “You’re a fool if you believe that you can keep me alive without threatening everyone you love–“

 

“I don’t want to kill you,” Snow says in a low voice. “I’m tired, Regina. Aren’t you tired?”

 

Regina rises from the bed. There is something about Snow that makes her want to push harder, to eke out weakness and defeat, and while she’d taken pride in Emma’s fire, she only ever wants to stamp out Snow’s. “I will never be tired,” she snarls, stalking forward. She had been tired before and she’s tired now, but she’s had a lifetime of hiding her true face from Snow. “You will have to kill me if you ever want me to stop.”

 

And Snow, she remembers too late, has had a lifetime of understanding when she’s lying. “What happened when Emma and Henry came to your house, Regina?” Snow demands as Regina makes her way to the bars of the cell. “Why are you so–“

 

Regina’s hand snakes out, almost by instinct, and her hand is in Snow’s chest before she can think through what happens next. The guards freeze, and Snow stands still, eyes wide and horrified as Regina wraps her fingers around Snow’s heart.

 

It’s her only chance. It’s vengeance, death for Snow at last, and she squeezes with the heart within her fingers and delights in Snow’s groan. “Finally,” she murmurs, a dizzying high away from victory.

 

“Finally,” Snow echoes, and there is a part of Regina that can’t deny that Emma is as much Snow’s daughter as she is her own woman. There is a familiarity to the way that Snow stands passively in this moment, foolishly convinced that Regina will spare her. “And then what?”

 

And then what? And then she dies, alone in this cell without so much as an execution. Snow White is gone and so is she, and there is some balance in this world. Emma and Henry–

 

Emma, who had enchanted Regina’s hand to take this heart, will never forgive herself if her mother dies by Regina’s hand tonight. Regina’s hand loosens again, and she releases Snow, shoves her back so she falls to the ground.

 

Snow is older now, the fire in her eyes tamed into cool water instead, and Regina stares down at her contemptuously. “You’re not worth it,” she grits out. Snow is looking up at her in amazement, and Regina turns away deliberately, refuses to give Snow another iota of attention.

 

Snow says from behind her, “You didn’t take Emma’s heart.” Regina has shown her hand, has given away too much of what could have been. She clasps her hands together in front of her, stares at the wall and its eight marks, and waits until Snow says, her voice plaintive, “Why?”

 

Regina doesn’t answer. Snow stands, and there are soon footfalls moving away from Regina, quiet and slow.

 

When they’re gone, the helmeted guard is standing in the corner of the cavern where her cell is. She scowls at him. “What, am I suddenly dangerous now?” He remains silent, standing very straight, and she is irritated by the helmet, by being cheated out of seeing another human face after having to endure Snow’s. “You spare Snow White’s life once and suddenly no one leaves you alone,” she mutters, and she climbs into the bed, glaring at the guard as she gathers her prison garb around her and closes her eyes.

 

She means only to sleep, but when she closes her eyes, she can only see images beneath her eyelids. There had been an evening just before they’d gone to the market when they’d all settled around the fireplace, sleepy and content and too warm to leave it. Henry had been curled up on the couch beside Emma, reading an old adventure story that had been Regina’s favorite when she’d been young. Emma had been reading absently over his shoulder, her hand resting on Regina’s thigh, and they’d been talking about something quiet and mundane.

 

She can’t remember the conversation, but she remembers Henry laughing, remembers Emma’s hand on her thigh, remembers the warm flicker of the fireplace in her cold, dark cell.

 


 

There is no execution. There is only silence, dimness, and the occasional movements of the guard bringing her food. He doesn’t speak, doesn’t do anything other than walk in, deliver the food, and leave, and she snaps after a few more meals, “Are you mute? Or are you just too terrified of me to speak?” The guard looks at her in silence under his helmet. Regina sneers. “I’m a beaten-down shadow of who I was,” she bites out. “You can’t possibly believe that I’m a threat to you now.”

 

The guard hesitates, then leaves, and Regina hurls her tray after him. It hits the bars of the cell and clatters to the ground, and she clenches her fists and picks up her meal.

 

She’s been spoiled by the weeks with company. It had never mattered before then that she’d been alone. She had let the walls of her home consume her, drifting through them as though she’d been the ghost that Henry had thought her. She’d barely been alive back then, sustained only by false youth and the last vestiges of vengeance.

 

But now, she craves the sunlight that Henry had forced her into, loud voices and laughter and bright eyes that catch hers. She’d lived for weeks in paradise, and only because of that does this existence feel like hell again now.

 

She wonders if this is Snow’s grand plan, to isolate her from the light until she slowly goes mad. Already, she sees faces in the shadows, hears voices with the same desperation as a parched traveler sees mirages in the desert. “Please,” she wakes up crying out, and she doesn’t know what she’s begging for. “Please, please, please…”

 

But it is only Snow who arrives to see her, this time with another helmeted guard beside her. He’s holding a tray of food like Regina hasn’t seen in the dungeons, rich poultry and cakes and grains, and when Snow nods to him, he sets it carefully down through the opening in the cell and departs.

 

“There was a banquet today,” Snow says simply. “A celebration to welcome Emma and Henry home.”

 

Regina refuses to touch the food while Snow is watching her, as though this food isn’t a smug reminder to Regina of her loss. Snow will not see her desperation or hunger or loneliness. Snow will see no weakness from her. “Did they attend?” she asks instead, mocking. “Or are they still recovering from what trauma I inflicted upon them?”

 

Snow’s jaw tightens, and Regina knows that this must be the precise excuse that Snow had used for her daughter and grandson’s absence. Regina sits back on her bed, crosses her legs, keeps her spine very straight. “The things I did to your daughter,” she says, her voice lilting in amusement. “You would cringe in horror.”

 

Snow’s hand slams onto the bars of the cell, her eyes flashing for a moment before she regains her calm. “I will be back tomorrow,” she says, her voice even. “Enjoy your dinner.”

 

Regina sneers at the tray and then back at Snow, but Snow is already departing, leaving Regina in the darkness with a vague sense of guilt.

 

Emma wouldn’t approve, she knows. But where is Emma?

 

She can’t imagine an Emma who would refuse to attend a banquet that her parents had held in her honor, or Emma disappointing her parents at all. Not…not without being here, with Regina, flouting destiny in all the ways that Regina had yearned for it.

 

Regina had expected to lose Henry and Emma, had expected Henry’s feelings of betrayal to transform into hatred and Emma to be consumed with regret after she’d returned to her world. She hadn’t expected it to sting this badly, to leave her despairing in a world where she should be past despair.

 

She remembers an old lesson from Rumplestiltskin, a primer in cruelty. There is no pain without pleasure to precede it. She had lived an empty, underwhelming life for so long that she hadn’t believed herself capable of despair anymore. Then– like a ray of sun in the dimness of her future– Emma and Henry had burst into her life and taught her that there’d been things worth living for.

 

And now she’s in darkness again.

 

She wants to be angry, but there is so little space left in her battered heart that hasn’t already been shredded by rage. Henry and Emma defy her rage, cleanse her heart and make it whole, and she can’t bear to taint her love for them anymore. She cradles her memories to her as something precious beyond measure, and she loves, loves in a way that she hadn’t been capable for a long, long time.

 

She wakes up crying out their names and finds the helmeted guard standing at her cell door. He must have seen it as a threat, she thinks bitterly, and she glares darkly at him and opens her mouth to speak when there are Snow’s footsteps making their way down the corridor.

 

The guard steps back nimbly, vanishing back into the hall, and Snow emerges a moment later. “Good morning, Regina,” she says. “How are you today?”

 

Is it morning? Regina can’t remember logging the past few meals on the wall. How many days have passed? She rasps, “Why are you here?” Snow doesn’t answer. Regina clears her throat, baring her teeth in a vicious smile. “Is this some twisted manipulation? Do you think if your face is the only one I see, I’ll love you again?” Snow flinches. It’s barely a movement, but Regina catches it immediately and smiles in triumph at the blow.

 

But Snow regains her calm a moment later. “It seems to have worked for you,” she says coolly, and it’s Regina’s turn to flinch.

 

“What the hell are you babbling about?”

