Things I Almost Remember
Land Without Magic - Present
“And this is our residential wing,” the clinical director said. “The rooms are single occupancy and like the rest of the facility the clients here are recovering from an assortment of issues. Some are recovering from drug or alcohol addiction, depression, eating disorders, and some have experienced a trauma and suffer from PTSD. As you get to know the clients, you’ll be briefed on their assessments and how best to assist them.”
Ruby’s head was on a swivel as she looked around at the facility. It would’ve been nice if the Enchanted Forest had had something like this when she’d found out she was a wolf. She wouldn’t have minded having a bit of therapy to help her through that discovery and its subsequent horrors.
“Most of our long-term residents are here between six and twelve months,” the director continued, walking her new hires through the wing. “We can house up to sixty but we prefer to keep the number at around forty.”
As they walked past rooms, all with neatly made double beds, Ruby tried to discreetly sniff around, hoping to catch a familiar scent. The rooms had dark wood furniture with a standard night stand, a dresser, and a simple desk. The personal touches were mostly picture frames on the night stand, a stuffed toy, or a brightly colored bed spread.
Ruby paused at the door of one room that was rather sparse in personal touches. There weren’t any obvious mementos on display, and the bed set was the standard dark blue. The desk had several sketch books on it and a few books neatly stacked. But something had caught Ruby’s attention and she gave a more vigorous sniff. The room was immaculately clean and had an overwhelming (for her) scent of pine cleaner but beneath that she could detect a more familiar scent. She grinned and hurried to catch back up with her group.
The small group was headed towards another building as the director continued the tour, pointing out different things and reminding the new staff members of their responsibilities. Ruby knew the woman she’d been trying to track down for more than eight months was there somewhere, but she’d still yet to see her. It had taken time and more than a little bit of magic to pinpoint her location. It had taken even more magic and a bit of wolf-charm thrown at the human resources director for Ruby to get hired.
“This building is where you’ll find a lot of our residents if they aren’t in one of their sessions.” The director held open the door for everyone to pass through. “This building houses our art department and physical fitness studios.” She walked them down a hallway of art work. “As you can see, we have some very talented clients.”
Ruby stopped dead in front of one of the drawings. She stared at the black and white landscape, mesmerized by the intricate fine lines and use of shadowed spaces. It made her heart ache for home.
The director appeared at her shoulder having given everyone a few minutes to look around. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Ruby managed to nod then swallow. “Yeah, I’ve kind of got a thing for castles.” She tore her gaze away from the picture of home. “You said one of the residents drew this?”
“Oh yes, this is one of Veronica’s. She’s been with us for almost seven months now. Her recovery has been nothing short of amazing.”
“Recovery?” Ruby asked, her voice strangling slightly. When the director gave her an odd look, she quickly clarified, “I mean, I know she’s recovering from something, obviously, but I was just wondering what her situation was.”
The director studied her for a moment. “You’re Ms Lucas, aren’t you?”
“Ah, yes,” Ruby answered, offering her hand. She suddenly felt more nervous than she ever had and she’d been presented in front of royalty for Merlin’s sake. “New Pilates instructor and personal trainer.”
“Cindy Read,” the director said. “I suppose you’ll be spending a lot of time in this building, too.”
“I sure hope so.”
“Well, you’ll get to know more about our clients once you get started.” Cindy patted her arm. “Now, come on, I’ll show you where you’ll be spending most of your time.” She called out to the rest of the group. “At the other end of the building is our physical fitness studio.”
Cindy began rattling off the different equipment and classes the facility offered. Ruby was paying close attention until Cindy opened the door and the sound of punching could be heard. The scents and smells of a gym washed over Ruby making her crinkle her nose and rethink her great idea to be a trainer. Then her head whipped around as she caught that one familiar scent she’d been searching for and this time it was much stronger.
Ruby’s jaw dropped when she finally laid eyes on the woman. She barely caught herself from swearing out loud as she finally caught sight of her queen, bouncing on the balls of her feet, squaring off one-on-one with a trainer. Ruby blinked as she tried to process the sight of the diminutive brunette wearing black fitness shorts, a blue and black sports bra, and boxing gloves. Ruby was torn between what she wanted to do more, whip out her phone and video the queen throwing punches or run over and hug her. Since she couldn’t do either without losing the job she just procured, she stayed rooted to the spot and tried not to drool.
Cindy had once again left them alone to roam around the area and Ruby slowly approached the mat with the ongoing training session. The boxing duo seemed to be going through a long series of combos that the trainer called out, escalating the speed and force of the hits. Ruby grinned; Emma was going to be so jealous when she heard about this.
“And here’s the client you were just asking about,” Cindy said, standing at Ruby’s shoulder.
Ruby knew exactly who the boxer was. She just hadn’t ever known the woman was also an artist. “She drew the castle?”
“Yes, Veronica is quite accomplished with anything she sets her mind to.” The sparring match finished and Cindy waved the trainer over. “Joe, this is Ruby Lucas, she’s our new personal trainer and Pilates instructor.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said, offering her a fist bump after he pulled off his gloves. “Glad to have you on board.”
“Thanks,” Ruby managed. She gestured towards the retreating boxer. “She’s pretty good, huh?”
“Hell yeah,” Joe chuckled. “Roni’s got great instincts.” Ruby thought she should after years of sword fighting. Joe threw back over his shoulder, “She’d be my prize pupil if she would just keep her right guard up.”
The woman, Roni as Joe had called her, flipped him off as she tiredly dropped her gloves to the bench. She grabbed a towel and walked towards the trio. She was still breathing heavy as she dabbed at her sweat soaked face. Cindy quickly jumped in to make the introductions. Ruby held her breath as the woman’s attention finally turned towards her.
Roni gave Ruby a polite smile and nodded before excusing herself to gather up her gear and depart. Ruby was suddenly glad that Emma was not with her because she hadn’t seen even a hint of acknowledgement. She had a sinking suspicion that their situation was worse than they thought. Veronica had no idea who she really was.
And if Regina Mills didn’t know she was a wife and queen that possessed magic, Ruby’s life had just gotten a lot more difficult.
While I don't consider this a songfic, it will be obvious as it goes on that this story was heavily inspired by the song, Once Upon a December. As I was listening to it, inspiration struck and the first scenes for this story came into existence.
The Enchanted Forest - 25 Years Earlier
Princess Emma stomped into her room and had to throw her entire seven-year-old body weight against the massive door in order to close it. The tiara she ripped off her head smashed into multiple pieces against the stone wall when she threw it with all her might. An unexpected gasp made her whirl around, staring at her seemingly empty room.
Bright, green eyes narrowed. “Who’s there?”
Silence was her only answer. On tiptoe, she slipped over to her bed and withdrew the wooden sword her father had given her from beneath one of her many pillows. She held it in a guard position just as he’d shown her as she began to make her way around the foot of the bed. With her senses strained, Emma heard the lightest sound of fabric moving against stone. She smirked in a way that only a precocious child can and spun around the foot of the bed. “I’ve got you!”
But there was no one there.
Emma frowned, the sword falling to her side. She’d been sure there’d been someone there. She took a few steps forward then haphazardly dropped down to look under the bed. She screamed and fell back on her butt at the unexpected sight of someone crouched under her bed. Then the figure under her bed scooted towards her and Emma scrambled back in a panic. She yelled again.
“Shush, you,” the figure, a girl no taller than Emma herself, stood at her feet, hands on her hips. “You’re going to get us in trouble.”
“Trouble?!” Emma quickly got over her fear as indignation rose. She got to her feet. How dare this…this girl tell her what to do in her own room! “I’m not the one that’s trespassing! I should call for the guards and have you arrested.”
The little brown-haired girl rolled her dark eyes. “If you do that, you’ll ruin all our fun before we’ve even had any.”
The word fun caught Emma’s attention. Ever since her mother, the queen, decided she needed to start learning to be more lady-like, she hadn’t had much fun. She eyed the strange girl in her room, looking her over more closely. Unlike Emma, her perfect princess dress was in pristine condition, her hair perfectly coifed, and – “You paint your nails?”
The little brunette looked down at the light shade of pink that covered her nails then clenched her hands into fists to hide them. “Yes, I do.” She raised her chin. “What of it?”
Emma snorted. “And you chose pink?”
“I happen to like pink.” She hated pink. The color, like everything in her life, had been dictated by her mother.
Emma rolled her eyes. Her hopes for having fun were quickly dwindling. Anyone who painted their nails pink surely didn’t know how to have fun. “Whatever.” She sighed and rolled the wooden sword in her palm. “Who are you, anyway? And how’d you get in here?”
“Through that.” She gestured towards the corner where a large, full-length mirror stood.
Light blonde eyebrows raced upwards. “You came through the mirror?” The brunette nodded and followed behind the blonde as she walked towards the mirror. “How’d you do that?”
“My mother got called away abruptly and left the magic still running. I walked through…” She watched as the other girl looked behind the mirror then walked around it until she came out the other side. “What are you doing?”
Emma shrugged, nonplussed. “Just checking.” She eyed the girl again. “So, your mom has magic?”
The girl nodded, suddenly worried she’d said too much. Mother was very proud of her magic but she’d cautioned her daughter about ever telling anyone. She looked at the floor. “Yes.”
“What about you?”
She looked up, confused by the question. “What about me?”
Emma plopped down on the bench that ran beneath the window. “Do you have magic? Doesn’t it run in families?”
“I…well, yes.” She felt emboldened when the green eyes widened and a grin stretched the blonde girl’s face. “I’m not very good at it. Mother is always telling me how bad-”
“Show me something.”
“Wha- I beg your pardon?”
“Do something, you know, magical,” Emma said.
“Oh, I…I couldn’t,” the brunette shook her head. “I better not. I’m not good-”
“Pleeeaaaasssseeee,” Emma whined. “Come on, anything. I never get to see magic.”
“Uhm, okay,” the girl said and looked around the room. She saw a candelabra sitting on the nightstand. There was one trick she was really good at. She walked over and with a glance to make sure the little blonde girl was watching; she waved her hand past the candles lighting all of them.
“Whoa!” Emma jumped off her bench and joined her. “Can you do it again?” She didn’t wait for an answer and blew out the candles. “Just one more time.”
The brunette smirked and waved her hand past the candles again, lighting them with ease.
“Emma?” a voice called from beyond the door. “Emma, are you in there?”
Green eyes widened and she grabbed hold of the other girl’s wrist and dragged her towards the mirror. “You’ve got to get out of here.”
“What? Why?” the girl asked. She didn’t want to go home so soon.
“Because that’s my mom’s voice and she’ll want to know how you got in here.” Emma pushed her towards the mirror. “And she doesn’t like magic.”
Understanding dawned on the brunette’s face. “Oh. I see.” She lowered her gaze. “I understand. I won’t, I won’t bother you again.”
Emma scoffed. “What? No way! Just come in the evenings when no one else is around. Okay?”
“Oh.” The girl nodded; a shy smile peeking out. “Okay.”
“Now go!” She gestured again then caught the girl by the wrist. “Hey, wait a second, you never told me your name.”
Land Without Magic - Present
Ruby ran along the path that curved in a lazy loop around the retreat’s property. She crinkled her nose as she was downwind of the stables and almost made a turn to get away from the smell when she caught that elusive scent again. She slowed until she was jogging in place and tried to catch it again. It was there, mixed in with scents of hay, horses, and manure, but she’d know that scent anywhere. She turned and ran towards the stables.
It had been a week since she’d seen Regina, or Roni as she was known here, in the gym, and she still hadn’t had a good opportunity to speak to the woman. She also hadn’t been able to get her hands on Roni’s file since she hadn’t signed up for any classes with Ruby. However, staff gossip said she’d been there seven months and had no memory of who she was. She’d been found on the side of a road out in the middle of nowhere. Doctors figured she’d endured some sort of trauma and been dumped there, possibly even hit by a car. Ruby really wanted to see that file and get some specifics.
Ruby slowed up when she reached the wooden fence and propped herself against it as she stretched. She could hear Regina talking from inside the barn and she snickered when her wolf-hearing told her Regina was talking to the animals. It sounded like Regina was mucking out stalls and fussing at two of the animals to stop helping her. Oh, the stories Ruby would have to tell when they went home. She wouldn’t embarrass the queen, of course, but she would have leverage for threats and good-natured blackmail.
After about ten minutes, she finally heard Regina saying her farewells to the horse, Diaval. Ruby quickly began to pretend to stretch as she kept a cautious eye towards the barn door. A wheelbarrow came out first, being pushed by Regina, who was followed by two young cats, chasing and tripping over each other. If Regina noticed her, she gave no indication as she wheeled the barrow towards the back of the barn. Ruby moved along the fence with her, giving up her pretense of stretching in order to watch the queen shovel shit.
“Are you just going to stand there and watch,” Roni called over her shoulder, “or are you going to come help?”
Ruby snorted at being called out, but she climbed over the fence easy enough and moved towards the brunette. “I think standing and watching is definitely the wiser choice.”
Both cats finally noticed her presence and hissed at her, their backs bowed up and tails fluffed as they sidestepped away from her. Ruby almost growled back at them.
“Flotsam. Jetsam. That’s enough,” Roni snapped at them. The two cats took one look at her and then tore off around the back of the barn. “Well, they don’t like you, Ms Lucas. That’s unusual.”
“I’m more of a dog person.” Ruby shrugged, then looked at the partially hay-covered pile in front of them. “That’s one big pile of shit.”
“Hmmm.” Roni picked up the shovel and began to unload the wheelbarrow. “What brings you out here so early, Ms Lucas?”
“You can call me Ruby, you know.” She hoped for some sign of recognition and saw none. “I was just out for a run, caught a cramp. What about you?” Roni gave her a look that clearly implied her thoughts. “I mean, obviously, I see what you’re doing, but do you do this every morning?”
“Volunteers are out here on the weekends,” she said, throwing another shovelful.
“You’re kind of a Renaissance Woman, aren’t you?” Ruby asked, steadying the wheelbarrow when it threatened to tip over. “Painting, boxing, farmhand.”
“I’m decent at accounting as well,” she said. “Renaissance is a good word for me, I guess. Rebirth. When you’re a blank slate, you can learn to do whatever until you find something you’re good at.”
“Come now, Ms Lucas, ignorance isn’t a good look for you.”
For a second, Ruby almost hoped. “Ignorance?”
“I’m the resident amnesiac,” Roni pointed out. “Surely, the staff has told you about me, perhaps even warned you that I have a temper.”
Ruby smirked. Oh, she knew all about the woman’s temper all right. “They may have given me a heads up.”
“And yet here you are.” She threw the shovel into the now empty wheelbarrow and turned it around.
“They told me not to bother you while you were drawing,” Ruby said, following her back towards the front of the barn. “They didn’t say anything about how to approach you while you’re shoveling shit.”
“I would think that would be self-explanatory.”
Ruby eyed her. “Not a morning person?”
“I like mornings just fine,” she said, “as long as I don’t have to talk to people.”
Ruby chuckled and held the barn door for her. Despite what most of the kingdom thought, Regina was not a morning person. She was just usually up before everyone else and had mentally settled herself by the time anyone else got up. Ruby had come in after moon lit nights more than a few times and flopped down in front of the fire only to find Regina already sipping tea in a nearby chair usually with an open book on her lap.
After parking the barrow in a corner, Regina ripped the gloves off her hands and stuffed them into the back of her pants. “Well, Ms Lucas, I have a riding lesson in a half hour that I need to prepare for.” She gave a curt nod and turned towards the main stables.
“I teach Pilates at two every day,” Ruby called after her. “You should come try it.” Roni didn’t respond, but Diaval neighed at Ruby from his lone stall in the barn. She stepped inside and let him snuffle her hand before scratching his nose. “Put in a good word for me with her, won’t you?” He nickered and she took that as a yes.
The Enchanted Forest – The Past
It was a few weeks before Regina turned up in Emma’s room again. Apparently, it had taken her that long to figure out the magic her mother used on the mirror. Emma had spent most of that time suspiciously eyeing every mirror in the castle. More than once her mother had asked her what in the world she was looking at. Emma had also determined that her castle had a lot of mirrors.
“What happened to your lip?”
Regina ducked her head, her hand unconsciously raising to cover the healing cut. “That’s impolite of you to ask. Are you this rude to everyone?”
Emma shrugged. “Maybe, I guess. I’m the princess so it’s not like anyone has ever called me on it if I am.”
The brunette just rolled her eyes and began a slow walk around the room, trailing her fingers over the stuffed animals lining the bench.
“So,” Emma plopped down on the foot of her bed, “what happened?”
“I fell…” Regina stopped at the vanity, amused by a music box with a dancing bear on it. She avoided looking at her reflection in the mirror. “My horse bucked me off.”
Emma’s head cocked to the side as she leaned back on her hands. “Nah, that’s not it.” She smirked when Regina spun around to face her. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, but don’t lie to me, okay? I can’t be friends with a liar.”
The young brunette blinked. “You thought we were friends?”
Emma frowned in confusion. “Well, yeah.”
“Oh. I’ve never…” Regina seemed to shrink, her gaze dropping to the floor. When she spoke, it was almost a whisper. “I don’t want to tell you what happened.”
“Okay,” Emma said. Now, she really wanted to know what happened to her new friend, but she didn’t like how small the girl had suddenly become. She jumped up from the bed. “So, what do you want to do now that you’re here?”
Regina blinked. “I-I don’t know.”
Emma looked around her room. “We could play a game. I’ve got checkers.”
“Checkers is for little kids, Emma.” She seemed to brighten. “What about chess?”
“Not you, too,” Emma groaned, falling back on the bed. “Why does everyone in the kingdom want to play that stupid game?”
“First of all, I don’t live in your kingdom.” Regina noticed the board and made herself at home, tugging it out from under a book. She began pulling out the pieces to set it up. “Secondly, it’s not just a stupid game. It’s life.”
Emma rolled her eyes at the proclamation, but she had sat up in attention at the other thing Regina had said. “You don’t live here?”
“That’s silly, Emma. If I lived here, I wouldn’t need a magic mirror to come see you.” She finished setting up the pieces. “Now come over here so we can play.”
Emma shuffled over. She dropped onto the chair opposite, jostling the pieces. “I’m no good at chess.”
“So, you do know how to play?” Regina beamed. “Good!”
“Not good,” Emma groused. “I hate this game.”
“Nonsense. If you hate it, then you have a poor teacher.” She gestured at Emma’s side of the board. “White goes first. Just remember, you want to position your pieces before you do anything else.”
Emma moved the pawn, third from the right, forward one square.
Regina grimaced. “You’re right; you are bad at this.”
The brunette smirked and moved the piece back to its starting place. “Don’t worry, Emma. I can teach you.” She glanced up and brown held green. “After all, what are friends for?”
Land Without Magic - Present
After another week and two more early morning trips out to the barn, Ruby found three new client files waiting for her; one of the files was for Veronica Smith. She thanked the secretary and hurried towards the gym where she shared a small office. As she walked, she scanned her roster and found Roni had signed up for the Tuesday and Thursday Pilates classes.
“Mornin’ Joe,” she called casually as she walked through the gym. He waved distractedly as he spotted for one of the clients. Closing the office door behind her, Ruby sat at her desk and opened the file that would finally give her some details about Regina’s condition. She skipped past most of the biological information, noting they gave her an estimated age of nearly five years younger than she was (Regina would appreciate that), and went straight to the doctor’s notes.
**Kristyn Bailey, M.D. Unidentified female subject, hereafter known as Jane Doe, presented unconscious with multiple injuries. Visible contusions and injuries are consistent with blunt force trauma and strangulation. Signs of severe concussion. Full body CT scan shows fractures to ribs 3,4,5 on left side. Scan also revealed possible history of abuse with multiple older fractures. Heart has a slight deformity on the left ventricle, possible birth defect. Full diagnosis of mental state will be conducted when patient regains consciousness. Time of exposure to elements unknown. Drug test negative. Alcohol test positive. Sexual assault kit negative. Pregnancy negative. Initial police report attached.**
**Detective N. Shaies and Detective Sgt. B. Gerrol. Unidentified female subject, approximate age 25-30, found unconscious and unresponsive 3 mi west of mile marker 128 on SR 11. Victim was reported found at 1:08 AM by Carl and Ellie Fredrickson. No vehicles or other people were noticed around the scene. RP statement attached. Victim was found wearing an elaborate white and gold ball gown, matching expensive jewelry. Items were collected and put into evidence (SE 1). Visible bruising around the neck consistent with strangulation. Blood seeping from a wound at the back of the head. No obvious defensive wounds. DNA collected. Victim statement pending.**
Ruby sat back after reading the initial reports. The cold hard recitation of facts painted a picture she didn’t need as she remembered the events surrounding Regina’s disappearance quite clearly.
The Enchanted Forest – Recent Past
The celebration was in full swing. After years of fighting and another of being engaged, the Enchanted Forest had welcomed in its newest queens. Queen Emma and Queen Regina were finally married, followed immediately by a coronation ceremony. The champagne was flowing and the queens were leading the dancing.
Ruby watched from the sidelines as Charming and Snow joined the happy couple in the dancing. She was considering asking Belle to dance. The shy girl had recently joined the kingdom having escaped the Dark One’s control unexpectedly.
“She looks radiant, doesn’t she?”
Ruby turned to find Maleficent standing behind her shoulder. She followed the old dragon’s gaze to the pair of young dancing queens. She laughed. “Which one?”
“Either.” Maleficent smiled as she and the wolf watched their respective goddaughters. “Both.”
“They’ve never looked happier,” Ruby agreed.
“And what about you?” Maleficent asked, a twinkle in her eye. “Are you going to ask that young lady to dance or let her stand there and wonder?”
Unfortunately, Ruby never got her chance as the doors to the ballroom slammed open. Guards went flying in all directions. Wolf senses slowed her perception of everything down; she was the first to charge forward, intending to get in front of the young royals. She felt Maleficent bend forward, magic rushing towards them as the dragon gathered power. Another blast of magic from the doorway sent people scattering across the floor including Snow and Charming.
Fire blossomed in Regina’s hand; bright, white light shone in Emma’s as they turned in one motion together to face the threat. Ruby’s heart froze in her chest as she watched both queens rise in the air, their magic disappearing as they clawed at their throats. The wolf growled as she shifted, sliding beneath Emma’s dangling feet and spun on four paws to finally see their attacker – Cora.
Ruby charged forwards; Maleficent, unwilling to change forms in the crowded ballroom, shot magic over her shoulder. She saw Cora laugh and rip her hands outwards before disappearing in a plume of black smoke. Ruby skidded in an attempt to turn; she watched over her shoulder as Emma and Regina were thrown in opposite directions. Her gaze followed Regina as the young queen sailed through the air before slamming into a support column, body bending backwards as she impacted, before dropping to the floor and out of sight.
Cora reappeared on the raised royal dais. Her hands were forming more magic which she used to shield herself from a new attack from Maleficent.
“CORA!!!” Emma emerged from the shadows she had been thrown into. Her hair flew behind her as white magic blasted from her hands.
Cora pivoted in time to hold off Emma’s attack but was pushed back by the combined magic. She laughed. “You can’t win, Savior.”
Maleficent’s eyes flashed towards Emma; she was concerned by the remark. An arrow flew past Cora’s face, cutting her cheek as it passed through the magic. Ruby pulled up as Snow nocked another arrow and Charming drew his sword. Cora snarled at the unexpected attack.
A line of four heroes advanced on Cora. Ruby looked back over her shoulder; Regina had not gotten up. She whined loud enough that Snow heard her. The former queen glanced at her and paled when she realized Ruby’s concern. Magic continued to pour against Cora; the sorceress was giving ground but it couldn’t be said she was losing.
“You can’t defeat me, dearies,” Cora cackled, causing a shiver to run up anyone’s spine that had ever dealt with Rumplestiltskin. “I have the power of the Dark One now.”
With an exchanged glance, Maleficent and Emma dropped their assault. The dragon kept her staff at the ready. “Give this madness up, Cora. You can’t win.”
“Give me my daughter,” Cora replied easily.
“Never,” Emma growled, hands raised ready to strike.
“Oh, poor Savior,” Cora heckled. “You’ve already lost and you don’t even know it.”
“What does that mean?” she asked, risking a quick look around, realizing Regina was not with them. “What have you done, witch?”
“Why, I’ve taken Regina away from you, you stupid girl.”
“I’ve protected their hearts against you, Cora,” Maleficent argued, hoping Emma wouldn’t leave the line. She couldn’t hold Cora off on her own. “You cannot defeat their love.”
“Love is weakness,” she snarled. “You should’ve protected their minds, you useless dragon.” She threw her hand up, disappearing again in a whirl of smoke only to reappear near Regina’s still form.
Ruby stood over the unconscious queen; she snarled, teeth flashing at the sorceress.
Ruby’s claws dug into the stone floor as magic pushed her away from her charge. She watched in horror as a portal formed beneath Regina and she fell through it, disappearing from sight. Emma charged through the crowd, tackling the older witch to the ground in an unexpected and unprotected move. Her fist slammed into Cora’s face once before the sorceress regained her wits and blasted the Swan Queen off of her. Both women quickly regained their feet.
“What did you do to Regina?” Emma demanded. The line of heroes reformed and Cora wiped blood away from the corner of her mouth.
“I kept my word,” she spat. “She turned out to be such a disappointment.”
“Where. Is. She?”
Cora smirked and without another word disappeared in a shimmer.
Emma took a step forward then stopped. They were all frozen in stunned disbelief. For a moment, nothing moved, no sound was made, the sudden turn from elation to devastation robbed everyone of thought. Snow recovered first, relaxing the bowstring she had at the ready.
The blonde continued to stare at the spot where they had last seen Regina. “I know where she’s sent Regina.”
“Hey, Red, you alright?” Joe said, bustling into the office they shared.
Ruby blinked. It had felt a bit like coming home the first time Joe had called her Red, now it just made her feel sad. “Yeah, I’m good,” she said. “Just a little lost in thought.”
He glanced over at the open file on her desk. “Roni, huh?” He shook his head. “She’s got a pretty hard case. I feel bad for her, but she’s a fighter. She’ll be alright.”
“You have no idea,” Ruby muttered then closed the file. She’d review the rest of it later.
The Enchanted Forest – The Past
Regina knocked off Emma’s knight with a pawn. “What’s the most important rule?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Emma said, removing the overturned piece from the board. “I know, put all my pieces into position first.”
“Have you ever heard of the Land Without Magic?” Regina asked, pleased that Emma had seen her mistake. They had been seeing each other and playing together for over a year. Emma still wasn’t very good at chess but she rarely made the same mistake twice. She simply needed to learn to think ahead.
“Yeah,” Emma said. “The fairies have talked about it some. I thought it was just a myth though.”
“No, it’s a real place,” Regina said, sitting back. She didn’t consider it fair play to distract Emma by engaging her in conversation so their games often got paused. “Do you want to see it?”
“See it?” Emma asked, sitting up. She was starting to enjoy chess, not that she would ever admit it, but something new sounded far more interesting. “How?”
“Come on, I’ll show you.” Regina moved over towards the mirror and settled herself in front of it. “It’s taken me six months to figure out how to do this.”
Emma smirked as she dropped to the floor alongside her friend. She was always impressed with her friend’s dedication. Whenever she put her mind to something, it didn’t matter how long it took, she would do it. “Six months! I could never practice something that long.”
“Nonsense. You’ve been working on that silly thrust-shield-lunge combo for three months already.”
“Yeah, but that’s swordplay,” Emma argued. “If I want to be the best, I’ve got to practice daily.”
“Which is what I’ve been doing.” Regina closed her eyes and made a complicated motion with her right hand. The surface of the mirror shimmered. “Now I just need to think of it…”
“Whoa!” Emma’s eyes widened in amazement as the surface of the mirror rippled and formed a view the likes of which she’d never seen.
Buildings taller than mountains were clustered together and horseless carriages were stacked end to end on the roads that ran like valleys at the feet of the buildings. A sea of people moved in herds along walkways beside the roads. A dance of colored lights painted the people as they walked below. One of the buildings had moving pictures and print on it and several had large stationary pictures plastered across them.
“What is this place?” Emma asked, staring in wide-eyed wonder.
“They call it New York city.”
Emma leaned closer, trying to see more. “I wonder what happened to Old York city.”
Regina huffed out a laugh. “I don’t know.”
Emma frowned at how breathless Regina sounded. She tore her gaze away from the mirror to check on her friend. “Regina! Your nose is bleeding!” She jumped up to grab a rag for her friend and returned quickly seeing the image of the city blur out of existence. Regina slumped to the side as her body relaxed and Emma moved quickly to catch her from falling over. “Regina!”
“It’s okay,” she said quietly as she let the blonde dab at her nose. “It just takes a lot of magic to see that realm.”
Emma folded the rag over a second time. This was no little nose bleed. “Well, then don’t do that!” She was scared at how pale her friend looked.
“I have to,” Regina said, her eyes dropping closed. “I may have to travel there someday. I need to know…everything I can about it.”
Emma shifted her legs from underneath her and drew Regina more into her lap, still holding the rag to her nose. “Why would you want to travel to a place without magic?”
“I don’t want to go there,” Regina whispered, “but Mother may send me there.” She sighed and relaxed against Emma. “She’s always threatening to send me there.”
Emma didn’t understand. “Why would she send you there?”
“Because I’m a disappointment to her,” Regina said quietly, closing her eyes. After a minute or so, Emma started to hum and Regina drifted off to sleep.
Land Without Magic - Present
** Kristyn Bailey M.D. Secondary examination of Jane Doe. Patient is responsive and alert, appears to be suffering from retrograde and dissociative amnesia. Patient has no memories or autobiographical information. Patient retains basic skills. Patient is able to retain and incorporate new information but can currently offer no information on how current or past injuries were received. This has likely been caused by the traumatic event suffered by the patient and the severe blow to the head. Drug screen results were negative. Patient is cooperative but irritable. Indications of high pain tolerance, possibly a learned behavior. Further observation and tests will be required. **
Ruby read through the rest of Regina’s file that night in the privacy of her room. The frustration was palpable in the detective’s notes.
** Detective Sgt B. Gerrol. Jane Doe investigation continues. Based on victim’s appearance at time of recovery, recovery site was secondary location. Primary location remains unidentified. Suspect(s) remain unidentified. Victim is unable to remember any details regarding incident or self. Victim does not match any reported missing persons. Victim has no matches in any identifier database. Case remains open. **
Ruby almost felt bad for the detective. Magical injuries and appearances weren’t easily investigated in this realm. At least in their realm, they could detect magic and the magical signatures of practitioners. Speaking of magic, she kept a close eye on the hand-held mirror she had traveled with. Timing between realms was a bit wonky but today was supposed to be the day Emma contacted her for an update. She was so glad she finally had good news to give the queen.
Well, good news and bad news. Ruby wasn’t sure how Emma was going to take the news that Regina had no memories of their life together. As she considered the best way to break the news, the surface of her mirror began to shimmer with a blue light before rippling and revealing an exhausted looking queen.
“Emma?” Ruby couldn’t help the astonishment in her voice. She’d helped raise the blonde queen and even she couldn’t remember a time when she’d seen Emma looking quite so tired.
“She raised an army of the dead,” Emma said without preamble. “An army. Of the dead.” She ran a hand through her hair. “Do you know how hard it is to kill something that’s already dead?”
“Emma,” Ruby admonished, “please tell me you are not out there fighting.” She knew she was but she was the queen now, damn it. She shouldn’t be swinging a sword on the front lines.
Emma leveled her with a glare. “Really? You think I’m just sitting back in the kingdom letting ordinary soldiers go out and fight magical creatures. Magical dead creatures. Magical dead creatures that have been reanimated!”
“That’s what they call them here. Dead things brought back to life are zombies,” Ruby supplied somewhat helpfully.
Emma seemed to pale. “They have zombies there?”
“Oh! No, no, no. Sorry.” Ruby shook her head. “They have stories about zombies, but they’re definitely considered fictional here.”
“Wonderful. Now I have a name for them, at least,” Emma said, then turned to the side, speaking to someone outside the viewing range of the mirror. She nodded and returned her attention to Ruby. “Mal wants to know if you have any news worth sharing, or if she can leave to go light up another battalion of zombies.”
“I have news.”
“WHAT?!” The mirror was jostled and Ruby actually held hers further away. “What news? Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Speak, child!” Mal said from somewhere behind Emma.
Ruby held her goddaughter’s gaze. “I found her. Regina is alive and healthy.” She paused when she saw Emma physically sag with relief.
“Regina,” Emma whispered the name as she sunk onto a chair, the view of the mirror slanting momentarily before she lifted it back up. “And she’s…she’s okay? She’s all right?”
“She’s healthy,” Ruby repeated, “but she doesn’t remember anything.”
“What do you mean?” Mal asked from over Emma’s shoulder when it seemed the young queen was incapable of speech. “She doesn’t remember that night?”
“She has no memory from before the moment she woke up here in one of their medical facilities,” she explained. “She has no memory of the Enchanted Forest or anyone in it. I’ve spoken with her multiple times and she has no idea who I am.” Ruby saw Mal squeeze Emma’s shoulder. “It’s like she’s under a curse or something.”
“Was she…hurt?” Emma asked finally. “You said she was in a medical facility? Is she okay?”
“She was banged up from the fight at your reception. She carried those injuries with her into this world, but she’s completely healed from them.”
“Except for her memory,” Mal said bitterly.
“Except for that.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Emma said quietly. She looked up, appearing refocused. “It doesn’t matter. Her memory doesn’t matter. She’s alive. She’s healthy. We can deal with the rest. We can get her memory back.”
Ruby smiled and nodded. “Of course, Emma.”
“You just, stay there. Keep an eye on her.” She scrubbed a hand over her face. “Mal and I will deal with Cora. And then, then we’ll work on bringing my wife home.”
“I won’t let anything else happen to her,” Ruby promised.
Emma nodded. “I know you won’t.” She looked off again and nodded. “I’ve got to go.”
“Oh, hey Emma, real quick,” Ruby said, catching her before she ended the magic.
“Yeah?” the blonde asked tiredly.
Ruby held her phone up to the mirror and showed Emma a picture of Regina standing next to Diaval. She’d been having a quiet conversation with the horse, her head lowered to his muzzle. Ruby had taken two pics, one in profile and one when Regina had turned to look at her. She’d smiled faintly and asked Ruby to send her the picture.
After a quiet minute, Ruby heard Emma mutter a simple thank you and the mirror shimmered back to its original state. Ruby took a deep breath and nodded. Everything would work out; it was all going to be all right.
It had to.
The Enchanted Forest - The Past
“Emma?” Regina stepped through the mirror into the very familiar room. She didn’t immediately spot her friend. It was late in the evening so she couldn’t imagine where Emma might be. She moved towards the balcony and heard the sounds of people and music.
Then she remembered, Emma had been grousing about an upcoming ball several weeks ago. She’d tried cajoling Regina into a promise of attending, claiming how much more fun it would be if someone her own age was there. Regina had known better than to promise anything, and truly she hadn’t remembered it was today. She’d never been to a ball and she certainly wasn’t dressed for one, but she wrapped her hand around the simple stone necklace she wore and thought of her friend.
Princess Emma was bored to tears. The dress her mother had trundled her into was suffocating her. It was frilly and lacy and everything Emma abhorred; the only thing she liked about it was the color – a soft yellow. She was tempted to sneak out but she’d made a bargain with her father. Dance with five princes, stay until midnight (which was only an hour away), and he would start teaching her sword play while on horseback. As a twelve, almost thirteen, year old, it was high time she began training on horseback.
Thankfully, when the simple stone she wore on a bracelet began to warm, she’d already completed her required dancing. A bright smile lit her face and she must’ve made some sort of noise because her father actually looked over at her. He raised a questioning eyebrow at her sudden enthusiasm.
She pointed haphazardly at the buffet table. “They just put out new cakes.”
Charming laughed. “Well, go on then.”
Emma practically flew from the royal dais. She wanted to sprint up to her room where she knew her friend was unexpectedly waiting, but she made sure to go by the buffet table first. Mostly so her father would see her there but then she thought to actually grab a few of the sweets since she knew Regina never got to have any. Her mother, who Emma hated, would never allow such indulgences.
As soon as she had a linen carefully wrapped around a few treats, Emma made her way out of the main ballroom and down the corridor. Checking to make sure no one was watching, she slipped behind a large painting of her great-great grandfather and raced up the secret stairwell that led to the living quarters. She burst into her room a few minutes later, breathing heavy, to find it unexpectedly empty. She looked around. “Regina?”
Movement to her right caught her attention as the brunette peaked out from behind a changing screen. “Emma?” She stepped out when she confirmed it was her friend, her eyes widening at the sight of the blonde. “Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you looking so…”
“Frilly?” Emma deadpanned, knowing exactly how she looked.
“I was going to say ‘royal’,” Regina grinned, “and yellow.”
“I like the yellow,” Emma argued and saw dark eyebrows raise. “What’s wrong with yellow?”
“Nothing.” She managed not to laugh.
Emma’s eyes narrowed then she remembered what she held in her hand. “You know what, just for that, I’m not going to share.”
Curiosity lit up dark eyes and Regina moved closer without intending to. “What aren’t you going to share?”
Watching her friend closely, Emma carefully unwrapped the cakes. She squawked in alarm and almost dropped the rest when one of them disappeared. She looked up in time to see Regina take a bite of it. “That’s not fair!” But she laughed when she saw the girl’s eyes close in bliss. “Was that one of the lemon ones?” Regina nodded. Emma extended the linen full of treats. “You should try one of the apple cinnamon ones. They’re the best.”
Regina hesitantly picked up another square of cake. It had taken Emma more than a year to get her to try a dessert the first time she offered. Regina was always paranoid that somehow her mother would know about her indulgences and punish her. Even now, years later, she was still reluctant to overdo it.
Knowing her friend well, Emma folded over the square and placed it on her vanity. “We’ll save the rest for later.” Despite the dress, she still managed to plop down on the foot of her bed. “I didn’t think you’d be able to come tonight. Oh, and you’re getting really good at the poof-ing thing.”
Regina rolled her eyes indulgently. She hated that Emma called anything to do with her magic ‘poofing’, but she also knew that Emma knew she hated it and used it accordingly. “Thank you, I’ve been working on it which is really why I came tonight. I wanted to show you something, but,” a swell of music reached their ears from the balcony. Regina ducked her head. “I actually forgot that your event was this evening, but mother was out of the castle. I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“Intrude?” Emma laughed. It was always pulled at her heart the way Regina would sometimes go all formal and polite on her. She guessed it was too ingrained to ignore. “You saved me!” She thought about the time. “Although, I will have to go back down for at least another appearance. My father said if I stayed until midnight, he’d start teaching me the sword on horseback.”
