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Ruby was eleven when the letters started forming on her wrist. She had been playing outside, in the fringes of the woods, building things out of sticks and leaves, when she saw it. It was a curly script, careful, like a child’s hand would make, but pretty as well, girly, in a nice way.  Ruby liked it immediately. It formed into a word and she frowned at it, very carefully sounding it out, because cursive was a pain in the neck to read.

“Ee-saa-bell,” she murmured, frowning to herself. “Isabelle!”

She leapt up, abandoning her game and ran to the diner.  Granny was behind the register, doing the grown up work, but Ruby bolted up to her. “Look, Granny!  Look! It came in!”

The customer glanced down towards Ruby’s arm, but Granny was too fast and grabbed her wrist and pulled her into the back.

“Show me,” Granny said.

Ruby held out her wrist and Granny looked down at it.  She sighed a little and gave a nod. “What a pretty name,” she said.

Ruby nodded.

“Well, you always struck me as a bit of a girl’s girl, honey.” Granny patted her arm. “You’re going to have to start wearing a cuff now,” she said. “This is private, alright? Remember that. It’s only your and your soulmate’s business whose name is under your cuff. You don’t need to go splashing it around.”

People didn’t need to know that poor orphaned Ruby Lucas had a girl’s name under her cuff. People were cruel enough without that kind of ammunition. It was a sign of the absolute idiocy of some humans, Granny always thought, that they could believe that god wrote your soulbond’s name on your wrist, and still could believe that a girl with another girl’s name was a filthy mistake. But some did.  They always had though. Soulbonds were a fact of life. But a first born son who would not pass on his name, or a daughter whose mate could not give her children, of course they were mistakes.  And it was easy to know, at eleven, twelve or thirteen, that they were going to be a disappointment, and disinherit them.

That was how the ghettoes had started.  The ghettoes had become political movements, and the movements spurred anger and resentment. And now, a child with a mark like that was considered a political rebel or a criminal in the making. A few people pretended not to think that way anymore, but Eugenia Lucas was not about to trust her only granddaughter’s health to the limited kindness of strangers.

*            *            *

When Isabelle Lacey French was twelve, she felt the itching that signified the forming of the mark on her wrist.  She tried to hide it, but her father looked over and noticed her twitch.  He grabbed her arm, stared at the markings, and swore loudly.

Lacey did everything she could to try to see it.  It was her own wrist, damn him!

“Hold still,” he snapped, fumbling in his pocket with his free hand.

“I want to see!” Lacey begged.

“No daughter of mine,” he growled, and extracted his lighter. He flicked it alight and brought it toward her wrist.

“No!” Lacey cried, fighting desperately.  He was going to burn her.  He was going to burn the name off her wrist!

His hand slipped as she fought him and she saw just the barest sketch of a cursive letter R, and then the flame hit her arm and she screamed.

It was a mass of blisters after that.  Lacey cried and pressed against the gauze to feel the pain. R, she thought, and traced the form of the letter over the bandage.  That was all she had.

“You have no soulbond,” her father told her.  But Lacey did. But she only knew two things, one was that her soulbond’s name began with R, and that her father, for whatever reason, absolutely hated them.

*            *            *

“There are a hundred boys named Daniel in the world,” her mother hissed, and Regina froze, pressing her wrist to her chest, “a thousand. And yet you think this one is the one that you want? The poor one. The useless one. My girl, you have a lot to learn about soulbonds, if you think that just because your names match, you belong together.”

“I love him,” Regina said, desperately. “I don’t want to marry that man.”

Cora smiled slowly. “Poor Leo? He married his soulbond, but she died. And now he needs someone to look after his little girl. And you? You loved your dear Daniel, but if your soulbond’s dead there’s no reason not to look after this poor man and his darling child.”

“Dead?” Regina asked. “But he’s not—”

And then she felt it. It felt like a deep, ugly searing in her chest. It felt like someone was cutting out her heart.

The name on her wrist was gone two days later.

*            *            *

Dawn Sheridan was twelve when her soulbond mark came out. It was in Chinese characters, a perfect careful brush script. She gaped at it in shock. Her father looked at it and his lips pinched together roughly.  That night she couldn’t sleep as her parents had a roaring fight over the markings on her arm. Dawn just stared at them, stroking them gently, wondering how on earth you were supposed to say the name, and wondering if her mate, the one who bore this name, could make any sense of her scribble on his arm as well.

The next morning her parents had calmed down and her mother, looking resigned, took her to the local Chinese school in the neighborhood. The old woman manning the desk took one look at her arm and snorted.

“Jiangshu,” she said. “That one will be trouble and no mistake.”

Dawn mouthed the strange sounds with interest. Her parents, at her insistence, signed her up for weekend classes. She was a beginner, so she sat with the five year olds and drew the signs for tree and dog obediently. But often she would trace the name written on her skin.

One of the older students caught her at it once and smirked.

“Stubborn tree,” he read. “That’s a stupid name for a boy.”

It was a rather absurd name for a girl too, and if it hadn’t been written on Dawn’s arm, he might have considered the option. But he didn’t. Neither did Dawn.

*            *            *

Riley Hua had been eleven when her name filled in. She’d been playing soccer in the rain, and hadn’t even noticed the itching. She’d hurried home, late for her piano lesson, and scrubbed furiously in the sink, trying to get the mud off. She’d scrubbed at her wrist for nearly a minute before she realized that it wasn’t coming off. It wasn’t mud at all.

Then she’d sat down on the edge of the bathtub and just tried to remember how to breathe. She’d never been very good at doing what she was supposed to in her parents’ opinion, and it looked like she never would be.

“Jiangshu!” her mother called, tapping at the door. “Are you going to be out soon? The piano teacher is going to leave if you’re not out in a minute!”

Riley grabbed a roll of gauze and wrapped up her arm as if it were a sprain. “I’m out,” she said, emerging from the bathroom. “I just,” she lifted her arm “It doesn’t hurt much though, I can still play.”

Her mother sighed and pressed her hand against her face. “What are we going to do with you?”

Riley, sick to her stomach, wondered the same thing.

In her neighborhood, when someone’s name came in, they put the pair of names up in the shops, and if someone matched or knew someone who matched, they would call. Arrangements would be made. If one of the families was much lower in status than the other, the child would be adopted into the higher family, given the support needed to become someone worthy of their soulbond. But that would never happen for Riley.

She went to her grandmother in the evening, climbing up onto her lap, though she was almost too big. Her grandmother looked at the gauze and wasn’t fooled for a second.

“What do I do, Nai Nai?”

“Are you going to be an ostrich?” Her grandmother asked.

Riley sighed. “No,” she said. “No, I’m not.”

She approached her father and mother. They looked at her as she started unwinding the gauze. “Mama, Baba,” she said. “My name came in.” She held up her wrist.

Her mother dropped her book. Her father put his head in his hands. Riley looked at the floor, but she stood up straight, held her shoulders back.

“Well,” said her mother, voice resigned. “I suppose we can stop trying to teach you decorum.”

Riley had always hated it when her mother tried to teach her decorum, but it still felt like a slap in the face.

Her father just looked at her. The next day he brought her to his old martial arts academy. “Teach her to fight,” he told his old master. “She will be fighting her entire life.”

*            *            *

Thirteen, Ruby had made a new friend. Emma Swan was being fostered by their next-door neighbors, and she was the same age and fun and blonde and tomboyish. She was just as willing as Ruby to run around and get dirty.

“Why don’t you have a cuff?” Ruby asked her one day. Most everyone their age had a cuff by now.

Emma looked down at her bare arms and offered up a sad little smile. “I don’t have a soulbond,” she said. “I’m just… on my own, I guess.”

Ruby’s lips parted in shock and sympathetic hurt. “That can’t be true,” she said.

Emma shrugged. “That’s what the nuns always said.”

“Maybe… maybe you’re a spare,” Ruby said.

“Huh?”

“Granny says that sometimes. She says that not everyone has a soulbond, but not everyone gets to keep their soulbond. Some people die young, some disappear to Zambia, some just never meet. And so it’s important to have other people around, people who can love you, even if they’re not your bond.”

Emma looked a little surprised. “You mean, I could be meant to be with someone who lost their soulbond?”

Ruby smiled in relief at her hope. “They’d need taking care of, wouldn’t they? They’d need someone to love them, and someone to give all that broken off love to.”

“I never thought of that.”

“You’re too special to waste, Emma.” Ruby hugged her, and Emma smiled.

“You’ve got one.”

Ruby nodded. “Do you want to see?” she asked. “Granny said I’m not supposed to let people know, but I trust you.”

Emma nodded eagerly. Ruby snapped open the cuff and Emma stared at the name written there.

“It’s a… girl’s name.”

Her voice had changed, surprised and a little distressed. Ruby nodded. “Yeah. That’s kind of cool right? Boys are cute and all, but I could be really good friends with a girl. And it’s so much better to be in love with someone you care about.”

“It’s not supposed to be a girl,” Emma said. “You’re a girl. The nuns said... the nuns said that marks like that are a mistake.”

“A soulbond can’t be a mistake,” Ruby said, but the words had hit hard, making her stomach twist uncomfortably.

“They said it means you’ve been marked by the devil.”

“Emma…” Ruby couldn’t find words to fight this, fight the scared look on Emma’s face. “That’s silly.”

“The nuns didn’t think it was silly!  They beat Tomas for having a boy’s name on his arm. They burned the name off of him! It’s bad! It’s wrong.”

Ruby punched her. “Don’t you dare tell me I’m bad, Emma Swan! You don’t even have a soulbond!”

They fought and went home beaten up and crying, and when Emma got moved back to the orphanage the next week, Ruby pretended fiercely that she didn’t miss her.

*            *            *

Dawn was pretty terrible at Mandarin. After the excitement wore off, it was just a chore, and in high school it meant she had to do two languages, because taking Mandarin at the college didn’t count for high school credit and she had to do French as well. She preferred soccer. She wasn’t great at soccer either, but at least it wasn’t completely humiliating. There weren’t always people laughing at her accent or looking oddly at her when she said she was still in high school and asking why she was so desperate to take Chinese.

She didn’t tell people anymore. It was too embarrassing.

The playoffs were happening in Port June, and teams were traveling in from all around. Dawn had volunteered to help out and got thrown together with the captain of the Smithfield Rebels, who had been left in charge of organizing her team into food and hotel rooms because their coach had wandered off to get drunk.

“Riley!” one of the girls called out. “I forgot my wallet, can we go back?”

Riley looked like she was going to kill someone, possibly herself. Dawn grabbed her arm and caught the attention of the other girl. “No! We’re going to eat before your captain passes out. I can spot you if you need some money.”

Riley was watching her, smiling softly. “Do I really look that bad?” she asked, her tone a bit amused.

“You could never,” Dawn found herself stumbling out before she could think about it too hard.

Riley flushed.

Riley got a phone call during dinner. She shoved away from the table, talking briskly in Mandarin. Dawn, knowing it was rude to eavesdrop but also knowing it was good to practice her Mandarin, gave it half an ear.

“No, grandmother, no. I am not wearing the cricket during the game! I don’t care if it’s a lucky cricket.”

She came back contrite. “Sorry about that.”

Dawn grinned at her. “Gran want you to wear a lucky cricket charm? Can I see it?”

Riley looked astonished. “It’s… not a charm,” she said finally. “It’s actually a cricket.” She brought out a small cage with an even smaller grasshopper in it. Dawn gaped at it.

“Yeah, that’s really not convenient for the game.”

Dawn walked her back to the hotel, and Riley stood awkwardly outside the door, giving her a rather peculiar glance. “It was… nice to meet you,” she said.

Dawn looked at her, not clear on what her nervousness meant. She thought, maybe, that Riley might reach out, not… kiss her, but at least hug her. But, stiff and awkward, Riley spun around and fled inside.

*            *            *

“Hey, can I see what’s under your cuff?” Peter asked softly.

Ruby looked up at him, the spike of fear in her gut ever present since Emma had reacted badly to the name. He was handsome and gentle, but she knew enough now that if people knew about the gender of the name under her cuff they’d freak. She knew about the ghettoes. She knew about the movements trying to get rights and recognition, trying to get their stupid world to understand that a soulbond was a soulbond and there wasn’t any kind that was better or more right than any other. But as long as Isabelle hadn’t turned up, she didn’t have any reason to give up her life for that kind of pariahhood.

“Do you really need to see?” Ruby asked and leaned in to kiss Peter. She took him to bed.

“I love you,” he said. And Ruby wondered who the girl with her same first name was, and what she was doing right now as a different girl with a different name on her wrist spread her legs for her soulbond and let him break her.

*            *            *

Robert was handsome and charming, wealthy and married. He had no mark on his wrist, and neither did his wife. Lacey fucked him for the gifts. She let him grope her breasts and squirm under her as she rode down on him. She had furs and silk lingerie, and trips to the islands. For a girl who had dropped out of high school and run away to escape her dad, she wasn’t doing badly at all. She still gravitated to names that began with R.

When she told him she was pregnant, he beat her up for being so stupid.

Afterwards, she wasn’t pregnant anymore.

*            *            *

The Smithfield Rebels won the playoffs. Riley Hua won player of the year. But they didn’t call out Riley Hua. They called out Jiangshu Hua. Dawn froze.

“Jiangshu?” asked their striker, Kelly. “Isn’t that the name you’ve got on your wrist, Dawn?” She laughed. “Now that would be a bit of a slap in the face, wouldn’t it?” She grinned maliciously. “Your promised mate, not the tall and handsome Chinese millionaire your daddy’s hoping for, but some scrubby soccer playing girl.”