 

Snow is different now. She’d always been calculating as a young woman, but she’d rarely let that piece of herself flourish, fearful of what darkness it might reveal within her. Now, every movement is methodical, and her natural impulsiveness has been reined in. “Henry and Emma are acting as though they’ve undergone something life-altering,” she says carefully. “Henry still won’t leave the library, poring over book after book about you.” Regina can feel the blood drain out of her face. She knows what the books in Snow’s library must say about her. Every word Henry reads is poison to Regina, and she is helpless to stop it.

 

“And Emma?” she manages, her voice hoarse.

 

Snow gives her a curious look. “She still won’t leave her room. She watches me from the window, and she allows her maids in…but she won’t talk to me or her father. They’re both traumatized by whatever they went through at your estate.” She rubs her eyes, her gaze trained on Regina when she drops her hands again. “But oddly, they’ve both been adamant with anyone they’ve spoken to that you didn’t hurt them.” Regina can feel tears, suddenly, threatening to emerge at that simple revelation. But Snow is watching her, and she rolls her eyes and stares at the wall instead, her breath labored. “What happened while you held them hostage, Regina?”

 

“I was going to kill them,” Regina says, struggling to keep her voice even. “Your daughter, your heir. Are you really just going to let me live forever?” Live forever may be an exaggeration, she thinks suddenly, because her body has felt as though it might be aging again now that she’s left her estate. Perhaps he can endure in this cell for a time, until her body fails her for good. Just a few decades of silence more. “Is this the fate you want all assassins to believe await them?”

 

Snow barks out a laugh. “You did a terrible job of it. You had them in your home for weeks and you never touched them.”

 

It would be so easy now to tell Snow exactly how she’d touched Emma, in which exact ways she’d ravaged the perfect princess and changed her. It would be so easy to enrage Snow enough to finally earn the release of death that she craves. But Emma doesn’t need Regina’s memory marring her future, alienating her from her family. She can’t–

 

For fucks’ sake, she’s going to have to be noble.

 

She scrambles for something else to say, and the words fly from her lips, cold and hard. “Do you know why they lived until then? I wanted to see your face,” she says, her teeth bared into a snarl. “I wanted to watch the hope in your eyes extinguish as I tore out your daughter’s still-beating heart. I wanted to see your pain when Emma began to– to choke, to clutch her chest, when I would squeeze her heart in my hand and– and–“ She can’t continue. Her heart is pounding and there’s nausea threatening to overwhelm her and she doubles over on the spot, clutches at her collar and fights useless, foolish tears.

 

“I see,” Snow says, her eyes solemn, and Regina despises her with every fiber of her being.

 

“Why won’t you kill me?” she demands, and maybe there’s more pleading in it than she wants, than she can bear. “Why won’t you just– come into my cell right now and squeeze the life from me? No one will know. No one has come here aside from you. Just do it,” she hisses desperately. “Kill me.”

 

Her eyes are clouded with tears, and she blinks them furiously away, glares at Snow through them. Snow is shaking her head from side to side, and Regina can’t see her face as anything more than a blur. When she speaks, though, her words are strained and wet. “Has it ever occurred to you that I don’t want to kill you?” Snow whispers, plaintive, and she’s never sounded more like her daughter.

 

Regina shakes her head vehemently. “You want me broken,” she bites out, and she believes it with every part of her left standing. “You want me stripped of my pride and begging and helplessly depending on your mercy. You don’t want me to live,” she grits out. “You want to spare me, to have final say on my…on my life, just as you always have–“

 

“Regina,” Snow says, and her voice is hollow and young. “God, Regina, if only that were true.”

 

Regina ignores her. She feels fragile again, as though she might shatter if she doesn’t hold herself strong, and Snow must know it. “You miscalculated,” she sneers, blinking away her tears. “You thought I wanted to live. But I have nothing to live for.”

 

Snow regards her– no, examines her, her eyes grave and too knowing. “Is that so?” she murmurs, and Regina can’t respond.

 

She leaves, and Regina falls into a tormented sleep again.

 


 

She has dreams of Emma’s heart in her hands, of Henry’s face when he sees it, of exultant victory with Snow’s despair. She has dreams where Emma is the one to take her heart, to snatch it away and pass it to her mother without a second glance. She has dreams where she’s with Henry when Snow’s rescue party arrives, and there’s a sword in her chest before she can blink.

 

She has dreams where she’s crying, Emma and Henry burrowed in beside her, and Snow can’t take her without harming them.

 

She wakes up in a cold sweat, sitting up abruptly at the sound of footsteps in the hall. These aren’t the brisk footsteps of the guard; no, they’re light and careful, as though the walker is slipping past the guards to come to her cell–

 

Her heart in her throat, she sits up, running her fingers through her matted hair as she rises and walks to the front of the cell. She doesn’t know which she’d prefer– Emma, to tell Regina that she’d never been in love with her after all, or Henry, to…

 

Henry. He rounds the corner of the dungeons, his eyes burning like fire, and Regina already wants to sob. He hates her. It isn’t a surprise as much as an inevitability, but she’d dared to believe he might…

 

Never mind what she’d believed. “Henry,” she croaks, drawn forward as though by magic. Henry stands in front of the cell, his hands reaching out to grip its bars, his eyes narrowed and uncertain as he stares at her. But he doesn’t speak, doesn’t move, and Regina steps forward, careful not to spook him, and reaches out to stroke his cheek.

 

The instant her finger reaches his skin, he leaps back as though he’s been stung, glaring wild-eyed at her. “Don’t touch me,” he snaps out. “Don’t– don’t–“ He looks on the verge of tears, and Regina can’t turn away. “Liar. You lied to me.”

 

“I didn’t–“ she tries.

 

He slams his hands against the bars of the cell. “Liar!” he snarls, and she flinches back. Her hands are resting over her stomach, an old nervous tic, and her heart is thumping against her ribs. Henry looks furious, helpless and raging, and she doesn’t know what she can say that’ll be enough. “You– you made me think that you were my friend! That you could be my…my...” He stares at her, his eyes wild again. “What did you do to my mother?” he demands. “You’re a monster!”

 

“I know,” Regina whispers, because there’s no use denying it to Henry, who knows her better than anyone and not at all. “I know.”

 

It isn’t the response that Henry expects. He stares at her, his jaw grinding, and he demands, “Why did you even– you sparred with me every day!” he finishes disbelievingly. “You cooked with me! We went riding together! You gave me apples!”

 

“Your mother was thrilled about all of that, you can imagine,” Regina says dryly.

 

It’s another shock for Henry, who stares at her in horror. “She knew?”

 

“Didn’t she tell you?” Regina had imagined that they’d been on the same page, the two of them, hiding away from everyone else and sharing little of the secret life they’d shared together over the past weeks. She hadn’t thought that they’d both be isolated from each other as well. “Have you seen her at all?” she asks, her voice softer, and they can both hear the note of worry in her voice.

 

Henry glares at her. “No. She’s been too busy recovering from loving the Evil Queen,” he bites out. “You’re twisted. You’re evil. You’re–“

 

It’s more than she can bear, as lethal as his sword in her chest, and Regina lets out a dry sob and turns away. Henry raises his voice. “Don’t turn your back on me!” he snarls. “Don’t you dare– don’t you dare–

 

She can’t turn away for long. She might have been able to twist away from Snow, to give her nothing and mock her impotence, but she can’t keep herself from turning back to Henry, to drinking in the sight of him greedily. “Henry,” she whispers, and Henry slams his hands against the cell again.

 

“Shut up!” he shouts, unfocused and lost and grieving as much as he is raging. “You don’t get to say my name as though– as though–“

 

“As though I love you?” Regina murmurs.

 

Henry twists violently, slams his fists on the cell again. “SHUT UP!” he shouts, and then he’s digging in his pocket, fishing out a key, and Regina understands at once what he’s doing here.

 

This isn’t just a visit to confront her. This is premeditated. Henry has come here to do what he’s been planning to do for his whole young life.

 

His hands are trembling as he unlocks the door and raises his sword again, and Regina turns to face him, lets her arms fall to her sides. “I love you,” she whispers again, and she can only hope that he will forgive himself someday, that she won’t haunt him for the rest of his life.