Regina lifted an eyebrow. “And does your mother know about this bargain?”
“Pffftt, yeah right.” Emma stood up, her skirts falling back down around her ankles. “What did you want to show me?”
“It’s nothing important. It can wait,” Regina said, then began straightening the blonde’s skirts. “There.”
Emma looked down. “Thanks. Hey, you want to come down with me?”
Regina’s eyes widened and she took a step back, shaking her head. “Oh, no. I couldn’t.” She glanced towards the doors of the room as though they might bite her. “I can’t be…I’m not dressed for such an event.”
Emma glanced at her attire which was always nicer than what Emma preferred to wear, but she was right. For once, it wasn’t exactly appropriate for the circumstances. “Oh, yeah, I guess so.” She didn’t want her friend to leave yet, but she had to get back down there before anyone noticed she was missing. “Will you wait for me to get back?” When Regina glanced at the mirror, she rushed ahead. “I’ll only be another thirty minutes or so. Please, wait.”
“You want me to stay?” Regina asked, hesitantly.
“Well, yeah!” Emma said, smiling. “You said you wanted to show me something.” Then her eyes lit up. “Oh, hey! I know. Come with me!”
Regina resisted the blonde already pulling on her hand. “Emma, I can’t be seen.”
“No, come with me as far as the secret passage,” Emma said, not really explaining herself well. “I’ll show you where I used to always hide when I was younger. You’ll be able to see the whole ballroom and no one will be able to see you.”
“What?” Regina planted her feet, halting them both before Emma could get the doors open.
Emma turned to her and took both her hands in hers. “Come on, Regina.” She smiled. “Do you trust me?”
Regina thought her heart might beat out of her chest. The risk that someone might see her was substantial, but she found herself nodding. “Yes, I trust you.”
Land Without Magic - Present
Her back was on fire, not literally as she smelled no burning meat, but it throbbed and with every minuscule breath she took, the slight movement of her muscles made her skin pull and crack. The pain was what woke her, dragged her back to consciousness despite her unwillingness. She shivered and wanted to scream, but she locked her jaw against the pain and dug her fingers into the cold stone floor beneath her.
The girl dragged her eyes open, blinking against the dim torchlight. Slowly her surroundings came into focus. She was in a cell made of stone with no windows and no doors. She knew this place. It was her mother’s favorite place to send her when she required discipline. Apparently, the fifty lashes to her back hadn’t been enough.
She wasn’t surprised. It was a punishment years in the making; a punishment she had been expecting ever since her first trip through the looking glass. She shouldn’t have come back; her friend had begged her not to return home, but staying away from her mother had never been a real option.
The lone torch flickered and the girl focused on it. It would go out soon, and she’d be left in the dark. She took a shuddering breath in, embracing the pain radiating from her back, trying to distract herself from the fear coiling in her belly. She watched the flame receding, knowing it was the last light she would see until her mother saw fit to have mercy on her.
The flame went out and she was enveloped in darkness. A tear rolled down her cheek because she knew mercy had never been her mother’s strong suit.
Roni lurched upright in her bed, gasping for breath, her gaze racing around the lightly shadowed room. She threw herself backwards, lunging with one hand towards her lamp until she was finally able to fumble the cord enough in shaking fingers that golden light exploded into the room. She exhaled and dropped back against the padded headboard. Her heart was racing and her sleep shirt clung to her sweat-soaked skin. She scrubbed a shaking hand over her face and then dragged it through her sleep tousled hair.
A nightmare. A fucking nightmare that now she could hardly recall. Something about a torch and feeling trapped. Oh, her counselors were going to have a field day with this. They’d been warning her for months that given her condition and memory problems, it was highly likely she’d eventually have to face a day of reckoning with her subconscious.
Slowly, she sat up and untangled the sheet from her legs. She glanced at the clock on the nightstand and saw that it was three in the morning. Even she couldn’t justify going down to the stables that early, but she sure as hell wasn’t going back to sleep. Giving her neck a few pops, she threw the covers back from the bed and dropped her feet to the floor. After a few more stretches, she pulled out the chair from her desk and sat down. She flipped through one of her sketch books until she found a blank page. With pencil in hand, she began sketching a ballroom scene, the dancing couples in their fancy dresses would occupy her thoughts through the rest of the night.
“What is going on with you today?”
Veronica wearily looked up from her exercise mat; she hadn’t quite worked up the energy to get up from it yet. “I beg your pardon?”
Ruby crouched down beside her. “You wobbled three times and dropped out of position twice.” She offered a water bottle. “I’ve never seen you wobble much less drop out before. You feeling all right?”
“I’m fine,” Veronica said, ignoring the water bottle and pushing to her feet. She swayed enough that Ruby reached out to steady her.
“Want to try that answer again?”
“If you must know,” she exhaled heavily, “I haven’t been sleeping well this week.”
Ruby mentally recalled seeing a note in her file that Veronica periodically suffered from insomnia. “Not sleeping well or not sleeping at all?”
“Oh, I have no trouble falling asleep,” Veronica said, dropping down onto one of the benches that lined the side of the room. “The problem is staying that way.”
“Bad dreams?” Ruby asked. Regina had never been an easy sleeper and Emma had mentioned once before that she suffered from nightmares. Veronica ignored the question and dabbed at her sweat soaked face with a towel. Ruby sat down beside her on the bench. “Want to talk about it?”
Veronica gave her a flat glare. “What have I ever done to make you think I would want to talk about my problems with you, Ms Lucas? Do you have a degree in psychology now to go with your fitness credentials?”
Ruby ducked her head to hide her grin at Regina’s snarky bite. The glare had been pretty good too if the fatigue in her eyes hadn’t betrayed her. “Nope, no degree,” she said, “just a sweaty shoulder to lean on if you want it.”
Roni’s lip curled slightly. “That’s disgusting, Ms Lucas.” She leaned over to reach for her shoes. “I believe I’ll stick with the professionals.”
Ruby nodded easily and leaned back, giving Regina her space. The encouraging fact was that several of the staff had mentioned to Ruby that they were amazed at how Veronica seemed to talk to her more than they’d seen her talk to anyone. She liked to think that was an encouraging sign.
Ruby waited until Veronica had gathered up her belongings before she asked, “Killer clowns?”
Roni’s head whipped towards her, damp tendrils of hair bouncing around her face. “Wha- I beg your pardon?”
“It was killer clowns, wasn’t it? Your nightmares?”
“No!” Roni sounded incredulous.
“What is wrong with spiders?”
Ruby leaned away from her and they both looked at the other in confusion. Finally, Ruby shook her head. “Okay, not spiders. Apparently.” She pulled out her phone and quickly searched most common nightmares.
Roni stood up to leave. “Good day, Ms Lucas.”
Ruby followed her, reading off the list on her phone. “Drowning? Falling? Being trapped? Teeth falling out? Ewww, what is that about?” She looked up just in time to pull up short before she walked straight into the other woman. “Oh! Sorry!” Then she caught the way Roni was staring at the floor, frozen to the spot. “Veronica, you all right?”
“I was trapped in a room,” she said quietly, then shook her head. “No. It wasn’t a room, more like a cave or a cell.” She closed her eyes, her forehead scrunching up as she tried to remember. “There was a torch?”
Ruby held her breath not daring to move a muscle lest she break Regina away from what she guessed was a bit more than just a dream.
“There wasn’t a door…” she growled in frustration and opened her eyes. “It doesn’t even make any sense. How would a person get trapped in a cell with no door?” She shook her head. “Well, that’s more than I remembered before.” She rubbed her hand over her forehead. “I’m not supposed to pressure myself to remember.”
Ruby wouldn’t put it past Cora to magic her own daughter into a cell. She cleared her throat. “Just be glad you’re not dreaming of your teeth falling out.”
Roni grimaced. “That’s a thing?”
Ruby waved her phone with its search results. “Apparently.”
“Well.” She adjusted the bag on her shoulder and began to leave. She stopped at the door and looked back over her shoulder. “I just wish I could remember.”
Ruby nodded and watched her leave, waiting for the door to close before she sighed, “Me too.”
First scenes of torture/child abuse
The Enchanted Forest – The Past
Regina had lost sight of Emma as she watched the ball from behind the hidden panel in the wall. The princess had explained that it was a secret tunnel meant for escape. Regina had chastised her for revealing such a secret but her heart hadn’t been in it. Watching the ball was a marvelous spectacle.
When they’d first come down, she’d seen Emma talking with her parents and sneaking quick glances towards Regina’s hiding spot. When Emma had headed towards the buffet table, Regina’s attention had been distracted by the dancing couples swirling across the floor. The gowns were gorgeous with sparkling fabrics and soft lines, flowing around the ladies as they moved. All of the formal attire Regina had ever seen had been dark with structured panels and corsets she’d been unable to breathe properly in. She couldn’t help but wonder if all the kingdoms but her mother’s were like this.
A tall, lithe brunette woman wearing a gorgeous red cape was standing near the queen. Regina watched her as she sniffed the air and looked towards the hiding spot. A foot scraped behind Regina and she caught herself just before she screamed at Emma’s sudden reappearance.
“Sssshhhh!” Emma giggled, making just as much noise with her shushing.
“Idiot,” Regina hissed, her heart racing. She slapped the blonde’s shoulder. “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“Sorry,” Emma whisper-laughed as she reached Regina’s side. She peered out at the ball room then reared back, pulling Regina with her. “Oh no, Ruby’s out there. She’ll find us for sure. We’ve got to get out of here.”
Emma pulled Regina back along the corridor away from the ball room. “That was close!” She said, laughing and relaxing when they were far enough away. At Regina’s bewildered look, she explained, “Ruby is a werewolf. She can hear and smell things way more than we can, but don’t worry, she won’t say anything. As long as I don’t put myself in danger, she lets me get away with stuff.”
“Does your mother keep her as a pet?”
“What?!” Emma laughed and shook her head. “No! No way. She’s more like an advisor.” She pushed open a painting and peered out. “Oh, and she’s also my godmother.”
When they stepped out into the corridor, Regina knew where they were again. She pulled on Emma’s hand. “Emma, wait.”
The blonde looked at her curiously. “What’s up?”
“You remember when I said I wanted to show you something?” She waited for the princess to nod then took both of Emma’s hands in her own. “Do you trust me?”
“You know I do.”
Regina smiled because it was true; she did know. “Don’t let go of my hands.”
“Okay. Why-?” Emma’s question was cut off as Regina magiced them straight from the downstairs corridor and into Emma’s bedroom. Emma whirled around; Regina’s purple magic dissipating around them. “Wow! That is fantastic, Regina!” She picked the brunette up and spun her around laughing. “You figured it out!”
Regina slapped at her arms to put her down. A blush crept into her cheeks. She had worked really hard on it, but she wasn’t accustomed to anyone being as excited about her abilities as she was. “I can only go places I’ve been before though. I have to be able to picture in my mind where I want to go.”
“Oh wow, we can have so much more fun now!” Emma began undoing all the ties on her dress. “We can sneak out and you’ll be able to just poof us back.” She finally managed to loosen the dress enough to shuck it off. “Let me throw on some different clothes and we can go.”
“What?” Regina was shocked and didn’t know what she was talking about. “Go where?”
Emma laughed from within her closet. “It’s the easiest night of the year to sneak out to the stables. We’ll go for a ride.” She came back in, still pulling on a pair of trousers. “That way, after tonight, you’ll know what the stables look like so we’ll be able to just poof there.”
“Oh, Emma, I don’t know…”
“Now when you visit, we won’t have to just stay up in my room the whole time.” The blonde grinned as she grabbed a pair of boots from under the bed. “Besides, you’re always telling me how good a rider you are.” Mischief made her green eyes sparkle. “I bet you can’t beat me in a race across the meadow.”
Regina’s eyes narrowed at the challenge. “Princess, you have no idea what I’m capable of.”
Emma slapped her thighs and pulled Regina to the balcony. She pointed down to the far corner of the castle. “If you can get us down there, it’s a straight shot to the stables.”
Regina took hold of Emma’s hand. “Hold on.”
Hours later, the girls were still laughing when they returned to Emma’s room in the grey early morning hours before dawn. Emma collapsed immediately onto the bed.
“That was the best night I’ve ever had!” She flopped backwards. “You have to come the next time we have a ball. I demand a rematch.”
“A rematch will end just the same.” Regina wasn’t quite as exuberant but she had smiled more during the hours they’d snuck away from the castle then she could ever remember in her life. “I don’t know how I’ll be able to stay awake during lessons today,” she said. “I haven’t slept a wink.” She turned towards the vanity amused at her wind-blown appearance. “I have to get back before anyone…”
Emma heard the way Regina’s voice trailed off and sat up. “Regina?” Her friend had paled considerably and was staring at the full-length mirror. “Regina, what’s the matter?”
Regina didn’t take her gaze off where she was staring, but she lifted a shaking hand and pointed at a scroll lying innocuously on the floor in front of the mirror. Emma turned and looked, frowned. “What is it?”
“Emma, don’t!” Regina grabbed her by the arm to stop her from getting too close to the mirror. All she could see in it were their reflections, but she recognized the seal on the scroll. Swallowing thickly, she crossed the room and picked up the parchment. A dark, blood red seal of a heart with a sword stabbed through it held the parchment in a tight roll. She held it up for Emma to see. “This is my mother’s seal.”
Emma sobered and watched her friend gently tear past the seal. The hair on the back of her neck was standing on end. “What’s it say?”
Regina released a shuddering breath. “She knows I was at the ball tonight.” She lifted her chin, dark eyes meeting Emma’s. “And I am to return home immediately.” She rerolled the scroll and held it tightly in her hand. “I have to go.”
“What, no! Wait!” Emma rushed forwards to stop her. “Don’t go, Regina.”
“I have to.”
The words were barely a whisper but Emma heard them clearly. It had taken her almost two years before Regina had confessed that the scar she now bore on her upper lip had been her mother’s doing. A vicious backhand while wearing a ring had been the young brunette’s punishment for disagreeing with her mother in front of guests. “Y-you could stay here.”
Regina scoffed. “Emma-”
But the blonde was warming up to the idea. “No! I mean it. I’ll talk to my mother. I’ll explain everything.” At the brunette’s raised eyebrow, she amended, “I’ll come up with something to tell her.”
Regina just shook her head. She caught sight of her reflection in the mirror and began to order her hair. It was one thing to hope no one saw her upon return but to know her mother was waiting, she needed to look as put-together as possible.
“She’s going to hurt you, isn’t she?”
Regina flinched but continued wiping at a smudge of dirt on her cheek. “I disobeyed the rules. She’s my mother. I’m sure there will be consequences to face upon my return.”
“Consequences,” Emma repeated. “Why do I get the feeling that it will be worse than being sent to your room without supper?”
“I’ll be fine.” Regina fussed with her collar, doing up the top button. She didn’t want to talk about what was going to happen because thinking about it beforehand never helped her. She tucked the tails of her shirt in tight and smoothed down the front of her riding vest. She saw Emma watching her in the mirror and she straightened, turning towards the blonde. “What?”
“I’m scared for you,” Emma admitted.
“She’s my mother, Emma,” Regina said, “not a monster.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Emma muttered.
Emma looked up sheepishly but didn’t apologize. She knew evil when she saw it. She may have never laid eyes on the woman herself, but she’d seen more than one scar on her friend over the years.
Regina shook her head. “I don’t have time for this.” She strode towards the mirror only to be pulled to a stop once again. She didn’t look at the blonde this time. “What?”
“You’ll come back, won’t you?”
Regina hesitated. Her mother knew she was here; she likely knew how Regina had gotten there. She was going to demand answers. “I don’t know,” she admitted finally. “It may be awhile.”
Emma sniffed, nodded her head. She understood; they were caught. It would be harder now for Regina to escape. “Will you, at least, let me know you’re okay? Please.”
The brunette couldn’t promise anything, not while she was standing in front of the mirror where even now her mother might be watching. Instead, she gently pulled her wrist free. “I have to go. Good-bye, Emma.”
Regina thought she heard her friend whisper a farewell in return but then she was through the looking glass and stepping out into her own room. Nothing looked amiss but the oppressive nature of her mother’s castle immediately settled on her shoulders. Quickly, she dried her eyes and straightened her bearing. She tried to project an aura of strength as she walked downstairs; it was the only thing her mother respected.
Despite the early morning hour, she found her mother sitting in her throne room. She stopped at the foot of the steps leading up to the dais and knelt. She bowed her head. “Mother.”
Regina got to her feet but kept her gaze lowered.
“Look at me.” Cora waited for brown eyes to find her own. Despite the bravado her daughter put on, she could easily read the fear in them. “Tell me why I felt your magic tonight while I was attending a ball at Snow White’s castle.”
“You were there?” A magical blow slapped Regina across the face, rocking her head to the side. She blinked back tears. “I’m sorry, Mother. I didn’t mean-” Pressure began to tighten against her throat. “I was visiting a friend!” She choked out quickly, the pressure immediately receding.
“A friend?” Cora tittered a small scornful laugh. “You don’t have any friends, dear.”
Regina bowed her head, knowing better than to refute her mother’s statement. She missed the small smile indicating Cora’s pleasure at her obedience.
“Very well, I’ll entertain your fantasy,” Cora said. “What is your little friend’s name?”
“S-Sarah,” Regina lied.
“That’s a peasant’s name,” Cora scoffed. “Tell me you aren’t dirtying yourself with the peasants.”
Regina’s head came up. “No. She’s…she’s the daughter of a nobleman. It’s why she was there tonight.”
“I see,” Cora allowed, “and how did two such precious girls meet?”
“I saw her through the looking glass,” Regina admitted. “Tonight was the first time I was to meet her in person.”
“And did you?” Cora asked. “Or did you stay inside your little hiding spot behind the walls, spying on the royals like one of the servants?” The sorceress snapped her fingers. “If you’re going to act like a servant, you might as well dress like one.”
Regina gasped as her mother’s magic swirled angrily around her, removing her riding attire in exchange for a simple tunic and rough trousers.
“Guards!” Cora snapped and two of her royal guards stepped out of the shadows. They quickly flanked Regina, each grabbing her by an arm as Cora stood and descended from the dais.
“Mother!” Fear rushed hot through Regina’s veins as the guards’ bruising grip on her arms tightened, holding her in place. “I’m sorry.”
“If you want to behave like a servant,” Cora hissed, grabbing her daughter by the jaw, “I’ll treat you like one.”
Regina’s eyes widened. “Please, Mother, don’t…” She started to choke as the pressure returned to her throat.
“When a servant lies to my face, I have them taken to the town square where they are stripped and beaten.” She waved her hand and a whipping post appeared in the middle of the grand hall. “You’re lucky I can’t have the entire kingdom witnessing how pathetic and weak you are, Regina.” She jerked her chin towards the post and the two guards dragged her daughter towards it.
“Mother, please! Please, don’t do this!” Tears rolled down Regina’s face as her wrists were bound together. Her mother had forced her to witness the punishment of servants since she was a child. Seeing the flogger appear in her mother’s hand was not a surprise. It was the last thing she saw before she was forcefully turned to face the post, her arms pushed over her head, the rope binding her wrists looped over the hook at the top.
Cora appeared in front of her daughter. “Now tell me, stupid girl, what else have you been lying about?”
“I’m sorry, Mother,” she swallowed convulsively. She felt the gloved fist of one of the guards grab the back of her tunic by the collar. She gasped as he tore it off leaving her back bare to the room.
“Did you really think I didn’t know about your little friend? Princess Em-ma?” At her daughter’s horrified, watery stare, Cora looked past her shoulder and nodded.
There was a slight whistle through the air before the black leather tails landed with a smack across Regina’s back. She opened her mouth in a gasp of pain only to feel her mother’s hand wrap around her throat.
“Make a single sound and I’ll double your punishment,” she warned, squeezing with her hand instead of using magic. A second blow landed and she felt Regina lock her jaw against the pain. “Good girl.” She stroked her daughter’s cheek. “You’ve been using mirror magic for months.”
Regina nodded, her entire body shaking as another blow landed. “Y-yes.”
“You’ve been traveling to the White kingdom behind my back for months.”
“Yes,” her voice mewled as another blow struck.
Regina blinked, sweat and tears poured down her face. Another blow landed and she bit her tongue to keep from crying out. Her mother’s strong fingers dug painfully into her jaw. “How long, child?”
“Over a year!” Regina cried, squeezing her eyes shut, hoping the pain would hide her deception.
Cora’s blood boiled; she’d only discovered Regina missing at an unusual time approximately three months earlier. The fact that her daughter had been doing this for a year without her notice was both impressive and enraging. As another blow whistled down, she forced herself to release the hold she had on her daughter. The girl had earned this punishment and more, but it wasn’t all bad. This could be used to their advantage.
She held up a hand to halt the flogging. She saw Regina sag against the post. “Oh, you’re not finished child. I simply have no desire to continue to watch this flagellation.”
“Please, Mother,” Regina whispered, “don’t leave me.”
Cora laughed. “Pathetic child.” She spoke to guard wielding the flogger. “Take her to fifty lashes and then cut her down.” She leaned in to whisper directly into her daughter’s ear. “When this over, you and I are going to have a chat. You’re going to tell me everything you know about Princess Em-ma.”
Emma worried herself sick for the first week after Regina left; her mother had been on the verge of calling in the fairies to check her over for curses. The stone around her neck hadn’t warmed once although Emma often found herself reaching for it. In the second week, Emma found herself in the library researching royal families for the name Cora. In all the years they’d been friends, Regina had always skirted around details concerning her family. Emma had always thought it was simply because her mother was such a piece of work, but eventually Emma found the seal she had seen on the letter that had sent Regina scurrying back through the mirror – a heart with a sword through it.
It belonged to the Queen of Hearts.
The dreaded enemy of Snow White’s kingdom.
Emma’s best friend was the daughter of her mother’s worst enemy.
And Regina had known all along.
Hours later, Ruby had found Emma sitting amongst the stacks of books and parchments. She’d sighed and taken a seat next to her. When she asked how she could help, Emma told her everything. She told her about finding a little girl in her bedroom when she’d been seven years old. She told her about how for the past six, almost seven, years, the girl had been her best friend. Lastly, Emma told her godmother that her friend’s name was Regina and that she was the daughter of Cora the Queen of Hearts. Then Emma broke down in tears and admitted how worried and scared she was for her friend.
Five months later, Emma walked into her room, sweaty and exhausted. The time that had passed since her confession to Ruby had seen the princess shed the last of her childhood. Her godmother had convinced her that Cora wouldn’t kill Regina. Regina was the Queen of Hearts’ only child and, as the story went, Cora wanted Regina on the throne. Ruby had convinced Emma that the best thing she could do to help Regina was to become strong enough to defeat Cora. With Cora defeated, Regina could be freed from her mother’s control. Emma had agreed and thrown herself whole heartedly into learning everything she could. She began attending council meetings, learned the politics of how to run the kingdom, and began training with best swordsmen of her mother’s army.
Today’s session had been particularly bruising and Emma hissed as she pulled off the sweaty jerkin and examined an already purpling shoulder. When she turned to try and see her back better, she stepped on a piece of parchment lying at the base of her mirror. She frowned, wondering if it had blown off her desk, and leaned down to pick it up. As soon as she touched it, her heart leapt in her chest.
The parchment bore the seal of a swan with a crown on its head. It was a seal she and Regina had made up for themselves three years earlier. Emma quickly glanced at the mirror, blushing slightly as she covered her chest and grabbed for a shirt before sitting down to read.
My dear friend,
I know it has been a long time, but this is the first chance I’ve had to contact you. I apologize that I am unable to come in person. Mother was aware of my visitations for several months before the ball, and I am afraid that, for now, written correspondence will have to suffice. I like to think that I can hear your protests even across the great distance between us, but please do not concern yourself about my well-being. I was punished for my insubordination as I expected, but I am fine now and have no wish to dwell on the past. There are a few things about our future, however, that I would like to discuss.
If you care to continue our correspondence, I believe I have figured out a way to do so. If you set up a small mirror in an out of the way corner or storage space, ensure that it is facing nothing of interest for at least a week and Mother will overlook it as useless. Leave a blue bottle in front of it so I will know it is your intended spot. After two weeks, I will be able to leave messages for you, and if you would like, you may leave messages for me. The mirror should be large enough for me to send or retrieve a scroll through.
Regardless of whether you choose to communicate with me again, please be vigilant in front of mirrors, Emma. My mother watches them; she listens. Nothing of importance should ever be discussed in front of them. I should have stressed that to you sooner, but I feared I would lose your friendship. Perhaps I already have.
Lastly, I fear that we are on the verge of war. I’m not sure how much you’ve learned or realized, but my mother is the Queen of Hearts. She has built herself an army, and one day soon, she plans to take back the throne she views as rightfully hers. Your mother’s throne. I won’t be able to stop her, Emma. She is…powerful.
No matter what happens in the future, I would like for you to know that I treasure the time we spent together. You were the only light in a very dark childhood.
Your friend forever,
Emma sat back after reading the letter three times through. Regina was alive and well, more or less. She painted a dark picture of times to come, and Emma would take a long, hard look around the castle for strategically placed mirrors, but Regina was alive. That was all that mattered, and for the first time in six months, Emma felt like she could breathe.
Watch those headings. First time we are in the EF in the Present.
The Enchanted Forest – The Present
Emma couldn’t breathe. She’d seen the blow coming but had been too late to avoid it. The hammer to her chest had completely unseated her from her horse and sent her flying. She’d landed on the ground. Hard. All air knocked from her lungs, her vision tunneling and her ears ringing as she stared unseeing at the grey sky. She gasped for air, every battle instinct in her body telling her to get up, to move, because whoever or whatever had just knocked her from her horse was coming for her.
Her armor was dented and she barely managed to roll to her side. Blood from a cut above her eye began to roll down her face as she looked up. Her executioner was lumbering towards her; his unsteady gait identifying him as one of the mobilized undead. She planted a hand on the ground to push herself up but fell back in the churned-up earth when her wrist buckled painfully. Using her elbows instead, Emma got her face out of the dirt in time to see the hammer swing, clearing two soldiers from the undead’s path.
She tried again to get up only to fall with a groan, her body battered beyond a quick retreat. Blood dripped into her eye and she closed it. She would meet death with her eyes open but for just a second, for just one second, she wanted to picture her wife one last time. She imagined Regina, resplendent in her wedding gown, a warm smile on her face as they danced happily and carefree. Emma pulled her into her arms, holding her safe and warm. It was how she always thought of Regina. She thought of the stone sewn into her bracer and whispered, “I love you, Regina.”
The sounds of the battlefield roared back as Emma opened her eyes. The filthy, muddy boots of the behemoth stood beside her head. She glared up at him. “Cora will hate that she wasn’t the one to kill me.”
He raised the war hammer over his head, preparing to bring it down in a smashing blow when a blur of fur and fangs leapt over Emma, spearing headfirst into her attacker. Two more flashes of fur joined the first and the undead fell to the trio of young wolves.
“Please, your Majesty, come with me,” a young voice sounded beside Emma, pulling on her, urging her to get up. “This is no place to die.”
Emma blinked blankly at her unlikely rescuer. The young female wolf known as Inara was in her human form and was desperately trying to get the queen up from the ground. Emma looked back over her shoulder and knew the other three wolves were Inara’s brothers. Ruby had asked Emma to keep an eye on the orphaned siblings and now they were the ones saving her. She chuckled gravely and accepted Inara’s help to her feet. The girl immediately moved to prop her up when she swayed.
“Where’s my sword?”
Inara looked around without removing her support. “There, your Majesty,” she pointed a few feet away, “I see it.”
“Get it for me,” she said, exhaustion weighing heavy on her. “This battle may be won, but I can’t put it down just yet.”
Inara was incredibly conflicted between following orders and keeping her queen upright. She hesitated until her brothers trotted over, maws covered in gore, to stand beside the blonde queen. Emma gave her an encouraging nod as she felt the warm weight of the wolves leaning against her legs, supporting her.
“Well done, boys,” she patted the closest one on the head. If wolves could look pleased with themselves, the three younglings certainly did. “And you, Inara.” She accepted her sword and turned it point down to the dirt. Walking under her own power, even with a sword propping her up, would appear better than leaning on children. “Well, let’s get me back to my tent.”
Inara quickly shifted and the pack of four wolves surrounded their queen, escorting her across the battlefield.
“What in the name of Oz happened to you?” Maleficent hissed hours later when she entered the tent. The young wolf at the foot of Emma’s cot got to his feet and growled at the sorceress.
“You’ve been hanging around Zelena too much,” Emma said tiredly, propped up on pillows.
The tide of battle against Cora had begun to turn when the Great and Powerful Witch from Oz had joined their fight. Her true motives for lending aid remained murky, but Emma hadn’t been able to turn away an ally with such power.
“If you keep growling at me, I’ll turn you into a stuffed puppy and give you to the village children,” Mal snapped, attempting to shoo away the wolf. The wolf didn’t back down, flattening his ears as his lips pulled back showing fangs.
Emma chuckled then groaned. “Easy, Cayden.” She motioned with her hand. “You can let her by.”
The silver and black wolf gave his queen some serious side-eye before backing away and settling again near the foot of the bed. Maleficent raised a brow when he huffed in displeasure. “If you plan on being part of the royal entourage, wolf, you’re going to have to learn to check your emotions.”
“You’re one to talk,” Emma said to Mal. She also noticed how the wolf had cocked his head to the side in interest. She supposed she already knew she had a retinue of wolves now. She sighed and winced. “Can we skip the lecture and get to the healing? I’d really like to take a proper breath before tomorrow.”
Mal raised her hands over Emma’s body and let her magic seek out the blonde’s injuries. “It isn’t healthy to keep doing this, you know. The healing will continue to become less effective.”
“I know.” Emma closed her eyes as she felt the warmth of the dragon’s magic wrap around multiple bones, seeping in and healing fractures. “What’s our status?”
“We won and Cora is on the run with very few forces left to her.” She passed her hand slowly over Emma’s brow, healing the deep cut above her eye. It would leave a scar. “Zelena has her monkeys harassing her as she flees.”
Emma struggled to keep her eyes open; she was exhausted, but she could finally breathe properly again. That bastard’s hammer had broken at least four ribs. “We need to finish this before she finds another village to turn into…zombies.”
“She won’t,” Maleficent said, sending a small wave of healing towards the wolf as well. “It’s why we chased her this direction.”
“We can’t underestimate her,” Emma argued. She heard the wolf yip and felt the magic wash over him but knew better than to point out that the dragon was a softie.
“We’ll catch her, and we’ll imprison her,” Mal said confidently. “Then we’ll get Regina back and we’ll strip Cora’s magic from her for good.”
Emma couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer. “We just have to get Regina back.”
“We will, dear girl.” Mal set a light spell over her to ease her sleep. “We will.”
Land Without Magic – Present
“I love you, Regina.”
Roni’s eyes flew open and stared up at the blank ceiling. She clutched a hand to her chest, her fingers wrapping around the simple stone necklace she’d found in her personal effects. “Regina,” she whispered. She’d heard the words so clearly and she knew, she just knew, they had been spoken to her. “My name is Regina.”
Land Without Magic - Present
Ruby heard the rushed footsteps in the corridor and was already on her feet by the time there was knocking on her door. She knew it was Regina before she opened the door, but she was still surprised to see the brunette standing there in the middle of the night. It wasn’t exactly policy for the clients to be in the employees’ living area. “Reg-Roni, what is it? What’s the matter?”
Brown eyes were blown wide as Regina pushed into Ruby’s room. “I remember,” she said, a bit breathlessly, her hand tapping against her chest. “My name is Regina.” She paced around the small space. “It was clear as day. I heard someone say it, and I just knew. I knew that was my name. Regina.”
Ruby blinked then recovered. “That’s amazing! It’s fantastic.” She grasped Regina’s hands in her own, almost pulling the woman into a hug before she remembered herself. “Is that…do you remember anything else?”
“No!” Regina waved off the question as though it was unimportant. “But I heard her. I heard a woman say my name.” She was beaming. “She said she loved me. Someone out there loves me, Ruby. Me!”
Ruby couldn’t help the watery smile on her face. “Of course, someone loves you, Regina.” Her heart felt like it broke a little. They were so close yet so far. “I could’ve told you that.” She sniffed. “I mean, what’s not to love?”
Regina scoffed but color tinted her cheeks as she looked down, tucking her hair behind her ear. “Then where are they, Ruby?” She looked up and the joy in her eyes from moments earlier was draining away into doubt. “What happened to me? I mean, I’ve been here eight months and no one has come looking for me.”
“You don’t know that,” Ruby argued. She was living proof that someone had come looking for the missing queen. “I’m sure there is someone out there right now, fighting tooth and nail to find you.” Her eyes strayed towards the magic mirror. She’d been up waiting for Emma to call; the calls usually weren’t quite this late. “You just haven’t been easy to find up until now. At least now we can put out the information with your name.”
Fear flashed in dark eyes and Regina stepped back. “But what if,” she shook her head, taking another step back, “what if the person that did this to me, finds me? What if they’re looking for me?”
How in the hell was Ruby supposed to argue against that? The injuries Regina had sustained had come from her mother of all people and her mother had come looking for her. She wasn’t likely to again as Emma chased her across a completely different realm, but she also couldn’t tell Regina any of that. “We won’t let anyone hurt you, Regina. The center will be very careful about anyone claiming they know you. And the detectives I’m sure would want to have a chat with anyone that showed up. You know they’ve been worried about you.”
“They’re worried that whatever psycho had me trussed up like a princess is holding someone else.”
Ruby swallowed hard to not laugh. In the other world, Regina had gone through more than a few tailors to get her and Emma’s wedding attire just so. “It was a beautiful gown.”
Regina’s eyes narrowed at her. Ruby was prepared to lie and say she saw pictures of it when Regina flicked her hand. “Not the point.”
Ruby smirked. Even in this land, Regina had liked the finery. She was about to make a comment when she saw the pale blue light of the mirror begin to shimmer into existence. She threw her arms up in a stretch and yawned loudly. “Wow, look at the time!” She heard Emma’s voice, muffled somewhat by her comforter. “And you know, hey, you aren’t really supposed to be in here!”
Regina frowned and glanced around the room. “Did I just hear-?”
“Online poker game!” Ruby said, throwing her arm around Regina’s shoulders, guiding her towards the door. “On my phone! I was playing when you stopped by.”
“At three in the morning?”
Ruby shrugged and filled the door frame with her body as much as possible. “But you know, look, I am so happy for you. I truly am. Try to get some sleep and maybe you’ll remember even more tomorrow.”
Regina’s eyes narrowed. “You’re acting very strange, Ms Lucas.”
“Too much caffeine,” she said quickly. “But seriously, we’ll talk more tomorrow, yeah?”
Regina looked past Ruby’s shoulder before finally nodding. “Of course,” she said. “Good night, Ms Lucas.”
Ruby gave her a big smile. “Good night, Regina.”
The queen smiled at her name and turned down the hall. Ruby watched her go before quietly closing her door and rushing over to the bed where the mirror lay. She snatched it up. “Emma!”
The blonde appeared in the mirror’s reflection; her green eyes watery. “Was that… You called her-”
Ruby relaxed that she hadn’t missed the call completely. “Impeccable timing, your majesty.” Then she grinned. “Yeah, that was her. And yes, Regina remembered her name. Just her name though,” she said, not wanting the blonde to get too excited. “It’s why I rushed her out. I couldn’t exactly explain a glowing, magical mirror to her.” She peered closer at the mirror’s surface. “Emma, what happened to your face?”
The queen appeared exhausted and there was a new scar above her eye. She grimaced as she shifted her weight. “Nothing-”
“Nothing my scales,” Mal said from somewhere behind the queen. “She tried to get herself killed again is what she did. If it wasn’t for those pups of yours…”
Ruby chose to push past her concern that Emma was still fighting on the front since she knew it wouldn’t do any good to mention it. Again. That didn’t mean her queen didn’t earn a little ribbing. “You got saved by pups?”
The blonde scowled. “Yes.”
Ruby beamed. “Tell them I’m proud.” She heard a yip from behind Emma and realized, at least one of the pups was in Emma’s tent. She raised a brow in question.
Emma sighed and admitted, “They’re taking turns keeping guard over me.” She gave Ruby a tired grin. “They make great feet warmers.”
Ruby heard the answering growl and laughed. Sobering, she asked, “How’s it going?”
“We’re going to give it a couple of days, let my magic build back up, then if everything goes according to plan,” Emma eyed her, “we’ll finish this.”
“And Zelena?” Ruby asked. She didn’t exactly trust the incredibly convenient timing of the witch showing up just when they needed her.
“We’ll keep an eye on her,” Emma said, silently agreeing. She looked over her shoulder. “Her and Mal have become great drinking buddies.”
“No one can outdrink a dragon,” Mal claimed.
“They ran three different pubs dry,” Emma told her godmother. “They’re a menace.”
“And she’s definitely hiding something,” Mal said, appearing in the background. “I don’t get the feeling that it is malevolent towards us, but there is definitely something there.”
“And she definitely has a history of some sort with Cora,” Emma added.
“Do you think she has a history with Regina?” Ruby asked.
The blonde queen shook her head. “She claims she’s aware of her but never met her.”
“Are you still planning to come here alone?”
Emma nodded. “Once we have Cora secured and stewing in the dungeon, I’ll be there.”
“Make it quick,” Ruby said. “I overheard the administrator of this place talking, and they’ve got a job placement for Regina lined up. She’s not going to be here much longer.”
The Enchanted Forest – The Past
Regina stepped through the mirror and inhaled slowly, capturing the scent of Emma’s room, creating a sense of nostalgia for herself. The mirror was able to show her much the past three years, but she could only watch from afar. The light breezy scent of fresh grass mixed with a hint of vanilla was the smell that filled her childhood memories of summer nights spent playing chess on the balcony with Emma. She could practically hear the blonde humming as she’d consider her next move. Their written correspondence was better than nothing, but oh, how she’d missed her friend.
Her boot heels clicked against the stone floor as she slowly made her way around the room. She’d managed a few views of the room over the years, but unless she was actively using it, Emma always kept the mirror turned towards the wall. Regina had smirked at her cleverness whenever Cora had complained about it. More than one strategically placed mirror around the castle had been broken as well by an allegedly clumsy princess.
Regina had managed to catch glimpses of Emma. She’d seen the blonde growing stronger and taller, her hair getting longer until it cascaded down her back. Emma had written and told her all about her training to one day become a knight despite her mother’s objections. Regina heard about the many suitors Snow had arranged for her daughter only to be disappointed time and again when Emma showed no interest. She’d also heard Cora’s snide remarks about the blonde princess finally being taught proper protocol for a royal. Regina had written and asked Emma about it. The blonde admitted that since she would one day be expected to rule the kingdom, she had started to learn how, much to Snow’s delight.