Dawn wanted to retort, wanted to tell Kelly that her jealousy and resentment was showing, but she was too panicked inside. What if this was it? What if it was her?

Riley came up onto the stage, took her trophy, shook the coaches’ hands.

Dawn ought to feel terrible about the prospect, she knew. She ought to be terrified and miserable. But she wasn’t. She actually hoped, hoped it was her.

She’d wanted a kiss the night before. She wanted one now.

Dawn ran up onto the podium “Jiangshu,” she yelped. “Jiangshu. How do you write that? What’s the characters?”

Riley looked terrified, but there was hope in her eyes.  “I, uh,” she traced them in her palm. “Strength or obstinacy is the first one. Then… tree.”

Dawn looked at her, at her pretty face, her sturdy shoulders, her dark intent eyes, the way she wore her uniform like it was part of her, the way she was everything she’d ever wanted but had never imagined, and she stepped in and caught her hand. She unsnapped her cuff. “It’s you,” she said. “This is you.”

Riley’s eyes fell down to the characters marking her wrist and a glow of relief passed over her face. She looked up, meeting Dawn’s eyes, smiling. She nodded.

Dawn threw her arms around her and pulled her into the best hug ever.

*            *            *

Ruby woke up, sore and hungover, and instantly knew something was wrong. Peter was sitting by the bed, just staring at her, his expression one of utter betrayal.

Her cuff was off.

“It’s not you,” he said. “I thought it was you.”

“Peter…” Ruby sat up slowly and fumbled for her cuff, but it wasn’t there. The name glowed on her skin like a brand.

“You let me think it was you!”

“I never lied about it.” Ruby couldn’t help the frustration bubbling up, the anger. “What did you think, that I never let you see your own name because I was shy?”

“I don’t know what I thought!” Peter roared. “I guess I thought you were something besides a whore!” He sounded angry, but he looked broken. “How could you do this to me? I wanted my first time to be with her.”

“Peter…”

“I should have guessed when you didn’t let me see it. I should have known. But you let me believe…” He glowered. “And you… you’re one of them.”

“What do you mean?” Ruby asked, but it wasn’t a question, it was a threat.

“You’re a mistake.”

Ruby went cold with fear, and then hot with anger. “If you mention one word about the name on my wrist, the one you had no right to look at, I will find your soulbond, and I will tell her, in explicit detail, all of the dirty things you did to me. I will make her hate you.”

Peter spat at her. “I’m going to tell everyone. Ruby Lucas is a dirty whore who has a girl’s name on her wrist.”

“I will kill you.”

“Just try.” He spun and strode out, and Ruby sank back down to the bed. There was nothing she could do but leave now. There was nothing she could do.

When she heard, later, that Peter, driving angry and still partially drunk, had crunched his car around a telephone pole and died on impact she had puked up the whole contents of her stomach.

Some girl, somewhere, who shared her name, was watching the marks on her wrist fade into nothing, and facing the fact that her hopes for the future were gone.

It was her fault.

Ruby stared at the markings on her wrist and cursed impotently at the girl on the other end. She wasn’t even there, and she’d already ruined so much.

She wasn’t there.

*            *            *

Mary was a bright and happy child, and didn’t understand why Regina didn’t laugh with her. She didn’t like the spicy food that Regina cooked. She was a whole milk and white bread sort of girl.

She was pretty enough. But Leo would watch her like she was beautiful. Regina felt sick every time she saw her husband looking at his daughter, but not as sick as she did when he took her to his bed.

She’d never even gotten to hold Daniel like that.

Her life had ended before it had even begun.

*            *            *

When you didn’t have a name on your wrist, no one looked at you for anything but casual sex. Emma knew better than to tell the dad when she got pregnant. He had a name on his wrist, and he was looking for that girl. Emma wasn’t looking for anyone.

At least her baby would love her. She could rely on that, right? It didn’t matter if you didn’t have a soulbond, because kids always loved their parents. She knew she would have loved them if she had had any.

Then they picked her up for hooking. They always picked up cuffless girls for hooking, whether or not they had any reason to. That’s all cuffless girls were good for, anyways.

She gave birth in prison, and they took her baby away.

Emma, out of the hospital, lay down on the cot in her cell, and wished she could simply die.

*            *            *

Riley had nearly been sick when she’d met the girl with her soulbond’s name. She’d been friendly and rumpled in her red Port June Devils jersey, her hair in a ponytail, with an easy smile and unsettlingly light eyes. Something inside her knew that this was the girl. Riley’s head didn’t keep up.

Don’t be stupid, she told herself, don’t make a fool of yourself. You can’t just bare your wrist to her. What if you’re wrong? What if you’re wrong?

Dawn had bumped her shoulder as they walked down to the restaurant, smiled and made sure everything was organized and together. She’d done everything a host was supposed to do. She’d given no hint (besides a casual flirtation in every word – Riley knew she was reading too much into it) that there was anything on offer besides normal friendship.

And then she’d overheard a conversation in Chinese, and she’d understood it.

Riley couldn’t stop looking at her. Why on earth would she be learning Chinese if not… But there were hundreds of possible reasons. She opened her mouth to ask, over and over again. But what if she was wrong? At the door to her hotel room, she paused, unable to just say good night without knowing.

But there was something about her face, something about the way her transparent mirror-like eyes were obviously waiting – waiting for what? For the question?

Riley just wanted to kiss her, to know by the way it felt.

But she could bring herself to do nothing, nothing. And the moment the door shut, she regretted it. What if it had been her? What if they were meant to be nothing but ships that passed in the night? No. She’d find her again. She’d find her tomorrow, and she’d settle this one way or another.

Riley hadn’t thought Dawn would find her first, find her on a podium in front of students and parents and coaches. She hadn’t even thought, really, that Dawn would love her. But she did.

There was a screaming match going on in the hall. The school authorities had pulled them off the podium and stowed them in an empty classroom while they called Dawn’s parents. Dawn’s parents were not happy about this. Dawn sat on a windowsill, legs swinging like contemplative pendulums. Riley leaned against the wall, unsure of what to do.

“They’re going to throw me out,” she murmured.

“It was bad enough before!” Dawn’s father roared. “And now this. God, I wish she’d never been born. Bringing shame on my family!”

Dawn stood up. “I need to talk to him,” she said, her chin stubborn and determined. “I need to tell him to shut up.” She scowled. “I can’t bear him talking like that about this!”

Riley caught her arm. “You didn’t know, did you? That it was a girl’s name.”

Dawn’s eyes were cool and intense. “I don’t see why that matters.”

“You… don’t?”

“I don’t see why it should matter!” Dawn was fierce in indignation, and if it hadn’t been so serious, Riley would have laughed. “It’s not any different. You’re mine, and why can’t they just let me be happy about it!”

“I’m… happy about it.” Riley could feel fear and distress, knowing that this could go terribly, that there was nothing stable, nothing guaranteed, and yet it seemed distant, as if it was coming through a wall, a wall of vibrant, undeniable joy.

Dawn looked at her, and her eyes changed, her cheeks flushing. She looked down. “I didn’t really think – but it all hits at once, doesn’t it?”

Riley knew what she meant. She’d known what she meant since the night before. This girl was hers, and she wanted to know what that meant, to touch her, to know her. She nodded a single time. “It does.”

“I want to…” Dawn’s eyes were lingering on her face, on her neck. “I want to kiss you. May I?”

Riley leaned in. It was almost too much. Dawn gasped into her mouth, and then it was all hands and lips and tongue and Riley forgot how to think.

She didn’t want to think.

When Dawn’s father came in, her shirt was up around her armpits, and she was straddling Riley’s lap. Any chance of forgiveness was shot when he saw them and his face turned purple.

Later, on the schoolbus back to Springfield, the rest of the Rebels rather bemused by the whole circumstance, Dawn with her backpack and one small bag of clothes that her mother had dropped off for her, they leaned against each other and tried to breathe.

*            *            *

Lacey played pool and tended bar and fucked a never-ending stream of men who didn’t give a shit about soulbonds. She never stayed in one place for too long. There wasn’t any point. One bar was much like another, one group of cuffless men or men who didn’t care that they had a bond was much like another.

If everything hurt all the time, she tried not to think about it. What was the point, when it wasn’t likely to get better?

*            *            *

“You act like a cuffless girl,” one of the guys told Ruby, after she’d blown him in the bathroom of a bar. “But you’re not. What do you think he’ll think of you when he knows what you’ve done without him?”

Ruby faked a sneer and a roll of the eyes. “I certainly hope he’s not saving himself for me,” she said.

They called her a slut. But they still took her home. They were all just marking time, waiting for their soulbonds to turn up, and if there was a girl who wasn’t saving herself for her mate, they’d make the most of it. Girls were supposed to save themselves, guys sow their wild oats. Ruby just knew that if she went home with enough guys, none of them would guess that the name under her cuff didn’t belong to a boy.

“What’ll you do when she does turn up?” Granny asked her, the same question, but one that actually might get a true answer.

Ruby, still hung over and shifting awkwardly from a rougher encounter than usual, didn’t want to look at her. “Who says she will? They don’t always. Maybe she’ll die first. Maybe I will.”

“Ruby…” Granny sighed. “Just because it will be hard doesn’t mean the soulbond isn’t worth having.”

“Hard?” Ruby pressed her lips together. She rubbed at her cuff. “Hard is having jobs that don’t line up. Hard is not being able to agree on children. Being treated like trash and watched with suspicion, and if we’re not careful, thrown out of town, that isn’t hard. That’s shit.”

And yet, though she feared it and hated the idea of it coming to a head, of getting caught, she wanted it at the same time.  She couldn’t suffer this much for someone who never arrived, could she? She wanted to feel the way the romantic movies said it felt, feel the realization, the intensity, knowing that this was the person with their name, knowing it was the other half of their soul.

*            *            *

Riley’s family wasn’t happy. Dawn ducked her head and stayed out of the way as they yelled in Mandarin, too quick and colloquial for her to understand. But it wasn’t like her family, the yelling didn’t have the flat finality of power. Her father, an older man who walked with a cane, sounded tired and put-upon, but mostly resigned. Her mother was shrill and pragmatic. Dawn caught her words most often – food, clothing, laundry, Westerners who didn’t understand anything and could do something this terrible to their daughter. The grandmother was clearly a bit batty, and most of her comments were rather unrelated. Riley was stubborn and mostly silent, just giving one word answers, yes or no, and not moving from her position.

The little brother left the shouting and found Dawn. He blinked at her, his big dark eyes, so much like his sister. “Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” Dawn said.

“You like rice candy?”

Dawn nodded.

He went and got out a small pink and green box and took her under the table to where they could hide behind the tablecloth, fed her rice candy, and introduced her to all his Pokémon cards. Riley found them a few hours later.

“It’s all right,” she said. “You can stay.”

Dawn swallowed and nodded. She pulled Shun into her lap and gave him a hug, he hugged her back. “Good,” she said. “Thank you.”

*            *            *

“You killed him!” Mary accused.

Regina froze. “No,” she said, “I didn’t. I didn’t.” But she held the sheets up to her bare body and stared at the corpse in her bed. She could still feel him inside her, and now he was gone. He was gone.

Regina felt herself start to breathe again. Finally, finally, she could breathe.

Mary started to scream, and Regina whirled. She slapped her across the face. “Be quiet!” she said. “We need to call 911. We need to get the authorities here.” They needed to take him away, and he’d be gone, gone forever.

“You… slapped me.”

“You were hysterical.” Regina felt a cruel smile cross her face for the first time. And she strode to the phone. “Police? Yes. I believe my husband has just died of a heart attack,” she said. “Yes please, an ambulance would be most appreciated.”

Mary was glaring at her in fury, but Regina hadn’t felt this good, this free since… since the name on her wrist had faded away.

*            *            *

Ruby, moderately drunk and rather nauseated, stumbled out of the Rabbit Hole with voices shouting after her. “Come on Ruby girl! We know you can take it!” Three guys had grabbed her arms and tried to take her home with them. She had ‘accidentally’ kneed one in the balls and then faked like she was going to puke on another. This was not her night.

There’d been a new girl in town, playing pool and looking gorgeous, laughing and taking drinks from whoever offered them. She didn’t wear a cuff. Ruby’d seen her take a wad of cash from a douche and lead him out by his collar. Ruby didn’t judge. Making money off of it was better than doing it for free, like she did. But that had soured her stomach for the prospect of going home with another random dude.

She needed something else in her life, she realized. All she had was work and hooking up, and she was sick of both. She was sick of the fear that made her not try for anything better. So what if they found out and made her leave? So what? (She knew so what. Leaving Granny alone, leaving her here and not ever being able to see her again, that was what. She didn’t think she could handle that.) She stumbled across the sidewalk and then nearly tripped over someone sitting on the curb.

It was the new girl. In the dim streetlights, Ruby could see the hunch of her back, the slump to her shoulders. She didn’t look anything like the easy cuffless girl, laughing and kicking guys asses at pool, that she’d been earlier that night. She looked wrecked. Ruby crouched down.

“Hey.”

The girl looked up and then quickly away, but not before Ruby saw the swelling on her face. Her skirt was torn too.

“Fuck,” Ruby muttered.

“Fuck off,” the girl growled.

“Nuh-uh.” Ruby held out an arm. “Need a place to crash tonight?”

The girl glared, suspiciously, at her. Her eyes flicked down to the arm, and she saw the cuff. She flinched in surprise at it. Ruby met her gaze when she looked back up. She knew she read like a cuffless girl. She kept her arm out.