 

She doesn’t want to die, she knows suddenly, after days of pleading with Snow to do just that. It’s been so easy to crave a final conclusion to her story, but a single glimpse at Henry and she can’t want it anymore.

 

I have nothing to live for.

 

Is that so?

 

Damn Snow, damn her to hell. Henry points his sword at her and Regina holds her breath, another whisper escaping her lips. “I love you, Henry,” she murmurs.

 

Henry shakes his head furiously, tears slipping down his face, and he cries out, “Liar! You were– we were your hostages and you were just– were just–“

 

Regina closes her eyes and waits for the killing blow. “I love you,” she breathes. “More than I ever thought was possible. Please don’t doubt that.” She opens her eyes. Henry is still standing there, his eyes wide and his face tear-stained, his sword still in his hands.

 

His left hand drops to his side and Regina takes a step to him, drawn magnetically, her gaze fixed on his face. Henry shakes his head, again and again, and his mouth forms words that don’t emerge.

 

The sword is still raised, and Henry presses it toward her tremblingly, rests the point against her neck until a trickle of blood leaks down her collarbone. Regina breathes in, I love you, and exhales, “I forgive you.”

 

Three things happen in quick succession. Henry lets out another cry, desperate and agonized. The sword clatters to the ground. And Regina is abruptly in his arms, is being held in his embrace so tightly that she cries with him, holds him back with the same force and kisses his cheek again and again and again. “I love you,” she says, over and over. “I love you, my sweet boy, I love you…” She can feel her heart swelling, can feel it healing days of agony, can feel the light pouring back into her life as it had when Henry had first brought her into the sun.

 

Henry doesn’t speak for a long time. He clings to Regina, still just a boy, and Regina strokes his hair and whispers apologies into his ears. I should have told you, I was afraid, I didn’t want you to see me the way you saw the Queen, I love you, I love you…

 

When he finally pulls away, his face is wet and shining with determination, and Regina would follow him anywhere. “I’m breaking you out,” he says, his fists clenching. “You’re not staying in here anymore.”

 

He lifts up his sword again and puts it in its hilt, turning with sudden guilt in his eyes as he examines her neck. “It’s nothing,” she assures him, and he shakes his head and swallows, tearing off a bit of his shirt to dab at her neck. “Henry,” she says, reaching for his hand. She closes his fingers gently, lacing her fingers through his, and he leans against her for a moment before he leads her out of the cell.

 

“We have to hurry,” he says in a low tone. “There’s only one hallway that goes down here, and I barely slipped past the guards. If anyone comes down this way–“

 

Already, they can hear the sound of pounding footfalls, of someone racing down the hall. Henry stiffens. “No,” he says, and he raises his sword, his hands trembling.

 

“Henry,” Regina says urgently, an idea occurring to her. “Give me your sword. Let this look like a hostage situation, and they might–“ But it’s too late. The helmeted guard appears at the end of the hall, and he starts toward them rapidly.

 

The guard’s sword isn’t out, but Henry looks perturbed at the idea of slaying one of his own guards. “Stay back,” he whispers, his hands still shaking. “Stay back!” he orders the guard, and his voice is strong. “That’s an order!”

 

The guard continues to approach, and Henry’s hands tighten on his sword as Regina tenses, wondering how much of a punch she might pack after days locked in a cell. The guard doesn’t hesitate until he’s standing right in front of them, and he says, “Going somewhere?” in a muffled, almost familiar voice.

 

They stare at him. He shakes his head, then reaches up and takes off his helmet.

 

Golden hair spills down from the helmet, framing a brilliant smile that rejuvenates every inch of Regina’s exhausted body at once. “Thought you might need a hand,” Emma says.

 


 

She’s being swept into a kiss before she can think to ask questions, Emma in armor with her arms around Regina and her lips whispering endearments into Regina’s mouth. Regina holds her tightly, shuts her eyes and loses herself in Emma’s kiss for fragile moments before Emma pulls away just as quickly. “This way,” she says, pressing on the wall, and it slides open to reveal another corridor. “This is how I’ve been coming down here,” she explains while they watch her in wonder.

 

“You’ve been down here a lot?” Henry says, staring at his mother with surprise.

 

Emma shrugs. “As much as I could. The guards weren’t feeding you,” she says, looking at Regina. “One of my maids told me about it, and I had to…” She looks self-conscious suddenly, uncertain. “I wanted to tell you when it was me, but I didn’t have a way out yet. I’ve been trying to get a hold of the key for days,” she says, raising her eyebrows at her son.

 

He looks sheepish. “I might have drugged the master of the dungeons,” he admits. “Just a little! He’ll wake up soon! …I think.”

 

“Well, I’m proud,” Regina says brightly, and Emma gives her a look, so fond and reproving that it fills Regina’s whole body with warmth. It’s strange how quickly she can recover when faced with Emma and Henry, pulling her back into reality. The past days are feeling less and less like a pit from which she’d never escape and more like a passing sleep, over and done with.

 

There is more armor here, nondescript and with helmets that will conceal her face, and Henry changes into one set while Emma changes out of hers. She’s only wearing a simple tunic beneath it, her legs bare and long, and she sees Regina staring and offers her a sly smile. “Later,” she murmurs, easing the prisoner’s garb off Regina’s shoulders. She kisses one shoulder, then the other, and presses a kiss to Regina’s neck.

 

Regina slides a hand under Emma’s tunic, touches her warm skin and finds peace there. “Are you sure you want to do this?” she whispers. “Your mother…”

 

“My mother will have to understand,” Emma says, her eyes flashing with righteous determination. “This isn’t right. You aren’t the person you were, and you shouldn’t be trapped in the dungeons forever. And I’m leaving with you.”

 

“Emma–“ 

 

“I can’t be here any longer,” Emma murmurs, deflating. “I’m not a prisoner, not as you’ve been, but I feel as though I am sometimes. I can’t be here when I can’t be me. I feel as though– as though this is all a  gilded cage, and I’m meant to pretend that I am happy when I look ahead and can’t imagine a future here.”

 

Regina buries a hand in Emma’s hair, smoothing down her curls and dividing them to braid it properly. She hates Emma’s braids, sees them as another way to restrain Emma, but they’re going to need that braid as a shield for their little trio today. “And where do you imagine that future?” she asks, her hands nimble and her heart beating quickly.

 

“Where do you imagine yours?” Emma counters.

 

Maybe it’s only because she can’t see Emma’s face that she can be honest, vulnerable with her heart out for all to see. “It doesn’t matter,” she says, her heart still thumping in her chest. “Not as long as you and Henry are there.”

 

Emma twists in her spot, ruining her braid before it’s done, and tilts her face up to accept Regina’s kiss. “Do you believe me now when I say that I’m not going to hate you?” she breathes.

 

Regina bobs her head, cups Emma’s face in her hands, can’t speak for a moment. “How did I ever…?” she begins when she can speak again, and she can’t finish the question. How did I ever find you? How did I ever win your heart? How did I ever do anything to deserve you?

 

Emma smiles gently, turns her face to press a kiss into Regina’s palm. “We’d better get going,” she says, and her eyes are warm as she steps into her dress, as Regina braids her hair again and pulls on the clunky armor.

 


 

Their first stop is Rumple’s cell, and Regina reacts with alarm when she realizes what Emma’s intending. “You can’t–“ she starts, turning to Henry for support, but he shakes his head, content to follow his mother’s lead. “Why him?”

 

“He knows where it is,” Emma says calmly, turning away from them to offer a tight smile to a passing guard. The guard glances at the princess, his brow furrowing, and Henry gives him a sharp nod. Appeased at her protection, the guard moves on.

 

“Where what is?” Regina demands once the guard has left. “What are you looking for?”

 

Emma puts a finger to her lips and pushes open the heavy door to a corridor near where they’d come from. Beyond it is a security checkpoint, a bored guard turning around to say, “No one beyond this point– Your Highness,” he says, his eyes widening.

 

“I wish to speak with the prisoner,” Emma says, and Regina admires the way she draws herself up, regal but never quite imposing in the way that Regina had been. There is something still very approachable about her, something that makes it easy to underestimate her.

