The crowds go wild, as they always do, and Emma whirls around in a victory dance, the smug and theatrical movements of someone who’s rarely had to do anything but it at the end of a battle. The smile she flashes at the camera is practiced, but there’s a fierce joy beneath the false smile that she can’t hide, a love for the battle that has made her such a hit for the Storybrooke team.
There are some pundits who express concerns with how much Emma loves to fight, who call it a sign of something dark beneath the surface or a poor influence on our children . There are old rumors about Emma, born to the illustrious royal family of Misthaven before disappearing for eighteen years, having a grand capacity for evil. But the crowds don’t care. Emma’s sheer love for her magic and enjoyment of the Proeliate is what endears them, along with her nearly perfect record.
Now, Emma raises her hands in the air, exhilarated and red-cheeked, and the announcer says, “And it’s the qualifying victory for Team Storybrooke, though it might be their very last!” There are recaps onscreen for several minutes after that grim pronouncement, replays mostly of the final Duo battle for the inimitable pair, Ruby and Mulan, and then the rest of the team.
There’s the second Duo battle, Lucy and Lily paired together as they demolish their opponents, too. Then, of course, the disastrous Solo battles that had nearly spelled an end for Storybrooke. August had barely gotten in a hit against a boy called Pan, and Jefferson had fought to the bitter end before Neverland’s Tinkerbell had knocked him out. It had all been on Emma’s shoulders to keep Storybrooke in the Proeliate, and Emma had delivered, of course . Neverland’s top fighter is the vicious Hook, and Emma had defeated him in under fifty blows, a record low for him– though far from a record high for Emma.
The screen shifts back to Emma and her teammates now, sitting in interviews after the match. “So this is the last match before Ruby leaves your team to join Team Oz,” the interviewer says, turning to Emma. “As team captain, it must be bittersweet to see her go.”
Emma smiles, though this one has no joy beneath it. “It sucks,” she says plainly, and Ruby shifts uncomfortably in her seat. “But it’s what Ruby needs, and of course we’re happy for her.” She darts a warning look at Lily, who seems about to express that they are not happy for her, and says, “Mulan is Maid of Honor at the wedding, actually.”
“Congratulations.” The interviewer doesn’t seem all that interested in the wedding, only the Proeliate. “Still, with Ruby gone, this leaves a gaping hole in your team. Ruby and Mulan are ranked in the top five Duo pairs in the region and the eighth in recent history, and without them, a game like today’s–”
“–Would have been won,” Emma says pleasantly, but her voice is hard. “Storybrooke doesn’t lose.”
The others nod emphatically beside her. The interviewer– Sidney, it’s Sidney, which means that he’s going to bring up – looks unconvinced. “I have to say,” he says, clearing his throat. “The top ranked Duo pair in recent history–”
Emma stiffens in her chair, her smile like a strained line across her face. “Not relevant,” she says.
“–Included you, Emma,” Sidney finishes. “Eleven years ago, you were half of the most promising Duo team in a century. With Regina Molinero, you could have been unstoppable.” Emma’s smile is more like a grimace by now. “Any thoughts of bringing her back into the sport to replace Ruby?”
Lily clears her throat like she’s going to speak, but Emma is the one who responds, her voice artificially light. “I’m going to be honest with you,” she says. “I haven’t spoken to Regina Molinero in ten years, and I have no idea what she’s up to these days. That ship has long sailed. And I haven’t fought a Duo fight since.” She says it vehemently, and this is the thing about Emma, who talks like she can hide every feeling but never manages to conceal one.
Sidney looks satisfied. Of course he does. He’s managed to set off Emma Swan and obtain an interview that will have people talking for weeks. Regina Molinero remains a mystery of the game, a specter that hangs over Team Storybrooke even a decade later. Reporters try to sneak her into conversations far too often, even with a team that has only August and Emma in common with the old Team Storybrooke.