“What’ll it cost me?”

“Nothing,” Ruby said.

The girl scoffed. “I don’t deal in gratitude.”

Ruby huffed out a breath but left her arm where it was. “And you don’t want pity. I don’t care. I’m not leaving you on a curb.”

“I can handle myself.”

“Fine. Twenty bucks. Your own bed, and a shower.” Ruby gave her a look. Her hair was greasy, and the back of her neck was a little darker than it should be with her pasty complexion. “Fair?”

“I don’t have any cash.”

So he’d taken her money too. Fucker. “I’ll put you on a dishwashing shift at the diner. It pays $5.50 an hour, plus your cut of tips. ‘Kay?”

The girl was looking very suspicious. “You’re giving me a job?”

“We’re down a dishwasher for a couple of days. Come on.”

Hesitantly, the girl took her arm and the offered help to her feet. Ruby hadn’t felt very stable when leaving the bar, but this girl was actually shaking. She should probably go to the hospital, but cuffless girls got as much shrift there as, well, as girls with other girls’ names on their wrists. Doctor-patient confidentiality was supposed to mean you could trust them. What it really meant was that they didn’t ask permission to take off your cuff. Ruby kicked off her heels and picked them up. Trying not to be too obvious about it, she let the other girl lean on her as they headed down the road toward the diner.

It was just a diner now. Granny couldn’t afford to run the inn at the back, but she made sure the rooms were clean and a few were ready for guests, just in case. The girl looked at the room she’d been led to, Victorian, with red brocade curtains and a velvet cover, and laughed to herself. She looked even worse in the lamplight. Ruby wanted to kill that guy for messing up her pretty face.

“Here.” Ruby offered her towels and pajamas that would probably be too long and directed her to the bathroom. “Colorsafe shampoo is under the sink.”

The girl gave her a sharp look. “You’re saying I color my hair?”

Ruby looked at her, blue eyes, and pencil-darkened eyebrows. “Yes,” she said. “Yes I am.”

The girl laughed. “Fine. Thanks for this.”

Ruby shrugged. “It’s really nothing. Sleep tight.”

She passed out as soon as she hit the pillows, and she was too drunk and tired to remember her dreams.

*            *            *

Emma punched the fucking bail jumper until he stopped squirming. Then she handcuffed him and dragged him back to her truck. He had a cuff, she noticed. It had gotten jostled by the rough play and popped open. Emma went to fasten it back up, but hesitated. She pulled it fully open. Miriam, it read, a child’s scrawl with hearts and stars adorning each i.

She shook her head, closed the cuff, and punched the guy again for good measure. Whoever that kid was now, she didn’t deserve a soulbond like him. Emma was doing her a favor by sending him to prison.

And maybe, Emma thought absently, Miriam would give some poor cuffless sob some comfort. That was what they were for, right? Spares.

*            *            *

The gossip at the new school was brutal. Dawn was sick of it. She threw the first punch. Riley was the one who ended up with the black eye, though.

“I just don’t want this!” Dawn screamed. “I don’t want my life to have to be like this! I don’t want to ruin yours.”

Riley shrugged. “I always had a girl’s name on my wrist,” she said. “I always had a white girl’s name on my wrist. You’re not making my life harder by being here. I’m just sorry… I’m sorry I ruined yours.”

Dawn stiffened, then stepped into her and pulled her into an embrace. “You didn’t,” she said. “You are a gift, and I never want to give you back. But I would fucking kill everyone at this school for hurting you.”

Riley laughed and pulled her in tighter. “It’s just another year. One more year and we can go.”

Go where? Dawn wondered. To college, where if they were lucky they could fake being platonic roommates for another four years? And then where after that? Where could they have peace, just be left alone? She just wanted a normal life, like everyone else, to find their soulbond, and be with them, work and family and safety. And she’d found her soulbond. But she’d lost her family, and any sense of safety she’d once had was gone.

*            *            *

Ruby had kind of expected the girl to disappear in the night. Being too stubborn to take charity wasn’t the same as splitting on a bill. But she didn’t.  She emerged into the small dining room behind the diner kitchen where Ruby was devouring half-burnt pancakes before her shift, dressed only in the long t-shirt Ruby’d given her for pajamas the night before. She looked different, with her face washed clean of make-up, her hair still only half-dry from the late night wash, and falling around her face in artless waves. But the bruise coming out on her cheekbone and eyesocket was much more vivid with no eyeliner to compete with.

“Hey,” the girl said.

Ruby shoved back her chair and ended up standing, unsure of why she needed to stand, but unable to remain seated. “I… I didn’t think you’d stay.”

The girl tipped her head and cast her a sly smile. “It’s not every day that I get offered a hot shower and an empty bed.”

“Do you want breakfast?”

The girl hesitated.

“On the house,” Ruby said. “What you want? Eggs, pancakes, bacon and hash browns? We’ve got this hashbrowns and feta and veggies that’s actually pretty kick ass, and grease is great for a hangover.”

The girl laughed at her, completely bewildered. “I don’t know. Fuck. I’d eat anything. And a lot of it.”

Ruby grinned back.

“Well this is new.” Granny said, coming in from the kitchens.

Ruby started, and then flushed. “Granny,” she hissed. “This is, fuck,” she looked at the girl. “I never even asked your name.”

“Most don’t,” the girl flicked her brows and smiled. With the bruising it was a bit bitterly ironic.

“I’m asking now.”

The girl shook her head and smiled at Granny, sticking out her hand. “I’m Lacey,” she said. “That girl over there hired me to wash dishes in exchange for a place to sleep.”

“Ruby!” Ruby yelped. “I’m Ruby.” She didn’t let herself think about the odd twinge of disappointment she felt when she heard the girl’s name.

Granny took Lacey’s hand and shook it. “I’m afraid we require pants before we put you to work. But the dishes are piling up out there, so one of you had better get out quick.”

She gave Ruby an odd look before disappearing back into the kitchen, and Ruby burned with shame. She might have a girl’s name on her wrist, but she’d never brought a girl home before. And she hadn’t even taken Lacey to bed. It was unfair.

“If you want to get dressed, you can borrow anything off of me. It’s the first door up the stairs. I’ll fix you something to eat.”

Lacey gave a slight nod. “I have a bag at the bus station,” she said. “But I figure that should wait until after shift?”

Ruby gave a shrug-smile. “Granny’s kind of a drill sergeant. After breakfast rush at least.”

Lacey disappeared upstairs and Ruby ducked into the kitchen and started frying bacon and potatoes.

Granny gave her a look when she saw that she wasn’t working yet. “Is she yours, Ruby?”

Ruby sighed and flipped the hashbrowns. “You heard her name.”

“But you didn’t know it. And you brought her home. You felt a connection.”

Ruby glared. “She’s just some cuffless girl who got mugged and probably raped last night. I brought her home because she needed someone to give a fuck about her, okay? That’s what I’m doing. I’m giving a fuck.”

Granny turned back to her cooking, but there was a tight smile on her face. “About time,” she said.

Ruby collected the bacon and hashbrowns onto a plate and disappeared back into the dining room. She didn’t care what her Granny thought of this. She didn’t care.

*            *            *

Regina was enjoying the status of wealthy widow. Mary had been shipped off to boarding school, and Regina had taken up social work in her spare time. It was the charity kind, where you went around and judged people for not living up to your standards and then told them that you would help them if they stopped being who they were, and then the help you gave them wasn’t anything they really needed, like work or acceptance. Regina rather hated it, but it was interesting. She’d never been to the ghettoes before. It was interesting to see the perverts and deviants all clustered together, living like real people in their falling-down houses.

But it was in a so-called normal house, checking on a fostering situation, where Regina found a moment where she was too furious to be arch and aristocratic. There was a baby, a dark little boy, maybe half Latin, like her. And he was crying. He looked like he’d been crying for hours, sitting in his own unchanged diaper, hungry. The family was crowded in around the television, the door shut, not hearing him, not caring.

Regina took him. She didn’t care about laws or rules. She just wanted that child out of that house, immediately.

She got her way. Her mother always had. And Regina had learned from the best.

*            *            *

Lacey stared into the closet of unfamiliar clothes and rubbed absently at the scar on her wrist. She hurt. The encounter the night before had been unpleasant, to say the least, but she’d had other unpleasant encounters. She’d had beatings she couldn’t walk away from. And she’d rarely had a hot shower and an uninterrupted sleep in a soft bed afterwards.

It couldn’t last. It was dangerous to get used to it. No one had any use for a girl like her.

And yet…

Lacey shook it off and found a skirt that looked like it would fit her – and also looked like it would be inappropriately short on Ruby of the too-long legs – and a top that would cover some of the bruises on her arms. Nothing to be done about the face bruises. Everyone had seen them anyways, so who cared. She still borrowed some of Ruby’s make up. There was naked and then there was naked.

The heaping mound of food was kind of a shock. Ruby set it down, looking embarrassed.

“Yeah, um, I should start my shift. Take your time. I’ll show you the ropes when you come in.”

With a swish of long hair and long legs, she was gone, and Lacey dug in. She didn’t trust kindness, as a rule. But there was something straightforward about the lanky girl, something that felt reliable.

And, well, she’d seen her earlier. Cuff or not, that girl drank hard and partied hard, and that, at least, Lacey could understand.

*            *            *

Granny pulled Ruby aside halfway through Lacey’s shift. “I’m hiring her,” she said.

Ruby blinked. “What? Why?”

“She fixed the drain on the dishwasher.”

Ruby couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled up out of her. “Really?” She glanced over to where Lacey was frowning at a particularly burnt pan, and then going at it with a wire brush. She looked determined, and… beautiful.

Ruby shut that part of her brain down. “Sounds good to me,” she said.

When the breakfast rush had faded to a trickle, Ruby put her hand on Lacey’s arm. “Hey. Take a break with me? We can go pick up your bag.”

Lacey gave her a narrow look between heavy lashes, but her voice was amused. “You seem to think I’m moving in.”

Ruby winced. “Um. Granny says she wants to hire you properly.”

“I know. She told me. But living in your spare room?”

“It is spare.” Ruby frowned. That word didn’t mean the same thing after Emma. “It’s empty. Looking for love.”

Lacey snorted. “Fine. I’m moving in, idiot. You don’t need to escort me around town.”

“I know,” Ruby said. “But Granny hates it when I smoke, so I figure an excuse to not hang out in the back alley where she’ll catch me sneaking a cigarette is a good thing.”

Lacey lifted her eyebrows. “Fag,” she said, and held out her hand. “I’ll let you walk me around like a cocker spaniel if you carry my bag.”

Ruby tugged her outside and got them both cigarettes, then lit them. Side by side, they walked towards the bus station. “What brings you to this town?” Ruby asked.

“It’s not the last town I was in,” Lacey said. “I don’t stay anywhere long.”

Ruby blew out a long stream of smoke. “I don’t go anywhere.”

“It’s not a loss. One place is pretty much like another, especially via greyhound.”

They found the lockers and Lacey stuck a coin in to release her stuff. It was an old duffel, beaten and patched, with ILF embroidered on the front. Previous owner, Ruby assumed.

“What do you travel with?”

Lacey pulled open the bag. “Clothes,” she said, tugging out what looked like nothing but dresses for clubbing. Underwear – Ruby quickly looked away from them. “Shoes.” Spike heels. “Manga.” Ruby blinked at the chunky magazine that Lacey pulled out next. “And Jerky.”

Lacey offered her the bag of beef jerky, but Ruby waved it away. “Manga?” She picked up the magazine and started flipping through it. She’d seen some before, but this was… interesting.

Lacey shrugged. “Bus rides suck.” She pointed to one of the chapters. “I’m following that one seriously. Shizuru Hayashiya, she’s my girl.”

Ruby grinned at the loud speech bubbles and girls with swords. “Cool. Maybe I’ll look for back issues.”

“They’ve got Tankubon.”

Lacey’s arm tucked into her elbow and Ruby, reasonably bewildered, took up the duffel and let Lacey lead her home.

*            *            *

“I didn’t think you liked children,” Mary said, scowling at the little boy, playing in the mud in the yard.

Regina looked at her step-daughter. “I didn’t like you. That’s different.”

“He’s cute.”

Regina nodded and went back to her work. This town needed someone better in charge, someone who could sort things out. It was going to be her.

“My name came in,” said Mary.

Regina froze. The pencil squeaked under her fingers. “Do you think I care?”

“You’re still technically my mother.”

Regina turned and looked at her. “My actual mother had my soulbond murdered so I could marry your father and be your stepmother. Your name is your own. Don’t trust anyone with it.”

Mary looked down at her cuff, and then up again at Regina. “Okay,” she said.

*            *            *

The bail jumper was being held at the fire station. Emma rolled into town to pick him up. A tall, handsome black man greeted her at the door.

“Hey,” he said. “I’m Billy, the fire chief. Welcome to Storybrooke.”

Emma blinked and shook his hand. “Is this an incorporated village?”

“Soon,” Billy said with a smile. “We’re working on getting recognized by the state.”

Emma glanced around. It looked… nice. Especially for a village on the edge of the ghettoes. A young and pretty white woman came up to Billy and offered him a small child.

“Toby wanted to see his daddy.”

Billy grinned and teased the kid for a moment. Then he looked up at Emma. “This is Ash,” he introduced the woman. “My mate, and Tobes.”