 

And underestimate her the guard does. He nods them on with only a warned, “Keep your guards with you throughout. Don’t make any deals with him,” to which Emma nods serenely. She glides forward as though she has no worries at all, as though this is an ordinary visit, and she turns and heads down the hallway that leads to Rumple’s cell. Regina stomps after her, grouchy and confused.

 

It’s not easy to see well under this helmet. There’s a dark shade over everything she looks at, which makes it even more difficult than it might have been in sunlight. Regina has spent days locked in a tiny cell, and this disguise is just as constricting, just as claustrophobic.

 

She reminds herself that this is it, that they’re breaking free. She’s going to find somewhere to live with sunlight, with bright skies and animals and land for Henry and Emma to enjoy. She’s going to find somewhere where she can feel free, and she just needs to trust Emma until she makes it there.

 

It isn’t easy, though, not when confronted with her old mentor. He looks even less human now than he did before, his scaly skin glittering and his eyes dark with madness. Regina can imagine herself getting to that point, too, in these dungeons, an old crone cackling at Henry’s children when they sneak down to meet the terrifying Evil Queen. No. Not anymore. “Princess Emma,” he says, and lets out a shrill giggle. “What can I do for you today?”

 

Emma doesn’t flinch, doesn’t show any hesitation. “I need you to tell me how you took Regina’s magic,” she says, and Regina’s eyes widen under her helmet.

 

She shows no outward sign of surprise, but Rumple’s eyes drift to her anyway, make malicious eye contact right through her helmet. “And why would I tell you that? My son is gone. There is nothing I owe you anymore.”

 

“No,” Emma agrees quietly. “But I’ve heard you like to make deals, don’t you?”

 

The Dark One’s greedy eyes flicker to Regina, then Emma, then they pause on Henry. Henry stands straight, not ceding an inch, and the Dark One says, “Let me see your face, boy. It’s been so many years since you last came to visit me.”

 

“No,” Regina says at once. But Henry removes his helmet, tucking it under his arm and staring fixedly at Rumple.

 

“Hi,” he says. “I guess you’re my grandpa, huh?” Regina makes a move to stop him, but Emma grips her arm, watching warily as Henry takes a step forward. “Mom says I look like him. My dad, I mean.”

 

“Yes,” Rumple breathes, his eyes drinking in Henry’s face hungrily. Henry doesn’t approach the cell, but he waits, and Emma clears her throat.

 

“Regina’s magic,” she says, her voice surprisingly gentle.

 

Rumple doesn’t turn away from Henry. “The scroll I gave your mother to take it was the only of its kind. Tear the scroll and the seal is broken. I warned your mother to keep it somewhere where no one would ever tread.”

 

Emma’s eyes narrow. “You know where.”

 

“You’ll have to give me more for that information,” Rumple says, his teeth bared.

 

Regina shakes her head, wary of what Rumple will be capable of with whatever he asks for. A hair, a tear, something that will give him power over them– “Emma, it isn’t worth–“

 

“I have this,” Emma says, and she reaches into the pockets of her cloak and emerges with a red piece of cloth. “Baelfire’s scarf.” Rumple sucks in a breath. “Do we have a deal?” Emma demands, tucking the cloth away again.

 

“Yes!” Rumple says urgently. “Yes! It’s in the queen’s vault. Below the dungeons, deeper in the ground than even my prison. The guards there won’t allow anyone through, even a princess. You were there, once,” he says, and Emma’s eyes clear in understanding.

 

She walks to the cell, passing the scarf into it, and Rumple holds the material to him and begins to weep. Emma pauses, and she says, “I loved him very much.”

 

It might be a lie, but it’s a kind one, and Regina is overwhelmed again with wonder at how someone as kind as Emma could possibly love her. She walks silently from the dungeon, Henry helmeted again beside her, and she ventures after a few moments, “Where are we going?”

 

“Before I was born,” Emma says, moving swiftly down another corridor. “My parents were certain that you were about to cast a dark curse, the likes of which they’d never encountered before. No one knew how to stop it, and the Dark One told them that my family’s only hope would be if I were to escape it.” Regina shifts guiltily. Emma doesn’t seem to notice, hurrying along and urging them on. “A wardrobe was built that would carry me to another land. As soon as I was born, my parents brought me to the vault, to the wardrobe. But your curse never came, and I never entered the wardrobe.”

 

Regina had planned a curse, had taken her horse’s heart only to discover that the curse hadn’t worked. She had blamed it on her lack of magic, and she’d surrendered then to her imprisonment. “You could have grown up alone,” she says, shaking her head as the regrets threaten to overwhelm her. “In another world.”

 

“I didn’t,” Emma says simply. “It no longer matters.” She reaches for Regina’s hand and laces her fingers through Regina’s gloved ones. “If the stories that the Dark One had told me were true, an entrance to the vault was carved into the wall of my parents’ room. They wanted to be sure that I could be whisked away to safety immediately.”

 

“We’re going to your mother’s bedroom?” Regina says, pulling away in disbelief. “Are you mad? We’ll be caught–“

 

“In that armor during peacetime you will be,” Emma says, eyeing her critically. “Come with me.” She leads them to another secret passage, this one to the kitchens. “Stay. I’ll be back in a few minutes,” she promises. “Don’t move. No trying to be a hero,” she warns them, eyeballing Regina.

 

“Why are you looking at me?” Regina protests. “Henry’s the one who would–“

 

Emma snorts. “Please,” she says, and she brushes a kiss to Henry’s cheek, then another to Regina’s lips. Regina’s eyes drift closed, sighing at the taste of Emma’s lips on hers, and then she’s gone.

 

Henry is watching her after Emma’s left, his eyes thoughtful. “I thought I was wrong,” he says, sinking down to the ground. The passage is narrow, and his legs are bent at the knees, his soles pressed to the other end of the passage. Regina sits opposite him, her back against the wall and her shoes on the opposite wall beside Henry. “I thought you pretended to be the way you were to make Mom and me love you.”

 

Regina exhales in a sigh. “That would have been clever, wouldn’t it?”

 

“Much better than turning into a total sap instead,” Henry says half-seriously, and then he fixes her with a solemn glare. “You were going to kill us.”

 

“Yes.” There’s no use in denying it now, when he knows the very worst of her. It isn’t the first time she’s planned to kill someone, and she’s succeeded more often than she’s failed.

 

“Then you fell in love with Mom,” Henry guesses, and his eyes are still solemn, still struggling to understand her.

 

Regina shakes her head, and Henry’s brow furrows. She doesn’t know how to express the words bubbling up in her heart, how to make them make sense, and she finally says hoarsely, “Not your mother. Do you remember that first night? You told me that it was okay if I were a ghost, Henry.” She had loved him so instantly that she can’t recall the moments beforehand, when he’d just been a boy stranger. “What else could I do but love you?”

 

Henry stares at her, his eyes wide. “Me?” he whispers. “It was me?”

 

She nods silently and he launches himself into her arms, the two of them curled around each other in the tiny passageway. Henry shudders in her arms, breathes in and out rapidly, and Regina croons quiet comforts into his ear.

 

“You’re supposed to be evil,” he whispers. “I don’t know…I’m supposed to be good, but I don’t want to hurt you.”

 

Regina rubs his back comfortingly. “I don’t feel very evil anymore,” she admits, and Henry looks at her with something like hope. “There is so much I’ve done that horrifies me now. I don’t…I don’t think I liked the person I’d become.”

 

“Then why did you do all those things?” Henry asks. His tone isn’t accusing, and he regards Regina with curiosity instead of animosity.

 

Regina thinks for a long moment. “I was angry,” she says. “I was hurting, and I didn’t feel like anyone else cared. And somehow it made sense that this was how I’d make them care.”

 

Henry leans back against the wall again. “That’s a dumb way to deal with your problems,” he says frankly, and Regina is reminded of how young he really is.

 

She laughs despite herself, light and a little strained. “I suppose it was.”

 

“Do you think you would have made the same decisions if…if you had me and Mom?” Henry asks, and Regina understands what’s going on now at last. Emma has been steadfast since the start in believing that Regina has changed, but Henry needs assurance, needs to know that Regina isn’t going to slip back into her old ways.