“They’re like a dog with a bone,” says a dry voice, and the screen is shut off by a snap of Zelena’s fingers instead of the remote. Regina startles, twisting away from the screen to stare at her sister. Zelena tilts her head. “Got everything you needed?”
Regina takes a breath, exhales, the spell that Emma seems to weave over her living room gone as soon as she has been excised from the screen. “Yes,” she says, and Zelena smiles.
“Good.” She glances back at the blank screen, and then to Regina. “Let’s get to it, then.”
Of course– of course – even after Ruby’s final match, at least one reporter has to bring up fucking Regina Molinero. Emma is grouchy when they finally emerge from interviews and slip off to the diner, Lily with an arm slung around her shoulder. “We won,” she reminds Emma. “That was the qualifying match. We’re officially in the Enchanted Forest regional Proeliate this year. Next, we pull off the championships.”
“Without Ruby,” Mulan says grimly. “We placed out in the regional quarterfinals last year. You think we can go further than that without a viable Duo pair? Neverland’s pairs were a joke.”
“Jefferson and August aren’t bad together,” Emma reminds her in a low voice. Ruby is near the front of the group, and they flash her wide smiles when she looks back at them in concern. There’s no need for her to know how worried they are. “And Lily’s best in Duos. We have a solid team.”
“I hear,” Jefferson says, slinging an arm around each of them, “That Gold has put together a brand-new Misthaven team made up of some of the best in the Proeliate. They qualified for regionals with only five fighters. And he’s got Cruella and Ursula.” He says it significantly, and Emma shoots him a sharp look.
“Gold and Cruella and Ursula?” Emma frowns at him. “They’d better not be in our bracket. We’re not ready for that.” They’re seeded this year, but just barely. Team Storybrooke hasn’t won the Proeliate in fifty years, though they always put in a decent showing. Sometimes they make it to the regionals final, and once– when Emma had been eighteen– they had even won the regionals.
The Proeliate isn’t supposed to be about winning, though of course it is. The founders of the United Realms, a thousand years ago, had instituted them as an outlet for some of the more malicious magic users in various realms, and had called them unity games . Like the Olympics, but for magic.
Only Emma and August and Lily have any idea what the Olympics are, of course. They’ve had their moments out in the Land Without Magic, which remains oblivious to the grand needlepoint of realms around them, all united and living in semi-harmony. Emma, who had spent the first fifteen years of her life in the Land Without Magic, is pretty sure that that’s for the best. It’s a far more destructive and chaotic land than any within the realms. If the president of the United States had discovered secret realms packed with power that can be entered through a little town in Maine, she’d be calling in nuclear reinforcements within the hour.
Emma likes living between the worlds, even now. She’s never felt quite comfortable in Misthaven, where her parents rule, and most of her interactions with Snow and David are through the Proeliate. Indoor plumbing aside, Misthaven is a land built on stratified social classes, on peasants and royals who live cheerful, contented lives regardless. It’s a land so distant from foster care and school systems and technology– though the Proeliate has meant that television and media, at least, have become widespread, and elements of this realm feel more and more like the Land Without Magic– and it isn’t a land that feels like home , as welcoming as it is.
Storybrooke feels much more like home. Maybe it’s just because it had been where she’d found herself at fifteen, searching for the place where she had been left as a baby. She’d found magic instead, a girl a year older than her with bright eyes and brighter magic, and she’d found the Proeliate. Regina’s mother had seen them fight together, that first time, and she’d brought Emma into her house and had her trained by the best.
Emma chews on her lip, pushing thoughts of Regina from her mind. This new team is much more of a concern, as is Ruby’s replacement. There are a few potential options: a woman named Aurora, who had shown some real promise when she’d tried out; a fairy called Astrid who had done this trick with Emma’s vision during her tryout; and Hook from Neverland, who had told her in an undertone after the match that his contract with Neverland is nearly up.