Emma’s lips parted. “Oh,” she said. Her eyes scanned around quickly. There were couples strolling on the beaten dirt of the park, kids playing in the scraps of dry grass, and yet two men were pushing a kid on a rusty swing, a woman in a sari directed a muddle of kids in a game of basketball on a cracked court with netless hoops. “This is a ghetto town.” The words tumbled out of her mouth before she thought, and then she flushed in embarrassment. “I mean, it looks lovely.”

Billy gave a slight laugh. “Thank you,” he said.  “But you’re right. That’s one reason we’re applying to be an incorporated village. That way we can set our own rules, legally, and have our own Sheriff, to keep the assholes with their firebombs out.”

“That sounds like a great idea,” Emma said. It was using the laws of the place against them, to build something real.

“Yeah, too bad we’re caught in paperwork limbo.”

For the first time in years, Emma thought of Ruby. She rubbed her blank wrist and wondered whether her Isabelle had ever shown up, wondered if she was safe where she was. “It looks like it could be nice here,” she said. It needed money. But she’d lived in a lot of places with no money. It felt safe. “It feels like somewhere kids are supposed to grow up.”

Billy gave her a long look. “You’ve got experience in law enforcement,” he said.

“Uh, a kind of law enforcement,” Emma said, making a face. She also had experience with asshole cops and being in jail.

“If you’re looking for some place permanent, we’re looking for a Sheriff.”

Emma froze. “A Sheriff?”

Billy nodded. “Wouldn’t pay much until we actually get incorporated. But we could use someone who could do the job.”

“But I’m…” Emma looked at her wrist. “I’m just cuffless. I’ve always been cuffless.” She wasn’t one of those sad sops whose mate had died on them. She was just alone. But she wasn’t one of the outcasts either.

“The outside world doesn’t treat cuffless people any better than it treats us,” Ash said furiously. “Here you’re a person.  It doesn’t matter what’s written, or not written on your wrist.”

Emma found a blockage in her brain that wouldn’t get this info through. “I…” she said. “Can I think about it? I’ll bring the jumper back to Boston, and then…”

“Think about it,” Billy said, clasping her shoulder. “The job’s open.”

Emma hadn’t even reached Boston before she’d made up her mind.

*            *            *

Dawn heard her name, but playing up in Shun’s bedroom, she nearly didn’t recognize it. This was home now. Riley’s grandmother had taken to calling her Liming, and the rest of the family had picked it up. She’d forgotten that she was supposed to respond to ‘Dawn’ here.

But it was the voice calling her that she recognized.

Terrified, Dawn left Shun playing and padded barefoot down the stairs.

“Mom?”

“Dawnie.”

Riley’s grandmother had answered the door and she was looking at Dawn carefully. She reached out and touched her arm.

“Liming, if you need help, just shout,” she murmured in Mandarin.

Dawn smiled back at her. “I’ll be fine, grandmother.”

Dawn’s mother looked blank at the conversation going on in a language she didn’t understand, until Dawn turned to face her. “It’s lovely to see you,” Dawn said, formally. “Would you like to come in and have some tea?”

At this, her mother’s lips parted in surprise and a little bit of pain, and Dawn, unpleasantly, felt a small snag of pride at making her mother feel something. She’d always admired her mother, her tall beauty, the way she wore her silks and furs with casual grace. But she’d never thought she mattered very much to her, and when her parents had just let her go, she knew it was true.

Dawn left her mother sitting uncomfortably at the kitchen table and moved around, making tea. She could feel her mother’s eyes on her.

“I’m… surprised, honey, that you feel so comfortable here.”

“Why?” Dawn asked.

“Isn’t it strange?”

Dawn shrugged. “It was at first,” she said, “but any place is strange at first.” She wasn’t going to mention the nights she’d spent crying, the loss and disorientation at being away from her family, being in a place where she couldn’t always follow or understand the conversations, where she was always doing things wrong, and the only one who would tell her was Shun.

But she also wouldn’t mention how whenever she was really miserable, Riley and Shun would both crawl into bed with her, and pressed between their warm bodies, she could feel safe enough to sleep.

“Your father and I got a call from the school.”

Dawn went still. “My transcripts came through fine,” she said.

“Yes. It was about the fighting. They said you’re not settling in.”

It felt like a hand had come into her chest and gripped it. If they were a ‘normal’ soulbond, there was no way the school would go to her parents. They’d have gone to Riley’s parents, to her guardians, not to the people who’d thrown her out. ‘Normal’ soulbonds got respect. They were coddled even. It was so nice, so sweet, when they found each other early, that even if it meant truancy and unplanned pregnancies, everyone supported them.

Dawn had never thought that these would be her problems, that she would have this kind of life, and now… She set her teeth. “I’m fine,” she said. “What do you expect me to do when I’m being bullied?”

“Dawnie,” her mother reached out, but Dawn jerked her hand back. “Your father and I have been talking, and we want you to come home.”

Dawn’s lips parted, but no sound came out. She swallowed. “I didn’t run away,” she said. “You threw me out.”

“Daddy was angry,” her mother said, “surprised. He hadn’t expected… this.  He needed some time to come to terms with it.”

“And I didn’t? Do you think this wasn’t as big a surprise to me?”

“You didn’t give anyone a chance to come to terms with it, Dawn,” her mother scolded. “You ran up there, in front of everyone, and you broadcast your strangeness to strangers! The whole town is still talking about it. You embarrassed your father.”

“It wasn’t about him. It was about me, about who I love. Not you.”

Her mother sighed out. “I know, Dawnie. When you first meet your soulbond it can be very intense. It doesn’t mean it’s easy. It doesn’t even mean it’s right. Sometimes your soulbond is just a fact about you. It’s not your fate or your future.”

Dawn went still. “Riley is my future.”

“Of course, darling. But does she have to be your present?” Her mother’s eyes were intent. “The school said that if you get in another fight they’ll have to expel you, both of you.”

“What?”

“You’re a bad influence on the other students, they said. And if you get kicked out of school… We don’t want you to ruin your future. We don’t want you to ruin Riley’s future.” She reached out again, and this time Dawn let her take her hand. “We want you to come home. We want to try again, be a family again. Tell me you will.”

Dawn didn’t think she could even breathe, much less speak. We don’t want you to ruin Riley’s future. She didn’t know what she was supposed to do.

*            *            *

Lacey felt the liquor hit and loved it. For the first time in years she was happy to be drunk and out. The bar was still a dive, but Ruby was at her elbow, knocking back her own shot. Granny hadn’t looked pleased that they were heading out, but even that was kind of a thrill, that there was someone who cared if she got drunk off her ass and fucked the wrong guy.

Ruby was surprisingly handsy, not inappropriately, just keeping a light touch on her arm or the small of her back, like she was reminding herself that Lacey was there, and honestly, Lacey found the reminders comforting too. She’d never had a friend before, not like this.

A friend whose name began with an R.

Ruby was gorgeous when she danced. Too gorgeous.

Lacey was sick to her stomach with it – high on the music and drunk and exhausted. That was the only reason for it. The only reason she wanted…

“I’ve got to go.” She stumbled toward the door.

Ruby followed. Damn her, she knew Ruby would follow. Lacey puked in the bushes and sank down on the curb. Fuck R-names. She’d had enough of them. She’d had enough of hope.

Ruby emerged from the club a minute later and passed her a water bottle. Lacey rinsed her mouth out and then drank half of it, not looking at Ruby, sitting beside her.

When she did look over, she realized Ruby was studying her wrist. Lacey pulled it tight against her and glared.

Ruby put up her hands in defense. “Look at me, not prying.”

It wasn’t the first time she’d looked. The scar wasn’t as big and ugly as it had been, but it was still a scar – a scar where a name should be.

“My dad burned it off,” Lacey said. “I didn’t get a chance even to read it.”

Ruby went utterly still. But she didn’t say anything, like ‘I’m sorry’ or, ‘oh, Lacey.’ She was just there.

Lacey turned to her, and put a hand on her leg. Ruby was looking at her, dark eyes, red mouth, still flushed and sweaty from the dancing. Lacey pushed up and kissed her.

She tasted like liquor, Jack and coke, and she kissed back, parting for her, desperately. It was wet and sweet, and too good. It was so good it had to be a lie.

Lacey broke the kiss and jerked away.

She heard Ruby’s quick breaths beside her. “Fuck,” she heard her hiss, then more breathing, almost like hyperventilation. “Fuck.”

Lacey turned, and Ruby was freaking out – just blatant panic. “Are you okay?”

“No,” Ruby laughed, but it wasn’t funny at all. “No, I’m not fucking okay.”

“Ruby…” Lacey put a hand out, trying to touch her arm. Ruby flinched back like her hand burned.

“No! I spent the last twenty-six years not kissing girls, not wanting to kiss girls, making sure no one could ever suspect that I was like that! You can’t just kiss me, and throw out all my fucking hard work. You can’t, when you’re not her.”

“Ruby.” Lacey grabbed her wrists. “Calm down. Calm down. I won’t kiss you again. I promise. I promise.”

Ruby finally looked up. Her eyes were wet, mascara running. Lacey kind of wanted to kiss her again – though she was pretty sure half was out of spite at the reaction she’d gotten. “I need… I need to find a guy. I should go home with a guy.”

“No.” Lacey said. “You are a wreck. You should go home with me and get your shit together. And come on. Girls make out all the time. Girls like us make out all the time. We have so much cred, Ruby. You’ve banged every guy in this bar. No one’s going to guess that you’re… a mistake.”

Ruby went still. “It’s not a mistake,” she mumbled.

“Could have fooled me,” Lacey drawled, “with the way you had a panic attack about it.” She held up her wrist. “You see this – this is a mistake too. And I don’t know if it was a girl’s name, or some Latino or Black dude, or whatever, but I know my dad hated the idea so much that he wanted to stop me from ever finding that person. At least you know her name. I don’t even know that.”

Ruby’s shoulders slumped. “You’re right,” she said. “You’re right.”

“I’m always right,” Lacey said. “Now get up. You’re drunk and I’m taking you home.’

“You were the one who puked.”

“You were the one who cried because I kissed you.”

Shamefacedly, Ruby followed her home.

*            *            *

The campaign for mayor failed. Regina was just not quite practiced enough. Her education wasn’t thorough enough, her status as young widow was assailable, her responses were too snappish and not calm and reasoned.

Sidney, her campaign manager, gave her a pat on the shoulder, which Regina shrugged off with prejudice. “It’s all right, Reggie, we just need to find a town that really needs you, and knows it.”

“Please don’t call me that.”

But it was a minor news item a few days later that caught her attention. A village called Storybrooke, on the edge of the heavily ghettoed area of Portland, was trying to become incorporated. It wanted recognition by the state as a real place to live, not just a poorly policed ward for drugs and crime. There were pictures. There was also the information that their application was caught up in red tape. They needed someone at the helm, Regina realized, someone who knew how to handle bureaucracy, who had credibility, and no qualms about doing what she had to do to get what she needed.

They needed her.

The next day, Regina packed little Henry in the car and drove to Maine.

*            *            *

Riley had always thought it couldn’t last. But when she’d imagined it ending she’d imagined explosions, not quiet decisions. Dawn burrowed into her shoulder, holding her as tightly as she could.

“You should be with your family,” Riley had said.

“You’re my family.” Dawn’s unnervingly pale eyes were intent on her face. “But I want this to work out. I want this to be forever. And I can’t ruin things now because of my temper. But even if I go back, you’re still mine. You’re mine.” She held her wrist tightly, fingers pressing down on the cuff so hard that Riley thought she might bruise.

It made her smile. This was her favorite Dawn, the one who punched boys for saying rude things, who was arrogant and possessive. And it was so much better than the one who cried at night because she was so afraid and out of her depth.

“I’m going to take on the world,” Dawn swore. “I’m going to deserve you.”

Riley gaped at her. “You… you don’t need to deserve me.”

“I want to.” Dawn lifted her arm and pressed a kiss to the inside of her wrist. “I never want to give you cause to regret me.”

Shun cried. He didn’t want his new friend to leave. Riley hoisted him up and held him to her side as she watched half of her soul walk away.

School was strange without her. Riley forced a smile. “Yeah, her parents took her back in. They’re okay with us now.” And every word was a lie.

It was odd, but Riley seemed to have developed a posse while Dawn was there, or perhaps Dawn had recruited the posse and left them to Riley as some sort of inheritance. But she had friends again. “Misfits stick together!” whooped John, a tiny chubby boy with glasses, known throughout the school as Little John (there was also a tall one called ‘Skinny John’ and a dude with arms the size of treelimbs known as ‘Big John’). Ariel, the red-headed perky girl, who had a drawing of a fish on her wrist instead of a name, and was mocked unmercifully but somehow usually failed to notice, also hung out with them. “Not everyone can read and write at thirteen,” she’d said, in explanation for the fish, and even more people had laughed at her, but she never seemed to flinch. Riley, who was getting out most of her aggression at a dojo after school, was a little jealous of her calm.

Dawn didn’t write, and Riley couldn’t sleep, even with Shun snuggled up to her.

“Maybe she’s been kidnapped!” John exclaimed.

“It’s possible!” Ariel was fierce with certainty. “Or maybe her parents are holding her hostage!”

“Or maybe she’s busy,” Riley said. “It was hard enough to deal with this school, to go back to where everyone knows you and knows…” She swallowed hard. It would be awful.

“I think we should go find her,” John said. “You know, check up on her.”

“What if she doesn’t want me to?”

Ariel grabbed her shoulders and shook her. “She’s your soulbond, idiot. She wants you!”

Riley didn’t know which scared her more, the idea that Dawn was actually in trouble and needed help, or that she wasn’t and would be surprised and annoyed with Riley for showing up. But if she was in trouble, if she needed her…

“Yes. I’m going to go.”