 

“I am sure I wouldn’t have,” Regina whispers, and it might be a terrible thing to put on the shoulders of a child, but it comforts Henry. He curls up beside her again, tucked into her side, and they wait together for Emma to return.

 


 

She’s covered in flour now, her hair tied back and white-powdered and her face clean of any makeup. Emma had tied an apron around her and smudged dirt on her face before pronouncing her unrecognizable, and she pushes a tray and keeps her head down as Emma and Henry lead the way upstairs. “Your Highness,” a guard says, looking at them in alarm as he hurries past. “The Evil Queen has escaped. You should be in your rooms.”

 

Emma’s eyes widen and she stumbles, suddenly unsteady. “Oh, my,” she gasps, leaning onto the guard’s arm. “The Evil Queen is free?”

 

Words are all I have, Emma had said, but she’s learned to wield them as a weapon. She clings to the guard, who looks very gratified by the attention. “You must take me to my parents’ quarters. I won’t stay alone where she can find me,” she says, her eyes pleading.

 

“Of course, Your Highness,” the guard says, and he glances back curiously at Henry and Regina. “And your maid?”

 

“I can’t leave her here!” Emma says, her eyes filling with tears. “The Evil Queen again. I’d only just escaped.” She clings to the guard as he walks them upstairs, looking distraught enough that no one questions their path to Snow’s quarters.

 

There is a guard stationed at the door, and Regina winces inwardly. Of course. Snow knows that Regina would go after her magic, and she knows exactly where it’s hidden. This will be a race against time even once they get past this guard.

 

“Mom,” Henry says in a low tone, but Emma shakes her head and walks past the guard to the door.

 

“Excuse me, Your Highness,” the guard says, and he steps in front of Emma before she can enter. “I’ve been ordered not to let anyone inside.” His eyes flicker and linger on Regina. Regina keeps her head down, relaxing her back as best as she can to seem less threatening. Emma had called her posture Murder Queen Spine, and she slouches, staring at her tray. The guard looks back at Emma. “You’d best return to your rooms.”

 

The first guard speaks up helpfully. “She’s afraid to return to her rooms. The Evil Queen has designs on her,” he says, wrapping an arm around Emma’s waist, and Regina feels a sharp burst of jealousy in response.

 

“Please,” Emma says beseechingly. “I know my parents would want me here.”

 

The guard folds. “You can come in,” he says reluctantly. “And the young prince. The maid has to stay out, though.”

 

Emma looks at him in dismay. “What sort of princess would I be if I left my subjects out in certain danger while I remain safely inside?” She is glorious at this, playacting and dancing her way toward her goals without a single tell. Regina admires her silently from her spot in front of the tray, itching to react and knowing that she can’t dare.

 

“A cautious one,” the guard says, unimpressed. “Your parents don’t want anyone else in here right now.”

 

Emma rises to her full height, something dangerous sparking in her eyes at the rejection. The terrified, frail princess is gone, replaced with the cool certainty of a woman on a mission. “Well, I suppose you must follow your orders,” she says in defeat, and the guard smiles, oblivious to the fact that he suddenly has a target upon his chest. “You have a son who hopes to make the royal guard at the next selection, don’t you, Geoffrey?”

 

Geoffrey blinks at her, his face uncomprehending. “Your Highness?”

 

“I remember him,” Emma says brightly, her smile sweet and fond. “He once tried to kiss me when we were children. I was quite scandalized.” She cocks her head, the smile still sweet on her face. “You know, I don’t know if I’d be comfortable with him as a member of the royal guard.”

 

The color drains from Geoffrey’s face. “Your Highness,” he says, and he finally seems to understand what he’s compromising in following orders. “Please. I have only one son. If he washes out of the Guard, he’ll have nowhere to go.”

 

“That’s absurd,” Emma says, frowning at Geoffrey. “I’m sure he’d make a perfectly competent blacksmith, with some training. There are many villagers who live fulfilling lives. This prejudice against the common working people–“ and she places a hand against Regina’s back lightly. “–Is especially worrying from a man like you, of such stature in the palace, Geoffrey,” Emma says, frowning sternly.

 

“Your Highness,” Geoffrey says weakly. “Why don’t you bring your maid inside?”

 

Emma gives him a brilliant smile, squirming out of the other guard’s grasp to hook her arm on Regina’s and pull her inside. Henry follows, his mouth gaping open. “That was awesome, Mom.”

 

Emma shrugs, a pleased flush pinking her cheeks. “We have to find the entrance to the vault now. It would be somewhere, behind a frame or a bookcase or–“

 

“I know where it is,” Regina says, and the air empties from her lungs very suddenly. She’s been so focused on getting through the castle without exposing herself that she hasn’t considered where they’d wound up.

 

Of course these are Snow’s quarters now. Hadn’t Regina taken her own parents’ quarters in her estate?

 

The room is decorated differently now, the bed on the opposite side of the room and the walls far less forbidding, but it still feels the same to Regina, steeped in fear and despair. Leopold had lived here, had summoned Regina from time to time, and Regina had orchestrated his death here, too. She can still feel him in the air, can remember retreating into her magic to forget the worst–

 

–And she had always sensed, at the edge of the room, a hollow passageway in the wall. She walks there now, lost in thought, and her fingers trace the lines of the wall, finding a spot she’s never searched for before. The wall gives way and slides open, and Regina exhales a shuddering breath and steps into the passageway.

 

“Are you all right?” Emma murmurs, hovering behind her.

 

Regina nods shakily. “Just– memories,” she admits, grimacing at her own weakness. But Emma squeezes her hand and they walk into the passageway together, Henry trailing behind. It’s dark in the passage, no light leaking in, and she feels Henry’s hand light on her back, keeping her steady, and Emma’s hand in hers.

 

She can feel her magic calling to her, can feel the intoxicating promise of power, and she reminds herself again and again of the regrets she’s been forced to live with for all these years. Magic has always been a temptation, but Henry and Emma beside her is a greater temptation, and she descends through the twisty passageway in silence, her nails digging into her skin.

 

“Are you sure that this is wise?” she ventures finally, the silence of the passageway stifling. “Do you really want me to have my magic back?”

 

She can’t see anything of Emma or Henry, but she can feel the way that Henry’s hand leaves her back for a moment, settling back onto it with more caution. Emma doesn’t stiffen at all, and she speaks with the certainty of someone who has already made their decision. “I want you to be able to defend yourself against my parents’ army, yes,” she says evenly. “And I trust you not to abuse it. It wasn’t my mother’s to take away.”

 

“I think you trust me too easily,” Regina mutters, and Emma hears her and laughs.

 

“I think you underestimate exactly how hard you try to live up to my trust when I offer it,” she shoots back, and Regina knows that she’s smiling. And not exactly wrong. Henry’s hand is comfortable on her back again, his doubts assuaged as well, and Regina finds solace and confidence in their faith.

 

The passageway is beginning to brighten, just a bit, and the wall no longer twists so readily. Henry maneuvers past them to lead the way, and Emma whispers, “Careful.”

 

Henry grins at her, his teeth gleaming in the dim light. “You might be the leader of this rescue mission, but I am still a knight, Mom,” he says, and something in what he says seems to strike Emma. She gazes at him in wonder, and then she ducks her head and gives him a little shove.

 

Regina pieces it together a moment later. “You are a good leader,” she says, and it isn’t empty flattery. Emma has a quality to her that Regina’s only glimpsed before, a charisma in her confidence and determination that has Regina ready to follow her anywhere. Snow would do well to give Emma a position of leadership instead of leaving her to pretty curtsies and demure smiles.

 

That is, if Emma even remains in this castle, and Regina ponders exactly how selfish it might be to keep her from it.

 

The passageway widens, and the next turn opens up to a large cavern. The wardrobe stands against the wall of the cavern, and there is a stand in the center of the room, a glass cover over it. A scroll lies beneath the glass, and Regina starts forward past Henry and Emma, lifts the cover easily and takes the scroll–

 

“Don’t move,” Snow says, and Regina freezes as a sword slides under her chin.