In exchange, Regina had told Emma…well, never quite the truth. She’d always refrained from being completely honest about how horrible her life was. She’d told Emma that Cora was forcing her to learn dark magic; she never mentioned her mother’s teaching methods and how cruel they were. She told Emma that she was becoming quite powerful with her magic; she didn’t admit how much she enjoyed it or how much it frightened her. It was enough that Emma knew she was unhappy. Regina suspected her friend knew even more than that but she never pushed. It was difficult to pressure someone to admit their difficulties when all you had between you were written pages. Sometimes you just had to take their word for it when they said they were ‘fine’.
Even when you knew they weren’t.
Regina was reading over the titles on the book case when she heard the clomping of heavily booted feet coming up the stairs. A soft smile graced her lips as she listened and discerned only one person. She was suddenly nervous and turned around just as the door swung open. She watched as Emma struggled to get her sweaty tunic off and over her head as she kicked backwards with her foot to close the door. As the princess grumbled to herself, Regina chuckled.
Emma froze, shirt still half off, one hand dropped to the hilt of a sword at her hip. “Who’s there?”
Regina waited as the tunic was ripped off and watched as emerald green eyes widened at the sight of her. The brunette smiled. “Shush you or you’ll get us in trouble.”
“Regina?” Emma immediately looked towards the full-length mirror. She took a step forward. “You’re really here?”
Regina nodded. “I’m really here.”
Emma let out a whoop of laughter and rushed across the floor, picking Regina up by the waist and whirling around with her. She laughed harder at Regina’s squawk of indignation and slapping at her shoulders.
“You’re sweaty!” Regina complained with a smile.
“You’re here,” Emma repeated, stepping back but not releasing Regina. She looked the brunette up and down. “And holy hell, you grew up.” Her face reddened as she took in the black leather pants, thigh high boots, and blood red corseted top with matching jacket. “I mean…you look good. Pretty,” she said, finally releasing her friend.
Regina felt heat in her face as well as she got distracted by the well-defined muscle tone of the blonde’s arms. It wasn’t conventional by any standards but she found she liked it. She was reaching a hand out to touch the muscles still swollen from their workout before she realized what she was doing. Her fingers barely grazed the tanned skin before she pulled herself back.
Emma laughed. “You like that?” She pulled up her damp undershirt and showed off a rippled abdomen. “Check this out.”
Regina had never seen anything like it. Well, that wasn’t true. She’d secretly watched knights of her mother’s black guard train occasionally without their shirts on. Some of them were very fit, but to see muscles like that on a woman. Emma’s skin was hot to the touch; Regina quickly stepped back when she realized she’d run her hand over the toned area. She cleared her throat. “That’s…that’s…how did you do that?”
Emma laughed and pulled her shirt back down. “Training to be the best knight in the realm is a lot of hard work.” She smirked. “Snow hates it.”
Regina frowned. “Why?”
“She keeps going on and on about how I should be thin but smooth. No man wants to feel weaker than their wife.” She rolled her eyes. “You’d think after I turned down five hundred male suitors, she’d figure out I like women.” She was gathering up a bundle of clothes and failed to see the way Regina reached for the book shelf to keep herself upright at the casual declaration. “Hey, can you stay? I mean, do I have time to bathe real quick?”
“Please do,” Regina choked out, still shocked with how flippant the blonde had been about her sexual preferences. That was not the sort of thing royals discussed openly…or so she’d been taught. “I mean, yes, please bathe, I’ll be here.”
“Awesome.” Emma beamed. “I’ll be right back and we can catch up.” She leaned in and gave Regina a quick peck on the cheek as she passed. “I’m really glad you’re here.”
A few hours later, the two young women sat on the balcony, a tray of half eaten snacks between them, glasses of wine held in hand. Conversation had flowed easily, the two friends seemingly picking up where they’d left off.
“Before I forget,” Regina said, reaching into a hidden pocket on her jacket and pulling out a small circular stone. “I made a new set for us.” She handed it to Emma and showed her the similar one she wore on a necklace. “If you want it.”
Emma rubbed her thumb over the smooth surface before clutching her fingers around the stone. She felt it warm in her hand as she thought of Regina. “Of course, I want it.” She opened her eyes. “What happened to your old one?”
Regina looked away. “It got lost. I’m not sure when.”
Emma’s lie detector pinged on the second statement. “Your mother took it, didn’t she?”
“More or less,” Regina admitted, remembering all too vividly the way her mother had magiced her into the clothes of a peasant. She’d never seen the stone after that day. “But let’s not talk about my mother.”
“Where is she, anyway?” Emma asked. “Why were you able to come here tonight?”
Regina toyed with her wine glass. “She’s inspecting the troops on the front line.”
“That’s where my father is, too,” Emma sighed. “Guess the fighting will be starting soon for real.”
“All the pieces are in position.”
The blonde leaned back, staring unseeing up at the night sky. “Mom has this one particular prince that she really wants me to consider marrying. His kingdom has a vast army and having an alliance through marriage would be incredibly beneficial.”
“She won’t force you to marry, will she?” Regina asked, worried for her friend. She knew Cora would make her marry in a heartbeat if it gained the older woman more power. She’d hoped Snow would treat her daughter better.
“Not yet,” Emma said, then slugged back the last of her wine. “I’ve met him. He’s not a bad sort, just boring.” Emma grinned and looked over at Regina. “He is a good kisser though.”
Regina choked on her wine. “What?” she coughed. “But I thought you said…”
“That I’m attracted to women?” Emma laughed, handing her friend a linen to wipe her mouth. “I am, but there’s no harm in fooling around.”
The brunette was thankful for the shadows of the balcony as she felt her face heat up. She looked out towards the grounds. “I see.”
“You know what I mean, right?” Emma said. “I mean, you’re gorgeous. Surely, you’ve had to turn away suitors, too.”
Regina stiffened. “No, not really.” She glanced at Emma. “When you have a mother like mine, well, I’m sure you can understand that not too many people want to become involved with our family.”
Emma sat up, swinging her legs off the lounge chair so she was facing the brunette. “Yeah, but you have kissed before, right?” When Regina looked down, Emma pressed, “Seriously? Not even a little dalliance with a lady’s maid or a stable boy?”
There had been a stable boy that had caught her eye. He’d even winked at her when leading her horse away once. But Regina had known better than to show any sort of feelings towards him. Her mother would destroy anyone that showed loyalty towards Regina over her.
Tucking her hair behind her ear, Regina shook her head. “There’s been no one.”
Emma set her wine glass down and moved over to sit beside the brunette. She hadn’t meant to make her friend feel bad. She’d just been surprised was all. Regina had always been pretty, but during their years apart, she’d grown beautiful. Surely, if she saw it others must also. It was yet another strike against Cora.
But, at least, this one thing was something Emma could help with. She shifted on the chaise, turning her body so she was angled more towards Regina. She gently placed two fingers under her friend’s chin and turned her towards her. The watery brown eyes that eventually met hers made her chest ache. Such an innocent face to hide and endure such hardship.
Regina was confused. The thumb gently stroking along her jaw was oddly comforting; she couldn’t remember anyone having ever touched her with such reverence before. Her breath caught in her throat as Emma’s gaze seemed to darken before flicking down to her mouth and back up. As the blonde drew closer to her, she blinked. “Emma?”
“I want to kiss you, Regina,” Emma said, her lips twisted into a grin as she moved closer. She didn’t think she’d ever once seen her friend looking so flustered. “Is that okay?”
Regina thought her heart was going to pound out of her chest as she saw the tip of the blonde’s tongue sneak out, moistening lips. “Uhm…uh, o-okay.”
She didn’t have time to reconsider as Emma closed the distance between them as soon as she gave consent. Warm lips pressed over hers, gently holding as Emma’s callused hands cupped her face, her fingertips stroking the sensitive skin beneath Regina’s ears. Warmth pounded in Regina’s chest and she gasped, bringing her hand up to Emma’s chest. Eyes flew open, green holding concern while brown grew in amazement.
“Did you feel that?” Regina whispered.
“Yeah,” Emma chuckled, leaning in to try again.
Regina held her off. She was out of breath and her stomach felt like it had pixies dancing in it, but she knew what she had felt was something more than just the kiss. “It was magic.”
Emma rolled her eyes with a smirk. “It was your first kiss, Regina.”
“No, idiot,” Regina said, drumming her fingers against Emma’s chest. “You have magic.”
The blonde frowned and pulled back a little. “What?”
“Close your eyes.”
Regina sighed, exasperated. “Just do it, please. Trust me.” When Emma nodded and complied, Regina concentrated on the warm lick of magic she’d felt during the kiss. She felt it again beneath the palm of her hand where it rested over Emma’s heart. “You feel that?”
Emma hesitated, then opened her eyes and looked down. “Yeah. That’s…magic?”
“It’s yours.” Regina gave her a warm, open smile. The kind she only showed during her most comfortable moments.
Emma placed her hand over Regina’s, the warmth grew as though greeting her. “But how?”
The young sorceress shrugged. “According to the stories, you are the product of true love. Maybe it came from that.”
“But,” she swallowed thickly, “I’ve only ever felt that around you.”
Emma nodded. “I just thought it was your magic.”
Regina chuckled and let their hands drop to Emma’s lap. “In a way, it might have been,” she said. “Your magic was reaching out to mine all this time. Maybe that’s why I always felt safe with you.”
“My magic makes you feel safe? I like that.” She smiled softly then ducked her head. “So, uh, was the magic the only thing you felt when I kissed you?”
“I’m not sure,” Regina said, giving the blonde a smile back. “Perhaps you should kiss me again so I can compare.”
Land Without Magic – Present
Regina woke minutes before her alarm. She knew that sort of thing bothered some people, but she rather preferred the natural waking over being jarred awake by an obnoxious noise. She definitely preferred it to waking abruptly from a nightmare which continued to happen once or twice a week.
Since the dreams had begun, she’d been trying to narrow down triggers but so far hadn’t had any luck. Some days she worked hard all day and slept hard; some days she worked hard all day and the dreams were upon her as soon as her head hit the pillow. She’d tried having multiple drinks before bed versus having no alcohol. She tried reading or watching tv, she tried different foods, and she even tried some audiobooks. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason for the nights when dreams would plague her sleep. She feared it was as Tony, the grandfatherly ranch hand, suggested.
She didn’t want the dreams to stop.
Dreams of castles and ballroom dances, lazy afternoons with games of chess, long conversations with someone she couldn’t quite see. That’s usually how the dreams started. But then, at some point, they would twist into darkness. Bodies strewn across battlefields, blood staining her hands, a dark suffocating presence squeezing her heart until it shattered into dust. Feeling her heart being ripped from her chest was usually what brought her awake, gasping for breath; then she’d spend hours trying to reconcile the fantastical nature of her dreams and how in the hell that had anything to do with what had happened to her.
At the first beep of her alarm, Regina silenced it quickly and threw off her covers. The apartment’s wooden floor creaked beneath her feet the way it did every morning, and she heard her automatic coffeemaker click on as she headed for the bathroom. The coffeemaker had been one of her small indulgences or necessities as she liked to think of it. Thankfully, the apartment over the garage had come furnished and slowly but surely over the last two months, Regina had started adding some of her own touches to the decorations. The coffeemaker had been one and the shelf was filling up nicely with books as she read through them.
Finishing her morning ablutions, she filled her Yeti with coffee, pulled on her boots that were lined up neatly by the door, tucked her work gloves in her back pocket, and closed the door behind her. It was exactly 4:45 AM as she walked across the main part of the ranch towards the stables. She took pride in her punctuality and knew the only person that would be there before her was Tony. She’d tried the first two weeks she worked at the ranch to arrive before him but she’d quickly worn herself out and deemed it unnecessary. He was quiet in the mornings, too, enjoying his own coffee as they met and silently began their morning chores.
When she reached the stables, Tony nodded at her and they began their morning routine of feeding and watering the horses. In another hour or so, kids from the local high school agricultural program as well as the other farm hands would begin to arrive. They’d muck out the stalls and turnout the horses. Regina and Tony would begin grooming whatever horses would be going out for training or riding in the morning. Once the trainer arrived, Regina would make her way up to the main house and start sorting through the daily office work of bills, ledgers, and general accounting. It had taken her over a month to settle in, but she found she was enjoying the consistent but flexible schedule the ranch offered her.
The Crooked Crow Ranch or CCR as the locals called it had been Regina’s home since she left the retreat. CCR supplied the horses, handlers, and training that were provided at the retreat. Regina’s constant presence at the retreat’s stables had given her an unintentional connection with the owners of CCR. When their assistant manager had gotten married and moved away, they’d offered Regina her position which also came with living quarters. Regina and her counselors at the retreat had agreed that she was healthy, competent, and ready to get on with her life.
With or without memories, Regina was an independent soul. Luckily, she also had the bank account to support that independence. Most of the jewelry she’d been wearing when she was found had been worth quite a ridiculous amount. Even after her hospital bills and recovery at the retreat, Regina knew she could move anywhere and be comfortable, but for now, the ranch suited her. Leaving the retreat had not bothered her, despite everything she felt no real connections there save one – Ruby.
It had been difficult for reasons Regina couldn’t articulate to say goodbye to the younger woman. Ruby had taken it all in stride, assuring Regina they’d meet again. Regina had taken an odd comfort in Ruby’s confidence. Then, a week later, when she’d had a check-in call with her counselor, Regina learned Ruby had left the retreat. No one had seen or heard from the young instructor since and Regina found that to be disconcerting.
When eight AM rolled around and the small handful of morning riders were starting to arrive, Regina waved to Tony as she headed towards the main house. As she crossed the grounds, she studied the northern edge of the property where the grass fields gave way to the forest’s edge. It only took her a minute before she spied the eyes that were closely watching for her. She chuckled and shook her head. She called out, “I see you.”
At her call, the large wolf-like dog that had been crouched down in the weeds, sat up to its full height. Its tongue lolled out as it trotted a little way away from the trees. Regina watched amused as it dropped down onto the grass on its back, all four paws up in the air as it rolled around.
“You’re going to get grass stains on that pretty coat of yours,” Regina said as she continued walking. The dog sneezed in response and stood up, shaking itself out. Regina swore sometimes the dog understood exactly what she was saying.
No one quite knew where the dog had come from only that it had shown up around the same time Regina had. And hadn’t left. It also spent an inordinate amount of time in Regina’s vicinity. Whatever part of the ranch Regina was working in, the wolf was somewhere nearby. She’d even caught it sleeping on her small patio occasionally. Tony swore that it was more than a dog, claiming it was a spirit animal of some sort the way it followed Regina around. The other farmhands were much leerier of it, giving the animal a wide berth. Regina was just relieved the wolf hadn’t bothered any of the ranch’s animals.
“I’ll be in the main house until the afternoon,” Regina said, giving the animal a wave. The wolf’s ears cocked towards her before it looked away down the long driveway. Pausing, Regina followed its gaze, assuming there was another morning rider arriving, but she didn’t see anything. When she looked back towards her unlikely companion, she could’ve sworn the dog grinned at her before loping off back into the woods.
Shaking her head, Regina muttered to herself. “I’ve had worse conversations.”
It was late afternoon before Regina thought again about her four-legged friend. Tony pointed the wolf out, sitting along the far fence that ran beside the creek. “I suppose she’s here to watch the show, too.”
Regina smiled in the wolf’s direction as she leaned against the fence, arms draped over the upper railing. She and Tony were on hand to observe the ranch’s newest trainer work with one of the yearlings. Tony was less than impressed with the new hire and Regina agreed.
“He’s too aggressive,” Regina said quietly.
For several minutes they watched as the trainer pulled and chased the yearling around. After ten minutes, Regina had seen enough. She side-eyed Tony who shook his head. They’d have to speak to the boss. This guy might be good enough for some ranches but not CCR.
“He’s fighting the horse way too much.”
Regina spun around at the unexpected voice behind her. Ever since she’d woken up in the hospital without even knowing her own name, Regina had experienced some strange moments. Turning around and seeing a blonde woman, dressed in some sort of armor and carrying a sword easily topped the list.
Regina blinked at the sound of her boss’ voice. She glanced in his direction and then back to the blonde woman standing next to him. The blonde woman that was wearing perfectly normal clothes consisting of jeans, a white shirt, and a leather jacket. She stood tall and proud beside CCR’s owner, her green gaze locking with Regina’s, emotion burning bright.
Tony nudged Regina’s shoulder and she blinked again. “I’m sorry.” She gave her head a small shake. “What did you say?”
The ranch’s owner, Scott, was looking at her warily. “Are you all right?”
“I was just having a-” she gestured awkwardly with her hand. “I’m fine. You were saying?”
Scott gave her another look then said, “I was trying to introduce you to Emma Swan.”
“Hi,” Emma said, then offered Regina her hand. “Nice to meet you.”
When Regina didn’t immediately move, Tony stepped forward and accepted Emma’s handshake, bumping Regina as he stepped back. It jarred her enough that she regained her senses again and offered her hand to Emma. “Regina...Mills.”
Scott’s head snapped around to stare at her. “Mills?”
Regina was just as surprised as he was. Up until the moment she’d said it, she’d been going with the last name Smith. “Uhm, uh yeah,” she chuckled, glanced at Tony who smiled at her, and nodded serenely. “Yes, I think so,” she chuckled again. “Mills. Regina Mills.”
Emma’s head tilted a bit and she quirked a grin. “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms Mills.”
The blonde offered her hand and Regina clumsily took it. The overwhelming sense of oddness, the fluttering in her belly, and the immediate distraction she felt every time she locked eyes with the blonde was causing Regina to feel like a complete imbecile. The callused hand held comfortably within her own, the emerald green eyes that hinted at mischief, and the half smile aimed at her were making it impossible for Regina to retain a single coherent thought. And yet, she had the sense that she never wanted to look away.
And why in the hell were they still shaking hands?
Regina glanced down at their joined hands. They weren’t actually shaking anymore, simply holding onto each other. Why hadn’t the woman pulled away? “Do we-?” Regina started then stopped herself. “Have we met before?”
Emma’s green gaze held hers as she answered, “Not in this world, I’m afraid.”
Regina frowned at the answer, their hands reluctantly releasing as Scott stepped forward. “Emma here, owns a ranch in New Zealand. She’s here for a few weeks to help out and observe, learn how we run our ranch.” He looked between the two women. “Regina, I thought she could shadow you and Tony. Let her get a real sense of how this place works. What do you think?”
Regina had been staring, only half listening, but found herself nodding. “Of course.”
She had no idea what she’d just agreed to but Scott and Emma both seemed happy with her answer.
“Excellent,” Scott said, clapping Emma on the shoulder. “I’ll leave you in Regina’s capable hands then. Tony, why don’t you and I go save our yearling.”
As Tony and Scott moved off, calling over the inept trainer, Regina found herself suddenly alone with the blonde woman. She folded her arms over her midsection and watched as Emma tucked her hands into the back pockets of her jeans.
Emma ducked her head and scuffed her boot against the ground. “So, uh, what now?”
Regina had no idea.
Check that heading...
Land Without Magic – Present or Very Recent Past
(12 hours before Emma reunited with Regina)
Ruby stood, leaning against the car, working a toothpick between her teeth. Spending the majority of her time as a wolf for the last two months had not been great for her dental hygiene. Emma had claimed they would finish Cora off within a week; she’d assured Ruby that she wouldn’t have to stay as a wolf escort to Regina for long. Clearly, things had not gone as planned.
It was three AM when the amulet in Ruby’s hand finally began to warm. She quickly tossed it into the field beside where she was parked. Emma was using locator magic to portal to Ruby’s location and the wolf did not need her portaling right on top of her car. Ruby flicked away her toothpick and sighed with relief as a tired but ultimately unharmed Emma stepped through.
“Took you long enough,” Ruby complained, grinning as she strode forward and wrapped her goddaughter in a huge hug.
“Hey Rubes,” Emma said tiredly, returning the hug just as fiercely. It had been almost a year since Ruby had left on her quest to find Regina. Emma couldn’t think of a time in her life that she’d gone that long without seeing her godmother, magic mirrors not counting.
Ruby held the blonde at arm’s length and gave her a good, long once-over. There were a couple of new scars on her hands and face and a fatigued slump to her shoulders but mostly she looked good for a year of fighting zombies and a heartless witch. So, for good measure, Ruby punched her in the arm. “What the hell happened?”
“Ow!” Emma grabbed her shoulder.
“Oh please, you big baby,” Ruby said, bending down to retrieve the locator amulet from the tall grass.
Emma frowned at her then looked around at the moon lit field. “Where are we?”
“A remote location,” Ruby shrugged and started to walk towards the car. “I didn’t want to scare any locals with a magical light show. Come on,” she waved Emma over, “we can talk while I drive you into town.”
Emma couldn’t help but grin as she settled into the passenger seat. She’d always wanted to ride in one of the cars she’d seen so often in the mirror. Thinking of her childhood with Regina and how they spent hours watching the Land Without Magic reminded her why she was there. “How is she?”
“She’s doing really well,” Ruby said, a soft smile on her face. Emma nodded, her fingers playing over a button on the door handle. Ruby smirked at her fidgeting. “That button lowers the window.”
Emma had to push the button. The window slid down allowing in a blast of cool night air. She pushed the button beside it and saw a small stick on the door pop-up. She looked over at Ruby.
“Door locks,” Ruby explained. She pulled the car off the dirt road and onto the county highway. “You know those are the kinds of things you’re going to have to act like you are familiar with. I told these people you were from New Zealand not Mars.”
“Another planet,” Ruby said, shaking her head. She was beginning to doubt this was going to work. “Never mind. Just use your royal persona. The one that pretends you know everything and nothing is a surprise.”
Emma nodded and dropped her hands back into her lap. “Is Regina happy?”
“Happy?” Ruby considered it, then shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. She’s not sad or anything, but she knows she’s missing stuff in her head. I think if she stayed here that would always bother her.” Ruby looked out at the darkened road. “If you thought her walls were high before…”
“She never had walls with me,” Emma said quietly. “She said she felt safe with me.”
“Let’s hope that still holds true,” Ruby said. After a few minutes of dark road passing beneath the car, she asked, “You sure you want to do it this way?”
“The hard way,” Ruby said. “I mean, we could just take her back, magic potion her, and be done with it.”
Emma immediately shook her head. “No. The only full-proof way to break Cora’s spell is true love and that will never happen if Regina doesn’t trust me. Kidnapping her, taking her somewhere against her will, does not engender trust.” She stared out the window. “Besides, she’s had her choice taken away from her enough. I won’t do that to her.”
Ruby’s fingers drummed against the steering wheel. It’s not that she disagreed; she just wasn’t sure how much time they had to establish a relationship built on trust. “What does Mal say?”
“Mal thinks the containment spell on Cora’s cell will hold for a couple of weeks. It would have been stronger with Zelena’s help, but she refused to add her blood to the spell.”
Emma shook her head. “Who knows?”
“But we still trust her?” Ruby asked.
“She found Cora,” Emma said. “After that final battle, Cora went to ground. She disappeared. I mean, nothing, no trace of her. No magic, nothing. We searched for weeks.” It went against everything Cora had ever done. She always used magic and she always wanted the attention. “Zelena claimed one night that she’d found a locator spell that could find Cora, and it did. Cora was hiding out in a cabin in the woods; she was even wearing a cuff of some sort that cloaked her magic.”
“But Zelena was still suddenly able to find her?” Ruby side-eyed her.
“Somehow,” Emma admitted. “And don’t give me that look. Of course, I find it suspicious.”
“As long as we’re on the same page.”
Emma rolled her eyes. “Mal is keeping a close eye on her.”
“We’ll just have to trust Mal,” Ruby said as she pulled the car into a motel parking lot, “because starting tomorrow, you’re going to have more important things to worry about.”
Emma peered out through the windshield. “Is this…it?” She frowned. “Is Regina staying here?”
Ruby laughed. “No, this is just where you’re staying for a few hours. Get some sleep, get cleaned up.” The wolf got out of the car, grabbed a bag from the back seat, and walked toward one of the rooms. “Come on, I’ll show you the basics.”
Emma slowly followed Ruby into the small room. It was clean and the bed looked comfortable enough. She moved towards the sink and turned on one of the faucets. “I have always wanted to try a shower.”
Ruby huffed out a laugh, then dropped the duffel bag on the bed. “I got you some clothes. I’m sure you can figure them out.” She put the key on the dresser along with some money. “I’m going to go check on Regina. Once she goes in to the office in the morning, I’ll be back to pick you up. We’ll get some breakfast and then I’ll take you to the ranch in the afternoon.”
Emma dropped down onto the bed. “I wish I could see her now.” She looked up at her godmother. “It’s killing me that she’s so close and I have to wait.”
“Just a few more hours.” Ruby dropped her hand on the blonde’s shoulder. “Hey, after a year of searching, it’s almost time.”
Emma nodded, wiped a quick hand over her cheek. “Almost.”
Definitely some violence in this chapter
The Enchanted Forest – The Past
“Well, if that’s not a great place for an ambush, I don’t know what is.”
Emma side-eyed the knight beside her as she reined in her horse. They stood at the edge of the forest looking out across a rolling field that gradually deepened into a valley trail snug between two foothills. From their vantage point, they couldn’t see the end of valley. Emma scrubbed a hand over her face. Strategically speaking, it was an awful route, practically indefensible. Logistically, it was the fastest route for her father’s army to traverse if they wanted to successfully flank Cora’s army.
“Princess,” Gavin began from beside her, “Please, tell me-”
“Don’t call me that,” Emma grunted. They’d had this discussion many times and she hated the title; she also pointed out that using it identified her as royalty to any enemy soldiers that may be nearby.
“Apologies,” Gavin, her second-in-command said, not sounding at all apologetic, “Captain, we can’t go down there.”
Emma shifted in her saddle to glare at him. “Gavin, we are the scouting party. It is our job to go down there.” The twenty or so men and women she had riding with her were far enough back that they couldn’t overhear their commanders. She lowered her voice regardless, “No matter how dangerous or stupid it is.”
Gavin held up a hand. “Let me rephrase. You can’t go down there.” He rushed on when she looked ready to knock him from his horse. “Don’t go first. Send three riders ahead. Let them spring any traps that may be waiting for us.”
“A scouting party for the scouting party?” Emma didn’t like the idea but reluctantly agreed. “All right, ask for three volunteers.” The entire scouting party was made of volunteers. “Pick the best riders.”
Gavin nodded and turned his horse away, leaving Emma with a moment to herself. She scanned the field and even tried to use her magic to discern if anything was amiss. She felt nothing aside from her own battle-honed instincts that were uncomfortable with the seemingly serene landscape. She had to admit, if it wasn’t for the ever-present threat of death, it would be a beautiful area.
Gavin returned with three riders by his side. “Captain.”
She glanced over the three riders - Tristin, Myrcel, and Christopher. Myrcel and Christopher didn’t surprise her, they were easily the most skilled riders in the group. Emma cocked her eyebrow at Gavin. The older man shrugged, knowing exactly what she was asking. “He’s our best mounted archer. They might need the distance if they run into trouble.”
That was true. She turned back to the riders. “Gavin briefed you?” All three nodded. “All right, move carefully, scout it out, report back.” She clasped her fist to her chest and they returned the salute before turning and riding off.
“I’ll keep watch, Gavin,” she said, dismissing him from her side for a short while.
“As you say,” he said, understanding his commander wanted a few minutes alone.
Emma listened with half an ear as he rejoined the rest of their group, gave them directions to briefly rest, eat something small if they had it. She kept an unfocused eye on her three riders as they crossed the field. She heaved a heavy sigh and dismounted to stretch her legs; her neck popped in multiple places as she rolled her head side-to-side.
The war had been going on for five years. Bards and poets spun tales about the fight between the Light and the Dark, the Evil Queen of Hearts versus Snow White and her Charming king. There were also plenty of stories about the champions of Light and Dark, Emma the White Swan, Savior of the Enchanted Forest, and her counterpart The Black Knight. They’d yet to actually meet each other on the battlefield but their exploits were well documented and embellished. At least, Emma hoped his feats were embellished as much as hers had been.
The Black Knight was supposed to be a mountain of a man so large he could not be killed by any simple blade. Every battle he’d been in had seen large casualties on Snow White’s side. It was also rumored that he liked to eat the hearts of his victims, tearing at least one out at every battle and biting into it like an apple. The Dark side really had a thing for hearts.
Emma was a much more skilled fighter. Her years of training had gifted her with strength, agility, and skill. She was one of her father’s top three swordsmen, and she also had a surprising amount of magic. It had only been five years since she’d learned she had magic and her training with it had been sporadic due to the war starting. She mostly used it instinctually to protect herself and others, but Blue had been able to teach her a few offensive spells. Emma always wondered how much she should have been able to do with her magic if she’d been properly trained. If she’d been raised using it like Regina had.
Regina. She was never far from Emma’s thoughts despite having not seen or heard from her friend since that night five years ago. They’d spent that entire night hanging out, trading occasional kisses, sharing secrets and concerns. Then when morning had dawned, Regina had kissed her once more and walked back through the mirror. Regina had been optimistic that with the war starting, her mother would be busier and more distracted, giving Regina more time to visit Emma.
It hadn’t worked out that way. A week later Emma had found the mirror, where they usually left written correspondence for each other, shattered. The shards of mirror had been scattered across the floor as though they had been blown out. The more time passed, the more Emma worried for Regina’s well-being, but there was little she could do for her friend until the war was over. And then only if the Light won, which Emma wasn’t quite so sure was a certain thing anymore.
The first three years of the conflict had been brutal but evenly matched with both sides taking heavy losses in each encounter. In the fourth year, Cora changed tactics and the power dynamic shifted. Maleficent, a powerful sorceress and dragon, allied herself with Cora. With the sorceress at her side, the heavy use of magic spells and dragon fire began to sweep across battles. Even when the Light side won a battle, they’d lose hundreds to injuries and maladies. Charming almost lost his arm to a simple scratch, and that’s when they realized Cora was also using poisons against them. Then there were strange incidents like an entire company disappearing during the night or half the fleet of ships protecting their harbors would run afoul with their crews either mysteriously dead or missing.
And in all that time, the daughter of the Queen of Hearts, the heir apparent to the Dark, had not been seen or heard. It was rumored that Cora kept her locked away in their castle to keep her safe. No one really cared except Emma. Emma could believe Cora had locked Regina away, but she doubted keeping her safe had anything to do with it.
“You should rest,” Gavin said quietly, reappearing at Emma’s side. He offered her a canteen of water and a dried piece of meat. “It will be, at least, an hour before they return.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to admonish him, but she was exhausted. Their scouting trip had been non-stop for the past four days. Silently, she handed her horse’s reins to him, gave him a smile for the food, and walked over to the closest tree and sat down. Leaning her head back against it, she allowed her eyes to close and hoped that wherever Regina was, she wasn’t suffering.
Emma jolted awake, her hand tightening on the hilt of her sword. She blinked up at Gavin who had clearly woken her and then smartly stepped back. “What?” She rubbed her face. “Are they back?”
He pointed out towards the field. “Myrcel approaches.”
“Just Myrcel?” Emma scrambled up to her feet, seeing for herself the single rider. She glanced over her shoulder at the rest of their group. “Ready yourselves for action.”
The rest of the riders began to move, tidying away their things. Emma stood beside Gavin. “This can’t be good.”
Gavin frowned. “She does not appear to be distressed.”
Emma watched the seasoned rider approach and had to agree, but she couldn’t shake the way the small hairs on the back of her neck had stood up. She fetched her mount and checked her weapons as she waited. When Myrcel arrived, the soldier quickly bobbed her head. “The valley is clear, Captain.”
Emma felt her eyebrows crawl up her forehead in surprise.
“Where are Tristin and Christopher?” Gavin asked.
Myrcel looked at the second-in-command, her neck turning stiffly. “Christopher is standing guard at the valley’s end. We did not want anyone to sneak up on the area while I returned.”
“Those were not your orders,” Gavin said flatly. “What about Tristin?”
“He is within shouting distance of Christopher in case there is an ambush,” she said. “He can escape to warn you.”
Gavin glanced at Emma. It wasn’t their usual way of operating, but it made sense. Emma studied Myrcel. An empty feeling tugged at her chest. She knew the older woman to be a feisty part of their camp and a wonderful storyteller. It seemed odd that she wasn’t elaborating on the details of the valley. “Is there anything else to report?”
Myrcel looked at her and blinked; her eyes flat and dull with fatigue. “No, Captain.”
“No signs of the enemy, at all?” Gavin asked.
“What about wild life?” Emma pressed. “Think we’ll be able to find something for dinner that wasn’t dried two months ago?”
Myrcel frowned, hesitated. “I…didn’t see anything.”
Emma shifted in her saddle. It wasn’t exactly a lie and yet it couldn’t be the truth. “That’s disappointing. I wouldn’t have minded a nice mountain goat stew for dinner.” She looked over at Gavin. “Or even some rabbit meat.” She nudged her horse closer to Myrcel’s. “You sure you didn’t see anything?”
“Nothing, Captain.” Myrcel continued to frown. “We should go soon or we’ll lose the light.”
It was only noon, but Emma nodded. “You’re right. You go on ahead. We’ll follow with the rest of the group.”
Myrcel didn’t make any move to leave. “We should travel together.”
“You were given an order, soldier,” Gavin snapped. Myrcel openly glared at him but eventually bobbed her head, wheeling her horse around and back towards the field. He waited until she was out of earshot. “What the hell was that? I’ve never seen Myrcel act like that.” He waved at the foothills. “And I’ve seen at least three damn mountain goats since we’ve been standing here.”
“I don’t know,” Emma said, shaking her head, “but we sure as hell aren’t going through that valley tonight.” She watched Myrcel stop in the field, looking back over her shoulder at them. “We’ll make camp at the beginning of the valley, get our men back, and try crossing through it in the morning.”
Gavin nodded in approval. He signaled for the riders to head out. Riding next to Emma, he said, “And we’ll keep a damn close eye on her tonight.”
As they approached the foothills, leading into the valley, Emma immediately noticed they were steeper than could be seen from a distance. The valley itself was a ridiculous chokepoint that would allow three people, at most, to ride abreast. Her scout group would be able to traverse it easily enough, but moving an army through it would be a kill zone. Her father would have to find another route.
Emma raised her hand up, halting their group. Myrcel had ridden ahead and was out of sight around a bend in the valley floor. “We’ll camp here tonight.”
The riders all briefly hesitated, it was earlier than their usual stopping time, but began to dismount, happy to get a few extra hours out of the saddle. Emma and Gavin met in front of their horses. “Double the guard tonight. Make sure the word spreads that we’re expecting trouble.”
Gavin nodded and moved off to talk to the riders. Emma waited and eventually heard Myrcel returning. The seasoned rider pulled up next to her, a frown on her face as she looked out over the group. “What are you doing?”
“Making camp,” Emma answered easily.
“You can’t do that.”
Emma cocked an eyebrow.
Myrcel backed a few steps away. “You should camp at the other end of the valley, Captain.”
“We’re making camp here,” Emma stated. “Retrieve Christopher and Tristin.” When Myrcel didn’t move, Emma hardened her stance. “Is there a problem, soldier?”
Without another word, Myrcel spun her horse around and rode back into the valley. Emma kept her hand on her sword and stared into the shadowy valley. Eventually, Gavin stood at her side. “I’ll be surprised if she returns with them.”
Emma shook her head. “They’re probably already dead.”
“I would’ve never picked Myrcel as a traitor,” he said sadly.
“I doubt it’s her fault.” Emma rubbed her chest where she usually felt her magic. “I think she’s under an influence of some kind.”
Gavin looked alarmed. “What? Like a spell?”
“Yeah or something,” she said. “I don’t believe her actions were her own.”
Emma chuckled at the unexpected curse; Gavin was generally the epitome of polite manners around her. “Whoever is out there will wait for the cover of darkness and so will we. Have the men set up camp like normal, then once its dark split to both sides of this opening. When they come for us, we’ll pincer them between us.”
It was a good plan and everything happened exactly as they’d intended. If it hadn’t been for the sheer numbers of the enemy, it may have even worked.
Emma’s scouting party of twenty or so riders fought well but were no match for the fifty-man raiding party led by a hooded sorcerer and the Black Knight himself. They advanced on the scout party under a magical concealment making no sound as they approached, giving no warning. Then a blast of magic sent the White riders sprawling as the enemy poured out of the valley. Emma saw two of her riders go down within seconds, then she was too busy in a fight of her own to see much else.
She took out five soldiers before the Black Knight and the hooded sorcerer engaged. Myrcel stood between them; Emma watched as the sorcerer crushed a glowing red heart to dust, and Myrcel fell lifeless to the ground. Instinctively, Emma flung magic at the sorcerer but the Black Knight stepped in front of the blast. The light magic dissipated across his armored chest.
“Enchanted armor,” Gavin breathed heavily, appearing as always at Emma’s side.
The Black Knight laughed and mimed brushing dust off his chest before raising his sword in Emma’s direction. “Time to die, little swan.”
The knight’s voice sounded like a death rattle and Emma couldn’t deny the chill that raced up her spine. She was also incredibly pissed at his arrogance. Gavin elbowed her, readying his sword. “Together.”
She nodded and the two of them engaged the enormous soldier. Gavin’s blade met the knight’s first, a resounding clang renting the air. Emma slashed at his exposed back; she got a backhand to the face for her trouble and stumbled backwards. She shook off the hit and strode forward. The knight planted his foot against Gavin’s chest knocking him backwards. Emma slid in, buckling the knight’s knee before he could move to finish Gavin off. She was on her feet on his other side, bringing her sword up as he spun towards her. When their swords clashed together, Emma felt her arms tremble as she pushed back against his overwhelming strength. He grinned at her, forcing her guard back towards her own face. Then he roared in pain as Gavin plunged a dagger into the knight’s exposed side.
Most men would stagger under such a wound, take a step back, attempt to recover themselves. It’s what Gavin expected and he attempted to press his advantage accordingly. The knight ignored the injury, head butted Emma right on the bridge of her nose, knocking her to her knees, then spun to catch Gavin’s charge. The knight blocked Gavin’s thrust, caught the blade on his gauntlet and ripped the sword from Gavin’s hands. The hilt of the Black Knight’s sword slammed against the side of Gavin’s face, staggering him, slowing him enough that the knight easily lowered his blade and thrust it straight through Gavin’s chest.