“We’re all going to go.”

*            *            *

Ruby hated this. It was one thing to know that her mate was a girl, that she would never be quite sated, quite satisfied without her, and another to know that one kiss, one brief drunken kiss with a girl – not even her soulbond, just some girl – was better than any of the sex she’d had with men. She hated that it was Lacey too, hated it even more, because Lacey was her friend, the first real friend she’d had since… since Emma. And she scrubbed at the curse on her wrist that said there was someone out there, when, well, when she wanted the someone that was here.

Being drunk made it worse. Because she couldn’t stop herself from watching Lacey, even when she had left Ruby at the bar and gone off to play darts with some guys, and Ruby just sat on the stool, drinking and watching her, the way her body moved in the tight blue dress, the way she laughed, the way she laughed with people who weren’t her.

“Buy you another?” asked a man, tall, scruff-bearded, and Ruby looked at him. He had soft eyes. She’d slept with men like him before. His kisses would prickle, and his beard against her thighs would itch so much she’d make him fuck her right off. He’d ask about her cuff, and she’d blow him off, because it wasn’t his business. Their names would never match. But her name would never twist and change into Lacey’s, and Lacey would never know what her mate’s name was. Even if she found someone with her name on his wrist, how could she know it was the right one?

Ruby tried not to think about Peter much, but sometimes she couldn’t help it.

“You’re ready to go, aren’t you?”

Ruby jerked up, finding Lacey at her ear, the scent of her skin filling her nostrils. “What?”

“You just totally ignored that guy hitting on you. You usually remember to smile at least. But no.” Lacey gave her a dirty grin. “Were you staring at my ass?”

Ruby flinched.

Lacey squeezed her arm. “Joking. You would have noticed me approach if you had been.”

There was a twinge of disappointment in her tone. Ruby looked at her, actually watched her as she flagged down the bartender and settled their tab. She looked tired, and Ruby remembered, suddenly, how she never stayed in one place too long. The idea of her leaving made Ruby’s chest seize up.

Lacey linked their elbows and led her back through the streets to the diner. She talked absently about her shift tomorrow, the new cook who was burning all the dishes, getting a bookshelf for her room for the manga she’d started collecting, and Ruby realized that she wasn’t planning on going anywhere. She was going to stay.

Outside her room, Lacey turned and looked at her. “Uh, you didn’t have to walk me to my door. This isn’t a date, babe.”

Ruby opened her mouth, but she was still drunk and the words didn’t come. “I…”

“Yes?”

“Nothing.” Ruby turned and left Lacey at her door. She showered and dressed for bed, turned her light out, and couldn’t sleep.

She couldn’t sleep. Hesitantly, she got back up and stepped into the hall. She knocked gently on Lacey’s door. There was a grunt in response. Carefully, she opened the door and stepped inside. “Lace?”

She saw movement in the bed. Lacey was lifting up the blankets. “Get in here, you big idiot,” she mumbled.

Ruby slid into the bed. Lacey curled into her, looping her arms around her neck. She was hot from sleep and smelled like soap and clean clothes, and Ruby couldn’t help herself. She leaned in and pressed a kiss against Lacey’s neck.

“Gonna freak out again?” Lacey murmured.

“No,” Ruby whispered back. “I’m done with that.”

“Thank god.” And Lacey pressed herself against Ruby and kissed her.

*            *            *

It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Dawn yelled and fought, but her father dragged her out of the car, dragged her up the path to the doors of the institute. And when the doors shut, he smacked her for howling.

“I hate you,” she roared.

“You need to learn to shut up and sit down,” he hissed at her. “This,” he slapped the inside of your wrist, “does not demand more obedience than I do. You are my daughter, and I am a respected member of society, and if you end up living in a ghetto, selling… herbal remedies, I will never recover from that.”

“I don’t care.”

“Now, now,” came a voice from behind her, a nun, dressed in a dark blue habit, came up behind her and took her hand from her father. “Not caring about your father’s feelings? That is quite a bad thing to do. We must fix that flaw in you.”

Struck with sudden terror, Dawn couldn’t move.

“Thank you, sister,” her father said. “Please take good care of her.”

“We will.”

He left, and Dawn suddenly realized that she would have much rather faced his anger than the unknown of these nuns at the institute.

“Hi,” said the boy in her room. “I’m Phillip.”

Dawn stared at him. There were bunks, four of them, and Phil was on the low left. He pointed to the upper right. “That’s yours.”

“Thanks,” Dawn said weakly and put her bag on it.

“What are you in for?”

Dawn raised her arm, flashing the cuff that hid Riley’s name.

Phil grinned, “Me too. But look,” he raised his own wrist. He didn’t wear a cuff. “I’ve been praying really hard, and it’s fading, see?”

“What?” Dawn stepped closer. His mark was faded, but still recognizable. Rodrigo it said. “They can make it disappear? I don’t want it to disappear.”

“That’s because the devil has hold of you still. If you fight his grip, god will win and he’ll heal you. He can change your mark.”

“I don’t, I don’t believe that.”

Phil nodded. “It’s all right. I didn’t either at first. But you’ll understand soon. They’ll make you understand.”

*            *            *

Emma liked Storybrooke. It was small and run down, and a bit of a mess, but it felt like a real town. She wasn’t the only cuffless girl there. Some people gravitated to the ghettoes when they realized that they didn’t have a place in the normal world. Others, the stream of teen runaways that came in and out of town, were just trying to find somewhere.

There were couples too, though, even families, people who hadn’t quite been able to make it in the normal world and had decided to build themselves a new home in an old place. The buildings were all half broken down, under construction, layered with tarps and woodpiles and torn up asphalt. But they never languished unmended. Everyone in Storybrooke was trying their best to clean the place up. They had a publicist. Surely, they thought, that if they looked like the perfect place, people would believe that they weren’t the gates of hell, at least.

They weren’t a perfect place. You couldn’t be Sheriff without figuring that out quick. People were messed up everywhere, and kids, especially runaways, got into trouble. It was the DDs that were the worst calls, because the couples had worked so hard and given up so much to be together, and it still didn’t mean that they could figure out how to be together, how to be happy. People were people, Emma had long ago figured out, it didn’t matter what was on your wrist.

And yet it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Bail jumpers were usually not the worst of the worst – it was how they were released on bail, but there had been some right shitholes. And ghettos were supposed to be full of them. But there weren’t any really awful people in Storybrooke, or at least none that let it loose. There was a justice in the town. It wasn’t Emma’s justice. She was the figurehead, the representative of outside law and order. There was an internal justice. She’d thought it was Billy, at first, kind and yet utterly firm. And then she’d realized that it was the town itself. If you didn’t fit here, if you weren’t up to snuff, if you didn’t uphold the values of the community, you were gone.

It was self-defense. Without some sort of cohesive whole, they would be open to the outside, vulnerable, not just to pipebombs and hate speech, but to division and dissolution. They needed their little ideals, their scrubby farmer’s market, their community baseball field, because without it they were just people. Together, they were a force.

Billy called Emma into his office one Monday, bright and early, and gave her a handshake and a smack on the back as she walked in. “Emma,” he said, “We’re welcoming a new member to our team. This is Regina Mills. She wants to be mayor, and she has a plan for getting our incorporation paperwork through.”

Emma turned and saw the woman standing there in her crisp black suit with her crisp dark eyes and her blunt perfect hair and froze like a trapped bunny. Social worker, came the alarm in her mind, volunteer social worker. She wasn’t a child anymore. Emma straightened and adjusted her beater. “You want to be mayor, do you? Why?”

“I want to help this village become what it can be,” she said, in perfect mayoral tones.

“You want to fix us? You want to point out what we’re doing wrong?”

“Yes, if need be.”

“Emma…” Billy warned.

“You don’t know this town. Don’t think you can just walk in and run it.”

“No?” Regina’s eyebrow arched. “Didn’t you just decide to walk in and police it?”

“That’s not the same.”

“I don’t see why not. Maybe I want to do some good.” Regina looked tired for a moment. “Maybe I would like to do something real.”

Emma went still. She didn’t trust this woman, didn’t understand her, and yet that hadn’t been the perfectly prepared statement she’d expected. “Oh,” she said.

Regina raised an eyebrow. “Just ‘oh’ Sheriff Swan?”

Emma shrugged. She glanced at Billy, who gave her a wry smile. Then she held her hand out. “Welcome to Storybrooke, Ms. Mills. It’s all real here.”

A little hesitantly, Regina reached out and took the hand. The shake was warm and firm. “Thank you, Sheriff Swan,” she said. “I look forward to working with you.”

*            *            *

“You’re late,” Granny snapped.

Ruby couldn’t care less. She tied on her apron, humming to herself.

“You weren’t in your room this morning.”

“I’m frequently not in my room in the morning,” Ruby said, grinning, and ignoring the way her Granny was watching her with suspicion.

Lacey rolled in a minute later, wet hair piled in a knot on her head, and took the half of the breakfast wrap Ruby proffered with a smile. It went on for just a moment too long, and Granny coughed. They’d been off lately, not as handsy as they’d been in the beginning, but now things seemed to have progressed.

“Oh, you’ve got—” Ruby stepped in and fussed with the tag at the back of Lacey’s shirt.

“Oh Ralph’s Tuna Sandwiches,” Granny swore, “if you want to kiss her good morning, just kiss her already.”

Ruby turned bright red.

Lacey laughed at her. “She already kissed me good morning,” she said. “That’s why we’re late.” But she swiveled, pushing up into Ruby, Ruby’s arms looping easily around her waist, and kissed her. Ruby kissed back. When it went on for more than five seconds Granny flapped her dishtowel at them.

“Get to work! I’m not paying you to make eyes at each other all day either!”

Lacey laughed and scurried off to her station, and Ruby, taking a moment longer to recover, headed out to take orders.

Granny caught up with Ruby during her break, pretending to not have a cigarette in the alley in the back. “Finally,” she said.

Ruby gave her a sharp look. “Finally what?”

“I was waiting for you two to fall deeply in bed.”

Ruby snorted. “Oh really?” But she was almost smiling, not stressed and half-panicked like she always was when they’d discussed this sort of thing before. Lacey was good for her.

“Just don’t let it make you late for any more shifts!”

Ruby was slightly pink around the cheeks. “Sorry.” She bit her lower lip.

“And you’re all right with this?” Granny inquired. She wasn’t going to ask about the sex. She did not care that it was violently clear that Ruby wanted to talk about it.

“Yes.” Ruby was still blushing. “Last night we were sleepy and kind of drunk, but it was still… it was just easy. And then she kissed me this morning and…”

“You did it again.”

“Is it supposed to feel like this?”

Granny blinked, and then realized that Ruby wasn’t even looking at her, she was staring in the doorway to where Lacey was scolding the new cook about his pot burning. Granny really needed to give her a raise.

“I always knew, because of this,” Ruby thwapped her wrist against the wall, “that I was wired differently. But I hadn’t thought that it could be so much better. I mean, she’s not mine. And yet it feels like…”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Granny said flatly. Ruby looked at her, a slight hint of panic in her eyes. Apparently it wasn’t obvious. “You care about her. She cares about you. It’s got to be better than with those meatheads you went out with, because you were using them just as much as they were using you.”

Ruby flinched.

“Be in love.” Granny patted her on the shoulder. “Be happy. We get too small a share of happiness in this world to worry about what or why or how.”

“But she’s not—”

“You’d put her aside for a girl who might never show up?”

Ruby froze. “I don’t want to put her aside for anything.”

“Then don’t.” Granny gave her a hard look. “Don’t let go of something that makes you smile like that just because the world tells you to. They’re not going to be unhappy if you don’t. Only you.”

*            *            *

Riley leaned against the car and pressed her face against her hands. Ariel and John watched worriedly from inside. “No luck?” John asked.

Riley shook her head. She wanted to hit someone, but there was no one to hit. Dawn was nowhere. Her house was empty. The neighbors had said her parents had gone to Europe. They hadn’t seen Dawn since she’d been thrown out. No one at the school had seen any sign of her. It was like her parents had shown up and spirited her off the planet.

“They did kidnap her,” Ariel said worriedly.

“I think they did.” Riley straightened. “Let’s go home. I’m not going to find her here.”

“You’re giving up?” John asked, sounding horrified.

“Of course not,” Riley said, setting her jaw. “Of course not.”

Back home, Riley started up her hunt for real. It was possible that Dawn was with her parents, but she doubted it. If it was only their supervision, then Dawn would be able to get word to her, which meant she was somewhere else.

Treatment centers weren’t spoken about much, but they existed. It was difficult, because even those who didn’t think too hard about the existence of soulbonds had to accept that there was a source for them. Some scientists argued that they were representative of actual inherent connections between people that existed on a neuro-electric level. Others said they were simply random marks, and it was social institutions that had turned them into this desperate search for love. Most just shrugged and said that since writing was an artificial human invention, it obviously wasn’t arbitrary, and science wasn’t about denying god anyway, it was just trying to figure out what he was thinking.

There was no one who could be free of the feeling that a higher power was directing their steps. But what steps? What choices were the right ones? There were more answers to that question than stars in the sky.

There were three centers within a hundred miles. One was heavily focused on eradicating the devil’s interest in poor confused young people. Another proposed retraining these young people into being productive members of society by teaching them to control their desires and turn away from bad decisions – like going with their soulbonds. The third seemed like more of a halfway house for cuffless girls. Somehow cuffless boys didn’t end up whoring on the streets half as often.