 

Snow is standing in front of a second entrance to the cavern, her face expressionless and twelve guards lined up behind her. David is standing behind Regina, his sword still at her neck. “We knew you would come to take your magic,” she says, her eyes fixed on Regina. “We knew you would find a way here.”

 

Regina hears, rather than sees, the padding of Emma’s feet as she moves into view. “No,” Emma says, and now she’s in Regina’s line of sight, standing beside David, her neck straight and her chin high. “I did.”

 

David jerks in surprise, the sword dropping from Regina’s neck. Snow stares at her daughter, her eyes inquiring. “Emma?” she whispers, and Regina dares to turn to see Henry join Emma, his sword loose in his hand.

 

“I smuggled Regina out of the dungeons,” Emma says. “I negotiated with the Dark One. I bribed the kitchens into helping me disguise Regina.” She doesn’t sound ashamed or guilty, and Regina smiles helplessly, watches Emma with building pride. “I persuaded a guard to bring me to your quarters and blackmailed another into letting us in. Not Regina. I did it all.”

 

“Emma,” Snow breathes, and she’s staring at Emma as though she hasn’t seen her in a very long time.

 

Emma nods, and there is no curtsying, no flushing and no apologies. “It was the right thing to do,” she says, and she seizes Henry’s sword in a quick motion and jams it up crudely, hitting her father’s sword hand to knock it out of the way and slicing through the scroll in one twist.

 

Snow gapes, and Emma says, her tone defiant, “Do with me what you will.”

Chapter Text

SEVEN YEARS AFTER

 

The lilies are in bloom at this time of year, and Emma still likes to wander through them even now, the dog at her side. She picks them carefully, weaving them together into absentminded wreaths, and she tucks the finished crown onto Regina’s head with a wink. “A crown for Her Majesty,” she says, grinning, and she tilts her head to admire her handiwork. “I’ve still got it.”

 

Regina flicks her wrist and the lilies turn to thorns, scratching at her head but an imposing enough sight that she’s satisfied. Emma snorts. “Yes, that’s very intimidating. I’m shaking in my boots.”

 

“You should be,” Regina says, scowling at her, but she can’t quite muster up any real irritation. “I could set this whole place on fire.”

 

“You say that,” Emma says, sinking down into the lilies, “But we both know that you like to come out here in the mornings and make bouquets for the cabin.”

 

“They spruce it up!” Regina protests. “I do it so our little prince doesn’t think we live in a hovel when he visits.” Last time Henry had come over, he’d tripped over loose clothes that they hadn’t noticed near the fireplace, and he’d been horrified. Though that might have been more about which article of clothing it had been that he’d tripped on.

 

Early on after their disastrous wedding, she had been determined to prove to the world that they’d been happy, that Emma isn’t suffering for loving her. There had been public outings where Regina had been smug and so solicitous that Emma had batted her away with a this isn’t you and Regina had brooded until they’d been alone again and Emma had brushed kisses against her jawline and said pleadingly, It isn’t me, either. I don’t want to be on display.

 

The need to prove anything to the world had faded, but there’s an ever-present need to prove it to herself instead– that this is what has been best for Emma. That this is where she belongs. Emma knows. She always knows, and murmurs reassurances in her ears now as she tugs Regina down to the lilies. “I am happier now than I’ve ever been,” she breathes now, stroking Regina’s cheek, and inevitably, her own face darkens in uncertainty. “Are you…is this okay?”

 

It’s been five years and they’re still dancing on a tightrope, careful steps that must move them together in perfect time. One wrong move and they both slip, dragging the other down into an abyss, and Regina is always perfectly aware of that abyss.

 

And yet, even so… “This is perfect,” she murmurs, and she draws Emma into a kiss that lengthens and deepens as the day turns to evening.

 

They cook together in their little cabin, just as they had back when they’d lived in Regina’s estate. The dog runs in circles through the kitchen, gulping up anything they drop on the floor, and Emma rubs the top of his head fondly as she peels potatoes. Regina sautés vegetables while Emma fries the potato pancakes, ducking around Regina to snatch vegetables from the pan and pop them into her mouth. “Hot!” she says, alarmed, and Regina swats her away.

 

“You deserved that,” she shoots back, and steals one of Emma’s pancakes while Emma is stumbling toward the pitcher of water on the table.

 

“I did,” Emma agrees brazenly, grinning. “Like you deserved that extra pancake you grabbed?”

 

“I’m the Evil Queen,” Regina points out. “What do you expect of me?” 

 

Emma rolls her eyes. “Yes, yes, very evil. More like the Mildly Naughty Queen.” A playful slap on her ass, and Emma is back at her frying pan while Regina does her best to look very regal in response.

 

Dinner is a quiet one, both of them lost in thought, and they’re done and curled up in front of the fireplace soon enough. Regina fights the dog and wins, getting to burrow against Emma’s lap, and Emma runs her fingers through Regina’s hair and counting grey hairs aloud. “Stop that,” Regina says, wrinkling her nose.

 

“Stop what? Savoring the passage of time?” Emma says challengingly. They hadn’t been sure, early on, and Regina had watched Emma at times and dreaded the future, Emma and Henry growing old while Regina is left helpless to do anything but care for them until the end. The first time she’d found a silvery hair in the sea of dark brown, she’d wept with relief, and Emma had, too.

 

There is less relief now. “I am not facing your mother looking old,” Regina says grumpily. “She’ll be so smug.”

 

Emma toys with the hair between her fingers. “But it’s so attractive,” she says slyly, her fingers rubbing against the back of Regina’s neck.

 

Regina glares up at her. “Spoken like someone who hasn’t gotten a single grey hair yet,” she says, but she stops at the look of clear lust in Emma’s eyes. Oh, but maybe there might be some…benefits…

 

She tugs Emma down to her, Emma’s hands still tangled in her hair, and she’s about to deepen the kiss when there’s a loud rapping at the door. “Hey!” a muffled voice calls from the other side of it. It sounds familiar, but not quite…

 

There’s something off about it. Emma sits up, tugging Regina up as well, and Regina gathers her magic to her fingers. “Hey!” the voice calls. “We were told that the queens of this kingdom have a retreat on this land, and–“

 

Emma opens the door, her brow furrowed, and Regina calls a fireball to her palm. Her other hand is in Emma’s, quiet strength between them. “We do,” Emma says, her voice deepening into the imperious one that she uses in their throne room, and Regina remembers–

 

THREE YEARS AFTER

 

“I called you here first because I think we understand each other a little better than Emma and I do,” Snow admits, grimacing at the truth of that statement.

 

“Ugh,” Regina says eloquently. “Don’t remind me.” She hadn’t even wanted to come here, back to the castle; and if not for the way that Emma’s eyes had lit up when the guard had mentioned that Snow had wanted to see Regina, she still wouldn’t be. She and Snow are not quite mortal enemies anymore, but they aren’t friends, either. They tolerate each other and occasionally have conversations that dig deep into Regina’s very being and leave her lost and mournful.

 

So really, typical in-law interactions.

 

Emma is convinced that they secretly like each other, which is absurd. Regina obviously despises Snow, even if she has become more tolerable with age, and Snow has only resigned herself to the truth that the Evil Queen has stolen away her daughter.

 

Comforted by this fact, Regina straightens and waits for Snow’s explanation. “I want to designate you our heirs,” Snow says abruptly, sitting back in her recliner, and Regina nearly chokes.

 

What?”

 

There is a smile playing at Snow’s lips, because of course she can’t resist startling Regina with the most ridiculous of lies. “Well, Emma would be the designated heir, but you…we’d probably need a bit more than just marriage to cement your place here, don’t you think?” she says reasonably, and Regina stares at her blankly.

 

This is a joke. This is a prank, and Regina has somehow been dragged into it. Is Emma in on this? Is that why she’d been so willing to let Regina– “Are you done?” Regina says finally, standing to leave. “Can I leave now?”

 

“Regina!” Snow is up a moment later, reaching for her. She takes Regina’s hands. Regina stares at their clasped hands with her most disdainful look, and Snow sighs but doesn’t let go. “This isn’t a joke. I’m serious. I want to…” She bites her lip. “I want to go find a cabin in the woods of my own, Regina. I’m a good queen, but I’m not getting any younger.”