“Gavin!!!” Emma yelled, staggering back up to her feet, blood pouring down her face from a broken nose.
The Black Knight turned towards her but she was faster; her sword pierced his side, sliding between his ribs in what should have been a death blow. He yelled in pain and grabbed hold of her hand before she could pull the sword free. He twisted her grip free from the blade, an audible snap of bone as he broke her wrist. White hot pain flared across her, momentarily blinding. Emma felt him grab the front of her armor and then she was flying through the air. Her flight was cut short as her back slammed into the rockface of the foothill. She fell to the ground in a boneless heap.
Gasping for air, Emma pushed herself up to her elbows. Her vision swam and the dancing shadows of soldiers still fighting moved across the rock. She blinked and strained to focus, and then he was there in front of her. The Black Knight grabbed her by the hair and dragged her away from the foothill. She yelled and slapped at his hand. He laughed, ignoring her efforts until a stabbing pain penetrated his elbow and he saw a blade sticking out of his arm.
Emma grinned up at him as he released her. She scrambled backwards, trying to get away but he backhanded her. She fell again into the dirt and then felt herself being forced onto her back, his heavy weight straddling her. She immediately went for his face, her fingers digging for his eyes. He batted her away and she barely got her arms up in time to stop the dagger he had bearing down on her.
It was her own fucking dagger. The one she’d driven into his elbow and now he had it pointed right towards her eye. Emma screamed in pain as he pushed against her broken wrist, the tip of the blade moving inexorably towards her face.
He grinned, showing a row of bloody teeth. “I think I’ll have the heart of a swan for dinner tonight.”
“I hope you choke on it!” she growled, the point of the blade sank into her skin, hitting her cheekbone just beneath her eye, spilling blood.
No one was more surprised than Emma when the pressure against her arms eased and the Black Knight growled before sitting up. “What?!”
Emma lifted her head off the ground and saw the hooded sorcerer facing their direction.
“We need one of them alive.”
“Then use one of those,” the knight growled, getting to his feet. He dragged Emma up with him, shaking her as he spoke.
Emma looked where he was pointing and saw seven of her riders were still alive. They were on their knees, beaten and bloody, surrounded by enemy soldiers, but alive.
“She will be the one to live,” the sorcerer stated.
“Don’t you know who she is?” the Black Knight argued. “She should be the first one we kill. We could take their heir and end their line right here.”
“I have made my decision.”
The knight snarled, his lip curling upwards in defiance. “No.” He swung his fist around, the blade still in his hand, and buried it in Emma’s side.
Emma yelled in agony as she dropped to her knees, her hand moving to cover the wound, fingers fluttering around the blade.
Surprisingly, the Black Knight dropped to his knees beside her, both of his hands grasping at his neck as he choked. Emma was so shocked she forgot about her own pain for a moment and looked up in time to see the sorcerer advancing on the knight, one hand outstretched, magic flowing freely from the fingertips. The sorcerer’s other hand made a twisting motion and Emma gasped as the blade disappeared from her side. The wound wasn’t exactly healed but it wasn’t bleeding out either.
The sorcerer dropped the magic and the knight dropped down to his elbows gasping for breath. When the giant’s black eyes dragged upwards again, the sorcerer said, “Never question me again.”
The knight slowly straightened back up, his breath evening out. He didn’t verbally agree or disagree but got to his feet, leaving Emma on her knees. “What about the rest of them?”
“You know our orders. Leave only one alive,” the sorcerer replied, turning back towards the captured riders. “Make sure she witnesses this.”
The knight grabbed Emma once again by her armor and drug her towards the group, throwing her down on her injured side. She gasped, eyes watering as the blurry figure of the sorcerer began to walk amongst her remaining riders.
“No!” Emma tried to scramble up as soon as the sorcerer pulled out the first rider’s heart and crushed it. “NO!!”
The Black Knight chuckled and forced her to her knees, making Emma watch as the sorcerer moved from one rider to the next, pulling out each rider’s heart and crushing it. The surrounding enemy soldiers laughed and jostled the riders around, forcing them to stay within the ring.
Tears poured down Emma’s face, mixing with blood and running in rivulets as the last of her riders was killed in front of her. The Black knight released her from his hold with a shove and she collapsed down to her elbows. The enemy soldiers moved past her as they departed, laughing and sneering. When it finally quieted down, she looked up and found the sorcerer standing in front of her, waiting. Emma sat back on her heels, completely defeated.
“Go home, Princess,” the sorcerer said. “Tell them what you witnessed here. Tell them it will be the fate of anyone who stands against Cora, the rightful queen.”
“Why don’t you just kill me?” Emma growled, then spit a glob of blood and saliva at the sorcerer’s feet.
“Because you have to live, Emma. For the sake of all of us.”
Emma frowned at the whispered reply; certain she hadn’t heard it correctly. “What?”
“All the pieces are in position. She knows your every move.”
The pounding in her head was making it hard for Emma to concentrate. “Wait. What did you just say?”
The flickering light of a discarded torch briefly highlighted the face beneath the hood when the sorcerer moved closer. The facial features were slight, feminine, and Emma thought she could just make out a scar above the woman’s upper lip. “Who are you?”
Heavy, booted footsteps sounded behind Emma and the sorceress straightened, concealed once again in shadows. The Black Knight said, “It’s time to go.”
The sorceress nodded and walked past Emma without a second glance. Emma looked over her shoulder at the knight, waiting.
“Next time we meet, Swan. I’m going to carve out your heart.”
Emma wanted to say something defiant. She didn’t want him to have the last word, but his fist against her head sent her sprawling into the dirt for the final time that night.
The Enchanted Forest – The Past
Emma woke slowly. Painfully. Prying one eye open only to close it against the brightness of the room. Her body ached and her mouth felt like it had been filled with sand. Thankfully, the bed beneath her was soft, cushioning her, encouraging her to rest.
Both eyes flew open. A book case was the first thing she managed to focus on; she recognized the stuffed bear sitting on the top of it. She was in her room in her mother’s castle. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
At least, that’s what she meant to say. It came out as more of a garbled moan as she rolled off her side and onto her back. Her opposite side flared with pain at the movement and she groaned again.
“Well, look who’s awake,” a familiar voice said from the side of the bed. “Glad to see you back in the land of the living.”
Emma rolled her head to the side and saw her godmother sitting beside the bed. The wolf dropped her legs from where they’d been resting on the bed and stretched her hands to the ceiling. “You gave us a good scare, pup.” She took a cup off the nightstand and gently offered it. “Here, take a sip. Easy.”
The water was cool and refreshing and Emma still choked on it. She tried to reach for the cup and found her wrist in a splint from elbow to fingers. “Wh-at h-appened?”
Ruby helped her sit up, stacking some pillows behind her. “We were hoping you could tell us. When your scouting party didn’t report back, I was sent out to find you.” A shadow crossed the wolf’s expression. “You’re lucky to be alive.”
Memories of what happened were starting to coalesce in Emma’s mind. The foothills. The ambush. The hearts of her men being crushed one by one. The Black Knight. The sorceress that left her alive. The distinct scar above painted lips. “I don’t think luck had anything to do with it.”
Emma threw the covers off of her legs. “How long have I been here?” She tried to swing her legs off the bed.
“Hey! Whoa! Where you going?” Ruby easily stopped her with one hand on each knee. “Take it easy, Emma.”
“How long?” Emma growled, the room was swaying so she took the extra moment to let it settle. Her nose felt like it was stuffed with bandages and she realized her eyes must be as blue-black as the night sky.
“Three days,” Ruby said. “You had an infection raging in that wound in your side. Your fever just broke a few hours ago.”
She pushed Ruby’s hands off and slid her feet to the floor; it took two tries to stand. “I need to go down to the war room.”
Ruby easily pushed her back down to the bed. “Cut it out, Emma. The war isn’t going anywhere if you take a few extra hours to regain your strength.”
“You’re wrong,” she shook her head. “You don’t know…I’m not sure…” Emma squeezed her eyes shut, pain raced around her head like a vice. Everything from that night was blurry. Had she really seen what she thought? “Please, Ruby, help me up. There’s something I need to check.”
Ruby knelt in front of her. “What the hell happened out there, Em?”
“We were ambushed,” Emma admitted. “Gavin and I fought the Black Knight. We both hit him with killing blows and it didn’t even slow him down.” She dropped her head back on her shoulders, exhaling a frustrated breath. “Everyone that survived the initial onslaught had their hearts ripped out of their chests. They were crushed in front of me.”
Emma patted her godmother’s hand on her knee. “The Black Knight wanted to kill me, too. End the line. But she stopped him. Said I needed to live to deliver a message.”
“She?” Ruby asked. “Who is she?”
Emma’s green gaze locked with the wolf’s but she locked her jaw against the answer. She couldn’t say it, not yet. Not until she checked. “A sorceress.”
“A sorceress outranked the Black Knight?” Ruby’s brows raced up her forehead. “Was it Maleficent?”
After a fiery debut, the dragon hadn’t been seen in months, but there had always been a magic wielder leading Cora’s army. Everyone had assumed… “It wasn’t Maleficent.”
“What was the message?” Ruby asked.
The blonde shook her head. “Not important. Cora’s fear mongering that doesn’t need to be repeated.” She planted her hands on the mattress again. “Now, help me up. I need to get downstairs.”
Ruby looked dubious, but steadied her when she got to her feet. “If you’re not going to repeat the message, what’s the hurry to get to the war room?”
“There’s something I need to check.”
Emma pushed open the doors to the war room and was grateful Ruby had insisted on her dressing properly before heading down. Four generals, two captains, and two fairies were all present, and openly staring at her as she entered the room. She gave Ruby a look of thanks as the wolf slid in behind her to stand near the door.
At the head of the table, Snow pushed to her feet. “Emma, you shouldn’t be out of bed.”
“I’m all right, Mother,” she said tiredly, eyes scanning over the map on the table that marked the position of their forces in relation to Cora’s. She saw the white knight marker that represented her, positioned at the castle. Her father’s king piece was still in the field near where she’d been ambushed.
Emma slowly looked around the room, gaze flitting over the weapons and maps hung along the walls. When she turned to look behind her, she saw the thing she was looking for. In the back corner of the room, a large ornate mirror with a golden frame hung on the wall. It was a new addition to the room; one Emma had never seen before.
Hate, fear, and anger burned in her chest; bile rose in her throat at what the mirror meant. Emma rested against the table and hung her head. “How long has that mirror been hanging there?”
“A few months, your Highness,” one of the captains answered. “It was a gift from the kingdom across the sea.”
“And you thought it was a good idea to put it in the war room?” Emma asked, glaring at her mother. Her mother who she had told on numerous occasions to never say anything of importance in front of mirrors.
“It was a gift, Emma,” Snow said a hint of derision in her tone. She’d never really believed her daughter’s stories about mirror magic. “One that is meant to inspire victories.”
“Inspire victories?” Emma repeated. “Oh, it’s done that, all right.” She pointed at the captain who had spoken. “Get it out of here. Now.”
The captain straightened. “That would be unwise, your highness.”
Emma turned slowly to face the captain. She didn’t know him, and she certainly wasn’t accustomed to being questioned. “And why would it be unwise, Captain?”
“It was a gift, your highness,” he repeated. “It would be an insult to remove a gift.”
“It’s a gift that can be hung anywhere in the castle besides this room,” Emma said. “I want it gone. Now.”
The captain shifted his weight, his hand dropped to the hilt of his sword. “Prince Eric requested that his gift be bestowed upon the war room.”
“Prince Eric?” Emma said, glancing at her mother who finally looked suspicious as well. “I’ve met Prince Eric several times. I’ve gone riding and hunting with him. He wouldn’t give a damn where a mirror is hung.” When the captain still didn’t move, Emma relented, “But if it means so much to you, it can stay.”
He inclined his head in her direction. “Thank you, your highness.”
“Yeah, just one thing.” Emma pulled her dagger free from her belt and strode over to the mirror. She flipped the dagger in her hand and slammed the hilt of it into the mirrored surface, shattering it. She heard a shout behind her and a struggle, but she continued destroying the mirror until nothing remained in the frame. Shards littered the floor and she ground pieces of them beneath her boot as she turned.
The still-struggling captain was being restrained against the table by Ruby and one of the generals. Emma checked the room; her mother was shielded behind two of the other generals and the fairies had their wands out. She gestured for Ruby to stand the captain up so she could see him.
“Who are you?” Emma asked.
When he didn’t answer, Snow pushed past her generals. “He arrived on a fleet of ships from across the sea. They brought us much needed supplies.” She stood next to Emma. “He carried a letter with Prince Eric’s seal on it.”
“He also brought the mirror with him, didn’t he?” Emma pointed out. She took a step closer to him and looked into his eyes. She saw a flatness there that reminded her of Myrcel. “She’s controlling you, isn’t she?”
He didn’t answer but Snow grasped her arm. “Emma?”
“Get him out of here. Take him to the dungeons. He can’t be trusted,” Emma said, stepping back so they could remove the captain from the room. Mirror shards cracked beneath their boots. “Send someone in to clean up this mess.”
“Your Highness, what-?” one of the fairies began.
Emma sagged; she really was exhausted. Her gaze fell again to the table and the layout of their forces. “Whatever battle plans you’ve devised since that mirror has been in this room, scrap them.” She looked her mother in the eye. “Cora watches and listens through mirrors. I have told you this before.” She waved a hand over the table. “She knows everything you have planned. She knows exactly where you have all of your pieces.”
Emma closed her eyes and held herself up against the table. All of the pieces. The mirror’s presence answered a lot of questions. Her encounter with the sorceress created so many more. Emma picked up the White Knight piece. “She knew exactly where I would be.”
“Emma?” Snow asked from behind her. “Are you all right?”
“Make new battle plans, Mother. Maybe Cora won’t win if she doesn’t know what’s coming.” Ruby reappeared in the doorway. “I need to go lie down.”
“Of course, dear.”
Emma made her way slowly out of the room with Ruby at her side. They walked silently towards Emma’s rooms. She knew the wolf had questions; hell, she had questions of her own. She didn’t have any idea how they would get any answers.
“Ruby, let’s see about getting some food sent-” Emma’s voice trailed off as she opened the door to her room and was shocked to see a figure clothed all in black standing in the middle of it.
Ruby growled low in her throat and started to move in front of Emma, but the knight held her back. She took a step forward and the figure turned around slowly. Emma’s breath caught in her throat as the sorceress from her fight stood before her. Pale hands moved up and pushed back the hood of the cloak. A pained brown gaze locked with questioning green.
“Regina?” Emma breathed.
A brittle smile cracked porcelain features. “Shush you. You’ll get us in trouble.”
It was the only thing Regina managed to say before her eyes rolled up, and she collapsed unconscious to the floor.
Land Without Magic – Present
Regina’s dance partner hummed as the couple moved gracefully together around the floor. Her tune didn’t match the song the band was playing, but Regina didn’t care. It was their song; the one Emma always hummed whenever there’d been quiet moments between them. And it was fitting for tonight, the title being something about a December evening.
It had been six months since the war against her mother ended, and the White Kingdom was celebrating the Winter Solstice. Dancing couples all around them exchanged partners in a complicated series of movements that she and Emma ignored. Regina was safe in the arms of her love; she felt warm and cared for, two sensations she’d rarely felt during her life outside of Emma’s presence. She leaned her head against the blonde’s shoulder, ruining their dancing frame, and smiling as Emma’s strong arms tightened around her.
“Do you know what day it is?” Emma asked with a slight hum to her words after a few minutes.
Regina lifted her head to look at her, wondering if her love had drunk too much of the celebratory wine. “Of course,” she said. “It’s the Winter Solstice.”
“Exactly!” Emma beamed at her and led her out to a spin before reeling her back in to her arms. “And do you know what that means?”
Regina laughed at the blonde’s antics, circling her arm around her partner’s waist. “It’s about to be a lot colder in the castle at night?”
“Pffft,” Emma exhaled, “just because my mother’s name is Snow doesn’t mean we have to live like Arendelle during the winter! Trust me, the fires will stay well-lit around the castle.”
“Mmmm.” Regina liked the sound of that. Her mother’s castle had always been bitterly cold during the winter. But she didn’t want to think about her mother, especially right now when she was having such a nice evening. “Tell me, Princess, what does the Winter Solstice mean to you?”
Emma’s eyes narrowed at the title she still grappled with accepting. She brought their joined hands up and circled Regina until she was behind the brunette. She dropped her hands to Regina’s hips and her chin to the brunette’s shoulder. “It means,” she drew out, feeling Regina relax against her, “that it is six months exactly until our wedding day.”
Regina’s alarm clock blared its obnoxious noise, shattering the dream and dragging Regina rudely back into the real world. She slapped at it, swearing as she threw her covers off and sat up. She placed a hand over her chest and felt the hammering of her heart. She knew her rapid pulse wasn’t because of the clock; it was because of the dream which was already fading in her mind’s eye. She closed her eyes and tried to hold onto it. It had been a good dream; she’d felt…safe? And she’d been with someone; they’d been dancing? It hadn’t been at a bar or anyplace casual, something more formal…like a ball? Regina opened her eyes and straightened up. What the hell was her subconscious up to now, she wondered. Who even had balls in this day and age? Surely, her unknown past wasn’t as a southern debutante.
Did they still have debutantes?
Her alarm blared again and she hurried to shut it off. She jumped out of the bed and quickly made her way to the bathroom. She was now running late and would have to hurry. She despised having to hurry in the mornings. The dream was completely forgotten as she began to rush through her usual routine. It was only when she was walking towards the stables, coffee cup in hand, and she saw the blonde woman standing next to Tony at the fence that she thought again of the dream.
When Emma turned to her and offered a quiet morning greeting, Regina could easily see the face in her dreams. She had been dancing with Emma Swan.
The morning had gone exceedingly well. Emma had jumped right in and helped with all the morning chores that Regina and Tony usually handled on their own. The extra time they took introducing her to the horses and the way they did things was made up with three sets of hands handling the work. It was immediately obvious that Emma had a way with horses, even the recalcitrant ‘old man’ that usually only cooperated for Tony liked her. Regina watched in amazement as Ebeneezer nudged the blonde’s shoulder for attention and followed her like a love sick puppy as she led him out of the stable.
They worked together well and introduced Emma around as more people showed up for work. More often than not, Regina found Emma’s gaze straying over to her even when Emma was talking to others. Surprisingly, the blonde never blushed or appeared embarrassed at being caught looking. She simply gave Regina an easy smile or acknowledgment and continued on. For a second, Regina considered being wary that she kept catching Emma staring at her but then realized that would be hypocritical. After all, she wouldn’t know Emma was staring if she hadn’t been watching the blonde every free second she had.
When the morning chores were complete, Tony suggested Regina give Emma a tour of the grounds. Regina felt her ears grow warm at the suggestion and then positively burn when Emma looked hopefully at her for confirmation. She reluctantly agreed and the two women walked off together; Regina missing it when Tony winked at Emma.
The tour was filled with awkward pauses as Regina showed off the stables, paddocks, pastures, and barns. The pauses felt awkward to Regina, at least; Emma didn’t seem to mind the stilted silences at all. Emma seemed to be perfectly at home as she took in everything that was supposed to be completely foreign to her while Regina, who had adopted the ranch as her home, felt like a lost child on their first day of school.
She chided herself for the millionth time that morning. It wasn’t Emma’s fault that Regina’s psyche had decided to place the blonde in a prominent role in her dreams. Besides, why shouldn’t Emma feel at home? Regina imagined a barn was a barn and horses were horses no matter what part of the world you lived in. Then again, as she watched Emma scamper up a ladder into a hay loft only to hear a giggle and a soft thwump follow, perhaps the blonde was just an idiot.
“You know,” Emma’s voice called down from somewhere near the rafters, “you could join me up here.”
“I think not, Miss Swan,” she said, moving to stand near the foot of the ladder.
Scuffling could be heard above her and then Emma’s head appeared over the edge, blonde hair cascading down. “Why not? Scared of heights?”
“Hardly.” Regina waved her hand in front of her face, trying to keep the dust Emma had stirred up from falling on her. “But I was going to take you up to the main house for lunch.”
“Oooo!” Emma’s head disappeared, quickly followed by her boots hitting the top ladder rung. “I’m really glad to hear that because I am starving.”
Emma dropped down right in front of her and when their eyes met, Regina felt the strangest sensation of warmth blossom in her chest. Her hand moved to cover her midsection and the pause between them for once didn’t feel awkward. It felt like the most natural moment in the world, until Emma moved her hand up and Regina flinched, stepping back. “What are you doing?”
Emma’s hand dropped as did her expression, the joy in her eyes fading as she stepped back. She gestured. “You have some…I knocked some hay into your hair. Apologies.” She cleared her throat and spun on her heel towards the open door. “You said something about lunch, yeah?”
Lunch went well with Scott and his wife, Tammy, joining them. Despite Emma admitting she had an unquenchable appetite, she displayed better table manners than anyone else Regina had seen at the ranch or the retreat. Her posture was immaculate and even Scott commented that he’d never seen anyone hold their fork tines down the way Emma did until he’d met Regina.
Then he’d suggested Regina use the afternoon to take Emma out on one of the trail rides.
She’d almost choked on her food. Her argument against the idea was that it wasn’t how she normally spent her days, and after all, Emma was here to see how they ran the ranch. Scott shrugged it off pointing out there’d be plenty of time for work the rest of the week, not to mention they had the annual open house to get ready for the following weekend. Emma would have plenty of time for work.
It wasn’t until they were outside, saddling the horses, that Regina realized Emma hadn’t commented at all on what she’d prefer. In fact, she’d been rather subdued since they’d left the barn. Based on their morning together, Regina knew Emma wasn’t shy about voicing her opinions. She also acknowledged, to herself anyway, that her reaction to Scott’s suggestion had probably been very off-putting. She’d practically balked at spending more time alone with the blonde.
“Now she probably hates me,” Regina muttered while stroking the nose of her mount for the afternoon. Elinor, the five-year-old mare, was clearly sympathetic and nudged her shoulder. Or she was just looking for a treat.
“Ready to go?” Emma asked, leading Hamish over after she’d finished saddling him. “I’d offer to lead, but I don’t know where I’m going.”
Regina appreciated the light humor and hoped that meant they were all right. Despite their differences, she found herself liking the blonde and while she knew she could be abrasive in her behavior, something her counselors at the retreat had politely pointed out multiple times, she hadn’t truly meant to offend Emma.
“I thought we’d take Nine Trees out, switch over to the Big Cheese, and come back on Roll Down,” Regina said as they walked towards the outer gate. “It should take us about four hours.”
Emma nodded along easily. “I have no idea what you just said, but sure.”
Regina chuckled. “Those are some of our trail names.” She unlatched the gate and let Emma go through first. “It’ll let us do a big loop instead of an out and back.” It was the route she usually took herself on Sunday mornings before anyone else was out and about.
“Sounds great!” Emma said then swung up into her saddle with ease. She led Hamish around in a gentle, winding route as they walked to the outer fence of the ranch.
Elinor gave a short snort of approval once Regina had mounted and they easily caught up to the other pair. Regina watched the large grey gelding, one of their calmer horses, as he moved under the blonde who was obviously an expert rider. There was something about the way Emma sat in the saddle that Regina found unusual. It wasn’t anything wrong with her form, just slightly different than how everyone else at the ranch carried themselves.
“Hey, there she is!”
Regina looked up from her meandering observations to find out who Emma could possibly be talking about. It only took her a second to spot the large wolf-dog trotting along the outer fence, moving parallel to them.
“I wondered when I’d get to see her,” Emma commented over her shoulder.
Regina frowned. “How do you know about Shadow?”
Emma turned in her saddle, a grin on her face. “That’s what you call her?” She chuckled. “Why?”
“The way she follows me around all the time. It’s just what I started calling her.” She shrugged. “Tony thinks she’s some sort of spirit animal for me.”
Emma laughed more than Regina thought necessary, but let it go as she leaned over in her saddle to undo the gate latch that would allow them out beyond the pasture. Once they were both through the gate and had it locked behind them, Regina rode alongside Emma. “You didn’t answer me.”
“Hmm? Oh.” Emma remembered the question when Regina nodded at the wolf that was keeping up with them from a distance. “Oh, well the other farmhands told me about her. Warned me not to try anything with you, if I didn’t want to feel a set of teeth in my rear-end.”
Regina’s eyebrows raced up her forehead. “What?” She huffed out a breath. “And you believed them?”
Emma looked at her, gauging her. “Luis was quite adamant.” She gestured towards the wolf that had pulled ahead of them and appeared to be waiting for them to catch up. “Said that wolf chased his brother Ricky right off the ranch. Said the wolf was protecting you.”
“Luis is a tool,” Regina sniffed, “and his brother…well, good riddance to him.”
Emma hadn’t understood the tool reference but she had gotten both versions of this story. According to Ruby, Ricky had been saying some rather coarse things about Regina and what he wanted to do to her as soon as he got her alone. Ruby had taken exception to this and waited for a moment when Ricky was by himself to show him the error of his ways. He’d left the farm that night and sworn never to return.
“You really don’t know any of this?” Emma asked Regina.
“Know any of what?”
Emma chuckled. “Nothing. I just think maybe you owe that dog some treats or something.”
“You think so?” Regina asked, eyeing the wolf that sat waiting for them at the trailhead. Ricky had been rather loathsome always making a comment every time she passed by him. Once he even made a disgusting kissing noise. “Did you chase that lewd man off just for me?”
The wolf stood tall at the trailhead as they passed her. Her mouth opened in a big, doggy grin when Regina addressed her. Regina laughed. “In that case, I’ll have to get you a nice steak dinner when we get back.”
Emma watched her queen unknowingly address one of her strongest supporters. It was nice to get her out on a horse and away from everyone else. She seemed calmer, more relaxed. The earlier morning tension seemed to have melted into the leather of the saddle. Emma felt the magic in her chest reaching for its mate, but Emma reined it in. There’d be plenty of time for that later when there weren’t horses to spook. Regina’s reaction when Emma had dropped out of the loft had been confirmation enough to know she felt it. The magic that had always existed between them was still there; no spell of Cora’s could destroy that. Emma just needed time to remind Regina, let her learn who she really was. She’d have to play it carefully, take her time.
They walked along the trail for a half-hour in silence before Emma broke. “So, Regina,” she said, looking over at the brunette who had started slightly, “tell me something about yourself.”
A sadness entered the brown eyes before she looked down, fidgeting with the reins. “Unfortunately, there’s not much to tell.”
The Enchanted Forest – The Past
Emma rushed forwards as soon as she saw the whites of Regina’s eyes. She caught the brunette, but just barely, and dropped with her to the floor. The wound in her side protested the movement but Emma ignored it, cradling her friend carefully as she shifted them to a more comfortable position.
“Emma!” Ruby hissed, quickly closing the door before anyone else happened by. “What is she doing here?”
“I don’t know!” Emma hissed back, smoothing strands of hair away from the unconscious woman’s face; she was burning up. Emma glanced around the room and saw her full-length mirror was moved away from the wall, dislodged at an angle. That, at least, answered the how Regina had arrived. Emma chucked her chin towards her nightstand. “Water, Ruby. And a cloth.”
“This is not a good idea,” Ruby muttered as she brought back the requested items. She poured the water on the linen square and handed it to the princess.
Emma dabbed it behind Regina’s ears, swiping it across the back of her neck and earning a frown for her efforts. She laid the cloth across the brunette’s forehead. “Come on, Regina. Wake up for me.”
The sorceress stirred, her face immediately scrunching up in pain. Her right hand fisted into the material of Emma’s shirt as her breathing became labored, but she didn’t open her eyes. Emma looked up at Ruby in question; the wolf shrugged helplessly. “Healing magic?”
Emma grimaced. She still wasn’t good at magic when she actively tried to use it; she was better at reactive. However, wanting Regina to be free of pain was about as reactive as Emma could imagine. She laid a hand over the brunette’s chest and closed her eyes; magic was emotion and all she wanted was Regina to be well.
Emma felt her hand warm as the magic blossomed in her palm and she imagined pushing that warmth into Regina. She succeeded, or at least, she thought she had managed it, but it didn’t feel like she expected. As her magic moved into her friend, it felt empty like something was missing. Then she noticed that Regina’s eyes were open and looking up at her.
The brunette’s eyes closed slowly as she nodded. The hand she had fisted in Emma’s shirt uncoiled and she patted the blonde awkwardly. “Thank you.” Her voice was husky, strained. “That helped.”
Ruby looked dubious. “You still reek of pain.”
Emma’s eyes widened, horrified, but Regina simply nodded again. “Yes, but now it is, at least, manageable.”
When she tried to sit up, both Emma and Ruby helped support her. She grimaced and the muscle in her jaw flexed as she sat back against the foot of Emma’s bed. She took a steadying breath. “I don’t have much time.”
Emma and Ruby exchanged looks. Emma had to know. “Was it you?” she blurted out the question. “That night at the foothills…was it you?”
Regina opened her eyes and held Emma’s gaze. She answered simply. “Yes.”
Emma sucked in a breath. “You killed my men. All of them.” She’d suspected; she’d known. But it still hadn’t made any sense. “You ripped out their hearts…”
“I saved your life,” Regina said quietly. “It was all I could do and even that…had consequences.” She grimaced as she adjusted her position against the bed frame.
Ruby glanced at Emma, the blonde didn’t seem to be processing well. “What do you mean, consequences?”
“My mother gave us specific orders to kill everyone in the scout party and leave only one alive to tell the tale.” Regina dropped her head back to the bed. “We knew Emma was leading the party. It’s why my mother picked it as a target. It was a test for me, prove I would kill Emma. However, when my mother accidentally left it to my discretion to choose the lone survivor; I chose Emma. When I returned, she was…disappointed but not surprised.”
“You shouldn’t have chosen me,” Emma whispered. She looked up, grief and fury darkening her eyes. “Those were my men, Regina. My responsibility. And you killed them.”
“Mother ordered me-”
“Screw your mother’s orders!” Emma snapped, getting to her feet. “You ripped out-”
“You don’t understand-”
“Oh, I understand plenty. You think my mother hasn’t given me orders before?” Emma bit out. “I mean, they weren’t orders to kill dozens of people-”
“She has my heart!”
Emma froze. “What?”
“My mother has my heart,” Regina repeated. “She controls it.”
Ruby glanced between the two younger women. “Are we talking metaphorically or-?”
“If you take someone’s heart out of their chest, you can control them.” Regina huffed out a humorless laugh. “About two years ago, Mother grew tired of my reluctance. She ripped my heart out of my chest and now I’m forced to do her bidding. Even now, when I’m under no direct order, the pressure on it is increasing because I am defying her simply by being here.”
“She took your heart,” Emma whispered, dropping down to her knee in front of her friend. She started to reach out then withdrew her hand sharply. “That’s why I couldn’t feel…”
“But that’s horrible,” Ruby said, sinking into the chair in front of the vanity.
“It’s excruciating,” Regina said, wincing as she pushed herself up, “but it’s also how we can win the war.”
“What?” Emma said.
“When you say ‘we’…”
Dark eyes leveled a glare at the wolf. “I mean the side of Light.” She hunched over and groaned as soon as she finished speaking.
“Regina?” Emma asked worriedly. “Are you all right?”
“I don’t have much time left; I need to go back. I can only withstand the pressure for so long.” She sucked in a breath. “My mother only keeps a sliver of my heart with her at all times. The rest of my heart is in a secret location that is heavily guarded.”
Ruby’s eyes were wide. “A sliver? Of your heart?”
Regina brushed off the question. “If you can retrieve the majority of my heart, the sliver won’t be enough to control me.”
“Where is it and how many guards?” Emma asked.
“When you look at the border of the Forbidden Forest, the third mountain from the left has a cave at its base on the south side.” She took a shuddering breath. “That’s where Mother keeps it.”
Emma nodded her understanding. “How many guards?”
Oddly, Regina chuckled. “Only one.”
“One?” Emma glanced at Ruby. “But you said it was heavily guarded.”
“Trust me,” Regina said, “one dragon is usually enough to protect anything.”
Land Without Magic - Present
“Regina! Regina! You’ve got to come quick!” Emma skidded to a stop in front of her, kicking up dirt and grabbing the brunette by the wrist, dragging her forwards. “I need your help!”
Regina squawked in alarm and almost fell flat on her face, trying to keep up with the blonde. “Miss Swan!”
“Here!” Emma shoved a foam pool noodle into her hands. “We’ve got to defend the castle.”
“Defend the what?!” Regina stared down at the pool noodle in her hands, felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, and she slowly turned around.
A line of six children stood across from she and Emma. They all clutched various weapons of foam and cardboard. “Emma?” The blonde was at her side, bouncing on the balls of her feet, her eyes locked on the kids. “What. Is. Going. On?”
“That’s the castle.” Emma jerked her chin towards the bouncy air castle that was there specifically for the kids to jump around in. “We’ve got to defend it,” she pointed at the kids, “against the horde.”
Regina had no idea what was going on but found herself shifting her weight and clutching the foam noodle a bit more firmly. One little girl on the end of the line narrowed her eyes at Regina; Regina frowned back at her.
“The guys need about ten more minutes to finish repairing a hole,” Emma muttered out the side of her mouth. Then raised her voice, “We can’t let these heathens in.”
Regina felt her eyebrows race up her forehead. “Why don’t we just tell-”
“Enough small talk,” the little girl from the end stated. She raised her cardboard sword, pointed it at Regina. “Attack!”
A half hour later, Regina ruefully held an ice pack to the corner of her mouth. Emma sat beside her, shoulders slumped, head bowed, guiltily sneaking glances at the brunette. “Does it still hurt?”
Regina slowly turned to look at her. She dropped the ice pack to reveal reddened skin and slightly swollen lips. “You elbowed me in the mouth.”
Emma winced. “Technically, Lyanna did-”
“The only reason a six-year-old was tall enough to hit me in the face was because you were holding her above your head and spinning around!”
Emma shrank a bit more in her seat before catching sight of the girl in question happily jumping around inside the bouncy castle. “If it makes you feel any better, I bet her elbow is bruised.”
Regina’s gaze followed Emma’s and spotted her attacker giggling and falling as one of her brothers bounced too close to her. “Perhaps a little,” she admitted grudgingly.
Honestly, Regina’s mouth was fine. She was sure she’d taken harder hits (even if she didn’t remember them), but it was fun giving the blonde a hard time. When the incident had occurred, Emma’s eyes had gone as wide as saucers and Regina had actually feared she would drop the child as she began to apologize. Thankfully, they had stalled the kids long enough before she’d been hit that they were able to let the castle be overrun as they left to tend to their wounds.
“Regina, can I ask you something?”
“You mean another something?”
Emma rolled her eyes. “Yes, my Queen, a second question, if you would be so kind.”
Regina smirked. Sometime during the week when everyone on the ranch had been working extra hours to prepare for the festival, Emma had come across Regina giving out instructions and directing everyone to specific tasks. Given her name meant ‘royalty’, Emma had started calling her a queen. She admitted, to herself only, that she kind of liked it. “What’s your question, peasant?”
Green eyes danced with mirth and a grin split Emma’s mouth. She stared at Regina for a beat longer than Regina thought necessary before turning away still smiling. Emma pointed at one of the food trucks lining the ranch’s circular driveway. “What’s a funnel cake?”
Regina looked at the bright pink and purple truck that she had to admit smelled amazing every time she walked past it. Emma was looking at her expectantly and she put the ice pack back against her mouth. “It’s a pastry,” she said, gesturing with her off-hand, “that you can get with different toppings.”
“Yeah, I got that much from the picture on the side of the truck,” Emma said with a roll of her eyes. “But what is it?”
Regina cleared her throat. “It’s a type of cake, or dessert, and you can get fruit or whip cream-”
“You don’t know what it is either!” Emma jumped up to her feet, pointing accusingly. “You’ve never had one, have you?”
The brunette glared up at her. “I’m not a dessert person.”
“Yeah, you are.” Emma busted out laughing. “You just like to pretend you aren’t.”
“You sound awfully sure of yourself for having only known me for a week.”
“You’ve got a sweet tooth,” Emma said, knowingly. Then she leaned over into a deep bow and extended her hand. “M’lady, would you please do me the honor of joining me for a questionable dessert?”
Regina pursed her lips as she considered the offer. When Emma peeked up at her and raised her eyebrows, she conceded. She took the proffered hand and stood. “I believe ‘Your Majesty’ is the proper way to address a queen.”
The rest of the day was extremely successful with everyone from town showing up at one point or another. After splitting a delectable funnel cake, Regina and Emma perused the many vendor tables all the local craftsmen and women had set up. There was a plethora of knitted items, unique jewelry, wood carvings, metalworks, and more than a dozen different jellies, jams, and honeys on display. Regina was fairly certain Emma tried every single sample presented; personally, she’d been a bit more selective. The Sisters of Syn (a group of elderly women from the local church dressed audaciously in purple hats and feather boas) rum balls, however, had definitely been a favorite.
They strolled past the make-shift petting farm and lingered at the riding circle where Tony and a couple of the other farm hands were leading little ones around on horse rides. They passed the ball pit and bubble fountain without too much pause, but the inflatable obstacle course was more than Emma could resist. Oddly enough, she’d looked to Regina as though asking permission.
“Oh no.” Regina held up her hands. “I am not going on that thing.”
Emma pouted for about half a second then gave the brunette a goofy smile. “Wait for me?”
“Go on, then,” Regina chuckled, pulling out her phone. She was definitely going to take some pictures of this. She watched as the blonde yanked off her shoes before scrambling up the first set of stairs and tumbling out of sight down the slide. Regina snapped a picture as Emma emerged, a small boy clinging onto her back as together they batted their way around huge inflatable columns. She laughed when Emma went sprawling; she laughed harder when the boy ran off leaving the blonde behind. Emma threw her hands up when she saw Regina laughing.
“You look like you’re having a good time.”
Still laughing, Regina turned and saw the co-owner of the ranch approaching. “Oh hey, Tammy.” She gestured at Emma working her way across a wobbly section. “This has been a big hit. All the kids are having a great time.”
“Indeed.” They watched as Emma leapt over a series of pits. “All the kids.” Tammy nudged the younger woman’s shoulder. “Why aren’t you in there?”
“Oh no, I already got my wounds defending the castle,” Regina laughed then snapped another picture as Emma began to climb the last tower.
“Castle?” Tammy frowned.
“Long story,” Regina waved her off. Emma reached the top and raised both hands above her head before pointing at Regina.
“I claim this tower in the name of Queen Regina!”
A few heads turned towards Regina, Tammy’s eyebrows raced up her forehead, and Regina felt her face warming. Before she had time to feel truly embarrassed, a boy barreled right into Emma’s side and they both fell back onto the slide at the back of the course. “Oh!”