Riley didn’t know Dawn’s family well enough to tell which would be most likely, but the first seemed like the worse place to be kept, so she would try there. She would get her back. She had to get her back.

*            *            *

Regina didn’t enjoy socializing. She didn’t really like people, and going out to a bar in this ghetto town sounded horrifying. But getting to know her constituents was important.

The bar was far more run down than she was used to seeing, but all of the ghetto was. It didn’t mean that the houses weren’t clean and the people weren’t conscientious. She’d found she liked Storybrooke after a few days. She liked its rough edges, the sense of purpose it had, the way everyone was initially suspicious, but once you’d shown yourself to be on their side, turned out to be warm and welcoming.

She’d found herself thinking of Daniel more than she had in years. In any other family, she would never have even considered needing to run away to a place like this. But her mother had been desperate for money and power, and a poor young man with a profession unlikely to garner advancement was enough to make him less than human to her, and certainly less than a match for her daughter. Her mother had found her own soulbond less than satisfactory at first, a young Latino lawyer who had wanted to go into pro-bono work. She’d turned him towards corporate law, the places where money had been made. Regina remembered him warmly, as a man who had done everything for love and hated himself for having abandoned his ideals. For her mother, the most disappointing thing he’d done was die young, without being certain of the money he’d made, letting it slip away before his mate could grab hold of it. Her mother had gone mad with desperation, and perhaps with grief. She’d tried anything to maintain her lifestyle. She’d sold her own daughter for it. She’d killed for it.

Regina should have run away. She could have been happy here with Daniel. She could have been happy.

 “Well, look who’s come to mingle with the masses.”

Regina turned her glare on the far too familiar speaker. She’d thought they’d filled in the chasm between them, but apparently the Sheriff still enjoyed making offensive personal remarks. “I thought it might be nice to see people. Apparently I was wrong.”

“Oh god,” Emma made a face. “I’m sorry. It was just a joke. I thought it would be better than, ‘Hey, I haven’t seen you here before.’ Less like a pick-up line.”

“Do you come here often?” Regina asked, and Emma guffawed.  Regina frowned at her, confused.

Emma quickly realized she had misreacted and straightened up. “I… usually after shift. Just for a beer before bed.”

Regina nodded.

“Um,” Emma said, “I heard the paperwork came through. I wanted to thank you. You’ve done good for this town.”

“Your approbation is all I required.”

Emma looked confused.

“That was a joke.”

“Oh,” Emma smiled. “Sorry, I’m pretty bad at this.”

“Regina!” A friendly wave came from across the room. It was Kathryn. Desperately relieved that there was someone stopping this awkward conversation, Regina turned back and tried to figure out how to get out of inviting Emma to the table.

“You’re meeting friends,” Emma said. “I won’t bother you.”

“You… didn’t,” Regina said. Meeting friends. That sounded nice. She hadn’t really had friends since childhood, and she felt rather more guilty for not inviting Emma over. Daniel would have invited her over. “If you want to join us—”

Emma grinned. “Thanks, but I’m beat. See you around.”

She disappeared, and somewhere between relieved and disappointed, Regina watched her leave before turning back towards Kathryn.

Her law training and Regina’s bulldog imitation had been instrumental in getting the incorporation paperwork through. Regina had developed a grudging respect for her and that had turned into something resembling friendship. She reached Kathryn’s table and was welcomed with a friendly smile.

“This is Tamara,” Kathryn pointed to the woman beside her. “She’s mine. And you know Ash of course.”

Regina studied the woman indicated as ‘mine.’ She was attractive, well-dressed and composed, and Regina decided that if Kathryn had to have a soulbond that made her move to a ghetto town, it might as well be someone like that. “It’s lovely to meet you,” she said.

“You as well.”

“And I saw you speaking with the Sheriff.” Kathryn smiled. “Did you want to invite her over?”

Regina tensed. “Why?” she asked.

Kathryn shrugged, but there was amusement in it. “She’s pretty, not bonded. Available.”

Tamara gave Kathryn a discreet nudge. “Stop it before you embarrass her,” she murmured.

“I’m not embarrassed,” Regina said forcefully, though she was, a little. “She seems… pleasant, although we have not managed to have a conversation without bumps in it yet. Our modes of communication don’t really line up.”

Kathryn grinned and shook her head. “It is hard to get out of the outside speech habits. I had a terribly rough time of it at first.”

“I didn’t,” Tamara said, mockingly.

Kathryn gave her a fake glare. “You didn’t have five years in a law firm pretending to be ‘normal.’”

“Or a husband.” Tamara put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed them.

Regina sparked with unaccustomed curiosity. She’d hated soulbond stories outside, and they’d been de riguer for dinner parties. She’d learned to fake a smile and avoid the question herself. And yet, she wanted to know this one.

“How did you two meet? And… end up here?”

Kathryn flushed slightly. “It isn’t interesting.”

“Yes it is,” Ash said, “it’s hilarious.” Then she jerked, like Kathryn had kicked her under the table. But she kept going. “So many people have kind of depressing soulbond stories here. It’s nice to have a good one.”

Regina nodded. “Mine’s depressing,” she said. “It’s… one of the reasons I feel like I fit in here. But I would like to know more about this husband of yours.”

“Fine.” Kathryn shared a look with Tamara, and then turned back to Regina. “It really is a bit dull. David was my best friend since childhood, and I knew our parents hoped that we would end up matched. We were together when my name came in, and he stopped me from panicking. He promised to look after me, no matter what. His didn’t come in. And when he was fourteen he decided that it wasn’t going to. So he had me take a pen and write my name on his arm. He showed it to our parents and started wearing a cuff, and everyone believed that we were matched. It was the kindest thing anyone could have done for me.”

Tamara gave her a light shoulder-brush. “It was kind to him as well. Cuffless kids don’t get treated any less terribly than us.”

Kathryn nodded. “We got married and I went to law school and then got a position at a firm. It was always a little terrifying. What if I slipped, what if I got into an accident and someone took off my cuff? But I didn’t even think that I might…” She looked shy and oddly girlish at the moment.

“I came in to do some mural work in her offices,” Tamara said. “And couldn’t quite figure out why this lawyer kept following me around and bumping into me in the elevator.”

“I heard her name and I just couldn’t…” Kathryn blushed.

“But you never told me yours.”

“And then David came in to pick me up for Friday dinner, called out my name, and someone dropped a whole flat of paint.”

They laughed together, and Regina found herself smiling. “Where’s David?”

“He lives here too. We kept up the ruse for a while, but there were questions, and I’d always done more social justice work than was normal, so we couldn’t really allay suspicion. And honestly,” Kathryn’s eyes were intent. “I didn’t want to. I’d been hiding my whole life, and I just wanted to live some place where I could be myself, without judgment. Our parents couldn’t understand. They were horrified by how we’d lied to them for so long. David runs a small veterinary practice down near the old court. He met a runaway cuffless girl who adores animals and is training her as his assistant. I think there’s something more there, but cuffless people are always so slow about falling in love.”

“It’s hard,” Regina said, not that she really imagined ever trying again. “Because you don’t know. And even if the outside world doesn’t like it, when you meet your mate, you know that this is the one you belong to. But without that… everything’s a risk, isn’t it?”

Kathryn nodded. “Not that soulbonds aren’t a risk too. Having that feeling of knowing, wanting, makes you vulnerable. And people won’t believe it, that your mate can hurt you, but people are people. We do have free will. And that means we are free to hurt as well as to heal.”

*            *            *

Time slid by on greased wheels, and Lacey felt herself growing more and more comfortable when she knew she should have been becoming antsy, feeling the urge to pull up her roots and head on. But she had money and safety and Granny and Ruby, and though she knew it wasn’t permanent, that it couldn’t be permanent, because Ruby wasn’t hers, the thought of leaving was worse than the risk of staying. She just had to keep reminding herself, she knew, that it wasn’t love.

“Come on! It’s summer! We’re going to the river!”

Lacey looked up from her book and scowled at Ruby. “Can’t you see I’m reading?”

“You can read any time. River!” Ruby waved at the window. “Look, it’s gorgeous!”

“It looks like burn central out there.”

Ruby produced a tube of sunscreen and rubbed a patch on Lacey’s nose. “Come with? I’ll rub you down when we’re there.”

“Don’t want to walk.”

“I’ll carry you.”

Lacey sat up. “What?”

Ruby crouched down in front of her. “Get on. I’ll give you a ride.”

“You’re serious?”

“Hundred percent.”

This was too good to pass up. Lacey put her book down and climbed onto Ruby’s back. Ruby’s hands slid under her thighs and hoisted her higher, then shifted around to get her in a good position. She rose to her feet.

Suddenly six-feet tall, Lacey gave a little gasp of surprise. She laughed, and clung to Ruby’s neck. “Awesome! Run, pony!”

Ruby laughed and bolted for the door. Lacey shrieked. They passed Granny who just put her hand to her forehead in exasperation, and a few people on the street, and then Ruby was running down the footpath that curved down to the river. They reached it, but Ruby didn’t stop. She ran right down the dock, and then leapt, splashing right in to the deepest part, dropping her grip on Lacey’s legs as they went in.

Lacey inhaled water, and probably frogspawn, and beat her way to the surface, coughing and yelling. “You idiot!”

Ruby was laughing. “Sorry! Too much momentum. Couldn’t stop.”

Lacey splashed her and they battled in the water for a minute. Then Ruby caught her around the waist, spared half a glance for the empty shore, and kissed her. Lacey gripped her waist between her knees and rose up so that she could have the height and kissed her back.

Nothing had been like this, felt like this, and Lacey thought she’d probably kill herself when it was over. But she had it now, she had Ruby for now, and that was worth it, worth anything.

“You’re the best thing in my life.”

Ruby was looking up at her, and Lacey knew her mascara was running, her hair was a mess, and she probably looked like a drowned rat, and yet she’d still said it, she said it like she meant it. It was too much, too much like an I love you.

“You know what’s the best thing in my life right now?” Lacey murmured. “Free bacon.”

Ruby looked appalled and dunked her.

Lacey beat her way to the surface. “That’s what you get for getting sappy right after you tried to drown me!”

Ruby laughed.

“And now you’ve tried to drown me again! You’re going down!”

And yet, even in the evening, curled up in Ruby’s bed, listening to the funny growling sounds she made as she slept, Lacey heard those words over and over.

You’re the best thing in my life.

And she knew they were true for her as well.

*            *            *

Dawn sat stiffly through the first session with her arms crossed. It was a group session, and the nervous looking nun at the front was explaining to everyone that the names on their wrists were just decoy names sent to confuse them. They didn’t actually have a match.

“That’s bullshit,” Dawn said flatly when she seemed to have reached then end of her spiel. “I’ve met mine.”

All eyes in the room turned to her. Even the nun looked astonished. “You’ve… met yours?”

Dawn nodded. “We match. And, you know, it was like it is in movies sometimes, where I kind of knew it, even before I knew her name or looked at her arm. I could feel that we were connected somehow, that… that she was important.”

The nun’s eyes were wide. “You really… and she was a girl, and you felt…” She was stuttering a bit.

“Sister Astrid!” The head nun strode in and gave everyone a quelling look. “Ignore this girl. Her father informed me that she is an attention-seeking liar.”

Dawn wanted to hit someone.

But although Sister Astrid went hesitatingly along with the original lecture, she didn’t have the students’ attention. All their eyes were on Dawn.

At the small private break for lunch, a subtle but intense crowd gathered around Dawn. “You’re serious,” someone finally asked. “You’ve met your soulbond?”

Dawn nodded. “They’re not fake. And they’re not bad. Riley is the best person I’ve ever met. And, you know, they tell us that soulbonds are the best thing in the world, that we can only be happy if we have them, and then they tell us that ours are bad, that they’re not real, or that even if they are we’ll never be able to be happy with them. But why not? Because of them. Because they won’t let us. I could be– I could be so, so happy with her, if everyone would just leave us alone, and treat us like normal. But they won’t.”

Dawn had never been so angry. And she looked around at these other kids – kids like her. And she wanted to fight. They didn’t deserve this. And she wished she had an army, because she would trample the earth to fix this stupid, messed up world.

*            *            *

“Hey little guy.” Emma leaned down and peeked at the tiny boy under a bush. “Is someone looking for you?”

He looked up at her, wide dark eyes. “Mama?” he asked. “Where’s mama?”

“I dunno,” Emma said. “Where did you leave her?”

“Park.”

“Why don’t we go look there for her?”

The little boy shook his head. “No strangers,” he said.

“That’s very good advice,” Emma said. “I bet your mama taught you that. But, I’m the Sheriff. I’m police. So you can trust me.”

The boy gave her a very suspicious look.

“Maybe not all police,” Emma said. “But I’m your Sheriff. I’m Sheriff Emma. What’s your name?”

“Henry?” the little boy murmured.

“So why don’t we just walk over to the park and see if there’s anyone we know there, ‘kay?”

Slowly, the little boy nodded. He emerged from the bush, then reached out and took Emma’s hand. Emma led him back to the park. They wandered around it a few times before it was clear that his mother wasn’t there. Henry started to cry. Emma picked him up.

“Hey, hey buddy. We’re okay. We’re okay. We’ll find your mother.”

“Oh my god!” Kathryn said, stopping by them. “Is that Henry?”

Emma blinked. “Yes?” she said, holding the kid close.

“Regina’s been looking everywhere for him. She called everyone to make us look for him. Alice had taken him to the park, and he wandered off, and she’s in a panic. Hold on.” Kathryn took out her phone. “Yes, he’s here, he’s safe. Emma’s got him.”