None of them seem perfect, and none of them have the power that Emma wants for her team. Storybrooke deserves a win. Storybrooke needs a win. Emma needs one, too. Her relationship with her mother has always been complicated and strained, but this is the one thing that they agree on. Emma has never been the perfect princess that her mother had always longed for, but this – this she’s good at. This is how she finds her place in the world in which she’d been born.
She pushes aside her worries and focuses on the party, which is quietly attended by local friends and family and no one else. They have a decent fanbase, of course, particularly the boys, but the diner is just for them. It’s Ruby’s grandmother’s place, and she has assured them that they’ll still be welcome even when Ruby departs to Oz. “This is a Storybrooke diner,” she says now, offering Emma a plate piled high with pastries. She jabs her thumb at the TEAM STORYBROOKE pennant across the back wall. “We’ll see if Ruby is allowed back in.” She gives Ruby a dark look, and Ruby just laughs.
Emma sets the plate of pastries down in front of Lucy, who looks at them with wide eyes and then at her mother. Jacinda pats her back. “Enjoy,” she says, squeezing Lucy’s shoulder. “You need to replenish your energy after that fight.”
Emma shifts, a little guilty, and she blurts out, “I didn’t think it would be a long match.”
Jacinda sighs, but she masks it with a smile for Lucy. “I know you didn’t,” she murmurs. “She signed up for this, didn’t she? This is how it goes.”
“ Mom .” Lucy pouts at her mother. It’s moments like this that really drive home how young she is, just ten years old and barely over the age limit to fight in the Proeliate. They’d moved from another magical pocket over near Seattle, Hyperion Heights, just to find a place where Lucy could compete. She’s good , much better than junior players are, and her mother grudgingly supports her in it. “Look at me,” she says, gesturing at herself. “Not a scratch. Very few injuries in the arena are permanent. It’s just fun . Henry says that the last time a fighter was badly injured was three years ago. That’s how harmless the Proeliate is.”
“Three years isn’t long enough,” Jacinda mutters. “Henry would say anything to get you in that arena,” she says ruefully, and an aside to Emma, “One of her friends from Hyperion Heights who moved out here with us. Absolutely fixated on the Proeliate. His mother isn’t a fan, but she agreed to let him come with us to the match today.”
The little boy next to Lucy watches Emma, wide-eyed. “You’re Emma Swan ,” he says, his voice hushed with awe. “I have your action figure! Mom says it’s a waste of space but I bought it from Nick with my allowance money so she can’t get rid of it. Did you know that your longest match ever was against Elsa of Arendelle six years ago? And your shortest was last year, when you took down Camelot’s Arthur in a single blow? So cool.” He sighs dreamily. Jacinda pinches the bridge of her nose.
Lucy says, “You’re being a dork ,” and elbows Henry hard.
Emma blinks at him, taken aback at that surge of information, and says, “I’m with your mom on the action figure.”
Henry scoffs. “My mom hates fun,” he says, rolling his eyes. “And she’s good , so you’d think she’d get it. But she won’t let me compete.”
“Henry’s pretty good,” Lucy admits. “I practice with him sometimes. But no way his mom would ever let him fight. He’s still under the age limit, anyway. Till August.”
Emma winks at Henry, who looks as though he might fall over at the attention from his idol. “We’ll keep an eye out for you in the fall,” she says, sliding into the seat opposite the kids. Lily wanders over to sit with her, pressing a kiss to her cheek and a beer to her palm.
“Thanks,” Emma mutters. She doesn’t drink it in front of the kids, but waits until Henry and Lucy are arguing about one of the blows that Lucy’s opponent had gotten in and whether or not Lucy could have dodged it (Henry is a staunch believer in Lucy can do anything , which makes Emma a staunch fan of his) and then slips out the back door.
She breathes in the night air and crosses the street. Behind Main Street, there’s a trail that leads into the woods. And in the woods, there’s a clearing where she’d trained back when she’d been new to Storybrooke and just beginning to understand how to use her magic.