Tammy followed Regina as she moved quickly to the back side of the course for a better view. Emma’s blonde head popped up from the ball pit at the bottom of the slide and Regina exhaled in relief. “You idiot.”
Emma grinned and threw a ball at her as she clambered out the side. She ran straight up to the two women. “Wow, that was so much fun! I’ve never done anything like it without, you know, having to worry about if someone was trying to kill me or something. Hey Tammy!” She messily brushed her hair out of her face and looked back to the course. “I wonder if they’d let me go again. I bet I could do it faster.”
With a glance at Regina, who was frowning slightly, Tammy clapped Emma on the shoulder. “You can do it as many times as you want. That’s what it’s here for.”
“Sweet!” She glanced at Regina, her excitement dimming slightly. “Do you mind waiting?”
“What?” Regina blinked, then shook her head. “No. No, I’ll wait. You go ahead.”
“You sure?” Emma frowned. “I don’t have to.”
“Go,” Regina insisted. She held up her phone. “I’ll time you.”
“Bet you can’t do it in under seven minutes,” Tammy challenged.
Emma’s eyes lit back up with excitement. “I’ll do it in five.”
The two women watched Emma get back to the start of the course; they waited for her to let two kids go ahead of her. She signaled for them to start the clock, and she charged up the inflatable stairs.
“Was Emma in the military?”
Tammy looked over to the brunette. “I don’t know. Why?”
“That comment about people trying to kill her,” Regina admitted. It had been made so offhand like it was a normal occurrence for the blonde.
Tammy watched the blonde fly through the obstacles; she cringed a little at the kids jumping out of her way. “Maybe. It wouldn’t surprise me, I guess.”
Regina had to agree. “I suppose.”
“Would that bother you?”
Tammy chuckled at the vehement response. “That’s good.”
“Why is it good?”
“Because she makes you happy,” Tammy said, watching the younger woman’s reaction carefully. “You smile more when you’re around her.”
Regina felt her face warming again. “That’s absurd.”
Tammy leveled her with a look. Then said, “You’re more relaxed around her.” She saw the pink tint climbing into Regina’s cheeks, the way she ducked her head. She wasn’t trying to embarrass her. “Regina, today is the first time I’ve ever heard you laugh.” Widened brown eyes met hers and Tammy chuckled. “It’s true.”
“I...uh,” Regina cleared her throat. “I enjoy her company.”
“That’s a good thing, honey,” Tammy said, throwing her arm around Regina’s shoulders. Then she pointed at the course as Emma slid down the last slide. “Cause she’s about to rejoin us.”
They both glanced down at the timer. Emma had completed the course in four minutes and fifty-three seconds.
The Enchanted Forest – The Past
Emma stared at the cave’s dark entrance. She couldn’t believe she was about to try and defeat a dragon. Sure, her dad had allegedly killed one before, but even he admitted the stories had grown a bit out of proportion. Oh, and there was that one key piece of information, she wasn’t supposed to kill the dragon.
“You want me to kill a dragon in order to steal back your heart?” Emma asked. She was back on her feet, pacing, already trying to think of ways to kill a dragon.
“No! You can’t kill the dragon. She’s trapped,” Regina said, drawing incredulous looks. She offered an apologetic smile. “The dragon is Maleficent, and she’s my godmother.”
“The Mistress of All Evil is your godmother!” Ruby half-shouted in shock. She really hoped she hadn’t heard that correctly.
“Yes, she is. And, yes, she is a dragon,” Regina unnecessarily reminded. “She is under Cora’s control as well, not with her heart like me, but with a magic cuff banded around her ankle.”
“Her dragon ankle,” Ruby said, just to clarify.
Regina nodded, continued undeterred, “If you can get the cuff off, she’ll have control again. She’ll be on our side. My mother will lose her two most powerful assets in one stroke.”
“So,” Ruby stood at Emma’s side, staring at the cave, “do you think there is someone here to announce us or should we just invite ourselves in?”
Emma gave her a withering look and started forward. As she crossed the threshold, she felt Ruby’s wolf nose nuzzle at her hand, but she hesitated to draw her sword. She explained quietly, “I don’t want to start off with the wrong impression.”
Ruby whimpered, her tail tucked down as they moved deeper into the cave. They’d expected the cave to be dark and Emma had practiced a few tricks of light as they’d travelled, but the walls seemed to be pulsing with a sort of luminescence. There was a glittery glow throughout the cave that gave off just enough light Emma wasn’t tripping over anything.
She rubbed her chest. “Magic is heavy in here.” It was making her chest feel constricted. Emma ran her hand along the cave wall; it made her palm itch. “It’s infused in the walls.”
Ruby caught a scent and moved ahead of Emma. A low, rumbling thrum of noise slowly rose the further they moved into the cavern. Emma hoped it was water. She was trying very hard to convince herself it was a giant underground river that was rushing beneath the rock. The way the noise rose and fell in even strokes was making it very difficult to believe. Sweat began to bead on her brow and she wiped it away.
“Rubes?” she whispered, having lost sight of her friend. The wolf’s head popped up from behind a small gap in the rocks. Emma hurried over; the rumbling had increased to a dull roar. “Did you find it?”
Ruby whined and dug with her paws against the rocky surface. Emma pushed her aside and saw a small, golden bird cage squeezed into a crevice. Inside the cage was a distinctly glowing red heart. Emma was able to wrap her fingers around the bars of the cage, and she tried pulling it free. When the cage slipped slightly, the dull roar that had filled her ears suddenly stopped. Emma swallowed thickly and looked over at Ruby. “Uh oh.”
The far wall of the cave shuddered, dislodging dust into the air as it shifted. Emma pulled harder at the bird cage. “That can’t be good.” Ruby’s furry body pressed against her legs and they both watched in horror as the wall began to move upwards. Emma felt her head tilt back to her shoulders as she followed the movement. The sound of heavy metal clunked and grated against stone as the not-cave wall unfurled. “Oh, fuck me.”
The dragon stood twenty feet tall with two horns scraping the top of the cave. Her coloring was hard to make out in the dimly lit cave, but Emma would’ve sworn the dragon had a body the color of fire-blackened metal and veined-wings tinted purple. Fire glowed in the dragon’s chest as she reared her head back and exhaled fire across the cave’s roof. The temperature in the cave rose ten degrees in mere seconds.
And right about that time, Emma’s grip on the golden cage finally paid off and it slipped free from its confines. The sudden release sent Emma tumbling to her butt; the cage clanging loudly against the stone floor as the heart jostled within the bars. There was a loud screech like metal being violently sheared from its moorings and Emma wrapped herself around the cage as the dragon’s head swooped down to get a closer look at the noise. A green, reptilian eye the size of Ruby’s head peered at them; scaly lips pulled back to reveal dripping teeth.
Ruby bravely planted herself in front of Emma, growling and snarling, hackles raised in defiance, but Emma thought she looked a little too dragon-snack size and pulled her behind her. “We’re not here to hurt you!” she yelled, not knowing if the dragon understood her or not. “We want to help.” She held up the golden cage. “We just-”
The dragon hissed and snarled at the sight of the heart in its cage. Ruby bumped her head into Emma’s thigh; Emma wrapped her arms back around the cage, protecting both it and herself. The dragon moved one step over, its mighty wing tips sinking into the stone floor on either side of it, and completely blocking the cave’s exit. Emma got the message loud and clear; she wasn’t going anywhere with the heart. She also got her first real look at the shackle banded around the dragon’s ankle.
“Okay, Ruby, I’ve got a plan and you’re not going to like it.”
The dragon’s patience ran out. She lowered her head and roared right over the top of Emma and Ruby, the force of it sending them both flying backwards. It was a miracle Emma managed to hold onto the cage as she picked herself up. “That was rude!” She slurred the words and could barely hear herself speak over the ringing in her ears. Ruby staggered into her, wobbling with her more sensitive hearing affected by the onslaught. The dragon took a thunderous step closer almost sending Emma to her knees a second time.
“Ruby, take the cage!” She shoved the cage towards the wolf’s mouth. “Take it and run. Don’t let her catch you!” The wolf shook her head even as she took hold of the cage. “I’m going to release her shackle. You’ve got to keep her busy.” Ruby growled at her and Emma knew she would get an earful later. “She’s protecting the heart; she won’t hurt you as long as you’ve got it.” The wolf’s ears perked up and Emma glared at her. “Go!”
Ruby darted to the side, quickly catching the dragon’s attention. Emma ran straight at the dragon, ducking a wing and sliding to a stop at the dragon’s ankle. She had about one second to examine the cuff before the dragon was on the move and she had to jump onto the foot and hold on for dear life. She was not proud of the scream that escaped her but luckily no one was around to hear it.
After three large steps, the dragon paused, probably searching for its prey. Emma slid around the ankle and felt the cuff with her magic. It popped and sizzled against her hand making her hiss and curse. She heard Ruby yip then saw a streak of fur race beneath the dragon’s wing, hauling ass for the other side of the cave. It was just enough warning for Emma to brace herself and take hold as the dragon turned to follow the most interesting thing that had come in its cave in a long time.
Emma tried to think as she held on by gripping the dragon’s thick, hard scales. She heard the bones of an old dinner crunch beneath the dragon’s large foot. Think, Emma, think. And not about dying. She readjusted her grip when the dragon stopped, one claw digging into the stone ground. The scale she was holding onto was cutting a clean line into her metal armor like it was nothing but leather.
Emma stared at the clean slice in her chest plate; then she stared at the dragon scales that were each the size of her torso. Dragon scales were used in all sorts of magical potions; they were revered for their magical properties and obviously difficult in nature to procure. “Great idea, Emma,” she muttered, “now I just have to pull off a scale. I’m sure that won’t hurt at all.”
There was another skittering of wolf paws and Emma shifted her weight on the foot, testing scales as she went, trying to find a loose one. There was one scale at the juncture between foot and ankle that seemed, well, looser. “Please, don’t kill me, dragon, please don’t kill me-” Emma wrapped both hands around the scale and pulled.
It came loose much like the heart’s cage, sending Emma tumbling. When she sat up, it was to find a glowing, green eye glaring at her from above. Ruby started barking, trying to regain the dragon’s attention. Emma glanced at the shackle and when Maleficent opened her jaws, she made a run for it. Fire scorched the ground where she’d just been and the dragon danced around trying to find her again.
“Damn it, stand still!” Emma yelled, chasing the foot with the shackle on it. Twice she got close only to have Maleficent whirl around, hunting for the human-insect that was intent on bothering her. “Come on, Ruby!”
She heard the wolf growl and out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ruby leap upwards. Emma actually stopped to crane her head up and see her crazy godmother dangling from the dragon’s jowls. That got the dragon’s attention and it roared again. Emma’s vision doubled as the sound reverberated in the small space. She blinked, trying to focus, knowing they were running out of time, and she saw the shackle right in front of her. Still shaking her head, she hefted the dragon scale and swung down on the shackle as hard as she could.
The magical cuff cracked down the middle.
A strange silence and stillness filled the cave. Emma rotated the scale to give it a fresh edge and brought it down against the shackle a second time. The cuff splintered and with a third hit, shattered completely. Emma threw down the scale and kicked and pulled at the pieces still clinging to dragon’s ankle until it was completely off.
As soon as it fell away, black smoke filled the cave and Emma stumbled backwards, her back hitting the cave wall as she tried to wave the smoke away. Her arm guard clanged against something just before she was pushed back against the wall with force. The smoke cleared and a tall, wild-looking blonde woman held a staff against her chest.
Emma held her hands to the side. “Maleficent?”
“Who are you?” the blonde asked with a rough voice that sounded like it hadn’t been used in a while.
“My name is Emma,” she said, when the dragon-woman growled at her answer, she quickly added, “Regina sent us!”
The dulled blue eyes of the sorceress narrowed. “Regina?” she repeated. “Why would she send you to me?”
“Well, we were hoping you would help us defeat Cora.”
Maleficent lowered her staff slightly. Her brows furrowed as she took a step back. “Cora? Why would…?” Her gaze caught on the remnants of the magical cuff and she slowly craned her head around, taking in the confines of the cavern. The dragon flashed in her eyes. “That bitch!”
Land Without Magic – Present
Emma had been repairing wood slats in the stables for more than an hour when she felt Regina enter the barn. She paused, taking a breath and letting her magic greet Regina’s before returning to her work. She thought it best if she let the brunette ‘surprise’ her.
Regina had been nonchalantly looking for Emma all afternoon. After an hour of hanging uselessly around Tony while he worked, he pointed out the back stables as a place for her to look. When she tried to deny that she was looking for anyone, he lightly swatted her and told her to stop bothering him. He claimed she was making the horses nervous.
She’d barely crossed the threshold of the older barn when she sighed with relief. She knew she’d found Emma; she didn’t know how she knew, but her heart warmed the way it only seemed to do when she was around the blonde woman. She followed the sounds of hammering until she stood at the last stall and saw the woman in question.
Regina didn’t mean to stare; she didn’t even know she had a thing for arms until she saw Emma’s. The blonde had stripped off her long sleeve shirt and was clad in only a light grey tank top. The barn was warm and the work she was doing was strenuous. The muscles in Emma’s arms didn’t bulge but sweat and dirt outlined the perfect curve and cut of biceps, triceps, and whatever other muscle groups made up the most tantalizing stretch of flesh Regina could remember having ever seen.
Emma smirked to herself as she took her time putting another board in place. She wondered how long Regina would stand there without saying anything. It reminded her of the time just after they’d defeated Cora when Regina had inadvertently walked in on her while she’d been changing clothes. She’d stared then, too. There’d also been touching involved; Regina slowly throwing off her mother’s control and allowing herself to do things she’d never been able to before. It was a bittersweet memory at this point since Emma was quite sure today wouldn’t end in a similar fashion.
Sighing just a bit, Emma made a show of finishing the last piece then tidying up her tools and turning around. She expected Regina to be a bit flustered and caught out at staring, but instead the woman was leaning against the door, arms crossed over her chest, and a smirk on her face.
“How long did you know I was standing here watching?” Regina asked.
Having the tables turned on her was so reminiscent of the queen, Emma swallowed hard. “Uh…the whole time?”
Regina arched an eyebrow. “And you didn’t feel the need to acknowledge me?”
The blonde rubbed her hand across the back of her neck and gave Regina a sheepish smile. “I thought maybe you were enjoying the view?” The dark brown eyes traveled over her as if they’d just been reminded; Emma smirked. “Was I wrong?”
Regina pushed off the wall. “I simply didn’t want to interrupt your work.”
“Uh-huh.” Emma grinned, held up her tools. “Well, I’m all finished now.”
“I see that.”
Silence fell between them. Awkward but not uncomfortable. Emma settled herself, the magic between them was reassurance enough that she had nothing to be concerned about. She would wait on whatever Regina had to say, and if she knew the brunette at all, it wouldn’t take long.
“Miss Swan, are you aware-?” Regina cut herself off when she finally looked up and found Emma watching her. “What?”
Emma was fairly certain her face would get stuck with the stupid grin she was wearing. “What?”
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
Regina practically growled. “Like I amuse you?”
Emma tried valiantly to get her emotions under control, but the sudden spike against her magic, the equivalent of Regina slapping her hands away in annoyance, made her laugh.
“This was a mistake,” Regina muttered and turned to leave.
“No, wait! Regina, come on.” Emma hurried after her, catching her by the arm. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” She managed a serious expression. “Please.” Regina glared at her for a long moment, then huffed and looked away. Emma knew she’d won; there were some perks to knowing the person better than they knew themselves. “Now, I believe you were trying to ask me something?”
Regina glared at the rafters, then looked down. With another huff, she raised her chin and looked Emma in the eye. “I was wondering if you were aware of the community dance happening this weekend?”
Emma had to bite the side of her cheek not to burst out laughing again. “I heard some of the guys talking about it, yes.”
“Would you be interested in attending?”
Regina crossed her arms over her chest. “With me.”
“I’d love to,” Emma said without hesitation. “What should I wear?”
“Preferably something with sleeves,” Regina muttered.
Emma laughed and flexed her arms, enjoying the way Regina watched. “I think I can manage that.”
Regina nodded tightly. “Good. Well, I’ll pick you up at six then.”
“Wait, you can drive?” Emma frowned. Finding out that Ruby had learned to drive while here had been one thing. Regina didn’t even drive the carriages back home.
“Yes.” Her hands found their way to her hips. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Oh, just the whole memory thing and all,” Emma stammered, trying to explain before she was uninvited to the dance. “I guess driving is like muscle memory?”
Regina relaxed her stance. “No, actually. They taught me at the retreat. Unlike horses, cars seemed to be completely unfamiliar to me,” she admitted, then raised her chin. “I can assure you though that I am now completely legal and certified.”
Emma nodded. “I’ll see you Saturday night at six then.”
“I probably should have warned you,” Regina said as they walked towards the barn/community center. “I can’t dance.”
Emma tripped as she tried to see if Regina was joking or not. Yes, Emma was a princess and she had been trained by the best teachers in the land, but she had not truly danced beautifully until she had danced with Regina. Regina didn’t dance; she floated. Her movements had been like water, fluid and smooth, wrapping around Emma, enveloping her so they moved as one. For Regina to think she couldn’t dance, that was a sin Emma simply could not let stand.
“Is it that you can’t or don’t?”
Regina frowned at the clarification. “I suppose it’s more that I haven’t.”
“So, maybe you can dance but you just don’t remember?” Emma suggested hopefully.
“I don’t know the dances, Emma.” She let Emma hold the door for her. “I mean I could learn them, but I haven’t really felt the desire to do so.”
Emma was about to comment on Regina’s choices of partner when she finally noticed the dance floor. There were three lines of people spread across it moving together in an obviously choreographed dance. It was not a dance she had ever seen before. The live music from a five-member band up on the stage was loud and much twangier than she was accustomed to as well.
Regina noticed Emma had stopped and was watching the line dancing. She slipped her arm through Emma’s. “What about you, Miss Swan?” She gestured with her free hand towards the dancers. “Do you dance?”
The feel of Regina at her side, their arms joined, pulled at Emma’s memory. She had to take a steadying breath before she could turn and address the brunette. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
Regina laughed, completely misreading the expression on the blonde’s face. “Come on, let’s get a drink and find a table. Maybe the dance floor won’t look quite as daunting after a beer.”
Two hours and three drinks later, Emma was stumbling her way through a dance called the Cotton-eyed Joe. She hadn’t quite convinced Regina to join her out on the floor, but the brunette was watching her closely from the sideline. Emma would manage several steps in a row in sync with the others, but as soon as she looked for Regina, she’d get off beat. And Regina would laugh which only made Emma want to screw up again.
When the song ended, Emma was slightly out of breath as she rejoined Regina. The brunette offered her a water bottle. “Thanks,” Emma said. “Okay, next song, you’re joining me.”
“Oh, I think not, Miss Swan,” Regina replied. “I will not be doing whatever that was that you were just doing.”
“No, not that,” Emma laughed, “but I did put in a request for the band to play something we can dance to.”
“I told you…”
“I know, I know, just trust me.” Emma noticed how Regina had crossed her arms over her midsection, a clear signal she felt uneasy. “It’ll be a waltz.”
Regina scoffed, “You know how to waltz?”
The band leader nodded at Emma and a haunting melody that Emma didn’t know began to play. She took Regina’s elbow and somewhat forced the woman out onto the cleared floor. Her heart was in her throat as they stood facing each other. This could go incredibly wrong in so many ways but even when she released Regina’s elbow, the brunette hadn’t left.
“I don’t know how to waltz,” Regina whispered through her teeth.
Emma guided Regina’s hand to her shoulder. “There’s only one rule.” She took Regina’s other hand in her own. “Pick a partner that knows what they’re doing.”
She didn’t know the song, but she was committed and began leading Regina into the first steps of the dance. Their movements were stiff at first, Emma could feel all the eyes in the hall were on them. It wasn’t all that unusual for her; she was royalty after all. And whether Regina knew it or not, she was also used to it. Remarkably, she relaxed under the scrutiny and melted into the dance. They began to move around the floor as a single entity; their movements displaying a grace rarely seen in the rustic dance hall.
Emma beamed at Regina. “You’re a natural.”
Regina was almost breathless as she enjoyed the natural sway. “I had no idea.”
Two older couples joined them on the dance floor; the only other people that apparently knew how to waltz. Halfway through the song lyrics bled into Emma’s consciousness and while it wasn’t a waltz song she’d ever heard, she loved hearing the refrain and knew it was a perfect selection. She repeated the lyrics as they continued to move around the floor. “Nothing else matters.”
Soft, brown eyes widened as Regina listened.
So close no matter how far.
The warmth in her chest grew and seemed to wrap itself around her, a sensation that made her happy.
Forever trusting who we are.
By the time the song ended on its last line, Regina and Emma had stopped dancing and were simply staring at each other, their breaths mingling. Applause from the crowd broke the moment and one of the older couples came over. The old man clapped Emma on the shoulder and the woman raved to Regina about how beautiful they danced. Regina managed to nod her head and thank them for the kind words, barely registering that they were walking off the dance floor, her hand still safely ensconced in the crook of Emma’s elbow. When she looked up, she found warm, green eyes watching her.
Emma smiled softly and cocked her head towards the door. “Let’s get some air.”
The modern song they danced to is Nothing Else Matters by Metallica. There's a cool youtube video of newlyweds dancing a waltz to it.
Some ugly, harsh language in this chapter
Land Without Magic – Present
They stayed at the dance for another hour, running into Tammy and Scott and sharing a drink with them. Tammy had given Regina a huge hug and told her how beautiful she had looked while she was dancing. Regina thanked her but stayed mostly quiet as the other three talked. Dancing with Emma had been the most wonderful feeling and yet there had been that moment at the end. She’d looked into deep green eyes and seen nothing but love reflecting back at her; it had taken her breath away. She’d only known the blonde woman for two weeks, and yet, there was something… Something about Emma that felt familiar. Familiar and safe. Two words Regina had not had much experience with ever since waking up in that hospital.
“Hmm?” She blinked and found three people looking at her. “I apologize,” she said. “I must’ve gotten lost in my thoughts.” She glanced at Emma. “What did you say?”
Emma just gave her a warm smile. “I asked if you were about ready to leave.”
“Oh, yes.” Regina nodded. “I mean, if you are?”
Tammy and Scott said their goodnights, making their way towards the bar for another round as Emma and Regina headed for the door. Walking outside, they passed a group of men standing in front of one of the many trucks, smoking. Emma nodded politely to them as they passed.
“That’s a damn shame right there.”
“Couple of fuckin’ dykes.”
“Give me two minutes and I’ll cure you, bitch.”
Regina moved closer to Emma’s side and took hold of her arm. “Just keep walking.”
Emma didn’t have to know the vernacular to understand the threat.
“You got a sweet ass, honey! Ditch the blonde and I’ll give you a real ride.”
“I’ll take the blonde. Put her on her knees where she belongs.”
Regina could feel the way the muscles in Emma’s arm began to tighten and coil as they heard footsteps following them. The blonde was clearly prepared to fight, but they were almost to the truck.
“Hey bitch, I’m talking to you.”
A half-full can of beer nailed Emma in the shoulder spilling beer everywhere. Emma spun around, moving Regina behind her and planting her feet. She sized up the three men and snorted. She’d beaten men worse than these three when she had still been in her teens. “I don’t want to hurt any of you, but I will. I suggest you leave now.”
The men chuckled and moved closer. “You think you’re going to hurt us?”
“Yes,” Emma answered simply.
The man on the right was the only one that seemed to think she was serious. The other two laughed.
“Well, now you’ve hurt my feelings,” the man in the middle said. He wagged a finger at her. “Maybe I’ll teach you some manners before I let you suck my cock.”
“Touch her and I’ll rip out your heart,” Regina said, moving to Emma’s side. She was not without her defenses. Months of training and the long truck key clutched tightly between her fingers would gouge out an eye or two nicely. Surprisingly, Emma only smirked at her and moved over a step to give her more room.
The man in the middle with his red and white baseball cap lost his humor. “Just a couple of cunts that need to be taught a lesson.”
“Dude, what the hell is that?”
Emma didn’t dare look behind her where the guy on the left was pointing, but when she heard a deep, low growl she smirked. The soft padded footsteps of a wolf could not be heard as it moved between two cars, but its protective growl was more than enough to announce its presence. Glistening teeth shown in the dark night as the wolf snarled, its lips pulling back as it stood beside Regina.
The man on the right took a step back, his eyes fixed on the wolf. “Come on, Donnie. This has gone too far.”
Emma decided she would spare his life. “Leave. We’ll forget this ever happened.”
“It’s just a fucking dog.” Donnie reached for the small of his back and pulled out a gun. “It’ll just take one bullet.”
The distinct sound of a shotgun being racked back startled all of them. Donnie and his two buddies spun around while Emma and Regina craned their heads to try and see who was behind their would-be attackers.
A silver-haired man with a handlebar mustache stood there, casually holding a shotgun aimed at Donnie.
“M-Mister Drummond,” Donnie stuttered out, clearly recognizing the man.
“Drop the gun, Donnie.”
The idiot with the red and white hat dropped the gun.
Mister Drummond raised the shotgun and rested it against his shoulder. “You ladies okay?”
Emma straightened up, her thighs relaxing as she moved out of her fighting stance. Regina dropped her shoulders. “Yes, Mister Drummond, we’re all right.”
He grunted. “Glad to hear it, Ms Regina. Now why don’t you and your girlfriend take your dog and go on home? I’ll take care of these three.”
Regina nodded when Emma glanced at her. “I think we’ll do that. Thank you, Mister Drummond.” They moved towards the opposite sides of the truck.
“Oh, and Ms Regina?”
Regina paused at the driver’s side door. “Yes?”
“You looked beautiful out there tonight on that dance floor. Your girlfriend is a lucky lady.”
Emma hid her grin and pulled the front seat forward so Ruby could jump in the back of the cab. She listened but didn’t hear Regina correct the man regarding their relationship. She only heard Regina tell him goodnight. Then she heard Mister Drummond once more before she closed her door.
“You three boys work for me, don’t you? Well, not anymore.”
The ride back to the ranch was silent and stunk of the beer that was staining Emma’s shirt. Emma realized about halfway to the ranch that Regina had picked her up from her hotel but chose not to point that out. When they pulled up to the apartment over the garage, Regina killed the engine and sat back. She stared silently out the front window of the truck for several minutes; Emma and Ruby exchanged a glance then Ruby hung her head over the seat near Regina’s shoulder and nudged the brunette. Absently, Regina reached a hand up and rubbed the wolf’s ears.
“I just…” she trailed off, shaking her head. Then her expression hardened and she slammed her hand against the steering wheel. “I mean, what the hell was that?!”
Regina slammed open the truck’s door; Emma and Ruby hurried to clamber out after her. Regina was pacing alongside the truck; she was so mad she couldn’t stay still. The palms of her hands itched as she balled them into fists. She wanted to…she wanted to hit something, or tear something apart, or destroy something. She wanted to burn it all down.
A thousand thoughts raced through her mind, things she wished she had said, things she wished she had done. “I never…” She caught sight of Emma watching her from the front of the truck. A thousand new thoughts of what could have happened struck her. “What the hell were you thinking?”
“Me?” Emma asked, dumbfounded. Ruby whined and dropped down to the ground.
“Yes, you! You were going to fight them! Three of them! By yourself!” Regina stormed closer to her, finger pointed angrily at her. “And you pushed me behind you?!” She jabbed the finger into Emma’s chest. “Don’t ever push me behind you like that!” She turned and pointed at the wolf. “And you-!”
“I could’ve taken them,” Emma said, fighting hard not to grin. She loved her fiery queen but knew this was not the time.
“You could’ve been killed. That moron had a gun!” Images flashed in Regina’s mind of the worst possible outcomes. Emma dead and bleeding out on the ground in front of the truck. Emma on her knees, blood streaming from her nose and a cut just beneath her eye, staring up at her, defeated but defiant. Regina swayed; she placed shaking fingers against her forehead. What the hell was that?
“Regina?” Emma saw the way the brunette’s hand shook. She gently grasped Regina’s forearm. “We’re okay. It’s all okay; it’s over.”
Regina’s hand dropped to Emma’s chest and grabbed onto her shirt, balling it in her fist. “He could’ve killed you.”
“No, he couldn’t have.” Emma wrapped her arms around Regina’s shoulders and drew her in close. She felt Regina shaking against her. “You would’ve stopped him.” The brunette bumped Emma’s chin as she nodded and muttered her agreement. Emma relaxed and continued to hold her until the shaking stopped. “I really enjoyed dancing with you tonight.”
Regina raised her head, leaning back so she could see the blonde’s face. “How did you know?”
Emma began to sway. “Know what?”
Regina slid her hand to Emma’s hip, swaying with her. “That I’d be able to dance like that?”
“You’re graceful in everything you do, Regina.” Emma slowly stepped into the dance; Regina stepped with her. “I knew you could do it.”
“You knew more than I did.” They began moving together across the concrete carport; the light above the garage illuminating the area.
Regina sank into the rhythm of the dance, trusting Emma’s lead as she hummed bars from the song that had played at the barn. She grinned as she saw the huge dog sit up and watch them as they twirled past. Then Emma began humming a different song, one more suited to the classical dance they were performing. It sounded so familiar but she couldn’t place it.
“What are you singing?” she asked.
“Hmm? Oh,” Emma didn’t falter in her steps. “Something my mother used to sing to me to get me to go to sleep at night. It’s always been my favorite.”
Regina leaned into Emma’s embrace, softening their stance. “What’s it called?”
“Once Upon a December.”
Regina froze, halting their dance. “I know that song.” She frowned. “Why do I know that song?”
Emma dropped her hands as Regina backed up a step. She swallowed and glanced over at Ruby. “Maybe someone used to sing it to you?”
Then Regina remembered her dream. She remembered the dream version of Emma humming the song as they danced. She could understand her psyche putting Emma into her dreams after she’d seen her; that did not explain Emma singing a song that Regina had only ever heard before in her dreams. She took another step back from the blonde. She saw the wolf get to its feet. She looked up at Emma and noticed for the first time a small scar on the blonde’s cheekbone, just beneath her eye. She noticed the way Emma’s nose wasn’t quite straight, like it had been previously broken at some point. She remembered the vision of Emma looking up at her from her knees.
Regina stumbled back another step, her hand raising when Emma stepped towards her, halting her. “Who are you?”
Violence/torture in the beginning of this chapter
The Enchanted Forest – The Past
Regina writhed in agony; her mouth open in a silent scream as she clawed at the stone floor.
“You foolish, stupid girl,” Cora snapped, sitting at her desk. “Did you really think I wouldn’t know?” She pulled the sliver of heart away from the candle flame. “I tried so hard with you and you continue to disappoint me.”
Sweat poured off Regina in waves as she rolled onto her back. Her chest heaved with breaths at the reprieve; the taste of blood coated the inside of her mouth. Her mother had silenced her screams from the beginning but her throat was still raw. She had known there would be consequences to visiting Emma, but she hadn’t truly understood the depths her mother was willing to go to punish her. Emma had been right all along; her mother was a monster.
“I gave you chance after chance to prove yourself, to make me proud.” Cora dug her nails into the sliver, eliciting another gasp of pain from her daughter. She watched as Regina curled in on herself and shook her head in disgust. “Pathetic.”
Cora dropped the sliver of heart onto her desk. “I suppose I’ll have to do what I’ve always done and clean up your mess,” she sighed. “Since you’ve proven yourself incapable of making good decisions, I will make them for you.”
She’d been doing that for the past two years, Regina thought. What was to be different now? She lolled her head to the side, trying to catch a glimpse of her mother.
“Get up,” Cora ordered. “Get on your feet and stand in front of me.”
Regina didn’t immediately feel the need to obey and knew she wasn’t being compelled yet. With effort, she rolled over to her side and got her knees and elbows underneath her. Her arms shook as she pushed herself upright. Every muscle in her body ached from the torture her mother had subjected her to for the past hour, but she got to her knees. She knew better than to look up, but she risked a glance and found Cora watching stone-faced, no emotion at all for her daughter’s suffering. Regina swallowed thickly and slowly got to her feet. She straightened her back and pulled her shoulders back before lifting her chin and meeting her mother’s gaze.
“Love is weakness, Regina.” Cora stood and circled her desk. “Your love for this princess has held you back.”
Regina scoffed, “I don’t love-”
Cora silenced her again. “You do, my darling.” She stepped closer and stroked her fingers against Regina’s cheek. “And just as your love has held you back, my love for you has done the same.” She gripped Regina by the chin. “But no more. I will no longer hold myself back just to spare you.”
Regina reared back as a dagger appeared in Cora’s hand; Cora froze her in place with magic. She turned and picked up the sliver of heart from the desk. She held it in the open palm of her hand and spoke directly to it. “You will take this dagger from me, and you will use the mirror to return to Snow White’s castle. You will find Snow White, and you will plunge this dagger into her heart. You will then find Princess Emma, and you will slit her throat.”
Tears rolled down Regina’s cheeks. She felt the magic taking hold; it was an effort to remain in place a moment longer.
Cora continued. “You will fight off anyone who tries to stop you. You will not rest until you have killed Snow White and her charming daughter, Emma.” Cora held up the dagger and released the freezing spell holding her daughter in place. “Now. Do as you’ve been told.”
Regina took the dagger from her mother. For a moment, their gazes locked. Regina shook her head, “Please, Mother, don’t-”
Cora squeezed the sliver of heart in her hand. “Don’t disappoint me, Regina.”
Regina waved her hand and the mirror portal opened to the familiar sight of Emma’s bedroom. Regina gripped the dagger tight in her hand and stepped through.
It took the odd trio of princess, wolf, and dragon almost three days to return to the White castle. Emma compulsively checked the leather satchel that hung at her side. It was carrying the most precious cargo she’d ever had in her possession. The dragon had not been keen on letting Emma carry Regina’s heart.
“I will go with you.” Maleficent held out her hand. “Give me the child’s heart.”
Emma cradled the caged heart against her chest. “No.”
“Give me. The heart,” Maleficent insisted, “or our alliance ends before it begins.”
“Regina wanted you to help us,” Emma said, “but she also trusted me to retrieve her heart. Just as she trusted that you would help us.”
The dragon’s blue eyes narrowed. “Fine,” she said. “Call her here.”
“Speak to the heart,” Maleficent said. “Order Regina to come to us. I want to hear it from her.”
Emma stepped back. “No.”
“I won’t do that to her.” Emma shook her head. “I won’t command her to do anything against her will.”
Maleficent eyed her for a long moment. The dragon inside her purred at Emma’s protective streak. “Very well.”
“Something’s wrong,” Ruby said, sidling her horse alongside Emma’s. She gestured towards the castle they were approaching. “The guard is doubled along the wall.”
Emma saw it too. “And the gate is closed.” She nudged her mount to a trot. “We need to hurry.”
The guards blocking the entrance were doubled as well. The captain of the guard stepped forward, watching them suspiciously as they approached until Emma threw back her hood. He visibly relaxed as he saluted with his fist against his chest plate. “Your Highness, you are a welcome sight.”
“There was an assassination attempt on the queen,” he reported. Then added quickly, “Your mother is fine and the assassin is being held in the dungeons.” He gestured behind him at the doubled guard. “We were unsure if the assassin was working alone, hence the increased security.”
“Assassin?” Emma suddenly had a bad feeling.
“Princess,” Maleficent said from beside her. She was looking towards the castle as though she could see through the stone. “We should hurry.”
The dragon had hardly spoken during their ride except when directly addressed, and it scared Emma that she felt the need to speak up now. “Open the gates.”
“Right away, your highness.”
“Mother.” Emma strode in to the throne room, forgoing formalities and walking straight up to her mother’s throne. “Are you all right? What happened?”
“I’m fine. Perhaps a little closer of a call then we’d normally like to have, but I’m fine,” Snow assured her daughter. She greeted Ruby with a nod and frowned slightly at the older blonde woman she didn’t recognize. “We’re reviewing the palace’s security though to determine how she got into the castle.”
“She?” Emma looked worriedly around the throne room. “How close did she get to you?”
“Too close,” Snow admitted. “She tossed aside the guards like they were toy soldiers.” Snow fingered the pendant she always wore. “If I hadn’t had squid ink with me, I don’t believe she would’ve been stopped.”
“You stopped her?” Emma asked, eyebrows raising.
“Well, don’t sound so surprised.”
“Where is the assassin now?” the blonde woman asked.
Snow frowned at the question. “Who are you?”
“She’s someone who can help us, Mother,” Emma interjected quickly. She’d prefer to keep the introductions until later. Mal’s urgency only fed her own. “Where is the assassin?”
“In the dungeons, of course. We intended to question her- Emma, stop.” Her daughter had immediately turned to leave. “There’s no reason for you to go down there. She’s clearly insane; she’s been raving non-stop.”
“If they’ve touched one hair on her head…” Mal threatened as they left the throne room together.
“Are you sure it’s her?” Emma asked.
“It’s Regina,” Ruby assured them. “I caught her scent in the throne room.”
Emma took the stairs down to the dungeons two at a time, the guards saluting her as she strode past them. They could hear a hoarse yelling mixed with grunts and whimpers the further they went until they reached the last cell in the block. The two guards at the door looked relieved at the sight of them.
“Your Highness.” They bowed their heads.
“Get whoever is in there with the prisoner, out. Now.”
The guards exchanged a look. “No one is in with the prisoner, your Highness.”
“Then why is she yelling?” Ruby asked.
“She hasn’t stopped yelling,” the first guard answered, “not since the moment the squid ink wore off.”
“She was a lot louder the first day before her voice gave out,” the second man said. “If it weren’t for this being an enchanted cell, she’d probably have already clawed her way out of it.”
There was a particularly loud yell of frustration, and they could hear the clink of chains. Mal stepped forward, “Leave us.”
Emma nodded when the guards looked to her for direction. She held out her hand for the key to the cell as they passed. Mal didn’t wait and waved her hand across the lock, obliterating it and swinging the door open. She sucked in a breath as she entered the cell; Emma and Ruby crowded in behind her.
Regina was strung up against the wall of the cell. Chains bolted into the stone wall kept her hands up near her head and matching cuffs wrapped around her ankles, securing her to the floor. She raised her head, solid black eyes taking them in.
“Em-ma.” Her voice was a pained whisper.
Mal threw out her arm, blocking Emma from moving closer to her. Regina growled in response, barring her teeth. “Emma, please!” She yanked at the chains in frustration, sweat soaked hair sticking to her face.