It was less than a minute before Regina was plunging across the street and through the park. Henry saw her and reached out, and she scooped him into her arms, cuddling him close. “Hey baby, are you okay? Please tell me you’re okay. Did you wander away from Alice? I told you.”

“He was good,” Emma said. “He hid under a bush and wouldn’t go with strangers.”

“Miss Swan,” Regina began sharply, clearly about to tell her off. And then she looked at Emma, and at Henry and breathed out. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for finding him.”

“It was great to meet him,” Emma said softly. “I’m glad you’ve found your mama, Henry.”

Henry turned in Regina’s arms and gave her a bright smile. Emma felt her heart melt a little. “It must be nice,” she murmured. “To have a little of your soulbond left, even…”

Regina went still. Her face was utterly unreadable, and yet Emma realized she’d miss-stepped. “My soulbond died ten years ago,” she said softly. “Henry is adopted.”

Emma stared at her, lips parted slightly. “A-adopted?”

“But he’s mine. I would not give him up for anything. And if someone tried to take him or hurt him,” her eyes narrowed, “I would kill them.”

Emma shut her eyes. “F-,” she stopped herself from swearing in front of the boy. “That nice.”

Regina frowned at her.

“It’s nice to know that some of us get it,” Emma was smiling softly, sadly.

“Get what?”

“Families.”

*            *            *

Regina hadn’t known that Emma was a foster child. But reading her records only made her more and more happy to have found Henry when she did. She would not have him suffer so. She’d been insulted by the assumption that Henry was worth more because he was a child of soulbonds, but that was how this world thought. If you had no mate, you were worth little. If you were a child of someone cuffless, you were more likely to be cuffless yourself. Young cuffless girls weren’t considered stable enough to raise children. They would be poor role models. But though the state often took the children away, it wasn’t as if they treated them well.

She wouldn’t care if Henry was cuffless. Perhaps she could teach him to treat it as a blessing, rather than a curse. At least, with no one’s name written on your wrist, you didn’t have to depend on having your heart cut out of your chest.

But she couldn’t stop herself from thinking of Emma’s eyes, wide and soft, nearly jealous, it seemed, and affectionate as well. She saw herself in Henry, and saw him as luckier than she was. Lucky because he had Regina.

Regina had never felt truly worth it before, not since Daniel was gone. But under those eyes, she did.

*            *            *

“I really can’t believe some people!” Will exclaimed.

Ruby rolled her eyes and hoped he’d get back to work soon. Their new busboy was a pain in the neck.

“Did you know that some idiots will actually burn off a kid’s name if they don’t like what it says?”

Ruby froze, her chest seizing up in cold fear. Her eyes darted to Lacey, who had just tensed for a moment, and was now back to scrubbing dishes with even more ferocity.

“I can’t believe people are so backwards and small minded! A soulbond is a soulbond! You can’t decide if it’s a good one or a bad one!”

“Get to work, boy,” Granny snapped, and shoved a mop into his hand.

“But I went to a meeting, and I saw pictures of some of the scars. It’s awful!”

Ruby not-so-accidentally, shoved a bowl of chowder off the counter and onto the floor. “Oh no!” she exclaimed. “Will, can you come clean this up quickly, before people slip?”

Finally, he obeyed, and she’d thought that was the end of it. It wasn’t.

“Hey, Lacey, can you get this door for me?” Will asked. He was hauling a bucket of garbage, and Lacey leaned over and jerked the door open.

His eyes fell on her wrist. Surprised, he looked closer. Lacey realized and jerked her arm back. “Stop it!” she snapped. “That’s rude!”

But Will’s eyes had gone wide. “You’re one of them?” he asked, his voice breaking. “Someone did that to you?”

Ruby was by their sides instantly. “Take the fucking trash out,” she growled at him, giving him a shove away from Lacey.

Will stumbled back, and his eyes fell on her cuff. Then they flicked to Lacey. He frowned, and then his brow smoothed in realization. “Oh,” he said, a note of surprised hope in his voice. “Oh my god.”

“What ever you’re thinking, Will, it isn’t true,” Lacey warned him.

But he was grinning now, widely. “You found her anyway. That’s so beautiful.”

“Will,” Ruby said carefully, suddenly terrified. “Lacey isn’t my mate. You can’t go around thinking that she’s my mate. And you can’t go around telling people she’s my mate.”

Will shook his head, but he couldn’t stop smiling. He glanced between them knowingly. “Of course not,” he said with a smile. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone. It’s just… it’s amazing. It says these bonds really do mean something. Because you two– It’s so cute!”

He tried to hug them. Ruby straightarmed him and kept him off.  “Not my mate,” she growled. “Now get that goddamn trash out of my kitchen.”

He mimed zipping his lips then ducked out the door. Ruby groaned. “That idiot.”

Lacey was looking at her, looking sick. “Do you think he’ll say something?”

“Maybe,” Ruby said softly. “But I don’t think there’s anything we can do.”

*            *            *

Late at night, Dawn heard a voice calling her name. It was Phillip.

“Do you think about her?” he whispered.

“Every minute,” she murmured back.

“I used to think about him,” Phillip said softly. “I used to imagine him in a black outfit and a cape, rushing in to rescue me from here.”

“Like Zorro?”

“Yeah, like Zorro.”

“Hold onto that,” Dawn said softly. “Hold on, and maybe it will really happen.”

In the meantime, Dawn was making plans.

Morning came and in the breakfast room, Dawn sat down next to Tamika. She looked like a ringleader, looked like she had connections, and she hadn’t been surprised at all when Dawn said she’d met her soulbond.

“How many of the kids here actually believe in what they’re trying to do to us?”

“Better ask how many believe in you.”

Dawn gave her a look.

Tamika offered a sly smile. “Most. The rumor is getting around.”

“And if I asked you about weak spots, about… ways out.”

Tamika gave her leg a squeeze under the table. “Leave that to me. If we’re planning what I think we’re planning. I’ve got the whole thing laid out. There’s only one problem.”

“What?”

“Where are we going to go? I’ve had plans to get out for a long time. You’ll make it easier with your story, it’s a good one. But we can’t get them to go if we’ll just get caught again. And where is there for us to live?”

Dawn swallowed. That was an important question. She had thought of going back to Riley’s, but she couldn’t take all these kids with her. And yet there was no way she could leave them behind. She thought hard. Suddenly she remembered a clipping from the paper that Riley’s grandmother had left in her room.

“Storybrooke, near Portland,” she said. “It’s an incorporated ghetto town, it’s trying to not be like the rest of the ghetto. It’s got its own police force. That means the other police wouldn’t be able to come in and get us. It would be safe.”

Tamika gave a slight nod. “It’s a go,” she said. “Give me two days. We’ll move at midnight.”

*            *            *

Riley couldn’t figure out another way to do this besides walk up to the front door.

“Hello,” she addressed the nun at the front desk. “I have a letter for Dawn Sheridan. Can I leave it here?”

The nun turned sharp eyes on her. “You’re no delivery girl,” she said. “You’re her, aren’t you?”

Riley froze, unsure if she needed to run.

The nun rose to her feet. She was a small lady and let she loomed threateningly. “You people think you’re so special, don’t you? You have a name on your wrist, and it’s better than a normal name, isn’t it? You’re star-crossed and tragic in your bonding.”

Riley swallowed hard. She knew that cuffless girls born into religious families were often pushed toward joining an order of nuns. If god didn’t mean you for anyone else, surely he meant you for himself. But this sounded like jealousy, pure and simple.

“No ma’am,” Riley said. “I think I’m lucky to have found my mate. But I don’t need it to be hard. There are enough things that are hard in this world without making this more difficult.”

“Get out you filthy little brat!” the nun swore and hurled a heavy paperweight in Riley’s direction. She dodged and plunged out the door. She didn’t stop running until she was back at the bus stop, and then she gasped for air.

Dawn was there, she knew she was there now. But how on earth was Riley supposed to get her out?

*            *            *

“Hi, Ms. Morrison, what can I get you?” Ruby smiled at the blonde lady in her flowered sundress.

Ms. Morrison did not smile back. Her eyes narrowed. “You can get your dirty body out of our town.”

Ruby’s lips parted. She went still. “What?”

“Everyone knows what you are.” She swung her hand out, aiming a smack at Ruby’s cuff, but Ruby jerked back. “And you think you’ll pursue your perverted little liaison under everyone’s nose?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ruby said. Her voice was a monotone, but inside she was panicking. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t panic, it was anger. This wasn’t fair. She shouldn’t be judged for this, she shouldn’t be threatened. Everyone thought Lacey was her mate, and Ruby would have taken any amount of judgment and threats and disgust if she were. But this was more than she could bear, knowing that Lacey wasn’t her mate, and still being judged for it.

The knowing was worse.

Mrs. Morrison laughed. “Everyone’s seen you together. It was only a matter of time before we put two and two together.”

Will. Ruby clenched her teeth and tried not to swing at Mrs. Morrison. “Lacey is my friend,” Ruby said coldly, slowly. “She’s not my mate. Her name is not on my wrist.”

Mrs. Morrison huffed. “Please,” she said. “Don’t bother lying about it. It’s disgusting seeing you. They shouldn’t let children in this place.”

Ruby took a deep breath, but it did little to calm her. “Did you come here for food, or just to insult me?”

“I came here to warn you,” Mrs. Morrison sneered. “No right thinking person is going to come here anymore. Get out of town or starve.”

And it hit like a hammer to the gut that they would take this out on the diner. Send her away, spit at her in the street, but Granny…

“Leave my granddaughter alone,” Granny growled from behind the counter. She held a rifle low, mostly obscured, but visible. “I don’t feed bigots. Take your business elsewhere.”

“Granny,” Ruby said unhappily. “They shouldn’t—”

“Shush, girl. No one’s going to tell me how to run my own diner. Not even you.”

Ms. Morrison sneered. “Good luck staying in business.” She whirled and stormed out.

Granny lowered the gun. Ruby’s shoulders sank. And then she heard a small sound. She spun. Lacey was standing in the doorway from the kitchen. She looked destroyed.

“Lace…”

“It’s time then,” Lacey said, her voice tight. “I guess I’ll pack.”

“What?” Ruby stared at her. “You—”

Lacey pressed her hand to her eyes, wiping downward with a brisk movement. “This is my fault. I rolled in here and blew your cover. But if I’m gone, you can fix it, right? They all think I’m your mate, and, well—”

Soulbonds wouldn’t leave.

“No!” Ruby protested. She wanted to shake her, shake this stupid idea out of her. “You can’t go! I don’t want you to go!”

“It’s the right decision!” Lacey yelled. “I don’t want to be the one responsible for ruining everything! I don’t want to drive this business into the ground! I’ll have to leave anyway sometime. Why not leave now? While I still remember being happy. Better than it all turning to shit and being my fault.”

“No,” Ruby said, her heart actually feeling like it was cracking in two. She moved to her, reached out and caught her hands. “Please,” she said, “I couldn’t take it if you left.”

Lacey jerked out of her grip and stumbled back a few steps. “Why not? I’m not your mate. You have someone out there. We’re just… screwing, okay? Marking time. It doesn’t mean anything!”

“Just screwing?” Ruby felt the burn of the words. How could she think that? Did she feel that way? “God, Lacey! You know better than that. You know how I—”

Lacey jerked out of her grip. “No! You have someone else! And so do I! I don’t need you!”

She ran. The front door of the diner banged loudly as she threw it open and escaped.

Ruby turned to her grandmother. She couldn’t breathe. She felt herself begin to hyperventilate as her heart beat faster than a snare roll. “She won’t— I can’t… I’ll go after her. If she leaves, I’ll go after her.”

Granny sighed. “Let me talk to her,” she said and stomped towards the door. “You two couldn’t sort your feelings out if they were labeled in neon lights.”

Ruby slumped down behind the counter and cried.

*            *            *

"Sometimes, you know, I just think that cuffless means worthless," Emma said, taking a soft sip of the cider that Regina offered. "But then I see people with cuffs, I see the messes they've made of their lives, and I know we're all just people. But it's hard, when you don't have a place, when you've never had a place." Emma smiled and waved a hand at herself. "And look at me. No one will ever take me for a widow."

Regina watched her in the light from the antique lamp. "No," Regina said softly. "You show different scars than I do. Having never been loved leaves a scar, just as having loved and lost does."

"I had a friend once," Emma said. She smiled tightly. "I've been thinking about her a lot lately. She showed me the name on her wrist, a girl's name, and I, thirteen and stupid, flipped out at her, telling her she was sinful and wrong and a mistake. But she'd just told me that cuffless girls weren't worthless. We were spares, she said, special because we were there to give love to those who'd lost their mates, who'd been hurt by bonding and needed kindness." She sighed. "I was a little shit to her, and yet whenever I feel utterly worthless, that even my humanity doesn't give me the right to live my life, I remember that, and I want to go out and make things a little better for people. Because it isn’t just me who’s suffered."

Regina found her eyes falling to the empty space on her arm where Daniel's name had been once. It had been so long, and yet she could never forget his face, the way he'd looked at her, the way he'd seen her, with his wide open eyes, the way he looked inside her. Emma would never have that, no moment of recognition, no sense of peace and togetherness, and yet she was brave enough to face each day, to try to do some good.

Some people said that soulbonds carried through reincarnations, that cuffless people were just those who’d been reborn without their pair – while their mate was still living their last incarnation, or where their mate had died before the age of thirteen. Some people said that it wasn’t worth it to let cuffless children live, that it was better to kill them and give them a chance at reincarnation with their mates. Others said that once your mate died, you should die with them. But Regina liked the way Emma thought about it better. Even if the parts didn’t match, you could still find someone to soothe the ragged edges of your soul.