 

“I’ll say,” Regina says dryly. A good queen might be an overstatement, too, she thinks, which is mostly petty. Snow is very good at being beloved and grand gestures for her people. The day-to-day running of a kingdom is left to her aides.

 

Snow gives her an unamused look. “I’m sure you will.” She turns contemplative. “And for a long time, stepping down wasn’t a possibility. Emma wasn’t ready, and Henry was just a child, but Emma’s…well, Emma’s ready now, isn’t she?” She looks expectantly at Regina, who couldn’t bear to disagree with her even if she’d thought otherwise.

 

But she doesn’t. Emma would be a magnificent queen, cut from the same mold as her mother. An inspiration, one who knows her people and loves them. A leader who grasps strategy but follows her instincts. And paired with Regina, who’d rather enjoyed the monotony of everyday governing and organizing resources amongst people, she would be a revelation. “She is,” Regina admits, sitting back down reluctantly. “But the people will never…” She clears her throat, the truth suddenly clearer than ever. “The people will never accept it if I’m the one to rule beside her.”

 

“You’d be surprised,” Snow says, sitting beside her on the sofa. Her hand is still resting in Regina’s, and she’s smiling at her in that way that seems almost motherly, if Regina thinks about too much. Their roles had been reversed in the most improbable of ways, and it’s truly horrific.

 

Snow squeezes Regina’s hand, laying her head against the back of the sofa so she can watch Regina. “You’ve changed. I know it, I believe it, and the people do, too. They ask for you sometimes when they come for an audience. They’re still talking about the way that you singlehandedly fought off the ogre invasion last year, and there are plenty of villagers who have food this season because you allocated the storehouses so well last year. The people bring almost as many gifts for you as they do for Emma.” Her eyes are warm. “I can show you it all, if you don’t believe me.”

 

She waves a hand and trays are wheeled into the room, servants grinning at them as they cart in piles and piles of gifts. “We use the food,” Snow says dryly. “I didn’t think you really needed rotten fruit or spoiled chicken. But there are plenty of others.” Regina stares. There are bowls and vases, plaques and wall-hangings wrought from metal. There is more jewelry than she can count and tapestries and dresses and blankets. There are…so many people who don’t despise her.

 

The last cart is just a little bed, a tiny puppy curled up on it, and he yips excitedly when they come to a halt and bounds off the bed and onto the couch. He lands on Regina’s lap, and she reaches for him instinctively, raising him to meet her eyes and blinking back what are certainly not tears.

 

She hadn’t wanted acceptance. She hadn’t asked for it. She had only wanted to live a life where she wouldn’t be a burden on the only two people in the universe she loves, and she’d never expected this, sitting beside Snow White in front of freely given gifts as they discuss her being a queen again.

 

She scratches behind the puppy’s ears and says, her voice hoarse, “I’m still not– why would you trust me with your kingdom?”

 

“I trusted you with my daughter,” Snow murmurs, and her hand is light on Regina’s arm, her eyes so full of affection that Regina can’t look at her anymore. “And I haven’t regretted it. We don’t hate each other anymore, Regina. It’s okay to admit it.”

 

“It is not,” Regina says, and she laughs wetly as Snow strokes her arm, as the fact that she hadn’t ruined Emma’s life begins to sink in. “They really would accept me as queen?”

 

Snow smirks at her. “We both know what Emma will do if they don’t,” she says ruefully, and Regina remembers–

 

EIGHTEEN MONTHS AFTER

 

She’s wearing white. It’s not a color she ever wears, but she’d magicked up a dozen dresses and this one had been the one that had Emma misty-eyed, so. Here she is. “It looks absurd on me,” she complains, turning around in a circle to glare down at the dress.

 

“I think it suits you,” Henry says, eyeing the dress critically. “It’s got those sharp sleeves but it’s really soft. Very regal, too.”

 

“Now you’re a dressmaker?” Regina says, and Henry grins impishly and shrugs, extending an arm.

 

“Come on, Mom,” he says, and she falls silent, forgetting her distaste for the color. Henry has let the word slip before, but he’s never said it like this, playful and very intentional. Mom. She’s been his mother in nearly every sense of the word for eighteen months, and now, finally…

 

Her dress is white, long and sleek, and it has none of the petticoats and layers that her first wedding dress had had. That had felt like a prison from which she’d never escape, a prison that had defined her life from that day until a moment eighteen months ago when she’d chosen another path.

 

This dress feels like…well, a dress.

 

And she’s going to wear it to be presented to the kingdom again, this time a willing exhibit for the sake of her future wife.

 

She’s heard the rumors already, the angry whispers of a kingdom raised to loathe her. The Evil Queen has enchanted the queen and her daughter. The Evil Queen seduced her way back into the castle. The Evil Queen will doom us all. There had been a month, early on, when they’d even tried living in the castle together with Snow and David. The servants had brought her rotting food, had left her clothes unwashed, and had stumbled into room after room to gawk at her with unfriendly eyes. She had borne it all, determined that Emma not find out.

 

Emma had begged her to leave anyway, equally uncomfortable in the castle, though she had claimed that it hadn’t been about Regina’s treatment. They had moved to a quiet cabin in the woods just beyond castle grounds, close enough for Henry to visit every morning and evening for meals, but far enough that they’d gotten some distance from a castle where neither of them had really fit in.

 

But the rumors had persisted, even when she’d never stepped out among the people. She’s been hidden away for over a year, and she’s quietly terrified of what the people might do when they see her today.

 

Damn Snow, insisting that their wedding has to be a public affair. She can’t do this, can’t go out there as though she has any right to Emma’s heart. She can’t–

 

“You’ve got this,” Henry whispers, guiding her from the room.

 

The wedding hall is packed, a low murmur as the orchestra begins again, and Regina glimpses the end of the aisle from the open doors. Emma is resplendent in white, her hair loose and a tiara perched over it. She stands between her parents, but her eyes seek Regina out, and she mouths I love you.

 

There is so much quiet confidence in Emma’s eyes that Regina takes a step forward, raising her chin and inhaling long and slowly. She has conquered much worse than this room, and she has endured far more terrifying situations. She can do this.

 

She’s shaking, and Henry squeezes her arm. “Just look at Mom,” he whispers, and Regina turns to look at him instead. He’s smiling up at her, his free hand resting on the hilt of his sword, and he says, “You’re not going to give up on us, are you?”

 

“Never,” Regina murmurs, and she takes her first steps down the aisle.

 

There’s a hush, followed by whispers loud enough to drown out the orchestra. People are glaring, are booing, and Emma’s face is setting stubbornly at the front of the room. Regina focuses on her, on Henry’s hand on hers as he walks her down the aisle, even on Snow’s face as she smiles like she might actually be all right with this eventually. Anything but the dark faces watching her with distrust and anger.

 

She’s nearly at the front of the aisle when it happens. There’s a particularly loud boo and– as Regina steps forward– something large and squishy hits the side of her dress, splattering it in red.

 

Henry draws his sword in a quick motion– Regina’s magic springs to her fingers and she can feel the crowd recoil, can hear the screams as the fireball begins to grow in her palm– She doesn’t care if she alienates the peasants, if they all loathe her forever, if–

 

A hand touches Regina’s, cupping it and pressing gently to close it, and Regina meets Emma’s gaze, wild-eyed. “They…” She shakes her head, the fireball growing with her distress. “They’re ruining our…“

 

“They can’t ruin anything,” Emma whispers. She’s standing in the middle of the aisle with them, her eyes clear and focused. “They can’t take this from us. I don’t give a damn what my mother wants, I will marry you in our muddy vegetable garden if I have to. You are going to be my wife, and a vindictive peasant who’s probably too young to even have a reason to hate you isn’t going to stop us. Understood?”

 

Regina is breathing hard, and Emma presses her forehead to hers, kisses her eyelids and waits until Regina extinguishes the fire. Redemption is going to be a long, tortuous process, and this is just one step along the way.

 

She lowers her hand, stands straight, and turns to face hundreds of curious faces. The people are silent now, their eyes fixed on Regina and Emma with far less hostility than before.