“Stay back for a moment,” Mal said to Emma before moving closer herself. “Hello, child.”
Darting black eyes slid unseeing over the blonde dragon before focusing again on the princess. Mal reached a hand out and gently stroked the side of Regina’s face. “Regina, hear me, little one.”
Regina blinked; she frowned at the woman standing in front of her, eyes slowly focusing.
“There you are,” the dragon purred, still stroking the brunette’s face.
“Mal?” Her face crumpled and a mewling whimper curled out of her throat. “It hurts, Mal. It hurts. She’s burning…it won’t stop until…I can’t stop. I don’t want…”
“Until what, little one?” Mal asked gently, stroking Regina’s face with her thumbs. “What does she want you to do?”
“Kill the queen.” The dark eyes lifted and met the dragon’s. “Kill Emma.” She shook her head, tears rolled down her face. “I can’t…I don’t want…don’t let me.”
“Ssshhhh,” Mal tried to soothe her. “We’re going to get you out of here.”
“No!” Regina jerked back, her head hitting the wall. “No! I’ll hurt…hurt Emma. Don’t let me hurt Emma, Mal.” She pulled and jerked on the chains. “Just kill me, Mal. Please. Kill me!”
“Shush you,” Mal scolded. “I’m here now. It’s going to be all right.” Regina dropped her head against the dragon’s shoulder. “Wolf, I’m going to need your help over here. Savior, step out into the hall.”
Regina’s head snapped up, eyes scanning the cell. “Emma?”
Emma took a step forward and Mal held out her hand again as Regina saw the princess and growled deep in her throat, jerking against her restraints. “In the hall, Princess. Now. The wolf and I are going to bring her out. As soon as we cross the threshold, put her heart back in her chest.”
Emma sputtered. “What? But I don’t know-”
“You have magic, Princess.” Mal snapped open the first cuff and Regina’s arm dropped onto her shoulder like dead weight. “Be ready to use it.”
Ruby nodded at Emma encouragingly before freeing Regina’s other arm. Emma stepped out of the cell and pulled out Regina’s heart from her satchel. She’d looked at it several times over the past couple of days. It pulsed a bright red but dark lines were marbled throughout it. Mal had caught her looking at it the second night and explained the dark lines were Cora’s influence. If left unchecked, Regina had the potential to become even darker and more powerful than her mother. Emma had sworn she would never let that happen.
“Are you ready, Savior?” Mal asked from the cell’s doorway; Regina was draped over both their shoulders, head hanging down.
Emma held the heart in one hand at chest height; she nodded. She guessed she was just supposed to shove it back in.
“Call her,” Mal said.
Emma swallowed, braced her feet. “Regina?”
The dark head raised, black eyes locked on Emma and she lunged forward. The best knight in the realm caught her easily and shoved the heart into her chest. Regina sucked in a breath, her black eyes briefly swirling with purple magic as she stared into Emma’s eyes millimeters away from her own. Then she blinked and the purple disappeared leaving behind pained brown.
Emma laughed in relief. “Hi.”
“Y-you did it,” Regina breathed. “You got my heart back.” She swayed on her feet, holding on to the blonde’s forearms.
“Yeah.” Emma steadied her. “How do you feel?”
Regina winced. “Something’s…” She brought her hand to her chest and grimaced. “Something’s wrong.”
“Regina?” Mal asked, stepping forward. “What is it?”
“It hurts.” Regina clawed at her chest as she turned towards the dragon. “It hurts, Mal.” Then she coughed. Once. Twice. Blood stained her lips. “She did this.” Her knees buckled and she fell against Emma.
“Mal, do something!” Ruby cried.
Mal reached for Regina’s chest, but her hand was pushed back by an unseen force. “I’m trying!”
Emma was still supporting her; she watched Regina turn her head towards her. Their eyes met for a second before Regina went limp in her arms.
Land Without Magic – Present
“Who are you?”
Emma watched Regina carefully. If the brunette could access her magic here, she would have already had a fireball in her hand. As it was, Emma could easily make the wrong move and push Regina even further away. She slowly held up her hands. “It’s just me, Regina. It’s Emma.”
“But you’re not just…” Regina trailed off, fear and anger biting off her words into confusion. A new fear struck her. “Did you do this to me?”
“What?! No!” Emma denied vehemently. “Regina, I would never hurt you.”
Regina believed her. She didn’t know why and she didn’t how, but she believed the blonde. She believed the blonde would keep her safe. Her head pounded and again she saw the image of Emma on her knees, bloodied, looking up at her… “Did I hurt you?”
“Regina, no!” Emma took a step forward before stopping herself. She needed to know. “Regina, why would you say that? What’s going on?”
“I keep seeing-”
“Who are you?”
It wasn’t Regina asking; it was Emma’s voice. The Emma on her knees, bloodied, asking Regina who she was. It didn’t make any sense. Regina’s head throbbed and she wrapped an arm around her midsection, fearing she was about to be sick.
Then she heard the humming again. She swayed. Somewhere close by the wolf whined. She closed her eyes. The evening had started off so nice. The dancing had been so familiar.
“You know how to dance?”
“Don’t sound so surprised,” the blonde beside her said. “It was part of the royal curriculum.”
Regina looped her arm over Emma’s. The princess was ostensibly giving her a tour of the castle, but the two were really just trying to get a few moments peace. Since the moment the war had ended and their love for each other had become apparent to all, Emma’s mother had begun making plans for their future. Considering Regina had tried to recently kill the woman, she could hardly complain too much that Snow wanted to plan a wedding and not her execution. Shaking off the memory of her failed attempt, she patted Emma’s arm. “Don’t forget, Princess, I know how much you hated the royal curriculum, and how often you tried to get out of learning it.”
Emma halted their progress, turning Regina to face her. “You doubt me?”
Regina offered her hand. “I think I’m going to need proof.”
“M’lady.” Emma bowed deep at the waist before taking Regina’s hand. In perfect sync, as though they’d been dancing together for years, they stepped together. Emma began humming.
The humming was going to drive Regina crazy; she couldn’t seem to get away from it. She swatted blindly at whoever was making the noise. It stopped immediately and Regina cracked open one eye. She was lying on the couch in her apartment. She pushed up on her elbow and Emma gave her a sheepish smile from her seat on the coffee table.
Regina looked warily around her apartment as she pushed her hair back from her face. “What happened?”
Emma cleared her throat. “You kind of passed out and I carried you up here.”
Regina swung her legs off the couch and sat up, pressing a hand to her head. When she opened her eyes, Emma was offering her a glass of water. She accepted it, sighing after she took several sips.
“You want to tell me what happened out there?” Emma asked.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
Oh, the irony, Emma thought and chuckled. “You might be surprised.”
Regina sat back on the couch, closing her eyes and cradling the glass of water against her chest. “I’ve been having weird dreams and now apparently visions.” She shook her head. “You’re in them.”
A beat of silence. “What kind of visions?”
Regina didn’t answer.
Emma leaned closer. “Please, tell me.”
“Well…” Regina scrubbed a hand over her face. “I mean it’s…crazy stuff, you know.” She took another drink of the water. “It’s…well, one of the dreams was the two of us dancing…in big, huge fancy ball gowns.” She felt the heat rise in her face at the admission and dared a glance at the blonde.
Emma gave her a grim smile. “What else?”
Regina frowned. She hadn’t expected the blonde to take her seriously. “Well, there’s that damn song you’re always singing. You sang, well, hummed it in my dreams, too.”
Emma nodded. “So, that’s what happened tonight.”
“Yes.” But it hadn’t been just that. “No.”
Emma raised an eyebrow at her.
Releasing a frustrated sigh, Regina said, “I had another vision of you tonight. You were…hurt.” Her palms were itching again. “Your face was bloody and you were staring up at me. You asked me who I was.”
Regina was startled when Emma suddenly got to her feet. She twisted around to watch as the blonde paced behind the couch, dragging her hand through her hair. She’d expected Emma to laugh it off and tell her they were just dreams. Now she worried that Emma might actually think she was crazy. She cleared her throat. “Emma,” she started, “it’s nothing. I’m sorry-”
“What was I wearing?”
“What?” Regina asked, startled.
“In your vision,” Emma said, “the one where I’m looking up at you. What am I wearing?”
“I-I don’t know. I wasn’t really concentrating on-”
Emma laid her hand over Regina’s where it rested on the back of the couch. “Try to remember.”
“O-okay.” Regina stared at Emma’s hand resting on top of hers. Since she’d woken up in the hospital, she hadn’t really allowed many people to touch her. It hadn’t ever felt right, but Emma’s hands were warm, rough and callused, but familiar. She closed her eyes and found it easy to see the vision of Emma kneeling before her. The blood caught her attention first; she hated seeing it there, knowing the injuries had to be causing the blonde pain. With the flickering firelight, she couldn’t see the shade of green that she knew her eyes were, but she could see how tired Emma was. And when the woman spit a glob of saliva and blood at her, she could see their defiance. “A-armor.” Regina wrenched her eyes open, out of the vision. “You’re wearing armor.”
The Emma standing in her living room sucked in a breath and stepped back from the couch. Regina pulled her own hands back into her lap. If she’d doubted it before, Emma surely thought she was crazy now. Regina dropped her gaze to her hands. “Crazy, right?”
“No,” Emma said, shaking her head. “No, Regina, you’re not crazy.” She moved back around to the front of the couch and retook her seat on the coffee table. “You’re not crazy,” she said again. “These dreams you’re having… these visions…they’re not-” Emma cut herself off and bit her lip. She released a frustrated sigh and scrubbed a hand over her face.
Regina reached out for her and was relieved when Emma grasped her hand. “Emma, what is it?”
She shook her head. “I’m going to do this all wrong, I know it.”
“Just tell me,” Regina said, getting a little frustrated.
“These visions and dreams your having,” Emma said finally, “they’re memories.”
Regina blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
Emma couldn’t help it; she had to move around. She began pacing again. She’d known Regina almost her whole life and yet she still had no idea how to explain the situation to her. All she could think was that there was no way Regina would believe a word she said. She didn’t even know where to begin.
“Why don’t you start at the beginning?” Regina suggested from her place on the couch.
Emma started; she hadn’t realized she’d said that out loud. She huffed out a small laugh. “Well, I first met you when I was seven years old and you snuck into my bed room.”
Regina stared at her silently before her eyes narrowed and she pushed up from the couch. “If you don’t want to tell me, just say so, but do not stand there and lie to me.”
Emma caught her by the arm. “I’m not lying.” She tightened her grip when Regina started to pull away. “Please, Regina. I swear; I’m telling you the truth.”
Regina looked pointedly down at the hand encircling her wrist and Emma immediately released her. She crossed her arms over her chest. “All right, why don’t I remember you?”
A nervous huff of laughter escaped Emma. “Well, that’s the heart of the problem, isn’t it?” She ran a hand through her hair. “It’s kind of a long story.”
Emma sighed, “You might want to sit down for this.”
Half an hour later, Emma finished what she considered the first half of the story. “And the evil sorceress cast a curse that took away your memories and sent you to this land without magic.”
Regina had remained quiet the entire time Emma had told her story. It was absurd. Fantastical to the nth degree. And yet…something about it, about the whole thing didn’t feel as preposterous as Regina knew it should. It tugged at her heart, at that place inside of her that felt warm whenever Emma was around. She wasn’t ready to accept the story as fact, but she couldn’t bring herself to easily dismiss it either. Maybe it was because Emma was so earnest in her telling; she seemed almost desperate for Regina to believe her. A part of Regina really, really wanted to believe her, and yet…
It wasn’t quite the reaction Emma had been expecting but she’d take it. “Why what?”
“Why did this evil sorceress hate me so much?”
Emma shifted slightly. She’d skirted around the issue that the major villain in the story was Regina’s mother. She’d been mostly honest when she’d said Regina had been held captive by the sorceress and forced to fight in a war she didn’t believe in.
“Honestly, I have never been able to figure that out,” Emma answered. “Jealousy maybe?”
Regina frowned at the answer. Compared to the rest of the story, it felt lacking. “All right, let’s say, just for a moment, that I believe you.” She tried to ignore the glimmer of hope in Emma’s eyes. “I’m this crazy powerful witch-”
“Sorceress,” Emma interrupted. “You’ve always preferred the term sorceress.”
“Sorceress,” Regina repeated dryly. She hated that her palms were once again itching and she now had the idea in her head that it was because of magic. “And we were at this glamourous celebration before I was tossed through a portal.”
Emma flinched; she’d also left out the parts about them being in love with each other and actually being married. Sadly, she knew that Regina would more readily accept the idea that she came from a realm with dragons and magical fireballs than she would believe a love story that spanned across battlefields.
“I woke up in that hospital over a year ago,” Regina continued. “Why are you just showing up now?”
Despite the efforts Emma knew they had gone through to find her; it was a fair question from Regina’s point-of-view. “Our portal didn’t open exactly where yours did. It took us a while to find you.”
A smile tugged at the corner of Emma’s mouth. “I couldn’t leave right away to come find you. I needed to stay and ensure the safety of the kingdom. Your godmother and I stayed to fight the evil queen and put her down once and for all. My godmother traveled across realms to find you.”
For a reason she didn’t want to examine too closely, Regina felt a pang of disappointment that Emma hadn’t come for her personally. The relationship between them that she’d been forming in her mind was just a fantasy after all. Kind of like the rest of Emma’s story. “Your godmother came to this world to find me?”
Emma nodded. They were finally getting to a part of the story where she could actually offer Regina some proof. “It took her a while to track you down, longer than any of us would have liked, but she did find you. She’s been watching over you ever since.”
And now they’d reached the point of disbelief. Regina scoffed, “I’ve been on my own ever since I woke up in that hospital. No one has watched out for me.”
“You sure about that?” Emma asked, smiling. When Regina narrowed her eyes at her, Emma got up and went to the door of the apartment. With Regina watching, she opened the door and allowed the giant wolf-dog to step inside.
Regina shot up to her feet. Seeing the wild dog everyday was one thing, having it in her home was quite another. “Emma! What are you doing?”
The wolf dropped a bundle of cloth on the floor at Emma’s feet then looked up expectantly at the blonde.
“Oh! Sorry,” Emma said. She crossed back to the couch, grabbed the blanket off the back of it, winked at Regina, and draped the blanket over the wolf.
Regina’s gaze was transfixed to the blanket. The dog was moving and shifting beneath it, undulating in an odd way. She took a few steps back. “Emma, what is going on?”
Then she heard what sounded like flesh slap against the hard wood surface of her flooring and a distinctly human sounding gasp. Seconds later, the blanket was thrown back and the head of a brunette woman emerged. Regina’s back hit the wall as she took another step back. When the woman turned around, Regina felt her jaw actually drop open in shock. “Ruby?”
The Pilates instructor held the blanket close around her shoulders and offered a sheepish smile. “Hey, Regina.”
The first bottle of hard cider disappeared within a matter of seconds; the second bottle lasted slightly longer. It was an understandable reaction, but Emma and Ruby began to become concerned when Regina opened a third bottle and walked past them to the couch without ever once acknowledging their presence. Ruby gestured for Emma to let her try and moved to sit on the coffee table in front of Regina.
Brown eyes flicked warily to Ruby and away again. At some point during her second bottle, the woman had changed into the small bundle of clothes the wolf had carried into her apartment. A tank top and pair of cutoff shorts covered more than the blanket had, but there was still a lot of skin on display and Regina was having a very difficult time reconciling that moments before it had been fur.
“I still have a shoulder for you to lean on if you want it,” Ruby offered. “I know it must be a lot to take in.”
A huff of laughter, leaning towards hysteria, escaped Regina. She quickly covered it up by taking another long drink from the bottle of hard cider.
“I told you that there were people that loved and cared for you; that they were out looking for you.” Ruby gently pressured Regina’s arm to lower the bottle. “You are not alone in this world, Regina.”
“Y-you’re a dog,” Regina managed. “I just saw you-”
Ruby rocked her head to the side. “Wolf,” she corrected. “I’m a human, and I can turn into a wolf.”
“A wolf,” Regina repeated. “Of course…” She had a flash of vision, memory perhaps, of Ruby leaning over her and dabbing her forehead with a wet cloth. Dark, green eyes were filled with concern. “You took care of me?”
Not sure what she was referring to exactly, Ruby slowly nodded. “I’ve been around as much as possible.”
Regina shook her head. “No. Not here.” But now that she thought about it. “Wait, did you really bite one of the ranch hands because of me?”
“He was being rude,” Ruby said, straightening. “No one talks about my queen like that.”
“Your Queen?!” Regina sputtered. She pointed at the blonde. “But Emma said she was the princess, not me!”
Ruby glanced between the two women, Regina pointing at Emma and Emma hanging her head. “You didn’t tell her?”
“Tell me what?” Regina demanded.
Emma continued to stare at the floor. “I left that part out.”
“Left what out?” Regina stood up from the couch, turning so she could see both women at the same time. “What didn’t you tell me?”
Emma cleared her throat. “The celebration you disappeared from took place after our joint coronation. We were crowned queens of the land hours before you were taken from us.”
“Joint. Coronation,” Regina repeated, then shook her head. “I’m sorry, but how does that work?”
“The celebration was also our…” Emma glanced at Ruby. There was no way this was going to be accepted well. “Wedding banquet.”
“You also shared true love’s kiss,” Ruby added, wondering how Emma had explained any of their story while leaving out their entire relationship. “It’s how Emma broke the curse on your heart.”
The Enchanted Forest – The Past
As a rule, Emma didn’t panic. She was a trained knight that had been in countless battles and survived more than a few death-defying moments. She did so without ever once panicking. But when she saw the whites of Regina’s eyes and felt the woman collapse against her, panic was a close thing.
“Mal! I thought giving her back her heart was supposed to save her!” She shifted, squatting slightly to scoop her arms under Regina’s legs and lift her. “What is happening?”
“I don’t know.” The dragon sorceress held her hands a few inches above Regina’s body; magic poured from her palms towards her unconscious goddaughter. She growled when the majority of it was deflected; Emma grunted as she inadvertently absorbed some of it. “I need to examine her without you holding onto her.”
“I’m not putting her back in the cell.” Emma began striding towards the stairs.
Maleficent halted her with a hand on her arm. “Magic us to your chambers.”
“I don’t know how,” Emma admitted.
“Your education is severely lacking, Savior.” Mal put one hand on her and one on Ruby. “Concentrate on your chambers and I’ll take us there.” Within seconds, dark grey smoked swirled around them, depositing them into Emma’s bedroom. “Put Regina on the bed.”
Emma laid Regina down on the bed as gently as she could. “She’s burning up.” She hadn’t realized just how warm Regina had been against her until she wasn’t in her arms anymore. “Mal, do something.”
“Wolf, we’re going to need water and rags, any cooling liniments you can find.” She leaned over Regina on the bed, examining her. She tried a different magic, a probing spell instead of trying to heal.
Emma heard Mal hiss. “What? What is it?” She stood at the foot of the bed, watching anxiously.
“There’s a curse on her heart,” Mal said softly. “It’s killing her.”
“Well then let’s take it back out!”
“Don’t you think I’ve tried that?” Mal snapped over her shoulder. “No, Cora did this.” She shook her head in disbelief. “She actually cursed her own daughter so that if anyone but she gave Regina back her heart, it would kill her.”
Emma paled, her gaze drifting to Regina. She watched as the brunette’s face tightened in pain. “How long does she have?”
“Cora has surprised even me by stooping to this level of cruelty,” Mal admitted, gently brushing hair away from Regina’s face. “She could have made it an immediate effect, but it seems she wanted Regina to suffer one last time.”
Emma’s expression hardened. “How long?”
“A day maybe two.” Mal felt Emma’s magic surge. The lightness of it against her own was like ants crawling across her skin. On the bed, Regina groaned, her eyes fluttering but never opening.
“What do we do?”
Mal was reminded of the time she was visiting Cora and Regina became ill. The girl had only been about six at the time and up until then, the dragon, while protective of its charge, had been uncomfortable around the child. It had been unsure of what to do with such a small thing and a dragon never liked feeling unsure of itself. Cora had been dismissive and sent the sick child to bed. The dragon had scented the sickness on Regina and immediately sent for a healer. It had taken three days for the fever to break and the dragon had never once left the child’s side. By the time Regina had given Maleficent a tired smile and reached for her hand on the third night, the dragon had been completely smitten.
“Mal!” Emma snapped, not even flinching when the green eyes of the dragon met hers. “How do we fix this? How do we save Regina?”
The eyes of the dragon faded slowly. “We need to find Cora and kill her.”
“Good plan. I like it,” Ruby said, coming back in the room, arms laden with jars of salve. Mal reluctantly moved aside to let her close to Regina.
Emma’s head cocked to the side. “Will that help Regina or is it just something you want to do?”
“It might help,” Mal admitted. “If Cora used blood magic on the heart, her death would weaken the curse.”
“Might,” Emma repeated. “Might weaken it.” She locked eyes with the dragon. “That’s not good enough.”
Regina groaned and even Ruby flinched when Emma’s magic surged again, washing over the occupants in the room. “Easy with the magics, Emma.”
“What?” Emma asked.
“She doesn’t even know she’s doing it.” Mal rolled her eyes.
“What? What am I doing?” Emma asked.
“You’re kind of throwing protective magic all over the place,” Ruby explained.
Mal sighed, “If only you’d been trained.”
“Then what?” Emma jumped on the comment. “If I’d been trained with my magic, then what? Is there something I could do right now to help her?”
“The proper application of light magic might slow down the effects of the curse,” Mal said. She had to move fast to block Emma from approaching Regina. “It could also extend her suffering! I won’t let you hurt her.”
“I’ve used healing magic on her before. She said it helped.”
“Healing magic is different than what this is,” Mal argued. “It won’t heal her; it will only extend her life.”
“Magic is emotion, right?” Emma looked towards the bed. “I won’t make it worse.”
A realization hit Maleficent as she saw deep into the green eyes that gazed at her goddaughter. Slowly, she nodded and stepped back giving Emma space. Ruby got up and joined the dragon. For a moment, they watched as the princess knelt beside the bed. Emma took Regina’s hand in her own and began quietly talking to the brunette.
Ruby tried not to listen to the private exchange. As a warm light began to glow beneath Emma’s hands, Ruby leaned towards the dragon. “What about true love’s kiss? Wouldn’t that break the curse?”
“If they weren’t both oblivious to their feelings, then yes,” the dragon admitted darkly. The light magic swirling in the room prickled at her skin, but she saw Regina briefly open her eyes. The brunette took an easy breath and squeezed Emma’s hand before closing them again.
Emma’s shoulders slumped as the light from her palm faded out. For a moment, Regina had seen her, had known she was fighting for her. Then she had drifted into sleep instead of unconsciousness. Emma had to hope that was an improvement. She got to her feet, preparing to leave. She leaned over and kissed Regina’s forehead. “Don’t let go.”
When she turned around to face the other two women in the room, her expression had hardened. “Ruby, stay with her. Protect her. Do whatever you can for her.”
“O-okay.” Ruby nodded. “Where will you be?”
Emma looked at Maleficent. Even without words, they understood each other. “I’m going to kill Cora.”
Riding on the back of a dragon was not something Emma thought she would ever do. If it wasn’t for the dire circumstances, she’d probably be having the time of her life. Maleficent flew across the lands of the Enchanted Forest, her powerful wings making travel faster than Emma had ever thought possible. Within the hour, they’d be passing over her father’s army, and then they’d reach Cora.
Maleficent followed Emma out of her bed chambers. “What is your plan, child?”
“You said we needed to kill Cora,” Emma said, never breaking stride. “That’s the plan.”
The use of her name got her attention. The dragon usually just called her princess or Savior, both with a bit of condescension. “What?”
“Cora is a powerful sorceress with an army in front of her,” Maleficent admitted. “You cannot just go after her with a full head of steam and no plan.”
“My plan is a pissed off dragon watching my back while I kill her,” Emma said. “Or was I wrong?”
The dragon purred in approval. She liked this princess. “You were not wrong.” When Emma started to turn, Maleficent grabbed her by the arm. “But when it comes to a magic fight, you are raw power and no skill.”
“We don’t have time for me to learn new tricks now.” She glanced back up the hall towards her chambers. “This is the only chance we’ve got.”
“There are a few spells, enchantments that I can place over your armor that should help protect you,” Mal said, looking her over. “We have time for that, at least.”
“Can it be done while we ride?” Emma asked.
Maleficent laughed, a deep throated chortle that sent chills down Emma’s spine. “Oh, my dear, I won’t be riding.”
After Mal had enchanted Emma’s armor, she’d shared one last piece of advice before morphing into her dragon form.
“Once you find yourself facing Cora, tie all of your emotions to Regina. Your anger, your fear, your protectiveness. Your love. Use it all. Feed your magic. Magic is emotion, and Cora is no physical combatant. Get close enough to her and drive your sword through her heart.”
Emma had thought of nothing but Regina as they’d flown across the skies. Her magic was churning in her gut, singing through her veins, as they finally reached the war-torn battlefield. She heard the zip of a few arrows fly past her and saw two bounce harmlessly off the dragon’s scales. She flattened herself against Maleficent’s back and hoped the dragon wouldn’t be too offended at her father’s troops for firing at them.
Within seconds, they were circling over Cora’s troops. The stabbed-heart banner fluttered in the breeze created by the dragon’s wings. The darkside troops cheered, ignorant that the dragon was no longer on their side. There was an elaborate tent at the rear of the troops and two figures emerged from it.
“There’s Cora,” Emma yelled into the dragon’s ear, “and the Black Knight.”
Smoke trailed from the dragon’s nostrils as Maleficent made a wide loop and turned around. Emma felt the dragon’s girth expand as it prepared to rain fire; she grinned and held on tight as Maleficent bore down on Cora’s troops and unleashed hell.
With one pass, one breath, Maleficent took out an entire battalion.
Emma heard her father’s troops issue a resounding rallying cry as they took advantage of the opportunity and charged forward.
Maleficent’s second pass lit a fiery path between the command tent and the troops, cutting off any support for the would-be queen. Emma could see the woman’s snarl as Maleficent swooped down for a landing. Emma jumped from her perch; she had to get to Cora before she magicked herself away.
Her bellow worked. The sorceress finally took her eyes off the dragon and saw the identity of her attacker. She laughed.
Emma drew her sword as she strode forward. “Cora Mills, you have committed crimes against the crown and I sentence you to death.”
“Foolish girl.” She waved the Black Knight forward. “You can’t even defeat my knight much less sentence me to anything.”
The Black Knight drew his dark blade as he moved to engage. “I’ve been waiting for you, Swan. You owe me dinner.”
“I’ll go through whoever I have to in order to defeat you, Cora.” Emma readied her sword, locking in her stance.
She had to jump back as the giant head of the dragon swooped in front of her, its mighty jaws snapping down on the Black Knight with a sickening crunch. Emma staggered back as Maleficent shook her prey from side to side until the knight was severed in two; his lower half being flung off to the side and his top half being spat out onto the ground. An enormous scaled foot crushed the Black Knight into the ground and the gleaming green eye of the dragon glared at Emma, reminding her of her task.
Emma grinned and turned back towards Cora. The sorceress was glaring at the dragon, her expression sour like she’d sucked on a lemon. “You pissed off the wrong dragon, Cora!” Emma deflected a blast of magic with her sword. “You should be nicer to your friends.”
“That beast always did have a weakness for my daughter.” She gave Emma her full attention. “As do you from what I understand.” She began to lazily circle, tossing a few fireballs at the blonde. “Tell me, how is Regina faring now that you’ve given her heart back. Not quite the romantic reunion you expected?”
Emma’s anger boiled as she strode forward, blocking the attacks, knowing Cora was draining the protective enchantments. She didn’t have time for a prolonged fight. “You cursed your own daughter. For that alone, I would happily kill you.”
“Poor Princess,” Cora mocked, adding more power to her attacks, “you really do love her, don’t you?” She watched Emma stagger as the magic began to get through. “Didn’t Regina tell you?” She threw another more powerful blast, knocking the sword from the blonde’s hand. “Love is weakness.”
Emma went down to one knee as Cora began a steady barrage. She crossed her arms in front of her, producing a magical shield that scattered Cora’s magic. Her entire body shook with her effort as Cora moved closer, pouring more and more magic over Emma’s head. Physically, Emma wouldn’t be able to withstand much more, but magic wasn’t physical. Magic was emotion and Emma thought of why she was there.
She thought of Regina’s smile as they sat on the balcony and talked long into the night. She heard Regina’s laugh, the soft, throaty chuckle and the rare full-bellied cackle. She saw the pained brown eyes, the ones that hid so much yet still looked at her with love.
Maleficent had said as much. So had Cora, of all people.
She loved Regina.
How had Emma not seen it?
And Regina loved her.
Emma started to laugh and with the ease of a master, she threw off Cora’s magic completely. The sorceress stumbled back as Emma stood tall in front of her.
“That’s not possible,” Cora said in disbelief.
“Love. Is. Strength.” Emma blasted Cora back with a pulse of light magic. She followed her, grabbed Cora by the front of her dress, and slammed her fist into the older woman’s jaw, knocking her senseless. “Imagine what you could have done, if you’d allowed yourself to love.”
Emma dropped her into the dirt, too stunned to move, as she retrieved her sword. She came back and stood over Cora, her blade pointed at the sorceress’ neck. “Agree to remove the curse from Regina’s heart, and I will spare your life.”
Blood dripped from the corner of Cora’s mouth. “I’ll never give up my daughter to you.”
“Then this fight is over.”
“Our fight will never be over.” Cora grinned, showing off blood stained teeth. “Until next time, Savior.”
“No!” Emma grabbed her with magic and saw the look of surprise cross the sorceress’ face when she didn’t vanish. Emma could only hold her for a second but it was enough to turn her blade and drive it straight down through Cora’s chest.
The sorceress gasped in pained surprise. Emma forced the blade further until she felt it sinking into the ground beneath Cora. Slowly, she straightened, her hands dropping from the sword’s hilt as she watched Cora’s eyes fall shut. Her shoulders dropped and Emma felt a fatigue settle into her body that almost dropped her.
Cora was dead. If the sounds of cheering nearby were anything to go by, her troops were defeated. The battle had been won. The side of Light was victorious. The war was over.
And yet, Emma still felt defeated. Somehow, she knew killing Cora hadn’t changed anything. She staggered back a step and almost fell against Maleficent in her human form. The blonde sorceress steadied the knight, her gaze drifting to the fallen Queen of Hearts.
“We need to get back to Regina,” Emma panted.
Maleficent’s solemn blue gaze studied her before she nodded. She stepped back, preparing to change into her dragon form.
Without her support, Emma dropped to her knees. “We haven’t won anything.”
The Enchanted Forest – The Past
The ride back to her kingdom was a rush of scenery as trees and fields passed unseen beneath the dragon. Emma clutched at the stone sewn into her bracer. Maleficent told her to tie all her magic to Regina so she was. She thought of the stone as a life line, hoping that the love she pushed into it was felt by the woman wearing its mate.
When the dragon touched down inside the castle keep, soldiers poured in from all sides, weapons raised. The sight of their princess riding the beast stayed their hand. Queen Snow herself rushed out to the commotion and saw her daughter clambering down.
“Emma! What is going on?”
Everyone backed up as dark grey smoke began to swirl around the dragon. Emma didn’t wait for her; she pushed past her mother, heading towards the castle. “I’ll explain later.”
“You’ll explain now!” Snow snapped, following right on her daughter’s heels. “The first thing you’ll explain is why an assassin was in your bedchambers being protected by Ruby, of all people!”
Emma pulled up short and whirled on her mother. “What did you do?”
The older blonde woman appeared at Emma’s shoulder. Her blue eyes were cold as ice as she glared at Snow. “If you’ve hurt that girl-”
“I beg your pardon-”
“Mal, back off,” Emma barked, ensuring she was between the dragon and her mother. “Mom! Where is Regina?”
“Regina?” There was only one person that Snow knew of that had that name. “Regina,” she repeated, “as in Cora’s only daughter? That Regina?”
Emma grabbed her mother by the shoulders and barely refrained from shaking her. “What did you do?”
Snow balked for a second, her mind snapping that she was the queen and not to be manhandled in such a way, but there was something in her daughter’s expression that she’d never seen before. Fear. Her daughter, the Savior knight of the realm, was afraid. “I told you,” she relented. “Ruby was protecting her; no one has touched her or even entered your room without Ruby’s approval.”
Emma lowered her head in relief and nodded. Snow saw the way her shoulders dropped and was about to comment when she noticed smoke trailing around the older blonde woman. She gasped as she made the connection. “You’re Maleficent!”
“Mom, not now,” Emma sighed. The stone grew warm against her wrist and she looked up towards her chambers. “Mal, come on!” She reached out and grabbed the older woman’s hand; they disappeared in a plume of smoke, leaving Snow without another word of explanation.
Ruby spun on the balls of her feet at their abrupt arrival, the wolf in her eyes, ready to defend. “Emma! Thank goodness!” She quickly moved back as Emma approached the bedside. “She’s been in and out of consciousness since you left. She’s burning up and I think she’s getting worse.”
Maleficent took Ruby by the arm and pulled her further away. When the wolf looked at her questioningly, the dragon shook her head. “It’s up to them now.”
Emma heard Ruby but she hadn’t slowed down enough to process anything the wolf said. Her attention was only on Regina. Regina’s skin glistened with sweat, hair sticking to her face as she rolled her head from side to side against the pillow. Her fists clenched and unclenched against the bedsheets; her eyes squeezed tight. Her chest heaved with shuddering breaths. The simple stone necklace lay haphazardly against the hollow of her neck.
Emma dropped to her knees; she worked her hand underneath Regina’s grasping fingers. Her healing magic flared to life and Regina’s breathing calmed almost immediately. Slowly, sunken, blood-shot eyes fluttered open; chapped lips curled upwards. “Em-ma.”
“Hi,” Emma said, giving her hand a gentle squeeze.
Regina seemed to swallow with difficulty. “Is it over?”
“Yeah,” Emma assured her, rubbing her hand between both of her own, then kissing her knuckles. “We won.”
She said they won but nothing had changed. Brown eyes filled with a sad understanding. Regina could barely keep her eyes open, but she knew what Emma wasn’t telling her. Stopping her mother hadn’t been enough to save her. “That’s good,” she managed. She attempted to moisten dry lips. “I’m relieved you are unscathed.”
Emma thought her heart might pound out of her chest. Regina’s voice was barely a whisper and even that sounded like it was taking every last bit of strength she had. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
Regina let her eyes close; she tried to squeeze Emma’s hand to let her know it was all right. At least she was going to die here, with Emma as company, and not alone in some dark dungeon. After all the things she’d done the past few years, the things she’d been made to do, she probably deserved the executioner’s axe. The axe might have been a blessing in disguise as another wrenching pain tore through her heart, and she arched off the bed.
“Regina! Regina!” Emma cried.
“It’s okay,” she ground out, trying to breathe through the vice around her chest. “It’s okay, Emma. I know…you weren’t able…to break the curse.”
“What?” Emma felt more than saw Regina side-eyeing her, the way she always did when she was exasperated with her. “I mean, yeah,” she shook her head. “No. We weren’t able to break the curse. But that’s not what I wanted to tell you.”
Regina couldn’t speak anymore, the precious breath she was able to pull into her chest was locked there leaving her speechless. She implored Emma with her eyes to say whatever it was that she had to say.
“Hurry, child,” Maleficent hissed from the corner. “She’s running out of time.”
Lost in her own fear, Emma had failed to see she had but moments left. The dragon’s hiss jarred her into action. She sat up on her knees and captured Regina’s face between her hands. “Regina, I won’t say I knew it from the first moment I saw you, because that would have been really weird, but I love you. I have for years. Maybe since that first night you so innocently told me you’d never been kissed.” She saw Regina’s dark eyes widen and let out a breathless chuckle. “Maybe before that even. You’re my best friend. Thoughts of you have been my refuge on even the darkest battlefield. Please, please don’t leave me now. Not when I finally know what this feeling is. Don’t leave me when I finally know why you are the first person I think of when I wake and the last person I see before I sleep. I love you, Regina. Please stay with me.”
Emma bent down and gently placed her lips against Regina’s with the softest kiss she could manage as she felt tears rolling down her cheeks.
A prism of light blasted outwards. Regina gasped, sucking in a lungful of air as the pressure building in her chest completely dissipated. Her eyes, suddenly clear, searched Emma’s; tearful green still looked uncertain and not quite caught up. Regina chuckled, bringing her hands up to Emma’s face. “I love you, too.”
She surged up, peppering the blonde with kisses even as she pushed her back so she could sit up.
“It worked?” Emma managed in-between kisses. “You’re-you’re okay?”
“It worked,” Maleficent growled, rubbing a hand over her chest. A direct blast of light magic like that was like a punch to the gut. Ruby let out a relieved watery laugh, still hanging onto the dragon’s arm.
Regina beamed at her godmother before returning her attention to Emma; Emma who hadn’t been able to tear her gaze away even for a second. Emma who seemed to still be waiting for reassurance. Regina used her thumbs to wipe away the blonde’s tears. “You saved me.”
A blush crept into Emma’s cheeks. “Pretty sure that kiss required both of us.”
Regina leaned forward and kissed her again just because she could. Emma kissed her back and Ruby was on the verge of finding a quick exit when the doors to the room slammed open. Snow stormed in looking as though she’d been through a windstorm. She glared at the wolf as she pushed hair out of her face. “What in the Forest was that?”
“Oh, please,” Mal growled, shifting to the side so that she stood between the queen and her goddaughter. “You, of all people, should know true love’s magic when you feel it.”
“True love?” Snow sputtered. “Between who?”
Ruby glanced over her shoulder, having also put herself between Snow and Emma. She watched as Emma helped Regina, who was still a bit unsteady, off the bed. Keeping her hand clasped in Regina’s, Emma gave Ruby a slight nod and the wolf stepped to the side, offering Snow her first glance at the young couple.
“Mom,” Emma said, taking a step forward. “I’d like you to meet someone. This is Regina, my best friend,” she got a goofy grin on her face as she looked at the brunette at her side, “and my true love.”
Hours later, Emma collapsed onto her bed, haphazardly covering herself with sheets as she threw one arm over Regina’s side and snuggled into her back. In the morning, she would thank her exhausted state for controlling her actions instead of taking weeks or even months to work up the courage to sleep next to the woman she loved. Regina seemed to feel the same way because after a single token protest which consisted of a single word and a momentary glance away from the bed, she had crawled as bonelessly under the covers as Emma had. Now she sighed in contentment as her back grew warm against Emma’s front.