If Regina asked, she knew that Emma would likely offer her anything. But Regina needed to offer her something in return. She just didn’t know how.

"Would you like to go to the park with Henry and I this weekend?"

Emma's face lit up. She nodded. "I love spending time with the little guy."

"He's rather taken a fancy to you too."

*            *            *

Granny found Lacey down by the river, curled up into a ball, and trying to look like she hadn’t been crying.

“All right, girly, talk to me,” she said.

Lacey looked at her and slumped further. “I’ve ruined everything.”

“What have you done?” Granny shook her head. “That idiot Will is who’s made trouble for us. And it isn’t your fault.”

“Ruby was fine before me. She could hide it. No one even suspected—”

Granny cut her off. These stupid children. “And no one would have ever suspected.”

Lacey frowned, looking confused.

Granny sat down on a rock nearby and fixed her with a sharp glare. “Do you know why?”

“Why?”

“Because she wouldn’t have survived long enough to make a mistake.”

Lacey went still and pale, as if it was the worst thing she had ever heard.

Granny rested her head in her hand and sighed. “You don’t know what she was like before she found you. You don’t know the things she’d said.  She was stupid and reckless and lonely. And I was never sure if I was going to wake up and find her dead somewhere. Choked on her vomit, or wrists slit in the bathroom. But then she brought you home. And she was better. She had something in her life besides lies and self-hatred. You saved her.”

Lacey shut her eyes. Then she breathed out slowly. “She saved me.” She huffed out a short laugh. “How long do you think until I ended up dead in a truck stop? Luck runs out. Mine had one last gasp, and she found me. I will never not feel grateful for that. But I don’t want to make her life worse. I don’t want to be an obligation.” Lacey looked up. “What if her soulbond comes? What then?  I need to leave before that happens, because I don’t think I could bear it if I had to watch!”

“What if yours comes?”

Lacey stared down at her wrist. “She is mine,” she said softly. “I’m not hers, and I don’t know what this said, but it just feels…”

“Hold onto that,” Granny said. “We can work this out. We’re not going to starve, all right? And I am not about to let you go back to turning tricks in bus terminals. You are the best dishwasher I have ever had, and I am not interested in training a new one.”

Lacey let out a laugh that was more like a sob, and let Granny pull her into her embrace.

*            *            *

“I found her,” Riley said. “I just don’t know how to get her out.”

Little John gave her a long, considering look. “I think you need to meet my cousin,” she said.

His cousin turned out to be the leader of a biker gang.

“Hey,” he said. “I’m Robin. My little couz said you needed some help breaking into a treatment center?”

“Yes,” Riley replied. “I do.”

Robin offered a lazy grin. “My boys and I are pretty solid on the mayhem. So if you can handle infiltration while we manage distraction and escape, I think we’re set.”

*            *            *

“Something’s happening,” Tamika said.

Dawn looked up and heard the sound of yelling and breaking glass. “Riley,” she said. She knew. “We’ve got to move now.”

“Already on it.”

*            *            *

The horde of kids came tumbling out of the doors, and the bikers yelled and threw more things away from them, heading off the rather unexpectedly ferocious nuns.

Dawn stumbled and found the head nun grabbing her shirt. She struggled wildly. “You,” she hissed. “I know you’re the ringleader here!”

“Not half!” Dawn snapped at her.

Tamika had managed to get the doors open and the kids rushing in confusing waves. Dawn was just there to provide inspiration – and a decoy target.

And then, suddenly, the nun was gone, toppling over into the bushes. A dark figure surged forward and Dawn gasped, lurching toward her. “Riley!”

Riley pulled her in tightly. “I came to rescue you,” she said, “but it looks like you did a good job at rescuing yourself – and everyone else.”

“Wouldn’t be finished before I found you.”

“Hey!” said Robin. “What the hell are we doing with all these kids? We can give’em lifts, but where to?”

“To Storybrooke,” Dawn said. “We’re going to Storybrooke.”

*            *            *

Ruby stood in the grass, looking down at Lacey, half curled into herself, looking out at the river.

“Hey.”

Lacey breathed out. “Hey.”

Ruby dropped to her knees. She reached out and put her hand on Lacey’s arm. “You okay?”

Lacey gave her a sidelong look through dark lashes. “Don’t worry. I’m staying.”

Ruby shut her eyes and then settled into the grass beside her. “We’ll work this out, okay? We’ll work it out. You’re family now, okay?”

Lacey smiled slightly. “Yeah, your Granny brought that home.”  She breathed out. “But you’re not… you’re not mine.”

“So you’re looking out for something better?”

Lacey sat up, looking shocked. “What? No. I’m… I’m waiting for you to not want me anymore. There’s something better out there for you.”

Ruby reached out and clasped her shoulders in a firm grip. “I don’t care. I would rather have you than hope. God, I’d rather have you than her, okay? I just want you.”

Lacey was gaping at her, her eyes glistening. “Fuck,” she said. “You can’t just say stuff like that.”

“I mean it.”

She was crying now, but she tipped her head up, and Ruby kissed her, moving over her in the grass. The kisses grew deep and wet. Lacey’s fingers tangled into Ruby’s hair, her mouth opening, tongues meeting. Their legs tangled together. Their hips rolled into each other’s.

“We shouldn’t,” Lacey murmured, “Not here.”

“I don’t care if people see us,” Ruby whispered into her mouth. “I love you.”

And hearing the words made it a hundred times worse and better, all at once.

*            *            *

“Oh Hen,” Emma dropped to her knees next to the little boy who’d fallen and skinned his knees. He was trying his best not to cry. She pulled him into her arms. “You tough kid. Let’s get those boo-boos bandaged up.”

Henry snuffled against her shoulder.

Regina stepped back, surprised at the ease with which she stepped in and took care of Henry, cared for him. Emma turned and met her eyes. Regina found herself smiling at her. Emma looked surprised, and then suddenly her eyes changed, opening up, wanting. Regina felt her chest tighten.

When Henry was bandaged up and put to bed with his teddy, Emma was still there, leaning against the wall. “I’m sorry,” Emma said. “I shouldn’t have stepped in like that. It’s not my place.”

Regina considered her. “I’m not selfish enough to be upset that you care about him.”

Emma ducked her head. “He’s a sweetie.” She looked oddly wistful for a moment. “I had a kid, you know. Wanted him. But they took him away. It was selfish. I just wanted someone who had to love me. I didn’t get a soulbond and I didn’t get a family either, so I thought maybe I deserved a kid who loved me. He would have hated me though.”

“No,” Regina said. “He wouldn’t have hated you. But not because you deserved it, or anything stupid like that. Because you’d have been a good mother. There isn’t any cosmic balance in this life. Good things that are promised can be snatched away in the blink of an eye, but sometimes bad things also fade unexpectedly.”

Emma was watching her, a half-smile on her face, a little grateful but mostly self-deprecating. “I know,” she said. “This town, even, I finally feel like there’s a place worthy of the word home. And thanks, though I would have been a shit-show of a parent back then.”

Regina took hold of her bicep in a strong grip and gave her a fierce look. “Look,” she said. Emma went wide-eyed and surprised. “I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how people without bonds figure this out at all. But I’m going to kiss you now.”

“Okay,” Emma said, a little breathlessly.

Regina leaned in. She hesitated.

She’d kissed Daniel once, all those years ago. But she didn’t remember what it had been like anymore. She hadn’t kissed anyone, not wanting to, in too long. But before she could talk herself out of it, Emma had surged forward and took the decision out of her hands.

The kiss was awkward and unpracticed, and yet it was sweet enough. And a real kiss was so much better than a worn and threadbare memory.

They broke for a breath. Regina leaned in and took her lips again.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was so much better than simply good.

*            *            *

Dawn and Riley stumbled home at four in the morning, having left the crowd of kids in the hands of Tamika and a very capable mayor. Robin dropped then off and shook Riley’s hand.

“If you ever feel the need to roam the open road,” he said, “you’re welcome to come with us. I saw you kicking some ass earlier. It was solid.”

All the lights were still burning in the house, and Riley’s whole family was waiting in the living room. Her father pushed himself up on his cane to scold her as she came in the door, but his eyes fell on Dawn and no words fell from his mouth.

“Liming!” Riley’s grandmother called, and Dawn plunged forward and threw her into her arms.

Riley’s father clapped her gently on the back and met her eyes.  He said nothing, but regarded his daughter with approval.

And Riley finally could breathe out. She’d always thought she’d done something wrong by having a soulbond that wasn’t normal, by never being quite the child her parents wanted, by bringing an outsider into their home and their family.  But she’d done the right thing this time. She’d gone out and found her and brought her home.

That was what a soulbond was, Riley realized. It wasn’t something strange and new that separated you from your past and your home and your family. It was the missing bit, that when it arrived, slotted right in amongst all the other important things in your life and felt like it had always been there, like there was no other place it could be.

*            *            *

Emma stood outside the diner. It was a little rougher than before, spray painted slurs only half scraped away from the glass windows. But the open sign still hung defiantly in the door. Emma stepped inside. The bell tinkled. A few people lingered in the booths. They weren’t dead yet. A dark-haired girl was wiping down tables, and Ruby was at the register, just as lanky and young looking as she had been as a child.

“Be right with you.”

Ruby turned to the newcomer and her eyes widened. “You,” she said, “You’re…”

“Emma,” Emma said.

“Oh my god,” Ruby grinned and busted out of the counterspace and hugged her.

The bus-girl whirled.

“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again!” Ruby swatted her. “Look at you, all, like tall, and not so chubby. But that hair,” Ruby shook her head. “Not a fan of the limp curl look. You need some attention.”

Emma flushed. “Come on, Ruby. I haven’t seen you in years and you start in on me right away.”

“You look hungry, are you hungry?” Ruby grinned. “I think you want… bacon and sausage and hash browns?”

Emma put her hand to her face. “You are the worst. I come back to find you after ten years, to apologize for being a little shit to you, and you’re trying to feed me already.”

Ruby’s eyes were warm and easy. “You weren’t a little shit. You just said what you thought was true. And you didn’t betray me.” Ruby reached out and squeezed her arm. “You warned me exactly what could happen if people found out, but you didn’t tell, so I kept it a secret. Well, mostly.” She made a gesture towards the windows. “As you can see, we’ve gotten a bit of attention lately.”

“You look happy, are you happy?”

Ruby gave a half smile and a light shrug. Her eyes slipped over to the dark haired girl, who was pretending to clean but clearly watching them. Emma considered her in the corner of her eye. Pretty, a little hard, maybe. She had the scarred and skittish look of the sort of girl Emma had been once, but softened. “Yeah,” Ruby said. “Things are mostly shit, but I’m happy.” Then she shook herself. “I’m going to get you food. Go, sit, you need food. And then I’ll have my break with you.”

“Yeah,” Emma smiled. “That sounds good.”

Ruby passed the dark haired girl on her way to the kitchen. There was a moment of eye contact, a smile, a shake of the head, an absent squeeze of a hip, and Emma almost couldn’t stop grinning. She found a table and in a moment the dark haired girl was there, pouring her coffee.

Ruby popped out of the kitchen, a question on her lips.

Emma grinned up at the dark haired girl. “Are you Isabelle?”

The girl blinked, looking confused. “Um, yes?”

Ruby froze, her eyes wide, lips parted. She looked bewildered. “What?”

Emma looked between them. “That’s your name, right?” she said to Ruby, tapping her wrist, “Isabelle.”

Ruby nodded slowly, still staring at the girl. “But… but your name’s not…”

The girl dropped the coffee pot. She looked astonished and in two lurching steps she’d grabbed Ruby’s arm and yanked off the cuff. It unsnapped and fell to the floor. The girl stared at the name there. “Isabelle! The name on your wrist is Isabelle?”

Emma had no idea what was going on. It was obvious they were mates, but… the dark-haired girl didn’t wear a cuff. Shit. Had she gotten it all wrong?

“Fuck,” the girl said. “Fuck. That’s my…” She looked up at Ruby who was staring at her with huge eyes. “That’s my name,” she said.

“But your name’s Lacey.  You’ve always said it was Lacey.”

The girl apparently called Lacey rubbed her face with her palm and took a breath. “It is, but it’s also Isabelle, legally. My mom named me that. My dad hated it, and after she died, he never called me it. I was always Lacey. My middle name. I didn’t even think it could be this name, but, god, that’s my stupid handwriting.”

“I knew it was you,” Ruby was staring at her, her eyes huge. “I knew it. I thought my name had to have been a mistake, because it had to be you.”

“You guys didn’t… know?” Emma asked, kind of stunned. She didn’t get people with cuffs. Even if there was no verification, it was so obvious how they felt, how could they ignore that?

“I couldn’t even let myself think—” Isabelle – Lacey – whoever – pushed herself up on her toes, and slung her arms around Ruby’s neck and kissed her. Lots of kissing followed.

Emma poured herself more coffee and tried not to watch.

Granny emerged from the back, took one look at the scene and banged a cast iron frying pan down on the counter. “What in blazes are you two idiots doing?” she snapped.

Finally the girls broke apart, both flushed and kind of sparkling. “She’s mine,” Ruby said, “she’s really mine.”

“Of course she is, you stupid girl,” Granny said, sounding utterly annoyed. “But that is no reason to molest my only other member of staff in the dining room. People are trying to eat here.”

Emma just sat back and grinned.

FIN