Anyone can access magic, given enough time and practice, but Emma had had an innate gift for it when she’d been fifteen. Regina had been practicing in the clearing when Emma had stumbled in, and she’d seen the magic flashing out at her and had instinctively blocked it, had seen her own magic erupt from her hands to protect her. Regina had been stunned, then guilty and irate, and then exhilarated. You’ve never done that before? she’d demanded. Do you have any idea of what you might be capable of?
Emma raises her hands now, lets sheer power fly from them and shouts with it. All her pent-up fury and despair, her fears at Gold’s team and at Ruby’s loss, her determination to be what Storybrooke needs– all of it emerges with her magic and her scream, until she is nearly spent.
In the arena, she is composed, is a force of nature who rarely loses a battle. In the arena, she fights like the wind, like there is no space for anyone else in her fights. And it’s so lonely sometimes, battling without a partner. She’s good as a Solo fighter, she knows that. The stats speak for themselves. But she has been so desperately envious of Mulan and Ruby for years . She has wanted the security and the fun of fighting with a friend for eleven years, of having someone’s back and knowing that they’ll have hers, too.
She had spent fifteen years of her life alone, and then three where she’d been a part of a whole and deliriously happy.
And now, she is alone again.
She throws out another wave of magic, white-hot and blinding, and it’s only then that she sees the little boy running through the woods toward her, toward her magic. “Hey!” she shouts, fear gripping her. In the arena, magic won’t harm combatants. Outside of it, it can be like fire. “Hey! Kid!”
But he keeps running, and she tries pulling her magic back– she isn’t strong enough– and then, out of nowhere, it all dissipates.
A woman is standing in the center of it, and for an instant, Emma sees the flowing hair and almost believes that it’s Regina. But it isn’t, of course. It’s a woman with darker skin than Regina’s, her arms around the little boy, and she has made Emma’s magic disappear without even lifting her arms. Emma has seen her somewhere before, though it might’ve just been on the street or at Granny’s. “You should be more careful,” she says reproachfully.
Emma stares at her. “You should be on my team,” she says, dumbfounded.
“Pass,” the woman says, and she throws her head back, laughs, and walks off.
Emma follows her. “I mean it,” she says. “Your defensive work there was stunning . I mean, I’m pretty good, and I–”
The woman has already disappeared into the woods, and Emma’s shoulders slump. Well . This is what the famous captain of Team Storybrooke has been reduced to: chasing strange women through the woods, begging them to join her team. Humiliating.
She stumbles back to the diner. Lucy and Henry have been marched off to bed, and with only adults in the diner, the mood has shifted. There are raucous songs and copious alcohol, and Emma drinks and pulls Lily onto her lap and does her best to lose herself in the celebration.
They’ve qualified. And that’s all that matters right now. In a month’s time, the Proeliate will begin, and Team Storybrooke will win. It has to.
A month. It sounds like plenty when Emma’s doing drills every day, the whole team honing their accuracy while their manager breathes down her neck about media footage and do you want contracts or not? until she has to tell Snow to shut up, we need to focus and Snow brings the media in anyway. Mulan fights Duo matches with Lily beside her, and they’re okay , they really are, but okay isn’t enough to win the competition.
“You must be concerned, as team captain,” one of the reporters says, dogging her footsteps to the locker room. “There are now twenty days until your first match, and you’re still short a member.”
“Not short a member,” Emma says briskly, lying through her teeth. “We’re just keeping our secret weapon secret. You’ll see them when everyone else does.”
The reporter’s eyebrows shoot up. “So you’ve picked someone?” He leans forward eagerly. “Is it a pro or an amateur? Are you trading with another team or keeping it in the family? I’ve heard that Marian Locksley has left Team Camelot after her divorce–”
Marian Locksley . That’s who that woman in the woods had been. Emma remembers her from a championship match two years ago, in a Duo with her now ex-husband and good enough to nearly beat a Ruby-Mulan Duo. Has she moved to Storybrooke? Distracted, Emma offers the reporter a close-lipped smile. “I’m sure you’ll remember our new member once you see them in action.”