Queen Snow had taken the news better than expected. Emma suspected, and Mal confirmed, that the notion of true love conquered most of the arguments Snow could possibly make against the union. When Regina had sunk into a deep curtsy and held it, head bowed, asking for forgiveness, while still holding Emma’s hand, there was little recourse for Snow to take. She’d simply nodded and gestured for Regina to rise. Then she’d muttered something about never hearing the end of it from Charming.
Emma and Mal had then finally shared the news that the war was over. The Queen went into immediate celebration mode, pulling her daughter towards the balcony, insisting they share the news with the kingdom. Emma wasn’t sure what Snow was happier about, the end of the war or the fact that Charming would finally be returning home.
Pulling Regina out on the balcony with them and catching the shy and uncertain smile from the brunette, Emma thought she finally began to understand the depth of her mother’s feelings for her father. She was finally sharing ‘the look’ that she had always seen pass between her parents with her own love. It was the sort of look they wrote songs and stories about. Of course, Regina’s look was a bit sassier than her mother’s as she arched an eyebrow at Emma when Snow took Regina’s hand in hers. Emma had laughed, waved to the people, and presented their clasped hands to the roar of the crowd.
Snow had pointed out later, while they’d feasted, that the kingdom had no idea who Regina was. The approval was bound to drop when they learned their White Swan was in love with the Queen of Hearts’ daughter. Emma had simply shrugged, not caring one whit.
“Emma?” Regina said her name quietly, unsure if she’d already fallen asleep.
Regina felt the blonde’s arm tighten around her middle as Emma answered with a hum. Regina hesitated. There was something she wanted, needed to know, but it could wait. She didn’t need to bring it up now. Not now when they clearly both needed to sleep. “Nothing. Never mind.”
Emma pushed up to her elbow so she could see the side of Regina’s face. She knew that expression and it wasn’t nothing. “What is it?”
Regina looked up at Emma then turned her head back to the dark corners of the bedroom. Maybe she should ask now, get it over with and start tomorrow in a new life.
“What happened to my mother?”
Emma inhaled deeply then scrubbed a hand over her face. “You really want to know?”
Regina nodded, so Emma told her about the flight across the land and how Maleficent’s fire had cut off the troops. She told her about the dragon tearing the Black Knight into two pieces. Regina responded to that with a satisfied hum; she had never liked the bastard.
“And then, when there was no one left between us, I was in a magic fight with your mother.”
Regina rolled onto her back, staring up at Emma. “But Emma you aren’t trained in magic. How did you-?”
“Mal gave me some defensive enchantments,” she admitted. “She’s also sworn that she’s going to train me properly once everything settles down. She says I can’t just keep going around half-cocked randomly throwing out light magic when I get upset. She says it makes her itch.”
Regina chuckled, easily hearing her godmother’s voice. “Then what happened?”
“Well, I thought about you,” Emma admitted, a pink tint entering her cheeks. “Cora tried to tell me that loving you was a weakness, but I found strength in it.” She shrugged. “I was able to deflect her magic.”
“You deflected her magic?!”
Emma nodded. “And then I punched her.” At Regina’s shocked expression, Emma grinned. “You have no idea how good that felt.”
“You punched my mother?”
“Right in the mouth,” Emma said proudly. “Knocked her right to the dirt.”
For a moment, Regina felt absurdly offended that someone, especially Emma, would dare punch her mother and then brag about it. An even stronger feeling of jealousy that she hadn’t been the one to do it quickly followed. “I wish I could have seen that.”
“I offered to spare her life,” Emma said, sobering. “Despite everything she’s done, she was still your mother.”
Regina reached one hand up and stroked the side of Emma’s face. “It’s all right.”
“She refused to remove the curse on your heart, and when she tried to escape,” Emma hesitated then confessed, “I ran my sword through her chest.”
Regina frowned, waited for Emma to continue. When she realized Emma was watching her expectantly, waiting for her reaction, she asked, “And?”
“And I killed her,” Emma said.
Regina sat up, pushing Emma back as she moved. “Did you cut off her head?”
The brunette was shaking her head. “No, no, no.” Fear was starting to claw at her newly restored heart. “You didn’t kill her.”
“Regina, I ran a sword through her chest. She’s dead.”
“Emma, my mother is the Queen of Hearts,” Regina explained. “She doesn’t keep her heart where everyone else does.”
Rumplestiltskin giggled as he strolled through the still smoking battlefield. He found the remains of the Black Knight first and waggled a finger at the flattened body. “Tsk, tsk. Should have been more specific in your request.” He toed the dark armor. “The metal was enchanted to withstand blows dealt by humans; you never mentioned dragons.” He shrugged. “Oh well.”
He only needed a few more steps to find his once lover, still impaled by the sword through her chest. “All right, dearie, you can get up now.”
Lying on the cold, muddied ground, Cora slowly opened her eyes. She glared at the imp standing over her. “Get this thing out of me.”
“But, of course.” He wrapped his scaly hands around the sword’s hilt and pulled it out of her, enjoying her grunt of pain despite himself. Tossing the sword aside, he offered Cora his hand and pulled her to her feet.
“Thank you,” she said, brushing off the front of her dress with a disgusted sigh. She looked out over the smoldering battlefield. “They’ll think they’ve won.”
Rumple came up behind her, placing his hands on her shoulders. “They’ll be wrong.”
“My daughter may have turned on me, but I won’t let them keep her,” she vowed. “I will rip her away from them the way they took her from me.”
He settled his chin on her shoulder. “You’re going to need more power for that sort of revenge.”
“Yes, I will.” Cora eyed the Dark One over her shoulder, a plan already forming in her mind. It would take time to get his dagger, but she could be patient. She leaned back into his embrace. “For now, take me away from here?”
He giggled ignorantly, “It would be my pleasure.”
Land Without Magic – Present
It had been five days since Emma and Ruby had broken the truth of the Enchanted Forest to Regina. She hadn’t spoken to either of them since. Emma knew the reveal had been too soon, but events had pushed her hand. Events were pushing her hand again. As much as she wanted to give Regina the space she needed, Mal had contacted her the night before. It was time to return home. The spell holding Cora in check was weakening and they needed Emma’s magic to contain her. To settle things once and for all, they needed Emma and Regina, but Emma would not force Regina to return with her.
Emma and Ruby sat in the hotel room, conversing with Mal through the magic mirror.
“If it hadn’t been for Zelena, she would’ve gotten free last night.” Mal shook her head. “She’d been building her magic; she got past the first barrier. Zelena blasted her back into the wall hard enough to knock her out.”
“What was Zelena doing down in the dungeons in the middle of the night?” Ruby asked still suspicious of the witch.
“She claimed she felt the magic building up in the cell and has been waiting for Cora to make a move.” Mal held up a hand. “I know how it sounds, but without her, Cora would already be free.”
Emma scrubbed a hand over her face. “Where is she now?”
“Back in the cell. We’ve recast all the enchantments, but it’s only a matter of time before she can pull them down again,” she said. “Zelena claims she won’t be able to stop her as effectively a second time.”
“What does that mean?”
Mal sighed, “It means it’s time for you to come home or this past year of fighting will have been for nothing.”
It was four-fifteen in the morning and it would be Emma’s last day on the ranch. She had honestly enjoyed her time here; despite the circumstances, it had been a nice break. At CCR, she’d only needed to be Emma, not the Savior or queen. It was how Regina had always known her growing up and she’d hoped it would’ve helped. If Regina’s reluctance to even speak to her now was any indication, it hadn’t helped.
Emma hadn’t even been able to talk to Regina in the mornings as the brunette had taken to arriving even earlier than usual to start their morning routine with the horses. She’d already been working by the time Emma got there each morning and then disappeared into the main house for the majority of the rest of the day. Today, Emma had to resort to beating her at her own game, arriving a half hour earlier than usual.
It worked and sadly she heard Regina’s footsteps falter briefly as she approached a few minutes later. Emma turned around, leaning back against the fence to watch her, she couldn’t take the chance that Regina would try to slip by her. “Good morning.”
Regina stopped several feet away, shifting her weight from side to side before settling. “You’re here early.”
The corner of Emma’s mouth twitched; her queen was annoyed. “We need to talk.”
Regina snorted and started towards the stables. “I think we’ve talked enough.”
Emma let her take a few steps before she said, “I have to return home.”
Regina stopped but didn’t turn around.
“The situation there is becoming precarious and I need to return and protect our people.” Emma took a few steps closer. She’d seen the slight flinch at the word ‘our’. “I was hoping I could get you to come with me.”
Regina spun around. “No.” She was already shaking her head. “No. Why would I go anywhere with you?”
Emma flinched at the vitriol she could hear in Regina’s voice. “Because you trust me.”
Regina scoffed, hating that she couldn’t deny that. Instead she took a different track. “And where would we be going? The Enchanted Forest?” She shook her head. “No. That’s crazy, Emma. You are crazy.”
Emma knew it was fear talking, but it still hurt. “I’m not crazy, and if you really thought that, you would have told someone by now.” She took a breath. “I know it’s a lot. I know in this world it sounds crazy, but I’m telling you the truth.” She hesitated then switched gears. “When you woke up in this world, did you happen to have a simple stone necklace with you?”
Subconsciously, Regina moved her hand to her chest. She didn’t wear the necklace to work, but she slept with it on every night. “How do you know about that?”
Emma rolled back her sleeve and showed Regina a wide, leather cuff on her forearm. Nestled into the leather was a perfectly, round matching stone. It wasn’t anything special; there were no markings on it, no odd colors. It was just a stone like any other, but Regina felt in her gut that there was something more to it.
“You made these for us, twice actually. They warm to the touch and let us know the other was holding theirs. As kids, it was our secret signal to let each other know we’d written or that we were thinking of the other.” She put her hand over the bracer. “When we were older, I didn’t even know if you still had yours anymore, but I’d always hold it when I was thinking about you. I’d always hoped it had offered you some comfort.”
Regina remembered the night she’d woken at the retreat; the stone had warmed against her chest and she’d heard a voice. It was the first night she’d remembered her name. “You said you loved me.”
Emma blinked, not sure what she was talking about. “I do.”
“No.” Regina made a cutting gesture with her hand. “I heard you one night. You said, ‘I love you, Regina’. I thought it was just another dream, but when I woke up, the stone was warm against my skin.”
Emma looked relieved. “So, you believe me?”
Regina took a step back, shaking her head. “No,” she whispered. “No, I won’t believe you.”
“Won’t,” Emma repeated, equal parts frustration and heartbreak clear in her voice.
The main light in the barn turned on, illuminating the ring. They knew it was Tony’s way of subtly interrupting them. She looked once more into Emma’s gaze, the emerald green imploring her to admit her feelings, but Regina just shook her head and turned on her heel. “We have work to do.”
“Scott just told me that you’re leaving tonight!”
Emma looked up from the trough she and Tony were repairing as Regina strode into the barn. She glanced at the old man. He shrugged and muttered something about needing more nails as he walked off in the opposite direction. Emma dusted off her hands, waiting for Regina to be within talking range. “I told you I had to go home.”
“You didn’t say you were leaving tonight.”
Emma rubbed the back of her neck. “Why do you care when I leave?”
“Right,” Emma said and sat down on the edge of the trough. “Because you won’t believe me.”
Regina exhaled and shook her head. “How can I?”
“How can you not?” Emma argued. She gestured towards the doors with her hand. “How do you explain Ruby?”
“I try not to think about her,” Regina admitted. She walked over and sat down next to Emma. “Of course it doesn’t help that now I’m seeing her in my dreams, too.”
“You mean your memories?”
“Right. Memories.” Regina pinched the bridge of her nose.
“We could get them back, you know,” Emma said. “Mal says there’s a potion that should restore your memories.”
“A potion.” She dropped her head back and stared at the ceiling. She found herself doing that a lot the last few days especially when she heard words like potion and curses. It was like she had dropped into a damn Harry Potter novel. “And Mal is my godmother who also happens to be a dragon.”
Emma nodded and offered Regina her hand; she was pleasantly surprised when Regina clasped it in her own. “Come home with me, Regina.”
“This is my home.”
“No. It isn’t.”
“These people took me in when I had nothing. They gave me a home,” Regina argued. “They made me part of their family. And now you just want me to give all that up for some fantasy where I’m a fairytale princess.” When Emma didn’t immediately argue back, she continued, “Do I even have family there?”
“Yes!” Emma turned towards her. “You have Mal and Ruby. You have me.”
“What about parents? My mother and father? Do I have any siblings?”
“You’re an only child,” Emma answered, fidgeting slightly. “I don’t know what happened to your father, but I know when we were young, you spoke highly of him. You said he was a good man.”
Regina waited for more, then pressed, “And my mother?”
Emma stared down at their joined hands; a sinking feeling in her gut made her think it might be the last time she got to hold her wife’s hand. “Your mother…” she hesitated. “Your mother was not a good person. She was…abusive to you.”
Regina got to her feet, dropping Emma’s hand as she absently touched the scar above her lip. “Love is weakness.”
“No!” Emma jumped to her feet, grabbing Regina by the arms. “Don’t let her get in your head like that. She pulled that shit for years but you know better now.”
Regina was standing in front of an older woman no taller than herself. She had a cruel, calculating expression, but she smiled as she handed Regina a knife.
“Don’t disappoint me, Regina.”
Regina grasped Emma’s forearms to steady herself. There was more to that memory than the small amount she’d seen. She could still feel the tears on her face, a pain in her chest, and a fear that burned through her veins even now. “Emma.” She blinked back tears. “Who was my mother?”
Emma swallowed thickly. “Her name is Cora.”
“My mother is alive?”
More jumbled images crowded into Regina’s mind. Bits and pieces of nightmares that she’d been having for months now had the older woman’s face in them. “Is she the reason you have to go back?”
“Yes,” Emma admitted.
Realization dawned and Regina took a stumbling step backwards. Her voice was barely a whisper when she asked, “Is she the one that did this to me?”
Sorrowful green eyes met frightened brown and Emma knew Regina would not be returning with her. Why would anyone return to a world that had treated them so poorly?
Land Without Magic – Present
It was quiet in the stables as Regina brushed down her favorite stallion’s coat. It was unnecessary as he’d been properly groomed at the end of his day, but she needed something to do. At the end of her day, she’d briefly returned to her apartment but found it stifling. She’d retreated then to the barn; the horse didn’t seem to mind the extra attention. He was solid black except for two white socks on his front legs. Regina remembered that Emma had commented on his socks, wondering if his name was Two Socks.
“I think not,” Regina grumbled as she ran the brush over his flank. “What a ridiculous name that would be for a horse of your magnitude.” She leaned her head against him as she thought of Emma’s reaction when she’d told her his name.
“His name is Rocinante.”
“Rocinante,” Emma repeated, surprise coloring her expression. “H-how did you come up with that?”
“It’s a good name for a horse, don’t you think?” Regina said, smiling. He was the first horse Scott had given her the responsibility for naming. His old trainer had called him Jerry, but they wanted something a bit stronger for his official title. One of the first books Regina read while at the retreat had been Don Quixote. When she explained the premise of the book to Emma, the blonde’s eyebrows had shot up her forehead.
She cleared her throat then asked, “So, you enjoy tales of knights and chivalry?”
Regina thumped her head against Rocinante causing him to huff and side-step away from her. How could she have possibly known at the time that Emma was crazy and thought herself a knight? The blonde practically was Don Quixote.
But that still didn’t explain Ruby.
Regina was finishing up the last of the accounting that she’d wanted to complete for the day. It had taken her twice as long as usual to do because, quite frankly, her mind was on other matters. Like the fact that, according to Emma, she had a mother that wanted her dead.
Regina shoved the log book into the file cabinet and then stood there. Well, the way Emma told it, her mother didn’t want her dead, just…gone? Crazy? She shook her head and shoved the drawer closed with more force than necessary. Turning around from the file cabinet, Regina almost screamed, her hand going to her chest as she sucked in a breath.
“Sorry! Sorry!” Ruby held up her hands and backed up. “I thought you heard me come in.”
Regina took a steadying breath as she leaned back against the row of file cabinets. Her heart was racing at the sight of her unexpected visitor. Once she caught her breath, she glared at the lanky brunette looking sheepish, standing in front of her desk. She’d only caught glimpses of the alleged wolf once or twice the past few days and wondered if Ruby had been staying out of sight or given up her guard duty.
“I suppose Emma sent you,” Regina said, straightening folders on her very neat desk.
“Nah,” Ruby said easily, sounding more like the Pilates instructor than some royal affiliate. “She actually told me not to bother you. That you’d made up your mind.”
“Oh.” Regina felt oddly disappointed at that. She glanced up at the brunette. “Then why-?”
Ruby dropped a set of car keys on the desk. “I parked it over at your apartment. Thought you could use it.” She stuck her hands in her pockets. “Don’t worry, I cleaned all the dog hair off the seats and everything.”
The attempt at humor went straight past Regina as she stared at the set of keys. “You’re giving me your car?”
Ruby shrugged. “I mean, I won’t be needing it anymore.” She glanced back over her shoulder, ensuring they were alone. “We don’t really use vehicles like that back home.”
“Right. No cars in the…” She couldn’t say it.
“Enchanted Forest,” Ruby finished for her.
“That.” Regina cleared her throat. “So, uhm, if you aren’t driving, how will you, uhm…?” She didn’t know quite what she was asking or why.
Ruby grinned. “I’ll run and Emma will take one of the horses out to the Twin Gap,” she said, referring to one of the trails. “We’ll use a portal to go home. The horse knows its way back to the barn.”
“Portal,” Regina repeated. She hated that she often found herself repeating words when talking to Ruby or Emma. She straightened the pile of folders again. “When, uh, when will you be leaving?”
“Once it gets dark,” Ruby said, hooking her thumb back towards the front of the main house. “Don’t want to scare the locals.”
“Right.” A silence fell between them. It was different from when she essentially said goodbye to Emma. That had been fraught with tension, awkwardness, and yearning. Ruby had been the first person in this world that she had trusted. Regina didn’t want to say good-bye to her friend. “Will I…I mean, will you ever come back?”
“I don’t know,” Ruby admitted, scuffing her boot against the floor. “Travel between realms isn’t exactly easy.” She looked up. “You know that Emma doesn’t want to leave you here, right? Like, if it wasn’t for the threat against your people, she wouldn’t go back. Not without you.”
“And that threat is my mother, right?” Regina scoffed, but it was weak. “And my people? The only people I have are the ones here at this ranch.”
“I won’t tell Mal you said that,” Ruby said, her eyes flashing yellow. “As for your mom,” she practically growled, “she’s a piece of work.” She rolled her shoulders like a fighter getting warming-up. “I just hope we can handle her without you.”
She’d retreated a step at the sight of Ruby’s wolf-like eyes but found herself moving forward, concerned. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing. Never mind.” Ruby bumped her fist against the desk. “Good luck, Regina.”
As quietly and as unexpectedly as she’d arrived, Ruby had left the office before Regina could think of a thing to say in reply. As she’d entered the stables to brush down Rocinante, Regina had seen Emma riding out with the wolf running beside her. Now, an hour later, the sun was starting to set and she had a bad feeling she just couldn’t shake.
“It’ll be dark soon.”
Regina startled for the second time that day, her hand tightening around the coarse brush she’d been using. She turned to glare at Tony, leaning against the entrance of the stall. “What is it with people sneaking up on me today?”
The old man shrugged. It wouldn’t do to point out that Regina was the one spacing out and not paying attention. He’d never seen her so distracted and unaware of her surroundings as she’d been the past few days. Ever since she’d arrived at the ranch, she’d been hyper alert, almost paranoid until the blonde had shown up. She’d become a different person in Emma’s company; it’d been a change he’d been relieved to see. She was too young to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders alone; it had seemed to him that Emma had been all too willing to help shoulder the load.
“What are you doing out here?” she asked, returning to her brushing with rough strokes.
Tony was a man of few words, and he didn’t think she actually cared why he was at the barn so late so he didn’t bother answering. He just watched her brush the coat that was already shining. He didn’t know exactly what Emma and that other brunette woman had been up to, but he’d taken Emma at her word that the horse would return after dark. Then Emma had thanked him for the past few weeks and said her good-byes. He’d watched her stare longingly as Regina had crossed from the main house, walking back towards her apartment, seemingly ignorant of her audience.
“Look out for her, won’t you, Tony?”
The whispered plea had almost been too quiet for Tony to hear, but he had. He’d nodded and watched the blonde retreat back into the stables. It had been a long time since he’d seen anyone look at another person the way he and his wife used to look at each other, but Emma certainly watched Regina the way he had always watched his Cynthia. Cynthia had been gone going on seven years, but the grief he could see in Regina’s eyes was the same that he felt every morning when he woke up and had to remember Cynthia was gone.
And if he was being completely honest, he could hear his Cynthia chiding him to do something about it. With a sigh, he moved further into the stall and gently stopped Regina, taking the brush from her hand. He set it down on the small shelf then turned back to find her with a lost look on her face. He gripped her upper arm and gave it a squeeze. “You should go.”
Her watery brown eyes searched his face. “Go where?”
He nodded out towards the trails. “Family should stick together.”
She let out a breathy, sobbing chuckle. He made it sound so simple. “She thinks she’s a knight.”
Tony shrugged; he didn’t see what was so bad about being a knight. “She loves you.”
Tears rolled down Regina’s face before she could stop them. She turned away from him, wiping furiously at them. Emma loved her? She exited the stall and paced down the wide aisle of the barn. Emma thought she was from another realm. Regina ground the heels of her hands against her eyes. Emma was crazy. Regina reached the end of the barn and stared out at a grey sky. The sun was already down. The warm colors of sunset had faded into grey and the sky would soon be dark. Emma was going home once it got dark.
Emma might be crazy, but Regina finally realized – she didn’t care.
She blinked. It was going to be dark soon. Emma was leaving- “Oh shit.”
Regina spun around; Tony was already walking towards her, leading a saddled Rocinante. She could kiss the old man.
“You know what trail they took?” he asked, holding Rocinante steady as Regina swung up into the saddle.
“Yes.” Ruby had told her. Thank God for Ruby. “Tony, I…”
He nodded, gave her a warm smile. “Go on then.”
She nodded back, took the reins, and turned towards the outer field. As soon as they passed the fence, she urged Rocinante to run. Gripping the reins in one hand, she reached up and wrapped her free hand around the simple stone necklace. “I’m coming, Emma.”
She smiled when she felt the stone warm in her hand.
Check the heading, the EF has caught up to the Present
The Enchanted Forest – The Present
Maleficent stood as still as the night air. She had the patience of a hundreds-year-old dragon; she would wait all night if need be.
“You’re sure they’re coming through tonight?”
Mal closed her eyes and exhaled slowly in an effort to remain calm. She may have been mistaken for a statue with her stillness, but unfortunately Emma’s mother had no such serenity. Mal had not invited the woman down to the courtyard, but apparently Snow had caught on that the dragon was in contact with Emma. Her little birds had likely reported back that Mal and the young wolf pack had gone down to the courtyard to await the queen’s return. Snow and Charming had appeared shortly after she arrived, demanding to know if their daughter was returning home. Upon their arrival, Zelena had opted out of the reunion, leaving Mal to fend off the do-gooders alone. Mal had plans to get Z back for that.
“How exactly is it that you talked to Emma?”
A puff of smoke escaped Mal’s nostrils and one of the young wolves whined. Allowing for a mother’s concern, Mal had told Snow when she arrived that she had communicated with Emma and they would be returning tonight. She’d thought it was rather generous of her to share that much information. The way Snow peppered her with questions regarding all manner of things that were none of her business, Mal regretted having given up even that bit of information.
“Snow,” Charming drawled from a nearby bench. He, at least, had had the sense to back off and leave a dragon alone. “It’s a magic portal; they’ll get here when they need to.”
“I know.” She turned towards him. “But I miss her. I miss our daughter.”
Mal rolled her eyes as the former queen whined and fluttered over to seek comfort in her husband’s arms. It wasn’t like Emma had ridden off to war (again). However, Mal did have a niggling concern. She had expected the portal to have opened by now. She was beginning to wonder if they’d run into a problem.
The last time she had spoken with the Savior via magical mirror, the blonde had admitted Regina didn’t believe her and wasn’t coming home with them. Mal had argued for a more forceful approach; she was prepared to knock the poor girl out and drag her through the portal. Emma hadn’t agreed, said something about trying again later. Rather than argue, Mal simply made her own plans. Once Emma was back and the Cora situation was taken care of, the dragon was going to get her goddaughter back. One way or another.
Once the mirror’s connection had been cut off, Mal had been surprised to be confronted by Zelena.
“You’re going to go after Regina yourself, aren’t you?”
Mal had seen no reason to lie. “Yes.”
The witch nodded. “I want in.”
It had been a rather strange exchange and Maleficent still wasn’t sure what motives were driving the witch. She hadn’t decided if she’d let Zelena join her or not when a disturbance in the air had Mal opening her eyes. The four young wolves stood up, ears perked forwards. There was a distinct smell of fire just before the portal flared to life.
Ruby was the first one through. She gave Mal a huge smile and nodded her head before stepping out of the way. Disconcerted, Mal watched the portal, her inner dragon lifted her head, attention piqued. When Emma stepped through, hand clasped tightly around and followed closely by Regina, Mal released a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
Mal watched as Regina stared, open-mouthed and wide-eyed at her surroundings. The main part of the castle loomed over the courtyard, soldiers in metal armor lined the walls, and then of course, there was Snow White.
“Emma!” Snow practically squealed, rushing forward.
Emma held up a hand. “Hey, whoa! Slow down, Mom.” She glanced over her shoulder, checking on Regina who had tucked herself into Emma’s side. “Doing all right?”
“This is all…real?” She eyed the elaborate gown Emma’s mother was wearing and the man standing behind her with a sword strapped to his hip. “Guess you’re not crazy, after all.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Ruby quipped, trying to lighten the moment. Regina’s gaze silently thanked her, then widened when she saw the four wolves clustered around Ruby’s legs.
“Mother, there’s someone I would like you to meet. Again,” Emma said. She squeezed Regina’s hand. “This is Regina. She doesn’t remember any of this right now, so let’s try not to overwhelm her on her first night back.”
Snow waved off the concern. “Of course, of course.” She smiled at Regina then turned back to her daughter. “Can I have a hug now?”
Emma laughed and let go of Regina’s hand to properly greet her parents.
“Hello, little one,” Mal said calmly.
Regina turned and eyed the woman standing off to the side. There was something incredibly familiar about her, and Regina took a few steps closer to her. The older blonde tilted her head as Regina studied her.
“I’ve seen you in my dreams before,” Regina said, her nose wrinkling as the wind caught a scent of brimstone.
“Good dreams, I hope.”
Regina considered her answer. She hadn’t really thought about it, but, “Nothing bad ever happened while you were present. Only after you left…”
Cautiously, Mal reached a hand towards Regina’s face. When the younger woman didn’t pull back, Mal trailed the back of her fingers over Regina’s cheek. “I’m sorry I was ever away from your side.”
Regina leaned into the touch, closing her eyes. “You must be Maleficent.”
“I am indeed, little one.”
Regina opened her eyes and glanced to the side at Ruby who was practically bursting with happiness. She had been ever since Regina showed up at the portal. “Ruby may have told me about you.”
“And what did the little pup tell you?”
Regina ducked her head, grinning at Ruby’s indignation despite everything. “She, uh, might have mentioned that you can turn into a dragon.”
Mal arched an eyebrow. “Is that something you would like to see?”
Regina’s head shot up, eyes widening. “You mean, you can…you can do that?” At Maleficent’s nod, she swallowed hard. “Oh.” She’d never been so thankful in her life that Emma chose that moment to join them.
“I see you’ve re-met your godmother,” Emma said. She nodded respectfully to the dragon, thankful for everything she’d done.
Regina gave her head a little shake. “Actually, we hadn’t even gotten to that small detail, yet.”
“Ah,” Emma nodded knowingly. “The dragon thing?” When Regina nodded, Emma bumped her with her shoulder. “She doesn’t want anyone to know this, but she actually let me ride her once.”
“Child,” Maleficent snorted smoke at Emma, “you push your luck.”
“Wow.” Regina didn’t think her eyes could get much wider, but the smoke had been a surprise.
“How about we save the dragon introduction for tomorrow,” Mal suggested, returning her attention to Regina. “I’m sure you have enough to wrap your head around as it is.”
“Shall we go inside,” Emma asked, offering Regina her elbow.
“Into the castle?” Regina chuckled a bit nervously, eyeing the towering stone structure. “Sure.”
“A moment, please,” Mal said, stopping them. She glanced purposefully at Emma, who took the hint and stepped away, taking the opportunity to greet her wolf pack.
Regina frowned at the serious expression on the older woman’s face. “What is it?”
“Nothing bad,” Mal assured her. “I just wanted to tell you, wanted you to know, that I am on your side in all things.”
“W-what do you mean?” Regina asked, glancing nervously now over at Emma.
“I don’t mean to worry you, little one. As much as it pains me to say it, these are good people and Emma, most of all, wants nothing but the best for you. You can trust them,” she said, trying to reassure. “However, I am here for you. A dragon does not give its loyalty easily. If you decide you want to leave, I will help you leave. If you disagree with a decision, know that I will take your side. If you have questions, doubts, fears, I am here for you.” She took Regina’s hand. “I am yours, not theirs.”
It was an intense declaration that in the real-world Regina would’ve probably found a bit disturbing. But in this place, she found it oddly comforting. She squeezed the dragon’s hand. “Thank you.”
“Everything okay?” Emma asked, slowly rejoining them. “If not, I’m sure my mother has another bluebird story she can tell me.”
“That sacrifice won’t be required, Savior,” Mal assured her, then frowned. “However, we do need to talk. I’m afraid there’s a problem with the memory potion.”
The Enchanted Forest – The Present
After a quick bite to eat despite Snow’s attempts to make the meal into a celebration, the five women reconvened in Emma’s bedchambers. Regina was still a bit shell-shocked, taking in everything she saw with the wide eyes of a child. Zelena had remained scarce until they’d left the dining area, joining them once they’d reached Emma’s rooms.
“So, that’s her,” Zelena said quietly, watching Regina with a keen-eyed interest as the brunette walked around Emma’s room. Emma was with her, pointing out this and that.
“This room is probably familiar to her,” Ruby said, subtly positioning herself between the two queens and the witch. “Lots of memories here with her and Emma.”
Maleficent didn’t bother being subtle. “Is Regina the reason you’re here?”
Zelena’s gaze slowly tracked to the dragon’s. “Isn’t she the reason we’re all here?” She smirked, then poured herself a drink.
“Okay, so, it’s been a really long day and I have a feeling you all are about to make it even longer.” Emma guided Regina to the chair closest to the fireplace and the group gathered around in a half circle. “Mal, you mentioned there was a problem with the memory potion.”
Mal reluctantly pulled her attention away from the witch. “The memory potion isn’t going to work. We’re missing a key ingredient.”
“What are we missing?” Emma asked, seeing Regina look down at her hands. Mal handed over the ingredients list, letting Emma read it for herself. She saw the problem when she got to the last item. “The blood of a close relative – freely given.”
Ruby swore under her breath. “We know Cora isn’t going to give that up.”
Regina reached for the parchment when Emma dropped her hand to her side. She wanted to see what these other so-called ingredients were. “Do I not have any other relatives?”
Mal stepped forward, opening her mouth to explain when Zelena spoke up. “Actually, this is where I come in.”
Everyone in the room looked at the witch; frowns, confusion, and suspicion were present in all their gazes. Regina hadn’t formally met the witch but Emma had explained who she was. Unlike with the others, she felt no familiarity with the redhead. But the spot in her chest that usually only reacted to Emma’s presence was active, she felt drawn in some way to the witch.
“It’s time I reveal that secret you’ve all been so keenly aware I was hiding,” Zelena admitted, winking at Ruby who growled. “The potion will work,” she held Regina’s curious gaze, “because I will supply the blood of a close relative. I’m your sister, Regina.”
“What?” Emma asked, more surprised by the news than Regina.
“That’s not possible,” Mal breathed, eyes narrowing as she looked more closely at Zelena.
“Please,” Zelena said, rolling her eyes, “Cora was no saint which makes it extremely possible.” She gave a little shrug of her shoulders. “Actually, we’re only half-sisters if you want to get technical, but details, details.”
Regina looked between Ruby and Emma then to Maleficent. Ruby and Emma she, at least, felt like she knew. Maleficent had promised she was on Regina’s side no matter what. None of the three looked thrilled or convinced at this news. “I don’t understand.”
“That makes two of us,” Emma said.
“Three,” Ruby muttered.
“How difficult is it to understand?” Zelena asked rhetorically. “Cora slept around and had an illegitimate child that she abandoned. Moi.” She scoffed, “Surely, you can believe the woman capable of such an act.”
“But where have you been all this time, child?” Maleficent asked, moving closer. A subtle touch with her magic suggested Zelena was telling the truth.
“And why show up when you did?” Emma asked. “Why reveal yourself now?”
“I’m here for Regina, of course,” Zelena admitted. She rolled her eyes when Emma moved in front of the brunette. “I’m not here to hurt her. If I wanted to do that, I could have done it any time in the past year when she was powerless and you were fighting zombies.”
“What do you want with me?” Regina asked, standing up so Emma no longer blocked her. They were really going to have to have a discussion about that if she decided to stay here.
Zelena sighed heavily as though it pained her. “There was a time when I was jealous of you. After all, mother kept you. Me, she abandoned. Threw me in a cyclone that took me to Oz.”
“Regina’s childhood was nothing to envy,” Maleficent interjected.
“Oh, I agree,” Zelena admitted. “Now, anyway. When I first found out about Regina, all I saw was the daughter Cora raised.” She gestured widely with her hand. “A powerful girl trained in her magic, provided with everything she could ever want. So what if mother was a bit harsh with her discipline on occasion? It was only because she wanted the very best for the daughter she chose to keep.
“But as the years went on, I began to see Cora for the monster she is. Regina wasn’t her daughter so much as she was her slave. And a mistreated slave, at that.” Zelena eyed her sister. “That day she tortured you by holding your heart over a flame, I began to make preparations to intervene. As fate would have it, you managed to save yourself via the Savior shortly thereafter. The war ended; everyone had their happily ever after.”
“Except they didn’t,” Ruby pointed out.
“Indeed,” Zelena agreed. “Again, my concern was for my sister. When Cora pushed her through that portal, I kept my focus concentrated on her. She seemed safe enough despite her predicament. That’s when I checked in on you lot and it became obvious that without my help, you’d lose the fight against Cora. I couldn’t allow that so I…intervened.”
“That’s why you wouldn’t help with the blood lock on her cell,” Maleficent said, “and blood magic is how you found Cora when no one else could.”
“You always were a clever dragon,” Zelena said, giving her a wink, “and up until the other night when she tried to escape, Cora had no idea who I was.”
“You blasted her with magic,” Emma said.
Zelena nodded. “She’ll recognize my magic now, recognize elements of herself within it.”
Regina slipped her hand into Emma’s, seeking comfort. “What does that mean?”
“My magic against hers will be less effective now; she’ll be prepared for it,” Zelena explained. “Rather like hitting yourself, it’s not quite as impactful.”
“But that only matters if you were having a magic fight with her, right?” Ruby asked, looking around the room. “I mean, stripping Cora’s magic from her won’t exactly be a fight, will it?”
“You think she isn’t going to resist, wolf?” Mal asked, brow raised. “Why do you think we needed Emma and Regina here? It’s going to take all of us to take that woman down permanently.”
Regina’s eyes were wide. “I – I don’t have magic.”
Emma squeezed her hand, reassuringly. “You have more magic than all of us.”
“Speak for yourself, Savior,” Zelena sneered; Mal didn’t disagree with her.
“Okay, but even if that’s true,” Regina said, looking around at them all, “I don’t know how to use magic.”
“Don’t worry, little sis,” Zelena assured her. “The memory potion will restore the majority of your memories, if not all. Soon enough, you’ll know exactly how to work your magic.”
“With my memories back,” she looked at Emma, “we’ll be true loves again?”
Mal and Zelena exchanged a look. Mal cleared her throat, “It doesn’t quite work that way. The potion will restore your memories, but it won’t break the curse.”
“Meaning?” Emma asked.
“Regina will remember everything – growing up with Emma, being tortured by mother, fighting a war, getting married. She’ll be able to recall all of it, but there will be no emotion attached to it, no resonance,” Zelena explained not unkindly. She looked at Regina. “You won’t feel what you felt. You will remember you loved Emma, but you won’t feel that love. The memory will simply exist as part of your past.”
“That part of the curse cannot be circumvented with a simple potion, I’m afraid,” Mal said.
“Only true love’s kiss can break the curse,” Emma said, looking at Regina, “but she won’t love me.”
The Enchanted Forest – The Present
Regina stood on the balcony overlooking the western fields. The western tower wasn’t one of the more frequented areas of the castle and she’d been hidden away there since the afternoon. She’d watched the sun set and now she could see the stars in the night sky. She could easily remember many nights when she and Emma had sat out on the balcony off of Emma’s room, playing chess or making up stories about the nighttime stars, constellations her new memories from the other realm supplied. Those nights had been the highlights of her childhood.
She’d drunk the memory potion in the afternoon of her second day in this crazy place. As soon as Zelena had handed her that goblet, everything had changed.
A golden colored liquid swirled in the bottom of the goblet. Regina frowned at it then at the witch. “I thought it had to have your blood in it.”
“Only a drop, dear,” Zelena admitted. “You won’t even notice.”
Regina nodded like she understood then looked up again. Everyone was watching her expectantly and she took an instinctive step back. “Uhm…”
“Mom. Dad. Do you think you could give us a minute?” Emma said, turning to her parents and their shadow of guards.
Snow appeared ready to protest when David put his hand over hers. “Of course,” he said, guiding his wife towards the door. “Let us know how it goes.”
Emma walked them and their four guards to the door of the library, closing it behind them. She had reduced the number of people in the room by half and shrugged at Regina. “Sorry,” she gestured at the others, “I won’t be able to get them to leave.”
Regina looked over the rest of the group and gave Emma a grateful smile. “This is…better. Thank you.” She swirled the drink again then raised it in salute. “To the wolf, the dragon, the witch, and the knight – never thought I’d say that.” She grimaced, then, “Salud.”
The aforementioned women collectively held their breath as Regina downed the potion.
Regina was pleasantly surprised the potion tasted like peaches. She discretely wiped a stray drop away from her lip and set the goblet down. She took in a deep breath, holding it, waiting, but then shrugged her shoulders at her captive audience. “I don’t feel anything.”
“Give it a minute,” Zelena warned, her eyes narrowing slightly.