 

Emma steps forward, voice like steel, and says, “Who threw that?”

 

Silence for another moment, and then a mad dash from one end of the audience, someone running while others shout and struggle after the runner. Emma nods to the guards and they charge forward, seizing the fleeing villager and dragging him to the front of the aisle.

 

He isn’t young. He’s an angry-looking lesser noble, old enough that he would have been a child during Regina’s reign of terror, and Regina wavers, wondering with guilt exactly why he hates her.

 

Emma has no such compunctions. She strides forward, her eyes flashing, and the noble flinches back. “Did you think I would tolerate this at my own wedding?” she demands. “Did you think I would take a physical threat to my royal consort–“ Regina chokes a little at that and Emma pauses to glare at her. “–without protest?”

The noble shrinks back. Emma says, “Get him out of here.” She turns to the crowd, her voice raised. “Anyone else have a problem with Regina? Any takers? You? You?” she’s jabbing her finger at people in the audience, and they shake their heads rapidly.

 

“No, Princess,” one woman says, backing away. “Not at all.” There’s a ripple of confusion through the crowd, Emma’s subjects taken aback at the strength in her voice. Regina glances from face to face, and sees mingled curiosity and building respect. Good.

 

“Good,” Emma says, and she nods to the orchestra and links her arm with Henry’s. They walk up to the stage together, Snow beaming at them as the music builds once more. “You were wonderful,” she murmurs, and Regina sees Emma flush and remembers–

 

AFTER

 

“Do with me what you will,” Emma says, her voice defiant, and Regina’s magic hits in a rush. It’s fury and it’s freedom, it fills her with vibrancy like she hasn’t had in years, and she can feel the rage like a comforting balm.

 

She’s going to kill Snow White, and she can feel it like a reckoning, like a calling she’s denied for too long. All she needs to do is to surge forward, raise her hands and let magic unleash itself and destroy her mortal enemy.

 

I’m tired, Regina. Aren’t you tired? Snow meets her gaze evenly, and then turns back to her daughter, dismissing the threat as though it had never been there. “You negotiated with the Dark One,” she repeats slowly. “You smuggled Regina out of the dungeons. You blackmailed a guard?”

 

Emma has missed the turmoil on Regina’s face, the way the will to murder seeps through her, and Regina hesitates and waits for what she’s going to do next. “Yeah,” she says, and Snow takes a step to her, then another.

 

She’s close enough to reach out and kill with a single strike, but Regina is frozen in place, transfixed by the way that Emma raises her face to meet Snow’s. Snow reaches for her, touches her hands to Emma’s cheeks, and looks at her in wonder. “You did all of that,” she says, and then she turns again to look at Regina. “For her?”

 

Her voice still sounds almost awed, and Emma’s eyes are raised to her mother’s, uncertain. “Yes,” she says, and she seeks out Regina’s gaze, draws what seems to be strength from it, and Regina quiets her magic hastily. “It was the right thing to do.”

 

“Then it’s true,” Snow says, her thumbs brushing Emma’s hair back from her face. “You two are in love.”

 

Emma’s cheeks pink. “Well, I’m in love with–,” she begins to correct her mother, just as Regina says, “Yes.”

 

Emma shoots a dumbfounded glance at her. “Yes?” she repeats.

 

“Idiot,” Regina says, very fondly, and the truth feels firmer now, less likely to shatter them. “Did you do all this without knowing that?” Emma shrugs helplessly, her face glowing with her smile.

 

Snow’s eyes are shining, and Regina doesn’t understand what’s happening, because this encounter was meant to end in death. Not Snow staring at her as though she’s a revelation. “You love my daughter,” Snow says, a hand still soft on Emma’s cheek. “And you…” She turns back to Emma, her eyes filled with tears. “You were hiding for so long, Emma. I didn’t think I would get to see you again.” 

 

“I didn’t think you wanted to,” Emma says shakily, and Snow clasps her cheeks and kisses her forehead, her eyes bright with tears and pride. Emma fights onward, looking up at her mother and struggling to explain. “Regina…Regina makes me strong, you know?”

 

Snow meets Regina’s eyes again, and there is a question implicit in her unwavering gaze. I’m tired, Regina. Aren’t you tired? Regina nods grudgingly, her hands falling to her sides for good. “I do know,” Snow murmurs, and she is silent for a moment, lost in thought.

 

David– David has been standing behind them this whole time, silent as Snow pieces through this alone, and Regina startles when he clears his throat. “What do we do with her?” he asks, uncharacteristically subdued, and he jabs a thumb at Regina.

 

Emma’s eyes narrow. The guards tense, and Henry is moving forward again to stand protectively beside Regina. Regina’s wrist flicks once, twice.

 

Snow says, “Well, that’s really up to Emma, isn’t it?” and Emma gapes at her in surprise.

 

Regina says, and now she can curl her lips into a smirk, her eyes glinting with sly implication that has the color drain out of Snow’s face as Emma winces, “Yes. Yes, it is.”

 

This is her future.

 

SEVEN YEARS AFTER

 

“Hey!” the voice calls from the other side of their cabin door. “We were told that the queens of this kingdom have a retreat on this land, and–“

 

Emma opens the door, her brow furrowed, and Regina calls a fireball to her palm. Her other hand is in Emma’s, quiet strength between them. “We do,” Emma says, her voice deepening into the imperious one that she uses in their throne room. “We’re also not to be interrupted except in case of emergency,” she adds sternly.

 

There are two figures at the door, and they shift forward into the light so Regina can see their faces. Emma gasps, her fingers tightening on Regina’s hand.

 

“This is an emergency,” the woman who had spoken says, her eyes widening as she takes them in. She is wearing an odd leather coat and tight blue pants, her yellow hair falling in waves at her shoulders. She has Emma’s face, and the woman beside her, a fireball hovering over her palm, has Regina’s. “You’re…you’re the queens? What is this realm?”

 

“I’m a queen,” Other Regina says, sounding miffed. “You, though–“

 

Other Emma snorts. “I think I’ll take being the savior, after all. Apparently, it could be worse.” Emma’s eyes are still glued to her double, and Regina examines her, sees the swagger to her hips and the casual way she slouches, so unlike Emma but still somehow very familiar. Other Emma shifts and turns her attention back to them. “Are you, like…co-rulers or something? Until Henry comes of age?” Her eyes widen in alarm. “Does Henry even exist in this realm?”

 

“Of course he does,” Regina says stiffly, though she can feel the same relief flooding her at the idea that Henry exists in this other realm as well. “And he is of age, but I’d like him to have quite a bit more experience before he takes over the kingdom.”

 

“You’re his regents,” Other Regina says, and there is a melancholy note to her voice that has Regina looking twice at her. “That’s why you’re ruling together.”

 

“No,” Emma says bemusedly. “We’re ruling together because we’re married.” Other Emma starts at this, staring wide-eyed at them. Other Regina, in contrast, closes her eyes for a long moment.

 

“Married?” Other Emma squeaks, and Regina is delighted to see that her cheeks pink just as much as Emma’s do, rising into a full-fledged flush as she looks to Other Regina for support. Other Regina doesn’t look nearly as surprised, and she doesn’t turn to meet Other Emma’s bewildered gaze.

 

She clears her throat and says, “Emma made a wish that seems to have brought us here.”

 

“You made a wish, too,” Other Emma says softly. “You didn’t tell me what it was.”

 

Other Regina doesn’t respond, turning back to Regina with single-minded focus. “We’re fighting a great evil in our realm, and if you could help us return before our friends and family are hurt–“

 

Regina looks to Emma for a moment of wordless communication. Emma nods at the end of it, her eyes gleaming with anticipation. “We haven’t had a good adventure in a while,” she says, squeezing Regina’s hand in acquiescence. Regina can see the way her eyes settle on the other Emma’s casual stance, on the weapon she has on her waist, on the way she looks at them as though they’re impossible. She sees it just as clearly as she sees the other Emma steal glances at Regina and Emma’s joined hands, over and over again.

 

The other Regina is watching the Emmas as well, and they exchange a glance rife with understanding of what is, and of what could have been. “Lead the way,” Regina says.