She ducks into the locker room, shutting the door tightly behind her, and says to Lily and Mulan, who are already getting dressed, “We have a secret new member, if anyone asks you.”
Mulan says, “Oh, Emma,” which contains far more pity than is warranted.
Emma glowers at her. “What else am I supposed to do?” she demands. “Do you have any ideas, because we can grab Aurora and train her, if we need, but she isn’t going to win us Duos. Not in the Proeliate. This is the real deal.”
Mulan takes a breath. “I know that. You think I don’t? You think I want to be without a partner–?” Her voice is cracking, and Emma feels like the worst person ever.
“I know,” she says. “I know. I’m sorry.” She leans back against a locker, feels Lily’s fingers brush against her arm. Lily isn’t quite her girlfriend– they’ve known each other for too long for that– but she’s a roommate who occasionally ends up in Emma’s bed, especially when they’re both hyped up on adrenaline after a match. Emma tends to keep her at arm’s length when it comes to feelings , but today, she kind of wishes that she were a hugger.
She could use a hug.
She showers alone, waits in the locker room of the Storybrooke Arena until she’s sure that everyone’s gone. It’s a cold, rainy day, and the stragglers take their time leaving the bright warmth of the arena, but she finally hears blessed silence and slips out of the room.
She hesitates in the arena itself. It’s a massive room, enclosed with a ceiling three stories high, and the enchantments that dot the walls to keep the audience and combatants safe make the walls glitter and spark with energy. When Emma stands in the center of it, she feels waves of exhilaration like physical, magical things, flowing around her. There is nothing like fighting in the arena. There is nothing like winning .
Her team trusts her, and that’s what weighs most heavily upon her. She’s the one who’s supposed to figure out how they can win– how to use each of her fighters to the best of their potential in every match. They trust her to find a replacement, too– not Snow, who is focused on sponsorships and media spots and leaves her assistant, Blue, to help Emma. It’s all up to Emma. And short of tracking down Marian Locksley again and groveling…
“I found Regina Molinero,” Snow says from the bleachers. Emma startles, looks up, sees their manager– her mother– sitting, unruffled, in the front row.
“She moved back to Storybrooke a few months ago,” Snow says. The arena is dark now, only the minimum lighting still on, and Snow’s words feel like they’re coming from a more ominous place because of it, a grimmer reality. “She goes by Regina Mills now. I have her address.”
Emma stares at her. There’s no way . And if there is a way– if Regina is really here– then Emma would rather throw a hundred games than track her down and beg her to fight again. “I’m not– I don’t fight with Regina anymore. I won’t.” She can feel the ripple that comes with time, the hurt that had become anger that had become hatred that had become flippant dismissiveness, eventually, and each layer peels back until all she can feel is pain. “That’s not happening.”
“Then you’ll lose,” Snow says simply. “You need a seventh, and none of the tryouts we got will do. You have a responsibility to your team,” she says, her voice calm. “You owe it to them to give them the best team and the best fights that they can have.” Her voice turns gently manipulative, the way that Emma has always appreciated it when it’s directed at someone outside of the team and the way that Emma hates when it’s at her. “They would never know that you let them down. They believe in you wholeheartedly. They would never consider that you had an opportunity like Regina and let it go–”
“Stop.” Emma holds up a hand, the flashes of guilt too strong. “Just stop.” She can’t bear the thought of concealing this from them, and she can’t bear the thought of letting them down. Snow has effectively hit every one of her buttons at once, and Emma is helpless to fight them. “I’ll…just give me the address.”
She doesn’t know what she’s going to do with it, except that once she has 108 Mifflin Street in her head, her feet take over. She heads toward her apartment, except that she’s instead walking to the far side of town, where sprawling lawns lead to grand houses and where Cora Mills (she had always gone by Mills, while Molinero had been Regina’s last defiant rebellion, her father’s surname) had once lived.