“Maybe you should sit down,” Emma suggested and Ruby agreed with a fervent head nod.
Regina looked to Mal, but the dragon simply waited. Her cool gaze holding Regina’s until the brunette could hear Emma humming. She closed her eyes and heard laughter, a flash of blonde hair and green eyes was the first memory that returned. Emma. They were dancing together…at their wedding. They were happy. Regina opened her eyes and found Emma standing close, watching her cautiously. “Emma.”
“Yeah?” Emma asked, stepping closer, hopeful.
Then the rest of her memories began to pour in and Regina grabbed the back of a chair to steady herself. The library faded out of view as a trickle of memories quickly turned into a waterfall and she felt herself drowning.
“How are you feeling, little one?”
Regina wrapped her arms around her middle. She wasn’t surprised Mal was the one to find her. Not that she’d really been missing. She may have removed herself from the library, away from prying, concerned eyes, but magic had always known where she was. Emma’s magic, which she could now recognize for what it was, had followed her and then, with the exception of hourly check-ins, left her in peace.
Regina turned away from the night sky, slowly realizing she was actually cold, and eyed her godmother. “Honestly, I feel like I have the worst hangover in the history of hangovers.”
“Hangover,” Mal repeated, unfamiliar with the term.
Regina sighed at the collision of her two worlds. “I guess having a dragon constitution kept you from ever feeling the day after effects of too much libation?”
Mal seemed to consider it. “Wine has never affected me much, it’s true, but there was a time when I knew a certain potion that helped me to take the edge off.” She smiled wanly, remembering. “The mornings after were never pleasant.” She clasped her hands in front of her. “If you have a headache, I’m sure we can find something to help.”
Regina waved her off. “I think I’ve had enough potions for one day.” She sat down on a chaise that hadn’t been there when she arrived and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders. She could practically smell Emma’s magic on it. “Say what you will about the land without magic, but their liquor is better and their aspirin is a magic of its own.”
“Something we will have to learn how to make here then,” Mal offered. She sat down next to Regina. “And how are you feeling in other regards?”
Regina huffed out a short unamused laugh. “Like a hot mess.”
“You’ve been spending too much time with Ruby,” Mal growled with affection. “You’re starting to sound like her.”
Regina pushed to her feet unable to remain seated. “There’s a part of me that says she’s the person I’ve known the longest while the other part of my mind knows I’ve known her the least.” She leaned back against the balcony. “Well, except for Zelena, but that’s a whole other issue.”
Mal nodded, then asked, “And Emma?”
Regina’s shoulders dropped as she thought of the blonde. “Ever since I met Emma, I’ve been drawn to her. I’m comfortable around her; she makes me laugh.” She pressed her fist to her breastbone. The warm ball of energy that she could now associate to her magic was beginning to pulse. “But the Emma I know, the Emma I might have feelings for, I only met three weeks ago. And yet…”
“And yet…you can remember being a child with her,” Mal offered when Regina trailed off.
“Yeah,” Regina sighed.
“Well, there’s no rush,” Mal said, getting to her feet. “After we deal with Cora, you’ll have time to explore those feelings you have for Emma. Perhaps, something will develop between her and this new you.”
“Perhaps,” Regina murmured. When the magic in her chest began to warm again, she held onto it and looked expectantly at the door. With a twist of her fingers, she swung it open to reveal Emma standing there, her fist raised to knock.
“Uhm, hi,” she said then gestured at the door. “I see you got your magics working.”
“Some,” Regina admitted. “Would you like to join us?”
Emma leaned in a little further until she spotted Mal. “Oh, hey Mal.” She looked between the two. “I didn’t, I mean, I’m not interrupting anything important, am I?”
“I wouldn’t have opened the door if you had been,” Regina said not unkindly. According to her memories, this was the Emma that Regina was very familiar with. Slightly awkward but sweet. Oddly enough, the Emma she’d known on the ranch had rarely seemed unsure of herself. It was something she’d have to give further thought to.
“Oh, right.” Emma rubbed the back of her neck. “Well, Z is downstairs and wanted to know if you felt like practicing some magic.” She grinned. “I set up a bunch of pillows around the room like they had in the magic room in Harry Potter. For, you know, soft landings and all.”
Regina raised an eyebrow in question. “You read Harry Potter?”
“Ruby recommended them,” Emma said, appearing sheepish again. “She said you enjoyed them at the retreat, and I wanted us to have something in common we could talk about…”
Regina had leant Ruby the book when she’d first shown up at the retreat. Regina had read the entire series when she’d first arrived there. At the time, it had been a comforting fantasy world she could escape to. Now, she couldn’t help but wonder if her interest in books about a magical boy had been trying to tell her something all along. She briefly wondered what Scott would do with the belongings she had left behind.
“I brought a set back with me,” Emma said. “They’re part of the library now if you ever want to read them.” When she didn’t receive any sort of response to what she had hoped would be good news, she looked more closely at the brunette. “Regina?”
“Hmm?” She hadn’t realized she’d gotten so lost in thought but looked up to find Emma and Mal watching her expectantly. “I’m sorry. Did you say something?”
“Nothing important,” Emma said, disappointed. Gamely, she recovered, “So, feel like practicing?”
Regina studied Emma. They needed her to practice magic; she wanted to practice magic. And yet, there was a part of her that wished she could simply go back to the ranch. She could train the horses, do the accounting, and be so completely normal life would be boring. Studying the green eyes that watched her with such concern, Regina couldn’t help but wonder if Emma wanted to go back to.
“Regina?” Mal prodded.
She nodded, letting go of her fantasy world. “Sure, let’s go cast some spells.”
Hours later, panting and exhausted, Regina collapsed against a still slightly smoking pillow that had singed feathers sticking out of it. She had a grin on her face that she couldn’t seem to shake. What had started out as simple magic lessons had devolved quite quickly into barely controlled chaos. The receiving hall of Snow’s castle was almost a smoldering ruin.
“This is your fault,” Regina said laughing as she picked a feather out of Emma’s hair when the blonde flopped down next to her.
The blonde still had a streak of glowing green magic wiped across her face; Zelena claimed it would be gone by morning. “Mal started it.”
The dragon huffed at the younger generation. She stood mostly untouched since no one had a true death wish. “You always learned better with practical.”
“Things were getting a bit dull,” Zelena said, joining them. She was rubbing at a particularly nasty singe mark across her upper arm. “All right, who used elf magic?”
Regina and Emma exchanged a look. Emma jumped to her feet, overexaggerating a stretch. “Well, as much fun as this has been,” she let out a huge mostly real yawn, “it’s been a really long couple of days.” She pulled Regina to her feet. “Think I’ll call it a night.”
“Swan! I cannot get elf magic out of silk!” Zelena growled.
Mal rolled her eyes as Emma and Regina began inching their way towards the door and potential escape. “Wait until you see the fairie dust coating the bottom of your skirt.”
Emma burst out laughing as she and Regina bolted for the door. They could hear Zelena raving about never fighting with someone who uses light magic again. Just to be safe, Regina poofed them back to Emma’s rooms.
As the dark purple smoke dissipated around them, Emma grinned. “Hey, your magic is turning back to purple.”
“Is that…good?” Regina asked, looking around them, watching as the smoke faded to nothing.
“I think so,” Emma admitted. “When you were a kid it was really pale, like a lilac color. But when you were older…”
Regina understood. “It got darker.” When Emma nodded, she asked, “How much darker?”
Emma rubbed the back of her neck. She thought about the night of the ambush and the way the shadows had practically hidden Regina from sight. “At the peak of the war, it was…black.” When Regina dropped her gaze to the floor, she hurried to continue, “but, you know, once the war ended and we were working towards the wedding and stuff, it was getting lighter. You were really working on it.”
Regina remembered manipulating a swirl of grey smoke around a dress on a pedestal. Snow’s royal tailors and dressmakers had made their wedding gowns; Regina had improved them. “Why did you wear a dress to our wedding?”
Emma coughed on the sip of wine she’d just taken. She hastily put the goblet back down on the table. “W-where did that come from?”
“I have several memories of us growing up, you hated dresses, but I can’t pin down why you would agree to wear one to your own wedding.”
“It was a concession for Mom, and it was more for the coronation than the wedding,” Emma shrugged. “Formality.”
“Shouldn’t you becoming queen be able to institute your own formalities?”
Emma grinned. Regina had challenged her with a similar question before. “I’ve endured worse.”
“Hmm, well, I won’t require you to wear a dress when we get married a second time,” Regina stated, amused when Emma sputtered again.
“I have feelings for you, Emma. They’re messy and confused right now with all this memory-no-memory curse magic, but,” she held out a hand to the blonde, “do you really think I would’ve followed you through a portal if I didn’t care for you?”
Emma gave her a goofy smile as they joined hands. “I hoped we’d have a chance, but as you say, between the curse and potions and magic, I wasn’t sure where we were.”
“I’m still not sure where I am,” Regina admitted, “but the cursed version of me, the woman that worked on a ranch and had no real memories to speak of, that Regina was falling for a certain blonde that claimed to be from New Zealand.”
“Ruby came up with that,” Emma admitted, grinning. “I had to study a map to even know there were other countries.” She squeezed their joined hands. “For what it’s worth, I really liked that version of me.”
“And what did that version of you think about that version of me?” Regina asked, arching an eyebrow.
“I was in love with you before I saw you.” She smirked. “Then I saw you; you were leaning against the fence wearing muddied work jeans that looked like they could have been painted on. Gloves were sticking out of your back pocket and when you turned around to greet me…” Emma brought her hand up and stroked her thumb across the top of Regina’s cheek. “You had a smudge of dirt on your face that was damn near irresistible to wipe away.”
Regina felt a pang of disappointment at Emma’s admission, but it didn’t keep her from leaning into Emma’s touch. “That’s what you remember? A smudge of dirt?”
“I also enjoyed the thunderstruck expression on your face that rendered you speechless at the sight of me,” Emma laughed and stepped back when Regina pushed her.
“I’ll admit, seeing you standing there was a surprise I didn’t understand at the time,” Regina admitted, sobering. “So many things make more sense now.”
Emma watched Regina’s expression change as she mentally shifted through recent memories. She could only imagine how confusing it must be to integrate old with new with such disparate places and things. The recent said magic was impossible while the old insisted it was true. Their magic fight tonight had been a great start, but Emma knew Regina needed time.
“Well, I think I’m going to call it a night.”
“Hmmm?” Regina looked up, Emma’s voice dragging her back to the present. “Oh. Right.” She looked around the room, Emma’s room, suddenly realizing. Last night she had been too disorientated to question where Emma had slept. “What about you?”
Emma chucked her thumb over her shoulder towards the door. “It’s a castle; we’ve got plenty of bedrooms.”
Regina glanced around the room again, the blazing fire, the ornate drapes that hung from ceiling to floor, the massive bed. It was overwhelming and the magic in her chest pulsed, forcing Regina to admit that she wanted Emma to stay. “You could stay here…with me.”
“As much as I would love to do just that,” Emma closed the distance between them, her magic reaching out and caressing Regina’s, “I think I should go.” She leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on Regina’s cheek. “We’ve got time to figure us out.”
Oddly relieved and disappointed, Regina nodded her agreement. She felt her magic settle with the reassurance. “Good night then, Emma.”
The blonde grinned and stepped back. “Good night, Regina.”
In a dank, stone cell deep in the bowels of the castle, Cora smiled. She’d felt the return of her daughter the night before. The ambient magic in the castle had practically tripled with her presence. It soaked through the walls, dripping and drawn down to the dungeon where the Dark One awaited. Cora collected it, breathed it in, an ancient spell that drew power to her. Then the fools had practically doused the entire castle with magic. She’d had to sort out the Savior’s light magic from the others, but between her daughters and the dragon, she would soon have enough. Soon she would free herself from this prison and take back what belonged to her. First the kingdom and then her daughters.
The Enchanted Forest – The Present
After two days, they were all agreed that Regina’s magic was as quick to respond and as powerful as it had ever been. It was time to take care of the threat currently living beneath the castle.
“You’re waiting until morning?” Snow asked as they all sat around the large dining table.
Emma nodded. “Everyone get a good night’s sleep and we’ll finish this tomorrow.”
“Speak for yourself,” Ruby grumbled. “I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since we’ve been here. Not with knowing she’s down there probably plotting against us as we speak.”
Mal tipped her glass in Ruby’s direction. Her dragon was unsettled. She’d been in the castle the entire time they’d kept Cora as prisoner, and the entire time she’d been waiting for the sky to fall. The return of Emma and Regina had only made the storm clouds gather darker and heavier. She was ready for this to be over.
“What will you do exactly?” Snow asked.
Emma exchanged a glance with Regina. They had a plan in mind, but it was nothing Emma wanted to verbalize. She’d grown up knowing the walls were listening; it wasn’t a habit she had any intention of forgetting. A lesson her mother never seemed to learn.
“We’d rather not say,” Regina said with a glance at the staff lingering in the hall. “My mother can be quite resourceful.”
Thankfully, Snow dropped the subject only to launch directly into another that was just as bad. “Have you gone down to see her?”
Emma choked on her wine as Regina’s eyes widened in surprise. Emma wiped her mouth and glared daggers at her mother as Regina shook her head. “No, I haven’t.”
“Perhaps you should,” Snow suggested naively. “You all are preparing for a fight but don’t you think she knows she’s been beaten?”
The smell of brimstone filled the air as a puff of smoke escaped Maleficent. “Have you not paid any attention to what’s been going on the past few years?”
Zelena tossed back her entire drink in one gulp. She muttered something that sounded dangerously like idiot and Ruby quickly refilled her goblet.
Snow glared at the witch. “Surely, she’s not going to want to hurt her own daughters.”
“Snow.” Charming covered her hand on the table with his own. He shook his head. He’d been on the front lines; he’d seen the cruelty Cora was capable of committing.
“What?” Snow asked, oblivious to the incredulous stares directed at her. “I’m a mother, the only mother at this table. I think I might know a little more about that connection than anyone else.”
“She is no one’s mother,” Zelena snarled. “Pushing out a baby that she abandoned to a cyclone when I was only a day old does not make her my mother.” She pushed her chair back violently as she got to her feet. “And unless you think torture is an acceptable method of parenting, she’s no mother to Regina either.”
Snow scoffed. “Torture is a bit of an exaggeration, I’m sure.”
“Enough, Mother!” Emma slammed her fist down on the table. Seeing Regina duck her head in shame at her Snow’s words had fried what little patience she usually had for her mother’s naivety. “Stop talking about things you know nothing about.”
“A lesson we could all benefit from!”
Everyone at the table jumped to their feet as Cora strolled into the hall. With a flick of her wrist, they were all frozen in place. Growls issued from Maleficent and Ruby, Zelena could almost be mistaken for bored if it wasn’t for the sneer on her face. Charming’s hand was on his swordless hip and Snow hadn’t even made it completely out of her chair.
Another flick of her wrist and the staff lining the hall was all flung backwards, slamming into the stone walls, rendered unconscious. Cora prowled closer, eyes flicking over the gathered group, lingering on Regina before landing on Snow. She trailed the back of her hand across Snow’s cheek until her fingers encircled the younger woman’s neck. “I should snap your neck right now and be done with you for all the trouble you’ve caused.”
“She isn’t the queen,” Emma growled, magic building against the spell holding her. “Her death achieves nothing.”
“Satisfaction,” Cora argued blithely. “I’ve wanted her dead for decades.”
“Then you should get on with it,” Maleficent ground out. “You know this spell won’t hold me for long.”
“Hello, old friend,” Cora greeted her casually, straightening away from Snow. “It’s been too long.”
“I’d argue it hasn’t been long enough,” Zelena snarked.
Cora finally gave her estranged daughter her full attention. She tsked, “What a sad waste of ability you are. I’m disappointed to see you’ve allied yourself with people so obviously beneath you.” She leaned in closer to the witch, a hand raised to her chest. “I knew as soon as I saw you that you’d amount to nothing. I’m glad I rid myself of such an inferior burden.” She curled her fingers into a claw. “Perhaps now I shall make it permanent.”
“Enough, Mother!” Regina snapped able to turn her head in Cora’s direction despite the rest of her still being frozen.
“Is that sisterly concern I hear?” Cora taunted, her hand still poised to enter Zelena’s chest. “Be quiet, dear one, I’ll deal with you in a moment.”
Surprisingly, it was the wolf that broke the enchantment first. Eyes yellowed, bones shredding as Ruby lunged across the table knocking the sorceress away from the witch. The moment of inattention was enough for the rest to break free of the spell. Zelena immediately hurled fire which Regina redirected so it wouldn’t hit Ruby. Then the wolf was sent flying, a whimper which made them all flinch as she slammed into a column with a sickening crunch. And Cora was back on her feet.
“Filthy mongrel,” Cora muttered as she brushed herself off. She grinned as the four magic wielders formed a half circle in front of her. “Have none of you figured it out yet? I’m the Dark One. You can’t hurt me without the dagger.”
Snow scoffed. “I guess it’s a good thing they found the dagger ages ago.”
Emma rolled her eyes heavenward begging for the patience not to kill her own mother.
“Can you really not muzzle her?” Zelena asked.
Emma didn’t even mind when the dragon did just that. It spoke volumes that her father didn’t object. She returned her attention to Cora and saw the playful, overconfident manner was gone replaced by fury. Blood had drained from her face, making her look older and strikingly more corpse like.
Maleficent drummed her fingers in the air, feeling the magic as Cora tried to call the dagger. “That’s interesting. I did wonder if we had a fake since we couldn’t use it to control you, but your panic would suggest otherwise.”
“You doubted me?” Zelena asked, smirking at Mal then Cora.
“Rumple was a fool,” Cora spat, “allowing himself to be controlled by an object. It only took a simple spell to break that particular chain.”
“And yet, you weren’t able to break all your ties to it,” Mal said sneering. “Your magic is still tied to it.”
“Tied to it perhaps,” Cora said, matching her sneer, “but my victory here is not dependent on it.” She leveled a smirk at Emma. “Unlike yours.”
Regina struck first. Her memories served her well. She knew Cora’s tactics better than anyone and managed to throw off the spell that had been aimed at Emma before the others had realized it was forming. Just as her old love for Emma had not been returned with her memories, neither had her love for her mother. For perhaps the first time ever, she was seeing her mother clearly, and the woman snarled at her.
Magic blasted out in all directions. Mal kept her feet while everyone else was sent sprawling. She struck back at Cora with one hand while calling her staff with her other. Emma was back on her feet first, untangling herself from the other side of the table. White light shown in the palms of her hands; she directed a blast at Cora who disappeared in a whirl of smoke. She reappeared directly behind Emma and slammed her hand against Emma’s back.
“I owe you pain, Savior,” she hissed, pouring magic into Emma’s body.
“NO!” Regina screamed at the sight of Emma with her head thrown back, the cords of her neck straining against whatever spell Cora was using against her. The sisters' magic hit Cora at the same time, staggering her back enough that she released Emma. The savior dropped to her knees and toppled over. “Emma!”
Maleficent joined Zelena in the attack on Cora as Regina dropped her magic to run to Emma’s side. Black and green magic battered against a shield Cora projected, and she laughed at their efforts. An arrow zipped towards Cora from the opposite side and she caught it midair. She sneered at the stunned look on Snow’s face. “Not this time, princess.” With a flick of her hand, she sent the arrow back at Snow. The former queen dodged, but not fast enough; the arrow sank into her shoulder. Charming yelled and ran to his wife.
“Charming, get her out of here,” Maleficent called, feeling the vibration of magic building up in her staff. “Regina, we need your help.”
Regina had an unconscious Emma cradled against her. “Emma’s hurt.”
“Still need you over here,” Zelena yelled, trading fireballs for a curling stream of green magic that she tried to sneak past Cora’s shield. She exchanged a concerned look with Mal. If Emma was down for the count, they were in trouble. Emma’s light magic was rather the lynchpin in their plan to take out Cora.
“Enough of this!” Cora yelled, cutting through the air with her free hand. The magic being thrown against her was reverberated back. Mal’s staff shattered as she was thrown back; Zelena deflected her magic and managed to channel it upwards, taking out a large portion of ceiling which had them all scrambling backwards.
Regina leaned over Emma, protecting her from the falling debris, and missed her mother’s intentions. She fell over when Emma disappeared from beneath her, rematerializing in midair next to Cora. Black tendrils of magic curled and wrapped all around the savior’s body, swirling and writhing as they began to sink into her.
“Mother, no!” Regina leapt to her feet, firing a blast of magic at Cora. The older sorceress brushed it off. “Let her go!”
“Return my dagger to me,” Cora demanded.
Regina watched in horror as the darkness seeped into Emma’s skin, turning her veins black as her back arched and her mouth opened in a silent scream. Something broke open inside Regina, she couldn’t do it; she couldn’t lose Emma.
“My dagger. Now,” Cora demanded again. “Or your precious queen will suffer a fate worse than death.”
Without hesitation, Regina called the dagger to her hand.
“Regina, no!” Maleficent said, taking a step forward.
“I have to,” Regina said over her shoulder. Then she smiled and held the dagger over her head. “After all, Mother demands it.”
The darkness surrounding Emma slowed in its movements, its snake-like visage pausing as it seemed to sniff the air.
“What are you doing, child?” Cora asked.
“Disappointing you.” Regina opened her magic like a beacon, calling the darkness to her. The dark coils locked onto her power and raced towards her, pouring out of Emma and dropping her to the floor. Regina grunted as the power hit her, then smirked as she channeled it out of herself and into the dagger. The blade glowed white hot as it absorbed the power. When all the tendrils vanished into the blade, Regina lowered it until she held it directly between herself and her mother.
“No, that’s not possible.” Cora flung magic at her daughter but it was immediately sucked into the blade.
Regina began to advance towards her mother, holding the blade in front of her and using her free hand to trap her mother in place, preventing her from escaping. The dagger began to draw dark magic straight out of Cora.
“This isn’t possible!” Cora screeched, her hands flying through motions as she tried to tear away the dagger’s pull. “You are a child of the dark,” she yelled. “You can’t resist it.”
“Despite your best efforts, Mother,” Regina said calmly, arm shaking slightly as she continued to draw out her mother’s magic, “I found love in this world. And love can only exist when one allows room for the light.”
“Love is weakness!” Cora spat, continuing to fight futilely against the dagger. “I should know…” She laughed cruelly. “I loved you.”
“You never loved me,” Regina said, forcing her mother down to her knees. The magic drawing out of her was almost complete. “If you had, you wouldn’t be so vulnerable to the light.” Her mother sagged and the magic being siphoned into the dagger trailed off. “Now, Zelena.”
Zelena stepped forward, from where she’d been waiting, and violently shoved Cora’s heart back into her chest. “Your dagger wasn’t the only thing we found, Mother.”
Cora gasped in pained shock, her hand clutching at her chest even as Maleficent cast a spell that sealed her heart in place never to be taken out again.
“It’s over, Mother,” Regina said, lowering the dagger. The dark power in it whispered to her, but she ignored it as she watched tears roll down Cora’s face.
“You’re mortal now,” Mal said.
“And with no magic to save you,” Zelena added dispassionately as Cora slumped to the ground.
Regina spared one more look for the woman that had called herself her mother before tossing the dagger to Maleficent and rushing back to Emma’s side. The blonde was still collapsed and unconscious on the floor. She quickly cradled Emma’s head and shoulders onto her lap then gently rapped her face. “Emma? Emma, come on, wake up for me.” Emma remained limp against her. She looked up. “Why isn’t she waking up?”
The Enchanted Forest – The Present
It took three days for Emma to properly regain consciousness. She opened her eyes and stared up at the canopy covering of her bed. As a child her mother had always tried for wildlife patterns or pretty flowers, but Emma much preferred the simplicity of a solid color. On her eighteenth birthday, she’d been gifted a stunningly deep blue fabric that she’d immediately embraced. Looking at it now, she realized it had significantly faded over the years. How long had she been asleep?
“Three days,” Maleficent answered from her position near the side of the bed. “More or less. Welcome back.”
She frowned at the dragon. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate seeing Mal, it’s just that wasn’t exactly who she wanted to see at her bedside. Mal looked pointedly to Emma’s right and the blonde turned her head to see Regina sitting next to her on the bed. Her legs were stretched out, covered by a light blanket, her back rested against the headboard, and her head was tipped back lolling slightly to one side. Emma’s eyes widened when she heard a light snore.
“She’s barely left your side,” Mal spoke quietly. “She’s exhausted.”
Emma watched her love for a moment and knew she’d have to find a way to either wake Regina or move her eventually. Her mouth was hanging open as she slept and if Emma allowed her to be seen drooling, she’d never hear the end of it. She noticed the book that was open in Regina’s lap and recognized it immediately. “Has she been reading Harry Potter to me?”
“Unfortunately,” Mal muttered, stretching as she got to her feet.
Emma gently tugged the book from beneath Regina’s limp hand. She set it aside and then carefully moved herself up the bed, accepting help from Mal. Once she was side-long Regina, she pulled the brunette against her. Regina muttered something and several candles in the room flickered, but then she curled in and settled against Emma’s side.
Without looking up, Emma asked, “So, what happened? I mean, I remember some things.” Like kissing Regina.
“Well,” Maleficent settled at the foot of the bed, leaning back against the tall bed post. “We were right about several things regarding Cora.”
“Light magic was the key to defeating her; she had severed the spell that bound her to the dagger’s command, and she definitely had no idea we had her heart.”
“Thank goodness for Belle,” Emma muttered. She couldn’t resist; she gently stroked her fingers through Regina’s hair. “If she hadn’t told us where to look, we’d have never found her heart.”
“Oddly enough, I think Rumple could have really loved that girl,” Maleficent mused. “Not that he would have ever let himself.”
“She’s better off without him.”
“Indeed, but Cora made a mistake in throwing her out of the castle. Cora overlooked her because she was a maid, but if she had recognized that girl’s intelligence, we’d be having a completely different discussion right now.”
“Agreed,” Emma said. “I hope we can convince her to stay on.”
“Oh, I think Ruby might be able to help with that.” Mal grinned and nodded when Emma’s eyebrows shot up.
“Okay, then,” Emma chuckled. She gently tucked a stray ringlet behind Regina’s ear. “I knew Regina could do it; I knew she was stronger than her mother.”
“How do you know it was Regina? How do you know it wasn’t Z or I?” When Emma only stared at her, Mal sniffed, “I’m just saying I could have done it.” When Emma continued to stare at her, she finally relented, “All right, fine. Regina did it all by herself. I’m fairly certain she didn’t even need our help.” She sighed, straightening her cloak. “Except to knock her over the head for the last bit.”
“Why isn’t she waking up?”
Zelena almost felt sorry for her sister, the way she held her unconscious love, the desperation in the way she continued to try and wake the blonde, but she just couldn’t believe how stubbornly resistant Regina was to the obvious truth. Zel looked to Maleficent, wondering if she should just point out the obvious solution, but the dragon was staring fixedly at the dagger she now held. “Bloody hell.”
“Oi! Dragon!” She flung a green fireball right at Mal’s head. The flames flashed across her face and dragon-green eyes glared back at Zelena, finally torn from their study of the dagger. “Finally.” The witch gestured at the dagger. “Now put that bloody thing down and help me with these two lovesick fools.”
Mal blinked, green turning back to blue, then glanced at the blade still in her hand. With a snarl, she drove it deep into the wood of the dining table, a shudder running down her back as she released it. They’d have to find a very safe place to hide that. The whispers coming from the dagger had been quite seductive and almost had Mal reaching for it again until she caught Zelena still watching her. Straightening, she refused to be gracious and instead brushed at a smudge on her collar. “You singed my dress.”
“Oops.” Zelena rolled her eyes, then gestured at Regina. “Can we get on with it?”
Mal looked where she was pointing and saw the way Regina cradled Emma. “And she still hasn’t kissed her yet?”
“Everything but,” Zelena muttered.
Mal pinched the bridge of her nose. “What is it going to take to get these two together already?”
“At the rate they’re going?” Zelena got a wicked gleam in her eye. She smirked at the dragon. “Perhaps a death bed confession?”
The two sorceresses exchanged a look.
“Mal! Mal!” Regina caught sight of her and called desperately. “Do something, please! Emma…she won’t wake up.”
Maleficent made her way over and knelt down beside Emma; she skimmed her hand over the blonde’s unconscious form. With a glance at Zelena, she sighed, “I’m sorry,” she lied her ass off. “There’s nothing I can do.”
Zelena turned her back on the trio, her hand lifting to cover her mouth. Ruby, having limped over from where she’d been thrown, whined and lowered herself to the floor beside Regina. She sniffed forlornly at Emma, then pulled back and glared at the dragon. She didn’t smell death anywhere on Emma. Maleficent arched an eyebrow at her to stay quiet.
“Zelena!” Regina shifted the blonde against her, tightening her hold. “Is there anything you can do? A spell? Something?”
Zelena cleared her throat and straightened her expression before turning around. She shook her head. “She absorbed a lot of magic,” she managed convincingly. “There’s little we can do for her now.”
It was all true. There was nothing they could really do for Emma. She’d taken a big hit of magic and needed time to sleep it off. She’d be fine.
Mal felt a bit guilty for making Regina suffer, but she’d run out of ideas for how to make the younger woman admit her feelings. Mal cleared her throat and tried not to choke on the words. “There is one magic; it’s the most powerful of all.”
Zelena and Ruby held their breath when Regina didn’t immediately respond. She just kept brushing her hand through Emma’s hair, stroking her thumb over her brow and lips. Slowly, she shook her head. “True love’s kiss won’t work.”
“Why not, little one?”
“Emma loves the Regina she grew up with,” Regina sniffed. “Not me.”
“Nonsense,” Mal argued. “That girl was ready to give up her throne and go live the simple life with you on a horse farm.”
Regina blinked, tears clinging to her lashes as she looked up. “What?”
“She was coming back here to deal with Cora because she was the only one who could,” Mal explained, “but then she was going to renounce her throne so she could be with you.” Mal cupped the side of Regina’s face and thumbed away a tear. “You don’t do that sort of thing for a person you don’t love, and there was only one version of you on that horse farm, little one. She loved you.”
Regina sniffed, “She never said…”
“She didn’t want to get your hopes up in case it went bad with Cora,” Ruby offered having changed forms and thrown a cloak around her shoulders. “But she’s always loved you. Every version she’s ever met. She always will.”
“Only one question remains, sis.”
Regina glanced at the three women around her then back to the woman lying in her lap. She cradled Emma’s face between her hands. Even at death’s door, she was beautiful, her features relaxed as though only in sleep. “I love her, too.”
She leaned down and placed a soft kiss against Emma’s forehead. A prism of light and magic blasted outwards causing everyone to gasp. The curse broke and Regina had a shock of emotions return to her, her memories given context. The love she had always felt for Emma was suddenly present alongside her new love. She thought her chest might burst from the joy she felt and her magic sang as it danced with Emma’s.
Emma’s magic. Regina looked down and found green eyes blinking up at her. “Emma!”
“Hi,” Emma chuckled, barely able to keep her eyes open. “You finally…believed me.”
Tears of joy ran down Regina’s cheeks. “I love you.” When the blonde grinned, Regina smiled with her. Then became alarmed when Emma closed her eyes. “Emma. Emma, stay with me.”
“Not going…anywhere,” Emma sighed out. “It’s been exhausting…waiting on you.”
“Emma!” Regina growled.
The blonde snuggled in closer to Regina’s middle, wrapping an arm clumsily over her waist. “Sleep now. Yell later.”
“You let her think I was dying?” Emma asked, laughing. “She’s going to kill you.”
“Sleep now,” Regina mumbled, jostled awake by Emma’s laughter. She cracked open one eye and glared at the dragon sitting on the foot of the bed. “Kill later.”
Emma kissed the top of her head, still chuckling, “Ssshhh, my queen. We’ll save the maiming for later.” The blonde yawned as Regina shifted, dropping her head to rest on Emma’s chest.
Maleficent slid off the foot of the bed. “I’ll leave you two to rest.” She grimaced. “I believe your mother is planning a celebration for once you’ve regained your strength. So, please, try not to take too long.”
Emma nodded her understanding, her eyes already drooping, dragging her back to sleep. Mal stood near the door and watched the two queens for a moment. Placing one hand over her heart, Maleficent dipped her head in respect. “My Queens.”
Chapter 30 - Epilogue
The Enchanted Forest – The Present
The celebration was in full swing and had been for several hours. People from all over the realm continued arriving and were fully expected to do so for the next few days. Maleficent was quite sure that after tonight she would find a nice, dry cave to live in until all the pomp and circumstance had died down.
“How long must we remain here?” Zelena asked, standing at Mal’s side. The sneer on her face matched how the dragon felt.
“I will stay until the morning hours,” Mal said, watching the dancers swirl around the floor. “Then I will return once everyone has left.”
“You’re going to hide out in some moldy, old cave?”
Mal sniffed. “It will not be moldy.”
“I have a castle, you know,” Zelena said, swirling the drink in her hand. “I’m sure I could make room for you in one of the many guest bedrooms.”
“I don’t need your castle,” Mal said, turning to face her. “I have one of my own.”
Zelena looked genuinely surprised. “Really?”
“Yes, really,” Mal was put out. Did her reputation not precede her? “Where exactly did you think I lived?”
In an attempt to buy time, Zelena threw back her drink. Then spotted her escape, “Ruby!” She reached out and dragged the wolf into their circle. “It’s good to see you. It’s been simply ages.”
“You saw me ten minutes ago at the buffet table,” Ruby said, hooking her thumb towards the table. Zelena glared at her.
“Wolf, I have a question for you,” Mal said. She waited until she had Ruby’s full, confused attention. “Where do I live?”
Ruby frowned. “You used to live in the Forbidden Fortress.”
“See, I told you-” Maleficent paused, turned back to Ruby. “What do you mean ‘I used to’?”
Behind Maleficent, Zelena shook her head and mouthed the word ‘no’ to Ruby, trying to warn her off. The wolf frowned at the witch, but then backed up a step when the dragon crowded her. “Uhm, well, I mean, you haven’t been there in a couple of years, right? I just figured with Emma and Regina getting back and all, you’d be sticking around here.” Ruby shrugged. “I know they want you here.”
Mal stepped back, frowning. She was not accustomed to her company being desired. Yes, she’d stuck around after the war but that had been to teach Emma magic. She certainly hadn’t been able to leave after the wedding fiasco, but now that all that seemed to be behind them… “I shall have to consider my options.”
“Options for what?” Emma asked as she and Regina joined the trio. Both queens had color high in their cheeks from the dancing and were sporting matching expressions of joy.
“Hors d’oeuves,” Mal answered dryly. Zelena picked up another glass of champagne from a passing waiter, biting her tongue.
“The cakes are delicious!” Emma said, eyeing the table in question.
“Not to bring down the mood,” Regina said, sobering despite her claim. “Were the two of you able to take care of our problem?”
“Of course, we did,” Zelena said, looking affronted. “This isn’t amateur hour.”
“So, she’s really gone then?” Regina asked quietly.
“Yes, little one,” Mal said, matching her demeanor. “After the sentence of banishment was passed on Cora, we dumped her through a portal.”
“We sent her to the Land without Magic,” Zelena said, grinning gleefully. “We thought it a fitting prison for her.”
“No money, claiming to be royalty, and talking about magic,” Ruby mused, “she’ll be locked up in no time.”
“Only if someone bothers to look for her in the middle of the desert,” Zelena muttered behind her drink. Mal clinked their glasses together.
“That’s good, I guess,” Regina said, missing the comment and the toast. Emma hugged her from behind, offering her support.
Zelena reached out and squeezed Regina’s upper arm. “She’ll never be able to bother us again, sis.”
Regina nodded, then smiled when Emma kissed her cheek and whispered something in her ear. “Oh, yes.”
The newly reunited queens moved to stand side-by-side as they beamed at their friends. Emma looked to Regina who nodded for her to start. “Today marks the first day that Regina and I have been able to begin our rule together. As one of our first acts, we have decided to create a Queens’ Council.”
“And we’d like for the three of you to be on it,” Regina finished, looking hopeful. When none of the three older women immediately answered, she added hastily, “We wouldn’t expect you to be here all the time! We understand you have your own obligations.”
“We know it’s unusual,” Emma said, “but, let’s be honest, nothing about Regina and I’s reign has been normal.” She looked to Ruby. “You’ve been with me since the beginning. You’re steadfast, loyal, a fierce warrior and protector, you know the people and the land. I don’t know how to even try and do this job without your support and advice.”
“The same could be said for you,” Regina said, reaching forward and grabbing the reluctant dragon’s hand. “Aside from Emma, you’ve been the one presence in my life that I knew I could always count on. Please don’t leave me bereft now when I need your guidance more than ever.”
Mal huffed. “You’re a queen now, little one. That sort of flowery speech is beneath you.”
Regina smirked. “A queen does what she has to in order to get what she needs.”
Zelena laughed at Mal’s look of indignation. “How are those hors d’oeuves looking now, you old dragon?”
“And Zelena,” Regina started, not releasing Mal’s hand until she agreed, “We know you have your own land and your own kingdom to run, but I can’t lose you now when I’ve only just found you.”
“You’re new to the family, Z, but you came when we didn’t even know we needed you,” Emma added. “You stayed when you didn’t have to; you protected Regina when she didn’t know you. You’re a brilliant strategist and a wickedly clever witch. We want you to stay.”
“I don’t think your court can handle someone like me,” Zelena argued half-heartedly.
“If you leave me alone with all these sickly-sweet Snow-White-types, I’ll bite you in half and use your broomstick to pick my teeth,” Mal growled.
“You leave my broomstick out of this!”
Ruby boldly stepped between them, slinging one arm over each of their shoulders, and faced the queens. “We’re in.”
A blast of the trumpets saved Mal from a round of frantic hugging. The former queen and king were entering the hall. Emma waved to her parents in a very un-royal like manner eliciting a slight shake of the head from Regina. The queens said quick goodbyes to the three women and headed back down to the main floor to continue their royal duties.
The newly formed council watched as a ceremonial tradition was observed. The former queen and king bestowed their blessing to Emma and Regina. Music began to play as Regina danced with Charming and Emma danced with Snow. Through a series of turns and moves they traded partners until Emma and Regina were once again in each other’s arms and Snow and Charming left the floor. A new melody began to play as the queens practically floated in each other’s arms.
“Hear this song and remember,” Ruby sang softly. At Mal and Zelena’s questioning look, she smiled. “It’s the third verse of the song. Emma never remembers it.”
But Emma did know it and as she and Regina swayed in each other’s arms, she quietly sang, “Soon you’ll be, home with me.”
Regina finished with her, “Once upon a December.”