Regina lives in her old house, of course. Emma knows the address, knows this walk, remembers the route from the arena to Regina’s house like she knows the walk to the diner. There are some things that can’t be unlearned, and Emma still feels the whoosh of wonder that comes with this perfectly tended block. When she’d been a teenager fleeing foster care, this had seemed like a dream. Now, she makes a tidy sum in wins and endorsements, and it takes more to impress her, but there is still a sense of disbelief on Mifflin Street, a sense of how? that she can’t shake.
It is dark and cold and still raining, and she’s drenched by the time she makes it to Mifflin. She doesn’t use magic outside of the arena when she can help it, conserves her energy by nature, but she must look like a drowned rat by now. Hardly the impressive fighter that she wants to be right now, and she lingers on the sidewalk before the high bushes end, summoning the strength to go and speak to Regina.
Instead, she hears voices, and she freezes. There are two people descending the long path from Regina’s house to the sidewalk, a man and a woman– and for an instant Emma can feel that devastating teenaged agony like it’s been days instead of a decade– but then she recognizes the voices.
And maybe this is worse, because the man’s voice isn’t Daniel’s or anyone so innocuous. It’s Gold , Rumplestiltskin, the man who she’d just heard is–
“Regina says she’d rather be in Solos, but she’ll fight in Duos with me,” says the other voice. Zelena Mills, Emma knows. Regina’s half-sister, whom Cora had forbidden to fight when she’d still been alive. Cora had favored Regina to an obscene degree, and Zelena had taken it out on Regina.
Today, though, she doesn’t sound hostile toward Regina. Her voice is casual, her tone fond, and she is confident when she says, “She’d fight with Mal, too. I couldn’t say if she’d be a good match for Fiona or Gothel, but–”
“Fiona and Gothel aren’t team players,” Gold says, his voice cold with displeasure. “We’ll have to work out a better system that makes it clear that fighters will fight where I say they will fight.”
“Good luck with that,” Zelena says, sounding amused. “You’re better off putting Regina in Duos.” They part without a goodbye, and a car pulls out from Regina’s driveway and speeds off into the night.
Emma remains, rooted to the spot, and she doesn’t move even when Zelena drawls, “Emma Swan, star athlete. Back again with your tail between your legs. Can’t say I don’t love it.”
She is standing on the sidewalk now, watching Emma with glittering eyes. Her orange hair still sits in a halo around her face, giving her an otherworldly appearance, and Emma suddenly remembers exactly how much Zelena had disliked her when they’d been teens and Cora had doted on Emma as Regina’s perfect partner and ignored Zelena altogether.
She pushes that aside. They’re adults now. “Is it true?” she says, her voice hoarse.
Zelena snickers. “Has Regina Mills made her triumphant return to the arena? Oh, soon,” she purrs, her voice low and barely audible over the slapping of the rain against the pavement. “Did you come to beg her back? Not going to happen.” She tosses her wet hair, and it makes a little slapping noise against her back. “Regina has found a better team.”
Gold’s all-star team. Somehow, the person who has persuaded Regina to fight again is Gold , not Emma.
Emma stares at Zelena, a strange grief rising deep inside of her, and she says, “We’ll see.”
Zelena waves her hand. “Yes, yes, I’ve heard all about your secret weapon on the news. Captain Mills isn’t worried.” She smiles, white teeth bright in the reflection of the streetlamps. “But I’m sure we’ll have a good time trouncing you.” She waves a hand, cheerful again. “Toodles! Send my love to that sweet little girl you have on yours. She’s a cute one.” She saunters back to the house, and Emma stares after her, her heart beating hard with something like despair.
And in a fighter, despair becomes adrenaline in an instant. Emma swings around, forces every thought of Regina from her mind again, and takes off into the night with renewed determination. Fine . This is better than working with Regina again, than dealing with the fallout of seeing her again.
The next time they meet, it’ll be in battle.